What to read over the holiday season?Posted: December 23, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: books, Daniel Kahneman, Elliot Perlman, Grattan Institute, Human Transit, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker 5 Comments
When I started The Melbourne Urbanist I wasn’t sure what direction it would take. While primarily about planning and development issues, I imagined it might also have a major sideline in reading and literature.
Hence the Reading page in the sidebar. As things have turned out, there hasn’t been much interest in reading and books. For example, The Melbourne Urbanist had 25,000 visits in November but the Reading page only got 29 views, so next year I’ll probably move it elsewhere.
Clearly the readers of The Melbourne Urbanist don’t come here to talk literature. Fair enough, this is the age of specialisation and that’s one of the things the internet does well. However since it’s the holiday season, I have an excuse to talk books.
The thing newspapers love to do at this time of year is find out who’s reading what. Over the years I’ve found some good reads from seeing what politicians, novelists and others are reading (or say they’re reading). The Grattan Institute has put an interesting twist on this tradition – a suggested summer reading list for the Prime Minister. Here it is:
Fair share, Judith Brett, (Quarterly Essay 42, 2011)
Cities for people, Jan Gehl, (Island Press, 2010)
There goes the neighbourhood, Michael Wesley, (University of New South Wales, 2011)
Balancing the risks, benefits and costs of homeland security, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (article available at http://www.hsaj.org/?article=7.1.16)
The rational optimist, Matt Ridley, (Fourth Estate, 2010)
Cold light, Frank Moorhouse, (Random House Australia, 2011)
Some interesting suggestions. Of these, I’ve only read The rational optimist and can’t recommend it highly enough (I quoted from it yesterday). It would be a great summer read. If you follow the link to the Grattan Institute, there’s an explanation of the thinking behind the list. Anything by Frank Moorhouse should be interesting and Cold light is about power, secrecy and, of all things, urban planning! So I’ll put that on my “to read” list.
Of the books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend Ryan Avent’s The gated city, He argues in a mere 100 pages that opposition to density is a key reason for American economic stagnation. This is an Amazon Kindle “Single” – it only costs $1.99 and if, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it on your computer or, in my case, on an iPhone (not so good for the beach, though). I’ve cited it before, here and here.
I’d also recommend Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature. He argues that violence at both social and personal levels is much lower than historically it’s ever been. Another fascinating book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: fast and slow. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel laureate – lots of insight on why we think the way we do and, especially, why we so often get it wrong. Both of these books are long (and in the modern fashion look like they never had an editor), but they’re worth it.
The best novel I’ve read this year – in fact for a while – is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. It deals insightfully and wittily with some big issues. And it’s beautifully written – a deserving winner of the 2010 Booker. Read the rest of this entry »
Does public transport offer enough privacy?Posted: December 21, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: artificial light, Matt Ridley, Public transport, safety, security, standard of living, The rational optimist, trains 16 Comments
There are many ways to measure the immense improvement in standard of living enjoyed by western countries over the millennia (although most especially over the last two hundred years). I think an important indicator – with implications for city managers – is the greater demand for physical privacy that comes with rising incomes.
Much attention is given to how much better off we are today in terms of basics like food, clothing, energy and shelter than our ancestors were. But there are many other measures. For example, in The rational optimist, Matt Ridley discusses the spectacular increase in the availability of time.
Part of the improvement came from dramatic reductions in the time taken – and hence the cost – of making things. Part also came from access to artificial light. He provides a fascinating example of how much the cost of manufacturing artificial light has fallen: this is how many lumen-hours (lm-hr) of artificial light could be obtained from an hour’s work at the average wage of the day:
1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp
1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp
1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp
1950: 531,000 lm-hr, incandescent light bulb
2008: 8,400,000 lm-hr, compact fluoro
If they haven’t already, LEDs will undoubtedly increase the amount of light an hour’s work buys by another order of magnitude. Modern lighting is also cleaner than the comparatively primitive methods widely used even a hundred years ago. It’s less of a fire hazard, doesn’t flicker and doesn’t create smoke within the premises (a leading cause of death in times past).
Although it isn’t discussed by Ridley, another aspect of the rise in living standards that should be of particular interest to anyone interested in cities is the increase in the demand for privacy and personal control.
With rising incomes, households who once shared a one-roomed hovel now have individual bedrooms. Twenty somethings who used to live in share houses a generation ago now live by themselves in studio or one bedroom apartments. Where once hotels and boarding houses had shared facilities, now even the most run-down motel offers a private bathroom and toilet. People who can afford it have babies or convalesce in private hospital rooms, not communal wards.
And look at transport. Around 90% of all travel in a city like Melbourne is by private car, much of it with only the driver present. Those who can afford it take taxis, fly in chartered or private jets or, if there’s no alternative to sharing, cocoon themselves in first class cabins on planes and ships.
Compared to a train, tram or bus, cars offer a lot of privacy and control: they’re available on-demand, go directly to the driver’s destination, are in most cases considerably faster, and are only shared by invitation. Car ownership usually costs more in terms of cash outlays than public transport, but people with a high standard of living are prepared to pay the price.
The increased demand for privacy and personal control might seem at odds with the growth of cities. People have been drawn to cities over the last 200 years on an unprecedented scale, so there’s no doubt they want to be closer to each other than ever. Indeed, a key reason why incomes have increased spectacularly is precisely because of the greater proximity of people.
But it’s clear they also want more privacy. Technology is one reason they’ve been able to live cheek-by-jowl and still increase their autonomy. Yet there are limits. Cars aren’t a very effective solution in dense environments. In response, cities have generally evolved by decentralising population, services and jobs at low densities, enabling residents to maintain their car-oriented lifestyle.
