How many motorways does a big city need? And what sort of city do we want?

On Friday, The Age reported that Infrastructure Australia has put out a report that asks what sort of city we’d like to have in 2046:

  • The Expanded Low Density scenario – similar to Los Angeles – sprawling, dispersed suburbs, even more car-dominated than today
  • The Centralised High Density scenario – similar to New York City – concentrating jobs and housing in the inner 15km ring
  • The Rebalanced Medium Density scenario – similar to London – medium-density over a wider area, and jobs closer to where people live

IA’s question is a good one, and put in terms many people can understand.

If the populations of Melbourne and Sydney continue to grow, we will end up being more like the population of LA, NY or London.

What outcome do we want? Because that’s the one we should plan for.

Sunday afternoon traffic on M1 exit to Kingsway

As it happens, also on Friday, the Financial Review reported that the International Monetary Fund says Australia has been spending too much on roads, and the pendulum needs to swing to railways, ports and airports.

All this raises many questions, but here’s one I’d already been looking into:

Do more populous cities have more motorways?

How many motorways are there in LA, NY and London, and other big cities, compared to Melbourne?

I looked at the total kilometre length of motorways in the three cities – plus a few others where I could easily find data.

Motorway kms by city

Some caveats:

  • I went looking for numbers, and in some cases got lists of motorways (freeways and tollways) from Wikipedia and added their lengths together, or found an official source (LA, NY)… a more exhaustive study would probably have better sources than this.
  • You could argue that motorway lane kilometres are more important than just length, as the number of lanes can radically alter carrying capacity.
  • You can also argue that other types of roads, such as major arterials, can play a big part in overall road space and capacity in a city, but let’s keep it simple and focus on motorways.

…taking that into account, you will note that Melbourne already has more motorways by length than London and Sydney.

In fact we’ve already got more kilometres of freeways than any other city in Australia, but the WestGate Tunnel and North East Link, which the current government wants to build, will see go even further beyond the others.

Houston is the clear king, at least in this small sample. That’s the city where they keep massively expanding their freeways, but their traffic doesn’t get any better.

Westgate Freeway, Sunday morning

What do the big cities do?

Motorway length is obviously dependent on city size.

Some people argue that as our cities grow in population, they need more motorways.

What happens when we divide by population (for the same area) to find the motorway kilometres per million people?

Motorway kms by city and population

Obviously a more exhaustive study, with more cities, using this type of methodology would be interesting.

Nonetheless… by this measure, what’s striking is that we in Melbourne have more motorways per person than London or New York City. If we keep building them, we’ll creep closer to Los Angeles.

Back to the IA question: what do we want for our city? LA, NY, or LDN?

I don’t think we want to be like LA. Sprawling, dispersed suburbs dominated by cars? LA’s bad traffic is notorious. No thanks.

New York or London? I’d personally prefer London. Gentler medium density, and spreading employment centres over a wider area.

The key thing to remember is which transport modes move people efficiently as cities get bigger. As I said recently: Roads get less efficient the more people use them … Public transport gets more efficient.

And we will get the city that we plan for and build for.

On the measure of motorways at least, if we want to be like London or New York, there’s a lot to do to achieve that… but building more motorways isn’t one of them. Time to look for more efficient ways to move people around.

Update 26/2/2018 9:45pm. Found an error in the Brisbane data. Corrected.
Update 27/2/2018 7:00pm. Sydney data also corrected. Thanks for the feedback.

PS. Tony Morton said it well:

1978 film “Mouth to Mouth” includes scenes of Melbourne anti-freeway protests

The recent anti-motorway protests in Melbourne are nothing new. In fact the very same area was subject to protests in the 1970s, when it was proposed to link the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway by way of an aboveground link, by converting Alexandra Parade to a freeway, ploughing through neighbourhoods in Collingwood, Carlton and Fitzroy.

Film and television can sometimes provide little glimpses of these events. M told me that on Sunday night, Channel 31 as part of their classic Australian film series, was showing 1978’s Mouth To Mouth“, about four youngsters trying to survive on Melbourne’s streets.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

About 43 minutes in, there’s a scene were one of the characters looks out of a window and spots one of the anti-freeway protests. I assume it was staged for the film, as they are marching to an audience of nobody, but the placards look to be directly inspired by real life, one criticising the then-Premier — partly out of shot, but I think it says “What about your 1972 promise – No more freeways, Mr Hamer”.

