National Museum Canberra (image by Rosalind de Sailly)

In this week’s Tw3 The Urbanist comments on:

  • Lonely Planet lists Canberra as one of the world’s three hottest destinations
  • Cars continue to rule Melbourne roads, Census shows
  • Labor spends $10 million on spinners to win over public on transport projects
  • What happens to the information you give to bike share companies?
  • Are trains better than Bus Rapid Transit systems? A look at the evidence
  • Ride sharing, better public transport have more to offer than solo car commutes
  • Barak, Kirner and Chloe firm in station naming race, no joy for Dusty or Winterfell
  • Becoming more urban: attitudes to medium-density living are changing in Sydney and Melbourne
  • Growing unpopularity of Australia’s growing population
  • Shifting the Dial: 5 year productivity review
  • Sirius denied heritage protection, again

Lonely Planet lists Canberra as one of the world’s three hottest destinations

From the Guardian:

Paul Keating has called Canberra “a great mistake”. A city with an air of unreality. But Lonely Planet thinks it is “criminally overlooked” and one of the world’s hottest destinations for 2018. Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2018 has ranked Canberra third on its top 10 cities list for travellers next year, beating Hamburg in Germany and Oslo in Norway. It also beat San Juan, Puerto Rico and is the only Australian city to make the list.

What, Canberra one of the “world’s three hottest destinations”? Is it only there because Lonely Planet’s headquarters are in Australia? Well, no. As I’ve discussed before, Canberra has a number of virtues that belie its reputation as a dull place (see Is Canberra the worst city in Australia?).

  • Canberra has two of the ‘21 Hippest Suburbs in Australia‘, Braddon and Canberra City (that’s the same number as Brisbane and Perth). These two suburbs have high population density and high proportions of tertiary educated singles. Canberra City is rated as a “Walker’s Paradise” by Walkscore.
  • Canberra (well, strictly speaking the ACT) is the only sub-national jurisdiction to have passed same-sex marriage legislation. The law was struck down on 12 December 2013 by the High Court of Australia, but the intention was there.
  • Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any city in Australia. That applies even after allowing for differences between jurisdictions in factors like income and education, according to Dr Andrew Leigh, author of Disconnected.
  • Canberra has the highest level of cycling of the major capital cities in Australia, with three times Sydney’s mode share for the journey to work and close to double Melbourne’s. It also has the highest levels of cycling for non-work purposes.
  • Canberra is a very young city (it didn’t get established seriously as the national administrative capital until the 1950s) and a relatively small city (less than 400,000), but even so its population density is only a little lower than Adelaide’s and Perth’s, as is its share of commuting by public transport.

For many residents, Canberra’s greatest virtue is that it combines the accessibility and housing choices of a small city with the sort of high-pay, high-human capital jobs – and the associated social and cultural life they bring – usually only available in a much larger city. For tourists, there’s a wealth of institutions to visit.

Fairfax followed up the next day with its own Canberra story, Canberra the third top city in the world? Of course it is. That must’ve started something, because on Saturday Fairfax published a homage to Hob(art), How my home town suddenly became cool.

Cars continue to rule Melbourne roads, Census shows

From The Age:

More than 1.3 million Melburnians, or 74 per cent of the commuting population, are relying solely on a car to get to work in 2016. This is down from 76 per cent in 2011, but still far higher than Sydney, where 65.5 per cent of the population drives to work… As a proportion of the population, 13 per cent of commuters rely on public transport as their sole form of transport to work, up from 12 per cent in 2011.

This interpretation of newly released Census data is misleading because it appears to ignore commutes where two or more modes are involved e.g. workers who drive to the station and take the larger part of their journey to work by train. By my calculations, public transport was the main mode for 18.4% of Melbourne workers on Census day 2016, a far cry from the 13% quoted by The Age. A further 79.1% drove, 3.4% walked (only), and 1.6% cycled. There was also 4.8% who worked at home.

