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Nov 12, 2017

That was The week That was… w/e 12 November

Tw3 provides a brief commentary on stories bearing on the delights and discontents of urbanism in the news over the week ending 12 November 2017

Change in mode share of public transport for the journey to work, at the Census (source: Charting Transport)

In this week’s Tw3 The Urbanist comments on:

  • Are city centre apartments dogboxes?
  • Warning on empty investment houses: rent, sell or pay more?
  • Is public transport winning mode share?
  • Should this site in East Melbourne be redeveloped?
  • Can we just call this a bus?
  • Is this what life will be like in 2030?
  • Does architecture shape your identity and affect your brain?
  • Should everyone in NSW and Victoria be permitted to cycle on footpaths?
  • Should L.A.’s Metro stop focusing primarily on building rail and also start improving the bus system?

Are city centre apartments dogboxes?

From John Faine, ABC 774 (from 1:12:55):

Sorry, they’re not apartments, they’re kennels, they’re dogboxes, you and I both know that… they’re shockingly, they’re really badly built, they’re going to be the slums in the future… they’ve got no direct light, they’ve got terrible ventilation, they’ve got appalling facilities… it’s a problem about the slums that are being built to accommodate (foreign students) and rip off their parents.

This is ABC Radio host John Faine forcefully expressing a personal view when interviewing state Property Council Executive Director Sally Capp last week about Victoria’s new vacant dwellings tax. I think this passage highlights an important issue about the role of ABC hosts in debates on controversial public issues, but that’s not my main interest now.

Are city centre high-rise apartments really the present and future slums that Mr Faine claims? I’ve discussed this before and I strongly disagree (see Are city centre apartment towers really slums?). The key attributes of slums are the low economic capacity of residents and run-down buildings and infrastructure. But Melbourne’s high-rise towers are very different:

  • Residents aren’t poor
  • These towers are brand new; they aren’t decrepit old buildings that’ve fallen into disrepair with no water or no heating
  • Residents choose to live in these apartments.
  • The stereotype of the rapacious slum landlord who ignores maintenance doesn’t apply here; these buildings are strata titled
  • Residents have security of tenure
  • Residents have a large allocation of space per person
  • Residents have access to high quality recreational infrastructure within their buildings and all the social opportunities of the city centre

There’s good reason to think small apartments in the city centre are well positioned to handle future challenges. They’re in sync with projected demographic shift to smaller households; with the increasing demand for cosmopolitan rather than suburban lifestyles; and with the continuing shift to a city centre-focussed knowledge economy.

I’ve pointed out before that the centres of cities like Paris, London and New York are crammed with very small apartments – typically less than 30 sq. metres – carved out of old buildings. These are much smaller than the minimum 50 sq. m floor area required for a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney, or the 45-sq. m one bedroomer typical in new-builds in Melbourne.

Many have poor daylight and a host of other amenity deficiencies when judged by the housing expectations of Australians who’ve mostly grown up in low density suburbs, but they’re in neighbourhoods that couldn’t even remotely be described as slums. Moreover, they make a valuable contribution to the vitality of these cities because they allow more people – and a greater diversity of people – to live in sought-after places like Manhattan and Paris.

Small city centre apartments with imperfect amenity don’t make a slum. The compromises they necessarily entail are a voluntary trade-off for the considerable benefits – almost all of them lying beyond the front door – of choosing to live in a desirable location. Let’s please understand that compared to past predominantly suburban generations, there are a lot of people who value location attributes more highly than dwelling attributes.

Warning on empty investment houses: rent, sell or pay more?

From The Age:

The Andrews Labor Government is urging investors with empty properties in inner Melbourne to sell them or rent them, or face paying more under new laws designed to boost supply and meet growing demand for housing. Premier Daniel Andrews made the call to action while visiting Darebin today – an area where it is estimated more than 50 properties are believed to be sitting vacant.

There should be disincentives for withholding properties from the rental market, but the impact of this initiative isn’t likely to be high. The Government estimates there are possibly 20,000 properties that are unreasonably vacant out of a total metropolitan stock of 1.74 million dwellings. That’s 0.01 of dwelling stock.

