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.

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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.


What to do about fare evasion?

% journeys where fare is evaded (Metlink data)

Metlink released its Metropolitan Fare Evasion Survey on the weekend, which apparently shows 13.5% of trips on public transport in Melbourne in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for.

The figure for trams, where it’s easier to avoid paying, was much higher – The Age’s headline was One in five evading fares on trams (see exhibit).

Metlink’s disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was released to the media, but not to public transport users, so we can’t read it (in fact the most recent media release available on Metlink’s web site as of today is 17 August!).

However fortunately The Age has cited some of the findings in this indignant editorial, Fare dodgers owe us all big time. I also stumbled across Metlink’s Network revenue protection plan 2010 which was released under FOI and made available publicly by The Age (I do like it when media use the power of the digital world to supply supporting documentation online).

Metlink’s Network Revenue Protection report provides some interesting findings based on focus group research. I found it surprising only a small proportion of travellers actually always pay the fare  – most people have not paid the fare at some time and some don’t pay frequently. The sorts of explanations offered are “because I didn’t have any change” or “because I could get away with it”.

Worryingly, the report argues that “fare evasion is seen as normative behaviour shared by the majority of the population”. Prevalent public attitudes are:

  • Even people who admit to occasional fare evasion do not see themselves as ‘fare evaders’ i.e.they don’t see what they do as wrong
  • Fare evasion is seen as socially acceptable i.e. it is perceived that everyone does it
  • Opportunistic or inadvertent fare evasion leads to more systematic fare evasion as people learn how to ‘get away with it’
  • Some customers are unwilling to pay for what they perceive as poor service delivery
  • The existing ticketing system is perceived as letting passengers down – it’s too confusing, too hard to use, etc
  • Poor value for money – despite the value provided by ‘bulk’ tickets, Melburnians are more likely than users in other Australian cities to consider public transport expensive
  • Some customers like the idea of  ‘playing the game’ and actively take on the system.

Many comments on The Age’s news report support this conclusion. Not paying fares is variously justified by difficulties with buying or validating tickets, inadequate information about ticketing requirements, poor quality of service, and expensive prices. Some suggest conductors should be restored to trams and some, with imaginative logic, say making public transport free would put paid to the problem of fare evasion (pun not intended).

Trams present a particular difficulty for protecting revenue because they’re relatively “open”. It isn’t practical to have barriers at city stops like there are at loop rail stations. Even with the best of intentions, ticket purchase and validation can be difficult on a crowded tram. Chronic evaders can “hover” near a validation point and only use it if an inspector comes aboard.

Whatever measures are adopted to increase fare compliance, there are limits. There’s always going to be a trade-off between minimising non-compliance, maintaining an attractive experience for bona fide travellers, and keeping costs within sensible bounds – this is public transport, so there’s a political constraint as well. Some lost revenue is inevitable: almost all retail businesses tolerate some degree of freeloading because beyond a certain point the cost relative to the saving in foregone revenue is too high. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s trains really this bad?

Hurstbridge line, yesterday

The amazing thing about this footage is that it was filmed only yesterday at Montmorency on the Hurstbridge rail line. The truly shocking thing is apparently this section of track was upgraded to concrete sleepers last year.

It was uploaded to Youtube by Rocketboy 1950, who says:

I shot this footage on the Hurstbridge line at Montmorency. It is testament to how safe trains are and how they will handle extraordinarily bad track without going arse over head. This is of course not to say that some of the passengers will be going to see a chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon to have their backs put right after riding the trains through here.

Expertly placed on a curve.

Update: Channel 7 now on to this and ran this story on Friday evening news.


Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?

Hot wheels metropolis (1200 cars, but no trains)

The Committee for Melbourne has called for a $17.2 billion program to remove all Melbourne’s level crossings over the next 20 years.

The Committee says just two separations of road and rail were constructed by the Kennett government and two by the Bracks/Brumby government. While Melbourne has 172 level crossings, Sydney tackled the issue years ago and now has only eight.

However the Baillieu government has given an undertaking to grade-separate ten crossings at an estimated cost, on average, of around $100 million each. The Committee reckons the private sector could pay a big chunk of the $17.2 billion cost in return for the commercial rights to each site, although the Herald-Sun warns such a move would very likely “be fiercely opposed by anti-development groups”.

