#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?