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Aug 13, 2017

August 13 - That was the week that was...

A commentary on stories in the news over the week ending 13 August 2017 bearing on the delights and discontents of urbanism

Brisbane’s Treasury Casino dressed to win while undergoing works

In this week’s TWTWTW, The Urbanist comments on:

  • Flinders Street restoration can’t come soon enough for tourists
  • You must include gay venue on site of Joiners Arms, planners tell developers
  • Chinatowns are dying: Why the Chinese centres of Australian cities are disappearing
  • North East Link: ‘lungs’ versus lanes as residents rally against highway route options
  • Cycling fines soar in first year of harsher penalties in NSW
  • Forget all the other reasons you should be riding a bike. This is the one that matters
  • ‘I won’t take the train’: Why young women fear Melbourne’s stations at night
  • This is how regional rail can help ease our big cities’ commuter crush
  • Australia’s high-speed rail plan is a blow to housing affordability
  • Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme gains momentum
  • ‘They are clutter’: Lord mayor Robert Doyle puts Melbourne’s oBikes on notice
  • Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme gains momentum
  • ‘They are clutter’: Lord mayor Robert Doyle puts Melbourne’s oBikes on notice
  • Towers not needed to build Sydney’s urban density
  • What would the perfect cycling city look like?

Flinders Street restoration can’t come soon enough for tourists

City of Melbourne ambassadors David and Norma say the restoration cannot come soon enough for tourists wanting to take pictures of the landmark. “I have been showing tourists a brochure with a picture of what the station looked like before the scaffolding,” David says.

The facade of Flinders Street station is obscured by a hoarding while renovations take place. Short-term pain for long-term gain, but there are ways to take the edge off the agony; I took this picture of the restoration of Brisbane’s Treasury Casino and Hotel a few years ago (see exhibit).

The story prompts the bigger question of how valuable Flinders Street Station is for tourism and, importantly, whether that value is understood. Might it have been worth the effort to keep the famous clocks and stairs accessible for the shortest possible period?

You must include gay venue on site of Joiners Arms, planners tell developers

Gay bars in London are closing down at such an “alarming” rate that the redevelopment of the Joiners Arms, an east London pub that counted Alexander McQueen, Rufus Wainwright and Wolfgang Tillmans among its regulars, will only get the go-ahead if it includes an LGBT club venue – and the mayor’s office will send an inspector to make sure it is gay enough.

The idea of having a “gay enough” inspector has met with deserved derision. The issue here is familiar and understandable; people want to hang on to specific activities they associate with certain places because of their cultural and economic value. The trouble is the planning system isn’t designed to differentiate by “brand”. You can’t use it to have fast food shops, but then selectively exclude a McDonalds; or to have churches but then selectively exclude a Mosque. Nor is there any guarantee that a pub that starts life as a gay bar will remain one (e.g. see Can this pub be saved from apartments?; Should the walls come down at the (North Fitzroy) Star hotel?; Tea Party planning: do the ends justify the means?; Will a McDonald’s store be the end of Glebe?).

Seems to give the lie to the claim Rufus is a Tit Man, no?

Chinatowns are dying: Why the Chinese centres of Australian cities are disappearing

Chinatowns all over the world are disappearing. Our favourite place to go for Yum Cha is under threat due to major planned developments in the surrounding area, the changing socio-economic status of Chinese immigrants and the likes of Thai Town and Korea Town taking over areas that were once part of Chinatown…

This story is like the previous one; Chinatowns were important historically because of their role in Chinese migration and preserving Chinese culture. If they no longer have that role, as the article claims and observation seems to confirm, they’re a themed restaurant precinct. There’s doubtless a strong case for heritage protection of some buildings, but trying to maintain an authentic “Chinese” character when the economic forces are weakening seems like a fool’s errand.

