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

Melbourne Metro - proposed tunnel alignment and stations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Are neighbourhood bookshops doomed?

Relative prices of selected magazines in hardcopy (1st col) vs electronic delivery in the US (2nd col) and Australia (3rd col). Chart by Kwanghui-Lim

There’s a small, independent literary bookshop in my local shopping centre whose days, I fear, are numbered. I can’t see how it will survive the online challenge. Its likely demise will make the shopping centre even more monocultural. This isn’t a big shop like Readings in Carlton, so its scope to live on by “adding value” for customers is limited.

Some people really love their local bookshops. In Friday’s Crikey, Ben Eltham said “many independent bookshops offer…..character, passion and charm”. What they provide, he says, is:

An induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.

Not sure I like the “secret society” bit, but as a keen reader I understand the delights of browsing, even though I don’t make a lot of use of my local bookshop. Although Readings is further away, I’m much more likely to browse there because I can combine it with a visit to the movies and dinner. Readings is also bigger with a larger range of specialised books.

However the key reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the local store is because, like most people, I’m actually far more interested in reading than I am in the act of buying. The fact is the internet offers me a vastly superior buying/browsing experience and thereby gives me more time to get down to reading.

It goes without saying that I can get books much cheaper online than I can over the local counter. There’s no way even the big chains are competitive on price with Amazon-Book Depository, so my local indie has no chance. And there’s no way any bricks and mortar bookshop in Australia can compete on stock against the online behemoths, especially when it comes to technical books or out of print volumes. A smaller bookshop can’t afford to carry all the works of even popular literary authors. Its big advantage is immediate over-the-counter delivery, but that only works if it has stock.

Then there’s information. Although I hear a lot of talk about the expertise of dedicated bookshop staff, there’s no way they can have the sort of product knowledge that’s just a click away at Amazon. Maybe bookshops run by owner-managers that specialise in arcane topics do, but chances are it’ll be something I’m not interested in. My local is a more general, literary-oriented bookshop.

Somewhere like Amazon gives you instant reviews from literary sources and other readers across the world. Amazon even tailors recommendations for new books based on your search topics and previous purchases. Even on those occasions when I do buy a book from my local (usually a gift so new releases are preferred) I’ve already done my research and know what I’m after.

If I want a novel in a hurry I’ll go to my local bookstore, but unless it’s reasonably popular or new, chances are the proprietor won’t have it in inventory. I can either get the store to order it in or do it myself at substantially lower cost (as well as avoid another trip to the store). In fact these days I’m much more likely to get an electronic copy instantly and read it on my (Kobo) e-reader. A growing proportion of Australians are doing likewise.

Some argue that if we don’t patronise our local bookshops they won’t be there when we need them. They usually turn out to be people who are in the publishing and media business, like Ben Eltham or this writer. The “use it or lose it” argument is of course rubbish – no commercial operation is likely to survive, much less flourish, on this sort of shaky business model. It would be nice to have a local bookshop but it will hardly be the end of civilisation if mine disappears – I’ve got too many other options. Read the rest of this entry »


Is this the end of The Age (as we know it)?

by xkcd

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 »


Are our local shopping centres doomed by technology?

The geography of surnames in the US (click)

In an interesting article on Crikey, Guy Rundle riffs off the Borders bankruptcy to ask if technological change will inevitably destroy local strip shopping centres:

The whole centrality of the shop is changing. It is no longer a necessary place, and so the high street no longer acts as the spatial core of a community. At some point a whole series of mainstream shops will succumb to insufficient, intermittent demand. Everyone will want to know they are there, but no-one will use them enough.

Whether Borders succumbed to poor management, competition from e-commerce, the dead hand of the parallel importing restrictions, or the fall-off in consumer spending, there’s no question that the nature of shopping is changing profoundly.

For example, I bought my first lot of ten novels from Amazon back in 1994 and have purchased many more books from various on-line retailers since. Whenever I have the option, I now download e-books to read on my e-reader in preference to hard copies.

I started home-banking in 1994 and now visit the bank maybe four times a year max (I hate being paid by cheque!). My wife and I have bought so much stuff on eBay we have Turquoise Star status. The household increasingly downloads movies via T-Box rather than hire DVDs and all our music is purchased through iTunes. We book our travel on-line and even negotiated the purchase of a car over the net.

Guy Rundle foresees that these sorts of changes will extend to the local supermarket and beyond, driven by improvements in on-line ordering and home delivery. I expect that once the public has confidence the problems with e-commerce – like affordable and secure home delivery and safe payment systems – have been overcome, many people will surely choose to use their time for higher value activities than routine consumer shopping.

Mr Rundle fears that if the boring but essential services like supermarkets are lost to the high street, then specialist stores like bookshops that rely on passing trade from ‘anchor tenants’ will also go under. He says:

The wider question, in terms of future life, is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all – as the last shared, necessary space dissolves

I don’t think the high street is in any imminent danger. It’s likely to change but I doubt it will die. Not all the changes will necessarily be bad. Read the rest of this entry »