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!

Who’s carrying on the conversation? (1 of 2)

Last week, I wrote a piece explaining why I write for Transportblog and setting out some of the broader social goals that encourage us to spend unpaid volunteer time writing blog posts. An active and well-informed public conversation about policy issues is a vital bulwark for representative democracy – meaning that people have to participate in that conversation.

We do our best to foster the public debate over transport and urban policy in New Zealand, and provide useful evidence as a basis for discussion. But we’re not the only ones having the conversation.

As a follow-up, I want to highlight some other people that are also making a positive, evidence-based contribution to public discussions about policy. This isn’t an exhaustive list – it’s mostly focused on transport and urban policy and/or blogs that I read semi-regularly. It excludes Twitter and Facebook – I’m not a member of either – although people are having important discussions on both forums. I’ve also excluded journalists and others writing for money – volunteer contributions only! If you have more suggestions, please leave them in comments.

Without further ado…

Bike Auckland

Bike Auckland provides one of the best examples of a volunteer group that has changed things on the ground. They’ve been instrumental in pushing for safe separated cycleways in Auckland (and bike improvements in general). They always seem to be out there promulgating new cycleway ideas and encouraging people to get involved in consultations.

Here’s a recent post that I particularly liked: “This is what efficiency looks like“:

Here’s the thing. Like a railway line, a bus lane or a bike lane can look ’empty’ much of the time – even when is carrying significant traffic. That’s because, especially at peak travel times, it’s moving people more efficiently than the rest of the road.

Iconic image created in Seattle, from a poster by International Sustainable Solutions.

In city traffic – or alongside it – a bike can get you there almost as fast as a car (sometimes faster), while using only a fraction of the space.

Latvian cyclists make a point about space and time (image via This is Colossal).

Cycling in Christchurch

Cycling in Christchurch is exactly what it sounds like – a blog about bicycling in the South Island’s main city. Like Bike Auckland, they play a strong role in advocating for better cycling facilities and road rules, as well as highlighting the good things that the city’s doing. (Including construction of a citywide network of safe separated cycleways.)

Here’s a recent post I quite liked: “Suburban car parking and the bike“:

So how is car parking relevant to biking? Here are a few ways that the right or wrong policy here can influence what happens with cycling:

  • If the policy doesn’t put enough emphasis on safe movement of all travel modes, then poorly located parking will continue to be allowed to create an unsafe environment for biking past pinch-points (and creating those lovely dooring opportunities…).
  • Well-designed separated cycle facilities typically need extra space that will require the removal of on-street parking in some locations; so policies need to support this.
  • If there is too much car parking available (and with few restrictions on time or cost) then there will be little incentive to bike (or bus or walk) instead of just driving there. It also makes it harder for the central city (where those restrictions are more commonplace) to compete with the suburbs.
  • Policies that make it easier to drive and park also lead of course to more traffic, putting extra strain on our roading network as well as a less pleasant environment for cycling, and delays to everyone, leading to calls for more expenditure and more space allocated to them.

Making Christchurch

Also from the Garden City, Making Christchurch was set up to document the post-quake rebuilding of the city and promote some new voices on the city’s prospects and problems. It was founded by publisher and architect Barnaby Bennett and has drawn contributions from a range of people, including occasional transportblog commenter Brendon Harre. While Making Christchurch as been more focused on telling stories than activism, it’s still been an important critical voice.

Here’s a recent post that I quite liked: “Central Christchurch – August 2016“:

I wouldn’t say the city has exploded with activity and new buildings. It still feels strange, quiet, and uncanny. Unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. But there is a definite increase in people, and a thousand small changes are evident. The main thing that made me (slightly) optimistic is the slow accrual of different urban things — most of them are a bit ugly, some ungainly, but with increasing density and activity. Slowly different scales, different temporalities, and different types of activity are emerging. As if the city is gradually, but steadily, taking over from the planners visions of it.
The rapid changes that took over the city during and after the quakes are slowing down. Instead of the demolitions, rezonings, large openings, and new beginnings we are now getting a more steady and increasingly stable realisation of streetscapes and places.
It’s becoming a place again — or even better a city full of different and varied places. It is amazing to see a place lose 80% of its central city buildings, and yet still keep enough of its character and identity to be able to reinvent itself with some consistency of character. Thank god for the river.

Public Address

Public Address is a community of blogs managed by media commentator and general man-about-town Russell Brown. It draws in a range of smart contributions, most of which aren’t directly related to urban issues – music and the health system are other common topics. But Russell’s an urbanist and Auckland enthusiast, so Public Address often keeps its eye out for interesting city happenings.

Here’s a recent post I enjoyed: “After the King’s Arms“:

A lot of people lived in Newton and we are going to see some of that residential population return in the next 10 years. That is not a bad thing.

The forced relocation of so many local residents in the 1960s and 1970s had another effect: it spelled the end of Karangahape Road’s identity as a mainstream department store destination. And when the motorway split K Road, it stranded the west end of the ridge. It was pretty much a disaster for the existing merchants – but it led to the red-light era and thence the edgy, bohemian K Road we know and value today.

I think we need to start having a serious discussion about cultural infrastructure as residential building returns to this part of town. Because it’s quite possible that this isn’t the only venue at risk. The Powerstation only opens for shows three or four times a month. It could be used more often, but its owner-operators, Muchmore Music, demand a pretty substantial room hire fee, which isn’t economic for many shows. They seem committed to running a venue, just not very often.

But when the City Rail Link opens in five years time, the venue will be just up the hill from the redeveloped Mt Eden station. It’s going to be an attractive place to live and it’s easy to see the owners being tempted to sell up for residential development.

What the King’s Arms and the Powerstation have in common is that they are reasonably large rectangular boxes, which makes them ideal rock ‘n’ roll venues. That’s a hard kind of building to find – and an even harder one to build – in the current environment. While the Wine Cellar and Whammy have done a good job of making the most of their space and Galatos seems to work well, the only real “big box” on K Road is The Studio.

The second half of this post – highlighting five more worthies – will be up tomorrow.

Sunday reading 9 October 2016

Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here is a collection of stories I found interesting over the week. Add your links in the comments section below.

Here’s another study that quantifies the health benefits of cycling – “Bike lanes are a sound public health investment“, Fox News Health.

Every $1,300 New York City invested in building bike lanes in 2015 provided benefits equivalent to one additional year of life at full health over the lifetime of all city residents, according to a new economic assessment.

