Street space allocation and use in Melbourne’s activity centres

Who has the right to use our streets? The way people use our streets influences the liveability, equity, social interaction, environment, and economy in our cities. The allocation of street space is strongly contested in many cities, given the need to balance multiple functions and transport modes with the needs of a diverse range of users. This is particularly relevant in activity centres where high traffic flows conflict with popular places and key destinations in their own right [1].

Research on street space allocation has considered a range of governance and political issues [2], ethical principles [3] and methods for allocating street space across different transport modes [4] [5]. Yet, despite agreement on the importance of allocating street space in a fair and equitable manner [6], very little research has measured how much actual street space is allocated and used by each mode of transport, particularly in Australian cities.

The allocation of street space is strongly contested in many cities, given the need to balance multiple functions and transport modes with the needs of a diverse range of users.

In response to this lack of evidence, our research Street space allocation and use in Melbourne's activity centres measured how much street space is allocated and used by each mode of transport in Melbourne’s major activity centres. In comparing street space allocation and use, we adopted the principle of ‘egalitarianism’, in which the distribution of street space is considered ‘fair’ where space is distributed to each transport mode according to its demand, measured in terms of people rather than vehicles [7].

A better understanding of street space allocation and use can help identify locations where street space could be allocated more equitably to different types of users. This is particularly relevant in the context of Covid, where greater space for pedestrians and cyclists is being sought to support increased uptake of these forms of transport [8], alongside efforts to increase outdoor dining opportunities through converting on-street parking to ‘parklets’ [9]. It can also support efforts to achieve broader health and environmental objectives associated with increasing active travel and reducing dependency on the private car.

Our research was undertaken from October to December 2020, when Melbourne was subject to various forms of restrictions associated with Covid. During this time, restrictions were placed on how far people could travel from home, thereby placing a greater reliance on the use of local activity centres. Public transport use was also much lower, in part associated with an increase in working from home and a switch to online education. We repeated the surveys in some locations in March-April 2021 during relaxed restrictions and found the overall conclusions to be the same. While it is difficult to say whether the lifestyle trends from the pandemic will be ongoing and reshape the use of our streets, time will tell as to whether businesses, councils and the wider community are supportive of longer-term changes to our streetscapes.

Map of survey locations across Melbourne - major activity centres generally located within 10 km of Melbourne’s CBD, where access by all transport modes tends to be more evident. They also cover a range of different street elements.

Proposing a new method for measuring street space allocation and use

With the aim of understanding how much street space is allocated and used by different modes of transport, we surveyed a total of 57 locations within 36 major activity centres across Melbourne. These locations were chosen based on their proximity to Melbourne’s CBD, where access by all transport modes is more evident and where greater conflicts exist between movement and place. So that we could also understand how street space allocation and use varies across different modes of transport, locations were selected based on covering a range of different street elements such as footpaths, car parking, clearways, bicycle lanes, exclusive tram lanes, and shared general traffic/tram/bus lanes.

In surveying each location, we positioned ourselves on the footpath and faced perpendicular to the street. We counted the number of people passing by in both directions and recorded the mode of transport they used. We did this for 1.5 hours at each location in afternoon periods when activity centres tend to be busiest. In addition to counting people, we also measured the amount of street width (in centimetres) given to each street element, e.g. footpath, car parking, shared general traffic/tram/bus lanes.

We counted over 2,000 people on average at each location. As the person counts were based on movement/flow, this typically resulted in more people being counted in cars than slower modes of transport such as walking. To account for this difference, we converted our count data (people/hour) into a measure of ‘concentration’ (people/km) using average travel speeds for each transport mode [10]. This provided us with a more suitable measure of street space use by estimating the number of people per kilometre using each transport mode.

For each location, we then calculated the percentage of space allocated to each mode of transport, based on the street measurements and compared this to the percentage of people we observed using each mode of transport, based on concentration. Our comparison of street space allocation and use could then be used to illustrate the extent to which each location was under or over supplied (for lack of a better term) in terms of street space by transport mode. While the term over/under supply is imperfect, the research adopted the principle of 'egalitarianism', consistent with previous studies internationally [3] [7].

Given the focus of our research on people, rather than vehicles, particularly given the context of activity centres, the comparison did not adjust for the physical size requirements or average trip distances of each transport mode. Previous research has shown that this tends to only favour larger vehicles and does not support a sustainable transport agenda [5].

How does the allocation and use of street space compare in Melbourne's activity centres?

