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Melbourne suburban rail loop

With the federal election only a week away, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised yesterday that if he wins on Saturday, he’ll contribute $10 billion toward the cost of the $50 billion suburban rail loop promised by Premier Daniel Andrews last year, also when an election was in the offing.

It’s an easy promise to make because it’s almost entirely phantom money. A Shorten government wouldn’t be called on to pay anything substantial until after the subsequent federal election in 2022. Even then, the promised $10 billion funding is spread over the 15-year period to 2036. In political terms that’s the never-never.

It’s not surprising that such an easy promise is also a grossly irresponsible one. There’s no business case to support this mammoth investment and no tick of approval from either Infrastructure Australia or Infrastructure Victoria. Mr Shorten and Mr Andrews are prepared to commit an unprecedented sum of public money on a project that’s completely unproven.

Neither of them know if the benefits will exceed the costs. But they certainly know it makes sense politically:

The proposed suburban rail loop would pass through the Labor-held seats of Isaacs, Hotham, Jagajaga, Cooper, Wills, Maribyrnong and Gellibrand, as well as through or near the boundaries of the Liberal-held electorates of Goldstein, Chisholm and Menzies. But Labor strategists believe the line is also a vote winner in other inner-city Liberal seats because it promises to ease congestion.

The two leaders aren’t deterred by the absence of evidence. They’ve fabricated figures to support their electoral objectives. The key one is the assertion that the 90 km loop will carry 146 million passengers per year in 2050 when it’s fully completed.

Is 146 million p.a. a credible claim? Consider that Melbourne’s entire electrified rail network, consisting of 16 lines and 220 stations, currently carries an average of 240 million passengers per year. That’s for a network that’s focussed on the giant job and activity concentration in the CBD, where high parking charges and traffic congestion make public transport very attractive compared to driving.

Assuming continuation of the trend in train patronage over the last 10 years, that would increase to around 305 million passengers annually by 2050 (though only 265 million p.a. if based on the trend over the last three years).

The claim of 146 million passengers p.a. is preposterous given the loop is a single suburban line, has only 15 stations, and wouldn’t pass through any activity centres that are even remotely as large or dense as the CBD. It’s a ludicrously big number that had to be invented to justify such a gigantic outlay.

Let me be clear that improving public transport, including orbital travel, is important, but the suburban rail loop is a solution that at this time is way too big and expensive relative to any reasonable estimation of likely demand. It should be on a plan as possibly required some time in the future, but it shouldn’t be a current political commitment.

There are more pressing and more plausible priorities for expenditure of scarce public dollars on this scale. They include upgrades to signalling, track duplications, extensions of electrification, additional rolling stock, and discrete projects like Melbourne Metro 2.

It would be possible to double the size of Melbourne’s tram fleet with 500 new triple-carriage e-class trams for circa $7.5 billion. The size of the existing tram network could be doubled to 500 km of double track, providing scope for more orbital routes, for around $30 billion.

The annual interest the two governments will pay on the $50 billion needed to build the loop would be enough to increase all off-peak train and tram frequencies to every ten minutes. If analysis showed it were a sensible idea, there’d also be enough to make all metropolitan public transport free.

It’s not just that there are other, higher priorities; the suburban loop is a limited way of improving orbital travel relative to its extraordinary cost. A single line with an average spacing of 6 km between stations can’t compete effectively with car travel in Melbourne’s low-density suburbs.

As I’ve noted before (Suburban rail loop – how can this mistake be prevented?), what’s really needed in Melbourne is a metropolitan-wide ‘grid’ of multiple radial and orbital lines that maximises the number of travellers who can access high-frequency public transport by foot.

A mammoth sum like $50 billion could fund a ‘spider’s web’ of fast light rail and BRT routes every 2 km (say) with dedicated rights-of-way and priority at intersections, coordinated with services on the existing rail and tram networks (see Isn’t there a much, much better way to do cross-city public transport?).

It would be a more effective way of providing orbital routes across all of Melbourne than a single suburban rail line. It would cost less, deliver greater benefits sooner, and provide many more public transport users with improved accessibility.

But even a dense network of high-quality public transport services won’t deliver substantial mode shift in the suburbs unless it’s allied with measures to make driving less competitive. But Messrs Shorten and Andrews aren’t interested in implementing road pricing or reducing road capacity; their priorities are shamelessly political.

Mr Shorten wasn’t the only one to put politics ahead of good sense yesterday. Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised $4 billion to build the controversial East West Link, notwithstanding that the Andrews government steadfastly rejects this particular motorway.

Mr Morrison’s response was “so just let us get on and do it”, conveniently ignoring the fact that even if he were to win Saturday’s election, he wouldn’t be able to do anything about the East West Link in his next term. The $4 million is an empty promise because he’d face another election in 2022 before the Andrews’ government, whose current term goes to November 2022.

See the following links for previous articles with detailed analysis of the proposed Melbourne suburban rail loop:

Suburban rail loop – how can this mistake be prevented?

Isn’t long-term planning for urban public transport a no-brainer?

Is Melbourne’s promised loop rail line justified by jobs growth in suburban centres?

Isn’t there a much, much better way to do cross-city public transport?

Has Daniel Andrews gone loopy on rail?

The post Should Shorten fund Melbourne’s suburban rail loop? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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Cars – the elephant in the room (image via Steemit)

Thank you, Bill Shorten. At last, a politician is acknowledging the elephant in the room (or, in this case, the city) – cars. Yes, cars.

Our political leaders have been selling us the line for years that building mega public transport projects will somehow solve all the problems of cities. It suits them because it means they can avoid policies like higher taxes and charges on driving that would make motorists deeply unhappy.

Our cities desperately need better public transport, but when cars account for 90% of travel in capital cities, it’s folly to ignore the pressing need to “tame” the excesses of the four-wheeled beast.

The transport component of Labor’s Climate Change Action Plan finally promises a serious attack on emissions from cars, principally by implementing stronger standards as well as a National Electric Vehicle Policy.

If elected later this year, the party promises to put in place a standard of 105g CO2/km for new light vehicles, although the start date isn’t specified. Labor also promises electric vehicles (EVs) will account for half of new vehicle sales by 2030, although how that will be achieved is pretty vague.

