A number of recent posts have taken a look at some of the “strategic misrepresentations” that people have used to argue for a sprawled-out, roads-focused Auckland. We’ve taken aim at some of the common fallacies, including:

A while back someone sent me an article by geographer Phil McDermott that really hits the trifecta of fallacies. He argues that building apartment buildings on arterial roads – precisely where they will have the best access to frequent public transport services on Auckland’s New Network – is a bad idea because it will lead to increased congestion on the roads.

McDermott’s argument is long on subjective judgments (young people may want apartments but old people downsizing from big suburban homes never will!) and short on quantitative analysis. Here’s his key piece of evidence that constructing apartments on arterial roads will inevitably lead to more congestion:

Congestion – the elephant in the apartment

That might be just as well because mindlessly boosting residential development on arterial roads promises simply to compound Auckland’s congestion problems.

We know higher densities are associated with higher congestion. Auckland’s geography means it already performs poorly on this count. The Tom Tom Congestion Index confirms this.

When the 2013 congestion index for 65 American and Australasian cities is plotted against population density (sourced from the Demographia website) Auckland sits among the worst performers – Vancouver, Sydney, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Population Density and Congestion

McDermott density and congestion

This is not a serious piece of analysis – it is an insult to econometricians. McDermott makes three elementary errors in this short excerpt alone.

First, he uses bad data that misrepresents levels of density and congestion in these cities. Matt has previously taken a look into the guts of the TomTom Traffic Index and found that it is not a useful measure:

It measures the difference in speed between free flow and congested periods. That means cities with lots of all day congestion there isn’t as much of a difference between peak and off peak times and therefore they get recorded as having less congestion.

Likewise, I’ve done some empirical work on population densities in New Zealand and Australian cities that has showed that Demographia’s statistics are similarly meaningless. Demographia measures the density of the average hectare of land in the city, rather than the density of the neighbourhood in which the average person lives. Nick has shown how badly these figures misrepresent the actual density of New Zealand cities:

Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_1

Second, McDermott omits important variables and makes inappropriate inferences about causality. While he observes a correlation between two variables, that’s hardly sufficient to prove that building apartments will increase congestion. The causality could very easily run the other way. For example, it could be the case that the presence of congestion creates an incentive for people to live closer to employment and amenity. If that’s the case, then McDermott’s preferred policy of banning apartment developments would make Aucklanders much worse off by preventing them from minimising their travel costs.

Another possibility is that the relationship between density and congestion is mediated through other factors. Both may be caused by a third variable that McDermott has omitted, or there may be an intermediate step between density and congestion. (Or, as noted above, the measures themselves might be rubbish.)

A while back, CityLab’s Eric Dumbaugh provided an excellent illustration of the complex nature of congestion. He looks at data on US cities and finds that higher congestion is associated with higher, rather than lower, levels of productivity:

As per capita delay went up, so did GDP per capita. Every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. For those interested in statistics, the relationship was significant at the 0.000 level, and the model had an R2 of 0.375. In layman’s terms, this was statistically-meaningful relationship.

Dumbaugh congestion and productivity chart

Such a finding seems counterintuitive on its surface. How could being stuck in traffic lead people to be more productive? The relationship is almost certainly not causal. Instead, regional GDP and traffic congestion are tied to a common moderating variable – the presence of a vibrant, economically-productive city. And as city economies grow, so too does the demand for travel. People travel for work and meetings, for shopping and recreation. They produce and demand goods and services, which further increases travel demand. And when the streets become congested and driving inconvenient, people move to more accessible areas, rebuild at higher densities, travel shorter distances, and shift travel modes.

In light of these counterintuitive relationships, the simple two-variable OLS regression that McDermott is relying upon is almost certainly misleading.

Third, McDermott fails to recognise that people are less exposed to congestion in denser, mixed-use cities. It’s simple: when people have better transport choices – i.e. access to frequent bus services and rapid transit, and safe walking and cycling networks – it doesn’t matter as much that the roads are congested. Increasing Auckland’s density by constructing apartment blocks and terraced housing on arterial roads will make it easier for people to have those choices, because the arterial roads are where the frequent bus services under the New Network will go:

Frequency is freedom
Frequency is freedom

Furthermore, density allows people to be closer to where they want to go. I find it odd that McDermott (and others) underestimate the importance of physical proximity in cities, even as people are paying high prices for the privilege. Building more homes in the areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities will allow more people to choose proximity over long commutes. (Without preventing others from making a different choice.)

A question for the readers: Would you rather have a 40 kilometre commute travelling at 80 km/hr, or a 5 kilometre commute moving at 30 km/hr? Show your work…

Share this

48 comments

    1. “McDermott’s argument is long on subjective judgments….and short on quantitative analysis.”

