US petrol prices relative to the world

Yesterday I talked about what I thought the new Metropolitan Strategy for Melbourne should be. That was mostly ‘mothers milk’, so now I want to say something about the substance of the strategy – what it should do. I have (mostly) refrained from proposing specific policies or solutions, preferring instead to point out the key policy challenges or directions.

Among other things (this is not exhaustive) the new Metropolitan Strategy should:

Recognise that 90% of motorised travel in Melbourne is made by car and that there are myriad ways drivers and manufacturers are adapting to higher fuel prices. The great majority of travellers prefer to drive if they can despite the expense – they’re not going to give up driving for public transport unless they’re made to.

There are three key challenges in relation to cars. First, provide incentives to increase  the speed of the transition to more fuel and emissions efficient vehicles. Second, make cars more civilised – make them slower and quieter and remove their priority over other carriageway users. Three, manage congestion so that gridlock is avoided and high value trips are given priority.

Recognise that public transport is only a substitute for cars in a limited number of situations. It has two key but growing roles. One is to transport large numbers of people to and from places with high trip densities, like the CBD, where the car is simply incapable of carrying so many people. The other is to provide mobility for those without access to a car.

The focus of public transport policy should be on these two roles. They mean a different approach to public transport from that implied by the popular idea that public transport must always be provided at a level which provides a “viable alternative” to car travel.

Recognise that public transport demand will grow as the city gets bigger. The emphasis should be on making the existing network operate better by improving reliability, punctuality and networking across services and across modes. Expanding the geographical coverage of the rail network should not be the first call – the priority should be to make public transport better, not a particular technology. It would be smarter to concentrate on improving suburban links to the existing rail network. I note however that some new rail lines might be required over the Strategy’s time frame in order to expand the capacity of the rail system e.g. Regional Rail Link, Metro Tunnel, or similar.

Recognise that the important role of firm location cannot continue to be ignored – as it was in Melbourne 2030 – or treated cynically as it was in Melbourne @ 5 Million. The hierarchy of activity centres needs to be completely rethought and the excessive focus on retail seriously questioned. The absence of any evident rationale for the selection of the six existing suburban Central Activities Districts needs to be recognised – the idea needs to be reviewed, root and branch.

Recognise that the key challenge is affordability of housing for first home buyers and that housing supply in Melbourne is severely compromised by planning regulations, inefficiencies in the building industry and taxation policy.

Recognise that a significant proportion of Melburnians aren’t going to find the combination of affordability, space, amenity and job accessibility that they demand anywhere else other than on the fringe. That’s O.K. – the disadvantages of  “sprawl” are greatly exaggerated. However simply increasing land stock in the Growth Areas to “25 years supply” is not going to be enough – the challenge is to find ways to minimise land owners and developers ‘gaming’ the land market.

Recognise that many Melburnians are prepared to compromise on dwelling space and amenity in return for a location within the built-up area but are thwarted because existing residents will not tolerate extensive redevelopment in their neighbourhood. Despite the rhetoric, suburban activity centres have not attracted housing on a significant scale. Brownfields sites are often mentioned but the supply of these is finite. The Strategy needs to find a way to increase supply in the suburbs. Removing the misconception that high residential density automatically creates high public transport mode share might open up new options.

Overall, the Strategy has to start by removing any misconceptions that the only viable future for Melbourne is to look like certain overseas cities i.e. where the vast majority of residents live at density and travel by public transport. The objective should be on the best and most plausible way of achieving key outcomes, like a sustainable city.