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Urban Design


Two streets, two cities
Russell Degnan

A while ago I was browsing through my pictures from when I was overseas two years ago and stumbled across this one. It is from Strasbourg, France, near the German border, looking alognm the avenue de la Paix towards the center of the city and the cathedral. I took it because it struck me as an amazingly attractive street, despite being transport orientated, rather than pedestrian orientated.

Having determined that I should compare and contrast it with Melbourne's own transport orientated shopping strips, I originally thought to use Sydney Rd. in Brunswick, being near my house. But, this wouldn't be a fair comparison, Sydney Rd. is both a major arterial, and not as wide, so I will leave my thoughts on it for another time. Instead, I will look at Errol St. in North Melbourne, looking north from Victoria St.

They are remarkably similar, both have on-street parking, one lane each- way of traffic, attractive low buildings (Errol St. is lower), and light-rail in the center separate from the traffic (a rarity in Melbourne's inner suburbs). Errol St. is by no means unattractive, it has a mix of cafes, an assortment of speciality shops, and is relatively pedestrian friendly. But four or five little things make such a difference.

The street in Strasbourg seems more intimate - partly this may be the taller buildings, but on the other hand, the footpaths are probably wider. The first difference is the presence of trees along the street, not shrubs on the footpath, as is normal in Melbourne (and probably here), but spaced between every few car spaces is a broad tall tree. For a slight loss in parking amenity - maybe every fourth or fifth space - they've achieved a tree-lined street; giving both shade and life.

This closeness affects the traffic as well. It is widely acknowledged that drivers will travel at the speed they deem safe, which is dependent on the space they feel they have (and hence, the margin for error). Compare the two streets above, which would you drive faster on? The centre of the road also achieves this effect. Errol St. appears to be a wide two lane road, only a yellow line says otherwise. By contrast, the concrete blocks assert the limits to the road, confining cars to a bare minimum of the street.

For pedestrians. The tram-stop in Strasbourg is infinitely better, it looks inviting. Melbourne has seen the introduction of these super-stops recently. I'm a bit ambivalent about them, because I think they are superficial gestures on top of a rickety system. But I won't deny they are better, and friendlier for pedestrians. There is a jay-walker in Errol St., looking alone in the wide street. Strasbourg has smaller blocks; hence more crossings and less jay-walkers. As a general rule, like the natural pathways I mentioned once before, where you have substantial numbers of jay-walkers, there is a crossing point in the road, even if it isn't acknowledged. For safety, one should be installed.

Finally, the tramlines. Grass, blessed, green, grass, instead of concrete. It may provide some benefits in terms of stormwater run-off, although the extra water usage would be an issue in Melbourne; but it looks so much better; it says "park", when our streets say "road". And they don't need to say "road".

UPDATE: Gary at Junk for Code comments in reference to Adelaide's sweltering summers.

Also, I don't mean to imply that all Melbourne's streets are bad - they certainly aren't - nor that all Strasbourg's streets are great - though it probbaly has fewer that are terrible. Nor do I think we should embark on a grand public works project to fix everything. The difference between a nice street and a terrible can be subtle; Europe has had the benefit of time to tease them out. What we need are people to try and do the same here.

Urban Design 30th December, 2003 13:06:06   [#] 


Grass lined tram tracks and concrete blocks are nice, but let's not forget that Ambulances and Fire trucks use Melbourne's tram reservations to minimise response times.. If we were to go the whole hog, it would not be ideal..

If you want a Melbourne street that's both functional, not too wide, has some pedestrian activity, but has an actual tram reservation, how about Peel Street (Tram 55) looking north from where the 57 crosses over at Vic Market up towards the old Dental hospital?

If you want grass, how about the last km or so of the Box Hill extension? However, they find it very difficult to mow that grass and keep it presentable, since contractors prefer daylight, and the only time they can get them in without having trams around is at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings..

Oh, and of course, the grass is basically in planters from my understanding, growing grass directly in ballast only deteriorates the sleepers and causes the track to become deformed and potentially unsafe.. As a result, there's no drainage benefit at all..

