Welcome back to the last Sunday Reading of the year. In case you missed it, Matt wrapped up the 2017 year with great posts: Part 1 Transit, Part 2 Walking and Cycling, and Part 3 Roads.

Artist’s impression of the interchange between the North Cross Route and M1 at Kilburn.

Here is a newly organised catalog of London’s unbuilt motorway “Ringways” proposed in the 1970’s. The web pages include artist renderings and maps to show just how radical the proposals were. We of course have our own versions as realised by Mayoral Drive and the one-way couple system of Nelson and Hobson Streets. Thankfully, The eastern extension of the inner ring road of Mayoral Drive never made it through to O’Connell Street. It’s amazing to observe how these proposals and the ideas behind them still have a professional advocacy base and a political audience.

This is the story of the most astonishing and destructive thing never to happen to London. It was far-reaching and visionary; planning on a scale rarely seen in this country. It was a transport scheme to end all transport schemes. And it was utterly unacceptable to the general public.

In their time they cast a shadow across huge swathes of London, blighted homes and businesses and were at the centre of local politics for almost a decade. Greater London Council elections were, literally, won and lost over motorway plans. Even the roads that were never built leave their mark on the buildings, streets and sometimes whole districts that were laid out or modified to accommodate them. And yet today they are almost entirely forgotten, erased from London’s collective memory and – despite the fierce battles fought over them and the debates that raged daily in every London newspaper – a surprise to almost everyone who discovers them.

You probably saw the Twitter stoush between Jarrett Walker and Elon Musk last week.  This article goes a little deeper into the explanation on how Musk’s Boring solution can’t solve the underlying reality of urban geometry; or, why people can’t be transported at high speeds in low capacity vehicles in dense urban environments. While Walker has made a career out of explaining the fundamentals of public transportation, the message here is even more profound. Here he identifies the issue of how decision makers use “elite projection” to imagine transport systems that seem great for themselves. This fails to recognise the successful transport by definition needs to be useful for a large number of people with varying travel needs and lifestyles. Jarrett Walker, “What Elon Musk Doesn’t Get About Urban Transit“, CityLab.

The danger of elite projection
By now you may be thinking: Who cares about all this theory? Urban transit is too crowded by my standards! Or it’s not doing a good enough job of taking me where I want to go.

This is where you have to decide if you want transit to have the greatest possible benefit to your entire city—in terms of displacing car trips and fostering inclusive prosperity—or whether it’s more important that it take care of you.

The most common falsehood about transit, the one that underlies most of the comments transit agencies receive and many of the worst mistakes in transit planning, is this: “Transit would be better for everyone if it were better for me.”

A special danger arises when relatively wealthy people take this view, demanding that expensive mass transit systems be designed according to their personal tastes. I call this mistake elite projection, and explore it here. Many poor transit investments have arisen from a too-small group of fortunate people assuming that everyone shares their tastes and priorities. They forget that to be elite is to be a minority, and it makes no business sense to design transit around elite tastes if what you really want are lots and lots of riders.

Related. Driverless cars continue to distract people with a solution that seems to fix the problems of driving without changing driving. I predict that driverless cars will keep sliding down the ‘trough of disillusionment’ in 2018.  Jeffrey Mervis, “Are we going too fast on driverless cars?“, Science Mag.

In the utopian view, she says, fleets of cheap, accessible AVs offer rides at the tap of a screen. Their ubiquity expands transportation options for everyone. Once AVs are commonplace, traffic accidents become a thing of the past, and enlightened government regulatory policies result in fewer traffic jams and parking problems, and less urban sprawl. Fleets of electric-powered AVs shrink fossil fuel consumption and reduce air pollution. Commutes become stress-free and more productive, as former drivers can now work, read, or knit while being whisked to their destinations.

In the dystopian view, driverless cars add to many of the world’s woes. Freed from driving, people rely more heavily on cars—increasing congestion, energy consumption, and pollution. A more productive commute induces people to move farther from their jobs, exacerbating urban sprawl. At the same time, unexpected software glitches lead to repeated recalls, triggering massive travel disruptions. Wealthier consumers buy their own AVs, eschewing fleet vehicles that come with annoying fellow commuters, dirty back seats, and logistical hassles. A new metric of inequality emerges as the world is divided into AV haves and have-nots.

The rise of subsidised taxi hail services (Uber, Lyft etc) in New York gives us a glimpse of what low-cost, personal transport on unpriced roads looks like. Laura Bliss, “How to Fix New York City’s ‘Unsustainable’ Traffic Woes“, City Lab.

