House repairs and renovation

Happy Australia Day! Now I’m going to do the Australian thing and talk about real estate.

Later this year it will be ten years since I moved into this house. It’s got me pondering maintenance, repairs and a little bit of renovation.

It started when I got my stepfather, who knows more about this kind of stuff than me, to look over the place and identify what needed fixing or upgrading. He came back with a lengthy list, and did some of the smaller jobs himself. Some of the major ones I’ve now organised to get done by tradesmen:

Window repairs. Some of the wooden windows need patching up as they’re showing signs of water damage. It’ll be good to get this done before it gets worse and more expensive to fix. Some of the sash windows need additional repairs, and the same guy can look at a couple of other issues including cracking brickwork.

Windows in need of repairs

This lead me into house painting. The windows obviously need to be repainted when patched. Looking at the rest of the outside of the house, it seemed like it might be a logical time to get it all done in one hit — for one thing where the windows were repainted, they’d match everything else.

Thirdly, external blinds. This is part of my three-point plan to keep the house cool on hot days via passive cooling. The first two parts were better roof insulation, and ceiling fans. I’ve ordered three external blinds for the biggest north and west-facing windows.

Wait, do ceiling fans count as passive cooling? Not sure, but hopefully the external blinds will make a difference, by deflecting the heat before it gets into the house. At present the inside of the house can get up to the low-30s on a really hot day.

I’d heard mixed reports from the big blind company starting with V (who also own the one starting with K), and ended up with the one with the appalling radio jingle starting with B. They came out on Monday and the bloke seemed cheerful and knowledgeable. I also got him to quote on replacing a broken interior window blind.

I’m not sure I understand their system of working out a price then automatically giving you a 40% “factory discount”. If that’s done as routine, it’s not really a discount — it’s just your price. I gather V/K do something similar, but press you to agree on the day to get some/all of that discount. Must be something they just do in the blinds business.

As part of preparations, I spent some time in the garden with various implements of destruction clearing away bushes from the walls and windows to about a metre. Hopefully it’s enough to allow the coming small army of tradespeople to do their work.

I’m also steeling myself for the cost. Suddenly I find myself up for about $800 of window repairs, $2000 in new blinds, and a whopping $5700 of painting, which will drain away my savings somewhat.

But it ultimately is an investment in keeping the house shipshape, and cooler in hot weather.

(Some neighbours of mine have gone for a different plan. They’ve just moved out, in preparation for having their house demolished, and a brand new one built in its place.)

And doing a bunch of repairs and renovations at the start of the year is good, because (as will be the subject of a future blog post), I always get a whole raft of annual bills midyear.

Other things that need attention soon:

  • Some floorboards moving about a bit, producing gaps
  • Narrow cracks near ceiling in livingroom
  • Kitchen: remove blank plate over old light switch hole; fill and paint
  • Continue the clearout of stuff I no longer need! (Let’s face it, this is a long-term prospect, which has been going longer than I’ve lived here!)

Now mostly no monetary benefit from touching-off your #Myki

As far as I can see, since the January zone changes, there is now no monetary benefit to touching-off your Myki for trips in zone 1, or zone 1+2.

This is because the Myki Money Default fare (the fare it assumes you should be charged if you touched-on, but never touched-off) is normally the same as the fare incurred for those trips anyway: $3.76 full fare, or $1.88 for concession.

This means you may be able to avoid the long queues to touch-off when exiting non-gated stations, as well as crowded buses (and trams).

I’ve tested this on Myki Money — it works correctly.

(It’s always been the case that Myki Pass had a default fare of zero if the trip started in a zone covered by an active Pass.)

Myki default fare on trains is now $3.76

There are a few exceptions

There are always complications with Myki. It’s consistently inconsistent. Here are some examples of where you may want to touch-off:

If you are intending on making another trip within two hours, you may wish to touch-off, otherwise your next touch on the same mode may be treated as a touch-off, potentially leaving you without a valid ticket if you don’t notice. This will happen if it’s the same station, and may also happen if you board the exact same bus or tram as your previous trip. If you didn’t touch-off, double-check your next touch when you board is on.

For Zone 2-only local trips, it’s still worth touching-off if you want the cheaper zone 2-only fare. If you were going into zone 1 anyway, it doesn’t matter.

(By the way, on Zone 2-only buses, the Default fare, if everything’s working correctly, would be the zone 2-only fare. Ditto, theoretically, on a tram in the zone 1+2 overlap heading towards its outer terminus. But Myki has enormous problems with GPS location detection, so don’t count on it.)

