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Why Demographia’s data is irrelevant and misleading

Demographia is a pro-sprawl think tank in the USA that publishes density and house price data for cities across the world. They’re often seen using their statistics to argue that the only way to deliver affordable housing is with suburban fringe expansion into greenfields land.

Demographia’s data on housing affordability has come under fire in the past for slipperiness with definitions and misleading choice of measures. But their analysis of population density has gotten less attention – although it’s even more riddled with errors.

Demographia’s approach to calculating density is simple but misleading. They have simply calculated the total number of people in each city and divided it by the total land area covered by that city – including unpopulated areas like parks and reserves. This measure of average density is actually quite irrelevant. For example, Demographia uses it to claim that Los Angeles is more dense than New York.

As Peter outlined in this recent post, what is much more relevant is the density of the neighbourhood that the average person lives in, rather than the density of the average acre of land in the city.

For argument’s sake, consider a village of one hundred acres with one hundred residents. By the measure of area weighted density the density is simple, one person per acre. Does this represent the reality of how people live? Well it could, if everyone lived alone in a separate house on an acre of land. But what if they didn’t? What if everyone lived in a single apartment block in the middle of town that sat on one acre of land? Well then the density the people actually live at would be 100 people per acre. That’s a hundred times more dense… but the same density by Demographia’s measure!

And what if it were something more complex? What if a quarter of the town lived in the one apartment building, half lived in eighth-acre sections around it, and the remaining quarter were spread out over the rest of the land? Doesn’t that sound a bit closer to the reality of most cities? One person per acre means nothing for this theoretical town, half the people live at eight times that density and a quarter at fifty times the density.

Just in case you’re still unsure, in the image below the dots represent dwellings and each box has the same number of dots in it. Overall they have the same average density however in reality they would feel like two very different places.

patterns-of-density

In short population-weighted density is a much better indicator of the density of the neighbourhoods people chose to live in, and a much better way to describe cities and housing.

With that in mind, it was a simple task to take Peter’s data and throw it on a chart. In simple terms these show how many people live in neighbourhoods (Census meshblocks to be precise) grouped by density in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  I’ve also picked out the density level that Demographia says each city is.

Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_1

Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_2 Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_3

It’s easy to see a few things here. First of all we can see that neighbourhood density can vary quite a lot within cities. One number just can’t describe how people live. Second, we can see there is something of a bell curve. Most people live within the middle range of densities, those living very low or very high are small in number, but that middle is actually quite broad. Third, we can see how far off Demographia is. Their supposed summary statistic isn’t anywhere near the middle of the curve, it’s actually near the bottom in each case.

For example it seems the Demographia figure describes the density at which roughly five percent of Aucklanders live. Nine percent live at lower densities, and 86% live at higher densities. Many people live in neighbourhoods that are two or three times more dense than Demographia’s misleading average. In short, Demographia’s figures are irrelevant for the vast majority of Aucklanders (and Wellingtonians, and Christchurchers). They don’t reflect how the majority of people choose to live.

Sorry Demographia, your data is plain useless.

Inner suburban development, then and now

One of the last vacant lots in Mount Eden is currently under development. It’s a big section on the corner of Mount Eden Rd and Kelly St – formerly occupied by what seemed to be a slightly feral orchard. It’s large enough to fit three or four old-style Mount Eden villas with generous backyards, or several blocks of walk-up apartments with space for shared vegetable gardens (and possibly even garages)

While I liked having the empty lot and the trees in the neighbourhood, I thought that development could have been a great opportunity to contribute to Kelly St’s unique character. Here’s a picture of what’s across the road: an elegant art deco building on the corner, built out to the site boundaries and joined up to a row of cool brick buildings hosting various businesses.

20141022_182554

But the developers didn’t (or couldn’t) build something in a similar style. Here’s what’s going up across the street. It’s completely uninspiring, completely out of step with the rest of the neighbourhood, and completely within the rules.

What the Kelly St site is getting is a dull cul-de-sac with eight or ten two storey boxes. They have the superficial aspects of a traditional Kiwi home – the pitched roof, the setbacks from the edge of the site, and, of course, the two-car garage out the front – but they’re packed in densely with no yards to speak of.  As I’ve written before, this should not be surprising, as when land is expensive people try to use it efficiently. But it is a bit disappointing.

20141022_182547

Aesthetic judgments are slippery and subjective, but I think most people would prefer more buildings like the ones in the first picture, and fewer buildings like the ones in the second picture. My question is: What can we do to get good buildings to happen more often?

Competition Winners

Attentive readers will recall the little competition we ran some weeks back, well Labour Day has given us the chance to sort through the entries and make some choices.

This exercise has shown that the City Rail Link is a difficult project to summarise and it is hard to feel that we’ve quite cracked it yet, but here goes…

While I for one did particularly like Stu’s CRL: Centre Right Legacy but as there is no sign of this actually happening I think we have to discount that one.

For originality we felt we had to include Mike F‘s: Auckland’s wormhole – a shortcut in time

On the important need to reach out to drivers about the project we also chose:

Greg N‘s CRL – Auckland’s Traffic Decongestant

and

Spartan‘s witty acronym CRL – Congestion ReLief

And finally there’s Nick‘s City Rail Link: Building Auckland’s Regional Metro which he expanded on more fully in a comment on a post earlier today. This is as good a summary of how to better communicate the value of the project as I’ve seen:

They should make a clean cut from the tarnished CRL ‘brand’ and start calling it what it actually is, something like ‘Regional Auckland Metro Rail” (or a snappier alternative). Don’t sell it as a two billion dollar CBD tunnel with two stations, sell it as a two billion dollar metro system with four lines and 40 stations serving 3/4 of metropolitan Auckland, with trains running every five or ten minutes to every station between Swanson, Onehunga, Manukau and Papakura.

Did NZTA sell the Waterview connection as the means to drive from Owairaka to Waterview? Of course not, they spend far more time talking about completing the motorway system, creating an efficient network and delivering a western bypass from Manukau to Albany.

AT seem so intent on hiding all the benefits and potential from the public, so risk averse as to shoot themselves in the foot. Sell the damned thing FFS! get the public excited, have them banging on the beehive door saying hurry up and get on with it. In my experience the only people against the CRL are those that have a mistaken understanding of what it does, or rather doesn’t, do. Those that do understand can clearly see it is the most efficient spend of transport funds possible in the city. That is squarely ATs fault in terms of marketing.

Give it a new name, them stick signs and billboards out next to main roads and motorways showing the travel time and frequency to various places. Put one by SH1 in Manurewa with the travel time to Silvia Park and Aotea, one near Orakei with the time to Eden Park, one in Mt Albert with the time to Henderson and Aotea, one in Howick village with the combined bus and train time to the city centre etc. Hell stick one up in every neighborhood within ten minutes of a rail station.

…and give it a new brand, a regional, metro branding.

Thanks again to Madman Entertainment for the DVDs.

So congratulations Mike, Greg, Spartan, and Nick and stand by for an email from me requesting a physical address so I can send out the DVDs

No correspondence will be entered into etc….

CRL engagement ideas

As the CRL inches closer to reality we’re bound to see a lot more of the general public start to get involved and as such discussion about it is only likely to intensify. This isn’t a bad thing as the more people that learn about the massively positive benefits the project brings the more support the project will have. Penny Hulse has come up with an idea to help push the discussion along which has been highlighted by Metro Magazine.

Deputy mayor Penny Hulse wants to paint some lines on Albert St. And put up some signs. Why? Because she wants to show people where the City Rail Link will go. Railway lines, geddit?

Do that, she argues, and the abstract economic burden of our proposed underground railway will become a really-happening-now project, a talking point, a springboard for the imagination. A mechanism for us to start thinking seriously about what the downtown city might become when tens of thousands of workers and shoppers and students spill every day out of a subway station underneath the intersection of Albert and Victoria streets.

It’s a brilliant idea. Cheap and powerful. They could build on it, too. As the work starts — next year is likely, and it will be disruptive cut-and-cover, not a tunnel — how about they turn it into an “imagine Auckland” project? Use the walls they will put up to keep us out as a giant, ongoing canvas on which people can post their ideas for the city — in words, in pictures, hell, in 3-D installations. Aucklander Stuart Houghton has been posting his “100 ideas for a better Auckland”, a set of beautifully whimsical illustrations, at 100daysproject.co.nz (one of them is shown above), and they’re a terrific provocation. Put some of them up and invite everyone to contribute more.

