Sunday, September 27, 2009

The ever-expanding drivers licence

Apart from the design of our streets and cities, there is nothing that celebrates 'car culture' more than the status accorded to the drivers licence.

The drivers licence started as a tool for the policing of motoring. Since it became a plastic card with a photo it has emerged as a virtual ticket to adulthood.

While statistics are not kept, the 'non-driving' uses of a licence as a means of identification outstrip their intended 'traffic policing' role by over ten to one.

For example, drivers licences receive consideration in the following:

Enrolling to vote Rules have been changed so that non-licence holders must jump through more hoops than licence holders to enrol to vote. The Youth Action and Policy Association (NSW) claims that this could disenfranchise many young people.

Opening a bank account or getting a loan Financial institutions will only deal with people who have satisfied a 100-point check. Drivers licences usually contribute 40 points to this.

Signing up for a mobile phone plan Here a passport or drivers licence is the starting point and has priority over credit, Medicare or proof of age cards. Even prepaid phones need ID, even though the Productivity Commission doesn't think it stops fraud.

Hire a video A drivers licence is a pre-requisite for this DVD and pizza deal

Renting a house or unit Tenancy application forms produced by real estate agents often require drivers licence information

Some jobs in public transport Even if one can make their own transport arrangements for early/late shifts, some have claimed that recruiters exclude non-licence holders. Others have been more fortuate and it's reassuring that it has not hindered the state's transport chief.

This list is not exhaustive and many other cases where a licence is requested can be found. It is however sufficient to illustrate the point above, namely that drivers licences are most often used for other than their original intended purpose.

Why is a drivers licence so widely accepted? Firstly more people have them than passports. About 85 to 90% of adults aged between 20 and 59 hold one (with lower proportions for younger and older adults). They fit into one's wallet, and most people carry them most of the time, along with their credit or debit card. Especially in places where most people drive for most of their trips.

Drivers licences also have a photo on them and are always individually issued. This makes them more favoured than Medicare cards which have no photo and can have family members listed. The failure of Gareth Evans' 'Australia Card' in 1987 and the subsequent creation of the 100-points financial ID system a few years later only strengthened the status of the drivers licence.

To be fair, there exist proof of age cards that look like drivers licences. These aren't as widely accepted and provide a second-class form of ID for non-licence holders. A Proof of Age card won't help with enrolling to vote, for example. Even where they are mentioned, proof of age cards may be considered a lower form of ID with fewer points. And it is not known whether they will feature advanced security measures of new drivers licences such as facial recognition.

How does any of this relate to public transport and growing its role?

The first is the 'TravelSmart' angle - where good walkability, bike tracks and public transport services exist we should encourage people to consider using them rather than reflexively reach for the car keys or all trips. Breaking down cultural and institutional impediments such as tax rules that favour driving are important here.

Then there is winning the patronage of youth. For a decade or so after the 1960s/1970s collapse in public transport use, a significant number of children still cycled or walked to school. But school amalgamations, 'stranger danger', the two-car household and the growth of private schools beyond walking distance from home all reduced this share. Today more children rely on 'Mum's taxi' and fewer have experience with navigating their area on foot, by bike or on public transport.

Hence it becomes more important that youth have a period in young adulthood of transport independence without a car. Each year young adults delay getting their licence because public transport is good enough for their transport needs must be regarded as a compliment to the system. And we should encourage such 'TravelSmart' thinking, given the environmental, urban amenity and other benefits of such choices.

If young people have no need for a drivers licence they should not be forced to get one. Doing so should be more a lifestyle choice (related to their transport needs) instead of being socially mandated, considered a rite of adulthood or a means to satisfy onerous identification requirments.

Where jobs do not involve driving, employers should not discriminate against non-licence holders, although the employee should of course be responsible for honouring their allocated work roster and any variations.

And the licences themselves should only be used for their original motoring-related use, with legislation guaranteeing that reasonable alternatives have equal weight as ID for non-motoring purposes.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

RACV calls for bus stop access improvements

The RACV, has been doing some useful work on Outer Melbourne Footpaths and their connectivity with bus stops.

Their investigation got significant coverage in the local papers, such as a story in this week's Mordialloc-Chelsea Independent.

The RACV's decision to lobby on footpath access to bus stops is appealing for several reasons:

The first is that they have found a gap in bus service provision. The buses may run, stops may be put in, signage may be erected, but the paths to the stops is some other department's problem so do not always get built.

The second is that the costs of remedies are low. Hence (unlike say level crossing seperations) there should be no government budgetary barriers to extend footpaths to bus stops.

The third requires one to imagine oneself as a motoring lobby. You may suppport a bus improvement but as it will be paid for by others it's a cost-free way of being seen to be green. Your members would not begrudge this since almost as many as the general population take transit, walk or cycle as well as drive. Plus the choice of footpaths running parallel to roads has no possibility of delaying cars, as could be the case with alternative projects like pedestrian crossings, roundabout removals or roadspace conversions to bus lanes. All things considered it is very good politics.

The only possible criticism of Outer Melbourne Footpaths is its limited scope. Footpaths to bus stops are good and needed. But full access to stops also needs fast, direct and safe pedestrian access across all roads at all times of day. These require crossings, traffic light cycles and urban design that do not always put the motorist first, and accordingly may not always be favoured by their lobby groups.

Despite the study's limitations the RACV has successfully brought an important public transport issue to general attention. For this it deserves passengers' thanks.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Smartcard ticketing on Youtube

A selection of instructional videos about smartcard ticketing in Australia from various sources.

