Platform 2 Mystery Solved – Better Newmarket Transfers

Back in September I wrote a post on better Newmarket Station Transfers, following up from this & the many comments debating the issue I decided try answer the mystery of Platform 2 once and for all.

EMU Newmarket

On the 22.11.2016 I received a reply to my LGOIMA (Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act) request

Dear Harriet

Thank you for contacting Auckland Transport (AT) on 25 October 2016 requesting the following information: “What is the reason that Platform 2 at Newmarket cannot be used, and has any investigation taken place to better utilise platform 2.”

Auckland Transport can confirm that platform 2 is currently not in use for health and safety reasons related to how the door control system was designed and configured on the current fleet of trains. At present, although the doors can be opened on the right, or left hand side independently, the door close system works on both sides of the train at once, thus closing all bar the Local Door.

In normal circumstances the Train Manager (TM) will open the doors on one side of the train. At the time of departure the TM places a key in the doorway they are operating from. This door then becomes the Local Door and remains open once the TM has ensured that it is safe to do so and has closed all of the other doors on the train. By keeping the Local Door open, the TM is then able to undertake the second, mandatory safety check to ensure that no one is trapped in any of the doors and that it is safe for the train to depart. Once this assurance has been gained the TM can then close their Local Door and give the departure signal to the Driver.

At Newmarket, if the train is standing with the doors open on both sides and the TM is working from their Local Door on Platform 3, once they have undertaken their first safety check on Platform 3, the TM presses the Door Close button from their ‘Local Door’ (which is located on the Platform 3 side of the train) the door system automatically closes all of the doors on both sides of the train, aside from the Local Door.

This means the doors on Platform 2 could potentially close on or trap a customer as no safety check has been made. Additionally, although the TM is able to make the mandatory second safety check on Platform 3, there would be no doors open on the Platform 2 for the TM to ensure that it was safe for the train to depart.

This, of course is not a safe method of operation and is not permitted. This situation has been recognised as an issue by both Auckland Transport and Transdev and thus Platform 2 at Newmarket has never been formally commissioned, is not equipped with Passenger Information Display and is not included within the Transdev Railway Safety Case as an operational platform. AT are working with Transdev, KiwiRail and NZTA to agree a safe method of operating, to support the commissioning of Platform 2.

Any investigations would have to include, but is not limited to:

  1. A review of Departure sequencing from Newmarket.
  2. An understanding of how this may affect Timetable resiliency, Station Dwell Time, and Terminal Congestion.
  3. Signal sighting requirements from P2.
  4. Installation of, and upgrade to, a number of required Signalling and Public.
  5. After these, and other identified requirements have been satisfactorily concluded, Transdev Auckland, would be required to submit a variation to their safety Case for approval from the regulatory bodies. 

We trust the above information has addressed the matters raised however, should you believe that we have not responded appropriately to your request, you have the right in accordance with section 27(3) of the LGOIMA to make a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman to seek an investigation and review in regard to this matter. If you have any further queries please contact Auckland Transport on 09 355 3553 quoting Official Information request number CAS-432585-S8M8M4.

Yours sincerely Brendon Main Group Manager AT Metro Operation

So what have we learnt, we have learnt that

  1. Doors can be opened on both sides.
  2. That with with the right upgrades & training opening the doors on both sides is perfectly feasible.
  3. That the doors can be opened on just P2 for Northbound Services with even simpler upgrades such as signal sighting and passenger information.

In my post I wrote about opening the doors just on the P2 side for Northbound services, & just for P3 for Eastbound services to allow greater transfer accessibility for those transferring between the Onehunga/Southern & Western Lines, commentators discussed opening the doors on both sides as a solution as well.

How a timed connection at Newmarket could work. The trains already use these routes, it's just a matter of timetabling them to arrive at the station at the same time.

How a timed connection at Newmarket could work. The trains already use these routes, it’s just a matter of timetabling them to arrive at the station at the same time.

What this reply shows us is that both options are feasible, with the option of doors only opening on the side for easiest transfer is very feasible.

I encourage AT/Transdev/Kiwirail to quickly implement either the option I suggested, or the opening on both sides option, as it will make the Network just that little bit better for the users.

Sunday reading 11 December 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading – the second-to-last edition of the year! Two weeks hence I will be tramping rather than reading and writing things on the internet.

To start things off, here’s a great video on the history of land ownership that nicely illustrates the contentious history of any given place. It’s something I think of occasionally in Auckland: the city’s Maori name, Tamaki Makaurau, alludes to its history as a battleground between iwi from Northland and the Waikato.

This, of course, did not cease when Europeans arrived. In The Spinoff, historian Vincent O’Malley tells the story of how “the great war for New Zealand broke out less than 50km from Queen St“. It’s a sad story of suspicion and greed undermining what could have been a sustained, mutually beneficial partnership between the growing city of Auckland and the Waikato iwi:

Tainui and other iwi developed a thriving economy based on feeding the settlers of Auckland. By the 1850s flour mills were dotted across the Waikato landscape and produce was being exported as far as the goldfields of California and Victoria. Māori were New Zealand’s leading export earners and key contributors to government coffers. Tainui were at the forefront of these developments and most observers in the early 1850s would have found it almost inconceivable that less than a decade later they would stand accused of plotting the imminent massacre of Auckland’s residents.

Those allegations were not only entirely unfounded but also illogical. Destroying the key outlet for their produce would have been suicidal for Tainui. Their wealth and therefore power depended to a large degree on Auckland’s ongoing wellbeing. But how had it even come to pass that they might be accused of such a thing?

For one thing, as settler numbers grew their reliance upon Māori lessened (at the same time that demand for Māori land increased). Lurking Victorian assumptions of racial superiority over ‘native’ peoples began to come to the fore. Great rangatira complained of being racially abused whenever they visited Pākehā townships like Auckland, in contrast to the great hospitality that even lowly Europeans continued to receive from Māori. In 1858 Europeans in New Zealand outnumbered Māori for the first time. And while Pākehā were happy for Māori to feed and defend them, they were not prepared to share the governance of the colony with the chiefs. In 1852 a new constitution for the colony established a parliament (and provincial assemblies) from which Māori were effectively excluded because the right to vote was based on European forms of land tenure.

The Kīngitanga (King movement) was one of the ways in which Māori responded. Despite initial reluctance, in 1858 an elderly Te Wherowhero (now called Pōtatau Te Wherowhero) was raised up as the first king. Some Europeans welcomed this development, seeing it as a positive reform that would improve social order and governance within Māori communities. Others chose to brand it as a challenge to the Crown’s authority. That was a difficult position to sustain given that Queen Victoria was described as “a fence for us all…Maoris and Pakehas” by Wiremu Tamihana (known as the ‘kingmaker’ by Europeans for his role in anointing the new king). Nevertheless, that the Kīngitanga could not be allowed to stand became official Crown policy, paving the way for the invasion of its Waikato heartland in July 1863.

The New Zealand Wars in the 1860s were one of the most significant things to happen to the country. They set our course for the next century – abrogation of the Treaty of Waitangi, massive expansion of European settlement, and a shift in economic and political power from Maori to European settlers.

