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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.03.13 am
Royal Park: 1.4km across.
Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.02.54 am
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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.53.03 am

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.25.21 am
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.

Why the “induced demand” argument against roads is no good.

I read a lot of forums and articles about transport policy where most of the people agree with each other. The splintering of discussion into groups that agree is a common and well-understood phenomenon that is amplified on the internet.

Listen up, Melbourne
Divided

As well as getting excited by optimal stop spacing, one thing people in these circles agree on is that roads are bad. The most common argument made against roads goes like this:

“Essentially, if you widen roads to reduce congestion, people who were avoiding the road because of congestion will find it more convenient and take more trips, thus increasing traffic again.

So what do you have then? A big expensive project to eliminate traffic, and more traffic.” Streetsblog

“New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same.

Mann explains how this counterintuitive reality can possibly be true: “As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would.” Planetizen

“Research indicates that generated traffic often fills a significant portion of capacity added to congested urban road. Generated traffic has three implications for transport planning. First, it reduces the congestion reduction benefits of road capacity expansion. Second, it increases many external costs. Third, it provides relatively small user benefits because it consists of vehicle travel that consumers are most willing to forego when their costs increase.” Victoria Transport Policy Institute

While I support many of the ideas this argument is rolled out to support, I find the argument itself utterly unconvincing. If you want to argue against investing in roads, you’ll need a better argument. Here’s why.

1. Public Transport will behave exactly the same.

If you widen a road, it will encourage more people to drive on it, bringing congestion to an equilibrium level* on that road, and spilling congestion into other parts of the network.

Likewise, if you increase the frequency with which a public transport service runs, it will attract more people to ride on it, bringing congestion to an equilibrium level and spilling congestion into other parts of the network.

This means that induced demand operates as an argument not to invest in any popular/crowded transport where crowding levels may be deterring travel. I’m not sure that’s what proponents of the induced demand argument intend.

*The equilibrium level is not necessarily the same amount of congestion as before, it’s the level where congestion deters travel.

PT1

2. Induced demand is good.

Induced demand means previously people had latent demand for travel, but they were unable to satisfy it. Now they are able to access jobs, get to shops that sell items that match their needs better, visit friends and family more. Any argument about transport investment that objects to people doing more travel should be treated with suspicion, if not contempt.

sahdow

3. Focusing on congestion is the wrong way to look at transport policy.

If your approach to solving a city’s transport problem is to seek out choke points and jams and try to untangle them, you may end up fighting unwinnable battles against geometric problems. You will become frustrated, growing ever more sure that transport is a zero sum game with no easy answers.

But the answer is not necessarily eliminating every queue – there are planners who believe congestion is perfectly acceptable, a sign of popularity and even of success. (1, 2, 3,)

Forget congestion. If you make your yardstick access, you focus on what people want: What places can I get to?

A rational approach to transport planning in a city would be to measure access: From each address, a sum of all the jobs, services and other addresses that can be accessed, averaged across a time period encompassing peak and off-peak.

That number would be aggregated across the entire city to create a total score. Then, you would provide incentives for bureaucrats to improve that number. These bureaucrats must have more than just transport levers at their disposal.

They should also be able to make decisions on zoning and land-use, and road pricing. Improving access can as easily mean moving jobs to people as people to jobs. If a particular investment is expected to have spill over effects that worsen transport times in a far-flung part of the network, the access measure should pick this up and permit that effect to be compared to its positive local effect.

Build a new school, access improves. Add traffic light priority for buses, access improves for some at the expense of others. Price a road, access improves for high-value trips at the expense of lower value trips. Add a new lane on a freeway, access improves locally and probably diminishes elsewhere.

Focusing on access allows trade-offs and comparisons to be made. But often, improved access will involve turning latent demand for travel into real trips. We shouldn’t object too loudly to that.

DSC00841
The point of a city is that people want access to other people, and services. Let them at them.

More on this topic:

Trevors in Traffic: a PR strategy for congestion charging.

Selling the street: A land use hypothetical…

New competition report tries to go hard on road pricing, but is naive

Supply and demand for city views? The economics of skylines.

A skyline is one of the most iconic things a city can offer.

best skylines

Great skylines are rare – New York and Paris have terrific, unique skylines. But most cities are just a cluster of square towers.

Melbourne’s skyline, from many angles, is a classic example. Nice in the right light, but far from distinctive.

skyline 1

Melbourne’s more iconic features (Arts Centre Spire, Wheel, Bolte Bridge) are hard to get in frame with the CBD.

skyline melb

 

The Eureka Tower – Melbourne’s tallest building – isn’t a great building to my eye, but it is so prominent that it is now a feature in tourist mementoes.

tea towel

Skylines are a classic economic problem. The benefit of the skyline accrues not the to building’s owner, but to the people who gaze upon it. These are externalities, and so the market for a city skyline is clearly subject to market failure.

skylines

 

Worth mentioning – these external benefits are more than just warm fuzzy feelings. There is a reason houses on top of hills sell for a lot more. “City views” is a magic word in real estate.

