It’s a truism that development costs are much higher on the urban fringe than in inner areas. But there’s little evidence the claim still holds and good reason to think it’s no longer the case
A study of urban form in the US concludes that increasing the density of population and employment is a slow way to significantly reduce car use compared to directly pricing driving
It would be a pity if the “Sky Rail” brouhaha in Melbourne over removal of level crossings were to damage the potential use of elevated rail for totally new rail lines in all Australian cities
Here are the ‘top twelve’ articles posted on The Melbourne Urbanist in 2011 i.e. those that got, in order, the most readers:
- What were they thinking?
- Will redevelopment of Fishermans Bend really be revolutionary?
- The distribution of wealth: perception vs reality
- Is this building offensive?
- Is this a real tram ‘network’?
- How many travellers use the trains?
- How can trams be made better?
- Are these really the most (and least) liveable suburbs in Melbourne?
- How liveable are our major cities?
- Melbourne ‘fantasy’ rail map
- What causes urban riots?
- What is the key challenge for cycling policy?
Note that this list refers only to articles posted in 2011 and naturally it favours articles written earlier in the year. The three most-read articles in 2011 were in fact posted in 2010 i.e. Is water priced to encourage conservation?, How big is Melbourne?, and Banging the high rise drum.
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 »
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 »
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.
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
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
The exhibit shows two seemingly similar patterns – but one of them is random and one isn’t. Can you tell which is which? More in a moment.
I’ve taken these plots from Steven Pinker’s new book, The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. It’s in a Chapter titled The statistics of deadly quarrels where he discusses the statistical patterning of wars and takes a small detour into “a paradox of utility”, specifically our tendency to see randomness as regularity with little clustering.
This cognitive illusion has relevance to all disciplines but is of particular interest to anyone interested in spatial issues, as a couple of these examples show.
Professor Pinker, who’s a psychologist at Harvard, cites the example of the London blitz, when Londoners noticed a few sections of the city were hit by German V-2 rockets many times, while other parts were not hit at all:
They were convinced that the rockets were targeting particular kinds of neighborhoods. But when statisticians divided a map of London into small squares and counted the bomb strikes, they found that the strikes followed the distribution of a Poisson process—the bombs, in other words, were falling at random. The episode is depicted in Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, in which statistician Roger Mexico has correctly predicted the distribution of bomb strikes, though not their exact locations. Mexico has to deny that he is a psychic and fend off desperate demands for advice on where to hide
Another example is The Gambler’s Fallacy – the belief that after a long run of (say) heads, the next toss will be tails:
Tversky and Kahneman showed that people think that genuine sequences of coin flips (like TTHHTHTTTT) are fixed, because they have more long runs of heads or of tails than their intuitions allow, and they think that sequences that were jiggered to avoid long runs (like HTHTTHTHHT) are fair
The exhibit above shows a simulated plot of the stars on the left. On the right it shows the pattern made by glow worms on the ceiling of the famous Waitomo caves, New Zealand. The stars show constellation-like forms but the virtual planetarium produced by the glow worms is relatively uniform.
That’s because glow worms are gluttonous and inclined to eat anything that comes within snatching distance, so they keep their distance from each other and end up relatively evenly spaced i.e. non-randomly. Says Pinker:
The one on the left, with the clumps, strands, voids, and filaments (and perhaps, depending on your obsessions, animals, nudes, or Virgin Marys) is the array that was plotted at random, like stars. The one on the right, which seems to be haphazard, is the array whose positions were nudged apart, like glowworms
Thus random events will occur in clusters, because “it would take a non-random process to space them out. The human mind has great difficulty appreciating this law of probability”. Read the rest of this entry »
Yes, it’s Melbourne Cup time, “the richest two mile handicap in the world” since 1861. So, it’s obligatory to find a horsey topic.
In SuperFreakonomics, their follow-up to the highly successful Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner relate the Parable of Horseshit, or how the car and public transport saved New York from asphyxiating under tonnes of dung.
The authors’ purpose was to show that trends don’t go on forever and that technological innovation can have a key role in addressing severe problems (although this got them into a huge controversy when they applied this way of thinking to climate change!), but I want to stick to the equine angle.