Yet Pakeha seldom talk about them. For instance, an ancestor of mine was a Land Court judge at Helensville from 1858 to 1875 – a pretty momentous time and place. But my family has passed down very little knowledge of that time. That may just be our lackadaisical approach to oral history, but I get the sense that the country as a whole prefers to ignore the New Zealand Wars. Why is that?

One theory I’ve got is that humans are just intrinsically bad at remembering that things used to be different. I had that thought when reading Tamsin Rutter’s article in the Guardian about Ghent (Belgium)’s successful car-free city centre. A policy that was wildly unpopular prior to introduction is now wildly popular:

One morning in 1997, Frank Beke, the mayor of Ghent, woke up to find he’d been sent a bullet in the post. For the next few weeks Beke wore a bulletproof jacket, while police stood guard outside his house and accompanied him everywhere he went. “I was very anxious for my family,” he says. “I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.”

The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.

“It was a rather radical plan to ban all cars from an area of about 35 hectares,” recalls Beke. “With every decision you take, there can be some opposition – but I never expected a bullet, of course.”

There were protests outside Ghent’s city hall: businesses were afraid they’d lose their customers, elderly residents were concerned about being cut off from their children. But Beke stood his ground, and although a few businesses that relied on car access had to move, today the city centre is thriving.

His successor, Daniël Termont, says that if he were now to reintroduce cars into the city centre, he’d be the one wearing a bulletproof jacket. In all, 72% of Ghentians are in favour of Termont’s new plans to expand the pedestrian zone by 15 hectares (a further 17% are neutral).

Change can initially be disconcerting, but once it’s happened people usually get accustomed to it. This can have both positive and negative consequences. For instance, in Foreign Affairs Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz explain how creeping erosion of democratic norms is now a greater threat than coups and revolutions: “How Democracies Fall Apart“:

Post–Cold War populists such as Chávez, Putin, and Erdogan took a slow and steady approach to dismantling democracy. These leaders first come to power through democratic elections and subsequently harness widespread discontent to gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule, marginalize the opposition, and erode civil society. The playbook is consistent and straightforward: deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power (particularly in the judiciary and security services) and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship. This strategy makes it hard to discern when the break with democracy actually occurs, and its insidiousness poses one of the most significant threats to democracy in the twenty-first century.

The steady dismantling of democratic norms and practices by democratically elected leaders, what we call “authoritarianization,” marks a significant change in the way that democracies have historically fallen apart. Data on authoritarian regimes show that until recently, coups have been the primary threats to democracy. From 1946 to 1999, 64 percent of democracies failed because of such insurgencies. In the last decade, however, populist-fueled authoritarianization has been on the rise, accounting for 40 percent of all democratic failures between 2000 and 2010 and matching coups in frequency. If current trends persist, populist-fueled authoritarianization will soon become the most common pathway to autocracy.

Even more disheartening, the slow and gradual nature of populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter. Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce. And in cases in which vocal critics do emerge, populist leaders can easily frame them as “fifth columnists,” “agents of the establishment,” or other provocateurs seeking to destabilize the system. Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.

As I’ve written before, democracy is important. It’s the best way to ensure that we get a better society over time, and one that remains open and equitable both economically, socially, and culturally. But it needs to be actively safeguarded and improved, rather than taken for granted.

And now for something completely different. London School of Economics scholar Cheng Keat Tang asks: “Do we value the London congestion charge?” He takes a look at the effects of the toll cordon around the London city centre on several metrics:

Effects of the London Congestion Charge

Is the charge effective? My research show that indeed it is. Relying on traffic data at a road level, I find that vehicular flow fell by 6% to 9% after the CC is first introduced in 2003, and 4% to 6% when the WEZ is implemented in 2007. Subsequent hikes, other than the initial increase in charge in 2005 (from £5.00 to £8.00), has a less discernible impact on traffic. This is understandable as marginal increases in the charge are less likely to dissuade drivers from commuting into the zone than its introduction. Commuters are now required to pay £11.50 to drive into the cordoned area when the CC is up. With less driving in the CCZ, air quality has also improved, according to others’ research. The implementation of the CC was associated with a 12 per cent reduction in air pollutants as such PM10 (Particulate Matter) and NO (Nitrogen Oxide) in the zone (Beevers et al. 2005). Roads are also much safer with a decline in accident and casualty counts (Green et al, 2016). The success of the original congestion charge led to the subsequent extension of the congestion charge zone to central west London (WEZ) in 2007 that covers Kensington and Chelsea borough – one of the most expensive and sought after estates in London.

How much do residents value these benefits?

So do homeowners pay for these benefits? To examine this, I restrict the analysis to properties very close to the congestion charge boundary (within 1 kilometre) to exploit the sharp discontinuity in traffic flow induced by the charge between roads just inside the zone and roads just outside (as drivers are deterred from driving into Central London). This ensures that properties in and out of the charged zone are almost similar other than being affected by the charge (or receiving the benefits from improved traffic conditions).

Comparing house price changes before and after the CC is implemented, my findings show that homeowners do pay for these benefits. When the WEZ was implemented, house prices rose by 4 per cent (about £30,000) relative to comparable transactions outside the zone. However, similar price increases did not occur in the original CCZ when it was introduced in 2003.

Another fascinating recent piece of data on transport markets comes courtesy of the Financial Times. Apparently Uber is making significant losses:

For context, cost recovery on Auckland’s public transport network was 48.8% in October 2016 – and Auckland Transport isn’t trying to run the public transport network to make a profit, but instead to achieve other social and economic goals.

Alex Wilhelm (Mattermark) provides further context on the numbers, concluding that:

Self-driving cars aren’t going to drop into the market in time for Uber to improve its operational results before its IPO. In fact, its investments in that area could make its IPO-time results worse by forcing the company to tabulate long-term investments into R&D as short-term cash and stock costs.

Such is the life of a public company.

Uber loses more money than I would have thought, and it has done so at a faster clip than I expected for longer than I anticipated. That said, its growth is impressive. Incredibly so, really.

Here’s the question you need to answer: If Uber’s China exit lowers its operating costs, will investors cheer more the improvement of its margin results, or will they instead worry about reduced potential top line growth?

For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical about the idea that Uber can sustainably increase prices on users even if it does ‘monopolise’ the taxi market. Its strategy seems to depend upon breaking down barriers to entry in the taxi market – ie bypassing or eliminating systems where there are a limited number of permits to operate a cab in a city. If it succeeds in doing so, it will in turn face competition when it tries to increase fares. So the end game is unclear.

On the other hand, one thing that is increasingly clear is that protected cycle lanes save lives. In CityLab, David Dudley reports:

The transformative virtues of protected bike lanes have been the focus of much research lately. A 2014 study from Portland State University determined that segregated bike paths are not only demonstrably safer for riders, they have the power to lure lapsed riders back aboard their bikes. And in a new paper in the American Journal of Public Health, “Safer Cycling Through Improved Infrastructure,” the authors John Pucher and Ralph Buehler demonstrate that those cities that have invested heavily in fully protected bike paths over the last decade or so have reaped the biggest safety improvements and ridership boosts. “It is not simply a matter of expanding bicycle infrastructure,” the authors write. “The specific type of bicycle infrastructure matters. Several studies show the crucial importance of physical separation of cycling facilities from motor vehicle traffic on heavily traveled roads.”

