Citi Bike Rides visualisation

Citi Bike in New York has been spectacularly successful and incredibly popular since it launched in May last year.

Just a few months later tens of thousands of trips per day were already being taken on the bikes. Below is a fascinating visualisation covering trips users made over two days.

At long last, we have documented trips on Citi Bike. Rides are displayed as point-to-point journeys (not routed in the street grid – yet) and are rendered in color based on whether the rider was an annual or casual user.
This visualization was produced using journey data from Tuesday, September 17th at 12 midnight and Wednesday, September 18th at midnight. Approximately 75,000 rides were taken in these two days.
The weather was mild, with highs in the 60s and lows in the 50s. No rain at all was recorded.

Postcard from New York

As far as cities go, New York is *the* superlative. At once soaringly vertical and unfathomably broad. Dense and constrained, yet with an expansive commuter belt spread over three states. A place where local neighborhood hangouts sit a block away from global institutions.

I found New York to be a surprisingly homely and friendly place. The people are gracious and polite, helpful and personal in a way that belies a population counted in the tens of millions. Curiously I felt safer and more welcome in midtown Manhattan than I have in most other places. A real enigma of a city where the sense of wonder extends far beyond the garish lights of Times Square.

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One could write volumes on transport and urbanism in New York, and indeed people have. There is a gift shop in Grand Central Station that stocks a library worth books on such topics. There are four current issues on the planning of Central Park alone. If you want a history of New York’s municipal reticulated steam supply there is a book on precisely that. If you are interested in the subway there are about a dozen. Nonetheless, I thought I would write this post as some observations on using the New York subway quite intensively for the best part of a week.

It is almost the oldest, almost the biggest, and almost the busiest metro system in the world. Like the old and great systems of London and Paris it is the complex product of over a hundred years of iterative development, grand schemes, failed ventures, mergers, reorganization, investment and neglect. Like the rest of the city, the subway is paradoxically superlative: equal parts brilliant and terrible.

To start with the good:

The subway system is both very extensive and very intensive. By extensive I mean that it extends right across the five boroughs of New York City, with many long lines stretching out to some of the farthest suburbs. By intensive I mean that it has many closely spaced stations, with stops located convenient to seemly everywhere. Together this means the system has great accessibility for travel all over the city, particularly because it also integrates very well with frequent buses on the surface. Yet again, the most metro intensive cities in the world also have very intensive bus systems. Remember that, and repeat it regularly.

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Normally the combination of frequent stops and long lines would have the unfortunate result of slow speed and lengthly travel times. However in New York they have avoided this problem with one of the great and unique features of the subway. Most lines are actually configured as two pairs of tracks, either side by side or on two levels. This allows them to run two service patterns per line, a ‘local’ that stops at every station along the way, and an ‘express’ that skips all but the major destinations and interchanges. You can pick between the high accessibility or the high speed, and indeed the normal thing to do is to transfer from the local to the express at the first interchange, then back to the local again after skipping most of the intermediate stops. In this way you get the full accessibility and full speed, and most stations are set up with the local and express stops on either side of the same platform to make doing so very simple. While this is a great approach I doubt it is something we could ever do in Auckland, as it takes a city like New York to make it work. For a start you need to be able to afford four tracks and double sized stations, and also you need very long lines to make it worthwhile. But more than anything, you need the patronage to be able to sustain two parallel metro lines running at very high frequency on the same corridors all the time. There are only a few cities in world that can do that.

That brings me to the next point. The New York subway has exemplary service levels. Each service pattern, of which there are frequently two or three per line, runs at very high frequencies right across the day. Trains every three or four minutes is the norm, even outside of peak hours. And the kicker? The system operates twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the most part. This underlines the sheer importance and value of the subway to the function of New York. It isn’t a system intended to get commuters to Manhattan on weekdays, it isn’t a system intended to take the edge off traffic congestion, and it isn’t a system intended to provide a last resort for the poor and unfortunate who have no other options. Rather, the subway is simply a system intended to transport people around New York, whatever the time, whatever the destination, whatever the reason and whoever the traveller. This is something we need to aim for in Auckland, not the metro system itself, but the transit system that works any time for any reason and any person.

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So now the bad. As I suggested above the subway is a product of its history, which naturally has resulted in various foibles and problems.

Despite the abundant network connectivity, connecting between lines is usually a convoluted and lengthy process. Transfer stations are most commonly a collection of separate platforms of various ages and designs linked by labyrinthine passageways, staircases and occasional street level links. Many span multiple levels and even multiple city blocks, undoubtedly the result of fitting in new lines and tunnels over the years wherever they could be accommodated. Way finding within station complexes is difficult to say the least, and simple connections can become a frustrating claustrophobic experience.

Furthermore, because most of the stations were cut out of the street corridor and can have me than one level, the ceiling heights are universally low, little more an two meters in many cases. This adds to the claustrophobic feeling (as does the dank stuffy air from the lack of air conditioning), but more insidiously it means that there is little scope to hang much wayfinding signage in places where it can be easily seen. The labyrinthine station designs make it both impossible to intrinsically see the obvious path to the other platforms, yet simultaneously the low ceilings prevent fixing the problem with good signage.

