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Sunday reading 27 December 2015

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by Ian Lockwood. (@IanLockwoodPE)

The idea of technological advances in transport captured our imagination in 2015. But besides the introduction of Uber in Auckland, things remain mostly unchanged. My experience with Uber so far has been mixed. In many cases I find myself awkwardly hunting around the city centre to position myself for both a direct pick-up and departure. Once onboard I’ve found the driver navigation system to be underwhelming often choosing slow streets like Queen Street or detouring unnecessarily out of the way. The cost structure does make it appealing in particular for journeys with co-workers and on the weekend with my family.

Uber of course is the placeholder for the driverless car revolution that promises to be either the savior or next villain of the city depending on whom you ask. Transport export Jeff Tumlin makes a useful framework for thinking about driverless cars. He argues that depending on the ownership model (personal ownership or shared), driverless cars will be positive change for cities or a hellish travel inducer. Jarrett Walker provides a great example of how a driverless car would serve a private owner here: “Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?

It’s too early to tell if driverless cars will become the next bicycle for the city or the jetpacks from the 1960s-era Traffic in Towns. 

Keith Naughton, “Humans Are Slamming Into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw“, Bloomberg.

The self-driving car, that cutting-edge creation that’s supposed to lead to a world without accidents, is achieving the exact opposite right now: The vehicles have racked up a crash rate double that of those with human drivers. The glitch?

They obey the law all the time, as in, without exception. This may sound like the right way to program a robot to drive a car, but good luck trying to merge onto a chaotic, jam-packed highway with traffic flying along well above the speed limit. It tends not to work out well. As the accidents have piled up — all minor scrape-ups for now — the arguments among programmers at places like Google Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University are heating up: Should they teach the cars how to commit infractions from time to time to stay out of trouble?

Mike Ramsey. “California Proposes Driverless-Car Rules“, The Wall Street Journal.

The proposed rules hold motorists responsible for obeying traffic laws, regardless of whether they are at the wheel. Deciding if the car or its occupant is responsible for accidents and other mishaps has been at the center of debates over how to regulate driverless cars.

California’s proposed regulations would require consumers to get a special state-issued driver’s certificate after receiving training from a car company on how to use a driverless vehicle. Autonomous cars also would have to pass a test administered by a third party before being sold. Auto makers would only be allowed to lease driverless cars, as opposed to selling them outright.

They require a driver capable of taking control of the vehicle.

This year Cycle Action Auckland became Bike Auckland. In addition to a swish new graphic re-branding, the communication and stories coming from their social media channels became more inclusive, empathetic and big-picture… Like this great interview with Simon Wilson of Metro Magazine.

Jolisa Gracewood. “Simon says: for a new city, on your bike (or hop a bus, or take a stroll)“, Bike Auckland.

You’re a huge champion of Auckland. Where do bikes fit into that vision?

The tipping point theory is relevant. There will be a point where you have so many bikes, the demand will be there to transform roads down to one vehicle lane each way to make more space for bikes and pedestrians. We’re not there yet. Not remotely close, but we’ll get there if we have the courage to keep it going.

I suspect electric bikes may be the key to more adults biking on an ordinary basis. There are hills in Auckland, and you don’t want to arrive where you’re going in a terrible sweat.

Getting kids back into walking and biking to school will be a huge part of it, too. It’s the strategic key, not just because of the inherent value of children walking and cycling, but also because it would take so many damn cars off the road! We’re in a vicious circle, in that parents drive kids to school because there are so many cars on the road that it’s not safe for kids to walk or bike to school. It needs regulation as well as encouragement; you can’t ban people from driving, but you can lower speed limits, make rules about where cars can go around schools, and so on.

And the vision is achievable, you reckon? 

I’ve always thought this about New Zealand – that it’s probably easier to do something here than anywhere else. Write a novel and get it published; build a weird house; open an unusual business; revolutionise domestic violence laws; redesign a city.

It’s partly a sense of scale, but it’s also that we’re a developed country with a sound economy and highly educated people. We love thinking of ourselves as flexible, and (despite some evidence to the contrary) as liberal. Our heritage is important but we’re not crushed by it.

That relative lack of being cast in a mould gives us such an advantage, especially when it comes to building a better city.

Skyrocketing housing costs and tortuous commutes have been inspiring a slew of stories from people bailing their cities. Here’s one from Los Angeles, “Leaving Los Angeles“,  and a more recent one from San Francisco, “2015 in San Francisco: The Least-Favorite List“, The SF Chronicle.

Yes, San Francisco, 2015 beat us down.

After all, 2015 was the year the Google buses stopped being an ugly joke and went legit, thanks to the Board of Supervisors. It was the year of the tech bro and the $4,000 apartment. It was the year that the fun stuff closed (the 21 Club, the Addition, the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor), while the horrible (Eatsa, Uber, Airbnb’s election team) kept on keeping on.

The difference between now and 2014 is that we all seemed to get used to the status quo. Suddenly your outrage about the latest Monkey Parking-like scheme wasn’t getting those retweets or petitions because, well, everyone had an obnoxious neighbor with a terrible idea. And if you didn’t, it was because you were getting evicted soon.

In 2015 the arcane practice of zoning came into focus as the prime roadblock for the ability of cities to scale effectively to meet the growing demand for proximity. From Krugman to POTUS restrictive residential zoning has become associated with lower productivity, increased inequality, and excessive housing costs.

Here’s a study of the effects of neighbourhood preservation tendencies in a rapidly growing city. Peter covered off similar issues in his no-doubt popular posts, “Optimal heritage zoning: an empirical perspective“and “The economics of Heritage Buildings.

Matthew Yglesias. “To stop gentrification from hurting the poor, neighborhoods need to change faster“, Vox.

“In tight housing markets,” they write, “the poor do worse when the rich get richer,” whereas in slack markets, “some evidence suggests that increases in others’ income, holding own income constant, may be beneficial.”

When houses are plentiful, in other words, gentrification can be a win-win — increases in other people’s incomes create new opportunities for the poor. But when houses are scarce, increases in other people’s incomes merely exacerbate scarcity and leave the poor worse off than ever.

The increasing bifurcation of the Auckland economy (and housing market) has revealed a glaring gap in the flat nationwide salary levels of teachers. The extreme cost of living in Auckland has lead to higher teacher turnover and a growing chorus for the the need to provide an extra payment allowance for Auckland teachers.

Elizabeth Brown. “Taking the sting out of living in Auckland“, Radio NZ.

He loves his job and city life, but knows he will have to leave both in the next few years if he is to ever going to get ahead.

“Here, I’m paying for a fortnight for rent about $600 which is half my pay,” he says.

“Then, on top of that is water, which you don’t have to pay for anywhere else in New Zealand apart from Auckland, and then there’s power on top of that, internet, food and living.

“Basically at the end of my fortnight’s pay I maybe have $5 left, whereas if I was working in the country where I’m from – and I’ve got a friend who’s working in the country who I was talking to the other day – she saves roughly about $600 a pay which is about what I pay for rent.”

In Silicon Valley Facebook is offering employees $10,000 to live closer to work. It’s not clear if the scheme is  a cost saving exercise or a productivity play.

Facebook offers employees $10,000 to live close to the office“, The Guardian.

Some have suggested the company might be looking to encourage people to spend more time in the office while also cutting the cost of its luxury bus service, whose drivers recently unionised.

Tech workers say the commute is getting worse. What would have been a one-hour commute each way three years ago has stretched to 90 minutes or more as the tech economy has boomed and more cars hit the road.

Still plenty of young techies are willing to endure it. Nilesh Patel is a single technology worker who commutes from San Francisco to a large company almost 40 miles (64 km) away so he can cultivate a rich social life in the city.

“I didn’t want to move into one of those depressing bachelor complexes,” he said about the generic Silicon Valley apartment buildings that often house people like him.

Meanwhile, housing construction has been booming for several years now in Seattle. This, not surprisingly, is starting to make dent in the rental market. An industry insider humorously describes this change as “alarming deterioration”.

Matthew Yglesias. “Seattle shows San Francisco and New York how to fix the housing crisis“, Vox.

Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area have a lot in common — coastal locations, high-tech economies, and relatively high wages. But as California’s Legislative Analysis Office wrote in a recent report, it’s much easier to get permission to build new houses in the Seattle area. Consequently, the Seattle area’s housing stock has grown twice as quickly as the Bay Area’s. The CLAO writes that in recent years, Seattle’s total number of housing units “grew at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent per year while San Francisco and San Jose’s housing stock grew by only 0.7 percent per year.” The main reason for this is that Washington state centralizing more planning functions at the state level, which gives hyperlocalized Not in My Backyard sentiments less when determining what people are going to be allowed to build.

