Making public transport work in Melbourne.

Author:McCloskey, David
Position:Report

Public transport advocates argue that if higher density housing were promoted around transport hubs or along transport corridors, particularly those with tramlines, that this would achieve a significant increase in public transport use. This advocacy is mistaken in the case of Melbourne because only a small proportion of jobs is located close to fixed rail or tram routes. This helps explain the key empirical finding of this paper: only a tiny minority of employed persons who live within walking distance of a train station or a tram stop in Melbourne actually use the train or tram for journeys to work.

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Advocacy for a more compact Melbourne has escalated since the Victorian Government announced a major extension of the city's Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in 2009. This decision alarmed those concerned about the environmental and economic consequences of Melbourne's low-density settlement pattern.

The context was the state government's announcement in December 2008 that Melbourne's population was likely to increase by 1.8 million over the 30 years between 2006 and 2036 rather than by the one million over 30 years which had been assumed when the original Melbourne 2030 planning scheme was legislated in 2002. If the new projection is correct, Melbourne's population will grow from 3.744 million in 2006 to 5.525 million in 2036. (1)

Following this announcement, the government issued a revision of its planning strategy for Melbourne titled Melbourne@5 million. This stated that an additional 600,000 households would have to be accommodated over the next twenty years, nearly half of which would be located in growth areas. (2) As a consequence the UGB would have to be extended to help accommodate these extra households.

Those arguing against further expansion of the city's urban frontier, claim that Melbourne must become more compact (meaning higher density housing) if the city's residents are to develop a more sustainable lifestyle. Advocates for a compact city put a high priority on reduced dependence on the private car. They see increased use of public transport as a key indicator of a sustainable urban life style. A good example is the Audit Expert Group assigned to review the Melbourne 2030 planning scheme. This group, though selected for the role by the state government, nevertheless was critical of the government's expansion of the UGB. They advocated a compact city policy in association with a prioritisation of public transport in the government's transport policy. The Expert Group recommended: 'Prioritising actions to support a rapid modal shift over the next five years from car to public transport--tram, train and/or bus--and walking and cycling'. (3)

The underlying assumption behind this advocacy is that communities living in high-density settings will make greater use of public transport than those living in low-density communities. Of course, if high-density settlements are encouraged in outer suburban areas which are poorly served by public transport then there can be no change in transport patterns. The answer, according to critics of expanding the UGB, is more public investment, particularly in fixed rail facilities. They expect that if communities are provided with public transport options, then they will use them.

Most compact city advocates argue that public transport use will be best facilitated if it is based on Transport Oriented Development (TOD) principles, in which new housing is concentrated in or around transport hubs. (4) The problem for those favouring this strategy in Melbourne is that so far it has not worked, despite the influence of these ideas when the original Melbourne 2030 planning scheme was legislated in 2002. Under Melbourne 2030, developers were given the legal right to build high density housing in over 100 major activity centres scattered across Melbourne. All locations well served by public transport services were included. However, very little high-density housing has been constructed in these centres, except in a few strategic development sites, including Docklands.

By and large, compact city advocates have had to acknowledge that Melbourne 2030 is a failure. There is an increasingly frantic search for a new policy intervention that will revive the compact city aspiration. One idea that has some currency is a marriage of high density housing with Melbourne's transport corridors. In this proposal developers would be given the right to build high-density apartments along Melbourne's major tram and bus corridors. This idea has generated some interest within the Victorian government.

The most forceful advocate of the transport corridor idea is Rob Adams, director of planning within the City of Melbourne. His idea is as follows:

The aim should be that by 2029, the key linear transport corridors will have developed into medium rise high density corridors that connect all the activity centres, and provide easy access to high quality public transport from the adjacent 'productive suburbs'. Development of these corridors would take development pressure off the existing suburbs, which can then develop as the new 'green lungs' of our metropolitan areas. (5) The report from which this quotation was drawn received front page treatment in the Melbourne Age. This is despite the draconian measures recommended to bring the plan to fruition. These include giving developers 'as of right' permission to build four- to eight-storey apartment blocks along transport corridors, except for 'all heritage building and public open spaces along these routes'. (6)

There are a range of issues stemming from this proposal which might stop it in its tracks. If as proposed by Adams, most of Melbourne's anticipated population growth were located along these public transport corridors, it would involve a sharp contraction of housing options and a great divide between those forced to accept apartment living and those occupying the protected 'green lungs' of Melbourne, which would nestle behind the high density corridors. In addition, the merits of placing so many people along noisy and polluted arteries would surely be questioned. Practical issues like how to accelerate tram speed, currently just 15 kilometres an hour in Melbourne, would also have to be resolved. (7)

A more fundamental problem, which is addressed in this paper is whether, if the corridor housing were to be built, its occupants would make use of the adjacent tram or bus services as anticipated by advocates of the proposal.

These are not remote academic issues. Let us assume for the moment that the Victorian government does embrace the compact city objective, as by...

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