On a recent week-long business trip to Melbourne, Australia, I had the pleasure of attending a Twenty20 cricket match. I’m not a cricket die-hard. But as someone who’s coached youth baseball for a number of years, I’ve had to reflect a lot on its fundamentals. It was fascinating to see how minor and arbitrary choices in competition design take a game with similar athletic elements and turn it into something entirely different. It was an interesting meditation on what might have been had the designers of baseball been a little less imaginative.
For a Seattle resident, Melbourne’s transit system is also an exercise in alternate history. Melbourne has a lot of basic similarities to Seattle: about the same metro population, many immigrant groups, buildings from a 19th-century gold rush, a vertical Central Business District (currently a forest of cranes), and boundless single-family sprawl beyond. Admittedly, the topology is much less challenging.
But there were a series of midcentury decisions that turned out quite differently in Melbourne. Broadly speaking, Melbourne didn’t throw away its railroads when cars were the Next Big Thing. And so, the city is an outlier in several respects:
- Having never torn up its streetcar system, Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world. Though usually given its own right-of-way, the system is large and complicated enough to feel much more like a bus network than a handful of carefully branded lines.
- They didn’t gouge out chunks of downtown for freeways.
- The city’s legacy railways mostly didn’t become trails — instead, they were electrified and now carry subway-style trains into far flung suburbs (there are also limited “V/Line” commuter rail lines with locomotives).
There have been no major new rail lines in Melbourne since World War II. Only now is the City working to expand capacity by building a new tunnel under downtown. This 5.6 mile, US$5 billion project will open in 2026.
Melbourne’s trams are roughly of the same scale as Seattle’s old streetcars, but with dedicated space where it most matters. For all the ink spilled in our domestic streetcar wars, it comes out as a mildly positive wash: somewhat smoother than a bus, a driver not delayed by rider questions, nicer stations, and every now and then disruption by a car blocking the box. Having quite so many lines actually erodes one of the advantages of American systems: it is sometimes hard to decipher just what tram is going to come, and where it will take you.
Public Transport Victoria is entirely cashless, requiring an A$6 (US$4.80) Myki card to board buses, trams, and trains. It is not appreciably easier to get or recharge than an ORCA card. Given all the angst over the ORCA fee, abolishing paper transfers, and cashlessness, it was amazing to see this in operation without much fuss. On the other hand, the burden for tourists is lightened by a ride-free area in the downtown core.
I saw a bunch of people on bikes in midsummer. I didn’t try to ride, but I’d put the infrastructure as similar to Seattle’s, with nice stretches of lanes and trails punctuated by frustrating gaps in the system. Melbourne’s bike share system is station based, which now feels hopelessly outdated to someone from Seattle, and is hamstrung by the same helmet law that plagues King County.
It’s hard not to be jealous of what Melbourne has for its transit. The infrastructure is there in comprehensive railways and dedicated tramways, and the bonds are long paid off. Downtown is rapidly accessible from anywhere, so that 80% of trips to there are by transit. Although many services are run by the private sector, it all falls under Public Transport Victoria, which coordinates operations in an integrated system. With no giant capital program to sell to the public, the downsides of this integration are minimal.
To someone raised on American sports, one of the most bizarre things about Cricket is that in many versions of the game, one team completes all of its scoring before the other gets a chance to “chase.” 30 years ago, Seattle had essentially no quality transit while Melbourne’s was extensive. I’m not sure we have enough wickets left to catch up.