There is a set of benches under a shelter on top of the Cahill Expressway, above Sydney’s Circular Quay, where city workers determined enough to take their sandwiches for a walk and a ride in a lift can sit and admire the view. It’s a place that invites reflection, particularly on the ways successive transport policies and ideals have shaped the city. Freeways, bridges and roads also dominate other Australian cityscapes, but it was in Sydney that engineers and planners blazed the trail, figuratively and literally, for the automobilisation of Australian cities. In some rapid shifts from the 1880s through to the 1960s and beyond, Sydney’s planners utterly altered the city’s transport modes, destroying, designing, imagining, and building enthusiastically.
This spectacular vista provides the opportunity to see through time, as well as admire the current architecture of the contemporary city. The ferries and people shuttling around below are a continuation of the two modes of transport indigenous to Port Jackson, ones that humans have engaged in here for tens of thousands of years: walking and crossing the waterway in boats. Double-decked trains, including the retro-futuristic carriages of the 1970s, and the glassed 1980s Tangara sets, regularly cross the Harbour Bridge and travel around the Circular Quay loop. Cars, trucks and buses fill all the streets in view. Aircraft on final approach to Sydney airport’s north–south runways are just visible, and with a little imaginative energy, the harbour tunnel deep below is revealed. The Overseas Passenger Terminal continues to load and unload people from ships—a function that began with Arthur Phillip’s unauthorised maritime arrival in 1788, has continued through 150 years, delivering convicts, immigrants and travellers, and now mostly tourists. The Opera House stands on Bennelong Point, formerly Fort Macquarie, the site of central Sydney’s tram-terminal sheds. By April 2015 construction of the planned CBD leg of Sydney’s light rail should have begun, implementing the state Coalition government’s promised reintroduction of trams to the Sydney streets. The Bennelong Point site is central to Sydney’s transport history.
It’s the city’s most iconic viewing point, ground zero for tourism, with every built and natural object within the 360-degree vista worthy of a postcard. Except for one. The Cahill Expressway itself is one of the most unpopular and controversial structures in the city. It merges into the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s Bradfield Highway, named for John Bradfield (1867–1943), a civil engineer, early twentieth-century rail and planning enthusiast and the person most responsible for the form central Sydney takes today. The brutal layer cake of concrete that is the Cahill Expressway combines three transport modes: on the bottom a pedestrian walkway with shops and ticket booths, an elevated train station one level above, and the four-lane highway that sits on top. It is the product of the NSW Department of Main Roads’ 1945 expressway plan, and was opened in 1963.
As architecture, it seems to revel in the hatred it attracts. From the beginning it has been controversial, protests against its ugliness have continued to flow from architects and politicians on both sides of politics. The loathing is part of the structure’s heritage, as is its status as a remnant of an Australian forerunner to the worldwide freeway revolt, or highway revolt, phenomenon.
City dwellers participated in freeway revolts across the developed world almost as soon as postwar reconstruction got underway. British plans often involved the creation of ring roads around town centres, and motorways to link them and their new suburbs. The old, unmaintained, war-deprived areas of the town, places now treasured as historic centres, were disregarded. In the United States, where car culture began, postwar plans for modern freeway systems shocked even the most committed modernist by their sheer audacity. The experience of San Francisco, Los Angeles and especially New York City, where Robert Moses’s proposed expressways would have made roads out of large parts of lower Manhattan, turned many North Americans against the visions of postwar planners. The immediate postwar period through to the 1970s saw the beginnings of a visceral reaction against the ‘high modernism’ mode of city imagination described by James Scott.1 Construction programs were delayed, bureaucracy encountered resistance, and Jane Jacobs wrote her influential critique of urban renewal, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
In Australia, Melbourne saw its own freeway revolt in the 1970s, described by Graeme Davison and Sharon Yelland, when residents of inner-city suburbs such as Collingwood and Carlton organised against the encroaching arrows of the Metropolitan Transport Committee’s freeway maps.2 In Sydney, while protesters delayed some roadway construction, most of the community activity was focused on saving housing and gaining concessions from developers and the Housing Commission, rather than on roadway networks. Tom Zubrycki’s documentary Waterloo (1981) shows the concerns of local resident action groups during the 1970s and early 1980s. A focus on opposition to freeway construction didn’t really come about in Sydney until the early 1990s, with the construction of the (tolled) M4.
