COVID-19 forces city transport review

By David Schout
Photo credit - Twitter @Melbourne Way

Key transport visions for Melbourne could be adjusted after the City of Melbourne commissioned an independent review into post-pandemic trends in the city.

The review would use “evidence and data to drive decisions” according to Lord Mayor Sally Capp, after COVID-19 forced a change in transport activity.

The pandemic had been responsible for a shift in trends — for example the “skyrocketing” number of gig economy delivery riders — and the council said it was important city-shaping policies now reflected that.

There was no indication, however, that the council’s Transport Strategy 2030, which broadly prioritises pedestrians and cyclists while reducing the number of cars entering the CBD, would be significantly altered as a result of the review. 

“We know that the way people travel into and around our city has changed in that [COVID] time,” the Lord Mayor said at a June 15 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

“We’ve seen usual behaviours altered, particularly thinking about the slow uptake of use of public transport, and I think it’s worthwhile for us to look at current and future trends, look at evidence and data, and consider the way forward.”

There was pushback when one councillor said the review could be an opportunity to wind back Town Hall’s aggressive rollout of bicycle lanes throughout the city, in favour of space for cars.

Cr Roshena Campbell, who was not on council when it endorsed the 10-year transport strategy in 2019, said that for anyone who lived 15km or more away, “riding your bike is not how you get into the city.”

“While I accept a lot of work has been done by this council on its transport strategy, in my view it may be the case that some of that work will be found to be inconsistent with what is necessary to support our city’s recovery and at that point, if it is the case, decisions will need to be made,” Cr Campbell said. 

She quoted a recent NAB Consumer Insight report that found seven in 10 people had either stopped visiting the CBD or were visiting less, and one in four said it was because parking was either too expensive or they did not want to use public transport.

“If you are priced out of driving in, or you are forced to take certain streets that are now less accessible and have been reduced to one lane because of bike paths, that may be a deterrent for you,” she said.

“And if that is the evidence that comes back, for my part I think we as a council group need to take it seriously, because our city’s economic recovery has to be a priority this council term.”

But Greens councillor Rohan Leppert refuted this, and said the independent review was merely to update evidence to reflect the post-pandemic environment, not entirely re-evaluate long-term goals.

“The only way we can make good decisions for the city is with good quality data and that is the purpose of this exercise. So, that’s the reason I’m going to support this, because we need good quality data, not because it’s a smokescreen to change the transport strategy, certainly not on my watch.”

He said the city had moved beyond the binary “car versus bikes” debate and that wider views on the topic — including from the RACV who voiced their unwavering support for a “bike friendly city” at the meeting — had progressed. 

“I, for one, am not going to revert back to a tired old argument from [3AW’s] Neil Mitchell or any other bloviator that only people who drive cars increase the economic value to the city. We’re way past that. I remember when the RACV were against bicycle lanes, right? It’s a new world, we’re going to deal with it.”

Findings for the review are expected to be released in August.  

Cycling lanes Melbourne’s “edge”

Amid fears an independent review could stall progress on the council’s protected cycling lane rollout, a number of submitters urged the council against such a move. 

Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards pressed councillors to “bravely move forward rather than slamming the brakes on progress”, while RACV general manager of mobility Elizabeth Kim said investment in active transport benefitted everyone.

James Garriock, executive director of Melbourne-based consulting and research group Insync, said creating a cycle-friendly city was crucial.

“If I’m going to make the most of my office in Collins St, if I’m going to build team spirit by having people together, I need Melbourne to have an edge. And that edge is not property prices like it is on the Gold Coast, and that edge is not sunshine like it is in Sydney. Bike lanes are part of that edge. I think that reversion to the car-congested mean would be a real symptom of Melbourne losing its edge.”

“Pain points”

The Lord Mayor, however, acknowledged that infrastructure works had created “clashes” in the city, and the review would investigate these “pain points”.

The council has not only accelerated its protected cycling lanes rollout, but also installed a number of outdoor dining “parklets” and has continued footpath-widening in some areas.

“We’ve heard from our community that there are pain points across the city,” she said.

“It’s been one of the number one things in my inbox, and that there have been clashes between infrastructure that we’ve installed and the behaviour of commuters on different transport modes, and it would be good to identity those and understand how we can improve them.” •

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