North East Link: ‘lungs’ versus lanes as residents rally against highway route options

Mr Graves, also a former mayor of the Eltham area, said it was crucial no freeway cut through green-wedge areas. “If the North East Link cuts [through] the green wedge…the size of the green wedge and its capacity to continue as the ‘lungs’ of Melbourne would be diminished or destroyed.”

The “lungs of the city” argument is rubbish in this context. All the proposed corridors involve extensive tunnels under environmentally sensitive areas. The number of trees/shrubs likely to be removed and not replaced is trivial in the context of (a) the total green cover in Melbourne and (b) the total air-cleaning demand imposed by the city. The big environmental issues here are likely to be the increase in pollution and emissions coming from additional vehicle travel, as well as the visual impact of interchanges (see also Is this (suburban) motorway a good idea?).

Cycling fines soar in first year of harsher penalties in NSW

The number of cyclists fined for red-light offences rose by 22 per cent to 849 for the year to February.

Cyclists use roads so they need to comply with rules, but the problem is the rules for vehicles make much less sense when applied to bicycles, which are much lighter and slower. There’s a good case for having different rules e.g. allow cyclists to cross on red? The NSW government though has chosen to have a cultural fight about cycling (see Why do (some) cyclists ignore red lights?; Should cyclists stop ignoring red lights?)

Forget all the other reasons you should be riding a bike. This is the one that matters

Over the course of the study, the 263,450 subjects who were under review had a 41 per cent lower chance of death than those who didn’t. “Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer at all,” the study’s authors wrote.

Too good to be true (obviously!). The more plausible explanation is this finding is due to a selection effect. The 3% of commuters in England and Wales who cycle to work are very different to the 67% who drive. Get the latter to shift to cycling and the alleged benefits would almost all disappear. As one critic said of the study, “it isn’t good when evangelism replaces science. Causality really matters” (see How big are the public health benefits of riding to work?).

‘I won’t take the train’: Why young women fear Melbourne’s stations at night

Negative experiences at stations ranged from being intensely stared at, to being followed from platform to platform, photographed, chased and assaulted.

Comments left on the map showed that dense shrubbery around stations, darkly lit platforms and the lack of Protective Service Officers at some times contribute to making a station feel unsafe, as well as empty dark roads around the platforms.

Many comments also noted the presence of groups of intoxicated men and people loitering around the station.

Is there something special about stations or is this a more general problem with any public space that attracts large numbers of people across the course of the day and night? To what extent can design improve experiences of women?

I suspect public transport crops up a lot because it’s one of the most frequent ways women are out in public places, especially if alone, at night, or in relatively uncrowded locations like a suburban train station. My sample of 19 y.o. women reports better lighting is good, but crowds are much better. The most frequent issue they report is being consciously stared at by men, which started from their high school years; that’s not something design can address. Some cultures have adopted other solutions e.g. option of women-only carriages (see also Can design make cities safe for women?).

This is how regional rail can help ease our big cities’ commuter crush

Carefully targeted regional rail investment can shrink distance, provide access to more jobs and better lifestyles, and contribute to wider housing choices. This investment is a critical requirement for continued prosperity in Australia’s largest urban centres.

I think the development of regional centres as dormitories for capital city workers is inevitable because it’s the easiest solution politically, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. The case hasn’t been made that it’s better than continuing to grow cities like Melbourne through a combination of redevelopment in established areas and fringe growth (see Suburban sprawl or regional sprawl?).

Australia’s high-speed rail plan is a blow to housing affordability

Australia has wasted decades, millions of dollars and countless man-hours pointlessly trying to replace air travel between Sydney and Melbourne with trains…but connecting places like Geelong and Ballarat to Melbourne, Newcastle and Wollongong to Sydney, and Toowoomba to Brisbane with trips of around 45 minutes is more doable. 

Chris Kohler is right and wrong. It is indeed pointless to persist with the idea of spending squillions of public dollars to replace one form of inter-state public transport (planes) with another (HSR). The lion’s share of benefits would be time savings for business travellers who should continue to pay their own way; the environmental benefits would be small (see Is High Speed Rail our National Boondoggle?).

