Victoria is a big winner in the federal budget, receiving almost $7.8 billion of the $24.5 billion set aside for infrastructure spending.
The spend includes $475 million towards a rail connection to the Monash precinct, $50 million for the Geelong rail line, $225 million to electrify the Frankston-Baxter rail line, and $5 billion towards a Melbourne airport rail link, if the Victorian Government puts forward the same amount.
Roads are not neglected – but they do come in second – with $1.75 billion promised for the north-east link, and $132 million for the Princes Highway East. In addition, Victoria will receive a $140 million “congestion package”.
The spending is welcome, because Melbourne is in trouble.
More than new 2000 residents are arriving each week, with the population expected to reach five million by the end of June. The trains and trams are full to bursting, and 70 per cent of the city’s residents lack access to frequent, reliable public transport.
The result is a city divided between those who live on the under-serviced fringes, and those on tram and train lines.
“The gigantic hidden elephant problem that no one wants to talk about” are the long distances separating residents in outer suburbs from work, school and healthcare, says Monash Professor Graham Currie, who holds the Chair of Public Transport.
Cars are filling Melbourne’s public transport gaps, but they can’t provide a long-term solution, he says.
“We don’t have enough public transport in this city, and we’re trying to grow at the same time. And that’s why we end up needing more and more road access, and we end up having roads like the Monash freeway, which are stupid roads, because they just fill up … It’s a road to disaster. It is a road to problems.”
Meanwhile, around the world, car use is falling.
“Young people aren’t driving as much as they used to”, partly for environmental reasons, but also because of road congestion, he says.
Driverless cars not the answer
In response, vehicle manufacturers are pushing autonomous vehicles as a way forward. But Professor Currie says the brave new world of driverless cars won’t solve the future demands for mass transit.
“Would you share an autonomous vehicle with a complete stranger, and nobody else there?” he asks. “What about children? Where are you going to send them in an autonomous vehicle? Where do you draw the line?” He outlines a hypothetical scenario of a family needing to send young children to school and kindergarten. Would parents be willing to allow them to travel alone in a driverless car?
“We don’t have enough public transport in this city, and we’re trying to grow at the same time. And ... we end up having roads like the Monash Freeway, which are stupid roads, because they just fill up … It’s a road to disaster.”
Expanding public transport is a more logical and sustainable way of connecting residents to the services they need. Melbourne already has the largest tram network in the world, and a very substantial urban train network. Asked for his public transport wish list for Melbourne, Professor Currie says his No.1 wish – an underground metro for central Melbourne – is already under construction. He says he first proposed a “north-south underground” rail project in 2005.
The Melbourne Metro, due for completion in 2025, will link the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines in the southeast to the Sunbury line in the northwest, allowing for more frequent train services across the network. The project includes the construction of twin 9km rail tunnels between South Yarra and South Kensington station, and five new underground stations. They will help relieve pressure on Swanston Street tram services and provide a new way of travelling around and through the city centre.
Professor Currie hopes the Melbourne Metro will be stage one of a larger plan to reconfigure the other train lines passing through the city, increasing their volume and efficiency. “East-west, I imagine, will be the next one. From the west you would go under the river and link up with Docklands.” The rail network should also be extended to Doncaster, which now has no rail or tram services.
His second wish is to improve the tram services. The tram network is “really a street car network, because most of the tram operations are in the streets, which is highly inefficient”, he says. “We take $9 million vehicles and put them in the middle of a traffic stream. We should give them their own right of way. That will be very hard, because local residents and trader objections stop needed changes for the majority. It’s too politically difficult to do the right thing for trams. I think Melbourne needs a public enquiry about trams – to bring out the facts, listen to objectors and make real decisions based on evidence for the future of inner Melbourne.”
Professor Currie’s third wish is that “we need to start having serious bus services here”. Melbourne’s buses have an average frequency of every 30 minutes, which is inadequate, he says. The nine bus routes that form the SmartBus network are a positive development. The first SmartBuses began running in 2002. The network comprises cross-town and orbital bus routes, designed to fill the gaps in the city’s fixed rail services. SmartBuses run seven days a week, from 5am until midnight, and have limited dedicated bus lanes on most routes. The service “is quite successful, in my opinion, but it’s still under-baked”, Professor Currie says. “We need to be running buses every five minutes. When you run frequency, people come.”
Expanding public transport is logical because “the city is growing by a massive amount”. “How do we fill up the space we have for transport? Do we fill it with cars, with one passenger? Or do we fill it with buses with lots of people in them?”
The questions aren’t merely rhetorical. He says the rate of shared care travel in Melbourne has been falling for the past 30 years, while the rate of car ownership “is growing immensely”. Overseas studies have shown that building bigger roads encourages people to buy more cars – then the roads fill, and more cars are needed. “All we’re doing is creating a huge problem. We have got to stop doing it.”
The Tesla pioneer Elon Musk caused a social media stir last December when he said “public transport sucks”.
"Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people. that doesn't leave where you want it to leave, doesn't start where you want it to start, doesn't end where you want it to end?" Musk said.And it doesn't go all the time. That's why everyone doesn't like it."
Musk argued that "individualised transport was the answer, but Professor Currie says this is a billionaire car manufacturer's fantasy. Environmentally, socially and practically, trams and buses make more sense.
“Transport is about more than just access,” he says. “It’s about the whole future of our society.”