Postcard from Bogota

Following a few days in Mexico City, I’ve had the pleasure of staying a week in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota is both the federal capital and the capital of Cundinamarca state, and while it probably doesn’t yet figure as a world capital of culture or clout, it certainly is a thriving mega city of regional importance.

Because of its position straddling the Andes, Colombia is a country with every climate conceivable, it has snow covered alps, temperate savannah, dense jungle, dry desert, not to mention both tropical Caribbean and temperate-maritime Pacific coasts.

The city itself sits on broad plain high up on the middle finger of the three-branched Andes mountains, in fact at 2,700m it’s high enough to cause altitude sickness in some people. The altitude gives the nominally tropical city a very mild temperate climate, with clear skies, low humidity and temperatures that sit around the high teens and low twenties every day of the year. You could call it the city of eternal Spring.
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Bogota is big. At around 11.5 million people it is as populous as greater London, or all of New Zealand two and a half times over.

Bogota is also dense. The majority of inhabitants live in apartment towers, mid rise block or terraced house style developments. The north of the city has a very European feel, with four to six story apartments of brick or concrete on a grid of fairly narrow tree lined streets. If it weren’t for the language you could be in the Netherlands or Germany.

Curiously, the city is three sided. The original colonial centre was established on one edge of the plain at the foot of a great mountain range. It has since sprawled across the plain to the north, south and west, but not to the east on account of the mountains. This allows for one unique benefit: you can ride a cable car a further 400m up the mountain of Monseraté near downtown and take in the whole sprawling metropolis in a single vista, including the bizzare experience of standing on terra firma and looking down at the tops of fifty story skyscrapers in the commercial district far below. If the thin air doesn’t take your breath away, the view certainly will!

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Accordingly Bogota has basically two types of land use structure. A long, thin, but dense band of apartment towers runs for 40km north-south along the eastern edge of the plain, taking advantage of the Andes foothills to provide spectacular view back across the city. These buildings are accessed by a circuitous web of winding narrow switchback roads not too dissimilar to western Wellington. For the most part the wealthy live here in gated apartment communities, however dotted amongst them are university campuses (Bogota has dozens of them for some reason) and patches of impoverished and dangerous barrios similar to the famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

The other structure is on the plain itself, an enormous flat and regular grid of broad multi-lane avenues, filled with three to thirty storey buildings. Think Los Angeles but consistently taller. This is perhaps Bogota’s downfall: it land use is what can only be described as dense sprawl, and it’s transport system is entirely road based. Not surprisingly the traffic is truly horrendous. I have to laugh whenever people complain about Auckland’s supposedly worlds-worst traffic. Puh-lease. If you want bad traffic, take a city the same area as Auckland, with an entirely road based transport network… then add another ten million inhabitants all trying to drive at the same time.

Naturally Bogota has spend decades trying to accommodate it’s traffic with more, bigger roads. The city is covered in a massive amount of six, eight, ten lane avenues. They appear to have tried a bit of everything, separated motorways, limited access avenues, boulevards, frontage roads, slip lanes, underpasses, overpasses, one way streets, the works. The system almost works too… when conditions are perfect. However that almost never happens. It only takes one small crash, a truck parked illegally to unload, a taxi doing a u-turn or one of a thousand other small disruptions to infarct the system. This is perhaps the folly of huge roads for huge capacity, on an eight lane road one disruption clogs up eight times the traffic.

Transport here has an interesting socio-cultural element. From what I understand Bogotano society has six distinct classes with a broad spread of inequality, from the destitute poor up to the untouchable elite with money and connections above the law. For the middle classes, there is a great preoccupation with not sliding down the ladder. Few in the middle classes would ever dream of catching public transport as that is the domain of the underclass. Maintaining a private car is a necessary symbol of status regardless of the cost or the traffic, and if one does not drive they rely on cheap and ubiquitous taxis or town car services. Either way, not escape from the traffic is possible and it’s one form of private car all the way.

The transit wonks among us must now be thinking, but what about the Transmillennio? For the less frothy-mouthed readers, the Transmillennio is a now-famous busway system with half a dozen lines running along Bogota’s main arterials forming quite a wide reaching and effective network. This system is A grade busway of world class design. It is based around a system of dedicated, physically separated median busway lanes, some of which are grade separate at key intersections. The are combined with train-style island platform stations accessed by elaborate overpasses and footbridges. The busways themselves are serviced by special red colour high capacity trunk-only metro buses, very long vehicles with two or three articulated sections, high floors that match up with platform level, and four or even five double doors per bus. At the end of each of the busways there are huge interchanges where green-coloured feeder buses of conventional design connect the surrounding suburbs to the trunk busways. In that regard it really is metro system writ with rubber.

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So what is it like to use? I wouldn’t know myself, as I was consistently dissuaded from trying it by friends and family whenever I mentioned it. The locals advised it was too crowded, too dangerous, too much of a risk for any decent person to use. I do wonder if this is simply a hangover of the same cultural understanding that buses were for the poor and to be avoided. Indeed when I asked few of my advisors had ever set foot on the system. My one young cousin who did actually use it to get to university each day only complained that it was too crowded, and the station too far away from his apartment.

