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Driving and sprawl are killing you

An article in the New York Times a few months ago summarised quite nicely recent research into connections between transport modes and health outcomes:

Millions of Americans like her pay dearly for their dependence on automobiles, losing hours a day that would be better spent exercising, socializing with family and friends, preparing home-cooked meals or simply getting enough sleep. The resulting costs to both physical and mental health are hardly trivial.

Suburban sprawl “has taken a huge toll on our health,” wrote Ms. Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine. “Research has been piling up that establishes a link between the spread of sprawl and the rise of obesity in our country. Researchers have also found that people get less exercise as the distances among where we live, work, shop and socialize increase.

Obviously there’s nothing really new in the fact that obesity creates significant health problems and that our car dependent lifestyles have created a culture where people have to go out of their way to exercise – and therefore many just don’t get around to it. What’s perhaps most interesting though is just how related obesity rates and other health problems appear to be with our urban form and our transport choices:

“In places where people walk more, obesity rates are much lower,” she noted. “New Yorkers, perhaps the ultimate walkers, weigh six or seven pounds less on average than suburban Americans.”

A recent study of 4,297 Texans compared their health with the distances they commuted to and from work.It showed that as these distances increased, physical activity and cardiovascular fitness dropped, and blood pressure, body weight, waist circumference and metabolic risks rose.

The report, published last year in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Christine M. Hoehner and colleagues from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Cooper Institute in Dallas, provided causal evidence for earlier findings that linked the time spent driving to an increased risk of cardiovascular death. The study examined the effects of a lengthy commute on health over the course of seven years. It revealed that driving more than 10 miles one way, to and from work, five days a week was associated with an increased risk of developing high blood sugar and high cholesterol. The researchers also linked long driving commutes to a greater risk of depression, anxiety and social isolation, all of which can impair the quality and length of life.

It’s not just in the US, similar results come from a Swedish study:

 A Swedish study has confirmed the international reach of these effects. Erika Sandow, a social geographer at Umea University, found that people who commuted more than 30 miles a day were more likely to have high blood pressure, stress and heart disease. In a second study, Dr. Sandow found that women who lived more than 31 miles from work tended to die sooner than those who lived closer to their jobs. Regardless of how one gets to work, having a job far from home can undermine health. Another Swedish study, directed by Erik Hansson of Lund University, surveyed more than 21,000 people ages 18 to 65 and found that the longer they commuted by car, subway or bus, the more health complaints they had. Lengthy commutes were associated with greater degrees of exhaustion, stress, lack of sleep and days missed from work.

Fortunately it’s not all bad news though. The trends we’re seeing with fewer young people getting driver’s licenses than earlier generations, contributing to the general decline in per capita driving over the past 7 or so years offer some hope to researchers that perhaps we’re finally “turning a corner” on many of these trends:

In her book, Ms. Gallagher happily recounts some important countervailing trends: more young families are electing to live in cities; fewer 17-year-olds are getting driver’s licenses; people are driving fewer miles; and bike sharing is on the rise. More homes and communities are being planned or reconfigured to shorten commutes, reduce car dependence and facilitate positive interactions with other people.

Dr. Richard Jackson, the chair of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, says demographic shifts are fueling an interest in livable cities. Members of Generation Y tend to prefer mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods and short commutes, he said, and childless couples and baby boomers who no longer drive often favor urban settings.

While there is still a long way to go before the majority of Americans live in communities that foster good health, more urban planners are now doing health-impact assessments and working closely with architects, with the aim of designing healthier communities less dependent on motorized vehicles for transportation.

Now, about that Unitary Plan that enables a huge amount of sprawl and the Integrated Transport Programme loaded up with poor value roading projects.

The Metamorphosis of New York Streets

A great video from Streetfilms showing how the streets of New York have changed over the last few years with primarily quick and cheap transformations that have re-prioritised space around pedestrians and cyclists.

There’s nothing more dramatic then looking back five or ten years at Streetfilms footage (some of it a bit low-res) to see how much the livable streets landscape of New York City’s streets have changed. In this wonderful montage that even makes us cry check out the transformation of Times Square, Herald Square, the Brooklyn Waterfront and many other places that out-going NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her staff have intrepidly installed.

We have similarly high hopes for Mayor de Blaiso as he takes office today and look forward to what he and his new NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. As much as has been done, the large majority of our streets still need reforms, we need drastic policy change, slower speed limits and traffic calming for our most vulnerable citizens. Hopefully, this short gets them excited to top the transportation record of the Bloomberg administration.

Please note: this is but a short sample. Seriously, we could have put together a one hour version!

We really need some of these types of changes to happen in Auckland so come-on Auckland Transport, get your act together and stop being so worried about the flow of vehicles.

Improving the PT user experience

Public transport systems in cities all around the world comes in many different shapes and sizes. However there seems to be one thing universal to them all, the locals who use them daily always think they can be better. There are systems in some cities that we would dream to have in Auckland but it doesn’t make them perfect. One of the great things about the Internet is it lets people share their ideas for improvement. In New York one designer is trying to improve things with some suggestions. Here is a description of what he is doing.

For the next 100 Days, I will propose various improvements to the New York City Subway, which in 2012 had 1.6 billion riders, and should be seen as the best subway in the country, if not the world. I’ll be exploring various ideas, from UX, Environmental, Co-Branding, Audio/Visual, and more, including potential interviews with MTA employees, all in an attempt to create discussion.

As you would expect not all of his ideas would apply to Auckland and positively a number of them have, or are being addressed already as part of electrification. He is currently up to #60 so I thought I would share my  favourites so far.

