Senate Predictions 2010
Somewhat belatedly, I thought it would be worth revisiting the Senate prediction method used in 2007. Unfortunately, it wasn't as effective as hoped, as can be seen by the graph below.
While 1996 saw a strong movement away from the sitting government, and towards minor parties, the 2007 election was closer to 1983. Strongly towards Labor directly from the Liberals, rather than the collapse of the government vote.
Thus, while the swings were pretty close (although consistently overshooting), the minor party swing was the reverse of that expected, except in South Australia (where the Xenophon effect had been extensively polled) and Tasmania (which is seeing consistent growth in the Green vote).
This election promises to be more typical, following the patterns set in 1984 and 1998 where first term governments suffered heavy swings without any increase in the opposition's primary senate vote.
Tracing the HoR polls, as before, onto primary vote percentages, and the expected minor swings gives the following predictive graph.
Using Antony Green's senate calculator produces the following in each state:
Unusual, in that the lack of a Xenophon votes means the minor parties will probably go backwards, to roughly in line with historic trends. Two seats are up for grabs, leaving the three main parties in a race. The Greens need over 11-12% of the vote which is puts them on the knife-edge, given recent polls. The Liberal easily ride to 5th, but Democrat preferences will go to Labor, so the Greens lot depends on whether their vote has a post-collapse anti-major electoral rebound, but also, by how much the Liberals pass their third quota, as the Greens get almost nothing from anyone until they are out.
Liberals 3, Labor 2(3), Greens 1(0)
A straight-forward count, giving the 6th sport to the Greens easily, the CDP makes a late run as it scoops up votes from all-comers, but the Labor party will tip the Greens over the line, without making a serious challenge for the sixth spot themselves.
Liberals 3, Labor 2, Greens 1
A straight forward vote, Liberal pick up an easy 3 from the right wing vote. Given the expected swing, Labor will never challenge for the 6th, put use their preferences to put the Greens over the line against Family First, who should slide into second.
Liberals 3, Labor 2, Greens 1
Greens easily take 5th, as they have Democrats preferences if they fail to make quote themselves. Any pro-Gillard swing will put Labor very close to a third quota, but they get almost no preferences above the Liberals, so the Liberals need around a 37% primary vote to crawl over the line. If the Liberal vote goes further south, Steven Fielding will need both around 4% himself and a weaker than expected Green/ALP vote to take advantage of the DLP's pre-ALP ballot position and crawl back into Parliament. Unlikely.
Liberals 2, Labor 3, Greens 1
New South WalesInteresting count. Labor's likely vote collapse means they need both the Green/Democrats vote to stay below a quota and their own vote to stay above 36% to come second above the CDP. If they succeed, right-wing votes will tip them into a third quota, otherwise the Greens will carry Labor preferences home: they need around 11.5% to win, right where they are currently polling.
Liberals 3, Labor 2(3), Greens 1(0)
Who knows what is going on here. Most likely outcome is actually 6 quotas filled and no distribution. But there is an outside chance that both Labor and Liberal will fail to fill their 2nd/3rd quotas, leaving the Greens or Liberals a chance of taking the 6th seat if their vote explodes upwards.
Liberals 2, Labor 3, Greens 1
Australia Capital Territory
The Greens always hope to win this one, but they need a strong Labor vote to keep the Liberals under the quota of 33%. That's unlikely amongst a big NSW anti-Labor swing, and almost impossible with Democrats preferences heading towards the Liberals, though a pro-Labor, anti-Liberal population turnover means it can't be ruled out completely.
Liberals 1, Labor 1, Greens 0
Liberals 1, Labor 1, Greens 0
By the numbers:
Liberals 18, Labor 16(18), Greens 6(4)
Liberals 16, Labor 16, Greens 3, Xenophon 1
Liberals 34, Labor 32(34), Greens 9(7), Xenophon 1
21st August, 2010 19:30:03
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Women and cycling
Much is made of the large disparity between the number of male and female cyclists in some countries - notably the USA, UK and Australia. Numerous differences are cited, from appearances to different patterns of use - most of which don't stand up to scrutiny given the higher rates of female cycling in many northern European countries.
Melissa Lafsky at The Infrastructurist cites some physiological reasons, arguing that commuting by bike is more amenable to the male, testosterone driven mind-set. This is, by no means, a unique observation, but it may be an important one. If female risk aversion is the major reason for lower cycling rates on unsafe streets then we should see some differences in commuting patterns.
Unfortunately, strong data on commuting patterns and demographics is hard to come up with, particularly at the sort of finely grained detail needed for this type of study. A student of mine looked into this earlier in the year and observed almost double the percentage of female cyclists on roads with bike lanes (45%) versus roads without (25%). Unfortunately the study was also small, short and biased towards routes that we already know from the census had high numbers of female cyclists - which may or may not be a cycling lane thing.
Still, this was valuable confirmation of the idea expressed above. The more recent availability of CData for the 2006 census allows me to test another hypothesis: if female cyclists are more risk averse, then the percentage of cyclists that are female should correlate strongly with the percentage of cycling commuters.
Using data from every Statistical Local Area in Australia, we can see graph these two data sets to see what occurs. CData's tendency to randomise small numbers makes this graph a little problematic. Quite a few SLAs have fewer than 10 female cyclists, and I excised SLAs with either no female cyclists or less than 20 cyclists over-all.
The correlation is not linear, so the graph has a logarithmic scale on the y-axis. The correlation is strong, however. Essentially, for every doubling of the percentage of cyclists commuting, you get a 10% increase in female participation rate. The vast bulk of SLAs have very low female participation rates (5-20%). But there are a number of area (notably in Melbourne's inner north) with both high number of cyclists and close to parity in terms of female participation rates.