Doin't get me wrong, I don't mind the European feel, but while I wouldn't mind seeing it here, I don't want the whole idea of spending over a billion dollars basically ripping up and rebuilding the tram network with platforms everywhere, cutting out about 1/3 to 1/2 the tram stops in the process, moving the rest of the stops to invonvenient mid-block locations etc to happen.. That's money that could better be spent on route extensions.. Fortunately, that plan seems to have died off..

On the where do you spend valuable tram infrastructure dollars question, my list of priorities is as follows:

* Extending the 59 to the Airport, mostly for the benefit of people who work there and live in the Essendon/Niddrie/Airport West area

* Extending the 48 to Doncaster Shoppingtown

* Extending the 57 to East Keilor or possibly Niddrie Shops or Airport West

* Extend Route 8 to the Alamein Line, moving or building a station above Burwood Highway, and also serving Coles Myer HQ

* Extend Route 3 to East Malvern RS, and possibly to Chadstone SC

* Extend Route 6 to Ashburton RS

* Extend Route 67 to Carnegie RS

You'll notice there's no mention of super stops in that list.. That's intentional.. Short of councils deciding to spend up on urban renewal, what few valuable infrastructure dollars exist should be spent on bringing PT to more people, not trying to build infrastructure to attract people who could already use PT but don't.. There are other ways of doing that..

And PT infrastructure dollars certainly shouldn't be spent on excessive urban beautification projects.. If land owners on a strip feel their strip would be significantly enhanced by such projects, they can get together and stump up the cash themselves, or go to Council, and offer to accept a one off rate increase to allow council to pay for it..
Peter Cook  31st December, 2003 12:20:07  

Re: Appearances

As much as it would be nice, I never said it was either realistic or necessary to modify most of Melbourne's streets with trams. I was merely attempting to demonstrate some of the changes to the urban spaces that could be made. A lot of the major shopping strips - of which Errol St. is one - could be substantially better if traffic flows were reduced, more greenery introduced etc. You are right though, it is not the responsibility of the public transport companies, it is the council's. I'll defer to your knowledge on grass tramstracks. I have seen Box Hill, and it looks nice, though it is essentially pointless beautification.

Regarding Peel St. It is substantially wider than Errol St. Two lanes each way plus an extra lane for trees next to the tramlines. Nor is it particularly pedestrian orientated, although it does appear to be undergoing a few changes as more apartments are built along it. Like many of the City of Melbourne's major streets though (Royal Pde., Victoria Pde. etc.), it's wide enough to include trees, trams and substantial traffic flows. On the other hand, many streets in the inner suburbs (Brunswick St., Sydney Rd., Victoria St. etc.) aren't wide enough for cars and trams as it is. Unfortunately there isn't much you can do about that. The streets I think that could be improved are generally 30m wide streetfront to streetfront - 3 lanes each way (one normally parking), plus footpaths - with retail shops or restaurants on both sides. Elizabeth St., Lygon St. (which doesn't have trams), Swanston St. near RMIT. No doubt there are dozens in the suburbs I am not familiar with.

Regarding investment priorities. If the transport operators were real private companies instead of pretend private companies they could decide for themselves where the greatest cost-benefit for investment lies (and hence profit). But, since they aren't investment will remain a largely political exercise, and most of it will go to showpieces. I'm not entirely convinced of the benefits of extending tramlines, but I will talk about that at another time.
Russell  1st January, 2004 14:20:12  

junk for code
I agree with Russell on this from my experience of living a summer in Adelaide: the city streets need to be greened. They are furnaces in Adelaide-heat traps.

Grass is not the solution in Adelaide due to lack of water. Trees are part of the solution.
Gary Sauer-Thompson  4th January, 2004 05:59:14  

A slight hint of similar urban design
Russ, the new Box Hill reno has a slight hint of this, with grass, trees and tram lines. Although the grass is very much 'wheat coloured grass matt' at this time of year. I do also see hints in other places around the new reno'd tram routes. Do emergency services have trouble travelling up and down this type of tram route design I wonder? As any Australian will comment our Emergency Services in Melb respond well due to their ability to move around heavy traffic via the tram routes and laneways within our city character.
Lisa  4th January, 2004 17:35:39  


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