14780086713_4992429d40_z
Type
Reflection
Category
Housing
public transport

Unliveable Melbourne

At North Melbourne she saw a few straggling hopefuls wandering the platforms. It was a good place to wait for a train: three lines (or five, if you believed the driver) passed through here. But no one got on her train. She wondered if any of them were hoping to get out to Broadmeadows. She’d heard there was land out there, places you could grow food and have a little space around you. But it was probably false advertising.

– A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson

I walk to the station before six, sun thin on the horizon, bag laden with the work I need to do before I arrive on campus to teach at nine. I no longer bring my bike. The old trains they’re using now are already overloaded; they don’t have the space. What was a twenty-minute cycle from Richmond to Fairfield has ballooned to an hour of slow Metro train travel, and a long, hot walk.

Our country town is quiet at this hour. We chose this place for its proximity to Melbourne, only 100kms. A commutable distance, I wagered. We’ve lived everywhere, but the prohibitive cost of rent in the city tipped our hand. The house we’re renting now, a renovated three-bedroom period number with a lush backyard, costs a fraction of the price (about a third, if I had to guess) of what it would in the inner-north near work. By living here I can afford to work part-time; be with the children; write the novel I’m anxious to write. It was great for a while, the life I made for myself. Tiring, but possible; I only make the trip to Melbourne three days a week.

But it’s become a nightmare now.

 

At eight o’clock the train sits motionless on the outskirts of the city. A world-weary voice updates in ten-minute intervals on the trouble for today, but nothing changes. My legs ache from standing. I haven’t been able to use this time to work, or to sleep, activities requiring a seat. The train is overloaded with commuters, people in the aisles, on the floor, in doorways. I’ve avoided the bus for this.

I turn the situation obsessively, calculating routes and modes and travel times, but the result is always the same. I’m spending almost as long travelling to work as actually working. I’ve heard it said that Melbourne is a most livaeble city, but how can that be? Travel between regional towns and centres, and the city, has stretched to unbelievable lengths for what is a twenty-first century, first-world context. The median cost of rent has jumped to over $400 a week in Melbourne. Arterial roads are standing still. Gazing out over the baking Eastern suburbs, that interminable sprawl, I wonder: how has it come to this?

It isn’t easy to decipher. I read the reports in the media obsessively, hoping for good news, but half-baked with exhaustion I can’t seem to make sense of the stories, which read as though lifted from a Douglas Adams novel (at best). I recall the dire depiction of Melbourne’s transport system in Jane Rawson’s dystopic A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, a novel I love, where folks camp out waiting for trains that never come, supremely grateful when any old slow-moving service shows up. I delighted in this strange science fiction once, but it seems alarmingly prescient now.

Eventually I discover that the immediate problems with the trains are two-fold: the wheels on VLocity models (the newest) have worn down much faster than expected; elsewhere V/Line trains are failing to trigger boom gates at crossings, thus banned from Metro areas. Transport Minister Jacinta Allan notes that the problem with boom gates was identified in 2011, a report prepared for the former government in 2013, but that can’t be right. Long before I moved, even before I considered becoming a parent, 2011 seems light years in the past, a time of unending hangovers and minimal responsibility that I can barely remember. And yet, they claim to have known everything then. They did nothing.

 

It is announced that there will be free travel offered as compensation for the catastrophic breakdown, $2 million per week to subsidise, but after a time this novelty evaporates and free travel becomes available only on the grinding, crowded replacement coach services. V/Line chief Theo Taifalos quits, a move that is slightly gratifying to observe from a distance, but ultimately of no consequence. The alarm goes off regardless; the bus waits. Jaw clenched, heaving into my office just after nine, the eyes of my colleagues bore into my back.

Late again, I hear them tutting. Lazy.

I won’t see my child in daylight for two nights and three days. Even when I leave work early (a scandal!), I just can’t travel the distance between us quickly enough. Our relationship, the mothering he gets, occurs in the dark, in my fumbling, wearied efforts to silence nocturnal cries.

