Sunday reading 30 August 2015

Lily Kuo, “African cities are starting to look eerily like Chinese ones“, Citylab. A good feature on Africa’s growing and changing cities, which are getting a lot in the way of investment and technical advice from Chinese firms. African cities are (in my view) going to become increasingly important over the next century – my main hope is that their population growth is matched with economic and social dynamism:

Do you see similarities between the pace and kind of urbanization in Africa that you do in China?

We all know China’s unprecedented urban transformation, which transformed China from a rural into an urban society in one generation. Now, Africa is urbanizing at the same pace as China did in the past 30 years, but in a process that is less coordinated and aligned. People do not only move to the capitals of African countries, but especially top second and third tier cities.

There are many resemblances. First of all, the speed of urbanization is similar. But also, the level of energy and dynamism and the ambition for progress in Chinese and African cities are comparable. Driving through the fringe of Nairobi, with its construction sites, road works, traffic jams, and advertisements for furniture and processed food one could easily imagine being in the outskirts of a Chinese city.

Here are some plans for a Chinese-led development on the Lekki Peninsula in Lagos – that’s one of the places where I grew up:

A Chinese consortium holds a major stake in the Lekki Free Trade Zone in Nigeria, near Lagos. The plan for the new city was designed by urban planners in Shanghai. (Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen)

As cities in Africa and elsewhere grow, they need to be careful that they’re growing in a way that connects people rather than maroons them. A reader sent us this reminder of how poor street design and insane laws in US cities prevent people from using the simplest and cheapest transport mode – stepping out the front door and walking.

Antonia Malchik, “The end of walking“, Aeon:

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives…

Over the past 80 years, walking simply as a way to get somewhere, let alone for pleasure, has become such an alien concept to Americans that small movements towards making neighbourhoods and communities more walkable are met with fierce, indignant resistance. Much of this fight has to do with who pays for the sidewalks. Once an area has been designed without walkability in mind, it’s extremely expensive to reverse the infrastructure. Municipalities and suburbs alike have to consider curbs, gutters, stormwater runoff, ongoing maintenance, and snow removal. I live in Montana, where snow cover from early November to late April is normal. While my town ploughs the roads, homeowners are legally obliged to keep sidewalks adjacent to their properties clear of snow with shovels or snowblowers. It’s excellent exercise, but not necessarily fun, especially for the elderly or disabled. In heavy winters shovelling can feel fruitless, and it’s not uncommon to see pedestrians giving up on icy sidewalks and shifting to the well-cleared roads.

The resistance to sidewalks, and to walking, often splits along generational lines. People who have come of age and grown old in a car-centric culture have trouble seeing why they should pay to enable walkers. One neighbourhood in suburban Chicago fought sidewalks so bitterly, with long-time residents speaking against sidewalk calls from younger families, that it ended up with a walkway stopping pointlessly halfway down a block.

I’m a sucker for maps, and this one is particularly fantastic:

For some context on how travel speeds have changed, here’s David Harvey’s infographic showing the world “shrinking” as transport technology has improved. (From The Condition of Postmodernity.) Notice that there have been very few improvements since jet aircrafts (and containerised shipping) in the 1960s:

david harvey shrinking world map

Ben Casselman, “What we don’t know about Canada might hurt us“, Fivethirtyeight. For the data wonks, a nice look at the negative impact of changes to Canada’s census. As it happens, I was recently working on a project that required Canadian census data. These changes made it more challenging to get the right data:

In 2006, the small Canadian town of Snow Lake, Manitoba, had 837 residents, many of whom worked in the local mining industry. It was a prosperous community: The typical family earned 84,000 Canadian dollars a year, well above the national median of about $66,000, and the unemployment rate was just 5.1 percent even though only a small fraction of residents had a college degree.

Five years later, Snow Lake had lost more than a tenth of its population, shrinking to 723 residents. But the government doesn’t know who those residents were — what they earned, how much school they’d completed, whether they were working. That’s because in 2011, unlike five years earlier, filling out the government survey that collected the information wasn’t mandatory — and nearly three-quarters of the Snow Lake residents who received it decided not to bother…

That seemingly small change has had far-reaching consequences. Canadian researchers say the new, optional National Household Survey is less reliable, less comprehensive and significantly more expensive than the mandatory survey it replaced. And it isn’t just researchers who are worried: A diverse set of groups, from local governments to business organizations, has criticized the shift to an optional survey as shortsighted.

Critics argue that the voluntary survey fell short in two crucial ways. First, because response rates were so much lower, the survey wasn’t able to collect reliable data on smaller communities, including Canada’s many sparsely populated areas. Second, surveyors struggled to collect sufficient data on certain groups — the poor, aboriginal populations, immigrants and others — that have always been among the hardest to reach. That means the resulting data could be biased, possibly in ways that could be difficult to detect.

On a completely different note, here are four designs for adding bike lanes to existing lanes from Jeff Speck (via Vox):

Jeff Speck: Four Road Diets from Cupola Media on Vimeo.

And now, two Auckland-focused articles. First, here’s the PM talking about what might (or might not) happen to the property market (from

“If you look at Christchurch as quite a good example — when supply starts to meet demand then prices don’t go up anymore,” Key said. “And, actually over time, and it’s one of the things the Reserve Bank didn’t say, but frankly they should have said, is interest rates won’t stay low forever,” he said.

“So when people go buy houses purely on the expectation they are going to get a capital gain, you’ve just got to be careful they don’t come in for a nasty surprise – just like those people who bought stocks recently, and thought they were always going to go up forever, are in for a nasty surprise today.”

Later Key said history showed prices never went in one director forever. “If people think Auckland house prices are going up forever, they are misguided. History tells you that’s not normally the case, that the market goes in one direction forever,” he said when asked if the global market slump would hit Auckland housing.

