Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?

I like Melbourne City Council’s proposal for higher dwelling densities along tram lines but I think the claim that it would increase sustainability is exaggerated. There’s a whole ‘second half’ missing from this proposal.

The idea, which seems to be largely the brainchild of Council’s Rob Adams, is essentially that multi unit developments of up to 8 storeys should be encouraged along tram routes, leaving the suburban “hinterland” undeveloped (Rob refers to it as a new green wedge). This would reduce the need for fringe development and increase the mode share of public transport.

Nicholson Street - before

The major opportunities appear to be on tram routes in the inner suburbs, around 5-10 km from the CBD. While I think the assertion that 4-8 storey buildings can substitute for fringe development is fanciful and is based on a misinterpretation of other research, I accept that the proposal has the potential to increase the supply of dwellings of the type that are sought after by smaller households, especially those without dependents.

The key problem however is that nothing has been proposed to deal with car use by households occupying these new apartments. Without that, it won’t deliver. It just assumes that if households live cheek by jowl with good public transport they will necessarily use it.

I’ve previously pointed out (here) that this does not necessarily follow. A recent paper by David McCloskey, Bob Birrell and Rose Yip, Making public transport work in Melbourne, adds further support for this conclusion.

Nicholson St - possible future

They point out that only 12% of all workers in Melbourne who live within 500 metres of a tram stop actually commute by tram. When they looked in detail at the stretch of Route 112 located north of the Merri Creek (between 5-10 km from the CBD), they found the share of workers who used the tram for work travel was just 13%.

The key reason most of  these workers don’t use trams is because they are only really attractive for people who work in the city centre. For example, 43% of work trips to the City of Melbourne are made by public transport but for all other destinations the share is a mere 4%. So living close to public transport does not guarantee a high level of use.

That should not surprise anyone, given that the City of Melbourne, which is the only location in Melbourne where public transport is faster and cheaper than the car, has less than 20% of Melbourne’s jobs.

But the journey to work is not even the key issue – after all, it constitutes only around one fifth of all trips by Melburnites. So while residents of these new buildings might use the tram for 12% of work trips, they will barely use it at all for the great bulk of their trips.

The bottom line is that the great bulk of their travel will still be by car. Hence increasing density along tram routes will increase the number of car trips starting and ending on these roads. These are major roads so this will in turn increase traffic congestion. Perversely, the congestion will slow the speed of trams.

Residential intensification of tram corridors isn’t going to deliver the claimed sustainability benefits unless it comes packaged with a feasible plan to suppress car travel and provide high quality access by public transport to suburban jobs.

Tram stops (red) and train stations (blue)

It is very unlikely that these new residents would locate on the fringe if these new apartments weren’t built. The kind of households who locate on the periphery tend to be families that want bigger houses and a yard. The likely market for inner suburban apartments along tram routes is primarily singles and couples without dependents. They will probably seek locations elsewhere in the inner suburbs.

Having said that, I like the idea of building apartments along tram corridors because it seems like another way to increase the supply of medium density housing in the inner suburbs. That would increase housing choice, albeit for a limited proportion of homebuyers, and help moderate prices in the inner suburban property market where demand is high.

It might also help to create more inner suburban precincts with ‘buzz’ and (hopefully) improve the visual appeal of the streetscape. There is also a risk some of the traditional character of key routes like Sydney Rd and High St might be sanitised. But what it is unlikely to do is improve sustainability significantly.

20 Comments on “Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    Metro and TriMet in the Portland Oregon metropolitan area always claim to be using new rail links to revitalize areas they connect to – as part of a wider approach to enhancing economic and civil life in the areas affected. More can be found here:
    and here:

    One difference appears to be that a lot of the track also runs separately from the roadways and freeways so no traffic delays for cars are caused as the light rail traverses its suburban areas.

    One other unrelated comment is that the biggest mistake made with a lot of city’s urban redevelopments involving higher density apartment blocks is that no requirement is made to ensure the street level floor is used for some non residential purpose to add more life, services and more to its wider context and community.