 

It takes a while to identify what is skewing my understanding of what has gone wrong. I presumed that an issue like this would be at the centre of cultural discourse, rigorously reported. Yet all articles provide the same maddening, minimal facts. I search and search through the lukewarm statistics and predictions, but I cannot locate the voices of those affected. I cannot find mention of what should in good conscience have been done. For all the lamentations of money lost and services disrupted in the mainstream media, there is just so little anger. It beggars belief.

Things would vastly improve for me if I could locate an opportunity for local work, negating reliance on transport altogether. But this seems a narrow and unrealistic view to take across the board. For one thing, there are few rural opportunities in my sector and many others. Changing jobs would most likely involve a massive pay cut, less interesting work, doing something I’m not really qualified to do. For years I’ve considered these options, then boarded the train as a means of dismissing them. But they are back on the table now. I’m not even all that concerned about the idea of losing money and status in order to accept a job close to home, but such career-focused flippancy may be a luxury out of reach for others: those in specialist jobs; students partway through degrees. It seems a folly to advocate as a solution to the problem, that everyone just stay put.

On my day off, my husband messages from the car just before nine.

I’m still stuck on the fucking freeway, he hazards to write. Three hours! I’m nowhere near the city! Everyone from the train’s on the roads now.

Reading from the backyard, I groan, feeling his frustration, squinting up at the sky. I’m searching for evidence; proof that things are going wrong. But there’s nothing to see. All is quiet in the sunny garden: an inhale before the scream.

 

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Alice Robinson is a writer of fiction, essays and reviews. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University. Her first novel, Anchor Point , was published by Affirm Press.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for putting this into words, Alice. I have a similar experience – 10 years commuting from Castlemaine to Melbourne. There were replacement buses when I first moved up too – my wife and I were both commuting, and we joked we only saw the house we bought on the weekends. It wasn’t a joke.

    Re: the lack of outcry, I sometimes think that 1) nobody gives a shit what happens to anyone outside inner Melbourne and 2) those that do are too exhausted by their experiences to even know what changes to try to make, let alone try to make them.

    But I’m with you and your family here. It’s shit. And I often wonder if it’s shit for someone like me who has so much going for me, what the hell is it like for people who don’t?

    Stay strong and look after yourself.

    Yours in solidarity of commuter-hood.

    • I agree with you – to me it feels as though the lack of focus on this issue embodies (or reflects) the city/rural divide that exists in our culture. I say that as a city person trying to live in the country, and I am aware that could be a problematic position from which to speak….but then I also think, shouldn’t it be okay in this day and age to expect a reasonable public transport service?!

  2. Our economic system requires permanent growth, including in our population. Until that changes it’s only going to get more and more crowded.

  3. “Our relationship, the mothering he gets, occurs in the dark, in my fumbling, wearied efforts to silence nocturnal cries.”

    Don’t you have lights in your house?

    But seriously, yes I agree with you and with Adam Ford above. It really is outrageous the very poor public transportation this city has, a result of underinvestment in infrastructure by government over the last thirty years or so. And the pollies are only now beginning to see it as a problem. And while the penny’s dropping still they hardly hear it! It seems the Australian way: put everything into cars and roads and say she’ll be right about public transport. Mostly, those in government and public office are none too bright. They have little foresight or imagination, and we, the voters, pay for their stupidity. All they care about is if it makes money. i would be glad that if everyone paid a dollar or two each week out of their salaries or whathaveyou and that this went to funding public transport so it was free for everyone (because everyone already paid for it through the tax system). But of course that would be too socialist a concept for the mindless thugs in power. Actually, we should be ashamed at our dire public transport service here. Have you been overseas? To the Uk or Europe, for example. I have and countries over there put us to shame. How civilised it is with the trains and buses and trams. Over here we’re still wild westing it. And it makes me furious. So thanks for your article, and good luck!!