This one probably doesn’t need too much explanation (although not that many stations actually have toilets – which they should have).

14. Bathroom Door Opener
So opening a bathroom door has always been a gross thing. It’s even worse in the current station bathrooms…why not just use a pedal system that can be connected to the door’s internal mechanism, to pop the door open when you’re done?

It would be nice just to have set dwell times

24. Subway Timers
One of the biggest problems the subway has are people attempting to squeeze into the car as the doors are closing. This is attributed to a number of reasons, one of them being that the riders don’t know how much time is left before the doors close, which cause them to hurry to a train, endangering themselves, fellow riders, and potentially causing time delays on the entire system.

Timers located near the doors could help alleviate this problem. Start them at 30 seconds, and countdown. At zero, doors close. This way, if someone sees the train with 5 seconds left, and they’re 20 seconds away, they’ll second guess about trying to run for the doors.

I would find this one more useful than the real time system we have now

25. Train Positions
“Ahh crap, I just missed the R train…where’s the next one? Oh, 28th street! Awesome!”

This would be far more useful than the pitiful excuse we call passenger displays currently

30. Info Panels
It’d be great to have panels streaming live data about the system and the city. Seeing the weather outside can help me prepare accordingly, seeing a live feed of the tunnels will let me know if I’ll deal with any delays, and some live entertainment can either show off local television, or display info about local businesses to help break the monotony of the trip.

We are starting to see some of these pop up but could do with more

36. Neighborhood Guides
What kind of things are in a neighborhood? Where are they? Interactive kiosks in tourist heavy areas could answer these questions, and display helpful videos about important New York landmarks, like the World Trade Center. Users could use the interactive map to find restaurants & other local businesses. A camera attached to each kiosk helps dissuade vandalism.

This one may take a bit of work but would certainly be useful during the peak periods. Of course our new trains also allow access between the carriages which should help with spreading the load.

38. Car density
It’s a real pain when you’re standing on the platform, and the car you always get on is full. So then you have to run to the next car, not knowing if it’s going to be full or not. And sometimes, you miss the train, causing even more tension & anger.

Live tracking, based on the weight of the cars, could determine this info. When you get to the platform, you can check the screen, and figure out where to stand. This results in better distribution of riders.

We have been told we are getting wifi on our new electric trains so I have left that off but this one could be useful, nothing worse than using your phone/tablet to kill some time in the process draining the battery.

47. USB Power
With newer trains, the subway will utilize the kinetic energy created by braking. USB power stations could borrow some of this energy, so that riders with low batteries can charge up for 50 cents, all by tapping your RFID Metrocard.

Another little thing that would help with directions for new users

58. System Diagrams on Platforms
Inspired by the subways in Barcalona, there should be a revised system in how the subway diagram is shown. Make it big, make it obvious. This way, travelers know where they’re going.

Those are some of my favourites, any others you think would be appropriate. Also what suggestions would you make for Auckland?

Measuring ‘transport benefit’ better

In transport planning there’s a lot of talk about ‘cost-benefit analyses’, leading to a “BCR” (benefit cost ratio) for a particular project. Projects with a BCR of greater than 1.0 deliver more benefits than the money expended upon them (and any disbenefits the project generates) and are therefore worth considering spending money upon. In terms of transport projects, the BCR is used to measure a project’s “efficiency” – which together with an analysis of “strategic fit” and “effectiveness” determines whether that project should happen or not. BCRs of between 1 and 2 get a “low” ranking, 2-4  for a “medium” and above 4 for a “high”.

To calculate a benefit-cost ratio there are obviously two things you need to know – one is fairly easy, being the costs. The other, the benefits, is much more complex. Economic theory says that the best cost-benefit analyses capture as many costs and benefits relating to an intervention as possible, but when it comes to transport matters things are a bit narrower.

The “Economic Evaluation Manual” – an incredibly long and complex document, is used for this process. The EEM outlines which benefits are relevant for measurement and how one goes about measuring them. The main benefits are typically the following:

  • Travel time savings
  • Vehicle operating cost reductions
  • Safety benefits
  • Travel reliability benefits

For public transport projects, benefits are split into those enjoyed by the PT users themselves and those enjoyed by other people as a result of a PT improvement (people changing mode from driving will mean everyone else can drive a little bit faster). In recent times a lot of thinking has gone into analysing “wider economic benefits” of transport projects – with “agglomeration benefits” (being the benefit arising from economic activity being more closely located) now able to be included in the EEM calculation of any project’s benefit. Agglomeration benefits are usually calculated as a proportion of the travel time savings benefits, with that portion dependent on the type of project being considered.

While a fairly wide range of benefits are outlined above, in the calculation process they are certainly not all considered equally. For most projects, the vast majority of benefit arises in the form of travel time savings – an extrapolation of the old saying “time in money”. A transport project that makes it quicker to get from A to B is said to generate a dollar benefit. This benefit varies depending on whether the trip is for business, commuting or “other” purposes. Add up all the minutes saved, multiply by the dollar amount and you have a project justified.

The problem with this approach, in my opinion, is that it does not properly capture many other benefits and costs. Widening a road to shift traffic faster not only comes at the cost of construction, but also at the cost of a street that’s now probably less friendly for pedestrians and cyclists and has less general amenity. This amenity loss is likely to only show up in analysis of the impact of a project on property values, but that’s not something able to be captured in the evaluation process.