And second, here’s Bernard Hickey asking “Why do Aucklanders fear Council debt?” in his weekly NZ Herald column. I agree with Bernard:

Here’s a question for Auckland’s property owners. Be honest. If you could take out a mortgage fixed for 12 years at 4.01 per cent to invest in an asset that will last decades and have a guaranteed customer base of over 1.5 million, would you? Would you take on that debt if the interest cost was less than 15 per cent of your income?


Auckland urgently needs investment in its roads, rail networks, buses, water systems and other infrastructure to cope with an extra million people over the next 50 years or so. They will be ratepayers and the growth of Auckland’s economy will support that debt.

The two-faced approach on the personal debts of ratepayers and the public debts of their councils in a city growing as fast as Auckland is odd. Ask yourself: would you borrow at 4 per cent to invest in multi-generational assets with guaranteed customers in a fast-growing economy? Of course you would.

Lastly, a few pieces on how we think, plan, and build our cities. In “Point of view matters: the scourge of modelitis“, Urban kchoze observes that the relevant viewpoint that should be considered when assessing planning applications (and planning rules) should be the perspective on the street rather than a top-down or ‘Sim City’ view. I really like the way he goes out and finds highly specific examples of things being done well or poorly:

Someone who sees cities from the point of view of a pedestrian knows that the human scale is horizontal, not vertical.

This focus on verticality is a clear effect of modelitis, higher stories are usually not visible from the ground for pedestrians. Even when they are, people tend to look down, not up, so most people will not even notice how tall buildings really are unless they take the time to check. A focus on a proper point of view, one of pedestrians, would focus on how a building’s 3 or 4 lowest stories meet the street, not on how high it is, ESPECIALLY when the sidewalks have awnings, in which case the buildings are largely not even visible!

At the foot of the Empire State Building, sorry for the windshield perspective, the actual height of the building is irrelevant
So even if you care about harmony and order in urbanism, you should focus on the harmony and order as seen from the street, not as seen on a model of the city or from the sky. For example, Vancouver has had good urban planners who understood this and allowed skyscrapers that also had podiums that maintained the “street walls”.
“Vancouverism”, towers are present without disrupting the “walls” of the street”, they are in the background, not the foreground
This is the view from the street, again, forgive the windshield perspective

This piece from Melbourne offers some thoughts on regulation of apartments, which is currently under consideration by the Victorian state government. It suggests investigating options for improving information available to renters and buyers of apartments as an alternative to regulations. Mark Sheppard, “Better apartments for the future“, Urban Melbourne:

We believe that many people make a deliberate choice to accept a lower standard of one or more aspects of amenity when buying or renting an apartment, either because this is the only way they can afford to enter the market, or as a trade-off for a higher standard of another aspect of amenity, such as location. An obvious example of this is people who choose to live in an apartment in a converted warehouse or office building, without a balcony or car parking space, because it enables them to live in the CBD where they don’t have the financial and time costs of travel to work and entertainment. Another example is studio apartments without a separate bedroom, which provide an affordable first home option. A further example is people who choose a south-facing apartment for its view, despite the lack of solar access…

There is also a legitimate concern that people do not fully understand the amenity standards of the apartments they are considering buying or renting, particularly with off-the-plan apartment sales. In response to this, we suggest that a rating system be developed for apartment amenity and that each apartment for sale or rent be required to have its rating explained to potential purchasers or renters. A standard set of apartment amenity criteria could be developed, so that apartments can be easily compared. For example, the size and access to natural daylight and ventilation of each room (including ceiling height), living room solar access, balcony size and solar access, energy efficiency, noise, outlook, storage, adaptability, universal accessibility, corridor daylight and ventilation, car parking and provision of communal facilities could all be rated “good”, “standard” or “poor”, based on a standard set of objective 2 criteria. At the same time, the location of the apartment in terms of its accessibility to amenities such as public transport and parks could be rated.

A rating system would ensure that potential purchasers and renters can make informed choices about apartments, without restricting the options available to them. It would also ensure that the price of apartments is closely related to their amenity, so that relatively poor apartments provide an affordable housing option.

Lastly, here’s a positive example of how public transport investments can benefit society by connecting people who want jobs (but who may not have the cars to get there) with firms that want workers:

Housing, wealth, and inequality

House prices in Auckland are high and rising, which is causing concern in many quarters. But do we know what sort of effects high house prices may have on New Zealand society, now and in the future?

Politicians and commentators from all quarters have argued that they are undermining the equity of New Zealand society by making it harder for young people to buy houses and squeezing household budgets. Here, for example, are some recent comments from Finance Minister Bill English:

The Finance Minister agrees rising house prices in Auckland are making inequality worse by shutting low and middle-income earners out of the property market.

Opposition parties say rising inequality is not only hurting those who cannot afford to buy a home, but is also bad for the economy.

Bill English said house prices were making life tougher for low and middle income earners in Auckland and said inequality was a problem.

“We’ve been concerned about that for some time, that there’s parts of Auckland where there’s been really no new supply of lower value houses that low and middle-income families can afford.”

I’ve seen Minister English making similar comments elsewhere – saying that limited housing supply is worsening poverty and inequality. How true is this?

First, here’s a graph showing indexed house prices, rents, and consumer price levels over the last two decades. While housing prices have been rising faster than the CPI throughout this period, house prices have really only taken off dramatically since 2002. Meanwhile, rents have risen at a more consistent pace:

Keep that timing in mind. Most of the increase in Auckland’s house prices has occurred between 2002 and 2008, and again since 2012.

So now, let’s take a look at what’s been happening to inequality over the same time period. Here’s a useful chart from a Stuff article on the topic. It looks at the 80-20 ratio – i.e. the ratio of incomes for a household near the top of the earning distribution (80th percentile) to one near the bottom (20th percentile). While it’s not a perfect measure, as it misses outcomes at the upper and lower tails, it does seem to track with the Gini coefficient, another common measure.

