Light rail at the end of the tunnel

Sydney's public transport woes need not be terminal, writes Brisbanite Peter Spearritt

Dust storm

Cities, like nations, go through cycles of pessimism and optimism. The most visible evidence is usually in terms of building booms and building slumps. Australian cities have been mercifully free of famine but war, pestilence and even water shortages have marked their histories to date. And the doomsday fans got a real fillip when Sydney was brought to a halt by the dust storms in late September.

On reading The Sydney Morning Herald or listening to Sydney local radio, an innocent bystander would soon deduce that the metropolis is all washed up. Public transport is dirty, overcrowded, and dangerous and there isn't enough of it. The Labor State Government staggers from one crisis to the next and appears to have lost direction. Labor's long tradition of strong leaders, from Jack Lang and William McKell to Neville Wran and Bob Carr has been squandered in bloodletting worthy of the Bell Shakespeare company.

Looking back over the past 120 years, it is intriguing to contemplate how our cities have coped with growth, especially in their transport systems. The l890s depression allowed Sydney to overtake Melbourne in population. By l900, the two cities were neck and neck, with half a million each and were among the 20 largest cities in the world. Today they rank around 80th and 90th, and no longer capture much attention as urban settlements, let alone as centres of innovative urbanism.

Before the onset of the car, people walked or used horse-drawn vehicles. But from the l880s, huge tramway and railway systems were built to service the growing suburbs of our largest cities. Major rail lines had already been built to bring agricultural produce to the port cities. By the early l900s, the tramways were being electrified and were fantastic at moving large numbers of people promptly, in and around the cities' centres (which held most of the jobs) and to sporting events, from the cricket to racing.

Public transport systems were being built at a phenomenal rate in world cities, from the London Underground to the Paris Metro and the New York subway system. John Job Crew Bradfield, a Brisbane-born engineering graduate from Sydney University came to professional life in a climate of great hope. Bradfield, and his architect and town planning colleagues were intent in the early 1900s on not only retrofitting inner Sydney, but also creating new transport systems and routes.

Sydneysiders had long dreamed of a harbour crossing from Milsons Point - the terminus of the North Shore railway line–to Dawes Point on the southern side, connecting to the railway system there. The Sydney Harbour Bridge began conceptual life primarily as a railway bridge, with two tracks on the western side feeding into a brand new underground railway and two railway lines on the eastern side to lead into a new railway line to Manly and Narrabeen.

When the NSW Parliament in 1922 finally approved the Bridge, it put the seal on the boldest public transport investment ever made in Australia. At that time, the states still levied and retained income tax and could readily borrow money on the London bond market.

From the l920s to the early l960s, most suburban development followed the tramlines, the bus routes and the railways, reinforcing their centrality to the life of the city. In the strata-title flat boom of the l960s, most of the walk-ups were near railway stations or major bus routes, and contributed to the core patronage for public transport.

During World War II, not least because of petrol shortages, about 90 per cent of all travel in Sydney was on public transport. This fell sharply from the early 1950s, as it did in other cities, as Australia entered the age of mass car ownership. Lobbying by the NRMA about trams causing congestion on Sydney's narrow streets saw the government-owned tramway system give way to government-owned buses, which initially appeared to be cheaper and more efficient, not least because they could take more complex routes to service the suburbs. But most of the government bus network concentrated on the routes that the trams had serviced. The outer suburbs were left to private bus companies.

During the past 20 years, Sydney has sensibly augmented its railway system, linking East Hills to the Campbelltown line, building a new line between Chatswood and Epping and having a direct rail link to the airport. But the NSW Treasury has always been wary of making bold public transport investments.

As I write, Sydney still has Australia's most popular, and most maligned, public transport. Sydney's buses and trains account for 14 per cent of all trips, Melbourne's about 8 per cent and Brisbane's about 9 per cent.

Brisbane City Council, Australia's only metropolitan-wide capital city council, has invested heavily in a busway system with bus rights of way, usually created alongside the freeway system. It attracts a lot of patronage. But if you define Brisbane, as I do, as the 200-kilometre city from Noosa to the Tweed, then public transport use and provision is woeful. It accounts for fewer than 2 per cent of all trips on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, which remain car heaven, like the outer suburbs of all our big cities.

Sydney still has Australia's most patronised public transport system, which reflects the city's high degree of congestion. It is simply quicker to get the airport train than to drive. And it's quicker to catch a train from the suburbs to the city centre at almost any time of the day, even before you factor in finding and paying for a parking spot, which now costs up to $72 a day. It's all right for those lawyers, accountants and remnant merchant bankers who manage to pass the cost on to their clients, but for the rest of us, that is a heavy impost.

The popularity of public transport in Sydney also owes a lot to the high level of congestion on key arterial feeder roads, from Parramatta Road to the west, the Princes Highway to the south, Military and Spit Roads to the east and the Pacific Highway to the north. What civilised places Cremorne, Mosman and Neutral Bay junctions would again become if only they were served by tram.

We still await some bold solutions to our transport woes. No state government has yet been brave enough to introduce congestion charges on private and business vehicles, as has already happened in Singapore and London. Instead, we have state governments courting merchant banks to build yet more toll roads. Most state governments still cry poor when it comes to public transport, preferring to put their limited funds into health and education, the other two electoral litmus tests.

Impressively, if belatedly, Brisbane has become the first city to offer integrated ticketing–one swipe card covers all forms of public transport. Another of the NSW Government's woes was having to cancel its swipe card contract, even though many world cities now thrive on the concept. Melbourne, with the failed privatisation of its suburban rail system is no model for anybody.

When state governments want to be seen to be active, they prefer flashy, public private "partnerships", not systemic solutions. So we have a $4 billion dollar toll tunnel currently being built under Brisbane's Story Bridge to "eliminate gridlock". The NSW Government–desperate to be doing something–has come up with a similarly expensive metro proposal from the city to Rozelle. It might save a Labor electorate from the Greens along the route but unless there is large apartment redevelopment, its projected patronage is unimpressive.

Instead of the cosmetic light rail in the Haymarket, and the laughably gimmicky monorail–which should be demolished immediately by citizens wielding wrenches–what Sydney needs is a real transport-and-land-use plan that takes us beyond overdependence on the private vehicle, that looks beyond the age of oil and makes the best possible use of existing infrastructure.

A brave Labor government could insert a light-rail system from Manly to North Sydney, simply by imposing congestion charges on Military Road. They certainly wouldn't lose any seats. They might even win back North Sydney, once an ALP seat, when the workers could get a tram to the beach. A brave Liberal Party could promise the same thing, finally giving its supporters something to crow about.