      Interestingly, on the occasion that Phil has done proper research he has to acknowledge the truth that people actually like intensification. See 2011 study, from his own consultancy website, commissioned by Housing New Zealand’s CHRANZ research wing, sadly disbanded by the current government:

      http://www.cityscopeconsultants.com/webapps/site/75122/124588/html/page.html?showMobileSite=1

  1. The downsides of long trip distances was one of the points I made in my speaking to today’s Unitary Plan hearing. I also made a comparison to an earlier speaker from Howick, who emphasised the healthyness of her low density-suburb – by pointing out the downsides of these residents then travelling long distances from these “healthy green suburbs” to workplaces and entertainment far away (downsides both for the health of those locals, and from pollution for the others in the inner suburbs that the locals from places Howick tend to motor through in the thousands day-in-day-out).

    Thus, my counter-argument that the “linear city” idea they pushed, with intensification at the edges of a string from Silverdale all the way to Pukekohe is a bad choice, no matter what transport mode serves it.

    1. The the speaker about a linear city model made some useful points:
      – it supports PT along train lines or bus lanes
      – low height supports solar energy use
      – there may be resilience benefits in moving population away from the coast to escape rising sea levels.

      There are arguably disbenefits if PT is inadequate.

      Low density suburbs dont have to generate excessive car use. I have work with colleagues who bus/train from Howick/Pakuranga.

      The 2040 presenter argued for intensification around transport nodes and along PT routes. His argument wasn’t against intensification as such. But against unpredictable planning decisions and uncertainty for people making housing choices.

      The high cost of housing is shutting a lot of younger people out of home purchase. But certainty of milieu is important especially for young parents. Whether it’s suburban houses with gardens or terraced houses with local parks, we need to prevent the big development lobby from making Auckland unliveable. Grassroots input should outweigh speculative development.

  2. I would probably opt for the 40km commute travelling 80km/h as that is only a half hour trip and would probably get me far enough from a big centre so that I could have a large house , pool, space for a family and a dog and a garden to relax in. Thirty minutes in means I can access all the benefits of a big city when I need them. On the other hand a 5km commute at 30km/h either means I am stuck in a terrace in a big city or living in a small city or town. Either way the parts of my life that are really important to me would be missing. Of course if I was one of those sad sacks whose life revolves around travelling to work and going home again then maybe I would make a different choice. But for me a commute is a minor cost to gain bigger quality of life benefits.

      1. I don’t think that was really the point of Peter’s example. He was simply demonstrating that a slower speed can give a lower travel time. And my point is that a longer travel time is often a cost we pay for a better life.

        1. Yep! And part of the point was also that different people may choose to make different trade-offs between travel time and other amenities such as larger backyards. I figured you’d be in early illustrating the point 😉

          1. Good to know I am appreciated. I put an outrageous comment on in the weekend and no one rose to the bait- I was really disappointed!

    1. yes it’s all about “access[ing] all the benefits of a big city when I need them”. I would argue a 1 hour round trip does not allow me access to the benefits.

      Conversely if your only interest is a once a year trip to the santa parade, then 1 hour round trip is fine, but the more you use the city, the less you want to commute. If you have little interest in the city and prefer spending time in your backyard, then the longer commute gets you more yard for less bones.

    2. get me far enough from a big centre so that I could have a large house , pool, space for a family and a dog and a garden to relax in.

      Whatever makes you think that you can’t have those in an apartment?

      A communal pool that you can use and a large public park that’s within easy walking distance for the kids to play in.

  3. Beaumont Quarter on Beaumont St has a population of about 600 people over 2.4ha so 25,000/km². Beaumont St is very congested between 5-6pm weeknights. Therefore apartments increase congestion.

    And for other great correlations like “US spending on science, space, and technology correlates with Suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation”, check out http://www.tylervigen.com/

  4. 5km/h commute at 30km/h. With this option I can ride my bike to work, averaging 25km/h. Instead of being ‘stuck’ in traffic, i’m getting some exercise, and seeing more of the city. And the sorts of places with those sorts of commutes normally have lots of local amentity. And i can into town for event.

    40km commute, i can’t order a bottle of wine with dinner to celebrate my dads birthday as i am stuck driving. And unless it’s to a batch by the beach, it’s not likely to be to a place with much amenity.

  5. There is a need for some primary data on travel patterns by residents in apartments well served by public transport. Some preliminary data could be acquired by undergraduate student projects. The objectors to intensification along main roads think the new apartment residents would be just like them – driving everywhere. But the new residents have paid a premium for access to good public transport and are likely to use it for CBD-bound travel, but may use a car for shopping and counter-peak travel. Such data would be very useful in supporting intensification proposals.