The proposed emissions standard would be a huge improvement on the current level of 182g CO2/km for new passenger and light commercial vehicles.

While it’s a step in the right direction, Labor’s Plan nevertheless highlights the lack of a coherent urban transport policy at either the state or federal level. It’ll help encourage more efficient and smaller vehicles, but all political parties still lack effective policies to address congestion and to make cars materially slower, quieter and less dangerous for vulnerable road users.

Labor’s EV policy reflects this narrow thinking. While EVs should, and I expect will, dominate sales at some stage in the future, there are some serious issues associated with an EV-dominant world that Labor’s policy ignores.

A key one is the likely increase in travel spurred by EVs. Their running costs are lower compared to vehicles powered by (heavily-taxed) petrol and diesel. While that helps make EVs attractive, it will inevitably encourage more driving, with consequent negative impacts on the amenity of streets, the safety of roads for pedestrians and cyclists, the viability of public transport, the level of traffic congestion, and the density of cities.

Another issue overlooked in the policy is the huge increase in generating capacity that will be required to meet the demand for electricity when EVs win substantial market share. Local solar is often portrayed as the likely source, but EVs are energy intensive and require a large PV array over and above that necessary for domestic or office uses. The increasing number of households living in multi-unit accommodation (e.g. 47% in Greater Sydney) presents another constraint on the potential of local solar.

Nor does Labor’s policy provide any response to the reduction in fuel excise revenue that would flow from widespread use of electricity instead of oil. Directly taxing the use of road space by vehicles seems the obvious alternative, but Labor’s policy is of course silent on this politically sensitive topic.

Maybe I’m expecting too much; after all, this policy is about politics not good government. It’s a marketing document. The lack of evidence and analysis is obvious in the unsupported claim that a Shorten government will lift EVs to 50% of new car sales by 2030. On the basis of what’s in the document, the kindest thing that can be said is it’s an ambitious target.

Current sales of new passenger cars in Australia are around 1,000,000 p.a. and the size of the nation’s total fleet of passenger cars is in the region of 14,500,000 (there’s another 3.2 million light commercial vehicles e.g. panel vans, utilities). Suppose on the basis of recent trends that by 2030 annual sales of cars increase to 1,200,000 and the size of the national car fleet increases to 17,200,000.

Given those assumptions, Labor is anticipating 600,000 EVs will be sold in Australia in 2030. That would require a truly phenomenal rate of growth given only around 2,500 EVs were sold in Australia last year. That’s average annual growth of around 75% p.a.; it’s faster than Moore’s Law!

It would be remarkable because the only direct incentive Labor is offering is a $20,000 deduction off the purchase price of company vehicles. There’re no direct incentives for private motorists. Moreover, it’s likely the 105g CO2/km standard won’t be phased in fully until 2025, as recommended by the Climate Change Authority.

It looks ambitious given that only around 20% of Australian dwellings have solar panels, notwithstanding subsidy programs like the Solar Homes and Communities Plan introduced in 2000.

EVs made up 31% of new car sales in Norway last year but they’re heavily subsidised by full or partial exemptions from import duties, road tax, sales tax, stamp duty, and company car tax. They also have access to free council parking, use of bus lanes and exemptions from road tolls.

Labor seems to be assuming that the saving from using electricity rather than heavily taxed petrol or diesel will be such a huge incentive that half of all buyers will switch to an EV in 2030. It claims the average driver could save “up to $2,300 from reduced fuel and maintenance costs”.

I expect that’s a cherry-picked figure, but it’s instructive that the higher running costs of SUVs haven’t stopped buyers increasingly preferring them over smaller cars. Labor’s promise gives EVs only a short time-frame in which to overcome the barriers of high prices, slow charging times, and the perception of limited range.

Some car companies are claiming a range in excess of 300 km and 30-minute charge times, but experience with manufacturers’ artificial fuel economy, emission and pollution tests suggests these assertions should be treated with caution.

Another issue is that any market drift toward smaller cars – as Labor’s 105g CO2 policy is designed to achieve – will reduce the advantage of EVs over conventional cars. There’s also the possibility that the price of petrol could fall significantly in real terms as oil producers belatedly seek to stall the global shift away from oil.

Nevertheless, if Labor’s promise is taken as face value, there might be around 1,500,000 EVs on the nation’s roads by the end of the next decade. Yet that’d only be around 9% of the national passenger vehicle fleet in 2030. Since cars account for around 10% of Australia’s GHG emissions, that would be a relatively modest pay-off in the context of the need for urgent action on climate change.


So, thank you Bill for recognising the need to take action to improve emissions from cars and for promoting the role of EVs. However, if you win next month’s election please have a serious look at what a shift to EVs really entails, including the potential downsides, and the actions government should take to expedite the transition. And while I know it’s politically difficult, please don’t overlook the other problems associated with cars, especially in our crowded cities.

The post Is Labor serious about electric vehicles? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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The Morrison government wants to “Double-Up to Double-Down” on urban rail networks to increase urban rail capacity

This week’s federal budget will overflow with sweeteners, but nothing the politicians concoct promises to be as astonishing as the Nation-Building Network policy the electorally precarious Morrison government will announce tomorrow in the run-up to the 2019 election.

In a bid to redress the damage done to its public standing over the last six years by the extreme right, the government hopes to win back centre voters by focusing on the sort of big infrastructure projects it believes helped the incumbent Victorian and NSW governments win their recent state elections.

Thanks to strategic “leaks” by the Treasurer’s PR machine, it’s clear the government expects the centrepiece of its Nation-Building Network policy, a promise to build a national High-Speed Rail system over the next six years, will dominate the air waves for at least the rest of the week, perhaps all of the month.

The Treasurer claims it will utilise advanced maglev technology to achieve speeds of 500 km/h plus. It will run from Cairns to Perth along the coast, running via the state capitals as well as the most important regional centres i.e. BowenGrafton, Coffs Harbour, Gosford, Batemans Bay and Aireys Inlet. Canberra is not on the main line; it is slated for a spur line at some time in the future.

The government has given a lot of thought to the location of suburban stations in the capital cities and has decided on Strathpine, AshgroveCarindale and Beenleigh in Brisbane; Concord and Hurstville in Sydney; Berwick, Belgrave and Camberwell in Melbourne; Flagstaff Hill in Adelaide; and Gosnells, East Cannington and Mindarie in Perth.

Construction is to start next year, beginning with the section from Rockhampton to Gladstone, using a Sequential-Build-Fund-Design (SBFD) contract. It’s claimed the line will be fully built by 2025.

The government also anticipates a strong positive reaction to its Double-Up Double-Down initiative to increase the capacity of rail networks in capital cities. It will provide the states with funding on a matching 80/20 formula for the construction of a ‘second floor’ of rail tracks over existing lines.

While the main pitch will be on doubling rail capacity, the Treasurer claims that in some locations the ‘double-decking’ will provide space for other possible uses such as elevated motorways.

The budget will also demonstrate to voters that the Morrison government is committed to improving housing standards for the increasing proportion of the population, especially first-home buyers, who will necessarily live in apartments in the future.

The Families, Living, Action Program has been developed in response to demands from the design professions for higher housing standards. The Treasurer will stress that apartment living should not mean young Australians have to forego the benefits of traditional detached suburban housing that past generations enjoyed.

The program will provide buyers with a substantial grant (as high as $100,000!) for the purchase of a new multi-unit dwelling that meets minimum acceptable design standards.

Although the criteria haven’t been nailed down in detail yet, it’s expected that in order to qualify for the grants, apartments must have at least three bedrooms; minimum internal floor area of 150 sq m; minimum balcony area of 50 sq m; parking for two vehicles incorporating a ‘workshop’; and separate family, living and dining areas.

It’s also expected that all habitable rooms, including kitchen and bathrooms, must be oriented north and have opening windows on at least two walls to facilitate natural ventilation. Apartments that have party walls will not be eligible for Families, Living, Action Program grants; to provide acoustic privacy, the exterior walls of apartments must be separated from neighbouring units by a minimum one-metre airspace.

How the Morrison government plans to fund all the promises under its NBN policy if it’s re-elected isn’t clear. It’s also not evident it will be able to win the support of state governments for programs like DUDD and FLAP, which are essentially state responsibilities.

Most of all it’s not clear if these ideas make any economic or functional sense; what unforeseen (or ignored) consequences they’ll have; or if they’ll even work as promised. Then there’re all the other options, especially in taxation policy, that the government is ignoring. It’s even disappointing on it’s own “nation-building” terms; this could’ve been an opportunity to fund promising projects like the Automated Electric Rapid Inter Area Loop.

Of course, like almost every election promise these days, there’s no business plan or feasibility study either. Treating the public as fools is pretty much business as usual, even when it’s not 1 April.

The post How desperate can the Morrison government get? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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Alignment and stations for east coast High Speed Rail preferred by Federal government’s 2013 study

A federal election is imminent, so of course east coast High Speed Rail (HSR) is back on the agenda. Last month the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, said HSR from Brisbane to Melbourne would “be a real game changer – it is expensive, but nation-building requires vision.”

Then earlier this month, Senator Janet Rice, Australian Greens transport spokesperson, promised her party would fund east coast HSR service in full, arguing “It would be nation building at its best: big, bold and transformative.”

Whenever “nation building” gets trotted out you can be pretty sure the advocates of the subject proposal have given up on rationality and are relying on emotion to push their favourite project. The big question to my mind is why, in 2019, anyone who knows anything about transport and cities still takes this idea seriously. Why is this even a thing? Why are we still talking about east coast HSR in 2019?

Where’s ‘the problem’?

First, it’s not because there’s an obvious problem to be addressed. There’s already a regular public transport service operating on this route. It’s got adequate capacity and scope to scale up in line with demand. Importantly, it’s a competitive market with four major operators i.e. Qantas, Tiger, Jetstar and Virgin.

This isn’t like a new outer suburban growth area where there’s no rail access at all. HSR is about replacing one form of public transport with another. That’d be fine except for the fact it hinges on provision of a mammoth subsidy.

Massive cost

Second, it’s not because it only requires a modest outlay of a few billion dollars or so. Any discussion of east coast HSR must be in the context of the truly monumental level of public subsidy required to build it. The 2013 study undertaken by Labor and the Greens put the capital cost at $114 – $127 billion (that’s a ‘b’) and made it clear virtually all of that would have to come from the public purse.

But we know it’s near-certain the cost would be much higher, probably in the range $150 – $200 billion, because early scoping studies like this invariably grossly under-estimate the cost, largely due to optimism bias (see Why do the worst infrastructure projects get built?).

Second Sydney Airport

Third, it’s not because Sydney’s second airport isn’t going ahead. One of the key arguments for east coast HSR was that it might obviate or delay the need to build a costly second airport in Sydney. That’s no longer relevant. Construction of Nancy-Bird Walton Airport at Badgerys Creek started on September 2018, with completion scheduled for December 2026.

In fact, the new airport weakens the case for east coast HSR. According to the Labor/Greens HSR feasibility study, that’s because it would reduce a key driver of demand for HSR – delays and unpredictability of flight times at Kingsford Smith airport arising from air traffic congestion. The study found the new airport would lower the demand for HSR into and out of Sydney and therefore decrease the economic benefits.


Fourth, it’s not because it’s an efficient way of reducing emissions. After allowing for additional emissions from construction, operation and induced demand, east coast HSR would only yield net savings of 55 Mt CO2-e. That’s nice, but given the estimated cost of construction, it would be an extraordinarily expensive way of addressing climate change i.e. circa $2,000 per tonne of CO2-e avoided. At a more likely $150 billion for construction, the cost rises to $2,700 per tonne (see So high speed rail would increase carbon emissions?).

That scale of subsidy would have a much larger impact on emissions if it were instead used to fund renewable power generation. The Bloomberg New Energy Finance energy outlook estimates the cost of making 92% of generation in Australia from renewable sources by 2050 is $186 billion.

Fifth, it’s not because it would be more equitable. The great bulk of benefits from east coast HSR would come from faster trips between Sydney and Melbourne for business travellers. This group currently pays the full capital and operating cost of air travel; there’s no reason why it should receive such a titanic subsidy.

The speed need

Sixth, it’s not because east coast HSR would be significantly faster than flying. CBD business people are the key beneficiaries; they’d save 15 minutes door-to-door travelling from Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD, compared to what’s currently a three-hour journey by air (although HSR would be slower from Sydney to Brisbane than air). Nice, but hardly worth a couple of generations worth of infrastructure subsidy.


Seventh, it’s not because it would encourage decentralisation and “grow the regions”. The feasibility study couldn’t find any net benefits from regional development. Heavily subsidised fares from somewhere like Shepparton to Melbourne (notwithstanding that air fares aren’t subsidised!) wouldn’t shift high-paying jobs from the capital cities to the regions. Rather, they’d just promote regional sprawl by creating remote dormitory suburbs for city centre workers.

Housing costs

Eighth, it’s not because it would reduce housing costs in the capital cities. They’ll be much the same in Goulburn as they are in the outer suburbs of Sydney. It’s hard to see why sprawl in Goulburn or Yass would somehow be better than sprawl in Liverpool (see Will business really pay for High Speed Rail? and Is value capture the silver bullet for funding infrastructure?).

Nation building

Ninth, it’s not because it would be “transformative” or “nation building” as claimed by Ms Rice and Mr Albanese. How can that be the case when it will mostly do pretty much what planes already do i.e. move travellers between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne?

The fact that it’s slightly faster than flying doesn’t make it “transformative” or “nation building”. The only way it might be transformative is if it were to destroy the competitive airline services between Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne, leading to higher fares and/or fewer services, and perhaps ultimately an HSR monopoly.


Faster trains might well have a role in the future in connecting outer suburbs and major regional centres like Canberra and Newcastle to Sydney, but something like the 160 km/h Type D Trainset currently being tested for the New Airport Line in Beijing is likely to be a much better fit than the 300 km/h HSR touted by Mr Albanese and Ms Rice.

Public funding on this scale could be more usefully deployed in many other ways. For example, it could be used to improve over-loaded public transport systems in capital cities.

It says something truly awful about our political culture and the standard of public discourse, especially around cities and transport, that this foolishness still has legs. I don’t expect gunzels are going to lose their enthusiasm for east coast HSR, but it’s way past time politicians, academics and the commentariat got over this folly.

The post Why is east coast High Speed Rail still being taken seriously? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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I’ve previously noted that the share of residents’ travel captured by public transport in Australia’s capital cities has barely budged over the last 40 years (see Where to with transport in our capital cities?). Nor has it improved much in recent years; for example, cars’ share of motorised travel in Sydney was 86% in 2006-07 and 85% in 2016-17. In Melbourne, it went from 91% to 90% over the same ten-year period.

But what if public transport were to enjoy vigorous, sustained growth for an extended period, say from now until 2050? What impact would it have on mode share if it were to grow much faster than car use? Critically, what scale of infrastructure investment would be required to support the additional trips?

A possible scenario

The exhibit sets out a possible scenario for residents of the Sydney metropolitan area. I’ve used data on weekday trips by mode from the household travel survey run continuously by Transport for NSW since 1997 (trips is a more useful measure than kms of travel for this discussion because it impacts directly on infrastructure capacity).

I’ve created a scenario for the 31 years from 2017/18 to 2049/50. I’ve assumed:

  • Total motorised trips (by car, rail and bus) grow by 54%, roughly in line with projected population growth of 51% over the period.
  • Rail trips increase at a compound rate of 5% p.a., considerably higher than the rate of growth experienced over the last seven years (3.9% p.a. compound).
  • Bus trips increase by 1% p.a compound, similar to the growth rate over 2010/11 – 2017/18 (1.3% p.a. compound). The assumption recognises a large proportion of the growth in rail travellers will come at the expense of buses.
  • Car trips increase by 0.6% compound, significantly less than the 1.4% p.a. rate they grew at over the last seven years. This is considerably slower than projected population growth and is consistent with the evidence that car use is already close to ‘saturation’ levels.

Thus I assume public transport trips (rail + bus) are projected to grow at 3.7% p.a. compound to 2050, compared to 3% compound over the last seven years. This is a more ambitious assumption than it might at first appear, since population grew at a much higher rate over 2010/11 – 2017/18 (4.4% p.a. compound) than it’s projected to over the next 31 years (1.3% p.a. compound).

I don’t consider ferries because I don’t have comparable data. Their share of total trips is in any event small at present e.g. 0.3% of AM peak trips.

Growth in trips

Given these assumptions, total motorised trips by residents on a typical weekday increase by 8.3 million over the 31-year period to 2050. By mode:

  • Rail trips increase by 271%, from 1.2 million to 5.7 million.
  • Bus trips increase by 37%, from 1.0 million to 1.4 million.
  • Car trips increase by 37%, from 13.1 million to 15.8 million.

Change in mode share

The exhibit shows the resulting change in (motorised) mode share from 2017/18 to 2049/50

  • The share carried by car falls from 86% to 69%, although the number of car trips increases by 4.9 million.
  • The mode share of public transport (rail and bus) more than doubles, rising from 14% to 31%, with the number of weekday trips increasing by 3.4 million.

Implication: massive increase in rail capacity

Achieving a near-tripling in the number of Sydneysiders travelling by rail in 2050 would require an enormous commitment to new infrastructure. While I expect an increasing proportion of travel would be off-peak, the majority would still be in the AM and PM peaks. In order to handle the much larger peak loads, it would be necessary to build new lines as well as upgrade existing lines.

On top of that, the public transport system would likely still have to carry growing numbers of visitors to Sydney (since they’re not residents, visitors aren’t counted in the household survey). International and domestic visitors spent 110 million nights in Sydney in the year ending September 2018, up 27% over the last four years, adding significantly to the public transport task.

I’m not aware of any analysis of the specific infrastructure improvements required to handle growth on this scale, but we can reasonably assume they would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. While this level of investment would likely deliver benefits in excess of the costs, other opportunities for spending the money would necessarily be foregone (health and education are the big areas in the state budget).