Similarly, a project which slows traffic down to improve things for pedestrians, cyclists and to boost the attractiveness of an area will come out of this process with a negative BCR (not just below 1, but actually below zero) because it slows vehicles down – even if it generates a whole pile of other benefits. This is why NZTA makes no contribution to footpaths, why it is so often extremely difficult to get additional traffic signals put in place for pedestrians and why we end up with horrible roads like Mayoral Drive, Hobson and Nelson streets: because vehicle speed is valued above everything else.

Creating this road would have had a fantastic BCR, but was it worth it?

 Let us think for a minute what the real benefits of something like the London Underground of New York Subway really are. It’s not in the reduction of congestion: the roads are still full of traffic. It’s not in making traffic go faster: as I said, the roads are still full of traffic. But rather, the real benefit of both projects is that they have enabled each city to grow far bigger and far more prosperous than would have ever been possible without that infrastructure being in place. These underground rail systems enable a simply huge number of people to travel around the cities without destroying the fabric and attractiveness of those cities and without requiring utterly incomprehensibly large amount of space for parking.

These are a different kind of transport benefit from what we’ve measured in the past, and really get to the crux of transport being a “means to an ends” rather than an ends in and of itself. While roading projects could very well be measured in the same way, for some reason they’re not – perhaps because they’d perform rather badly in comparison (they require such a huge amount of space for the benefit they bring).

The crux of this issue is that when the government says that various public transport projects don’t “stack up”, it’s largely because they are being assessed against a system that is flawed and misses out so many of the most significant benefits that something like the City Rail Link would bring. Where’s the assessment of the benefit provided by Auckland’s city centre being able to double in employment count? Where’s the assessment of the benefit from not needing to waste so much space on tens of thousands of carparks? Where’s the assessment of the benefit to property values – not just in the city centre, but also along all the rail corridors?

What needs fixing?

Matt’s post the other day on the state of Britomart’s escalator and a piece of broken glass that had gone weeks without being fixed seemed to finally spur Auckland Transport into some action – with word filtering through that both things have now been fixed. Kudos to Auckland Transport for finally getting its act together, though a bit of a pity it took so long.

A few comments on Matt’s post (and my initial comment) raised the issue of why we get so angry about this kind of thing. Glass panels can take a while to get fixed sometimes, just as escalators may be relying on a part that takes a while to get shipped in, maybe the person with sign-off powers to pay for the new part couldn’t be contacted, maybe an invoice went missing, maybe someone who normally looks after this kind of thing was on annual leave… a million things potentially could have led to these delays. Why don’t we cut Auckland Transport a bit of slack here?

Well the reason, quite simply, is all about image. A huge amount of public money has been spent, and continues to be spent, on improving Auckland’s public transport system. After decades of neglect, thankfully there is general acceptance (at least within Auckland, central government is another matter entirely) that a sub-standard public transport system is one of the key things holding Auckland back from becoming one of the best cities in the world – the world’s most liveable city, if you’re to use the catch-cry of the Mayor.

A part of this transformation of our public transport system is ensuring that we have more regular buses, trains and ferries, that they’re faster, that they’re more reliable, that they now take you where you want to go when you want to go. But also important is the perception of the public transport system. Is public transport seen as “welfare on wheels” for those who can’t drive, or is it seen as a proper part of the transport system – a transport ‘mode of choice’ that people may well prefer to use, even if they do have a car?

Historically, as I said earlier the public transport system has been neglected. The rail corridors were horribly vandalised for years and years, with one of the best things that has happened over the past few years being the clean up of the corridors – which reflects really well the increased role the rail network has to play in Auckland’s transport system. Whether there’s graffiti on the trains, whether broken things are fixed, whether information boards and other signage are kept up to date… all these little things mean a lot when it comes to the perception of the system.

A classic example is how New York City really stopped caring about its subway system in the 1970s and 1980s – most obviously by no longer removing graffiti from its trains: 

If we are to attract people to using PT, not just those who have no choice but also those who could choose to drive if they wanted to, then we need to banish that the sad old image of Auckland’s network being so bad the only people who’d use it were those with no choice. We’ve taken a lot of steps towards that goal, but every little thing along the way – every unfixed glass panel, every escalator out of service for weeks on end with no explanation, every information sign that’s months out of date, all undermines these efforts and makes it “feel” like nobody cares about the system.

Back to more positive things though. As it seems Matt’s blog post was so successful in getting Auckland Transport to finally fix up the escalator and the glass panel at Britomart, I wondered whether it might be useful to set up a permanent page for people to leave comments about what’s broken around the transport network, or what’s out of date, or where there’s graffiti or other vandalism that hasn’t been fixed up when it should have been. Hopefully Auckland Transport will keep an eye on the page too and action anything that’s brought up – or we might need to remind them once in a while through a post or two.

This post can be a starting point for comments around what’s broken or what doesn’t work but could be easily fixed (buses not stopping at logical bus stops etc.) while I create a permanent page over the next few days.

Rethinking the automobile – video

This is an excellent, if rather lengthy, video by Streetfilms about the impact of automobiles on our cities:

A description:

For more than 100 years New York City government policy has prioritized the needs of the automobile over the needs of any other mode of transport. Working under the faulty assumption that more car traffic would improve business, planners and engineers have systematically made our streets more dangerous and less livable. As a result, even the idea that a street could truly be a “place” – a shared space for human interaction and play – has been almost completely destroyed.

During his decade long effort to understand and improve the streets of New York City, entrepreneur and livable streets advocate Mark Gorton has gathered together a compelling set of examples of how transportation policy impacts the quality of our daily lives. Mark is regularly invited to speak in public about these issues.

In his current presentation “Rethinking the Automobile” Mark explores the history of autocentric planning and considers how New York and other cities can change. Filled with ample video footage of dozens of Streetfilms, we’ve worked with Mark to create a version of the presentation here.

