Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting to get evidence of what will happen as a result of the Roads of National Significance: induced traffic and congestion stuff-ups.
Here’s Damian George (Stuff) reporting on outcomes after the opening of the first sections of the Kapiti Expressway:
The $630 million Kapiti expressway has actually doubled the amount of time it takes to commute into Wellington during the morning rush, some motorists say.
One Kapiti Coast resident believes the morning crawl into the capital is now so bad that she is vowing to use the train instead, even though it will cost her $100 more a month.
Councils across the Wellington region have asked the New Zealand Transport Agency to look into the problem. But there may be no quick fix until construction of the Transmission Gully motorway is finished in 2020.
The problem is that while the new four-lane expressway between Mackays Crossing and Peka Peka has shaved minutes off the journey through the Kapiti Coast, it has also created a traffic bottleneck where it connects to the old two-lane State Highway 1, just north of Paekakariki.
Raumati Beach resident Natasha Donald said her 45 to 55 minute morning commute to Wellington’s CBD, which she car-pools with three other people, has ballooned out between 80 and 95 minutes since the expressway opened in February.
That’s not a good look. Unfortunately, the only “solution” that the transport planners are offering is building more highways. Is there any other industry where a forecasting failure on a project that costs hundreds of millions of dollars is rewarded by yet more money?
This isn’t a problem with a single road, by the way. It’s systemic. In the Guardian, Gwyn Topham reports on new research showing that new roads built in England have “almost all failed to either relieve congestion or boost local economies”:
Researchers found that traffic increased much more rapidly in areas with new roads, putting pressure on adjoining roads and giving negligible reductions in journey times. Only one in five road schemes promoted as a boost for local economies demonstrated evidence of any such benefit. Meanwhile, most of the analysed schemes harmed protected landscapes and attempts to protect rare animals and plants were not always successful.
Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of CPRE, said that in announcing the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s, the government had “junked the evidence … saloon bar policy-making won the day”.
Ralph Smyth, the head of infrastructure and legal at CPRE, said: “This a programme that will for ever fail on its own terms, producing a depressing, self-perpetuating cycle of more and more roads that do little for the economy and harm the countryside.
“This landmark research shows that any benefits from roadbuilding are far smaller than thought but the harm much worse. Rather than looking to the past, the government must invest in a forward-looking mobility strategy that puts quality of life ahead of the car.”
This isn’t just a rural highway issue, either. What we’ve been doing isn’t working well for our cities. In The Spinoff, Simon Wilson comments on Auckland’s current transport woes:
In the last five years pedestrian numbers on Queen St have doubled, to 60,000 a day. No other city in the world has seen such growth on its main street. There are now 45,000 people living in the central city: that’s the number the planners said we’d reach in 2032. There are 22 percent more people working in the CBD and the number of commuters arriving on public transport has risen from 13,000 to 40,000.
There are now more people living in the city centre than drive in by car. In fact, the number of cars in the central city hasn’t grown at all.
Walk down Queen St these days and you’ll find the pavements stuffed with people. Drive down, and you could well have a clear run – who, apart from service vehicles and taxis, takes a car into Queen St anymore? Yet it is still a four-lane road from top to bottom.
As for High St, there are now so many people there it’s almost impossible to walk its length – it should be a shoppers’ haven and yet cars, and carparks on both sides, continue to get priority! Why?
The inner city is not what we thought it was going to be when the council adopted the City Centre Masterplan (CCMP) in 2012. Change has been faster and far larger than anyone predicted.
Now it’s time to revise the plan. But guess what? Although car numbers are static and bus and walker numbers are way up, the planners are not going to change tack. To the dismay of many councillors, no big rethink is on the cards. Auckland Transport appears to believe all we should do is delay some plans and rejig some others. The government, which controls most of the money, thinks much the same.
Meanwhile, further afield, things are arguably even worse. Did you know more than half the peak-time commuters on the harbour bridge now ride to work on a rapid transit bus on the dedicated busway? That’s great.
These are North Shore people, who supposedly would never get out of their cars, and yet somehow they have.