What we do know is that the system is indeed hugely popular and overcrowded, a victim of it’s own success. Preoccupations of class and status aside, hundreds of thousands of people use the system every day. For all its efficiency at beating traffic and it mega capacity buses ability to move the masses, the simple fact is it barely touches the sides of the transport task in Bogota. Imagine London with no tube, not overground, no suburban trains, no national rail, no DLR, no tramlink. Imagine a London with six busways as the only rapid transit. That is Bogota. They have a long way to go to turn the traffic situation around. So yes it is a massive success, and very worthwhile, but for Bogota it is just the start of fixing things.

So if the Transmillennio is so effective (if not comprehensive), one has to ask why we don’t build them in Auckland. Indeed we hear this quite often from certain politicians, why are we talking about CRL tunnels and trains and light rail, when the bus can do the job for half the price? It’s a good question, and one that deserves an evaluation. Nonetheless, the answer is pretty simple: space.

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The Transmillennio takes up space, lots of space. More space than we have. The basic cross section of these busways is two bus lanes either side of a median. That’s basically the full width of most of our main roads to start with. However, once you get to a stop the situation blows out again. Each of the stations has a large platform, then stopping lanes either side, then passing lane beside those again. That means a cross section of four bus lanes and the station, about 25 metres wide. Now as most of Auckland’s arterial roads are one chain wide (about 21m), building a Transmillennio in Auckland would require buying and demolishing all the buildings down one side of the street just to fit in the bus corridor, let alone any other traffic lanes, footpaths or street trees. Indeed, the one place we are looking at a multilane street busway, the AMETI corridor in east Auckland, they are planning to do exactly that.

So while we can do busways alongside motorways like we do on the North Shore (and hopefully the northwest), we can’t fit them in the street for the most part. This is why AT is looking at light rail, because for the same capacity LRT needs only two lanes and compact platforms, where the bus systems need four to manage the greater number of vehicles.

Bogota managed this by building into their existing avenues, which had huge wide medians in addition to three or four lanes in each direction. The Transmillennio got away without any land or building purchases by virtue of having huge road reserves to start with. In fact they had such wide corridors that they actually widened the roadways at the same time, adding extra lanes for traffic to offset the squeals of indignation about spending proper money on public transport. So in one way Bogota was lucky to have a fair whack of empty space effectively lying around, or arguably they were wasting land to start with and found a better use for it.

My end evaluation? The Transmillennio was a good move for Bogota that fits the city well and takes advantage of spatial resources, however it’s only the start of much more for fixing their transport issues.

Five Years

Exactly five years ago last month, August 30th 2011, my first ever blog post ran on Transportblog. While I am astonished it’s already been five years, what’s really astonishing is what we, my colleagues here, you the readers, and the growing force of friends and allies elsewhere [shoutout to Generation Zero and Bike Auckland especially], and of course the many good people official roles, have helped achieve in Auckland in this time. We have certainly raised the discourse on urban issues and influenced some real outcomes, for the better. Exactly what we set out to do, and what we continue to strive for.

But there is one thing that has still remains unfixed and that is the subject of my first post, which is reproduced in full below.

Why Are There Cars on Queen St?

This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds and was originally published in Metro magazine

Queen St, from the water to Mayoral Drive, has an unusual and unexpected feature for a city street in Auckland. It’s easy to miss but it’s true: There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St. Not one car parking building, not one loading bay, not one ramp to an executive garage under a tower block. The only way to enter a building from Queen St is on foot. There are a few very short term road side parks among the bus stops and loading bays, but really every car in Queen St is on its way to and from somewhere else. And so slowly.

People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.

No traffic moves well on Queen St, certainly not the buses, it is usually quicker to walk from the Ferry Building to the Town Hall than to catch any Queen St bus. Emergency vehicles get stuck, deliveries battle their way through. It is clear why there is traffic on the four east-west cross streets of Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. These are essential through routes to and from motorways and parking buildings. But they too get held up by all the turning in and out of the intersections with Queen St. Because as it is now the lights have long and complicated phases to handle every possible car movement and the growing volume of pedestrians.

It seems likely that simply by removing the private car from the three blocks from Mayoral Drive down to Customs St the city will function so much better. The intersections of Customs, Victoria and Wellesley, will be able to have much better phasing for both pedestrians and the cross town traffic, as well speeding the buses as they would effectively be on bus lanes all the way up Queen St. Air quality in the Queen St gully would improve immensely. The bottom of Shortland and the newly refurbished Fort streets will become the sunny plazas they should be. Inner city retailers should see the benefits of the Queen St becoming a more appealing place to be in and the cross town traffic flowing better will make car use more viable.

And there will the space to convert the smoky diesel bus routes into modern electric trams to really make the most of this improvement and speed even more shoppers and workers to and from the rest of the city.

If we’re brave enough to take this all the way up to Mayoral Drive we get the real chance to link the new Art Gallery, the Library, and St James area across the Queen St divide to Aotea Square, the Town Hall and the new Q Theatre. A chance to really build a cultural heart at this end of town.

Furthermore it could all be done with a few cones, signs, traffic light changes and a media campaign. At least to start.

