Why did travellers stop using horses?

Yes, it’s Melbourne Cup time, “the richest two mile handicap in the world” since 1861. So, it’s obligatory to find a horsey topic.

In SuperFreakonomics, their follow-up to the highly successful Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner relate the Parable of Horseshit, or how the car and public transport saved New York from asphyxiating under tonnes of dung.

The authors’ purpose was to show that trends don’t go on forever and that technological innovation can have a key role in addressing severe problems (although this got them into a huge controversy when they applied this way of thinking to climate change!), but I want to stick to the equine angle.

Eric Morris provides a knowledgeable and informed account of the enormous problems posed by animals in urban areas, most especially horses, in From horse power to horsepower. It’s only nine pages, however there’s a much briefer account by Elizabeth Kolbert, published in the New Yorker. It’s from her review of SuperFreakonomics. Even if you already know the outline of the story, she brings some interesting detail:

In the eighteen-sixties, the quickest, or at least the most popular, way to get around New York was in a horse-drawn streetcar. The horsecars, which operated on iron rails, offered a smoother ride than the horse-drawn omnibuses they replaced. (The Herald described the experience of travelling by omnibus as a form of “modern martyrdom.”) New Yorkers made some thirty-five million horsecar trips a year at the start of the decade. By 1870, that figure had tripled.

The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets. By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days. Read the rest of this entry »


Do Melbourne’s trams need conductors?

Multi-section Siemens Combino tram - could one conductor handle all this in peak hour?

On the face of it, The Green’s case for the reintroduction of tram conductors looks pretty convincing. They say that for a net cost of just $6-9 million p.a., 1,000 conductors could be placed on all of Melbourne’s 500 odd trams from the first service to the last.

The Green’s proposal rests firmly on the assumption that the presence of conductors would effectively eliminate fare evasion. While it would cost $50 million p.a. to employ the conductors, they would claw back virtually all the estimated $40 million currently stolen by fare evaders.

Fewer ticket inspectors would therefore be needed and there’d be further savings in reduced vandalism and injuries to passengers. The Greens have called on the Government to introduce a two year trial with 100 conductors, targeted at heavily patronised routes like the No. 96.

Given we’ve (theoretically) got an automated ticketing system, my default position is we shouldn’t need the expense of conductors anymore than we still need elevator operators, ushers at the movies, bank tellers, or someone to fill our petrol tanks.

Yet The Green’s proposal is what I call a “what the heck” argument. The logic goes like this: the $40 million is dead money, so we might as well get some value out of it by bringing conductors back. It’s not necessarily the optimum way you’d spend an unencumbered $40 million, but what the heck, our options are limited.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. Restoring conductors could potentially provide a range of benefits. As well as checking validations, they could issue short-trip tickets, advise tourists, assist the disabled and provide at least a limited disincentive to vandalism and anti-social behaviour. In my view conductors could also provide an important intangible benefit – they would eliminate the ‘regularisation’ of evasion that is arguably inherent in the existing system.

Indeed, if the net cost really is less than $10 million p.a. as The Greens claim, restoring conductors sounds like a pretty attractive proposition. The idea could be very attractive politically to a Government that wants to demonstrate its bona fides on public transport.

But there’s the inevitable catch. The Greens assume 1,000 conductors because that was the staffing level when the conductor role was abolished in the early 90s and it seems to fit with the size of the current fleet (just under 500 trams) and the need for two shifts per day. However while the number of trams hasn’t increased significantly since the days of conductors, the size of trams has.

It’s doubtful that a lone conductor could make much headway through a crowded five-section Siemens Combino tram carrying 200 passengers in peak hour, while checking mykis, helping passengers and selling tickets. Either larger trams require multiple conductors in the peak – at greater cost – or it has to be accepted that conductors wouldn’t make as big a dent in foregone revenue as The Greens assume.

In any event, even if The Green’s number is accepted, it still under-estimates the number of conductors that would be needed. Due allowance hasn’t been made for conductors getting sick, going on holidays, attending training, and so on. Also, on-costs need to be factored in, as well as administrative support and the cost of equipment like mobile myki readers.

