Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bridging Melbourne’s transport missing links

Everyone agrees that something, and something big, needs to be done.

Before launching into specifics, I’ll propose five common-sense (I think) general guidelines for planning expensive transport infrastructure.

But my very first observation is that Melbourne apparently has a peculiar allergy to building bridges across the Yarra River, particularly outside the CBD. Along the 30-odd km of river between Princes Bridge (CBD) and before Fitzsimons Lane (Eltham), there have been just one new foot/bike bridge (just downstream of Burke Road; contra to Guideline 4, below) and two new road bridges (the Eastern and South-Eastern (Monash) Freeways) built since 1938 (when a bridge replaced the punt in Punt Road). (NOTE: this excludes the privately-built Lower Plenty footbridge (1955) and the ridiculously-narrow Fairfield pipeline footbridge, built c.1990 on top of a pre-existing pipeline).


Road tunnels should not, in general, parallel existing surface arterial routes. Ditto for new rail lines/tunnels vis a vis existing rail and tram lines.


Existing under-used arterial roads should form the planning foundation for future road tunnels.


The cost of tunnelling can be amortised by making it dual purpose; i.e. both road and rail.


A river bridge should usually not be built in close proximity to an existing bridge, especially where there is a substantial unbridged gap further up- or down-stream.


Commuter bicycle routes should generally follow road and rail infrastructure principles; i.e. be primarily “spokes” converging on the CBD. If a “natural” bike route/path (i.e. a river, creek or abandoned train reservation) happens to generally align with a “spoke”, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, then the commuter bike route needs to become “unnatural” – i.e. direct – for that section.


Recreational, as distinct from commuter, bicycle routes, can loop-the-loop, or whatever. They are not worth spending a cent on expanding now, however, until other things are fixed first. In other words, Melbourne already has a supreme abundance of dedicated bike paths going from Somewhere-near-you to Nowhere-much, and dreaming of filling-in the “missing links” between any or all these is idle.



Two years ago, I proposed a two-tunnel solution, one diagonal (see Guideline 1) tunnel from the existing end of the Eastern Freeway at Clifton Hill to west of North Melbourne station, and one under Footscray. These two tunnels would capitalise on the currently under-used (see Guideline 2) east-west Docklands arterials (Footscray and/or Dynon Roads) and Geelong Road.

I am pleased to say that the recent Eddington report seems to have been thinking along the same lines, although it seems vague in the details. (Most media reports have been of either a single Clifton Hill-Footscray tunnel or an even more ludicrous mega-tunnel from Clifton Hill to Deer Park (i.e. the Western Ring Road). Both such tunnels, of course, are gross and wasteful breaches of Guideline 2).


The Eddington report’s recommendation of a multi-billion rail tunnel from Caulfield to Footscray, via St Kilda Road and Melbourne Uni, is an utter crock. Almost all of its route is parallel to, if not actually directly underneath, existing rail (mainly) and tram (especially heavily between Melbourne Uni and the CBD) infrastructure. There are only two sections where it is not: between Melbourne Uni and North Melbourne station, and more nebulously, between the inner south-east and St Kilda Road. The former gap is already solved by my proposed inclusion (same URL) of a rail, as well as road, tunnel (see Guideline 3) between Clifton Hill and North Melbourne station, via Melbourne Uni.

The latter gap has a host of existing tram lines. However, I recognise that (i) time-wise, these are not a satisfactory current solution for commuting from the middle or outer south-east to St Kilda Road, and (ii) there is currently a serious tram bottle-neck outside Flinders Street station for southbound St Kilda Road commuters. I believe that these problems could be solved by a much shorter new, stand-alone (albeit contra Guideline 3) rail tunnel from South Yarra station, via St Kilda Road at the Domain interchange, to Southern Cross/Spencer Street station.


What is needed here above all, in case it is not already obvious, is bike bridges, bridges, bridges – and a couple of short bike tunnels, to boot.

Melbourne’s only currently decent and viable off-road bicycle commuter (i.e. to the CBD) routes are the Yarra north-bank/Gardiners Creek route and the Port Melbourne train reservation route. The path alongside Footscray Road is also viable, although it barely qualifies as off-road. The Yarra north-bank route is severely handicapped, however, by limited (non-step) access to it, particularly from Prahran/South Yarra.

The Yarra south-bank route not only ends nowhere (Toorak, to be precise) abruptly, and is a km or so longer than the north-bank path, it is narrow and often badly surfaced, largely because of tree root damage (neither of which problems can be easily or cheaply fixed).

The Merri and Moonee Creeks bike paths, while broadly well-enough aligned to qualify as potential spokes, are too bitsy (and again, unfixably so) for anything but recreational riding, except for the lower reaches of the latter, under CityLink.

Which brings us to Melbourne’s only other substantial off-road bicycle routes in the inner and middle-suburbs: the north-east Yarra and the Darebin Creek paths. The former is hopelessly meandering, in both elevation and direction, not to mention bitsy and step-riddled. The latter is uncannily, and unfortunately, similar to the Merri and Moonee Creeks paths: while it runs in a generally useful direction (north-south), it is simply too bitsy for viable commuter use. One good thing about the Darebin Creek path, however, it that it actually currently ends somewhere - i.e. near both a city-bound train station and a city-bound arterial road that has a reserved bike lane, at least in the morning peak.

Notwithstanding any of this, there is supposedly a missing link between the north-east Yarra and the Darebin Creek paths, a problem which apparently can only be solved by four million dollars, the bisecting of a golf-club, and going hard by the fragile Kew Billabong.

This “missing link” theory, and purported solution, is a handy nutshell of everything that is currently wrong with Melbourne’s off-road bicycle infrastructure. That is, the power-that-be seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, by spending maximum bucks for minimum bike-commuter benefit. For a start, the 2 km or so route would go at a noticeable angle to the rest of the Darebin Creek path’s general alignment; in fact at the most useless possible angle: north-west to south-east. Then it’s expensive (because of the substantial land acquisition it requires), and environmentally dubious. Above all, though, is that better and cheaper alternative routes lie just east (along the Belford Road alignment, where a narrow reservation runs all the way to the Yarra's south bank) and/or west (from Alphington Park) of this nutter obsession route, that the bike-path-must-follow-the-creek-to-its-end-confluence, no matter what.

So here’s my grand (I’m estimating $10m or so) plan to fix at least the inner north-east’s current bike-path mess, and at the same time throwing in a useful north-south, direct city bypass through Richmond and South Yarra, as well as providing a much-needed additional entry point to the Yarra north-bank route from the inner south-east.

Bike bridge one: north end of Rockley Road, South Yarra to Yarra north-bank path (with no steps!). Route then joins existing Coppin Street, Richmond, on-road path.

Bike bridge two: north end of Duke Street, Abbotsford alignment (along CUB Brewery boundary) straight across the Yarra. (Duke Street is continuation of existing Coppin/Gardner/Bennett streets on-road paths in Richmond).

Bike tunnel one: north-south, about 100m long, below existing golf course and escarpment, to continue the alignment of the new Duke Street bike bridge. The tunnel's elevation should be (like all new Yarra bike bridges) just above the river's flood peak.

Bike bridge three: simple mirror image of the new Duke Street bike bridge, continuing the north-south alignment. Note that this bridge, together with a short, new low-level path along the Kew bank will also solve the current Gipps Street bridge steps problem (simply building a ramp here, without building a new bridge or anything else, has been quoted at a ridiculous $1.5m plus).

Bike bridge four: from the Collingwood Children’s Farm in a north-east direction, about 200m south-east of the existing Johnston Street bridge. The path leading to this bridge will involve a small amount of land acquisition from the Children’s Farm. This impact can be minimised, however, by elevating the new path – which would be a prudent course in this flood-prone area, anyway. Note that this bridge may also appear to breach Guideline 4, but Johnston Street bridge is most definitely not a viable substitute in this case).

Bike tunnel two: north-east/south-west, also about 100m long, under Studley Park Road and the escarpment, to come out about 50m west of existing Studley Park boathouse.

Bike bridge five: it’s the obvious one: north-east to Yarra Bend Park. While the south end of this bridge would be on a relatively pristine bank of the Yarra, there are strong grounds for placing it here, rather than east of the boathouse, as it would materially separate most bike traffic from the heavily pedestrianised (on both banks) Kane’s Bridge area.

Bike bridge six: from somewhere between Eastern Freeway and Yarra Bend Gold Course, east-west to join Yarra Boulevard (and from there, all points north-east, including via my proposed Belford Road alignment and/or Alphington Park “missing link” bike bridges).

Yep, it’s admittedly, compared to recent decades, a veritable bridge binge, and all in a relatively small area, to boot (not to mention the novel idea of bike tunnels). But it sure as hell ain’t bitsy in the end result – it starts and ends in useful places, it goes in a useful direction, it admirably leverages a lot of existing under-used parkland, and it involves minimal property acquisition.

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