END

And I still believe that AT/AC are not addressing this issue as well as they should. Waiting for Light Rail to improve our city’s main street lacks leadership and strategic focus, and may well even turn out to be risky to the approval that project. It will, I believe, help the argument for Light Rail here to show that Queen St isn’t a necessary or desirable place for general traffic, and that its continuing reduction is far from negative for commercial performance in the City Centre, by actively encouraging its departure. We know that the last restrictions had way better results than anticipated, halving the amount of vehicle traffic and boosting the much more valuable pedestrian numbers and economic activity, see here.

Queen St volumes - Total

Since my post above AT have recently added partial bus lanes to the two lower blocks, which is good, but not much in five years. I would like to see these lanes continue through to Mayoral Drive. I really think this valley needs to be addressed strategically, and not just reactively, which after all has been well studied by AT, e.g. The City East West Study, CEWT.

Adding north/south of Queen St to this mix we get a hierarchy like this:

  1. Pedestrians in all directions
  2. Transit north/south on Queen and east/west on Wellesley and Customs
  3. Deliveries
  4. General traffic east/west on Mayoral, Victoria, and Customs

And above all of this is the plan to remove all general traffic from Wakefield St north to be worked towards; to continue the current trend.

So improving the Queen St intersections by removing right hand turn options matches this hierarchy perfectly, in particular at Victoria St. This is now a more difficult idea since the Link bus turns from Queen here, but the turn could be made bus only. Victoria St is currently narrowed by CRL works, and will be permanently reduced in width by the Aotea CRL station entrance which will be in what is current road space. So getting drivers used to both the narrowed Victoria St and out of the habit of turning here is surely a strong plan.

Now of course AT are getting pressure from angry motorists over the CRL works, and seem to have responded to this by dropping the double pedestrian cycle from the big Barnes Dances on Queen. This is clearly counter productive to the strategic aims. Instead if they removed right hand turning at Victoria this would improve the adjacent Victoria St intersections for all users and enable either concurrent crossing on Queen or allow the double Barnes Dance phases to be restored. Then there is the festering sore that is lower Shortland St, which clearly has just been shoved into the too hard basket.

Oh and now I discover I have written about this in 2013 too: Clusterbus, Busageddon, Busapocalypse…

In short there are ways that AC/AT could be advancing their strategic aims in the centre city before Light Rail is begun, but they don’t seem to be doing this. I think they should.

Will I be banging on about still in another five years, or can the city grow up already?

‘…Five Years, what a surprise’

Shared spaces then and now

How things change… or don’t change.

I recently ran across two videos that illustrate humans’ ability to navigate complex urban environments with a mix of people on the street.

The first video is from the dawn of the motor vehicle age: San Francisco in 1906. It’s a 12-minute long journey down Market Street, shot from the front of a tram. Throughout the video, you can see (and hear) the extraordinary range of uses on the street: horse-pulled carts and carriages; early cars veering suddenly out in front of the tram; young men on bicycles; men in suits and women in long dresses crossing the street, standing around, moving easily through the traffic.

There are no traffic lights or painted lanes. Nobody is controlling this chaos. But everyone is moving at a human speed – at a pace where it’s possible to adjust to unexpected circumstances. The tram periodically slows down to take on passengers – not quite stopping, but easing its pace for a moment to allow people to step up. Boys occasionally dash out in front of the tram to demonstrate their pace.

The second video is a three-minute timelapse video of Amsterdam’s Central Station, at the point at which the city’s ferries are disgorging their passengers. (Central Station also accommodates buses and trains.) There are no cars in the station, but people on bikes, motor scooters, and foot travel through the space in all directions.

Once again, it’s possible to perceive spontaneous order out of the travel chaos. People speed up and the slow down when they get to knots of cross-traffic; people on bikes mingle comfortably with people on foot; and the whole thing generally proceeds safely and conveniently. People who want to cycle straight through the station can do so – provided that they keep an eye out and time their approach to avoid running into cross-traffic. There are occasional bottlenecks – it’s hard for fifty people to get on a ferry when one hundred are getting off – but the system works with admirable efficiency.

What is the point of these videos?

In my view, they demonstrate that humans are reasonably intelligent. We can deal with complexity, provided that we’re given time and space to assimilate it. A lot of contemporary traffic planning seems to assume that we are a bit dim – i.e. that if people in cars aren’t allowed to travel as fast as possible with as few potential interruptions as possible, then terrible things will happen.

When streets are heavily trafficked by cars, there’s definitely a case for separated lanes for buses (which can move more people per lane than cars, even if they’re not chocka) and bikes (which are vulnerable to injury when in mixed traffic). And when you want the cars (or buses) to move fast, then yeah, perhaps keep the pedestrians away. But when the mix of modes is more evenly distributed, then it’s sometimes better to keep things at a human speed and let people negotiate their path through the space.

What do you think of these videos?

Auckland’s Leafiest Suburbs

Auckland’s ‘leafy suburbs’ is a term we’ve heard a lot over the last few years as debate about the Unitary Plan has raged. But what suburbs are the leafiest? Now we have an answer.

Reader Euan has put together some maps looking at the number of public trees within 500m of each residential property and normalised the results to provide a degree of comparison between residences on the isthmus. He hopes to be able to do the North Shore and West Auckland in the future but unfortunately he says there is very little data available for the old Manukau City Council area.