How the figure of 20,000 was arrived at isn’t explained and there are various exemptions, so the number of properties that are unreasonably withheld might be less. The timing of the announcement close to Saturday’s Northcote by-election is consistent with the idea this initiative is more about politics than pursuing the (less politically attractive) policies that would do most to improve housing affordability.

Is public transport winning mode share?

From Charting Transport (see exhibit):

Shift to public transport for journey to work #census2016: Sydney +3.0%, Melbourne +1.8%, Brisbane -1.6%, Adelaide +0.2%, Perth -0.8%

Contrary to earlier reports from the ABS, public transport’s mode share for commuting increased dramatically in Sydney and Melbourne over 2011-2016 according to an analysis by Chris Loader at Charting Transport, but fell in Brisbane and Perth, and was flat elsewhere. The quoted numbers are shifts in mode share, so the changes in patronage are huge. The overall pattern mostly reflects where economic growth is occurring i.e. in the two biggest capitals.

The journey to work is extremely important. It’s the longest trip purpose on average; arguably the most economically important; and the one that contributes most to traffic congestion. New railways lines and motorways are mostly built to cater for peak demand generated by work trips.

It’s important to note, though, that the journey to work:

  • Only accounts for around a quarter of all capital city trips
  • Is the purpose where public transport wins the biggest mode share.

In contrast, social and recreational journeys also account for around a quarter of trips, but only 5% of them are taken by public transport in Melbourne; similarly, shopping trips make up 16% of all trips, with public transport used for just 4% of them. That’s why public transport’s mode share for all trip purposes in Melbourne was around 9% in 2012-13, according to VISTA.

Should this site in East Melbourne be redeveloped?

From The Age:

“Selling it to the highest bidder … to maximise revenue so that more luxury apartments can be built” would be a bad outcome, said East Melbourne Group secretary Stuart Hamilton in their letter… The group wants the site to be used for “a hospital, a school, an arts institution” or something that was “much more in keeping with the critical location of the precinct”. “It’s a pity to turn over to the private sector a site that is so great – it’s so critical for Melbourne,” he said.

Complaining about “more luxury apartments” being built sounds a bit rich coming from residents of one of Melbourne’s ritziest suburbs where luxury abodes abound. When The Age ranked 321 suburbs against 15 criteria a few years ago, East Melbourne came top, ahead of South Yarra and Toorak (see Is this ranking of “the most liveable suburbs” believable?).

Contrary to the claims of disgruntled residents, a 20-storey apartment tower is “in keeping” with this area; it’s in the CBD! Moreover, it has abundant parkland and good public transport. The distrust of “the private sector” seems a bit disingenuous; few public sector workers could afford to live here.

Any reduction in revenue from the sale of the site would have to come from some other area of the budget i.e. it’s money not available for other public functions. In any event, the sale of the old cancer centre site was always intended to help finance construction of the new cancer centre in Parkville.

Can we just call this a bus?

From CityLab:

It’s the shape of a swoopy modern streetcar, but it’s got rubber-shod wheels of a bus. Also, there’s no driver—it’s automated like a tram. The “trackless train” is sort of a jackalope of public transportation.

Or maybe it’s more like a donkey than a truly mythical creature; unlike a certain infamous straddling bus, this hybrid transportation innovation is for real.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on “trackless trains” or “track-free trams” disdainfully points out they’re still buses i.e. “mutton dressed up as lamb”. It’s true, but the bigger point is the “track-free tram” seeks to provide some of what makes track-based vehicles more attractive to travellers than buses.

That starts with confidence in the route they’re going to take, priority over other traffic on the road, high frequencies and span of hours, direct routes, smooth electric motors, and good connections with other services. In some places, the use of terms like “track-free train” is intended to address social prejudices around buses.

Good Bus Rapid Transit already has much of that covered, but these proposals also seek to emulate something of the in-cabin experience of trams and trains e.g. wider doors, more interior room, larger seat pitch. If that can be achieved, and if marketing them as “track-free trams” widens their appeal, then go for it.

Is this what life will be like in 2030?

