Wellington Scoop

The ugliness of flyovers – Sydney shows us what not to do


by Neil Douglas
My visit to Sydney last week showed me just why Wellington should not be contemplating a flyover at the Basin Reserve.


There is no denying that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a magnificent structure that sits alongside the Opera House in symbolizing urban Sydney to the rest of the world. We in New Zealand can only admire it.


But Sydney has its ugly side too and running between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House is one such structure. It is called the Cahill Expressway. Named after NSW Premier Cahill, who proclaimed in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1957 that the expressway would continue the pattern of beauty from Australia’s front gateway.


Today, the official Information sign regrets Cahill’s structure:

“From the 1970s onwards the Expressway has become an increasingly contentious issue with numerous calls for its demolition and possibly replacement with a tunnel. With hindsight we can see that such highway structures are intrusive in urban communities”.

We in Wellington should take note of this sign and not repeat the mistake by building the Basin flyover right next to our world famous cricket ground.


Like the Cahill Expressway, the Flyover will be an intrusive structure on the urban community of Mt Victoria. It will ruin the boulevard views along Cambridge Terrace. It won’t be attractive for pedestrians and cyclists to use and underneath it you will not find the beautiful people resting in its shade who appear in the Transport Agency’s artist drawings.

No, the Brownlee Bypass as it should be named will be an ugly, graffiti and water stained concrete structure. If the Transport Agency wants to give peak hour motorists a small and questionable time saving when they travel in from the airport, then they should bury their RONS in a tunnel.


  1. Pollyanna, 29. November 2013, 9:55

    What a great example of what not to do. How about “Morrison’s Mystery” or “Foster’s Folly” alongside Brownlee’s Bypass.

  2. B Smyth, 29. November 2013, 10:18

    Yes I have been to Sydney many times and thought it was one big mistake. Wellington please take note.

  3. SydneySider007, 29. November 2013, 10:32

    It is now fashionable to bemoan the Cahill Expressway as a visual ‘Berlin Wall’ between the Quay and the City. Keating kicked off the debate in the early 1990’s. Yet the alternatives are too mindblowing to contemplate. A long spiralling road burrowing underground so the connection from the Bridge to the East is permitted. Without it traffic funnels through an already congested CBD. And a rail line with grades that would make Swiss railways weak at the knees. No, the Cahill must stay. It is needed for the function it performs. We are used to it, it has a certain dated charm about it, you can see though it, walk under it and walk and drive over it. It isn’t a barrier. The aesthetes and urban designers might not like it now but their antecedents gave it yo us.

  4. Dave B, 29. November 2013, 10:46

    The only chance of stopping this thing is to vote out its chief proponents, Key, Joyce and Brownlee, next election. They desire it with a passion, so won’t listen to any arguments or evidence against it.

  5. Neil Douglas, 29. November 2013, 11:17

    I agree with you Sydneysider007, the Expressway does perform excellently in moving cars, buses and trucks from the north to the east of Sydney and vice versa. But the sign is instructive isn’t it? Would it not have been wiser in hindsight to have ‘put it in a tunnel’? That is the point of my article – it is rare to find ‘official’ signs saying ‘we got it wrong’. Do you know of any other ones?

  6. Neil Douglas, 29. November 2013, 11:31

    I should have said that the Cahill Expressway is, like the proposed Basin Reserve Flyover, only in one direction for cars etc. Lots of people seem to either not know or forget this when considering the merits of the Basin Flyover too – you will only be able to drive on it FROM the airport.

  7. Timbers, 29. November 2013, 11:34

    The sheer physical ugliness of any Freeway Flyovers in a heritage precinct would have to be the main reason against schemes like this. Both Sydney and Brisbane realise the major planning mistakes made in those cities by constructing their waterfront Freeway Flyovers, but have not get got to the point of removing them. Some US cities have gone the full circle of constructing these flyovers and then removing them, Portland on the West Coast and one of the east coast cities – Philadelphia I think, but i could be wrong about that.

  8. Stephen Bargwanna, 29. November 2013, 12:17

    The correspondent is correct. The Sydney Cahill Expressway is a visual and functional disaster severing effective links between the CBD and the harbour. There is a simple traffic answer which has been studied and reports buried, which is to construct a short tunnel from the Harbour Bridge ramp under York Street and hook up with the under utilised East-West Cross City tunnel. Sure it costs but the realised value to the city would be akin in vision to Governor Macquarie’s town planning legacy some 200 years ago!

