Sunday, 26 March 2017

Subsidies by Design

We've had some pretty miserable news lately. Just in time for the mining boom to come to an end, the car industry shuts up shop and the last three remaining manufacturers decide to leave within a few years of each other. There is some good news in the form of the decision to have some very expensive submarines built here but at the same time, we are told the building industry is doing it tough. A local (and large) building firm not long ago went into voluntary administration with debts to the tune of $110m, many of them owed to small scale contractors who can ill-afford it.

Unemployment and (lack of) economic growth in South Australia currently lead the nation and the word on the streets is that things will get worse before they get better.

Now that we no longer have a car industry, it is odd that we design our streets and suburbs so that it is difficult and inconvenient to make even the shortest journey using any mode of transport other than the now imported car.

On top of that, we import 91% of our fuel - often from filthy regimes that like to lock up 17 year old boys for blogging and then sentence them to death by beheading and crucifixion (in the 21st century!) or they'll simply flog them 1,000 times.

Retrofitting older suburbs takes time (but is not hard) yet we are still building most of our new suburbs as if nothing exists other than cars. Here's an example:

This one is a little north of Elizabeth. It is close to a railway station (Munno Para to the right of the picture) although the link to the station seems to be an afterthought. There is no relationship to the village centre which is far to the west of the station. The station is a park and ride on the very edge of the development (on the edge of a paddock yet to be developed) instead of designing the commercial centre right next to the station. To be fair, eventually all of the paddocks will be developed with housing but that seems to be some years away.

That's not the worst bit. Right in middle of the village centre just to the west of the commercial centre is an On The Run petrol station. I've sung their praises in the past but there is a proper place for that sort of thing - on the edge of the development. The developers have it all backwards. The railway station needs to be where the petrol station is and the petrol station needs to be on a ring road on the edge of the development.

If you design a new development with a proper commercial centre, it is more conducive to new small businesses. The mistake we make is to plonk a huge great car park in the middle of developments and allow some developer to come along and slap a concrete shopping centre in the middle. That is then filled with the usual suspects. There is, as you would expect, a Maccas, a Woolworths and plenty of junk food outlets. Every part is surrounded by car park as if, regardless of distance, that is not only the default mode of transport but the only conceivable mode of transport:

It also happened recently at the Brickworks markets. It was redeveloped and turned into a clone of so many other suburban shopping centres containing Woolies, Smokemart, Big W and all the rest. And the worst thing about it is that it is right next to the Linear Park bikeway but barely even acknowledges that fact. The entrance has been built about as far away as it can be:

Our suburbs and new developments do not seem to encourage new independent businesses. We need to set up the right environment to encourage local entrepreneurship - not just the economic environment, but the built environment makes a big difference. If you build a big private shopping centre surrounded by car parks, you'll get another woolworths or Bunnings. That is what has happened in the Munno Para development. There is no allowance for a corner deli anywhere in the development - just the usual massive store in the middle of the car park. Do we really need more of that?

In the right environment, there are plenty of new business and employment opportunities. Even a thick person like me can think of some (although whether they work is another matter).

What about a lunchtime place selling Danish Smørrebrød? It's healthy, looks amazing and would be just right with a small glass of bubbly:

With the right kind of development we could have scope for new clothing and furniture designers, jewelry makers, chefs, architects, florists, fruit and veg shops. What about a book shop that sells only classics (and also does coffee)?

Or on a slightly larger scale, a suitably qualified builder making Dutch style houseboats to be floated on the banks of the Coorong?

Maybe a business that converts old shipping containers into transportable retail outlets that could be stuck on the back of a lorry and used - well anywhere?

Or a full service laundry with one of those fantastic sheet ironing machines that you never see? I don't know about you but I cannot work out how to get those stubborn creases out of my sheets.

Here's a one more: a factory that makes truck and bus seats that are fully ventilated for the Australian climate and finally see an end to sweaty backsides on long-haul journeys. Like the ventilated office chairs you can get:

Anyway, I digress. The point is that an integral part of a country's economic policy must be the built environment. We seem to be getting there slowly. The PM has a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, and Adelaide City Council has released its Design Manual. It is beyond doubt now that people friendly cities and suburbs are good for business. We do not need more car parks - even in Adelaide.

