The area of Sydney equivalent to the area served by the Paris Metro

I mentioned in passing last week that despite the name, the planned Melbourne Metro rail tunnel isn’t actually a “metro”. Not even remotely.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten seems to think it is though. Back on September 21 when he appeared on Q&A he listed the various active rail proposals around the country:

We haven’t had the sort of fatwa against public transport that the Liberals have had for the last two years and I tell you now, I think in the next five years work should start on cross river rail in Brisbane, start on work on a railway link for Badgerys Airport in Sydney. I think Melbourne should have and Victoria should have a metro, a Melbourne metro.  I also think South Australia, Adelaide should have light rail. I think Western Australia and Perth should have a Perth metro rail plan (emphasis added).

The Melbourne Metro is sorely needed in the context of the city’s humble public transport system, but it’s just a single two-track rail line running under the CBD from inner city Sth Kensington to inner city Sth Yarra.

Its primary purpose isn’t to extend coverage; it’s to expand capacity in the city centre and improve system-wide reliability.

Although there’s only 9 km of tunnel and five stations, the estimated cost of construction is a phenomenal $11 billion (it’s looking like it could be more). It could also cost a further $0.75 – $1 billion if the Government acquiesces to demands to add a station at Sth Yarra.

The Paris Metro, on the other hand, is a real metro; it has such a high density of rail lines, subway entrances and interchange stations that travellers, aided by high frequencies, can easily get from anywhere to anywhere within central Paris.

I think this is an important comparison because I strongly suspect many Australians who visit cities like Paris and London conclude they could easily live without a car if only our cities had a comparable public transport system.

However as I also mentioned last week it would be impossibly expensive to retro-fit Australian capital cities with a subway system as dense as the Paris Metro. (1)

It’s important to understand that the Paris Metro mostly serves central Paris i.e. the area within the ring road (Boulevard Peripherique).

That’s a pretty small area; it’s only 87 sq km. That’s the equivalent of a circle with a five km radius; it’s the radius often regarded as defining the inner city in Australia’s capitals (see exhibit).

It’s roughly the same area as covered by the Melbourne inner city municipalities of Port Phillip, Yarra and Melbourne.

Their combined population is 313,600, or around 7% of metropolitan Melbourne’s population. The resident population of central Paris, on the other hand, is 2,241,000 (plus tourists!).

Paris’s Metro crams 303 stations (with 62 providing transfers) and 214 km of line, mostly underground, into that small area. In contrast, Melbourne has around 210 stations serving the entire metropolitan (electrified) area.

Melbourne is a low density city; it was already nearly as expansive as central Paris by 1855, only 20 years after it was founded!

Even a network the same size as the Paris Metro would only directly serve 3% of Melbourne’s urbanised area and only 7% of its current population.

Sure, such a high quality metro would promote population and business growth, but there are lots of constraints on future development in the inner city e.g. heritage areas, opposition to high-rise towers.

It’s hard to see how such an extraordinarily expensive and narrowly focussed program would win political support.

Another barrier is we’re reluctant to suppress car use in Australia. Parisians use the metro not only because it’s good, but because in most cases driving simply isn’t competitive in the centre (they walk a lot too).

That’s one of the key reasons why many European cities have high levels of public transport use (and walking and cycling); in most places it’s very expensive to own, operate and park a car, and traffic congestion makes driving much slower than public transport with a dedicated right-of-way.

The appropriate comparator for what can realistically – or even optimistically – be achieved in Australian cities within a generation or two isn’t a metro like Paris’s got.

We have to devise transport solutions for the entire population and hence for the entire metropolitan area (note that Melbourne’s urbanised area is circa 2,500 sq km).

In fact, note also that the Paris metropolitan area has a population of around 11 million. So even the Paris Metro only directly serves around 20% of the population in the urban region, indicating it’s not a complete solution for the majority of residents. (2)

How should we think about preparing Australian cities for projected growth? I cited some possible actions recently; however it’s a big question I’ll have to address separately. It will necessarily involve much better public transport, but it won’t look a lot like the Paris Metro.


  1. Not unless we can find a way to dramatically cut the cost of building infrastructure in Australia.
  2. The Paris Metro serves a lot of tourists though. France is the most visited nation in the world.