No choice: at Fountain Gate, the car is king

The Westfield Fountain Gate web site’s advice for getting there by public transport has a list of the buses that serve the centre (the list being out of date — the 826 and 794 don’t exist anymore and the 839 and 840 no longer go there) and notes it’s a fifteen minute walk from Narre Warren station.

Jeremy and I did indeed head down there by train yesterday. At the station we checked the bus timetable; it was twelve minutes away, and if the walk was going to be only marginally longer, we thought we might as well walk it.

(I had checked the Metlink Journey Planner before setting out. Usually it provides relatively sound advice, but this time around every answer I got out of it claimed there was a 970 metre walk from the Fountain Gate bus interchange to the shopping centre. That’s insane; it’s about the distance from Narre Warren Station for heaven sake’s. Obviously Westfield don’t care a jot, otherwise they’d have raised it. And updated their web site.)

The central bit of Narre Warren, around the station, is relatively pleasant to walk around.

Misleading signage (for pedestrians at least) to Fountain Gate

But what Westfield have created is an extremely pedestrian-hostile environment. It’s not very far (as the crow flies), but the route is badly signed and confusing, you end up crossing numerous roads and car parks, there’s little cover — it must be horrible if rainy or hot.

Even if you check the map in advance, which I did, and work out that following Webb Street from the station is the logical way, the only visual clue along the way, a huge “Westfield Fountain Gate” sign entices you off instead to the main car entrance on the Princes Highway. We followed this, which meant the trip was longer and more convoluted and confusing than necessary.

In the end, it’s true that it probably was a fifteen minute walk. But it was the worst kind of walk — the one where you’re not really sure where you’re going, nobody else is around, and at one point we were following a dirt path apparently worn by previous pedestrians into the grass, because Westfield had failed to provide a proper footpath.

Fountain Gate from above
(Picture: Nearmap.com)

The centre itself is a mishmash of separate buildings. It’s unclear how much is controlled by Westfield and how much isn’t, but as it is, I bet some motorists drive to one part of the centre, do shopping at Officeworks or Harvey Norman and then get back into the car and drive to the other, main part of the centre.

Even the bus interchange is awkwardly placed. There’s little signage inside the centre for it (actually most of the signage inside the centre was pretty poor), and if you follow the signs to the exit, you can’t actually see the bus interchange from the door you come out of. (Though it’s not a 970 metre walk. Perhaps 250 metres around a blind corner.)

I considered us catching a bus back to the station, but having not checked the route numbers in advance, and the mobile Journey Planner revealing few clues as to the waiting times (as most people know, outer-suburban bus services are pretty appalling on Sundays), I decided it was easier to walk back. Just as well; it appears the 841 bus would have pulled into the station just as the train departed — yet again showing Victoria’s mastery of bad train/bus connections.

We walked back along Webb Street, almost getting lost on Narre Warren North Road, which doesn’t even have a footpath along some of its west side — again, there were no visual clues, no pointers to the railway station, not even a street sign for Web Street that I could see.

The “balance”

Often in transport they talk about “balance” and “choice”. In this case, you’re given little choice. Walking and PT access have been made so awkward that almost nobody would use them by choice.

Woe betide if you can’t drive, if you’re too young or two old or have a disability. I would imagine trying to get here independently in a wheelchair would be absolute hell.

What can be done?

Perhaps nothing can be done in a hurry about the overall design of Fountain Gate, but a lot more could be done in terms of signage, between the centre and both the bus interchange and the station, and better pedestrian footpaths to both. It’s not hard, it just takes a little thought. You would think they’d want to encourage any visitors who might be inclined to come without adding to pressure on the carpark… but maybe they just haven’t thought about it.

It’s really no wonder that in this part of the world, the car is king… despite all the problems that brings. It’s like a case study in bad urban design — with the apparent cooperation of the Department of Transport, who back it up by unusable bus services.

On the bright side, we found what we were looking for while down there, we did get some good exercise, and it was perfect walking weather. And actually, if you get a good connection, which we did on the way down, the travel time from Bentleigh isn’t excessively higher than by car — a bit over an hour.

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16 Replies to “No choice: at Fountain Gate, the car is king”

  1. That does raise an important point. I wonder what the effect on trade is when petrol prices shoot up. If and when Peak Oil really hits, and prices, say, double, what will happen to car-dominated centres like this (and the residents of car-dominated suburbs who patronise them)?

  2. Daniel you raised another issue here – where exactly would the bus drop you off? Fountain Gate fell victim to that failed experiment of the late 80s and early 90s of the outside ‘Homemaker Centre’ with non-homemaker centre tenants which made so spread out and pedestrian unfriendly. The original Centre opened in 1980 with Kmart (still in its original location) and Safeway (since moved) and is the section between the food court, Harris Scarfe and Sanity/centre stage. The original Safeway was in the area under the escalators, now Best and Less/ Harris Scarfe, and so on. So originally it was a fairly compact design but then the built that Homemaker thing (now Cash Converters, Centrelink, Pets at Home, Rebel Sport) around the same time they did the upper level extension (1990-ish). Problem is it is around 300 metres away and one generally avoids going there.

    Worse still another (unaffiliated with Westfield) was built on the corner of Narre Warren North Road and Princes Hwy a few years back on the site of the old football ground which is around 800m as the crow flies from the main centre. I walked over there with a friend of mine from the centre a few weeks back as JB HiFi happens to be in this newer bit. In between you have to cross Narre Warren North Road near that awful roundabout (yes no footpaths, as it was a realigned road. Webb Street was the old road into Narre Warren from that direction)

    What you may not know is that this centre actually has the worst parking too (it fills up weeks before Christmas and even Mothers Day Fathers Day etc – people park on the grass alongside Magid Drive but do not use all of the the homemaker parks as they are too far from the centre

    Knox City went down this path too at the time and very few went outside (remember the old Village cinemas and the mostly empty food court downstairs anybody??) This has since been reduced with a centre expansion and that partial rectification with Knox Ozone. There remains a silly pedestrian crossing in the middle of it all and the old cinemas are empty I think (anybody know??) with a Dick Smith, JB and Retravision occupying the ground floor only.

  3. Westfield probably don’t want public transport to be successful in that area. They won’t sell big, awkward things to customers who have to go home on the bus or train. If they thought more cleverly though, they would realise they could offer home deliveries to the public transport users. They could also charge for car parking after making public transport viable.

    They’ll argue, however, that they have no power over pubilc transport.

    The council might be able to help encourage them. It could even build paths until it reaches the boundary of the shopping centre and then leave the rest up to Westfield, perhaps even erect signs to show where the private land begins, if Westfield gets difficult about it.

  4. It is worth noting the spread out nature of the place was not done under Westfield but the previous owner the Overland Development Corporation. Westfield did a major renovation and extension (the bit out over the carpark including Big W and current Safeway … sorry Woolworths in 2001)

    it was first built to accompany the new City of Berwick Civic Centre. Here is a 1963 plan of it – it was a fairly isolated place still when it was bult in 1980. Note the ‘Latrobe Valley Freeway’ running behind, pre 1969 plan stuff
    http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3078477

  5. My mother has been shopping there since it opened. Does she know her way around it? Not at all. On the odd occasion I have taken her there, it usually involves doing a full circuit before she can work out where we need to park. I remember when it was much smaller and a pleasant little valley where Carols by Candlelight were held is now asphalt. It is the worst of its kind I have ever been to.

  6. Any road/footpath/transport improvements will be chucked about like a hot potato from Westfield to council to state govt to federal govt with suggestions throw in of a feasibility study then an environmental study, perhaps a non-core election promise from the Go For Your Life Premier’s campaign to put in bike lanes and another offer from the independents to throw some more trains on the track (which won’t do much in this situation but will sound good).
    Expect some improvements in, oh, about, the year 2020.

