Melbourne: We should build apartment blocks on our green space.

Melbourne has too much parkland and we should build apartments where there are currently trees.

I am serious. But I am also going to add nuance to that statement…

People who care about cities agree surface carparks are bad. They are dead empty spaces that reduce density. They ruin walkability and limit the agglomeration effects you can get when businesses locate in close proximity.

Many of these same people gush about parks and would chain themselves to trees if I were put in charge.

But there are parks that operate just like carparks. They’re eerie, bleak and deserted. They add to walking distances between destinations. They’re antithetical to the basic function of a city, which is to put humans into contact with each other.

Not all parks are like this. Some are popular destinations in their own right. They are busy and valuable. But others are black holes in the universe of our city.

The biggest example of such a bad park sits right at the centre of Melbourne. Royal Park. It is clearly too big and as a result, it is largely empty.

When we compare the scale of Royal Park to another very large, famous inner city park, we can see that it is around 50 per cent wider.

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Royal Park: 1.4km across.
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Central Park, NYC. 0.6 miles or 960 metres across.

Royal Park and would take 17 minutes to cross on foot.  It would take 8.5 minutes just to walk to the middle of the park, assuming you start from the very edge. If you lived 3 minutes from the park and planned to walk into the middle of the park, then home again, that will require at least 23 minutes of solid walking.

While we’re talking about New York City, it is probably worth quoting history’s most famous urbanist, New York’s Jane Jacobs. (Economics readers who haven’t heard of her can think of her as a sort of Adam Smith of urbanism.)

“In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with an old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

“More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.”

Parks are an asset to a city. We can appreciate them by looking out on them. We can appreciate them by simply knowing they are there. But mainly we appreciate them by being in them. That’s their primary function.

An empty park is a failed park. These are not like National Parks, designed to preserve an eco-system for eternity. Royal Park is described by its defenders as bushland, but I’ve been to the bush and it isn’t. The modest scattering of trees were probably planted to hide how empty the place is.  But it just makes the park more vacant seeming and less useful.

Central city parks should function for people. Design is part of that. Lighting is important. So is seating.

But the most significant determinant of how people use parks is proximity. Central Park has literally millions of people within walking distance. The shape of the park optimises the amount of people nearby – it is long and thin.

By contrast, Royal Park is almost round.

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Furthermore, Royal Park is surrounded by other parks! (I’ve marked them in red).

A good park – a necessary park – is surrounded by people who crave access to parkland. Royal Park fails on this criteria.

The only times I’ve ever gone to Royal Park by foot, for reasons other than organised sport, has been in the company of people living in that small, highly-desirable sliver of Parkville on Royal Park’s east. By contrast, I’ve spent many many hours running, barbecuing, football kicking and frisbee throwing in Princes Park, which is basically across the road.

#anzacday #kicktokick #melbourne #princespark #straya

A post shared by Jason Murphy (@jasemurphy) on

Why would the residents of the dense areas east of Princes Park cross it to visit Royal Park? They wouldn’t and they don’t. That starts a virtuous circle where Princes Park is lively and desirable. Meanwhile Royal Park’s grass grows long and few people notice.

I love parks and I think I have a feeling for what works best. Too small, and they are no fun.  I lived in West Melbourne at one stage, and they only have those little pocket parks, built on old vacant blocks. They’re not very desirable to sit in, too small to kick a ball, and not big enough for a dog to run round in.

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This park is about 600metres north-south, 500 metres across, and it is ALWAYS busy.

A good example of a successful park is North Fitzroy’s Edinburgh Gardens. Big enough to have a couple of football ovals in it, and surrounded by medium density housing.

So. With these ideas in hand, how would I fix Royal Park? I present below a fairly modest proposal to split the park along its north-south axis by building high density housing along the tram line.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.17.02 am With these red areas full of homes, Royal Park might finally have a critical mass of potential users. I’ve cut the supply of park only modestly – the vast majority of Royal Park is protected. But by simultaneously increasing the potential demand for this park, it might start attracting a lot more people to appreciate its very real charms.

royal park sunset
Sunset from Royal Park. It’s genuinely very nice.

How to dodge a big payout on cancelling a road contract AND avoid creating sovereign risk

The government of the state where this blog is produced is in a pickle.

Prior to an election last November the then Opposition promised to cancel or defeat in court a contract for a big controversial road tunnel. The tunnel, worth perhaps $6 to $10 billion dollars, has not been built yet. Nothing beyond planning has commenced

Now the former Opposition are in power, they are finding that the old government left them a poison pill. 

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If the road is not built for any reason, the government must pay the company that would have built it $1.1 billion. This clause was added by the previous government. The companies might have done only $50 million of preparatory work – being generous here – but they get paid $1.1 billion simply for missing out on finishing the job.

Ignoring for a moment the morality of inserting such a clause into a contract (it’s vile, wasteful, ridiculous, and would in a better world result in a range of senior bureaucrats and politicians going to jail), we turn our minds to how the present government can deal with it.

There are three main options.

1. Avoid the payment and make the road. This would involve reneging on a major election promise, but you don’t waste the money.

2. Avoid the road and make the payment. This would gift a billion dollars from an indebted state government to a consortium of companies including Lend Lease Group, worth $9 billion, Acciona, worth €3.6 billion and Bouygues SA, worth €10 billion.  It would probably be politically convenient too.

3. Avoid both the road and the payment. The government has one big advantage. It makes laws. It can write legislation that annuls the offending contract. But the big risk in such a course of action is that it establishes an extremely unwelcome precedent that promised payments can be cancelled at whim by the government, and valid questions being raised about sovereign risk.

I want to look more closely at option three. Is there a way a law could be drafted that gets a just result and avoids sovereign risk? I think there might be.

Any law to cancel the payment provisions in the east-west link should:

1. Make it clear that this is a once-off by raising the hurdle for ever cancelling this kind of contract again.

For example, the Government could include a clause requiring that in future passing legislation that annuls any contract above a multi-billion dollar value threshold requires a supermajority in parliament, e.g. two-thirds of votes. The requirement for a super-majority should not apply to contracts where the cancellation provisions are substantially greater than the cost of the work done.

Sovereign risk only applies if a company can genuinely fear its contract provisions may be changed by legislative fiat. If they fear risk, they will raise prices.

Reducing the risk of such legislative action should attenuate the real costs of sovereign risk (although it won’t prevent the political costs of big companies mouthing off about it.)

2. Legislate against any future government ever introducing “poison pill” contract clauses into infrastructure contracts. (Part of me wonders if this law could apply retrospectively?)

3. Legislate that any large contract signed during the “caretaker period” in the lead-up to an election should be agreed upon by the leader of the Opposition as well as the Government, in order to prevent sneaky surprises. Part of the problem with the east-west link project was that it was never an election pledge, was controversial for 3.5 years, and with weeks before the election it looked set to lose, the government signed a contract.

We’re in a tangled mess.

Now. Could the state government of Victoria pass such legislation? It has a lower house majority, so it could pass it there, no problem. In the Upper house it holds just 14 of 40 seats. But The Greens have five, and they are likely to support such a plan. Then the government needs just a couple more, drawn from The Democratic Labour Party, the Sex Party, Shooters and Fishers, and Vote 1 Local Jobs. It might require some side promises, but it may be possible.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this idea. Please leave a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter.

You won’t believe how much prize money is on offer at the Tennis.

At the Australian Open, first round losers take home enough money to buy three (3) of the automobiles on offer from major sponsors Kia. They can stand on an outside court, not even touch a ball with their racquet, and still take home $34,500.

Even those who fail to qualify for the tournament itself are richly rewarded. 64 men and boys and 48 women and girls have their dreams crushed in the first round of qualifying each year. To compensate them, they get $4000 in prizes. Losing in the second round of qualifying garners you $8000 and losing in the third round nets $16,000. Not bad.

Since I found out the total prize pool at the Australian Open, I’ve been asking people to guess it. Guesses have ranged from $4 million to $12 million. None have come near the true total: $40 million.

The organisers give out prizes left and right. Every player gets something. The Aussie Nick Kygrios takes home $340,000 for making it to the quarterfinals of the men’s singles draw. But he also gets $7400 as his share of a team that lost in the first round of the doubles. (Nick is ranked 1207th in the world for doubles, suggesting that entering the doubles draw might have been about the cash, not his passion for the game.)

The prizes in the singles are greatest.

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Winners’ loot.

The most expensive match of the tournament is the final, of course where the loser gets $1.55 million and the winner $3.1 million. But it is also the only round where the winner collects a cheque. In each other round the winner goes on to a chance of bigger and better things. Excluding the final, the most expensive round for organisers, at $2.1 million, is round one, where 64 losers get $34,000.Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 2.39.37 pm

The prizes are rich enough to cover airfares and accommodation – even for the players who lose at qualifying. Research suggests 150 pros are making enough money to break even in each of the men’s and women’s game. At the same time, some up and comers are probably losing money now in the hope of gaining the experience to make it big later, and others are losing money in the twilights of their career, hanging on in hope of one more glory. (Hi Mr Hewitt!).

So, where is that money coming from?

Tennis Australia’s Annual Report shows it made $193 million last year from “events and operations.” While there’s not much detail, one can imagine that the vast bulk of that is broadcast rights to that highly rare prize, the Australian Open. Channel Seven in Australia pays $20 million a year.  The rights globally are doubtless severalfold higher.

