Saturday, 15 October 2016

A Surprise visit to Sydney and some Transit Oriented Tourism.

The weekend 29 Sept - 2 Oct was a long weekend in Melbourne.  It is a new public holiday to commemorate the Australian Rules Football Grand Final.  It's a weird reason for a day off, but it makes a lot more sense than the Queen's Birthday public holiday (which falls on a day that is not the Queen's Birthday)  We took the opportunity for a last minute trip to Sydney.

It was a strange holiday for a strange long weekend.  My holiday became an urbanist site inspection, a tour of Sydney's suburbs where the public transport network and the places it linked were the major attraction. Armed with an Opal Card (available for free + transit credit from Sydney airport and a copy of the Opal Travel App we had become "Transit Oriented Tourists", looking at what works and what doesn't on the Sydney network and asking whether there were lessons for Melbourne.

Airport Rail
Our first journey was a ride on the airport rail link.   Sydney Domestic railway station was fancy. Located almost directly underneath the airport luggage pick up area and well promoted, the station was conveniently located and easy to find.  The entrance area was spacious and included  with staffed ticket booths and detailed information boards on the left, OPAL recharge stations on the right and gates to the platform ahead.  This ticketing area design provides detailed information for those travellers who need Sydney's transport network and ticketing system explained to them whilst providing an express route for those who know the system and just need to add travel credit before boading. Below the ticketing area are the train platforms, constructed wide to provide the space for crowds of people and their baggage to move around.  On each platform recorded announcements and information screens tell you when the next train is coming and where it will stop.  The stations make a statement and it its "This city is serious about transit".

However, premium service comes at a price.  The $16 per person Domestic to Central rail link trip costs the same as an OPAL adult daily fare ($15).  A adult daily fare provides all day travel on all transport modes to every transit stop in Sydney (except, of course the airport).   At 6km, the airport rail link trip is short - and for many airport passengers - e.g. family groups and people living in Sydney's inner west a taxi trip will be cheaper.  Sydney has built an airport rail link that is schmick but doesn't compete well against car based alternatives.

Chatswood Station - reflections on elevated rail
The Victorian State Government is currently undertaking a major project to physically seperate road from rail at 50 intersections.  Its a big job and there is more than a little community angst about the potential impact of the changes. Options involving elevated rail have proven controversial with some residents living next to the railway deeply opposed and the the rest of the community non-committal or supportive.

Proponents of elevated rail argue that it is cheaper (mostly because most of the construction work can be done off site, then craned into position) and less disruptive to existing services (again because most of the work is done off site) - allowing the project to seperate more intersections in their time and money budget.  They also note that once construction is complete the ground level land can be repurposed for parks, shops or additional parking at railway stations.  They point to existing elevated rail stations like Glenferrie (constructed 1882) to argue that elevated rail can be an attractive part of Melbourne's urban fabric and a integral part of vibrant shopping precincts.

Opponents of elevated rail argue that the clearances required to continue operation during the construction phase (well above the existing electrified railway power supply) makes elevated rail structures proposed by this Government large, visually obtrusive and a likely target for graffiti.  They are concerned that the usual noises of train operation (including early morning and late night) will be more prominent if the noise source is elevated.  Their protest pages feature images of derelict spaces under freeway viaducts and their petitions express the fear that this project is more concerned with getting project completed cheaply than consulting with people to create local places that work.

With this debate in mind, I went to Chatswood to a recently constructed (completed in 2008) elevated rail transport interchange.   I liked what I saw,   The design included the reinforced concrete poles typical of modern transport viaducts,  stuff that is strong, cheap and a better point of comparison than the rivited iron viaducts of Glenferrie station.  It looked OK.  The design incorporates a ground level bus interchange and they've made a reasonable effort to retain some of the original railway buildings as a nod to heritage.

