Traffic-free weekends at Centennial Park have revived the “People’s Park” its founder envisioned

“It is emphatically the People’s Park… one of the grandest adornments of this beautiful country.”

Sir Henry Parkes, 26 January 1888

To assist with physical distancing during COVID-19, Sydney’s Centennial Park has been trialling traffic-free days every weekend since Easter. The initiative has been hugely popular with visitors – and a resounding public health success.

People and families have flocked to the park for much-needed physical activity – walking, jogging, skating and cycling. The absence of traffic and parked cars has created space for visitors to physically distance from each other. They no longer have to inhale exhaust fumes, which are particularly harmful to people exercising and breathing hard. Parents can let their children roam free without worrying about them being crushed by two-tonne SUVs.

“Daddy, I love it here without the scary, smelly traffic.” (Image: Author)
It was meant to be the people’s park, not a car park

You might wonder why motor vehicle traffic and parking were ever allowed inside a park. Centennial Park was founded in 1888 by the then NSW Premier, Sir Henry Parkes – decades before motor vehicles arrived in Australia. Initially, tracks inside the park were shared by walkers, horses, carriages and bicycles.

But from the early 1900s, the volume of motor vehicle traffic crept up gradually, such that no one really noticed – like the proverbial frog being slowly boiled alive. Eventually, traffic queues, rat-running, speeding, engine noise, unsightly vehicle clutter and exhaust fumes became established features – though surely not ones that Parkes envisioned for his “People’s Park” where Sydneysiders could “take the air”.

Centennial Park was traffic-free when it opened in 1888 (Image: State Library of NSW)

In 1992, the park’s managing authority, Centennial Parklands Trust, did introduce four traffic-free days per year. Despite being very popular, the Trust scrapped these in 2012 – reportedly because they caused traffic chaos in surrounding neighbourhoods.

But traffic disruption often occurs immediately after changes to roadway access or capacity – largely because drivers aren’t aware of them. Given time, drivers adjust their travel choices to the new conditions, and traffic returns to a stable state.

The former traffic-free days were too infrequent for drivers to adjust to them. But if every weekend were traffic-free, they would increasingly choose alternative places to park or other modes of transport, resulting in less weekend traffic in surrounding neighbourhoods than before.

But how are people living in the outer suburbs meant to get there?

Pro-traffic advocates naturally oppose traffic-free days, labelling them “elitist” and complaining that they make the park inaccessible for suburban residents. Yet, people can’t drive or park in the Botanic Gardens, on beaches, or in most other recreational outdoor spaces in Sydney – on any day of the week. Are they elitist too? Furthermore, Centennial Park is well-served by public transport from most parts of Greater Sydney. And the adjacent Entertainment Quarter has 2,000 parking spaces.

The Centennial Park trial has clearly demonstrated how removing traffic from public spaces – even temporarily – can reactivate them and restore opportunities for healthy, active lifestyles and independent children’s play. But all Sydney households should have such opportunities on their doorstep – not just the Eastern Sydney ones fortunate to live near Centennial Park.

As the COVID-19 lockdown is eased, we will need safer and wider paths to accommodate those people who wish to walk or cycle to places instead risking infection on public transport – there simply is not enough space for everyone to drive and park everywhere. And for the ongoing health, well-being and safety of all Sydneysiders, we need more traffic-free public spaces throughout the metropolitan area.

The NSW Government’s recent announcement that it will fund councils to widen footpaths, lower traffic speeds and open streets for people to exercise is a welcome start. But for real progress, we all need to go back to thinking of our local streets and public spaces as places for people and play – not purely as traffic pipes and car parks.

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