V/Line users need to be wary. The $3.76 fare applies from Melbourne out as far as Lara, Bacchus Marsh, Riddells Creek and Wandong, but if the conductor comes through and checks your ticket, they may also set the default fare to the end of the service, which could be a lot further away.

You may also wish to touch-off if you’re trying to take advantage of the Myki Pass payback glitch.

On the first trip on a new Myki Pass, I’m not sure if it’ll activate properly if you don’t touch-off. Anybody tested that?

It’s unclear what this will do to the stats if lots of people stop touching-off, but they basically threw away the prospect of comprehensive stats when they started recommending no touch-off on most tram trips (back in 2010). So perhaps it doesn’t greatly matter. They still use manual counting anyway.

And of course on suburban trains, the worst crowding is AM peak, and since most of those trips start with a touch-on, and end at a gated station with a touch-off, they’ll still have good stats for the busiest time on the rail network.

If default fares confuse you, it may be worth touching-off — remember, they get charged the next time you use the system, and that could be hours, days, weeks or months later. This can also result in some odd-looking online statements.

Queue exiting station to touch-off

Will they promote this?

Having locked us poor suffering taxpayers into spending $1.5 billion over ten years for the complicated, bespoke Myki system (and also a small fortune on adding station exits), now they’ve basically switched Melbourne to a flat fare for most users, will they officially promote the fact that it mostly makes no difference if you don’t touch-off?

I don’t know. They never did so for Pass users, even though it would help clear the exits at busy suburban stations in the evenings (and in turn, help trains run on time, as sometimes the crowds block the driver’s view, delaying departure).

PS: Additional reasons to touch-off:

  • If inspectors are standing there, obviously you might as well to avoid any questions
  • If using Early Bird, to ensure you get the free fare (thanks Roger)

Related: TheMykiUser also blogged about this same issue.

PS. If you haven’t heard: PTV is finally getting its timetable data ready for release for Google Transit (and other apps) in March: Age report.

Thoughts from the road

I don’t drive as much as many people (my average kilometres per year figure is about half the national average), but here are some recent random observations…

Seat belts. Why do some people wait for a few hundred metres before they put on their seatbelts? Do they think they’re somehow immune from accidents for the first minute or two?

Petrol prices are down at the moment. It’s unclear if this will get more people driving more often or further, or buying bigger gas-guzzling cars, but looking at the longer term on the bright side, it’s completely taken the heat out of the government re-instating indexation on fuel excise.

Manual vs Auto. My car is a manual. I had the opportunity to drive an automatic a few times last year. It’s easier to drive, but perhaps not as responsive as driving a manual. The car took a few seconds to work out when I wanted to accelerate rapidly… in a manual, I can tell it exactly what to do.

How not to drive through level crossings - the signs 'Keep Tracks Clear' are important

The race: One of the books I read a year or two ago (I’d tell you precisely which, but I can’t remember, and haven’t found the quote) noted that driving is a race. I think that’s right. I’m not a speed-freak (I hope), but on multi-lane roads, I constantly find myself wondering if I can get ahead of the other cars by switching lanes.

On single lane roads the race becomes one of strategy. Avoid Caulfield if there’s horse racing today. Don’t use the tram roads; you may get stuck behind one. Don’t drive through the busy shopping centres if you don’t need to go there.

Of course, if you get stuck behind a slow driver, ultimately, that’s just life, right? It’s the nature of the road system — everybody’s at the mercy of the worst drivers on the road.

The pros and cons of the new #FreeTramZone

Some of the arguments in favour of the Free Tram Zone seem very simplistic.

The Free Tram Zone debate

Shaun Carney built a whole opinion piece around this in the Herald Sun on Thursday: basically, it doesn’t matter if it’s poorly thought out, sucks away resources, and doesn’t get people out of cars — if it’s cheap or free, it must be good — and hang the consequences.

Things aren’t that simple.

The Free Tram Zone is not without its advantages, of course. Here are some pros and cons to ponder.

Pros of the Free Tram Zone

Given the decision to scrap short term tickets under the Myki system, and the ridiculous situation of no facility to buy or top-up a Myki on-board a tram, it’s helpful for tourists and other occasional users in the CBD and Docklands.

In fact it can probably be sold to prospective tourists as a feature. It’s handy for instance to be able to catch a free tram to the Skybus terminal, rather than waiting for their less-frequent hotel shuttles.

It might help reduce congestion in the CBD, particularly from short distance taxi trips.

It may help relieve the crowding on the City Circle, which has been problematic for years, particularly on Flinders and Latrobe Streets.

