Fixing the Intersection of Broadway and City Road

Satellite Image of Improvement of Broadway - City Road Intersection
Satellite Image of Improvement of Broadway – City Road Intersection

In the second half of 2017, I supervised a first year undergraduate student Tingsen Xian on an independent student project to redesign the intersection of Broadway and City Road in Sydney.

At one corner of this intersection is Victoria Park (lower left) and the University of Sydney (just off site), at another is the Broadway Shopping Center. This intersection has a high pedestrian count, high bus count, reasonably high car count, is very wide (befitting the name “Broadway”), and has long delays, especially for pedestrians. The proposed alternative removes the free left turn and porkchop island on the southwest corner,  gives more space to pedestrians, buses (red), and bicyclists (green), and less space to cars, and the signal retiming reduces total person delay by 1.5% (a lot for pedestrians, while increasing it somewhat for car users), and sends the right incentives. The revised layout is shown in the image.

You can download the full report with more graphics, tables, and yes equations here: broadway-city-road.

[Obviously there are simplifying assumptions in any engineering analysis, and limited measurements and time to conduct the study, but I think the results are better than official results which don’t consider pedestrian delay when timing intersections. It suggests professionals should be able to do a lot better than they have done here.]

Australian License Plates

In the era before widespread electronics, the common activity for kids in backseat of a car during a road trip was to collect license plates. At some point I had a sticker book with plates for each US state, and when I saw a new out of state plate, I transferred the sticker to the appropriate page. This sticker book is long gone.

You could learn about the country that way, in a sense there was a spatial distribution following a gravity like process. Maryland came first, followed by nearby states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, and DC. Texas or California would come up occasionally, though not as often as New York. But finding an Hawaii or Alaska plate was practically impossible.

Australia is simpler, with fewer plates, and on one stretch of road in Sydney, I scored a bunch. In short I learned

  • New South Wales is the First State (Sorry Delaware)
  • Western Australia is the Golden State (Sorry California)
  • Queensland is the Sunshine State (Sorry South Dakota)
  • Victoria is the Education State. It used to be the Garden State (Sorry New Jersey)

I did not see Tasmania (Explore the Possibilities), South Australia (The Festival State), Northern Territory (Outback Australia), or ACT (Canberra – The Nation’s Capital) here, but everything you ever wanted to know about Australian Vehicle Registration plates can be found at wikipedia. The designs and slogans change over time. None are as cool as DC’s Taxation without Representation plates.

I will just say, some of the newer US plates are far more attractive.

George Street, Sydney

A section of George Street (Park St. to King St.) (map) has recently been transformed into a transit mall in preparation for Sydney’s new L2 light rail line (City and Southeast) which will open in a few years. The construction in Sydney has been disruptive to traffic, to pedestrians, to retailers, (who will undoubtedly complain so long as there is compensation for complaining), but at least one part of it is mostly done. Not all of it is: the station is missing, the catenary is missing, [update: the power supply is in the ground] the intersection tracks are missing. Well ok, it’s mostly not done, but at least this part is open for the holidays.  The section looks lovely. I took some pictures yesterday.

The Washington Avenue Transit Mall in Minneapolis could have/ should have looked like this, without a nasty fence down the middle and all those signals.

George Street Mall next to QVB.
George Street Mall next to QVB.

 

All is well and good, but then you see a car, driving on this pedestrian paradise. Wherefore art thou, car? Then I realize, this is not my beautiful transit mall, it is a shared space-ish thing.

Does everyone know that? Is the white line just a temporary accommodation, or long-lasting feature. (In fact the white tape seems to be failing already.

Car vs. Stroller. I did not stage this. Apparently Sergei Eisenstein was here.
Car vs. Stroller. I did not stage this. Apparently Sergei Eisenstein was here.

 

 

The car was paused for the unattended stroller. (the parents are just out of shot, and their pre-school child retrieved the stroller shortly after the photo). It turns out, there is one remaining driveway on this block associated with the Hilton Hotel, who for some reason was allowed to keep this exit. There is also a driveway on the next block too for Westfield.

Car exiting Hilton onto 'pedestrianized' George Street.
Car exiting Hilton onto ‘pedestrianized’ George Street.

I am sure the planners did the best they could, but I really hope there is a longer term solution here than allowing cars access to these buildings off of this street.

And clearly everyone recognizes there is a problem, as a worker has been posted at all the cross streets. Still the number of both “accidental” and “intentional” acts of car driver on crowd violence in the past year is enough that this is likely to remain an issue without more concrete solutions.