This late reaction is in part because Sydney’s initial freeway experience came far earlier than anywhere else in Australia. Sydney had one extremely modern structure, and transport signifier, before almost any other city in the world. The Harbour Bridge was an object of nineteenth-century fantasy, 1910s committee work and 1920s real estate speculation on the north shore. Its realisation in the 1930s, as the effects of the worldwide depression were making themselves felt, meant that construction projects and investment were seen as precious and laudable. The bridge stood, and still stands, as a symbol of modernity and progress. In the 1930s, the fact that bridge construction displaced communities of working people living in the shadows of the on-ramps was seen as a necessary evil. We don’t really appreciate today the extent to which the Sydney Harbour Bridge dominated the city and imaginations in the era: it is an ideological structure. In the Sydney skyline, before skyscrapers started to dominate in the 1960s, it stood alone as a symbol of the new age of transportation.
Historian Peter Spearritt describes two key transport revolutions that have occurred in the city: the first a change from a walking city to a tram and train city in the 1880s, and the shift to an automobilised city in the 1920s.3 Before the first revolution, when machine transport modes became common, city dwellers would expect to live within walking distance of their work, shops and indeed their entire social network. Movement in and around the city, for most people, was related to the distance they could walk. The second of these transport revolutions saw new suburbs spring up along tram, train and bus lines away from the industrial inner city. Such areas were novel and commercially appealing before car-enabled sprawl came to dominate the Australian cityscape. The transport revolutions of the 1880s and 1920s changed how Sydneysiders moved around their city and fundamentally changed how they conceived of time and space. Those revolutions also made them citizens of the city proper, not just of their discrete localities.
The shifts in transport modes also tell the stories of some powerful institutions. If, as political theorist and historian Timothy Mitchell argues, fossil fuels allowed the worldwide reorganisation of energy systems that made nineteenth-century politics possible,4 some powerful fossil fuel institutions also emerged in New South Wales. The story of political power in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century New South Wales is inextricable from the story of the state’s train lines, bridges and roads.
The small Sydney Railway Company, which in 1849 proposed the first line between Sydney and Parramatta, ran out of money and had to be nationalised by the colony, as the NSW Government Railways (NSWGR). This body (later renamed the Department of Railways) took on the running and planning of NSW trains and, at times, trams, becoming a very powerful bureaucratic entity in the process. NSWGR’s familiarity with running heavy rail infected the tramways it operated: Sydney trams were heavier, ran faster and were more train-like than the lighter technologies in other cities. By 1914 NSWGR was Australia’s largest employer, and it was an industrial dispute in the Eveleigh workshops at Redfern—about the introduction of time cards—that set the 1917 general strike in motion.
The year 1925 marked the creation of another of New South Wales’ big transport entities: the Main Roads Board, better known after 1932 as the Department of Main Roads (DMR). It took over the responsibility for roadwork from the very powerful and politically active Public Works Department. Colonial streets had been largely improvised affairs, but the growth of motor traffic required road rationalisation and standardisation. From a chaotic landscape, the DMR created a hierarchy of highways, major roads, minor roads and local roads. By the late 1930s the department had taken a philosophical position in favour of an expanded road network, as well as responsibility for the mundane work of repair and pothole-filling. It was a philosophy inspired by the example of Los Angeles in the 1930s, where municipal governments used urban road construction and pro-motoring ideals as tools for more general modernisation.5 By the end of the Second World War, the NSW DMR was, in practice, as powerful a pro-motoring lobby group as the National Roads & Motorists’ Association (NRMA).6
The lengthy scene-setting above is the context for the postwar removal of Sydney’s tram network, and the triumph of automobilisation. The 1941–65 Labor administration commissioned experts from London to advise on what they should do with Sydney’s public transport. Theirs was the ‘systems approach’ to transport planning, which is the principle that people make choices about their destinations and needs, and that transport and urban design should be planned to meet those needs as efficiently as possible. These experts, Sinclair, Andrews and Ellen, produced a report in 1949 that recommended the phasing out of all trams by 1955 and their replacement with (London-style) double-decker buses, which they argued would be more flexible than the tram network, and less likely to congest peak-hour traffic.7 The Sinclair report highlighted the lack of maintenance on the tram network right through the depression and austerity of the war years, and the success of modern diesel bus networks in Britain and elsewhere, as well as their lower costs to government. For a succession of Labor premiers and responsible ministers the choices were clear: public affection for the trams was no substitute for progress.
Archaeologist Peter Howard described the moment when the tram network was closed and replaced with public bus networks as a ‘massacre’, noting that it was destroyed in such a way as to make the system forever unworkable, and ‘[remove] it from public consciousness’.8 Outer lines had started to be replaced by diesel buses from 1949, and to discourage resident demands for reintroduction of trams, the wires were torn down, infrastructure removed and the trams destroyed. For a time, the NSW Government employed a full-time tram burner. A significant proportion of the replacement buses, which the NRMA and DMR had argued successfully to the postwar Labor government offered modernity, efficiency and flexibility, ran, and still run, on geographic lines that had been tram routes.