I agree, therefore with the conclusion made by Melissa:
"All of which leads to our point (we're getting there, we promise): Letís stop talking about the "women on bikes" issue as a psycho-socio-gender phenomenon, and start talking about it as a policy call to action. If we reprioritized public and private initiatives to push biking, by creating more safety features like mandatory bike lanes, bike checkpoints and safety checks, as well as more incentivizing programs from employers ("bike to work" payment vouchers, etc.), we might see a real and meaningful change in the number of women - and men, for that matter - who chose to bike."
With one caveat. Because women are less likely to cycle when conditions are not favourable they are a better barometer than men if you want to find out why 90+% of the population do not cycle. While there are no shortage of commuting cyclists who have grievances - albeit often important ones - with the policy focus on bicycle facilities, their confidence in traffic and tendency not to expect the same of others is less useful if your aim is to promote and expand the base of cyclists. The non-cycling commuter, particularly the female non-cycling commuter needs to be heard.
Which brings me to my final point. While it was good to see a cycling strategy released earlier this year that actively promoted the idea of cycling as a "serious transport mode", the actual actions proposed, beyond the basic infrastructure already mooted, were thin on the ground. One of the things Copenhagen does very well - largely ignored by politicians who'd rather take pictures of bike lanes on overseas junkets than read a strategy document - is set a series of benchmarks for cycling safety and perceptions of cycling safety in the broader community (that is, outside the existing cycling community as well). We need, in Victoria, proper annual surveys, not of cyclists, but of non-cyclists, particularly women, with regard to their reasons for not cycling, with the aim, through the existing programs, of attacking those reasons. Without that, we are, unfortunately, still aiming in the dark, sometimes at real targets, and sometimes, not.
31st December, 2009 21:54:53
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Assume utopia, then plan
Must be a slow news period, as the last fortnight has seen a jump in planning articles in the papers, without there being terribly much news, as such. The first, by Sally Capp, rolls out the usual tropes: suburban sprawl is bad and must be contained, with the solution being greater densities around activity centres - now reduced to six.
Some of the claims are strange, such as the need for investment to encourage businesses to move outwards to the suburbs, despite that being a trend for well over three decades with the actual percentage of CBD bound long distance commutes in new suburbs being as little as 10 percent. But the real problems lie in the author's certainty. Apparently,
If we could agree on the future direction of our city - the proposed activities centres and greater urban density along existing transport routes - we could all be more constructively involved in these discussions.
Which is probably true, but it never seems to occur to proponents of this model that people do, and will continue to, disagree with it. That their inability to make a case for it, not to themselves, but to the people it will affect, is in fact part of the problem. Instead the finger is pointed at local government, apparently a road block to development and lacking in resources to plan effectively. Although how body could plan effectively, lumbered with a planning system that requires extensive consultation, in-built uncertainty and an appeals process that potentially ignores all that came before is not explained.
The idea that a metropolitan body, as proposed, could work any better than local councils and the planning department (who must surely already have all the power vested in a metropolitan planning body), unless the planning system itself is substantially reformed is laughable. That people take it seriously as a solution, without any adequate explanation of how it will improve the system, is sad.
Actually arguing for a strategic direction, rather than merely proposing one never seems to occur in strategic planning discussions however. Which is why clearly inconsistent statements, and proposals can be discussed, with barely an acknowledgment of the other. Take infrastructure. A central plank of the activity centre proposal is that:
By building around existing economic and social infrastructure, we leverage existing facilities without the need to create new ones.
This has been questioned on a number of levels over the years, but I've yet to see an actual economic study showing how true it is, and under what circumstances, for Melbourne, given different strategic plans. Which is why, last week, Frank Keane could write:
About half of Australia's population is contained in five state capitals. The result is an over-urbanisation that is inefficient and requires the building of ever-expanding infrastructure, including transport, sewerage, water and energy supply, telecommunications and waste disposal.
Smaller cities are then proposed as a solution, clearly at odds with high density growth within Melbourne. The relationship of either solution to the economic processes that underpin urban form is never mentioned, so some sense of what is better, or even what might be possible is unknown. The utopian vision for an environmentally sustainable city, or cities, never seems to ask what the point of a city is, before trying to change it.
Developers are on firmer ground, they, at least, understand that a city is there for them to profit from, even in this uncertain climate, but it never hurts if you can get a helping hand. It suits developers to blame local councils for the slow planning process, particularly when there are jobs at stake. Which is not to say the minister is wrong to call in these proposals - though he may be, who could tell? Merely that the existence of these call-ins points to greater problems with the planning system.
Fear and uncertainty prevails in Victorian planning. People don't trust developers, and they don't trust planners. The market has been tending towards the things planners want - polycentric cities, denser development - for years. But the planners reflex assumption that they must constrain the market, and
"encourage" density lends them, with only the flimsiest (and vaguest) of arguments in favour of the plans being created, has turned the planning process into a tool for conflict, with little upside in terms of better outcomes. When times were good, and a little hindrance of development was able to glean the edge off the most abject developments, such a system was poor, but acceptable. When the state government needs to see development, the flaws are more apparent, and planners need to start thinking about what they can justify, what actually matters, and what can be expeditiously jettisoned.
The last activity centre policy failed before it crashed on the rocks of the 90s recession and the Liberal government. The probability of this one following the same pattern are very high.
