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Sunday reading 24 January 2016

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Starting out the Sunday Reading with a cautionary tale from Canada where the commodity boom has quickly faded. The Loonie a “global laughingstock” is now down to US$.71 and in Calgary experts estimate a 16.3 per cent commercial vacancy rate, the highest in nearly a quarter-century.  Jason Markusoff, “The death of the Alberta dream” Maclean’s.

Alberta’s options are limited. The NDP’s talk of diversifying the economy is easier said than done. Consider two sectors that enjoyed a strong 2015: agriculture and tourism. Combined they account for just 3.5 per cent of Alberta’s GDP. Oil and gas makes up 25 per cent, with far higher wages. Even the NDP’s Bilous admits “diversification is probably more of a medium to long play.”

Which leaves a province of four million people with little to do but wait for a recovery of crude prices to rescue its employment prospects, government coffers, real estate markets and so much else. For shell-shocked Albertans, hope has become a commodity in short supply, and they’ll hang on to whatever they can get.

Here’s more on the economic calamity caused  by rapidly collapsing oil prices: “Who’s afraid of cheap oil?“, Bloomberg.

The fall in investment and asset prices is all the more harmful because it is so rapid. As oil collapses against the backdrop of a fragile world economy, it could trigger defaults.

The possible financial spillovers are hard to assess. Much of the $650 billion rise in emerging-market corporate debt since 2007 has been in oil and commodity industries. Oil plays a central role in a clutch of emerging markets prone to trouble. With GDP in Russia falling, the government could well face a budgetary crisis within months. Venezuela, where inflation is above 140%, has declared an economic state of emergency.

Of course driverless cars will save us from our crappy car commutes letting us text and email like people on the bus.  And because robotic cars are so much safer human driven cars will be illegal says Jay Samit. Jay Samit, “Driving a car will be illegal by 2030“, Wired.

Our economy will be severely impacted as millions of lorry drivers, cabbies and delivery people are put out of work. In this era of endless innovation, humanity’s century-long relationship with the automobile is about to be permanently disrupted. The reason has nothing to do with millennials, Uber or improvements in mass transport. Driving should and will be made illegal because we now have the technology to prevent deadly traffic accidents, one of the greatest causes of premature deaths.

Driverless cars are so safe and sensitive that they will be paralyzed on busy city streets with people walking and cycling everywhere. Leading to a disturbing 1960’s  traffic engineering scenario where people are removed from the street. Carlton Reid, “Makers of driverless cars want cyclists and pedestrians off the roads” BikeBiz.

The advent of driverless cars will mean an end to the 100-year-old carnage on the road, with pedestrians and cyclists now safe on the streets thanks to tech. Another view of the future is that in a city where driverless cars are programmed to avoid cyclists and pedestrians these cars wouldn’t be able to move for all of the cyclists and pedestrians riding and walking in front of them.

Ghosn worries that driverless cars have a cycle-shaped hurdle to leap: “One of the biggest problems is people with bicycles. The car is confused by [cyclists] because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars.”

Between the dystopian and utopian possibilities of driverless cars there seems to be an emerging consensus that it will have a significant impact on one of the most important features and dynamics of cities – parking.

WHAT WOULD A CITY look like if it suddenly needed 90 percent less parking? Clive Thomas asks in, “No Parking Here: You’ve heard about how robocars are going to upend the economy. But have you thought about what they’ll do to urban space?” Mother Jones.

We are, they say, on the cusp of a new era, when cities can begin dramatically reducing the amount of parking spaces they offer. This shift is being driven by a one-two punch of social and technological change. On the social side, people are increasingly opting to live in urban centers, where they don’t need—or want—to own a car. They’re ride-sharing or using public transit instead.

And technologically, we’re seeing the rapid emergence of self-driving cars.

One study suggests a single self-driving car could replace up to 12 regular vehicles. Indeed, many urbanists predict that fleets of robocars could become so reliable that many, many people would choose not to own automobiles, causing the amount of parking needed to drop through the floor.

And in a sort of dancing on graves  way here is more evidence on how providing more parking leads to, you guessed it, more driving. Emily Badger, “The problem with too much parking“, Washington Post.