Tram historians interpret the events of the 1950s and 1960s in the pattern of one or more of three major narratives. The first is that of irredeemable loss, describing the removal of Sydney’s tramways as a planning mistake committed by a misinformed government advised by biased ‘apolitical’ experts. This is the approach taken by historians Robert Lee and Peter Spearritt.9 In 1983 Robert Gibbons examined the decisions made and methods used in the replacement process, and found that the experts probably had a point about the inefficiencies of Sydney’s trams,10 but it’s easy to frame the change from trams to buses as a mistaken path, setting Sydney’s transport up for whatever contemporary deficiency we abhor.
The second narrative is one of romance and nostalgia. It is well known that particular old forms of transport attract enthusiasts and antiquarians across a broad spectrum from people who like to read about old boats to those who can identify arcane features of any particular steam locomotive. It’s a process of enthusiasm, a ‘passion for the history and material record of technological development’, which can also manifest itself in collective remembering and organising.11 David Keenan’s excellent Tramways of Sydney certainly fits into this category and readers may find exhaustive detail about exactly which trams ran on which lines, at what times, where they went and—importantly—how and when they were removed.12 A very few of the tram vehicles that escaped the fires exist in retirement at the Sydney Tram Museum in the southern suburb of Loftus, which preserves and maintains vehicles in various conditions. The Australian slang term ‘gunzel’ or ‘gunsel’, for men with obsessive rail enthusiasm (the equivalent of the British ‘anorak’), probably originated at this museum.
The third narrative is that of conspiracy. When Peter Spearritt compared the mistakes of NSW politicians and technocrats to the ‘more obviously conspiratorial affair’ of tram removal in the United States, he most likely had a specific conspiracy in mind. The story goes that in many US cities, particularly Los Angeles, motor and oil companies bought up stock in tramways in order to close them down. It’s a narrative that dates from a 1974 report to the US Senate by Bradford Snell, who, in the context of growing awareness of motor culture’s environmental costs, placed auto industry lobby groups, and particularly General Motors, at the centre of a grand and sinister plot against a particular mode of transport.13 If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also central to the plot of the Robert Zemeckis’s film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in which a nefarious judge plots the destruction of Toontown in favour of a suburban highway utopia.14
None of these narratives entirely explains Sydney’s public transport story nor expresses the complexities of Sydneysiders’ relationship to their city. There is no reason why the tram network should not be mourned, remembered, or made into an historical victim, but all of these narratives give a sense that in today’s city something is missing. When we look at the period when a tram network disappeared, replaced by a city of road bridges, expressways, overpasses and tunnels, it’s worth asking what else was going on in planning culture at the time.
This brings us back to the view from the Cahill Expressway, which takes in the retro modernity of the surrounding transport infrastructure. In 2015 the notion of political ‘progressiveness’ implies an ecological awareness that simply did not exist in Australia before the freeway revolts and other social movements began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. All sides of politics in New South Wales that supported the extension of highways and the modernisation of public transport believed in ‘progress’, by which they meant the displacement of the old and outdated in favour of an efficient, scientific, planned postwar order. Displacement of the old had been the attitude of the two political establishments, Left and Right, for the preceding century, whether it was standardising and rationalising public transport networks or razing working-class housing for the approaches to the Harbour Bridge.
Pat Hills (1917–1992), a little-remembered but historically influential Labor figure of the postwar era, is an excellent example of this mentality. At times lord mayor of Sydney, Labor opposition leader and deputy premier, between 1959 and 1965 he held the two ministries of Local Government and Highways—this was the only period when the combination made any sense. The Warringah Highway, which bisects North Sydney and removed the last of that suburb’s working-class housing, was his responsibility. The mid-century ALP were political pragmatists but they shared a utopian view that the country could never be allowed to return to the traumatic experience of depression: their ideal involved a city that was different, efficient and planned, though their methods for achieving this ideal can look fairly brutal to modern sensibilities.
The official oral history of the Sydney–Newcastle Pacific Highway, commissioned by NSW Roads and Maritime (successor agency to the DMR), is explicit about the kind of practices that were prevalent in the postwar period:
* Within our own walls we determined what we’d build, and when we’d do it, and we just went and did it. We told people that we wanted their land, and that we’d take it … there were lots of cases when we’d go through and build a new road, and never compensate the owner for the change in boundary. We developed a very bad reputation as people you couldn’t deal with. Now sometimes that comes back to haunt us even today.*15
Resistance, however, was relatively individual and local, rather than the organised movement that would emerge in Melbourne’s anti-freeway groups of the 1970s. Sydneysiders were relatively acquiescent until quite late in the period, both as a local community and as voters on major road construction projects, compared to residents of other cities in Australia. This can be partly explained by the city’s history of famous road structures such as the Harbour Bridge and the civic pride they engendered.
