This is the last Sunday reading post I’ll assemble this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – see you in 2016!

Let’s start with a look at economic geography – specifically, how railroad history shaped internet history. Ingrid Burrington at Citylab tells the story of how persistent infrastructure networks can be:

My favorite part of looking for network infrastructure in America is really all the ghosts. Networks tend to follow networks, and telecommunications and transportation networks tend to end up piled on top of each other. The histories of these places isn’t always immediately obvious, but it’s there, forming a kind of infrastructural palimpsest, with new technologies to annihilate space and time inheriting the idealized promise and the political messiness of their predecessors…

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network (as noted in David A. Banks’s work on the history of the term “online”), the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

Buildings are less permanent than infrastructure, which is itself less permanent than systems of property rights and land titles. But they are still pretty persistent. Liam Pleven at the Wall Street Journal reports on an American icon in crisis: “Shrinking U.S. Shopping Malls Get Makeovers“:

An era of relentless expansion for American shopping centers is coming to an end as a toxic brew of overbuilding, the rise of e-commerce and a wave of retailer bankruptcies force landlords to reimagine once-lucrative properties.

Some owners are converting struggling malls into apartments, offices and industrial space, while others are turning big chunks of retail space into parks and playgrounds to keep shoppers interested.

“You have to create an environment that people want to come to,” said Tony Ruggeri, who eliminated about 50,000 square feet of retail space to create an open-air plaza at West Manchester Town Center in York, Pa., which reopened last year.

Personally, I don’t enjoy shopping in malls, but I can see how they embody some positive urban tendencies. They testify to the importance of agglomeration economies (colocating shops so that they benefit from spatial spillovers), walk-up retail (cars can’t buy things, so malls were invented to get drivers out of their cars and in front of the shops), and, of course, shared parking facilities. On that last note, I wouldn’t be surprised if minimum parking requirements serve as a handbrake on mall redevelopment. After all, as Streetsblog NYC reports, MPRs don’t do developers or households many favours:

…here are five reminders that a vote for parking minimums is a vote to make housing in New York City less affordable.

1. The Time Building a Project Without Parking Made It More Affordable

Navy Green is an affordable housing project in Fort Greene that consists of 458 homes, 75 percent of which will be affordable to households earning between 30 and 130 percent of the area median income. That level of affordability was possible because the project includes zero parking spots, developer Martin Dunn told Streetsblog.

2. The NYU Reports That Proved Parking Minimums Distort What Gets Built

Developers in New York don’t build parking because that’s what people are demanding — they build it because they’re forced to. A 2011 report from NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy showed that developers of Queens affordable housing projects were overwhelmingly building the exact minimum number of spots required by law — or fewer, when they could manage a waiver.

Parking requirements, in other words, are compelling builders to construct storage for cars instead of housing for people. In a follow-up report, the Furman Center expanded its research, showing that the distortion caused by parking requirements affects all five boroughs…

But it’s not just MPRs. Perhaps the discipline of transport engineering in general needs an intellectual shake-up. Robert Steuteville (Better Towns and Cities) reports on “The new science of traffic engineering“:

At least since the 1960s, traffic engineers had designed urban thoroughfares on the theory that wide streets, lacking in nearby obstacles like trees, parked cars, and lampposts, are the safest. To the detriment of people and communities, these designs suppressed other uses of urban streets—such as walking, biking, socializing, and transit—but that outcome was either ignored or deemed an acceptable trade-off.

In a 2005 article called “Safe Streets, Livable Streets,” in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Eric Dumbaugh reported how this design theory came out of conjecture, not science. The definitive research in support of this theory was not a scientific analysis at all, but rather a description of crashes in a particular city, writes the Florida Atlantic University associate professor. When data from academic studies and real-world experience like Schwartz’s contradicted the theory, the data was explained away as aberration.

Dumbaugh cited, at the time, at least 10 studies that contradicted the wisdom of the traffic engineering profession on this subject, and he conducted his own study designed to test the theory of what he calls “forgiving design.” Without a doubt, this concept leads to more injury and death in populated areas. All of the data pointed to a better theory: In urban places, obstacles and constrictions make streets safer, because they cause motor vehicle operators to drive more carefully…

As Dumbaugh related, manuals and accepted best practice up to 2005 continued to instruct traffic engineers to remove obstacles and design for the highest practical speed by employing wide roads. While the practice is changing, signs of a major shift in engineers’ ways of doing things are still hard to find on the ground. Streets and intersections in urbanized areas continue to be overbuilt. A definitive study shows the long-term effects of this approach: more than three times the fatalities, three times less walking, four times less transit use, six times less bicycling in a dozen California cities (Garrick and Marshall 2008).

