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.

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2 responses to “The Melbourne Identity

  1. Melbourne is where I learned to love riding public transit. The mix of trams, buses and trains can get you anywhere reasonably quickly relative to how sprawling the city is. I lived two blocks off of Plenty Road in Bundoora, and it looked almost identical to the photo in this post. I usually took the 86 tram into the city because it goes by a bunch of interesting stuff, but it was only a block farther to the bus depot where I could get an express line all the way to the large office towers. The freeway system is really nice, and street parking is plentiful in all but the inner ring suburbs, but the public transit is so accessible in Melbourne that almost all the car owners I knew there used the transit system as well. It felt to me like cars and transit co-exist perfectly, and since almost everyone’s a driver and a transit rider, there’s less animosity and self-righteousness about which mode you choose than I’ve experienced in Portland, where I live now. For me the deterrent to driving in Melbourne is the hook turn maneuver you have to do in the CBD to make a right past a tram line. One of my friends caused a minor traffic jam because none of us could figure out how to pull it off from reading the road signs, but I guess this still unified drivers and transit riders in their hatred of us.

    By the way, there’s a new Bourne movie coming out this August, so you’ve bought yourself a few years of pun relevancy.

  2. Just reading through a few of your posts. Nice work generally, but must point out Matrix is shot in Sydney. (They walk along, for the most part, George Street and the fountain behind the red dress is Martin Place; both downtown). Doesn’t detract from your point, since the generic style could be any city in Australia. But, since such a conflation is punishable by death in Australia, note for for future reference: old Melbourne buildings are bluestone; Sydney, sandstone. And Sydney doesn’t have a crazy expansive light rail network.

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