Essentially, what this measure is telling us is that income inequality rose during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during NZ’s painful economic restructuring, flattened, and then trended down slightly since the mid-2000s. Importantly, the same basic trends hold true even after taking housing costs into account, which suggests that rising Auckland house prices haven’t altered the underlying dynamics of income inequality:

NZ income inequality chart

In other words, recent increases in Auckland house prices have not coincided with rising income inequality. Minister English is well aware of this. For example, in May 2014 he answered a few questions on inequality in Parliament:

Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, the facts as laid out in the annual report issued by the Government agency initiated by the previous Labour Government, and now backed up by the OECD, show that income inequality in New Zealand has been flat to falling in recent years, and, on average, it has remained unchanged for the last 15 years.

This does not necessarily mean that we can be sanguine about the impact of housing costs on New Zealand society. For one thing, statistics published in the Ministry of Social Development’s most recent (2014) Household Incomes in New Zealand report suggest that the share of households paying more than 30% of their income for housing has risen since the early 2000s. These changes seem to have affected households across all five quintiles of income, albeit to varying degrees. However, from an equity perspective they’re dwarfed by the impact of early-1990s changes to social welfare and housing policy:

MSD high housing costs by income quintile chart

Another issue is that rising house prices may be causing inequality of wealth to increase. The distribution of household wealth has received more attention in recent years, e.g. in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which analysed trends in wealth and income distributions over the past two centuries.

There are reasons to believe that higher house prices may increase wealth inequality. For example, 2013 Census data shows that upper-income households are much more likely to own, partly own, or hold in a family trust their primary residence. 80% of households earning over $100,000 per annum own their houses, compared with only 52% of households earning less than $30,000.

However, we simply don’t have enough recent data to form robust conclusions about the impact of rising house prices on wealth inequality. During the 2000s, the Survey of Family, Income, and Employment (SoFIE) did collect some data on household wealth. An analysis of the 2003/2004 data showed that wealth was much more unevenly distributed than income – 51.8% of all net wealth was held by the richest 10% of New Zealanders.

As SoFIE was discontinued in 2010, we have no way of knowing whether or not wealth inequality has increased during the most recent run-up in Auckland house prices. Consequently, I’d say that a hypothesised link between house prices and wealth inequality is potentially concerning, but unproven. If the Finance Minister is concerned about that issue, I’d recommend that he re-start SoFIE so we can get a better idea of whether rising house prices have coincided with rising wealth inequality.

Finally, commentators should note that this post isn’t arguing for or against any particular policy directed at inequality or the housing market. It’s just taking a look at the data (or lack of data) on the topic. With that in mind, what’s your perspective on the link between housing and inequality?

Sunday reading 16 August 2015

David Killick, “Christchurch needs an eco-neighbourhood like Vauban“, The Press:

PERSPECTIVE: Vauban, in Freiburg, south-west Germany, is one of the world’s most celebrated residential eco-neighbourhoods.

With its solar power, “plus-energy” buildings, and accessible streets, Vauban offers a bold sustainable vision for the future of urban or suburban living. It could even work for Christchurch and Canterbury ­– but only if the authorities and enough people are determined to make it happen.

Vauban actually took shape despite, rather than because of planners. Rather than being a centrally-planned model with solutions prescribed and imposed from on high, it has grown far more organically and is the result of entrepreneurial individuals working together: communities doing it for themselves…

“Vauban’s planning process, which scrapped design regulations in the land-use plan and provided a wide range of different plot sizes, played a particularly important role in achieving the active neighbourly relations and district we see today. The planning process created a diverse mix of individual building projects, groups of building owners, rented and owner-occupied flats, co-operative models as well as inclusive accommodation projects that promote social integration.”

Reaching Vauban couldn’t be easier. A tram ride from the city centre takes us 15 minutes. My first impression is quiet leafy streets and cyclists: young and old, small children being carried on the front of bikes or in bike buggies, and all without helmets.

Cycling does not have to be an extreme endurance contest versus cars, as it is in Christchurch; cyclists and pedestrians take priority. Most cars are tucked away in plant-covered carports on the leafy streets; on residential laneways a 30kmh speed or walking pace limit applies. Some streets are car-free. Community solar and glass garages are fitted with solar panels.

Imran Cronk, “The Transportation Barrier“, The Atlantic:

Past research on health care access has examined the ways in which distance can present a problem for people in rural areas, but poorer people in suburban and urban settings, even though they may live closer to a doctor or hospital, can still have trouble with transportation. Some households don’t have a vehicle, or share one among multiple family members. As Gillian White noted in The Atlantic in May, low-income neighborhoods are hit particularly hard by shoddy transportation infrastructure—subways may not service areas on the fringes of a city, buses may be unreliable, and both are vulnerable to strikes or service suspensions. And for those who are disabled, obese, or chronically ill, riding the bus or the subway can be a difficult undertaking.

As a result, some people may find themselves without a way home after an emergency trip to the hospital, or miss a doctor’s appointment simply because they don’t have a way to get there. In a 2001 survey of 413 adults living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level in Cleveland, Ohio, published in the journal Health & Social Care in the Community, researchers found that almost one-third of respondents reported that it was “hard” or “very hard” to find transportation to their health care providers—a problem that can mean more than a few missed checkups. A survey of 593 cancer patients in Texas, published in the journal Cancer Practice in 1997, found that in some cases, trouble with transportation led patients to forgo their cancer treatments. The problem was especially prevalent among minority survey respondents; 55 percent of African American and 60 percent of Hispanic survey respondents reported that transportation was a major barrier to treatment, compared to 38 percent of white respondents.

Erin Millar et al, “What does it cost to run the transportation system?“, Moving Forward:

The amount of money the average Metro Vancouverite pays in motor fuel tax is not even enough to cover one thousandth the cost of a single traffic signal. What can be built for the equivalent of former TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis’s infamously inflated $438,000 salary? Just over half a kilometer of a single lane on one of Metro Vancouver’s major roads.

