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Thoughts from “Road to Ruin”

Another fascinating book that I am reading at the moment is “Road to Ruin: an introduction to sprawl and how to cure it” by Dom Nozzi. Like my previous post on How Cities Work, the key point made in Road to Ruin (at least so far) is how important the transport decisions we make are in determining the nature of our urban environments. This is picked up on really early:

Whatever a community makes its main form of transportation profoundly shapes the way it will use its land, not the other way around. Weak land use plans and feeble regulations  did not create urban sprawl, for example: pouring money into roads and cars did. And whatever transportation our community chooses – for most of us, cars – also shapes our quality of life. As we have learned over the years, single-mindedly choosing car transportation has dispersed and isolated us and degraded our communities’ quality of life, environment and financial health.

I think most of the bloggers on this site are actually interested in transport because of its impact on the nature and function of Auckland, rather than for is own sake – although there certainly is an “awesomeness” factor to projects like the City Rail Link which certainly excites me.

The impact of transport decisions on our land-use in almost inadvertent ways is well encapsulated later in the opening chapter:

Faced with existing or projected congestion, we widen a road from four lanes to six or enlarge an intersection to the point where it is nearly suicidal for pedestrians to use the crosswalk. Because the bigger road is less safe and less pleasant for people to bike or or walk on or even catch a bus on, more of them choose to drive their own cars and to make more car trips, which puts more cars on the road – the additional car travel generated by the widened road or enlarged intersection becomes an after-the-fact justification for the widening. Because the widened road now carries more high-speed traffic, housing values decline along the road, and owner-occupied single-family homes get converted to rental units, offices, and business like convenience stores and pawn shops.

In a nutshell this is also the concept of induced demand that we have discussed on many occasions. As driving is made more attractive, and other modes less attractive, unsurprisingly people will switch to driving and the road will clog up again. Just as an aside, an interesting question that has been rolling around in my head for a while is whether induced demand still applies when you no longer have increasing travel demand – perhaps that’s something we can explore and debate in the comments.

Another really interesting observation that Road to Ruin makes is in relation to congestion and air pollution (including CO2 emissions). There’s a fairly widespread assumption around that reducing congestion will reduce pollution and emissions because of less ‘stop-start’ traffic, but that’s perhaps only true when you look at the issue from a very narrow perspective:

On the one hand, congestion creates more air pollution at the microlevel… On the other hand, people who live in higher-density, more ‘traffic congested’ areas (where transportation choice is high) produce much less air pollution and consume much less gasoline than those who live in remote locations with more “free flowing” traffic conditions who can use only cars for travel.

Congestion has gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. Indeed, traffic congested conditions can move us toward more liveable communities. For example, such conditions reduce regional air pollution from cars. They discourage ‘low value’ car trips and car dependency so increase bus trips, walking and bicycling, encourage public transit and transportation choice in general, large because strong political pressure is directed at elected officials to improve alternatives to car travel. Congestion reduces the average driving speed, as well as citywide fuel consumption. As downtowns because not just places to ‘drive through’, these areas become more pleasant for pedestrians, businesses and homes. Finally congested conditions promote compact development and infill and discourage sprawl; given the 1.1 hour commute-time average, people want to live closer to their destinations in the face of congestion.

Our current government’s narrow minded focus on eliminating congestion as pretty much its only transport goal obviously runs against pretty much everything in the previous two paragraphs and is a big reason why government finds itself making so many completely and utterly stupid decisions when it comes to transport policy. Somehow we need to “undemonise” congestion so that it can be seen as a useful travel demand management tool that encourages efficient transport and urban form outcomes. I guess to put it simply, if a motorway is pretty empty and has freeflow traffic at peak times, then that’s probably a sign we didn’t really need it to be that wide (or there in the first place).

I think I’ll probably end up writing a few more posts on this book as I make my way through it. There are certainly a lot of useful facts and figures further in that I’ve skimmed over. I guess the fact that it was published in 2003, nearly a decade ago, means that it is still in the “we need to change the way things are going” rather than the current paradigm of transport and land-use which I think is much more “we need to allow the changes that people are wanting”. It’s definitely a good and informative read though.

7 comments to Thoughts from “Road to Ruin”

  • Induced demand in a declining context? Surely it’ll still play out but the base point will be lower. In other words building all these over capacity roads will still encourage driving and will slow the decline but it won’t alter the direction of the mega-trend.

    • Hamish O

      As Auckland population almost doubles its transport capacity will not. Hence, I believe all modes of transport will ‘fill up’. The new infrastructure that will be needed could be any mode, and go anywhere, but I think we can all agree that it should be PT/cycling and go into the CBD, for all the reasons in the post above.

  • Josh

    Sprawl isn’t all about being narrowed minded, it’s about creating jobs. How many everyday chippies and workmen can build apartments?… I bet you that book doesn’t touch on this subject. National wealth can be created through the right type of infrastructure.

    • Any tradie who can work on a McMansion can build a townhouse, terrace, flat or apartment.

    • Ingolfson

      So your argument is that we should keep workers low-skilled, because they are low-skilled? You are arguing that national wealth is created by consigning ourselves to doing the easy things? That is…. so wrong. And so patronising of the “chippies and workmen”.

      But yeah, oddly appropriate for a country whose current government tries to sells NZ as a well-educated country with low wages (well, until all our skilled people have left for OZ and elsewhere, and National presumably sells us as a great low-wage sweatshop country with great mountains to look at).

    • Bryce P

      I think you’re selling the average qualified, chippie, sparkie or blockie a bit short Josh. Sure, there are cowboys out there but those kind of people exist in all trades and occupations. Besides which, the govt created the environment that led to the leaky home crisis. Still want to trust them?

  • Ingolfson.. you must have a 36 handicap.

    The truth is we are who we are. There is better ways to spend money than upskilling workers that dont want to be upskilled!..

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