Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Rail Infrastructure Projects in the Nation's Capital: A Tale of Two Chronologies

© Depositphotos.com/@karnizz
Recently, the ACT Government's Minister for Capital Metro, Mr Simon Corbell, announced the shortlist of two consortia to build and operate Canberra's proposed light rail link.

There is a long history of interest groups supporting a light rail service for Canberra and this is fast becoming a reality.

But how can we understand what makes large infrastructure projects happen? What signals the tipping point?

This is an interesting question, and short of using a crystal ball, we may never know the answer other than in hindsight.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to find out.

Often, I develop chronologies to help investigate path dependencies and tipping points in policy development. Typically, this requires the bringing together of numerous sources separated by long periods of time.

It is not uncommon to discover trajectories that commenced generations ago. These are frequently overlooked by contemporary commentators and this is the part I find most fascinating.

Here in the Australian Capital Territory, two major rail projects provide interesting cases: Capital Metro and High Speed Rail. Thankfully, chronologies for these projects are readily available.

First, the Canberra Times has produced an interactive chronology of light rail in the nation's capital - well worth a look.

Second, and while there have been recent developments in high speed rail, this 1998 chronology provides some useful information about how the policy has developed - or rather not developed - over time.

I find chronologies useful to frame my answers to an important research question: Why is Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, so slow to deploy important infrastructure?

Stay tuned!

Now they have an "app" for everything, or do they?

© Depositphotos.com/@lunamarina
While I am sure that "apps" such as Lumosity can be helpful in exercising one's brain, and MyFitnessPal is a calorie watcher's dream, I am not convinced that there is an app for everything.

But recently, the Australian Department of Defence released High Res, an app to help people manage stress.

Before I critique this approach to managing stress, I must admit that for people who spend much of their time using their mobile phone, such an app may help in the practice of emotional intelligence.

Several years ago, when I first worked on the idea of "lecturing as performance", I found, inevitably, that my emotional intelligence was tested whenever I tried anything even remotely different at the front of a lecture theatre filled with about 600 people.

As a result, I took a course on emotional intelligence to provide me with some tools to manage my emotions while "performing". It worked.

One of the tips mentioned by the instructor appears to be replicated by High Res. For example, some habitual cues such as flicking a bracelet when confronted with stressful situations might signal one to disengage from an argument, to break off in order to process what is happening, and to return at some later time with a more constructive approach to dealing with the other person and the issue at hand. 

Rather than a physical signal, I daresay High Res may provide users with a tool to do the same thing, albeit less intellectually and more perfunctorily. While I have no intention to criticise the app and the important intention behind it, I must admit that this obsession with "an app for everything" is missing the key point.

I stopped using a mobile phone at the end of 2009 after returning from my sabbatical in Jordan. Ever since then, my stress levels have decreased significantly.

When I take my dogs for a walk around my local lake, I am shocked by the number of people who walk their dogs while talking on their mobile phones. I know people who drive long distances for work and they call their friends and family to entertain them while driving. Take the time and look around - it is a rare thing to see a lone individual walking around without talking on their mobile phone.

The whole point of being alone is to rejuvenate one's spirit. To reconnect with God or the Universe or Nature or whatever it is that floats your boat. Reaching for the mobile phone destroys this important downtime, but that's what most people do whenever they are alone.

Mobile phones are an obsession. And I believe they are an unhealthy obsession. If you can't be by yourself without calling or SMSing or chatting with someone on your mobile phone, I doubt any app will help you build resilience. The problem is much deeper than that.

So while the intentions of High Res and the importance of addressing mental health issues are deserving of attention, I am not convinced that an app can help people to reduce their stress. I believe this to be superficial at best and a lost cause for addressing first principles at worst.

So stop using your mobile phone as a substitute for thinking, being punctual, and self-reflecting. Unplug. Have an app-free day. I guarantee you that your mobile phone is a cause, not a cure, for stress.

But don't believe me - try it for yourself and then tell me it didn't work out for you!

Monday, 16 March 2015

My Top Ten Tips for University Students

© Depositphotos.com/@karnizz
I am often asked to name my top ten tips for first-year students. You can probably guess that I am not a fan of post-modern "happy-clappy". And when the metal meets the meat, it will be your hard-earned skills that will matter, not the euphoria of being all kumbaya. Here's my top ten:

1. Read the unit outline. Twice. Then read it before you start every assignment. Then read it before you submit every assignment. Then read it once more for fun.

