Improving transport

Why the tunnel may not be the right solution for the Northern Beaches

 

Anyone looking at Sydney traffic quickly realises that when more roads are built, the only result is more traffic. Traffic experts and researchers demonstrate tunnels and motorways built recently reach comparable levels of congestion within a few years, and do not work as long term solutions for transport globally(1) or in Sydney(2)(3).

 

A tunnel may create more lanes for traffic in one corridor, but the increased number of vehicles will cause significant bottlenecks and congestion on the roads that feed into the tunnel, wiping out any travel time savings. These are indicated in the Beaches Link EIS as affecting Condamine St at Manly Vale / Balgowlah, Sydney Rd, and Warringah Rd / Wakehurst Parkway – but many more roads and intersections leading to these will also see increased delays.

For example, the EIS models travel times along the Wakehurst Parkway from Oxford Falls, over Warringah Rd, and to the tunnel portal near Judith St, Seaforth during the morning peak in 2027. Without the Beaches Link tunnel (and Western Harbour Tunnel), this trip takes 4 minutes, 27 seconds, but with these tunnels, it will more than double to 10 minutes, 7 seconds(12). It doesn’t take too many of these examples in a total journey for all time savings from the tunnel to be eliminated.

 

 

What do transport experts think about the Beaches Link tunnel?

 

Independent transport expert Dr Michelle Zeibots reports traffic problems in the area will be back to the same as exist now within 2 years of the tunnel opening, and that the tunnel should not be built(4). Even short term gains in travel times by the tunnel will be eaten up by extra delays and congestion on arterial roads leading to the tunnel – such as Condamine St, Pittwater Rd, Wakehurst Parkway and Warringah Rd.

Dr Zeibots states the most critical infrastructure for the Northern Beaches is mass public transport on the East-West link between Dee Why, Mona Vale and Chatswood via Northern Beaches Hospital. Significant public transport improvements in this corridor has been supported by Northern Beaches Council, but were rejected by the current NSW government for many years.

A last-minute election campaign announcement from the NSW Liberal government in 2019 proposed building a B-Line bus in this corridor. NSW Labor matched this commitment, and bi-partisan support for improvements to public transport in this corridor is welcomed. This express bus service was due to start in 2020, but no announcements of progress have been made to date.

 

 

Alternatively, instead of a B-Line service, there are many new technologies that are being implemented around the world that could be commissioned, including electric trams that do not require any tracks or overhead wires, and are automated by satellite.

But this could be just the start; connections from homes to main bus stops and many more improvements could be made to public transport all across the Northern Beaches. To cancel the tunnel and allocate only a portion of it’s funding to integrated public transport would transform our travel – for far less cost, and many years sooner.

 

Public transport options were directed to not be assessed as an alternative to the tunnel by the NSW government(6), despite claims in the EIS that alternatives were considered. Integrated public transport is the only long term solution for the Northern Beaches, and $12 billion spent on a tunnel will mean no significant investment in public transport is actually spent over the next few decades – as it reduces the profitability of a tunnel. This will leave us in a transport “black hole” for decades to come.

 

View a presentation from Dr Zeibots about the tunnel to the community here: https://youtu.be/sql8SPxlzSw

 

What about buses in the tunnel?

 

The government has stated that express buses could use the tunnel with general traffic, but have refused to include a dedicated bus lane. Some sections of the tunnel are only 2 lanes wide, and limiting the road space for vehicles by having a dedicated bus lane would reduce the profitability of the tunnel.

Many in the community, including Northern Beaches Council have insisted a dedicated bus lane be included in the tunnel. Some councillors claim that they were assured by state MP James Griffin that it would be included – part of his advertising campaign during the last election that the tunnel would “turbocharge” public transport(below). However, the EIS confirms that there will not be a dedicated bus lane in the tunnel, despite earlier promises made.

State government have only suggested that buses could have priority at intersections into the tunnel, indicating that long traffic queues are expected at tunnel entrances.

Bus travel times using the Beaches Link tunnel have not been included in any of the Beaches Link EIS modelling, providing no guarantee that buses such as the B-Line will use the tunnel at all.

 

For buses in the local Balgowlah / Manly region, the Beaches Link tunnel models largely no improvements to travel times with slight increases to some trips, slight decreases to others(11).

Timetable modelling has not been provided in the Beaches Link EIS beyond Spit Bridge for buses using Military Rd. However, intersection performance has been modelled that shows increasing delays due to changes made to access roads onto the Warringah Freeway and in North Sydney. Delays at the intersection of Military Rd/Ben Boyd Rd increase from an average of 15 to 47 seconds (category B to F), Military Rd/Watson St increase from 18 to 38 seconds (category B to F), and Berry St/Walker St from 29 to 76 seconds (category C to F) during morning peak in 2027(10).

The EIS states “impacts on public and active transport would include the potential for travel times on bus routes through North Sydney to generally increase”. A project design that makes bus transport slower is one of many reasons why North Sydney Council have formally objected to the combined Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link projects.

 

All this is certainly not the “turbocharging” to public transport that residents were promised from the tunnel by James Griffin at the 2019 election.

Has COVID-19 changed how and when we travel anyway?

 

Of course COVID-19 has had a big impact upon the way we live our lives and the way we work.

