Melbourne’s pedestrian crush

I enjoyed researching and writing this feature for the April-May edition of RoyalAuto magazine (and with great pics by Eamon Gallagher). Having worked in and around Melbourne since the late ’90s I’ve noticed the CBD get increasingly squishy in recent years.

It looks like the City of Melbourne is seriously committed to making things friendlier for bipeds. But will state and federal governments give them the financial support they need?

This story was originally published on 28 March.

It’s 5pm on Collins Street and, like the famous 1955 John Brack painting of that name, a stream of office workers flows towards Spring Street, headed for train, tram and the comforts of home. But this is Melbourne in 2019, so in place of drab ’50s raincoats and gaunt Anglo faces, the procession is more interesting: a woman in a sari, a student in a red polo and backpack, a man in green short sleeves and fancy headphones.

Among the homeward-bound are 26-year-old software engineers Smriti and Anes. Both enjoy the energy of this vibrant, thronging city, but Smriti has a few concerns over this particular intersection at Collins and Spring.

“Sometimes in the mornings it can get too crowded [and] before the signal opens people start running,” she says, gesturing to the corner of the footpath, which narrows considerably as we turn left into Spring Street. “There are a lot of people here. It does get a bit congested.”

In fact, this happens to be one of the eight most “severely overcrowded” pedestrian intersections in the city, according to research commissioned by the City of Melbourne. The lack of footpath real estate is further hindered by a row of junction boxes and other street furniture on the Spring Street corner. Waiting for the lights to change here is not only a congested drag, it’s becoming dangerous.

Central Melbourne is booming. The City of Melbourne estimates there are more than 900,000 people living, working, visiting or studying in the city on an average weekday, up from 680,000 in 2004. That figure is predicted to top 1.4 million in 2036. By 2030, council planners want 30 per cent of all trips to, from and within the municipality to be on foot. That makes one million walking trips per day, two-and-a-half times the current level. How will the city cope?

We now have not got enough space on our pavements for people in the city on busy corners.

At time of writing, City of Melbourne councillors were poised to vote on the Draft Transport Strategy 2019. It comes after the release of eight discussion papers, 1300 submissions and what councillor Nicolas Frances Gilley calls the “most engaged response” to policy the council has ever seen.

Nicolas, who as transport portfolio chair is driving the process, says for the past eight years the council’s view has been to make the city better for pedestrians and cyclists.

“And my conclusion in the last two years,” he says, “is that it’s absolutely a necessity. We now have not got enough space on our pavements for people in the city on busy corners. There are 15,000 pedestrians every hour crossing Spencer and Collins, which is five times the number of people in cars [but] cars have got twice the amount of time to get through.”

It’s clear something has to change. But what exactly is the council contemplating?

To find out, I battle my way through the crowds surging along Swanston Street and head left down Flinders Street to a cafe on Exhibition. En route I pass over Russell Street, which has no dedicated pedestrian crossing to Federation Square on its western side. It’s a detail that doesn’t escape my coffee date, MRCagney transport consultant Karl Baker.

Karl was co-author of a key paper for the City of Melbourne last year entitled Walking, which covers a host of issues, policy ideas and solutions. They range from ‘low-hanging fruit’ such as decluttering footpaths and tinkering with traffic-light times, to removing on-street parking, widening footpaths and even grander schemes, such as Barcelona-style “superblocks” (where nine city blocks are restricted to local traffic at 10kmh) or reducing vehicle speeds to 30kmh across the city.

Other measures might include discouraging through-traffic (which makes up about 30 per cent of CBD vehicle traffic), accessing private and commercial parking to make up for lost on-street parking, and removing motorcycles and pushbikes from footpaths by finding other places for them to park.

What happens if we do nothing? “It’s not like the sky is going to fall in,” says Karl. “People will manage. But the risk is if we continue with the sort of growth that’s been forecast, without providing more space and better conditions for walking, the city centre is going to become a less attractive place for doing business. And that has flow-on effects for productivity.”

For example, analysis done for the City of Melbourne by SGS Economics shows that improving pedestrian networks by just 10 per cent would increase the value of the CBD economy by $2.1 billion. (It’s all to do with creating a business-dense space where people can easily exchange ideas and services, apparently.)

