Links for urbanists – No. 4

Click to compare Manhattan's Highline before and after it was converted from an elevated rail line to an elevated park. Drag the slider to see more of either (thanks to Per Square Mile)

Assorted links to some of the useful, the informative, the interesting, and sometimes even the slightly weird sources I stumble across from time-to-time:

  1. Ghosts of Manhattan’s Highline (and other traces of the past). Some commentary on historical opposition to elevated rail lines in NY
  2. Some people are very serious about No Far King Par King across their driveways!
  3. A brief economic explanation of peak oil
  4. Some links on the decline in car travel – The end of motoring and The road less travelled
  5. Plea to abolish train zones – from the Dandenong Leader
  6. US rail construction costs compared to some other places
  7. The magic formula for increasing transit ridership – make it hard and make it expensive to use cars
  8. The agglomeration benefits of Britain’s Crossrail project
  9. Loud s*x is a billion dollar problem
  10. Is Charles Darwin the real founder of economics?
  11. Trends in car occupancy in Australia
  12. Life in the fast lane – Melbourne’s laneways
  13. Psychogeography and the end of planning (this is about Reyner Banham and LA)
  14. Cities as hotels – would privately owned cities work?
  15. Understanding liveable city rankings
  16. The Bolt case is actually not the perfect opportunity to argue bravely for freedom of expression. The judgement by Bromberg J, with summary, is here.
  17. Higher density creates jobs and increases productivity. This report in the NY Times is adapted from a chapter in Ryan Avent’s new e-book, The Gated City. Here’s another extract, this time from The Atlantic. You can buy a copy of this excellent book to read on your computer, iPad, iPhone or Kindle for less than $2 from Amazon. I’m reading it on my iPhone in those idle moments (you don’t need a Kindle).
  18. A collection of reviews, comments and reactions to The Gated City, from Alex Tabarrok, Lloyd Alter (and again), Yonah Freemark, Chris Bradford, Peter Gordon, David Levinson, Jim Gleeson, and Randall O’Toole. Some follow-up comments by Ryan Avent: Urbanists and evidence; Jobs and density; Moving towards stagnation (audio); and Expensive real estate drives away people and jobs (video)
  19. Ryan Avent yet again, but this time reviewing the volume that started the intellectual e-book fashion, Tyler Cowen’s The great stagnation (I sought to download it for $4 from Amazon at the start of the year but was refused access – eventually got an ePub, but it was a torrent of trouble. Note that I had no territorial problems with Amazon when I bought The Gated City). Some further analysis by Noah Smith.
  20. Stephen Rowley reports on his visit to the village that inspired the New Urbanism, Seaside, Florida
  21. Architecture for developing countries – leave the ‘design’ attitude at home please
  22. More on the importance of density (or is it city size?) for innovation and productivity
  23. The perils of opening a store in Manhattan. “She also realized too late that people wouldn’t be inclined to buy a dozen Glassybabys, the way they do in Seattle, because they would have to carry them home. “In Seattle, everyone had cars so we never thought about it,” Ms. Rhodes said”

Is “per passenger km” the right metric for comparing modes?

Animation of Tokyo from farmland to megalopolis - click and wait a second

It might seem intuitively obvious that any comparisons between cars and public transport should be on a “per kilometre” basis. After all, as Steven Smith at Market Urbanism points out, “people take trips of varying length, and longer trips are more expensive than shorter trips, so the desire to standardize and compare makes us want to simply divide the trips by their length and call it even”.

However here are four observers of the US transport and planning scene who all say the concept of comparing transport modes on a per mile basis (or more correctly, per passenger mile basis) is deeply flawed. Steven Smith says both supporters and opponents of light rail use per passenger mile costs and subsidies to justify their positions, but the problem is that the purpose of transit is not to travel long distances:

These are not pleasure travellers trying to get as far from home as possible, but rather commuters trying to get to wherever their jobs and schools are located. But the distance to this “somewhere” is not a variable to be held constant – it actually varies with population and job density, which is highly correlated with mode of transit. Places with train lines generally have and allow for denser development and thus less distance between your house and your workplace or school – the difference in average commute distance between urban and exurban areas could be as much as an order of magnitude.

Michael Lewin reckons per passenger mile comparisons are flawed because they assume that trips involve the same mileage on any mode. However in the real world our choice, he says, is not between a city with a 20 mile bus commute and one with a 20 mile car commute:

Rather, our choice is: do we want to make cities more compact, thus increasing the number of short commutes (some of which will typically involve transit, for the reasons stated above) or do we want to create a relatively spread-out city with lots of long commutes (most of which will usually be by car)?

