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The Liberal Government of Henry Bolte chose the title 'freeways' for the high-speed highways known elsewhere as motorways (the United Kingdom), Autobahnen (Germany) and autostrada (Italy). The name reflected Victoria's dependence on American expertise ('freeways' was the name chosen by California for its highways), Liberal ideals of freedom (the New South Wales Australian Labor Party Government had opted for 'expressways') and the preference for free access to publicly provided highways, rather than 'tollways', such as those on the east coast of the USA.

Victoria had been impressed with the freeway idea since the late 1930s, when Country Roads Board chief William McCormick returned from a visit to California imbued with the desire to build roads that exhibited 'directional, free-flowing lines that give velocity and rhythm, and no obstruction to traffic'. Interest quickened after the war as motor cars multiplied, congestion increased and businessmen returned from the USA singing the praises of the American highway system. Visits to Melbourne by American traffic experts and of Victorian traffic engineers to the Yale Traffic School confirmed the preference for an American approach to highway planning.

In 1964 the Bolte Government appointed a Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), with representation from all the main public transport and highway authorities, to devise a comprehensive plan to meet Melbourne's transport needs into the mid-1980s. A Melbourne Transportation Study, a comprehensive statistical study of current traffic movements and projected demand, was designed with the leading American consultant and freeway advocate Wilbur Smith. In 1969 the MTC announced a plan for more than 300 miles (500 km) of urban freeways, estimated to cost $1.6 billion. A system of radial freeways along the waterways already identified as road reservations in the 1929 and 1954 metropolitan plans was to be supplemented by a network of inner-city freeways. An advantage of these inner-city freeways was that they could use land cleared of slums by the Housing Commission of Victoria.

From the first, the 'freeway plan', as it became known, encountered spirited opposition, both in the inner city, where the anti-freeway movement united recent immigrants, student radicals and middle-class 'trendies' in defence of their communities, and along the river and creek valleys where the struggle was waged by 'greenies' in defence of the natural environment and householders threatened by traffic noise and pollution. In 1973 the Hamer Government cut most of the inner-city routes, but persevered with construction of the F19 or Eastern Freeway. In December 1977, just as it was about to open, residents blockaded the main exit on Alexandra Parade with old car bodies and defied authorities to remove them. Although the protesters were defeated, later governments were wary of pushing freeway plans against resident opposition. The projected extensions of the South Eastern (Monash) Freeway along the Gardiners Creek valley were modified (temporarily) into a 'high-speed arterial' road.

However, the pause in freeway construction did nothing to quench the city's insatiable thirst for automobility. With the election of the Kennett Government in 1992, Melbourne was once more 'On the Move'. The centrepiece of Kennett's plans for the city - a scheme actually inherited from his Labor predecessor - was a new system of high-speed roads, CityLink, to be built, owned and run by a private company and run on 'pay-as-you-go' principles through an electronic toll. CityLink represented a radical departure from the principles that had governed road policy in Victoria, at least since the late 1870s, when tolls were removed from roads on the outskirts of the city. Labor announced its intention, on regaining office, of constructing the next instalment of the metropolitan highway system, the Scoresby Bypass, as a freeway, a promise it found impossible to fulfil when costs escalated and the Commonwealth Government declined to contribute the needed funds. The freeway - publicly owned and provided to road users free of charge - was always an appealing, but misleading, idea. Only gradually, as the bills have arrived, have Melburnians begun to recognise that there is no such thing as a free way.

Graeme Davison

Davison, Graeme, Car wars: how the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004. Details