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?
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.
This is an excellent, if rather lengthy, video by Streetfilms about the impact of automobiles on our cities:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
A post on Second Avenue Sagas alerted me to a fascinating little detail in the filming of the upcoming Batman movie – a highly detailed subway map that has been put together for the fictional Gotham City:The level of detail the map goes into is quite fantastic, especially if you compare it with the New York Subway map.
If one is to nitpick (and there’s a fair bit of nit-picking in the comments of the Second Avenue Sagas post, line 2 seems like it would be extremely expensive for very little benefit while line J is strange in that it skirts around what seems to be the city centre without making connections to any lines that would take you there.
A couple of years back I created a dream metro system for a city I had created (larger map here):Here’s the central part of that city and a zoomed out version of the whole city (though I did update it further from that version) – quite a lot of drawing I must say!
While it’s arguable that fantasy maps for make believe cities don’t necessarily have particularly much point (except for being quite a lot of fun), I have found some of the thinking behind which lines should intersect with which other lines, how to create a system that’s efficient, not unnecessarily duplicative and is at least somewhat realistic. The system above is for a city that I estimate would have 5-6 million people, so that’s why its network is so extensive. And, after all, it was drawing maps of make believe cities as a child which made me know I wanted to spend my life being an urban planner.
Here’s a really interesting video on the history of transport issues in New York City. What’s quite fascinating about New York is the fact that, despite an extremely extensive public transport network and the kind of densities that work so well with that transport system, the city has spent much of the last 50 years trying to destroy itself to make life easier for cars to get around. Fortunately that’s now changing.
Description from Streetfilms:
Produced in 2006 as part of the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, Contested Streets explores the history and culture of New York City streets from pre-automobile times to present. This examination allows for an understanding of how the city — though the most well served by mass transit in the United States — has slowly relinquished what was a rich, multi-dimensional conception of the street as a public space to a mindset that prioritizes the rapid movement of cars and trucks over all other functions.
Central to the story is a comparison of New York to what is experienced in London, Paris and Copenhagen. Interviews and footage shot in these cities showcase how limiting automobile use is in recent years has improved air quality, minimized noise pollution and enriched commercial, recreational and community interaction. London’s congestion pricing scheme, Paris’ BRT and Copenhagen’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are all examined in depth. New York City, though to many the most vibrant and dynamic city on Earth, still has lessons to learn from Old Europe.
Some interesting parallels to Auckland’s 20th century transport history.
My post earlier today about the real reasons behind the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” generated some interesting discussion about urban sprawl, intensification and typical “how should Auckland grow” questions. A really big problem in all these discussions is the fact that most of the time Auckland has done intensification, it hasn’t done it very well. Case in point, Symonds Street apartments:Or Newmarket (this one’s not quite so bad except the giant blank walls facing the intersection of Remuera Rd & Broadway):
Quite often we have equated intensification with apartments, and while apartments will inevitably be part of the intensification, I tend to think that we have ignored other ways of implementing urban intensification – particularly housing types like terraced houses, townhouses, row houses and so forth.
On this note, the excellent “Old Urbanist” blog has a very interesting post comparing the densities of traditional rowhouses with those of apartments in Hoboken, New Jersey (just across the Hudson River from New York City).
In Hoboken, New Jersey, the fourth densest incorporated place in the United States, there is a two-block stretch between 6th and 7th Streets where the “hypertrophic” fabric of the great majority of the city, consisting of walk-up apartments and large brownstones on wide streets, abruptly gives way to a series of smaller rowhouses on narrow streets cut through a single larger block.
The five-story brick apartments lining the block to the right are the so-called tenements of the type which Jacob Riis wrote about and which menaced the Little House in the animated Disney film of the same name. They are emblematic of New York’s urban growth in the 19th century and are still abundant throughout the city. Occasionally mixed among them, up large and ornate stairways, are brownstone townhouses with garden apartments.
Here’s what the area looks like from an aerial photograph:
The situation is described in the blog post:
To the left, the standard Hoboken city block has been subdivided into three smaller blocks by use of two narrow streets along which, with no setback, are built a series of modest two- and three-story rowhouses more typical of Philadelphia or Baltimore than the New York area. The apartments across the street tower over these small houses, certainly giving the visual impression of much greater population density.
Indeed looking at the area on Google Streetview reinforces this perception, once again with the apartments on the right and the smaller houses on the left:
However, the Old Urbanist blog post has looked at the actual number of units and then, most importantly perhaps, the number of bedrooms within the respective areas. This gives some interesting results:
The stark juxtaposition of these characteristic urban forms virtually begs a comparison of the densities in play here. Since population figures aren’t available, I use the objective substitute of bedrooms instead, counting northwards from where the rowhouses begin:
Rowhouses: 2.5 blocks of 32 rowhouses each = 80 total units
80 x 3 bedrooms apiece = 240 bedrooms
Apartments: 17 apartments (10 and 8 unit) + 13 brownstones (2 unit) = 182 units
182 units x (169 1br + 13 4 br) = 221 bedrooms
So, despite the height advantage of the apartments, the rowhouses actually contain a slightly greater number of bedrooms, due mainly to 1) the spatial efficiencies of having multiple bedrooms per unit, compared to one bedroom units, and 2) the narrow streets, which by subdividing the block more than double the number of street-fronting rowhouses which can be accommodated in the same space. Adding street frontage has the potential to add both value and density to the land, but is dependent on the use of narrow streets lest the benefits be canceled out by the loss of space to new rights-of-way.
And what kind of densities does this sort of building typology add up to? Well pretty damn high actually:
As for overall population density, a neighborhood built of such rowhouses could potentially exceed 50,000 people per square mile, assuming one person per bedroom. This is a density comparable to Paris and higher than Brooklyn or the Bronx. If higher densities are possible, they may not necessarily be desirable for various reasons relating to infrastructure, transportation and overall crowding.
The potential for this kind of approach in parts of Auckland seems quite attractive. While I hate to try and second-guess the ‘psyche’ of potential tenants in different building typologies (and I get really annoyed when people make all sweeping assumptions like “Aucklanders won’t live in apartments”), some level of private outdoor space tends to be quite attractive: something that the rowhouse/terraced house typology can provide at high densities in a way that’s just not possible in either apartments or standalone houses.
So what stops this kind of development? The blocks in Hoboken look like they were probably built in the 19th century, the closest Auckland probably has to anything like this are the older parts of Freemans Bay and Ponsonby (but even then the houses tend to be standalone). Why aren’t we seeing much more of this way to achieve the higher densities that help support a more sustainable urban form?
I largely put the blame in the hands of our poor planning rules. Minimum setbacks, minimum lot sizes, units per lot restrictions, building to boundary controls, minimum parking requirements and a vast myriad of other rules make the type of development in those blocks of Hoboken pretty much impossible to get consent for. Even though they’re high density without being ugly, even though they’re probably extremely sustainable and energy efficient, even though they have the kind of character that would probably end up being protected. For some reason our planning rules deem this sort of development to be completely unacceptable – while actively promoting McMansion based urban sprawl.
I wonder if the Unitary Plan will sort out this contradiction so we can actually start to properly intensify in Auckland and therefore avoid having to sprawl to North Rodney and beyond.