"You can’t name a successful global city that doesn't have a good public transport system."

"You can’t name a successful global city that doesn't have a good public transport system." Photo: Simon Alekna

It has become fashionable to label Sydney a global city – a dynamic urban gateway to the Asia-Pacific. Premier Barry O’Farrell even describes Sydney as “Australia’s only global city”.

But do we really live up to that tag?

There are now more than 150 indexes which rank cities of the world using an array of methodologies. Sydney does very well on many.

One of them, by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network based in Britain, groups cities into “alpha”, “beta” and “gamma” tiers, according to their integration into the world economy. Its latest report puts New York and London alone in the highest “Alpha ++” category because both are much more globally connected than any other cities. Sydney makes it into the second-highest “Alpha+” grouping alongside Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing and Dubai. All those cities are deemed to provide advanced service niches for the global economy.

That Sydney makes it onto that list underscores how globally integrated the city’s economy has become. Sixty per cent of all Asia-Pacific regional headquarters are located in Sydney and more than 90 per cent of the international banks operating in Australia are based here. Sydney is a magnet for tourists, it attracts tens of thousands of international students every year and has a strong global brand. Sydney was the only Australian city in the top 20 in three of the world’s premier city rankings – A.T. Kearney’s 2012 Global Cities Index, Knight Frank’s Global Cities Survey, and the Global Financial Centres Index.

Even so, Sydney has some glaring weaknesses for a city of global status. Greg Clark, a renowned British urbanist who has advised more than 30 cities on five continents, has identified at least three.

First, Sydney has “second-tier” city infrastructure that clashes with its global city economic profile.

“Sydney is already hosting more in terms of business, economic and commercial activity than its infrastructure can really sustain,” Clark told a seminar held by the Committee for Sydney policy and advocacy group on Friday. “There’s limited room for growth because of those infrastructure deficits.” Sydney has a very high level of car dependency by world city standards and a low level of mass transit coverage. The lack of an effective, city-wide public transport system threatens to stunt Sydney’s knowledge-intensive industries which are increasingly the life-blood of the city’s economy.

“[Sydney’s] transport system diminishes the chances of creative interaction between people and makes it difficult for businesses to open up new sites to open up new capacity,” Clark said.

This analysis exposes the fundamental weaknesses in Sydney’s public transport system and the need for massive investments to improve it.

“You can’t name a successful global city that doesn't have a good public transport system.”

Second, Sydney is relatively small and very sparsely populated compared with cities that merit the."global" tag. Its population density is only about 40 per cent that of London and 20 per cent that of New York and Singapore. Clark pointed out that Sydney’s population density –2,000 per square kilometre – is comparable to that of Los Angeles, a city that has been falling on global city indexes. The low-density sprawl is stifling Sydney’s growth by reducing productivity and innovation.

The city would need more people and higher population density if it wanted to be “a city of real significance in the Asia-Pacific”, said Clark.

Third, Sydney lacks the innovation culture of a genuine global city. Clark said Sydney had half the high-tech employment of Toronto, Stockholm, London or Seattle and ranked “well outside the top ten” for research and development.

“I draw the conclusion,” said Clark. “that Sydney has superb assets and a wonderful opportunity to combine corporate success with liveability success, the fundamental problem has to do with gaps in infrastructure and the innovation system.”

Not matter what our politicians say about Sydney, they've got a lot of work to do before they can genuinely claim it's a global city.