Town planning is dead. Long live town planning. Small-minded self interest and politics have won, at the expense of our city’s liveability over the next century.
While it’s better than it used to be, the planning system is broken. It’s broken at the small scale “coal face” where subjective opinion or political interference is justification for refusal, to large scale strategic and urban planning, where decisions are made about how our city will grow and develop over the coming decades. I’m just glad there is one rational avenue for planning in this state – the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal, or VCAT.
On a broad scale, there are three strategic decisions I can think of that speak of this failure:
• The investigation and potential state funding of a rail line to Avalon airport
• The decision to extend the urban growth boundary
• The decision to build the east-west tunnel from the end of the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway.
Fundamentally, planning large scale infrastructure projects should be part of a coordinated, cohesive and comprehensive development plan for the city over the next 50 to 100 years. This planning should be about enhancing the city’s liveability as a whole, for everyone. When assessed on these lines, the above projects start to look a little wobbly.
Let’s start with the Avalon project. On the surface it looks like a good idea. The airport is relatively close to the main rail line between Melbourne and Geelong. It would be relatively easy to connect a spur line to this line and ferry passengers to the rail line, for connections to both cities, and there have been arguments for Avalon to be developed to relieve pressure on Tullamarine. It would be a good thing in supporting regional tourism growth for Geelong and south west, and reduce the need for a huge taxi fare to Melbourne.
The reality is that the airport currently has only around five flights in and five flights out per day (which incidentally, is about half the number of flights landing and taking off at Launceston Airport servicing a small regional city). Jetstar is the main airline to use the airport, and they operate Airbus A320s and A321s, with a capacity of 180 - 220 passengers. This equates to less than 1000 passengers in and out per day (if every flight is full). To compare, Tullamarine handles approximately 30,000,000 people per year, which is about 82,000 per day. A single six-carriage train currently used on the Melbourne network can carry up to 800 people.
There is a rail line between 3-5km from Avalon making a spur line relatively straight forward. But Tullamarine is situated directly between two electrified lines, Sydenham and Broadmeadows, and is approximately 5km from both. If you’ve ever sat in a traffic jam at 7am just to get into the airport, you will agree – rail to Tullamarine should be the priority over rail to Avalon.
The urban growth boundary issue is another planning faux pas. At a time when property values on the fringe are teetering, is it really smart to flood the market with additional supply in areas with limited access to public transport and services? Melbourne is already one of the largest cities in the world by area – 2789km2, compared with 2150km2 in Moscow with 10.5m people, 2,266km2 for Buenos Aires with 11.2m people or even the Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto conurbation with 2,564m2 holding 16.425m people (source - citymayors.com). If Melbourne had the density of Singapore, it could hold more than 23 million people. Almost all of the cities that are larger by area than Melbourne are located in North America (with the exception of Tokyo which has a population of over 33m people). Atlanta, Detroit and Houston are not exactly urban models we should be emulating. But this is exactly what we are doing.
My third poor planning decision is the east-west tunnel connecting the Eastern Freeway with the Tullamarine. I’ve covered this in a previous piece in The Melbourne Review but thought it worth repeating. Billions of dollars are earmarked for a project that will effectively be used by only 15% of the vehicles that currently use the Eastern Freeway. Eighty-five percent of drivers are headed to the city and inner suburbs.
Looking at a map of the inner city, you can see why the transport planners want this project to happen. It closes a gap and links the four freeways converging on the city. The problem with this logic is the roads or suburbs on the other side of town are not the destination – the city is. Dragging a crayon on a map linking roads is not the answer to relieving traffic congestion. Getting people out of their cars and providing decent, rapid and regular transport is.
Planning, particularly for large projects, is too important for it to be subject to vested interests or partisan politics. Unfortunately, a short term political cycle, and the democratic process where opinion polls win over considered, expert advice will have a negative effect on our city for years to come.