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Reaping as the bumblers sow - another step backwards

By Robert Gibbons - posted Monday, 7 February 2011

A reasonable expectation would be – if we put muggins in charge of a great city, we won’t have a great city much longer.

Sydney reached that point a while ago as Ian Spring, John Mant and I and others have explored in these pages before.

Dealing with projects one at a time produces substandard outcomes for investors, users and taxpayers. Dams, rail and tram systems and freeway networks cannot be built that way. Nor can places.


The NSW government last week approved a cruise ship terminal at White Bay as though that can be separated from planning traffic and public transport across the city.

Indeed, this is the latest lurch in a series that started in 2007 when an Anzac Metro was announced (based on post-Olympics thinking), complemented in 2008 by a West Metro sponsored by the Feds, converted in 2008 into a very short Metro Rail project which was criticised by Infrastructure Australia, then all dumped by new premier Keneally.

All were relevant to Barangaroo. A consequence was the terminal move and tram decisions, all further compromises (as the metros had been) in the City of Compromises.

The cruise industry pointed out that the larger ships cannot pass under the Harbour Bridge and the eastern cruise portals need to be fixed; and the community interests who want to retain Sydney’s maritime heritage called for retention of the Barangaroo cruise facility. Naturally the residents of Balmain don’t want noise and traffic from White Bay and indeed traffic is a major problem.

The reintroduction of trams has been popular but the limitations of both the place and the coverage have not sunk in.

There is an alternative strategy which connects one way with trams, another way with buses and another way with cruise ships – it is an holistic vision for Sydney’s core systems. The inspiration was three-fold: Tokyo’s circumferential roads, the RTA’s superb bridge at Coalcliff and the European Commission’s PRT experiment in Bath, England.


The package has to be worked through. There are challenges and costs. The core elements are:

  • Development of a bus interchange street on the western side of the CBD, taking buses off George Street. Developers would receive incentives to incorporate waiting shelters and systems in their buildings on that street
  • Flows of bus, car and truck vehicles around the CBD in predominantly one-way streets comprising a circumferential by-pass. Access within the CBD would be through “slow ways”. Most traffic would flow more smoothly while pedestrians will be much happier. This would link with major spots and places outside the inner CBD
  • Escalators connecting Barangaroo with the CBD and its rail and bus nodes in comfort, with nothing much heavier than tuk-tuks along Hickson Road
  • An elegant “people’s bridge”, The Goanna, connecting the CBD and inner west, carrying only buses or trams, pedestrians and cyclists. This would curve around Pyrmont and Jones Bays’ points, sitting in the water but connecting to mini-terminals on the land
  • Progressive introduction of better networks of express busways and trams.

The City of Sydney’s bits-and-pieces approach of closing a section of George Street, putting cycleways across parking station entrances, replacing buses with equivalent numbers of trams, leaving cross-flows of cars and trucks on the street grid, and putting steel rails in the road pavements to capture bike wheels will not work well or at all.

It must also be said that the greatest challenges in Sydney’s transport planning relate to the growth rate of car usage (at 2 to 3 times the rate of population growth), the lack of separation of trucks and commercial vehicles from passenger vehicles, and the paucity of modal choice for commuters in the metropolis’s west central, NW and SW regions – about 1.9 million people and growing fast.

Neglect of these priorities is another symptom of the disintegration of planning competency.

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A more detailed outline of the alternative strategy can be downloaded by clicking here.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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Barangaroo Concept Plan

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