Travel diary: Beachfront cycling in LA

I was recently on holiday in California. Here are some thoughts and images from the week I spent in Los Angeles, a car-dependent city that is, like Auckland, trying to become something different.

One of the frustrations of travelling in California is how much time I spent in cars. While in Auckland, I get in a car perhaps one day every two weeks – the rest of the time I get around by public transport or under my own power. In California, I drove every day, which was enjoyable at times and frustrating at others.

However, I was lucky enough to spend a fantastic afternoon cycling in Los Angeles. This is not as stupid an idea as you may initially assume. While the city has devoted little space on its wide roads to cyclists, it does have some amazing cycling assets, such as the Marvin Braude Bike Trail. (Unfortunately, I left two days too soon to attend CicLAvia, which a friend highly recommended.)

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Marvin Braude is an example of doing cycling infrastructure right. It is a fully separated bidirectional cycleway that runs along a seemingly endless string of Southern Californian white-sand beaches. We rode about 20 kilometres from Redondo Beach to Marina Del Rey and returned via the same path.

Although LA is not known as a walking and cycling city, the cycleway was mobbed by people even on Monday afternoon. We were often cycling in the midst of a crowd of cyclists. Some surfers were even transporting their boards via bike-mounted surfboard racks!

It just goes to show that if you build it well, they will come:

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The cycleway also gave a nice view on LA’s eclectic mix of architectural styles and land uses. There were many, many blocks of elegant beach-front mansions and condos, complete with traffic-calmed residential streets and pedestrian-focused accessways.

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However, there were also signs of LA’s practical, industrial side, such as the monolithic Scattergood Power Station, which serves as a dividing line between the well-to-do southern beaches and the decidedly more working-class Dockweiler State Beach.

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We finished up the ride with a sunset swim back in Redondo. Just after we got in the water, we were surprised by a pack of friendly dolphins that were frolicking in the surf. I didn’t get a picture of the dolphins, but here’s one of the sunset:

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I’d recommend this bike trip to anyone visiting Los Angeles. I’d also recommend that all other coastal cities should get to work on building their own separated cycleway on the beachfront! Hint, hint, Tamaki Drive…

Travel diary: California 1

I’m currently on holiday in California. One of the pleasures of travelling around California is that you get the opportunity to drive down (or better yet, up) California highway 1.

California 1 runs up the coast from Orange County to Mendocino County – from Southern California’s suburban heartland to Northern California’s rural hippie economy. (Like parts of New Zealand, Mendocino is home to a vibrant marijuana industry.) Along the way, it runs through Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a number of California’s great public university beach towns. Every time I stop in Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz, I feel that New Zealand’s missed out by not putting a university in a seaside town like Napier or New Plymouth.

Not everything about California is great, but I definitely think that the state does coastlines right. I’m always struck by the sheer variety along the coastal highway. There are many good white-sand beaches and dunes – we went surfing at one near San Luis Obispo – that are packed with Californians at this time of year. But there are also sections with coastal redwoods and dramatic rocky cliffs, such as Big Sur and the coast north of San Francisco. Here’s one photo I took en route:

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Rather than try to describe the California coast in detail, I’m going to rely on Douglas Adams’ description from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the fourth book in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy. It’s incomparably better than anything I could come up with:

The beach was a beach we shall not name, because his private house was there, but it was a small sandy stretch somewhere along the hundreds of miles of coastline that first runs west from Los Angeles, which is described in the new edition of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in one entry as “junky, wunky, lunky, stunky, and what’s that other word, and all kinds of bad stuff, woo”, and in another, written only hours later as “being like several thousand square miles of American Express junk mail, but without the same sense of moral depth. Plus the air is, for some reason, yellow.”

The coastline runs west, and then turns north up to the misty bay of San Francisco, which the Guide describes as a “good place to go. It’s very easy to believe that everyone you meet there is also a space traveller. Starting a new religion for you is just their way of saying ‘hi’. Until you’ve settled in and got the hang of the place it is best to say ‘no’ to three questions out of any given four that anyone may ask you, because there are some very strange things going on there, some of which an unsuspecting alien could die of.” The hundreds of curling miles of cliffs and sand, palm trees, breakers and sunsets are described in the Guide as “Boffo. A good one.”

