Daily Archives: January 9, 2012

The Melbourne Identity

What an awful attempt at putting a pun in a posting title. I’m like an elderly columnist trying to stay relevant, who doesn’t realize that they haven’t released one of those movies in like five years.

Anyway, check this out:

Two things stand out in this photo. Tram terminus, 50mph speed limit. Not bad eh?

I like pics like this because they’re a nice rejoinder to George Will-esque arguments that trains are just there to brainwash you into not driving, like a true individual. Nope. The two can, and should, exist side by side.

Melbourne has a crazy extensive tram network. That map shows lines as well as frequencies; note the preponderance of 9- and 12- minute headways throughout the system. And Melbourne seems to share a lot of the core values of most North American cities. Globally, a lot of places have extensive tram networks. Several exceed Melbourne. But to a certain extent there’s a feeling like “well, they’re Europeans, you expect them to have good trams.” The urban vibe is completely different.

But Melbourne is a sprawling, suburban city, with low-density suburbs and a downtown defined by large office towers. When the Wachowski brothers needed a “generic North American city” for The Matrix movies, they shot in Melbourne. Here’s a couple more spots on that same tram line:

As you get closer in, the tracks switch from LRT-style separated running to mixed traffic, and low-density single-family gives way to your basic “Goldilocks urbanism” with a mixture of detached houses and apartment blocks, walkable commercial streets and parkable strip centers.

Not bad at all.

And while the highway system doesn’t really come close to Florida-Texas-Californian levels of buildout, it is pretty new. 15 years ago Melbourne was following the eastern European model, where radial freeways all slow out into surface streets. But with CityLink they brought motorways into the core and created a proper crosstown expressway network. Check the 1960’s World’s Fair architecture on that “sound tube”, which supposedly reduces traffic noise for the benefit of some nearby housing projects. I’m not sure I buy the stated rationale, but then, I think it’s worth it to make freeways look cool for the sake of it. Like this column detailing on Moses’s BQE – straight outta Popular Mechanics – or this incredibly cool sign arch on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.