These are a few of the many numbers emerging from our analysis of transportation costs in the region…

Alex Wrottesley, “A smarter, more digital world must grasp the power of a map“, The Guardian:

Geography underpins all we do – everything happens somewhere. This may seem obvious, but it is only as we have moved into a digital era, with digitalised maps, that the importance of mapping has been fully realised by governments and businesses. Take a brand new iPhone out of its box and the only feature that does not have a location feature is the notes app.

The value of location data and intelligence is rapidly growing. Nokia has just sold its mapping service to BMW, Audi and Mercedes for £2bn – technology that could prove invaluable in the race to develop driverless cars…

Mapping and location data underpins so much of the innovation going on in smart cities and with devices connected to the internet of things. Sensors are increasingly being deployed in urban and rural areas, and a map which shows their locations in real-time is the best way to manage and maintain them.

For example, future public bins will be able to communicate when they are full, and this will need coordinating – the nearest waste disposal vehicles identified and deployed. The ability to present this information in real-time – which in the trade is called interoperability – is the glue that holds this process together and is what makes it efficient in terms of cost savings and fuel waste reduction.

Jarrett Walker, “Explainer: On Transit ‘Integration’ or ‘Seamlessness’“, Human Transit:

…the organization of transit agencies, and especially of their boundaries or seams, needs to respect the geography of demand — as inherited county lines in the US do not always do.

We’ve also arrived at a more realistic notion of “seamlessness.”  There will always be seams in a transit journey, just as there will always be the need to make connections.  The conversation should not be about how to get rid of seams but how to put them in the right places, so that they work for both sides, and how to manage them so that travelers can flow through them easily.

Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach.  The same is true for any hassles created by seams.  It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure planes and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection.  What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.

The logic of connections is the logic of good seams in general.  They happen in places where it’s already logical for transit services to be discontinuous — either because of a natural boundary or because of a clear division of labor between regional and local service.  Those “good fences”, once found, can make for happy neighboring transit authorities, which will find it easy to work together for the sake of the customer’s liberty.

Living on Earth podcast, “Car-free to become carefree in Helsinki”:

Car-Free To Become Carefree In Helsinki 
(stream / mp3)

Finland’s capital of Helsinki is growing fast and the city’s current transportation system is overstretched and short of money. Helsinki’s Director of Transport and Traffic Planning Ville Lehmuskoski tells host Steve Curwood about the city’s novel “mobility as a service” model and how investing in shared modes of transit based on need will save money, reduce traffic congestion, and improve travel comfort and convenience. (6:25)

Elinor Chisholm, “A minor change to existing provisions“, Public Address:

The good news is that the government is taking action on this as part of the changes to the Residential Tenancies Act announced a couple of weeks ago. There’s far bigger changes, of course, and I’ll write about them in the future, but I wanted to draw attention to this one, as it’s easily overlooked.

It’s way down on page 7 of the Cabinet Social Policy Committee Paper, under the modest title “minor changes to existing provisions”:

j. Currently the Tenancy Tribunal can order a monetary payment as an alternative to a work order (s 78 (2)). Remove this provision in relation to work orders for compliance with smoke alarm and insulation requirements, as well as compliance with the requirements prescribed in the Housing Improvement Regulations (for example functioning sanitation).

This means that in the future, the Tenancy Tribunal has to force the landlord to bring his or her property up to standard. For example, if it’s a damp house (and it’s illegal to rent out a damp home under the Housing Improvement Regulations, as Bierre, Bennett and Howden-Chapman recently pointed out), the dampness problem has to be resolved.

David Zahniser, “LA maps out sweeping transportation overhaul“, LA Times:

Council members are on the verge of approving a sweeping new transportation policy, one that calls for hundreds of miles of new bus-only lanes, bicycle lanes and “traffic calming” measures over the next 20 years. The initiative, dubbed Mobility Plan 2035, has sparked a debate over the ramifications of redesigning major corridors such as Van Nuys Boulevard, Sherman Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard…

The plan represents the city’s most significant update of its transportation policy since 1999, a time when the city had considerably fewer rail and rapid bus lines.

The document, which goes to the council for a vote later this month, calls for an additional 300 miles of protected bike lanes, which are separated from traffic by curbs or other physical barriers. It also identifies 117 miles of new bus-only lanes and another 120 miles of streets where bus-only lanes would operate during rush hour.

Some corridors — including Sunset, Venice and Lankershim boulevards — would get both bus-only lanes and protected bike lanes under the plan.

Peter Reidy, “Why railways are valuable to New Zealand“, Dominion Post. The CEO of Kiwirail is, of course, talking up his own book, but it’s nonetheless a good op-ed:

OPINION: The cost of rail to New Zealanders and the value of rail to New Zealanders are two different debates. They are related, but they are not the same.

This financial year, for example, taxpayers will contribute $210 million to KiwiRail. That is one very basic measure of the cost of rail. Also this year, freight trains will replace an estimated 1.4 million trips that would otherwise have been required by trucks on our roads. That is a measure of the value of rail.

The benefits can also be measured in lower carbon emissions because of greater fuel efficiency than road transport, and reduced congestion on the roads.

It is estimated that in June alone, Wellington commuters avoided more than 650,000 car trips by taking a train. Fewer vehicles on the road also means a likely reduction in accidents, and the need for fewer new roads.

Stephen Holland et al, “Analysing environmental benefits from driving electric vehicles“, Vox EU:

In a recent paper (Holland et al. 2015), we study how the environmental benefit of vehicle operation varies from place to place in the US. We combine an econometric model of emissions from the electricity sector with a sophisticated model of damages from pollution to calculate the environmental benefit at the county level, as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1. County-level environmental benefit

  • The benefit is large and positive in many places in the west because the western electricity grid is relatively clean – primarily a mix of hydro, nuclear, and natural gas.
  • The benefit is large and negative in many places in the east because the eastern electricity grid primarily relies more heavily on coal and natural gas.

There are a few exceptions in the east, e.g. places like Atlanta in which the large population implies severe damages from gasoline cars so that electric cars have a small positive environmental benefit in spite of the dirty grid. Aggregating to the level of the state, the environmental benefits imply an electric vehicle purchase subsidy ranging from $3,000 in California to -$4,500 in North Dakota.

Lachlan Forsyth, “Top 10 complaints about cyclists“, Story:

1. Cyclists hate cars.

Not True. I bloody love cars. My dream car is a mint condition BMW E30 M3, but have you seen how much a good one costs?! There’s no way I’m getting that one past the wife. (The Lachlan Forsyth BMW E30 fund is accepting donations c/- TV3, 3 Flower St, Auckland.)

2. Why do cyclists take up so much of the road?

Generally speaking, when it happens, it’s out of safety. Often it’s to stay out of the “car-door zone“.

Sometimes, it’s because the road’s quite skinny and it’s safest to “claim the lane”. Try and imagine what it’s like to have a few tonnes of metal, travelling very quickly, trying to squeeze past you. It’s not pleasant. If you get stuck behind a slow cyclist, there’s no rush. Take a breath, wait a few seconds; it’ll be okay.

3. Cyclists don’t pay their way, so they don’t belong on the roads.

Okay, but they do. Local roads are paid for through rates. Highways are paid for through taxes. There’s no such thing as road tax. There are road user charges and fuel excise, but much of this money simply goes to maintaining the damage done to our roads by motor vehicles.

Motor Mania

I think we’ve posted this before however it’s worth repeating. This cartoon from Disney in 1950 on how we so often change to be much more angry and arrogant when we get behind the wheel of a car.

Of course lets not forget the other Disney classic, the Magic Highway. It’s interesting how much has come true in some form while also being way off in other areas.

Reminder: ‘Kiwis love their cars’, and other urban myths

This Thursday, John Polkinghorne will be giving a talk to the Reason and Science Society at the University of Auckland (Room 206-315, in the Arts 1 building – map here. This will kick off at 6 pm with time for questions afterwards, and wrapping up by 8 pm. The topic is ‘Kiwis love their cars’, and other urban myths.

Here’s an abstract of the talk:

For sixty years, New Zealand governments and councils have invested heavily in road infrastructure, and spent very little on public transport. We are told that ‘Kiwis love their cars’, but do they, or do they simply have little choice but to drive?

In the last decade, driving has flattened off, and public transport use has boomed, in New Zealand and around the world. TransportBlog believes that “roads first” policies are no longer good enough, and Auckland needs to invest in quality rapid transit, active transport and other modes. This talk reviews the evidence which informs our views, and introduces the Congestion Free Network, our preferred investment program.

Hope some of you can make it!

Sunday reading 9 August 2015


John Greenfield, “Burke: Don’t Bend Over Backwards to Facilitate Driving at the Lincoln Hub“, Streetsblog Chicago.

Sandy Smith, “Tracing the urban transport revolution“, Next City.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, a tectonic shift has occurred in the way Americans think about urban transportation networks, especially the streets and roads that are their backbone. After decades of designing streets as low-grade highways designed to move cars as quickly as practicable, officials in a growing list of cities across the U.S. have changed course…

[advocates] play the key role of raising public awareness of the issues and generating support for change. When groups with particular interests band together around larger goals, they become even more effective.

Nathan Lewis, “Parks and Squares“, New World Economics.

A large amount of surface area devoted to parks or squares sounds nice, but it means that there is less and less land that is used for building footprint and other urban uses — which is to say, all human activity that takes place outside of parks and squares, mostly living and working. A simple way to think of this is in terms of land value. How much is an acre of prime real estate, in Manhattan, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, London etc. worth to a property developer? This value is what we are giving up by having a park or square, instead of buildings.

Unfortunately, almost all of our urban areas in the United States, from low-density Suburban Hell to the highest-density highrise districts, tend to be rather harsh, ugly and unfriendly to people. By “people” I don’t mean only a male adult in a business suit, but also a mom pushing a stroller, or a four-year-old walking, or a seventy-year-old woman. This tends to exaggerate our desire for parks — somewhere that is comfortable for people, including all ages and genders. This desire is well-founded, but I would caution that it should not get so out of hand that we decide to devote an overly-large amount of surface area to parks. That would result in a very beautiful place where nobody could live, since there is no space to live on. (In practice, it would be expensive.)….

As we think about parks, we have to address the really poisonous notion of “green space” which has polluted City Design thinking over the past several decades. The term “green space” is rather fuzzy in general use. In practice, it can certainly include formal parks, but what it really tends to mean is some kind of surface area covered with vegetation that is not a park. If it was a park, then we would call it a “park” and not have a separate term, “green space.”

“Green space” is a new invention. The basic purpose and format of “green space” is to serve as a buffer between some sort of automobile infrastructure (Arterial street or parking lot) and some place where human activity takes place — like an office, residence, or, for that matter, a park. I’ve talked about “green space” extensively in the past. A park is not “green space.” It is a park.

Anne Gibson, “Sell golf courses for houses – economist“, NZ Herald. Generation Rent author Shamubeel Eaqub suggests Council should sell some golf courses to provide more residential housing. The same case can be made for council parking lots, excess road reserve, and defunct open spaces.

Asked for a more detailed explanation, he said he thought it was wrong to have so many hectares of land tied up in public ownership across the city when that very same city was suffering a desperate shortage of land for residential development.

That situation had resulted in rich people effectively getting a subsidy from the publicly owned organisation by locking that land away from development options, he indicated.

smales overview

Keith N Hampton, “People are more likely to spend time together in public spaces than they were 30 years ago“, The LSE’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy.