That’s rapid transit in action, proving its worth. So why, if we look west, did the widening of the northwest motorway not include a dedicated busway? That one’s on NZTA, the government’s transport funding and planning agency. The word for that decision is: incompetent.
I tend to take a bit more of an optimistic view than Wilson: transport choices have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. The success of the Northern Busway and the growing pedestrian volumes on Queen Street are recent phenomena. But it’s also true that we have a hell of a lot more to do, in a challenging environment where urban growth is bursting at the seams.
Speaking of bursting at the seams, Bernard Hickey (Newsroom) had a great column the other day exploring five reasons why Auckland can’t build enough homes:
Auckland’s housing supply and affordability crisis is proving devilishly hard to fix, partly because the high prices that should help solve the problem have found at least five ways to make the problem worse.
These feedback loops could be broken with the help of least five interventions proposed in recent months, but that is only possible with the political will to overcome the objections of those who benefit from sky-high prices.
First, it’s worth remembering that high prices are supposed to encourage new housing supply, which should in turn help solve the problem of high house prices. That’s what happens in normal markets where land supply for housing is plentiful and the development and construction industry mobilises to address a housing shortage.
Christchurch achieved a burst of new housing supply that has flattened prices since 2014, but only because the usual rules around consenting were relaxed and the central Government poured cash in to build infrastructure. It is the exception that proved the rule, and only happened because a natural disaster broke the business-as-usual rules.
Auckland’s experience over the last 15 years demonstrates how rapidly rising prices have perversely made it even harder to solve the supply crisis. Anyone doubting the extraordinary accelerations in Auckland house prices should look at this Economist chart showing New Zealand’s stunning out-performance vs Australia, Britain, Canada, the United States on a variety of house price measures since 1980, including price to income and price to rent multiples. That is all about Auckland’s two booms over 2002-07 and 2012-16, which have recently infected the likes of Hamilton, Tauranga and Whangarei.
Housing isn’t New Zealand’s only case of policy and market failure: as a new OECD report shows, our environmental performance is staggeringly bad. Kate Gudsell reports in Radio New Zealand:
The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has made 50 recommendations in its third environmental performance review, which is held about every 10 years.
It said New Zealand’s economic growth model was approaching its environmental limits.
Among its concerns were irrigation, the Emissions Trading Scheme, transport taxes and declining biodiversity.
The OECD recommended the government review its support for irrigation, saying 75 percent of the country’s water was used for the practice and freshwater was scarce in some regions.
Nitrogen in waterways had increased in step with the growth in dairy herds, and water quality continued to deteriorate in some regions due to agricultural and urban run-off.
The OECD report said gross emissions of greenhouse gasses in New Zealand increased by 6 percent between 2000 and 2014, compared to a 5 percent reduction in the OECD as a whole.
Nearly half of those emissions came from agriculture, the highest share in the OECD.
It said a clear date needed to be set to include agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme, or alternative pricing and regulatory measures should be introduced.
It also said the transport system was highly dependent on roads, and in need of coherent taxes and more investment in low-carbon transport modes.
Public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure received only 10 percent of the National Land Transport Fund between 2012 and 2015, while 78 percent went to investments in roads.
For anyone arguing that urban growth must be stopped because it’s unsustainable, note that two of these three problems – water quality and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture – arise mainly due to the rural economy. And the third – the environmental impact of transport – will be alleviated, not exacerbated, by the development of towns and cities where it is easier to walk, cycle, or take the bus.
That, by the way, is a no-brainer for a whole range of reasons, including health. In the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds reports on a new study on the health effects of walking activity: “Should 15,000 steps a day be our new exercise target?“
…countless large-scale studies have substantiated that finding, and at this point, there is little doubt that moving or not moving during the day will affect the health of your heart.
But precisely how much exercise might be needed in order to avoid heart disease has remained very much in question. The threshold of 10,000 daily steps, incorporated as a goal into many activity monitors today, has not been scientifically validated as a way to lessen disease risk.