When a building owner decides to make another 25-storey square grey tower, they’re not thinking about the city at large. What is most profitable for them is not necessarily what’s best for the skyline.

London’s Gherkin, Shanghai’s Pearl TV tower, Beijing’s CCTV building are great examples of where a bit of financial largesse has made for amazing, distinctive buildings. But the two Chinese buildings were not the result of market forces. And the Gherkin was put into receivership earlier this year.

 

Can the market deliver a great skyline?

The Eiffel Tower was not a result of market forces. Neither was the Statue of Liberty.  The Empire State Building was privately built, but that was in the 1920s, when market failures were left free to thrive and vast fortunes were sloshing around New York. Then, a handful of wealthy new Yorkers could afford to put up a signature building that would lose money for its first 20 years.

Will the sharpness of modern market forces deliver us only the drabbest lumps to adorn our horizons? If so, that’s truly a shame.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was a bad mistake.

There are lessons in Australia’s history we can learn from. One of them is the screw-up that is Sydney.

sydney

Sydney was well-placed to become the London of Australia. A prime location, settled first, the early seat of power. It had it all. But while London remains by far the wealthiest and biggest city in the UK, Sydney is on-track to be overtaken by Melbourne in population.

Source:
Source: SMH

If Melbourne overtakes Sydney, it won’t be the first time. Sydney had a 40-year headstart and yet lost its lead in the 19th century. At that stage the reason was the Gold Rush. Sydney got its lead back when a financial crisis hit in the 1890s.

Sources: various, but consider this a rough approximation.
Sources: various, but consider this a rough approximation.

If Sydney is overtaken by Melbourne in population, you can’t blame the Sydney-siders. They work hard, but they’re behind the eight-ball. The problem is the harbour.

If you think of it as public space, it’s lovely to look at and nice to use. But if you think of it as distance, is it smart to put so much of it right in the middle of your city? Do you really want so much distance between inner-city suburbs? Wouldn’t it be better to have a network of streets?

I contend that the harbour creates a massive problem in the middle of Sydney. The CBD is unable to connect properly into adjacent suburbs because they are a ferry-ride away.

That explains articles like this: “Why is Sydney’s CBD growing slower than Melbourne’s?”

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that connectivity is absolutely crucial to how cities work. It is no coincidence that the areas best connected to lots of other productive areas are also the most productive and expensive real estate.

Source Grattan INstitute
Source: Grattan Institute

Sydney has more than one major business cluster. The city competes with North Sydney and Parramatta.

But I’d argue that’s a sign of weakness, not of strength. Of course every city has suburban centres, but powerhouses like New York and London aren’t confused about where might be the centre of power, or the best spot to locate a business. Sydney’s situation whispers: this city is too big to really be one functional city. But globally-speaking, Sydney is not even that big, population wise.

So, the harbour in the middle could be part of the problem. But the harbour became the centre of Sydney only when a bridge was built that made the north shore more accessible. You can see the population develop in this video and the north only really takes off after 1932, when the final rivet was painted.

The smart move would have been to densely fill in the area to the south, intensively, before building to the north.

We’ve all played computer games where you have to build certain things in a certain order. If you build too many of the wrong thing too early, you get out of whack, run out of gold and you can’t beat the game. I’d argue that’s what Sydney did.

The Bridge was built using  £6.25 million of public money. That represented about 2 per cent of NSW’s GDP at the time. For comparison, 2 per cent of GDP now would be about $10 billion. (sources: 1, 2)

Despite using tolls to pay it off, the debt lingered until 1988.

The opportunity cost? Not just the proper development of contiguous land areas, but also what that money might have bought if spent differently. When the rest of the world was building world class public transport systems, Sydney let theirs go.

There is a common trope that argues the Sydney Harbour Bridge would not have passed any sort of cost-benefit analysis. This is generally used as part of an argument against cost-benefit analysis, with the assumption being that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is good. Of course it has a lot of value now, in tourism terms. But in 1932, when it opened, tourism was a rather minor part of the economy. (It’s worth noting that the Bridge was built against the advice of the government’s infrastructure adviser, which recommended a cheaper tunnel.)

If Sydney didn’t build the bridge, the city might have simply left the harbour as a boundary on the north. Of course some people would have chosen to live there still, but probably fewer. There’s plenty of space to the south that could have become very desirable had the economic centre of the city not been shifted north by the “coat-hanger”.

sydney map

But building the bridge was not the end of Sydney’s attempts to link north and south. With booming northern suburbs and an incipient northern CBD, it threw good money after bad with years of very expensive ferries and then the construction of a tunnel opened in 1992. The Bridge may soon need to be replaced, due to rust.