  9. SydneySider007, 29. November 2013, 12:39

    Mr Bargwanna typifies the urban planning elite in his aesthetic but but disingenuous observations. There is no severing of links between the Harbour and the CBD. The Cahill is permeable, visually and actually. The notion of a ‘simple’ traffic solution and a short tunnel is simply not operationally practical. To descend 30 or more metres from Wynyard to UNDER the Quay is impossibly ambitious for rail and dizzyingly impractical from the heights of the Harbour to under the rail tunnel that Mr Bargwanna would have us build as well. Build your flyover in Wellington if it is needed, it will improve the transport function of your city. To criticize it otherwise is to miss the point.

  10. David Thorp, 29. November 2013, 14:11

    Neil’s clear point is that NZ can learn from Sydney’s mistake with a decision it is yet to make. But in Sydney it is done, and hard to undo. The Cahill Expressway does not have charm but otherwise Sydneysider007 is probably right. So if we are to keep it, we should make better use of it (it currently supports relatively little traffic). The Barangaroo development is going to struggle with very poor access for taxis and other necessary vehicles, which will compound the growing CBD congestion. A short tunnel from Kent Street to the Cahill could support Barangaroo egress as well as provide a more general partial ring road to reduce west-east surface CBD traffic (given the inadequacy of the current Cross City Tunnel).

  11. Neil Douglas, 29. November 2013, 14:33

    Okay – let’s be constructive

    My solution is to do a cut and cover through the cricket pitch N-S from the wide boulevard of Cambridge Tce to the wide boulevard of Adelaide Rd (as suggested by the Victorians circa 1908?) and make it wide enough to fit a light rail in. Note. There are no grandstands in the way.

    I know NZTA will say ‘drainage drainage drainage’ but I’m sure there are some vey clever and experienced drainage engineers in Dhaka we could hire to do this bit cost-effectively.

    Why does it not happen? because NZTA only looks after State Highways and not local roads and my solution isn’t a State Highway.

  12. Artvian Guessmark, 29. November 2013, 17:27

    I agree with the Scoop Dog owner…but experience has shown that given the costs of tunnelling (particularly retrospectively), its almost impossible to justify grade separation on such a scale let alone get the road user to pay to recover (some of) the costs…even when the time savings would seem to justify it…let alone get them to pay more because what they are driving on is more aesthetically pleasing than the at grade solution!

  13. Stephen Bargwanna, 29. November 2013, 17:43

    Actually as the criticised urban planning elite by one of your earlier commentators I was only talking about the practical way of removing the Cahill Expressway, the road deck with its super loaded columns, NOT the rail section underneath. That is a far more intractable rail engineering and operations problem that requires a major reconfiguration of the Sydney rail network to solve. Leaving the rail and removing the road deck will still achieve substantial aesthetic and waterfront accessibility benefits including to the lucky rail patrons who have great views. The rail columns and structure can be lightened with the road deck gone. Its interchange public transport function performance will also be greatly improved. The Cahill Expressway is not the city circle rail underneath …elites do have their place!

  14. Willam O'Donnell, 29. November 2013, 18:14

    It says it all; flyovers are ugly, limited in scope & unfriendly to all. Forget it & build a tunnel or a buried roadway a la Willis St-SHI. DO IT NOW !

  15. Mike Mellor, 29. November 2013, 18:21

    Neil – I remember a very senior manager in then Transit saying that the problem with a tunnel under the Basin would be to stop it floating, rather than with drainage. In that respect it would be similar to the rail tunnel into Britomart, which seems to work perfectly well.

    An NZTA proposal (Option F) that never got to consultation was for an east-west tunnel under the Basin. The Peer Review of the Basin project by Abley Associates describes as a significant issue the fact that it is not clear why options A and B (the flyover) were chosen rather than Options C and D (on the surface: better BCRs, a lot cheaper, but traffic not speeded up so much); nor why Option F wasn’t properly considered when the War Memorial tunnel was approved, acting as its eastern approach.

