Welcome back to mid-week reading. With luck, there are only going to be a few more of these until I’m back on a more regular posting schedule.
First piece of the week is from Kim-Mai Cutler, a tech journalist from San Francisco who’s produced some invaluable reporting on their (our) housing crisis. The Bay Area is really where the forces of the age are colliding – a disruptive (and very productive) tech ecosystem butting up against a set of inflexible land use policies.
Thus far, it’s been housing affordability. Poverty rates have been rising and home ownership falling throughout the Bay Area, in spite of rising incomes. Notice those figures for home ownership rates in San Francisco – only 36.6% of dwellings are owner-occupied, and the city’s politics are still in the grips of reflexive NIMBY opposition to development.
In the process, Cutler covers transport and social mobility – the reason why it’s important to build more housing in the places where people want to be. It has been possible to build quite a lot of housing in far-away places like Stockton, but that hasn’t really fixed the problem.
Here’s a more light-hearted comment on the phenomenon:
On a completely different note, Alison Ballance at Radio New Zealand has put together a really interesting piece on how maps are made: “Points, lines, and polygons – the art of making maps“. It goes into the nitty-gritty of putting together topographic maps, talking to the people at Land Information New Zealand who are responsible for the process:
The map makers are witness to several stories unfolding in the country.
The most dramatic is the impact of Christchurch earthquakes. The strong black block that was the city’s CBD has been shattered into a mosaic, while the red zone is a ghostly snake of deserted roads that echo the shape of the Avon River.
Meanwhile, in the countryside humans are changing the landscape as farming evolves with market demands and new practices.
Christchurch city before the earthquakes (left) and five years afterwards (right). Photo: Land Information New Zealand
This is a good point to drop in a reference to my favourite song named after map coordinates: Wire’s “Map Ref 41°N 93°W”. For the curious, the title refers to a field in Iowa.
On a much less cheerful note (worse than housing affordability!), I ran across this interesting map of the progress of the Black Death across Europe in the mid-1300s (via Zach Beauchamp at Vox):
The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the mid-14th century, killing an estimated 60 percent of Europe’s entire population. And it spread scarily quickly just over the course of six years — as this stunning GIF demonstrates:
The plague originated in China in 1334 and then spread west along trading routes through the Middle East. But Europe was particularly vulnerable to a devastating outbreak. According to University of Oslo historian Ole Benedictow, European society at the time had created the conditions for “the golden age of bacteria.” Population density and trade/travel had grown dramatically, but European leaders still had almost no knowledge about how to contain outbreaks.
The forces that allow diseases to evolve and disseminate are stronger than ever. We live in a more connected world. But the last point in the above paragraph – knowledge – is crucial to how we respond to potential pandemics… and also to more mundane causes of death.
I was thinking about this issue after reading a review of Angus Deaton’s 2013 book Great Escape, which discusses the transformative increase in living standards over the last several centuries. Deaton, who won last year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, makes a really valuable point: living standards have risen faster than incomes in many countries, as knowledge has been freely shared around the world:
Knowledge — which is to say education — is humanity’s most important engine of improvement. Deaton concludes, based on the data, that rising education is the most powerful cause of the recent longevity boom in most poor countries, even more powerful than high incomes. A typical resident of India is only as rich as a typical Briton in 1860, for example, but has a life expectancy more typical of a European in the mid-20th century. The spread of knowledge, about public health, medicine and diet, explains the difference.
Unfortunately, knowledge and facts are often on the defensive today. Fundamentalists of various stripes keep many countries from completing their own great escape. In the West, science still sometimes yields to dogma, on climate change, on evolution and on economic policy. Elites on both the right and left question the value of education for the masses and oppose attempts to improve schools even as they spend countless hours and dollars pursuing the finest possible education for their own children.
It is true that many of today’s biggest problems, including economic growth, education and climate, defy easy solutions. But the same was true, and much more so, about escaping centuries of poverty and early death. It was hard, and it involved a lot of failure along the way. The story Deaton tells — the most inspiring human story of all — should give all of us reason for optimism, so long as we are willing to listen to its moral.
I like this story. As an economist, much of what I do is basically about trying to improve allocation decisions in the context of scarcity. Do we devote road space to this use, or that one? Do we require people to do X (when there may be reasons to believe they’d prefer Y instead)? This is probably useful work, but it’s still a bit depressing to be constantly working within the context of fundamental trade-offs.
However, knowledge (and information in general) isn’t like that. If I know something, it doesn’t mean that you can’t know it. If you communicate something to me, it doesn’t mean you have to give it up in the process. Knowledge can be shared, and one person’s attempt to learn more will probably increase the stock of knowledge available to all humanity. It’s a public good. It’s a positive-sum game. It is, as Deaton points out, the best thing we’ve got going for us.
What makes a city a city? The MIT Technology review covers some new research into the determinants of vibrant urban life from a team led by Marco De Nadai at the University of Trento. The conclusion: Jane Jacobs was right!
De Nadai and co gathered this data for six cities in Italy—Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Milan, and Palermo.
Their analysis is straightforward. The team used mobile-phone activity as a measure of urban vitality and land-use records, census data, and Foursquare activity as a measure of urban diversity. Their goal was to see how vitality and diversity are correlated in the cities they studied.
The results make for interesting reading. De Nadai and co say that land use is correlated with vitality. In cities such as Rome, mixed land use is common. However, Milan is divided into areas by function—industrial, residential, commercial, and so on. “Consequently, in Milan, vitality is experienced only in the mixed districts,” they say.