Chatswood Station: elevated rail, with bus terminal under rail - retaining and repurposing the original railway station building.
Again the station exit is well designed.  The platform escalators empty onto a walkway space with options to exit to shops lining either side of the tracks.  The under station space has coffee shops and other retail and the the walkways along the track are covered.  It feels a little too clean and new for my tastes and overall it felt like walking off a train into a shopping mall.  (My photos even look like some architect's rendering) Overall the space it works.   If our elevated rail projects can incorporate the best bits of Chatswood then we'd be doing well.

Chatswood Station: Station exit below rail, with retail at exit level and housing above.

Chatswood Station: View from street level

Final Thoughts
Twitter activist @noskyfail points out that Chatswood 'is no sky rail'.  Sydney is hilly.  'Ground level' can change from block to block.  Chatswood station takes advantage of these changes of elevation to limit the visibility of the station buildings.  For those that oppose Melbourne's elevated rail because the structures be highly visible (and in their opinion, ugly) the Chatswood example doesn't apply to the Melbourne elevated rail debate.

I think there are some valuable things to learn from the Chatswood example.  Chatswood is recent, uses contemporary construction techniques and provides an example of what is possible with thoughtful elevated rail designs. However, it also shows us the limitations of the current concept designs and 'reference drawings' that are informing the Melbourne level crossing removal debate.  We can do better than what's being proposed. We need to be wary of the tendency of all major projects to define good urban design features as "out of scope" of their heavy engineering project.  This is important because we'll be living with the outcome, both the improvements to road and rail network operations and the places left behind when the building works are finished.

There are lessens too from the Sydney Airport Rail Link.  Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good.  If our efforts are focused on making the perfect completely unobtrusive rail service we might end up creating something that is so expensive that it doesn't work as intended.  

Thursday, 11 February 2016

And now what?

Its six weeks after our return to Melbourne.  I have a place to live. Its starting to look homely.  I'm back at work and for the large part I've picked up my life where I put it on hold just before the bike tour.  This is a danger time. The big goal is achieved, even the little goals of getting settled are achieved.  I'm at a loose end and prone to speculate, "And now what?"

For months after the 2002-3 ride I was unhappy and frustrated.  I had achieved this epic thing. I had circumnavigated Australia by bike. Yet within weeks of returning to Melbourne I had returned to my pre-ride routine.  In my mind the ride had changed everything.  In my daily life it changed nothing.

Sharing the experiences of the ride proved harder than I imagined.  People were interested, but didn't empathise.  They loved the tales of mechanical problems in remote places and slightly crazy country people, but no-one really understood what I meant when I praised the daily rhythms of life on the road.  My highlights, waking to the animal noises of first light, the comfort that comes from packing up, the routine of hour upon hour in the saddle, these things meant nothing to my city friends.  Talking about my highlights typically got a "I think what you've done is a amazing achievement but I could never do it" type response.  Talking about the stuff that was important for me only highlighted how much of an outsider I had become.   I had lost the common ground with many of my friends, and gradually we drifted away.  In many ways returning to the 'real world' proved much harder than the ride itself.

I resolved the 2002-3 post ride blues by shaking my life up.  A year after the ride I returned to uni, and was training for a brand new profession.  Six months after that I had changed career, was in a new relationship and was happy again.   However, I'd lost the best part of a year to introspection, and with it the chance to create anything valuable with my writings from the road. I'm not going to make that mistake twice. 

This time I'm going roll over that sense of achievement from the completing a big ride into the next big project.   I want a create a professional blog about city making and sustainable transport.  Through that blog I will engage with important issues affecting my profession and participate in a global discussion about what makes a good city.  I take the following blogs as my inspiration:

  • Chris Loader's Charting Transport- an Australian transport and city planning blog that knows better than to bring an opinion to a data fight.
  • Daniel Bowen's Daniel Bowen dot com - A Melbourne discussion of all things public transport related.
  • Brent Toderian's Planetizen - An Vancouver based urban designer reflects on the big question 'What makes a great city?