But cars have other downsides like pollution, carbon emissions, traffic accidents and noise. Moreover, a significant proportion of people now want to be close to key nodes, like the CBD and beaches – that requires density, the enemy of cars.
I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users. Read the rest of this entry »
Do cities have a distinctive ethos?Posted: December 20, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous, Planning | Tags: Avner De-Shallit, Daniel A Bell, Grattan Institute, Jane-Frances Kelly, Karratha, Oxford, The spirit of cities 12 Comments
City managers love a catchy idea. Ten years ago it was “creative cities”; next it could be the idea that cities should discover their own “ethos” to protect them from the homogenisation of globalisation.
Avner De-Shallit and Daniel A Bell have just published a new book, The spirit of cities: why the identity of a city matters in a global age, which they say revives the classical idea that a city expresses its own distinctive ethos separate from its national affiliation. They take their definition of ethos from the Oxford dictionary: “Ethos is defined as the characteristic spirit, the prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community”.
The authors look at nine cities which, they argue, each have a dominant ethos. The cities are Jerusalem (religion), Montreal (language), Singapore (nation building), Hong Kong (materialism), Beijing (political power), Oxford (learning), Berlin (tolerance and intolerance), Paris (romance), and New York (ambition). According to the publisher’s blurb:
Bell and De-Shalit draw upon the richly varied histories of each city, as well as novels, poems, biographies, tourist guides, architectural landmarks, and the authors’ own personal reflections and insights. They show how the ethos of each city is expressed in political, cultural, and economic life, and also how pride in a city’s ethos can oppose the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and curb the excesses of nationalism.
You can get a sense of what the whole idea is about from this transcript of a public seminar on The Spirit of Cities the Grattan Institute conducted with Professor Bell on 4 October 2011. You can also read the first chapter of the book, titled Civicism, and some of the chapter on Jerusalem, at Amazon (use the ‘look inside’ option). Chapter one is instructive because it sets out the rationale, theory and methodology, with subsequent chapters discussing each city in turn.
It’s an interesting idea, but I remain to be convinced. For starters, separating national from city-level characteristics is a minefield. As if to reinforce this difficulty, De-Shallit and Bell mess it up from the outset. They select Singapore as one of their examples even though it’s a city-state. Arguably, Hong Kong was too up until relatively recently.
And what, in practical terms, do we settle on as a city’s intrinsic ethos? I don’t find the discovery that Jerusalem is a city of religion, or that diminutive Oxford (population 165,000) is a city of education, provides any greater insight into these places than the discovery Karratha is a mining town. All that tells me is these are their dominant industries – that’s not telling me about the spirit of the place.
And if Bejing’s ethos is political power, that’s also true of most of the many other places that specialise in government, like Washington DC and Canberra (and there are many of them – for example, 33 capital cities in the US are not the most populous city in their State. Olympia, the capital of Washington State, has a population of just 50,000). Perhaps the hand of politics feels heavier to the outside observer in Beijing, but if so, that could be because of a national-level characteristic – it’s a communist state – rather than a city-level one.
It’s also very hard to separate out what’s city branding/marketing and what is the characteristic spirit of a place, or the collective aspirations and beliefs of its residents. New York is certainly a world power in finance and media and has marketed itself accordingly. But does “ambition” permeate the lives of all those New Yorkers – the great bulk of the city’s population – who aren’t “Masters of the Universe” e.g. the teachers, doctors, suburbanites, shop assistants, retirees, truck drivers, stay-at-home parents, people living in “the projects”? I don’t think so.
Similarly, does “romance” permeate all walks of life of Parisians or is it something projected onto the place by visitors (and maybe helped along with some savvy Gallic marketing)? Read the rest of this entry »
Do great buildings make great cities?Posted: December 19, 2011 Filed under: Architecture & buildings | Tags: Elizbaeth Farrelly, Graeme Jahn, great buildings, great cities, Nick Greiner, Stuart White, Sydney Opera House, UTS, Zunz Lecture 11 Comments
I wish I could’ve been in Sydney on the 17th to attend UTS’s 10th Anniversary Special Zunz Lecture on the rather silly proposition that ‘Great buildings make great cities’. It would’ve been a giggle to see Nick Greiner, Elizabeth Farrelly, Graeme Jahn and Stuart White taking this pompous idea ever so seriously.
It’s true there are some great buildings in great cities. But there are some cities that have great buildings but aren’t themselves great. There are great cities that don’t have great buildings. Some great buildings aren’t even in cities. In fact some great buildings – like Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion and Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo – weren’t even intended to be permanent! And even in those cities with one or more great buildings, the best that could be said about most of the other 99.99% is they aren’t great.
I think it should be obvious Rome wasn’t a great city because of the Pantheon, but because it was a key centre of trade and political power over many centuries. Likewise London. But they’re European cities with millennia of history to draw on. New-world cities are a better reference for Sydney.
Few would argue that New York is one of the world’s great cities. It has some great structures too e.g. its rail stations, the Chrysler building, the Empire State building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and more lately the Highline.
But even the briefest glance at the magnificent book by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: a history of New York city to 1898, shows the overwhelming importance of complex social and economic forces in making Gotham one of the world’s great cities. With reputedly half of everything that ever entered the USA, including people, passing through New York, it would be a ridiculous conceit to argue the city is great because of its buildings.
It’s far more plausible that any line of causation runs the other way – New York has some great buildings because the city is great. Athens has the Parthenon because it was a great city, not the other way around. Bilbao doubtless has many virtues, but I haven’t heard it described too often as one of the world’s great cities just because its got a Guggenheim.
Sydneysiders suffer from Opera House Syndrome (OHS), so it’s no wonder they default to “starchitecture”. This unfortunate condition, which is characterised by blind hope and delusions of grandeur-on-the-cheap, is a direct consequence of the extraordinary good fortune of having not one but two internationally iconic structures – the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Like cargo cultists, they think they can make Sydney even greater through more starchitecture.
