Welcome back to Sunday reading.
This week, I’d like to start out with two stories of self-inflicted screwups (by other people).
Self-inflicted screwup number one is Australia’s broadband rollout. As Jennifer Hewett sets out in the Australian Financial Review, it’s gone much worse than ours:
In September 2009, the Key government in New Zealand announced it would invest in an all-fibre, ultra-fast broadband network. It would partner with the private sector to ensure 75 per cent of the population had fibre to the premise technology within 10 years.
That same year, the Rudd Labor government committed to an even higher proportion of Australian households – 93 per cent – getting the same fibre technology with the most remote areas getting high speeds via satellite.
New Zealand will reach its goal, on budget and on time. The government invested about $NZ1.5 billion and contracted the work to a group of private companies, including the privatised network arm of New Zealand’s Telstra equivalent.
In total, these companies invested a similar amount. FTTP technology ensures most people can get 100 megabits download speeds as a matter of course and increasingly much more, up to a gig. The New Zealand government has since announced coverage will be extended to 84 per cent of the population by 2024.
In Australia, by contrast, the rollout of the national broadband network has gone seriously awry in terms of budget, timing and speeds available.
Back of an envelope
So what did New Zealand get right that Australia got so wrong? As usual, the problems have compounding but largely home-grown causes.
Some started as soon as Labor’s then communications minister Stephen Conroy persuaded Kevin Rudd to establish a government national broadband network. The finances were famously figured out on the back of an envelope during an plane trip.
This followed the collapse of negotiations with Telstra to build the network with the help of a $4.7 billion investment from government.
By the 2010 election, the NBN was under sustained political assault. The Coalition argued the whole model was flawed, that the roll-out was absurdly expensive and inefficient, taking decades and costing tens of billions more than the $43 billion Labor claimed.
NBN Co would clearly never make the 7.1 per cent return Labor promised. And the roll-out certainly had plenty of obvious problems, including delays and cost over-runs.
Free advice for Australians: Next time you have to do something like this, contract the whole thing out to New Zealanders.
The article highlights the cost imposed by political uncertainty and political incentives. Since 2009, the Australian scheme has changed direction several times due to the fact that it’s become a contested electoral issue. A similar thing seems to happen with transport – major projects get cancelled, advanced, or redesigned from the ground up more or less every election.
In many respects, this is a good thing – elections should influence the direction of public spending! But getting good outcomes from big, long-term investments requires reaching a degree of consensus about the broad strategy, leaving room to debate timing, speed, and scale of projects. (I would argue that this is where we are at in Auckland.)
Second, in Politico Adam Behsudi investigates what the US president’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has done to rural America. It’s another story of politically-driven uncertainty:
EAGLE GROVE, Iowa—On a cloud-swept landscape dotted with grain elevators, a meat producer called Prestage Farms is building a 700,000-square-foot processing plant. The gleaming new factory is both the great hope of Wright County, which voted by a 2-1 margin for Donald Trump, and the victim of one of Trump’s first policy moves, his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
For much of industrial America, the TPP was a suspect deal, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which some argue led to a massive offshoring of U.S. jobs to Mexico. But for the already struggling agricultural sector, the sprawling 12-nation TPP, covering 40 percent of the world’s economy, was a lifeline. It was a chance to erase punishing tariffs that restricted the United States—the onetime “breadbasket of the world”—from selling its meats, grains and dairy products to massive importers of foodstuffs such as Japan and Vietnam.
The decision to pull out of the trade deal has become a double hit on places like Eagle Grove. The promised bump of $10 billion in agricultural output over 15 years, based on estimates by the U.S. International Trade Commission, won’t materialize. But Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact also cleared the way for rival exporters such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union to negotiate even lower tariffs with importing nations, creating potentially greater competitive advantages over U.S. exports.
