The tale of my selfish urban vanity (SUV)


Light rain was spotting across the hood of my friend’s Alfa Romeo. The rain started coming in waves and might have even put out the fire flickering in the bush nearby – but considering what had just occurred, my friend wasn’t taking any chances.

He pulled my unconscious frame from the now burning wreck. All windows had been shattered and the windscreen was gone, allowing him to drag me over the dashboard and across the crumpled bonnet. The tree that had put a stop to our trip down the mountain was now skewering the back half of the car. I imagine I also looked like a wreck, bleeding from the ears, arm and with a serious seatbelt burn that had left parts of my neck skinless. The whiplash was severe enough to put me in a neck brace for a fortnight but it was the contusion to the side of my brain that would cause doctors the greatest concern.

My skull had made impact with the pillar beside the passenger seat. Ironically, this reduced the stress on my spine from severe lateral movement, the doctors told me some days later. Without that pillar, they believe my my neck would have snapped.

That was fifteen years ago. These days, some vehicles come with side (curtain) airbags.  Last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”


suvs everywhere

The decision of what to drive sees personal responsibility ramming right into various measures of safety, convenience and economy.

That horrendous day I was in a crash was fifteen years ago. I can’t actually recall any of it – beyond getting into the passenger seat minutes before the accident – but it weighed on mind last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”

As of December 27, three Australians have died in cars each day since Christmas Eve. This is appalling but it is actually less than the average for Australia  (3.5 deaths per day). On the list of countries by traffic-related deaths, we are 11th best. (By comparison, Canada is 22nd and Russia is 57th.)


The push for more safety features in vehicles has clearly helped reduce fatalities, as have road safety campaigns, for which our nation is well known. One five-minute montage by Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission has been viewed 15 million times.

So the message appears to be getting through. Yet, I am still baffled by the decision of many people to purchase larger cars. Larger cars are not necessarily safer than smaller cars. SUVs are more likely to rollover.

Clearly, owning a jacked-up road-hog is no big deal for many Australians. A high-riding soft-roader is now the choice of many people over the old 5-door monsters of the eighties with SUVs remaining the fastest growing segment of the Australian market in 2012, with sales up 25.3 per cent over the previous year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

I have railed against these north-shore tractors for some time – even in this very blog – so the choice creates a contradiction in my life bigger than a 2.7 tonne Lexus LX.

Climate change is real, humans influence it, and these gas-guzzling leviathans are certainly a detour on the road to cleaner energy. Plus, this is an issue of safety – for those travelling outside your heavy-metal cocoon; your limited visibility, greater weight and longer stopping distance, doubles a pedestrian’s risk of death in an accident. The size of SUVs also make them a menace to smaller vehicles, bikes, motorcycles or scooters. What risk am I happy to put other road users at?


In many ways, the car industry pulled an enormous swifty on buyers with the marking of such high-powered battle wagons. Just as petrol prices jumped and we all began to ditch larger family cars, and manufacturers were finding ways to pull greater performance from smaller engines, we were all sold a new fantasy that SUVs (Stupid Ugly Vehicles) could help us escape the monotony of standstill traffic with the option to go off-road at any time. It was as absurd as it was successful.

The do-gooders yelling, “Wait! Didn’t we spend the nineties mired in a hellish war over oil?”, were easily drowned out by the aspirated rattle of new SUVs leaving dealerships all over the world.

Take a moment to consider that a car ctegory that did not exist in the 1980s, now has seven sub-categories: Compact, mid-size, large, crossover, hybrid,off-road, and 3-row SUVs.

Many popular small SUVs fail a critical crash test (link below)

I would have preferred a station wagon renaissance – functional, practical, five seats and room for a late-night romp at the drive-in theatre – but no, we had to have more mountain-range Tonka toys. Thanks, Detroit.


The stupidity of most SUV designs is clear; more people equals more stuff, but manufacturers seem to think fifteen cup holders will do the trick. It does not. As a result, many SUVs now carry luggage pods on roof-racks. It’s madness. While no middle-class mother needs a 3-tonne vehicle to carry their kids to soccer practice, they do need more space. Families are buying an increase in height and weight – and nearly always a loss of fuel efficiency – along with much less boot space than a traditional family wagon or even some hatchbacks would have provided.

Bootspace in SUVs:

  • Volkswagen Tiguan (SUV): 395L
  • Mazda CX-5 (SUV): 403L
  • Subaru Forester (SUV): 422L

Bootspace in Non-SUVs

  • Mazda 3 hatchback: 430L
  • Commodore Sportwagon: 895L

This left me with three remaining issues.


The Honda Odyssey, The KIA Carnival, the planet-sized Mercedes Vito all offer at least seven seats but in the case of the Honda and KIA, the bootspace is sadly lacking and bizarrely, access to the Odyssey’s third row is restricted if you have kids in the middle row. This is akin to buying a bigger TV with an immovable sticker in the middle of the screen. Great… but, c’mon!


