Saturday, October 29, 2011

Transforming Melbourne towards being car free

A strong argument against the car free concept is the presence of existing cities and peoples' dependence upon these cities for their livelihood. Moving towards car reduced societies takes a two pronged approach. Building car free cities is for the visionaries and for the people with financial access to such concepts. These new cities will likely be beacons for the concept. The other approach needed is to gradually transform existing cities to move towards a more car free lifestyle.

Many European cities have begun this process. They are gradually introducing car free districts. Car free districts become centres of lively culture and usually attract people to their charm. The city of Melbourne in Australia could take a number of steps in this direction.

Melbourne as a city was extensively designed as a city before the existence of the car. The inner suburbs of the city would function much better in a way that is closer to their original planning.


Melbourne prides itself in its extensive tram network that covers the inner suburbs. The fact is though that trams and cars find it very hard to co-exist in Melbourne. Trams and pedestrians have right of way at tram stops. Cars must wait for them to start moving again before being allowed to pass. This often means that a car trip in inner Melbourne is not a lot faster than a tram anyway. Many Melburnians would be loathed to get rid of the tram network as Adelaide and Sydney mostly did. Trams are a part of Melbourne culture and its residents wish it to stay that way. A process of removing cars from inner Melbourne would help trams to flourish in Melbourne again. They could run at much higher frequency and make mobility on public transport very effective.
Map of Melbourne tram network
The spaces vacated by cars could be given over to bikes. To make the city more aesthetically pleasing it would not simply be a matter of bicycles riding on the roads that cars once drove on. This of course would be the case in the early stages. In more advanced stages though roads could be replaced by landscaping that includes grass, trees, bike paths and foot paths.
Arguments against the model
An argument against this might be that some people live too far from a tram stop. This can easily be tackled by installing extra tram lines on some roads between the major arterials, so that no residents have too far to walk to a tram stop.
Another argument pertains to how delivery of freight, retail and grocery goods would be carried out. It is important to move away from a car dominated paradigm, and remember that there was a world before the car. There were also deliveries of freight and goods in those days too. The best way to tackle this issue is to have delivery hub depots. Depots would use some existing railway networks and tram networks. From the depots smaller electric carts with special permits would carry out delivery to the final address.


Melbourne has a very good rail network. Unfortunately it is about as good as it was in the 1890s when it was world class, second only to London, more advanced than New York and Paris. It was better in the 1920s than it is now, some lines actually having been removed.
Trains also do not get along with cars very well. There are currently 182 level railway crossings in Melbourne. The Victorian government have budgeted $379 million towards the removal of railway crossings. They have ten projects planned. At close to an average of $40 million per railway crossing, the over all project to remove all of the railway crossings in Melbourne could easily stretch to and beyond $8 billion.
Many people would say that trains are interrupting the smooth flow of cars. A cursory look at history will show that Melbourne had all of its train lines before the car came along, so it is not trains that are interrupting cars. In fact the historical population growth of Melbourne largely coincides with the development of its railway network. It is now, when the railway network is not keeping up with Melbourne's transport demands that people are beginning to say that the transport network is breaking down. The fact remains that Melbourne was planned around its train networks and will only function well when depending on its train networks.
A friend of mine came up with a brilliant plan to remove all of the railway crossings in Melbourne. Instead of removing them one by one and putting in bridges (this is a very slow process that takes years), each of the railway lines in Melbourne should be replaced by underground tunnels. This could only be done in stages, one railway line at a time. It would create some pain for the residents in that region while the project was being carried out, but after the fact things would flow so much better. A complete new underground train line could be constructed for much faster trains, which would cut down travel times immensely and make them far more attractive than the car.
When a train line is put under ground there is then a lot of real estate available above the train line. This could be used for various purposes. Bike highways could be installed which would enable cyclists to get to the city centre in record time. Much of the land could also be sold, which would easily finance the entire project. Every train station could have retail, commercial or residential property installed above it. This would not prevent bike highways passing through.

This proposed plan does not remove any cars from Melbourne as such. What it does do is make trains and bikes a lots more appealing and efficient, which would cut down the number of cars on the road. The current model of putting bridges in at level crossings is not creating any real estate or revenue to pay for the projects.
Map of Melbourne train network

New forms of transport
As roads are vacated in inner Melbourne suburbs a lot of land will become available for other purposes. Some roads could have either trams put in their place or new underground rail lines to link up with the rest of the network. This would enable badly needed circle lines to be implemented, making connections easier on a trip across the city.
Other roads could simply be removed and replaced with bike paths, foot paths and park land. (Light electric carts could use these paths to access houses for deliveries with a special permit.)

Car free district phased introduction
The obvious place to start with a car free district is the central business district. From the Docklands development in the west to Spring Street in the east would be completely car free. There is plenty of public transport already in place to meet the needs of the district. Commuters who drive to the centre for work would feel inconvenienced at first. But an increase in frequency of trams and trains would mean that they could drive to a train station if they had a long way to travel.
A later phase of introduction would wait some years until people had adjusted to the new paradigm for the city centre. Eventually Melbourne could become car free as far as the tram network already exists. Once new underground train lines had been developed, expansion of car free districts could continue for decades to come.
It has taken a century for humanity to become as dependent upon cars as we have. It may take a century to wean ourselves off them again. It would certainly take decades to transform Melbourne completely.

Increased cultural vitality
Cities of the world that have begun to introduce car free districts have found that street life and cultural activities naturally begin to increase in those districts. People naturally begin to flock to these districts from the outside to enjoy the new vibrancy that occurs on streets where people are happy to be outdoors. The lack of car noise makes the streets peaceful and safe for people to be on.
When the central business district has this appeal for a decade or so, it will become more appealing to expand car free zones.

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