Getting Melbourne Moving – Properly

The recent cancellation of the controversial EastWest Link by the Victorian state government, combined with the reinstatement of the previous Melbourne Metro rail project – (cancelled by the previous state government) – and today’s announcement that the so-called “Western Distributor” project is moving to the next stage, has created heated debate across the community about what should and shouldn’t be built to improve Melbourne’s transport woes.

The two most obvious road issues in Melbourne are the significant congestion on the Eastern Freeway, and on the Westgate Freeway – users of which have all suffered for many years in peak hour periods.

The East West Link was designed to connect the city end of the Eastern Freeway – (which currently stops dead at Hoddle Street/Alexandra Parade) – with CityLink at North Melbourne, removing the dead stop and providing an excellent path onto the Tullamarine Freeway from the east through to Melbourne Airport.

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable plan.

The problem was that it provided no extra direct connections to the Melbourne CBD – people travelling to the CBD from the Eastern Freeway would still have to pile onto Hoddle Street, or carry on through the new tunnel and enter the city from the west via CityLink, increasing congestion at the western connections to the CBD – at Dynon Road, Footscray Road, or even all the way down to Southbank at the end of the Westgate Freeway.

Rather than reducing congestion, it would have served mainly to just move some of it from the north-east corner of the CBD, to the west of the CBD – the problem being that the Westgate Freeway is suffering major congestion also, so East West Link wasn’t really going to fix anything it was supposed to fix.

Eventually, a second section of the East West Link – connecting it to the Western Ring Road at Sunshine West – was to provide the long-mooted “second river crossing” to relieve Westgate Freeway congestion, but still without any additional direct connections to the Melbourne CBD.

It had other problems too.

The Western Distributor – (which has had several design theories and iterations itself) – was designed to reduce congestion on the Westgate Freeway, and get large numbers of trucks off suburban streets in Yarraville, Seddon, and Footscray – (a long term issue in the area) – by providing a direct link to the Port of Melbourne from the Westgate Freeway.

The latest design – unveiled today – takes the solution one step further. It links the Westgate Freeway with the port area, and then CityLink, and provides another direct freeway connection into the CBD at Footscray Road/Docklands Drive – doubling the freeway access to the CBD from the west of the city, and providing an extra path that should shift a large amount of traffic off the Westgate Freeway route, running over the bridge and into Southbank.

It also doesn’t increase traffic on Footscray Road, because the new freeway section there would be above Footscray Road.

Which is better?

I guess that depends a little on which side of the city you live on – but given the East West Link appears only to transfer traffic from the east of the CBD to the west of the CBD, emotions aside it appears the Western Distributor plan is better.

But what do the people of the east get out of this? On the surface, it might appear that they have been shafted – and there will be more years of suffering for them, but the plans for public transport in the north-east of Melbourne should address much of that.

One of the main reasons there is so much traffic on the Eastern Freeway – which currently pours onto Hoddle Street – is that there are no mass public transport options in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.

People either have to drive to train stations on the Ringwood or Clifton Hill group lines to get to the city by train, just drive which most seem to just do by default, or catch bus services which run on the Eastern Freeway anyway.

Building new roads has never been proven to improve congestion, and sometimes serves only to encourage more traffic onto the roads to fill the space.

Another way to improve congestion is to have less cars on the road, and one of the best ways to do that is to provide people with another option – such as mass public transport.

Getting cars off the roads also has obvious environmental benefits.

And you know – the previous government which cancelled the Melbourne Metro rail project, and came up with East West Link – had a plan for all of this, but promptly abandoned it when the federal government said they wouldn’t provide money for rail projects.

What was that plan?

Below is the detailed document published by the PTV and the previous government – which cancelled it – along with the accompanying video:

To my way of thinking, this makes a whole lot more sense than just shifting road congestion around on a map.

