Lessons from Sydney’s clogged roads
SYDNEY — My beautiful hometown is super smart in many ways. Transportation isn’t one of them.
Traffic in Sydney is its own special hell, moving like sludge, making you want to eat your own head. Home to about 3.7 million people when I left 23 years ago, Greater Sydney is now pushing 5 million. Surging house prices also mean non-millionaires have been forced to settle further and further from the city center — which means ever longer and more maddening commutes.
Rather than pouring money into fast, affordable public transit, the government there has gone on a road-building spree, erasing houses from an insanely squeezed property market to put new freeways right through the city. But the more roads they build, the more cars come. It’s called induced demand, and it’s madness.
I just got back from my annual visit to Sydney: Glorious days at the beach, perfect coffee, transcendent food — and endless hours of soul-crushing car rides in between.
It gave me a new appreciation for our own dysfunctional system. Sure, it’s a mess, but at least we aren’t building useless highways. However, it also made me worry about whether the choices our state is making today will turn us into a Sydney-caliber basket-case down the line.
Take Monday’s news of an MBTA fare increase, an average rise of 9.3 percent — despite protests, and a statute clearly intended to make such a large jump impossible. Based on the Department of Transportation’s own numbers, advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts estimates the MBTA will see 6 million fewer rides a year after the increase.
“It means more cars on the roads,” said the group’s director, Kristina Egan. “The region needs to become less congested to work, to fight climate change more, to provide more opportunities to people of low income. We are moving in the wrong direction.”
Motorists benefit from public transit, too, but they’re not being asked to pony up the way T riders are. An analysis by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that, over the last 20 years, T fares have gone up 97 percent. But during that period, the price of gas has gone down 1 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, and the value of the gas tax has dropped 28 percent.
“What we’re seeing here is a huge shift of the cost to transit riders,” said MAPC chief Marc Draisen.
Making the MBTA pricier is one way of clogging roadways. Another: Failing to think big enough. We might not reach Sydney levels, but Greater Boston is growing, with massive amounts of new housing and commercial development, much of it transit-oriented. MAPC projects that Metro Boston will grow almost 10 percent by 2030, the inner core adding 240,000 residents. City officials say Boston’s population will reach 700,000.
How will they get around? We already see serious congestion in Kendall Square and at the Seaport (our own little slice of Sydney, overpriced and car-clogged). The public transit system desperately needs expansion. The last significant growth was 30 years ago (No, the Silver Line doesn’t count). We need a bigger South Station, a Green Line extension that goes all the way to Route 16, and, as Draisen points out, we must start talking about an urban ring that allows commuters to change lines without having to go into the overburdened core of the system.
We’re always hearing about how we shouldn’t think about expanding the system until we fix what we already have — especially from those loath to take the politically perilous step of raising the taxes new services would require. But we don’t have time to wait.
“If we’re going to accommodate the tremendous and beneficial growth, we have to have a 21st century system, and we are not on the path of accomplishing that,” Draisen said.
If we don’t get on that path now, many more of us will choose comfortable cars over jammed trolleys, whiling away large chunks of our lives in soul-crushing traffic, just as they do in Sydney.
Only here, there will be fewer beach days to make it bearable.