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More roads will just lead us nowhere

Date

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

"I am not the only urbanist in the room," Tim Williams, the chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, said last week. It was true. Place was full of them. Urbanism is positively the new black. But he wasn't the only Tim Williams in the room, either.

The other Tim Williams is an urbanist at the opposite end of the hierarchy. The creator of Super Sydney, trailblazer project for this year's Sydney Architecture Festival, he has an ear to the sunburnt ground, listening for the voices of the people.

Consultation, if you believe the hype, is this government's middle name. But which is more likely to produce the kind of city we want, top-down, or bottom-up?

And which is the government's $10 billion WestConnex road project? It appears populist but, as a moment young people are choosing to drive less and live denser, is it?

Will WestConnex (despite its horrible name) save NSW's ailing economy, as its proponents testily insist? Or is it, in the words of transport elder Ron Christie, "back to the 1950s … a real LA-type solution"?

It happened that, on the tram en route to that Meeting of the Tims, I met an elderly couple from Vancouver. They sought somewhere ''interesting'' for their last half-day in Sydney. Darling Harbour? I suggested. Pyrmont? Barangaroo?

As I sketched the background they were dismayed by how far and how recently Sydney has cleansed itself of industry.

"In Vancouver," they said, "we're trying to keep this stuff in the city so that people, and freight, don't need to travel so far."

In Sydney, I was ashamed to realise, just voicing such ideas still brands you as a boat-rocking leftie. How did our urban debate become so polarised? Can anyone still think that environment and economy are foes, instead of short-term and long-term views of the same thing?

The Committee for Sydney reincarnates Rod McGeoch's 1997 creature of the same name. Remember that lobby group for those least in need, the rich and powerful? I thought it had finally vanished from lack of interest but apparently not, for the new committee gleams stiffly like a Thatcher hairdo, stiff with the same old power-myopia.

It's very open. Anyone can join, for a mere ten grand (plus GST). And anyone can speak, as long as they're CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.

The committee, whose board includes Sally Loane (now spin-meister for those well known philanthropic urbanists Coca-Cola Amatil) and former Howard hatchet-man Max Moore-Wilton, proudly spruiks such membership benefits as the "opportunity to meet … key decision makers", "access to leaders in private, public and not-for profit sectors" and the capacity to "influence key policies''. (Does saying something three times in different words mean it's hyper-important?)

It has not been idle. Last month alone the committee hosted five events: a briefing with the Network Rail CEO, David Higgins, lunch with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, drinks for the London & Partners CEO Gordon Innes, drinks for Asian Cup Football CEO Michael Brown, and lunch with Landcom CEO John Brogden.

Whew. Talk about big issues. Just keeping track of which friend is CEO of what, this week, would fill those little gaps between your investment decisions all by itself.

The committee also blogs, with posts like ''CFS congratulates Business Events Sydney'' or ''CFS commends Planning Minister''. Surprisingly, there are no comments. (Well, there's one, in six months, a spirited discussion on intermodal freight interchange by the smart and indefatigable social activist Lynda Newnam. But she's no CEO, and there's no response).

As to policy, it's a bit thin. On transport, Sydney's bleeping-red issue, Tim #1 concedes that "the car … is now seen as a liability." Yet he insists that WestConnex is "an inevitability," not worth discussing. A $10 billion inevitability.

So that's city-planning orthodoxy; top-down stuff, forbiddingly abstract. Super Sydney inverts and subverts this model. Tim Williams #2, having lived and worked in Paris, developed it from a couple of Parisian projects - Sarkozy's 2009 Grand Paris, and the current, 196-council Paris Metropole.

Compared with Paris's 196 councils, Sydney's 42 seems modest. Still, over several months, interviewers headed to each of them, filming 12 conversations with 12 people about what people wanted for their city. The full, 504-video collection is available on the website.

