Cars & traffic

Nov 1, 2017

Are there easy fixes for traffic congestion?

Politicans like to sell new roads and rail lines as the solution to traffic congestion but it's an illusion. There are no quick or politically easy fixes for peak-hour traffic

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Where workers from the municipality of Casey commute. Very few workers living in outer suburbs like Cranbourne work in the city centre where public transport is very competitive with cars for the journey to work.

The Age published an article on Monday proposing Five ways to tackle Melbourne’s worsening peak-hour traffic. It starts, as usual, by extrapolating from the “personal” angle:

The latest census data shows that the sleepy suburb of Skye in Melbourne’s southeast has the highest proportion of people driving to work (82.4 per cent), and the reason is perhaps unsurprising: it is a public transport desert. The closest train station is kilometres away, forcing residents to rely on the delay-prone bus network.

As the paper sees it, the problem is the major transport projects the Andrews Government is building, such as the $11 Billion Melbourne Metro and $6.9 Billion level crossing removal program, won’t be completed for five to ten years, and hence won’t do anything to tackle congestion in the interim.

So The Age asked some transport experts for ideas on what could be done in the short-term to reduce congestion. It’s come up with five ideas:

  1. Improve buses e.g. higher frequencies, more priority lanes, redirecting inefficient routes
  2. Encouraging car-pooling e.g. priority lanes, zero tolls, preferred parking for cars with three occupants
  3. Ten-minute train services e.g. 10-minute frequencies across entire network. Doesn’t require additional trains
  4. Road charges e.g. discounted rego and fuel tax charges for low income earners
  5. Improve bike access to trains e.g. secure parking at stations and tram stops.

It’s a fair question and these suggestions are all worth doing to improve transport in Melbourne and other cities, but whether they’d have a noticeable impact on traffic congestion in the short term is doubtful. Here are some matters to consider.

First, contrary to The Age’s assumption, the various major projects currently under construction or in planning will have negligible impact on traffic congestion when they’re finished. Melbourne Metro, for example, adds 39,000 extra seats. They’re needed to bolster the train system, but they won’t have much impact on the 1.76 million car trips in the morning peak, or the 1.83 million in the evening peak.

If and when they’re eventually built, the road projects the Government’s planning – like the West Gate Tunnel and the North-East Link – will reduce localised congestion in peak periods, but it’ll be a short-lived benefit. It won’t be sustained because latent demand will fill up the new roadspace.

The Age is wrong to frame the issue as a short-term problem that will eventually be solved by the Government’s capital works program. Nothing the Government is building will “solve” traffic congestion; note that it’s still a serious problem in New York and Paris. Projects like Melbourne Metro will provide an alternative to congested streets, but only for an additional few.

Second, only one of the five suggested ideas – road charging – would be effective in managing traffic congestion. Like new motorways, the other four will be undermined by the phenomenon of latent demand. Any road space liberated by motorists who switch to bus, train, bicycle or car-pooling will in relatively short order be taken by another motorist. The advantage of congestion charging when properly designed is it deters both existing and prospective motorists.

Third, the time frame specified by The Age is way too short for congestion charging to have a significant impact. The Government’s capital program is already largely determined for the next four years. More importantly, a controversial initiative like this would require a long lead time for politicking, planning, procurement, construction and, most of all, engaging with the public. It’s devilishly hard to develop a congestion charging system that both works efficiently and is acceptable to citizens.

Fourth, The Age has chosen to dramatise its report by highlighting the suburb with the highest car use in Melbourne for the journey to work i.e. Skye, where 82% of commuters travel by car. Yet in nearby Cranbourne, which has a rail line through the middle, the paper’s figures show the corresponding mode share for cars is 79%. It’s 79% in Cranbourne East too, which also straddles the rail line.

That’s a tiny difference, about three percentage points, suggesting the absence of a rail line explains only a small part of mode choice in this part of Melbourne. Even that small difference is more plausibly explained by a selection effect i.e. those settling in this region who want to use public transport select a location close to the rail line e.g. Cranbourne rather than Skye. The key reason most workers in this part of the world drive is very few work in the city centre where travelling by train easily trumps driving.


