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On the Utopia model of transport planning and endless fascination with offices and us

NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK ISSUE 382: Can anyone feel an election coming on? PM Malcolm Turnbull announced on Thursday the Feds will chip in with $5 billion for a new Melbourne rail link to the airport at Tullamarine. And yes, it’s great news. We need more trains.

And at $18 a pop the bus ride from Tulla to the city is a tad on the pricey side, though only a few dollars more than it costs to go just four stops from the airport to Central Station in the Sydney.

The project is estimated to cost $10 billion with some forecasts saying $15 billion, so the state government will have to chip in a few dollars to make up the shortfall.

The PM has already suggested Victorian premier Daniel Andrews could use the $2 billions windfall coming Victoria’s way from its share of the upcoming sale of the Snowy Hydro to the Feds.

That’s if Andrews is still premier after the state election that’s locked in for 24 November.

There’s no doubt the PM has seized on the slight updraft in his fortunes right now, after the Libs’ South Australian election win and his edging forward in the more nuanced Fairfax Ipsos poll that puts the government neck and neck with the Opposition.

There is an argument to say it’s good to go big on firepower when you sense you have an edge.

Given that line of thinking, if things improve a tad more, well maybe the PM will be emboldened all the way to the Governor General’s office to organise his own poll earlier rather than later.

Anything is possible in politics right now.

And in a sad and bad way, that’s also true of our major infrastructure projects.

According to Jago Dodson, a professor at RMIT University specialising in infrastructure and urban planning, the rail announcement, welcome as it is, is not part of an actual metropolitan transport plan. The kind that fits into an integrated land use and urban development plan.

According to Dodson it’s an almost ad hoc decision culled from a list of priority projects and very much project based rather than based on some integrated land use planning of how Melbourne is to accommodate eight million people within 30 years, eclipsing Sydney’s projected population.

“The proposal by the federal government is welcome news from the perspective of improving Melbourne’s rail network and its integration with a major activity node,” Dodson said in a media statement. 

“However, a big concern is that the Airport link is happening outside of any clear transport plan for metropolitan Melbourne, because the Victorian government has no transport plan.

“We have no clear formal assessment whether the $15 billion to be spent on airport rail is preferable in terms of costs and benefits to commencing the second metro link, or expanding suburban rail access to underserved growth areas, or other public transport improvement.”

Dodson says the opportunity is to look at the bigger picture and the potential for the route to take into account the urban redevelopment opportunities, for example an Upfield alignment that could enable redevelopment of the former Ford factory site.

“We need to expand the Melbourne metropolitan rail network far beyond the Airport line if we are to meet the needs of a city of eight million, but we also need to limit road competition with this network,” he says.

“It is foolish to expend $15 billion in rail development if we then also build major roads, such as the Westgate tunnel or Tullamarine widening, that compete with our rail investment.”

We called Dodson to explain a bit more about what’s going on. What’s happening, he says, is a politically attuned decision-making process that announces big projects that can attract a lot of attention and create a sense of a government taking action, like you get ahead of an election, we suppose.

This is planning, “occurring in the absence of a transport plan, which means the way transport decisions are made is going to be project based, where particular projects are identified and developed”.

So double checking here: Melbourne does not have a transport plan? The city that gave us the mighty Metropolitan Board of Works that provided the big infrastructure, wide streets and big picture long-term thinking?

Nope.

Sydney’s been accused of the same thing for years of course (and is now trying to reverse the disconnection).

It reflects a shift in the political objective that saw state governments begin to focus on the notion of delivering projects rather than planning. Long-term planning was seen as something, that well, takes too long. In other words, it’s hard to see the gains, Dodson says.

The drive was to produce “something that can be delivered”. Where you can cut a ribbon.

So the Utopiamodel (the television sitcom that sends up a big federal infrastructure department for its focus on ribbon cutting and deliverables) ? Yes.

“The longer-term strategies that take 20-30 years, the planning and integration, seem to have fallen very much by the wayside.”

“I saw this starting to happen about 10 years ago and wrote a paper on it calledThe ‘Infrastructure Turn’ in Australian Metropolitan Spatial Planning where infrastructure was starting to eclipsespatial planning as the way we manage our cities,” Dodson says.

“Since then this issue has become more intense.”

To be fair the state governments 10 years ago were also probably responding to the rampant accusations that were being flung at them (especially in NSW) that they were not investing enough in infrastructure.

