Links for urbanists – No. 4Posted: September 29, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous 4 Comments
Assorted links to some of the useful, the informative, the interesting, and sometimes even the slightly weird sources I stumble across from time-to-time:
- Ghosts of Manhattan’s Highline (and other traces of the past). Some commentary on historical opposition to elevated rail lines in NY
- Some people are very serious about No Far King Par King across their driveways!
- A brief economic explanation of peak oil
- Some links on the decline in car travel – The end of motoring and The road less travelled
- Plea to abolish train zones – from the Dandenong Leader
- US rail construction costs compared to some other places
- The magic formula for increasing transit ridership – make it hard and make it expensive to use cars
- The agglomeration benefits of Britain’s Crossrail project
- Loud s*x is a billion dollar problem
- Is Charles Darwin the real founder of economics?
- Trends in car occupancy in Australia
- Life in the fast lane – Melbourne’s laneways
- Psychogeography and the end of planning (this is about Reyner Banham and LA)
- Cities as hotels – would privately owned cities work?
- Understanding liveable city rankings
- The Bolt case is actually not the perfect opportunity to argue bravely for freedom of expression. The judgement by Bromberg J, with summary, is here.
- Higher density creates jobs and increases productivity. This report in the NY Times is adapted from a chapter in Ryan Avent’s new e-book, The Gated City. Here’s another extract, this time from The Atlantic. You can buy a copy of this excellent book to read on your computer, iPad, iPhone or Kindle for less than $2 from Amazon. I’m reading it on my iPhone in those idle moments (you don’t need a Kindle).
- A collection of reviews, comments and reactions to The Gated City, from Alex Tabarrok, Lloyd Alter (and again), Yonah Freemark, Chris Bradford, Peter Gordon, David Levinson, Jim Gleeson, and Randall O’Toole. Some follow-up comments by Ryan Avent: Urbanists and evidence; Jobs and density; Moving towards stagnation (audio); and Expensive real estate drives away people and jobs (video)
- Ryan Avent yet again, but this time reviewing the volume that started the intellectual e-book fashion, Tyler Cowen’s The great stagnation (I sought to download it for $4 from Amazon at the start of the year but was refused access – eventually got an ePub, but it was a torrent of trouble. Note that I had no territorial problems with Amazon when I bought The Gated City). Some further analysis by Noah Smith.
- Stephen Rowley reports on his visit to the village that inspired the New Urbanism, Seaside, Florida
- Architecture for developing countries – leave the ‘design’ attitude at home please
- More on the importance of density (or is it city size?) for innovation and productivity
- The perils of opening a store in Manhattan. “She also realized too late that people wouldn’t be inclined to buy a dozen Glassybabys, the way they do in Seattle, because they would have to carry them home. “In Seattle, everyone had cars so we never thought about it,” Ms. Rhodes said”
Is “per passenger km” the right metric for comparing modes?Posted: September 28, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: Alon Levy, Matt Yglesias, Michael Lewin, new urbanism, passenger kilometres, passenger miles, Pedestrian Observations, Steven Smith, Think Progress, trip distance 4 Comments
It might seem intuitively obvious that any comparisons between cars and public transport should be on a “per kilometre” basis. After all, as Steven Smith at Market Urbanism points out, “people take trips of varying length, and longer trips are more expensive than shorter trips, so the desire to standardize and compare makes us want to simply divide the trips by their length and call it even”.
However here are four observers of the US transport and planning scene who all say the concept of comparing transport modes on a per mile basis (or more correctly, per passenger mile basis) is deeply flawed. Steven Smith says both supporters and opponents of light rail use per passenger mile costs and subsidies to justify their positions, but the problem is that the purpose of transit is not to travel long distances:
These are not pleasure travellers trying to get as far from home as possible, but rather commuters trying to get to wherever their jobs and schools are located. But the distance to this “somewhere” is not a variable to be held constant – it actually varies with population and job density, which is highly correlated with mode of transit. Places with train lines generally have and allow for denser development and thus less distance between your house and your workplace or school – the difference in average commute distance between urban and exurban areas could be as much as an order of magnitude.
Michael Lewin reckons per passenger mile comparisons are flawed because they assume that trips involve the same mileage on any mode. However in the real world our choice, he says, is not between a city with a 20 mile bus commute and one with a 20 mile car commute:
Rather, our choice is: do we want to make cities more compact, thus increasing the number of short commutes (some of which will typically involve transit, for the reasons stated above) or do we want to create a relatively spread-out city with lots of long commutes (most of which will usually be by car)?
In the compact city, fewer passenger-miles will be travelled, which means that all the negative externalities of travel (e.g. pollution, collisions, public costs) will be lower. And because people will be somewhat more likely to use transit and carpool, both cars and transit vehicles will be more fuel-efficient, because cars and buses are more fuel-efficient when they have more passengers. By contrast, in the car-oriented, spread-out city, both car and transit commutes will typically be longer, and both cars and buses will have fewer passengers.
Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations is annoyed that subsidies for roads look much lower when they’re divided by the appropriate number of trillions and expressed in terms of passenger miles of travel. He says:
Passenger miles don’t vote. They’re not a unit of deservedness of subsidy. They’re one unit of transportation consumption. They’re like tons of staple as a unit of food production, or calories as a unit of consumption. We don’t subsidize food based on cents per calorie.
Even as a unit of consumption, there are flaws in passenger miles as a concept, when it comes to intermodal comparisons. The reason: at equal de facto mobility, transit riders travel shorter distances than drivers….. Transit is slower than driving on uncongested roads, but has higher capacity than any road. In addition, transit is at its best at high frequency, which requires high intensity of uses, whereas cars are the opposite. The result is that transit cities are denser than car cities – in other words, need less passenger miles.
Matt Yglesias at Think Progress reckons the concept of passenger miles is borderline incoherent and senselessly biased in favour of auto-oriented road projects:
The use of passenger miles as a unit of measures embeds the assumption that the goal of a regional intra-urban transportation system is to have people travelling as far as possible. Now you could imagine a city in which individuals, firms, structures, natural resources, etc. are just strewn about at random. If that was the case, then you probably would want to organize transportation to maximize distance travelled. People would have arbitrary transportation needs, might need to get very far away, etc. But when you’re talking about a real growing city, a focus on passenger miles just implies a focus on spreading your urban area out as widely as possible. Read the rest of this entry »
Why is Acland St becoming “Chadstone by the Bay”?Posted: September 27, 2011 Filed under: Activity centres | Tags: activity centre, Balaclava, Carol Nader, chain store, franchise, Maxine Hardinge, quirky, retail, shop, St Kilda 20 Comments
Carol Nader wrote an article in The Age on the weekend bemoaning the decline of St Kilda’s famous Acland Street. She reports there are eight shops with “for lease” signs:
The strip that used to have everything is now bereft of a newsagent and a florist. Kinki Gerlinki has shut down and the Quick Brown Fox has moved to the Balaclava end of Carlisle Street. The Vibe cafe a few doors down from the iconic Cicciolina restaurant is gone.
With the closure of “cool and quirky” fashion and vintage clothes shops in Carlisle and Barkley streets, she counts 12 empty shops in the village precinct.
Ms Nader’s main emphasis is on the current poor economic climate for retailing, but a letter writer to The Age, Maxine Hardinge, reckons the rot set in long ago. She says St Kilda “was sold to the devil 20 years ago when McDonald’s and other chain stores started the ”creep”. The morph into Chadstone-by-the-Bay has long been complete”.
Sadly, the same thing is happening in Balaclava, with Priceline, Crust, Telechoice, Kinki Gerlinki, Flight Centre, 7-Eleven, Quick Brown Fox, Subway, Urban Burger etc gradually squeezing out the independent retailers.
Ms Hardinge says council should cap the number of chain stores and favour independent retailers, otherwise “the particular flavour of the suburb – that thing that attracts people to live and shop there”, will be lost.
Like these writers, I would be disappointed to see the special character and personality of these villages fade away. I’d prefer an Acland Street “where an Italian deli sits between a Middle Eastern bakery and an antiques shop”. I’d like to think St Kilda’s cake shops will be there forever.
However the idea that a council should manage the mix of uses in a centre, as if it were a mall under its management, is an idea that – to put it as politely as I can – is well ahead of its time.
It should be self-evident that the 7-Eleven’s and their ilk are moving into these villages because there’s a demand for them. They’re attracting customers more successfully and generating larger profits than the shops they’ve replaced (or, less charitably, squeezed out). The customers of Acland Street have spoken and the chains appear to be winning.
While St Kilda has enough “hip” inhabitants to give it a cool profile, it seems those who want a village of cool, quirky and traditional shops are actually in the minority. This might seem surprising but, as the My School debacle showed, drill down below the average and most places will reveal many residents in different age, family status, educational and income strata.
Many of these people have what the writers might think of as common tastes. St Kilda has long-standing residents who have no interest in the special character of the village. It has many newcomers attracted by the vibrancy of the place but whose interests are decidedly plebeian, even bogan.
Much as I personally would love to see the diversity of places like Acland Street preserved, resorting to regulation as Ms Hardinge proposes is not only impractical, but inequitable. It would give priority to the interests of what appears to be a minority.
Ironically, the sort of transition she fears has parallels with the way many fashionable inner city areas got their “cool” in the first place. The gentrifying yuppies of the 60s, 70s and 80s profoundly changed the living circumstances of the working class populations in inner city neighbourhoods.
For example, not so long ago all those boutique hotels in places like Fitzroy and Sydney’s Surry Hills were old fashioned drinking establishments, frequented largely by older men. Gentrification brought unaffordable bar prices, unsympathetic fellow patrons, and eventually no admittance. Not to mention higher rents, noisy parties, parking problems, and more. Read the rest of this entry »
Would Seaside work in outer suburban Melbourne?Posted: September 26, 2011 Filed under: Housing, Planning | Tags: Florida, new urbanism, Seaside, The Truman Show 13 Comments
When I first saw pictures of Seaside many years ago, I imagined that’s what the outer suburbs of Melbourne could look like one day. Click on the picture and go for a “walk” around the Florida village that had a key role in inspiring the New Urbanism movement. Seaside is famous – you might know it from its role in The Truman Show or from its distinctive array of “story book” houses.
Although the houses are detached, you’ll see many of the key ideas of New Urbanism in Seaside, including houses that open up to neighbourly streets and paths, have no garages and are within an easy walk of the town centre. Keep an eye out for walking paths. Given the kind of detached housing that’s being built today in Australian cities, I find it extraordinary that the first stage of Seaside was started 30 years ago!
It doesn’t push all the New Urbanism buttons. For example, the range of dwelling types is pretty limited and there’s not much evidence of transit orientation (it’s not a commuter village). Nevertheless, average density approaches the aspirational 25 dwellings per hectare, well in excess of the 15 dwellings per hectare promoted in Melbourne 2030 and in new fringe structure plans like the one for Toolern, near Melton.
For my money, the key reason Seaside has such broad popular appeal is the two and three storey detached “Hansel and Gretel” houses, with their faux widow’s walks and sometimes extravagant follies. Some architects however find it twee – they wince at the sentimentality and overwrought quaintness of the place.
I think it also appeals because of the determination of the architects to eliminate garages. This enables living areas to be placed at the front within a conversation’s distance of the sidewalk. It captures a half-forgotten notion of neighbourliness and conjures romantic images like promenading.
This contrasts with the practice in Melbourne where both new suburban houses and traditional inner city terraces tend to put bedrooms at the front and the main living areas at the rear (only apartments and older suburban houses seem to have living areas facing the street, although they’re usually set way back from the front boundary).
A parallel with Melbourne though is the limited area of private open space. I hear frequent condemnation of big houses with small yards in Melbourne’s outer suburbs (as if buyers can’t make their own decisions about what size yard they want!) but the area of private open space in Seaside looks positively miniscule. As with apartment dwellers, I’d expect the quality of the public realm is an important offset.
As a possible model for Australian suburbia, it’s important to get Seaside in context. It’s not a big place – it only covers
about 50 32 hectares (the part of Fishermans Bend mooted for redevelopment is 200 Ha) and has around 500 houses. (Update: the whole area though, including very similar contiguous developments, is about 100 Ha with 1,000 or more houses – see Comments). Also, it’s essentially a beachside resort for people who are well-off. Many of the houses are rented to holiday makers and in that sense it functions more like the swank residential areas close to Hastings Street in Noosa than the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney.
Like Noosa, it’s a long way from the nearest major urban centre. Dwellings are architect-designed and costly to build – properties at Seaside have sold for as much as $5 million (presumably ones on the beachfront). Further, I suspect a major reason there are so few cars in the streets is that holiday makers fly in and have no need to drive in what is essentially a self-contained resort. The town centre seems improbably built-up for 500 dwellings and that could be because this is a tourist town, drawing visitors from well beyond Seaside’s border.
I can imagine something like Seaside working on old brownfield sites in Melbourne like Fishermans Bend and E-Gate, but what would happen if it were transplanted to the suburban fringe? Read the rest of this entry »
Should the war on obesity be a key objective of transport policy?Posted: September 24, 2011 Filed under: Education, justice, health, Public transport | Tags: diabetes, health, Lennert Veerman, National Transport Commission, obesity, Parliamentary inquiry into environmental design and public health in Victoria, Planning Institute of Australia, Public transport, transport policy 24 Comments
I know people who have the option of driving but instead take the train so they can improve their physical fitness. It takes longer than driving, but since they’re going to work anyway, walking to the station is an easy way to exercise. It makes good sense; I’ve walked or cycled to work at various times for the same reason.
However it’s one thing to make a private choice to use public transport in order to exercise – it’s another thing altogether to elevate the war on obesity and other health issues, as a matter of public policy, to the status of a key goal of the transport system. That’s what organisations like the Planning Institute and the National Transport Commission propose, but it’s not self-evident to me that it’s a good idea. It’s worth thinking about it further.
There’s a paradox here. The very point of public transport is to extend personal mobility. At the end of the nineteenth century when everyone other than the very wealthy walked, the arrival of trams and trains greatly enriched people’s lives by overcoming the limitations of walking. Now they could travel further to better jobs or better houses, take the family to the beach on Sunday, or visit friends and relatives in more distant suburbs. The whole point of public transport was to travel faster than walking so people could travel further in the same time.
The panoply of exercise-related issues like obesity are not a transport problem, they’re a social problem. They’re a result of eating more and of expending less effort in all aspects of life, not just in the way we travel. It’s true we are much more likely today to drive than walk, cycle or use public transport, but the avoidance of effort is true of almost everything we do.
Most of us work in jobs that don’t involve anything even remotely like the level of physical effort expended by the average worker of a few generations ago. If we did, Occ Health and Safety would have a fit. On the home front, we’ve had “labour saving” devices like refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners for generations. Television and home delivered newspapers mean we don’t even need to go out to get information and entertainment.
Consider the giant strides we’ve made in avoiding exertion over the last twenty years. Computers have eliminated the effort of going to the bank, the booking office, the travel agent or the bookshop. We blow leaves rather than rake them, we use power tools to drive nails and screws, we answer the phone without getting out of our seat, and we cook meals without having to prepare them. We control our air conditioners, central heating, TVs and sound systems with remotes. Climate control means our bodies don’t even consume much energy to keep warm – many children barely know what it means to shiver.
The decline of effort pervades all aspects of our lives, not just how we travel. For better or worse, it’s one of the ways we define progress. So transport – and that essentially means the car – is only one part of the health problem.
And in fact it’s a relatively small part, because the main cause of obesity is what we eat, not how little we exercise. It’s likely to be far more effective to target food than public transport.
Lennert Veerman, Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University’s School of Population Health, points to a recent study which argues the main force driving the obesity pandemic is an increase in consumption. He says the 1970s was:
When the food supply started to change radically. The supply of refined carbohydrates and fat increased and more food was mass prepared rather than cooked at home. The era of easily available, cheap, tasty, highly promoted, energy-dense foods had begun. This view of the causes of the rise in obesity prevalence suggests the likely solutions lie in the area of the supply and promotion of food. And research supports that notion.
He says if governments are serious about tackling obesity their priority should be food. They should tax unhealthy food, limit advertising and restrict availability in schools. He also says healthy food should be subsidised. Read the rest of this entry »
Are cul-de-sacs a dead end?Posted: September 22, 2011 Filed under: Planning | Tags: cul de sac, new urbanism, permeability, Toolern, walkability, Wesley Marshall 8 Comments
The New Urbanism hates cul-de-sacs – they’re emblematic of much that’s wrong with car-oriented suburban cities, including poor walkability, low transit provision, long travel distances, “excessive” demand for privacy, and even low social capital.
I might be in a minority, but I’m an admirer of cul-de-sacs. They’ve been around for thousands of years for good reason. I grew up in what in my day was called a “dead end”, 6 km from the city centre. I lived in a terraced mews in Sydney for six years, just 1 km from the Town Hall. I now live in a seven property cul-de-sac developed in the 1950s, 8 km from Melbourne town hall.
The great advantage of cul-de-sacs is they have no through traffic, so they’re quieter and it’s safer for children to play outside on the street. As long as they’re not too long, they can create a sense of place and possibly promote greater social interaction among residents too (although it’s not clear how much of that’s due to the cul-de-sac form; to lower traffic levels; or in some cases to joint ownership of common property). It’s also a matter of no little importance that residents seem to like them.
Another claim is cul-de-sacs reduce infrastructure costs significantly compared to a grid plan. Further, they “allow greater flexibility than the common grid in adapting to the natural grades of a site and to its ecologically sensitive features, such as streams, creeks and mature forest growth”.
Cul-de-sacs are popularly associated with outer suburban developments and that’s why they get such a bad rap. However they can work in a range of urban contexts. They’ve often been used in inner city traffic calming schemes (where they’re called “street closures”). Large, higher density redevelopment projects like this one in Brisbane use what is essentially the cul-de-sac form to give access to dwellings without a street frontage. Yarra Bank Court in Abbotsford would be better with pedestrian access for residents at the far end but is otherwise a delightful “dead end”.
According to critics, the key disadvantage of suburban cul de sacs is they create a circuitous road system, necessitating longer travelling distances. This discourages walking and increases the cost of providing public transport when compared to a traditional grid pattern.
It’s true that many older suburban estates are relatively impermeable. However as inner city street closures show, it is quite easy to design cul-de-sacs that are open for pedestrians but not cars. It’s also quite simple to have a 1 or 1.5 km rectilinear grid of main roads for buses (e.g. see Toolern) with cul-de-sacs confined to “filling in” each square.
I think the main reason cul-de-sacs are demonised by new urbanists is because they’re conflated with the problems of outer suburban development. Consider this quote from Wesley Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado:
A lot of people feel that they want to live in a cul-de-sac, they feel like it’s a safer place to be. The reality is yes, you’re safer – if you never leave your cul-de-sac. But if you actually move around town like a normal person, your town as a whole is much more dangerous.
Professor Marshall says fatal accident rates are lower in areas with a traditional grid pattern, but he makes an elementary mistake. The traditional areas are older – they don’t have fewer fatal accidents because of their street morphology but because they’re denser, with more mixed development, more traffic and slower travel speeds than outer suburban areas. The primary “culprit” here isn’t the cul-de-sac, it’s the lower density and monoculture of the newer suburbs.
The same article says “people who live in more sparse, tree-like communities drive about 18 percent more than people who live in dense grids”. Again, that’s primarily because of differences in density. For example, destinations are further apart in outer suburbs so residents are less likely to walk or cycle. Given the article refers to the US experience, it’s possible, even likely, that differences in income between the two areas are an important explanatory factor too. At least this time the writer talks about “sparse” communities rather than specifically fingering cul-de-sacs. Read the rest of this entry »
Has spare infrastructure capacity in the inner city disappeared?Posted: September 21, 2011 Filed under: Education, justice, health | Tags: capacity, Coburg High School, gentrification, Infrastructure, Inner city, outer suburbs 12 Comments
The received wisdom is it costs much less to provide infrastructure for an inner suburban dwelling than for one in the outer suburbs. However, as I noted last time, we don’t know how big the difference is or even, for that matter, if it’s positive or negative – we simply lack reliable evidence.
There are reasons, however, to suspect the savings in infrastructure outlays associated with urban consolidation might be much less than is widely thought. It’s plausible that the popular claim of an $85,000 per dwelling saving could be well off the mark (note I’m only talking in this post about the capital cost of infrastructure, not the economic costs and benefits of a fringe vs central location).
