If you’ve ever raged at the jams on Sydney’s Parramatta Road in the morning, or sat for hours in Melbourne’s biggest bottlenecks, you’ll know that one of the great curses of modern life is traffic. And to judge by yesterday’s long-awaited report from Infrastructure NSW, those jams (and your daily rant) can only get worse.
The biggest giveaway in a new report from chairman Nick Greiner — who The Power Index named as the most powerful man in Sydney 12 months ago — is a graphic explaining how Sydney’s transport system will cope in 2031, when another 1.5 million people will take an extra 2.7 million trips every day. The answer is that 2.3 million of these new trips will be made by car, while only 121,000 of them will be made by bus and 326,000 by rail or light rail.
In other words, chairman Greiner’s “vision” of the future is that cars will continue to make up for nine out of 10 trips that we make.
Worse still, freight traffic from Sydney’s Port Botany is going to almost triple by 2031. And guess where all that’s going to go too?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this world view, given the former Liberal premier is the man who introduced toll roads to NSW and is chairman of Bilfinger Berger, which built the M2, M7 and Anzac road bridge. But surely there must be a better way?
The report’s foreword reminds us that Infrastructure NSW was set up in July 2011 to give us “world’s best practice” in transport planning and delivery. But you don’t need to venture far outside Australia to know that’s a joke.
I’m no transport economist, but I am currently staying in France in a city called Rennes, and it’s blindingly obvious from here that the French have something to teach us about transport and the quality of urban life.
Rennes is a city of 210,000 people, with another 270,000 in the outlying area. Yet it has a metro with 15 stations and almost 10 kilometres of track. It also has bike lanes throughout the city and a brilliant bicycle scheme where you can hop on a bike in one part of town and dump it in another, at any one of 83 stations. And its magnificent 15th-century centre — which is about the size of Sydney’s CBD — is almost entirely free of traffic. Its bus service is also fantastic, and linked to the metro, physically and in its fare structure. Consequently, it is a delightful place to live.
The Rennes metro was built in 2002, and is about to double in size. So far it has cost about $650 million, which is cheap as chips. With the $70 billion that NSW spent on infrastructure between 2006 and 2011, the state could have bought more than 100 of these.
Now, building a metro in Rennes is obviously a different proposition to building one in Sydney or Melbourne, but it’s too easy to just dismiss it like that, because almost every self-respecting city in the world now has one. Turkey can claim five cities with rapid-transit metro systems; Brazil has seven; France has eight; the US (king of the car lovers) has 15; China has 16. Even Armenia, Algeria and Azerbijan have one, as does Kazakhstan. In fact, there are at least 160 metro systems around the world, of which more than 40 have been built since 2000. But there are none in Australia.
But it’s not just Rennes and its metro that puts Sydney to shame. From here to Paris is about 350 kilometres, or four hours by car, but you can get there on the TGV in just over two. That’s less than half the time it takes to get from Sydney to Canberra by train (which is a similar distance), and at least half an hour less than from Sydney to Newcastle, which is only about half as far.
Next year the journey time from Rennes to Paris will be down to 90 minutes, or 10 minutes less than it takes Country Link’s locomotive to crawl from Sydney to Wollongong, about one quarter of the distance. It will also be less than half the time that V/Line’s super-fast XPT currently takes to get from Melbourne to Wodonga.
As to when Infrastructure NSW sees journey times to Wollongong and Newcastle coming down, it’s somewhere between five and 20 years, but there’s not much detail on how it’s going to be done. It’s clearly not one of the top priorities.
Looking further afield, you can get from Paris to London by train in two-and-a-half hours. And you’ll find another big city whose transport system puts Sydney and Melbourne to shame.
When I lived in London 25 years ago it had appalling traffic problems — at least as bad as Sydney’s today — but congestion charging has cut the number of cars in the city centre by about 30% since 2003 and increased the number of trips taken on public transport.
The London Underground is also a delight. You can go 15 kilometres across town from Kings Cross to Brixton in about 15 minutes — travelling three times the distance from Randwick to Rozelle in Sydney in a third of the time. You can also jump from bus to tube and back to bus again without paying three fares, thanks to the integrated Oyster card, which also charges you less in off-peak periods. Simple, effective and incredibly convenient.
So why can’t Australia have something like that?
Sydney has been promised a smart card for buses, trains and ferries since 1996, since when hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted. The latest incarnation, the Opal Card, is due to be rolled out by 2014. Apparently it’s “still in the critical design phase”.
Meanwhile, according to Infrastructure NSW, we put up with congestion on the Eastern Distributor, M4 and M5 East for 13 hours a day, while paying hefty tolls in the process. And what’s the answer to this? Build more roads.
Is that “vision”? Is that “world’s best practice”? Is that the way to get the brightest and best to come and live in Australia? Most of all, was it really worth waiting a year for?