To show how that effect works nationwide, the study authors compared accident statistics and ridership rates from 10 American cities that are “at the vanguard of building physically separated cycling facilities,” says Pucher, a professor emeritus of urban planning at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. In Portland, Oregon, the rate of severe injuries or fatalities per 100,000 trips dropped 72 percent from 2000 to 2015, as the city’s bike network grew by 53 percent and the number of bicycle trips taken by Portlanders climbed a whopping 391 percent. In Minneapolis, the bikeway network grew 113 percent and trips climbed 203 percent while injuries and fatalities dropped 79 percent. Other cities with big safety improvements include New York City (with a 72 percent drop), Chicago (60 percent), Seattle (53 percent), and Washington, D.C. (50 percent). “In all 10 of the cities,” Pucher notes, “the combined number of fatalities and serious injuries … fell sharply compared to the number of daily bike commuters reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in its annual American Community Survey.”

To close, an important comment on the state of economics and policy analysis from Noah Smith: “An econ theory, falsified“:

[Consider] the “Econ 101” theory of the labor market. This is a model we all know very well – it has one labor supply curve and one labor demand curve, one undifferentiated type of labor and one single wage.

OK, so what are some empirical things we know about labor markets? Here are two stylized facts that, while not completely uncontroversial, are pretty one-sided in the literature:

1. A surge of immigration does not have a big immediate negative impact on wages.

2. Modest minimum wage hikes do not have a big immediate negative impact on employment.

[…] The first fact alone does not falsify the Econ 101 theory of labor markets. It could be the case that short-run labor demand is simply very elastic… Since labor demand is elastic, the supply shift from a bunch of immigrants showing up in the labor market doesn’t have a big effect on wages in this picture.

BUT, this is impossible to reconcile with the second stylized fact. If labor demand is very elastic, minimum wage should have big noticeable negative effects on employment … By the same token, if you try to explain the second stylized fact by making both labor supply and demand very inelastic, then you contradict the first stylized fact. You just can’t explain both of these facts at the same time with this theory. It cannot be done.

So the Econ 101 theory of labor supply and labor demand has been falsified. It’s just not a useful theory for explaining labor markets in the short term (the long term might be a different story). It’s not a good approximation. It doesn’t give good qualitative intuition. And it’s especially bad for explaining the market for low-wage labor, which is the market that most of the aforementioned studies concentrate on.

What is a better theory of the labor market? Maybe general equilibrium (which might say that immigration creates its own demand). Maybe a model with imperfect competition (which might say that minimum wage reduces monopsony power). Maybe search and matching theory (which might say that frictions make all short-term effects pretty small). Maybe a theory with very heterogeneous types of labor. Maybe something else.

Assignment for the summer holidays: Consider what it would mean if your simple theory of the world didn’t hold true?

Smaller Consultations – December

Recently I noticed that AT often do smaller online consultations all the time, as far as I know these are not shared widely. As a result I have decided to do a post every now and again on all the small consultations that are happening giving people the opportunity to share their thoughts with AT from Crossings to Bus Lanes to Parking. The ones to look out for below are the Mt Eden Road Bus Lanes and the pedestrian improvement consultations.

Please take a look through and complete the AT online consultation forms where you can, also don’t forget to consult on the three major cycle consultations in Westhaven, Herne Bay & Parnell talked about on the blog here, as well as the Mt Albert Consultation where cycle lanes are being proposed to be removed from the plan as discussed on the blog here.

Consultations that interested me

  • Mt Eden Rd bus network improvements – Proposal to add Bus Lanes on Mt Eden Road from Roskill Way to Grahame Breed Drive, the New Bus Lanes + some existing ones would be 7-10 & 4-7 from Roskill Way to Mt Albert Road, two signalised crossings will be added for pedestrians & bus stops improved by changing the position and length of some. Closes 18.12.2016
  • Meadowbank Rd and Manapau St – intersection upgrade – Proposal to upgrade the intersection by narrowing the intersection, adding a refuge island, and adding no stopping restrictions. Closes 16.12.2016
  • Ladies Mile, Ellerslie – pedestrian crossing improvements – Adds new footpath, a raise crossing across Ladies Mile nearish the Town Centre & adds some no stopping restrictions. This is my area, personally I think the crossing needs to be at the end as that would better assist those crossing in the Town Centre & another one needs to be added across Main Highway for safer access to the Buses & Train Station. Closes 15.12.2016
  • Hayr Road, Three Kings – pedestrian crossing improvements – Proposal to improve crossing. Closes 15.12.2016
  • Eaglehurst Road, Ranier St, Laud Ave and Gavin Street, Ellerslie – local area traffic management – Proposal to add speed tables & install new speed humps due to complaints of speeding. Closes 13.12.2016
  • View Road, Mt Eden – Pedestrian crossing and intersection improvements – Proposal for Pedestrian Improvements on View Road. Closes 14.12.2016


North Shore Consultations


Central Consultations


West Auckland Consultations


South Auckland Consultations

Small Steps – Better Bus Lanes

We often talk about the big projects, networks, as well as game changing best practice regulations. For a while I have wanted to create a small campaign about the small things, low hanging fruit where for cheaply i.e. not for hundreds of millions of dollars, we can achieve with a “Small Step” a “Great Leap” for the people the project and area it effects. This post is about Bus Lanes.

Bus Lane

Bus Lane

Mention bus lanes and you may get different reactions from different people, some might say leave muh parking alone, others might say they’re always full of empty buses, open up the lanes to cars, others say they are great. The truth is Bus Lanes are great, they help move a higher amount of people using the same space, they make PT services faster & thus encourage more people to use the Bus, but alas are we at Best Practice when it comes to our Bus Lanes

The main critique of bus lanes from PT users is always the hours they operate, and to be fair to them they are usually right. This is especially the case at Mt Eden where between Batger and Oaklands where in the evening peak, the bus lanes last for just 1 hour. Elsewhere, most bus lanes tend to be around 7-9am & 4-6pm and only in the peak direction. The question is, are these hours enough?

In my view, the mornings could do with being a bit longer, but the afternoons definitely should be, they need to be at least 3-7pm. Why is this? Because people finish at vastly different times compared to when they start in the mornings, school kids for example share the morning peak services with work commuters, however they mostly don’t share the evening services as they finish around 3pm. Work commuters tend to head home at vastly different times for a variety of reasons, especially the workaholics but those who head out after work for dinner/drinks or just hitting the gym. This means buses after 6pm are still normally quite busy moving a lot of people and could do with longer bus lane hours to move those people efficiently.

In my humble opinion Peak Direction Bus Lanes should be at least 7 – 9.30 & 3 – 7.

