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Brisbane: The 200km City and the impact of the car.

By Peter Spearritt - posted Tuesday, 21 September 2004

As unlikely as it may at first appear, Brisbane has been the site of a number of remarkable development “firsts”. Apart from building what was in its day the nation's tallest apartment block, the city was already home to the nation's first drive and park shopping centre development which opened at Chermside in 1957. This heralded a change in lifestyle and reflected the impact of the family car.

The expansion of European settlement in 19th century Queensland relied on horse, cart, coach, dray and bullock. Ports up and down the coast provided crucial infrastructure for mass freight movement to the southern colonies and the heart of the Empire, London. Mass movement of people and more freight became possible with the rapid expansion of railway networks radiating out to Cleveland, Shorncliffe, Coolangatta and Gympie. But it was the car that had most impact on the shaping of the “200km city”.

Cars became popular and affordable for the better-off middle class in the 1920s and 1930s and new bridges, especially the Hornibrook, opened up fast routes to the beaches of what was then known as the “near north coast”. Before the completion of the Nerang bridge ferries made travelling south time-consuming. Business and even some conservationists saw tourist roads as critical to opening up the many attractions of South East Queensland. Intrepid motorists did travel to Binna Burra and O'Reilly's lodge in Lamington National Park but most went by bus. Because the northern rail line ran 20 kilometres inland from the coast, the south coast developed much more quickly. At Kirra only the camping ground separated the railway station from the beach.


The opening of the Jubilee Bridge over the Nerang River in 1925 created a direct link between Southport and Main Beach while another road bridge replaced the ferry on the Coomera River. More fanfare accompanied the opening of the Hornibrook Highway ten years later, creating a direct link between Brisbane, Redcliffe and the north coast. In the late 1950s the coast road from Caloundra to Noosa, built at the behest of land developers, ensured the area now called the Sunshine Coast would be car dependent.

The development of tourist and other roads was overseen by the Department of Main Roads, created in 1951. Attractions stretching from Lamington National Park to the Glasshouse Mountains became accessible not just to holiday makers but also motorists on “Sunday drives”. After an American consultant, Wilbur Smith, recommended the development of a freeway system for Brisbane in 1965, the first section of the South-East freeway was completed in 1973. The opening of the Gateway Bridge in 1986 created a direct link between the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, by-passing Brisbane.

Mass car ownership from the late 1950s saw a steep decline in railway use. More families preferred taking their own cars on camping trips and motels were catering for other holiday makers and travellers. In 1961 the State government closed eight unprofitable lines. They included the Gold Coast Nerang to Tweed Heads route which caused outraged protests as 6,000 people still used the line on Sundays. Three years later the Beenleigh to Southport link was also closed. Today another line, following an inland route, runs to the Gold Coast. Both the line, and an eight lane freeway, can sometimes barely cope with the volume of traffic moving to and from Brisbane.

Drive and park shopping centres were also a factor in ensuring the car's popularity. When it opened in 1957, Chermside was Australia's first car-based shopping centre with parking for more than 1,000 cars. It was also one of the first outside the USA and Canada. The Myer group and other retailers were planning similar centres in Melbourne and Sydney but fierce competition between local councils and opposition from shopping streets delayed decision making. In Brisbane, the only capital with a metropolitan council, local loyalties did not count as heavily and Chermside was far enough away from the two main shopping centres in the city and Valley to not pose an immediate threat. Since Chermside more than a dozen drive and park centres have opened in Brisbane, the Sunshine coast and the Gold Coast. By the time Sunshine Plaza opened at Maroochydore in 1980 car-based shopping centres were providing entertainment and had become destinations in themselves.

With the arrival of mass car ownership in the 1950s the role of the motor vehicle changed. It was no longer a recreational vehicle as more and more people used it to travel to work - especially to factories not serviced by rail. The closure of the tram system in 1969, after one quarter of the fleet was lost in a fire, confirmed the car as the major mode of transport for work, school, shopping and leisure throughout the region. Today only 6 per cent of trips in the Greater Brisbane area are by public transport. Only 2 per cent are by public transport in the “200km city” - the lowest of any urban area in Australia.

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First published on The Brisbane Institute web site on September 16, 2004

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About the Author

Professor Peter Spearritt is Executive Director of the Brisbane Institute.

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