Implication: focus on ‘taming’ cars

I think the most telling message from this exercise, though, is that even with strong assumptions about growth in public transport demand, the car still remains by far the dominant mode for travel by residents, accounting for over two-thirds of motorised trips (69%) in 2050. This does not suggest the end of the car is nigh.

The continuing ascendancy of the car underscores the critical importance of focusing on ways to ‘tame’ travel by private vehicle. Relying solely or primarily on building new rail infrastructure to reduce the environmental, amenity and congestion impacts of motoring is way too slow and simply nowhere near enough.

As I’ve noted before, concerted action is needed to make cars a lot cleaner, smaller, slower, safer, quieter and more considerate of other users of the city than has been the case to date. By itself, better public transport isn’t going to banish cars from Sydney’s roads (see Where to with transport in our capital cities?).

A car-taming scenario

Given the sheer scale of car use at present, the biggest gains would come from focusing directly on reducing the number of car trips.

For example, consider a second scenario where the growth in bus and rail travel over the 31-year period is as per scenario one, but a brace of policies is implemented that directly limits growth in car trips to zero.

This is a small difference – from the 0.6% p.a. compound assumed in the first scenario, to zero per annum – but it would nevertheless be very difficult politically. Possible actions include road pricing, higher parking charges and increased taxes on car ownership and operation.

This scenario reduces car trips in 2050 by 2.8 million each weekday compared to scenario one. If all of these “foregone” trips were replaced by rail, this small reduction would have a dramatic effect; car’s share of motorised trips would fall from 86% at present to 61% in 2050, while public transport’s would rise from 14% to 39%.

It’d require even more investment in infrastructure, of course, because instead of nearly tripling as in scenario one, rail trips would increase almost five-fold. On the other hand, there’d be savings from lower demand for additional road infrastructure.

Under a more ambitious scenario, public transport would (just) be the majority motorised mode (51%) by 2050 if car trips could be reduced at the rate of -0.5% p.a. compound over the period and were replaced by rail or bus. The number of rail trips in 2050 would be almost nine times higher than at present.

Change on this scale won’t happen just by building more rail infrastructure or providing more buses; the big pay-off will only come from reducing the competitiveness of motoring.

It should be noted that since car travel is currently under-priced, it’s likely some of these “forgone” car trips would be suppressed entirely rather than replaced by public transport. And given that the average length of car trips is short, some would be replaced by active transport i.e. walking and cycling. In other words, not all or perhaps even a majority, of the “foregone” car trips would be replaced by public transport.

The upshot

Let me emphasise that these are scenarios, not predictions. They nevertheless indicate that cars will remain by far the dominant mode even with fairly bullish projections for public transport growth. The clear implication is that cars aren’t likely to go away; much more attention must be given to ‘taming’ them.

The post What would happen if public transport use grew faster? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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(image via road.cc)

This was the heading of an opinion piece in The Age yesterday:

Dear drivers, why so much hate for cyclists?

Curiously, the story doesn’t even try to answer the question; it’s mainly an anecdote about the writer’s encounter with an abusive motorist while cycling in inner city Melbourne. I suspect a sub-editor invented the headline to bait more readers and clickers.

And it is indeed an interesting question. However I don’t think the key issue is motorists “hating” cyclists. Of course a very small minority get enraged, but they’re the type of people who’d be dangerous to others in all sorts of contexts i.e. their “hatred” isn’t particular to cycling.

I think the more important question is: why do some (perhaps many) motorists see cyclists as lacking a legitimate right to use the roads? Most of these “non-believers” aren’t prone to abusing other road-users; there are many more of them than there are nasty “haters”. Their attitude is important because they’re likely to oppose initiatives that support cycling.

The ostensible reason is cyclists are slower than motorist and hold them up. But so do buses, trucks and caravans, yet they don’t seem to be regarded as illegitimate to anything like the extent cyclists are.

Here are some hypotheses (not in any order). Some motorists see cycling as:

  • an extension of walking and therefore feel cyclists shouldn’t be on busy roads. The existence of on-road cycling lanes, segregated paths and off-road trails probably reinforces this perception, as do cyclists who are seen to “flout” road rules.
  • the preserve of society’s winners i.e. an indulgence of well-educated, inner suburban elites, who now want to take over the roads. This view accords with some basic facts i.e. cycling is heavily concentrated in inner suburban, Greens-voting electorates.
  • a form of recreation, not a form of transport, and hence not important enough to be on roads. This is reinforced by the high visibility of lycra. A related perception is that cycling is an activity for children and hence it should be confined to footpaths, off-road trails, or quiet residential streets.
  • as contributing directly to traffic congestion, both because cyclists are slow and because bicycle lanes reduce road space.
  • invalid because cyclists aren’t licensed and bicycles aren’t registered.
  • a potential cause of personal and/or legal stress for the motorist. They’re fearful that what would probably otherwise be a routine “bingle” if it were a collision between vehicles might, if it’s a collision with a cyclist, result in serious legal ramifications for the driver and possibly severe personal stress e.g. PTSD.

I think these sorts of views are exacerbated by the widespread perception that traffic congestion, whatever the underlying causes might be, is rapidly deteriorating in cities. The growth of cycling on roads in Australian cities is also likely a contributing factor; it’s a relatively new phenomenon. There’s a weak tradition of cycling as a means of transport (as distinct from recreation) in Australian cities compared to many European and Asian cities.

How can motorists be encouraged to see cycling as a legitimate, perhaps even a more sensible, use of roads?

Governments could – and should – minimise conflict between cyclists and motorists by prioritising construction of segregated cycleways. They have a much higher benefit-cost ratio than conventional transport projects. The availability of reliable battery-powered bicycles and small electric Vespa-style scooters greatly expands the potential market for two-wheel travel (see Could powered two-wheelers be a game-changer for urban travel?).

Nevertheless, cyclists and motorists will share a lot of road space for decades yet. While there’s no short-term silver bullet, government action to reinforce the legitimacy of two-wheel travel on roads is likely to help. That should include regulations to make vehicles slower and to require drivers to cede priority to cyclists (and pedestrians).

The largest pay-off, though, would likely come from making driving less competitive and other modes therefore relatively more attractive. That might be done by pricing access to road space, but simply reducing the speed difference between motoring and cycling could have a big impact on motorist’s attitudes.

