csree7oweaipbuhHello, and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are a collection of articles, videos and commentary I found interesting over the week. Please add your own links in the comments section.

Here is a good article on the illogic of sprawl from a fiscal standpoint. Nice to see Chuck Marohn and Strongtowns mentioned. Matthew Robare, “Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice“, The American Conservative.

Sprawl isn’t really as cheap as it seems. A network of tax breaks, financial guarantees, subsidies, and other chicanery keep parts of suburbia relatively inexpensive. Most notably, transportation costs are often excluded from the discussion of housing affordability, even though it’s hard to live anywhere without a way to get to work. For example, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has shown that the low density, car-dependent development that has typified American cities since World War II does not produce enough tax revenue to service the debt that cities took out to build the infrastructure needed for sprawl.

The numbers stuff can be really dull and become a barrier for some to the advantages of urbanism.  Sightline recommends the housing and urbanism message can be better communicated by focusing on people, and a shared community challenge. City Observatory says not so fast, here’s a ‘teachable moment’ about supply and demand. Joe Cortright , “Lessons in Supply and Demand: Housing Market Edition“, City Observatory.

The demand for cities and for great urban neighborhoods is exploding. Americans of all ages, but especially well-educated young adults are increasingly choosing to live in cities. And in the face of that demand, our ability to build more such neighborhoods and to expand housing in the ones that we already have is profoundly limited, both by the relative slowness of housing construction (relative to demand changes), and also because of misguided public policies that constrain our ability to build housing in the places where people most want to live, to the point in many communities, we’ve simply made it illegal to build the dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that widely regarded as the most desirable.

We don’t expect the demand for urban living to abate any time soon–in fact, there’s good reason to believe that it will continue to increase. And it’s still the case that we have a raft of public policies – from restrictions on apartment construction and density, to limits on mixed use development, to onerous parking requirements, and discretionary, hyper-local approval processes – that make it hugely difficult to build new housing in the places where it’s most needed.

Many of the problems we encounter in the housing market are a product of self-inflicted wounds that are based on naive and contradictory ideas about how the world works. We believe that housing should both be affordable and a great investment (which is an impossible contradiction), and we tend to think the laws of supply and demand somehow don’t apply to one of the biggest sectors of the economy (housing). At their root, our housing problems–and their solutions–are about understanding the economics at work here. So in our view, it’s definitely time to talk about supply and demand.

Here’s George Monbiot stating the obvious – “it was a mistake – a monumental, world-class mistake”– “Our roads are choked. We’re on the verge of carmageddon“, The Guardian.

Over half the car journeys people make in this country are less than five miles: this is what policy failure looks like. Why don’t people cycle instead? Perhaps because, though the number of motorists killed or seriously injured has fallen sharply, the number of cyclists killed or hurt on the roads has climbed since 2003. This now accounts for 14% of all casualties, though cycling amounts to only 1% of the distance we travel.

The simplest, cheapest and healthiest solution to congestion is blocked by the failure to provide safe transit. Last year the transport department crowed that it could cut £23m from its budget as a result of an “underspend on the Cycle Cities Ambition budget”. Instead of handing this money back to the Treasury, it should have discovered why it wasn’t spent, and ensured that it doesn’t happen again.

So here’s a novel idea: how about a 21st-century transport system for the 21st century? Helsinki is making public transport as convenient and flexible as private transport. For example, by aggregating people’s requests via a smartphone app, minibus services can collect people from their homes and deliver them close to their destinations while minimising their routes. Hamburg is building a network of cycling and walking paths so safe, pleasant and convenient that no one with the ability to do otherwise would want to take a car.

Here is Lyft founder John Zimmer describing how technology will solve the problem of the car in the city – “The Third Transportation Revolution“, Medium.

Next time you walk outside, pay really close attention to the space around you. Look at how much land is devoted to cars — and nothing else. How much space parked cars take up lining both sides of the street, and how much of our cities go unused covered by parking lots.

It becomes obvious, we’ve built our communities entirely around cars. And for the most part, we’ve built them for cars that aren’t even moving.

