Melbourne’s tram network may hold the key to providing the dense network of high frequency rapid transport that would provide world class connectivity in the inner-city and CBD.
Melbourne and New York are very different cities. Drawing too close a parallel between any two cities can be a folly; however New York and Melbourne share some near similarities where it counts. One of the key similarities is that both cities share a principal dense inner central business district which is served by primarily radial public transport. Around this CBD are some relatively dense inner suburbs, and further out are large expanses of suburban sprawl.
This post will look at some comparisons between New York and Melbourne’s public transport and it will make the case for the continued consolidation and success of Melbourne’s CBD and inner areas -championing a kind of ‘Melbhattan’ with upgraded tram routes functioning as its rapid transport system.
As you’d expect New York is way denser than inner Melbourne. Melbourne and New York’s four densest suburbs are shown in the table below. Melbourne’s CBD is almost a fifth less dense than Yorkville, New York’s most dense neighbourhood. In fact, all of the top densest suburbs in Melbourne are pretty close to one fifth less dense than their New York counterparts.
Not listed is the Manhattan average population density which is around 28,000 residents per km2, which is a slightly fairer comparison to Melbourne’s CBD, although Manhattan is around 10 times the size as the CBD of Melbourne.
|New York||Residents per km2||Melbourne||Residents per km2|
|Manhattan Community Board 8||42,312||Carlton||8,973|
|Manhattan Community Board 7||37,970||Fitzroy||7,859|
|Manhattan Community Board 3||36,054||St Kilda East||7,024|
When we compare job density between Manhattan - which accounts for around two thirds of all jobs in New York City - and job density in Melbourne’s CBD (assumed to be SA2 areas: Melbourne, Docklands, and Southbank), Melbourne is denser with around 31,000 jobs km2 compared to Manhattan’s 26,500. This is an interesting result. Higher job density in Melbourne’s CBD might explain its lower resident population as commercial space competes with and crowds out residential land uses. Traditionally this has been the norm. Melbourne’s CBD has historically been a centre of business with low populations up until changes in policy around the late 1980s.
Melbourne compares relatively strongly with New York when you compare built rail infrastructure. Manhattan has 17 subway lines connecting the island to the rest of New York City. It has a further six regional rail lines connecting it to New Jersey, Long Island, and beyond. In comparison, Melbourne’s CBD has a converging network of 10 metropolitan rail lines and five regional V/line routes. Whilst currently lower capacity than the subway in New York, Melbourne’s metropolitan rail network has the potential to benefit significantly with the rollout of high capacity signalling, permitting subway-like frequencies.
Melbourne’s rail network is not a ‘subway style’ network. Manhattan’s subway is a rapid transit system, facilitating high capacity transport not only into Manhattan, but within the island. Melbourne’s metropolitan train network does not function this way. Melbourne’s rail network is a radial suburban rail network. The Melbourne Metro tunnel (once completed), the City Loop underground stations, and future changes to the operational function of the network will make the metropolitan rail network more like a ‘metro’ in the CBD area, but its function outside of the CBD will not change significantly.
Melbourne’s tram network could function like the subway does in New York. Unlike New York (anymore), Melbourne has trams. Currently Melbourne’s tram network operates almost exclusively as a streetcar network. In other words, trams share road space with other vehicles on the street, i.e. private cars. The tram route 96 is being upgraded to light-rail standard and will be the first end to end light rail in Melbourne. Upgrading Melbourne’s trams to light rail provides an opportunity to provide a high frequency light rail based ‘metro’, in the same way Manhattan’s subway provides a high level of connectivity through high frequencies, and segregated right-of-way. This network would be characterised by faster trams, higher frequencies, and fewer stops (stops could instead be mini ‘stations’, like the subway). The key to achieving this network is in providing the priority to trams on the road and at stop lights. That means, fully segregated tram rights-of-way and full call-ahead traffic light green waves.
Should all of Melbourne’s tram routes be upgraded to function this way? Having a fully light-rail based network would provide a significant boost to the capacity and connectivity of the tram network. It would transform its operation from a slow, streetcar system to something approaching a rapid transit network. But not all routes would necessarily need to be upgraded. If only a subset of routes were fully upgraded, say, routes 11, 16, 19, 55, 57, 75, 96, and 109 – a sub-network of high frequency routes would be created – facilitating a kind of separate, ‘mini-metro’. Working out the sharing of sections of route with slower trams would however be a challenge and may require shifting some routes to other streets.
There is a case for keeping some tram routes as streetcars. Trams are great street activators, activating retail and hospitality precincts through providing the density of passenger traffic and slowing car traffic down to make a street more walkable. Unlike underground rail, trams can activate an entire strip, rather than just a station precinct. In areas where this is a priority – say, strip shopping streets like Bridge Road in Richmond – a ‘metro’ style tram route could be made to run at slower speeds, with more traditional stopping patterns. But outside of these areas where activation opportunities are lower, faster speeds and more station-style stops would be essential to ensure the speed and reliability of service of a ‘metro’ style light rail.
Go on a journey/read more: Melbourne's development by tram.
The kind of connectivity that could result from a light-rail based ‘metro’ would be like the connectivity of Manhattan’s subway network. Manhattan’s subway is one of the reasons that the New York is a successful, vibrant, and dynamic place. Only with the subway are the densities of jobs and population possible in Manhattan that have allowed this success. Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs are successful in spite of relatively poorer connectivity – but its success is undoubtedly due to what connectivity it does have via the rail and tram networks.
This article is really only talking about inner Melbourne. Melbourne is a sprawling metropolis. The middle and outer suburbs have a different problem that cannot be addressed the same way. In fact, the car-dependent middle and outer suburbs will never be the domain of high public transport usage – except where fast reliable bus services enable connectivity to the rail network for trips to the inner suburbs.
Melbourne should look at its current advantages, that being it has a strong inner core which is extremely well connected via public transport – like Manhattan – which will define its success in the 21st century much more than its suburbs will. Consolidation of densities in the CBD and the inner and middle rings of the city is vital to improving accessibility to jobs and services.
The polycentric city concept followed by places like Sydney is a folly. Australian cities developed outwards, and Sydney’s CBD is better connected to the rest of the city via public transport than anywhere else. Artificially creating mini CBDs in the suburbs which are meant to compete with the main CBD is a mistake. Sydney’s CBD still commands the best real estate, holds the best location, and offers the best agglomeration benefits than the satellite CBDs of North Sydney and Chatswood. Parramatta could be different, as it effectively is the CBD of another city altogether – western Sydney.
Melbourne shouldn’t be afraid of a future Melbhattan. It should celebrate its success, and look to places like New York to build the city that that New York built around this time last century.
James Ramsey is a transport planning consultant based in Melbourne at global engineering and professional services consultancy Jacobs Stay tuned for more on 'Melbhattan', a look at the cycling infrastructure in New York is up next.
Lead image credit: flickr