Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Why, people ask, does Sydney not emulate the density of Paris? Then everyone can use public transport and Sydney's transport problems will be solved.

Yes, it is a delight for tourists to travel around Central Paris.

But they are referring to the part of Paris seen by tourists and town planners. What they see is the old central Paris, built before the advent of motorised transport. Such old cities were dense because they had to be. Walking was the only means of getting around. But as soon as people were freed to travel by faster means, they started moving out of the inner cities. The central city of Paris now has severe congestion, the average vehicle speed is only 20 km per hour. It has more congested streets than Los Angeles. Yet Central Paris has high density living, no freeways and one of the world’s most intensive rail transit systems.

The part of Paris tourists and town planners do not see are the post WW2 housing estates built around Paris which are as dense as any city anywhere but are notorious for poor public transport and high car usage.

The Ville de Paris reached its peak population 80 years ago, and has lost more than 700,000 residents since 1954. At the same time, the suburbs of Paris have accommodated all of the growth in the area.

This trend is not just limited to Paris. Virtually all urban growth in major European cities has been in the suburbs over the past 40 years.

The proportion of public transport journeys in these cities is not significantly different from that of Sydney. Public transport percentage of journeys in Sydney is 10%, in Paris, Vienna and other similar European cities it is 20%, not all that different If we look at worldwide trends in public transport use – they are nearly all down. Hamburg was down 26% in a decade, Copenhagen down 12%. Sydney, in spite of urban consolidation policies has been down 7%. The world average down 13%. Realistically, as soon as people become sufficiently affluent to live in a suburb, they tend to do so.

Thus, contrary to what the high-density advocates would have us believe, the higher densities of European cities do not seem to be doing much for transport. Latest figures for Sydney are even more startling. They show that during the period of imposed urban consolidation, the Sydney public transport share of journeys has decreased even more, down by a whopping 28%. There are a number of reasons for this but a major factor is that jobs are now becoming distributed all over the city. Public transport is only good for going to a central location. 70% of journeys to work in the CBD are by public transport, for the rest of Sydney only 10%. But only 13% of employment is in the CBD.

Average journey time to work increases in dense cities, not the other way around. Sydney travel times now are worse than those in Los Angeles. This is not surprising –In addition to deteriorating public transport Sydney has a shocking road system. Our freeway capacity compared to other cities. Way below that of Hong Kong, Singapore, Barcelona, Athens, Paris, Toronto, Milan and Tokyo

It is geometrically impossible for public transport to go from everywhere to everywhere in most cases. The only city in the world which has a significant majority of jouneys by public transport (80%) is Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a population density of 50,000 per sq km compared to Sydney's 2000. Do we really have to live like that? If so, why?

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