Now that the car industry has gone, we also no longer need to set up our built environment as if it were a subsidy to the car industry. We can prop up something else now. As my good friend Jim tweeted:

An industry manufacturing hi-tech state-of-the-art vehicles using skilled workers. If only SA had such a need and opportunity.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Two Pilots

I blogged a while ago about the city of Calgary's pilot cycle track network. I first heard about it at Velo-City in 2014 after the council had voted on it but before the pilot period began. The (obvious) reason for a pilot is that it feels less risky to the doubters. Also, because it's cheaper than something permanent, you can cover more ground.

It all began on 2 June 2015 together with announcements and a council video.

At the time, I collected three local news stories just to see how it was reported. What is interesting are the comments below each article. Exactly what you get here. The same tired old arguments against but Calgary gave it a go.

The pilot was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. From the outset, parts of the routes were busy and from early on. Motorists were slowed down. However, it was by about 90 seconds in the rush hour to get across town. Indeed, overall the figures were very positive:

And it soon became clear that more bike parking was needed.

Not far into the project, Alberta's other major city, Edmonton, released its own plans for a quick-build network. Once they had had an opportunity to see its benefits, local businesses also signed on to show their support.

The project ended in December last year with the council voting 10 to 4 (with one abstention) in favour of keeping it. Remember the project initially got off the ground with a narrow 8 to 7 vote in favour. That means it will be made permanent and hopefully expanded. Importantly for Australian cities, it is a good example of how even in a dispersed and heavily car-oriented city a minimum grid of bike routes can do well and benefit everyone.

Our city does not have any similar plans but it does have a pilot of sorts. Adelaide City Council and the State Government are spending $12m on completing the north-south bikeway along Frome Street and an east-west one on a street that is yet to be announced. Tragically, a chunk of that money is to be spent re-doing the already complete part of Frome Street.

The council have put together a series of short sample bike lanes for people to come and tryout and give feedback on. They had a drop-in even on Saturday 10 December 2016 complete with free coffee and crepes:

And people bringing their cool bikes out:

The plan to alter (yet again) Frome Street includes bringing back a lane of traffic for rush hour. The new section will also have two lanes of traffic each side which means that the new designs involve narrower cycle lanes:

The part of the lane closest to the picture on the left has lower kerbs. You can see the difference beyond the black stripe. The concensus seemed to be fairly clearly in favour of the lower kerb because it widens the effective width. People I spoke to who rode through them mentioned that you could feel the difference. So here's hoping.

I noticed near the plans that were pinned to a fence that there was a small table with name badges for all of the people who had been invited. That included city councillors some of whom had been vocal critics of Frome Street (even after a lengthy public consultation came down overwhelmingly in favour of the current design). The name badges remained untouched.

The proposal to change the current Frome Street bikeway is an odd one. On any view it has been a success. An independent report says so. There is no explanation for why that is being ignored. The proposal to spend all of this money to bring back two lanes of traffic in the rush hour is impossible to justify. There was never a volume of traffic sufficient to justify it in the first place. Not only that, Frome Street begins at Carrington Street which itself has only one lane each side. Where is the need for there to be two lanes of traffic at that point? On top of all that, motor vehicle traffic in major Adelaide City streets is decreasing. How can we possibly need additional lanes on a secondary street like Frome Street - at its quietest end?

Staff at the council seem to be bending over backwards to hear everybody's views. I hear a lot of carping on talkback radio for example where Frome Street is continually described as a "debacle". Have any of those commentators bothered to come and look at the designs to discuss them and provide feedback? I certainly didn't see them there even with free crepes. Nevertheless, whatever happens, if the bikeway is extended and it results in so much as one on street car park being removed, you'll hear about it first on talkback.

It is inevitable that whatever the council tries to do there will be complaints and negative comments. And that's ok. The experience overseas shows that whenever something new is tried, people are often wary at first. Once there is an opportunity to show that this stuff works, Calgary shows that people change their mind. They now have a permanent, well used city bike network. Vancouver is similar and even further ahead. They are at the stage where public transport, biking and walking account for 50% of all trips (four years ahead of what was planned) and one of every 10 work trips is by bike. Ideally it would be one in 10 of all trips.

Consultation is still open through the council's YourSay website. The comments on the forum already show a strong concensus that further tinkering with the current minimal infrastructure is a waste of everyone's time and money and that bike lanes need to be wide enough for overtaking and riding side by side.

I am confident this will eventually work out. We're just going to do it a bit more slowly than other places. That's ok too. Eventually, it should achieve its own momentum and all of a sudden, like the new Oval, everyone will be saying they always thought it was a good idea.

If you fancy reading just one more article, this one is a nice feel-good history of the project.