A proposal to close off two blocks has been criticised as ‘piecemeal’ and ignited a debate about the direction of Australia’s most liveable city
Calla WahlquistWed 22 May 2019 01.39 BST
A proposal to close sections of one of Melbourne’s main streets to cars has reignited debate about the future of Australia’s most liveable city as a car-free zone.
Melbourne City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night in favour of adopting a plan to close off two blocks of Elizabeth Street to all traffic apart from trams, bikes and pedestrians, and converting two more blocks into single-lane one-way streets.
Work would not begin for at least two years and would have to go through a separate public consultation and approval process to go ahead.
The council says the proposal, contained in the Elizabeth Street Strategic Opportunities Plan, will improve the safety and amenity of the street as well as boosting retail traffic.
But it has been criticised by the Andrews state government for contributing to existing disruption at a time when the city is undergoing the construction of the suburban underground rail project Metro Tunnel.
It has also been criticised as “piecemeal” and “unambitious” by urban planning experts who say Melbourne should follow the example of cities such as Vienna, which is car-free in its historic centre. Vienna toppled Melbourne from the number one spot on the liveable cities index last year.
“It has to get to the stage where it’s car free,” says Kate Shaw, a future fellow in urban geography and planning at the Australian Research Council.
There is no forward-thinking city in the world that is aiming to bring more cars into its central city
Deputy lord mayor Arron Wood
Shaw says the change is “inevitable”, driven by growth that will push Melbourne to a population of more than six million by 2027, overtaking Sydney as Australia’s biggest city by 2050. The central Melbourne grid, which was drafted in 1837, was “not designed to cope” with the traffic volume associated with that level of growth, Shaw says.
“We are approaching the idea of the car-free city in a very piecemeal fashion, and trying to keep everybody happy and pleasing nobody in the practice,” she says. “At some point Melbourne planners really just have to bite the bullet and close off entire sections of the city to cars.”
The deputy lord mayor, Arron Wood, says the proposed changes are a compromise between providing greater access to pedestrians and people using public transport, and those who need vehicle access.
“There is no forward-thinking city in the world that is aiming to bring more cars into its central city,” he says.
Under the new plan, Elizabeth Street would be closed to cars between Bourke and Little Bourke streets and between Little Lonsdale and Latrobe streets.
Both sections have since 2013 hosted wheelchair-accessible super tram stops that run the length of the block.
The updated streetscape, including cycle paths, would look like the parallel sections of Swanston Street, which is closed to cars apart from authorised delivery vehicles within certain hours.
Three more blocks would be converted to one-way streets with the southbound car lane closed off. That includes the southern end of Elizabeth Street near Flinders Street, which has already received full council approval and is due to begin construction next year.
Wood says the proposal, which forms part of a broader draft transport strategy released this month, is about creating an efficient transport network and “not about saying no to cars”.
“If you look at Swanston Street, it carries about 200,000 people a day [on trams] and that’s the equivalent of more than the West Gate Bridge handles each day,” Wood says. “So this is definitely not about not moving people, it’s just transport agnostic in the sense that you want to get the most efficient way of moving people.”
The draft transport strategy proposes closing secondary east-west streets such as Little Bourke and Little Collins to traffic and says that 43% of cars travelling through the city is through traffic trying to avoid using the freeway bypass routes, many of which charge a toll.
Surveys conducted by the City of Melbourne have found that 90% of people travelling along Elizabeth Street either walk or catch a tram. There are 14 times more pedestrians and tram users than people travelling by car.
The footpaths, which are just six metres wide compared with 14m in Swanston Street, are not able to cope.
“There is a real squeeze on in terms of pedestrian access,” Wood says.
Alfresco dining, motorcycle parking and buskers spaced at regular intervals reduce the actual walking space along sections of Elizabeth Street by up to a third.
David Beanham, who owns a shop on Elizabeth Street and says his family has been operating in the area for 70 years, told council on Tuesday that it should focus on removing those obstacles and “getting pedestrians to keep left” before it considered blocking off sections of the road, which he said would hamper his business by making it more difficult to get deliveries.
Beanham also dismissed the council’s argument that the proposed works would improve the amenity of Elizabeth Street, including the planting of more street trees.
“People come to the city to shop, to work, to meet; not to sit and admire the views,” he told council.
Not everyone shares his concern. At an outdoor table on Elizabeth Street, pushed up against the kerb for an unrivalled view of the car lane and super tram stop, suit Bryce and Dev.
They are in favour of the council’s plan and cite nearby Bourke Street Mall – which is closed to all traffic except trams and emergency vehicles – as a model to follow.
“That’s actually my favourite place in the city because there’s no traffic,” Bryce says. “Often when you cross here there’s a lot of people lining up at the lights and it’s a bit crazy at times.”
On the other side of the street, on the steps of the GPO, Ruby says she is concerned that cutting traffic to certain parts of the street will restrict access for disabled people and those unable to take public transport.
“That would just limit job options for people if they could not get into the city,” she says.
Wood says under the proposal the city would retain the same number of disabled parking spaces and delivery bays that it currently has along Elizabeth Street, but they would be moved to different blocks.
Shaw says the proposal could confuse drivers by allowing access to only some sections, which could cause conflict with bikes expecting a clear run.
She says Melbourne’s tram network and grid layout provide a ready-made “incremental approach” to getting cars out of the city, because it means that certain streets can be fully closed to cars while alternating streets remain open.
“You can actually alternate so that you have completely separate traffic movements, which is ideal and very safe for everyone concerned,” she says.
Prof Michael Buxton, a former planner with the Victorian government and current member of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, says Melbourne should look for “radical solutions” to becoming a walkable, liveable global city.
“The fact is you don’t need a car to get around the city,” he says.
Like Shaw, he says the approach has been piecemeal. He says projects such as the West Gate Tunnel, which will bring cars into the city, directly undermine existing attempts to reduce the number of cars.
“What we are dealing with in this state is a lot of one-off and often contradictory transport projects that really don’t have any overall strategic basis,” he says. “We have got this project-by-project approach … And if you do that you often end up with contrary objectives.”
Walking into the future: Melbourne backs plan to curb cars in the CBD | The Guardian
A proposal to close off two blocks has been criticised as ‘piecemeal’ and ignited a debate about the direction of Australia’s most liveable city Calla WahlquistWed 22 May 2019 01.39 BST A proposal to close sections of one of Melbourne’s main streets to cars has reignited debate about the future of Australia’s most liveable city… [Read More]