Melbourne council tinkering at the edges of transport fix

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If one were given the opportunity to build a city from scratch, an essential feature would surely be an extensive, affordable public transport system. Cars would be relegated to a bit-part role. That is, of course, not how cities are built.

Melbourne CBD’s Hoddle Grid was sketched out in the 1830s when the horse and cart ruled the roads. Over the many decades since, the city has been reshaped and revised many times to accommodate myriad new modes of transport and changing priorities.

Road congestion has once again become a problem in Melbourne.Credit: Luis Ascui

Last week, the City of Melbourne revealed its latest raft of changes that it hopes will alter people’s behaviour in how they travel into the city, with the aim of funnelling more vehicles into multi-storey car parks. It will also fill the council’s coffers by an additional $2.7 million.

Motorists will have to pay to park on inner-city Melbourne streets on Sundays and later into the evening, but will benefit from discounted Saturday rates and free short stays. Accessible parking and drop-off zones will be introduced to every street.

There is no question that change is needed. The question is whether the city council is making the right call.

The pandemic disrupted the city centre more than any other part of greater Melbourne. For months, it sat abandoned as people were forced to stay at home and shop and exercise locally. While many people are still choosing to work from home since the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Melbourne’s nightlife economy has surged to close to pre-pandemic levels. In January, pedestrian traffic between 9pm and 2am was at 96.9 per cent of the pre-COVID benchmark, up 49 per cent compared with January 2022.

People have also changed how they move around the city. Many are still avoiding public transport, with train, tram and bus patronage one-quarter below 2019 levels over the first 20 days of February, while traffic on major freeways and arterial roads is almost back to pre-COVID-19 levels. For those trying to get around the city by car, the impact is obvious. Congestion is back in a big way.

Just before the pandemic, the City of Melbourne had approved its latest 10-year transport plan. It envisaged freeing up space for pedestrians and cyclists by reducing city through-traffic, adding bike lanes and encouraging public transport. Last year, public pressure forced the council to put the brakes on rolling out bike lanes, and it’s finding the city inundated with cars.

Around a third of people who travel into the city to shop, eat or socialise drive. Half of them park on the street and the other half use commercial car parks, the council plan says. It does not help that a daily ticket for two adult fares on public transport is close to $20, which is a similar price to some private weekend parking. For a family of four, to travel by public transport into the city well exceeds the price of parking.

At a time when cost-of-living pressures are spiralling upwards as fast as interest rates are being hiked by the Reserve Bank, the comparative costs of moving around the city can be a major factor in determining which mode of transport to use.

With all this in mind, the latest changes by the city council look to be more tinkering at the edges than a game changer. What is needed is a solution that involves local and state government cooperation. As Melbourne finds its feet again after the extended lockdowns, it’s more important than ever that the right decisions are made regarding transport policy, infrastructure and pricing to ensure that Melbourne truly does become a more liveable and sustainable city.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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