That’s a better return on investment than some direct health treatments, like dialysis, which costs $129,000 for one quality-adjusted life year, or QALY, said coauthor Dr. Babak Mohit of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

Per person, bike lanes created an additional cost of $2.79 and a gain of .0022 quality-adjusted life years, according to the results published in Injury Prevention.

“For bike lanes the cost per QALY is $1,300, a little bit higher than vaccines but way lower than most medical interventions that we have in healthcare,” Mohit said. “We’re finding more and more of these social interventions are not directly medically related but have an extremely positive effect on giving us more life years.”

Confederation of Workshops of Architecture Projects Via New York Times

Confederation of Workshops of Architecture Projects Via New York Times

One undeniable trend is how big and growing cities are limiting car traffic in their city centres. Here Barcelona takes a leap forward past its peers in Europe by applying a new traffic system on top of its famous Eixample district block patterns. Other cities aggressively reducing car access include Madrid, Paris, Helsinki, and Copenhagen. And look for New York City to make some major changes during the L Line (subway) construction project. Winnie Hu,”What New York Can Learn From Barcelona’s Superblocks“, New York Times.

Beginning in September, city officials started creating a system of so-called superblocks across the city that will severely limit vehicles as a way to reduce traffic and air pollution, use public space more efficiently and essentially make neighbourhoods more pleasant.

The strategy has propelled Barcelona, a city better known for its soccier team and it Gaudi architecture, to the forefront of urban-transportion experiments and has attracted intereste from transportation officials, urban planners and advocates in many cities paralyzed by gridlock.

Here’s Elinor Chisholm responding to a news article about the lack of housing activism in New Zealand, “Renter activism in New Zealand and the United States“, One Two Three Home. Elinor will be hosting a forum about housing in Auckland on 20 October at the University of Auckland – Facebook details.

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.

Sally Schoolmaster via New York Times.

Sally Schoolmaster via New York Times.

When the dust settles from the Unitary Plan it should be much easier to build a second building on a single-family zoned site. Accessory units are considered a low hanging fruit to inserting housing supply and diversity into growing cities. Here’s a good article on Portland’s granny units. Zahid Sardar, “Portland’s Small-House Movement Is Catching On” New York Times.

This $175,000 house, one of the smallest she has lived in, will allow her to age in place if she chooses. It feels larger, thanks to the indoor/outdoor design solutions…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling unig units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also elimiated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowenrs to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits – raised to 20 feet from 18 feet – encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s.

Here’s some more research on how urban design influences our well being. “Can Urban Environments Be Designed for Better Mental Health?“, American Psychiatric Association.

One area of substantial research is the benefit of natural environments or green spaces which can provide a calming atmosphere, evoke positive emotions and facilitate learning and alertness. Experiencing nature helps people recover from the mental fatigue of work. Some research has found that activity in natural outdoor settings can help reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. Research reported in the journal Scientific Reports used satellite imagery, local tree data and local health data in Toronto, Canada to quantify the benefits of trees in urban streets. They found that trees along streets are associated with a significant health benefit and that even small increases in the number of trees along streets can improve health.

A group of researchers set out to study the complex functioning of the urban built environment and its impact on mental health. They gathered data on the structure of the city, service (e.g., libraries, transportation, sports facilities, entertainment, etc.) and looked for connections between this data and use of antidepressant medication in the cities’ population.

They concluded that the key factors contributing to reduced risk of depression were accessibility to public transportation and a more dense urban structure (rather than sprawl). This was particularly true for women and older adults. Women and older adults who lived in places more accessible to public transportation and in more densely populated areas were prescribed fewer antidepressant medications. While this population-based study cannot identify cause, the researchers suggest that both of these factors could reduce stress by increasing opportunities to move around the city and to participate in social activities.

The design of streets is being democratised with open source tools like Streetmix and Counterapp. Increasingly, people are also resorting to fixing streets themselves using paint, posts or cones- “Bike Lane Posts Installed By Safety Vigilantes Can Stay, Says SFMTA“. Here’s a new tool/app that is designed to stop illegal parking in NYC by allowing people to publicly document cases of people parking in bike lanes. John Metcalf, “New Yorkers Are Publicly Shaming Cars in Bike Lanes“, City Lab.

The map invites cyclists who see motorists parked or idling in bike lanes to snap a photo and send it in, where it’ll be geolocated, time-stamped, and sometimes annotated with a comment like “Complete logjam all at this twerp’s convenience.”

The map is supposed to function as a public record of drivers behaving badly, but it functions equally well as a record of frustration in New York’s cycling community. “I’m sure he was only waiting here for a minute,” writes one person. “You know, only enough time for me to die 60 times over.” Chimes another: “The reason the guy in the white shirt had to park his car in the bike lane right below the busy Fulton St. intersection? Hot dog break.”

Sunday reading 2 October 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting with an important article that all of our readers who work in the transport planning field should read in full and share with their colleagues. David Levinson (Transportist) writes about “Dogfooding: why transit employees and managers should use transit“:

The term “dogfooding”, derived from “eating your own dog food”, is popular in the tech sector, and implies that a company should use its own products wherever it can. Thus, in general, Apple employees should have Macs on their desks rather than Windows machines, and Google employees should use Gmail. The advantages of this are several. Most importantly, bugs can be quickly identified by employees using the system on a daily basis, and feedback can be channeled quickly through the organization. Secondarily, missing features can be quickly identified similarly. Employees will get better empathy for the experience of paying customers.

Similarly employees, and management, and directors or council-members of transit agencies should ride transit to work.

The same applies in many other areas of public policy and business. Customer experience is essential to delivering a good product or service – which means that people tasked with delivering them need to understand what life’s like from the customer’s view.

Speaking of, if we want a more cycle-friendly city, maybe it would be a good idea to get some property developers on bikes. Down south, Cycling in Christchurch has put together an interesting photo essay on the design of some new subdivisions. Here’s an excerpt:

The first step to encouraging cycling is land use – it’s no good for example having lots of lovely cycleways around your housing area if you still have to travel miles to get to the shops, school, work and so on. A lot of earlier stand-alone subdivisions were essentially just “dormitory” suburbs full of houses and nothing else.

Shops, playgrounds, and places to park your bike

Shops, playgrounds, and places to park your bike

Fortunately more of the recent developments have tried to incorporate a bit more mixed-use planning, by including neighbourhood centres with shops, cafés and maybe even some offices; there might also be a school site planned for the future or a local childcare centre.

