Data semantics at thirty paces
Russell Degnan

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.

Sterner Matters 24th February, 2009 16:27:44   [#] [2 comments] 

Rethinking student income support
Russell Degnan

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.

Rent Assistance

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.

Coursework Payments

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.

Sterner Matters 14th January, 2009 03:30:27   [#] [4 comments] 

The rubbish statistic that never dies
Russell Degnan

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.

Sterner Matters 7th January, 2009 08:12:30   [#] [0 comments] 

The road space problem
Russell Degnan

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.

Sterner Matters 19th December, 2008 13:06:22   [#] [0 comments] 

The same thing. But five times more expensive
Russell Degnan

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).

Federal funding

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.

Sterner Matters 10th December, 2008 13:33:06   [#] [0 comments] 

Assorted old transport notes
Russell Degnan

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.

Sterner Matters 12th August, 2008 19:43:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Rental crisis or distorted market?
Russell Degnan

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 – 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.

Sterner Matters 17th May, 2008 18:27:33   [#] [1 comment] 

Harnessing Federalism
Russell Degnan

A lot has been said on the plastic bag issue in the past few weeks, most of it - though not all - critical of the failure of Federal and State governments to come up with a levy, or a ban, or something that was so obviously (apparently) needed.

I don't have anything substantive to add to that; for those interested, David Jeffery put up two excellent posts on the issue. What I'm interested in here, is drawing on a strand that came out my friend Rob's critique of the 2020 Summit. To quote:

"The 'national' aspect of this strikes me as a complete irrelevance, and symptomatic of a more general assumption that the solution to any serious problem - whether it inherently crosses state borders or not - is to get the federal government to act on it."

The plastic bag issue is a classic case of this, because while plastic bags cross state (and national) borders, the issues Jeffery notes are no more national issues than state ones:

* they're a large component of litter;

* they're a reasonably important component of waste / landfill;

* they get into waterways where they harm marine life;

* they're made from a non-renewable resource.

None of these are national issues, they are either local or they are global, not in between. But, to the environmental lobby - who have a long history of successful pushes at national level - and to people whose main goal for the states is abolishment, failures of environmental policy are failures of national leadership.

This is a mistake, for two reasons. Firstly, because while their have been a number of significant environmental movement successes at national level, they mostly occur before the affected bodies have shifted their focus to counter them at a national, or international level. As someone noted regarding the 2020 sustainability session, the coal lobby came prepared.

Shifting the debate to the national level only shifts the debate. You can only outflank industry so many times; this is true for plastic bags, and it is true for public transport (increasingly being begged for at a federal level). If you can't win a cost-benefit debate at state level, there is no particular reason to believe you'll win it at national level.

Mostly, people seem to chase the money. But just because the Federal government has the money doesn't make them the best people to distribute it. The long term outcome of increased Federal control is increased Federal pork-barreling and Washington-style lobbying. It is practically impossible to hold the Federal government to account on local spending issues (it is extremely difficult even at state level). Lobbyists benefiting from Federal largesse might not care, but things are as likely to turn out badly as good.

Secondly, there is the oft-cited benefit of having states: competitive federalism. Plastic bags, again, offer a clear case of the benefits of multiple state policies. As Jeffery says, the issue is complex, and there is not necessarily one best way to gain benefit the environment; levies might work best, but so might an outright ban, subsidies for alternatives, bio-degradable bags, or even some other issue. Nothing beats an experiment for determining a policy outcome, and other states are normally reasonably quick to follow successful outcomes.

From a national point of view, if the Federal government wants to enact change, and they should, where they can, the best way will almost never be a direct policy. Like a market, often the best policy is targets and incentives, but in this case, not targeting the individual, but the state governments.