24th April, 2009 18:44:51
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Data semantics at thirty paces
Disputes over the value of Melbourne 2030 are always interesting, some people claim it is effective and producing bad outcomes, some that it is ineffective and not stopping bad outcomes, and some, notably many of the authors printed in People and Place, strike a middle ground that claims it is ineffective at producing things they like, but effective at doing things they don't. By contrast, the government has generally claimed that Melbourne 2030 is doing more or less exactly what they expected, which just happens to be not very much.
The differences in opinion, lie in the interpretation of the actual nature of Melbourne 2030, and its claims, and the expected changes to the urban form in the absence of any plan.
Because dwellings are built almost exclusively by the private sector, Melbourne 2030 is not a facilitator of anything. Even when the legal planning framework is twisted around to claim that no developer should expect to be able to develop without local approval, the developer is still the deciding factor in whether a development goes ahead. The planners and the community can only block it.
This doesn't stop their being claims that Melbourne 2030 has failed, because it hasn't facilitated the sorts of infill development that the planners envisaged, or prevented the sort of infill development (outside of activity centres) that local residents dislike (and Melbourne 2030 claims to discourage). Nor should anyone expect there to be, in the absence of any substantive changes to the planning framework to raise the costs of development in poor locations, and lower them in others.
It is somewhat specious however, to claim, as The Age did this morning, that the impact of Melbourne 2030 in the city of Monash is nothing. Not because it isn't nothing (it may be), but because the article in question (by Peterson, Phan and Chandra, "Urban infill: extent and implications in the City of Monash.", People and Place v16,i4) does a poor job of showing that to be the case. They claim, in essence, that because only a low percentage infill development occurred in activity centers (4.65% within 400m, 20.30% to 800m) or around railway stations (7.2% to 400m, 35.7% to 800m) Melbourne 2030 is failing to concentrate development.
The government response, that they didn't expect more than the 26.1% activity centre share, up to 2005, is equally difficult to parse. The problem lies in the interpretation of expectations, of what a low figure is, and of where that development would occur anyway.
By not providing comparative figures for the percentage of residential land area captured by the 400/800m zones around activity centres and stations, Peterson et al, leave me clueless as to whether 7.2% is a significant percentage (which it might be if only 1% of all land was near a railway station), or worse than random (if around 10% of land was). Similarly, it is probably ludicrous to expect no infill development outside of activity centres, so the comparison should be the level of infill relative to different areas. By neither showing, nor even defining what level of increased activity is expected, the government leaves no basis for making that comparison, and the authors have no way of determining if Melbourne 2030 has failed.
Finally, it is reasonable to deduce that developers would prefer to be near railway stations, all things being equal, so the real question regarding the effectiveness of Melbourne 2030 is whether it has been successful at driving development towards activity centres, above and beyond the expressed preferences of developers, or, whether it has been successful at enabling infill in line with developer and planning preferences. Most likely, as the article concludes, land is in such short supply that development is being driven by 'opportunism', and the expressed preferences of Melbourne 2030 are largely irrelevant to the operation of the infill market.
But That doesn't mean Melbourne 2030 has "failed". In order to fail, someone would need to define what level of housing infill would constitute a success.
24th February, 2009 16:27:44
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Rethinking student income support
In all the pre- and post-Christmas activity, I have as yet been unable to go back to an interesting review into Higher Education released n the middle of December. Numerous other bloggers have commented on the guts of the report, but I wanted to focus on one specific, but vital aspect that has generally been ignored: The student financial support system.
The first and biggest problem with student income support in Australia is the tendency to treat students as a cross between dependent children and the unemployed. They are, in some ways like both, but differ markedly in others. They are almost never entirely dependent on their parents, and rarely want to look so, even when they are; they are generally capable and hard working, with a marked tendency to find jobs, even if low paying; and they have one other important aspect that seems to have been entirely ignored by the report: they are supposed to be spending a significant proportion of their time attending to their studies.
The report has a (quite reasonable) statement of principles for income support that neatly shows this attitude:
Principles underpinning the income support system
The system must:
Allow for a fair allocation of resources and treat recipients fairly.
- Link criteria to improving participation of financially disadvantaged students by:
- targeting at the most needy students.
- recognising the special financial needs of Indigenous, low socio-economic status and regional and remote students.
- providing a satisfactory level of benefits to enable students to support themselves and their dependants with only a small amount of additional income supplementation.
- Assist national productivity by encouraging initial and ongoing participation by a broader group of the Australian community to make the personal investment in higher education study.
- Be easy to understand and to access by:
- transparently and consistently applying criteria for access to benefits.
- ensuring that assessment of eligibility criteria and access to benefits are completed in a timely fashion on application
The third point is key. Participation is a worthy goal, but once students are at university, the tendency to make little of it, by avoiding class, readings and school work and doing the bare minimum to pass, diminishes the value of that investment. While it is noted in the report that the average student undertaking 15 hours of work per week considers it detrimental to their studies, little is said about the prominent role the student income support system has in shaping those outcomes.
Perversely, a recommendation is even made to increase the maximum income level before support begins to decrease, encouraging students to work even longer hours, particularly at the tail end of their degrees when they are often highly employable.
Instead, much of the focus related to hand wringing over the perverse outcomes pertaining to point two. It is well known to students, that the best means of getting income support is via the financial independence route, by working considerably harder than preferable to pass the threashold, for most, or getting the parents to "employ" the student for the lucky few. This has created a system of pseudo-independence, with significant sums going to (generally) non-needy students, and not enough to others.