Finally, one thing I like about travelling around California is the density and diversity of destinations. Although the state is only around 60% larger than New Zealand, it’s home to almost 39 million people. This undoubtedly feels a bit crowded at times. But it also means that when you’re travelling between places, as we were doing on California 1, you will pass through a number of other interesting places on the way. Everywhere is on the road to somewhere else.

I like my house

I like my house.

My house consists of a 50sqm, one-bedroom apartment located in the “Brooklyn Building” on Emily Place in Auckland’s city centre. The Brooklyn Building is almost 100 years old and I understand it was designed by an American architect who originated from Chicago. My building has no balconies and no car-parks. Shock, horror, destined for squalor?

Maybe.

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What a terrible investment, you might think? Well, in the 8 years since I’ve owned my house the value has approximately doubled and it currently rents for more than if I sold up and put the money in the bank. The economic side of me is at a happy equilibrium.

And, after 12 months of renovations (and a fair whack of dosh) my house now looks like this. The aesthetic side of me is pleased.

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“Kiwis” don’t like apartments, you might opine. Well, my house was recently listed to rent on TradeMe and in 2 weeks it had been viewed by 2,000 people. Some might say all of these people were Chinese and we should restrict immigration, but TradeMe doesn’t tell me surnames so the issue is unsubstantiated at this point.

My house was ultimately rented to a doctor of 30-ish years who recently emigrated to New Zealand from the U.K. He arrived in NZ with a backpack and a guitar. Despite his relaxed nature, he works night shifts at Auckland City Hospital where he cares for sick children. I think my tenant deserves a house. He seems to like having a house that is warm and dry all year round, and which is 10 minutes walk to his work (if he has to work at Middlemore he’ll use the train). He doesn’t have a car, has no need for parking, and enjoys cycling/walking.

I don’t understand why some people try to stop intensification in Auckland.

Why do people think it’s beneficial to prevent levels of intensification which were perfectly normal in Auckland 100 years ago, when my building (and others nearby) were developed? Levels of intensification which are perfectly normal in cities overseas, like Sydney?

Why do politicians like Denise Krum feel it’s appropriate to describe the draft Unitary Plan as “perverse” and intensification as something which will “break-up and disperse communities”?

Why does Denise and others think it’s acceptable to imply, essentially, that people like me (and my tenants) are socio-economic pathogens who, by inhabiting houses like that shown above, will bring a wave of plague and pestilence to the communities in which we live?

Am I being a tad hyperbolic? Perhaps. Although it’s worth remembering that NZ’s Finance Minister recently used the word “ebola” to describe the strength of views held by people who oppose intensification. While restricting intensification may not be fatal biologically, everything I’ve read suggests it’s fatal to urban socio-economic performance. I don’t think I’m guilty of hubris to say that people like me bring skills, ideas, and money into a city. And maybe some slightly strange clothes and habits. Like coffee habits. Every morning I would stumble 200m to Espresso Workshop down by Britomart to get an excellent coffee served to me by people like me. Only younger and better dressed. Thank you Espresso Workshop.

I’d like to think that if opponents of intensification knew me and my tenants, then they might stop trying to prevent houses like mine from being built. They might even start to accept that it would be a good idea to let people like me to live in the types of houses that *we* prefer. Rather than force us to live in houses that *they* prefer. Houses like the ones which they live in, which have balconies, car-parks, and all manner of expensive bells and whistles.

I hope that by the time I return to Auckland the debate on intensification will have progressed. To be perfectly honest here’s what the debate looks like right now: A bunch of relatively old, wealthy, and scared people have successfully pressured Auckland Council into implementing restrictions on the development of houses designed to accommodate people who have different preferences. What the debate looks like is the opponents of intensification trying to decide how other people should live, with no evidence supporting their positions.

