Sydney or Melbourne – which is more liveable (part 2)?

I noted on Friday that the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey says Sydney is more liveable than Melbourne.

However neither of these surveys define what liveability is from the point of view of the residents of a city, begging the question: what makes one city more liveable than another? And in particular, which is more liveable, Sydney or Melbourne?

The strategic plan for Melbourne, Melbourne 2030, uses the term liveability liberally and even asserts that the plan’s “main purpose is to continue to protect the liveability of established areas” (page 1). It lists liveability as one of the city’s key strengths, but this is the closest it comes to a definition (page 23):

“liveability: metropolitan Melbourne overflows with sporting, cultural and recreational opportunity; the public transport system makes the city generally easy to traverse; health and safety standards are high, as is environmental quality; metropolitan Melbourne and the surrounding region has outstanding natural landscapes and coastlines”

At page 40, liveability is summarised as “quality of life, security, amenities, etc” and at page 50, in the context of activity centres, it is summarised again, this time as “safety, convenience, comfort and aesthetics”.

This is all a bit inexact. Whether the authors quite meant it or not, it seems implicitly to define the liveability of Melbourne as the quality of the public realm i.e. life outside the front door of residents’ houses and workplaces. The focus seems to be on ease of mobility, safety, leisure opportunities and the quality of the natural and human-constructed environments. Read the rest of this entry »

Why I don’t warm to public art

I love Russian railway stations. The TimesOnline reports “the opening of a Moscow Metro station named after Fyodor Dostoevsky has been postponed after complaints that murals decorating the platform walls are too depressing. The images, drawn from the 19th-century novelist’s works, could prompt depressed commuters to kill themselves, critics say.

“One scene, right, depicts a man preparing to hit a woman with an axe while another lays dying at his feet — inspired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment”.

I’ve never been very keen on public art and this reinforces my prejudice.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.

Is Sydney really more liveable than Melbourne (part 1)?

On Wednesday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the release of the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey with the headline, “Sydney beats Melbourne in world’s top cities league”.

This is not news. Sydney beat Melbourne in the 2009 Mercer survey too. Sydney has stayed in 10th position and Melbourne has “slipped” from 17th to 18th out of 221 cities across the world.

Victorian politicians prefer to reference the annual survey done by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Its 2010 Global Liveability Report ranks Melbourne 3rd after Vancouver and Vienna. Sydney is ranked 7th.

Do these surveys really indicate that Sydney is more “liveable” than Melbourne, or vice versa? No, they don’t.

For one thing, the difference in scores is miniscule. In the Mercer survey, Sydney scored 106 points to Melbourne’s 105. In The Economist’s survey Melbourne scored 97 and Sydney 96.

Clearly rankings give a misleading impression of the two cities relative merits.

These sorts of surveys have been criticised on a number of grounds, including lack of transparency about their methodologies, definitions and quality of data. But that criticism misses the point that they are designed for a different purpose – to assist companies determine living allowances for staff posted to an overseas destination. The lower the city ranks, the higher the compensating allowance. Read the rest of this entry »

What if you were the Premier?

Imagine you’ve just been elected Premier. You carried the electorate on a simple but radical two-promise platform: (1) to prohibit alcohol and (2) to shift all travel out of cars and onto public transport.

The Party is solidly behind you. Members agree that both alcohol and cars are bad for the individual and bad for society. You’re lauded as a reformer.

But you’ve not long been in office before you discover just how entrenched car use is in your largest city. Just 10% of trips are made by public transport and 90% of households have at least one car. Less driving would make the community better off but you quickly discover how much people like doing things that are bad for them and bad for others. You have a stiff drink.

For all their talk about sustainability, your predecessors knew the electorate loved cars. The former Premier talked-the-talk about public transport and even threw a few paltry dollars its way, but at the end of the day she didn’t do anything that would come between voters and their cars.

Eager to get started, you begin your quest to reduce car use by investing massively in public transport. You mortgage the State budget for the next 50 years in an endeavour to provide high quality, metro-style public transport across the entire city. Travellers without access to a car, like school children and tourists, think you’re God. CBD workers think you’re Gary Ablett. But you fail to notice that most of them either don’t vote or don’t live in marginal electorates. Read the rest of this entry »

Has the very fast train run out of steam?

The idea of very fast trains on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor seems to have run out of steam after an initial flurry earlier this year when the CRC for Rail Innovation and the Greens both called on the Federal Government to fund a major concept study.