So for the new study, which was published this month in The International Journal of Obesity, researchers at the University of Warwick in England and other institutions decided to refer back to but also advance and expand upon the results of that foundational Transit Workers Study by examining another group of employees whose workdays involve mostly walking or sitting. They turned to postal workers in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Glaswegian mail carriers generally cover their routes on foot, not by driving, and spend many hours each day walking, the scientists knew. But the mail service’s office workers, like office workers almost everywhere, remain seated at their desks during the bulk of the workday.
[…] The risks were magnified at the extremes. For every hour beyond five that workers sat each day, the researchers found, they added about two-tenths of a percentage point to their likelihood of developing heart disease, based on their cumulative risk factors.
Meanwhile, almost any amount of standing and walking reduced a worker’s chances of having a large waistline and other risk factors for heart disease.
But the greatest benefits came from the most exaggerated amounts of activity. Those mail carriers who walked for more than three hours a day, covering at least 15,000 steps, which is about seven miles, generally had normal body mass indexes, waistlines and metabolic profiles. Together, these factors meant that they had, effectively, no heightened risk for cardiac disease.
To close, two pieces on the social order created within cities. First, in the Washington Post, Will Wilkinson asks: “Why does Donald Trump demonize cities?” The answer, he argues, is that cities show that the liberal experiment works, ie that people of many races, colours, and creeds can live side-by-side productively, peacefully, and happily. Great cities always invalidate blut und boden nationalism:
…more and more of America’s dynamism and growth flow from the open city. It’s difficult to predict who will bear the downside burden of disruptive innovation — it could be Rust Belt autoworkers one day and educated, urban members of the elite mainstream media the next — which is why dynamic economies need robust safety nets to protect citizens from the risks of economic dislocation. The denizens of Trump country have borne too much of the disruption and too little of the benefit from innovation. But the redistribution-loving multicultural urban majority can’t be blamed for the inadequacy of the safety net when the party of rural whites has fought for decades to roll it back. Low-density America didn’t vote to be knocked on its heels by capitalist creative destruction, but it has voted time and again against softening the blow.
Political scientists say that countries where the middle class does not culturally identify with the working and lower classes tend to spend less on redistributive social programs. We’re more generous, as a rule, when we recognize ourselves in those who need help. You might argue that this just goes to show that diversity strains solidarity. Or you might argue that, because we need solidarity, we must learn to recognize America in other accents, other complexions, other kitchen aromas.
Honduran cooks in Chicago, Iranian engineers in Seattle, Chinese cardiologists in Atlanta, their children and grandchildren, all of them, are bedrock members of the American community. There is no “us” that excludes them. There is no American national identity apart from the dynamic hybrid culture we have always been creating together. America’s big cities accept this and grow healthier and more productive by the day, while the rest of the country does not accept this, and struggles.
In a multicultural country like ours, an inclusive national identity makes solidarity possible. An exclusive, nostalgic national identity acts like a cancer in the body politic, eating away at the bonds of affinity and cooperation that hold our interests together.
— Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) March 28, 2017
To close on a directly related note, some new research into ethnic diversity and social cohesion shows that people of different ethnicities get along better within neighbourhoods when their society and city as a whole is not segregated. James Lawrence investigates these relationships in the UK:
This study replicates the increasingly ubiquitous finding that neighbourhood diversity is negatively associated with neighbour-trust. However, we demonstrate that this relationship is highly dependent on the level of segregation across the wider-community in which a neighbourhood is nested. Increasing neighbourhood diversity only negatively impacts neighbour-trust when nested in more segregated wider-communities. Individuals living in diverse neighbourhoods nested within integrated wider-communities experience no trust-penalty. These findings show that segregation plays a critical role in the neighbourhood diversity/trust relationship, and that its absence from the literature biases our understanding of how ethnic diversity affects social cohesion.
In other words, if you’re worried about immigration or increasing ethnic diversity affecting trust and social cohesion, don’t try to keep newcomers out of your neighbourhood. Welcome them in to your homes, workplaces, churches, clubs, schools, and playgrounds instead. A segregated society is a dysfunctional society.