Bruce Schaller, a former NYC DOT official and expert on New York City street traffic and the for-hire car industry, has a new report out on just how severely the rise of “transportation network companies” (or TNCs) has affected congestion. Using data from the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, Schaller studied passenger trips, vehicle speeds, and mileage per hour of taxis and TNCs in Manhattan’s core business district from 2013 to 2017.

The key takeaways: Total passenger trips increased 15 percent, even as taxi trips declined, in that time period. That means TNCs have created new demand for backseat rides in Manhattan. And they increased the amount of miles traveled by for-hire vehicles around downtown by a whopping 36 percent, over the same time period. That adds up to more than 600 million miles of motor vehicle traffic in the past 3 years alone—reflecting not only the staggering growth in rides, but also a trend toward lengthier trips and more “deadheading,” or cars traveling without passengers.

Keeping things in depressing perspective, here is how quickly our climate is changing, due in significant part to the transport and urban housing decisions made over the last 50 years.  Eric Holthaus, “Let it go: The Arctic will never be frozen again” Grist.

That the Arctic is now a relic of a time gone by — the first major part of the planet on a countdown clock — should shock us. It’s one of those facts that those of us who closely follow climate change knew was coming. And with its arrival, it is devastating in its totality.

The loss of the Old Arctic is as close as humanity has come so far to irreversibly transforming its planet into something fundamentally different than what has given rise to civilization over the past 10,000 years. This is a terrifying transition, and one worth mourning. But it’s also a reminder that our path as individuals and as a society is not fixed.

If the Arctic can change this quickly, then so must we.

in addition to climate change, the other crisis that came into focus in 2017 is the exclusivity of urban opportunity caused by a broken housing system.  Here’s a good overview of the housing and economic challenges faced by millennials. Michal Hobbes, “Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression“, Huffington Post.

In sum, nearly every path to a stable income now demands tens of thousands of dollars before you get your first paycheck or have any idea whether you’ve chosen the right career path. “I was literally paying to work,” says Elena, a 29-year-old dietician in Texas. (I’ve changed the names of some of the people in this story because they don’t want to get fired.) As part of her master’s degree, she was required to do a yearlong “internship” in a hospital. It was supposed to be training, but she says she worked the same hours and did the same tasks as paid staffers. “I took out an extra $20,000 in student loans to pay tuition for the year I was working for free,” she says.

All of these trends—the cost of education, the rise of contracting, the barriers to skilled occupations—add up to an economy that has deliberately shifted the risk of economic recession and industry disruption away from companies and onto individuals. For our parents, a job was a guarantee of a secure adulthood. For us, it is a gamble. And if we suffer a setback along the way, there’s so little to keep us from sliding into disaster.

Please add your links in the comments section. Have a great New Year’s Eve everyone. See you all in 2018.

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  1. “This is where you have to decide if you want transit to have the greatest possible benefit to your entire city—in terms of displacing car trips and fostering inclusive prosperity—or whether it’s more important that it take care of you.”

    The part about inclusive prosperity is what I find so compelling about public transport. If the public transport system is so good that households can reduce from 3 to two to one or even no cars the benefits are enormous. With the average house price in Auckland at around a million dollars, a single car park space is probably costing around $25,000 and a garage space around $60,000 to buy. So the annual mortgage servicing cost is up to $3k per year. Add on to that depreciation, licensing, servicing, Wof, petrol and parking and vehicles cost us dearly. And this of course is just the start, and AT provides ten of thousands of subsidised car parks all over Auckland that every member of the community pays for regardless of whether they have a vehicle. Of course every member of the community is subsidising the public transport system; but this system doesn’t have the economic barrier to entry that car ownership puts on the road network, or produce the multiple benefits that a public transportation system does.

    I don’t consider myself to have a particularly socialist approach but the obvious benefits of public transportation systems suggest that Auckland should be substantially increasing the amount that it spends on public transport and reversing the large amount that it currently spends on roads and car parking.

  2. The postings on this website don’t seem to acknowledge the OECD International Transport Forum concept of “shared mobility”: public transport provided by shared taxis and taxi-buses capable of taking 4, 8 or 16 passengers. Their report on the modelling for Auckland is available at https://www.itf-oecd.org/sites/default/files/docs/shared-mobility-simulations-auckland.pdf

    Seems to me to be a very good solution to the public transport problem — incremental, scalable, and able to take advantage of electric vehicles (current or near future) and driverless vehicles (more distant future).
    Is there some reason that it has been discounted by GreaterAuckland.org.nz, or has it just not come to your attention?

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