Extending the free tram zone: Good move or bad?

By David Schout

As state parliament considers the merit of extending the free tram zone, it appears people are split on whether free rides should extend beyond the CBD.

In June, Transport Matters MP Rod Barton passed an upper house motion to consider extending the zone, which mostly covers the CBD and Docklands.

His suggestion included an expansion to major destinations such as the MCG, Art Centre and Melbourne Zoo, plus key institutions like the Alfred and Royal Children’s Hospitals, and the University of Melbourne.

Public submissions are open until December 20.

While the state government has shown no indication yet of extending the zone, the question of how it would impact commuters remains a pertinent one.

And one thing is certain: people are divided on the zone’s effectiveness.

Introduced at the start of 2015, supporters of the scheme spruik its cost and convenience benefits.

Mr Barton said extending the zone to include areas outside the CBD would be another step towards changing the way people choose to get around.

“We want to encourage visitors to these areas,” he said.

“We want to encourage locals into these areas. It makes sense to encourage tram travel to these major destinations and encourage everyone to enjoy all that Melbourne has to offer.”

An extension to the free tram zone would appear, from the outside, as a win for CBD locals. 

It would extend the areas they can travel for free to include key city venues and services.

CBD News recently asked several passers-by whether they would like to see the free tram zone extended to the arts and sports precincts. Each respondent said they would.

But others, especially those who live outside the CBD, have suggested it would further clog a system that is becoming unusable at peak hour.

Those who commute to and from the CBD by train each day don’t benefit from the “free” trams: their Myki caps at $8.80 irrespective of whether they take trams or not.

As a result, the main beneficiaries of the free tram zone would appear to be CBD residents, tourists or those who travel into the city by car. 

In a surprise revelation, the state government’s recently released annual tram load survey claimed that, contrary to accounts of overcrowding, packed trams were in fact a rarity within the CBD.

It found just four instances of CBD trams past capacity during a nine-day period in May.

This compared to 11 instances in the same survey last year.

All four “load breaches” occurred during the morning peak of 8am-9.30am, meaning there were no recorded instances of overcrowding in the evening peak. 

But the Public Transport Users Association  (PTUA) questioned the survey’s measurement, specifically the locations used to count passengers which were each located at the end of the free tram zone.

“The official numbers reckon Yarra Trams services mostly aren’t overcrowded. That’s because they’re measuring them on the edge of the CBD - away from where the trams are most packed,” the PTUA tweeted. 

Despite the obvious benefits to locals and tourists, City of Melbourne councillors have expressed caution on a free tram zone extension.

Cr Rohan Leppert has said on Twitter that extending the zone would be a bad idea.

“Our public transport system is under intense pressure in the CBD,” he wrote.

“An expansion of the free tram zone makes it harder for commuters to access trams, favours those who drove to the CBD over those who paid a fare in zone 1 or 2, and is a disincentive for walking short trips.”

Fellow councillor Nicolas Frances Gilley agreed.

“Drivers into the city, many from inner suburbs, then use the free tram. It’s a double whammy. The system does not get funded, clogged up with short free travel and cars at rush hour. All strains the system,” he said.

The proposal to extend the free tram zone will be considered by parliament’s economy and infrastructure committee next year.

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