As Melburnians get back on the road, experts predict traffic could rebound to worse than pre-COVID levels. How can we avoid a road congestion crisis?
By Peter Barrett
Remember traffic? As Victorians enjoy the first weeks of easing restrictions it turns out there is good and bad news. First the good. A recent Monash University study found that as more and more people work from home, one in five white-collar workers will stop travelling into Melbourne’s CBD.
The bad news is nine per cent of the state’s public transport commuters are likely to switch to cars, raising the prospect of CBD gridlock.
It’s a problem around the world. In Beijing peak-hour congestion returned at heavier levels than in pre-COVID times as the city emerged from lockdown and many other Asian cities reported huge spikes in air pollution post lockdown.
Back in Melbourne, the Monash study’s lead researcher Professor Graham Currie has said a decline in public transport use combined with an upsurge in commuting by car would lead to more and different congestion hotspots. “Crowding and infection fear are now major concerns for users,” he says.
In June the Victorian government announced a $340 million package to deal with the looming traffic challenge of 20,000 extra cars on the roads, including installing 700 CCTV cameras to identify bottlenecks as soon as they start and more than 200 wireless travel-time sensors. Meanwhile some business leaders have called for giant parking lots to be built on the CBD fringe to cope with the traffic influx.
A decline in public transport use combined with an upsurge in commuting by car would lead to more and different congestion hotspots.
But RACV’s senior manager for transport, Peter Kartsidimas, says there’s “no silver bullet”. He says with average car-occupancy rates of just over one person per vehicle in Melbourne, the mega car-park idea doesn’t stack up. “If you have 2000 car parking spaces and only 2000 people parking their cars there that’s not really moving many people. You need a lot of land for that and one car with one person in it can take up a lot of space.”
So what else could we do to avert a congestion crisis? We asked some of the brightest minds working on the issue for their big ideas to keep the city moving.
Big ideas for avoiding car chaos
The idea: Reduce demand
The expert: Professor Hai L. Vu
Expert in transport modelling and intelligent transport systems, Monash University
Professor Vu believes the answer to averting Melbourne’s looming congestion crisis lies in reducing demand on our roads, rather than changing the roads themselves. He says while there may be some wins from better managing the existing road network, through mechanisms such as variable speed limits, ramp metering and improved smart traffic signals that maximise traffic flow, significant gains are unlikely.
“We need to look at how we can better manage the demand,” he says. Aside from drastic levers, such as congestion pricing, where drivers would pay a levy to enter the CBD and other congested areas (something London has been doing for years and brought back recently), there are other ways to control demand. One is to spread peak hours by staggering workdays, so office workers commute to the city on alternating days. This has been trialled with some success in Bogota, Colombia, where they have also experimented with different opening times for different industries (10am for construction, 12pm for retail and so on).
“We’re also talking about enabling people to work more from home and potentially we could also think about how to increase the average occupancy for vehicles on the road,” Professor Vu says.
To do this we could create more separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOVs) for vehicles with multiple passengers and use technology to enforce it. In the US several states are already using ‘HOT lanes’ (high-occupancy toll lanes) where certain vehicles are exempt from tolls or charged according to congestion conditions.
Tantalisingly, if we simply doubled the current average vehicle-occupancy rates – say to two people per vehicle – we could halve the number of cars on the road. Unfortunately, the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 presents problems for ride-sharing and car-pooling. “We need to be thinking about innovative ways to do that,” says Professor Vu. “For example, perhaps people within the same household or office should try car-pooling as much as they can.” In order to encourage this, he suggests businesses or governments could provide free or discounted car-parking spaces specifically for car-pooling drivers.
The idea: Digitise the kerb
The expert: Timothy Papandreou
Founder of Emerging Transport Advisors and expert on disruptive transport technologies
Imagine a city without parking meters, where most people no longer own cars. Instead, you choose whatever form of transport best suits your needs at the time, whether it’s ride-share, driverless car, bicycle, e-scooter, public transport, taxi or on foot. A ‘mobility wallet’ on your smartphone instantly calculates how many universal transport credits you need to pay based on the time, location, size of vehicle, type of trip, type of task being performed and any other relevant social factors, such as disability or concession status. A cashless payment is deducted once you complete the trip, using your geo-located smart device.
It’s called ‘digitising the kerb’, a way of building a transport marketplace between users and digitally mapped streets and, for Melbourne-born San Francisco-based transport adviser Timothy Papandreou it’s an inevitable (and exciting) future.
As fossil fuel-powered cars give way to electric and autonomous vehicles, governments will no longer be able to extract taxes at the petrol pump to pay for roads. But charging users for individual trips in an integrated system that includes all modes of transport would allow governments to extract the revenue they need to reinvest in the network and, at the same time, encourage desirable, congestion-busting behaviours.
For example, during peak times prime kerbside parking spots (known as pick-ups and drop-offs in the new system) could attract high charges for non-commercial vehicles and vice versa. “The system will charge you the lowest possible price to ensure free movement because we as a society have placed a value on movement.”
In this futuristic transport world people could earn credits by walking or cycling and then use those credits later to pay for a trip on another mode, such as a train or a private-vehicle trip.
Futuristic as it sounds, digital-kerb pilot programs are already underway in Washington DC, Columbus, Omaha, Nashville and Aspen and many cities are expected to start implementing their own systems over the next decade, says Timothy. “We have to price our transport system so that we discourage behaviours that negatively impact [it] and our economy,” he says. In fact he believes that in a monocentric city like Melbourne, where movement funnels into a central hub (in our case the CBD), some form of road pricing (where people are charged to drive on certain roads at certain times) is inevitable.
The expert: Stephen Hodge
Former competitive cyclist and spokesman for national bicycle advocacy foundation We Ride Australia
In a congested, ‘new-normal’ pandemic Melbourne, essential workers and those who travel long distances must be given priority access to road and rail networks. That means anyone who can use alternative forms of transport should be encouraged to do so. And the one area that most transport experts agree can pay significant (and quick) anti-congestion dividends is cycling.
According to Stephen Hodge, just over 41,000 Melburnians ride to work on an average weekday and more than a million drive a car. However, modelling commissioned by We Ride suggests that to maintain COVID-19 safe distancing on public transport, an additional 54,000 people would need to travel an average of five kilometres to work by bike.
“This requires more connected, separated bikeways,” says Stephen, adding that high cycling rates, such as those in the Netherlands, where 27 per cent of all trips are by bike, only happen because people feel safe. “They ensure there are separated, connected bikeways for any road with a speed limit of 50kmh or greater. They only have bikes sharing the road space with cars when the limit is 30kmh.”
A recent VicHealth study revealed two in three Victorians would ride more if bike lanes were separated from the road. In October the government announced a $13 million plan for 100 kilometres of new and upgraded cycling routes and pop-up bike lanes across inner-Melbourne suburbs including Footscray, Northcote and St Kilda. Still, that’s a drop in the ocean compared with the UK’s £2 billion investment in cycling and walking at the centre of its own pandemic-prompted cycling plan, which also includes doctors ‘prescribing’ cycling to their patients.
Stephen says pop-up separated bike paths, commonly made from quickly applied road dividers that give a strong visual cue without using heavy materials such as cement, are a fast and cost-effective solution that not only allow commuters to experience stress-free cycling, but also deliver well-recognised health benefits.