Despite concerns that Americans are increasingly likely to live alone, that loneliness has increased, and that the mobile phone – by distracting us from those around us – has led to the loss of conversation, today public spaces are a more likely source for interacting than they were three decades ago. Observations of nearly 150,000 people captured on film in four public places in 1979-80, and from video taken of the same places 30 years later, show that we are less alone and more together in public.

Renate van der Zee, “How Groningen invented a cycling template for cities all over the world“, The Guardian. The story of how Groningnen became a cycling city with one courageous move- limiting car traffic through the city centre.

The history of Groningen as a bicycle city par excellence goes back to the 1970s, when a left-wing council wanted to make a change. In the 60s, the number of cars was growing rapidly and they were severely clogging up Dutch cities. The common response was to tear down old neighbourhoods and build motorways right through the centre of town. However, in Groningen, local politician Max van den Berg decided on a revolutionary policy. Van den Berg, who was 24 when he became responsible for the city’s traffic and urban development policy, dreamed of expelling cars from the centre and creating space for pedestrians and cyclists. In those days, it was totally unheard of.

The essence of Van den Berg’s traffic circulation plan, as it came to be called, was that the centre of Groningen would be divided in four sections. For motorists, it would become impossible to go from one section to the other: cars had to take the ring-road around the inner city, whereas cyclists could move freely about on new cycle paths constructed to accommodate them. Driving a car would become a time-consuming affair in the centre of Groningen. In the future, travelling by bike would be a much quicker option.

Change in street structure is identified as a key factor to the success of cycling in Cambridge as well.

Florian Idenburg, “One Santa Fe housing in Los Angeles by Michael Maltzan“, The Architectural Review.

San Francisco is a utopia gone wrong, while Los Angeles is a dystopia gone right.

Travel diary: New Urbanist town centres

The last few weeks I’ve been on holiday in California, visiting friends and family up and down the length of the state. As always, I’ve been surprised at how familiar – and how different – the state seems. In some ways, it’s ahead of New Zealand. In others, it’s behind. And in many more, it’s simply off on a quite different path of development.

One thing I noticed was the surprising ubiquity of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Cities and towns up and down the state are upgrading sidewalks, adding sharrows (or even painted bike lanes), installing planter boxes and parklets, and doing up historic buildings in old downtown areas. This seems to be a bit of a new trend – or at any rate, I don’t remember it being so common when I was growing up in California.

So, for example, here’s downtown in Walnut Creek, a suburban city in the San Francisco Bay Area. It sits at the junction of two freeways, but there’s also a BART station, a rails-to-trails cycleway, and public parking buildings that allow less surface land to be devoted to parking. As a result, the core of the shopping centre is surprisingly walkable and leafy:

Walnut Creek town centre

However, Walnut Creek hasn’t always been developed this way – here, for example, is retail frontage a few blocks over. It’s the pretty classic Californian design of big parking lots out front and big boxes in the back (plus a few street trees). But the city seems to have undergone a transition away from building more uninviting carparks and towards walkable, efficient places.

Walnut Creek car-based retail

The same ideas are also being implemented in smaller places. Here, for example, is the historic town centre in Grass Valley, a town of around 13,000 people at the foothills of the Sierras. A decade or so ago, many of the shopfronts were empty, but now they’re full of various boutique-y shops catering to tourists. (Including a lot of wine tasting rooms – there are a number of wineries in the area.) They’ve installed complementary retro-kitsch like the clock on the left side of the picture:

Grass Valley town centre

We saw similar things in other small towns around the place. But the small towns generally also illustrated the limitations of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Unlike Walnut Creek, which is larger (and more affluent), they didn’t usually succeed in drawing back in major retail chains and supermarkets, which continued heading for suburban shopping centres. Hence the tourist-oriented retail in Grass Valley.

Finally, New Urbanist design is hardly a panacea or a remedy for other ills. Take this development on the main highway in Torrance (in Los Angeles). It conforms to many New Urbanist strictures – traditionalist building design, ground floor retail facing the street, etc. But because it’s also included a great big parking garage with two gaping entrances (one of which is pictured), it hasn’t gotten rave reviews. Apparently the neighbours, some of whom live in condos or apartments themselves, have cited it as an example of why it’s necessary to “protect” the area from “overdevelopment”.

Torrence New Urbanism

As an aside, I quite like the way that LA strip retail is built. Major at-grade highways in the older areas of the city are densely packed with street-front retail. The building styles are eclectic and entertaining, and the businesses within are usually pretty varied as well.

Redondo Beach PCH retail

Sunday reading 3 August 2015

Scott Lazenby, “Why We Should Pay for the Highway Miles We Use“, Governing. We expect to pay for services like phones and electricity and water that are reliable. Shouldn’t we treat roads the same way?

When you live or travel in a third-world country, you can’t take basic infrastructure for granted. Water might come out of a faucet when you turn it on, or it might not. Electric lights might work, or they might not. Something might happen when you flush a toilet, but you probably don’t want to know where the sewage goes.

Here in the U.S., we don’t accept these kinds of conditions. We have little tolerance for outages of services like cable TV and cellphones, water, electricity, natural gas, garbage collection and Internet access. We insist on, and pay for, reliable provision of all the basic services. Except one: roads and highways.

David Z. Morris, “Oregon just debuted this radical alternative to the gasoline tax“, Fortune. Some quibbles with the pricing structure proposed here, but the real story is the maturing technology (Azuga) that enables pricing distance, time-of-day, and other factors.

The program, called OreGo, is currently voluntary, with space for an initial 5,000 participants. Drivers in the program will install a small dongle into their on-board diagnostics (OBD) port, standard on all cars after 1996. The device will track miles driven, and report that information via 3G to Azuga, the private company handling the technology.

Darren Davis, “For whom the road tolls?“, Architect this City. Davis (@DarrenDavis10) follows up his black-box busting piece on traffic modelling with this on road tolling.

