Mid-week reading!

One of the more thought-provoking things I read this week was Patrick Lyons’ interview (in Vice) with Geoff Manaugh, who runs the incredibly interesting website BLDGBLOG and who has just written a book on burglary. Manaugh argues that burglary is an essentially architectural crime:

A Burglar’s Guide to the City takes a look at our everyday urban environments through the eyes of the criminals aiming to hack them, illuminating the spatially-specific tactics used to break in, escape, and stay hidden in today’s surveillance-heavy metropolises. The goal, however, is not to be an actual handbook for the aspiring thief, but rather an alternative study of architecture and urban design.

Through interviews with former burglars, as well as law enforcement and security professionals, Manaugh explains how various features of cities and buildings lead to very specific types of burglaries. Los Angeles, with its sprawling highways, lends itself to quick bank robberies with easy escape routes. Chain businesses with identical layouts and employee schedules, such as McDonalds, invite repeat thieves who’ve previously robbed other locations. “If you look closely, from just the right angle,” he writes, “every city implies the crimes that will one day take place there.”

Throughout the text, Manaugh carefully organizes chapters focused on cities, buildings themselves, common burglary tools, and, finally, getaway strategies, bringing us along for the ride for an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read…

I will have to check the book out at some point. Incidentally, heist movies are always fascinated with architecture. Think about the way that Die Hard and Ocean’s Eleven dwelled on buildings, or the way that Inception constantly subverted the built form.

Another interesting take on cities – from an economic perspective rather than a criminal one – is provided by Noah Smith (in Bloomberg View), who looks at optimal government structures. It’s quite relevant for New Zealand, which sometimes seems like it has both too many and too few local governments. On the one hand, there’s an incentive to aggregate local governments to reduce coordination failures and share costs. On the other hand, there’s some value in competition between neighbouring local governments. Smith discusses the arguments for more fragmented government:

What’s the optimal size for economic performance? Are we better off with many little competing city-states, a bunch of midsized nations or just a few big super-countries overseeing hundreds of millions of people each? If bigger is better, what about a global government?

Actually, economists have thought about this a fair amount. In 1956, Charles Tiebout believed he had a solution to the problem. He reasoned that local governments knew more about their people’s needs than distant central governments, and so the best system was one where local governing units — city-states, essentially — offered different packages of taxes and public services. People would vote with their feet, going to the place that suited them the most…

Some people also claim that political fragmentation has been beneficial in the past. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” suggested that competition between small countries allowed Europe to get a head start on unified China in the Industrial Revolution. Economists Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer argued in 1993 that city-states helped Europe develop (though more recent evidence seems to counter this). Casual evidence would also suggest that Taiwan’s de facto independence from China helped provide the mainland with a capitalist model to revive its moribund economy in the 1980s and 1990s.

… and the arguments against:

But there are arguments on the other side, too. The mathematician and economist Truman Bewley examined the Tiebout idea in the 1980s, and found that a patchwork of little city-states doesn’t always lead to a well-functioning system.

There are several reasons why Tiebout’s idea can fail. One is that many of the services governments provide are what economists call public goods. These are things that the private sector either can’t or won’t provide. The classic examples are national defense, police, courts and support for basic research. But many other things, like roads, electrical grids and ports, are usually in short supply when left to the private sector…

A second issue is that governments don’t always have the right incentives. Some governments may decide to maximize the size of their tax bases. Others might care only about the welfare of their citizens, while others might be beholden to special interests — I imagine an independent San Francisco would be ruled by local landlords even more than it already is. There’s no perfect type of local government, and so we’ll have a wide variety of them. Bewley showed that this problem also prevents Tiebout’s patchwork from being an economically efficient utopia.

Finally, something from a month back. Public health researcher Alistair Woodward wrote a really invaluable article about Wellington’s Island Bay cycleway, which has aroused ferocious ire from some residents (via BikeAKL). It’s definitely worth reading in full, but here’s some highlights.

Woodward points out that the Island Bay arguments are nothing new:

But what is most remarkable about this story for me is its familiarity. What is happening in Island Bay has taken place in other cities. The arguments fit, almost word for word, with those made elsewhere.