The structure of city districts is important, too. European cities tend not to have the super-sized city blocks found in American cities. But the density of intersections varies greatly, and this turns out to be important. “Vibrant urban areas are those with dense streets, which, in fact, slow down cars and make it easier for pedestrian to cross,” say the team.
Jacobs also highlighted the importance of having a mixture of old and new buildings to promote vitality. However, De Nadai and co say this is less of an issue in Italian cities, where ancient buildings are common and have been actively preserved for centuries. Consequently, the goal of producing mixed areas is harder to achieve. “In the Italian context, mixing buildings of different eras is not as important as (or, rather, as possible as) it is in the American context,” they say.
Nevertheless, the team found that a crucial factor for vibrancy is the presence of “third places,” locations that are not homes (first places) or places of employment (second places). Third places are bars, restaurants, places of worship, shopping malls, parks, and so on—places where people go to gather and socialize.
The density of people also turns out to be important, too, just as Jacobs predicted. “Our results suggest that Jacobs’s four conditions for maintaining a vital urban life hold for Italian cities,” conclude De Nadai and co.
They go on to summarize by saying: “Active Italian districts have dense concentrations of office workers, third places at walking distance, small streets, and historical buildings.”
Disruptive change: Tesla’s pre-orders have exceeded 2011 forecasts of long-range-capable electric vehicle uptake by a factor of 100.
Energy Information Agency forecasts 1,000 EVs w 200-mi-range by 2040. Tesla has pre-orders for almost 300k for 2017. pic.twitter.com/GNPxQlNp4V
“Back when BART was created, (the designers) were absolutely determined to establish a new product, and they intended to export it around the world,” said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose. “They may have gotten a little ahead of themselves using new technology. Although it worked, it was extremely complex for the time period, and they never did export the equipment because it was so difficult for other countries to install and maintain.”
Rather than stick to the standard rail track width of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, BART engineers debuted a 5-foot, 6-inch width track, a gauge that remains to this day almost exclusive to the system. Industry experts say the unique track width necessitates custom-made wheel sets, brake assemblies and track repair vehicles. The agency also debuted a flat-edge rail, while other systems tilt slightly inward. That BART design requires more maintenance and is noisier, experts say.
Those one-of-a-kind systems lead to a dearth of readily available replacement parts. Maintenance crews often scavenge parts from old, out-of-service cars to avoid lengthy waits for orders to come in; sometimes mechanics are forced to manufacture the equipment themselves.
Since the global property market bottomed out at the start of 2012, house prices have risen most in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Increases of more than 30 percent in the three countries compare with an average gain of 11 percent in the sample. Prices are still declining in some of Europe’s largest economies. One exception is Germany, where property costs have surged more than 17 percent after prices slid for a decade and a half starting in the mid 1990s.
Central bankers want to see their low rates transmit into economic activity. Prices and transactions in real-estate markets can serve as indicators for buyers’ confidence in the economy, the strength of the labor market and spending prospects.
Too much froth in property markets can also be an obstacle to cutting rates further.
But according to Richard Burton, chairman of the anti-housing supply group Auckland 2040, there’s nothing wrong with our policy settings. Bernard Hickey reports:
Burton rejected the suggestion that the Auckland Unitary Plan did not have enough capacity to handle up to 600,000 extra residents expected to be living in Auckland by 2040, referring to modelling done by an Auckland Council submitter using the Auckland Council Development Capacity (ACDC) model created through the IHP process.
The results of the Council’s modelling have been contested by others in the ‘Topic 13’ group advising the IHP on the Unitary Plan’s economically feasible capacity. Housing NZ Corp has also argued the previous versions of the ‘down-zoned’ plan were not sufficient to meet housing demand.
“All of the modelling work done to date has said there is sufficient capacity within Auckland to accommodate the foreseeable growth.
He also thinks that we should ban anything over one storey – apparently two-storey blocks of flats are now high-rise. Sausage flats for all!
Burton told Interest.co.nz in a Double Shot interview Auckland 2040 preferred apartments be kept in town centres and that any intensification of established suburban areas be limited to multiple smaller single level dwellings on existing sections.
On a completely unrelated note, I ran across a clip of John Waters, cult film director and proud Baltimore resident, endorsing a mayoral candidate. Words of wisdom, really:
“When trouble happens, liberals can sometimes turn to reactionaries quickly. I guess I’m included. I’m not sure what I can do to help Baltimore with its problems these days. So why not let someone younger and more radical than I am have a crack at it?”
To close, three articles about inclusion and exclusion in cities. First, Paul Krugman, who won an economics Nobel partly for his work on the economics of cities, writes about the importance of “cities for everyone“:
Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate.
You may be tempted to say, so what else is new? Urban life has become desirable again, urban dwellings are in limited supply, so wouldn’t you expect the affluent to outbid the rest and move in? Why aren’t urban apartments like beachfront lots, which also tend to be occupied by the rich?
But living in the city isn’t like living on the beach, because the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. Limits on building height, in particular, prevent us from making more use of the most efficient public transit system yet invented – the elevator.
Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right.
But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive. And that restrictiveness brings major economic costs. At a national level, workers are on average moving, not to regions that offer higher wages, but to low-wage areas that also have cheap housing. That makes America as a whole poorer than it would be if workers moved freely to their most productive locations, with some estimates of the lost income running as high as 10 percent.