Why do these great planning mistakes happen, and why are they so difficult to unravel? Perhaps it’s another example of Max Planck’s observation that “science advances one funeral at a time” – i.e. when trying to advance a new theory, people trained and socialised in the old theory will resist it, so it’s necessary to wait until they die or retire. (Incidentally, Planck’s observation has recently been put to an empirical test.)

Or perhaps it’s a case of poor management in the discipline – the incentive structures have been set up to encourage people to adhere to conventional wisdom, even if it’s demonstrably wrong. On that topic, NZ economist Donal Curtin reports on a new analysis of New Zealand’s productivity performance: “Poorer management, lower productivity. Makes sense.

In this latest outing, [LSE economist John Van Reenen] had a go at explaining differences in countries’ total factor productivity (TFP): if you make a plausible assumption about management’s importance in overall TFP, and you have measures of TFP and management expertise, you can estimate how much of countries’ TFP differences is down to differences in management. Often, in these kinds of surveys, New Zealand tends to be among those absent, but for once we’re in the numbers, and here are the results. Differences in TFP are measured as a percentage of the US level. I’ve circled NZ in red.

Now, I think we can all agree that this is somewhere down the more heroic end of estimation, and also that there are the usual issues of correlation and causation. But we can also agree that rough and ready estimates, that are approximately in the right sort of area, are also useful things to have.
And I think there is something to this one. The overall pattern looks realistic: poorer countries at lower levels of development – the ones on the left with, say, less than 20% of America’s TFP – tend to have bigger issues to confront than the relative quality of their management, and sure enough the contribution of management to the development gap tends to be low. But at higher levels of development, where you’ve got higher levels of resources available, how you manage them becomes more important.
On these estimates, 43.5% of the productivity gap between us and the States is down to our relatively weak management capabilities…

Speaking of poor management, here’s the latest on how the Government is tracking against its new carbon emission reduction targets. Short answer: It has a weak target and a “plan” that will fail to meet that target by an extraordinary degree. Kate Gudsell at Radio New Zealand reports that “emissions set to far outstrip Paris target“:

New Zealand committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, but its latest report to the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) has emissions forecast at 96 percent above 1990 levels in that timeframe.

[Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett] said the country was projected to meet the second commitment period target (2013 to 2020) to reduce emissions to five percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

However, what happens after 2020 appears to be an issue.

According to the Biennial Report, New Zealand’s gross emissions, which include agriculture, transport, energy, industry and waste, are projected to be 29 percent above 1990 levels.

Net emissions, which include emissions and the removal of carbon as a result of forestry and land-use change, are projected to be 96 percent above 1990 levels.

Not. Good. Enough.

Meanwhile, former time-travelling robot and California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger has a stronger message on climate change. While he wasn’t an amazingly successful governor, he did take some early and important action to move California towards a cap-and-trade system and promote some alternatives to fossil fuels.

Let’s put climate change aside for a minute. In fact, let’s assume you’re right [that climate change isn’t happening].
First – do you believe it is acceptable that 7 million people die every year from pollution? That’s more than murders, suicides, and car accidents – combined.
Every day, 19,000 people die from pollution from fossil fuels. Do you accept those deaths? Do you accept that children all over the world have to grow up breathing with inhalers?
Now, my second question: do you believe coal and oil will be the fuels of the future?
Besides the fact that fossil fuels destroy our lungs, everyone agrees that eventually they will run out. What’s your plan then?
I, personally, want a plan. I don’t want to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads. I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged. That’s exactly what is going to happen to fossil fuels.
A clean energy future is a wise investment, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either wrong, or lying. Either way, I wouldn’t take their investment advice.

Finally, let’s wrap up where we started off – with economic geography. In the Guardian, Ricky Burdett and LSE Cities discuss “Cities in numbers: how patterns of urban growth change the world“:

Historically, urbanisation has always been closely linked to economic development. While growth in the mature cities of Europe and North America accelerated in the 19th century, most reached their peak by mid-20th century. Other regions of the world saw their cities grow most significantly since the 1950s. Tokyo grew by more than half a million inhabitants each year between 1950 and 1990, Mexico City and São Paulo by more than 300,000, and Mumbai by around 240,000.

The only exceptions in this period were cities in China and Sub-Saharan Africa, which experienced only modest growth. But from the 1990s onwards – with the impact of globalisation and opening up of the Chinese economy – cities continued to grow rapidly in south and south-east Asia, with China experiencing a sustained growth spurt that is palpable today. For example, the South Guangdong metropolitan area (which includes Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan) saw its 5.5 million inhabitants in 1990 increase six-fold to reach almost 32 million in just two decades.

The result of this process of growth and change is an uneven distribution of urbanisation across the globe. Europe, South and North America are the most urbanised of the five continents – with 73%, 83% and 82% of people respectively living in cities, towns and other urban settlements. Africa stands at around 40% and Asia at 48% – and both regions are set to experience exponential growth in the coming decades, a combined effect of increased birth rate and migration.

