Are helmet laws suppressing cycling?

If maps were based on time not distance, this is how big (and small) the Netherlands would look

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under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.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?

"The Cloud" - Proposed building in South Korea by MVRDV Architects

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.

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Does it cost less to drive to work than catch the train?

Laneways of Melbourne (photo from Planning Institute - VYP Street Art Tour)

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?

Public transport fares effective 1 January 2012 (Metlink)

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?

Fare revenue per passenger kilometre for selected cities ($)

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?

Examples of former industrial zoned sites now currently zoned residential. Images in clockwise order: Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston (graphic from DPCD)

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.

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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?

Eight unit Infill project, Alphington

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 »