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Mid-week reading: California uber alles, road tolls, apartment design, and election reviews

I’m back to a mostly normal post-writing schedule, but mid-week reading will continue as an intermittent feature.

One of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was Jim Newton’s long interview with California Governor Jerry Brown (in UCLA Blueprint). Brown served two terms as governor in the 1970s and 80s, left politics for a while, and ultimately returned to serve another two terms as governor. In the 1970s, he was known as a prescient environmentalist (“Governor Moonbeam”); today, he’s had to address major long-term challenges, including a brush with fiscal meltdown in 2008-2012, responses to climate change, and a poorly functioning housing market. He also inspired the Dead Kennedys’ song California uber alles.

Blueprint: Environmental issues have been very important to you for a very long time. What first captured your attention about this area?

Jerry Brown: The idea that there is an environment that we’re a part of and can’t be separated from, and that this environment can be degraded, impaired and altered in a very negative way, more than aesthetically but actually having to do with the vitality of living things and the whole way living beings all function, that this could be affected by decisions.

That was a rather startling thought to me…. Before the notion of ecology and environment, there was the notion of resource conservation. That’s a very different idea. That’s a partial idea: Let’s protect the forest; let’s protect Yosemite.

BP: And a lot of that was conservation for future use, right?

JB: Conservation, yes, but not just conservation for future use — conservation as applying to a very particular and limited piece of land or river or mountain. The environment is a different concept. Ecology is an encompassing idea. “Eco” comes from the Greek word ekos, “house.”

[…]

BP: And climate change is potentially as devastating?

JB: Climate change is slower. The trouble with climate change is that you can pass tipping points, and down the road it is going to be enormously difficult and expensive to change with all the embedded infrastructure. Enormously difficult. Even though today it’s relatively trivial. To de-carbonize the economy, even though it’s massive and would take trillions of dollars, it could be done. But it would take a real mobilization….

And there’s an industry of denial, of manufactured skepticism, all for short-term gain, or because of an ideological fear of more regulation that will curb unfettered market behavior or individual consumption. So people don’t want to believe there’s an absolute out there called the environment, called the climate system. But we know there is. We didn’t make the sun shine today. It was raining for a couple days. We didn’t do that. So what made that? What made that is the whole atmospheric chemistry.

Now, can 7 or 9 billion people, can several billion cars and coal plants affect that? Most of the scientists say yes. And if they can, how are we going to un-affect it? See, that’s the simple-minded thing. Up until 1850 you never had more than a billion people. And what did they do? Run around in their little clothes and with a little bit of gunpowder here and there.

Now we have massive technology. The human impact is multiplied, is unimaginably greater. But the human capacity for wisdom has not improved an iota. So there’s the problem.

One of the reasons I keep a close eye on California is that it’s often at the forefront of change. And while that throws up occasional perversities, like Los Angeles’ car-based sprawl and congestion or the San Francisco housing market, it also tends to develop solutions to those problems.

Speaking of technology and solutions to long-standing problems, The Age transport reporter Adam Carey reports on a pilot programme for road pricing. Transurban, a major Australian toll-road operator, has been gathering data on the behavioural implications of road tolls. They recognise that existing funding sources – principally petrol taxes – will come under pressure as electric vehicles enter the fleet… and, furthermore, that this will offer opportunities to price to manage congestion:

Mr Clarke was one of 1200 motorists in Melbourne who had been recruited, and whose every move behind the wheel was being tracked in a bid to find the best model for a switch to user-pays roads.

The matchbox-sized device plugged beneath Mr Clarke’s steering wheel was a GPS-enabled geolocator, recording his journeys so Transurban could tally up a monthly road user charge.

The charge would be entirely fictional, for the purpose of exploring the best payment model for a system of user-pays roads.

Mr Clarke also had a virtual bank account – or “piggy bank”, as Transurban cutely coins it – with regular statements he could view online and three options for how they would like to pay to drive.

Pay $1 a trip, pay 10c a kilometre, or pay a flat rate each month.

Mr Clarke chose the third option, and was given a notional monthly balance of $92, which bought him the right to drive 926 kilometres. If he exceeded the cap, the charge would double from 10c a kilometre to 20c.

As it happens, Australia’s already got a funding problem – petrol taxes haven’t kept pace with roads spending:

Infrastructure Australia published a major audit of the condition of the nation’s transport networks last year and reached the same conclusion, that Australia is increasingly unable to pay for the infrastructure it needs.

“This deficit will, on a business-as-usual basis, continue to worsen as a growing population and economy increases demand for infrastructure networks,” the federal advisory authority found.

It also found the way roads are paid for is “unfair, unsustainable and inefficient”, because taxpayers pick up most of the bill, rather than the heaviest road users.

It is a time of transition, here and elsewhere. In Idealog magazine, architect Blair Johnston writes about “how higher density is Auckland’s destiny“… and how design must respond in order to enable that.

Every successful city has at some stage experienced this growth and a similar intensification process, including places like Melbourne and Sydney where the lifestyle values are much like our own. The advantage is that we can appropriate these international models – the trees of Brooklyn streets, the construction system of Amsterdam, the vibrant low-rise laneways of Tokyo, the density of Sydney’s Paddington – and adapt them to our local conditions.

The first Auckland-specific factor to consider is our climate, and our love affair with the outdoors. And that does make development in this part of the world somewhat distinctive. All buildings in Auckland require good orientation and cross ventilation; in short, ample natural light and the ability to open windows. It may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often this is forgotten in building developments. Creating sustainable apartments should begin with a north-facing aspect and supply of fresh air from both sides of the building. No arguments.

Johnston goes on to identify four other ways in which design must be tailored to the Auckland context, in response to our desire for privacy in our private spaces; our need for usable public spaces; our demand for flexibility in our living spaces; and the affordability challenge.