2. This is university. The standard is high, always, and you must lift yourself to the standard. The only way to lower the standard is to devalue your degree. Of course, you are here to prepare yourself for professional life, and it is nigh impossible to do so without a degree of some quality. Therefore, it is sound logic to lift your own standards.

3. If you have never read a journal article, you have never read an essay. If you have never read an essay, how can you expect to write one?

4. “The first draft of anything is shit” (attributed to Papa Hemingway).

5. Every unit is different. Every discipline is different. There is no such thing as “standardised” in the real world. If you expect your university education to be standardised, you are planning for a fake world. Learn the differences, however subtle, because otherwise you are not receiving the education you have signed up to receive.

6. A university degree provides you with formal proof that you can navigate your way through bureaucracy. When, and I say when, the system screws you over, and before you whinge and moan and blame everybody else as if the world owes you a living, take charge of your own life, and remember that the ability to navigate your way through bureaucracy is one of the single most important skills you will gain here and this will distinguish you in the workplace from non-graduates.

7. The way you write an email to your lecturers is how you will communicate in your professional life. If you do not get a response from your lecturer when you used twitter-speak, expect to get the same response from your bosses or your clients.

8. Before you ask: “Do we need to include references?” The answer is yes, always. Nobody ever lost marks for including references.

9. Respect your fellow students. They are paying for this, too. If you want to waste your money, do it in silence or far enough away from non-like-minded students that nobody else cares that you don’t.

10. Learn to receive feedback. The lecturers who offend you the most with their feedback will probably be those who taught you the most. If you want lollipops and rainbows, then do not listen to feedback. If you want to learn, then learn to receive feedback.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Net Neutrality: Does it really matter?

© Depositphotos.com/@mindscanner
The decision by the US Federal Communications Commission to regulate broadband providers to ensure that all data traffic is treated equally has been hailed by some as a step forward in achieving net neutrality. But does forcing a common-carrier regulatory approach on internet service providers really make any difference to consumers?

Not according to Margeurite Reardon at CNet.

The basic premise of the net neutrality movement is that by preventing commercial controls over how and whose data is prioritised via the internet, the network itself can remain neutral as to how and whose data is moved. The internet has largely been unregulated for the last two decades, unlike telecommunications services which have been subjected to common carrier rules since at least the early 20th century.

The original purpose of the common carrier rule was to prevent telegraph and later telephone operators from controlling newspaper content sent via the infrastructure. This regulatory concept, among other things such as commercial agreements, became the basis for the divergence of the newspaper, telecommunications (telegraph and telephone were diverged further in North America) and later the broadcasting industry.

Traditionally, broadcast content was regulated for cultural reasons, whereas telecommunications common carriers were required to carry any message to prevent the control of information. Of course, in the age of technological convergence, the distinction between these industries has become less clear.

The debate in the US is fierce. While proponents suggest net neutrality will keep the internet free, opponents see it as nothing more than government meddling.

The trouble is that net neutrality assumes limited resources and is still somewhat based on the natural monopoly argument. That is, where one carrier dominates, it must be a common carrier to prevent the prioritisation of traffic. But with so many providers and so many ways to access the internet, it all seems rather passé

Will net neutrality keep the internet open? Better to ask if it was ever open. Does it really matter to consumers  whether some content gets delivered via fast lanes? It would seem that this would be something that consumers want. Indeed, if they did not like it then there is always another provider. Why shouldn't you be able to get what you pay for?

So despite all the brouhaha, the net neutrality decision in the US is little more than a big win for the idealists. And it won't make much difference to what happens here in Australia.

I were to make a prediction, I doubt net neutrality will survive the court appeals that will no doubt follow. Even if it does, a Republican win at the next election would probably kick it into touch anyway.

And does it really matter to consumers? Not really, other than it might mean it costs more to access the internet in the US.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Action Adventures, or Why I gave up the bus

© Depositphotos.com/@comzeal
When I purchased a second car a few months ago, there was much discussion about whether we should give up cars altogether and just ride the bike or bus, or, take advantage of the bike racks on the bus and do both. I've been trying to do that recently but I am grateful for the car every day.

As the ideal way to improve the environment, and one's finances, the bicycle/bus combination makes sense. But in practice, it is a joke in comparison to using my car.

Getting to or from work on the bus is hard work. At one point during the day, there are no buses for a period of 1 hour and 20 minutes, and only every hour after that.