As the founder of Streetfilms, Streetsblog, OpenPlans, and the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, Gorton has been on the front lines of the battle to transform New York’s streets. But Mark is not done fighting. He contends that the recent improvements that have been implemented in New York should only be considered as the “tip of the iceberg” and that a truly comprehensive set of changes are still necessary.

Compulsory viewing for traffic engineers methinks.

Building our way to affordability?

It’s logical that when housing supply does not meet housing demand, prices will rise. Housing affordability is a huge issue in many cities around the world – with the blame often falling on planning rules and restrictions: both in the form of restrictions on sprawl and restrictions on the level of intensification. While there’s a logical connection between a lack of housing supply and higher housing costs, it is perhaps a little more complicated if we start to take this connection and apply it through saying that if we build a lot more dwellings we will start to make a positive difference to affordability.

For a start, there are two different ways in which we might try to improve affordability by constructing more housing supply: building more houses on the urban edge and building more houses through urban intensification. As many previous posts have pointed out on this blog there are likely to be a number of ‘false economies’ if you attempt to improve affordability by allowing urban expansion. Not only are many of the housing cost savings likely to simply be eaten up in transport cost increases, but there’s an enormous hidden cost in such an approach: all the additional infrastructure that’s required. An interesting Australian research paper suggests that the infrastructure costs of servicing urban expansion rather than urban intensification are huge:   There are really only two ways to pay for the additional infrastructure costs of urban expansion. The first option gets development in peripheral areas to properly ‘pay its way’ – adding huge development contributions to the cost of each dwelling and therefore significantly undermining the ability of this development to actually be affordable. The second option, which seems to be what happens in a lot of American cities that provide ‘affordable’ housing on their peripheries, is to hugely subsidise that development – largely through not requiring it to pay fully for the infrastructure necessary to service it. But then there’s a bit of a logic gap here – why is the rest of the city helping to subsidise those on the periphery who contribute most to congestion, the urbanisation of farmland, probably the greatest amount of CO2 emissions per capita and so on?

The other option is to provide a lot more housing through intensification. This is more logical in a number of ways:

  • You have lower infrastructure costs on a per capita basis and therefore the existing city either doesn’t need to subsidise the new development as much, or the development contributions don’t need to be so high.
  • Most demand seems to be for inner-city housing (that’s where prices are increasing so dramatically), so you provide housing where people actually want to live.
  • You avoid the ‘trade-off’ between housing affordability and transport affordability. More affordable housing in inner areas really will be more affordable for its inhabitants and they won’t see the gain eaten away at the fuel pump.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is a big proponent of the concept that you need to build your way out of affordability problems – criticising (for example) Jane Jacobs who wanted to maintain a mix of building ages in an area – even if that came at the cost of allowing additional development. The paragraphs below come from Glaeser’s fascinating article in The Atlantic, which is an excerpt from his book “Triumph of the City”:

But then, during the 1950s and ’60s, both public and private projects ran into growing resistance from grassroots organizers like Jane Jacobs, who were becoming adept at mounting opposition to large-scale development. In 1961, Jacobs published her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which investigates and celebrates the pedestrian world of mid-20th-century New York. She argued that mixed-use zoning fostered street life, the essence of city living. But Jacobs liked protecting old buildings because of a confused piece of economic reasoning. She thought that preserving older, shorter structures would somehow keep prices affordable for budding entrepreneurs. That’s not how supply and demand works. Protecting an older one-story building instead of replacing it with a 40-story building does not preserve affordability. Indeed, opposing new building is the surest way to make a popular area unaffordable. An increase in the supply of houses, or anything else, almost always drives prices down, while restricting the supply of real estate keeps prices high.

The relationship between housing supply and affordability isn’t just a matter of economic theory. A great deal of evidence links the supply of space with the cost of real estate. Simply put, the places that are expensive don’t build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren’t expensive. Perhaps a new 40-story building won’t itself house any quirky, less profitable firms, but by providing new space, the building will ease pressure on the rest of the city. Price increases in gentrifying older areas will be muted because of new construction. Growth, not height restrictions and a fixed building stock, keeps space affordable and ensures that poorer people and less profitable firms can stay and help a thriving city remain successful and diverse. Height restrictions do increase light, and preservation does protect history, but we shouldn’t pretend that these benefits come without a cost.

This is an interesting debate, because of what Glaeser hints at halfway through his second paragraph: that while the new buildings themselves may not be affordable, they should contribute to an improvement in affordability by increasing general supply. The rationale seems to be that richer people currently living in older houses/apartments will shift to the shiny new houses/apartments, and their older houses will be less valuable and therefore more affordable. I’m not entirely sure whether I follow that logic. It makes sense for office space, as companies able to afford premium space generally lease it and therefore are keen to occasionally “trade up” to the shiny new buildings – leaving their previous space more affordable and now available for a second-tier of companies to shift into. But when it comes to housing, I’m not entirely sure whether building more inner-area apartments and terraced housing is going to make existing housing in that area too much less attractive for prospective buyers. In effect, you’ll have the choice of older lower-density housing or newer higher-density housing (which will probably be constructed to a fairly flash standard). Neither of those sounds particularly affordable to me.

This interesting Glaeser/Jacobs debate was picked up on in a post on the superb City Builder Book Club blog, which is going through Jane Jacobs’s masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, chapter by chapter:

One of the most insightful observations that she makes about old buildings is that their capital costs have been written down and therefore the landlord does not need to charge a high rent. New construction is very expensive. It takes 20 or 30 years for a developer to pay off the mortgage. It is only then that there is less pressure on the owner to charge high rents.

This simple observation has recently been questioned. Edward Glaeser (Harvard economist and author of last year’s book, Triumph of the City), for example, has completely misunderstood this chapter. Glaeser asserts that keeping old buildings leads to nothing but high rents — that it’s a simple issue of supply and demand. He tells us that the only way to go is up, up, up, and if towers were built in the place of these older, smaller buildings, districts like Greenwich Village in cities all over the world would become far more affordable. That is, more density equals lower rents.

Can you think of anywhere you’ve seen that happen? It certainly has not been my experience in the past decade of tall building construction in Toronto. Nor has it been the case anywhere in Manhattan that I am aware of. It probably isn’t the case in your city either. I cannot think of an example in an economically healthy city where an old building was torn down and replaced by a new taller/bigger structure and this new structure has cheaper rent than the building it replaced. 

It is certainly quite fascinating to compare these two argument – both of which seem to make logical sense, but at the same time find themselves almost diametrically opposed. What perhaps this highlights to us is that to improve affordability, we need to be a bit more specific than simply saying “expand housing supply”. What really needs to happen is a specific expansion of affordable housing supply. Perhaps the final word on this matter should go to this recent blog post by Cap’n Transit – looking at housing affordability and New York:

Suppose that tomorrow there’s a revolution in New York City. Zoning and rent control are abolished, and every member of the City Planning Commission and the community boards is sent off to the reeducation camps. Spreading out from the Empire State Building, developers cover the New York area in parking-free high-rises until there’s enough housing for everyone, at affordable prices. Sounds great, right?

Almost. But all housing is not created equal. Some apartments are bigger, some have better views, some have are more conveniently located. Some come with relatively superficial amenities like pools and package services. Some are dangerous or bad for your health, from crime, pollution, bad construction or neglect.

Some housing differences are a matter of taste, like neighbors who play loud salsa music or cook Indian food. Some people choose their housing out of racism, moving out if a Black family moves in. Some people want to live near people like them. Some people want to live where there is ethnic diversity, with no single group dominating.

All these factors affect the price of the housing. People who can’t afford higher rents will necessarily have to put up with some undesirable features, like bad views, loud music, crime or a long commute…

…There is a more market-oriented solution, though: build more cheap housing. And cheap housing is bad housing. The next question is: bad in what way?

If the only determinant of an apartment’s price is its distance from job centers, then the poor and the young will all wind up living on the outskirts of town, paying for their poverty with long inconvenient commutes. If the only determinant of price is proximity to a hazardous waste dump, or neglected housing stock, or gang activity, then the poor and the young will wind up in substandard housing, exposed to toxins and victimized by gangs. If the only determinant of price is proximity to “the right people,” then the poor will wind up clustered together, having little contact with other social classes.

To prevent segregating the poor into inconveniently located bad housing with crime and pollution, we need to make some safe, solid housing available closer in, integrated with the rich people’s housing. that is still affordable. In order to do that, we need to allow housing that’s cheap in the non-dangerous, non-segregated ways. That means housing that’s small or ugly, with crappy views and no doormen. Maybe housing that allows loud music if it doesn’t bother anyone else.

Ironically, a good example of this in the Auckland context are the much maligned ‘sausage flats’ built in the 1960s. While they’re pretty much universally disliked from an architectural point of view, they provide quite a lot of relatively affordable housing in places where people actually want to live (Mt Eden, Epsom, Three Kings, Herne Bay etc.) Their aesthetic unattractiveness, in a somewhat bizarre way, has ensured that they remain affordable and means that the supply of relatively affordable housing in inner Auckland is significantly greater than it would otherwise be.

I guess the key point is that just as building more 5 bedroom McMansions on the urban edge won’t make a blind bit of difference to housing affordability, building super-flash inner city apartments, townhouses and terraced houses is also unlikely to help. Clearly, constrained housing supply leads to housing becoming unaffordable, but to resolve that we need to not only build more houses generally, we need to build more affordable houses. How to do that in a way that still allows developers to make a sufficient level of profit for them to bother is perhaps one of the biggest questions facing Auckland in the next few years.

The complexity of density

You would think that calculating, and analysing, the density of a city would be a fairly perfunctory mathematical task, and would tell us useful information about the nature of that city. As I noted in this previous blog post, perhaps the most challenging aspect of calculating a city’s ‘average density’ is working out where its boundaries are. For Auckland, there are a variety of boundaries and therefore a variety of average densities. But even that approach can lead to some surprising results – as pointed out in Paul Mees’s book “Transport for Suburbia”, New York and Los Angeles have a similar density, so do Vancouver and Las Vegas. Yet each city has a significantly different level of public transport usage. Mees puts this down to the quality of public transport provision being more important than density when it comes to ridership, although equally one could also start asking questions about how we’ve measured density – especially as saying Los Angeles and New York have the same density just seems to be so incorrect.

The issue of density is looked at in detail in this excellent article by Eric Eidlin, a community planner and Sustainable Communities Partnership Liaison for the Federal Transit Administration in San Francisco. He questions whether average density over the whole metropolitan area is really a particularly useful figure when assessing how ‘dense’ or ‘sprawled’ in reality an urban area is. He presents the conundrum we face when looking at density:

Many people …tend to think of “sprawling” cities as places where people make most of their trips by car, and non-sprawling cities as places where people are more likely to walk, cycle, or take transit. This is why Los Angeles, which has more vehicles per square mile than any other urbanized area, and where transit accounts for only two percent of the region’s overall trips, is considered sprawling, while the New York urbanized area is not. We also know (or think we know) that places where people frequently walk, cycle, or take transit tend to have high population densities, and for this reason we tend to view low density as a proxy for sprawl. But as it turns out, the Los Angeles urbanized area—which in both myth and fact is very car-oriented—is also very dense. In fact, Los Angeles has been the densest urbanized area in the United States since the 1980s, denser even than New York and San Francisco.