OHS is a terrible and merciless condition. Sufferers think their cherished international emblems are the reward for their city’s intrinsic qualities, like the vision, risk-taking and marketing savvy of its residents. The reality is that, like much in life, international icons are almost entirely the result of good luck – in fact extraordinary good luck.
We should all know by now that the Sydney Opera House was created in spite of Sydneysiders, not because of them. If it hadn’t been for Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, it wouldn’t even have got a start.
The odds of a new-world city like Sydney having even one internationally iconic structure are astonishingly long (just ask Melbourne), but two is stratospheric. The odds of having more than two……and the likelihood Sydney could create yet another by intent…..well, we’re in the realm of metaphysics now.
I like to think that in Melbourne a debate like the Zunz lecture would be couched in different terms. At the very least, the proposition might be something like “great urban design makes great cities” or, preferably, “great urban design makes a better city”. They both recognise that it’s not individual buildings that make a difference but the overall feel of the city. The latter also acknowledges that the physical environment is only one factor that contributes to making a city great. Read the rest of this entry »
What’s Melbourne good at?Posted: December 17, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: goodwill, Melbourne Metro, rail, season, train, tram, wheel chairs 10 Comments
It’s natural in discussions of planning and development issues to focus limited energy on the areas where Melbourne could do better. But it’s easy to forget our blessings – the areas where Melbourne is doing well. That’s not to say that things couldn’t be better, but it acknowledges there are some areas where things could be much worse. It’s conceivable there are even areas where Melbourne punches well above its weight.
It’s the season of goodwill, so I thought it timely to look at the positives. Hopefully readers will have some suggestions too.
One of Melbourne’s great blessings is its extensive rail system. Please, while your first reaction might be disbelief, many cities elsewhere – in the US for example – don’t have anything even remotely as good as our network. And our tram system is reputedly the largest in the world. Again, many cities elsewhere are scrambling to retro-fit light rail and streetcar systems. We have rolling stock that’s getting friendlier for wheel chairs and successive governments have (belatedly) ordered new trains and trams.
In many places if you change modes you have to pay again. Not in Melbourne – there’s unlimited travel on a single ticket within a time window no matter how many times you transfer. While it’s had teething problems and isn’t out of the woods just yet, we have a smartcard system too. And two high frequency bus services now orbit the suburbs from the deep south to the west and from (relatively) early till late. Heck, I even heard there’s an extra NightRider service next weekend.
The Regional Rail Link has gotten the green light and design work is continuing on Melbourne Metro. It’s not good enough for most people I know, but we have a 24/7 airport public transport service operating at 10 minute frequencies for the great bulk of the day.
Fortunately, large parts of our freeway system are tolled. There are significant barriers to getting a drivers licence in terms of time and out-of-pocket costs. And just this week the Government had the good sense to bang up registration charges.
Successive governments and councils have promoted high density residential growth in the city centre. New inner city brownfields sites such as Fishermans Bend have been earmarked for development. There are large tracts of historic housing in areas like Fitzroy Nth and Carlton Nth that are largely intact. And we have inner city parks and the glorious Yarra River park system that other cities would die for.
One of Melbourne’s great assets is it has capacity for growth in the west, still within a reasonable distance of the CBD. Average lot sizes in all the growth areas are smaller than the older middle ring suburbs and getting smaller.
Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the wonderful and vibrant city centre. Its laneways and public spaces are rightly the envy of other cities who think (mistakenly) that they can replicate Melbourne’s success. I believe (admittedly without much hard evidence) that within ten years or less, inner Melbourne will be widely acknowledged as one of the world’s coolest cities (that’s a prediction!). Many major trip generators like the MCG are located in the centre, where peak crowds can best be served by public transport (unlike, say, Brisbane’s entertainment centre at Boondall).
We have Fed Square and the free Ian Potter Gallery. We have a culture that’s interested in the public realm, including planning and development issues, for its own sake (maybe I’m overdoing that one…)
That’s a start. I’ve focussed mainly on infrastructure, but there are also institutions and people who give Melbourne a positive outlook. For example, I reckon the Lord Mayor, to the surprise of many, is a real asset. I’d like to think there are some areas of social and cultural policy where we do well too.
Anyone else got any ideas on what Melbourne does well?
P.S. More on that statistics question.
Links for urbanists No. 6Posted: December 15, 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:
- There are only one and a half days to go to win a copy of Jarrett Walkers new book, Human Transit. Follow this link (this competition closed 17 Dec 2011)
- Motoring helmets for car drivers – “Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace”
- Ted Baillieu’s favourite Melbourne buildings. He’s not likely to annoy anyone – the most recent is Alkira House, built in 1937
- How to increase capacity on SkyBus? – use “double deckers”
- Evolution of the London Underground map
- 16 global cities to watch in the future, according to Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen – but where’s Melbourne?
- Naughty and nice in transport advertising – Waking up in Geelong
- Correlation or causation. Need to prove something you already believe? Statistics are easy: all you need are two sets of data and a leading question (H/T Human Transit)
- The importance of place – scientists who are geographically close do better work (especially those within 10 metres of each other)
- Should speed limits be higher? No, the social costs of speed limit increases are three to ten times larger than the social benefits
- What does it cost to run a car? RACV’s guide to what it costs to run new cars of all sizes and shapes
- Barbarians on the Thames – hindsight analysis of the British riots by Theodore Dalrymple
- Sir Rod Eddington interviewed by Professor Peter Newman – they’re old colleagues!
