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Toxic Custard newsletter transport

Traffic light programming, and the tale of the Magic Laptop

The Magic Laptop

One evening many years ago some PTUA bods and I were meeting with a Vicroads bloke about traffic light priority and other related issues.

He had a laptop with him, and it displayed a diagram of a major intersection; I think it was somewhere out on Burwood Highway.

While pondering topics such as tram priority, he talked us through how the traffic light sequences worked, and how the traffic flows, showing us on the laptop.

And he showed us what would happen if the sequence was tweaked; part of the sequence runs for longer, causing some vehicles to pass through more quickly, some to be delayed a few seconds. Really interesting.

Someone asked: “So that’s a simulation?”

The response: “No, that’s real. It’s happening right now.”

So he’d been fiddling with the traffic lights in realtime, and local motorists were probably wondering why they were zipping through or being slightly delayed.

That wasn’t just a laptop, that was a Magic Laptop.

Spencer Street and Collins Street intersection

Programming traffic lights

Anyway, via this and other discussions with people who seem to know what they’re talking about, I get the sense that Melbourne’s traffic lights are reasonably flexible in terms of their configuration, and can be controlled remotely.

But there’s a limit. They can’t handle all scenarios automatically, so for instance when trials of absolute tram priority were done in Nicholson Street, it needed someone to manually control the lights to give a green for the tram.

There are also apparently limited resources, so opportunities to re-program traffic lights don’t come up as often as they’d like.

Why is it so?

Everywhere in government (as well as in the corporate world), if you go digging, you’ll find there’s usually a reason for something.

Sometimes it’s a reason which doesn’t quite make sense, or is outdated in the face of changing circumstances, but a reason nonetheless.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that the traffic lights at Spencer and Little Collins Streets had an extraordinarily short green man, only about 18 seconds. Then the red man would flash for about another 10 seconds, and then there’d be a solid red man for a full 40 seconds before the parallel traffic light turned yellow.

This is utterly ridiculous in the central city, next to a major railway station, where pedestrians should be the priority.

Setting it like this is just goading people to cross against the lights.

I made enquiries with City of Melbourne, and discovered it is a road managed by Vicroads. So I approached them about it, and eventually I got a response.

Why was it like this? Because Spencer Street is closed for sewer works south of Collins, and they wanted to allow vehicles to detour into Little Collins easily.

But — as shown by the video — there wasn’t much traffic coming down Spencer that actually needs to detour.

Once they realised this, they set it back. Just like that. Someone probably clicked some buttons on a Magic Laptop, and it was done.

A good outcome, with some delicious technical tidbits in the email trail which I won’t publish, other than to say yes, they really do use the reference numbers on traffic control boxes.

(The few cars, and the number of people crossing Spencer Street against the lights would appear to indicate more needs to be done at this intersection to accommodate pedestrians. Note also that this is just metres from where the old pedestrian subway under the road from the station used to emerge.)

The bigger picture

I’ve also had a discussion about that super-annoying crossing at Centre Road/Eskay Road in South Oakleigh. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it’s been tweaked too.

But the bigger picture issue is that traffic lights (even in the CBD) are being programmed with poor outcomes for pedestrians. Sometimes as above there’s a reason — sometimes, apparently, it’s just an error.

Much the same issue occurred at Elizabeth/Little Collins a couple of years ago.

And more recently, City of Melbourne has put in brand new installations that failed to auto activate the green man, despite it being policy within the Hoddle Grid.

(And after they fixed that one, the timing was wrong, with — again — too little green man time.)

These things do make a difference. It’s not just about compliance and safety. The travel mode you want to thrive is the one you should encourage. Make it easier for people to walk, and more people will walk.

What I have learned is that Vicroads is now consulting on some of these issues with groups such as Victoria Walks. This is definitely progress.

