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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

“Grow 40”

Moving Melbourne in the 21st Century

A talk given at the Uniting Church, Melbourne by Anthony Morton, President Public Transport Users Association.

I don’t know that many of you would have come to this place by tram. But I couldn’t help registering while on the Victoria Parade tram just how much things have changed since just 10 years ago – let alone 20 years ago when I first joined the movement for better public transport in Melbourne and Victoria. Though it was early on a Sunday morning, my tram was filled to standing room only. Until a decade ago the same tram would have been lucky to have three people on it.

This is just one example of how public transport in Victoria has been embraced by the public in a way not seen for decades. Yet many public transport services are still catching up. Many Sunday morning and evening services still run at the half-hourly or worse frequencies that were the norm in the 1990s. Back then it was said there was insufficient demand to justify running services more frequently. We can see now this is just another excuse for inaction.

This brings us to the public debate about where we are going with transport policy in Victoria and what kind of city Melbourne will be in the future. Transport policy ought to be led by the people – a community conversation where politicians keep their promises and act as the instruments of the popular will. In survey after survey, poll after poll – not just in Victoria but in Australia as a whole – it is public transport to which a majority of people give priority over road expansion. But we have waited far too long for political leaders to act on this.

Melbourne is a growing city that faces big transport challenges. Some forecasts suggest that there will be 1.2 million more people in Melbourne by 2050 – equivalent to adding another city the size of Adelaide. Of course there is much we can debate about an appropriate and sustainable population policy for Victoria and I don’t intend to broach that subject here. The one point I’d like to make is that urban population growth is not something we should fear. Our transport system can be improved to handle a larger or more dense population – as Paris or New York manage to do every day – if there is the political will to make it happen.

The kind of transport solutions required for a large, growing, liveable city also happen to be those with strong support in the community: namely public and active transport. Our rail network must be brought up to scratch and extended to serve as the backbone for more of our travel. But most importantly we need to direct attention to the suburban bus networks that are the only public transport within walking distance for most people who live in Melbourne. They need to run more frequently, connect better with trains and knit together into a network allowing travel from any point to any other in reasonable time.

It is regrettable that the previous government, despite promising in 2010 to build rail extensions, boost public transport services and give planning priority to public transport over roads, suddenly turned around and did the precise opposite. Much effort had to be expended fighting off a road megaproject that would have, in the words of the late Dr Paul Mees, soaked up all funds available for public transport for a generation. We have hope that with the recent change of government, the opportunity will be taken for a genuine change in direction.

Of course the main alternative to the East West Link in the public eye lately has been the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. This is an important project and will be of particular benefit for the western part of Melbourne that has been historically disadvantaged with public transport services.

We all know about the huge problem of traffic on the West Gate Bridge. So it’s worth considering that every morning in peak hour, some 30,000 people per hour travel on trains through Footscray station on the way to the city. This is around four times as much as the 8,000 per hour who travel in on cars over the West Gate.

The Regional Rail Link opening later this year will provide capacity for about another 12,000 per hour on trains. But if we get the Metro tunnel, that provides capacity for between 20,000 and 30,000 extra people to travel from the west of Melbourne toward the city and eastern suburbs – around three alternative West Gate Bridges’ worth.

But we are wary of the Metro tunnel being seen as a panacea. It is a megaproject, and all megaprojects bear serious question marks due to their sheer cost. It requires an unusually large benefit to justify such spending. But we do have the assurance of Infrastructure Australia that the benefit from the Metro tunnel is well above its cost, and we expect a new Infrastructure Victoria agency will confirm this as well. In any event, we can’t let this be the only public transport improvement that goes ahead in Melbourne in the next few years.

Bus services

That brings me back to buses. For decades our bus services in particular were in a death spiral. Planners saw declining patronage on these services, so responded with service cuts and fare hikes. This caused more people to desert the buses for their own cars, and patronage dropped further. This vicious spiral led to a situation where patronage collapsed and buses ran to almost useless standards. If you want to avoid losing money on public transport, you don’t do it by running a bus once an hour so that only two or three people are willing to use it!

Yet too many of our buses not only run at atrocious frequencies but also stop running before 9pm, when a lot of people are still out and about. There has been a huge failure of imagination, which has caused many of us to resort exclusively to car travel even if we’d be inclined to use a half-decent public transport service. More people in Melbourne and Victoria need a genuine alternative so that they can leave their car at home and go about their daily business using public and active transport without adding to traffic congestion.

There have been some improvements to bus services recently, but this can’t be done on a zero-sum approach where more buses in one suburb come at the expense of fewer buses elsewhere. Until recently there was a proposal to improve bus frequencies in the eastern suburbs – something we, of course, support – but also to remove services in the northern and western suburbs that, as I mentioned before, have long been the most disadvantaged for public transport. Again it seemed that good working-class and disadvantaged communities were going to miss out.

We are pleased that the government has agreed to have a second look at this proposal. We hope that this won’t stop the necessary frequency increases going ahead. The failure of imagination here is the failure to recognise that when you improve service and attract more passengers, this also provides more revenue to the system. Particularly when the passengers you attract are full-fare paying passengers as well as concession holders, you have extra revenue to support more improvements in service. You actually put the vicious spiral into reverse. To date there has been too little political courage to turn the death spiral around, to actually put public transport on the path to growth.

Message

Our “Grow 40” message is about attaining that growth because that’s what Melbourne will need into the future. We call on the government to adopt a patronage target of 40 million additional trips by public transport each year. This is an appropriate target to keep Melbourne as a liveable city: this is what will get us 20% of trips by public transport in 2020, and 25% of trips by 2025. It obliges the government to take public transport seriously, to give people an alternative that competes with car travel. It is only what the community has asked for decade after decade.

The Beacon

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