Average street space allocation vs. use across all surveyed activity centres. Footpath space is undersupplied while other street elements are mostly over supplied.

When averaged across all activity centres, we found that the percentage of total space given to footpaths (33%) was far less than the percentage of total people observed walking on footpaths (56%), indicating an undersupply of street space for pedestrians. Exclusive tram lanes were found to be only slightly oversupplied (22% of total space vs. 18% of total people), as were shared general traffic/tram/bus lanes (35% of total space vs. 30% of total people). However, other street elements were found to be greatly oversupplied, particularly bicycle lanes (12% of total space vs. 2% of total people), car parking (21% of total space vs. 13% of total people) and shared general traffic/bus lanes (42% of total space vs. 29% of total people).

While this provides an indication of the extent of under/oversupply of space, it represents the average for all activity centres that were surveyed within our research. Considerable variability was found when comparing the allocation and use of street space across individual activity centres which highlights the importance of the local context in interpreting the findings. This shows that at some activity centres, contrary to the average result, space for footpaths was oversupplied while space for car parking and shared general traffic/bus lanes was undersupplied.

So what should we take away from this research?

An example of a local context analysis: section of Racecourse Road in Flemington

At many of the activity centres we surveyed, we found that footpath space was undersupplied while car parking space was oversupplied. Footpath space for pedestrians could therefore be increased in many activity centres, potentially through converting existing on-street parking, as is the case with the recent emergence of parklets [8].

While space for bicycle lanes was found to be 'oversupplied' at many activity centres, caution would need to be taken in reducing or eliminating cycling facilities as this would not necessarily progress a sustainable transport agenda [6]. Where bicycle lanes were present at the surveyed sites, these generally took the form of only a painted white line, placing cyclists at risk of car door openings and offering minimal protection. Greater protection for cyclists (e.g. through Copenhagen style bicycle lanes) should therefore be considered in activity centres to encourage greater uptake of cycling. Any reallocation of space would of course also need to be considered against minimum width requirements for different modes of transport.

Another key take-away from this research is that the use of averages to denote street space allocation and use across a city, without considering the local context, should be avoided. Averages can mask differences found at individual locations where changes to street space allocation may be implemented in practice. Our research emphasises the importance of considering the local context and developing a site-specific approach to street space reallocation as what may be an appropriate reallocation of street space in one activity centre may be entirely inappropriate in another activity centre. Any reallocation of street space also needs to account for the needs of local businesses and the wider community who would be affected by these changes.

Finally, while recognising that the reallocation of street space involves a range of governance, political and ethical considerations, efforts to reallocate street space should be informed by empirical place-specific evidence of street space allocation and use, such as that provided by our research. This will help to ensure that decisions on street space allocation are supported by an evidence-base, focused on equitable distribution for a wide range of users, and supportive of broader goals for increasing the uptake of more sustainable forms of transport.

To learn more about this research, including the analysis of specific site locations, see:

Street space allocation and use in Melbourne's activity centres

Chris De Gruyter

Chris is a Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. He conducts research in the area of transport and land use planning, with a focus on understanding the transport impacts of new residential development. Prior to joining RMIT University, Chris was a Research Fellow and Deputy Director in the Public Transport Research Group at Monash University. He also worked in transport planning for 12 years, both with the Victorian government and in consulting. Chris’ wider research interests span the areas of travel demand management, public transport and land use planning.

Seyed Mojib Zahraee

Seyed is a Ph.D. research candidate at the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at RMIT University and a research assistant in the RMIT Centre for Urban Research. He is a member of the RMIT Cyber-Physical and Autonomous Systems Group, RMIT Transport Research Group, and the Australian Maritime Logistics Research Network. His research interest areas are biomass supply chain, supply chain management, transportation and logistics, sustainability, optimizing operations, statistical analysis, lean manufacturing. Seyed has published over 50 research papers in multidisciplinary fields, including industrial and mechanical engineering, transportation planning, information technology, supply chain management, and construction management.

William Young

Bill has worked at Monash University since 1975 and prior to joining Monash in the transport industry in England, Germany and several States of Australia for 4 years. He has also held visiting positions at Tokyo (Japan), Leeds (England), Oxford (UK), Nanyang (Singapore), Karlsruhe (Germany), Michigan State (USA), Central South (China) and Hong Kong (China) Universities, and the Australian Bureau of Transport Economics and Communication Economics (ACT). He has researched, consulted and published widely in the land-use/transport/environment interaction, traffic, parking, safety, transport modelling, engineering management and education areas.