Helsinki's new orbital Ring Rail Line opens in July this year. And yes, it really is heart-shaped (sort of)

Guest writer Grant Wyeth (@grantwyeth) is a Melbourne based freelance writer :

Despite uninformed grumblings about the city’s current construction boom, Melbourne’s current growth is undoubtedly a positive occurrence; bringing wealth, opportunity, diversity and new ideas to the city. However, with this growth, the need for increased connectivity is essential across the entire metropolitan area.

For both economic and social reasons, the CBD and the inner-suburbs cannot be the only regions for sustained growth and density.

As a recent book by the Grattan Institute, City Limits, explained, there is concerning divide, both economic and social, between the inner and outer suburbs of Australian cities. Currently both job opportunities and educational institutions are located in areas great distances from affordable housing and especially efficient transport connections.

While the current push towards increased density in the inner-city is both a great positive and essential for the city’s future, this situation isn’t either/or. Development needs to expand in areas outside the CBD and inner-suburbs. The current “hub and spoke” approach of our rail network is limiting the city’s potential, and may also be facilitating a dangerous social isolation in our outer suburbs.

To distribute both wealth and opportunity more evenly across the entire metropolitan area, a bold new transport vision is required. New rail lines need to be constructed.

The arrangement of our current rail network was created in the early 20th Century. Yet 100 years on, despite a huge expansion in the city’s population and sprawl, it has not been updated.

When you look at the rail map, each train line is merely an arrow pointing towards the CBD. There are no direct options for those wishing to travel across suburbs, particularly in the population heavy Eastern and South-Eastern regions. This not only limits people’s ability to access current opportunities, but also inhibits the ability for opportunities to be created in areas outside the CBD.

The band-aid solution for many decades has been an increase in bus services. While buses serve a great purpose of being able to negotiate suburbs in a more intimate fashion than trains, what they lack is a direct and efficient way of connecting major hubs.

There is a psychology of purpose that comes with train travel. It is far more direct and efficient than a bus, and therefore far more enticing to people. Transportation networks are most effective when they increase the speed at which people can access opportunity-laden areas. Buses do not provide this.

The Eastern and South-Eastern suburbs contain hubs such as Dandenong, Glen Waverley and Box Hill that could be highly creative urban centres – mini-CBDs – in themselves. Yet the ability to travel via public transport quickly and directly between these hubs is impossible. This hampers the capacity of these suburbs to create, grow and become areas of significant gravity to major industries.

Suburbs like Dandenong that have lower social mobility require multi-directional avenues to increase the options and enhance the capabilities of its residents. Currently, educational institutions in the east, such as Deakin and Swinburne Universities, Holmesglen and Box Hill TAFEs, and especially Monash University (notoriously the first “drive-in university”) have difficult accessibility to Dandenong residents who may not be able to afford a car (or would preferably not use one). Whatever people’s vocational preferences may be, limiting physical access to educational institutions is an unhealthy situation for any city’s design.

Opening access to the city as a whole is not just of pure economic value. The ability to connect with family and community, as well as pursue personal interests and entertainment, is essential. These are not aspects that a government can effectively measure, or be included in any business plan, but are highly important to a city’s functionality and social cohesion.

Connecting hubs such as these will allow greater opportunity to be created outside of the CBD. While the Andrews government seems to have committed itself to building the essential Melbourne Metro, this only improves connectivity within the inner-city, it does nothing to rectify the disconnect of the outer and middle-ring suburbs (although the Melbourne Metro will alleviate capacity and reliability issues for the middle-ring and outer suburbs).

The current perspective within governments is to look solely at the initial expenditure of major infrastructure, and not at its creative and social potential. It particularly overlooks the social isolation created due to inaccessibility.

Melbourne’s population is predicted to overtake Sydney in the next 2 to 3 decades. In order to facilitate, take advantage of, and revel in this phenomenon there needs to be a drastic improvement in our ability to connect our suburbs with each other, as well as the CBD.

Future knowledge-based, high-paying industries are attracted to accessibility and density. That is why these companies are concentrated the CBD. The heavy population in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs would be ripe for similar investment if the connectivity between their major hubs were modernised.

There is a strong sense within the community that our rail infrastructure is ignored by our politicians. Yet there is a paradox that the public also demands balanced budgets. This forces politicians to ignore the former and become obsessed with maintaining the Triple A credit rating.

Personally I believe there should be major cuts to the inessential and counter-productive elements of the government that could be redirected towards major rail infrastructure.

However, one could also ask what is the point of a Triple A credit rating if it is not used to borrow money with favourable terms? Is it merely a report card to stick on the fridge?

Melbourne’s future success lies on a significant rethink and update of our current transport networks. Cross-suburb train lines would be the silver bullet in decreasing the inequity between its inner and outer suburbs. It is time for our politicians to embrace such crucial ideas, and recognise their job is to provide the framework to evenly and effectively release the potential of their constituents.