Welcome back to Sunday reading. As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing many blog posts lately – I’ve been a bit too busy with work! Normal service should resume shortly.
One of the most provocative and interesting articles I read this week was on the astoundingly high costs of infrastructure in the US, and what could be done differently. Stephen Smith writes about it in Bloomberg View:
The French rail operator SNCF told the California High-Speed Rail Authority that it could cut $30 billion off the project’s $68 billion estimated price tag. San Francisco can barely build underground light rail for the price that Tokyo pays for high-capacity subways. Los Angeles’s planned subway to the sea will be a bit cheaper, but is still very expensive considering the area’s lack of density.
The budgets for other types of urban public-works projects can be just as shocking. Who can forget Boston’s Big Dig, the $24 billion highway boondoggle? But mass-transit networks stand to lose most from out-of-control infrastructure costs.
A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.
Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.
Ironically, attempting to save costs when selecting contractors is in fact a contributor to high costs:
In Madrid, on the other hand, cost was given only a 30 percent weight when picking designers and builders, according to Melis. Speed was weighted at 20 percent. Melis praised quick execution as necessary for an efficient, affordable project. (Compare this with multigenerational projects, such as California’s high-speed rail and New York’s Second Avenue subway.) The remaining 50 percent was determined by the technical merits of proposals and the staff’s subjective considerations.
Littlefield also argues that judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “In the private sector, if you rob your customer, you will suffer a hit to your reputation and possible losses in the courts,” he said in an interview. “Not so if you rob an agency like the MTA. Then it’s all rights and no responsibilities.”
The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest-price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to “writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past.” The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.
While New Zealand doesn’t appear to be especially deficient when it comes to public infrastructure costs, this is certainly an area we should watch carefully.
Cost inflation is certainly an issue in housing, an area where there are many diagnoses and many proposed solutions (but, as far as I can tell, no silver bullet). The other week, the Prime Minister caused a stir by asserting that environmental protection is to blame for high housing costs. Stephen Davis (City Beautiful) adds some useful nuance to the discussion, pointing out that, in cities, concerns about amenity and character, not environmental protection, are the main factor:
What’s the matter with blaming “the environment”, then?
The RMA is a cause of unaffordable housing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s our environmental protection that’s to blame. Most of the restrictions that that cause the worst impacts are not justified on environmental grounds, but rather as “amenity” considerations.
Indeed, one of the most critical blocks on increased density is concerns about traffic congestion, an “amenity” issue. But the solution that most RMA-based plans prescribe is to provide more parking and more roads. This is a recipe for for increased driving, and thus increased environmental degradation (Duany et al, 2000; Shoup, 2005).
Another is “character”. In many areas, it’s prohibited to build new buildings that are not similar in scale or form or expense to existing ones. This has nothing to do with the environment, and is designed around the aesthetic and cultural desires of existing residents to prevent newcomers, particularly those of a different social or economic class. This isn’t even desirable in the first place, but it’s still part of the RMA.
Why does any of that matter?
Because New Zealand is hugely concerned with our unaffordable housing, and we’re looking for something to fix it. Blaming “the RMA” is technically accurate. But thinking that “the RMA” means “the environment” is way, way off. But there is also a huge constituency who actually want the environmental parts gone as well, or instead, aside from housing considerations. Farmers, aquaculture, heavy industry, freight transport – there are many spheres of life regulated by the RMA that have nothing to do with the housing crisis.
Getting too keep on the idea that “the environment” is to blame will mean trashing aspects of the RMA that aren’t to blame, and do protect environmental values. While it’s preventing new housing, it’s also the RMA that controls how dirty our rivers get, what’s in the air we breathe, and how we protect our special places.
— Peter Gleick (@PeterGleick) March 1, 2017
On the topic of urban planning, in CityLab Richard Florida reviews some new research into anti-development activism: “Anatomy of a NIMBY“:
A recent white paper by Paavo Monkkonen sheds interesting new light on the connection between NIMBYism and housing affordability. It takes a deep dive into, on the one hand, neighborhood opposition and land use restrictions, as well as housing supply and housing costs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and California’s other expensive housing markets…
The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.
The paper goes on to investigate why some people oppose development, and what can be done about it:
To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition…
Monkkonen goes on to parse four different strains of NIMBYism and their underlying motivations:
- Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
- Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
- Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
- Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.
