Domain tunnel closed. Gridlock? What gridlock?

GRIDLOCK will begin to choke Melbourne’s roads from Friday night, but the full impact of bridge and tunnel closures for maintenance won’t bite until the New Year.

Motorists are being advised to steer clear of the city, or they could experience delays of up to an hour.

— Herald Sun: Traffic chaos expected as West Gate Bridge and CityLink tunnels close, 26/12/2013

Oh noes! The Domain tunnel (that’s westbound) closed for days! Disaster!

Except… gridlock? What gridlock?

Here’s how it looked at 8am this morning on the Vicroads live traffic web page:

Vicroads traffic map: 8:05am, 30/12/2013

A few little spots of delays marked in red, but nothing major at all. (Click on the pictures to see them bigger.)

On Saturday, the only major delays were miles away from the tunnel, due to incidents on the Princes Highway westbound.

Vicroads traffic map: 11:30am, 28/12/2013

This photo this morning from a Channel Ten reporter also noted a distinct lack of chaos.

There are probably a number of reasons for this. Firstly the timing of these works was wisely scheduled when fewer people are travelling around town.

But I also wonder if the widespread publicity of the closures has led to people purposefully avoiding it. After all, if you know in advance there’s a major road closure, why would you deliberately drive into a snarl if you could avoid it?

Turns out major road closures often result in no gridlock

Turns out this is not unprecedented. In 2007 a major shutdown in Seattle resulted in… no gridlock.

I mean, who’d have guessed you could shut down a third of our most congested freeway and not paralyze the region in epic traffic jams? Oliver Downs, that’s who.

The case of the vanishing cars is no mystery to him. In fact he predicted it.

He forecast no extreme clogs anywhere — not on I-5, nor on alternate routes such as Highway 99 or 599. So far he’s been right about that.

— Seattle Times: Math whiz had I-5’s number, 22/8/2007

And a recent major shutdown in Birmingham, that also resulted in little disruption, has many wondering if these big inner-city motorways are needed at all.

When it emerged Birmingham’s Queensway tunnels would be closed for six weeks over the summer, it is no surprise there were predictions of “chaos”.

The main through route for the A38, the tunnels are used by thousands of drivers each day and have been an integral part of the city’s transport network since they were built in the 1970s.

There was some surprise, therefore, when the anticipated gridlock did not materialise.

The reality was so different that a report into Birmingham’s transport network for the next 20 years has called for a debate about how much they are needed, pointing out they create a “noisy unattractive barrier to intra-centre movement”.

— BBC: End of the road? Are major routes through cities outdated? 26/12/2013

This has even happened in Los Angeles:

The traffic many thought would be a nightmare was much lighter than normal as Los Angeles entered the second day in the shutdown of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 – one of the country’s busiest highways.

Associated Press: Los Angeles bridge project cruising toward finish, 17/7/2011

This phenomenon has been studied, and it’s actually quite common.

In 1998, British researchers studied what happened to traffic in more than 100 highway and bridge shutdowns in Europe and the U.S. They found that on average 25 percent of all car trips simply evaporated.

People still went to work. Some commuters drove, some found another way in. Some other trips were just not made.

“Drivers are not stupid,” Downs says. “They change schedules. They don’t take some trips, or they delay them. The net effect of all these little decisions can be dramatic.”

— Seattle Times: Math whiz had I-5’s number, 22/8/2007

Is this the opposite of induced traffic?

Induced traffic happens when large numbers of people decide it’s easier to drive, and do so, more often and further. It’s commonly seen when new major roads open, as often congestion initially falls, before building back up.

As I mentioned above, demand is definitely lower at this time of year, with many city workers on holiday. But VicRoads says this typically results in only a 30% drop in traffic levels… so normally 70% of the traffic volumes would still be on the roads.

It might be that in the case of the current Domain tunnel closure, with plenty of advance publicity, large numbers of people may have decided not to make some trips, at least not by car.

The real test might be next week when the Burnley tunnel is closed, and a lot more people are back at work.

