When freeway-building began in earnest in the USA and Europe in the 1940s, the road planners made no bones about what they were doing. They produced ‘Highway Plans’ detailing what roads would be built and where, financed them with ‘highway grants’ or ‘road bonds’, and set up Departments of Roads to do the job.
But already by the early 1960s, critics of wholesale road-building had emerged, and it was recognised that neglect of public transport was ruining cities. The road planners responded, not by loosening their grip on government budgets, but by relabelling their plans and inventing the concept of ‘balanced transport’.
Accordingly, the 1969 plan for Melbourne on which almost all subsequent freeway plans have been based was called not the Melbourne Road Plan (or even the ‘Traffic’ Plan), but the Melbourne Transportation Plan. ‘Balanced transport’ is the theme running right through it:
[The study] has now produced a plan which recognises that there is a place for all forms of transport in attempting to solve the problem – in other words, it believes that balanced transport is the only hope.
—Minister of Transport’s Introduction, Melbourne Transportation Study, 1969
Sure enough, the vast bulk of the printed material is devoted to non-car transport, with the freeways confined to a short section at the end. Yet when one adds up the figures in the 1969 plan, one finds that 86 per cent of the projected budget is devoted to roads and parking, and only 14 per cent to other forms of transport. This is what ‘balance’ means to a road lobbyist. Transport planner J.M. Thompson described it thus:
The Melbourne Transportation Plan is an unconvincing work. It is based on the earlier American transportation study techniques, by now thoroughly discredited….Clearly the plan is a highway plan, not – as it is called – a comprehensive transport plan.
—J.M. Thompson, Great Cities and their Traffic, 1977
Today’s equivalent of ‘balanced transport’ is ‘integrated transport’. ‘Integrated Transport Plans’ are everywhere, from the local council to Canberra, drafted by ‘strategic transport planners’ and funded by ‘Land Transport Development’ grants under the patronage of ‘Infrastructure Prime Ministers’. Yet somehow the vast bulk of the money always gets spent on roads.
A case in point is the ‘East West Integrated Transport Project’, predecessor of the notorious East West Link tollroad. Originally floated by Melbourne City Council in 2005, it was made the subject of Sir Rod Eddington’s Investing in Transport report a couple of years later. In its 2005 form it proposed a massive $10 billion of expenditure – $2000 for every man, woman and child in Victoria – most of it for a freeway tunnel all the way from the city end of the Eastern Freeway to the Western Ring Road in Deer Park. Our bottlenecks page explains why any inward extension of the Eastern Freeway would be a futile exercise.
However, as a distraction from the effect this huge freeway would have in reinforcing car dependence, the 2005 version of the project (like the 1969 plan before it) also included a rail line from the city to Doncaster, and a suite of traffic-calming initiatives in inner Melbourne. These, the road lobby hoped, would neutralise the many critics of freeway building, causing them to react in the manner of the curate in George du Maurier’s famous Punch cartoon from 1895:
In a surprise admission that reveals much about what ‘integrated’ transport planning really means in Melbourne, the consultant who co-authored the 2005 report said he didn’t actually think the freeway tunnel should have been in the project, but put it in anyway after the City road engineers told him to!
Transport consultant William McDougall told The Age that building tunnels was the lowest of the city’s transport priorities. He said his report to the council only advocated a tunnel after a brief from a senior town hall officer called for it.
“My personal view is that we’d probably be better off not building a tunnel: I think the real key to solving congestion is to shift people from car to public transport,” he said.
—“$10bn tunnel plan a bad idea, says its creator”, The Age, 1 September 2005
Of course, whatever the expert’s misgivings, the road tunnel became the centrepiece of the 2008 Eddington east-west study, today’s version of the 1969 transport plan. Eddington shares with that earlier plan the ‘balanced transport’ greenwash that disguises its pro-road bias.
I do not support – and I have not adopted – a ‘road versus rail’ approach to transport planning…. Instead of favouring one mode over another, I have looked for the right combination of modes that offer the best options for meeting Melbourne’s east-west transport needs….
my recommendations…. I believe…. deserve fair consideration as a balanced and measured response to tackling some of Melbourne’s major transport dilemmas.
—Sir Rod Eddington, Investing in Transport – Overview, Introduction, p.6.
As we have seen, by 2013 when the former Napthine Government embarked on its headlong rush to start construction on the East West Link before Victorians had a chance to vote it down, any pretence that a Doncaster railway might be part of the project had been discarded. This is despite the fact the same government had promised in 2010 to build the Doncaster line, and had said the East West Link was not a priority!
Another recent example of road lobby business-as-usual under the cover of ‘integrated transport’ was the so-called Scoresby Integrated Transport Corridor, which ultimately became EastLink. The road planners knew that if they proposed simply building a motorway and nothing else, the project would fail even the very weak environmental test imposed by Victorian planning law. So they dressed up the road as an ‘Integrated Transport Corridor’ by including some token public transport and cycling infrastructure, of the sort that fails to have any real benefit. (For example, the proposal included bus lanes along the motorway, for buses that would run nowhere near any homes or shops and would struggle to be time-competitive with driving.)
Since even these impractical public transport measures were completely overshadowed by the road, any talk of the project being ‘integrated’ was always a sham. Nor was it ever a ‘corridor’ in any real planning sense: the far-flung group of suburbs identified in 1990s plans as the ‘Scoresby Corridor’ shared little in common other than an old 1950s freeway reservation. We are left with ‘transport’ – then as now, a political code word for ‘road’.
The true nature of what the EastLink planners meant by ‘integrated transport’ came out when, way back in 1997, the PTUA and forty other community groups put forward a public transport alternative to the motorway, to be assessed against it on economic and environmental grounds. The assessment if actually carried out would have seriously challenged the case for the road, given that the government’s own consultants had found that shifting less than 2 per cent of the car trips in the ‘corridor’ to public transport would do more to relieve congestion than building the freeway would. However, the government-appointed panel rejected this alternative out of hand, without conducting any assessment, on the grounds that because the alternative did not include a motorway it did not fit the government’s definition of ‘integrated’!
Of course, now that the road is built, no-one tries to pretend the EastLink project (as it is now known) ever included anything of substance other than a 40-kilometre, six-lane road. We have witnessed a process whereby a motorway without any significant public transport improvement is ‘integrated’, while public transport improvements without a motorway are not. The lion’s share of investment has once again gone to roads in the interests of ‘balance’, and less to public transport even than in 1969.
Given the constant public pressure for better public transport, the road lobby is forced to deny the basic fact that roads and public transport exist in direct competition with one another. If public transport’s share of all trips goes up, the road share must go down, and vice versa. Road lobby groups like the RACV insist that they “do not subscribe to a cars-versus-PT argument” and that the modes should “complement rather than compete”, but they can afford to do so since they have been on the winning side for the past half century. In other words, the RACV doesn’t need to attack public transport, because – with the East West Link the sole exception – the system always gives the road lobby what it wants, and has never allowed a public transport project to take priority over a road when the choice is between one or the other. As with ‘balanced transport’ more generally, the rhetoric of ‘complementary roles‘ for cars and public transport masks a reality where the car mode dominates, and where policy ensures this dominance continues.
If Melbourne is going to fundamentally change it needs to decide what it is going to prioritise: more roads or quality public transport. This idea that you can hand out a little bit to both just doesn’t work.
—Jeff Kenworthy, Victorian Government transport consultant
The city of Vancouver, which in the last decade pipped Melbourne as the world’s most ‘liveable’ city, consciously favours public transport over the car in its transport planning, a strategy that has successfully encouraged motorists to use alternative modes. Cities from London to Perth have similar strategies, which are seen as redressing the balance after decades of car-centred transport planning and neglect of alternatives. Melbourne has long had more kilometres of road per person than the top 13 other most liveable cities, and does not need to spend large sums of money building even more in the name of ‘balance’ or ‘integration’.
Last modified: 18 March 2015