Roads have been an essential part of Melbourne's social and economic structure, from its foundation to the present day. In 1835 Melbourne's first tracks centred on Queen's Wharf. The first was a towpath to haul incoming ships, and the second was a parallel path closer to the line of Flinders Street. Surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out the streets of Melbourne in 1836 using the rectangular grid required by Governor Darling's 1829 town-planning regulations. The four exceptions were that Hoddle used 30-metre-wide streets, added the little streets to the standard plan, permitted the grid to deviate by about 20 degrees from the major compass directions and incorporated Market Street into the grid. The grid was bounded by Flinders, Spencer, Lonsdale and Spring streets; the first three represented natural limits based on the Yarra River, Flagstaff Hill and Batmans Hill. Roads were not developed east of Queen Street until 1838.
Characteristically the grid plan took no heed of local topography. Thus, Elizabeth Street was on top of a creek; there were gullies along Swanston Street, and Collins and Bourke streets had sections with quite steep grades. Little road-planning and no road-paving occurred in the decade following Hoddle's initial plan. Land was sometimes subdivided with no provision for public access. For example, the farm subdivisions from Northcote to Ivanhoe created strip allotments, with no road reservations, only river or creek access. Grid planning without regard for topography remained commonplace, and the few diagonal roads were usually those that began life as wide stock routes in pre-subdivision days.
Following the Yarra Valley upstream, Hoddle subdivided most of the valuable land around Melbourne into mile-square segments (256 ha), and then into halves and quarters. Land-subdivision began in 1837, and the resulting roads were located with little regard for topography and with diminishing concern for the needs of future arterial roads. Roads such as Nicholson, Smith, Hoddle, Church, Victoria, Bridge and Swan streets were created, aligned to the north-south grid. Many were spaced at 800 m (such as Hoddle and Church, and Swan and Bridge) although some circumstances required 500 m. In outer areas the preferred spacing was 3.2 km. Municipal government was created in 1855, and by 1858 some 600 km2 of Melbourne had been subdivided into a rectangular grid of streets.
Hoddle argued that arterial roads should be 3 chains (60 m) wide, as with St Kilda Road, Flemington Road and Royal Parade, but the principle was selectively applied and most of the subdivisional continuations of Hoddle's original roads were only 20 m wide. Examples in Richmond are the changes from Wellington Parade to Bridge Road and from Victoria Parade to Victoria Street. Such roads were aligned to the north-south grid, in contradistinction to Hoddle's first Melbourne efforts.
Hoddle's sales were just a prelude to the land boom of the 1840s. By 1841 the suburbs of Fitzroy (then Newtown), Brighton and Williamstown were established. The streets of suburban Essendon were established by land sales in 1846. By 1850 the Hoddle grid had extended north to Victoria Street. Meanwhile Elizabeth Street had extended north and given rise to Flemington Road, Cemetery Road and Royal Parade. North Melbourne, South Melbourne, St Kilda and Carlton were among the first of the new suburbs and were surveyed from 1852 onwards to accommodate the boom induced by the gold rush. The subdivision of the Moorabbin area in 1853 created such roads as North, Centre, South, Highett and Balcombe roads.
In 1841 there were already 16 radial arterial roads, often following earlier Aboriginal paths. By 1860 the number had grown to 22, and they were to alter little over the next 140 years. The rectangular grid of the street system paid scant heed to them and created many of Melbourne's more infamous intersections (such as Kew, Camberwell and St Kilda junctions).
The road to Williamstown began in 1836, following Spencer Street and then avoiding the swampy Yarra delta by using a route near Dynon Road. At Bunbury Street a punt crossed the Maribyrnong River before it widened into its estuary. The road then headed south to Williamstown, west of the Stony Creek estuary. The road to Geelong initially began at Williamstown, avoiding the Kororoit Creek estuary by using the current line of Kororoit Creek Road. The development of Geelong Road through Footscray came later. The road to Ballarat was initially via the Bunbury punt, crossing near Droop Street to Ballarat Road. Another Maribyrnong punt operated at the end of Smithfield Road. When Lynch built a bridge there in 1850, it made Ballarat Road an attractive freight route. The road to Sydenham also took advantage of Lynch's bridge and Ballarat Road to reach Sydenham by a route near St Albans Road. There was then a choice of Melton and Ballarat, or Diggers Rest and Bendigo. The first road to Sydney also followed this general route.
The second road to Bendigo had two inner alternatives. One was along Elizabeth Street and Flemington Road, the other along Spencer Street and Macaulay and Boundary roads. It then used a track to Essendon that crossed the Moonee Ponds Creek just above a large swamp. Thomas Main built a bridge there in 1839 to assist in bringing sandstone blocks for building Melbourne's churches. The route then followed the current lines of Mount Alexander Road, Bulla Road, Melrose Drive and Sunbury Road. In 1851 Mount Alexander was the site of one of the largest of the early goldfields. To appease miners, who were protesting over the cost of mining licences, the newly established Central Roads Board immediately began the construction of Mount Alexander Road. A tollbooth was established at Mains Bridge in 1855.
With respect to tolling, the government strategy of the time was to decentralise all aspects of roads to local groups, particularly to district roads boards, which were the forerunners of many shires. Roads were soon to become the main focus of most of these shires, from their formation to the present day. Tolling was a technique used by many of the roads boards between 1852 and the 1870s. A few of the toll schemes were successful, but they were largely ineffective and inefficient, and their reliance on funds from often impoverished travellers made their revenue unpredictable. They were also far from popular and a major political liability. Thus tolls had largely disappeared - along with most other sources of road revenue - by the 1870s. Most available public money was diverted to developing the railway network. The situation did not begin to reverse until the Country Roads Board was created in 1913. Road finance has traditionally been a battle between ratepayer and central government funding, and the tensions have altered little over Melbourne's history.
The road to Keilor took the same Mount Alexander Road route, using Keilor Road rather than Bulla Road. Travellers then took the Keilor-Melton Road to Ballarat. The second Sydney road probably followed the line of Spencer Street, Macaulay Road, Epsom Road north to Bulla Road, Mickleham Road and Old Sydney Road at Kalkallo. The third Sydney road also arose when Mains Bridge was built, using Mount Alexander Road and Pascoe Vale Road to join the existing route at Pretty Sally. The current Sydney Road was surveyed beyond Royal Parade and formed to Albert Street in 1839, being extended to Blyth Street in the 1840s. It slowly replaced Pascoe Vale Road as the prime route to Sydney. When Pentridge Prison was established in 1850, prisoners from the Collingwood Stockade and later from the new prison completed the road to Pentridge. It was then called Sydney Road. The initial tollgate was at the Sarah Sands Hotel at Brunswick Road.
The road to Heidelberg was Melbourne's first major road. It originally began at the top of Bourke Street, tracked across to Smith Street, followed the top of the Collingwood escarpment and then (as Plenty Road and later Great Heidelberg Road) followed the current routes of Queen's Parade, Heidelberg Road, Upper Heidelberg Road and Lower Plenty Road. The route was well established by 1839, surveyed through to Eltham by Townsend in 1840 and opened in 1841. From 1842 a trust established under the New South Wales Parish Roads Act 1840 funded macadam surfacing. The Plenty River was bridged on this route in 1842, Darebin Creek in 1842 and Merri Creek in 1853. Tolls were introduced in 1847, first at Merri Creek and then at Darebin Creek. A later inner route went from Elizabeth Street to Nicholson Street, Alexandra Parade and thence to Queen's Parade, which was formed in 1854.
The road to Epping left Heidelberg Road at Clifton Hill and headed north as High Street and Epping Road. High Street was surveyed in 1841-42, and Hoddle's straight line took it needlessly up the steep slope of Rucker's Hill. The Merri Creek was bridged in 1850, and a tollgate was established at the foot of Rucker's Hill in 1854. Roads to the Plenty Valley joined Plenty Road via either High Street or Upper Heidelberg Road and the ridge near Waiora Road. The road to the Yarra Valley began at the end of Bridge Road. From 1840 a route ran via Church Street (Kew), Willsmere Road, Kilby Road, Bulleen Road and Templestowe Road. It gained prominence when gold was discovered at Warrandyte in 1851. Dr J. Palmer had operated a punt across the Yarra at the end of Bridge Street since 1843. It was replaced in 1851 by the first Hawthorn Bridge, and in 1854 a tollgate was installed at the bridge.
The first Gippsland Road was via Lilydale and Warburton, as the West Gippsland swamps made a route via Dandenong impossible. The road left the Yarra Valley road near Barkers Road and ran across to Cotham Road (then called Barker's track). Darke surveyed the remainder of the route in 1843 on a line close to the current Maroondah Highway. Near Ringwood it followed a ridge between the Mullum Mullum and Dandenong creeks, after which it became the Lilydale Track. An 1855 map shows it as the 'Great 3 chain road to Gipp's land', and in the early 1860s it was called the Main Gippsland Road. By 1863 it was known as Whitehorse Road, after a hotel at Elgar Road corner, and was a secondary route to the north-eastern goldfields. Subsequently, the section of the road east of Union Road was named after the Maroondah Dam.
Two roads to the Dandenong Ranges left the first Gippsland road at Ringwood, mainly in search of good timber. Burwood Road developed in 1850 as an extension of Bridge Road. It was named after Dr Palmer's house at Hawthorn Bridge. Its extension became Camberwell Road and served the market gardeners and woodcutters of Burwood and Nunawading.
The Nepean road commenced in the 1830s at a punt landing on the left bank of the Yarra, downstream of Princes Bridge. It followed St Kilda Road's current location to Park Street, and then took a more southerly alignment through Albert Park towards the corner of Fitzroy and Acland streets. By 1838 it particularly served the seaside resorts of St Kilda and Brighton, and when Baxter bought land at St Kilda in 1839 the route became known as Baxter's Track. Dendy's 1841 survey established the current route south of Park Street and extended the road through to Brighton, with the township served by New Street. Beyond Brighton, the road became the squatters' track to Arthurs Seat and Cape Schank. The main alternative name for Baxter's Track before 1850 was Brighton Road.
In 1852 there were colloquial references to 'the St Kilda Road', and in the following year it was named on a map as the 'St Kilda, Brighton and Great Arthur's Seat Road'. The Central Roads Board surveyed the road to St Kilda in 1853, and in the same year it was levelled and surfaced with stone from a quarry that created the split-levels at the Esplanade. Tolls were then collected at a tollgate near the Victoria Barracks until 1877. Toorak Road was initially Gardiner's Creek Road and is shown on 1841 maps. It followed its current line to near Scotch College. By 1851 the track extended to the east along Gardiners Creek, which it finally crossed near Burke Road. One route then headed slightly north to the current Burwood Highway, another slightly south towards High Street (Glen Iris).
The Dandenong road initially left Nepean Highway at about South Road to follow Old Dandenong Road and Cheltenham Road to Dandenong and Westernport. The more direct current route to Dandenong was surveyed in 1852, and by 1854 there was a bridle track continuation to Gippsland. Dandenong Road from St Kilda Junction was operating in 1856 and was known as Great Dandenong Road.
Two roads to the bay used City Road in South Melbourne. One branch followed Williamstown Road to an occasional punt to Williamstown, and another deviated around a lagoon to follow Bay Street to the bay. It was the first significant route out of Melbourne, serving the ships that did not venture up the Yarra. The third was a track along the left bank of the Yarra approximating today's Lorimer Street. It was in operation in 1838 and enhanced by Darke in 1839.
A few circumferential routes were created. In 1855 Church and Chapel streets were connected by a toll bridge over the Yarra. Johnston Street and Studley Park Road were linked in 1858. The Banksia Street and Manningham Road route to Doncaster was formalised with the construction of a bridge over the Yarra in 1860. A year or so later the Bell Street link to Coburg improved with a bridge over the Darebin Creek. A bridge did not join Punt Road and Hoddle Street until 1899.
By world standards, Melbourne's freeway system is neither extensive nor comprehensive. This is partly compensated for by an arterial road system that is relatively extensive and effective. The freeway system was based in significant part on the concepts and reservations in the 1929 Melbourne Plan of Town Development (city planning) and on subsequent work leading to the 1954 Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) planning scheme and the 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan. Some of the land had been preserved as power-line reservations and some lay in river and creek valleys. Subsequently, freeway construction has required relatively little demolition of domestic or commercial property.
Although Melbourne's first freeway - the modestly designed South Eastern Freeway from Punt Road to the MacRobertson Bridge - did not open until 1961, this was consistent with the timing of similar developments overseas. However, the subsequent pattern of development was far slower. The Tullamarine Freeway was opened in 1970, the West Gate Freeway from Altona to Spotswood in 1971, the city part of the Calder Freeway in 1972, parts of the Mulgrave Freeway from Springvale to Princes Highway in 1974, the Eastern Freeway to Bulleen in 1977, the West Gate Bridge in 1979, the elevated city section of the West Gate Freeway in 1988, the first component of the Western Ring Road in 1992 and the Eastern Freeway to Springvale Road in 1997. The initial freeway-building was undertaken by the MMBW rather than by the Country Roads Board.
The most recent addition is the privately financed CityLink system, which provides an electronically tolled, L-shaped link to the south and west of the city. The southern part upgrades the South Eastern Freeway (renamed the Monash Freeway), linking it to the West Gate Freeway via two long tunnels. The western part of the link upgrades the Tullamarine Freeway and also links it to the West Gate Freeway. Many of the freeways include an adjoining shared pedestrian and bicycle path.
The anti-freeway movement mirrored similar activities in other cities. It reached its zenith in the 1970s as the first stage of the Eastern Freeway reached completion. The major protest was not so much about the road itself, although it relied solely on the beautiful Yarra Valley for its land-take, and it had been built as a replacement for a promised rail link to Doncaster. The protest was more about the fact that the road formed part of a planned 500 kilometre freeway system in the 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan. In hindsight, the plan was unacceptable in terms of its cost, its effect on the environment and the urban form, and its general inappropriateness for Melbourne. It had been produced by American transport engineers, and similar plans were in the process of being imposed on many cities throughout the world. In 1973 premier Dick Hamer announced that the planned network had been cut in half on sociological and environmental grounds. The subsequent development has concentrated on completing key radial links and on an inner and outer ring road.
The engineering of Melbourne's roads did not provide many major challenges or produce any unique solutions. The technology is well documented. There were occasional local shortages of good road-making stone, and in the northwestern area some of the basalts degrade into expansive clays, which make it impossible to maintain a level road surface without taking elaborate and relatively expensive measures.
The two world wars had a major impact on Australia's roads. The end of World War I was the beginning of the motor truck and the common car. The existing roads lacked the strength and the capacity to handle these two new devices and never recovered the lost ground during the interwar period. Like most Australian roads, Melbourne's road pavements since the 1920s have been under- rather than over-engineered. They therefore need careful maintenance to remain intact. During World War II that maintenance disappeared and the already overtaxed roads often literally fell to pieces. This was the period of the 'heartbreak' roads and streets, which required massive capital expenditures over the next 30 years to reverse the situation.