fbpx

Words by Hamish McKenzie
Photography by Alice Fane

We Melburnians dwell in what was once a humble village. Perched on the edge of the world, we are protected from the violence and overpopulation that plagues many cities beyond our shores. And the world has noticed. In 2013 we won, for the third year in a row, the much-vaunted accolade of world’s most liveable city.

But when one digs a little deeper, the picture left of our metropolis gives less cause for celebration. We are growing at over 1000 people a week. We have had no major expansion of our rail network in what feels like a century. Our metropolitan area covers 8,000 square kilometres, larger than Tokyo, New York and Delhi combined. With the combination of a backyard-obsessed population and a road-addicted political culture, we are left with an expansive and unmanageable system that creates chaos at peak-hour.

And in the face of a looming social, environmental, and economic struggle, the Victorian government in 2012 made the decision to cut all funding to bicycle transport programs. Only months after, the $8 billion East-West Link was announced.

The future development of liveable and prosperous cities will be reliant on the prioritization of pedestrian, public and bike transport. Building freeways to solve congestion is akin to loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. It doesn’t. The fat must be shed.

The Copenhagenize Index is a biannual ranking of the world’s top cyclist-friendly cities. The 2013 ranking lists cities like Rio

The benefits of bicycle transport both to individuals and communities are well documented, but given our battle to accept the bike, they warrant redressing.

IMG_2521

Economically speaking, spending on bike projects is a lucrative investment in productivity. A 2009 study found a benefit-cost ratio for cycling projects to be five-to-one. That is, for every dollar spent on bicycle infrastructure or programs, society accrues five dollars’ worth of benefits. Road projects often struggle to hit one- to-one, and by way of example, the East-West tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio of 0.7. That equates to a net loss. This is perhaps because freeways cost 100 times more to construct than off-road bike paths.

In many cases, bikes are actually faster than cars. 50 per cent of trips in urban Melbourne are less than 5kms, and under this threshold, cycling is usually a faster option than driving. For trips of between 5-10kms, the difference is negligible. A 2010 study found that average car speeds in the inner Melbourne morning peak were just 22.2km/h, compared to an average cycling speed of 20km/h, equating to a 1 minute difference for a 10km trip.

Single occupant vehicles on roads occupy 20 times more space than cyclists, meaning that transitioning to a bike-centered society could massively reduce the congestion that will cost the nation $6 billion a year by 2020. Furthermore, evidence from bike-centered cities overseas has shown that bike riding in segregated lanes to be significantly safer than driving, meaning we could cut into the $27 billion annual cost of road accidents in this country.

Catherine Deveny perhaps says it best: ‘It’s faster than walking, safer than driving, cheaper than public transport and it’s the closest thing to flying’.

And cities around the world have caught on to the fact.

Last year, London’s mayor Boris Johnson announced a 900 million pound policy to revolutionise cycling in the British capital. The plan involves a 15 mile bike highway through the middle of London, an expansive network of back-road ‘quietways’ for timid cyclists to gain confidence, and the creation of three suburban ‘mini-Hollands’ where concentrated infrastructural spending aims to completely transform car-dependent communities into Dutch-style bike-centered ones. London’s boroughs are now aggressively competing to be one of the chosen three areas for transformation.

More radical still was the January announcement of plans to construct SkyCycle, a network of elevated bike-paths across the metropolis, involving ten entirely car-free routes stretching a cumulative 220kms. Accessed by 200 entrance points, SkyCycle could transport 12,000 cyclists per hour, away from the danger of cars, and cut half an hour off journey times. Most significantly, the network would be suspended on beams above existing railway lines, meaning no new land would have to be acquired to construct it.

Meanwhile, on the world’s busiest cycling road, Copenhagen’s Norrebrogade, used by 38,000 cyclists daily, the council has instituted a fast lane, and a special ‘conversation lane’ allowing casual cyclists to chat and ride at leisurely pace. The strategy sees positive social interactions and increased cycling patronage as mutually reinforcing. It’s a far cry from Hoddle St road rage.

Additionally, Dutch planners have proposed the notion of a cyclist friendly ‘bio-mall’ where shoppers circulate on bikes. In the same way that the automobile encouraged the growth of the Chadstone-style malls, the idea is to reconfigure urban spaces that encourage bike access which would in turn encourage a more bike-friendly environment.

So what are the possibilities for Melbourne?

A SkyCycle Melbourne could be built over our radial rail network to construct bike-exclusive routes into the city from all directions. A SkyCycle network could enable trips from Footscray, Northcote or Hawthorn into the city in 10 minutes, without risking life and limb on the roads, with no traffic lights, no carbon emissions and no need for touching on or off.

The creation of ‘mini-Hollands’ in inner city areas, in suburban hubs like Dandenong, and in new developments on the city fringe, could shift the structure of our city away from its unexamined assumption that private car ownership is a desirable and indeed inevitable prospect.

The construction of a safe and continuous network of dedicated bike lanes along major arterials, but also the provision of quietways through the backstreets may encourage entry-level options for less confident cyclists. One study shows that only 8 per cent of Melbourne’s population feels confident to ride on the roads, whereas 59 per cent of people are ‘interested but concerned’. This massive potential cycling demographic must be accommodated. Quietways might be the way.