These are all patterns consistent with a causal relationship. They don’t definitely prove one, but the researchers conclude they amount to “compelling evidence” that more parking is a cause of car use. Not the only cause, but a cause. Which, McCahill argues, should be enough to warrant cities reconsidering how they manage this stuff.

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Cities around the world are adapting their streets to the meet the realities of the 21st century. In some cases the process is not as rapid as people expect leading to the increase in citizen-led initiatives sometimes called tactical urbanism. Here is a compelling technique employed by Doug Gordon (@BrooklynSpoke) using road cones to square-up and narrow intersections. The intersection of Shortland Street and Fields Lane comes to mind. Ben Yakas, “Video: One Simple Trick To Stop NYC Drivers From Killing You“, Gothamist.

Drew Reed, “Are road diets the next big thing for US cities?“, CityMetric.

Planners in the US began studying cases in which city streets had been widened to improve traffic flow for cars. They found that, in most cases, these projects did little to improve traffic flow, while creating an enormous increase in accidents. For instance, a study done in Fort Madison, Iowa, showed that while widening a main road led to a traffic volume increase of 4 per cent, it also increased the accident rate 14 per cent, and the injury rate by 88 per cent.

The obvious response to these findings is, naturally, to slim wider streets back down. But this slimming down can take many forms: widened sidewalks; replacing four-lane highways with three-lane ones, in which the middle lane is for those turning; and separated bike lanes.

Linda Poon, “It’s Time to Redesign the Big Old Red Fire Truck“, CITYLAB.

But the problem with wider urban streets is that they encourage faster driving and can lead to deadlier collisions. And science backs up his argument: a 2015 study of intersections in Toronto and Tokyo found that lower crash rates were linked to lanes measuring 10- to 10.5-feet wide rather than to 12-feet-wide lanes. As Scott Wiener, a member of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote in 2014: “[Prioritizing] fire truck access in a way that makes streets less safe for pedestrians and other users—and which undermines neighborhood fabric with high-volume, fast-moving traffic—isn’t the right solution.”

So maybe instead of city streets, it’s the design of fire trucks and engines themselves that needs to be reconsidered. Modern firefighting vehicles are fitted to perform a wide range of tasks, of which the most important is battling major blazes. They come with pumps, hydraulic ladders, tanks that can hold roughly 400 to 500 gallons of water—enough to put out a vehicle fire—and a slew of other equipment. They also have enough space to transport up to eight firefighters (though it’s not uncommon for fire departments to send a three-person crew to the scene).

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Here’s an interesting revelation about Jane Jacobs. According to Peter Laurence she had sympathy for the city builders/wreckers since they were captivated by the compelling vision of modernism. Sam Roberts,  “Jane Jacobs and Other Shrewd Observers” NY Times.

Her views evolved, too. Professor Laurence, director of graduate studies at Clemson University School of Architecture, recalls that she was even somewhat forgiving of Robert Moses. “It is understandable that men who were young in the 1920s were captivated by the vision of the freeway Radiant City,” Ms. Jacobs wrote, “with the specious promise that it would be appropriate to an automobile age.” She added, however:

“It is disturbing to think that men who are young today, men who are being trained now for their careers, should accept on the grounds that they must be ‘modern’ in their thinking, conceptions about cities and traffic which are not only unworkable, but also to which nothing new of any significance has been added since their fathers were children.”

New Study Identifies Twelve of the Worst Highway Projects Across the Country, $24 Billion Wasted“, CALPIRG.

States are failing to account for changing transportation trends, especially among Millennials. “America’s long-term travel needs are changing, especially among Millennials, who are driving fewer miles, getting driver’s licenses in fewer numbers, and expressing greater preferences to live in areas where they do not need to use a car often,” said Tony Dutzik Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group. “Despite the fact that Millennials are the nation’s largest generation, and the unquestioned consumers of tomorrow’s transportation system, states are failing to adequately respond to these changing trends,” he added.

Joe Cortright,  “For highway advocates, it’s about the journey, not the destination” City Observatory.