  16. Cr Paul Bruce, 29. November 2013, 20:12

    The pictures are great and do make their point.
    The main mantra for the Basin Flyover is grade separation. However, if we do not encourage extra single occupancy vehicles through the area, and at the same time provide reliable attractive high capacity public transport services with priority traffic lights, we will see a decrease in volume of traffic and – voila – improved traffic flows.

  17. Pablo Blanco, 30. November 2013, 7:48

    “Some US cities have gone the full circle of constructing these flyovers and then removing them, Portland on the West Coast and one of the east coast cities – Philadelphia I think, but i could be wrong about that.”

    I’m from Portland, which has both an excellent highway and bus system and retro-fitted lightrail system. I don’t know of any flyover that has been removed, ever. There were a couple of off ramps that weren’t built. And they did delay a second freeway for 20 years that ended up costing 100 times what it was originally supposed to cost. Delayed by a few for the not-so-good of the many. The sort of endless dithering we’ve constantly seen on all major and minor transport systems in Wellington/NZ that any first world city/country would have done in a heartbeat. As a 20 year resident, I can say Wellington has some of the most stupid roading systems I’ve ever driven on.

    Incidentally Portland has had free public transport on buses/light rail in the CBD, as has Seattle, for almost 40 years now. But then it is a well run city where administration incompetence doesn’t lead to overtaxing its citizens and driving business away that keeps its life healthy. Smart city planning requires affluence that Wellington/NZ doesn’t have or encourage.

    Doing things on the smell of any old rag ends up with the sort of inadequate results we often see here. And another thing, it is a shame that Scoop has free bloggers riding their hobby horses disguised as journalism.

  18. Traveller, 30. November 2013, 9:05

    Pablo: It’s great to hear about light rail and free public transport in Portland. But regarding flyovers and such – either you’re too young to remember, or else your memory is failing.

    “In US cities like Portland, the administration razed the Harbor Drive freeway and replaced it with a 37-acre park. Denver, San Francisco, Boston, Milwaukee and Trenton followed suit. Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto, which had built many flyovers between 1950 and 1980, also pulled them down.” – The Times of India, July 13, 2013

    “One of the things which Portland is famous for in urbanist circles, was the decision in the 1970s to remove Harbor Drive and replace it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park (or Waterfront Park as it was known back then). And more recently, another urban demolition project – of smaller scope – helped in making NW Portland what it is today: the 1999 removal of the Lovejoy Viaduct.” – Portland Transport, January 23, 2012

    “Tearing down Harbor Drive and replacing it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park was … a key step in transforming Portland from a freeway-oriented city to a pedestrian oriented city.” – Preservation Institute.

  19. Traveller, 30. November 2013, 9:44

    New York’s West Side Highway was the first elevated highway to be built, with construction beginning in the 1920s. And it was the first elevated highway to collapse, decaying so badly that it had to be closed permanently in 1973. When it was closed, 53 percent of the traffic that had used it disappeared, dramatic proof that building freeways generates traffic and that removing freeways reduces traffic. Yet there was tremendous pressure to replace it with a bigger and better freeway named Westway. The plan was defeated after a David versus Goliath struggle that lasted for more than a decade, with a group of west-side residents, community boards, and environmentalists fighting the entire New York political establishment,. Now, there is a park, pedestrian promenade, and bicycle path … public places that are real amenities for Manhattan on land that used to be blighted by an elevated freeway.

  20. Monty Don, 30. November 2013, 10:06

    Pablo – free bloggers / hobby horses / journalism? A bit nasty don’t ya think? The article gave you the chance to put your views out to the world.

    So take a look in the mirror and thank people who do things for ‘free.’ Or go out and buy a stack of newspapers to support the ‘professional journalists’ who don’t write about their ‘hobby horses’. That’s if there are enough such newspapers to compile a stack.

  21. Rich, 30. November 2013, 12:47

    Wellington is a much smaller city than Sydney or Portland with reasonable public transport. Why do we need to get from the CBD to the airport in 12 minutes rather than 15?

    The best plan is to build a few bus priority areas and cycle lanes and no new motorways at all.

  22. Ian Kearns, 30. November 2013, 15:58

    I am a Sydney-sider and the Cahill Expressway, together with the above ground railway and station immediately below the Cahill, is an eyesore. Every so often a study is done to look at putting these underground but nothing ever comes of these studies. In Newcastle, to the north of Sydney, the railway line separates the business district from the shores of the Hunter River. Again our planners wonder what can be done to improve access to the river – and obviously conclude ‘nothing’. Once these mistakes are made they are with us for many generations.