So you want five seats AND a boot big enough for five people? I decided the best way around this dilemma was to get an extended SUV that has a large boot when you lie a third row of seats flat. I wish it were a seven seater station wagon but such models usually include after-market seats that face backwards. If your kid is blind, this is perfect. If they are not, they soon will be. I like to think of it as more of a people mover.


I love diesels. They have less parts, travel further on a single tank and will last longer than your average petrol engine. Annoyingly, I am pretty sure that the week i bought my first diesel, the price of diesel fuel began creeping above the cost of unleaded and it ids often 5% above it.

Thankfully, How Stuff Works says “the diesel is hard to beat, delivering as much as 25 percent more mileage (on diesel fuel) than a gasoline engine of similar size” – something I have found to be true even when driving a car in the inner suburbs 80% of the time.

Diesels also offer our best chance of bio fuel becoming a viable option. There are some concerns about carcinogens in diesel fuel you should know about. If you think the smoke is brown, there is turbo lag or the engine noise is much worse than petrol engines, modern diesels have done away with all these.

More reading:

Your SUV uses more fuel (per person) than a Boeing 737

How to Buy A Fuel-Efficient Car

Diesel Emissions Spark Health Fears

American Gun Deaths to Exceed Traffic Fatalities by 2015 – Bloomberg

Bicycle sales overtake CARS for the first time ever in Europe

Popular small SUVs fail critical crash test

Cutting your car use

National holiday road toll falls by nearly half on last year


My most loved architectural shots by me from my car window

Architecture affects your mood, your sense of wonder, your ability to get through the day. When it’s good you won’t notice it. When it’s great you may not even realise that it’s given you a certain lift. When it’s bad you’ll feel it niggling like an itch or a distant fire alarm that won’t let you find peace. Because what’s done is done. That is, until someone comes by with a good mind – and budget – for rethinking what’s been done.

When I step into many buildings I immediately think ‘Oh no, disaster.’ And for me, that’s where the engagement usually ends. That’s why I enjoy driving around surveying what people build as their home – sometimes I’m alone, often I’ll have kids asleep in the back.

Unlike the enjoyment of Grand Designs, seeing what’s inside a building tends to unravel the mystery too much for me. I much prefer to judge the book by its cover, as it were, standing in front of a house and imagining the people inside, their jobs, guessing at what motivated their choice of bricks, that colour paint, such enormous windows or no windows at all.

For some years, I’ve been compiling a gallery of photos taken out the front of the houses of everyday Australians who love in Sydney. I began a Facebook album with the goal of capturing the most inspired and most typical. And in recent months, the album has become a topic many people raise with me. I’ve even had several submissions from people who spot a good house and photograph it, thinking of my album.

(I have also had requests for it to be published as a coffee table book, but that won’t happen as the quality of my photos was never a concern.)

This week, using a new Facebook feature,  I opened up  the album for contributions. If you submit an appropriate pic to me via my Facebook page I will gladly add you as a contributor (background checks, permitting).

Here are my favourites.

The McMansion Mothership

The McMansion Mothership. The Shire.

The McMansion was a spawned by a widespread demand for affordability, function and privacy amid the shrinking blocks of urban sprawl. I’d like to think this monolith was the original, with broad shoulders, an eagle chestplate and a doorway big enough to sprout small houses.

Grand Resigned

Grand Resigned. Dural.

So many of us dream of a countryside mansion set among fields of green. This house would have had it all, that is, if something had not gone terribly wrong. She now stands alone in a field, scaffolding still attached as if holding out hope that builders may return to finish her off before the encroaching bush does.

Cathedral windows and a angel watching over me.

Cathedral windows and an angel watching over me. Loftus.

Being caught for the first time is always a special moment. For me, it happened one sunny day as I drive a sleeping baby around the southern suburbs of Sydney. This home of weatherboard and louvred windows captured me as the owner captured me capturing a photo.

A home with such simple lines it could have been poured into a single mold.

A home with such simple lines it could have been poured into a single mold. Five Dock.

Of all the architectural styles I have noticed and photographed, I can’t get past the simplicity and artfulness of art deco numbers from the twenties and thirties. After that, I most enjoy the angular roofs and enormous windows of the sixties. There as always a single vision, unlike modern homes with their eclectic materials, varied textures and look-at-me rooflines. Sure, they have more fun, but something is lost in all the revelry.

I must be getting old.

Let me know if you also think architecture is captivating or if you think this is all bonkers.

Sydney or Bust


The Southerly Buster is the perfect analogy for living in Sydney. There’s always something fantastic about to whack you in the face.

