The State Government's transport plan opens up a new way of thinking about how people move around our city.
(see our animation of what the CBD could look like with light rail)
Congestion costs Sydney businesses and residents an estimated $5.1 billion a year and that's projected to nearly double to $8.8 billion by 2021.
People who work in inner city Sydney are the country's greatest users of public transport, with three quarters arriving by bus, train or ferry.
For the last few years, transport planners have looked to buses as congestion's saving grace.
However our bus network has added to the problem. With a complicated system of 192 routes converging on the city, 6,000 buses every weekday and up to 1,000 in the busiest weekday peak hours, we now have a conga line of slow moving buses edging their way over the Harbour Bridge and up George, York and Elizabeth streets.
New York's Mayor Bloomberg recently said 'roads are for people' and I agree - we need to look at the best possible way for people, not just vehicles, to move around our city.
In 2007, the City asked international urbanist Jan Gehl to investigate what was needed to revitalise Sydney. Transport plans are often about networks and vehicles. But he took the 'outlandish' perspective that cities are about people and that transport networks must serve the people and be about integration.
Once you take that perspective there are only so many ways you can make the City work. You can't shove people underground for short trips and you can't continue to make thousands of people wait at traffic signals while a few vehicles inch past.
Instead you must maximise the use of the space you have and you must maximise amenity. In our dense city, it's impossible to increase the space we have between buildings to accommodate transport and so you need to think creatively for the 600,000 people who are in our CBD every day.
Having a city that can grow and can confidently commit to the future is as critical to the people of Penrith as it is to Surry Hills. Without the economic engine of the CBD ($100B), the State would lose a quarter of its economic output, as much as the entire mining industry contributes. What happens in the city has flow on effects for the rest of the state and indeed the nation.
Well-functioning transport networks free up our time and our capital. Public transport is an efficient way of increasing productivity, something Sydney has been falling behind on for more than a decade.
Sydney is continually recognised for its liveability and increasingly for its sustainability but we fall behind on transport - our congestion is deeply frustrating to the people who live and work here, as well as to those who visit.
The Government's decision to invest in light rail will transform Sydney - and not just our city centre. By creating a light rail network, that starts in the CBD and that could link up with Green Square, Barangaroo and to Parramatta Road, the Government is addressing the decades of inaction that has crippled our state.
Pedestrianising George St between Bathurst and Hunter will give Sydney the inviting mainstreet it needs to remain commercially competitive and to draw tourists to our city.
World class retailers such as Apple, Louis Vuitton and Topshop have recently located flagship stores on George Street in anticipation of light rail. This investment will give other businesses the confidence to also invest in the future of our city.
Transport is critical to the economy and society. Not only moving people to and from work, but to and from opportunity, community connections and social integration. It creates possibility and connection.
This is incredibly beneficial to people living outside the city, whose buses will no longer be swamped by huge demand when reaching the last few kilometres of their trip and whose train network will no longer be choked by a single harbour crossing. Buses diverted from the city could be used on desperately under-serviced cross-regional routes.
Adding a second harbour crossing will unlock the capacity of the rail network for decades to come and is a much needed, visionary move for the future of NSW.
More work needs to be done to ensure that a tunnel, rather than a surface-only option, is used for the Surry Hills section of the light rail route. This is vital to minimise the impact on local residents and parklands.
This transport plan shows the City and State Government can work together to solve our biggest challenges and rebuild the trust Sydneysiders lost a long time ago in our city's transport.
(The article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 14 December)