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Why smart cities need a metro

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Ean Hig­gins

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.”

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