It’s bizarre, but much of the contemporary debate about expanding public transport in Melbourne is focussed on building more rail lines to the CBD even though the great bulk of jobs are now in the suburbs. It seems we’re locked in an old way of thinking when the world long ago moved on to doing things in a very different way.
The proposed Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport rail lines are evidence of our preoccupation with radial train lines. They were key issues during last year’s election campaign and the Government promised to study the feasibility of all three. They all connect to the CBD. No one refers to any of them as, for example, the proposed “Rowville to CBD” rail line – the debate is so CBD-centric that’s taken for granted.
Yet the city centre now has only a fraction of all jobs in the metropolitan area. The traditional CBD – that area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – has just 10% of all jobs in Melbourne, as mentioned here. Even the entire City of Melbourne municipality has only 19% of metropolitan jobs.
But it’s not just jobs (although they’re very important because that’s where rail does best). The vast bulk of travel by Melburnians for non-work purposes – which involves considerably more trips than the journey to work – is also not directed at the city centre. It’s local and over relatively short distances.
One consequence of this ‘radial thinking’ mindset is the popular sentiment that ‘black holes’ in the network, like Doncaster, have to be ‘filled in’ with new rail lines to the CBD. This is despite the likelihood that the justification for a Doncaster-CBD line borders on the farcical. For example, Eddington estimated that only 8,500 workers living in the municipality of Manningham commute to the City of Melbourne, of whom 3,150 already take public transport (and this was before the new DART bus rapid transit system started!).
With 72% of jobs located more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% more than 13 km, it’s surprising that the focus of public transport expansion isn’t on improving services for cross-suburban travel. Why, for example, isn’t there more emphasis on improving suburban orbital services and feeder services to major suburban destinations?
The fact is Melbourne’s radial train system was never intended to deliver workers to suburban jobs. The existing rail lines are the ‘spokes’ in a radial system that’s designed for the high peak loadings generated by the CBD. In contrast, economic activity in Melbourne’s suburbs is quite dispersed – no more than 20% of suburban jobs are in the largest 31 activity centres – so something far more flexible than commuter heavy rail is likely to be required.
Adapting our public transport system to the new reality requires a vastly different mindset from the traditional ‘radial’ view of the world. The task in the suburbs is not ‘mass transit’. The solutions that make operational and economic sense are more likely to be buses – using a combination of existing road space, dedicated lanes and some exclusive busways – than rail. There’s a possibility of light rail in corridors that build up traffic but in the short term any such comittment will probably be driven more by political pressure than by good policy.
Existing rail lines will nevertheless have an important role in the suburban public transport solution. Priority should be given to developing a ‘grid’ of services and to coordinating connections within and between modes. There’s room for a base or backbone high frequency network, but I suspect much of it will have lower frequencies and require much effort in coordination.
Ironically, most of the proposed Rowville line actually runs east-west, but it is conceived as a CBD service (and consequently would require substantial investment in amplification works on the Dandenong line). If the strategic focus were on the peculiar geography of suburban travel, it might instead be conceived as a shuttle service to the Dandenong line (meaning passengers would transfer), giving scope for other lower-cost options such as buses or light rail in a dedicated lane.
An alternative conception might also provide scope to develop the Clayton/Notting Hill area – which is already by far the largest employment concentration in the suburbs – as a major activity centre. Or it might be conceived as providing linkages from the Clayton area to other parts of the region.
I’ll look shortly at why buses seem so unpopular.