Does public transport offer enough privacy?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

There are many ways to measure the immense improvement in standard of living enjoyed by western countries over the millennia (although most especially over the last two hundred years). I think an important indicator – with implications for city managers – is the greater demand for physical privacy that comes with rising incomes.

Much attention is given to how much better off we are today in terms of basics like food, clothing, energy and shelter than our ancestors were.  But there are many other measures. For example, in The rational optimist, Matt Ridley discusses the spectacular increase in the availability of time.

Part of the improvement came from dramatic reductions in the time taken – and hence the cost – of making things. Part also came from access to artificial light. He provides a fascinating example of how much the cost of manufacturing artificial light has fallen: this is how many lumen-hours (lm-hr) of artificial light could be obtained from an hour’s work at the average wage of the day:

1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp

1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp

1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp

1950: 531,000 lm-hr, incandescent light bulb

2008: 8,400,000 lm-hr, compact fluoro

If they haven’t already, LEDs will undoubtedly increase the amount of light an hour’s work buys by another order of magnitude. Modern lighting is also cleaner than the comparatively primitive methods widely used even a hundred years ago. It’s less of a fire hazard, doesn’t flicker and doesn’t create smoke within the premises (a leading cause of death in times past).

Although it isn’t discussed by Ridley, another aspect of the rise in living standards that should be of particular interest to anyone interested in cities is the increase in the demand for privacy and personal control.

With rising incomes, households who once shared a one-roomed hovel now have individual bedrooms. Twenty somethings who used to live in share houses a generation ago now live by themselves in studio or one bedroom apartments. Where once hotels and boarding houses had shared facilities, now even the most run-down motel offers a private bathroom and toilet. People who can afford it have babies or convalesce in private hospital rooms, not communal wards.

And look at transport. Around 90% of all travel in a city like Melbourne is by private car, much of it with only the driver present. Those who can afford it take taxis, fly in chartered or private jets or, if there’s no alternative to sharing, cocoon themselves in first class cabins on planes and ships.

Compared to a train, tram or bus, cars offer a lot of privacy and control: they’re available on-demand, go directly to the driver’s destination, are in most cases considerably faster, and are only shared by invitation. Car ownership usually costs more in terms of cash outlays than public transport, but people with a high standard of living are prepared to pay the price.

The increased demand for privacy and personal control might seem at odds with the growth of cities. People have been drawn to cities over the last 200 years on an unprecedented scale, so there’s no doubt they want to be closer to each other than ever. Indeed, a key reason why incomes have increased spectacularly is precisely because of the greater proximity of people.

But it’s clear they also want more privacy. Technology is one reason they’ve been able to live cheek-by-jowl and still increase their autonomy. Yet there are limits. Cars aren’t a very effective solution in dense environments. In response, cities have generally evolved by decentralising population, services and jobs at low densities, enabling residents to maintain their car-oriented lifestyle.

But cars have other downsides like pollution, carbon emissions, traffic accidents and noise. Moreover, a significant proportion of people now want to be close to key nodes, like the CBD and beaches – that requires density, the enemy of cars.

I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users. Read the rest of this entry »


How liveable are our major cities?

How residents of our five largest cities (combined) see liveability

Adelaide is the most liveable capital city in Australia and Sydney is the least, according to a study released earlier this month by the Property Council of Australia.

The Australian reports that Sydney might have the harbour, Opera House and Bondi, but most Sydneysiders live a long way from these attractions in less salubrious places like Liverpool, Strathfield and Penrith.

The Property Council’s study is based on a national sample of 4,072 respondents in the nation’s eight capital cities (with around 600 in each of the four largest cities). They were given 17 attributes of liveability and asked, firstly, to rate them by importance and, secondly, to rate how well their cities perform on each of them. These two dimensions were then combined to produce a ‘liveability score’ for each city.

I’ve taken quite an interest in “liveability” in the past, especially as it relates to Sydney/Melbourne rivalry (e.g. here, here and here), so naturally I had a look at the study.

These sorts of surveys are often problematic and this one is no exception. For example, information on the representativeness of those who actually responded to the survey is scant and some of the attributes are sloppily conceptualised and poorly worded.

So with that caveat, let’s look at what the study found. The aggregate liveability scores of the eight capitals are probably the least useful aspect because the differences are small – Adelaide does best with 63.4 and Sydney does worst with 55.1. Third ranking Melbourne scores 60.9 but sixth ranking Brisbane scores 60.2. Put Sydney aside and there’s not enough in it to be useful.

What’s more interesting is how respondents define liveability. I’ve put the accompanying chart together to show how the five largest capital cities perform in aggregate i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide (you won’t see this table in the Property Council’s report because I had to correct the figures in the Appendix to the report. Also, make sure to have a look at the full text of the questions).

The first column shows how important respondents think each attribute is for liveability (smaller is better). The second shows what proportion of respondents agree that their city exhibits this attribute. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s trains really dangerous?

"You are not alone" - discouraging suicide in Belgrade (click)

Personal safety on trains is a big election issue. Both major parties have promised to increase transit police numbers and to return more staff to stations.

This is not a beat up. Fear about personal safety – whether real or imagined – could seriously undermine usage of Melbourne’s trains, especially in off-peak periods. There’s a danger that negative perceptions will reach a ‘tipping point’ and assume epidemic proportions.

If the money proposed to be spent on building and operating a Doncaster rail line were instead devoted to improving security on the entire train system, I’ve little doubt it would give a much bigger pay-off in terms of replacing car trips with train.

But that highlights the other big issue with security – it adds significantly to the cost of running the train system.

The Government has promised an extra 100 transit police and 180 staff to provide a “presence” at all metropolitan stations. The Opposition is promising two armed police protective services officers on every one of Melbourne’s 200 plus stations after 6pm.

The Auditor General says there isn’t really a problem – passengers are apparently over-reacting. The number of crimes on the rail system remained constant over the last five years even though patronage grew 50%. Crime fell from 45 offences per million boardings in 2005-06 to 33 in 2008-09.

Yet in spite of these favourable numbers, perceptions of personal safety on trains and at stations have deteriorated over the same period. The proportion who rated the rail system as safe declined from 55% in 2005-06 to 51% in 2008-09. In contrast, perceptions of personal safety on buses were constant at around 71% over the period.

Train users might be delusional or irrational, but I doubt it. Read the rest of this entry »