Welcome to Sunday Reading. I’m phoning in here from Brisbane. On Friday Patrick and Matt gave a talk about urban advocacy and the role of the Blog to a local planning firm Buckley Vann. We’ve enjoyed being able to connect with Greg Vann on several occasions both in Brisbane and Auckland. Greg is busy with an update to the South East Queensland Regional Plan where is has established an impressive public communication program that feels a little bit like our Auckland Conversations. Greg is particularly passionate about equity in cities and he speaks regularly on the subject heading “Fair Cities”.
Greg also has an interesting blog covering a wide range of urban issues. Here is an interesting post taking a long view of the arc of urbanism in Brisbane. It’s the vibe, Brisbane!, Reviewanew.
I reckon Brisbane really came of age in the 1990s. We started to believe that we could do things in our own way, that we had something special here, that our city is different from other places. Since then we have developed a rich history of contemporary subtropical architecture, which is uniquely Brisbane and much admired around the world. My good friend former Vancouver city councillor, Gordon Price, always sings its praise – the use of colour, the blurring of the indoor and outdoor, and public and private space, together with buildings made more interesting because of external treatments that improve environmental performance – shades for temperature control and the like.
How does the quality of cycling infrastructure design influence the usefulness and attractiveness of cycling? Here Henry Grabar describes how crappy cycling is in NYC and compares it to London where they have shifted from compromised designs to fully separated facilities – “Why Bicycling Infrastructure Fails Bicyclists“, Slate.
The city’s 1,000-mile network of bike lanes is riddled with gaps and incongruities. Outside of some very fine greenways, the system rarely measures up to global standards. Our 400 miles of bike lanes free of vehicle traffic are expanding at a rate of just 5 miles a year, and the network is only as strong as its weak points, which can be very weak: Sometimes lanes suddenly switch from one side of the street to the other. Sometimes they end without warning. Cars turn across them without signal permission. Mostly, they are full of double-parked cars. This doesn’t always feel like a big deal: We can ride our bikes in traffic with cars, trucks, and buses. But sometimes it puts us in uncomfortable situations. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.
For a glimpse of what could be, we can look to London, where Boris Johnson—yes, that one—helped push through a network of bike lanes physically separated from traffic. (Financial Times reporter Robert Wright recently wrote a delightful dispatch on the differences between riding in the two cities.) London has almost 50 percent more bike journeys per day than New York but fewer bike deaths. Most remarkably, the ratio of cars to bikes in central London has fallen from 11-to-1 in 2000 to 2-to-1 in 2014. In three years, if trends continue, more people will be biking to central London than driving.
Why do bike facilities suck in most American cities? Tom Babin thinks it has something to do with a philosophy known as ‘vehicular cycling”. “The philosophy that has pitted cars against cyclists for the last 40 years is finally dying“, Los Angeles Times.
What would-be cyclists respond to is safety, or at least the perception of it. Most people, when presented with the idea of “bicycle driving,” as Forester sometimes called it, choose not to ride at all. Safety concerns also help explain why simple painted bike lanes have failed to attract cyclists in large numbers. For many tentative cyclists, only a physical separation from moving automobiles can make them feel secure.
From a distance, it’s obvious the notion of vehicular cycling was misguided. Not only did Forester’s theory put cyclists in harm’s way, it generated anger among motorists and taught them to see bikes as nuisances. This enmity, in turn, arguably hamstrung local governments’ efforts to build more and safer infrastructure.
Charles Marohn, The Shopping Mall Death Spiral, Strong Town Journal. Chuck and Joe Minnicozzi have teamed up to quantify the costs of sprawl, specifically large format retail. Strong Towns has enlisted been running a series on the “rigged game” that us urban retailing in America.
These buildings require millions of dollars of pipes, streets, sidewalks and curbs to function. When they were originally built, loose money from the Fed along with a myriad of federal, state and local tax incentives made it easy for the Wal-Marts and Bass Pro’s of the world to absorb these costs. Now the cost of maintenance is the city’s, i.e. the local taxpayer.
Walking away from these really bad investments would be easy if it weren’t for the fact that most cities use these “investments” to juice horizontal growth in other, less-accessible areas. So you can ignore that pipe that needs replacing, but then you have to deal with the plethora of housing subdivisions, low-value retail and storage sheds upstream.
Contrast this with the traditional development pattern of the downtown. When one of those businesses close, what happens? We all know: something else takes it place. In our nasty downtown here I’ve seen — in my short life — one storefront be home for dozens of different things, from a pizza restaurant to office space to retail establishment. Downtown, we may not be able to get 48 different kinds of mustard in the same store where I can buy car tires and flannel underwear, but we’re also not going to go broke as a community.
After the malls, the big box stores will be the next species to falter and go on the endangered list. Strip malls and drive-through restaurants may hang around longer and may, in some places, find ways to adapt, but their general model is going to die as well. Cities that tethered their future to this experiment are going to struggle while those that still have a pulse in their core neighborhoods will have a chance at renewed prosperity.
Many people are over commuting long distances. Here’s the story from Melbourne. Katherine Townsend, “Walk to work: the Melburnians ditching the suburbs for inner-city life“, Domain.
He says many buyers from the outer suburbs trying to move to within one kilometre of the city are just “over it”. “They’ve bought into the Great Australian Dream with the quarter-acre block and the free-standing house but the congestion of trying to get to work wears them down. They think ‘if I can save two and a half hours a day, I will’.”
Here’s a House of Lords select committee report on the housing crisis in the UK. Some of the problems cited here are relevant to New Zealand. Daniel Bentley, “Notes on an oligopoly: What did we learn from the Lords’ report on the housing crisis?“, CityMetric.
England needs 300,000 homes a year – not 200,000
The government’s commitment to building 1m homes by 2020 (equivalent to 200,000 a year) will not be enough to meet future demand and tackle the backlog after years of undersupply. “To meet that demand and have a moderating effect on house prices, at least 300,000 homes a year need to be built for the foreseeable future,” the committee says. “Otherwise the average age of a first time buyer will continue to rise.”
Note too that the government is nowhere near hitting even 200,000 a year. Completions last year were just 155,000, just over half what is now recommended.
The large housebuilders restrict output to optimise profits
Private developers alone have neither the ability nor the motivation to build all of the homes we need. The housebuilding market is “oligopolistic”: its business model is to restrict the volume of housebuilding in order to maximise profits.
The government’s reliance on the private sector to meet its housebuilding targets is therefore misguided. “To achieve its target the government must recognise the inability of the private sector, as it is currently incentivised, to build the number of homes needed,” the peers say.