No cars in the city center, or something more?
There has been discussion recently regarding the removal, or restriction, of cars from Australia’s central business districts (CBDs), in particular Melbourne’s.
The first question I ask is why? What is the desired outcome? Is the intention to reduce vehicular congestions in the city, reduce pollution, improve public amenity, or all of the above? Rebalancing the city is a phrase that has recently been used.
In Melbourne the CBD grid was first laid out in the 1830s. Melbourne has been fortunate to have such a clear and robust structure, which has endured. We could say Robert Hoddle was extremely far-sighted (even if my understanding is that the width of Melbourne’s principle streets was actually defined by the width required to accommodate large bullock carts that could continue straight through the city and not hold up other horse drawn traffic from making right turns).
In any event, Melbourne has a structure that was established 185 years ago, and while it serves the city well and has managed to accommodate changes in mobility and population (both resident and worker) over the years, does the current configuration reflect the needs of contemporary Melbourne?
We have become better at understanding the finer grain elements of how the city functions, and the importance these finer elements have on the successful operation of the city. It is not just about vehicle movement (or bullock carts), the road, or the public realm. It is about accommodating the needs and demands of a range of users. It is about public transport modes, pedestrians, cyclist, utilities, businesses, residents and, importantly, the need to further evolve the public realm in mitigating and managing the impacts of climate change within the city, a concept perhaps better understood as enhancing the city’s resilience.
All these elements have a spatial requirement. The challenge is understanding these demands – some of which can be at conflict with each other – and allocating space within the fixed parameters of the public realm or street.
Melbourne has been proactive with this issue and we have seen an evolution in terms of the way the streets are designed and used. If we look back, some of the bold moves in addressing the balance have been the introduction of Melbourne’s tram system, the creation of the Bourke Street Mall, and the exclusion of cars from Swanston Street.
Swanston Street is the most recent example, but it has taken the best part of 20 years – and various iterations – to become the successful street it is today. Across the city, we are continually seeing the recalibration of the CBD’s streets with the development of the tram super stops, expansion of footpaths, and increase in trees, but is it time again for a bolder move?
While there has been recent discussion around restoring William’s Creek along Elizabeth Street, I think the next move should be to address East-West access across the CBD. Do we expand the Bourke Street Mall up to Parliament, but remove the asphalt and replace it with an urban forest to address urban heat islands and improve stormwater management? Do we further restrict vehicles and prioritise cycling along Collins Street?
The wholesale exclusion of cars from the CBD would not result in a successful outcome; what is needed is a clear strategy. If cars are removed what do the streets become? There is a range of issues that need to be addressed in relation to how the city currently functions. We would need, for example, to agree on how to service our retail, restaurants, commercial and residential in getting goods in, and waste out.
Further, how do we address emergency services? How do we ensure our public transport system can support a dramatic increase in patronage? How do we mitigate increased vehicular traffic on the wider road network? Importantly, how do we ensure our productivity and competitiveness is not impacted?
There are solutions to all these challenges, but it takes a clear vision and strong leadership to deliver change. Many cities have introduced initiatives such as car-free days, congestion charging, or restrictions of the entry of cars with odd- or even-number plate numbers, or incentives for zero-emission cars. But these initiatives have only been successful when implemented as part of a bigger strategy.
In Mexico City, for example, the restrictions on odd- or even-number plates resulted in people either buying another car or an additional set of number plates. In London, meanwhile, the CBD’s congestion charge has been expanded, and a large part of the program’s success is that the revenue raised from the charge is reinvested in the public transport system and cycling network.
I clearly recall the day when Swanton’s Street was covered in grass. While no one expected it to stay as grass, it did demonstrate that we could envisage the street as something more than just a road for cars.
Adam Williams (email@example.com) is director, Global Sports leader, Asia Pacific, AECOM. Based in Melbourne, Adam is currently leading AECOM’s work on the Rio 2016 Olympic Master Plan and venues, and previously lead AECOM’s work on the London 2012 Olympic legacy masterplan.