Having a grand slam is quite a feat for a country of Australia’s tennis stature. Government supports it, but the support is less direct and therefore less controversial than that provided to the Grand Prix. They prop up the Melbourne and Olympic Park trusts which run the stadiums and have put in hundreds of millions of dollars for their development and re-building. Those stadiums are used for other purposes too, many of which attract tourists from around the world, contributing to the local economy.

Happily, Australia’s tax treaties mean athletes are liable for tax in the country where tournaments take place. So Djokovic, the Williams, et al, all face up to the ATO and hand over a chunk.

Could plans London didn’t use be put to work in Melbourne?

This tweet came up in my feed a couple of days ago, with the accompanying pictures.

bridges london ramps londonThe man who tweeted them, Brent Toderian, is a big name in urbanism, based in Vancouver. Of course he is horrified by the way roads and cars dominate the skylines.

But I saw something in these pictures that redeemed them. I think they are possibly quite smart.

The use of apartment buildings as props for very high freeways was the main aspect that caught my eye. It would not be feasible to drop a road on top of existing buildings. But it may work where you take an existing road, build apartment buildings in its space, and then put the road on top of them.

In talking about this plan, I’m especially thinking of Hoddle Street, which is Melbourne’s Achille’s heel. A north-south road near the city that is choked with traffic almost all the time, it has been the subject of countless studies into how to improve it, with little permanent improvement..


What might work is an idea from left-field, like that illustrated by Sir Charles above.

Here are the upsides I see.

1. Urban infill.

If you take Hoddle Street and fill it with high rises that support a freeway, you get a quick bump in inner city density. Furthermore, the land belongs to the government, so they ought to be able to actually make profit on the property development.

2. Better street level traffic.

The street level near Hoddle Street is a horror story. It’s very unpleasant to walk on because of the traffic – noise, fumes, and on the occasional place where they can build up a bit of speed, the fear you’re going to be killed. The houses along Hoddle Street look cheap and poorly maintained – there is obviously a price discount for being on the road. There is very little retail and not a single cafe or shop with outdoor seating on its whole length.

If the roadway was way up in the air, (and a couple of the many many traffic lanes were retained for a more normal scale street), the street level might be a bit more comfortable for actual use. Cyclists could use Hoddle Street again. Shops might open up.

3. Better amenity because the elevation is so high.

The complaint about elevated roads is the same as the complaint about freeway overpasses. They leave dark empty spaces that are a blight on the urban environment. But if you put the road high enough up in the air, the sense of being closed in will disappear. Even better, if the supports for the freeway are not just concrete pillars but actual apartment buildings, the passive surveillance of these areas would be much better.

I would imagine that top-floor apartments, right under the roadway, would be less attractive as they would get less sun and more rumbles from above. But if they had balconies on the sides the road does not extend, there is no reason they could not be full of light.

The shadow from the entire structure will be vast over a wider area than a smaller freeway, but by having it so high, there will be no single space that is permanently shadowed and unattractive for licit activity.

The obvious downside is the ramping. The illustration shows a six storey building, which would be about 20 metres tall. To descend 20 vertical metres a car needs 120 metres of ramp,( the preferred gradient for public car park ramps is 1:6.)

That would probably have to circle around the building to descend, as per the pictures.. And I’m not convinced the value of the apartments encircled by those exits would be so high. Still, not every building would be an exit, and some exits could ramp away from the buildings.

A more complete set of things being proposed by Sir Charles Bressey 80 years ago can be found here. Nb. I do not agree with turning Trafalgar Square into a multi-storey parking garage. 

Myki is set to be replaced. Already.

EDIT: Additional details have been drawn to my attention and it seems the proposal is to add the paypass system to the existing Myki system, rather than wholly replace it. That, to me, seems to add even more complexity and cost and the arguments below still stand.

I feel like we’ve just got the hang of Myki.

The smartcard system that came in in 2010, finally replacing the extremely functional metcard system in 2012, had a few bad years. But now I see people touching on and off more or less correctly. There’s a lot less waving of cards near the readers and a lot less theatrical sighing.

myki shot

Nevertheless the coalition government is suggesting they will turf the system if they win power again. Transport Minister Terry Mulder has said that the government will look into using the Visa Paywave / Mastercard Paypass system at the barriers instead.

I quite like the sound of that. But I’ve learned to be wary of things I like the sound of.

Myki was supposed to be the smartcard to end all smartcards. The reason the government spent nearly $1 billion developing it was that it was supposed to be adaptive. The technology was meant to grow with the city, and give us the option to change our ticket system without changing our smartcard system.

