What’s Melbourne good at?

What's the answer?

It’s natural in discussions of planning and development issues to focus limited energy on the areas where Melbourne could do better. But it’s easy to forget our blessings – the areas where Melbourne is doing well. That’s not to say that things couldn’t be better, but it acknowledges there are some areas where things could be much worse. It’s conceivable there are even areas where Melbourne punches well above its weight.

It’s the season of goodwill, so I thought it timely to look at the positives. Hopefully readers will have some suggestions too.

One of Melbourne’s great blessings is its extensive rail system. Please, while your first reaction might be disbelief, many cities elsewhere – in the US for example – don’t have anything even remotely as good as our network. And our tram system is reputedly the largest in the world. Again, many cities elsewhere are scrambling to retro-fit light rail and streetcar systems. We have rolling stock that’s getting friendlier for wheel chairs and successive governments have (belatedly) ordered new trains and trams.

In many places if you change modes you have to pay again. Not in Melbourne – there’s unlimited travel on a single ticket within a time window no matter how many times you transfer. While it’s had teething problems and isn’t out of the woods just yet, we have a smartcard system too. And two high frequency bus services now orbit the suburbs from the deep south to the west and from (relatively) early till late. Heck, I even heard there’s an extra NightRider service next weekend.

The Regional Rail Link has gotten the green light and design work is continuing on Melbourne Metro. It’s not good enough for most people I know, but we have a 24/7 airport public transport service operating at 10 minute frequencies for the great bulk of the day.

Fortunately, large parts of our freeway system are tolled. There are significant barriers to getting a drivers licence in terms of time and out-of-pocket costs. And just this week the Government had the good sense to bang up registration charges.

Successive governments and councils have promoted high density residential growth in the city centre. New inner city brownfields sites such as Fishermans Bend have been earmarked for development. There are large tracts of historic housing in areas like Fitzroy Nth and Carlton Nth that are largely intact. And we have inner city parks and the glorious Yarra River park system that other cities would die for.

One of Melbourne’s great assets is it has capacity for growth in the west, still within a reasonable distance of the CBD. Average lot sizes in all the growth areas are smaller than the older middle ring suburbs and getting smaller.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the wonderful and vibrant city centre. Its laneways and public spaces are rightly the envy of other cities who think (mistakenly) that they can replicate Melbourne’s success. I believe (admittedly without much hard evidence) that within ten years or less, inner Melbourne will be widely acknowledged as one of the world’s coolest cities (that’s a prediction!). Many major trip generators like the MCG are located in the centre, where peak crowds can best be served by public transport (unlike, say, Brisbane’s entertainment centre at Boondall).

We have Fed Square and the free Ian Potter Gallery. We have a culture that’s interested in the public realm, including planning and development issues, for its own sake (maybe I’m overdoing that one…)

That’s a start. I’ve focussed mainly on infrastructure, but there are also institutions and people who give Melbourne a positive outlook. For example, I reckon the Lord Mayor, to the surprise of many, is a real asset. I’d like to think there are some areas of social and cultural policy where we do well too.

Anyone else got any ideas on what Melbourne does well?

P.S. More on that statistics question.


Is The Age providing fair comment on transport issues?

Prospective corridors for road tunnel (Eddington Report)

I take an agnostic view of freeway proposals – I don’t assume apriori that they’re all bad or all good. I prefer to look at the evidence first before deciding if a proposal has merit or is a poor idea. But it seems there are some who will overlook evidence to the contrary if it undermines their ideological view.

Like Kenneth Davidson in his column in The Age on Monday, Why the east-west road tunnel is a stinker, I have some misgivings about the tunnel proposed to connect Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road. The Victorian Government has just submitted a proposal to Infrastructure Australia, seeking funding to develop the tunnel idea further.

My key concern is the anaemic benefit-cost ratio. But Mr Davidson, who’s a senior columnist at The Age, goes further. He reckons the proposed tunnel recommended in 2008 in the Eddington Report is a “stinker” and a “confidence trick”.

That’s because an earlier study undertaken for the Bracks government in 2004, the Northern Central City Corridor strategy (NCCC), found most of the traffic coming off the Eastern Freeway heads into central Melbourne. It found only 15% is bound for the northern or western suburbs. “In other words”, Mr Davidson says:

the public justification for the east-west link – that it would take traffic away from the central business district – was a confidence trick……The first question (Eddington) should have asked was where did the 2004 study go wrong.

I don’t think anyone disputes the NCCC study was negative about the case for the tunnel. Nor is Mr Davidson the first to raise this objection. The “gotcha” Mr Davidson seizes on with such alacrity is that Sir Rod Eddington apparently ignored the NCCC study’s key finding.

But it seems it’s Mr Davidson who’s doing the ignoring. The Eddington Report actually does consider the NCCC study. Moreover it deals with it in a way that is prominent and impossible to miss by anyone with their eyes open (read it – Chapter 5, page 129).

The Report argues it’s a myth that nearly all Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city. It says the NCCC produced diagrams that present “a distorted view of traffic distribution (and further NCCC modelling for a future link would have identified and addressed this issue)”.

In a section titled, ‘Myth 2: nearly all the Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city’, It argues the NCCC study didn’t look beyond the capacity of existing roads or the ultimate destination of traffic once it left the NCCC study area.

First, given the roads in question, the traffic distribution (identified in the NCCC study) is not surprising: at the end of the freeway, there are ten freeway standard traffic lanes (five each way). By the time traffic reaches Macarthur Avenue in Royal Park, the corresponding ‘connection’ is a two-lane road (one lane each way). The traffic distribution is as much a function of the roads available, which progressively reduce in capacity towards the west, as it is a reflection of the demand for a particular direction of travel.

Secondly, when the (Eddington) Study Team analysed how traffic from the Eastern Freeway is distributed (with the analysis closely matching the NCCC distribution), it revealed that around 40 per cent of the daily traffic from the freeway travels beyond the central city area – to the south and the west. That is the case with the current network: in the future, EastLink will add a new dimension.

The Eddington Report also argues (page 137) the NCCC study focussed on Eastern Freeway traffic and didn’t fully consider traffic using adjacent streets instead. Moreover, it didn’t recommend against the tunnel because insufficient vehicles would use it, but rather because the high cost of construction yielded an inadequate benefit-cost ratio. Read the rest of this entry »


Will Baillieu abandon Melbourne Metro (in favour of the East-West road tunnel)?

Melbourne Metro - proposed tunnel alignment and stations

From Wednesday’s Crikey newsletter (gated), in the Tips and Rumours section:

Vic government tunnels under greenies. A Victorian political spy reckons the Baillieu government is about to resurrect the East-West road tunnel underneath Royal Park at the expense of the Labor government’s planned Melbourne Metro scheme. It’s “a big up-yours to all the inner-city greenies that gave the old government such a run-around,” they say.

Assuming the Crikey report is well-founded (and it might not be – it is only a rumour, after all), I wouldn’t expect any government would be silly enough to announce it is abandoning a rail project in favour of a road project. No, it would say it’s going to do both.

The road would simply get priority over the rail project when scarce capital funds are doled out. The $40 million already allocated from Infrastructure Australia for Melbourne Metro will continue to be applied to feasibility studies and planning approvals, but if Crikey’s report is true, the project will languish for want of the billions needed to build it.

If that’s what’s intended by the Government, it could create an enormous problem. I’m not so much concerned that the Government might dare to build a new freeway as I am about the possible loss of the Melbourne Metro project.

Melbourne Metro is a response to the looming shortfall in capacity in the city’s rail system. What’s needed to expand capacity, according to the Eddington Report, is a new line in the CBD, essentially linking Flinders St and Southern Cross stations.

