I can’t believe it’s already May. What’s happened to the year? Anyway, welcome back to Sunday reading.
Today, I’d like to lead off with an important article by Huffington Post reporter Kate Abbey-Lambertz: “Cities aren’t designed for women. Here’s why they should be“. She argues that there’s an unmet need for urban places that respond to the needs of 51% of the population:
The need for women-focused solutions in cities becomes clear when you look at how they have been ignored in urban design. The built environment — things like the accessibility of public space, zoning for housing and transportation design — can marginalize women and jeopardize their safety.
Women use cities differently from men in many ways, according to the American Planning Association and Cornell University’s Women’s Planning Forum: They have higher poverty rates and different housing needs, are still “responsible for the majority of housework and childcare” and “have unique travel behavior related to their combination of work and household responsibilities.”
Cities’ plans overwhelmingly don’t address women’s needs, their planning or zoning boards aren’t aware of them and local developers aren’t responsive to them, according to a 2014 survey of more than 600 planners that is cited in the report.
Some of the challenges women face may seem simple, such as having to navigate poorly maintained sidewalks or stairs with a stroller or use restrooms without trash containers or changing tables. But many are more consequential, such as avoiding public transit rather than facing conditions, like desolate and poorly lit bus stops, that make them feel unsafe.
Of course, these sorts of changes would benefit just about everyone. Nobody likes waiting in an unsafe bus stop – except muggers, I guess. But while some of us glumly tolerate it, others simply give up and go away.
Meanwhile, the Island Bay Cycleway Blog provides an encouraging story of how a redesigned street opened up new opportunities for a local mum: “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bike“. Memo to skeptics of cycleways: This is how things work out in practice:
I spent a year watching people riding bikes from the safety of the bus, wishing that I too was brave. I wanted to be like them, but how to stay alive on the treacherous Adelaide Road trip? Riding a bike to work was the domain of Serious Cyclists: mostly men, and mostly wearing a lot of lycra. It was not for ladies who like dressing up and who never really bonded with a 10-speed. I was resigned to just having to wait until the whole Island Bay – CBD cycleway was finished, before I made the switch to riding a bike. In the meantime, I’d violate my personal fitness/environment values every day…
I mentioned to a few people that I wanted to bike to work but felt unconfident, and there was understanding but gentle encouragement. Other local mums were riding bikes – clearly they didn’t share my fear of leaving their children motherless following an accident. One friend opts for the footpath in a really narrow bit of Adelaide Road. Another suggested leaving a hi-vis jacket open so that it flapped in the wind to increase visibility. And if I got a puncture, I could always chain my bike up at that point, and fetch it later. When the Island Bay cycleway was completed it also gave me confidence that at least the start and end of my daily round trip would be comfortable and safe…
In the end, it wasn’t so bad. The worst bit was arriving at my building having forgotten my swipe card (ah the irony). The traffic was moderately light and it was a beautiful day. I confess to a footpath dash for about 50 metres of Adelaide Road. Big ups to the group of real cyclists who yelled out ‘hi’ as they went the other way (clearly I looked like a novice, but I really appreciated the gesture). I followed others’ advice to sit in the lane when I was going at the speed of traffic, which made me feel more confident as I knew I’d be seen and couldn’t be sideswiped. On the way home, I could leave when I was ready without waiting for a timetable. And on the home straight, you really appreciate the traffic protection benefits of the Island Bay cycleway after negotiating the CBD section.
I’ve continued riding a bike to work and although I’m yet to repeat the feat on a blustery, dark, rainy day, my fear is at least partially harnessed now. And if you should do one thing every day that scares you a little, then I’m set for challenges for the next couple of months!
While this is a good-news story, it also highlights the importance of having a connected network of safe cycle facilities.
On the other hand, here’s a bad-news story. Charlie Sorrel at FastCoexist explains “why traffic studies make our cities worse for everyone“:
When a new development is proposed, typically the developer must do a traffic studies, or traffic impact assessment. Because traffic engineers are engineers, they usually over-engineer, and this, combined with the data from the assumptions, leads to huge intersections designed never to choke up. As you can imagine, that’s great for cars passing through, but terrible for anyone else.
