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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Jan-2006

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Books

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1304

The cure for blocked arteries



As Sydney traffic moves closer to unbearable congestion, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY, it is time to develop the only real solution: light rail.

When I lived in London years ago, no one I knew drove into the city centre. No one would dream of doing such a thing – except, surprise, Australians and New Zealanders. Helplessly individualist, the downunderers figured that getting bogged on Regent Street or Oxford Circus was at least going to be picturesque, given the endless pedestrian throng. What they weren’t getting, though, was that London was no longer that kind of city.

Cities, like stars or children, have developmental stages. When they’re young and fresh and loose-limbed, cities can be driven around with ease. Locals look forward to the first set of traffic lights and lose hair over a five-car “jam”. Past a certain size and density, though, cities can no longer support mass private transport, except of the two-wheeled variety. Ten and even 20 years ago, London was well past this driveable limit. A corollary, though, was that travelling by bus or train, even to the opera, was entirely respectable.

Sydney, nearing the end of its teens, now teeters at the same threshold. We all remember the golden fortnight of the Olympics, when parking was banned and traffic flowed smoothly. Otherwise, though, and recognising that no politician will brave the retail backlash that a permanent parking ban would entail, something will have to be done. Something serious. As the transport consultant Garry Glazebrook says in a report to the City of Sydney council, “Sydney needs a world-class transport system … to remain a world-class city”.

Glazebrook’s proposal involves parking limits, integrated ticketing, wider cycle lanes and car sharing. Its main plank, though, is a five-legged light-rail system hooked into the existing one at Central Station. It involves a CBD loop (either two-way on George Street, two-way on Castlereagh Street or one-way on Pitt and Castlereagh streets), with arms reaching to Bondi (via Bondi Junction), Burwood (via Lilyfield), Mascot, Parramatta Road and Maroubra Junction (via the University of NSW). These are the obvious routes for Sydney and would hugely de-stress Central and Town Hall stations, both now nearing capacity. But the State Government remains unmoved, not to say inertial, on public transport and deeply committed to roads.

Most cities facing congestion crises try roads first. Roads, as the instant-gratification response, have ballot-box appeal. They’re quick, cheap, popular and easy to plaster on. What they don’t do, though, is solve the problem. As the Glazebrook report points out, despite the $10 billion we have poured into major Sydney road projects over the past decade, traffic on other inner-city roads – which could be expected to drop – has actually risen over the same period by 20 per cent.

This, on the face of it, is mysterious. More road space should ease congestion, right? But road spending never reduces city traffic in the long term because making driving easier feeds our all-too-human tendency to do more of it. It is inverse demand management: boosting supply actually boosts demand. So, although Sydney congestion is exacerbated by narrow streets and strict boundaries, even the most generous road pattern (such as, say, Manhattan’s) will eventually clog. Roads may defer the crisis, but never prevent it. That’s the conundrum.

But if roads are not the answer, what is? London, under mayor Ken Livingstone, introduced the congestion tax. Now, two years on, it seems to be working, up to a point, with initial 20 per cent traffic reductions having stabilised around 16 per cent. Revenues to the city, although less than expected (because of decreased traffic), are about $160 million, and from next year the taxable area will expand across Chelsea, Westminster and Kensington.

But the downside, in equity terms, is that, at $19 a pop, the congestion fee restricts road use to the well-heeled and business-funded, directly undermining the publicness of public space. Try being a single parent on the day-care run and see how an extra $19 a day feels.

Similar taxes are regularly proposed for Sydney. My view, though, is that there are better, fairer ways. Such as light rail.

The core principle of traffic reduction is making driving not easier, but harder. A congestion tax does this, but favours the wealthy. A similar result would be achieved by road narrowing (or footpath widening), but of course this, too, reduces access, albeit in a more equitable way, and relies on congestion to be self-limiting. Devoting a proportion of road surface to light rail, on the other hand, is a neat solution, since it reduces traffic but also increases people flow in a clean, low-noise way.

Light rail can carry up to 300 people a vehicle, four times bus capacity, according to Glazebrook. It runs on electricity, so while not exactly pollution-free it does relocate the pollution to the point of generation, instead of puffing particulates and nitrogen oxides into the face of every pedestrian. And it’s low-noise, unlike the filthy, roaring diesel buses to which the NSW Government reverted last year after all those promises of a clean, gas-powered fleet.

Not only that, but light rail is quick, reliable and frequent, with the proposed Sydney system sending off a loop-train every two minutes. It’s also fitness-enhancing, in that (like all public transport) light rail supplements walking rather than replacing it, as do cars. With one in four young Australians obese or overweight, this alone should persuade us.

So convincing, indeed, are these arguments, and so thoroughly proved, that about 400 light rail systems now operate in cities around the world, with more than 100 cities having built or expanded their systems in the past decade. Many cities that tore up extensive tram networks – including Paris, London, Strasbourg, New Orleans and Pittsburgh – are now acknowledging the mistake and re-installing light rail.

In Sydney, the decision to replace one of the world’s largest tram networks with buses was taken in 1957 by government transport commissioner A.A. Shoebridge, shortly before he took a job with one of the big tyre companies.

So what, in view of all this, stops Sydney joining the re-installation club? Why is light rail in Sydney habitually supported by local governments, oppositions and lobby groups – all of them unable to effect it – but pooh-poohed by those with the power?

The reasons are fourfold: light rail’s relatively high capital cost (although, at an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion, the proposed system is only slightly dearer than the billion-dollar Cross City Tunnel and comparable to the Epping-Chatswood Rail Link); the relatively long roll-out time (which dilutes ballot-box yield for the three-year attention span); probable mayhem during construction; and the all-powerful roads lobby, which uses the monorail as whipping boy.

Still, the construction mayhem is temporary, unlike the retail blight resulting from a congestion tax such as London’s. The roll-out time can be beneficial, since it makes the project stageable. And on cost, light rail has three times the carrying capacity of even the Epping-Chatswood link, which makes it substantially cheaper in terms of dollars per passenger kilometre and little more than half as expensive as the Cross City Tunnel.

And the monorail? Well, call me paranoid, but if I were an oil tsar seeking to prove public transport a failure, I’d fund something like the Sydney monorail.

All that notwithstanding, though, with transport systems at capacity and both population and jobs expected to grow by a further 20 per cent inside 15 years, Sydney has reached the point at which light rail becomes the obvious, and in many ways the only, solution. For once the answer is easy. Light rail: do it.




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