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Ashrita Lilori May 20243 min read

Melbourne’s Free Trams – a product of history

Melbourne’s Free Trams – a product of history

In December 2023, I went to Melbourne with ten family members. When we arrived in Melbourne’s city centre, I was amazed at how different it was from Auckland’s city centre. The standout difference was how prominent the trams were. During my short visit, it was clear trams are a great transport option within the city centre and fringe. Trams are also integral to Melbourne's cultural identity and unique streetscape environment.

Public Transport: Free Tram Zone

The free tram zone

The free tram zone covers an extensive area of Melbourne’s city centre and key tourism spots such as Docklands in the west, and Queen Victoria Markets in the north. It came into effect in 2015, as an initiative to boost inner-city vibrancy, largely benefiting city residents and tourists. Passengers are not required to have concession cards for travel in the free tram zone, making it easy for tourists to travel within the CBD without the hassle of cards or tickets. This was the easiest way for our group of ten to get around the central city. While researching the initiative, I came across several columnists, concerned about the disproportionate advantage towards tourists who reap the benefits of the free tram trips, while commuters experience overcrowding and delays due to extended onboarding times. Commuters traveling from outside the free tram zone must still purchase daily fares or concessions, which include travel within the zone. I can see that could be a problem for local commuters, but overall, they benefit from these trips if they travel outside peak times.

Transporting people to places

The Melbourne tram network has a grid layout, so across-town journeys and switching trams were straightforward. We would often get off one tram and walk around the corner to catch the next one. We found the road cross-sections striking, as the tram line and tram stops are in the centre of the road corridor – the focus was on transporting people to places, instead of cars through roads. This visual and actual segmentation of the road, while strange at first, was safely implemented through signalised pedestrian crossings, traffic calming devices, and slow speeds of 20km/h and 40km/h. A tram stop (formed as an island) can be seen in the image below, where passengers are waiting to embark on trams in the middle of the road corridor.

Crown MelbourneTram line and station outside Crown Melbourne

I was intrigued by how Melbourne retained its trams, when other Australasian cities relied on private cars and buses. For example, Christchurch disbanded its electric tram network entirely by the mid-1950s and switched to fossil-fueled buses. Likewise, Sydney ripped up its tram network in the late 1950s, once one of the largest in the world.  

Trams are integral to Melbourne

I decided to dive deeper into the history of Melbourne’s trams. They were first installed in the 1880s, before the introduction of cars . They provided easy and cheap travel across the city and the emergent middle class welcomed them. The city’s retail and commercial precincts formed around the tram lines and were desirable focal points for shopping and trade. After WWII there were political drivers to remove trams and reprioritise the road space for private cars, as was popular across other cities. Major-General Sir Robert Risson led the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board and fought to retain trams. The tramway unions in Melbourne also pushed to keep them, something that didn’t happen in Sydney where there was an aggressive attack on the tram system by motor vehicle associations. As a result, trams were retained in Melbourne and form an integral part of the fabric of the city. 

Supreme Court building 1890-1900Supreme Court building with tram circa 1890-1900

Retrofitting infrastructure is challenging

Tramlines with their fixed-line infrastructure, meant urban and roading development occurred around established routes. Retrofitting such infrastructure into any existing urban area is challenging. We have seen this in Auckland, which lost its tram network and faces challenges designing, funding, and developing future public transport initiatives, including the City Rail Loop, Airport to Botany Rapid Transit, and others. Public transport-centric planning allows the city to form around it and grow organically. In Melbourne, while the routes and trips were unfamiliar, my family felt that the infrastructure supported them and kept them from getting lost.

I wonder, what learnings there are for Auckland from Melbourne and its inner-city tram system?



Ashrita Lilori

Senior Transportation Planner