Even the savvy were fooled. Here’s PT guru Daniel Bowen being quoted in 2006:

“It will be a vast improvement over the current system. However, some passengers may find having to scan on and off an inconvenience.”

If only the biggest issue was touching on and off!

The reality has been that the Myki system cannot even do what the previous system could do. It can’t manage short-term tickets, it fails often and it struggles terribly on trams, meaning the mantra “remember to touch on, and touch off” became untrue for (most) tram users.

Listen up, Melbourne

But the big lesson is not that Myki is bad. It’s that replacing Myki is going to be expensive. More expensive than people imagine. And the solution will almost certainly deliver less functionality than you hope. This is the lesson of big projects. They run over-budget and deliver under scope.

I’m no great fan of Myki. But let’s not repeat our mistakes by turfing Myki out before we’ve wrung the last drop of value out of it. Let’s not repeat our mistakes by assuming the new ticket system will be both easy to use and flexible. And let’s definitely not repeat our mistakes by replacing it with an elaborate bespoke system.

The temptation for a minister will be to cave to special interests, so “Simply Using Paywave” turns into a giant cluster-cuss of exemptions and special rules in special places, requiring a lot of bespoke software that fails a lot.


Lastly, let us always remember where our ticket fees go.

A ticket system is very expensive to operate. A big chunk of the cost of every ticket goes to paying for the tickets, the ticket machines, the software, the inspectors, the public servants that administer the ticket system, the inspector system and the fines – not to mention paying for the judges that hear the complaints in court. Only a fraction of your fare goes to actually making the vehicles run on time. There would be plenty of efficiencies from making public transport free, instead of using tickets.

The real difference between Melbourne and Sydney: Longitude

People think of Sydney being north of Melbourne, but if you went due north from Melbourne until you got to Sydney’s latitude, you’d be 580km due west of the Opera House.

In fact, the east-west distance between Melbourne and Sydney is almost exactly the same as the east-west distance between Melbourne and Adelaide. (Both are just over 6 degrees of longitude difference).

The result of this is different times of daylight. A good friend of mine who works between Sydney and Melbourne says the early sunrises in Sydney get him up and running before work, which he never does in Melbourne. But he misses the languid light of Melbourne’s evenings after leaving the office.

Both sunrise and sunset are later in Melbourne, all year round. This graph shows sunrise, and sunset a for both cities. Melbourne is the yellow and red lines, Sydney the green and purple. The difference is almost an hour.

Sydney v Melbourne

The difference manifests itself in interesting ways. I reckon Sydney’s surf culture is nourished not just by the warmer weather and better beaches, but also by the fact there’s hours of sunlight before work. The pop-culture phenomenon that is Aquabumps could only thrive in Sydney.

There’s evidence of a much stronger early morning workout culture in Sydney too.

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Further evidence: The Milson’s Point pool opens at 5.30am. The Fitzroy pool opens at 6am.

The Sydney-siders seem to be making the most of their early mornings. Are we Melburnians missing out?

What we get is a bit more evening time to spend outdoors. This works well for Melburnians in summer, when, for example, the Sydney Botanic gardens shut at 8pm and the Melbourne Gardens are open til dusk.

Melbourne Sunset. When I took this shot, it was dark in Sydney
Melbourne Sunset. When I took this shot, it was dark in Sydney

Much like daylight savings, being further west in a timezone moves daylight to the after work hours.

The great advantage of having more light in the evening is supposed to be using less power around the home. But because of the different energy mixes between Melbourne and Sydney, (the southern capital uses a lot more gas) and the temperature differences, it’s hard to compare. And with the declining role of lights in electricity use, and the rising role of air conditioning, sending people home from work in the heat of the day may have the opposite effect.

So which is better?

The concept of solar time means you can measure which timezone is closer to “accurate.” This maps shows Melbourne is in the red, with an assymetric sort of day, and Sydney closer to balanced. If Melbourne’s time zone explains my tendency to get up late and stay up late, it has a lot to answer for.

adherence to mean solar time


The case for finely balanced time-zones is most obvious where they are absent.

China uses just one time zone, creating giant differences between one end of the country and the other. During daylight savings, the sun sets at 10pm in Lhasa, and two hours earlier in Shanghai.

lhasa shanghai

The vast majority of the world is in the red, suggesting people like the evening hours to be daylight. But if you look closely, a lot of very dynamic cities are in the green parts of the map: Tokyo, New York, LA, Shanghai. Perhaps there’s something to this “early to bed, early to rise” idea.

Should Melbourne perhaps change time zone? If we moved to Adelaide time, we’d see sunrise as early as the Sydney-siders do. Then the only reason not to spring out of bed and do exercise would be the weather!