Some local shops and cafes, plus bike parking and a calmed street layout

Some local shops and cafes, plus bike parking and a calmed street layout

The challenge with all of these facilities is the need to have a “critical mass” of residents before they will often become viable. So, unless the developer subsidises things in the early days, it may be difficult to see these mixed use features in there from day one. It’s one thing to say that they will be built later on when the population grows (same with providing bus services to the neighbourhood) but, in the meantime, the early residents might get into the habit of just driving further afield to do what they need to do.

Good bike parking outside the local health centre

Good bike parking outside the local health centre

I’ve also yet to see a community central area in Chch that doesn’t let you drive all the way through the middle of it. Unlike virtually every town I encountered in Europe, we seem to lack the courage to create community hubs that you can only walk or bike through, with car parking on the periphery.

Houses and offices; a pity that the pathway has no ramp onto the road

Houses and offices; a pity that the pathway has no ramp onto the road

We should definitely be building new subdivisions to enable good access by walking, cycling, and public transport. Why? It’ll be better for us, in the short and long run, than the alternative. David Dudley (CityLab) reports on some new research on “the real risks of urban cycling“:

Anyone who spends much time on a bicycle in a city, dodging diesel-belching buses and wayward motorists, has wondered at some point whether the overall health benefits of cycling are gnawed away by pollution exposure and the risks of being killed or seriously injured. The facts, as the data journalists of the UK’s Financial Times Magazine explain, are somewhat reassuring: Unless you live in a small handful of extremely polluted cities, you should get on a bike. […]

James Hamblin recently made a similar observation over at The Atlantic, noting that the lethality of the modern sedentary lifestyle cannot be offset by occasional periods of intense exercise. What you need is a regular commitment to daily moving around. And that’s exactly what regular bike commuters get, even as they endure all the other miseries—and the occasional spasm of terror—that urban riding can sometimes deliver.

New Zealand cities are relatively unpolluted, compared with the smoggy Asian cities in the sample. This means that increasing the perceived safety of bicycling through investments in safe cycle facilities will tend to be a very good idea.

But what, you ask, do people really want in a neighbourhood? Opinions differ. (Probably due to the fact that people differ.) As Chris Kirkham reports in the Wall Street Journal, American cities and suburbs are trying out radically different approaches to attract more young residents:

In the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, developers are planning to build as many as 6,000 new condominiums and apartments, 10 hotels and 2 million square feet of office space along a one-mile stretch that includes the new corporate headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys.

Three towns to the west, in Flower Mound, city codes require that most homes sit on quarter-acre lots. When a developer two years ago proposed a 750-unit mix of apartments, senior living and townhomes geared toward millennials, dozens of nearby residents, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “low density,” showed up in council chambers to blast the plan. It eventually was reduced to 97 homes starting at around $450,000—up from the mid-$300,000 range in the original plan.


A row of newly built homes run along the street in the Lakeside subdivision, a high density mixed retail and residential development at the south end of Flower Mound, Texas. Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal

“We don’t want to look like Frisco,” resident Kelly James said at a meeting last year. “The more high density, the less character this town has.”

The starkly different trajectories of Frisco and Flower Mound, less than 20 miles apart, reflect the profound changes under way in suburban areas across the U.S. A growing body of survey research suggests millennials intend to gravitate to suburbs just like earlier generations did, but that they prefer a higher-density, more walkable version than the cul-de-sac communities of their parents.

My prediction is that the second town will not have an awesome time in the long run. Intentionally driving up the price of housing by restricting density will mean, at some point, that they have a population of retirees on fixed incomes who need expensive services, at which point they will have a fiscal crisis.

Speaking of welcoming people, here’s a heart-warming story about a six-year-old American kid who wrote to President Obama to ask him to send a Syrian refugee to live with his family:

The sight of shell-shocked 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who was wounded in an airstrike in Aleppo, left many people speechless last month. It also prompted a New York boy named Alex to write to President Obama with a simple request: “Can you please go get him” so Omran can become part of Alex’s family?

[…] Here’s the full transcript of Alex’s letter:

“Dear President Obama,

“Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

“Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.

“Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!


“6 years old”

Humans are generally born decent and generous. It takes an effort to teach ourselves to be selfish and cynical.



If you want some videos with a more local flavour, Aucklander Elisa Hardijanto recently bought a bike, and has been taking great videos and photos of her favourite rides around the city. Here’s her write-up and pictures:

Ride 2 Waterfront The next day I took the train to Britomart with the intention of riding around my favorite place in Auckland; the Viaduct.
It was an amazing ride! The sun was out, although still slightly chilly with the wind, apparently it was 18 celcius.

I saw a lot of people young and old enjoying their city. Scooters, bikes, dogs, cameras and families were out in the sun. I was not the only cyclist, which was great to see!

I started with the train to Britomart, used the segregated cycleway on Quay Street (thanks AT) then around the Viaduct, behind Vodafone and KPMG buildings through to Westhaven Drive and the promenade. I went all the way to the bottom of the Harbour Bridge and back… Had lunch then back to the Harbour Bridge via Wynyard Quarter.

The Westhaven Promenade is gorgeous. It is a wide boardwalk right next to the water, a smooth flat ride and the view is stunning. I was there about a week ago on an evening photography course with Three Little Wishes. These are some shots I took.

Read the whole thing – regular cyclists will probably recognise the routes, but others may want to check out Elisa’s suggestions.

On the other side of the world, Lucy Tobin (Evening Standard) writes about the weird world of London property development. In a land with no by-right development, “you’ve got to curate a community” to get planning approval:

While most companies’ idea of “giving back” is a charity fun day or a euphemism-filled chunk on corporate social responsibility in their annual report, in property the concept is built into every development thanks to the planning laws with the unsexy name of Section 106, and its younger sibling the community infrastructure levy.

Every new luxury apartment block has to include the building of nearby low-cost housing, and commercial sprawls need to create something for the existing community too. It’s why every big Tesco usually has a sports centre or doctors’ surgery nearby.

Now, though, developers are going beyond leaving behind a pile of bricks for affordable housing —  the property world has become more imaginative, and ambitious. They’re calling it “placemaking” — developing communities, cultural hubs and even wildlife reserves near new developments, to turn pockets of the capital that are still seen as urban deserts or industrial wasteland into “It” destinations.

