The road space problem
Russell Degnan

As the debate over Swanston Street rears its ugly head again, the advocacy groups for their particular mode are out in force, to try and asign a few precious feet of street space to their own uses.

The biggest casualty will be the tour buses, but they are, perhaps, the most unfairly treated. Spencer Street station is a significant downgrade from their presently central position. Presuming noone is willing to create a proper bus park along Swanston Street, space next to Federation Square or in an adjoining street should be made for them.

But the tour buses are but a small, mostly immobile, part of a larger problem, as the photo below shows quite clearly.

Even without tour buses, Swanston Street is packed with delivery vehicles at all hours, taking advantage of the ease of parking. Taxis, similarly, take advantage of their access, both for parking and through traffic, and of course (as has been acknowledged for almost 100 years), Swanston Street has too many tram routes for efficient running. The street was never going to be a "walk", though you can walk across it, almost at will. The current configuration is better than what it was, but is a terrible mess.

Robert Doyle's plan to return traffic is either naive or mad. As can be seen in old videos the street has changed significantly in its post traffic days. Apart from the reduction in direct end-to-end through traffic, the footpaths are now substantially wider, street trees and cafes filling the space. Returning traffic under that configuration (two lanes and parking), means either reducing the footpath width, at great cost to the major use of the street (pedestrians), slowing tram speeds further with extra traffic between intersections, or removing parking.

Which oddly enough, makes Swanston Street the same problem facing the shopping strips of inner Melbourne.

The problem of space is obvious at a design level, but too quickly forgotten at a strategic one. At a recent forum, speakers were regularly clapped for promoting "bicycle lanes on every street, protected by parking spaces", "dedicated tram lines", and while it was left unsaid, I am sure they would also be applauded for advocating "increased footpath width and better urban design". I like these things too, but the underlying theme was that the lack of these things occurs because there is a vast road lobby, conspiring to thwart alternative modes, and better livability.

There isn't. On many of these streets, VicRoads is responsible for both improving tram speeds, and on-road bicycle lanes. They have, where possible, dedicated lanes to both trams and bicycles. It just isn't possible on many streets. Not without removing something. And the biggest obstacle to removing something will always be the users of whatever that something is.

Sydney Road is a classic example here. The road is just 1 chain (20m) wide. A 3.5m tram line, 2m bicycle lane, and (narrow) 2.5m footpath leaves just 2m for traffic and parked cars. Even without parking, unless we want to revert to widespread one-way traffic there just isn't space for dedicated lanes for all modes.

Some modes need to be mixed, and the best configuration is a complex negotiation between stakeholders, not feel-good statements of intent of no practical value.

For myself, the priority should be giving p/t dedicated lanes, and increasing pedestrian access. The former because they are the most efficient (and equitable) movers of people across reasonable distances, and the latter because local people should have first access to their environment, and pedestrians are, predominantly, locals. Bicycles are great, but they can share streets, particularly when those streets are slow moving. What makes cycling unsafe now is not traffic per se, but the need to weave in and out, merging with faster traffic at multiple points, or having faster traffic merge with them, pushed from lane to road, and back with little warning for drivers behind.

Parking is a luxury, the value of any particular space marginal to a business, in comparison to the pedestrian traffic, and its removal from streets moderately easily made up for in off-street solutions as the market dictates. This may inconvenience delivery drivers, but few can be parking directly outside their destinations already, and off-street parking could make provision for them.

On Sydney Road, and other inner city roads, that gives 3.5m for trams, 3.5m for cars (now speed limited to 30 or 40 - if they ever reached that speed) and bicycles, and 3m for pedestrians. At intersections, hook turns should be the norm, and light cycles short (an elderly pedestrian crossing and no more). Bicycles should take the whole lane in designated areas, not the left-most edge, as the time savings for traffic behind are minimal.

In the city, with wider streets and already blessed with wide footpaths, a 2m bicycle lane (and even some parking) is possible, though the advent of universal super stops puts further strain on the limited resource.

But we do need to have a debate over space. The extended clearways plan is, in many ways, the most radical change to Melbourne's urban environment. It strongly favours moving modes over local areas, and implemented with little consultation with councils, businesses, or residents. The feedback they did get was almost universally negative, fobbed over with reference a "the silent majority" who remain either ambivalent or unconvinced. The ideas aren't bad necessarily, but we should be cynical of proposals for greater efficiency that run afoul of induced demand, and of advertisements that mysteriously add an extra lane to the configuration of the bulk of Melbourne's roads.

And we should ask what role in our urban system strip shopping centres serve, above and beyond funnels for vast numbers of CBD commuters.

Sterner Matters 19th December, 2008 13:06:22   [#]