The Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group (IWAQCRG) launched their report  Air Pollution in Melbourne’s Inner West – Taking direct action to reduce our community’s exposure back in September 2020.

With over 8 million truck movements each year through our residential streets, this report was never going to be good news regarding our health or air quality.  But even we were shocked to see how bad the health statistics were in the City of Maribyrnong, with diseases commonly attributed to air pollution measuring much higher than the Australian average.

Dr Kate Lycett, Senior Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, provided the report with an assessment of data comparing health outcomes in the three Inner West municipalities with Australia as a whole, focussing on diseases for which air pollution can be a substantial contributory factor.

She found that residents in the City of Maribyrnong have some of the worst health outcomes for asthma, heart disease, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and preventable conditions.  We even have the highest rate of hospitalisations for stroke in all of Victoria.  Alarmingly, we do not have the common risk factors for these statistics.  We have a young demographic (average age of just 33), average socio economic status and below average adult obesity and smoking rates, and yet we have the health statistics of an elderly and very unwell population.

The report highlights that one of the main contributors to poor air quality is the tens of thousands of trucks running through the area each day. Adding to this is the age of our trucking fleet, one of the oldest in the OECD, on par with Mexico.  These out-dated old trucks would not be allowed on roads in Europe or into ports in the USA but are considered to be okay for residential streets in Melbourne’s inner west.

The report contained 26 recommendations for action.  They were designed to reduce air pollution from road transport and industry (including the West Gate Tunnel Project) and improve the planning framework, government regulation and policy, air quality monitoring and community education in the inner west.  The recommendations included:

  • A low emission zone bounded by Grieve Parade, Geelong Road, Kororoit Creek Road and Whitehall Street, whereby older polluting trucks would be banned from entering the zone for three hours a day.
  • Incentivising businesses to upgrade their truck fleets to Euro V or better.
  • Ensure that the operation of the tunnel does not encourage truck traffic on feeder roads such as Williamstown Road.
  • Install filtration on the tunnel ventilation stack prior to the tunnel opening.
  • Work with the Port of Melbourne to develop a Clean Port Program that includes restricted access for older more polluting vehicles.
  • Polluter pays incentives to fast track air quality improvements.

With the report painting such an alarmingly picture of poor health outcomes, we were expecting a comprehensive and timely response from the Government on the actions it would take to protect our health.

In May this year, State Government representatives including Ministers, advisors, department heads and local MP’s attended a briefing session for the IWAQCRG. The almost two hour briefing included presentations from a number of people along with power point slides and a Q&A. A similar briefing was provided to MTAG by Minister Horne’s office in June.  However no public documentation, statement or announcement regarding the government response has since been made.

In September MTAG wrote to the Department of Transport inquiring when a public response or an update to the IWAQCRG web page would happen. We were told that there would be no update to the web page but that they are “working on a coordinated way to communicate the various projects occurring in the Inner West.”  We are still waiting for this.  How can the community ever hold the government to account on their response when there is no public documentation?  There has subsequently been a complete lack of media scrutiny.

There has also been a complete lack of detail on the measures announced and when the IWAQCRG wrote to the government trying to get more detail, the answers didn’t provide us with any greater understanding and in some ways left us feeling more confused. To add to this confusion, a letter sent to the group from the four ministers outlining the government’s response didn’t contain some of the measures that were mentioned at the initial briefing.

The volunteer members of the IWAQCRG met more than 22 times over an eighteen month period and produced an incredibly comprehensive 95 page report.  We are unsure of how any of the measures have progressed, and are also unsure if they will lead to any measurable reductions in air pollution.

Here’s what we know to date:

  • Updating the land use planning system – A new clause will be added into the Planning Policy Framework to integrate land use and transport. This will include a freight policy, with strategies to “manage the negative impacts of freight generating activities on urban amenity” and “increase the capacity of the rail network to carry larger volumes of freight”.  Also includes a clause to “accommodate High Productivity Freight Vehicles”.

MTAG thoughts: This is very welcome, we need planning that separates freight routes away from the community, including housing, school and kindergartens. We are concerned though that the strategy to “accommodate more HPFV’s” will mean more road train monster trucks on our roads. This is not something we welcome if it means more monster trucks on unsuitable roads, these trucks only belong on freeways.

  • Low Emmission Priorty Zone – $100 million (State wide) will be spent on a LEV Policy – includes a Low Emission Priority Zone which will focus on the west, The area will be prioritised as a ‘test-bed’ for clean energy technology trials over the next two years including an electric bus trial and the testing of new technologies such as Green Wave technology and a Drive Easy Program (see below)

MTAG thoughts: We certainly welcome low emission zones such as those in cities like London that restrict more polluting vehicles from sensitive areas. However, this is not what the Government is proposing.  We are unclear on how this Low Emission Priority Zone will actually reduce air pollution in the inner west. We want a proper low emission zone, in the internationally accepted definition of the term, that have proven to be highly effective all around the world. Their idea of a low emissions zone appears to be tweaking traffic lights to keep traffic running more smoothly.

  • Green Wave Technology – Changing traffic light signalling at key intersections to improve traffic flows.