Speaking of the loss of neighbourhood character from development, here’s how Upper Queen St has changed over the last 170 years:
Circling back to environmental protection, The Spinoff’s Don Rowe puts forward a case for taxing tourists at the border to pay for better environmental protection:
New Zealand has the highest rate of threatened species in the world. Birds, dolphins, bats – you name a family, we’ve got a species on the precipice of extinction. Our rivers are the stuff of nuclear meltdowns and Beijing gutters. OK that last point is hyperbole, but while we’re arguing semantics, the government legitimately considers ‘wadeable and boatable’ water a reasonable goal.
And yet DoC’s funding continues to be slashed – or massaged, depending on who you ask.
It’s time for a border fee. Wait, not a fee, that’s too pejorative. And definitely don’t say tax. Jesus Christ, do not say tax. What about a contribution? A border contribution. I say $20.
Twenty bucks, a Queen Liz, less than a 12 box of Waikato, less even than your average worker on minimum wage pays in tax every single day.
There were three and a half million visitors to New Zealand last year. Charge them all the price of a coffee and lunch, and we’ve raised more than $60,000,000 for the conservation and preservation of our country.
When we need to pay for a new road, we smack a toll on it. Nothing excessive, but, cumulatively, huge sums of money can be raised.
AUT tourism lecturer Simon Milne told Radio NZ in May last year that research shows visitors are much more willing and happy to pay a border tax if you can show the money is going back into the resources they use, the environment they enjoy, and the culture that surrounds it. A brief scan of Givealittle would similarly indicate people are generally willing to spend cash to help out – how’s enjoying one of the most incredible natural landscapes on earth as a pledge reward? Top tier stuff, those Alps.
I support this idea.
I think it's time we accepted no-one will be using the Cycle Superhighway on a cold, wet February morning. pic.twitter.com/6eIj8OQoFL
— aviewoflondon (@sw19cam) February 27, 2017
To close, two pieces on public transport. In The Age, Adam Carey argues that “Melbourne’s relationship with our trams is completely irrational”.
Melbourne’s tram patronage surged 12 per cent to carry more than 200 million people last year, a figure that puts them in the same ballpark as the city’s trains (which carried 233 million), and closer to becoming the backbone of the city’s public transport system.
Though trams have always been a big deal in Melbourne, this is arguably more true than ever now. The city would grind to a halt without them. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Melbourne still doesn’t truly respect its trams…
Consider this irrationality. About 200,000 passengers a day catch a tram along St Kilda Road. That’s about as many people as drive over the West Gate Bridge each day.
If there’s an accident on the bridge and the freeway is blocked for a few hours, politicians and commentators line up to argue that we urgently need to spend a lazy $18 billion on another east-west freeway. And yet the city’s busiest tram corridor doesn’t even have enough separation with general traffic to stop a delivery van driver shutting the whole thing down by doing an ill-timed U-turn in front of a moving tram.
This lack of separation means tram-on-car bingles happen two or three times a day on average. This causes serious tram delays and in too many cases, serious injuries for passengers on board.
Melbourne’s tram network is unique. It’s the world’s biggest, and almost 80 per cent of it is along roads it shares with other traffic This makes it more like a slow streetcar system than an efficient light rail network. But the sheer weight of numbers demands Melbourne’s trams be given light rail-style priority.
On a related note, in Urban Land, Peter Calthorpe and Jerry Walters speculate on several possible futures from autonomous vehicles, including this quite utopian one:
Autonomous rapid transit proposes the application of AV technology in shared vehicles in dedicated transit lanes similar those used in bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Such an approach would achieve the efficiency of AV flow without eliminating private vehicles from city streets. It would minimize the operational costs of BRT by eliminating the need for drivers, reduce VMT significantly by tailoring capacity by time and place to match demand, and cut travel time for many passengers by providing direct express service to destinations.
Most important, ART could form a feasible, smooth transition from the existing conditions and ownership patterns to complete shared-AV environments in which all private autos are eliminated.
Shared Mobility, ITF/CPB’s update of their seminal 2014 AV study, found that once an urban district eliminates private autos, variations on shared AV minibuses and vans will virtually eliminate congestion and parking and can reduce VMT by 37 percent. This study used a range of shared six-, eight-, and 16-person minibuses and vans coordinated with the existing mass transit resources and walkability of Lisbon. The study assumes that the minibuses and vans could be AVs or driver controlled, and that the outcome would be the same in terms of VMT. The reductions in VMT found in this study are essentially a direct result of the assumed higher vehicle occupancy.
As a general principle, I’d argue that autonomous vehicles are likely to be deployed most rapidly on public transport networks, as the technical challenges involved in getting vehicles to run on fixed routes with some degree of exclusion of non-autonomous vehicles are likely to be smaller.
— Carlton Reid (@carltonreid) February 28, 2017
That’s it for now – enjoy the rest of the day!