Furthermore, within metropolitan areas, restrictions on new housing push workers away from the center, forcing them to engage in longer commutes and creating more traffic congestion.
The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.
This is exactly what happened in Syracuse, New York. The city had big dreams of becoming an East Coast hub, since it was close to New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Boston. (In the early days of the car, close was relative.) Use federal funds to build a series of highways, planners thought, and residents could easily get to the suburbs and to other cities in the region. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a Syracuse that you could easily leave by car? And, if they put the highway in just the right place, it would allow the city to use federal funds to eradicate what they called a slum area in the center city.
That neighborhood, called the 15th Ward, was located between Syracuse University and the city’s downtown. It was predominantly African American. One man who lived there at the time, Junie Dunham, told me that although the 15th Ward was poor, it was the type of community that you often picture in 1950s America: fathers going off to jobs in the morning; kids playing in the streets; families gathering in the park on the weekends or going on Sunday strolls. He remembers collecting scraps from the streets and bringing them to the junkyard for pennies, which he would use to buy comics.
Urban reformers have often had a nasty tendency to categorise places as “blighted” and rip them down. This has often been terrible for the inhabitants of those places: they’ve lost homes, businesses, jobs, and social capital, all of which take time to rebuild. And all too often, the political factors that make it easy to tear down poor neighbourhoods for highways – rich people’s votes and protests are more likely to be heard – also create barriers to rehousing their inhabitants elsewhere. Zoning codes are written to keep them away from successful places.
Third, in Commonwealth Magazine, Clark Ziegler and Christopher Oddleifson report on a new effort by the Massachusetts state government to reform its exclusionary zoning:
A bill approved earlier this month by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing would confront that problem head-on. The bill would require that every city and town plan for multifamily housing and designate areas where it is allowed as-of-right. It would also require every community to allow single-family homes clustered on modest lots in compact, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by open space. Cities and towns would be compensated for any net increases in school costs that result from their approval of multifamily and cluster developments…
Our inability to produce enough housing to fuel the economy results from the fragmentation of local government in Massachusetts. In many other parts of the country land, use regulation is managed at the county or regional level. In Massachusetts, it is handled by a multitude of local boards in each of 351 individual cities and towns, most of which serve a population of less than 11,000 residents. It’s understandable that elected officials take steps to slow or stop housing development because that’s what voters ask and expect of them: “please don’t allow more residents into our community,” “please don’t add any more kids to our schools,” “please don’t approve any more development in our part of town.”
Resistance to new housing often comes in the form of “downzoning” – allowing housing development in fewer places or at lower densities than was allowed in the past. It also comes in the form of discretionary zoning codes (as opposed to zoning “by right”) that make local decision-makers especially susceptible to community pressure. Available land zoned for multifamily housing used to be relatively commonplace in Massachusetts and now it has become a rarity. Many of the most desirable neighborhoods in the Commonwealth could not be built again today because local zoning has become so restrictive.
Good luck to Massachusetts in getting it sorted out.
To end on a slightly different note, here’s a map of the places that most closely match New Zealand’s various climates. Otago and Southland are most like Northern England, while the upper North Island is closer to Spain, Chile, or northern California (but wetter).
Commuting around the city has been intense lately. I generally avoid most of the drama since I ride a bike. From Balmoral I take Dominion Road to the City Centre and on most days at 10kph I’m moving faster than the cars. It is now common for traffic to be queued from Ian MacKinnon Drive to Mt Roskill.
Dominion Road at Balmoral shops looking south
During March (and now April) traffic has become so acute that motorists are now using alternative routes when Mt Eden Rd and Dominion Rd get stuffed up. One such route is Matipo Street midway between Mt Eden Road and Dominion Rd. This route also happens to form part of the Dominion Road Parallel Cycle Route.
Part of the appeal of this route is the new signal added at Matipo Street and Balmoral Road. This enables motorists to turn safely and regularly. (This signal is also great for my kids as it extends their range of travel to schools and Potters Park.)
So while the signal plays a part in the attractiveness, the traffic levels seem significantly higher than last year. Here is a video of a what it looks like at about 8:30AM. I have seen these conditions on several days. This street is adjacent to Mangawhau Primary School so it adds an additional barrier for kids walking/cycling to school.
Some of the traffic is parents dropping their kids off at school. Some of the traffic is generated locally. But I don’t think either school traffic or locals trips would have changed over the last couple of years.
Instead, I think that the SH20 extension is dumping more traffic into the isthmus. Because Dominion Road and Eden Road are so swamped with traffic people are increasingly seeking short cuts to get through these neighbourhoods. As SH20 becomes a major traffic-inducing link I expect to see more of these unintended consequences popping up along its length.
This is mid-week reading – a feature I’m writing while trying to get on top of work and back on a regular blogging schedule.
This week’s theme is connectivity. Transport networks are powerful tools for connecting people – or separating them. When designed well and managed safely, they can allow people to reach opportunities. But when designed poorly, they can create severance and isolate people from each other.
Unfortunately, once infrastructure’s been put in place, it’s extremely persistent. A non-connective street network will stay in place more or less indefinitely. There are relatively few opportunities to change that.
However, the clever folks at Bike Auckland recently highlighted a new opportunity to overcome severance through the design of the Tamaki Drive to Glen Innes cycleway. In their first post on the topic, they highlighted the abundance of connections offered by the Northwestern Cycleway:
This is a tale of two paths. We begin out west, on a stretch of the Northwestern Cycleway. This is a ‘road of national significance’ for people on bikes – a commuter path from the far west into town. But at the local level, it also makes all sorts of handy journeys possible for people like Penny and her family, who use the path to access school, daycare, and work.
Motorway-style routes have a seductive A to B directness, whether they’re for cars or bikes, but what makes them truly useful, as Penny’s family’s story shows,is the exits – the on- and off-ramps, if you will.
Of course, the Western Springs/ Kingsland stretch of the NW cycleway is especially rich in access points, a legacy of how SH16 was sliced through the heart of the original connected neighbourhood. Take the 2.5km stretch from St Lukes Rd to the Waima St over bridge that leads to Penny’s school. There are by a rough count 14 connections to local streets. One every 180m or so!
And the relative paucity of connections proposed for a key section of the new Tamaki to GI cycleway:
From our first engagement with this project in November 2014, we’ve seen this path as not just a utilitarian urban access route for long distance commuters, but an iconic destination and local treasure in its own right. We’ve consistently made the case for linking the cycleway to existing recreational paths and nearby streets, so as to make local journeys possible and to integrate the path into the neighborhoods it passes through. (We’re also battling tirelessly for better cycle facilities on the roads that will bring people to the cycleway).
In other words, this path will not only link Glen Innes to downtown, but will also allow for smart local trips like Penny’s family’s rides – if it comes well-supplied with local connections.
Wait a minute. Did we say ‘if’?
Because there’s a chance that Stage 2, which is the 2.5km stretch between St Johns Rd and the Orakei Boardwalk, may yet make it through construction with no side connections (only the future possibility of them).
In Bike Auckland’s second post, they explored the impact of adding even a single local connection:
But do you really have a feel for what difference just a single additional side access could make – and how many more people could get to the path easily and safely if one was built?
Well, we wanted to get an idea, so we did an experiment. We used an Open Street Map, with the new Stage 2 section of the path added in red – and we estimated the catchment first with, and then without a key additional side path.
We started from Meadowbank Train Station, which is a good local marker because everyone knows where it is.
Then we went out 2km, and then 3km, following all the branching paths and local roads (major caveat – not all routes on the map are cycle-friendly), to see just how far that took us.
The results are in the animation. See how one short side path of 150m opens up a new catchment that’s within a 3km ride or walk of the station?
Interesting results. It’s a bit hard to tell from the map, but that looks like it’d bring another 100 homes or so within reach of the station (not to mention the cycleway).
Here begins the most ambitious new subway project in the Western world. The extension of Line 14 is but the first leg of the Grand Paris Express, a $25 billion expansion of the century-old Paris Métro. By the time the project is completed in 2030, the system will have gained four lines, 68 stations, and more than 120 miles of track. Planners estimate that the build-out will boost the entire network’s ridership by almost 40 percent.
The goals: Reduce the smog-choked region’s car traffic. Link business districts, airports, and universities. Ease social ills by knitting together the French capital’s isolated and troubled banlieues, much as the initial Métro construction did for the outlying districts of Paris proper at the dawn of the 20th century…
Benoît Quessard, an urban planner for the local government, told me that he sees the expansion as not merely “an economic wager but also a social one.” In this sense, it will test an old Parisian belief about the Métro conferring, beyond convenience, a kind of citizenship on its riders. In 1904, four years after the first line opened, the writer Jules Romains predicted that the system would be a “living, fluid cement that will succeed in holding men together.”
Incidentally, when I read about the banlieues, I always think of Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful poem Zone, a drunken-dreamlike walk through the downscale outer districts of early-20th century Paris, before the Metro put them on the map:
Some refugees stay in furnished rooms
In the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Écouffes in the slums
I have seen them at night walking
Like pieces on a chessboard they rarely move
Especially the Jews whose wives wear wigs
And sit quietly in the back of the shop
The last article of the week is from Grant Schofield, a professor of public health at AUT, who summarises his new research on the impact of urban form on physical activity:
Living in an activity-friendly neighbourhood could mean people take up to 90 minutes more exercise per week, according to a study published in The Lancet today. With physical inactivity responsible for over 5 million deaths per year, the authors say that creating healthier cities is an important part of the public health response to the global disease burden of physical inactivity.
The study included 6822 adults aged 18-66 from 14 cities in 10 countries from the International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN) . The cities or regions included were Ghent (Belgium), Curitiba (Brazil), Bogota (Colombia), Olomouc (Czech Republic), Aarhus (Denmark), Hong Kong (China), Cuernavaca (Mexico), North Shore, Waitakere, Wellington and Christchurch (New Zealand), Stoke-on-Trent (UK), Seattle and Baltimore (USA).
The research team mapped out the neighbourhood features from the areas around the participants’ homes, such as residential density, number of street intersections, public transport stops, number of parks, mixed land use, and nearest public transport points. Physical activity was measured by using accelerometers worn around participants’ waists for a minimum of four days, recording movement every minute.
On average, participants across all 14 cities did 37 minutes per day moderate to vigorous physical activity – equivalent to brisk walking or more. Baltimore had the lowest average rate of activity (29.2 min per day) and Wellington had the highest (50.1 min per day).
The four neighbourhood features which were most strongly associated with increased physical activity were high residential density, number of intersections, number of public transport stops, and number of parks within walking distance. The researchers controlled for factors including age, sex, education, marital and employment status and whether neighbourhoods were classed as high or low income. The activity-friendly characteristics applied across cities, suggesting they are important design principles that can be applied internationally.
