Jewel goes undercover

Click through to video

One of the most popular recent articles on The Melbourne Urbanist was one on happiness (What makes you happy?) that I put up back at the start of the month.

It was based on a research paper which looked at which events have the highest positive effect on happiness.

This video is more practical – it shows what unalloyed delight and elation look like. It covers the singer Jewel singing her own songs incognito at a karaoke bar.

The excitement of the patrons when they hear how good this apparently ordinary woman is at singing Jewel’s songs is a joy to behold.

Are wind turbines a danger to birds?

A common objection to wind turbines is that they’re dangerous for birds. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reports that the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US is between 20,000 and 37,000 annually.

He draws on data from this report by the Committee on Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects, (US) National Research Council of the National Academies.

The report puts the bird strikes from turbines into context with annual estimates for deaths in the US from other causes (the wide ranges in the estimates indicate this is not an exact science):

Collisions with buildings: 97 – 976 million

Collisions with high tension lines: 130 – 1,000 million

Collisions with communication towers: 4 – 50 million

Collisions with cars: more than 80 million

Toxic chemicals: more than 72 million

Cats: more than a billion

BP oil spill: more than two thousand to date Read the rest of this entry »

How punctual are our city trains?

Waitin' on a train

Actually they’re probably much less punctual than you think, no matter which major city you live in.

Consider the performance of Metro Trains, the new private operator of Melbourne’s metropolitan trains. Back in May, only 82.7% of services operated by Metro Trains ran on time.

This is well below the contracted 88% monthly punctuality target below which Metro is obliged to pay compensation. And it’s positively woeful compared to the 96% punctuality achieved by New York City’s commuter rail system last year.

The circumstances in May were probably unusual, but the standard 88% is hardly a high hurdle. Yet from a commuter’s perspective, it’s actually worse than this figure suggests. Read the rest of this entry »

Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”?

This article at Club Troppo, We’re not full, has generated lots of interest on the net (e.g. here) because the writer argues that, contrary to what population growth opponents contend, Sydney is far from “bursting at the seams”.

The key evidence he offers is that many older suburbs that were settled in the 1960s and 70s, like Campbelltown, are losing population. This is largely because the children of those early settlers have grown up and left home, leaving mum and dad getting older and rattling around in a home with three or more bedrooms.

I completely agree that Sydney is not bursting at the seams, but regular readers of The Melbourne Urbanist will know instinctively that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye. These suburbs are not really “emptying out”. Read the rest of this entry »

Mandatory CO2 emissions – will Julia do enough?

Projected average CO2 emissions of the whole light vehicle fleet under a range of CO2 emission targets for new vehicles

With all the brouhaha about ‘cash for clunkers’, the mainstream media seems to have completely missed analysing a new initiative that was also announced on Saturday by the Prime Minister – mandatory CO2 emission standards for light vehicles.

Prime Minister Gillard committed the Government, if re-elected, to an obligatory average emission standard for new light vehicles of 190 g/km from 2015, and 155 g/km from 2024. This represents a 14% reduction on the 2008 level by 2015 and 30% by 2024.

This is the sort of initiative I’ve argued for before (here and here) as it recognises the reality that light vehicles (i.e. cars, SUVs, vans) will be around for a long time yet and something therefore needs to be done fast to make them more environmentally responsible.

It’s a pity the Government took the spotlight away from this worthwhile initiative by simultaneously announcing the deeply flawed ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme.

Yet the Government’s take on mandatory emissions is far from perfect. In fact it verges on feeble. The standards announced by the Prime Minister are well short of the European CO2 emissions standard, which is currently 160 g/km and by 2015 will be 130 g/km (see here). Read the rest of this entry »

Is Cash for Clunkers a great big new mistake?

Clunker - 1992 Nissan Pulsar

Did Julia Gillard read my post last Thursday arguing that she should take action in the election campaign to improve the fuel efficiency of Australia’s cars? Possibly not, but I wish now I’d left in the sentence saying that whatever happens, please don’t make the same mistake as President Obama and bring in a poorly-designed “cash for clunkers” program!

Now the PM has announced today her own Cash for Clunkers initiative (here and here) with the ostensible purpose of saving one million tonnes in carbon emissions (this is not an annual saving but the total over the life of the scheme).

The scheme will be financed by cutting back other programs, including the solar and carbon capture and storage programs, and the renewable energy bonus scheme (see here).

