Access to jobs by driving and public transport in the AM peak 2011, Carlton vs Cranbourne (Source: Spiller)

There was a startling story in the newspaper last weekend contrasting the economic opportunity available to city centre residents compared to new settlers on the urban fringe. The Age reported that residents of the inner city Melbourne suburb of Carlton have vastly superior access to jobs than those who live in outer suburban Cranbourne East (City heads towards 2-speed economy).

The newspaper reported on some newly published research (gated) by Dr Marcus Spiller showing that at the 2011 Census, a Carlton resident (see exhibit):

could access 890,000 jobs by driving for 30 minutes in peak hour, while those in Cranbourne East could get to just 345,000. The disparity in access to employment is even starker for those using public transport: a Carlton resident had 724,000 jobs accessible within a 45-minute public transport journey, compared with just 5,000 for someone in Cranbourne East.

The story says continued sprawl of the “already super-sized Melbourne” could leave residents in these new outer suburban areas at risk of “profound social exclusion”.

Now that sounds pretty serious. Certainly a number of people I know were horrified by the difference in job accessibility between the two suburbs. It went straight to that part of their brain that reflexively knows “sprawl is bad”. But is it really as simple as that? Of course not, it never is.

I don’t have any issue with the numbers – they sound plausible and are consistent with ones I’ve cited before. After all, cities have always expanded outwards and jobs are more centralised than population in every city in the world. Many firms benefit from agglomeration, especially the high-skill, high-pay “knowledge economy” organisations that dominate the city centre.

And of course it’s in no way surprising Carlton offers better access to jobs; it’s literally on the doorstep of the largest single concentration of jobs in Melbourne and it’s close to the focus of the entire (radial) metropolitan public transport system.

Cranbourne East on the other hand is a new Growth Area suburb on the edge of the metropolitan area, around 50 km from the centre.

Yet consider these numbers from the 2011 Census:

  • 65.8% of workers resident in Cranbourne East are employed full-time, compared to 52.1% in Carlton
  • 5.1% of the workforce in Cranbourne East is unemployed, compared to 13.8% in Carlton.

There’s a surprise! Notwithstanding the enormous difference in accessibility to jobs by car and by public transport, unemployment is substantially lower in Cranbourne East than Carlton. Moreover, a higher proportion of workers in Cranbourne East have full-time jobs (1).

In fact Cranbourne East doesn’t only fare well in comparison with Carlton; its unemployment rate is lower than that for Greater Melbourne, for Victoria and for Australia. The proportion who work full-time is higher in each case too.

Nor do Cranbourne East residents spend more time getting to their jobs. The median journey to work time for commuters resident in the outer suburban municipality of Casey (which contains Cranbourne East) is 30 minutes. That’s the same as the figure for commuters living in the City of Melbourne municipality (which contains Carlton) i.e. 30 minutes.

The reason Cranbourne East workers find jobs is that most employment is now in the suburbs, not the city centre. Over 70% of jobs in the metropolitan area are now more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% are more than 13 km from the centre (e.g. see What’s happening with suburban jobs?).

The big difference between the two suburbs is East Cranbourne workers overwhelmingly drive to work whereas in Carlton the great majority walk, cycle or take public transport. The sorts of knowledge-intensive jobs clustered in the centre of the city are most accessible by public transport, but the more prosaic sorts of jobs in the suburbs are most easily reached by car.

Carlton residents tend to work in city centre jobs; 21.3% drive to work, 26.6% catch public transport and 6.3% cycle (and because it’s right next door to the CBD, 28.8% walk). Cranbourne East residents tend to work in the suburbs; 76.1% commute by car and just 7.6% take public transport.

Car ownership is consequently much higher in Cranbourne East – only 3.2% of households don’t have a car and 17.5% have three or more. In contrast, a whopping 56.2% Carlton households don’t have a car and a mere 1.6% have three or more.

There’s clearly an issue with levels of car ownership and use in Growth Area suburbs like Cranbourne East. However in terms of the critically important problem identified by The Age (i.e. access to a job within a reasonable travel time from home), Cranbourne East workers fare very well in spite of their distance from the city centre.

Of course they spend more cash (but not time) on travelling to work than residents of Carlton, but then they also spend less on housing. Households trade-off travel for space. They settle in places like Cranbourne East because in most cases the Growth Areas are the only place where they can find the space they want at a price they can afford (2).

Comparing Carlton and Cranbourne East isn’t very enlightening. Locating in Carlton isn’t an option for the vast bulk of home-seekers – the median price of a (smaller) dwelling in Carlton is three to four times what it is in the outer suburbs. And in any case very few of them work in the city centre (3).

It shouldn’t escape notice that a key reason for the differential in housing prices is because residents of middle ring and inner city suburbs (including Carlton) resist redevelopment that would increase the supply of dwellings and thereby make locations with greater accessibility more affordable (e.g. see How can density be increased?;Do residents see the benefits of urban renewal?; and Are these planners planning ahead?).

As Matt Cowgill pithily observes, “you can stop sprawl; or stop rising density; or have affordable housing. Pick 2 out of 3, you can’t have them all.”


  1. 77% of Cranbourne East residents aged 15-65 years are in the workforce, compared to 53% of Carlton residents.
  2. Cranbourne East households are large on average; 40% of the population is younger than 15 years, compared to just 8% for Carlton.
  3. For example, only 15.3% of Cranbourne East workers are Professionals, compared to 43.6% of Carlton workers.