Be polite, but firm

Individuals shouldn’t really have to get these things fixed. But in the real world, everybody (including Vicroads and City of Melbourne) is stretched for time, and clearly some things simply aren’t being spotted and fixed otherwise.

So…

Put in a report. Twitter may not be sufficient, so do it via their feedback web site. Include a photo if it’s at all useful.

Be polite. Scrupulously polite. You won’t get anywhere by shouting.

Explain your case. Present the evidence, the logic.

Keep a copy of your query text, and the reference number, because some web sites (such as Vicroads) don’t email you a copy back, and it may be useful at the next step.

If you get a pro forma reply which doesn’t make sense or doesn’t address the issue, query it. Be polite, but firm.

And with a bit of luck, and if your point is convincing, you might just get it fixed.

Of course, what I really want is a Magic Laptop.

Categories
transport

Some thoughts on CBD street design and safety

Thursday’s awful incident brings back memories of January’s attack, and authorities are rightly saying that it will be investigated from all angles.

One issue is road infrastructure that allows a vehicle to reach high speed in a constrained, pedestrian-dense area like Flinders Street.

The speed limit is 40. But apart from the placement of tram superstops (one of which finally stopped the vehicle) there’s been little change to this section of road in decades. It’s wide and straight, with no form of traffic calming; no speed humps or other treatments that you might see in a suburban school zone, for instance.

Not that the road was clear. The traffic was apparently congested, but the driver apparently veered out onto the tram tracks to speed towards the intersection.

The Prime Minister commented:

“[Melbourne] has big wide streets, wide footpaths and of course, it has trams, and the tramways enable a [car] driver, as this driver did to pull out of stopped traffic, get into the tramway and then make an attack. This is an issue for protecting, for example, the Bourke Street Mall.”

In Flinders Street, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make it harder for motor vehicles to get onto the tracks. A small separation, preferably with the tracks raised slightly, would do it — such as this design I spotted in Brussels in July:

Separated tram track on Avenue Fonsny, Brussels

The beauty of this design is that it helps stop all sorts of unauthorised vehicles getting onto the tracks, or turning across them. This would improve tram safety and cut delays to trams.

It does come at the cost of convenience for some motorists (frankly, not a priority in the city centre) and making it trickier for emergency services to use the tram tracks, as well as limiting where people with wheelchairs or other mobility aids can cross. These issues would need consideration.

Apparently none of this is impossible to resolve, because you can already find this design in central Melbourne — in Spencer Street:

Separated tram track in Spencer Street, Melbourne

Depending on the precise design, it doesn’t make it completely impossible for a vehicle to get onto the tracks, but it could make it a lot more difficult.

The PM is right to note the Bourke Street Mall presents some challenges. But it would be wrong to assume it can’t be solved.

Permanent bollards have recently been placed either side of the tramway, at both ends.

Bollards in Bourke Street, Melbourne

But the tramway itself remains open — to trams, obviously, but also to other vehicles, including unauthorised and/or clueless motorists.

What do other cities do? Some of them use retractable bollards, to let through only authorised vehicles.

Here’s a quick video of them operating in Cardiff. This is the main bus route between the city centre and Cardiff Bay.

This has potential, though in this case, you can see it’s a little problematic:

It’s far too slow to respond. I assume it’s controlled remotely from an operator somewhere watching on CCTV. To cut delays, the bollards should retract as the bus approaches, not wait for it to stop and wait.

If bollards like this were placed at either end of Bourke Street Mall, hopefully engineers could come up with a system that sees them retract automatically as trams approached or waited in the tram stop.

Another issue might be the risks of putting them in areas of heavy pedestrian traffic. Careful placement (between tram stop platforms, or away from the footpath, on the edge of the intersecting roadway) might resolve this.

Trams on Bourke Street

Getting this right brings numerous benefits, not just for safety from vehicle attacks, but also keeping pedestrian areas free of unauthorised vehicles, and also preventing them disrupting trams.

