Frustration is all too common to students just getting acquainted with the labyrinthine ways of Sydney’s streets and public transport, but for students coming from walkable cities, the source of confusion lies deeper than just unfamiliar neighborhoods.
Walkability is the idea that urban environments should be designed to allow users of the space to walk from place to place with little resistance from the architecture and design of the space. More broadly, the concept includes the effect of walkability on the users. This includes but is not limited to greater opportunities for community building within neighborhoods, greater individual agency, and improved access to sustainable transport options. In essence, increased walkability makes it systematically cheaper and more sustainable for individuals to travel through our urban cityscapes.
Back home in Singapore, the positive effects of its intentional city structure are keenly felt in the day to day of the average commuter. True blue Singaporeans look to the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system with a sort of fondness and pride, as it is one of the key pieces of infrastructure that they know they can rely on. While Singapore is not perfect, and has its urban design faults just as any city, adjusting to Sydney’s transport systems involves confusion and no small amount of frustration. Put simply; what’s up with Sydney’s city layout?
To answer this question, it takes a little bit of context. In Singapore, although it’s a small island city-state compared to Sydney, if you want to go from A to B using the train (or otherwise known as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system) you can usually find one to two different train stops in the vicinity of your destination. If not that, then a direct bus or a mix of a bus and a train. The diversity of train line directions and the intuitive intersections between the buses and trains and the Light Rail Transit (LRT) in the outer sections of the city make for a pretty comprehensive transport network, even if one transport system isn’t available. There are pedestrian friendly streets and architectural accommodations throughout the country to ensure walking isn’t just available but very accessible within the architecture design itself. Add on very regular trains for each train line that are quite reliably on time, and you’ve got yourself a city full of people that can functionally rely on the city design and infrastructure for their regular commute. In short, Singapore is very walkable.
That’s not to say Sydney’s public transport and infrastructure isn’t functional. Once you learn its mysterious ways, with some healthy commute planning, it can work well for the average commuter. Sydney’s infrastructure especially shines with its navigation of transport across the Parramatta River, which provides a sizable challenge to mass transport across the different halves of the Sydney central business district. Sydney also does well in providing intuitive and available night bus services to a wide range of different places where Singapore does not. However, the point must be raised about the ways in which the city planning and design rises to accommodate the well-worn paths that commuters take to get where they need to be. Urban planning is not just considering where buildings, institutions and businesses can fit within the larger cityscape, but rather an intuitive look into the ways in which the placement and design of urban landscapes affects and shapes the lives of the individuals who use them.
With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see that Sydney was quite simply not designed for pedestrians. You can feel this tangibly every time you walk on sidewalks next to 4 lane highways, looking for a place to cross the road or turn off to a smaller street to get to where you’re going.Further, you’ve never known pain until you pull up Google Maps to find the best public transport route to where you want to go, only to find that it’s a thirty-minute trek to the specific bus stop with a bus that goes there. All the while knowing that some intuitive design on the part of the city planners would have saved you the time you then wasted making that trek.
Sydney is what is known as ‘car-centric,’ or essentially; designed and planned with the use of cars in mind as the primary form of transportation. The public transport in Sydney often seems like an afterthought to driving a car within the urban infrastructure, especially to students like myself who hail from walkable cities. It’s not difficult to see why, given that streets in Sydney don’t connect to each other intuitively, and sidewalks and regularly spaced pedestrian crossings are harder to come by the further you are from the central business district. The train stations are also generally farther from locations with the highest foot traffic, instead relying on bus connections to connect commuters to where they want to go. It’s clear that the public transport system was built around cars being the priority since no matter what you do, eventually you’ll have to take a bus to get somewhere by foot.
The problem eventually boils down to population density. In Singapore, the connections between the public transport and the pedestrian accessibility of its streets ultimately comes down to a need to save space. There’s a denser population per square inch of the island city than there is in Sydney. While the car-centrism of its major cities serves Australia as a whole in increasing the ability of individual citizens to travel between cities, towns and states without relying on pre-existing infrastructure, it doesn’t serve the people who live and work in the city. Further, there’s a definite element of income inequality in the disparity of distribution of accessible and walkable streets. This lack of walkability is despite research suggesting that greater walkability leads to more sustainable cities and healthier citizens, both in physical and mental health. (I’ll add a source here I do have one lol) All in all, if you want an urban environment that is made to support you, it starts with walkability.