No More Bulldust–The history of Australian roads

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again; Australia’s roads are a massive part of the landscape and it seems the more we write about them, the more interesting they and their history become. After writing a number of articles on the topic, we decided to write a piece on the history of our roads. How were they built, when were they built and how the country built such a huge network of roads in such a short timeframe. It’s easy to forget the impact of a fully rolled out road network. Those of us who learned to drive after everything had been built can’t imagine an Australia where different cities were either poorly or completely unconnected.

The history

Australian road historyPre federation – 1901 - With convicts, conflicts and new farms this was not a good period for our nation’s roads. Donkeys and camels were used to cart people and goods from place to place through heavy bush with no real road network to speak of. The most significant contribution in this period was undoubtedly that of Major General Lachlan Macquarie. In his time as Governor of New South Wales (1810 – 1821), he revolutionised the roads coming to and around Sydney and brought real structure to what was the most significant Australian city of the time.

1901 – 1920 – This period was punctuated by Australia’s war effort, and calls to grow the road network were hampered by the new and growing demand for investment in the rail system. Despite this, some investment did take place and the Hume and Nepean highways were declared main roads in 1914 and 1915 respectively.

1921 -1945 – Another period of Australian history and yet another war. By this time the motor car had begun its dominance over the rail system and states were more anxious to connect the then isolated cities. After the depression of the 1930’s work got underway on the Eyre, Barkly and Stuart highways, making Western Australia and the northern territory more connected than ever before.

1946 – 1970 – This period saw a series of road aid acts and grants in 1947, 1954 and 1959 where investment was stepped up yet again. The 60’s in particular saw an improvement in the quality of roads as bitumen became the standard surface for more and more highways across the country.

1971 – 1990 – In 1974 the federal government took full responsibility for the funding of national roads. In the years that passed, the federal government spent yet more money on roads and the modern system with interstate motorways began to emerge. Road technologies and construction saw a great leap forward in this period with more advanced road building machinery and computer aided design, costing and materials management.

Road making1991- today – Almost all of the current toll roads in Australia were built or saw very significant upgrades in this period. In addition the current period saw an explosion of road tunnels with almost every state seeing significant tunnel works.  Simply put, this was and should be forever known as the tolls and tunnel period of Australia’s road network history.

Fun facts

Some fun facts on the Australian road network;

  • The first east-to-west car crossing of the Australian continent in 1912 by Francis Birtles (pictured in black and white above)
  • There is almost 40m of roadway per person
  • In 1926 it took Francis Birtles 8 days to drive from Melbourne to Darwin, a trip that today takes just 42 hours.
  • Australia's Highway 1 is the longest national circuit highway in the world at over 14,500 km
  • The network size is 825,000km (main roads, regional, secondary and all other roads - unsealed roads make up around 65% of these
  • Australia changed from miles to kilometres on the 1st July 1974.
  • The annual federal “roads budget” is $5bn.
  • There are around 30,000 “other” structures (mainly bridges) in the network.

Final thoughts

It’s easy to forget the impact of a fully rolled out road network. Those of us who learned to drive after everything had been built can’t imagine an Australia where different cities were either poorly or completely unconnected. The feeling of isolation has been overtaken by a feeling of freedom which has been offered by well supported and well-built roads. Take a look at this video clip to understand the euphoria of the sealing of the final stage of the Eyre Highway connecting South Australia to Western Australia in 1976 (the special on the highway starts at 5.00).

Do you remember any big moments in Australia’s road history?

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Margaret Wood I am writing a novel set in South Australia between 1848 to Federation. I am trying to find out what the main road was between Adelaide and Hahndorf in the early days. I have been searching TROVE and a few other sources but haven't cracked it yet. Can anyone help me or point me in the right direction? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Kind regards, Margaret 30/05/2016 1:49:16 PM
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