23 Mar 2010

Planning, light rail and TOD

by Brett Gale

Consider revised population projections which will see Sydney and Melbourne house seven million people apiece, and it’s immediately apparent that the stakes are high.

The pressure is on city and state planning authorities to deliver comprehensive plans to ensure Australia’s major population centres continue to function as demand for transport, education, health and social services increases. For years, the Commonwealth has played little or no role in our cities, providing neither funding nor expertise, despite the five biggest cities being home to 60 percent of the population. Now, however, there is a much greater appreciation of the role our cities play in the economic development of Australia and the need to ensure they remain mobile, liveable places.

The Prime Minister’s announcement late last year sent a strong message to state governments around the country, even though some have clearly managed the planning process far better than others. They were warned that failure to come up with appropriately detailed plans could see funding for key infrastructure cut. That this approach had already been used in relation to determining funding for projects through Infrastructure Australia meant that the PM was not merely employing empty rhetoric. Since then, we’ve seen comprehensive blueprints showing how growth in our cities will be managed.

While the objections of people in established suburbs to inappropriate development is understandable, it is inevitable that people in inner and middle ring locations close to good transport links will experience rising densities over the coming decades. TTF is releasing a series of transport position papers, advocating strategies which will ensure that Australia’s biggest cities are able to retain their amenity and that residents and visitors alike can move around them quickly and easily. This requires not only significant investment in transport infrastructure, but also that, in many cases, planning priorities are revisited.

Light rail is a mode of transport which was far more prevalent in most Australian cities in years past than it is now, with Melbourne the notable exception. With the advent of affordable motor vehicles, authorities bowed to pressure from the public and the car lobby to remove trams from city streets. Now, the thinking has reversed, and the benefits of light rail as a clean, efficient and reliable mode of mass transit have again been embraced, with Sydney and Adelaide both in the throes of expanding their light rail/tram networks, while a brand new light rail service is being constructed on the Gold Coast, one of the country’s fastest growing regions. For its part, Melbourne has identified numerous key locations, combining decentralisation strategies to reduce the demand on CBD-focused transport services with urban renewal along key routes to make the most of existing corridors.

Light rail’s carrying capacity allows it to fill the gap between bus services and heavy rail, making it a valuable part of the public transport mix. Research by Transport for London found that where demand exceeds four thousand passengers per hour, light rail is the lowest cost mode, while light rail services can provide an alternative to bus travel on busy CBD road corridors and increase public transport choice for journeys between suburban areas, especially inner suburban areas and city centres. Rather than competing with other modes of transport, light rail should be regarded as complementary, and while not all corridors are appropriate for light rail, it can be a better option than buses or trains in the right circumstances. The potential of light rail to change the transport mix and commuter behaviour has not been fully explored in most Australian cities and is something TTF believes must be an integral part of the planning process.

The international experience shows that light rail fosters investment in complementary infrastructure and improves property values. Light rail infrastructure sends a strong positive message of permanence, which encourages others to put money into residential, commercial and social developments. All this goes to improving the amenity for residents, giving them more choice in where and how they spend their time. Due to its comfort, capacity and efficiency, light rail is also particularly successful at enticing commuters out of their cars and onto public transport. With current projections showing congestion will cost Australia more than $20 billion a year by 2020, moves to reduce demand for road space in our capital cities are essential.

Investing in light rail can open up areas for redevelopment which would otherwise have been considered off limits. There is also evidence that investing in light rail will reap substantial economic rewards, encourage urban renewal and enhance the livability of our inner-city areas. International examples include London’s Docklands, which has undergone a spectacular transformation over recent years, and Dallas, Texas, where the DART light rail has attracted US$4.26 billion worth of projects since 1999.

Light rail also drives up property values, as this table shows:








St Louis





Santa Clara County





San Jose









This demonstrates the value‐add that light rail can deliver, particularly where a public transport agency is the landlord, and is highly compatible with transit‐oriented development. The premium value of land around a transport hub will generate a higher price for a sale or lease arrangement, generating a strong return for taxpayer investment. In addition, putting residential, employment and commercial activity around transport hubs – like light rail stations ‐ means people are far more likely to use public transport. This has environmental, economic and social benefits, taking cars off the roads and encouraging more sustainable living. Electricity‐powered light rail is also one of the most sustainable transport modes at a time when responding to climate change is a major government priority and public concern.

Despite the notion of a wide brown land being enmeshed in our national psyche, Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on Earth, meaning the case for transit-oriented development is strong. Transit-oriented development helps to maximise the use of existing transport infrastructure, making the most of current capacity, and is one of the keys to managing projected population growth.

Research released by the Heart Foundation earlier this year found 69 percent of people rate being within walking distance of public transport as very or extremely important and that 64 percent of people rate being within walking distance of local services like shops and cafes as important. This is exactly what transit-oriented development delivers – as well as enabling people to become more active by leaving the car at home and walking more. A Curtin University study found almost two-thirds of Australian households would consider living in a transit-oriented development.

Transport hubs are natural focal points for activity and it makes good sense to capitalise on their inherent benefits. Investing in light rail in medium to high density areas of Australian cities will provide more opportunities to develop those high-amenity locations, bringing increasing employment and economic activity, as well as taking cars off the road and reducing airborne pollution, with the added bonus of increasing property values.

The plans for managing the growth in Australia’s cities over the coming decades are embracing the potential benefits of transit-oriented development and a number of plans to expand light rail services are on the table. Not only will this help to deal with the challenges presented by population growth, but it should also placate the Prime Minister.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.