Bus/Transit Lane Times Sign

Bus/Transit Times Sign

The other issue with times is Bus Lanes tends to fall into two categories 24/7, or peak direction only. While that covers a lot of routes, some are not that simple, for example take Great South Road where there is lots of counter peak movement, people who work/study south but live elsewhere, they need to get back to Newmarket/CBD to transfer onto the next service that will take them home. Some routes don’t fall into the simple peak category & investigations should happen into what those routes are, and having the Bus Lanes running both ways in the peaks.

The other major complaint is they are not continuous, that there are gaps in the Bus Lanes that cause issues, not having gaps is important, could you imagine having gaps in the Footpaths, it is important to the extent possible we eliminate all gaps that are feasible.

The last complaint is the major gap in priority for our crosstown network, as you can see from the New Network Bus Lanes Existing/Proposed/Under Investigation there is really zero crosstown bus lanes, crosstown frequencies are to increase & AT wants us to use these services, so lets back them up with the Bus Lanes to make them competitive with driving.

Central New Network Bus Lanes

Central New Network Bus Lanes

At the end of the day, what is holding up extending bus lane time extensions, as it often is it’s parking, often for a very few people, in my opinion AT shouldn’t be providing free parking at the expense of others, if you own a car store it on your residence, I don’t store my cupboard on the road, in fact it’s considered illegal dumping if I do, for areas by shops, we know study after study shows Shop Owners massively overestimate customers who come by car, and that better transit/cycling actually increases the amount of customers so let’s get on with it, let’s make our Bus Lanes better.

Sunday Reading 13 November 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, the US elections are over. So is the US, probably. If there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that countries taken over by authoritarian strongmen who are willing to subvert democratic norms and destroy public institutions to maintain power frequently don’t recover from it. Think Venezuela under Chavez or Russia under Putin.

But we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about where some big-picture economic trends are taking us.

First, Binyamin Appelbaum at the NY Times’ Upshot blog points out “a little noticed fact about trade: it’s no longer rising“:

The Walmart revolution is over. During the 1990s, global trade grew more than twice as fast as the global economy. Europe united. China became a factory town. Tariffs came down. Transportation costs plummeted. It was the Walmart Era.

But those changes have played out. Europe is fraying around the edges; low tariffs and transportation costs cannot get much lower. And China’s role in the global economy is changing. The country is making more of what it consumes, and consuming more of what it makes. In addition, China’s maturing industrial sector increasingly makes its own parts. The International Monetary Fund reported last year that the share of imported components in products “Made in China” has fallen to 35 percent from 60 percent in the 1990s.

The result: The I.M.F. study calculated that a 1 percent increase in global growth increased trade volumes by 2.5 percent in the 1990s, while in recent years, the same growth has increased trade by just 0.7 percent.

Worth watching carefully – if this trend continues, it will have big implications for many places.

Second, Conor Sen argues (in Bloomberg View) that so-called ‘disruptive tech’ has in fact disrupted very little: “Tech has not shaken basic economics“:

This isn’t to deny the impact technology has had this decade. Facebook and Netflix have transformed media and entertainment. Amazon continues to reshape commerce. Ad dollars continue to move from print and television to digital, particularly mobile. But for economists and academics concerned with the big drivers of the economy — employment, productivity, housing and big-ticket consumer purchases — the late 2010s are not a glimpse of the new economy. They are textbook examples of the old economy.

Sen has a point: trends in car ownership and first home purchases are, in the short run, probably best explained by sudden changes in income rather than sudden changes in preferences. Young people have done badly out of the post-GFC economy, and purchases of big expensive things tend to go down as a result. But I also think that it’s possible to under-sell some of the long term impacts of technological change. Watch this space, basically.

Third, the Niskanen Centre’s Will Wilkinson raises an interesting question for people on the libertarian/small-government end of the political spectrum: “What if we can’t make government smaller?

Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. There’s no reason to believe Wagner’s Law is a real social-scientific law—that it captures a real relationship of strict if-this-then-that causal necessity. Which is to say, it wouldn’t be a miracle if GDP increased for a few decades, but the government’s share of GDP didn’t. Yet that never happens in countries with political systems like ours.

As Andreas Bergh, an economist at the University of Lund, puts it, “Given how rare laws are in the social sciences, the positive correlation between the public sector’s share of GDP and real GDP per capita remains an important regularity.” Peter Lindert says that “[t]he notion that income growth will raise taxes and government spending, including social spending, is the most durable black box in the whole rise-of-the-state literature.”

[…] There’s an abiding faith on the right that there must be policy levers that can be pulled to reduce political demand for government spending. The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

[…] Giving up on the quixotic quest to find the magic words or the magic policy lever that would finally and decisively falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to distinguish more clearly between the welfare state and the regulatory state, and to focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth. We’ll see more clearly that a small government and a limited government that reliably protects rights and promotes freedom aren’t really the same thing. And we’ll begin to recognize that sowing antagonism to the welfare state hasn’t accomplished anything very constructive. The war against the welfare state hasn’t slowed growth in welfare-state spending so much as it has made our system unusually loathed and unusually shoddy. Mostly, it has fostered a divisive, racially-tinged “makers vs. takers” narrative while encouraging opposition to reform measures that might have made our safety net fairer, more efficient, and better at minimizing the economic anxieties that drive populist political sentiments fundamentally at odds with an open society of free markets, free trade, liberal migration, and peace.

Whether you’re left, right, or centre, it’s worth considering Wilkinson’s case that our main focus should be on having a government that does things well, rather than a government of a particular size. He draws an important distinction between the ‘welfare state’, which aims to ensure that everyone has access to the things that they need to live a good life, like education, healthcare, and unemployment/disability insurance, and the ‘regulatory state’, which aims to manage and direct private economic activity. People often conflate these two things, but they’re very different in practice.

On a separate note, Brad Plumer at Vox makes the case for more urban trees:

…urban trees do at least two important things for public health:

1) They can soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories — an important job, given that particulates wreak havoc on human lungs and kill some 3.2 million people worldwide each year. The precise effect varies from city to city, but generally trees do improve air quality.

2) Urban trees can also cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days, which is vital during deadly heat waves. (Studies have found that every additional 1 degree Celsius in a heat wave leads to a 3 percent or more increase in mortality.)

The new Nature Conservancy report sifts through all this research and lays out some global scenarios. At the high end, a massive new tree-planting campaign in the world’s 245 largest cities, costing around $3.2 billion in all, could save between 11,000 and 36,000 lives per year worldwide from lower pollution. Those trees would also prevent between 200 and 700 heat-wave deaths per year — with that number presumably going up over time as global warming unfolds.

On a similar note, Charlie Sorrel at Fastcoexist reviews some new research showing that “the well-designed city is a healthy city, all over the world“:

If you design a city to get people walking, then people will do more physical activity. A new global study has found that a well-designed neighborhood not only keeps people fit but can reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The correlation between walkability and public health has been made before, but this study, published in the Lancet, looked at 14 cities in 10 countries, all of which had a similar design, in order to determine whether or not the cities’ layouts themselves were the reason for increased health, as opposed to different lifestyles in different countries…

The biggest design factors affecting the amount of “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity,” including walking, were: residential density, park and public transport density, and intersection density. Parks are obvious in their effect—people take walks in parks. Residential density is important because if you live in a compact neighborhood, you can easily walk to do your errands. And public transit density is important because not only does it obviate car use, but people have to walk to their nearest station instead of their driveway.