Some might suggest this is “modus operandi” for Auckland, and New Zealand. That we have for many decades allowed the short-term preferences of select suburbs to steamroll the long-term needs of the city. If true, then this might be one explanation for why NZ has developed a systematic “demographic deficit“. As the researchers as the excellent NIDEA (University of Waikato) commented recently (emphasis added):

As elsewhere, New Zealand’s population is ageing. As elsewhere, this ageing has two main drivers: increasing longevity, and declining birth rates, both outcomes of the Demographic Transition. In New Zealand’s case, however, the population is also ageing ‘prematurely’ from another cause, the legacy of net migration loss at young adult ages (typically 20-24 years) which New Zealand experiences in most years, and at 15-19 and 25-29 years in many other years as well. The loss, compounded by the falling birth rates at the time each cohort was born, has created a deep bite in today’s age structure across ages 25-39 years. This bite is not only driving up the median age faster than would otherwise be the case, given that New Zealand has the highest birth rate in the developed world, but has enormous implications for the country as it faces the retirement of its baby boomer generation.

I’m soon moving overseas, where excessive rents from my apartment in Auckland will help fund my lifestyle. Ironic? Yes. Sad? A bit. Unusual? Apparently not.

I can’t help shake the nagging feeling that New Zealand’s most valuable export is not dairy or tourism, but young people. Problem is we don’t get paid for exporting young people. In fact, we invest in them – only for them to live, love, and pay taxes somewhere else. Some come back of course, but what of those who don’t? I know of many people my age who fall into the latter category – indeed I may end up being one. Sorry Mum.

Notwithstanding all this I do like my house, and I actually quite like Auckland. If Auckland is able to move beyond the naysayers and allow intensification in a big way, then in a few years it might be enough to bring me home. If it doesn’t, well in the words of the His Royal Highness, the Prince of Bel Air, “smell ya’ later”.

P.s. Love you Mum.

 

 

The moral case for immigration

In a post several weeks back, I talked about the economic case for immigration and population growth. In it, I hypothesised that:

New Zealand has a strong feedback loop between net migration and economic growth. When growth prospects get worse – as they did in the 1970 and 1980s – it dissuades people from coming here and encourages Kiwis to leave for greener pastures. This in turn worsens growth prospects by sucking consumer demand out of the economy and reducing perceived household wealth (i.e. lowering house prices).

By contrast, good growth prospects tend to attract migrants to New Zealand’s cities and encourage potential emigrants to stay. This in turn leads to a virtuous cycle between higher growth and increased migration.

In my view, building good cities that attract and efficiently accommodate population growth can make us better off by strengthening the agglomeration economies at work in New Zealand’s economy. It can also make us better off in non-economic ways: consider romantic relationships, for example. If you’re young and single (or old and single), you should absolutely prefer more people to be arriving than leaving. The more young, mobile people are staying or arriving in New Zealand cities, the better your odds are of ending up in a good relationship.

However, I don’t think the economic case for immigration is as strong as the “moral” case for immigration. That’s because immigration is one of the most powerful mechanisms for enabling people to lift their incomes and social status. Migration can offer individuals opportunities that they never would have had in their home countries.

I’m going to discuss some economic research on the topic, but first I want to explain why it’s important to me.

Basically, in the 200-400 years in which reasonable data on my ancestors is available, migration has been just about the only thing that has enabled us to have any significant social or income mobility. Ever.

Migration has worked out well for me. Moving back to New Zealand has given me opportunities that I might not have had in the United States. Thus far, I’ve had a more interesting and fulfilling career and I’ve been surrounded by interesting and friendly people while doing it.

Migration also worked out well for my parents and several of their siblings, who left New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s during the wave of economic destruction caused by collapsing commodity prices and Muldoonist Think Big initiatives. Like many other New Zealanders, they’ve done well overseas.

And, back in the 1840s-1890s, migration to New Zealand opened up opportunities for social mobility and independence to my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. In fact, those were just about the first opportunities anyone in my family had to get ahead. If it weren’t for migration, we’d still be lower-middle class in some grim former mill town in northern England.

I’m grateful for the opportunities that migration has offered me and the opportunities that it’s offered to my family. Furthermore, I feel strongly that more people should have similar opportunities. I don’t believe in pulling up the ladder. If some hard-working folks from Nigeria, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Samoa, or wherever want to try their luck moving to an unknown country, I’m all for it. Give them a fair go.

Several recent papers by University of Otago economist Steven Stillman (another immigrant!) and several co-authors help quantify how valuable giving people the opportunity to immigrate can be. Stillman uses evidence from two “migration lotteries” operated by the New Zealand government. Under a programme started in 2002, a small number of Tongans and Samoans randomly selected from a pool of applicants are offered residency in New Zealand.

Evidence from the Tongan migration lottery shows significant improvements in well-being for migrants. Stillman and his co-authors found evidence of:

  • “Very large gains in objective well-being result from migrating to New Zealand (Table 2). The weekly wage of principal applicants rose by NZ$321 (US$200) within a year of first moving which is almost three times the weekly wages of the control group in Tonga (NZ$117).”
  • “More subtle and complex effects on subjective well-being…” After four years, they observed a “very substantial rise in the other components of mental health, of about three points, which is equivalent to one quarter of the wave 2 scores for the control group in Tonga.”

Evidence from the Samoan migration lottery shows that migration can also improve wellbeing for migrants’ families in the old country, at least in the short term. Stillman and his co-authors found that migration increased household consumption and reduced poverty in households that sent migrants to New Zealand, although these effects faded away over time.

In short, even after controlling for self-selection bias (i.e. the fact that migrants tend to have both motivation and resources to migrate), migration seems to make people better off. It doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but it certainly works for most people.

In my view, the evidence suggests there are good economic and moral arguments for enabling migration, rather than cutting it off in the good times. If we want to manage house price inflation, it would be fairer and more sensible to pursue other policies instead. This could include (but certainly isn’t limited to):

  • Changes to tax policy to harmonise our property taxes with major trading and investment partners – as Stu highlighted, our unusually low property taxes distort people’s investment decisions and push cash into housing
  • Supply-side policies like a revitalised programme of state house construction or urban planning policies that enable people to build more housing in areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities.

What’s your experience with immigration? Remember, you or your ancestors came here relatively recently by boat or by airplane!

Northland, Politics, Transport, and Pork

On March 28 the (normally safe) National-held electorate of Northland heads for a bye-election. The outcome of the bye-election will be fascinating for several reasons.

The first reason is that it’s politically important. If Winston Peters wins then it will be more difficult for National to pass controversial legislation, because they will need the votes of not just one but two support parties.

Legislation like the Sky City casino-for-convention-centre deal and RMA reforms suddenly become pawns in a three-way game of arbitrage between parties with somewhat different support bases and philosophies. Amusingly, National could end up leading a government not too dissimilar to what they warned the opposition would have been like, had the latter prevailed at the last election.

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The second reason the bye-election is so interesting is that transport has, somewhat unexpectedly, become a major campaign issue.

Early in the campaign, the Minister of Transport (Simon Bridges) suddenly found $69 million in previously stretched transport budgets for two-laning a number of bridges in Northland. This funding announcement was apparently made without any information or advice being sought, or received, from transport officials. This is an announcement that Winston himself would be proud of, indeed he’s pulled similar stunts in the past.

The reality for National, however, is that few people seem to have been impressed by the transport funding announcement. Instead, it has received considerable attention for delving so blatantly into pork-barrel politics.

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Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of the spend. For many of the locals interviewed by Campbell Live, two-waying bridges seem to be far from the top of the priorities list.

National have also apparently linked funding for the Puhoi-Wellsford highway to the outcome of the bye-election. Amazing how an apparently essential piece of transport infrastructure can so suddenly becomes not so important when there is a bye-election.

I’ve personally found it interesting watching National’s transport pork-barrel approach in Northland, especially in light of recent political happenings in Australia, where I am currently based.

In Victoria, Dennis Nathpine’s Liberal Government tied their political fortunes to the eye-wateringly expensive $18 billion “East-West Link”. It was a bad pick, with polls showing the East-West link had levels of support that were half of comparable metro rail projects. Napthine was subsequently kicked out of office.

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Meanwhile, in Queensland, Campbell-Newman built a reputation for delivering large, expensive, and largely unnecessary motorway tunnels. His Government’s promises of more roading pork were spectacularly dismissed after only one term in office after a 12% swing back to Labour.

And at the Federal level Tony Abbott’s unwillingness to fund passenger transport improvements in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is receiving growing criticism. This is in stark contrast to the former (and possible future) Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, who supports passenger transport.

As an economist, I think there’s a key message for National in all of these events. It’s not just that roading pork hasn’t been sufficient to save political bacon, but also that there is often a large gap between stated and revealed preferences.

