Recap: all the issues discussed by The Urbanist last month

Amsterdam

Density by itself does not necessarily create vibrant street life. Late Saturday morning in Borneo, inner city Amsterdam

Are infrastructure costs a lot higher in the outer suburbs?

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

Managing excessive car use: what’s the low hanging fruit?

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

Should we be building new rail lines up in the air?

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

Read the rest of this entry »


Has spare infrastructure capacity in the inner city disappeared?

Guess what this architectural gem in Stockholm is? Click to find out.

The received wisdom is it costs much less to provide infrastructure for an inner suburban dwelling than for one in the outer suburbs. However, as I noted last time, we don’t know how big the difference is or even, for that matter, if it’s positive or negative – we simply lack reliable evidence.

There are reasons, however, to suspect the savings in infrastructure outlays associated with urban consolidation might be much less than is widely thought. It’s plausible that the popular claim of an $85,000 per dwelling saving could be well off the mark (note I’m only talking in this post about the capital cost of infrastructure, not the economic costs and benefits of a fringe vs central location).

From the time urban consolidation was first seriously put on the table in Australia as a policy option, a key premise was the availability of ‘spare’ infrastructure capacity in the inner city. This part of the city had previously supported larger working class and migrant populations, so there was ‘free’ infrastructure to be had in support of a restoration of earlier population levels.

There’s not much sense in assuming any capacity is free (it all has to be paid for) but looking from the perspective of 2011, there are reasons to question if there actually is any spare physical capacity left, at least in relation to some types of infrastructure.

A key reason is a lot of whatever spare infrastructure capacity existed has already been used up by gentrification. At the 2006 Census, there were 36,488 more residents in the inner city of Melbourne than there were in 1976 (and 76,422 more than when the inner city was at its lowest ebb in 1991). In fact of the 31 municipalities in metropolitan Melbourne, only the City of Moreland and the adjacent City of Darebin had significantly fewer residents in 2006 than in 1976 – Moreland had 14,585 fewer and Darebin 17,137 fewer. That is not a lot in the context of projections Melbourne will grow from a current population of four million to seven million by circa 2049.

Even where there are fewer residents today than in the past, they might still have a much larger “infrastructure footprint” than their predecessors. Modern households have many more resource-intensive devices like flat panel TVs, air conditioners, heaters, computers, spas, and so on, than their predecessors. They have more cars than former residents, so there’s less room for parking. They also have higher standards – the primary school that used to accommodate 300 kids in six or seven classrooms now has to build twelve to handle the same enrolment.

Moreover, households today are smaller on average, so they have fewer ‘economies of scale’ in resource consumption than earlier generations. Two households of three persons each use more gas for heating than they would if the same six residents shared a single dwelling. Gentrifying households are also wealthier on average than the sorts of households who used to live in the inner city and inner suburbs 30 to 40 years ago. On a per capita basis, wealthier households consume more of just about everything worth having. Again, that will require more infrastructure capacity.

Thus it’s possible infrastructure in some locations could be at or above capacity even with a much lower population than those places housed in the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »


– Is the new Population Strategy…. strategic?

Hmmmm......so, this is the sort of useful guidance a real strategy provides?

There are two things the new population strategy the Federal Government released on Friday gets right. First, it dismisses the concept of a specific population target and instead focusses on making Australia more resilient to change (I’ve discussed this before). Second, it points out that population size is not the sole cause of problems like traffic congestion or lack of skilled labour.

But overall Sustainable Australia: Sustainable Communities is underwhelming. In fact whatever else this document might be, it’s not a strategy. ‘Strategy’ was originally a military term and refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. Whereas tactics are concerned with the conduct of an engagement – how a battle should be fought – strategy is concerned with the terms and conditions that it is fought on and, crucially, whether it should be fought at all.

I expect a population strategy for Australia should be looking at the range of possibilities for where the country could go in the future; the warrant for different choices; the costs and the benefits; and the various implications and knock-on effects. It should assess whether we want to embark on any of them and, if we do, what is the best way forward.

Given how fundamental this issue is to the future of Australia I’d expect to see some pretty sophisticated analysis. There might even be some data, some numbers, some theory and even some analysis. I’d expect to see the economic issues laid out and analysed with rigour – maybe something like this. I’d expect to see immigration discussed in a meaningful way given that for practical purposes that’s the only aspect of population growth that we have much choice about. And I’d expect it to start with the strong likelihood that Australia will reach a population of 35 million around 2050 despite what governments do (I set out my expectations of the strategy 12 months ago).

What is offered up to us with this document is none of those things. It’s a lot of very high-level and inoffensive motherhood statements and ‘principles’, combined with a lengthy description of a vast range of existing Government programs, from health to skills development to the NBN. If I were uncharitable I’d describe it as vacuous. This quote typifies the tone:

A sustainable Australia is made up of sustainable communities: communities that are vibrant, liveable places that have a mix of affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to services, transport and natural amenity.

