Vale Monorail

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June 30, 2013 by brettdgale

There’s nothing on earth like a genuine bona fide electrified six car monorail and in 1988 Sydney joined Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook as places on the map when it got its very own.   Tomorrow they will be tearing it down.

As one of the few fans of the monorail (and one of the even fewer that used it for commuter purposes) I will miss it but even I’m prepared to concede that perhaps it was not the not the best choice of urban transport system.

Perhaps it was folly all along, but then again, it was almost strangled at birth.

Predictably, as it’s done for the last 30 years, the Sydney Morning Herald has spent the past couple of months sneeringly counting down its demise.   One can fully expect the paper’s editors to dance on its grave come Monday morning.

But it wasn’t alone, a calvacade of opposition to the concept from those as varied as cranky old man Patrick White, left wing commentator  Mike Carlton and Tory politician Nick Greiner  ensured that rather than a commuter service to Circular Quay, the monorail became little more than a tourist loop.  The end result of which was a conga line of buses  belching fumes the length and breadth of George Street.

Of course supposedly we will be getting rid of the buses, replacing them with a new shiny Light Rail system.  However, the cult of Light Rail has more than a touch of The Simpson’s Lyle Laneley about it.  Light Rail mania may well be the 21st century equivalent of the Monorail follies.

Indeed, are those champing at its imminent return to city streets so certain that we won’t be tearing up its tracks in 25 years’ time?  After all we’ve done it before.

Because, in the Monorail’s demise we may just see a wider lesson for Sydney.

Urban planning has never been this city’s forte.  In fact for most of the 200 plus years of its existence planning has often been a concept more honored in the breach than the observance.

Sydney as a city continually makes the mistakes Edward Glaeser warns against in his penetrating study of the world’s great (and not so great ) cities “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention made us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier”.

Glaeser has spent a lot of time studying what makes a city work and for him it boils down to a quite simple formula.  It is the fact that cities attract smart people and allow them to work collaboratively that makes some cities succeed over others.

“Isn’t Sydney like this?” people might say.  Doesn’t our city attract the best and the brightest? As Glaeser might point out, this may be more a function of history than a guarantee of future success.  His work chronicles numerous instances of once great cities slowly declining because they failed to adapt and because they took their success for granted.

A very Sydney trait indeed, thus, anyone who thinks that decline couldn’t happen to Sydney should think again.

When Bob Carr declared Sydney full in the late 90s and enacted policies accordingly, its economy began a downward spiral whilst its great rival Melbourne began to surge. It increased its urban infrastructure not just transport links, but public amenity as well such as bars and restaurants   As Glaeser says, “today successful cities old or young attract smart entrepreneurial people , in part, by being urban theme parks”. 

Anyone interested in making sure Sydney’s success isn’t taken for granted (and in ensuring its future) should spend more than a little time with Glaeser’s work.

To grow and thrive cities must be dynamic, constantly changing and evolving but always working towards connecting people.  Can this truly be said of Sydney?

Inertia has long been the dominant force in Sydney’s planning.  A place resting on its laurels, its elites often posing opposition to change, stultifying and suffocating whatever stuttering vision for development may occasionally arise.

With no overarching vision we simply build and build and build far flung suburbs designed to pull our citizens apart rather than bring them together.  On its best days Sydney may seem like some cool combination of beachside Los Angeles and hipster San Francisco.  On its worst it’s more like Houston by the harbour or Sao Paulo by the sea.

Sydney may be the very antithesis of a functioning city or at least a functioning city as explored by Glaeser , for he is an unabashed supporter of urban density.  As he says, “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, denseness, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.”

Glaeser makes a compelling case that it is urban density that has allowed humanity to make its greatest advances in health, technology and the reduction of poverty.   And the alternative of the suburbs stretching to infinity helps contribute overwhelmingly to one of the biggest threats to the environment imaginable – global warming.

In that analysis, Sydney doesn’t in any form fit Glaeser’s ideas of a model city and it’s easy to see why.  We are an agglomeration of suburbs with no real community of interests – a series of satellites orbiting a watery core.

