Perth And Fremantle, A Hesitant Start In Australia

Professor of City Policy, and Director, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University


The data on Perth (population 1991 of 1,142,646) in chapter 3 show a city almost completely in the automobile dependent category. Some of the limits on this are being seen and hence the beginning of a process to overcome automobile dependence is evident (Table 1).





Central city area becoming progressively more traffic calmed and pedestrianised though much to be done.
Traffic calming or Local Area Traffic Management practiced on ad hoc basis throughout the region.
Some good examples in many local centres.
40 km/h zones around schools.
No area wide moves to lower speed limits in residential streets.

High investment in upgraded and extended electric rail through the 1980s.
Commitment to further extend rail system.
New bus service initiatives to improve cross-city travel (circle route), plus upgraded bus stops and information systems.
A good off-road network of cycleways especially for recreation and increasing attention on direct, on-road routes for commuting and other trips.
Some favouring of pedestrian, cycle and transit access at regional centres over last 5 years.

Fuel tax, but used entirely for roads.

Recent extensive new central city housing projects including revitalisation of old industrial land for resident/mixed use development.
Beginnings of urban village style development around rail stations through sinking of line at one station and large redevelopment project.
A focus on land use planning to discourage automobile dependence in regional centres.
Development of community code to encourage urban villages in any new urban development.

Table 1 Perth’s strategy for overcoming automobile dependence.

For over 50 years new suburbs have been built in Perth on the assumption that the majority of people will not need a high profile transit service. Thus suburbs were built at uniformly low densities of 10-15 persons per hectare and without access to rail services. This left suburbs with a subsidised bus service that rarely came more than hourly at off-peak times. It is not surprising that the Perth suburban lifestyle rapidly became highly automobile dependent.

Despite the high degree of automobile dependence, in all Australian cities, the recent trends indicate a slowing down in the use of cars in all Australian cities and a turn around in transit in some cities. This seems to be a reflection of a growing desire by many Australians to return to the city. The decline of the inner city has reversed and now a major part of all new residential and commercial development is in established areas, with a strong demand for housing close to good urban facilities, particularly rail services. This trend towards more transit-oriented urban life is now beginning to occur in some very car dependent suburbs.

One such corridor in Perth was the city's northern suburbs which grew rapidly in the 1960's and 70's on the low density, car dependent model. Two rail reserves from the original metropolitan plan of 1955 were removed in the '60's as planners saw no future for rail transit and believed that all necessary transit services could be provided by buses.

However, by the 1980's the freeway serving the corridor was clogged at peak hour and the community was dissatisfied with the bus service. A strong political push for a rail service resulted in the Northern Suburbs Rapid Transit System (Newman, 1993). The new 33 km electric rail line has only 7 stations which allows a very rapid service reaching a maximum speed of 110 km/h. The service runs along the centre of a freeway which is far from ideal for land development but it has been designed to closely link with bus services that interchange passengers directly onto the stations. This allows cross-suburban bus services to be provided because the station nodes have become the focus for bus routes rather than the CBD. Another benefit of the fast freeway running, is that motorists stuck in stalled traffic get a good look at the advantages of unimpeded urban rail travel.

Photo 1 Central Perth Station, once dead and about to be superseded, it had a
new lease of life bringing businesses alive in that end of town.

Photo 2 Patronage growth has been an astonishing quadrupling over 7 years

Photo 3 The Northern Suburbs line has been very successful as it provides
a faster service into town than by car. High quality station designs are a feature.

The new service has been extremely successful, but it reveals more than anything else, the problem of transportation planners not believing sufficiently in the ability of good transit to succeed in modern cities. Three predictions were made, which all proved to be wrong, as set out in Box 1.

Box 1 The Northern Suburbs Transit System in Perth - Predictions, Results and Conclusions
1. Prediction: Rail will lose patronage over the already existing express buses as people don't like transferring from bus to rail.
Result: In the first year of operation there was a 40% increase with Rail-Bus use over Bus-only use in the corridor. This had grown to a 56% increase a few years later.
Conclusion: People will transfer if they can move to a superior, reliable form of service.

2. Prediction: You will never get people out of their cars as the freeway is so good and parking is so easy in Perth.
Result: 25% of the patrons on the new northern rail line gave up using their cars for the journey-to-work.
Conclusion: Even in an automobile-dependent city people can give up their cars.

3. Prediction: It will be a financial disaster.
Result: It was completed on-budget and on-time winning many awards for engineering and architecture. It is almost breaking even in running costs, though unlike roads such as the freeway down which it runs, whose capital funds come from grants, it must still service a $260 million capital debt.
Conclusion: If people are given a good option, then rail infrastructure can be viable in modern automobile-dependent cities, and can do better than roads financially given a level playing field in funding.

Perth has a long way to go before it overcomes its automobile dependence. There has, however, been a positive trend in land values near the transit stations which may enable development of transit-oriented urban villages. This process has happened on some of the other three electric train lines, but will require some rather special design for the northern line. Plans are now developing for extensions to the rail service to the south and for an orbital light rail line linking Perth's car-based shopping centres and universities. The potential success of such a line is highlighted by the overwhelming success of the first stages of a bus based ‘circle route’ introduced in 1998. The aim of such transit innovations is to try not only to provide the city with better transit, but to build many more transit-oriented urban villages, as discussed in this chapter.

Photo 4 Integrated bus services with each station are another feature of Perth’s rail services

The Federal government in Australia established an $850 million fund to build model transit-oriented urban villages in all major cities as a way of demonstrating this new and important way of coping with the automobile. The program, called 'Better Cities' has several very successful demonstrations in Perth. Such developments have been shown to save Australian cities very large amounts of money from less expenditure on new infrastructure and transportation, compared to development at the urban fringe, as well as a much improved environment (Kenworthy and Newman, 1992; Diver and Newman, 1996). The integration of the urban village model into the structure of Perth’s planning system has now occurred (as a voluntary model) after the government recognised that the present approach was no longer providing an economically viable solution to city development in the Information Age (Ministry of Planning, 1997).

Photo 5 Redevelopment of inner areas is booming. This is East Perth.

The kind of concepts in many of these demonstrations are also being built into the Sydney Olympic Village as a demonstration of Australian urban sustainability. These are small starts in an urban policy history that until recently was almost totally dominated by the inevitability of automobile dependence.


Diver, G., Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (1996) An evaluation of Better Cities: Environmental component. Department of Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra.

Kenworthy, J. and Newman, P. (1992) The economic and wider community benefits of the proposed East Perth redevelopment. A commissioned report to the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, ISTP, Murdoch University.

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