Welcome back to Sunday reading.
This is the last post I’ll be writing on Greater Auckland, at least for the foreseeable future. Over the last nine months I’ve gotten short on time and short on new ideas – the sad consequence of a busy schedule of work and study. However, I remain thankful for the opportunity to push out some ideas on the blog, and discuss them with our many engaged and thoughtful readers.
As this is my swan song on the blog, I thought that it would be good to wrap up by returning to the key themes that I have highlighted during my time writing here.
The first theme is change. A successful city – or economy – embodies change. The things that worked yesterday may fail us tomorrow… so how can we be ready to adapt?
I’ll start out with a tale of two Auckland streets. First, this 1993 New Zealand Geographic story looks back on the history of Queen Street:
As it was, the city’s layout was bungled from the start, the main roads following ridges and gullies, and the others making the shortest and therefore the steepest cross-connections.
The 1902 introduction of electric trams—which did 6 to 8 mph uphill—and the power of the motor car finally broke the tyranny of Auckland’s encircling ridges.
It could have been worse. We could have got Felton Mathew’s original plan, which put the hub of Auckland (which he called Trafalgar Circus) up on Albert Park, with terraced quadrants (of which only Waterloo survives) striping the hillside. It was Mathew who gave Queen Street its name and location (see fold-out).
The fact is, streets are abstractions, shafts of space defined by an absence of obstruction, and are easily created and destroyed—as can be seen by the invention of our entire motorway network. Streets can die, like Little Queen Street, just west of the big one, which was buried under the downtown development. New streets are made: Mayoral Drive is an example.
Yet Queen Street had an unwavering destiny, rising from the mud to become Auckland’s most noble thoroughfare. Old photographs show better than any words the speed, vigour and untidiness of this process. So much was happening so swiftly as the margins of the town pushed out into the sea that it must have been as much a marvel to the people caught up in it as it is to us today. So much excavation and upheaval, mud and wreckage. So much sawn timber, so many new structures, so many boats. And all the time Queen Street was gaining stature as the town’s main social and emotional centre.
Poring over the old photographs, I get an extraordinary sense of fraternity with the people in them. Our history is short enough for there still to be considerable overlap in time and place and memory. Someone like myself, born in the early 1930s, grew up amid the crumbling, rusting detritus of the 19th century—and with people who were adult before this century began. Long-vanished Queen Street buildings were, and are, clearly remembered. I know how people in the photographs feel as they walk pensively in a busy throng, seek the shade on a hot day, crane for a view of a parade or run for a tram. Petty preoccupations can be adduced. I have been there too.
Second is Lincoln Road – the NZ Herald’s Corazon Miller has interviewed two long-time residents about the changes they’ve seen since the 1950s:
Jack Ross, 85, lives next door, having moved there in 1954, a few years before Tarr. He has lived in Henderson since 1936.
As a child he recalled walking to school in bare feet.
“Not now, you don’t walk to school, you get driven.”
He described a sense of freedom being able to walk outside, not having to look either way for cars as a child dashing across the then-gravel path.
The sense of community was also stronger – or at least more out in the open.
“You knew everybody too, now you go down there and you won’t know anybody.”
Meeting people is a challenge when most are simply passing through in cars, trucks, buses and vans.
Outside his window cars passing are a more common sight than people; any foot traffic at the surrounding stores were also unlikely to linger as most seemed intent on filling their shopping bags or petrol tanks before departing.
Despite what seemed like cars hurtling past at a constant pace with barely a sideways glance, Hazel Tarr, who is still driving, said it did not bother her.
“In fact, I quite enjoy it, I know what time it is by the traffic.”
“They all stop for me, I just go out, front-first into the traffic and they all stop and make way.”
Change will continue!
So why do we have a 30kmh zone in the Christchurch CBD? Well 17% fewer crashes & 22% fewer injuries in the first 18 mths isn't a bad reason (rest of CBD saw +29% crashes & +3% injuries at the same time) #LowerSpeedIsAboutSafety
— Glen Koorey (@GKoorey) December 28, 2017
On a slightly separate note, the best thing I’ve read this week was Gwynn Guilford’s piece on the economic trap that Appalachia, America’s coal belt, has ended up in. It’s an interesting tale of the resource curse colliding with unequal land ownership and extractive institutions:
Ask most Americans what they know about coal in central Appalachia, and they’ll tell you it’s a dying industry—one that US president Donald Trump famously vowed to revive during the 2016 election. “We’re going to put those miners back to work. We’re going to get those mines open … I see over here a sign, it says ‘Trump digs coal.’ It’s true. I do,” he told a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, in May 2016. “You’re going to be working your asses off.”
