Sydney's transport overhaul 'passes first real test'

Closure of arterial road section in CBD, as part of Aussie city's four-year light rail project, meets with little chaos

Sydney's central business district (CBD) has begun an ambitious shutdown, closing off one of the city's busiest streets and overhauling its public transit system in a complex operation that risks throwing the city into chaos. 

The changes - involving 31 stages and affecting hordes of commuters and tourists - started rolling out early this month as part of the construction of a new A$2.1 billion (S$2.12 billion), 12km light rail network.

This week marked a big test for the four-year rail project as a central section of George Street, the city's oldest street, was closed to traffic. The impending closure had raised fears of "carmageddon", with commentators noting that the street typically provides about 25 per cent of northbound traffic capacity in the city centre. But the biggest surprise was that the closure has so far met with little apparent chaos. 

Traffic has been flowing well, as Sydney commuters appeared to change their behaviour by using routes outside of the city centre and switching to public transport.

"It is just a great result," New South Wales (NSW) state's Roads Minister Duncan Gay said.

As visitors to the city of about 4.5 million people will no doubt notice over the coming years, the series of road closures and transport changes is putting the nation's largest city - as the government has admitted - in "uncharted territory". 

For weeks, the state government urged people to avoid driving through the city and switch to public transport or to change their travel times. And the warnings appear to have worked, as traffic flowed smoothly through the city on Monday during the first peak-hour periods affected by the closures. Typically, 157,000 cars enter the CBD daily.

The NSW state government's CBD Coordinator General, Ms Marg Prendergast, told The Straits Times yesterday the city had passed its "first real test". But, she added, commuters will need to avoid "complacency" and must stick to their altered transport patterns. 

The first big change came on Oct 4, when the authorities overhauled the city's bus network. For the first time since 1867, George Street had no buses passing through.

The new 20-stop light rail, due to start carrying passengers from 2019, will provide a much-needed service from the city to the suburbs of Randwick and Kingsford and the University of New South Wales.

Most experts say the changes will cause short-term disruption but are crucial for the city's long-term future transport needs. 

An expert on urban studies, Dr Dallas Rogers from the University of Western Sydney, said Sydney was a heavily car-dependent city and the light rail project could help to encourage a broader shift to public transport. He said Sydney was largely an unplanned metropolis, which made large-scale infrastructure changes more necessary but could result in their construction having a broader impact.

"New forms of public transport that will move people around the fringe of the CBD are extremely important for Sydney. Our roads, like in most global cities, are starting to fill up," he told The Straits Times. But he said Sydney was still in much need of "mass transit-type projects, like in Beijing and Singapore".

The next big challenge for the city will come on Dec 3, when a new section of George Street will be closed. Each of the 31 construction zones will be affected for between eight and 13 months.

The Sydney authorities hope commuters will stick to their new travel regimes and that the city will remain permanently "free flowing".  "This is not a one-day exercise; this is day one of the rest of our lives in Sydney," said Mr Gay.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Sydney's transport overhaul 'passes first real test''. Print Edition | Subscribe