But as with the questions being asked in Birmingham, what we’ve seen so far again calls into question the wisdom of building more major inner-city roads such as the East West Link. Ultimately, do we need more of them, especially with a price tag of billions of dollars? Shouldn’t we be smarter about how we provide mobility for large numbers of people (and goods) in a more efficient manner?

Update 31/12/2013

I’ve been looking through the TV news from the last couple of nights. Here are some choice quotes.

In a story introduced with the phrase “Carmageddon”: “I think people are well informed, and I think they understand that when we do have virtually a single major link – Citylink and Westgate – that does occasionally have to be shut down. And that’s why the people of Victoria say get on and build the East West Link.” – Dennis Napthine, Channel 7 news, 27/12/2013

“Melbourne has escaped traffic chaos on the first day of the city’s biggest road network closure. Drivers didn’t face the hour-long delays that were forecast…

With an average 9000 cars using that stretch of Citylink every hour, Victorians were warned there’d be chaos and long delays. But it seems that was enough to keep most drivers off the roads.
…Monday tipped to be an especially busy day as many Victorians return to work.”

– Channel 7 news, 28/12/2013.

Update 6/1/2014

Warnings continued over the weekend for the closure of the Burnley (eastbound) tunnel, and minor queues from Westgate onto Kingsway were noted on Saturday, but still major delays have proved elusive.

This morning, arguably the first day there are lots of people returning to work, the Vicroads traffic web site does show a queue about 2km long in that same spot. It’s still not widespread gridlock, though it’ll be interesting to see if it spreads through the day, and particularly in evening peak.

Vicroads: traffic 6/1/2014 7:30am

By 8am the queues stretched back to about the service stations, but there was little other congestion noted in the inner area.

The ABC reported it thus: Closure of Burnley Tunnel for resurfacing work causes only minor traffic delays

Perhaps the delays are only this minor because the authorities talk up the chaos. But as noted above, it should leave us questioning the Premier’s claims that it is critical to build another cross-city tunnel.

#EastWestLink “congestion-busting”? They promised that for Citylink, and it wasn’t.

Veteran road industry figure Max Lay made something of a startling admission last week in an opinion piece in The Age on the proposed East West Link: that the intent of major road projects isn’t to fix congestion:

Opponents play the congestion card, arguing that previous projects have not eliminated congestion, forgetting that this was never their intent. The link will significantly improve the way traffic moves across Melbourne’s inner north, but there may be times when demand exceeds supply.

It’s a little surprising to hear this, as the government has made repeated claims about the East West Link being “congestion-busting“.

Traffic, Dandenong Road

In fact, the newly-released EWL “Comprehensive Impact Study” makes more such claims:

Detailed traffic modelling for the first stage of the East West Link estimates the toll road will reduce peak travel times between Melbourne’s east and west by up to 20 minutes.
ABC report

East West Link to slash road congestion, says State Government and RACV
Herald Sun

(For more details, you want the CIS Technical Appendix E, page 45. Just take it with a pinch of salt, as traffic levels on inner-city roads are actually static or dropping; Vicroads official traffic count figures show Alexandra Parade traffic reduced across the board – and by to 34% on one section – between 2002 and 2012.)

Citylink’s promises

Before Citylink opened, the road lobby made bold promises about travel times for that, too. How did they work out?

Here are some claims made by Citylink/Transurban themselves (published in The Age 16/11/1998) for AM peak trips, compared with the actual travel times then, and today:

Trip 1998: AM peak Promised AM peak Promised time savings 2013 AM peak (Google Maps*) Actual time savings
Corner Springvale / Ferntree Gully Rds to Docklands 33 mins 20 mins 40% 30 mins 10%
Dandenong to Port Melbourne 44 mins 28 mins 36% 43 mins 2%
Corner Toorak/Tooronga Rds to Melbourne Airport 43 mins 23 mins 47% 37 mins 14%

And here are estimates for AM peak trips from the RACV, also published in The Age (27/5/1999).

