Common Urban Myths About Transport
Myth: Freeways are needed for cross-suburban travel
Fact: In Melbourne, most long-distance travel is still radial: to or toward the city centre. Cross-suburban travel is a small proportion of all travel and is well within the capacity of the existing arterial road network. Most congestion on cross-suburban roads is the cumulative effect of lots of short-distance travel.
Related to the freeways-as-bypasses fallacy is the claim that most work trips are now 'cross-suburban' rather than 'radial' towards the city centre. As a result, it is claimed, people cannot use the mainly radial public transport system and must be provided with freeways.
The truth is quite the contrary. Official census journey-to-work figures actually show that:
Barely one worker in six wishes to travel across the suburbs. When trip length is taken into account, the share drops to one in eight!
At the core of this myth is the mistaken idea that people's workplaces are now more-or-less equally spread around the urban area, rather than being concentrated in the inner city. It's a popular idea spread not only by road lobbyists but even by some professional demographers (who really should know better):
The influence of this notion is powerful, and (notoriously) counts among its more prominent fans Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott:
Meanwhile in the real world, employment statistics show that Melbourne retains a strong central focus for employment and other urban activities. 30 per cent of all jobs in Melbourne are found within the 'core' municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra, Port Phllip and Stonnington. If one were to draw a circle enclosing half of all Melbourne's jobs, it would extend approximately 13km from the GPO: a region corresponding roughly to Myki Zone 1, or to the extent of the inner-city tram network, yet covering just 15 per cent of the total urban area. Most new jobs created within the last decade have also been within the inner area (a big part of the reason for the stunning growth in rail patronage in this time).
What is true is that the CBD itself accounted for a static or declining percentage of jobs over the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. But while the employment focus shifted, much of this shift was to inner suburbs like Hawthorn, more than to outer suburbs like Rowville. The myth arose from drawing an artificial boundary around the city centre, and classifying any work location outside it as a 'dispersed suburban' location, whether it was genuinely out in the suburbs or actually just beyond the boundary (as most in fact were).
And since 2004, the CBD itself has been catching up with the broader inner region. in just the two years to 2006, while Melbourne's population grew by 2.4 per cent, the CBD workforce grew by 10 per cent.
Another big piece of contrary evidence is the finding that many 'circumferential' arterial roads supposedly failing to cope with cross-suburban traffic are actually carrying less traffic now than they were a decade ago. As urbanist and blogger Alan Davies has observed, Vicroads figures show that on Alexandra Parade and Elliott Avenue - the roads that according to Premier Napthine are more clogged than ever and need an East West Link to divert the traffic - the traffic volumes have actually been steady or declining for years!
Source: Vicroads, Arterial Road Traffic Volumes (spreadsheet download), February 2013.
Even if one looks further afield, there is scant evidence for huge growth in east-west traffic through Melbourne's inner and mid-northern suburbs.
Source: Vicroads, Arterial Road Traffic Volumes (spreadsheet download), February 2013.
The upshot is that although there's certainly a significant minority of travel that's over long distances to dispersed locations, the reality is contrary to what Moran, Birrell and Abbott suggest. Cities draw their strength from strong centres that allow people to do business in proximity to one another. And for travel in cities, there is a great deal of commonality in routes and destinations. As many have noticed, this makes travel patterns very predictable from one day or one year to the next.
For non-work trips, the tendency to remain within one's local area is more pronounced than for work trips. Figures from the Victorian Activity and Travel Survey, made public as part of the Scoresby Freeway (now EastLink) approval process, indicate that trips within local areas account for 50% or more of all travel.
So even when all travel is considered, most of it is local and radial, not across great numbers of suburbs. Even most travel on freeways is local: a Vicroads study (reported in the Herald Sun on 11 July 2005) found that 70% of all journeys on the Monash Freeway were within one council area or to an adjoining council area. Removing all those local trips (assuming one could do so) would remove two-thirds of the traffic, and with it all traces of congestion.
But what about all that traffic on Springvale Road?
An object lesson in the 'cross-suburban' travel myth is the almost complete failure of EastLink to fix congestion in Springvale Road and Stud Road, the main north-south arterial routes in Melbourne's outer east and the two nearest parallel routes to EastLink.
In the 1990s when planning for EastLink began (and it was known as the Scoresby Freeway), pointing to this congestion was a favourite lobbying tactic. It was argued that this congestion was caused by long-distance north-south travel in the eastern suburbs, and that building the Scoresby Freeway would take the bulk of the traffic off these roads.
With EastLink now built, the argument has served its purpose. But the building of EastLink has also shown it up to be completely false.
Let's look more closely at why this seemingly logical idea was, after all, wrong. There is no doubt that traffic has been heavy on these roads for a very long time, both before and after EastLink, but the reason is not long-distance north-south travel. We know this from the official figures. For example, of the 20,000 workers who live in Dandenong, less than 100 travel to Ringwood to work. Similarly, of the 17,000 workers in Ringwood, less than 200 work in Dandenong.
Traffic on Springvale and Stud Roads is comprised mainly of the same flows that are heavy elsewhere in the region: radial and local traffic. On Stud Road, a key local traffic generator is Knox City shopping centre at the Burwood Highway intersection. Any local traveller approaching Knox City from the south needed to use Stud Road, and still needs to even after construction of EastLink. In addition, travellers to Glen Waverley from almost anywhere in Knox must use Stud Road to reach High Street, Ferntree Gully Road or Wellington Road. The local centre for Rowville (Stud Park) is also located on Stud Road, adding to traffic pressure. In a similar way, people travel locally along Springvale Road to reach shopping centres, workplaces and other destinations, and to access major east-west roads.
Several earlier 'red spot' studies by the RACV confirmed this fact. In the first study conducted back in 1994, Stud Road in Knox featured in the top 20 locations where traffic congestion and delays to motorists were most severe. But complaints were not about through (North-South) traffic being delayed. People instead complained of the great difficulty in turning out of Stud Road into Ferntree Gully and Wellington Roads, both of which lead towards the inner eastern area and city centre. The difficulties were experienced heading toward the city in the morning peak, and away from it in the evening peak.
The important point is that none of these local traffic problems are of the type that EastLink can assist with. EastLink does not eliminate the need to access Stud Park shopping centre via Stud Road, or for local residents to travel some distance along Springvale or Stud Roads in order to turn west. And it is foolish to expect that people travelling a few blocks down Springvale Road will make a three-kilometre detour in order to travel those few blocks on a motorway. This is why even road engineers themselves, in their more honest moments, admitted that EastLink would take hardly any traffic off Springvale Road.
With EastLink open and operating since 2008, events have now confirmed these predictions. As numerous commentators have observed, traffic on EastLink has been disappointingly low, with only the northern section (which acts as a radial feeder to the city centre) close to achieving its forecast traffic level.
In conclusion, local and radial traffic can cause as much congestion as cross-suburban traffic, when there is enough of it. Big 'bypass' roads, that do not cater for local or radial traffic, have proven ineffective as a remedy. Evidently, the cure for this kind of congestion is not more roads, but palatable alternatives to car travel.
© 2010 Public Transport Users Association Inc. (PTUA), Victoria, Australia. ABN 83 801 487 611.
Last modified: 7 August 2013