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Population shock: we now, more than ever, need to radically re-think Melbourne's transport network

The headlines might be screaming about our 'liveability' being under threat with high levels of population growth in Victoria, but that's just noise. No, Melbourne's population problem is that we have a cabal of industry, politicians and some segments of the media who up until this point have been wedded to the notion that we can continue to 'balance' the infrastructure investment in both freeways and public transport.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers that I think this orthodoxy is deplorable and giving false hope to many residents (and voters) that 'congestion can be fixed'.

The perfect storm of high population growth, congestion caused by a lack of foresight and congestion caused by the myriad of transport network upgrades currently on the go at present are likely to lead to some knee-jerk reactions, but now more than ever it's important to remain focused on attacking car-dependency head-on.

The recently released 2016 census data last week was followed up with an updated forecast of Victoria's population growth to December 2016. The state's population saw 146,600 new residents settle here last year, according to ABS forecasts.

It's a modern-day record, as illustrated by this chart from Pete Wargent's blog on the topic.

State population growth. Chart source: Pete Wargent

This has happened at a time when Victoria and New South Wales are approaching the previous peak of net overseas migration, but at the national level, the numbers are still down on the pre-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) era.

Net overseas migration. Chart source: Pete Wargent

Note the significant decline in WA and QLD's net overseas migration against the increases in VIC and NSW.

Up until the GFC, net interstate migration was quite predictable: NSW has always seen a net loss of population from interstate to Queensland. Victoria used to be in the same boat but around the GFC, the paradigm has changed.

Net interstate migration. Chart source: Pete Wargent

One angle that's not made it to the mainstream commentariat yet is one that I'm willing to bet where during the pre-GFC era WA and QLD were sucking up a lot more of the net overseas migration to build all the infrastructure that facilitated the mining boom, we're now seeing VIC and NSW taking in these workers to build all the infrastructure and new housing that's been taking place over the past few years.

This labour mobility is made possible by our federation and the implied freedom of movement across state and territory borders. I'm thinking out loud here, however one wonders if some of the commentators who've stated that authorities might want to look at ways to somehow restrict movements - requiring new visa holding migrants to settle in certain parts of the country - are thinking long-term in this instance.

Do we really want to require people to live and work in a specific region of Australia when their skills are in greater demand in other parts of the country? Likewise, is it 'constitutional'?

Moreover, so what if Victoria's economic growth of late has been primarily been fueled by population growth and the construction sector?

Again, it's just a headline but scratching even the thinnest layer off the top of what the 'construction sector' is doing in Victoria, you'll see large-scale projects like level crossing removals which is employing thousands and the benefits of which are both short-term and long-term. The short-term benefit, immediately after a level crossing removal is road traffic congestion relief, the long-term benefit is once a line is entirely (or mostly) grade separated, trains will have the freedom to run more frequently.

New South Wales is in the same boat - enormous amounts of construction activity with building its new metro network - the Sydney metro North West will soon be operational and the second phase City and South West section is about to get underway. But wait's there's more: the NSW government has announced the third large-scale rail building project which will eventually link Sydney's CBD with Parramatta and the new airport way out in the paddocks of outer south west Sydney.

Radical re-think & leadership required

This is being written in the context of the ABS census release and subsequent December 2016 population projection updates but to my mind nothing has changed for change advocates. The long-term goal of providing transport alternatives to the car for the entire metro has not changed.

What has changed is how we should do it.

It's been more than 24 months since the Victorian Government announced the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project will go ahead and it's expected the contract to put tunnel boring machines in the ground will be signed later this year.

I use this example to highlight the long lead times to get to the shovels-in-the-ground stage, let alone project completion. The second metro tunnel that has been mooted since the days of the release of the Heavy Rail Network Development plan is part of a larger-scale strategy to fundamentally alter the majority of Melbourne's rail network from CBD/loop centric network to one of 5 cross-town metro lines + 2 loop lines.

Taking a short-term view, the pressure to get started on the second cross-city tunnel just elevated, especially in the context of the growing calls for congestion relief and a greater decentralisation of jobs in clusters outside the city.

Contrary to popular belief, Melbourne does have knowledge-intensive, office-or-laboratory-based, job clusters outside the CBD. The Monash NEC is one such cluster, and the Werribee East 'Australian Education City' is an area that in all likelihood will become one.

And the Victorian Planning Authority is laying the planning groundwork for all of them right now. As is the case with anything to do with land-use planning in Victoria, transport is always an afterthought. We get the announcement that a structure plan is now effective, but just lines or dots on a map pointing to 'potential' transport changes. I will, however, always remain positive (hopeful?) that this does change.

Not all employment clusters are equal

The CBD is naturally the best served with high-capacity public transport from all directions. Sunshine has very good rail coverage from the east & north and will eventually have good access from the west when the Melton line is electrified.

La Trobe is an island between two radial train lines. Monash and East Werribee have a rail line on the outskirts of the precincts and Dandenong South is problematic from a public transport perspective.

In the intriguing context of the private proposal to create a BRT service from Donvale via Doncaster and the Eastern Freeway to the city - high frequency, high capacity bus services - I think BRT or mostly-grade separated light rail lines, should now be the focus on these middle and outer suburban clusters.

Every working day, seven out of 10 Casey residents with jobs travel out of their own municipality to work. The smaller the housing lots, the more the cars. They drive, slowly, mostly westwards into old Melbourne beyond Dandenong, many to jobs in the Monash area.

Are Melbourne's sprawling outer suburbs destined to become ghettos? (Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders, The Age, July 2 2017)

Focusing on Monash for a moment, these are the public domain facts relating to changes to public transport in the area:

  • The Pakenham and Cranbourne rail lines currently do the heavy lifting of moving people from the suburbs to the city and back again
  • The lines are seeing upgrades in terms of level crossing removals and will eventually be re-routed through the metro tunnel creating a giant cross-town to Sunbury
  • There's demonstratable capacity being built in right now. The new train fleet is a capacity jump over the current fleet and a medium-long term plan to extend train platforms so even longer trains can operate efficiently on this line.

What's needed now is building a proper network to interface with the railway spine (and other radial lines), in some cases clawing back existing road space from general traffic and in other cases expanded arterial roads.

The work to rationalise the rail network in the inner-city is going to attract the most headlines and will cost the most, but we need institutional change when it comes to road planning.

Arterial road investment or expansion is only bad when providing road-based public transport services is not the priority. We should be making it a priority to claw back general traffic road-space and provide dedicated routes for public transport vehicles running direct and high-frequency services.

At the Monash NEC in particular, here we have a blessed simple grid of major arterials - Blackburn, Clayton, Westall, Springvale, Wellington, Ferntree Gully and Centre Roads - all we need to do is challenge the institutional orthodoxy that car is king and provide high frequency, high capacity services along the entire length of these routes.

In doing so, by the very length that these arterials travel across the city, they're all bound to hit multiple rail lines, bringing a proper, all-direction, public transport to the problematic-at-present employment clusters.

In conclusion

Let's face it, Melbourne has a well-oiled road building machine and it should be put to better use. Dedicated corridors inside existing arterials is going to be the most rapid way to 'install' public transport both in the physical world but perhaps more importantly install a new way of how residents can go about the daily lives, car-free in the suburban mass that is metro Melbourne.

Maintaining rail improvements at the top of the public transport food chain is critical however we must be realistic; the lead times to get rail to Rowville and Doncaster is long and in the current regime of focusing on existing cost-benefit ratios and business cases, they fall somewhat flat. The choice is to continue advocating for heavy rail (and continually get knocked back) or head down another path and actually enact rapid change.

I don't want to brush over the good arguments both for and against the private Doncaster BRT proposal but in the context of what the census data now tells us, and the inevitable quick fix rhetoric that's likely to be spewed from the mouths of politicians in the coming months, I think we just need run with it. Although specifically with the Doncaster BRT, it shouldn't end at an isolated shopping centre in Donvale, it should link with the PT network in the city and in the suburbs at Nunawading.

Am I being flippant about potential risks (be they financial or don't have the effect of intensifying development along the corridor)? Maybe. However assuming the contract is structured so that the private operator bears an acceptable amount of financial risk, and it's not all put on the state, the experience will inform us how to roll out similar public transport lines elsewhere.

This is because we're going to need to do much more work on road-based public transport to ensure residents have an alternative to driving and so that our employment clusters are successful in growing and can entice people out of their cars en masse. We need to provide good quality alternatives before residents (and voters) will find wholesale road pricing regime change palatable.

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