Hoddle St inbound bus lane in AM peak - however there's no bus lane on the other (outbound) side

For a place ostensibly lacking in conviction politicians, we’re seeing a lot of appeals to Principle over Pragmatism in Australian politics. For example, the Greens claimed the high moral ground on the original incarnation of the carbon price and did it again last week in the debate on asylum seekers.

At a more modest level, the progressive Council of the City of Yarra in Melbourne also has an appetite for high mindedness ahead of mere practicality. Council has recently rejected a proposed bus lane in busy Hoddle Street, effectively on the grounds it wouldn’t be sustainable enough.

The Minister for Transport in Victoria, Terry Mulder, has also rejected the bus lane, although his reasons are more pragmatic. He fears it would eliminate parking spaces and thereby damage local businesses.

The Baillieu Government promised during the election campaign to roll back the former Government’s extension of clearways, so that might be a factor in his thinking. Council’s opposition might also have given the Minister some added incentive to knock back the proposal.

The bus lane was proposed by the Department of Transport. It would’ve provided an outbound lane in the evening peak by banning parking in 165 spaces between 4pm and 7pm. Hoddle Street already has an inbound peak hour bus lane but not an outbound one. It would’ve been a clearway for buses.

More than 130 outbound bus services use the road in the evening peak. They currently take up to 23 minutes to negotiate Victoria Parade and Hoddle Street. In uncongested conditions that journey takes as little as five minutes. The average saving from the proposed bus lane is estimated by the Department as eight minutes

Apart from the saving in travel time for passengers, there are a number of other reasons why the Minister’s decision to reject his Department’s proposal is unfortunate.

One is that the Minister’s department advised him “adequate alternative parking” is available for motorists to replace the 165 parking spaces. So Mr Mulder’s explanation doesn’t sound especially convincing on this score.

Another is that buses operating as part of the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) carry on average 10,700 passengers per day along Hoddle Street. That’s an order of magnitude larger than the number of motorists who would no longer be able to park there during peak hour.

And another is that if DART isn’t permitted to perform to its potential the Government will come under greater pressure to proceed with the vastly more expensive and less cost-effective Doncaster rail line. The Eddington Review recommended a bus solution for Doncaster instead of a rail line.

Council’s view is the elimination of a traffic lane would be a more sustainable approach than eliminating a lane of parking because it would reduce the total level of traffic. I think it would also exacerbate congestion and rat-running, but nevertheless Council’s right – eliminating a lane would lower overall traffic.

Although it doesn’t, Council could even argue that creating an additional lane (by banning parking) would create more space for extra vehicles in the other lanes because it would remove buses from them. That wouldn’t ultimately speed-up traffic but it would enable more vehicles to be driven at that time.

However given that even the Department’s modest proposal didn’t get up, the chances of the Council’s pure option getting the green light seem dim. Yet Council didn’t “compromise”. Had Council supported the Department, perhaps the Minister might’ve had enough metal in his back to go with it.

The Department’s proposal would’ve made public transport a much more attractive option for Doncaster workers. More road space will have to be given over to public transport in our cities in the future if they’re to function effectively, so it’s unfortunate the Baillieu Government couldn’t bring itself to give up 165 spaces between 4pm and 7pm even when satisfactory alternative parking is available.

Jean-Paul Sartre has something to say about the tension between principle and pragmatism. In the play Dirty Hands, a senior politician says to his intern:

But you, the intellectuals, the bourgeois anarchists, you invoke purity as your rationalisation for doing nothing. Do nothing, don’t move, wrap your arms tight around your body, put on your gloves. As for myself, my hands are dirty. I have plunged my arms up to the elbows in excrement and blood. And what else should one do? Do you suppose that it is possible to govern innocently?