The ongoing power of this civic pride shows that transport is always about more than merely the means used to move people and goods. One of the favourite techniques of academic transport planners is the ‘time and mode-choice study’, used in forecasting, which compares people’s stated demands for transport between specific places and their preferences for mode: public or private transport, for instance. Typically it asks respondents to rate modes and routes according to how long they would wait, and how much they would pay, on each. They’re great for trying to measure, for instance, how cheap fares need to be in order for people to choose to commute by train instead of by car. It works very well in assessing transport needs and managing competing economic demands. However, the sense of civic pride instilled by specific transport modes, such as trams, roads and bridges, and the value a specific transport mode has as part of a larger built environment, are much more difficult to measure. How would you measure the benefits of, say, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or Circular Quay, if you only looked at them as transport nodes? It would be the wrong question.
The politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s left Australia with a legacy of culture wars, in our institutions and our society. Issues such as reproductive rights and the economic place of women, ethnic and racial equality, Aboriginal land rights, Australian history, literature and popular culture, climate change, not to mention industrial relations, all remain rancorous topics, where the merits of an argument matter less than what a position says about the person holding it. It’s not well understood that transport is part of the culture wars. The first opponents of the Cahill Expressway objected to the construction on aesthetic grounds, rather than its automotive mode, and they had a point: even Jeffrey Smart’s painting Cahill Expressway (1962), which makes a striking pattern of the on-ramp, road markings and streetlights, can’t make it entirely beautiful. What was different and new about the later freeway revolts in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and other cities was that people came to conceive of freeway construction as inherently in opposition to good planning. By the 1980s and 1990s, city dwellers opposed freeways because they were ugly and were roads.
At some point unanimity about the nature and value of ‘progress’ broke down, and two quite different visions of the public good in urban affairs have emerged. When Tony Abbott described himself as the ‘infrastructure prime minister’, he placed himself in favour of roads funding and against the public transport policies of the Greens and sections of the ALP. However, his Liberal colleague the NSW Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, has made herself one of the state’s most prominent political figures by reforming rail and bus transport, and by beginning the reintroduction of trams to the Sydney CBD and inner east.
Transportation modes and the technology of moving people and goods around will always be a focus of enthusiasm and memory. The contemporary debates in Australian cities around freeways, whether the M4 East in Sydney or the East West Link in Melbourne, are part of a long history. It’s precisely because roads and transport, as political issues, are capable of motivating people to either protest in front of bulldozers or vote out governments that leave those bulldozers idle, that this history is worth remembering and examining.
- James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1998.
- Graeme Davison and Sharon Yelland, Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004, chap. 7.
- Peter Spearritt, Sydney’s Century: A History, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, chap. 7.
- Timothy Mitchell, ‘Carbon Democracy’, Economy and Society, vol. 38, no. 3 (August 2009), p. 401.
- Robert Lee, Transport: An Australian History, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, p. 259.
- Peter Spearritt, Sydney since the Twenties, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1978, pp. 166–71.
- Robert Gibbons, ‘The “Fall of the Giant”: Trams vs. Trains and Buses in Sydney, 1900–61’, in Garry Wotherspoon (ed.), Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983.
- Peter Howard, ‘A “Tram Massacre”: Institutionalised Destruction in Sydney, 1955–1961,’ Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 47, no. 2 (2012), pp. 91–8.
- See Lee, Transport; and Spearritt, Sydney since the Twenties and Sydney’s Century.
- Gibbons, ‘The “Fall of the Giant”’.
- Hilary Geoghegan, ‘“If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is altogether a better place”: Being Enthusiastic about Industrial Archaeology’, M/C Journal, vol. 12, no. 2 (2009), ; Glen Fuller, ‘The Challenges of Enthusiasm’, M/C Journal, vol. 12, no. 2 (2009).
- David Keenan, Tramways of Sydney, Transit Press, Sydney, 1979.
- Sy Adler, ‘The Transformation of the Pacific Electric Railway: Bradford Snell, Roger Rabbit, and the Politics of Transportation in Los Angeles’, Urban Affairs Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 1 (September 1991).
- Robert Zemeckis (dir.), Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Touchstone Pictures, 1988.
- Roads & Maritime NSW, Pacific Highway: Sydney–Newcastle Freeway, n.d., Part 12, ‘Community relations & property acquisition’.