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Last Saturday, as I desperately tried to find a less-congested route back from Glen Iris to Thornbury, following my son’s cricket match, I cursed roads and cars and Christmas and the ubiquitous pre-Christmas roadworks, and roads and cars and Christmas. Most of all I cursed the fact that Melbourne is no longer all that liveable or likeable, and that once-in-a-blue-moon car trips to slightly out of the way suburbs for things like cricket matches have become teeth-grittingly stressful, which just shouldn’t be the case.

From Glen Iris to Thornbury (roughly 18kms) took an hour and a half and, by the time I pulled into the driveway at home, I was a road-raging mess. (Having driven for that amount of time I should have been sitting in a beer garden in country Victoria, enjoying the sunshine and sipping a Sauvignon Blanc.) How do people do this every day, I ask myself. And millions of people across Melbourne do it every day, twice, in traffic many, many times worse than that of a Saturday lunchtime.

Oddly, three things have converged in a timely manner in the past 10 days. First, Andrew Lang sent me a piece on Melbourne’s dire lack of public transport infrastructure and investment, comparing the ‘world’s most liveable city’ to some far more liveable and sustainable European cities. Second, I sat in traffic for an hour and a half on Saturday pondering a life spent in Thornbury, rarely venturing east, west or across the river – Melbourne reduced to a series of isolated enclaves, in other words. And finally, there’s a Community Rally, this Sunday December 15th, demanding better public transport and protesting the proposed East-West Link. If you claim to love Melbourne, for all its many charms, you really should attend this rally.

09traffic-420x0Today saw the release of a secret report into the East-West Link and its associated tunnels, which confirms what most already knew: it’s a really expensive, short-sighted and counter-intuitive plan that will only serve to increase Melbourne’s traffic congestion. In the essay below, Andrew draws attention to what lies ahead for this once liveable city. Unless, of course, a concerted effort is made to halt the decline and common sense takes the place of political expediency and short-term gain.

Taking a long, hard look at Melbourne

Andrew Lang

Nearly 75% of Victorians live in Melbourne’s greater metropolitan area, about 3.9 million out of the total 5.3 million. We rarely question this situation – where Melbourne is home to the great bulk of the state’s residents – and even though it has been the case since the 1870s, it is no longer a necessary, desirable or economically workable situation.

Some years ago, the Melbourne 2030 plan was altered, so another 45,000 ha of surrounding land was opened up to subdivision, creating a new outer ring of suburbs (many of them encroaching on Melbourne’s food belt). The usual arguments were produced – that it’s the Australian family’s dream to own their own house; that the city needs to grow in population to grow economically, etc, etc, etc. But if the city’s present rate of growth is to continue, Melbourne’s population is forecast to be over six million by 2030, and to be nearly double today’s figure by 2050, at over seven million.

melb12_mapGreater Melbourne now occupies an area of about 2490 square kilometres, meaning there are about 1566 people every square kilometre. There are three issues with Melbourne’s size and its development plans (or what pass for plans). The first is how to freeze population growth in a city that already struggles to provide adequate water, electricity and community services. The second is that the energy use per capita is already up to double that of most cities in Europe. The third is that Melbourne’s population is already disproportionately large in relation to the state’s population. Most European countries of approximately similar population or area have less than a half of that population living in the capital, and usually less than a third.

Copenhagen usually rates within the top five of the world’s most liveable cities, a title Melbourne also aspires to and trots out as a selling point with regularity. Denmark has about the same population as Victoria, yet the residents of Copenhagen’s greater metropolitan area total about 1.86 million, or only about a third of the national total. About 1.17 million of these live in the inner 455 km2 of the city at a density of about 2564 per km2.

Melbourne does not compare well with Copenhagen in most aspects, including in terms of access to public transport. While Melbourne is said to have the world’s largest tram network, and has significant rail and bus networks, its residents are addicted to their 3.6 million registered private vehicles and the expanding network of multi-lane freeways built to accommodate them. In the 1940s, up to 25% of the city’s work force used public transport; currently only eight to nine percent of workers train, tram or bus, with the majority of the remainder using private cars for a portion of or all of their trip to work. On top of this, Melbourne’s household energy efficiency, water use and degree of recycling compares badly with similar northern European cities.

Main bike path at Oesterport Railway Station CopenhagenIn stark contrast, about 36% of Copenhagen’s workforce use bicycles for some or all of their trip to work (and for much of their after-hours and weekend transport), and the target for the city administration is that this figure increases to 50% by 2015. Approximately another third use the subway, trains and buses. Municipal and industrial waste that can’t be recycled is mainly used for energy, usually as fuel for district heating plants. Denmark has invested heavily in renewable energy since the early 1980s, particularly in bioenergy and wind. About four percent of Copenhagen’s electricity comes from the Mittelgrund wind farm, just offshore from Copenhagen harbour. Denmark’s new wind farms are now sited in shallow waters up to 15km offshore. Wind produces up to 23% of Denmark’s electricity, although only four to five percent of primary energy. About 18-19% of national energy overall is from renewable sources, with the bulk of this as baseload heat and electricity from straw, wood and municipal waste; and wind and heat pumps make up the balance.

Denmark is not alone in this sort of ratio of national population to the capital’s residents. The 769 km2 of Greater Helsinki contains 1.3 million residents, or only a quarter of Finland’s population of 5.3 million. Finland’s population and industry is highly decentralised and is served by an excellent public transport system. Norway is another country with a similar area and population to Victoria, yet Greater Oslo has only 1.4 million residents, about a third of the country’s total.

One less car, Malmoe, SwedenSweden has a population of over nine million in about double the land area of Victoria. Greater metropolitan Stockholm covers about 377 km2 and contains about 1.25 million residents, or about 3315 per km2. As with the other Nordic countries, Sweden’s population is far less centralised than Victoria’s and, while Stockholm, Goteborg and Malmø contain over a third, the rest are spread across the large number of smaller cities and interspersed towns and villages. The frequent and efficient public transport network helps maintain this situation. Renewable energy development policy since the 1980s means the majority of the energy requirements (between 50 and 80%) of Sweden’s towns and cities is produced in local district heating, biogas and combined heat and power (CHP) plants fueled by municipal wastes, forestry residues, and timber processing and agricultural by-products. This reliable transport system and the decentralised, well-educated population has resulted in manufacturing industries and high-technology businesses, including well-known export brands, locating themselves in villages, towns and cities all over the country.

Trains-Not-Toll-RoadsVictoria is Australia’s most urbanised and densely populated state. The examples of these Nordic countries of similar size and/or population indicate that building and maintaining an effective public transport network and developing regional low-emission energy plants are part of sustainable development over the longer term. For Victoria, if this was carried through, it would mean that families, development and industry could move from Melbourne back into the rural cities and towns.

We need to face up to it now. Victoria’s alternatives for Melbourne in 2050 are either a vast sprawling metropolis of seven million, contending with spiraling social, transport, services and energy problems, draining resources and expenditure away from the rest of the state, or Melbourne as one of the world’s more habitable cities, where about four million are living within its current boundaries and the other half of the state’s residents are spread though regional towns, cities and the countryside.

Moreland Says No to EW Tunnel