This research examines the transformation of the democratic systems that support transport decision making in Australian cities. The focus of the paper is the controversial East West Link road tunnel proposed for the inner suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria. Following the state government decision to fast track the signing of the contracts for this project, concern that this would remove public debate about the efficacy of the proposed tunnel eventually proved unfounded. Instead, the closing down of debate by the government spurred debate to occur elsewhere. My ambition in this project was to understand the intricacies of the opposition to this controversial road project, but, more specifically, to examine the ways in which different community-based groups organised to stop a project and do so in a way that offers a transformative urban transport agenda for the State. When a government deliberately closes its door to open citizen engagement, particularly around discussions of transport priorities, I was interested in investigating how community based groups and individual residents alike can move beyond NIMBY-focused and site specific agitation to garner a spatially dispersed re-politicisation of urban transport priorities? I set out to consider how a reconceptualisation could transpire, and in what ways could a political orientation of the problem provide a platform for a redemocratisation of transport planning?
When the research commenced, I was nearing the end of my semester of teaching Integrated Transport Planning. Motivated by the high level of student activism that catalysed the creation of the Students Linking Melbourne Sustainably (SLiMS) group, my research assistant Daniela Minicucci and I set out to follow and engage groups like SLiMS through an ethnographic study of the politicisation of transport in Melbourne. This included participation in community organised street protests, engagement in public forums and debates about urban transport policy at community meetings and in the media. I also followed Twitter feeds and hastage discussions as well as participated in meetings with leaders in the community campaign against the East West Link. To develop a more robust understanding of the motivations and strategies embraced by the groups, and to help with my analysis of the variety of ways these groups were working collectively to stop the project, I also conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with the lead campaigners. Even though the substantive aspect of my research focused on a 6 month period of state-led community engagement with a highly flawed Comprehensive Impact Statement process, my interest in these groups continued unabatedly into the state election in November 2014 when, following months of political pressure from these groups in the lead up to the election, and after signing the contracts, the party in power was defeated. Through the campaign, which included savvy engagement with the political parties and major media outlets, the community-based groups were able to position the project onto the state’s political agenda in the lead up to the election. This enabled the newly elected government to remove the East West Link from the top of the transport infrastructure priority list following the election. Shortly thereafter the contracts were broken.
The paper’s contribution is to illustrate how the politics of transport evolves and is played out. Any decision to remove the community from the processes that determine the priorities of transport investment, are inherently political decisions and therefore any attempt to depoliticise decision making, be that through streamlining decision making or by narrowing the scope for citizen participation, only serves to hyper politicise projects. A key conclusion of the paper is the need for new urban governance settings that both respond to and embrace the political aspects of transport planning and decision making. But in the absence of inclusive governance arrangements, politically engaged citizens will go to great lengths to create their own spaces where deliberations about transport problems, priorities and investments can occur, but in a manner that allows alternative transport futures to also be considered. These informal processes offer an illustration of the redemocratisation of transport planning. To the extent that citizens can influence transport decision making (and they can!), a closed system of transport decision making does not close down debate and community action.