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Trafficking in illusions

By Jeremy Gilling, John Muscat and Rolly Smallacombe - posted Friday, 4 May 2007

Traffic congestion. After real estate values, it’s Sydney’s greatest obsession. Dramas like the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel kept us entertained for weeks. And some of the few animated moments during the recent state election were about none other than traffic. Sydneysiders didn’t give a toss about disruptive visits from foreign dignitaries like Vice President Dick Cheney or the majestic liners Queen Mary and QE II. Just give us free-flowing traffic.

Most pundits come to the issue from an auto-phobic perspective: there are too many cars on the road. And every other month, it seems, another report hits the deck warning that the city is headed for traffic Armageddon. The latest couple of instalments have done nothing to lower the temperature.

A federal Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (BTRE) report says the average delay due to congestion in Sydney will grow from 0.285 minutes per kilometre in 1990 to 0.374 minutes this year, and to 0.527 minutes by 2020. In terms of time wasted, vehicle operating costs and pollution, the bureau found the social cost of congestion will rise from $3.5 billion to $7.8 billion between 2005 and 2020.


Meanwhile, according to NRMA (National Roads and Motoring Association) research, 57 per cent of Sydney businesses say their fleets spend up to four hours longer in traffic each week. More than 80 per cent of businesses observed traffic congestion to increase over the last year. Further, 12 per cent of businesses say their annual operating costs increased by as much as $20,000 because of more time spent on the road.

These reports got more attention than usual when the New South Wales Minister for Roads, Eric Roozendaal, felt it necessary to retract his election campaign comment that Sydney’s congestion is no worse than it was 10 years ago.

Congestion is by definition bad. It’s frustrating. People feel it’s contrary to the natural order of things. They will readily blame either the government or the relevant state agency - in this case the Roads and Traffic Authority - for stuffing things up. This sort of mindset can easily foster the illusion that there is a clear solution, if only the government had the brains or courage to see it.

For some, like progressive urban planners and environmentalists, it’s all a simple matter of dragging people from their cars and onto public transport. Their particular illusion is that masses of people can’t wait to ditch their cars and hop onto buses and trains. If only the government would build a better network, deliver more services and introduce convenient timetables, traffic congestion would be history.

Unfortunately for them, things are more complicated. Using the 2004 household travel survey, the NSW Transport and Population Data Centre has found that over 24 years, peak traffic periods have expanded from 8am to 9am to 7.30am to 9.30am, and from 3pm to 6pm to 2.30pm to 7pm. The Centre explains that not all drivers at those times were engaged in essential trips like commuting to work. About one in five trips in the morning peak related to “discretionary activities” such as shopping. A significant proportion of these trips were made by housewives, retirees and the unemployed. At 3.30pm around 38 per cent of trips were discretionary and in the second afternoon peak at around 5.30pm more than 40 per cent were discretionary.

Sydney’s traffic peaks have been profoundly affected by changing patterns of workforce participation, like higher rates of women in part-time and casual work, and demographic changes like the ageing of the population. Add to these rising affluence - making car ownership and multi-car ownership more affordable - and the growing dispersion of residential, commercial and employment locations throughout the greater urban region.


Only 13 per sent of Sydneysiders work in the CBD and greater western Sydney has achieved 75 per cent employment containment.

These denser, ad hoc travel patterns can’t be serviced by public transport. And the state can’t afford a transport network that is anywhere near as efficient and convenient as car use. Little wonder then, that when surveyed, most Sydneysiders preferred their cars even if the standard of public transport improved.

There’s no turning back to the 1960s.

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First published in The New City on April 23, 2007.

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About the Authors

Jeremy Gilling is a co-editor, along with John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Rolly Smallacombe is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling and John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jeremy Gilling
All articles by John Muscat
All articles by Rolly Smallacombe

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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