Traffic cones and high-viz vests will keep us safe.
Traffic cones and high-viz vests will keep us safe.

Observations of Flying Domestic in Australia

I had a 1 day meeting in Melbourne. Apparently the SYD to MEL is the busiest air market in the world outside of Asia (and depending on the list, 2nd in the world).

Deplaning at Melbourne both via stairs and via the Jetway
Deplaning at Melbourne both via stairs and via the Jetway

I flew Virgin Australia (VA) on a 7:00 am flight

  1. The Sydney airport is near the city and served by (pricey) rail. To get to the airport I took an Uber, which was $13 to the Domestic Terminal at Sydney. (It would be about a 1 hour walk). For reasons, a Train is $11. Clearly the train is overpriced, this is due to a PPP to build the train, and a poorly written contract that has never been corrected. The aim is to extract dollars from airport travelers (the high price is only for boarding or alighting at the airport, not elsewhere on the line.
  2. The Sydney terminals are fairly new and modern.
  3. Security doesn’t ask for ID. The line is short. Take out your laptop and walk through, while your bags are scanned. (Update: I am reminded that you can take your liquids with you as well.)
  4. The airline doesn’t ask for ID, you just show a Boarding Pass. I could be anyone. No one cares. It is not a problem.
  5. Boarding occurs from both the front and back of the plane, the front through the jetway, the back via steps on the tarmac. This halves boarding time. If boarding time is the bottleneck, this seems significant.
  6. The flight was on-time.
  7. The flight was not full, no one was in the middle seat
  8. VA has inflight app so there are no screen in the seats (lowering airplane weight by the amount of 180 small monitors, saving fuel). The working assumption is everyone has their own device. The WiFi only serviced the app, rather than the full Internet.
  9. They give you select drinks (but not soft drinks … which are both expensive and scarce in Australia) and a cookie complementary. It was a tastier cookie than found on US airlines.
  10. Deplaning at Melbourne is also via the tarmac for the back half of the plane

The return (MEL to SYD) that evening was again via VA

Melbourne's modern terminal building
Melbourne’s modern terminal building
  1. VA cancelled my scheduled 8 pm flight, but rebooked automatically on a later 9:15 flight. They texted me with a few hours notice.
  2.  I called the number in the text message, and they picked up right away. (Not 3 hours later, the way Delta operates.)
  3. I was rebooked on an earlier (7 pm) flight, though I got a middle seat instead of the preferred aisle. This flight was delayed 35 minutes, to 19:35 but 25 minutes earlier than the previous flight.
  4. Melbourne terminals are new and modern. They are not terribly distinct from most US terminals. However the airport at Tullamarine is located far from the city center and not served by rail or tram. There is a bus service we did not use (we came by taxi)
  5. Security at Melbourne was similar to Sydney, except I get “randomly selected”  with a few other people for the magic wand treatment looking for explosives. Sadly, none were found. None are ever found.
  6. I would fly VA again. It’s far better than any US carrier I have experienced, despite being reschedued.
  7. I took the train home, because I would have to figure our where to find the Uber pickup at Sydney airport, and wait, which is about as much time as walking back from Green Square.

Should Alexandria get a Metro Station?

Alexandria is a neighbourhood (and once an independent municipality) south of Sydney on the new City and Southwest Metro Line, which is slated to open in 2024. There are stations at Sydenham to the west and at Waterloo on the east but nothing in-between for Alexandria. The area has a population density of 1540/km^2, which is plausible for public transport, and is going up with new construction. This is the second longest stretch on the under construction Metro line without a station (only Epping to Cherrybrook is longer).

Map of Alexandria, NSW. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Map of Alexandria, NSW. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Should Alexandria get a stop? On the one hand, more stops increases running time for all on-board passengers. On the other, it lowers access costs for those locally who otherwise would need to walk a longer distance or take a bus.

Let’s consider a hypothetical: If we say an extra 1 minute for the stop, it is adding the number of passengers traveling  through the station each day (~30,000)  x 1 minute each. (It is hard to quickly track down current ridership numbers, I have seen estimates of about 40,000 per day on the T3 line, but not all of them will go past this point .. the Metro will increase capacity, and may increase ridership, and development will drive in that direction anyway.) So if it were to Board 3000 people who saved 5 minutes each way (boarding and alighting) in travel cost compared to their next best alternative, the total amount of time lost  would be equivalent to the time saved. (It’s of course more complicated than this, as existing riders may switch stations as well, and changing mode has implications at both ends of trips.)  I am pulling these number out of thin air to illustrate the logic, an actual demand analysis could estimate their actual values (recognizing the inaccuracies of demand forecasting). It is not obvious that it would pencil out from a time-savings perspective, i.e. adding 3000 boardings and 3000 alightings to the station per day is a significant amount, even with the new development. This analysis does not even consider the cost of the additional stop, which is far from free.  Nevertheless, sometimes the need of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

If it gets a stop where would it be?