A housebuilder might erect a community theatre among its three-bed homes. A commercial developer invites young tech firms to office-share in brick-walled former warehouses, alongside the corporate and luxury apartment blocks. Hipster cafés and start-ups are invited in, alongside Instagrammable walls and street-food festivals; collaborations with local artists and cultural institutions are key.

Strange system. It probably does at least some good, but you have to ask whether the whole edifice makes sense. And that’s exactly what the Obama administration has been doing. The White House just published a new “Housing Development Toolkit” to try and prod towns and cities to do better. Or, as Doug Trumm (The Urbanist) put it, “Obama is a YIMBY“:

The Executive Summary begins with a succinct summary of recent land use history and how it relates to widening income inequality.

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

President Obama delivered comments at the US Conference of Mayors in January that hinted at his interest in boosting housing options in cities: “We can work together to break down rules that stand in the way of building new housing and that keep families from moving to growing, dynamic cities.” The toolkit fleshes out that pledge and suggests responding with a suite of land use changes.

  1. Establishing by-right development
  2. Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  3. Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  4. Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  5. Allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
  6. Establishing density bonuses
  7. Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  8. Employing inclusionary zoning
  9. Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  10. Using property tax abatements

Read the full document for a more complete picture of the recommendations, but really, this looks like a pretty sensible list.

That’s it for the week! See you next time!

Video of the week: How wind turbine blades are transported

Via How Things Work, here’s an interesting video of wind turbine blades being transported through challenging terrain:

Pretty remarkable how large the blades are relative to the trucks, and how careful the drivers are on some pretty challenging routes.

Pick up your shopping at your Station

Often it’s the big things such as improved infrastructure and services that are needed to make public transport more viable but sometimes small enhancements can help in removing barriers for new users or just improve customer satisfaction with existing users. Yesterday Auckland Transport announced a trial of  the latter kind, a deal with Countdown for people to pick up groceries at a few selected locations with the potential for it to be expanded to more locations in the future.

In a first for Auckland, Auckland Transport has teamed up with Countdown to introduce secure online grocery ‘Click & Collect’ collection points at five initial trial locations.

  • Albany Bus Station.
  • New Lynn Transport Centre.
  • Orakei Train Station.
  • Waiheke Ferry Terminal.
  • Downtown Car Park.

Auckland Transport Chief AT Metro Officer Mark Lambert says “Through this Click & Collect trial we aim to provide our customers with even greater levels of convenience and flexibility, whatever their mode of transport.”

“We’re thrilled to be able to kick off this new initiative with Countdown, who have decades of experience in online shopping and look forward to potentially expanding this customer amenity throughout our network.”

From 27 September 2016, Countdown Shoppers can order their groceries online at countdown.co.nz (before 1pm) and pick them up on the way home when catching the train, bus or ferry that afternoon/evening.

The collection points will play a part in making life easier for Aucklanders as more and more people embrace public transport.

This new service is being rolled out as a six month trial, with a view to offering it in other locations if proven successful. Currently, the five initial transport facilities service more than 95,000 AT HOP card users and customers every day.

This trial with Countdown is one of several ongoing efforts by the AT Retail Strategy Implementation Steering Group to enhance the AT customer experience.

I see this as a good move and I hope it’s successful so it can roll out to more bus/train stations and ferry terminals.


Image thanks to Geogoose

Of course countdown already deliver direct to homes and at general times you can specify but the difference here is that it appears to be slightly cheaper to pick up your goods from the station than it is to deliver – the same as picking up from a store.

I’d see this kind of model being used for a variety of services – another example might courier deliveries. Ultimately I hope it could lead to AT or perhaps even third parties developing stations into more than just the bare platforms they often are today. In overseas cities it is not uncommon to see stations with shops, cafes and other amenities built in – as a small start, my local station now has a coffee van parked up every morning.


Sunday reading 25 September 2016.

csree7oweaipbuhHello, and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are a collection of articles, videos and commentary I found interesting over the week. Please add your own links in the comments section.

Here is a good article on the illogic of sprawl from a fiscal standpoint. Nice to see Chuck Marohn and Strongtowns mentioned. Matthew Robare, “Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice“, The American Conservative.

Sprawl isn’t really as cheap as it seems. A network of tax breaks, financial guarantees, subsidies, and other chicanery keep parts of suburbia relatively inexpensive. Most notably, transportation costs are often excluded from the discussion of housing affordability, even though it’s hard to live anywhere without a way to get to work. For example, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has shown that the low density, car-dependent development that has typified American cities since World War II does not produce enough tax revenue to service the debt that cities took out to build the infrastructure needed for sprawl.

The numbers stuff can be really dull and become a barrier for some to the advantages of urbanism.  Sightline recommends the housing and urbanism message can be better communicated by focusing on people, and a shared community challenge. City Observatory says not so fast, here’s a ‘teachable moment’ about supply and demand. Joe Cortright , “Lessons in Supply and Demand: Housing Market Edition“, City Observatory.

The demand for cities and for great urban neighborhoods is exploding. Americans of all ages, but especially well-educated young adults are increasingly choosing to live in cities. And in the face of that demand, our ability to build more such neighborhoods and to expand housing in the ones that we already have is profoundly limited, both by the relative slowness of housing construction (relative to demand changes), and also because of misguided public policies that constrain our ability to build housing in the places where people most want to live, to the point in many communities, we’ve simply made it illegal to build the dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that widely regarded as the most desirable.

We don’t expect the demand for urban living to abate any time soon–in fact, there’s good reason to believe that it will continue to increase. And it’s still the case that we have a raft of public policies – from restrictions on apartment construction and density, to limits on mixed use development, to onerous parking requirements, and discretionary, hyper-local approval processes – that make it hugely difficult to build new housing in the places where it’s most needed.

Many of the problems we encounter in the housing market are a product of self-inflicted wounds that are based on naive and contradictory ideas about how the world works. We believe that housing should both be affordable and a great investment (which is an impossible contradiction), and we tend to think the laws of supply and demand somehow don’t apply to one of the biggest sectors of the economy (housing). At their root, our housing problems–and their solutions–are about understanding the economics at work here. So in our view, it’s definitely time to talk about supply and demand.

Here’s George Monbiot stating the obvious – “it was a mistake – a monumental, world-class mistake”– “Our roads are choked. We’re on the verge of carmageddon“, The Guardian.

Over half the car journeys people make in this country are less than five miles: this is what policy failure looks like. Why don’t people cycle instead? Perhaps because, though the number of motorists killed or seriously injured has fallen sharply, the number of cyclists killed or hurt on the roads has climbed since 2003. This now accounts for 14% of all casualties, though cycling amounts to only 1% of the distance we travel.