These facts present a bit of a mystery. If one were to measure sprawl by measuring a region’s average level of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), Los Angeles would certainly qualify as sprawling. But if we measure sprawl by population density, LA would not sprawl at all. In fact, it would be the least sprawling urbanized area in the country. How can Los Angeles be so dense and yet also exhibit so many characteristics associated with sprawl, including high levels of car travel (both in per capita and absolute terms) and low rates of walking, bicycling and transit ridership?

A useful way we can start deconstructing the issue of density is to think of two A4 pieces of paper, each with 100 dots on it. On one piece of paper each dot is equally spaced, while on the other piece of paper the dots cluster together in places and are very widely spaced in other places.

Overall, both pieces of paper have the same average density of dots. But really, their distribution is very different. If each dot was to represent 100 people and the paper represented a city, you would have vastly different cities even though their overall density is the same. This is explained in the article:

Sprawl is a regional attribute, so when observers point out that LA is denser than New York, they are not talking about the cities of Los Angeles and New York. Rather they are talking about the urbanized area, which is essentially the combined area of the cities and their suburbs. The other part of the answer is that density by itself—the simple ratio of population to square mile—is not a very useful way to measure sprawl. What matters is the distribution of density, or how evenly or unevenly an area’s population is spread out across its geographic area. If we look at the density distribution in Los Angeles, we notice that its suburbs are much denser than those of other large U.S. cities, such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago. These high-density suburbs compensate for the comparatively low density of LA’s urban core, and, in so doing, increase the average density of the area as a whole. In other words, Los Angeles has both a relatively high density and a relatively even distribution of density throughout its urbanized area.

So, if we continue to use our “dots on a piece of paper” example, Los Angeles would be much closer to the evenly spaced dots example, whereas New York has a huge concentration of dots in its inner area (Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and parts of Queens in particular) and then quite widely spaced dots further out (outer Long Island, north into New York state and west into New Jersey).

It’s pretty clear then that ‘average density’ over a whole urban area doesn’t really tell us too much about the characteristics of that urban area. But how might we examine density in a more helpful way? The article, thankfully, provides us with some options:

One approach is to measure the extent to which the population density varies across an urban area. Using a statistical tool called the Gini coefficient, we can get a sense of the degree of variation for different urban areas. The Gini coefficient is based on the Lorenz curve, a cumulative frequency curve that compares the distribution of a specific variable (in this case, population density) with a uniform distribution that represents perfect equality.

Using such a measure to compare Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco gives us the following results:

You can see, in particular, how much more of New York and San Francisco’s population is concentrated in a small proportion of land area than in the case for Los Angeles. This is detailed further:

In Los Angeles, 40 percent of the population live on the most densely settled 10 percent of land. By way of comparison, roughly 66 percent of New York’s population, and 67 percent of San Francisco’s, live on the most densely settled ten percent of the land. By looking even further to the right of the graph, one finds that 25 percent of the population in Los Angeles lives on the densest 5 percent of the land. By contrast, 46 percent of San Francisco’s population, and more than 50 percent of New York’s, live on the densest 5 percent of the land. The overwhelming majority of New York and San Francisco’s residents live on a very small portion of their urbanized areas’ land. But this is much less the case in LA.

A second way of measuring density more helpfully is through what’s called ‘perceived density’. This weights the density of an area by the proportion of the area’s population that lives there, effectively measuring the average number of people around each resident of the city. The method of calculation is helpfully described by the example of the fictional city of Metropolis:

Metropolis has a central core of 100,000 residents who live on ten square miles of land and a suburb with 10,000 residents who live on 100 square miles of land. The standard density of Metropolis is 1,000 people per square mile. However, since 90 percent of the population—those who inhabit the core—live in a very dense environment, this standard density number has little bearing on the way most residents experience their city. By giving the core’s density a weight of 90 percent and the suburb’s density a weight of 10 percent—weights that are equal to the respective proportions of the city’s residents that inhabit each part—we get an adjusted density of 9,100 people per square mile, a number that more closely approximates the density at which the average resident of Metropolis lives.

Comparing the different US cities under this ‘perceived density’ measure gives the following results: Under this measurement system we see New York really standing out from any other city in the USA. Los Angeles is still fairly high up there though,  in third place. And our comparison with public transport and walking – while better than average density – still doesn’t exactly align up perfectly.

A third measurement system is also included in the table above, the density gradient index. This is described below:

Bradford pushed the concept of perceived density a step further by developing the density gradient index. The density gradient index, which is the ratio of perceived density to standard density, is an indication of the unevenness of population distribution—or, to use Bradford’s terminology—a measure of “clumpiness.” Table 2 also shows the density gradient index for each urbanized area.

Overall, when comparing the different measurements of density with public transport use, we get the following:

Bradford did a regression analysis to analyze the relationship between perceived density and commute mode (the final two columns of Table 2). He found virtually no association between standard density and the percentage of workers commuting by public transit or walking, but a strong association between perceived density and commuting by transit or foot, and an even stronger association between the density gradient index and the percentage of workers commuting by transit or by foot.

