I’ve noted before that only 30% of commuters who work within the Hoddle Grid – i.e. the area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – drive to work. However only a block or two beyond the city rail loop, the share of work trips taken by car increases steeply to 50-60%, and above.
Peter Parker at Melbourne on Transit offers an explanation. Using Metlink, he found a journey from Laverton station to Melbourne Town Hall in the morning peak takes 33 minutes. However if the Laverton traveller is bound for nearby Docklands (Waterfront City), the trip takes an extraordinary 54 minutes. Anyone travelling from Greensborough station to the same two destinations would have to allow an additional 29 minutes to get to Docklands and if travelling from Cheltenham station an extra 30 minutes.
In other words, once a traveller gets off the rail system in the CBD, further travel to near-CBD destinations is very slow. This is in part because the rail loop was not designed primarily to move people around the CBD and in part because trams are slow. Peter explains:
We have trams but unlike some compact European cities we don’t have a dense metro in the job-dense 2-5km core that allows for fast local travel. Instead for the ‘last mile’ we rely on slow surface modes, notably trams and buses, often without their own right of way.
Public transport’s mode share in the vicinity of Waterfront City is just 22%. This is despite the area having a frequent tram service. Given the huge investment in public transport in the city centre, any mode share below 50% is very disappointing, but the figure for Waterfront City is appalling.
I suspect there are two key reasons for the low mode share of near-CBD areas. The first is simply that the cost of driving and parking in these areas is still reasonably low – so workers drive because they can. Perhaps there’s a high proportion of workers in the CBD fringe whose status attracts a “company car”. Perhaps also there are more institutions like hospitals with shift workers who drive off-peak. The second reason is that movement within the city centre by public transport is too slow. That’s partly because the rail loop is not configured well for intra CBD trips and partly because trams are slowed by cars, particularly at intersections.
The CBD is one of those places where I think it’s very hard to justify commuting by car, given the enormous investment in public transport infrastructure and the extremely high accessibility it provides to the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s such a vital asset to the city as a whole and to the State that its amenity should not be despoiled by the noise, fumes and danger of too many cars.
The Melbourne City Council has proposed some worthwhile improvements, such as a maximum speed limit of 40 km/hr in the CBD (although I’d prefer 30 km/hr) and a plan to eliminate cars, taxis and vans from Swanston Street (although I fear the potential for pedestrian/cyclist conflict has not been fully resolved).
These ideas are good but I think we need to go further. For starters, trams should have priority over cars at intersections. Some expansion of the tram network might ultimately be justified, but the first priority should be to ensure the existing system operates more efficiently. The number of cars also needs to be reduced. Consideration of some form of road pricing – perhaps a cordon system like that in London or along the lines of this one proposed for Melbourne by Harry Clarke and Andrew Hawkins in 2006 – is long overdue for the city centre.
What ever form road pricing takes (I’ve talked about options and issues before, e.g. here and here), the key point is that drivers should be paying the full cost they impose on others, especially in terms of traffic congestion and the hit they make on city centre amenity. The price needs to be high enough to discourage both city centre commuters and the significant number of drivers who travel through the CBD for work and other purposes.
The value of the city centre should not be underestimated. There is nothing else even remotely like it in the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s where tourists and business visitors spend much of their time and it hosts our highest order economic, social and cultural functions. Given that it’s so accessible by train, tram and bus, we should be planning to tame cars in the centre and give over street space to more civilised uses that reinforce the role and character of the centre.
Whatever form it took, road pricing would necessarily require additional public transport capacity in the form of more frequent and reliable services (rather than new rail lines to the suburbs). It might possibly also require some significant expenditure to “buy off” through traffic – perhaps improvements to alternative routes. In the early years, it might be necessary politically to exclude through traffic on some roads like King and Spencer from the cordon.
The city centre is a very precious resource so prima facie it’s worth spending a considerable amount to protect and enhance it. Needless to say, any proposals should be subject to rigorous and objective evaluation.