13.3.08

Melbourne CBD, its close neighbours and its greater rest: a question about public transport, equity and urban quality

The following notes were written for the presentation delivered at the Sustainable Living Festival, under the title of Sustainable Transport – Visions for Victoria in 2010. It contains all what I didn’t say and some bits of what I actually spoke about. Public transport is an ongoing issue for cities in Australia and it is one that we hope will drive all the professions of the built environment to jointly address it as a critical urban issue. I would appreciate comments or questions that could assist to further develop these ideas.


Melbourne CBD, its close neighbours and its greater rest: a question about public transport, equity and urban quality

Melbourne is a city fractioned not only spatially but also in our perception of what Melbourne involves. Think for a moment about the dichotomy between the notions of ‘city’ and suburbs as opposed to city and its centre—the first referring to what the city is and the suburbs are not, with the latter referring to an entire city with a centre. This fractioned notion of Melbourne coincides—whether by mere chance or design—with the delimitations defined the extent of its public transport. Quality public transport means a transport service that offers at least two reliable transport modes (underground, buses, perhaps although less efficient for a large metropolis, trains and trams), frequent, direct, affordable, available day and night (including weekends) and accessible by a five minutes walk.

When we think of Melbourne, we tend to think of the CBD (central business district), and areas such as Richmond, Prahran, Fitzroy, Brunswick…. What all these areas have in common is that they display the best in urban qualities. There is an energy due to the multiplicity of activities, (universities, work, commerce, markets, services, schools and child care centres, proximity to hospitals, amenities, entertainment)—all relatively close by, and accessible by a variety of means: bicycle, tram, buses, train, walking. Most would agree that these conditions are optimal—the property market agrees too, tagging properties in these areas the highest. So, do the above mentioned areas represent Melbourne, or is this idea a misconception? Perhaps these areas represent only half of Melbourne or a third of Melbourne—and that would be serious, because the rest is not like what I have just described. Are these areas just one tenth of the real Melbourne? No, unfortunately Melbourne’s CBD, Richmond, Prahran, Fitzroy, Brunswick…. represent only one 20th of Melbourne—let’s say one 15th for good measure. The rest—the large majority of suburbs—in different degrees, do not enjoy closeness to amenities and services, multiplicity of activities, diversity of people and culture. Nor do these suburbs of Melbourne enjoy public transport choices, often no public transport at all.

Whereas wealth and heritage assist some suburbs to foster an urban character of their own (for example Malvern, Surrey Hills or Heidelberg), the ‘rest’, is defined by what is left when major road connectors, freeways and ‘one mile’ warehouse shopping strips (with their equally large street level carparks) are accommodated. Add some pieces of bushland reserves and this is the real Melbourne where most people live. The city’s centre, the CBD and surrounding suburbs, makes Melbourne a quality city, but metropolitan Melbourne involves places as far as St Albans, Laverton, -Cranbourne and Craigieburn. The lack of connectivity between periphery and centre or around its periphery, casts a question regarding Melbourne’s equity in the distribution of services and amenity. The following example illustrates how access to public transport affects people in different urban areas: a household in inner Melbourne, or the City of Yarra, will undertake and average of 5.4 walk trips per day. However, a household in Wyndham or Melton will undertake an average of 1.9 walk trips per day. For those not familiar with Melbourne suburbs, Melton and Wyndham are further away form Melbourne CBD.[1]

The role that public transport has in reducing or increasing the social exclusion is well documented, not least by Dr Jane Stanley who presented at Architects for Peace 2007 forum, Transported.[2] The following statement shows that the government is also well aware of the social inequity resulting from this situation.
Limited public transport services have the most impact on communities that are experiencing a range of other disadvantages, such as higher unemployment and reliance on social services. Lack of transport services can exacerbate isolation and limit access to opportunities.[3] At a risk of repeating what you may already know, walking patterns have health, economic, social and urban consequences. Car dependency makes people walk less, makes the viability of corner shops almost impossible (for example try to find a corner shop in new developments such as Caroline Springs where people drive to the supermarket, drive children to schools etc). It makes the streets more deserted, so the perception of danger increases. Suburbs not serviced by quality public transport, no matter how neat and manicured they may be (or how many awards the developers may accumulate for their landscaping), are no longer the pedestrian domains but the domain of the car. Subsequently, houses begin to turn their backs toward the roads. In roads with heavier traffic, large warehouse style businesses settle in. We have the McDonalds in one corner and KFC in the other—repeating regularly across Melbourne’s suburbs—perhaps this is the real Melbourne. Is this the fault of these businesses, the housing industry, or is this a problem with our government, at all levels?

Somewhere in Melbourne's periphery, the landscaped desolated streets.

There is no doubt that increase density justifies and assists the delivery of transport services, but what comes first? Housing—naturally, organically and as experience demonstrates—congregates and increase in density close to where good transport services are provided. It is therefore misleading to place the responsibility of opting for denser housing options and use of public transport services on people. People cannot opt for an underdeveloped transport service, nor can they (us) be expected to opt for density, if this does not deliver the advantages those denser areas around the CBD enjoy—human urban scale, comparatively good public transport, multiplicity of services and amenities. I suggest that it is time to cease shifting the responsibility on individual citizens and to lobby the government (or work with the government), to implement changes that will radically transform our underdeveloped public transport—only governments can do this. Half measures are domed to fail. The public will not opt for public transport when they become more educated on the ecological advantages of it, but when in practice it proves useful. For decades the public in Stockholm, Santiago in Chile, Vancouver, Barcelona and many other cities, has not failed to recognise the advantage offered by their public transport, and this has not been due to their knowledge on sustainable options—although this of course can augment the interest.


On the outskirts of Stockholm, bus and metro services.

These days some councils in the outskirts of Melbourne are also embarking on large and ambitious urban projects, some do better than others, but the challenge is how to build ‘city’ rather than a series of disconnected urban events. Building city relies on overlapping and interaction, movement and connectivity in a manner that is ecologically and socially responsible. Transport in this sense must allow multiple options, multiple ways of living and different living aspirations. For example, access to public transport in the outskirts of Melbourne should provide everyone, including the teenager and the elderly citizen with the options to come and go to anywhere in the city anytime, any day with a maximum waiting time of five minutes, with a maximum walking distance to transport services of 5 minutes walking, and at an affordable cost. Most cities within rich nations have this, why can’t Melbourne have this? Why can each city and town in Victoria be connected by a bus service every 5, 10 or 15 minutes? Barcelona has this, Santiago, Berlin, why doesn’t our government see public transport as a priority? Note that all the cities I have mentioned have an element that makes all excuses as to why Melbourne cannot enjoy a quality public transport meaningless. Some of these cities have a similar population (Barcelona, Santiago), some smaller populations (Stockholm), similar density (Vancouver), some are located in poorer countries some in wealthier countries—what all have in common is that they enjoy a cheaper and efficient public transport that involves at least buses, and underground, in some cases also trams, and with waiting times that vary from 90 sec average for the underground to 5 minutes for buses. There are no outdated level crossings, no prescribed times and variable weekdays service.

Melbourne's underdeveloped public transport says much about the will, ideology and priorities of our governments, as about the professionals of the built environment. A few years ago, Donald Schön, discussing the crisis faced by the professions, suggested that professionals pay much attention to problem solving and little attention to understand and identify the nature of the problem.[4] To follow on his example, the problem may not be how to resolve the cost of the freeway, or its look, or whether the level crossing has been nicely landscaped and the handrails comply with the regulations. The question might be whether these ‘solutions’ are providing the answer to our current transport needs or just reinforcing a pattern of obsolete ideas about transport—and it is in this area in which the professionals of the built environment have been complacent.

Governments (at all levels) and professional experts allow important sites within and around the city to be use as carparks—not for public housing, not for clinics or schools, but for carparks. And in the suburbs experts allows the creation of large street level carparks, in other words, large deserts of bitumen and steel. How socially, or environmentally sustainable are these practices? However, we continue to allow financial resources to support these ‘solutions’.

I suggest that we have done well in providing answers to detailed problems set in an already prescribed agenda, but is this agenda addressing the real problem? And what is exactly the nature of the problem? Shouldn’t the urban professions, in the fulfilment of their pledge to the public interest be more pro-active in demanding investment in a real public transport? A public transport that could solve more than a need to get between A and B but that would also assist to diminish our embarrassingly high contribution to greenhouse gases per capita, while adding urban vitality between A and B.

In sum, the professions of the built environment can and should be directly and actively involved on issues that affect the city. Transport is key aspect that defines the quality and health of our urban space.

Cities are complex and rich systems and solutions cannot be approached in an isolated manner. It is essential to understand that public transport play a crucial role in the urban quality of the city, and this responsibility and implications go beyond the realm of what one discipline can do, in this case beyond the realm of traffic engineers. It is essential for the professions of the built environment to work in collaboration. It is also essential for these professions to play an active role and together with the politicians, develop an agenda that is inclusive of all the issues involved. What we would like to see:

Transport is not a traffic issue, it is an urban issue. A collective transport solution that is an integral part of the city, its social, urban and environmental fabric. The quality of the city (the entire city) cannot be separated from the quality of its transport. Good quality urban spaces are not isolated events. They work in connection with its surrounding neighbourhoods and municipalities—together they form the city.

Transport must connect the entire city, be time efficient and affordable. It must run frequently and be available anytime, any day. In a city like Melbourne, transport should not determine the way in which people live, but rather offer people real choices. The public deserves a good collective transport system and the environment cannot afford any less.

We need to find an inclusive a holistic and a collaborative way to address the quality of our cities and with this its transport. Quality depends on approaches that are encompassing of human and non-human beasts, buildings, roads, traffic, vegetations, commerce (of all scales), and services. We hope that government (at all levels) begin to trust the professions and the community, not as recipients of set agendas, but as partners. This requires openness to criticism, openness to question the premises. It requires trust in collaborative processes.

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References:
[1] While this data was obtained in 1999 and things may have changed since, what can be inferred from the information is the correlation between access to public transport and propensity to walk. Refer to Victorian Activity and Travel Survey, “Trip Rates per Household on the Average Weekday by LGA”, RMIT University, 1999. In article by David Sykes, "Vats Has the Facts," Local Connections March 2004.
[2] Refer for example to: John Stanley and Janet Stanley, "Public Transport and Social Exclusion: An Operator's Perspective," No Way to Go 1, no. 1 (2007).
[3] Integrated Transport in Department of Infrastructure. "Melbourne 2030: Planning for Sustainable Growth - October 2002." (Place Published: Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment Melbourne, 2003), http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/melbourne2030online/downloads/2030_complete.pdf.
[4] See Donald A. Schön, The Design Studio : An Exploration of Its Traditions and Potentials, Architecture and the Higher Learning. (London: RIBA Publications for RIBA Building Industry Trust, 1985).

* Note that the public transport in Santiago has undergone an extremely difficult period under the new TranSantiago. Much remains to be said about this bold move, but this belong to another discussion...perhaps somewhere under the role of the 'experts'.

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