Peak hour (image: Bruce Dickson)

In this week’s Tw3 The Urbanist comments on:

  • Less train overcrowding, but it comes at a cost to you
  • FJMT designs seven-storey ‘cloud’ over heritage buildings in central Sydney
  • Driverless vehicles could bring out the best – or worst – in our cities by transforming land use
  • Southbank and Fishermans Bend Heritage Review
  • Lateline, The Link to be axed in ABC overhaul
  • ‘Simplicity and sustainability’: The Commons housing development heads to Hobart
  • Smoking age would be raised to 21 under Andrew Forrest’s new anti-cancer plan
  • ‘It will never happen to me’: The problem with road safety campaigns
  • Secrecy now shrouds the public service’s decentralisation mess
  • Inner-city living makes for healthier, happier people, study finds

Less train overcrowding, but it comes at a cost to you

The removal of train seats comes as Melburnians brace for a shoulder-to-shoulder, Tokyo-style commute on a new fleet of 65 high-capacity trains to be rolled out from mid-2019. Technical documents show the trains are designed to seat 40 per cent of passengers, but will “enable a future reduction of seating in the range down to 30 per cent of the original gross train capacity”.

Should all train passengers have the right to a seat on urban train services? It’d be grand, but it’s like asking if we should just keep building more and more roads so motorists never have to suffer traffic congestion. Or eliminating all queues for anything and everything. Peaking is a characteristic of most infrastructure, so standing is part and parcel of urban public transport systems around the world, including on the one of the world’s finest systems, Tokyo Metro.

We could theoretically provide enough capacity at peak hour so no one had to stand – more carriages, more services, more infrastructure, more staff, even dual metro/suburban systems – but we’d have to pay for it. We’d have a lot of spare capacity that’s only in use for a brief part of the day and sits idle the rest of the time. We’d have less money for other worthwhile things like education and health.

Outer suburban commuters have the longest travel time and in the AM peak get first dibs on seats. PM peak travel isn’t as kind, although they can expect to get a seat in the later part of the journey home. There’s a discussion to be had about the balance between standing and seated space; and there’s always the option of asking those who want more comfort to pay for it.

FJMT designs seven-storey ‘cloud’ over heritage buildings in central Sydney

The new office addition would comprise concrete floors wrapped in a curved glass facade that “appears to float above” the existing buildings. The architects say in their application that they hope the addition’s “soft, curved edges [will] help the form to blend with the sky above […] ameliorating its effect on the buildings.”

Is sunny Sydney going mad for clouds? There’s Junya Ishigami’s latest version of his Cloud Arch in George St and now FJMT is floating the idea of a “cloud” over old industrial buildings in Clarence St. This looks like a sensible approach – clearly separate the addition from the older building both structurally and, especially, stylistically.

The ability of architects to retrofit meaning to interesting visual forms is formidable, but I think those marketing skills have over-reached with the “cloud” metaphor. It’s true Sydney sometimes does have white clouds, but only the cartoon versions are as smooth-edged and solid as this. Even in the unlikely event the finished product did end up looking as transparent as the render, I’d be thinking more along the lines of office workers trapped in spider’s silk. Maybe it’s a symbol of the triumph of hedonism over mundane concerns like water security?

Driverless vehicles could bring out the best – or worst – in our cities by transforming land use

Through the convergence of automation, electrification and ride-sharing technologies, autonomous vehicles could significantly reshape real estate, urban development and city planning — as the automobile did in the last century.

Autonomous vehicles won’t be as transformative as the car was in the twentieth century, but they’ll nevertheless have a major impact on land use, transport and social relations. One likely outcome is they’ll increase total kms of travel by much more than they improve road capacity. Policy-makers must urgently recognise this potential and move quickly to ensure autonomous cars are introduced on the basis that (a) they can only be used as shared vehicles i.e. driverless taxis, and (b) pay for their use of road space i.e. passengers are charged by distance, location and time of day.

Southbank and Fishermans Bend Heritage Review

The Review recommends that 37 new heritage overlays be introduced, including two new heritage precincts… The study has identified a further 28 places for potential future heritage overlays.

It’s good to see the City of Melbourne is evaluating the heritage significance of buildings in what were important commercial and industrial areas over much of the city’s history. Too often we see controversy over a building slated for demolition or renovation where virtually nothing is known about its history and what might make it valuable enough to protect. What’s notable here, though, is the complete absence of any attempt to assess the net benefits that the recommended protections are expected to provide.

Melbourne City Council is intending to make the decision without considering the impact it would have on the owners of the subject properties in terms of ongoing costs and foregone use and/or development opportunities. Nor is it assessing the effect on the wider community in terms of the uses to which these properties might otherwise be put and how valuable that might be for the functioning of the city. Nor is there any evaluation of who will get to enjoy the net benefits and who won’t.

There are over 6,000 places within the City of Melbourne with some form of protection (and an est 100,000 in Victoria), yet we know little about the net benefits that action confers. The point isn’t that heritage doesn’t matter; it’s that we need to know where to draw the line.

Lateline, The Link to be axed in ABC overhaul

The show’s demise will result in additional resources being put into investigative rounds to bolster ABC’s breaking news abilities… The public broadcaster plans to launch two new shows in 2018: a current affairs discussion show at 9pm presented by Stan Grant, and a half-hour news bulletin at 10.30pm.