Trip 1999: AM peak Promised AM peak time Promised time savings 2013: AM peak (Google maps*) Actual time savings
Oakleigh to City 38 mins 13 mins 66% 28 mins 26%
Gladstone Park to MCG 46 mins 26 mins 43% 41 mins 11%
Dandenong to Melbourne Airport 87 mins 39 mins 55% 60 mins 31%

*Note that the 2013 figures use a limited sample size — Wednesday morning, to be precise, when there appeared to be no major road network disruptions. Actual travel times are, of course, highly variable.

And the 2013 figures use default values for some locations in Google Maps, which may not precisely match the intent in the forecasts, though they appear to be close — because estimates made last night at 11pm were very close to the claimed predictions.

In other words, the only way to get anything like the promised times is to make your trip in the middle of the night. The predictions appear to have assumed free-flowing traffic.

While some sections of Citylink have reduced speed limits from 100 to 80 since it opened, affecting travel times, the real difference is that traffic volumes (particularly at peak hour) have ballooned — free-flowing traffic simply doesn’t occur on these roads in peak hour.

So the result is that while there are some time savings, they are nowhere near what was promised. The travel times in AM peak today in most cases are actually closer to the pre-motorway times than the promised times.

Based on this, it’s hard to see how East West Link will meet its “congestion-busting” pledge. Of course, there’s always the chance that it’ll attract virtually no traffic — leaving surface roads clogged… that might mean it’s free-flowing, but with little toll revenue, an even bigger impost on taxpayers.

This recent update on Australian tollway traffic levels shows Citylink is one of the only tollways in the country that has steadily increased traffic since opening. It’s also one of the most profitable. It makes me wonder – could it be that tollways can either meet their trip savings promises or get enough traffic to be profitable, but do not both?

You could argue that it’s unrealistic to expect traffic predictions made in 1998 to be fulfilled in 2013, given the inevitable growth that has occurred in Melbourne, and the unpredictability of traffic. And you’d be right. But that’s precisely what is being done now with EWL with their 2031 predictions. Why should they be any more accurate than Citylink’s fifteen years ago?

One look at the planned EW route shows why it would have made yesterday’s #Citylink mess worse, not better

The claims that the East-West link would somehow help the road network cope with yesterday’s horrible Citylink accident are truly mystifying. It really does appear as if the motorway boosters have tried to make use of this high-profile event to promote their cause in the hope that nobody thought too much about what they were saying.

RACV public policy general manager Brian Negus said the crash amplified the need for an east-west tunnel connecting the Eastern Freeway in Clifton Hill and the Western Ring Road.

“You see it all the time if we have a major collision on the West Gate Freeway, the Bolte Bridge, the Tullamarine or the Monash and the whole city grinds to a halt. This crash has really amplified the need for the East West Link and a complete network of freeways. We need an alternative route,” he said.

Herald Sun: Truck crash on CityLink confirms the need for East West Link, say experts

One look at the map shows why this isn’t the case.

Melbourne East-West proposed route map
Proposed East-West link map, highlighting shared section with Citylink, where Friday’s accident happened. (Source)

Apart from the fact that “alternative routes” have their own traffic to deal with, in this case the East-West link would have been no help whatsoever. Why? Because the planned East-West route includes the section of Citylink where the crash was.

The presence of the eastern connection in particular would have made it worse, because it would have brought their own traffic into the picture. Traffic coming in from the eastern suburbs and wanting to head south on Citylink (to head towards the Westgate bridge or anywhere else south of Flemington) would have been joining the traffic caught up in the snarl.

Their only alternative motorway route they could have taken would be to head north via the Tullamarine, then the Calder then the Ring Road, then finally onto the Westgate. For a trip from say Flemington to Spotswood, this would blow out from 9km to 34km — hardly a realistic alternative, particularly in the face of that route’s usual traffic plus other displaced vehicles.