And I don’t mean that drunk bloke glassing you after a great night at the pub. I’m being serious.

Why do you think King’s Cross is so close to beautiful Potts Point, Penrith is next to the Blue Mountains, and so many busy and noisy streets are lined with stunning crêpe myrtles?

It works the other way too. You’re having a great swim at the beach and then you get caught in a rip. Everyone’s day at the cricket is ruined by a knob with a big flag.

Whenever I have a day hating the CBD I wander down to the harbour. And there it is… The Cahill Expressway.

We enjoy mixing the ugly with the beautiful — because too much of either is nauseating. I truly love Sydney … even if it makes me feel dirty. Because there’s always a southerly coming.

Southerly Busters Explained – Bureau of Meteorology

Sydney apartments

Sydney apartments

I take photos of the most inspired and the most typical architecture I see in Sydney. You can add your own to the hashtag #AustralianHouses on Instagram, or check out my Facebook gallery (click photo).

New Sydney skyscraper needs a nickname…

8 Chifley Square is 30 storeys tall, easily viewed from three sides and about to take its place on Sydney’s increasingly diverse skyline.

How it will look…

Welcome Sydney’s newest member

How it looks now…

The structure has distinctive yellow and red steel supports. Each row of glass features a pale platform to
boost shade inside the office block.


8 Chifley Square

Atop the building is an enormous vertical grille.

Across the road from the Deutsche Bank ode to steel and glass, this Mirvac construction is a bold and playful design in a CBD of colourless masculine monoliths, giving the financial district a European counterpoint.

The girders and shades evoke a Meccano set or may even have taken inspiration from the Pompadour museum in Paris (see picture at bottom).

I honestly can’t think what it could be called by Sydneysiders, but it’s time we got to work thinking up a nickname.

The Pompadour, Paris

More: Mirvac Design website

UPDATE: First suggestion I’ve had came via twitter… “The Shopping Trolley”

Best signs from Sydney’s Coal Seam Gas protest

Most people’s signs at this event were clearly provided to them and featured the amusing NO GAS slogan, held aloft as if it were a personal accomplishment.

But as I wandered through the crowd I noticed a few original ideas, soni decided to snap them.

Impressively, I think, the obvious FRACK OFF was nowhere to be seen.




Costco – but at what cost?

Visiting Costco took more gusto than I could previously muster. But today, under the mistaken idea that the big-box store sold dishwashers, I headed into the fray.
I left thirty minutes later, concerned for our society, empty-handed and with bruised ankles.
Here’s how it went down…
1) Entering the carpark on a rain Friday at noon… I discover this is apparently the peak period for masses of adults dressed in smart casual to go bulk shopping in SUVs .
2) I find a car spot and a mega trolley. Costco trolleys are made to carry a month of shopping and a flat-screen TV. And I saw this proved time and time again. It also straps in two children and there’s room for two more. I also saw this fact proved. “Look how big their family is!” My 3-year-old said. And there they were, mum pushing all four kids in one trolley.
3) Entering the building is my first challenge. There are people everywhere but as I watch, none have any discernible direction. There are no signs saying SHOP ENTRANCE so I circle the entire carpark till I am drawn, inexplicably, along with another twenty trolley-pushers, toward what could only be the Death Star.
They all move as one up a long ramp. It feels like Aldi so far, except it’s not to scale.
4) I get inside and there are more trolley traffic jams. As I wait for movement up ahead, I am overtaken several times. It’s as cut-throat as the carpark. At least as shoppers, everyone apologises for ramming each other in the ankles.
Is this supposed to be fun, I wonder? I look around for motivation. Most shoppers look pale and bemused as if this is their regular routine. (If they know how this operates, why did they come in rush hour?) I bypass a woman checking for membership cards. At this point, Costco has gone from supersized Aldi-clone to cult, in my book. I literally whisper “I don’t have one, yet!” And the lady waves me through, explaining where to buy one when I want one. So, why check for cards if you don’t need one? I can only assume it is so that the CCTV operators know which of us to track. I have been marked.
5) As for prices, they are undeniably cheap. I found my TV for $150 cheaper than Bing Lee. Confectionery, coffee machines, dodgy barbecues, they are all 20% cheaper than I’ve seen. I could buy a 4-pack of toothbrushes what I assume is a good price, but who else sells a 4-pack? The same goes for a 500g pack of Doritos. Who ever wanted that much?
Sure, you could get back the $60 cost of membership in one vist, no worries, but it’s certainly easier the happier you are to suspend the belief that you can have too much of a good thing.
6) I told my kids to watch our for who has the fullest trolley. And there were many contenders. If you ever go to Costco, I urge you to play it. Over-consumption is out of control. I understand this could be a monthly trip for some, but seriously, if they offered bigger trolleys, I do think people would fill those too. The only reason I think some shoppers stopped, was because they’d have to leave a passenger behind to fit any more in.
7) I was consumed, but mostly by the scale of the place. They import it, put it on the shelf, it goes home in a huge trolley. If everything can be done this way, why would we need the corner store? Convenience? Cheapness appears to beat convenience, for lots of Costco shoppers.
Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO is a brilliant read on the dangers of Big Box stores and how they have killed off many small retailers across middle America. The true sadness is the service. We are substituting any personal touch for an extra 10% off. The man who owns the store with his son stacking the shelves is replaced by a nameless, apathetic salesman who’s real task is primary task is to maintain order while avoiding eye contact.
I talked to a staffmember – most of whom stand idly by, hoping not to be consulted, just like at Bunnings – who told me that while they didn’t offer dishwashers of ovens yet, they would soon. “They’ve really only just opened. They’re look into all of that,” he said. “Plus, they’re opening a new Costco at Casula, and that one will be bigger!”
Oh boy.
My father used to have a card for Campbell’s Cash and Carry. There were myths around about how cheap it was. In reality, my dad was just getting paper plates in bulk. Those were the days.
8) As I tried to leave, I did another circle of the carpark, unable to find my car. Then, I noticed the shopper ahead of me struggling badly with his trolley. As I got closer, I realised that the pathway, built to provide safe passage around the moving cars, included posts every few metres that made the path about two inches too narrow to allow the mega-trolleys to pass through.
The irony of inconvenience was too much. I gleefully dumped my trolley and headed home.

