Councillor Jackie Fristacky, currently mayor of inner Melbourne’s city of Yarra, supports a future with reduced motor traffic.
Yarra was the brainchild of former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett’s local government reconstruction, bringing together the old working-class suburbs of Collingwood, Richmond, Fitzroy and North Carlton. These were the original Struggletowns.
These days, in the streets of Richmond, you are just as likely to meet a barrister as a butcher. Although some 10 per cent of the total population of 82,000 in Yarra can be counted as disadvantaged — one of the highest such ratios in Victoria — the process of gentrification is accelerating. The affluent are squeezing out the middle class.
Mayor Fristacky (pronounced Fris-tatskee) has no doubt about Melbourne’s primary challenge: its massive public transport infrastructure gap. This gap means that as much as 70 per cent of Melbourne’s suburbs are beyond the effective reach of rail services.
As the Victorian auditor-general highlighted in a recent report, state governments are not providing the public transport infrastructure needed to service suburban growth. The public watchdog says the states face a multi-billion-dollar public infrastructure gap. This has fuelled demand for inner-city property served by public transport close to the central city district. Only the affluent can now afford to buy into Yarra.
Yarra is a test case for what Australia will be like in 2050, when Melbourne’s population of 4.3 million will likely exceed 7 million and, nationally, the population will have increased from 23 to 40 million at current growth rates — that is, up to 17 million more people nationally in less than 40 years.
Most will be shoehorned into the existing suburbs. Public transport is so poor in the outer suburbs of most Australian cities that households require at least two cars. Outer suburban streets often can’t accommodate modern buses. Replacing old infrastructure that is already in place with more up-to-date infrastructure is difficult; and infrastructure in many recently developed communities is poor.
Yarra caused a stir when it announced that, from 2003, residents of new developments and reconstructed “brownfield” (i.e., former industrial) sites would not be issued with on-street parking permits.
The reasoning is quite simple. When a new site is developed, or an old warehouse is redeveloped, the population density will increase. Instead of, say, eight people in one area, you may have 60, and more than 60 cars to park.
Warehouse workers used often to live locally and walked to work, or took the tram. A redeveloped warehouse, instead of having 20 workers, may now house 100 affluent residents, each of whom can easily run a car. And there aren’t enough on-street parking spaces to go round.
In some areas, more street-parking permits have been issued than there are on-street parking spaces. When two car-owning residents are contesting a single parking space, it can get nasty.
The logical alternative is to encourage car-free living, combined with restricted street-parking permits, with new developments to be self-sufficient in parking. On-site car-parking reduces the amount of living space the developer can get out of the site, and it’s living space buyers want. Many apartment-buyers these days are car-free, and want bicycle-parking, not car-parking.
If there is not enough space for cars, what can be done? Car-sharing and cycling are clear alternatives. Taxi services are an option, especially if a means can be devised so they are available at periods of maximum demand.
Yarra is blessed with a dense network of public transport. Combined with the use of Shank’s pony (i.e., walking), many people will get around as they did traditionally in the inner city. Even so, we haven’t progressed much — public transport in the inner and middle suburbs was better in the 1920s than it is now, says Mayor Fristacky.
Given the fact that Melbourne’s CityLink is one of the few tollways in Australia making money, why not use tolls to fund new roads? First, tollways cannot reduce congestion without a rail alternative. Second, several Australian tollway projects such as Brisbane’s Clem Jones Tunnel have gone into receivership. Third, there is a big difference between a business case and a business plan.
The current Victorian state government has a business plan for an East-West Link tollway from jam-packed Hoddle Street to the Tullamarine Freeway, and another later connection, via EastLink, from the expanded Port of Hastings (approximately 72 kilometres to the south-east of Melbourne, in Western Port Bay) to Melbourne’s industrial areas in the west.
But will these new tollways be financially self-supporting? Given their massive cost, in excess of $8 billion, each vehicle would pay around $10 each time it used them.
In terms of economic benefits, would the payoff be greater than the expenditure? Would it be a suitable investment for superannuation funds, which seek consistent returns over a long period?
Mayor Fristacky views the East-West Link as a poor investment when a rail link would do much to satisfy transport demand and ease congestion.
Running cars is expensive. Yarra is experimenting in blending public and sustainable private transport. Given 50 years, many more communities may be following Yarra’s lead.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.