Just a brief comment on this last point. One legitimate question about these findings is, basically: what’s stopping people from choosing to live in healthier places if there are benefits to doing so? (Or, in economese, what’s the market failure, exactly?)
The answer is that decisions about the built environment aren’t made by individuals. People don’t always have a free choice. Road networks are centrally planned, and the planners may not necessarily have good information about people’s actual needs and desires.
Similarly, housing choices and neighbourhood design has been extensively regulated, with the result that there may be an undersupply of walkable, accessible neighbourhoods in the city.
Here is a remarkable story from the United State’s Depart of Transportation. USDOT Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is leading a ‘crusade’ to bring attention to the disruptive and discriminatory legacy of urban highways. Foxx has first hand experience of how transport designs influenced opportunity- “As a child, Anthony Foxx knew he couldn’t ride his bike far from home without being blocked by a freeway” (Washington Post). As Eisenhower-era infrastructure starts to reach the end of it’s lifespan, it will be interesting to see how quickly cities start adapting legacy infrastructure for the 21st Century.
In what might be called synchronicity, the State of New York announced they will be tearing down the 18.4 mile Robert Moses Parkway that by-passes and severs Niagara Falls.
Cuomo said that for years, the state and city leaders have talked about removing the parkway around the city, but most felt the project was too big and too expensive.“There’s nothing too ambitious for New York,” the governor said. “We are a state of people who were told ‘no, you can’t’ and we said ‘yes, you could.’ ”
“It’s a highway. It’s asphalt. It’s concrete,” Cuomo said. “You get a shovel. You hit enough times, it cracks. You pick it up and put in a truck and no more highway,” he told the crowd, which both laughed and cheered.
When his grandparents bought the house in 1961, he says, the area was part of an interconnected networks of streets and homes, a true neighborhood. Later, the state added two highways, cutting the house and its neighbors off from the rest of the city. There was one road in and out after the highways were completed, and the neighborhood slowly became a place where no one wanted to live or open a business, and where not even the pizza-delivery guy would go.
This pattern was not unique to Foxx’s neighborhood. For decades federal money has been used to build highways through many American cities, destroying neighborhoods in the process. Foxx acknowledges that urban freeways were routed through low-income and minority neighborhoods, and that those divisions created “disconnections from opportunity that still exist to this day.” But now, Foxx says, he wants to do something about that. And as transportation secretary, he potentially can.
So why did cities help build the expressways that would so profoundly decimate them? The answer involves a mix of self-interested industry groups, design choices made by people far away, a lack of municipal foresight, and outright institutional racism.
“There was an immense amount of funding that would go to local governments for building freeways, but they had little to no influence over where they’d go,” says Joseph DiMento, a law professor who co-wrote Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways. “There was also a racially motivated desire to eliminate what people called ‘urban blight.’ The funds were seen as a way to fix the urban core by replacing blight with freeways.”
One of the things, if not the thing, that I loved most about that neighborhood was that it felt like what a diverse urban landscape could and should feel like. Within blocks of my building and inside it, there were Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, yuppie white folks like me, Hasidic Jews, African-American and West African blacks (nearby Flatbush is one of the largest black neighborhoods in New York City), Ecuadorians, West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Pakistanis, and more, with wonderful, family-owned restaurants and shops to match these many micro-communities.
I want to live in a beautiful, multiethnic, socioeconomically mixed community. A city where people of low, moderate, and high incomes live together, and people of different ethnicities interact. That’s my dream. That’s why I love cities: people mixing together, cross-pollinating perspectives and experiences.
That’s not San Francisco right now. It might have been in the past, but it certainly won’t be in the future — unless we get over ourselves and start building much more housing. Everywhere. Immediately.
While the parking debate is largely over, here are some reminders of how parking policy raises the cost of living and why city parking facilities may not be a great long term investment.
Trader Joe’s takes advantage of that fact. By keeping their stores and parking lots small, the grocer lowers overall costs, helping you get (to choose my two favorite examples) soy chorizo for $1.99 and a bottle of recognizable cabernet sauvignon for three bucks. The densely arranged stores also help them get more than double the sales per square foot of competitors.
…CNT interviewed multifamily developers in Chicago and found that when municipalities ask developers to build too much parking, those spaces add time and money to projects. They drive up construction costs and rents for market-rate units. And parking requirements hinder the development of affordable housing near transit because subsidy programs cannot account for the dual price premiums on parking and land.
So who, exactly is “long” in the parking market? Well, there are some private firms who build and operate parking lots. But in many places around the country, the entities that have made substantial future bets on parking are local governments. Since the 1930s, city governments have been borrowing money to build and operate municipal parking lots for public use. Most big cities operate a substantial parking enterprise….
There’s a good chance that many of these parking lots will become stranded assets: expensive, debt-financed projects that no longer generate enough revenue to cover their costs of construction and operation. When we add in the considerable social costs of subsidized parking and driving, newly constructed parking structures in cities may be the urban equivalent of new coal-fired power plants: obsolete, value-destroying activities. There’s not a lot cities can do about previous decisions to take on debt to build parking garages, but going forward, it seems like they ought to take a very careful look at whether it’s a sound investment, or whether they’re setting themselves up to be on the wrong side of tomorrow’s “Big Short.”
Please add your other links in the comments section.
I’m doing a smaller roundup of articles midweek due to a lack of time to write proper blog posts. Regular service will – hopefully – resume before much longer.
Let’s start with Christchurch. Rebecca Macfie writes (in the Listener) about what has been learnt in the five years since the Canterbury earthquakes. She highlights some lowlights:
Beyond that lie two large empty blocks that have been bought and cleared by Cera for a massive convention centre. The proposed complex was tagged by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee as one of the priority projects in the Crown’s 2012 masterplan for the rebuilt CBD. Like an economic defibrillator, it was to kickstart the central city economy.
“In the near term it will provide certainty and confidence to the private sector, encouraging private investors to accelerate the rebuild of central Christchurch,” he wrote in advice to Cabinet in 2013. Longer term, it will “leave a legacy of buildings, public spaces and activity that will help define the rebuilt Christchurch”.
Construction was to be completed by early 2017, according to an “indicative anchor project delivery schedule” published by Cera in late 2013. But there’s nothing here except a sullen grey expanse of gravel and broken concrete, ringed by security fences.
Duval, like everyone else in Christchurch (including Mayor Lianne Dalziel), wants to know what’s going on, but no one is telling.
“We’re starved of information, and that creates uncertainty,” he says.
Some big calls that now look like they may have been the wrong calls:
The centralisation of control of such an enormous and complicated recovery task in the hands of a new government department and its minister alarmed some international experts, who wrote to Prime Minister John Key in late 2011 urging change. Among the signatories were Doug Ahlers, a recovery expert from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Sir Richard Leese of the Manchester City Council, and Kit Miyamoto, a seismic engineer with extensive experience of post-disaster reconstruction.
Offering their experience from “similar-scale disasters in other parts of the world”, they called for a governance structure that allowed business, non-government and community sectors to be heard, and warned that the decision to demolish the majority of the CBD (including repairable buildings) would lead to higher costs, a loss of city identity and a slower recovery.
“I think I can say with confidence that this could be considered by some as being worst practice,” wrote Ahlers of the Cera structure.
And some highlights:
There have also been successes – the wonderful new playground, a user-friendly bus interchange, well-advanced construction of a justice and emergency precinct for multiple agencies and 2000 staff, and an emerging “innovation precinct” that will be home to Vodafone and Kathmandu. The emerging retail precinct, consisting of four major developments driven by long-established local investors Nick Hunt, Tim Glasson, Philip Carter and Antony Gough, is generating high hopes that the area around Cashel St will become a vibrant hub.
More than 85% of the $3 billion job to repair the city’s pipes, drains and roads has been done (although only to a patch-up standard, rather than “as new”). The innovative Scirt alliance (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) of big construction companies, local and central government is credited as a highly successful approach to getting through the horizontal infrastructure work.
New Zealand will have more natural disasters. Maybe not next year, and maybe not in my lifetime, but after all, we’re sitting on top of two shaky isles. So we need to learn from Christchurch’s experience, which means having an honest public conversation about what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong. I’ve been happy to see some challenging commentary popping up around the fifth anniversary of the quakes. May the conversation continue.
As Auckland’s longest-running secondhand record store, Real Groovy has not only proved its most persistent critics wrong by surviving and prospering, but has also seen off nearly all of its competition in doing so.
Perhaps our most-loved record emporium, and the only one that bears serious comparison to California’s enormous Amoeba Music, Real Groovy has weathered a chequered past and a near-complete meltdown to revitalise itself as vinyl and music-related ephemera slowly overtake the mountains of unloved compact discs and DVDs.
Few of the busloads of daily browsers can know of this genuinely iconic shop’s beginnings up the road and around the bend from its famous location in Queen St, and it’s hard to picture just how a couple of guys with a tiny space on Mt Eden Rd could have transformed their used vinyl record shop into its current giant warehouse-like operation.
It’s been a while since I seriously spent a lot of time in a music shop – not because I’ve shifted to digital, but because I seem to have less time to seek out new music these days. But it wasn’t that long ago that visits to the big used record shops was a highlight of trips into town. There was – is – something great about browsing through big stacks of music without being totally certain about what you will find.
Cities are great in the same way: they’re big and varied, which means that it’s possible to be surprised by them. And without the element of the unexpected, what’s the point in living in the first place?
But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness.
That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.
Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.
Mid-century infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life all across the nation. But much of that Great Society infrastructure was a response to an earlier infrastructure that was, by the 1950s, reaching the end of its life. And the response then was to say: Let’s rebuild it, and let’s make it as beautiful as we can.
One of the things I appreciate about Auckland, right now, is that we are willing to invest in good design for public infrastructure. You can see that at new rail stations like Britomart and Panmure, where roofs and skylights have been designed to echo Auckland’s distinctive volcanic cones. You can certainly see it in the Pinkpath. Aesthetics don’t have an infinite value, but I’m glad that we’ve decided to assign them a non-zero value!
Back in January, when my grandma’s house was being put up for sale, some relatives came over from Melbourne to help tidy up the place and have a last look at what has, for as long as I can remember, been the meeting place for our family.
The family tradition has always been to eat home-cooked meals together, but I suggested that we break with tradition and try out some of the new restaurants that have been popping up in Takapuna.
Takapuna, incidentally, seems to be learning urban lessons from Newmarket, the city centre, and places further afield. While it’s still a low-rise centre, it’s developing a little network of laneways and arcades around Hurstmere Road, each one inhabited by cafes and restaurants. (And people on foot.) Development cycles go in booms and busts, of course, but if residential development around Takapuna goes ahead, it’s likely to become increasingly vibrant in the future.
