Bring Back The Ferries!

Last weekend, a new bridge was constructed across the Tasman Highway near the Cenotaph in Hobart. This construction meant the highway was closed all weekend, making it much harder for Eastern Shore residents to travel into the city (they could, it just took much longer).

The Salamanca Markets were kind enough to sponsor a free ferry across the harbour from Bellerive to Brooke St Pier on the Hobart Waterfront (here’s their page giving details of the ferry service).

We’re pretty excited because WE’RE ON A BOAT!

Given my enthusiasm for public transport, and given I was attending an event in the city in the afternoon, I thought we should check it out.

I also wanted to make sure that any person ‘investigating’ demand for a ferry service would know that it would be used. I need not have worried on that last point. I got chatting to a few people and apparently, there were hundreds of people lined up to cross into the city by 10 am in the morning. So great was demand that for a part of the day they put on two ferries rather than one!

Look at how happy these people are!

I’m well aware that a sunny, calm Saturday afternoon probably results in greater demand than a cold winter morning. To that I say: ferries (at least this one) have a bar – with coffee in the morning and a beer at night, it beats the bus!

All I know is, Hobart has proven that we’re keen for it.

You Can’t Optimise For Tourism

There’s been a bit of discussion recently following the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart. The Lord Mayor of Hobart, Ron Christie, is warning of the dangers of Dark Mofo and the welcoming of tourists into Tasmania.

I personally think Dark Mofo is a great festival that gets sleepy Hobartians out of their beds on cold winter evenings. It (and other arts events) should be encouraged.

But it did make me think more generally about tourism in Tasmania and what is healthy and what isn’t for the state. My hypothesis is this: you can’t optimise a place for tourism, because to do so ruins the reason the tourists come.

I’d like to cite an example. Last year my partner and I went to Vietnam, and we visited a town called Sapa. Sapa was a little mountain resort village surrounded by beautiful mountains, with beautiful hiking trails all around. And then they started building more resorts and other infrastructure for the tourists. And now the only people there work in the tourism industry, and it’s not real any more. I remember looking at the town square and remarking, “it’s like Vietnamese Disneyland.” It wasn’t fun to look at ‘villagers’ who lived in apartments and went out into the village to sell trinkets to passing tourists. It was a complete waste of time going because I didn’t experience a Vietnamese village, which was the reason I went in the first place.

Hobart is a bit more than a mountain village, but it’s also surrounded by beautiful mountains with beautiful hiking trails. It has an identity it has built up over the last few decades as a “clean and green” place, where nature is just left to be. The influx of tourists has caused a lot of angst between people who want to optimise for tourism (such as building resorts on the East Coast of Tasmania, or building a cable car up Kunanyi [Mount Wellington]) and those who want to leave the natural places alone.

The problem with leaving these natural places alone is that the tourists are going to come anyway. You’re damned if you do put in the infrastructure and let the infrastructure ruin nature, and you’re damned if you don’t put in any infrastructure and the nature just gets trampled. In this way, Tasmania’s natural beauty is bound to suffer in the future (unless we put in place limits on the number of visitors). We just get to choose the method in which it happens.

Back in the city (if Hobart can yet be called that), it’s a different story. Tasmania’s economy has suffered in the last couple of decades as our older economies (farming, mining and forestry) have shrivelled up. Only high-end agriculture (have you tasted Tasmanian cheese? YUM) remains as a viable source of income for the state. Then MONA happened, and everything changed.

Almost overnight, MONA changed Hobart. Tourism went from being a small part of our economy to the saviour (willing to bet David Walsh would love being called that) that was going to fix Tasmania’s economic woes. And for almost the last decade, it has done just that. It’s brought in visitors to both the summer and winter festivals, to the museum, and to Tasmania generally. It’s made Tasmanians feel better about being Tasmanian, and it’s made the mainland states stop making fun of Tasmania and start taking notice.

But MONA alone cannot save Tasmania, because MONA is tourism, and if tourism is all you have left, the tourists will leave too. And there in lies the problem for Tasmania: we need to find a new economy, something our state can do well at, and something that is in demand in the world today.

This isn’t a problem for the state government to fix. Besides the fact that the government couldn’t govern it’s way out of paper bag (and the opposition isn’t much better), it’s not something the government has in it’s power to fix. Yes, the government could hand out subsidies to businesses or provide grants or some other thing. But it’s the people of this great state (and I think it is great, despite it’s problems) that have to step up and do this.