There’s a lot to be said for giving a higher priority in the transport capital works program to eliminating level crossings, as they present a number of problems. One is they slow traffic, including buses and trucks. According to the RACV’s public policy manager, Brian Negus, crossings along the Dandenong line are closed for 30-40 minutes an hour during the peak, exacerbating traffic congestion. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the share of public transport trips carried by buses increases. The interaction between crossings and nearby signalled junctions is a major barrier to the efficient performance of the transport network.

Level crossings also impose a limit on the frequency of train services. There are only so many trains that can realistically be sent down a line given each service entails stopping traffic in both directions for well in excess of one minute (in Newcastle, crossings are closed on average for passenger and freight trains for between three and seven minutes!). Some crossings are forecast to carry nearly 40 trains per hour in the peak by 2021.  Another issue is traffic queuing across rail lines — as well as the occasional car/train incident — limits the efficiency of the network. Further, level crossings are a safety hazard for pedestrians and give parents a reason to discourage children from walking to school.

While I’ve not seen an analysis for Melbourne, there’s little doubt the benefit-cost ratio of level crossing elimination would be very high. I expect it would be well ahead of some other much larger transport projects, such as the Avalon, Doncaster or Rowville rail proposals.

There are nevertheless a number of issues raised by this proposal. One is the need to prioritise works – some crossings are relatively minor and simply don’t warrant expenditure in the forseeable future. Probably 80% of the benefits will come from grade separating 20% of crossings. Back in 2009, the Public Transport Users Association argued these ten crossing should be given the highest priority, given their impact on road-based public transport:

  • Bell Street and Munro Street, Coburg (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Springvale Road, Springvale (Smartbus 888/889)
  • Bell Street, Cramer Street and Murray Road, Preston (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Glen Huntly Road and Neerim Road, Glenhuntly (one project) (Tram 67, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Balcombe Road, Mentone (Smartbus 903)
  • Buckley Street, Essendon (Smartbus 903)
  • Clayton Road, Clayton (Smartbus 703)
  • Burke Road, Gardiner (Tram 72, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Camp Road, Campbellfield (crossing elimination and new station) (proposed Smartbus 902)
  • Glenferrie Road, Kooyong (Tram 16, and trains subject to speed restrictions)

That’s a particular perspective, yet it matches some of the RACV’s priorities. Last year the RACV said the four worst crossings in Melbourne are in High Street near Reservoir station, on Burke Road near Gardiner station in Glen Iris, on Clayton Road next to Clayton station, and Murrumbeena Road near the station. The Dandenong rail corridor also figures high in the RACV’s priorities.

I’m not sure there is as much value in development rights as the Committee for Melbourne imagines. Many level crossings, perhaps most, may not have enough suitable land available for development after meeting grade separation and operational needs. The most promising opportunities are probably where the rail line rather than the road has been lowered, but this can be expensive. Many of those that do have land available may be in locations considered unsuitable for development by planners. And let’s be clear that development in air space over railway lines is a fantasy – it’s simply too expensive in all but an extremely small number of cases. For practical purposes, development in air space is not an option. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Avalon side-tracking Tullamarine rail?

Some famous faces spruiking Avalon Airport to Chinese investors

The Baillieu Government is determined to press on with its election commitment to start construction of the $250 million rail link to Avalon Airport in its first term. The Premier did this nice photo op last week waving-in planes at Avalon.

The Age reporter, Andrew Heasley, took a clever line, asking how the Government could commit to Avalon while spending just $6 million on a feasibility study for a rail line to Melbourne Airport. That produced this bizarre explanation from the State’s Aviation Minister, Gordon Rich-Phillips, who effectively said Avalon is going ahead because it’s easier:

There are challenges around an airport link for Melbourne ……Avalon is a clearer project than Melbourne in terms of the logistics associated with doing it. The reality is.…the lack of development around its [Avalon’s] immediate vicinity makes a lot of those logistics questions at Avalon easier than they are for Melbourne….. We have committed to work at Avalon and we’ve committed to feasibility at Melbourne. We don’t have a project for Melbourne [Airport], we have a feasibility study for Melbourne.