WA Transperth SmartRider - Part 1

WA Transperth SmartRider - Part 2

Qld Translink Go Card introduction

Qld Translink Go Card use on train

Qld Translink Go Card topping up

Vic Myki preview

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Monday, September 21, 2009

City lobbyists go for cheap

Each age seems to bring a catch-all adjective that vested-interest spruikers use to advocate bad policy ranging from the merely ineffective to the to the positively harmful.

The last century has seen the rise and fall of such buzz-terms as 'scientific', 'electric', 'space-age', and 'computerised' to describe products. After faith in modernity wilted, 'natural', 'community' or (in Melbourne) 'liveable' became big. More recently almost everyone wants to dub their pet policy as 'environmental' or 'green'. And with the wish to give silly schemes false respectability and confine debate to 'experts', 'economically modelled' has also risen as a selling-point. Single-issue advocates try to retain their message, only changing their justifications with the times.

Today's Herald Sun contains an article where the Committee for Melbourne advocates for free city public transport.

And, right to script, the hallowed 'economic modelling' makes it into paragraph one. Environment comes in a little lower, in paragraph 4.

My standard procedure when faced with such articles is to go to the source, where additional information can often be found. For many 'news' stories start as media releases from vested interests; only a minority are uncovered by snooping journalists. To be newsworthy, these releases have to be based around some event, even if manufactured, such as the release of a 'report' (easily arranged) or a voice grab from a sympathetic academic.

Well I couldn't find the cited 'economic modelling' on the Committee for Melbourne website. Nevertheless, it contained several other relevant articles, such as their year-long lobby for free city transport and support for concession fares for overseas students.

On the other side of the ledger is professed concern about what they call creaking public transport and limiting sprawl by concentrating development along public transport corridors.

Notice how they want a buck each way? One one hand they want a stronger role for public transport, but do not agree that city passengers ought to contribute to its operation. More than anywhere else in the state, the CBD cannot operate without public transport, yet the city's supposed advocates appear unwilling to grant it a revenue stream to keep it strong.

Some claims in favour of free transport made in the article are rubbery.

Since statewide fare integration in 2007, the country visitor coming in on V/Line already enjoys free transport, not just in the CBD, but Zone 1 as well. Similarly those from the suburbs will not benefit since their daily, weekly or multi-ride tickets effectively include free CBD transport.

Then there's tourists and the benefits they bring to the city.

$6.80 for a Zone 1 daily ticket is not unreasonable. No tourist whose spent $1000 to fly here is going to curtail their expenditure on stuffed koalas, river cruises or meals because of that fare. Instead that sort of expenditure is quite inelastic, which my brand of economic model says brings Victoria more money, not less. Plus there's the theory of sunk costs, which means that if you've paid for a ticket you'd want to get some use from it. So you grab the tram to Luna Park, pop up to the zoo, visit Scienceworks at Newport and the rest, eating and drinking all the way. Good value for them and better value for us, improving transit's cost-recovery off-peak.

Of course some will benefit from free CBD transport, but they're not particuarly deserving.

For example drivers and parking operators will be winners. By parking on the CBD edge they will have free transport. If this takes longer haul trips from public transport then this harms patronage. Some short walking trips may move to public transport if the latter was free. Neither makes free transport particuarly 'green'.

Overall the Committee for Melbourne seems to be wanting 'cheap transport' more than 'better transport'. Increasingly paid for by others, of course. This is even though 'better transport' is more effective than 'cheap transport' in bringing people to the city, and hence increasing the latter's commerce. Rather than seemingly having a bet each way, this is the horse they should be backing.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A new use for an old building?

Exactly one year ago I attended the auction of the old Melbourne Tramways and Omnibus Company (MTOC) building at 673 Bourke Street, these days apparently known as Donkey Wheel House. It was passed in but sold soon afterwards.

Unlike the long-derelict Savoy across a narrow laneway, things are on the move at the MTOC. The Wine Society moved out maybe 6 months ago. A student art project inviting the passer-by to contemplate vacancy briefly appeared a month or two back. And there's now a notice advising that modifications to this heritage bulding are proposed for its new use.

I frequent this area and have contemplated how it was early to mid last century. While the state was governed from the east end of town, and the city run from Swanston Street, it was the west end that contained the state's weightiest transport.

Melbourne's noisy, industrial and fast-moving western end started its rise in the late 19th century as railways and radio replaced shipping and semaphore flags (which required water and height respectively, hence the use of Flagstaff Hill for signalling).

At the time between horse coaches and mass car and air travel those from the country and interstate came by train, disembarking at Southern Cross Station. Victorian Railways and the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works also called Spencer Street their home for at least some of their offices.

Mail also came via train and was then conveyed via tunnel to the Royal Mail Exchange just across Spencer Street. Inwards and outwards parcel facilities were provided at opposite ends of the station.

Information being the most perishable of commodities, it was not suprising that The Age was located nearby at 250 Spencer Street. But if something was too urgent for the press then a short sprint up Lonsdale Street would have you at Broadcast House, home of ABC radio stations 3AR and 3LO.

The area contains its fair share of derelict and underused buildings and retains a shabby down-at-heel apperance. Air travel and the decline of rail freight reduced its previous advantages. The tramways, ABC and mail sorting moved away. Away from the CBD's view, Docklands sprung up behind the station and the City Circle tram for tourists was removed from Spencer Street.

However we have also seen a new station at Southern Cross and booming patronage, especially for upgraded regional rail services. Southern Cross is also the hub for the successful SkyBus from the airport. Apartments and discount shopping outlets (of ordinary construction) indicate private investment in the area.

No one knows what will happen to No 673, but this will be one building to be followed with interest given its transport heritage.

More history and pictures of the building and the general area.

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