Investing in Lost Time

Author: Paul van Herk

Congestion is often framed as a crisis of lost time and value caused by the inefficiencies of population growth and poor transport planning. Urban institutions, however, have no choice but to approach congestion as a multiple bottom line investment for which there is no negative value. Activity is good, and too much activity is better—it just needs to be intelligently arranged. Governments, planners, and industry groups also understand that in newly “big” Melbourne, which is facing some newly big challenges, congestion actually represents the best tool they have for making essential cultural shifts around land use, mobility behavior, and density.

Expert input from:

  • Rob Adams, Director of City Design at City of Melbourne

  • Christian Griffith, Strategic Transport Planner & Director at GTA consultants


Introducing Melbourne

Today’s Melbourne is a city blessed and haunted by colonial fruits. Land is abundant, the economy is strong, politics are stable, and cultural histories are diluted. Just now reaching five million inhabitants, the city still regularly appears at the top of urban liveability charts, scoring high on infrastructure, education, and safety. It is relatively wealthy, egalitarian, and diverse, a product of free immigration rather than “transportation.” It first grew from the gold rush, a boom and bust town whose ongoing success was partly earned, partly inherited, and partly stolen. Once called “more British than Britain,” today its off-beat brand of Australiana is infused with European, Asian, and African migrant stories that coalesce with self-conscious nods to LA and London, or New York and Berlin—depending on who you ask.

Melbourne’s places are mostly devoid of its traditional owners—the Woiwurrung- and Boonwurrung-speaking people of the Kulin nation—and their place-making practices. This absence is felt in its own right, as well as via a derivative mainstream culture that yearns for a “home” that could be anywhere but here. This is helped along by consistent immigration that has Melbourne growing faster than most cities in the developed world. It will be Australia’s largest city by 2050.

The city’s footprint is excessive, covering more ground than Moscow or Mexico City, with but a fraction of the population. It is laid out on a generous urban grid, occupying expansive flat plains with rail corridors overlaid radially. Tram lines run along busy commercial “high streets” in the inner suburbs. “End of the line” train stations in the outer suburbs are usually large shopping centers surrounded by volume-builder estates, far from jobs and services: “affordable housing but not affordable living.” You can rightly expect that property values are tightly linked to location.

For every commuter taking public transport in Melbourne, four others will drive, whereas the inverse is true in Moscow and Mexico City. Melbourne is relentlessly suburban and over-provisioned with road infrastructure; its network induces the kind of demand that sees the worst traffic jams occur at the outer fringes rather than in the center. Whatever residents may tell you though, congestion in Melbourne is much less extreme than in larger metropolises, and the continuing dominance of cars is a result of this fact rather than the other way around.


Imperfect yet functional institutions

With relatively functional and well-funded institutions at the state and municipal level, Melbourne represents a good case study to explore how institutions can not just facilitate, but also innovate, cultural change in mobility and land use in a city that has traditionally shied away from radical and complex urbanism. With its industrial Victorian and garden city character, twentieth-century Melbourne was an antithesis to any “culture of congestion,” “Manhattanism,” or 24-hour “event city.” Until the mid-’90s, even the eponymous central business district (CBD) was an empty downtown with daytime office workers and a small Chinatown.

Thirty years later it couldn’t be more different, registering densities as high as Ginza and midtown Manhattan, with the footfall to match. Rob Adams, Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne for the last thirty-five years, is credited with many aspects of this revolution of urban culture in the antipodes. His team’s “Postcode 3000” project succeeded in bringing around-the-clock activity to the CBD by re-zoning old office buildings for residential use, as well as pedestrianizing streets, extending trading hours, and encouraging mixed-use developments.

The results are overwhelming and sometimes confronting, as the quality of development and property speculation has been far from controlled or inclusive. When Adams reflects on the success of Postcode 3000, he wishes there had been more provisions for affordable housing and greater controls on building heights, but would otherwise see the model extended to existing suburban centers in Greater Melbourne. He sees this not only as a viable future, but necessary for the “Melbourne at 8 million” projected by 2050. “Every train station is a potential center,” he says.

It is important to note that Adams’ City of Melbourne (CoM) is only one of thirty-one municipalities that make up Greater Melbourne, varying greatly in physical size though each contains roughly 100,000 to 200,000 residents. These municipalities, or local governments, oversee urban developments like parks, libraries, waste, and building permits. Otherwise, the Victorian State Government (VIC) controls transport and planning for the city at the regional scale. Unlike other Australian capitals, Greater Melbourne dominates the state of Victoria, containing almost 80 percent of the population of a land area roughly the size of the UK.


Conservative policy mechanisms

Despite being responsible for strategic planning policy, the state usually errs towards cultural conservatism when it comes to luring people out of their cars and cul-de-sacs. The Department of Planning and its multiple incarnations in recent governments has tended to prioritize large and highly visible infrastructure projects over incentivizing behavioral shifts like emissions charging. Beyond its own major capital works, the state responds to market-led and municipal proposals through VCAT, the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal. VCAT must interpret planning schemes to evaluate development proposals in an adversarial manner (i.e. they are structured to resolve complaints), as per Anglo-Saxon planning traditions. VCAT makes its decisions on the basis of legal precedents, which is by definition hostile to anything new.

This has been demonstrated well by the Nightingale case in inner suburban Brunswick. The architect-developers proposed a multi-residential development adjacent to a train station. The plans contained no private car parking, although some car-sharing bays were included. The proposal was accepted by the local Moreland government but was later revoked by VCAT when challenged by a neighboring developer. VCAT’s decision was formed effectively on the basis that there was no local precedent for removing parking altogether—but how could there be? Nightingale was trying to do something new here. As strategic transport planner Christian Griffith puts it: “You never have change when VCAT’s institutional remit is to have a proof point before it can make a decision.”

Adams too calls VCAT a “blunt instrument” and claims that a good and comprehensive planning scheme would negate the need for the tribunal to be overly involved with planning decisions in the first place. As he puts it: “VCAT takes on some of the nervousness of state governments, who are thinking about so many other things—the economy, jobs, public opinion, etc. If VCAT is involved, it means that we have failed.”

Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Photo: FiledIMAGE / iStock

Griffith sees evidence of institutional change at VCAT, albeit as a general paradigm shift probably based on international precedent: “Fifteen years ago, the Nightingale case would have been laughed out of the room, and despite the result we got, the fact that it was seriously considered is already a sign of change.” Subsequent Nightingale proposals in different municipalities have in fact been approved without any parking, and sitting VCAT tribunal members have even complimented the timeliness of the proposals on the grounds of reducing traffic congestion and changing lifestyle choices and responsiveness to climate change.

Griffith still laments the fact that there is currently no integrated land use and transport plan for Melbourne. He argues that the planning decisions made between five and six million inhabitants (i.e. now) will determine whether Melbourne will experience intractable socio-economic issues as it moves out of the idealized middle-sized population bracket of the “liveables” and into the “big” bracket of the problematic “loveables.” Intractable congestion problems involve inequality as well as inefficiency, as time spent in transit is often a primary class and opportunity divider.


The congestion we want

Griffith is a director at GTA, a national traffic and transport consultancy that often works with planning institutions. One of its projects is a state development plan for Fisherman’s Bend, the “largest urban renewal project in Australia.” The site is intended to host 80,000 new workers and residents, a massive extension of Melbourne’s CBD on an arm of land between the mouth of Melbourne’s two main rivers, the Yarra and the Maribyrnong. The sprawling maritime site is studded with heavy industry sheds and freight yards owing to its strategic location, but its use-value has been steadily eroding. Before colonization, the different groups of the Kulin nation would gather here for week-long festivals sponsored by the abundant shellfish of the tidal flats, now drained and gone.

Docklands area in Melbourne. Photo: Dutchy / iStock

GTA’s transport report for the zone seeks to take a “lessons learnt” approach from nearby Docklands, which was widely panned as a developer-driven commercial “renewal” that irons out the site’s history while trying to stoke urban vitality through built form alone. From an engineering point of view, Docklands makes all the right moves: wide pedestrian boulevards and large building setbacks, good separated bicycle lanes and strict vehicle controls. These “best practice” moves have failed to introduce the vitality or even commercial viability as seen in the CBD and historic suburbs. The challenge of making new places desirable is an elusive project in a city where land speculation is just as much a part of its DNA.

In a sparse city like Melbourne, it can be just as easy to talk about congestion as a sign of success. At least a certain kind of congestion: Griffith refers to a recent government report on which the first few hundred pages deal only with the definition of the term. He points out the significant difference between traffic coming through and coming to an area, and the idea that if congestion is reduced to a local traffic issue, then it’s a rather opportune one. The report for Fisherman’s Bend recommends initial activity clusters that are inward looking, unique, and as self-serviced as possible, so that they will be destinations as well as dormitories and corridors, eventually growing into one another over time. The nuances of what street spaces can and should be, he argues, are often lost between stated planning objectives and execution. In his own words: “It’s not a binary choice between creating traffic sewers for commuters or closing the street off and lying down in it all day.”