Some streets seem to be coping fine with loads. From what I’ve seen, Collins and Elizabeth Streets seem pretty much okay most of the time (thanks to many routes serving them). William Street is managing, despite probably having the CBD’s least frequent service. I haven’t looked closely at the others. This may change over time of course.

It’s difficult to touch-on a Myki on packed trams, so it saves people the trouble.

If people don’t touch on and off, it may help cut tram loading delays at some stops.

It gets more people onto public transport, including some who wouldn’t otherwise use it.

The maps, signage and announcements (at least on trams where they’re automated) are pretty clear about where the Free Tram Zone starts and ends.

Free Tram Zone advertising/signage

Cons of the Free Tram Zone

Crowding seems to be getting worse on some streets. This is particularly a problem on Bourke Street, probably more so than any other street. On Bourke Street there is route 86 (every 7-8 minutes weekdays off-peak) and route 96 (ditto), and on paper at least they’ve spaced them evenly for a tram every 3-4 minutes.

But in practice delays occur resulting in gaps of ten minutes or more, followed by several jam-packed trams in a row. This photo on Friday shows on route 96, there was going to be one tram (the one I shot footage from within, below) then a 15 minute gap, followed by 2 trams within 2 minutes. There was also a short delay on route 86 at that time, resulting in gaps of up to 7 minutes — enough for significant crowds to build up.

Delays on tram route 96

This could be countered by running short services just through the CBD. But the most recent change was that Bourke Street actually lost its short route 95 services last year in a route revamp. The simplicity is welcome, but the crowding isn’t.

Or it could be fixed by resolving delays along the routes, so that more trams got to the CBD on schedule. This is mostly due to lack of traffic light priority, but there seems to be little appetite to fix this, and even if there was, it’s a challenging exercise to eliminate all delays.

Delays compound as more people try to pack in, of course, making the problem worse, and resulting in delays right along each route.

As a paid customer, I’m not very impressed with the change, or at least the resultant crowding, and I don’t seem to be the only one.

Here’s video showing what is becoming more common. The video below is in two parts: Inside the tram was shot on Friday at 2:01pm at the Bourke Street Mall stop, westbound on route 96. Outside the tram (apologies for the horrible mobile phone audio in this second clip) was shot on Thursday at 1:33pm at the same location. Note the doors are open for a full minute before the tram can move off again.

Is there space inside the tram in front of the lady with the stripy shirt? I don’t think there was — I think there were people of diminished height not visible in the video. People were left behind at the stop, and TramTracker said the next tram (86 or 96) was 7 minutes away, by which point the crowd would have built up again.

If you have a pram or a wheelchair, you’re probably wanting a low-floor tram. Finding one with space aboard, especially on Bourke Street, just got a lot harder. (I’m amazed the two in the video above squeezed on; the lady on the left had help from one passenger who appeared to give up his space. The bloke on the right appeared to get a bit narky with the crowd.)

Similarly, if you want a specific route, things are now more difficult. You might want to consider catching whichever tram comes first out to the edge of the Free Tram Zone where the crowding is less worse, and waiting for your route there… if you wait for it at one of the busier stops, there’s a real risk you won’t be able to fit on board.

The lunchtime peak seems to be getting longer. Of course CBD trams have always been packed at lunchtime, but my impression is the period of the worst crowding is lasting longer into the afternoon. This photo was taken moments before the video from inside the tram, above, at 2pm:

Crowding on tram route 96 in Bourke Street

The cost is a problem. Fare changes this year are estimated to be costing about $100 million per year, though I’d suspect most of that is the zone 2 change. But that may go up if they have to put more resources into easing crowding. Revenue reductions mean less funding available for service upgrades.

Those who primarily benefit are tourists (who can probably afford tram fares), CBD residents (who can probably afford tram fares), international students (as long as they primarily live, study and travel within the CBD), and motorists (who don’t need encouragement to drive to the CBD, and can probably afford tram fares).

In fact almost nobody who catches public transport into the CBD and out again benefits (with the exception of Earlybird passengers). You have CBD travel already included in your fares, including if you’re using V/Line. (It’s unlikely many Earlybird passengers benefit on the way to work, as apart from Docklands, no spot in the Free Tram Zone is more than two stops from a railway station.)

The Free Tram Zone falls short of some major tourist destinations — it ends one stop before the Casino (on both route 55 and routes 12/96/109), the Museum (86/96) and the National Gallery of Victoria (Swanston Street routes). Of course the zone has to end somewhere. But if you’re going to have it (and I don’t think you should), then if it’s going to stretch to the Victoria Market and cover all of Docklands, shouldn’t it also stretch to these major attractions?

