25 February 2010

Clearways: about as bad as it gets

The front page of today’s edition of The Age carries a picture of an irate motorist – a St Kilda Road cafe proprietor – remonstrating with a VicRoads officer who is in the process of having his car and 22 others towed to a yard at Abbotsford. To recover their cars each must pay Nationwide Towing $322, and VicRoads $117.

The background to this is that the State Government has been trying to introduce extended clearway times across inner Melbourne since 2008. In some areas now the affected streets are clearways from 6.30 - 10 a.m. (previously 7.00 - 9.00 a.m.) and from 3.00 - 7.00 pm (previously 4.30-6.30 p.m.) – more than 50 per cent of the day, and a very substantial slice of normal shopping hours.

The extended clearway times have met strong resistance from local councils, who are justifiably sensitive both to the interests of the small businesses in the shopping strips that are affected, and their voters who would like to have access to their local shops. Most of the 13 councils affected by the changes initially resisted the extended hours; now all but Yarra and Stonnington have given up.

VicRoads started changing clearway signs on Saturday, and the resisting councils promptly covered them up. VicRoads rolled out 300 more signs late on Tuesday night, and began enforcing the new hours on Wednesday. We have a conflict between two levels of government, and the State Government decides that the way to resolve this is to punish individual motorists. That is about as bad as public administration gets.

There are some larger issues at stake here:

-  The fact that we need clearways at all is a sign of policy failure. It is a sign that the city’s public transport system is so dysfunctional that most people have no alternative to use of their own car as a means of getting to and from work with reasonable convenience – even though the State Government punishes us all by levying a burdensome tax on all parking spaces in the CBD and surrounding areas.  “Reasonable convenience” is strictly a relative term – journey times are outrageous but at least in one’s own car one does not have the feeling of participating in an extended rugby scrum.

- The dysfunctionality is the result of governments of every persuasion failing over many decades to invest in the public transport system. We get the politics of gesture – “We’ll introduce a smart ticketing system” – but the smartest ticketing system in the world cannot compensate for sheer lack of capacity.  People straphanging from Springvale to the city for 45 minutes every morning were not demanding smarter tickets, they were demanding more trains.

-  What we have ended up with is a ticketing system that does not work, and could hardly be described as smart if it did (see Reflections on the myki debacle). It has achieved one notable benchmark – it is the most expensive “smart” ticketing project in the world.

-  Given that we have massive traffic congestion, it is not self-evident to me that the interests of the people who actually live in the inner city areas should be sacrificed to the interests of those who choose to live further out – why should it be the sole function of High Street Prahran/Armidale for most of the day to provide a pavement for people passing through? What about the amenity of the local ratepayers?

Yarra and Stonnington Councils say they will now launch a court action against the Roads Minister, alleging that he failed to consult them as required by law before introducing the clearways plan. For his part the Roads Minister is demanding that the councils agree to the extended clearway times. If he needs their agreement, what is he doing enforcing his view of the law against individual motorists? This matter should be resolved by due process, not by heavy-handed unilateral action.

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