- The death and life of great architecture criticism
- Slowing motorists down is the best way to increase safety for cyclists according to Britain’s Department for Transport
- Commuting cost analysis: bus vs bicycle vs car
- All you need to know about Birrarung Marr
- There was a time when the great political worry was that we’d leave no coal for future generations
- A review of Steven Pinker’s new book, The better angels of our nature, by Peter Singer
- A joke about a snail
- Imagining life in 2076
Would we use an airport train (as much as we say we would)?Posted: December 14, 2011 Filed under: Airports & aviation | Tags: CBD, Melbourne airport, mode share, rail line, Skybus, taxi, tourist, train 48 Comments
Yesterday’s post on the unreliability of predictions fits nicely with the latest round of calls for a rail line to the airport. The stimulus this time is a report in The Age last week on Melbourne Airport’s plans to upgrade freeway access and build a new terminal.
It set off a predictable and familiar landslide of calls for a train line. There were 141 comments on the article, virtually all of them advocating an airport train. I must say that I’ve hardly met a Melburnian who doesn’t think an airport train should be a high priority of any and all governments.
Some doubtless think others would use a train and thus, they imagine, reduce congestion on roads leading to the airport. But I expect most see themselves avoiding gridlock, punitive airport parking fees, or high taxi fares by using the train for most of their airport travel.
And yet if the train were built, there’s no doubt their prediction would prove to be enormously over-optimistic. Brisbane has a train from the CBD to the airport that carries just 5% of all travellers (another 3% come by bus). Sydney has a train too – it only carries 10% of all travellers (and a further 2% access the airport by bus). As Jarrett Walker observes, the political popularity of airport rail “is always several orders of magnitude above its actual ridership”.
Is there any reason to think that a train to Melbourne airport would increase public transport’s existing share of travel by a significantly greater amount than the trains have in these other cities?
Even without a train, Melbourne Airport already has a higher public transport mode share than either Sydney or Brisbane, with 14% of travellers accessing the terminal by bus. The former Government’s specification for a future airport train was a $16 fare, 20 minute trip time and 15 minute frequency. That’s much the same as SkyBus provides at present.
It’s true trains are generally more appealing than buses, but I can’t see that’s likely to lift public transport’s share significantly – certainly it hasn’t been enough in Brisbane and Sydney. It’s more likely it would cannibalise SkyBus and perhaps gain one or two additional percentage points of mode share.
If the latent demand for better public transport service between the airport and the CBD was as strong as readers of The Age think, then SkyBus – which offers the best frequencies and span of hours of any public transport service in Melbourne – should be doing much better than it is now (and it’s doing quite well).
It’s often argued that if an airport train were priced at a Zone 1-2 fare, it would attract higher patronage than SkyBus. That’s likely to be true, but it’s totally unrealistic – no Government is going to spend billions on an airport rail line and then subsidise its operations. And nor should it.
In any event, I doubt the increase in patronage would be anywhere near as dramatic as some assume. There is a host of reasons why the great majority of travellers would still prefer to drive or take a taxi than pay even a Zone 1-2 fare.
For example, most airport trips are to or from homes and workplaces in the suburbs – a taxi or a car is usually going to be more convenient than going to the local station and transferring to the airport service at Southern Cross. For many regular travellers, taxis and parking are cheap because they’re a business cost.
For tourists, it’s easy to justify a taxi for an occasional and important trip. Most tourists also travel with at least one other person, so in many cases that will improve the competitiveness of a taxi, or the long term car park, relative to public transport (I’ve elaborated on these reasons in previous posts – see Airports & aviation category in sidebar). Read the rest of this entry »
Are helmet laws suppressing cycling?Posted: December 13, 2011 Filed under: Cycling | Tags: bicycle, Canadian Business Network, Chris Rissell, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, mandatory helmet law, Metlink, survey, Sydney, World Bank 59 Comments
A new Australian study has thrown more fuel on the fiery debate about whether or not bicycle helmets should continue to be mandatory. Its headline claim is 23% of Sydneysiders say they would cycle more if they weren’t obliged by law to wear a helmet.
This isn’t merely saying that some people would prefer to cycle without a helmet – it’s claiming the law actually suppresses cycling.
I lean toward the school of thought that says mandatory helmets probably do more harm socially than good, but as I’ve said before, it’s not the sort of issue that I would want to die in a ditch over. However if there were reliable evidence that compulsory helmets actually restrain cycling, that would require a rethink.
The research was undertaken by Professor Chris Rissell and his colleague, Li Ming Wen. It is published in the latest edition of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.
It’s a brief and easy to read article but a summary by Professor Rissell was published on The Conversation last week, Make helmets optional to double the number of cyclists in Australia. Professor Rissell is a self-confessed cycling advocate and firmly in the activist “repeal” camp on helmets.
He and his colleague surveyed 600 Sydney residents aged 16 years and over. They found one fifth of respondents “said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet, particularly occasional cyclists”. They conclude that:
While a hypothetical situation, if only half of the 22.6% of respondents who said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet did ride more, Sydney targets for increasing cycling would be achieved by repealing mandatory bicycle helmet legislation. A significant proportion of the population would continue to wear helmets even if they were not required to do so.
Regrettably, I don’t think this study adds anything to our knowledge of whether Sydneysiders would ride more if helmets weren’t compulsory. They might, but then again they might not. The trouble is the survey relies on a hypothetical situation: “Would you cycle more often if you didn’t have to wear a helmet? Yes or No?”.
Hypothetical survey questions are notoriously unreliable. I’m not picking on the anti-mandatory helmet brigade here – I also took Metlink to task earlier this year for trying to make grandiose predictions about future public transport patronage based on a similarly unreliable methodology.
It’s standard practice to avoid hypothetical questions in surveys. Consider this advice from The World Bank publication, The Power of Survey Design:
Hypothetical questions, especially, should be avoided. People cannot reliably forecast their future behaviour in a hypothetical scenario. Thus, the questionnaire design should make careful use of this style of question.
