Sunday reading 19 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading.

This week, I want to highlight a really important article by Joe Cortright (City Observatory): “Going faster doesn’t make you happier; you just drive farther“:

We’ve long assumed that one of the goals of our transportation system is to enable us to move as quickly as possible when we travel, so it stands to reason that the people who live in “faster” cities ought to be happier with their transportation systems…

The following chart shows happiness with the regional transportation system on the vertical axis, and average speed on the horizontal axis.  Higher values on the vertical (happiness) scale indicate greater satisfaction; larger values on the horizontal (speed) scale indicate faster than average travel speeds.  The data show a weak negative relationship that falls short of conventional significancel tests (p = .16).  While there isn’t a strong relationship between speed and happiness, if anything it leans towards being a negative one; those who live in “faster” cities are not happier with their transportation system than those who live in slower ones.

Cortright goes on to investigate this relationship in more detail. It turns out that the main effect of faster speeds is that people travel longer distances. And travelling longer distance is associated with less happiness:

To tie this all together, we thought we’d look at one more relationship:  How does distance traveled affect happiness with an area’s transportation system? This final chart shows the happiness (on the vertical axis) and vehicle miles traveled (on the horizontal axis). Here there is a strong negative relationship: the further residents drive on a daily basis, the less happy they are with their metro area’s transportation system.

We think this chart has an important implication for thinking about cities and transportation. Instead of focusing on speed, which seems to have little if any relationship to how people view the quality of their transportation system, we ought to be looking for ways to influence land use patterns so that people to have to travel as far. If we could figure out ways to enable shorter trips and less travel, we’d have happier citizens.

Traffic engineering consistently advocates trading off place for speed, reasoning that faster traffic will give people more choice and opportunities for happiness. But if that isn’t the case, then the profession is damaging people’s health and happiness for no good purpose other than blind adherence to an incorrect idea. Engage with the evidence, traffic engineers!

Speaking of mythbusting, University of Auckland professor Alistair Woodward has just released some new research on the safety risks of cycling. He explains his findings in a blog post:

We found the risk of injury while riding a bike is actually very small. Taking injuries that lead to claims to ACC, we found these occur roughly 9 times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips; the chance of receiving an injury sufficiently severe to cause a visit to the hospital was similar. If you rode a bike three times a week, most weeks, the chances are you would suffer one moderately severe injury every 70 years.

We estimate the risk of injury on a bike is similar to the risk associated with DIY activities in the home, more than a 100 times less than the risk of snow sports, and 500 times safer than playing rugby (see Figure 1, which uses a log scale).

Figure 1. Risk of injury sufficient to cause a visit to a hospital emergency department, or lead to a claim to ACC, per million typical exposures (such as a half hour bike ride, a game of rugby, half a day on the snow)

There are many assumptions and approximations in these results, so they should not be treated as precise measures. But the take home message, we suggest, is that riding a bike on New Zealand roads is not particularly dangerous (1 moderate injury in 70 years!), and indeed the risk is considerably less than that associated with some other common activities. (Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to ride to sports, but the bike trip is roughly 500 times safer than a game of rugby, for instance).

Woodward concludes with a suggestion:

The most powerful way to bring bikes back from the margin is to provide safe spaces for cyclists of all abilities to get to where they want to ride. Separated cycle ways are part of the fix, but not enough. There need to be changes on the road as well, such as slower vehicle speeds, better intersections, and wider shoulders to include cyclists. More people riding, and public spaces that celebrate two wheeled choices, will do two things – make cycling (even) safer, and reduce the fear of the bike.

On a related note, a new piece of research from the US looks at the reasons why people on bikes break some traffic rules. According to the press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Study reveals a ‘Wild West’ with rules of the biking road“. It highlights the importance of poorly thought-out road rules and hostile driver behaviour in conditioning some cycling behaviours:

Just as many drivers accept violations of speed limit laws as the norm in certain situations, bicyclists often accept violations of some traffic regulations as the norm under certain circumstances.

However, based upon a recent survey of more than 14,000 Americans, consensus is lacking on how bicyclists should safely maneuver through mixed traffic. Depending upon their bicycling experience, motorists can have very conflicting views on appropriate biking behavior amid automobiles.

The uncertainty about how someone should ride a bike in traffic can be dangerous if a motorist responds aggressively to a cyclist’s actions. Aggressive driving contributes to accidents and near misses. That, in turn, scares many people away from biking.

“We know it’s the Wild West out there,” said Daniel P. Piatkowski, assistant professor in the community and regional planning program of the College of Architecture at Nebraska. “There are all these conflicting ideas of how a bike rider should behave — some legal, some illegal. We found that, regardless of how people are riding, most are doing so to avoid being injured or killed by a driver.”

One interesting finding from the study was that drivers often have hostile (and potentially life-destroying) responses to legal behaviours such as ‘taking the lane’:

“When a perfectly legal bicycling maneuver like taking the middle of the lane elicits an aggressive response from a significant number of drivers, that is a big problem,” Marshall said. “This sort of disconnect helps explain a lot of the behaviors we’re seeing out there.”

And now for something completely different. Footrot Flats cartoonist Murray Ball died last week. He’d been ill and out of the public eye for years, but it was still sad to hear as I’d grown up with his characters. By all accounts, he was a thoroughly decent bloke who stood up for a kinder, more inclusive society. So in memory of Murray Ball here’s Jane Thompsen’s 1984 profile of him at work at his place in Gisborne:

by Jane Thompsen, originally appeared in School Journal, 1984, Part 4, number 2.

AT NINE O’CLOCK every morning, from Monday to Thursday, Murray Ball goes to a quiet place to think of ideas for his cartoons.

He might go to the top of a hill near his house, or under a tree in the garden. It has to be somewhere he won’t be disturbed—because he needs to sit down, make himself comfortable, and go into a kind of a dream. It is almost like going through a door, shutting it behind him and finding himself in another world—the topsy-turvy world of Footrot Flats.

Many characters whom he knows very well live in that world. There’s Wal, a farmer, thoughtless and dour and mean, who also has some good qualities—he would never do anything dishonest. There’s his dog, who adores him and would do anything for him, although he tends to be rather greedy and jealous. There’s Cooch, a much more sensitive farmer, who even tries to protect pests such as blackberry and possums. There’s fussy Aunt Dolly, who tries to tell Wal what to do. There’s a big fierce cat called Horse who terrifies many of the other characters. There are a cow, a goat, geese, a ram called Cecil, a corgi dog called Prince Charles, a girl called Pongo, a boy called Rangi, and many other characters.

They are all very real to Murray Ball, and so are the places where they live. He knows just what Wal’s back door looks like, and his living room, and the kennel where the dog lives, and so on.

But there’s something wrong with that world when Murray Ball goes into it every morning. He can’t just lean over the fence and enjoy watching it, because it’s all standing still—nothing’s happening. And nothing will happen until he thinks something up.

I read once that Murray Ball decided to wrap Footrot Flats up in the early 1990s, after the Rogernomics revolution had dismantled the economic underpinnings of his fictitious world. Things have certainly continued changing, both in positive and negative ways, since then.

In the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on some new research into the causes of rising income inequality: “‘Superstar firms’ may have shrunk workers’ share of income“. It’s an interesting piece of the economic puzzle:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most, according to research that analyzed confidential financial data from hundreds of companies.

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.


Research has shown that in pretty much every industry, most of the income differential among workers is not a result of a chasm between the highest and lowest paychecks within one company, but rather differences among companies.

Larger companies tend to pay better than smaller ones, Mr. Autor and the other researchers say, and in the technology sector especially, salaries can be impressive. Workers there are sharing in the larger pie — there are just fewer of them to do so.

The researchers examined six industries that account for 80 percent of private employment in the United States. In each one, they discovered “a remarkably consistent upward trend in concentration.” In manufacturing, for instance, the top four companies controlled 43 percent of sales in 2012, up from 38 percent in 1982. In finance, the figure grew to 35 percent, from 24 percent, and in retail trade it went to 30 percent, from 15 percent.

The faster concentration grew, the bigger the drop in labor’s share.

“What’s different about new superstar firms is they don’t have the cadre of middle-class jobs for nonelite workers,” said Mr. Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.

For what it’s worth, economists are generally not in favour of highly concentrated markets, at least when they result from some sort of barrier to entry or monopoly power. But I think there is some degree of confusion about why firm concentration is happening, and whether it has some broader negative effects.

To conclude, something on the Auckland housing market. To help launch the news venture Newsroom, Bernard Hickey wrote a great article on the current state of the Auckland housing market… and the unanticipated barriers to fixing it. It’s well worth reading in full:

So surely someone has tried to fix the RMA and remove those council funding restraints?

The combination of Auckland’s councils into the Super City was supposed to make it easier to grow, as was the passing of the one plan for them all — the Unitary Plan – which extended the city’s boundaries for new suburbs and changed the rules to make it easier to build apartments, terrace houses and townhouses closer to the CBD.

The Government has also tweaked the RMA a few times and introduced a stop-gap measure called the Special Housing Areas (SHA) Act. It pushed through some developments in a faster timeframe than the RMA, but it expired late last year. The Government hopes the Unitary Plan and a new National Policy Statement on Urban Development will nudge councils to fund and approve the infrastructure needed to support new houses.

The Government has also offered $1 billion to help Councils fund the pipes and roads needed to bring forward housing development. It hasn’t approved any projects yet and Prime Minister Bill English has already pushed back at some of the proposals, saying they aren’t really bringing forward new projects, but are only funding projects already in the plan. Approvals are many months away, or even longer. There is still a debate to be had about the structure of the vehicles that build and own this infrastructure, so this funding is no quick fix.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has tried to get another tool to deal with a $4 billion shortfall in transport funding in coming years, but his idea of a regional fuel tax was rejected outright this month by Finance Minister Steven Joyce. Revenues from GPS-style congestion charging are still up to a decade away.

The short answer is the funding restraints for infrastructure development are not solved yet, with the biggest problem being the Council has few incentives to invest heavily for growth when the Government in Wellington gets most of the benefits and does not have to pay for local roads, some of the railways and none of the pipes.

But that’s it right?

No. Unfortunately, the RMA and infrastructure funding issues are not the only blockages to new houses being built. Risk of losses in any downturn, access to bank loans and land banking are also issues.

Most developers buying the land for a development, paying for the plans and contributing to the infrastructure need to borrow the money from a bank. To do that, they need to be confident they can sell the development to rental property investors, first home buyers and others, and then prove that to the bank.

The developer has to be confident they will not be left holding the parcel of land or a half-built apartment if the market suddenly cools and buyers can’t or won’t stump up the balance between their deposits and the sale price. They also have to be confident that construction or legal costs won’t blow out over the time it takes to get resource and building consents and funding.

Meanwhile, the banks have to be confident they’re not going to be left holding an unpaid loan to a developer if the market suddenly grinds to a halt and land prices start falling. The best example of what a property development loan looks like to a lender when the music stops is what happened from 2007 to 2012 when finance companies collapsed because they were stuck with empty holes in the ground all over Auckland and Queenstown. Finance company investors and a couple of overseas banks – Bank of Scotland in particular – had to book big losses. […]

The toughest of all the knots is the way developers and new home buyers feel about market risk when house prices have trebled in 15 years and house price to income multiples are well over 10 – three times what most international experts consider an affordable level. No one wants to buy if they think a market is peaking. It creates a Catch 22: very high prices both encourage and discourage development, depending on how close the cycle is to peaking.


That’s it for the week – see you next time!

Sunday reading 5 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing many blog posts lately – I’ve been a bit too busy with work! Normal service should resume shortly.

One of the most provocative and interesting articles I read this week was on the astoundingly high costs of infrastructure in the US, and what could be done differently. Stephen Smith writes about it in Bloomberg View:

The French rail operator SNCF told the California High-Speed Rail Authority that it could cut $30 billion off the project’s $68 billion estimated price tag. San Francisco can barely build underground light rail for the price that Tokyo pays for high-capacity subways. Los Angeles’s planned subway to the sea will be a bit cheaper, but is still very expensive considering the area’s lack of density.

