Sydney Rd: Nightmare or Opportunity?

We are at the early stages of a significant change, or ‘paradigm shift’, in the ways in which [urban] transportation is conceived, planned, financed and implemented (Schiller et al 2010, xxi).

In local news this week, the Victorian State Government knocked back plans devised by Revitalise Sydney Rd, and endorsed by Moreland Council, to remove on-street parking along Sydney Rd. The central sticking point is the concern from local business that the lack of street parking would negatively impact on their trading.

Anyone familiar with the key strip of Sydney Rd in question, as it runs between Bell St in the north and Brunswick Rd in the south, would likely agree that significant change is needed. Personally, if I’m driving our car Sydney Rd is to be avoided at all costs, as a cyclist it is something of a death trap, and as a pedestrian it is an ugly, noisy, wind tunnel. On the few occasions that I use the tram, it is commonly stuck in traffic and risky to step on and off. Having made those complaints, local people just love it. Historically it has always been a nexus for local business and trade and therefore a place for social interaction, a physical and geographical heart of the community, joining together the suburbs of Coburg and Brunswick like a great big zipper right down their middle.

One of the historical reasons for the considerable congestion we see today is that the creation of the Sydney Rd strip dates back to a period when the key design paradigm in existence was the ‘transit city’. The introduction of passenger rail, horse-drawn street cars and eventually electric trams enabled urban expansion which reshaped our local urban form, and which is clearly still physically visible today in and around Sydney Rd – medium density, mixed use, grid based and centralised. In essence you could walk from home for all of your shopping, you may have been walking to work yourself or walking to the nearest tram or train stop to take you further. This smaller, more human scale built environment hasn’t physically altered since but we insist on cramming in hundreds of thousands of more people and their cars. Is it any surprise that is doesn’t work?

My perception is that Revitalise Sydney Rd are promoting a paring back of the way Sydney Rd is used, so that it more closely reflects the priorities and intentions of the transit city design that the area originally supported. Schiller et al 2010 speak to the historical changes we can observe here on Sydney Rd, the first being the public transport age, the second the automobile age, the third the age of disillusionment (as represented by the existence of Revitalise Sydney Rd as a lobby group), and the final era to follow – the age of sustainability.

Whilst the concerns of local traders can’t be ignored, I wonder what price we will pay for doing little or nothing in the long term? Cities like London, Paris, New York, Singapore and Seoul have taken the bull by the horns and introduced significant disincentives to automobile use (such as economic instruments, road diets and parking policies) and as a consequence are returning the streets to the people. For one of the most extraordinary examples from Seoul, watch this video:

By creating a more sustainable transport system on Sydney Rd we could achieve the following outcomes:

  • When cars are removed, space is created for activities and functions that are more valuable to the area economically, socially, culturally and environmentally
  • When public transport is favored over the automobile there is increased equality within the community, reduced emissions, and increased personal economic expenditure in areas other than transportation.
  • When walking and cycling are more often undertaken, the health benefits are significant and the public spaces are more engaging, inclusive and connected.

Communicating and installing these benefits is the challenging task now required to shift Australian cities, and Sydney Rd, towards a new paradigm of sustainability.