Comprehensive underground rail networks are fine, but what about the bus?

A lot of the Public Transport advocates were licking their lips on Monday when the former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was quoted as saying "There's not a major world city that doesn't have one [an underground rail network]".  I've always admired the former Premier's drive, regardless of what happened under his leadership, Jeff Kennett is through and through a Melbourne #1 man and is not afraid to say it.

What is Kennett talking about you might ask? A good question, but suffice to say he's more than likely referring to an operationally independent rail network serving the densest parts of the city - or the future densest parts of the city.  Whilst it's generally understood heavy rail running on high frequencies is the best transport mode to support a large amount of people living or working in a specific area there are a lot of ancillary issues which need to be worked out first.

The existing network can partly fill the role of a mass-transit line, as Phil Sturrock wrote back in April.  The Melbourne Metro project is about streamlining existing train line running - adding more capacity to the centre of the city via a new tunnel connecting at two of the five existing rail nodes in the CBD whilst also extending the branch lines further to the East and West.  Whilst the Melbourne Metro tunnel is still likely to be utilised as a commuting method from the outer and middle ring areas into the city, there's a possibility the original Melbourne 2030 goal of having pockets of density surrounding many existing stations might become a reality.  This will be made possible depending on the outcome of local Government planning scheme change (now the Planning Minister has given local Government areas new zones to implement) which is currently underway.

PTV's own Network Development Plan already outlines two new underground lines that will cross the city and service the most densely populated suburbs and the future ones.  As part of the plan a new tunnel beginning at Clifton Hill would cross the inner north connect with Southern Cross and then across the Yarra into Fishermans Bend in approximately 20 years - coincidentally when it's expected Fishermans Bend's redevelopment will be in full swing.  Whether this plan is executed along the lines (pardon the pun) as outlined remains another story but it gives an idea on how Government sees Melbourne's development occurring in future: toward the West.

Funding the plan is naturally the sticking point - I put up a proposal on Sunday just past to increase the GST and the extra revenue raised would then only be used for Transport Infrastructure expansion - we also need to look at the current issues facing Melbourne's public transport system and I believe it's the humble bus.  We simply don't use them enough; if we are to make any large long-lasting impact which would force commuters to rethink their transport options, we need VicRoads and PTV to knock their heads together with a road-based public transport plan just as in-depth (or grandiose?) as the PTV's Network Development Plan but for recalibrating road space.

Other media reports recently about property acquisition as part of a potential widening of Punt Road from the Yarra to St. Kilda Junction perked my interest - I thought: smart if the extra lanes are to be dedicated to buses so we could get a high frequency Bus Rapid Transit line running from Fitzroy St in St.Kilda all the way up Punt Road and Hoddle Street and then the Stonnington City Council could rezone the land around Punt Road allowing further development intensity around the newly created rapid transport corridor.  Alas, it's all about fitting more private vehicles on the road with minimal mention of buses.  Surprise Surprise.

It's interesting to watch organisations such as VECCI and RACV on Twitter - the RACV is the number 1 advocate of a "balanced" transport policy and ever so meekly supports extra investment in Rail, however I'm yet to see a tweet or link to statement which supports truly balancing our road network giving much higher-priority and new infrastructure for road-based Public Transport.  We have a large, robust and good road network - in a sense we have benefited greatly from mass-suburban expansion since the 1940s and 1950s - Governments have focused on building high quality road ways.  

Our problem is that just too many of us are using them in private vehicles.  An architect acquaintance of mine who was born and lived most of his life overseas puts it quite succinctly: Australia grew up with the car and finds it too hard to think otherwise.

As Melbourne nears it's bicentenary I think it's safe to say we don't really need to lobby overly hard for large-scale big ticket rail projects, the State bureaucracy has for over a decade shown a small and incremental change in thinking.  Throw in the climate change & new-world environmentalism mass-media coverage feeding into it, and shifting to public transport or arguably more importantly more sustainable transport modes like cycling and walking is well understood.  What really needs to happen is shifting attitudes toward road-users.  Some road users will never give up on their cars in favour of other modes - this will take 1 or 2 generations to make that kind of behaviour whittle away into an insignificant minority - and there are people and business where public transport just cannot provide an alternative for them to travel to work or actually do their job, but the rest of us who occasionally drive when we could use an alternative: that's the significant majority of our city which policy must target.

It doesn't matter if it's Lakeside Pakenham or St. Kilda; Mernda or Brunswick the humble bus has the greatest scope to challenge attitudes and help the same people make the shift away from roads congested with private cars and truly balancing road usage.  Car users need to understand that roads have never always been there for cars and roads should never just be there for private vehicles.  As both sides of political spectrum balance on the big ticket projects - the State Government hasn't mothballed Melbourne Metro, it's just prioritised East-West before it - focus needs to shift road capacity toward prioritising buses, and in the inner city for trams.  It'll be a hard slog, but it's one which will have the most dramatic impact no matter where you live, work or play in Melbourne.

Whilst I applaud Jeff Kennett for speaking his mind on the use of public debt to building rail lines, this needs to happen in parallel with rebalancing road usage - after all, the best way to feed a train station is a bus.

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2 comments

Peter Maltezos's picture

Well said Alastair, couldn't agree with you more! enlightened

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Martin Mankowski's picture

Absolutely correct. Whilst I am unabashedly a rail fan, I admit the upgrading of roads is a necessity to increase the efficiency of the bus network. Motorists can't seem to get their head around the upgrade of roads which isn't for the benefit of themselves but for the complete opposite - to upgrade public transport (ie buses) to entice them off the road!

This is why bus lane upgrades to corridors where heavy rail wont fix the problem is so important; places like aforementioned Hoddle St and the Tullamarine Fwy (for Skybus) just to name a few.

As for Jeff's idea for placing our current network underground, its something he first mooted last year (article here).  He says it would cost "Hundreds of Millions of dollars".  Jeff, have you had a lobotomy? It would cost tens of Billions!!!  Its a great idea in principle, but i think we have our hands full economically just to build the necessary additions like the Melbourne Metro and Clifton Hill - Fishermans Bend tunnels.

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