The recommendation to remove the part time working hours and wage tests from the independence assessment, coupled with a reduction in the age of independence shows little foresight into whether some of these students are truly needy, and why. The hope, essentially, is that they will be picked up again by the changes in family income test.
Which is where we come to the real problems with the system: namely, its inability to distinguish between students except via parental income and age, and its refusal to treat all students as partially independent. A more nuanced income support system should really consider:
Aligning the thresholds with the FTB is a good move. But it is a strange situation to have theoretically adult students still supported via their parents through the system. Independence is a strange measure for evaluating need in any case. A student in their late 20s living at home can be less independent that one in their late teens. The subtleties of intra-familial relationships are hardly a sound basis for public policy.
It may seem of little financial import, but symbolically, paying dependent adults the FTB directly allows much more nuanced decision making from the student regarding their living arrangements, and gives them a starting point for true financial independence. The best method may actually be to pay transfers from parent to child, giving each student an allowance as if they were independent, and then taxing the parent the difference from the FTB. The tax can then be allowed to diminish from age 21 to 25, granting gradual independence to the parent from their children.
Regardless of age and independence, the fundamental problem for students are almost always living arrangements. For some, forced away from home, they absolutely must receive a sufficient income to cover rent (above and beyond any allowance given to students living at home). For others, there are sound economic reasons why a reduction in travel time to live closer to their place of study, is worth investing in. Rental assistance should therefore be both increased, and made dependent on the "value" of the move.
Students of generally well to do inner city parents choosing to live independently put a strain on the rental market without any gain in efficiency. Take two examples:
A student who reduces their daily commute by an hour has effectively gained an hour, at the expense of increased expenditure on accommodation. Technically, the benefits of the move are already captured by the student however, so supposing the commute was 4 days per week, valued at $20 an hour, and rent $100 a week, then the actual "benefit" was -$20, and should therefore be taken from their rental assistance (thus partially discouraging the move).
Conversely, a student who reduces their daily commute by 90 minutes, 5 times per week benefits by $50 once rent is paid, and thus incurs no reduction in assistance by moving.
Finally, there needs to be a rethink surrounding time in a course. At the moment the only distinction made is between full-time and part-time student, when the biggest difference lies in the workloads between courses.
For a student doing a standard arts degree, working 15 hours a week to supplement their income is no great problem. Contact hours are normally 12 hours per week, with perhaps a theoretical 18 required outside hours. It may be sub-optimal working a lot for a little more income, but school hours are not onerous, are highly flexible, and the income allows a high level of independence.
But for a student in engineering and science - courses supposedly in great demand - the contact hours can be upward of 30 hours per week, generally interspersed with breaks that make part-time work during the week difficult, coupled with another 12 hours or more outside class. For these students, a report into student incomes that effectively recommends increasing the student's capacity to earn income, without acknowledging their time constraints is a joke.
University is, effectively, a student's job, and it should be recognised as such. Approved courses should report a workload (periodically audited) that determines payments above the basic allowance given via the FTB. Something like $5 per contact hour and $2.50 per outside hour may seem parsimonious, but when allied with the FTB (targeting low SES families) and adjusted rent assistance (targeting regional students), the key principles above are covered, and quite decent incomes are attained for those with time constraints. Those others, able to supplement their income can, and quite effectively. as we already know.
Intriguingly, it would also be in the students interest to make a course harder - more money. A vast improvement on the treatment of university work under the current arrangements, when students regularly complain that they lack the time because of work. The key point however is this: if a system is designed that provides income support supplemented by paid employment, then a student's capacity to undertake paid employment should be a central consideration.
14th January, 2009 03:30:27
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The rubbish statistic that never dies
The Age reports today that:
"Figures released yesterday showed 1,401,675 bicycles were sold last year, 38 per cent more than the 1,012,164 car sales, with cash-strapped and environmentally conscious consumers leading the trend."
Which is funny, because more bicycles than cars were also sold last year, and the year before, and the year before, and the year before...
If you track through advocacy documents, transport plans, sustainability reports and news articles, you see this daft and irrelevant statistic cited almost every year since the early 1970s, when the same people started talking about how good bicycles are for the environment, fitness, congestion, etc.
Bicycles sell more because you need one bicycle for each person who wants to use one (well, almost always), because every child owns one (and then replaces it regularly) even if they don't use it, because most adults own one also, and because cycling is a fairly cheap recreational option, even if you only do it once a month.
But the selling of bicycles matters naught to transport policy, where significant increases in inner city commuters are being offset by declines in teenage and child bicycle use in the suburbs, and where cycling remains barely a fiftieth of car use for commuting.
And yet next year, the same statistic will be quoted again.
7th January, 2009 08:12:30
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The road space problem
As the debate over Swanston Street rears its ugly head again, the advocacy groups for their particular mode are out in force, to try and asign a few precious feet of street space to their own uses.
The biggest casualty will be the tour buses, but they are, perhaps, the most unfairly treated. Spencer Street station is a significant downgrade from their presently central position. Presuming noone is willing to create a proper bus park along Swanston Street, space next to Federation Square or in an adjoining street should be made for them.
But the tour buses are but a small, mostly immobile, part of a larger problem, as the photo below shows quite clearly.
Even without tour buses, Swanston Street is packed with delivery vehicles at all hours, taking advantage of the ease of parking. Taxis, similarly, take advantage of their access, both for parking and through traffic, and of course (as has been acknowledged for almost 100 years), Swanston Street has too many tram routes for efficient running. The street was never going to be a "walk", though you can walk across it, almost at will. The current configuration is better than what it was, but is a terrible mess.