Map with indicative Alexandria Metro Station
Map with indicative Alexandria Metro Station

Given the map and assuming the line’s location does not move, I would say at the southern edge of Alexandria, somewhere along Sydney Park, probably at Mitchell Road so it can be near the huge new Park Sydney development (technically in Erskineville). It might make sense to be connected to the St. Peter’s Station for ease of transfers.

It is also worth noting that Alexandria is going to feel the brunt of the WestConnex exit to Euston Road / McEvoy at the St. Peters Interchange.

The local neighbourhood group, ARAG,  is lobbying for a station, as they should. The reluctance to an Alexandria Station they have heard from government agencies is the lack of redevelopable land in Alexandria to justify a station. That is, new stations are built to serve undeveloped sites rather than to serve proven demand. The same reasoning was given to route the line to Waterloo rather than University of Sydney in the first place.  This seems strange on both accounts. The University of Sydney is growing like gangbusters, and even if existing homes were off-limits, there is plenty of redevelopable industrial land in Alexandria, mostly to the east of the circle on the map I drew. But in any case, the test should be in providing accessibility, and existing land use has as much right to that as greenfield (or brownfield) development. If the tax structure and regulatory system were rational (for instance, used a land value tax), it should not matter whether the new riders were from existing or new developments.

Deleting a road in Green Square

Green Square is developing rapidly
Green Square is developing rapidly

In New York City it was found that traffic flowed better after the diagonal Broadway was closed to traffic in a few places, including Times Square. Sometimes there are street segments that might have once made sense in an earlier era, but have hung around far longer than needed.

This suggested example is around the Green Square rail station and redevelopment site, (map) involving these same two roads I talked about in a previous post at a different location. While it is no Times Square, there is a massive amount of development going in.

Green Square is a major redevelopment site just to the east of the image. The Green Square rail station is the south Central area. The pedestrian environment in this area is deplorable.

Today the Pink Box is bisected by the end of O’Riordan Street (the pink line segment), which otherwise more-or-less continues to Wyndham Street on the West. Botany Road is the main north-south road on the East side. Bourke Road here is East-West through the image (though it is mostly a north-south road). As can be seen in the image, most traffic follows O’Riordan to Wyndham anyway, to the regret of local residents. That would not change.

In this proposal, the Pink Box would be an enlarged Pedestrian Plaza.

ORiordanBourkeBotanyWyndham
Green Square and O’Riordan Street.

The required change is simple: Close O’Riordan Street in front of Green Square Station.

(While we are at it, the Wyndham Street/Bourke Road intersection doesn’t need to flare out like that either).

The other streets are all two-lanes in each direction, but this diagonal makes signalling more difficult, and increases lost time, for very little gain (traffic from O’Riordan (NB) wanting to switch to Botany (NB) or Bourke (EB/NB) and vice versa).

All of these roads start near each other (all three: O’Riordan, Botany, and Bourke end at the airport in the south; O’Riordan (i.e. Wyndham/Gibbons) and Botany (i.e. Botany/Regent) come together in the North, and run into Circular Quay, while Elizabeth, which splits from Bourke terminates there as well. Bourke itself winds up about 10 blocks east. People who want to switch paths can use an East-West link (like Bourke here, and others up and down the corridor) as needed.

By simplifying the intersection, and retiming the signals I posit that both traffic flow and the pedestrian environment would improve. An appropriate set of pedestrian crosswalks at each leg of each intersection could be provided, and each crossing given a reasonable amount of green time. A pedestrian going from the northwest side of Wyndham to the Green Square station would only take two rather than 4 street crossings.

There is already planned a “Green Square to Ashmore Connector”, (south of this location) but the analysis of that assumes this leg stays in place. The additional capacity there is one more way for traffic to move east-west or to change north-south routes.

Panorama - Second Street from the right is the pink line segment on the map.
Panorama – Second street from the right is the pink line segment on the map.

 

On the ‘Three City’ Plan of Sydney

I have been hearing and reading a lot about the Greater Sydney Commission’s  (GSC) Our Greater Sydney 2056: A metropolis of three cities – connecting people Plan for Sydney.