From the time urban consolidation was first seriously put on the table in Australia as a policy option, a key premise was the availability of ‘spare’ infrastructure capacity in the inner city. This part of the city had previously supported larger working class and migrant populations, so there was ‘free’ infrastructure to be had in support of a restoration of earlier population levels.
There’s not much sense in assuming any capacity is free (it all has to be paid for) but looking from the perspective of 2011, there are reasons to question if there actually is any spare physical capacity left, at least in relation to some types of infrastructure.
A key reason is a lot of whatever spare infrastructure capacity existed has already been used up by gentrification. At the 2006 Census, there were 36,488 more residents in the inner city of Melbourne than there were in 1976 (and 76,422 more than when the inner city was at its lowest ebb in 1991). In fact of the 31 municipalities in metropolitan Melbourne, only the City of Moreland and the adjacent City of Darebin had significantly fewer residents in 2006 than in 1976 – Moreland had 14,585 fewer and Darebin 17,137 fewer. That is not a lot in the context of projections Melbourne will grow from a current population of four million to seven million by circa 2049.
Even where there are fewer residents today than in the past, they might still have a much larger “infrastructure footprint” than their predecessors. Modern households have many more resource-intensive devices like flat panel TVs, air conditioners, heaters, computers, spas, and so on, than their predecessors. They have more cars than former residents, so there’s less room for parking. They also have higher standards – the primary school that used to accommodate 300 kids in six or seven classrooms now has to build twelve to handle the same enrolment.
Moreover, households today are smaller on average, so they have fewer ‘economies of scale’ in resource consumption than earlier generations. Two households of three persons each use more gas for heating than they would if the same six residents shared a single dwelling. Gentrifying households are also wealthier on average than the sorts of households who used to live in the inner city and inner suburbs 30 to 40 years ago. On a per capita basis, wealthier households consume more of just about everything worth having. Again, that will require more infrastructure capacity.
Thus it’s possible infrastructure in some locations could be at or above capacity even with a much lower population than those places housed in the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »
Are infrastructure costs higher on the fringe?Posted: September 20, 2011 Filed under: Infrastructure | Tags: Assessing the costs of alternative development paths in Australian cities, Darren Bilsborough, dwellings, Future Perth, Housing, infrastructure costs, Inner city, Peter Newman, Roman Trubka, suburbs 3 Comments
The exhibit above purports to show that the cost of infrastructure associated with building a new dwelling within 10 km of the CBD of a city like Melbourne is, on average, $50,503. In contrast, it costs $136,401 to provide infrastructure for an outer suburban dwelling i.e. located more than 40 km from the CBD. That’s a huge difference: $85,538 per dwelling.
The figures come from a 2007 report, Assessing the costs of alternative development paths in Australian cities, written by three Curtin University academics, Roman Trubka, Peter Newman and Darren Bilsborough. I’ve mentioned this report before, but that was primarily in the context of The Age and some public sector agencies tending to conflate economic costs with infrastructure outlays (they’re not the same!).
The figures above however are solely infrastructure outlays (not economic costs). Judging by the extent to which Trubka et al’s report is cited by government agencies, there appears to be strong demand for this type of information. It seems, however, that these are the only numbers on this topic around. That’s unfortunate because they have some very serious shortcomings as an indicator of the relative cost of providing infrastructure in inner and outer locations.
The key deficiencies are they’re old; they don’t relate to Melbourne; and they’re not transparent. Trubka et al sourced them from a 2001 report, Future Perth, prepared by the WA Planning Commission to assess infrastructure costs in Perth. Future Perth didn’t calculate its estimates from first principles but rather surveyed 22 earlier studies, some dating from as far back as 1972 and some relating to costs in the USA and Canada.
Future Perth is a working paper and hasn’t been published – hence the rigour of its methodology and those of the 22 studies it drew from hasn’t been tested. Unfortunately, Trubka et al provide scant explanation of their infrastructure estimates, relying instead on a reference to Future Perth.
I can’t say for sure the Trubka et al estimates are wrong, but I can say they’re unlikely to be right. I can also say they’re far too flaky to be relied upon to guide significant policy or investment decisions here in Melbourne. There’s clearly a demand for this sort of information so it would be sensible for the State Government to undertake its own rigorous and up-to-date assessment of the costs of metropolitan infrastructure provision.
Although not as decisive as the shortcomings discussed above, I also have some issues with how Trubka et al have set up their cost comparison. Actually, because the report doesn’t elaborate much on the various infrastructure items, I’ll treat these as questions, or areas that need clarification. Read the rest of this entry »
Is the Transport Department coming out on outcomes?Posted: September 19, 2011 Filed under: Management, Public transport | Tags: Annual Report, car occupancy, Central Activities Area, Department of Transport, DOT Plan: 2010 Update, Herald Sun, outcome performance, Peter Rolfe, travel, trip length 2 Comments
I don’t ordinarily read annual reports but this story in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun acknowledged its source was the Victorian Department of Transport’s 2010-11 annual report. The newspaper noted a 3.4% increase in reported crime on Victoria’s public transport system in 2009-10. Much to my surprise, the paper acknowledged up front that patronage had also increased over the period, by 1.6%. That’s a pertinent qualification but it surprised me that a News-owned tabloid bothered to make it. Well done to the Hun and reporter Peter Rolfe – a big tick!
Looking at the performance outcomes section of the annual report, I see the Department’s been clever – its performance indicator for reported crime against the person is effectively the change in offences minus the change in patronage growth. Bit hard to ignore that and it certainly helps to put the crime figure in perspective.
This got me wondering what progress the Department is making in dealing with crime on public transport. What, I wondered, is the trend? How does the latest figure compare with the previous year? This was when I discovered some serious deficiencies in the way the Department reports on outcomes.
A key shortcoming is the annual report fails to give the previous year’s outcome figure. So, for example, the report tells us that the total volume of freight carried by rail in Victoria increased by 8.31 billion tonne-kilometres in the most recent year for which data is available, but provides no indication of whether that is an improvement on the trend or a deterioration. What is the reader to make of this number?
Similarly, bicycle path use increased 2.8% and rail capacity utilisation in the morning peak grew by 9.7%, but in neither case is there a figure on the previous year’s outcome. This is in stark contrast with the financials, which use the convention of showing 2011’s numbers against the previous years. The examples I’ve cited aren’t isolated cases – none of the performance outcome results show the previous year.
The importance of context is shown by the Herald-Sun’s report. Peter Rolfe did some legwork and found reported crime dropped 10% in the previous year, while patronage grew 6%. That’s much better than the latest year’s 3.4% vs 1.6%, suggesting a marked deterioration in performance. Although he failed to acknowledge the difference between the two years might in part be due to increased policing (a cross!), he nevertheless illustrates the value of having something against which to compare performance measures.
Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the Department’s annual report get worse. While each indicator has a target “increase” or “reduction”, most of the “results” actually provide a snapshot or balance statistic – they don’t show the change. For example, one outcome indicator purports to show the increase in the proportion of trips starting or ending in Central Activities Areas (CAA). But what we’re told is that 3% of trips started or ended in CAAs in 2009-10. That’s valuable information in its own right, but it’s not telling us if the Department is succeeding on this indicator. It’s not telling us if there was an increase. It’s not telling us what the indicator says it tells us!
Another example is the target to reduce fuel consumption of petrol vehicles – the result is given as 11.4 litres per vehicle kilometre, but again there’s no indication whether things are getting better or getting worse. Likewise, the result for the car occupancy rate indicator is 1.2 persons (it’s meant to reduce); the greenhouse emissions of the vehicle fleet is 384 g/km (it’s meant to reduce); the average weight carried per freight vehicles is 4.19 tonnes (it’s meant to increase); and so on – but do these represent an improvement or a deterioration on the trend?
This is not a minor issue. Of the 34 indicators that claim to show an “increase” in good things or a “reduction” in bad things, 20 do not even attempt to show how they’ve changed. They’re all snapshots. Experts will in many cases know the context but annual reports are prepared for parliamentarians and for the people. Read the rest of this entry »
Why do outer suburban streets look so bland?Posted: September 18, 2011 Filed under: Planning | Tags: Bass Coast Shire Council, development, Housing, Matthew Guy, mcmansion, streetscape, Ventnor Phillip Island 10 Comments
Critics are gunning for Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, following his decision to rezone 5.7 Ha of farmland at Ventnor, Phillip Island, for residential use despite the opposition of Bass Coast Shire Council. The rights and wrongs of the Minister’s decision is no doubt a fascinating topic, however my present interest is in the way this land is likely to be developed.
I got to thinking about that after reading a letter in the paper on Saturday from the owner of a beach house at Ventnor, expressing the “hope that this natural wonderland does not become transformed into a home of little courts, high fences, and narrow streets filled with the McMansions of suburbia”.
I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were him – there’s got to be a much better than even chance that any new residential development will end up looking more like nearby Manna Gum Drive (see exhibit) than the more traditional ‘beach houses’ of Ventnor. In fact even that seems optimistic – given the enormous decline in average lot sizes in recent years, a more probable scenario could be this development in Melton.
He can probably rest easy about his fear of McMansions though. Two storey behemoths are likely to be too expensive for most Ventnor newcomers – it’ll probably be single storey brick veneers with low tile roofs and two car garages.
Being near the beach doesn’t faze the standard suburban form – it’s ubiquitous. Drive 100 metres back from the beach in large parts of the sub-tropical Sunshine Coast or Gold Coast, close your eyes, and you could as easily be in the bland streets of Melton or Campbelltown. You’ll even have the same experience in tropical Cairns.
I expect they all look much the same because the economics of land development and cottage building produces the same solution everywhere. Affordable lots are 500–700 sq metres with high fences for privacy. The houses look more or less the same because the home building industry is pretty efficient at churning out economically priced detached houses in low-maintenance brick veneer.
As with most mass produced items built to a price, the scope for differentiation isn’t high, often just a tweak of the front facade. Buyers can have something markedly different if they want – they might, for example, commission an architect – but they’ll have to pay a lot more for the advantages of a bespoke design. But that’s just not an option for the vast bulk of buyers in areas like Melton and, I daresay, Ventnor.
A key reason streets in fringe suburbs look so boring and nondescript to sophisticated eyes is their relative youth – trees planted in the nature strip haven’t had time to take off and residents haven’t yet established front gardens. Many streets in established suburbs were bland once too. The streets of Eaglemont and Ivanhoe doubtless looked pretty insipid at first with their small brick and tile houses, but generations of zealous gardeners cultivating their front yards and nature strips have created, in effect, a completely new streetscape.
Yet there are many streets in established suburbs like this one in Keysborough which are still pretty uninspiring despite the advantages of maturity. This relatively young street in Melton looks like it’s lost some street trees already and parts of the nature strip have become a parking lot. Here’s another newish one in Melton where the front yards don’t even pretend to be gardens – they’re all driveway and low maintenance ground cover. And most of the houses on this street on the Sunshine Coast were built at least 30 years ago (in fact some have been redeveloped) yet apart from a few desultory palms, trees with scale aren’t very common. Read the rest of this entry »
Can selection bias shoot down an argument?Posted: September 17, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: Alex Tabarrok, Francis Bacon, invisibility of worshippers, John D Cook, Marc Gawley, Marginal Revolution, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, selection bias, statistics, The Endeavour 4 Comments
Urban policy is rich in opportunities for fallacious thinking – for example, surveys that purport to show huge latent demand for a particular mode of transport, but sample only users of that mode. So I’m always interested in new examples of where we can so easily go wrong.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution recently provided a pointer to this great historical example by John D. Cook of the importance of selection bias. It isn’t specifically related to urban policy, but nevertheless provides a valuable lesson. Cook says:
During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armour to their bombers. After analysing the records, he recommended adding more armour to the places where there was no damage!
According to Cook, while it seems backward at first, Wald realised his data came from bombers that hadn’t been shot down:
That is, the British were only able to analyse the bombers that returned to England; those that were shot down over enemy territory were not part of their sample. These (surviving) bombers’ wounds showed where they could afford to be hit. Said another way, the undamaged areas on the survivors showed where the lost planes must have been hit because the planes hit in those areas did not return from their missions.
Wald assumed that the bullets were fired randomly, that no one could accurately aim for a particular part of the bomber. Instead they aimed in the general direction of the plane and sometimes got lucky. So, for example, if Wald saw that more bombers in his sample had bullet holes in the middle of the wings, he did not conclude that Nazis liked to aim for the middle of wings. He assumed that there must have been about as many bombers with bullet holes in every other part of the plane but that those with holes elsewhere were not part of his sample because they had been shot down.
Here’s another example via Marc Gawley, who noted a BBC story implying that three quarters of those committing crimes during the London riots had previous convictions or cautions. Is that really true, he wonders, or:
is it that those with previous convictions have their details on a police database and it was therefore possible to identify (and find) those people based on images from photographs and recordings made last month? Read the rest of this entry »
Is Melbourne pushing the boundary (too far)?Posted: September 15, 2011 Filed under: Planning | Tags: CSIRO, density, Geosciences Australia, image, La Nina, satellte, sprawl, suburbs, urban growth Leave a comment
Geosciences Australia has released a new series of satellite images comparing the extent of development in Melbourne in 1988 with 2010. Click on the image above to go to Geosciences Australia’s web site where you can do a “swipe” comparison of the two images i.e. move the cursor across the image to progressively reveal the second image underneath.
According to a report in The Age, the images show a “massive” increase in urban sprawl, with Melbourne’s urban footprint surging to the north, west and south-east. Melbourne has “marched into surrounding rural landscapes” and its “unofficial boundary is now more than 150 km east to west”.
