“Three Sydneys”, but they’re not clones – The Greater Sydney Commissions draft vision for Sydney

In this week’s Tw3 The Urbanist comments on:

  • Are “three Sydneys” better than one?
  • Is Sydney really full? The politics of urban density
  • Queensland election: does the Greens pledge of a flat $1 fare make sense?
  • Is high-density living worse for the environment than suburban sprawl?
  • Do vehicles hitting this rail bridge tell us there’s a bigger problem that lasers can’t fix?
  • Is selling public housing land to developers why there’s not enough housing for the poor
  • Why does Amsterdam work so well for bicycles?
  • Is riding a bicycle without a helmet “simply stupid”?
  • Is the Minister right to reject the Heritage Council’s recommendation?
  • Do the kinds of social changes brought on by online dating have wider implications for cities?

Are “three Sydneys” better than one?

I’ve seen the odd rant about the draft Greater Sydney Plan, but I’m surprised I haven’t seen much analytical commentary on the “three Sydneys” concept headlining the Greater Sydney Commission’s new document. According to the Chief Commissioner, Lucy Turnbull:

The vision for a global metropolis of three cities, enabling the majority of people to commute to their nearest city within 30 minutes, will transform Greater Sydney. It is a pivotal structural change that is needed over the next 40 years as the population grows.

This idea of deliberately creating three mostly self-contained cities within one is an astonishingly bad idea. Here’re just some of the reasons.

First, the “three cities” concept is a recipe for division. It reinforces the idea that there’s a place for everyone, but they’re distinctly different. It makes it a plan to house the “haves” in the Eastern Harbour city, the “also-rans” in the Central River City, and the “have-nots” in the Western Parkland City.

Second, it’s economically silly. It seeks to dull the great advantage of big cities; agglomeration economies. Not that it will succeed; history shows governments can’t make firms “decentralise” to suburban centres. Even with the emergence of polycentric cities, the CBD is by far the largest activity centre in every city in the world (with one possible exception, Atlanta).

Third, the 30-minute maximum trip is absurd. The average duration of the journey to work in Sydney is 35 minutes and is similar to other big cities around the world. The distribution is skewed toward longer trips, so the median is even higher i.e. more than half of commutes are longer than the Plan’s target, especially public transport trips.

There’s no point arguing it’s just a matter of balancing jobs with resident workforce in each of the three “cities”. Even if that really were just a matter of government pulling the right levers, the average commute time wouldn’t change; it’s already much the same in the job rich inner city as it is in the middle and outer rings. Commuters work and live where it suits them and for the majority that trade-off involves a longer commute than 30 minutes.

Fourth, the Badgerys Creek “aerotropolis” is a mirage. It’s sold as the great jobs goldmine in the Western Parkland City, but consider this: Melbourne Airport is 47 years old and is the only airport of any size in Victoria. Yet it only has 14,000 jobs and, together with the cluster of firms around it, accounts for just 2% of all jobs in Melbourne.

Fifth, the “three cities” concept lacks a logical basis. The only consistent difference the Plan shows between all three is temperature and rainfall; that’s hardly a sufficient basis for three distinct economic strategies. I get you could divide the metropolitan area into two “Sydneys” on critical demographic, economic and amenity variables, but not three.

In my view, it’s better to have a vision for one Greater Sydney, with more rather than fewer sub-regions.

Is Sydney really full? The politics of urban density

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

And Drummoyne MP John Sidoti says he will refuse to back the government’s plan to rezone the Rhodes East precinct for high-rise development of 3600 homes, unless a new school and transport upgrades are provided first.

“My community is saying Rhodes is at capacity,” he says. “If they want my support, that’s what I want. I want the community benefit of the infrastructure to go in first.”

Governments can’t reasonably be expected to amplify infrastructure in the early years of rapid growth. They never have; they prioritise other needs while waiting till there’s a critical mass. But redevelopment of established areas involves not only new settlers, there’re also existing residents. The latter make it clear they won’t tolerate short-term inconvenience for the benefit of newcomers. The great (political) advantage of fringe growth is there’re no existing residents to complain; no wonder governments keep at it.

Queensland election: does the Greens pledge of a flat $1 fare make sense?

From ABC News:

Adults should pay only a flat $1 fare for public transport in Queensland and people aged under 18 should travel free, the Greens say, under their state election transport policy.

Queensland Greens leader and candidate for South Brisbane, Amy MacMahon, said public transport usage had been falling over the past decade and a fare reduction would help stem the slide.

