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Is Melbourne’s promised loop rail line justified by jobs growth in suburban centres?

By Alan Davies - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Major suburban employment clusters in Melbourne by size and mode of journey to work (source: Charting Transport)

The Andrews government emphasises how its promised $50 billion Melbourne rail loop will link 15 suburban employment centres and thereby catalyse the development of a polycentric urban form, bringing jobs closer to where workers live. The government says the line will:


...form a ring through Melbourne's suburbs, connecting the Monash, La Trobe, Sunshine and Werribee National Employment and Innovation Clusters (NEIC) with key precincts such as Box Hill, Burwood, Broadmeadows and the Airport.

There's no doubt the project will have an impact on commuting patterns, but will it be a significant impact? Most importantly, will the effect be commensurate with the monumental scale of spending required to build the line? Will it justify prioritising spending on the loop over other transport priorities, or over capital works in other key budget areas like education and health?

I think there're several reasons why the loop is unlikely to have a big impact on suburban job centres or on commuting patterns.

Few major centres, few jobs

First, only a tiny proportion of Melbourne's jobs are in suburban centres. A recent analysis by Chris Loader from Charting Transport identified the number and size of employment clusters in the suburbs of Australia's capital cities, using minimum thresholds for the number of jobs and employment density.

Although he used "fairly low" thresholds, Mr Loader found there are only 9 suburban employment clusters in Melbourne that meet his criteria. These major centres don't contain many of the city's jobs; collectively, they account for a mere 5% of all employment in the metropolitan area. Compare that with the 28% of metro jobs located within 4 km of the city centre


Most suburban jobs in Melbourne are dispersed; 93% of those located more than 4 km from the city centre are in diffuse locations e.g. stand-alone addresses, business parks, or small centres.

Don't assume there's a bias against centres in the methodology; Mr Loader found Sydney has 24 major centres. He found they collectively account for 19% of all metro jobs i.e. nearly four times as much as in Melbourne. While the two cities are close in population, there are important structural differences e.g. in topography, industry structure, and the capacity ('elasticity') of the CBD/inner city to grow.

Three major centres on loop

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This article was first published on Crikey.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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