Eric Morris provides a knowledgeable and informed account of the enormous problems posed by animals in urban areas, most especially horses, in From horse power to horsepower. It’s only nine pages, however there’s a much briefer account by Elizabeth Kolbert, published in the New Yorker. It’s from her review of SuperFreakonomics. Even if you already know the outline of the story, she brings some interesting detail:
In the eighteen-sixties, the quickest, or at least the most popular, way to get around New York was in a horse-drawn streetcar. The horsecars, which operated on iron rails, offered a smoother ride than the horse-drawn omnibuses they replaced. (The Herald described the experience of travelling by omnibus as a form of “modern martyrdom.”) New Yorkers made some thirty-five million horsecar trips a year at the start of the decade. By 1870, that figure had tripled.
The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets. By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.
The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days. Read the rest of this entry »
The Melbourne Urbanist will be travelling for the next couple of weeks and is unlikely to be in a position to put up any new posts while on the road. You can still read the extensive archive and leave comments. Transmission will resume around the middle of October.
Assorted links to some of the useful, the informative, the interesting, and sometimes even the slightly weird sources I stumble across from time-to-time:
- Ghosts of Manhattan’s Highline (and other traces of the past). Some commentary on historical opposition to elevated rail lines in NY
- Some people are very serious about No Far King Par King across their driveways!
- A brief economic explanation of peak oil
- Some links on the decline in car travel – The end of motoring and The road less travelled
- Plea to abolish train zones – from the Dandenong Leader
- US rail construction costs compared to some other places
- The magic formula for increasing transit ridership – make it hard and make it expensive to use cars
- The agglomeration benefits of Britain’s Crossrail project
- Loud s*x is a billion dollar problem
- Is Charles Darwin the real founder of economics?
- Trends in car occupancy in Australia
- Life in the fast lane – Melbourne’s laneways
- Psychogeography and the end of planning (this is about Reyner Banham and LA)
- Cities as hotels – would privately owned cities work?
- Understanding liveable city rankings
- The Bolt case is actually not the perfect opportunity to argue bravely for freedom of expression. The judgement by Bromberg J, with summary, is here.
- Higher density creates jobs and increases productivity. This report in the NY Times is adapted from a chapter in Ryan Avent’s new e-book, The Gated City. Here’s another extract, this time from The Atlantic. You can buy a copy of this excellent book to read on your computer, iPad, iPhone or Kindle for less than $2 from Amazon. I’m reading it on my iPhone in those idle moments (you don’t need a Kindle).
- A collection of reviews, comments and reactions to The Gated City, from Alex Tabarrok, Lloyd Alter (and again), Yonah Freemark, Chris Bradford, Peter Gordon, David Levinson, Jim Gleeson, and Randall O’Toole. Some follow-up comments by Ryan Avent: Urbanists and evidence; Jobs and density; Moving towards stagnation (audio); and Expensive real estate drives away people and jobs (video)
- Ryan Avent yet again, but this time reviewing the volume that started the intellectual e-book fashion, Tyler Cowen’s The great stagnation (I sought to download it for $4 from Amazon at the start of the year but was refused access – eventually got an ePub, but it was a torrent of trouble. Note that I had no territorial problems with Amazon when I bought The Gated City). Some further analysis by Noah Smith.
- Stephen Rowley reports on his visit to the village that inspired the New Urbanism, Seaside, Florida
- Architecture for developing countries – leave the ‘design’ attitude at home please
- More on the importance of density (or is it city size?) for innovation and productivity
- The perils of opening a store in Manhattan. “She also realized too late that people wouldn’t be inclined to buy a dozen Glassybabys, the way they do in Seattle, because they would have to carry them home. “In Seattle, everyone had cars so we never thought about it,” Ms. Rhodes said”
Urban policy is rich in opportunities for fallacious thinking – for example, surveys that purport to show huge latent demand for a particular mode of transport, but sample only users of that mode. So I’m always interested in new examples of where we can so easily go wrong.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution recently provided a pointer to this great historical example by John D. Cook of the importance of selection bias. It isn’t specifically related to urban policy, but nevertheless provides a valuable lesson. Cook says:
During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armour to their bombers. After analysing the records, he recommended adding more armour to the places where there was no damage!
