Vulcan Lane, 1968 (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A4199)

Happy New Year and welcome back to the first Sunday Reading of 2017. Please add your links in the comments below.

“Was it worth it?” It seems like such an obvious question, but one that is seldom raised in a meaningful way. I recall there was a period when NZTA was regularly doing post project evaluations. I’m not sure if that still happens, but the question remains an intriguing one. Here Angelenos ask was if widening The 405 to improve congestion was worth it. Adam Nagourney, “Los Angeles Drivers on the 405 ask: Was $1.6 Billion Worth It?“, The Los Angeles Times.

The cost of the Sepulveda Pass project was supposed to be $1 billion. It has now reached $1.6 billion, after transit offficials approved $300 million on new expameses last week.

Peak afternoon traffic time has indeed decreased to five hours from seven hours’ duration (yes, your read that right) and overall traffic capacity has increased. But congestion is as bad- even worse – during the busiest rush hours of 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., according to a study by the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Who knows how the path of technology will ultimately shape city transportation systems. My guess is that new automobile technology will favour areas that can be profitably exploited while leaving core, direct journeys to highly efficient (read: public transport) services. This article implies that (some) carmakers have something similar in mind.  Neal E. Boudette, “Automakers Prepare for an America That’s Over the Whole Car Thing“, The New York Times.

One clear sign of the shift is the increasing energy that carmakers are devoting to a design category the auto industry refers to as “the first mile/last mile” challenge. It refers to to the short distances some people must travel from home or work to a local destination, often a mass transit station.

Not so long ago, this challenge was strictly a matter for transportation authorities, and barely registered with automakers.

In many ways, the industry’s race to solve the last-mile challenge involves the development of self-driving vehicles, an effort involving various carmakers, technology companies and start-up firms.

Our friend Mike Lydon and the Street Plan Collaborative have published a follow-up to their Tactical Urbanism guide with “The Tactical Urbanism Guide to Materials“. As you can guess the The Materials Guide covers the materials, elements, and application tips advice for a range of tactical interventions using built projects as references.

Transit Center

This article reminded me of some our regular posts that call out very simple fixes that could provide significant benefits. Like this one, “More bus lanes – Fanshawe Street” or “More bus lanes required” that includes heaps of comments pointing to specific useful/actionable improvements. The Transit Center has a catchy title for the approach: “Why Tactical Transit is the Next Big Thing“, Transit Center.

The raffish, worldwide movement known as tactical urbanism appears poised to take on a meatier role in improving transit in bus corridors. By providing low cost, agile alternatives to lengthy street improvement processes, “tactical transit” has the ability to jump start virtuous cycles of increasing bus ridership by speeding up travel times, improving passenger experience and enhancing overall perceptions of riding the bus.

There is a growing trend of community activists taking tactical measures to improve their streets. Some of the designs (Seattle and San Francisco) have eventually been adopted by the city officials. John Metcalfe,”Building DIY Bike Lanes as a Form of Activism“, City Lab.

The San Francisco Municipal Transformation Agency is a group of anonymous traffic-safety activists who formed in response to two deadly hit-and-runs on local cyclists on the same day in June. They’ve performed scores of interventions in areas known to be hazardous to cyclists and pedestrians, typically fortifying bike lanes by lining them with orange traffic cones, or even installing white soft-hit posts in the road.

Q: At what point will you be satisfied with what the city is doing?

We believe that Vision Zero (zero deaths and serious injuries on San Francisco streets by 2024) is an achievable goal. We hope the city can reach this goal, but are concerned that the current rate of progress makes it very unlikely. We would be satisfied if we saw rapid, transformative change across the city to make streets safe and friendly for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers. Our streets should be designed for people, not for cars.

I have a lot of friends and family that live in the gravity of the San Francisco Bay Area. For most people, in particular the ones in more in less-techy professions the option of living in San Francisco has been beyond reach for many years. “It’s over”, is what I’ve heard often to describe both the futility of the housing market and the loss of creative opportunities there.

Johnny in the great Granola Shotgun blog touches on a similar sentiment in a story covering the tragic fire that claimed the lives of 36 people in Oakland in December: “The Ghost Ship“.

A friend left San Francisco a couple of years ago to attend graduate school in another state. She came for dinner during a visit and explained that most young educated people don’t even consider moving to San Francisco these days no matter how good the employment or cultural scene might be. The cost and scarcity of housing overwhelms the benefits for people who don’t yet have a toehold in the city. Word is out. Don’t bother. Many of the young people who do come don’t stay for very long.

People living in these accommodations know that if they had to move out they wouldn’t just be leaving the building, they’d most likely be leaving the city or the Bay Area entirely. There’s no where else to go. So people live in substandard buildings and don’t reach out to the authorities when the landlord is negligent. Many – I suspect most – tenants do their best to keep their precarious habitations as safe as possible. But properties and humans exist on a continuum. The Ghost Ship clearly failed on multiple levels.

And finally, it may be time for many people to reluctantly find a new city in another state to colonize. The Bay Area is toast. It really has become your money or your life.

A lot has been written about the prescience of Jane Jacobs in her final book Dark Age Ahead (2004). I haven’t got through it all yet, but have been so far struck by the chapter Science Abandoned, where Jacobs uses traffic engineering as an example of a profession that lacks critical thinking, self reflection, and understanding of dynamic systems. It’s a pretty brutal critique that also includes a discussion on “vanishing traffic”. Here is a PDF copy of Dark Age Ahead.

Richard Florida, “Did Jane Jacobs Predict the Rise of Trump?” City Lab.

Jacobs outlines an increasing distrust of politicians and politics, a burgeoning new urban crisis in cities, worsening environmental degradation, entrenched segregation, and an “enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with attrition of the middle class” as signals and symptoms of a coming Dark Age.

