Myth: Melbourne’s outer suburbs aren’t suited to public transport use
Fact: Melbourne’s outer suburbs are built to the same density as inner and middle suburbs with higher rates of public transport use. There is little difference in form between older ‘train’ suburbs like Mitcham and Frankston and newer ‘car’ suburbs like Rowville; the only difference is historical, between public transport provision in one, and non-provision in the other.

Closely related to the common idea that Melbourne’s suburbs can’t support public transport because they’re too spread-out and low-density or that people won’t take a bus to the railway station  is the idea that there are really two Melbournes: the inner city, historically older, built to high densities, and eminently suited to public transport; and the outer suburbs, built to low densities during the age of the car, and irredeemably car-dependent.

Thus, a common theme in newspaper reports, academic papers and planning documents is to proclaim that public transport in Melbourne is doomed because of all the new housing construction taking place on the urban fringe.

Plans to limit Melbourne’s sprawl and to tempt 20 per cent of people to use public transport by 2020 are doomed to fail, new research shows. The great Australian dream of owning a big suburban home and multiple cars is flourishing in Melbourne….

The research shows young people are buying into estates on the fringes, with about half aged 18 to 34 and 90 per cent under 50. Almost 80 per cent of households own two or more cars, with about two-thirds of residents happy to travel more than 10km to get to work. And 95 per cent of them drive to work.

Leading social demographer Bernard Salt….said the figures were further proof Melburnians would not be bullied into changing lifestyles.

—“No end to sprawl”, Herald Sun, 26 December 2004

The State Government would be wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money if it followed its long-term metropolitan plan, Melbourne 2030, and built new rail lines to outer suburbs.

Bob Birrell, a Monash University demographer and co-author of a new book on 2030, said the blueprint, which envisages a growing proportion of Melburnians living in apartments and using public transport, would not work because people preferred detached houses and cars.

—“2030 rail planning attacked”, The Age, 21 March 2005

Melbourne has a love affair with cars and it’s linked to suburbia. We created Dame Edna Everage, Kath and Kim, AV Jennings and the quarter-acre block. Melbourne created suburbia.

—Bernard Salt (again), in “What the Future Holds”, The Age, 3 August 2005

Shocking as this is all supposed to sound, all it does is restate the same statistics about transport habits that have applied in virtually every new Melbourne suburb since the 1950s.

All such suburbs record extremely high levels of car use, and the reason is not lifestyle choices: most Melburnians have favoured big houses in the suburbs ever since the 19th century. The real reason is even simpler. Newer suburbs were never provided with a decent public transport alternative, and still remain without usable public transport to this day. So for the last 50 years, the buyers of new suburban homes have been given no choice in the matter. If there is a choice, it’s between using a car for all household travel on the one hand, or giving up the suburban dream on the other. Since Melburnians aren’t martyrs, they responded rationally by taking up car use faster than almost any other city in the world.

The single-minded focus on cars within Melbourne’s official planning circles is so entrenched and ubiquitous, it has even made its way into ‘serious’ Australian fiction.

Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is the story of a failed housing estate, an outer suburban development in Melbourne that offers the people who go to live there affordable housing, a village lifestyle and the promise of a fast freeway to the city. But in reality the services and amenities never arrive. Eventually only a few obstinate residents remain, feeling conned and isolated. As Wayne Macauley writes of their situation, and it’s a strange but actually very apt way to put it: We had no mighty river of a freeway to irrigate us, to give us cars and life.

Wayne Macauley: Yes, it’s an odd metaphor, isn’t it, because it almost goes against the grain….almost every outer suburban development is totally dependent on [freeways]. So if we were to look at a symbol that represented what actually provides life, work, travel to an outer suburban housing development, then the freeway is it.

—Interview with Ramona Koval, ABC Radio National, 27 November 2005

More worrying is the tendency for planners to use historical neglect of public transport to excuse a continued emphasis on roads, thus ensuring the neglect continues. All too frequently, deficiencies in public transport in Melbourne or Sydney are shrugged off as something that can’t be helped, while road congestion is held to require urgent government attention (ideally in the form of expensive new roads).

An independent report commissioned by the Herald into the hidden social costs of Sydney’s ailing transport network reveals commuters are wasting more than three days of their lives every year stuck in traffic….

But the report says Sydney’s obsession with cars is unlikely to subside because of the Government’s tardiness in expanding rail to the city’s fringes, where there will be at least 275,000 new houses built in the next 25 years.

Increasing reliance on road transport looks set to continue as the rail network fails to keep pace with continued housing and employment growth in suburbs away from the rail network, it says.