I confess I haven’t been in the shrinking audience for Lateline for a long time and these days only watch 7:30 occasionally, so the optimistic take for me is that the planned new shows will be more attractive. Maybe an objective analysis would show my subjective sense is wrong, but here’s why I think Lateline has lost viewers:

  • There are so many alternatives on the web for scrutiny of current affairs compared to even a few years ago, much less when Lateline started in 1990. On-line print is often a more suitable medium for analysis than ABC TV’s current affairs format.
  • Lateline’s necessarily cursory treatment of local and regional affairs leaves out a huge part of what’s interesting and relevant to many viewers. The absence of a non-partisan voice in the mainstream media at the local level is arguably the greatest loss from budget cuts to the ABC.
  • The standard ABC TV interview format is past its use-by date because politicians and public figures have learned to say nothing. These interviews are more news – in the sense they’re a reiteration of the interviewee’s media release – than they are analysis.
  • Too many interviews accordingly descend into “gotchas”, an idea that’s lost its freshness. We already know, and have long known, politicians are two-faced and hypocritical. Yawn.

This might not be true for others, but I personally find Lateline and 7:30 give too much focus to the day-to-day combat of Federal politics. Perhaps Canberra really isn’t as interesting as it used to be, but I suspect much of the ABC’s current affairs malaise is because politicians have become adept at handling interviewers in ways that disadvantage viewers.

I’d like to see more time given to expert analysis of economic and social policy; that could be done within the format of Lateline (it has in the past) but perhaps a new approach would be better. Whatever, we badly need a much bigger ABC, especially at the local level.

‘Simplicity and sustainability’: The Commons housing development heads to Hobart

Like the Melbourne building, The Commons Hobart removes certain amenities from individual apartments and condenses them within shared spaces for communal use. The 230-square-metre rooftop terrace will include a shared kitchen space, outdoor dining area and garden. A communal laundry is also included in plans for the terrace.

This is an interesting model, especially when it’s coupled with the Nightingale idea of people with a common interest getting together with the developer at the design stage to build their preferred communal residential environment. But it’s the traditional architectural model of bespoke housing tailered to the requirements and tastes of a known client/s, so it’s not going to scale-up easily. As I noted here, we’re much more likely to demand that developers produce a range of completed projects with niche appeal for “people just like us”.

On another point, I’m disappointed that sustainability continues to be pitched as the headline appeal of so many projects. Not because sustainability is in any way bad, but because it ought to be a given, not something special.

Smoking age would be raised to 21 under Andrew Forrest’s new anti-cancer plan

Mr Forrest and his wife Nicola are spearheading a major lobbying campaign to convince federal and state governments to raise the legal tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21 – a move they say would stop young people getting hooked, save lives and save government coffers up to $3.1 billion a year.

It’s a complicated plan (would it even work? You could vote and drink, yet not smoke?), but it’s worth evaluating because it’s an alternative to the cruel policy of endless increases in the price of tobacco. High taxes have worked (about half as many Australians smoke now as in 1990) but they’re highly regressive, requiring cruel and unusual levels of taxation to maintain the momentum. As I’ve previously pointed out, figures published by the Department of Health show (see Is it time to rethink how smoking is taxed?):

  • People 14 years or older living in areas with the lowest socioeconomic status were 3 times more likely to smoke daily than people with the highest SES…
  • People aged 14 years or older, who were unemployed, were 1.7 times more likely to smoke daily and those who were unable to work were 2.4 times more likely to smoke daily…
  • The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over who were daily smokers was 38.9% in 2014-15…

Tobacco is an addictive drug and some will continue to use it despite the price. The level of taxation is now so high that the reduction among disadvantaged groups is primarily because of the income effect. We need to look for other ways to suppress consumption of harmful levels of tobacco. Vaping might be the lesser evil.

‘It will never happen to me’: The problem with road safety campaigns

The study argues that road safety campaigns…that target penalties and points are more effective than those highlighting blood and bingles. Why? Most drivers are more likely to believe they can control the occurrence of fines than a serious crash.

Fear doesn’t work but fines and penalties do? That makes sense, but the problem is many drivers know how to minimise the chances of getting a ticket. When virtually all traffic policing is done robotically and sat-nav systems know where the red-light cameras are, it’s not that hard to avoid a penalty. If the probability of getting caught is low, drivers don’t have to worry much about complying with limits.

Secrecy now shrouds the public service’s decentralisation mess

There can be little doubt that Joyce’s rush-of-blood-to-the-head decision on the pesticides authority was taken without due cabinet process, consultation with interested parties or proper regard to consequences for the agency and those in the agricultural sector who rely on it and who now face, at least in the short to medium term, lower standards of service. It was boilerplate political pork with oink, oink, oink all over it. Why couldn’t the Deputy Prime Minister have been more subtle and decide to put the authority in a National Party electorate other than his?

This article by former senior public servant Paddy Gourlay is an absolute cracker. Fairfax and other media outlets should try harder to get expert analyses like this rather than rely routinely on jack-of-all-trades journalists to cover every topic. Most journalists do a great job given their lack of specific knowledge, but experts do better.

It should be clear to even the most gullible that the ‘Business Case’ for decentralisation of public service functions is almost always the same as the ‘Political Case’ (see also Will shifting government agencies to the regions drive decentralisation?).

Inner-city living makes for healthier, happier people, study finds

Residents of higher-density areas are more active, more socially engaged – and less obese – than people who live in the sprawl of suburbia

Notwithstanding The Guardian’s emphasis on happiness, this study’s about obesity – it’s even titled Association between adiposity outcomes and residential density. Moreover, rather than The Guardian’s “makes for”, the authors’ acknowledge the cross-sectional design prevents causal inference.

The idea that obesity varies inversely with residential density is well established. However, the authors of this much more sophisticated US study come to a different conclusion about why that’s the case. Rather than caused by density, suburbanites aren’t fatter because they live in the suburbs, they say, but because people who are more likely to be fat self-select into the suburbs. Conversely, people who are likely to be thin self-select into denser neighbourhoods like the inner city c.f. Manhattan. Changes in urban form, they say, will accordingly have little if any impact on obesity.