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.”

  • Though I don't really have enough knowledge to comment on this project specifically and would assume it would be OK if Infrastructure Australia have approved it, the broader point of this article is spot on.

    Whilst we do need new roads in some cases and capital works programs should involve investment in public transport as well as roads rather than instead of roads, planning should generally lead toward a preference for greater urban infill and public transport access. At least NSW is investing in rail as well as roads.

  • The other key factor that Prof Newman didn't mention is that for commuters (and Sydney has many quite long distance ones) it is the speed of the service that matters. Transport for NSW does not seem to have any emphasis on getting faster speeds into Sydney's rail system. If Penrith, St Marys, Blacktown and Parramatta to the central CBD were very fast by rail, the need for roads like West Connex would diminish accordingly. One only has to compare the travel times from different outreaches of the Sydney metropolitan area in rail versus by car, to understand why much of the public demand roads expenditure, and yet so many more bodies could be moved by trains and so many more would orient their travel towards rail if only rail were faster, which is possible.

    A classic case in point is Newcastle to Sydney, even though this does not meet the standard definition of commuting. The rail system down through the Central Coast remains largely antiquated and is slower than it was in decades past. NSW has not made major investments in that rail system that was effectively built in the 1880's, and yet there have been multiple builds and rebuilds of the Pacific Highway / F3 (now M1) since 1965.

  • Peter Newman is completely correct, as usual, and wasn't it only fifteen years ago that the Sydney orbital was going to solve all of Sydney's traffic problems, and the M5 a few years before that, etc. etc.
    Ian Bell is also correct. In Perth all but the old Fremantle line operates at 100kph and of course the Japanese Shinkansen network consists of over 2,500 km of lines with maximum speeds of 240–320 kph.
    Newcastle to Sydney by train in 30 minutes – I'd vote for that!