There has been very little in the popular media since that opening blast. Hence it was interesting to see author, educator and consultant, John Legge, arguing in The Age on Saturday that the figures on very fast rail add up.

Note the extensive green areas near Canberra

He asserts that: (a) high speed rail works in Europe, China and Japan, (b) the US is now building high speed rail projects, (c) rail is faster, more comfortable and more convenient than flying, and (d) it can be built for a mere $15 billion. Ergo, it will be an unqualified success on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor. But he provides little in the way of evidence or argument to support these claims.

Surprisingly, Legge makes no mention of what I think is the best argument for the project – constraints on Sydney Airport’s ability to expand capacity. Even more surprisingly, he doesn’t mention the environmental benefits of rail over air until the very last line and then just in passing. His key argument is that rail would out-compete air simply because a very fast train is a more attractive product.

I don’t want to deal with everything Legge says because I’ve covered most of the arguments for and against high speed rail here and here. But I do want to take issue with a couple of the points he makes.

First, what works in other countries won’t necessarily work in Australia. Most of the routes in Europe and Japan where high speed rail is strong are relatively short e.g. London-Paris is 340 km; London-Brussels is 198 km. London, with a population of 8 million and Paris (10 million) are very big cities compared to Sydney and Melbourne. They are world cities that have huge numbers of business travellers and tourists compared to Australia (London is an ‘Alpha’ world city). Congestion in the air and on the ground makes air less competitive in those cities, particularly for short trips. Read the rest of this entry »

Does the housing dollar buy more in Melbourne?

Yes! Compared to Sydney, you get 11 km closer to the city centre in Melbourne and pay $70,000 less!

The Financial Review ran an interesting article on Saturday titled Only units deliver median inner glow. It’s paywalled, but I’ve made two graphs (click to enlarge) based on information it presents in a table on house and unit prices. The data was compiled by RP Data.

The Financial Review’s emphasis was on affordability however the sophisticated readers of this blog will appreciate that there’s a more interesting story here (although with a caveat – I haven’t seen RP Data’s full set of numbers as they’re subscription only).

Figure 1 (based on numbers prepared by RP Data)

Figure 1 shows that a buyer has to travel 23 km from the CBD in Sydney in order to obtain a house at the median price of $500,000. However in Melbourne the median house costs considerably less – $430,000 – and, more importantly, you only have to go 12 km out to find it. All this even though the population difference is only around 500,000 people – 4 million in Melbourne vs 4.5 million in Sydney.

Thus the bundle of locational services available in Melbourne for the dollar is significantly better than in our older sister up the Hume. Those services relate to the special attractions of proximity to the city centre – high level corporate and government jobs, recreational and cultural facilities, private schools, entertainment, etc.

The value of the city centre is brought home by that quintessential icon of Melbourne, the footy. The only place you can attend an AFL game within Melbourne nowadays is in the centre. And being 12 km from the CBD will usually be a better location than points further out for accessing Melbourne’s wealth of suburban jobs and for being closer to family. No wonder migrants are beating a path to Melbourne rather than Sydney. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Kobo cool?

My household acquired the new Border’s e-reader, Kobo, on the weekend. The Kobo was released on Wednesday and with the dollar crashing to below 80c at one point on Friday I figured it might be now or never.

There’s no particular connection to Melbourne or to urbanism in this article but as this is the first time I’ve ever been a real early-adopter, I thought I’d share my experience. Perhaps my rationale can be that I’ve always had a page on this blog titled My Reading.

This’ll be a brief review because I haven’t really had much time to look at it, but based on my (limited) experience over the weekend and my wife’s slightly more extended experience, here are the pros and cons of the Kobo (which BTW I take to be an anagram of “book”?). Bear in mind that we only intend to use the Kobo for reading fiction.

On the pro side:

First, it’s very cheap – just A$199. It was released on Wednesday so I don’t know if there’re any left. Its closest rival, the Kindle, is US$249 and you have to wait for delivery.

Second, you can buy it over the counter. I got this one at Borders Carlton on Friday night. I’m a big user of e-commerce but having bricks and mortar to deal with is always preferable.

Third, it really is like reading paper. The screen isn’t lit by light like an LCD but uses a technology like the Etch A Sketch. It’s very easy on the eyes compared to a computer screen or an iPhone. There is a choice of two fonts and five type sizes – I expect the range will increase as the software is revised. Read the rest of this entry »