Furthermore, Melbourne is on the verge of developing massive swathes of prime inner city land into major new mixed-use developments.

MEDIA_fishermans_620x311

Fishermans Bend/Grant Wyeth

The Fisherman’s Bend redevelopment is set to house around 80,000 residents by 2050 in a high-density area of 240 hectares just south of the CBD. The E-Gate redevelopment is a 20-hectare site over the West Melbourne rail yards earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed-use development for 10,000 residents by 2030. Both of these large scale urban renewal projects give the City of Melbourne and the state government a clean slate to design people-centered urban spaces by prioritizing bike transport. Who knows, in the same way today’s suburbanites drive to Docklands to hit up Costco, by 2050, we may see Melbournians flock to Fisherman’s Bend to shop in the bike-friendly bio-malls.

In 2014, the liveability of the world’s darling city lies at a crossroads. We can either pursue expensive and inefficient road options or invest in cheap, lucrative bicycle transport to maximise the social capital of city and stimulate sustainable economic growth. The Melbourne of today is still riding high on the good planning and heavy investments of the city founders, and we must now decide whether to emulate this example for our children. At this most important of crossroads, Melbournians, by which I mean all those, newly arrived and nearly departed, must vote with their wheels.

The East West link is dividing Melbourne—both figuratively and literally. We asked two students to weigh in on the debate.

FOR

Words by Charles Everist

The Eastern Freeway is pumping enormous volumes of traffic into arterial roads and suburban streets. As traffic bursts at the other end of the pipeline into different channels, the results prove chaotic.

Without a tunnel, Carlton’s streets act like a bottleneck on traffic moving from the eastern suburbs to critical destinations such as the airport, industrial zones and the port of Melbourne. Only the East West Link can solve this specific problem.

Nevertheless, the East West Link will not be the solution to our traffic chaos in and of it self. Certainly, Melbourne needs improvements to its public transport infrastructure. For instance, we still need to extend the city loop to include the University of Melbourne and the Domain interchange.

New roads and new public transport links are not mutually exclusive sets of policies. Transport is not a zero-sum game. Government should have capacity to invest in both. At the present time, however, Victoria’s economy has limited capacity to fund a rail extension under the city, let alone both a road and rail tunnel.

In an election year we must evaluate the policies that have actually been put on the table. The transport policies that State Labor and Daniel Andrews have recently released are unrealistic. Figures from the Public Transport Victoria and the Department of Justice show that Labor’s removal of level crossings will cost double than expected and will take years to complete.

For this reason, unions in Victoria have backed East West Link. Electrical Trades Union state secretary Troy Gray has said “we need to see credible alternatives before we are critical of this project”. Other union officials have come out in support of East West because it will deliver jobs to their members sooner during this unsettling time for the construction industry.

Finally, the East West Link is not just about cars, trucks and trains. Hidden behind the protestors’ chants, the debate on Spring Street, and the words opined in the papers, a human element remains. East West is the difference between employment or the dole queue. It’s the difference between a working mother or father being able to pick their kids up from school on time.

Melbourne still has a long way to go before its citizens can be proud of their transport system. But building East West is the first step.

AGAINST

Words by Alexander Sheko

I could go on for pages about the negative impacts of the Victorian Government’s proposed East West Link toll road. It will destroy a good part of Royal Park and Moonee Ponds Creek, increase traffic volumes and congestion in suburbs like Flemington, displace residents of over a hundred homes, and relegate thousands of others to five years of drilling, blasting, trucks, noise, and contaminated soil.

However, the reality is that these impacts are local in scale. While devastating to those that experience them, they—from a utilitarian perspective—pale in comparison to the project’s effect on Melbourne and Victoria. The East West Link represents a phenomenal expenditure that provides disproportionately small benefits to a disproportionately small proportion of the state’s population. It will consume a generation’s worth of infrastructure funding, ensuring our transport system remains firmly fixed in the last century—to say nothing of the opportunity cost to our health and education systems.

Proponents of the road claim it will relieve congestion along Alexandra Parade and the Eastern Freeway. How can this be the case when the majority of the freeway’s traffic is headed for the CBD (not west) and its traffic volumes are, by the government’s own modelling, projected to significantly increase once the road is constructed? It is claimed that the road will take traffic off local, inner suburban roads. How could this possibly be true when the likely cost to use the road will simply encourage more of the same ‘rat-running’?

Whatever one’s political bent, it can be agreed that wasting public money is bad. Owing to the commercial failure of similar toll roads in Sydney and Brisbane, the private sector is now demanding that the government assume the revenue risk for projects such as the East West Link. This means that if traffic volumes and therefore toll revenues are less than expected, it is the Victorian taxpayer who bears the cost.

Ultimately, the East West Link means a huge amount of money spent for political reasons, rather than for public gain. This is money that could be better spent expanding the frequency and reach of our rail and bus networks, so as to ensure that people, wherever they live, have access to an efficient and reliable public transport system. Only when we focus on getting people—not cars—around can we move Melbourne’s transportation system into the twenty-first century.

Every month, For & Against will tackle a different issue—some serious, some not so serious. If you have a debate you want to see resolved in Farrago, email us at farragomagazine2014[at]gmail.com