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Sep 3, 2017

That was The week That was… w/e September 3

Tw3 is a short commentary on stories in the news over the week ending 3 September 2017 bearing on the delights and discontents of urbanism

“Victorians have a once-in-a-generation chance to make their mark on Melbourne by naming the five new underground stations to be built as part of the Metro Tunnel Project”

In this week’s Tw3, The Urbanist comments briefly on:

  • Should the new Melbourne Metro stations be named after locations?
  • It’s about time, not money: the real reason retirees keep their big homes
  • Questions raised about heritage listing of Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino
  • It’s smart to be dense: Melbourne sprawl to cost $110bn
  • Fake news: is smoking really increasing in Australia?
  • Let’s get to the facts on the Powerhouse move
  • Future Brisbane: New technology will ensure city’s dominance
  • Melbourne sky rail: Great wall of ‘cookie-cutter’ fences may cost taxpayers $1.75m
  • It’s time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking.

Should the new Melbourne Metro stations be named after locations?

But just days after the competition was announced, the people appear to be speaking with one voice: name the stations after their locations, readers are telling this paper. It would seem blindingly obvious: the main function of a station name, as Daniel Bowen from the Public Transport Users Association pointed out, is to tell travellers where in the city they are (especially as they will be underground).

Nonsense! Has Melbourne taken a big productivity hit because Melbourne Central wasn’t named ‘Cnr Latrobe and Swanston’? Did visitors start getting lost in large numbers after Spencer St Station was renamed Southern Cross Station?

Naming the stations according to their location might seem obvious, but think about this:

  • While it’s certainly the convention, there are nevertheless already a number of stations in Melbourne with names that don’t convey much that would directly aid navigation e.g. Southern Cross, Melbourne Central, Dennis, Ginifer, Westona, Jordanville, Ruthven. Travellers go to places, not stations. Residents look for the nearest station to where they work and tourists look on a map for their destination, then the most convenient station nearby. The station names could as easily be numbers
  • Even if a station is named after a location like ‘Spencer St’, ‘Arden’, or ‘Library’, travellers still have to know beforehand where their destination is located; usually a street address. I need to know where I’m going in Arden before I decide if I want to go there. Having a station that conveniently has the same name as the suburb is a trivial benefit
  • Place names have limitations. Spencer St is a pretty long thoroughfare (it goes up to Dryburgh St), so which end would ‘Spencer St Station’ signify? ‘Flagstaff’ doesn’t help much if your destination is the High Court Registry; it would be just as useful to know the Registry is near ‘Station 001’
  • Improvements in mapping and communications technology – especially smartphones – have made navigation easier. They’ve made the logic of naming stations after their locality much less compelling than it once was.

The advantage of  naming stations by their location is greatly exaggerated. Unquestioning acceptance of this trope rules out the opportunity these five new major public works provide for making an important cultural statement about the city. After all, this is the State with an interesting history of place names e.g. Mount Difficult, Mount Abrupt, Mount Disappointment, Mount Buggery, Mount Speculation, Mount Despair, Mount Terrible, Mount Useful; all of them great potential station names!

We surely know by now that naming anything after people with knowable biographies is fraught, but there are other socially significant possibilities; in particular, adopting traditional indigenous names with agreement could be a powerful statement of reconciliation. There are 24 stations on my rail line (Hurstbridge) but only one of them, Darebin, looks like it might be an indigenous name. There are a further 15 stations on the South Morang line with only one, Merri, that’s indigenous.

A caveat: the two new CBD stations are interchange stations so there’s an argument they don’t need new names. They’re effectively extensions of Flinders St and Melbourne Central stations, which they’re connected to via footways.

This whole naming exercise is clever politics. It draws attention to the Government’s infrastructure program while simultaneously showing its commitment to consultation. And since the Government has reserved the right to make the ultimate decision on naming (as indeed it should), it’s likely to be low risk.

It’s about time, not money: the real reason retirees keep their big homes

For retirees, the more time one has, the greater amount of home production is done and therefore the greater the need for a house. Since most retirees are empty nesters whose sizeable homes were once filled with at least two children, the family home is the ideal base to support their renewed focus on home production.

This is familiar stuff; see Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”? But the author’s angle is enlightening; empty nesters have an abundance of time and use the space they’ve got to put it to good use. They’re not selfishly sitting on space they don’t use.

Trying to move empty-nesters out of “under-occupied” dwellings is a longstanding focus of policy, but there’s a host of additional reasons why empty nesters stay put, including:

  • Inertia – sentimental attachment to house; existing local friendship network; the disruption and effort of moving; loss aversion e.g. a garden developed over a lifetime. All these might be harder to deal with when older
  • Cost of moving – stamp duty, agents’ fees, removal costs
  • Cost of getting old house ready for sale
  • Town houses and apartments in the local area aren’t significantly cheaper
  • High cost of living in strata housing e.g. levies
  • Loss of control of living in strata housing e.g. forced repairs that in a house could be self-repaired or ignored.

Some observations:

  • Can empty-nesters afford to move into a smaller dwelling where they have to rely more on market-provided services to “fill” their time?
  • Is the number of “vacant” bedrooms a sensible way to count the capacity utilisation of housing?
  • Inducing large numbers of empty-nesters to “move on” to a smaller abode requires significant incentives; it’ll need more than just reducing stamp duty on the purchase of the smaller dwelling. Some Melburnians moved to Qld in the 1980s because of the combination of climate, beaches, cheap housing, and (no) inheritance taxes.

Questions raised about heritage listing of Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino

The casino was added to the heritage list due to its role in local tourism and it being the “only example of a late 20th century circular high-rise tower” in the state, Tasmanian Heritage Council chair Brett Torossi said.

The casino was indeed important for Tasmanian tourism; which in this case is code for the history of legal gambling. That doesn’t mean the building itself was important and must be protected; it just means the importance of the activity that went on within it to Tasmanian history should be recognised. There’s a host of ways we might remember its role e.g. film, books, models. That’s how we remember almost everything else about Tasmanian history, most of it of vastly greater impact than the Wrest Point Casino.

The building itself isn’t a palimpsest; protecting the structure only celebrates the casino but doesn’t tell us anything about it. With so many other ways of remembering and interpreting the social significance of the casino, it’s not necessary to impose the restrictions of preservation on the owner, or the cost of sterilising this location on the wider community. One of those costs is living in perpetuity with this 17-storey visual assault on the Hobart suburban beachside landscape.

This is an undistinguished building in architectural terms; being the first “circular” tower in the State is neither here nor there. Being the first “high-rise” in Hobart is of historical interest, so put it on the written record; it’s not enough to justify a permanent 17-storey monument on the suburban horizon. Not everyone thinks a casino is worth celebrating in the first place, much less with a giant 73 metre-high memorial.

It’s smart to be dense: Melbourne sprawl to cost $110bn

Mr Adams said research had found the cost of building 1000 houses on the periphery of the city would cost $300 million more than building the same houses within the fabric of the city. The difference is due to the ­increased costs of building infrastructure such as power and water, and increased transport and health costs in outer areas.

I’m amazed that these claims still get a run. The fact is we don’t know if it costs more or less to build on the fringe. We’ve known for years that the study these numbers are taken from is full of holes; some of the data goes back to 1974 and some is drawn from the USA and Canada. The study also conflates infrastructure construction costs with economic costs (see Does infrastructure cost a lot more on the fringe?).

As I’ve noted before, it might seem intuitively obvious that the cost of providing physical and social infrastructure in established areas should be only a fraction of the cost on the fringe, but most of the “spare” capacity in the inner 10 km ring this study examined is long gone (see Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?). Retrofitting expansions or new works is difficult and expensive. Established areas are more intensively developed, values are higher, sites are smaller, access is harder, opposition from neighbouring land uses is more intense, and the cost of avoiding disruption of other activities is higher.

Note that the Victorian Government is spending $10 Billion to build nine kilometres of rail line and five stations in the city centre (Melbourne Metro). Compare that to the $0.6 Billion it’s spending to build eight kilometres of rail line and three stations on the fringe (Mernda). Some of this is due to differences in scale, but most of it is because Melbourne Metro must be a tunnel.

Fake news: is smoking really increasing in Australia?

In 2013, there were 16.4% of Australians aged 18 years and over who smoked. By 2016, this number had fallen to 15.7%. By contrast, the US rate for 2016 is 15.8%, a sliver higher than Australia’s 2016 rate. England’s rate in 2016, according to the long running Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, was 15.8%, again marginally higher than Australia’s.

This story is about the reduction in smoking, but what caught my eye was the proportion of the population who smoke is similar in Australia, UK and US, yet the price of cigarettes is wildly different. A standard pack of cigarettes costs US$19.83 in Australia, US$11.62 in the UK, and US$6.75 in the United States.

Tax increases suppress smoking but the returns are diminishing because the remaining smokers tend to be hard-core addicts. The poorest and most disadvantaged sections of the community are grossly over-represented among smokers. The taxation revenue they contribute in Australia is huge ($4.7 Billion in excise over 2016-20).