Robert Doyle's plan to return traffic is either naive or mad. As can be seen in old videos the street has changed significantly in its post traffic days. Apart from the reduction in direct end-to-end through traffic, the footpaths are now substantially wider, street trees and cafes filling the space. Returning traffic under that configuration (two lanes and parking), means either reducing the footpath width, at great cost to the major use of the street (pedestrians), slowing tram speeds further with extra traffic between intersections, or removing parking.
Which oddly enough, makes Swanston Street the same problem facing the shopping strips of inner Melbourne.
The problem of space is obvious at a design level, but too quickly forgotten at a strategic one. At a recent forum, speakers were regularly clapped for promoting "bicycle lanes on every street, protected by parking spaces", "dedicated tram lines", and while it was left unsaid, I am sure they would also be applauded for advocating "increased footpath width and better urban design". I like these things too, but the underlying theme was that the lack of these things occurs because there is a vast road lobby, conspiring to thwart alternative modes, and better livability.
There isn't. On many of these streets, VicRoads is responsible for both improving tram speeds, and on-road bicycle lanes. They have, where possible, dedicated lanes to both trams and bicycles. It just isn't possible on many streets. Not without removing something. And the biggest obstacle to removing something will always be the users of whatever that something is.
Sydney Road is a classic example here. The road is just 1 chain (20m) wide. A 3.5m tram line, 2m bicycle lane, and (narrow) 2.5m footpath leaves just 2m for traffic and parked cars. Even without parking, unless we want to revert to widespread one-way traffic there just isn't space for dedicated lanes for all modes.
Some modes need to be mixed, and the best configuration is a complex negotiation between stakeholders, not feel-good statements of intent of no practical value.
For myself, the priority should be giving p/t dedicated lanes, and increasing pedestrian access. The former because they are the most efficient (and equitable) movers of people across reasonable distances, and the latter because local people should have first access to their environment, and pedestrians are, predominantly, locals. Bicycles are great, but they can share streets, particularly when those streets are slow moving. What makes cycling unsafe now is not traffic per se, but the need to weave in and out, merging with faster traffic at multiple points, or having faster traffic merge with them, pushed from lane to road, and back with little warning for drivers behind.
Parking is a luxury, the value of any particular space marginal to a business, in comparison to the pedestrian traffic, and its removal from streets moderately easily made up for in off-street solutions as the market dictates. This may inconvenience delivery drivers, but few can be parking directly outside their destinations already, and off-street parking could make provision for them.
On Sydney Road, and other inner city roads, that gives 3.5m for trams, 3.5m for cars (now speed limited to 30 or 40 - if they ever reached that speed) and bicycles, and 3m for pedestrians. At intersections, hook turns should be the norm, and light cycles short (an elderly pedestrian crossing and no more). Bicycles should take the whole lane in designated areas, not the left-most edge, as the time savings for traffic behind are minimal.
In the city, with wider streets and already blessed with wide footpaths, a 2m bicycle lane (and even some parking) is possible, though the advent of universal super stops puts further strain on the limited resource.
But we do need to have a debate over space. The extended clearways plan is, in many ways, the most radical change to Melbourne's urban environment. It strongly favours moving modes over local areas, and implemented with little consultation with councils, businesses, or residents. The feedback they did get was almost universally negative, fobbed over with reference a "the silent majority" who remain either ambivalent or unconvinced. The ideas aren't bad necessarily, but we should be cynical of proposals for greater efficiency that run afoul of induced demand, and of advertisements that mysteriously add an extra lane to the configuration of the bulk of Melbourne's roads.
And we should ask what role in our urban system strip shopping centres serve, above and beyond funnels for vast numbers of CBD commuters.
19th December, 2008 13:06:22
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The same thing. But five times more expensive
There was a certain level of excitement amongst planning types when the Brumby government announced that the Eddington report was going to be responded to via a whole new transport plan. The hope was that, in light of the extensive public consultation that preceded the EWNLA, and the limited public consultation that succeeded it, that the government was going to do something new. In the past month it has become increasingly obvious that yesterday's release of The Victorian Transport Plan was going to be as dull as its name.
Or at least, as dull as a plan can be that promises to spend $50 billion, but with the exception of a few big roads and a few small rail extensions, not until they've probably left government.
Two years ago, I noted that the, then new, Meeting Our Transport Challenges, was predominantly a shopping list. Earlier this year, Carlo Carli in defending MOTC, argued that the shopping list needed to be bought earlier and extended, in line with unexpected increases in population and in public transport patronage.
And that, in essence, is what the VTP is: a list of projects, some significant freeways sourced from VicRoads never-ending vault of necessary connections, some from the significantly more modest list of whomever does public transport forward planning (if anyone), some from the Victorian Freight and Logistics Council (the occasionally strained reasoning behind which can be found in the also released Freight Futures) and a couple - the biggest ones - from the so-called Eddington Report.
Not surprisingly, almost every option was already on the table in some form, either announced previously, or discussed vigorously. This may be because they are the only reasonable ways of organising Melbourne's transport systems. Or not.
On the question of how best to cross the Maribyrnong, we get two answers. A shortened version of Eddington's road tunnel, from Dynon/Footscray Roads to Sunshine/Geelong Roads, shorter than necessary, and undoubtedly to be later extended to the Western Ring Road. The Eastern Freeway extension has been shelved, for traffic and economic reasons, but will undoubtedly return in a decade. Similarly, the worrying plan to grade separate sections of Hoddle Street is a mere placeholder for a North-South linkage study, and probable plans for an underground inner ring road.