Past and present growth of cities around the world

The Guardian article also has a quite good summary of the environmental impacts of different urban patterns. Highly relevant if you’re interested in how urban development can influence climate change. But I’ll leave you to explore that on your own. Until next year!

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  1. Did I miss something here? How is it possible for our Net emissions to be higher than our gross emissions when the net is a result of forest carbon sinks (that effectively reduce our emissions)?

    1. I think thats because the 96% figure is comparing the Net emissions in 1990 against the projected Net emissions in 2015. So you can’t directly compare the two sets of numbers (Gross and Net).

      The follow-up question is why would the net emissions be lower in 2020? I presume thats because the harvesting of commercial forests and trees planted prior to 1990 which previously reduced the gross emissions are now coming off the net deduction in 2020 as they are harvested and not able to be claimed as CO2 deductions anymore. and as we stopped planting lots of trees in the 90s and 00s we won’t be getting those deductions back anytime soon.

      Which is something the Government seems to be conveniently ignoring in their projections.

    2. This is because a lot of plantation forests are due for harvesting in the 2020s. When a tree is cut down, a bunch of its stored carbon is slowly released back into the atmosphere. Consequently, greenhouse gas accounting procedures register an increase in emissions at the time of harvest.

      We could avoid the net emissions from forestry in the 2020s if we were currently planting more trees. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening, due in part to the fact that our low carbon price doesn’t create much of a financial incentive to plant new forests.

      1. Interesting thought, could the NZ Government, put its thinking cap on, and deal to the Possum plaques that routinely munch a lot of our native forests to an early death each year.

        As these pests were-pre 1990, if we properly managed our possum populations, then could we not claim as a deduction, the CO2 sequestering biomass [which is tress still living ‘cos a possum hasn’t eaten it to an early grave] for the net increase in forestry biomass [trees] that the possums don’t kill each year when they would have if the numbers were left unchecked?

        And as many native trees take hundreds of years to reach full maturity, that deduction wouldn’t be needing to be “released” until the tree dies, which hopefully will be long after the greenhouse gas problem has been eliminated [or eclipsed by something worse].

        Sounds like a potential win/win for NZ, the planet, and the tree, not so good for the possums mind.

        Of course, doing that is not an excuse to allow more cows everywhere either. It has to be a net reduction.

        Maybe thats the kind of inventive solutions we as a country need to think about, as well as the more obvious ones of dealing to transport emissions.

        1. Interesting thoughts.
          There is so much farmland in NZ that is unproductive/hills etc that could easily be used for forestry. With unemployment going up, a lack of jobs in the regions (and declining populations in some as a result), along with shrinking forest carbon sinks, surely it would be the perfect project for the government to step in and plant thousands of hectares of new forests? 1) It wouldn’t cost much (since the workers would already be on the dol), would help with our emissions targets, would clean up our streams and rivers, would reduce flooding, would help keep the regions going and provide future export income, not to mention it looks nice for our clean green image!
          In the past forestry has had similar government schemes.

          1. “would clean up our streams and rivers, would reduce flooding”

            Depends on whether it replaces grass or native bush.

          2. Yes, agreed. Regional development policy is hard – basically, if the regions were more intrinsically attractive places to do business, they’d already be cities!

            Encouraging forestry – which could be done simply via getting the carbon price right – and investing more in conservation to enhance tourism opportunities seem like pretty reasonable regional development policies.

            Incidentally, I have some sympathy for the government’s dilemma in this area. I don’t agree with their subsidies for dairying (via underpriced water and unpriced greenhouse gas emissions) and support for economically marginal mining projects, but I can see why they’re attractive as a policy option. There are simply not that many things that can be done to boost the regions.

  2. The science of traffic engineering article is hugely important. Last week I was in a meeting discussing the possible addition of cyclelanes to a suburban route in Auckland and the AT project manager was arguing for all of the old out-dated principles of traffic flow maximisation and intersection super sizing [including the loss of lovely mature trees: describing them as ‘Hazardous Objects’] When queried on this she said that her background was Highway design and that’s how you do it.

    I have forwarded the article above to the team, but will they read it?; traffic engineering does seem to be a particularly incurious profession; many practitioners made up their minds decades ago and that’s that, it seems.

    There are of notable exceptions, thankfully, and we do have them in Auckland, and a couple of good ones were even in that meeting, but they tend not to be in the critical roles. At least not yet.

    Can Traffic Engineering reinvent itself for this century? Or will we have to marginalise the whole profession from its deciding position in street design in order to get the safer, more efficient, environmentally resilient, more attractive and productive urban form our times demand?

    It’s going to happen one way or the other.