A city going nowhere fast, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 2006

Dr Bob Birrell said the Government’s aim to lure many more people to public transport through transit city developments was fanciful. Dr Birrell said the reality was that jobs were widely dispersed throughout Melbourne and most workers preferred the convenience of their cars.

—“Workers still shun public transport over cars”, Herald Sun, 10 October 2007

RACV chief engineer Peter Daly said it would be nice to have a rail line to Rowville but it was not a priority. Rowville has developed in a land-use pattern that isn’t friendly to rail any more. If it had gone in 20 years ago, it would have been a different story, but it hasn’t.

Rowville rail no longer a priority, Knox Leader, 17 September 2008

But development in Melbourne’s outer suburbs—including Wayne Macauley’s birthplace, Mitcham—hasn’t always been so car-dependent, nor has public transport in the suburbs always been so poor. While the ‘two cities’ story may apply to many American cities, the history of suburban development in Melbourne is quite different.

The basic form of Melbourne, with its radial corridors interspersed with ‘green wedges’, dates back to the 1880s land boom, and many quite distant suburbs can trace their origin to this period. These suburbs owed their existence to public transport, as it was the train services that allowed people to live in the suburbs and commute to work in the city long before anyone had cars. As the diagram shows, nearly all of Melbourne’s train system was in place prior to the end of the 19th century, as were outlying suburbs such as Lilydale, Epping, Ferntree Gully and Mordialloc.

Map of Melbourne train network in 1891
Click to enlarge

Because of its extensive suburban rail network, ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was at the turn of the 20th century one of the most spread-out, sprawling, low-density cities in the world. But this ‘sprawl’ was serviced by, and made possible by, public transport. As geographer Clive Forster writes:

In spite of some general similarities…. life in late nineteenth-century Australian cities differed from the British experience in several important respects. The most noticeable difference was that our cities covered very large areas compared with European cities of similar population. They were…. ‘sprawling affairs’ with typical population densities of 50-60 persons per acre [20-25 per hectare], compared with 500 persons per acre [200 per hectare] in parts of British cities. The reasons for this were complex. The younger cities in particular (Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth) did not have a heritage of cramped pre-industrial housing. Land, compared with Britain, was abundant and cheap. Because Australian cities were commercial rather than industrial in nature, there was a large middle class and incomes, even for manual workers, were relatively high. Many families could therefore aspire to own their own houses; approximately 50 per cent of Australians were owner-occupiers at the end of the 19th century, compared with 10 per cent in Britain. Most Australian city growth also occurred during the public transport era, freeing people from the need to live close to their workplaces. In combination, these factors allowed large numbers of city-dwellers, most of them immigrants from Britain, to realise what [Lionel Frost] has called ‘the Anglo-Saxon desire for privacy of living in a suburban setting’.

—Clive Forster, Australian Cities: Continuity and Change, 1995

Contemporary accounts from the 19th century sound uncannily similar to comments made about urban sprawl today – despite the fact that cars had barely been invented, let alone seen in Melbourne:

[The city] spreads around over an immense area of ground.

—Mark Twain (visiting Melbourne in 1891) from More Tramps Abroad

Nearly everyone who can lives in the suburbs, and the excellence of the railway system enables them to extend much farther away from the city than in Sydney or Adelaide….almost every class of house is detached and stands in its own garden.

—R.N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, 1883

So Bernard Salt is actually quite correct to say that Melbourne created suburbia – except that we did it in the 1880s with trains, not in the 1950s with cars.

Similarly, the advent of electric tramways in the early 20th century extended the ‘sprawl’ to the land in between the rail lines, greatly enlarging existing suburbs and creating entire new suburbs such as Balwyn, Niddrie and East Brighton. This pattern of development lasted until the middle of the century, by which time all the land within what is now Zone 1 had been developed, and beyond this the suburbs extended along the rail corridors to Broadmeadows, Epping, Lilydale, Frankston, and similarly far-flung locations.

Since then, there has been remarkably little change in the style of development in Melbourne: new suburbs have extended out from old suburbs in a contiguous manner, filling in many of the remaining gaps between the train lines, just as the pattern was in the first half of the 20th century. The main difference has been that planners, mesmerised by the promise of the motor car, ceased to insist that public transport services be extended to new subdivisions before people moved in.

In short, the new suburbs built since 1950 have become car-dependent, not because of their particular form, but through a lack of provision of transport alternatives. Whatever the RACV may say, train-less Rowville has the same built form as Glen Waverley, and it makes just as much sense to build a train line there now as it did to build the Glen Waverley line in 1930.