The budgets for other types of urban public-works projects can be just as shocking. Who can forget Boston’s Big Dig, the $24 billion highway boondoggle? But mass-transit networks stand to lose most from out-of-control infrastructure costs.

A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

Ironically, attempting to save costs when selecting contractors is in fact a contributor to high costs:

In Madrid, on the other hand, cost was given only a 30 percent weight when picking designers and builders, according to Melis. Speed was weighted at 20 percent. Melis praised quick execution as necessary for an efficient, affordable project. (Compare this with multigenerational projects, such as California’s high-speed rail and New York’s Second Avenue subway.) The remaining 50 percent was determined by the technical merits of proposals and the staff’s subjective considerations.

Littlefield also argues that judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “In the private sector, if you rob your customer, you will suffer a hit to your reputation and possible losses in the courts,” he said in an interview. “Not so if you rob an agency like the MTA. Then it’s all rights and no responsibilities.”

The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest-price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to “writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past.” The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.

While New Zealand doesn’t appear to be especially deficient when it comes to public infrastructure costs, this is certainly an area we should watch carefully.

Cost inflation is certainly an issue in housing, an area where there are many diagnoses and many proposed solutions (but, as far as I can tell, no silver bullet). The other week, the Prime Minister caused a stir by asserting that environmental protection is to blame for high housing costs. Stephen Davis (City Beautiful) adds some useful nuance to the discussion, pointing out that, in cities, concerns about amenity and character, not environmental protection, are the main factor:

What’s the matter with blaming “the environment”, then?

The RMA is a cause of unaffordable housing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s our environmental protection that’s to blame. Most of the restrictions that that cause the worst impacts are not justified on environmental grounds, but rather as “amenity” considerations.

Indeed, one of the most critical blocks on increased density is concerns about traffic congestion, an “amenity” issue. But the solution that most RMA-based plans prescribe is to provide more parking and more roads. This is a recipe for for increased driving, and thus increased environmental degradation (Duany et al, 2000; Shoup, 2005).

Another is “character”. In many areas, it’s prohibited to build new buildings that are not similar in scale or form or expense to existing ones. This has nothing to do with the environment, and is designed around the aesthetic and cultural desires of existing residents to prevent newcomers, particularly those of a different social or economic class. This isn’t even desirable in the first place, but it’s still part of the RMA.

Why does any of that matter?

Because New Zealand is hugely concerned with our unaffordable housing, and we’re looking for something to fix it. Blaming “the RMA” is technically accurate. But thinking that “the RMA” means “the environment” is way, way off. But there is also a huge constituency who actually want the environmental parts gone as well, or instead, aside from housing considerations. Farmers, aquaculture, heavy industry, freight transport – there are many spheres of life regulated by the RMA that have nothing to do with the housing crisis.

Getting too keep on the idea that “the environment” is to blame will mean trashing aspects of the RMA that aren’t to blame, and do protect environmental values. While it’s preventing new housing, it’s also the RMA that controls how dirty our rivers get, what’s in the air we breathe, and how we protect our special places.

On the topic of urban planning, in CityLab Richard Florida reviews some new research into anti-development activism: “Anatomy of a NIMBY“:

A recent white paper by Paavo Monkkonen sheds interesting new light on the connection between NIMBYism and housing affordability. It takes a deep dive into, on the one hand, neighborhood opposition and land use restrictions, as well as housing supply and housing costs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and California’s other expensive housing markets…

The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.

The paper goes on to investigate why some people oppose development, and what can be done about it:

To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition…

Monkkonen goes on to parse four different strains of NIMBYism and their underlying motivations:

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

Speaking of the loss of neighbourhood character from development, here’s how Upper Queen St has changed over the last 170 years:

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Circling back to environmental protection, The Spinoff’s Don Rowe puts forward a case for taxing tourists at the border to pay for better environmental protection:

New Zealand has the highest rate of threatened species in the world. Birds, dolphins, bats – you name a family, we’ve got a species on the precipice of extinction. Our rivers are the stuff of nuclear meltdowns and Beijing gutters. OK that last point is hyperbole, but while we’re arguing semantics, the government legitimately considers ‘wadeable and boatable’ water a reasonable goal.

And yet DoC’s funding continues to be slashed – or massaged, depending on who you ask.

It’s time for a border fee. Wait, not a fee, that’s too pejorative. And definitely don’t say tax. Jesus Christ, do not say tax. What about a contribution? A border contribution. I say $20.

Twenty bucks, a Queen Liz, less than a 12 box of Waikato, less even than your average worker on minimum wage pays in tax every single day.

There were three and a half million visitors to New Zealand last year. Charge them all the price of a coffee and lunch, and we’ve raised more than $60,000,000 for the conservation and preservation of our country.

When we need to pay for a new road, we smack a toll on it. Nothing excessive, but, cumulatively, huge sums of money can be raised.

AUT tourism lecturer Simon Milne told Radio NZ in May last year that research shows visitors are much more willing and happy to pay a border tax if you can show the money is going back into the resources they use, the environment they enjoy, and the culture that surrounds it. A brief scan of Givealittle would similarly indicate people are generally willing to spend cash to help out – how’s enjoying one of the most incredible natural landscapes on earth as a pledge reward? Top tier stuff, those Alps.

I support this idea.

To close, two pieces on public transport. In The Age, Adam Carey argues that “Melbourne’s relationship with our trams is completely irrational”.

Melbourne’s tram patronage surged 12 per cent to carry more than 200 million people last year, a figure that puts them in the same ballpark as the city’s trains (which carried 233 million), and closer to becoming the backbone of the city’s public transport system.

Though trams have always been a big deal in Melbourne, this is arguably more true than ever now. The city would grind to a halt without them. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Melbourne still doesn’t truly respect its trams…

Consider this irrationality. About 200,000 passengers a day catch a tram along St Kilda Road. That’s about as many people as drive over the West Gate Bridge each day.

If there’s an accident on the bridge and the freeway is blocked for a few hours, politicians and commentators line up to argue that we urgently need to spend a lazy $18 billion on another east-west freeway. And yet the city’s busiest tram corridor doesn’t even have enough separation with general traffic to stop a delivery van driver shutting the whole thing down by doing an ill-timed U-turn in front of a moving tram.

This lack of separation means tram-on-car bingles happen two or three times a day on average. This causes serious tram delays and in too many cases, serious injuries for passengers on board.

Melbourne’s tram network is unique. It’s the world’s biggest, and almost 80 per cent of it is along roads it shares with other traffic This makes it more like a slow streetcar system than an efficient light rail network. But the sheer weight of numbers demands Melbourne’s trams be given light rail-style priority.

On a related note, in Urban Land, Peter Calthorpe and Jerry Walters speculate on several possible futures from autonomous vehicles, including this quite utopian one:

Autonomous rapid transit proposes the application of AV technology in shared vehicles in dedicated transit lanes similar those used in bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Such an approach would achieve the efficiency of AV flow without eliminating private vehicles from city streets. It would minimize the operational costs of BRT by eliminating the need for drivers, reduce VMT significantly by tailoring capacity by time and place to match demand, and cut travel time for many passengers by providing direct express service to destinations.

Most important, ART could form a feasible, smooth transition from the existing conditions and ownership patterns to complete shared-AV environments in which all private autos are eliminated.

Shared Mobility, ITF/CPB’s update of their seminal 2014 AV study, found that once an urban district eliminates private autos, variations on shared AV minibuses and vans will virtually eliminate congestion and parking and can reduce VMT by 37 percent. This study used a range of shared six-, eight-, and 16-person minibuses and vans coordinated with the existing mass transit resources and walkability of Lisbon. The study assumes that the minibuses and vans could be AVs or driver controlled, and that the outcome would be the same in terms of VMT. The reductions in VMT found in this study are essentially a direct result of the assumed higher vehicle occupancy.

As a general principle, I’d argue that autonomous vehicles are likely to be deployed most rapidly on public transport networks, as the technical challenges involved in getting vehicles to run on fixed routes with some degree of exclusion of non-autonomous vehicles are likely to be smaller.

That’s it for now – enjoy the rest of the day!

Sunday reading 19 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday Reading. This week I want to start off with three articles about inclusion. The Project for Public Spaces argues that equity and inclusion lie at “the heart of placemaking”:

Placemaking, a collaborative process by which we (residents, architects, activists, community leaders and planners alike) shape our public realm together, is fundamentally about inclusion and shared community ownership.

Rather than watching passively as private developers or public agencies determine the use and value of a neighborhood’s public spaces, placemaking enables citizens to create and maintain their own places, while highlighting unique strengths and addressing specific challenges. While some developments are built around and profit from the idea of exclusivity, placemaking is about increasing “quality of life” and economic opportunity for everyone, not just a privileged few. We believe that cities and regions can facilitate growth while also maintaining their authentic character and preserving the people, as well as the socio-cultural values, that are already in place.

Nonetheless, the physical, social and cultural landscapes of many local places remains caught between danger, disinvestment and a lack of opportunity, on the one hand, and the Pyrrhic victory of “neighborhood improvement” through gentrification, on the other. Within communities, accessibility remains a tremendous obstacle for many. Women and children in communities across the globe still struggle to find safe places in which to play, socialize, and participate. Many citizens in lower-income neighborhoods still lack access to green space in close proximity to their homes.

There’s a balance to be struck with this kind of argument. Often, communities have the knowledge and motivation to improve their places, but lack the resources to fix the big problems. So the question is how to bring together outside resources – which could come from government or private investment – and local knowledge and passion.

But what do you do when communities change? How about welcoming the newcomers and learning to live alongside them? That can happen even in unexpected places, as Robert Samuels writes in the Washington Post: “How to become an American: Syrian refugees find a home in Trump country“:

A few blocks away from Aljasem, John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner, lives in a complex of low-rise apartments in a neighborhood where American flags flapped on porches. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dutcher said he was “one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque. I never acted on it, but I played it in my head.”

“I hated Muslims,” he said.

For years, Dutcher’s neighbors were meth addicts and rowdy alcoholics. Slobs. In June, a Syrian family who spoke no English moved in. Another family moved in after that, then another. Now there are six.

Soon enough, Dutcher said, empty bottles in the hallway were replaced with children’s bicycles. The loud arguments of a ­drug-addicted couple were replaced by the sounds of children’s laughter.

“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher said. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.”

Through interpreters, he learned about the families’ stories of loss and fleeing war. It softened his stance on Islam and led him to question some of what Trump was saying. Around refugees, he never felt safer.

“I used to be afraid when the meth addicts were here,” he said. “Now I don’t even look to see who’s knocking on my door. I know it will be someone with a plate of food or a kid asking me to fix his bike.”

In related news, several recent studies have found that people who live in more diverse areas are more tolerant, even if they don’t interact much with their neighbours of different race or religion. My takeaway is that if you want a hateful city, first build a segregated city.

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Inclusion also matters in political participation. In the NZ Herald, Lizzie Marvelly comments on the makeup of Parliament: “Younger MPs add buzz to the Beehive“:

In an election year, it’s almost guaranteed that young people will be dragged through the mud for one reason or another.

We’ll be smeared as the unworthy recipients of a “bribe” that won the election (years after the fact); the useless, lazy cohort that couldn’t be bothered voting; the self-centred, me-me-me generation that could easily own houses if we simply stopped eating smashed avocados and watching Sky TV; or the idealistic, radical children who should listen to people who know better.

There are a number of similarly unflattering accusations that we could fling at our elders, but we’re generally either silenced in absentia or too polite to offer a harsh dose of reality.

I’ve had it up to my eyeballs.

For example, recently, political commentator Bryce Edwards (44) stepped up to the plate to give his opinion on youth representation in politics on TVNZ’s Breakfast.

“I just don’t know if we want a Parliament just full of 20 and 30-year-olds,” he said, ignoring the fact that Parliament is far from full of 20 and 30-year-olds.