As one commenter on the 3AW web site said yesterday: “Thank God we don’t have the East-West Link, otherwise traffic would be backed up on the Eastern as well!!!!!!!”

Even on the best of days, this section of Citylink is congested already at peak times, simply because it is a completely inefficient way of moving people. Add extra traffic — even in the absence of a major disruption — and it would become daily gridlock.

Don’t be surprised if the EW link ever gets built that the road lobby immediately start asking for the next alternative route to link them up — yet another new freeway connection through inner-city Melbourne.

Of course, one should note Negus’s comment was not necessarily about this particular event, but more about wanting a complete network of freeways. Because apparently the best solution to something that doesn’t work is to build more of them.

17 years ago, Citylink ads claimed it’d fix our traffic problems. Surprise! It didn’t work.

Tony Abbott apparently doesn’t just think more roads can solve traffic, he actually thinks tarmac and cars smothering our cities makes them more liveable.

Melbourne suffered traffic gridlock yesterday. It’s very important that the national government fund nationally important infrastructure. I have committed an incoming Coalition government to spending $1.5 billion to kickstart the East West Link project. I have committed an incoming Coalition government to $1.5 billion towards the WestConnex projects in Sydney. These are vital pieces of national infrastructure. They are very important if we are to have liveable cities in the 21st century and I say to the Prime Minister: stop sitting on your hands; be part of the solution, not part of the problem and commit to the transport infrastructure that the great cities of Australia need.

Tony Abbott, doorstop interview 4/10/2012

It wasn’t just on Wednesday that we had traffic problems, of course. Even on the least worst days, you hear people talking about the South Eastern Carpark just like the old days before it was fully grade-separated.

Back then, it was Citylink that was going to fix everything. People might have forgotten these ads:

Citylink ad 1995

If you can’t quite make it out (sorry, it’s not the best copy), the heart is meant to be central Melbourne, and the “triple bypass” is the joining of the Tullamarine, Westgate and Southeastern freeways.

Citylink ad 1995 (detail of heart)

I’ve transcribed the text to make it easier to read:

A TRIPLE BY-PASS.

A recent international survey has identified Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city.

But without an operation to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, it’s not a status we’ll continue to enjoy.

The major arteries leading to the very heart of our city are becoming increasingly clogged. The traffic delays increasingly unproductive. And the exhaust fumes, noise and fuel wastage increasingly difficult to swallow – for businesses and commuters alike.

It’s a situation that poses a threat not only to our traditionally high living standards but also to our personal and financial health. And it won’t be improved by the estimated 250,000 additional vehicles that will be on our road by the year 2000.

The remedy will come from having a $1.5 billion by-pass operation that will link and upgrade Melbourne’s three major arteries – the Tullamarine Freeway, the Westgate Freeway and (via the Domain tunnel) the South Eastern Arterial.

Scheduled to commence in late 1995, the ‘Melbourne City Link’ will be funded and built by the private sector and greatly improve the way we all live and work.

Traffic will again flow freely in and around the Central Activities District because there will be far less through traffic using our inner city streets.

Travel times will be substantially reduced. A trip from the city to the Tullamarine Airport for example will be up to 15 minutes quicker. And trips from Dandenong to the city shortened by up to 20 minutes.

Visits to and from our city’s sports, arts and entertainment precinct will no longer be bumper to bumper.

Business and industry will enjoy faster, more efficient freight movement, and better quality access to port, rail and airport facilities. Indeed, the haul from Dandenong to Tullamarine should save around 30 valuable minutes in travel time.

The absence of traffic lights on each of the freeways will mean less stopping and starting. And result in less noise pollution, lower fuel costs, more efficient vehicle operation and reduced exhaust emissions.

With heavy traffic diverted away from suburban streets, we can also expect fewer accidents and around 190 less injuries and road deaths each year. And this won’t just result in reduced pain and suffering, but also in an annual financial saving of $135 million.

The $1.5 billion injection of new private investment into Victoria will even create 4,000 jobs that didn’t exist before.

