Access to jobs for people living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne is a perennial topic of discussion. It has been suggested recently[1] that a tax should be levied on residents and businesses in the city centre and the inner ring of suburbs to pay for new transport infrastructure in the outer suburbs and to encourage decentralization of employment. Would this be fair? Would this be beneficial?

There are two options for providing better access to jobs in the outer suburbs. One is to locate more jobs in the outer suburbs. The other is to provide better public transport to connect the outer suburbs to city centre jobs.

One advantage of locating jobs in the city centre is that it offers a much larger number and variety of jobs than can be found in any one suburban location. This makes it much easier for employees to move between jobs without the upheaval of moving house or making difficult cross-suburban commutes.

Companies cluster in the city centre because it is the most accessible part of the metropolitan area, and because synergies result from the close proximity of similar or complementary businesses. Dispersing city centre jobs throughout the suburbs would destroy the synergy and the accessibility. Clustering jobs at one major suburban location, such as Dandenong, is fine for the people who live on that side of town, but no good for those who live in other parts.

There will always be a need for jobs in the suburbs – schools, hospitals, shops, small businesses, and so on, that service the local community or sub-region; where practical it makes sense to locate these at suburban centres that are located on the fixed rail network.

The more dispersed the jobs, the less they can be efficiently serviced by public transport, and the more road traffic is generated. A city in which jobs are dispersed evenly throughout the metropolitan area needs a grid network of roads and public transport. With the exception of the tram network in the inner south eastern suburbs, Melbourne’s fixed rail public transport is radial. Because of the radial pattern, the closer the jobs are to the city centre, the more accessible by rail they are.

Melbourne used to be described as a weak-centre city[2], but the extraordinary growth of the city centre over the last decade or two would seem to put Melbourne into the strong-centre category, alongside Sydney. The projected development of Fisherman’s Bend and E-gate will further expand and reinforce the city centre. A strong-centre city is characterized by a radial transport network of roads and rail, which facilitates travel from the suburbs to the city centre.

Money needs to be found to increase the capacity of the rail network and to run more feeder bus services in the suburbs. Taxing households and businesses in the inner suburbs and the city centre to pay for more public transport in the outer suburbs may seem equitable, but there are still many low-income households living in suburbs such as Coburg that may be deemed to be transport-rich. Pricing out low-income households in such suburbs through taxation would further reinforce the social segregation that is occurring through house price differentials.

[1] Dodson J, Insight Issue 10, July 2014, VCOSS

[2] Thomson J M, Great Cities and their Traffic, 1977