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Suraj Varma’s negative view of Melbourne public transport system has not been altered by the promises made my Daniel Andrews prior to becoming Victoria’s latest Premier in the recent election.
Transitioning into a sustainable transport system was inevitable for Australia given the rising fuel prices and rapid growth of transport-related emissions, with the transport sector accounting for the lion’s share of energy consumption per sector.
A transition such as this is effective only when it is phased-in as unobtrusively as possible. It starts with advocating to minimise travel as much as possible and switch modes of travel by walking, cycling and using public transport. But this is possible only when there is sufficient infrastructure in place, so as to make the transition voluntary and that doing which does not diminish, if not improve the quality of life.
Back in 2010, the Melbourne public transport system, then in its infant stages of adapting into a more sustainable transport model, had plenty of initiatives, although most lacked thoroughness and foresight. It’s hard to press charges, as only after few stumbles and reform will even the best of the technologies and initiatives start to deliver efficiently.
One of the important community initiatives was the encouragement to use cycles within the Melbourne CBD through the “Bike Share” program — a brilliant idea emulated from the cycle-friendly countries of Europe, but mostly a failure in Melbourne! One of the primary reasons why this $5 million initiative failed in the Australian context was a small glitch – the bike banks rented out bikes without helmets! Unlike European cities, which have separate cycling lanes making it unnecessary to wear helmets, here in Australia, cyclists still need to wear one. Although, the cost of the cycle rentals itself was a deterring factor to many, the need to carry helmets was what defeated the initiative.
Another major initiative that was underway in late 2010 was making Swanston Street a car-free zone. Although, that in itself wasn’t enough to seal the deal, it certainly looked promising at the time.
Come 2014, and especially for a person like me who was away from Melbourne for three full years, some fixes were in place. Among the most obvious ones was addressing the helmet issue at bike sharing ranks and the almost car-free Swanston Street. Even the public transport system had undergone several changes, with the introduction of E-class trams that boast a capacity of over 200 passengers; and work is underway to improve efficiency of Metro trains to city fringe areas.
Though, it’s reassuring to see some promises kept and flaws addressed, Melbourne still has long way to go before it can be featured as a city that embraces sustainable transport. I’m a champion of public transport and try to plan my things in a way that lets me live sustainably.
Except on the rare occasions when I have to leave the city and visit friends living in the fringe areas, I’m more than happy to walk and use public transport as a means of getting around. And there is a reason for that. Public transport is still notorious and undependable if one needs to travel to some of the newly developed suburbs of Melbourne.
The long time of travel is only secondary to the strain of planning the journey, which involves bus travel on alighting at the railway station. And if one happens to travel on a weekend, the connecting buses from the railway station are spaced an hour apart. When winter is in full swing and with a scantily canopied bus stop to wait in, one needs to plan meticulously to avoid misery.
Last Sunday, my wife and I had to travel to one such suburb, Narre Warren, situated about 40 kilometres to the south-east of the Melbourne CBD. Untimely train delays on weekends are almost certain. So we planned to take an earlier train out from Flinders Street railway station to reach our destination in advance, if not on time. On alighting at the Narre Warren railway station, we took the bus to our friend’s place. While planning the journey, Public Transport Victoria’s website had indicated the bus stop for us to alight. Having travelled on Melbourne buses in the past, I knew that it was impossible to identify most bus stops in the suburbs by their names. So in addition to informing the driver to let us know, I used the GPS on my phone to locate ourselves as we neared our stop. When I noticed we were quite close, I pressed the “stop” button, although our bus driver took no notice. He drove another half a kilometre and made a roundabout before bringing the bus to a halt. We were a good 400 metres away from the stop we intended to get off at. I didn’t realise at the time that he was driving on to make the roundabout only to come back to our stop! Added to the sporadic bus frequency on weekends and now the obscure bus stops, why people prefer cars instead is reasonable. And this is the case with every suburb located more than 30 kilometres from the CBD.
In a move to reduce the public dependency on road usage, the new Victorian Government has stalled the works of the $6.8 billion East West link road project. The Labor Party has made the previously sensitive business case publicly available for scrutiny and also as a step to gain support from the masses. The flaws of the project and its low rate of return in terms of cost–benefit ratio are being debated with a lot of fervour. This said, the compensation for scrapping this project at this stage could also be quite high.
Another new development has been the amalgamation of the zones of travel on the public transport map, with the CBD becoming a free travel zone on trams. Although reduced fares might appeal to some of the travellers, for people who have absolutely no means of availing public transport in fringe areas, the change is quite insignificant. Low fares will also undoubtedly increase the congestion on trams in the city. With a growing majority living in suburbs, a truly “sustainable” transport model is still a pipe dream in Melbourne.