What amazes me consistently is the argument that these outer suburban developments are somehow new. Look in Northcote, Preston, Box Hill, Camberwell, Caulfield, in fact any of the old middle suburbs. They have lower population densities than most of the new McMansion developments, which are really apartments by another name, with near no outdoor space. The truth is not that they are unsustainable, but more that we suddenly stopped trying to make them work. The provision of infrastructure stopped at basic utilities and a road….

So out here in the west we have no useful public transport, no strip shopping, masses of traffic sewers isolating each ‘community’ and the unavoidable obligation to have a car per adult to travel to the massive soulless space of the local mall to shop or socialise.

—Comment on The Age website, 22 January 2010

When it comes to urban planning, we are building suburbs that in 20 years will be ghettos of ill health.

—Dr. Margaret Beavis, Melbourne GP, March 2012

It can come as quite a surprise that ‘new’ suburbs on the urban fringe have roughly the same population density as ‘old’ suburbs in the inner city. Nonetheless it turns out that although houses tend to be larger in the outer suburbs, they also have more people living in them compared with the one or two-bedroom terraces of the inner suburbs, so the overall population density works out the same.

The suburb of Kings Park provids a good example. This is a 1970s suburb typical of much Melbourne postwar development, about 20km from the city. Nonetheless, in the 1990s when its population comprised mainly young families, it was one of the densest suburbs in Melbourne. As planning researcher Paul Mees observed, its population density of 41.6 persons per hectare put it almost exactly on par with North Fitzroy, a 19th-century suburb 5km from the city!

 Kings ParkNorth Fitzroy
Area in 1996 (ha)239219
Population in 199699499159
Private dwellings27214497
Population density (persons/ha)41.641.8
Dwelling density (dwellings/ha)11.420.5
Persons per dwelling3.72.0
Travel to work by PT (%)16.127.6
Travel to work by foot/cycle (%)1.013.2
Travel to work by car (%)81.156.8

Source: ABS Census data, cited in Mees, A Very Public Solution

Though subsequent ageing of the population has seen the density of Kings Park decline slightly, as of the 2011 census it remains comparable with Clifton Hill at 33-34 persons per hectare, and well ahead of Footscray at 26 per hectare. And the same can be said of more recently developed suburbs, such as Seabrook, located 19km from the city between Altona Meadows and Point Cook. Nonetheless, ongoing failure to provide decent public transport in these suburbs means that travel by car remains entrenched, despite populations being as dense or denser than in the older suburbs!

 Kings ParkSeabrookClifton HillFootscray
Area in 2011 (ha)250160170500
Population in 201183114972579013203
Population density (persons/ha)
Travel to work by PT (%)
Travel to work by foot/cycle (%)0.71.519.59.0
Travel to work by car (%)85.384.550.251.5

Source: ABS Census data

Our page on transport and population density provides more examples of the similarity between ‘old’ and ‘new’ suburbs.

The situation in Melbourne contrasts markedly with most United States cities, which remained relatively compact until well into the twentieth century, then spread outwards rapidly under the influence of the car. Urban development in these cities proceeded in a haphazard manner, with new residential subdivisions springing up in rural locations quite remote from the existing urban area. The term ‘urban sprawl’ was originally coined to describe this kind of unplanned, non-contiguous development.

By comparison, Melbourne’s urban development looks quite orderly. The spread of the urban area occurred much earlier than in US cities, and under the influence of public transport rather than car travel. Even when Melbourne’s urban planning became subservient to the car, the city continued to develop as a contiguous built-up area, and with block sizes rather smaller than their US equivalents. As a result, Melbourne even now retains an urban form in which large-scale public transport networks are viable.

The existence of sprawl in Melbourne is not the direct result of the automobile, but a cultural artifact dating from before the automobile existed.

—Russell Degnan, The Origins of Sprawl, August 2005

In conclusion, Melbourne needs better public transport in its outer suburbs because people prefer living in detached houses, not despite this. We know public transport in these suburbs is viable both from overseas experience, and because Melbourne itself boasts successful tram services in some inner suburbs that have the same built form as the outer suburbs. All that is keeping the suburbs car-dependent is planning inertia, not tired academic arguments about detached houses or Dame Edna making car use compulsory.

The historical personal and community security provided by Australia’s suburbs is too great an achievement to let fail under the threat of declining petroleum security. We must begin planning now so that the challenges we face do not end up unsettling suburbia.

Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe, Griffith University, 2008

Last modified: 21 December 2020