  7. You’re not wrong about the failure of interior signage at Fountain Gate. I went there once and managed to park in the right (ish) spot purely by accident but once I was inside, I had no idea where anything was. We actually had to ask a shop assistant for directions.

  8. It has to be one of the most ill-designed shopping centres I have ever been to. Unfortunately, I have to shop there almost every week.

  9. The problem more fundamental, it is shopping centres like Westfield! They are the modern day slave drivers in the way the treat their tenants (who are beholden to another set of slave drivers – franchises). The whole environment is simply to lull people into thinking that this is life’s fulfillment and to destroy previously existing community centres of interaction and business. Once competition is destroyed the consumer becomes enslaved.
    The fact that councils and state governments have allowed these centres to spring up is reprehensible in the treatment of existing community hubs and businesses in local areas.
    No-one should be surprised that public transport is not a priority in these places. I’m sure if public transport helped their image and bottom line the government would be falling over itself to help Mr. Lowy.

  10. @Andrew S, if I were king of the world, I’d move a dozen parking spaces and put the bus stops right in front of an entrance to the shopping centre, just like at most centres of this type. True, the Harvey Norman, Officeworks, Bunnings etc are a bit harder to get to, but places like Highpoint manage this with footpaths and pedestrian crossings from the main part of the centre, across Rosamond Road.

    The development history is interesting. Westfield elsewhere have done a lot better. In London, they helped fund a new railway station and an upgrade to another, and the centre has access from two different Underground lines and Overground (suburban) services.

    @Philip, what’s the likelihood someone would buy a big item spontaneously? I suppose many people might do their weekly shop during a visit to such a centre, but there’d also be trips there purely for services (such as seeing a movie) and to buy smaller items.

    Yeah the paths are mostly in place, but the council could do better by providing directional signage – Glen Eira and Maribyrnong have installed this kind of thing in the last few years, indicating the direction, distance and in some cases the walking time to major shopping centres, parks, railway stations and other community facilities.

    @Katie, the particular example that struck me was that we wanted to get to level 1 from the level 2 entrance on the south side. A sign pointing to the escalators to level 1 pointed directly into some shops, rather than giving a hint about whether we should go left or go right. The directory wasn’t much help either, as it didn’t show levels 1 and 2 relative to each other, so it wasn’t clear which way we had to go after getting down to level 1.

  11. Examples like this, which clearly outline how effing poor PT is in the outter ‘burbs, really drive home the need for proper planning in the “fringe” areas of our car-dependant city.

  12. Excellent article. The following, it occurs to me, is emblematic of turn-of-the-century outer urban design:

    “Narre Warren North Road […] doesn’t even have a footpath along some of its west side”

    There are whole new suburbs-in-a-paddock whose circuitous streets were seemingly designed to be difficult to escape without a motor vehicle. (Which, if you’re lucky, might include a bus running 7 times a day, 5-and-a-bit days a week.)

  13. Should’ve given me a call Daniel! I could’ve taken you around.

    A couple of points about your article:
    1) Narre North Rd not having a footpath on the western side, the road was designed as a traffic sewer, not as a walking path, hence the lack of footpath. That’s what Web St is for.

    2) The 840 technically still does go there, as the 834 and 835.

    3) I remember the shopping centre extension a decade ago (a decade already!), where the bus station is now was advertised on the designs at the time as a “temporary location” during the construction works. Like many “temporary” situations, it became permanent. So permanent that they built the ugly shelter that stands there now. A couple of years ago they made it even uglier when they replaced the scratched perspex with corrugated sheets of metal. Anyway, the bus station was moved there from the north-western side of the shopping centre, the exact location of which has now shopping centre on it. Where they wanted to move the bus station however, I have no idea, I was too young at the time and I didn’t care for buses.

    4. Shopping centres don’t want better PT to their front door, as it brings those who don’t spend money, namely teenagers and the elderly. You can’t have that!

    5. Directions within the shopping centre, I’ve been going there for nearly 20 years, who needs direction signs! :P

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