At the moment, the Commonwealth Grants Commission works on a strictly neutral policy basis. Their only aim is to give each state the ability to produce services at the same level as each other state, taking into account their different demographic, geographic and fiscal conditions. This can sometimes (or not) work in the environmentalists favour, such as when, two years ago, an increase in (expensive) renewal energy production in NSW and Queensland. meant they increased their percentage of the tax pie, at the expense of (cheaper) polluting energy production.

But most of the time, as the Victorian and NSW Treasuries never fail to point out in their budget papers, it penalises efficiency, because being more efficient reduces the average cost of that service, and therefore, some of the savings to other states.

The Federal government's spending authority would be better utilised, not with handouts, but with the whip hand. If the goal is to reduce landfill, then per capita (per industry) landfill requirements should be assessed for each state. If they manage to use less landfill than expected, then they should receive an environmental efficiency bonus through the grant, that both redresses the existing efficiency de-bonus, and provides incentives for further efficiencies (and further R&D into efficiencies).

Practically any social, environmental or economic outcome can be incentivised in this way, provided the incentives can be brought back to specific state government policy (there is no point penalising Tasmania or Northern Territory for low unemployment, though we make a fair fist of subsidising it now). If lobbyists want more public transport usage, adding an improvement factor for air emissions and health is a much better policy than subsidising new train lines that the State Government, probably rightly, never chose to build through a marginal electorate.

Instead of proscribing a solution, it allows one to be found, be it through improved transport, or congestion charging, or travel demand programs, or better urban design. Similarly, a state-wide ban on plastic bags might be the outcome of improvement factors for litter, landfill, water quality and non-renewable resource usage. Or as no doubt some of the states argued, there may be a better solution to those problems.

Sterner Matters 23rd April, 2008 18:45:42   [#] [0 comments] 

Thoughts on the republic question.
Russell Degnan

Being rather agnostic on whether Australia actually becomes a republic or not, I tend to shy away from debates on the issue. But as the slow train of republican movement gets shunted out of the Howard government holding yard, and winds itself up for another referendum, I think it is worth noting a few things.

The vexed question is invariably the model proposed, seeing as it needs to be both robust in times of stress (when traditionally, constitutions fall by the wayside faster than you can say "right to a fair trial"), and workable in the day to day grind of government. But I also can't help but think that, as amusing an exercise it is for constitutional lawyers and advocates, we are somewhat over-thinking the issue.

Note, for instance, the key phrase on how the current governor-general is appointed, and their place under the constitution:

2. A Governor-General appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth, and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him.

From which two things should be noted. Firstly, that there is a separation between the offices of the Queen and the Governor-General. While the latter is a representative, when it comes to questions over what happens when some future President and some future Prime Minister seek to simultaneously remove each other from office, the constitution neatly sidesteps the issue by placing it before the Queen. Moreover, from a republican perspective, the goal is in fact to remove the office of the Queen, not the Governor-General, and that many of the problems arising from a constitutional rewrite stem from trying to conflate the two together.

Though much pronounced sentiment revolves around the need for an "Australian Head of State", we could leave the office of Governor-general "as-is" and still achieve that goal. The issue is finding a suitable replacement for the Queen, a person (or body) whose primary role is to be permanent, above politics (at least in modern times), and able (presumably, though it has never come up) to use sound judgement in the resolution of any crisis between the executive and parliament.

Permanent apolitical bodies are thin on the ground in Australia. We could, and it has even been proposed, appoint one, but it is perceived as elitist, and in any case, only removes by one step the problem of appointment. The High Court could serve, but perhaps it is unwise to mix constitutional interpretation with constitutional action.

Australia's Federalist tradition offers an alternative however. Each State has their own, appointed, apolitical Governor, the most senior of which deputises for the Governor-General already. Replacing the Queen with the governors, constituted as a council from which a two-thirds majority was needed to appoint or replace the Governor-General, would provide a solution to replacing the Queen, while maintaining the office of the Governor-General above politics. The question then only becomes, what means must they use to "appoint"?

This brings up the second point of note from the constitution above. The question of method is nowhere to be seen. The Queen "appoints" the Governor-General. The method, be it directly from the Queen, or as is now convention, by recommendation of the Prime Minister, is elsewhere proscribed, much as the details for election to Parliament are left for the Electoral Act. Surprising as this seems, we could choose to elect our Governor-General as of tomorrow (republic or no), through an act of Parliament that constrains the appointment.

The minimalist position that we should become a republic and work out the details is, at least on this question, correct. It need not be considered amongst the constitutional changes, provided the constitutional changes mirror the existing system whereby that permanent, apolitical body officially "appoints" the Governor-General.

Thus, while the eventual republic model will matter, in the sense that it redistributes powers and mandates, it need not actually specify the method of appointment for the head of state. The 1999 model did, and was ultimately rejected on those grounds. Future proposals may too, and Paul Norton may be correct that they too will be rejected, should they fail to take heed of the voters will.

The role of the head of state, and whether that head should be elected is one that may not resolve itself either during or after the republic debate. I am sympathetic to the argument that an elected head would receive a mandate from the Australian people, and therefore, have the potential to over-step their bounds as figure-head and become what they effectively are: the head of the executive.

I am less sure of whether this, in itself, is a bad thing. Granted, it is different to our current arrangements, but it could not be further from the truth, to say it is contrary to the Westminster System itself. That system, arguably, has been pushed out of kilter, by changes to the democratic mandate over the course of the 20th century. The idea of a "States House" was still-born, but has shifted (everywhere) from the conservative bulwark that characterised the House of Lords and Victorian Legislative Council, into the true democratic heart of Parliament, the other place being mostly a staging ground for political manoeuvring and show-boating.

Similarly, the monarch of the 17th and 18th centuries, and even the Governor of the mid-19th centuries, maintained a degree of power - the former by convention and control of the military (though not spending), the latter by colonial fiat - that off-set complete control of the executive by the Parliamentary majority (in those days, a fluid and unstable majority).

While most people shy away from an American Presidential system, there is merit in having more than one source of power and influence. Our current party-based malaise works against the generation of new ideas in Parliament, and it may be worthwhile to provide that extra check against control of both houses. Unlike the American system, the requirement that the executive be drawn from Parliament, would act to curb the more powerful Presidential impulses of the American system (as would Parliamentary control over the terms of election). If the President chose to exercise their power to appoint and sack ministers it could radically change Parliament, creating an arena of discourse more closely aligned with that of the 19th century than the controlled spectacle it has become.

Which is not to say I think an elected head of state is a good thing. Merely that if we are going to consider it, that consideration should be done outside the bounds of a sentimentally inclined republic debate; and that supporters of the minimalist, Republic-now-Election-later school of thought need to be more clear with both what they mean by "Republic now" in terms of constitutional change, and what they hope to achieve by "Election later" in terms of radically shifting our existing balance of powers.

Sterner Matters 18th April, 2008 15:42:54   [#] [2 comments] 

Grounding Transport Planning In Reality: Assessing East-West Need
Russell Degnan

For those not following its travails, the last few years have been interesting ones in the Victorian transport planning sector. Four years ago, the business as usual Metropolitan Transport Plan was so widely criticised by the non-roads lobby the government tried again with Meeting Our Transport Challenges. A stated improvement in outcomes not backed by either significant funding (just $10b over 10 years) or any significant vision.

Deep within this document was a promise to re-assess East-West travel needs - or actually to re-re-assess, since there had already been several unsatisfactory assessments done. Like any city with a body of water between its various parts, Melbourne is divided by the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers. There are a limited number of crossings of each, with all western rail forced around through Footscray, and most traffic over the West Gate Bridge. Freight transport in and around the Port of Melbourne since operations moved south of the city two decades ago has becomingly increasingly problematic, compounded by the dispersion of industrial sites to points in the eastern and western suburbs almost entirely dependent on truck transport.