Penny Hulse wants to lay down the painted tracks because she wants to generate more public engagement with the changing city. She wants us to feel part of what the council is up to. But guess what? She says she can’t get people at council to support her idea. Why not?

I think painting some tracks down Albert St is a great idea but why stop there.

London has long considered the building of full sized mock ups of tube stations a crucial part of the design process to ensure they get the stations right.

Crossrail Station Mockup

Now with just two underground stations – Aotea and K Rd – perhaps AT should do a similar exercise, firstly to ensure they get the design right but if they were also in a publicly accessible location such as AT’s Bledisloe carpark for the Aotea one, they could also be a great tool for further public engagement.

However both of these ideas are focused centrally and unfortunately don’t help address the incorrect assumption of some that the CRL is just about benefits to the CBD. More needs to be done by AT to highlight the benefits the CRL provides to the region and it is something highlighted in the latest newsletter from the AA. They note:

Perhaps for the first time, chinks in the broad support for the City Rail Link (CRL) are also visible.  Many Auckland Members believe that the project will only benefit a small proportion of the population (those who live or work in the central city).

Awareness of the network-wide benefits that the CRL could offer is minimal – instead, it is commonly assumed that the project is only about intra-CBD travel.

As a result, support for the project is surprisingly low: only one-third of Auckland Members believe investment in the CRL would be money well spent.

And in their recommendations they say AT needs to de-mystify the CRL

At present, Auckland’s flagship project is poorly understood, and risks becoming the focal point for public concerns about cost.

Politicisation of the CRL has stood in the way of a conversation about its substance.

Much more needs to be done to develop public understanding of what the project is, and how it could benefit all of Auckland.

Again, the story needs to be told in terms of concrete outcomes – economic growth, travel time savings, and de-congestion.

I think the AA are absolutely correct with this and importantly they’re not saying no to the project but just that more information is needed so the public better understand the need for it.

In my view just having a few open days or putting up some posters isn’t likely to be effective so what are some ideas for getting more public engagement in other parts of Auckland?

Photo of the Day: Lone Commuter

Lone Commuter Passes Lines of Private Property Stored on Public Land

LINCOLN ST_3890

Rail vs Driverless Cars

A few days ago there were two major transport stories, the first was about a new record for rail patronage and the other topic was about the government looking to make it easier for driverless cars to be on New Zealands roads.

The prospect of cars travelling New Zealand highways with no one behind the wheel is moving closer says new Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Officials are reviewing legislation allowing for the testing of umanned autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Mr Bridges has pledged to work with environmental interests while also pursuing the Government’s road building programme.

Mr Bridges said he was committed to “a balanced approach” and ongoing investment roads were important even from a green perspective, “over time as we move to electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles”.

Mr Bridges said the Government was not doing a great deal to accommodate autonomous vehicle technology, “but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if you look at what’s going on internationally, maybe not in the next couple of years, but over time we will see driverless vehicles and that will have implications, like for example less congestion because vehicles can travel closer together”.

We’ve discussed driverless cars a bit in the past so I’m going to try and not rehash those arguments too much. What I do want to touch on is the odd relationship between them and rail. By that I mean opponents of rail investment often like to claim that rail is an old technology – despite the fact that modern rail systems involve some very sophisticated tech – and that we should instead look to the future which they see as being driverless cars. Of course some rail systems have been driverless for decades.

One of those opponents of rail investment is Phil McDermott who runs the ironically named Cities Matter blog which argues for low density and auto centric cities. He was a guest on Radio NZs The Panel talking about both rail and driverless cars however his contradictions were huge and probably about 0.8 on the David Seymour scale. The section on The Panel starts from ~11:15 and McDermott comes in from ~14:10

or listen here

He starts off by dragging up the old cliché that trains run on fixed routes but that roads allow for flexibility and then says that if the city develops as expected that people will be travelling across the city between centres. Of course everyone traipsing across town to dispersed centres is something we’ve been doing for decades and has only led to more and more congestion. The intention of the Auckland Plan is to focus growth in and around the central city, a handful of major metropolitan centres and a wider range of local town centres which are all linked by high quality public transport. It’s that public transport network, of which rail is an integrated part, that will be key to moving a huge volume of people around and doing so free of congestion.