“It’s a good thing to have diversity,” Edwards remarked, without a trace of irony. “It would be a mistake if we just have the young people coming in.”

Immediately after the 2014 election, according to pollster David Farrar, there were 23 MPs in their 20s and 30s, with only two 20-somethings in the entire Parliament.

A significant number of those 23 have now entered their 40s, and only one (Todd Barclay) is still in his 20s.

How having 23 MPs under 40 in a Parliament of 121 – a Parliament with a median age of 50 – would make it “full” of young people, I’ll never know.

A bit of further data from Green MP Julie Anne Genter:

Anyway, enough of that. The best article I’ve read in the last few weeks was on the causes and consequences of high home prices. In the New York Times, Conor Dougherty explains “Why falling home prices could be a good thing“:

We would still see homes of different sizes and styles — condos in some places, single-family homes in others — depending on the market in each city. A New York home would be smaller than one in, say, Houston.

And prices would still vary from place to place, based on demand and geography. It’s easier to build in Phoenix (plenty of flat land), and harder in San Francisco (lots of hills and nearby water). But while building in the San Francisco metro area is more expensive than in other places, it’s not that expensive. By the paper’s calculations, a home in the San Francisco area should cost around $281,000.

The actual price for a standard home in the area is more like $800,000 (using 2013 data). The paper argues that most of that difference is caused by regulatory hurdles like design and environmental reviews that can add years to a project’s timeline and suppress the overall housing supply. The result is overpayment on a grand scale for the few homes that do get built.

High home prices in prosperous parts of the US appear to contribute to lower rates of within-country migration, and hence worse outcomes for people exposed to asymmetric shocks such as trade liberalisation. In Forbes, Adam Millsap writes that “people are giving up rather than moving to opportunity – and that’s not good“:

The papers by Autor et al. paint a pretty bleak picture of life in areas more exposed to Chinese imports. More economic hardship—fewer jobs and lower wages—seems to be harming people’s health, especially that of less educated people. In light of all this, it’s reasonable to think that people must be leaving these areas for greener pastures.

But they’re not. Despite the economic decline, Autor et al. find little evidence that people are moving out. Other researchers have also found that people rarely move to areas with more economic opportunity after a negative economic shock. In one recent study, economists Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy and Kyle Hood examine data from 1990 to 2012 and find that local job creation, not out-migration, is the main driver of local economic recovery in the U.S., but that even partial recovery can take up to 20 years, or approximately an entire generation.

So what has happened to the people living in these areas? If employment opportunities and wages declined but hardly anyone left, many of them must be relying on private charity and/or government assistance for subsistence, and Autor et al. do find evidence of this. Exposure to Chinese imports had a negative effect on labor force participation and a positive effect on the use of government assistance such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), federal income assistance and food stamps.

We should expect more of this sort of thing as the global economy evolves (or disintegrates). Falling trade barriers and increased ease of long-distance travel and communication have put some industries (and some cities) underwater while invigorating others. But distance isn’t dead: paradoxically, the ability to communicate vast reams of data at the touch of a button has strengthened the importance of physical proximity in knowledge-intensive service sectors.

In a classic paper, Michael Storper and Anthony Venables investigate the reasons why this is the case: “Buzz: face-to-face contact and the urban economy“. From the abstract:

This paper argues that existing models of urban concentrations are incomplete unless grounded in the most fundamental aspect of proximity: face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has four main features: it is an efficient communication technology; it can help solve incentive problems; it can facilitate socialization and learning; and it provides psychological motivation. We discuss each of these features in turn, and develop formal economic models of two of them. Face-to-face is particularly important in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing, and not easily codified, key features of many creative activities.

I’ll close with a troubling article from Canterbury. Charlie Mitchell reports (in Stuff) about dairy farmers’ illegal encroachment into public river margins. This is a disgrace and should be addressed sternly by the regulators:

The fringes of some Canterbury rivers have been absorbed into expanding farms, resulting in the loss of thousands of hectares of public land to private development.

The issue – known as “agricultural encroachment” – has happened incrementally over several decades, and is adding to the many pressures facing the region’s internationally significant braided rivers and the rare ecosystems they host.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) research found that nearly 12,000 hectares of Canterbury’s river margins had been taken over by intensive farming between 1990 and 2012.

Waiau river encroachment (LINZ, via Stuff)

About 60 per cent of that land was developed through private land sales, but nearly one-quarter was public reserve land effectively privatised and developed.

Authorities in charge of public land all acknowledged that land had been taken and developed without permission.

None of them were able to quantify how much, and in some cases, the encroacher was allowed to keep the land after meeting certain conditions.

That’s it for this Sunday – see you next time!

Sunday Reading 12 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading.

From the Devonport Ferry. If your commute has tourists taking selfies on it then I’d say it’s probably pretty good:

Devonport Ferry ©Patrick Reynolds 2017

Here is a clipping from yesterday’s Herald Commercial Property section. It neatly encapsulates the value of sorting out planning restrictions [Unitary Plan] and making high quality Transit investments [City Rail Link], naturally, given the context, through a property value lens:

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the salesman’s boosterism in the second paragraph, as the main point is that the only way for tatty low value (in the broadest sense) parts of the city, like the current low rise commercial city fringe, to attract investment and therefore improvement is through value uplift. Outside of large scale direct public investment, that is, which is no straight forward business in these kinds of areas. This is happening in other parts of the city, Tamaki etc, but it is very hard to do everywhere, and anyway is probably not desirable as the only means of development anyway. There is a good role for the private sector in city building. The city and its citizens are winners through either this process, after all no one can live in an apartment that doesn’t get built, nor use or work in a retail or commercial property that isn’t there, so more is certainly more in a thriving city.

All transport infrastructure investments provide opportunities for different groups, and after 65 years of only rewarding ex-urban land bankers and detached house volume builders with tax funded transport investments (motorways) it is good to see a better and more efficient urban form being incentivised here.

And particularly good to see both levers, planning code and Transit investment, being pulled at once, and in the same direction. This is absolutely something that Auckland is getting right. Those interested in these city shaping issues globally will know that it is surprisingly difficult to achieve such obvious coordination. The main barriers to this are fractured governance in cities, so we can put this success down to the amalgamation of Auckland’s previously hopelessly squabbling and disunited political organisation, and subsequent weakness in the city’s dealings with the much more powerful central government.

April sees the Waterview tunnels open. Print media is starting to look forward to the project. I see NZTA are already trying to play down expectations of congestion reduction. As well they might:

It is not a means of removing congestion altogether, especially in peak periods, which is no different to other major cities across the world,” Gliddon [NZTA] said.

Perhaps we should be expecting them to spend our money in smarter ways, like on actual alternatives to everyone always driving for example, then?

Plus some thoughts from this fellow:

Here’s a ripper from the ‘surprising things that generate big efficiencies’ department, here:

UPS drivers don’t turn left—and it saves them 10 million gallons of gas a year

If there is one thing I do like about American traffic management in cities is their enthusiasm to restrict cross traffic turning. Left in their case, right in ours. Our agencies seem obsessed with making horrible oversized intersections with individual lanes and light phases for every possible turn, including the most lethal and disruptive of them all; cross traffic ones. I have long called for the removal of right hand turns into and out of most Queen St intersections for both safety and efficiency reasons. And we all know that AT are just plain wrong on this issue in Mt Albert. Note to traffic engineers; heritage isn’t a thing in your profession; just cos you’ve always done it one way it doesn’t you should keep forcing it on us (actually almost certainly the reverse is true).

UPS have moved away from trying to find the shortest route and now look at other criteria to optimize the journey. One of their methods is to try and avoid turning through oncoming traffic at a junction. Although this might be going in the opposite direction of the final destination, it reduces the chances of an accident and cuts delays caused by waiting for a gap in the traffic, which would also waste fuel.

So now there’s evidence that Traffic Engineering has been wrong all along anyway, as the standard argument for keeping dangerous and delaying right hand turns is that to remove any decreases vehicle efficiency. Busted again Traffic Engineering: I sometimes wonder if there is a discipline with less intellectual curiosity about its habits than this branch of engineering?

Note to AT: MacKelvie St/Ponsonby Rd. So often there is broken glass here, being so close to the Richmond Rd intersection right turning both into and out of this street are seriously disruptive, dangerous, especially with the volume of other road users in this busy retail area (and the bus stop). Stop the right -hand turns and the very wide MacKelvie could be narrowed with widened footpaths and street trees on the southern, sunny side, and the road space on Ponsonby currently as a wide painted median for this manoeuvre used more productively.

This is undeniably true: Decisions about transport investments are really about what kind of future city we desire. For a quick overview, with lots of links, of this claim head to this CityMetric article.

The article questions reliance on cost benefit analysis, where as I think that they are an important part of the evaluation process. I guess the issue really is one of balance. For example we have for many decades had far too much priority given to the results of traffic modelling, whereas these outputs should be of a secondary value in city design, not primary. Because if we build for traffic first, all we get is traffic, and much less city.

Thinking City has a nice post up on cultural representations of cities.

Breaking Bad is amazingly powerful drama, but who thought it would also turn out to be positive for Albuquerque? Not the local authorities, for one. But there were wrong:

The funny thing is, even when a place is portrayed in a negative light, it can actually end up having a positive impact on that area. Take the US city of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest metropolis, home to roughly half a million people. It is also home to the fictional characters in the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, about a teacher with cancer who turns to drug dealing. Following the success of the show, tourism to the New Mexico city was massively boosted – turning around struggling businesses, generating new ones and contributing hugely to the local and state economy.

From the ‘the whole world is an integrated economy’ file, Bloomberg has the fascinating tale of one tiny widget in a nice interactive, click though to the the link for the full experience:



I have always like the line: ‘California must exist for even America needs an America’.

Immigrant Shock: Can California Predict the Nation’s Future?

So it’s interesting to read an article calling California as showing the direction the rest of the US will follow. Is California just America’s dream of its own future? After all in the long run everything follows demographics; economics, politics…

Thank’s for reading, see you next week…

Sunday reading 5 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. By the time you read this, I will be waking up in a tent on the Coromandel, hopefully having had a spectacular walk up to the Pinnacles.

This week, I want to start off with an article that a talented friend of mine, Oliver Chan, wrote on The Spinoff: “Restoring the house that Jack built: how the lessons of the past can help solve the housing crisis“:

The story begins with Jack. During the 1930s generations born during the late-Victorian era, who had started life in urban slums and rural huts for itinerant labourers, embarked a bold rethink of housing. Leading the charge was one of their own, John A. Lee, commonly known during his heyday as ‘Jack’. Born into a Dunedin slum in 1891, the teenage Lee was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to Burnham Industrial School for young offenders. After he successfully escaped, Lee spent years on the run working as a swagman in farms, butcheries and factories – experiences that informed his political outlook: practical, bold and with a lifelong penchant for rebellion. After a year in Mt Eden Prison for bootlegging and theft, and service in World War I in which he lost his left arm, Lee was elected a Labour MP in 1922. Political rival Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage refused to appoint the charismatic, popular radical to cabinet when Labour was elected to government in 1935, instead giving him the minor post of Parliamentary Undersecretary with responsibility for housing. Naturally, the Victorian survivor turned political gadfly had a plan.

Highlighting housing conditions during the Great Depression, Lee used his position to end the hardship endured by slum-dwellers, swagmen and the newly destitute alike. He proposed a large-scale state housing plan beyond what the cautious Savage deemed necessary, but the PM was ultimately convinced. With Government as the procurer of materials and land and Fletcher Construction as the monopoly builder, over 30,000 state houses were built between 1936 and 1949 housing the urban poor, middle class and eventually returning servicemen. Though the rebellious Lee eventually fell foul of Savage and was ultimately expelled from Labour in 1940, he deserves credit for affordable, accessible housing as a human right, with the state serving as a guarantor. The house was built.

New Zealand politicians used to be characters, eh?

Talking to my forebears about housing reminds me that they didn’t necessarily have it easy – and that BYO (build your own) was a common solution. Perhaps we should do more of this?

