Congestion is not the enemy

This in the Herald Sun a few weeks ago: Melbourne traffic congestion on par with world’s biggest cities like London, Rome and New York (paywall):

TRAFFIC congestion in Melbourne is on par with New York and could rival the world’s worst cities if nothing is done to combat the problem.

Figures supplied by Tom Tom show congestion levels in Melbourne are at 33 per cent compared to its population.

This means motorists are sitting in peak hour congestion a third longer than if the traffic was free-flowing.

And then this in The Age: Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city’s north-east has worst traffic:

The Grattan Institute research is based on an analysis of Google map data for more than 300 routes in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. It was collected 25 times a day over 12 weeks between March and June 2017 and found:

An average morning commute to the Melbourne CBD by car takes almost 70 per cent longer than in the middle of the night.

These are based on very similar surveys: the Herald Sun used the much-criticised Tom Tom congestion survey. The Age used a Grattan Institute survey.

Both use the same flawed methodology. They compare a city’s traffic speed at quiet times with the traffic speed at peak hour.

Apart from assuming that getting around by car as fast as possible is automatically the most important thing, you get wacky conclusions because a city with 24/7 congestion (only slightly worse at peak hour) is deemed to be less congested than a city where most of the time there’s free-flowing traffic but for a couple of hours a day it’s proportionately worse.

(The Grattan Institute says there’s more coming. I hope it’s more well thought out than just looking at motor vehicle commuting.)

In any case, if this is our big conclusion that drives transport policy, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

The debate shouldn’t be about congestion

I don’t think the debate should be about congestion. It shouldn’t even be about mobility. It should be about access to opportunity: jobs, education, amenity.

It’s not about whether people who choose to drive* are delayed by others who choose to drive. It’s about whether everybody (including those who don’t drive) can get to the places they need to get to.

*Or are forced to do so for lack of viable alternatives.

(To contradict myself for a moment: congestion that gets in the way of efficient transport modes absolutely is the enemy. Ways need to be found to get pedestrians, bikes, trams, buses and trains around it, or at least through it quickly.)

One of the major benefits of a big city, if there are lots of opportunities well-serviced by public transport (and walking and cycling), is that it makes it easier for everyone, of every age, and every income level, to access them… provided they don’t insist on bringing their 2 tonne private vehicle, of course.

Bourke Street Mall, lunchtime

What sort of city do we want?

There’s also a lesson in the headlines. In the Herald Sun story, New York, London and Rome are cited, and compared to Melbourne. In other words, the most prosperous, vibrant, successful cities on Earth have congestion. And we’re becoming more like them.

Is that actually a bad thing?

As Samuel Schwartz says in his excellent book which I just finished reading:

…a study from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found a powerful correlation between per capita traffic delay and per capita GDP; and the correlation wasn’t negative, but the opposite. For every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, the study found a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. It’s not that congestion itself increases economic productivity, but that places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.

Should we really be trying to stamp out congestion, or should we look at how other cities deal with it?

The big world cities don’t deal with congestion by eliminating it – which basically isn’t possible; building more roads just grows more traffic.

Rather, they provide lots of ways of avoiding traffic congestion, by making sure more people can get around without driving in it and adding to it: by providing viable non-car modes for most trips, including non-work, non-CBD trips.

Decentralisation and liveability

Meanwhile, the state Coalition is calling for more decentralisation to maintain Melbourne’s liveability. By “liveability” I suspect they actually mean crowding and congestion.

Again, look around the world at the cities we might aspire to be.

What makes Melbourne’s congested city centre successful in this age of the Information Economy is lots of people in a relatively small space. The majority, who come in by train, are simply never affected by traffic congestion. (They are affected by rail disruptions such as last week’s major outage, but that’s not an everyday thing.)

Decentralisation plays against one of our key strengths.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t increase the number of viable business districts, if it’s possible.

But just moving lots of people to car-dominated regional towns doesn’t really help. As Alan Davies notes, decentralisation is just another name for regional sprawl. And replacing urban sprawl with regional sprawl isn’t actually a positive.

Okay I’ve rambled a bit again.