I just don’t see why people need to drive in the CBD unless they are service vehicles or taxis.

High economic stakes indeed. And they haven’t gone unnoticed by Ben Rossiter, executive officer of pedestrian advocacy group Victoria Walks.

While health and safety are key drivers for Ben’s organisation, he argues we can no longer afford to allocate so much road space to vehicles, citing research that shows for every car trip there are 41 walking trips in the CBD. “The number of vehicles coming into the city since 2001 has dropped about 23 per cent and there’s been a 43 per cent increase (in people) coming in,” he says. “Everything is changing, so ‘do-nothing’ is not an option.”

Ben is in favour of expanding footpaths by reducing on-street car parking, dropping speed limits to 30kmh and better using an “oversupply” of residential and commercial parking. “We think all levels of government, including the Feds, need to get together and make this happen more quickly,” he says.

For elderly and frail pedestrians, people with disabilities and those that use mobility devices overly congested footpaths are presenting even more challenges and dangers.

Chris Edwards from Vision Australia is blind and uses a seeing-eye dog to get around. “If I walk around the city on a busy day I could almost guarantee at least one person would bump into me, every time. And it’s always because they’re looking down at their mobile phone.”

And what do the local residents think? Travel writer Tim Richards has lived in the CBD for 16 years. “The footpaths need to be widened,” he says. “I would remove an entire lane on Elizabeth Street on the GPO side and pave that. It’s incredibly cramped and difficult.”

Tim is impressed by European cities that ban cars from their ‘old towns’ and believes a congestion tax would be good here. “I just don’t see why people need to drive in the CBD unless they are service vehicles or taxis.”

It’s too early to say what measures the City of Melbourne will adopt, but nothing will happen without state government support. (There are positive signs with the recent appointment of a City Controller to coordinate ambitious transport works across Melbourne.)

Back at Town Hall, Nicolas Frances Gilley hopes for a transformation of the city in 10 to 15 years. “If we can do this jointly and in sync, the city stands half a chance. If we’re doing it in different directions we will mess it up.”

Live mapping Melbourne’s foot traffic

Melbourne has 57 overhead sensors counting real- time pedestrian movements at key intersections and footpaths around the CBD. Go to the website and you’ll find on-the-hour snapshots of the numbers, including graphics that show average, below average and above average hotspots for walking traffic. You can see the map in action and read more about it at: pedestrian.melbourne.vic.gov.au

The RACV view

The RACV made its position to support a more pedestrian-friendly CBD clear in a submission to the City of Melbourne last year, recognising the growth in pedestrians and supporting ideas to improve walkability. This may involve reducing traffic-signal delays for pedestrians, repurposing on-street parking to provide wider footpaths, bike lanes, tram stops or bus lanes as needed, and clearing footpath ‘clutter’.

A focus on busy intersections and near stations and major tram stops could be beneficial quick wins, says senior planner Stuart Outhred. “The ease of walking in central Melbourne is fundamental to its liveability and the functioning of the economy,” he says.

“Rather than taking the ‘only motor-vehicle movement is important’ approach, we accept that in places like the central city, vehicle access isn’t the only function our streets need to cater for. Driving is important for some, but creating a healthy, liveable, desirable place should be a higher priority. Let’s make it better for everyone.”

The tour guide’s view

Fiona Sweetman, owner Hidden Secrets walking tours

“Too many people, noisy, cluttered – and pushy people.” That’s one message walking tour operator Fiona Sweetman has been hearing from her 10 guides in recent months.

One of about 65 walking/bicycle tour companies in Melbourne, Hidden Secrets Tours was one of the first to share the city’s quieter laneways back in 2004.

Fiona would like to see more places for people to sit and rest, better management of motorbikes parked on footpaths and better-designed access points to public transport.

Ultimately, though, she loves walking in the city for the variance in light (thanks to the city’s interesting mix of building heights), the different street ambiences (some narrow, some wide) and the fact that you can remove yourself from the vehicles and get to where you need to go relatively quickly. “There’s usually always another shortcut,” she laughs. “And I love that you see people. I feel more connected to the city because I’m around people.”

Read the story and see Eamon Gallagher’s photographs on RACV’s website, here.