Down on the South Island, two Canterbury University students are building their own tiny house to escape damp flats. Cherie Sivignon reports in Stuff:

Fed up with living in a cold, damp, mouldy flat, university students Christoph Riedel and Anna Naygrow have spent their summer holiday building themselves a tiny house.

Tucked away on flat land behind the main building at Menzshed Waimea in Richmond, near Nelson, the couple’s first home is almost ready to be towed 400km to Christchurch for the start of the academic year at the University of Canterbury.

“We’ll live in it this year,” Riedel said.

Anna Naygrow and Christoph Riedel started building their tiny house in mid-November.

“It’s a warm place. We’re going to get a fire put in, it’s very well-insulated, everything’s double-glazed, we’ve got lots of light so the idea is just to have a warm place to live and study.”


Speaking of Kiwis doing clever DIY, University of Auckland statistician Thomas Lumley (StatsChat) has set up a Twitter bot entitled @tūreiti (te reo for ‘late’) to report the real-time performance of Auckland’s buses at 15-minute intervals. It’s pretty clever:

Lumley explains the Twitter bot here.

And now for some cleverness from the other side of the world. In Politico Magazine, Colin Woodard explains “How Mormon principles and grassroots ideals saved Utah“. It’s a rare happy-ending story in 20th-century land use and transport planning:

Imagine getting 90 municipalities in 10 counties in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions to get on board for a 20-year land use planning effort intended to conserve water use, promote clean air and avoid the destruction of open spaces by slashing housing lot sizes, encouraging higher-density development and imposing new taxes to build a light rail network and commuter rail system from scratch. Imagine that it worked so well the effort expanded statewide.

You might assume it must have started in a liberal bastion like Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont, where people are proud to be tree huggers and planning isn’t a dirty word. But the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history is happening in ultra-conservative Utah, a state with powerful ranching, mining and energy interests and a reflexive distrust of top-down government solutions. And it was led not by state officials, but by a bipartisan alliance of business, industrial, religious, political and civic leaders, working from plans crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of Utah citizens and executed on a completely voluntary basis by their local governments.

“Our purpose is not to lead somewhere, our purpose is to let the public see their choices and let them lead,” Robert Grow, president, CEO and a co-founder of Envision Utah, the public-private partnership that put the planning questions on Utahns’ agenda 20 years ago and helped keep them there ever since. “They are going to chose the future, so we’re empowering them by letting them see what their choices are and helping them implement those choices.”

The results have been impressive: Per capita water use has been cut by more than a quarter and air emissions slashed by nearly half, while 300 square miles of rural and open land have been spared from development. Automobile use has actually dropped slightly in terms of vehicle miles travelled, even as the region’s population has increased by a third, thanks to what is one of the largest transit transit rail systems per capita in the country. Taxpayers have saved billions in avoided infrastructure spending and maintenance and Envision Utah has been feted by city planners across the country as a model for how to do things right.

I highly recommend reading the whole article. It’s interesting to me (in part) because coordination problems between neighbouring councils tend to defeat good planning in many places. It’s too easy to succumb to “beggar thy neighbour” policies or scupper worthy problems due to failure to agree on funding or timing. Salt Lake City’s example shows the value in having a regional public-private forum for discussion.

Also from the US, a cautionary tale of how to get it badly wrong with policies that seemed good at the time. Ana Campoy (Quartz) explains how “the origin of your TV set is a simple lesson in the dangers of ignoring globalization“:

The color-tube TV industry was the US’s to lose, but the US never really owned the flat-screen TV industry. The inventions and discoveries that enabled it originally came from the US. But in those early days, the ultimate application for them, flat-screen TVs, was deemed to be too far off to be worth investing in by US companies, according to Stefanie Lenway, who co-authored a 2003 book examining the demise of the US’s TV industry.

The Japanese, however, had less grandiose aspirations. They started using the new flat screen technology in wristwatches and calculators. By doing so, they got a jumpstart on a technology that eventually transformed the whole TV industry. The change wasn’t solely in the way the final product looked and worked, but also in how it was conceived.

As Lenway and her co-authors argue, the flat-screen display industry thrived on the cooperation of researchers and companies from all over the world. Suppliers on one side of the planet learned from sellers in another, competitors from different countries formed alliances with each other, and bought and sold one another’s products.

Most of the learning took place in Japan, because companies there had been experimenting with the technology for longer. But it wasn’t closed off to companies from other countries. US-based Corning, for example, set up in Japan and participated in the knowledge exchange. Today, it remains a key producer of glass, among the highest-margin TV components.

That’s not the model that other US companies adopted. Together with the government, they tried to reproduce what was going on in Japan on US soil. But they couldn’t catch up because they didn’t have the same expertise. In pursuing a “Make-America-Great-Again”-like strategy, they lost sight of the “humility and openness” of the globally interdependent nature of the business that, according to Lenway and her co-authors’ analysis, were required to succeed.

One by one, American manufacturers pulled out of the business, while more sophisticated manufacturing plants kept popping up in Asia.


Are other incumbent industries likely to be buffeted by global forces like trade and technology? Most likely. David Roberts (Vox) lays out the case that change is coming faster than expected to the oil industry as a result of electric cars:

So EV forecasts range from modest to revolutionary. What should we make of this?

It seems to me that we don’t come to these questions with a clean slate. The very kind of models this study critiques are the ones that have consistently underestimated the growth of solar and wind. They use baseline scenarios that assume no further cost and policy changes when, in reality, cost and policy changes are both rapid and inevitable.

Multiple drivers (pardon the pun) are lining up behind EVs — rapidly falling battery costs, rising range, synergy with other new energy technologies, widespread international policy support, growing consumer interest, and (my pet dark horse) wireless EV charging.

Experience shows that markets at the center of this kind of interest and activity do not continue to grow on a steady, linear path. They take off, lurching into exponential growth. That shift is impossible to predict in advance with any precision, but at this point, we ought to know that it’s coming.

By now, we need not be neutral toward this range of projections. History has taught us that for new, distributed, consumer-focused technologies, unexpected explosive growth is … to be expected. Big oil companies and investors would do well to prepare.

I hope he’s right about this. The last thing we need at this point in time is to burn more coal and oil.

Lastly, I’d just like to say a word about immigration policy – ie Trump’s decision to ban people who were born in seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. This is a terrible policy. It is hurting a whole bunch of ordinary people, many of whom are now cut off from their families or in limbo trying to leave dangerous situations like the Syrian civil war, without helping anything except possibly ISIS recruitment drives. I believe it’s important for New Zealand to stand up against this kind of nonsense, both by speaking out against it and by doing our bit to accommodate refugees from the wars that America has started in the Middle East.

This isn’t just the right thing to do: It’s likely to benefit New Zealand. The NZ Initiative’s Eric Crampton makes the case:

America has long been a magnet for the world’s most talented people. And America’s most advanced industries rely heavily on foreigners allowed to work in the United States on H1-B visas. America’s universities are the best in the world because they attract top scholars from everywhere. Foreigners on H1-B visas or with permanent residence teach foreign students on F visas, making education a massively successful American export industry.

New Zealand should announce a new visa category for people who were legally entitled to live and work in America until the Executive Order broke things. If the New Zealand government has wanted to attract more highly skilled migrants, there would be few better bets than trying to help those who have been hurt by American policy.

Canada has been talking about similar moves. Canadian universities are rushing to accommodate students bumped from American universities. Canadian tech companies have asked their government to implement an immediate targeted visa providing temporary residence to those displaced by the Executive Order; Canada’s prime minister has been active on Twitter, signalling openness.

New Zealand is running a trial of a new way of supporting refugees, modelled on Canada’s sponsorship regime. Canada supplements the government’s refugee quota with a private sponsorship arrangement, under which more refugees are allowed in whenever Canadians are prepared to sponsor them. The bulk of the financial cost of supporting refugees then shifts from the government to those Canadians who are willing to help. And those sponsors also do an excellent job of helping refugees integrate into Canadian communities.

New Zealand could expand its sponsored refugee trial to accommodate those refugees with whom America has broken faith. This need not be at any particularly large cost to the Government. All the government needs to do is let caring New Zealanders help.

In the NZ Herald, Lincoln Tan takes a look at the impact of migration in New Zealand, based partly on the NZ Initiative’s new report on the topic:

The report said there was little evidence to support the perception that migrants stole jobs from New Zealanders born in the country.

“That is because the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed. Migrants also contribute to job growth by increasing demand for local goods and services,” it said.

[…] “On balance, the available evidence suggests that New Zealand benefits from migration, or at the very least the country is not made worse off,” the report concluded.

To conclude, I’d recommend reading a piece that Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy wrote in The Spinoff in response to Trump’s visa ban: “We will not let racism and division poison our New Zealand“. It’s short and to the point. Frankly, I’ve been impressed with Devoy – when appointed, she admitted that she didn’t have a huge background in the area, but she’s been willing to get out and stand up for New Zealand values of tolerance and inclusion.

Elderly New Zealanders, our own Holocaust survivors told us they never thought they’d witness a return to the politics of hatred, division and racism in their lifetime: but it’s happening. As we gathered in front of the Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery out at Makara, they urged us to stand up for the rights of refugees, Muslims and minorities targeted by the powerful.

And they know what they’re talking about. Because people like Wellington’s Inge Woolf and Vera Egermayer remember the swastikas, the Nazis and the marches. They also remember that in the midst of that storm of hate: millions of everyday people stayed silent and looked the other way. They remember that instead of standing up for others – neighbours and fellow citizens chose to be bystanders.

Right now so many of us are feeling helpless but the one thing we can do is let our own decision makers know that we will not allow hatred and intolerance to spread and become normalised here at home: Not in our New Zealand.

Onya x2. Enjoy Waitangi Weekend.

Sunday reading 22 January 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, I’d like to start off with a great bit of investigative journalism that Stuff produced at the end of last year: “Private business, public failure: Inside our prisons“. While it’s not directly related to transport or urban policy, it has a lot to say about how our society runs. Here’s an excerpt from the first of six parts:

Since this is the story of an incarceration nation, it’s important to look back at where that started.

Auckland University sociologist Dr Tracey McIntosh points out that if we go right back to European settlement, there’s a long history of locking up Maori. “There was a desire to incarcerate significant numbers of our people,” she says.

It’s a salient point, given the fact that more than half of the prison population today, is Maori.

The recent rise in prison growth begins in the mid-1970s. The muster bounced around about 2800, a rate of about 90 per 100,000 people, before New Zealand embarked on a remarkable period of emptying out cells.

By 1985, the muster was down to 2200, a rate of 67 per 100,000. Consider that if this was our rate now, we’d be on a par with Scandinavian countries praised for their low imprisonment.

Instead, between the mid-80s and the mid-2000s, the number of prison sentences handed down jumped 47 per cent. By 2007 the prison muster was about 8300.

A focus on community sentences saw numbers flatten somewhat for the next few years.

But now, prisons are a growth industry again. And the rate of imprisonment is more than 200 per 100,000.

That means more prisons cells, more prison staff – 1800 more beds at a cost of $1 billion are on the way, and there’s a recruitment drive for 600 extra Corrections officers, extra staff for a department which is already the 15th biggest employer in the country.

Criminologist Dr Liam Martin, from Victoria University, says the expansion is linked directly to decisions being made on our behalf, as a country.

“The rhetoric for the past 30 or 40 years is, ‘we have to build another prison to meet expected rises in the number of people we incarcerate’. But it is the Government’s choices that mean the prison population is rising.

“Prison populations rise when you make choices that make them rise – restricting bail access which we’ve done recently, restricting parole, lengthening prisons sentences.”

Read the whole series. It’s a bit disturbing. But is there a better way?