While I admire Mr Rich-Phillip’s unusual and possibly courageous frankness, I can’t see that ease matters more than need. Otherwise we’d build new schools where it’s cheapest rather than where the population is growing. Or the Government would be putting Protective Services Officers in retirement villages rather than on rail stations.

I won’t go into depth about what a silly idea the Avalon rail link is because I discussed it only a few weeks ago (Is the Avalon rail link Baillieu’s folly?). Suffice to say that Melbourne Airport is 22 km from the CBD, is the second busiest airport in the country, and has enormous scope for expansion; Avalon is 55 km away, has just six scheduled flights a day, and has enormous scope for expansion. Even if a rail line were built to Avalon, you’d have to wonder what the frequency, hours of operation and ongoing financial losses would be – it’s got to be sobering that Brisbane Airport’s train stops running at 8pm. I don’t have any problem with Avalon Airport per se, my worry is why taxpayers have to kick in when there are better uses our dollars could be put to.

This fascinating PR video produced to market Avalon to Chinese investors (see exhibit) shows what a cast of famous characters are backing Lindsay Fox’s Avalon venture, from the Prime Minister to the Lord Mayor. I know some gilding of the lily should be expected, but seriously Robert Doyle, how could you say “Avalon is the gateway to Melbourne” with a straight face? And as if, Lindsay Fox, travellers using Avalon could continue to get “on a plane in five minutes” if it really did grow to the size you imagine and hope it will?

What I didn’t know until I viewed the video is the Victorian Government, according to the Premier, has “committed to build a fuel pipeline for jets” to Avalon. This is all on the back of Avalon being “Melbourne’s second international airport”. As I’ve said before, it’s time we were given some explanation for what a second international airport actually means – is it something more than a place for motor racing teams and pop stars to land their cargos once a year? No one is going to seriously believe they’ll transport Ferraris to Albert Park or amplifiers to Rod Laver Arena by rail. What’s the logic behind it? We need a clear explanation – in terms of quantified benefits – of why governments are apparently prepared to spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure for Avalon.

Of course, construction of Avalon rail will have minimal practical effect on the need for a rail link to Melbourne Airport, although it could conceivably have a big effect on whether the Government feels obliged politically to proceed with the latter project. What they both have in common however is that no considered case has yet been made for either one. However The Age’s story – subsequently taken up as fact by these letter writers to the paper – implies that rail to Melbourne Airport is automatically a good idea. It’s certainly an infinitely better idea than rail to Avalon (what wouldn’t be?), but it’s by no means obvious that it’s needed now, as I’ve pointed out a number of times before (see Airports & Aviation in Categories list in the sidepane). Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Avalon rail link Baillieu’s folly?

In her famous book, The march of folly: from Troy to Vietnam, multiple Pulitzer Prize winning author Barbara Tuchman describes how governments sometimes persist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, with policies that are against their own interests.

Ted Baillieu’s folly might be his Government’s unconditional election commitment to build a rail line to Avalon Airport. Handed the perfect opportunity to begin stepping backwards from the project by reports of Tiger Airway’s imminent withdrawal of all services from Avalon in favour of Tullamarine, the Premier was steadfast in his support for the Avalon link.

Although Tiger accounts for half of all Avalon’s airline business, the Premier is reported as saying that he doesn’t think a pull-out by Tiger would have any longer term implications for the airport. In another report, the Premier told The Age planning for the rail line would continue irrespective of what Tiger does:

The rail link is part of the development of Avalon and if you look at the numbers around Melbourne airport, there is going to be a need for a second international airport

No doubt there’ll come a day when Melbourne does need a second major airport, but as I’ve explained before, we’re a long, long way from that now. In fact spare airport capacity is one of the city’s great competitive strengths compared to arch-rival Sydney. If the Federal Government’s current investigations conclude that High Speed Rail between Sydney and Melbourne is viable, the warrant for a second major airport in this city would recede even further into the future. In any event, given the majority of Melbourne’s population lives south of the Yarra and will be for many years yet, it’s not obvious that locating an airport near Geelong would be the most sensible course to pursue.

Now is the time to be planning long-term for a future airport, not to be building the associated infrastructure – yet the Government has committed to starting construction of the Avalon rail link in its first term. Read the rest of this entry »