Where are architects going with housing?

A'Beckett Tower - Winner 2011 Victorian Architect's Institute Award for multiple residential (two bed unit)

Victoria’s architects had their annual awards ceremony last Friday, handing out gongs in a range of categories. Curiously, the official AIA site shows the happy faces of the winning architects, but no pictures of the winning buildings. It should have both! Nevertheless, I finally succeeded in locating a file showing pictures of all the winning buildings in all categories – see Award Winners 2011.

Given the pressing housing issues facing our cities – like declining affordability and the need for higher densities in established suburbs – I was curious to see what the best architects in the State were doing in housing design, so I took a look at the winners in the New Residential Architecture category.

The premier honour for residential architecture in Victoria – The Harold Desbrowe-Annear Award – was won by NMBW Architecture Studio for a house in Sorrento. This is a detached house on a relatively large lot. In fact it could be is an up-market beach house.

There were three other winners in the New Residential category. Two of them – Beached House, by BKK Architects, and Westernport House, by Sally Draper Architects – are also detached houses in relatively remote (from Melbourne) locations, seemingly on even larger lots.

The only winner located in a metropolitan setting is the Law Street house, built for their own use by husband and wife architects, Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes. I like it, but architect’s own houses don’t generally provide a template for addressing the wider task of housing the population at large.

In contrast, there were only two awards for higher density housing. The premier Best Overend Award for Multiple Residential went to architects Elenberg Fraser for the A’Beckett Tower (see exhibits) and the other to Hayball architects for a three storey development in John Street, Doncaster. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is the iPhone why Gen Y love public transport?

Most commonly used iPhone passwords

The “mystery factor” driving faster patronage growth on public transport may be Gen Y’s enthusiasm for staying connected through smartphones. Speaking to a reporter from The West Australian last week, Professor Peter Newman argued that previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car, but generation Ys find freedom and flexibility by staying connected to friends, family and workplaces through information devices like laptops or iPhones (H/T Human Transit).

He went on to say: “They can stay connected on a bus or a train. They can bring the office with them. They can bring their study with them. They can’t if they’re driving”. The same news report also quotes a spokesperson from WA’s Public Transport Authority who says commuters aged between 18 and 25 years now make up 35% of all train users and 40% of all bus users, up from 30% and 38% respectively last year. As this same age group constitutes just 13% of all Australians aged over 17 years, that’s a phenomenal set of numbers.

Frankly, I’m a little sceptical about the claim that the patronage share of trains in Perth has risen five percentage points in just one year, but since I can’t find any other relevant information on the age profile of public transport users, I’ll (conditionally) go with it. However I’m in no way sceptical of the proposition that new technologies make public transport more attractive than it used to be. Like reading before it, the mobile phone was a big step forward in the 90s and now 3G means travellers can do even more things on the train or bus. Bring on free wi-fi – I hear even some stations on Sydney’s otherwise sad and sorry rail system have this facility.

I’m not convinced, though, that access to communication and entertainment technologies is the potent driver of young adult patronage that Professor Newman takes it to be. A much more likely driver, I think, is Gen Y’s falling interest in cars. It seems eminently plausible that if young adults aren’t driving as much as previous generations then they’re likely to be using public transport more. This is a topic I’ve discussed before in more detail, but in summary there is a range of reasons why members of Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2001) are driving less than previous generations. The key ones are: Read the rest of this entry »


Are SUVs killers?

Railway timetables - Monty Python does Agatha Christie

My hate-hate attitude towards SUVs hasn’t improved after reading a new US research paper, The pounds that kill, by two University of California (Berkeley) researchers. They show being in a vehicle struck by a 1,000 pound heavier one results in a 47% increase in the probability of a fatality in the smaller vehicle (the paper might be gated for some – here’s an ungated version that looks very similar).

The authors note that from 1975 to 1980, the average weight of US cars dropped from 4,060 pounds to 3,228 pounds in response to higher petrol prices. However average vehicle weight began to rise as petrol prices fell in the late 1980s and by 2005 it was back to the 1975 level. In 2008 the average car was about 530 pounds heavier than it was in 1988.