Why is this important? Well, I suspect what all of these conservative parties have done, including National, is held focus groups where they’ve asked people whether they support more investment in roads. In response, many of these people have said “yes”. Something like these guys.

 

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The problem with stated preference surveys is the trade-offs are usually not made explicit. More specifically, when you invest more in roads, you often find that you don’t get much bang for your buck.

So while people say they want more investment in roads, after a couple of years of fluffing about with largely ineffective road investments, they suddenly realise that they’re not actually much better off. Political strategies based on stated preferences may therefore work in the short run, but they are likely to run out of gas in the long run.

The lesson for National in all this, I think, is that they increasingly run the risk that people will catch onto the fact that their transport pork is failing to return much value. Every new road that opens which fails to meet forecasts, every new business case that is shown to be baloney, eventually creates the case for your opponents to shred your credibility. It won’t happen overnight, but it probably will happen.

This is especially true when you’re foolish enough to do what National have done, i.e. hang your dirty transport laundry out to dry in the blazing heat of a Northland bye-election.

This seems to be a timely and early lesson for Simon Bridges: Emulating the pork-barrel approach employed by Joyce and Brownlee will not necessarily bring you enduring political success. Just ask Nathpine, Campbell-Newman, and Abbott if you want to see the proof in that political pudding.

A Boy in the City

*** Here at TransportBlog we’re big advocates for making Auckland more “family friendly”. In general, this means designing our city to be safe and pleasant for the most vulnerable people: Children. While many parts of Auckland are a long way from idal, the City Centre has – in my opinion – come a long way over the last 10-15 years, I’m struck by the number of families and children I now see wandering around enjoying all that the city has to offer. This post documents the experiences of one such family. Edward and his family have lived in an apartment in the City Centre for almost a decade. This post provides a glimpse into their experiences, warts and all. We hope it encourages decision-makers (elected representatives and public servants) to continue to “family proof” Auckland, while also encouraging more families to consider living in the City Centre. As Edward notes, there are some significant upsides to living in an apartment. Less time spent maintaining property and/or travelling = more time spent with loved ones. ***

My name is Edward and this is a photo of my son eating a Popsicle while watching cricket on a large screen down at Britomart.

watching the cricket at Britomart

My son has spent all of his seven years living in an apartment in central Auckland. He goes to the only primary school in the city centre.

We are not particularly well served with playgrounds where we live. Until recently the closest playgrounds were Victoria Park (which he doesn’t rate highly – the equipment looks good but doesn’t offer good climbing challenges); Wynyard Quarter (which is fun because there are a lot of other kids playing here on the weekends); and Gladstone Park (opposite the Parnell Rose Gardens, which is a hidden gem with long slides and climbing apparatus).

The newly upgraded playground in Myers Park is a great addition to the city centre. Last time we visited there were about 40 people of all ages using the playground, with the large swing especially thrilling for children of my son’s age. The primary issue with Myers Park is the poor pedestrian connections to Aotea Square, which makes it less easy and safe to get to the park from that direction.

Living in the City Centre has encouraged us to to improvise. We wade through every water feature we can find, climb a lot of the pohutukawa trees, and play on the steps of buildings. Indeed, it’s almost as it the city is his playground. The photo below shows us enjoying Auckland Anniversary activities on Queen Street.

Auckland Aniversary activities on Queen St

Cycling is particularly important to us: It allows us to roam further afield and unlock more places to explore and play. From our apartment we can easily reach the Parnell Baths and Pt Erin Pools within 20 to 30 minutes away along mostly flat routes with only about five road crossings to tackle. We take cycle paths when they are available but we will bike on footpaths, parks, squares and shared spaces to get where we are going.As a parent, however, I’m aware of how the design of our streets creates unsafe situations for children.

Britomart Farmers Market

Pt Erin pools

The city centre is alive in the weekends and we try to make the most of it. But when we need quiet time it is easy to retire to our apartment and shut out the noise.

There are so many activities for him to do. Every year we go to the Diwali, Lantern and buskers festivals. During the Lantern Festival we ate dinner in Albert Park and walked home in 10 minutes, with none of the stress and hassle involved in driving through traffic and having to park miles away. In December we walked to the Domain to Christmas in the Park.