    1. If you have two roads and both have an 85th percentile speed of 50km/h then obviously not having the tree is safer. The difference is that the tree reduces 85th percentile speed in urban environments.

      You also have to wonder how highway design is relevant to urban intersection design.

      1. One of the problems is that, until relatively recently, the only real design guidance available locally has been focused on highway design, e.g. Austroads “Urban Road Design” guide essentially focused on geometric design and “optimising” that. Fine maybe for a major urban arterial, but not much help for (say) a central city commercial street, suburban shopping area, or residential collector. It didn’t help either that subdivision standards for new streets in most councils were largely based on the old NZS4404, which emphasised maximum widths and curve radii, just in case a couple of B-trains needed to get past each other…

        We’re now starting to see some really good examples of guidance on actual “street” design and its role in place-making and encouraging all travel modes, e.g. the UK’s “Manual for Streets” and NACTO’s “Urban Street Design Guide”. Even the revised NZS4404 has a much better approach to this, including the place-making and speed management functions of streets. The new Austroads guides to Traffic Management cover some of these issues better than their predecessors, but they lack a lot of useful design examples. I still think there is a place for a NZ “Manual for Street Design” (or whatever you want to call it) to legitimise the very good examples that have been developed elsewhere and make them available for NZ use. I guess the Auckland Trpt “Code of Practice” ( is trying to do that locally, although it still feels mostly like a recipe book of elements and throws you back to Austroads when it comes to arterial roads of any kind.

    2. Why have someone with experience in Highway design as an AT project manager for suburban design if they have such inflexible views? I guess she’s honest at least.

      1. Yes, she was open and honest and I am not suggesting for a moment that she had any kind of agenda as such; just a bunch of professional habits that aren’t really relevant for the task at hand. Glen K above I think has described the situation well.

        Interestingly I do know of at least one ‘street design manual’ in preparation in Auckland, but this is entirely a self-motivated body of work from the private sector; I’m not aware of any such work by our institutions. But I haven’t enquired whether MoT, NZTA, or AT, or IPENZ are doing any work in this area… anyone have other information?

  3. Hi Peter, thanks for another really great bunch of articles, you’ve just toasted another Sunday afternoon for me. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve really enjoyed dipping into your eclectic list of links each week and thank you for broadening my horizons. I look forward to next year’s series and in the meantime wish all the best for Christmas and the New Year.Cheers!

    1. Highly likely. Almost all of their population lives in cities. Currently they have 89% urban. I think Europe is mid 70’s, Americas about 80%.

  4. this being the last Sunday read, I would like to thank all of the contributors to this blog, you guys (now an inclusive and non-gender term) do an absolutely wonderful job, poking trolls out from under bridges and shining some light into our fair city!

    1. Thanks Steve! Keep coming back in the new year – it’s the excellent quality of comments that make it fun and worthwhile!

  5. Tonight was the last night of an Auckland event called “Forget Frantic”, a drive-thru Nativity scene set up in a church carpark. No-one’s allowed to walk – anyone who turns up on foot has to wait for the next truck. A waiting time of 1 hour followed by crawling through for 30 minutes adds up to a lot of wasteful idling. It seems like this profligate concept has been transplanted from the US

  6. “I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged. That’s exactly what is going to happen to fossil fuels.
    A clean energy future is a wise investment, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either wrong, or lying. Either way, I wouldn’t take their investment advice.”
    Arnie – not the only Austrian politician to get predictions very wrong 🙁

  7. If speed is bad, why is it good to build the CRL so we have faster trains and quicker travel times?

    … perhaps speed is good, whether plane, train, or automobile, because it maximises productive time at either end of the journey, and the issue is reducing accidents

    If the Blue Angels can fly at 500kmh in formation a metre away from each other, it shows speed doesn’t cause anything… incompetence causes crashes

    1. Human nature largely causes crashes. That being the inherent tendency in all of us for inattentiveness, carelessness, recklessness and stupidity (albeit moreso in some than others).
      Therefore we must design our transport modes in such a way that speed and other safety-critical aspects are as far as possible decoupled from these human foibles.
      Methods of achieving this are:
      – Automatic guidance systems, such as rails, control systems, self-driving technologies etc
      – Separation of conflict, e.g. protected rights-of-way, barriers, signalling systems, regulation of airspace etc
      – Rules and enforcement, operating codes, training, professional certification and stringent penalties for non-compliance

      Early Commuter, I think you will find the Blue Angels are subject to extremely rigorous training regimes and safety constraints in order to do what they do safely. Their skills do not simply magic-into-being with minimal training or supervision, the way it is assumed that the average car-driver’s skills will. If you consider that you have the competence to handle, say, a vehicle at Formula-One speeds then good for you. But don’t try it anywhere near a public road!

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