The East-West Link is dead - a victory for 21st-century thinking

The East-West Link is dead - a victory for 21st-century thinking
The East-West Link is dead - a victory for 21st-century thinking

By Peter Newman, Curtin University.

Labor’s state election victory in Victoria has fatally undermined Melbourne’s most controversial tunnel, the now-doomed East-West Link, with new Premier Daniel Andrews pledging to rip up the contracts for the project.

His decision is a victory for anyone who values 21st-century urban thinking over the outdated car-first mentality.

It’s also a financial relief, because – as the project’s back story shows – the East-West Link was always more about politics than economics.

Courting cars

For many years, the only groups calling for a tunnel to link Melbourne’s Eastern and Citylink freeways were the RAC of Victoria and VicRoads. The problem was that the tunnel never made economic sense when it was just a freight project, yet most attention in the transport planning system was on public transport, where demand was growing rapidly. The East-West tunnel needed a large dose of cars to justify it.

Enter Tony Abbott, who pledged A$1.5 billion before last year’s federal election for the East-West plan, arguing that Australians love their cars and public transport was not in his federal knitting.

The East-West project grew in concept and soon became a massive capital cost, with the price tag for the whole plan, including the western extension to Melbourne’s port, threatening to hit A$10 billion and swamp the transport budget.

Meanwhile, in the waning days of the first Infrastructure Australia (on which I was privileged to serve for four years), it became obvious that the East-West tunnel and Sydney’s WestConnex would never be subject to the scrutiny of our process. They were to be seen as purely political projects and the case for their going ahead would depend on their popularity, not on value for money.

Why tunnelling Melbourne was a bad idea

The old shibboleth that building roads is vital for improving the economy is no longer true. Economic growth has divorced itself from car dependence (my new book with Jeff Kenworthy, The End of Automobile Dependence, traces the fall of the empire of car-based planning).

Growth in the Victorian and Australian economies now depends on the growth in “knowledge economy” jobs. These jobs at the creative, productive, innovative edge of our economy are now firmly enmeshed in the dense centres of our cities.

As the US urban economists Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida have shown, the knowledge economy depends on close interactions between creative people and those who can deliver projects. This work requires intensive spaces in cities, which in turn need intensive modes of transport to enable them. This means that rail, cycling and walking are critical to the knowledge economy. Although heavily into digital communications, knowledge economy workers need face-to-face contact and are now shifting back into central and inner city locations to optimise this process.

In contrast, cars and trucks are dispersive modes of transport, and are needed for the consumption economy. These jobs are important too, but are essentially based in the dispersed spaces of the suburbs. These jobs are not the ones we are seeking as much as those in the knowledge economy, because they do not drive productivity growth as effectively.

It is no wonder that around the world, we are seeing declining car use per capita and growing public transport use, as well as a widespread return to formerly neglected inner cities.

The six most walkable US cities have 38% higher gross domestic product than the national average. Cities now compete on new measures such as walkability and livability. Governments everywhere are aiming to build quality rail projects and make city centres more human in scale. Even Canberra and Paramatta are joining in, as they work out how to build light rail.

Melbourne has one of the most attractive city centres in the world for knowledge economy jobs. It needs to ensure that this is not lost by tipping more cars into its walkable centre. Instead it needs to encourage commuting by rail, bike and on foot.

Change in the air

Victoria’s people have now spoken. The East-West Link will be scrapped, and should be replaced by more sensible transport planning. Melbourne does need to improve east-west access for people and freight, but it should not be beyond us to find some solutions that do not break the bank.

Clearly there are plans for upgrading rail access through several proposed rail projects, including the original Melbourne Metro plan, and the Airport Rail Link. Doncaster Rail should remain on the table, hopefully not for another 100 years, as it is a simple and direct way to move passengers east-west.

The freight system seems to be amenable to much simpler concepts than the East-West Tunnel, like those presented by the Habitat Trust, using several inland rail interchange facilities.

The same principles should lead New South Wales to modify the Connex West project, especially where it spills traffic into Sydney’s central and inner areas. Such traffic “solutions” actually harm the economy of inner urban areas, burying investment opportunities under bitumen for parking and road-widening, and congesting areas that already have too many cars.

The public can sense that we have to update the way we travel and how we build cities so they are not car-dependent. The road-building brigade needs to take a deep breath and see that their plans are old-fashioned. Perhaps the legacy of the East-West Tunnel will be that such projects will never again be foisted on the Australian public.The Conversation

Peter Newman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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bilby
Well, I did say, 'somewhat' mystifying, Riccardo.
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Riccardo's picture
No Bilby my comments are not mystifying, they are clearly and logically presented and consistent with my other views. I was not referring to the election result, but the backlash against Andrews decision. Even if this backlash comes from the 'losing' position, it is still both worrying and wrong. People who ostensibly supported the conservative side of politics they behave irrationally and reject economics, which has been laid out clearly. Even if it is a minority position, that it exists at all and is given any credence suggests democracy has its limits. I'm not interested in your philosophising over non existent people. You cannot ask four million people how to build a city for eight million, and expect them to place any weight on e interests of those who are coming but not yet here. They will only think for themselves. Another limit of so called democracy.
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bilby
Riccardo, your comments are somewhat mystifying. 1. Is it not the case that Labor campaigned against the East-West Link on the basis of its the poor return in the dollar relative to public expenditure? The Greens and others campaigned on broader platforms against it, but they weren't elected to government. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to assume that voters in part accepted this economic reasoning in order to divest themselves of the inordinate costs of building the project compared with the costs of paying compensation. 2. Future voters are a conceptual consideration in a democracy, but, like children, they have no right to vote. Unlike children, however, they don't actually exist, either, so I'm not entirely sure what point you are making here about the 'limits' to democracy. We don't give a voice to every participant in democracy now, presumably because not all participants are capable of taking on the responsibility of voting. So how can can we give democratic voice to those who don't exist? Furthermore, the decisions made now, if they can be said to impact these currently non-existent future citizens, can arguably only do so in a positive way, assuming that they ultimately live lives that are worthwhile overall, since they would not otherwise have existed. This is also known as Derek Parfit's 'Non-Identity Principle'. So, this is not strictly speaking a weakness of democracy. 3. I'm not clear on what you meant here. 4. This seems to be an issue of good / clever political leadership rather than a problem with democratic principles per se. Fortunately, Machiavelli is not incompatible with any particular form of government, including democratic ones, so effective politicians need not build political capital in every arena of civic life in order to master necessary reforms of the state. 5. Democracies are rarely 'ended' but rather killed off, so the 'danger' you describe is very real, but ironically, for the reverse reasons of what you have suggested. Those who cannot be trusted to do a 'good job' in terms of representing people's interests are all too often the same ones who deem themselves justified in taking power by whatever means they can - including by trashing democracy and its ideals. The progress of Weimar Republic in 1920s and '30s Germany makes for an edifying historical account on this score.
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Riccardo's picture
Apologies as people are tired of this topic 1. The current backlash definitely proves that people never accepted economic reason as a basis for making decisions. This in itself is rational as what people are doing is trying to use economic reason to influence their own decisions within their control, but trying to trash government processes to socialise the obvious losses from building EWL to others. Definitely a rational thing to do. 2. It shows the limits to 'democracy' and suggests 'democracy' might have a limited life. One thing that I've noticed is that 'future voters' including those people who don't yet live in Melbourne because they are not born, nor immigrated yet, don't get a say in decisions that clearly will impact them. 3. It is funny that people complain about irrational government approaches to climate change, if only because this is normal in transport policy. Talk any transport topic, you will be talking to people who have drunk plenty of Kool-Aid even in government. 4. George Mega is wrong too - though I respect him for asking the right questions - I don't think the public have ever bought 'reform' and while they acknowledge Hawke and Keating delivered us modern Australia - they never accepted the means and only want the fruits of the end. So government either need sufficient political capital to deliver 'reform' that liberates the economy - or we will need to stop asking the public what they think. 5. But the danger of ending democracy is none of the political actors currently on the scene can be trusted with the job. It is a shame someone like Ken Henry - the Wombat Keeper in Chief - was not given a temporary brief by Rudd to suspend the legal system and run the country directly as he seemed to have the right attitude and right skills.
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Llib
Cars with on passenger are the worst offenders when it comes to congestion, the problem with Melbourne is that bus service is poor and infrequent. Even though freeways can alleviate parallel traffic on arterial roads they cause far more problems for two key reasons listed below. - Diverting funding away from PT improvements. - Competing with buses by making it more convenient and quicker to travel by car than bus or other rail (even if buses use some of the freeway it does not make up for the much greater convenience of private cars). - Connecting arterial roads will have far more traffic (Ie Hoddle St and Chandler Hwy), which is the main route that DART uses to go into the CBD not Alexandra Parade which has few bus services. - With freeways all over the city and no reasonable competing PT services you only entrench car dependency. I don't see how building a large tunnel designed for cars is going to help buses or other PT. source: http://www.pubtrantravel.com/whyuse.html
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