Impressions of the Occupy Melbourne protest

Occupy Melbourne
Occupy Melbourne

Today I happened to walk by the Occupy Melbourne protest and took some photos. They have set up a tent city next to Melbourne Town Hall. It was refreshing to see people with so much enthusiasm. The protestors seem peaceful and reasonably organized. Just as with Occupy Wall Street, several committees have been formed for dealing with various issues (media, parenting, food, legal, etc.). For example they have a communal kitchen which seems well run. We visited the main tent and it was interesting to watch a meeting in progress.

To me, the Occupy Melbourne group seems less `emergent’ than what the Wall Street group has been described as. Occupy Melbourne seems primarily to be an alliance of existing organizations, each with its own agenda that is already formed. These are broad in scope and they go well beyond the financial crisis to also include groups supporting indigenous rights, the Palestinian cause, the Falungong, renewable energy, and several other causes.

The result of this is that while chatting with people from several groups, it seemed they were quite keen to recruit me (and my donations) for their specific cause, rather than being truly in support of an overarching one. It felt a bit like being at a country fair with several different stalls to shop at, rather than a unified political rally. Perhaps this is also the case at the other “Occupy” events?  I wonder if these coalitions can really get together because they cover such a broad range of things, some of which are inherently quite distinct. And with so many existing groups, I wonder if new individual voices will actually be heard. Lets watch and see how things develop.

Crime on Melbourne’s Rail System and the Abuse of Statistics

In today’s headline news, the Auditor General reports that the crime rate is falling on Melbourne’s train system (e.g., see here and here). The number of incidents has remained roughly the same, while the number of commuters has gone up. So, the Transport Minister says there is more crime but the trains are safer . The Auditor General seems concerned that “Victoria Police had failed to carry out promised pilot projects designed to minimise passenger perceptions of danger on railway stations and trains”. Shouldn’t they be catching crooks instead of manipulating customer perception?

Well, if we want to play this game of statistics, here are a few additional things to consider. Many crimes probably go unreported raising questions about data reliability, but lets put that aside for a moment. The Age reports that the crime rate on Melbourne’s trains is 33 per million passengers. I did a quick web search and wow! that figure seems to be pretty high. In Boston last year there were 827 major crimes on the MBTA system out of 350 million trips, making that only 2.2 crimes per million, way below the 33 in Melbourne. Even if we only consider assaults as “serious crimes”, which TheAge reports is 17% of the incidents, that works out to 5.6 assaults per million trips. I don’t have time to find data for lots of other cities, but it appears the New York subway carries over 10 million passengers/day and sees only 5.6 crimes per day, while on the Washington Metro it is about 4.35 per million riders. Is Melbourne’s train system really that safe?

A more sensible approach is to accept that crime happens on the train/subway systems of every major city, and to try and tackle the problem. Statistics could be used constructively. For a start, explore the distribution of criminal activity. Melbourne’s trains radiate outwards from the city center and some train lines go through neighborhoods that are much more crime ridden than others. So we should be looking at the rate of  criminal activity  on each line separately instead of the average across the whole system. Even better,  identify the  location and type of criminal activity in each line segment and station, and do data mining to figure out behavioural patterns. This should inform counter measures, e.g., by putting officers on duty, adding surveillance cameras,  anticipating risky situations, etc. This way, the Police might even earn the respect of commuters, instead of just hoping to manipulate their perceptions of safety.

Rising house prices will improve apartment living

sale advertisementAnother weekend, another friend anxious about buying a house, another group of people stopping me in the elevator for the “inside scoop” about whether it’s good to live in our building. Maybe it’s a bubble but at least for now property prices are continuing to rise causing concerns about affordability. Yet I predict that at least one good thing will come out of this: the governance of inner city residential buildings will improve. In the past, Australians would only live in the suburbs, leaving city apartments for “visitors and students, temporary contractors, some empty nesters and some committed dinks“, i.e., people like me. As house prices increase faster than apartment prices, an increasing number of Australians and permanent residents are now choosing to live in apartments in the city. It’s already happening quite a bit in our neighbourhood. This will finally put pressure on body corporates, lawmakers and Councils to improve the governance of apartment buildings, which is presently very poor. In the past, residents of apartments were an unimportant constituent (non voting, and without a long-term interest), and most owners were just distant investors. As a result the laws on apartment living and the governance processes  in Australia are under-developed. For example, in Melbourne it is currently a tedious and long-drawn process to take action against a tenant/owner for bad behavior and flouting the rules (I know this first hand as I sit on an owners corporation committee). Another example is parking, a big problem in residential buildings. On occasion we have found vehicles illegally parked in our spot. In Australia, a Body Corporate can do very little about this unlike in other countries. When we lived in Boston and Singapore such cars would have been towed away and a fine imposed, but in Australia all you can do is ask the Body Corporate to put a sticker on the offender’s car. They cannot tow it away as apparently a carpark is “private property”. Recent changes are promising and in the proposed Melbourne CBD parking plan for 2008-2013, concerns such as these may finally be addressed. This mini revolution is occurring because apartment living has become a serious housing option for Australians. It doesn’t require everyone and those with large families to move to the city, all it requires is enough momentum.