Auckland Plan - Development Strategy

Here are some of the other points and contradictions he made.

  • Trains in Auckland are full by the time they get to the CBD but that we shouldn’t build the CRL as he thinks the trains won’t carry a lot of people. You really have to wonder what’s going on in his brain as it works through that logic.
  • That the CRL doesn’t do enough for the transport system despite the fact it doubles the capacity of it.
  • That we shouldn’t have intensification near rail lines as somehow it creates a high marginal cost for each extra trip however later he says if we want rail to work in NZ he says we need lots of cars on the road with people driving to stations with big park n ride facilities.
  • That road building is ok because in his view the marginal costs are low which of course conveniently ignores that we’ve exhausted all the easy road building options and are now faced with massive costs for projects, often for not much gain in capacity or mobility.
  • That driverless cars will increase car use and that it will make congestion worse, but it’s all ok because they might not be as polluting as our current fleet.

Many of the views he expressed are downright odd and I get the impression that what people like McDermott are really after is to preserve the status quo which they likely currently benefit from. Some might wonder why bother to even discuss the interview but unfortunately we still see the likes of Phil trotted out on a regular basis.

Beach Rd Cycleway stage 2 design

The new Beach Rd cycleway is fantastic addition to the city however at the moment it’s a little short only extending from Churchill St to Mahuhu Cres.

Beach Rd Cycle Way

That’s set to change next year as the second stage gets underway which will see the cycleway extended through to Britomart Pl along with an upgrade to the footpaths in the area. It is expected to be completed by July 2015 and report to the City Centre Advisory Board gives an idea of what it may look like which is more than just adding a cycleway and more like a linear park. Firstly here’s what the area looks like today.

Beach Rd Stage 2 Current

Here is a high level view of the concept It includes Plaza type areas on the intersections of the three roads it interfaces with – Mahuhu Cres, Tangihua St and Britomart Pl – all three of which lose their dangerous slip lanes. The existing trees are obviously retained and the footpath and cycleway are defined by planting. There are also different types of concrete to help define which section is the cycleway and which the footpath.

Beach Rd Stage 2 Concept 2

 

Moving from south to north here are some renders of what the finished result may look like.

Mahuhu Cres

Beach Rd Stage 2 Mahuhu Cres

In front of the Waldorf Hotel

Beach Rd Stage 2 render Waldorf

In Front of the Scene buildings

Beach Rd Stage 2 render Scene Buildings

At Britomart Pl

Beach Rd Stage 2 render Britomart Pl

Overall it looks like it will be a fantastic addition.

Stuart’s 100 #47: Water in Public Spaces

47: Water in Public Spaces

Day_47

What if we made more of water in our public spaces?

Sometimes it is the simple things. People flock to water in public spaces. We need more of it in this city. And in more exciting, dramatic and interactive forms.

Fountains, Rio Madrid project, Madrid

Fountains, Rio Madrid project, Madrid

Ducks at The Louvre, Paris

September 14 Patronage

Auckland’s Transport’s patronage results for September are now out and they show that the city is experiencing spectacular PT growth, growth which is also setting a number of records. The big news was earlier in the week was that when it was announced that over the last year there had been more than 12 million rail trips on the rail network and that for the first time more trips than the rail network in Wellington. As it turns out the 12 million trips milestone has actually occurred some-time in October rather than in September. Here are the highlights according to AT.

Auckland public transport patronage totalled 73,957,488 passenger trips for the 12 months to Sep-2014, an increase of +1.1% on the 12 months to Aug-2014 and +7.6% on the 12 months to Sep-2013. September monthly patronage was 6,612,702, an increase of 782,718 boardings or +13.4%on Sep-2013, normalised to ~ +11.0% accounting for special event patronage, one more businessand one less weekend day in Sep-2014 compared to Sep-2013. Financial year to date patronage has grown by + 8.5%.

