Taking on Sydney's calamitous public transport


Sydney’s transport malaise has now reached the point where its not just affecting quality of neighbourhood life, the urban environment, social intercourse and commuter safety. It’s now hurting our ability to do business in Australia’s biggest economy.

Thanks to Pussain images

Thanks to Pussain images

The Carr Government, like Howard’s, has squandered the prosperity of the last decade, especially in the area of vital public transport infrastructure. It might be hard for a society with such a short history (of white settlement) to begin thinking and acting for the long term, but there is no alternative. Sydney’s transport arteries have clogged, thanks to an obsession with private car-based transport and tollways, decades of neglect and under investment in the Sydney Rail network, and a refusal to consider modern initiatives in new and old suburbs like light rail or an inner city European Metro train system. Unreliable and broken down public transport has car dependence, traffic gridlock, pollution and urban economic inefficiency.

The Sydney Morning Herald is to be congratulated for its Campaign for Sydney, which is seeking to shame the NSW Government into action, based on a coordinated vision and plan for Sydney. But don’t hold your breath – the Carr Government is just promising a few more bandaids rather than vision and urgency: Sydney will splutter into and enter the twenty-first century on a…bus. But why would the cynical managerial ministers of the NSW Government do any better when their own party, not to mention the Opposition and the Greens have been so weak on urban and public transport reform? The only way we will get real change in Sydney is for citizens and commuters to turn up the political heat. Until politicians pre selection and seats are threatened, nothing will change.

So how can public transport consumers pressure a recalcitrant and out of touch NSW Government to do the right thing? Sustainability Commissioner Peter Newman points out that across America governments that did not act on public transport expansion and reform in the major cities were simply being thrown out of office. Not surprisingly US city and state administrations are introducing metro and light rail systems, and limiting car use. Neither major party is offering a vision for Sydney’s transport future. Therefore the citizens of Sydney have to bring political pressure to bear on their representatives if change is to occur.

I suggest Sydney’s frustrated public transport find commuters reform groups on a state electorate basis that consult with residents to devise electorate public transport agendas and put savvy pressure on local MPs and candidates to outline their transport vision and what they will do to implement it.

As the coordinator of a local traffic calming group in the inner west I’ve been amazed at how MPs and ministers pretend that authorities like the RTA are powers in their own right, beyond ministerial responsibility as we understand it in the Westminster system. The modus operandi of the RTA is, of course, to keep cars moving on our roads. They love rat runs and its managers care not one iota about public transport, pedestrians or traffic calming. I was told by a senior RTA manager that they oppose calming measures as matter of course. As NSW Sustainability Commissioner Peter Newman sagely pointed out at a recent Fabian forum the problem is not the RTA, but the lack of political will to make them work to wider social, commercial and environmental criteria. The composition of the RTA Board and its governing principles needs to be reviewed by parliament as matter of urgency, to save the RTA from its bad, old ways so that it becomes an enabler of a safe, efficient and sustainable city transport system, rather than a mid-twentieth century anomaly.

Despite the Pontius Pilate hand washing of some of our roads and transport ministers it is they, and not the senior bureaucrats, who are accountable for what the departments and authorities do in Her Majesty’s name. Local activists should target ministers’ seats and put some heat on them. This can be achieved by running as independents on the issue of public transport and extracting canny preference deals. Or better still join political parties and try to influence pre-selection of candidates on the basis of their transport vision.

There are people of good will in the Labor Party. Call them ‘the left’, call them modernisers, call them efficiency junkies who like capitalism to run smoothly, call them environmentalists, basket weavers or bleeding hearts. You know who you are and some must remember the Wranslide fought on public transport. As safe inner city seats start to swing to the Greens and Independents, and outer suburban voters take holidays in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong (let alone Europe) with modern, efficient transport systems, it will become increasingly difficult for the ALP to take their voters for granted and offer them the usual transport shit sandwich. Then, even the NSW Right may start to do the math. In the inner west where I live it’s becoming apparent that if Labor state candidates don’t listen to their constituents’ changing expectations of modern public transport they will lose these seats to politicians who do.

If ALP branches are about anything they are about local people coming together to solve problems in their local neighbourhoods.ALP members interested in reviving and replenishing moribund branches exchange ideas on the new labor first web site . Labor party members passionate about public transport should bring into ALP branches local people concerned about the deterioration of their local and city environment into the ALP, empowering them to help change the NSW Government’s position. Form transport committees based on state electorate councils that ask local ALP candidates where they stand on the local and Sydney-wide urban reform agenda and publicise what they have done and not done to meet goals. If candidates stand in the way of progress Local ALP members need to find alternative candidates with solutions and courage and ensure they get preselected.

Take the light rail debate. The light rail service through the inner west is fantastic – affordable, efficient, pleasant and the staff are courteous and knowledgeable. The voters want light rail extended into the CBD, the western suburbs, the east and the north, and additional lines opened according to well thought through plan. Ticketing needs to be integrated with the buses, trains and ferries. It’s not too late for Labor MPs to make their tram-phobic Premier see sense.

The major parties need to be shamed into action by opponents putting the case for a new Sydney transport vision. So I ask where are the Greens on this issue? The Greens score their highest vote in the inner cities and therefore need to devote some hard thinking and policy development to the urban environment. Wiser heads within the Greens need to leave the glamorous agenda of whales and forests to their younger, more zealous foot soldiers, and take the case for an enhanced and sustainable twenty-first century urban public transport system to the Labor Government and the opposition.

If all else fails, public transport users should reach for a lawyer. Ever notice that since passengers became customers the actual customer service has gone south. If we have to make do with an American corporate culture then customers should (reluctantly) reach for American remedies to poor service. That is, taking the service providers to court for breach of contract or statuary duty. I’m no lawyer but it seems to me that commuter action groups across Sydney should pool resources and undertake class actions against the relevant government authorities. Surely those timetables and tickets have some contractual status? What about the legislation setting up the various public transport authorities- surely these laws bind the managers and ministers? If politics and basic decency don’t move the politicians, let’s see if the law protects consumers and citizens. And if it doesn’t, we need to change the laws. If we’re all customers now it’s time for a new wave of consumer activism. Is there a pro bono lawyer out there?

Finally, we need to insist that all NSW MPs are required to use public transport for a significant proportion of their period in parliament, even when they are ministers. European politicians use public transport, and if ours had to we would see some changes happen quick smart.

The Fabian society

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.