Sunday reading 8 November 2015

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week we’re leading off with a public service announcement: regular walking is a great way to get fit and healthy. In Vox, Alasdair Wilkins writes about how he lost 100 pounds [45 kgs] in a year:

Just so we’re completely clear about how unqualified I am to tell people how to lose weight, I’ll run down how I lost that 100 pounds. Basically, I just went to the gym, and I … walked. On a treadmill, uphill, at a brisk pace, for about an hour every day — and I do mean every day — from July to April. That’s more or less it! I started grad school in August, which meant I moved out of my parents’ house and away from their immaculately stocked refrigerator, and also meant the place where I worked all day was located more than a 10-foot walk from where I slept, which also helped, but that’s more or less it!

Wilkins’ article is focused on the personal aspects of weight loss, but there’s an important systemic aspect at work. If we built cities that encouraged and enabled people to walk regularly, we’d have fewer public health issues to grapple with.

But changing how people can move around cities is not necessarily easy. Over at Streetsblog, Daniel Hertz picked up on the debate over whether millennials’ travel preferences are truly changing, and how much: “Why creating meaningful transport change is hard“:

Changing preferences are not enough to change transportation behavior, because a person’s behavior heavily depends on their options. Those options, in turn, depend on available transit services and land use patterns.

If the only available public transit is a very slow bus that comes once every 30 minutes—or the only bike route is along a high-speed stroad without a bike lane — it’s likely that even the most car-hating Millennial will get behind the wheel to get to work. Land use is similarly important: if your job isn’t anywhere near a transit station, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to avoid driving, even if you’d really like to. In effect, land use patterns lock in place the mode choice preferences of previous generations and changes in behavior can happen only slowly. We can’t have a transportation revolution without major improvements to transit services and road design, and major reforms to our land use laws.

…while available transit services and land use patterns limit the extent to which changing preferences can be translated into behavior, the flip side of that dynamic is that the modest changes in behavior we’ve seen so far mask a truly massive change in preferences. We can observe those preferences in urban real estate, where indicators like “the Dow of cities” reflect the increasing demand to live in relatively central locations, and other researchers like those at Walk Score show that people are increasingly willing to pay a premium to live in walkable, transit-served neighborhoods.

Here in Auckland, there are also signs of a change in preferences about how we live and get around. Newstalk ZB’s Alicia Burrows reports that New Zealanders are increasingly preferring centrality, even if it means having a smaller backyard:

The New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities has presented a report to The University of Otago in Wellington today. The survey was taken from a pool of more than 3,000 participants from a broad population base across the country.

New Zealand’s streets could look more like the UK if developers follow the changing demands discovered. Respondents revealed more people are moving towards the idea of a town house, particularly those in their late twenties and those over 65.

Otago University Public Health Professor Philippa Lynne Howden-Chapman said costs associated with living in bigger sections in the outer suburbs is pushing people into central districts. She says people are becoming attracted to mix-use development which includes being closer to work, schools and amenities.

She said people still want their own garden space for barbecues but aren’t so fussed about the size if there’s a larger shared area available too.

But change isn’t always predictable either. Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen takes a look at how technological changes may change travel in cities, identifying three counterintuitive scenarios for driverless vehicles. I’m just going to excerpt the whole post, as it’s extremely short and very insightful:

The standard story is that traffic deaths will dwindle, cities will spread out magnificently, and you’ll all be reading MR on your morning commute rather than fighting the traffic.  Maybe so, but what other options are at least worth considering, if only out of contrarian orneriness?:

1. Driverless cars are not actually much better than the really good German streetcar systems.  Those come closer to door-to-door service than many people realize, and of course they have lower energy and congestion costs.

2. The need for exact mapping of streets will restrict driverless vehicles to well-known, well-trodden paths, much like bus lines.  There is nothing wrong with that, but ultimately it won’t do more than save the cost of the bus driver.  Or worse yet — some automobile lanes may be turned over to municipal driverless vehicles in a way which makes traffic problems worse.  It will end up as a way to push cars out of the picture, without building up the broader mass transit network very much.

3. Driverless cars will give governments a chance to “redo” the whole driving side of American life.  Is this so great?  (Imagine if we had to write a new Constitution today.)  Just think, with driverless cars and laissez-faire there will be so many car trips, a city might collapse under the weight of its own congestion.  So a quantity-rationed system will be introduced, and ultimately all of driving will end up more controlled and more regulated, based on licenses in fact and no I don’t mean drivers’ licenses.

Most generally, your predictions for driverless cars should depend heavily upon: a) will there be rational congestion pricing?, and b) how rapidly will cities rezone to take advantage of the new opportunities?  I am not sure we should be especially optimistic about either a) or b).

Or put it this way: the absence of congestion pricing in most major urban centers means we are already bad at running roads, for whatever public choice reasons.  So maybe we’ll get a bad version of driverless cars too.

Incidentally, I’d bet on scenario 1 and 2. Given the difficulty of making driverless vehicles work on every actual street and their likely high purchase costs, I suspect that municipal bus operators and truck fleets will be the first big adopters. That will have a positive effect on the cost-effectiveness of public transport and enable significant efficiencies in our freight system.

And now for something completely different: Tom Carnegie (AucklandNow) explores “the hidden public spaces of Auckland’s CBD“:

Auckland’s CBD is full of hidden shortcuts, parks and viewing platforms.

Transport Blog contributor Matt Lowrie says there are many walkways Aucklanders don’t know about that make getting from A to B a lot quicker.

“One that can be a huge time saver for university students is from Fort St through the Lumley Centre onto Shortland St.

“That saves you a detour up a decent hill and also keeps you dry when there is rain,” Lowrie says.

Waitemata Local Board chairman Shale Chambers says in the past, property developers made public space concessions with Auckland Council in return for bonus floor space.

Chambers says no record of these concessions was kept and a lack of policing meant some developers were not meeting their end of the bargain.

In 2011 Chambers initiated an audit to identify the bonus floor provisions and through-site links in the city.

The audit was carried out by Auckland Council and is updated annually.

The results of the October 2015 audit show 65 out of 72 properties inspected had fully complied. Three were still non-compliant and four were removed from the list.

And now a blast from the past: pictures of New Zealand streets from a century ago. I particularly liked this one of Lower Queen Street, full of trams, traps, and pedestrians. In some respects, it doesn’t look too different today:


As we’re now considering building some more roads on the Onehunga foreshore, it’s worth considering what the area used to look like. Here’s the original Mangere bridge:


On a slightly different topic, at Market Urbanism, Emily Washington critiques what she calls “shell games in NIMBYism“:

These many justifications for land use regulations — ranging from propping up home values to preserving vacant industrial blight — fit the definition of what Richard Wagner calls a “shell game.” Because the motives of politicians and interest groups are often self-serving, people involved in public-sector transactions create false justifications for their actions that make it appear as if they’re acting in the common good. Because motivations are complex in public sector transactions, it’s possible to fool those people who are affected by a transaction, but not party to it, with high-minded justifications for policy decisions.

In the case of house prices, it’s often impossible for a casual observer to determine whether or not a single policy change will raise or lower home prices in a dynamic economy. In these cases shell games are particularly effective. NIMBYs motivated to prop up the value of their home by advocating for regulations that constrain supply can say that they are supporting policies to preserve green space or wetlands. As Ed Glaeser points out in Triumph of the Cityenvironmentalism at the hyper local level is counterproductive because it prevents development where it’s least environmentally detrimental. Nonetheless, environmentalism makes a convincing facade for antigrowth policies. Similarly the Brooklyn renter who opposes new condominiums in his neighborhood because he want to preserve a shred of its edginess says that he’s against gentrification, even if new construction is the only way to reduce the growth of New York City housing prices.

Of course, housing markets outcomes are infamously complex. As Auckland’s Special Housing Areas are currently demonstrating, an easier regulatory environment doesn’t necessarily translate into more construction. Simon Collins and Anne Gibson at the NZ Herald report on recent progress (or lack thereof):

Two years after Auckland Council and the Government signed a “housing accord”, only 102 houses are known to have been built under its “fast-track” rules.

All of them have been constructed in just two areas: Weymouth and northern Tamaki. The council is not aware of any homes being completed under the fast-track provisions in any of the other 95 special housing areas (SHAs).

Instead, at least two blocks of land and a commercial property have been put up for sale after their value was boosted by being designated as SHAs. One was advertised as “a land-banking option”.

But in spite of our collective angst/fascination with housing, it’s important to remember that things are, in many respects, pretty good down in New Zealand. Economist Donal Curtin reports on some new OECD research on living standards:

Here’s how New Zealand stacks up against the rest of the OECD on a broad range of economic, social and environmental criteria. The scores are standard deviations above or below the OECD average, and anything bigger than +1 or lower than -1 is pretty unusual. Hat tip, by the way, to Timothy Taylor’s excellent Conversable Economist blog, which is where I came across the news that the OECD had done this latest exercise.

Sometimes when organisations do these comparisons, the results don’t always resemble the country you know, but this looks about right to me. By international standards, we’re on the right side of the ledger for most things – and very much so on the size of our houses, our perceived state of health, the cleanliness of the air and our ability to get people into employment. You can see – if you use the “life satisfaction” measure at the bottom as an overall summary – that we are travelling well by international standards.

Where do we lag? There’s nothing outrageously bad, but the one drawback that sticks out, housing affordability, will surprise no-one (here defined as “Percentage of household gross adjusted disposable income spent on housing and hosue maintenance”, but we’d have shown up badly no matter which precise measure you used). We also work too much and don’t take enough time off, and have a slight issue with educational attainment (and, I’d say, if you peeled back the overall educational showing, a particularly knotty issue with the bottom tail of the educational attainment distribution). And everyone would prefer if we were above the OECD average for household income rather than slightly below. But overall this is a good score-card.

It’s a nice day out. (Or at least, it was forecast to be nice at the time of writing.) Go out and enjoy your city!

15 comments to Sunday reading 8 November 2015

  • It’s a pity that the lane width safety graphic completely mis-represents the relative risks by scaling the diameters and not the areas. So we have a “3x” circle that’s actually 9x bigger than the base case, and a “10x” circle that’s 100x bigger. Why you wouldn’t just use a simple linear bar chart anyway is beyond me.

  • NickM

    Interesting to see we rank high on number of rooms per person, and low on housing affordability. I wonder if there is a direct correlation between the two (or for that matter between any of the measurements) – maybe someone with statistical skills could look more into it…

    • Stu Donovan

      yes I thought exactly the same thing. It would make intuitive sense: More rooms per person = lower housing affordability. I know our planning regulations favour larger houses with more rooms, and wonder if that’s the cause?

      But you’re right, you’d need to dig into the data more to understand what’s actually going on.

      • Brendon Harre

        I think you could argue quite easily that we have a mismatch in supply and demand. The big increases demographically are in smaller sized households due to smaller families and ageing populations. Yet the political economy of our planning system and resulting private house supply is an excessive number of large 4 bedroom homes built on tiny but expensive sections. Probably with no public transport access because funding for new roads is over $100m a year, while funding for PT and bike lanes is under $20m a year for the planned for future.

    • RB

      If people continue to look at NZ only incomes vs housing prices for the Auckland situation then no sense will be made of what is occcurring. Auckland has been (is being) bought up by people coming into NZ who do not necessarily work here yet bring fat wallets. Their circumstances are not represented in the above equations – therefore simply saying that housing in Auckland is unaffordable for Kiwis (about whom we do have some data) is largely irrelevant and meaningless. The grammar zone especially applies to this. What must be done is to accept that there is data out there which is simply not available (foreign wealth, sources of income, people per dwelling, etc) that would greatly change the above equations were it known.

      • NickM

        “Auckland has been (is being) bought up by people coming into NZ who do not necessarily work here yet bring fat wallets.”

        This gets talked about a lot, but I’ve yet to see any data showing to what extent this is happening (or even if it is happening) beyond anecdotal accounts. Is there any?

  • nonsense

    low household income, high employment, long working hours low time off. solution? kill workers rights.

  • JimboJones

    The SHAs were always going to cause land banking. They need to remove the restraints from all land, not just some select pockets.
    And there is no need to regulate affordable housing, the market will build what the buyers want unless there are stupid rules in place.

    • stu donovan

      Im also a bit doubtful about the impacts of the affordable housing requirement. Seems to me to be ambulance at bottom of cliff type solution. And if other planning regs hadn’t made affordable housing impossible to develop then we wouldn’t need a regulation to provide affordable housing would we? It all seems rather animal farm-ish.

      • How does “providing affordable housing” work anyway? If a few houses in a development are “affordable” how can they make sure there’s no rich buyer around to buy these houses?

        • Stu Donovan

          they can’t. Therein lies one of the problems.

          Basically, “affordable housing” means that a certain proportion of the housing in an individual development is within a certain $$$ amount of the median house price.

          It’s kind of a policy that seems prone to mis-specify the underlying problems: Prices are increasing due to 1)onerous planning policies and 2) demand. The latter will subside at some point, which is fine. The former won’t and instead permanently reduces housing affordability, especially in the short run.

          The solution is, in my opinion, not to encumber new developments with additional regulations (e.g. to provide “affordable housing”) but instead to enable more development until such point as prices plateau or even drop.

  • Jonty

    Where is a full list of the hidden public spaces?

    • The article seemed, to me, to suggest that there isn’t one.

      The Lumley Centre short-cut is a bit misleading. Emily Place is faster if you’re going to anything opposite Albert Park, and the exercise in the morning helps to keep you awake (Emily Place features a fairly steep hill). Anzac seems to be faster for Arts and OGGB. Law School? You’d probably be best off with Anzac or Emily Place but just turn off in a different spot. Engineering? Probably doesn’t matter what way to go. Lumley also doesn’t work if you finish after six (possibly also five, I can’t recall).

      And, of course, Queen St is more interesting than any of these routes.

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