Population density of Paris and Melbourne at same scale
Population density of Paris and Melbourne at same scale. Black lines show rail lines. (source: Charting Transport)

The exhibit throws further light on the question I asked a few weeks ago, Can we build a metro just like the one Paris’s got? It compares the population density of Melbourne with Paris (rail lines shown in black).

These fascinating maps are taken from a collection put together last week by Chris Loader at Charting Transport, Comparing the densities of Australian and European cities. They show population density in one square kilometre blocks using the same scale and the same key.

It’s evident the two metropolitan areas have a similar overall footprint, but the City of Light is much denser; it houses almost 11 million people in much the same area as Melbourne houses 4.2 million. The population-weighted density of metropolitan Paris is five times Melbourne’s and almost four times Sydney’s. (1)

The very dense (dark pink) area in the centre of Paris has 2,241,000 residents at an average density of around 25,000 persons per sq km. That’s more than half of Melbourne’s entire metropolitan population.

The corresponding area of Melbourne is the inner city, from Prahran in the east to Kensington in the west; and up to Brunswick Rd in the north and the Bay to the south. It has a resident population of 316,000 and an average density of around 3,500 persons per sq km.

The streets of central Paris mostly look like this. A lot of Melbourne’s inner city looks like this; it was never anything like as dense as central Paris.

As I noted last time, the Paris Metro is the spaghetti of rail lines in the centre of Paris; that’s the (dark pink) area within the Boulevard Peripherique. It crams 303 stations – 62 with interchanges – into an area roughly equivalent to a circle of 10 km diameter.

Inner city Melbourne covers a similar area but has a mere 28 stations, of which just nine provide travellers with the ability to interchange between rail lines.

Looking beyond the Boulevard Peripherique, even the suburbs of Paris served by the suburban rail system (RER) are as dense as inner city Melbourne. The rail network in these outer areas is a far cry from the Metro, but it’s considerably denser and more inter-connected than Melbourne’s suburban rail system.

Here’s what large parts of Paris’s suburbs look like; here’s what the established suburbs of Melbourne mostly look like. Chris Loader estimates that less than 20% of the population of Paris lives in a suburb that looks like what 90% of Melbourne looks like.

Density isn’t the only reason central Paris has such a high standard of public transport but it’s the main one.

  • Density provides a population large enough to justify a high standard of service e.g. two minute frequencies, frequent interchange opportunities, and stations within walking distance of almost every origin and destination;
  • Density limits the coverage of the Metro to a very small area (circa 90 sq km), reducing capital and operating costs;
  • Density hobbles the competitiveness of the car via congestion and limited/expensive parking. The subway and walking are better options than driving for the vast majority of Parisians.

We can’t reasonably expect to retro-fit a public transport network that looks much like the Paris Metro in the inner parts of Australian cities, much less in the middle ring suburbs. The cost would be impossible and, relative to the likely patronage, absurd.

That’s a truism for experts, but interested citizens usually form their ideas about the potential of public transport in Australian cities from their experiences elsewhere e.g. in London, Paris. Politicians and many lobbyists find it convenient to maintain that fiction.

The unfortunate irony is that in order to increase massively the mode share of public transport, Australian cities need something with the speed and density of coverage offered by the Paris Metro even more than Paris does!

That’s because cars are vastly more competitive with public transport in our low density cities. For example, even in the Melbourne CBD suburb of Southbank, an astonishing 71% of dwellings have at least one car even though 98% are apartments and the remainder are townhouses.

We can build a high quality public transport system in our cities in spite of our low densities, but it’s a mistake to base our expectations on something like the Paris Metro. We need to think about a solution that’s appropriate to our circumstances.

It’s unlikely the future of public transport in Australian cities will involve the construction of many new rail lines; we’ll have to be selective and focus mainly on capacity improvements, especially within established areas.

From today’s perspective, I expect it will mostly entail a lot more buses (and some trams) operating in dedicated lanes and coordinated with existing rail lines. That would provide a suburban “grid” offering (reasonably) frequent services; see How can public transport work better in our cities?

It’ll be a big improvement over the public transport we have now but it’s unlikely it’ll win a massive increase in mode share (say a majority share) unless the relative competiveness of cars is severely reduced in some way as happens in Paris. Politicians of all stripes, however, don’t show much interest in significantly reducing road space or rationing access to it.

It’s almost certain cars will remain the majority mode in Australia’s capitals for the next 30 years or so irrespective of what happens with driverless cars. The curious thing is why, apart from opposition to motorways, they get so little attention; much more political will and effort needs to go into reducing the negative impacts of driving.


  1. The similar footprint belies the claim made frequently in (and by) The Age that Melbourne’s footprint is much larger than that of cities like London; up to five times according to some claims! It isn’t; it’s just a lot less dense.