Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
Russell Degnan

Normally I like to be largely analytic when i talk about transport issues, but following the release of the State Government Transport Policy and its associated spin, many, many, people have made analytical comments. And so I will merely rant, and we'll see where we end up.

"For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." - "On Bullshit" - Harry Frankfurt

"For the past 6 years, the Victorian Government has taken
strong action and made major new investments to build
a modern, safe and reliable transport network across
Victoria" - Steve Bracks

"the most comprehensive, far-sighted transport plan Victoria has seen since Robert Hoddle laid out the grid for Melbourne's CBD in 1837." - Steve Bracks

Bracks must have something against Melbourne's transport planners, since he hasn't been able to find one august enough to share his lofty perch, without travelling all the way back to the beginning. And yet, to choose Hoddle makes some sense, because Hoddle was a man after Bracks' heart.

Except for a few streets in and around the CBD, Hoddle did almost nothing for Melbourne. And even that was hardly a glowing achievement. Melbourne's laneways aren't there because of some hankering after dark alleys; they are there because Hoddle's grid was inflexible; not to mention, drab, boring, and unsuitable for a 'place'. But why let incompetence stop at the drawing board; like Bracks' plans -- the last of which was so poor as to be only fit for swatting government ministers -- Hoddle's grid was hardly a symbol of competent road management. Almost twenty years after it was built, it was common for local drunks to drown on one of its flooded corners, tree stumps and their roots still dotted the road surface, and holes mixed with mud and manure, or if you were lucky, dust and manure. The manure was a constant.

But why stop at a little bit of bullshit when you can have a lot?

Do a half line upgrades and a few new stations over 20 years, and a few new bus lines really constitute a comprehensive and far-sighted transport plan? And if so, how should we really rate other far-sighted and comprehensive Victorian travel plans? Like the decision in 1890 to extend the country and metropolitan rail system an extra 4,600 miles. Insane, sure, but you have to say it is pretty far-sighted. Or the 1970 Transport Plan, that proposed, and then actually did a fair job of building, 300 miles of freeways; but also, three new rail lines, an extension, a city loop, dozens of electrifications and duplications; a half dozen new tram lines; and a 64% increase in bus route length. Only in the current government does not doing anything for 20 years count as far-sighted.

But you know what else is good about the 1970 plan? Well, for one, they actually told us about their methodology. They measured where people would live, how many would own cars, where they travelled, where they might. Sure, a lot of those predictions were self-fulfilling prophecies for increased car use. But it was damn good planning.

Nor does the 1970 plan bombard you with costs. It has them, on the second and third last pages. But this government is obsessed with telling you how much they are spending, as if its a bloody achievement to piss tax-payer money against a wall. I bought a train ticket to Spencer St. from Sydney last year, where in the process of telling me that there would be interruptions, it also managed to tell me they would cost "$700 million". And this plan is full of this crap. Practically the first thing it says is that it all cost $10.5 billion, as if in twenty years that will be accurate, and as if that is somehow relevant.

And finally, the 1970 plan doesn't waste page after page with implementation details. Because it knew that was a political decision, that priorities, like governments change, that costs go up and down, that things need to be approved, land acquisitioned, and that government agencies could do that for themselves, in their own time, and under their own budget. Could that is, until John Cain Jr. pillaged them. They were as centralised then as they are now, except at least then, they had some sense of their role (like say, running trains). What does the DOI see its role as? Is it, perchance, a publishing company? Because that's what they seem to spend their time doing.

"The MTP identified and examined 4 key transport challenges: safety, managing congestion, metropolitan growth, and support for economic development."

"This substantial program of investment in transport infrastructure and services should not be seen as an exhaustive list of projects, but as a strong framework upon which this and future governments can build as new needs and challenges arise."

Call me an old engineer. But planning has declined markedly since engineering principles got taken out of the central frame. You see, the beauty of an engineering approach, is that everything is seen as a problem, for which one is supposed to propose a solution. It is very simple. Engineers are very simple. This is why engineers do useful things like build bridges, and why planners do complex, but useless things, like determine the optimum height for someone's front fence.

But try and find a specific problem, or even an aim, in the transport document. The closest they come is in the first paragraph above, and they are neither. You can tell they are neither by applying the negation test of our so called challenges: "danger, letting congestion run free, metropolitan shrinkage, and support for economic decline". You see, these are silly. The third would possibly make sense if the city was getting smaller, but otherwise these are neither goals, nor problems, they are abstract, poorly defined, areas to take into consideration while you actually design some real, measurable aims.