The post Why do (some) motorists think cyclists don’t have a right to the roads? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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What “independent, non-partisan” Rail Futures sees as the urgent projects for Melbourne

The suburban rail loop promised by the Andrews government addresses a real problem; a good public transport system must have orbital as well as radial routes.

But it’s the wrong answer, at the wrong time and in the wrong place. If it were on a strategic plan with construction anticipated to commence several decades from now – say when the level of demand justifies a costly mass-transit line on this alignment – it would make a lot more sense than starting construction within four years as the government has promised.

But of course, this isn’t a case of wise planning for the future; it’s an explicit and unequivocal commitment to commence construction by 2022, motivated entirely by political convenience.

What’s wrong with that? Here are some of the ways.

Generational commitment

First, it’s essential to understand that this is a huge commitment. The government’s quick and dirty estimate of the capital cost to build 90 km of track and 15 stations is $50 billion. We know from experience with mega-projects that that is almost certainly a significant under-estimate (see Why do the worst infrastructure projects get built?).

But even taking it at face value, it’s way more than enough to double the size of Melbourne’s tram network. It’s more than the estimated cost of building a High-Speed Rail line from Sydney to Melbourne. It’s around three times the $17 billion the Rudd government spent on the BER program to avoid Australia being strangled by the GFC.

This is big money. It’s a generation’s worth of funding that wouldn’t be available for other new public transport projects in Victoria, or for initiatives in other key areas of the state budget, like health and education.

Higher priority public transport projects

Second, there are other potential projects that would deliver much greater net benefits and should accordingly be given priority over the loop. That’s not surprising; this project is a pure political play announced in the run up to last year’s election. It was invented on the run, without serious analysis and without reference to Infrastructure Victoria, the body set up by the Andrews government supposedly to de-politicise infrastructure spending.

The glaringly obvious alternative is Melbourne Metro Stage 2, as well as a heap of smaller but critical projects – like track improvements, signalling upgrades, more trams, and higher frequency bus services – that would improve reliability and increase capacity.

The list of priority projects for rail in Melbourne proposed by advocacy group Rail Futures is instructive. Although it has its own (more modest) version of a suburban loop, Rail Futures says the immediate priorities ought to be electrifications, additional rolling stock, duplications and extensions of existing lines, and new light rail routes (see exhibit, and also Isn’t long-term planning for urban public transport a no-brainer?).

Negative net benefits

Third, the net benefits of the suburban rail loop will almost certainly be negative. This is not only because of the extraordinary cost; the other side of the equation is that it won’t attract many travellers and the majority of those who do use it will shift from other public transport services.

Unlike radial train lines, where high levels of traffic congestion and high parking costs in the city centre make driving uncompetitive, the loop passes through the middle ring suburbs where driving is much more attractive. According to VISTA, 89% of motorised trips in Melbourne’s middle ring suburbs are made by private vehicles.

In addition, the loop will have only 15 stations spread along 90 km, so the service isn’t going to attract many walk-ups, who’re usually the majority of train users. That compares with the existing Melbourne rail system, which has 219 stations for around 400 km of track.

The first stage slated for construction starts from the tiny shopping centre of Cheltenham and traverses 6 km underground to the next station at Clayton. There’s a 9 km gap between Box Hill and Heidelberg stations: 10 km between Reservoir and Fawkner stations; and 13 km between the Airport and Sunshine stations.

The average travel time for a trip by car in the middle ring suburbs is 20 minutes. Most potential travellers living near the loop won’t go to one of the 15 loop stations by bus or car, they’ll simply drive all the way to their destination.

The government contends the loop will link suburban activity centres and drive jobs growth. The problem, though, is that only three or four of them qualify as major suburban job concentrations. Taken together, all fifteen centres account for a mere 5% of Melbourne’s jobs (see Is Melbourne’s promised loop rail line justified by jobs growth in suburban centres?).

A 90 km underground heavy rail line is a vastly over-engineered solution relative to any plausible level of patronage. It’ll probably make sense one day, but not yet.

And even if the politically-inspired claim made by the government that it will shift 200,000 travellers per day out of their cars when it’s completed in 2050 is taken on trust, that would amount to less than one percentage point of mode shift. A small pay-off for $50 billion and 28 years.

The wrong solution

Fourth, it’s the wrong solution. The ability to travel orbitally with efficient connections to major radial routes is critical to a good public transport system, but the loop will be just a single mass-transit line in an urbanised area that extends circa 35 km around the CBD (but over 50 km in the south and south-east).

It will be of limited value to the great bulk of Melburnians who don’t live near one of the 15 stations. Moreover, the paucity of stations means the bulk of travellers who live near the route must use another mode to access the nearest station at the start and end of their trip.

What’s really needed is a metropolitan-wide ‘grid’ of multiple radial and orbital lines that maximises the number of travellers who can access high-frequency public transport by foot. A mammoth sum like $50 billion could fund a ‘spider’s web’ of fast light rail and BRT routes every 2 km (say) with dedicated rights-of-way and priority at intersections (see Isn’t there a much, much better way to do cross-city public transport?).

It would be a more effective way of providing orbital routes across all of Melbourne than a single suburban rail line. It would cost less, deliver greater benefits sooner, and provide many more public transport users with improved accessibility.

How can we help?

I expect wiser heads within the Andrews government know this is not the right project; at least not for some decades yet. The government needs help to walk back from this mistake.

It’s probably too late to do anything about the whopping $600 million the government and a (future) Shorten federal government have jointly promised to spend on business planning and preparatory works by 2022. There’s a case for preserving an alignment for the future, but the government has no idea if this is the best route or if something closer or further from the CBD would be best.

There are at least two actions that must be taken, starting now.

First, public transport advocates, academics, planners and the media need to be vocal in pointing out this is the wrong project (for now) and that there are many higher priorities that demand investment. So far almost all of them have nodded it through approvingly, save for mild complaints about the lack of a business plan. But not all rail projects are good just because they’re rail; a bad project is a bad project.