In NSW at least the reluctance to invest in infrastructure was probably in turn driven by the media’s continual focus on state balance sheets and credit ratings from outfits such as Standard and Poor’s (as if governments were some kind of enterprise; Premier Bob Carr in NSW was hammered by the notion that the state might lose its AAA credit rating).

Ironically we know now how much credibility we should have placed on the opinion of the ratings agencies, after so many highly rated high-flying companies flew head on into the GFC.

Part of the pressure for such big ticket project-based announcements comes from population growth that has been faster and bigger than many people expected, and partly the political attention value that governments know they can get. And the bigger the announcement the better.

The other pressure is the modern notion of market led proposals where private outfits have their own strategies and can make a persuasive case to government.

Infrastructure Australia (IA) was designed as way to fairly assess projects and recommend priorities but Dodson says the process has become tarnished by political need and the independence has frayed over time.

“IA was intended under a Ruddite technocratic model of government to get beyond the politicisation of decision-making to become rational but pretty soon that more objective process was set aside.”

But without an integrated metropolitan land and transport plan, this is hardly a surprise.

Jago says, “I’m broadly supportive of the airport link but also concerned of where it sits in the wider picture in the whole of the city and what the thinking is, and how it’s integrated with the wider urban land use and transport arrangements.”

We should all be concerned.

Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman, however, is more positive and sees an opportunity with the rail link to create some value capture.

“I welcome this announcement, especially the uncertainty about routes as this suggests a better way to fund and deliver this much-needed project.

“As in Japan and Hong Kong the next stage would be to call for bids from consortia who could build and operate the rail link and provide the necessary extra funding through land development.

“Such consortia can work with key land owners and stakeholders to enable the rail project to go down their corridor through contributing some of the funds to building the railway. They will be gaining hugely by having the route and need to contribute to why it should be their route and not the other ways.

“This is the ‘Entrepreneur Rail Model and needs to be seriously considered or this railway will never be built.  With the model we will get more transit oriented development as well as a good railway.”

Fascinating offices and us

They say there’s nothing more guaranteed to attract clicks online than stories about ourselves. Apparently we are an endless source of fascination. On the topic of offices – how we respond to design, fitout materials, comfort levels, acoustics and lighting, it’s no different.

A few weeks back the audience was riveted at our forum in Brisbane on happy healthy offices and how to get them. The book is on its way and it’s going to be a fantastic read.

Next week, The Fifth Estate is chairing a session at Total Facilities Live on the same topic. And we expect the session will get full attention, especially after our briefing session on Tuesday with panellists Kate Harris from Good Environmental Choice Australia, Peter Black from Colliers and Mark McKenna from NDY (Nigel Hobbs from Welnis will be on the panel but was still travelling overseas this week).

It wasn’t long into the briefing before we found some sparks of contention that will be bound to create some strong interest.

Harris says the issues around products and their provenance is gaining in importance. Whether furniture and fittings give off volatile organic compounds not only affect the people in the workplace, or school or hospital for that matter (just think about little kids in primary school spending a lot of time sitting on or near the floor) but what about the impact on the broader environment and community? Poor products have an impact on more than the people who immediately use them. There is a public health issue at stake, she says.

Then there is the question of the provenance of materials. Who made them? Are we outsourcing our toxic pollutants or exploiting children so we can enjoy shiny new things?

Peter Black says bottom line costs still dominate. Paying for third party certification of a healthy office is not in everyone’s ballpark of possibilities.

We were intrigued with his insights that even big name international brands can be working on razor thin margins and don’t have the ability to fund research or special interest departments to ensure everything is as healthy and happy for the staff as is possible. If you are a new kid entering the workforce you’re likely to take exactly what’s dished out, he says, and happy to have a job.

Mark McKenna delved into the issue of thermal comfort. So many people feel so differently about temperatures and air that he thinks it’s pretty much impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Interestingly – but when you think about it not surprising – acoustic issues are increasingly a concern. In noisy places many people find it hard to concentrate, he says.

We recall an acoustic engineer telling us years ago that you might tell yourself you are used to a noisy office environment or traffic, but the evidence says you are not. In fact it can have bad impacts on the physiology of our brains that are far from harmless.

Perhaps the answer is to legislate. Yes, yes, we know that is akin to a Russian/Chinese communist takeover but if we all had to meet certain basic standards of health and welfare, then it’s just providing a level playing field, isn’t it?

Food for thought, and yet more discussion, to explain ourselves to ourselves.

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