    Another factor is that absentee owners who do not rent their properties to others are more likely to choose an apartment than a stand-alone house. These owners might live in China, or in a rural area and want a city “pad” they can call their own, but without the on-going hassle of managing a garden. In the article below there is a comment from someone who runs regularly near the Melbourne Docklands area, and says it is normal for only a quarter of apartments to have their lights on. From a public policy aspect, it is better that such owners are directed into apartment ownership rather than stand-alone houses with their higher public infrastructure requirements.

    From the combination of these 2 effects and the different demographics of apartment dwellers, there may be a simple rule-of-thumb that one new apartment generates only a tenth the amount of peak direction car travel as a house on a green-fields subdivision, but one fifth the amount of off-peak or counter-peak car travel.

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/ghost-tower-warning-for-docklands-after-data-reveals-high-melbourne-home-vacancies-20141111-11kkxz.html

    1. Great example is that 20% of people who live on the CBD drive to work, while over half walk. That is over 5000 not contributing to congestion or PT crowding by walking to work. City fringe also has car commute shares not much over half that seen in sprawl suburbs.

  6. That apartment building just coming out of the ground on Airedale/Queen Street has around 270 apartments with about 10 carparks. It may increase pedestrian congestion on the footpath, but it sure isn’t adding any cars to the streets (and I understand that not one person will be forced to live there against their will. Apparently everyone buying or renting there will be doing so of their own free will because they have decided it’s a better fit for their current lifestyle. What’s more they are allowed to move at any time in the future they want more space, lawn, pool and a big commute).

    1. So much for telecommuting I guess. There has got to be something in the fact that IT startups, ie innovative productive businesses feel the need to gather their people.

      Not saying affordable housing and getting supply mechanisms right is not important (both very close to my heart). Just that clearly proximity trumps lots of other considerations when people -actually- make personal decisions, just as Peter points out. And affordability is defined by much more than just supply.

      1. The history of predictions around computer and internet outcomes is a source of constant wonder to me. Every single writer on this matter predicted the end of the commute, the death of the CBD, and lives of blissful dispersal on the back of enhanced communication.

        I bet I would have said the same thing if I hadn’t just been a kid at the time. And almost none of these prognosticators had any idea just how sophisticated this technology would get: Rather they simply imagined better TV, with a bit of telephone and telex capability… few really predicted video on smartphone level connectivity.

        Anyway other than being a tale of caution for all who might predict; after all these predictions were simply the present extrapolated -> it was the sprawl era so that was all they foresaw x 10.

        But to stick to the old vision in the face of its failure to arrive takes a special kind of fool. The 21st Century is here now, and the facts are real and measurable, time to leave behind the visions of last century.

  7. As an older woman in my mid 60’s I am finding quite a few of my contemporaries are chosing apartment living. It is safe, convenient for those who want to drive less, you can lock up and leave to travel, it usually allows people to free up capital, and it is close to everything. My partner and I will retire to somewhere around Beach Road with the great view over the harbour, the supermarket at the door, all the libraries and other facilities in walking distance, no lawns to mow, no gutters to clean, and the bus and the train in easy distance. Suits us.

    1. Exactly what my parents did about 15 years ago… even better as was an apartment block with a concierge who called me when he hadn’t seen my mother as expected, and sure enough she’d had a fall. Apartments can be ideal for older people, and city views are never dull, there’s always activity. Everything is convenient, especially PT, but also every kind of shop and cultural activity.

    2. In 1985 before Mrs mfwic and I were married she had an apartment in Parliament St. It was great being in town, there was always something to do. You feel like you are part of things, we even heard the Rainbow Warrior blow up. Back then we had to go to Valley Road for groceries so it is far better now. But the downside is noise and lack of space to be on your own for a while.

      1. Noise didn’t bother my parents… one advantage to hearing decline! But also they had a bach as their garden… And enjoyed trips on the harbour. This is a model that a lot of Boomers have, downsize the big house to apartment and retain the bach or boat….

    3. Oh dear Lindsey, does that make me part of a trend? I’m over 60 too and have just bought a city-fringe apartment for when I’m (ahem) old. It’s all of 200m from my house so I can keep an eye on it but I don’t intend to move anytime soon, although SWMBO may have other plans which will of course prevail.

      In the course of my investigations I discovered that $10,000/sqm is the benchmark for quality apartments, and up to $17,000/sqm in desirable areas like Herne Bay. I’m at a loss to see how city apartments can ever be considered “affordable housing”. The cheapest I saw at auction was a tiny 70sqm unit that sold for over $600k, almost $9000/sqm.

        1. Dan, I was referring to the floor area of the apartment (including balconies), although the guideline figures also allow for the notional land occupied and include carparks (if any). Parking may comprise say 25sqm of basement (exclusive use), and the notional land area of a 10 storey block might be 10-20sqm per apartment. I agree that market values are lower in outer suburbs such as Albany, being a function of land value and demand as well as build quality, so your example of $6100/sqm for an Albany apartment sounds about right.