One thing I would like to see out of this study is a clearer account of causality. The correlation is very strong, but there’s also a possibility that some people select into more walkable places because they want to walk more. However, this is unlikely to overturn the findings, given the fact that the same relationships were observed in many different contexts.

In terms of policy change, it’s also clear that we need to do things differently if we want to have healthier cities. Street trees and public parks are an easy sell, but density, mixed use, and public transport sometimes aren’t. How do we have challenging conversations about change? Laura Bernstein (The Urbanist) has some ideas: “How to talk to your NIMBY parents“:

I despise the acronym NIMBY–‘not in my backyard.’ Does it mean someone wants streets “swept” of people living outside? Does it mean someone is worried about tree canopy and parking spaces, leading to fights over the new microhousing project on their block? Does it mean someone is worried that without owner occupancy rules for “backyard cottages,” developer-run AirBnBs will take over their community? I believe that growing cities are all struggling against the selfish whims of NIMBYs. Many journalists have painted this as a generational squabble. In Seattle, that is not always the case. But I don’t think YIMBYs–‘yes in my backyard’–can fight back if we don’t know what motivates them.

I want you to talk to your NIMBY parents and I want you to listen to them.

Bernstein identifies seven practical steps you can do to have good conversations with people who have different perspectives:

  1. Listen more than you talk.
  2. Look for an organic opening.
  3. Ask open-ended questions.
  4. Celebrate your shared vision of the future.
  5. Connect the struggle for walkable, affordable cities to struggles your parents advocated for when they were your age.
  6. Be open to not winning every discussion.
  7. Don’t use data if there is an anecdote that tells the same story, (unless your parent is a wonky engineer and gets fired up about data).

Worth thinking about, and not just for urban planning.

Odd Compromise for AT Board?

A couple of weeks back new mayor Phil Goff announced that he was considering not appointing councillors to the board of Auckland Transport. Under the legislation that established Auckland Council (and Auckland Transport), up to two councillors can be appointed to the Board, although there is no requirement for this appointment to be made. In a post on the issue I noted that this might not be a bad move, as councillors/directors face some challenging conflicts of interest in performing both roles, and not having councillors on the Board may ‘free up’ the council to use its other accountability mechanisms more.

Goff’s decision to re-evaluate the decision in a year’s time seems like a good solution. If it turns out AT start making even stupider decisions then some Councillors could always be added back again. What’s not clear is if the council will then appoint some directors on a one year term to make up the board numbers.

Six years in it feels like now is an appropriate time to shake things up to change how the organisation is run at both a board and management level to ensure we get better outcomes.

Unsurprisingly there has been a mixed reaction to Goff’s announcement, including a number of councillors rightly pointing it out that this is actually a decision for the council as a whole, rather than just the Mayor. A few slightly harsh early lessons about the difference between Central and Local government perhaps?

In any case, a report is going to tomorrow’s Governing Body meeting on the topic, with the Mayor proposing a somewhat interesting compromise of inviting councillors to apply for the vacant board positions and have their applications assessed against all other applicants:


A bit more context is provided in the report, including comments from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG):


The whole approach seems a bit strange, if I’m honest. The whole purpose of having councillors on the AT Board is so that they can ensure AT acts in the interests of the council, its shareholder. The legislation that enables councillors on the AT Board is different to other CCOs, where they are banned, because transport is such a large area of investment for the council and has such massive impacts on all sorts of key outcomes. Obviously it’s also where council elections are won and lost, so clearly elected members have a massive interest in transport – and rightly so. While councillors may have many of the skills required to be good “board directors” the public expectation is that any councillors on the AT Board are there to act in their role as elected councillors and ensure Auckland Transport is acting in a way that’s consistent with the council’s agreed direction.

Goff’s suggested approach seems to continue this ‘muddying of the waters’ where any councillors who end up on the AT Board will continue to have a very unclear idea of whether they should be acting like independent board directors or whether they should be acting in the interests of the council as AT’s shareholder.

It will certainly be an interesting discussion to follow on the council’s livestream.

Trademe, power tools, and “filtering” in housing markets

A discussion on Twitter recently highlighted an important – and hard-to-understand – dimension of housing markets. Namely, what is the link between new construction – which is usually expensive – and housing affordability?

A common objection to new construction is that new apartments are expensive, so they won’t do anything to improve housing affordability. However, this isn’t a problem: New homes are more expensive than old homes… but they get cheaper as they age.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider an analogy: the market for new and used power tools. If you go to Mitre 10 to buy a power drill, you can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a new tool:

Mitre 10 drill price

Or you could hop on Trademe to shop for used tools. Here’s a similar drill that’s currently selling for $90 (plus shipping):

Trademe drill price

So new tools are considerably  more expensive than old tools. Does this mean that importing and selling new power tools make DIY less affordable for low-income New Zealanders? Of course not! In fact, it’s the exact opposite: expensive new tools sold at Mitre 10 become affordable secondhand tools after they’re used for a while. If the supply of new tools dried up, the supply of cheap old tools would also vanish.

The exact same thing happens in housing markets: New housing is almost always expensive to buy, but after a while it gets a bit run-down and sells for a lower price. This process is called “filtering”, and we have evidence that it happens in practice:

[In a 2013 study] Stuart Rosenthal of Syracuse University uses nearly 40 years of data from the American Housing Survey to figure out the average pace of filtering across the country, and what makes housing filter more quickly in some places than others.

Rosenthal uses the AHS to compare the incomes of people living in the same units of housing over time. He estimates that nationwide, housing “filters” by roughly 1.9 percent a year—meaning that a 50-year-old home is typically occupied by someone whose income is about 60 percent lower than that home’s first occupant. (All of these numbers are adjusted for inflation.) You might think of this process as something like “reverse displacement.”

However, there’s an important caveat on this: Filtering happens much more slowly in cities that don’t build new housing in response to increased demand. In other words, restrictions on development will, in the long run, price out the poor:

…strong regional housing price inflation—that is, metropolitan areas where home values grow much more quickly than the cost of other goods—can make filtering happen much more slowly, or not at all. That helps explain why homes in New England and the West Coast filter about 35 percent more slowly than homes in the Midwest or South. In those coastal regions, severe restrictions on new housing construction since the 1970s have created a “shortage of cities,” driving up home prices and preventing the kind of filtering that has historically produced the lion’s share of affordable housing—and which still does in much of the rest of the country.

What this means is that we must consider housing affordability in a holistic way. Rather than insisting that individual new developments should be responsible for solving a big, intractable problem, we should ask: Are we building enough to make the filtering process work? If not, why not? Are there barriers in zoning, in the construction market, or in development finance?

Sunday reading 6 November 2016


“area-equal map” by Tetsuya Hoshi via Good Design Award

Hi and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here is a collection of stories I found interesting over the week. Please add your links in the comments below.