Rachel Aldred. “Disappearing Traffic?“, takes a critical look at the traffic planning industry and its inability to adapt to either policy imperatives or the track record of induced and disappearing traffic.

Yet despite academics, and many practitioners, agreeing that building or widening roads is an expensive and often ineffective solution to congestion, ‘predict and provide’ (predict demand for roads, provide the capacity) continues, even if lip service is paid to sustainable transport. Against all evidence to the contrary, politicians still want to promise that building new roads, or widening existing ones, will ‘clear bottlenecks’ and ‘reduce congestion’. And unfortunately many of the tools still used in transport policy-making still support this position, forecasting incredible benefit-cost ratios for road schemes that in theory save thousands of motorists seconds on their journeys.

Here’s a key note lecture with economist Ed Glaeser and author Adam Greenfield (EverywareAgainst the Smart City) from the Disrupting Cities conference. Glaeser’s  classification of technology advances being mostly “centrifugal” or “centripetal” is particularly relevant to the discussion of transport technology.

Please share your links in the comment section.

18 comments to Sunday reading 27 December 2015

  • Ricardo

    The changing cultural and racial demographic in Auckland works against the cycling revolution. Asian countries ( other than the poor in China) simply do not cycle. As Auckland is becoming more Asian the tipping point will probably not happen.

    • Kent Lundberg

      That’s ridiculous. Here’s the cycle mode share for reference. http://www.cityclock.org/urban-cycling-mode-share/#.Vn8CJPn5jcc

    • KP

      From reading a few of your posts; I’d say you’re working against the cycling revolution…

    • Nick R

      Asian countries simply do not cycle?! Sorry but what #%*^#*ing planet are you talking about?

      I’ve just spent three weeks in Japan and Korea, the richest countries in Asia. There are cyclists everywhere. Despite highly developed motorway networks and transit systems, cycling remains the fastest and easiest way to travel for more local trips.

      Granted they are almost all electric assist, when that tech hits NZ properly it could be very significant.

      Also another observation, Tokyo has a city bike hire scheme using ebikes. They charge as they are plugged into the stations. Could be a real go er in Auckland?

  • This draft chapter from Rachel Aldred’s forthcoming book, “Handbook on Transport and Urban Planning in the Developed World”, is gold: http://rachelaldred.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Aldred-stakeholder-chapter.pdf

    It presents a view of policy and culture change around cycling, from being treated as an individual activity (with individual choice/risk) as-is, to being a system in aggregate that needs development. She gives lessons learned from the 2010-2015 history of London cycling and cycle advocacy, crediting online and offline activism, as well as negative and positive approaches, and includes the novel contribution of bloggers beyond the structured/entrenched old campaigns. There’s plenty in it about media processes, stakeholder engagement, and shifting public perception. In many ways, it seems to me Auckland is repeating this London story, only five years later and in miniature.

  • Brendon Harre

    The driverless cars obeying traffic rules problem reminds me of introductory course I did many years ago on contract theory. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contract_theory#Incomplete_contracts. The basic idea being that 99% of outcomes can be contained in the contract but the other 1% is not, either because some future outcomes are not known before they occur (they are unknown -unknowns), or because to include all possible known -unknowns outcomes would make a hugely costly, lengthy and unwieldy contract.

    I think the last 1% is resolved by a either a sense of goodwill between the party’s to follow the spirit of the contract or by using legal dispute resolution options -Courts etc.

    Here is a link showing how bad affordable renting has become in San Francisco.
    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-12-13/san-francisco-housing-bubble-goes-subterranean-500month-live-crawlspace

  • Greg N

    That cartoon, the kid missed the most vital requirement of the “new transport vehicle” his dad is tasked with coming up with for his car company. And it is, that it’s “Patentable.”

    Yep, without the carrot of intellectual property rights, his dads car company [like all the rest] won’t be at all interested in existing transport technology like bicycles.
    All they’ll do is guild the lilly of the current tech. That is until a Black Swan arrives out of “nowhere” and puts them out of business.

    But driverless cars, are not that Black Swan, no matter how much the car companies, and the politicians would like it to be so.

    the obvious way to avoid dead head running or block circling as Jarret Walker supposes could become the norm, is simply to make the software in these vehicles automatically ensure all empty Driverless cars pay for the road they occupy.
    This will immediately put a price on any driverless car using the road as “free parking” which is what the circling the block thing or driving miles out of the way to park somewhere is about.
    And if the cost of driving your car into town, then parking it is exceeded by the cost of making it return home again afterwards, or worse driving it to work then having it “circle the block”, all day, then most rational people will park the car.

