How community action re-politicised transport planning in Victoria

It emerged as the key issue in the Victorian election and arguably led to the downfall of a government – but the East-West Link tollway also set a blueprint for community activism with impact.

The Centre for Urban Research’s Dr Crystal Legacy has researched the community-led anti-tollway campaign and examined how it came to have such a significant political effect.

The proposed 18km East-West Link tollway was designed to link Melbourne’s Western Ring Road and Eastern Freeway but community opposition to the project spread when the Napthine Liberal government signed contracts in 2014 to construct the multi-billion dollar project before taking the plan to an election.

Legacy says the government’s decision to remove the community from the transport investment decision-making process and its attempts to depoliticise the decision only served to “hyper-politicise” the project.

“Politically engaged citizens will go to great lengths to create their own spaces where deliberations about the transport problems, priorities and investments can occur, but in a manner that allows alternative transport futures such as public transport to also be considered,” she says.

Campaigners engaged heavily in social media, community-led forums and one-to-one consultation sites to garner support for their plight.

Local residents, student activists and concerned community members eventually raised the issue’s profile enough for it to become a key issue in last year’s state election.

Legacy says she first became interested in the issue because of the high level of student activism.

“I set out to follow and engage groups like Students Linking Melbourne Sustainably,” she says.

“I took part in community-organised street protests, engaged in public forums both as an attendee and in a few cases as a panel speaker, and debated about urban transport policy at community meetings and in the media.”

She gained valuable insights by following Twitter feeds and hashtag discussions, as well as participating in meetings with community campaign leaders.

This enabled her to develop a more robust understanding of the motivations and strategies embraced by the campaign groups.

The proposed tollway’s effectiveness in reducing congestion was criticised and community groups rallied against the potential damage the road and tunnel would cause to local parklands and suburban residential areas.

Many argued the money might be better spent on public transport alternatives.

Legacy says the protests demonstrated that community-based groups and individual residents could evolve beyond “not in my backyard”- focused and site-specific rallying to also engage with wider issues through social media and community forums.

Her findings appear in a recently published Urban Studies article, Transforming transport planning in the post-political era.

Further discussion about the research can be found on the Urban Studies blog.

How community action re-politicised transport planning in Victoria originally published in RMIT News. (20 October 2015)