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 »

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What can we do with Hoddle St?

Daily traffic across Punt Rd bridge (click)

In Elliot Perlman’s Melbourne-based novel, Three dollars, Eddie thinks the only advice he could offer his daughter is the solution of differential equations and an insight into which trains go via the city loop and why. He imagines that on his deathbed and with his last breath he would say: “Abby, my darling daughter, remember this: no matter where you are or what time of day it is – avoid Punt Road”.

Eddie’s fatherly advice is borne out by the numbers in VicRoad’s Hoddle Street Study: existing conditions summary report. It shows that 10,000 vehicles per hour travel on Hoddle Street in the middle of the day, only a little more than the 9,700 per hour that use it in the morning peak. And as the accompanying graphic of traffic volumes across the Punt Rd bridge shows, traffic on Saturday and Sunday is higher than on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

So if you think the Hoddle St corridor is always busy you’re right. The two-way traffic volume on Hoddle St in the section between the Eastern Freeway and Victoria Pde is 85,000-90,000 vehicles per day. There are also a further 27,000 bus passengers on a weekday, so the number of people travelling along Hoddle St is large. This is a conservative estimate – it doesn’t count passengers in cars.

What to do about Hoddle St is a difficult question and I’d like to hear some suggestions. The Baillieu Government is reported (here and here) to have shelved work on VicRoad’s study of options for the corridor. The remaining money has instead been transferred to the study of the proposed Doncaster rail line. This makes sense politically if the Government feels it is obliged to deliver on the railway line. It could argue that the train will reduce traffic congestion, and thereby make the significant cost of upgrading Hoddle St unnecessary.

While it might fly politically, it’s hard to see that a Doncaster rail line would make much difference to conditions on Hoddle St. The space vacated by any drivers transferring to rail would in due course be filled by others, so it would have no lasting impact on traffic congestion. Not that it’s likely many car commuters would even elect to use the Doncaster train instead of Hoddle St.

As I pointed out here, analysis of journey to work data from the 2006 Census undertaken for the Eddington Report shows the number of workers living in the municipality of Manningham who commuted to the City of Melbourne at the 2006 Census was small – just 8,500 (i.e. 17,000 two-way trips). And the number is declining – this was 700 fewer than in 2001. Nor is this group likely to get much bigger due to growth, as the population of the municipality of Manningham is projected to increase by a paltry 0.7% p.a. out to 2031.

Of these 8,500 commuters, 5,100 drove to work and 3,150 already took public transport. The latter group mostly used buses but a third used the Hurstbridge and Belgrave-Lilydale rail lines in neighbouring municipalities (this was before the new Doncaster Area Rapid Transit services started late last year). If a new Doncaster rail line were to achieve the same mode share as in nearby municipalities like Whitehorse, Banyule and Maroondah that already have rail, around 1,600 Manningham commuters could be expected to stop driving to work and change to public transport. That does not seem a very large number in the context of the likely cost of a Doncaster rail line. Even assuming those 1,600 all currently use Hoddle St to get to the City of Melbourne, that’s only a reduction of 3,200 trips. Read the rest of this entry »