Lately, I have tried to ride to intercept the bus along one of the routes where it travels every 15 minutes. About 80% of the time, this is successful. But 20% of the time the bus does not have a bike rack. This is not consistent, either, with buses with or without racks seeming to change from day to day.

But no matter what, it takes a minimum of 50 minutes to travel one way to work from home without the bike, or, depending on time waiting at the bus stop, about 30 minutes with the bike/bus combo.

Yesterday, however, the bus driver insisted that my bike was too big for the rack, even though it had been on that particular bus (identifiable by a stuffed lizard attached to the bike rack) several times before. After some passive-aggressive old man-isms, he insisted that I "get it checked out", whatever that means, and let me travel. 

That was it for me. To top it off, my bike, which had the puncture fixed the day before, ended up with another puncture after about 5 minutes of riding.

So I drove the car.

Peak moment in Canberra traffic and I decided to drive home via Gungahlin Drive. $6 for parking, 10 minutes driving and I was home. Parking cost me about $2 more than the bus even after the BPay discount via MyWay. I have to pay for registration, maintenance and fuel anyway, so the other costs are negligible.

Adapted from © Depositphotos.com/@Den.the.Grate@gmail.com
And that is it for me. I gave it my best shot, but the obstacles are far too great. I would rather spend 10 minutes in the car than 50 minutes in the bus and getting lip from bus drivers. Excuse me for being so demanding of public transport. But there it is. Even though I have about $40 left on my MyWay card. It can stay there.

I am convinced that there has to be a better way. If anything, my Action Adventures demonstrate that public transport, at least as I would use it, is not worth the hassle. It is fine for others, but not for me. 

Funnily enough, the literature suggests that this is the biggest impediment to improving public transport in Australia. Most people agree it is a good thing, but nobody wants to use it. And now I know why I prefer my car.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Relying on the Bus in Canberra

© Depositphotos.com/@alliesinteract
After the morning's commute of 10km that, time-wise, was the equivalent of travelling from Penrith to Sydney, I thought I should take stock and reflect on the journey. It was obvious that traffic congestion on Gundaroo Drive may have had something to do with it, especially during Canberra's "peak moment".

But this evening, after staying back at work to participate in some of the many O Week activities, the bus journey home proved that things have simply gotten worse.

So at 7:30pm, as I walked to the bus stop on Hayden Drive, I watched, from 40 metres away, as the No. 250 sailed on by. No problems, it arrives every 15 minutes. Apparently.

At about 8:00pm, the next No. 250 arrives. By 8:15pm, I am at the Gungahlin Interchange.

But the No. 56, the only bus that goes to Palmerston (which used to go from Belconnen to Gungahlin), now starts at Gungahlin. At about 8:30pm, the number 56 arrives. It drops me off at my stop by about 8:45pm. 

No peak moment traffic, no nothing. But 15 minutes slower than this morning's trip during "peak moment".

Is my complaint unjustified? Is it really that improbable that more than one person needs to get from Belconnen to Palmerston, one of Canberra's most densely populated suburbs?

It is so bad that if I didn't find it a useful time to get through my reading list while sitting on the bus, I would probably move to Sydney so my commute time was not so onerous!

Time for Action: Get your kicks on Route 56

Base image © Depositphotos.com/@zager
A flat tyre on my bike and an approaching deadline left me with two choices: drive to work or be organised enough to catch the No. 56 from Palmerston to UC. I was organised enough so at 8:03am, I stepped onto the bus in Palmerston. 

Arriving at work, 10km away, I stepped off the No. 250 at 9:00am precisely. This represents a new level of inadequacy on the sole bus service for my suburb. Almost one hour to travel on the bus. The same trip can be covered on a bicycle in 30 minutes, and about 10 to 15 minutes in the car, depending on traffic.

But what is remarkable about this problem is that the latest Action bus timetable has made the Palmerston bus service worse than ever.

When I first caught the No. 56 bus back in 2005, it went from Palmerston out onto Gundaroo Drive and then on to UC in 15 minutes. Almost the same as the car. But then in about 2010, some bright spark thought that the service would be better it if went via Gungahlin. So, in effect, I got on the No. 56, went to Gungahlin, stayed on the bus, travelled back past Palmerston, then on to UC. Total travel time 30 minutes. About the same time as the bike.

But today, I discover the No. 56 ends at Gungahlin. So, too, it seems, does the No. 57. This explains why, when I miss the No. 56 and I ride down to Gundaroo Drive to intercept another bus there, I watch as at least two buses "Not in Service" travel past me quite smugly until the 250 comes along.