UN Habitat III in Quito came to a close a couple weeks ago. Here Michael Kimmelman describes the urban flavour and urgency of the conference that sits in stark contrast to Habitat I which largely focused on conventional environmentalism and improving the rural habitat- “The Kind of Thinking Cities Need“, The New York Times.

What I sense is a worldwide sea change, a generational shift, rejecting the glum defeatist view towards cities and urban like that prevailed when Habitat first convened 40 years ago in Vancouver, Canada.

Today, progressive thinking, reinforced by the undeniability of climate change, has overturned those ideas. Cities are being recognized increasingly as opportunities for economic and social progress, density as a response to environmental threats; the automobile as a big problem; slums as not just a blight but a potential template for organic urbanism. Young generations around the world, entering the tech economy and bound by the internet, are embracing urban ideals, including the common ground of public spaces. mass transit, streets and sidewalks.

Australian  architectural critic and scholar Kim Dovey and Elef Pafka describe the conditions that generate the buzz that makes some cities interesting, “What makes a city tick? Designing the ‘urban DMA’, The Conversation.

The concept of urban DMA can be traced to the work of the late Jane Jacobs, whose book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was written in the mid-20th century, when many great cities were being surrendered to cars and poor urban design.

Jacobs wrote of the need for “concentration”, “mixed primary uses”, “old buildings” and “short blocks”. We recognise this as urban DMA – “concentration” is density; “mixed use” and “old buildings” are the conditions for a formal, functional and social mix; and “short blocks” means “walkability” at a neighbourhood scale.

Jacobs’ key contribution was to focus on the city as a set of interconnections and synergies rather than things in themselves – a focus on the city as an assemblage, rather than a set of parts. While the language has evolved, our understanding of these vital synergies needs to be taken much further.

Related, here is Sandy Ikeda with “The Great Mind And Vision Of Jane Jacobs“, Market Urbanism.

Jacobs was not opposed to all government planning at the local level. She thought that zoning could be used to prevent too many large single uses in a given neighborhood, for example, several car dealerships or office buildings that would dominate and stultify the life of a street. For the same reason she argued that official municipal buildings, courthouses, and such should be strategically placed around the city, rather than collected into a single civic mall.

But to the end she remained skeptical of urban planners, even those such as the so-called New Urbanists, who have adopted some of her design principles but not her sensitivity to how the healthiest communities are those that arise spontaneously over time. Large-scale visions of the ideal city, modernist and postmodernist alike, that seek to impose a visual order or a unified aesthetic principle on seemingly chaotic social orders ignore what Jacobs called the “locality knowledge” of unwritten rules and unseen interpersonal relations possessed by the people who live, work, and play in a neighborhood. Actually implementing those visions, as for example Lincoln Center in New York or Brazil’s capital city of Brasilia, undermines or leaves no room for the foundations of the underlying social networks that generate safety, trust, and, ultimately, creativity in commerce and art in an unplanned but coordinated way.


A prediction: As the Auckland City Centre becomes busier and more residential focused there will be increasing tensions between residents, student, office workers, and the outliers that drive to and through the city. Here Lance Wiggs describes a series of encounters that demonstrate that both social norms and the physical environment could use a lot of improvement-  “Let’s make downtown Auckland safe“, Lance Wiggs.

First – let’s keep installing infrastructure that separates vehicles and humans, and that encourages slower traffic. The shared spaces in Auckland are working extraordinarily well, and the physically separated bike lanes are encouraging a broad mix of people to add cycling to their mix of transport.

Secondly – let’s get serious about the magnitude of offences that are likely to cause fatalities and enforce them. Distracted driving in a downtown area feels, as a pedestrian or cyclist, a lot more dangerous than speeding, so why not elevate it to the level of dangerous driving?

Why not introduce the NSW rule about touching phones? Shouldn’t running red lights downtown with hundreds of pedestrians around be classified dangerous driving as well? Shouldn’t we place the burden of guilt for injury of a person walking or cycling on the person driving the motor vehicle?

Thirdly – let’s use existing and new tools to change behaviour. Auckland is covered in connected cameras, and it should be relatively simply to turn on functionality that allows red light runners to be automatically caught, to review footage to follow up on egg tossers and dangerous drivers, and to provide that information to the Police.

Let’s also put in place processes where transport police are actively capturing evidence provided by members of the public over the internet – whether through a website or picked up from social media.

Finally let’s put in place processes to make sure that every incident results in an action, triaged by severity based on the level of hazard created. If this needs dedicated police then sobeit – but it will be a far more effective use of time than random driving.

We can do this. I was living in Melbourne when the introduction of speed cameras dropped the average speeds on major roads by 20-30 kph overnight. Nobody liked it, but less people died.

Density and Trump. This is an interesting story about how voting patterns (and political strategies) line up with bigger cities. It can be traced back to white flight and the suburban experiment aided by highway construction. Emily Badger, and Quoctrung Bui, “Why Republicans Don’t Even Try to Win Cities Anymore“, The New York Times

In the early years of white flight, two federal policies- the construction of the interstate highway system and mortgage guarantees for the new suburbs – pulled whites out of cities even as they were getting pushed by racial tension, desegregations and school busing.

“The people who go to the suburbs are not a random selection,” said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced. They were the upper and middle class. They became homeowners. The prized neighborhoods of single-family houses. Those charactersitics today all correlate with leaning Republican. “These population shifts happen for reasons that are external to politics,” Ms. Trounstine said, “but politics is embedded in who goes.”

Metropolitan areas with more highway construction became more polarized over time between Democratic cities and Republican suburbs, according to research by Clayton Nall, a Stanford political scientist. Where highways were built, they helped sort people. Where they led, suburbs became more reliably Republican. They created entirely new places, Mr. Nall argues, with new politics.

I love the highway tear out stories. No city that has removed an urban motorway has regretted the choice. This one in Rochester has a bit of a twist. Instead of an elevated structure this one is a sunken highway that also was movement barrier that limited city growth. Two years along at it appears to be a wild success. The Keith Schneider, “Taking Out a Highway That Hemmed Rochester In“, The New York Times.

Today, Rochester is completing a $23.6 million project that fills in almost a third of the 2.7-mile sunken highway and replaces it with an at-grade boulevard and nearly six acres of prime land for development.

Though cities like Boston, San Francisco, and New York have removed elevated and surface highways, decisions that cleared the way for housing and office construction, leaders here say Rochester may be the first to fill in a section. The project fits into the city’s effort to focus on pedestrians and establish vital neighborhoods for housing, expanding businesses and producing jobs.

Sunday reading 23 October 2016

Hi and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are the media highlights from the past couple weeks. Drop your recommendation in the comments section. Happy Labour Day weekend!

New world cities must be kicking themselves for not building underground rapid transit when they had a chance. Here’s Seattle’s story when they were close to deciding on a comprehensive mass transit system in 1968, but instead decided to invest in “arterials and expressways”. Woops. Josh Cohen, “How Seattle blew its chance at a subway system“, Crosscut.

