The Melbourne east west road link is likely to cost $8bn. Proponents of roads claim that Australian cities simply aren't like London or Paris, but public transport is still needed
Australia's love for cars is deeply entrenched. Photograph: Alamy
Having one of the lowest population densities in the developed world has given Australians a lot of space to play with. And, broadly speaking, Australians don’t merely enjoy this space - they positively wallow in it.
Arriving, blinking, into the Victorian summer five years ago from London, I was immediately struck by how open everything was. I found myself living in a spacious house without, shockingly, an upstairs. This certainly wasn’t a cramped English-style bungalow.
This indulgence of space caters to Australia’s love affair with the car. I could drive on the huge, US-style highways that snake across the country, invariably finding generously sized car parking spaces exactly in front of the place I wanted to visit.
Tellingly, my Australian father-in-law built a sprawling, aircraft hangar-style shed for his cars and motorbikes before he constructed his new house – the Mustang and the Norton got priority over the bedroom and kitchen. If I wanted to walk to the shops from my house, however, I’d have to contend with the fact there was no actual footpath. And any attempt to catch a bus or train in Geelong, Victoria’s second city, was a laughably futile exercise.
It’s unlikely that public transport in Victoria will see any revamp in the foreseeable future given the Melbourne east west road link, unveiled yesterday, is likely to cost $8bn, leaving very little cash for trains and buses. The massive new toll road, aimed at relieving road congestion, will see 92 houses demolished and half of Royal Park, one of Melbourne’s key inner city green spaces, dug up.
Legal action from outraged residents has already been threatened. "We can protest, and I intend to do all I can against it," said Collingwood resident Helen Bonanno, who is set to lose her home of 24 years.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Tony Abbott, who has ruled out rail funding in favour of roads should he win power, today pledged $6.7 bn to upgrade the Bruce Highway in Queensland. The rule of the car is such that proposing spending more on two individual roads than the entire national Gonski education reform barely raises an eyebrow.
It’s fairly obvious where this kind of money could be spent: on public transport, even if Australia doesn’t build the inter-city high speed rail that most other advanced nations take for granted.
Melbourne, for example, doesn’t have a train service to and from its airport. Visitors new to the city have to negotiate a bus or taxi, as well as the woefully inadequate Myki ticketing system, which charges you $6 for a plastic card which you then have to add funds onto at a random selection of 7/11 outlets and stations, rather than on trams, trains or at stops. Of all the things I expected to miss from London, I didn’t think the admittedly wonderful Oyster card was going to be one of them.
Only a third of Melbourne is reached by train, a quarter by tram. Signalling problems and incomprehensible route planners abound. The story is same across Australia - the public regularly calls out for better public transport but is given more roads instead – often increasing the congestion instead of alleviating it.
“If you sow roads, you harvest traffic,” says Dr John Stone, transport specialist at the University of Melbourne. “It’s clear in Australia and around the world that when you build more roads, you get more congestion. And when you stop spending on public transport, you double the problem.”
Proponents of roads claim that Australian cities simply aren’t like London or Paris. People don’t live in high-density here, they argue, so they don’t need trains, trams and ferries. But, as Stone points out, even if you accept the vision of Australia’s cities as expansive, loose-knit suburbs, you can still put a decent bus service in place.
“There’s lots we can do without having to bulldoze everything first,” he said. “Look at London. It said ‘to be a global city, we have to get public transport right.’ And it did. People go there and elsewhere in Europe and come back here and ask ‘why can’t it be like that here?’”
But the cult of the car is entrenched. Our cities have been built at the altar of car use for the past 50 years, with post-war planning policy shunning run-down public transport in favour of the bracing liberation of the motor vehicle. It’s a trend that’s accelerating. There are 53% more car drivers in Sydney than there were in 1976. In Melbourne, the figure is 66%. In all, four million cars a day trundle along our vast, multi-lane roads to get to work.
“I certainly don’t want us turning into a Los Angeles-style car environment,” said Jackie Fristacky, mayor of the City of Yarra council, which is vigorously campaigning against the east west link. “Each train takes around 800 cars off the road, but what we’re getting is another new road. The whole vision is topsy turvey. I’ve seen people in tears at the idea of having their houses demolished. What kind of city are we really building here?”