This in the Herald Sun a few weeks ago: Melbourne traffic congestion on par with world’s biggest cities like London, Rome and New York (paywall):
TRAFFIC congestion in Melbourne is on par with New York and could rival the world’s worst cities if nothing is done to combat the problem.
Figures supplied by Tom Tom show congestion levels in Melbourne are at 33 per cent compared to its population.
This means motorists are sitting in peak hour congestion a third longer than if the traffic was free-flowing.
And then this in The Age: Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city’s north-east has worst traffic:
The Grattan Institute research is based on an analysis of Google map data for more than 300 routes in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. It was collected 25 times a day over 12 weeks between March and June 2017 and found:
An average morning commute to the Melbourne CBD by car takes almost 70 per cent longer than in the middle of the night.
Both use the same flawed methodology. They compare a city’s traffic speed at quiet times with the traffic speed at peak hour.
Apart from assuming that getting around by car as fast as possible is automatically the most important thing, you get wacky conclusions because a city with 24/7 congestion (only slightly worse at peak hour) is deemed to be less congested than a city where most of the time there’s free-flowing traffic but for a couple of hours a day it’s proportionately worse.
(The Grattan Institute says there’s more coming. I hope it’s more well thought out than just looking at motor vehicle commuting.)
In any case, if this is our big conclusion that drives transport policy, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.
The debate shouldn’t be about congestion
I don’t think the debate should be about congestion. It shouldn’t even be about mobility. It should be about access to opportunity: jobs, education, amenity.
It’s not about whether people who choose to drive* are delayed by others who choose to drive. It’s about whether everybody (including those who don’t drive) can get to the places they need to get to.
*Or are forced to do so for lack of viable alternatives.
(To contradict myself for a moment: congestion that gets in the way of efficient transport modes absolutely is the enemy. Ways need to be found to get pedestrians, bikes, trams, buses and trains around it, or at least through it quickly.)
One of the major benefits of a big city, if there are lots of opportunities well-serviced by public transport (and walking and cycling), is that it makes it easier for everyone, of every age, and every income level, to access them… provided they don’t insist on bringing their 2 tonne private vehicle, of course.
What sort of city do we want?
There’s also a lesson in the headlines. In the Herald Sun story, New York, London and Rome are cited, and compared to Melbourne. In other words, the most prosperous, vibrant, successful cities on Earth have congestion. And we’re becoming more like them.
Is that actually a bad thing?
As Samuel Schwartz says in his excellent book which I just finished reading:
…a study from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found a powerful correlation between per capita traffic delay and per capita GDP; and the correlation wasn’t negative, but the opposite. For every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, the study found a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. It’s not that congestion itself increases economic productivity, but that places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.
Should we really be trying to stamp out congestion, or should we look at how other cities deal with it?
The big world cities don’t deal with congestion by eliminating it – which basically isn’t possible; building more roads just grows more traffic.
Rather, they provide lots of ways of avoiding traffic congestion, by making sure more people can get around without driving in it and adding to it: by providing viable non-car modes for most trips, including non-work, non-CBD trips.
Decentralisation and liveability
Meanwhile, the state Coalition is calling for more decentralisation to maintain Melbourne’s liveability. By “liveability” I suspect they actually mean crowding and congestion.
Again, look around the world at the cities we might aspire to be.
What makes Melbourne’s congested city centre successful in this age of the Information Economy is lots of people in a relatively small space. The majority, who come in by train, are simply never affected by traffic congestion. (They are affected by rail disruptions such as last week’s major outage, but that’s not an everyday thing.)
Decentralisation plays against one of our key strengths.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t increase the number of viable business districts, if it’s possible.
But just moving lots of people to car-dominated regional towns doesn’t really help. As Alan Davies notes, decentralisation is just another name for regional sprawl. And replacing urban sprawl with regional sprawl isn’t actually a positive.
Okay I’ve rambled a bit again.
But my key point is: congestion isn’t our enemy. Lack, and inequity of access is what we should be talking about, and seeking to fix.