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Motor Cars

Motor vehicles were the most transformative influence on the character of Melbourne in the 20th century. Cars and the spaces they occupy now dominate the suburban landscape. Next to housing, they make the largest claim on the expenditure of households. Cars are the largest cause of deaths and injuries among young Melburnians and their dependence on oil, a polluting, non-renewable fuel, potentially threatens the environmental sustainability of the city itself.

All this has occurred in the course of the last century, and especially over the past 60 years since the advent of mass automobilisation. 'Horseless carriages' had first appeared on Melbourne's roads in the wake of the great cycling fad of the 1890s. One of the first petrol-driven cars, the 'Pioneer', a 'motorised double-seat dogcart' was exhibited at the Melbourne Cycle Show in 1897. By 1903 when a dozen motoring enthusiasts joined an excursion to Tooradin on Westernport Bay, it was clear that motoring had come to stay. Many pioneer motorists had previously been bicycling enthusiasts and motoring's appeal was strongest among those imbued with a spirit of adventure and a love of the great outdoors. In December 1904 55 men met at the Port Phillip Hotel to form an Automobile Club as 'a social organization and club composed mainly of persons owning self-propelled vehicles or motor cycles'. From its beginnings, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) became the voice of 'the man at the wheel', defending the motorist's right to drive, unfettered by onerous taxation or regulation, as a simple extension of liberal democracy.

Cars, however, were also a new and dangerous force in urban life. They travelled faster, generated more noise and dust and claimed more road space than any other form of transport. They endangered the lives of anything, human or beast, that was unfortunate enough to stand in their path. During the 19th century civic authorities had developed regulations governing 'furious driving' and other forms of anti-social street behaviour; but the motor car called for more comprehensive and stringent forms of regulation. Following a 1914 traffic conference the Melbourne City Council introduced amendments to city by-laws to require motorists to drive on the left of the road, indicate stops and turns, and carry a red light. Other regulations governed speed, parking and loads. However, these regulations were only as strong as the authorities' ability to enforce them. Policemen on bicycles were powerless to pursue runaway motorists and, even when they brought offenders to court, magistrates were often more sympathetic to well-spoken fellow members of the middle class than to bumbling police officers.

The number of motorists increased rapidly in the years before World War I, and although the rationing of petrol curbed the growth of private motoring during the war, the trend accelerated during the 1920s when the number of vehicles on Victorian roads doubled from 70 000 in 1924 to 154 000 in 1929. The Metropolitan Town Planning Commission noted that 'this increase in the use of the automobile is worldwide and gives rise to many town-planning problems'. Each car passenger used about six times the road space of a cable tram passenger. Were there ways of ensuring that the interests of the mass of the people who used public transport were not unjustifiably subjugated to the noisy minority of private motorists, the commissioners wondered. They were attracted to the idea that cars could be segregated from other road users on special highways, constructed like New York's famous parkways through the vacant land along the city's river and creek valleys. The car also threatened the profitability of the State-owned transport monopolies. By the mid-1920s, private bus-owners, often ex-servicemen driving second-hand hire purchase vehicles, were busily opening up new routes wherever they saw a chance of attracting passengers. In 1927, however, the State Government brought 'the bus wars' to an abrupt end by establishing the Transport Regulation Board. Henceforward bus services would be licensed only for routes which fed, rather than bled, the government's suburban railway services.

During the depressed 1930s motor car ownership increased only half as fast as it had in the late 1920s, and during World War II when petrol was rationed and new vehicles were unprocurable, it stagnated. In 1944 the Argus newspaper invited its readers to imagine their ideal postwar car. 'My ideal of the postwar car is that it should be a family car' was a typical response. Six cylinders, six passengers, a hardtop rather than a canvas hood and around £500 was the ideal. In the late 1940s most of the cars on Melbourne's roads were shabby prewar models or small English-made saloons. Many workingmen, unable to afford a car, made do with a motorcycle, sometimes with a sidecar for the family. But in 1948 when General Motors-Holden began production of the Holden sedan at its Fishermans Bend plant, the wartime dream car suddenly materialised. In 1945 about two-thirds of men in Melbourne had a driver's licence, but there were two and a half drivers for every registered vehicle. Even in 1951 only 15% of Melbourne workers travelled to work by car. Over the following 25 years, however, while the City's population almost doubled, the number of motor vehicles increased over four-fold. By 1960 about one-third of Melbourne households were still car-less. But by the early 1970s almost two-thirds of Melbourne workers travelled to work by car, and by 1996 more than three-quarters did so.