If I assume 1,300 conductors are required at $50,000 p.a., plus 50% on-costs, the aggregate cost is $97 million p.a. (I’ll follow The Greens in also assuming a saving of $10 million p.a. because 100 ticket inspectors would no longer be required, but I’ll add back $10 million p.a. for ancillary costs). That looks pretty expensive compared to the amount of evaded revenue conductors could realistically bring in.

But we don’t necessarily have to adopt the “what the heck” strategy. There might be other ways to recover all or part of the lost $40 million, thereby enabling any recovered funds to be applied to their optimal use. A failing of The Green’s proposal is that it doesn’t assess the alternatives. Read the rest of this entry »


Will Baillieu abandon Melbourne Metro (in favour of the East-West road tunnel)?

Melbourne Metro - proposed tunnel alignment and stations

From Wednesday’s Crikey newsletter (gated), in the Tips and Rumours section:

Vic government tunnels under greenies. A Victorian political spy reckons the Baillieu government is about to resurrect the East-West road tunnel underneath Royal Park at the expense of the Labor government’s planned Melbourne Metro scheme. It’s “a big up-yours to all the inner-city greenies that gave the old government such a run-around,” they say.

Assuming the Crikey report is well-founded (and it might not be – it is only a rumour, after all), I wouldn’t expect any government would be silly enough to announce it is abandoning a rail project in favour of a road project. No, it would say it’s going to do both.

The road would simply get priority over the rail project when scarce capital funds are doled out. The $40 million already allocated from Infrastructure Australia for Melbourne Metro will continue to be applied to feasibility studies and planning approvals, but if Crikey’s report is true, the project will languish for want of the billions needed to build it.

If that’s what’s intended by the Government, it could create an enormous problem. I’m not so much concerned that the Government might dare to build a new freeway as I am about the possible loss of the Melbourne Metro project.

Melbourne Metro is a response to the looming shortfall in capacity in the city’s rail system. What’s needed to expand capacity, according to the Eddington Report, is a new line in the CBD, essentially linking Flinders St and Southern Cross stations.

This could be achieved with a relatively short tunnel. However Eddington recommended that it be done with a much more ambitious tunnel running from Footscray to The Domain (and ultimately Caulfield) with new stations at North Melbourne, Parkville, the CBD (two) and The Domain – see exhibit. The first option costs a lot less but the second provides more capacity and has wider economic benefits, especially in terms of enhanced urban development.

If funding for Melbourne Metro is to be delayed (and again I emphasise the “if”), the Government needs to explain how it’s going to deal with the looming rail capacity problem in the city centre.


Is Bali selling itself short?

Plenty of traffic in Ubud (BTW this photo misrepresents the extent of helmet use)

There were an astonishing 972 reader comments by 5.30 pm Tuesday on this story in The Age by journalist Carolyn Webb, Bali: why bother?, bemoaning the unwanted attentions from street touts she attracted on a visit to Ubud earlier this month:

Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?”

Even more extraordinary, over 37,000 readers had already voted on-line in answer to this question posed by the newspaper: “Do you agree with the author that Bali isn’t worth visiting?”. I’ve never seen numbers this large in response to any story in The Age before – it seems readers are very, very interested in the topic of Bali.

There’s no way I’m going to trawl through close to 1,000 comments, but my random sample indicates the weight of opinion is solidly against the author. She does herself no favours with a few naïve and possibly even condescending remarks. The weight of opinion from commenters is she should get over it and accept that touting is just the way it is across large parts of south-east Asia. If you don’t like it, they say, then don’t go there. Many argue that touting is an inevitable response to poverty – desperate people are simply trying to put food on the table – and should be accepted as part of what Bali is.

The Age must’ve noticed the depth of feeling in the comments – early in the afternoon the paper posted this counter-perspective, Being taken for a ride in Bali isn’t always such a bad thing, by the acting editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Woolveridge. Even this article generated a respectable 145 comments by 5.30 pm

But it seems most of the “silent majority” – that’s the 36,000 or so who don’t offer a comment but are sufficiently motivated to vote in the online poll – actually agree with Ms Webb. By 5.30 pm a decisive majority (70%) had voted that Bali actually isn’t worth visiting. That’s a very large number and suggests Bali has a serious image problem with the Fairfax demographic (and remember that Ms Webb’s article is about “Eat, Pray, Love” Ubud, not “drunks and druggies” Kuta).

