The motor car introduced a level of mobility never before imagined and, in the process, changed the shape and character of Sydney. Housing, work and social life were affected by this transport revolution.

Until car ownership became widespread in the prosperous 1950s, most houses were built within walking distance of a rail or tram line. Public transport was used to go to work, attend church or school, or “go to town” to shop. The car made a new kind of development possible. Suburbs of detached houses, with garages or carports, began to fill the spaces between the main transport lines. The postwar influx of migrants and the “baby boom” fuelled demand. Sydney spread out as town planners answered the demand for a backyard for every family. Only the national parks to the north, south, and west of the city stopped Sydney becoming one of the most sprawling cities in the world.

The car and the truck revolutionized movement within the city. Commerce and industry no longer had to locate near a rail train line, and new suburban worksites provided car parks for their workers. The dominance of central city shopping faded with the rise of new car-based suburban shopping centers as North Ryde (1957), Warringah Mall (1963), Miranda Fair (1964) and Roselands (1965).

Roselands Shopping Centre in 1965. Source: dailytelegraph.

In the 1920s and 30s, most drivers were middle-class makes who could afford a car, or men who had access to a car or a truck for work. When mass car ownership arrived in 1950s, male drivers still predominated, but by the 1970s many women had licenses. Two-car households were common. The number of trips taken by each family quadrupled as cars were used for almost every outgoing.

“Sunday drives”, a family favourite of the 1950s and ’60s, soon lost their novelty. Instead, more and more households escaped the ever-growing city for a weekend away, particularly at the coast, either camping or staying in modest holiday houses. Motels, literally “motor hotels”, spread rapidly across both the rural and urban landscapes. Recreation and the car became inseparable.

As car ownership increased so did traffic congestion.  Transport engineers recommended a series of freeways and ring roads for Sydney, which were often hotly contested, especially by people whose houses and suburbs were likely to be affected by the insatiable demand for new road space. Some freeways were built, some were not, but Sydney drivers persist in their love affair with the car.

Until the 1870s most houses in Sydney had been built in rows of terraces, not unlike the housing in many British cities. by the 1880s, with the arrival of fast public transport in the form of trains and trams, the detached suburban house became the ideal. higher density housing was also in demand, and in the building boom after World War I, blocks of flats, unusually three-storey brick structures, proliferated in the inner east, harbourside and beachside suburbs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s Australia suffered unemployment rates averaging 30 per cent. in some of the inner suburbs of Sydney over 50 per cent of workers were unemployed. overcrowding was rife, and most terrace houses had their balconies filled in to create extra accommodation. Many of the houses did not have adequate cooking and sanitary facilities.

Restrictions on building materials meant that very few houses were built during or immediately after World War II. the labor state government, which had created a housing commission during the war, begun to demolish some of the “slums” of 19th century terrace. in their place they built high-rise and low-rise blocks of flats in the inner city and detached houses in the suburbs for families who could not afford a mortgage.

Terrace houses, Sydney, 1940’s by Frank Hurley. Source: National Library of Australia

Australia had long held out the promise that all its residents, specially incoming migrants, could aspire to live in a home of their own. At the 1947 census, 60 per cent of Sydney householders rented and 40 per cent we’re buying or owned their homes. Twenty years later the proportion of owners and buyers had risen to over two-thirds.

Such a phenomenal rise in home ownership required tens of thousands of houses to be built. most of the new subdivisions, whether in the hinterland of the northern beaches or in the South and West, waited many years for infrastructure and transport services.

With the introduction of the first strata title legislation in Australian in 1961 it became much easier to buy a flat or home unit. blocks of flats fanned out along the major rail and bus routes. over a third of Sydney’s population now live in apartments or other attached dwellings, a much higher proportion then in any other Australian city.

Aspirations for home ownership continue unabated despite Sydney having the most expensive housing in Australia. Because of high prices the proportion of homeowners is now under 70 per cent and gradually failing. Sydney is home for some of Australia’s wealthiest and poorest citizens.

Until next time,


Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney