Trip to Melbourne

Posted on August 21, 2011 by

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I thought I would finally get around to providing a bit of comment on a recent trip to Melbourne, from which I returned a couple of weeks ago. I was in Australia mainly to see friends and family, but thought that while I was there I may as well check out some of the transport and urban development highlights as well. So what can Melbourne, with an overall population of almost 4 million, offer in the way of ideas for Christchurch, a city that can claim a little over 400,000 people if it stretches its arms wide enough? Well, the difference in size does not mean we can’t look to Melbourne for ideas, despite what some people might say. Just because a city is bigger, does not mean we can’t learn some lessons. Sure, I am not about to suggest we look at an underground railway through the rebuilt CBD, but there is plenty of stuff there that is applicable to the Christchurch situation. It also pays to keep in mind what we are aiming for here; are we trying to develop ideas and plans for a city of 400,000, or are we looking toward the long-term and planning for a future city of 700,000-1 million? If we aren’t doing the later, we may as well not bother.

The first thing that struck me about Melbourne was the mix of development in the inner-city and inner suburbs. The CBD seems to be a place that is home to a real mix of businesses, people, and entertainment and it all seems to work very well. It was busy and had quite a cosmopolitan vibe – people going to and from work and home, and people coming in to go to restaurants, cafes, bars, and events. The space also seemed quite intimate. Arriving at Flinders Street station or on the tram it was very easy to get around the inner-city on foot, and it felt like it had a ‘human’ scale to it. For places that were just a bit too far the free and frequent city circle tram was always available.

The city circle tram I found useful, and interesting. Useful because it allowed me to cross the city easily (and free) and interesting because it was an eye opener to what we could have achieved, and still could achieve, with the heritage tram in Christchurch. If the Christchurch tram was cheap, or free (wishful thinking), it really could be a great way to link different precincts in the city. I now see how it might have provided a more useful service, linking Cathedral Square with the cultural precinct. If it was cheap, I know I would have used it from time to time and so too would other locals, and certainly many more visitors. Now with the extensions, it will also link the main shopping and entertainment precincts to Cathedral Square. Given that we now know Cathedral Square will remain the heart of the city, Cashel Mall will be reopened and rebuilt, and the south-east lanes area will likely remain an entertainment precinct it seems like the Melbourne city circle tram example is one we should look to emulate, even if it is integrated into the bus system fare wise.

I used Melbourne’s tram system a few times, including both the more traditional lines and the St Kilda line which is on a former railway right-of-way. The later was interesting because it gave some idea of how a tram-train might look and feel like in Christchurch. At both ends of the St Kilda line the tram runs on the street, sometimes in traffic and sometimes segregated. In between the tram utilises the old St Kilda railway line. Travelling along it helped give me a good impression of what it might be like to catch a tram in Christchurch’s central city and head to Lyttelton, first along city streets to Moorhouse Ave and then along the railway line to Lyttelton. The tram stop I caught the tram from in Melbourne was more like a railway station platform even though it was on the street and not in the old railway corridor. It almost goes without saying but when I arrived in St Kilda it was all people, vibrant street scene and cool cafes and bars. On a Sunday evening too.

One thing I have always thought is that the age of the old-school type tram system is largely over. However, you could not help but look at the Melbourne trams with admiration, they certainly contribute much to the ambiance of the city. Even where trams were running in traffic for great distances it somehow seemed better than catching a bus. Somehow trams seem to integrate with the street better; buses by contrast seem to be too big and out of scale. I don’t really know what to take from that, other than trams/light rail work in terms of creating a more human space.

In the inner-city of Melbourne the trams were king. Some streets were largely pedestrianised with the tram tracks running down them. The tram stops here were quite impressive, and as I mentioned elsewhere, being almost like a railway station. I felt this gave a pretty good indication of what we could achieve with light rail in Christchurch, particularly in the central city and possibly in some suburban centres such as Riccarton where space is at a premium. Anyway, it all seemed perfectly safe, useful and it looked good.

Another concept of much interest I found was the bike hire scheme (see picture below). As long as such a scheme in Christchurch was cheap (or free!) I think it would be a huge success. Make it so you can use the metrocard to pay and you are on to a winner (unless it is free, then you are really on to a winner!). One thing I think we could consider, and I am courting controversy here, is doing away with helmet laws in the central city. Sounds crazy, but lets consider a few things for a moment. The easier you make it for people to use bicycles the more they will use it. The future central city is also likely to be a slow zone for car traffic with priority for pedestrians and cyclists. Do we still need to require people to wear a helmet in this zone? I think it is a controversial subject worth exploring.

I found Melbourne’s railway system to be kind of interesting. There isn’t much Christchurch could learn from it, given that even if we developed heavy rail we would never have a comparable system. However,  it is worth pointing out that it is the dominant form of public transport in Melbourne, despite the fame of the trams. What this says to me, and how it applies to Christchurch, is that light rail is going to be most useful if it has its own right of way as much as possible. This is perhaps why I have been surprised that utilising the railway corridors was not a more substantial part of the draft Central City Plan. While I am not saying we should spend several billion dollars building new heavy rail lines, I am saying that the overriding priority should be to ensure light rail is segregated as much as possible. That might be hard to achieve in some places, particularly through areas like Riccarton, but we won’t know how it might be achieved until further details on the proposed central city to university line are released, and that is not likely to be until next year at least.

After Melbourne I headed off to Brisbane, a city I have always had mixed feelings about. While I find some aspects of Brisbane really good the city is really a great example of what happens when you allow an urban area to develop almost unchecked. My Dad lives in Brisbane and where he lives is a colossal distance from anywhere of interest. You basically need a car in most places, even to get to high quality public transport. It has simply just spread out so much. A lot of what they have done I think we should avoid (I wish I had my camera with me when I was there to illustrate some of this – next time!). Some of the more positive aspects are the Queen Street mall and some of the bus infrastructure. However, travelling on the south-east busway did make me wonder why it wasn’t built as a heavy rail or light rail line. It must have been very expensive to build too as it is a substantial piece of infrastructure.

All up it was an interesting trip. I found Melbourne to be a place that sets some great examples on how to redevelop your CBD and on how to integrate land use with public transport. They must be doing something right, so it certainly makes sense to pay attention.

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