In the compact city, fewer passenger-miles will be travelled, which means that all the negative externalities of travel (e.g. pollution, collisions, public costs) will be lower. And because people will be somewhat more likely to use transit and carpool, both cars and transit vehicles will be more fuel-efficient, because cars and buses are more fuel-efficient when they have more passengers. By contrast, in the car-oriented, spread-out city, both car and transit commutes will typically be longer, and both cars and buses will have fewer passengers.

Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations is annoyed that subsidies for roads look much lower when they’re divided by the appropriate number of trillions and expressed in terms of passenger miles of travel. He says:

Passenger miles don’t vote. They’re not a unit of deservedness of subsidy. They’re one unit of transportation consumption. They’re like tons of staple as a unit of food production, or calories as a unit of consumption. We don’t subsidize food based on cents per calorie.

Even as a unit of consumption, there are flaws in passenger miles as a concept, when it comes to intermodal comparisons. The reason: at equal de facto mobility, transit riders travel shorter distances than drivers….. Transit is slower than driving on uncongested roads, but has higher capacity than any road. In addition, transit is at its best at high frequency, which requires high intensity of uses, whereas cars are the opposite. The result is that transit cities are denser than car cities – in other words, need less passenger miles.

Matt Yglesias at Think Progress reckons the concept of passenger miles is borderline incoherent and senselessly biased in favour of auto-oriented road projects:

The use of passenger miles as a unit of measures embeds the assumption that the goal of a regional intra-urban transportation system is to have people travelling as far as possible. Now you could imagine a city in which individuals, firms, structures, natural resources, etc. are just strewn about at random. If that was the case, then you probably would want to organize transportation to maximize distance travelled. People would have arbitrary transportation needs, might need to get very far away, etc. But when you’re talking about a real growing city, a focus on passenger miles just implies a focus on spreading your urban area out as widely as possible. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is Acland St becoming “Chadstone by the Bay”?

Acland Street, St Kilda, with 7-Eleven, Subway and vacant office space - click to see McDonalds to the left

Carol Nader wrote an article in The Age on the weekend bemoaning the decline of St Kilda’s famous Acland Street. She reports there are eight shops with “for lease” signs:

The strip that used to have everything is now bereft of a newsagent and a florist. Kinki Gerlinki has shut down and the Quick Brown Fox has moved to the Balaclava end of Carlisle Street. The Vibe cafe a few doors down from the iconic Cicciolina restaurant is gone.

With the closure of “cool and quirky” fashion and vintage clothes shops in Carlisle and Barkley streets, she counts 12 empty shops in the village precinct.

Ms Nader’s main emphasis is on the current poor economic climate for retailing, but a letter writer to The Age, Maxine Hardinge, reckons the rot set in long ago. She says St Kilda “was sold to the devil 20 years ago when McDonald’s and other chain stores started the ”creep”. The morph into Chadstone-by-the-Bay has long been complete”.

Sadly, the same thing is happening in Balaclava, with Priceline, Crust, Telechoice, Kinki Gerlinki, Flight Centre, 7-Eleven, Quick Brown Fox, Subway, Urban Burger etc gradually squeezing out the independent retailers.

Ms Hardinge says council should cap the number of chain stores and favour independent retailers, otherwise “the particular flavour of the suburb – that thing that attracts people to live and shop there”, will be lost.

Like these writers, I would be disappointed to see the special character and personality of these villages fade away. I’d prefer an Acland Street “where an Italian deli sits between a Middle Eastern bakery and an antiques shop”. I’d like to think St Kilda’s cake shops will be there forever.

However the idea that a council should manage the mix of uses in a centre, as if it were a mall under its management, is an idea that – to put it as politely as I can – is well ahead of its time.

It should be self-evident that the 7-Eleven’s and their ilk are moving into these villages because there’s a demand for them. They’re attracting customers more successfully and generating larger profits than the shops they’ve replaced (or, less charitably, squeezed out). The customers of Acland Street have spoken and the chains appear to be winning.

While St Kilda has enough “hip” inhabitants to give it a cool profile, it seems those who want a village of cool, quirky and traditional shops are actually in the minority. This might seem surprising but, as the My School debacle showed, drill down below the average and most places will reveal many residents in different age, family status, educational and income strata.

