The Last Page
Why smart cities need a metro
LAST year, the people who run London’s underground came up with a brilliant idea to move more people on the escalators. The tradition in London has long been that if you want to stand on an escalator you do so on the right, allowing those in a hurry to pass on the left.
But on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway, passengers stand placidly on both sides of the escalator and the mathematics show that it’s a much faster way of moving large numbers of people overall. Late last year the London underground ran a three-week trial of the Hong Kong system at Holborn station.
Teams of staff with loudhailers asked people to stand on both sides of the escalators, while meaty “plants” – employees pretending to be travellers – blocked the left side and couples were asked to hold hands standing side by side. The trial was, technically, a huge success, with an escalator which previously carried 12,745 commuters an hour in a normal week moving 16,220 people during the trial.
But it created rebellion, outrage, and near-riots, with people who wanted to walk giving staff the finger and pushing children aside to get through. When the trial ended, commuters quickly returned to the status quo.
It’s a salutary lesson: city planners may come up with great ideas, but the test will be if they clash with the prevailing social culture.
In a few weeks the federal government will bring down its cities position paper, the next step in implementing Malcolm Turnbull’s passion for reinventing cities.
That will involve a lot of ideas, but when it comes down to it, there’s one key equation that integrates housing affordability, creation of greenspace, keeping people close to work and maintaining a handle on congestion.
This is that, rather than endlessly expanding suburban sprawl, giving people their detached house with the backyard, cities have to shift to people living in higher density apartments and townhouses, getting around on a first-class public transport system.
There’s mixed evidence on whether this country, where in the post-war era the house on the quarter-acre block became the Aussie dream, is comfortable with such a switch, and whether governments have the fortitude to take the big decisions required.
While Australian cities are, in certain parts, going higher density, that trend is still outstripped by population growth in far outer suburbs where land releases still happen and the detached dwelling is still affordable.
The National Growth Areas Alliance, a lobby group formed by local councils covering this periphery, last year, issued a statement pointing this out. Areas like Penrith, Camden and Campbelltown in Sydney, and Melton, Werribee and South Morang in Melbourne, grew at double the national rate between 2006 and 2011, at 3.2 per cent per annum.
The Alliance has launched a campaign urging government to, in the words of its chairman Glenn Docherty who is mayor of Playford in South Australia, to “not forget these fast-growing outer urban areas”.
The pattern is that politicians know where their bread is buttered: in the often marginal seats of the outer suburbs more than in the trendoid inner city. There’s ultimately only one way to shift huge numbers of people around a city and that’s an underground.
Montreal put one in 50 years ago, a rubber-tyred, elegant affair called the Metro which now accounts for 1.3 million trips a day over 70km of track and 68 stations.
The NSW government came up with a similar, more modest, concept for Sydney, also to be called the Metro, and was on the verge of choosing the tenderer for the $5.3 billion project, when it got cold feet in 2010.
While there has been attention to public transport, some of the new moves, like light rail, are limited when it comes to moving passengers – the existing light-rail system in Sydney which goes from Central Station to the inner west, handled an average of 16,783 journeys per day last financial year, or about an 80th of what the Montreal Metro moves.
The big-ticket infrastructure items in NSW in recent years have been roads to the marginal seats in the outer suburbs: the $17bn WestConnex, and the $2.6bn NorthConnex to name just two. The trend may, however, be shifting, according to urban sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz.
In one sector of the community, there’s still the dream of “the quarter-acre block, the car, the road”, said Jakubowicz, a professor at the University of Technology, Sydney.
But there is a growing section of society more driven by the “goods which denser environments can provide” – the culture, fun, amenities and sophistication of the inner city.
One body of research, Jakubowicz says, suggests the two types of consumers could be mapped geographically between the “globalising zone” and the “localising zone”. The globalising zone is made up of a “global mobile elite” who are “much more attracted to cosmopolitan values and aspirations,” he says.
The localising zone is occupied by people in more traditional industries like transport, distribution and manufacturing (what’s left of it), who were “much less cosmopolitan”.
“The innovation story fits more with the cosmopolitans,” according to Jakubowicz.
Cosmopolitans are on the rise, and developers have taken some steps in designing high-density, inner-city projects with a communal twist just for them. Jakubowicz points to the Becton group’s Divercity complex at Waterloo in Sydney, a mix of upmarket apartments, penthouses and townhouses with communal features including a long pool, gym, garden area and even a rooftop cinema, along with restaurants, shops and cafes. So, it may be that government, and the private sector, can reinvent the city over time, if they can bring the people with them. As Jakubowicz says: “Values can be shaped and changed.”