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Free as in Tram

For the love of trams
Free trams do more than just entice tourists to visit Melbourne. They unlock the traffic grid to make life better for everyone in the downtown, and quite possibly might unlock a few minds to how socialised infrastructure can benefit us all.
 Melbourne TownFree as in Tram
August 2016

It probably seemed like a Greeny plot to allow people free tram travel within the Melbourne downtown. The audacious move to make public transport even more public came as a welcome initiative to those who live in the city. From Queen Vic market to Flinders St, or Treasury Gardens all the way Docklands. Every tram is a free tram, not just that ghastly “city circle” trams which subjects passengers to mindless commentary as it crawls a loop around the city like a big brown slug.

It’s been over a year since the free tram zone (FTZ) began and I love it. Melbourne’s CBD is small enough to walk most places if you want to, but there are times when hopping on a tram is very appealing instead of wrestling with the pedestrian anarchy, hauling a bag of blood-oranges home from the market, or running the gauntlet of depressed office workers dragging on cigarettes and fouling the air.

Not just for Tourists

The impact of the FTZ is only just beginning to become clear to many Melbournians, with little thanks to The Age for their journalistic contribution which reads like a high school project that fails with a D-. The standard argument is that the FTZ creates an even bigger reason for tourists to stay in the city and get around to see the sights.

I’m happy that we wont see transport officers issuing fines to tourists who couldn’t work out the Myki system, but this is the least beneficial argument for free trams. As an experiment in socialised infrastructure the FTZ is a win for the idea that we can all benefit from bold initiatives that go beyond the limited scope of “user pays” ideology (the poor cousin of trickle-down economics).

Car drivers benefit because they can park on the edge of the city, paying less money and avoiding the worst traffic snarls, and still get to work without additional cost. Ironically some of the biggest winners here will be those who continue to drive deep into the CBD but will enjoy fewer cars to clog up the roads. Everybody wins.

Pedestrians get a win here too with fewer people on the footpath, and a little less chaos from cars entering the downtown that don’t really need to be there. Reducing the number of cars in the city is a long term plan. Standing on the super-stop at the corner of Williams and Collins you’ll notice that the cars get 30% of the road while trams and their passengers are allocated 70%. This is the new order. Once you board the tram you suddenly see why this makes sense, with close to 150 passengers occupying a single E-class tram that takes up the same space as half a dozen cars.

Share the Love

These are all practical reasons why free trams are a good thing in Melbourne. My only disappointment is that the free transport hasn’t been spread to a wider net, covering more of Melbourne and adding buses and trains. Indeed there is a critical flaw in the current implementation by which the Myki system does not recognise the FTZ and continues to charge passengers even when touching on and off inside the zone.

But it’s a good start.

Critics of the FTZ complain about overcrowding and underfunding. There is no free ride in life and our taxes are covering the bill in one way or another. But free public transport is cheaper than building new roads, and the paradoxical findings that building more roads leads to more congestion continue to challenge the conventional way of looking at infrastructure. As trams get bigger, the network gets better and patronage of the PTV grows stronger.

As more people embrace the benefits of public transport, support for building new roads and tolls diminishes. Presently we have government support in Melbourne for more trams, more train lines and better connections between services. We’re heading in the right direction and you only to ride one of those wheezing brown “city circle” trams to see how far Melbourne transport has advanced in my lifetime.

Lonely on La Trobe

As a daily user of the FTZ there is one glaring gap in the network that I genuinely hope the PTV will address soon. La Trobe St is easily the most under utilised tram route in the city, despite the huge changes in residential buildings along it’s flanks. At the Spencer St end of town there are literally a dozen new towers filled with people who need to head uptown each day, yet at the moment they add to the pressure on Bourke St or Collins when getting around after hours and on weekends.

The Number 30 tram could really use a rethink here. Presently it connects Victoria Harbour Docklands to the St Vincents Hospital area, a short run that is serviced only Monday to Friday and only from 6am to 6pm. It’s for office workers instead of residents, or tourists. This route would be far more useful if it replaced the City Circle tram route and ran on a full schedule, benefiting everyone who lives along the La Trobe St corridor and easing the crowding along Spencer St that gets so crazy on weekends.

At some point the older tram stops that feature on La Trobe St will also need a rethink. Melbournians have largely lost the skill of standing clear of trams at a narrow stop, and drivers no longer keep an eye out for pedestrians in the middle of the road. But just as the FTZ has been a big win for residents in the Docklands, who have free access to the downtown whenever they like, an upgrade of La Trobe stops and schedules would bring a welcome upgrade to tall towers at the southern end of Lonsdale and La Trobe.

This page was last updated on June 19, 2017

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