Myth: The purpose of freeways is to bypass congested areas

Fact: Whatever is said about them before they’re built, after they are built all freeways act as feeders for local commuter traffic, most of which is headed to or toward the city centre.

In the 1960s, far from denying that freeways were intended for central city commuters, road planners positively drooled over the fact:

For example, a trip from Frankston to the CBD by the shortest route in 1964 would have taken 62 minutes but in 1985, with the proposed freeway system in operation, this time would be reduced to about 39 minutes. Other examples would be 19 minutes instead of 32 to go from Tullamarine to the CBD and 29 minutes instead of 42 to go from Eltham to Dandenong East.

—Melbourne Transportation Plan, 1969

In 1974, however, a study by the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads recommended that “radial freeways should not be provided, particularly if the journey to work in the [central area] is their principal justification”. This became formal Victorian Government planning policy in 1982, reflecting an enduring reality. Public transport had a ‘natural advantage’ in conveying people to the city centre, and it was pointless building freeways to undermine this, particularly since the CBD had no capacity to absorb the resulting traffic.

The response of the road planners was to rechristen their proposed freeways as bypass roads. The Tullamarine Freeway Extension was renamed the Western Bypass, the Lower Yarra Freeway became the Southern Bypass; part of the Eastern Freeway Extension was renamed the Ringwood Bypass.

This strategy has endured. As the 2000s dawned, we saw a portion of the Dingley Freeway dubbed the Springvale Bypass, two ‘missing links’ in the Princes Freeway renamed as the Hallam and Pakenham Bypasses, and the Mornington Peninsula Freeway dubbed the Frankston Bypass (at the south end) or the Mordialloc Bypass (at the north end). Even the freeway driven through the centre of Albury in 2006 was described as an “internal bypass”!

But these roads were never bypass routes; they remain the central city access routes they were always intended to be. Take Citylink, for example: it was (and sometimes still is) claimed to be a bypass of the CBD, linking traffic between the south-east and north-west without adding to congestion in inner suburban streets. Yet as The Age economics editor Tim Colebatch reported six years after it opened:

Traffic studies show only 10 per cent of peak-hour traffic on the Monash Freeway at Dandenong heads for the Burnley Tunnel, and only 12 per cent of vehicles crossing West Gate Bridge go on to the tunnel.

—“Citylink deal might yet be an earner”, The Age, 13 June 2006

When the Napthine Government attempted to drive an East West Link through inner Melbourne (before being defeated in 2014), arguments abounded over whether a link between the Eastern and Tullamarine Freeways was really a ‘bypass’ (as Rod Eddington’s 2008 report suggested) or a central-city access route. The boss of EastLink had no doubts, though:

You are going to have to, in my view, put exits into the city… because it does have to get commuters to the city. It is not just a bypass as Eddington recommends.

—Dennis Cliche, ConnectEast managing director, The Age,
13 September 2012

Occasionally, the fictional nature of the ‘bypass’ theory slips out in other ways.

  • Example 1: VicRoads told a 1990 inquiry that the extension of the Eastern Freeway would be “of greater assistance to the circumferential movement of traffic around Melbourne than a generator of traffic to the inner areas”. But with the election of the pro-freeway Kennett Government, VicRoads changed its story, saying the extension was “to improve….access between the central employment region, regional centres and the eastern / north-eastern regional population areas”.
  • Example 2: When the Tullamarine Freeway Extension’s name was changed to the Western Bypass in the 1980s, VicRoads claimed the road was mainly for trucks seeking access to the Dynon freight centre. But when the first plan appeared in 1987, the exit ramps at Dynon Road pointed south toward the City, not west toward the freight centre. When this was pointed out, VicRoads hastily added some ramps pointing to the freight centre!
  • Example 3: Because CityLink was sold to the public as a bypass that would help keep cars out of the CBD, the original plans did not include the connection of Batman Avenue to Exhibition Street. But after the project was approved in 1996 the road lobby wasted no time getting this link included. This provided a new route funnelling car traffic directly into the CBD. Conversely, there is no access to the CityLink tunnels from either Punt Road or Church Street, meaning that even if large numbers of people in Richmond, South Yarra, Prahran or St Kilda wanted to use CityLink to bypass the CBD, there is no effective way for them to do so!
  • Example 4: Even before completion of the so-called ‘Pakenham Bypass’ in 2007, there were calls for a new road to bypass the town of Koo-Wee-Rup 15 kilometres away. People in Koo-Wee-Rup quite rightly perceived that the ‘bypass’ would be used as a radial city access route not only by Pakenham commuters but also by those from South Gippsland (where the Government ruled out restoring rail services). With the ‘bypass’ in place, it didn’t take long for the RACV to also highlight the further road upgrades it believes the ‘bypass’ made necessary.

Township committee president Ray Brown said cars were clogging up the town centre and the situation would get worse once the Pakenham Bypass was finished in 2007.

“Once this (Pakenham) bypass is built things will only get worse. This is the only route between South Gippsland Highway and the bypass.”

Cardinia Shire agrees, and last week named duplication of the road number one in a list of 10 issues to lobby candidates for next year’s State elections.