Hypothetical questions are especially problematic when respondents are asked to predict an activity they’ve had little experience of. The Canada Business Network advises questionnaire designers, if possible, to “avoid hypothetical or future intentions questions:
Hypothetical questions force the respondent to provide an answer to something he or she may never have thought about and, therefore, the respondent may not be able to provide an accurate response.
The authors should’ve been alerted that all might not be right when they found 40% of those who say they’d cycle more if helmets weren’t compulsory, also say they support mandatory helmet legislation. Yes, there’re scenarios where it’s conceivable someone could hold both views simultaneously, but 40%?! Read the rest of this entry »
Is this building offensive?Posted: December 12, 2011 Filed under: Architecture & buildings | Tags: 9/11, Al Qaeda, architecture, clouds, Habitat 67, Mies van de Rohe, Moshe Safde, MVRDV Architects, South Korea, World Trade Centre 15 Comments
The exhibit shows a proposed residential development in South Korea by Dutch architects MVRDV. The architects call it The Cloud because they want to create a sense of buildings rising through “the clouds”.
Critics however reckon they look like the twin towers exploding. I see what they mean, but I’m not certain that would’ve been my first thought. Had I not had the WTC meme inserted in my brain from the outset, I might’ve interpreted it first as some form of cancerous growth – a sarcoma – growing out of the façade of an otherwise benign host.
This guy calls it “Safde/Habitat on uppers”. It certainly reminds me of Moshe Safde’s famous Habitat 67 housing project in Montreal. It’s like an enthusiastic gardener grafted Safde’s DNA on to Mies van der Rohe’s and this is the result. Maybe it should be interpreted as the architectural equivalent of sampling in music!
Still, it’s hard to believe the architects didn’t see the twin towers connection themselves (this observer reckons they did but aren’t owning up to it). The way observers have reacted isn’t surprising really: there’s a picture in MVRDV’s PR material of two cloud-wrapped, generic looking towers – the inspiration for the idea – that look remarkably reminiscent of the WTC.
I’m not convinced emulating clouds is a compelling way to go about designing buildings that are literally tall enough to be in the clouds. Seems a bit like double counting. Still, clouds is a less pretentious explanation than the ludicrous guff offered by the architects of this similar-looking building.
Nor do I think the design does well on its own terms. As an expression of cloud-wreathed towers, MVRDV’s design is an unmitigated flop. There’s nothing in that heavy, concrete “growth” that comes even close to evoking the wispy, ethereal sense of clouds. They’re delicate, light, insubstantial and wraithlike – this proposal isn’t. It’s no wonder many people think of the twin towers.
But unlike some others, I don’t accept the design is in any way immoral, insulting to the USA, or a free ride for Al Qaeda. The human mind seems to have a special talent for projecting associations onto the slightest suggestion or stimulus. I accept the architect’s explanation that the 9/11 interpretation wasn’t intended – it’s something we’re projecting from our experience. It wouldn’t get past first base in the US, but I suspect the vast bulk of the world’s population wouldn’t see it in terms of 9/11, or care.
Book giveaway: follow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Jarrett’s Walker’s new book, Human Transit
Does it cost less to drive to work than catch the train?Posted: December 10, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: car, fares, Gabrielle Costa, Metro, MYKI, PTUA, Public Transport Users Association, The Age, train 14 Comments
The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is keen to make the case that it costs more to travel by public transport in Melbourne than it does by car. The PTUA says above-inflation fare rises over the last decade mean public transport now costs much more than “petrol in the car” for many trips.
The PTUA might take some moral support from this op-ed in The Age this week by journalist Gabriella Costa (the paper calls it an ‘Analysis’). Like the PTUA, she also argues that commuting by car is cheaper. She says the 9% fare increase announced this week by the Government will make driving a better option. Her contention is that, “even loosely, the maths just don’t add up” for rail:
And it’s a simple equation. A Metro daily ticket from a zone 2 station into the city? $11.90 from January 1. Petrol from home to work and back? two to three litres. Parking: less than $10 a day on the city’s edge.
Ms Costa doesn’t actually do the maths, so I have. Unless she gets her petrol for free, even on those numbers it still costs less to take the train to the city than drive! Petrol at $1.35 per litre is $4.00 a day, plus $10 for parking. Even loosely, that adds up in favour of the train! But as we all know, there’s more to the financial cost of driving than just petrol and parking, so I’ll try to do a tighter estimate.
Ms Costa’s example is based on her own circumstances. I know from her article that she lives in St Albans, near Giniver station in Zone 2. By her estimate, she’s 17 km by road from where she works in the city (presumably at The Age HQ in Spencer St). I’ll assume she commutes 220 days a year after taking rec leave, public holidays, sick leave, the odd day off, a bit of work-related travel and weekends into account. If she drove to work on every one of these 220 days she’d therefore travel 7,480 km in a year.
I’ll assume she drives the cheapest vehicle you can buy new in the small car class, a Hyundai i30. According to the RACV, operating costs of this vehicle for fuel, tyres and servicing, are 16.6 cents per kilometre, giving her an annual commuting cost of $1,224. That’s conservative because the fuel component is based on a city-country average – commuting in busy traffic is thirstier work.
Add to that parking at $10 per day for 220 days and her all up cost for a year of commuting by car to the CBD totals $3,444. That’s still quite a bit more than the cost of catching the train from St Albans, even under the new fare structure that takes effect from 1 January.
St Albans is in Zone 2, so Ms Costa could buy a myki Yearly Pass in 2012 for $2,021. That would save her $1480 compared to driving. Even if she travelled every day on a myki Daily Cap it would cost $2,438 over the course of a year, still putting her ahead by $1,000 compared to driving.