Unsatisfied with the output of their own strategists, the Bracks government farmed the East-West Link Needs Assessment (henceforth referred to as the EWLNA) out to Rod Eddington, whose report arrived on Premier Brumby's desk sometime recently, and the DoI web servers yesterday morning - though for reasons that don't inspire on in the ability of the DoI to do anything, it took me until after business hours to get a copy, if ever a document (all 200Mb of it) lent itself to torrenting this was it.

Since conception, this report has become increasingly important, partly because of an extensive consultation process in which Eddington actually seemed to take the public seriously, partly because it was independent of the normal clogged and antagonistic channels of public debate, and partly because rapid increases in train passenger numbers and a prolonged campaign by both daily newspapers has made transport the major issue of the past two years. Despite being scoped as a simple east-west assessment, what it lacks in overall scope, it makes up for in comprehensiveness and forthrightness in criticising long held positions and prominent myths.

There is much to take out of this, so I'll focus on two things here, the way Eddington has approached the problem, and entered the debate, and the specific recommendations.

Slashing through the debate

I said about the MOTC that its greatest weakness was that it didn't really plan, being no more than a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, and didn't justify its positions. This report goes to great lengths to justify its position, and in doing so, manages to criticise almost every transport expert (and non-expert) in Melbourne. Though few of of them seemed to have paid it any heed before shooting off their criticisms in the paper this morning.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EWLNA is not the projects, but the way it addresses a number of the standard transport debates in Melbourne, providing both data and an opinion on issues, and subtly criticising a number of people. Those people may disagree, but unlike previous plans, they can't say that it shirked the issues. In no particular order:

The Department of Infrastructure is hide-bound and dysfunctional. Well, it doesn't actually say it, but it certainly implies it, from the opening page when it states that:

"Making the right decisions about the future of Melbourne’s transport network is about much more than predicting and providing for greater travel movements over the coming decades."

To the recommendations that the Port of Melbourne should be responsible for the intermodal freight network,to the creation of a single statutory body to deliver the recommended projects. Given the DoI has already has a Major Projects Group to handle this kind of thing, this is either a major oversight, or a severe criticism.

The rail versus road argument is pointless and silly. Presumably Eddington got annoyed reading 130 submissions that do make this distinction, because he went out of his way to criticise the people who do:

"I want to make clear that I do not support – and I have not adopted – a ‘road versus rail’ approach to transport planning. I do not consider this to be a helpful or realistic distinction."

"The EWLNA also rejects the ‘absolute’ position expressed in some submissions that ‘Melbourne cannot build its way out of congestion’. The fact is that Melbourne must stay ahead of gridlock."

Melbourne public transport needs a more radical planning approach. The EWLNA was, as noted by it, limited to East-West links, and not broader strategy, but there are several hints that all is not well, from suggestions for congestion charging and different financing arrangements for rail, to implications that Melbourne needs a 'new generation' of rail in a 'metro' style. Paul Mees and the PTUA have been insisting that things can be improved by building on the existing network, and that the network carried more passengers in the 1920s. The EWLNA rejects this for two reasons:

"In particular, the running of express trains limits the number of services that can be provided on each line. While these express services could be reduced or removed, it would be to the disadvantage of outer suburban commuters – and, ultimately, at the expense of public transport patronage."

"[A]s the train network runs closer to capacity – and more trains are added to an already crowded timetable – there is less room to recover from incidents and delays, and the overall reliability of the network deteriorates."

The hub and spoke system is the major cause of these problems, as several trains running at different speeds need to be squeezed into narrow windows from multiple destinations. Hence the major reason for proposing a new tunnel that avoids the city loop and can therefore run (more or less) express from Footscray to Caulfield. But more on that later.

The Doncaster rail line is a waste of money. This has been one of those lamented "planned lines" since 1970, and the reserve for it still exists in the middle of the Eastern freeway. But it hasn't been built, and probably never will. Some 8500 people commute to the CBD each day from Doncaster (about 10 trains worth) but 37 per cent do so by public transport already, either on the Hurstbridge or Ringwood lines, or by bus. The EWLNA then argues that

"The potential catchment for rail services is low, with analysis by the EWLNA showing that a heavy or light rail service to Doncaster would attract a relatively small number of extra people to public transport, with most people using the services simply switching from existing bus services or the adjacent Hurstbridge and Ringwood rail lines. In other words, the rail line would not remove a significant number of cars from the roads; it would simply lower patronage on existing public transport services."

They argue that, in itself, some shift might not be a bad thing (and I'd argue neither would pulling people off those other two lines), but the railway, and even light-rail (which should surely be considered as a long-term alternative to buses) do not represent value for money, given that most of those drivers already live within 2km of a railway line and choose to use the car.

Also, importantly, most cars on the Eastern Freeway are coming from much further east (Springvale Road and beyond), and therefore, public transport in the Doncaster region would not reduce congestion on the Eastern Freeway. This should be an obvious truth when one considers that any reduction in congestion from p/t will also induce extra road demand.

20/2020 public transport mode share and 30/2010 freight rail share are dead. Everyone knew this when the government proposed them, and certainly after they didn't do anything to achieve it. But it is also a kick against the aspirational planning approach that makes wholly unrealistic projections of transport growth in a way that undermines the credibility of their planning projections in other areas. The EWLNA prediction: 13.4% morning peak p/t share (up from 11.3%), 75% commuter car share (down from 78%) and 90% total mode share (hardly changed at all).

In other words:

"rail services are clearly effective at getting large numbers of people to and from workplaces in the central city, but are much less effective at meeting other travel needs."

One has to wonder about the Port of Melbourne projections however, when the predict a quadrupling of containers (2 to 8 million by 2031), and only a doubling of truck movements (9000 to 18000) without any increase in rail. Bigger trucks are obviously an option, but this implies the doubling of current truck capacity, and four times the import/exports we have now despite a 20% population increase. Eye-balling it, that doesn't seem right to me.

That aside, the acknowledgement that 77% of international freight containers have their destination within metropolitan Melbourne means that moving that kind of freight to rail is extremely difficult.

Regional population share will decline between 2031 and 2051. This is an odd prediction, no doubt gleaned from demographers not paying attention, or doing something odd (most likely counting subsumed cities as part of Melbourne which will make other predictions a bit odd). This isn't so important, but predicting a 0.8m/1.1m Melbourne/Victorian population increase for the next 23 years then a 0.5/0.4 increase for the next 20 again, seems wrong.

Melbourne will not achieve a significantly denser form in the near future. Again, a slap for planners whose claims were never quantified, and whose targets were never met. Not that the EWLNA doesn't support Melbourne 2030's broader goals - and indeed, it still advocates increasing density over the long term. It just doesn't put much faith in our ability to make a difference to transport usage through land-use planning in the next two decades. Given how weak the evidence is for this being possible, this is probably a good idea:

"This trend suggests that – even as the city’s population grows – many Melburnians will continue to prefer a low density, high-mobility suburban lifestyle. This has significant implications for the future development of the city’s transport network"

A significant proportion of the eastern freeway traffic would use a tunnel. This was a common trope, claiming only 5.1% of traffic went to the Tullamarine when that was the figure that went that way directly using the single lane route through Royal Park. Once again, the report was highly critical of this line of argument:

"Contrary to a commonly held view that nearly all Eastern Freeway traffic is headed for the inner city, the EWLNA has found that around 40 per cent of daily traffic from the freeway travels beyond the central city area."

As they diagrammed, 14% of traffic filtered its way north and then along Park St, Brunswick Rd, Bell St. or Sydney Rd., 10% filtered its way through Victoria St., Gatehouse St. or Royal Park to go west, and 8% pushed down Punt Rd. or Hoddle Swan St. to get to the port area. That is a significant amount of traffic and trucks.