But the idea that the region’s coal industry is dying is not quite true. For much of the hundred-plus years of its existence, the industry has been on a kind of artificial life support, as state and federal governments have, directly and indirectly, subsidized coal companies to keep the industry afloat.
The costs of this subsidy aren’t tallied on corporate or government balance sheets. The destruction of central Appalachia’s economy, environment, social fabric and, ultimately, its people’s health is, in a sense, hidden. But they’re plain enough to see on a map. It could be lung cancer deaths you’re looking at, or diabetes mortality. Or try opioid overdoses. Poverty. Welfare dependency. Chart virtually any measure of human struggle, and there it will be, just right of center on a map of the US—a distinct blotch. This odd cluster is consistently one of America’s worst pockets of affliction.
At the root of these problems lies the ironic insight that struck Nick Mullins as he mined coal deep in the earth his family once owned. The extreme imbalance of land ownership in central Appalachia shifted the power over where and how Appalachians lived to corporations. The political and economic impotence of Appalachian residents that resulted has permitted a deeply cynical capitalist experiment to take place, in which coal companies are kept profitable by passing on the costs they incur to the public. The many ways in which politicians and coal barons have kept coal artificially cheap has, over the course of generations, devoured the potential of the area’s residents, and that of their economy.
Central Appalachia’s problems stem from its distinctive history. But the pattern of its struggles is not unique. Across America, obscure clusters of misery are growing in number and concentration—as people get sicker, poorer, and more isolated than they were just a few decades ago. Thus untangling the knotty problems of central Appalachia holds lessons for the rest of the country about how imbalances of wealth and power, created generations ago, can trap places and their people in the past.
It’s a long article but well worth reading in full. As an aside, this is why I’ve always been quite suspicious of economic development strategies that rely on mineral extraction. It is far too easy for the benefits to be concentrated, and the costs socialised. And even where that doesn’t happen, it can create a set of perverse and damaging incentives for the people involved.
A second important theme – more of a constant anxiety that affects me and many other Aucklanders – is building more homes. A deficit of housing is probably the number one issue that Auckland faces. For a change, I’ll lead this off by linking to something that I’ve written elsewhere (on my Linkedin page) summarising some research I’ve done over the last few years:
I wrote the fifth paper last year for a postgraduate econometrics class. The aim of the paper was to investigate housing supply dynamics in New Zealand regions. In short: When house prices rise (indicating growing demand for a place to live) do people respond by building more homes? How many homes do they build? And what factors increase or decrease the size of the response?
Technically, it’s considerably more sophisticated than previous research papers I’ve written. This is mainly due to the fact that the data is a lot more complex, with more potential for statistical problems that may invalidate the conclusions of a naive analysis. So I did a few moderately tricky things to deal with those problems, finding that:
- Higher house prices (relative to construction costs) cause an increase in home building at a regional level
- This effect is smaller in regions where there are more delays in processing consents / building permits
- It’s also smaller in regions that have more geographic constraints on developable land and where that land is more ‘built out’.
None of this is surprising; it all accords with intuition. What was intriguing was that all of New Zealand fast-growing cities have below-average predicted housing supply responses, as they tend to have above-average regulatory delay, above-average geographic constraints, or both. This means that when these cities grow, they are likely to have trouble building enough homes to keep up.
Without getting polemical, this is a problem: not one that becomes apparent immediately, but one that slowly, steadily adds up. New Zealand’s housing market has come gradually unstuck over the last generation.
What can be done to change that? That’s the tricky part.
SB 827— Mandating Denser & Taller Zoning Near Transit
California has a number of communities with strong access to transit, and we continue to invest in public transportation. Too often, however, the areas around transit lines and stops are zoned at very low densities, even limiting housing to single family homes around major transit hubs like BART, Caltrain, Muni, and LA Metro stations.