And if she lived any further out the cost of train travel would stay the same but driving would cost considerably more. If, for example, she lived in Pakenham (since she mentions it in her article) her annual expenditure on driving would increase to $6,371 p.a. because it’s 57 km from her workplace. But the cost of the train would be the same as it is from St Albans, since both stations are in Zone 2.
It’s important to note that I’ve only considered variable costs, specifically parking, fuel, tyres and servicing – I’ve taken no account of the cost of owning the car. But it makes no sense to ignore standing costs, because if she doesn’t actually have a car she can’t drive to work! The RACV says the annual standing cost of a Hyundai i30 is $5,668, made up primarily of depreciation, interest, insurance and registration.
If I assume commuting accounts for half of her total annual travel by car (i.e. she drives 7,480 km to work each year as well as doing a further 7,480 km p.a. in non-work travel), then the standing costs that should be attributed to her journey to work come to $2,834.
Add that $2,834 to the $3,444 she pays for parking, fuel, tyres and servicing and Ms Costa is up for an annual total of $6,278 for the privilege of driving to work from St Albans. Remember, a myki Yearly Pass will cost much less, just $2,021, and even a myki Daily Cap will cost her $2,438 for the year. Read the rest of this entry »
Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year?Posted: December 8, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: fare increase, Metlink, online survey, Public transport, spin, Terry Mulder, The Age 10 Comments
There’s never any shortage of creativity when politicians, business and the media want to put a particular ‘spin’ – meaning an interpretation that furthers their own agenda, sometimes irrespective of logic, truth or salience – on an issue.
I saw a couple of interesting ‘spins’ this week when the Victorian Government announced the public transport fare increase that takes effect from January 1 2012. Three in particular caught my attention. I don’t know if they’re “best in show” but I think they might be leading contenders for The Melbourne Urbanist’s (proposed) annual SPIN Award to honour excellence in deceptiveness, bias, self-serving behaviour and a related string of detestable (and yet to be defined) offences.
The first is the on-line survey The Age ran this week to accompany its story breaking* the news about the fare increase. The Age blatantly sought the sympathy of outraged readers, posing the following question in its on-line survey:
Will you use less public transport as a result of the increase in fares in 2012?
- Yes, I can’t afford to pay any more so will look at other options
- No, I’ve got no choice but to fork out the extra cash in fares
For what it’s worth, 52% answered no. But it’s not worth much because almost everything imaginable is wrong with this survey. For a start it’s a leading question, connecting the increase directly to “less” use. That might be tolerated in a newspaper survey, given a more neutral alternative could be a bit clumsy. But where it goes seriously bad is with response options that don’t settle for a straightforward “Yes” or “No”.
Instead, The Age assumes it knows the reasons for the reader’s answer and and there’re only two possibilities – either “I can’t afford to pay” or “I’ve got no choice”. Other possibilities aren’t considered. What, for example, do respondents do if they want to say “No, I’m happy to pay to improve public transport”, or “Yes, it’s a matter of principle”?
The response options should’ve been a straightforward and unambiguous “Yes” or “No” (and a “don’t know”, or similar, is always a good idea). But this is not a survey designed to get an objective answer. It’s simply and unabashedly part of the main news story. It might as well be a photo or a breakout box. It’s not there to add objectivity; it’s there to add a bit of “colour”. Even the single “No” answer on offer is heavily biased to a begrudging acceptance – “I’ve got no choice”.
At first I wondered why journalism schools don’t give their students a basic grounding in survey design. After all, on-line surveys are ubiquitous. But then I realised that would be pointless – on-line surveys by media organisations are a tool of drama, not research.
The second comes from Metlink, which evidently will go to any lengths to present the fare increase in a favourable light. Counter-intuitively, Metlink tells travellers they “can beat the price rise” by switching from Metcard to myki. Here’s how Metlink says it can be done:
For example, a 2 hour Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 20 cents to $4 while a 2 hour myki cap will increase by 26 cents to $3.28. A Daily Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 60 cents to $7.60 and the daily myki cap will increase 52 cents to $6.56. A Daily Zone 1 + 2 Metcard will increase 90 cents to $11.90, while the equivalent myki fare will increase 88 cents to $11.08.
On this evidence Metlink won’t pass Communication 101, but the bottom line is myki really is cheaper under the new structure than Metcard is at present for the exact comparisons Metlink has specified. Trouble is, Metlink has very carefully cherry-picked its examples. It’s only true if the traveller shifts from a single use Metcard this year to a multi-use ticket next year (and not just to myki – works for multi use Metcards too).
However all those travellers who already have a myki won’t be able to “beat the price rise”. Nor will regular travellers who currently use multi-trip Metcards like a 10x2hr or a 5xDaily be able to “beat the price rise” – Zone 1 versions of both those tickets cost $30.20 at present, or $6.04 per day for a two-way commute. Under the new fare structure, a daily myki cap will cost more – $6.56.
The comparison Metlink is making is dubious – it’s not comparing apples with apples. Myki isn’t an “occasional” system like a 2 hour Metcard. Travellers don’t top-up $3.28 each time they want to make the occasional trip within Zone 1. Myki is more like a multi-trip Metcard – users who top-up via the web or the call centre must put in $10 minimum. I expect most people put in considerably more because it’s bothersome to top-up frequently. This after all is one of the advantages of myki.
Myki should be compared against multi-trip Metcards. As noted above, that comparison reveals myki doesn’t enable travellers to come even close to “beating the price rise”. Read the rest of this entry »
Is the 9% increase in public transport fares…fair?Posted: December 7, 2011 Filed under: Public transport | Tags: fare evasion, fare increase, Metlink, MYKI, public good, Public transport, revenue, Sydney, tariff 17 Comments
Many people are outraged that the Government has dared to increase public transport fares in real terms. From 1 January, fares in Melbourne will rise by around 9%, well in excess of the rate of inflation (3.6% for the 12 months to the September Quarter).