    • Moss says:

      I echo the second statement by Bruce. It would be an enormous mistake to design these as single use residential blocks.
      I haven’t yet read the proposal, but “mixed use” design (ie retail, office and residences in the developments) would surely go a long way towards addressing the use of cars for the non work trips (why drive to the shops when you have one downstairs?).
      Also, as Melbourne grows and businesses expand, the development and use of office space along these corridors would mean that people could either live close to work or commute.

    • Alan Davies says:

      You can be 100% certain that mixed use development is envisaged in Rob Adam’s proposal. However most people don’t work close to where they live. This is partly because specialised jobs tend to agglomerate in a small number of locations (you have no choice) and partly because people are prepared to travel to get the right job (small differences count since travel’s cheap)

  2. Michael says:

    Good post. The David McCloskey, Bob Birrell and Rose Yip, Making public transport work in Melbourne analysis seems to be logical, but it assumes that the cost of driving won’t change much. From this it would be safe to assume that public transport usage wouldn’t be that high and that jobs will continue to be spread out all over Melbourne. What would an increase in the price of petrol do to this arrangement?

    I think that the Rod Adams plan is really what would occur if the market is left to it’s own devices anyway (although endless sprawl would also occur). There already seems to be these kind of developments taking place so presumably there is a demand in the market for them.

    The paper criticising the Adams scheme is on good ground when it tackles the idea that higher density development along tram lines increase public transport usage but it gets a little weird when they start arguing against them because it will expose people to more pollution. Despite all the hand-wringing over immigration and population increases I don’t think Melbourne is in danger of turning into Hong Kong. Increases in density will happen more in the inner city and at key locations, but the vast majority of Melbourne will probably always be low density suburbia.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, if restrictions on redevelopment weren’t so tight I’m sure we’d see more residential and office development in the inner suburbs, especially along tram routes. I think there’s heaps of pent up demand irrespective of what troubles await us with petrol prices

      Significantly higher petrol prices would add to pressure for redevelopment across both the inner and middle suburbs and parts of the outer suburbs that are close to rail. My feeling is the suburbs beyond 15 km are the big stage for redevelopment. The biggest effect though IMO would be increased demand for smaller, more economical cars i.e. most people (but not all) would trade off a big car to keep a big house.

  3. Michael says:

    I should add that the Adams scheme is superior to just leaving it to developers, because they would go for sparsely located towers in key locations rather than a height maximum.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The idea that medium density housing should be close to transport is as old as the hills in planning but what I like about Rob’s proposal is that he’s zeroed in on commercial uses and thus avoided a lot of the residential redevelopment flak. I agree that a continuous “wall” of apartments like in Manhattan, San Francisco,Rome, etc is preferable to dotted towers. Closer to home, there’s actually a great example in the redevelopment of Grey St in South Brisbane.

      • Michael says:

        You have probably already written about this, but what kind of re-development do you envisage for the 15km and beyond? Are you referring to activity centers or mass redevelopment?

        What do you think of John Norquist and The Congress for the New Urbanism? I haven’t gotton into it very deeply but he seems to be advocating mixed development which I think is a good thing too. Docklands has some mixed development but it seems to have been done in too uniform a way and there seems to be little buzz there compared to parts of the CBD and places like Fitzroy – i think it will probably develop in interesting ways in twenty years time, but it doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. Hong Kong despite the dread it seems to fill Australians with is vibrant and interesting in so many areas with businesses, residential and parks all mixed into together.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Often a key ingredient in how well a new large scale or ‘stand alone’ redevelopment area works and succeeds is how it first ‘feels’ – particularly as it is initially being approached and sized up (often subconsciously) in the mind. (The sum total of the parts not the impact of particular parts – even if excellent in isolation – being the core issue here.)

    At play here is most likely a different manifestation – without quite the same sense of drama or immediacy – of the very same sixth sense that alerts people to the feeling they are about to enter a potentially dangerous and lowly lit, dark area at night.

    To me, this is a further significant reason that Docklands (as a case study in these syndromes) has been suffering in terms of its public impacts – basically from its lacklustre and essentially uninviting external first impressions.

    Leaving aside the question of how well it integrates into its wider environment, as a whole it appears to possess insufficient human and physical energy … density and a sense of even low key buzz being just one missing component here.

    A possible major contributor to the problem here is the double edge sword of its minimalist building designs and minimalist design in general – particularly its focus on using ultra clean and predominantly straight lines. (At the expense of the long proven power of the feminine in design.)

    Minimalist design may be great to consciously absorb as a deliberately radical aesthetic counterpoint to life’s normal or more natural aesthetic forces. It also works powerfully as a distinct art style particularly when viewed in isolation.

    However – with the exception of when it is used to generate meditational states through its simplicity – it rarely possesses the capacity to encourage genuine relaxation or alternatively atmospheric ‘buzz’ of a natural or anarchic/chaotic kind. The kind found in say a Spanish, Italian or Greek town’s streets as they flow naturally into and around a hillside – or even the chaotic harmony generated within a Moroccan/Asian market district.

    The closest minimalism and simplicity comes to working in a carefully crafted form of harmony with nature and its natural forces is the very deliberate form of Japanese minimalism as evident in their best landscape and garden design work.

    A western example of success would be the design success of minimalist buildings carefully placed in isolation within a stunning natural environment – such as occurred with the original lodge building installed at Tasmania’s Wine Glass Bay. But that context is not the context of the Docklands development …

    • Moss says:

      Wow, great post Bruce. I have also been reading up about this recently – do you have any references on this stuff?

      Alan, maybe it’s not your kettle of fish, but I would love to see some considered commentary on New Urbanism, and how it would apply to the Melbourne context. Imagine if new housing estates were built along the lines of those advocated by organisations such as
      Although you mention that families buying at the fringe want a house with a yard, perhaps a number of developments along these lines around public transport nodes would add to the diversity of housing and reduce land-take for new residences?

      • Alan Davies says:

        Moss, I’m very familiar with new urbanism and have been enthusiastic about it at an urban design level for a long time (when I said in an earlier post that I was a bit out of date with recent stuff I was referring to psychological research on how people react with the built environment). In fact I’ve worked on new urbanism principles professionally on a particular planned estate. Where I part company with some is that I think the wider social benefits are too frequently exaggerated. But I think having a look at it is a good idea (when I get time)

  5. Bruce Dickson says:

    Neglected to mention (in the above comments) the role of ill conceived and ill placed carparks in the development of such areas, as well. They can really set the scene badly if insufficient thought is applied!

  6. Bruce Dickson says:

    Diverting from the topic again, but incidentally, the real pleasure to be found at Docklands, besides its water location and wider views (once more deeply within its precinct)is the internal design aspects and experience of e.g. Mecca Bah.

    Basically a genuinely real reason to visit that is well capable of, temporarily at least, overcoming any other misgivings about the wider site.

    All that great, beautifully prepared Moroccan food and once seated and looking outward, a modernist design ethic that lets the light and water views in. And of course this is the great benefit of large scale minimalist glass window panels when viewed from within!

  7. […] is still being used to support these sorts of claims. As I pointed out long ago (here, as well as here, here and here) that report’s development cost estimates are based on an earlier unpublished […]

  8. […] as I’ve pointed out before, the first two advantages are by no means certain. The likely mode shift arising from such developments is not high – increased traffic congestion is a more likely […]

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chuck and Chuck, Lieu Thi Pham. Lieu Thi Pham said: Lunch with Prof. Rob Adams, what do people think about building along existing transport corridors? #urbanplanning […]

  10. […] the government’s planning function to developers”.  I’ve been critical of this idea myself (here and here) but I think his criticism is a gross over-simplification at […]

  11. […] argued before that increasing residential density, by itself, will not necessarily increase public transport […]

  12. […] still a minority. Another reason is proximity to public transport (except in the city centre) doesn’t have a big influence on travel behaviour anyway. But most importantly, households that locate in any part of Monash will […]

  13. […] other than in the CBD, higher density housing developments have not yielded  a big increase in public transport use – apartment residents hang on to their cars if they can. […]

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