No matter what your personal feelings are about touting, there’s a sort of tragedy of the commons happening here. When touting by an aggressive minority of street vendors and taxi drivers puts off a large number of tourists, an entire economy of “back office” workers in hotels, restaurants and other downstream tourism industries is seriously threatened. As Ms Webb says, “aren’t there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don’t want to ever return, isn’t that a bad thing for Bali?”.

Doubtless many readers voted against Bali because of rampant Aussie bogans rather than rampant touting, but either way something seems to be killing the golden goose. Read the rest of this entry »


Do drivers make cycling less safe?

Cyclist gets "cut off" by driver (15 seconds)

This important article makes two key points about cycling in Australian cities:

  • The main danger to cyclists comes from drivers
  • The key reason people don’t cycle more is concern about safety on the roads

The article reports on research by Marilyn Johnson, a research fellow at the Monash University Accident Research Centre. She attached a video camera to the helmets of a small number of cyclists and studied their everyday interactions with other road users (see exhibits).

A key finding is drivers are responsible for 87% of road “incidents” i.e. a near-crash where at least one party has to take evasive action. In 74% of those events, she says, the driver cut the cyclist off, turning in front of the cyclist without either providing enough space, indicating effectively or doing a head check.

The behaviour of drivers was safe for themselves and other drivers, but not for cyclists:

The role of driver behaviour in cyclist safety was found to be more significant than previously thought. Previously, the emphasis was on how cyclists needed to improve their behaviour to improve their safety……Drivers need to be more aware of cyclists on the road. It is essential for cyclist safety that drivers look for cyclists before they change their direction of travel, particularly when turning left.

Dr Johnson also cites a joint study by the Cycling Promotion Fund and National Heart Foundation which surveyed a random sample of 1,000 adults nationally about their attitudes toward cycling. According to this report on the study, “overwhelmingly, unsafe road conditions were the No.1 reason why people weren’t using their bikes as transport, followed by the speed of traffic and a lack of bike paths”.

Although the number of cyclists involved in the study to date and the range of environments is small, I think Dr Johnson’s research is highly suggestive. It underlines again the importance of focussing attention on the key issues that affect cycling and of not getting distracted by side issues.

Another one of a cyclist getting "cut off" by a driver (29 seconds)


What were they thinking?

This is not a joke – this is a real graphic from the SA Motor Accident Commission’s new marketing campaign aimed at discouraging young drivers from doing irresponsible things like speeding or drink-driving.

The core idea is life is very bad without the ability to drive. You might, for example, end up having to walk, use public transport, or – apparently the uncoolest thing imaginable – ride a bicycle!

This TV advertisement shows boys who cycle are an absolute turn-off so far as girls who drive are concerned.

And if you lose your license, you’ll really know you’re screwed if:

“you’re caught in an electrical storm, you’re halfway home and you’re on a bike”, or

“you keep catching your hot date staring at your helmet hair”, or

“the creepy guy on the bus has just made eye contact”, or

“after lining up for 10 minutes in the rain the drive thru girl says: sorry we don’t serve pedestrians”

Now perhaps the Motor Accident Commission’s research shows the prospect of cycling or using a bus is so horrendous for the target market that it is the most effective way of incentivising more responsible behaviour. Perhaps.

But even if that’s the case, it comes at the cost of demonising modes that have to play a much more important role in our cities both now and in the future. If the campaign is actually effective, it could be doing incalculable long-term damage to the way alternative modes are perceived.

I’d be surprised if the creative talent of Adelaide couldn’t come up with a campaign that achieves the responsible driving objective without undermining another important dimension of transport policy. However I’m not quite so confident about the judgement of politicians and bureacrats who would let this sort of message through!


Should public transport fares be higher?

Fare revenue/per passenger km ($) for public transport in selected cities (data from Ian Wallis & Assocs)

The report in The Age that the Government is considering a 10% real increase in public transport fares has generated an intense negative reaction from readers.