He concludes:

The truth is that four- and five-storey buildings provide a comfortable threshold of density; we can use land more efficiently than cellular homes, while still creating great streets and vibrant public places. Extrapolated out, this makes for better environments and cities everyone wants to live in. In New Zealand, our personal living spaces are integral to our social construct – we entertain, relax, work and live in our homes. We need to ensure that the apartments we develop are appropriate to these living conditions, to our climate, to cultural expectations and to budgets.

Lastly, I highly recommend reading lawyer Andrew Geddis’ summary of Parliament’s 2014 election review (on Pundit). As local body elections are coming up, we must consider how our democratic processes work, and how they don’t. The election review is a good place to start.

The Committee started where recent Justice and Electoral Committee inquiry reports always start – lamenting the continued decline in voter participation. Sure, the 2014 turnout was up a small tick from 2011 … but at 72.1% of those eligible to enroll it still was the second lowest since universal suffrage was brought in in 1893. In particular, the voting rate of younger electors is dire – less than 65% of eligible 25-29 year-olds cast ballots (and for those on the Māori roll, the figure is even worse at just over 50%).

[Incidentally, if you want to understand why the policies offered and pursued by New Zealand’s political parties look the way they do, the graph of turnout-by-age-group on page 13 of the Committee’s report will take you a long way toward doing so … but that’s a topic for another post!]

The Committee was united in thinking this declining turnout, especially amongst younger voters, is a real problem. It mirrored previous Committee reports in saying so. So what to do about it?

Unfortunately, as Geddis notes, the Parliamentary committee didn’t reach any agreement on concrete actions to overcome the youth turnout problem:

…compulsory civics classes for the youth seems to be the only solution going. Because the majority of the Committee weren’t having a bar of any more radical proposals for combating the decline in voting, such as lowering voting age to 16 (“a major change to the electoral system, requiring broad public consultation and a high level of political consensus”) or making voting compulsory (“if such a move were contemplated, the public must be consulted and a high level of political consensus achieved before any such change is implemented”).

[…] Note also that the pilot test of online voting in this year’s local body elections has been canned, meaning we won’t have even a practice run at it until 2019 at earliest – and no full roll-out for local body elections before 2022. I suspect that MPs won’t be comfortable setting it loose on parliamentary elections until they’ve seen it working without a hitch at the local level … meaning that it could well be another decade before our smartphones or tablets or neural implants begin to replace pen and paper ballots at the local school hall.

That’s it for the week. Post any other articles of interest in the comments!

6 comments to Mid-week reading: California uber alles, road tolls, apartment design, and election reviews

  • mfwic

    Maybe the poor voter turnout is just opportunity cost. The young have better things to do than spend their time finding out who stands for what. The rest of us dont have better things to do.

    • Greg N

      Compulsory Civics classes won’t fix the current batch of non voters, so we need a better answer than that.

      Fortunately its easy to fix the low voting participation rate.

      At every voter enrolment (or existing voters enrolment details check), have a box/area of the (re)enrolment form that lets them “proxy” their vote to any current party [Green, National, Labour, NZ First, Act, whatever].

      At election time if they can still rock on up and vote, doing that overrides their proxy vote – if they don’t vote on the day [or via specials] then the parties get these voters proxies along with the special votes which are currently counted after the fact.

      That way if the young are too busy to vote, or not concerned enough or simply unable to do all the research on parties and policies they can proxy it out to the Green party [or the GenZero party, or the GA party] to do the work for them.

      Its really just a logical extension of Social Media clicktivism – better than doing nothing at all about the problem – until we get online voting sorted.

  • Josh

    We were talking about this at work the other day. To increase voter turnout: Everyone who votes goes into the draw to win an iPhone (or whatever prize really, or just cash). It’s non-biased as it doesn’t matter who you vote for, you go into the draw anyway. And it will particularly attract young people to vote. I’m sure it would get criticised if it were won by someone who didn’t need the money, but those doing the criticising would still vote next time just to be in the running.

  • kelvin

    The issue with five storeys apartments is there is not enough population density to make the ground floor retail or hospitality. Most streets will be residential only instead of mixed used. Making only town center have shops.

    • Guy M

      Nothing wrong with having ground floor as light commercial, or light industrial though. We need cities where that sort of development is not driven out to an “industrial zone”. In my inner city street we have residential on all floors from first floor up to fifth floor, and ground floor is taken up with panel-beater, audio-visual hire, building supplies, car-grooming, printer, soup kitchen, stereo store, church, wood workshop, etc. No shops as such. And all uses who are mainly 9-5, meaning street is full of life while I’m at work, and then residential only in the evenings and weekends while I live there. Fantastic mix.

  • “No arguments”? Unlike any other peoples in the world, Kiwis are unique in that they want good light, fresh air, and occasionally entertain friends and family in their homes. Right. Can we please once and for all crunch the old chestnut that we have a unique climate or particular housing requirements? Luckily, good light and fresh air does not require “north-facing aspect and supply of fresh air from both sides of the building” – no arguments my foot. If it did, this would severely constrain the usage of urban land. It would also mean that most dwellers in Barcelona, Paris or New York lived with poor indoor conditions. But wait: overseas, people do not need light or fresh air, and are furthermore culturally very distinct from our unified Kiwi identity. By way of example: my apartment in Auckland faces due South; it only has windows to the South. The lighting situation is excellent. CO2 readings are low, so air quality is not too bad. There are a myriad of acoustic issues, which have however nothing to do with orientation or the absence of cross-ventilation. Design must respond to higher density – but considered, and based on building science facts rather than untested presumptions we are not allowed to question.