Hi, and welcome back to Sunday Reading.
The 25th of July marked the 100th anniversary of zoning. Increasingly zoning is being attributed to a growing number of city ills including low productivity, segregation, and reducing economic mobility. Just as conventional traffic engineering (eg. the requirement for parking minimums) is being reformed, I think that the practice of zoning is long overdue for an overhaul. A few people agree.
Justin Fox, “Zoning Has Had a Good 100 Years. Enough Already“, Bloomberg.
After about 1970, though, zoning’s negative economic effects began to grow. Before then, housing prices were more or less the same across the country. Since then, prices in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast have risen much faster than in most of the rest of the nation — in the process increasing inequality, thwarting residential mobility and slowing economic growth. Ever-tougher zoning rules and restrictions on growth appear to be a major cause. Fischel has a long list of explanations for this intensification of zoning that I won’t go into here, other than to mention the one that drives me the craziest — the dressing-up of self-interested economic arguments in the language of environmentalism and morality.
Mark Vallianatos and Mott Smith,”Our zoning codes are a relic of a suburban age. There’s a better way to plan“, LA Times.
What both sides miss is that zoning — the focus of planning for the last 100 years — is an inadequate tool for shaping the future of an evolving city. Zoning is a 20th century relic designed to “protect” existing residents from the encroachment of people and buildings they see as “undesirable.” Reformers should focus instead on tangible improvements in the public realm.
Joe Linton, “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Zoning and the World Is Getting Worse“, Streetsblog LA.
So much of zoning and planning are about making things convenient for driving, as opposed to making great places. Two of my biggest pet peeves are parking minimums and street widening, but there are all sorts of car-centric assumptions embedded in the urban forms in zoning and planning. There are further car-centric assumptions embedded other neutral-sounding governmental transportation planning processes. Don’t get me started on traffic engineering.
When I am at my crankiest, I think that we would be better off without any zoning or planning. But in my quieter moments, I can acknowledge that there is a baby somewhere in all that bathwater.
I look around Los Angeles. I can’t think of any great places here that were built after zoning emerged. I live in Koreatown which is among L.A. County’s densest neighborhoods with about 67 people per acre. Buildings on my street were built about a hundred years ago, adjacent to a streetcar line. Next door, there is a 40-unit apartment building with no parking. My building has eight units and five parking spaces. None of this would be allowed under current city plans.
Julie Anne Genter (@julieAnneGenter) posted some great tweets during the Unitary Plan hearing on the absurdity of the zoning debate in Auckland.
This hellsscape of houses on small lots interspersed with multi story apartments. What Kiwi would want to live here? pic.twitter.com/hxBTmIt764
— Julie Anne Genter (@JulieAnneGenter) August 10, 2016
Left photo, a bunch of new houses. Right photo, pre-war apartments that are now impossible to build. What is better? pic.twitter.com/EzHQruL5Uw
— Julie Anne Genter (@JulieAnneGenter) August 10, 2016
It’s good to look to the other cities to see how bad housing affordability can get. As far as I can tell the Bay Area of California is the worst. In San Francisco ‘progressives’ are stifling housing growth and trying to kick industry out to slow job growth. Of course there is limit to how high housing costs can get before people start to look for better options. This article – Techies Can’t Afford San Francisco Anymore suggests that a quarter of ‘techies’ in the San Francisco are looking for jobs in other cities.
Here is the resignation letter of a young planning commissioner in Palo Alto who has given up advocating for more housing and has instead opted to leave the city. Kate Vershov Downing, “Letter of Resignation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission“, NewCo Shift,
Over the last 5 years I’ve seen dozens of my friends leave Palo Alto and often leave the Bay Area entirely. I’ve seen friends from other states get job offers here and then turn them down when they started to look at the price of housing. I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent when young families have no hope of ever putting down roots here, and meanwhile the community is engulfed with middle-aged jet-setting executives and investors who are hardly the sort to be personally volunteering for neighborhood block parties, earthquake preparedness responsibilities, or neighborhood watch. If things keep going as they are, yes, Palo Alto’s streets will look just as they did decades ago, but its inhabitants, spirit, and sense of community will be unrecognizable. A once thriving city will turn into a hollowed out museum. We should take care to remember that Palo Alto is famous the world over for its residents’ accomplishments, but none of those people would be able to live in Palo Alto were they starting out today.
Further commentary on this:
Sam Levin, “Housing official in Silicon Valley resigns because she can’t afford to live there“, The Guardian.