Second, the same group also needs to give the government room to back away. If it proposes modifications – say to use light rail instead, or a longer time frame, or if it tries to sell the airport rail line as the first stage of the loop – it should be supported, not mercilessly hounded for failing to deliver on an election promise. It needs to be given a pass to reinvent the promise as something better; perhaps, as a ‘grid’ of medium capacity transit as proposed above (see Isn’t there a much, much better way to do cross-city public transport?).

This is a silly, careless and cynical promise that, if implemented, could put real improvements to public transport in Melbourne on the back-burner for decades. It’s not the way to improve travel for public transport users or to increase transit’s share of travel from its current desultory level i.e. 10% and static (see Where to with transport in our capital cities?).

The post Suburban rail loop – how can this mistake be prevented? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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Human powered two-wheelers on Beijing’s Changan Street in 1986 – when the cost of transport is high, many cities have traditionally relied on two wheels (photo via Beijing Shots)

Reliance on pedal power has limited the appeal of cycling in Australia’s low density cities, but the advent of viable power assistance makes two-wheelers accessible to a wider range of travellers, including those who’re unfit or who feel too old to push pedals. Batteries make topography largely irrelevant and eliminate the need for specialist clothing or showers at journey’s end.


Powered two-wheelers have the potential to drive mode shift because they offer most of the advantages of private vehicles. Understanding this is critical. Like cars (and walking), they’re available on-demand; they’re private; and they take passengers directly from origin to destination i.e. point-to-point.

There’s no walking to a stop, waiting, sharing space with strangers, or transferring between services, as there is with public transport. And compared to a car, two-wheelers are easier to park and cheaper to buy and operate. In congested conditions they can be faster too.

The key advantage of two-wheelers from a social viewpoint derives from their small footprint and modest speeds. As Asian cities show, they’re potentially a congestion-buster; many more travellers can fit on a given road in peak periods if they ride two-wheelers than is possible with cars carrying on average just over one person.

Moreover, electric two-wheelers have a small environmental and amenity impact; require low-cost infrastructure; and demand little ongoing operational expenditure from government.


Nevertheless, there are some potential deal-breakers that must be addressed.

One: the biggest impediment to take-up of two-wheelers is safety. This must be tackled by providing a comprehensive network of segregated infrastructure and, where road space is necessarily shared with larger vehicles (e.g. close to home), imposing restrictions on the behaviour of drivers.

Two: as with public transport, the main driver of demand for two-wheelers will be constraints on the competitiveness of cars. This can be addressed by a combination of pricing access to road space (which is highly desirable anyway) and repurposing some road space for the exclusive use of two-wheelers.

Three: in order to realise the benefits, two-wheelers must be lightweight, limited to typical pedal speeds, and powered by either human effort or electricity. The potential road capacity, environmental, amenity and safety benefits will not be captured fully if travellers ride large or powerful motorcycles.

Four: electricity should be clean. This is an issue that applies to all electric vehicles and fortunately is being addressed by the broader shift to renewable energy sources.

Five: weather will limit the appeal of two-wheelers for some travellers, but the high proportion of Europeans who cycle in harsher conditions than Australia experiences show that this is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Travellers will take to powered two-wheelers if they see them as safe and if they out-compete other modes on travel time and cost.

Mode share

What sort of mode share could a network of powered two-wheelers win?

Cycling in central Amsterdam has a claimed mode share of 40%. That seems an unlikely goal in Australia, but even if two-wheelers accounted for just 5% of all motorised passenger travel (km) in Melbourne today, that’d be much larger than the 1.3% mode share of trams, or the 2.4% mode share of buses. If two-wheelers won 10%, they’d handsomely exceed the current 6.7% mode share of trains (although still a far cry from the current 89% mode share of private vehicles).

Measuring mode share by the number of trips rather than km of travel doesn’t change the overall calculation by much. According to VISTA, the share of motorised trips on a Melbourne weekday taken by tram and bus is 2.1% each. The mode share for train is 6.2% (88.5% for car).

Because two-wheelers offer many of the benefits of driving, they could draw significant numbers of travellers away from cars.


Is the required infrastructure affordable?

It would be costly to build a largely segregated network for two-wheelers. However, their light weight and small size suggests the per km cost could be an order of magnitude lower than that required for new motorway and track-based infrastructure.

Expenditure in the order of $10 billion could establish the foundation for a safe metropolitan-wide two-wheeler network. I assume extensive traffic calming and intersection works, selected grade separations, and a number of entirely new roadways for two-wheelers. I also exclude existing shared trails; leave them for walkers!

That’s a lot of money but it’s not so daunting when we consider that the Victorian government is committed to building the $16 billion North-West link motorway, $11 billion Melbourne Metro tunnel, $10 billion airport rail link, and the promised $50 billion suburban rail loop.  Note also that the cost to build Melbourne’s 250 km tram system today would be around $35 billion, assuming an average $120 million per km, plus $5 billion for vehicles and supporting facilities.


The biggest problem would be political, particularly taking (some) road space away from cars. The key thing here, though, is that powered two-wheelers are a reasonably attractive substitute for cars because they also provide on-demand, point-to-point, private travel. Given sensible policy settings for cars, they would also offer faster trips in congested conditions, cost travellers less to own and operate, and be easier to park at home and at many destinations.

City managers could choose to make two-wheelers irresistible for many travellers, even in Australia’s big cities.

The post Could powered two-wheelers be a game-changer for urban travel? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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The recently updated passenger travel database for capital cities maintained by the Bureau of Transport Economics (BITRE) provides an historical account of how the share of each transport mode in Australia’s capital cities changed over the 40-year period from 1976-77 to 2016-17 (see exhibit). Mode share is the best way of assessing the current state of play because it takes account of growth in population and in each mode.

It’s blindingly obvious from the exhibit that private modes (the great bulk of it cars) dominated urban passenger travel over the last 40 years. Moreover, there’s little to suggest that’s changing in any substantial way in favour of public transport. There’s really no way this can be spun as a positive outcome or a promising prospect.

While the demand for public transport in recent years grew in percentage terms as strongly as that for travel by car, it was from a much smaller base. Car travel in the capitals increased by 20.1 billion passenger kms over the seven years to 2016-17, whereas public transport travel increased by 2.1 billion passenger kms.

