Melbhattan: How Melbourne’s tram network could be its version of New York’s subway network

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Melbhattan: How Melbourne’s tram network could be its version of New York’s subway network
Melbhattan: How Melbourne’s tram network could be its version of New York’s subway network

Melbourne’s tram network may hold the key to providing the dense network of high frequency rapid transport that would provide world class connectivity in the inner-city and CBD.

Melbourne and New York are very different cities. Drawing too close a parallel between any two cities can be a folly; however New York and Melbourne share some near similarities where it counts. One of the key similarities is that both cities share a principal dense inner central business district which is served by primarily radial public transport. Around this CBD are some relatively dense inner suburbs, and further out are large expanses of suburban sprawl.

This post will look at some comparisons between New York and Melbourne’s public transport and it will make the case for the continued consolidation and success of Melbourne’s CBD and inner areas -championing a kind of ‘Melbhattan’ with upgraded tram routes functioning as its rapid transport system.


As you’d expect New York is way denser than inner Melbourne. Melbourne and New York’s four densest suburbs are shown in the table below. Melbourne’s CBD is almost a fifth less dense than Yorkville, New York’s most dense neighbourhood. In fact, all of the top densest suburbs in Melbourne are pretty close to one fifth less dense than their New York counterparts.

Not listed is the Manhattan average population density which is around 28,000 residents per km2, which is a slightly fairer comparison to Melbourne’s CBD, although Manhattan is around 10 times the size as the CBD of Melbourne.

Sources: New York, Melbourne.
New YorkResidents per km2MelbourneResidents per km2
Yorkville (Manhattan)60,349Melbourne12,379
Manhattan Community Board 842,312Carlton8,973
Manhattan Community Board 737,970Fitzroy7,859
Manhattan Community Board 336,054St Kilda East7,024

When we compare job density between Manhattan - which accounts for around two thirds of all jobs in New York City - and job density in Melbourne’s CBD (assumed to be SA2 areas: Melbourne, Docklands, and Southbank), Melbourne is denser with around 31,000 jobs km2 compared to Manhattan’s 26,500. This is an interesting result. Higher job density in Melbourne’s CBD might explain its lower resident population as commercial space competes with and crowds out residential land uses. Traditionally this has been the norm. Melbourne’s CBD has historically been a centre of business with low populations up until changes in policy around the late 1980s.

Melbhattan: How Melbourne’s tram network could be its version of New York’s subway network
Manhattan is super-dense and super-sized compared to Melbourne's CBD. Image: James Ramsey

Heavy rail compared

Melbourne compares relatively strongly with New York when you compare built rail infrastructure. Manhattan has 17 subway lines connecting the island to the rest of New York City. It has a further six regional rail lines connecting it to New Jersey, Long Island, and beyond. In comparison, Melbourne’s CBD has a converging network of 10 metropolitan rail lines and five regional V/line routes. Whilst currently lower capacity than the subway in New York, Melbourne’s metropolitan rail network has the potential to benefit significantly with the rollout of high capacity signalling, permitting subway-like frequencies.

Melbourne’s rail network is not a ‘subway style’ network. Manhattan’s subway is a rapid transit system, facilitating high capacity transport not only into Manhattan, but within the island. Melbourne’s metropolitan train network does not function this way. Melbourne’s rail network is a radial suburban rail network. The Melbourne Metro tunnel (once completed), the City Loop underground stations, and future changes to the operational function of the network will make the metropolitan rail network more like a ‘metro’ in the CBD area, but its function outside of the CBD will not change significantly.

Melbourne’s trams could be its own version of rapid transit

Melbourne’s tram network could function like the subway does in New York. Unlike New York (anymore), Melbourne has trams. Currently Melbourne’s tram network operates almost exclusively as a streetcar network. In other words, trams share road space with other vehicles on the street, i.e. private cars. The tram route 96 is being upgraded to light-rail standard and will be the first end to end light rail in Melbourne. Upgrading Melbourne’s trams to light rail provides an opportunity to provide a high frequency light rail based ‘metro’, in the same way Manhattan’s subway provides a high level of connectivity through high frequencies, and segregated right-of-way. This network would be characterised by faster trams, higher frequencies, and fewer stops (stops could instead be mini ‘stations’, like the subway). The key to achieving this network is in providing the priority to trams on the road and at stop lights. That means, fully segregated tram rights-of-way and full call-ahead traffic light green waves.  