According to Cook, while it seems backward at first, Wald realised his data came from bombers that hadn’t been shot down:
That is, the British were only able to analyse the bombers that returned to England; those that were shot down over enemy territory were not part of their sample. These (surviving) bombers’ wounds showed where they could afford to be hit. Said another way, the undamaged areas on the survivors showed where the lost planes must have been hit because the planes hit in those areas did not return from their missions.
Wald assumed that the bullets were fired randomly, that no one could accurately aim for a particular part of the bomber. Instead they aimed in the general direction of the plane and sometimes got lucky. So, for example, if Wald saw that more bombers in his sample had bullet holes in the middle of the wings, he did not conclude that Nazis liked to aim for the middle of wings. He assumed that there must have been about as many bombers with bullet holes in every other part of the plane but that those with holes elsewhere were not part of his sample because they had been shot down.
Here’s another example via Marc Gawley, who noted a BBC story implying that three quarters of those committing crimes during the London riots had previous convictions or cautions. Is that really true, he wonders, or:
is it that those with previous convictions have their details on a police database and it was therefore possible to identify (and find) those people based on images from photographs and recordings made last month? Read the rest of this entry »
It’s a very brave or very insensitive American who would publicly question his nation’s entire 9/11 memorial project on the day of the tenth anniversary. Yet just a few days ago, on the morning of 11 September, US economist Robin Hanson began his internationally popular blog, Overcoming Bias, by complaining that half the comics in his Sunday paper “are not-funny 9/11 memorials”.
I did my own mawkish 9/11 ‘memorialising’ last time (the video On the transmigration of souls), so I too was guilty of dishing out largely uninformative and non-analytical content on this occasion. But Professor Hanson has a much bigger message (the links are his):
In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration….
Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.
Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.
Just to really drive home his point, Professor Hanson updated his post with a link to news agency Aljazeera, which featured an article Let’s forget 9/11 by American Tom Engelhardt, author of The American way of war: how Bush’s wars became Obama’s and The end of victory culture.
Not surprisingly, given this was 11 September, some comments from readers were pretty direct:
This will, sadly, be the last time I read your blog.
You, Mr. Hanson, are an idiot. You have no conception of mythos or national dignity. Good bye, sir.
Robin, you’re “fricking” out of your mind.
A co-worker used to have a little sign in her office: Most people know how to remain silent. Few people know when.
Some other comments took issue with his basic argument:
Insensitivity will not stop people from being affected by some tragedies more than others.
Human nature is to attach greater significance to things that are close to us and have evoked personal feelings, rather than basing it on magnitude alone. And there is nothing wrong with that. Your moralizing is no better than the ridiculous moralizing that has gone on in the past ten years in reaction to 9/11. Everyone has their story to tell; yours involves looking down on the natural human reaction to a dramatic event. That is all.
Defence against terrorists, not solidarity with victims, explains the “pissing away” of three trillion dollars.
You cannot reasonably expect this sort of brazen and demented contrarianism to induce readers in search of a new moral framework to think, “hrm, maybe I’ll give this utilitarianism thing a whirl and see where it takes me!”
Might as well forget about the Holocaust too. In the bigger scheme of things, what were only 6M Jews?
But quite a few comments were supportive of Professor Hanson’s view:
I think what Robin is saying is that the response to 9/11 didn’t do any of the things that the “leaders” who pushed those responses said those responses were going to do. What those responses did do was piss away $3 Trillion (and counting), kill a bunch of US soldiers, and squander the “good will” of the rest of the world while committing great evils; the killing of many Iraqi civilians, the strengthening of al Qaeda and the bankrupting of the US economy.
If only one 1/100 of the social capital spent on 9/11 remembrance was spent on organ markets… I would expect more than 100x as many lives would have been saved compared to any anti-terrorist measures implemented because of 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »
- The wonderful world of Cat Poljski.