The case for improving speeds between capital cities and some nearby regional centres is much stronger, but as noted in the previous section it’s not clear if creating regional dormitories provides net benefits. It’s also not clear that high cost HSR would be a better approach than improving the existing rail system; the phase one HSR study estimated the one-way fare from Gosford to Sydney would be $26, excluding recovery of capital costs.

Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme gains momentum

In 2015, as CityCycle celebrated 1 million trips, the scheme was also revealed to have cost ratepayers more than $8 million. On Wednesday, public and active transport chairman Adrian Schrinner said CityCycle had a record 57,526 trips in August…

This is not a success story. There were 522,388 trips on CityCycle bicycles in 2016/17, representing average usage of less than one trip per day by each bicycle. Each trip taken since the scheme commenced in 2010 has cost taxpayers around $8. Like Melbourne Bike Share, it wasn’t set up to meet identified demand; it was set up for political reasons i.e. greenwashing (see Why is Brisbane CityCycle an unmitigated flop?). BTW, that “57,526 trips in August” presumably means in July.

‘They are clutter’: Lord mayor Robert Doyle puts Melbourne’s oBikes on notice

They’ve been spotted in trees, on train tracks, wrapped around light poles and dumped in the Yarra River. Now, Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle has had enough of the city’s oBikes, signalling he will run them out of town unless the Singaporean parent company can control its wayward fleet.

As expected, the big operational advantage of oBikes is also their biggest problem. They’re attractive because they don’t have to be returned to a station for docking, but they can be a nuisance when they’re parked willy nilly (see What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?). From the company’s point of view, it was clever to shift the cost of storage onto taxpayers, but now they’ve had enough. I don’t think this must be a deal-breaker though; there’s plenty of road space – i.e. parking spaces – that can be converted to store bicycles, scooters and motor bikes. Of course it’s still too early to tell if oBikes is a commercial success, or how absorbing more of the costs of storage will affect its viability.

Towers not needed to build Sydney’s urban density

(60 storeys) is present only in a few parts of Manhattan, and completely absent in Paris and London (although The Shard may get close). In fact, the density of all of these great cities comes not from the promotion of tall towers, but from the consistency of the buildings; four to six storeys, where each and every apartment has a relationship with its neighbours and the street.

The idea that new development in Australian cities should largely be restricted to Parisian heights is common, but it exposes the dangers of unthinkingly transferring what’s happened elsewhere to local circumstances. Cities like Paris and Manhattan have high population densities in part because there’s limited public open space and in part because their legacy six storey apartment buildings were subdivided into ultra-tiny units. Those who call for Parisian streetscapes are often those who also insist new one bedroom apartments should be at least 50 sq metres (see Is Paris the right housing model for Australian cities?).

Towers are a way of increasing density – the density of central Sydney is only a quarter of Manhattan’s – when the supply of sites for redevelopment is limited. Land available and suitable for development in the central parts of Australian cities tends to be in small parcels, in diverse ownerships, to be expensive, to be protected by heritage overlays, to be in limited supply, and to be near the homes of residents who oppose buildings over three storeys.

What would the perfect cycling city look like?

Successive committees of parents (in Velotopia) have voted against a rail network throughout the city. It is sufficient, they have said, to have a few solar-powered electric carts available to collect them at times when they are physically unable to cycle.

One of the better “fantasy” articles I’ve read because it faces up to difficult issues like how to deal with those who can’t ride a bicycle, how to deliver heavy goods, and what happens with public transport. Citizens would face higher costs for freight delivery, but that would be offset by the gains in amenity. And anyway, if transit is subsidised by the state in every other city, why not subsidise freight distribution in Velotopia? Having said that, I think it seriously underestimates the number of electric carts and heavy vehicles required to support a city of millions.

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