DESPITE unprecedented investment in recent years, the rail and roads network faces massive challenges.
Largely due to the pace of population growth piling more people into cars, trains, buses and ferries …
Brad leaves home at 6.30am to avoid the crush. Is it early enough?
An extra 1.3 million people in Sydney by 2030 is an enormous load on our roads and transport system.
By Josh Dye
SEPTEMBER 16, 2019
Overcrowded trains and busier roads. An extra 1.3 million people in Sydney by 2030 means a longer and more uncomfortable commute, particularly for residents in the city’s fast-growing western suburbs.
Brad Stanton is a final year medical student who lives at Liverpool and commutes to Westmead Hospital by train. He leaves at 6.30am to avoid the peak-hour crush in carriages.
“If I hop on the train any later, it’s packed,” he says. “You’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder breathing other people’s air. It’s not pleasant.”
The idea of a population beyond 5.8 million in a decade leaves Stanton feeling pessimistic about the city’s future, and he’s already planning his exit.
“I appreciate the job and study opportunities I’ve had in Sydney, but it’s not somewhere I want to live long-term and raise a family,” he says.
Despite the projected growth in rail and road infrastructure, population growth raises the risk of gridlocked roads and overcrowded trains in Sydney.
And congestion is likely to extend beyond peak periods to other parts of the day.
For many people there will be no escaping the crush as Sydney’s road and rail network comes under further strain.
Or at least that’s the worst-case scenario.
Sydney: the train city
The man responsible for moving us around does not subscribe to the doomsday model. NSW Transport and Roads Minister Andrew Constance paints a far rosier picture in his vision for 2030.
“Sydney is going to become a train city because of metro,” he says. “We’re going to see mass transfer out of cars onto trains as we continue to develop Sydney as a global city.”
He points to the integration between the transport and planning departments as evidence the government is armed to fight the city’s growing pains and avoid the mistakes of the past.
He spruiks the concept of the “30-minute city” and claims 70 per cent of Sydneysiders will live within half an hour of work, education and recreation by 2036.
*But that dream is a long way from becoming a reality, with two major impediments being housing affordability and a lack of jobs in the west.
Sydney’s ageing transport network is a problem, too.
*Despite unprecedented investment in recent years, the rail and roads network faces massive challenges. It is partly due to a lack of investment previously, but also because the pace of population growth will keep piling more people into cars, trains, buses and ferries.
*Sydney’s train lines are often overcrowded during morning and evening peak, with many services failing to run on time. The opening of the new metro line under the harbour in 2024 will alleviate some congestion, but the Western line will get busier as the population booms.
*Meanwhile on the roads, major arterial routes including the M4, M5, the Harbour Tunnel and the Harbour Bridge will remain choked as traffic grinds to a standstill during peak.
Add in some rain and Sydney seems to shut down.
*While a large wave of projects is in the pipeline, University of Sydney senior lecturer in transport and logistics management Geoffrey Clifton says it will not be enough to keep pace with rising demand by 2030.
“We’re likely to see some crunch in the public transport network in the next couple of years before the next projects kick in. Until the city metro [rail line] opens, there’s going to be a bit of a capacity gap,” he says.
“In the road network, there’ll be more choke points than there are today with more people on the roads. Local bus services will slow down unless we can put priority into them.”
While confident NSW is “on the right track”, Dr Clifton says it is critical that the government maintains momentum and “gets on with the job” of building the second wave of projects.
The Transport Minister affirms his government’s commitment to building the infrastructure required for a booming population. “We will continue to build the mega projects to fix the missing links in the transport network,” Mr Constance says.
The money problem
*Yet as politicians consider how to keep the city moving as the population swells, a critical issue emerges: how to fund a long list of promised transport projects that cost into the tens of billions of dollars.
*While the sale of state electricity assets in the Coalition government’s second term resulted in a huge cash windfall, the fact remains that public transport is a loss-making service heavily subsidised by taxpayers.
“That’s a big challenge,” Dr Clifton says. “Infrastructure projects in Australia are more expensive than in other parts of the world. That’s where the user-pays model may be needed.”
An option to alleviate the burden on the roads, and funnel more people onto public transport, is to introduce a congestion tax. Road users would be charged higher rates to enter busy areas such as the central business district or drive at peak times.
*Despite having the backing of economists, planners and transport experts, Mr Constance rules out a congestion tax as being too difficult politically.
“It’s not going to happen,” he says. “You provide better public transport, you don’t need to introduce a congestion tax.”
*Instead, the Transport Minister favours “mobility as a service”, the latest buzz phrase in the industry.
*He believes in the not-too-distant future commuters will be able to pay for their transport needs across all modes via a subscription.
Sounds interesting, but how would it work?
*Dr Clifton compares the concept to private health insurance, which offers different tiers of membership and covers hospital visits plus extras like dental and physio. In the same way, commuters could purchase a package of transport services combining public transport with car sharing and bike hire, for example.
‘The status quo is not an option’
*Ultimately, the overriding question is: will crippling congestion render Sydney unliveable by 2030?
Mathew Hounsell, senior research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, says Sydney must be fundamentally realigned to avoid the perils of crippling congestion.
“The underlying problem in Sydney is the preference for motoring. If the rail system is faster, people will switch to it,” he says.
“If you prioritise car traffic, car traffic is always terrible. If you prioritise public transport, car traffic is still terrible but more people can be moved.”
Dr Clifton warns drifting along with the status quo is not an option.
“If we go with business as usual, then it will be much more congested. A lot of Sydneysiders will feel like they’re worse off in the future than today,” he says.
“But if we build cities with jobs located near where people live, and transport that provides people with connectivity, we’ll be creating communities where people will want to live.
“It’s not like we have to choose between a big Sydney and a good Sydney. We can have both – it just takes the will and investment.”
The Sydney Morning Herald is hosting a population summit on September 23. For more details and to view the list of speakers click here.
Josh Dye is a news reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.