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Sunday reading 12 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Let’s start off with a story about induced demand from the mainstream media. Driverless cars introduce an interesting variation on the story, but the answer is the same. Read through to discover the obvious solution to the problem. Conor Dougherty. “Self-driving Cars Can’t Cure Traffic, but Economics Can“, The New York Times.

But there is one problem autonomous driving is unlikley to solve: the columns of rush-hour gridlock that clog city streets and freeways. If decades of urban planning and and economic research are any guide, the solution is unlikely to come from technology but from something similar to Uber’s surge pricing: charging people more to use driverless cars at rush hour.

This has been studies at rush hour, studied on individual freeway projects and studies with large data sets that encompass nearly every road in the United States. With remarkable consistency, the research finds the same thing: Whenever a road is built or an older road is widened, more people decide to drive more. Build more or widen further, and even more people decide to drive. Repeat to infinity.

That’s where charging people during busy times comes in. “Maybe autonomous cars will be different from other capacity expansions,” Mr. Turner said. “But of the things we have observed so far, the only thing that really drives down travel times is pricing.”

Signal timing plays an important role in how people use the city as well their safety. Unfortunately, the starting point for professional practice is still primarily concerned with pushing tin. Angie Schmitt, “How Engineering Standards for Cars Endanger People Crossing the Street” Streets Blog.

Part of the problem, Furth says, is that transportation engineers have standards for measuring motorist delay but not pedestrian delay. He has developed a tool to assess delay at intersections for pedestrians and cyclists, recommending that Boston weigh those factors in its signal timing.

Disregard for the walking environment is also embedded in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — a point of reference for engineers. The MUTCD does not require pedestrian-specific signals at crossings, treating them as a judgment call even in urban locations.

The MUTCD does not even “warrant” (i.e. allow) a signalized crossing for pedestrians unless at least 93 people per hour try to cross the street, or five people were struck by drivers within a year.

Meanwhile, there are no such thresholds for motor vehicle signals. Regardless of traffic counts, the MUTCD gives engineers permission to install traffic signals on major streets to “encourage concentration and organization of traffic flow” — i.e. to make things go smoother for drivers.

Narrowly focusing on the peak period of commute travel incurs extreme costs across the transportation network. Matt had a great post on this a few weeks ago- The Tyranny of the Peak.  Prioritising peak period travel fails to recognise how cities are changing and how people want to travel.  Kats Dekker makes the case here that designing for commuting actually disregards most trips and this has particular implications for women-  “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.

The commute accounts for fewer than 1 in 5 trips. In order to make designs environmentally effective and create gender-inclusive networks, we need to incorporate all ways of travel in our assessments. Women’s trips are usually shorter and women make more trips. This would mean by leaving out the women-type trips of shopping and visiting others, we could miss out on building useful networks on a neighbourhood level to make it possible to cycle quick errands, cycle with kids and transport shopping by bike. Constructing good cycle solutions is two-fold. Fast commuting corridors are important (protected cycleways), for sure. And these must be complemented by local travel solutions too (cycleways, zoning, filtering etc) to provide good access to the immediate community, designed on a risk basis of appropriate volume and speed.

Life changes can radically calter people’s perspectives on mobility and the public realm. Here Thomasin Sleigh describes how being a mother is different than being a flâneuse -“The mum flâneuse: Why public space is especially important for mothers“, The Spinoff.

The mum flâneuse is, however, lacking one of the central attributes in the definition of the flâneur. The flâneur is singular, unencumbered; he is able to roam far and freely, wherever his whim may take him – as are the flâneuses Elkin writes about in her book. But the mum flâneuse isn’t alone. She has her baby with her. She is depended upon. Mothers and babies are a double – or often a triple or more, when there are other children involved. The mum flâneuse differs also in that her impetus isn’t leisure or idleness: it’s necessity, the necessities of getting out of the house, or getting her baby to sleep, or running an errand. But she is still out in the world, pacing the streets, smiling at the other mums, taking part in the city and urban space, looking and being looked at.

So often the role of the mother disappears in the Venn diagram of society. Artists, writers, commentators, flâneuses: the positions are mutually exclusive. You can be creative and productive in the way that society values and understands (have a neatly delineated profession or output), or you can be a mother. Even Elkin’s book, which can be read as a feminist revision of a male archetype, doesn’t account for the possibility that mothers too, have an important part to play in the fabric of cities and are frequent inhabitants and participants in urban space.

In 1966 Colin Buchanan the author of Traffic Towns was doing the NZ lecture circuit explaining how cities needed to be re-designed to accommodate cars. In his Auckland talk he dismissed the hysteria surrounding the freeway revolt that had been sweeping across North America.

I think there is a lot of hysterical talk goes on about motorways nowadays. People seem to be getting into a state of panic about motorways and there is a certain movement in this direction in New Zealand I think. I do not think it is as true as has been alleged to me many times since I have been here that the rest of the world is turning its back on motorways. I do not think this is the case. [author’s italics] (Buchanan, 1966)

Several cities were able to stop freeway expansion through their urban cores. Uniquely, Vancouver was the only North American city that never had a freeway enter the city. Here is a delightful new podcast from our friends Chris and Melissa Bruntlettt –Straight and Narrows Podcast 3 From A to B where Melissa interviews Shirley Chan, a community leader who lead the revolt against the freeway proposal that would rip through her neighbourhood. It wrapped up with this question:

MB: [is your] story and the story of the protection of Chinatown and Strathcona one that today’s generation recognises?
SC: They may have lost the memory, but they enjoy legacy.

Office space occupation and configuration has significantly changed over the last few years. Companies now seek to consolidate teams across one floor and maximise utilisation through smaller space allocations and sharing space by hot desking. This might be something that explains how many employees are now jammed in the Auckland city centre. Joe Cortright, “The implications of shrinking offices“, City Observatory.