Our new Prime Minister, Bill English, thinks so. As Simon Wilson reports in The Spinoff, he’s been talking about ‘social investment’ as an alternative model: using powerful new datasets to identify opportunities to intervene early and improve people’s life outcomes. This idea has caused some controversy – also in The Spinoff, Keith Ng writes about his “fear” of “Bill English’s datatopia”:

The alternative isn’t to ignore evidence, but to consider the evidence in the context of its limitations, to weigh up conflicting information, and to look beyond what’s immediately apparent. That’s the part of the job that English’s “12 year old” can’t do. That is why we have university systems to train people in public policy. That is why what they do is complex and special.You can open up numbers to people, and a 12 year old can figure out which number is bigger, and whether the trend is going up or down. But suggesting that’s how decisions get made – or even that a modern society could make real decisions like this – is just plain wrong. It’s a cargo cult to believe that because policymakers have “data”, therefore if you have “data” you can/are meaningfully engaging with policy.

Don’t get me wrong, open data is really important. I make a living off open data. Some of my best friends are open data. And data have many uses beyond policy. But in policy, data is just an important link in a very long chain; in democracy 2.0 (or whatever version we’re on now), open data is also just a link in a very long chain.

The links on either side of that chain are academics and politicians, journalists and spin-doctors, all vying to interpret that data. Opening data makes it more available to these people, and potentially makes them more effective, but it doesn’t empower anyone who wasn’t empowered before.

If we’re to democratise policymaking, we need to democratise expertise and time. And we aren’t doing that. In fact, as we advance into the brave new world of data, data expertise becomes ever more inaccessible.


Decisionmakers have rarely been technical experts, and it’s always been assumed that they don’t need to be – that’s what briefings are for. But this isn’t just a subject matter, this is the tool that we use to understand the world. A fuzzy understanding of data is a fuzzy understanding of everything that the data describes, everything that data touches.

I tend to agree with Keith about the opportunities and pitfalls. I spend a reasonable amount of time delving around in big datasets and trying to understand what they’re telling me. This is not a straightforward process. Even once I’ve got a bunch of data and some statistical tools to analyse it with, choosing how to analyse it requires a lot of thought and, usually, a degree of practical experience with the thing I’m studying.

Forecasting models, like transport models, are much the same. Small decisions about how to design and calibrate them can have large impacts on the results, which means that model users must be well-informed about the underlying workings in order to use the results intelligently.

In other words, data analysis isn’t something that you can simply outsource to a computer. It doesn’t work that way. We will continue to rely upon human judgment in policymaking – with luck, supplemented and occasionally challenged by new data and better analysis.

Or perhaps I’m just protecting my own patch?

Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith hits upon some similar themes in a recent column: “Sometimes it’s hard to explain market failures“:

Lots of economic policy debates end up going like this: First, one economist or policy wonk will propose a government intervention — a minimum wage increase, a tax on sugar or subsidies for solar electricity. Another person, usually someone of a more free-market bent, will demand to know exactly which market failure justifies the intervention. A market failure, in the parlance of economics, means a situation in which free markets produce wasteful outcomes. If the advocate can’t produce a theory justifying the policy, the critic claims triumph.

…I propose we minimize our use of the show-me-the-market-failure argument. Sometimes there are policies that people have tried in the past, which seem to work even though it’s hard to tell exactly why. Public education is a great example. It seems to make economies more prosperous, and most economists support it, but no one can point to just why the free market doesn’t educate enough people on its own. Road-building is another — there are essentially no countries with mostly private high-quality road systems, and economists struggle to explain why.

We know these government interventions work; figuring out why they work is a task for the future. Like the people who chewed tree bark to relieve pain long before the discovery of aspirin, or the engineers who used lithium-ion batteries without quite understanding the physics, sometimes it pays to go with evidence even before you have a theory in hand.

Speaking of data, a coworker recently pointed me towards an interesting website set up by MIT to understand how humans would prefer driverless cars to behave in situations where somebody must be harmed: Moral Machine. It should appeal to everyone who likes trolley problems:

Try it out! Remember, someday your responses may be used to design a machine that will kill or injure your family members!

Speaking of designing things that kill, Charles Marohn (StrongTowns) has an interesting perspective on federal infrastructure spending in the US: “Five ways federal infrastructure spending makes cities poorer“. While New Zealand has a substantially different funding model, some of his points are worth considering here as well. I particularly liked:

2. Federal infrastructure spending goes primarily to the least financially productive parts of the American development pattern.

In the early days of constructing the interstate system, the return on our national infrastructure investments was very high. We were connecting places remote from each other and transforming the entire economy in the process. Those returns have steadily diminished, for obvious reasons: a community’s fifth interchange, sixth mile of frontage road or seventh river crossing cannot possibly be as transformative as the first, despite costing magnitudes more.

Joe Minicozzi and the team at Urban 3 have done the most thorough job today of documenting the productive parts of the American development pattern (wealth per acre). In hundreds of cities across the country that have been modeled, the trend is clear: the newer the development the higher the cost and the lower the financial productivity.

Control of both houses of Congress is now aligned with suburban and exurban development interests, areas with the highest cost and lowest returning infrastructure investments. Small towns and urban areas — particularly when they are making better use of existing infrastructure — present far higher returning alternatives.

David Roberts at Vox has a complementary take on the same issue: We’re building places that make us socially isolated and unhappy: “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult“:

Why do we form such strong friendships in high school and college and form comparatively fewer as the years go on?

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was that the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows. […]

Say you’re a family with children and you don’t regularly attend church (as is increasingly common). There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.

One is living in a real place, a walkable area with lots of shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely and effectively without a car. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. […] Walkable communities are very difficult to find in the US, and because there is such paucity of supply relative to demand, they are expensive, accessible only to the high-income. Places where they exist tend to have absurd zoning restrictions that prevent growing them. (Our own Matt Yglesias has much to say on these issues.)

The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing. There are many kinds of co-housing, too many to get into in this post, but my favorite, a common model in Germany, is baugruppen, or building groups… [which] are basically like condos, but with much more robust shared spaces and collective ownership rather than developer ownership. (If you want to know much more about them, passivhaus designer Mike Eliason has a seven-part series I highly recommend. He summarizes it as “private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects.”)

But, you know, it’s not all bad. It doesn’t take much to start (or improve) a community. Consider this 2014 story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Buddha seems to bring tranquility to Oakland neighbourhood“:

Dan Stevenson is neither a Buddhist nor a follower of any organized religion.

The 11th Avenue resident in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood was simply feeling hopeful in 2009 when he went to an Ace hardware store, purchased a 2-foot-high stone Buddha and installed it on a median strip in a residential area at 11th Avenue and 19th Street.

He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.

What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.

And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.

I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none.

There’s probably a lot more that we can do to make our places more neighbourly. In the New York Times, Christophere Mele writes about a new trend: repair cafes:

If you’ve ever despaired of getting your vacuum cleaner fixed or thought that your broken lamp was a lost cause, there’s hope. A worldwide movement is trying to reform our throwaway approach to possessions.

The movement’s foundation is the Repair Cafe, a local meeting place that brings together people with broken items and repair coaches, or volunteers, with the expertise to fix them. […]

The cafes invite people to bring their “beloved but broken” possessions to the gatherings, which are hosted in church basements, libraries, town halls and senior centers. The cafes make no guarantees that items will be fixed.

“All we can guarantee is that you will have an interesting time,” Mr. Wackman said.

How are you going to make your neighbourhood – or your whole city – better this year?

Sunday reading 8 January 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This is my first edition of the year. As I’ve been tramping over the holidays, it’s mainly composed of things I started reading back in December.

The best thing I’ve read in January – after striking a few days of wet weather on the track – is Tramping New Zealand’s guide to what to wear tramping:

The theory is to have one set of clothes that is going to get wet during the day, either through precipitation, or perspiration, and one set that stays dry, to keep you cosy at night.

That’s it.

You travel in and out with your dry set, change to the wet for walking, change back out when you have your accommodation sorted to stay warm, clad yourself in the wet in the morning, you were saying how tough you were, etc.

There’s no great benefit in taking two wet, or two dry sets. Just take what you are going to use.

And, maybe, a spare pair of dry socks.

Oh, don’t forget underwear, that doesn’t weigh excessively.

Sounds about right to me. My current theory is that “breathable”, as applied to wet weather gear, is code for “you will get wet before long”. Consequently, you’re probably better off in a wool bush shirt and a plastic poncho than a $500 Gore-Tex jacket.

While we’re on the subject of the great outdoors, Toby Manhire’s interview with Laura Wallace from GNS Science (in The Spinoff) provided an illuminating perspective on a geological detective story:

The Kaikoura earthquake wreaked destruction, tragedy and misery, but it also generated much scientific fascination. Including: what was going on in the Hikurangi Subduction Zone and those mysterious slow-slip events? […]

These slow slip events, they’ve been called “silent earthquakes”?

They’re similar to earthquakes, as slow slip events accommodate more rapid than normal movement on the plate boundary fault, in this case the Hikurangi subduction zone. Unlike earthquakes (which involve slip along faults in a matter of seconds), slow slip events can take weeks or months to occur. Because slow slip events are slow and don’t occur suddenly enough to release seismic energy, we have to use GPS to detect them. Basically, we look for mm-level changes in the position of the land above the slow slip events. East coast North Island slow slip events typically show up as 2-3 cm eastward shifts of the land on the GPS.

The slow slip event we are observing off the North Island’s east coast right now appears to have been triggered by the 7.8 earthquake, probably due to very small stress changes induced by the passing seismic waves from the M7.8 earthquake. We’ve seen slow slip events triggered by earthquakes in New Zealand before. The Te Araroa Earthquake that happened in early September triggered a slow slip event off East Cape. There was also an earthquake near Gisborne in late 2007, that triggered a slow slip event near Gisborne. In this case the M7.8 earthquake appears to have triggered slow slip over a larger part of the Hikurangi plate boundary, going from about southern Hawkes Bay up to East Cape. We haven’t seen this happen simultaneously over such a large area before, and this makes it a really interesting event.

Slow-slip events at tectonic plate boundaries were first discovered in North America’s Pacific Northwest – and it’s a good thing they’re happening there, as pressure would otherwise build up faster for a massively destructive earthquake. As it is, Seattle is in the midst of another tectonic shift in housing development. Mike Rosenberg reports on the building boom in the Seattle Times:

The apartment boom in Seattle has already reached historic heights — more units opened in each of the past four years than ever before.

Now, the real boom is about to begin.

Seattle is set to see almost 10,000 new market-rate apartments open in 2017, nearly twice as many as in any other year in the city’s history.

With the construction surge set to continue through the rest of the decade, rent increases that have hit Seattle about as hard as any city in the country are forecast to be cut in half during 2017.

[…] Other cities have already seen this scenario play out. New York had a record number of apartments open in 2015, and rents there finally stopped climbing in 2016. Rents have also slowed recently in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and Houston following a rise in apartment construction in those cities.

“It is a pattern that’s registering in a lot of other places,” said Greg Willett, chief economist for the rental firm RealPage.

On the opposite end, Sacramento, Calif., stopped building apartments in the last decade and has now seen its normally tepid rental market surge to become one of the hottest in the nation. Ditto for Oakland.

The Seattle metropolitan area is a bit over twice as large as Auckland, so if we were trying to match their performance it would mean building around 5000 apartments next year.

A lot of the economic commentary from the US in November and December focused on what (if anything) can be done about the regional disparities that are (in part) driving dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo. More specifically, how do you revive the fortunes of declining manufacturing areas in the Rust Belt?

Paul Krugman, who earned his Nobel for work on trade policy and regional economics, is quite skeptical that any of the likely policies are likely to succeed:

So maybe the answer is regional policies, to promote employment in declining regions? There is certainly a case in principle for doing this, since the costs of uprooting workers and families are larger than economists like to imagine. I would say, however, that the track record of regional support policies in other countries, which spend far more on such things than we are likely to, is pretty poor. For example, massive aid to the former East Germany hasn’t prevented a large decline in population, much bigger than the population decline in Appalachia over the same period.

And I have to admit to a strong suspicion that proposals for regional policies that aim to induce service industries to relocate to the Rust Belt would not be well received, would in fact be attacked as elitist. People want those manufacturing jobs back, not something different. And it’s snooty and disrespectful to say that this can’t be done, even though it’s the truth.