As the traffic blog Urban Kchoze puts it:
Huge intersections like these tend to result in high-speed travel during most periods of the day when it is not congested, creating noise pollution and having the potential for very dangerous crashes … Their surplus capacity may also induce more vehicle traffic than would have happened otherwise. Finally, their huge size makes them a barrier to non-motorized travel.
Instead of a relatively small, slow-flowing road that can be crossed, we end intersections with 130-foot crosswalks, discouraging pretty much anyone sane from trying it. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy—future traffic studies assume that all travel is car-based, resulting in more road systems that can only be navigated by car.
This method also leads to sprawl. Because developers have to pay for any redevelopment of the roads, they favor building in areas that need little change. Developing in urban centers costs a fortune when you have to re-route or widen roads, so they look to the edge of town, where the roads aren’t yet near capacity.
The irony is that development in central urban areas wouldn’t necessarily increase road traffic, because many of the visitors would arrive on foot, or using existing public transit. But by developing at the edges of the city, these developments increase car use, further marginalizing alternate transport methods.
I’d add one additional, slightly more technical point to this. The traffic impact assessments I’ve taken a look at typically focus on a quite small area – typically a few intersections in either direction of the development. This isn’t entirely crazy from an analytical perspective, as the further you get from the location, the more diluted the impacts on any individual street become.
However, this style of assessment suffers from an unexamined underlying assumption that development will either occur in the study location or simply vanish. In reality, it won’t vanish: it will go elsewhere. And “elsewhere” may result in worse overall transport outcomes. This isn’t a problem if every development requires a traffic assessment, but typically there’s a size threshold. As a result, traffic assessments become a stick for beating apartment developments and substantial urban redevelopment projects, even around public transport, while allowing small-scale infill and sprawl developments to proceed without issue.
And speaking of substantial urban redevelopment, the Economist reports on a trend towards “ersatz urbanism”: ready-made downtowns that “bulldoze the distinction between city and suburb”:
Today the fad in south Florida is not golf villages or retro towns but ready-made city centres. Half an hour’s drive south of Sunrise, another Metropica-like development, City Place Doral, is under construction. Two others with even taller towers, Miami Worldcentre and Brickell City Centre, are going up in central Miami. A huge development called SoLe Mia will rise in north Miami. All will combine “walkable” shopping streets, offices and homes—mostly two- and three-bedroom flats in towers. Similar developments have appeared in other American cities, and beyond. But Florida is being overrun.
Builders call these developments “mixed-use”, a term that fails to capture what they are up to. The idea of combining flats, offices and shops even in a single building is not new: look at an old New York district like Chelsea. Metropica and its kin try to create urban cores in places that lack them. Whereas new urbanist settlements often promote a small-town ideal, these sell big-city life, which is why they have words like “metro”, “city” and “centre” in their names. The salesmen claim that residents will be able to live, work and be entertained in a single district.
However, one of the issues with the new districts is that they’re typically all built in one go, to reasonably consistent standards and prices. As a result, they don’t necessarily provide the kind of diversity and vitality typical to Jane Jacobs-style urban neighbourhoods. That, the Economist argues, is moving to aging suburbs:
In fact, the low-rise 1960s suburb where Metropica is being built is already full of cosmopolitan surprise. Behind those monotonous lawns lives a diverse population: one-third of the 88,000 people who live in Sunrise are black and one-quarter are Hispanic. The strip malls are filled with esoteric businesses—a South Indian vegetarian restaurant run by Palestinians, a Vietnamese café, a Dominican hairdresser, even a British shop selling Boddingtons beer and scones. Walkable they are not. But by providing places for immigrants to get ahead, the cheap, ugly, car-oriented strip malls of suburban Florida are already doing what cities are supposed to do.
This is a pretty normal process. Older buildings – and older neighbourhoods that have experienced an ongoing trickle of development – offer cheaper space for startups and low-income people. As they age, the new urban centre will also make this transition.