Melbourne has certainly expanded at the fringe over the last 22 years, there’s no doubt about that. However I’ve argued before that both the extent of sprawl and its downsides are routinely exaggerated, so I want to have a closer look at these images and at The Age’s interpretation.
One thing that struck me straight up is that any comparison of the two satellite images can be misleading unless the viewer appreciates Melbourne was still suffering the effects of a long drought in 2010 (compare the size of the dams in each year). So areas that appear to have gone from green to brown between 1988 and 2010 might reflect lack of rain, rather than an increase in development.
In fact 1988 was an unusual year. There was a La Nina event in 1988-89 – the first since 1973-76 – and hence there were wetter than normal conditions. Have a look at this older CSIRO comparison of satellite images of Melbourne in 1972 and 1988, and note the CSIRO cautions that 1972 was much drier than 1988.
It should also be borne in mind that 22 years is a reasonably long period in urban development terms. We shouldn’t be surprised to see substantial change when a metropolitan area is growing. Have a look at these images to see how spectacularly some other growing cities have changed in the course of 20 years.
The level of growth also needs to be considered. Melbourne’s population grew from circa 3.1 million to around 4 million between 1988 and 2010. That’s an increase of about 30%, which is considerably more than the apparent increase in the size of the urbanised area. That’s to be expected, as a large proportion of population growth – currently approaching half – is accommodated within the existing urban fabric via redevelopment.
And then there’s The Age’s claim that Melbourne’s urban footprint spreads “more than 150 km east to west”. It doesn’t. Using GIS, I measure at most 75 km from the western edge of Wyndham to Lilydale in the east and 85 km to Pakenham in the south-east. If I measure instead from Melton (putting aside that it’s separated by 9 km of green wedge from the continuously urbanised area), I still get less than 80 km to Lilydale and less than 100 km to Pakenham. Some might think that’s still too big, but it’s a lot less than 150 km plus. Read the rest of this entry »
9/11: Should America move on?Posted: September 13, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: 9/11, Ground Zero, memorial, Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson, World Trade Centre 11 Comments
It’s a very brave or very insensitive American who would publicly question his nation’s entire 9/11 memorial project on the day of the tenth anniversary. Yet just a few days ago, on the morning of 11 September, US economist Robin Hanson began his internationally popular blog, Overcoming Bias, by complaining that half the comics in his Sunday paper “are not-funny 9/11 memorials”.
I did my own mawkish 9/11 ‘memorialising’ last time (the video On the transmigration of souls), so I too was guilty of dishing out largely uninformative and non-analytical content on this occasion. But Professor Hanson has a much bigger message (the links are his):
In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration….
Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.
Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.
Just to really drive home his point, Professor Hanson updated his post with a link to news agency Aljazeera, which featured an article Let’s forget 9/11 by American Tom Engelhardt, author of The American way of war: how Bush’s wars became Obama’s and The end of victory culture.
Not surprisingly, given this was 11 September, some comments from readers were pretty direct:
This will, sadly, be the last time I read your blog.
You, Mr. Hanson, are an idiot. You have no conception of mythos or national dignity. Good bye, sir.
Robin, you’re “fricking” out of your mind.
A co-worker used to have a little sign in her office: Most people know how to remain silent. Few people know when.
Some other comments took issue with his basic argument:
Insensitivity will not stop people from being affected by some tragedies more than others.
Human nature is to attach greater significance to things that are close to us and have evoked personal feelings, rather than basing it on magnitude alone. And there is nothing wrong with that. Your moralizing is no better than the ridiculous moralizing that has gone on in the past ten years in reaction to 9/11. Everyone has their story to tell; yours involves looking down on the natural human reaction to a dramatic event. That is all.
Defence against terrorists, not solidarity with victims, explains the “pissing away” of three trillion dollars.
You cannot reasonably expect this sort of brazen and demented contrarianism to induce readers in search of a new moral framework to think, “hrm, maybe I’ll give this utilitarianism thing a whirl and see where it takes me!”
Might as well forget about the Holocaust too. In the bigger scheme of things, what were only 6M Jews?
But quite a few comments were supportive of Professor Hanson’s view:
I think what Robin is saying is that the response to 9/11 didn’t do any of the things that the “leaders” who pushed those responses said those responses were going to do. What those responses did do was piss away $3 Trillion (and counting), kill a bunch of US soldiers, and squander the “good will” of the rest of the world while committing great evils; the killing of many Iraqi civilians, the strengthening of al Qaeda and the bankrupting of the US economy.
If only one 1/100 of the social capital spent on 9/11 remembrance was spent on organ markets… I would expect more than 100x as many lives would have been saved compared to any anti-terrorist measures implemented because of 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »
Should scooters and motor cycles have a bigger role in cities?Posted: September 12, 2011 Filed under: Cars & traffic | Tags: 2WMV, motor cycles, Paris, scooters, Two Wheel Motorised Vehicles, Velib 16 Comments
I’ve argued before that scooters and motorcycles should play a much bigger part in meeting our future transport needs if the cost of motoring increases dramatically in real terms (here and here). That’s because Two Wheel Motorised Vehicles (2WMVs) are cheap to buy, they’re economical to run and they offer many of the advantages of a car, including on-demand convenience and speed. Moreover they’re easy to park and can be threaded through traffic.
We know 2WMVs are very popular in countries like Vietnam where vehicle purchase and running costs are very high relative to incomes, yet they don’t have a high profile in discussions within Australia about how to deal with peak oil and climate change. Because of their low fuel use, small 2WMVs with efficient, clean engines should garner greater attention as a more sustainable transport option.
A new study published earlier this year, The unpredicted rise of motor cycles: a cost-benefit analysis, might help to give more prominence to the two wheel powered option. It shows use of 2WMVs grew strongly in Paris from the start of the new century, when real oil prices began to rise.
Pierre Kopp from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris-1) found the number of passenger kilometres travelled by 2WMVs increased 36% in Paris between 2000 and 2007*. This was much higher than other modes – rail grew 12% and bus and car fell 21% and 24% respectively. By 2007, 2WMVs accounted for 16% of all road passenger kms in Paris (up from circa 10% in 2000), more than double the share of buses.
The growth in 2WMV use was primarily at the expense of public transport. Of the 380 million additional passenger kms attributable to 2WMVs, a fifth were generated by existing riders travelling more and 27% by travellers transferring from cars. However more than half (53%) came at the expense of public transport.
This is not surprising given the evidence the author presents for the point-to-point time savings offered by 2WMVs over all other modes. Within Paris, they are 46% faster than cars and 50% faster than the Metro. Within the suburbs of the metropolis, they are 39% faster than cars and 34% faster than the RER.
