The strange side effects of parking subsidies

Parking policies are frequently bizarre. Parking is, after all, a private good – it is both rivalrous (two cars can’t park in the same space at the same time) and excludable (if you don’t want someone parking in your space, you can keep them out). In that respect, it is more like a refrigerator than a public park.

But unlike a refrigerator, there are all sorts of public subsidies and regulations affecting parking. Although refrigerators are arguably more of a necessity of life than parking, councils don’t impose minimum refrigerator requirement for homes and offices. Central government doesn’t provide a tax subsidy for employer-provided refrigerators. And councils don’t invest in (or subsidise) public refrigeration facilities.

And if they did, it would almost certainly result in some perverse outcomes.

A recent NZ Herald story provided an example of how parking subsidies can lead to odd outcomes. (It was also a fine example of meaningless “gotcha” journalism, but never mind that!)

They are the crack team of economic and planning experts charged with sorting Auckland’s future growth.

But a member of the Unitary Plan independent hearings panel has fallen foul of the city – after sneakily parking a jetski in a central city council carpark for almost a month.

The mystery jetski appeared three to four weeks ago, taking up a Queen St park reserved for the panel listening to submissions on the future of the city.

Here’s the jetski in question:

IHP jetski

The article implies that the panel member in question is rorting the system or acting unethically by using their employer-provided carpark to store a jetski. But, if you think about it, it’s actually a good illustration of the poor logic behind many existing parking subsidies.

Let’s back up a step: what subsidies are we talking about, exactly?

In the Auckland city centre, carparks have a market value, which is a good thing. The removal of minimum parking requirements in the 1990s led to an increase in the price of parking – and also to increased development as new buildings weren’t encumbered by the need to provide unnecessary but costly carparks. At present, Auckland Transport is leasing downtown carparks for between $110 to $490 a month – although the cheapest ones are fully sold out. Private operators seem to be supplying them at around $250-$300 per month.

So an employer-provided carpark in the city centre is likely to be worth somewhere in the range of $3000-$6000 per annum. Because fringe benefit tax isn’t levied on carparks, this is worth the equivalent of $4500-$9000 in salary for people paying the top marginal tax rate (33%). (As the panel members probably do.)

That’s a large public subsidy for a small bit of concrete!

In theory, the rationale for the tax subsidy on employer-provided carparks is that it makes it less costly for people to commute to work, and hence encourages people to enter the workforce. But the panel member’s jetski illustrates the absurdity of that approach.

For one thing, people have (or should have) a range of choices about how to commute. Some prefer to drive. Others may take the bus, train, or ferry, or walk or cycle to work. Consequently, a significant share of commuting trips don’t end in a carpark. Based on Census data, around half of the people working in the city centre in 2013 didn’t drive to work. A bit over one in four workers throughout Auckland didn’t drive to work.

Census journey to work Auckland mode share chart

Consequently, trying to subsidise commuting by subsidising parking is likely to be a distortionary and inefficient policy. Some people will change transport modes in response to cheaper parking, resulting in additional road congestion in peak periods. Others will be left with a subsidised parking space that isn’t much use to them.

The panel member who used their parking space to store a jetski probably falls into the latter category. They might walk to work, or take the bus or train. This leaves them with a bit of costly concrete that they don’t need to store a car – so why not use it to store another vehicle instead? I can’t blame them for that.

The jetski has apparently been removed from the parking space, but the policy distortions that led to it being there in the first place remain. So what could we do about that?

The key is to realise that our ultimate aim is to enable mobility, not to simply provide carparks, and make policy accordingly.

For some people, mobility means a monthly public transport pass, or a bicycle and access to a shower at work. But current fringe benefit tax policies discourage employers from offering those solutions to their employees – an employer-provided PT pass would be taxed as regular income, while a carpark is exempt from tax. We need to level the playing field.

The best way of doing so is by removing the fringe benefit tax exemption for carparks, but if that’s not political possible then a good alternative would be to exempt PT passes from FBT, as the Green Party has proposed.

Another alternative would be to offer people the option to “cash out” employer-provided carparks. It’s especially bizarre that employers aren’t required to offer this choice, as the current government changed employment law to allow people to exchange one week of annual holiday for the equivalent in cash. Why not adopt the same approach for carparks, which could easily be worth more than holiday pay for many workers?