…I believe we’re on the cusp of nothing short of a transportation revolution — one that will shape the future of our communities. And it is within our collective responsibility to ensure this is done in a way that improves quality of life for everyone.

By 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities.

Baffingly, our human habitat remains under examined. What make great places, streets and cities? Here is a comprehensive study that tracks people’s movements to determine the properties that make more healthy and active places. It appears consistent with other studies by Reid Ewing and others.  Kaid Benfield, “Four Characteristics of Active, Healthy Neighborhoods“, Placemakers.

  • Residential density. It takes a critical mass of homes in a neighborhood to support economically viable shops and amenities within walking distance.
  • Intersection density. Well-connected streets tend to shorten travel distances and put more likely destinations within walking distance.
  • Public transport density. More transit stops within walking distance make it more likely that residents have transit options and will elect to use them.
  • Access to parks. Parks serve not only as places where people exercise but also as destinations people walk to and from, getting exercise as they do.

Here’s a fascinating study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact- porches, stoops, etc. This seems so basic, but rarely applied in New Zealand.  Brown, SC et al, “Built environment and physical functioning in Hispanic elders: the role of ‘eyes on the street‘”, Pub Med.gov.

After controlling for age, sex, and income, architectural features of the built environment theorized to facilitate visual and social contact had a significant direct relationship with elders’ physical functioning as measured 3 years later, and an indirect relationship through social support and psychological distress. Further binomial regression analyses suggested that elders living on blocks marked by low levels of positive front entrance features were 2.7 times as likely to have subsequent poor levels of physical functioning, compared with elders living on blocks with a greater number of positive front entrance features [b = 0.99; chi(2) (1 df) = 3.71; p = 0.05; 95% confidence interval, 1.0-7.3].

Street party. Balmoral, Auckland, 2015

While many of our streets are designed for social interaction and access to transport services, people seem largely content to live behind stone walls and high hedges.  Here’s a neat story from the suburbs of Minnesota that has encouraged people to come back to their front yards. James Walsh, “Project connects St. Paul neighbors by moving them to their front yards“, Star Tribune.

Ross Callahan has lived in his Rondo-area home for 14 years. Yet, he admits, he’d communicated with only a few of his neighbors over that time, usually with a nod or a wave.

Then a funny thing happened. He started spending time in the front yard.

Thanks to a project designed to get people out of their backyards and meeting their neighbors, Callahan started cleaning up the green space at the center of his cul-de-sac, laid a new patio and, yes, started getting to know the people who live in the dozen homes around him.

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  1. That kind of hard data around Hispanic elders’ health needs to be gathered and put squarely in front of people like the Productivity Commission.

    Every time I read nonsense about the “cost of aesthetics”, this is the kind of outcome I think about – the community and health benefits that only result from deliberate design choices. I’ll bet the costs to the health care and social support systems from that 2.7x worse physical function are not insubstantial, and much higher than the cost of building those architectural features.

    Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design.

    In the Auckland context, it’s a problem that we stripped out _so many_ design elements from the UP. Yes, we should make planning faster + more certain; but street-frontage controls clearly have a substantial long term economic cost according to the evidence above – and that’s just one specific outcome being measured. Accumulate all the benefits of getting architecture right in an urban setting, and the cost benefits could be staggering. There’s a reason places like hospitals now focus strongly on design outcomes.

    My take is that it’s essential to have basic metric-based district plan Rules that control street interfaces, because they’re the heart of private-public engagement, they’re easy to define, are low or no-cost (eg limiting fence heights, putting entrance doors in the right place), and not at all difficult to comply with. These are not esoteric high-brow aesthetic design features that require expert opinion as part of a consent! Based on the evidence above, the ideologues just shoot their own economic theory in the foot when they force these controls out.

    1. ‘Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design. ‘
      Great stuff TimR. I have been involved in projects large and small, where the customer engaged with a process of aesthetics, good design/architecture, style…call it what you will. A good design outcome without exception, contributed toward a better financial performance for that business. The challenge is how to calculate an accurate value on just how much that better aesthetic result contributed.

    2. Well said Tim. Good design is always – always! – about functionality first, not aesthetics alone. And functionality can create significant value.