Mandating low-density housing around transit makes no sense. It pushes more people to drive by leading to sprawl, thus undermining our economy and environment. It also leads to significant inequities, as limited density around transit spikes the prices of transit-accessible housing, meaning lower income and working class people struggle to live there and are pushed out into non-transit areas.
Transit-rich areas are *exactly* where we should be putting dense housing. We must build more housing near transit so that we can reduce reliance on cars and so that more people can access the benefits of transit.
Increasing housing density around transit is also one of California’s most promising sources of new housing, according to a recent California analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey, creating up to three million new transit-accessible homes:
SB 827 creates density and height zoning minimums near transit. Under SB 827, parcels within a half-mile of high-connectivity transit hub — like BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations — will be required to have no density maximums (such as single family home mandates), no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it. SB 827 allows for many more smaller apartment buildings, described as the “missing middle” between high-rise steel construction and single family homes.
Big deal if they can get that change through.
Good news! The double ped crossing phases are back on Queen Street! pic.twitter.com/7N6Pij1cBL
— Richard Ashurst (@RichardjAshurst) January 10, 2018
Meanwhile, research from AHURI, an Australian housing think tank, highlights some of the long-lasting challenges with affordability that can arise even when you’re building enough housing to technically keep up with population growth:
First, though we should be cautious in interpreting national level data, despite the number of homes being built exceeding Australia’s population increase, house prices have increased. Between September 2011 and March 2017 the number of residential properties in Australia rose by 9.5 per cent, outpacing Australia’s population increase of 8.2 per cent from 2011 to the end of 2016.
Despite dwelling supply increasing at a faster rate than the population, the mean value of residential properties rose by 36.5 per cent, from $490,800 in 2011 to $669,700 in March 2017.
Second, the record numbers of dwellings that have been built over recent years have been overwhelmingly priced in the higher price deciles (i.e. where the value of new dwellings are ranked from lowest (1) to highest (10) prices). Research reveals that between 2005–06 and 2013–14 over 80 per cent of approvals for new houses were for properties in the more expensive 6 to 9th price deciles.
Figure 1. Growth in the stock of houses and units between 2005–06 and 2013–14, by real price decile, per centSource: Housing supply responsiveness in Australia: distribution, drivers and institutional settings (AHURI Final Report 281).
For units, 80 per cent of building approvals were in the 8th to the 10th price deciles.
Such numbers reinforce the Federal Treasurer’s statement in his speech to the ACOSS Post-Budget Breakfast, Sydney in May 2017, when he expressed ‘great disappointment … that there has been virtually no increase in affordable housing over the last decade in Australia’.
The numbers indicate that there is a supply side problem for low-income households in that the private housing market is simply unable to deliver housing that is affordable to those on lower (and, increasingly, moderate) incomes because there is a minimum cost of delivering housing that meets community standards. These costs are made up of the land price, taxes and other government charges, the physical construction costs of the dwelling and the profit required for taking on the development risk.
This is an interesting conundrum. I think their findings are partly due to the use of national data, which can be misleading. If you drilled down, I suspect you’d discover that some individual cities were quite a bit more constrained than the national picture indicates. And individual cities can exert a strong impact on aggregate outcomes.
Anyway, this leads on to a related problem that a lot of cities face: the barrier to building more affordable housing is fundamentally about cost. Joe Cortright reports on the issue in CityLab:
“We’ve got to bring down the cost structure of housing and not just find ways to subsidize it,” [California Governor Jerry] Brown said in his budget speech.
And the costs are substantial. In San Francisco, one of the largest all-affordable housing projects, 1950 Mission Street, clocks in at more than $600,000 per unit. That number isn’t getting any lower: new units in that city’s Candlestick Point development will cost nearly $825,000 each, according to recent press reports. Brown’s point is that at that cost per unit, it’s simply beyond the fiscal reach of California or any state to be able to afford to build housing for all of the rent-burdened households. And while the problem is extreme in San Francisco, it crops up elsewhere. In St. Paul, affordable housing—mostly one bedroom units—in a renovated downtown building cost $665,000 per unit.
