Saturday, May 28, 2016

Is heritage going too far?

The built form of cities reflects the demographics and economic structures of their eras. In the great age of rail, we built elaborate central train stations. In the age of mail, we built impressive post offices in central city and suburban locations. When cities functioned mainly as trading ports, we built wharves, warehouses and cargo handling facilities and CBDs effectively grew up around these functions. Many of these structures remain long past their economic use by date, and are often re-adapted to contemporary uses. The recent decision by Australia Post to sell its central GPOs for adaptive re-use is a case in point.

Re-purposing quality heritage structures ensures an ongoing economic role for these buildings, and in the process means they will be maintained and protected, as well as enjoyed by their tenants and the public. It allows cities to grow and develop and to adapt the built environment to the demands of contemporary economic life.  Preserving features of the past connects us all to our history and enhances the sense of place and belonging.

But is the drive to preserve past structures now going too far? Are we now locking down swathes of our urban landscape and preventing sensible adaption to modern lifestyles and economic change? Is it true that the notion of preserving anything ‘old’ has become so widespread that the merits of preservation go largely untested while any benefits of redevelopment are assumed to be nothing more than development profit for demonized ‘greedy developers’? Has it become, in the case of the preservation of built form, a matter of guilty until proven innocent?

This came into focus for me when some dilapidated pre-war homes in Highgate Hill – an inner suburb of Brisbane - which were approved for demolition suddenly became a cause celebre of a small but passionate and very vocal protest group. Yes, there was a local government election in the air but it’s a story that could be repeated in many Australian cities. Despite holding a legitimate license to demolish the properties in order to develop a five storey unit project - in line with the local plan for the area - the local and state governments succumbed to pressure and combined to issue a temporary stop order on any demolition.

Keep in mind these were dilapidated properties, allegedly riddled with termites and with significant amounts of asbestos. Any aesthetic value had long since disappeared after decades of being subject to multiple changes, partitions, and neglect. They had served their purpose for multiple generations of different types of occupants, but their use-by date was up.

They had sold in recent history to a developer with plans to follow the local planning scheme – a scheme endorsed by both local and state government. Evidently, when the properties were available for sale, our committed band of protesters did not buy the properties themselves. Concern for their protection did not extend to investing their own money in acquiring the properties and undertaking very extensive structural and design changes to restore them to some former glory.

What also became apparent from some media reports was that a number of the protesters, as nearby residents, were not ratepayers but renting houses or even just rooms in the area. You may think this too harsh, but it seems that not owning a nearby property (and hence not paying property taxes) is no obstacle to protesting that someone else’s property should be dealt with in a certain way. “No taxation without representation” was a slogan during the American Revolution. Now we have representation without taxation.  This group seemed to hold the view that a purchaser of these properties had some community obligation to undertake very extensive and costly renovations to restore derelict houses in line with what a small number of the nearby community believed should happen, irrespective of holding a valid license to demolish the properties and irrespective of the local community passing on the opportunity to buy the properties themselves.

And for what? Why this obsession with preservation even when it comes to structures that are clearly redundant or structurally deficient? We are not talking about highly significant heritage buildings of unique architectural or historic merit. We are not talking about public buildings in which the community has a legitimate say. We are talking about basic dwellings, privately owned, built of low cost materials available at the time and designed to suit a community and an economy that expired long ago.

The risk is that blanket preservation across swathes of our suburban and commercial centres prevents common sense rebuilding in line with contemporary needs. For starters, new housing tends to be more thermally and environmentally efficient. Anyone who has tried to cool, heat, or maintain an older style home will attest to that.  Further, modern housing is designed around the needs of today’s occupants – not households of more than 50 years ago. Plus, the local demography of many areas has entirely changed. Where once neighborhoods were busy with children playing in the street, some areas now house a large number of elderly who remain in homes that may no longer suit their needs because little is allowed to change (ie be redeveloped) in their neighborhood that might actually meet their needs. More important it seems to preserve dwellings that have outlived their purpose and insist that elderly relocate to somewhere else, than accommodate a changing community need.

