Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
City sprawl is the road to madness
Tokyo is almost three times the size of Sydney and vastly more dense, but my main memory of it is the sound of footsteps. Rush hour in Tokyo is onomatopoeic with waves – tides – of footsteps. Not here. Of course a proper writer works amid leaf-whisper and birdsong, but for me, a city dweller, street noise is the norm. Sadly, Sydney being Sydney, it’s not the sound of feet but the roar of continuous internal combustion.
And so it was that, a few weeks ago, as I beavered away for your pleasure, my attention was taken by a sudden stillness outside. You could hear footsteps. You could even hear the rustle of banknotes as the dealers plied their trade at the bus stop opposite. Our street, which is never quiet, had stopped. Completely.
I checked it out, as you do. The biggest B-double I’d ever seen was parked across the intersection, completely blocking it. As we came close we realised there was death involved. A crimson moped was propped against a pole. Its driver, the locals told us, had gone under the truck. “He was still alive under there,” one guy said. “He was talking. But then the rangers told the driver to back the truck off him. And that tore his leg off. Killed him.”
I don’t know how much was true. Maybe all of it. But the intersection, which I cross daily, is marked forever with the young man’s blood. I cannot see it without reflecting on the hugely unequal odds of scooter versus truck.
Of course, you can be killed by much smaller vehicles, even (I imagine) by a scooter, going fast enough. But momentum equals mass times velocity. Speed is one thing. Momentum is what kills. And the mass of that truck as it approached the lights, fully laden (with, I think, scrap metal), that mass made it death on wheels. Pity the scooter-lad, but pity also the driver.
Which is partly why the Gillard government’s congestion-solution, to let more B-double trucks onto more roads, makes
Kristina Keneally, meanwhile, bangs on about “stopping sprawl” but her administration has already wrecked pretty mountain villages like Lawson with the Great Western six-lane super highway and stealthily pursues its plan to treat the Bells Line of Road similarly, destroying what romance is left in the Blue Mountains, and spreading suburbia to Dubbo.
It has already destroyed the strawberry fields of Leppington, the
bok choy fields of Bringelly and the orchards of Pitt Town for the sake of low-density residential greed.
And it has already failed to deliver any of the promised rail lines – Epping-to-Parramatta, north-west sector or city metro – then has the front to mail out a special shiny pre-election pamphlet congratulating her ever-smiling self on acquiring three – yes, three – new metrobuses. Brilliant. Well done, ladies.
Put it together. Our cities, all of them, are expected to double in size by 2060. Per capita wealth will rise still faster, if immigration trends continue (and climate catastrophe forbears). Our city will be big and wealthy, but these teen years are crucial for cities and Sydney will grow either like Tokyo, lively, clean, quiet and usable, or like Bangkok, filthy and congested.
One thing we need to understand is that roads make traffic worse, not better. The Cross City Tunnel has not eased congestion in the city. It has just meant that more people drive.
Congestion is self-limiting. Whether we’re talking freight or passengers, when it gets bad enough – and only then – people use public transport. But of course the public transport has to be there.
This is why Craig Knowles – remember him? – should have been blacklisted for destroying Patrick’s proposed self-funding road-rail interchange at Ingleburn while approving shopping centres like Orange Grove in greenfield woop-woop. Instead, cronyism prevails and he scores the Murray-Darling sinecure.
“The Coalition just doesn’t understand planning,” blogs the Planning Minister, Tony Kelly, citing “Barry O’Farrell’s plan to dump some 128,000 extra homes on western Sydney”. But what he forgets to mention is his own government’s policy, restated in December, to “plan for 770,000 additional homes [including] up to 30 per cent [uh, that’s 231,000 homes] in greenfield areas.”
Five years earlier, Morris Iemma had described himself as “an unapologetic supporter of new releases on Sydney’s outskirts”.
He planned 181,000 new homes in the so-called north-west and south-west growth sectors; the Keneally government proposes a 50,000-home increase on that.
And it’s not as if there’s any real attempt out there to offer an enchanting alternative model. There’s no suggestion, from any of the government-sponsored developments, of higher density urban cores, walkable village centres or any of the New Urbanist principles, much less anything really out-there like zero-carbon or energy-positive development. The single exception, which makes a plausible effort at density, is Lend Lease’s Rouse Hill.
They’ve had 15 years to come good on their promises to end sprawl, limit Sydney’s urban footprint and improve (or even maintain) public transport. As it is, my daughter can’t take the bus to school, even from Redfern, because the first bus on that route doesn’t get to Darlinghurst before 8.30am – 15 minutes after school begins. What kind of Third World town are we running here?
For the core paradox of urban planning is this. Low-density living produces, as inevitably as night follows day, high-density traffic. To reduce traffic congestion you have to increase living congestion.
Why? Because there is a limit to how far people will walk to a bus stop or train station. So, for public transport to be viable, a critical mass must live within that critical distance. No one drives to work
Suburban planning, of the sort still practised by this government everywhere west of about Glebe, out where they think no one is watching, or cares, is doubly profligate with land; both in sanctioning low-density development and then in providing the road space that so quickly clogs.
But pushing our agriculture out past the Blue Mountains, only to truck the stuff back in on more and more roads, using more fossil fuel to create more pollution in order to service a growing agglomeration of the world’s biggest houses and bellies is also destroying our climate, our soils and our air.
Fairness for families?
Let’s have it.
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON