Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Patrick was originally published in September 2015.

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. We can learn much from Sydney, but not everything because other cities do it better. I am particularly impressed with their double level rail that has shorter dwell times than our trains – how can that be possible? As tourists we did not have to utilise options other than public transport and walking.

    When we were there the main street was being dug up for rail lines. The city seemed to be coping. Maybe Auckland should just proceed with light rail now for Queen St? Is the women’s rugby world cup something that we will also now wait upon before proceeding?

    Maybe many people don’t drive into Sydney because parking is just so hellishly expensive (not a bad thing, if that is what it costs the motorist should pay the price and not the ratepayer). I note that it costs more to park a motor bike than it does a car here.

  2. Looking at the map with the patronage for each station why can’t AT do the same instead of all those silly graphs that they keep on bringing up . As it easier to read

    1. Yes it’s a very clear map. I’d be interested to know, too, how much the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and the Eastern Distributor cost compared to the rail connections, and how many more people they could be serving if they were rail of some sort, too. Also, how many of the cars on those roads are just driving through?

      Can we learn something here? Like that to ensure cars travelling through our city centre don’t ruin the place, we’d have to put them underground, at huge cost per person travelling… and that the solution lies instead with diverting that through-traffic around the city, and even then to work on mode shift instead.

      1. Heidi, I agree with you that it is the mode shift that is important. The first outcome of less cars is that buses can travel more quickly making them more attractive because they are quicker and more time reliable. (Does anyone know how AT gets to a figure of over 90% buses on time?) Less cars and it is safer for all other road users. Roads being used less by cars and so less resurfacing, less new roads and so money can be diverted to non car modes thereby improving them further.

        Is it possible in the future that many of those travelling through parts of Auckland might be doing so on a high speed train? It will certainly be more beneficial from an environmental perspective.

  3. It is also worth mentioning their policy on car parking, which works in parallel with the infrastructure provision. They have had a levy on public car parking spaces since 1992. There is no obligation to provide a ratio of parking – you must apply for permission to build more and pay the levy if successful. Sydney CBD has fewer parking spaces (35,000) than Auckland CBD (55,000). Obviously the parking levy ($2400/space x 35,000 spaces = $85 million pa) also generates funds that are used to improve infrastructure and services.

    1. In NZD, that’s $2560 per space. Leaving it at $2500 for 55000 spaces, that’s an income of $137,500,000 pa. Not to be sniffed at. Even if it means a quarter of the less resource-invested parks (ie the at-grade ones) are immediately abandoned to better uses like places for children to play in the city, it’s still over a $100 million a year. This could be put to modeshift projects to provide a better balanced transport network to serve Aucklanders better.

      Why aren’t you doing this, AT? It’s not like it hasn’t been asked of you before. You’d have to be a scared, regressive, child-ignoring, car-biased organisation that can’t see what’s good for Auckland people to not be doing it, wouldn’t you?

      1. Same order of magnitude as the income from the regional fuel tax, but only affecting the people who drive into the city centre. Not the factory workers. Not the people working in far-flung hard-to-get-to places.

        Coupled with the regional fuel tax, this parking levy could be bringing forward some real change.

        1. Yes Jimbo the return from AT’s parking buildings is appalling. I have argued in an as yet unpublished post that AT should sell them all. With the fantastic land prices being obtained in the city I am sure that AT could at least derive the book value of $225 million for them.

          It is heartening that AT are at last going to charge for park and ride in Albany. It is $1 per hour between 8am and 6pm from February. This revenue should be going straight back into reducing PT fares, albeit the amount is tiny.

        2. If the book value for all that property is less than two years’ income from putting a levy on all the car park spaces, I think the property might be better retained as an asset of the city. Once we actually start pricing properly, stop wasting billions on the wrong infrastructure, and building a liveable city, we might find that property useful, no?

        3. Sorry, I read the article wrong. Of course AT won’t be charging for park and rides – that’s economically way too sensible. It’s some spaces around the station that are being charged and upsetting some people who expect others to pay for their car parking i.e. ratepayers. (Our next door neighbour has needed to put a sign in her drive way that people can’t park there all day – where does this sense of entitlement come from?)

        4. Heidi, the problem as you know is that AT, in terms of their Parking Strategy, can fix the required occupancy levels for their car parks and so this can and does result in very low prices such as $2 per hour weekend pricing. How did such a provision every appear in the Parking Strategy? Can you imagine The Warehouse saying, it’s deadly quiet at 8am, let’s have half price prices then?

          I am going to say it again because I never tire of saying it; if AT wants they can just simply ignore their Parking Strategy. They are even more successful in ignoring complaints about ignoring their Strategy. I am still awaiting a response from a complaint first sent in June and then again in August. Damn it, I will send it again tonight. At least last time I received a “read receipt”, so I should be thankful.

          First prize would be properly priced car park prices, but as that seems unlikely flog them off.

          What better option could there be than massive apartment developments at a time of incredible housing shortage?

          If we want more public space then let’s transform some of the roads as is proposed for the linear park.

          I would love to see a levy on all car park spaces, but I think that this government will be just as timid as the last when they embarked on a discussion about fringe benefit tax for car parks.

        5. Regarding incentives to develop unproductive land (like carparks) into something more useful, I saw a suggestion that was kinda interesting:

          “The book “Radical Markets” argues that most property especially land, should have a price (set by the owner). If another person can put that property to better use they can pay the set price and they become the owner. To stop people over valuing their property and trying to prevent others from buying the property it is taxed. So the higher the set price, the higher the tax paid. ”


  4. I don’t have the data to hand, but it appears I was wrong in one statement above. Private vehicle modeshare has not stayed static it has fallen. This is because of direct policy to reprioritise streets away from the spatially inefficient car use to other higher volume mode. Most obviously Light Rail in George St, even though it it isn’t running yet it has already successfully reduced wasteful driving in the city centre.

    It is important to restrict the wasteful mode as well as build the efficient ones.

  5. Bahahaha! A vibrant city centre? Sydney is an abject lesson in fustercluck transport and urban design.

    Streets choked with busses. A new tram line that is wildly overdue, way over budget, subject to massive litigation and destroying businesses and communities across the city. The train stations – eg. Townhall – are a confusing mess with wiring and plumbing exposed and failing. Bus stops devoid of needed information. Spotty real time info and no single public transport app as a single source of truth.

    On weekdays it’s not uncommon to see 20 buses lined up and the ensuing chaos. On weekends it’s the malls and edges of the CBD. Otherwise a ghost town. But sure, let’s admire from afar. Whil ed those that live there avoid at all costs.

    Or does thiz just reflect the Australian consultancy overlords that really drive GA?

    1. An interesting assessment.

      Having lived in Sydney and dealt with some of the transport related issues, I’d like to know how you would upgrade the town hall station, while still having it operate and do the much needed capacity upgrade that is SE Light rail project.

      My comment on the light rail project is that the real issues stem from 200 years of services investment with little thought to how they would be maintained, leading to a range of issues. Bad tendering process, common in public infrastructure projects hasn’t helped.

      As to the CBD being a ghost town, having regularly visited the CBD, I’d say that Pitt Street mall is one of the most crowed spaces in the city, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, crowed enough that I avoid it if possible.

      The realisation that cars won’t solve transport issues after a cities population exceeds about 3 milliion people and the catch up in infrastructure investment is causing pain in Sydney.

      I’m intetrested in how the North shore of Sydney, where a rail corridor was sold off will fix this going forward. Will we see the return of light rail to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the reduction in SOV capable lanes?

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