More broadly, the case has been made that much publicly subsidized affordable housing costs much more to build than market rate housing. Private developers are able to build new multi-family housing at far lower costs. One local builder has constructed new one-bedroom apartments in Portland at cost of less than $100,000 a unit, albeit with fewer amenities and in less central locations than most publicly supported projects. In Portland, local private developer Rob Justus has proposed to build 300 apartments and sell them to the city for $100,000 each on a turn-key basis to be operated as affordable housing. Another possible cost savings measure: off-site construction. The University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center has a report that explores the possibility for pre-fabricated, off-site construction to reduce construction costs.
Perhaps the central problem of housing affordability is one of scale: the number of units that we’re able to provide is too small. That’s true whether we’re talking about Section 8 vouchers (that go to only about 1 in 5 eligible households), or through inclusionary zoning requirements (which provide only handfuls of units in most cities). The very high per-unit construction costs of affordable housing only make the problem more vexing: the pressure to make any project that gets constructed as distinctive, amenity-rich and environmentally friendly as possible, means that the limited number of public dollars end up building fewer units. And too few units—scale—is the real problem here.
Rent control, unfortunately, appears to have as many unintended negative consequences as intended positive ones. Some new research on San Francisco’s scheme demonstrates the effects:
Leveraging new data tracking individuals’ migration, we find rent control increased renters’ probabilities of staying at their addresses by nearly 20%. Landlords treated by rent control reduced rental housing supply by 15%, causing a 5.1% city-wide rent increase. Using a dynamic, neighborhood choice model, we find rent control offered large benefits to covered tenants. Welfare losses from decreased housing supply could be mitigated if insurance against rent increases were provided as government social insurance, instead of a regulated landlord mandate.
A third theme I’ve continually come back to is is transport choices. It’s important for any reasonably-sized city to have a decent variety of public transport, walking, and cycling, in addition to the option to drive. Variety’s good for people and good for the economy.
In this category, I’ll lead with a heart-warming story about some Kapiti Coast locals:
John Darnley, from the Kāpiti Coast north of Wellington, helped create a modified e-bike that allowed him to hitch up his wife to the handlebars and enjoy the great outdoors.
They were married for 44 years – Avis living with Parkinson’s for the last 11.JOEL MAXWELL/STUFFJohn said the idea came after he started trying to think of ways to get some exercise, and free Avis from the house.
Inspired by the old icecream and butchers’ bikes, he he came up with the idea of the modified three-wheeler. Instead of a chiller box on the front, he has Avis and her wheelchair.
He took the idea to Southend Cycles in Levin, which modified an electric three-wheeler with a frame that would hold the chair.KEVIN STENT/STUFF
By December, John said a combination of intense early summer heat and a lingering flu for him meant they had not got out as much as they would have liked.
But they have still taken plenty of rides up and down the coast, having lunch together at the beach.
The reaction to the story from the Kāpiti community, and around the world, had left them amazed.
#OTD 10th Jan, in 1863, London’s first true Underground Railway opened: the Metropolitan. So tonight I’ve been to have a look. Behold!
Baker Street then (1863) vs
Baker Street now (2018, tonight) pic.twitter.com/OE8IMm5KQS
— Tim Dunn (@MrTimDunn) January 10, 2018
In the Guardian, Gwyn Topham and Frances Perraudin tell a story of unnecessary transport vandalism – the Thatcher-era policy changes that, in effect, dismantled bus services throughout much of the country – and new efforts to restore the system to working order:
Buses and the Conservatives have rarely got along. Even if Margaret Thatcher didn’t really say that any man over 26 riding on a bus is a failure, her ministers did draw up the deregulation that doomed many services.
Boris Johnson splurged hundreds of millions to create an unreliable new double-decker for London. Most seriously of all, David Cameron’s government slashed grants to operators and funding to councils, leading to the widespread disappearance of local bus services across the country.
In London, buses are regulated by an authority and fares have been frozen. Elsewhere, services are being pared back and prices are rising. Passenger journeys have fallen to their lowest level in a decade: dipping under 5 billion annually across Britain, and to 4.4 billion in England – half of which are in the capital.
Yet an unlikely concession by a former Conservative chancellor has given transport authorities reason to hope. The Bus Services Act 2017, pinned to the regional devolution championed by George Osborne, could allow more areas to take back control and run routes and services as they see fit.