          Houses are a different proposition. The market value of a single dwelling in the areas you mention will primarily reflect land value, eg your $1m+ example could even be bare land which in a desirable area will actually be more expensive than occupied land due to the avoidance of demolition costs. CVs comprise two datasets: land value and market value, with the value of improvements being the numerical difference so bearing no relation to the construction cost. To avoid misunderstanding, the developer doesn’t sell at a loss, or not intentionally, it’s simply that post-construction the council revalues the developed land way beyond its undeveloped value.

      1. When comparing the cost of apartments with houses the words “all else being equal” need to be used.

        Yes $17 000 / sqm is expensive – but that is for a brand new apartment , with high quality furnishings, in the country’s most expensive suburb.

        How much would a brand new house with high quality furnishings in Herne Bay cost per sqm of floor space?

        It makes no sense to compare the price of old houses in inferior locations with brand new apartments in the most sought after locations.

        Also – one of the reasons apartments are so expensive is because so few are allowed to be built in the areas where demand is highest – Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Herne Bay. If more apartments could be built in these areas the increase in supply would put downward pressure on price – All else being equal.

        1. I missed your response while writing mine but I agree, there’s no point in conflating two distinct typologies. Ditto with build quality and location.

          With respect to supply volume, I’m not so sure I agree on that aspect. Take 8 Hereford for example, the north-facing apartments sold almost immediately (yes, I missed out!), the southern and eastern ones not so much. There is strong demand for superior quality in desirable locations, but the apartment itself and its outlook must also be desirable. Another interesting factor is that age is not a great deterrent per se provided overall build quality is high, eg turn-of-the-century bathroom or light fittings can be upgraded reasonably easily, although not necessarily cheaply. So while increased supply may indeed push prices down, I suggest that would at least partly be due to reduction in amenity value (eg outlook, noise, traffic congestion etc).

          1. If more apartment blocks are built, that will not only increase the supply of south-side, beside the busy road apartments. It will also increase the supply of north facing penthouses. Hence the ones at Hereford would not sell out so quick if there were more competing apartment blocks.

        2. Frank- could you provide a link to the Ponsonby grey Lynn apart net demand?

          Two other points- apartment buildings are already going up there, primarily along GNR, also Union St and Howe st and Hopetoun st in Freeman’s Bay.

          Part of the reason a lot of people like living here could be precisely because it’s only got a few apartment buildings in it no?

          1. ‘Part of the reason a lot of people like living here could be precisely because it’s only got a few apartment buildings in it no?’

            Err? no. What’s your evidence for this? More like people like living there because it’s fantastic. Any apartment that’s available gets occupied and now there will be 4 apartment blocks in a row on Hopetoun so it’s hard to see how scarcity is their key feature.

          2. I provided the same “evidence” Frank did.

            Plus it was a question, hence the question mark…

            “More people like living there because it’s fantastic”, exactly, but WHY is it fantastic? Low rise tightly packed mid density character houses perhaps?

            It could be similar to why Ponsonby Rd is so popular while Broadway is a sunless hell hole (IMHO)

          3. It obvious the reason people like living in Grey Lynn is because it’s got the word “Lynn” in the name. New Lynn is also quite popular at the moment.

          4. Eljefedelputo –

            The best indication of net demand is price. I thought it would be an obvious and non-controversial claim to say that Herne Bay, Ponsonby, and Grey Lynn are some of the areas of highest demand in Auckland. If you have data to the contrary I’m happy to be proven wrong.

            I concede that it may be possible to build apartments to a degree that would result in a reduction in amenity and hence desirability in these suburbs. For example – if there was a building like Harvard on Hobson Street on every corner. But we are a long way from that happening and plenty of mid-rise apartments could be added without any reduction to the fundamental desirability of these areas. And no building could change the fact that Herne Bay is near the city and has beaches.

            More mid-rise apartments could add supply to the area without destroying the things that make the place desirable. Many more of these could be added if our planning rules didn’t restrict intensification to so few sites. These restrictions make the apartments that are built much more expensive that if they could be built in more places.

          5. FrankMcPendejo-

            Thanks for the reply, my question was about the specific demand for apartments in the area, clearly the outrageous prices for everything in the hood means there’s demand to live there, but in apartments specifically?

            I get you point that the apartments that are available are very expensive- but is that because of scarcity or greed of the developers? I see 6 storeys being approved for GNR but no reciprocal benefit to the community ie- the building was profitable at 4 storeys but now they have 6 shouldn’t there be a number of apartments for low income families, those unable to afford 900k for a two bedder etc?

          6. Yes quite common in the UK for planning permission to granted subject to a certain portion of units being ‘affordable’ or for key-workers, or for social housing.

      2. We purchased 120sqm luxury apartment in St Marys Bay this year for less than 7k/sqm, a bargain compared to a similar draughty villa of the same size in similar area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *