In the modern metropolis, the car is rapidly going out of fashion. As the world’s busiest cities continue to grow, the sheer volume of cars moving through highly populated urban areas can spiral out of control, with knock-on effects for local economies, public health and the environment.

"Local bus schedules and routes will be changed to maximise the benefits of light rail."

In the last ten years, governments and city planners have been paying more attention to the problems caused by road traffic congestion.

Studies repeatedly confirm the risks of urban traffic congestion, and high-profile incidents such as Beijing’s 12-day traffic jam in August 2010 serve as both an embarrassment for city officials and further proof that saturated roads are holding back 21st century cities with 20th century problems.

Alongside measures like congestion charging, pedestrianised zones and cycle lanes, forward-thinking transport policymakers are increasingly turning to trams and other light rail options to persuade commuters to get out of their cars and on to cleaner, safer public transport.

Sydney’s light rail extension

Sydney, Australia’s most populous city and home to more than 4.6 million people in its greater metropolitan area, is no stranger to clogged roads. The city recently ranked seventh in satnav company TomTom’s list of the most congested urban areas in the Western world, just behind the famously deadlock-prone Los Angeles.

"The NSW Government is investing heavily in expanding rail infrastructure in Sydney."

To combat this, the New South Wales (NSW) Government is investing heavily in expanding rail infrastructure in Sydney and the surrounding area. The government’s recently-announced 2013-14 budget allocated around A$1.1bn for the continuing development of the North West Rail Link and South West Rail Link, and A$899m for the delivery of more Waratah trains, for use on the city’s commuter rail network.

The city is also continuing its rollout of the Opal Card contactless smartcard ticketing system to unify public transport ticketing and catch up with the world’s most advanced urban transit systems.

But in terms of combating inner city traffic congestion, light rail is perhaps playing the most important role in Sydney’s public transport plan. The city’s current seven kilometre light rail line is already in the process of being extended, with the 5.6km Inner West Light Rail Extension project, which is due to be finished in 2014. NSW’s 2013-14 budget is pumping a further A$67m into the project to see it through to completion.

At the end of 2012, the NSW Government announced another light rail extension project, this time spanning 12km from Circular Quay near Sydney Opera House to Kingsford and Randwick in the city’s south-east, via the city’s bustling central business district (CBD) on George Street.

Although the project, called the CBD and South East light rail, is in its earliest stages, with detailed design and analysis just beginning and construction not expected to begin until 2014, when complete it will effectively double the length of Sydney’s light rail system and make it a serious presence in the heart of the city.

In the introduction to Sydney’s light rail masterplan, NSW Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian makes it clear that integrated light rail is at the core of congestion reduction efforts in the city.

"Congestion is costing our economy around $5.1bn each year," she writes. "[Light rail] is the NSW Government’s plan to address these problems. The NSW Government will deliver a new, fully integrated light rail route from Circular Quay to Kingsford and Randwick, via George Street in the CBD. This project will transform our city – introducing high frequency, reliable services and driving economic development."

The benefits of integrated light rail

A key element of successful light rail implementation is integration with other transport options; this is a particular emphasis for Sydney’s new light rail project. The CBD and South East extension will coincide with a complete redesign of the city centre’s bus network.

"When complete, the project will effectively double the length of Sydney’s light rail system."

Local bus schedules and routes will be changed to maximise the benefits of light rail, including earlier bus termination points for interchange with light rail vehicles (LRVs). The intention is to reduce the number of buses passing through the CBD – the plan aims to take around 220 buses out of the city centre during peak hours.

The higher capacity of LRVs will be leveraged to make up for the loss of central bus capacity, with 30 LRVs moving 9,000 people per hour through the CBD, which would traditionally require the equivalent of 150 standard buses.

Heavy rail and light rail will also be more closely connected in the city centre, with Sydney’s plan calling for a reconfiguration of the Central transport hub to allow quicker transitions for passengers. This will be combined with segregated light rail lanes along the busiest sections of George Street to keep LRVs separate from cars, along with liberal pedestrianisation to improve safety and aesthetics for pedestrians.

Other key benefits highlighted by the government include reduced journey times through the CBD, a much-improved reliability rate over buses and a high-capacity transit system to transport residents to and from major events at the Moore Park entertainment quarter.

If the new light rail route’s planning and execution proceeds according to plan, it has the potentially to truly transform Sydney’s busiest and most congested zones, helping curb the economic and environmental damage done by endless traffic jams. If Sydney had previously dipped its toe into the urban light rail revolution, with this new project the government can now honestly claim that it is diving right in.

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