Welcome back to Sunday reading. It’s been an interesting week, what with the Brexit and all. (Or rather, potential Brexit. Apparently nobody over there has any goddamn clue what they’re doing.)
Brexit is worth talking a bit about, as there are some touch-points with urban policy. There were big geographical disparities. The vote to remain was strongest in London, which benefits directly from global economic integration due to its role as a financial centre and an immigrant melting-pot, and Scotland, which has a markedly different political identity than England. By contrast, England’s rust belt was considerably more enthusiastic about Brexit.
It’s easy to describe this as a case of the haves and have nots, but as the Financial Times observed, there was a positive correlation between votes to leave and share of regional GDP exported to the EU:
— Financial Times (@FT) June 24, 2016
A backlash against immigration was a major driver of the vote. According to the University of Oxford Migration Observatory, net migration to the UK rose considerably since the early 1990s, especially after the accession of lower-income Eastern European nations to the EU:
But while high levels of immigration appear to have prompted a backlash, the backlash was strongest in the areas with fewest migrants. Alan Travis writes in the Guardian:
Yet the details of the referendum demonstrate a paradox – that those who have experienced the highest levels of migration are the least anxious about it. The highest levels of remain voters were in areas of highest net migration, while some of the strongest leave areas have had the fewest recent new immigrants.
London, which absorbed 133,000 of the 330,000 net arrivals in 2015, voted the most strongly for remain. Manchester also voted for remain – and at 13,554 had nearly double the level of net migration seen in Birmingham, which voted leave.
The pattern is starkest at the local authority level. Lambeth in London, which recorded the highest remain vote of 78%, saw a net influx of 4,598, while Castle Point in Essex, which includes Canvey Island, saw a net inflow of only 81 new international migrants in 2015, but 72% of people there voted leave.
In Conservative Wandsworth in London, net migration was 6,295 and 75% of voters backed remain, while in Labour Hartlepool there was a net inflow of 113 and 69% of people voted to leave.
And of course there was a big age gap in voting patterns – young people voted to remain by more than a 2-1 margin.
Interesting. Oh well. They’re going to have to work it all out. I’m going to get back to normal business.
One of the best urban-related articles I’ve read recently was Matt Yglesias’s (Vox) piece about “Why the elevator could be the next great disruptive technology“. It’s a good analysis of the beneficial role that cities play in modern economies:
Where we live right now isn’t working.
The old manufacturing economy allowed vibrant, globally competitive industries to establish themselves in essentially arbitrary locations. All factories needed was access to the national transportation grid so that raw materials could flow in and finished products could flow out.
The information economy, in somewhat tragic ways, hasn’t had this quality. Half of the jobs created during the 2010-’14 recovery cycle were in these 73 counties, home to only about a third of the nation’s population:
And of the frictions (often create by zoning restrictions on building up) that prevent more people from taking advantage of those opportunities:
These are all great places to live, and just as factories served as economic anchors for regions, today’s big industries produce broader local prosperity.
Here are some examples from the San Francisco area:
- Pay for food service workers is 30 percent higher than the national average
- For accountants, it’s 20 percent more than average
- Auto mechanics make 40 percent more than average
The problem is that for most residents of these places, the higher cost of living erodes the benefits of higher pay.
And lastly, it’s a fine reminder that innovations sometime take decades (or even longer) to fully play out – yesterday’s “general purpose technology” can still be raising productivity for years to come:
The good news is that two major technological innovations from the late 19th century offer the solution…
Elevators are a transportation breakthrough that made steel frame construction genuinely useful. With steel frames and elevators, it became possible to fit an enormous square footage of usable floor space on a small plot of land. In other words, tall apartment buildings make it possible for there to be plenty of housing for everyone even where land is scarce…
It’s true that many people prefer a single-family home, all else being equal. But what makes the elevator so disruptive is precisely the reality that all else is not equal.