Rail patronage totalled 11,923,347 passenger trips for the 12 months to Sep-2014, an increase of +1.7% on the 12 months to Aug-2014 and +16.7% on the 12 months to Sep-2013. Patronage for
Sep-2014 was 1,119,230, an increase of 194,217 boardings or +21.0% on Sep-2013, normalised to ~ +21.2%. Financial year to date rail patronage has grown by +16.8%.

The Northern Express bus service carried 2,540,018 passenger trips for the 12 months to Sep-2014, an increase of +1.6% on the 12 months to Aug-2014 and + 11.1% on the 12 months to Sep-2013.Northern Express bus service patronage for Sep-2014 was 234,282, an increase of 40,686 boardings or +21.0% on Sep-2013, normalised to ~ +20.8%. Financial year to date Northern Express patronage has grown by +18.6%.

Bus services excluding Northern Express carried 54,387,408 passenger trips for the 12 months to an increase of +1.0% on the 12 months to Aug-2014 and +6.2% on the 12 months to Sep-2013. Bus services excluding Northern Express patronage for Sep-2014 was 4,887,764, anincrease of 516,418 boardings or +11.8% on Sep-2013, normalised to ~ +8.8%. Financial year to date bus services excluding Northern Express patronage has grown by +7.1%.

Ferry services carried 5,106,715 passenger trips for the 12 months to Sep-2014, an increase of +0.6% on the 12 months to Aug-2014 and an increase +2.0% on the 12 months to Sep-2013. Ferry services patronage for Sep-2014 was 371,426, an increase of 31,397 boardings or +9.2% on Sep-2013, normalised to ~ +8.1%. Financial year to date ferry patronage has decreased by -0.3%.

14 - Sep AK Patronage table

14 - Sep AK Annual Patronage

At 73.96 million trips to the end of September represents a massive jump in usage compared to last year and even from last month when the total was 73.14 million trips. Importantly it’s not just from the growth of rail but increased bus patronage too that’s causing this surge. The Northern Express along is up 21% on the same month last year. It definitely appears that AT’s major projects such as integrated ticketing and electrification are starting to pay off and with so much positive change to go the tend is only likely to accelerate. One little milestone that did occur is that per capita we crossed 48 trips per person which is the first time that’s happened since 1989.

The rail patronage growth has been stunning for months and is really highlighted on the Onehunga and Manukau lines – the only two running electric trains so far – which respectively saw a 32.6% and a 50.6% increase for the month compared to the same time last year. I’ve personally really been noticing of late that both buses and trains have been getting very full, even if travelling against the peak flow such as from the North Shore to the city in the afternoon suggesting that we’re likely to see this strong patronage growth continue in October and be hopefully beyond.

14 - Sep AK Rail Patronage

Crucially the growth of PT is also happening faster than the population growth in Auckland with the latest results showing Auckland increasing at 2.3% per annum. With PT having grown as 7.6% over the last year it shows the growth is coming from many existing Aucklanders.

Moving on to other modes, for Ferries one thing that did catch my attention was this patronage graph. Significantly they have split out ferry patronage by whether the service is subsidised (contracted) or not. As I understand it only the Devonport and Waiheke runs are exempt and the graph shows how significant the patronage from those two locations compared to the rest of the ferry destinations.

14 - Sep AK Ferry Patronage

Lastly after a few lower months (possibly due to a faulty counter) cycling numbers are up 6.3% on September last year and 11% on a 12m basis (despite what the Monthly Cycle Monitoring Report says). Partly because we’re now in spring but it certainly feels like in seeing a lot more people out and about on bikes, even compared to previous years.

Can new roads pay for themselves?

It’s common to hear people say that because roads are paid for by their users (fn 1), we should build more roads. After all, the new roads will fund themselves!

At first glance, this seems convincing. But a closer look reveals that the “new roads pay for themselves” argument is based on a logical fallacy. Basically, the fact that the average road pays for itself does not mean that the next road will also pay for itself. In fact, there’s a large amount of recent evidence from the transport market that the next, or “marginal”, road will cost taxpayers more than it brings in revenue.