Glaeser doesn’t hate suburbs, after all as he often points out, he lives in one, but he does recognize their limitations.  Limitations that those in charge of Sydney for the past 60 odd years have failed to comprehend.

Urban density may as well be a dirty phrase in Sydney’s planning lexicon.  Despite evidence of the growing preference of many people to live closer together and enjoy the amenities such closeness can bring, public policy over many decades has been expressly devised to encourage continuing sprawl.   Glaeser neatly chronicles the negative effects that such policies have had in numerous cities across the globe and to me Sydney’s experience is no different.

For instance, rather than advocating  sensible planning principles, the O’Farrell Government came to power promising an end to high rise and a further encouragement of urban sprawl – especially along the Pacific Highway in its own safe electorates.  If anywhere were ripe for higher density one would imagine that along a major arterial road parallel to major public transport links would do the trick, but not in Sydney.

That’s because it is not just urban sprawl that may inhibit Sydney’s economic and lifestyle growth, it’s our culture of complaint. Again Glaeser chronicles how opponents of development at any cost can hinder the future prosperity of the world’s cities.

And this brings us back to the Monorail.  Perhaps the Monorail may never have worked as a people mover, but it certainly wasn’t given the chance by its critics.  Instead they adopted the default position of Sydneysiders  – trying to stop anything new and different.

It’s a scene constantly played out, and not just when it comes to medium density.  No other city I know features the great paradox we have in Sydney: incessant calls for new public transport, for new roads, for new ways to travel to work, in concert with a visceral scream of “no” to anything that may actually solve the problems Sydneysiders complain about.

Consider recent history.

In the last few months the residents of the inner-city – Sydney’s most vocal agitators for more public transport – have taken their well-used placards to the streets to oppose the very thing they claim Sydney needs: a new public transport option, namely the Light Rail to the East, simply because it will go through some residential streets.

When the Cronulla riots broke out, Waverley Council urged all and sundry to come to Bondi Beach, as Bondi was a place open and welcoming to all cultures. This is the same Bondi whose residents had only a couple of years earlier killed off the chance for an extension to the eastern suburbs railway that would have brought “westies” on to “their” beach.

But for the fortitude of Laurie Brereton in the face of staunch opposition, the Sydney Harbour Tunnel would not have been built, and thousands more cars would be clogging the Harbour Bridge every day.

The sad reality is that successive governments have been able to get away with failing to act because noisy action groups have put themselves before the common good. Too often the government has paid heed to them instead of the broader community interest.

Only in Sydney are transport plans announced in the morning papers and killed by 9am the same day – taken out by a combination of feckless ministers, furious talkback radio hosts, and everyone playing the great Sydney pastime of, “not in my backyard”.

As Glaeser recognizes, building infrastructure to benefit the whole city will entail individual losers. It’s a fact of life we need to accept. For too long on too many projects we’ve let the noisy minority stop progress for the silent majority.

Indeed, until we have a government and a community prepared to deal with the difficult choices – and compromises – involved in all major infrastructure projects, it will be easier for governments of all persuasions to do nothing.

That’s because vision and planning are important elements in a successful city but so too is will.  Vision backed by action is what keeps a city great.

Perhaps that’s why  Glaeser  champions strong  urban planners such as  Robert Moses and Baron Hausmann.  Hausmann who created the grand boulevards of Paris and Moses who built most of the roads, bridges, playgrounds, apartment buildings and cultural centres of New York’s great expansion in the mid- 20th century.

Of course, as Robert A. Caro makes clear in his brilliant study of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall Of New York there was a dark side to Moses’ triumphs, and Zola’s novel The Kill brilliantly captures the gaudy corruption that often lay at the heart of Hausmann’s schemes, not to mention the displacement of 350,000 people.  Yet without Moses or Hausmann New York and Paris would not be the cities they are today.

But while we may not want them exactly, a little bit of Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses in our modern day politicians wouldn’t go astray.

Actually I’d settle for a latter day Laurie Brereton – the man who brought us the Monorail in the first place.

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One thought on “Vale Monorail

  1. Marcus James says:

    Another wonderfully written and thought provoking piece that sets me off once again on the search for more – thank you – cant wait for the next one – Marcus

    Sent from my iPhone

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