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Sunday reading 2 October 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting with an important article that all of our readers who work in the transport planning field should read in full and share with their colleagues. David Levinson (Transportist) writes about “Dogfooding: why transit employees and managers should use transit“:

The term “dogfooding”, derived from “eating your own dog food”, is popular in the tech sector, and implies that a company should use its own products wherever it can. Thus, in general, Apple employees should have Macs on their desks rather than Windows machines, and Google employees should use Gmail. The advantages of this are several. Most importantly, bugs can be quickly identified by employees using the system on a daily basis, and feedback can be channeled quickly through the organization. Secondarily, missing features can be quickly identified similarly. Employees will get better empathy for the experience of paying customers.

Similarly employees, and management, and directors or council-members of transit agencies should ride transit to work.

The same applies in many other areas of public policy and business. Customer experience is essential to delivering a good product or service – which means that people tasked with delivering them need to understand what life’s like from the customer’s view.

Speaking of, if we want a more cycle-friendly city, maybe it would be a good idea to get some property developers on bikes. Down south, Cycling in Christchurch has put together an interesting photo essay on the design of some new subdivisions. Here’s an excerpt:

The first step to encouraging cycling is land use – it’s no good for example having lots of lovely cycleways around your housing area if you still have to travel miles to get to the shops, school, work and so on. A lot of earlier stand-alone subdivisions were essentially just “dormitory” suburbs full of houses and nothing else.

Shops, playgrounds, and places to park your bike

Shops, playgrounds, and places to park your bike

Fortunately more of the recent developments have tried to incorporate a bit more mixed-use planning, by including neighbourhood centres with shops, cafés and maybe even some offices; there might also be a school site planned for the future or a local childcare centre.

Some local shops and cafes, plus bike parking and a calmed street layout

Some local shops and cafes, plus bike parking and a calmed street layout

The challenge with all of these facilities is the need to have a “critical mass” of residents before they will often become viable. So, unless the developer subsidises things in the early days, it may be difficult to see these mixed use features in there from day one. It’s one thing to say that they will be built later on when the population grows (same with providing bus services to the neighbourhood) but, in the meantime, the early residents might get into the habit of just driving further afield to do what they need to do.

Good bike parking outside the local health centre

Good bike parking outside the local health centre

I’ve also yet to see a community central area in Chch that doesn’t let you drive all the way through the middle of it. Unlike virtually every town I encountered in Europe, we seem to lack the courage to create community hubs that you can only walk or bike through, with car parking on the periphery.

Houses and offices; a pity that the pathway has no ramp onto the road

Houses and offices; a pity that the pathway has no ramp onto the road

We should definitely be building new subdivisions to enable good access by walking, cycling, and public transport. Why? It’ll be better for us, in the short and long run, than the alternative. David Dudley (CityLab) reports on some new research on “the real risks of urban cycling“:

Anyone who spends much time on a bicycle in a city, dodging diesel-belching buses and wayward motorists, has wondered at some point whether the overall health benefits of cycling are gnawed away by pollution exposure and the risks of being killed or seriously injured. The facts, as the data journalists of the UK’s Financial Times Magazine explain, are somewhat reassuring: Unless you live in a small handful of extremely polluted cities, you should get on a bike. […]

James Hamblin recently made a similar observation over at The Atlantic, noting that the lethality of the modern sedentary lifestyle cannot be offset by occasional periods of intense exercise. What you need is a regular commitment to daily moving around. And that’s exactly what regular bike commuters get, even as they endure all the other miseries—and the occasional spasm of terror—that urban riding can sometimes deliver.

New Zealand cities are relatively unpolluted, compared with the smoggy Asian cities in the sample. This means that increasing the perceived safety of bicycling through investments in safe cycle facilities will tend to be a very good idea.

But what, you ask, do people really want in a neighbourhood? Opinions differ. (Probably due to the fact that people differ.) As Chris Kirkham reports in the Wall Street Journal, American cities and suburbs are trying out radically different approaches to attract more young residents:

In the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, developers are planning to build as many as 6,000 new condominiums and apartments, 10 hotels and 2 million square feet of office space along a one-mile stretch that includes the new corporate headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys.

Three towns to the west, in Flower Mound, city codes require that most homes sit on quarter-acre lots. When a developer two years ago proposed a 750-unit mix of apartments, senior living and townhomes geared toward millennials, dozens of nearby residents, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “low density,” showed up in council chambers to blast the plan. It eventually was reduced to 97 homes starting at around $450,000—up from the mid-$300,000 range in the original plan.

wsj-dallas-townhouses

A row of newly built homes run along the street in the Lakeside subdivision, a high density mixed retail and residential development at the south end of Flower Mound, Texas. Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal

“We don’t want to look like Frisco,” resident Kelly James said at a meeting last year. “The more high density, the less character this town has.”

The starkly different trajectories of Frisco and Flower Mound, less than 20 miles apart, reflect the profound changes under way in suburban areas across the U.S. A growing body of survey research suggests millennials intend to gravitate to suburbs just like earlier generations did, but that they prefer a higher-density, more walkable version than the cul-de-sac communities of their parents.

My prediction is that the second town will not have an awesome time in the long run. Intentionally driving up the price of housing by restricting density will mean, at some point, that they have a population of retirees on fixed incomes who need expensive services, at which point they will have a fiscal crisis.