If the Government went ahead with the touted increase, the paper calculates that combined with CPI increases, the cost of a weekly zone one myki pass would rise from the current $30.20 to $34.90 in 2013, or by $4.70 per week. The equivalent zone two pass would rise from $51.00 to $58.95.

Out of well in excess of 100 reader comments on the story, only a handful defended the proposition. The overwhelming view is the system is so broken it would be outrageous for the government to ask beleaguered users to pay more. While many say they’d be prepared to pay more if it meant the system were improved, quite a few think public transport is already too expensive at current fare levels – indeed, a number argued public transport is a “public good” and should be free.

Some warn higher fares would be self-defeating because they’d encourage further fare evasion – equivalent revenue could instead be raised by getting serious about evaders. Another objection is that recent increases in patronage have raised enough additional revenue to obviate the need for increasing fares.

There’s also a common sentiment that increasing fares would increase car use and hence be bad environmentally. A surprising number reckon the increase would make public transport more expensive than driving.

I think The Age has taken some licence here. Current policy is that fares increase in line with inflation, so some of the prospective rise is going to happen anyway. By itself, a 10% increase (i.e. a 5% increase in each of two consecutive years) would put up the cost of a zone one weekly myki pass by $3.10 per week. The corresponding increase for a zone two weekly would be $5.25 per week.

Still, I don’t think even these somewhat lower numbers would do much to assuage the vitriol spat out by most readers. However I disagree with them. As I’ve pointed out before, I support the idea of increasing fares in real terms. This is not a conservative view – the public transport advocates who undertook the Independent Public Inquiry into Sydney’s long-term public transport needs think it’s a good and necessary idea too.

The argument that fares shouldn’t be increased because the system is flawed is politically potent but counter-productive. More revenue is one of the crucial inputs needed to improve the system. Better service is a much more important driver of patronage than fare levels.

Fares aren’t in any event expensive relative to the cost of the service provided. They’re already heavily subsidised – fare box revenue in Melbourne only recovers 44% of operating costs and none of the capital cost. Moreover, fare revenue is around 12 cents per passenger kilometre – that’s around average for Australian cities but considerably lower than some major cities in New Zealand, Canada and the United States (see exhibit).

There’s a sense of perspective missing here. For all its failings (and I’m not suggesting they aren’t real), the public transport system in Melbourne is still delivering a reasonable service. In fact it’s been good enough to support spectacular jobs growth in the transit-dependent CBD over recent years – employers are prepared to bet on it.

There are good reasons for pursuing revenue foregone through fare evasion, but it isn’t a magical hollow log. Collecting the marginal dollar entails substantial and increasing costs, such as employing more inspectors (or conductors). Likewise, recent boosts in patronage have increased revenue, but they’ve also raised operating costs and required more investment in infrastructure e.g. new trains.

The argument that higher fares will increase driving isn’t convincing either. While there would undoubtedly be some drift at the margin, the great bulk of public transport users are “captive” in the sense that they either can’t drive or motoring is simply too expensive due to high parking costs and traffic congestion. Even a one-off 10% real increase isn’t going to change that equation substantially (although I expect it could well give a modest boost to cycling).

The key market for public transport is work trips to the city centre. The CBD couldn’t exist in its current size and form without transit. There’s no convincing reason – on either efficiency or equity grounds – why CBD employers should have the travel costs of their generally well-paid workers subsidised by the rest of the population by holding down fares (in an ideal world I’d favour a tax on central city employers to supplement funding of transit services but that’s another story).

Despite what some readers of The Age think, public transport is not a “public good”. It’s neither non-rivalrous nor non-excludable – it gets congested and users pay. Of course it has a social function but so do water and energy. As is usually the case with these utilities, subsidies should be directed at eligible users, not bestowed on all passengers via the fare structure irrespective of income .

Overall then, I think increasing fares in real terms is a good idea. However I don’t see fares as the only source of revenue – CBD businesses should be paying too (and Sydney’s Independent Inquiry also identified a number of other potential sources of funding). I’d also like to see attention given to the fare structure, so that among other things, it provides further incentive for travellers to shift to non-peak services. Read the rest of this entry »