Melbourne's freeway madness continues

Melbourne is drowning in cars and choking on petrol fumes. At the same time, the privatised public transport system is in serious crisis.

Around 160,000 vehicles now use the West Gate bridge daily compared to 40,000 in 1978. Average speed on the West Gate Freeway today is a creeping 40 kilometres per hour in peak hour compared to 75kmph a decade ago. The newly-built Eastlink tollway, linking Frankston and Mitcham, will spill an additional 10% more city-bound traffic onto the already jam-packed Eastern Freeway.

Road toll corporation Transurban has even admitted in its Citylink keeping Melbourne Moving report that the tolled Citylink, launched 11 years ago, has not fulfilled its promise to reduce congestion. There are vehicle back-ups of up to 20km during peak hour.

Lengthy traffic jams are now commonplace on all main arterial roads. A December 2007 Melbourne University study (Travel to Work in Australian Capital Cities from 1976-2006) by a group of academics, including leading transport planner Paul Mees, found that more Melbournians were traveling to work in cars compared to Sydneysiders, despite the latter's larger work force.

Meanwhile, the privatised public transport system is in serious crisis. The April 14 Melbourne Age estimated that there has been a 30% increase in public transport patronage over the last three years. Since 2001, there's been a 700% increase in trains considered by the state government to be "overloaded". Many Melbourne suburbs have negligible or no access to public transport.

The May 6 state budget only allocated $794 million to public transport network, rail freight and port projects. Perpetuating the unsustainable dependency on motor vehicles, it allocated $769.7 million to roads.

Solutions?

Solutions to Melbourne's transport mess were supposed to be found in the recently-released $5 million East West Link Needs Assessment (EWLNA) plan by businessperson Ron Eddington. Public submissions close on July 15.

Eddington, with no experience in urban planning, was headhunted by the Labor government in 2006 to conduct an "independent" inquiry into the state's transport needs.

The $18 billion proposals suggested in Eddington's EWLNA study confirmed that, if implemented, the project would be extremely costly and wasteful.

The two key EWLNA recommendations to ease congestion are an 18-kilometre East West road tunnel and 17-kilometre rail tunnel, costing around $17 billion combined.

Funding for this super expensive plan is supposed to largely come from the pro-business public private partnerships (PPPs), and possibly special taxes. Unsurprisingly, big business is giving EWLNA the thumbs up, with the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry describing the plan as important pieces of "nation building" infrastructure.

However, a 2003 study — the Northern Central City Corridor Study — had already rejected the road tunnel, arguing that it was unnecessary because the majority of traffic on the eastern freeway was city bound.

Eddington based his new recommendation for a road tunnel on the calculation that 90% of travel in 2031 will be made by car and that peak-hour journeys will increase by one third.

Ken Davidson, writing in the February 25 Age, criticised as unviable such a road tunnel in the age of global warming and rising petrol prices. If we have run out of oil by 2017, a completed tunnel by 2019 would be totally redundant, Davidson said.

Eddington's bid to breath life into Melbourne's disastrous public transport system via the train tunnel has also fallen flat.

Mees told a rally on May 25 that the traffic woes could be solved by increasing the capacity of public transport, rather than a mega rail tunnel. The Public Transport Users Association found that only 95 suburban trains were running to the city during peak hour, roughly the same as in 1964, even though the system was designed to cope with an additional 65 trains.

Kilometres of freeway

Since 1976, more kilometres of freeway have been built in Melbourne than in any other Australian city according to the 2007 Melbourne University study. But there has not been any significant extension in suburban heavy rail since 1930.

The study found that Melbourne had the lowest usage of public transport of all capital cities, and argues that the city's poor public transport planning had been exacerbated by privatisation.

The lack of an integrated public transport system has even attracted international notoriety. The European Community's HighTrans Best Practice Guide to Public Transport Network Planning is using Melbourne as a case study in bad planning!

Melbourne's population is expected to rise from 3.8 million to 4.5 million by 2020, according to forecasts based on 2006 census data. Much of this population growth is in the outer suburbs which have little, if any, public transport and few job opportunities. According to the April 27 Age, fuel use for transport already accounted for 14% of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. By 2020, it is projected to increase on 1990 levels by 67%.

The only environmental and socially just solution to the city's transport woes is for a massive investment of public funding into frequent and reliable public transport and rail freight infrastructure, all powered by sustainable energy sources.