The simplest, cheapest and healthiest solution to congestion is blocked by the failure to provide safe transit. Last year the transport department crowed that it could cut £23m from its budget as a result of an “underspend on the Cycle Cities Ambition budget”. Instead of handing this money back to the Treasury, it should have discovered why it wasn’t spent, and ensured that it doesn’t happen again.

So here’s a novel idea: how about a 21st-century transport system for the 21st century? Helsinki is making public transport as convenient and flexible as private transport. For example, by aggregating people’s requests via a smartphone app, minibus services can collect people from their homes and deliver them close to their destinations while minimising their routes. Hamburg is building a network of cycling and walking paths so safe, pleasant and convenient that no one with the ability to do otherwise would want to take a car.

Here is Lyft founder John Zimmer describing how technology will solve the problem of the car in the city – “The Third Transportation Revolution“, Medium.

Next time you walk outside, pay really close attention to the space around you. Look at how much land is devoted to cars — and nothing else. How much space parked cars take up lining both sides of the street, and how much of our cities go unused covered by parking lots.

It becomes obvious, we’ve built our communities entirely around cars. And for the most part, we’ve built them for cars that aren’t even moving.

…I believe we’re on the cusp of nothing short of a transportation revolution — one that will shape the future of our communities. And it is within our collective responsibility to ensure this is done in a way that improves quality of life for everyone.

By 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities.

Baffingly, our human habitat remains under examined. What make great places, streets and cities? Here is a comprehensive study that tracks people’s movements to determine the properties that make more healthy and active places. It appears consistent with other studies by Reid Ewing and others.  Kaid Benfield, “Four Characteristics of Active, Healthy Neighborhoods“, Placemakers.

  • Residential density. It takes a critical mass of homes in a neighborhood to support economically viable shops and amenities within walking distance.
  • Intersection density. Well-connected streets tend to shorten travel distances and put more likely destinations within walking distance.
  • Public transport density. More transit stops within walking distance make it more likely that residents have transit options and will elect to use them.
  • Access to parks. Parks serve not only as places where people exercise but also as destinations people walk to and from, getting exercise as they do.

Here’s a fascinating study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact- porches, stoops, etc. This seems so basic, but rarely applied in New Zealand.  Brown, SC et al, “Built environment and physical functioning in Hispanic elders: the role of ‘eyes on the street‘”, Pub Med.gov.

After controlling for age, sex, and income, architectural features of the built environment theorized to facilitate visual and social contact had a significant direct relationship with elders’ physical functioning as measured 3 years later, and an indirect relationship through social support and psychological distress. Further binomial regression analyses suggested that elders living on blocks marked by low levels of positive front entrance features were 2.7 times as likely to have subsequent poor levels of physical functioning, compared with elders living on blocks with a greater number of positive front entrance features [b = 0.99; chi(2) (1 df) = 3.71; p = 0.05; 95% confidence interval, 1.0-7.3].


Street party. Balmoral, Auckland, 2015

While many of our streets are designed for social interaction and access to transport services, people seem largely content to live behind stone walls and high hedges.  Here’s a neat story from the suburbs of Minnesota that has encouraged people to come back to their front yards. James Walsh, “Project connects St. Paul neighbors by moving them to their front yards“, Star Tribune.

Ross Callahan has lived in his Rondo-area home for 14 years. Yet, he admits, he’d communicated with only a few of his neighbors over that time, usually with a nod or a wave.

Then a funny thing happened. He started spending time in the front yard.

Thanks to a project designed to get people out of their backyards and meeting their neighbors, Callahan started cleaning up the green space at the center of his cul-de-sac, laid a new patio and, yes, started getting to know the people who live in the dozen homes around him.

Postcard from Bogota

Following a few days in Mexico City, I’ve had the pleasure of staying a week in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota is both the federal capital and the capital of Cundinamarca state, and while it probably doesn’t yet figure as a world capital of culture or clout, it certainly is a thriving mega city of regional importance.

Because of its position straddling the Andes, Colombia is a country with every climate conceivable, it has snow covered alps, temperate savannah, dense jungle, dry desert, not to mention both tropical Caribbean and temperate-maritime Pacific coasts.

The city itself sits on broad plain high up on the middle finger of the three-branched Andes mountains, in fact at 2,700m it’s high enough to cause altitude sickness in some people. The altitude gives the nominally tropical city a very mild temperate climate, with clear skies, low humidity and temperatures that sit around the high teens and low twenties every day of the year. You could call it the city of eternal Spring.
Bogota is big. At around 11.5 million people it is as populous as greater London, or all of New Zealand two and a half times over.

Bogota is also dense. The majority of inhabitants live in apartment towers, mid rise block or terraced house style developments. The north of the city has a very European feel, with four to six story apartments of brick or concrete on a grid of fairly narrow tree lined streets. If it weren’t for the language you could be in the Netherlands or Germany.

Curiously, the city is three sided. The original colonial centre was established on one edge of the plain at the foot of a great mountain range. It has since sprawled across the plain to the north, south and west, but not to the east on account of the mountains. This allows for one unique benefit: you can ride a cable car a further 400m up the mountain of Monseraté near downtown and take in the whole sprawling metropolis in a single vista, including the bizzare experience of standing on terra firma and looking down at the tops of fifty story skyscrapers in the commercial district far below. If the thin air doesn’t take your breath away, the view certainly will!


Accordingly Bogota has basically two types of land use structure. A long, thin, but dense band of apartment towers runs for 40km north-south along the eastern edge of the plain, taking advantage of the Andes foothills to provide spectacular view back across the city. These buildings are accessed by a circuitous web of winding narrow switchback roads not too dissimilar to western Wellington. For the most part the wealthy live here in gated apartment communities, however dotted amongst them are university campuses (Bogota has dozens of them for some reason) and patches of impoverished and dangerous barrios similar to the famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

The other structure is on the plain itself, an enormous flat and regular grid of broad multi-lane avenues, filled with three to thirty storey buildings. Think Los Angeles but consistently taller. This is perhaps Bogota’s downfall: it land use is what can only be described as dense sprawl, and it’s transport system is entirely road based. Not surprisingly the traffic is truly horrendous. I have to laugh whenever people complain about Auckland’s supposedly worlds-worst traffic. Puh-lease. If you want bad traffic, take a city the same area as Auckland, with an entirely road based transport network… then add another ten million inhabitants all trying to drive at the same time.

Naturally Bogota has spend decades trying to accommodate it’s traffic with more, bigger roads. The city is covered in a massive amount of six, eight, ten lane avenues. They appear to have tried a bit of everything, separated motorways, limited access avenues, boulevards, frontage roads, slip lanes, underpasses, overpasses, one way streets, the works. The system almost works too… when conditions are perfect. However that almost never happens. It only takes one small crash, a truck parked illegally to unload, a taxi doing a u-turn or one of a thousand other small disruptions to infarct the system. This is perhaps the folly of huge roads for huge capacity, on an eight lane road one disruption clogs up eight times the traffic.

Transport here has an interesting socio-cultural element. From what I understand Bogotano society has six distinct classes with a broad spread of inequality, from the destitute poor up to the untouchable elite with money and connections above the law. For the middle classes, there is a great preoccupation with not sliding down the ladder. Few in the middle classes would ever dream of catching public transport as that is the domain of the underclass. Maintaining a private car is a necessary symbol of status regardless of the cost or the traffic, and if one does not drive they rely on cheap and ubiquitous taxis or town car services. Either way, not escape from the traffic is possible and it’s one form of private car all the way.

The transit wonks among us must now be thinking, but what about the Transmillennio? For the less frothy-mouthed readers, the Transmillennio is a now-famous busway system with half a dozen lines running along Bogota’s main arterials forming quite a wide reaching and effective network. This system is A grade busway of world class design. It is based around a system of dedicated, physically separated median busway lanes, some of which are grade separate at key intersections. The are combined with train-style island platform stations accessed by elaborate overpasses and footbridges. The busways themselves are serviced by special red colour high capacity trunk-only metro buses, very long vehicles with two or three articulated sections, high floors that match up with platform level, and four or even five double doors per bus. At the end of each of the busways there are huge interchanges where green-coloured feeder buses of conventional design connect the surrounding suburbs to the trunk busways. In that regard it really is metro system writ with rubber.


So what is it like to use? I wouldn’t know myself, as I was consistently dissuaded from trying it by friends and family whenever I mentioned it. The locals advised it was too crowded, too dangerous, too much of a risk for any decent person to use. I do wonder if this is simply a hangover of the same cultural understanding that buses were for the poor and to be avoided. Indeed when I asked few of my advisors had ever set foot on the system. My one young cousin who did actually use it to get to university each day only complained that it was too crowded, and the station too far away from his apartment.

What we do know is that the system is indeed hugely popular and overcrowded, a victim of it’s own success. Preoccupations of class and status aside, hundreds of thousands of people use the system every day. For all its efficiency at beating traffic and it mega capacity buses ability to move the masses, the simple fact is it barely touches the sides of the transport task in Bogota. Imagine London with no tube, not overground, no suburban trains, no national rail, no DLR, no tramlink. Imagine a London with six busways as the only rapid transit. That is Bogota. They have a long way to go to turn the traffic situation around. So yes it is a massive success, and very worthwhile, but for Bogota it is just the start of fixing things.

So if the Transmillennio is so effective (if not comprehensive), one has to ask why we don’t build them in Auckland. Indeed we hear this quite often from certain politicians, why are we talking about CRL tunnels and trains and light rail, when the bus can do the job for half the price? It’s a good question, and one that deserves an evaluation. Nonetheless, the answer is pretty simple: space.


The Transmillennio takes up space, lots of space. More space than we have. The basic cross section of these busways is two bus lanes either side of a median. That’s basically the full width of most of our main roads to start with. However, once you get to a stop the situation blows out again. Each of the stations has a large platform, then stopping lanes either side, then passing lane beside those again. That means a cross section of four bus lanes and the station, about 25 metres wide. Now as most of Auckland’s arterial roads are one chain wide (about 21m), building a Transmillennio in Auckland would require buying and demolishing all the buildings down one side of the street just to fit in the bus corridor, let alone any other traffic lanes, footpaths or street trees. Indeed, the one place we are looking at a multilane street busway, the AMETI corridor in east Auckland, they are planning to do exactly that.

So while we can do busways alongside motorways like we do on the North Shore (and hopefully the northwest), we can’t fit them in the street for the most part. This is why AT is looking at light rail, because for the same capacity LRT needs only two lanes and compact platforms, where the bus systems need four to manage the greater number of vehicles.

Bogota managed this by building into their existing avenues, which had huge wide medians in addition to three or four lanes in each direction. The Transmillennio got away without any land or building purchases by virtue of having huge road reserves to start with. In fact they had such wide corridors that they actually widened the roadways at the same time, adding extra lanes for traffic to offset the squeals of indignation about spending proper money on public transport. So in one way Bogota was lucky to have a fair whack of empty space effectively lying around, or arguably they were wasting land to start with and found a better use for it.

My end evaluation? The Transmillennio was a good move for Bogota that fits the city well and takes advantage of spatial resources, however it’s only the start of much more for fixing their transport issues.

Sunday reading 18 September 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting with two bits of authentic Kiwiana. First, in Stuff Henry Cooke reviews New Zealand’s best and worst town slogans. You’ve got to read the entire article for the full effect, but here were some of my favourite ones:


Someone once suggested a slogan for the wider Hutt area “Right up my Hutt Valley,” which sounds like a joke the marketing agency pitched by accident. Luckily, something closer to “Love the Hutt” or “I love the Hutt” has taken over the slogan game now.



Dunedin, after years of enduring “I am Dunedin” and the much more fun “It’s alright here,” seems to have dropped the whole idea of a slogan altogether, instead branding the city as simply “dunedin” – but written in a gothic script so they look like a black metal band. In their brand story Dunedin notes the new logo is “irony-proof,” and, well – they’re not wrong.

Frankly, before the Hutt Valley gets another slogan it should consider renaming itself. Te Awa Kairangi could be a good alternative, but they’d have to scrub the toxic algae out of the river to make it worthy of the name…

Second, the Loading Docs initiative, which supports 10 filmmaking teams to create three-minute, creative documentaries that tell New Zealand stories, has put together a short video telling the story of two refugee migrants to New Zealand: How Mr. and Mrs. Gock Saved the Kumara. Pretty inspiring story:

Away from New Zealand, Jarrett Walker (Human Transit) tells the story of Barcelona’s “drunken metro and sober bus”. It’s an interesting story of good and bad public transport design, and the kludges that build up over time as networks expand:

Some simple math: In an optimal grid network, lines keep going more or less straight, and intersect each other more or less perpendicularly.  You change direction in this network by making a connection.  The perpendicularity maximizes the area of the city that each connection could take you to.