It differs slightly from my method, but I have more confidence in the calculations done by Chris Loader at Charting Transport, Trends in journey to work mode shares in Australian cities to 2016 (first edition), than I do in the ABS’s interpretation of the numbers. He’s gone a lot further and done time series back to 2001 for all Australia’s capital cities, showing that public transport’s mode share continued to increase in Sydney and Melbourne but declined in Perth and Brisbane.

Labor spends $10 million on spinners to win over public on transport projects

From The Age:

A small army of media, communications and “stakeholder relations” officers have been hired to keep Melbourne’s transport message moving… This small battalion of officers are employed mainly in communications and to work with “stakeholders” – groups and individuals who have a stake in a project.

I expect the cost of those “spinners” is even more, but I don’t feel the outrage The Age expects I should. Even if it’s double the cited figure, a total of $200 million over 10 years on projects like Melbourne Metro, level crossing removals, signalling upgrades, Mernda rail extension, etc, isn’t horrifying; these projects involve expenditure of more than $20 Billion over the period.

I don’t like the bit that’s purely political spin, but the major part of the outlay is because we demand greater accountability from governments and closer community engagement in projects. We get upset if we’re not consulted in detail at every step.

The administrative costs of projects are now staggeringly high, much of it due to our lower tolerance for risk, the high standards we expect, and our demand for consultation. For example, the cost of geotechnical investigations, land acquisition, engineering and design, approvals, and overheads for the $11 Billion Melbourne Metro exceeds $2 Billion (see Infrastructure costs: is like compared with like?).

What happens to the information you give to bike share companies?

From ABC 7:30:

You’ve got all this data that is held by all these great, cool new companies and they say, “Well you looked at the terms of use, we can give that to someone else,” and so I am also thinking, “is this actually a bike share or is this a data grabbing operation?”. Is it really the bikes that they are after, or will they dump that very quickly once they’ve got your information?

Oh c’mon! A company would go to the effort of buying, distributing, marketing and managing thousands of bicycles, plus developing specialised software, purely as a cover for “a data grabbing operation”? I expect it would cost vastly less to buy detailed information about me from the many other firms that have managed to get my vital stats over the last decade.

There’s a legitimate concern about how carefully companies look after customers’ personal data, but oBike’s marketing manager told 7:30 unequivocally, “we don’t sell users’ data”. I think the important question this story prompts is why so many are prepared to believe any narrative, no matter how implausible, that fits their preconceived notions.

Are trains better than Bus Rapid Transit systems? A look at the evidence

From The City Fix:

Ingvardson and Nielsen compare 86 metro, light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors using several variables: travel time savings, increase in demand from riders, modal shift, and land use and urban development changes…

The researchers conclude BRT can improve travel times, modal share and urban development at rates similar to those reported for light rail and metro. This evidence contradicts conventional wisdom. It is not possible to categorically say trains have greater benefits than BRT; they are not always superior. Context matters, not just the material of the wheels or the permanence of the tracks.

In relation to land value and development potential, the authors say access conditions, the urban environment, and service characteristics (e.g., frequency, speed, comfort and pricing) are more important than type of transit mode.

The idea that rail-based transit “causes” development but buses don’t is deeply entrenched in the thinking of planners and politicians, but the evidence base is thin. I pointed out last month that my local rail line has plenty of stations with little development while Doncaster Hill, which is only served by buses, is undergoing intensive redevelopment.

Ride sharing, better public transport have more to offer than solo car commutes

From The Age:

Many people have no option but to drive, but it’s clear that we cannot wait for the Melbourne Metro to open in a decade’s time before we find other approaches. Rationality and technology point to answers. Ride-sharing is ever more simple and convenient, largely because of the internet. Sooner than you would expect, self-driving cars will further facilitate sharing. More people will work from home. Public transport, here and around the world, is becoming more and more popular as people baulk at the costs of cars; our peak-hour services are filled to capacity, even on V/Line.

