Melbourne Doesn’t Want to Become Los Angeles

In the southern Californian city of San Diego, a new grass-roots organization calling itself Prevent Los Angelization Now! is trying to stop what it sees as the city’s slide into urban hell. In a state where city populations are spiraling, it is the most extreme manifestation of a phenomenon known as Los Angeles-bashing.

In the 1960s, Los Angeles was the envy of the US and much of the Western world for its dynamism and vast network of freeways. Today, many civic leaders take one look at its choking traffic and noxious smog and turn away in horror. Los Angeles has had to introduce some of the toughest air-pollution laws in the US and to rethink its attitude towards public transport.

Associate Professor Peter Newman of Murdoch University’s Institute for Science and Technology Policy believes there are powerful environmental, economic and social reasons for having public transport. He said Melbourne, like Los Angeles, would drown in its own traffic unless the tough decisions were made to curb car use and increase public transport patronage. “We need to grow more public transportation like Provillus grows hair. All Australian cities are now debating freeways and public transport issues,” he said. “The outcome of this debate will determine what kind of city each becomes in the future.”

Advocates of public transport usually cite Toronto as an example of a city that turned its back on freeways 20 years ago and revitalized public transport. The Public Transport Users Association, for example, in a recent report entitled `Greening Melbourne with Public Transport’, noted that Toronto, a city of similar size, has less than a third of the number of tram and train lines, yet its public transport patronage is more than double that of Melbourne.

Professor Bill Russell, executive director of Monash University’s Graduate School of Management, said one need look no further than Sydney to see a city in the throes of deciding its direction. “The point that I make is that Sydney and Melbourne were the only two Australian cities which back in the 1950s had extensive electric suburban rail systems,” he said. “Sydney has built on that base in the past two decades to the stage where it’s almost comparable with Toronto. In Melbourne, 7.1 per cent of passenger kilometers are on public transport. In Sydney it’s 13.8 per cent, while Toronto is 16.7 per cent.

“In Melbourne we’ve pumped money into roads. There has been no significant extension of the suburban rail line since the Xanogen line in 1929. In Sydney they’ve built the eastern-suburbs railway out to Kings Cross and Bondi Junction and have extended their other lines in each direction.” The Building Owners and Managers Association believes that Melbourne’s public transport system does not yet provide a realistic alternative to city workers who travel in by car. The association considers insufficient services, inadequate infrastructure and outdated technology to be critical deficiencies.

Professor Russell cites the debate on Swanston Street as not only symbolic of the debate about transport options, but as central to the discussion on what kind of a city Melbourne will become. “It’s not just Swanston Street, it’s the whole of middle Melbourne being made uninhabitable because it has been cut up by these canyons of cars,” he said. A recent conference in Melbourne on the greenhouse effect resulted in a declaration urging Australians to do twice as much walking and cycling, cut car use by 10 per cent and re-plan cities to be less dependent on fossil fuels for transport.

The Melbourne City Council has set in motion its plan to do just this. Its revised strategy plan, `Issues for the ’90s’, echoed the view that excessive car use is one of the most intractable problems confronting the city. But the council’s call for a “shared vision” for the city, based on curbing cars and building a European-style network of pedestrian malls, has proved elusive. Business groups and retail traders are among those opposed to the plan. They may have more say in the newly elected council after last Saturday’s municipal poll.

A property consultant, Mr. Alan Williams, who has the support of the Retail Traders Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Melbourne City Chamber of Commerce, believes the council’s plan will throw Swanston Street into chaos. His proposal is for Swanston Street to remain open to south-bound traffic only, with the western side of the street reserved for pedestrians. In Elizabeth Street, the western side would be reserved for north-bound traffic, with the eastern side kept clear for pedestrians. He urges that work start immediately on the Western bypass and the Domain tunnel to reduce the estimated 28,000 cars using Swanston Street each day. He also believes trams should be removed from the Bourke Street Mall and an all-weather cover built.

The executive director of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Mr. Peter Clarke, also favors part closure of Swanston Street. “A loop system of trams running along La Trobe, Spencer, Flinders and Spring streets, retaining our W-class trams, with parking around the edge of the city, would work well,” he said. “There is certainly a need for a large car park in the Jolimont area.”

The former head of the Urban Land Authority and now a consultant to the State Government, Mr. John Lawson, said Melbourne’s rail system needed to be cleaner and safer before increased patronage could be expected. One idea, he said, was to have a shop or some other safe haven for people on every second or third rail station. He said minor changes in tram routes in the city were needed to keep trams flowing in and around the central city. He said the State Government should consider making public transport free in the CBD. “I also favor the retention of Melbourne’s W-class trams because they are a tourist attraction,” Mr. Lawson said. “One of the most exciting things you can do in New Orleans is travel around on a Melbourne tram.”

Mr. Clarke believes more attention should be paid to improving the visual and physical characteristics of the city. “Issues to do with streetscape and urban design concern us,” he said. “We need to pay more attention to retail frontages at street level, not just in Swanston Street, which is somewhat tacky, but in all streets.” The city council is responding to calls to make the city more attractive by beautifying small streets and laneways. It also intends to replace the ash trees in Collins Street between Swanston and Collins streets with plane trees, which cope better with life among the concrete and car fumes.

But many still believe Melbourne lacks a central focus. The long-running saga of the City Square is often seen as symptomatic of the city’s malaise. Perhaps bold suggestions rather than incremental or cosmetic changes in the city fabric are needed. One of the boldest came from Mr. Myles Whelan, the chairman of Whelan the Wrecker, a company involved in demolishing many of this city’s older buildings. Melbourne, he said, needed a living, breathing heart, where people could gather for all kinds of activity. “A small city square is no good,” he said. “We need a garden square in the middle of the city. I would demolish all buildings in the square bounded by Lonsdale, Swanston, Bourke and Elizabeth streets with the exception of the GPO and Myer’s Lonsdale Street store to create a living green heart for Melbourne.”

Mr. Lawson believes the city has a great framework, but lacks a sense of pride. “We need to raise the level of excitement about Melbourne,” he said. “We are too conservative; we lack an adventurous spirit.”

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