Manchester is likely to be the first to press ahead. Andy Burnham, the mayor, is blunt about his city’s bus system: “It’s confusing, it’s overpriced, a system where the private interest dominates over the public interest.”
More than 30 companies now run services in Greater Manchester, deciding their own routes, timetables and fares. Deregulation opened local markets to all comers and the result has been confusion and poor service, according to Burnham. Speaking to the Observer, he says: “We have ludicrous situations where people are told they can’t get on because the driver has no change. We don’t have audiovisual announcements, or real-time information.” Operators do track services, but Manchester lacks the comprehensive information other cities enjoy, he says. “What we want is a system that integrates with the rest of the transport system, is affordable, and has modern vehicles with ramps so people aren’t left at the bus stop.”
Lots of people underestimate the importance of the humble bus. My advice is: Don’t.
To conclude, I’m going to go way back and look at an earlier mode of transport: the wheelbarrow. An article in Low-Tech Magazine (which, ironically, is published online) considers the history and economic importance of the wheelbarrow in China:
In the characteristic Chinese design a much larger wheel was (and is) placed in the middle of the wheelbarrow, so that it takes the full weight of the burden with the human operator only guiding the vehicle. In fact, in this design the wheel substitutes for a pack animal. In other words, when the load is 100 kg, the operator of a European wheelbarrow carries a load of 50 kg while the operator of a Chinese wheelbarrow carries nothing. He (or she) only has to push or pull, and steer.
“The device is so efficient that it can take the place of three men; moreover, it is safe and steady when passing along dangerous places (cliff paths, etcetera). Ways which are as winding as the bowels of a sheep will not defeat it.”
The importance of the Chinese wheelbarrow can only be understood in the context of the Chinese transportation network. Prior to the third century AD, China had an extensive and well-maintained road network suited for animal powered carts and wagons. It was only surpassed in length by the Ancient Roman road network. The Chinese road infrastructure attained a total length of about 25,000 miles (40,000 km), compared to almost 50,000 miles (80,000 km) for the Roman system.
The Chinese and Roman road systems were built (independently) over the course of five centuries during the same period in history. Curiously, due to (unrelated) political reasons, both systems also started to disintegrate side by side from the third century AD onwards, and herein lies the explanation for the success of the Chinese wheelbarrow. As we have seen, the one-wheeled vehicle appeared during this period, and this is no coincidence. Increasingly, it was the only vehicle that could be operated on the deteriorating road network. As F.H. King observed: “For adaptability to the worst road conditions no vehicle equals the wheelbarrow, progressing by one wheel and two feet”.
Joseph Needham tells a more positive story, noting that the network of wide roads was gradually replaced by an informal, low-tech infrastructure that was not less ingenious than the wheelbarrows that operated on it (see his pictures on the right and below). The Chinese answer to a decaying road infrastructure went much further than the adaptation of their vehicles:
“In many periods the government was interested primarily, and sometimes exclusively, in those roads and water-ways which were significant for tax-grain transportation and the conveyance of official messages. The upkeep of a multitude of local roads and paved pathways devolved, therefore, upon the people themselves, acting in their co-operative capacity under village elders and small-town worthies. In this context, religious associations, such as the Taoists Yellow Turbans about 180 AD, later so politically important, or the Buddhist fraternities afterwards, played a significant part. Making good roads was nothing less than a pious duty.”
“Thus in the course of time, quite apart from the Ancient and medieval imperial highways, China’s landscape became shot through with millions of miles of well-paved paths, suitable chiefly for pedestrians, porters with carrying poles, pushers of wheelbarrows, and men carrying litters. Rough unpaved cart-tracks predominated only in the Eastern plains. Those who, like the author, have followed these paved ways past woods and rice-fields for many a mile cannot think of them without intense nostalgia. There was a long tradition of such privately initiated roads going back to the Han or even earlier, and their total mileage far outstripped that of the government main roads as the ages passed.”
Interestingly, the modern, twentieth-century road network that appeared in China, and that Hommel was alluding to in 1937, did not immediately gave way to the automobile, but to another low-tech vehicle that is a worthy competitor for the wheelbarrow: the bicycle, a product of the Industrial Revolution that is even more efficient.
That’s it for me! Have a great weekend!