Maybe it’s just that highway engineers have their own perverse spin on that mantra that “It’s about the journey, not the destination”—especially when it comes to building more roads. The inevitability of induced demand in urban settings means that trying to reduce congestion by widening highways means you’ll end up chasing your tail, forever. Which to some is a feature, not a bug—if you’re in the asphalt or concrete business, or are a highway engineer, that’s not a bad thing—it’s a guarantee of lifetime full employment. So little wonder that the asphalt socialists are really indifferent to whether multi-billion dollar highway projects have any effect on congestion at all.

But for the rest of us this worldview is costly, unsustainable and undermines livability. When we prioritize “getting there” over “being there” we sacrifice the quality of urban space. As our friends at Strong Towns have pointed out, optimizing urban streets for auto traffic eviscerates walkable neighborhoods and main streets. The sprawl and decentralization produced by freeways hollows out urban space—each addition highway through urban center was associated with an 18 percent decline in city population—plus it’s an increasingly bankrupting the public sector.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, but there were two nearly identical reports on the travel preferences of millennials this week. They don’t drive as much.  Bless ’em.

Richard Westcott, “Have we fallen out of love with the car permanently?“, BBC.

For decades, the richer Britain got, the more people drove. But somewhere in the 1990s things changed. The economy was bouncing along nicely, but our car mileage stayed flat.

In fact, if you singled out young people, especially young men, we were driving a lot less.

What Barbara’s report had touched on was something that eventually became known as Peak Car – the idea that we had permanently fallen out of love with our cars.

Why is it so important?
The way we will be travelling in the future has huge implications for the present.
Stephen Joseph, from the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “For at least 50 years, transport policy in the UK has been based on the assumption that car use would carry on growing.
“If car use has peaked, this will radically change transport policy – and in particular should lead to a complete reassessment of the government’s £15bn road-building plans.”

Nathan Bomey, “Millennials spurn driver’s licenses, study finds” USA Today.

Young adults are ditching driver’s licenses at a quickening pace, according to a new study, raising a red flag for automakers as they grapple with the emergence of ride-sharing services and an indifferent attitude about cars.

And as much as driverless cars capture our attention, we shouldn’t forget the mundane processes like zoning and permitting for the impacts they have on cities.

Annalee Newitz, “Data analysis reveals that US cities are segregating the wealthy” Ars Technica.

Essentially, the more cities require independent reviews and community meetings to develop land, the more income-segregated the city becomes. Density restrictions also cause wealthy enclaves, regardless of whether they mandate minimum or maximum density in an area. Even if your city mandates high density housing (or creates special zones for low-density, single-family homes), it won’t necessarily solve the problem of income segregated neighborhoods. Finally, in an interesting twist, it turns out that the more local government and citizens groups control development, the more segregated its wealthiest members become.

5 comments to Sunday reading 24 January 2016

  • Chris R

    >>”The car is confused by [cyclists] because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars.”

    Fixed that for them: “The car is confused because its programmers failed to account for cyclists, who are neither pedestrians nor cars and accordingly do not behave wholly like either.”

  • Mr Plod

    This is a software issue that will be overcome. Much as I look forward to creating gridlock by ‘frightening’ driverless cars (and they need a better name; defining something by what it isn’t is never useful), it is only a matter of time before the software gets smart enough to fully recognise and adapt to cyclist behaviours. And each new program enhancement will be downloaded as approved so all driverless cars will benefit from the collective learning of all others; a huge advance over the way human drivers improve their skills.

  • The threat that self-driving cars could find cheaper parking on the edge of the city would surely dampen investment in CBD parking stations. Who would be willing to spend $20,000 to $50,000 per space on an investment with little residual value after 10 or 20 years ?

  • So in effect, oil has been caught up in a financial bubble which is rapidly deflating.

  • Part of the Peak Oil hypothesis is that as the output of oil peaks, prices become highly volatile. We have just seen investors and banks pour multiple billions into oil projects that require at least USD 70/barrel to be viable. This investment would have been predicated on the “immutability” of increasing oil demand and a market capacity to pay for more expensive oil. However, the new supply generated was in excess of supply and prices crashed. Investors and banks will now be wary of energy investment, leading to under-investment, and eventually a return to high prices.

    As the production of individual oil wells declines, world production would eventually decline to match demand, but there’s no sign of that happening in a hurry.

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