Melbourne public transport services sit idle while apartment numbers boom

RMIT University

New research shows the number of apartments in Melbourne has almost doubled in the past two decades, while public transport services have barely increased at all.

The nineteen-year longitudinal study, from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, showed the number of apartments increased by 88% between 2004-2022, while public transport services within walking distance of apartments only increased by 5%.

Project lead and RMIT Senior Research Fellow, Dr Chris De Gruyter, said the slow growth of public transport services highlighted the need for housing development to include public transport in the planning process, especially if housing development focused on existing urban areas.

“Urban policy in the last few decades has shifted from suburban car-based development to encouraging more urban densification around public transport,” he said.

“We’re seeing all these new apartments being built along public transport routes but we’re not seeing services step up to match those new apartment developments.

“More needs to be done to better integrate transport and housing policies to improve the sustainability, productivity and liveability of our city.”

Lead researcher and RMIT research assistant, Steve Pemberton, said there was little existing research that looked specifically at the relationship between the growth of apartment development and public transport services in Melbourne.

With the current metropolitan planning strategy, Plan Melbourne 2017 – 2050, aiming to locate 70% of new housing in established areas close to jobs and public transport, Pemberton said it was crucial to track growth from both a metropolitan and local level.

“There are considerable variations between individual areas which can tell us more about the equity between public transport services and apartments,” Pemberton said.

“These findings can be used to influence councils and local governments to make decisions specific to their area.”

The research found apartment housing had grown by 102% along the 86 tram route, but tram services increased by just 0.3%.

Apartment housing between Jewell and Upfield stations along the Upfield line increased by 134% while public transport services only increased by 7%.

On the opposite end, the City of Frankston saw a growth of 16% in apartment housing but increased their train services by 58%.

Pemberton said it was not always clear why there was a difference in services between train lines or areas.

“As far as we can see, there’s no pattern to why some areas have more frequent services than others,” he said.

“But what we can say is public transport services are not consistently matching the growth of apartment housing.

“There’s also little to no relationship between public transport supply and socio-economic advantage and disadvantage, so more advantaged areas with apartment housing do not necessarily receive a greater number of public transport services per person than less advantaged areas with apartment housing.

“It’s probably fair to say that somewhere like Upfield is particularly hard to improve services because of the level crossings on high-volume roads, though it’s hard to improve train services everywhere.”

Capacity-adjusted public transport not the right solution

The study also found a 35% increase in upgrades to larger-capacity public transport vehicles across Melbourne, mostly trains and trams, which was on par with population growth.

However, Pemberton said capacity increases were not a service improvement.

“It’s true higher-capacity vehicles are a way for government to address population increases and avoid overcrowding with less cost than adding more services,” he said.

“But from the perspective of passengers, they are still waiting long times between services. They’re just crammed into a bigger vehicle with more people.

“If the objective is to encourage people to live in higher density housing, then an uplift of public transport services in areas where density is increasing should be part of what helps make people want to live there.”

Chris De Gruyter, Steve Pemberton and Eric Keys are co-authors.

/Public Release.