Blog: An insight into the world of Sydney’s traffic controllers

This one’s a flashback to my not-so-distant Sydney days. Bear with me, it’s more interesting than it sounds…

On the corner of College Street and Elizabeth Street in Sydney CBD there is a patch of concrete that has special meaning to me.

In the early hours of a blustery and chilly mid-week September morning I got paid $50 an hour, for three hours, to watch it dry. It was my first ever traffic controlling job

Thanks to Sydney CBD’s uncompromising and downright forthright approach to safety on the streets of Sydney, this is how I would spend many a Saturday or Sunday morning, in exchange for a handsome weekly $1200 (£550) pay cheque that kept me in good supply of Old Fashioned cocktails and fancy dinners.

If you’re new to the world of traffic controlling; please, let me introduce you.

Can you cross the road?

Before my stint as a Sydney traffic controller I’d never heard of the ‘profession’ or much less seen a traffic controller in real life. I don’t think such a job exists in London – however I did recall watching Chris Tucker do that traffic controlling dance in Rush Hour 3.

Real traffic controlling is nothing like that.

In Sydney traffic controllers are the guardian angels of the pedestrian, who, it appears, can’t be trusted by the City to cross the road on their own if there is some sort of, completely contained, road work going on nearby. Presumably, this is because said roadwork might dazzle them and somehow make them forget how to deploy common sense to cross the road. Or, you know, press the button and wait for the green man to appear.

As well as directing people when to cross the road we traffic controllers are also responsible for putting out cones and ‘tiger tails’ – yellow and black stripped bars that hook onto cones – around a work site, and when we remember, moving these cones so construction workers, or ‘tradies’, as they’re affectionately known in Sydney, can move in and out of the worksite with ease.

We also shut off road lanes and occasionally stop traffic to allow vehicles to move out onto the road to possibly do a ‘u-y’. God forbid they should wait for the traffic lights to change to red before doing this. But, for the most part, what we actually do is stand in the same spot doing absolutely nothing for hours and hours on end willing time to pass mercifully quickly.

This often involves occupying our minds by planning our fantasy lives, judging pedestrians’ outfit choices – yes you should have rethought those knickers with that dress. If you’re a man this will include perving on girls wearing micro shorts and white jeans or anything remotely revealing.

If we’re lucky we might be put on a busy pedestrian spot where we boss pedestrians around. But if not, we might stand on a pedestrian crossing in the cold, lonely hours of the night and not see a soul for hours on end. I have one vivid memory of huddling in an open phone box at around 3am on College Street as I tried to shield myself from the relentless wind and rain while reassessing my life decisions.

Other times I’d irritate my supervisors by undertaking long chats with the tradies. This included subjects such as the lack of society’s acceptance of having multiple wives, the illicit and underground Sydney biker scene, terrorism at home and abroad and so on. All fascinating stuff and I’m only half being sarcastic here.

To be bestowed the honour of traffic controller status – and thus be given the authority to shout at angry drivers who don’t care for the obstruction to their journey they think you’re causing – you must undertake a banal two-day course about safety that does not teach you one useful or practical thing that you might use on the job.

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Traffic controller hard at work…

Roadworks: a never ending mystery

To the untrained eye, such as mine, on most of the road work jobs I have worked on it looks like the end goal of the work is to dig a hole and then refill it with concrete. Once the hole has been dug some people in checked shirts – not high Vis, so they must be important – will stand and look at the hole for a while, point and make comments before the hole is filled with concrete.

This can happen two or three times a month in the same five-metre patch of road. At night the same thing appears to happen, but with a lot more tradies supervising.

What I have observed is for every two people doing a job it seems mandatory for another two people to watch those two people do the job, for safety reasons, of course. Often there are people to watch the traffic controllers do their job and ‘keep them safe’, as well.

I’m sure, however, what the ‘tradies’ are doing is something way more complex and important than what it appears to the naked eye. Though, often, if you ask a tradie onsite why they are digging up the road they’re just as clueless as you are.

Secret society

It is important – very important – to never talk to the press or tell a pedestrian what is actually going on. We were told this from day one. No one must know what is going on, not even ourselves.

I don’t know – what do I know? – but, taking a wild guess, I imagine this is something to do with what could be considered a crazy waste of council money that goes to traffic controllers and tradies working on the roads.

Fortunately, it’s not rude to ask people what they get paid in Oz (or at least I didn’t think so), so lots of people told me what they get paid to work the roads.

Apparently the council pays around $120 an hour for a traffic controller on the weekend, which makes sense when you consider the traffic controlling company has to get paid by the construction company, and the construction company gets paid by the council. Traffic controllers work 12 hour round the clock shifts on the weekend.

From my understanding, the traffic controlling company gets paid by the construction contractor per traffic controller, presumably that is why there is always an abundance of traffic controllers at any one site.

Police are also present to protect traffic controllers and tradies from the crazy Sydney-sider locals. There are usually two on a site and one vehicle, but not at every site. They get paid anything from $65 an hour and upwards on a weekend but the higher their rank the more they get paid. The most I’ve heard a policemen being paid is $75 an hour.

Tradies are on different levels of pay that start at around $58 an hour and upwards on weekends. This is what I learnt asking around, but it really depends if you are staff or a contractor etc

I don’t know how much the bosses get paid, but one of the main honchos from the construction company that holds one of the contracts in the city and works nights drives both a Chrysler and a Lamborghini, so I’m guessing his wage ain’t too shabby.

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Live action traffic controlling…

The people of traffic controlling

The traffic controllers of Sydney are a random mixed bunch of people hailing from all corners of the world, though predominantly, ‘out west’ of the city and from Ireland – though French, Brazilians, English and Pakistanis can also be found.

Traffic controlling gave me the opportunity to meet some Aussies I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

I met some really nice, salt-of-the-earth people mostly from the Western suburbs. And some of my friends are or were traffic controllers. I also met some truly awful people who either take their job way too seriously and insist on treating you and pedestrians like children or are just blatant unashamed racists.  Being white some of my colleagues had no qualms in sharing their racist views with me resulting in some very awkward conversations, some that left me stunned. I invite those people in the Australian media and government who ask if Australia has a racism problem -this question gets bandied around and never fully addressed on Oz TV a lot – to go undercover traffic controlling for a week and they’ll have their answer.

Conflicted opinion

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been a little bit scathing and sarcastic about Sydney’s traffic controlling. However, to be honest, I’m genuinely conflicted about the profession.

Part of me is impressed that such a job exists that allows your regular Aussie, who probably never continued education past high school, and travellers to earn a decent crust – why shouldn’t they? I can’t think of a similar, unskilled job in London where you could take home £500 for a weekend’s work and therefore live a bit more comfortably. You are far more likely to get paid minimum wage and be lucky to take home £500 for two weeks work.  Most of the money traffic controllers earn will be put back into the economy, that can only be a good thing, right?

I’ve definitely seen some worthwhile work, such as one supervisor seamlessly conduct four lanes of traffic as road works were being finished and the early commuters started coming into the city. Myself, I’ve saved at least one person from walking straight into the path of oncoming traffic, though I think I confused them in the first place, so I’m not sure this counts. Traffic controlling is definitely needed in some instances.

But on the other hand, the over-the-top-ness of the whole safety issue – like telling people how to cross the road – is just another example of how Sydney’s CBD is being nannied to within an inch of its life. There have been many stories in the press recently about this. You can find stories on this here and here.

Just maybe some of this money could be spent better? Reduce the tolls on the roads, for example, or provide some sort of social service?

I certainly found the traffic controlling industry both amusing, interesting and very advantageous. I hope you’ve enjoyed this (very sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek) insight.

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