Sydney – where’s the colour?

Last night I found myself driving through the Sydney CBD at 4am. It was a worthwhile drive as I discovered two things.

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1) No one-year-old can stay awake with the monotony of the 702ABC graveyard shift and street lights passing by, and
2) There are still people sitting on the Town Hall steps waiting for people at four in the morning.

Apart from those stunning discoveries, I took note of Sydney’s colour palette. If you ever get the chance to, don’t. We are a city bathed in light, imbued with a harbour and buried in trees, but once development gets a green light, that’s where the colour stops.

I see concrete… concrete for miles. Our buildings, our footpaths and our monuments are grey, nearly without exception. Some of our older buildings may be Sydney Sandstone – the art gallery, the museum, the QVB – but the years and the traffic leave so much of it a dreary, dull tone. We have so little public art that the only thing punctuating our passion for grey is the electric blue sky. But don’t worry, we’ve done away with that too. Sydney’s latest shopping destination, Westfield Sydney at Centrepoint, is such a cave that I feel lost as soon as I enter and adding to the claustrophobia, natural light seems like a memory.

If you follow me on Instagram you will know I have a love/hate thing with Sydney. My photos of our hot, dirty town are either critical or adoring.

What is it with this city? Why did we make the plaza in front of St Mary’s Cathedral completely paved, unusable space? Why is the Cahill Expressway (below) still standing and, for that matter, Harbourside in Darling Harbour?? As monstrosities go, that one literally saps your soul just walking past it.

The Cahill could never look as good as Jeffrey Smart made out

The Cahill could never look as good as Jeffrey Smart made out

I am feeling the effects of reading Delia Falconer’s book ‘Sydney‘ which provides countless metaphors and historical tales telling how our great city functions and, more intriguingly, how it malfunctions. It misfires socially, spacially and structurally, but we still wouldn’t give it up for anything, not even Melbourne.

We insist on ugliness when all around us is beauty. We glorify Kings Cross, our dingiest strip. We have tainted the harbour since day one of European settlement and nowadays we just slap cookie-cutter real estate over one-time toxic waste dumps. (Hello Breakfast Point!)

I am also grieving the loss of enormous Wynyard Park, now a small strip of grade about the size of three acres. Last week I stumbled upon a photo of how large this invaluable green space once was – as big as a three football fields.

Now, at lunch hour, as office workers pile in, you struggle to find a square metre of grass.

I am also peeved that when given massive opportunities to impress, our planners entirely opt out. The City West Link is one such example with four-metro high concrete walls. Some of these lifeless panels feature a metal sculpture laid over them – it could be a stimulating addition until you realise it’s repeated like a stamp on one hundred subsequent panels.

Recently, the bus depot at Balmain Road had a makeover. I travel past this corner often so was eager to see what design they came up with.

Have you seen Silverwater Prison? It looks five times better. And, as they are made of wire, at least you can see through the first two maximum security walls.

The bus depot is grooved concrete all the ways round. Lifeless. Thoughtless. Practical. Well, we need walls don’t we. Must protect the buses.

Concrete panels - adlib to fade

My wife hopes that the grooves are meant to represent something – corrugated iron roofs perhaps? I wish it was corrugated iron. A least that would rust and we wouldn’t have to look at any more soulless concrete.

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