Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, lived a band of humble trams. As Melbourne grew rapidly in the 1850's on the back of the gold rush, the trams tirelessly and loyally ferried the expanding population all around the city. With help of their big brothers, the trains, their future looked bright and assured. But then in true Australian fashion, we introduced a foreign species into the natural habitat: the car. Brought here in the misguided idea they would solve all our transport problems, they soon started to cause as much havoc as a cane toad. Getting into every nook and cranny of our roads, it clogged them up like last night's Irish Stew stuffed down the plughole of the kitchen sink. To prove we are nothing but consistent, to deal with this foreign introduced species gone rogue we introduced yet another foreign species: the freeway. History shows of course that they did little to help the problem - in fact the concept of 'induced traffic' proved they did just the opposite - it just made it worse.
So where did that leave the hero of our story, the humble tram? Having had its natural habitat encroached on more and more by the car, it became slower and slower, its usefulness slowly diminishing. So much so, that in the 1980's they approached extinction, with the Lonie report proposing to cull half their population. Fortunately they were spared, and they are now the largest colony of their kind in the galaxy... err, world.
Fast forward 30 years and today trams are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in Australia. Up until roughly a decade ago, the only commuter tram line outside Melbourne was the Glenelg tram in Adelaide. Today Perth, Gold Coast, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide all have light rail projects planned, under construction or recently completed. All these projects will be true light rail projects (i.e. grade separated), with one line in Adelaide even planning to run dual-voltage trams so that they can share track space with trains. In Melbourne, we have seen no such innovation or upgrades in a very long time. Despite the network's large size (about 250 kilometres of track) and pedestrian-slow average speeds of 15km/h (11 km/h in the CBD - I can actually run faster than that), we seemed to be content to leave this state of neglect as the status quo.
Then a few months ago we saw a glimmer of hope: Project 96. No, not a reboot of the famously risqué 70s TV show Number 96, but an upgrade of the 96 tram line from East Brunswick to St Kilda. With part of the route already grade separated as a legacy of conversion from heavy rail in the late 80s, and both termini located in high volume cafe/restaurant spots, it was an obvious choice to go first. Once completed, it will be the first true end-to-end light rail line in Melbourne, with no shared road space of trams and cars, and tram priority at all traffic lights. It seems everyone wins: trams will run more frequently, will be more reliable, and will have better access (and therefore be safer) through more level access stops. Everyone it seems, except one group. The people who in all likelihood will benefit the most from this upgrade: the Acland Street traders.
Recently the St Kilda Village Traders staged a 'Don't let them kill Acland St' event in protest against the upgrade; an effort that would be paramount to a protest against the building of a childrens' hospital in a third world country. At the heart of their concerns is the plan to remove about 50 car spaces from Acland St and ban cars from it altogether. This according to the traders, will be enough to drive all their customers away screaming like its the beginning of the rapture. "We have surveyed our customers and found most drive" one trader was quoted as saying in The Age. This begs the question: how is a scenario that relies on your customers being able to get a park out the front of your shop a sustainable business model? How will your customer base grow if the number of parking spaces in the street can't grow? How can it grow if car usage in Melbourne has started to flatline, and in some cases, even decrease?
Let's do the maths. Cars usually carry a maximum of five passengers. With 50 spots and assuming an average stay of two hours, this means a potential 125 customers an hour. The new E-class trams have a capacity of 210 passengers and will arrive/leave the new terminus at Acland St every four minutes. That's a staggering 3,150 potential customers an hour, delivered to their doorstep! That's not just double or triple the volume of cars, but an order of magnitude higher; 25 times more tram passengers than car passengers to be exact. And that's not even taking into consideration people who walk and ride there, a number that will surely see a significant rise in the near future as the number of apartment developments steadily rises.
And to add further doubt to an already crumbling argument, the St Kilda Village Traders Association president, Chris Hickey, came up with this gem: "For every tram load of visitors that it brings, there is also a tram load of visitors that it takes away". Of course it does, the visitors need to go home again, don't they!? I can't begin to even make sense of this argument. Do they think people in cars don't leave again? This is possibly the worst opposing argument I've heard yet, and that's saying a lot!
Not to stop there, they keep digging. "We believe it would make St Kilda village a better place if we had the terminus outside O'Donnell Gardens, effectively acting as a gateway". The whole point of public transport is to make it as easy as possible, for as many people as possible, to get to their destination. Making it harder for tram users by having the terminus further away, and easier for motorists by allowing them to remain, does nothing to facilitate the migration from car to public transport that Melbourne is desperately craving.
Of course we have seen this all before. The East Brunswick traders at the other end of route 96 have jumped on the same bandwagon. Clearways were removed from High Street Prahan, as well as Victoria Street (Richmond), Sydney Road (Moreland) and High Street (Kew), all of which could have improved bus services no end, but for the protests of local traders. And more recently, we had motorists cry like babies when a bike lane was added to Princes Bridge, claiming it would add up to 20 minutes to their daily commute. But once it opened, what did the City of Melbourne's official study find? The commute lengthened by a mere 48 seconds, while cycling increased by 40%. A triumph of common sense over sanctimonious bleating.
For far too long, we have allowed cars, and parking spaces, to be an excuse not to upgrade public transport. But this is a case where the traders, like a petulant child, need to be forced to take their medicine. The community-wide support and obvious universal benefits has to outweigh the unfounded protests of the NIMBY minority. And not only that, but 12 months after this upgrade is completed, and the statistics show there has been an increase in customers in the area, they should be big enough to take out a full-page ad in a newspaper and apologise for their silly stunt.
Despite the clear room for improvement, our tram network remains the jewel in our public transport crown, providing inner-city coverage that even some subway systems around the world can only dream about. With upgrades like this making our network faster, more reliable and more frequent, combined with the many planned heavy rail upgrades, Melbourne could quite conceivably have one of the best public transport systems in the world. And this is why project 96 needs to be just a stepping stone. Route 109, another partial light rail line, would be the obvious next cab off the rank. An upgraded/extended route 24 could be a viable alternative to a Doncaster rail line, while an upgraded/extended route 82 from Docklands to Highpoint could provide Melbourne with its first fast rail link to one of its major shopping centres (the state government will probably build the Death Star before Southland railway station is built!).
It is time to bring back some balance to the force that is our tram network. So to the Public Transport Victoria 'rebel alliance' team battling hard to have our trams upgraded. May the force be with you!