Authorities shouldn’t give up. Other cities have solved similar problems. I’m sure we can too.

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Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

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transport

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.

Categories
transport

Surprise surprise, expanding the Dingley Bypass caused more traffic

Remember the Dingley Bypass?

The western end was built as the “South Road Extension” as two lanes (one each way) just last decade. It mostly wasn’t dual carriageway, but it was otherwise suspiciously freeway-like. Having appeared in the 1969 freeway plan, it wasn’t difficult to see that it would be expanded.

Dingley Bypass in 2015 (Google Streetview)
(Dingley Arterial 2015 – Google StreetView)

Sure enough in 2010, it was announced it would be expanded to four lanes (two each way).

Fast forward to March 2016 when it opened… and somehow it’s become six lanes (three each way). Classic salami tactics!

Sow roads, grow traffic

So wouldn’t making a road three times as big be likely to lead to problems on the roads it connects to? Why yes.

What a surprise — it seems South Road now has congestion problems:

Vicroads: South Road traffic study

Vicroads: South Road traffic study

Having fed lots more traffic into South Road, what can they do? Currently through Moorabbin it’s six lanes (three each way, but with one taken by parking). They could try and fix this bottleneck by imposing clear ways — effectively expanding traffic capacity by 50% and leaving a long mostly residential stretch of the road as a huge six lane traffic sewer. Eugh.

Making the environment even more hostile to pedestrians, bus/train and bike users sounds like a great way to produce even more traffic. (The intersection of South Road and Warrigal Road is horrible.) And it would probably just move the bottleneck elsewhere. Nepean Highway next for widening, perhaps?

The proposed freeway to remove the bottleneck created by the previous proposed freeway...

Even with no more road expansion, more traffic lights might be needed to help pedestrians and cross traffic now that the road is more congested — especially at the eastern end around the Sandbelt Hotel. (Somewhere I saw an online petition for a pedestrian overpass; I can’t find it just at the moment.)

Meanwhile, the main bus route along there is only every 20 minutes on weekdays (including peak hours, when it no doubt gets stuck in traffic), and every hour at night and on weekends. Most other suburban routes run even less frequently — generally only every 30 minutes on weekdays. No wonder so many people are driving.

I don’t know quite what the solution is. But I do know that free-flowing urban traffic is a myth. At least if there’s a bottleneck now, it’s preventing traffic levels growing even more.

Ways have to be found to move more people around the suburbs them each bringing a two tonne chunk of metal. Expanding road capacity further is the last thing we should be doing.

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Toxic Custard newsletter transport

Barred from Bayswater – that escalated quickly

I’d been reading this article about the proposal to narrow a section of Mountain Highway through Bayswater when the level crossing is removed — from 3 lanes in each direction down to 2.

Bayswater state Liberal MP Heidi Victoria has submitted the petition against the plans to State Parliament and urged the Government to intervene.

“Those of us who live and work in Bayswater know the traffic congestion is already at an all-time high,” Ms Victoria said.

“The community do not want this; local businesses do not want this.”

I don’t know the area well, but given Mountain Highway is 2 lanes east of the nearby intersection, and the removal of the level crossing would cut the major delay factor for cars, and the area just west of the station is a retail precinct, I thought the idea shouldn’t be automatically rejected.

Closer to my neck of the woods, Ormond is 3 lanes each way, and is quite pedestrian hostile. The noise of the traffic is near-constant, and unlike nearby Mckinnon or Bentleigh, it’s very difficult to cross the road to points of interest.

Mountain Highway, Bayswater (Pic: Google Maps)

Looking at the Google StreetView imagery, there are similarities. It’s hard to tell what day of the week and time the pictures were taken, but the businesses all look open, yet there is an absence of shoppers. Many of the street car spots are free, suggesting that local shops don’t do spectacularly well.

Removing a lane, widening the footpaths and reducing the speed limit might improve things, and appear to be ideas supported by the local council.