As the title says, the core idea trifurcates Greater Sydney into three “cities” *

Three city plan from Greater Sydney Commission. Source: https://www.greater.sydney/map-room
Three city plan from Greater Sydney Commission. Source: https://www.greater.sydney/map-room
  • Eastern City/ Sydney/Harbour City,
  • Central City/Parramatta/River City,
  • Western City/Aerotropolis/Parkland City.

In one very important sense, these are all Greater Metropolitan Sydney. In another legal sense, the “City of Sydney” is a legally-defined ‘local government area’ including the most famous bits and surrounding areas. There are many legally-defined cities (local government areas) in greater Sydney,   and these get periodically redefined by the state government to which they genuflect.

Now I am sure in part the use of the word “City” is a rhetorical device, to find some way to combine the vast area of the West into a coherent thing.  But absconding with the word “City” to mean neither the integrated metropolitan Sydney nor the local government areas does violence to the language and creates confusion where clarity is desired. The word “region” is overused and indeterminate, but surely there is another word here. I like “Quarter” but that implies 4 parts, at least to the purists, or “Borough”, but someone can figure this out. New York and London have ‘boroughs,’ perhaps that is what makes a world-class city.

The idea of three “cities” (or even “boroughs”) may seem innocuous, but if not carefully unpacked and dismembered, it risks becoming like the lines on the map of transport plans decades ago which inevitably get realised, and eventually find itself as yet one more layer of government, or a replacement for existing local government areas and increasing the remoteness of the ever less-local local government.

While there are maps showing these regions, it is unclear what actually differentiates them along the continuum of urban development. Arguably, a park-belt separates the West from the Center, and that would seem an almost natural boundary, but if you look closely at the map, it splits the western city from itself.   The only thing that differentiates the East and the Center is orientation to a primary node of activity (Parramatta or Sydney), and that is so overlapping as to be not very meaningful. Nor is orientation systematically defined, and even if it were, it is subject to change with the economic fortunes of each core. Moreover, there are many activity centers located throughout each of the “cities”.

Activity Centers in Sydney from Greater Sydney Committee
Activity Centers in Sydney from Greater Sydney Committee

While the eastern and central cities of Sydney and Parramatta have core central cities, in addition to numerous local activity clusters,  the West is a core-less cluster of cities.

Aerotropolis

Planners imply the void will be filled in the west will by the planned Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek (on which a lot seems to hang), and the surrounding Aerotropolis of rental car vendors, cheap hotels, sex shops, establishments serving quickly prepared food, and warehouses. An airport is a decidedly non-urban land use, even if the terminal is city-like in perverse ways. The airport is shown looming large on the map, larger than the existing Sydney Airport, which in all but area it will be smaller and less important than for decades to come.

The West, with an airport smack dab in the middle  seems a network or cluster of activity centers more than a single coherent thing deserving the label “city”.

30-Minutes

The definitional argument is intimately related to the idea of the “30-minute city” wherein a majority of people (say 70%) have commutes less than 30 minutes. Ensuring people can reach more things in less time is the correct planning goal of accessibility. And today, most people in Sydney have a 30 minute or less one way commute (be careful of means vs. medians here, there is a long tail), but as the city grows, this becomes harder and harder to achieve as people seek out better matching opportunities farther away, and there is more growth away from the center. All else equal, entropy dictates commutes will on average get longer not shorter as metropolitan areas grow. People will adjust their homes and jobs.

For Sydney to remain a 30-minute city, and more importantly, for Western Sydney to achieve this, many more jobs must relocate westward, or be created in the western region. (Or people just stop commuting as much, or transport connections become much faster.) This is one of the points of the plan. If the plan is successful, and jobs do materialise in the west, most Western Sydney residents would not need to commute east for jobs.

Identity: West vs. East

Planning doyenne and the Chief Commissioner of the GSC, Lucy Hughes Turnbull,  said Wednesday November 15 at an Industry Briefing: Planning the future of transport and land use in Greater Sydney and Regional NSW, that  the  Western city comprises “Campbelltown, Liverpool, Penrith, et cetera”.

I would be unsurprised to find those who live in the town of “Et Cetera” view it differently.

To my outsider eyes, the West really seems to me to be a collection of disparate areas that might eventually conurbate into a continuum of suburbia with traditional existing centers as nodes of activity. But is the “West” really the identity people will have? Won’t they say I am from Blacktown, or I am from Sydney instead of I am from Western Sydney (Western City/Aerotropolis/Parkland City) or whatever name wins out? I suspect they will go for local (Blacktown) or global (Sydney) recognition rather than I am from Aerotropolis, or the Western City, or the Parkland City or any other sub-metropolitan, supra-municipal objectifier.

For instance, in American Major League Baseball, the Los Angeles Angels/California Angels/Anaheim Angels eventually became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Not the Orange County Angels, nor the Eastern LA Angels. (And Los Angeles c. 1955 is probably the best American analogy to Sydney, the populations and geographies are similar, with San Francisco c. 1980 next best.) The “Greater Western Sydney” Giants, an Australian-Rules sportsball team, plays in Spotless Stadium at the Olympic Park, which is East of Parramatta. Will they eventually be renamed the Parramatta Giants, or the Sydney Giants of Greater Parramatta/Olympic Park?

Plebiscite
Results of Gay Marriage Postal Survey.

Identity matters. As can be seen from the results of the Gay Marriage Plebiscite, people of Western Sydney have, on average, different political opinions and social values from the East, or most of Australia. But these political preferences don’t align cleanly with the Western/Central/Eastern City.

Other Matters: West vs. East

Addressing local needs matters. Housing is less expensive out west, but travel costs are higher since commutes are longer.

Building connectivity matters. The west is much more auto-reliant than the east, and will remain so largely independent of public policy. That’s what the land use dictates. The land use won’t change much, as that’s what the transport system enables. This is largely locked in through a decades long process of mutual co-evolution. Even as they rise with population growth, the densities of the west will remain lower than the east.

The first figure shows three transport hubs (presumably transit hubs, though out west this might not be the case in an important way), that are anchors of an interlocking hub-and-spoke system. These three hubs are identified as the centers of the cities. Well Central Station, is not, despite it’s name, Central to Sydney CBD, it is at the edge. This may evolve over time as the CBD marches south. Parramatta station similarly is at the southern end of the local business district. And I can’t imagine too many people walking around Aerotropolis after exiting the station there. It’s early days at Badgerys Creek, but this is little better than a crayon drawing, and building transit to serve the vast wasteland of an unbuilt airport is likely to be a hard sell when there remain so many existing real needs and areas of much higher transit potential in the eastern parts of Sydney.

Encouraging economic development out west, at the expense of losing some economies of agglomeration in the east, is important for spatial equity and transport, if not efficiency, reasons.

E Pluribus Unum

Arbitrarily dividing Sydney into three (or more) cities doesn’t seem especially helpful, even as a framing device, and results from the kind of remote thinking to persuade distant decision-makers rather than an organic expression of how people self-associate. It’s how marketing and economic development officials think.

 

Instead the job of a Greater Sydney Commission is not to exacerbate the already existing divisions, and keep the westerners out of the east, but to unify, to forge One City, One Sydney.


* What is a City?

We can start with the etymology. Wiktionary writes:

From Middle English cite, from Old French cité, from Latin cīvitās (citizenry; community; a city with its hinterland), from civis (native; townsman; citizen), from Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European *ḱey- (to lie down, settle; home, family; love; beloved).  …

So a ‘city’ is a community, a place where people settle. It is also larger than a town. The actual dictionary definitions are vague, as are the way people use the words. In the US, a city generally is a legally-defined municipality which is large and has more legal authority than the surrounding unincorporated area, and more than smaller towns or townships. So the more appropriate term might be ‘urban’ area. `Urbs’ is just a Latin word for city:

From Middle French urbain, from Latin urbanus, from urbs (city).

The US Census, which needs to operationalize these things says:

The Census Bureau first defined urban places in reports following the 1880 and 1890 censuses. At that time, the Census Bureau identified as urban any incorporated place that had a minimum population of either 4,000 or 8,000, depending on the report. The Census Bureau adopted the current minimum population threshold of 2,500 for the 1910 Census; any incorporated place that contained at least 2,500 people within its boundaries was considered urban. All territory outside urban places, regardless of population density, was considered rural.

The Census Bureau began identifying densely populated urbanized areas of 50,000 or more population with the 1950 Census, taking into account the increased presence of densely settled suburban development in the vicinity of large cities. Outside urbanized areas, the Census Bureau continued to identify as urban any incorporated place or census designated place of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.

Urbanized areas and urban clusters form the urban cores of metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, respectively. Each metropolitan statistical area will contain at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more people; each micropolitan statistical area will contain at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 and less than 50,000 people. Metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas represent the county-based functional regions associated with urban centers (hence, the generic term “core based statistical areas”).

Other statistical agencies undoubtedly have similar definitions.

On Greater Sydney’s 40-Year Plan

On a Sunday (yes a Sunday, now that is odd) the Greater Sydney Commission and Transport for NSW both released draft 40 year plans:

Since I am under contract to neither organization, I am free to give a review of the documents. I have comments prepared on the idea of the Three-City plan (dislike) and have something in the hopper on the 30-minute city (like), but am not clear whether it realisable.

The Draft Greater Sydney Region Plan is a gorgeous document, it is well-laid out, and pleasing to read. The Transport for NSW plan is much draftier, and appears to have been rushed. On the assumption that this is not staff’s fault, but rather that it was grabbed from their reluctant hands by political higher-ups who wanted a joint release, and who correctly assume that no one (i.e. only internationally-originating transport planning professors) actually reads plans, I will not pick on them for their unreadiness. The Sunday release is perhaps a tell in this regard.

My first blush comments about some remaining aspects of the Greater Sydney Region 40-year Plan are below (with the caveats that I have read the document once, have not read the previous documents, and am new to the country).

It is great to see the coordination between the agencies, and at least the idea that the transport and land use planning should be in sync.

The plan writes “Importantly, infrastructure will be sequenced to support growth and delivered concurrently with new homes and jobs.” This is good planning practice, and it is important that timing as well as end-state is considered.  Whether this is well-executed remains another matter. As they say, time will tell.

In general, most of the GSC plans seems reasonable and hard to disagree with, if somewhat vague in many cases. For instance. “Strategy 8.1 consider cultural diversity in strategic planning and engagement.” OK, I’ve considered it, now what should I do with it?

It is a 40-year plan (Well a “40-year vision and 20-year plan”). Infrastructure lasts a long time, we want to make sure we take sound, long-term decisions. Now I like the future and all, and even think visioning is a good idea, as is preserving options, but 40 years is a long time, even in something as slow moving as transport networks.

The Chronologically-Aware might note that it is already 2017, not 2016, and it is a 40 year plan for 2056. Let us not be bound by petty calendars, this is planning time. Also since it is already 2017, and it won’t be adopted for at least some time, it might wind up being a 38-year plan.

Think back to 1976, it was before the internet or mobile telephony (or even wireless phones), before widespread Cable TV or the VCR, before Personal Computers even (it was the year Apple was founded). How much of a 1976 plan’s prediction of life today would be correct?

I’d suggest very little of the difference between 1976 and the present would have been accurately estimated by most people, or even most planners, or futurists, in 1976. Certainly we imagine that road projects that were funded in 1976 were realised soon thereafter. And much hasn’t changed.

To borrow from Sting (1983, i.e. 34 years ago): People still face a

rush hour hell

packed like lemmings in shiny metal boxes,

contestants in a suicidal race,

‘… shouting above the din of  their Rice Krispies,’ living their lives of quiet desperation. Other aspects are far different. Far fewer factories ‘belch filth into the sky’ as least in the developed countries. Far fewer workplaces are ‘hindered by  picket lines,’ as the power of labour has withered. Far fewer businessmen have their own secretaries. We don’t have flying cars. We do have 280 characters.

Still, plans (or visions) can shape growth patterns, even if the forecasts of life are terribly inaccurate. Plans I am most familiar with, the New Town Plan of Columbia, Maryland (where I grew up) and the Wedges and Corridors plan of Montgomery County (where I worked for 5 years) both gave form to, and continue to shape their communities. Columbia was expected to be completed (built out with 100,000 residents) within 15 years (in fact, it was closer to 35 years, and the Town Center area still is not finished, 50 years on).

The Interstate Highway System of course was an important shaper of development patterns across the US, and enabled the rise of just-in-time production, among other things. It was expected to be done in 16 years (1972, from 1956), but wasn’t really essentially done until 1982, and officially done a decade later.

Laying a street network, like the Manhattan Grid,  is a largely irreversible process, as evidenced by the lack of change in the street grid even after catastrophic events like the London fire or San Francisco Earthquake.

The expectation of the plan is that Greater Sydney grows to 8 million over 40 years. Demographics are among the easiest things to forecast for long time periods, as people age and migrate slowly. At current rates, I don’t doubt the estimate of 8 million. This however depends on an open immigration policy, which I am not sure traditional Australia will continue to support.

I don’t see any discussion of an intercity High-Speed Rail or Very Fast Train. Yet clearly the transport agencies are considering this and making provision for it. Certainly the notion of HSR remains vague, and the details missing, but this is a 40-year plan.