This could be achieved with a relatively short tunnel. However Eddington recommended that it be done with a much more ambitious tunnel running from Footscray to The Domain (and ultimately Caulfield) with new stations at North Melbourne, Parkville, the CBD (two) and The Domain – see exhibit. The first option costs a lot less but the second provides more capacity and has wider economic benefits, especially in terms of enhanced urban development.

If funding for Melbourne Metro is to be delayed (and again I emphasise the “if”), the Government needs to explain how it’s going to deal with the looming rail capacity problem in the city centre.


Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?

Fawcett and Ashworth's design for the Swanston Street facade (unbuilt)

It now seems clear the Government’s Flinders Street Station Design Competition is about much more than merely restoring the station to its former glory. This could be a redevelopment project, albeit one that respects heritage values. According to this statement from Major Projects Victoria, the Government will be looking for:

The best ideas from around the world to re-energise the station and its surrounds while making sure critical heritage values are maintained. Designs will be expected to address the station’s transport function, heritage requirements, urban design and integration with its surrounds as well as providing a value for money construction proposal.

At first glance a design competition seems like a good idea, but on further reflection I’m not so sure.

Architectural competitions have several advantages. If they’re open to all comers they allow for a range of interpretations of the brief and are more likely to draw in unusual, spectacular and ‘left field’ entries. It is unarguable that a radical conception like Utzon’s vision for Sydney’s Opera House would not have been selected in the absence of an international competition.

Competitions are a useful way to excite public interest in a project. They can also give up and coming architectural practices the chance to enter an otherwise exclusive club. Some of our most applauded buildings – like the Opera House and Federation Square – were the result of international competitions.

But they also have their risks. Designing a building to win a competition is not quite the same task as designing one strictly on the basis of fulfilling the brief. Competitions favour ideas that stand out from the crowd – they favour high impact visions. Sometimes the basic function, practicality and financial viability of the building can be compromised – the Sydney Opera House is one of the better known examples of this phenomenon.

There’s also a risk that entries will not be prepared with an appropriate level of diligence. Entrants don’t know they’re going to win, so rationally they’re going to make compromises to limit costs. That might not be so bad if the winner can correct the shortcomings, but once a proposal is selected the major parameters are often locked in, immediately limiting the scope for adaptation (I know short-listed entrants are often paid, but it’s usually not enough).

Some functional compromise might possibly be a price worth paying if the new Flinders Street Station were to became as iconic as the Opera House, Bilbao or the Guggenheim, but the odds on that are astronomical. No one really understands why a handful of buildings become international symbols, but the fact is millions don’t.

The key thing about this project is it will be extremely complex. Any use of the site is constrained by four key factors. First, there’s the need to protect perhaps the most iconic building in Melbourne, with high historic values. Second, it’s Melbourne’s busiest rail station – functional efficiency really, really matters and transit operations can’t be disturbed during construction. Three, if it proceeds, the proposed Melbourne Metro rail line also has to be incorporated within the complex. Four, the setting is a limiting factor – it includes the river, Princes Bridge, Fed Square, St Pauls, the view of the station across the river from Southbank, and more. Whatever’s built at the station has to take account and give due respect to the neighbours.

When it comes down to it, I doubt there’d be many projects more unsuitable for a design competition. There’s much more at stake here than a potentially functionally compromised opera house. This is the sort of extraordinarily complex project where a solution needs to be developed very, very carefully. There must be considerable research, testing and consultation with all the parties and interests involved. Theoretically this might be sorted out during the development of the brief but I think a much better outcome would be achieved if all parties, including the architects, were intimately involved from the outset.

In fact this just highlights that the key issue here isn’t “design” but “use”. What really matters is what sort of activities, commercial and public, could possibly work at Flinders Street Station without compromising the existing building, the entire metropolitan rail system and the integrity and value of the surrounding uses. A huge effort is needed to get the brief right. My expectation is that what will work here – given all the constraints – won’t be the kind of potentially spectacular stuff that in design terms would traditionally be put out to a competition.  Read the rest of this entry »