Also of note:

"A new east-west road link offers significant amenity benefits for the inner north, by providing an alternative for through traffic – particularly if accompanied by imaginative urban planning, improvements in public transport and more walking and cycling options. As well as removing through traffic from local streets, measures such as lane reductions, priority public transport lanes and the resetting of traffic signals could all be used to ensure that spare surface road space created by the tunnel would not be used by additionally generated or re-routed traffic."

Addressing vehicle emissions is the only real way to reduce greenhouse gases. This conclusion comes mostly, by rejecting (again) the more aspirational hopes of land-use and transport planners. Firstly, that while there is scope for changes to short trips (to walking and cycling), for fewer trips, and for ride-sharing, these measures won't make a significant contribution. On the benefits of public transport:

"While public transport in Melbourne performs significantly better overall than cars when it comes to GHG emissions, this performance is due mainly to the large number of people that are moved by public transport during peak periods, rather than to the inherent efficiency of Melbourne’s trains and trams. In fact, during off-peak periods, the GHG intensity of public transport increases to the point where it is higher than car travel"

One might argue that this is because the transport we have is often useless, as trams (unlike buses) are a marginal improvement over cars. But the EWLNA makes a compelling case that it will take an exceedingly long time, and really significant change (including a massive increase in the cost of driving), to effectively reduce greenhouse gases through increased density and public transport usage.

"As motor vehicle traffic volumes will always greatly exceed public transport trip volumes, any measures to reduce GHG emissions from motor vehicles will be the most effective."

Congestion or cordon charging is in our future. The government knows this, they just don't want to admit it, and certainly are too timid to go to election on it. Importantly, the EWLNA states that it needs to be both well targeted and use the funds to create additional travel choices, before making a warning:

"Without some form of road user charging, there will come a point in Melbourne’s future where congestion levels can only be reduced by the unpalatable combination of lower levels of population and economic growth. These are not outcomes most Melburnians would consider desirable"

In short: this is a report built on rational grounds. If planning is the art of what's possible, then the EWLNA is firmly in the middle ground of what can be achieved, and what they can do within those constraints. They will, no doubt be heavily criticised for this approach, but they are fundamentally right on most of these issues. Where they are wrong, it is not for lack of analysis. Possibly, Melbourne will undergo massive changes for environmental reasons, and much more might be achievable in a metropolitan sense. But within the scope of this study, and within the scope of plausible scenarios, this is the most worthwhile study into Melbourne transport in a long time.

Proposing change

Having covered where the report stands, we'd best now turn to what it proposes. There are, of course, dozens of things that could be done, and any of these projects is subject to specifics - particularly those related to urban design, walking and cycling. But the big ticket items, the $18 billion that dwarves the proposals of MOTC and on which the government needs to decide how to act, can be judged, and should be. My thoughts should be considered as somewhat preliminary, and naturally, I'd probably do something different (more on that another time), and my views might change. But here they are, for what they are worth.

Western Suburbs to Eastern Freeway Tunnel. Roads being the most controversial part, we'll start there. The first stage, a bypass of the West Gate Bridge is probably relatively uncontroversial, allied as it will be to reductions in inner-west truck travel. The northern route through Sunshine appears to be the worst of the two options, as it doesn't allow Hastings Port traffic to get to Altona.

The shock to most people was the absence of exits to the city on the eastern part of the tunnel, not least because most bankers were hoping they could make a packet on the whole deal. This is a good outcome, though one I am still unsure about in some ways.

While having no tunnels won't encourage traffic to use it to access the CBD, having no exits also means it is much harder to limit traffic on Alexandra Parade (though that is proposed, in the form of bus lanes), and means long queues will still form on the Eastern in the morning (though that is unavoidable). Not having queues in the tunnel is important and worthwhile. Having said that, considerable traffic (some 11% of freeway traffic) is coming to the inner north, and will therefore remain in those streets. A single exit at Nicholson Street would have greatly reduced that traffic - the optimum solution is actually to charge a congestion tax at the exit to ensure movement, with the current price stated prior to tunnel entry. Whether the tunnel can support a PPP without exits is also an issue, but, since the backers claimed it could, it is a perfectly legitimate tactic to allow them to prove it.