Anyway. As a result of all this, we ended up celebrating Grandma’s move in a really excellent Colombian restaurant at the 40 Hurstmere Road laneway. In this building (apologies for the overcast Google Streetview picture):
Now, you might say: This is a great example of the importance of preserving historic buildings, which all too often have a unique character that shines through with a bit of gentle renovation.
But you’d be wrong.
You see, my grandma told me a bit about the history of this building. (Apparently you learn a lot about the built environment by living in the same place for 60 years.) It was, in fact, built by one of my great-uncles as a carpet shop – hence why it’s so long and narrow and well-suited for a lane-way. And rather than being constructed in the art deco 1930s, it was built in the prosaic 1950s or 60s.
Here’s what the building looked like before being renovated into a laneway (again, picture from Streetview):
Not quite the same, is it?
This building tells us a few things about how urban environments evolve. The first is that appearances (and building ages) can be deceptive. Some old buildings are good, which means that we should think carefully about how and why to preserve them. But with all due respect to my great-uncle, many are uninspiring.
The second is that change is often good. Renovating or even demolishing existing buildings can result in a better street environment. This building is a perfect case in point. We probably wouldn’t have eaten there if it still looked like it did in the second picture. Sensible developers will be aware of that and build accordingly.
The third is that context matters. Attractive building exteriors are particularly important in a place like Hurstmere Road, which is a low-speed, pedestrian focused street. (Many people arrive by car, but they must park in a shared carpark and walk to their final destination.) In this context, people generally have time to experience and react to building frontages. If traffic speeds were higher, that wouldn’t be the case – people would simply whiz by without forming impressions of the buildings.
High-speed roads produce different buildings. They tend to be set back further from the street, because they can’t be seen if they’re closer. Facades are less important, as the details aren’t apparent at speed. Instead, signs are used to attract passing eyeballs. The result is something like this:
In other words, street environments ultimately shape incentives to build attractive buildings. (And also to provide or preserve other amenities like street trees.) So perhaps when we think about the quality of our built environment, we should think about traffic speeds first and the age of buildings later?
To kick off Sunday reading here’s an interesting article by transport professor Rachel Aldred. In “Getting people cycling on residential streets needs more than 20mph limits” she argues that enabling neighbourhood streets to support cycling takes much more than dropping the speed limits, it requires removing traffic. This approach is reminiscent of Donald Appleyard’s Livable Street initiatives in the 1970’s that had modest success.
And if there was no rat running, many local streets could be extremely quiet. DfT trip rate statistics allow us to estimate how much traffic there might be on residential roads without people using them as short cuts. Even including deliveries and visitors we’re generally talking about a few hundred cars a day or fewer. Such streets could be places where cars really are guests, and children again walk and cycle freely.
When I accepted Mayor Bloomberg’s offer to become Transportation commissioner, I told him I wanted to change the city’s transportation status quo. The DOT had control over more than just concrete, asphalt, steel, and striping lanes. These are the fundamental materials that govern the entire public realm and, if applied slightly differently, could have a radical new impact. I saw no reason why New York couldn’t become one of the world’s great biking cities — or why it wouldn’t want to. But the act of actually achieving it launched the bitterest public fight over transportation in this city since Jane Jacobs held the line against Robert Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway half a century earlier.
…When you push the status quo, it pushes back, hard. Everyone likes to watch a good fight. And the battle over bike lanes most surely was a street fight: politically bloody and ripped from the tabloids. Call me biased, call me crazy — many people have — but I’ll tell you this: The bikes, and all New Yorkers, won.
Consensus is impossible, and inaction is inexcusable
In Streetfight’s early chapters, Sadik-Khan and Solomonow lament the incredible lengths politicians and bureaucrats often go through in order to satisfy every single stakeholder on a given project. You can’t please everyone, they insist, and such feigned attempts to build consensus are often used to stall much-needed safety improvements by “leaders” unwilling to lead. At the same time, the status quo is simply unacceptable.
“Transportation is one of the few professions where nearly 33,000 people can lose their lives in one year and no one in a position of responsibility is in danger of losing his or her job,” they remind us.
We’ve spent decades engineering our streets for minimum inconvenience to automobiles, and the next century will be spent undoing that cost to our health, security, and mobility.
The answer is to build. Build more fucking housing, just like Nolan says. But the answer is also to zone: To take away land-use decisions from neighborhoods and hand them over to cities. And for cities to act in concert with other cities toward regional goals for new market-rate and affordable units everywhere. Not just where developers can get away with it, but where incumbent residents have already soldered shut the gate behind them.
Solving this housing crisis means breaking up the cartelized wealthy districts that are able to decide that new housing is everybody else’s problem. Build the awful glass cubes there, if that’s what it takes.
Freeway Revolt monument, San Francisco, via Fogbay.com
For a city that well known for its new ideas, tolerance and diversity, it is according to Davis Prowler, “paradoxically resistant to change.” David Prowler, “San Francisco: The Status Quo City“, UrbDeZine San Francisco.
Plenty of solutions for San Francisco’s planning gridlock spring to mind. The challenges are not technical; they are merely a matter of political will. Most development projects should go forward if they comply with planning codes. The arduous, costly, and risky review and appeals processes should be streamlined. The California Environmental Quality Act should be amended so that it encourages smart growth rather than sprawl. Small infill projects should be exempted. But I’m not holding my breath for any of this. What is needed is a radical change in the local culture. San Francisco needs to learn to embrace change without fear and give up its love affair with process.