In every respect, the triple by-pass is about looking after our future health. And ensuring that Melbourne remains the world’s most liveable city.

At the Melbourne City Link Authority we’ve been charged by Government with the responsibility of overseeing the entire operation. You can rest assured we will be working in the best interests of all Victorians to ensure its complete success.

If you have any questions, please call the MCLA Information Line toll free on 1 800 649 964.

Sounds great doesn’t it. In fact, maybe they should use the same blurb for the East West road tunnel.

It hasn’t, of course, turned out that way — even with a later $1.4 billion spent on adding lanes to the Southeastern and the Westgate. Every motorway is built on the promise of faster trips and all the benefits that go with it, but it’s only faster if traffic levels don’t grow — and the availability of all that road space inevitably induces more vehicles.

It’s simply not efficient to move people one-by-one in their cars*, and the last thing we should be doing is throwing good money after bad and building more roads to encourage more cars.

In the case of the East-West road tunnel, it might swallow $10 billion that would be better spent on alternatives, flood the city and inner-northern suburbs with cars, and do nothing to stop car dependence in the outer suburbs.

I’m not saying we should remove Citylink

It would be silly to say we should/could demolish Citylink. And one also wouldn’t say it’s had no effect whatsoever. Of course it has. Expansion of the road network is bound to.

The question is: where to from here? Travel demand continues to outstrip supply. Where we invest in capacity, it will be filled. We should invest in the most efficient modes, and in the modes we want to see grow.

Do we want the next surge in travel growth in Melbourne to be in private vehicles, or sustainable modes such as public transport, walking and cycling?

That’s where the money should go.

* * *

Previously:

*Before I get comments from those who apparently carry heavy tools and other work equipment around with them in their vehicles, just remember the majority of people heading to work carry little more than their phone and a sandwich, OK?

Citylink billing screwup

Mini CooperOn the 29th of December I hired a Mini from Hertz as a Christmas present for Marita.

So that we could drive on the Citylink tollway, I temporarily added it to my Citylink account.

  • 29/12/2010 12:01pm. Added XPE308
  • 29/12/2010 12:30pm. Travelled on tollway
  • 30/12/2010 10:37am. Removed XPE308 from account

I thought no more about it until Monday, when a letter from Hertz arrived, saying that the travel had not been on a Citylink account, and therefore Citylink had billed Hertz (the car’s owner) for $8.60, and Hertz had added a $5.00 administration fee, and just for good measure, $1.36 of GST.

Grumble grumble.

It got worse. Upon looking at my Citylink account for that period, it turned out Citylink had charged me for 9 trips, costing $31.16, by the same vehicle, on the 14th, 19th and 20th of January.

It appears that Citylink’s computers are stuffed. They evidently don’t handle the temporary addition and removal of vehicles to accounts.

I can almost understand there might be a delay of 24 hours for this, but not two weeks — and remember, they would have billed Hertz at some stage later, long after their billing system should have known precisely when the Mini was meant to be on my account.

On Tuesday I rang Citylink about this. The bloke on the phone was very helpful; he refunded the $31.16, and gave me a reference number to quote to Hertz when I ring them.

I haven’t rung Hertz yet. Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if they refuse to refund the $5 administration fee.

Some people like to have a go at Myki by way of claiming that Citylink’s billing system is perfect. It wasn’t always the case, and from this experience, it’s clear it still isn’t.

And Myki’s never stung me for as much as $31.

By the way, make sure you dispute incorrect charges with Citylink within 60 days. In the small print on their statements it says:

Please note: If you disagree with your Account Balance, you have 60 days from receipt of your statement, to contact CityLink. After 60 days, the Account Balance recorded on the statement will be considered to be correct.

Nice, hey?

Oh yeah, and Citylink still haven’t fixed their web site’s security configuration problem.

Update Monday 28/2: I didn’t have the stamina to ring Hertz, so used their web form instead, on Friday. Today they’ve replied. I’m suitably impressed that they have refunded both the Citylink charge and the administration fee.