Sydney: BRT tunnel and trams

December 17, 2012

Sydney is confronted to bus congestion in its Core Business District (CBD):

6,000 bus enter into the Sydney CBD per day, 1000 during the peak hour. Too many bus routes lead to a poorly legible network

Beside a poorly legible network (Sydney has 850 bus routes) [7], the great number of bus routes is also a source of inefficiency : thought that the offering bus-seat capacity could be great, the practical one could be much less on a given corridor (over-supply on some bus routes is not compensating under supply on others)

The European solution

It is a problem many European cities are facing, and in Europe, it is in general the impetuous to switch to LRT – the rational is simple:

  • A modern Tram replaces 5 buses
  • Associated network consolidation allows a better adjustment of the offer to the demand, as well as a better legibility of it
  • A Tram, being electric powered, generate less noise, and pollution

Hence trams improves the livability of the city. Generally, European modern trams are not justified by speed or urban development opportunities, which are very limited in mature cities but mainly by ridership. They operates on trunk lines fed by bus routes:

  • Passengers have to transfer

The fact that the transfer from bus to tram, is not compensated by a time gain (like it could be from bus to subway) is one of the main drawback of such an approach. Providing a superior service and experience is a way to compensate for the disagreement. The European solution in Sydney’s CBD could be the vision proposed by Gehl Architects [2]:

Pedestrian George Street with LRT, in a typically European arrangement.

Pedestrian George Street with LRT, in a typically European arrangement – credit picture (2)

The Australian approach

Australia is land of the finest BRTs. Tunnel a BRT is a solution, natural enough in Sydney, to be considered, in despite of its price tag; $2 Billions, for a ~2 km tunnel. The rational is simple:

  • A BRT can avoid a transfer

The debate

BRT vs LRT, the context of the debate - Left: Bus volumes entering the Sydney City Centre during the two hour morning peak - Right: proposed BRT and LRT alignment and cost. The full LRT is 12 km long with implementation cost estimated at $1.6B

You could expect the government agencies, ministries and other actors to debate on facts, and not on opinions to lobby one system over another:

reading the different reports [3][4][5] will prove you wrong.

Below is how the debate has occurred between two New South Wales (NSW) government outlets, Transport NSW, favoring the LRT, and Infrastructure NSW (InNSW), an “independent agency”, supposed to not base recommendation on politic allegiance, favoring the BRT:

InNSW estimates the current demand at 9000 pphpd in the corridor [5]. The different system are assumed as below by the different actors:

System InNSW [5] Transport NSW [3] Certu [6]
BRT Capacity 20,000 3,500
LRT Capacity [9] 9,000 12,000 6,000
LRT Frequency 2mn 2mn 3mn

The numbers provided by Certu (a French agency), are for reference. They are considering optimal surface operation conditions (signal preemption possible, perfect interval maintained) signaling the typical area of relevance for a given technology. Thought the numbers advanced by the Australian authorities are theoretically possible, they most probably supposes a compromise on the level of service:

High capacity BRT, like the one pictured in Brisbane come at a  cost

High capacity BRT, like the one pictured in Brisbane come at a cost – credit photo (1)

The InNSW report contains lot of fear mongering on LRTs, but what is noticeable in the case of the both approaches, is that none quantifies travel time, neither expected operating cost, not even speaking of a cost/benefit ratio.

More importantly, beside removing bus of the surface, the BRT tunnel tries to address a problem different from the LRT: the former addresses regional access-and so doing tend to largely duplicate an existing rail corridor- while the later addresses the more local access into the CBD. One will find some more detail, especially question about the BRT approach in [8]

The urban approach: George Street

As suggested before, the tram choice over a tunnel BRT is not only a transportation choice, it is an urbanistic one too: George street is a 2.5km long street, it is the major Sydney spine. Jan Gehl compares its potential to the one mile long Barcelona’s las Ramblas [2]:

  • Both are bounded, by the sea on one side, and by a major commuter railway station on the other
  • Both are of similar with, 22 to 30m for George street

The Cost of the different approaches for George street:

BRT Tunnel [5] Surface LRT [3]
$2B $500M

InNSW suggested that George street -20 to 30m width- is not wide enough to accommodate both a tram and pedestrians, and explains that segregation of transport and pedestrian activities, or aggressive pedestrianization, is a better objective [5] (There is very few street of this wide successfully fully pedestrianized [10]). the Bus BRT is considered as a rapid transit with 2 underground stations [5].

