Does being a locavore add up?

"It gets better" - Pixar shows why it would be a great place to work (click)

As I’ve argued before (here) there are a number of reasons why buying food locally is probably the least sustainable basis on which to base your food buying preferences.

First, transport is only a small component of the total carbon emissions from agriculture.

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.

Third, even where the local area is suitable for growing certain foods, it might not be the most environmentally efficient location for a particular food.

Fourth, producers in more distant locations might have superior farming practices to local growers. Fifth, the environmental and economic cost of moving people is higher than the cost of transporting their food.

Now Stephen Budiansky has assembled an array of interesting factoids in this NY Times oped, Math lessons for locavores, to show the folly of being a locavore. He’s a stylish writer so you might want to read the full article; otherwise here are a few key quotes:

  • “Whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill. Read the rest of this entry »
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Where will the money come from?

Melbourne & Ballarat trams in the 60s (click)

According to Paul Austin in The Age (29/11/10), there’s little doubt that infrastructure inadequacies weighed heavily on voters’ minds in last Saturday’s election. His list of problems includes overcrowded trains, congested roads, the Myki debacle and long hospital waiting lists.

The pressure to “fix” these problems from voters in the eastern suburbs and sandbelt electorates that fell to the Coalition on Saturday will be immense.

The new Premier, Mr Baillieu, might therefore find it worthwhile to look at this report on public sector borrowing by Dr Nicholas Gruen (summary here).

Dr Gruen contends that governments in Australia have focussed on the cost of debt but have ignored the benefits. They’ve reduced the budget deficit to zero but exchanged it for an infrastructure deficit. Their constituents have saved on debt repayments, but:

they are paying inflated tolls on roads and heavy mortgage repayments that reflect the lack of land release and the loading of infrastructure charges onto the land that has been released. And they are paying with their time as they wait at peak hour in traffic that has slowed to a crawl or crowd into late trains and buses.

Thanks to the culture of strict fiscal rectitude that dominates modern government thinking, new debt has been kept off the government’s balance sheet by funding infrastructure in other ways – partly through asset sell-offs but mostly via Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). Read the rest of this entry »


What is the inner city?

We all use the term “inner city” but I doubt we’re all talking about the same geographical area.

For some people, the inner city means the area where cafe society thrives – probably a 10 km circle around the CBD in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Or it might mean the extent of medium density historic terrace housing.

Some Brisbanites think of the inner city as the large area covered by the Brisbane City Council (1,367 km2) while some Melburnians think of it as the area serviced by tram lines.

Planners have addressed this problem by adopting simple measures. For example, in Melbourne the inner city is customarily defined as the area covered by the central municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra and Port Phillip (77 km2). Sometimes the Prahran portion (SLA) of the City of Stonnington is also included.

In my work on Melbourne I define the inner city as the area (79 km2) within a 5 km radius of the City Hall . This approximates closely to the three inner municipalities, but I use it because it’s consistent with what’s done elsewhere. US researchers typically use a 3 mile radius to define the inner city – an area approximating the size of the central Counties of the larger metros.

There are a number of problems with this sort of ‘administrative’ approach. A key one is that there is no underlying rationale for where the boundary is drawn – why not 2 km or 10 km? Another is that it doesn’t really connect with people because it has no obvious reference like, say, the tram network. Read the rest of this entry »


Does commuting erode social capital?

(click) John Faine interviews Pallas (ALP), Mees (Greens) and Mulder (Lib) on 774. 'Spirited' exchange between Faine and Mees at circa 29.00

In his new book, Disconnected, Dr Andrew Leigh argues that social capital, defined as the level of trust and reciprocity between people, has declined in Australia. I’m not convinced, however, that one of the culprits he fingers for this loss is guilty.

Several measures indicate social capital is on the wane – organisational membership, church attendance, political party membership, union membership, sporting participation, cultural attendance and volunteering.

Dr Leigh identifies seven key causes of this decline: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, television, ethnic diversity, impersonal technologies, tipping points and car commuting.

I want to look at his argument on car commuting, which I briefly alluded to once before.

He says that time spent commuting is bad for social capital because it is time not spent with family, community and friends:

Commuters are less likely to be active members of sporting clubs or community organisations. And commuting can affect family life: one in five men who works full-time spends more hours commuting than with his children

It is also negative for social capital because most commuting is done alone. Moreover, “being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes a day inevitably means a spate of small annoyances…..taken individually these are minor annoyances but as they add up, driver frustration can lead us to form an increasingly hostile view of our fellow Australians”. Read the rest of this entry »


What costs society more – cars or public transport?

Cost per passenger km by mode in Sydney

This simple but extraordinary chart (see first graphic) is from a paper written last year by one of the country’s leading transport researchers, Dr Garry Glazebrook, of Sydney’s University of Technology.

In the paper, the author estimates the total cost of different transport modes, taking account of both private and social (i.e. external) costs. The costs are based on Sydney.

A number of interesting things about travel are evident from the chart, some of which are familiar and some which may surprise.

First, both private and public transport modes generate significant social costs. These costs are borne generally by society, “either in the form of subsidies (e.g. rail and bus subsidies from government, or hidden parking subsidies for car users) or in the form of externalities (including pollution, congestion, accidents, etc)”.

Second, although their composition is quite different, the social costs of private and public transport are essentially the same, at around 38c per passenger kilometre. One big difference of course is that subsidies for public transport are paid in actual dollars by government whereas the social costs of cars are largely an unpaid burden on others (primarily other road users). Read the rest of this entry »


What’s a new rail line worth?

This is hilarious! (click) Men in Suits choir - Metro Trains Melbourne Regrets...

One way to answer this question is to consider what else the money could be spent on.

One possibility is the 1,235 people with disabilities in Victoria who, according to this article, are registered with the Department of Human Services for supported accommodation.

One of them is David Graham, a 44 year old who is legally blind, has an intellectual disability and suffers from epilepsy. Last month his 70 year old mother died of cancer. She had looked after him all his life since he was born premature at 24 weeks. Now Mr Graham is on the waiting list for supported accommodation.

Mr Graham’s plight illustrates the importance of opportunity cost, something I’ve banged on about here at length. In plain terms, when you spend money it refers to what else you could have spent the money on i.e. the opportunities you’re foregoing.

The writer of the article, Carol Nader, refers specifically to the $50 million that Ted Baillieu promised he would spend in his first term to commence building a rail line from the CBD to Avalon Airport. The full cost would be $250 million.

She implies that $50 million could instead be spent on something else, like supported accommodation for people with disabilities. It costs $1.5 million on average she says to provide a unit for five residents and an average annual cost of $125,000 to support each resident. Read the rest of this entry »


Why did Melbourne 2030 fail?

(click) Heaps of parking in central Paris in 1976!

The Age editorialises (21/11/10) that Melbourne 2030 is effectively dead and I agree. The latest nail in the coffin in The Age’s opinion is the apparently burgeoning growth of housing in townships and hamlets located in the peri urban area outside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).

I’ve argued before that this sort of “decentralisation” is poor policy (e.g. here and here). But I also think The Age has tended to ‘catastrophise’ the scale of the problem, especially with its highly misleading contention that Melbourne has “sprawled 50% beyond the official growth boundary, spanning 150 kilometres from east to west”.

However what interests me at the moment is why Melbourne 2030 failed. The key reason in my view is that it blithely assumed that enough affordable dwellings – mostly town houses and apartments – could be provided within the established urban areas to avoid the need for the UGB to be extended.

This objective was never realistic for a number of reasons. Read the rest of this entry »