But my key point is: congestion isn’t our enemy. Lack, and inequity of access is what we should be talking about, and seeking to fix.

Old photos from July 2007

Yes, it’s that time when I run out of blog post ideas delve into the photo archive and post another in my series of photos from ten years ago.

This first photo I probably took because I’ve long had a bee in my bonnet about fare gates being left open. But look how amazingly empty Melbourne Central Station looks.

Okay, it was 10pm, but these days it’s much busier now at all times of day and night.
Melbourne Central Station, 10pm (July 2007)

Comeng train periscopes being removed at Brighton Beach.
Comeng train periscopes being removed, July 2007

That time I noticed the IGA in Ripponlea had a massive A-frame sign that looked like it could kill multiple people if it got blown over in a strong wind. As I recall, it disappeared within a couple of months.
Ripponlea IGA massive sign, July 2007

Errant motor vehicles in Swanston Street is not a new thing.
Swanston Street, July 2007

On the roof, trying to clean the lichen off the skylight. This stuff gets everywhere; on the car, on the rubbish bins…
On the roof (July 2007)

On the way to the snow, I think it was at Mount Donna Buang.
A trip to the snow (July 2007)

Good advice at Glenhuntly Station
"Don't be a tosser" campaign, July 2007

An upgrade coming at Bentleigh level crossing. This was installed in late 2007, then ripped out again and replaced with other equipment in 2015, about two years before the entire crossing was grade-separated. Your tax dollars at work.
Bentleigh level crossing upgrade, July 2007

Station car parks: expensive, not scalable, and useful only 46% of the time

The PTV web site reckons there are 298 car spaces in the car park at Clayton railway station.

Until recently the spaces were distributed around the station, some on the western side of Clayton Road, most on the eastern side, both sides of the railway line.

But with the new elevated “skyrail” line under construction on the north side, a number of spaces have been closed. To compensate for that, more spaces have been opened up on the southeast side of the station.

Here’s how it looks from the train when departing Clayton outbound:

Yes, the car spaces go all the way to Centre Road, some 750 metres from the station entrance.

This was filmed on a public holiday. Any locals care to comment how many of these spaces are filled on an average weekday? Are people really prepared to walk up to 750 metres from their car to catch a train? (I’m lucky enough that I only walk slightly further than this from home to the station.)


At least at Clayton the car park only extends a fraction of the length to the next station. At Bentleigh, the car park now goes halfway to the next stop at McKinnon. It fills the entire space between Bentleigh station and the substation midway between the two stops.

In fact with the McKinnon platform extending south under the road, it doesn’t seem like too far from the end of the Bentleigh car park.

Bentleigh station carpark, viewed from above McKinnon station

On weekdays, it appears the entire car park is used.

Unused most of the time

Station car parks, by their very nature, are near railway stations, which is also some of the most valuable, useful land in any suburb.

It’s also empty more than it’s full. From what I’ve seen, a typical suburban station car park might be only 20% full on weekends, and even emptier in the evenings. It’s probably only full between, at most, 7am and 6pm on weekdays — 11 hours per day, 77 hours out of 168 per week: 46% of the time. And in most cases the total is lower. Many car parks don’t fill up until later each morning.

Station car parks are also notoriously expensive to build, often costing $15,000 to $20,000 per space to construct. It’s an extraordinarily expensive way to get people onto trains, and it’s not scalable. Land is scarce. (And multi-storey carparks can easily multiply the cost per space by three.)

All this means these twentyish people catching a bus home from Bentleigh station have saved taxpayers almost half a million dollars in car spaces, as well as probably saving themselves thousands of dollars per year by avoiding running another car.

703 bus arrives at Bentleigh station

It’s not surprising that for those squeezed out of existing car parks think more and bigger car parks are the answer.

But ultimately the cost isn’t affordable, and it’s illogical to build a public transport system that requires people to drive to the stations.

More needs to be done to bring people to the station without their cars. Better walking and cycling facilities, better connecting buses and trams.

And you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you.

Stay in your lane

Intersections on curves can be tricky. Even slight curves.

Every time I pass the Astor on Dandenong Road in a car, particularly eastbound, I watch what happens.