The focus of policy needs to shift away from further cruel and inequitable tobacco excise increases to other approaches (see Is it time to rethink how smoking is taxed?). Note also this new study which found there’s no association between smoking bans in hospitality venues and reductions in smoking. Bans aren’t the moral high ground; they’re solely about the wellbeing of non-smokers. Since you’re asking, I’m a non-smoker.

Let’s get to the facts on the Powerhouse move

Initially many – including this newspaper – were swept up in the euphoria of the idea. There is no doubt that Parramatta, greater Sydney’s geographic centre, needs and deserves more cultural investment.

Whatever the merits of shifting the Powerhouse, the “geographic centre” isn’t the key factor that should determine its location. What matters far more is the location with the highest accessibility in the Greater Sydney Region for visitors to the museum, especially by public transport e.g. the address where the largest number of visitors can get there within a reasonable travel time and reasonable cost. It’s possible two campuses might be the optimal solution on this criterion.

Future Brisbane: New technology will ensure city’s dominance

Imagine, if you will, that it’s 2037 in Greater Brisbane. As we reflect on the past 20 years, it’s hard at times to imagine how we managed to dodge some bullets and capitalise on the wave of change that has swept the globe.

Former Qld Premier and Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, imagines the Brisbane he wants to see in the future in this opinion piece (complete with researchers at UQ finding a cure for Alzheimers!). Mr Newman is doing what routinely gets dished up to us in long-term strategic plans; a politically exciting vision of a wonderful world that has a very low probability of being realised by the target year. Aspirations are a vitally important part of the planning process, but strategic plans sell the myth that they can deliver the perfect future.

These plans don’t examine the unreliability of their forecasts; they give only a token nod to the wider forces that are likely to shape the plan; they scrupulously avoid specifying unpopular but necessary actions required to have a chance of delivering on their promises; and they don’t acknowledge that the priorities and issues they purport to tackle are time-bound i.e. they’re today’s concerns. They don’t even start to tell us what we’re most likely to get.

Melbourne sky rail: Great wall of ‘cookie-cutter’ fences may cost taxpayers $1.75m

“The whole suburb is ruined really, the community has been broken by this,” she said. “All along the rail line people have taken the money and run away. One thing that’s gone unsaid is that the sound of the freight trains will be even worse when it’s elevated.”

Some observations:

  • The suburbs ain’t ‘rooned. The households who’ve sold to the Government constitute a small proportion of residents in these suburbs. Many of the houses will be sold to new households – or redeveloped for multi-unit housing – who’ll move in knowing they’ll have a view of sky rail. The forces driving the demography of this area are much bigger than the elevation of the rail line.
  • The Government insisted from the outset that the sound reaching nearby residents from the elevated line would be no worse than at present from the at-grade line. That remains a big unknown.

It’s time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking

Soon there will be 56 million Americans over the age of 65. They should be able to cross the street…Older people are dying in the streets because they take longer to get across the road. A British study noted that “the vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing.”

It doesn’t look like cars are going away any time soon, so they need to behave in a civilised way; they need to be tamed. Ageing baby boomers might be the group that forces the change.

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3 thoughts on “That was The week That was… w/e September 3

  1. Daniel Bowen

    “Did visitors start getting lost in large numbers after Spencer St Station was renamed Southern Cross Station?”

    — Actually yes. So much so that for a while, it was called on the automatic announcements “Southern Cross at Spencer Street”.

    It was particularly problematic for occasional visitors from regional areas, who arrived on a train at their new regional terminus, which now looked completely different and had a different name to anything they remembered from previous trips to Melbourne.

    “Improvements in mapping and communications technology – especially smartphones – have made navigation easier.”

    — Definitely true, however we are talking here about an underground rail line. GPS doesn’t work well underground.

    1. Alan Davies

      Daniel

      Fair enough, but that’s really about the change of name rather than about the name reflecting the location. You’re referring to visitors who previously knew it by one name and had to adjust to the change. There’d be a similar problem if Melbourne Central were changed to ‘Library’ or Flinders St to ‘Cathedral’ even though the new ones would be place names. Indeed, you’d get it for young people if Southern Cross were changed back to ‘Spencer St’. The moral is don’t change a longstanding and familiar name lightly. I was thinking of tourists, new settlers, or members of iGen, who aren’t aware of its previous name. As for GPS, once you’re at the station you want, whether it’s underground of not, the benefit of having a location-specific name is moot. Smartphones make it easier to plan how to get to your destination.

  2. Amark

    Find it hard to believe that “sky rail” will be louder than the current setup