Sydney has been compared unfavourably to other countries through poor use of statistics. But that does raise the question: is it even fair to compare Sydney (or any Australian city) to the rest of the world? That question recently led to this exchange on Twitter:
There are many examples of Australians returning from abroad and singing the praises of the transport systems of European or Asian cities. “If only we had a system like that over here” they say. But that is like putting a square peg through a round hole. Those cities have a different history to Australian cities, and have developed differently as a result. You cannot then just overlay their transport system on a different city anymore than you can wear your cousin’s suit to a wedding when that cousin happens to be taller and skinnier than you.
European cities were built over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. In many cases, most of their footprint was set before the time of the motor vehicle. In fact, their urban layout was more likely to be shaped by long distance commuter trains and short distance trams, leading to a city and transport system that is well suited to public transport.
Asian cities, and Middle Eastern ones to a lesser extent, are much newer, and were built during a time when most Australian households had a car in every garage. But 2 things were different. First, most Asian households were poor, and could not afford cars. They relied instead on public transport or bicycles. Secondly, Asian governments tend to have much less of an interest in due process and individual rights than Western governments. If your house is in the way of the new rail line, you are moving out and the bulldozers are moving in. This has allowed them to fast track shiny new underground metros and high speed rail in a way that would never be possible in Australia.
So that leaves the New World (leaving Africa aside): North America and Australasia plus also South America. Countries made up predominantly of migrants, which also saw big population booms in the aftermath of World War 2. This was a time when the private motor vehicle began to really spread, when increased populations were settled in the city’s fringes leading to the beginning of urban sprawl, and when governments began building highways instead of railways in order to move people around.
When comparing Sydney to cities around the world, it is places like Auckland, Los Angeles, and Vancouver that comparisons should be made with, not London, Paris, or Tokyo. And when looking at how to improve Sydney’s transport system, it is successful New World cities which hold the answer.
Strangely enough, Los Angeles probably provides the best example of how Sydney can improve its transport system. (The link is to a piece by Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, which is well worth a read for more details). Despite being well known as a car dominated city, LA has been making an effort to improve its public transport system, and shares many similarities with Sydney. Both cities have large footprints and built a network of highways after the rise of the car following World War 2. Each is also made up of multiple urban centres with a dense core, Sydney has the Sydney CBD, Parramatta, Liverpool, Penrith, Chatswood, etc while Los Angeles has downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Westwood, Burbank, etc. However they also have their differences – Sydney has a strong heavy rail network, while Los Angeles has an well laid out grid street system.