    Driverless tech as has been predicted before will have a huge impact in buses, train and freight operations before it impacts private ownership. In fact, I’d trust a robot driven freight train over a manually driven platoon of freight trucks.

    • George D

      You’re absolutely right about the introduction pressures.In a private vehicle, autonomous technology is a $30,000 feature that relieves some stress and gives the driver (passenger) time to read the paper and check Facebook. In a commercial vehicle, that same technology is the replacement of someone earning $50,000 per year and with significant overheads, and the ability to run the same vehicle for 22 hours per day instead of 14. You’re not paying someone to sleep in a truckstop.

      Simple autonomous technology, which can use long and straight highways is already here. It’s unsurprising that Daimler have debuted the technology in Nevada, which has a low population and is mostly desert. Such technology could drive long distances, park up in roadside depots, and have human drivers take over for the last few kilometres of city driving. That isn’t so relevant to NZ – only the Auckland-Waikato route currently resembles the kind of conditions that this is optimised for – but it would be very useful in countries like Australia or Canada, where distances are vast.

      https://www.daimler.com/innovation/autonomous-driving/freightliner-inspiration-truck.html

  • Not surprisingly, I’ve heard the Taxpayers Union take the very obvious techno-Objectivist line that self-driving cars will make public transit obsolete. I suspect they’re closet road socialists, just like one of their idols, Milton Friedman.

    • George D

      Nobody should ever take the ACTmembers Onion seriously.

      They are fools who don’t care if Defence spend a billion, or the NZTA spend ten, but will issue a hysterical press about a few dollars spent on something they don’t like (such as a couple of hairdryers).

  • George D

    The cartoon above is a good one. I’ve often wondered why (and suggested to a few politicians) governments are not yet handing out tax-credits and vouchers to cyclists. It turns out that one city is doing that, more or less.

    http://www.citylab.com/cityfixer/2015/12/stockholm-reverse-congestion-charge-cyclists-driving/421767/?utm_source=SFTwitter

    Stockholm is diverting revenue from its congestion charge towards spending on health-improving zero-emissions vehicles (bicycles). Or at least the infrastructure they run on.

    The incremental cost of cycling is a real one though. My mum has a bike and has started using it more. The several hundred dollars worth of things to be added to the bicycle are not inconsequential, and slow uptake. Lights, bells, helmets, splash-guards, cycling-appropriate clothing (jackets, gloves). Cycling in New Zealand plunges dramatically in winter, and I think the unpreparedness of the population has a lot to do with it.

    • This is what my local council back in Belgium does, it gives you a compensation (euros) for cycling to work. Which makes sense, this compensation is probably cheaper than providing parking.

      The cost of bicycling, that is not true. Let’s see how it works in Belgium:
      • Bell: mandatory
      • Lights: mandatory. Even if you ride during the day you still must have lights on your bike.
      • Splash guards: in practice all bikes have them.
      • Helmets: not mandatory (although kids often have one)
      • cycling-appropriate clothing: you’re overthinking this. Many people already have a jacket, and it will work just the same on a bike.

      If you buy a bike in a bike shop in Belgium it just has all of these. And a stand and luggage rack, and often a small pump. And this is not stopping anyone from owning a bike. Primary schools can safely assume that every kid has a bike at home.

      And:
      • winter: hasn’t stopped any population from cycling, anywhere. It’s not like Europe has mild winters. We don’t even have frost in Auckland!

      • George D

        Roeland, in New Zealand bikes are sold without these basic necessities.

        And people do lack the right clothing, which would keep them dry and comfortable.

  • Sarah Harvey

    0-1% cycle in Auckland according to kent’s link. On that basis cycling does not justify any money being spent on it. Sadly the likes of Quax and Brewer seem to have this one right 🙁

    • I think what you mean is that cycling in Auckland is 0-1% BECAUSE no money has been spent on it… The immediate cycling numbers on the Nelson St cycleway when that was opened gives you some idea of what happens when you actually build something people want to use.

    • Chris R

      Sort of like measuring the need for the Harbour Bridge by the number of daily car trips to the Shore in 1958…

      A more interesting number is the ~60% who would like to ride, but are put off or prevented by the lack of safe infrastructure.