Free Tram Zone: Casino is out, Batman Park is in

Free Tram Zone: Museum is out, Victoria Pde is in

Despite good signage, at stops and shelters, on platforms, on trams, there seems to be some confusion about where the zone applies. Authorised Officers have been spotted just outside the zone boundaries. Hardly surprising though, is it? (That 3AW story also quoted a lady claiming there is no information online. Not so — it’s very prominent on the Yarra Trams, PTV, and City of Melbourne web sites.)

It will more people onto public transport, but may do little to encourage mode shift from cars. Many people may be switching from walking instead, and it may encourage motorists to drive into the CBD and Docklands, knowing they can catch free trams (though fortunately the CBD parking levy zone is larger than the Free Tram Zone).

It may not be good health policy. I don’t suppose there’s any firm information yet, but one friend who works in this area suggested to me that it is likely to cut the amount of incidental exercise some people get. As an example, I saw one lady on Friday, in fine weather, board a tram at Queen Street for a ride of less than a block, to William Street. She didn’t appear to be a lost tourist.

If don’t they put more trams onto the CBD routes, crowding will probably get worse. If they do, they’re effectively diverting resources for no revenue gain, while people in the suburbs who are crying out for better services (many with currently only one bus per hour) and who are willing to pay a fare, miss out.

I don’t know if there are commandments for economics, but if there are, surely there must be one that says you don’t give away a product people are willing to pay for. It seems madness that there was heavy demand for CBD trams when fares applied, and they just made them free. It’s a curious thing to decide to increase subsidies for.

Note that the Coalition had a plan to expand the E-class tram order by another 50. This would eventually have added to tram capacity. No word from Labor on this.

If you do touch-on within the Free Tram Zone, you’ll get charged. If you touch-off within the FTZ, and want to bother, you can probably get a reimbursement. Should they have properly programmed the FTZ into Myki? Perhaps — there used to be a “Zone 0″ for the City Saver Zone… but it’s unclear if it could have handled a zone being free, and it would mess with Tram Zone 1 Default Fares… and Myki GPS is hopeless, so who knows if it would have worked.

(Remember, if you were using public transport to get into and out of the CBD anyway, and you were going to pay a daily fare anyway, it doesn’t matter if you get charged for a CBD tram trip.)

Myki signage on trams, December 2014

The Myki message has changed over the years from the simple consistent “Top-up, Touch-on, Touch-off”, to having a raft of exceptions. On trams it’s now touch-on… unless you’re travelling entirely in the Free Tram Zone. Touch-off… only for trips entirely in Zone 2. Confused yet?

Meanwhile, more and more people are returning to work throughout January. It’ll be interesting to see just how crowded it gets.

So, there are pros and cons

So there is good and bad from the Free Tram Zone. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all good — it’s more complex than that.

The problem with free things is, someone has to pay for them.

I still think the bad outweighs the good, but I suppose we’re stuck with it for now.

And if you’re trying to get east-west across the city and want to avoid the crowds, you might want to consider the Lonsdale Street buses. Not free, but not swarming with people either most of the time.

1978 film “Mouth to Mouth” includes scenes of Melbourne anti-freeway protests

The recent anti-motorway protests in Melbourne are nothing new. In fact the very same area was subject to protests in the 1970s, when it was proposed to link the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway by way of an aboveground link, by converting Alexandra Parade to a freeway, ploughing through neighbourhoods in Collingwood, Carlton and Fitzroy.

Film and television can sometimes provide little glimpses of these events. M told me that on Sunday night, Channel 31 as part of their classic Australian film series, was showing 1978’s Mouth To Mouth“, about four youngsters trying to survive on Melbourne’s streets.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

About 43 minutes in, there’s a scene were one of the characters looks out of a window and spots one of the anti-freeway protests. I assume it was staged for the film, as they are marching to an audience of nobody, but the placards look to be directly inspired by real life, one criticising the then-Premier — partly out of shot, but I think it says “What about your 1972 promise – No more freeways, Mr Hamer”.

Others such as “Melbourne needs a transport plan!” and “Freeways – Money for jams” wouldn’t be out of place today.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

I missed the scene on Channel 31’s broadcast, but found the DVD for the bargain price of $5 plus $1.30 shipping on Umbrella Entertainment’s web site.

In other scenes you can glimpse bright orange trams, safety zones, rows and rows of telephone boxes, a red rattler train, the old Coles cafeteria, and numerous old cars. There’s also a scene set in a plush hotel — possibly the Southern Cross.

And apart from the scenery, the film itself isn’t bad either. Apparently it got three AFI nominations.