On the analysis, he also notes:

The two major shortcomings associated with this analysis are: A) the public tree data was incomplete; and B) there is an underlying bug with the tool used that has not been fixed. While there’s not much I can do about the incomplete data, there are ways around the software bug. Unfortunately, they are time intensive, and I do not currently have the time to implement the work around. I can always return and fix them later.

In many ways the analysis serves to highlight the change in how we’ve developed cities and streets over the years. If you take a google streetview tour through some of the red areas, like those south of SH20, there are some trees but they’re generally only on private property rather than in the road corridor. I’d also suggest there’s probably a high correlation with the leafiness of an area and the quality of the footpaths. Again those mid-late 20th century developments south of SH20 tend to have narrow footpaths often right up against the road.

Despite the shortcomings, the results are fascinating. As already mentioned there is a serious lack of public trees outside of the streetcar suburbs with the exception being some of the eastern suburbs. One area that bucks this trend though is around Remuera where there is a surprising amount of red, more so than even the CBD. You can also see a fairly dense patch of public trees in Stonefields and I’d expect to see similar results in other new suburbs as the importance of street trees is now more understood.

 

Leafiness - Isthmus

The second map highlights the top 20% most leafy residences to more clearly show where the leafiest suburbs are

Leafiness - Isthmus - Most Leafy

 

Lastly this is an earlier map Euan sent me highlighting the data and showing the number of street trees in the CBD

Leafiness - CBD

All up a fascinating piece of work so thanks Euan for putting it together.

Guest Post: Rethinking our Town Centres for People (Thinking Orbital not Radial) Part 1

This is a guest post submitted by reader Harriet. 

Town Centre Upgrade

We talk so much about how to make the CBD more pedestrian friendly by removing general traffic, and concentrating on public transport and active modes instead, but do we do this enough for our town centres? For the CBD we talk about traffic calming, diverting and even removal of cars for places like Queen Street, so why don’t we apply the same logic to our town centres?

Town centres for the most part sit along main arterial roads. As Auckland has expanded outwards, and over time became more auto focused, these roads have increasingly become through routes for people driving past, rather than functioning as places. Let’s think about the CBD. Is Queen Street a through route arterial or is it focused on access? Policies especially since the 90’s have encouraged motorists to use orbital routes by reducing the speed limits on Queen Street, Barnes Dance crossings, and street upgrades to encourage pedestrian access. In the future Queen Street could become a pedestrian mall with LRT (Light Rapid Transit, or light rail). In a way Symonds Street, Albert/Nelson/Hobson are like western and eastern ring roads. Most motorists therefore freely elect to use these orbital routes. So can applying the same principles to our town centres which presently have radial through roads and instead change it up investing in orbital routes instead which will allow traffic to still flow around, but leaving our Town Centres free for people. Could this be a win win?

Mt Albert was once a strong historical town centre with access to the old tram network, it has now fallen into decay. The local board has lately fought for revival and DART has brought an upgraded station but people still flock to St. Lukes Mall or the CBD.  Anyone who has been to Mt Albert can see that New North Road is used as a through route for people driving to New Lynn, Avondale and further afield, not for people coming to Mt Albert. New North Road thus has been upgraded for this purpose being a dual carriageway through the town centre, not including the protected parking on the station side and on-street parking on the other side. Traffic lights are phased for vehicle flow and the walkways remain decayed and cracked. All this creates a seriously unfriendly environment for pedestrians and shoppers. The new town centre plan really does little to change this. It keeps the same amount of lanes, not adding in any real cycle or bus priority with really token improvements to aesthetics.

Tram heading to Mt Albert

What if we treated Mt Albert the same way we would treat Queen Street, or even the ways other cities would treat their own versions of Queen Street? What if we wanted our town centres to be destinations, not another set of traffic lights? What if we wanted to create great town centres for people without even hurting traffic flows? It’s possible, if just like the CBD here and in other cities we think orbital not radial.

Here is my alternative proposal. If we rail-bridged the Woodward Road level crossing (which needs to be done regardless) and if we diverted New North Road down Carrington Road and Woodward , we would remove one level crossing and create a bypass of Mt Albert Town Centre. From the Woodward Road/Richardson Road intersection to the Mt Albert Road/Carrington Road intersection there would be a section of road completely free from general traffic. The area especially on the NAL (Western Line Side) is mostly post-war low density retail, light industrial, re-purposed warehouses and a service station. If we pedestrianised the old New North Road this would leave enough room for cycle lanes, shops to re-purpose the old walkways into outdoor space and of course plenty of space for pedestrians. If up-zoned to allow mixed use and higher density this would create plenty of area for apartments, offices and retail right next to Mt Albert Station and a future light rail terminus for the Sandringham Road LRT, all without drastically affecting traffic flows. Traffic instead would use the orbital route or potentially switch to SH16 when the upgrades including Waterview are completed.

Objections would be:

  1. Parking (always  parking) – Study after study has shown that retail owners greatly overestimate the amount of customers who come by car compared to active modes and PT. That after improvement to active modes & PT more customers tend to visit not less. Also, with more residents as part of the mixed use potential development, there will be a larger base of local shoppers who can simply walk to the centre.
  1. Bus Access – In the long run, before 2023, it is possible to have both Sandringham Road LRT which could potentially terminate at Mt Albert and likely to have the CRL with potentially 5 minute frequencies to Henderson and the City plus a 3 train per hour crosstown service. We are moving to a best practice bus network which would mean there will be significantly fewer New North Road buses after the CRL, as well as Electric Buses which will be more Town Centre friendly due to less pollution both noise & air. In the short run buses could use the Town Centre with strict rules on idling & speed restrictions.
  1. It will create a negative outcome for some on the new orbital route – Perhaps in some ways, however, the proximity of the town centre and increased transport options would likely increase their property values and they would have access to the improved town centre. Also, Woodward Road is busy at present and the removal of the level crossing would be of great benefit to the residents.
  1. Wouldn’t it be better to just reduce the traffic? Possibly. However, I wanted to show a win-win situation where through motorists wouldn’t realistically be affected travel wise and the local people would have their town centre returned to them. Who doesn’t love win-win?

If we think orbital and not radial is it possible we could have a Swanston Street in every town centre in Auckland, such as Kingsland, Mt Eden, Glen Innes, Sandringham, Avondale, New Lynn, Ellerslie and more?

Is it possible that with a little creative thinking, town centres can become great places just like CBDs or like Santa Monica Promenade? What do you think, any ideas of your own? Also, let me know in the comments if you would like this to become a series as I do have ideas for the above.

Santa Monica Promenade

Fort St

Fort St before

 

FORT ST_8012

 

Autonomous Cars and the City

I made a little Tweet Storm Saturday morning on an issue that’s been on my mind about driverless cars and the City:

Here’s the link to the very good video produced by the Ryerson City Building Institute in Ontario, Canada: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1B9z8ituS8&feature=youtu.be

There are of course many other issues, not the least of which being this technology’s utility for Transit services. But interestingly as a result of my tweets I was sent this link from the US Highway Admin on the very subject of aviation standards versus road standards. Because, let’s face it, the standards are wildly different: 38,000 people were killed directly by auto-dependency last year in the US, that’s just in crashes, that doesn’t include those dying of respiratory diseases, or from the way driving makes people fat and sad, also leading to earlier death from the diseases of inactivity.

I have an additional thought too. At what point will the near perfect safety performance of driverless cars lead to human driving becoming illegal? I suspect this is an almost inevitable consequence of this technology. Likely to start in certain areas then be extended. Perhaps what Google et al are ultimately doing with Autonomous Vehicles will lead to a redefinition of the conceptual link between cars and freedom in American culture?

Sunday reading 15 May 2016

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Hi, and welcome back to Sunday reading. Starting off here is an interview with one of my favourite urban observers, Christoper Hawthorne with the Los Angeles Times. Hawthorne has been actively documenting the transformation Los Angeles has been going through over the last decade. Hawthorne has framed the story in a historical perspective calling the current era, the ‘3rd Los Angeles’. Here he is interviewed by Jon Christensen for Boom magazine.

Mayor Garcetti recently talked about this as being a “hinge moment” in the city’s development. That idea that the city is navigating this transition has become part of the popular, broader discussion about the city. But the more that I wrote and thought about the history of Los Angeles, it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we’re struggling to add—whether it’s mass transit, places to walk, more ambitious public architecture, innovative multifamily housing, or more forward-looking city and regional planning—we actually produced in really remarkable quantities in the prewar decades. In the DNA of the city’s history is something before the car and the freeway.

…But there are other ways that this emerging city is completely different. First LA and Second LA are both driven by huge growth. And the Third LA is really a kind of post-growth city. Population and immigration have both slowed really dramatically in Los Angeles. Manufacturing is a shell of what it once was. So, in some ways, we have the first chance since the 1880s to really catch our breath and think about how to consolidate our gains—and about what kind of place we want to be. So that’s the basic framework.

As part of the public conversation about the future of Los Angeles Hawthorne runs a lecture series at Occidental College that seems comparable to our Auckland Conversations. It’s admirable to see a writer having the range and latitude to contribute so meaningfully to the public conversation.

It seems the urban conversation is not as sophisticated in New Zealand and Australia as it could be. Here is an interesting study that looks at how newspapers cover local intensification projects in Australia. The findings conclude that writers sensationalise the issues with dramatic references and emotive language. Katrina Raynors, “Media picture of urban consolidation focuses more on a good scare story than the facts“, The Conversation.

Media reports predominantly capture the drama of consolidated development with references to warfare or natural disasters. Articles commonly refer to floods of development or a city under siege.

Local politicians opposed to consolidation are characterised as saviours of the people. These white knights stand strong, benignly offering their constituents protection from the destruction of over-development.

Dramatic physiological language is used in articles discussing high-density apartment buildings. Such places are characterised as choking the city or ripping the heart out of its suburbs. Increasing urban densities are presented as threatening the overall health of the city.

Apartments are depicted as “shoeboxes”, “rabbit hutches” and “charmless chunks of brick”. The people who choose to live in them are routinely portrayed as outsiders. They are the unwelcome intruders who are taking over the city and corrupting traditional suburban values.

Speaking of rolling back decades of past mistakes, Matt had some great posts this week on the recent NZCID policy dump. This comment on road pricing by MFWIC is worth mentioning:

“You are absolutely wrong Hamish. The value of tolling has little to do with the cost of collecting the toll. You need to stop seeing it as harvesting cash and start to understand the concept of economic externalities. The value of congestion pricing is to ensure people include into their decision of how and when to travel the impact they have on others. The correct price is the marginal cost including the externality. If you gather more than it costs to collect (which you will) then you get an opportunity to use that money to further improve transport by either improving public transport or if it makes sense to build additional capacity. The problem is every time congestion charges are raised the infrastructure lobby jumps in like a robbers dog to try and claim the cash. The public then see it as a cash grab with them being fleeced and the whole debate is over before it starts. Congestion charging is the only chance to actually ‘fix’ transport and the best thing the infrastructure people could do is point out that pricing a public good with negative externalities is in everyone’s interest.”

jane-jacobs-google-doodle

Jane Jacob’s 100th anniversary was celebrated this weeks with lots of adoration, some critiques and a fair amount of misunderstanding.  Biographer Peter Laureance provides a useful summary of what was debated last week over the innertubes with  links to several articles. Peter Laureance, “How best to use, abuse, and criticize Jane Jacobs” Archpaper.com.

I found this bit particularly interesting:

Moses wasn’t behind the scheme to redevelop the West Village; and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which received support from picketers who saw short-term gains in construction jobs, among others, it was bigger than Moses and outlasted him. Fueled in part by the anger that activism took away from writing her second book, The Economy of Cities (1969), Jacobs described LoMEx as a beast that had to be killed three times, in 1962, ’65, and ’68, by which time Moses’s political power had been also fatally wounded.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 580-10204

While Jacobs was battling motorway expansion and superblock modernism a quite distinct history was unfolding in Copenhagen. Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, “Story of cities #36: how Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist ‘utopia’“, The Guardian.

Copenhagen’s lack of funds led to the city’s modernist visions progressing at a painfully slow pace. It did get a small taste of a car-oriented future in the shape of the six-lane Bispeengbuen expressway, which rips through its northern neighbourhoods directly in front of second-storey windows.

“That was a real eye-opener. People could see that this would change Copenhagen – that this is what the plans mean,” Elle says. “Inside people’s heads, they found out that they were not happy with these [modernist developments]. By the 70s, they could experience how it was to live in it … you have to feel it in your body to know it’s not good.”

NACTO_transit_lanes

How Can Cities Move More People Without Wider Streets? Hint: Not With Cars (NACTO via Streetsblog)

The US Feds took a fact-finding tour of the Netherlands to figure out how they have achieved such a high level of bicycle use. The report concluded, surprise!, that “much of the Dutch design approach can be adapted to US context”- US Bicycle Network Planning & Facility Design Approaches in the Netherlands and the United States, FHWA. Here are some takeaways from the report:

There is an implicit assumption in Holland that on roads with higher volumes of cars traveling at faster speeds, it is always preferable to separate bicycle and motor vehicle movement because it is safer and more comfortable. Specifically, in the Netherlands when motor vehicles are traveling faster than around 19 miles an hour, it is assumed that separation is needed.

Motor vehicle speed is controlled by visual narrowing techniques and grade differences and less emphasis is placed on signage and striping. With cars and bikes traveling at slower speeds, there is greater ability to allow for informal mixing, for example on shared streets and at points where two bike routes cross each other.

Informal mixing strategies require greater trust in the users of the transportation system and rely more heavily on eye contact, active awareness of all travelers, and high bicyclist skills levels (achieved in part by bicycle safety education and training provided at a young age). It also helps that people driving often have a history of bicycling themselves and so prioritize watching for bicyclists while they are driving or opening car doors. Dutch approaches to traffic laws also provide more protection for bicyclists than is typical of the U.S.

Of course we can’t so easily translate best practice cycleway design in NZ. Here Bike Auckland raises the serious issue of our current road rules and standards of practice. Tim Duguid, “Ride, Interrupted – the Stop-Start Bugbear“, Bike Auckland.

After 10 years in New Zealand there’s one thing I still can’t get used to: having to stop and start to cross side streets while I’m out for a run. Where I used to live, England, this scenario is barely cause for a second thought: a casual glance over your shoulder maybe, but your reasonable expectation is that you can keep going at the same pace. Which is incredibly helpful for running after dark, when main roads are often your best bet for smooth pavements and decent street lighting.

Please share your links in the comment section.

Let’s ban everything dangerous, like walking

This week, the Herald on Sunday published an article calling out a dangerous new practice: walking under the influence of a smartphone. According to them, careless walking causes literally dozens of injuries a year and should possibly be criminalised:

Now legislation has been introduced in New Jersey that would slap a US$50 ($72) fine and possible jail time on pedestrians caught using phones while they cross. And in the German city of Augsburg, traffic lights have been embedded in the pavement – so people looking down at their phones will see them.

The Herald on Sunday carried out an unscientific experiment at the busy intersection of Victoria and Queen Sts in central Auckland during the lunchtime rush to discover the scale of the problem here. Observing one of the corners, between 1pm and 1.30pm, we spotted 39 people using their cellphones while crossing.

Some people looked up briefly while crossing. Others kept their heads down, oblivious to what was going on around them.

In the past 10 years, the Accident Compensation Corporation has paid out more than $150,000 for texting-related injuries to a total of 272 Kiwis.

About 90 per cent of injuries were a result of people tripping, falling or walking into things while texting.

Incidentally, I have to admit some guilt here. While I don’t usually walk under the influence of a smartphone, I will often walk around reading a book – a habit I picked up during university. In over a decade of distracted walking, I’ve never fallen over, walked into anything, walked in front of a car, or walked into anybody else.

Anyway.

Let’s take the Herald’s suggestions seriously, and ask whether there is a case to ban other activities that risk injury to participants. Their threshold for “enough harm to consider regulation” appears to be around 27 injuries a year costing ACC at least $15,000.

What else fails that test?

I went to ACC’s injury statistics tool to get a sense. Helpfully, they break out injury claims (and the cost thereof) by cause, activity, and a range of other characteristics.

Here’s a table summarising some of the sports that should be considered for a ban. Rugby and league are obvious candidates, of course, as they result in tens of thousands of claims every year and a total cost in the tens of millions. But would you have suspected that humble, harmless lawn bowls was so hazardous? The sport of septuagenarians injures over 1,000 people a year and costs ACC $1m. Likewise with dancing, golf, and fishing. They’re all too dangerous to be allowed. It’s a miracle that we’ve survived this long with all of this harmful physical activity occurring.

Sport Average new claims per annum (2011-2015) Average annual cost (2011-2015)
Rugby union 56,842 $65.4m
Rugby league 12,556 $15.3m
Lawn bowls 1,134 $1.0m
Dancing 6,972 $5.1m
Golf 5,797 $4.5m
Fishing 2,431 $3.2m

But it doesn’t stop with sports. Your home is full of seemingly innocuous items that are eager to kill or maim you. Your stove, for example. Boiling liquids cause almost 5,000 injuries a year, costing ACC $1.9 million. We should definitely ban home cooking. Leave it to the professionals, for pity’s sake! Lifting and carrying objects at home is even more dangerous – over 100,000 claims a year. So don’t pick up that tea-tray or box of knick-knacks: call in someone who’s suitably qualified for handling such dangerous objects.

And let’s not even mention the toll taken by falls, except to strenuously argue for a ban on showers, bathroom tiles, and private ownership of ladders.

Cause of accident Average new claims per annum (2011-2015) Average annual cost (2011-2015)
Boiling liquids (at home) 4,680 $1.9m
Lifting / carrying objects (at home) 103,798 $95.1m
Falls (at home) 310,292 $323.4m
Driving-related accidents (on roads/streets) 13,322 $173.2m

Finally, it’s important to remember an important bit of context that the Herald doesn’t mention: Distracted walking is a far, far lesser danger than driving cars (distracted or not). In the average year, ACC receives 13,300 claims for driving-related accidents and pays out a total of $173 million for people who have been injured or killed. That far, far exceeds the injury toll associated with texting while walking.

On the whole, you’re more likely to be killed or injured while in a car than you are while walking. This chart, taken from a Ministry of Transport report on “risk on the road”, shows deaths or injuries in motor vehicle crashes per million hours spent travelling. Drivers experience 8 deaths/injuries per million hours. The two safest modes are walking (4.6 deaths/injuries per million hours) and public transport (0.7).

Because different travel modes are substitutes, measures to discourage walking – i.e. by penalising people who combine walking with smartphone use – may have the unintended consequence of killing or injuring more people.

MoT risk on the road chart

[As an aside, this chart presents a somewhat misleading picture of cycle safety. People on bicycles experience 31 deaths or injuries per million hours – considerably higher than driving. However, drivers, not cyclists, are at fault in the majority of cycle crashes. According to another recent MoT report, cyclists were primarily responsible for only 22% of crashes. Drivers were partially or fully at fault in the remaining 78% of crashes.

MoT cycle crash fault chart

Consequently, if we provided safe cycle infrastructure that kept people on bikes away from people in cars, cycling would get a lot safer. If we could completely eliminate the risk of people on bikes being hit by cars, cycling would be about as safe as driving.]

To conclude, there are two things that the statistics teach us.

The first is that although injuries and ACC claims are bad, it’s essential to put risks in perspective. And the relevant perspective is this: Walking is a safe mode of travel. It’s remained safe in spite of the invention of the smartphone and the existence of hoons like me who walk around with their nose in a book.

It’s always worth looking for effective ways to improve safety. That’s why Transportblog’s advocated for safe, separated cycleways, and also why it’s taken a positive view on cost-effective investments to improve road safety, like the recent announcement of safety improvements to SH2. But it’s also important to remember that the best way to improve safety is to make it easier to travel in comparatively safe ways. Like walking and public transport.

The second lesson is that there are many activities that can injure us, from rugby to lawn bowls to cooking. Walking while texting is a recent invention, so it may seem newsworthy. But it’s only one of the many hazards that people choose to expose themselves to. If you’re not living in a padded room, you’re probably risking your life in some way or another.

As humans, we’re very prone to focus on risks from new activities while ignoring the effects of things that are already common. Status quo bias is a very real thing – and it doesn’t just apply to transport reporting. It’s the reason why people can, say, oppose new three-storey apartment buildings while being perfectly comfortable with the three-storey houses next door to them.

What risks do you think we should pay more (or less) attention to?

Sunday reading 1 May 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. As a reminder, the K Road Open Streets event is happening today from noon through 7pm. It sounds like a great opportunity for some premeditated city fun.

Auckland Harbour Bridge

‘Showing heavy traffic on the Auckland Harbour Bridge two weeks after opening in May 1959’ (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A3703)

Here’s Patrick Sisson’s long read take on the state of transportation investment in American cities. Spoiler: the system inherently favors roadway projects over mass transit. “The United States spends 55 percent of available transportation funding expanding one percent of the system, and 45 percent maintaining the other 99 percent.” – “Fixing the American Commute“, (Curbed)

Nearly every city has tried to build its way out of traffic congestion, but the approach hasn’t yet worked. Even Houston’s new mayor, Sylvester Turner, who calls for more light rail and mass transit spending, called out the Katy extension in a speech where he said these kind of building solutions are “exacerbating our congestion problems.” According to Olivieri, this build-first mentality is built into our system for funding transportation.

“State transportation departments that do much of the highway building across the country see themselves as highway builders,” says Olivieri. “They’re removed from city transit organizations. They believe there are economic benefits to building roads. They’re not bad people. They’re just living in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and ignore a host of negative externalities such as pollution and congestion. Politics lag behind policy in this case.”

Stephen Moss, “End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile“, The Guardian. Here’s another good one on transportation and cities focusing on European cities.

What is evident is that the cities of tomorrow are likely, in effect, to revert to the cities of yesterday: denser, more neighbourhood-based, with everything you need for work and leisure in one district. There will be less separation of functions, less commuting, less travel generally.

“To me, this last 50 or 60 years feels like an anomaly,” says Hill. “If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a non-driver. I think we will look back on this time and say, ‘Wasn’t it odd that we drove ourselves around?’ In the 1920s and 30s, you’d have gone to the butcher on your high street, and a grocery boy (it would have been a boy then) would have delivered the goods to your home on a bike – and they’d have been there by the time you got back.”

In Hill’s view, that age and those services will return. Neighbourhoods and self-sufficient communities will make a comeback in a new era that will be dominated not by the car, but by the smartphone and the network. The commuter is dead. Long live the hipster.

Surely one more lane will finally solve our congestion problem, right? (Slightly better GIFF. Feel free to copy) pic.twitter.com/uDJwqVT3WI

Ben Schiller, “How Copenhagen Became A Cycling Paradise By Considering The Full Cost Of Cars“, FastCoExist.

When the city decides on a cycling project, it compares the cost to that of a road for cars, and it includes not only the upfront amount, but also things like the cost of road accidents to society, the impact of car pollution on health, and the cost of carbon emitted to the atmosphere. After including these factors, it comes to a rather startling calculation. One kilometer driven by car costs society about 17 cents (15 euro cents), whereas society gains 18 cents (16 euro cents) for each kilometer cycled, the paper finds. That’s because of factors like the health benefits of cycling and the avoided ill-effects of cars.

This story reminded me of the win/win outcome of the Franklin Road cycleway project redesign. It describes how kerb protected lanes can be less costly to build and maintain than conventional roadway space. Michael Andersen, “Surprise: Protecting Bike Lanes Can Cut The Cost of Brand-New Roads“, People for Bikes.

Curb-protected bike lanes, his firm realized, can reduce the huge cost of managing rainwater that falls on pavement and then flows into streams and rivers. That runoff is a major source of water pollution, which is why the federal Clean Water Act requires local governments to minimize it. But in rainy parts of the country, preventing excess runoff from pavement that cars are driving on has also become a major cost factor in road construction…

But their discovery is similar to the one Portland made on Cully Boulevard. When it rebuilt that street in 2011, the protected bike lane along each side reduced costs, because it didn’t require as much excavation as a wider road bed would have. Unlike with a conventional bike lane, there was no need to layer the pavement deep enough to carry a truck.

Last Sunday Peter linked to this excellent post from Bike Portland which argued that before zoning west coast cities would simply build more to accommodate booming population growth. Here’s a related take from Granola Shotgun in San Francisco,”Jiffy Lube Metropolis“. The photos from these blog posts of dense, mid-rise housing reminded me of this tweet (above) showing the Mayfair apartments in Parnell with a few admirers.

Victorian era builders didn’t construct gas stations. At one time these streets were lined with grand homes and businesses that were incrementally torn down and replaced with new auto-oriented establishments. People often forget that San Francisco went in to serious decline for a few decades after World War II and followed the same general trajectory as many other industrial port cities like Cleveland and Detroit. There was a time in the economic and cultural history of the city when traditional buildings were out of fashion and economic liabilities. It made sense to clear away under performing buildings to make way for more productive and profitable structures.

San Francisco’s economy recovered sooner and stronger than most other inner cities. Today real estate in once undervalued neighborhoods is astonishingly expensive. The culture has changed and so has market demand. As a result many aging gas stations, auto repair shops, and parking lots are being converted back to residential buildings – many incorporating retail shops on the ground floor.

And here’s the context for these new buildings. What we’re witnessing isn’t a modern aberration of multi story buildings being imposed on the traditional city. It’s actually a return to the historic pattern after an odd twentieth century hiatus. The car oriented land use pattern was the real anomaly.

Please post additional links in the comments section.