An article by Sergio Famiano

The State Government has a vision for Perth as a more compact and connected city as outlined in the Perth and Peel @ 3.5 million planning frameworks.

Part of achieving that vision will require the delivery of more diverse housing options and the roll out of an integrated transport network that allows people to efficiently and affordably access employment, education, amenities and services without such a heavy reliance on the private vehicle.

In line with that compact and connected city, the State Government has also outlined an ambitious target for increased infill development in a range of local government areas.  Ultimately aiming to achieve 47% infill development and 53% greenfield development for new housing.

Achieving that balance will require a focus on urban consolidation and strategic infrastructure delivery to support greater infill development.  That includes an improved public transport network.

A fast and efficient public transport network not only helps to facilitate greater housing choice through the development of station hubs or precincts, but there are also a range of sustainable outcomes related to reducing car dependency.

Reducing car dependency

Like most Australian cities, Perth people love their cars!  Currently Perth relies on the private automobile for up to 85% of all trips generated, with walking and cycling, bus and train making up just 5%, 4% and 6% respectively. Transportation costs represent the single largest household expense.

Cities that are car dependant are also some of the most expensive for travel, as the typical household becomes dependent upon having one vehicle per each adult.

The recent increases in interest rates on mortgages and rise in the cost of petrol following COVID-19 and the Ukraine war, has also added significantly to ‘mortgage stress’ and supports the case for more public transport and urban consolidation as a growth model for Perth.

By providing a more extensive and reliable public transport system, households can reduce transport costs significantly and appropriate savings to other more productive sectors of the economy.

Delivering housing choice

Household sizes have been shrinking over the last few decades, primarily due to our aging population.

In the 1970’s, the average age in Australia was 27.4 years old.  In 2020, the average age was 37.9 years.  This changing age profile is having a profound impact on people’s housing needs.

In particular, baby boomers who are now seeking to downsize are driving demand for greater housing choice in the medium and high-density markets.

These baby boomers were the catalyst for the birth of the ‘great Australian dream’ post second world war, seeking the larger 4×2 homes to house their larger family units.

However, Baby Boomers are perhaps the last generation to follow that traditional housing model and housing needs and indeed what the market now wants, is changing.

Despite this change, Perth’s housing stock remains predominantly single homes on a green title lot.  In fact, that housing typology represents 76 per cent of the total housing market.

While there has been a fundamental shift away from the need for a traditional large family home on a large block, we need greater housing choices to meet this evolution in demand.

There is a significant mismatch between the type of housing within Perth and the demand for housing types by the population.

The Australia Suburban Dream which was based fundamentally on the single dwelling with 3 to 4 bedrooms and dominates the housing type in most Australian cities, is suddenly out of step with the population which is progressively changing.

Facilitating greater connectivity and focusing urban development around active precincts will provide the catalyst we need to deliver more housing choices in Perth.

Public transport shaping the future of Perth

The solution for the future growth of Perth is one which focuses on developing our existing urban areas to support housing diversity, liveability and affordability supported by quality Mid-Tier Public Transport such as Light Rail and / or Trackless Trams.

With greater access to public transport, people can substitute travel with the private vehicle with cycling and using public transport which saves a considerable amount of money in the household budget.  If we can reduce vehicle use to just one instead of two for a typical household, the budget savings could be between $10,000 to $15,000 a year for the average household.

In recent years, there has been significant planning and investment into the passenger rail network via METRONET.  One of the benefits of METRONET is that it provides public transport options to people living on the fringes of our city and this will address in part some of the vulnerabilities associated with car dependency.  However, it cannot be the only solution.

Passenger rail in Perth is very linear with strong north-south connections but is severely lacking east-west connections, leaving large gaps that are currently filled by buses. Passenger rail is also largely located down large corridors and in most cases are not connected directly to Strategic Centres, education facilities and major employment hubs.  Therefore people have to travel by bus or car from the train station to get to these locations making transport movement difficult.

The other Achilles heel of METRONET is the notion presented by the State Labor Government that METRONET stations will be home to over 8,000 hectares of Transit oriented Development (TOD) or better put – apartments and mixed-use development.  This target is unlikely to be met since most of the new METRONET stations are located within outer suburban locations where property values are traditionally lower, meaning that apartment developers will be competing directly with 3–4-bedroom homes that will be more cheaply priced.

Apartment development is currently more viable in inner suburban locations that are better serviced by amenity, transport and critically where property values are higher.

The Rise of Light Rail  

I am a firm believer along with many others, that quality public transport can have a profound impact on the sustainable growth and development of our cities as proven across Australia.

The move to a more carbon-light future means that we need to build resilience and diversity in our transport network to ‘buffer’ Perth from the challenges of the 21st Century.

Light rail is a form of urban rail transport that is essentially a modern tram that uses electric rail cars large enough to accommodate up to 50-60 people as well as wheelchairs and bicycles.

