The other night I was watching one of those documentary-type things on one of the Foxtel channels about the London Underground – oddly enough, I think it’s called The Underground.

The episode was heavily focussed on stations’ management techniques for both traffic on the rails and traffic on the platforms during morning and afternoon peaks. One of the controllers described how fine the balance is between having not enough trains in the tube system and having too many: too few and the platforms become a log jam; too many and the tube network itself becomes a log jam.

It’s the eternal – and seemingly unanswerable – question of any large metropolis. We may not have anywhere near the same volume of foot, rail and road traffic in Australia as in US, UK and European cities, but it’s all relative. Certainly here in Sydney it’s an issue that’s been one of the most recurrent political hot potatoes for as long as anyone can remember. As the population of Greater Sydney creeps ever closer to five million, the situation can only get worse.

The city’s been blighted by short-sighted Government decision-making for years and the signs have been there for all to see.

Almost a century ago, when Dr. John Bradfield’s original plan for Sydney’s Underground Railway, the Harbour Bridge and surrounding roadways was put to parliament, it proposed the construction of a far more extensive network of underground railway stations beneath the CBD than was ever actually built. It also proposed railway lines from the CBD out to the Eastern Suburbs and up to the Northern Beaches. Everything was put on hold until after World War I and by the time a revised plan was passed by parliament in the early 1920s, it was the last nail in the coffin of what could’ve been a brilliantly effective transport system for the city of Sydney. But instead of the eleven originally proposed underground stations, the CBD made do with four, constructed along two parallel dead-end lines that weren’t linked together at Circular Quay until 1956; the Eastern Suburbs railway was delayed more than sixty years until finally opening in 1979; and the Northern Beaches railway was never built at all.

The closure of Sydney’s once extensive tram network – it’d been the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere in the 1920s – saw the last tram on the network running to La Perouse in 1961. Conveniently enough for the comparatively empty streets of the day, many of the tram routes were turned into bus routes.

A light rail ‘network’ came into being during the late 90s; though there’s talk of expanding it, for now it’s so small as to be insignificant in the broader scheme of things.

During the 1990s and 2000s a raft of tolled motorways was constructed, some of which simply took over from existing roads (or parts of them) and were only ever designed as two lanes in either direction, which wouldn’t even have provided sufficient relief from congestion in the 1970s, let alone today.

Sydney buses are all but useless during peak times, since they’re just as mired in the congestion as every other vehicle on the road. While the number of dedicated bus lanes has increased and, in turn, improved the efficiency of bus travel around the CBD itself, they don’t carry on far enough beyond the CBD to provide a truly efficient public transport alternative. In fact, such is the existing level of congestion that it’s not uncommon for Sydney buses entering the CBD from the north on weekday mornings to be backed up half way across the Harbour Bridge, waiting to somehow squeeze onto the already clogged and narrow streets approaching the terminus that almost all of them use – that’s a lotta buses carrying a lotta frustrated passengers banked back a very long way!

And let’s not even get started on the Monorail! For all the benefit it actually provides, the best thing that could happen since it was opened almost 25 years ago for Australia’s bicentenary is its imminent closure and removal. Next year can’t come fast enough.

And all of this crammed into a 225-year-old streetscape that was never planned in the efficient way that, say, the streets of Melbourne and Adelaide were laid out and which was certainly never designed to carry such enormous volumes of traffic. Yet still we see Government after successive Government pitching yet another plan to resuscitate, renew, revitalise and restore public transport in Sydney – more trains, more buses, more railway lines, more railway stations, a new underground bus terminus, an extended light rail system, a new CBD tram network, new rail connections to long-overlooked suburbs in the city’s north-west and south-west… the promises are never-ending; the abandonment of each and every plan is practically a given.

Just about the only clear change during recent years has been the introduction of ‘green’ lanes, dedicated road lanes to encourage greater use of bicycles across the city – and that’s problem #1: green lanes aren’t across the city, they’re only in parts of it. The fact that some lanes end abruptly at intersections without continuing on the other side is another contributing reason for so many bike lanes remaining largely free of cyclists most of the time. In the end, all their introduction really served to do was further reduce the amount of usable space for driving lanes or kerbside parking in a city already at breaking point.

And the State Government recently re-affirmed a staunch disinterest in the notion of a London-style congestion tax. With all the other problems in play, I’m actually glad. It would’ve just become another discarded plan anyway.

So what to do? After a century of talks, proposals, promises and plans that all inevitably come to nothing, it must be time to look at different options. Clearly, changing or adding to the existing road, rail and bus networks is a no-go. As much as most of our self-serving politicians are only in office because they keep the masses believing that plans to make everything better really do have a chance of coming to fruition, it’s pretty clear that most Sydneysiders don’t hold out much hope any more. There must be another way, surely?

Well I think there is! And, to me at least, it seems so simple that I can’t believe it’s never been seriously discussed.

If the first problem is that too many people are on the roads and in the public transport system at the same time and the second problem is that the first problem isn’t likely to be fixed in any of our lifetimes, surely all that needs to happen is for some key changes to be made to the way businesses function that will ensure, once and for all, that all of those people aren’t going the same way at the same time. All we have to do is redefine the outdated concept of 9 to 5 and we’re sorted!

In 2012, in a global community and with all kinds of wonderous technology at our fingertips, there’s absolutely no reason for so many people in so many cities across the world to all have to be in the office from 9am to 5pm. Sure, someone will always come up with reasons why certain roles and certain industries “have” to function at particular times; there’ll always be people who “need” to work at particular times for family or other personal reasons; but there’ll be just as many people who don’t, who aren’t locked in to a specific set of hours in which they can / will / are prepared to work. From a business perspective, the reality is that there’s a significant volume of people in any given workplace who simply don’t need to be in the office from 9-5: non-critical support roles, non-customer facing roles, processing and admin roles, all could be staggered across the course of a day without impacting efficiency or the contribution to the business of people in such roles in any way.

If every company in Sydney were to divide its workforce into quarters and require staff to start work at intervals between 7am and 10am, rather than having 90% of them arriving between 8:45 and 9am, the positive impact on road and public transport congestion would be profound. The difference is immediately obvious to anyone who catches a train in Sydney before 7:30am and after 8:30am. In 2011 I got into the habit of heading off to work on the 8:56 train; I never had to jostle for a place on the platform, always had my pick of seats, I was never surrounded by a carriage full of frustrated commuters packed in like sardines, I never had to navigate my way through a scrum of travellers all trying to be first through the gates and escaping the station, there was no shoulder-barging on over-crowded footpaths and I’d still get to the office by 9:30am – though it was endlessly amusing how many times I’d be accused of being “late” by people who certainly weren’t still there by the time I left at 6pm.

Even if this needs to be legislated or otherwise enforced, organisations must be held accountable for the impact they have on the environment. These days they all claim to be doing everything in their power to reduce their carbon footprint, but by maintaining a standard set of working hours for no clear reason, they’re knowingly feeding into the problem of congestion which, in turn, has disastrous impacts on the environment. If they’re really serious about reducing their carbon footprints, it’s gonna take more than just ‘green’ printers and environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid – there’s some serious redefining to be done!

It’s funny how that Dolly Parton movie “9 To 5” and the totally unrelated Sheena Easton song “9 To 5” were both released in the same year. 9 To 5 must’ve been pretty relevant back in 1980. But things have changed and businesses need to keep up.

Unless they’re also going to re-introduce rotary-dial telephones, typewriters, Maiden Hair ferns, secretaries, smoking in the office and a 100% tolerance of sexism, there has to be a realisation that the concept of 9 to 5 is just as outdated.

It’s not 1980 any more.

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