It’s not uncommon for vehicles to veer into the next lane over as they cross Chapel Street. Usually, thankfully there’s nobody in the way.

This morning it happened to me.

Google Maps satellite view, Dandenong Road and Chapel Street intersection

I was driving outbound, this morning at 10am. I was stopped at the lights, in the lane third from the right (including the turn lane), which becomes the second from the right on the other side of the intersection.

The lights turned green and the cars at the front, including mine, started off. Before I know it, a grey Mercedes to my right is coming into my lane.

Contact. Mild contact. Somewhere near the right front corner of my car. I can only feel the slightest of impacts. I can’t hear crunching, but just a quiet bump. A mere nudge.

I swore (mildly), beeped, and somehow managed not to instinctively veer into the next lane across from mine. Back years ago when I learnt to drive, my instructor told me: don’t avoid one crash by causing another.

Thankfully the other car veered back into its lane.

It kept going. They didn’t seem interested in stopping. I made a note of the licence plate number, and when I could, I pulled over for a look.

The car

No visible damage. I prodded and poked the point of impact a bit. It seems okay.

(Due to the warning of impending expensive repairs from the mechanic, I’m hoping to replace this car when my finances have recovered from the holiday and the investment, which by accident have fallen in the same year.)

Two things spring to mind:

Obviously, be careful to stay in your lane when you’re driving. If you’re at the front of the queue, perhaps do a visual check before you start to cross.

In the absence of line markings, some intersections have a grid of studs in the road surface that show where the lanes go.

I’m not sure why they’re not installed at this spot; given the number of mishaps, I’ve seen, it’d be a welcome upgrade.

Would anybody care about this load of bollards if they weren’t so fugly?

Hideous concrete “bollards” are being distributed around central Melbourne, in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks with motor vehicles such as those seen in Europe.

Everyone knows they’re hideous. But they’re also temporary.

This is fortunate, because the design means that although they can be used for sitting on, they also partly block pedestrians where they are located.

In some spots they roughly halve the capacity, making it quite difficult for an able-bodied person like me to walk between them when it’s busy. It must be doubly difficult with a pram or mobility device.

Southern Cross Station ugly bollards

Obviously they’ve been installed in a hurry. In order to physically stop vehicles, but not involve complicated footpath works to embed a smaller bollard in the ground, they’ve just plonked huge concrete blocks around the place.

They could paint them of course, but I wonder if there’d be all this fuss if they weren’t so fugly?

It’s not as if Melbourne has a shortage of bollards already.

I’m not one to judge what type of vehicle they are capable of stopping, but here’s a sample from a walk around the CBD:

Tram terminus opposite Flinders Street Station
Elizabeth Street, near Flinders Street

Flinders Street Station
Flinders Street Station

These bollards protect the tram stop in Bourke Street, and similar ones are in place next to numerous similar tram stops
Bourke St, bollards protecting tram stop

Bourke Street, near William Street. These seem to be removable, and look and feel pretty rickety.
Bourke Street at Goldsborough Lane

New Chancery Lane, next to RACV
New Chancery Lane, off Bourke Street

Little Collins Street (ooh look, another 8-Bit burger restaurant is coming!)
Little Collins Street, near Queen Street

Little Bourke Street
Little Bourke Street near William Street

These have been around Flagstaff Station for many years, but are actually intended to protect the surrounding Federal and Family Court buildings. (The Family Court was attacked with a vehicle when it was located in Bourke Street)
William Street at Flagstaff station

Little Collins and Queen Streets. I have no idea why this one had a glass on top of it, but presumably the bollard placement is intended to prevent turning vehicles overhanging the footpath where pedestrians may be waiting.
Queen St and Little Collins St

Thankfully not pedestrian areas in the CBD have fencing. This obviously blocks pedestrians as well as vehicles.

As I wrote after the January Bourke Street attack, if we’re serious about preventing motorists endangering or blocking pedestrians, not just maliciously but also via carelessness or thoughtlessness, then well-designed barriers which stop vehicles without barricading pedestrians are something to be welcomed.

Update Wednesday: