Sunday reading 26 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Lets start off with a critical look at driverless cars. Peter Calthorpe and Jerry Walters, “Autonomous Vehicles: Hype and Potential“, ULI.

The reality is that some forms of AV could actually make things worse. The convenience of AVs could result in more miles traveled—up to 35 percent more for personal AVs and an amazing 90 percent more for single-passenger AV taxis, according to Urban Mobility: System Upgrade, a 2014 study by the International Transit Forum (ITF) and the Corporate Partnership Board (CPB). This increase is the result of riders acquiring a greater tolerance for long commutes, and vehicles running “deadhead” trips to look for new riders or cheap parking and running errands. The only thing worse than a single-occupant vehicle is a zero-occupant vehicle (ZOV)…

In contrast, application of autonomous rapid transit (ART) would use the technology in small express buses and minivans traveling in dedicated lanes or auto-free zones. This would provide low-cost, 24/7 service without squandering miles in ZOVs or suffering the inefficiencies of mixed flow—combining cars, buses, trucks, and bikes in the same lanes. If ART became dominant, it could reduce VMT by 37 percent while eliminating congestion and 95 percent of public parking, according to Shared Mobility; Innovation for Livable Cities, a 2016 ITF/CPB study. In the end, all three types of AV will exist, but in what sequence, in which environments, and in what proportions?

Cities don’t have to passively accept transport technology changes. For example, in Auckland we have experienced a big change in how taxis serve customers, but our street management remains largely unchanged. I think we need more proactive kerbside management techniques like the use of pick-up and drop-off zones.

Vancouver is not waiting around to see how driverless cars will change the city. Instead they are actively investigating how technology changes can help to deliver its Transportation 2040 Plan goals. “Vancouver Prepares For a Driverless Future That Includes Extra Space for Walking, Cycling, and Transit“, Modacity.

Central to that Transportation 2040 plan – passed unanimously by Council in October 2012 – is a key policy direction that explicitly prohibits a net increase in motor vehicle capacity on City of Vancouver streets. Once driverless dreams become a reality, this creates an exciting opportunity for building complete streets that include wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and bus rapid transit lines.

“Take a major, six-lane arterial – we have a few of them in Vancouver – which would typically carry 30,000 vehicles per day. That’s 5,000 cars per day per lane,” Bracewell explains. The ability for cars to connect, communicate, and therefore travel much closer to one another changes that dynamic altogether. “When driverless cars arrive, each lane is suddenly capable of moving 10,000 cars per day, and we can immediately go down to four narrower travel lanes while car capacity remains the same. We can then use that extra space for walking, cycling, and transit.”

Another area where Vancouver is leading its North American counterparts is in cycleway planning and development. Vancouver has adopted an All Ages and Abilities (AAA) approach to cycleway design that will attract a wide range of users. Designing for this audience means that facilities must minimise traffic stress. Here is a nice guide (PDF) that illustrates the principles behind their AAA philosophy.

Speaking of cycling, Mapzen has been building some nice looking tools to create cycle maps- “Spring into cycling with Mapzen’s new bike map“.

Here’s an interesting Radio NZ interview with Grant Morris discussing past immigration booms –   “The history of immigration booms in NZ“, Radio New Zealand

We are currently experiencing an immigration boom. The last two years have seen annual net migration of over 70,000 – 1.5 percent increase in population.

But New Zealand is an immigrant nation. So how does the current immigration boom compare to previous ones?

Coinciding with our recent population boom, New Zealand GDP numbers have been pretty good. Bernard Hickey digs a little deeper to reveal that our productivity is still dismal compared to other OECD countries and Australia. Bernard Hickey,”It’s the productivity, stupid“, Newroom

But it disguised an awful productivity performance that is now turning into a five year trend where growth was produced by simply throwing more resources and people into the economy. That 3.1 percent GDP growth only came after our population grew 2.1 percent.

The GDP figures showed per capita GDP actually fell 0.2 percent in the December quarter and was up just 0.9 percent for the full 2016 year. That is the second consecutive year of less than 1 percent growth in GDP per capita. It’s not a healthy performance, but it’s also not a true measure of productivity because New Zealanders could have worked fewer hours to get that extra output — thus improving productivity. If only.

That’s all for this week. Please add your links/articles in the comments below.

Sunday reading 19 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading.

This week, I want to highlight a really important article by Joe Cortright (City Observatory): “Going faster doesn’t make you happier; you just drive farther“:

We’ve long assumed that one of the goals of our transportation system is to enable us to move as quickly as possible when we travel, so it stands to reason that the people who live in “faster” cities ought to be happier with their transportation systems…

The following chart shows happiness with the regional transportation system on the vertical axis, and average speed on the horizontal axis.  Higher values on the vertical (happiness) scale indicate greater satisfaction; larger values on the horizontal (speed) scale indicate faster than average travel speeds.  The data show a weak negative relationship that falls short of conventional significancel tests (p = .16).  While there isn’t a strong relationship between speed and happiness, if anything it leans towards being a negative one; those who live in “faster” cities are not happier with their transportation system than those who live in slower ones.

Cortright goes on to investigate this relationship in more detail. It turns out that the main effect of faster speeds is that people travel longer distances. And travelling longer distance is associated with less happiness:

To tie this all together, we thought we’d look at one more relationship:  How does distance traveled affect happiness with an area’s transportation system? This final chart shows the happiness (on the vertical axis) and vehicle miles traveled (on the horizontal axis). Here there is a strong negative relationship: the further residents drive on a daily basis, the less happy they are with their metro area’s transportation system.

We think this chart has an important implication for thinking about cities and transportation. Instead of focusing on speed, which seems to have little if any relationship to how people view the quality of their transportation system, we ought to be looking for ways to influence land use patterns so that people to have to travel as far. If we could figure out ways to enable shorter trips and less travel, we’d have happier citizens.

Traffic engineering consistently advocates trading off place for speed, reasoning that faster traffic will give people more choice and opportunities for happiness. But if that isn’t the case, then the profession is damaging people’s health and happiness for no good purpose other than blind adherence to an incorrect idea. Engage with the evidence, traffic engineers!

Speaking of mythbusting, University of Auckland professor Alistair Woodward has just released some new research on the safety risks of cycling. He explains his findings in a blog post:

We found the risk of injury while riding a bike is actually very small. Taking injuries that lead to claims to ACC, we found these occur roughly 9 times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips; the chance of receiving an injury sufficiently severe to cause a visit to the hospital was similar. If you rode a bike three times a week, most weeks, the chances are you would suffer one moderately severe injury every 70 years.

We estimate the risk of injury on a bike is similar to the risk associated with DIY activities in the home, more than a 100 times less than the risk of snow sports, and 500 times safer than playing rugby (see Figure 1, which uses a log scale).

Figure 1. Risk of injury sufficient to cause a visit to a hospital emergency department, or lead to a claim to ACC, per million typical exposures (such as a half hour bike ride, a game of rugby, half a day on the snow)

There are many assumptions and approximations in these results, so they should not be treated as precise measures. But the take home message, we suggest, is that riding a bike on New Zealand roads is not particularly dangerous (1 moderate injury in 70 years!), and indeed the risk is considerably less than that associated with some other common activities. (Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to ride to sports, but the bike trip is roughly 500 times safer than a game of rugby, for instance).

Woodward concludes with a suggestion:

The most powerful way to bring bikes back from the margin is to provide safe spaces for cyclists of all abilities to get to where they want to ride. Separated cycle ways are part of the fix, but not enough. There need to be changes on the road as well, such as slower vehicle speeds, better intersections, and wider shoulders to include cyclists. More people riding, and public spaces that celebrate two wheeled choices, will do two things – make cycling (even) safer, and reduce the fear of the bike.

On a related note, a new piece of research from the US looks at the reasons why people on bikes break some traffic rules. According to the press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Study reveals a ‘Wild West’ with rules of the biking road“. It highlights the importance of poorly thought-out road rules and hostile driver behaviour in conditioning some cycling behaviours:

Just as many drivers accept violations of speed limit laws as the norm in certain situations, bicyclists often accept violations of some traffic regulations as the norm under certain circumstances.

However, based upon a recent survey of more than 14,000 Americans, consensus is lacking on how bicyclists should safely maneuver through mixed traffic. Depending upon their bicycling experience, motorists can have very conflicting views on appropriate biking behavior amid automobiles.

The uncertainty about how someone should ride a bike in traffic can be dangerous if a motorist responds aggressively to a cyclist’s actions. Aggressive driving contributes to accidents and near misses. That, in turn, scares many people away from biking.

“We know it’s the Wild West out there,” said Daniel P. Piatkowski, assistant professor in the community and regional planning program of the College of Architecture at Nebraska. “There are all these conflicting ideas of how a bike rider should behave — some legal, some illegal. We found that, regardless of how people are riding, most are doing so to avoid being injured or killed by a driver.”

One interesting finding from the study was that drivers often have hostile (and potentially life-destroying) responses to legal behaviours such as ‘taking the lane’:

“When a perfectly legal bicycling maneuver like taking the middle of the lane elicits an aggressive response from a significant number of drivers, that is a big problem,” Marshall said. “This sort of disconnect helps explain a lot of the behaviors we’re seeing out there.”

And now for something completely different. Footrot Flats cartoonist Murray Ball died last week. He’d been ill and out of the public eye for years, but it was still sad to hear as I’d grown up with his characters. By all accounts, he was a thoroughly decent bloke who stood up for a kinder, more inclusive society. So in memory of Murray Ball here’s Jane Thompsen’s 1984 profile of him at work at his place in Gisborne:

by Jane Thompsen, originally appeared in School Journal, 1984, Part 4, number 2.

AT NINE O’CLOCK every morning, from Monday to Thursday, Murray Ball goes to a quiet place to think of ideas for his cartoons.

He might go to the top of a hill near his house, or under a tree in the garden. It has to be somewhere he won’t be disturbed—because he needs to sit down, make himself comfortable, and go into a kind of a dream. It is almost like going through a door, shutting it behind him and finding himself in another world—the topsy-turvy world of Footrot Flats.

Many characters whom he knows very well live in that world. There’s Wal, a farmer, thoughtless and dour and mean, who also has some good qualities—he would never do anything dishonest. There’s his dog, who adores him and would do anything for him, although he tends to be rather greedy and jealous. There’s Cooch, a much more sensitive farmer, who even tries to protect pests such as blackberry and possums. There’s fussy Aunt Dolly, who tries to tell Wal what to do. There’s a big fierce cat called Horse who terrifies many of the other characters. There are a cow, a goat, geese, a ram called Cecil, a corgi dog called Prince Charles, a girl called Pongo, a boy called Rangi, and many other characters.

They are all very real to Murray Ball, and so are the places where they live. He knows just what Wal’s back door looks like, and his living room, and the kennel where the dog lives, and so on.

But there’s something wrong with that world when Murray Ball goes into it every morning. He can’t just lean over the fence and enjoy watching it, because it’s all standing still—nothing’s happening. And nothing will happen until he thinks something up.

I read once that Murray Ball decided to wrap Footrot Flats up in the early 1990s, after the Rogernomics revolution had dismantled the economic underpinnings of his fictitious world. Things have certainly continued changing, both in positive and negative ways, since then.

In the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on some new research into the causes of rising income inequality: “‘Superstar firms’ may have shrunk workers’ share of income“. It’s an interesting piece of the economic puzzle:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most, according to research that analyzed confidential financial data from hundreds of companies.

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.


Research has shown that in pretty much every industry, most of the income differential among workers is not a result of a chasm between the highest and lowest paychecks within one company, but rather differences among companies.

Larger companies tend to pay better than smaller ones, Mr. Autor and the other researchers say, and in the technology sector especially, salaries can be impressive. Workers there are sharing in the larger pie — there are just fewer of them to do so.

The researchers examined six industries that account for 80 percent of private employment in the United States. In each one, they discovered “a remarkably consistent upward trend in concentration.” In manufacturing, for instance, the top four companies controlled 43 percent of sales in 2012, up from 38 percent in 1982. In finance, the figure grew to 35 percent, from 24 percent, and in retail trade it went to 30 percent, from 15 percent.

The faster concentration grew, the bigger the drop in labor’s share.

“What’s different about new superstar firms is they don’t have the cadre of middle-class jobs for nonelite workers,” said Mr. Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.

For what it’s worth, economists are generally not in favour of highly concentrated markets, at least when they result from some sort of barrier to entry or monopoly power. But I think there is some degree of confusion about why firm concentration is happening, and whether it has some broader negative effects.

To conclude, something on the Auckland housing market. To help launch the news venture Newsroom, Bernard Hickey wrote a great article on the current state of the Auckland housing market… and the unanticipated barriers to fixing it. It’s well worth reading in full:

So surely someone has tried to fix the RMA and remove those council funding restraints?

The combination of Auckland’s councils into the Super City was supposed to make it easier to grow, as was the passing of the one plan for them all — the Unitary Plan – which extended the city’s boundaries for new suburbs and changed the rules to make it easier to build apartments, terrace houses and townhouses closer to the CBD.

The Government has also tweaked the RMA a few times and introduced a stop-gap measure called the Special Housing Areas (SHA) Act. It pushed through some developments in a faster timeframe than the RMA, but it expired late last year. The Government hopes the Unitary Plan and a new National Policy Statement on Urban Development will nudge councils to fund and approve the infrastructure needed to support new houses.

The Government has also offered $1 billion to help Councils fund the pipes and roads needed to bring forward housing development. It hasn’t approved any projects yet and Prime Minister Bill English has already pushed back at some of the proposals, saying they aren’t really bringing forward new projects, but are only funding projects already in the plan. Approvals are many months away, or even longer. There is still a debate to be had about the structure of the vehicles that build and own this infrastructure, so this funding is no quick fix.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has tried to get another tool to deal with a $4 billion shortfall in transport funding in coming years, but his idea of a regional fuel tax was rejected outright this month by Finance Minister Steven Joyce. Revenues from GPS-style congestion charging are still up to a decade away.

The short answer is the funding restraints for infrastructure development are not solved yet, with the biggest problem being the Council has few incentives to invest heavily for growth when the Government in Wellington gets most of the benefits and does not have to pay for local roads, some of the railways and none of the pipes.

But that’s it right?

No. Unfortunately, the RMA and infrastructure funding issues are not the only blockages to new houses being built. Risk of losses in any downturn, access to bank loans and land banking are also issues.

Most developers buying the land for a development, paying for the plans and contributing to the infrastructure need to borrow the money from a bank. To do that, they need to be confident they can sell the development to rental property investors, first home buyers and others, and then prove that to the bank.

The developer has to be confident they will not be left holding the parcel of land or a half-built apartment if the market suddenly cools and buyers can’t or won’t stump up the balance between their deposits and the sale price. They also have to be confident that construction or legal costs won’t blow out over the time it takes to get resource and building consents and funding.

Meanwhile, the banks have to be confident they’re not going to be left holding an unpaid loan to a developer if the market suddenly grinds to a halt and land prices start falling. The best example of what a property development loan looks like to a lender when the music stops is what happened from 2007 to 2012 when finance companies collapsed because they were stuck with empty holes in the ground all over Auckland and Queenstown. Finance company investors and a couple of overseas banks – Bank of Scotland in particular – had to book big losses. […]

The toughest of all the knots is the way developers and new home buyers feel about market risk when house prices have trebled in 15 years and house price to income multiples are well over 10 – three times what most international experts consider an affordable level. No one wants to buy if they think a market is peaking. It creates a Catch 22: very high prices both encourage and discourage development, depending on how close the cycle is to peaking.


That’s it for the week – see you next time!

Sunday reading 12 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disregarding over 80% of all trips does not seem a sensible way forward. Yet, the transport systems and practices, still, are obsessed with the commute, even after various pushes for change have been made by the research community over many years.

Just looking at commuting data misses to consider a large number of trips, especially those made by women. Women, as is clear, are not a minority group. Yet women and their needs, even as a major group in society (women make more trips than men), are often disregarded. Looking at the commuting data alone discriminates against women in general, women’s activities and discounts women’s place in society.

We historically have looked at the commute for its coincidence with the rush hour, to deal with peak travel demand. In the UK at least, a real and honest look at space as a limited precious resource (and how to carve it up fairly and effectively) has not taken place. The commute focus has not brought about a better transport system with alternatives to the private car largely still excluded. I suggest that taking the commute approach brings the problem that over 80% of all trips have been neglected in transport assessments. These trips require attention for other reasons than the peak demand. Reasons are for example safety needs when travelling with kids and transporting shopping. In cycle cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam these trips are still carried out by women, by they are cycled. Removing those trips from the transport agenda marginalises the importance of women’s everyday activities and careful and sensible provision for these activities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday reading 5 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing many blog posts lately – I’ve been a bit too busy with work! Normal service should resume shortly.

One of the most provocative and interesting articles I read this week was on the astoundingly high costs of infrastructure in the US, and what could be done differently. Stephen Smith writes about it in Bloomberg View:

The French rail operator SNCF told the California High-Speed Rail Authority that it could cut $30 billion off the project’s $68 billion estimated price tag. San Francisco can barely build underground light rail for the price that Tokyo pays for high-capacity subways. Los Angeles’s planned subway to the sea will be a bit cheaper, but is still very expensive considering the area’s lack of density.

The budgets for other types of urban public-works projects can be just as shocking. Who can forget Boston’s Big Dig, the $24 billion highway boondoggle? But mass-transit networks stand to lose most from out-of-control infrastructure costs.

A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

Ironically, attempting to save costs when selecting contractors is in fact a contributor to high costs:

In Madrid, on the other hand, cost was given only a 30 percent weight when picking designers and builders, according to Melis. Speed was weighted at 20 percent. Melis praised quick execution as necessary for an efficient, affordable project. (Compare this with multigenerational projects, such as California’s high-speed rail and New York’s Second Avenue subway.) The remaining 50 percent was determined by the technical merits of proposals and the staff’s subjective considerations.

Littlefield also argues that judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “In the private sector, if you rob your customer, you will suffer a hit to your reputation and possible losses in the courts,” he said in an interview. “Not so if you rob an agency like the MTA. Then it’s all rights and no responsibilities.”

The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest-price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to “writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past.” The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.

While New Zealand doesn’t appear to be especially deficient when it comes to public infrastructure costs, this is certainly an area we should watch carefully.

Cost inflation is certainly an issue in housing, an area where there are many diagnoses and many proposed solutions (but, as far as I can tell, no silver bullet). The other week, the Prime Minister caused a stir by asserting that environmental protection is to blame for high housing costs. Stephen Davis (City Beautiful) adds some useful nuance to the discussion, pointing out that, in cities, concerns about amenity and character, not environmental protection, are the main factor:

What’s the matter with blaming “the environment”, then?

The RMA is a cause of unaffordable housing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s our environmental protection that’s to blame. Most of the restrictions that that cause the worst impacts are not justified on environmental grounds, but rather as “amenity” considerations.

Indeed, one of the most critical blocks on increased density is concerns about traffic congestion, an “amenity” issue. But the solution that most RMA-based plans prescribe is to provide more parking and more roads. This is a recipe for for increased driving, and thus increased environmental degradation (Duany et al, 2000; Shoup, 2005).

Another is “character”. In many areas, it’s prohibited to build new buildings that are not similar in scale or form or expense to existing ones. This has nothing to do with the environment, and is designed around the aesthetic and cultural desires of existing residents to prevent newcomers, particularly those of a different social or economic class. This isn’t even desirable in the first place, but it’s still part of the RMA.

Why does any of that matter?

Because New Zealand is hugely concerned with our unaffordable housing, and we’re looking for something to fix it. Blaming “the RMA” is technically accurate. But thinking that “the RMA” means “the environment” is way, way off. But there is also a huge constituency who actually want the environmental parts gone as well, or instead, aside from housing considerations. Farmers, aquaculture, heavy industry, freight transport – there are many spheres of life regulated by the RMA that have nothing to do with the housing crisis.

Getting too keep on the idea that “the environment” is to blame will mean trashing aspects of the RMA that aren’t to blame, and do protect environmental values. While it’s preventing new housing, it’s also the RMA that controls how dirty our rivers get, what’s in the air we breathe, and how we protect our special places.

On the topic of urban planning, in CityLab Richard Florida reviews some new research into anti-development activism: “Anatomy of a NIMBY“:

A recent white paper by Paavo Monkkonen sheds interesting new light on the connection between NIMBYism and housing affordability. It takes a deep dive into, on the one hand, neighborhood opposition and land use restrictions, as well as housing supply and housing costs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and California’s other expensive housing markets…

The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.

The paper goes on to investigate why some people oppose development, and what can be done about it:

To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition…

Monkkonen goes on to parse four different strains of NIMBYism and their underlying motivations:

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

Speaking of the loss of neighbourhood character from development, here’s how Upper Queen St has changed over the last 170 years:

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Circling back to environmental protection, The Spinoff’s Don Rowe puts forward a case for taxing tourists at the border to pay for better environmental protection:

New Zealand has the highest rate of threatened species in the world. Birds, dolphins, bats – you name a family, we’ve got a species on the precipice of extinction. Our rivers are the stuff of nuclear meltdowns and Beijing gutters. OK that last point is hyperbole, but while we’re arguing semantics, the government legitimately considers ‘wadeable and boatable’ water a reasonable goal.

And yet DoC’s funding continues to be slashed – or massaged, depending on who you ask.

It’s time for a border fee. Wait, not a fee, that’s too pejorative. And definitely don’t say tax. Jesus Christ, do not say tax. What about a contribution? A border contribution. I say $20.

Twenty bucks, a Queen Liz, less than a 12 box of Waikato, less even than your average worker on minimum wage pays in tax every single day.

There were three and a half million visitors to New Zealand last year. Charge them all the price of a coffee and lunch, and we’ve raised more than $60,000,000 for the conservation and preservation of our country.

When we need to pay for a new road, we smack a toll on it. Nothing excessive, but, cumulatively, huge sums of money can be raised.

AUT tourism lecturer Simon Milne told Radio NZ in May last year that research shows visitors are much more willing and happy to pay a border tax if you can show the money is going back into the resources they use, the environment they enjoy, and the culture that surrounds it. A brief scan of Givealittle would similarly indicate people are generally willing to spend cash to help out – how’s enjoying one of the most incredible natural landscapes on earth as a pledge reward? Top tier stuff, those Alps.

I support this idea.

To close, two pieces on public transport. In The Age, Adam Carey argues that “Melbourne’s relationship with our trams is completely irrational”.

Melbourne’s tram patronage surged 12 per cent to carry more than 200 million people last year, a figure that puts them in the same ballpark as the city’s trains (which carried 233 million), and closer to becoming the backbone of the city’s public transport system.

Though trams have always been a big deal in Melbourne, this is arguably more true than ever now. The city would grind to a halt without them. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Melbourne still doesn’t truly respect its trams…

Consider this irrationality. About 200,000 passengers a day catch a tram along St Kilda Road. That’s about as many people as drive over the West Gate Bridge each day.

If there’s an accident on the bridge and the freeway is blocked for a few hours, politicians and commentators line up to argue that we urgently need to spend a lazy $18 billion on another east-west freeway. And yet the city’s busiest tram corridor doesn’t even have enough separation with general traffic to stop a delivery van driver shutting the whole thing down by doing an ill-timed U-turn in front of a moving tram.

This lack of separation means tram-on-car bingles happen two or three times a day on average. This causes serious tram delays and in too many cases, serious injuries for passengers on board.

Melbourne’s tram network is unique. It’s the world’s biggest, and almost 80 per cent of it is along roads it shares with other traffic This makes it more like a slow streetcar system than an efficient light rail network. But the sheer weight of numbers demands Melbourne’s trams be given light rail-style priority.

On a related note, in Urban Land, Peter Calthorpe and Jerry Walters speculate on several possible futures from autonomous vehicles, including this quite utopian one:

Autonomous rapid transit proposes the application of AV technology in shared vehicles in dedicated transit lanes similar those used in bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Such an approach would achieve the efficiency of AV flow without eliminating private vehicles from city streets. It would minimize the operational costs of BRT by eliminating the need for drivers, reduce VMT significantly by tailoring capacity by time and place to match demand, and cut travel time for many passengers by providing direct express service to destinations.

Most important, ART could form a feasible, smooth transition from the existing conditions and ownership patterns to complete shared-AV environments in which all private autos are eliminated.

Shared Mobility, ITF/CPB’s update of their seminal 2014 AV study, found that once an urban district eliminates private autos, variations on shared AV minibuses and vans will virtually eliminate congestion and parking and can reduce VMT by 37 percent. This study used a range of shared six-, eight-, and 16-person minibuses and vans coordinated with the existing mass transit resources and walkability of Lisbon. The study assumes that the minibuses and vans could be AVs or driver controlled, and that the outcome would be the same in terms of VMT. The reductions in VMT found in this study are essentially a direct result of the assumed higher vehicle occupancy.

As a general principle, I’d argue that autonomous vehicles are likely to be deployed most rapidly on public transport networks, as the technical challenges involved in getting vehicles to run on fixed routes with some degree of exclusion of non-autonomous vehicles are likely to be smaller.

That’s it for now – enjoy the rest of the day!

Sunday reading 26 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. Here is a piece by Joe Cortright describing the importance of storytelling in framing “Visions of a Future City“, Strong Towns.


In his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association two weeks ago, Nobelist Robert Shiller presented his thoughts on what he called “narrative economics.” Human beings are not the cold rational calculators they’re made out to be in traditional economic modeling. Instead, Shiller argued, human’s are hard-wired to visualize and understand the world through story-telling: We really ought to be called “Homo Narans.” That’s why getting the story right matters so much. If we have a story that centers on technology, vehicles and frenetic movement, we can remake our world in that image. If, instead, we have a story that embraces experience, and place and freedom, we’ll get a very different world.

Auckland was greatly influenced by the modernist concept of the city. This vision was so captivating it has become the default setting – the status quo.

In the recent history of the American city, General Motors’ famous Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair captured the imagination of Americans, and served as an iconic model of a new, auto-centric lifestyle that promised an end to traffic congestion and urban crowding. There’s no doubt that this image of a bright, mobile future appealed to a nation just recovering from the Great Depression. That image ultimately got reflected in policy–and pavement–with the enactment of the federal interstate highway program in the 1950s.

So what are today’s latest urban narratives? Cortright reports back from the Consumer Electronics Show and finds that not much has changed.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show–which is now the place for automobile companies to roll out their newest ideas, technologies and models–Ford presented its remake of the Futurama, which it called, “The City of Tomorrow”.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that this is a road and vehicle-centered view of urban space. Cars dominate. Sure, there’s a sop thrown to biking, pedestrians and transit, but notice this: All of the pedestrians, and cyclists are shown traveling in parallel to the cars. Walking and biking are just alternative ways of doing the same thing one would do, if one only had a car.

But their are emerging counterpoints including this one by Samsung.

This other vision comes from Samsung, the Korea-based technology company.  They’ve been running a long form (60 second) television commercial called “A Perfect Day.” It follows the exploits of a half dozen kids–armed just with bikes, skateboards, and of course Samsung Galaxy smart phones–as they roam around New York City.  There’s a lot going on here. Watch the video and then let’s see if we can’t unpack the different—and in many ways radical—narrative it’s proposing.

Ultimately transport decisions are not based on cold rational calculations. Again, this is where the narrative come in. Konstantinos Dimopoulos, “Transport Isn’t Technology, It’s Politics“, How We Get to Next.

Deciding whether public transportation is required, or if environmentally friendlier tech should to be developed, ultimately comes down to politics and the people. It is us who will choose — democratically or through protest — whether we want to travel freely or stop at militarized borders, whether we want better public transportation or are fine with automobiles, traffic, and all the pollution that comes with them.

Technology alone will not provide us with miracle solutions. If we really want to achieve sustainable, efficient, fair, safe, and environmentally sensible ways of moving both things and ourselves around, we have to start thinking politically. We even have to question prevalent tendencies such as the privatization of mass transport, consider whether moving to hybrid private cars is wise, or discuss the moral dilemmas that arise in the design of self-driving vehicles.

Speaking of transport technology, here are some recent news stories about Uber.

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber“, Susan J. Fowler.

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

Laura Bliss, “Hailing an Uber Just Got Way More Political“, City Lab.

One could argue that hailing an Uber has always been something of a political act—by taking a ride, passengers “vote” for Uber’s policies and business model with their dollars, even if they’re not particularly aware of the implications. #DeleteUber may raise a certain level of public consciousness in regards to that fact. But as the landscape of urban mobility redraws along partisan lines, fresh arrivals to the anti-Uber camp should know this: The best way to support immigrants and low-income workers who could be exploited by a private transportation service isn’t by downloading a competitor’s app. Now, and always, the most radical statement is riding the bus. 

Dozens of cities are considering removing legacy motorway infrastructure that divide and degrade urban environments. Here is an update of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s top 10 list of “Freeways without futures“, CNU.ORG.

Communities across North America are facing a watershed moment in the history of our transportation infrastructure. With cities, citizens, and transportation officials all looking for alternatives to costly highway repair and expansion, these ten campaigns offer a roadmap to better health, equity, opportunity, and connectivity in every neighborhood, while reversing decades of decline and disinvestment.

Above all, these ten highways are opportunities for progress. Each one presents the chance to remove a blight from the physical, economic, and environmental health of urban communities. Their intended benefits have not justified the tragic consequences, but converting these highways into human-scaled streets offers a chance to begin repairing the damage. From Buffalo to San Francisco, these are the freeways without futures.

The Auckland Bike Challenge concludes this week. Here’s a good take on what it’s like cycle commuting in Auckland. Elisa, “Go by Bike Day 2017 – my experience!“, Elisa’s creation.

Broadway is a nightmare. This is where citybound buses converge and they could come three at a time. Wide footpaths are required outside the shops for the high volume of pedestrians. Then there are on-road parallel parking. There are a couple of pinch points where the footpath extends out onto the road, meaning the buses have to merge into the general traffic lane. Transport engineers, do let me know how we can make Broadway safer and more efficient!

Wow what a difference cycle lanes make! Suddenly I stopped being so nervous, my grasp on the brakes loosened and I started to enjoy myself. There is a psychological shift in perception when your needs are being met. When I use cycle lanes I think: my safety and comfort are being prioritised; there are people thinking and designing for vulnerable road users like myself. It reassures me and encourages me.

We’ve been covering the causes of the global housing crisis over last couple of years. This piece stands out as being particularly influential in shaping the pro-market housing supply response to the crisis.  John Mangin, “The New Exclusionary Zoning“, in Stanford Law & Policy Review.

For the first time in American history, it makes sense to talk about whole regions of the country “gentrifying”—whole metropolitan areas whose high housing costs have rendered them inhospitable to low-income families, who, along with solidly middle class families, also feeling the crunch, have been paying higher housing costs or migrating to low-housing cost (and low-wage) areas like Texas, Arizona, or North Carolina. Underlying both of these phenomena—high housing costs in the suburbs and high housing costs in the cities—is a relatively straightforward problem of supply and demand. A city’s ability to remain affordable depends most crucially on its ability to expand housing supply in the face of increased demand. Among the people who care most about high housing costs there is a lack of understanding of the main causes and the policy approaches that can address them. The central message of this Article is that the housing advocacy community—from the shoe-leather organizer to the academic theoretician—needs to abandon its reflexively anti-development sentiments and embrace an agenda that accepts and advocates for increased housing development of all types as a way to blunt rising housing costs in the country’s most expensive markets.

No argument here -> “For a growing chorus of urbanists, NIMBYism and land use restrictions are the culprit behind everything from growing income inequality to shrinking affordable housing, productivity, and innovation.” But Richard Florida in “Anatomy of a NIMBY“, CityLab, argues that it’s vital to understand neighbourhood opposition.

The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.

To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition.

What follows is a BINGO card of issues.

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

Lets return to one of the key arguments of Mangin who notes that cities are not longer the “growth machines” they once were.

Many of the country’s most desirable and most economically vibrant cities are no longer “Growth Machines.” They may be getting richer, and in that sense “growing,” but an emphasis on building housing and adding population is a thing of the past. Consequently, housing prices in these post-Growth Machine cities have risen much faster than the national average. The effect has been the same as in the exclusionary suburbs: The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay. The phenomenon deserves a similar name—the New Exclusionary Zoning.

Sluggish economic growth and productivity is something that is bewildering economists. Does the urban housing crisis, private indebtedness, and lack of access to cities contribute to the global malaise? I don’t know. Here is David Brook review of Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. This century is broken”, The New York Times.

The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo.

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.

That’s all for this week. Please add your links in the comments below.

Sunday reading 19 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday Reading. This week I want to start off with three articles about inclusion. The Project for Public Spaces argues that equity and inclusion lie at “the heart of placemaking”:

Placemaking, a collaborative process by which we (residents, architects, activists, community leaders and planners alike) shape our public realm together, is fundamentally about inclusion and shared community ownership.

Rather than watching passively as private developers or public agencies determine the use and value of a neighborhood’s public spaces, placemaking enables citizens to create and maintain their own places, while highlighting unique strengths and addressing specific challenges. While some developments are built around and profit from the idea of exclusivity, placemaking is about increasing “quality of life” and economic opportunity for everyone, not just a privileged few. We believe that cities and regions can facilitate growth while also maintaining their authentic character and preserving the people, as well as the socio-cultural values, that are already in place.

Nonetheless, the physical, social and cultural landscapes of many local places remains caught between danger, disinvestment and a lack of opportunity, on the one hand, and the Pyrrhic victory of “neighborhood improvement” through gentrification, on the other. Within communities, accessibility remains a tremendous obstacle for many. Women and children in communities across the globe still struggle to find safe places in which to play, socialize, and participate. Many citizens in lower-income neighborhoods still lack access to green space in close proximity to their homes.

There’s a balance to be struck with this kind of argument. Often, communities have the knowledge and motivation to improve their places, but lack the resources to fix the big problems. So the question is how to bring together outside resources – which could come from government or private investment – and local knowledge and passion.

But what do you do when communities change? How about welcoming the newcomers and learning to live alongside them? That can happen even in unexpected places, as Robert Samuels writes in the Washington Post: “How to become an American: Syrian refugees find a home in Trump country“:

A few blocks away from Aljasem, John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner, lives in a complex of low-rise apartments in a neighborhood where American flags flapped on porches. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dutcher said he was “one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque. I never acted on it, but I played it in my head.”

“I hated Muslims,” he said.

For years, Dutcher’s neighbors were meth addicts and rowdy alcoholics. Slobs. In June, a Syrian family who spoke no English moved in. Another family moved in after that, then another. Now there are six.

Soon enough, Dutcher said, empty bottles in the hallway were replaced with children’s bicycles. The loud arguments of a ­drug-addicted couple were replaced by the sounds of children’s laughter.

“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher said. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.”

Through interpreters, he learned about the families’ stories of loss and fleeing war. It softened his stance on Islam and led him to question some of what Trump was saying. Around refugees, he never felt safer.

“I used to be afraid when the meth addicts were here,” he said. “Now I don’t even look to see who’s knocking on my door. I know it will be someone with a plate of food or a kid asking me to fix his bike.”

In related news, several recent studies have found that people who live in more diverse areas are more tolerant, even if they don’t interact much with their neighbours of different race or religion. My takeaway is that if you want a hateful city, first build a segregated city.

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Inclusion also matters in political participation. In the NZ Herald, Lizzie Marvelly comments on the makeup of Parliament: “Younger MPs add buzz to the Beehive“:

In an election year, it’s almost guaranteed that young people will be dragged through the mud for one reason or another.

We’ll be smeared as the unworthy recipients of a “bribe” that won the election (years after the fact); the useless, lazy cohort that couldn’t be bothered voting; the self-centred, me-me-me generation that could easily own houses if we simply stopped eating smashed avocados and watching Sky TV; or the idealistic, radical children who should listen to people who know better.

There are a number of similarly unflattering accusations that we could fling at our elders, but we’re generally either silenced in absentia or too polite to offer a harsh dose of reality.

I’ve had it up to my eyeballs.

For example, recently, political commentator Bryce Edwards (44) stepped up to the plate to give his opinion on youth representation in politics on TVNZ’s Breakfast.

“I just don’t know if we want a Parliament just full of 20 and 30-year-olds,” he said, ignoring the fact that Parliament is far from full of 20 and 30-year-olds.

“It’s a good thing to have diversity,” Edwards remarked, without a trace of irony. “It would be a mistake if we just have the young people coming in.”

Immediately after the 2014 election, according to pollster David Farrar, there were 23 MPs in their 20s and 30s, with only two 20-somethings in the entire Parliament.

A significant number of those 23 have now entered their 40s, and only one (Todd Barclay) is still in his 20s.

How having 23 MPs under 40 in a Parliament of 121 – a Parliament with a median age of 50 – would make it “full” of young people, I’ll never know.

A bit of further data from Green MP Julie Anne Genter:

Anyway, enough of that. The best article I’ve read in the last few weeks was on the causes and consequences of high home prices. In the New York Times, Conor Dougherty explains “Why falling home prices could be a good thing“:

We would still see homes of different sizes and styles — condos in some places, single-family homes in others — depending on the market in each city. A New York home would be smaller than one in, say, Houston.

And prices would still vary from place to place, based on demand and geography. It’s easier to build in Phoenix (plenty of flat land), and harder in San Francisco (lots of hills and nearby water). But while building in the San Francisco metro area is more expensive than in other places, it’s not that expensive. By the paper’s calculations, a home in the San Francisco area should cost around $281,000.

The actual price for a standard home in the area is more like $800,000 (using 2013 data). The paper argues that most of that difference is caused by regulatory hurdles like design and environmental reviews that can add years to a project’s timeline and suppress the overall housing supply. The result is overpayment on a grand scale for the few homes that do get built.

High home prices in prosperous parts of the US appear to contribute to lower rates of within-country migration, and hence worse outcomes for people exposed to asymmetric shocks such as trade liberalisation. In Forbes, Adam Millsap writes that “people are giving up rather than moving to opportunity – and that’s not good“:

The papers by Autor et al. paint a pretty bleak picture of life in areas more exposed to Chinese imports. More economic hardship—fewer jobs and lower wages—seems to be harming people’s health, especially that of less educated people. In light of all this, it’s reasonable to think that people must be leaving these areas for greener pastures.

But they’re not. Despite the economic decline, Autor et al. find little evidence that people are moving out. Other researchers have also found that people rarely move to areas with more economic opportunity after a negative economic shock. In one recent study, economists Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy and Kyle Hood examine data from 1990 to 2012 and find that local job creation, not out-migration, is the main driver of local economic recovery in the U.S., but that even partial recovery can take up to 20 years, or approximately an entire generation.

So what has happened to the people living in these areas? If employment opportunities and wages declined but hardly anyone left, many of them must be relying on private charity and/or government assistance for subsistence, and Autor et al. do find evidence of this. Exposure to Chinese imports had a negative effect on labor force participation and a positive effect on the use of government assistance such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), federal income assistance and food stamps.

We should expect more of this sort of thing as the global economy evolves (or disintegrates). Falling trade barriers and increased ease of long-distance travel and communication have put some industries (and some cities) underwater while invigorating others. But distance isn’t dead: paradoxically, the ability to communicate vast reams of data at the touch of a button has strengthened the importance of physical proximity in knowledge-intensive service sectors.

In a classic paper, Michael Storper and Anthony Venables investigate the reasons why this is the case: “Buzz: face-to-face contact and the urban economy“. From the abstract:

This paper argues that existing models of urban concentrations are incomplete unless grounded in the most fundamental aspect of proximity: face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has four main features: it is an efficient communication technology; it can help solve incentive problems; it can facilitate socialization and learning; and it provides psychological motivation. We discuss each of these features in turn, and develop formal economic models of two of them. Face-to-face is particularly important in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing, and not easily codified, key features of many creative activities.

I’ll close with a troubling article from Canterbury. Charlie Mitchell reports (in Stuff) about dairy farmers’ illegal encroachment into public river margins. This is a disgrace and should be addressed sternly by the regulators:

The fringes of some Canterbury rivers have been absorbed into expanding farms, resulting in the loss of thousands of hectares of public land to private development.

The issue – known as “agricultural encroachment” – has happened incrementally over several decades, and is adding to the many pressures facing the region’s internationally significant braided rivers and the rare ecosystems they host.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) research found that nearly 12,000 hectares of Canterbury’s river margins had been taken over by intensive farming between 1990 and 2012.

Waiau river encroachment (LINZ, via Stuff)

About 60 per cent of that land was developed through private land sales, but nearly one-quarter was public reserve land effectively privatised and developed.

Authorities in charge of public land all acknowledged that land had been taken and developed without permission.

None of them were able to quantify how much, and in some cases, the encroacher was allowed to keep the land after meeting certain conditions.

That’s it for this Sunday – see you next time!

Sunday reading 5 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. By the time you read this, I will be waking up in a tent on the Coromandel, hopefully having had a spectacular walk up to the Pinnacles.

This week, I want to start off with an article that a talented friend of mine, Oliver Chan, wrote on The Spinoff: “Restoring the house that Jack built: how the lessons of the past can help solve the housing crisis“:

The story begins with Jack. During the 1930s generations born during the late-Victorian era, who had started life in urban slums and rural huts for itinerant labourers, embarked a bold rethink of housing. Leading the charge was one of their own, John A. Lee, commonly known during his heyday as ‘Jack’. Born into a Dunedin slum in 1891, the teenage Lee was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to Burnham Industrial School for young offenders. After he successfully escaped, Lee spent years on the run working as a swagman in farms, butcheries and factories – experiences that informed his political outlook: practical, bold and with a lifelong penchant for rebellion. After a year in Mt Eden Prison for bootlegging and theft, and service in World War I in which he lost his left arm, Lee was elected a Labour MP in 1922. Political rival Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage refused to appoint the charismatic, popular radical to cabinet when Labour was elected to government in 1935, instead giving him the minor post of Parliamentary Undersecretary with responsibility for housing. Naturally, the Victorian survivor turned political gadfly had a plan.

Highlighting housing conditions during the Great Depression, Lee used his position to end the hardship endured by slum-dwellers, swagmen and the newly destitute alike. He proposed a large-scale state housing plan beyond what the cautious Savage deemed necessary, but the PM was ultimately convinced. With Government as the procurer of materials and land and Fletcher Construction as the monopoly builder, over 30,000 state houses were built between 1936 and 1949 housing the urban poor, middle class and eventually returning servicemen. Though the rebellious Lee eventually fell foul of Savage and was ultimately expelled from Labour in 1940, he deserves credit for affordable, accessible housing as a human right, with the state serving as a guarantor. The house was built.

New Zealand politicians used to be characters, eh?

Talking to my forebears about housing reminds me that they didn’t necessarily have it easy – and that BYO (build your own) was a common solution. Perhaps we should do more of this?

Down on the South Island, two Canterbury University students are building their own tiny house to escape damp flats. Cherie Sivignon reports in Stuff:

Fed up with living in a cold, damp, mouldy flat, university students Christoph Riedel and Anna Naygrow have spent their summer holiday building themselves a tiny house.

Tucked away on flat land behind the main building at Menzshed Waimea in Richmond, near Nelson, the couple’s first home is almost ready to be towed 400km to Christchurch for the start of the academic year at the University of Canterbury.

“We’ll live in it this year,” Riedel said.

Anna Naygrow and Christoph Riedel started building their tiny house in mid-November.

“It’s a warm place. We’re going to get a fire put in, it’s very well-insulated, everything’s double-glazed, we’ve got lots of light so the idea is just to have a warm place to live and study.”


Speaking of Kiwis doing clever DIY, University of Auckland statistician Thomas Lumley (StatsChat) has set up a Twitter bot entitled @tūreiti (te reo for ‘late’) to report the real-time performance of Auckland’s buses at 15-minute intervals. It’s pretty clever:

Lumley explains the Twitter bot here.

And now for some cleverness from the other side of the world. In Politico Magazine, Colin Woodard explains “How Mormon principles and grassroots ideals saved Utah“. It’s a rare happy-ending story in 20th-century land use and transport planning:

Imagine getting 90 municipalities in 10 counties in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions to get on board for a 20-year land use planning effort intended to conserve water use, promote clean air and avoid the destruction of open spaces by slashing housing lot sizes, encouraging higher-density development and imposing new taxes to build a light rail network and commuter rail system from scratch. Imagine that it worked so well the effort expanded statewide.

You might assume it must have started in a liberal bastion like Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont, where people are proud to be tree huggers and planning isn’t a dirty word. But the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history is happening in ultra-conservative Utah, a state with powerful ranching, mining and energy interests and a reflexive distrust of top-down government solutions. And it was led not by state officials, but by a bipartisan alliance of business, industrial, religious, political and civic leaders, working from plans crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of Utah citizens and executed on a completely voluntary basis by their local governments.

“Our purpose is not to lead somewhere, our purpose is to let the public see their choices and let them lead,” Robert Grow, president, CEO and a co-founder of Envision Utah, the public-private partnership that put the planning questions on Utahns’ agenda 20 years ago and helped keep them there ever since. “They are going to chose the future, so we’re empowering them by letting them see what their choices are and helping them implement those choices.”

The results have been impressive: Per capita water use has been cut by more than a quarter and air emissions slashed by nearly half, while 300 square miles of rural and open land have been spared from development. Automobile use has actually dropped slightly in terms of vehicle miles travelled, even as the region’s population has increased by a third, thanks to what is one of the largest transit transit rail systems per capita in the country. Taxpayers have saved billions in avoided infrastructure spending and maintenance and Envision Utah has been feted by city planners across the country as a model for how to do things right.

I highly recommend reading the whole article. It’s interesting to me (in part) because coordination problems between neighbouring councils tend to defeat good planning in many places. It’s too easy to succumb to “beggar thy neighbour” policies or scupper worthy problems due to failure to agree on funding or timing. Salt Lake City’s example shows the value in having a regional public-private forum for discussion.

Also from the US, a cautionary tale of how to get it badly wrong with policies that seemed good at the time. Ana Campoy (Quartz) explains how “the origin of your TV set is a simple lesson in the dangers of ignoring globalization“:

The color-tube TV industry was the US’s to lose, but the US never really owned the flat-screen TV industry. The inventions and discoveries that enabled it originally came from the US. But in those early days, the ultimate application for them, flat-screen TVs, was deemed to be too far off to be worth investing in by US companies, according to Stefanie Lenway, who co-authored a 2003 book examining the demise of the US’s TV industry.

The Japanese, however, had less grandiose aspirations. They started using the new flat screen technology in wristwatches and calculators. By doing so, they got a jumpstart on a technology that eventually transformed the whole TV industry. The change wasn’t solely in the way the final product looked and worked, but also in how it was conceived.

As Lenway and her co-authors argue, the flat-screen display industry thrived on the cooperation of researchers and companies from all over the world. Suppliers on one side of the planet learned from sellers in another, competitors from different countries formed alliances with each other, and bought and sold one another’s products.

Most of the learning took place in Japan, because companies there had been experimenting with the technology for longer. But it wasn’t closed off to companies from other countries. US-based Corning, for example, set up in Japan and participated in the knowledge exchange. Today, it remains a key producer of glass, among the highest-margin TV components.

That’s not the model that other US companies adopted. Together with the government, they tried to reproduce what was going on in Japan on US soil. But they couldn’t catch up because they didn’t have the same expertise. In pursuing a “Make-America-Great-Again”-like strategy, they lost sight of the “humility and openness” of the globally interdependent nature of the business that, according to Lenway and her co-authors’ analysis, were required to succeed.

One by one, American manufacturers pulled out of the business, while more sophisticated manufacturing plants kept popping up in Asia.


Are other incumbent industries likely to be buffeted by global forces like trade and technology? Most likely. David Roberts (Vox) lays out the case that change is coming faster than expected to the oil industry as a result of electric cars:

So EV forecasts range from modest to revolutionary. What should we make of this?

It seems to me that we don’t come to these questions with a clean slate. The very kind of models this study critiques are the ones that have consistently underestimated the growth of solar and wind. They use baseline scenarios that assume no further cost and policy changes when, in reality, cost and policy changes are both rapid and inevitable.

Multiple drivers (pardon the pun) are lining up behind EVs — rapidly falling battery costs, rising range, synergy with other new energy technologies, widespread international policy support, growing consumer interest, and (my pet dark horse) wireless EV charging.

Experience shows that markets at the center of this kind of interest and activity do not continue to grow on a steady, linear path. They take off, lurching into exponential growth. That shift is impossible to predict in advance with any precision, but at this point, we ought to know that it’s coming.

By now, we need not be neutral toward this range of projections. History has taught us that for new, distributed, consumer-focused technologies, unexpected explosive growth is … to be expected. Big oil companies and investors would do well to prepare.

I hope he’s right about this. The last thing we need at this point in time is to burn more coal and oil.

Lastly, I’d just like to say a word about immigration policy – ie Trump’s decision to ban people who were born in seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. This is a terrible policy. It is hurting a whole bunch of ordinary people, many of whom are now cut off from their families or in limbo trying to leave dangerous situations like the Syrian civil war, without helping anything except possibly ISIS recruitment drives. I believe it’s important for New Zealand to stand up against this kind of nonsense, both by speaking out against it and by doing our bit to accommodate refugees from the wars that America has started in the Middle East.

This isn’t just the right thing to do: It’s likely to benefit New Zealand. The NZ Initiative’s Eric Crampton makes the case:

America has long been a magnet for the world’s most talented people. And America’s most advanced industries rely heavily on foreigners allowed to work in the United States on H1-B visas. America’s universities are the best in the world because they attract top scholars from everywhere. Foreigners on H1-B visas or with permanent residence teach foreign students on F visas, making education a massively successful American export industry.

New Zealand should announce a new visa category for people who were legally entitled to live and work in America until the Executive Order broke things. If the New Zealand government has wanted to attract more highly skilled migrants, there would be few better bets than trying to help those who have been hurt by American policy.

Canada has been talking about similar moves. Canadian universities are rushing to accommodate students bumped from American universities. Canadian tech companies have asked their government to implement an immediate targeted visa providing temporary residence to those displaced by the Executive Order; Canada’s prime minister has been active on Twitter, signalling openness.

New Zealand is running a trial of a new way of supporting refugees, modelled on Canada’s sponsorship regime. Canada supplements the government’s refugee quota with a private sponsorship arrangement, under which more refugees are allowed in whenever Canadians are prepared to sponsor them. The bulk of the financial cost of supporting refugees then shifts from the government to those Canadians who are willing to help. And those sponsors also do an excellent job of helping refugees integrate into Canadian communities.

New Zealand could expand its sponsored refugee trial to accommodate those refugees with whom America has broken faith. This need not be at any particularly large cost to the Government. All the government needs to do is let caring New Zealanders help.

In the NZ Herald, Lincoln Tan takes a look at the impact of migration in New Zealand, based partly on the NZ Initiative’s new report on the topic:

The report said there was little evidence to support the perception that migrants stole jobs from New Zealanders born in the country.

“That is because the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed. Migrants also contribute to job growth by increasing demand for local goods and services,” it said.

[…] “On balance, the available evidence suggests that New Zealand benefits from migration, or at the very least the country is not made worse off,” the report concluded.

To conclude, I’d recommend reading a piece that Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy wrote in The Spinoff in response to Trump’s visa ban: “We will not let racism and division poison our New Zealand“. It’s short and to the point. Frankly, I’ve been impressed with Devoy – when appointed, she admitted that she didn’t have a huge background in the area, but she’s been willing to get out and stand up for New Zealand values of tolerance and inclusion.

Elderly New Zealanders, our own Holocaust survivors told us they never thought they’d witness a return to the politics of hatred, division and racism in their lifetime: but it’s happening. As we gathered in front of the Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery out at Makara, they urged us to stand up for the rights of refugees, Muslims and minorities targeted by the powerful.

And they know what they’re talking about. Because people like Wellington’s Inge Woolf and Vera Egermayer remember the swastikas, the Nazis and the marches. They also remember that in the midst of that storm of hate: millions of everyday people stayed silent and looked the other way. They remember that instead of standing up for others – neighbours and fellow citizens chose to be bystanders.

Right now so many of us are feeling helpless but the one thing we can do is let our own decision makers know that we will not allow hatred and intolerance to spread and become normalised here at home: Not in our New Zealand.

Onya x2. Enjoy Waitangi Weekend.

Sunday reading 29 January 2017

Welcome to Sunday reading- a bunch of links and media that I found interesting over the week. Please add your links in the comments section below.

There were a lot of stories last year about how big European cities are actively de-caring their centres. The trend continues with news from Paris, Madrid and Lyon (image above).

Kim Willsher, “Paris mayor unveils plan ​to restrict traffic and pedestrianise city centre“, The Guardian.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has unveiled plans to restrict traffic in the French capital and pedestrianise the city centre in an attempt to halve the number of private cars on the roads.

The move comes as arguments continue over the closure of roads along the Seine last summer and other traffic reduction measures introduced after dangerous spikes in pollution led to a cloud of smog over the city.

Hidalgo told the Journal du Dimanche she wanted to “divide by around half the number of polluting private cars” in Paris as part of her ongoing campaign to “reconquer the public space” for pedestrians, cyclists and other non-polluting transport, including electric cars and scooters.

Feargus O’Sullivan, “Madrid Will Ban Cars From Its Main Street“, CityLab.

The plan shows impressive, even daunting ambition. An antidote to images of European cities as quaint and crooked, Gran Vía is a blaringly busy, six-lane road smashed through the city’s heart in 1910. Appearance-wise, it’s arguably closer to New York’s Broadway than it is to the Champs Elysées, not so much an elegant refined boulevard as a loud, brash masonry canyon flanked by boxy, elaborate, neon-clad buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s currently an essential route bisecting the city center, and rerouting car traffic away from it is likely to prove an intricate task—and one that risks being highly controversial.

Luckily, Carmena already has some strong arguments on her side—not least the success of a temporary nine-day closure of the street and its surrounding area last month during a long string of national holidays. A classic objection to pedestrianizing major shopping and entertainment areas such as Gran Vía is that the move makes it harder for car-driving customers to reach businesses and thus slashes the number of shoppers.

In her interview with Cadena Ser, Carmena said major businesses along the road had told her that their year-on-year turnover increased 15 percent in the time when the road was closed. Moreover, Spain already has a successful model for this kind of car-free makeover: the city of Bilbao’s identically named Gran Vía, where sidewalks have been extended into the roadway (as you can see in this Google Street View image) to leave just two lanes for buses, taxis, and deliveries.

When car capacity is removed there is always fear of major traffic problems –  carmageddon. This never materialise since motorists are sentient beings that can make alternative travel choices. Here Nicholas Kevlahan provides a solid summary of the phenomenon of disappearing traffic. “Remove it and They Will Disappear“, Raise the Hammer.

The Monde article quotes Phil Goodwin, honorary professor of transport policy at University College London, saying that traffic problems are only temporary and the results are far less severe than predicted. In fact, after studying 70 cities in 11 countries, he found that traffic is actually reduced by 11 percent on average when motor vehicle lanes are removed. In Paris, the removal of the left bank expressways increased travel times by only 2-3 minutes, much less than the seven minutes originally predicted.

What happens to the traffic? Goodwin says that drivers change their behaviour.

Some people change their route. Some switch to another mode, like transit, cycling and walking. Some reduce the number or length of trips. Some try tele-commuting or carpooling. Over the long term, some people even move to be closer to their work.

In the end, it is perhaps not surprising since this is just the flip side of the “build it and they will come” phenomenon when a freeway built to ease congestion quickly fills up.

If you make it easier and quicker to drive, more people drive. If it is not so easy to drive, fewer people will drive or they will drive less. What is surprising is that the net result of reducing lanes is most often less traffic, not gridlock.

Here’s another Main Street survey showing how customers get to the shops. This one is from Parkdale a dense city fringe neighbourhood in Toronto. It made me think of Ponsonby Road.  Lloyd Alter, “Taking back the streets: Most businesses on urban streets make their money from pedestrians and cyclists“, Tree Hugger.

-72% of the visitors to the Study Area usually arrive by active transportation (by bicycle or walking). Only 4% report that driving is their usual mode of transportation.

Yet the merchants grossly overestimated the number of their customers who arrived by car. 42% of merchants estimated that more than 25% of their customers usually arrived by car. One in four say that over half of their customers do.

And when you look at who spent the money, the locals arriving on foot or bike are by far the biggest spenders. So for me the question is, are the merchants willfully blind to what is going on around them, and about who their customers are? Or is it just that the cyclists are finding them anyway, so why not just keep things the way they are? In fact, that is what over half the merchants preferred.

Here’s a fascinating video on affordable housing in Tokyo.


Sunday reading 22 January 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, I’d like to start off with a great bit of investigative journalism that Stuff produced at the end of last year: “Private business, public failure: Inside our prisons“. While it’s not directly related to transport or urban policy, it has a lot to say about how our society runs. Here’s an excerpt from the first of six parts:

Since this is the story of an incarceration nation, it’s important to look back at where that started.

Auckland University sociologist Dr Tracey McIntosh points out that if we go right back to European settlement, there’s a long history of locking up Maori. “There was a desire to incarcerate significant numbers of our people,” she says.

It’s a salient point, given the fact that more than half of the prison population today, is Maori.

The recent rise in prison growth begins in the mid-1970s. The muster bounced around about 2800, a rate of about 90 per 100,000 people, before New Zealand embarked on a remarkable period of emptying out cells.

By 1985, the muster was down to 2200, a rate of 67 per 100,000. Consider that if this was our rate now, we’d be on a par with Scandinavian countries praised for their low imprisonment.

Instead, between the mid-80s and the mid-2000s, the number of prison sentences handed down jumped 47 per cent. By 2007 the prison muster was about 8300.

A focus on community sentences saw numbers flatten somewhat for the next few years.

But now, prisons are a growth industry again. And the rate of imprisonment is more than 200 per 100,000.

That means more prisons cells, more prison staff – 1800 more beds at a cost of $1 billion are on the way, and there’s a recruitment drive for 600 extra Corrections officers, extra staff for a department which is already the 15th biggest employer in the country.

Criminologist Dr Liam Martin, from Victoria University, says the expansion is linked directly to decisions being made on our behalf, as a country.

“The rhetoric for the past 30 or 40 years is, ‘we have to build another prison to meet expected rises in the number of people we incarcerate’. But it is the Government’s choices that mean the prison population is rising.

“Prison populations rise when you make choices that make them rise – restricting bail access which we’ve done recently, restricting parole, lengthening prisons sentences.”

Read the whole series. It’s a bit disturbing. But is there a better way?

Our new Prime Minister, Bill English, thinks so. As Simon Wilson reports in The Spinoff, he’s been talking about ‘social investment’ as an alternative model: using powerful new datasets to identify opportunities to intervene early and improve people’s life outcomes. This idea has caused some controversy – also in The Spinoff, Keith Ng writes about his “fear” of “Bill English’s datatopia”:

The alternative isn’t to ignore evidence, but to consider the evidence in the context of its limitations, to weigh up conflicting information, and to look beyond what’s immediately apparent. That’s the part of the job that English’s “12 year old” can’t do. That is why we have university systems to train people in public policy. That is why what they do is complex and special.You can open up numbers to people, and a 12 year old can figure out which number is bigger, and whether the trend is going up or down. But suggesting that’s how decisions get made – or even that a modern society could make real decisions like this – is just plain wrong. It’s a cargo cult to believe that because policymakers have “data”, therefore if you have “data” you can/are meaningfully engaging with policy.

Don’t get me wrong, open data is really important. I make a living off open data. Some of my best friends are open data. And data have many uses beyond policy. But in policy, data is just an important link in a very long chain; in democracy 2.0 (or whatever version we’re on now), open data is also just a link in a very long chain.

The links on either side of that chain are academics and politicians, journalists and spin-doctors, all vying to interpret that data. Opening data makes it more available to these people, and potentially makes them more effective, but it doesn’t empower anyone who wasn’t empowered before.

If we’re to democratise policymaking, we need to democratise expertise and time. And we aren’t doing that. In fact, as we advance into the brave new world of data, data expertise becomes ever more inaccessible.


Decisionmakers have rarely been technical experts, and it’s always been assumed that they don’t need to be – that’s what briefings are for. But this isn’t just a subject matter, this is the tool that we use to understand the world. A fuzzy understanding of data is a fuzzy understanding of everything that the data describes, everything that data touches.

I tend to agree with Keith about the opportunities and pitfalls. I spend a reasonable amount of time delving around in big datasets and trying to understand what they’re telling me. This is not a straightforward process. Even once I’ve got a bunch of data and some statistical tools to analyse it with, choosing how to analyse it requires a lot of thought and, usually, a degree of practical experience with the thing I’m studying.

Forecasting models, like transport models, are much the same. Small decisions about how to design and calibrate them can have large impacts on the results, which means that model users must be well-informed about the underlying workings in order to use the results intelligently.

In other words, data analysis isn’t something that you can simply outsource to a computer. It doesn’t work that way. We will continue to rely upon human judgment in policymaking – with luck, supplemented and occasionally challenged by new data and better analysis.

Or perhaps I’m just protecting my own patch?

Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith hits upon some similar themes in a recent column: “Sometimes it’s hard to explain market failures“:

Lots of economic policy debates end up going like this: First, one economist or policy wonk will propose a government intervention — a minimum wage increase, a tax on sugar or subsidies for solar electricity. Another person, usually someone of a more free-market bent, will demand to know exactly which market failure justifies the intervention. A market failure, in the parlance of economics, means a situation in which free markets produce wasteful outcomes. If the advocate can’t produce a theory justifying the policy, the critic claims triumph.

…I propose we minimize our use of the show-me-the-market-failure argument. Sometimes there are policies that people have tried in the past, which seem to work even though it’s hard to tell exactly why. Public education is a great example. It seems to make economies more prosperous, and most economists support it, but no one can point to just why the free market doesn’t educate enough people on its own. Road-building is another — there are essentially no countries with mostly private high-quality road systems, and economists struggle to explain why.

We know these government interventions work; figuring out why they work is a task for the future. Like the people who chewed tree bark to relieve pain long before the discovery of aspirin, or the engineers who used lithium-ion batteries without quite understanding the physics, sometimes it pays to go with evidence even before you have a theory in hand.

Speaking of data, a coworker recently pointed me towards an interesting website set up by MIT to understand how humans would prefer driverless cars to behave in situations where somebody must be harmed: Moral Machine. It should appeal to everyone who likes trolley problems:

Try it out! Remember, someday your responses may be used to design a machine that will kill or injure your family members!

Speaking of designing things that kill, Charles Marohn (StrongTowns) has an interesting perspective on federal infrastructure spending in the US: “Five ways federal infrastructure spending makes cities poorer“. While New Zealand has a substantially different funding model, some of his points are worth considering here as well. I particularly liked:

2. Federal infrastructure spending goes primarily to the least financially productive parts of the American development pattern.

In the early days of constructing the interstate system, the return on our national infrastructure investments was very high. We were connecting places remote from each other and transforming the entire economy in the process. Those returns have steadily diminished, for obvious reasons: a community’s fifth interchange, sixth mile of frontage road or seventh river crossing cannot possibly be as transformative as the first, despite costing magnitudes more.

Joe Minicozzi and the team at Urban 3 have done the most thorough job today of documenting the productive parts of the American development pattern (wealth per acre). In hundreds of cities across the country that have been modeled, the trend is clear: the newer the development the higher the cost and the lower the financial productivity.

Control of both houses of Congress is now aligned with suburban and exurban development interests, areas with the highest cost and lowest returning infrastructure investments. Small towns and urban areas — particularly when they are making better use of existing infrastructure — present far higher returning alternatives.

David Roberts at Vox has a complementary take on the same issue: We’re building places that make us socially isolated and unhappy: “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult“:

Why do we form such strong friendships in high school and college and form comparatively fewer as the years go on?

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was that the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows. […]

Say you’re a family with children and you don’t regularly attend church (as is increasingly common). There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.

One is living in a real place, a walkable area with lots of shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely and effectively without a car. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. […] Walkable communities are very difficult to find in the US, and because there is such paucity of supply relative to demand, they are expensive, accessible only to the high-income. Places where they exist tend to have absurd zoning restrictions that prevent growing them. (Our own Matt Yglesias has much to say on these issues.)

The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing. There are many kinds of co-housing, too many to get into in this post, but my favorite, a common model in Germany, is baugruppen, or building groups… [which] are basically like condos, but with much more robust shared spaces and collective ownership rather than developer ownership. (If you want to know much more about them, passivhaus designer Mike Eliason has a seven-part series I highly recommend. He summarizes it as “private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects.”)

But, you know, it’s not all bad. It doesn’t take much to start (or improve) a community. Consider this 2014 story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Buddha seems to bring tranquility to Oakland neighbourhood“:

Dan Stevenson is neither a Buddhist nor a follower of any organized religion.

The 11th Avenue resident in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood was simply feeling hopeful in 2009 when he went to an Ace hardware store, purchased a 2-foot-high stone Buddha and installed it on a median strip in a residential area at 11th Avenue and 19th Street.

He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.

What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.

And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.

I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none.

There’s probably a lot more that we can do to make our places more neighbourly. In the New York Times, Christophere Mele writes about a new trend: repair cafes:

If you’ve ever despaired of getting your vacuum cleaner fixed or thought that your broken lamp was a lost cause, there’s hope. A worldwide movement is trying to reform our throwaway approach to possessions.

The movement’s foundation is the Repair Cafe, a local meeting place that brings together people with broken items and repair coaches, or volunteers, with the expertise to fix them. […]

The cafes invite people to bring their “beloved but broken” possessions to the gatherings, which are hosted in church basements, libraries, town halls and senior centers. The cafes make no guarantees that items will be fixed.

“All we can guarantee is that you will have an interesting time,” Mr. Wackman said.

How are you going to make your neighbourhood – or your whole city – better this year?

Sunday reading 8 January 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This is my first edition of the year. As I’ve been tramping over the holidays, it’s mainly composed of things I started reading back in December.

The best thing I’ve read in January – after striking a few days of wet weather on the track – is Tramping New Zealand’s guide to what to wear tramping:

The theory is to have one set of clothes that is going to get wet during the day, either through precipitation, or perspiration, and one set that stays dry, to keep you cosy at night.

That’s it.

You travel in and out with your dry set, change to the wet for walking, change back out when you have your accommodation sorted to stay warm, clad yourself in the wet in the morning, you were saying how tough you were, etc.

There’s no great benefit in taking two wet, or two dry sets. Just take what you are going to use.

And, maybe, a spare pair of dry socks.

Oh, don’t forget underwear, that doesn’t weigh excessively.

Sounds about right to me. My current theory is that “breathable”, as applied to wet weather gear, is code for “you will get wet before long”. Consequently, you’re probably better off in a wool bush shirt and a plastic poncho than a $500 Gore-Tex jacket.

While we’re on the subject of the great outdoors, Toby Manhire’s interview with Laura Wallace from GNS Science (in The Spinoff) provided an illuminating perspective on a geological detective story:

The Kaikoura earthquake wreaked destruction, tragedy and misery, but it also generated much scientific fascination. Including: what was going on in the Hikurangi Subduction Zone and those mysterious slow-slip events? […]

These slow slip events, they’ve been called “silent earthquakes”?

They’re similar to earthquakes, as slow slip events accommodate more rapid than normal movement on the plate boundary fault, in this case the Hikurangi subduction zone. Unlike earthquakes (which involve slip along faults in a matter of seconds), slow slip events can take weeks or months to occur. Because slow slip events are slow and don’t occur suddenly enough to release seismic energy, we have to use GPS to detect them. Basically, we look for mm-level changes in the position of the land above the slow slip events. East coast North Island slow slip events typically show up as 2-3 cm eastward shifts of the land on the GPS.

The slow slip event we are observing off the North Island’s east coast right now appears to have been triggered by the 7.8 earthquake, probably due to very small stress changes induced by the passing seismic waves from the M7.8 earthquake. We’ve seen slow slip events triggered by earthquakes in New Zealand before. The Te Araroa Earthquake that happened in early September triggered a slow slip event off East Cape. There was also an earthquake near Gisborne in late 2007, that triggered a slow slip event near Gisborne. In this case the M7.8 earthquake appears to have triggered slow slip over a larger part of the Hikurangi plate boundary, going from about southern Hawkes Bay up to East Cape. We haven’t seen this happen simultaneously over such a large area before, and this makes it a really interesting event.

Slow-slip events at tectonic plate boundaries were first discovered in North America’s Pacific Northwest – and it’s a good thing they’re happening there, as pressure would otherwise build up faster for a massively destructive earthquake. As it is, Seattle is in the midst of another tectonic shift in housing development. Mike Rosenberg reports on the building boom in the Seattle Times:

The apartment boom in Seattle has already reached historic heights — more units opened in each of the past four years than ever before.

Now, the real boom is about to begin.

Seattle is set to see almost 10,000 new market-rate apartments open in 2017, nearly twice as many as in any other year in the city’s history.

With the construction surge set to continue through the rest of the decade, rent increases that have hit Seattle about as hard as any city in the country are forecast to be cut in half during 2017.

[…] Other cities have already seen this scenario play out. New York had a record number of apartments open in 2015, and rents there finally stopped climbing in 2016. Rents have also slowed recently in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and Houston following a rise in apartment construction in those cities.

“It is a pattern that’s registering in a lot of other places,” said Greg Willett, chief economist for the rental firm RealPage.

On the opposite end, Sacramento, Calif., stopped building apartments in the last decade and has now seen its normally tepid rental market surge to become one of the hottest in the nation. Ditto for Oakland.

The Seattle metropolitan area is a bit over twice as large as Auckland, so if we were trying to match their performance it would mean building around 5000 apartments next year.

A lot of the economic commentary from the US in November and December focused on what (if anything) can be done about the regional disparities that are (in part) driving dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo. More specifically, how do you revive the fortunes of declining manufacturing areas in the Rust Belt?

Paul Krugman, who earned his Nobel for work on trade policy and regional economics, is quite skeptical that any of the likely policies are likely to succeed:

So maybe the answer is regional policies, to promote employment in declining regions? There is certainly a case in principle for doing this, since the costs of uprooting workers and families are larger than economists like to imagine. I would say, however, that the track record of regional support policies in other countries, which spend far more on such things than we are likely to, is pretty poor. For example, massive aid to the former East Germany hasn’t prevented a large decline in population, much bigger than the population decline in Appalachia over the same period.

And I have to admit to a strong suspicion that proposals for regional policies that aim to induce service industries to relocate to the Rust Belt would not be well received, would in fact be attacked as elitist. People want those manufacturing jobs back, not something different. And it’s snooty and disrespectful to say that this can’t be done, even though it’s the truth.

In a subsequent post on his New York Times blog, Krugman also argued that an attempt to use protectionism to break down global value chains and bring manufacturing back to the US would be dangerously disruptive.

On the other hand, Bloomberg View columnist (and economist) Noah Smith takes a more optimistic view. He outlines “four ways to help the Midwest“:

No. 1 Infrastructure

Sick economies and shrinking population have left Rust Belt states and cities unable to pay for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many cities look like disaster areas. The federal government should allocate funds to repair and improve the Midwest’s roads, bridges and trains, and to upgrade its broadband. Sen’s pension bailout idea could also be instrumental in helping states buff up their infrastructure. Better transportation makes it easier for people and goods to flow between cities in a region, and for the region to export products to other places. Infrastructure is doubly important in a region like the Midwest, where winter weather can quickly make travel difficult.

No. 2 Universities

Universities are helpful for regional economic growth. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.), but more could be built, and existing universities could be expanded. Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. As things stand, Midwesterners tend to move away as soon as they graduate from college. Creating more industries specifically for these graduates would keep talent in the region.

No. 3 Business Development

Some cities in Colorado have embraced a development policy it calls economic gardening. The program helps provide resources for locals to start their own businesses. It furnishes them with market research and connects them with needed resources. Small businesses provide more employment than large ones, and offer a ticket to the middle class. They also have a chance of growing into large businesses. The Midwest should consider emulating Colorado’s plan, which seems to be getting results.

No. 4 Urbanism

Tech hubs like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are using development restrictions to keep their population densities in check. That gives Midwestern cities an opening to attract refugees from the high-rent metropolises of the two coasts. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland can work on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to the creative class, while allowing housing development to keep rents cheap. College towns like Ann Arbor can reduce their own development restrictions and allow themselves to become industrial hubs. And cities can copy the crime-fighting techniques of cities like New York and Los Angeles that have become much safer during the past few decades.

By the way, we will probably be facing similar questions in New Zealand. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has been quite forthright about the problems caused by regional disparities. In Stuff, he writes about the “plight of regions: hope v futility“:

Our regions are growing further apart. Incomes after adjusting for living costs have risen significantly in Auckland and Wellington.

The commercial and political capitals are pulling away from other regions.

Astonishingly, of the remaining 14 regions, only six have experienced real income gains over the last three decades. That is, eight regions have seen declines in real incomes over a three-decade period.

The regional divergences we see today are not new, nor unique to New Zealand. We see similar patterns in other advanced economies around the world too.

While incomes are growing much faster in Auckland and Wellington, there is a large gap between high and low income earners. In contrast, incomes are more equal in the provinces, but more equally low incomes.

The income divergence across our regions is rooted in deeper economic and demographic changes.

Changes in the economy, towards more services sector jobs, is favouring urban sectors.

Globalisation and technological change are offshoring or mechanising manual work – which is affecting provincial economies harder.

Our thinking in local government and economic policy is based on an expectation of continuing growth. Stagnation and decline are seen negatively.

Yet, that is reality of ageing populations and young people leaving the provinces for economic and other reasons for urban centres.

Eaqub’s analysis of the potential policy solutions is (I think) extremely realistic:

The international evidence from the United Kingdom, United States and France for growth fostering measures is troublingly mixed.

While regional interventions often work for the specific region, it comes at the cost of neighbouring comparable regions.

There is often no net gain for the country as a whole. Worse, once the programmes finish, the benefits also tend to fade in most cases.

Where the growth fostering policies have worked, they had some inherent strength in their location or economic potential, for example natural resources and weather amenable to year round tourism.  

Regional development is a topic that needs much further research and attention. There is no recipe that will work in every occasion.

This is a debate that will definitely be worth following closely in the coming year, especially if any new policies get put to the test. For what it’s worth, I agree with Krugman that trade protectionism and industrial subsidies are likely to be ineffective at best, destructive at worst. Smith’s ideas are likely to be useful at the margin, but I doubt that they will succeed in reversing longstanding trends. Similarly, a one-size-fits-all approach to trying to revitalise regions that have had technological, economic, and social trends turn against them is unlikely to work.

One thing that is worth reading if you’re interested in solutions is a paper by Paul Conway, the Productivity Commission’s head of research, entitled Achieving New Zealand’s Productivity Potential. I had a chance to skim it a few weeks back and am planning on writing a full post on it sometime in January.

To close out the week, two more bits on apartments and housing development. First, Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff interview Mike Davis, the “chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade” (in Boom California). I’ve long been a fan of Davis’s work on cities and the history of Los Angeles. While he’s got a larger, more radical critique of contemporary development, I’m often most struck by his talent for observing small details of urban life. For instance:

The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.

Finally, Charlie Sorrell (FastCoexist) points towards a great bit of data on outcomes following the development of low-income housing:

What happens to nearby property values when low-income housing is built in a neighborhood? They drop, right? Because claiming those non-rich individuals and families bring down housing prices is, apparently, a more palatable argument to make than saying poor people shouldn’t be in the neighborhood. The truth is that low-income housing does basically nothing to the prices of neighboring properties. They keep on rising, just like they did before.

Trulia, the real-estate listings service, dug deep into its data to track home values in areas where low-income housing was built. Author Cheryl Young looked at 3,083 low-income housing projects built from 1996 to 2006 (prior to the price-distorting housing bubble beginning in 2007), in “the nation’s 20 least affordable markets.” With just a few exceptions, the low-income housing had no effect on house prices.

That’s all; enjoy the rest of the weekend!