What does this mean for city economies?  While it may mean that fewer office buildings get built than would have been the case if the old space-per-worker ratios had held, it also suggests that the current building stock has more capacity to accommodate additional jobs than it did in the past. Even without building new offices, cities can expand employment. Greater space efficiency also means that companies will have to pay to rent fewer square feet per employee, meaning that the cost of office space is a relatively less important factor in driving business costs. Commercial real estate brokerage CBRE estimates that for a typical 500-employee software firm, office expenses represent just 6 percent of costs, compared to 94 percent for employee labor.

That’s all for this week. Please leave your link in the comments section below.

15 comments to Sunday reading 12 March 2017

  • AKLDUDE

    Interesting theory but the author does conveniently miss some points.
    Kats talks about how the road network disadvantages women by focusing on commuters and then talks about how women do shopping etc. Funny thing is that local roads are usually clear during most of the day for shopping etc as everyone else is at work. Even during peak a local trip from home to the shops is usually pretty easy to do!

    Now of course the main point is that we need to focus more on pedestrians and cyclists and by extension women which is a valid point.

    • Oh really? My wife would like to dispute your ‘pretty easy’ theory. Lower traffic volumes usually = higher traffic speeds which feels unsafe. And feeling unsafe is what keeps people, usually women and children, from riding. This is the ‘interested but concerned’ group of cyclists and is the group that will be behind any rapid and significant rise in cycling numbers.

  • luke

    what irritates me is allocation of road space, why is parking cars on roads more important than the missing modes like safe cycling.

    • Unfortunately until we can change the focus of the NZTA to make safety of cyclist and pedestrians their first priority it wont change, you are right, on roads with no safe area for other road uses why should we allow cars to be parked unless houses are right on the roadside like Coronation Street most properties have enough frontage to park a car of the road, it should not be acceptable to use roads as free parking.

  • The central goals has be to stop prioritising cars. My strongest memories as a young parent was being intimidated and honked by cars when trying to cross on a pedestrian crossing, with the lights. Grrr. Uncontrolled intersections were simply dangerous when I was slowed by a pram or several children. I thought maybe things were gradually improving, but no.

    Most mothers take their children by car in Auckland, and they are right. Congestion has nothing to do with this. The roads are too wide, too fast, the blocks too long, and our drivers strongly believe that they should enforce the social order if they are slowed by a noncar by a half second.

    Road pricing is not enough. We should progressively discourage cars to nothing.

  • Malcolm M

    Interesting point about the declining requirements of office space. A large part of this is moving from a paper-based record system to electronic, much of it off-site. We simply don’t need as much space for filing cabinets, photocopiers, paper recycling bins, mailboxes, etc.. Even the workstations have become smaller. But while the marginal office space per worker has been declined from 16 square meters in the 1990’s, to 12 in the late 2000’s, and to 5 in the current decade, car parking requirements have been static at about 30 square meters per vehicle. So a progressively smaller proportion of workers are able to park in the building’s car park.

    • Guy M

      Need to correct you on a couple of points there Malcolm. Parking in Auckland used to be mandated at for every 100m2 of office space, you had to provide one car park space. By contrast, in Wellington, the same figure was the maximum. So for a 1000m2 office floor, in Auckland that needed a minimum of 10 car parks, but for the same size floor in Wellington, you were allowed a maximum of 10.

      Secondly, a recent survey (by CBRE?) was that in 2016, office space per person was an average of about 18.1m2 in Wellington and about 16.4m2 in Auckland (figures from memory). Much as the money men might like to squeeze people into a space of just 5m2, as far as I know, that has never happened. Thankfully.

      • mfwic

        Not quite. Within the centre of Auckland the rules have set a maximum on parking since the 1980’s. Outside the CBD the rules required 1 space per 40sqm (1 per 35sqm on the North Shore). But the essence of Malcolm’s comment is true. As more people are squeezed into offices the parking demand increased but the supply didn’t.

        • No travel or access demand increased; not just driving demand, driving supply also increased as NZTA widens urban motorways in an attempt to shove more traffic everywhere.

          Incoherent policies. ‘Driving demand’ is not God given it is a function of what we invest in. Exactly the same as all other mode specific descriptions of demand. People do have habits but they also have agency; the ability to change modes is well proven in Auckland now.

          AT, NZTA, and AC should be in the business of shaping the city to the benefit of its citizens and economy not continuing to work to this outdated and inaccurate conception of demand.

          • mfwic

            No, demand is an underlying condition based on tastes, preferences and opportunity cost. Whether you provide a supply to match any of it is a different matter. Increasing the number of people in a building results in more wanting to travel and given that parking is a normal good means more people wanting to park. The 1 space per 40sqm is a supply. The 1 person per 20sqm increasing to 1 person per 10sqm or whatever the number is an increase in demand. It might no be linear but it can’t be a decrease.

  • Malcolm M

    So the preferred office locations in the CBD also tend to see the lion’s share of the office employment growth. My employer (in Australia) recently made a large expansion of an office site on the western edge of the city. It’s one of the most difficult places to recruit into, whereas the CBD is the easiest. Larger regional locations (~100,000 population) are also easy to recruit into, but the smaller regional locations (<30,000) are difficult. So no wonder we're seeing employers grow jobs preferentially in the CBD's of major cities.

  • Mothers with strollers. Talking of which, one of the more scary places I’ve seen them is in the middle of Great North Road, on this miserable pedestrian refuge at Western Springs Park. Which about sums up how pedestrians are treated over here. Today’s collection of links is an especially sad one to read if you’re in Auckland.

  • luke

    pedestrian amenity is a joke, take for isntance crossing ellerlie panmure highway to wilkinson road. why such a dogleg for pedestrians?

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