And we'll get half a rail tunnel, connecting Footscray, Parkville, the CBD and Domain, under the ostentatious moniker of building a "metro" system. For $4.5 billion this will improve travel for around 20,000 commuters - about $225,000 per person - but may include a freight tunnel. Uncongesting the rail system is a worthwhile goal, but I'm not sure this is good value. Not when you consider you could subsidise $200 million worth of travel per year, and build 200km of tram track for the same price.
There is much more in the project list, some fairly nice, like grade separations at rail crossings, and some slightly bizarre, like the plan to accommodate new industries using brown coal from 2015. Climate change be damned, but it's only $9 million.
I could go on, but my real criticisms of this plan run deeper than the projects themselves, and onto the planning process itself.
Cycling and walking were, as usual given lip service but no place at the table. There is a promise to release a Cycle Strategy, and a $10 (or is it $100) million increase in funds. But the substantial problem remains. Transport modelling looks at network node connections; transport predictions look at movements across local boundaries. They are, by definition, long trips. Important trips, to be sure, but only half the trips done, and I might add, only half the congestion.
There is little to no mention of strategically planning for shorter trips, beyond gestures at new bike paths, and inner city bike hire (as if only the inner city could be riding bikes). Localised congestion on roads remains the preserve of councils and VicRoads engineers. Whether land-use plans that actively encourage higher densities and concentrated commercial development will exacerbate these problems is also not discussed.
Other departmental documents indicate an absence of understanding what they might be trying to achieve. In the above report, a consultancy and the ABS were paid to generate a table informing us that almost all walking trips start and end in the same statistical local area, that cycling is more common near the CBD, and that demographics matter. Anybody could have told you that without a report. In any case, they only looked at the percentage of cyclists in each demographic, not even the relative percentage of cyclists between groups.
What needs to be asked, is what percentage of people could take a form of transport, and what percentage do. And what are the characteristics of those groups. Because until potential transport choice is addressed at the right scale, planned changes in mode share will be the result of lucky guesses and unforeseeable change, not policy.
Managing road space
Reading a transport plan is invariably grating. Lifeless, shop-worn phrases spill forth, rarely checked by statistical fact or insight, and weighed down by allusions to a better, blander future. And then right at the end, something a bit different. Eddington occasionally went beyond his remit in his report, and none more-so when he argued for congestion charging (amongst other things):
The Government should re-evaluate its current road tolling policy to ensure that the long term benefits of new road investments can be fully realised (including public transport priority, improved cycling opportunities, road network balance and improved local amenity).
Varying the response from carefully reworded support, the government takes on the role of managerial supervisor dressing down an employee for undermining their position. They are also, mostly, wrong.
First, the Victorian Government does not toll existing roads.
This is not the first body to suggest congestion charging, though the VCEC got a more polite response. In no case have they adequately explained why - beyond their fear of leaving themselves open politically. Given Melbourne already has a widely used system of electronic tolling, it is a mistake to think that congestion charging couldn't substantial improve the efficiency of our roads, and provide a much-needed revenue stream for other transport improvements.
Secondly, roads are only tolled if they are beyond budget capacity.
This is something of a furphy, as numerous people have pointed out. The government is at least as well placed to take on large debts, and if it can be financed via tolling a subset of tax-payers, you can rest assured it can be financed by all of them. Secondly, private companies need to buffer themselves with a risk premium that leads to inefficient tolling, and lower than optimal road use. At best, there is some level of fairness in only charging road users, but in that case, why apply it to only new projects?
Thirdly, the Government does not close other roads to force people onto toll roads and won't compromise public transport on or around toll roads.
The first part is a framing issue. Eddington (like myself) argued that roads running parallel to freeways should be downgraded, to improve local amenity through lane closures, wider footpaths, bike lanes, and landscaping. The government interprets this as "forcing people onto toll roads". Road space is a public asset that could be used for many other things, other than funneling traffic from the outer suburbs. For inner city residents, the benefit of any tunnels built through their locale is amenity improvements. To not only deny them that option, but to also frame the debate away from its consideration is disappointing to say the least.
I'm at a loss to understand the second part of the response however. It seems to reply to a single (perhaps poorly phrased line): "ensure that the long term benefits of new road investments can be fully realised" . The commercial implications clause that prevents an airport public transport link may be an enduring sore-point for a government that loves its ribbon cutting, but it certainly wasn't what Eddington meant.
The VTP, like so many before it, continues to under-utilise economic theory in understanding efficient of public space, favouring road traffic indiscriminately, and congesting streets unnecessarily. The clearways plan, while ostensibly to improve public transport flows, will undoubtedly have an induced demand effect, quickly negating any gains. Similarly, unless substantially more infrastructure is built than necessary, any improvement in transport (private or public) will also suffer from induced demand, and resolve to congested conditions.
Integrating land-use planning
The great irony in this problem, is that under "What you told us" the government heard that we wanted "ongoing integration between transport and land-use planning". Unfortunately, a few glib comments aside, there is little evidence for it.
The recently released Melbourne @ 5 million had two core components: six Central Activities Districts at Box Hill, Broadmeadows, Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Ringwood; and three employment corridors through the outer west, from Caulfield to Dandenong, and from Monash to Heidelberg. Both are laudable enough by themselves, but they need substantial support to work. There is no mention of that support, nor, to the extent that some projects would support, no explanation of how they are supporting this plan.