Judging from the comments in the local paper, the most vocal locals don’t care much for Bayswater other than as a place to drive through as quickly as possible.

But area is marked as a pedestrian priority route under the Smartroads strategy, so it’s understandable where the council and Vicroads are coming from.

So I pondered on it Twitter:

Note that I didn’t say it was a wonderful thing. I just said it shouldn’t automatically be rejected.

A few hours later, this furious response from the MP for Bayswater:

Well, that escalated quickly. Is this really the standard of public discourse that one should expect? I know the limited form of Twitter posts isn’t great for nuance, but that just seems ridiculously over-the-top.

Apparently I’ve been barred from going to Bayswater by the local MP. There goes any chance of getting to know the area better. Is this like the opposite of being presented with the keys to the city?

Happily, other locals are more welcoming.

It’s hard to tell, but I would assume that Ms Victoria (and anybody else getting into a debate about traffic and roads) is aware of the term “traffic sewer” (meaning an environment that encourages lots of traffic to move through at speed, to the detriment of other local activities such as walking, cycling, shopping). It’s definitely not the same as calling a place a sewer.

Assuming she knows that, she appears not to consider that a six lane road through a shopping centre doesn’t actually result in a great urban and retail environment.

My guess is the level crossing can result in long delays and frustration for motorists. Removing it will drastically cut delays, especially long unpredictable ones. Removing the third lane each way (matching the road further east) may still mean overall fewer delays for motorists, while drastically improving conditions for walkers and shoppers. One would hope Vicroads has done modelling on this.

Perhaps for some — a bit like Skyrail — any hint of even considering any evidence has gone out the window, because outright rejection is seen by the Opposition as the best way to make a political point.

I’d hope for a more considered response from the Member for Bayswater, but perhaps I got off lightly.

Categories
transport

The “tradies” argument for more roads

The argument for more/bigger roads (particularly motorways) is often that tradies and others need to carry their tools and equipment to jobs, so they can’t use public transport.

Perhaps that’s true, but they are the minority of people on the road.

According to a 2012 ABS study, only about 7% of people avoid using public transport (for work or study) because they need to carry tools etc. Another 10% say they have to take their own vehicle.

The more significant reasons are that no public transport is provided (about 30%), they want convenience/comfort/privacy (28%), the services aren’t convenient (25%), or the travel time is too long (18%).

So for the vast majority of people on the roads, it’s because the public transport service isn’t good enough, not because they inherently can’t use public transport for those trips. There might be some overlap in responses of course, but I suspect most people travel most of the time with nothing they can’t carry themselves.

And in fact if you jump on public transport at the right time, such as early morning and early afternoon, you’ll see plenty of blue collar workers using it — presumably those who don’t use personal tools, or are able to keep them securely on-site.

Swan St traffic

Of course, if building new motorways were really to prioritise those vehicles that have to use them — trucks carrying freight, tool-carrying tradies and so on — there’d be priority lanes to make sure those vehicles got through without getting caught up in congestion caused by individuals in cars. But no roads have such priority lanes.

Source: ABS

Related: Average car occupancy figures – about 1.2, and dropping

Edit 29/4/2017: Added top image of a tradie and his tools on a train to Pakenham.

Categories
transport

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 โ€” 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.

Categories
Melbourne Morons on the road

Motorists in pedestrian areas – is there something about No Entry they don’t understand?

Some of those of us who hang around the city are truly amazed at the number of motorists who ignore the “No Entry” and turn ban signs and drive along streets they’re not meant to.

So it’s nice to know that — just occasionally — they do get pulled over by the police.

Bourke Street near Swanston Street (1/3)

Bourke Street near Swanston Street (2/3)

Bourke Street near Swanston Street (3/3)

Unfortunately others seem to get away with it scot free — and it’s unclear to me why police seem to be less keen to catch people driving through pedestrianised areas than they are to book jaywalkers.