My favourite so far is Ben from Marrickville, who says, somewhat bashfully: "I'd like to see public treehouses … really big ones, and you can, like rent it for a couple of hours and go up there … ''

Beauty's quite big, parks and fountains. (Locals love Blacktown and Mount Druitt, in particular, for their visual charms). Diversity, community, arts, friendliness and safety all figure highly. I haven't heard any calls for roads, although I believe there are some. But the overwhelming consensus is a clarion call for transport.

On this, vox pop accords with every visiting urbanist this year (and there have been a few). London School of Economics Professor Ricky Burdett, New York City chief urban designer Alex Washburn, and the deputy mayor of Paris, Pierre Mansat (in launching Super Sydney last week); each, unprompted, offered the same insight. Sydney desperately needs public transport.

So why this massive road project?

Infrastructure NSW argues thus: "Sydney's road network serves 93 per cent of passenger journeys, and most growth in transport demand over the next 20 years will be met by roads."

Especially, of course, if you keep building more roads.

This is the essence of conservative thinking. It's why top-down produces business as usual, because that's what feeds it.

But in fact we don't need more roads: if anything we should convert Parramatta Road to full-on public transport. As a former Federal Court judge, Murray Wilcox, AO, QC, argues, this project demands we ask, "who benefits?"

"If it's commuters," he said, "wouldn't they benefit more from public transport? If not commuters, then why do it at all?"

An answer is provided by EcoTransit's satirical WasteConnex vid, available on YouTube.

"WasteConnex," croons the voice over, "is the highest priority project … sucking $10 billion out of public transport and freight rail projects and delivering it to construction, consulting, and finance."

That's your "inevitable." Frankly, I'd prefer public tree houses.

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39 comments

  • Elizabeth, whether it be in the name of 'preserving heritage', 'saving trees' or 'maintaining a community's soul', a boat-rocking leftie is anyone who thinks that they have a right to tell people how they can use their property.

    If people want to preserve an old building, buy the land with private money and preserve it. If you want to save trees, buy the land as a reserve. If you want to maintain a communities soul, buy up all surrounding properties to guarantee it will never change. If you're not prepared earn profits or income by serving the community, yet still want your way with others property, that is tyranny. Some people are against tyranny which means that anytime you have people who value freedom vs boat rocking lefties, the community will have conflict.

    Private property rights allow people with different opinions the freedom to express those - whoever wants it the most and serves the community the most (earning profits) can have what they desire. Using the political mechanism and coercion is a zero sum game - if person A wants to keep a building on person B's land as heritage and organises others to gang up on person B, this creates conflict because the right of a person to their castle is only as strong as what is politically fashionable. This polarises the community between people that a pro liberty and people that are ok with tyranny, so long as it is their brand of tyranny.

    'Public transport' is no different. Some people want a new bus route, others want new trains or new roads. There would be no conflict if these resources were allocated through voluntary cooperation in the market.

    Commenter
    Ironbark
    Date and time
    November 01, 2012, 8:41AM
    • Private property rights are not unfettered and never have been. They have always been tempered for regard for the neighbourhood and beyond.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 9:18AM
    • You can have that all you want. You pay for the roads you want to drive on. See how society goes with that idea.
      We are surely evolved enough to pay for something that benefits society. If you want dog eat dog, good luck against Packer et al

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 9:34AM
    • Since when did earning profits equate to serving the community? The two actions are different and often mutually exclusive.
      Building roads does not work. More roads means more people drive equals more traffic resulting in the same problem only with more people involved. Public transport and increasing urban density is the only way Sydney can go.

      Commenter
      Switchflicker
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 9:53AM
    • Rudy,

      Agreed where exercising private property rights is done at the unreasonable expense of the private property rights of others (e.g. dumping toxic waste upstream of another person's property).

      Preventing trees being removed however would be an example of a non-legitimate erosion of property rights. Why, because other property owners in the council live in cleared properties and are essentially preventing others from enjoying their property in the same way, that the complainants did. This is the essence of bigotry (to deny others rights that you have already enjoyed).

      Commenter
      Ironbark
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 10:53AM
    • Yeah, sure and private ownership and market forces should apply to Opera Australia too.

      I hate opera but if people want it they should pay all the costs themselves.

      No Public Good can ever come of this.

      Commenter
      Aria
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 10:56AM
    • Aria,

      Agreed, if people don't enjoy opera enough to cover the costs of providing it, it shouldn't be provided.

      By subsidising opera, the taxes that were taken from other individuals would have been spent in other ways such as donating to Movember, buying a hamburger or investing in a new factory. The lost income to Movember, the hamburger shop and lower capital accumulation are the unseen costs to funding arts that the public doesn't enjoy enough to cover the cost to provide.

      'No public good can come of this' - how did our ancestors survive and prosper without tax payers being forced to cover the opera's budget shortfall? Funny enough society seemed to make do.

      Commenter
      Ironbark
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 11:18AM
    • @ironbark. A thoughtful comment and right on the money.

      Those that own and use property to the detriment of the whole community on one side, and the dispossession and dislocation on the other side. Functionality and equity must be sold in a wholistic manner and that is where the Sydney executive (managerialist land tax dependents), academic community (privileged neo-liberals), media, and even the architectural community (those that make collectively more money from renovating "heritage" properties into something that they aren't other than a facade) must be called to give their account and to be rigorously examined on their take.

      I am for choice in the libertarian fashion for choice in the style of accommodation but not for choice that provides outer urban styled accommodation in inner urban suburbs unless the heritage value is consistent and true. Low income and public housing areas of the inner city have more heritage value than affluent suburbs. The highest areas of inner city asset price inflation such as Chippendale should be examined from the planning law perspective. They could be heritage suburbs or they could be redeveloped suburbs.

      When the inner is stealing the amenity and the inner city-ites are pushing for building far flung satellite high density slums in the style of Paris or Madrid then the majority's gloves must come off.

      As far as transport infrastructure is concerned we should start with the basics. Where is the employment? Optimise by building the high density within walking distance of existing public transport. Don't allow medium-high density building anywhere until such opportunities are maximised and provide for a greying population that may not have then have the economic capacity or incentive to maintain a private vehicle. The transport corridors and interconnections required established, then talk about modes in horses for courses style.

      Commenter
      archivista
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 11:42AM
    • Switchflicker,

      Profits are what is left over for the business owner after they provide goods and services to the community and subtract the costs of providing those. Profits are the reward to the business owner for taking the risk and showing iniative to satisfy our needs and wants - they are the very incentive that is necessary so that the butcher cuts our meat, the baker bakes our bread and Ford builds our cars.

      The Chinese don't make pencils, the Japanese TV's or the Americans our drugs because they think you are a good bloke. They serve us, and we serve each other because it's in their interest to do so.

      A simple test of this will demonstrate- trying running a business that doesn't serve customers as well as a competitors and see how long it stays profitable. In a society based on voluntary cooperation, profits are only received as compensation for serving someone.

      All this talk of 'public transport' - what is so radical about people being responsible for their own costs? It's possible to help the less fortunate without without hiding all the population from the costs of everyone's decisions.

      Commenter
      Ironbark
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 11:49AM
    • Something's got up your nose hey Ironbark? Labelling view you disagree with as boat-rocking lefties does not advance your cause either. Elizabeth voices the quite reasonable view that maybe we need to change the mix of public vs private transport in the planning of our large cities. She focuses on Sydney but the same applies to Melbourne, which is also facing growing congestion which reduces livability and imposes heavy economic costs on business and people generally.

      I am persuaded to the view that building more roads and freeways are the wrong approach in the long run and that we must build more public transport. I own a car and enjoy driving but we must become less car-focused.

      Commenter
      Harry
      Location
      Churchill
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 1:09PM

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