I’m back!

Just back (yesterday) from a three week trip to the UK and Belgium.

Apart from seeing family, we visited Cardiff, Bath, Penzance, Brussels and London.

In summary? Had a great time!

As you can see, I’m really delighted to be back:

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Expect lots of overly-detailed blog posts in the next few weeks – use this link to see them all, or start here:

Congestion is not the enemy

This in the Herald Sun a few weeks ago: Melbourne traffic congestion on par with world’s biggest cities like London, Rome and New York (paywall):

TRAFFIC congestion in Melbourne is on par with New York and could rival the worldโ€™s worst cities if nothing is done to combat the problem.

Figures supplied by Tom Tom show congestion levels in Melbourne are at 33 per cent compared to its population.

This means motorists are sitting in peak hour congestion a third longer than if the traffic was free-flowing.

And then this in The Age: Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city’s north-east has worst traffic:

The Grattan Institute research is based on an analysis of Google map data for more than 300 routes in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. It was collected 25 times a day over 12 weeks between March and June 2017 and found:

An average morning commute to the Melbourne CBD by car takes almost 70 per cent longer than in the middle of the night.

These are based on very similar surveys: the Herald Sun used the much-criticised Tom Tom congestion survey. The Age used a Grattan Institute survey.

Both use the same flawed methodology. They compare a city’s traffic speed at quiet times with the traffic speed at peak hour.

Apart from assuming that getting around by car as fast as possible is automatically the most important thing, you get wacky conclusions because a city with 24/7 congestion (only slightly worse at peak hour) is deemed to be less congested than a city where most of the time there’s free-flowing traffic but for a couple of hours a day it’s proportionately worse.

(The Grattan Institute says there’s more coming. I hope it’s more well thought out than just looking at motor vehicle commuting.)

In any case, if this is our big conclusion that drives transport policy, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

The debate shouldn’t be about congestion

I don’t think the debate should be about congestion. It shouldn’t even be about mobility. It should be about access to opportunity: jobs, education, amenity.

It’s not about whether people who choose to drive* are delayed by others who choose to drive. It’s about whether everybody (including those who don’t drive) can get to the places they need to get to.

*Or are forced to do so for lack of viable alternatives.

(To contradict myself for a moment: congestion that gets in the way of efficient transport modes absolutely is the enemy. Ways need to be found to get pedestrians, bikes, trams, buses and trains around it, or at least through it quickly.)

One of the major benefits of a big city, if there are lots of opportunities well-serviced by public transport (and walking and cycling), is that it makes it easier for everyone, of every age, and every income level, to access them… provided they don’t insist on bringing their 2 tonne private vehicle, of course.

Bourke Street Mall, lunchtime

What sort of city do we want?

There’s also a lesson in the headlines. In the Herald Sun story, New York, London and Rome are cited, and compared to Melbourne. In other words, the most prosperous, vibrant, successful cities on Earth have congestion. And we’re becoming more like them.

Is that actually a bad thing?

As Samuel Schwartz says in his excellent book which I just finished reading:

…a study from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found a powerful correlation between per capita traffic delay and per capita GDP; and the correlation wasn’t negative, but the opposite. For every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, the study found a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. It’s not that congestion itself increases economic productivity, but that places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.

Should we really be trying to stamp out congestion, or should we look at how other cities deal with it?

The big world cities don’t deal with congestion by eliminating it – which basically isn’t possible; building more roads just grows more traffic.

Rather, they provide lots of ways of avoiding traffic congestion, by making sure more people can get around without driving in it and adding to it: by providing viable non-car modes for most trips, including non-work, non-CBD trips.

Decentralisation and liveability

Meanwhile, the state Coalition is calling for more decentralisation to maintain Melbourne’s liveability. By “liveability” I suspect they actually mean crowding and congestion.

Again, look around the world at the cities we might aspire to be.

What makes Melbourne’s congested city centre successful in this age of the Information Economy is lots of people in a relatively small space. The majority, who come in by train, are simply never affected by traffic congestion. (They are affected by rail disruptions such as last week’s major outage, but that’s not an everyday thing.)

Decentralisation plays against one of our key strengths.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t increase the number of viable business districts, if it’s possible.

But just moving lots of people to car-dominated regional towns doesn’t really help. As Alan Davies notes, decentralisation is just another name for regional sprawl. And replacing urban sprawl with regional sprawl isn’t actually a positive.

Okay I’ve rambled a bit again.

But my key point is: congestion isn’t our enemy. Lack, and inequity of access is what we should be talking about, and seeking to fix.

Old photos from July 2007

Yes, it’s that time when I run out of blog post ideas delve into the photo archive and post another in my series of photos from ten years ago.

