Observations of Melbourne

I just spent 2.5 days in Melbourne last week, a 400% increase over my previous time in Melbourne, so now I am an expert. The first trivia fact about everyone should know: Melbourne is a city founded by Batman, but which names its stadium for Marvel.

I was in town for the National Roads and Traffic Expo, but I got a chance to take a `free’ walking tour (tips are expected), which was excellent except for the Drop Bears reference. Seriously, there are enough things in Australia that can kill you, including Magpies, that they don’t need to make them up for the tourists.

The simplest model to compare the two cities is to recognise that Melbourne is Sydney’s kid brother. Melbourne compares itself to Sydney, Sydney says ‘who?’.

They are distinguished in a tyranny of small differences sense. Melbourne is home to the AFL, Sydney to the NRL. Melbourne was laid out more or less as a logical Cartesian grid, much like most of North America; Sydney retains the pre-Cartesian romantic street network.


Heritage Tram in front of Flinders Street Station



Melbourne is still less populous than Sydney, but growing faster. It expects to more than double to 10 million people by 2066 according to at least one projection. While I didn’t count, the number of cranes in the city center area appears larger than Sydney’s (though data say otherwise).

By and large, the cities are similar. You can randomly replace a block in one city with a block in the other and they would generally not be out-of-place. I’d venture they are perhaps the two most similar large cities I have seen, though obviously Minneapolis and St. Paul or Oakland and San Francisco are highly coupled, San Francisco is more different from Seattle or Los Angeles, and Minneapolis is more different from Chicago or St. Louis or Kansas City.

The general reputation is that Sydney has better weather, Melbourne has better culture (arts, food, etc.).

There are some key differences, elements of Melbourne that are now missing from Sydney.


Queen Victoria Market
Queen Victoria Market

First is the Queen Victoria Market, a large consumer-oriented fresh food market with many different sellers. Why doesn’t Sydney have this? Paddy’s Market and the Sydney Fish Market are not the same thing. Paddy’s may have once been more similar, but not anymore.


Flagstaff Tram Stop
A narrow middle-of-the-road Tram Stop

Second are the Trams (map). For nearly a century, both cities were among the world leaders in tram network deployment. While Sydney disassembled its trams by 1961 (though has put back a few light rail lines), Melbourne retained theirs.

Trams in Melbourne’s city center serve a people-mover function analogous to a horizontal elevator. Several of the major streets in the city centre have been largely pedestrianised, avoiding auto-tram conflicts, and allowing plenty of space for stops.

Outside the CBD, the situation is different, and the boarding and alighting situation is little different than it was more than a century ago, and worse in that there are more automobiles.

The trams are center-running, and this doesn’t leave much (or any) space for people to board and alight without conflicting with traffic. There are a few locations with the street raised in the lane adjacent to the tram tracks, so that passengers have something more akin to level boarding. Driving rules are such that cars are supposed to stop behind the tram so that the passengers can safely move from the footpath to the tram, across the traffic lane. Melbourne also has the Melbourne hook, so drivers have better sight of trams that might be behind them when making a right turn across traffic (which is to be done from the left lane)

Yarra Trams Driver switching tracks manually

Some of the tram lines are so unimproved that the driver gets out of the tram, and activates the switch by hand, before returning to the trams (Google maps).

The virtue of this system is it makes economic use of existing capital infrastructure, lowering costs compared with no construction built to modern standards. This leaves more resources available for other things. The downside is the safety cost. The Age reports “According to Transport Safety Victoria there were 51 reported incidents of trams colliding with people last year [2018], up from 35 in 2014.” Two of those pedestrians died.

I rode the trams several times. My perception of the system that it is well-used throughout the day, tending toward crowded. Even the City Circle (heritage) line was crowded, mostly with non-tourists.

The main problem with any crowded public transport is being with other people. On one of the trips, I was sitting next to a young male who was quietly spitting/drooling onto the window sill of the tram car, seemingly out of boredom rather than disability. Eventually, he had the decency to ask for a tissue from others standing around, though no one supplied it. He then left, drool still there. I assume it either was cleaned at the end of the day or evaporated into the air. In any case, it was sort of gross.

The Melbourne Train system (line length 405 km, track length 998 km) does not carry as many passengers (240.9 million (2017-18)) as Sydney’s  (track length 813 km (359.2 million (2017–2018))), though it appears to carry more passengers per km. While it has an extensive network, judging from the map,  headways are not as good, the trains are shorter (6 (car length 24m) vs. 8 cars (car length 20 m)), and single-deck, so the total passenger load is significantly lower, though I am sure these numbers are not strictly comparable. Like Sydney, Melbourne has a City Loop, though apparently it is operated poorly, with long layovers at Flinders Street Station. Melbourne’s loop was completed in 1981 (compared to 1956 for Sydney), and the non-historic stations would not look out of place on BART.

Overall, people in Sydney use public transport more (26% for work trips) than Melbourne (18% for work trips).

Melbourne is also proud of its graffiti and wall murals, and has more of those than Sydney, especially in laneways (alleys) which have been in many cases transformed from purely logistics functions into public spaces for consumption of alcohol and caffeine to a much greater extent than Sydney.

The waterfront (along the Yarra River) is reclaimed industrial lands, much like Barangaroo, though somewhat more space has been given over to the pedestrian realm, and the route is well-traveled by bicyclists. There is an arts district, including the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The usual rap on most less-than-famous museums is that they exhibit first-rate work by second-tier artists and second-rate work by first-tier artists. Still, the museum was better than I expected, and free. I am not a huge fan of arts precincts, I am not clear on the synergy of concentrating these facilities together, rather than dispersing them throughout the city, but it wasn’t as bad as say the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center.

I had a chance to visit some more suburban neighborhoods: Brunswick and Footscray.

To get to Brunswick, I took the tram up Nicholson Street and walked over to the famous Sydney Road (there is not a famous Melbourne Road in Sydney). This area is probably most similar to King Street in Newtown, Sydney, and they are controversially considering upgrading to protected bike lanes in this narrow tram corridor.

Sydney Road, Brunswick


Nicholson Street, Brunswick,

There is a parallel separated bike path along the rail corridor about two blocks west. I took the train over to Footscray.





I was only vaguely familiar with Footscray from the movie Romper, Stomper, which highlighted the conflict between the neo-nazi skinheads and the Vietnamese community. Since then, Footscray has evolved into a neighborhood with a heavily African immigrant community. It has a lovely shopping district, and some pedestrianised streets.


I flew into Melbourne airport, which is farther from the City Centre than Sydney’s, and not yet connected by rail (though there is a tram that comes close). It is connected by an excellent Skybus service, which more people should use.  I rode Skybus back. Before doing so I checked out of my hotel, but I did not want to carry my backpack all day, so we stopped by Southern Cross station to store my stuff.  However, using the lockers at Southern Cross station was not a reliable experience. First, most of the lockers were out-of-order. When I came to collect my stuff, I was ‘locked out’ of my locker, my PIN did not work (the same PIN as always), so I found a security officer, who unlocked my locker, which contained someone else’s stuff. He called the baggage checking people, who fortunately did have my stuff. Apparently, my locker did not lock properly and someone turned it in for safe-keeping. So good on the patrons and/or staff of Southern Cross for their honesty, but bad on the locker management company in the first place. It could have been user error, except I did pay them money, and I did close the locker, so if there is some confirmation button I did not press, it’s more a User Interface problem than a User problem.

I took too many Photos.