Minister for Sustainable Population: What’s in a name?

The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.

But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.

Population distribution, Australia (

While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.

In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.

Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »

Are new outer suburban homes getting smaller?

There was a flurry of almost salacious excitement in the media at the end of last year when an ABS study found that Australians have the largest homes in the world. Worse, it found Victorians have the biggest homes in the country.

The Age reported that houses and apartments in Australia are bigger than those in the United States, which has traditionally had the most spacious homes:

“While Australian home sizes have risen 10 per cent over the past decade, research shows sizes of new American homes have fallen from a peak of 212 square metres to 201.5 square metres”.

Now property group Oliver Hume has thrown some new light on home sizes in Melbourne. They say that excluding Melbourne’s west, the median size of homes in the other five growth areas actually fell slightly over the last three years.

The largest absolute fall was in Cardinia, where the median home size fell from 267 sq m to 209 sq m, or by 57 sq m. Home sizes also fell in Casey, Hume and Whittlesea but increased in Wyndham and Melton. This does not, however, indicate an across-the-board change in preferences toward smaller houses.

According to Oliver Hume’s research manager, Mr Andrew Perkins, much of the drop in house size can be attributed to the increase in the number of first home buyers in the 2007-2008 period, when they accounted for an unprecedented 70% of all sales across the growth areas. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is Gen Y driving less?

After growing consistently for many decades, car use is falling in developed countries (e.g. USA, Australia, Britain). A notable aspect of this decline is the fall-off in driving by young people.

New data from the US Federal Highway Administration (see here and here) shows that although they increased their share of the US population slightly over the period, those aged 21-30 accounted for only 14% of all miles driven in 2009, compared to 21% in 1995. Another study reports that in 2008 only 49% of 17 years olds had driver’s licenses compared to 75% in 1978.

There is now a sharp difference between Gen Y and baby boomers. A typical 58 year old in the US last year drove 11,607 miles, while the average 28 year old drove just 7,011 miles.

Neither the GFC nor the recent escalation of petrol prices fully account for these changes because the decline in driving preceded these events. So what is driving Gen Y to abandon what has traditionally been one of the great rewards of coming-of-age?

The explanation usually advanced is that the internet has enabled electronic communication to substitute for face-to-face contact. As I’ve pointed out before, however, reputable researchers conclude the exact opposite – electronic communication increases the demand for face-to-face contact more than it substitutes for it. Read the rest of this entry »

Does a rail line to Melbourne airport make sense?

The Age ran a front page story on Saturday (Train derailed by buck-passing and vested interests) on the need for a rail link from the airport to the CBD. I say story, but as the headline and this quote indicate, it was more advocacy than news:

“But thanks to decades of buck-passing and pandering to vested interests by successive state and federal governments, Melbourne – unlike so many other cities of its size and wealth – does not have a railway line to its airport”.

So having pressed the civic pride button, it’s a pity The Age didn’t also push the rationality pedal and ask: is there a case for constructing a new public transport system (rail) to compete with the existing one (bus)?

Airtrain terminal Qld international airport

I would quite like to have a rail line from the CBD to the airport, but as I’ve indicated before (here and here), only if it makes sense. Let’s look at some pertinent issues.

First, the feasibility studies undertaken by the Government conclude that the numbers for rail don’t stack up (yet). The most recent evaluations, undertaken in 2001 by BAH and in 2009 by IMIS, both concluded there is not a strong enough case to build a new rail line to the airport.

The Department of Transport projected rail would capture only 9% of all airport trips and would require a subsidy of $350-450 million over 10 years (in 2001 dollars).

Second, in 2003 the Government upgraded the Skybus service so it could deal better with congested conditions around the CBD and on the Tullamarine Freeway. According to the Transport Department, new roadworks enabled Skybus to bypass traffic delays at the Tullamarine/Calder Freeway interchange and at the city fringe. The package included lane widening as well as line marking changes to create an emergency lane wide enough for buses. Read the rest of this entry »

Simple but great piece on climate change

Here’s a simple but stylishly written and persuasive piece on climate change. It’s a short speech delivered to an audience of big business and investors in London in 2005 by Nobel Laureate and physicist, Professor Michael Beard, famous for devising the Beard-Einstein Conflation.

I can’t locate an on-line copy of the transcript of the entire speech so I’ve typed up just the first few paras:

“The planet is sick. Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive – perhaps as much as two per cent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums.

“What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilisation, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence.

“Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact: we barely understand how successful we have been. Read the rest of this entry »

London in the time of cholera

I’ve just read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. This extraordinary book, which nominally chronicles the campaign of physician Dr John Snow to persuade Victorian England that cholera was caused by contaminated water rather than noxious odours, also takes the reader on long and fascinating asides into topics like how living at density selected for alcohol-tolerant genes.

Deaths from cholera, Victorian London

As this article points out, large cities in all parts of the world used to be very dangerous places where the very proximity of humans directly led to disease and death.

I already knew the basics of John Snow’s battle with the established order and his famous map of Broad Street from TV programs and the odd book, like Mathew Kneale’s excellent novel about a Victorian hydraulic engineer, Sweet Thames.

But the particular value of Stevenson’s take on London’s cholera epidemic is the attention it gives to the broader circumstances of the times and the way he burrows deeply into the underlying social, medical and technological issues.

He talks, for example, about how humans living at close quarters historically addressed their vulnerability to polluted water by drinking alcohol instead (notwithstanding it is itself poisonous and addictive). Nothing new about that perhaps, but what is interesting is how the desire to live at higher density gradually selected for genes that could tolerate alcohol: Read the rest of this entry »

Is a bigger Melbourne a better Melbourne?

The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.

He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.

Big city - East Village, Manhattan

So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.

The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.

But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.

There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.

There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology. Read the rest of this entry »