A key reason for increasing weight is the safety “arms race”. Drivers seek large vehicles because they’re thought to be much safer for occupants than smaller ones, however they are more hazardous for other travellers in smaller vehicles. As the average size of the fleet rises, there’s an incentive for all drivers concerned about safety to trade-up. The authors note the “safety benefits of vehicle weight are therefore internal, while the safety costs of vehicle weight are external”.

Safety is a key public policy issue because road accidents are as dangerous to life as lung cancer. Moreover, traffic accidents kill more Americans aged under 40 years of age than any other cause. While only as quarter as many people die on roads each year as die from lung cancer, the average age of a road accident victim is 39 years compared to 71 years for lung cancer. The aggregate years of life lost from both causes is similar.

Noting that no detailed attempt has been made to measure the external costs of vehicle weight, the authors sought to:

quantify the external costs of vehicle weight using a large micro data set on police-reported crashes for a set of 8 heterogeneous states…..The data set includes both fatal and nonfatal accidents…..The rich set of vehicle, person, and accident observables in the data set allow us to minimize concerns about omitted variables bias.

They estimate a 1,000 pound increase in striking vehicle weight raises the probability of a fatality in the struck vehicle by 47%. Moreover, they find that light trucks like SUVs, pickups and minivans “raise the probability of a fatality in the struck car – in addition to the effect of their already higher vehicle weight”. The authors suggest this additional effect could be due to the stiffer chassis and higher ride height of light trucks, or possibly to the behaviour of light truck drivers. Read the rest of this entry »


Does concern for the environment drive public transport patronage growth?

Factors affecting public transport patronage growth, 2002-07, Melbourne (DoT)

According to a recent paper, research by the Victorian Department of Transport (DoT) suggests concern for the environment and a healthy lifestyle is a key driver of the recent surge in public transport patronage in Melbourne.

DoT initially concluded that the primary drivers of growth over the period 2002-07 were population growth, higher petrol prices and growth in CBD jobs (see exhibit). Neither traffic congestion nor public transport service quality appeared to play a significant role.

However a large proportion of the patronage increase on trains – equivalent to about 40,000 extra daily passengers – was not explained by the variables and/or the elasticities that DoT assumed in its modelling. This unexplained increase is labelled “Other factors” on the exhibit.

Some research undertaken by Dot and Metlink suggested it might possibly relate to attitudinal factors. Of the top eight reasons given by respondents for reducing their vehicle use, environmental concerns and health & fitness ranked equal second behind petrol prices, but ahead of parking costs.

DoT subsequently undertook a telephone survey of 1500 Melburnians aged over 16 years, asking them about their attitudes to travel options and their existing travel patterns. Using cluster analysis, the researchers identified six main “attitudinal segments”:

Public transport lifestylers (19%) – “Using public transport as much as possible is just the right thing to do. Apart from being a part of my basic day to day life, it has the advantage of being better for the environment when compared to other transport modes”

Public transport works for me (17%) – “I value the time I spend on public transport. I get things out of using public transport that I wouldn’t with other modes”

Public transport rejecters (18%) – “I wouldn’t use public transport even if it was free”

Car works for me (16%) – “Car is the most convenient and useful way for me to get around. It’s not that I have a big problem with public transport; it’s just that it doesn’t suit me as much”

Agnostics (15%) – “I’m just not all that interested in the matter of how I get around. Some people are car people and some like public transport, but I’m not overly fussed either way. If you changed the public transport system, I probably wouldn’t even notice”

Convertibles (15%) – “I use my car mainly but am actually pretty open to using public transport more….but it will need to improve before I do”

Thus according to this research, nearly a fifth of Melburnians are now Public transport lifestylers who “align themselves with public transport due to a strong belief in environmental and sustainability issues, as well as a desire to live a healthy lifestyle”. What’s surprising is that all six segments have almost no (significant) relationship with age, gender, income, education or distance from the CBD e.g. the large Lifestylers segment is not just made up of inner city Greens voters.

While respondents in this segment don’t necessarily all use public transport, the paper concludes that “the results strongly point to attitudinal change having played a significant role in recent patronage growth”.