By the 1950s the growth of motor traffic threatened to choke the City's centre. In 1947 the Melbourne City Council (MCC) actually debated a motion to ban cars from the CBD. City retailers, fearful for the future of the city's shopping precinct, formed a ginger group, the City Development Association, to press for remedies. The Myer Emporium's Kenneth Myer, who had been educated in the USA, emerged as a forceful advocate of American-style schemes of traffic management such as parking meters (adopted by the MCC in 1955) and multi-storey parking stations. Supported by the RACV they floated radical proposals to create vertical separation between motor traffic, trams and pedestrians in the CBD.

It was in the suburbs, however, rather than the city centre, that the car had the most dramatic impact. Thanks to the motor truck, manufacturers could now locate their plants on greenfields sites far from rail or port. Soon their employees followed to create new industrial suburbs in suburbs as far afield as Dandenong, Clayton and Broad-meadows. Beyond the old 19th-century grid a new kind of city, built around the car, had begun to emerge. Now unshackled from the radial network of rail and tram lines, the suburbs could sprawl almost without limit. The wedges between the rail lines were often the first to be subdivided and settled, but by the 1960s suburban development was reaching along the highways towards the city's picturesque perimeter of hills and bayside beaches. When the Metropolitan Transportation Committee studied traffic patterns in the city in 1963 the households with the highest levels of car ownership were concentrated in affluent new eastern suburbs such as Waverley and Doncaster.

It was here too that the landscape was moulded most insistently to the needs of the car. On the new suburban estates, streets curved into crescents and cul-de-sacs, designed to slow the speed of cars and offer refuge from traffic noise and pollution. Carports and garages, once awkward additions, now merged with the houses themselves. Along the divided carriageways of the suburbs' main roads, lined with used car lots and tyre dealers, a new kind of architecture - the drive-in - appeared. In 1954 the first drive-in cinema opened on Burwood Highway. In 1957 the Oakleigh Motel, the city's first, appeared on Dandenong Road. Busy crossroads, like the intersection of Burwood and Springvale roads, became the favourite sites for mammoth drive-in hotels, like the Burvale. In 1960 the first regional shopping centre, Chadstone, was opened by Myer near the spot, at the intersection of Warrigal and Dandenong roads, which the company's American consultants had identified as the epicentre of the automobile suburbs. In 1971 the city's first McDonald's restaurant opened on Springvale Road and in 1977 the first 7-Eleven convenience store began on Warrigal Road. Like the automobile itself, these were the product of a suburban society defined by the desire for speed, mobility and instant gratification.

The pinnacle of these developments was a new type of highway, recently imported from America, the freeway. Since the early 1950s visiting experts, such as Los Angeles Chief Planner William Bennett, who visited Melbourne at the Myers' invitation in 1953, had been holding up American innovations in highway design as a pattern for Melbourne to follow. In 1964 a conference 'Living with the Motor Car', hosted by the RACV, heard British and American experts debate the path that Melbourne should take, but it was the American model that seemed to win most converts. The Melbourne Transportation Plan, unveiled in 1969, claimed to seek a 'balance' between private and public transport, but its scheme for more than 300 miles (500 km) of urban freeways, many through inner-city neighbourhoods or along environmentally sensitive creek and river valleys, provoked vigorous community protest. In 1974 the Hamer Government modified the proposal, cutting the most politically sensitive components, but many of its components were later realised as components of the Western Ringroad, the private tollroad, CityLink, the Scoresby Bypass or roads such as the Eastern Freeway-Tullamarine Freeway link, which are still no more than a gleam in the highway planners' eye.

At the beginning of its second century, the automobile remains the most desired and necessary, as well as the most problematical, appurtenance of everyday life in Melbourne. Many will regret its impact on the natural environment of the city, the appalling human cost of car accidents, and the fraying of neighbourhood ties that often comes in its wake. But ask any 17-year-old which franchise - to drink, to vote or to drive - they most long to exercise, and you can estimate how hard it will be to free future Melburnians from their willing captivity to the car.

Graeme Davison

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