Transit grids can be standard or polar, but are almost always some subtle fusion of the two. The polar grid arises when there’s a huge center on which the network logically converges, because desirable destinations are packed most tightly there.

Once you recognize these patterns, you notice how coherent most metro networks are. Even those that are kludges to a degree have usually been patched as much as possible to create some appropriate fusion of radial and standard grid effects.

But among the metros I’ve encountered Barcelona’s metro network seems unusually chaotic in its network structure, often seeming to meander without intention.


[…] Again, most metros are kludges to some degree.  It’s unlikely that anybody alive in Barcelona today deserves blame for the odd patterns of the metro’s flow.  There are always historical reasons for why things have ended up as they are.  If you want to follow that history, here’s a fun video.

But meanwhile:  Does your head contain some received wisdom along the lines of: “European metros are so fantastic that why would anyone take buses?” I can remember when many Europeans used to believe this, but today, bus network improvement is one of the most important of European trends. The need for a rational bus network may be even more urgent if your metro is staggering around drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line.

What’s great about the new Barcelona’s bus network then, is not just that it’s a grid, but that it really wants you to know that it’s a grid, and how straight its constituent lines are:


The new lines have numbers preceded by “H” or “V” for “horizontal” or “vertical”.  (Vertical is quite literal: not just up-down on standard maps like this one, but also up to the hills or down to the sea.)  These frequent lines are also numbered in logical sequence across the city, so that as you get to know the network, a number reminds you of roughly where in the grid each line sits, and thus what it’s likely to be useful for.

The idea is that people should be able to keep a sense of the whole grid network in their heads.  If you just remember what H and V mean, and the sequence in which they’re numbered, you have an enormous amount of information the whole system. When you see any bus numbered this way, you have a general sense of which way it’s going, or at least along which axis.  And when you hear a bus route number, you can easily form a general sense of where it is.

Jarrett’s an advocate for legible, user-friendly public transport systems that are accessible to a wide variety of people and transport demands. But our transport systems are often designed to meet different goals: to exclude and separate, rather than connect. Lena Groeger (ProPublica) explores the sordid history and present of “Discrimination by Design“:

You can’t talk about discriminatory design without mentioning city planner Robert Moses, whose public works projects shaped huge swaths of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s. The physical design of the environment is a powerful tool when it’s used to exclude and isolate specific groups of people. And Moses’ design choices have had lasting discriminatory effects that are still felt in modern New York.

A notorious example: Moses designed a number of Long Island Parkway overpasses to be so low that buses could not drive under them. This effectively blocked Long Island from the poor and people of color who tend to rely more heavily on public transportation. And the low bridges continue to wreak havoc in other ways: 64 collisions were recorded in 2014 alone (here’s a bad one).

The design of bus systems, railways, and other forms of public transportation has a history riddled with racial tensions and prejudiced policies. In the 1990s the Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union went to court over the racial inequity they saw in the city’s public transportation system. The Union alleged that L.A.’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent “a disproportionately high share of its resources on commuter rail services, whose primary users were wealthy non-minorities, and a disproportionately low share on bus services, whose main patrons were low income and minority residents.” The landmark case was settled through a court-ordered consent decree that placed strict limits on transit funding and forced the MTA to invest over $2 billion in the bus system.

Of course, the design of a neighborhood is more than just infrastructure. Zoning laws and regulations that determine how land is used or what schools children go to have long been used as a tool to segregate communities. All too often, the end result of zoning is that low-income, often predominantly black and Latino communities are isolated from most of the resources and advantages of wealthy white communities.

Discrimination by design is hardly a thing of the past. Many cities are going out of their way to put up barriers to building smaller, affordable dwellings that can meet the needs of people without a lot of money. On the Sightline Institute’s blog, architect and developer David Neiman explains the problems with Seattle’s recent effort to impose minimum apartment sizes:

Unfortunately for the many other Annas out there, eager to live close to good city jobs or to participate in city life, Seattle has now effectively outlawed micro-housing through the minutiae of policy and zoning rules. Seattle was the modern birthplace of micro-housing in North America. It went strong from 2009 to 2013, but building micro-housing projects has since become an uphill battle. In fact, the local war about micro-housing is over… and micro-housing lost.

[…] You buy a plot of land in an urban village to develop micro-housing, anticipating its future residents will benefit from nearby frequent transit, grocery stores, a library and park, and some local shops. Your goal is to provide homes at affordable rents in a desirable neighborhood for the most people that you can. You’d also like to participate in the MFTE program, which gives you a property tax break that covers the cost of dramatically lowering the rent for a share of your tenants as long as those tenants have low incomes.

You draw up plans to build 40 apartments of 175 square feet each. You estimate rent at $900 per month. That amount might sound expensive if you haven’t shopped for rentals in Seattle recently, but it’s a steal: conventional studios now go for $1,400 on average.

Not so fast. Some of the folks who live nearby are upset about what you have planned. So the City Council passes new rules bumping up your units to an average of 220 square feet, and then, in committee, adds some more rules that jack your average unit size further.

You redesign your project according to the new rules and find that you are now down to 27 units of 260 square feet each. Thirteen Annas just lost their housing, and the remainder saw their rent rise by a third, to about $1,200 per month. But at least you are in the MFTE program, so five of your apartments will offer a discounted rent of $1,020 per month to people whose incomes qualify. (You facepalm in disbelief, however, that whereas your original plan offered 40 units, unsubsidized, at $900 a month, your new version has just five units, subsidized, at $1,020.)

Hold on just a second, though, because your Plan B just ran aground. The City Council has decided that the MFTE deal is too good for you, and it adopts more-demanding program requirements, dropping MFTE-discounted rents to $618 per month. Some quick math tells you your property tax break will not come close to covering the rent subsidy.

On top of this, the Mayor’s Office decides to promote family-sized housing by bumping up your MFTE participation quota: you have to subsidize rents for a quarter, not a fifth, of your tenants. You’re baffled why the Mayor’s Office thinks that driving you out of the MFTE program is helping to build family-sized housing. You give up on the MFTE program. There will be no discounted units. The Annas will all have to pay $1,200 a month. Maybe their parents will chip in?

