Introduction: Sydney Transport – A Hopeless Mess?

Having moved to Sydney 4 years ago, it didn’t take long for me to realise that Sydney’s transport network was a mess. But is it hopeless?

To begin with (and I’m under no illusions about this), Sydney has a couple of key geographic features that makes for difficult transportation:

  • It’s a coastal city, with a CBD only 4km from the ocean. Given that many people want to live close to the CBD that means you only have half the land to work with. (Can’t build an orbital motorway into the sea!)
  • The city is split north/south by the world’s largest harbour. For inner Sydney there are only 3 ways to cross the harbour – Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Harbour Tunnel, or by ferry.

Photo by misswired

Unfortunately it appears decades of inept government and under-investment have actually compounded these issues rather than countered them. The current transport network has the following features:

  • Essentially the entire transport network is focused on brining people into the CBD. There are many ‘spokes’ to the network, but very few ways to travel laterally or radially. This leads to the absurd situation that trying to travel east/west by public transport it’s usually quicker to go into the centre then out (which only compounds central congestion).
  • Many of the key arterial roads go directly through a residential areas, and are dotted by numerous traffic lights (I think Australia must have an obsession with traffic lights!). This means you get 18-wheelers rumbling directly through cafe lined metropolitan streets. Most of these streets can’t be widened or otherwise fixed because doing so would cause the city to grind to a halt (there are often no alternative routes). Alternative routes can’t be built because that would involve buying and knocking down thousands of houses.
  • Did I mention that Sydney was obsessed by traffic lights? Because of the lack of over/underpasses and roundabouts, trying to cut across most of the arterial/spoke roads means long queues at traffic lights waiting to cross.
  • The airport is located centrally, in premium real estate. The result is you have constant aircraft noise over, what would otherwise be, some of the nicest parts of Sydney. Not only that but the airport is too small for Sydney’s needs, and is using up land that could otherwise be zoned for residential dwellings (something Sydney desperately needs more of). The position of the airport shows an incredible lack of foresight. Did I mention it was also the most expensive airport in the country? So expensive in fact that many budget airlines refuse or unable to operate from it.
  • The current rail network is hopelessly inadequate:
    • The majority of trains are decades old and suffer from basic maintenance issues (e.g. door motors frequently fail leaving carriages unusable).
    • The track is in a similar state – rotting wooden sleepers can still be observed on the busiest lines e.g. entry to Central station.
    • There are no rail links to the north west, north shore, or inner east. These poor bastards are forced onto the roads.
    • There are various small light-rail projects, mostly in inner Sydney, but these are all essentially commercial ventures or gimmicks designed for tourists rather than residents/commuters (e.g. monorail is usually empty).
    • The majority of the stations simply haven’t changed in 80 years other than having a lick of paint. Town Hall and Central are the classic examples of these. In most other ‘global’ cities these two stations would be the jewel in the crown of the transport network. Instead they are grubby, unfriendly, claustrophobic, uncomfortable eyesores. Town Hall platforms are so narrow if they were anywhere else they would be shutdown as a fire hazard!
  • There is no integrated ticketing system. A system called Tcard has been in the works for many years but has been endlessly delayed and recently cancelled. A typical bus journey involves spending 1/4 the time waiting for passengers to count out the price of a ticket.

There is no doubt that Sydney has got some very big challenges ahead of it, and unfortunately there are no quick fixes. I personally believe it will take till at least 2030, to even begin to see some of these problems addressed.

I hope to write about developments and observations on this blog. If you also feel like contributing drop me an email.


5 responses to “Introduction: Sydney Transport – A Hopeless Mess?

  1. Having visited many cities in Europe I have to remark on the traffic lights in Sydney. Simply put, they are awful.

    In London the traffic lights are highly optimized. They have crowd sensors mounted on the top which trigger the lights to prevent the crowd of waiting pedestrians from spilling into the road or blocking the footpath.

    Sydney? Well, as far as I can tell the push buttons for pedestrians are for cosmetic effect only. The lights simply cycle through a dumb series of changes *each intersection at a time*. This means that its sometimes actually quicker to cross the road 3 times in order to get to the other side of the street. Insane.

  2. Hi Stu,

    Yes I plan to write about Sydneys traffic lights at some point in the future. They are certainly another very annoying feature of a city that has not moved with the times.

    I can’t help myself with this one though: *The* most annoying thing about traffic lights in Sydney is their total contempt for pedestrians. I would estimate pedestrians get an average of *5* seconds “Green-man”, then it immediately starts flashing Red.
    It’s quite clear pedestrians are nothing but an inconvenience/annoyance – they want to get you off the roads quick as possible to return it to its rightful owner – the car. The incessant beeping/baggering noise any increases you angst as you are rushed over the crossing.

    Deary me.

  3. almondcroissant

    It’s so true. I don’t own a car, but living in Camperdown means I can get to most inner city areas by walking. However I’m really very reliant on public transport, and it seems that the bus/train service in the middle of the city is really at the level it should be for outer suburbs.

    Lucky I work only a few blocks away or it would be a nightmare. Cheers for the link – very interesting blog you have here!


  4. Interesting observations – agree with most of what you have said. If there is one thing that is going to bring Sydney to it’s knees… it will be transport (and lack of public transport).

    Lots of other cities have CBD’s in a confined area with geographic challenges like big harbours, so I think proper investment will overcome these issues… eg Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco, Mumbai. Not that these cities are perfect…

  5. I agree gnonesyd. Many other cities with good transport networks do have CBD’s in confined areas, so it’s certainly no excuse for Sydney.

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