This bloke not only ignored the No Entry signs when turning into the street, he went past multiple signs telling him to do a U-turn before this intersection, then when rightly faced with more No Entry signs, initially looked confused, then took the most-pedestrianised street (the one that even bans bicycles), the Bourke Street Mall.

Swanston St/Bourke St Mall (1/3)

Swanston St/Bourke St Mall (2/3)

Swanston St/Bourke St Mall (3/3)

Categories
transport

William Street — too much space for cars?

Heading south along William Street in morning peak hour, fighting for space on the street, are pedestrians (predominantly coming out of Flagstaff station), trams, cyclists and motorists.

How many of each?

Tram route 55 gets a tram about every 4 minutes in peak hour. The May 2012 PTV load survey said that each tram carries an average of 78.6 people between 8am and 9am southbound (actually measured slightly north from this point), making about 1179 people per hour.

William Street, morning peak

Pedestrians: Marcus Wong recently found some great City of Melbourne CBD pedestrian statistics. At its peak between 8am and 9am, about 5000 pedestrians head south from Flagstaff station.

Motorists: Vicroads network performance monitoring figures may or may not be of relevance to this specific street, but show that the arterial road average across Melbourne in AM peak is a bit under 800 people per hour. William Street southbound is only one lane, so let’s use that figure.

Cyclists? Dunno. I see quite a few heading up and down in peak, but the Bicycle Network “Super Tuesday” count doesn’t seem to publicly publish anything useful from the enormous amount of data they collect. Shame. In the absence of other figures, let me take a wild guess at 200 in the busiest hour.

The bike lanes aren’t properly configured. They fizzle-out in places, and around Little Bourke Street (southbound), cyclists often either have to squeeze between cars, or wait for them to shift.

William Street, morning peak

If you assume the footpaths are roughly the same width as each tram/traffic/parking lane, and the bike lanes are half that width, what do you get?

Mode % people % road space
Pedestrians 70% 22%
Cyclists 3% 11%
Tram 16% 22%
Motor vehicles 11% 44%

The most over-allocated, least efficient mode here is obviously motor vehicles — in part because they are allocated two lanes but one (at least in AM peak) is wasted on parking.

Meanwhile the footpaths get so crowded that many people simply walk on the road. In this terribly fuzzy mobile phone footage, you can see a bloke in a wheelchair give up on the footpath and take-off across the road for the other side:

(Note: it is perfectly legal to cross the road anywhere that is more than 20 metres from a pedestrian crossing.)

What could they do?

They could widen the footpath at the expense of car parking, particularly on the super-busy western side of the street. In the busiest section between Bourke Street and Flagstaff station that’s probably losing about 20 car spots. You’d lose a traffic lane in PM peak, but so what? Traffic is at a standstill now — it would still be at a standstill. If delays got longer, fewer people would drive.

They could install full time bike lanes all the way down. It’s crazy that cyclists get stuck behind cars.

Better enforcement of motorists blocking intersections; you see this every peak hour. (Could be a money-spinner for a cash-strapped government, in fact.)

And more fare gates at Flagstaff could ease congestion there, particularly in morning peak.

Ultimately, the station and trains are the most efficient mode available for getting large numbers of people into and out of the CBD. It already does this very well, but making the area more efficient and safer for pedestrians is vital.

Update: The video keeps disappearing out of this post — possible WordPress bug? The direct link is here.

Update 12:30pm: Someone anonymously sent me a link to what looks like it should be a Bicycle Network page with detailed stats, but it doesn’t work. The region or state specified is invalid

Update Thursday: I didn’t even notice this before — the Clearway (and thus the bike lane) inbound/southbound on William Street only operates during PM peak. What sort of craziness is this?!
Clearway in William Street southbound/inbound only applies in PM peak?!

See also: Motorcycle/scooter parking on footpaths โ€“ In a crowded city centre, this doesnโ€™t make sense.