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Sunday reading 31 January 2016

We are now living in the anthropocene – the period in which humans have begun to shape the earth’s geology, ecosystems, and climate. Vox’s Brad Plumer recently compiled a set of images that vividly illustrate humanity’s transformative effect: “15 before-and-after images that show how we’re transforming the planet“. Urban growth, energy extraction and generation, the damming and diversion of rivers, climate change:

14) Solar farms sprout up in California

Images taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus instrument onboard Landsat 7 and the Operational Land Imager onboard Landsat 8. Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery “Topaz Solar Farm, California,” U.S. Department of the Interior / USGS and NASA. (<a href="http://climate.nasa.gov/state_of_flux#Topaz-Solar-Farm-930px-57.jpg">NASA, World of Change)</a>

The Topaz Solar Farm in California, seen in 2011 and 2015. (NASA, World of Change)

The next big environmental challenge is global warming, which will likely prove much harder to stop than the hole in the ozone layer. It will entail revamping our entire energy system; switching away from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas; and seeking out cleaner sources.

Some places are already taking steps along those lines. The image above shows the growth of the Topaz Solar Farm in central California, a 550-megawatt plant consisting of 9 million panels across 9.5 square miles. It’s a modest step in shifting the state toward cleaner energy.

Even so, some environmentalists have opposed the project, arguing that solar farms need a lot of land and fences, hindering the movement of the federally protected San Joaquin kit fox. It’s a reminder that even efforts to reduce our environmental footprint in one area can lead to unexpected impacts elsewhere.

As we change nature, we also change the way we live. Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance of The Transport Politic have put together an interesting interactive map showing every rapid transit project proposed or underway in large North American cities. Here’s Seattle, a city with a similar size and geography to Auckland, getting excited about dedicated bus lanes:

Transit Politic Seattle proposed transit map

What’s equally cool is that they have included a “what if” function that illustrates what could have been if previous rapid transit extensions, such as this 1968 regional rail plan for Seattle, hadn’t been cancelled:

Transit Politic Seattle what if transit map

The shape of our cities affects the shape of our society and the prospects for our citizens. A new research paper by Reid Ewing, Shima Hamidi, James Grace, and Yehuda Dennis finds that “urban sprawl stunts upward mobility“:

The study examined potential pathways through which sprawl may have an effect on mobility and uses mathematical models to account for both direct and indirect effects of sprawl on upward mobility. The direct effects are through access to jobs and the indirect effects are through integration of different income classes.

“The result is that upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas,” said Ewing. “As the compactness index for a metropolitan area doubles, the likelihood that a child is born into the bottom fifth of national income distribution will reach the top firth by age 30 increases by 41 percent.”

CityLab’s Eric Jaffe reports more on the details of the study. Places like Seattle and San Francisco, which are relatively compact, offer much better prospects for upward mobility than dispersed metropolises like Atlanta. Putting up barriers to urban intensification will also tend to put up barriers to social mobility.

Ewing et al’s study coincides with another landmark study on the impact of planning regulations on economic segregation within cities. UCLA researchers Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen examines which types of regulations are associated with greater segregation. CityLab’s Richard Florida reviews four key findings from their research:

1. Density restrictions isolate the wealthy

Density restrictions work to increase segregation, mainly by exacerbating the concentration of affluence. This contradicts the commonly held belief that exclusionary zoning leads to the concentration of the poor. Instead, the authors find that the main effect of density restrictions is to enable the wealthy to wall themselves off from other groups…

2. Restrictions in both cities and suburbs matter

The economic segregation of metros is significantly higher in places where cities (not just suburbs) employ more stringent land use and density restrictions. This finding adds important nuance to the conventional view that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. Density restrictions in the city not only lead to higher housing prices (think San Francisco), but to greater economic segregation across a metro as a whole. As the authors write, “density restrictions are a culprit in the social fragmentation of metropolitan areas and should be relaxed where possible.”

3. Local government restrictions contribute to segregation

The precise way in which the government is involved in land use regulation is a key contributor to segregation. Many people assume that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning, broadly speaking. But the new study finds that segregation varies by both the nature and extent of government involvement, as well as the type of land use restriction. Notably, the authors discover that segregation is not associated with a broad measure of land use restriction overall, but is instead the result of more specific types of regulation and restrictiveness.

4. State involvement can temper segregation

…Importantly, the study shows that greater involvement at the state level can help temper some of the most damaging effects of exclusionary zoning. The authors write:

“Greater pressure from multiple local interest groups regarding residential development exacerbates the tendency to segregate by income. At the same time, income segregation is ameliorated by a higher level of involvement from state institutions. Taken together, these findings suggest that land use decisions cannot be concentrated in the hands of local actors.”

These findings are counterintuitive in some respects: they suggest that the affordable housing offered by low-density flatland cities is an imperfect substitute for affordable housing in more compact cities. Consequently, it’s likely that we have underestimated the long-run costs of exclusionary zoning and restrictions on density.

In the presence of complexity, making policy on the basis of rules of thumb, intuitive judgments, or simple models of behaviour can go wrong. Real-world data and sound analysis is essential as it can provide a useful check against these types of errors. So I was glad to hear that economists are getting more empirical. Bloomberg View’s Justin Fox analyses “how economics went from theory to data“:

Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas documented this shift in a 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Literature. In 1963, 1973 and 1983, the majority of the articles published in the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy and Quarterly Review of Economics, three of the field’s most influential journals, were works of theory — with theory’s dominance peaking in 1983. By 2011, theory’s share was down to 27.9 percent.

methods 2

One cause seems pretty clear. The biggest shift toward empirical work occurred between 1983 and 1993, and it was between 1983 and 1993 that personal computers became commonplace. That made crunching data much easier for economics professors; the subsequent rise of the Internet and digitization of much that was once analog in the economy opened up a huge new array of data for them to crunch.

On a completely different note, here’s a sign of the times:

One of the reasons for the project’s popularity is that it is visually interesting to be on. The ground is pink, the view is constantly changing and frequently spectacular, and there are lights and stuff. By contrast, Colin Ellard discusses “why boring streets make pedestrians stressed and unhappy” in Aeon:

In 2006, the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl observed that people walk more quickly in front of blank façades; compared with an open, active façade, people are less likely to pause or even turn their heads in such locations. They simply bear down and try to get through the unpleasant monotony of the street until they emerge on the other side, hopefully to find something more interesting…

In Gehl’s terms, a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of about 5km per hour, sees an interesting new site about once every five seconds…

Merrifield and Danckert suggest that exposure to even a brief, boring experience is sufficient to change the brain and body’s chemistry in such a way as to generate stress. It might seem extreme to say that a brief encounter with a boring building could be seriously hazardous to one’s health, but what about the cumulative effects of immersion, day after day, in the same oppressively dull surroundings?

But if you’re not interested in making an interesting place, here’s a quick guide to making a boring one. Reddit has helpfully created the “trashy suburban highway starter pack“:

trashy suburban highway starter pack

Lastly, the big news of the week was the Government getting on board with a 2018 start date for the City Rail Link’s major tunneling works. (Preliminary works on Albert Street are starting shortly.) Matt wrote a wrap-up post on Thursday, and others have also commented as well. At Pundit, Tim Watkins highlights how effective Len Brown has been as a “lame duck” mayor:

Brown’s greatest failure and subsequent political demise has, ironically, ensured his greatest legacy and made it easier for National to move early. Yet undoubtedly, it’s under Brown’s leadership that Auckland has been able to force Wellington’s hand.

Yet some big, chunky politics remains: How to pay for this plan. And not just on the council’s side. The government has to figure out how this project impacts its debt promises.

A lot of the coverage of the Government’s CRL announcement has focused on how it has “backed down”, or highlighted the remaining naysayers who have been politically isolated by the decision. I don’t think this is the right way to frame the decision, for two reasons

First, it is hard for politicians to reverse course in public – but it is very important for them to be willing to do so. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?Politicians who change their minds because of new evidence should be celebrated, not mocked.

Second, the decision vindicates the efforts of the many people who put CRL on the agenda before the Government picked it up. CRL is popular because politicians and activists across the political spectrum campaigned for it – e.g. Len Brown and Penny Hulse, the Greens, Labour, and even NZ First, Generation Zero, business groups like the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, and (ahem) Transportblog. It is ready to construct due to the fine work done by Auckland Transport and Auckland Council. These people have built a consensus about the future of Auckland’s rapid transit system that did not exist four years ago. Fine work indeed.

22 comments to Sunday reading 31 January 2016

  • Reasons to be cheerful: I was looking for something in the archives and came across this old blog post from 2012 about Manukau City Centre. Makes for interesting reading; haven’t we come a long way in a relatively short time. Auckland really is changing very fast, for the better, and a fresh approach to transport is at the heart of this change:

    http://transportblog.co.nz/2012/11/07/how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-manukau/

  • ” Politicians who change their minds because of new evidence should be celebrated, not mocked.”

    Er, yes. But there was no new evidence. The Government already had all the evidence, and we had 8 years of Joyce and Brownlee making “LOL MONORAIL” jokes in Parliament. This is sheer political defeat and they can’t be left to get away with just lying for 8 years and pretending they didn’t.

    • Greg N

      As much as I agree with your intent especially as to mocking Brownlee and Joyce for mocking the idea of the CRL.

      There are some new facts:

      1. Auckland rail usage, is well on target to exceed 20 million trips by 2020. 8 years ago the current patronage was a mere dream of a few transport planners in ARTA and little else. 4 years ago, these two seized on the post RWC rail decline as a “see – told you no one uses trains” moment. 2 years ago they started to eat their words as patronage ticked up. 1 year ago, they were positively choking on them. 6 months ago it was stone cold silent apoplexy on the subject.

      2. The major land owners down Albert St are largely forcing Nationals hand to commit by arguing for certainty over when CRL happens and for that certainty sooner than “sometime in the 2020s”. They want the CRL finished and open. Partly because they want the foot traffic it will bring them/building their tenants, but also because they don’t want a decade of constant disruption and ongoing delayed plans that will otherwise result if its delayed.

      3. Downtown building is being rebuilt, this is the only time the CRL tunnels can be built underneath as easily, so this part is happening whether National wants it to or not.

      And no doubt John Keys polling is telling him that they’re missing the train with Aucklanders by not giving a go ahead. Its not a left right thing, its a Auckland v Wellington thing and they know their mayoral candidate will be the loser before they’re even out of the starting gates otherwise.

      • stu donovan

        Id add: 4) aucklands population has boomed quite unexpectedly since 2011 and 5) interest rates have remained low. Both these factors have created an environment in which it makes sense to accelerate infrastructure investment.

    • Jeremy

      I agree there was a sense of inevitability. Council just progressed it too far, same reason why the transport levy was introduced, avoid costs of re-litigation and to leverage Govt funds.

      We should also not forget the AKT Blog, who had a writing style I enjoyed who connected with the technically minded and the lay person.

    • Additionally I support politicians that bring a sceptical eye to big infra spending; it is important that our money is spent wisely, even cunningly, and there will always be pressure to spend by interested parties and pressure groups. Of course the problem with Joyce and Brownlee they have only ever employed that scepticism selectively, they have a total lack of caution and rational analysis whenever it comes to MOAR ROADZ. Sadly they have proved not to be prudent spenders, just prejudiced ones: and entirely unimaginative ones at that; their view is consistently backwards and hopelessly conventional. They have instinctively built for the world of their youth, and no understanding of cities.

      So we went from what was arguably overcautious govt infra spending, but consistently applied [Cullen], to more active and bolder investment irrationally applied [Joyce]. The CRL decision at least offers hope that this second stage can morph into a new age of more rational and future focussed investment [time only moves one way]. Joyce has the brains if not perhaps the instincts to change, Brownlee is just too incurious to change I suspect. Much depends on the changing power of these and other individuals in Cabinet. Especially if you buy Hooton’s characterisation of a urban [Key, Bridges] v provincial [Joyce, Brownlee] spilt over this kind of issue at least….?

      • George D

        Yes, so do I. But under these circumstances, why has the $1.8 billion EW Road been progressed so quickly?

        • Greg N

          I suspect that its because the WRR project is now in the wind down stage – it will after all, be open within 12 months.

          So they need a massive new project to replace it keep those motorway building companies who continually lobby Joyce and co for more big roads projects crews busy after WWR finishes – hence the faster than usual “emergency” build plan they’re proposing.

          I just wonder if NZTA is setting itself for an even bigger fail at the BOI than what happened in Wellington for the Basin flyover – when their lack of proper consideration of alternatives resulted in their arses being kicked well and truly by the BOI.

          And if that sort of thing happens here then they won’t be building that road anytime soon.

          I also wonder how long before the estimates exceed the $2B mark. the current projected costs are already making it the single most expensive roading project in the country ever (until AWHC), and given the CRL is projected to cost at most $2.4B (in future 202X dollars, at time of opening), and for which the government is paying maybe half, this road will also easily exceed the likely cost to the Government of the CRL.

          • Anthony

            CRL cost is $2.5B in 2024 dollars
            https://at.govt.nz/projects-roadworks/city-rail-link/

            MOAR ROADZ is nothing new. Spending under Cullen 1999-2008 included motorways in Waikato, Orewa-Puhoi, Greenhithe deviation, upper harbour bridge duplication, SH20 Mt Roskill, Onehunga bridge, SH20 Manukau and selling the public on billion dollar waterview tunnels. Cullen was also spending big on WFF, interest free loans, kiwirail, KiwiSaver, etc.

            On the subject of the pink path, can it really be described as popular? How many cyclists / pedestrians are actually using it? I’ve only cycled it a couple of times, most recently there was nobody else using it (commuter hours)

          • Greg N

            That figure is out of date by about several hundred million (possibly up to $600m) because it assumed outright compulsary buying of the Downtown tower was needed as part of the CRL project so was included in the costs.
            It also assumed a much higher “future inflation” figure than we’ve had the last 4+ years, which means lower borrowing costs, and lower value of finished project in 2024 dollars. That low inflation aspect alone can easily a few hundred million off the cost.

            But since the new owners of the Downtown building are redeveloping it from scratch now they are allowing AT to build CRL through their basement for some concessions that cost nowhere near $600m.

            And the reason why the avoiding of the purchase of the Downtown tower has such big impact on costs is that under the governments accounting rules AT/AC have the ensure the cost of acquiring property is included in projects, but the money that would be received from selling it back [to the previous owner in this case] when project is done is not offset against the costs.

            So for these reasons the finished cost of CRL will be below the $2.5B figure guaranteed. It may even come under $2B – in 2024 dollars.

            As for your questioning of usage numbers of the Pink Path? Metro tweeted a few days back that AT’s official figures since start of December 2015 until recently are over 50,000 users.
            Since it has cycling and pedestrian counters on it, I expect that figure is as accurate as can be.
            See here for the tweet.

          • peterc

            “I just wonder if NZTA is setting itself for an even bigger fail at the BOI than what happened in Wellington for the Basin flyover…..?” Not if the terms of reference are stacked the way they were for the Puford BOI. And how come that didn’t happen in Wntgn? Not on the RONS list eh?

          • 50,000 from 3Dec-28Jan averages 877 people per day, which is similar to the 784 cyclists per day on the NW cycle route at St Lukes. https://at.govt.nz/media/1153496/AT-Regional-Cycle-Monitoring-Albert-Eden-Roskill-2015.pdf

            $2.5B is still the figure on the AT website, what John Key has referred to and it has been the figure in the media. This very public number is now the budget, so if money can be saved, hopefully we can have the Beresford entrance at K Rd, some level crossing grade separation, provision for north shore rail at Aotea, etc.

    • Jeff T

      I think Key has generally seen the merit of the crl, having lived in developed cities. I think without him we have the ‘normal’ national party, with the likes of Brownlee, Joyce, opposing it. In fact I think that without him the government would not have shown support.

      Whether the government sees the merit in the project or not, Key sees that it is a popular project and that it will attract votes.

      As for the likes of Seymour, or local politicians like Quax and Cameron, I don’t think I’ll be concerned for them that they’ve been politically isolated. They still have their supporters.

  • Matthew W

    ” Politicians who change their minds because of new evidence should be celebrated, not mocked.”
    In this case the evidence you are referring to is internal polling data? In which case hard to agree with what you have said – unless you agree with the change of course.

    The real change of mind was back in 2013. At that point there was a remarable lack of new evidence to point to. There was no study the government pointed to and said – ok now we have changed our mind. They said they were unhappy with the original business case, accepted the MOT BCR numbers, and interpreted the CCFAS as being unsupportive of a case for rail. Then out of the blue they changed their mind.

    • They ignore BCR for roads, so they are being consistent even by your analysis.

      Just curious though, why aren’t you as exercised about the crazy $1billion blow out on the East-west connections, they now look likely to spend more on this than their contribution to the CRL?

      • Matthew W

        Absolutely just as exercised. I am just commenting on the idea that the government changed their mind based on evidence. That is not my understanding The RONs and similar projects are Nationals policies that National campaigned on before any analysis had been done (much like Len Brown and his various heavy rail projects he campaigned on). So its hardly surprising they didnt change their minds much on that front. But the CRL they appeared to approach from the point of view of wanting the benefits of the proposal to be demonstrated. They didnt however change their mind based on sych a demonstration but on something else (i assume polling).

        • Get that you are an infra investment sceptic, and respect that, but just don’t see you raise any real ire with the much much more expensive and extremely wasteful roads blow-out.

          It’s not enough to wave it away with ‘they campaigned on it’ it either stacks up under your harsh glare or it doesn’t. And if capex investment is so low value then the higher sums are where the greater waste and opportunity costs are to be found.

          I look forward to seeing your energy directed at this much bigger issue.

  • Andrew

    Any chance the east-west connection be made a toll road, especially since it will be primarily trucks using it and they do the most damage to the roads. It could also encourage local Onehunga residents/workers to use the trains and avoid the truckorgy that will be the E-W m.way. Would be good to get the rail/lightrail system working first.

    • BBC

      It won’t be primarily used by trucks though will it, it will be full of SOVs from day one and the few trucks that do use it will slowly disappear as Onehunga continues to gentrify and the handy train to the city further causes the conversion of all these old industrial areas into housing.

      This is simply another urban motorway to entrench car use in Auckland pretending to be an industrial panacea.

  • Bruce

    “and even NZ First” why is any reference to NZ First always treated with some snarky remark? Of all the political parties only The Greens are more focused on PT than NZ First. They may not be your political flavour of the month but their PT policies are along the lines of what should be expected from our political parties. Leave your own personal bias at home next time thanks.

    • Well that is arguable, NZF where putting up 75% for the CRL where Green only 60% for the CRL last election. The only snarky remarks should be made against the trucking party which we keep voting in.

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