Melbhattan: How Melbourne’s tram network could be its version of New York’s subway network
New York's subway & Melbourne's tram networks side-by-side. Source: Google Maps

Should all of Melbourne’s tram routes be upgraded to function this way? Having a fully light-rail based network would provide a significant boost to the capacity and connectivity of the tram network. It would transform its operation from a slow, streetcar system to something approaching a rapid transit network. But not all routes would necessarily need to be upgraded. If only a subset of routes were fully upgraded, say, routes 11, 16, 19, 55, 57, 75, 96, and 109 – a sub-network of high frequency routes would be created – facilitating a kind of separate, ‘mini-metro’. Working out the sharing of sections of route with slower trams would however be a challenge and may require shifting some routes to other streets.

There is a case for keeping some tram routes as streetcars. Trams are great street activators, activating retail and hospitality precincts through providing the density of passenger traffic and slowing car traffic down to make a street more walkable. Unlike underground rail, trams can activate an entire strip, rather than just a station precinct. In areas where this is a priority – say, strip shopping streets like Bridge Road in Richmond – a ‘metro’ style tram route could be made to run at slower speeds, with more traditional stopping patterns. But outside of these areas where activation opportunities are lower, faster speeds and more station-style stops would be essential to ensure the speed and reliability of service of a ‘metro’ style light rail.

Go on a journey/read more: Melbourne's development by tram.

The kind of connectivity that could result from a light-rail based ‘metro’ would be like the connectivity of Manhattan’s subway network. Manhattan’s subway is one of the reasons that the New York is a successful, vibrant, and dynamic place. Only with the subway are the densities of jobs and population possible in Manhattan that have allowed this success. Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs are successful in spite of relatively poorer connectivity – but its success is undoubtedly due to what connectivity it does have via the rail and tram networks.

A future Melbhattan

This article is really only talking about inner Melbourne. Melbourne is a sprawling metropolis. The middle and outer suburbs have a different problem that cannot be addressed the same way. In fact, the car-dependent middle and outer suburbs will never be the domain of high public transport usage – except where fast reliable bus services enable connectivity to the rail network for trips to the inner suburbs.

Melbourne should look at its current advantages, that being it has a strong inner core which is extremely well connected via public transport – like Manhattan – which will define its success in the 21st century much more than its suburbs will. Consolidation of densities in the CBD and the inner and middle rings of the city is vital to improving accessibility to jobs and services.

The polycentric city concept followed by places like Sydney is a folly. Australian cities developed outwards, and Sydney’s CBD is better connected to the rest of the city via public transport than anywhere else. Artificially creating mini CBDs in the suburbs which are meant to compete with the main CBD is a mistake. Sydney’s CBD still commands the best real estate, holds the best location, and offers the best agglomeration benefits than the satellite CBDs of North Sydney and Chatswood. Parramatta could be different, as it effectively is the CBD of another city altogether – western Sydney.

Melbourne shouldn’t be afraid of a future Melbhattan. It should celebrate its success, and look to places like New York to build the city that that New York built around this time last century. 

James Ramsey is a transport planning consultant based in Melbourne at global engineering and professional services consultancy Jacobs   Stay tuned for more on 'Melbhattan', a look at the cycling infrastructure in New York is up next.

Lead image credit: flickr

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Discussion (13 comments)

johnproctor's picture

Interesting read James.

two comments. You'd probably be better comparing job density for Manhattan Island to the 'inner suburbs' of Melbourne instead of just the SA2 areas of Melbourne Docklands and Southbank to get a fairer comparison of relative Job Density. Manhattan has a mix of largely residential precincts and largely commercial precincts. A fairer comparison for the SA2 spots you've picked in Melbourne would be to the Midtown or Lower Manhattan.

With respect to the tram routes you've picked out - depending on how you define them much of the 'inner city' already operates as Light Rail.