To round up Sunday reading on a lighter note, here is a picture of all three LINK route buses stuck in Queen Street traffic.
Starting this week I’m trying out a new feature: a midweek post rounding up some new articles on transport and urbanism. (Time for writing more substantive posts has been a bit tight lately.) The themes will be familiar to regular readers.
Let’s start with congestion pricing – a perennial topic of fascination for economists. Congestion pricing is mainly seen as a policy to improve the efficiency of road networks by “pricing in” the cost of delay that motorists impose on each other. But, based on London’s experience with a cordon charge, it may also improve road safety for all users. Charles Komanoff at Streetsblog NYC reports on some new data:
Evidence keeps mounting that congestion pricing can catalyze major reductions in traffic crashes. A year ago I reported on research that vehicle crashes in central London fell as much as 40 percent since the 2003 startup of London’s congestion charge. The same researchers are now expressing the safety dividend in terms of falling per-mile crash rates, and the figures are even more impressive.
The researchers — economists associated with the Management School at Lancaster University in northern England — compared crashes within and near the London charging zone against 20 other U.K. cities, before and after 2003. Their conclusion: Since the onset of congestion charging, crashes in central London fell at a faster rate than the decrease in traffic volumes. As important as the reduction in traffic has been for safety, at least as much improvement is due to the lower crash frequency per mile driven.
In short, driving in the London charging zone isn’t just smoother and more predictable, it’s safer. And safer for cyclists as well as drivers, with the number of people on bikes expanding considerably as car volumes have fallen.
And on that note, a reminder that the best way to improve the safety of cycling is to increase the number of cyclists on the road (or better yet, cycleway):
But that’s the big smoke. It couldn’t happen here, in small, rural New Zealand, could it?
Maybe not. “Town Proper”, an urban design and transport blog, points out that we often get it wrong when thinking about the rural-urban balance in our society. (Riffing off a post I wrote a while back.) We tend to “mistake want as demand“:
Purportedly New Zealanders value open space, ball games and big houses. That does not hold up to our litmus test though. As reported above, most of New Zealanders have chosen to forgo big houses, large and open (private) spaces in exchange for the vitality of a denser area.
It is not like there is a critical shortage of open land in New Zealand – you can easily buy a dozen or so hectares with a big house for below Auckland’s average house price. Rather, people do not want to live there.
When you have multiple wants, you must make a choice as to the prioritization of your wants. It seems that while New Zealanders might want the rural lifestyle they have decided to choose the urban lifestyle over it. This is where so many commentators make a mistake, they confuse wants for demand. Demand is when you not only have the want for something, but also the ability (and the willingness to expend that ability) to obtain it.
There is little demand to live in rural areas (only 20% of Kiwis live in rural areas, and most of them in “rural centers”), why? I propose that generally Kiwis value the advantages of an urban area above the disadvantages.
Indeed. When planning cities, it’s important to take into account people’s needs and the real choices that they face, not just a hypothetical idealised notion of how people should live.
Which brings us to California. The land of technological disruption is steadfastly refusing to allow its housing market to change. And so demand for urban space – particularly the dense, connected urban space of San Francisco – is colliding with scarcity. TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler puts the issue in historical perspective: “A Long Game“:
I believe we’re hitting another major juncture, although I don’t know when it will deteriorate to the point that it forces real reform. California’s fragmented, post-war suburban model, which was created for a more even wage distribution in a mass industrial economy, is clearly becoming more dysfunctional by the year for a knowledge-and-services economy with a wider level of income stratification.
Not only are we not building enough housing overall, we have scarce sources of funding for supporting those on the lower-earning ends of a rapidly widening income spectrum. So we end up politicizing and extracting funds out of new construction even though we are 40 years deep into a largely self-imposed housing shortage.
There are a couple of disturbing trends showing up in the data. If you look across the state’s workforce, Californians born in 1990 are on average spending 50 percent of their income on housing. That’s way above the 30-percent-of-income level that is generally considered to be the threshold of whether housing is affordable or not in public policy conversations.
This is troubling because commute time is one of the strongest predictive factors in determining a child’s chances of climbing from the lowest income quintile to the highest-earning one. That morning and evening time between parents and children that is taken up by commuting is invaluable for bonding and child development.
The data on the length of commutes is incredibly important. As I found when I looked at Auckland’s commuting patterns, lower-income households can access lower rents by living further out, but the gains tend to be erased by added commuting costs. If there are also additional social costs from long commutes, it reinforces the importance of giving people the option to live closer in.
The following map shows existing street trees in Frankton Central. Viewed in terms of ecological function, Frankton Central’s street trees represent an incomplete system with gaps. Although the mapping of street trees points towards a substantial number of trees in the Frankton, these have only limited impact on the experience of green in the wider area.
There are a number of streets with sporadic tree canopies as seen in the map above. The green network created by street trees varies widely in quality. Both ends of Commerce St have thriving street tree corridors that give those areas a distinct character. The interesting trees contribute an artistic flair to the retail part of Commerce St.
There are new plantings throughout the town, particularly in south-eastern streets, but the ecological, architectural, and urban quality benefits of these trees are not yet evident. The current town green network has gaps and there are sections of the Frankton that do not have any real trees.
It would be interesting to see some similar maps for different parts of Auckland. I wonder if Auckland Transport maintains a database of street trees in its road reserves?