    • I could’t believe the efficiency of the trains in Prague, where timers count down to their arrival, and in comes the train on time…the disjunction between our experience here with PT and that kind of super efficient system is horrifying to me.

  4. I like the question that Alice asks ‘why do more people not demand a better transport system?’ It could improve so many lives. They say that our physical infrastructure is harder to change than our laws, that decisions about technology commit us to certain paths that are then costly to change. We are certainly living that reality now.

    This piece really rang a bell for me – and I’m sure for so many other melbournians.

    Please excuse the next sentence, I know it’s annoying: People ask me what I like about living in Berlin (unemployment is high here, I would earn more in Melbourne). I answer ‘The trains, bike paths and windows, the fact you can heat your apartment’.

    I explain that Melbourne and Berlin have the same population. People ask, ‘but doesn’t Melbourne have public transport’ and I say, ‘Yes, but there hasn’t been any investment for decades, it’s a system designed for the population before the city grew. It’s very expensive to use, very crowded and unreliable,’ I explain that you can safely ride your bike from one end of Berlin (from the countryside to the countryside) to the other in an hour, whereas if you drive from one end of Melbourne to the other, three hours later, you could still be driving. I explain that instead of five story apartments, Melbourne buildings are mostly one storey. I explain that all the houses I’d lived in (paying exorbitant rent, with no security of contract) were almost impossible to heat. I explain that owning a car is the only way to get anywhere (esp if your destination isn’t the inner city), the only way to leave the city unless you have time for a meandering bus trip. I explain that the inner city of Melbourne where I’ve ridden a bike as my main form of transport for almost two decades is too expensive to live in and elsewhere I spend half my life in the car. Escape becomes tempting, to the country or in my case to another country entirely.

    The planning and transport policies of the last thirty years have created a life that we must live in traffic jams or waiting on platforms and bus stops for inefficient services. It doesn’t have to be this way.

    I grew up in an area without public transport, outside of Melbourne and then in Packenham. I know what it’s like to have to get in the car to do anything, and I know what it’s like to catch Melbourne’s most crowded metro train 2 hours to the city. What it feels like to wait an hour for the next train.

    Where I live now, the longest I have to wait for a service is ten minutes, no matter or when where I’m traveling, where I know the service will reach it’s destination and even in peak times I’m likely to get a seat. It is quite simply paradise.

    Australians don’t like the idea of apartments, but when people live in higher density, and the buildings are well built, with sound isolation and enough space and good heatability, it’s fantastic and it brings the country closer to your door. I curse the British architecture that created our crappy buildings and endless suburbs without services.

    The situation in Melbourne for the old, sick and people living with a disability is worse. The community and medical transport sector provides vital services, most often using volunteers and recieving no direct funding. I’m still trying to get a copy of the buried evaluation of the Transport Connections Program from the State Government – this will outline the extent of the problem in rural and interface zones, and the failure of successive Governments to address these problems (in fact they have created them).

    Melburnians need better transport, at all life stages. And government policy and investment needs to play a bigger roll in making this happen. There is no good reason for our transport systems to be this inadequate and disfunctional, and plenty of terrible ones (Kennett, privatization, urban sprawl, mistaken budget priorities). There are plenty of good reasons to improve and change it including health, climate, well being, economics and safety. Don’t just take it from me, Paul Mees carried out extensive research on transport systems all over the world and provided concrete proposals for Melbourne. This would be a good place to start when formulating political demands.

    Have you ever seen the railway map of Victoria in the 1800’s? Briefly, for a steam driven moment, most of the towns were connected, in not too much of a hub and spoke model and no one had a car. Basically even those Victorian Victorians kicked our arses. We need to up our game.

    • Housing density is definitely an issue (cultural and logistical) here. But the foundational quater-acre dream could surely be accommodated with the right kind of city and infrastructure planning? (By which I don’t mean more lanes on more toll roads).

      • Yes. Paul Mees has outlined how buses can meet the needs of suburban and regional passengers. But only if they run frequently. It’s the ability to interchange quickly and not wait long that makes the network function. Or at least that’s my memory of his argument. Ie: the opposite of our current meandering, widely spaced system.