Transport to any area of the city can be defined by two things: its accessibility and its capacity. The CBD is very accessible - a large population of people can get there quickly - coupled with a high capacity. Although train lines and (perhaps one day) SmartBuses run through the six CADs, they are otherwise accessible mainly by automobile. This is a problem, because capacity is quickly (and already) reached using automobile traffic. Those centres and employment corridors will almost certainly need substantial infrastructure improvements. I say almost certainly, because in the absence of any targets for growth, and in the absence of any transport needs assessment, we don't actually know. The absence is, itself, a clear indication that there is no ongoing integration between land-use and transport planning.
If anything, the building of the rail tunnel demonstrates a clear repudiation of last week's land-use plan, by massively increasing the accessibility and capacity of the CBD, and propelling it onwards in its dominant trajectory. A dominant CBD is not necessarily a good thing. It leads to longer commutes, disparity of wealth and services, and needs more expensive infrastructure to fight congestion. Economically, it may be worth the expense, but when a land use plan says one thing, and a transport plan another, it isn't integration.
Planning for greater efficiency
This is an old school plan in many ways. There are lots of words (and advertising dollars) spilt on current transport fads, but fundamentally it is about big road and rail projects. SmartBuses have been downgraded, trams extensions are spoken of in the past tense, cycling awaits it strategy. But the big people movers are planned, and awaiting implementation.
Doing something with our rail system is, without question, a good thing. Because, as Paul Mees never fails to point out, the operation is a mess. The rail system grew organically, and it grew, for the most part, a long time ago. But because of this, there are lots of niggling issues that affect operations, and prevent it getting anything like best practice. Single lines in unfortunate places and numerous level crossings are being removed, if sometimes slowly, but there is a wider problem. Widely spaced and poorly integrated outer suburban stations run reasonably fast with express trains, but are under-utilised for short trips. Closely spaced and very slow inner suburban stations with trains stopping all stations are well used, but get in the way of express trains. Add in regional rail and a plan to introduce more freight traffic and this plan will do little to eke out extra capacity.
There needs to be plans put in place to move forward. Inner city metro trains in Europe run across short distances, and therefore stop often, but we have an unstable mix in a vast city. Moreover, there is substantial doubling up on several lines, with trams running parallel with trains, both probably subsidised when they could run a profit. Integration of services also needs a clean separation of goals. The rail system, uniquely able to carry large numbers of people very quickly, should be configured to do just that, but it needs careful, long-term planning, not a few big projects.
How I would do it can wait for another post (shortly), but using the train system as we do is an analog signal in a digital world (albeit with a smaller bandwidth jump).
This is, to me, one of the strange oddities of the report is the insistence that projects will go ahead, contingent on Federal funding. There are certainly benefits to saying that. It allows the government to pull out of projects for political reasons, then blame the commonwealth for lack of funds. And it takes debt off the books, which allows them to show a balanced budget.
But unless the fund provided from Building Australia Fund have been quarantined in relation to the Commonwealth Grants Commission (and googling this for an hour provided no indication either way), then the money will never really exist. An extra billion on the state budget will be treated as revenue by the CGC when it comes time to divide GST revenue between states. Because all states will get some infrastructure money, and it will be handed out over a number of years the impact won't look large, but it will exist.
And hence, nor will these projects really be funded "by the Commonwealth". Any budget shortfall as a result of an increase in assessed revenue needs to be paid for via increased borrowing, increased taxes, or decreased services, the same as it normally would. The difference is that (most) Commonwealth funding appears as lower "income", not as an expense (payment of debt). A difference in political terms, but not on the budget. It is wrong to pretend that these projects are somehow dependent on government funds; almost as wrong as abdicating responsibility for transport infrastructure to federal control in fact.
10th December, 2008 13:33:06
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Assorted old transport notes
No blogging recently, distracted by teaching and marking instead, but some stories are too good to pass up. The Brumby government has been copped a beating a while back for spending money on spinning their transport initiatives instead of on the system. The spin is annoying, but otherwise I can bear it, and the money is, as stated, fairly piddling. But then you come across a non sequitur like this:
"The reason we have done the ads is, in all of the research we have done with commuters, they say they want information about what is happening on the system," she [Lynne Kosky] said.
Now, I may be wrong, there may be a commuter survey out there saying that people want information on new projects and initiatives being undertaken by the department, rather a raft of actual projects and initiatives. But I doubt it.
What this comment represents is a deplorable disconnection between the department and/or the government with what commuting actually entails. If I ticked a box or made a comment saying I wanted "information about what is happening on the system", then I wouldn't be talking about the next few years, I'd be talking about while I was traveling". I'd be wanting to know if I was wasting my time freezing my arse on the bus stop when it would be quicker to walk to the station, or a different bus. Or I'd want to know the alternative routes and times from where I was, at the time I wanted to travel (a service already provided incidentally, but only online, not by mobile).
It is unbelievably sad, that a quite reasonable and sensible request by commuters for information that would actually take pressure off the system has been met with a stale and wasteful advertising campaign. Especially when that same information, distributed widely and reliably, would in the current climate of invention and added customer value, allow people to build useful systems for real time route finding.
But it is also a bizarre decision in light of recent practice. The quality and quantity of information presented on the transport system has improved by an order of magnitude in the past few years - remember when you'd have a one in five chance of having a route map on board a train? The aim should really be to take the next step beyond those initiatives, but as with most little transport initiatives, they are piecemeal, even when they do some good.
Meanwhile, the minister's department is proposing to waste money putting bicycles on buses. This is not to say there isn't half a dozen commuters who are both a) travelling a significantly distance across town and b) in need of a bike at either their origin and destination.