Many of these people have what the writers might think of as common tastes. St Kilda has long-standing residents who have no interest in the special character of the village. It has many newcomers attracted by the vibrancy of the place but whose interests are decidedly plebeian, even bogan.

Much as I personally would love to see the diversity of places like Acland Street preserved, resorting to regulation as Ms Hardinge proposes is not only impractical, but inequitable. It would give priority to the interests of what appears to be a minority.

Ironically, the sort of transition she fears has parallels with the way many fashionable inner city areas got their “cool” in the first place. The gentrifying yuppies of the 60s, 70s and 80s profoundly changed the living circumstances of the working class populations in inner city neighbourhoods.

For example, not so long ago all those boutique hotels in places like Fitzroy and Sydney’s Surry Hills were old fashioned drinking establishments, frequented largely by older men. Gentrification brought unaffordable bar prices, unsympathetic fellow patrons, and eventually no admittance. Not to mention higher rents, noisy parties, parking problems, and more. Read the rest of this entry »


Would Seaside work in outer suburban Melbourne?

Click to take a "walk" around Seaside, Florida

When I first saw pictures of Seaside many years ago, I imagined that’s what the outer suburbs of Melbourne could look like one day. Click on the picture and go for a “walk” around the Florida village that had a key role in inspiring the New Urbanism movement. Seaside is famous – you might know it from its role in The Truman Show or from its distinctive array of “story book” houses.

Although the houses are detached, you’ll see many of the key ideas of New Urbanism in Seaside, including houses that open up to neighbourly streets and paths, have no garages and are within an easy walk of the town centre. Keep an eye out for walking paths. Given the kind of detached housing that’s being built today in Australian cities, I find it extraordinary that the first stage of Seaside was started 30 years ago!

It doesn’t push all the New Urbanism buttons. For example, the range of dwelling types is pretty limited and there’s not much evidence of transit orientation (it’s not a commuter village). Nevertheless, average density approaches the aspirational 25 dwellings per hectare, well in excess of the 15 dwellings per hectare promoted in Melbourne 2030 and in new fringe structure plans like the one for Toolern, near Melton.

For my money, the key reason Seaside has such broad popular appeal is the two and three storey detached “Hansel and Gretel” houses, with their faux widow’s walks and sometimes extravagant follies. Some architects however find it twee – they wince at the sentimentality and overwrought quaintness of the place.

I think it also appeals because of the determination of the architects to eliminate garages. This enables living areas to be placed at the front within a conversation’s distance of the sidewalk. It captures a half-forgotten notion of neighbourliness and conjures romantic images like promenading.

This contrasts with the practice in Melbourne where both new suburban houses and traditional inner city terraces tend to put bedrooms at the front and the main living areas at the rear (only apartments and older suburban houses seem to have living areas facing the street, although they’re usually set way back from the front boundary).

A parallel with Melbourne though is the limited area of private open space. I hear frequent condemnation of big houses with small yards in Melbourne’s outer suburbs (as if buyers can’t make their own decisions about what size yard they want!) but the area of private open space in Seaside looks positively miniscule. As with apartment dwellers, I’d expect the quality of the public realm is an important offset.

As a possible model for Australian suburbia, it’s important to get Seaside in context. It’s not a big place – it only covers about 50 32 hectares (the part of Fishermans Bend mooted for redevelopment is 200 Ha) and has around 500 houses. (Update: the whole area though, including very similar contiguous developments, is about 100 Ha with 1,000 or more houses – see Comments). Also, it’s essentially a beachside resort for people who are well-off. Many of the houses are rented to holiday makers and in that sense it functions more like the swank residential areas close to Hastings Street in Noosa than the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney.

Like Noosa, it’s a long way from the nearest major urban centre. Dwellings are architect-designed and costly to build – properties at Seaside have sold for as much as $5 million (presumably ones on the beachfront). Further, I suspect a major reason there are so few cars in the streets is that holiday makers fly in and have no need to drive in what is essentially a self-contained resort. The town centre seems improbably built-up for 500 dwellings and that could be because this is a tourist town, drawing visitors from well beyond Seaside’s border.

I can imagine something like Seaside working on old brownfield sites in Melbourne like Fishermans Bend and E-Gate, but what would happen if it were transplanted to the suburban fringe? Read the rest of this entry »


Should the war on obesity be a key objective of transport policy?

I know people who have the option of driving but instead take the train so they can improve their physical fitness. It takes longer than driving, but since they’re going to work anyway, walking to the station is an easy way to exercise. It makes good sense; I’ve walked or cycled to work at various times for the same reason.