Roads are places too

Why would such an analysis of place be relevant to the way institutions look at congestion, which is often modeled as nodes, flows, blockages, and pinch points? Firstly, congestion is the best indicator of a strong economy of desires which can produce the sort of return on investment that institutions are interested in—and these are not just financial. Secondly, we must understand that from an institutional point of view, roads are places too. The asset value of transport infrastructure in Greater Melbourne (10-15 percent of its area) has been valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars, just by real estate and assets alone without even taking into account its utility value. The “soft” value of streets and roads (as spaces for living and working on and around) is additional to this, so as far as institutions are concerned they form a critical design space.

Adams’ team at the City of Melbourne (CoM) presented a business case to convince the state government to hand over a particularly undervalued piece of road and parking land to the city. The site is adjacent to the historic Queen Victoria Market and the proposal contains affordable housing, child care facilities, and a new park. The CoM’s business case estimated that the increased value of the asset (a bit of asphalt on some extremely expensive real estate) is roughly two orders of magnitude, earning the city an $80 million surplus which could then be used on necessary upgrades to the iconic market itself. This is a public-private partnership which will also turn the developers (CDG and Mirvac) a profit and allow the city to increase its open space provision without buying land that it cannot afford on the open market. The state does not gain anything directly, except that it is responsible for municipal solvency and sees local governments as mutual beneficiaries rather than competitors. For the benefit of the cynics among us, Adams is quick to point out that these win-win outcomes are not at all easily won, and that public-private partnerships vary greatly in their appeal to institutions: too often, heavy infrastructure projects such as the West Gate Tunnel “make companies rich while the public pay for it.”

Photo: ascione / iStock

Griffith is similarly skeptical about the political focus on big infrastructure projects, but more so on the grounds of efficacy. As a transport planner and traffic engineer, he argues that the biggest gains in efficiency are to be made “incrementally across the network, at pinch points and the like,” rather than grand gestures that may not be easily changed to meet changing demands in the future. “I would expect one-hundred $1 million upgrades to go a lot further than one $100 million project.” In other words, the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole when endowed with sufficient existing infrastructure.

Any transport planner will agree that a flexible and comprehensive bus system is the big missed mobility opportunity in Melbourne. Griffith advocates for ditching the circuitous routes and contracts of numerous private operators and rolling out a single system. Adams takes a slightly different tack, suggesting that smaller buses operating on a platform-based system like Uber are the way forward. Born in Zimbabwe, he uses the example of minibuses in Africa that “pick you up where you want to get on and drop you off where you need to go.” Both agree that a granular system is the best solution to get to and across the radial rail networks that move people between outer to inner city in an overly centralized job market. Adams is also a fervent advocate of offsetting the timetables of peak hour travel, and sees the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to trial the benefits of modifying work and study patterns as part of an adaptive urban timetable.


Big incremental changes

There is no simple explanation for the institutional failings involved in Melbourne’s piecemeal suburban bus system, but it is at least partly based on image. The City of Sydney now has a good bus network with a ballooning ridership and satisfaction rate, as well as a transport plan for 2056. In many ways it had no choice—its congestion was reaching critical levels due to its harbor geography and neglect of public transport. Like many cities at the time, Sydney removed and literally burnt all of their tramcars in the early 1960s. First-hand accounts from the time tell us how it was reviled for its slowness and associations with old working class life that people would rather forget. In contrast, the 1960s industrial Melbourne still contained a significant working class and organized labor unions, and partly as a result it still boasts the largest tram network in the world. It is a fine network indeed but it is also the slowest network in the world. The heavy vehicles share roadways with cars and are subject to (and exacerbate) delays. The track and wire infrastructure they use is antiquated and expensive and requires regular replacement. Melburnians, however, it is assumed, will never accept buses as an alternative to the iconic trams, and trackless trams are even being considered for Fisherman’s Bend to keep up appearances. Buses versus trams, of course, need not be an either/or situation, but for governments, now as ever, reorganizing modes and networks is not merely a pragmatic act, but an aspirational one full of sentiment and aesthetic populism. A comprehensive bus network would be cheaper, more flexible, and quicker to roll out, but it wouldn’t be so visible. The more successful it would be, in fact, the more it would disappear.

Adams speaks of his three decades at the City of Melbourne in similar terms, the catch-22 of real impact and perceived impact. He remarks that the many small streetscape improvements that the CoM has executed have had a much larger aggregate effect on urban quality than their flagship projects (his team has received over 160 design awards for parks, precinct upgrades, and municipal buildings). The smaller and more important aggregate interventions present a challenge of exposure: Even to the CoM itself he has to argue on behalf of the design studio which charges separately for its services. Why not go to the private sector and make the most of the competition, they ask? “We benefit from the full knowledge of policy objectives, site history, and maintenance,” he replies. City Design Studio is effectively able to write and complete its own briefs for its own sites, and produce the kind of “lighthouse” precedents that VCAT might require to make forward-thinking decisions elsewhere. Adams’ team has continually demonstrated how public institutions can and should be industry-leading innovators, and not just market regulators.


Institutional problem spaces

Adams has previously made the case for limiting high-density development solely along transport corridors, arguing that “you can actually leave ninety percent of suburbs alone and still get to eight million, and the city will be better for it.” He makes this point with a fairly comical but convincing topographical diagram, not to divide the city into sub-cultures of high street and back street, but to remove the emotional argument latent in the save-our-suburbs movements that often win the day. Recent governments have lost elections over allowing “inappropriate” development in suburbs without clear infrastructure plans. The current state government was elected and re-elected with an overwhelming mandate to spend big on heavy transport upgrades, which includes an A$11 billion metro tunnel under the CBD, and an A$8.3 billion level-crossing separation project on seventy-five intersections across the larger network. These overtly congestion-fighting projects are well underway, and with towering noise-dampening sheds, underpass parks, and Instagram feeds of site works giving them a strong presence in the city, they have become temporary institutions in their own right.

Photo: Katharina13 / iStock

Griffith is a board member of multiple professional and industry advocacy organizations. He speculates that although most of these institutions lean into existing government objectives, the more hard-working advisory bodies such as the Grattan Institute and Infrastructure Victoria do have some impact on state policy when it comes to the “how to” questions. He also notes that the state government is more likely to take advice around election times as development and infrastructure are now a primary issue for many voters. He sees this primacy as a good sign, given that poverty, unemployment, and corruption have all been higher priorities in the past, obscuring the neglect and destruction of existing urban fabrics and ecologies.

Both Adams and Griffith identify a similar institutional problem space that lies beyond thinking about congestion as a frustration of network capacity, and instead thinks about congestion in terms of land use strategy and placemaking. The question they both pose is: How can you make it so that people already are where they want to go, instead of focusing on how to get more people around the network as it stands? “We want to get to the point where we can start talking about congestion as a local issue, and as a positive quality. If jobs and people are stretched across the network, like we have now, then a bigger city will represent a bigger problem,” says Griffith.

What this means, firstly, is making currently transitory neighborhoods more relevant and valuable to those who live nearby. Adams’ team at the City of Melbourne has been doing this for decades, and has radically transformed the urban culture of Melbourne in the process. It still remains to be seen, however, how this will occur in other local government catchments where premium land taxes and revenue from students and tourism are not on their side—and where residents priced out by “placemaking” often retreat to. For most local governments, the definition of the value of placemaking extends well beyond speculative profiteering and egregious outsourcing, but at the same time they must also be able to crunch the numbers and make viable business cases to the state and to investors.


The ultimate policy tool

For such tricky confluence of value and values, congestion is in many ways the ultimate policy tool for institutions. It is an urgent, tangible, and uniting concept: If the public agrees that it is a waste of space and time, then it is anything but. Congestion can be mined as a rich seam of desires around lifestyle, social frisson, and belonging. It can be quantified and also qualified. It also has reflexive and strategic power, firstly where it forces institutional adaptation and requires governments to be more innovative and prescient. In a very short space of time, some of Melbourne’s more conservative institutions have gone from enforcing the car to shunning it, and the state has begun to understand that the potential value of places can far exceed the potential value of vectors and nodes.

Most importantly, congestion lends institutions a clear mandate to themselves institute new cultures of density, mobility behaviors, and responsible land use that have long been thought of as “desirable” and “emergent”—and therefore “optional.” The impetus for higher densities in the middle and outer suburbs, mixed use zoning and pricing incentives for transport, has not and will not come from the bottom up. This once parochial city is becoming “big” as a fire and ash periodically rain down upon its lawns and cricket grounds, and the antipodean myth of quiet progress is eroded by neighboring superpower struggles. For any functional institution, such a confluence of urgencies cannot represent tragedy but rather opportunity, and the frustrations of lost time, productivity, and value as represented by congestion provides them the leverage by which to adapt, innovate, and lead.

Cover image: Sculpture Hotel (2008) by Callum Morton, Eastlink Motorway, Melbourne. Image courtesy of Rory Hyde

Paul van Herk

Paul van Herk is an Australian architect and researcher. He has worked on many public and urban projects in Australia, the USA, Europe, and Africa. He teaches history and design at RMIT University and is an alumnus of Strelka Institute.

The essay is part of the Cultures of Congestion special project by Strelka and ArtRebels.

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