But two things need remembering. Firstly, the major strategic purpose of both bicycles and buses is to connect commuters to the radial railway system. Very few commuters would use either a bus (even the smart buses) or a bicycle for a trip longer than thirty to forty minutes. And secondly, for trips of that length, a bicycle is roughly as fast as the bus anyway - faster once you include delays from congestion and waiting times.
There is hardly a significant demand for such a service, unlike on trains, where bikes are still either belittled or inadequately provided for: is it that hard to install some vertical, space efficient hooks in carriages?
The money would be far better spent improving bicycle lanes and off-road routes parallel to smart bus lanes, to get cyclists there quicker and easier.
It would also be remiss of me not to round out this summary of transport articles from a month ago without mentioning The Age's campaign to bring back conductors. I am in faovur of the idea, but apparently, at least according to Chris Berg this makes me nostalgic for human interaction and a nicer society, rather than a disgruntled opponent of ticketing systems.
I'm not though. I have spent far too many years designing human-computer interfaces not to recognize too fundamental truths. Firstly, somewhat regardless of how clever you are, and how good your interface is, until a computer passes the Turing test, you can't beat a human's ability to be flexible in performing a task. Yes, a computer can sell tickets, and provide some directions, and other commuters can help people on and off the tram, but not to the same level of quality, and not in a way that improves running efficiency and reduces far evasion. Secondly, no matter how intuitive your interface is, customers have a remarkable ablility to both break it, and be baffled by it. The current ticket system in Melbourne is completely baffling to the uninitiated (ie. tourists). Myki will probably be worse, because it tries to be more clever, and clever is confusing.
Which is not to say Myki isn't a good idea - actually it is probably a pointless waste of money, but politicians love the idea of automation, because it looks like an easy way to save money; at least until the IT bills come in. Fare system improvement is a good idea. Re-introducing conductors is a good way of improving the fare system.
12th August, 2008 19:43:05
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Rental crisis or distorted market?
After the better part of half a decade of laments over the price of houses and the problem for first home buyers, the last year has seen a shift into concern over declining rental vacancy rates and a different kind of housing affordability. As a problem though, it is both better and worse then we think. Worse because the problem of insufficient housing stock and rising rentals - particularly where people are really concerned, in gentrified inner cities - is not going to go away quickly, and better because market distortions have meant there are substantially more people renting than perhaps there normally would.
To understand why we need to go back to the late 1990s. Back then, a decline in interest rates, and a surge in investment actually brought vacancy rates up to around 4-5%. Obscenely high, and investors - particularly apartment investors - got burned. From that point onwards, we've seen declining vacancy rates, dropping slowly down to the 1% level being reported in the past few months. House prices also levelled off during this period, before surging again - for no reason I can discern - after 2004.
But rents didn't increase with them. In fact, rents haven't even been increasing with wages, despite an apparent increase in the number of potential first home buyers (and therefore, reasonably well-off) people renting. Once again, negative gearing is partly to blame.
The argument put in favour of negative gearing is that it increases rental affordability and rental investment. This is undoubtedly true, as is the claim that it encourages speculation and increases house prices in a rising market. Up until very recently, when interest rates began to increase and prices seem to have stalled, buyers could be sure of receiving capital gains on their property, and weren't much bothered with rents. The RPA summarises the last few years quite well:
"[...] we need to look back to the start of the housing boom in the mid 1990s. At that point, commonly used measures of gross yields on rental properties were in the order of 5-6 per cent. Over the subsequent decade, rents rose much less than dwelling prices, so that rental yields fell to relatively low levels Ė about 3 to 4 per cent (Chart 14). During this period, investment continued to flow into rental properties, as investors anticipated that capital gains would more than compensate for the low yield.
"However, once it became clear that dwelling prices may no longer keep rising, the rental yield by itself was not sufficiently attractive to sustain the rate of investment, and the vacancy rate started to fall."
How big a subsidy for renters? Well, if the reports of $2.4 billion in tax losses because of negative gearing are accurate then (at a tax rate of 40%) that translates into $3.6 billion in rental subsidies bfrom investors to lucky tenants. More, probably, but across the 3 million or so rental households that translates to an average of $1200 year, or $100 a month in rent.
Which brings us to the two key problems we are now faced with. Firstly, as David Tiley's post on the topic points out, investors (90% of whom are mom and pop investors with only one property) can't afford these levels of subsidies under rising interest rates and rising inflation. Their hand is being forced, to either raise the rent, or sell up, and there is no incentive for new investment in the market. At the moment, we are seeing rapid rent rises in a tight market - a market that, after several years of stagnant prices and increased incomes, has a reasonable level of flexibility to do so. But it can't continue forever, and eventually, either rents will stop rising as the market opens up, or the owners will need to sell, with current renters making the switch to homebuyers (though what that might mean for prices is anyone's guess).
The second problem is more troublesome while the market shakes itself out. At the bottom end of the market, where a thousand a year in rental subsidies makes a big difference, the rental market consists of poor families and young households (mostly students). The latter are a fluid group, preferring to rent, but often able to share houses, bedrooms or live wih their parents, when money is tight. The fact that the rental market has gone from flooded to dry in such a short period is not just to do with increased population in Melbourne. It has to do with the subsidies investors have happily worn in exchange for capital gains, and the concomitant increase in the number of rental households.
As of the 2006 census, there were some 20,000 spare bedrooms sprinkled through Melbourne's group households, most of whom rent. There are as many as that again in lone person households, but it is hard to distinguish those between renters and the elderly. You don't hear about boarders as much anymore, it seemingly being something people did in the 1960s. With an ever ageing population, no shortage of needy renters, it might be time that idea was revived.
17th May, 2008 18:27:33
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