What to read over the holiday season?

That violin's worth $3.5 million! He's playing some very complex Bach

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?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

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?

What are they laughing at? Some Xmas cheer - the Berlin Laughter Project

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?

Utzon's competition-winning entry for the Sydney Opera House - fortunately, he liked oranges! (from SMH 30 Jan 1957)

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?

What's the answer?

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. 6

Correlation is not causation

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:

  1. 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)
  2. Motoring helmets for car drivers – “Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace”
  3. Ted Baillieu’s favourite Melbourne buildings. He’s not likely to annoy anyone – the most recent is Alkira House, built in 1937
  4. How to increase capacity on SkyBus? – use “double deckers”
  5. Evolution of the London Underground map
  6. 16 global cities to watch in the future, according to Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen – but where’s Melbourne?
  7. Naughty and nice in transport advertising – Waking up in Geelong
  8. 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)
  9. The importance of place – scientists who are geographically close do better work (especially those within 10 metres of each other)
  10. Should speed limits be higher? No, the social costs of speed limit increases are three to ten times larger than the social benefits
  11. What does it cost to run a car? RACV’s guide to what it costs to run new cars of all sizes and shapes
  12. Barbarians on the Thames – hindsight analysis of the British riots by Theodore Dalrymple
  13. Sir Rod Eddington interviewed by Professor Peter Newman – they’re old colleagues!
  14. The death and life of great architecture criticism
  15. Slowing motorists down is the best way to increase safety for cyclists according to Britain’s Department for Transport
  16. Commuting cost analysis: bus vs bicycle vs car
  17. All you need to know about Birrarung Marr
  18. There was a time when the great political worry was that we’d leave no coal for future generations
  19. A review of Steven Pinker’s new book, The better angels of our nature, by Peter Singer
  20. A joke about a snail
  21. Imagining life in 2076

Would we use an airport train (as much as we say we would)?

Ground transport mode share for Melbourne Airport passengers (%) - data from Melbourne Airport

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 »