But forget the money. I’m arguing that the bridge moved the harbour from the north to the middle of Sydney, and that hurt.

This whole argument rests on the idea – coming back into fashion – that infrastructure is “city-shaping.”  That means you oughtn’t merely provide for existing demand, you should understand what you provide will shape future demand.

Bodies of water are city-shaping. They are often part of cities because of the history of water transport, but now hurt urban connectivity. For example, Oakland remains the very poor cousin of San Francisco.

Even rivers seem to have an impact.

London has lots of bridges but the wealth and the productivity is overwhelmingly on one side of the Thames. It required Manhattan house prices to reach many millions before Brooklyn got any buzz, and Shanghai only developed the far side of the Huangpu in the last 20 years.

By this logic, curvy rivers would be especially bad because they divide the city more. In that respect, Tokyo is better off than Brisbane, because the Sumida River flies like an arrow compared to the meandering Brisbane River. (There is evidence that a single bridge built in Brisbane recently has had a big influence on where people live.)

I’d be very interested to see a meta-analysis of whether, in the last 50 years, the value of having a river has turned from positive to negative in terms of a city’s economic growth. The impediments a big river would create to city connectivity are likely to be significant, especially where bridges are in short supply.

All this is very interesting, but we can’t go back and unbuild the Sydney Harbour Bridge. So what’s the point?

The point is we can learn a valuable lesson. Don’t spend valuable taxpayer resources providing infrastructure that will “shape” your city in the wrong way.

Infrastructure is extremely durable. Every mis-spent dollar will spend centuries choking your city. If it accidentally facilitates growth in hard-to-access places, or encourages inefficient kinds of transport use, infrastructure spending can be the enemy of a good city.

Listen up, Melbourne
Listen up, Melbourne.

 

Selling the street: A land use hypothetical…

If you were given the option, would you do this?

Sell off the street in front of your house for development, leaving only walking access.

Google maps draws streets as thin little lines, but they can be wide, sometimes half as wide as the blocks are deep
Streets – outlined in red – take up about 30 per cent of this area in the backstreets of Collingwood.

Google maps draws streets as thin little lines, but that is misleading. They can be wide, sometimes more than half as wide as the blocks are deep. Is dedicating so much land to traffic really wise? Especially where you have dead-ends, those streets are minimally used. The last 20 metres of a cul-de-sac might see only 10 car trips a day. To me, that seems wasteful.

Selling off your street would be unacceptable in a scenario where house prices were low. But Australia’s house prices are high. It makes sense to use land for its most valuable purpose.

The land in front of my house and the neighbours (which is also, of course, in front of our neighbours opposite), might be worth $500,000. If the decision to sell it off meant a windfall of $125,000 for all four parties, all parties might be tempted.

The way to make this work would be to build a parking structure within a reasonable distance. The land at the end of the street, nearest to the main road, would be a logical place for that.

Redevelopment of Keele St
Yellow squares would be new lots for development, black area at left is new parking area

This hypothetical might seem odd. It’s not standard to think of suburban streets as optional. But we should ask why they are compulsory.

Walkable laneways for access are part of some very desirable housing options, including big resorts and hotels, big apartment developments, and whole cities, including this car-free city in China, the “old towns” of many cities of Europe, and of course, this little place in Italy.

Gondola parking, however, is a bitch
Venice

Meanwhile, Los Angeles CBD is 24 per cent streets and 25 per cent parking, according to one analysis.

So what’s optimal?

This blogger has a fantastic post on the topic of area given over to streets. He emphasises that it is highly variable by neighbourhood.

Street dominance is not a given, it's a variable. That means it should be subject to debate
Street dominance is not a given, it’s a variable. That means it can be up for debate.

I was inspired to think about whether we really need all our suburban streets after reading about road pricing in a recent speech by the head of the Productivity Commission.

There are already tolls on some of our most popular roads. But the vast majority of roads (by length and by area under tarmac) are side streets. Attempting full cost recovery for these would be very expensive for the people who use them.

If my street cost $10 million to build and requires a return of 7 per cent, the locals must generate $700,000 a year in revenue. If there are 50 car trips a day ( a car every 20 minutes in the 16 waking hours), those trips will be charged at $38 each. Ouch.

You might not sell off the land in front of your house when the alternative is a lovely street you get to use free of charge. But if that street were tolled, the combined carrot and stick might change your mind fast.

If you lived on a main road, obviously it would not be in the public interest for the land in front of your house to be sold. But equally, the number of people using that road would be much higher, so the toll would be a lot lower and the “stick” part of the equation less compelling.

Obviously there would be massive coordination problems and equity challenges associated with such a plan. Selling off the road at both ends of the street would pretty much force the people in the middle to do the same. And if someone with major mobility problems lived on your street it might be unfair. This hypothetical question will remain hypothetical for a very long time.