  23. Barbara Smyth, 30. November 2013, 17:09

    Yes, I agree with Ian Kearns. Once these mistakes are made, such as the Cahill Expressway, it is too expensive to do anything about it. So please NZTA think twice about your flyover. PUT IT IN A TUNNEL!.

  24. DC, 30. November 2013, 17:15

    Well said Rich. NZTA highway engineers preoccupy their day with the automobile. Status is what it is about. Looking good. Looking good. But their flyover will look bad, look bad. Peak oil will make it all irrelevant. And we will be left with a monumental mistake.

  25. pablo blanco, 1. December 2013, 9:12

    I was in Portland in the 1970s and have spent time there 3-4 times a year since. Portland and Oregon do walk the walk, usually leading quietly. Please don’t shade or ignore the whole truth. And please come up with some better quotes than the “Times of India.”

    Actually, there is a 4 lane street that parallels Tom McCall park that took over the old Harbor Drive function, they simply shifted the street over so the park could run along the river, so the same traffic runs in a different place now, basically the same configuration as Aotea – Customhouse Quay.

    Directly opposite this on the other side of river is the major north south I 5 artery that connects Seattle with San Diego. So MAJOR 4-6 lane divided highways are running in and out of Portland. And directly surrounding the CBD there are major feeder 4-6 land divided highways completely surrounding the CBD. And dozens of dozens of overpasses feed in and out of this. It is true that part of one 90 year old one was removed.

    Additionally, the idea when shifting the Harbor Drive road was to replace it with a major I-5 bi-pass, I 205 6 miles outside of Portland to carry all the major north-south truck traffic and keep it away from central city. Early ‘Greenies,’ which I was once, opposed all roading out of ideology and stopped that from happening until mid-00s when it simply had to happen to relieve city congestion. The eventual costs sky-rocketed to the point that if the ‘Greenies’ had not opposed the original plan, the money saved over time could have funded a much more massive light rail-train system by now. Wellington has seen the same sort of dithering ‘protecting’ upper Cuba street for 40 years (which created its decay) vs a logical roading system. If it had been done then in the 1970s the money wasted could have delivered a trenched road to the airport, lightrail and upper Cuba and all of Te Aro would have been thriving by now.

    So Portland has an excellent highway system feeding into and out of its center (including 3 good, fast, efficient Blvd/highway routes to drive to the airport, incidentally) and it also has a first rate bus and light rail system. You need both, not one without the other.

    The 10 block long Lovejoy Viaduct has been removed, but shortened is better word, because they built a new on-off ramp (short viaduct, maybe length of the one discussed here?) to the bridges it served. It dated from the 1920s and was so loved that its ornate Greek columns were removed to a park at $500,000 costs, donated by citizens.

    The reason why the Viaduct was removed was two fold. The extensive train track systems it once crossed over to feed a warehouse/industrial district weren’t needed anymore, so were removed. Meaning there was no reason for the Viaduct to exist. After 90 years of service it was obsolete. Secondly, the warehouse district it once fed into, the Pearl District, is now gentrified and property values have skyrocketed so the value of the land better suited buildings. The Pearl District is a great place to live and visit. But it took 40 years to get there, driven by businesses who did the hard yards supported by an affluent, progressive, smart citizenry.

    Traveller, you would have, or could have known all this just Googling. If you have spent time there, you wouldn’t need to do even that. So why didn’t you give a more accurate interpretation of the story here? Portland is a progressive center of urban design and has innovated policies related to this since the 1960s. Please do not shade the truth about Portland to your own end. Portland has a first rate, first world roading system and a first rate mass-transit system (I suspect all the other examples you listed have as well). It needs both hand in hand to make each work better. Wellington doesn’t seem to want or know how to get either.

  26. FOM, 1. December 2013, 11:06

    People should look at the amazing recent history of Seoul, where a whole elevated freeway was demolished in 2005.

    Afterwards improvements in public transport were made. Certainly a worthwhile example to consider.

  27. pable blanco, 1. December 2013, 11:17

    “Wellington is a much smaller city than Sydney or Portland with reasonable public transport. Why do we need to get from the CBD to the airport in 12 minutes rather than 15?”