Admittedly, it does leave the eastern suburbs with their current problems for the time being – but provides a far better long term view of what Melbourne should be into the future. Certainly, successive governments will need to stay the course on this plan, and that’s never a given – but one can only hope some sort of common sense will prevail.

The reinstatement of the Melbourne Metro rail project is the catalyst that gets that plan back into motion, a plan which allows for the Doncaster, Rowville and Airport rail extensions to be done properly.

East West Link may well be needed done the track, and it will provide a useful link to the airport for travellers in the east when it is built – but given the economic value of the road in its current form is dubious at best, doing the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel and the Western Distributor first, provides a much more sensible path for the future.

If only the politics of the exercise wasn’t so vitriolic, and people could stop and think about the long term outcomes.

One can hope.

  • Steve Jenkin


    There’s an additional way to get more than 1,800 cars/hour/lane:
    use technology that already exists – cruise-control with radar auto-braking.

    One of the Holy Grails of automotive engineering since the mid-50’s has been “self-driving cars”, seen in the most recent iteration at Google.

    At 80kph there’s ~41m gap between cars, at 100kph, ~50m gap.

    If we can close that up to a 1-2m gap using something less powerful than an iPhone, we’ve can run 10 car “platoons” down the freeway, especially in peak-hour. In the space of 3 cars currently, you could safely run 25 cars.

    At considerably less cost than building freeways at $10-20,000 per lane/metre. It also doesn’t need land resumption or on-going maintenance.

    The question becomes:
    – does the Govt upgrade cars for “high-speed automatic following” or do drivers pay for the conversion themselves, which would be a modest cost if thousands were done at one time. The Govt could buy the electronics & car-kits, in bulk, and give to car-owners at cost.

    At $500-$1,000 at most per car, that’d be a terrific time/cost tradeoff for commuters, and most would take it. All commercial vehicles would sign-up solely because of the time savings.

    Same system would work in all capital cities. No retro-fitting, no rebuilding, only some lane signage.

    Where’s the Govt Research programme for this?

    What about The Clever Country, or are we just a Clover Country, resting on its Laurels and not trying at all?


    • A solution like that would also have potential, but I see a number of issues:

      – first, it doesn’t lower the number of cars on the road, instead it potentially increases the number. They might all get into the city faster, but then the city is clogged sooner, and they still have to find somewhere to park.

      – If the government were to pay for every car to have such a system installed, it wouldn’t reach its potential until every car has it. You’d only need a handful of cars without it to potentially create some chaos.

      – third, we should be getting cars OFF the roads for the environmental benefits – surely that should be a priority goal too.

      In the end, I agree there are many technological approaches to solving the issues of congestion – (eg: a decent NBN that allows people to work from home in more practical terms than they currently can) – which would mean not having to travel at all.

      It’s all something of a panacea, but unless someone opens up a massive chequebook, we have to do things one step at a time.

      • Steve Jenkin

        I hadn’t picked the problem of end-point dispersal. The London Congestion Tax seems a partial solution. The other is taking the money saved on not building EastWest Link and putting it into exactly the area you mention.

        You’re wrong about “100% installed base” before its useful. You don’t allow convoys on every lane, only selected lanes. To drive in a convoy lane, your car needs to be fitted out. Start with just one lane. People will see the convoys bypassing them and want to join in.

        Your third point I heartily agree with: reduce the car count and pollution.

        Running auto-following convoys is as feasible with fully electric cars, collectively owned shared vehicles and mini-buses.

        Nice segue to the NBN. Well played!
        Just allowing people to work from home 1 day per week, or come in around Noon twice a week, because they have a secure home connection and can do HD Video conferencing would immediately lower road usage, congestion and pollution.

        Apparently in the Wonderful World of the Climate Deniers, time wasted commuting to/from work has zero value, as does time delays for business deliveries across town in congested periods.

        A real Cost Benefit Analysis would account for wasted time, pollution and poor use of capital.

        Great article – hope it inspires a lot of discussion.