I’d like to, but I don’t buy the implication that this attitude is a major independent driver of patronage growth. My interpretation is that there’s a cluster of people who have green attitudes and not surprisingly also have a positive attitude to public transport. But I don’t think they’d use public transport in significantly greater numbers if it took longer or was more expensive than the alternatives. They’d use public transport for the same reasons most people do – because for some trips it’s cheaper and/or faster than the alternatives. Read the rest of this entry »


What type of housing do we prefer?

Comparison of preferred housing, existing stock and current supply (Grattan Institute)

The Herald-Sun reported last week that “the great Australian dream of owning a home on a quarter-acre block might no longer exist. Instead, Australians want more town houses and apartments in the more desirable areas”.

The important words are the last five – “in the more desirable areas”. Australians still love their big, detached houses but they also value location. The baby boomers could have a detached house on the suburban fringe and still have reasonable access to the rest of the city, but those days are vanishing. Now, people who want to live in an accessible location increasingly have to forgo space and accept a smaller dwelling, often a town house or apartment. As illustrated here, those leading this trend are young, small households without dependents – they’re less sensitive to space than families and place a higher value on density.

The Herald-Sun’s interest in this issue was sparked by a new study by the Grattan Institute, The Housing We’d Choose, on the housing preferences of residents of Sydney and Melbourne. It shows that more than half of households in these cities would rather live in a multi-unit dwelling in the right location than in a detached house in the wrong location.

This presents a serious problem for policy – the existing stock of housing no longer matches up with resident’s changing preferences. The Institute finds that a whopping 59% of Sydneysiders and 52% of Melburnians would prefer some form of multi-unit living. Yet this type of dwelling makes up only 48% and 28% respectively of the existing housing stock in the two cities (see first exhibit). Moreover, in Melbourne, developers are continuing to under-provide medium and higher density housing, leaving households with little choice other than to live in sub-optimal locations, albeit in a detached house.

I must admit I was disappointed with the Grattan Institute’s first report in its Cities series, The Cities We Need, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from The Housing We’d Choose. It’s not that there was anything technically wrong with the first report, it’s just that it seemed a curiously pointless exercise – as I noted here, it’s so high-level it didn’t take the debate on urban issues anywhere or advance the cause of better policy.

This time however the Institute has applied all those brains and resources to a meaty and relevant issue and, moreover, gone about it in a logical and determined way. While The Housing We’d Choose has some flaws, it shows up the limitations of the research being churned out by some of our local universities and lobby groups. This is the kind of study they should be examining closely.

The headline finding – that people are prepared to trade off dwelling size and type for greater accessibility – may seem self-evident, but the Institute has attempted the important task of measuring this preference. The researchers sought to simulate real life. They gave a sample of households in the two cities a range of real location, housing type and dwelling size options and asked them to make trade-offs in order to arrive at their preferred combination. The smart thing is the trade-off was constrained by real-life prices and the real incomes of respondents. Read the rest of this entry »


Is bike-share the safest way to cycle?

Abbott recants and embraces a tax on carbon - "if you want to put a price on carbon why not just do it with a simple tax?"! The Melbourne Urbanist is not politically partisan, but gives credit to any politician who shows this sort of courage! (wow, the things they can do these days with a bit of smoke and a few mirrors! Remarkable)

According to this story, riders of share-bikes are involved in fewer accidents and sustain fewer injuries than cyclists who ride their own bikes. The author provides an impressive array of examples.

In Paris, Velib riders account for a third of all bike trips but are involved in only a quarter of all bike crashes. In London, the first 4.5 million trips on the new “Boris bikes” resulted in no serious injuries, whereas the same number of trips on personal bikes injured 12 people.  The situation in Boston DC is similar:

In its first seven months of operation, Capital Bikeshare users made 330,000 trips. In that time, seven crashes of any kind were reported, and none involved serious injuries. In comparison, there were 338 cyclist injuries and fatalities overall in 2010, according to the District Department of Transportation, with an estimated 28,400 trips per weekday, 5,000 of which take place on Capital Bikeshare bikes.

