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Traffic, A Tale of Two Cities

September 30, 2009



This is a story of a frustration we all experience. It is off topic for me however I want to use my unskilled observation to fix some city planning craziness. If you want to class this as a rant instead of a post, feel free, but you may just join the chorus!

STUCK IN TRAFFIC is a place many of us spend an increasing amount of our lives. It isn’t going to get any better. Having lived and worked in two cities of roughly similar size over the past two years – Sydney and Melbourne (now don’t get into an us and them argument just yet), I am constantly surprised that my experience of traffic in Melbourne is so much worse. Especially when I expected poor geographically challenged Sydney to run second place in the traffic stakes. It is this strange juxtaposition that inspired my insight into what city planners, highway designers and Melbourne in particular are doing wrong. Indulge me a little and remember, I love both cities, this is not an attack on either but lets just say Melbourne traffic isn’t doing the great sporting city any favors.

We have a Grid! Melbourne is so lucky, it is a planned city, wide city streets and a vast urban sprawl of elegant grids. Other than a big bay in the middle, a couple of modest rivers, low hills and cozy eastern ranges, the city planners can put down a simple pattern – traffic should be a doddle. Sydney by contrast is a long tadpole of a city, three harbours impact the city, not just the big one down the middle. The topographic relief is more acute and the city has a more piecemeal construction history since the early convict crafted lane ways of Sydney Cove. So Sydney should be a traffic basket-case. Now it can be bad, really bad, especially Military Road, Pacific Highway and getting out of town to the north (and a couple of other highways with an M and a number in their name), however my premise and significant personal experience is that traffic, although bad, is generally better than Melbourne by a significant margin. So what is wrong?

Well I think the grid covered it! Melbourne has GRIDLOCK! Traffic-light controlled right-angle intersection after intersection as far as the eye can see and the fuel tank can take you. Prima facie this would seem a perfect system. My position is that it is the worst possible design for traffic flow, and can I add before we go any further, thousands of round-a-bouts do not make it any better! Sydney as a generalization has put in roads as they are needed and they often follow ridges, valleys, watercourses and natural phenomena. You can probably see where I am going. Natural water systems, neural networks built out of biological necessity and pretty much any demand or function based system is better than an elegant grid – simply because it may look better and developers can carve up the land more easily is not a reason for its adoption.

The constraints on Sydney are surprisingly the source of its benefit. Over time construction has had to put traffic systems where they are needed, and either bypass natural or other impediments, or work with the ebb and flow of the landscape. Sydney is also much more practical and unapologetic in its aggressive development. Destroy a heritage suburb to put a bridge over the harbour or lose a few apartments to sinkage while tunneling to Lane Cove, all in the name of getting you home earlier and keeping traffic moving. Melbourne however has one of its major highways come to an inglorious end in Collingwood. You can drive more than a marathon distance from Frankston, picking up thousands of eastern suburbs residents along the way, all to get dumped in the inner suburbs. Its like; “now we got you here, we have no way of knowing how to get you where you need to go, city, airport, so just make your own way from here, OK!”. After all, we have this grid in the middle that we don’t want to spoil or even have you drive on. Tunnel? No way, its basalt down there – do you know how tough that igneous stuff is, wouldn’t want to blunt a drill. Bridge? No, would ruin the look of our grid and we haven’t got anymore silly coloured posts left to surround them with. Get the tram, much better, now you can have a heritage experience every day for the rest of your working life. I know, stop, now I’m just sinking the boot in!

Lets recap, grid is bad. Just saying a grid is a system is a cop out and untrue. Take a leaf out of nature (pardon the pun) and look to circulatory, neural and fluid systems for inspiration. Any by the way, get on to the jet packs or teleport and then you can swap your set of traffic problems for something else. One more thing, a ring road is also not a system, what is it with Melbourne and shapes! This post crafted, proofed and prepared all in the time it took to get from one meeting to the next. Loving the traffic!

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 1, 2009 9:21 AM

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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