And we know that this plan is not comprehensive, nor focused on achieving broad aims, because they tell us, immediately after saying how good they are, in that second paragraph above. Except this is a bald faced lie, because there are no frames in this framework. The whole document is made up of vague motherhood statements about liveable the whole place will be when they are done not implementing anything significant, and a few specific projects. And I mean a few. $10.5 billion over 10 years is peanuts. $1.05 billion per year. Around $500 per household. Or just three and a half times what the average Victorian household spends on transport per week (i.e.. 1/15 of total private transport expenditure).

Which is not to say that some of those projects are not worthwhile. The bike network is an excellent idea; the reserve fund might be, but could also be an accounting trick; late night trams and trains are good; traffic priority measures for trams likewise (although they talked about them in 1970 too); grade separations are long overdue, but still under-funded; some freeway improvements will help, and the country arterials will too (as soon as they learn to spell the Calder Freeway).

But the question is, help what? The implementation is all mixed up with the methodology, and the planning, and the resourcing, and the goal setting. I am sure there are engineers down at the DOI. And I am sure they have those project management diagrams somewhere, with the big feedback loop. Have these been ignored completely, or are there 400 pages of justifications to go with the shopping list?

"Jobs are shifting from the city to the suburbs and regional centres. As a result, more people are travelling from suburb to suburb and regional centre to regional centre, rather than from the suburbs to the city." - Steve Bracks

This statement highlights why a shopping list approach is bad. Job shifts and shopping shifts has been going on for years and years. What matters, is not that it goes on, but how it goes on, because it does so in very specific ways. The automobile has greatly increased our ability to travel across and away from the public transport network, but this pattern is not accidental. Businesses, particularly heavy freight businesses, have placed themselves along major transport routes, because noone in their right mind wouldn't. Chadstone is not in the middle of nowhere, it is smack against one of the busiest roads in the state; Springvale Road is lined with office parks; trams still run down vibrant strip shopping centres; residential growth is strongest along rail-lines and freeways. More importantly, over the time-frame that these transport plans are implemented, the bulk of businesses and new residential development will move much faster, because they can, and they do.

The problem with this plan is not the plan so much. Like all plans it is both good and bad: better than the last, but still lacking in any direction. The problem is it doesn't even try and set some sort of goal; and more specifically, some sort of measurable goal. The only (now unstated) goal for transport in Melbourne is to get 20% public transport use by 2020, which is not a useful goal anyway. Things need to be a whole lot simpler than that.

What Melbourne needs, first, is a sense of what we expect. In terms that people care about, which is not the mode of travel, but the time to travel, the level of comfort, the convenience, and the safety level. All of which are specific to geography, and must be integrated with other, also somewhat relevant but equally ignored plans. Not that hard, and a fairly useful first step towards breaking out of the current piece-meal, practically unplanned, reactive approach of which this document is a classic example.

Sterner Matters 21st May, 2006 02:11:54   [#] 


Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
Excellent, Russ. I continue to be amazed at the good stuff you know.
Tony.T  22nd May, 2006 19:17:53  

Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
I congratulate you on an excellent and thought provoking commentary on the Government's latest transport announcement. I particularly liked your comment on the usefulness of Engineers. Maybe you have been observing what your Dad has done over the last 37 years. Just note that Chadstone is not on Springvale Road, but on the corner of Warrigal Road and Dandenong Road.
Bill Degnan  23rd May, 2006 14:54:23  

Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
Tony, your overly kind. This is stuff I am supposed to know, and not just because I am studying it.

Dad, thanks. It is all in how you frame the problem. Just because previous solutions had flaws is no reason to avoid framing them at all. I was actually thinking of the Monash freeway with respect to Chadstone; although I can see how my phrasing could lend an altenative interpretation. That is probably wrong too since Chadstone was built first; Dandenong Road is a better example.
Russ  23rd May, 2006 22:46:32  

Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
I thought it a good post also. I was going to post on it myself but, yes, not a lot to say - it is a very marginal contribution. And the congestion on cross-town roads becoming very severe. A missed opportunity. And when I think about it the bullshit is key ingedient that conceals they have done little.
harry clarke  27th May, 2006 21:30:34  

Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
I know this is not the most appropriate place to be posting this, but i was wondering if there was room to set up an area to post possible research topics for 4th year planners? this could be added on each year and so any that are not used by one year can be looked into by the next?
d hawke  7th June, 2006 16:19:50