The Sydney city centre is fantastic. It’s vibrant, varied, exciting:


And, like all successful cities, full of people. So how do they all get there? Of course some are there already, the City of Sydney has some 200,00 residents, but many journey in each day from the suburbs.

The streets are full of traffic, most are not like the part of Pitt St shown above, where pedestrians have priority:


The Bridge is full of traffic:

And there’s a couple of road only tunnels that were added next to the bridge, the Eastern Distributor, the Anzac Bridge, and many other roads in, so in just one of the AM peak hours 25,000 people drive into, or through, the Centre City on a weekday morning.

But that’s nothing. It’s only 14% of the total, just over twice the number that walk or cycle [source]:

Travel into Sydney City Centre

80% arrive on Public Transport. Over 100,000 in that one hour on trains [2011/12]. Because they can.


They would have to, it would be spatially impossible to have such a vibrant city centre if any more than a small number accessed it by private car. There would no space for anything but roads and parking if they tried. No space for the city itself, nor for quiet places away from the hustle:


So while Sydney streets feel very busy with cars, and they certainly have priority to almost all of them, they aren’t actually as central to the the functioning of the city as they appear. There’s just is no way Sydney would be the successful, dynamic, and beautiful city it is without the investment in every other means of getting people to and through the city. Especially high capacity, spatially efficient, underground rail. And nor would the streets be able to function at all if more were forced to drive because of the absence of quality alternatives.


And more is coming too. Next month a second much bigger Light Rail project begins to add to the current one, and a new Metro line with new harbour tunnels is also underway. Driving numbers will likely stay steady into the future, but the city will only grow through the other systems. City streets are vital for delivery and emergency vehicles, but really successful city cities don’t clog them up with private cars to bring in the most essential urban component; people. That’s just not how cities work; even though that may be the impression given by the sight of bumper to bumper traffic on city streets.

And successful cities always appear congested; the footpaths are busy, the stations are crowded, and the traffic is full. Because they are alive and attractive for employment, commerce, entertainment, habitation; in short; urban life. This is the ‘seductive congestion’ of successful urban economies. To focus on reducing traffic congestion without sufficient investment in alternatives for people movement is to misunderstand what a city is and how they work. Sydney is not perfect, but it has a thriving and vibrant, properly urban centre built on properly urban movement infrastructure.

All else there stands on the quality of this investment.




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    1. Auckland measures the two hour AM peak and that sits at currently around 31-32k by car. Perhaps we can double the Sydney number and call it 50k. Sydney is over three times AKL’s size however.

      1. A lot of traffic entering Sydney’s CBD goes straight out again though. Full motorway connection between Harbour and ANZAC bridges for example. With parking prices the way they are (>$50 a day) not many commuters drive into their city jobs.

  1. Excellent post! I like how you’ve so succintly summarised how cities work (and in doing so, how some cities this side of the Tasman may be punching far below their weight).

  2. Interesting, and important to note with Skypath hopefully happening soon, to look at the suburbs that have the pedestrian/cycling access to the Harbour Bridge- The Rocks and Lavender Bay/North Sydney. Both bywords for post-apocalyptic urban decay of course…

  3. Will we have information to compare pre/post Skypath bicycle pedestrian numbers entering the city. eg those who have opted to use it rather than ferries etc.

  4. I’m in Sydney at least twice a month for work. There surely is good public transport, especially the double decker rail into the city. The bus service is ok but jams up once it gets into the CBD. You should see York and Kent St in the mornings and evenings- certainly no place for cyclists. However, not many cars because parking is expensive and not many firms provide it to their staff. The CBD is more pedestrian friendly than Auckland, possibly because it doesn’t have the hills. The real traffic challenge will come in the next two months when work starts on the light rail up George St. Significant bus re-routing is required. I’ll be watching with interest.

  5. Interesting that you included the green building in your post. Imagine how incredibly ugly our cities will be in the future if all new development looks like that – modernism with plants growing out of them. Its like something out of Mad Max.

    Architecture appears to have completely lost its way – all function no aesthetic?

  6. Population of Sydney is soon to be 5M, they can afford to have expensive multi mode public transport systems. You comparison of Auckland to Sydney is as silly as comparing transport in Apia to Auckland. Or do you think there should be a rapid rail system in Samoa?