Nice try. The building department is concerned that your apartments are so small that they might pose a threat to life, health, and safety. (You groan in frustration. The National Healthy Housing Standard was revised by an expert panel in 2014 to radically reduce the emphasis on minimum space as a health and safety concern. Previous editions of this model US building code had, based on little empirical evidence, recommended space quotas that criminalized the living conditions of many low-income families, but the new codes, based on a thorough review of the research literature, suggest a minimum of just 70 square feet per room and eliminated all other references to crowding. Sightline’s research informed this change.) The building department publishes a new code interpretation that requires your SEDUs to have larger living rooms. You redesign your project again: Plan C. Three more Annas lose their homes. You are now down to 24 apartments of 290 square feet that rent for about $1,300 per month.

At this point, you realize you’re better off converting the units into small, conventional studios. Your unit size bumps up again, to a little over 300 square feet—Plan D—but at least conventional studios can rationally participate in the MFTE program because the required rent subsidy is lower, so 25 percent of your tenants will get an affordable rent.

Not quite. The building department has a follow-up memo. It turns out that the living room size problem doesn’t just concern SEDUs; conventional studios are now also in danger of sliding below the purported minimum threshold for human habitation. This new interpretation applies to all housing, so your studios have to grow yet again. Your units jump up to an average of 330 square feet, Plan E. Three more Annas lose homes. Your unit count drops to 21. Your rents are now at $1,400 per month. They are not micros. Micros are dead.

This is how Seattle micro-housing regulations have evolved in less than two years. Spread over dozens of proposed small unit development projects, this represents the loss of hundreds of affordable dwellings and a huge increase in average rents. How much?

Seattle’s micro-housing “fix” costs the city 829 affordable homes per year

How many affordable homes is Seattle losing due to its new thicket of rules against micro-housing? The graph below illustrates how the production of congregate housing (including pod-style) and SEDUs changed between 2010 and 2015.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

This is just a stupid catastrophe of a policy. Unbelievable. And remember: Auckland Council just decided to impose a more restrictive minimum dwelling size. While Seattle’s policy bans units with less than 330sq ft, or around 30m2, Auckland’s restricts anything under 35m2.

However, Auckland’s doing it right in other areas. Consider this article on Houston’s 1999 reform to its (minimal) zoning code, by John Ricco at Greater Greater Washington:

But in 1999, Houston enacted sweeping land-use reforms: it decreased the minimum residential lot size from 5,000 square feet [465m2] to 1,400 [130m2] in close-in neighborhoods. In effect, this reform legalized townhouses in areas with suburban-style houses on huge lots. Two or three houses could now take the spot of one.

The political significance of these reforms cannot be overstated. Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it’s exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that “missing middle” housingforms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs.

The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses… The infill process is typically incremental, with detached homes being replaced one at a time. This often leads to a diversity of housing styles on a single block:

Other blocks are unrecognizable in their transformation:

And in some parts of the city, this redevelopment process has gone hand-in-hand with light rail expansion:

(There are so many striking before-and-after images that I programmed a twitter bot, @densifyingHOU, that tweets one out every day.)

One major benefit of these townhouses: they’re cheap! Development at this scale uses cheaper construction methods than those of large buildings, and Houston’s straightforward permitting process reduces regulatory uncertainty and thus financing costs. A cursory search on real estate websites reveals luxury townhouses a mile from downtown from the low $300s.

Now, Houston’s approach does have its flaws. Parking is still mandated, setback requirements and inward-facing homes make for a lousy pedestrian experience, and some new houses are, frankly, ugly. In some areas, unhappy homeowners have lobbied successfully for block-level regulations that re-outlaw townhouses.

But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling.

I wrote about this process after visiting Houston a few years ago. To be clear: the public face of Houston, especially if you’re trying to walk somewhere, is ugly and inhumane. But the buildings are changing rapidly in response to a more liberal set of density controls, which is benefitting people trying to find housing.

The interesting thing is that Auckland has recently surpassed Houston when it comes to deregulating minimum lot sizes. The Unitary Plan drops minimum lot sizes to zero in three of four urban residential zones (Terraced Housing and Apartment Blocks, Mixed Housing Urban, Mixed Housing Suburban) that cover the majority of the city – albeit with a requirement to get a resource consent before building too many dwellings. And in the Single House zone minimum lot sizes are counterbalanced by a more permissive approach to granny flats. We will see how it goes.

Finally, University of Auckland statistician Thomas Lumley reviews his new electric bike. He seems to be enjoying it:

Q: So, it’s been about 11 months since you got your fancy electric-assist bike

A: Yes, that’s right

Q: Have you given up yet?

A: No, it’s still fun.

Q: Even with the rain?

A: Combining Doppler radar and the detailed weather forecasts has mostly kept me dry

Q: And getting killed by cars?

A: So far, still at less than 1 event.

Q: How do you feel about busy two-lane roundabouts?

A: I have a Theory.

Q: Do tell!

A: Busy roundabouts rely on informal negotiation over the details of the ‘give way to the right’ rule. Since cyclists are excluded from the negotiation, we inevitably offend either the drivers to the right or those behind us.

Q: Can’t they just four-letter-word themselves?

A: They are driving deadly weapons.

Q: Ah. Yes.

People respond to incentives created by zoning

There are many, many other examples. Auckland’s sausage flats, for instance, were designed to respond to zoning rules. A mid-1970s reform allowed people to add units on standard residential sites, but they didn’t waive setback and height rules. The result was a lot of long, skinny ‘sausages’ running down the centre of suburban lots, as seen in Royal Oak:


Sausage flats are not the most beloved aspect of Auckland’s urban fabric. (Unjustly, in my view, as they serve a valuable role in housing people who may not be able to afford a typical standalone house.) But some responses to zoning are more well-loved. Take the Mansard roof, which probably forms a key part of your mental image of Paris: Steeply pitched roofs with windows facing out and apartments built within:


According to Wikipedia, this emerged as a response to French zoning codes:

Later examples suggest that either French or American buildings were taxed by their height (or number of storeys) to the base of the roof, or that mansards were used to bypass zoning restrictions. This last explanation is the nearest to the truth: a Parisian law had been in place since 1783, restricting the heights of buildings to 20 metres (65 feet). The height was only measured up to the cornice line, making any living space contained in a mansard roof exempt. A 1902 revision of the law permitted building three or even four stories within such a roof.

Humans are great. We’ve never seen a rule that we didn’t try to weasel our way around.