President Obama at least had the excuse that his scheme was primarily a pump-priming exercise designed to lift consumer spending in the wake of the GFC. In our context however, Cash for Clunkers looks like seriously bad policy. Even on the skimpy detail released today, it is evident there are clear failings. Read the rest of this entry »

How bad is traffic congestion in Melbourne?

IBMs Commuter Pain Index

The Age reported earlier this month that Melbourne is second only to Stockholm for low traffic congestion according to a survey of 8,200 motorists in 20 cities.

The survey (here and here), which measured “commuter pain”, was undertaken by IBM, an active player in the international traffic management industry.

My experience of weekday traffic congestion in Melbourne is pretty limited but it is consistent with the survey’s finding. A couple of times a month I have a mid-week late afternoon meeting in South Yarra and finish up between 6pm and 6.30pm. I drive home up Punt Rd/Hoddle Street and then on to Heidelberg Rd.

The thing that always takes me by surprise on these trips is that the congestion is never as bad as I expect. In fact it has never yet taken me longer than an half an hour to get home and I rarely have the feeling that I’m “stuck” in traffic. Once you get past Victoria Pde it flows reasonably well in my experience.

I’m surprised because I always remember Eddie in Elliot Perlman’s novel, Three dollars, offering this advice: ‘Abby, my darling daughter, remember this: no matter where you are or what time of day it is – avoid Punt Road.’

But it’s dangerous to extrapolate from the personal to the general – many of the comments in The Age suggest my experience is atypical. Perhaps Punt Rd is much worse in the AM peak than in the afternoon or is simply not as bad as the freeways. Read the rest of this entry »

What should be done about cars?

I’d like to see one of our political leaders steal a march in this election campaign by promising to do something about the environmental and ‘quality of life’ issues associated with car use.

Almost everyone recognises the weakness of our current car fleet in the face of climate change and peak oil, but no one seems to want to do much about it. Most of the focus is on expanding public transport and increasing urban density – at first glance this sounds good, but even on the most optimistic view cars are going to be the dominant mode in Melbourne for a long time yet.

For example, the Victorian Government set a target in Melbourne 2030 to increase public transport’s share of motorised trips to 20% by 2020 (it’s currently around 11%). The report of the Independent Public Inquiry into a Long-Term Public Transport Plan for Sydney, which was released earlier this year, aims to increase public transport’s share of all travel in Sydney to 25% over the next 30 years (currently around 16%) and walking and cycling’s to 10% (page 152)*.

Even if petrol prices suddenly went stratospheric, it would take decades to expand public transport ‘s capacity to a level where it could handle the majority of trips. And it would still have to compete for funding with other areas of serious need like health, education and social housing. This would be more complicated if dramatically higher petrol prices were accompanied by a severe contraction in economic activity. Read the rest of this entry »

Who else is Moving Forward?

Photo by Daniel Bowen (Flickr)

Connex wasn’t the only company to use Moving Forward as their logo before it was adopted by the ALP for the 2010 Federal election. A quick search on Google shows that many organisations like to show they’re on the move and, moreover, that when they move, they move forward. Not surprisingly there’re transport companies, but there are also libraries, psychologists, a farmer, singers and more. Here’s just a sample:

Clinical Psychological Services

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Moving Forward Australia

Qld State Archives

State Library of NSW

Pathways to Citizenship

Australian Logistics Council

Dairy Moving Forward Initiative

Mission 242


Christiana Love

Do GPs who are co-located with pathology services order more tests?

Click to estimate the cost of getting sick (US)

I’ve cautioned before about the dangers of physical determinism i.e. glibly assuming that the physical environment (or geography) is the driving force underlying human behaviour. Sometimes it is, sometimes it exacerbates another problem, but more often it’s the symptom rather than the cause.

So it was with interest that I noted a new study reported in The Age today that investigated if Melbourne and Sydney GPs who are co-located with pathology collection centres tend to order more tests than GPs who aren’t. I’ve had a look at the study, undertaken by the Melbourne University School of Population Health, in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study defines co-location as where a GP and a pathology centre are located in the same premises. This group was compared with GPs located at least 50 metres from the nearest pathology centre.

The hypothesis that co-location might lead to a higher propensity to order pathology services seems plausible given, as the authors say, that many studies have shown how doctors’ contact with the pharmaceutical industry can influence their clinical decision-making: Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne better today than it was in the sixties?

Little Collins St traffic 1960 (by FailingMemory)

I’ve previously discussed the argument advanced by the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger.

Mr Mcleod has another interesting contention – he argues that Melbourne is unambiguously better and more liveable today than it was in 1960. Back then Melbourne had a population of around two million but now it has four million.

I have my doubts about the political wisdom of running that line but that’s neither here nor there – my primary interest is whether or not Mr Mcleod’s proposition makes sense.

I’ve no doubt the response of many people would be that housing in Melbourne is now less affordable than it was forty years ago and the roads and public transport are more congested. Some people also think it’s less safe, less equal and has a much larger per capita ecological footprint. For others, the footy lost something really important when the AFL was created.

On the other hand, many would argue that Melbourne is now more tolerant, more diverse and more exciting than it ever was. It’s now a city with a global profile, a better educated population and a vastly more sophisticated lifestyle. You can drive from the west to the south east fringe today entirely on freeway in under an hour in the off peak and you can take a train around the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is there still a focus on Julia vs Kevin?

It might seem like yesterday’s news but there’s a reason the Prime Minister’s opponents are continually focussing on exactly how she took over from Kevin Rudd.

This newly published research examined the proposition that “the perception that a candidate is power-seeking will lead to social penalties for female politicians but not for male politicians and that these penalties may be reflected in voting preferences”.

The research was undertaken by Yale University School of Management researchers, Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescoll. It is published in the latest issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract: Read the rest of this entry »

Is suburban sprawl a threat to farming?

One of the oldest processes in urban development is the conversion of peripheral land from farming to residential use. The standard argument is highest and best use: housing gives a bigger pay-off than farming. It’s the same basic logic underlying why natural bushland is cleared for agricultural use.

On Monday I looked at the idea of “food kilometres” but today I want to look at whether productive agricultural land should be converted to urban use.

Straight up, the evidence suggests urban development doesn’t pose much threat at all. The productivity of agriculture in Australia has increased 2.8% p.a. over the last 20 years, double the rate at which the wider market economy has grown.

Moreover, the Australian Natural Resources Atlas shows that the area of land used nationally for urban development amounts to just 0.5% of the area of land used for agriculture. Another estimate by the Australian Collaborative Land Use Mapping Program puts the ratio of urban land to agricultural land at 2.8%.

A more detailed study by Peter Houston published in 2005 found that agricultural land on Melbourne’s urban periphery comprised a little less than 6% of the total land base used for agriculture in Victoria. Melbourne seems to be an exception – the average figure for peri-urban areas across all mainland States is a mere 1%. Read the rest of this entry »

Could this man rescue Docklands?

Click image to play (at Vimeo)

Blu is the Michaelangelo of graffiti. He makes Banksy look like a painter of miniatures. He could work wonders with Docklands, I reckon.

This extraordinary video was created by painting walls innumerable times, photographing each “painting” and combining the images in a stop-motion animation. It took months of work and hundreds of gallons of paint.

Big Bang, Big Boom tackles the big questions – where the universe and life started and where it all might end. From the Big Bang right through to the Big Boom.

The sheer scale of this exercise is overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s brilliant.

Check out Blu’s other work too.

Is this the world’s biggest market?

La Central de Abasto de la Ciudad de México

La Central de Abasto de la Ciudad de México is an object lesson in the economies of scale – it supplies 20-30% of Mexico’s fresh produce. When it comes to buzz, it is the Manhattan of markets! Everyone benefits from the presence of everyone else.

La Central is probably the biggest food market in the world. Covering 327 hectares, it dwarfs our Footscray market (32 hectares) and the new Epping market.

As this visitor says, it took a 15 minute taxi ride to get from flowers to fish. La Central has its own postcode, its own 700-member police force, and its own border-style entry gates. There are 111 km of passageways and turnover is second only to the national stock exchange. Read the rest of this entry »

How dense are Melbourne’s outer suburbs?

Kenneth Davidson claimed in The Age yesterday that Melbourne has 15 years’ supply of outer suburban land zoned for urban development at the world’s lowest residential densities of 12.5 to 15 houses per hectare.

Lowest in the world? I think that’s possibly a little harsh when Melbourne is compared with the outer suburbs of US cities. However what I’m really interested in looking at is what Melbourne’s supposed “lowest residential densities” actually look like. What does 15 dwellings per hectare mean on the ground?

An ideal case study is the new mixed use development planned for Toolern, near Melton. According to the Precinct Structure Plan, when fully developed it is expected to cover 24 sq km, house an estimated 55,000 residents and host businesses that provide 28,000 jobs.

This is an enormous project, covering an area around a fifth larger than the entire inner city municipality of Yarra. It is equivalent in area to a 2.8-kilometre radius circle – if the centre were Melbourne Town Hall, it would extend to Richmond Station in the east, Alexandra Parade in the north, Bolte Bridge in the west and Albert Park in the south.

The minimum average density set down for Toolern is 15 dwellings (per net developable hectare), the same as the target minimum for the growth areas set out in Melbourne @ 5 Million and its predecessor, Melbourne 2030. Read the rest of this entry »

Is local food more sustainable?

One argument against suburban sprawl is that it sterilises agricultural land. A particular variation on this contention is that land should be preserved for agriculture so that carbon emissions in transporting food from farm gate to plate – “food kilometres” – can be minimised.

A frequently cited estimate is that food in the US travels on average 2,400 km from where it is produced to where it sold to consumers. We should therefore seek to grow as wide a range of food as possible as close to Melbourne as possible.

From Weber and Mathews, Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the US

All things being equal that makes sense. But of course it’s never that simple. Here are some pertinent issues to consider.

First, transport is not a major component of the total carbon emissions from agriculture. These researchers estimate that on-farm production accounts for 83% of the average US household’s carbon emissions from food whereas delivery from producer to retail outlets accounts for just 4%.

Second, most food can’t be grown locally without resorting to potentially environmentally damaging practices like excessive application of fertiliser, irrigation or artificial heating of greenhouses. This article cites a British study which found that because British tomatoes are grown in heated greenhouses, they emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per ton grown whereas Spanish tomatoes emit 0.6 tons. Further:

Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Read the rest of this entry »

Melbourne’s trains from the air

Click to play video

This outstanding satellite-like view of Melbourne’s trains running over the course of a day was developed about twelve months ago by Flink Labs, a new Melbourne data visualisation firm. In their words:

“Inspired by the foraging of ants and their pheromone trails, this visualisation provides the viewer with a satellite-like view of the entire train network over an accelerated timeframe. The visualisation exposes the ebbs and flows of the system along with a surprising level of complexity, not obvious to the viewer at a single point in time or at the scale of an individual train.

The day starts and the train network awakens, slowly at first, then increases to peak hour levels around 9am. A steady active state continues through the day, then increases again as school students, then workers, commute home from the city. Finally, the system quietens as the last trains depart at the end of the day. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne Bicycle Share getting better?

Now that Le Tour has started, it’s timely to think about cycling.

And yes, Melbourne Bike Share is getting better (sort of). RACV announced back on 21 June that Melbourne is getting more blue Bixis “with 40 bike stations and 500 bikes commencing roll out this week”.

Melbourne: 50 stations and 600 bikes (+ helmet)

That clearly reads as additional to the existing ten stations and 100 bikes, and so should give us the full 50 bike stations and 600 bikes that were originally announced.

The new stations are located at New Quay, Bourke Street, Merchant St, Yarra’s Edge, along Elizabeth Street, the Rialto Tower, Southern Cross and Parliament Stations, Lygon Street and the Eye and Ear Hospital. Unfortunately the RACV doesn’t provide a time frame for the roll out but the Melbourne Bike Share map indicates that more than 30 stations are now up and running.

That’s good news, but there’s an alarming piece of information in the press release – the 100 bikes that launched the scheme were rented only 700 times (by 400 renters) in the initial three weeks between 1 June and 21 June. Read the rest of this entry »

Why are these students studying under streetlights?

This photograph, via Paul Romer, shows students in Guinea who go to the airport to study for exams because they don’t have electricity at home.

The BBC reports that petrol stations, airports and even spaces under security lamps outside upmarket homes have become pockets of learning, where determined students are to be found in large numbers.

Access to light is a serious problem due to the “deterioration of power supplies, which started in 2003 when the country’s economy went into freefall:

The national power company, Electricite de Guinee, provides light to consumers on a rotational basis of 12 hours a day – but even so, these schedules often prove erratic, with dozens of outages before dawn…..

Between 1999 and 2002, schools in Guinea had a modest pass rate of 30-35%. Since 2003, that has dropped to between 20 and 25%”. Read the rest of this entry »