Before you start sticking pins into a voodoo doll fashioned in my likeness, this is not advocating a ‘slash and burn’ of heritage properties. But it is trying to identify a clear difference between what constitutes a significant building or structure that is worthy of protection or adaptive reuse, and ones that are simply old.

It also raises a question about who should pay for this protection. Landmark public buildings are often paid for through adaptive reuse which identifies a new, alternate economic purpose. Failing this, taxpayers are generally willing to protect or maintain significant historic structures. But private homes are another thing. Only some are so significant that they have a market value which makes their preservation in private hands worthwhile to the owner. Run of the mill houses which are simply old may be more valuable for the land on which they sit than the structure above it. If these are to be preserved, unwillingly, by private owners – what compensation do we offer? None. Instead, the community is growing accustomed to the idea that they are entitled to have a greater say in what can and can’t be done with other people’s private homes in held in private hands for private use.

A city governed by excessive intervention in private property rights – all in the name of heritage protection – could find itself with large areas increasingly ill-suited to the modern world. We aren’t forced to keep driving around and maintaining old cars simply because they’re old – we are allowed to choose convenience and comfort and make fit-for-purpose decisions ourselves. Why is this increasingly not the case for the humble house?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Cars or trains: which will win the commuting future?

Infrastructure investment is a hot topic and the focus of that discussion tends to lean towards transport infrastructure over other categories (like energy or water for example). When it comes to transport, trains seem to feature prominently on the wish lists of big investment or ‘nation building’ projects. But how far could billions of dollars in new rail infrastructure actually go in improving congestion across our cities?  Will cars inevitably win? If so, why?

‘We need more public transport’ is the silver bullet catch cry often heard in conjunction with debates about congestion in major cities. It has become so common that its validity is rarely tested. Even large scale commuter rail projects like Brisbane’s proposed $5billion (or $8billion – what a few billion amongst friends?) cross river rail can still maintain preferred project status – despite no business case after several years of discussion and now being in the hands of the project’s third state government.

As technology reshapes the nature of work - and with it where we work - and as Australia faces cities policy with renewed national interest – led primarily by our Prime Minister – it is timely to ask how infrastructure priorities might be shaped by evolving metropolitan form and the fast changing habits of urban inhabitants. Will old ways serve new days? Do we need more passenger rail, or will cars find a new purpose in decongesting our cities and serving a new economic model?

Some recent figures through Macroplan serve to highlight the role played by rail in urban life. In 2013–14, there were 178.5 billion passenger kilometres travelled on capital city roads in Australia and 12.6 billion passenger kilometres travelled on urban rail networks. I’ve written before that this share is unlikely to change for the simple fact that only around 10% of metropolitan wide jobs are based in central business districts of our major cities. Agreed, it’s an important 10% for public transport because PT best serves a highly centralized workforce as you find in CBDs. Commuter rail in particular relies on a ‘hub and spoke’ model, mainly designed to ferry people from into and out of CBDs.

For people who work in CBDs, a high proportion will use public transport – rail included. But that’s a high proportion of the 10% minority of people in a metro wide area. Even if every single person who worked in a CBD caught PT, the mode share can never rise very high because around 90% of the workforce work in suburban areas, for which rail is not well suited. There has been a lot of talk about Transit Oriented Development (TODs) particularly around suburban rail nodes but despite decades of discussion, we are yet to see many (any?) genuine examples.

And the reality is that the economy is fast suburbanizing. New employment engines in sectors like personal services or health and caring are not beneficiaries of industry proximity. Being close to others in the same industry might have been good for finance, property and business service industries in traditional CBDs but the fastest growing sector of our economy at present is health care related, where being close to the people being served is important. This is not the CBD. There is even evidence that technology startups in the US have tended to prefer suburban or high street locations, offering high amenity, ample low cost or free parking, and cheap (or free) premises. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple fame started in a suburban garage after all. And Mark Zuckerberg got started at a desk in his college dorm.

As this shift of the economy moves from centralized to increasingly decentralized models – aided by new and fast evolving digital technology which makes connectivity over larger geographic areas so much easier – do the foundations of commuter rail feasibility begin to crumble?

This graph, which shows the dramatic long term decline of the CBD as the dominant employer region in Sydney, could apply equally to other capitals:

Source: The Polycentric Metropolis – Sydney’s Centres Policy in 2051, Bob Meyer, Director of Planning, COX Richardson Architects and Planners

This shift is directly related to how public transport versus private has fared over a similar long term scale, as evidenced by this chart:

Source: Mode share of motorised travel (passenger kms) 1945-2014 for five largest Australian cities, public transport vs private transport (source data: BITRE), taken from Alan Davies writing in Crikey.

Adding to this shift has been the enabling factor of falling car prices. According to COMMSEC, in 1976 the cost of a new Holden sedan (back then it was Holden or Ford and that was about it) was $4,336 and the average male full time wage was $182 a week – meaning it took 24 weeks income to pay for a new car. Today, the average full time weekly wage is around $1,440 and there are plenty of good quality brand new sedans you can buy for $19,000 on road. In just over three months, you can own one. New cars are fuel efficient, emissions efficient, reliable, technologically enabled and comfortable.

Rubbing salt into the commuter rail wound is that travel by car – even across larger distances – tends to be quicker than rail. Here’s the picture in Melbourne:

Source: Average journey to work trip duration by mode and ring, Melbourne (source data: VISTA 2012-13). Taken from Alan Davies in Crikey.

In Sydney, according to their Household Travel Survey 2013-14, only 13% of car drivers took longer than 45 minutes to get to work, while 79% of train passengers took more than 45 minutes. 

So, given that commuter rail is best designed to serve an increasing minority of the workforce with jobs in traditional CBDs, how will spending extra billions on commuter rail infrastructure expansion solve congestion? How will it translate into more rail passengers, given the way the economy is changing?

Is there an alternative?

For me it’s actually not a case of one or the other. Sensible investment in commuter rail, given the existing investment in rail networks, makes sense provided there’s a valid business case and the alternative options for that investment have been measured.

It also strikes me that we may have a forgotten the massive sunken investment in metropolitan road networks which do most of the transport work in our cities. Some (not all) of these roads are congested for maybe 4 to 6 hours out of every 24. Our cars which move us around our cities spend maybe only 3 or 4 hours a day going anywhere. For more than 20 out of 24 hours, they are parked.

Talk about driverless cars is not just about a fictional scene from ‘Total Recall’ – it’s also about computer aided traffic management on a city wide scale. Squeezing more efficiency from the road network and from motor vehicles seems to make a lot of sense. Ride sharing apps like Uber provide an early insight into how disruptive technologies can impact on traditional, cumbersome and market protected transport thinking. There are also car sharing Apps like Goget and more are on their way. Technology is changing the way we do everything, from entertainment to where we work and how we get around. Would it not make sense for cities to be exploring how this wide scale urban economic shift can best served, rather than stubbornly sticking to mantras about public transport systems designed for traditional urban employment models?

And what about buses? Their great virtue is that they can use the metrowide road networks. It is easy to change a bus route to adapt to demand. You can’t do that with rail. Think how technology might soon morph public transport buses and private transport cars into a hybrid of some sort? Driverless buses are not new. Perth is already about to trial them. This is just a baby step. Think about where this could lead.

There’s no such thing, in my view, as a bad infrastructure investment. But there’s only so much money to go around. The decisions on infrastructure investment, when it comes to issues like urban economic productivity and reducing congestion, should focus on how to get the best bang for the buck. That can mean thinking more about the future and how patterns of work will shape what we need from transit systems, and working back from that to identify the best solutions.