The author calculates the switch from cars to 2WMVs generated an annual travel time saving worth €93 million. He subtracts higher accident, pollution and other costs, giving a net benefit of €102 million. The net benefit from those who switched to 2WMVs from public transport is €62 million. In contrast, the share of the additional 2WMV travel generated by existing riders has a net cost of €3.7 million (mostly reflecting the absence of the sort of dramatic time savings obtained by those who switched from relatively slow cars, trains and buses).
Parisians who switch to 2WMVs are motivated primarily by time savings rather than fuel costs. On the other hand, the main deterrent is safety (interestingly, the big cost component by far is minor accidents rather than serious ones or fatalities). The importance of safety is illustrated by the fact that all the value of the extra trips taken by existing riders was cancelled out by higher accident costs.
The total €160 million net benefit from increased 2WMV travel over the period was achieved with little official support, according to the author. For example, parking for 2WMVs is limited and the number of parking fines doubled over the last seven years. The author contrasts the relatively high level of expenditure on infrastructure aimed at making cycling safer with the paucity of expenditure on 2WMVs, even though, he says, cycling accounts for a mere 0.8% of all road travel (and 6 deaths p.a.) in Paris whereas 2WMVs account for 16% (and 21 deaths p.a.).
I think it’s unfortunate that bicycles and 2WMVs are cast in competing roles for funding, but it’s nevertheless puzzling why small capacity 2WMVs (I exclude big motor bikes) have such a low profile in public policy as a relatively sustainable transport option. This seems as true in Australia as it apparently is in Paris.
It’s puzzling because 2WMVs have many advantages. Compared to bicycles they can travel longer distances, are harder to steal, are more accessible to those who are infirm, can carry a passenger and goods, and riders don’t need to take a shower. Compared to public transport they’re faster point-to-point, they’re private, most of the financial cost is borne by the owner, and they offer on-demand availability. And compared to cars they use less fuel and can handle congested conditions better. Read the rest of this entry »
Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?Posted: September 10, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: architecture, competition, Federation Square, Flinders Street station, Major Projects Unit, Melbourne Metro, Southbank 17 Comments
It now seems clear the Government’s Flinders Street Station Design Competition is about much more than merely restoring the station to its former glory. This could be a redevelopment project, albeit one that respects heritage values. According to this statement from Major Projects Victoria, the Government will be looking for:
The best ideas from around the world to re-energise the station and its surrounds while making sure critical heritage values are maintained. Designs will be expected to address the station’s transport function, heritage requirements, urban design and integration with its surrounds as well as providing a value for money construction proposal.
At first glance a design competition seems like a good idea, but on further reflection I’m not so sure.
Architectural competitions have several advantages. If they’re open to all comers they allow for a range of interpretations of the brief and are more likely to draw in unusual, spectacular and ‘left field’ entries. It is unarguable that a radical conception like Utzon’s vision for Sydney’s Opera House would not have been selected in the absence of an international competition.
Competitions are a useful way to excite public interest in a project. They can also give up and coming architectural practices the chance to enter an otherwise exclusive club. Some of our most applauded buildings – like the Opera House and Federation Square – were the result of international competitions.
But they also have their risks. Designing a building to win a competition is not quite the same task as designing one strictly on the basis of fulfilling the brief. Competitions favour ideas that stand out from the crowd – they favour high impact visions. Sometimes the basic function, practicality and financial viability of the building can be compromised – the Sydney Opera House is one of the better known examples of this phenomenon.
There’s also a risk that entries will not be prepared with an appropriate level of diligence. Entrants don’t know they’re going to win, so rationally they’re going to make compromises to limit costs. That might not be so bad if the winner can correct the shortcomings, but once a proposal is selected the major parameters are often locked in, immediately limiting the scope for adaptation (I know short-listed entrants are often paid, but it’s usually not enough).
Some functional compromise might possibly be a price worth paying if the new Flinders Street Station were to became as iconic as the Opera House, Bilbao or the Guggenheim, but the odds on that are astronomical. No one really understands why a handful of buildings become international symbols, but the fact is millions don’t.
The key thing about this project is it will be extremely complex. Any use of the site is constrained by four key factors. First, there’s the need to protect perhaps the most iconic building in Melbourne, with high historic values. Second, it’s Melbourne’s busiest rail station – functional efficiency really, really matters and transit operations can’t be disturbed during construction. Three, if it proceeds, the proposed Melbourne Metro rail line also has to be incorporated within the complex. Four, the setting is a limiting factor – it includes the river, Princes Bridge, Fed Square, St Pauls, the view of the station across the river from Southbank, and more. Whatever’s built at the station has to take account and give due respect to the neighbours.
When it comes down to it, I doubt there’d be many projects more unsuitable for a design competition. There’s much more at stake here than a potentially functionally compromised opera house. This is the sort of extraordinarily complex project where a solution needs to be developed very, very carefully. There must be considerable research, testing and consultation with all the parties and interests involved. Theoretically this might be sorted out during the development of the brief but I think a much better outcome would be achieved if all parties, including the architects, were intimately involved from the outset.
In fact this just highlights that the key issue here isn’t “design” but “use”. What really matters is what sort of activities, commercial and public, could possibly work at Flinders Street Station without compromising the existing building, the entire metropolitan rail system and the integrity and value of the surrounding uses. A huge effort is needed to get the brief right. My expectation is that what will work here – given all the constraints – won’t be the kind of potentially spectacular stuff that in design terms would traditionally be put out to a competition. Read the rest of this entry »
Links for urbanists – No. 3Posted: September 8, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: Cat Poljski 3 Comments
Assorted links to some of the useful, the informative, the interesting, and sometimes even the slightly weird sources I stumble across from time-to-time:
- The wonderful world of Cat Poljski.
- A “brief, wondrous” history of brutalist architecture. Back in the olden days when I was a student, we were weaned on photos of this sort of stuff. Like religion, if they get you young enough you’re a goner – I still love the pile of Mars Bars Moshe Safdie confected for Habitat 67 (although this photograph is its least flattering angle).
- The Naipaul test – can you tell the sex of the authors of these novels just by reading a brief extract? V.S. Naipaul once famously claimed: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not”.
- Better pedestrian infrastructure is essential for safer roads and neighbourhoods – the tragic case of Raquel Nelson and her son AJ, in Atlanta.
- Have we already hit and passed ‘peak electricity’ in Australia?
- A simple economic model of fare evasion and non-compliance.
- Intercity buses are much cheaper than trains in the US (if you ignore the cost of building the roads).
- There’s lots of competition between PC makers but they’re all competing on price. Only one company makes the iMac but it has the freedom to make something really good.
- A lighter bicycle doesn’t make you any faster.
- Mark Twain on Taming the Bicycle (this is the real Mark Twain).
- The California Cycleway, opened in 1900, was an elevated tollway built specially for bicycle traffic through the Arroyo Seco, intended to connect the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles.
- The Great Transition claims to provide the first comprehensive blueprint for building an economy based on stability, sustainability and equality.
- The parallel between climate change and teaching evolution in schools in Tennessee in 1925.