Stairs are many and varied on the subway. This means the system is not accessible by wheelchair and difficult for those with prams, luggage and the like. Many stations are built only with access via four narrow staircases, each set on one corner of an intersection. This can mean a whole trainload of people trying to get up one little staircase against the flow of others trying to get on. Furthermore most stations don’t have a concourse level, so changing platforms can mean exiting up to street level to cross the road and head back down the other side.

The final thing, well the whole network is a bit scuzzy. Dirty, run down, crumbling, rusting and waterlogged. It’s in need of an almighty makeover it will probably never get. I’d hate to think of what the cost of simply painting the stations and patching up broken tiles would be, let alone rebuilding and renovating the hundreds of stations.

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So in summary the New York Subway a paradox, at once decrepit and exemplary. Incredibly useful, valuable and effective, yet thoroughly unpleasant and confusing to use. Excellent service levels in a horrible environment, an ugly and awkward icon the city could not function without.

New York’s transformative transport commissioner comes to town

This is a guest post Christina Bellis from Frocks on Bikes

It’s not often you hear “transportation bureaucrat” and “celebrity” in one phrase, but Janette Sadik-Khan has shaken up one of the world’s most famous cities – and most famously dense – and started it flowing again.

Her approach is profoundly common-sense but – unsurprisingly – it’s quite uncommon. It’s a “have a go, see what happens”.  The Department of Transportation (DoT) does things to New York’s transport-scape that are “radical”, and does them as temporary trials – with paint, cones, orange-painted drums, cheap furniture. There is a lot of communication, monitoring and assessment, and the promise that if it doesn’t work it’s abandoned.

New York is a tough gig. Like many other cities we can name, it’s been car-centric for decades and marginalised other transport modes – to the point where it’s “radical” to argue that their contribution (and share of city space) should be greater.

On becoming Commissioner of Transportation in 2007, Sadik-Khan promptly began doing profoundly “radical” things with a strong mandate from the Mayor of New York.  These initiatives are freeing up New York’s famously car-congested streets, hitherto hostile to pedestrians, bikes and buses alike.  It’s been controversial, but to many people’s astonishment the addition of bike lanes, bike hire, pedestrian space and bus priority has not only made the city dramatically more liveable, it’s made all New York’s traffic more mobile.  “You have to design your streets for everyone. The cities that have safe streets, that are easy to get around, are the ones that will grow and thrive in the 21st century”, says Sadik-Khan.  It’s something that New Zealand’s traffic engineers seem to hear, but not actually understand – meaning our urban and transportation design tends to languish in a 1950s paradigm that’s gradually choking our cities while gobbling scarce resources. One of the main reasons: the social and political barriers that see forward-thinking design branded “anti-car”, “greenie” or “utopian”.

We could learn a lot from the way New York has started to push back the car-focused hegemony.  Under Sadik-Khan the DoT is quickly and cheaply piloting new things, boldly and on the right scale – e.g. a trial pedestrian area in the places people actually want to go, rather than a space that’s chosen because it’s not in high demand for parking.  But they’re trialled in a way that people clearly understand to be temporary.  The materials are cheap and look transient – orange barrels, cones, paint, cheap furniture, astro-turf.  There’s lots of communication with the public and neighbours. And the city’s transport system is being re-designed with people’s mobility and the city’s liveability at heart – not vehicles’ mobility.

The result? Success on three fronts:

  1. Because the pilots are chosen and executed well, they’re genuine trials of a decent example of the initiatives. Where they’re good, people actually use ‘em.  The trials are heavily monitored, and the ones that work go to the next stage of implementation. (Those that don’t are quickly and openly rejected, without city officials nervous of losing face for having committed lots of money and reputation to it.)
  2. Good design, plus clearly temporary materials and lots of communication, prevents the fear that “They’ve already decided” which all too often results from even innocuous initiatives in New Zealand. Without the public fearing that “They’ve already decided”, there’s less angst at the outset from those who’re opposed in principle. The pilot initiatives have a chance to demonstrate their merits with the “undecided majority”, and if they’re heavily used, the evidence speaks for itself and makes the tradeoffs more compelling.
  3. There’s no “mode vs mode” approach – it’s about getting people around New York in a way that makes the city work better for people.  It’s recognising the ways the different modes contribute, and reconciling them on the ground – buses, bikes, taxis, private cars, pedestrians, commercial traffic – so they each contribute fully to the city’s transport ecosystem.

So, there are some clever people in New York’s DoT and a bold innovator at its head.  But New Zealand transportation engineers and local authorities are bright people, and no less intelligent than their New York counterparts. And our small budgets compared to New York’s are even more reason to start thinking intelligently about our transportation – and intelligently about how we trial, select, design and implement things.  We might be surprised how quickly the “radical” can become acceptable, preferred and mainstream.

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.