Speaking of welcoming people, here’s a heart-warming story about a six-year-old American kid who wrote to President Obama to ask him to send a Syrian refugee to live with his family:

The sight of shell-shocked 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who was wounded in an airstrike in Aleppo, left many people speechless last month. It also prompted a New York boy named Alex to write to President Obama with a simple request: “Can you please go get him” so Omran can become part of Alex’s family?

[…] Here’s the full transcript of Alex’s letter:

“Dear President Obama,

“Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

“Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.

“Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!

“Alex

“6 years old”

Humans are generally born decent and generous. It takes an effort to teach ourselves to be selfish and cynical.

 

Superblocks!

If you want some videos with a more local flavour, Aucklander Elisa Hardijanto recently bought a bike, and has been taking great videos and photos of her favourite rides around the city. Here’s her write-up and pictures:

Ride 2 Waterfront The next day I took the train to Britomart with the intention of riding around my favorite place in Auckland; the Viaduct.
It was an amazing ride! The sun was out, although still slightly chilly with the wind, apparently it was 18 celcius.

I saw a lot of people young and old enjoying their city. Scooters, bikes, dogs, cameras and families were out in the sun. I was not the only cyclist, which was great to see!

I started with the train to Britomart, used the segregated cycleway on Quay Street (thanks AT) then around the Viaduct, behind Vodafone and KPMG buildings through to Westhaven Drive and the promenade. I went all the way to the bottom of the Harbour Bridge and back… Had lunch then back to the Harbour Bridge via Wynyard Quarter.

The Westhaven Promenade is gorgeous. It is a wide boardwalk right next to the water, a smooth flat ride and the view is stunning. I was there about a week ago on an evening photography course with Three Little Wishes. These are some shots I took.

Read the whole thing – regular cyclists will probably recognise the routes, but others may want to check out Elisa’s suggestions.

On the other side of the world, Lucy Tobin (Evening Standard) writes about the weird world of London property development. In a land with no by-right development, “you’ve got to curate a community” to get planning approval:

While most companies’ idea of “giving back” is a charity fun day or a euphemism-filled chunk on corporate social responsibility in their annual report, in property the concept is built into every development thanks to the planning laws with the unsexy name of Section 106, and its younger sibling the community infrastructure levy.

Every new luxury apartment block has to include the building of nearby low-cost housing, and commercial sprawls need to create something for the existing community too. It’s why every big Tesco usually has a sports centre or doctors’ surgery nearby.

Now, though, developers are going beyond leaving behind a pile of bricks for affordable housing —  the property world has become more imaginative, and ambitious. They’re calling it “placemaking” — developing communities, cultural hubs and even wildlife reserves near new developments, to turn pockets of the capital that are still seen as urban deserts or industrial wasteland into “It” destinations.

A housebuilder might erect a community theatre among its three-bed homes. A commercial developer invites young tech firms to office-share in brick-walled former warehouses, alongside the corporate and luxury apartment blocks. Hipster cafés and start-ups are invited in, alongside Instagrammable walls and street-food festivals; collaborations with local artists and cultural institutions are key.

Strange system. It probably does at least some good, but you have to ask whether the whole edifice makes sense. And that’s exactly what the Obama administration has been doing. The White House just published a new “Housing Development Toolkit” to try and prod towns and cities to do better. Or, as Doug Trumm (The Urbanist) put it, “Obama is a YIMBY“:

The Executive Summary begins with a succinct summary of recent land use history and how it relates to widening income inequality.

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

President Obama delivered comments at the US Conference of Mayors in January that hinted at his interest in boosting housing options in cities: “We can work together to break down rules that stand in the way of building new housing and that keep families from moving to growing, dynamic cities.” The toolkit fleshes out that pledge and suggests responding with a suite of land use changes.

  1. Establishing by-right development
  2. Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  3. Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  4. Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  5. Allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
  6. Establishing density bonuses
  7. Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  8. Employing inclusionary zoning
  9. Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  10. Using property tax abatements

Read the full document for a more complete picture of the recommendations, but really, this looks like a pretty sensible list.

That’s it for the week! See you next time!

4 comments to Sunday reading 2 October 2016

  • Brendon Harre

    Good effort Peter. Thanks for including Chistchurch in the discussion. Canterbury is still building 500+ houses a month. Which means about 20% of NZ’s new built environment is happening down here -so we need as much encouragement as possible to get good outcomes : )

  • Diarmaid Coffey

    Some interesting health economics figures from New York: http://www.foxnews.com/health/2016/09/29/bike-lanes-are-sound-public-health-investment.html
    Original article here: http://injurypreventionbeta.bmj.com/content/early/2016/09/09/injuryprev-2016-042057

    Even bearing in mind they are American figures, they are pretty conclusive. The public health case for urban active transport has been closed for years, and it’s time to look on politicians and planners who oppose it the same way we look on tobacco lobbyists and anti-immunisation groups

  • Louis M

    Thanks, very interesting compilation.

  • mfwic

    Dogfooding is interesting. In my long experience with Public Transport planners they fall into three types. 1/ The Cynics – they hate using PT and simply choose to drive. 2/ The Stoics – they hate PT but feel obliged to use it. 3/ the Avoiders – they hate PT and will do absolutely anything to not use it. They will ride a bike the entire length of Dominion Road in the rain to avoid using the bus or even move into a small squalid little flat in the CBD just so they dont have to use PT.
    The Stoics are the dogfooders.