“We’re anticipating that in conjunction with a review of the bus network, and making sure we have reliable services, that we’d see about a 15 per cent increase in public transport use,” Ms MacMahon said.

This is an election so we shouldn’t be surprised if politicians play fast and loose with the numbers and make outlandish promises (the Greens are promising Queenslanders four extra public holidays!). The Greens say lower public transport fares would cost the budget $216 million p.a.; the Government says the current subsidy is $1.43 Billion p.a. What surprises me is why the Greens didn’t simply promise to make public transport free for everyone; the $1 fare cuts revenue to the bone yet means most of the costs of ticket collection and enforcement must still be incurred.

I don’t think, though, that even reducing the fare to $1 is a good idea. The 15% increase in patronage the Greens claim it would produce would put a big strain on the system (c.f. Melbourne’s free CBD trams) but wouldn’t change mode share much. At present, public transport carries 7.7% of all motorised travel in Brisbane, so the 15% increase in passenger numbers would increase its mode share to 8.8% if it all came from additional travel, or to 8.9% on the assumption it all came at the expense of cars. The latter is unlikely; experience suggests removing or significantly reducing fares has a much bigger impact on walking than on driving.

That’s a pretty modest gain even when compared to the Greens optimistic estimate of the cost to revenue. It’s consistent though with the evidence that travellers are more likely to respond to an increase in the speed and convenience of public transport than they are to lower out-of-pocket costs. Maintaining fare revenue and investing it in improved services is more likely to increase patronage at the expense of cars than reducing fares would (see Should public transport be free?).

Is high-density living worse for the environment than suburban sprawl?

From Domain:

Living in a high-rise tower in the city is much less environmentally sustainable than moving to a house in the suburbs and adding to the urban sprawl, a shock new study has found. In a revelation that challenges the long-held assumption that it’s more efficient to reside in a vertical village than a horizontal one, the three-year US study shows that apartment dwellers consume more energy, spend more of their time travelling and use their cars more.

The link to the paper takes you to the wrong one, so I can’t assess whether this “shock” finding is plausible. There’s other evidence, though, that high-rise buildings have high levels of embodied energy and that electricity consumption is boosted by elevators and communal facilities like swimming pools. But it’s worth pointing out two possible explanations.

First, high-rise apartments tend to have a high proportion of one and two person households, so their use of electricity and gas consumption per person will tend to be higher than that for suburban detached dwellings with families, even after allowing for differences in floor area.

Second, high-rise apartments tend to be occupied by wealthier residents who consume more resources, especially energy, because they buy more “stuff”, go out more, and travel more. They buy bigger TVs, multiple computers, fly more, etc.

A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation found inner city households in Australia have the largest adverse impact on the environment – and by a considerable margin – of any group in the country. It’s necessary though to distinguish between the environmental burden imposed by the dwelling and that imposed by the household living in it; the latter seems to be the big one (see Are inner city residents bad for the environment?).

Do vehicles hitting this rail bridge tell us there’s a bigger problem that lasers can’t fix?

From The Age:

The new money will be spent on laser detection devices on the roads approaching the bridge that will sense over-height vehicles and activate a system of red lights and warnings designed to be difficult for even the most distracted drive to miss.

The paper reports Footscray’s Napier St bridge has been hit more than 70 times in 12 years by trucks despite more than 20 warning signs posted on approach roads to alert drivers to the danger.

These failures suggest there’s a much bigger problem here than a bridge. It seems there are way too many truck drivers who either won’t, or more likely can’t, pay attention, or who lack the skills to react appropriately to the unexpected. Either way, there’s an evident risk to the public from very large vehicles. Is the risk big enough to warrant stronger action? Don’t know, but I hope someone’s figuring it out.

Is selling public housing land to developers why there’s not enough housing for the poor?

From The Age:

The sell-off of the city’s public housing estates to developers for a modest increase in new homes for the disadvantaged will still leave a huge shortfall on what’s needed, a report for councils concludes.

And an academic with a long history studying public housing redevelopment in Melbourne says the Andrews government’s public land sale to developers is ill-conceived and should be abandoned.

The paper conflates them, but the key story here isn’t to do with any failings of the Public Housing Renewal Program (PHRP); it’s that governments aren’t building enough social housing to meet demand. That’s hardly news but it’s important; it’s one of Infrastructure Victoria’s three headline recommendations.

The PHRP is a separate issue. It’s a good program because it renews existing public housing, adds to the stock of social housing, and increases the supply of market housing, without imposing on the budget. The claim that it increases diversity is overblown, but it doesn’t increase concentration of disadvantage significantly either (see Is selling public housing land to developers a good policy?).

