Friday, August 19, 2011

The shape of Melbourne’s streets

A ramble through the street directory

It is not possible to talk about bus network design without referring to street planning, for streets represent the fist of cards from which bus route planners must choose.


The Central Business District forms our first grid, with its main thoroughfare and tram spine aligned NNW to SSE, though for simplicity I will describe this as north-south. Its blocks are rectangular, with the ‘little’ streets feeding into the axis streets.

To the north almost all city streets continue into others (albeit angled) as they become West Melbourne, Parkville or Carlton. To the south most streets are blocked by the river, with Swanston and Spencer Streets being exceptions. However walkers enjoy greater permeability with some pedestrian-only bridges to Southbank.

State Parliament and Southern Cross Station bookend the CBD to the east and west respectively. Bourke Street, the central partially malled shopping street, must yield to these buildings at both ends. Whereas Collins Street, its classier southern neighbour, was privileged enough to recently gain an extension at its Docklands end. Its ‘Paris end’ also exits the grid, its leftward veer dividing the politics from the money. Similar easterly access, though with a rightward turn, exists off Lonsdale and Latrobe Streets.

Much of Flinders Street is denied a river vista by Federation Square and the two-block station named after it. The building’s narrowness suits the need to maximise platform space; open skies being an advantage in the steam age. Further west, the railway viaduct squashes the river vista from this quarter of low repute, austere pavements and architectual mistakes. However Flinders, like Collins, is unconstrained by Hoddle, with its trams running east, west and then north.

Docklands is remote, windswept and a mystery to many who don’t work there. Shopping and stadium stunt access to it, via Bourke and Lonsdale, at Spencer. While the former allows pedestrian access, this walk offers insufficient instant gratification during the two block walk; the steep stairs, the railway overpass, Docklands stadium, some ramps and a pause for a busy road deter all but the leisured curious (and tall train spotters). Colour vison is wasted here; everything is a shade of grey, except for one or two still visible brown remnants from the 1970s. However those leaving Docklands are better rewarded as the bridge provides a vista down Bourke Street to St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Docklands’ north-south routes are for driving more than walking, while its finer-grained areas are beyond lunchtime range of unrushed walkers from outside. It could yet become a medieval village with few from outside. Waterfront City attempts a grid but highways or water stymie egress from most directions; it’s not like Elizabeth or Swanston where one can march north or south until one is footsore, as Henry Bolte would wish. Its east-west streets bear the same names as in the CBD proper, but not always the same vistas or tram routes.

The redeveloped Southbank features a somewhat disordered grid. Its thorougfares are either pedestrian or car; different to say Collins or Elizabeth Street where three or four modes mix. Its key pedestrian way is along the river with frequent bridges from the north bank. Vehicle access predominates to the south where roads distribute traffic from the West Gate Freeway. Unlike Docklands, Southbank shows its face to the CBD (via the river) and, its South Wharf portion excepted, is more accessible.


A kilometre or two away from the Melbourne Town Hall, particularly to the north and east, the angled CBD mesh gives way to a coarser but more extensive net whose streets are almost exactly north-south and east-west. The south-south-easterly St Kilda Road makes it gently diagonal in that direction, with junctions with numerous east-west roads (which are exceptionally supplied with trams thanks to the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust).

Grid spacing is closest in the old areas of Brunswick, Fitzroy, Richmond, previously home to small factories and the working class. Occasionally these fine-grained areas are interrupted by 1960s housing commission towers on ‘superblocks’.

Spacing widens with distance but the grid becomes no less perfect. It increases from about a half-mile in the 1920s suburbs (10 kilometres distant) to about a mile by 20 kilometres distant. These are all key roads, mostly with building frontages, and also occasionally with service roads further out. Beyond established housing a coarse grid exists as rural roads, no doubt becoming tomorrow’s arteries as suburbanisation encroaches.

Spacings between traffic lights and the roads themselves also widen with increasing distance from the CBD. For buses wide grids mean that service may also be needed on intermediate streets to provide reasonable coverage; something that 1km grids in suburbs like Mount Waverley only just avoids. But whatever their width, grids allow faster speeds and more legible bus routes; one traffic signal and no turns beats two junctions and two turns.

In some directions, particularly to the west, north and north-east, the grid may be interrupted by freeways, rivers, parks or scrap land. Fawkner to Reservoir is short geographically but distant by road, for example. The Yarra also divides and sparsens the suburbs, with only a few favoured roads granted a bridge.

Sometimes, like the bisected Bourke Street in Docklands, both halves may be similarly named, indicating either a former or intended joining. For example the Grieve Parades in Altona, which could make a fine Altona – Toyota – Sunshine industrial bus route if joined. Or the Balmorals, Crowns, Graces and Highs over in Altona Meadows. But hop over to Hoppers and the mile grid reasserts itself with the parallel Tarneit, Derrimut, Morris, Leakes, Sayers, Hogans and Heaths Roads.

Up in Sunshine West, Glengala Avenue goes some way before it hits the freeway. Had it hypothetically continued it may have given Derrimut a bus earlier (possibly an extended Route 454) instead of requiring a wait for a new route (400).

This example demonstrates that discussions about freeways and their form are not only about infrastructure priorities (eg freeways versus railways) but also about the importance of long-distance orbital versus more regionalised road access (that a half to one mile at-grade grid provides). Due to the lack of the latter in parts of the west, the Western Ring Road has been bigger for the west than Eastlink for the east, with its more contiguous development and continuous roads.

The southern portion of Sunshine West does not have an equivalent spine to Glengala Road in the north. The Avenue (which has a bus) forms the makings of a spine but its short streets to the north limits its legible pedestrian catchment. Access is possible into Wright Street but catchment streets are widely spaced compared to the less direct Talintyre Road with more branches. Neither Wright nor Talintyre have buses so some homes exceed 400 metres from one. Whereas streets with the best of both worlds (eg direct road with closely spaced side streets but not necessarily particularly high density) like Sydney Road in Coburg may have facilitated an accessible, fast and well-patronised service.

While four-way intersections are the rule, there are more at some locations. And not just at Five Ways, outside Cranbourne. In the inner-east, all roads lead to Camberwell. Camberwell’s centrality is so great, or the take-up of motoring in this affluent area so early, that it sapped surrounding suburbs of significant shopping strips. In contrast more homes are walkable from a supermarket along the less affluent Dandenong and Frankston lines.

Multi-way junctions attract the map viewer as much as they are cursed by drivers. Eyes scanning a map are naturally drawn to St Kilda Junction, Reservoir and the notorious but soon to be removed Haymarket roundabout in Parkville. Two or three roads may meet obliquely, slicing the suburban grid. Examples includer Camberwell (again), Kew, Reservoir and Footscray. However mass motorisation caused prewar accessibility to become congestion and multi-way junctions have not been favoured since.

Inside grids

There are differences as to what’s inside the grids. Inner suburbs have grids within grids, with older working-class suburbs like Brunswick, Collingwood and Richmond markedly denser than spacious Mont Albert or Malvern East.

Other planners filled their grids with curves, not unlike an arched window. That off Bay Street in Brighton boasts an inner, middle and outer circle. Albion’s Selwyn Street more successfully encloses its park but does not form the suburb’s centre. Western Glenroy’s arch is irregular, while Sunshine West’s is a neat rounded square.

Circles are rare enough to confer novelty, like knots in a timber beam, but aren’t confined to the poshest suburbs. Albert Park’s grand St Vincent Gardens is the full circle (or oval), unlike Brighton semi. Altona North must feel impoverished with just its tiny circle (called ‘The Circle’) with attempted polygons surrounding. Nevertheless it forms the hub of local commerce. St Albans’ circle daintily sidesteps its main road junction. It forms a six slice cake, with the railway splitting it cleanly in half. Commerce occupies one slice with reserves in the centre.

Central reserves are the common pattern; circle centres are too oddly shaped to subdivide and they provide a pleasant outlook for homes lucky enough to front them. Homes also provides passive surveillance for park users.

Centres however vary greatly in size. Unlike the scraps of land in St Albans’, the park in the aptly named Park Orchard’s circle is large and unbroken. It forms a large steering wheel, though three of the four spokes are footpaths rather than roads.

Not that distant is Circle Ridge in Chirnside Park. I’m guessing this surrounds a peak given the street name. If this is the case then its aim may be to angle houses to look outwards at the view instead of the usual inward park. Pakenham’s version has a literary bent and encloses a lake.

More common than circles in the postwar suburbs are curvilinear streets and then culs-de-sac. These were considered to offer greater interest to the resident and visitor while respecting land contours and calming traffic for childrens’ benefit. Unfortunately though the layout induces vehicle usage due to low pedestrian legibility and permeability. The ‘exclusive’ golf estates like Sanctuary Lakes, Chirnside Park and the unserveable Sandhurst are the biggest offenders, but the pattern is widespread.