    1. Clearly it is possible to compare places of different sizes but similar qualities. Clearly Auckland only needs systems of appropriate scale. The CRL for example is the first underground city rail line, Sydney has many, is adding more, and is planning its second rail harbour crossing, Auckland has none. The comparison is good. Auckland is at a point Sydney once was. Quite simple really.

      Furthermore the Auckland city centre is growing strongly but the number of cars entering is not and cannot. You can oppose investment in urban transit systems to support this growth if you like but if you do you are opposing prosperity. Also quite simple.

      1. And didn’t add more traffic lanes [and only 4] to complement the bridge in tunnels across the harbour until it had a population of 3.7million [1992]. Because of course the bridge carries so many people in trains.

        1. Not only that, but the bus lane carries more people into the city in the busiest than the other lanes combined apparently.

          Perth has a smaller population than Auckland and has four rail paths into the CBD compared to Auckland’s one.

          People that say that Auckland doesn’t need more rail need to get a grip!

    2. Apia and Auckland both begin with “A”; that’s why you chose the comparison? Right? Population can’t be the reason as on the generous side Apia has 40,000 people, that’s one/35th of Auckland’s 1.4M which is one/3.6th of Sydney’s 5M. An order of magnitude difference in ratios so really you’re being the silly one. For my part it’s a very valid comparison for a lot of reasons. Not least of all that it is the overseas city that New Zealanders visit most and this means most of us have personally experienced the mode splits Patrick talks to.

    3. The first two stations (St James and Museum) built as part of the Sydney City Circle were opened in 1926, when the population of Sydney was very close to 1 million.

      There are some interesting pictures on the internet showing cut and cover 1920s style to construct the stations under Hyde Park.

  7. how odd, I’m Australian and I find that by a long way, Sydney CBD is the least pedestrian friendly, worst for cyclists, and the streets clogged with noisy traffic, out of all the Aust cities

    1. I agree it’s hellish on a bike, I hired one, and wouldn’t recommend it. As I say in the post the roads are still almost completely given over to traffic. And there are far too many one way streets which are ghastly for people as they make for terrible driving; impatient acceleration between sets of lights. It is no Copenhagen or Amsterdam, no urbanists’ paradise, but the centre city is almost totally dependent on Transit, especially trains, as its life blood. That’s what the numbers show us. The impression is that the cars are more important than they are. And it’s a trend that can only head one way; despite West Connex.

  8. I spent two years commuting by bike in Sydney. I lived halfway up Bondi Rd and worked in Potts Point. I also rode everywhere else; the beach, Centennial Park, Newtown, Surrey Hills etc. Much the same as anywhere, you pick your quieter routes wherever possible. It’s no fun riding the top section of Oxford St between the end of Bondi Junction and the top of Paddington, that’s for sure!

    Two observations comparing riding there and here in Auckland: there’s a lot more broken glass there. I ended up buying the puncture proof Schwalbe tyres because I got sick of patching my inner tubes a couple of times a week. Secondly, you might think drivers here are bad but I had some really hair raising experiences in Sydney.

    Yes, it’s hot riding there in summer, but it’s also hot walking. You’re going to get sweaty no matter how you commute. It’s much more pleasant riding in Auckland.

    Sydney is a great city, would happily live there again. Bloody expensive real estate though!

  9. I was there 5yrs and lived entirely that time within the wider CBD and nearby suburbs. Walked to and from work everyday unless wet weather required a bus ride.

    Outside of the top two tiers of management for the consulting firm I worked for, nobody I knew did anything other than walk or train/bus it to work. I literally knew know one in that office that drove. Early on when I arrived, one guy said he had ditched his car for a motorbike, due to traffic issues. PT was available and prevalent across the city, car parks weren’t generally provided to anyone below senior management and parking rates probably prohibited it. The bus operations weren’t exactly world class and it could take an age to edge in from the east, but the train service delivered people from all points of the compass. Its an inevitable future facing Auckland and one they should be building for now with enhanced and increased bus ways, the CRL and thoughts to additional heavy/light metro lines.

    Finally, if you think Auckland drivers are hostile to cyclists, its paradise compared to Sydney. Check out the Sydney Morning Herald site whenever a cycling article is posted and check the comments section. makes Whaleoil look like the Salvation Army.

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