From the World Economic Forum:

You are just waking up in the spring of 2030. Your Internet of Things bedroom opens solar powered e-windows and plays gentle music while your smart lighting displays a montage of beachfront sunrises from your recent vacation.

There’s a local interest to this future scenario; it envisages “you review the day’s cloud-based data from your Shenzhen manufacturing hub, your pilot project in San Diego, and your QA team in Melbourne.” Sounds right; someone else invents it, someone else makes it, and we specialise in correct behaviour!

This prediction stuff is engaging but fanciful; like most futurology it’s very tech-oriented, it’s firmly rooted in today’s concerns and values, and the innovations are mostly based on making what we do already a lot easier. That’s all perfectly understandable; just know the track record of prediction is awful.

Does architecture shape your identity and affect your brain?

Studies have shown that long-term episodic memories are processed in the same part of the brain that is used for spatial navigation and place recognition. And according to architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen, this makes intuitive sense…

One study cited by Ms Goldhagen found a patient recovering from surgery in a hospital room with a view outside healed 30 per cent faster than the same patient with a view of a brick wall. Another found the design of a school can account for up to 25 per cent of the rate of students’ learning.

So we’re relying here for understanding of cognitive psychology and neuroscience on the expertise of…an architecture critic? On the extravagant claims of two unreferenced studies as interpreted by said critic? I accept that the built environment has some role, but the author’s assertion that “the built environment plays a crucial role in our experiences, our memories, and our very identities” sounds way over the top. Having a role is not the same as having a crucial role.

Should everyone in NSW and Victoria be permitted to cycle on footpaths?

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

In NSW once a child turns 12, they are no longer legally entitled to ride on the footpath. For many parents, this is a big concern. Forcing young children to navigate dangerous roads with often hostile drivers is a prospect that is terrifying.

The paper’s leader writer seems to be advocating repeal of the law i.e. allowing all cyclists to ride on the footpath, as per other states and Territories except NSW and Victoria. This is a vexed issue. On the one hand, current and prospective cyclists are fearful of riding in traffic; on the other, there’s conflict between pedestrians and cyclists on shared paths.

I don’t think getting rid of the law would cause a problem at present; after all, plenty of riders do it in Melbourne but only for short stretches and it’s barely policed. I’m not aware of any great hue and cry in states where there’s no law (shared paths/trails are another thing though).

But as both cycling and walking numbers increase in response to higher densities and traffic congestion, and as the population ages, sharing footpaths is likely to become more fraught. It won’t be a sustainable strategy, at least not in inner suburbs.

And if cyclists are permitted to ride on footpaths, will that take pressure off governments to provide purpose-built infrastructure? Opponents of the mandatory helmet law argue it had precisely this effect.

I think cyclists belong on the road, not on footpaths, which in any event aren’t suitable because they’re too narrow, have too many crossovers, and in the suburbs are too uneven. The only answer in my view is to take some road space off motorists and give it to cyclists for their exclusive or priority use (see Can cyclists travel happily with pedestrians?).

Should L.A.’s Metro stop focusing primarily on building rail and also start improving the bus system?

From the Los Angeles Times:

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ridership has been falling steadily since 2014, losing on average 69,000 daily riders each month… It wouldn’t be difficult to turn these figures around, as Metro’s history shows: The transportation authority should stop focusing primarily on building new rail and use a fair share of its voter-supplied wealth to lower fares and improve the bus system.

The demography of public transport users in Australia’s big cities isn’t the same as that of Los Angeles transit users, but there’s nevertheless a lesson here. The argument of the writer is the Authority funded shiny rail-based projects at the expense of its much larger population of bus riders. A key reason is the Authority is managed by a board of mostly elected officials.

We see a similar phenomenon at work in Melbourne e.g. lobby groups pushing for shiny new rail lines to Doncaster and Rowville despite appalling BCAs, or actively promoting immediate construction of an airport rail line well ahead of when demand would justify it. Funding these projects would divert resources from less glamorous investments that would provide greater benefits.

Lobby groups are inherently political; they’re apt to pursue narrow political agendas that serve sectional interests, and ignore the welfare of the wider community (who some of them purport to represent).

