The Pencilsword: Rent rage by Toby Morris
The Pencilsword: Rent rage by Toby Morris

Hi, and welcome back to Sunday Reading.

The 25th of July marked the 100th anniversary of zoning. Increasingly zoning is being attributed to a growing number of city ills including low productivity, segregation, and reducing economic mobility. Just as conventional traffic engineering (eg. the requirement for parking minimums) is being reformed, I think that the practice of zoning is long overdue for an overhaul. A few people agree.

Justin Fox, “Zoning Has Had a Good 100 Years. Enough Already“, Bloomberg.

After about 1970, though, zoning’s negative economic effects began to grow. Before then, housing prices were more or less the same across the country. Since then, prices in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast have risen much faster than in most of the rest of the nation — in the process increasing inequality, thwarting residential mobility and slowing economic growth. Ever-tougher zoning rules and restrictions on growth appear to be a major cause. Fischel has a long list of explanations for this intensification of zoning that I won’t go into here, other than to mention the one that drives me the craziest — the dressing-up of self-interested economic arguments in the language of environmentalism and morality.

Mark Vallianatos and Mott Smith,”Our zoning codes are a relic of a suburban age. There’s a better way to plan“, LA Times.

What both sides miss is that zoning — the focus of planning for the last 100 years — is an inadequate tool for shaping the future of an evolving city. Zoning is a 20th century relic designed to “protect” existing residents from the encroachment of people and buildings they see as “undesirable.” Reformers should focus instead on tangible improvements in the public realm.

Joe Linton, “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Zoning and the World Is Getting Worse“, Streetsblog LA.

So much of zoning and planning are about making things convenient for driving, as opposed to making great places. Two of my biggest pet peeves are parking minimums and street widening, but there are all sorts of car-centric assumptions embedded in the urban forms in zoning and planning. There are further car-centric assumptions embedded other neutral-sounding governmental transportation planning processes. Don’t get me started on traffic engineering.

When I am at my crankiest, I think that we would be better off without any zoning or planning. But in my quieter moments, I can acknowledge that there is a baby somewhere in all that bathwater.

I look around Los Angeles. I can’t think of any great places here that were built after zoning emerged. I live in Koreatown which is among L.A. County’s densest neighborhoods with about 67 people per acre. Buildings on my street were built about a hundred years ago, adjacent to a streetcar line. Next door, there is a 40-unit apartment building with no parking. My building has eight units and five parking spaces. None of this would be allowed under current city plans.

Julie Anne Genter (@julieAnneGenter)  posted some great tweets during the Unitary Plan hearing on the absurdity of the zoning debate in Auckland.

It’s good to look to the other cities to see how bad housing affordability can get. As far as I can tell the Bay Area of California is the worst. In San Francisco ‘progressives’ are stifling housing growth and trying to kick industry out to slow job growth. Of course there is limit to how high housing costs can get before people start to look for better options. This article – Techies Can’t Afford San Francisco Anymore suggests that a quarter of ‘techies’ in the San Francisco are looking for jobs in other cities.

Here is the resignation letter of a young planning commissioner in Palo Alto who has given up advocating for more housing and has instead opted to leave the city. Kate Vershov Downing, “Letter of Resignation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission“, NewCo Shift,

Over the last 5 years I’ve seen dozens of my friends leave Palo Alto and often leave the Bay Area entirely. I’ve seen friends from other states get job offers here and then turn them down when they started to look at the price of housing. I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent when young families have no hope of ever putting down roots here, and meanwhile the community is engulfed with middle-aged jet-setting executives and investors who are hardly the sort to be personally volunteering for neighborhood block parties, earthquake preparedness responsibilities, or neighborhood watch. If things keep going as they are, yes, Palo Alto’s streets will look just as they did decades ago, but its inhabitants, spirit, and sense of community will be unrecognizable. A once thriving city will turn into a hollowed out museum. We should take care to remember that Palo Alto is famous the world over for its residents’ accomplishments, but none of those people would be able to live in Palo Alto were they starting out today.

Further commentary on this:

Sam Levin, “Housing official in Silicon Valley resigns because she can’t afford to live there“, The Guardian.

Analysts are now predicting that the housing crisis is going to have a serious impact on higher paid tech workers, potentially encouraging a sizable exodus.

While many housing advocates have pressured tech firms to contribute significant funds to help mitigate the crisis, others have argued that the blame lies with cities that promote a “not-in-my-back-yard” mentality and have blocked the rapid housing development that the region now needs.

“I have repeatedly made recommendations to the council to expand the housing supply in Palo Alto so that together with our neighboring cities who are already adding housing, we can start to make a dent in the jobs-housing imbalance that causes housing prices throughout the Bay Area to spiral out of control,” Kate wrote in her resignation letter.

The Downings and other tech workers who have recently left Palo Alto said the only homes they could afford would require them to live in areas far from their offices, forcing them to embark on hellish commutes.

Here’s a new game “Brand New Subway“. It  lets you modify versions of the New York Subway system or create a new one from scratch. The challenge of the game is to maximise ridership while minimising costs. Hmmm, where I have heard that before?

Driverless cars will be here soon. A colleague recently visited the Bay Area and said they were “all over the valley” and that “people hate them because they follow the speed limit”.  Here’s Robin Chase the co-founder of ZipCar highlighting the urgency (and opportunity) of planning for self driving cars: “Self driving cars will improve our cities if they don’t ruin them“, BackChannel.

Right now, we’re not even alert to how crucial the choices are. In fact, we’re falling asleep at the wheel. Most people in charge of shaping cities — mayors, transportation planners, developers, and lawmakers — haven’t realized what is about to hit them and the speed at which it is coming. They continue to build as if the future is like the present.

Instead, cities and countries must actively shape the introduction of AVs. We are getting access to this technical marvel at the precise moment when cities are full and bursting from the urbanizing of our planet, when we absolutely need to transition rapidly from fossil fuels, and when it is imperative to improve people’s access to opportunity: jobs, education, health services. We have the ability to eliminate congestion, transform the livability of cities, make it possible to travel quickly and safely from A to B for the price of a bus ticket, improve the quality of our air, and make a significant dent in reducing CO2 emissions.

The very landscape of our cities will change. On-street and almost all off-street parking, including parking garages, will be unnecessary and we’ll get rid of them. Communities and local governments can come up with criteria and priorities for how to repurpose that newly available public space: wider sidewalks, more street trees and plantings, bike lanes, street furniture. Progressive cities will make use of old parking lots, garages, and gas stations to fix what was lacking: affordable housing, green space, grocery stores, schools. Proactive cities will know their priorities neighborhood by neighborhood, as well as their criteria for action, before the transition begins.

Kats Dekker, “Let’s design for women too – beyond the commute“, Spatial Fairness.

Disregarding over 80% of all trips does not seem a sensible way forward. Yet, the transport systems and practices, still, are obsessed with the commute, even after various pushes for change have been made by the research community over many years.

Just looking at commuting data misses to consider a large number of trips, especially those made by women. Women, as is clear, are not a minority group. Yet women and their needs, even as a major group in society (women make more trips than men), are often disregarded. Looking at the commuting data alone discriminates against women in general, women’s activities and discounts women’s place in society.

We historically have looked at the commute for its coincidence with the rush hour, to deal with peak travel demand. In the UK at least, a real and honest look at space as a limited precious resource (and how to carve it up fairly and effectively) has not taken place. The commute focus has not brought about a better transport system with alternatives to the private car largely still excluded. I suggest that taking the commute approach brings the problem that over 80% of all trips have been neglected in transport assessments. These trips require attention for other reasons than the peak demand. Reasons are for example safety needs when travelling with kids and transporting shopping. In cycle cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam these trips are still carried out by women, by they are cycled. Removing those trips from the transport agenda marginalises the importance of women’s everyday activities and careful and sensible provision for these activities.

As most of you know, the PT in Auckland is pretty good in most places. This is a lovely piece by Greg Bruce where he shares how the train fit into his life.  “Who says public transportation sucks? In praise of the train“, The New Zealand Herald.

From the time I get on board, I know the train will get me to Britomart 41 minutes later, no matter how clogged the Northwestern Motorway and assorted arterial routes, no matter how many passengers are on board, no matter how heavy the rain.

The train’s sense of certainty and predictability suits my temperament, which tends to the anxious, and I arrive, relaxed and happy at my office at the same time every morning. Over the following hour, I watch and listen while my colleagues straggle in complaining about the traffic, the absence of carparks, the unpleasantness of the bus. I sometimes offer them a smile of the utmost smugness. More often, I ignore them.