However it’s one thing to make a private choice to use public transport in order to exercise – it’s another thing altogether to elevate the war on obesity and other health issues, as a matter of public policy, to the status of a key goal of the transport system. That’s what organisations like the Planning Institute and the National Transport Commission propose, but it’s not self-evident to me that it’s a good idea. It’s worth thinking about it further.

There’s a paradox here. The very point of public transport is to extend personal mobility. At the end of the nineteenth century when everyone other than the very wealthy walked, the arrival of trams and trains greatly enriched people’s lives by overcoming the limitations of walking. Now they could travel further to better jobs or better houses, take the family to the beach on Sunday, or visit friends and relatives in more distant suburbs. The whole point of public transport was to travel faster than walking so people could travel further in the same time.

The panoply of exercise-related issues like obesity are not a transport problem, they’re a social problem. They’re a result of eating more and of expending less effort in all aspects of life, not just in the way we travel. It’s true we are much more likely today to drive than walk, cycle or use public transport, but the avoidance of effort is true of almost everything we do.

Most of us work in jobs that don’t involve anything even remotely like the level of physical effort expended by the average worker of a few generations ago. If we did, Occ Health and Safety would have a fit. On the home front, we’ve had “labour saving” devices like refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners for generations. Television and home delivered newspapers mean we don’t even need to go out to get information and entertainment.

Consider the giant strides we’ve made in avoiding exertion over the last twenty years. Computers have eliminated the effort of going to the bank, the booking office, the travel agent or the bookshop. We blow leaves rather than rake them, we use power tools to drive nails and screws, we answer the phone without getting out of our seat, and we cook meals without having to prepare them. We control our air conditioners, central heating, TVs and sound systems with remotes. Climate control means our bodies don’t even consume much energy to keep warm – many children barely know what it means to shiver.

The decline of effort pervades all aspects of our lives, not just how we travel. For better or worse, it’s one of the ways we define progress. So transport – and that essentially means the car – is only one part of the health problem.

And in fact it’s a relatively small part, because the main cause of obesity is what we eat, not how little we exercise. It’s likely to be far more effective to target food than public transport.

Lennert Veerman, Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University’s School of Population Health, points to a recent study which argues the main force driving the obesity pandemic is an increase in consumption. He says the 1970s was:

When the food supply started to change radically. The supply of refined carbohydrates and fat increased and more food was mass prepared rather than cooked at home. The era of easily available, cheap, tasty, highly promoted, energy-dense foods had begun. This view of the causes of the rise in obesity prevalence suggests the likely solutions lie in the area of the supply and promotion of food. And research supports that notion.

He says if governments are serious about tackling obesity their priority should be food. They should tax unhealthy food, limit advertising and restrict availability in schools. He also says healthy food should be subsidised. Read the rest of this entry »


Are cul-de-sacs a dead end?

Cul-de-sacs in the Medina District, Tunisia (Wikipedia)

The New Urbanism hates cul-de-sacs – they’re emblematic of much that’s wrong with car-oriented suburban cities, including poor walkability, low transit provision, long travel distances, “excessive” demand for privacy, and even low social capital.

I might be in a minority, but I’m an admirer of cul-de-sacs. They’ve been around for thousands of years for good reason. I grew up in what in my day was called a “dead end”, 6 km from the city centre. I lived in a terraced mews in Sydney for six years, just 1 km from the Town Hall. I now live in a seven property cul-de-sac developed in the 1950s, 8 km from Melbourne town hall.

The great advantage of cul-de-sacs is they have no through traffic, so they’re quieter and it’s safer for children to play outside on the street. As long as they’re not too long, they can create a sense of place and possibly promote greater social interaction among residents too (although it’s not clear how much of that’s due to the cul-de-sac form; to lower traffic levels; or in some cases to joint ownership of common property). It’s also a matter of no little importance that residents seem to like them.

Another claim is cul-de-sacs reduce infrastructure costs significantly compared to a grid plan. Further, they “allow greater flexibility than the common grid in adapting to the natural grades of a site and to its ecologically sensitive features, such as streams, creeks and mature forest growth”.

Cul-de-sacs are popularly associated with outer suburban developments and that’s why they get such a bad rap. However they can work in a range of urban contexts. They’ve often been used in inner city traffic calming schemes (where they’re called “street closures”). Large, higher density redevelopment projects like this one in Brisbane use what is essentially the cul-de-sac form to give access to dwellings without a street frontage. Yarra Bank Court in Abbotsford would be better with pedestrian access for residents at the far end but is otherwise a delightful “dead end”.