- A “brief, wondrous” history of brutalist architecture. Back in the olden days when I was a student, we were weaned on photos of this sort of stuff. Like religion, if they get you young enough you’re a goner – I still love the pile of Mars Bars Moshe Safdie confected for Habitat 67 (although this photograph is its least flattering angle).
- The Naipaul test – can you tell the sex of the authors of these novels just by reading a brief extract? V.S. Naipaul once famously claimed: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not”.
- Better pedestrian infrastructure is essential for safer roads and neighbourhoods – the tragic case of Raquel Nelson and her son AJ, in Atlanta.
- Have we already hit and passed ‘peak electricity’ in Australia?
- A simple economic model of fare evasion and non-compliance.
- Intercity buses are much cheaper than trains in the US (if you ignore the cost of building the roads).
- There’s lots of competition between PC makers but they’re all competing on price. Only one company makes the iMac but it has the freedom to make something really good.
- A lighter bicycle doesn’t make you any faster.
- Mark Twain on Taming the Bicycle (this is the real Mark Twain).
- The California Cycleway, opened in 1900, was an elevated tollway built specially for bicycle traffic through the Arroyo Seco, intended to connect the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles.
- The Great Transition claims to provide the first comprehensive blueprint for building an economy based on stability, sustainability and equality.
- The parallel between climate change and teaching evolution in schools in Tennessee in 1925.
- Cost Overruns: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Bent Flyvbjerg.
- GPS and the end of the road – place and placelessness in America.
- 19th century cyclists paved the way for modern motorists’ roads.
- All aboard Tokyo’s last surviving streetcar.
- Melbourne is No. 8 in Askmen.com’s list of the 25 cities for blokes to visit in 2011.
- The top-10 least-polluting cities in the US – LA is No. 8 and Miami is No. 5. Having a temperate climate helps heaps.
- Video flythrough of Westfield’s new Stratford shopping centre in London.
- A new look at the industrial revolution – how it broke free from the shackles of land.
- Stockholm is the only city in the world where electors voted for congestion pricing.
The good thing about ‘winning’ the World’s Most Liveable City gong is that it might help market Melbourne to overseas tourists, students, investors and maybe even buyers of our services. Unlike the Grand Prix, it costs us nothing. And while it won’t stop some Melburnians from pissing in trains (like this guy in case you missed him in yesterday’s post), it might give many others greater pride in their city. The thousands of Melburnians who travel overseas for business or pleasure each year can now be ambassadors for their city with this neat and handy marketing tool.
But of course league tables like The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Liveability Survey are all bunkum and sensible people shouldn’t be sucked in. The EIU’s Survey purportedly provides an objective ranking of world cities based on 58 variables measuring dimensions like political stability, health care, environment, culture, education and infrastructure. However, as I’ve explained before (here, here and here), there are a number of reasons why liveability league tables are best left to the marketeers.
The EIU’s Survey is designed primarily to assist companies with formulating appropriate living allowances for staff posted to overseas cities. These people are transitory and well-heeled – they don’t experience the city like the average permanent resident. They usually rent somewhere convenient and salubrious, so they won’t care too much about high housing prices and inadequacies in outer suburban public transport.
There are also difficult methodological problems involved in arriving at a single summary ranking of a city’s “liveability”. These sorts of surveys typically have lots of variables – some are easy to measure, others are very subjective. The analysts often make the convenient but unrealistic assumption that they’re all of equal value (weight). Not all of them can be ‘added’ together in any meaningful sense, yet they have to be to arrive at a simple league table.
The differences between top cities in these sorts of surveys are in any event miniscule and hence of little consequence. For example, the top five ranked cities in the EIU’s survey all scored 97 points out of 100 (see exhibit) – this would be swamped by the margin of error in the estimates. The EIU acknowledges that “some 63 cities (down to Santiago in Chile) are considered to be in the very top tier of liveability, where few problems are encountered…. Melbourne in first place and Santiago in 63rd place (can) both lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles”.
