"Motorised Mayhem - Remaking Sydney's streets for the
Dr Lisa Murray, City Historian, spoke to COSHA about the impact of the motor car on the shape, life and culture of Sydney's streets. This was COSHA’s National Trust Festival Event. An excerpt:
The appearance of motorised vehicles on Sydney’s streets in the twentieth century was gradual, but by the 1920s its impact was significant. Not only were motorised vehicles increasingly visible, their presence changed the life and culture of Sydney’s streets. Statistics for motor vehicle registrations in NSW show that there was a moderate uptake between 1911 and 1920. In the five years between 1921 and 1926 the number of cars almost quadrupled, 28,665 to 104,675. The first 3 motor cabs were licensed in 1904. By 1929, 1364 motor cabs were operating in Sydney, whereas in the same year only 75 horse cabs were registered. The number of vans and lorries on the streets increased eight-fold – from 3,900 in 1921 to 24,709 in 1926. The number of horse vans, after peaking at 1615 in 1914, fell to just 182 in 1929. i But roads didn’t simply have to be re-surfaced to accommodate the new vehicles. Impediments to the fast movement of motorised transport – narrow streets, tight kerbs and corners, horse-drawn vehicles, barrowmen, parked carts and cars – all had to be removed. Sydney’s narrow steep streets had to be extended, re-aligned, regraded and widened. The question of road control was a complex one. The city council owned and built the roads, but it did not have any say over the
control of traffic. That was the responsibility of the Police Department, who viewed it as principally t he free flow of motor traffic. But what happened kerbside, on the footpaths, was the domain of the council. They issued licenses for barrowmen and also the new petrol pumps that began to spring up alongside the roads; all “impediments” to the free flow of traffic. A tug-o-war between the police and the council for control of the city’s streets developed. Motorised vehicles impacted upon the social life of the street. The council’s blockboys, who darted in amongst the traffic shovelling away the horse manure, needed to be increasingly nimble. Their job was soon to become redundant. The kerbside hawkers and tradesmen were also threatened. The class and gendered dimensions of car ownership and road dominance cannot be ignored. It was the working class, the poor, the disabled that were pushed from the streets by the cars driven by rich men. The barrowmen selling fruit and flowers, the bootblacks, and the bookie were pushed aside to make way for the car. and the bootblacks – employees of the 19th century walking city - were replaced by a new industry to service the car, the petrol pumps and car minders which then led to service stations and parking stations. The first privately operated parking stations appeared in the 1930s.
After World War II the city council built multistory car parks, with the first being opened in Kent Street in 1956. Despite the hopes of the Police Commissioner, on-street parking never disappeared. By the 1930s the culture and life of Sydney’s streets had been changed forever. The modern city, with all its traffic chaos, had arrived.