So the bus driver informs me that the 56 now ends at Gungahlin. I got kicked off Route 56. 

I wait patiently for the 250, and then, in gloriously bureaucratic efficiency, I arrive at my destination in twice the normal time. Thankfully, I use my time on the bus to read. Mostly, I use the bus/bike combo because it is relatively cheap and it means I do not have to waste fuel or pay for parking. Even though most bus stops are quite a walk away from wherever I want to go, it is so much easier when you can cycle to and from bus stops. 

But I can only imagine what it must be like to rely on the bus for the daily grind. Imagine living in Palmerston and working in Belconnen? A one-hour commute. That is the equivalent of living in Penrith and commuting to the Sydney CBD. This is hardly the way to encourage people out of their cars. It also makes the plight of Palmerstonians, in Canberra's most densely populated suburb, that much harder.

Want to get your kicks on Route 56? Then it's time for Action.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Traffic Congestion: An efficient solution to peak hour traffic...?

© Depositphotos.com/@alexandragl
This week, I've been reviewing the literature on transport infrastructure policy. If there is one, big, wicked problem in transport infrastructure, it is traffic congestion. Nobody likes sitting in a car capable of travelling in excess of  100km/h only to crawl along at a snail's pace for a substantial portion of one's waking day.

But respected American economist Andrew Downs (1992: 6, see Holden 2010) suggests that "traffic congestion is the balancing mechanism that allows [people] to pursue certain goals they strongly desire - goals other than rapid movement during peak hours."
Traffic congestion is the balancing mechanism that allows [people] to pursue certain goals they strongly desire - goals other than rapid movement during peak hours (Downs 1992).
The fundamental problem is the "resulting disparity between the high demand for traveling during [peak] periods and the limited supply of roads." Downs (1992: 7) outlines four theoretical solutions to this fundamental problem: 
  1. Ration the use of roads through user charges when demand exceeds supply,
  2. Increase the capacity of roads,
  3. Increase public transport, or
  4. Put up with traffic congestion.
In effect, whether by default or design, congestion is the preferred solution to the current problem.

Realistic solutions to transport problems tend to focus on what Dr Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology suggests is unsustainable: "You just increase transport, you don't reduce congestion."
You just increase transport, you don't reduce congestion (Dr Dinesh Mohan).
The biggest problem with any of the solutions proposed by Downs is that people do not want to have road use rationed, whether through tolls or other user-pays methods, and until public transport is reliably faster than travel by car (such as Hong Kong's MTR, for example), then increasing road capacity is the only logical solution. Unless, of course, governments stop funding ever-increasing road capacity that, despite the best of intentions, ultimately ends in traffic congestion closer to the CBD. Clearly this is not sustainable.

As Downs stated two decades ago, the only way to reduce peak capacity is to reorganise the times we go to work and school. Until then, traffic congestion, which is effectively making people line up to use the road system, is the optimal solution to this wicked problem.


Dearnaley, M. (2014, September 17). Metro rail won’t fix congestion - expert. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/mathew-dearnaley/news/article.cfm?a_id=111&objectid=11326500.

Downs, A. (2005). Still Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Holden, M. (2010). The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy? Sustainability, 2(2), 645–659.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Canberra Transport Nightmare: Trapped in Palmerston!

© Depositphotos.com/@olly18
Yesterday I thought I was trapped in a Freddy Kruger nightmare from which there was no escape. All roads led me back to Palmerston despite my best efforts to leave.

I had to be in the city and left Palmerston at 9:40am. When I arrived at 10am there was nowhere to park. Nothing. 20 minutes walk away there was a pay parking car park - I have no problem paying for parking - but it was for a 3 hour limit. I did not want to have to walk back to my car in the middle of the day just to feed the parking metre. If it had cost $20 I would have simply paid and got on with my day. But no, not in Canberra.

After driving around for 40 minutes I found that transport in Canberra is just like broadband. In many cases, it simply does not matter how much money you have, you just cannot get what you want. Here was a demand for something I desperately needed: a car park close enough to carry a few things to where I needed to be. In Jordan, I can find valet parking almost anywhere, yet in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world, nothing.

So, in the spirit of a mini-ethnography, I decided to test the alternatives to driving my car. I drove back to Palmerston, parked my car, and then checked the bus timetable. It was 11am and I had missed the No. 56 bus to Civic by about three minutes and the bus to Gungahlin by about ten minutes. The next bus out of Palmerston was in about another hour.