When land is scarce and in demand, an insistence on broad single-family zoning creates some very difficult trade-offs. The houses in the most desirable spots become very expensive. And the frontier of affordability sprawls out to an annoyingly long commute. Apartments — cheaper and more conveniently located — bust up that old set of trade-offs.
If elevators were more widely used, they could unleash not just a boom of new construction in America’s most expensive areas but an important secondary boom of higher wages for workers at all skill levels. The technology to do it has been with us for more than a century — if we want to use it.
Yglesias’ thoughts are pretty much in line with NZ economist Arthur Grimes’ comments at a recent Auckland Conversations event. Anne Gibson (NZ Herald) reports:
A former Reserve Bank chairman has called for the Government and Auckland Council to enact policies to deliberately “collapse” the city’s house prices by at least 40 per cent and intensify building along Tamaki Dr with Gold Coast-style towers.
Arthur Grimes delivered a hard-hitting speech at an Auckland Conversations event, calling for swift action to resolve the housing crisis, and the city’s eastern suburbs to have high-rise residential blocks, ready for the next generation of Aucklanders…
“I don’t think there’s any doubt. It doesn’t matter if it’s Freemans Bay, Parnell, Remuera, Kohimaramara, Ellerslie. We certainly need to intensify,” Grimes said.
“I can’t understand why that whole [area] from Orakei to St Heliers is not like the Gold Coast.
“Basically, in my experience of other cities, you would expect anywhere with those sorts of beaches close to Auckland … would have line-to-line skyscrapers all the way along there and that’s the kind of Auckland I would expect and I think young people would expect. The old people won’t and I’m inbetween,” he said.
Issi Romen (BuildZoom) provides another perspective on the same issue. He uses data on building ages from the American Community Survey to identify when different areas of American cities were developed. He uses this to draw some interesting contrasts between different cities:
Take for example Atlanta and San Francisco – by which I mean the broadest definitions of Greater Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area.4 Atlanta’s developed footprint expanded considerably every decade since the 1950s – even in the 2000s, which lost several years’ of growth to the housing bust. San Francisco expanded much more than Atlanta in the ‘50s, but in contrast to Atlanta – and despite having an economy at least as strong as Atlanta’s throughout the years – San Francisco’s expansion began slowing down as early as the 1960s, and by the 2000s it had almost ground to a halt. A recent proposal to annex farmland to a suburb on San Francisco’s southern edge was described by analysts as “reminiscent of a bygone era.”
Here’s the animated map for San Francisco. There are a lot of un-developed areas between developed ones – for the most part, they are steeply sloping hills. The city has challenging geography.
Some policy conclusions:
Geography and land use policy
Albert Saiz of the MIT Center for Real Estate has conducted the most comprehensive research to date on land use constraints imposed by geography and regulation. He finds that both factors play an important role in restricting the housing supply, but that geography ultimately takes the front seat. Moreover, the importance of geography increases as cities grow larger, because in the process they exhaust the best tracts of land first. The importance of land use policy also increases as cities grow larger, and although Saiz does not go this far, a possible explanation is that in larger cities the cycle of restricted housing supply raising housing prices and in turn generating further land use regulation has had more time and scope to operate.
San Francisco’s extreme position at the expensive end of the chart stems from the combination of Silicon Valley’s economic might with the city’s confining natural geography on one hand, and its residents’ environmental zeal on the other. The latter shows up in both local and state-level land use regulation, as well as in residents’ propensity to take advantage of that regulation to impede development. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for example, is a well-intentioned law that is notorious for its abuse by opponents of development and others. Another example of land use policy that overtly targets urban expansion is California’s Williamson Act, which offers tax benefits to rural landowners who agree not to develop their land for ten years.
Los Angeles and Seattle are also surrounded by geographic obstacles to expansion, like San Francisco, and so is Miami which is trapped between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. Although Los Angeles and Miami are not known for sharing San Francisco’s environmental sentiment, Seattle is, and Los Angeles shares the same state law as San Francisco.