MTAG thoughts: We want the old trucks off our streets, not traffic light signalling improvements that may just encourage more trucks on our roads because they will get a smoother traffic flow. Current congestion actually makes trucks use more appropriate roads like freeways. Making it easier for them to use our residential streets makes no sense to us.

  • Drive Easy Program Signalisation review, better management of the network, real time traffic information – moving network more efficiently.

MTAG thoughts: Again, enabling trucks to move more efficiently could have the consequence of encouraging them to use our residential streets.  The IWAQCRG asked for more detail on this measure and what it means.  We were told that this has been renamed as the Smarter Roads program and consists of a “range of workstreams” including air quality monitoring.  Now we’re really confused what this measure means!

  • Zero emission bus trial – As part of the Low Emission Priority Zone, the Victorian Government will be rolling out the Zero Emissions Bus trial in the inner west.

MTAG thoughts: Electric buses are certainly welcome and must be part of our public transport fleet moving forward. They have said that the trial will be mostly located in the west however we understand this trial consists of just one bus running between Altona and Mordialloc.  How does one bus reduce our air pollution in the face of 8 million trucks on our roads each year?  NSW has already bought 8,000 electric buses! We think electric truck trials would be more appropriate in the west.

  • Brooklyn Air monitoring project – A two-year air monitoring project in Brooklyn consisting of 7 fixed site monitors and 4 mobile units.  This will include an apportionment study to understand the composition and sources of air pollution in the area and will also include the study of ultrafine particles, PM1’s.

MTAG thoughts: More and better quality data is important, as is the measuring of PM1’s.  But we have known for close to 20 years that the trucks are impacting on our health. The EPA came to this conclusion after testing on Francis Street in 2002. Do we really just need more data before any significant action can be taken to protect our health?

  • Early diagnosis and treatment of asthma – $1.78 million towards early diagnosis and treatment of asthma in the inner west led by Department of Health, a 2-year program.

MTAG thoughts: This is very much needed and welcomed by us. However let’s also tackle prevention at the same time and stop the causes of asthma in the first place. Diagnosis and treatment are very important but unless we reduce the air pollution we will not see rates of childhood asthma in the inner west reducing.

  • Work with the Port of Melbourne to develop a Clean Port Program – Freight on rail projects including the Port Rail Shuttle and the Port Transformation Program.  Also includes a Container Logistics Chain Study.

MTAG thoughts: Freight on rail is so very welcome and long overdue, but some of these projects were promised back in 2005.  The Port Transformation Project was a condition of the port lease agreement in 2016. These initiatives were already progressing and are not directly in response to the IWAQCRG report.  More importantly, a proper Clean Port Program would include measures to reduce the pollution coming from the old trucks accessing the port. Cities like Los Angeles have successfully implemented Clean Truck Programs at its ports.

  • Melbourne Market Site – a section of the old Footscray Road wholesale fruit and vegetable market site to be used for empty container storage and staging.

MTAG thoughts: This is a great initiative but was already in progress and is not a new initiative in response to the IWAQCRG report.

  • Encouraging container parks to move from Brooklyn and Tottenham – Container yard and trucking operators will be educated on the implications for them on the upcoming WGTP truck bans and encouraged to move to locations better serviced by the port rail shuttle and the freeway system.

MTAG thoughts: This is a great initiative and has the potential to be a real game changer.  We are already seeing the benefits of this with a major container yard already relocating. However, the work was already in progress and is not a new project in response to the IWAQCRG report.

  • Green Walls – Department of Transport will design and trial a green wall.

MTAG thoughts: This is a welcome initiative but again just a trial. We need real and meaningful reductions in air pollution now. Green walls could make a big difference along freeways but are impossible to install in established areas like Williamstown Rd where a doubling in truck numbers is expected by 2030.

  • Advocacy to Commonwealth – the Government will advocate to the Commonwealth on a stronger national zero emissions vehicle strategy and non-road diesel engines such as cranes.

MTAG thoughts: The report contained many areas for the State Government to advocate to the Federal Government, but unfortunately none of these were included in the response.

  • Polluter Pays Incentives – Facilitate all levels of Government to develop targeted ‘polluter pays’ incentives to fast track air quality improvements, for example assess market-based incentives, use of differential registration and/or road pricing.

MTAG thoughts: This was in the initial briefing and sounded like it had potential.  However,  it was omitted from the written response to the IWAQCRG. The IWAQCRG asked in a letter if the government was still committed to this measure, however the question wasn’t answered.

To sum up, while the verbal response to the report’s recommendations included some really good initiatives, many were already in progress. After 18 months of volunteering their time in meetings and writing their report, the community didn’t expect the government to announce already announced initiatives.  We expected a bold and imaginative response to an alarming report that highlights poor health outcomes in what is considered to be one of the most liveable cities in the world.  MTAG believes the response to date has been vague, lacking in detail and lacking in priority.

It is difficult to understand how these measures will reduce air pollution at levels that will make up for the expected growth in container movements, traffic and population.  Let alone reduce air pollution levels to a healthy and safe environment. Ultimately, it’s too little, too slow and well below community expectations.

We urgently need real action, with real emissions reduction targets and real health improvement targets. Sadly this response to date will do little to tackle Melbourne’s entrenched view that ‘you deserve what you get when you choose to live in the west.’