This article is a reprint of an article I wrote for The City Hub, which was published online on 16 April 2015.
Sydney’s population is forecast to hit six million by 2030. Congestion on our roads is already a significant problem, so the state government needs to take a different tilt at the issue and it needs to happen now.
Congestion will only be alleviated by changing how and when we use our roads, not by building more of them. The state’s history of infrastructure initiatives and transport reforms is littered with non-starters, poorly designed or ultimately cancelled projects, dating back a hundred years. Despite the failures of the past, there now needs to be a firm focus on taking the right approach to the current problem.
Cramming more buses onto already choked roads isn’t the answer. In 2009, Sydney Buses did just that and anyone who’s ever had the very great misfortune of being on, or near, a bus in the vicinity of Wynyard Park during morning peak will attest the destructive impact of dumping more buses into the CBD.
More motorways won’t help either. All of Sydney’s M roads have needed expanding within a couple of decades of their completion. How many more expansions? How much bigger can they get? Then there’s WestConnex, a $10billion project over fifteen years which will subsume homes, businesses and parkland to create a privately operated underground toll road which will still see traffic spilling out at St Peters and feeding into already congested Newtown.
The solution is simple: we must change how we use our existing roads.
Driving from King Street at St Peters to City Road near Broadway, it’s telling that the glacial rate of progress is little different at weekends, when kerbside parking is allowed, than it is during weekday peaks, when most of the 3½km stretch is a clearway. Making the entire length of King Street a permanent clearway would bring immediate and tangible improvements to traffic flow and travel time.
Newtown business owners would likely baulk at the suggestion but, arguably, the bulk of their turnover doesn’t come from folk who drive to Newtown and park in the limited available space along King Street or any of its tiny side streets. The impact to business from imposing a permanent clearway along the length of King Street would surely be minimal and the same change could potentially be implemented on similarly congested four-lane highways all over Sydney (Enmore Road Enmore, Norton Street Leichhardt, Oxford Street Bondi Junction and Belmore Road Randwick immediately come to mind).
There’s also the matter of when we use our roads. Congestion is inevitable whenever the thronging masses head in the same direction at the same time. As with much of the western world, Australia has an almost obsessive devotion to the outdated culture of ‘9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday’. It’s not helped by the corporate world’s slavish adherence to 9-5. While some would claim they need to operate 9-5 to remain competitive, or for essential staff interaction, or to stay in contact with external business partners, virtually all large organisation have a plethora of supporting roles that could be undertaken at any time of day or night on any day of the week.
There’s already clear evidence of the potential benefits that staggering work hours could deliver. Look at the relief that school holidays bring to commuters when there are no students and a reduced volume of parents both on the roads and using public transport. If the majority of businesses staggered working hours permanently, so that even a quarter of their staff arrived at the office an hour or two either side of 9am, the impact on traffic congestion and overcrowded public transport would mimic that of school holidays, but on a sustainable, ongoing basis.
Similar initiatives have been trialled in heavily congested cities worldwide since the 1970s; here in Sydney it was proposed only last December that school hours might be staggered in a bid to reduce traffic congestion but, for reasons unknown, staggering work hours is rarely discussed as a means of achieving the same positive outcome.
For such an initiative to be broadly adopted by business, staggered hours would likely have to become a requirement of doing business within specific council areas. A self-regulated system of voluntary participation would be unlikely to achieve much.
History has shown that having more roads only leads to more congestion in more places. The equation is simple: the greater the population, the greater the number of roads and the greater the impetus for people to drive, with the result of ongoing and ever-increasing congestion. Spending billions of dollars on decades-long projects to build new tunnels and motorways isn’t sustainable; changing business and community attitudes to how and when we use our roads is the quickest, simplest and by far the cheapest solution.