Check out what was written about bike lanes on Lake Road, on the North Shore of Auckland, for example. Overseas, New York City has made many changes to its streets but attempts to re-allocate space from cars to other road users have been fiercely resisted, on much the same grounds as in Island Bay. Jason Henderson has written an excellent book on the politics of mobility in San Francisco, in which the chapter on bicycle space in the city applies closely to the situation in Wellington. In London the push to grow cycling by re-building roads has had many successes, but there has been opposition. See, for example, the arguments made against Dutch style separated lanes in Enfield.

The reason the Island Bay story is essentially a re-run of older controversies is this: there is a deep, underlying and terribly important issue here, and it has nothing to do with Island Bay (or any other specific location).

The issue is how we, as a society, negotiate access to resources that are shared and limited. Roads are part of the public commons – they belong to everyone and they belong to no-one in particular. Everybody benefits from access, but concessions must be made because the resource is finite. Who concedes, and by how much, are matters that are vital to everyone’s welfare and must be agreed upon collectively.

He goes on to make a few useful suggestions about how we can better manage change in the commons:

There must be a local solution, requiring hard work by Council and communities, stamina, good faith, political savvy and technical intelligence. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture, which is about how we, collectively, manage change. James Longhurst again: ‘the vehemence of the recurring battles since the bicycle’s arrival demonstrates that even the smallest alteration of perceptions, policy or physical construction may be perceived by competing forces as a new front in a war over a scarce resource.’

I argue that it is important to take a ‘responsiveness to change’ perspective because the present New Zealand transport system is, in many respects, stiff, constrained, and not well equipped to manage challenges to the status quo.

Here are three suggestions that are unlikely to resolve the Island Bay cycleway, but might contribute to sorting out future conflicts over what it really means to ‘share the road’.

  1. It would be a great help if governments signed up to a strategic vision and powerful targets for cycling and walking. There is nothing in New Zealand to match, just as an example, San Francisco’s vision of a 30/30/40 mode split by 2035 (30% motor vehicles, 30% transit, 40% walking and cycling). Many of those working in transport acknowledge the need for high-level goals to drive network change. Without this force from above, planning and operations fall back into incremental mode, and one of the consequences is that consultation tends to occur at the micro-scale. Change becomes very ‘sticky’ and difficult to progress.

  2. We must overcome a systemic tendency towards conservatism in design. Arising perhaps from concerns over institutional and political risk, and focusing on mind-numbingly fine print, putting a brake on innovation and experimentation is dangerous because it increases the chance of system failure. It is difficult in New Zealand at present, for example, to apply New York-style soft interventions (such as the first, temporary barriers in Times Square) that are easy to install, can be assessed rapidly, and if need be, taken down rapidly. In this environment the best minds in the world may struggle to get the best value from existing infrastructure, scope new challenges, test unfamiliar solutions, and respond quickly.

  3. Finally, I argue for a greater investment in evaluation. Compared with the intense scrutiny that applies at the front end of planning (business cases, benefit cost ratios, trying to find the best way of navigating blizzards of consents), remarkably little effort goes into learning after the event. In terms of cycling infrastructure and safety for example, there is generally no follow-up until police crash statistics reveal a problem – although it is well-known these data are insensitive, partial and slow to come to hand. Lack of follow-up also misses successes, which is important because re-allocation of road space may be a very good thing, benefiting residents, car drivers, walkers and cyclists, and local businesses.

Great suggestions from Woodward. How do you think we can improve the way we manage change?

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28 comments

  1. I’ve wondered about #2 from Woodward:

    ” It is difficult in New Zealand at present, for example, to apply New York-style soft interventions (such as the first, temporary barriers in Times Square) that are easy to install, can be assessed rapidly, and if need be, taken down rapidly. ”

    We have a lot of what, unfortunately, amounts to bluster about all this – several years on from JSK’s visit we’ve had exactly 0 soft interventions and no mention at all about them (parklets here seem to be designed to be temporary, it’s not a true trial of anything). I assumed there was some fundamental constraint. Is anyone in a position to identify what laws make this type of work difficult/impossible? Is any effort being done to change/overcome them?

    1. There exists within an AT design document the reference to either a 48hx48dx48w or 1day,1week,1month,1year evaluation mechanism for ‘tactical urbanism’. I think the design document will be adopted toward the end of this year and we might hope to benefit from some quick wins using short-term evaluations of quick, cheap fixes soon.

