Tram lane blues: the road rule Melburnians habitually ignore

They might be the most ineffectual traffic signs on Melbourne's roads: peak-hour tram lanes are in place on dozens of busy inner suburban streets, warning drivers to keep out of the path of trams.

There are more than 30 part-time tram lanes and they have been a feature of Melbourne's roads for many years, but few people seem to know about them and fewer still pay the signs any heed.

A tram is stuck in traffic between Alexandra Parade and Queens Pde on Smith St.
A tram is stuck in traffic between Alexandra Parade and Queens Pde on Smith St. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

Motorists can be fined $148 for driving in the lanes, but police enforcement is also minimal, data reveals.

In 2013-14, just 312 drivers were fined for occupying a tram lane, figures provided by Victoria Police show. 

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

VicRoads and Yarra Trams agree that car traffic is one of the biggest causes of delay for trams.

This month VicRoads will begin a six-month trial on Smith Street, at one of the worst tram bottlenecks in Melbourne, which it hopes will prompt more drivers to obey the road rules and give trams a smoother run in the morning peak.


Smith Street has been chosen in part because trams are the dominant transport mode there, carrying 70 per cent of all traffic in the morning peak, according to VicRoads.


It is also a stretch where trams routinely get bogged down in traffic, worsening the performance of route 86, which is one of Melbourne's busiest routes, carrying about 300,000 passengers a week.

Trams crawl along on Smith Street, averaging between 11 km/h and 13 km/h during the day, about 5 km/h slower than average tram speeds in Melbourne (Melbourne's trams are among the world's slowest, mostly because 80 per cent of the network is on-road instead of in its own corridor). 

On the stretch where the trial will be held, between Queens Parade and Alexandra Parade, speeds are even slower - as little as 6 km/h. 

It can take a tram six minutes and three phases of the lights to travel between Queens Parade and Alexandra Parade in the morning peak, a journey of just a few hundred metres.  This compares to one to two minutes in off peak periods.

"Approximately 70 per cent of people travelling on Smith Street in the morning peak travel by tram, and our aim is to improve their commute into the city," VicRoads Project Director Brendan Pauwels said.

The trial involves painting new road markings in the southbound tram lane, between Queens Parade and Alexandra Parade, and new overhead and roadside signs alerting drivers to the tram lane.

Three parking spaces will also be removed.

But the new and more prominent tram lane will not be policed, which has led some to question if the trial is doomed to fail.

"The aim of the part-time tram lane improvements trial is to test out the new road markings and signage to increase awareness, and thus driver compliance," Mr Pauwels said. "Enforcement of the part-time tram lane is not something that is being looked at in the initial stages of the trial."

Tony Morton, the president of the Public Transport Users Association, said tram lanes had been a feature of Melbourne's roads since fairways were introduced in the 1980s but most drivers disregarded them.

"When tram lanes are adhered to they are quite effective, where it is possible to segregate trams and cars it certainly makes a big difference to travel times and reliability," Dr Morton said.

Phil Altieri, state secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Division's tram division, said tram drivers were held up daily by motorists illegally blocking trams. He said the problem caused delay and was also a safety hazard.

"Taxis are the worst offenders, they are habitually doing U-turns in front of trams and it forces drivers to slam on the brakes, sometimes people get injured," Mr Altieri said.

But he warned the trial would peter out without effect, as previous campaigns had, unless it was allied with police enforcement.

"We've had a fairway system since the 1980s and it's never been enforced, that's the missing link," he said.


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