  5. Carol Peterson re: ‘I curse the British architecture that created our crappy buildings and endless suburbs without services.’

    I’m never one to miss a chance to put the boot in to the British or colonialism or… anything else in that sphere but ‘British architecture’? Australian architects (and builders) created the crappy buildings, for Australians or aspirant Australians, in an aspirational scenario of especially Australian ‘spaciousness’ where one of the main attractions of living in an Australian city was its low-rise affordable/cheap land and high home-ownership.
    Much of Australia has British roots, and certainly it took a long time for the cities to develop a vernacular, but the houses and other buildings are very distinctively different to (for instance) London and its far denser pattern.

    • I’m not an architectural expert but in my experience in London (indeed much of the UK) the majority of the buildings are three storeys at most, originally housing rather than apartments (obviously there are newer public housing estates which are apartments) are hard to heat, often mouldy, and usually have some kind of private front and back yard. The other places that I see these houses or close to them is Melbourne. In France, Germany and Scandinavia I see instead the majority of older city housing is 4-5 storey, well built and very livable, easy to heat (compared to any of the houses I’ve lived in in Melbourne) appartments, no garden (but most often in walking distance to parks). The building codes were and are different. The architectural and building traditions different, the housing that resulted is in my opinion better.

  6. Carol Peterson: When I moved to Berlin over a decade ago, it was a revelation to see that no one EVER ran to catch the train: why would you, when another would come in 4 minutes?

  7. Hello.
    Lovely post. But not very constructive.
    What do we actually need to do to fix this? How much would it cost? Would it be worthwhile? Are there BIGGER network priorities?

    The big priorities in Melbourne all relate to long-run land usage and significantlly changing employmnet patterns in this city to enable walkability, local employment centres, etc. And that means developing Geeelong, Ballarat and Bendigo into effective commuter towns.

    And golly, gosh here’s a detailed plan of how we could do just that using HSR.
    http://bloodiedwombat.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/high-speed-rail-is-dumb-idea-for.html

    Incremental improvements to a compromised network that plays second fiddle to the metropolitan train fleet isn’t going to get us there.

    We need to be bold and visionary in Victoria, we need to start building more effective commuter systems in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo NOW. We need to radically rezone suburban employment centres to actually incentivise their creation.

    I could go on but I’m boring even myself here.

  8. Lovely reflection Alice & very relevant to Victoria’s appalling PT system for country to city travellers. I have commuted to Melb roles from Ballarat at various times in the last decade, generally very unhappily & with extreme exhaustion. Moved to Brisbane in 2012 & situation seems better here, but the PT pricing structure is pretty steep (30km out of the CBD is zone six in my case), so many people commute in cars. Anyway, hope the situation improves for you & the family Alice.

  9. Buy or rent in Deer Park/Sunshine/St Albans/Ardeer – cheap as chips. You’ve got 2 train lines, buses and you’re close to Western Ring Road and West Gate. Not far from Vic Uni.

  10. As a visitor in Melbourne from time to time I’ve found the trams great, because they put pedestrians front and centre rather than cars, which makes for a much more serene city (Sydney is crazy in that regard, as is Perth); the trains, well, not so great, and I haven’t tried much bussing. Overall though, Melbourne is better than most Australian cities I’ve visited, commuting wise. Try Japan, and see if the whingeing about Melbourne applies still.

  11. You could have ended this article after the second para. The problem isn’t transport, it’s housing supply and affordability. In what country can you sustainably, cheaply live 100km away and commute to your place of work? Every single day, moving yourself 200km just to earn a wage? Ridiculous.

  12. Sounds so much like Sydney… where I lived at the far reaches as a child and had to make my way out ‘into the world’ from the ‘end of the line’. I got out of there before I got the profession, so now I’m not stuck to it! Doing the rural thing, which means I’m officially jobless. No idea what the answers are.

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