Historically speaking, dark ages have come upon us relatively quickly, as “radical jolts” lead to the collapse of once-vital economic political and cultural institutions. Europe’s original Dark Age came about as local governments and city-states were “expunged by imperial decree and were replaced by a centralized military despotism.” Jacobs points to the cities of the Roman Empire, which lost the advantages of subsidiarity—closeness to the people—and fiscal accountability to the imperial treasury before its collapse. In the book, she asks a very big question that stands at the heart of dark ages: “how and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?”

For Jacobs, cities and neighborhoods are much more than walkable, mixed-use places, and much more than engines of innovation and economic growth. They are also bulwarks against the forces of darkness—the fonts of social progress, of human civilization, and of democracy itself.

On the other hand, Jacobs implores us to do everything in our power protect ourselves from the forces of top-down power and mass amnesia that would destroy our communities and the key pillars of human civilization.

Here is an entertaining podcast of the influence of Jacobs’ writing on current city planning professionals. The Urbanist. Jane Jacobs. Monocle.

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  1. Kent – to absorb all this you have set quite a stack of home work, so promptly in the the new year but despite the gorgeous sunny day outside I promise to do so – soon. And I quite enjoy thumbing through ‘Monocle’ magazine with its global take on urbanism, culture and design. Thanks for all your contributions to ‘Sunday Reading’.

  2. Happy New Years to you Kent and the rest of the Transport Blog team

    While today is a day lounging around the Auckland Botanical Gardens your Bus Route poster does remind me what I am doing in Cities Skylines right now. That is some 67 bus routes later and we dont quite have an efficient transit system in play. So time to get tactical as you say. It would take more time than I have patience for to redo all 67 lines in a large city. So let’s do minor fixes one at a time that lead up to the big fix.
    So that means relocating bus stops, changing some routes a little bit (so not redoing the entire route), tactical use of more bus lanes (while banning sodding Taxis out of the area) and more usage of the small 3-bay bus station as a mini interchange when you have some routes that converge together but do not need the big 25 bay bus station.

    Results? So far looking rather good with patronage going up.

    Tactical urbanism or rather transit as you say.

  3. The Jane Jacobs article is interesting. But she didn’t predict Trump as the title suggests. It seems to be written by another bewildered yank who is removed from and can’t understand their own countrymen. So somehow they have conflated Trump and their own surprise with a new dark age. I am still amused by these people and the election of Trump in the same way I would be amused seeing someone who annoys me a bit step on the dog shit. I don’t think i am the only one who thinks this is funny. Russians must be laughing themselves silly about it.

    1. I don’t think it’s helpful to laugh at others’ misfortunes. Especially as the Americans’ misfortunes will soon rebound on us, eg if Trump starts a trade war with China.

      When the Republicans do as they promise and repeal Obamacare, many Trump voters will be kicked off the insurance rolls to sicken, go bankrupt, and die prematurely. This will be a massive (if incredibly predictable) betrayal of trust. However, I doubt many American liberals are going to be celebrating it.

      1. I agree it’s not helpful but it is still very amusing. The Democrats are upset because they didn’t think it would happen and chose a political insider in the worst year to make that choice. The Trump voters will be upset because he simply can’t deliver. America was great because world wars destroyed industry in other parts of the world, not because of anything US politicians did to make it great. As for Obamacare, well you can’t pin that on Trump, blame the overwhelming majority who voted in Republican representatives and senators. Seeing another team score an own goal is just funny.
        As for the surprise aspect of Trumps win. I still dont understand why so many people couldn’t see it coming. Pretty sure I said it here in the middle of last year. The vote is decided in states where a large number of people have a ‘mind your own business’ attitude to how they will vote. The working poor in the rustbelt are conservative people who blame Democratic policies for the fact they have to live beside welfare queens and other non-working poor. They resent paying taxes from there small incomes so that their neighbours can free ride and behave badly.

        1. Wrong, the United States’ greatest growth wasn’t World War related but largely occurred in the period 1850-1900 (approximately). Due largely to US enhancement of technology developed elsewhere (e.g. railways, scientific farming, steel manufacturing), some notable native developments (e.g. true replaceable parts, the consumer society).

        2. I didnt say it was greatest then. I said it was great then. That is the period the rustbelters are looking back at as it is within living memory. Look them up they mean different things. As for your claim of technology being the driver from 1850 to 1900, I would said it was a combination of vast lands they grabbed in the name of manifest destiny combine with huge capital inflows from Europe. Much of that capital was never repaid due to the robber barons habit of going bust and selling assets on cheap. If any country wants to follow the develop in the US manner then just borrow huge from foreigners and never repay them.

        3. Try Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul. He is scathing about how the US actually developed as opposed to their founding myths.

  4. Mfwic – glad to hear that you are understanding of / about Trump as I can’t figure out why anyone would vote for someone so patently stupid. But one thing I really can’t figure out about Trump is – what’s with all the pro-Russia schtick? I just can’t understand what is going on there. Any idea?
    Ps – Kent – thanks for the PDF link on Jacobs. It’s going to be tricky reading a 252 page PDF on my phone at the beach, but I’ll try….

      1. Thanks Patrick, great article. Presumably the ‘build more nukes’ rhetoric is smoke & mirrors to make us believe Trump & Putin don’t both bat on the same team.

    1. I don’t buy the big oil conspiracy. More likely is the Russians figured the best way to stuff the US up is let them do it to themselves. So they hacked Hillary and did their level best to give Trump an advantage. Now they are probably laughing their heads off that people actually voted for the twit.

      Seriously it is funny. The country that claims to be our ally but wont buy our stuff.

  5. excellent idea.

    question will people actually use public transport in Auckland?

    what’s the compliance rate like in Wellington? dropping was what I last heard?

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