Melbourne is, for the most part, an excellent example of what a good city can be in this day and age.
I am speaking, of course, of the capital of the state of Victoria in Australia, a delightful multicultural place of some 4.5 million people (including the whole metropolitan area). While Melbourne is the kind of city that should be known without a country name attached, I know all too well that people in the U.S. are very provincial about such things, especially when the city is on the other side of the world.
Let’s start with something near and dear to my heart these days: public transit. Melbourne’s system puts the San Francisco Bay Area to shame, and I say that as someone who mostly gets around the Bay Area by bus and BART. I suspect it serves a larger area than New York City’s transit, given how far out of the city the trains and buses tied into the same system go.
Australia, like the U.S., was shaped by the automobile, but, unlike what happened in U.S. cities when the car came along, Melbourne did not ditch its trams. You can take trams all over the city, and connect to buses at places where the tram lines end. You can also get trains that run through the center of the city all the way out into the surrounding area.
And you can use all of this transportation with one Myki card. We bought a week’s pass and I guarantee you we got more than our money’s worth. And as a bonus, we did not have to drive on the wrong side of unfamiliar and highly traveled highways, much less navigate city streets.
They are building new train tunnels under the central business district right now, and they have set up an excellent display downtown showing what they’re doing and why. I have never seen such clear explanation and transparency about a transit program in the U.S.
We went to dinner with some of my sweetheart’s colleagues (he was there for a meeting on hot water issues and energy efficiency), and one of them, who lived in a small place about 100 kilometers from Melbourne, had multiple choices for his train home. He left about 9 p.m. The fact that all the transit is integrated into one system made it easy.
Then there’s the food. Melbourne has benefitted greatly from immigration from throughout the world. In our eight days there, we ate Italian, Greek, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Argentinian, good burgers, and some exquisite modern cuisine using native Australian foods. Kangaroo and emu are tasty, but the plant-based foods are even more interesting and different from those found in the Americas and Europe.
The crime rate is quite low. The main evidence we saw was the occasional stripped bicycle chained to a post. I can’t think when I’ve been in a city where I felt as safe on the street, no matter what the hour. (As a reader of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman novels, I expected more evidence of criminal activity than I saw. But of course mysteries always play up those things.)
There are homeless people, but by comparison to the Bay Area, the number is small. However, Melbourne housing prices are high and gentrification is having an effect.
Tipping is not common in Australia, partly because of the fact that unions were so strong here. The eight-hour day was won in Victoria in the 19th Century, and the minimum wage is $19.49 an hour (though there are other rules for apprentices and some higher rates as well). Even with the difference between the Australian and U.S. dollars, that is considerably higher than minimum wage in the U.S., and compares favorably with the $15 an hour minimum now becoming popular in a few cities here.
I didn’t realize how stressful I found tipping until I didn’t need to do it. I have never liked the “noblesse oblige” element of tipping, though in the U.S. I do it as a matter of course because so many service workers are so horribly underpaid. I would much rather pay a fair fee for services than to try to calculate a tip based on a system of inequality.
The State LibraryThen there are places like the State Library in downtown Melbourne, which is a classic old building from the city’s 19th Century golden age and also a useful working library. When I visited it, students of high school and college age were everywhere and I noticed all kinds of high tech and other projects it was sponsoring. It was a lovely melding of tradition and useful working library.
There were things that bothered me, for no place is perfect. Melbourne is well-stocked with bookstores, but those stores prioritize books from the U.S. and U.K. over Australian books, which was disappointing.
And of course Australia, like the U.S. and most other countries in the Americas, has an appalling history in its treatment of the indigenous population by the immigrants who came in the 19th Century. I noticed in Melbourne many signs noting the indigenous heritage of the land, but as with California (where we also do that), the damage has been done.
Environmental issues remain a major concern. Melbourne was not very affected by this summer’s extreme bushfires in Australia, but Victoria has had its own problems with such fires in the past. And while the city and the Victoria governments are paying attention to the climate crisis, the country as a whole is afflicted with a government almost as bad as ours in the U.S. in dealing with that issue.
We visited the Healesville Sanctuary, which is a large wildlife sanctuary and research facility run by the Melbourne Zoo. Many species are endangered, and the climate crisis is making this worse. But we got to see platypuses, along with kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and a great variety of birds that don’t live in our part of the world.
Melbourne is growing rapidly. They are projecting up to 8 million people in the area by mid-century. While they seem to be planning for that, at least in transit, and the chamber of commerce sorts are very excited by it, it does appear to present a lot of potential problems given that the bushfires across the country have demonstrated what the climate crisis may do in Australia.
However, my fellow BVCer Gillian Polack, whose “Meanwhile in Australia” reports have kept us all up on the bushfires, assures me that in Melbourne and in Victoria there are lots of people paying close attention to the environmental issues. So it’s possible that Melbourne may do a much better job of growing than, say, the Bay Area.
If it wasn’t for climate change and the fact that the Australian federal government is as nutty as ours in the U.S., I’d be tempted to pack up and move across the world. Melbourne is my kind of city.
And I forgot a couple of other wonderful points about Melbourne, ones I suspect are common to Australia as a whole. Most of the Australians I met had been to the U.S., and the ones who hadn’t had been to many places in Europe and Asia. I also met people from other countries working there on short term working visas, which are much easier for people to get than they are in the U.S.
Which is to say, Australians are tied into the rest of the world in a way that the average person in the U.S. is not.
And they’re all so friendly. I can probably count on one hand the number of people who were just minimally polite in dealing with me, while I’ve lost count of all the people who not only did their job, but leaned over backwards to help a clueless tourist.
Even at customs the people were friendly, something doesn’t happen in the U.S.
I tried to pick up a few linguistic difference (even the crows have an Australian accent). One thing we noticed: everyone said “yeah, yeah” enthusiastically. It was a positive statement, a contrast to the way it’s used in the U.S. which is usually ironically.
And “no worries” is the common response to thank you.
So yeah, yeah, and no worries. Despite the long plane ride, Australia, and particularly Melbourne, is worth the trip.