The story of our roads and waterways over the last 167 years is the story of the development of NSW from a fledgling colony to Australia’s largest economy. For generations creative, resourceful and passionate people have looked for new ways to improve safety, boost commerce and connect people and communities. Their achievements could fill a book but here we look at just a handful of stories from roads and maritime history.

A history of change

  • A History of Change Timeline
  • A History of Change Timeline
  • A History of Change Timeline
On dock of the world

Back in the late 1800s, waterways, not roads, were the lifeblood of New South Wales. Although there was a rough track between Sydney Cove and Parramatta, goods, people and information were mostly moved by river and the only way to connect with the rest of the world was by ship.

To meet the demand for building and servicing ships, boats, tugs, punts, dredgers and barges, docks were built at Cockatoo Island. The Fitzroy Dock was built in 1870 and the Sutherland Dock in 1890, which at the time was the largest single dry dock in the world allowing water to be pumped out so ships could be repaired. 

Ships in the Sutherland Dock in 1897. Image courtesy of the Australian Naval Historical Society.

Water highways

For 50 years from 1864 to 1914, the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Darling rivers were busy ‘water highways’ full of barges and paddle steamers transporting wool for export and delivering all kinds of essential and non-essential goods and materials to stations and towns across inland NSW.

Rivers were used to transport things as diverse as steam engines, gold mining equipment, window glass and even pianos – improving the standard of living and reducing the sense of isolation associated with living so far from the coast. As railways were built, the river trade declined until it eventually died out in the 1930s.

Loading wool on the Darling River, Bourke.

Motoring ahead

Road transport was the last part of the transport network to move from steam to petrol power. During the steam era, rail and water transport ruled because steam powered motors were too big, heavy and slow for the roads.

Once the internal combustion petrol engine was invented and the first motor cars arrived in NSW around the turn of the century, all that changed. This led to the establishment of the first Main Roads Board in 1925 that was tasked with providing a road system suitable for the motor age.

Bradfield’s legacy

On 19 March 1932, after almost a century of speculation and planning, the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened to the public and the city’s north and south were united for the first time.

Chief Engineer, John Bradfield was the Bridge’s greatest advocate. He managed the project from calling of tenders in 1923, through nine years of construction and is now remembered as the ‘father’ of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – one of our most iconic landmarks. 

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, 1930.

Safety push

In 1970, more than 1,300 people lost their lives on NSW roads and it’s no wonder when you remember that back then even the most basic safety precautions were optional, and babies were often brought home from hospital in a washing basket on the front seat. But a series of big road safety initiatives started to turn things around – compulsory seatbelts in 1971, random breath testing in 1982 and speed cameras in 1991. By the end of the 90s, the road toll was trending down on the way to a low point of 307 in 2014.

The early days of seatbelts.

Digital drives

Before computers, smart phones and the internet, managing licensing and registration involved millions of paper cards stored in huge filing cabinets, hundreds of hours spent collecting, sorting and processing mail, and long wait times for customers.

In the 1970s, staff worked round the clock to enter all those cards into the KICKS computer system but up until the DRIver VEhicle System — known as DRIVES — was introduced in 1991, paper forms and double data entry were still the norm. DRIVES allowed staff to enter and process information in real time from any computer in the registry. The system is still in use today to manage 4.5 million registrations and 4 million driver's licences. 

Piloting the DRIVES licensing and registration system in 1991.

Waterside renewel

In 1995 the Waterways Authority was created to manage the appropriate development and use of wetland areas, particularly in Sydney Harbour, Botany Bay, Newcastle and Port Kembla. One of the Authority’s major achievements was the renewal of the historic maritime precinct at Walsh Bay which was completed in 2003.

More than $700 million was invested to transform the 11-hectare area into a vibrant hub for cultural, commercial, residential and community use while also keeping reminders of Sydney’s maritime heritage including wool loading equipment, cranes, original bollards and old timber piles.

Walsh Bay and the Harbour.

Safety education

Over recent decades we have kept a strong focus on improving safety on NSW roads and waterways. Although we’re still working towards our goal of zero deaths, our public education campaigns have played an important role in building awareness and changing driver and boater behaviour.

There’s been the famous ‘pinkie’ speeding campaign, Plan B and Ride to Live to target road safety. Since compulsory lifejackets were introduced in 2013, we’ve run a number of campaigns including the successful Old4New program that in partnership with other programs has increased lifejacket wear rates from 9% in 2007 to 43% in 2017/18.

E-Toll trials

NSW was the first state to trial electronic toll collection. The pilot ran from 1993 to 1995 on the three busiest lanes of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The first e-tags were about the size of a credit card and only 5mm thick and were powered by a microwave radio beam signal transmitted from the roadside.

Drivers loved the new electronic system and 97% of the trial participants said they would recommend it to their fellow bridge using friends. Over the six years or so following the trial, 30,000 e-tags were issued, and it is now the only way to pay for tolls in Sydney across all roads and motorways. 

E-toll pilot on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

What’s Next?

As we look to the future, it’s exciting to think what we might achieve now all the talented and innovative people behind so many roads and maritime achievements over the last 5, 10, 30 years and longer, are joining together with TfNSW to become one Transport team. We can’t wait to report on what comes next…watch this space!

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