So it seems likely that Melbourne Bike Share’s unloved Bixis are at least a safer way to travel than ordinary bicycles. The implication of the story is that upright bicycles may be safer than the racers and mountain bikes we’re used to in Australia. That might sound plausible on first hearing, but I’m not so sure.

What strikes me straight up about these numbers is that relative trip rates don’t provide a valid basis for comparison. The only sensible measure is “accidents per km” because it indicates the relative exposure to potential accidents. Share-bike riders pay more the longer they rent the bike, so they have an incentive to take relatively short trips. On the other hand, I think it’s very likely personal riders travel longer distances – e.g. for commuting or leisure – and accordingly have greater exposure to potential accidents.

That doesn’t “disprove” the claim that share-bikes are safer than ordinary bikes, it just says the quoted statistics don’t tell us if they are or they aren’t. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose share-bikes are safer, even if the difference is less dramatic than the quoted numbers suggest (intuitively, I suspect they actually are a bit safer on a per km basis). But if so, what is the underlying reason? Is it some intrinsic quality of share-bikes? After all, they’re heavier and therefore slower than ordinary bikes so that might explain it. Another reason might be their more upright riding position, which makes them more visible to motorists.

These explanations could have some role, but I think there are more obvious reasons why share-bikes might have a lower accident rate (if in fact they actually do). Read the rest of this entry »


Is this the end of The Age (as we know it)?

by xkcd

My family let our subscription to The Age lapse the other week. It’s not that $419 p.a. isn’t good value – we’d be prepared to pay a bit more if we had to – it’s just that no one in the household reads the print edition of the paper anymore. And we no longer have to pay anything to read The Age electronically!

My wife has a free six months subscription to the iPad version and I read the free online version. More often than not, the home-delivered paper version never got unrolled. So when the decision came to renew for another year there was no point in pouring another $419 down the drain.

Maybe if the circulation department had followed up with a sweetener we might’ve changed our mind out of habit or because the idea of not reading The Age every morning over coffee and croissants is ‘unMelburnian’. But the company didn’t seem overly bothered about losing us (unlike, for example, lean and nimble Crikey, who worked harder at getting me to resubscribe).

Fairfax is having serious problems with its papers. As I understand it, the Sydney Morning Herald is on the verge of going into the red and The Age isn’t far behind. For Melburnians, there is a high probability that The Age as we know it will disappear from newsstands sooner rather than later.

The problems for Fairfax, the company that owns these papers, started with the enormous drop in revenue from classified advertising. These were rightly called “rivers of gold”. Older Melbourne readers might remember the advertising slogan “icpota” (“in the classified pages of The Age”). Fairfax wasn’t very successful in adapting to the online world – companies like car.sales.com, seek.com and eBay stole its market dominance. Nor does the company seem much better today – only last year my Fairfax-owned local paper, the Banyule & Nillumbik Weekly, was blindsided by a newcomer, the Weekly Review, which took over virtually all its real estate advertising. This week the Fairfax paper is 20 pages (with one half-page real estate ad), the Weekly Review is 96 pages (with 79.5 pages of real estate ads).

Another problem for Fairfax is the well known shift of readers (like me) to online media. The company feels it has to have an online presence to “stay in the game” yet it’s too nervous to put up a paywall for fear it will lose readers to other online sites that stay free. It’s earning modest revenue from (awfully intrusive!) online advertising, but Fairfax’s experience with putting its third paper, the Australian Financial Review, behind a paywall hasn’t been positive. The AFR lost visibility because it couldn’t be accessed by search engines, giving newcomers like the online Business Spectator a free kick. From what I can gather, the financial situation of the AFR isn’t healthy either.

New Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood has a plan to turn around the ailing fortunes of Fairfax’s three major newspapers (BTW, Fairfax also owns other assets e.g. 3AW). It seems he’s proposing to put all three online papers behind a semi-permeable paywall where most content is free, but premium content requires payment. This approach would allow search engines access to the site but still leave scope to earn revenue from subscriptions. The New York Times recently moved in this direction – it offers 20 free views per month before requiring a subscription (although if you come to the Times by clicking a link on someone’s sites that doesn’t count toward your 20). Read the rest of this entry »