We have been spoilt over the last few years and now the idea of driving somewhere and searching for a car park when we get there seems like too much hard work, so we try to avoid it if we can. When we feel like an excursion we tend to take the ferry to Devonport or a bus to Takapuna. On a recent weekend we took the ferry to Waiheke, which simply involves a 5 minute walk to the Downtown ferry terminal.

Winter activities are a bit scarcer. We swim at the Tepid Baths or the Newmarket Pool (after mid-day when the smaller pool is released from lesson duties), visit the Art Gallery or  library, and attending the great Pick & Mix activities at the Aotea Centre on Saturday mornings. The Britomart farmers market on Saturday morning at Tukatai Square also has a great hum and there are always other children there. I’m interested to know whether they also live in apartments nearby or whether they are simply visiting.

The primary thing the city lacks is other children.

He is the only child in our apartment building. Pregnancies begun and babies have appeared but they have all disappeared into the suburbs within a short time. Children come into the city whenever there are events on or to visit Wynyard Quarter but we don’t see regular faces on a day-to day basis. The birthday parties he attends are all in the suburbs, as is his sport and extra activities he has participated in. Cricket at Victoria Park would be the closest organized sport he could attend or tennis at Parnell (the closest tennis club at Stanley St doesn’t have a children’s holiday programme).

I think his life will be more interesting if he had friends living nearby. I understand the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall on Freyberg Place will provide a space for children’s activities soon. I hope so. We will support it if it does. The recent closure of Quay Street was a fun opportunity for us to explore a place that is usually hostile to families.

Cycling around on a closed Quay St 2

Some people are unsure how to treat kids in the City. Security guards tell him to stop playing on steps because he could fall and hurt himself. Adults tell him to walk on the edges of shared spaces because a car might drive down it.

Apartment living has many aspects we like. We can lock up and go away for the weekend without too much effort. We don’t have to spend time commuting or maintaining our property. We are lucky that we have a lot of friendly people in our building willing to give my son some attention. I know more of my neighbours than I ever did when living in the suburbs. The city centre has most shops we need. I do need to get in a car if we want things from a hardware shop.

Living in an apartment means I spend a lot of time with my son, which I see as a good thing. But it is not just the quantity of time we spend together, but also the quality of time – both of us enjoy the interesting things on our doorstep together, with little to no stress involved. Living in a smaller space encourages us to get outside more and experience the spontaneous entertainment one often encounters in the city.

It is different from my childhood in Hawkes Bay and I am constantly looking for signs of deprivation, but so far I haven’t found any.

Tomorrow is transit driver appreciation day

Tomorrow is “Transit driver appreciation day“:

“Consider this… For hours on end, transit drivers manage to keep a schedule, check fares, give directions, announce stops, remember stop requests and more, all while safely maneuvering an extra-large vehicle through unpredictable traffic, adverse weather conditions and some really tight spaces! The fact is, transit drivers don’t have an easy job, they just make it look that way. On March 18th, join us in celebrating the contributions of our hard-working bus drivers and rail operators! That could be as simple as a smile and a wave when you board the bus or train, and a “thank you” when you leave. You can also print out and personalize any of the thank-you cards below to show your appreciation in person, and you can help spread the word using the sharing links provided. And, don’t forget to submit an official commendation for a job well done, so your drivers can be formally recognized for their efforts.”

At times, I find the discourse around public transport can be rather negative.

This is somewhat understandable in a city such as Auckland, where many people are aspire for better service. Most of the issues with our current system, however, reflect decades of neglect and under-investment by central, regional, and local councils (representatives and public servants). Many of these representatives and public servants got inculcated in the cult of motordom, and subsequently “strategically misrepresented” the benefits/costs of private vehicles versus public transport.

None of this, however, is the fault of our drivers.

Nor are they usually at fault for running late (who would want to run late?), or for their bus being full, or for running out of change because too many people by cash.

Indeed, my personal experience is that drivers are almost universally decent people, if not downright pleasant. One Ritchies driver I was talking to told me that the best part of his job was driving over the Harbour Bridge with a bus load of people in the morning peak. He said it gave him immense pleasure to know that he’d made a positive contribution to so many people’s lives. Many of whom he recognised as being regular customers.

Yes there’s the odd bad experience, e.g. I have been left flailing at a stop as a bus drives past in the middle of the night. But in my experience these are the exception not the rule.

They also seem more likely to result in a bus system characterised by inaccurate timetables operating in mixed traffic. In our current system, drivers tend to be the people left carrying the can for systematic issues arising from the aforementioned neglect and under-investment.

For these reasons, if you’re using transit today then please spare a thought for your driver. Try employing your kiwi accent to its fullest by bellowing a “thanx drivah!” as you exit the bus. Or if you feel so inclined, then consider going to this website to print one of these cards to give to them when you board.

Thanks to all the drivers out there.

Cards

Postcard from South Africa #2 – Durban Beachfront

This post doesn’t really have anything to do with the first Postcard from South Africa post, but I should probably put a link in anyway. It has more to do with this post.

Going to South Africa is all sorts of culture shock. But one of the things that surprised me the most when I went there with my then-girlfriend in 2010 was that there weren’t really any taxis as we know them. I was also told that it wasn’t safe to take public transport, and tourists didn’t have much choice but to hire cars to get around. I couldn’t accept the taxi thing, though: surely where there is demand from tourists and locals, there must be taxis? It turned out there were some in Cape Town – they’re called “meter cabs” – but not in many other places.

Going back in 2014, though, there were a lot more, including in Durban. It seems to be a much less formal setup than in NZ, with more independent operators than large companies. Uber also seems to be taking the country by storm – when you’re cautious of your safety, and many of the cab drivers are independents so you have no real way of knowing how legit they are, an app that lets you book a driver and see the reviews they have is pretty appealing.

South Africans do use “taxis”, but the word means something very different than it does in New Zealand. Essentially, taxis are minivans like the one below, which operate a sort of informal bus service. There are very few full-size buses, but these taxis seem to travel along fairly well-defined routes, although I doubt if there’s any kind of timetable. As far as I can tell, drivers are completely independent and don’t coordinate with each other at all, so there might be five taxis passing your stop in ten minutes or there might be none.

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Every now and again, well-meaning people (and the odd sprawl pusher) ask why New Zealand cities don’t adopt minivans as part of their public transport, with minivans making it easier to serve more different places (and “point to point” service) compared with larger buses. Even the most basic financial analysis, though, shows that it won’t stack up – the labour costs are too high in countries with a reasonable minimum wage, the capital costs are too high, and there’s not much fuel efficiency gain compared with private cars, so not much saving there either.

Like Auckland, Durban is a city defined in large part by its coastline – although the main beachfront, next to the CBD, probably has more in common with somewhere like Surfers Paradise. Good surf, high temperatures and the odd shark. The beach carried on unbroken for seven sandy kilometres, lined with retail stalls, amusement parks, pools, casinos, hotels and the occasional car park. The picture below probably isn’t the fairest one, a typical shot of the beach would show more people and fewer car parks, but this is the one I’ve got:

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The promenades along the beach have been upgraded, and a typical summer day now sees plenty of families walking, cycling and generally just enjoying the beach. It was a sight that made my now-wife very happy, as these improvements have made the beach much more accessible and family-friendly than when she was growing up there.

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As our cab driver told us, there are now a lot more tourists coming to Durban, and the city is vying with Cape Town to attract more international visitors. Anywhere in the world you find tourists, you’ll find locals cheerfully devising schemes to part them from their money, such as the one below which I’m going to call a gaudily decorated rickshaw thingy, although there may be a more technical term for this. This probably isn’t a very effective means of transporting people along a 7 km beach, but I think it was at least 35 degrees and humid on the day I took this photo, so let’s all have a moment of sympathy for the poor bugger.

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One last shot, taken from one of the many piers along the beach:

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Postcard from South Africa #1

Greetings from Durban, South Africa, where it can get very hot and humid (apparently 44 degrees and 80% humidity on Christmas, although I wasn’t here for that) and the thunderstorms are pretty impressive (fork lightning is badass).

John P Durban

The long Durban beachfront. In the distance, you can see the stadium built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup – it’s achieved the holy grail for stadiums, covering its ongoing operating costs

Naturally occurring electricity is one thing, but the manmade power grid is another. South Africa’s power supply is currently going through the biggest disruption for a number of years, with “load shedding” across the country – rolling power cuts, affecting anyone who hasn’t got a backup generator (and many of the wealthier households do). The state-owned power company, Eskom, is cutting off power to entire suburbs or cities at a time, trying to prevent a devastating national blackout where no one can get electricity at all:

Eskom’s Andrew Etzinger says the power cuts are necessary to avoid a countrywide blackout.

“The worst case scenario is a national blackout which we seen in other countries over the last couple of years which happens when the entire grid is lost and no customers are supplied.”

He said if that happened in South Africa, it would take around two weeks to restart the grid while the entire country is remains in darkness.

How did things get to this stage? Again according to Eskom, “over-burdened power plants, the neglecting of refurbishing infrastructure, poor coal quality, heavy rains and an over-reliance on diesel are among the reasons for South Africa’s current power crisis” – pretty wide-ranging there, and presumably most of the fault lies with Eskom itself, or with the government. Eskom do go into more detail on their current problems in that article, making it a good place to start for more information (also another article here). President Zuma, on the other hand, has pointed the finger at apartheid:

South Africa’s energy problems were a product of apartheid and government was not to blame for the current blackouts, President Jacob Zumasaid on Friday.

“The problem [is] the energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority,” Zuma told delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town.

He said the ANC had inherited the power utility from the previous regime which had only provided electricity to the white minority.

Twenty years into democracy, 11 million households had access to electricity, double the number in 1994.

While everything from the second paragraph onwards is obviously true, it’s facile to blame a system which ended 20 years ago, especially given the various failures which Eskom have acknowledged. Electricity is an indispensable part of modern living, and an unpredictable supply can lead to all sorts of other issues for households and businesses.

Anyway, it does make you take stock and think again how lucky we are to live in New Zealand, where electricity is reliable and affordable (not to mention mainly renewable), and the market system appears to work reasonably well.

Flyover Fund: Wellington Auction Tonight

The Architectural Centre’s Auction for the Anti- Basin Flyover Fund takes place tonight at  7:30pm St Joseph’s Church, 42 Ellice St, Mt Victoria, Wellington.

The auction is happening because NZTA are still trying to force this pointless and expensively hideous structure on little Wellington despite losing the case for it at the Board of Inquriry. More millions of our  tax dollars on QCs…

Here is the catalogue of donated works.

There is a great range and something for all tastes, I have donated a print of my 1988 portrait of Ralph Hotere [selenium toned silver gelatine print], because I know which side he would be on:

Ralph Hotere

Here’s a short description of my experience of meeting Ralph for the first time on the visit that I made the portrait:

In winter 1988 I had the opportunity to visit Ralph Hotere at Careys Bay near Port Chalmers for a few days and make this portrait of him. It was an extremely rich experience, he had a way of offering things in a simultaneously casual and formal way; looking back I can see now how lucky I was, although at the time I was principally concerned about whether I was ever going to get a chance to take the portrait.
I got to hang out at his house; major works by his own hand and others, including McCahon, stacked deep against the walls, and down at the pub, which back then was a seriously quotidian operation, focussed on serving the fishermen from the boats that tied up across the road. Ralph cleaned up all-comers on the pool table. The pub seemed to never close. Both buildings were freezing.
We drove around in one of his lovingly maintained old Jaguars, up to the cemetery on he hill where he said there was a headstone McCahon had painted I should see, and, where he suddenly turned to me and asked, almost accusingly; ‘got your camera?’ He clearly had decided this was where he wanted to be photographed, he then arranged himself apparently casually but in fact quite deliberately. He gave me the shot.
He also took me to a studio he kept in the stables of a Victorian estate up on Observation Point, overlooking the port. He spoke of the great sculptural qualities of the straddle cranes working below. He was at that time fighting to save the headland from the port company’s land eating expansion plans.
Thinking of an appropriate image to donate to this auction I immediately thought of Ralph: he often found himself at odds with the plans of powerful public institutions. And not because of a resistance to change or progress, but because so often those plans resulted in brutally clumsy outcomes developed through poor processes. In particular those that discount long lasting negative effects on people and place. So it is with this proposal.