Defining “liveability” is itself a difficult challenge (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the ‘Sydney vs Melbourne’ debate – see here and here). The EIU finds the concept so slippery it comes up with this tautology: “The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions”. Arriving at a consensus definition is extremely hard because it depends on a number of factors, like the characteristics of the observer – for example, their ethnicity, their income, their stage in the life cycle and so on. The vibrant centre of Melbourne might add nothing to the city’s liveability for someone who’s elderly, or on a low income, or a member of a cultural group that is under-represented in the city.
It’s not surprising the EIU’s top ten cities seem to be all of a one. They’re all medium sized cities (no megalopolises here), they’re practically all low to middling density, they’re all in first world countries and, with the possible exception of Sydney, they all have cool to cold climates. What seems obvious is that the ranking is shaped much more by the characteristics of the host country than anything else. Factors like political stability, health and education – which loom large in the selection calculus – are pretty much the same whether you’re in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide or Auckland.
I would be more inclined to focus on the attractiveness of a city and measure how sought after it is (perhaps by looking at the difference between wages and housing costs). It’s instructive, I think, that few of the cities in the EIU’s top ten are the sorts of places young people around the world seem to aspire to live in. Let’s be realistic, Australian cities don’t have quite the drawing power of places like London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris.
The slightly different methodology used by the rival Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranks Sydney 10th and Melbourne 18th. This is a big drop in ranking for Melbourne compared to the EIU Survey, but again the difference in ranking is far larger than the difference in absolute scores, which is small. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the more bizarre examples of ‘story manufacturing’ in the media I’ve seen for a while – and we regularly have some doozies – went down in News Ltd papers right across Australia on Friday.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story headlined Congestion road tax on drivers is highway robbery. The lead para told us: “workers struggling with a carbon tax are about to be hit with a second wave of Greens-inspired tax pain”. This story was repeated in News Ltd papers across the country. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun was so concerned at this imminent threat it even published an editorial on the matter, No to a new Tax – “Australians do not need another new tax”, it thundered.
And what exactly is this new tax workers are about to be hit with? Well, there’s a clue in the rest of the Herald-Sun’s (short) editorial:
Even the idea of a congestion tax, put forward by the Federal Government yesterday for discussion at the tax forum, will have taxpayers shaking their heads. Fortunately, the Gillard Government will not be able to impose this tax on top of the carbon tax, and all the other taxes Labor has brought in, because it needs the agreement of the states. A congestion tax on cars was suggested by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to help cut petrol excise, but the taxpayers can take only so much. No, no, no.
“Even the idea”?! The incontrovertible fact is there is no new tax. All this supposed angst is manufactured from a handful of words in the Government’s new 36 page Discussion Paper released on Thursday in advance of October’s Tax Forum. The Forum is one of the conditions the independents set for their support of the Government.
The Discussion Paper canvasses a wide range of tax issues participants at the Forum might wish to discuss. These relate to personal tax, transfer payments, business tax, State taxes, environmental and social taxes, and tax system governance. At page 30, it notes the Henry Review recommended governments consider the introduction of variable congestion pricing and therefore poses the following question as a prompt for discussion:
Is there a case to more closely link road charging to the impact users have on the level of congestion on particular roads?
That’s it. It’s just a question. Moreover it’s one of 34 proposed for discussion. And so it should be – I’d be very upset if the most important prospective policy for improving the way we manage our cities wasn’t at least on the table. Read the rest of this entry »
A few months ago, writer Julie Szego bemoaned the Americanisation of place names in Melbourne. She identified two examples – the “Madison at Upper West Side” development on the old Spencer St power station site and “Tribeca” on the former Victoria Brewery site in East Melbourne.