A POLITICO analysis found that the 11 other TPP countries are now involved in a whopping 27 separate trade negotiations with each other, other major trading powers in the region like China and massive blocs like the EU. Those efforts range from exploratory conversations to deals already signed and awaiting ratification. Seven of the most significant deals for U.S. farmers were either launched or concluded in the five months since the United States withdrew from the TPP.
“I’m scared to death,” said Ron Prestage, whose North Carolina-based family pork and poultry business made its huge investment in the plant near Eagle Grove in part to reap expected gains from the TPP. “I don’t guess I’ve gone beyond the point of no return on the new plant, but we did already start digging our wells and started moving dirt.”
One interesting point that the article makes is that the rural agricultural economy tends to be more linked in to global trade than many urban economies. In part, this reflects a lack of scale – in a city, there is more local demand for a variety of goods and services, and thus less need to trade to make a living. But regardless of causes, it has interesting political implications. You can see that in New Zealand, where agricultural industries seem to anchor our commitment to trade liberalisation.
But as the case of Iowa suggests, economic interests don’t always anchor political preferences.
On a separate note, this is a really interesting comparison:
On any given day, there are ~ 500,000 cars in San Francisco. Here's how much land they take up when they're not moving. pic.twitter.com/IiCIi6DvkJ
— (((Matthew Lewis))) (@mateosfo) August 9, 2017
… and here's the land allocated to mass transit – which, by the way, is the *most-used* form of transport in San Francisco: pic.twitter.com/j56odk0MKw
— (((Matthew Lewis))) (@mateosfo) August 10, 2017
But rapid transit isn’t just about economising on space: It can also allow us to economise on time. Jarrett Walker picked up this point in a CityLab article on Greater Auckland’s Congestion Free network:
“Congestion-free transit” cuts through some of the most fatal confusions that bedevil transit debates.
In most cities, rail is protected from traffic but buses aren’t, so the average person’s concept of buses includes being stuck in traffic. But being stuck in traffic has nothing to do with whether you’re on rails or tires. Many old streetcar lines (and most new ones in the U.S.) are mixed with car traffic and suffer frequent disruption as a result. Meanwhile, buses can be highly reliable where they are protected from traffic, as in the best Bus Rapid Transit systems.
Talking about a “congestion-free network” is an excellent way to get people past this confusion. It helps people see an interlinked system of frequent services that can be counted on to run reliably, regardless of whether they’re on rails or tires (or water). Auckland’s congestion-free network, for example, would include a mix of commuter rail, light rail, buses in exclusive lanes, and ferries on the harbor.
[…] the congestion-free network does succeed in promoting the reasons why we protect transit from traffic, and what we achieve by doing that continuously, all across a network, regardless of the transit technology used. If you just want to get there, or if you want to have access to as much of your city as possible, the distinction between rail, bus, and ferry matters less than you may think. What really matters is frequency, speed, and reliability, and that’s exactly what a congestion-free network describes.
Then, in May 2016, the Expo Line opened after decades of planning and controversy that threatened to scuttle the project. The $2.43-billion light-rail line — built in two phases and funded substantially by a voter-approved sales tax increase — now travels the 15 miles from Metro Center in downtown L.A. to Santa Monica in about 45 minutes. Trains leave every six to 12 minutes, depending on the time of day. The light-rail line — which is named for Exposition Boulevard, along which it runs — makes 17 stops at destinations such as Culver City, the University of Southern California, La Brea and Santa Monica College.
The Expo Line — with its cheerful black and yellow cars resembling giant bumble bees — received rave reviews from the start, and recent ridership data attests that its popularity is more than novelty. As of June, estimated ridership on the Expo Line increased 40 percent, from 45,876 passengers last year to more than 64,000 this year — a target it wasn’t expected to reach until 2030, the Santa Monica Lookout reports.
