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Melbourne’s Public Transport Woes

The City Loop was opened in 1981. Since that time, there has been only one train line extension, from Epping to South Morang. Over this time period, we have shutdown train lines to Clyde and Mornington, where population growth has seen a need emerge for them to be recommissioned. The line to Williamstown Pier has been abolished and we’ve converted the St Kilda & Port Melbourne Train lines into tram routes.

While our investment in the metropolitan train network has been minimal over the past 30 years, if not non-existent, we have invested tens of billions into our road network. We’ve built Citilink, the Monash Freeway (and widened it twice), the Western Ring Rd (and widened it), the Deer Park Bypass, the Campbellfield Bypass, the Princes Freeway, Eastlink, the Dandenong Bypass, the Dingley Bypass, the Mornington Peninsula Freeway and we’ve widened the West Gate Bridge. Currently under construction is the Western Distributor and planning for the North-East Link, whilst the idea of building the East-West link still simmers along.

Despite all of this investment in our road network, congestion is arguably at the worst it’s ever been, and getting worse. Clearly the way we are going about things is all wrong. We cannot build our way out of congestion with more roads, history has shown that, and so have the experiences of other larger cities across the globe. Hong Kong, Seoul, London, Paris, Madrid, New York and Tokyo have all realised that the best way forward is to invest heavily in public transport. The more roads we build, the more cars that will come. There should be no doubt that our love affair with the personal motor vehicle in Melbourne needs to end.

There are a number of fundamental problems we have with our public transport network. Priority is not given to public transport, the system is too centralised, and it is unreliable, inefficient and infrequent. As a result, people are reluctant to rely on it as a primary method of travel.

Unless your destination is the CBD, it is very difficult to see the advantages of public transport over the use of a car, particularly in terms of reliability and efficiency. If we are to be serious about addressing congestion, we need to decentralise our workforce, but in order to do that we need to provide our population with a method and a means of travelling to their workplace without having to travel through the city. Unfortunately the resurrection of the inner and outer city train loops is simply not feasible, with the possible exception of extending the Alamein line underground to Oakleigh with a station at Chadstone with funding contribution from the Centre. Accordingly, the only real way to address cross city connections is again with dedicated bus lanes and a SmartBus network.

The age old argument is always that buses run empty or are under-utilised. Of course they are. At the moment no-one wants to catch a bus and why would you? When people are planning their daily commute, they can’t afford to arrive at a bus stop only to find they’ve either missed the bus and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one, or their bus is delayed 15 minutes and therefore they’ll miss their connecting services. Then there’s the problem of the buses that take 40 minutes to get 5km down the road as they wind through suburban streets. While the introduction of the SmartBus network was a success, its implementation has stalled and despite the success of the Route 900, other SmartBus routes have not been upgraded to match its design. For those who haven’t experienced the Route 900 SmartBus, it has dedicated bus lanes, runs along major roads, only has a small number of stops a few kilometres apart and runs seven days a week until midnight and every 15 minutes on weekdays. It is a largely reliable route, frequent and provides a quick and efficient trip from point A to point B. Smaller, localised bus routes run around residential streets and passengers can use this service to get to a SmartBus stop. Given the success of this service, why are we widening freeways and not installing dedicated bus lanes? In fact, why aren’t we installing dedicated bus lanes along major arterial roads such as Springvale Road to enable more of these routes? If buses had dedicated lanes, with frequent services, the reliability would make them an attractive alternative, something which they are not at present.

In the days leading up to this article being posted, the State Government announced a dedicated bus route down the Eastern Freeway. Naturally, the immediate reaction from people is that this means the death of Doncaster Rail, but I believe that it will actually enhance its prospects. It’s clearly obvious that at the moment there is no political will from either side of politics to build a train line to Doncaster, or it would have been built long before now (it was first proposed 127 years ago). If the new bus service proves to be highly successful and well utilised over the next 10 years, the Government will be forced to replace it with heavy rail. Despite the Melbourne public’s distaste for our bus network, buses can be an excellent transport option when they are implemented correctly. The O-Bahn busway in Adelaide has an average speed, including stops, of 80km p/h. In comparison, Melbourne’s trains have an average speed of 40km p/h while our trams have an average of 18km p/h. In other words, Adelaide’s well designed dedicated bus route runs at twice the speed of our Trains.

While the Government’s proposal is a terrific initiative, it still falls short of being an optimal bus solution because the proposed route still has the buses running along a congested Hoddle Street. No doubt the Government, and Vicroads, will tell us they will make a whole stack of various road configuration changes but ultimately there is simply too much traffic on the road and the best option would be for buses to take an alternate route. The ideal solution would be to build an extra level underneath the new CBD North Melbourne Metro Train Station and have buses terminating there, with a dedicated bus tunnel running to the start of the Eastern Freeway and a stop at the hospital precinct on the way through. It could be the precursor to a brand new way of moving people around our city. That may sound revolutionary, but Brisbane built them with great success. I do concede, however, that it’s highly unlikely such a proposal will ever be realised in the distant future. Acknowledging that, there is a much better route for these new buses on existing infrastructure, whilst avoiding Hoddle Street completely and thereby actually reducing congestion along the road. The new dedicated bus lanes should continue along Alexandra Parade, with buses turning up Nicholson Street, driving along the tram lines and then running down and terminating in La Trobe Street. Lonsdale Street struggles with the amount of buses running down it at the moment, and buses have to deal with a large amount of pedestrians and cars entering and exiting the many car parks. La Trobe Street is a lot wider, rather under-utilised and better placed to handle frequent bus services and large numbers of commuters.

The tram network is not immune from problems either and we need to assess exactly how it fits in to the overall picture of our public transport network. There are a myriad of routes that simply terminate in the middle of nowhere. The number 5 tram ends at Burke Road in Malvern East, yet extending it less than 2km down the road would provide passengers with a direct link to Darling Train Station. The number 3 tram ends at Darling Road in Malvern East and extending it less than 3km would provide passengers with direct access to Chadstone Shopping Centre and East Malvern station. The 64 tram terminates at Nepean Hwy and could easily be extended to either North or Middle Brighton Stations, or, preferably, along Nepean Hwy and then down South Road and terminate at Brighton Beach railway station, opening up public transport options for beachgoers and train travellers alike. There are many more examples.

A lot has been written in the media about the lack of parking at train stations, but again this is simply unsustainable. According to the State Government, the cost of a single carpark ranges between $20,000 and $22,000 – think about that for a minute, that’s more than the cost of buying a small car. In fact, if we look at the Syndal Station multideck carpark, the cost of a single parking spot was more than $45,000 – more than the cost of a family Commodore. Building car parks at train stations is nothing more than throwing away money that could be used for much better purposes. Estimations are that the cost to run a brand new bus route for an entire year is roughly $1M. That means that the $11 million that was spent building the multi-deck carpark in Syndal two years ago (which is full by 7am most days), could have funded 6 new bus routes in their entirety by now. We need to invest in ways of getting people from their front door to the train station. My grandparents didn’t own a car until their retirement and my grandmother never held a license, mainly because they didn’t need to drive. With our population set to double in the next 20 years, we can never ever build enough carparks or enough roads to handle that volume of traffic.

Decentralisation of Melbourne is often a topic that is bought up when discussing the future of Melbourne. Quite a few people have said to me that the Government needs to start providing incentives for business to move or start up in regional cities such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Warragul. This is all good and well, but travel times of two hours to get there from the city, and then back again, is simply not workable. While there will be some families willing to relocate to these towns rather than commute, the large majority have a preference to stay in areas where they have support from their parents and families, especially in an environment where both parents need to work. If we are serious about encouraging diversification of our workforce, we need to invest in high speed trains to these areas and aim for travel times of less than an hour. It can be achieved, there are plenty of examples of where it has been implemented and worked; Japan, China, the UK, even Russia has high speed rail between Moscow and St Petersburg. This would enable us to help address the housing affordability crisis as well, by enabling potential home owners to buy in these regional areas and commute to workplaces within the CBD.

Sixty years ago a lot of families didn’t even own a car, yet they were able to get around the city without any problems. Pictures of a lot of various Melbourne streets from the time look rather empty. Yes, there were less people, but there were also less suburbs and a much smaller geographical space, but that space was well serviced by public transport. Then we stopped investing in public transport and started building roads instead. And here we are. There are 28,000 plus households in the City of Melbourne who do not own a car. In each of the inner city Councils of Moreland, Yarra, Stonnington and Port Phillip, more than 7500 households don’t own a car. They don’t need to; their various public transport options are accessible, frequent and reliable. On the flip side, thousands of households from the outer city Councils have four or more vehicles each as it is their only option of movement.

The attitudes of our Governments of all political persuasions needs to change, but in order for them to change, our demands of politicians also need to change. The current impatient attitude of us, the voters, means that Governments are always trying to address the current congestion issues rather than investing in long term solutions. Building more roads is pouring valuable money down the drain. We widened the Monash less than a decade ago, now we’re doing it again. We need to get people out of cars and into mass transit options, but we need to change our attitudes towards travel and accept that if we are serious about building for the future sustainability of our transport needs, we will need to endure short-term pain.

The fundamental question is; will we have a Government brave enough to make the right choices for the long-term viability of our city, and will the voters allow them to remain in power if they choose to make them?

NB: It’s important to acknowledge that during the past 40 years, a number of train lines have been electrified and tram routes extended. There have also been new stations along existing train lines at Roxburgh Park, Keilor Plains, Diggers Rest and Caroline Springs. It is also worth acknowledging that the current State Government is investing in new stations, and this is to be commended, as is the massive investment in building the Melbourne Metro, but we have a lot to catch up on.