On a different note, here are two interesting pieces of research from Australia. The first deals with the impact of council amalgamations in New South Wales. Economics professor Brian Dollery writes that “the evidence is against ‘bigger is better’ for local government“:
In all three cases, the architects of compulsory amalgamation have been under the sway of the dogma that “bigger is better” in local government. Ratepayers are told amalgamation will herald a new dawn of lower rates, cheaper services, improved service quality, enhanced financial viability and superior administration and planning…
Are these claims consistent with the empirical evidence? My colleagues Brian Bell and Joseph Drew and I investigated this question for NSW’s 2004 forced amalgamations.
We took advantage of being able to use 2014 data to compare the performance of merged councils with their unmerged counterparts over ten years.
We compared amalgamated “general purpose” councils with their un-amalgamated peer councils in the same local government classification. We thus had the benefit of a “natural experiment”, being able to compare the two groups of “like” councils against a common set of performance indicators…
We found no statistically significant differences in the performance of the two groups of councils against these criteria. This falsifies past claims by the Carr Labor government that its forced amalgamations would substantially improve NSW local government financial performance. It also undermines the Baird Coalition government’s claims for its proposed mergers.
It’s important to note that Dollery and his co-authors have only looked at the financial performance of councils, rather than overall economic or social outcomes in the areas they govern. It’s possible that there are some wider benefits – e.g. from better planning for region-wide growth. However, these findings do suggest that there’s a case for skepticism about the case for mergers.
The second research paper also deals with the impacts of a “natural experiment”: a change in land use planning frameworks in Queensland. Economists Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters find that the benefits of the policy change disproportionately accrue to politically-connected landowners. From their abstract:
We use a unique regulatory event that occurred in Queensland, Australia, from 2007-2012, to examine the predictive power of landowner relationship networks and lobbying behaviour on successfully gaining value-enhancing rezoning. A State authority, the Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA), took planning control away from local councils in selected areas in order to increase the speed and scale of development in those areas, in the process increasing land values. Using micro-level relationship data from multiple sources, we compare the relationship-network characteristics of landowners of comparable sites inside and outside the ULDA areas, finding that ‘connected’ landowners owned 75% of land inside the rezoned areas, and only 12% outside, capturing $410 million in land value gains out of the total $710 million from rezoning. We also find that engaging a professional lobbyist is a substitute for having one’s own connections. Scaling up from our sample of six rezoned areas to the hundreds of rezoning decisions across Queensland and Australia in the last few decades, suggests that many billions of dollars of economic rent are being regularly transferred from the general population to connected landowners through political rezoning decisions.
The authors have also written a non-technical summary of their work here, along with some potential policy solutions to the “corrupt land rezoning decisions” problem.
Queensland is considerably more corrupt than New Zealand (at least, I hope that’s the case!), but it would nonetheless be interesting to see what you’d find if you did a similar analysis of the impact of Auckland’s Special Housing Areas.
That brings us to the week’s final article: Bernard Hickey’s take on a potential land tax, which is a policy that would capture at least some of the unearned gains from land speculation:
Mr Key has suggested a land tax targeted only at non-residents, but with some sort of three year exemption for expatriates who own houses here would be the best way to take some of the heat out of the housing market and comply with our trade agreements.
It is already looking like the sort of highly-targeted tax that is shot through with exemptions and loop holes of the type that killed off the original version of a land tax that was eventually retired in the early 1990s. Foreign investors must already be calling their tax planners for some early side-stepping tips.
It is not the version of a land tax that was proposed in 2010 by the Tax Working Group that Mr Key set up and which he has already rejected once. That land tax was a broad tax on everyone owning land. No specific rate was proposed, but former Reserve Bank Chairman and Tax Working Group member Arthur Grimes put forward a paper in late 2009 that estimated a 1% land tax would raise NZ$4.6 billion and cause an almost overnight reduction of land values of 16.7%. That would have bought a substantial income tax reduction and avoided a GST increase.
Enjoy the rest of the weekend!