From what I can make out, I don’t think anyone is questioning the need to increase revenue for public transport. For all its virtues, the system needs billions spent on things like improved signalling, track upgrades and duplications, more train sets, new rail lines, improved security, and much more. Patronage has grown at around 5% p.a. and that increases costs. Indeed, spending more to improve the system is the key to sustaining increasing patronage.
So the issue is not about the need for more money, but rather about where it should come from i.e. who should pay. Additional revenue for higher capital and operating purposes can only come from a limited range of sources. The main possibilities are:
- From passengers via fares;
- From taxpayers generally (by foregoing expenditure elsewhere in the Transport portfolio or beyond);
- From efficiency improvements e.g. reduced fare evasion, less restrictive work practices;
- From the beneficiaries of the public transport system e.g. land value capture, levies on city centre businesses;
- From other transport activities with undesirable side-effects e.g. congestion pricing; levy on car registration.
Each of these sources might be able to contribute something, but the revenue task is huge and there are practical and political limits to how much each can put in.
Fares are an important tool because they directly link supply and demand and they have history. Paying for service is a well established principle in public transport – there are very few public transport systems around the world that don’t charge fares.
Melbourne public transport users already get a pretty good deal – their fares recover none of the capital costs and only 44% of operating costs. Moreover, judged against some other cities, Melbourne’s fares aren’t especially high compared to the cost of providing the service (see exhibit).
The key market for the system is CBD workers who on average are reasonably well paid relative to their counterparts in other parts of the city. Further, a significant proportion of public transport users already benefit from concessional fares.
Those who argue that funding should come from general revenue rather than from passengers don’t always think about what would have to be foregone. They often implicitly imagine it would be at the expense of something they personally see as valueless or negative (new freeway construction is a common target).
But there’s nil guarantee of that. Any such decision would be made by the Government of the day according to its priorities and values. It might come at the expense of a very worthy transport project or it might come at the expense of another portfolio, perhaps a highly emotive one like education, health or community services. This attitude just shifts the problem to somewhere else where it might possibly impact others with less capacity than CBD workers.
In the short term – and this increase will take effect within four weeks – there are really only two choices: raise fares or fund the increase from elsewhere in the budget. In the longer term however there are possible alternatives to future fare increases. Read the rest of this entry »
How much housing can brownfields sites supply?Posted: December 6, 2011 Filed under: Planning | Tags: brownfield, Housing, industrial, redevelopment, zoning 9 Comments
Governments like to point to disused industrial sites as a significant source of land for expanding housing supply within the established suburbs. Only recently, for example, the Victorian Government talked up the potential of Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend as a new “Growth Corridor”.
So-called brownfields sites can make a useful contribution to housing supply but the available evidence suggests their potential is over-stated. One of the risks of taking too-optimistic a view of brownfields is that the formidable obstacles to other sources of supply – like higher density housing in activity centres and infill developments – will tend to be neglected.
The potential of brownfields sites is limited by a number of factors. They might be in locations that are unattractive to the market (e.g. deep within an industrial area) or are expensive to service. Some have been contaminated by industrial processes and it’s possible another use might be preferred over housing.
Challenge Melbourne, the discussion paper prepared to kick-off the Melbourne 2030 process, estimated brownfields sites could contribute 65,000 dwellings over the period 2001 to 2030. While useful, this was well short of the estimated number of new dwellings that need to be constructed – for example, the latest edition of Victoria in Future projects the number of households in Melbourne will grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036.
Now the Planning Department has produced a new study which throws further light on the likely contribution brownfields sites could make to housing supply in Melbourne.
The department estimates more than 400 ha of industrial land was rezoned from industrial to residential in Melbourne over the last ten years. The exhibit shows new housing constructed on former industrial sites in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston.
That’s an average of 40 hectares each year over the last ten years. If each hectare was developed at a net density (say) of 20 dwellings, that would mean brownfields sites have contributed on average 800 dwellings p.a. to Melbourne’s housing task.
Compared to Victoria in Future’s projection that the number of households in Melbourne will grow by an average of 27,500 p.a. between 2006 and 2036, that 800 dwellings p.a. seems a decidedly modest contribution. In fact, it’s not certain that rezoning always leads to development and, where it does, what proportion of the site is used for housing. Many of the lots identified by the Department are in suburban locations so even my assumed net density of 20 dwellings per ha might be optimistic.
There are of course other non-industrial sites that could potentially be used for housing. For example, a major housing development was proposed for the former Coburg High School site in Bell St (although it appears to have fallen over). The trouble is there are likely to be many fewer such sites available than industrial sites. I’m not in any case aware of an estimate of their likely supply potential and the associated timing.
I applaud DPCD for producing this new study. There are still many questions around the supply potential of brownfields and other major sites, so I would like to see the department continue with this work. As it stands, the existing evidence suggests the Government should be very wary about over-selling the contribution brownfields can make to housing supply in Melbourne.
Book giveaway: follow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Jarrett’s Walker’s new book, Human Transit
Are we squandering infill housing opportunities?Posted: December 5, 2011 Filed under: Housing, Planning | Tags: Alphington, councils, density, dual occupancy, infill, medium density housing, third party appeals 29 Comments
I’ve argued before (here, here and here) that new housing supply within Melbourne’s established suburbs is excessively dependent on small-scale infill housing projects. In the expansive middle ring suburbs, around half of all housing projects provide only one or two additional dwellings, with the great majority providing only one.