      That being said, there are two suggestions I’d make as a sympathetic critic.

      The first is that urban design (and politicians pushing it) needs to draw a line between attempts to manage public/quasi-public spaces, like footpaths, front porches, and vehicle accessways, and attempts to manage private spaces. The case for the former is stronger than the case for the latter, as public spaces (by definition) affect more people.

      The reason that this is important is that it’s too easy for people to critique bad arguments for design controls on private spaces, and then assume that they extend to design controls on public spaces.

      The second is that design controls need to be developed with an eye to interactions with other policies and the built environment. Classic example is the interface between building design and street design. You simply don’t get street-front activation and walkable design on aggressive high-speed arterials. So need to sort that out in conjunction with other attempts.

      1. The form and function factors in something aesthetically pleasing can be a fun yet important debate. Your quote: ‘Good design is always – always! – about functionality first, not aesthetics alone’, is interesting as it perhaps highlights the difference between what might be considered art versus what might be considered design. Is the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Public Toilet art or design? Both equally?

        In general, successful design has to start as a functional response to a design brief within a budget and timeframe. Success can be resolving the task in a manner that is highly refined and creates its own aesthetic. Brilliance is coming up with a solution that is “outside the box”, while meeting all other criteria. Art is combining both the former within a sense of style.

        Art might be an amazing looking meal at a restaurant, a cool business card, street art, a rustic furniture creation, or one of Zaha Hadid’s creations. In each of these examples, arguably it is aesthetics either foremost, or absolutely level pegging with function.

        1. Yes, that’s a good way of describing the (slippery) distinction between art and design.

          Aesthetics can obviously be functional – humans enjoy beautiful places more than ugly ones. But they won’t compensate for inconvenience.

          Perhaps a useful question to ask – thinking of Zaha Hadid – is how the building looks from street level versus from an aerial view. If it looks good (and works well) on street level, it’s probably a well-designed building. If it looks better from a distance, probably not.

          1. Should architecture be art or design? A sculptural piece that people walk through and interact with? Or driven by function with aesthetics created through those pure functional forms? Or function with “trimmings”? Most design and architecture schools well and truly encourage students to minimise or eliminate those “trimmings” as false, faux or somehow cheap.

            But…… “styling” which is another word for adding the “trimmings” can look good, while not detracting from function. But, it costs real time in designers or architects fees to look convincing. Or, it is done as a tip of the hat to fashion – cue “flash” or “fancy” retail store fit out or cafe design as being on the whole highly derivative……someone innovates and creates “art” a long way back down the food chain, and is then imitated around the world. And a last couple of questions…….Is fashion functional? Does it need to be? 😉

  2. by 2025 private car ownership will all but end in major US cities? I call BS on that one. Totally not going to happen. And absolutely certainly not going to happen in NZ over that time frame. Happy to be proved wrong, but we can check back in 9 years and see who is right….

    1. Change can happened very fast, after the war in the UK before 1960 very few families had cars by 1970 most did, my age group grew up without cars but not our children, it changed in one generation.

      1. People aren’t going to have huge amounts of time that they can spend on every single journey. For the vast majority of people, they will still keep a car, it just won’t be their main method of transportation.

        1. I’m gonna call bs too. Multiple car ownership within households maybe, but your own car is an improvement over a rental or taxi no matter how cheap the taxi is.

          For people living in certain lifestyles, particularly in dense areas this is likely to work out alright.

      2. Its BS,but imagine, maybe, just maybe, it comes true, and no new privately owned cars are sold in 2025 as robot taxis and like make owning them redundant.
        Ok so the resale value of everyones existing cars as second hand vehicle will plummet. The existing car fleet won’t vanish overnight, resulting in two likely outcomes:

        1. Those who already own cars will simply hang on to them as the “sunk cost” of the formerly expensive private car and its now low resale price means its not worth getting rid of, so folks will just plan on running it til it drops. [and then likely, once it does, they’ll park it and walk away, leaving the city or whatever passes in their area, the job of cleaning up all those abandoned cars at ratepayers expense].