  2. I like his #1: “Many of those working in transport acknowledge the need for high-level goals to drive network change. Without this force from above, planning and operations fall back into incremental mode, and one of the consequences is that consultation tends to occur at the micro-scale. Change becomes very ‘sticky’ and difficult to progress”. Unbelievable how much that rings true for Auckland.

  3. We had Tiebout sorting in Auckland for years. It is why so many offices were built in North Shore City and why so few were built in Waitakere. Once a developer had dealt with the planners of either city they made an informed choice as to where their next office development would go.

    1. “We had Tiebout sorting in Auckland for years. It is why so many offices were built in North Shore City and why so few were built in Waitakere.”

      Wouldn’t that just be because Takapuna is closer to the city, has better transport links, and is next to a beach?

      1. No Most of the offices built in North Shore City were not in Takapuna. They were in the William Pickering Drive area, Apollo Drive, Smales Farm and Albany. The first two in particular didn’t have much going for them in proximity. But the Council supported the growth there with easy rules and cooperative planning staff. cf Waitakere and also the Manukau subdivision people who made every job a hard and costly one.

    2. Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. The majority of North Shore suburbs have median house prices over $1m. Only 15 out of 36 North Shore suburbs had median prices under $1m. Even the isthmus isn’t that unaffordable.

      The North Shore might have been competing for offices, but it wasn’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat for housing development.

      1. Actually it was trying hard Peter. The Long Bay debacle was down to the ARC trying to stop development. The NSCC was happy for it to go on forever. But anyway that is the point Tiebout made. Let areas choose their offering and people will move there if it suits them or go elsewhere if it doesn’t. My main point above was I worked for a number of developers and longer term owners who never went near Manukau or Waitakere Cities as those Councils made everything too difficult. Now of course it is one AT to rule them. I am working for one SHA where the owner is thinking about giving up on houses and farming goats on the land instead.

        1. Like Noah Smith, I can see the case for and against Tiebout competition as a solution to problems with government.

          I don’t doubt that different councils had different approaches to consent applications. But on the other hand, there are definite cross-border issues at play in urban areas (and even between urban areas). For example, a council may take a permissive view on business consents to create local employment opportunities for its residents, while clamping down on intensification in its existing residential areas and assuming that those residents become someone else’s problem.

          ARC, and subsequently AC, was set up to address some of these cross-border issues. Reasonable people could disagree on whether they’re successful in doing so – personally, I’m still in a “wait and see” mode. But I don’t think the concept is intrinsically bad.

          1. I used Tiebout sorting at one of the PAUP hearings as an argument to not squeeze all housing into the rail corridor. If there is choice, those who might get a train to work can buy near a station and their partner can walk, drive, bus, whatever. Similarly those with no use of trains can buy somewhere away from the rail stations where the congestion they create doesn’t stuff up the streets in the rail corridor. The PAUP seeks to squeeze everyone into the same nodes where congestion will be a huge problem for everyone. You get to pay the premium of living by a transport system you might not value.

          2. I think you’ve got a point that planning policies don’t always consider heterogeneity of preferences (or heterogeneity of budget constraints). Regulations sometimes seem to be designed under the assumption that everyone has identical needs (and identical ability to afford to meet them). Minimum parking requirements are a perfect example of this: they assume that all businesses and households need the same amount of parking, and have identical ability to pay for that parking. In reality, they don’t!

          3. I agree with you there. The issue with minimum parking was simply to get everyone who created a demand to be on the hook for that level of supply. But they never worked in old suburban commercial areas where sites are small and you actually wouldn’t want people to provide their own little carpark and driveway. Could you imagine Ponsonby Road if that had occurred. Dispensation criteria were written to try and deal with it but of course over-zealous Council engineer made a meal of that. The problem with ditching them entirely will be that some areas will get a major parking problem that shop keepers and customers will demand the Council fix. So long as we all know and understand that is coming and so long as we realise the Council doesn’t have the spine to say ‘not our problem’ then that’s fine. We will all pay in our rates.

  4. One comment struck my eye from Longhurst “It would be a great help if governments signed up to a strategic vision and powerful targets for cycling and walking.”

    I would (respectfully) suggest these are poor targets as they are solution-captured; they ex-ante specify the desired technical solution to what is a functional requirement. What matters is the result – whether that is health, travel time, or something similar, not the mechanism. It’s like setting targets for the number of police per capita rather than setting targets for crime rates and resolution rates.

