SMH: Westconnex latest attempt to ram through a thoroughly discredited freeway scheme Gavin Gatenby. (November 24, 2014)
Duncan Gay should get out more if he really believes Sydneysiders are overjoyed about WestConnex and that “our city is on the cusp of another quantum leap in growth” and that in the face of this “we can be crippled by timidity or inspired by action”.
If he thinks that mortgaging the state for decades to come to build the world’s largest underground tollway system is a great idea, he’s ludicrously out of touch.
The idea that WestConnex will somehow, finally, “unclog” Sydney flies in the face of the fact that 40 years of motorway construction and little new public transport infrastructure has steadily achieved the opposite.
WestConnex is just the latest attempt to ram through a thoroughly discredited radial freeway scheme first unveiled in 1945. Planned during World War II by the Department of Main Roads, it was shoe-horned into the ill-fated 1948 County of Cumberland Plan (CCP). The CCP aimed to create a compact city and to preserve, within the existing urban area, open space for the future. It was intended that a broad “Green Belt” on the edge of the city’s then outer suburbs would preserve valuable agricultural land and restrict urban sprawl.
From the get-go, the progressive compact city concept was comprehensively subverted by the freeway proposals it incorporated. They created tremendous pressure for new land releases for low-density fringe suburbs. The DMR had routed their corridors as much as possible through existing open space, and in order to achieve the Holy Grail of expressways straight into the CBD, they intended to bulldoze great swathes of the old medium-density inner suburbs.
The scale of the planned land-take was breathtaking. With patience and stealth, the DMR acquired property along its routes through Pyrmont, Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt and out to Strathfield. Ultimo was to be half-obliterated for a gigantic interchange where the Southern and Western expressways would collide. A third of Chippendale and Darlington was to go. To the east, a strip a city block wide was to have been cleared from Woolloomooloo to Moore Park. Cleveland Street would have lost all the properties on its northern side.
WestConnex is an 11th-hour bid to finally implement this scheme, but underground, with counter-productive effects and at crippling expense. And it comes allied with an even older and more discredited concept. Whereas the US experience gave us freeways that turbocharged horizontal urban sprawl, the WestConnex Delivery Authority, Urban Growth NSW and the developers want to give us freeway-based vertical sprawl, an idea first advanced 90 years ago by the French Modernist architect Le Corbusier. His “Radiant City” proposal would have levelled much of historic Paris and replaced it with a regular grid of 60-storey apartment towers, linked by eight-lane freeways. The WestConnex plan, in lockstep with the “urban activation zones”, would compulsorily resume vast areas of suburb, but this time to generate a car-dependent high-rise population along its route, sufficient to tempt the tollway operators.
Had the NSW government completed the original radials plan before, say, 1955, as occurred in some US cities, Sydney would now resemble Los Angeles or Miami – cities the road engineers much admired – but funds were scarce and there were more pressing priorities.
By the early 1970s, when the Willis Liberal government steeled itself to begin, the ghastly evidence from the US experience was already in, radial freeways were on the nose, and a new generation of Sydneysiders had discovered the convenience and charm of the inner suburbs the planners regarded as slums.
Although the F4 (“Western Expressway”) from the CBD to Strathfield was the DMR’s priority, the government decided to start with the North-West Expressway which was slated to cut through the Pyrmont Peninsula, cross Wentworth Park and then slice through Glebe and Annandale.
By then, public opposition to radial freeways had been building for a decade. Matters came to a head in September 1974, when the DMR moved in to demolish a row of terraced houses in Upper Fig Street, Pyrmont. There were wild scenes and dozens of arrests as residents from the suburbs under threat, aided by radical students, swarmed the bulldozers and climbed onto house roofs. The local Liberal candidate joined in. With a state election approaching, Opposition leader Neville Wran visited the demonstrators and roundly condemned the freeway plan.
A year and a half later, Wran just scraped into office, cancelled the inner-city radials and sold off the property the DMR had acquired. The move certainly didn’t harm his popularity because the next election was the famous “Wranslide”. And Labor’s vote increased again at the election following.
Fig Street was the opening skirmish in what’s been a 40-year fight to stop the Los Angelisation of Sydney. The most alarming fact is that we are still fighting such a thoroughly discredited concept. The rest of the world has long since recognised the freeway mistake and moved on. They’re building comprehensive public transport systems and railing freight out of their ports. That, not Gay’s reactionary fantasy, is the way of the future.
Gavin Gatenby is Co-Convenor of EcoTransit Sydney, a public transport advocacy group.