Should public transport users pay their way?

The peak industry body, Tourism and Transport Forum Australia, got itself into hot water with the media last week. The Forum suggested in a new report, Meeting the funding challenges of public transport, that eligibility for concession fares should be drastically restricted.

The brouhaha was unfortunate because the Forum’s underlying contention – that public transport in Australia should be operated on a full cost-recovery basis – is worthy of closer examination. Closer examination, that is, provided we’re talking about recovering full costs from those who can afford it!

At present, fares only account for approximately 36% of public transport operating costs across Australia’s five largest cities according to the Forum’s consultant’s, LEK. They say the rest comes from Government subsidies and is low compared to an international average of 60%.

The challenge facing governments in Australia is simple enough. Public transport capacity has to increase enormously to deal with expected higher demand driven by issues like peak oil, climate change and unprecedented population growth. For example, patronage has already grown 5% p.a. over the past five years in Brisbane and Melbourne. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is big-box bad for the Modern Family?

Click to go to slideshow

Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Canadian-American architect Witold Rybczynski, has this interesting slide show at Slate titled Ordinary Places. He subtitles it “rediscovering the parking lot, the big-box store, the farmers market, the gas Station” and observes:

At first glance, the big-box store doesn’t foster sociability. The no-frills environment sends the message that “we are doing everything possible to keep our prices down,” and the assembly-line atmosphere encourages speed and efficiency.

Everyone is absorbed in the serious business of finding what they’re looking for, a task the long, identical aisles don’t make easy. This is the exact opposite of shopping-as-entertainment that characterizes most malls.

He’s not the only one to characterise big-box retailing this way, but why on earth would it really matter if a big-box store does or “doesn’t foster sociability”? Read the rest of this entry »


Do we spend too much time commuting?

Time spent commuting to work, Melbourne

I’m currently reading a new book by writer and journalist Jenny Sinclair, When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city. This fascinating book sets out to discover what makes Melbourne unique and, according to the cover blurb, ultimately concludes that it’s all in our collective imagination.

I’m only a little way into the book but a comment she makes – just an aside really – caught my attention and sent me scurrying to the spreadsheet. She’s strolling through Victorian era parts of Melbourne when she’s:

reminded that there’s another (Melbourne), in which workers with affordable houses in Sunbury or Hoppers Crossing have no choice but to drive for hours every day to get to their jobs

This passage reminded me of Richard Florida’s recent claim that commutes in the US are so long they’re injurious to health. I made the point in this post that Florida’s methodology is flawed and time spent commuting in the US is actually relatively short.

But what about Melbourne – is Sinclair’s understanding that many Melburnites “drive for hours” to get to work correct? Read the rest of this entry »


Should bicycles be registered?

The Victorian Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) reckons bicycles should be registered and cyclists licensed.

VECCI’s recently released Infrastructure and Liveability policy paper, which is intended to influence public debate in the lead up to this year’s state election, argues that “road users should be treated equally. For example, all road users, including cyclists, should be licensed and vehicles registered”.

There are four key arguments commonly advanced against compulsory registration.

The first is that registration, as it is traditionally understood, is a charge for road damage, which rises exponentially with axle load. Since bicycles are extremely light compared to cars and trucks, the amount of damage they do is inconsequential.

The second is that fees for compulsory third party personal insurance are collected as part of the registration process. Again, bicycles are so light that the likelihood of cyclists seriously injuring other road users is very low (although they might injure themselves).

The third argument is that the scope for “incentivising” cyclists to obey the road rules via registration is limited. The main offence committed by motorists – speeding – doesn’t apply to most cyclists. They don’t avoid tolls because they’re not permitted on freeways and they don’t do a runner at petrol stations. Some might get picked up running red lights but not enough to justify the administrative cost of registration or the inconvenience of arming bicycles with legible number plates.

Finally, it is contended that cyclists impose very low, even zero, costs on the environment compared to motorised vehicles. Accordingly, they should be exempted from registration charges. Read the rest of this entry »


Are the suburbs dormitories?

"Centre of gravity" of jobs, 1981 and 2006

There are many misconceptions about the suburbs. A common one is that they are dormitories for workers who commute to the CBD. Another is that jobs in the suburbs are mostly low skill and low pay.

The reality is most economic activity in our capital cities takes place in the suburbs. In Melbourne, for example, 72% of jobs are more than 5 km from the CBD, 50% are more than 13 km away and 25% more than 22 km away.

Jobs have been moving away from the centre for a long time. The “centre of gravity” of jobs in Melbourne is now 7.9 km south east of the CBD, in the vicinity of Tooronga station, East Malvern. That’s up from 5.9 km in 1981. The “average”  job is 15.6 km from the CBD (12.4 km in 1981).

This decentralised pattern holds for most industry sectors. More than 70% of jobs in the Community sector and more than 80% of jobs in the Retail, Wholesale and Manufacturing sectors are in the suburbs (defined as more than 5km from the CBD). Even in the Commercial Services sector, which is the inner city’s great strength, 49% of metropolitan jobs are in the suburbs.

Over 90% of Melburnites live in the suburbs and the great bulk work there too. Less than 10% of workers who live in outer suburbs like Casey, Cardinia, Dandenong, Knox, Maroondah, Mornington work in the centre (City of Melbourne). Even in older suburbs like Hobsons Bay, Brimbank, Maribyrnong and Moonee Valley, less than 25% of the workforce works in the centre. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the built environment determine our lives?

Where the most common languages are spoken

The American modernist architect, Richard Neutra, is supposed to have once claimed that if he were so minded, he could design a house for a happily married couple that would assure their divorce within six months. Or something like that.

While it’s possibly apocryphal, the story illustrates what many architects and urban designers think – design profoundly affects our behaviour and wellbeing.

It’s clear the built environment matters. It keeps out the rain, cold and unwanted visitors. And it’s equally obvious that some buildings, like churches, can move us in the same way a natural landscape can impress itself on us.

We know that some colours can affect our perceptions and possibly, in some circumstances, even our emotional state. And we know that all other things being equal, public spaces where there are “many eyes on the street” tend to have less crime and the “dark end of the street” can be a dangerous place. And you’re less likely to know your neighbours across the street if you live on a busy road.

We also know it’s a simple enough matter for designers to channel where people walk through urban places and where they are most likely to pause in the sunlight and take in the view or a latte.

But designers have a tendency to over-state the behavioural and social effects of the built environment. I don’t know what design strategies Neutra had in mind but it seems to me he would have failed miserably. Humans are remarkably resilient when it comes to adapting to different environments. Read the rest of this entry »


HSR feasibility study: what should it address?

What is the What?!!! Wau, Southern Sudan

There’s a long history of rent-seeking in Australia over major projects. Business puts a lot of effort into lobbying government and the media to subsidise projects the private sector wouldn’t otherwise touch with a bargepole.

So when IPA (Infrastructure Partnerships Australia) – the nation’s peak infrastructure lobby group – releases a new study calling for land to be reserved for a High Speed Rail (HSR) service from Brisbane to Melbourne, I don’t immediately assume it’s an impartial assessment.

However that didn’t bother The Age, which ran the story as the lead on the front page of Saturday’s issue. The paper reports that AECOM, who prepared the study jointly with IPA, was involved in France’s TGV and Britain’s HS2 HSR projects.

The Chairman of IPA, Mark Birrell, is also on the board of Infrastructure Australia, the body established under legislation to advise the Federal Minister on infrastructure needs and priorities.

No, rather than assume the report is impartial, I thank the angel of small mercies that the only promise on the table from the Greens and Labor is for a $20 million feasibility study of HSR. There may be a thousand more welfare-enhancing ways that $20 million could be spent, but it will well and truly have earned its keep if it leads to the right decision on what could be a $40 – $80 billion investment in HSR.

I’m not going to reiterate the many and varied problems I see with HSR, since I’ve covered them before (see here, here, and here, ). What I do want to address however is the way the planned feasibility study will be conducted. Read the rest of this entry »