Western Sydney – Motorways or Public Transport?

It is said that Sydney is a tale of two cities – the east and the west. When it comes to the development of Sydney’s transport network, throughout the second-half of the 20th century, this generally seems very much to be the case.

The map below illustrates the development of Sydney’s suburban railway network in western and eastern Sydney1 over a 60-year period between 1941 and 2011. During this period, eastern Sydney grew by approximately 1.2 million people and benefitted from 13 additional stations. In contrast, western Sydney grew by approximately 1.7 million people but had several branch lines removed, with a loss of 19 stations. Many of these branch lines that were removed, such as the Castle Hill Line, Camden Line and Ropes Creek Line now have significant urban development and would have contributed significantly to reducing road congestion had they remained. Instead, the map below shows that successive governments’ response to the growing transport needs of western Sydney was to simply build more motorways.

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Figure 1: Map showing the development of the railway network in Sydney.
Source: Mecone with base image from Department of Planning and opening data from NSWrail.net

Whilst western Sydney lost numerous railway lines, one thing that the map below shows is that it has gained significantly in terms of motorways. During this period 60-year period, the M2, M4, M5, M7 and M31 motorways were constructed in western Sydney. However, unlike rail-based public transport, which promotes urban consolidation, a more sustainable method of accommodating population growth, motorways instead promote low-density urban sprawl developments that consume vast amounts of arable land and add to the amount of traffic being generated. The allocation of infrastructure for low-density areas is also considerably higher, given the significantly larger geographical footprint.

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Figure 2: Map showing the growth of the motorway network in Sydney.
Source: Mecone.

Floor space ratios (FSR) determine the amount of development permitted on a parcel of land. For example, an FSR of 2:1 on a 100 sq. m parcel of land would allow for 200 sq. m of development, whereas an FSR of 0.5:1 on the same parcel of land would allow for 50 sq. m of development. The two maps below contrasts the FSR controls in an area with railway transport (Epping) with an area surrounding the M5 Motorway. It is evident that whilst motorways can stimulate development, they are generally of a low-density nature and, ultimately, add to the city’s road network congestion. This is especially the case in the inner city, where the ability to add road capacity is highly constrained and which is often the destination of commuters living in the outer ring of Sydney. Public transport such as railways, however, provided a double benefit – both in relation to reducing the dependence on vehicles, as well as creating an environment conducive to higher-density transit-oriented development.

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Figure 3: Residential and commercial FSRs along the M5 Motorway in Bankstown LGA, showing low-density FSRs of 0.5:1.
Source: Mecone, with LEP data from Department of Planning and Environment

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Figure 4: Residential and commercial FSRs along the T1 – North Shore Line, showing a concentration of higher-density FSRs along the railway line.
Source: Mecone, with LEP data from Department of Planning and Environment

Things in western Sydney are not all grim, however. In recent years, numerous rail projects have been completed, are under construction or announced. In 2015, the South West Rail Link opened, with plans to extend the line further into the South West Growth Centre as its development progress. An expanded North West Rail Link is also currently under construction as the Sydney Metro project – continuing through the CBD and back out west to Bankstown, with plans to further extend the line out to Liverpool. A light rail network is also being planned for the Parramatta area, with the initial rollout to incorporate two routes – one from Parramatta to Strathfield via Olympic Park and another from Parramatta to Carlingford.

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Figure 5: Light rail returns to Parramatta after the original system which had routes to Castle Hill and Camellia closed down in the 1930s and 1940s.
Source: Transport for NSW

These rail projects don’t just provide residents with improved transport connections, but they also represent an opportunity for urban renewal and urban consolidation. As an example, the connectivity of the Parramatta Light Rail project is enabling the under-utilised Camellia precinct to be renewed as a vibrant mixed-use zone with easy access to Parramatta.

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Figure 6: A revitalised mixed-use transit-oriented Camellia precinct.
Source: Department of Planning and Environment

In the past, governments often reasoned that there was insufficient funding for public transport projects; however, in recent years, this reasoning has been significantly weakened by new means of funding public transport infrastructure. For example, public–private partnerships have helped to reduce governments’ capital expenditures on transport projects by having the private sector contribute to the upfront expenditures of the project in return for the rights to operate the service and collect operational revenue. More recently, the concept of value capture is being applied to new transport projects. Value capture is the concept whereby the land-value increases created by new infrastructure is used to help pay for the infrastructure project. For example, a new railway line may result in the upzoning of an area’s FSR controls from 0.5:1 (i.e. detached housing) to 2:1 (e.g. apartment buildings). Any redevelopment with an intensification of land use in the area upzoned as a result of the transport infrastructure then has a special infrastructure levy applied to share the property value uplift between the government, which funded the transport project and the landowner.

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Figure 7: It is anticipated that the recently announced transit-oriented Waterloo redevelopment will incorporate value capture mechanisms.
Source: Department of Planning and Environment

Whilst in the past, governments have relied upon greenfield sites to accommodate Sydney’s ever-increasing population, it has been recognised that this approach is unsustainable and we are seeing an increased focused on public transport infrastructure that facilities higher-density transit-oriented developments and which reduce vehicle dependency. With new funding mechanisms for transport infrastructure such as value sharing reducing the barriers to investment in transport infrastructure, the transformation of Sydney to a being a city that is more accessible, more sustainable and less congested becomes a reality.


1 The boundary between eastern and western Sydney are defined using the council boundaries of Hornsby, Ku-ring-gai, Ryde, Canada Bay, Strathfield, Canterbury, Hurstville and Sutherland – with the aforementioned councils being the westerly-most areas in eastern Sydney.

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