    As George S. Patton once said “Don’t tell a man how to do his job. Tell him what you want, and he’ll amaze you with his ingenuity.”

    1. Straw man argument.

      I’m given absolutely no choice about how I get to some locations because the decision has already been made to build for cars only. Further, if health was an outcome anyone even cared about then we’d ban cars across Auckland.

      1. EC doesn’t want change, hence trying to take down key positive ideas. He’s happy to be the problem, not the solution.

        1. Wrong. I hypothesise that PT is the best transport solution for Auckland. I’m not arrogant enough to state it as fact until
          -> We have confirmed outcome goals for our transport network, and
          -> We have examined multiple output mixes to achieve those outcomes goals, and
          -> Only then have we specified the particular technical solution

    2. In general I would agree that the desired outcome precedes decisions on how to achieve it… but I submit that we know to a high degree of certainty that increasing cycling and walking is an effective method of achieving outcomes that we already know we want: a healthier population, less pollution, more cost-effective transport. And we know that driving contributes to outcomes that we already know we don’t want. We want to address climate change and road safety; it follows that we need to reduce driving.

      First principles and desired outcomes are important as touchstones and tools for defining and evaluating success, but we don’t need to decide them afresh every time.

      1. But what is the quantum of desired change? a 0.01% improvement in health? a 10% improvement in health? Without specifying the desired outcome one could say any positive change is sufficient – get one person to give up cigarettes and “mission accomplished” for a healthier NZ.

        I’ll even go to the extreme of saying we don’t need to specify outcomes if we can specify outputs, but this doesn’t even go that far.

        1. According to the GPS on transport anything that delivers a 5:1 BCR when health is included is a good use of money. We already prioritise for outcomes I don’t know where you get the impression that we don’t

          1. Outcomes-based planning requires (a) definition of the desired outcome including the quantum of change and (b) identification of output mixes to achieve those desired outcomes. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, it can be a satisficing consideration of output mixes, and even then it isn’t done.

            The NZTA does not have a 10-year statement with hard outcome goals and then clear output goals mapped from those outcomes. The only agency that comes close is the NZDF where output classes are pretty clearly mapped to desired outcomes but even then there are major issues as to whether the provided outputs are of sufficient quality and quantity.

            Here’s how it SHOULD look for Auckland
            AC/AT set four-five specific goals for 2030:
            – Average commute time in the morning peak
            – CO2 emissions from transport
            – Average cost for commute
            – Number of injury motor vehicle/train/bus accidents

            Then it maps those to specific output mixes, and identifies which of them best achieves those goals. Depending on the weighting attached to these goals, and their specific level, different output mixes might be optimal.

            For YEARS people thought “more police per capita” was good. It is meaningless. Same with PT. More buslanes etc. doesn’t mean quality improves.

    3. There are always control freaks who think there should be some diktat from above saying how many people should make what choice. But given the people in positions above have no knowledge of whether it is more efficient for someone to cycle, ride a bus or drive a car these sorts of decrees are really only a means of removing debate or limiting choices. Should we really rule out a PT improvement because if we find ourselves in a position where there are 31% using the bus and only 39% walking or cycling? These sorts of rules are just a means of removing choice, both the choice of individuals and also of future decision makers. Yanks love that sort of shit “We the people…” where people =rich, white, slave-owning dudes

  5. Auckland Transport seems to have taken the JSK message (“…everyone else bring data”) and is now regularly doing pre-and-post projects surveys of for example, cycling and pedestrian numbers to be able to compare – including in some cases, surveys on perception of route etc…)

  6. Did anyone else notice the shortfall in funding for the Police road safety budget allocated by NZTA was almost the same as the money wasted on the daft flag thing?

    1. Yes. I’m also surprised that of the Police $900million budget, there is a sum NZTA. It’s all from central Government really – so why do they go to the pretence of NZTA paying the Police? Why not pay them direct? Or is this a hangover from when we had Department of Transport Traffic Cops?

      1. I don’t think inter-governmental transfers are a bad thing where they increase transparency. Super Gold Card is a case in point: It’s a social policy, so is better funded from welfare agencies.

        Basically, NZTA are saying to NZ Police that we have xxx revenue to pay for yyy road policing work. And the need for yyy is defined by strategic transport objective xxx with regards to road safety.

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