    A point of reference. Portland is 580k, Welly is 210K. Oregon has pop of 3.8mil/NZ 4mil plus, excluding another mil who must go overseas for work and other opportunities. Sydney is a small mega-city, whereas Portland is sweet little city, and Wellington is sweet (relative to NZ) and littler still. More on par with Des Moines, Iowa. It’s more like comparing mandarines and clementines to apples when you bring Sydney into the equation.

    Portland, for its size, accomplishes 10-20 times more than Wellington in terms of both business development and green issues, both to maintain the health and vibrancy of its city. It isn’t loosing both like Wellington.

    As far as getting from the CBD to the other half of the city, it’s a no brainer. Wellington needs as many ways as possible to get there, because that’s where Wellington’s main thriving part of its economy resides – Weta.

  28. pablo blanco, 1. December 2013, 11:30

    “free bloggers / hobby horses / journalism? A bit nasty don’t ya think? The article gave you the chance to put your views out to the world.”

    No, I don’t think it’s nasty, just accurate. And it illustrated that a hugely biased perspective dominates the column presented here disguising opinion as if it was newsworthy. It amounts to a non-commercial form of advertorial writing. There is a great Kiwi expression or maybe it’s British, although I never heard it voiced the 10 years I lived there. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Journalists as far as they barely exist here are barely paid peanuts. Those that work for free offer relatively less value in terms of accurate, unbiased or balanced information. And as I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to voice some counter information, enough said from me. Enjoy your discussion among yourselves, I’m off to do some work.

  29. Monty Don, 1. December 2013, 12:41

    When you come back from your day’s work Pablo, check Sir Charles Wheeler’s obituary. Now, there was a great journalist. I wonder what you do Pablo for a job – I presume you don’t work at the zoo?

  30. SydneySider007, 1. December 2013, 20:08

    Dear oh dear, eyesore, blah blah. I half expected to read “Berlin Wall” in connection to the rail line in Newcastle. Or the Cahill or why not use it for the flyover at the Basin Reserve? Reason: function over form, the flyover is a better answer to the traffic problem than a snuggly buried expensive tube with still present ugly smoke stacks popping out of the ground every 500m or so. Nobody seems to be aware that in order to satisfy the visual / aesthetic preferences of the planner vasts amounts of money has to be diverted from schools, hospitals and anything else that serves the public need. Please can we have realism over dreams?

  31. Kerry Wood, 1. December 2013, 20:28

    A simple solution for the Basin Reserve is to get the PT spine route out of it. With another lane available the traffic will flow much more freely.

    The RoNS projects are seen as a given and the spine route a minor add-on, but doing it the other way round—using trams—gives a cheaper result with greater capacity. Large trucks are essential but don’t matter. They don’t need a RoNS: they only need the cars out of the way.

    We will inevitably switch to a much lower-energy economy, soon, and the switch will make RoNS redundant. Traffic is already declining. The only question is whether we plan that change or wait until it is unavoidable and all our lovely new infrastructure is useless.

    RoNS in the Wellington Region really is useless. It has a very low BCR, which means it will cost more than it earns.
    “The inconvenient truth is that the current approach to the ranking and selection of state highway projects, including the roads of national significance, under which the role of economic efficiency has been greatly diluted, has resulted in many hundred of millions of dollars of benefits being squandered in pursuit of the empty goals of ‘strategic fit’ and ‘effectiveness’.”
    Who says so? Dr Michael Pickford, a freelance economist, ex Chief Economist at the Commerce Commission and —very important—now independent. His article is in Policy Quarterly, August 2013

  32. Guy, 1. December 2013, 20:39

    Actually, I’m really enjoying Pablo Blanco’s contributions to the discussion here – really good to have someone who has lived in Portland, as that is so often the example that is trotted out on how to make a good city better. I’ve watched various videos on it, watched the satirical tv program on it, but there is nothing quite like the opinion and knowledge of someone who has lived in a place. Thank you Señor White!

  33. Daryl Cockburn, 2. December 2013, 11:41

    Was Brownlee’s Bridge re-named because Brownlee’s Fly-Over didn’t sound good? Can anyone anywhere point to an attractive fly-over for motor traffic anywhere? Does the Board want to approve a fly-over with no precedence of international best practice?