Most people who read this blog do so because they are interested in transport. But sometimes I do wonder if we lose sight of the fact that transport is (usually) a means to an end, rather than an end in itself (putting aside purely recreational travel).
The need for transport is usually derived from a need to overcome the barriers created by space (in the terrestrial sense). Put simply, “space matters”. To use a somewhat trivial example, have you ever been on Trade Me and seen precisely the item you were looking for, but have decided not to purchase it because the seller was based in the South Island and shipping costs were too high? Congratulations, you’re a victim of transport costs. Like inequality, transport costs are effectively “sand in the wheels of capitalism,” they prevent things from happening that would make us all better off.
Space is not just a barrier to economic activities, but it also makes our lives that much less fulfilling in a social sense. Have you ever not attended an event because it was “too far away” or “too expensive to get there.” I have – and it generally sucks not being able to do something simply because of the transport costs involved in getting there. Transport enables social interaction and this provides a whole host of benefits that go well beyond what is counted in a market economy. The ability to develop and maintain personal connections over longer distances is, for me, the single greatest contribution of social media sites such as Facebook. But internet communications only get you so far; after a while you do need to see the whites of someone’s eyes and touch the hair on their head.
Which brings us round to why New Zealand needs to take cities seriously.
In essence cities are little more than the physical manifestation of our attempts to overcome two important economic forces, namely transport costs and fixed costs. By co-locating a lot of people, businesses, and amenities close to each other, transport costs are indeed lower (even allowing for the presence of congestion). But the concentration of people also confers another advantage: Cities gain sufficient economies of scale that they can deliver services and infrastructure that have high fixed costs. Street lighting, for example, is expensive to provide in low density areas because most of their costs are fixed, as are ports, airports, and stadiums. Cities are therefore a mechanism through which we can spread these costs over more people, which in turn lowers the average cost per person.
But while cities have many advantages, they do bring their own suite of socio-economic problems, most notably congestion. Over time, however, humans have tended to do what we do well: Find innovative incremental solutions to the problems that confront us. Gas and electric street lighting, for example, had dramatic impacts on crime rates in post-industrial European cities, such as Paris. Similarly, the advent of elevators enabled us to construct taller buildings than we could previously, which is most evident during the sky-scraper boom in Manhattan. In terms of congestion, we have slowly developed alternatives to congested transport corridors and/or modes – or simply arranged our land use patterns to minimise the need to travel long distances.
A plethora of innovations has enabled us to overcome many of the problems that have previously detracted from urban life. In turn, they have enhanced the socio-economic advantage of cities over rural areas. Whereas rural areas by definition will struggle to overcome the disadvantages engendered by long distances and a dispersed population, the issues that detract from urban life are “softer” and more readily solved. For example, there are a range of transport technologies on the horizon that should gradually contribute to better urban air quality and lower noise. Another urban issue bites the dust so to speak.
To put it simply, while cities have their problems, these are gradually being solved. And this in turn confers cities with an increasing comparative advantage over rural areas. Hard data supports this suggestion: In 2008 the proportion of people living in cities passed 50% for the first time in human history, and it continues to increase. Rural populations globally are actually stagnant, i.e. all of our population growth is occurring in urban areas. In New Zealand the proportion of the population living in predominantly urban areas, or areas with high degrees of urban influence, passed 85% some years back and is probably now getting closer to 90%.
It now seems clear that cities are not only a magnet for young people and immigrants, both of which have driven growth until recently, but also empty nest baby-boomers who increasingly crave and need the services that cities offer. It’s hard getting a hip replacement in Te Kauwhata.
What does this all mean? Well, on a simple level I think it means that New Zealanders need to grow up and learn to love our cities. Back in 2010 my colleague Jarrett Walker wrote this post on Auckland, which he kicked off with the following comment (emphasis added):
Greetings from New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life … To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.
Indeed, as Matt notes in this post Auckland is a beautiful city and this is increasingly being noticed. I think what we need now is to take this growing external awareness and start to foster our own internal appreciation for how cities contribute to our way of life. And for those of you who ponder these things, perhaps the best “gift” we can leave for future generations of New Zealanders are cities worth living in. Let’s start taking cities seriously; we might be surprised by how much fun we can have along the way.
P.s. As an aside economies of scale are very important, and I’d suggest that most places in New Zealand outside of Auckland suffer economically from a lack of scale. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Dunedin recently, for example, and everytime come away thinking that all the city really needs is another 20,000 people or so.