Others such as “Melbourne needs a transport plan!” and “Freeways – Money for jams” wouldn’t be out of place today.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

I missed the scene on Channel 31’s broadcast, but found the DVD for the bargain price of $5 plus $1.30 shipping on Umbrella Entertainment’s web site.

In other scenes you can glimpse bright orange trams, safety zones, rows and rows of telephone boxes, a red rattler train, the old Coles cafeteria, and numerous old cars. There’s also a scene set in a plush hotel — possibly the Southern Cross.

And apart from the scenery, the film itself isn’t bad either. Apparently it got three AFI nominations.

Luckily most people don’t bring their cars to central Melbourne

Sometimes in the city, it’s a bit like a Where’s Wally book.

Bourke Street Mall, lunchtime

City of Melbourne figures indicate the average daily population for the CBD and surrounding council area is 844,000.

But Christmas shopping is a very busy time of year.

City of Melbourne has some very clever pedestrian monitoring systems, which can tell us just how busy different parts of the city are. They have sensors around the place, including in the Bourke Street Mall — on both sides, though the northern side one is currently not working, which is a shame as I suspect it’s a bit busier. The southern side one shows pedestrian numbers peaked yesterday around lunchtime (when the photo was taken) at about 5000 per hour — about 45% higher than the 52 week average, showing how the nice weather and Christmas shopping has a huge effect.

Pedestrian count, Bourke Street Mall - south - 18/12/2014 (City of Melbourne)

How do people get to the city? The Census has very good data on travel for work (and this appears to include study) which shows about 65% of people working in the city centre (or thereabouts) come in by public transport as their main mode. About 25% are by motor vehicle. The rest are by other means including walking and cycling.

ABS Census 2011: Mode to city

City of Melbourne has a smaller survey (the Central Melbourne travel survey) that captures all city visitors (not just workers). It shows a slightly lower public transport share — 59% — and also lower for walking and cycling, but higher for motor vehicles — 37%.

City of Melbourne survey: mode to city

They also have a survey showing trips around areas of the city. Unsurprisingly, this is dominated by walking and trams.

City of Melbourne survey: Mode around city

It’s lucky most of people coming into the City don’t bring their cars with them.

Well, they can’t really — parking supply for them all thankfully isn’t provided. If it was, it wouldn’t be the dense inner area that we know it, but dispersed by lots of space taken for car parks — a completely different city centre that I dare say wouldn’t attract the booming daily population of residents, workers and visitors that come now.

My smartcard collection – I’ll report on Opal soon!

Here is my collection of Australian public transport smartcards.

The ones I’m missing are Adelaide, Canberra and Tasmania — all of which have been introduced since my last visits there.

Smartcards: Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney

Notably Perth’s SmartRider is the only card that is blank on the back, which is why the card number (which I’ve blacked-out) is on the front.

Some friends and family have also given me cards from overseas, though what I find most interesting is not the card designs themselves, but how the systems work for users — the response times in particular, but also the opportunities to top them up, the availability and pricing of single tickets, and so on — and to judge those, you really need to use the systems.

Expect a report on Opal soon!

Metro Bingo :-(

Given the Flemington/Showgrounds line isn’t running this morning, and the Stony Point line has planned bustitution, I’m going to go ahead and declare that we have Metro Bingo this morning due to the storms.

Metro Bingo :-(

And no, it’s not much better on many of the roads.

Road conditions

Good luck to everybody (myself included, shortly) trying to get to work this morning.

PS. My trip in wasn’t too bad. Although the train was running about 30 minutes late, I had only waited a few minutes for it. It was crowded but not packed.

Judging from the re-tweets/favourite reactions to this, I’m not the only one who thinks huge umbrellas aren’t a great thing on busy streets:

The train journey home was actually less smooth. Our train broke down at Richmond and was taken out of service.

And a reminder: in times of train troubles, it pays to know your alternative routes. Connecting from another line via bus or tram is possible from almost all stations, and, particularly if you’re there when the disruption starts, is generally faster than waiting for hastily-organised replacement buses to arrive. Check this excellent web site: Alternative Metro Travel Options