Why does Amsterdam work so well for bicycles?

From Citylab:

Over the last 60 years, Amsterdam’s leaders, planners and designers have by trial and error created a template for a city where bikes are the dominant force in transportation planning and design. That template has five essential characteristics; skip or short-change any one of them and your city of bikes won’t work as well: 1. All streets are bike streets 2. Separated cycle tracks, not bike lanes 3. When possible, go completely car free 4. Two speeds, both slow 5. Stress-free intersections

These five are all important parts of the Dutch success story, but they’re not the full story. There are cities elsewhere with good cycling infrastructure but nothing like the take-up of cycling in Amsterdam. Other critically important factors include topography, cultural attitudes to cycling, and probably most importantly, policies that make driving less attractive relative to cycling.

Is riding a bike without a helmet “simply stupid”?

From the New York Times:

I will start this column with its conclusion: Riding a bicycle without wearing a properly fitted helmet is simply stupid. Anyone who does so is tempting fate, risking a potentially life-changing disaster.

When cycling conditions are as sympathetic as they are in Amsterdam, there’s a reduced warrant for wearing a helmet and less justification for a mandatory helmet law. But that doesn’t mean helmets aren’t a good voluntary choice. Even a fall from standing can lead to a severe head injury e.g. high-profile cases of young men dying from hitting their head on the ground after being punched. Or celebrities who suffer head injuries after a fall e.g. Molly, Red Symons.

We should also observe that around half of cycling injuries involving a stay in hospital don’t result from a collision with a car; they’re mostly the result of falling off! The risk of serious injury is of course much lower if you’re not a “lycra lout”, but it’s still higher than walking or driving.

Is the Minister right to reject the Heritage Council’s recommendation?

From The Age:

Heritage Victoria says it’s a structure of technical and architectural significance, but Planning Minister Richard Wynne has dismissed it as an “eyesore” that “needs to go”. And for the first time, Mr Wynne has used his powers to overturn a recommendation that the building be heritage listed, spelling doom for the 63-year-old structure.

Presumably the Minister has more sophisticated reasons for dismissing the Victorian Heritage Council’s recommendation than simply that it’s an “eyesore”. Otherwise, there might be a legal challenge like the recent one in NSW when the Minister was found to have unlawfully rejected the NSW Heritage Council’s recommendation to list Sirius House. The Court said he’d failed to demonstrate that he’d properly considered the issue.

But Mr Wynne has captured what protection means for most people; keeping old buildings if they’re pretty. The Boiler House isn’t conventionally attractive; The Age reports the residents don’t want it kept either. It isn’t the Federal Coffee Palace, the Windsor Hotel, ICI House, or the Olympic Swimming Pool. It’s an industrial building that hitherto was tucked away on the expansive site of the former Amcor paper mill in inner suburban Alphington.

The Heritage Council thinks it should be protected because it’s an early example of “curtain wall design and technology”. I don’t doubt the building conforms with the infinitely malleable criteria used by the Heritage Council, but this justification has little resonance with anyone outside a tiny section of the population. From the perspective of everybody else, this rationale is arcane and esoteric.

It’s often conveniently ignored, but protection of commercial buildings usually imposes both social and private costs. Those costs are rarely paid by those who demand preservation and get the benefits. But in marginal cases like this they can be avoided by documenting the important aspects in media e.g. words, images, 3-D digital models, film. That’s how we document other matters, like (say) the introduction of key-hole surgery to Victorian operating theatres, which I expect has vastly more meaning for the wider population than the occult world of 1950s curtain wall construction.

Those who want to see a preserved curtain wall in the wild can visit the infinitely more valuable ICI House and Olympic Swimming Pool, both listed on the state Heritage Register.

Do the kinds of social changes brought on by online dating have wider implications for cities?

From MIT Technology Review:

Loose ties have traditionally played a key role in meeting partners… people meet their partners: through mutual friends, in bars, at work, in educational institutions, at church, through their families, and so on…

(But) people who meet online tend to be complete strangers,” say Ortega and Hergovich. And when people meet in this way, it sets up social links that were previously nonexistent. The question that Ortega and Hergovich investigate is how this changes the racial diversity of society.

The authors note a big increase in inter-racial marriages from the 2000s and hypothesise it’s due to the emergence of dating sites. If that’s right, more sophisticated matching could also have important implications for cities e.g. could it mean that one day our best residential location match will be calculated by algorithms so precise they even take account of the personalities and values of existing neighbours? That sounds scary but it might also mean we’re less prone to relying on crude measures of matching like class and ethnicity.