George Street cross-section – as proposed by Gehl architects – credit (2)

Jan Gehl touted the concept of overlap use, with trams sharing the urban space with pedestrians, supporting thriving activities on the rather wide George street, and the neighboring alleys and lanes. In fact Transport for NSW states in [3]:


International experience indicates that the pedestrianization of George street without activation by light rail could reduce safety and accessibility, leading to a decline in retail activity.

The surface tram option is envisioned with a stop every 350m, so the tram is considered as a people mover. Evolving in a shared space, its average speed will not be much better than 10km/h on George street – Rest of the alignment is in a more “suburban” environment, so average speed outside the CBD should be more competitive with existing option

Some questions

At the end the LRT has been chosen over the BRT. Nevertheless, considering the expected passenger volume, one could still question this choice:

Shared spaces work well when traffic is light :

  • Crossing the street is unimpeded by traffic (that is one advantage of fewer trains over more buses)

In the George street case, the demand suggests a train every mn, so starting to create a “wall” of trains:

Too heavy LRT traffic can compromise the "sharing space" concept

Too heavy LRT traffic can compromise the “sharing space” concept

But what could be of more concern, is that the system could be under-sized. The considered 9,000 pphpd requirement suggests that the debate should not have been a BRT versus trams one, but eventually trams versus a heavier rail mode, including a grade separated LRT – that is the Ottawa direction – or extension of the Sydney Cityrail (a S-bahn or RER equivalent). The later is fortunately on the menu [7], and hopefully will go in a direction to reduce the pressure on the tram.

Lessons for Vancouver.

Th Sydney LRT choice has generated some interest in Vancouver here and there : The Sydney choice is done to address problems very different of the ones faced either by Vancouver or Surrey. Still, the underlying motivation, for the heavy transit investment, is mainly to address existing demand. It also shows you are better to understand what objective you are trying to pursue, before embarking into a technology debate, which can lead on exaggerated and misleading claims.

If there is one lesson to be directly learned for Vancouver, it is the idea that [3]:


separating pedestrians and transport is contrary to good planning practice and international experience, which shows transport and pedestrians should be integrated to support thriving cities

Transit at  Sydney Town Hall

Transit at Sydney Town Hall

Integrating transit into pedestrian oriented streets, is also the only way to have an extensive and still successful pedestrian friendly street network. In other word, let transit work, is the first and probably most important step toward bold pedestrianization scheme: An important lesson we could learn more especially fromWellington, NZ.


All $ figure in Asutralian $


[1] flickr user SHOROC

[2] George street Urban design study, Gehl Architects for City of Sydney, January 2012

[3] Sydney Light rail’s future, Transport for NSW, December 2012

[4] Metro Transport Sydney’s position on LRT

[5] First things first, Infra NSW, October 2012.

[6] Tramway et Bus à Haut Niveau de Service (BHNS) en France : domaines de pertinence en zone urbaine from Transport/Environnement/Circulation (TEC) n° 203, September 209.

[7] Transportation Master Plan, Transport for NSW, December 2012

[8] transportsydney.wordpress.com blog.

[9] That is considering a 45m long train. Fine grained Sydney downtown grid doesn’t allow for much longer trains on George street without hindering access to lateral streets

[10] New York City’s Broadway at ~80 feet wide is one example, but the pedestrianized block around Times Square see a traffic of 350,000 pedestrians/day – a uncommonly high volume.