This first photo I probably took because I’ve long had a bee in my bonnet about fare gates being left open. But look how amazingly empty Melbourne Central Station looks.

Okay, it was 10pm, but these days it’s much busier now at all times of day and night.
Melbourne Central Station, 10pm (July 2007)

Comeng train periscopes being removed at Brighton Beach.
Comeng train periscopes being removed, July 2007

That time I noticed the IGA in Ripponlea had a massive A-frame sign that looked like it could kill multiple people if it got blown over in a strong wind. As I recall, it disappeared within a couple of months.
Ripponlea IGA massive sign, July 2007

Errant motor vehicles in Swanston Street is not a new thing.
Swanston Street, July 2007

On the roof, trying to clean the lichen off the skylight. This stuff gets everywhere; on the car, on the rubbish bins…
On the roof (July 2007)

On the way to the snow, I think it was at Mount Donna Buang.
A trip to the snow (July 2007)

Good advice at Glenhuntly Station
"Don't be a tosser" campaign, July 2007

An upgrade coming at Bentleigh level crossing. This was installed in late 2007, then ripped out again and replaced with other equipment in 2015, about two years before the entire crossing was grade-separated. Your tax dollars at work.
Bentleigh level crossing upgrade, July 2007

Station car parks: expensive, not scalable, and useful only 46% of the time

The PTV web site reckons there are 298 car spaces in the car park at Clayton railway station.

Until recently the spaces were distributed around the station, some on the western side of Clayton Road, most on the eastern side, both sides of the railway line.

But with the new elevated “skyrail” line under construction on the north side, a number of spaces have been closed. To compensate for that, more spaces have been opened up on the southeast side of the station.

Here’s how it looks from the train when departing Clayton outbound:

Yes, the car spaces go all the way to Centre Road, some 750 metres from the station entrance.

This was filmed on a public holiday. Any locals care to comment how many of these spaces are filled on an average weekday? Are people really prepared to walk up to 750 metres from their car to catch a train? (I’m lucky enough that I only walk slightly further than this from home to the station.)

Bentleigh/McKinnon

At least at Clayton the car park only extends a fraction of the length to the next station. At Bentleigh, the car park now goes halfway to the next stop at McKinnon. It fills the entire space between Bentleigh station and the substation midway between the two stops.

In fact with the McKinnon platform extending south under the road, it doesn’t seem like too far from the end of the Bentleigh car park.

Bentleigh station carpark, viewed from above McKinnon station

On weekdays, it appears the entire car park is used.

Unused most of the time

Station car parks, by their very nature, are near railway stations, which is also some of the most valuable, useful land in any suburb.

It’s also empty more than it’s full. From what I’ve seen, a typical suburban station car park might be only 20% full on weekends, and even emptier in the evenings. It’s probably only full between, at most, 7am and 6pm on weekdays — 11 hours per day, 77 hours out of 168 per week: 46% of the time. And in most cases the total is lower. Many car parks don’t fill up until later each morning.

Station car parks are also notoriously expensive to build, often costing $15,000 to $20,000 per space to construct. It’s an extraordinarily expensive way to get people onto trains, and it’s not scalable. Land is scarce. (And multi-storey carparks can easily multiply the cost per space by three.)

All this means these twentyish people catching a bus home from Bentleigh station have saved taxpayers almost half a million dollars in car spaces, as well as probably saving themselves thousands of dollars per year by avoiding running another car.

703 bus arrives at Bentleigh station

It’s not surprising that for those squeezed out of existing car parks think more and bigger car parks are the answer.

But ultimately the cost isn’t affordable, and it’s illogical to build a public transport system that requires people to drive to the stations.

More needs to be done to bring people to the station without their cars. Better walking and cycling facilities, better connecting buses and trams.

And you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you.

European holiday: Escaping the winter

(I am prone to do long overly-detailed blog posts about my holidays, perhaps more for my benefit and enjoyment than yours. Here’s the first instalment. This post is backdated. Published 26/7/2017)

This holiday was a long time coming. Co-ordinating with my sons (including university holidays) and work and M and relatives, let alone getting the money together, took some time… in fact it would be my first time in Europe since 1999.

But the day had finally arrived. After a flurry of packing, and wondering what would be forgotten*, we left the house about 11am, train to the City.

On the way through, I noticed some of the scaffolding had come off at Flinders Street Station, and showing the new, less mustardy yellow colour. I snapped a photo of it to post to Twitter.