What does that mean for Auckland? Well, until we can analyse our population distribution, perceived density and density gradient index, who knows whether we’re really at the same urban density as Sydney – like the average density statistics will tell us. The best graph I have seen so far is included below, and suggests that perhaps Auckland’s density is a little bit “Los Angeles” compared to Sydney’s “New York”. It would seem that if we’re thinking about land-use policies to boost public transport, walking (and presumably cycling) use, then it may be useful for the “lumpiness” of Auckland’s population density to increase – obviously particularly around our rapid transit network. Fortunately, that’s what most of our plans seem to propose.

What to do about parking?

An interesting New York Times article delves into what I’ve often thought of as the “elephant in the room” when it comes to urban and transport planning: parking. The article begins by highlighting the extremely high number of parking spaces available in many US cities – the fact that we give over so much of our city to the storage of cars (generally for “free”):

There are said to be at least 105 million and maybe as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the United States.

A third of them are in parking lots, those asphalt deserts that we claim to hate but that proliferate for our convenience. One study says we’ve built eight parking spots for every car in the country. Houston is said to have 30 of them per resident. In “Rethinking a Lot,” a new study of parking, due out in March, Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T., points out that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.”

Absent hard numbers Mr. Ben-Joseph settles on a compromise of 500 million parking spaces in the country, occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. If the correct number is 2 billion, we’re talking about four times that: Connecticut and Vermont.

Either way it’s a lot of pavement.

Making comparisons with the size of US states doesn’t typically mean much to me, but I’ve been on a bus through Vermont while travelling between Boston and Montreal. It seemed pretty big and empty (aside from the zillions of trees) so the concept of the USA giving over state sized amounts of space to parking lots is pretty damn scary. The article also quotes an absolutely superb Lewis Mumford quote, which I should print out and stick next to my desk:

As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”

Looking at aerial photographs of Manukau City or Botany Town Centre confirm Mumford’s vision was absolutely correct: there’s no city here, just asphalt and cars:

I think the message is slowly filtering through that Botany and Manukau represent terrible urban outcomes and a general failure of planning, because the current planning rules have forced this kind of urban development, not merely enabled or even made an effort to stop it. But how do we turn the oil tanker around and create urban environments not entirely dominated by asphalt and parked cars?

Of course, an essential first step is to do away with the planning rules that require minimum levels of off-street parking to be provided. The New York Times article touches on this matter:

For big cities like New York it is high time to abandon outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space. These rules about minimum parking spaces have driven up the costs of apartments for developers and residents, damaged the environment, diverted money that could have gone to mass transit and created a government-mandated cityscape that’s largely unused. We keep adding to the glut of parking lots. Crain’s recently reported on the largely empty garages at new buildings like Avalon Fort Greene, a 42-story luxury tower near downtown Brooklyn, and 80 DeKalb Avenue, up the block, both well occupied, both of which built hundreds of parking spaces to woo tenants. Garages near Yankee Stadium, built over the objections of Bronx neighbors appalled at losing parkland for yet more parking lots, turn out never to be more than 60 percent full, even on game days. The city has lost public space, the developers have lost a fortune.

The Pensacola Parking Syndrome is a term of the trade used to describe a city that tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot. Cities should let the free market handle the construction of new parking spaces. People who buy or rent new homes can pay extra if they want someplace to park a car. Municipalities can instead cap the maximum number of lots or the ratio of spaces to dwellings and offices.

You get a feeling that Auckland was going down the “Pensacola Parking Syndrome” path in the 1950s-1970s when the council built all the parking buildings it now owns. Perhaps the saving grace of the Auckland CBD over the past 20 years has been the fact that it’s the only part of the city which does not require a minimum number of parking spaces. In fact, parking levels are restricted to limit the number of cars trying to get to and from the city centre (although this is undermined by the council continuing to provide so many off-street parking spaces and discounting peak time travellers through earlybird specials).

Setting that aside, it’s just bizarre that people wanting to live somewhere like Newton, where it’s possible to walk to the city, are effectively forced to also pay for two parking spaces with their apartment. Or that new retail or office space is likely to need to build (or at least buy) as much floor space for vehicle storage as for their actual business.

The article also discusses ways in which we can improve the visual aesthetics of parking, where it is provided.

It’s a no-brainer to argue that lots should be greener. The biggest advancements in lot designs have involved porous surfaces, more trees for shade and storm-water collection facilities. In Turin, Italy, Renzo Piano transformed part of the area around Fiat’s Lingotto factory by extending a grid of trees from the parking lot into the building’s formerly barren courtyards, creating a canopy of soft shade and a ready metaphor: nature reclaiming the postindustrial landscape. At Dia:Beacon, the Minimalist museum up the Hudson River, the parking lot designed by the artist Robert Irwin in collaboration with the firm OpenOffice is one with the art inside, trees in rigorous ranks rising subtly toward the front door. It’s an example not only of green design but also of treating parking lots the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.

In an urban environment, I don’t always think the answer to solving every aesthetics issue is “add trees” (and it’s a pity that so many landscape architects seem to think this is the case). One of the best things we could do to improve the aesthetics of places like Botany and Manukau is to “sleeve” the parking lots, either with shops that front the street (shops on the street, in a town centre, what a revolutionary concept!) or with terraced housing.

The idea of “sleeving” parking lots is being advanced as part of the proposed plan change at Milford Shopping Centre – softening the existing parking lot that surround the shopping mall by building a row of terraced houses around the edge of the site. Up close the result looks pretty good too, especially when compared to the current carpark that residents in the area look across at. Proposals like this one give me a bit of hope that our thinking on parking is evolving. Of course the Draft Auckland Plan also gave some hope, by highlighting the need for a different approach to parking, in that too much is probably an even bigger problem than not enough spaces. I suppose the real challenge will be to find ways to convince shopping mall owners and retail developers that they don’t need to provide as much parking as they have previously planned for. To give them the confidence to make these changes to the way they do business it will be essential for transport alternatives to be provided for to a very high standard.

