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The rise and fall of Parramatta Road

Politics, changes, memories.

Image by NSW Government

Parramatta Road. Many of us travel down it every day on the way to work or uni, but the mundane quotidian never dulls the enigma of this mysterious and storied stretch of bitumen. What happened to this once thriving high street? The Gateway to the West. The King’s Road. Now, the “varicose vein of Sydney.” Seemingly all that remains in amongst the abandoned buildings and boarded-up shop fronts are bridal stores, bead emporiums and bordellos.

The Annandale Hotel is a hold-out of Parramatta Road’s thriving past. A man I spoke to who only goes by Fish has been a regular at the Annandale for longer than anyone else at the pub could remember. He still describes it as “the centre of the universe.” The legendary live music venue played host to the likes of Jimmy Barnes, The Dandy Warhols and Jet in its heyday, and despite having gone into receivership twice over the past decade, it remains one of the only places on Parra Road that still showcases live music on a regular basis. Now owned by hospitality chain Oscar’s Hotels, which also owns the Empire Hotel, the Camperdown Hotel and the Petersham Inn, the Annandale has certainly fared better in retaining its heritage than its sister venues along the strip, which have been reduced to dingy pokie dens and strip joints. This comes on the back of a gradual disintegration of music venues’ rights to operate as council interventions; noise complaints and fire regulations have caused a widespread decline in the viability of live music venues around Sydney.

Fortunately, music venues in the Inner West have a willing ally in the form of their mayor, Darcy Byrne. He introduced the Good Neighbour Policy that “requires all noise and amenity complaints about pubs, clubs and small bars to be mediated before costly compliance action is initiated,” as a measure to prevent live music venues getting shuttered in response to the Annandale Hotel’s 2013 collapse. This policy, along with the NSW government’s removal of lockout laws and newfound appetite to foster live music, is encouraging for venues like the Annandale, even though Parramatta Road is a long way from the bustling incubator of arts and culture that advocates want it to be.

In 2013, the former Leichhardt Council, along with other organisations with an interest in the area, conducted a report into the viability of developing Parramatta Road around Camperdown, Annandale and Leichhardt into a live music and cultural precinct. It called for promoting the viability of cultural venues such as small bars, music venues and artist studios and galleries, and improving public domain to “complement increased pedestrian traffic” and “improve access and safety for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.”

Shop owners such as Phil Thomson of The Vintage Record in Annandale were consulted for the report but have seen no increase in pedestrians walking past their shopfronts. “You don’t get foot traffic out here, man,” he tells me as we sit in his empty record store at around lunchtime on a Friday. “This is basically a destination area for people. You need to have a specialty shop and good quality service and good quality products that will encourage people to drive here.”

Mr Thomson has managed to stay alive through a niche but dedicated cohort of regulars, but many of the music shops, bars and record stores around him have shuttered in the 16 years he’s been on Parramatta Road. “Jackson’s Rare Guitars was two doors up from us, Gallin’s Guitars was next to that, the Base Player was next to me here, the shop after that was a Sydney Guitar Setups, so we were basically surrounded by music stores. Slowly but surely they’ve all just disappeared.”

The State Government has also had its turn at drawing up a plan to reinvigorate Parramatta Road. The Parramatta Road Urban Transformation Strategy, released in 2016 under the guise of the now-defunct UrbanGrowth NSW, also details improvements to be made to public domain amenities such as bike paths, pedestrian walkways, seating and parks. The $198 million government has set aside for it will supplement opening up to developers 8 precincts along the road from Camperdown to Granville, which will see an additional 60,000 apartments by 2050. The strategy has also set an affordable housing target of 5%, well below Inner West Council’s target of 15% that they have set for the area.

According to NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker, the strategy doesn’t address the core root of the problem – inadequate public transport that has left Parramatta Road a “transport sewer.” He says that Parramatta Road has been “killed by shopping centres and the focus on using it as a thoroughfare,” and by years of policy that has “maximised the volume of traffic on the road.”

Parramatta Road is already fatally clogged up with cars, with the only public transport being the slow and unreliable bus service. Adding another 60,000 new apartments over the next 30 years without improving public transport infrastructure will only further increase the congestion on the roads. WestConnex may reduce some heavy vehicle traffic on Parramatta Road, but the induced demand created by the motorway will still result in clogging up bottlenecks that feed Parramatta Road and cars using it as a rat run to avoid the tolls.

The NSW government announced last Friday that it would be selling off its remaining 49% stake in WestConnex to help extend its $97.3 billion infrastructure program, most likely to fund the currently unfunded Western Harbour tunnel and Northern Beaches link motorway. While WestConnex is a fundamental part of the government’s strategy for revitalising Parramatta Road, it’s dismaying to see new toll roads once again being prioritised over public transport infrastructure and further adding to the inequality inherent in Sydney’s transport network. Sydney already has the world’s most extensive and expensive toll road network, with some commuters from Sydney’s outermost – and generally less affluent – suburbs straddled with upwards of $35 per day in tolls.

While the government has promised greater public transport spending alongside building new roads, they have seemingly gone back on their commitments to improve public transport on Parramatta Road. Planning condition B34 of the WestConnex approval stated that “at least two lanes of Parramatta Road, from Burwood Road to Haberfield, are to be solely dedicated for the use of public transport unless an alternative dedicated public transport route that provides an improved public transport outcome for the area, when compared to two dedicated public transport lanes on Parramatta Road, is approved.” In 2016, Transport for NSW developed planning documents for a Parramatta Road light rail line, extending from the CBD to Burwood, before scrapping them without allowing for government consideration. Current Leader of the Opposition and then Labor transport spokesperson Jodi McKay said in 2019, “They were required to have some form of public transport in place when the M4 East tunnel opens, and if that is not the case then they are clearly in breach of the consent conditions.” The Department of Planning and Environment themselves have maintained that “the condition does not specify a timeframe.”

As the government waits for WestConnex to be completed, their inaction on improving public transport on Parramatta Road will only further hurt the struggling businesses that remain. While buses are an important component in a public transport system, they are best when making up the capillaries of a city’s transit flow, not a major feeder road like Parramatta Road. Whilst buses are slower, have a lower  capacity and are more susceptible to traffic than rail, their advantage is in their lower implementation cost and increased flexibility, meaning more routes and greater coverage. But this is incumbent on having a reliable, high capacity arterial system to feed the capillaries. For high density areas where you also want to encourage foot-traffic, street-level light rail that doesn’t require travelling down stairs or escalators is ideal.

One proponent of the Parramatta Road light rail line is Colin Schroeder, Co-convener of Ecotransit Sydney, a public transport advocacy group that has been speaking out against the government’s transport strategy for years. “The government has dismissed the Parramatta Road light rail even though we’ve been proposing it for over ten years,” he said. Ecotransit has listed the light rail as a priority project and estimated that it could remove tens of thousands of vehicle movements per day from the road, with the 7,500 per hour carrying capacity of tram lanes dwarfing that of a general traffic lane at 2,000 per hour. Such a development would be a godsend for businesses along Parramatta Road, who have seen foot traffic dwindle to near non-existent levels, driven away by the hostile landscape and its constant flow of heavy vehicles.

Source: EcoTransit

According to Mr Schroeder, the neglect of Parramatta Road is just one instance of a deeper trend in the state government’s approach to public transport. “The transport projects this government has introduced are mainly development driven, not transport driven,” he said. “And it’s not just this government, it’s been previous Labor governments as well.”

Effectively, the way public transport projects are selected in NSW comes down to how profitable they are for developers. Governments are no longer willing to acquire debt to construct large infrastructure projects, especially for public goods such as public transport. Public goods, in this neo-liberal political climate, effectively do not exist. Instead of developing the North West Rail Link as a heavy rail line as it was originally planned to be, and refusing the Gillard government’s offer to fund 80% of a proposed Parramatta to Chatswood line, Hong Kong-based development firm MTR Corporation were contracted to build and operate a metro line in a similar model as the MTR Corp has constructed elsewhere in the world.

The model of MTR Corp is something we are likely going to become accustomed to over the coming years. According to Mr Schroeder, “it gives Sydney Metro corporation rights to develop all the property along their transport routes, rights to develop properties over their stabling yards and around stations… It’s set up for privatisation, and if it is privatised MTR Corporation will come in and complete the metro and have the property development rights along the route.”

The North West Rail Link’s conversion into a metro line has no clear justification. Metro lines are ideal for servicing high density areas and closely spaced stations. The carriages have longitudinal seating to allow easy access for large quantities of passengers and riders with disabilities, but this comes with less seating capacity. This means they are better for hop-on-hop-off, shorter distance travel. For example, the Paris Metro has an average of 582m between stops. The Metro Northwest averages 3.5 km between stops. A metro system is ideal in the high density, short distance geography of inner-city Paris. In the sprawling, suburban northwest of Sydney, the existing double-decker heavy rail lines would provide higher capacity service and would integrate with the rest of the heavy rail network without needing for passengers to change lines, or for the government needing to acquire buildings in the CBD. The decision only makes sense if you consider the government’s plans to privatise the public transport system. 

Effectively, the Urban Transformation Strategy as it stands, without a light rail down Parramatta Road, is akin to applying a band-aid over a septic, dilapidated, graffiti-ridden wound. Inner West Council and Jamie Parker have both endorsed centre-running light rail or Autonomous Rail Transit, which would have the benefit over curbside rail in that it allows for on-street parking, creating a traffic barrier for pedestrians. Autonomous Rail Transit (ART), also known as Guided Electric Transit, essentially refers to electrically powered trams with rubber wheels instead of tracks that are guided along a dedicated lane by a similar technology to that in self-driving cars. Advocates claim ride quality and capacity matches traditional light rail without the disruption or cost of installing light rail tracks. By all accounts, initial performances of ART in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou have been successful. Trackless trams are predicted to cost around $6-$8 million per kilometre to install, compared to the $240 million per kilometre cost of installing the CBD light rail.

Mr Schroeder maintains the relative value of tracked light rail over the trackless variety, “if you’re going to invest in public transport you should be investing in the best infrastructure at the most reasonable cost. You want to get the best result for the long term.” He contends that the costs of installing ART infrastructure are still substantial, and the energy efficiency and operating costs are higher than light rail as steel on steel of rails is more efficient than rubber on bitumen.

Given the state government’s reluctance to invest in public transport and their failures to deliver light rail projects on time and under budget, ART might be the best option to ensure Parramatta Road doesn’t end up missing out on the vital infrastructure that it desperately needs. With businesses continuing to struggle and investors further turning away, it’s essential that the government doesn’t abandon its responsibilities under the WestConnex agreement. They must either commit to funding one of these options or face the permanent death of a once thriving high street.

Until then, Parramatta Road will remain solely inhabited by specialty stores and vacant shop fronts waiting to be leased. As to the question of why so many bead and bridal shops? Well, perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.