Aspects of funding made me happy to read, even if they were hedged:

  1. “explore and, where appropriate, trial opportunities to share value created by the planning process and infrastructure investment (such as rail) to assist funding infrastructure” … Land Value Capture ! p. 31
  2. “investigate the potential of further user charging to support infrastructure delivery” … Road Pricing ! (though “charging” users  only shows up on 3 pages) p.31
Movement and Places Framework. Source: TfNSW and GSC
Movement and Places Framework. Source: TfNSW and GSC

The technological tsunami about to hit surface transport is acknowledged, but not dealt with. The word “autonomous” (as in Autonomous vehicles) shows up on 5 pages. Not enough thought is given to this, given the timeframe.

The Movement and Place framework (p. 39) is good, and highly reminiscent of the Hierarchy of Roads. I like the more detailed and nuanced design from Transport for London better, (TfL’s 9 cells vs.  GSC/TfNSW’s 4), but there is an argument for simplicity.

On education, the document says: “The NSW Government will spend $4.2 billion over the next four years on school buildings, which it estimates will create 32,000 more

Streets types matrix from Transport for London looking at tradeoff of Movement and Place. http://content.tfl.gov.uk/street-types-matrix.pdf
Streets types matrix from Transport for London looking at tradeoff of Movement and Place. http://content.tfl.gov.uk/street-types-matrix.pdf

student places and 1,500 new classrooms.”

This is $131,250 per student! This is $2.8M per classroom. This seems a lot, even for Sydney. (p. 40) I sure hope some of this maintenance, not just capacity expansion.

The term “Accessibility” shows up on 14 pages. This is good, and the word seems to be used correctly. This is consistent with the idea of the 30-minute city.

Under “Directions for Sustainability” (p. 122) It is great they are using metrics. I take issue with some of them …

“An efficient city
Metric: Number of precincts with low carbon initiatives

A resilient city
Metric: Number of local government areas undertaking resilience planning”

Honestly, these specific ones are terrible metrics. Particularly the first one. Just measure (or estimate) the carbon emissions, not the number of “initiatives”.  Compare with the tree canopy “Metric: Proportional increase in Greater Sydney covered by urban tree canopy”, which looks at the actual amount of tree coverage. Resilience is admittedly trickier to assess.

 

Constructing a plan is hard (in a political sense of finding something that enough people will agree to that is more than pablum, writing down a coherent set of strong ideas is actually not that difficult at this stage in history, with so many go ideas to draw from). I applaud the effort, and think it is better than the alternative. But it could be better still, and that is the reason for discussion and comment.

On Transparency

I recently came across a story in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH)Central_Walk_gateline

Internal documents show makeover of Sydney’s Central Station to top $3 billion by Matt O’Sullivan

The first paragraph reads …

“The cost of transforming Sydney’s Central Station into a gateway that includes a five-star hotel, high-rise towers and a new route for the inner west light rail line is estimated in leaked documents at just over $3 billion.”

[Emphasis added]

I am not entirely clear what is the newsworthy element of the story aside from the fact they were leaked (By whom? Was this intentional policy or disgruntled staffer?), but, perhaps the shocker is that the transformation is $3B, which used to be a lot of money (about $US 2.4B at current exchange rates). Seriously though, who knows what that includes, and what is really for the benefit of travelers as opposed to real estate interests.

The details of the transformation are interesting, but nothing someone who has been paying attention wouldn’t know was already going on. There are plans for the already announced new metro train line into the station, and a Central Walk, and redevelopment of the Central to Eveleigh corridor. Some more details in the leaked document, including a hotel in the station and a possible linkage to a vaporous high-speed rail.

But the more appalling thing to my American sensibilities is that this is a “leaked document”. (According to the SMH, it was also leaked to ABC, a credible news source in Australia, but I can’t find reference to it on their website). And as the recipients of the document, shouldn’t the SMH show us, their subscribers, the document. One more thing which makes me suspicious.

Assuming the leak was intentional, it is a way of getting public input before owning the project (‘oh, it was just a staff draft, that thing everyone hated, we never agreed to that’), but is it really necessary to filter this through the media. Can’t they just announce a study, announce findings periodically, hold real workshops, have real hearings, and then make a decision.

Shouldn’t all of this be public? Isn’t transparency good. If the government is watching us, shouldn’t we watch the government?

One important value of transparency in the process is that it establishes public sense and consensus before projects are made official. Proposals are discussed BEFORE they are adopted. Information becomes available, there is feedback, the project may be modified or adapted, and then the government “of the people” makes a decision to go forward OR NOT. Elected officials are not required to take an opinion until the details have been worked through in an open process. Often they don’t, so outcomes are unknown until the actual vote.