The sustained dominance of car travel is despite the real price of petrol rising over the period and, more recently, rising complaints about traffic congestion. It’s also despite significant increases in residential density in all the capitals. For example, Sydney’s average weighted population density rose from 25 persons per hectare in 1991 to 30 persons per hectare in 2012 i.e. by 20% (see Are Australian cities sprawling at ever lower densities and Managing excessive car use; what’s the low hanging fruit?).

It’s also despite improvements in public transport. For example, new electrified rail lines built in Sydney over the period include the Eastern Suburbs railway (1979), East Hills-Glenfield line (1987), Sydney Airport and Wolli Creek line (2000), Epping to Chatswood railway line (2009) and the South West Rail Link (2015). A light rail line was also constructed between the CBD and Dulwich Hill.

In Melbourne, the number of AM peak train services increased by 32% between 2004 and 2015 and the train fleet expanded from 151 to 211 between 1999 and 2015. Since 1995, the metropolitan electrified network was extended to Cranbourne, Watergardens, Craigieburn, South Morang and Sunbury (see What’s made public transport better?).

Train patronage certainly increased in both cities, but the impact on total public transport mode share was modest. Since 2010-11, public transport travel in Sydney increased by 1.5 billion kms, but private vehicle passenger travel increased by 5.3 billion kms (see What’s government done to make public transport better?). The comparable figures for Melbourne are 0.31 and 6.5 billion kms respectively.

The mode share of private vehicles hasn’t increased either, notwithstanding the construction of new motorways. For example, new roads built in Sydney over the period include the Warringah Freeway, Gore Hill Freeway, Sydney Harbour Tunnel, Eastern Distributor, Lane Cover Tunnel, Cross City Tunnel, Hills Motorway, Western Motorway, South West Motorway, East Motorway and Westlink. We don’t know, though, whether the increase in passenger capacity of these roads exceeded that of the new rail lines.

So what does it mean?

Under current policy settings, cars aren’t going to go away any time soon or, for that matter, in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the pace of improvement in autonomous vehicle technology suggests cars will get more competitive in the longer term, while the shift to renewable power generation will reduce their environmental impact.

Politicians like to make out that building more public transport infrastructure will solve all transport problems, but it’s unrealistic to think serious mode shift can be generated just by building more train and light rail lines. For example, even if we take at face value the Victorian government’s politically motivated claim that the Melbourne suburban rail loop promised at last November’s election will shift 200,000 passengers p.a. from cars by 2050, that represents less than one percentage point of mode shift at a cost of $50 billion. Take away the politics and it’s likely to be much less.

The Melbourne Metro rail project will provide capacity for an extra 39,000 passengers in the peak; pretty modest considering there are 8.5 million private vehicle trips per day in Melbourne (see Will building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

Then there’s the issue of cost. Melbourne Metro is estimated to cost $11 billion (nominal) for 9 km of tunnels and five new stations. The Melbourne suburban rail loop promised at the last election is estimated to cost $50 billion for 90 km of tracks and 15 stations. Finding funding for infrastructure on the scale necessary to significantly change mode share would be a huge challenge.

What should we do?

Let me emphasise that we must build more public transport in our cities to meet the absolute growth in patronage. We should recognise, though, that past, present and promised improvements like the Melbourne Metro and the promised suburban rail loop won’t have much effect on mode shift. They’ll mostly benefit those travellers who choose to use, or must use, public transport i.e. mostly city-centre workers and students.

However policy-makers should back away from framing public transport as primarily a substitute for driving. They should recognise that the urban population’s long-standing and evident preference for on-demand point-to-point travel shows no sign of waning. They should acknowledge Australia’s particular urban history; the benefits that capital city residents see in private travel can’t be wished away (“How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”).

They should instead give greater attention to making point-to-point travel more efficient and less socially costly. That means requiring private vehicles to be significantly cleaner, smaller, slower, safer, quieter and more considerate of other users of the city than has been the case to date. The demand for road space must be moderated by more efficient pricing; we don’t leave other scare resources unpriced (including public transport!), so it’s ridiculous that we don’t price driving efficiently. All of these actions can be implemented by regulation with vastly lower capital costs than current policies require.

In the longer run, advances in autonomous vehicle technology might offer ways to use road space more efficiently, especially for the three quarters of all trips that aren’t for work purposes. In the immediate future, though, technological improvements in small footprint vehicles like slow two-wheelers (electric bicycles/scooters) offer a promising way to provide most of the benefits of on-demand point-to-travel while minimising downsides like pollution and congestion.

The key to boosting take-up of small-footprint vehicles is to provide a safe network of segregated routes that, relative to driving, provides substantially faster, more convenient (easier parking!), and less expensive travel. Such a network would necessarily require taking road space away from cars as well as constructing purpose-built infrastructure, but the substantial social benefits should handsomely exceed the costs.

The key challenge for policy-makers isn’t to eliminate the evident desire for on-demand point-to-point travel. Rather, it’s to “tame” the car, find better ways of providing flexible travel, and improve public transport, especially mass transit servicing locations of concentrated activity.

The post Where to with transport in our capital cities? appeared first on The Urbanist.

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In the distance, Hernan Diaz

Christmas is almost here so it’s time once again for my end-of-year list of the best books I read during 2018 (here’s last year’s list). These have nothing to do with urbanism; in fact many are novels. This custom dates from when I first started The Urbanist as it was originally set up with the intent of discussing novels as well as urban issues. That ambition went by the wayside long ago but the holiday season provides an excuse to return to reading.

Of the books I read during 2018, these stand out as worth recommending to others; I rate them all as at least four stars. I don’t classify them as “beach reads” or “serious literature”; if they’re worth spending a lot of time with then they’ve got to be engaging in one way or another.


They might appeal to a narrower audience, but I also enjoyed Kristina Olssen’s novel, Shell, set during the construction of the Sydney Opera House, and Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.

Non Fiction

There are several books related to the ‘DNA Revolution’ in this year’s list because I wanted to learn more about one of the most far-reaching and rapid areas of change in our understanding of how the world works; they’re all suitable for the general reader, though.

The post The Urbanist’s annual holiday reading guide appeared first on The Urbanist.

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