The role of geography is less prominent in other expensive cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, aside from their proximity to the ocean. As a result, it easier to shift the blame for restricted housing supply in these cities a step further towards land use policy. In these cities and elsewhere, such policy shows up in the form of numerous mundane, local rules, like zoning for single family homes and minimum parking requirements. It also shows up in the form of stricter qualifications for the approval of new projects, e.g. placing the fate of projects in the hands of hyper-local authorities which are less attuned – to put it mildly – to cities’ broad regional housing needs.
Basically, it does seem like some cities have gotten themselves into a bit of a bind – in terms of geography, planning regulations, and transport investments. One thing that I think is profoundly unhelpful, in that situation, is insisting that the only way forward is to go backwards. If yesterday’s solutions stopped working, they did so for a reason. A different approach is likely to be necessary to get a better outcome in the future.
— Mitchell Reardon (@MitchellReardon) June 28, 2016
And now for an interesting piece on parking. Eric Jaffe (CityLab) reports on a new study that examines the impact of parking provision on rates of car commuting:
The case for causality gets stronger in a new analysis set to be presented at a conference this week. Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative and a trio of University of Connecticut scholars offer “compelling evidence that parking provision is a cause of citywide automobile use.” They do so by taking a page from epidemiology—adopting a framework meant for “inferring causality” in the face of a statistical association known as the Bradford Hill criteria.
Strength of the association
A main metric within the Hill criteria is strength of the association. Courts, for instance, have in the past accepted that a relative risk of 2.0 is sufficient to show that a particular agent (such as cigarettes) caused a disease (such as lung cancer).
In drawing their own association, McCahill and company used historical aerial photos and modern GIS inspection to estimate the area devoted to parking in nine midsized U.S. cities during three eras: circa 1960, 1980, and 2000. None of these metros had seen big population growth over this period, suggesting their built environment was already mature by the mid-20th century. Some had high car-reliance (as measured by census data on driving to work), such as Hartford; some didn’t, such as Berkeley.
Yet the connection between parking and driving was a “consequential” one. The researchers found that as a city went from 0.2 parking spaces per person to 0.5 per person, the share of car commuting went from 60 to 83 percent—good for a relative risk of 1.4. That association isn’t quite as strong as a court-approved health link, but it’s still “quite substantial.”
The authors also look at other evidence of a causal link, finding that there is likely to be a specific, consistent effect in different places, that the sequence of events is right, and that controlled experiments show similar results.
I expect the science to improve on this issue, especially as better data on transport behaviours becomes available. But if past experience is a guide, a better understanding of outcomes may not necessarily flow back into transport engineering practices. Robert Steuteville (Better Cities & Towns) reviews the sorry state of affairs. As has been the case for over sixty years, “best practice” street designs are killing people:
Wide lanes are deadly in urban places, as planner Jeff Speck reported in detail last year, because they encourage speeding. Narrow lanes make drivers more cautious—and save lives. Slower traffic allows walking, biking, and other forms of transportation to flourish.
Modern traffic engineering concentrates traffic in a hierarchy of less connected streets and larger blocks. Researchers Garrick and Marshall conducted the definitive study of how that strategy worked on 24 California cities. Half of the cities have smaller blocks and were laid out mostly before 1950. The other half were modern suburbs blessed with wide roads and large blocks and more than three times the traffic fatalities per capita of the older cities. The older cities display triple the walking, four times the transit use, six times the bicycling, and immeasurably more charm.
If traffic engineering were medicine, engineers would police themselves and adjust their practice accordingly. Alas, that relatively young profession is not medicine, where doctors take an oath to “do no harm.” Instead, traffic engineering follows the dictum “bigger is better.”
If you’ve read this far, have a treat and read the haiku battle between public transport agencies in San Francisco and Los Angeles. My personal favourite:
— SFBART (@SFBART) June 24, 2016
That’s it for the week. See you next time!