It’s therefore important to look at other options, but given it’s carrying most of the burden, it’s also worth asking if infill is being managed as efficiently as it could be.
The exhibit above shows a newly completed infill development at 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd in suburban Alphington (here are some interior pictures). It provides eight dwellings on an 825 sq m site that originally would’ve been intended to accommodate a single detached house like its neighbour.
That’s a big up-lift in density – if most infill projects yielded this many new dwellings we wouldn’t have a supply problem. But the great bulk are simple dual occupancy developments. This raises the important issue of whether we’re maximising the value we’re getting from the limited supply of precious infill sites.
If projects that could yield four, six or eight new units are only providing one, then that could represent a very high opportunity cost. Given that activity centres in the middle ring suburbs are mostly failing to deliver much new housing, what we ideally want to see is each lot delivering to its full potential – yielding the maximum number of new dwellings that, having regard to its particular circumstances, it reasonably could.
There are of course many “objective” reasons why not all projects can yield as many dwellings as 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd. Some redevelopment sites are small or inconveniently shaped. Some may have infrastructure inadequacies or access might be hard.
There are also a range of legitimate planning constraints like heritage, over-looking and solar access that might limit the number of units that can be built on a given lot. And the nature of the market in a particular area could mean the highest return comes from building fewer dwellings rather than maximising the total number.
But there are reasons to suspect that “objective” factors do not always, or even usually, explain why a lot isn’t developed to its potential. Consider these two contiguous lots in Elphin St Ivanhoe – although they’re the same size and have a common context, one has six dwellings and the other has two.
The most commonly cited explanation for these sorts of anomalies is the “dead hand” of the planning system. Additional cost and risk is imposed on projects by self-interested opposition from existing residents. Councils often lack the resources and skills to deal with the complexity of sophisticated opposition and, not surprisingly, often take a position more sympathetic to their constituents than to the developer.
There’s a range of measures that have been suggested to tilt the balance more toward redevelopment. These include abolition of third party appeals (the issue got a run in The Age recently), code-based approval systems, more resources for councils, better forward planning, and so on. I endorse this position but there’s no doubt it’s very hard politically, both for councils and the state government.
I think there’s another approach that’s worth thinking about, particularly for the middle ring suburbs. We know infill developers tend to be small and it could be that many simply lack the knowledge, skills, access to finance and appetite for risk to enable them to undertake larger projects. They might not have the wherewithal to push for larger projects in the face of vigorous opposition from neighbours and limited support from timid councils.
Perhaps the project class with the greatest potential for “under-utilisation” is dual occupancy. Landowners carve off a bit of land and sell it, usually for the construction of one additional dwelling. That way they get to stay in their old house and transform some excess land into cash without taking much risk.
That’s a net addition to supply so it’s positive. While in many cases the value of the existing dwelling will preclude more intense development, dual occupancy is a lost opportunity if the entire site could’ve been successfully redeveloped for four, six or eight dwellings. Read the rest of this entry »
Book giveaway!!! – ‘Human Transit’ by Jarrett WalkerPosted: December 4, 2011 Filed under: Books | Tags: book, Human Transit, Jarrett Walker, Public transport Leave a comment
Here’s some great news, just in time for Christmas! I’m very pleased to announce I have two copies of Jarrett Walker’s much-anticipated new book, Human Transit, to give away at random to readers of The Melbourne Urbanist.
This is a very big deal. Many readers will know Jarrett as the “transit experts’ expert”, as well as through his internationally renowned blog, Human Transit. His new book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, will be published later this month in Australia by NewSouth Books (ahead of the rest of the world, too).
The book aims to make transit choices clear to the interested general reader, including elected officials, advocates, and professionals in related fields. Here’s NewSouth’s blurb:
Public transit is a powerful tool for addressing a huge range of urban problems, including traffic congestion and economic development as well as climate change. But while many people support transit in the abstract, it’s often hard to channel that support into good transit investments. In Human Transit, Jarrett Walker supplies the basic tools, the critical questions, and the means to make smarter decisions about designing and implementing transit services.
To be in the running to win, all you have to do is nominate your favourite rail station, tram stop or bus stop in Melbourne. Follow this link to enter, or go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (whatever you do, don’t enter here!). Entries close in two weeks at midday Saturday, 17th December 2011. One entry per person and I can only post within Australia.
As always, the quality of your nomination has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not you’ll win. The winner will be determined at random. You just can’t be in the running unless you make a nomination. Of course, a little explanation would be appreciated.
You can get much more info on the book if you follow the link, including the entire introduction and a detailed Table of Contents. You can order an advance copy direct from NewSouth Books and get a 20% discount.
I’ll be reviewing Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives just as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.
Remember, follow this link to enter, or go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (but don’t enter on this page).
Links for urbanists No. 5Posted: December 1, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous 1 Comment
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:
- Council against paid parking at shopping centre
- The secret to a long and healthy life: bike to the shop
- What does it cost to build a subway?
- Transportation costs too much
- A transit city is a centralised city
- National Geographic photo contest 2011
- Animals like you’ve never seen them before
- The limits of congestion pricing
- Public transport patronage trends in Australasian cities – updated
- Dawn of the dead mall
- Jane Jacobs – an urban legacy in need of renewal
- Parking datapoints of the day
- US road fatalities – map of every fatality 2001-09
- Quirky cycling images
- Copenhagen: cycle city
- Downtown office development
- How to look better with Photoshop – before and after
- A list of fallacies
- Is High Speed Rail a real alternative?
- Urbanised – the movie
- What is the limit to population growth?
- Can public transport defeat congestion?
- Melbourne’s city square
- Are the US 99% in the richest 1% in the world?
- What a child of two lesbians is like
- How good are robots?
- Daniel Kahneman answers readers’ questions
- WTF!? The earth is a net exporter