Aug 6, 2017

August 6 – That was the week that was…

A commentary on stories in the news over the week ending 6 August 2017 bearing on urbanism and its discontents

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Motorbike on the footpath, Lonsdale St Melbourne (source: Daniel Bowen)

In this week’s TWTWTW commentary:

  • Vic is the only state where motorcycles can park on footpaths
  • Crash report: riding a bike is safer than sitting on a chair
  • Downsizing cost trap awaits retirees – five reasons to be wary
  • Vanishing Australian backyards leave us vulnerable to the stresses of city life
  • Negative project evaluation summary for Brisbane Cross River Rail
  • Planners know depressingly little about a city’s impacts on our mental health


Vic is the only state where motorcycles can park on footpaths

Ridiculous that it’s allowed even in very busy constrained spots like this.

Ridiculous indeed. Walking must be the priority mode in a dense place like the CBD. Of course, we should be actively encouraging two-wheelers as an alternative to cars, especially slow, quiet scooters and bicycles. But it’s unnecessary to park them on footpaths when there’s plenty of road space in the CBD and a typical parking spot will accommodate multiple two-wheelers. Yes, it would come at the expense of cars, but what after all is a registered motor bike/scooter?

The important issue here is that of all the locations in the metropolitan area, the CBD is the one where the justification for driving is weakest. The city centre offers a very high standard of public transport access; there’re plenty of competing uses for roadspace; and the high pedestrian densities and high value of activities place a big premium on amenity. The City of Melbourne is dependent on revenue from on-street parking and will be slow to move, so the state government should take the initiative in moving two-wheelers off footpaths and on to streets.

Crash report: riding a bike is safer than sitting on a chair

Sensationalised media reporting have led many to believe that riding a bike is a dangerous activity, where the risk of injury is high. However, our member crash data shows that it is not the case. …per our data, a bike rider has a 0.46% chance of having a crash that requires a visit to hospital in a year.

It might well be safer than sitting on a chair, but cycling is still seen as unsafe relative to the community’s tolerance of risk. The study is dubious; it’s based on self-reporting of crashes by cyclists who’re members of Bicycle Network. The 0.46% statistic represents the number of crashes resulting in hospitalisation reported by Bicycle Network members, divided by the organisation’s total number of members. So it’s a self-selecting sample; not necessarily typical of all cyclists; and there’s no measure of exposure.

In any event, it doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about how we should interpret the number. When I follow Bicycle Network’s example and divide the annual number of road trauma hospitalisations in Australia by the population aged 15-84, the corresponding figure (essentially for driving) is just 0.19%. That’s more in line with what real research tells us (see Is cycling on roads getting safer?) i.e. cycling is much riskier than driving. Yet motorists insist on buying cars with an ANCAP 5 safety rating, suggesting that 0.46% is regarded as very high risk. We’re all keen on cycling here, but let’s not be silly enough to deceive ourselves.

Downsizing cost trap awaits retirees – five reasons to be wary

Retirees living in middle-ring suburbs face frequent calls to downsize into apartments to free up larger allotments in these suburbs for redevelopment…It’s time to debunk the myth of zero housing costs in retirement if we want to understand why retirees resist downsizing.

This is the sort of logic-driven, evidence based article The Conversation should publish more frequently. The authors say retirees have at least five reasons to be wary of the costs of moving into multi-unit housing: (1) upfront moving costs are high e.g. stamp duty, agent fees (2) body corporate levies are high (3) costs of maintenance in multi-unit developments is high (4) loss of financial security e.g. enforced upgrades to communal areas (5) loss of security of tenure e.g. termination of strata scheme.

A big part of the issue is residents lose a lot of control when they move from a detached house to a multi-unit development. They can no longer simply ignore or tolerate expensive maintenance requirements as they might’ve done in their old place. Similarly, they can’t decide not to upgrade if the body corporate decides otherwise. Nor can they do their own major repairs.

Apart from these ongoing “cost traps”, empty-nesters are also discouraged from downsizing because a suitable unit – often one large enough to accommodate visiting grandchildren – in the same neighbourhood costs much the same as what they can realise from the sale of their house.

Vanishing Australian backyards leave us vulnerable to the stresses of city life

The principle is simple: in the suburbs we need to build smaller two-storey project homes with large backyards open to the sky, just as they have learnt to do in the suburbs of European cities.

It always amazes me that some observers presume to question what are almost wholly private decisions. Home buyers are showing they prefer to trade-off private outdoor space for a better location and more indoor space. That’s a consequence of changes in tastes driven in large part by underlying structural forces.

To the extent there’s a social cost to this trend – like fewer trees – it should be addressed by promoting more planting in public places, especially streets (see Why don’t we “green the streets of Australia”?).

Negative project evaluation summary for Brisbane Cross River Rail

Infrastructure Australia has not included the current proposal for Cross River Rail as a Project on the Infrastructure Priority List at this time. Infrastructure Australia considers that the benefits of the proposed project, as set out in the business case, are significantly overstated, and that the costs of the project as currently presented are likely to exceed its benefits.

Infrastructure Australia’s key concern relates to the estimation of benefits; it says the benefit cost ratio is “is likely to be less than 1”:

  • The patronage forecasts appear to be overly optimistic and hence that the benefits from “de-crowding” are over-stated.
  • More than half the benefits accrue to road users. This “is unusual for a public transport project, which would traditionally be expected to deliver a higher proportion of benefits to public transport users”.

Notwithstanding its doubts about the benefits, Infrastructure Australia  is maintaining the project on its priority list because “the emerging problem of rail capacity into and through Brisbane’s CBD is a nationally significant infrastructure problem which will need to be addressed”.

Cross River Rail would undoubtedly deliver substantial benefits, but as with most projects that involve building tunnels and underground stations in the centre of Australia’s cities, the high cost of construction is a huge hurdle to overcome. Governments find it hard not to gild the BCA lily.

Planners know depressingly little about a city’s impacts on our mental health

Recent research points to the possibility that living in cities might be associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Some studies suggest that specific aspects of urban life might be “depressogenic” – in other words, lead to poor mental health.

There seems to be no end to the evils that public health academics attribute to the built environment. We’ve already got “obesogenic” environments, now it’s “depressogenic” cities. Seriously?

The idea that urban living has a negative impact on mental health goes back to the nineteenth century e.g. Durkheim and Guyau. What’s different now is that rural areas have greater health problems across a range of categories compared to Australia’s big cities e.g. suicide. I get that city living can be stressful, but I expect a livelihood that’s directly or indirectly at the mercy of the weather and dramatic fluctuations in export prices can be pretty stressful too.

This article doesn’t present any original research showing that cities are bad for mental health relative to other urban forms. It relies on a link to a Guardian article which in turn relies on a single German study which has a dead link. The author largely points to general ideas, like “researchers are increasingly demonstrating that access to social networks is important for helping us to cope with stressful life events”. Sure, but that’s not evidence cities are worse at this than towns or hamlets; or that dense areas are worse than low density ones.

In fact cities offer better health services, a bigger range of opportunities/stimuli, and, importantly, greater likelihood people can find others just like them. Cities are also often where family and longstanding friends live. Cities aren’t all happiness, but the warrant for promoting a term like “depressogenic” is pretty thin.

I’ve invented my own term: “carsinogenic” cities (geddit?).

Let’s rescue the 300+ miles of 1930s UK cycleways

Amazing to think the UK had over 480 km of dedicated cycleways in the 1930s. I’ve seen no evidence that anything like this, even on a much smaller scale, ever existed in Australia. I keep looking for evidence that cycling was ever historically a big phenomenon in Australia like it was in some parts of Europe, but I keep coming up empty handed (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).

Car lovers: Cheap public transport cannot compete with the privacy and comfort of driving

“On winter mornings, I pop my seat warmer on, I pop my music on and I don’t find the traffic all that stressful,” (Ms Purnell) said.

Driving also provides her with the privacy, space and time to have conversations with family and friends: “Again it’s one of the only windows when I haven’t got kids to deal with or my husband.”

That so many travellers choose to drive rather than take public transport is one of the key issues in urban policy. Unfortunately, their choice is too often simplistically dismissed as irrational, selfish or forced because of lack of alternatives. Good policy making requires a more sophisticated understanding of travellers’ mode choice (see also Does public transport offer enough privacy?).

See last week’s TWTWTW here.

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