Following Infrastructure Australia’s approval of the business case for Sydney’s WestConnex motorway, some leading infrastructure experts have voiced their opposition to what is slated to be the nation's largest ever urban road undertaking.

Peter Newman

Peter Newman

Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University and former board member of Infrastructure Australia, has emerged as one of the most prominent experts on transportation infrastructure to make public his opposition to the mega-project.

Newman possesses privileged insight into the project and its significance for Sydney, given that he was a board member of Infrastructure Australia at the time that WestConnex was first proposed.

Newman recently said the chief driving force behind WestConnex has been an arbitrary political decision by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as opposed to an impartial assessment of the project’s actual merits.

“This had nothing to do with Infrastructure Australia processes, nothing about our strategic approach to building transport, nothing really about getting better economic productivity, let alone sustainability outcomes,” said Newman. “It was a failure as far as I’m concerned.”

Newman pointed out that focusing on aggressive motorway development is an antiquated approach to city planning that dates to the 1960s, and is out of sync with the way metropolitan economies operate in the 21st century.

His views are echoed by other infrastructure and transportation experts in Australia, such as Christopher Standen of the University of Sydney’s institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, who notes that the construction of freeways brings only provisional benefits as the new motorways are all too rapidly filled with additional traffic.

“Any time savings and reductions in congestion will be short-lived, because building urban freeways induces additional car travel demand; public transport users switch to car, off-peak travellers switch to peak, and people are encouraged to move further away from their workplaces,” Standen said.

According to Newman, modern urban planners should be eschewing mass road construction and focusing instead on the development of more pedestrian friendly cities with extensive public transportation systems.

“What’s happening around the world is that cities are now competing on how walkable they are, and how good their public transport is.”

A key reason for this shift in modern urban planning is the emergence of the knowledge economy and the emphasis it places upon spatial efficiency and enabling members of business and industry to engage in reciprocal interaction within tightly packed clusters.

“The knowledge economy is now the difference between cities. If you can have a thriving, productive, creative, innovative knowledge economy, then you can compete,” Newman said.

Newman pointed out that the entrepreneurial and creative types who are the key drivers of the modern knowledge economy prefer walkability in their urban environments to lengthy vehicular commutes.

He referred to a report by SmartGrowth America which found that in Boston, 70 per cent of people working in the knowledge economy reside in highly walkable parts of the city.

“They cannot afford the time for long commutes, and they must have time to come together with lots of different people in an urban situation,” he said. “The knowledge economy needs spatial efficiency.”

This principle is particularly relevant to Sydney, given the severe congestion that already blights the inner city.

“It’s completely stupid to get more cars into the city centre and the inner area in general, where most of the knowledge economy jobs are,” Newman said.

Instead, he endorses the expansion of public transportation to foster the creation of alternative regional CBDs in other parts of Sydney.

“The NSW government’s metropolitan strategy…is all about centres and making city centres more walkable and more public transport oriented,” said Newman. “This is exactly what Sydney needs.

“The rest of Sydney including the west has a number of centres that are doing well, and want to do better. They’re going to do better with knowledge economy jobs when they get better public transport and better walkability.”

Image of NSW government's metropolitan strategyClick to enlarge

Image of NSW government’s metropolitan strategy
Click to enlarge

Parramatta City Council has been promoting plans to transform itself into a new CBD since the second half of 2014, with the launch of the City Centre Planning Framework Review and the proposed abolition of height restrictions on buildings in the region to enable the creation of skyscrapers.

“Our aim is to create a compact CBD with tall slender buildings allowing natural sunlight and active streetscapes,” said Scott Lloyd, mayor of the Parramatta City Council.”

Newman noted that public transportation plans that are already in place will spur the development of Parramatta into an alternative city centre.

“Parramatta’s getting its light rail…it’s a very good example of how you can make a centre in the region of the west into a really important global city,” he said. “Westconnex doesn’t fit that – it seems out of kilter.”