Lastly, we also need to make some choices beyond how we price and subsidise parking. Getting a great range of transport choices will often require us to use existing road space differently. Sometimes the only way to get a dedicated bus lane or a safe, separated cycle lane is to remove a few on-street carparks. We need to look at those choices in a holistic way – i.e. do they improve overall mobility and access to destinations – rather than simply insisting that all carparks must stay in place.

How do you think we should address parking subsidies?

AT confirm move to city

Auckland Transport have confirmed they’ll move into the current Vodafone building on Fanshawe St at a saving of $1 million per year

Auckland Transport to save money by being under one roof

Auckland Transport has signed a Heads of Agreement with the landlord for 20 Viaduct Harbour (Vodafone Building on Fanshawe Street).

This agreement, which is subject to further detail being agreed and documented in a lease, is expected to be completed by 31 May.

Auckland Transport’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Morris says this location will give AT a cost effective solution for its accommodation requirements with expected savings of close to a million dollars in the first year alone.

Auckland Transport’s staff are currently spread across 19 buildings with multiple leases, some of which are about to expire.

Mr Morris says the Fanshawe St building has 14,000 square metre open plan floor space spread over six levels and that offers flexible and efficient work spaces. “It is not expensive compared to a new building or other existing offices in or around the CBD. The building is 12 years old.

“We will be reducing our overall space requirements by around 2500 square metres as well as making savings in areas such as cleaning, electricity, IT and maintenance.”

Mr Morris adds that leasing rather than purchasing space reduces the organisation’s financial risk.

In addition to the CBD location AT will have a presence in three smaller regional offices in the north, Manukau and Henderson. This will enable teams with operational requirements to work in their local area such as parking officers.

The move to Fanshawe St will be completed by November 2017.

I know a lot of their city based staff catch PT in to the city and due to the distance most would probably want to transfer to a bus to get to the office. As such I wonder if this will move will expedite improvements in transfers in and around Britomart as well as pedestrian facilities on Fanshawe St. And with their buddies at the NZTA in the HSBC building the move will make perhaps they could even have a fleet of bikes for staff moving between the two locations making use of their new Quay St cycleway.

It will also likely be a good llocation for them if they build light rail as planned

LRT - Fanshawe St

Sunday reading 15 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jane-jacobs-google-doodle

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

I found this bit particularly interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

NACTO_transit_lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your links in the comment section.

Time for a footpath parking campaign?

I’ve written before about the increasing problem of cars parked on footpaths, often completely blocking them and forcing pedestrians out on to the road to get past. From what I can tell a couple of common reasons seem to be

  • the presence of yellow no park lines where it seems that some drivers think that if they mount the kerb it doesn’t really count as parking
  • trying to take up less space on the road, perhaps trying to give other drivers more space to reduce the chance of their vehicle being side-swiped (I can’t imagine this happens often).

Yet while we have campaigns telling pedestrians to be careful, we’ve never had one about this menace. So perhaps Auckland Transport could copy this idea from the UK highlighting some of those who suffer the most from when people park on footpaths.

How about it AT?

Should Auckland Transport move to the city?

We’ve known since last year that Auckland Transport have looking at how they operate and their corporate accommodation. Both of these issues have been items on the closed session of the AT board meetings in the past, such as this one from December.

Corporate Accommodation – Long Term Strategy

Value for money review

I understand the value for money review was looking at how AT performed at a structural level and where, if any improvements could be made.

We know that AT are currently spread out in numerous locations around the region including having some staff in the city in the HSBC building, some in Henderson, some at Smales Farm on the North Shore and some in Manukau. We also know that AT have come under fire before for running private shuttles between the city and Henderson because they found the public transport options weren’t good enough – a practice that they’ve stopped.

Putting some of this together it comes as no surprise that AT want to consolidate their operations into a single building. After all the agglomeration benefits they talk about at a city scale from projects like the City Rail Link enabling more people to work close together also apply within organisations like AT.

We’ve also seen news recently that AT are looking at consolidating their operations and it appears they’re looking at the building Vodafone will be vacating near the Viaduct. Interestingly that move by Vodafone is partially into space AT currently occupy at Smales Farm.

