No More Waiting Awhile As Perth Enters The Transit Decade

A quick glance at the route map for the first phase of Perth’s proposed light rail network, from Mirrabooka to the CBD and branching out west to the QEII Medical Centre and east to the Victoria Park Transfer Station, and there is a resemblance of a scorpion like shape. Certainly, for the state government and its newly established MAX project team, light rail is being primed to deliver the sting in the tail of Perth’s future public transport system. After a decade of unprecedented change in the WA capital, the growing pains of a modernising city are more palpable. The next generation of transport will need to deliver a shift away from congestion and carbon fuels to more attractive and sustainable forms of travel.

To help our expanding city meet the challenges of the first half of this century, MAX will introduce mass rapid transit services onto the state capital’s streets for the first time, tracking commuter corridors, retail hubs, education and health centres and entertainment hotspots. With each vehicle carrying up to 300 passengers, during the morning peak, the new system will have the potential to shift some 9,000 people per hour across an initial fleet of 30 cars. That’s the equivalent of 7,500 less cars on the road.

In some areas, the Public Transport Authority (PTA) will also be able to take buses off the light rail corridor and deploy them in other more needy areas, as well as channel them into planned bus interchanges at Mirrabooka and Dianella. In addition to this new connectivity, anticipated growth in local population catchments close to the lines will help to enhance passenger volumes and the carrying capacity of the fleet - key parts of the overall light rail and urban renewal strategy.

In some areas, the Public Transport Authority (PTA) will also be able to take buses off the light rail corridor and deploy them in other more needy areas, as well as channel them into planned bus interchanges at Mirrabooka and Dianella. In addition to this new connectivity, anticipated growth in local population catchments close to the lines will help to enhance passenger volumes and the carrying capacity of the fleet - key parts of the overall light rail and urban renewal strategy.
MAX is not strictly a tram system, nor is it a trolley bus of the type that previously served Perth’s early 20th Century radial routes. It is the beginning of a modern light rail network, one that should stand the city in good stead for perhaps a hundred years. Over time, traditional industrial cities often grew hand in glove with heavy rail, street cars, tram lines or subway networks. Modern light rail, on the other hand, has had to be inserted into the city fabric. It has taken many forms - elevated monorail, underground metro or segregated light rail. The very latest models now offer advanced technology and co-exist comfortably in mixed vehicular routes, traffic calmed streets or key civic spaces. They are considered a quiet, clean and convenient form of transit which, if provided the right priority, can prove attractive to new types of patrons, lead to tangible modal shift behaviour and trigger wider economic and social uplift.

Light rail is often advocated as a potential urban game changer. National and international evidence shows that it can be an influential regenerator and activator of places, supporting development and complementing the return to a more pedestrian-based city. With Perth now experiencing a third generation recycling of its (post war) building stock, conditions are ripening for further inner city renewal that will enhance its growing reputation as a desirable small city. Its longer term transformation from sprawling suburbia to a more compact urban capital needs to be matched with the equivalent public transport services that offer sustain-able and reliable travel choices - that is both good for business and vital for quality of life.

In the last few years, the city has experienced what a contemporary rail service can add to its transportation offer, with the Perth to Mandurah line breaking all patronage expectations within a few years of operation. Into the future, a MAX network can be developed throughout the metropolitan area that can provide another ‘missing’ layer in the public transport system, one which knits between the heavy rail corridors and orbital bus routes, linking communities and urban centres throughout the day and night.

Many alternative routes have been put forward for light rail in Perth over the past ten years. No route is without its constraints and no single option can deliver all the benefits. The perfect alignment is a true goal but a difficult reality.

The Department of Transport is planning ahead for a network of light rail lines to serve the inner city but, for the time being, the early phase design cannot extend to every option. We can continue to shape and anticipate the future form of city neighbourhoods but we should not, in my view, overburden light rail with expectations of it being the sole driver of urban regeneration. The key objective should be to get the first line up and running, establish the possibilities and test the market appetite.

However, it is important that MAX is planned and shaped for this city and tailored to Perth character. We have recently witnessed a ‘new’ phenomenon - high quality public realm in the CBD and, with it, a return of civic pride.

Attractive streetscapes and active urban spaces now offer an alternative to the city’s beaches and parks. Allied to a greater diversity of uses and all year round festival programs, this has transformed the central area.

A key focus for the MAX project will be the pedestrian experience of light rail. Every passenger journey will start and end as a pedestrian so it follows that the interface of this transit system with the city’s streets should be a humanly scaled and respectful one. That does not necessarily point to a conservative or minimalist design response to the light rail stops and associated infrastructure - there will be locations that lend to bolder statements about the arrival of this new form of urban transport through the places it will embrace.

A project of this nature will, of course, have its challenges. There are layers of complexity across operational, economic, civil, community and environmental fields. However, Perth is now home to a considerable pool of local, national and international talent in the engineering and design fields. Those skills and resources can be tapped into to ensure that light rail is appropriately crafted into our urban landscape. Above all, I believe we must value, support and trust the inter-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder design process to provide robust solutions and locally suitable outcomes that will fill future Western Australians with civic pride.

This article was featured in the UDIA WA Chapter Urban Link Spring edition 2013
This article was featured in the UDIA WA Chapter Urban Link Spring edition 2013