That’s fair enough as far as it goes but the trouble is it doesn’t even take us to the front gate. Population growth is a serious business for Australia – we need a discussion that is couched in concrete terms and a strategy like this should provide direction and leadership. Population policy is essentially about immigration because that’s the only variable that can practically be affected by government action. Most of the concern with growth is around the impact on the functioning of our cities. Yet the strategy devotes considerably more attention to talking up regional development than it does to examining immigration. Read the rest of this entry »


Where will the money come from?

Melbourne & Ballarat trams in the 60s (click)

According to Paul Austin in The Age (29/11/10), there’s little doubt that infrastructure inadequacies weighed heavily on voters’ minds in last Saturday’s election. His list of problems includes overcrowded trains, congested roads, the Myki debacle and long hospital waiting lists.

The pressure to “fix” these problems from voters in the eastern suburbs and sandbelt electorates that fell to the Coalition on Saturday will be immense.

The new Premier, Mr Baillieu, might therefore find it worthwhile to look at this report on public sector borrowing by Dr Nicholas Gruen (summary here).

Dr Gruen contends that governments in Australia have focussed on the cost of debt but have ignored the benefits. They’ve reduced the budget deficit to zero but exchanged it for an infrastructure deficit. Their constituents have saved on debt repayments, but:

they are paying inflated tolls on roads and heavy mortgage repayments that reflect the lack of land release and the loading of infrastructure charges onto the land that has been released. And they are paying with their time as they wait at peak hour in traffic that has slowed to a crawl or crowd into late trains and buses.

Thanks to the culture of strict fiscal rectitude that dominates modern government thinking, new debt has been kept off the government’s balance sheet by funding infrastructure in other ways – partly through asset sell-offs but mostly via Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). Read the rest of this entry »


Why did Melbourne 2030 fail?

(click) Heaps of parking in central Paris in 1976!

The Age editorialises (21/11/10) that Melbourne 2030 is effectively dead and I agree. The latest nail in the coffin in The Age’s opinion is the apparently burgeoning growth of housing in townships and hamlets located in the peri urban area outside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).

I’ve argued before that this sort of “decentralisation” is poor policy (e.g. here and here). But I also think The Age has tended to ‘catastrophise’ the scale of the problem, especially with its highly misleading contention that Melbourne has “sprawled 50% beyond the official growth boundary, spanning 150 kilometres from east to west”.

However what interests me at the moment is why Melbourne 2030 failed. The key reason in my view is that it blithely assumed that enough affordable dwellings – mostly town houses and apartments – could be provided within the established urban areas to avoid the need for the UGB to be extended.

This objective was never realistic for a number of reasons. Read the rest of this entry »


HSR feasibility study: what should it address?

What is the What?!!! Wau, Southern Sudan

There’s a long history of rent-seeking in Australia over major projects. Business puts a lot of effort into lobbying government and the media to subsidise projects the private sector wouldn’t otherwise touch with a bargepole.

So when IPA (Infrastructure Partnerships Australia) – the nation’s peak infrastructure lobby group – releases a new study calling for land to be reserved for a High Speed Rail (HSR) service from Brisbane to Melbourne, I don’t immediately assume it’s an impartial assessment.

However that didn’t bother The Age, which ran the story as the lead on the front page of Saturday’s issue. The paper reports that AECOM, who prepared the study jointly with IPA, was involved in France’s TGV and Britain’s HS2 HSR projects.

The Chairman of IPA, Mark Birrell, is also on the board of Infrastructure Australia, the body established under legislation to advise the Federal Minister on infrastructure needs and priorities.

No, rather than assume the report is impartial, I thank the angel of small mercies that the only promise on the table from the Greens and Labor is for a $20 million feasibility study of HSR. There may be a thousand more welfare-enhancing ways that $20 million could be spent, but it will well and truly have earned its keep if it leads to the right decision on what could be a $40 – $80 billion investment in HSR.

I’m not going to reiterate the many and varied problems I see with HSR, since I’ve covered them before (see here, here, and here, ). What I do want to address however is the way the planned feasibility study will be conducted. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s VECCI’s vision for Melbourne?

I've always said street art is rubbish (video)

The Victorian Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) released five policy papers on Monday aimed at guiding the pre-election decision-making of the major parties.

The paper on Infrastructure and Liveability is of particular interest to the Melbourne Urbanist. Apart from a short introduction emphasising the economic importance of infrastructure, it’s essentially a list of actions, some very specific, which looks like it was cobbled together by the proverbial committee.

It includes some current projects such as the planned Melbourne Metro, but there are some other ideas that are very interesting, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry »