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 worldโ€™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.

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.

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:

Should Swanston/Flinders be a scramble crossing?

It turns out some are floating the idea of the Swanston/Flinders Street intersection being converted to a pedestrian scramble crossing (aka a Barnes Dance/Barnes Walk).

THE CBD’s busiest intersection, at Flinders and Swanston streets, could get a pedestrian-friendly makeover under changes forced by the Metro Rail tunnel project.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has revealed one option Melbourne city council is considering is the introduction of a traffic light sequence in which pedestrians can cross the whole of the intersection from different directions.

— Herald Sun: Metro tunnel forces rethink of pedestrian crossing at Flinders and Swanston streets (pay wall)

The only scramble crossing at present in the CBD is at Elizabeth/Flinders Street. It works well when cars stay out of it during the pedestrian phase.

Bourke/Spencer is probably the top candidate elsewhere in the CBD. Swanston/Latrobe could also work well.

As for Swanston/Flinders, potentially it could work, though the best locations for them are where there are lots of pedestrians in all directions.

At this intersection, most of the traffic is north-south from the station to the shops on the western side of Swanston Street. There are also heavy flows between the station and Federation Square and the tram stop, but this is well south of the intersection — though there is a case for moving the tram stop (and enlarging it) to be closer to the intersection, for better interchange with trams on Flinders Street.

There might be other, easier alternatives, but whether a scramble crossing works or not probably depends on the design of the traffic light cycles. If they minimise green time for cars, and maximise it for pedestrians, as well as having more spots in the cycle to let trams through, then it’s got potential to improve things.

Federation Square tram stop, 5:20pm on a weekday

Indeed, issues around the Federation Square tram stop are a reminder of the importance (alluded to in the Herald Sun article) that we need to think big picture.

What are the effects the metro tunnel will have on pedestrian movements? (It’s likely to provide underground walkways from the current station to the new one.) What about trams along Flinders Street, set to increase with some Elizabeth Street trams running to East Melbourne? And could/should there be a move to reduce or even eliminate private vehicles from Princes Bridge and this section of Flinders Street?

There are safety benefits to scramble crossings — accidents from turning cars reduce, though this is less important at this particular location where there are virtually no turning movements at the same time as walk signals.

And I do think there’s another important benefit to scramble crossings: on a psychological level, they improve the walking environment. Giving the entire space to pedestrians, even if only once each traffic light cycle, sends the message that (here at least) pedestrians are not, and should not be marginalised.

New trains – 2000 people?!

The Age broke the story last week that the new High Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs) are being designed to cope with up to 2000 people, at a density of up to 6 people per square metre, and seats for 30-40% of the total load.

Cue the outrage (from some quarters) — but it’s important to look at the numbers, because when you break it down, it’s not actually much different to what we already have.

The important thing is that the load standard is different to the gross/maximum/crush load capacity.

Let me summarise it in a table, then you can read the long boring explanation if you wish.

Cars Load standard Per car Gross capacity
/ crush load
Per car
Comeng* 6 900 150 1526 crush load 254
Siemens* 6 900 150 1584 crush load 264
X’Trapolis* 6 900 150 1394 crush load 232
HCMT 7 1100 157 1380 gross capacity 197
HCMT 10 1570 157 1970 gross capacity 197

*Crush load figures for the existing fleet are from before seat modifications were made.

The current train “load standard” is 900 people per 6 carriages, with about half of those seated, and half standing. (The magic number used to be 798, or 133 per carriage. Recent changes made it 900, or 150 per carriage, with more changes to come).

But 900 is NOT the capacity. It’s meant to be the upper limit for a comfortable load; the trigger point at which they should be planning for more services.

In a crush load, such as was seen on many lines on the morning of the Age story, you might get 1500 people onto a 6-car train — in fact the Comeng fleet “crush” capacity is said to be 1526.

Channel 7’s Brendan Donohoe enterprisingly got a metre square and took it on a train to show how 6 people per square metre looks. Not much different to the above.

So if the current crush load is about 1500, that’s 250 per carriage.

The 1,970 quoted for the new fleet is not a “load standard”, but a “gross capacity”, aka a maximum for planning purposes.

(At first I thought this was similar to a “crush load”, perhaps in more politically-correct terms. But perhaps not; at 197 per carriage, it’s quite a bit lower than the current figures of around 250 per carriage.)

The 1,970 figure is also for a much longer train.

From the documents I’ve seen, the load standard for the initial 7-car configuration will be 1100, or 157 per carriage. Not much different from the current 6-car load standard of 900, or 150 per carriage.

Extending the trains from 7 to 10 cars later (on the Sunbury and Dandenong/Cranbourne/Pakenham lines via the metro tunnel) will therefore extend the load standard to 1570.

Comeng train

Planning for a crush load of up to 1970 on a 10-car train is not unreasonable.

It means that the carriages will safely carry that many people (factors such as weight and braking come into play), and if they get the interior design right, there’ll be places for everyone to hold on.

This is a big issue with many of the current fleet: the Siemens and Comeng trains have very few handholds apart from around the doorways.

Most of the X’Trapolis fleet is better, but those handholds are mostly too far towards the side of the carriage, meaning you have to reach over seated passengers to grab them.

Singapore MRT train in peak hour

Having participated in stakeholder consultation for the new train design, I can tell you: the carriages have a mix of seating: longitudinal (along the carriage) at the ends, providing more standing space, and areas for wheelchairs and bicycles, and transverse (across the carriage) seating in the middle areas.

The semi-permanent marshalling into 7 or 10 car sets, with no intermediate driver cabs, will save space, and the walk-through design will make it easier to move to the next carriage if it’s less crowded.

And they intend on having more vertical poles than the current fleet, meaning far more places to hold on, as well as handholds from the ceiling.

Crowded train, Richmond

So rather than get outraged at the prospect of 2000 people crush-loaded into a train, the real questions are:

Will the new train fleet be designed to better cope with that many people?

Will there be enough seats for people travelling long distances, and/or those who can’t stand?

And will there be enough trains running that trains that crowded are the exception rather than the rule?