Economists understand the importance of marginal analysis when making decisions about what to build and how to charge for it. Businesses typically make pricing and production decisions “on the margin”. In other words, they look around for the next potential customer and ask: “Can I produce one additional unit and sell it to that person for a profit?” If the answer is yes, they produce it; if it’s no, they don’t as it would reduce their overall profits.

So what is the market telling us about demand for new roads? As always, it’s best to go and look at the empirical evidence. Over the last decade or two, there have been a number of efforts to get users to pay for new roads. Australia, the US, New Zealand, and a variety of other places have built toll roads – sometimes privately financed, sometimes publicly financed. In most cases, revenues from users were expected to pay the cost of the roads.

These costly investments have almost all failed. Toll roads have suffered from low traffic and low toll revenue. They have often required expensive taxpayer-funded bailouts. It looks as though people are not willing to pay for the marginal road.

In Australia none of the toll roads built after 2000 have been profitable:

Australia has some of the finest highway tunnels in the world, but for the private investors who trusted traffic usage projections from leading and respected consultancy firms the story has been a tale of insolvency and disappointment. Most of the privately owned toll highway projects constructed in the last 15 years in Australia have fallen into receivership or administration within a short time of opening to traffic when it became clear that toll revenue from actual traffic usage would be well short of covering its contribution to the construction costs.

The failures include the A$1bn Sydney Cross City Tunnel, which has seen traffic volumes less than half of forecasts, and the Brisbane Clem 7 and Airport Link tunnels, where traffic volumes have fallen short of forecasts by over 75%.

traffic avoids clem 7 tunnel

People would prefer to queue in traffic than pay the Clem 7 toll

In the US, an academic paper reviewing toll roads financed by Australia’s Macquarie Bank found that:

The record for these projects is abysmal.

Two of the projects declared bankruptcy. The assets of one, Pocahontas, were written down to zero by its new owner, and two were bought by the government jurisdictions where they were located. Another is in negotiations to be bought by the state of Virginia. None of these projects fulfilled their initial plans to operate successfully as profitable, private companies. Macquarie’s most substantial U.S. project, the Indiana Toll Road project, is near insolvency and attempting to restructure its loans.

In New Zealand, private finance has been slower off the mark, but there have been a couple of experiments with toll roads. In Tauranga, the Route K toll-road has been a financial millstone for the council since its opening in 2003. This year, NZTA agreed to pay off its remaining debt at public expense:

The New Zealand Transport Agency will take $62.5m of the remaining Route K debt from Tauranga City Council, it has today announced.

The council signed off the agreement with NZTA over the ownership of the debt on Route K in a meeting today.

The agency had already agreed to take ownership of the road from July 2015, but at a council meeting this afternoon, councillors discussed the agency also taking on the debt, less $1 million which the council would still owe.

The removal of the debt would see the council’s credit rating upgraded from A+ to AA-.

This is a clear market signal about the financial viability of new roads. It should not be surprising. After a half-century of road-building, Australia, the US, and New Zealand have extensive and mature road networks. There are seldom opportunities to dramatically improve the network by building another road. (Which is not to say that there are no opportunities to do so – it’s just that they’re bloody hard to find!)

In this context, it makes more sense to invest the marginal transport dollar in providing better transport choices. After half a century of underinvestment in public transport and walking and cycling facilities, there’s a lot of latent demand. As a result, every time Auckland has built a new piece of public transport infrastructure this century, demand has outstripped projections. Here, for example, is a graph from a few years ago that shows that Britomart met its 2021 patronage targets more than a decade early.

In other words, people aren’t willing to pay for new roads, but they are queuing up to get on the bus or train. Transport policy should recognise these market signals and invest in choice.

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

The market has spoken. It wants some more trains.

Footnote 1: This is factually incorrect. Since 2004, the National Land Transport Fund, which consists of fuel taxes, road user charges, and vehicle license fees, has paid 100% of the cost state highways. However, it only pays 50% of the cost of local roads, which account for the majority of vehicle kilometres travelled. The remaining 50% are paid for by local council rates.