Friday, July 25, 2008

Eddington: visionary and plodder

Another extremely well-written article, worth the read.

NOW that submissions to the Eddington report into east-west travel needs have closed, the Brumby Government must decide its response.

Eddington proposes billions of dollars of investment in what is trumpeted as an integrated package of major transport infrastructure projects - take away one component, and the plan collapses.

A careful reading of the report reveals that that is not the case: the proposal is actually an amalgam of two quite different approaches to transport planning. One is little more than "business as usual" road planning; the other a visionary solution to Melbourne's public transport crisis. The Government can choose one or the other, but not both.

The rationale of the study is first to resolve current big problems with the transport network; then to move beyond the traditional "predict and provide" method to explore new connections needed to make the city more sustainable. The "city shaping" power of new, large-scale projects is emphasised.

However, the report reverts to more traditional transport analysis techniques after this initial flourish. A whole chapter is devoted to advancing the argument that there is latent demand for a new east-west route crossing the Maribyrnong River. Latent, because the counts at the Eastern Freeway exit fail to justify such a link. Evidence of need has been inferred from screen counts as far afield as Brunswick and the CBD.

This "predict" analysis takes little or no account of the impact of anticipated federal climate change initiatives that will arise from the Garnaut process. Nor does it give weight to current state policies aimed at improving the sustainability of the metro-urban form, such as Melbourne 2030.

There is no choice, say the road planners: latent demand requires building more road capacity. This is "predict and provide" in all but name.

How, then, is public transport need assessed in the report?

The public transport authors seem to have a completely different perspective to their road engineer colleagues. Their chapter states: "… making forecasts and then shaping the system to meet them is self-fulfilling. If no system capacity or operational changes are made, patronage will inevitably plateau at capacity; making more system enhancements and improving the service will attract more people."

In other words, "predict and provide" attracts more patronage. Providing additional capacity costs a lot of money. So, choices need to be made about how much capacity to invest in.

In the public transport world, the "predict" part of the equation seems to be harder to argue for than it is for the road planners. The predictive model the Eddington team used, combining historical data with the latest demographic forecasts, produced a predicted growth in public transport equivalent to 2.1% a year, far lower than recent trends. In what seems like a circular argument, this low rate of growth is explained by the absence of major new infrastructure to increase rail capacity.

Fortunately the Government's public transport division stepped in and proposed that a more realistic and up-to-date growth rate (6.6% a year) be adopted. This becomes the basis for the rail tunnel and related proposals.

The most pressing rail capacity need, according to the public transport planners, is in the northern group of lines, largely as a result of rapid growth in the west, north-west and northern suburbs. On the basis of recent trends, peak patronage on these lines will more than double by 2021 to 45,000.

The same planners drop hints that they are working on a long-term vision for Melbourne's rail network that will transform it into a modern metro system. At present, lines radiate outwards from the CBD like branches of a tree, through capacity-constraining junctions like North Melbourne. The emerging vision seems to involve each line becoming a self-contained, end-to-end route diving under the CBD, with a simplified, much more frequent level of service - rather like the London Tube or Paris Metro. The East-West rail tunnel would be a bold first step along that path.

Add to this the inventive proposal to re-route V/Line trains from Geelong to join the Ballarat line near Rockbank, which in turn joins the Bendigo line at Sunshine. All three V/Line services would then feed into widened tracks at Sunshine-Footscray. This would remove further chronic capacity constraints in the metropolitan train system, and speed up the country services.

These imaginative proposals make sense as a first stage in a radical plan to improve the whole of Melbourne's rail infrastructure. The irony is that they are first seeing the light of day in a road study that focuses on east-west movement in inner Melbourne. Indeed, this limited brief is a fundamental flaw in the Eddington report; and no fault of its author, who has been at pains to point it out.

In effect, what has been delivered is a road plan aimed at resolving a specific network issue in inner Melbourne, into which has been inserted the beginnings of a visionary plan

to transform the capacity of the entire metropolitan rail system. The tunnel solution (one for road, one for rail) is the common denominator. In most other respects, the report's road and public transport analyses are poles apart.

So, how should east-west travel needs be approached in Melbourne?

The crux of a solution appears 100 pages into the report. After an admission that it is not possible or realistic to eliminate road congestion altogether comes the statement: "Some form of congestion-targeted road charging is inevitable in Melbourne, although this may be a decade or more away." The question is not if, but when, congestion charging should be introduced. "Melbourne needs to be much better prepared to take this step when required," says the report.

This surely is the challenge that a credible road plan for Melbourne must tackle, yet the Eddington report completely fails to engage it.

How would such a charge affect peak hour travel habits? Will people gradually move to live closer to their workplaces? How many will transfer to public transport? What about walking and cycling? Especially, how would such a charge affect the traffic projections for the east-west road tunnel, a hugely expensive undertaking that has a negative cost-benefit ratio even without taking congestion charges and climate change policies into account?

The answer is: we don't know; the Eddington report does not even ask these questions. This is a scandalously inadequate basis on which to be considering the outlay of $10 billion for a road tunnel.

The east-west road study in many ways perpetuates the incremental approach to road building that has bedevilled Melbourne for 40 years.

Eddington's rail proposals, by contrast, provide for the first time the beginnings of a credible transport response to climate change and sustainable city form across Melbourne. Of course we need to add greatly improved bus services, and we need a big shift towards bikes and walking for short trips. A program of suburban rail extensions is another urgent priority.

The Federal Government seems to be taking climate change seriously and has said it will reinstate funding for urban public transport. The State Government says it will release a new transport plan later this year.

In its response to the Eddington report the State Government should seize the moment to initiate a new approach to transport planning in Melbourne. It should mark the end of incremental, demand-led road planning predicated on "business as usual" travel patterns. It should instead signal the beginning of an era in which transport investments are justified with reference to the sustainability and liveability of this city and the people who live and work in it.

Mike Scott is a director of Melbourne planning consultancy Planisphere. Last year one of his projects won the main Planning Institute of Australia award. He is a former director of city strategy at the City of Melbourne.

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