Sunday reading 1 February 2015

Every week we read more than we can write about on the blog. To avoid letting good commentary and research fall by the wayside, we’re going to publish weekly excerpts from what we’ve been reading.

Lloyd Alter, “The whole city of Florence can fit in one Atlanta cloverleaf“, Treehugger. This picture is worth a thousand words – Florence is a city of around 380,000 people:

florence vs atlanta

I have thought that Jim Kunstler was being his usual over-the-top self when he called the American suburban experiment “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” But when you compare that photo of Atlanta to Florence, you can see that he was right.

Andrew Geddis, “How high can you go?“, Pundit

David Farrar, unsurprisingly, welcomed Nick Smith’s announcement of proposed changes, albeit with a caveat:

The question will be whether they will do enough. The greater weight to property rights and prioritisation of housing affordability look the most promising.

Right – people should be able to use their land as they see fit and loosing the market will create new housing supply to meet demand and thus make houses “more affordable” (more on what that might mean in a moment). Bog-standard orthodox, small-l liberal reasoning.

So, for example, if you look at the MOTU Consulting report that Nick Smith released as evidence of the need to change the RMA (more on this report in a moment), you’ll see that it estimates that “Building Height Limits” add some $18,000 – $32,000 to the cost of new apartments. So, remove the restrictions on how high developers can build on their land (as well as other constraints on building design) and you’ll get more and cheaper apartments, which is what John Key says first home buyers should now be considering instead of “proper” houses. Hooray!

But this is where things start to get a bit weird. Because under the proposed Unitary Plan for Auckland first released back in 2013, a document that was created under the auspices of the dreaded RMA, restrictions on building heights were going to be (marginally) relaxed in various parts of Auckland to allow more high-density housing to be built. What a good thing to have happen, right?

Jarrett Walker, “Basics: should I vote for a transit tax?“, Human Transit:

.  In growing urban areas, transit needs grow faster than tax revenues.

This problem is mathematically inevitable.

As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America.  This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit.  In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population.  Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing.  But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service.   Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. […]

So if the city is growing denser, transit needs are growing faster than transit revenues.  This is nobody’s fault.  It’s a mathematical fact about the geometry of transit and density.

Alan Davies, “Future transport: What can we learn from New Zealand?“, Crikey

There are a number of things Australian urban policy makers and managers could learn from the New Zealand Ministry of Transport’s Future Demand project, which addresses the question of how the nation’s transport system should evolve to support mobility in the future.

Importantly, Future Transport recognises that the decline in travel in developed countries over the last ten years, particularly by car, is extraordinarily important and puts it front and centre as the key issue; it’s supported by a number of specialist technical reports.

Stacey Kirk, “Cycleway plan drops into a lower gear“, Stuff:

The Government is ignoring official advice and opting to spend less than half what was recommended to improve urban cycleways.

Ministerial briefings and a draft Cabinet paper, prepared for former transport minister Gerry Brownlee, show the Ministry of Transport advised spending $450 million to develop urban cycleways to a level that would be safe and convenient for commuters and children riding to school.

Of the $450m, $260m spread over five years would have been funded by the Government, with local councils picking up a $70m tab, and the remainder coming from the Land Transport Fund. […]

Green Party transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said the Government was missing a prime opportunity.

“It’s a little bit difficult to understand why they aren’t taking the advice that they are being given because, in the context of the entire transport budget, it’s actually a very small amount of money and it has enormous benefits.”

This article also has some great stats on Wellington’s current cycling boom:

The census showed commuter cyclists had increased by 16 per cent since 2006. In Wellington, between 2007 and 2012, the number of cyclists counted during peak hours grew by 40 per cent.

New Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller is pushing the idea of a road tunnel under the Kaimai’s.

A vehicle tunnel under the Kaimai Range needs to be considered with the same weight as a second harbour crossing in Auckland was given, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller says.

Mr Muller revealed his plan to about 35 people at yesterday’s Welcome Bay community breakfast. He later told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend it was a top priority during his first term in parliament and promised to work with the NZ Transport Agency to investigate the feasibility of the idea.

“I’ve always had a strong belief that Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty will form part of the economic horsepower part of the country, which is Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.”

Mr Muller said the tunnel would be a huge driver of economic growth in the area and hoped he would see it come to fruition in his lifetime.

We’ve talked about this idea before as it’s something the trucking lobby bring up from time to time. About the only comparison that can be made between the project and an additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing is that it would make the AWHC’s BCR of 0.3 look fantastic. NZTA data shows that on average only around 9300 people use SH29 over the Kaimai’s and is likely just one of the reasons the NZTA say it doesn’t make sense.

Eric Jaffe: The Remarkable Turnaround of Atlanta Public Transit, CityLab

So Parker, who’d overseen transit agencies in San Antonio and Charlotte, drew up a rescue plan. MARTA would cut unfilled positions but retain existing staff and launch a transit-oriented development program. He brought more work in-house: the agency developed a real-time transit information system itself for $50,000, he says, while outside firms wanted more than $1 million. And he convinced Wall Street to upgrade the agency’s credit rating.

Then he reinvested the savings. MARTA increased service and high-frequency hours, upgraded its bus fleet to natural gas, and—most importantly in Parker’s eyes—kept fares flat. As of October 2014 ridership was up for the year. In November, Clayton County voters overwhelmingly approved a penny sales tax to join the MARTA network, the first expansion since the agency formed in 1971.

Charles V. Bagli: Times Square’s Crushing Success Raises Questions About Its Future, New York Times

The Crossroads of the World has never been more popular. And that is becoming a problem.

More people than ever are packing into Times Square — from across the world, the country and the rest of New York City.

Eager to dip into such a bounty of wallets, international retailers are jostling for space, paying rents that are second only to Fifth Avenue. Pulsing, color-splashed digital billboards have grown from the size of basketball courts to football-field proportions. Attendance at Broadway shows topped 13 million last year for the first time.

Photo of the day: Dots

Some more images from Isabella Cawthorn of some temporary place making on Bond St in Wellington. A bit of paint, some large pots, some fake grass and an old shipping container can really transform an old piece of asphalt.

Bond St Dots

Bond St Placemaking

Celebrating Auckland’s Transformation

Auckland has come a long way in recent years when it comes to the city and waterfront more interesting and people oriented. This was highlighted beautifully on the weekend as tens of thousands every day flocked to the waterfront to celebrate Auckland’s 175th birthday. From Captain Cook Wharf through to the Wynyard Quarter the place was buzzing with people once again proving that people respond when we make spaces for people.

Queen St Temporary Space - Ludo

Photo from Ludo Campbell-Reid

And it isn’t just Aucklanders noticing the redevelopment of the city. This piece a week ago titled Revamped Auckland waterfront inspires from The Press in Christchurch highlights the transformation that Auckland is making:

The girl sits inside what looks like a ventilation shaft, her very own stainless-steel cocoon, legs dangling over the side. Families with pushchairs, a woman walking her dog, cyclists, tourists, and locals stroll past. All look relaxed and carefree.

As they wander the length of the old pier, there’s plenty to grab their attention: Colourful metal cylinders, sculptures shaped like crabs, fish, whales, octopuses, and seahorses. Children splash through a pool underneath a gigantic metal sculpture that looks like it could be an intergalactic TV aerial. Teenagers shoot basketball hoops. Shoppers browse through treasures in market stalls.

Shipping containers have been turned into information booths; old warehouses have become restaurants and cafes. We join the throng for a leisurely and surprisingly affordable lunch.

Welcome to the Wynyard Quarter, part of Auckland’s burgeoning transformation of its previously neglected waterfront. Starting in 2011, this bold and imaginative, development has proved hugely successful. If you are heading to the City of Sails, go – you’ll love it.

We didn’t find getting around Auckland without a car too hard. We stayed on the North Shore. To reach the Wynyard Quarter, we used the Northern Express, a bus service that has is own motorway lane and bus stations. It couldn’t have been easier. We found Aucklanders more courteous to pedestrians than Christchurch drivers.

Public transportation makes a mockery of the calls for more car-parking in Christchurch. Without car parks, the city will fail, say those with a vested interest in developing their central city private businesses – for which they would love a dollop of public money.

Go to other cities and you won’t find car-parking easy either. If you can, you take the bus or train – or bike – instead.

Future cities will be nothing like the old ones. We need to be more flexible, and if that means tweaking or even radically changing former plans, let’s get on with it.

Hell even the few comments are fairly positive and it’s not like Cantabrians are known for their positive views on Auckland. This one in particular is good.