A few days later the Premier’s Department rang asking if they could use the picture. Heh, you’d think own their media unit could get one, but oh well — maybe I happened to snap it just as it was in transition and nobody else did. They added some captions and posted it to Facebook:

I do like the new colour. Apparently the section on the right is also zinc sheeting rather than the brick, which explains the different look.

To the airport

Anyway, we hopped off the train at Southern Cross, then Skybus to Melbourne Airport. It’s expensive (currently $35 return, times three of us), but as long as you avoid peak times, it’s usually quick and convenient.

The Skybus driver said the trip would be about 30 minutes, depending on traffic. I timed it: it was actually 23, though I still felt a bit jipped because we didn’t get a double-decker bus.

While on the Skybus I noticed one bloke up the front was constantly looking through his bags, murmuring to his travel companion and looking ever more concerned. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten anything important.

M met us at the airport, and there was plenty of time for a silly selfie in the departures area — but first we had to get our luggage and boarding passes sorted out.

Silly selfie at Melbourne Airport; about to be over by a tram

Airlines and check-in

I’d booked with Singapore Airlines, based on the loose criteria of: wanting one of the better airlines, availability on the dates we needed, and not some weird route taking 40+ hours to get to Europe. They also have WiFi in their planes, though this is a paid extra.

It wasn’t particularly cheap – nothing is in July, thanks to Australian school holidays and European summer. But with other contenders such as Qantas/Emirates and Etihad all being a similar price, Singapore won out thanks to having slightly less cramped seats – apparently an extra inch of space.

I’d checked-in online the day before. The flight was pretty full, so there weren’t any practical choices of seats.

But I this I find a bit puzzling: The queue for those needing to check-in was really long. The queue for “Internet check-in” was really short. So we got to bypass the queue like rockstars despite booking Economy.

Once at the desk, they weigh your bags, ask you questions about what’s in them, tag them, and give you boarding passes. So what’s the difference between this and checking-in at the airport? Just the lack of seat selection, which wasn’t an option anyway? Oh well, it certainly saved us a bunch of queuing.

After grabbing a sandwich and a drink (at the predictably incredibly exorbitant airport prices – maybe next time we should just make a sandwich at home), we headed through the departures gate (quick selfie against the tram-themed backdrop – see above) and through security and the looooong walk to gate 14.

Melbourne Airport in the drizzle

Melbourne to Singapore

Despite some rain outside, the flight was away on-time (3:40pm).

The food on the flight was pretty good – with actual metal cutlery! I read for a bit, watched some classic West Wing.

Note to self: always grab the airline earphones. They’re hopeless, but your own snazzy earphones, which actually cut out some of the flight noise, won’t work – you get mono sound unless you have an adapter. Honestly, would it kill them to wire the plane sockets up so they provide stereo sound for stereo earphones?

Before we knew it we were landing at Changi. Two hours to kill in the huge transit lounge, browsing the shops. You can also watch a free movie or visit the in-terminal butterfly house. Notably, one shop was running a promotion to win a trip to Melbourne.

Singapore Changi Airport - win a trip to Melbourne!

I tried to sign on to the free airport WiFi. It wanted to send an SMS activation code to my phone, which would normally not be a problem, but this was when I discovered that my phone roaming wasn’t working.

This would be a problem for another three days, as I tried repeatedly to contact Telstra to get it resolved. Their Twitter people are very helpful but unable to actively fix very much directly. Their online chat people try to be very helpful, but anything complex tends to outfox them.

In this case (I think on the second contact attempt, a day or two later) one of their so-called solutions was a suggestion for me to ring up another department. DUDE, I CAN’T RING ANYBODY BECAUSE MY ROAMING ISN’T WORKING. And even if I could, it’d be costing me $2 a minute to make that call.

Having a fully-functioning phone was important to me. Although I was planning to buy a second SIM (my phone can take two), some of the services I use, such as banking, uses SMS for two-factor authentication. I also wanted to receive text messages and calls from home.

The hassles I had with getting it fixed is probably the sort of issue that convinced the Australian Government MyGov web site to suggest turning off 2FA when going overseas.

After a number of sessions on their online chat system over several days (well into the holiday proper), it was finally resolved, though frustratingly I don’t even know why it didn’t work in the first place, since roaming is meant to be on by default.

And there was a sting in the tail of this problem. Stay tuned.

So anyway, a little while later we boarded a huge bulbous Airbus A380 to continue on, departing Singapore at 11:30pm local time. I don’t quite know how these ridiculously big planes manage to get off the ground, but they do.

After the “supper” meal, I slept for a bit, though light from toilets kept made it difficult to get back to sleep once awoken.

We flew on into the night, headed for London.

*What got forgotten? My sun hat. Would I need it to prevent getting sunburnt? Yes, as it turns out.