        Attempts to prevent this by hiking private car registration, and mandatory insurances etc and/or tougher warrant checks will only cause some abandonment to occur sooner.
        But many of those who adandon their *current* cars will simply find its even easier to buy another [i.e. less broken down/worn out/abandoned] one, because…

        2. Those who wouldn’t consider buying a [replacement] car until then (or maybe buy that second or third! or more) car will find that they’re so cheap that they an buy formerly luxurious [possibly ex-lease/fleet] fossil fueled cars like high end Mercs, BMWs and the like for a massive discount over their previous “new” car price. Eventually leading us back to (1) above

        All up these two will trigger a long tail of “ongoing” car retention.

        Electric cars with their dramatically lower [but not zero] maintenance costs and much cheaper “fuelling costs” will be able to be kept running for way longer than a fossil fuel car could.
        Battery lifespan/replacement costs being the only practical limitation on that. So privately owned electric cars will be around for some time to come.

        Now maybe those two things might work their way through the aged vehicle fleet over time and eventually will lead to less cars on the road then, but thats a long, long time away and the cars and congestion will get very much worse a long time before that situation comes into play.

        When steam power was replaced by Diesel in NZ it took nearly 2 decades for the “changeover” to fully occur. But that was mostly because the market for second hand steam locos was non existent, had NZ been able to import and run cheap “second hand Jap steam locos” for instance [like we do now with cars] the “long tail” of steam fade out, would have grown way way longer.
        Even then those new fangled expensively imported diesel locos were only about 33% “cheaper” to operate than the old steam locos, which is surprisingly low, given the massive infrastructure that steam locos required.

        Of course, this all depends on someone delivering massively cheap robot taxi rides. Now people who think that if Uber et al can remove the driver from the equation, that means the cost of an Uber will fall dramatically. Then they should think again. Thats because instead of Uber renting “their” cars from their drivers [which they do now by paying those drivers a commission per ride that covers the car rental and the also the drivers income] , they’ll have to instead either own and maintain [or lease from GM etc] a large fleet of expensive robot taxis.

        As well land for them to park up and recharge thats not so far out of the city that it takes all day for the robot taxi to go to/from the layover yard each day. [which they currently get for free – from all those Uber drivers and their cars]

        Meaning that the cost of Uber or your robot taxis ride wont plummet once Robot Taxis arrive.
        So the assumed golden future of taxi rides that, [to steal a well worn phrase from the nuclear power industry of 60 years ago ] are”too cheap to meter”, will not arrive.

        So until there are dirt cheap and “available” alternatives to using cars for urban mobility, cars will stay around in cities, for sometime to come no matter how much MoT and other wishful thinkers like Uber, Lyft and GM may want otherwise.

        1. Agree with everything you say Greg. Was just thinking the same thing: how long before 100% of all news cars are robots.. plus how long before ALL non-robot cars are off the road. Given that average age of a car in NZ on replacement is 13 years, we’re talking decades away. By which time Auckland’s population will be 2.5 – 3 m. Meanwhile we could just build rail / light rail, which has higher people capacity per m of corridor width in any event…

        2. I was looking at the problem of a few years ahead from a different perspective, in the 1960s I could walk out of one job and into another no one carried much debt and the world was awash with oil, I think it’s more likely we will have roads cluttered with abandoned cars, when the price of petrol went up and oil was over $100 per barrel we had people calling in to see if we had some petrol to get them to the next petrol station, I don’t see personal transport as the future it’s to energy intensive.

          1. It’s not that simple. There’s a time value component. For many people that’s what makes it the cheaper/less of two evils.

        3. “…because instead of Uber renting “their” cars from their drivers …”
          Um, no.
          They’ll STILL rent them from the drivers, just for more of the time, simply because the owner can go off to work at a job and still have the car driving around earning income.

        4. And you might just get to be “too cheap to meter” for practical purposes – as in the ride costs <$1.

          I pay $50/month to Uber.
          I ride whenever I want.
          Every month Uber takes the $50, keeps $10, and spreads the other $40 over the rides I had on the basis of distance covered (or time, or ….)

          1. Oh wait. just saw this headline on one of the posted links:
            “New Yorkers Can Now Get Unlimited Uber For $100”

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