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5 thoughts on “That was The week That was… w/e 12 November

  1. Tom the first and best

    I agree that the new build small high density flats in inner-Melbourne are not slums now, however there is a reasonable chance that many of the lower end blocks of flats will end up as slums. A significant proportion, probably even a majority, of the smaller flats (usually targeted at students and other lower income people, rather than the wealthier owner-occupiers who tend to buy larger flats) are investor owned and many of these buildings have a landlord majority on the strata committee and thus the maintenance issues are likely to build up over time in some of these buildings.

    Historically, slums were often not all that far from wealthier areas and so being close in to services does not prevent slums.

    Most of those old buildings with small flats in Paris, London, New York, etc. are sufficiently old that they are 6 stories or shorter and do not have lifts, unlike many of the buildings that are going up in the inner-city at the moment. One major lesson of the post war public housing towers is that towers need lifts that need maintenance and low income housing often does not get enough of that maintenance.

    One of the key thing that the vacant housing tax will do is to make landlords less likely to think waiting for a higher rent is likely to be the more lucrative option, meaning that dwellings are leased faster, especially in weaker markets. The tax would also probably be more effective if it applied to more of the metropolitan area and also surrounding regional areas (regional cities within commuting distance and the perri-urban commuter belt).

    I strongly suspect that the journey to education (something the census could easily and should capture but does not) has a higher PT mode share that journey to work as it is usually to hubs of education, students usually have lower incomes, they often have discounted public transport, less likely to own a car, less likely to have a drivers licence, etc. While a smaller proportion of overall trips than the journey to work, it is still a significant proportion of overall trips.

    There is a possible argument for bicycles to be allowed on suburban and regional footpaths where the posted speed limit on the road is 60km/h or above, there are no bike lanes, there are no service lanes, it is not a heavily pedestrian area (more and more of which are getting 40km/h limits) and a bike speed of limit of 10km/h (the same as mobility scooters and car and pedestrian shared zones) applies.

  2. Donald Kay

    I am hoping that those intercity apartments lead to greater access to education.
    “The Government estimates there are possibly 20,000 properties that are unreasonably vacant out of a total metropolitan stock of 1.74 million dwellings. That’s 0.011% of dwelling stock.”
    Actually I make the percentage over 100 x greater at 1.15% (20,000/1,740,000×100). Once the arithmetic is right – we can look at relevance.
    Looking at total stock is misguided. If properties changed hands once in every 10 years than 20,000 represents 11% of annual turnover. So we have gone from 0.011% to 11% in going from incorrect irrelevant arithmetic to something relevant.
    The problem with all of the above is there is nothing to assume the other source numbers are any more reliable than our bloggers arithmetic.

    1. Alan Davies

      My 0.01 should be a fraction not a percent. Inadvertant error of expression, not a basis to extrapolate that therefore every other number is wrong. Corrected.

  3. meltdblog

    Bicycle use of footpaths is a very heated topic and having lived, cycled, and walked on both sides of the laws in Australia there isn’t much in it day to day. The first principle is that pedestrians always get right of way on footpaths, but in Melbourne that has been extended to pedestrians asserting right of way on shared paths, and bike paths where they are not supposed to be (just as the cyclists on the footpaths) due to a lack of recognition what areas are exclusive use and what areas are shared. Already the way to avoid building bicycle infrastructure is to either put up cyclists dismount signs or add shared path signs to footpaths, both of these can and have been applied in completely inappropriate situations and confuse where cycling and pedestrians will mix. Compare that to a blanket rule that bicycles can use footpaths as long as they are lowest priority which is simpler for everyone to understand and follow.

  4. Zeb

    One thing I note about the current rash of apartments in Sydney… the build quality is poor. Small sample size but of the 3 people I know who live in newly build apartments build in the last 2 years or so, all 3 report build issues. Mostly poor bathroom waterproofing but 2 have had window fit issues, and 1 of those had a triple whammy: shower leak, windows and doors not fitting, and a crack in the wall. They are all 3 renting.

    I dunno it is dogboxes that are the problem, it’s badly build dogboxes.