—“Traders in bypass push”, Pakenham Cardinia Leader, 28 September 2005

The need [for upgrades] is already apparent with roads such as Kooweerup Road experiencing significant traffic growth and deterioration since the completion of Pakenham Bypass.

—Brian Negus (RACV), Berwick & District Journal, 15 September 2008

As these roads in the south-east opened and filled with traffic, community leaders in Melbourne’s west became similarly sceptical about the ability of their Deer Park ‘Bypass’ (completed in 2009) to take traffic off other roads.

Deer Park resident and former Sunshine Mayor Bernard Reilly….said the Deer Park bypass would not make a significant difference to Deer Park’s traffic problem because not everyone would use it. For those who did use the bypass, it would just push the traffic further back up the Ring Road, he said.

—“Blast at ‘empty’ transport claim”, Brimbank Leader, 25 April 2006

The ’bypass’ myth got an especially keen airing with construction of the Geelong Ring Road. Claimed by the road lobby to be a bypass route for freight and tourist traffic between Melbourne and the southern side of Geelong, its real purpose has been to facilitate old-fashioned suburban sprawl. Witness the glee displayed by local real estate agents after the funding announcement in 2004:

NEW suburbs may be created as commuters rush to be near Geelong’s ring road, real estate agents said yesterday. Herne Hill, Lovely Banks, Wandana Heights, Queens Park and even Bannockburn will become Geelong’s new boom areas, with the road putting them within an hour of Melbourne. Agent Robert Creece said the boom would be so big that areas would be renamed as houses sprung up….

Hocking Stuart principal Marcus Falconer said the road would create a new property boom for Geelong. “It is just going to go through the roof”, Mr Falconer said. “It will quite quickly link Geelong to Melbourne, it will be a lot closer to the CBD and people will consider Geelong as an alternative place to live”. Mr Falconer said travel times from southern Geelong to Melbourne CBD would become comparable to those from Melbourne’s far eastern and northern suburbs….

Hayden Real Estate Grovedale sales manager Tim Darcy said it would enhance real estate activity in areas close to the road.

Geelong Advertiser, 9 June 2004

Even Vicroads admitted the ‘bypass’ would not solve traffic congestion on major Geelong roads like Latrobe Terrace. In April 2005, in a panel hearing on the removal of a heritage overlay to allow construction of a left turn slip lane in Latrobe Terrace, Vicroads said that while “there is likely to be a reduction of up to 17% in traffic volumes in Latrobe Tce immediately on the completion of the Bypass”, the traffic will return to its pre-Bypass levels “in a relatively short space of time”.

As subsequent experience has confirmed, the Geelong ‘bypass’ is just another radial commuter route to the Melbourne CBD, duplicating and competing with the Geelong train line for both passengers and funds. Rather than remove traffic from the parallel highway as hoped, it simply adds new traffic of its own, leaving Geelong with a worse traffic problem than before. But had the truth about this road been admitted at the start, it may never have seemed so deserving of a billion dollars of government funding!

Not long after, the same story played out in Melbourne’s south with the $1.3 billion Frankston ‘Bypass’ (originally claimed to cost $750 million). Again, this is not its original name—for years, it has appeared in the Melway as the Mornington Peninsula Freeway. As such, it was always planned as a radial commuter freeway to help extend urban sprawl to the Peninsula. Its retitling as ‘Peninsula Link’ is a little more honest—but again, this occurred only after the State Government committed to build the road. As in Geelong, local real estate agents already gave the game away years ago:

Mt Martha real estate agent Jim Arvanitakis expects the bypass to make the Peninsula more attractive to home buyers. The Harcourts director, who has worked in Mt Martha for seven years, said the reduced travel time to the CBD would continue to push the region’s credentials as a place to call home…

“For years the Mornington Peninsula has been seen as a place for the holiday house,” Mr Arvanitakis said.

“But this will encourage people to think of the area not just as a holiday destination. The more people who consider the peninsula as a place for residence, the more pressure there will be on prices, so they can only go up.”

—“Residents’ thumbs up for Frankston bypass”, Herald Sun, 17 October 2008

In 2017 a new push began for construction of the north end of the Peninsula Freeway, now labelled the Mordialloc Bypass. Opened in 2022, it has created a continuous radial freeway extending all the way from Rosebud to the end of South Road in East Bentleigh (which, like the CBD, has no capacity to absorb additional traffic). This is again plainly not a ‘bypass’ but another attempt to reverse the 1980s policy against radial commuter freeways, undermining the natural advantage of public transport and worsening traffic problems. But of course it was never sold this way: rather it was billed as a solution to local congestion, which on previous experience will not be affected.

The conclusion is clear. So called ‘bypass’ roads are never intended simply to shift existing traffic out of congested areas. Like all freeways, they are there to create new traffic, and to maintain the level of congestion rather than reduce it. After they are built, all these ‘bypass’ roads function as the radial commuter freeways they always were. All of them fulfil their unstated objective of extending suburban sprawl, and undermining the already inadequate public transport that exists (and which could have been improved for a fraction of the cost of the ‘bypass’).

Last modified: 31 December 2021