Much research has been done into the changes including the regular Transport Opinion Survey by University of Sydney. They found 22% of Sydney workers were working from home prior to COVID-19, rising to 67% during the pandemic. 75% of workers also thought that employers will continue to support them working from home into the future. The report states “The evidence reinforces the fact that as we move through and beyond the COVID-19 period, we can expect commuting activity to decline by an average of 25 to 30 percent.”(8)

With such a large reduction in commuter travel as more people work from home, it takes the pressure off our transport system during peak times, and spreads the load across the day as people adopt more flexible hours as well.

 

Recent research has shown whilst trips via private vehicle may be returning to near pre-COVID-19 levels by December 2020, we are travelling on public transport much less, with trips via bus down 42.4%, ferry down 67%, and train down 46.6% compared to December 2019 from Opal card data. This shows people in Sydney have either switched commutes from public transport to car, or are not commuting at all, and this will remain into the future even as the threat of COVID-19 dissipates.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald spoke to Professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, Professor David Levinson. It states “He said the COVID-19 crisis would have long-term effects on peak-hour traffic as well as public transport. He also said road and rail projects not already under construction should be reconsidered: ‘‘The extent to which travel demand changes (like working from home) are permanent should change where the most important investments are.’’(9)

 

 

What happens to the Northern Beaches if the tunnel is built?

 

The tunnel relies upon a significant increase in traffic to justify the expense to build, and profitability for a private company when the tunnel is privatised. Over the longer term, the tunnel will mean an increase in traffic due to population density increases, additional trips taken by locals, and increased numbers of visitors by car – a term called “induced demand” by transport experts.

 

NSW government planning, along with the Northern Beaches Council Housing Strategy(7), has plans to significantly increase the overall population of the Northern Beaches by approximately 20% over the next 10-15 years. This includes increases in popoulation density (incl. high density apartments and boarding houses) in particular areas – Frenchs Forest, Balgowlah, Manly Vale, Brookvale, Dee Why, Narrabeen and Mona Vale (see “Development on the Northern Beaches” in the “Key Issues” menu above).

These population increases are justified on the basis that the Beaches Link tunnel is built, but make no strategic planning for the increased capacity needed for our local roads, shops, schools, recreation facilities and beaches.

 

In addition, if the Beaches Link Tunnel is built, it will be easier for residents of Western Sydney to drive to the Northern Beaches to visit Manly, Freshwater, Curl Curl, Dee Why, Mona Vale and Newport than to other beaches such as Bondi, Coogee or Cronulla – due to the integration of the Beaches Link tunnel with the M2, Western Harbour tunnel, and WestConnex tunnels.

Over weekends in the summer, there will be as many as 40,000 additional cars arriving in the Northern Beaches, putting immense pressure on the local roads and car parks around the beaches. We have plenty of room to spare for visitors on our beaches, but there is insufficient infrastructure for everyone to travel by car.

1) Traffic Jam? Blame ‘Induced Demand’ (CityLab, September 6, 2018)

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/09/citylab-university-induced-demand/569455/?utm_source=citylab-daily&silverid=MzEwMTkyMzMwMTQ1S0%3Futm_source%3Dfbb

2) Transport spending priorities are leaving Sydney’s residents worse off (Domain, May 10, 2018)

https://www.domain.com.au/news/why-the-need-for-speed-transport-spending-priorities-are-leaving-sydneys-residents-worse-off-20180510-h0zvmf/

3) Better cities: Myths surrounding great urban choke (The Australian, April 29, 2017)

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/bettercities/better-cities-myths-surrounding-great-urban-choke/news-story/6a092ebd52ee6f2d3cd6c9f535fabdd7

4) Beaches Link should not be built: transport expert (SMH, November 4, 2018)

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/beaches-link-should-not-be-built-transport-expert-20181102-p50dmx.html

5) Bust congestion for $4.5M (Manly Daily, June 27, 2018)

http://newslocal.smedia.com.au/manly-daily/

6) Revealed: The $14 billion Western Harbour Tunnel Beaches Link price tag

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/revealed-the-14-billion-western-harbour-tunnel-beaches-link-price-tag-20170717-gxcy6a.html

7) Northern Beaches Local Housing Strategy

https://yoursay.northernbeaches.nsw.gov.au/local-housing-strategy

8) Australians want to work from home more post-COVID (University of Sydney,  Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, Transport Opinion Survey, September 2020)

https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/09/28/australians-want-to-work-from-home-more-post-covid.html

9) Commuters are still wary to get back on the bus (SMH, February 1, 2021)

https://www.smh.com.au/national/road-traffic-returns-to-pre-covid-levels-as-commuters-shun-public-transport-20210129-p56xw7.html

10) Beaches Link EIS Appendix F Part 1, page 269

11) Beaches Link EIS Appendix F Part 1, page 291

https://majorprojects.planningportal.nsw.gov.au/prweb/PRRestService/mp/01/getContent?AttachRef=SSI-8862%2120201204T030411.500%20GMT

12) Beaches Link EIS Chapter 9, page 41

https://majorprojects.planningportal.nsw.gov.au/prweb/PRRestService/mp/01/getContent?AttachRef=SSI-8862%2120201220T232325.511%20GMT