Also interesting is the plan not to include southerly connection to CityLink. A lack of demand here is undoubtedly true, but there is still considerable demand to bypass the city and go south. Using CityLink is an ugly (and expensive) way to do that, but some traffic still would to avoid Hoddle Street/Punt Road. Sometime in the future, a Hoddle Street/Punt Road tunnel is also appears inevitable.

The Footscray-Domain-Caulfield rail tunnel. Now we get to the interesting bit. Already it is claimed the railway is unnecessary, but I am not so sure it wont help. For three reasons, firstly there is considerable employment near the Domain and Melbourne University, and neither have a railway station within shouting distance. Given the number of people who drive to South Melbourne, or Carlton because of a lack of close connections it may be quite useful (though admittedly more of them come from the eastern suburbs than the south-east).

Secondly, it will be a faster connection, allowing express trains from further out, cleaning up the timetable considerably, and improving travel times for (an admittedly fewer than supposed) group of people using their cars from the outer reaches.

Thirdly, the "metro" plan is long overdue. Melbourne's railways are slow and archaic, and the report rightly wants to switch from a suburban railway system to one that acts as a fast connector between major hubs. Unfortunately, it didn't have the scope to really flesh out this plan, but if Melbourne is serious about mass transit options, the existing system is woefully inadequate. Putting it one the table is a good start for some real innovation (and expense).

The proposed funding of this railway is also an important change. The plan explicitly calls for changing the way rail transit is financed, offering a series of options (local fees, improvement taxes, etc.) that each move away from the current dependence on government handouts and inadequate ticketing (not to mention ticketing systems).

The Tarneit Line. This option news to people who don't look beyond the metropolitan area, or who think the purpose of all trains is to carry local people. Essentially it is designed to get the annoying express country rail connections from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong out of the suburban system as their demands create serious timetable headaches (particularly at 15 minute frequencies like the Geelong line). It goes through fields, which is good in a way, because that is cheap, but bad because eventually that creates demand for sprawl through that area. Essentially though, it comes down to this: building new tracks through Sunshine is cheaper than building them through Newport. Enough said.

Better buses to Doncaster, better priorities for public transport. Better summarised as bus lanes along Hoddle Street and Alexandra Parade, since the buses already largely exist, they are just slow, uncomfortable, and disliked. The claim here is that buses can as good as trams and therefore this is the best bet for the (reasonably significant) number of people tripping in and out of the area each day. Ultimately, like every other train, tram and bus route in Melbourne, it needs some rethinking about what it is we really want from our transport system. Putting forward the closure of car lanes for buses and trams is good for p/t - even if the evidence suggests that configuration isn't any more efficient as a mover of people (depends, depends...).

All the rest... Cycling is nice, as would be some new lanes along East-West roads, but like most cycling plans it is tacked on, rather than a strategy (though in this case, rightly, as the strategy is concerned with cross-town movements and freight). Other initiatives will also benefit the city, but are mostly local in nature, insufficiently thought out, and dependent on the nature of the implementation. No doubt this is also true for the main projects, where changes to the local street system is at least as important as the building of the tunnel, and the existence of a train line.

Overall, this has lots of good things in it, mostly because it cuts across the ongoing debates, rather than because the projects themselves have any merit. Transport planning in Melbourne has been in a terrible funk for some time now, and a document that is able to expand the scope of what is possible, and state the hard truths is infinitely more valuable than a hodge-podge of stale ideas and project proposals of questionable value. Whether it changes those debates is a good question. The usual suspects have said the usual things, but a government with spirit and direction could do good things with this. We shall see.

Sterner Matters 3rd April, 2008 12:40:19   [#] [4 comments] 

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