Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Sunday Reading is now entirely unreliable. I couldn’t resist compiling these exceptional stories documenting how quickly and profoundly cities are changing. Please leave your links in the comments section.

First off, shared electric scooters are the latest transport technology to appear in our cities from out of nowhere.  Michael Hayward and Oliver Lewis from Stuff report that “Hundreds of shared electric scooters proposed for Christchurch, Auckland“.

I got to see scooters in action in Los Angeles and San Francisco a month ago. A few things surprised me. There appears to be a lower barrier to use than shared bikes. They appealed to a broader audience of people including joy-riders, middle-age women, and obvious commuters linking to transit. No doubt part of the appeal is that people on scooters can use footpath space and insulate themselves from the harm of mixing with traffic (the key barrier to wide scale adoption of cycling).

This raises a bunch of issues including the how people on scooters interact with pedestrians and where scooters are eventually stored (or abandoned). Umair Irfan on Vox has a great primer on the subject here -> “Electric scooters’ sudden invasion of American cities, explained“.

What’s really interesting to me is how this new user group will add to the growing chorus of users demanding more equitable use of city space.

“Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities.”

Like shared scooters, TNCs like Uber Lyft and Zoomy came out of nowhere. They occupy the mostly unregulated environment of the city street which they continue to exploit. At some point cities will figure out what they are giving away. Henry Grabar explains the value of the kerb ->  “Give the Curb Your Enthusiasm: The American city is wasting valuable real estate on parked cars“, Slate.

How and where we walk is a function of curb design—where is the curb cut, where are the parked cars, where are the trees? But so is the utility of emergency vehicles, taxis, public transportation, cycling, garbage pickup, and freight delivery. The space at the edge of the street plays a crucial role in stormwater management. It can provide desperately needed public and commercial space. Worth billions but given away for free, the curb is arguably the single most misused asset in the American city—and one that, more than any giant investment in apps, sensors, or screens, can determine the future of transportation.

In many places the current configuration and operation of city streets doesn’t work for the largest numbers of users and adjacent lane uses. Colin Browne explains it well here -> “Opinions: Our streets make us unhappy. They don’t have to“, Washington Post.

Thirty-eight percent of D.C. households don’t own cars. About 40 percent of D.C. residents drive to work. But all of that space between buildings? We devote 85 percent of it to moving and storing cars. Sidewalks account for 12 percent of transportation space, bike lanes about 1.2 percent, and the city’s four blocks of dedicated bus lanes amount to less than 0.02 percent.

We’ve given nearly nine-tenths of our transportation space to an expensive, dangerous, inefficient way to get around. That space serves less than half our population on a daily basis, and everyone else gets to argue over the leftover slivers. No wonder everyone’s grumpy.

The crazy thing about the automobile is that despite claiming a wildly disproportionate amount of public space, it’s still a slow and frustrating way to get across town. This is not because of all the buses, pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s not because the speed limit is too low or the traffic lights aren’t timed properly. It’s a feature of the machine itself. Cars take an enormous amount of space to safely move the one person inside and another enormous amount of space to store when they’re not being used, which is 95 percent of the time. If you live in Nebraska, you can maybe make that work. In a major world city such as ours, the acreage simply isn’t there.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. We can think bigger. We don’t have to sacrifice the safety and livability of our neighborhoods to prop up a wasteful and dangerous transportation system.

“The bicycle girl” (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19000512-894-1)

This is an essay from 1973 on the concept of auto mobility in cities.  André Gorz, “The social ideology of the motorcar“, re-posted on Uneven Earth.

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratized. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.

People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.

Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16-lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them, and city traffic becomes more paralyzingly congested. As long as there are cities, the problem will remain unsolved. No matter how wide and fast a superhighway is, the speed at which vehicles can come off it to enter the city cannot be greater than the average speed on the city streets. As long as the average speed in Paris is 10 to 20 kmh, depending on the time of day, no one will be able to get off the beltways and autoroutes around and into the capital at more than 10 to 20 kmh.

Finally, from the CityLab University here is a primer on induced demand. It would be great to see more of these transportation basics widely socialised and incorporated into educational contexts. Benjamin Schneider “CityLab University: Induced Demand“, CityLab.

Nearly all freeway expansions and new highways are sold to the public as a means of reducing traffic congestion. It’s a logical enough proposition, one that certainly makes plenty of sense to anyone who’s stuck in traffic: Small communities served by small roads grow bigger, and their highways need to grow with them. More lanes creates more capacity, meaning cars should be able to pass through faster. But that’s not what always happens once these projects are completed…

Initially, faster travel times (or the perception of faster travel times) encourage behavioral changes among drivers. An individual may choose to take the new highway to a more distant grocery store that has cheaper prices. Trips that may have been accomplished by bike or public transportation might now be more attractive by car. More distant leisure and business opportunities might suddenly seem worth the trip. In aggregate, these choices put more cars than ever before on the newly expanded road, increasing net vehicle miles traveled (VMT) (and greenhouse gas emissions).

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  1. “The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.”

    Seems extreme, but so true really & the advertising of cars will almost always show cruising in very empty or totally empty roads often in some exotic amazing location full of great scenery.

    1. Yes!

      From my blog:

      Doesn’t say much for cars if their selling point is holiday-making, right?

      Oh, but Harry, they don’t just sell cars like that, do they?

      Well, no. But have you ever stopped to think about just how many car ads rely on messages from outside everyday life? It’s a lot. Probably most of them. A lot of the rest don’t even try and make you think about how you use the car, it’s all about the technology… which is still what the car could do, not what it will do.

      People don’t like traffic jams.

      As a cultural moment I think cars are done.

      It’s why we have roads of National Significance in NZ that no-one actually drives on. Roads where you can actually experience what life in a car ad is like.


      Probably overly optimistic with that “cultural moment” line but it really does seem to me that the world’s moved on. The experiential promise of the car ad is probably still chugging (been a while since I last saw an ad) but it really does seem to me that the way people talk about autonomous vehicles is by aping the way trains etc. are sold. That can’t be good for driving as an idea and, hence, cars. They will become things like, well, vacuum cleaners. Perhaps stored in enormous communal long-term car parks to be used only for holidays.

    2. The same rule applies/can be applied to private railway carriages, helicopters, private jets and by simple extension; flying cars & Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) that are used as personal taxis [ala future robot Uber/Lyfy etc] too.

      All fine for the few, and definitely never intended for the masses to all have one.

      The irony of advertisers using a car [usually a SUV] travelling on completely congestion free roads to demonstrate “freedom” [from the car/SUV induced congestion of everyday life] is I hope, not lost on most of us around here.

      1. Yes, and the Herald’s advertising “article” about Uber Flying Taxis yesterday was drenched in this nonsense. What worries me is the waste of taxpayers money in having to deal with such an inequitable unsustainable concept that only serves to allow the super wealthy to avoid the congestion their political parties create through poor transport planning.

        “The New Zealand Government had been “actively pursuing” the company, to figure out whether the country could have a role in testing the new scheme, according to an Uber spokeswoman.”

        I reckon an OIA into the time and resources given to the concept wouldn’t be a bad idea. Can Richard Cross not see the parallel between the use over decades of cheap land on the city’s outskirts leading to car dependency, inequity and congestion, and the promise of NZ’s “relatively uncrowded skies” leading to poor use of transport funding:

        “New Zealand is seen as an attractive place to test and trial these solutions because of our supportive environment for R&D [research and development], relatively uncrowded skies, trusted regulatory regime, and because New Zealand is a good place to do business.”

  2. “Thirty-eight percent of D.C. households don’t own cars.”

    Very good point and to some extent the same situation is developing in Auckland city. Increasingly it is unfair that those who don’t own cars have to pay for the roads and parking spaces/buildings of those who do. More of the cost should be shifted to road users and there are a range of available mechanisms to do that.

  3. There was a great video released by Vox on YouTube this week about bike lanes and why they are more valuable than parking… Includes an interview with former head of New York’s transport department.

    1. Thanks, Tommo, that’s a really useful one.

      Just imagine what we can achieve if we put 20% of our transport budget into cycling and walking as the UN suggests. All those benefits for people, including drivers and businesses, will flow…

  4. is it just me or are there a lot more car advertisements on tv these days? I havent owned a car for years but seem to be bombarded with ads for automobiles on nz websites and tv. Bit of a waste as I dont plan to ever own a car again.

    1. I think that car adverts, like many other adverts, are seasonally based. Like perfume is only really advertised just before Christmas (because it is a luxury gift only purchased once a year), in a similar manner car adverts are clustered at a particular time of year. My guess is that, as new car sales are dominated by selling to fleet buyers only, that there is a tax break or FBT event which means that it is more economical to change your fleet at this time of the year.

      So: the ads are not actually aimed at you. They’re aimed at Avis, Hertz, Budget etc, but they don’t want to be so crude as to say so.

      1. In a similar manner, when i was in Washington a couple of years ago, the posters on the Underground at Pentagon Station were advertising the virtues of the new Boeing military cargo plane – the price would be hundreds of millions for each plane. Thousands of people go through that station every day, but all the adverts were being aimed at the one General who had the power to make that decision, to buy another ten of those Boeings. Advertising can be incredibly narrowly focused….

        1. … I suppose the ads were also softening the public up to the cost.

          Wouldn’t it be good if there was someone who could afford to run some ads when the Waterview Connection Post Implementation Review is undertaken and released – they could be based on each of the softening-up travel time ads NZTA ran, and they could show how things actually panned out travel-time wise, but also what the effect on traffic volumes was, and thus on active mode share and public health, access for non-drivers, value for money, and environment.

        2. Can you remember any more details about the planes? As it happens, I’m currently in the market for a new fleet of cargo planes. Talk about timing!


        3. For you, Jon, I have a special price, just for you….. Come with me round the back of this large 5-sided building, and we’ll find a ‘special place’ to talk…

          Grease my palm with the name of the special Senator of your choice, who may be in the market for an all-expenses paid trip, if agreeing to the purchase of these planes.

          Have you had a new Cadillac lately? Because I may just happen to have a special one lying around…

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