According to critics, the key disadvantage of suburban cul de sacs is they create a circuitous road system, necessitating longer travelling distances. This discourages walking and increases the cost of providing public transport when compared to a traditional grid pattern.

It’s true that many older suburban estates are relatively impermeable. However as inner city street closures show, it is quite easy to design cul-de-sacs that are open for pedestrians but not cars. It’s also quite simple to have a 1 or 1.5 km rectilinear grid of main roads for buses (e.g. see Toolern) with cul-de-sacs confined to “filling in” each square.

I think the main reason cul-de-sacs are demonised by new urbanists is because they’re conflated with the problems of outer suburban development. Consider this quote from Wesley Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado:

A lot of people feel that they want to live in a cul-de-sac, they feel like it’s a safer place to be. The reality is yes, you’re safer – if you never leave your cul-de-sac. But if you actually move around town like a normal person, your town as a whole is much more dangerous.

Professor Marshall says fatal accident rates are lower in areas with a traditional grid pattern, but he makes an elementary mistake. The traditional areas are older – they don’t have fewer fatal accidents because of their street morphology but  because they’re denser, with more mixed development, more traffic and slower travel speeds than outer suburban areas. The primary “culprit” here isn’t the cul-de-sac, it’s the lower density and monoculture of the newer suburbs.

The same article says “people who live in more sparse, tree-like communities drive about 18 percent more than people who live in dense grids”. Again, that’s primarily because of differences in density. For example, destinations are further apart in outer suburbs so residents are less likely to walk or cycle. Given the article refers to the US experience, it’s possible, even likely, that differences in income between the two areas are an important explanatory factor too. At least this time the writer talks about “sparse” communities rather than specifically fingering cul-de-sacs. Read the rest of this entry »


Has spare infrastructure capacity in the inner city disappeared?

Guess what this architectural gem in Stockholm is? Click to find out.

The received wisdom is it costs much less to provide infrastructure for an inner suburban dwelling than for one in the outer suburbs. However, as I noted last time, we don’t know how big the difference is or even, for that matter, if it’s positive or negative – we simply lack reliable evidence.

There are reasons, however, to suspect the savings in infrastructure outlays associated with urban consolidation might be much less than is widely thought. It’s plausible that the popular claim of an $85,000 per dwelling saving could be well off the mark (note I’m only talking in this post about the capital cost of infrastructure, not the economic costs and benefits of a fringe vs central location).

From the time urban consolidation was first seriously put on the table in Australia as a policy option, a key premise was the availability of ‘spare’ infrastructure capacity in the inner city. This part of the city had previously supported larger working class and migrant populations, so there was ‘free’ infrastructure to be had in support of a restoration of earlier population levels.

There’s not much sense in assuming any capacity is free (it all has to be paid for) but looking from the perspective of 2011, there are reasons to question if there actually is any spare physical capacity left, at least in relation to some types of infrastructure.

A key reason is a lot of whatever spare infrastructure capacity existed has already been used up by gentrification. At the 2006 Census, there were 36,488 more residents in the inner city of Melbourne than there were in 1976 (and 76,422 more than when the inner city was at its lowest ebb in 1991). In fact of the 31 municipalities in metropolitan Melbourne, only the City of Moreland and the adjacent City of Darebin had significantly fewer residents in 2006 than in 1976 – Moreland had 14,585 fewer and Darebin 17,137 fewer. That is not a lot in the context of projections Melbourne will grow from a current population of four million to seven million by circa 2049.

Even where there are fewer residents today than in the past, they might still have a much larger “infrastructure footprint” than their predecessors. Modern households have many more resource-intensive devices like flat panel TVs, air conditioners, heaters, computers, spas, and so on, than their predecessors. They have more cars than former residents, so there’s less room for parking. They also have higher standards – the primary school that used to accommodate 300 kids in six or seven classrooms now has to build twelve to handle the same enrolment.

Moreover, households today are smaller on average, so they have fewer ‘economies of scale’ in resource consumption than earlier generations. Two households of three persons each use more gas for heating than they would if the same six residents shared a single dwelling. Gentrifying households are also wealthier on average than the sorts of households who used to live in the inner city and inner suburbs 30 to 40 years ago. On a per capita basis, wealthier households consume more of just about everything worth having. Again, that will require more infrastructure capacity.

Thus it’s possible infrastructure in some locations could be at or above capacity even with a much lower population than those places housed in the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »