Is social capital really declining?

Abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house is rescued

Dr Andrew Leigh reckons the massive drop in support for the ALP in NSW isn’t due to any inherent defect in party organisation but rather to the broader trend of declining social capital. I think he’s pulling a long bow. But the bigger question to my mind is whether social capital really is on the wane or whether it’s just taken a different form.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review this week, he argues that

people are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital, he says, “is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television”.

Dr Leigh is a former professor of economics at ANU and the author of Disconnected (best described as a sort of Australian version of Putnam’s Bowling Alone). He’s also the new ALP Member for the Federal seat of Fraser in the ACT, so it’s just possible that his take on the underlying ills of the ALP in NSW is a little less than objective.

I’m not convinced that all or even most of the precipitous fall in ALP membership can be sheeted home to people having less ‘spare’ time to devote to community activities or less need to ‘go out’. For example, I’ve pointed out before that car commuting doesn’t appear to be an issue – the median commute by car in a city like Melbourne is 30 minutes and half as long as the average commute by public transport. And I think there are often simpler explanations for declining civic participation e.g. changing demographics surely explain most of the decline in RSL involvement and better education the decline in church participation. A key reason we don’t know our neighbours as well as we used to is that cars have given us the geographical scope to be more discriminating about who our friends are.

But more importantly, I’m not sure that the jury’s back yet on whether social capital actually is declining. It’s true that I don’t know many people today who are active in the RSL, unions or churches, but I do know lots of people who participate in a host of other sorts of social activities that Dr Leigh doesn’t measure.

For example, virtually every woman I know above a certain age is in a book club and I know plenty of men-in-lycra who meet regularly to cycle and talk over coffee. People did these sorts of things twenty or more years ago, but they seem to be much more popular now. Many fewer women volunteer in the school tuck shop these days but that’s because many more are at work than twenty or thirty years ago. Work is in most cases a distinctly social activity where the need for trust, the scope for reciprocity and mutual reliance, and the opportunity to form deep relationships, is arguably much greater than in the tuck shop. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any activity as demanding of trust as market interactions, as Dr Leigh acknowledges in Disconnected. Read the rest of this entry »


– Where do university workers live?

Region of residence within Melbourne of university workers (%)

I’ve said before that there isn’t one ‘Melbourne’ – there are multiple ‘Melbournes’. The home range of Melburnians is pretty restricted – the great bulk of their travel is made within a region defined by their home municipality and contiguous municipalities. Many suburbanites rarely visit the city centre, much less the other side of town.

This pattern of sub-regionalisation is illustrated by Melbourne’s three major universities. I posted on March 16th about the mode shares of work trips to these universities. To summarise, at the time of the 2006 Census, 41% of Melbourne University staff drove to work while over 80% of staff at Monash and La Trobe Universities commuted by car.

The accompanying charts look at something else – where university workers lived in 2006. They show a number of interesting things.

The first chart indicates that staff of these three universities don’t tend to live west of the Maribyrnong. The west has 17% of Melbourne’s population but houses only 8% of Melbourne University’s staff. The ring road provides good accessibility from La Trobe to the west but even so, only 3% of the university’s staff live there.

Second, Monash and La Trobe serve distinct regional markets, in the north and south (of the Yarra) respectively. Melbourne University has a more metropolitan ambit but it still has a sub-regional focus – its staff strongly favour the inner city and the inner northern suburbs.

Third, university staff like to live close to their employer. This is particularly evident with La Trobe, where 56% of staff reside within the four municipalities closest to the university i.e. Darebin, Banyule, Nillumbik and Whittlesea (see second chart). Read the rest of this entry »


– Metro Strategy: (2) what are the challenges?

US petrol prices relative to the world

Yesterday I talked about what I thought the new Metropolitan Strategy for Melbourne should be. That was mostly ‘mothers milk’, so now I want to say something about the substance of the strategy – what it should do. I have (mostly) refrained from proposing specific policies or solutions, preferring instead to point out the key policy challenges or directions.

Among other things (this is not exhaustive) the new Metropolitan Strategy should:

Recognise that 90% of motorised travel in Melbourne is made by car and that there are myriad ways drivers and manufacturers are adapting to higher fuel prices. The great majority of travellers prefer to drive if they can despite the expense – they’re not going to give up driving for public transport unless they’re made to.

There are three key challenges in relation to cars. First, provide incentives to increase  the speed of the transition to more fuel and emissions efficient vehicles. Second, make cars more civilised – make them slower and quieter and remove their priority over other carriageway users. Three, manage congestion so that gridlock is avoided and high value trips are given priority.

Recognise that public transport is only a substitute for cars in a limited number of situations. It has two key but growing roles. One is to transport large numbers of people to and from places with high trip densities, like the CBD, where the car is simply incapable of carrying so many people. The other is to provide mobility for those without access to a car.

The focus of public transport policy should be on these two roles. They mean a different approach to public transport from that implied by the popular idea that public transport must always be provided at a level which provides a “viable alternative” to car travel. Read the rest of this entry »


– Metro Strategy: (1) what should it be?

Flashmob with a difference

The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, has apparently told The Age that preparation of the Government’s promised metropolitan strategy has started and will be completed within two years.

I’ve previously pointed out some of the areas where I think Melbourne 2030 was found wanting, so I’ll offer some thoughts on what the new strategy should be and do, starting today with what it should be.

First, it should be a strategy for managing the growth of Melbourne. It can’t just be a land use plan, limited to the Planning Minister’s domain. It has to take a multi-portfolio view because planning is only one force shaping the way Melbourne will develop over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. In particular, it must recognise the intimate long-term, two-way relationship between land use and transport, both public and private.

Second, it should positively embrace so-called ‘soft’ policies like regulation, taxation and marketing. It must not limit its perspective solely to ‘hard’ initiatives like capital works and zoning regimes. These are important because they’re long term decisions, but how Melbourne develops in the future will be shaped as much by how behaviour is managed as by what projects are constructed. There are, for example, a host of regulatory and taxation policies – e.g. road pricing – that can potentially have a profound impact on shaping the way the city develops (and not all of them are as politically fraught as road pricing). Some can obviate the need for capital works.

Third, it should focus single-mindedly on what can be done most efficiently and effectively through a growth management strategy. It should resist the temptation to ‘solve’ every economic, social and environmental issue confronting Melbourne. Sometimes what are seen as urban issues are more the symptom of other processes rather than the underlying cause – I’ve previously suggested that diversity is one such issue. It’s important that the strategy understands how it impacts on, or even exacerbates, variables like diversity, but close attention should be given to whether or not it is the appropriate vehicle to achieve change. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the Grand Prix have to be so effin’ loud?

There’s an important debate going on about the net economic benefits of the Australian Grand Prix, but what I can’t get over is the noise.

The nearest point of Albert Park is 9 km as the crow flies from my house yet today I can hear it inside. It’s not loud enough to be annoying – just part of the background hum really – but I’m astounded that I hear it at all.

That makes me wonder why F1 has to be so extremely, incredibly loud. According to the cost benefit analysis published by the Victorian Auditor General on the 2005 race, the estimated peak noise level trackside reaches 125 dB(A) and 105 dB(A) at 100 metres. The report says above 70 db (A) is annoying and 115 dB (A) can cause hearing damage, although this depends on the duration and the vulnerability of the listener.

I’ve only visited Albert Park once but that was enough – I found the noise excruciating. Ditto the Gold Coast Indycar. Even with foam ear pads plus a set of those external headphone-type sound dampeners it was still plenty loud enough. At some events the organisers also send an air force jet over at low altitude, presumably to show what real noise is!

The Auditor General reckons the impact of noise from the 2005 event ‘cost’ 12,500 neighbouring households a combined $415,000 (not that they were actually compensated!).  Households within the 70 dB (A) contour suffered an estimated disamenity of $50 per week and those within the 80 dB (A) contour – where the noise level is generally regarded as intolerable – suffered $100 per week.

I’d debate the methodology but there’s some relief coming in the 2013 season when a new ‘green’ four cylinder turbo charged engine has been mandated by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). It will be significantly quieter than the current eight cylinder engine but it seems noise is in the DNA of the sport. F1 boss Bernie Eccelstone is at loggerheads with the FIA over the change. This week he said:

I meet people worldwide in all different walks of life – sponsors, promoters and journalists – and I think there are two things that are really important for Formula One. One is Ferrari, and second is the noise. People get excited about the noise. People who have never been to a Formula One race, when they leave you ask them what they liked, and they say ‘the noise.’ It’s incredible, it really gets to you.

With serious questions being raised about the viability of the Grand Prix in Melbourne, it’s time for Bernie to embrace this change. The Auditor General found that the costs of the event exceed the economic benefits, let alone the cash outlay. Reducing the impact on residents affected by the noise footprint might help fans retain the race. In fact the sport should go further to embrace ‘green’ thinking as I argued this time last year.


-24 hours of LA traffic (animation)

Animation - 24 hours of Los Angeles traffic

This is a recently released animation of 24 hours of traffic in Los Angeles. It’s constructed from reports sent from the smartphones of Waze users. Waze is a “social mobile application providing free turn-by-turn navigation based on the live conditions on the road and driven by users”.

It starts at 4pm but really goes beserk the next day in the AM peak. As far as I can work out, red dots are concentrations of high congestion and green dots are hazards reported by Waze users.


-Was Chernobyl as tame as Andrew Bolt claims?

The West Wing on cartography and social equity

Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt glosses easily over the potential negative health implications of the troubled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor in Japan. He says too much emphasis is given to the Chernobyl disaster because, contrary to received wisdom, he maintains only 65 deaths are associated with this accident. But there’s more to it than that.

These accounts (here and here)  from Wiki indicate there are wildly varying claims about the number of deaths associated with the accident. The World Health Organisation estimated deaths at 4,000; Greenpeace at 200,000; and this Russian report, translated in 2007, says there were one million deaths, 170,000 of them in North America.

However estimates of deaths by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation are broadly consistent with Andrew Bolt’s claims. But what Bolt fails to mention, and the UN draws attention to, is the long run health implications of the accident.

For example, by 2005 there were 6,000 diagnosed cases of thyroid cancer among residents of Belarus, Ukraine and proximate parts of Russia, who were children at the time of the accident. According to the UN, it is most likely that a large fraction of these cancer cases are attributable to radioiodine intake (fortunately, thyroid cancer is usually treatable – the 30 year survival rate is 92% – but it’s a gruelling experience).

Now a new study has drawn attention to the cognitive risks of radiation exposure. Douglas Almond, a Columbia University Professor, wrote to the New York Times earlier this month pointing out that even low levels of radiation can have severe consequences for unborn children. He and his collaborators recently published a study of the effect of fallout from Chernobyl on Swedish children.

Sweden experienced radiation levels from Chernobyl that were so low they were considered safe. Almond’s team confirms that this presumption was mostly right. However they found that “Swedish students who were in utero during the accident experienced significantly lower cognitive functions, as reflected in performance on standardised tests in middle school, especially those tests that correspond best to IQ”. Read the rest of this entry »