How Auckland used to roll:

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  1. I think the acceptance of the Unity plan is good news for Auckland.
    There will be less cars on the road and AT will see ridership grow.
    At present we have many single houses on large blocks of land which is often concreted over to provide parking for several cars.
    The city will save a lot of money by not having to build roads and infrastructure in distant suburbs.
    There will be less pressure to build new suburbs on our good farmland as is happening in Hamilton. (Hopefully other NZ cities will copy Auckland’s plan)
    Our import bill for oil will decrease and save $100’s millions. Oil is by far our largest cost to the government.
    Auckland will be a greener city and play its part in the world with less CO2.
    The city will be able to build the CRL sooner and they will want to start planning a rail tunnel to the North Shore.
    The number of those both new and old single and double story homes will be balanced by other building designs and give more character and variety to the city. Some streets with terraced houses are ok but many streets of them are not attractive as say in Dannemora and Flat Bush.
    Those houses have small gardens with a deck and a few token shrubs at the fence line.
    Without the large park and the council trees the area would not look good
    Apartments will require green space which is often better landscaped than by busy people living a suburban street.The trend is for younger people living in apartments not to own a car.
    Many suburbs like Pakuranga, Panmure, Mt Albert, Ellerslie,Glen Eden, etc will have their businesses grow making them more desirable.

    1. nicely reasoned. We cannot over emphasize enough that the current plan is much too restrictive and is very unlikely to facilitate enough intensification. Better than nothing but still a fail.

      THAB for the isthmus!

      1. Thank you Alistair -I am not getting many comments on -if you feel up to it -it would be helpful to say something along those lines on

  2. Thanks for a great Sunday read.
    Zoning? I’ve been advocating for reform, through articles and presentations since 2006, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of planners were blind to it and in denial about planning regulation’s impact on housing costs – which is just inexcusable really (and suggestive of major problems in the education of planners – ie. far too much focus on environmental, design and legislative factors, and far too little on economic and social factors). I’m glad to see that many of the things I’ve been talking about for the last 10 years have finally come through in the Unitary Plan, in terms of density (nothing to do with me, I’m sure, but just the obvious answer being realised, eventually). Far too late, and far too much damage, but I guess better than never….I feel Auckland has been far too slow, but it sounds like compared to many other cities and countries it hasn’t been too bad!

    Around 2010 my views changed to not only focus on reform of urban zoning and regulation, but also greenfield. I think Auckland could make much more use of rural eco-hamlets and small eco-settlements, as satellites to the region’s rural towns and coastal areas. Perhaps something for the new Council to think about? Maybe we’ll see it in 2026….

  3. I’m a fan of rural developments at high density levels where they are well served by good transport links. That is why I supported the Cornerstone development in Waimauku 10yrs ago, it was to be adjacent to a rail line and the main highway highway and at higher densities. It eventually got stymied by the GFC and planning rules and now the trains no longer go as far.

    1. Yes exactly Mr Plod.
      Ex urban development like the Waimauku scheme can work very very well if executed well.
      So, um yeah, 10 years ago, ARC had it’s compact city model but the councils weren’t enabling density, and then they were stopping good ex-urban schemes….well ‘duh’, no wonder we have a housing crisis!!!!!!
      Planning in Auckland has been totally incompetent for a long time…. I’m sad to say as a planner it is a failure of the profession as well as the politicians.Very few planners indeed are willing to admit that.

      1. ARC had a pro PT policy but similarly the Councils did nothing to enable it; and they owned the roads, but wouldn’t paint a bus lane, for example. One place where I see huge value in amalgamation. IT is important to have the policy making and the means to deliver it in the same institution.

  4. I agree about the piece about the train (and I have similar experience with the NEX), but guys: “As most of you know, the PT in Auckland is pretty good in most places.” Um no.

  5. “From the time I get on board, I know the train will get me to Britomart 41 minutes later, no matter …”

    Giggling hysterically.
    Forgot to include
    Barring yet another suicide, accident, someone cutting the comms line to wellington (or did we move control back to Auckland after all?), some other train breaking down at the entrance to Britomart, or some random stoppage AT never bother telling us the reason for.

    Optimisation of average capacity HAS A COST.
    The closer the system is to operating at it’s maximum capacity, the lower the ability to cope with events that interfere with normal operation.

    A train (currently) may have issues less often than a car, but when it does, it UNAVOIDABLY affects a larger number of people (you can’t exit the train if you are not at a station, and even if you can, if the buses are all going to stations it doesn’t do you any good if the reason is a network level failure)

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