New York could easily do away with parking regulations tomorrow and the benefits would be wholly positive – because such high quality transport alternatives exist. In Auckland, while I think we should still do away with minimum parking requirements as soon as possible, the real benefits of doing away with such controls are likely to mainly occur when high quality alternatives to driving exist, so people really don’t think it’s necessary for them to provide so much parking. This situation already exists in parts of the city, like Newton, Newmarket, Ponsonby, Parnell and other inner suburbs – but will take time to develop elsewhere. In the meanwhile though, even if we continue to dedicate far too much of our city to parking, we could at least start to hide it behind sleeves of shops or terraced houses.

Boulevards – the best of both worlds?

Urban transport is a tension between the “through” and the “in”, as I have described many times before on this blog. We need to shift people around a city, but often that process of shifting them destroys the quality of the city itself. A motorway is the most obvious example of this – all ‘through’ and no ‘in’. But many of our main roads are arguably even worse, because we want to be locating more people and business along these routes (especially if they have high frequency public transport), but the heavy traffic and completely ‘through-focused’ street environment makes these places incredibly unattractive to live, work, visit or shop.

Take Pakuranga Road for example, this isn’t the most inviting urban environment you’ll come across: Six lanes of traffic, narrow footpaths, the noise and pollution putting off any street activity. On-street parking is restricted at peak times – although it doesn’t really seem like the kind of road you would want to park on any time of the day. The residential development is generally low density, shielding itself behind large fences, walls and hedges, from the street.

At first glance, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York City, doesn’t look particularly different to Pakuranga Road. A similarly large number of lanes and probably a similar number of vehicles carried:

But if you look a bit closer, at the sides of Ocean Parkway, you can see that it’s not just a normal road – it’s a multiway boulevard. The slip-lanes on each side create an interesting combination of allowing a lot of speedy through-traffic in the middle but access and a nicely buffered area to the houses. Looking at the houses that front Ocean Parkway, it’s fairly obvious that they’re much more valuable than what fronts Pakuranga Road. Despite being a very busy road, Ocean Parkway is still very much the kind of road that people want to live along: There are two boulevards like this in Brooklyn, built in the late 19th century and described in superb detail in the excellent The Boulevard Book, by Allan Jacobs, Elizabeth MacDonald and Yodan Rofe. Ocean Parkway is the longer of the two, cutting a huge north-south swathe across Brooklyn: Another city that has plenty of boulevards, and is in fact most famous for them, is Paris. We often think of Paris as such an incredibly different urban environment to Auckland that there’s not much point trying to emulate too much of what is there, but it’s interesting to see how they have managed to combine very busy roads with retaining a quality built environment. Two boulevards that are looked at in some detail in The Boulevard Book are shown in the map below:

Avenue de la Grande Armee is a continuation of the very famous Champs Elysees to the northwest, and carries an incredibly high 92,000 vehicles a day (compared to around 60,000 on Pakuranga Road, New Zealand’s busiest non-motorway road). This is what the main roadway looks like: Not a particularly welcoming looking street at first glance, but remember this road carries half again as many vehicles per day as the busiest non-motorway road in the whole of New Zealand. But once again, if you glance towards the edges of the road you can see some pretty high quality buildings. Look closer and this is confirmed – not only are these your typically nice Parisian buildings, but they’re also being put to fairly high-rent uses. Of course the wide road, the slip-lane, the wide footpaths, the two rows of parked cars and so forth take up a lot of space. The width of  Avenue de la Grande Armee is a pretty mighty 70 metres from building to building. This is twice the width of Pakuranga Road, measured front fence to front fence.

But not every Parisian boulevard is as extremely wide as this. Just around the corner we have Avenue Marceau, which is 35 metres across from building to building. This boulevard is one of my favourites: 

The traffic lanes on the main roadway are split into three in one direction and a bus lane in the other direction, but it could be split any way really. The slip-lanes are really narrow, but theoretically could be narrowed further  for wider footpaths by only having one row of parking:It’s hard to imagine a better way of using a 35 metre wide street, in terms of being able to shift traffic, provide a buffered place for pedestrians and local traffic, provide some nice trees, a good pedestrian environment and generally create a high quality place that’s desirable for people to live, work, visit and shop in. As I noted above, probably the only change I would make is reducing a bit of the parking and increasing the footpath width.

To be realistic, it’s difficult to imagine too many opportunities in Auckland to “retrofit” these kinds of boulevards. It may be possible along Pakuranga Road, if we ever decided that it was important to turn that road into more of a corridor. However, in the parts of Auckland to be developed (and, whether we like it or not, there is likely to be quite a lot of urban expansion over the next 30 years in Auckland) these type of roads could play a really important role. Ormiston Road in Flat Bush is an obvious candidate, the Mill Road corridor proposed to link Papakura and Flat Bush could be done similarly. Hobsonville Road and the old State Highway 16 through Westgate, West Harbour and onto Hobsonville may also suit becoming this type of boulevard – being both important regional routes (though thankfully not to the same extent they are now) but also roads we really want to encourage urban activity on.

Traffic engineers will probably scream over the complexity of intersections, but The Boulevard Book explains in nice detail that complexity generally leads to greater safety as people are careful. This type of road, in the right location, seems to be a great way of achieving that seemingly impossible dream: “to shift a lot through without destroying the in“.