When we discuss public transport and public transport planning in the public arena we tend to either fall into whinging or into desires (or yearning) for big sexy projects. This is extremely so in Sydney. The NSW malaise has allowed it to be conventional wisdom that the public transport system is an unmitigated disaster – although it moves a greater proportion of the population than any other in the country [fn1]. Debt phobia and burnt political fingers (or active sabotage) that have prevented major projects over the past 80 years have also led to a deep yearning and dreaming for these prospective heavy rail lines, or the ghosts of trams goneby, or other panacaeas.
The past two years have seen the advent of the Metrobus. These are high-frequency, limited stop bus routes that address many of the problems with existing bus travel whilst retaining the benefits. The routes are do not meander like other routes and tickets are not sold on board, so they become much faster. But they are also simple to deploy. Existing infrastructure (roads) are used, and no specialist machinery is required, so there is no tortuous process of resumption, development and tendering. They can also slip nicely into suburbs whose development were shaped by the now absent trams. I guess that’s what they are – unromantic and inexpensive trams.
Moreover, they go a certain way to overcoming some of the original sins of Sydney transport. By avoiding routes that terminate in the city or at interchange points by instead passing through they combine two routes into one and cut down congestion by idle buses where it is least needed. Furthermore, the routes slated to come in next year finally begin to address the flaws of a radial transport system and the dream of a city with multiple centres, so commuters can far more easily travel between these centres without changing in the city. The need for this has been apparent for ages and filled with broken dreams like the Parramatta-Chatswood rail link, or the Hurstville Strathfield link. This may be a real attempt on the ground.
Are the metrobuses sexy? No. Are they a panacaea? No. But are they pragmatic and a good policy under very large constraints? Yes.
So to the anonymous planners in State Transit who developed these [fn2] and pushed them through despite a disfunctional government and public debate that can see only pessimism and pies in the sky, but never pragmatism.
We need technocrats like you.
[fn1] I liked reading this quote from Solow, where he describes the tendency for lower relative growth in Britain to cause an outbreak of amateur sociology. Similar outbreaks occured in regard to America between the oil shock/Watergate and the dot com boom, and in Japan post bubble. When a society that once considered itself foremost in the world is hit by one issue (macroeconomic strife, or political disfunction) all else that was positive or benign in the “good times” becomes typical of all that was bad, even if nothing has objectively changed apart from the first issue which colours the rest.
[fn2] Presumably too the minsters, the departed John Watkins and the terribly unfortunate David Campbell.