The planned George St section of Sydney’s CBD and South East Light Rail line

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reports NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley opposes the Baird Government’s plan to replace buses in George St with light rail. According to the paper, Mr Foley supports construction of light rail from Central station to suburban Kingsford, but not in the CBD.

(It will have a) very damaging effect on the economy of the city and the economy of the central business district. Time and again, over decades, royal commissioners and transport experts recommended that trams be removed from the CBD… They were finally removed in 1961.

Light rail down George Street can only work if the motor car is banned from the city. If the government’s real policy intent is to remove cars from the city they should admit that intention.

As with any major project, the construction period will be disruptive but it’s short term and the pay-off is expected to be big (it’s small beer compared to the impact the Andrews Government’s Melbourne Metro rail line will have on Swanston St).

Mr Foley is right though to say that the usefulness of light rail is reduced if it competes for road space with cars. However what isn’t mentioned by Mr Foley in the Daily Telegraph report is that large sections of the city’s premier civic spine will be closed to north-south car movements and given over to pedestrians.

That will help provide a better environment for the 1.6 million trips taken by foot each day in the city centre. It will also help reduce the negative impact on amenity from the 1,000 buses entering the centre between 7.45am and 8.45am on a week day. Around 180 of those buses use George St in the busiest hour, equivalent to an average of three per minute.

They’ve improved in many ways but the sorts of buses used on Sydney’s streets are nevertheless still noisy, polluting, lumbering vehicles. In many situations that’s an acceptable trade-off, but not when they operate at very high frequencies on the streets of very dense locations (see this image of bus congestion in Brisbane).

The real pity with Mr Foley’s comments though is the implication that the Government has a secret agenda to ban cars. That politicises what is in fact a really good and plausible idea. As I’ve pointed out before (Sydney CBD: are cars doing the heavy lifting?), the CBD is a location where the case for driving is very weak and the case for other modes is compelling.

Accessibility to Sydney’s CBD by public transport is outstanding; but accessibility by car, particularly in the peak, is grossly inferior. At present, only 14% of trips to the CBD in morning peak hour are made by car (it’s 25% across a full day).

The CBD is also the location where the downsides of the car – pollution, noise, safety, severance – have the biggest negative impact. They’re amplified by the very high density of activity; by the high levels of pedestrian movement; by the growing importance of the CBD as a place for recreation and leisure; and by the reliance of key economic activities like tourism on the centre’s attractions.

The CBD is, in short, the last place where cars are either necessary or desirable. They dominate traffic in the centre but only make a small contribution to shifting people; buses on the other hand comprise just 8% of surface traffic movements between 8:00 am and 9:00 am in the CBD but carry 63% of surface travellers.

The CBD is still a key thoroughfare for east-west traffic movements notwithstanding the opening of the under-used Cross-City tunnel in 2005. The Government could improve the amenity and functioning of the centre even more if it closed more cross streets to through traffic and forced it to use the tunnel instead. That would speed up light rail in George St too.

Or it could make an arrangement with the owner of the tunnel to reduce or remove the toll so motorists had an attractive alternative. That would’ve been easier if the Government of the day had purchased the tunnel when the first owner got into financial difficulty in 2006, or when the second owner went into voluntary administration in 2013 (it was bought by Transurban in 2014).

Light rail in  George St will greatly improve the amenity of this key thoroughfare; it would be even better though if the NSW Government took serious action to remove – or at least seriously reduce – the number of cars in the CBD.