Foward Thrust vision for transit was a 47-mile, 30-station rail rapid transit system with four lines running out of downtown to the corners of the city and across the lake to Bellevue, to be built by 1985. The measure would’ve also funded 90 miles of express bus service, and over 500 miles of local bus service to feed the rail system.

All that rail came with a steep price tag: $1.15 billion. But the Forward Thrust committee was encouraged by the 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act, which authorized the federal government to pay for up to two-thirds of the capital costs of urban rail projects. Their plan asked for $385 million in property taxes from Seattle and King County voters. The feds would pick up roughly $800 million on top of that.

In a report to the Municipal League, Gould wrote, “The only way we can fail safe is with arterials, expressways, and a modern bus system … Let us not financially cripple ourselves for the next 40 years for a system that all experience proves to be a loser.”

Gibbs says General Motors also joined the opposition. “They brought in a lot of money,” he tells me. “And they brought in something called the Bus of the Future to demonstrate how buses would operate and what they could look like. They never built another one, they never intended to. It was strictly show to try and stop rail projects.”

The option to avoid congestion and access more destinations across a city seems a critical metric. Here’s a neat study mapping the coverage of rapid transit stations across several large cities. Andrew Small, “What Cities Have the Most People Living Near Rapid Transit?“, CityLab.

Using these benchmarks, the study compared rapid transit sheds in cities to density maps of metropolitan areas to determine how many people have access to speedy public transportation.

For the 13 cities studied in industrialized countries, the average share of the population near transit came in at 68.5 percent, while metropolitan areas came in at 37.3 percent. The top four cities with the largest populations near rapid transit were Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and London, reaching more than 90 percent of their city populations. Rotterdam came in fifth, serving 84 percent of its city population. The dense population in these cities affords good transit coverage at their cores, but further transit development has not followed residents out into broader metropolitan areas.


There continues to be a wealth of content and debate about life and work of Jane Jacobs. Reading Life and Death in 1990 had a profound influence on my life and inspired an unshakable fascination with cities and urbanism. I look forward to reading these biographies and unpublished collections over the summer. Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs“, The Atlantic.

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

Reduced to a word, Jacobs’s argument is that a city, or neighborhood, or block, cannot succeed without diversity: diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style. Great numbers of people concentrated in relatively small areas should not be considered a health or safety hazard; they are the foundation of a healthy community.


Jane Jacobs at the 1958 Rockefeller Conference on Urban Design Criticism via @PeterLaurence.

The California LAO has been a leader in the conversation about the affects of land use restrictions in growing cities. From growing inequality to lower economic productivity, California remains the ground zero for zoning/land use gong show. Brian Uhler, “Housing and Economic Mobility“, The California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Our office has written extensively about how California’s housing crisis—largely a result of too little building in coastal urban areas—has made it hard for many Californians to find housing that both meets their needs and is affordable. One perhaps underappreciated consequence of lackluster homebuilding in coastal California is that many workers are denied access to California’s high-wage job markets because they are unable to find housing. These workers are pushed to other parts of California or beyond where their wages tend to be lower.

With the decreased flow of workers from low-wage areas to high-wage areas, incomes levels across California’s counties have stopped converging in recent decades. Whereas the downward sloping pattern in the graph above for county income growth between 1940 and 1960 indicated converging incomes, the lack of such a pattern in the graph below for the period 1990 and 2010 suggests that convergence has stalled. (In fact, if anything there is a slight upward slope.)

A major takeaway from this data is that many of those who are affected by California’s coastal communities’ decisions to limit home building do not live in these communities. They are the workers who have been pushed to other parts of the state where their incomes are lower.

Laura Kusisto, “As Land-Use Rules Rise, Economic Mobility Slows, Research Says“, Wall Street Journal.

According to research by Daniel Shoag, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Peter Ganong, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a decadeslong trend in which the income gap between the poorest and richest states steadily closed has been upended by growth in land-use regulations.

Moving to a wealthier area in search of job opportunities has historically been a way to promote economic equality, allowing workers to pursue higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But those wage gains lose their appeal if they are eaten up by higher housing costs. The result: More people stay put and lose out on potential higher incomes.

Here’s a fascinating thesis about how class structures are being dismantled due to the housing boom/crisis. Via Bendon Harre. Ilan Wiesel, “How the housing boom is remaking Australia’s social class structure“, The Conversation.

The housing boom has blurred existing boundaries between upper, middle and lower classes that applied to the baby boomers and previous generations. New social class boundaries and formations are being produced.

This does not mean younger generations, as a collective, are disadvantaged compared to their parents. Rather, these younger generations will be subdivided differently and more unequally.

The Renting Class

In the industrial city, the term “working class” was defined by the experiences of low-income workers in manufacturing jobs. Yet in a post-industrial Australian city it makes more sense to talk about the “renting class”.

Not all renters are poor, and not all poor households are private renters. However, the correlation between the two is significant and strengthening.

Marina Benjamin, “Chabuduo! Close enough: How China became the land of disastrous corner-cutting“, Aeon.

Instead, the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. Chabuduo is the corrosive opposite of the impulse towards craftmanship, the desire, as the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman (2008), ‘to reject muddling through, to reject the job just good enough’. Chabuduo implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’. …

Why is China caught in this trap? In most industries here, vital feedback loops are severed. To understand how to make things, you have to use them. Ford’s workers in the US drove their own cars, and Western builders dwelt, or hoped to dwell, in homes like the ones they made. But the migrants lining factory belts in Guangdong make knick-knacks for US households thousands of miles away. The men and women who build China’s houses will never live in them.

The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in a Chinese second-tier city – a provincial town of a few million people, straining at its own geographical and environmental limits – is around $100,000; the average yearly salary for a migrant construction worker is around $3,500. Their future is shabby pre-fabricated workers’ dorms and old country shacks, not air conditioning and modern bathrooms. If what you’re making represents a world utterly out of reach to you, why bother to do it well?

Here’s some interesting research with some unsurprising conclusions. As cities increase the price of parking transit use increases.  Joe Cortright, “Cities and the price of parking“, City Observatory.

It’s worth asking why more people don’t drive: after all the cost of car ownership is essentially the same everywhere in the US. The short answer is that in cities, parking isn’t free. And when parking isn’t free, more people take transit or other modes of transportation.

To see just how strong an explanation that parking prices provide for transit use, we’ve plotted the number of transit trips per capita in each of the largest metropolitan areas against the typical price of a month of parking in the city center. Each data point represents a single metropolitan area. There’s a very strong positive correlation between transit rides per capita and parking rates. Cities with higher parking rates have more transit rides per capita than cities with lower parking rates.

Who’s carrying on the conversation? (2 of 2)

This is the second part of a two-part post looking at some of the people who are making a positive, evidence-based contribution to public discussions about policy. An active and well-informed public conversation about policy issues is a vital bulwark for representative democracy. The people who spend their own time contributing to it are awesome. Good work, folks.

Hamilton Urban Blog

Down the road a bit, Hamilton Urban Blog does a lot of good work digging into the details of Hamilton’s urban form and human geography. It’s a good example of a local perspective on places, often with some quite nice maps to illustrate the features of a place.

Here’s a recent post I quite liked, comparing German regional rail services with what’s on offer in the Waikato: “Post card from Hann. Munden Rail Station“:

In 2015 I spent the best part of a week in Hann. Munden. This post benchmarks its rail service compared to what we could have in Hamilton NZ (pop 156,800: density 1,400 p/km2).

To help understand the population base that supports the Hann. Munden rail service, let’s first note there are two rail services between the city of Gottingen (pop 116,891: density 1,000 p/km2) and the city of Kassel (pop 194,747: density 1,800 p/km2). The blue line is a direct service (19 minutes, distance of about 50km), which then continues on to Frankfurt. I interpret this as a fast, two trains per hour service. Link – Gottingen to Kassel time table

The second is the green line, which is a local Gottingen to Kassel (60 minutes) service passing through the rail station at Hann. Munden (pop 23,668: density 200 p/km2). I regard this as an hourly service. Link – Hann. Munden station time table

Hann Munden Rail Map

… The New Zealand approach often feels as though it limits the movement of people that live between city centres. Outside of Auckland we get very good funding to support road traffic, which is OK unless you need to visit Auckland. Then you are wasting time. Once in Auckland, only a local can predict travel times; for an outsider the motorway network can feel like being in a swampy river-mouth lagoon at high tide.

Economics NZ

Now for a bit of an odd one (but a good one). Auckland-based economist Donal Curtin, who spent 12 years on the Commerce Commission and now runs a consulting business, writes a regular blog on various economic topics, mainly including macroeconomic policy and problems with New Zealand’s competition law, but also occasionally touching on urban issues.

Donal is one of my favourite examples of a New Zealand professional writing publicly about his own field. It’s consistently constructive, educational, and unafraid to be critical of policy settings. Wish more people did the same.

Here’s a recent post that I found interesting: “Auckland and Canterbury housing: What next?

The latest statistics on building consents came out this morning, and I’ve been keeping an eye on them mainly because Auckland housing consents at the start of this year actually declined for a while – a deeply worrying development, given that consents even before they dipped were not keeping pace with new demand for accommodation, let alone eating into the backlog of existing unfulfilled demand.

Here are the latest data for Auckland dwelling consents. I’ve included the ‘actual’ data and the ‘trend’ data’: the ‘trend’ version is Stats’ best effort to abstract from the (quite considerable) month to month volatility and to show us the underlying picture. I’ve gone back to 1995, partly because that’s where the ‘trend’ series starts in Stats’ database and partly to put the current rate of building into context.

It’s good news as far as it goes. That dip has gone away, and it’s onwards and upwards in recent months. It’s still not clear why we had that earlier dip: some people I’ve spoken to said that developers were waiting to see the shape of the Auckland Unitary Plan, and maybe that’s true. But it’s somewhat at odds with the recent rises, which predate the publication of the Plan (it went public on July 22 and was only signed off by the Council on August 19). Perhaps there’ll be another hiatus as the Plan is appealed, or maybe developers aren’t fixated on the Plan at all: we’ll have to wait and see.

One Two Three Home

Housing researcher Elinor Chisholm writes this thoughtful but infrequently updated blog on housing issues in New Zealand. She’s a big proponent of renter activism and better standards for rental accommodation.

Here’s a recent post announcing a talk she’s giving in Auckland later on in the month: “Renter activism in New Zealand and the United States“:

Perhaps the key word in Hill Cone’s question is “more”. Why aren’t renters more vocal, or more active? After all, renters make up a third of New Zealand’s households and half the population, but in the conversation about housing, they don’t get half the airtime. It’s one of the questions I looked at in my PhD thesis, and that I’ll be writing more on in the future. Some answers come from looking at New Zealand’s hundred-year history of renter activism. From there, we can learn about some of the key challenges to renter activism – as well as common methods and key achievements.

People may wish to come along to an upcoming seminar in Auckland, organised by the Fabians, which looks at some of these issues. I’ll be talking about the history of New Zealand renter activism, touching on some of the groups active today. Milo West, of Save Our Homes, will be presenting on her recent trip to the United States, where she met with a number of housing activist groups and learned about some of their achievements and challenges. We’ll discuss what renters in New Zealand today can learn from the past and from the American experience.

6.30-8pm, 20 October 2016. Lecture Theatre 5, Owen Glenn Building, University of Auckland, 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland. Event on facebook and eventfinder.

Island Bay Cycleway Blog

As its name suggests, the Island Bay Cycleway Blog was set up to make the case for the Island Bay Cycleway in Wellington. This was one of the first investments in safe urban cycling in Wellington, but its design has drawn opposition from some residents. IBCB has been out there calmly making the case that, no, protected cycleways are not going to make the sky fall in.

Here’s one of my favourite posts, from June: “The hypocrisy around cycleway safety needs to stop“:

Any objective discussion about safety on our roads really starts and ends with motorised traffic. To argue that separating people on bikes from cars, trucks and buses travelling at 50 kph is less safe overall is disingenuous and dangerous. If we really care about safety then let’s focus on motor vehicles and have a discussion about things that will actually make a difference. Let’s talk about dropping the speed limit across Wellington to 30 kph. Let’s talk about about the design of roads and road geometry that encourages people to keep to safe speed limits. Let’s talk about giving pedestrians and cyclists on paths priority over turning traffic at side streets. Let’s talk about having more traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. And let’s talk about removing more on-street parking from Wellington’s roads in order to make more room for cycleways and footpaths (in Island Bay it is actually the preservation of so much on-street parking on The Parade that creates almost all the key risks that people perceive with the cycleway).

If we just don’t want to talk about these things that’s fine, life is full of tough choices and trade-offs and we might not be prepared to make some of those. But if we are prepared to mitigate, manage and ultimately accept the significant risks associated with having motor vehicles in our cities and suburbs please don’t be a hypocrite and tell me we can’t do the same for a cycleway.

Talking South Auckland

Talking South Auckland, written by Papakurian Ben Ross, covers a lot of planning and urban policy issues with (as its name suggests) a South Auckland focus. It takes a sometimes-critical, sometimes-supportive perspective on actions by Auckland Council and central government.

Here’s a recent post I found quite interesting, on why people didn’t vote in the local elections. (Note: I’m not sure how Ben gathered his sample here, so treat with caution – likely to be small-n.)

For the 18-24 subset they did not vote for two primary reasons:

  1. In their eyes the City is “adequate” enough and is moving in the right direction in terms of improvements with transit and urban development (Sylvia Park and Manukau expansions). Nothing has overtly provoked “outrage” enough like the Auckland Transport example above to prompt what is in effect protest voting.
  2. Apart from Chloe none of the candidates really stood out at any level in representing them however, the next three years will be watched with interest given their line of work coming up (construction industry especially residential).

The 18-24 subset is politically aware of happenings in Auckland Council and is an active user of transit and the libraries. However, their case would demonstrate a more fatal flaw with Council and Local Government in New Zealand.

Leave other suggestions in the comments!