But the fundamental issue here is not unlike the question of burying rail lines, providing surface parking, or putting roads in tunnels. What is the most valuable use of our scarce city land, and how much are we relying on legacy structures to determine those uses?

Guest Post: Sabrina Lau Texier on making transportation policy in an environment of public distrust

Sabrina Lau Texier is a transportation planner who has worked in Toronto, New York City and Vancouver. She attended the University of Melbourne in 2003. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of TransLink. 

Vancouver City
Source: City of Vancouver, 31 Jan 2014

I moved from New York City to Vancouver a year and a half ago. I landed a job in a great organization that is admired from afar for its proactive approach to linking land use planning and provision of transportation, including public transit, major roads, bridges and cycling. But I’ve learned the hard way just to tell people my occupation and not name my employer. If I say the dreaded T-word (okay, it’s TransLink) I get an earful from the surprisingly strong anti-transit crowd in this town.(1) However, TransLink’s damaged brand is not just tough for me, it’s tough for making good policy.

Making policy is not quite the same as advocating for it. I’ve found it easier to advocate (or denigrate) from a distance, often with an air of righteous indignation; however, bearing the weight of public dissatisfaction has been a different beast.

We are, in the words of a former premier, the city “that mostly got it right”. In my metropolitan area, as in many others, we have reached a tipping point on traffic congestion. Millennials defer getting a driver’s license (2,3) transit access is a new requisite for commercial real estate (4) and the installation of complete streets for all modes of travel is becoming (already is?) the new normal (5,6) With growing demand for improved transportation options, agencies everywhere are struggling to come up with funds to maintain and expand services.

Vancouver rapid transit map
Source: http://www.evergreenline.gov.bc.ca/documents/Maps_Graphics/Transit_Map.jpg

Partly in response to a persistent public perception of gross mismanagement, my agency has been through two government audits in 2012 alone, and both have found that the system has the best funding formula in Canada, and that “the organization is well run and manages its costs”(7). However, implementation of all suggested efficiencies (including cutting low-performing routes) will not be enough to meet the future transit expansion needs of Metro Vancouver. The provincial government has called for a referendum on this issue by Spring 2015.

“The line between democracy by plebiscites and mob rule is very thin.” – Anne Golden(8), speaking about the upcoming transportation referendum, Jan 2014

The referendum question has yet to be set, but how do you create the message on an issue as complex, multi-faceted and far-reaching as future transportation funding? How do you reach a population that is so disillusioned with your organization, that they prefer to view the referendum as a vote on the agency itself, rather than the larger issues (9). Failure to pass this referendum has its own opportunity costs (10), but the importance of funding transportation expansion is lost as public attention is directed to how much money is spent on office coffee. The province has taken the politically-safe approach of asking taxpayers to decide if they would like further taxes to pay for transit. They have not asked taxpayers if they agree with funding recent road and bridge expansion, oil pipelines, or a coal terminal.

We are entering into this referendum woefully unequipped to succeed. At the best of times, making an argument for transit/cycling/walking is going against a 50-yr+ status quo attitude of “the car is king”. However, investments in transit infrastructure benefit more than the riders themselves. The regional economy, goods movement, personal mobility, job opportunities, and healthy communities require planning and funding of alternate transportation options. We can make many sound scholarly arguments, but it is often preaching to the converted.

“When trust is broken between the government and the governed, it’s almost impossible to generate support for public policy changes even when the proposals are right.” – Anne Golden, Jan 2014

The public has very little trust in my organization, and the media caters to this. Transit decisions, big and small, are routinely lambasted and misrepresented, with major omissions that compromise balanced reporting. There is scant awareness that the agency is also responsible for roads, bridges, goods movement, air care testing for vehicles, and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. It is an easy news story to cater to the strong public appetite for taking potshots at the region’s punching bag. There is the sense that merely having a transit pass is the equivalent of an advanced degree in transit planning, and everyone feels they could have made a better decision.

It would be easy to put my head down, hide amongst the thousands of employees at my organization, and tell individuals in social settings that I wasn’t responsible for their particular grievance. Yet I am proud of the work that my city, my region, and my transportation authority have accomplished. I want it to succeed in the future. I worked in NYC for 5 of its most formative years in the transformation of its streets from auto-dominated through-routes to celebrations of public spaces, and I know how good news stories are borne of years of blood, sweat and tears. When one looks up from the battle, and takes a step back, it is possible to be reminded of what the fight is really for.

Car Future Part I

Welcome to a multipart series on the future of personal transport.

the car of the future

Cars are like cool girlfriends. Go out, live fast, have fun. But something tells me we don’t have a future together. It’s not you… It’s me… Continue reading Car Future Part I