Of course leasing a building and especially one in the city and in an election year is going to cause politicians from all stripes to jump up and down with Phil Goff the latest to do so.

AT seem to be fairly clear they’ll only move if there is a financial benefit from doing so

“The overriding factor for change is that it will be cheaper/less expensive than current disbursed arrangements. Quite simply, if it is not financially beneficial it will not happen.”

Auckland Transport has claimed the savings will be largely driven by reducing its overall office space requirements by about 2000sq m – from about 18,700sq m down to about 16,000sq m.

On top of the financial savings there are probably quite a lot of other benefits of them being in the city too. For one they seem to work a lot with the Council, NZTA and MoT who are all based in the city. In addition most of the consultancies they use are based in and around the city and you can bet they’ll be charging AT for every trip they have to make out to places like Henderson. And who knows, perhaps being closer to the city might even help some of their road focused engineers learn that the city is about people and not just a place for moving individual boxes of tin.

It seems to me that just rejecting the idea because an office looks flash without considering the benefits – of which there are probably way more than I’ve listed, is probably a good idea.

But one area I was a little surprised by was this statement

Today, general manager of communications and corporate relations Wally Thomas would not say if Auckland Transport planned to explain the benefits to council and ratepayers before proceeding with a lease on the Vodafone building.

If the benefits stack up then why wouldn’t they explain them? Given so many of their projects and the projects of the council are about enabling the city to perform better it seems like the perfect opportunity to live what they preach.

What do you think, should they move to the city?

Mid-week reading: Kim-Mai Cutler, map-making, the Black Death, and knowledge as a public good

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.

Cutler’s put together a fascinating and wide-ranging set of slides describing “the San Francisco Bay Area in the Second Gilded Age“. It’s really invaluable reading for anyone seeking to understand the issue.

cutler-housing-slide-18

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.

cutler-housing-slide-31

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.

cutler-housing-slide-36

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:

Maps tell the story of our ever-changing Earth.

The length and breadth of New Zealand is charted, at a scale of 1:50,000, across 451 topographic maps produced with technical skill, art and patience by a team of map makers at Land Information New Zealand.

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.

In the pre- earthquake map the central business district is a large black shaded area. In the post- earthquake there is only scattered black in the CBD and the ghostly remains of houses and roads in the red zone along the Avon River

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:

vox black death map

 (Andrei Nacu)

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.

Sunday reading 10 April 2016

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.

But sometimes innovation hits a dead end. In the Mercury News, Matthias Gafni asks: “Has BART’s cutting-edge 1972 technology design come back to haunt it?” It’s a cautionary tale for transport agencies betting it all on unproven technologies.

“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.

And sometimes unwelcome disruption happens. In Bloomberg View, Jana Randow reports on the difficulties property bubbles are creating for central bankers. New Zealand punches above our weight in this category: Consumer price inflation has fallen out the bottom of the Reserve Bank’s target range of 1-3%, and prices are still rising, mainly in Auckland:

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?”

Speaking of young people, here’s two urban hipsters operating an urban lumber business in Vancouver:

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.

Second, Alana Semuels writes in the Atlantic about “the role of highways in American poverty“. It’s a reminder that exclusion can be an implicit or explicit aim of many urban policies:

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).

climates matching NZ

Is SH20 (WRR) flooding the isthmus with traffic?

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.

IMG_2690

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.
video
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.

Mid-week reading: Cycle connectivity, metro connectivity, walkability

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’? 

Yup.

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?

BikeAKL_Tamaki_GI_Catchment_BluePath_Animated

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).

On a much bigger scale, Henry Grabar reports (in The Atlantic) about Paris’s new Metro plan, which is aimed to “tie Paris back together”. The city has a long history of overcoming problems that manifest in its urban form through investments in altering that urban form, knitting it together in different ways:

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) [1]. 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.

A bit more choice could be good for us!

Auckland Conversation: Joe Minicozzi Thursday 7 April

Here’s a reminder of the upcoming Auckland Conversation featuring Joe Minicozzi from the States. Joe’s work has inspired a bunch of blog posts over the last few years including: The high cost of low riseUrbanism dividend: return on rates, and Proximity and Integration: (The Metropolitan Revolution). This should be a really interesting talk.

The talk is at the Aotea Centre, doors at 5pm. To register go to the Auckland Conversation website.

joem