There is dedicated track:
- throughout the Hoddle grid (albeit it could be better separated from U-Turns etc)
- through Docklands (both north and south of Vic Harbour)
- Routes 109/96 on the old Port Melbourne and St Kilda rail lines to Port Melbourne and St Kilda
- Route 55 (58) Along Kings Way through South Melbourne
- Route 1 along Sturt Street through South Melbourne
- Along St Kilda Road to the Junction and beyond along Dandenong Road through to Malvern (64) and Brighton Road to Glen Huntly (67)
- Route 57 through North/West Melbourne and along most of Racecourse Road to Flemington Racecourse
- Route 59 to Flemington
- Route 55, 19, 1, 8, 96 north to Brunswick Road (through North Melbourne, Parkville, Carlton, Carlton North, Fitzroy, Fitzroy North)
- Route 109, 12, 75, 48 70 east to Hoddle Street (past East Melbourne, Collingwood, Fitzroy and to the edge of Richmond, Abbotsford)

Taken to its full extent:
The Route 67 runs 10km in dedicated track from Glen Huntly Road to Uni of Melbourne terminus.
The 96 is already on dedicated track for about 12 of its 14km length from Brunswick East to St Kilda.
The 55 for 8km from the southern tip of Brunswick to Domain.

To do what you are saying we don't necessarily need more separation in the 'inner city' we just need the better priority. Personally I'd be very keen to see a genuine conversation about stop spacing on some of those lengths of roads. On the two sections of former railway spacing is up around the 800m mark. Why not make it that along Royal Parade and Dandenong Road as well instead of having 10 in 2.6km along Royal Parade from Haymarket to Brunswick which is actually a relatively low generator of patronage because half that length has Royal Park on one side (with a bitof housing) and Princes Park on the other side.

James Ramsey's picture

JOHNPROCTOR, I see your point about the density comparisons. These were difficult to decide on. For job density, if more SA2s are included in Melbourne to match a similar mix of jobs residential, Melbourne's density would go down - but I think it would still be interestingly comparable to Manhattan.

You are correct that the issue for light rail is priority and stop spacing. I think where I talk about separation I am also talking about making the light rail network a network that's integrated with other light rail better - perhaps existing as a separate system to the streetcar network. Perhaps with its own livery, 'stations', network planning, and operations(?).

Aussie Steve's picture

I agree with you JP. We do need to increase the distance between stops on our existing tram routes, but I dare say, this can only be done, when true accessible platform stops are built. This is what has happened along Victoria St, Richmond and along Dandenong Road to some extent. There are many ways we can improve our access stops, by building more along already separated tram routes such as Brighton Rd, St Kilda Rd, Royal Pde etc.

Adam Ford's picture

Yes, JP, your point about how much of the network is already segregated is well made.

And YES YES YES. To Stop Spacing and priority at intersections, I would also add "stop buying flipping supertrams", because service FREQUENCY is key. Smaller trams running more often if we are serious about replicating a subway effect.

Michael Gordon's picture

First let me say that New York and Melbourne share similar problems in that the rail networks are largely radial through the centre making cross town travel by-passing the centre difficult. Nonetheless, Melbourne's tram system layout, especially in the eastern suburbs is already configured to handle this problem, in part, although route structures would need to be changed. For example, A direct route could be established from East Brighton to Box Hill where now three trams are required.

In terms of more efficient running in the inner city, and achieving similar benefits as light rail, could not extra tracks be laid in St Kilda Rd for limited express running through to say St Kilda Junction with stops only at key intersections where other routes diverge?

James Ramsey's picture

MICHAELGORDON, I think St Kilda Road is a great opportunity for, let's call it "light rail 2.0" - particularly between St Kilda junction and Carlisle Street. This area is screaming for more density, however St Kilda Road would need a bit of a road diet in order to make the area more amenable.

Grampians's picture

An on street diet for almost all parking would be better still
There are probably few enough traffic lanes already but four or more parking lanes are a joke
I tell ya parking, or removal thereof, is the answer

Adam Ford's picture

But regardless, whose programme are we getting with? IV have just made light rail into suburban activity centers like their number two priority, or similar and is there some deficit in service on the inner city tram network we're trying to solve with this?

Melbourne is manhattanising regardless of any changes to the tram network, and the core public policy goal is surely not to increase the amenity for zone one types until we've found an effective way of getting the 80% of people in the suburbs who pay the same taxes yet get almost no public transport service out of their cars??

And THAT is all about suburban CADs and new infrastructure in the suburbs, not gold-plating the hipster component of the network.

johnproctor's picture


You misread the fine print of the IV strategy. The 'employment centre mass transit' is a furphy project. While the talk is nice and the price tag in the report seems good ($1-3 billion) the reality is burried in the AECOM PWC Options Assessment Tehcnical Report Supplement B Volume 3 (of 4)

Which states of that $1-3 billion estimate only $100-250m is capital expense the rest is opex.

Secondly its assumptions for that cost are as follows, being mainly minor bus infrastructure upgrades - enough to pay for a 'bus station' or similar in most precincts but not really to pay for any bus lanes or other priority:

Monash: Assume $5 million of bus infrastructure and fleet purchase of 25 buses at $200,000 per bus.
Dandenong South: Assume $5 million of bus infrastructure and fleet purchase of 25 busses at
$200,000 per bus.
La Trobe: Assume $5 million of bus infrastructure and fleet purchase of 25 busses at $200,000 per bus.
Sunshine: Assume $5 million of bus infrastructure and fleet purchase of 25 busses at $200,000 per bus.
East Werribee: Assume $5 million of bus infrastructure and fleet purchase of 25 busses at $200,000 per bus.
Melbourne Airport: Assume light rail extension of 59 tram of 8 kilometres.

johnproctor's picture

I also think you're missing the point about the value of the inner city. The Central City and the 500,000 daily workers employed there generates about 25% of the states GDP within 2-3km of the GPO. Remembering that its not just 'workers' there but major and secondary universities, most of the cities major hospitals, majority of our cultural institutions and tourist attractions i.e. things that draw people from across the entire metro area on a regular basis. I don't imagine the NGV is planning on decamping to Box Hill, or Melbourne Uni building a Dandenong Campus, etc.

So what I'm saying is its not about investing in the inner city to gold plate for hipsters. Its about investing in that part of the network that actually delivers an economic and social return to Victoria and therefore all Victorians.

George D's picture

Can't happen, won't happen.

At least while City of Melbourne are committed to keeping our inner-city streets as a sanctuary for cars.

theboynoodle's picture

Melbourne is manhattanising regardless of any changes to the tram network, and the core public policy goal is surely not to increase the amenity for zone one types until we've found an effective way of getting the 80% of people in the suburbs who pay the same taxes yet get almost no public transport service out of their cars??

People who live in Zone 1 and/or have good public transport are paying for that through our rents and mortgages. To an extent that means we pay more in taxes because property taxes will be higher but, in any case, it's the tax system that's at fault if it doesn't effectively tax the higher transport amenity in inner areas and, instead, allows that to be captured 'privately' by the extant property owners. it's not an argument for prioritizing places further afield.

The urban development case for better public transport further out is solid. But you seem to be making a case based on fairness. Is it fair that people who chose to live somewhere without good public transport, and paid less for their property accordingly, should have public transport provided in priority to people in inner-city areas who *have* paid for the privilege but are seeing their amenity eroded by capacity issues?

James Ramsey's picture

Some good debate here!

As JOHNPROCTOR says, the inner city is not just for hipsters and those that live there. It is critical to the success of Melbourne and Victoria now and will be (even more so) into the future.

Transport is going to change over the coming decades with things like autonomous cars (for good or bad - we don't know), but anything to enhance connectivity by public transport within the inner city will pay big dividends to not just inner city dwellers but the whole population. Melbourne's PT isn't that well connected compared to other places.

I think the tram network as it is (don't get me wrong, I love it like a gunzel) probably needs to be given a 21st Century overhaul, otherwise it's at risk of being less and less relevant. So upgrading key lines into high capacity light rail to create an integrated network that works like a subway and also links to the rail network is one possibility. Parts of the network that work better as streetcars for other reasons (like activation of shopping strips) can stay that way.

Having the two networks separate allows for different goals to be pursued for each. I'd say that many routes would have to alter from what they are today. We shouldn't think that the network is a fixed thing anyway - and perhaps a different view of it could actually allow for extensions and new lines to be thought of.

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