– Metro Strategy: (2) what are the challenges?

US petrol prices relative to the world

Yesterday I talked about what I thought the new Metropolitan Strategy for Melbourne should be. That was mostly ‘mothers milk’, so now I want to say something about the substance of the strategy – what it should do. I have (mostly) refrained from proposing specific policies or solutions, preferring instead to point out the key policy challenges or directions.

Among other things (this is not exhaustive) the new Metropolitan Strategy should:

Recognise that 90% of motorised travel in Melbourne is made by car and that there are myriad ways drivers and manufacturers are adapting to higher fuel prices. The great majority of travellers prefer to drive if they can despite the expense – they’re not going to give up driving for public transport unless they’re made to.

There are three key challenges in relation to cars. First, provide incentives to increase  the speed of the transition to more fuel and emissions efficient vehicles. Second, make cars more civilised – make them slower and quieter and remove their priority over other carriageway users. Three, manage congestion so that gridlock is avoided and high value trips are given priority.

Recognise that public transport is only a substitute for cars in a limited number of situations. It has two key but growing roles. One is to transport large numbers of people to and from places with high trip densities, like the CBD, where the car is simply incapable of carrying so many people. The other is to provide mobility for those without access to a car.

The focus of public transport policy should be on these two roles. They mean a different approach to public transport from that implied by the popular idea that public transport must always be provided at a level which provides a “viable alternative” to car travel.

Recognise that public transport demand will grow as the city gets bigger. The emphasis should be on making the existing network operate better by improving reliability, punctuality and networking across services and across modes. Expanding the geographical coverage of the rail network should not be the first call – the priority should be to make public transport better, not a particular technology. It would be smarter to concentrate on improving suburban links to the existing rail network. I note however that some new rail lines might be required over the Strategy’s time frame in order to expand the capacity of the rail system e.g. Regional Rail Link, Metro Tunnel, or similar.

Recognise that the important role of firm location cannot continue to be ignored – as it was in Melbourne 2030 – or treated cynically as it was in Melbourne @ 5 Million. The hierarchy of activity centres needs to be completely rethought and the excessive focus on retail seriously questioned. The absence of any evident rationale for the selection of the six existing suburban Central Activities Districts needs to be recognised – the idea needs to be reviewed, root and branch.

Recognise that the key challenge is affordability of housing for first home buyers and that housing supply in Melbourne is severely compromised by planning regulations, inefficiencies in the building industry and taxation policy.

Recognise that a significant proportion of Melburnians aren’t going to find the combination of affordability, space, amenity and job accessibility that they demand anywhere else other than on the fringe. That’s O.K. – the disadvantages of  “sprawl” are greatly exaggerated. However simply increasing land stock in the Growth Areas to “25 years supply” is not going to be enough – the challenge is to find ways to minimise land owners and developers ‘gaming’ the land market.

Recognise that many Melburnians are prepared to compromise on dwelling space and amenity in return for a location within the built-up area but are thwarted because existing residents will not tolerate extensive redevelopment in their neighbourhood. Despite the rhetoric, suburban activity centres have not attracted housing on a significant scale. Brownfields sites are often mentioned but the supply of these is finite. The Strategy needs to find a way to increase supply in the suburbs. Removing the misconception that high residential density automatically creates high public transport mode share might open up new options.

Overall, the Strategy has to start by removing any misconceptions that the only viable future for Melbourne is to look like certain overseas cities i.e. where the vast majority of residents live at density and travel by public transport. The objective should be on the best and most plausible way of achieving key outcomes, like a sustainable city.


8 Comments on “– Metro Strategy: (2) what are the challenges?”

  1. Michael says:

    Another well argued piece, and my comments are quibbles rather than disagreement.

    I don’t quite agree with the argument that public transport’s roles are limited to a mass transit role and a social inclusion one – there is a spectrum of activity that justifies public transport investment. Another way of explaining the “mass transit/social inclusion” functions is as a system efficiency argument and an equity one. The distinction is that while the efficiency arguments are clear in peak hour mass transit, there are some functions where resource efficiency is also served outside of the peak. Arguably Melbourne’s tram network, with short, multi-purpose trips in dense areas is more resource efficient than car in given corridors at many times of the day. Mass transit? Not in the peak-commuter sense, but definitely high volume trips and closely linked to urban density.

