Sunday, 26 March 2017

Subsidies by Design

We've had some pretty miserable news lately. Just in time for the mining boom to come to an end, the car industry shuts up shop and the last three remaining manufacturers decide to leave within a few years of each other. There is some good news in the form of the decision to have some very expensive submarines built here but at the same time, we are told the building industry is doing it tough. A local (and large) building firm not long ago went into voluntary administration with debts to the tune of $110m, many of them owed to small scale contractors who can ill-afford it.

Unemployment and (lack of) economic growth in South Australia currently lead the nation and the word on the streets is that things will get worse before they get better.

Now that we no longer have a car industry, it is odd that we design our streets and suburbs so that it is difficult and inconvenient to make even the shortest journey using any mode of transport other than the now imported car.

On top of that, we import 91% of our fuel - often from filthy regimes that like to lock up 17 year old boys for blogging and then sentence them to death by beheading and crucifixion (in the 21st century!) or they'll simply flog them 1,000 times.

Retrofitting older suburbs takes time (but is not hard) yet we are still building most of our new suburbs as if nothing exists other than cars. Here's an example:

This one is a little north of Elizabeth. It is close to a railway station (Munno Para to the right of the picture) although the link to the station seems to be an afterthought. There is no relationship to the village centre which is far to the west of the station. The station is a park and ride on the very edge of the development (on the edge of a paddock yet to be developed) instead of designing the commercial centre right next to the station. To be fair, eventually all of the paddocks will be developed with housing but that seems to be some years away.

That's not the worst bit. Right in middle of the village centre just to the west of the commercial centre is an On The Run petrol station. I've sung their praises in the past but there is a proper place for that sort of thing - on the edge of the development. The developers have it all backwards. The railway station needs to be where the petrol station is and the petrol station needs to be on a ring road on the edge of the development.

If you design a new development with a proper commercial centre, it is more conducive to new small businesses. The mistake we make is to plonk a huge great car park in the middle of developments and allow some developer to come along and slap a concrete shopping centre in the middle. That is then filled with the usual suspects. There is, as you would expect, a Maccas, a Woolworths and plenty of junk food outlets. Every part is surrounded by car park as if, regardless of distance, that is not only the default mode of transport but the only conceivable mode of transport:

It also happened recently at the Brickworks markets. It was redeveloped and turned into a clone of so many other suburban shopping centres containing Woolies, Smokemart, Big W and all the rest. And the worst thing about it is that it is right next to the Linear Park bikeway but barely even acknowledges that fact. The entrance has been built about as far away as it can be:

Our suburbs and new developments do not seem to encourage new independent businesses. We need to set up the right environment to encourage local entrepreneurship - not just the economic environment, but the built environment makes a big difference. If you build a big private shopping centre surrounded by car parks, you'll get another woolworths or Bunnings. That is what has happened in the Munno Para development. There is no allowance for a corner deli anywhere in the development - just the usual massive store in the middle of the car park. Do we really need more of that?

In the right environment, there are plenty of new business and employment opportunities. Even a thick person like me can think of some (although whether they work is another matter).

What about a lunchtime place selling Danish Smørrebrød? It's healthy, looks amazing and would be just right with a small glass of bubbly:

With the right kind of development we could have scope for new clothing and furniture designers, jewelry makers, chefs, architects, florists, fruit and veg shops. What about a book shop that sells only classics (and also does coffee)?

Or on a slightly larger scale, a suitably qualified builder making Dutch style houseboats to be floated on the banks of the Coorong?

Maybe a business that converts old shipping containers into transportable retail outlets that could be stuck on the back of a lorry and used - well anywhere?

Or a full service laundry with one of those fantastic sheet ironing machines that you never see? I don't know about you but I cannot work out how to get those stubborn creases out of my sheets.

Here's a one more: a factory that makes truck and bus seats that are fully ventilated for the Australian climate and finally see an end to sweaty backsides on long-haul journeys. Like the ventilated office chairs you can get:

Anyway, I digress. The point is that an integral part of a country's economic policy must be the built environment. We seem to be getting there slowly. The PM has a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, and Adelaide City Council has released its Design Manual. It is beyond doubt now that people friendly cities and suburbs are good for business. We do not need more car parks - even in Adelaide.

Now that the car industry has gone, we also no longer need to set up our built environment as if it were a subsidy to the car industry. We can prop up something else now. As my good friend Jim tweeted:

An industry manufacturing hi-tech state-of-the-art vehicles using skilled workers. If only SA had such a need and opportunity.


  1. Thank you for the reference to my tweet. Unfortunately as much as I liked Jay W dissing the Feds on their planet-stuffing energy policy, his fossil fuel solution totally ignored renewable energy in the same way they overlook cycling as a sustainable transport solution, both in an economic and environmental sense.

    You're spot on with the planning mistakes detailed in the post. IMO these were due to (a) the land developer (was LMC, now Renewal SA), DPTI, and Council having *zero* awareness of the power of cycling as a utility cycling mode for the local community, and (b) these authorities viewing the railway line as an edge of the new development west of the railway, rather than a barrier severing the existing cycling-friendly suburb east of the railway, a barrier that needs to be overcome in order to knit the two areas straddling the railway together.

    Witness the infrastructure abominations wrt cycling:
    1. No direct connection across the railway. The lift doesn't count, and the millions spent installing this should have instead been put to an underpass.
    2. No bike parking, only car parking, constructed on the west side of the railway. There is now token bike parking (for 10 bikes) on the east side, but even this is underused, for systemic reasons including MHL.
    3. The (inadequate) painted bike lanes on Newton Boulevard are not even continued for the last few hundred metres to the rail station i.e. the cross-section of this new road is a narrow el cheapo FU to anyone who might dare to cycle to the station or to/from the existing suburb east of the railway.

    It is still possible to repair these oversights to a large extent and make this an exemplar of good land use and transport planning, but obviously the large car-oriented shopping centre is in place.

    Nevertheless, a smaller group of shops should still be incorporated near the rail station as part of the development of the land on the west.

    If all of the above were done, then in the future the low density suburb east of the railway would inevitably be redeveloped with medium density residential, especially if.the electrification of the railway is ever completed.


  2. I don't think the placement of On the Run is as bad as you suggest. Curtis Road is one of the feeder roads to the Northern Expressway, and has connection across the railway and Main North Road to Blakeview.

    The general design principle of placing buildings against the street (including the Woolworths centre on Peachey Road) with parking behind reduces the perception of having to drive to reach anything else. The bike racks at McDonalds get used, I haven't noticed the Woolworths ones often enough to be sure. I have noticed an absence of bike racks at On The Run (it IS the 24-hour convenience store).

    I agree the railway station seems oddly-placed in the current level of development, well away from the shops and schools, and don't know the logic of that. It might not look so distant once the Gawler Greenway runs along the track and there is development along the nearby part of Curtis Road.

    More bike and pedestrian connects across and between suburbs would definitely improve things.