But what is something that Tasmania could do well at? Well, we’re too far away from literally everywhere else to ship anything, so volume manufacturing is out. No point making trinkets here. We could (and indeed do) manufacture high-end goods, such as furniture and clothing for rich pricks the discerning customer. But half the time these high-end goods only get sold to passing tourists. I believe the reason for this is that a sole operator in a shed just can’t sustain marketing their product to the world. The only place where we have managed to do this is whiskey. If a viable large-scale high-end manufacturing business could be built in Tasmania today, it would propel Tasmania into the future.

Tasmania is well placed to do technology, because Hobart’s lifestyle currently offers a great deal to well educated tech people. Commutes are short (relative to Melbourne or Sydney), and our network infrastructure is the best in Australia. The cost of living is cheap, so starting a startup requires less investment here than elsewhere. And we’ve had a few successes. Procreate, Biteable and Popup WiFi are going great guns. But there’s a limit to the success we can have unless we can deal with two huge factors conspiring against us.

The first of these is education. Our public school system sucks, and our university is a joke (why UTAS sucks as hard as it does is an entire article in itself). We have some of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the country. What does the technology industry need? Knowledge workers who know how to read, write, and add things up. Education is the future of Tasmania.

Secondly, whilst the cost of living is currently low, and the lifestyle is currently good, that’s changing rapidly. Housing prices are sky-rocketing and availability is plummeting, making Hobart a much harder place to move to unless you’re very rich. Our commutes are getting longer as we build houses (slowly) further and further from the CBD, meaning we’re spending longer stuck in traffic every day.

We’re scared to build high-rise buildings in and near the CBD because it might ruin what makes Hobart special, and might scare the tourists away. I’d argue that not building the high-rise buildings is even worse, because if Hobart becomes a sucky place to live for the locals (and sitting in traffic makes you miserable) then the locals will go away, and the tourists won’t be far behind them.

There are other ways to make Hobart better for the locals. Public transport infrastructure is a big one, as is Health infrastructure (more hospitals, basically). At this point, you could throw money at basically any non-tourism infrastructure project in the state and it would be a complete success (they’ll invest it in roads, you heard it here first).

If you want to make Tasmania great again (urghh, I feel sick even saying it), then tourism isn’t the answer. It can’t be. We need to invest in our local population, and we need to invest in the infrastructure that makes our local population smarter, healthier, and happier. Economic prosperity will follow.

End rant.

Renting Advice

Here is a random list of advice for one of my friends who is looking for a house.

  • If you can find yourself a house that includes white goods, you will save yourself a lot of bother moving them. In Hobart you won’t find a house without a stove, and the majority will have a fridge and washing machine. You may get a dryer or dishwasher if you’re lucky. Somebody else also takes care of repairs and collects the depreciation on the assets, which is nice too.
  • If you’re a couple, and you can afford a two-bedroom place (even if the second bedroom is tiny), go for it. Having places where you can be separate from each other (one of you in the spare room, one of you in the living room) will preserve your sanity.
  • Make sure you get a place that gets some sunlight in winter. It will vastly reduce your heating bill, and keep you sane if you’re at home during the day. Hobart-specific advice: be careful with being on the southern side of the hills in South Hobart and Lenah Valley.
  • Places with built-in heating will save you money. A reverse-cycle air conditioner (heat pump) runs at a lower price per joule of electricity than a plug-in electric heater, and is more efficient to boot. You’re unlikely to get gas heating or a wood fire (which is expensive but very very pleasant) unless you’re looking at more expensive places.
  • Be realistic about your travel and commute. Carefully consider whether you will save money by living within walking distance of work (expensive house, cheap transportation) or by living further out (cheap house, expensive transportation). Keep in mind it’s hard to change habits – if you already drive everywhere, you’ll keep on driving everywhere unless you make conscious changes.
  • Make a list of things you absolutely won’t put up with before going to look at places, and dismiss them immediately if they don’t meet with your requirements. It’s better to miss out on a place than to be stuck somewhere you can’t stand.
  • You will also have a list of nice-to-haves (for me: fan-forced oven, view of the river). These are not the same as your deal-breakers.
  • Also set a hard limit (or hard limits) on the amount you can afford before you start looking. When I last moved, I set a limit of $125/week for a room with a car or bus commute to the city, a limit of $150/week for a room with a cycle or walk commute to the city, and $200/week if I could rent two bedrooms, one to use as an office (and thus no need to commute). Bonus points if you create a full budget beforehand and can be confident in your numbers.
  • Real estate rental agents will almost always be ‘meh’ to deal with. They will (generally) be unresponsive and unhelpful. Private landlords will either be great, or even worse.
  • In Tasmania, make sure you check out the Consumer Affairs’ site on renting.