This editorial in The Age gets too many important matters wrong:

  • Ride-sharing doesn’t mean car-pooling. Services like Uber operate like taxis i.e. they’re car travel except you’re chauffeured and don’t have the bother of parking. But they don’t involve sharing the vehicle with unrelated persons as is the case with public transport and car-pooling. Because ride-sharing services like Uber cost less than a taxi, they tend to replace transit trips and increase the number of cars on the road. This is emerging as a significant problem in New York.
  • Autonomous cars reduce costs so they should indeed facilitate use of services like Uber. They’re likely though to further increase the number of cars on roads because they’ll enable travellers to use travel time more productively. The pressure on roads will be even greater if private ownership of autonomous cars is permitted; this will be further exacerbated if taxes and charges aren’t levied on a per km/minute basis.
  • The idea that Melbourne Metro will substantially reduce the demand for driving is a misnomer. It will add much-needed capacity for an additional 39,000 trips in the AM peak (it will add capacity in the off-peak too, of course, but there’s already adequate capacity at that time). There are 8 million trips by car per day in Melbourne, so that extra capacity isn’t going to have a measurable effect on mode shift. Apart from adding that 39,000 in the peak, the justification for Melbourne Metro is to make the entire metro rail network more reliable.

Barak, Kirner and Chloe firm in station naming race, no joy for Dusty or Winterfell

From The Age:

To the disappointment of those who were hoping for Trainy McTrainface, the favoured names ignore the cultural zeitgeist and instead pay homage to notable local explorers, politicians and Indigenous leaders. One of the most popular suggestions was for a station named after Victoria’s first female premier, Joan Kirner, who died in 2015.

No matter how loved and respected they might be today, we should leave behind forever the custom of naming public works after politicians. Any public figure runs the risk of being out of step with the views of later generations e.g. in the minds of many, naming stations after early explorers and settlers celebrates our racist past. It’s even riskier with politicians because by definition they’re partisan selections without universal appeal.

I think using neutral names, as was done with ‘Southern Cross’ or ‘Melbourne Central’, would be a good policy. But the argument raised in The Age’s report that place names are important for train users to navigate their way around the city is bunkum; as I’ve explained before it would be a trivial benefit. I think there’s an important opportunity here to use indigenous names.

Becoming more urban: attitudes to medium-density living are changing in Sydney and Melbourne

From The Conversation:

46% favoured…medium-density housing when located in established suburbs with good public transport and access to jobs and services.

46%…preferred a separate dwelling and garden in a car-dependent suburb.

Just 8% opted for apartments.

Fewer than 10% of residents think…neighbourhood change in their locality is a good thing… Preference for less or no change sits around 45%.

This survey shows an enormous gap between preferences and the existing stock of housing. Respondents have little love for apartments and less than half say they prefer a detached house in a car dependent suburb, yet in Sydney 57% of the dwelling stock is detached houses and 28% is apartments. In Melbourne, 68% is detached and 15% is apartments. Medium-density housing with access to a garden, like town houses and terraces, comprises only 14% of the stock in Sydney and 17% in Melbourne.

A study by the Grattan Institute showed that the biggest mismatch in both cities is in the middle-ring suburbs, where there are many more detached houses than multi-unit dwellings (see also What type of housing do we prefer?).

It’s not that new generations of Australians have come to prefer small dwellings, it’s that they realise they must trade-off space in order to afford an acceptable level of accessibility. Notwithstanding that close to half the sample prefer “a separate dwelling and garden in a car-dependent suburb”, neither city is building many houses; most new construction in Sydney is apartments whereas in Melbourne it’s town houses.

Growing unpopularity of Australia’s growing population

From The Age:

It is completely negligent for those such as the Productivity Commission, nearly every federal and state politician, and a raft of greedy special-interest lobbyists to couch the issue as “What do we do to accommodate this population growth?” instead of “How can we reduce the population growth?”… The danger lies in opportunist political figures like Pauline Hanson linking the ills of overpopulation (congestion, hospital waiting times, housing prices, stalled wages growth and the like) to Muslim immigration.

An arguably bigger risk (not mentioned by the author) is the possible loss of longer-run economic growth that might attend a major reduction in immigration intake. Depending on severity, that could also bring a lot of social disruption.

But the point I want to make here is current problems like congestion and expensive housing are not solely down to population growth. In the case of housing, for example, it’s also down to factors like the taxation treatment of housing, planning constraints on dwelling supply, falling household size, government policies designed to boost demand, etc. I’d like to think our universities are trying to untangle the relative contribution of immigration and other factors to infrastructure stresses.

Shifting the Dial: 5 year productivity review

From the Productivity Commission, Supporting paper No. 9, Funding and investment for better roads:

Reform of funding arrangements is becoming more urgent. Improvements to vehicle technology such as greater fuel efficiency (and electric power), as well as changes in driver behaviour and preferences, have eroded revenue from the primary road related taxes. The anticipated introduction of autonomous vehicles will exacerbate this effect…

The prospect of declining revenue from the fuel excise (it brought in around $17 Billion in 2016/17) is likely to be the strongest force driving introduction of some form of road pricing in Australia. The only plausible way to make it revenue neutral – which is essential for political acceptability – will require a national approach.

Sirius denied heritage protection, again

From the NSW Minister for Heritage, Gabrielle Upton:

After considering the recommendation of the Heritage Council and the submissions in response to public notification, I note the following:

The Heritage Council only recommended listing on the grounds of aesthetics (c) and rarity (f), although many submissions also advocated for other grounds. Given the divergent views expressed on these other grounds by submissions for and against listing – particularly on the significance of the Sirius building as an outcome of the green bans (and whether its relevance was state-wide or only local), and the relevance of the building to the work of participants in the green ban, I agree with the Heritage Council’s decision not to recommend on these other grounds….

I haven’t found a copy of the NSW Heritage Council’s report to the Minister on Sirius, so this is enlightening, because it shows the Council thinks listing of Sirius can only be justified on the grounds that it:

(c) is important in demonstrating aesthetic characteristics and/or a high degree of creative or technical achievement in NSW

(f) possesses uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of NSW’s cultural or natural history.

The Heritage Council formed the view that listing could not be justified on any of the following grounds:

(a) importance in the course, or pattern, of NSW’s cultural or natural history

(b) strong or special association with the life or works of a person, or group of persons, of importance in NSW’s cultural or natural history

(d) strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group in NSW for social, cultural or spiritual reasons

(e) potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of NSW’s cultural or natural history

(g) important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a class of NSW’s cultural or natural places/environments.

The other interesting thing to emerge last week was submissions made to the Heritage Council obtained under FOI by the Save Our Sirius Foundation. Unfortunately, it appears the Foundation hasn’t put the documents on its site (what is it with NSW and not sharing info?), but some information must’ve been given to Architecture.AU, which reports:

The Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) consulted heritage and social experts including NBRS and Partners, Futurepast, Architectural Projects, Context, and the late architectural historian Jennifer Taylor. FACS states: “NBRS and Partners, Futurepast, Architectural Projects and Context collectively agree that the Sirius Apartment Building fails to meet any of the criteria for State Heritage Significance.”

While the FACS report reference the work of Jennifer Taylor in relation to the history of brutalist architecture in Australia, which did not mention Sirius, she was asked directly by the department if there were any international publications on Sirius to which she replied “I am unaware of any international publications on the building Sirius, 36–50 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, Sydney.”

The Architecure.AU report notes the Heritage Council commissioned expert reports from architectural historian Professor Philip Goad and political and social historian professor Paul Ashton.

Philip Goad’s report stated that the “stepped and staggered forms of the mixed high and low-rise Sirius Apartment Building (1975-80) relates to the low rise character of the historic precinct of The Rocks. As such it is completely different and unusual within the context of Sydney public housing, which at the time was focused on villa estates, terrace houses and high-rise projects – not a mixture.”

My view is the NSW Heritage Council got it badly wrong. Sirius is an interesting building to modern eyes, but it’s not worth listing on the heritage grounds relied on by the Council. I think there are other reasons to justify opposition to the NSW Governments plans to redevelop the site, but the case hasn’t been made that heritage is one of them.