There are sometimes access ways at the end of culs-de-sac but these lack street frontages and may be perceived as unsafe. Since local police and residents groups often support closure of access ways and alleys (to reduce assaults, theft and graffiti), such access is less permanent as that via grid streets with street frontages.

The busier arterials in these areas may lack building frontages (more the case in newer cities like Canberra than Melbourne), or, where there are still buildings, they are set back from the street with service lanes and large front parking areas. Intersections are widely spaced, and in the worst cases are controlled by roundabouts. Distances are too far for people to talk or even recognise one another in the next building or across the street, from one shop door to another.

And even if they could (eg through a GPS-based mobile phone app linked to Facebook), the limited pedestrian access only grudgingly provided at widely spaced intersections means that such roads cannot sustain the form of street life written about by Jane Jacobs. Neither this nor the curvilinear distributor street nor the cul-de-sac suit efficient ‘last mile’ bus routes; one reason for the success of trams, along with their service levels, is the walkable grid that feeds each stop.

New urbanist planning has influenced new residential street layouts more than locating new shopping centres near stations or making industrial employment areas walkable. Modern estates now have straighter or at least connected streets compared to those of the 1980s. Altona Meadows was an early example, with a dense grid not unlike older suburbs. This layout allows a single bus route (411/412) to serve a suprisingly large catchment. And while weekend services are limited, its 20 minute weekday frequency is high for a 1970s-1980s suburb.

This evolution is clearest in established outer suburbs that have grown continously for a century or more. Central Cranbourne, Pakenham or Werribee both have old-style grids. Around 1 to 2 km out several kilometres of cul-de-sacs start. Even further out is often a modified grid, less regular than the old but with a legible central street that could take a tolerably direct bus.

However there is still difficulty in connecting adjacent estates. Bridges are expensive and we're not so gung-ho about draining swamps these days. Hence Shearwater Drive in Pakenham peters out into a park and creek and there appears no provision to connect it to Meeking Drive (and thus link it to the proposed Cardinia Road Railway Station). Buses instead would need to weave on and off the main highway, slowing travel and likely partly duplicating other routes.

Street design for walkability and transit has improved over the last thirty years but not over the last hundred. And decades of impermeable layouts and controlled access roads has left us with a legacy of culs-de-sac to open, super-blocks to bust and roundabouts to remove to improve accessibility.


Anonymous said...

What's this about the Haymarket roundabout being removed? Google doesn't want to tell me anything about it. Its notoriety has made it iconic! Will its removal improve the area for people not in cars too, or will the opportunity to make another barren wasteland be taken?

(Not, of course, that the area is particularly good for people not in cars. Anyway who was wanted to change from route 55 to route 19, or navigate it by bike without being run over, will realise the roundabout is indisputable proof that the devil exists and wants to make our lives intolerable.)

Peter Parker said...

Not quite removed but traffic lighted

Andrew said...

Very interesting and nicely written. It was a long read and I continued to read. Market Street crosses the river, as does now Russell Street, if you care to pay. Docklands was private company planning mistake. Melbourne city was a publicly planned success. I can't see what could be Docklands to make it a success. How can you build soul into such a sterile area? Mediaeval village, haha. I am tall enough to do train spotting from the Bourke Street walkway. I think the western area of Southbank works better, where it still tries to connect towards the city, but does so via the river.

Not so long ago I examined one of the new Pakenham bus routes, primarily because my mother could use it. No one who had a car sitting in their driveway and was time poor would use it. It provides a service to very few. To attract car drivers to public transport, the transport needs to be fast. Within the very inner areas of Melbourne, trams are very competitive with cars, nay superior to cars, which is why my car sits garaged and unused when I am not working.

While we all like to complain about our train and tram services, if you have one, you are quite fortunate.

Public transport advocates often argue for feeder bus routes to train stations. If the bus doesn't go down your street, or a nearby one, rather the point of your grid, I would argue that money is better spent on more railway lines that are fast and provide large car parking and kiss and ride facilities.

While I don't understand why people would want to drive to the city when there is reasonable train or tram service, I can't ignore how impractical and costly it would be to service all of the outer areas of Melbourne with a first class bus system. But they should have first class access to a first class train to the city and somewhere to park.