In a subsequent post on his New York Times blog, Krugman also argued that an attempt to use protectionism to break down global value chains and bring manufacturing back to the US would be dangerously disruptive.

On the other hand, Bloomberg View columnist (and economist) Noah Smith takes a more optimistic view. He outlines “four ways to help the Midwest“:

No. 1 Infrastructure

Sick economies and shrinking population have left Rust Belt states and cities unable to pay for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many cities look like disaster areas. The federal government should allocate funds to repair and improve the Midwest’s roads, bridges and trains, and to upgrade its broadband. Sen’s pension bailout idea could also be instrumental in helping states buff up their infrastructure. Better transportation makes it easier for people and goods to flow between cities in a region, and for the region to export products to other places. Infrastructure is doubly important in a region like the Midwest, where winter weather can quickly make travel difficult.

No. 2 Universities

Universities are helpful for regional economic growth. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.), but more could be built, and existing universities could be expanded. Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. As things stand, Midwesterners tend to move away as soon as they graduate from college. Creating more industries specifically for these graduates would keep talent in the region.

No. 3 Business Development

Some cities in Colorado have embraced a development policy it calls economic gardening. The program helps provide resources for locals to start their own businesses. It furnishes them with market research and connects them with needed resources. Small businesses provide more employment than large ones, and offer a ticket to the middle class. They also have a chance of growing into large businesses. The Midwest should consider emulating Colorado’s plan, which seems to be getting results.

No. 4 Urbanism

Tech hubs like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are using development restrictions to keep their population densities in check. That gives Midwestern cities an opening to attract refugees from the high-rent metropolises of the two coasts. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland can work on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to the creative class, while allowing housing development to keep rents cheap. College towns like Ann Arbor can reduce their own development restrictions and allow themselves to become industrial hubs. And cities can copy the crime-fighting techniques of cities like New York and Los Angeles that have become much safer during the past few decades.

By the way, we will probably be facing similar questions in New Zealand. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has been quite forthright about the problems caused by regional disparities. In Stuff, he writes about the “plight of regions: hope v futility“:

Our regions are growing further apart. Incomes after adjusting for living costs have risen significantly in Auckland and Wellington.

The commercial and political capitals are pulling away from other regions.

Astonishingly, of the remaining 14 regions, only six have experienced real income gains over the last three decades. That is, eight regions have seen declines in real incomes over a three-decade period.

The regional divergences we see today are not new, nor unique to New Zealand. We see similar patterns in other advanced economies around the world too.

While incomes are growing much faster in Auckland and Wellington, there is a large gap between high and low income earners. In contrast, incomes are more equal in the provinces, but more equally low incomes.

The income divergence across our regions is rooted in deeper economic and demographic changes.

Changes in the economy, towards more services sector jobs, is favouring urban sectors.

Globalisation and technological change are offshoring or mechanising manual work – which is affecting provincial economies harder.

Our thinking in local government and economic policy is based on an expectation of continuing growth. Stagnation and decline are seen negatively.

Yet, that is reality of ageing populations and young people leaving the provinces for economic and other reasons for urban centres.

Eaqub’s analysis of the potential policy solutions is (I think) extremely realistic:

The international evidence from the United Kingdom, United States and France for growth fostering measures is troublingly mixed.

While regional interventions often work for the specific region, it comes at the cost of neighbouring comparable regions.

There is often no net gain for the country as a whole. Worse, once the programmes finish, the benefits also tend to fade in most cases.

Where the growth fostering policies have worked, they had some inherent strength in their location or economic potential, for example natural resources and weather amenable to year round tourism.  

Regional development is a topic that needs much further research and attention. There is no recipe that will work in every occasion.

This is a debate that will definitely be worth following closely in the coming year, especially if any new policies get put to the test. For what it’s worth, I agree with Krugman that trade protectionism and industrial subsidies are likely to be ineffective at best, destructive at worst. Smith’s ideas are likely to be useful at the margin, but I doubt that they will succeed in reversing longstanding trends. Similarly, a one-size-fits-all approach to trying to revitalise regions that have had technological, economic, and social trends turn against them is unlikely to work.

One thing that is worth reading if you’re interested in solutions is a paper by Paul Conway, the Productivity Commission’s head of research, entitled Achieving New Zealand’s Productivity Potential. I had a chance to skim it a few weeks back and am planning on writing a full post on it sometime in January.

To close out the week, two more bits on apartments and housing development. First, Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff interview Mike Davis, the “chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade” (in Boom California). I’ve long been a fan of Davis’s work on cities and the history of Los Angeles. While he’s got a larger, more radical critique of contemporary development, I’m often most struck by his talent for observing small details of urban life. For instance:

The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.

Finally, Charlie Sorrell (FastCoexist) points towards a great bit of data on outcomes following the development of low-income housing:

What happens to nearby property values when low-income housing is built in a neighborhood? They drop, right? Because claiming those non-rich individuals and families bring down housing prices is, apparently, a more palatable argument to make than saying poor people shouldn’t be in the neighborhood. The truth is that low-income housing does basically nothing to the prices of neighboring properties. They keep on rising, just like they did before.

Trulia, the real-estate listings service, dug deep into its data to track home values in areas where low-income housing was built. Author Cheryl Young looked at 3,083 low-income housing projects built from 1996 to 2006 (prior to the price-distorting housing bubble beginning in 2007), in “the nation’s 20 least affordable markets.” With just a few exceptions, the low-income housing had no effect on house prices.

That’s all; enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Sunday reading 11 December 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading – the second-to-last edition of the year! Two weeks hence I will be tramping rather than reading and writing things on the internet.

To start things off, here’s a great video on the history of land ownership that nicely illustrates the contentious history of any given place. It’s something I think of occasionally in Auckland: the city’s Maori name, Tamaki Makaurau, alludes to its history as a battleground between iwi from Northland and the Waikato.

This, of course, did not cease when Europeans arrived. In The Spinoff, historian Vincent O’Malley tells the story of how “the great war for New Zealand broke out less than 50km from Queen St“. It’s a sad story of suspicion and greed undermining what could have been a sustained, mutually beneficial partnership between the growing city of Auckland and the Waikato iwi:

Tainui and other iwi developed a thriving economy based on feeding the settlers of Auckland. By the 1850s flour mills were dotted across the Waikato landscape and produce was being exported as far as the goldfields of California and Victoria. Māori were New Zealand’s leading export earners and key contributors to government coffers. Tainui were at the forefront of these developments and most observers in the early 1850s would have found it almost inconceivable that less than a decade later they would stand accused of plotting the imminent massacre of Auckland’s residents.

Those allegations were not only entirely unfounded but also illogical. Destroying the key outlet for their produce would have been suicidal for Tainui. Their wealth and therefore power depended to a large degree on Auckland’s ongoing wellbeing. But how had it even come to pass that they might be accused of such a thing?

For one thing, as settler numbers grew their reliance upon Māori lessened (at the same time that demand for Māori land increased). Lurking Victorian assumptions of racial superiority over ‘native’ peoples began to come to the fore. Great rangatira complained of being racially abused whenever they visited Pākehā townships like Auckland, in contrast to the great hospitality that even lowly Europeans continued to receive from Māori. In 1858 Europeans in New Zealand outnumbered Māori for the first time. And while Pākehā were happy for Māori to feed and defend them, they were not prepared to share the governance of the colony with the chiefs. In 1852 a new constitution for the colony established a parliament (and provincial assemblies) from which Māori were effectively excluded because the right to vote was based on European forms of land tenure.

The Kīngitanga (King movement) was one of the ways in which Māori responded. Despite initial reluctance, in 1858 an elderly Te Wherowhero (now called Pōtatau Te Wherowhero) was raised up as the first king. Some Europeans welcomed this development, seeing it as a positive reform that would improve social order and governance within Māori communities. Others chose to brand it as a challenge to the Crown’s authority. That was a difficult position to sustain given that Queen Victoria was described as “a fence for us all…Maoris and Pakehas” by Wiremu Tamihana (known as the ‘kingmaker’ by Europeans for his role in anointing the new king). Nevertheless, that the Kīngitanga could not be allowed to stand became official Crown policy, paving the way for the invasion of its Waikato heartland in July 1863.

The New Zealand Wars in the 1860s were one of the most significant things to happen to the country. They set our course for the next century – abrogation of the Treaty of Waitangi, massive expansion of European settlement, and a shift in economic and political power from Maori to European settlers.

Yet Pakeha seldom talk about them. For instance, an ancestor of mine was a Land Court judge at Helensville from 1858 to 1875 – a pretty momentous time and place. But my family has passed down very little knowledge of that time. That may just be our lackadaisical approach to oral history, but I get the sense that the country as a whole prefers to ignore the New Zealand Wars. Why is that?

One theory I’ve got is that humans are just intrinsically bad at remembering that things used to be different. I had that thought when reading Tamsin Rutter’s article in the Guardian about Ghent (Belgium)’s successful car-free city centre. A policy that was wildly unpopular prior to introduction is now wildly popular:

One morning in 1997, Frank Beke, the mayor of Ghent, woke up to find he’d been sent a bullet in the post. For the next few weeks Beke wore a bulletproof jacket, while police stood guard outside his house and accompanied him everywhere he went. “I was very anxious for my family,” he says. “I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.”

The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.

“It was a rather radical plan to ban all cars from an area of about 35 hectares,” recalls Beke. “With every decision you take, there can be some opposition – but I never expected a bullet, of course.”

There were protests outside Ghent’s city hall: businesses were afraid they’d lose their customers, elderly residents were concerned about being cut off from their children. But Beke stood his ground, and although a few businesses that relied on car access had to move, today the city centre is thriving.

His successor, Daniël Termont, says that if he were now to reintroduce cars into the city centre, he’d be the one wearing a bulletproof jacket. In all, 72% of Ghentians are in favour of Termont’s new plans to expand the pedestrian zone by 15 hectares (a further 17% are neutral).

Change can initially be disconcerting, but once it’s happened people usually get accustomed to it. This can have both positive and negative consequences. For instance, in Foreign Affairs Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz explain how creeping erosion of democratic norms is now a greater threat than coups and revolutions: “How Democracies Fall Apart“:

Post–Cold War populists such as Chávez, Putin, and Erdogan took a slow and steady approach to dismantling democracy. These leaders first come to power through democratic elections and subsequently harness widespread discontent to gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule, marginalize the opposition, and erode civil society. The playbook is consistent and straightforward: deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power (particularly in the judiciary and security services) and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship. This strategy makes it hard to discern when the break with democracy actually occurs, and its insidiousness poses one of the most significant threats to democracy in the twenty-first century.

The steady dismantling of democratic norms and practices by democratically elected leaders, what we call “authoritarianization,” marks a significant change in the way that democracies have historically fallen apart. Data on authoritarian regimes show that until recently, coups have been the primary threats to democracy. From 1946 to 1999, 64 percent of democracies failed because of such insurgencies. In the last decade, however, populist-fueled authoritarianization has been on the rise, accounting for 40 percent of all democratic failures between 2000 and 2010 and matching coups in frequency. If current trends persist, populist-fueled authoritarianization will soon become the most common pathway to autocracy.

Even more disheartening, the slow and gradual nature of populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter. Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce. And in cases in which vocal critics do emerge, populist leaders can easily frame them as “fifth columnists,” “agents of the establishment,” or other provocateurs seeking to destabilize the system. Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.

As I’ve written before, democracy is important. It’s the best way to ensure that we get a better society over time, and one that remains open and equitable both economically, socially, and culturally. But it needs to be actively safeguarded and improved, rather than taken for granted.