She invoked the spirit of Robin Boyd to explain just how easy it to sell the gloss and sparkle of New York to aspirational Melburnians:
Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness, the highly influential polemic about cultural cringe in the 1950s and early ’60s, observed that the most ”fearful” aspect of Australia’s low-rent mimicry of the American aesthetic ”is that beneath its stillness and vacuous lack of enterprise is a terrible smugness, an acceptance of the frankly second-hand and the second-class, a wallowing in the kennel of cultural underdog”
While Melbourne’s developers and apartment buyers pretend they’re living Sex in the City downunder, real New Yorkers are continuously inventing new, home-grown names to market projects. Here are six New York neighbourhoods you probably haven’t heard of:
SoLita: Downtown Manhattan, south of NoLita between Tribeca and Little Italy
FiDi: (Financial District, geddit?) Southern tip of Manhattan between the South Street Seaport and Battery Park City
BoCoCa: Brooklyn waterfront area comprising Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, also known as Columbia Street Waterfront District
LIC: Southwestern waterfront tip of Queens, including Hunter’s Point (also known as Long Island City)
Two Bridges: Southeast of Chinatown beneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges
Southside: South part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near Williamsburg Bridge exit
Other examples – some of which resurrect old names or functions – include the Meatpacking District, Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), East Williamsburg and Vinegar Hill. According to this writer, areas “like NoMad (north of Madison Square Park) and others like SoHa (south of Harlem) haven’t exactly caught on yet”. One commenter says that some, like Dumbo, were coined by the populace, not developers.
This has all gotten too much for certain New Yorkers. Suliman Osman reports that a Brooklyn (State) Assemblyman, annoyed that real estate agents are calling the area between Prospect Heights and Crown Heights “ProCro”, is calling for a Neighbourhood Integrity Act. One of his complaints is that rebranding lower income areas as hip could ultimately displace traditional residents. Read the rest of this entry »
My family let our subscription to The Age lapse the other week. It’s not that $419 p.a. isn’t good value – we’d be prepared to pay a bit more if we had to – it’s just that no one in the household reads the print edition of the paper anymore. And we no longer have to pay anything to read The Age electronically!
My wife has a free six months subscription to the iPad version and I read the free online version. More often than not, the home-delivered paper version never got unrolled. So when the decision came to renew for another year there was no point in pouring another $419 down the drain.
Maybe if the circulation department had followed up with a sweetener we might’ve changed our mind out of habit or because the idea of not reading The Age every morning over coffee and croissants is ‘unMelburnian’. But the company didn’t seem overly bothered about losing us (unlike, for example, lean and nimble Crikey, who worked harder at getting me to resubscribe).
Fairfax is having serious problems with its papers. As I understand it, the Sydney Morning Herald is on the verge of going into the red and The Age isn’t far behind. For Melburnians, there is a high probability that The Age as we know it will disappear from newsstands sooner rather than later.
The problems for Fairfax, the company that owns these papers, started with the enormous drop in revenue from classified advertising. These were rightly called “rivers of gold”. Older Melbourne readers might remember the advertising slogan “icpota” (“in the classified pages of The Age”). Fairfax wasn’t very successful in adapting to the online world – companies like car.sales.com, seek.com and eBay stole its market dominance. Nor does the company seem much better today – only last year my Fairfax-owned local paper, the Banyule & Nillumbik Weekly, was blindsided by a newcomer, the Weekly Review, which took over virtually all its real estate advertising. This week the Fairfax paper is 20 pages (with one half-page real estate ad), the Weekly Review is 96 pages (with 79.5 pages of real estate ads).
Another problem for Fairfax is the well known shift of readers (like me) to online media. The company feels it has to have an online presence to “stay in the game” yet it’s too nervous to put up a paywall for fear it will lose readers to other online sites that stay free. It’s earning modest revenue from (awfully intrusive!) online advertising, but Fairfax’s experience with putting its third paper, the Australian Financial Review, behind a paywall hasn’t been positive. The AFR lost visibility because it couldn’t be accessed by search engines, giving newcomers like the online Business Spectator a free kick. From what I can gather, the financial situation of the AFR isn’t healthy either.
New Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood has a plan to turn around the ailing fortunes of Fairfax’s three major newspapers (BTW, Fairfax also owns other assets e.g. 3AW). It seems he’s proposing to put all three online papers behind a semi-permeable paywall where most content is free, but premium content requires payment. This approach would allow search engines access to the site but still leave scope to earn revenue from subscriptions. The New York Times recently moved in this direction – it offers 20 free views per month before requiring a subscription (although if you come to the Times by clicking a link on someone’s sites that doesn’t count toward your 20). Read the rest of this entry »