That's it.  I've announced it to the world.  Nailed my colours to the mast.  Time to get writing. 


Wednesday, 6 January 2016


6 Jan 2016 - Melbourne
The ride has reached its end.  I'm back in Melbourne, back at work and adjusting to daily living after the big ride.  What now?

Well there is the small matter of finishing the tale.  In my last update we were heading into Port Augusta, doing our best to avoid the hot, windy weather of summer and the fires it brings.  We took the main road south, took a short detour on the Yorke Peninsula before heading inland to arrive in Adelaide via Gawler.  From Adelaide we flew to Launceston, and then we rode the west coast of Tasmania before returning to Melbourne via Hobart.

26 November - Port Germain

Big freight trains, and the beautiful Flinders Ranges

At Port Germain the tidal flats are big enough to use as horse training grounds.

Its so hard to get a good photo of a kite, so I was fairly impressed when I got this one.

Sunset just out of Port Pirie

27 November - Wallaroo

Wind - and a few hills, but mostly rude truck drivers.
28 November - Port Wakefield

The road into Port Wakefield crosses saltmarsh country

The 'port' is really a mangrove.

Last light over the sea.
29 November - into the fire zone
These islands of bush surrounded by wheat are important animal habitats,

The people of Pinery were hit hard a grass fire two days before we passed through

Crops, fencing, stock and houses were lost.
2 December - Preparing for flight
To fly with a bike you need to pull it apart.and put in a box

To get it into the box, you'll need to remove the handlebars.

And remove the pedals - the thread is in the opposite direction to the pedaling direction.
This is a job that can get a bit sweary.

Important - deflate your tires before you fly.
Also, carry something to clean your hands when you're done.
3 December - Launceston, Tasmania
If you are touring and looking for a place to stay, check out warm showers, its the Air B&B of the bike touring world. When in Launceston, say hello to Vicky and Malcolm.  They are good people

Tributaries of the Tamar.

4 December 2015

The wetlands of the Tamar Valley are popular with birds.

That fast moving tongue gives the echidna its scientific name - Tachyglossus
6 December - The road to Burnie
If you see a Tasmanian Devil on the side of the road - report it to the Tassie Devil Roadkill Project.
Researchers are monitoring Tasmanian Devil populations to how they are holding up under the combined threats of habitat loss, road kill and a nasty transmissible face cancer.

We reported several devils to the researchers, but we didn't see a live one.

The road between Ulverstone and Burnie has some lovely moments.
7 December - Burnie
Burnie - exports woodchips

and imports tourists.
8 December
It rained (a lot)

Pademelon - not quiet as cute as quokka, but close.

9 December - heading south towards Lake Rosebury
Because Echidnas can crawl up in a ball, they tend to ignore you if you keep your distance.

A healthy (Facial Tumor free) Devil meets its fate crossing the Murchison Highway.

Lake Rosebery is one of two hydro electric dams on the Pieman River. 

The Emu bay railway mainly provides ore transport for nearby mines
10 December - Pieman River Road

11 December - Zeehan to Strahan 
It rained, again - but the cloud on the hills made me think of Scotland.
12 December - Boat ride up the Gordon River
The Gordon river, wild, protected and beautiful

As the boat headed upstream my thoughts went to Joseph Conrad.

And how the Gordon Below Franklin Dam protest could be thought of as the 'origin story' of the Australian Greens Party.

Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour was once a prison colony.
Convict labourers built ships from Huon pine.  Some of them used the boats to escape. 

13 December - Strahan to Queenstown

The road is hilly, winding and popular with motorcyclists.
15 December - Queenstown and Derwent Bridge
We kinda cheated and caught a coach between Queenstown and Derwent Bridge.  I don't feel guilty.  The hill out of Queenstown is insane.
There's a rack and pinion railway running between Strahan and Queentown.

16 December -Tarraleah

17 December - Towards Strathgordon (Day 1)

18 December - Towards Strathgordon (Day 2)

19 December - Strathgordon