In contrast, in Australia, it seems as if a project is discussed internally and secretly within government, and then adopted, and then justified rhetorically after the fact if the Business Case supports it. (And the business case will be iterated until it complies.) Public feedback occurs only at elections. (Which is better than dictatorship, but that is not the bar we want to compare to.)

Now, many of these projects were on earlier plans, so it is not a complete surprise that the new regime is proposing a new motorway or rail line, but often they were only vaguely specified, and the Business Case comes after the Political Decision, and also is kept secret.

Source: ABC http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-07/state-opposition-criticises-cost-of-new-south-wales-logo/7006034

The downside of course is that it is harder to do things that are controversial if the public has input before hand.

Maybe it should be. It would however undermine the official New South Wales slogan: Making **It Happen.

And to their credit, the present state government is building things everywhere, satisfying a pent-up demand that previous state administrations were unable to achieve. This is not cheap, and the government public works all taking place simultaneously are driving up costs, as they compete with each other for labor and materials.

The most famous example is the controversial WestConnex tunneled motorway. This is an $18B dollar expense, so one might think ensuring the Business Case is accurate and justifies the project before proceeding would have been important.

The Updated Strategic Business Case  document (November 2015) says:

WestConnex was a recommendation of Infrastructure NSW in October 2012, with Government adopting the concept in the 2012 State Infrastructure Strategy and the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan.

This was followed by the development of
a business case, which was approved by Government in August 2013. An Executive Summary of that business case was publicly released.

This Updated Strategic Business Case consolidates the work undertaken in the original business case, with the significant modelling, analysis and scope enhancements completed in the past 24 months.

Look at the timeline. If I read this correctly, the business case was approved after the government adopted the concept. An executive summary was released afterwards (September 2013), but not the details until November 2015. The 2013 Business Case Executive Summary is basically a PowerPoint (landscape layout and all), and even then, the budget had already been approved before that was released.

Later the document notes that “In May 2014, the Australian Government entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with NSW to provide $1.5 billion in funding for WestConnex.”

 

The business case was released after pre-construction and some construction had already begun.* Which means the publicly available Business Case did not affect the decision to proceed (assuming no time travel). Which raises the question of why it exists at all and how decisions are actually made.

As to why it exists:

This business case has been developed with three specific sets of guidance in mind. It is intended to meet:

  • NSW Treasury requirements for Capital Business Cases, as outlined in NSW Treasury Policy Paper 08-5
  • Infrastructure NSW content expectations set out in the Infrastructure Investor Assurance Framework
  • The requirements and expectations set out in Infrastructure Australia’s ‘Better Infrastructure Decision Making’ guidelines.

In short, someone made us do it.

Now, like I said, I am not commenting on the substance of the decision, which also assumes we should take the Business Case on face value, but indicates a benefit/cost ratio well above 1. And props to Australia for actually using Benefit/Cost ratios (in principle) which is more than I can say for the United States.

However we can observe the project is controversial, particularly in the affected areas. This is largely because all transport projects create winners and losers . This is in part however because the project was perceived as being done to people, rather than done with people.

 

Two reasons are often given explaining why transparency lacks here.

The first is the commercial nature of the case. Many public endeavors here have a large private component. WestConnex, e.g., is ‘owned’ by the  Sydney Motorway Corporation, which is supposed to be sold off. So apparently business is sensitive to the terms of the profits being discussed publicly. It might be possible that lack of transparency maximizes resale value of the asset, and so benefits the public. This is hard to establish, however, since each asset is unique.

I am sure however the many bondholders of the many toll projects that have wound up bankrupt would have preferred more oversight along the way. Peer review (and public review) processes work better in an open environment. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. These infrastructure projects are not a minor contribution to science, where an individual scientist’s or journal’s reputation might be protected if wrong science is not made public, and it is in the public interest that facts be established before they are embossed with a journal’s mark . In contrast the object of review here is a very expensive public works project that needs oversight before the decision to accept/reject/modify. Oversight only achieves its aim if review happens before the decision is made. Many eyes are even more important.

The second cause for lack of transparency is Parliament, aligning the Executive and Legislature, which reduces the checks and balances I am familiar with in  American government. So the Parliamentary government can act without heeding opposition. And the unity of the party, and its majority status, help fast-track decision processes in-house.


 

* A feature concomitant with doing the business case after the decision was made in Australia is the design/build process. First a project is built, then it is designed. Ok, I exaggerate. First a sketch is drawn, then building starts, then the design is modified, and the building costs rise, and the design is modified again. Major project features are adopted midstream.