Surveys also show that many of its riders have switched from cars to mass transit. Nearly 70 percent had not been regular users of mass transit before the line opened, according to a survey by Metro, the city’s transportation agency. Of those new riders, more than half had made the trip previously by automobile, either driving alone or, in smaller numbers, carpooling. About six percent said that before the Expo Line, they would have taken a taxi or used a ride-hailing app such as Uber or Lyft. If anything, the Expo Line is almost suffering from too much success: riders already gripe about overcrowding during peak travel times.
As in Auckland, new rapid transit options have attracted growing demand. But unlike Auckland, the bus network is languishing. It’s hard to get all elements of a transport network working well.
— Taras Grescoe (@grescoe) August 11, 2017
But set aside public transport for a moment – if cities (or companies) want to make a real difference to commuting behaviours they should look at how they price parking. As David Gutman reports in the Seattle Times, moving from monthly to daily parking charges makes a big difference:
Back in 2008, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation applied for permits to build its new, $500 million, boomerang-shaped headquarters across from Seattle Center, the city of Seattle had a few requirements.
To ease the impact of 1,200 new full-time employees in the area, the Gates Foundation could no longer offer free parking and it had to reduce the number of employees who drove alone to work.
At the time, nearly 90 percent of Gates Foundation employees drove alone. A year after the new headquarters opened in 2011, the number was 42 percent. Last year it was 34 percent.
[…] the single biggest factor in reducing solo car commuting, the Gates Foundation found, doesn’t cost the foundation or its employees any additional money and is easily replicable at workplaces that have fewer resources to devote to the issue.
No more monthly parking fees. Charge daily instead.
Every employee, from the CEO down, pays $12 a day to park in the Gates Foundation garage. Fees are capped at the neighborhood’s market rate — $120 a month. So, the first 10 days a month that an employee drives alone cost $12 each; every day the rest of the month is free.
But thinking about that daily rate, 12 bucks a day, rather than a monthly cost built into your budget, has a big impact on commuters.
The Gates Foundation has more than 700 parking spots, between its own garage and spaces it leases. On a typical day, fewer than half of them get used.
This isn’t just about getting a more efficient transport system, it’s about health. On Shifter, Tom Babin discusses the results of a new study on the health impacts of commuter bicycling:
This British study took a comprehensive look at the health benefits of bicycle commuting, and the results are staggering. Over the course of the study, the 263,450 subjects who were under review had a 41 per cent lower chance of death than those who didn’t. “Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer at all,” the study’s authors wrote.
Just let those numbers soak in a bit. They truly are significant. If a pharmaceutical company created a pill that could reduce your chance of dying by almost half, with particular success against those stubborn scourges of humanity of cancer and heart disease, it would be heralded as a wonder drug. Luckily, this pill is already hanging from the rafters of your garage.
Final article of the week: In The Age, Clementine Ford writes an important article about why involving women in the design of public spaces is essential:
Ask any woman about her experiences of public space and you’re likely to be met with a visible bristle as she remembers all the times she was subjected to unwanted harassment, abuse or even physical violence.
Public space can be dangerous for everybody (and in fact, men’s risk of violence is drastically higher in such places than it is in domestic settings), but it tends to be dangerous for women in very specific ways.
Unfortunately, this risk to women is also countered by a mistrust of women’s testimonies. When we talk about our experiences of harassment and violence, we are often told we’re either overreacting or lying outright. The scepticism shown to women (not only from men but also from other women) crosses between both the private and public spheres, but the latter is especially galling in a society that uses the threat of Stranger Danger to try to control women’s behaviour.
Simply put, we are told to exercise caution in public because of “bad people”, but we are disbelieved when we take charge of our narratives and offer accounts of the very things we are told to be afraid of.
Public transport is one of the biggest areas of safety concern for girls and women, with many of us going out of our way to avoid certain lines or stations particularly after dark. But our fears aren’t limited solely to the use of public transport – access to and from stations and stops is also a cause for concern, especially if that access involves walking down dimly-lit streets.
That’s it for the week. See you next time!