I quickly called a taxi. Because my hearing is not the best I asked for the "agent" and joined the cue. Then I heard the engaged signal - I had been cut off. This was not the customer service I was hoping for so I decided to exercise my freedom of choice. I would walk to Gungahlin and bus it to civic. I had to reconfigure what I was carrying, but my research fieldwork was now in full flow.

On the way to Gungahlin, I passed the Gungahlin High School. A woman leaving the car park was stopped across the footpath. I walked in front of the car to continue my journey while the woman looked at me and sped up to beat me across the footpath. But, knowing that "when leaving a private driveway or an off-street parking area [motorists must] give way to all traffic on the road and pedestrians and cyclists on the footpath" (see ACT Road Rules Handbook, page 73), I continued on my way.
When leaving a private driveway or an off-street parking area give way to all traffic on the road and pedestrians and cyclists on the footpath.
© Depositphotos.com/@ExoroDesigns
As a matter of course, the woman gave me a string of lip about getting in her way and impeding her journey across the footpath.

I arrived at Gungahlin at 11:40am. I know that Route 200 to Civic runs every 15 minutes. This excellent bus service follows the same route that the Capital Metro light rail project will duplicate at a cost of some $783 million (or more). But I was shocked to find that the next bus to Civic was actually the No. 56 which goes via - you guessed it - Palmerston. 

But as the 56 goes through Mitchell and Palmerston, it is quite a trip compared to the No. 200, so I resolutely waited for the 200.

Several bus numbers (the No. 250 and the No. 52) stopped at the Gungahlin Interchange that were not on the timetable. I had no idea where these buses came and went.

One minute after the No. 56 departed, the 200 arrived and off I set to Civic at 11:50am. By 12:15pm I was there and I went to the No. 5 platform to transfer to the No. 7. It was five minutes late but by 12:38pm I had arrived at my destination. To travel 17.4km took me 1 hour and 38 minutes.

There is no moral to this story but it is clear that unless you live on a major bus route, travelling in Canberra is a nightmare. The bus routes are good in some places, but not in Palmerston, the most densely-populated suburb with some 3,200 people per square km. This is 200 more people per square km than Braddon. Indeed, the bus service in Palmerston does not operate for a period of up to 80 minutes at one point in the day.

Unless the Capital Metro means more bus services will operate in Palmerston, it is difficult to see how increasing property returns for developers alone justifies the public investment. Duplicating the No. 200 bus service will certainly change the Northbourne corridor, most likely for the better, but let's not pretend that its purpose is to improve transport. Private investment in Capital Metro will end this problem but it is still not clear how the funding model will work.

Why does it take so long to travel in Canberra? Sure, the distances are vast, but there is not that much traffic outside of what I call 'peak moment'. But the combination of no parking and no bus services does not make sense. Surely there is a market for one or both of these services? Nevertheless, there are so many barriers to leaving the car at home. Today, I had thoughts of taking my bicycle and using the bike rack on the bus. This is a fine service but instead I car-pooled with a friend as I had scored a car park.

What of the attitude towards pedestrians? I suspect this indicates that there are many more institutional barriers to effective transport infrastructure in the ACT, if not Australia more generally. These barriers have long-term implications. According to the OECD, 'there is a shortfall of infrastructure, harming investment, and a lack of policies to ensure its efficient use'.
There is a shortfall of infrastructure, harming investment, and a lack of policies to ensure its efficient use.
Regrettably, Canberra is a case in point. While it may not be 'extreme commuting', if one is forced to use the bus from Palmerston to the outer areas of Civic, it would seem that the average commute time of 1.5 hours to travel 17.4km by public transport is rather disappointing. Nevertheless, I fail to see how Capital Metro will improve this situation any time soon.

Post script: The trip back to Palmerston
  • 2:44pm - Arrive at bus stop as per timetable
  • 2:51pm - Board No. 7 bus
  • 2:58pm - Arrive at Civic Interchange
  • 3:02pm - Board No. 200 bus
  • 3:27pm - Arrive at Gungahlin Interchange
  • 3:49pm - Board No. 56 for Palmerston
  • 4:04pm - Arrive my stop in Palmerston
Total commute time to travel 17.2km: 1 hour 20 minutes

(I won't add the time it takes to catch a bus to work from Fyshwick when I have to put my car in for a service. It is just too depressing).

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Connecting the Nation by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License, unless indicated otherwise. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au.