Wynyard Quarter is an amazing place to visit. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been revising my long held opinion of Auckland as a bleak soulless wasteland. Auckland’s inner city is now full of vibrancy and character again.

Wynyard Busy

North Wharf was certainly busy with people enjoying the space

What’s often forgotten is that some of the city’s most impressive transformations have only really been completed for less than 5 years. This includes Wynyard Quarter, the shared spaces and much of the Britomart Precinct.

And then there was this fantastic piece from Jack Tame in the Herald a few days ago:

Imagine describing Auckland to a foreigner who’d never heard her name. A sub-tropical climate with 1.5 million people; suburbs freckled by volcanic nipples, each so perfectly coned and green you’d swear it was just clever landscaping; a city with two impressive harbours, two impressive and different coasts; a city where rich, poor, suburban or central, most people are only ever a few minutes from the sea.

You’d likely explain to your foreign friend that Auckland is the Pacific capital, a city rich with Maori and Polynesian culture. There may be more Pacific Island people here than in all the islands combined and the blend and diversity of Aucklanders is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

We’re spoilt. Auckland is an almighty playground, geographic and cultural. But as the city flourishes and booms it will take planning not to balls it all up. Our city must intensify. It’s unsustainable to sprawl our way to Hamilton, and naive to think that every Aucklander needs to live on a quarter-acre block.

We’re making progress. Britomart and Wynyard Quarter are perfect examples of good public space and will always be embraced.

But high-quality, high-density living options and public transport are essential in ensuring Auckland remains a great place to live.

I’ve long said that Auckland has one of the best natural settings in the world, one that many cities could only dream about. If we can continue down the path we’re on we have a chance to make our urban environment just as wonderful.

Auckland’s 175th Birthday

This weekend is Auckland’s 175th birthday and there’s a lot on (click image for a larger version)

Auckland Anniversary Weekend

As you can see Lower Queen St outside Britomart has been closed and it appears that already people are flocking to use it.

Making this permanent is the longer term plan for the area after the CRL is finished so it’s great to see it effectively trialled. Also why can’t we close roads like Queen St and put out chairs and beanbags more often. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to do every weekend.

Lower Queen St

Photo of the Day – Shared Space instructions

From reader Isabella Cawthorn in Wellington, some instructions on using shared spaces.

Photo of the day: Bledisloe Lane

This was from just before Christmas showing the newly upgraded Bledisloe Lane. The oppressively low canopy was removed, paving replaced and Bledisloe building facade repaired. The space has a much better feeling to it now and so much more pleasant to walk through.

image

image

Now we need Metro Centre building to open up onto the lane to really help activate it, something I believe the council are keen on too.

Guest Post: Road and streetscape design

This is a guest post from reader Richard

Hope you have all had a happy new year. This is my first post on this blog and I am excited to make a positive difference to this country.

Road and streetscape design is important for all of us. It is what makes the difference between a warm, comfortable environment and a cold, dull environment. So, how could we make our streets more “warm and comfortable” as well as being safe (more on this later).

One thing I have noticed is the planting of trees on the pavement. This generally improves the environment of the area, however, some trees make the area feel better than other trees. For example, warmer trees (yellower trees) make the area more welcoming. On the other hand, dark green trees (colder trees), make the surrounding area not as welcoming. This is even more obvious if the surrounding area is predominately grey. The pictures below gives you an idea of what I mean.

Warmer Trees

Before I sat my full license test, I had a lesson with a driving instructor. After that lesson, he told me that most drivers are only able to focus well on two hazards at a time. A hazard is anything that  is moving and could have the potential to be in your intended path. So, what does this mean? Do we just ban driving? Of course not as driving is, and will always be a necessity for the foreseeable future where there are no or few alternative transport options. In order to improve safety for all users a variety of things could be improved.

Firstly, having pedestrian crossings on roundabouts is not a good idea. Moving it 20-30m away from the roundabout would make it much safer. As shown in the illustration below (sorry can’t draw well), a driver turning left (A), is most likely focusing on the two most immediate hazards (B and C). What this means is that many drivers would not see the car approaching behind it (D), and the pedestrian (E). As a result, the driver would not have seen the pedestrian until it has completed the turn and with the crossing right next to the roundabout, there is a high likelihood of an accident. Until there are more competent drivers and/or autonomous cars, roads could be designed so that drivers have fewer hazards to deal with.

Roundabouts

Roundabouts aren’t that great for cyclists either. You either have to merge in with traffic, or go on the footpath. Riding on the left of the road on a roundabout is extremely dangerous for a vulnerable cyclist like me, especially if vehicles are going to turn into your path. For that reason, I never undertake a left turning vehicle or one that would cross into my lane. One way to fix this issue would be to install “lips” (not too sure of its official name) so that cyclists would be on the footpath and that they would cross the road as if they were a pedestrian. This would mean there would be less interaction with motor vehicles. Although having both pedestrians and cyclists on the footpath may sound like a bad idea, I believe that most suburban and residential roads won’t have enough pedestrians to cause issues for cyclists and vice versa. After they have gone through the roundabout, they would continue to ride on the road.

I do have other ideas to improve safety and to improve streetscapes, but I think that this is enough for one post.

Have you got any other sensible ways to improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians and/or improving streetscapes? Discuss below

Sunday reading 11 January 2015

Every week we read more than we can write about on the blog. To avoid letting good commentary and research fall by the wayside, we’re going to publish weekly excerpts from what we’ve been reading.

McKenzie Funk, “The Wreck of the Kulluk“, New York Times:

The Arctic was a long-term investment — Shell would not start production on such a big project in such a distant place until at least a decade after it found oil — but the future is always getting closer, and by 2010 the company was anxious. It took out ads in newspapers, hoping to pressure the Obama administration into opening the Arctic. One pictured a little girl reading in bed, a figurine of a polar bear next to the lamp on her nightstand. “What sort of world will this little girl grow up in?” it asked. If “we’re going to keep the lights on for her, we will need to look at every possible energy source. . . . Let’s go.”

Even with permission, getting to the oil would not be easy. The Alaskan Arctic has no deepwater port. The closest is in the Aleutian Islands at Dutch Harbor, a thousand miles to the south through the Bering Strait. In the Inupiat whaling villages dotting the Chukchi coast, only a handful of airstrips are long enough for anything other than a prop plane. There are few roads; human residents get around in summer by boat, foot or all-terrain vehicle. Shell was trying the logistical equivalent of a mission to the moon.

The Economist, “Nimble Opposition: A new study confirms suspicions about what drives planning decisions“:

Local opposition to new housing developments is common across Britain. It has long been argued that such opposition—NIMBYism to its critics—is linked to home ownership. Homeowners, unlike distant landlords, vote in local elections and receive planning consultations in their postboxes. They lose out from development in multiple ways. Loss of green space reduces their quality of life and increased supply of housing suppresses prices. Landlords managing diversified portfolios are less exposed to the value of one property. The idea that planning decisions are driven by the desire of homeowners to maximise house prices is known as the “home-voter hypothesis”.

On October 24th the Institute for Government, a think-tank, released a study supporting this theory with data. It looked at English local planning authorities (LAs) between 2001 and 2011 and found that for every additional ten percentage points in the proportion of homes that are owner-occupied, 1.2 percentage points were knocked off growth in the housing stock. Average growth was 8.8%, so the effect was marked. The authors are cautious about making a causal claim, but the correlation was observed after controlling for the number of planning applications and the amount of available land. A rough calculation suggests that, without the NIMBY effect, one million more homes would have been built during the period.

Brad Plumer, “Driving in the US has been declining for years. Will cheap gas change that?“, Vox:

The key concept here is price elasticity — how much the demand for gasoline changes in response to changes in price. The EIA estimates that, in the very short run, Americans’ demand for gasoline is fairly inelastic. The price of gas would have to fall 25 to 50 percent for US driving to rise by just 1 percent. (That is, the elasticity is -0.02 to -0.04.) …

Driving is on the downswing for a few reasons: 1) The US population is getting older, and retirees tend to drive less. 2) More and more young people are moving to cities, where there are better transit options. 3) It’s become much harder for teenagers to acquire drivers’ licenses. 4) Young people may be driving less for cultural reasons (possibly they prefer to hang out with their friends on Facebook than piling into a car and driving around aimlessly).

That may explain why American driving habits today seem to be less responsive to changes in gas prices than they were in the 1990s. Back then, the EIA estimates, it only took a 12 percent drop in gas prices to boost driving by 1 percent (elasticity was -0.08). Nowadays it takes a 25 to 50 percent drop.

Emily Badger, “Why no one likes indoor malls any more“, Wonkblog:

The mall that’s dying is, in fact, a specific kind of mall: It’s enclosed, with an anonymous, windowless exterior, wrapped in yards of parking, located off a highway interchange. It’s the kind of place where you easily lose track of time and all connection to the outside world, where you could once go to experience air conditioning if you didn’t have it at home…

The death of old-fashioned indoor malls is also the rebirth of shopping hubs that feel more like Main Street.

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.

2015 – The Year Ahead

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015, the year we get hoverboards.

Back to the Future hoverboard

October 21, 2015

In this post I’m going to look at what we can expect from 2015, some of these have been highlighted in the recent days.

PT

I expect it’s going to be another big year for PT in Auckland as the current growth that we’ve been seeing carries on.

Again I think the rail network is going to lead the way with massive growth as people respond to the improved quality the new electric trains offer and the better, more frequent timetables that should accompany them. By the end of the year we could be looking at patronage of about 14 – 14.5 million trips. That will put us well on the way towards the governments CRL target of 20 million trips before 2020. One thing we will definitely need to keep an eye on is the impact on patronage from Pukekohe from the implementation of a Papaukra to Pukekohe shuttle once the Southern line goes electric.

The City Rail Link will continue to be a talking point, especially as we draw closer to the start of construction of the enabling works. I hope that in 2015, Auckland Transport finally start to tell the story of the CRL properly – something they are now saying they will do.

We should also hear about the plans for the old rolling stock – which I’m picking will be sold off to somwhere in Southern Africa – and hear more about the tender to operate the trains from mid-2016 onwards. Wellington is currently going through the same process which is something I’ll post about soon.

Like the rail network the Northern Express has been growing strongly and again I think this will continue, especially once services are extended to Silverdale which will hopefully happen this year. I also think we’ll start to hear more about how the busway itself performs as a large number of trips on it aren’t on the NEX but on services such as the 881 that use the busway for part of their journey. Hopefully we might finally see some more Double Deckers too.

The rest of the bus network should continue to see growth too and we’re likely to have a few more big New Network consultations in 2015, in saying that we aren’t likely to have much in the way of implementation as even the South Auckland network has been pushed back to 2016 which in part is about waiting for Integrated Fares. One thing that will help the bus network is the roll out of more bus lanes which AT have promised to do.

As mentioned the other day, we will certainly hear more about integrated fares this year although they are unlikely to be implemented before the end of the year. From what I hear, a lot of work had been going on to get the structure right with AT working towards an additional aim of having as few people as possible disadvantaged by any changes. The flip side to that is that most people should get some benefit out of the change which should only help to make PT more attractive to use.

Walking and Cycling

Like PT, 2015 has the potential to be a great year for walking and cycling. In January the fantastic looking Westhaven Promenade should finally open vastly improving pedestrian and cycle access around Westhaven. We should see the start of a cycleway on Nelson St and making use of the old motorway off ramp and construction should also the start of the Glen Innes to Tamaki Dr shared path. One thing that isn’t clear is if we’ll start to see some JSK style quick and cheap implementations or if AT will have the courage to start removing parking and/or narrow oversized central road medians to enable cycle infrastructure to be put in.

Of course we will be paying close attention to see what happens with Skypath. I suspect it will get approval but also that some of the local residents will challenge that approval in the environment court.

Roads

2015 will continue to be a year of massive construction on our road network, especially around SH16. Works will also start on the grade separation of Kirkbride Rd. I suspect later in the year we’ll hear more about plans to widen SH1 south of Manukau and hear more about the NZTA’s plans for the SH1/SH18 interchange. On top of this we’re bound to find out more about Puhoi to Warkworth. In Wellington we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the NZTAs appeal to the Basin Reserve flyover decision. We will also find out more about AT’s plans for AMETI and the East-West Link, Lincoln Rd, Mill Rd and maybe even Penlink.

One aspect that will be fascinating to see is if the current drop in fuel prices is sustained and what, if any impact it has on travel trends.

Overall across all areas it’s going to be a big year and I think it’ll be a good one. I’m already aware of a few positive surprises that are in store for but that I can’t comment on yet.