The central role of Government is the most obvious and defining characteristic of the engineering and construction industry in Australia. Our public sector is primarily responsible for creating the market for constructing and maintaining the roads, railways, airports and other essential services that serve the needs of the population.

Federal, State and Local Governments are intimately involved in creating policies and adjusting policy settings, administering regulations and standards, procuring and managing service providers and – far less frequently in this current era of Government outsourcing – self-delivering works.

Key then to predicting future trends in the transport-related elements of engineering & construction in Australia, is gauging Governments’ evolving responses to the challenges of creating Westernised living conditions in our country with its vast semi-arid centre.

The outcome to date is our current lived experience: highly urbanised capital cities on Australia’s seaboard, with considerable travel times between them.

Three key challenges present themselves for Government planners:

  • Urban congestion arising from population growth;
  • Urban sprawl as a response to congestion; and
  • Capital city / regional centres connectivity.

Rail, road and more recently air as complementary and (more often than necessary) competing modes of transport have been shaped by Government to solve or at least alleviate these challenges – subject to funding constraints either real or perceived.

Further exploration requires a brief delve into our history post-World War II.

The baby Boom driving the housing Boom

More than four million Australians were born after the 2nd World War in the “baby boomer” era between 1946 and 1964. Whole new suburbs were built to accommodate these new families and Australia’s major cities quickly expanded. Building was accomplished with the assistance of an influx of over one million mostly European skilled migrants who further boosted the population.

Cars and the Australian suburb

In the early 1950s, cars were too expensive for many families. At approximately $2000 the most popular-selling Holden car cost the equivalent of two thirds of the average annual family income. Accordingly, most people used public transport to travel between home and work.

The introduction of hire purchase and the rising number of second-hand cars on the market, put cars within the financial reach of many households. Increased car ownership changed the location of Australian suburbs, with families now able to build their homes away from rail and tram links. Urban sprawl had begun, as the suburbs of Australian cities spread outward.

Public Trams make way for Cars

By the early 20th century, Suburban trains provided the bulk of the public transport heavy lifting in metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne, with the trains systems in the other States more geared to enabling regional freight connectivity. Surface trip capacity was supplemented by Trams networks.

Whilst the original Melbourne and Adelaide Trams networks are largely intact today, the same cannot be said for the Sydney and Brisbane systems which were casualties of increasing competition from private motor vehicles.

By the late 1940s, Sydney’s tram system carried 400 million passenger journeys annually on a network of more than 250km. However, the explosion of car traffic in the post-war years persuaded the NSW Government of the day that urban freeways were the way of the future, with trams an impediment to that vision. Demolition of the tram network commenced in 1958, with removal of the Fort Macquarie depot at Circular Quay to make way for the Opera House and the tearing up of lines along George Street.

The peak year for tram patronage in Brisbane was in 1944–45 when almost 160 million passengers were carried. Decline in usage due to increasing competition with motor vehicles, ultimately resulted in the last tram running from Balmoral to Ascot on April 13, 1969. A “Brisbane Transportation Study” recommending the replacement of all trams and trolley buses with diesel units, was used as justification for Brisbane City to stop trams despite outrage from residents.

The rise of Motorways

Australia’s major Capital cities today are dominated by urban motorways. This is largely due to the inclinations of the respective long-term urban transport plans commissioned in response to the challenges of urban congestion.

The 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan (although badged a road and rail transport plan) was actually about an extensive freeway network, much of which has since been built. More recent outer suburban freeway projects – under new branding – were built by subsequent governments including CityLink (by the Kennett government in the 1990s), EastLink (by the Bracks government in the 2000s) and Peninsula Link (by the Napthine government in the 2010s).

Sydney’s current 110 km Orbital roads network – only now being finalised – was formally conceptualised in 1962 as the “County of Cumberland Scheme”. Recently built additions include the NorthConnex access to the Pacific Highway and the various WestConnex elements including in-progress Sydney Airport Gateway access and CBD connections from Rozelle via the Anzac Bridge.

Prior to the 1960s Queensland Main Roads were focused on rural roads. In 1965, the State Government and Brisbane City Council jointly commissioned Wilbur Smith plan proposed a “ring-radial” freeway system for Brisbane. A 1981 check of Smith’s underlying population growth predictions revealed that urbanisation had expanded well past the boundaries of Brisbane and out into the surrounding local authorities. Consequently, whilst the Eastern outer circumferential (the Gateway Motorway) and the South-East radial freeway elements of the Wilbur Smith plan were built, more recent freeways and tunnels (including Clem Jones Tunnel and Airport Link) only loosely resemble the original plan.

In 1955 Gordon Stephenson, Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool (UK) and J.A. Hepburn, the Town Planning Commissioner, released their Plan for the Perth and Fremantle Metropolitan Region. The Stephenson plan proposed a road network to cope with a projected 400% traffic increase and recommended the construction of eight new highways with a total length of approximately 130 km. The Narrows Bridge – was opened in 1959 – was a key element, crossing the Swan River to connect the Perth CBD to South Perth and areas beyond.

The 1990s – Urban sprawl

The “great Australian dream” of owning a house in the suburbs continued to drive urban sprawl throughout the 1990s, as hundreds of thousands of new homes were built at the edge of Australia’s major cities. The proportion of people living in or in close proximity to Australian capital cities had increased from 40 percent in 1910, to 65 percent in 1999.

Urban sprawl and Congestion solutions

Urban sprawl is not unique to Australia – it has long posed a problem to every country in the developed world.

The typical Government response to this challenge involves a mix of the following:

  • More fuel efficient ‘green’ public transport systems;
  • Better walking and cycling facilities;
  • More affordable housing close to transport and employment;
  • Urban consolidation, which involves rebuilding and reinvigorating inner city areas; and
  • Developments that use space more efficiently.

The approach in Australia to urban sprawl and congestion management appears to remain largely as it has been for decades: anchored in capital investment in hard infrastructure to manage the effects of an ever-increasing number of motor vehicles on roads.

In fairness to those involved in transport planning, there seems to be a much more developed sense of roads and rail as complementary – rather than competing – modes of transport. Consider more recent examples of urban rail investments including Sydney Metro in NSW (curiously a separate rail system to the heavy rail network that has served greater Sydney for over a century), the “back to the future” Sydney Light Rail CBD extension, the Melbourne Metro augmentation of the City Underground Loop, Cross River Rail and the Metro in Brisbane and the continued works on Perth’s Urban Rail network.

It’s hard though, when reflecting on where we’re at, to get away from the idea that much of what’s actually constructed at this time remains largely reactive to ever increasing urban traffic demand.

For instance, we do seem a bit short on “new” ideas regarding how best to support Regional development by alleviating capital city / regional centre connectivity challenges. Of specific relevance here is the concept of high-speed rail, which remains the subject of seemingly endless studies. Of less apparent interest are the adjustments to Government funding / cost recovery policy settings that will be required to enable high speed rail to effectively compete with road and aviation alternatives.

There seems to be even less interest lately in the debate regarding the implications of electric, driverless vehicles and the consequent impacts on traffic demand and built infrastructure.

Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of what real disruption to travel demand looks and feels like on our roads and public transport systems.

Is this what our future might look like?


Source material from the following documents was used in compiling this article:

(1) “History of Brisbane’s Major Arterial Roads – A Main Roads Perspective”, Allan Krosch

(2) “History of Western Australia’s Highways and Main Roads WA – the organisation that built them”

(3) “Learning from the Past – a history of Infrastructure Planning in Victoria” February 2016