In a world where time is money, we are constantly berated about the economic costs of congestion. In 2011, the Toronto Board of Trade estimated that congestion in the Toronto region alone cost the regional economy $6 billion a year, rising to an estimated $15 billion in 2031 should no action be taken. More recent research by the CD Howe Institute pegs this figure at up to $11 billion.

Given these sorts of eye-watering figures, one might be tempted to think that car drivers, and in particular the goods industry, would be flinging their wallets open at the chance to buy their way out of congestion…

This brings up a fundamental paradox: Congestion costs the economy a fortune and congestion is a top-of-mind frustration, yet people seem reluctant to pay even comparatively small amounts to bypass congestion.

Adele Peters, “Downtown Dublin Is Getting Rid Of Cars“, FastCo. Dublin joins the growing list of European cities limited car access in its city core.

In the proposed plan, the city wants to route cars around the city center, and turn major streets into car-free plazas and passages for buses, bikes, pedestrians, and a new tram line. Along the banks of the River Liffey, polluted roads will become promenades. On Grafton Street, a former car lane will turn into a tree-shaded terrace with cafe tables, while the other lane has tram tracks. New bike lanes and wider sidewalks will be added as well.

(via @cowanrob)

(via @cowanrob)

Bob Dey, “Another contortion on development capacity“, commenting on a recent report which looks at how much housing development is likely to be economically feasible under the Proposed Unitary Plan:

[The report] raises the same questions as were raised in initial modelling 2 years ago, again without answering the primary question. That primary question, which is political, is: Should you allow the Auckland urban footprint to expand without constraint, or should you contain it?

…although I’d hope that question has been answered, it’s certainly been given enough attention over the years…

That’s before considering the second question, in the form of ‘how long is a piece of string?’: Which population projection for the next 30 years is the real one?

Will Penrose remain the heartland of Auckland industry? Will the poorly used Eden Park remain a stadium? Will South Auckland grow new types of business for a more educated population? Will Aucklanders occupy a whole range of different housing types as they move into quite different futures?

And the question that’s always waiting for planners who think in terms of finite frames: If we get the million extra people projected (on the high side of the scale) in 30 years, what happens in 30 years + 1 day?

Matthew Iglesias, “At last, a convincing theory about why the tech boom’s days are numbered“, Vox.

To keep growing, the technology sector needs to keep adding skilled workers and office space, and both San Francisco and Silicon Valley are running out of both. That means that even companies with perfectly plausible business ideas are going to find costs rising faster than revenue, and the sector is going to need to stall out until some companies fail and free up more resources for the others.

….So why not locate in Detroit, Cleveland, or Christchurch?

The problem is that almost any move you could make to mitigate your real estate problems is going to exacerbate your skilled labor problem.

The reason is that startups are, inherently, risky places to work. But if you have the kind of skills to get a good job at a startup, you can greatly mitigate that risk by living in a city that’s full of similar startups that need people with similar skills. You mitigate that risk, in other words, by living in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.

David Henbrow, “How problems which could be seen 40 years ago have not been solved and how an obvious solution was overlooked“, A View from the Cycle Path. Using Wellington as an exmaple Henbrow illustrates how  transport decisions made 40 years ago influence urban mobility.

Here’s my hypothesis about why it is that cycling is still so unpopular in and around Wellington: The city and the surrounding area are treating cycling no more seriously now than they were in 1971.

The post is based on this fascinating video discussing the increasing traffic congestion and social isolation coming with Wellington’s suburban growth.

Adrienne Lafrance, “When You Give a Tree an Email Address“, CityLab. The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.

Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.

Kevin Montgomery, “This Is What Happened When Bicyclists Obeyed Traffic Laws Along The Wiggle Yesterday“, SF Weekly.

Hundreds of cyclists rode through The Wiggle yesterday evening in protest of a San Francisco police captain’s calls for a crackdown on bikers coasting through stop signs. But instead of breaking the law, protesters wanted to show the city just how bad traffic would be if every bicycle approached intersections just as a car does.

(photo via: @sfkale)

(photo via: @sfkale)

Sunday reading 26 July 2015

Jarrett Walker, “Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe“, Human Transit. An epic post by Jarrett where he outlines the fundamentals to delivering high ridership public transit

The most successful transit, in terms of ridership achieved for a fixed operating budget, is called mass transit for a reason.    The busiest transit lines — a big city subway system, for example –succeed precisely because they are not designed around the details of anyone’s needs.  Riding them you will not get much assurance that planners of the system understand you in particular, or know what trip you’re making now, or care much about your unique point of view. Instead, you’re likely to notice how many different people are finding the same vehicle useful.

The end of minimum parking requirements?

Paul Young, “One dumb regulation is driving up the cost of your house and your flat white“, Gareth’s World.

By wasting valuable land and pushing up construction costs, MPRs make housing and basically everything more expensive. Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with building car parks so long as people are happy to pay for them. The problem is when they aren’t given any choice.

To what extent are MPRs actually causing an oversupply of parking? Estimating this can be difficult and will differ case by case. As an example, removal of MPRs in London resulted in a 40% decrease in the number of car parks provided with new developments. Clearly the regulation was forcing people to build significantly more parks than they wanted to.

Josh Cohen, “Minneapolis Chooses Affordable Housing Over Parking“, Next City.

Minneapolis previously had a one parking space per unit requirement for all development outside of downtown. The new ordinance does away with parking requirements for new developments with 50 or fewer units that are within a quarter mile of high-frequency transit. It reduces requirements for larger developments within a quarter mile of transit to .5 parking spaces per unit…

“There’s a lot of demand for smaller buildings in neighborhoods with underutilized or vacant parcels where you just couldn’t build a project with our previous parking requirements. Either you couldn’t make the numbers work or you literally couldn’t fit a parking garage on the site,” she explains.

Melanie Curry, “Bill to Reform Parking Minimums Passes CA Senate Transportation Committee“, StreetsBlog California. Recently the State of California reformed the counterproductive, sprawl-inducing, Level of Service (LOS) rules. Parking requirements are the next hand brake under the microscope.

The bill, A.B. 744, would reduce parking requirements for affordable housing developments, making it less expensive to build affordable housing and using federal tax credits to build housing rather than unnecessary parking.

The purpose of the bill is to fix existing unintended consequences of current parking requirements. Those consequences include unnecessarily high construction costs that make affordable housing infeasible to build, thus exacerbating an already dire shortage of housing for low-income people.

Julie Hill, “No space for parking?! New solutions for a new generation“, Auckland Design Manual Blog.

Cars, it seems, are becoming uncool. In the United States, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Norway, Japan and Australia, the coveted Y Generation demographic has propelled a downturn in car use. Gen Y likes to get from A to B by riding a bike or hopping on public transport, or just looking up a map online and walking. It marks its entry into adulthood not with a dangerous, polluting, expensive car, but with a fancy new phone.

And this trend may be catching on here. Transportblog challenges the government’s view that the drop in driving is a temporary blip caused by the after-effects of the global financial crisis, and that more roading capacity is necessary and crucial to our economic growth. It argues we are driving less and buying fewer cars due to concerns about health and the environment, high petrol costs, smartphone-assisted carpooling and cheaper flights.

The end of the office park?


Dan Zak, “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town“, The Washington Post.

The American ghost town has assumed different forms: the abandoned gold-rush towns out West, the silent Floridian subdivisions of underwater McMansions. Now, we have fiefdoms of mid-Atlantic office space, on streets named Research Boulevard and Professional Drive, thinning out in the sprawl. They are hobbled by changing work styles and government shrinkage. People telecommute. People move into the city or into faux-urban areas that are friendlier to pedestrians, that aren’t barnacled on a highway.

Most analyses of the market indicate that office parks simply aren’t as appealing or profitable as they were in the 20th century and that Americans just aren’t as keen to cloister themselves in workspaces that are reachable only by car.

Robert Steuteville, “Firms move downtown and change workforce geography“, Better Cities & Towns.

Last fall, the US commercial real estate association NAIOP reported that 83 percent of office tenants want to locate in walkable, mixed-use places.

By far the most prominent reason companies cited for their move downtown was to help recruit and retain talented workers, notes SGA. “As companies compete for new hires and the best talent, being located in a vibrant neighborhood is considered a crucial selling point. The businesses in our study report that current and potential employees want neighborhoods with restaurants, cafes, cultural institutions, entertainment, and nightlife as well as easy access by public transportation.” This motivation is particularly strong for businesses hiring millennnials—-now 18 to 34 years old.


Artist/Traffic Engineer: Ian Lockwood

Henri De Groot, “What led to the revival of the world’s cities?“, Agenda: World Economic Forum.

What explains this unexpected reversal of fortunes? Why have cities emerged as hubs of economic activity in this era in which the internet seems to be the ‘cul-de-sac’ of physical distance? That is the question we ask in our new book ‘Cities and the Urban Land Premium’. ..

The growth of human capital has been key to the economic miracle of the 20th century, but the fruits of this capital could only be harvested when great minds and well educated people clustered together in cities. The rise of the city and the knowledge economy are therefore intimately related…

Knowledge spill-overs imply that cities are a focal point of location-driven externalities. Land rents are the expression of these externalities. A location’s rent is high not because of the characteristics of the location itself, but because of what happens at locations in their direct proximity.

Generation Rent?

Danny Dorling, “‘Generation rent’? We’ve been here before“, The Guardian.

We may never get back to the fantasy of a home-owning majority, where so many of us get up housing ladders to maintain our own property. We may not want to do so again. After all, when house prices finally stop rising, because a younger generation successfully demanded mild rent regulation, what would be the point of speculating and buying at today’s prices?

Hilary Osborne, “Generation rent: the housing ladder starts to collapse for the under-40s“, The Guardian.

House price rises of 5% a year and a shortage of affordable homes are set to swell the ranks of “generation rent” over the next decade, so that by 2025 more than half of those under 40 will be living in properties owned by private landlords.

Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”, Pedestrian at Best.

You said we should look out further, I guess it wouldn’t hurt us
We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops
Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater
I’m saving twenty three dollars a week

We drive to a house in Preston, we see police arrestin’
A man with his hand in a bag
How’s that for first impressions? This place seems depressing
It’s a Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac

It’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in
Or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one
And it’s going pretty cheap you say, well it’s a deceased estate
Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?

Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour
And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam
And I can’t think of floorboards anymore, whether the front room faces south or north
And I wonder what she bought it for

If you’ve got a spare half a million
You could knock it down and start rebuildin’

Literature: W.G. Sebald on urban growth

A while back, I read the following passage in W.G. Sebald’s spectacular novel The Rings of Saturn. In the book, Sebald tours the coastline of East Anglia, along with his own memory and England’s history. In a book full of striking, thoughtful passages, I was particularly struck by the following one:

Over the centuries that followed, catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land of this kind happened time and again, and, even during the long years of apparent calm, coastal erosion continued to take its natural course. Little by little the people of Dunwich accepted the inevitability of the process. They abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and whenever their declining means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations; the slowly dying town thus followed – by reflex, one might say – one of the fundamental patterns of human behaviour. A strikingly large number of our settlements are oriented to the west and, where circumstances permit, relocate in a westward direction. The east stands for lost causes. Especially at the time when the continent of America was being colonized, it was noticeable that the townships spread to the west even as their eastern districts were falling apart. In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by overcropping and new areas to the west are opened up. In North America, too, countless settlements of various kinds, complete with gas stations, models and shopping malls, move west along the turnpikes, and along that axis affluence and squalor are unfailingly polarized.

Does this ring true to you?