Sydney, from a Melbourne person's perspective

Well, I haven’t posted anything for a while. But, that’s because I’ve been in Sydney, Australia! As opposed to Melbourne, Australia, where I usually spend my time. Anyway, now I am back, and enjoying (or not) the heat of Melbourne. Several things, however, interested me about Sydney, and of course I am going to write about them here.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the weather. Although I was only there for a week or so, the difference between the climates of the two cities struck me. Sydney was much more humid than Melbourne, somewhat tropical, and was also much cooler (though not, apparently, in general). As a result, it was much easier to move around outside, and there was none of the dry, dehydrating wind I find common in Melbourne.

Anyway, enough of the weather — I’m back in Melbourne now and will have to deal with the 37-degree heat in other ways. So what is Sydney itself like?

Compared to Melbourne, Sydney is (or at least seems) big. The CBD itself seems to stretch on forever, and a quick stroll between Darling Harbour, on the West side, and Circular Quay to the North became an hour-long slog (we never made it). The sense of size is further compounded by the high density of the apparently never-ending suburbs. Indeed, some of the population centers, even those close to the CBD like North Sydney and St Leonards have skylines that seemingly would rival those of … some other cities in Australia. It takes forever to get around.

While impressive, this size is what in my opinion leads to the quality of Sydney’s public transport system, which I found rather unimpressive. And that is unimpressive compared to Melbourne’s public transport, which is saying something. Firstly, to me at least the system was very, very confusing. In fact, the train fare system is so confusing that the ticket machines just have one button for every station. That’s a lot of buttons. The newer machines have electronic displays with a multi-stage interface, but woe to you if you don’t know what line the station you want to go to is on when you’re at the machine, because there’s no search function. Futhermore, while the train network is by necessity pretty extensive, there are for some reason large voids in its coverage (such as where I was living, and around the University of New South Wales (a bit like Monash University, I suppose… except it’s actually only about 15 minutes from the city, or would be if there was a train)). And when that happens, you have to take a bus.

First I would like to say that I found the buses themselves pretty good. The drivers were very nice (much nicer than tram drivers in Melbourne) and always willing to help you get where you wanted to go, and also always willing to shoot a yellow light or two in the name of punctuality, something I always appreciate on road-vehicle public transport. The buses, at least the new ones, were also pleasant to ride on — clean, and air-conditioned. The actual bus system, however, left some things to be desired.

Unlike Melbourne, the different public transport types in Sydney do not have an inherently unified ticketing system — train tickets do not work on buses, and bus tickets do not work on trains. This makes switching between connection services pretty expensive, and while there is an option to buy a “MyMulti” ticket that works on both trains and buses (and ferries), at $43 a week for adults (compared to $30/week in Melbourne), that’s pretty expensive too. Furthermore, certain bus tickets only allow you to travel through a certain amount of “zones”, or districts of the city — and with eight seemingly arbitrary zones it’s pretty hard to tell what option you need. It’s all very confusing.

The increased reliance on bus services as a primary means of public transportation also create some problems. The bus interchanges always seem super-crowded, especially at peak time. Also, peak time traffic in Sydney is terrible, and I mean really, really terrible. Things start to get bad around 4pm, and then just degenerate until by 6.30pm nobody is going anywhere fast (or at all). It gets worse the later in the week, too — so much so that some taxi drivers I spoke to just don’t work on Fridays, even if there is more money to be had. And, since the buses use the roads too, they get caught up in all the traffic too, except where there are dedicated bus lanes, of which there are not that many.

Furthermore, in order to gain maximum coverage, some of the buses drive very strange routes — in particular, the one I took went through this long and very difficult-to-drive route, with lots of hills and very narrow roads — so narrow that the bus driver would sometimes have to get out and push in people’s mirrors in order to get through. At peak period, however, the service changes and forgoes the loop for a more direct route — something I found out to my detriment after waiting a long time at the peak-time bus stop before realising that the next bus wasn’t coming for six hours.

Anyway, despite the public transport, I managed to get around, if a bit slowly, and got to see the Harbour Bridge (big), and the Opera House (white), and also the Sydney Aquarium (expensive) and the Powerhouse Museum (probably the most interesting). And I took the ferry, which fortunately was covered by my multi-ticket, or else it would have been pretty expensive.

And that’s what I thought of Sydney.