And now for something completely different. London School of Economics scholar Cheng Keat Tang asks: “Do we value the London congestion charge?” He takes a look at the effects of the toll cordon around the London city centre on several metrics:

Effects of the London Congestion Charge

Is the charge effective? My research show that indeed it is. Relying on traffic data at a road level, I find that vehicular flow fell by 6% to 9% after the CC is first introduced in 2003, and 4% to 6% when the WEZ is implemented in 2007. Subsequent hikes, other than the initial increase in charge in 2005 (from £5.00 to £8.00), has a less discernible impact on traffic. This is understandable as marginal increases in the charge are less likely to dissuade drivers from commuting into the zone than its introduction. Commuters are now required to pay £11.50 to drive into the cordoned area when the CC is up. With less driving in the CCZ, air quality has also improved, according to others’ research. The implementation of the CC was associated with a 12 per cent reduction in air pollutants as such PM10 (Particulate Matter) and NO (Nitrogen Oxide) in the zone (Beevers et al. 2005). Roads are also much safer with a decline in accident and casualty counts (Green et al, 2016). The success of the original congestion charge led to the subsequent extension of the congestion charge zone to central west London (WEZ) in 2007 that covers Kensington and Chelsea borough – one of the most expensive and sought after estates in London.

How much do residents value these benefits?

So do homeowners pay for these benefits? To examine this, I restrict the analysis to properties very close to the congestion charge boundary (within 1 kilometre) to exploit the sharp discontinuity in traffic flow induced by the charge between roads just inside the zone and roads just outside (as drivers are deterred from driving into Central London). This ensures that properties in and out of the charged zone are almost similar other than being affected by the charge (or receiving the benefits from improved traffic conditions).

Comparing house price changes before and after the CC is implemented, my findings show that homeowners do pay for these benefits. When the WEZ was implemented, house prices rose by 4 per cent (about £30,000) relative to comparable transactions outside the zone. However, similar price increases did not occur in the original CCZ when it was introduced in 2003.

Another fascinating recent piece of data on transport markets comes courtesy of the Financial Times. Apparently Uber is making significant losses:

For context, cost recovery on Auckland’s public transport network was 48.8% in October 2016 – and Auckland Transport isn’t trying to run the public transport network to make a profit, but instead to achieve other social and economic goals.

Alex Wilhelm (Mattermark) provides further context on the numbers, concluding that:

Self-driving cars aren’t going to drop into the market in time for Uber to improve its operational results before its IPO. In fact, its investments in that area could make its IPO-time results worse by forcing the company to tabulate long-term investments into R&D as short-term cash and stock costs.

Such is the life of a public company.

Uber loses more money than I would have thought, and it has done so at a faster clip than I expected for longer than I anticipated. That said, its growth is impressive. Incredibly so, really.

Here’s the question you need to answer: If Uber’s China exit lowers its operating costs, will investors cheer more the improvement of its margin results, or will they instead worry about reduced potential top line growth?

For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical about the idea that Uber can sustainably increase prices on users even if it does ‘monopolise’ the taxi market. Its strategy seems to depend upon breaking down barriers to entry in the taxi market – ie bypassing or eliminating systems where there are a limited number of permits to operate a cab in a city. If it succeeds in doing so, it will in turn face competition when it tries to increase fares. So the end game is unclear.

On the other hand, one thing that is increasingly clear is that protected cycle lanes save lives. In CityLab, David Dudley reports:

The transformative virtues of protected bike lanes have been the focus of much research lately. A 2014 study from Portland State University determined that segregated bike paths are not only demonstrably safer for riders, they have the power to lure lapsed riders back aboard their bikes. And in a new paper in the American Journal of Public Health, “Safer Cycling Through Improved Infrastructure,” the authors John Pucher and Ralph Buehler demonstrate that those cities that have invested heavily in fully protected bike paths over the last decade or so have reaped the biggest safety improvements and ridership boosts. “It is not simply a matter of expanding bicycle infrastructure,” the authors write. “The specific type of bicycle infrastructure matters. Several studies show the crucial importance of physical separation of cycling facilities from motor vehicle traffic on heavily traveled roads.”

To show how that effect works nationwide, the study authors compared accident statistics and ridership rates from 10 American cities that are “at the vanguard of building physically separated cycling facilities,” says Pucher, a professor emeritus of urban planning at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. In Portland, Oregon, the rate of severe injuries or fatalities per 100,000 trips dropped 72 percent from 2000 to 2015, as the city’s bike network grew by 53 percent and the number of bicycle trips taken by Portlanders climbed a whopping 391 percent. In Minneapolis, the bikeway network grew 113 percent and trips climbed 203 percent while injuries and fatalities dropped 79 percent. Other cities with big safety improvements include New York City (with a 72 percent drop), Chicago (60 percent), Seattle (53 percent), and Washington, D.C. (50 percent). “In all 10 of the cities,” Pucher notes, “the combined number of fatalities and serious injuries … fell sharply compared to the number of daily bike commuters reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in its annual American Community Survey.”

To close, an important comment on the state of economics and policy analysis from Noah Smith: “An econ theory, falsified“:

[Consider] the “Econ 101” theory of the labor market. This is a model we all know very well – it has one labor supply curve and one labor demand curve, one undifferentiated type of labor and one single wage.

OK, so what are some empirical things we know about labor markets? Here are two stylized facts that, while not completely uncontroversial, are pretty one-sided in the literature:

1. A surge of immigration does not have a big immediate negative impact on wages.

2. Modest minimum wage hikes do not have a big immediate negative impact on employment.

[…] The first fact alone does not falsify the Econ 101 theory of labor markets. It could be the case that short-run labor demand is simply very elastic… Since labor demand is elastic, the supply shift from a bunch of immigrants showing up in the labor market doesn’t have a big effect on wages in this picture.

BUT, this is impossible to reconcile with the second stylized fact. If labor demand is very elastic, minimum wage should have big noticeable negative effects on employment … By the same token, if you try to explain the second stylized fact by making both labor supply and demand very inelastic, then you contradict the first stylized fact. You just can’t explain both of these facts at the same time with this theory. It cannot be done.

So the Econ 101 theory of labor supply and labor demand has been falsified. It’s just not a useful theory for explaining labor markets in the short term (the long term might be a different story). It’s not a good approximation. It doesn’t give good qualitative intuition. And it’s especially bad for explaining the market for low-wage labor, which is the market that most of the aforementioned studies concentrate on.

What is a better theory of the labor market? Maybe general equilibrium (which might say that immigration creates its own demand). Maybe a model with imperfect competition (which might say that minimum wage reduces monopsony power). Maybe search and matching theory (which might say that frictions make all short-term effects pretty small). Maybe a theory with very heterogeneous types of labor. Maybe something else.

Assignment for the summer holidays: Consider what it would mean if your simple theory of the world didn’t hold true?

Sunday reading 27 November 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. The most interesting article I’ve read this week explores the consequences of climate change and sea level rise for coastal property markets. Ian Urbina reports in the NY Times:

MIAMI — Real estate agents looking to sell coastal properties usually focus on one thing: how close the home is to the water’s edge. But buyers are increasingly asking instead how far back it is from the waterline. How many feet above sea level? Is it fortified against storm surges? Does it have emergency power and sump pumps?

Rising sea levels are changing the way people think about waterfront real estate. Though demand remains strong and developers continue to build near the water in many coastal cities, homeowners across the nation are slowly growing wary of buying property in areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change….

But many economists say that this reckoning needs to happen much faster and that home buyers urgently need to be better informed. Some analysts say the economic impact of a collapse in the waterfront property market could surpass that of the bursting dot-com and real estate bubbles of 2000 and 2008.

I hope the people who have been denying climate change most vehemently are putting their money where their mouths are.

Recent political news has been bad for the prospects of preventing the worst of climate change, but there are still glimmers of hope. Chris Mooney (Washington Post) reports “stunningly good news for the planet: carbon emissions were flat for the third straight year“.

Big news came from this group late last year, when it turned out that emissions in 2014 and 2015 represented a seeming end to a strong growth trend that had appeared unstoppable for some time. And moreover, this flattening had occurred despite steady global economic growth above 3 percent, which has typically been coupled with higher emissions.

And now, the group reports, 2016 appears to be similar to 2014 and 2015, based on early projections. It will be about a 0.2 percent increase above the emissions levels of 2015, the group calculates, or barely a rise at all.

The results were released in the form of a massive study in the journal Earth System Science Data, written by no less than 67 researchers from an army of institutions. That’s what it takes, it seems, to chart the annual flow of carbon throughout the Earth’s systems.

“2016 we estimate to be flat again,” said Glen Peters, one of the contributors to the research and a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo in Norway. “It’s definitely three years, it’s fairly flat, which is quite a contrast to a decade ago, when it was growing at about 3 percent. It’s really leveled out the last few years.”

[…] From a climate policy perspective, the key question is whether these three flat years suggest that the world is beginning to peak its emissions and bring them down again, which will be necessary if there is any hope of limiting warming to widely embraced international targets such as 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But Peters said that it’s too soon to know for sure, and that he would want to watch trends in China, in particular, for a bit longer.

Speaking of sea level rise, here’s an astonishing image of uplift following the recent Kaikoura earthquake:

The images from the Kaikoura earthquake have been astonishing: Roads abruptly lifted two metres, hillsides drastically relocated, etc. I’ve always known that New Zealand has been profoundly shaped by tectonic action. In theory, every ridge and bump in our landscape is the product of continental plates sliding against each other, or heated rock welling up from underneath. But it’s another thing entirely to watch it happen in real time.

Now let’s take a look at a couple of policy-driven transformational changes. First, Charlie Sorrel (FastCoexist) reports that “Copenhagen now has more bike use than car use“:

[Image: Flickr user Colville-Andersen]

Copenhagen doesn’t just have a lot of bikes, or a lot of bike-friendly infrastructure. It also has a lot of accurate records on their use, coming partly from a network of 20 permanent sensors which track the comings and goings of bicycle traffic into the city center. As you can see from theses maps and charts, put together by Mikhail Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, bike traffic has finally beaten car traffic, partly because of an increase in cycling, and partly in the decline in car use.

According to Colville-Andersen, Copenhagen has counted traffic twice-yearly since 1970, and it has done so in a consistent manner, counting both the traffic crossing the municipal border, and the traffic entering the city center. While these simple counts are limited, they offer an unbroken picture of traffic patterns stretching back almost 50 years. And in September, for the first time ever, more people entered the city by bike than by car.

By comparison, here’s data for the Wellington and Auckland city centres. Most people travel in by public transport and active modes, not by car:

Second, Norman Garrick and Christopher McCahill (CityLab) discuss “lessons from Zurich’s parking revolution“:

Parking is always a contentious issue and most cities have taken the path of least resistance – facilitating a relentless increase in parking. Ironically, complaints that there is never enough parking seems to grow in direct proportion to the amount of parking supplied. Since the late 1980s, Zurich has developed an alternative that’s worth studying because it breaks all the rules of conventional transportation planning, and yet has been vitally important to the success of that city. In contrast, the conventional approach has devastated most American cities, and many in Europe as well.

The essence of Zurich’s historic compromise of 1996 was that parking in the core of the city would be capped at the 1990 level, and that any new parking to be built would, on a one-to-one basis, replace the surface parking that blighted most squares in the city at the time. Today, almost all these squares are free of parking and have been converted to tranquil or convivial places for people to enjoy.

Interesting model. The results for urban development have been pretty favourable:

The Prime Tower complex at Zurich’s Hardbruecke Train Station, which includes the tallest building in Switzerland, at 36 stories, and three other smaller buildings, illustrates the real life impact of this policy.  This complex opened in 2011 with a total of just 250 parking spots. With over 700,000 sq. feet of rentable space, the parking is supplied at a ratio of just 0.35 spaces/1000 sq. feet.

In comparison, in a complex of this size built in most American cities, zoning would demand the supply of at least 2,000 parking spaces – eight times more that in Zurich. The social, economic and environmental costs of this difference is, to say the least, staggering. Construction costs alone for all that additional parking can run as much as $100 million. This would have been a substantial escalation to the cost of this $400 million project.

Speaking of urban transformation, here’s what the Auckland Art Gallery looked like a century ago:

On a completely different subject, Peter Vandor and Nikolaus Franke ask (in the Harvard Business Review): “Why are immigrants more entrepreneurial?” This is an important question for urban policy, as cities – not rural areas – tend to be the places where most migrants move to.

In the U.S., immigrants are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born U.S. citizens. Immigrants represent 27.5% of the countries’ entrepreneurs but only around 13% of the population. Similarly, about one-fourth of all technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant cofounder. And this pattern extends beyond the U.S. — data from the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor showed that the vast majority of the 69 countries surveyed reported higher entrepreneurial activity among immigrants than among natives, especially in growth-oriented ventures.

Research has suggested that selection and discrimination effects may be driving this phenomenon. It appears plausible that entrepreneurial individuals are more likely to migrate and that immigration policies in many countries favor highly motivated and capable individuals. Additionally, discrimination against immigrants in labor markets may exert pressure on them to seek self-employment.

In a recent study, we investigated a different explanation: Cross-cultural experiences may increase individuals’ capabilities to identify promising business ideas. By living in different cultures, they encounter new products, services, customer preferences, and communication strategies, and this exposure may allow the transfer of knowledge about customer problems or solutions from one country to another. By applying this kind of arbitrage, a temporary or permanent migrant can decide to replicate a profitable product or business model available in one country but not in another. Successful companies such as Starbucks (inspired by coffeehouses in Italy) and the German online retailer Zalando (inspired by Zappos) exemplify the potential of this strategy.

Interesting theory. Vandor and Franke put it to experimental test and find that people who are ‘primed’ to think about cross-cultural experiences are better at innovating. It certainly puts a different spin on the “Immigrants are stealing our jobs!” cri de coeur.

But doesn’t ethnic diversity inevitably worsen governance and long-run economic performance by fragmenting society into exclusive groups that don’t (or can’t) talk to each other? New research published in Social Science Research sheds some light on that question. In short, the answer is no. Diverse democratic societies tend to have good institutions and successful economies:

Using several measures of diversity, we find that higher levels of ethno-linguistic and cultural fractionalization are conditioned positively on higher economic growth by an index of economic freedom, which is often heralded as a good measure of sound economic management. High diversity in turn is associated with higher levels of economic freedom. We do not find any evidence to suggest that high diversity hampers change towards greater economic freedom and institutions supporting liberal policies. The effect of diversity, moreover, is conditioned positively by higher democracy. Our results raise serious doubt about the centrality of social diversity for explaining economic failure, nor is there evidence to suggest that autocratic measures are required under conditions of social diversity to implement growth-promoting policies.

I would argue that ideological self-sorting is likely to have a far more deleterious impact on democracy and growth than ethnic diversity. When people with different views don’t talk to each other, they will gradually forget that they share common interests.

Unfortunately, the internet seems to have exacerbated ideological self-sorting by encouraging people to build echo chambers. In a pair of incisive and troubling articles for the NY Times, Zeynep Tufekci discusses “The real bias built in at Facebook“:

FACEBOOK is biased. That’s true. But not in the way conservative critics say it is.

The social network’s powerful newsfeed is programmed to be viral, clicky, upbeat or quarrelsome. That’s how its algorithm works, and how it determines what more than a billion people see every day.

[…] This setup, rather than the hidden personal beliefs of programmers, is where the thorny biases creep into algorithms, and that’s why it’s perfectly plausible for Facebook’s work force to be liberal, and yet for the site to be a powerful conduit for conservative ideas as well as conspiracy theories and hoaxes — along with upbeat stories and weighty debates. Indeed, on Facebook, Donald J. Trump fares better than any other candidate, and anti-vaccination theories like those peddled by Mr. Beck easily go viral.

The newsfeed algorithm also values comments and sharing. All this suits content designed to generate either a sense of oversize delight or righteous outrage and go viral, hoaxes and conspiracies as well as baby pictures, happy announcements (that can be liked) and important news and discussions. Facebook’s own research shows that the choices its algorithm makes can influence people’s mood and even affect elections by shaping turnout.

Furthermore, the algorithm encourages echo chamber behaviour by prioritising views that people find comforting:

The problem with Facebook’s influence on political discourse is not limited to the dissemination of fake news. It’s also about echo chambers. The company’s algorithm chooses which updates appear higher up in users’ newsfeeds and which are buried. Humans already tend to cluster among like-minded people and seek news that confirms their biases. Facebook’s research shows that the company’s algorithm encourages this by somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting.

On that note, get off the internet and go do something outside with other people. Oh, wait…

Sunday Reading 13 November 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, the US elections are over. So is the US, probably. If there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that countries taken over by authoritarian strongmen who are willing to subvert democratic norms and destroy public institutions to maintain power frequently don’t recover from it. Think Venezuela under Chavez or Russia under Putin.

But we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about where some big-picture economic trends are taking us.

First, Binyamin Appelbaum at the NY Times’ Upshot blog points out “a little noticed fact about trade: it’s no longer rising“:

The Walmart revolution is over. During the 1990s, global trade grew more than twice as fast as the global economy. Europe united. China became a factory town. Tariffs came down. Transportation costs plummeted. It was the Walmart Era.

But those changes have played out. Europe is fraying around the edges; low tariffs and transportation costs cannot get much lower. And China’s role in the global economy is changing. The country is making more of what it consumes, and consuming more of what it makes. In addition, China’s maturing industrial sector increasingly makes its own parts. The International Monetary Fund reported last year that the share of imported components in products “Made in China” has fallen to 35 percent from 60 percent in the 1990s.

The result: The I.M.F. study calculated that a 1 percent increase in global growth increased trade volumes by 2.5 percent in the 1990s, while in recent years, the same growth has increased trade by just 0.7 percent.

Worth watching carefully – if this trend continues, it will have big implications for many places.

Second, Conor Sen argues (in Bloomberg View) that so-called ‘disruptive tech’ has in fact disrupted very little: “Tech has not shaken basic economics“:

This isn’t to deny the impact technology has had this decade. Facebook and Netflix have transformed media and entertainment. Amazon continues to reshape commerce. Ad dollars continue to move from print and television to digital, particularly mobile. But for economists and academics concerned with the big drivers of the economy — employment, productivity, housing and big-ticket consumer purchases — the late 2010s are not a glimpse of the new economy. They are textbook examples of the old economy.

Sen has a point: trends in car ownership and first home purchases are, in the short run, probably best explained by sudden changes in income rather than sudden changes in preferences. Young people have done badly out of the post-GFC economy, and purchases of big expensive things tend to go down as a result. But I also think that it’s possible to under-sell some of the long term impacts of technological change. Watch this space, basically.

Third, the Niskanen Centre’s Will Wilkinson raises an interesting question for people on the libertarian/small-government end of the political spectrum: “What if we can’t make government smaller?

Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. There’s no reason to believe Wagner’s Law is a real social-scientific law—that it captures a real relationship of strict if-this-then-that causal necessity. Which is to say, it wouldn’t be a miracle if GDP increased for a few decades, but the government’s share of GDP didn’t. Yet that never happens in countries with political systems like ours.

As Andreas Bergh, an economist at the University of Lund, puts it, “Given how rare laws are in the social sciences, the positive correlation between the public sector’s share of GDP and real GDP per capita remains an important regularity.” Peter Lindert says that “[t]he notion that income growth will raise taxes and government spending, including social spending, is the most durable black box in the whole rise-of-the-state literature.”

[…] There’s an abiding faith on the right that there must be policy levers that can be pulled to reduce political demand for government spending. The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

[…] Giving up on the quixotic quest to find the magic words or the magic policy lever that would finally and decisively falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to distinguish more clearly between the welfare state and the regulatory state, and to focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth. We’ll see more clearly that a small government and a limited government that reliably protects rights and promotes freedom aren’t really the same thing. And we’ll begin to recognize that sowing antagonism to the welfare state hasn’t accomplished anything very constructive. The war against the welfare state hasn’t slowed growth in welfare-state spending so much as it has made our system unusually loathed and unusually shoddy. Mostly, it has fostered a divisive, racially-tinged “makers vs. takers” narrative while encouraging opposition to reform measures that might have made our safety net fairer, more efficient, and better at minimizing the economic anxieties that drive populist political sentiments fundamentally at odds with an open society of free markets, free trade, liberal migration, and peace.

Whether you’re left, right, or centre, it’s worth considering Wilkinson’s case that our main focus should be on having a government that does things well, rather than a government of a particular size. He draws an important distinction between the ‘welfare state’, which aims to ensure that everyone has access to the things that they need to live a good life, like education, healthcare, and unemployment/disability insurance, and the ‘regulatory state’, which aims to manage and direct private economic activity. People often conflate these two things, but they’re very different in practice.

On a separate note, Brad Plumer at Vox makes the case for more urban trees:

…urban trees do at least two important things for public health:

1) They can soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories — an important job, given that particulates wreak havoc on human lungs and kill some 3.2 million people worldwide each year. The precise effect varies from city to city, but generally trees do improve air quality.

2) Urban trees can also cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days, which is vital during deadly heat waves. (Studies have found that every additional 1 degree Celsius in a heat wave leads to a 3 percent or more increase in mortality.)

The new Nature Conservancy report sifts through all this research and lays out some global scenarios. At the high end, a massive new tree-planting campaign in the world’s 245 largest cities, costing around $3.2 billion in all, could save between 11,000 and 36,000 lives per year worldwide from lower pollution. Those trees would also prevent between 200 and 700 heat-wave deaths per year — with that number presumably going up over time as global warming unfolds.

On a similar note, Charlie Sorrel at Fastcoexist reviews some new research showing that “the well-designed city is a healthy city, all over the world“:

If you design a city to get people walking, then people will do more physical activity. A new global study has found that a well-designed neighborhood not only keeps people fit but can reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The correlation between walkability and public health has been made before, but this study, published in the Lancet, looked at 14 cities in 10 countries, all of which had a similar design, in order to determine whether or not the cities’ layouts themselves were the reason for increased health, as opposed to different lifestyles in different countries…

The biggest design factors affecting the amount of “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity,” including walking, were: residential density, park and public transport density, and intersection density. Parks are obvious in their effect—people take walks in parks. Residential density is important because if you live in a compact neighborhood, you can easily walk to do your errands. And public transit density is important because not only does it obviate car use, but people have to walk to their nearest station instead of their driveway.

One thing I would like to see out of this study is a clearer account of causality. The correlation is very strong, but there’s also a possibility that some people select into more walkable places because they want to walk more. However, this is unlikely to overturn the findings, given the fact that the same relationships were observed in many different contexts.

In terms of policy change, it’s also clear that we need to do things differently if we want to have healthier cities. Street trees and public parks are an easy sell, but density, mixed use, and public transport sometimes aren’t. How do we have challenging conversations about change? Laura Bernstein (The Urbanist) has some ideas: “How to talk to your NIMBY parents“:

I despise the acronym NIMBY–‘not in my backyard.’ Does it mean someone wants streets “swept” of people living outside? Does it mean someone is worried about tree canopy and parking spaces, leading to fights over the new microhousing project on their block? Does it mean someone is worried that without owner occupancy rules for “backyard cottages,” developer-run AirBnBs will take over their community? I believe that growing cities are all struggling against the selfish whims of NIMBYs. Many journalists have painted this as a generational squabble. In Seattle, that is not always the case. But I don’t think YIMBYs–‘yes in my backyard’–can fight back if we don’t know what motivates them.

I want you to talk to your NIMBY parents and I want you to listen to them.

Bernstein identifies seven practical steps you can do to have good conversations with people who have different perspectives:

  1. Listen more than you talk.
  2. Look for an organic opening.
  3. Ask open-ended questions.
  4. Celebrate your shared vision of the future.
  5. Connect the struggle for walkable, affordable cities to struggles your parents advocated for when they were your age.
  6. Be open to not winning every discussion.
  7. Don’t use data if there is an anecdote that tells the same story, (unless your parent is a wonky engineer and gets fired up about data).

Worth thinking about, and not just for urban planning.