Taylor Burrell Barnett

Mid-tier transit: Knitting the City together


Senior Associate

Michael Willcock
Senior Associate

11 Oct 2022

The low-density sprawl of Perth is a symptom of our reliance and dependency on private car ownership, with traffic congestion a result of high rates of car ownership and car use instead of high rates of public transport use. With limited opportunity to expand our heavy rail network, mid-tier transit has the potential to deliver services to get people out of cars

In this article, Michael Willcock and Jeremy Versaico have explored the need for mid-tier transit in our urban centres and key corridors, through a case study analysis of successful projects across the world.

While you may drive frequently along some of Perth’s main roads, what you may not know is that these used to be tramways. Electrified tramways existed from 1899 to 1958 and connected the city centre to new estates and attractions. Examples (not an exhaustive list) included:

  • Mounts Bay Road (from Matilda Bay and the Crawley Baths to Perth)
  • Guildford Road (from Maylands to Perth)
  • Scarborough Beach Road (from Mt Hawthorn to Perth)
  • Thomas Street, Broadway, Hay Street and Rokeby Road (from Nedlands to Subiaco to Perth)
  • Beaufort Street, Walcott Street (from Mt Lawley to Perth)
  • Newcastle Street and Oxford Street (from Leederville to Perth)
  • The Boulevard (from City Beach to Perth)

This network declined with ageing infrastructure, delayed maintenance during World War II, and cheaper buses and the rise of the private car.  Fast forward another 60+ years, and trams (or variants to the idea) are back on the agenda as a number of metropolitan local governments are investigating how to introduce mid-tier transit systems.

Electrified tramways Perth

Tram 64 picks up workers outside the Car Barn as it turns into Hay Street. Source: www.pets.org.au

What is a mid-tier transit system?

It is a broader umbrella term for light rail, trackless trams and bus rapid transit.

Perth’s existing train would be termed ‘heavy rail’, needing dedicated railway reserves and grade separated crossings wherever possible. Unlike heavy rail, mid-tier transit vehicles can operate within road reserves and can operate in dedicated lanes or operate in general traffic lanes with priority at traffic lights.

Perth’s existing buses are able to operate flexibly and either act as feeder services to bus stations, or to metropolitan centres and the CBD.  Bus rapid transit, trackless trams and light rail can operate in dedicated lanes and the vehicles are more advanced with a smooth and high-quality ride experience.  The vehicle doors are level to the platforms at stops or stations for seamless entry and exit.  Mid-tier transit is designed to have high capacity and can operate at higher average speeds with priority at signalised intersections and within their own lanes.

With proper integration into higher density centres and corridors, mid-tier transit systems can delivers improved mobility and convenience closer to where people live, work and want to go.  It is this concept, aimed at connecting centres in the urban area together, that sets it apart from the radial heavy rail network (which currently connects all lines in the CBD), and the bus network which provides local options throughout the suburbs.

Connecting precincts

Perth has a number of precincts that have visions for significant infill and growth for homes and employment. Over several decades, concept designs have been announced to connect some of these precincts and areas – such as the ‘Knowledge Arc’ that aimed to connect Curtin University and University of Western Australia to the Perth CBD (almost along those very same but long-gone tramways). The previous Liberal Government had announced its MAX, which considered a route north to Mirrabooka.

More recently, a consortium of metropolitan local governments has announced concepts for Metro scale mid-tier transit. Several key routes have been identified by local governments, to connect a range of employment and activity centres with a legible network that would run on key roads within the urban area.

A number of projects that TBB work on, are within these mid -tier transport investigation areas.  One example is the City of Stirling’s proposed route along Scarborough Beach Road which connects the Scarborough Beachfront to the Stirling City Centre, Herdsman Glendalough Area (a TBB structure plan area) to Glendalough Station and Stirling Station.

Scarborough Beach Road mid-tier transit proposed route

In our work on the City of Stirling’s business case for Scarborough Beach Road, we noted that improved public transit would help to deliver shorter commutes, cleaner air, support healthy walking and cycling, and more convenient access to a range of housing, employment, recreation and facilities. Besides easing congestion on roads, mid-tier transit programs are run on electricity, with all examples of finished programs showing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Case studies from Australia and around the world

TBB has been reviewing international and Australian examples to see how mid-tier transit system benefit the delivery of regeneration precincts. While it is easy to argue that these types of transport projects only work within compact, heavily urbanised centres, there is plenty of evidence around the world to suggest that this is not necessarily the case.

The specific case studies that were investigated all had similar characteristics.  They typically were brownfield (such as older industrial areas) or greyfield areas typically located close to city centres or inner urban areas, that were nearing the end of their current life cycle.  The transformation of existing built environments generates additional complexity to the planning framework, investment in mid-tier transit and the regeneration of (typically) older industrial areas into attractive, mixed-use redevelopments.  From Sydney Olympic Park to Fishermans Bend in Melbourne, all the way to Stockholm and Helsinki, a mid-tier transit system was part of the rationale for higher densities and the level of investment.

Implementing infill development is not without its challenges. The most crucial of which is that the sites are normally heavily constrained by development in the surrounding areas, unlike greenfield developments which have essentially a ‘blank canvas’ to work with.  However, a clear advantage is the linking of redevelopment areas to existing transport networks and major employment or housing areas, including city centres, ports, airports, education campuses, enterprise and technology parks.

The most successful international examples of regenerative projects have been planned ahead to ensure the planning framework has considered suitable transit routes and stations, allocating density around those stations, before any significant redevelopment has occurred.  The delivery of a mid-tier transit system has been a key component of the strategic planning, and most importantly, one of the biggest considerations to consider how to deliver mid-tier transit in a manner that could integrate with the redevelopment of the precinct, and its connection to the surrounding metropolitan areas.

Now think about where Perth has these opportunities.

Stimulating development (and funding) of these opportunity areas will be based on delivering five elements – planning framework, amenity, serviced land, placemaking and transport.

City of Stirling - Model of what stimulates developments

METRONET is delivering a number of stations and some extensions to the heavy rail network to Ellenbrook, Perth Airport and Yanchep. However, other existing areas will not receive investment in the form of heavy rail. No new rail corridors or stations are reserved within the inner-city areas, and there is little space to develop heavy rail lines to service other metropolitan areas.

Metronet project map

As such, in the absence of heavy rail these areas need alternatives. This is where mid-tier transit systems become attractive, offering a reliable connection to major transport nodes, while being feasible within the financial and spatial constraints that are experienced in these existing areas.

This is where mid-tier transport systems become attractive, offering a reliable connection to major transport nodes

Thankfully, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel for Perth, with the 2022 State Infrastructure Strategy highlighting that investigation of mid-tier transit opportunities should be the next major transportation priority.

An emerging risk is the consideration of trenched roads.  These are being considered for West Coast Highway, Orrong Road, Great Eastern Highway, Canning Highway and Charles Street (and presumably several more).  The risk is these road projects will further emphasise private car use, and not the transformation of the city into one serviced by quality public transport.

In our view, the preferred provision of mid-tier transit can leverage off and facilitate more sustainable infill development, and a consolidated and dense city area that allows for higher populations without the need to significantly improve road infrastructure. In fact, some projects involving mid-tier transit, like the Gold Coast Light Rail project, are very much retrospective projects around existing built-up areas. This demonstrates that the footprint required by these projects can be managed within existing urban centres.

Getting people out of their cars is good – for public health, for air quality, for costs of living, for urban noise levels, and for public equity.

To discuss mid-tier transport planning (or other planning topics!), you can get in touch with Michael here.


Senior Associate

Michael Willcock
Senior Associate