Light rail works well in connecting to passenger rail infrastructure and buses, forming the ‘middle tier’ of public transport connecting passenger rail train stations to major activity centres and employment hubs in a way that is rapid, reliable and more effective than buses.

Light rail infrastructure has a low impact on the urban environment, with rail tracks laid along existing roadways or road reserves and stopping along median strips.  Light rail can more easily be adapted to car-based environments especially in modern car-based cities where there are wide road reserves and medians.

In recent years Light rail has been growing as the public transport of choice in Australia, with major light rail projects undertaken in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Gold Coast, and Newcastle.

Here in Perth, we have contemplated developing a Light rail Network in the past.  The Barnett Government in 2010 announced its MAX Light Rail Plan that was to run from the Polytechnic West campus in Balga, in Perth’s northern suburbs, to the Perth CBD, with spur lines from the CBD to the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre in Nedlands and to the eastern end of the Causeway in Victoria Park.

That plan was abandoned in 2016 and a second plan, the ‘Knowledge Arc’, connecting Curtin University to the University of Western Australia has been well developed from a planning perspective but has yet to be realised.

Light Rail in Perth

Developing a world-class public transport system for Perth will have important benefits that go beyond tackling greenhouse targets and reducing our dependence on imported oil. It will have more immediate benefits in improving the quality of life in Perth by reducing time stuck in traffic, creating more liveable neighbourhoods and supporting economic development and tourism.

Light rail works best in high population centres where a critical mass of people is an easy walk or cycle from transfer stations. It helps create more vibrant local communities with areas of medium to high density dwellings, diverse and affordable housing opportunities and more public open space and parks. Importantly it can help connect Perth’s expansive passenger rail network to activity centres and employment hubs in a way that is far superior to buses.

The economic spin offs of having Light rail are most apparent in how it supports the economy of our communities.  It creates bustling neighbourhoods that combine residential, commercial and retail uses that will generate local employment, services and social and economic opportunities for residents.

Pedestrian-friendly streetscapes with safe bicycle infrastructure and a reduced emphasis on cars will improve safety and social interaction and compliment clean, frequent, safe and fast public transport links between districts.

Importantly Light rail supports ‘urban consolidation’ which is greatly needed if Perth is going to reduce its urban footprint.

Identified in Perth and Peel @3.5m is the need for a paradigm shift away from Perth’s dependency on the private automobile for travel, towards an increased reliance on public transport to promote more efficient, sustainable and affordable transportation of people.

There have been numerous investigations and case studies documented globally and in Australia which identify the benefits of Mid Tier Public Transport (i.e., LRT) that can be used to support Perth’s current Passenger Rail and Bus Network.

It should be noted that the Bus Network in Perth is not based on a Bus Rapid Transit system (i.e., on mass priority lanes for buses), such as that which has been used in cities such as Brisbane.  As a result, the average vehicle occupancy for buses in Perth is significantly lower at approximately 4 to 5 occupants per trip. With Light Rail offering an average occupancy at 29.73 persons per carriage it is clear Light Rail offers superior movement and occupancy rates to buses, even when a Bus Rapid Transit system is adopted.

In order to achieve the growth targets envisaged by Perth and Peel @ 3.5m people, Perth like Sydney and Melbourne, needs to adopt a three tier Public Transport system, through passenger fixed rail, light rail and bus solutions.

Case Study – Gold Coast Light Rail

A project recently completed in Australia that has had an immediate impact is the Gold Coast Light Rail Project. With the first stage completed in 2014, the Gold Coast Light Rail, or G-Link as it is known, is a 13-kilometre-long light-rail track that includes fifteen stations running from Helensvale Station in the north, to Broadbeach Station in the south. The origins of the project featured in the Gold Coast Council Transport Plan as far back as 1996.

In a sign of collaboration between local, state and federal governments, in 2009 the Queensland Government committed $464 million to the Gold Coast Rapid Transit Project, which was supported by $365 million committed by the Federal Government and $120 million provided by Gold Coast City Council. Collectively, the near-one-billion-dollar commitment to build the first 13 kilometres of the light-rail system was awarded to Bombardier Transportation, Downer EDI, Keolis, McConnell Dowell and the Plenary Group, who constructed the line and have rights to operate it for eighteen years under a public and private sector partnership.

After the extension of the line to accommodate the Gold Coast Hospital in 2017, the line will be extended by 6.3 kilometres to Burleigh Heights, again with local, state and federal governments contributing towards the funding for the extension. Patronage on the line has been a huge success, with initial estimates upon the opening of the line reaching approximately six million passengers per year in 2014/15. This has since increased to 10.74 million in 2018/19. The Light Rail Project has been so successful it now contributes 35% of all public transport use in the Gold Coast area and has dramatically improved pedestrian movement and reduced private vehicle use. The Gold Coast Council’s 2036 Transport Plan has a further 68 kilometres of light-rail track across 4 lines. Such is the faith and trust that the Gold Coast Council has in the success of light rail in its city.

Image: Gold Coast Light Rail

Image: Gold Coast Light Rail Route

One of the key influential factors supporting the implementation of light rail on the Gold Coast came from increased traffic congestion, which was being caused by the 20,000-strong student population at Griffith University and the growing patient numbers at the Gold Coast University Hospital. From an environmental standpoint, the project has been hugely successful in reducing carbon emissions on the Gold Coast, with light rail providing a greener alternative to the automobile. It is also a system that runs on electricity, so it produces almost no emissions. It is estimated that the light rail has reduced local greenhouse gas emissions by 114,000 tonnes over its first ten years of operation and has reduced the number of private automobile trips by up to 10%, representing a real mode shift from private automobiles to public transport.

The success of the project lends itself to the importance of planning many years in advance and sticking to a plan to ensure the consistency and support of all tiers of government, which are essential in securing funding for its implementation. The fact that the Gold Coast Council was visionary enough to identify Light rail as a real solution to growing congestion when it earmarked light rail in its 1996 transport plan cannot be understated. More importantly, it persisted with this plan and further expanded the vision for the network when the transport plan evolved. This consistency is important to build trust and momentum in government funding to support such a venture. This is a strategy that WA can learn from.

The Gold Coast Light rail network is now extending into existing suburban areas, which presents opportunities for redevelopment and greater modal shift, as people can now set aside their cars and undertake trips via Light rail. Development opportunities appear across the light rail’s stations, many of which are already dense due to high-rise development that exists on the Gold Coast. This is perhaps a reverse example, where high-rise development was constructed first, followed by congestion, then the implementation of higher-order public transport came into effect to reduce the traffic strain. Evidence globally shows that the implementation of light rail early in a project can act as a catalyst to encourage high-density development.

Importantly following the opening of Stage 1 of its Light Rail network in 2014, there has been over $450 million dollars’ worth of new apartment and mixed-use development. Why is this? Well, the Gold Coast Light Rail is located within the centre of the Gold Coast linking Gold Coast Hospital, Griffith University and Gold Coast central. Property values in these areas are high and perhaps more crucially, the route links key institutions, activity centres and employment areas.  It has been an instant success in creating housing diversity through single- and two-bedroom apartments but has also significantly reduced traffic congestion and carbon footprint. We will see that the Gold Coast example has very similar characteristics to Perth’s Knowledge Arc.

A consortium promoting Light Rail and Trackless Trams in Perth

Recognising the need for a Mid Tier Public Transport Plan for Perth, in 2021 my colleagues and I brought together a consortium of willing Local Governments to advocate for a Mid Tier Public Transport Plan for Perth.

The consortium includes the Inner City Group of Local Government’s consisting of the City of Canning, City of South Perth, Town of Victoria Park, City of Perth, City of Subiaco, Town of Vincent and the City of Stirling, and the South West Group of Council’s comprising the City of Melville, Town of East Fremantle, City of Fremantle, City of Cockburn, Town of Kwinana and City of Rockingham.

Since 2021 the Local Government consortium has expanded to include the City of Stirling, Town of Nedlands, City of Bayswater, Town of Bassendean and City of Mandurah to bring the total number of participating Councils to 18.

In 2022 the consortium has engaged with the Department for Transport, Public Transport Authority and Main Roads WA to prepare a ‘high level’ Mid-Tier Public Transport Network Plan that identifies the top 15 Mid Tier Public Transport Corridors in Perth which expand from the original Knowledge Arc route alignment.

You can view the detailed plan below.

Industry Support

The City of Canning in leading the Local Government Consortium has reached out to industry groups to seek their support for Mid Tier Public Transport (Light rail) in Perth.  The Urban Development Institute (UDIA) and Committee for Perth have both agreed to support the project and act as spokespersons for the project in addition to the Local Government Consortium.

In terms of industry support for the project, there are over 26 organisations supporting the advocacy with more seeking to join.

It is clear momentum is building for a Mid Tier Public Transport Network for Perth.

With so many benefits generated by investment into Light rail, the question can be asked – how can Perth afford not to invest in Light Rail and/or Trackless Trams?

Mid-Tier Public Transport Plan for Perth

Following a UDIA breakfast in October last year where I presented alongside the Hon Minister for Transport and Planning – Rita Saffioti a case for a Mid-Tier Public Transport Plan for Perth, the State Government has agreed to prepare a Mid-Tier Public Transport Plan that identifies the key corridors for a Mid-Tier Public Transport framework for Perth connecting METRONET train Stations with key employment hubs, activity centres and major health and education facilities.

This work is currently underway and includes engagement with 20 Metropolitan Local Governments and the METRONET team.  This first major step in realising Mid-Tier Public Transport in Perth will be completed at the end of 2023. Watch this space for further updates.