There are no quick and easy fixes for congestion. It’s to their discredit that politicians and some advocates push new roads and rail lines as the solution. They’re not, although a new rail line provides an alternative to congested streets for some. Other than eliminating cars entirely, the only plausible answer to traffic congestion is to make driving less attractive in some way, so that at least circa 5 – 10% of motorists are deterred from driving in peak periods. Congestion charging is the most obvious way of rationing demand, although there are others e.g. some Chinese cities use odd/even number plates (without success). But there’s no way congestion charging is a short-term solution.

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10 thoughts on “Are there easy fixes for traffic congestion?

  1. Chris

    There are a lot of little changes that could be done very quickly to reduce congestion in Melbourne. Correctly timing traffic lights, removing on street parking, blocking right turns in problems spots, etc etc.

    Just a bit of common sense and disciple in the way this city is governed would go a long way.

    1. Alan Davies

      Although they’d only reduce congestion (i.e. shorten travel times) temporarily. The big benefit they’d provide is increasing capacity somewhat and thereby allowing more travellers to get from A to B in the peak, albeit eventually at congested speeds. That’s an important benefit.

  2. Tom the first and best

    Taking the Casey example, there are several relatively easy steps to increase PT usage in Casey.

    Firstly, improve the bus network (frequency, operating hours, priority, routes, etc.).

    Secondly, the Cranbourne line should be fully duplicated (increasing reliability and peak frequency) and extended to Cranbourne East and Clyde (along the old South Gippsland railway corridor, not currently in use).

    Thirdly, build a Dandenong South station on the Cranbourne line, at Greens Rd, to provide better PT access to the industrial jobs in that area.

    Fourthly, apply a parking levy to the Dandenong CBD and reduce parking provision requirements. This would be far less controversial than direct road user charging, has precedent in Melbourne and would not have to be as high as in the CBD to work.

    These measures would increase PT usage in surrounding municipalities as well.

    1. Alan Davies

      Tom The First and Best

      All good ideas and I agree they’d increase public transport usage somewhat and improve the lot of existing public transport users, but of course they wouldn’t reduce traffic congestion.

      How much mode shift would they induce? I expect the first three would have a modest effect because driving would still be much faster and more convenient for the great majority of Casey workers; maybe five percentage points at best, in line with a suburb like Dandenong. Australian drivers will only shift to public transport for the commute in significant numbers if it’s as fast as (or faster than) a car; at present, only the city centre offers those conditions.

      Making parking more expensive is the most promising action but I’d want to know how many Casey workers are employed in Dandenong activity centre; my intuition is they’re mostly working at dispersed destinations in these LGAs. The other unknown is how many of those who do work in the activity centre would trade-off a longer commute against $1,400 p.a. extra in parking charges. Driving wouldn’t have to be much faster than public transport for that penalty to be offset by time savings over the course of a year.

      1. Tom the first and best

        Given the employment density in the city of Dandenong is mainly around the Dandenong CBD and the Dandenong South industrial area, I suspect that a significant proportion of Casey workers in the City of Dandenong locations are employed in the Dandenong CBD.

        1. Alan Davies

          That’s density. The data I’ve got on employment by traffic zones, admittedly dated, shows the activity centre has at most one fifth of all the jobs in Gt Dandenong LGA. Given around 25% of Casey workers commute to Gt Dandenong LGA, the numbers aren’t big.

          1. Tom the first and best

            As of the 2016 census, there are 97,913 workers in the City of Greater Dandenong, of whom only about 4,700+ used PT, so 20% of those is close to 20,000 people and a parking levy would significantly increase PT usage in the Dandenong CBD and that would justify service increases that would help surrounds areas` PT share as well.

            1. Alan Davies

              That “at most one fifth” figure refers to the percent of all jobs in Gt Dandenong municipality that are located in the Dandenong activity centre, not workers (the best evidence I’ve got to hand indicates that the proportion of all jobs in Gt Dandenong occupied by workers who live within the municipality is 21% i.e. most work outside the municipality).

              1. Tom the first and best

                Sorry I was unclear. I was talking the place of work figures for Dandenong LGA from the 2016 Census.

  3. meltdblog

    The infrastructure for road pricing is already in place, but the extensive network of tolled roads in Melbourne are under commercial control and congested during peak hour. There must be some more optimal ways to manage them in the interests of the population.

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