Analysts are now predicting that the housing crisis is going to have a serious impact on higher paid tech workers, potentially encouraging a sizable exodus.
While many housing advocates have pressured tech firms to contribute significant funds to help mitigate the crisis, others have argued that the blame lies with cities that promote a “not-in-my-back-yard” mentality and have blocked the rapid housing development that the region now needs.
“I have repeatedly made recommendations to the council to expand the housing supply in Palo Alto so that together with our neighboring cities who are already adding housing, we can start to make a dent in the jobs-housing imbalance that causes housing prices throughout the Bay Area to spiral out of control,” Kate wrote in her resignation letter.
The Downings and other tech workers who have recently left Palo Alto said the only homes they could afford would require them to live in areas far from their offices, forcing them to embark on hellish commutes.
Here’s a new game “Brand New Subway“. It lets you modify versions of the New York Subway system or create a new one from scratch. The challenge of the game is to maximise ridership while minimising costs. Hmmm, where I have heard that before?
Driverless cars will be here soon. A colleague recently visited the Bay Area and said they were “all over the valley” and that “people hate them because they follow the speed limit”. Here’s Robin Chase the co-founder of ZipCar highlighting the urgency (and opportunity) of planning for self driving cars: “Self driving cars will improve our cities if they don’t ruin them“, BackChannel.
Right now, we’re not even alert to how crucial the choices are. In fact, we’re falling asleep at the wheel. Most people in charge of shaping cities — mayors, transportation planners, developers, and lawmakers — haven’t realized what is about to hit them and the speed at which it is coming. They continue to build as if the future is like the present.
Instead, cities and countries must actively shape the introduction of AVs. We are getting access to this technical marvel at the precise moment when cities are full and bursting from the urbanizing of our planet, when we absolutely need to transition rapidly from fossil fuels, and when it is imperative to improve people’s access to opportunity: jobs, education, health services. We have the ability to eliminate congestion, transform the livability of cities, make it possible to travel quickly and safely from A to B for the price of a bus ticket, improve the quality of our air, and make a significant dent in reducing CO2 emissions.
The very landscape of our cities will change. On-street and almost all off-street parking, including parking garages, will be unnecessary and we’ll get rid of them. Communities and local governments can come up with criteria and priorities for how to repurpose that newly available public space: wider sidewalks, more street trees and plantings, bike lanes, street furniture. Progressive cities will make use of old parking lots, garages, and gas stations to fix what was lacking: affordable housing, green space, grocery stores, schools. Proactive cities will know their priorities neighborhood by neighborhood, as well as their criteria for action, before the transition begins.
Kats Dekker, “Let’s design for women too – beyond the commute“, Spatial Fairness.
Disregarding over 80% of all trips does not seem a sensible way forward. Yet, the transport systems and practices, still, are obsessed with the commute, even after various pushes for change have been made by the research community over many years.
Just looking at commuting data misses to consider a large number of trips, especially those made by women. Women, as is clear, are not a minority group. Yet women and their needs, even as a major group in society (women make more trips than men), are often disregarded. Looking at the commuting data alone discriminates against women in general, women’s activities and discounts women’s place in society.
We historically have looked at the commute for its coincidence with the rush hour, to deal with peak travel demand. In the UK at least, a real and honest look at space as a limited precious resource (and how to carve it up fairly and effectively) has not taken place. The commute focus has not brought about a better transport system with alternatives to the private car largely still excluded. I suggest that taking the commute approach brings the problem that over 80% of all trips have been neglected in transport assessments. These trips require attention for other reasons than the peak demand. Reasons are for example safety needs when travelling with kids and transporting shopping. In cycle cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam these trips are still carried out by women, by they are cycled. Removing those trips from the transport agenda marginalises the importance of women’s everyday activities and careful and sensible provision for these activities.
As most of you know, the PT in Auckland is pretty good in most places. This is a lovely piece by Greg Bruce where he shares how the train fit into his life. “Who says public transportation sucks? In praise of the train“, The New Zealand Herald.
From the time I get on board, I know the train will get me to Britomart 41 minutes later, no matter how clogged the Northwestern Motorway and assorted arterial routes, no matter how many passengers are on board, no matter how heavy the rain.
The train’s sense of certainty and predictability suits my temperament, which tends to the anxious, and I arrive, relaxed and happy at my office at the same time every morning. Over the following hour, I watch and listen while my colleagues straggle in complaining about the traffic, the absence of carparks, the unpleasantness of the bus. I sometimes offer them a smile of the utmost smugness. More often, I ignore them.
How Auckland used to roll:
Please add your links in the comment section.