Eight Things I Hate About Living In Hobart – Six Years On

Six years ago to the day, I wrote a bit of a rant about Hobart. At the time I thought nothing of it, my blog only has three readers (Hello!). Of course, there’s Google.

Over time, this one post has attracted more visits than any other post on my blog (I haven’t done the hard numbers, but my guess is that it would be more than all other posts combined). Which annoys me, since over the last six years Hobart has become an amazing place to live. So let me address a few points:

  • Hobart is no longer boring. Thanks in a large part to MONA, Hobart has a huge art and events scene. Apart from the dead of winter, Hobart is a live and happening place.
  • The public transport system is largely fixed. It goes where you want to go, and unless you’re trying to get from one satellite suburb to another (Tranmere to Kingston for example) it won’t take forever. It could still have improvement (most public transport systems could) but it’s better than it was.
  • The roads are better too. We’ve had a lot of capital works done recently, and a lot more coming up. Bypasses and on-ramps are being constructed at an amazing speed. Intersections are being improved.
  • We got the NBN, Australia’s fibre to the house/node/something network, before any other states. I have a solid fibre connection to my house, and bandwidth is almost never an issue any more.
  • Thanks to a few by-law modifications in the CBD area, walking through a haze of cigarette smoke while shopping is much reduced. The CBD is a lovely place now.

I won’t comment on TV (apart from the cricket and ABC News 24, I hardly watch it any more). We also still get a few two-headed-Tasmanian jokes from mainlanders, but I think they’re jealous these days. All in all, it’s a pretty good place to be.

As a final note, it seems the ABC agrees with me, writing an in-depth article about how much MONA has changed Hobart over the last five years.

The Hobart CBD’s Real Problems

At the moment there’s a bit of discussion floating around in the local papers and on the TV about the state of Hobart’s shopping precincts. In particular, a lot of focus has been on Hobart’s Elizabeth St. Mall, and the crime that happens there in broad daylight. Apparently this crime is killing off the CBD as shoppers are scared away. That’s only a small part of the problem. Here’s what’s really happening…

Firstly, the Internet. 10-15 years ago you needed to go into the CBD to do quite a few of the non-everyday purchases you made, such as stationery, clothing, books and jewellery. There were smaller shops in suburban shopping malls sure, but if you wanted something specific, into town it was. Now, these same purchases can be made online, saving the purchaser time and money. A few days ago I bought a new fountain pen online. I selected from an absolutely huge range (1000+ items), quite a few cheaper than retail price, and I didn’t have to leave home during the cold of winter. A few days later it arrived on my doorstep without any other effort on my part. Seeing as I would have had to do research online anyway, I saved quite a lot of time. There are maybe some things I wouldn’t buy online (such as formal clothing, which ideally would be tailored, and at the very least should be tried on before purchase), but for a lot of items, the Internet will do fine.

Secondly, getting into and out of the Hobart CBD is the pits. There are three main choices. First up is driving the car in. This is bad for the environment, for a start. More importantly however, in this case, parking is just annoying. There isn’t enough of it, most spots being taken by people who drive in for their nine to five jobs. Which leads me in to the second option: catching a bus. There are plenty of buses going along the main routes into the city, but relatively few anywhere else. From my house there are two buses heading into town, and both are before nine in the morning. Which makes shopping a bit inconvenient, seeing as the shops don’t open until nine. There aren’t any buses back again until after three in the afternoon. Metro Tasmania can’t really be blamed for this, as it’s a chicken and egg problem. They can’t put more buses on unless people are already using the ones they have. The only other option is riding a bike, which if you live on the Eastern Shore (as I do) is hampered by the Tasman Bridge, which was certainly not designed with cyclists in mind (I’ll admit I’m slightly uncoordinated, but coming away with flesh wounds is excessive). Hobart is also incredibly hilly. Basically, it’s easier to drive the car to somewhere where there’s lots of parking, which is where land is cheap, which is out near the airport. It’s not difficult logic.

Finally, as more shops keep closing, less people will want to come in to just browse. As there are less people browsing and buying, less shops will be able to sustain themselves. Evidence for this can be seen in the downturn in the CBD after half of the Myer building burnt down.

I love Hobart’s CBD, don’t get me wrong. But unless the Hobart City Council changes policies (which they are starting to wake up to) then there is nowhere to go but out… to the airport.