Council wages “war on congestion”

By David Schout

The CBD will prioritise pedestrians and cyclists under a new 10-year transport strategy released by the City of Melbourne that aims to reduce the number of cars entering the city.

The strategy includes plans to enforce 30kmh speed limits, parking prices that fluctuate subject to demand and the closure of “little” streets at peak times.

More broadly, the Draft Transport Strategy 2030 aims to rid the CBD of “non-essential vehicles” in a bid to shift city dynamics in response to research that suggests nine in 10 trips in the CBD are, in fact, on foot.

That research, plus record public feedback last year that suggested the city was overcrowded, has framed the council’s pedestrian-focused strategy that marks a significant moment in the ongoing effort to deal with rapidly growing population.

Currently, around 900,000 people move around the city each day, a number that will increase to 1.4 million by 2036. As such, efforts to de-clutter and widen footpaths make up a key aspect of the strategy.

The council has aimed to, by 2030, repurpose the equivalent of 20 Bourke St malls worth of public road and on-street parking to better serve pedestrians and cyclists.

And it has wasted no time in putting the draft strategy into action, unveiling plans just a week after its release to turn two blocks along Elizabeth Street into car-free zones.

At the May 21 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting, councillors were expected to vote in favour of a six-year plan to pedestrianise the blocks between Bourke and Little Bourke streets, and Little Lonsdale and La Trobe streets, complete with wider bluestone footpaths, trees and street furniture.

The plan is part of an effort to improve the Elizabeth Street streetscape, beginning with the southern end between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane (see council’s budget wrap on pages 6 and 7).

Chair of the transport portfolio Nicolas Frances Gilley said the wider draft strategy, which has taken two years to compile, was about addressing a stark imbalance in the CBD.

“People have voted with their feet. 90 per cent of travel in the city is on foot, but 80 per cent of the space is there for cars,” he said.

“It’s not that that’s a problem, but we have to recognise that and we have to make it safe for those people. When we put this out for debate they came back and told us exactly what they wanted.”

That “debate” was in the form of eight discussion papers released for public consultation, of which the council received 1325 submissions – the most it has ever received on one topic.

The walking and cycling discussion papers garnered the most feedback, and over half respondents reported they felt city footpaths were overcrowded.

Motorists will unsurprisingly be hit hardest by the plans, as the council has made no secret of its plan to reduce what it sees as a space-inefficient mode of transport. 

“We know that 43 per cent of cars in the Hoddle Grid are passing through the city, adding to congestion. We want to see this through traffic reduced and the draft strategy includes actions to provide people with alternatives,” Lord Mayor Sally Capp said.

“I understand that travelling into the city by car is the only option for some people. We will continue to welcome drivers whose destination is the central city including tradies, delivery vehicles, emergency services and people with a disability.”

One of the more progressive plans in the transport strategy is a proposal to convert some of the CBD’s “little streets” into pedestrian priority zones that will ban cars at certain times of the day.

This includes Little Bourke, Little Collins and Flinders Lane – streets that suffer “acute overcrowding” due to overly narrow footpaths

A section of Little Collins St (between Swanston and Elizabeth streets) is already closed between 12-2pm to better service lunchtime crowds, a move the council will look to expand to prevent overspilling onto roads.

“We are renowned around the world for our laneway culture here in Melbourne, and in those laneways people are able to stop and wander and enjoy themselves, and we want to extend that culture into our ‘little’ streets,” Cr Capp said in an interview on 3AW.

Other strategies to keep cars away from the CBD include “demand-responsive pricing” for on-street parking – where tariffs increase as demand does – and a trial to reduce speed limits from 40kmh to 30kmh.

Some on-street car parks will also be removed, and re-marked as 300 new motorcycle spots in an effort to clear busy CBD footpaths.

Ben Rossiter, CEO of pro-pedestrian group Victoria Walks, welcomed the strategy and disagreed with previous calls that the moves were too drastic.

“Pedestrian priority is not radical – it’s a common feature of central cities around the world,” he said.

“The direction is entirely necessary to address the challenges facing the city. It’s about adapting the city to how people experience it, live in it and move about in it. We have no doubt that the vast majority of visitors and residents in the city will support the direction. They’re tired of overcrowded footpaths and poor connections.”

Two key figures in the strategy’s release – Cr Frances Gilley and Cr Capp – both called the strategy a “war on congestion” in a radio interview, a nod to other “wars” (on cyclists and cars) waged via the media in recent years.

The Lord Mayor is also vocally pro-cyclist, and hoped the plan to increase 6km of protected bicycle lanes to 50km in the next 10 years would “increase rider safety and encourage more people to ride bikes”.

Public feedback had suggested four in 10 cyclists felt “unsafe and intimidated” on city roads, and the council hopes physically-separated lanes will encourage would-be cyclists to get on two wheels.

With that, its vision is for Melbourne to become “Australia’s premier bicycle city”.

The council, which also put aside $28.2 million in its recently-released 2019-20 budget for transport infrastructure works, were largely full of praise for the draft strategy, however some expressed concerns.

Cr Beverley Pinder questioned whether the move to cut cars in the CBD would have a negative impact on business.

“I do have a concern for people who drive,” she said. “Are we going to turn them away to other options? Are we premature in our quest to have such stringent or major upheaval to our motorists and our city streets?”

“I for one drive, I’m a big shopper in the city and this will turn me away.”

Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood said now was a “critical juncture in Melbourne’s liveability”, but questioned the legitimacy of dropping speeds from 40kmh to 30kmh.

“I’m going to need some more convincing on the 30kmh [proposal] and what that’s actually going to look like in the strategy,” he said.

“Is it a trial? Is it just some streets? Is it a move to a blanket 30kmh across the city?”

The strategy has been released for six weeks of public feedback, after which a final plan will be put before the council.

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