- Cost Overruns: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Bent Flyvbjerg.
- GPS and the end of the road – place and placelessness in America.
- 19th century cyclists paved the way for modern motorists’ roads.
- All aboard Tokyo’s last surviving streetcar.
- Melbourne is No. 8 in Askmen.com’s list of the 25 cities for blokes to visit in 2011.
- The top-10 least-polluting cities in the US – LA is No. 8 and Miami is No. 5. Having a temperate climate helps heaps.
- Video flythrough of Westfield’s new Stratford shopping centre in London.
- A new look at the industrial revolution – how it broke free from the shackles of land.
- Stockholm is the only city in the world where electors voted for congestion pricing.
Why don’t architects use colour more?Posted: September 7, 2011 Filed under: Architecture & buildings | Tags: architect, architecture, buildings, colour, North Korea, Susy Freeman-Green 17 Comments
About a month ago I was asked by a reporter for The Age, Susy Freeman-Green, why architects are so tentative with colour on the exteriors of buildings.
She’d observed many small apartment buildings going up in the inner city were made of grey slabs of concrete. On an overcast day, Melbourne could seem awfully leaden. “What is it with the colour grey?” she asked,”and why is it so popular with architects?”
My initial conjecture was it had a lot to do with the capital and maintenance costs of buildings. The common use of concrete is the obvious example. It’s a relatively economical material and maintenance costs are lower if it’s left unfinished (“off-form”) or with a stone aggregate finish.
However I added that this was likely to be only a partial explanation. If architects as a group were minded to dress their buildings in bigger, brighter and bolder colours, then over time they’d have convinced their clients accordingly. My best guess is they don’t for one or more of the following reasons:
Most architects see form, space and texture as the key elements of design; they think in 3D – strong colour could distract from the visual message (of course if used judiciously it could also reinforce the message!)
Strong colour used creatively can be dangerous – it can date easily and go out of fashion; clients might find it too confronting; and local government authorities and neighbours might find it too dominating
The modernist ideology stresses truth in materials – show them as they are. The contemporary stress on sustainability as a driving force of design reinforces this view
Many architects aren’t confident with colour – it seems to be a specialist talent (could that be why so many architects wear black?)
Strong and bold colours might be seen as too crass for the refined sensibilities of architects. The over-use of colour by advertisers and popular media has made it distinctly unfashionable.
I don’t know if there’s any objective data to support this contention, but it seems to me strong colour is used more extensively in warm climates where the light is brighter. Colour may look more vibrant on Mediterranean islands, but it surprises me there isn’t a greater demand for it in colder, overcast places like Melbourne where it might have a psychological bonus.
I also have a hypothesis (again, untested) that strong colours are more likely to be used in Melbourne if the building is cost-constrained to a simple form like a plain rectangular solid. Examples that spring to mind are the Macleod Netball Centre and the A’Beckett Tower. Even the NAB building in Docklands is a relatively simple form. This would be an interesting project for a student to test – if the hypothesis is true it suggests architects, on average, see colour as a residual medium.
While I think there’s room for architects to use colour more boldly than they seem to want to, I also think excessive colour is the last thing most of us want to see in our streetscapes. There could be visual cacophony if the great bulk of the urban landscape isn’t coloured in a relatively neutral way. There’s a straightforward analogy here with the look of the natural landscape, most of which tends to be in a limited, often muted, palette (I think it’s plausible we’ve evolved to prefer a subdued background).
So maybe architects are instinctively reflecting a human preference for what the outside world should look like. If so, good exterior colour design doesn’t have to be confined to the ubiquitous grey, but it needs to be relatively neutral – to form a background. Read the rest of this entry »
Do public transport and road pricing go together?Posted: September 6, 2011 Filed under: Cars & traffic | Tags: congestion, pricing, PTUA, Public Transport Users Association, road, The Greens 20 Comments
It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.
The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.
What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.
Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off Melbourne’s roads.
But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.
Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.
Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.
The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.
The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Read the rest of this entry »
Should public transport be free?Posted: September 5, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: equity, free fares, Metlink, Public transport, Stanford University, trains, Victoria Ombudsman 19 Comments
My post on fare evasion last week prompted a number of commenters to suggest that public transport should be made free. Roads are free, the argument goes, so the idea that public transport should also be free is obvious. It would eliminate fare evasion as an issue, increase patronage, reduce car use and benefit lower income travellers.
Proponents argue that once the costs of ticketing and inspection are allowed for, the net cost would not be that high – one estimate for Melbourne is less than $200 million p.a. That shortfall could be financed by taxing the beneficiaries of public transport infrastructure, like CBD property owners.
Interesting as it is, I don’t agree with this proposition – in my view making public transport free would be poor policy. It might appear at first glance to be a good idea, but it’s instructive that there are few places in the world where public transport isn’t charged for. All of those towns are very small and in some instances only certain services are unpriced e.g. Stanford University free bus shuttle.
Of course there’s no such thing as “free” public transport – it still has to be paid for. Being “free” would simply mean the cost is recovered from someone else, such as taxpayers generally, rather than from the 13% of travellers in Melbourne who currently use it on any given day. And it’s worth noting that while roads are cheap, they aren’t entirely free – other than cyclists, all vehicle owners pay an annual registration fee.
Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but my working estimate is net ticketing revenue in Melbourne, after deducting collection and inspection costs, is around $650 million per annum*. In a world of “no deficit” government, that’s a significant amount. It’s enough to operate more than thirty DART-type Bus Rapid Transit systems each year or more than sixty 1,000 pupil high schools.
But free public transport would cost significantly more than that because it would generate additional trips. This would increase costs – there’d be a need for more services, more maintenance, more cleaning, and so on (e.g. see Crowding on trams gets worse). If patronage were to increase by half (say), the extra cost could be many hundreds of millions per year. There might be economic benefits in lower negative externalities, but actual money would still have to be found to cover the added costs.
Those reductions in negative externalities – principally lower car use – would in any event very likely be much lower than proponents of free public transport assume. The key constraint on significantly increasing transit’s share of trips at the expense of cars isn’t fares, but the greater speed and convenience of cars. Abolishing fares won’t substantially change that equation. In fact I expect much of the additional patronage growth would be extra trips by transit-dependent users, as well as trips by car owners that wouldn’t otherwise have been made (and which therefore are of relatively low value).
And I’m not so sure about the equity benefits of abolishing fares either. The main beneficiaries would be CBD workers and high school students – many of them attending private schools – as well as residents of well-heeled inner suburbs served by trams. It would also confer a larger benefit on those who make long trips and thereby encourage people to live further away from the city centre.
There are assorted other issues too. Some people worry that removing the barrier of fares would see public transport colonised by “undesirables”. This could make it less attractive and consequently deter users. Another potential issue is public transport might struggle even more than it does now to get government funding for service improvements and expansions, given that any expenditure would generate zero return (at the moment public transport covers around a third of its operating costs). Read the rest of this entry »