    While the mass transit/social inclusion distinction for public transport is a useful starting point, the Melbourne experience doesn’t quite yield to this degree of reductionism. More urban growth along tram corridors will blur this distinction, and wonderfully so!

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, if trams are more efficient in the sorts of relatively dense inner city areas you appear to be speaking of, I’d go along with that. Much of that tram traffic is in any event going to be headed for the CBD and near-CBD.

      Re your 3rd para, I’m with you on tram corridors because they don’t extend that far into the suburbs, but if the discussion were about middle and outer suburban rail corridors then I wouldn’t be.

  2. “First, provide incentives to increase the speed of the transition to more fuel and emissions efficient vehicles.”

    Are you able to elaborate on this statement? Are you proposing taxing vehicles that emit higher emissions and/or use more fuels?

  3. jack horner says:

    “They mean a different approach to public transport from that implied by the popular idea that public transport must always be provided at a level which provides a “viable alternative” to car travel.”

    Surely the right balance here will be different in different areas. In pre WWII areas it may be reasonable to aim for PT to be a viable alternative for many (not all, but more than at present) purposes for more (not all) people. In greenfields urban fringe areas, harder.

    A possible goal is to design greenfields areas so that they have more of the PT friendly attributes of older areas – that is, not to design them only for the convenience of motorists and propertly developers. This naturally means abandoning some present flexibilities, but I think that some of the things you can do to make greenfields urban fringe development more PT/pedestrian/cyclist friendly are ‘no regrets’ in any case (more pedestrian permeable subdivisions, more cycle-friendly road standards, logical location of activity centres in relation to the bus network, put the car park behind the mall instead of in front of it…)

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think you can certainly get higher patronage in inner suburban areas than greenfield ones, so the bang for the buck should be higher, but I don’t think policy should have the specific objective of moving people out of cars and onto public transport. That will happen to some extent anyway (as relative costs shift, population and density increase, etc), but forcing it is extremely expensive, goes against travellers’ preferences, and in sustainability and energy security terms isn’t necessary anyway.

      Here’s an example (I’m intending to blog about this anyway next week, so this is a rough sketch of the argument). The three orbital SmartBus routes operate on a 15 minute off-peak frequency. In my neck of the woods, the 903 operates east-west along Bell St/Murray Rd. The 902 also operates east-west, along Grimshaw St/Settlement Rd, about 5 km north of the 903. There’s thus a large “no man’s land” in between, which includes La Trobe University with its 21,000 students and 3,600 staff.

      In my (many) first-hand observations, I’ve never seen a 903 SmartBus in Heidelberg, Preston or Coburg with more than ten passengers, usually about 7, even though the 903 has been operating since 2009. The “alternative to the car” POV would argue that such a high frequency is nevertheless necessary so that travellers can rely on the service and ditch their car.

      That thinking precludes what I suggest would be a more equitable approach, which would be to reduce the 903 to (say) a 30 minute frequency and use the spare buses and drivers to provide a new SmartBus service every 30 minutes along (say) a route approx midway between the two existing SmartBus routes (although the exact route doesn’t matter for the argument). There’d be some additional costs for new bus stops but in principle the budget for buses and drivers shouldn’t have to increase appreciably.

      While it would reduce frequencies to 30 minutes, this proposal would expand coverage which I would argue is much more important for travellers who’re dependent on public transport. Of course, those travellers would like to have both, but this is the real world and there have to be trade-offs (the last SmartBus cost $40 million to set up and costs $20 million p.a. to operate).

  4. rohan says:

    Re: redevelopment in built-up areas – I havnt noticed much ‘thwarting’ – while there has been a lot of fuss and vocal opposition, especialy about about some large scale ones, they usually end up lower or smaller, not deleted entirely (except the 30+ tower for Box Hill and the 20+ one for Mitcham – that was years ago). There are many many smaller 3-4 storey developments in inner and espcially middle ring suburbs where heritage controls cover say 30% or less – perhaps the relative lack of such developments is the lack of large enough properties coming on the market, not to mention their now huge cost ?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Actually I’m not talking about thwarting of projects, but thwarting of (some) people’s desire to live in more accessible locations. They’re being thwarted by high prices caused largely by inadequate supply. Much of this “missing” supply doesn’t even materialise as building proposals because developers do their sums and don’t bother.


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