What causes urban riots?

Location of verified riots, up to 6.00am 9 August 2011

British leftie, Brendan O’Neill, takes an unsympathetic view of the UK rioters in this article, London’s burning: a mob made by the welfare state. He dismisses popular explanations like racism, characterising the rioters as “welfare-state mobs” who are destroying their own communities.

Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (author of my last book giveaway, Triumph of the City) has a long interest in the causes and consequences of urban violence. In this paper, The Los Angeles riot and the politics of unrest, Professor Glaeser and colleague Denise DiPasquale examined the tragic history of post-war riots in the US (H/T Christian Dimmer, @remmid).

The LA riot of 1992 – sparked by the police beating of Rodney King – lasted three days and resulted in 52 deaths, 2,499 injuries, 6,559 arrests, 377 buildings completely destroyed and 222 seriously damaged. Seventeen people died and 400 were arrested in the two-day Miami riot in 1980. In 1965, a six-day riot in Watts resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 800 buildings damaged or destroyed.

DiPasquale and Glaeser examined the causes of rioting using international data, evidence from the race riots of the 1960s in the US, and Census data on Los Angeles, 1990. Their empirical results suggest high levels of ethnic diversity and unemployment among young black men, combined with the “sheer size” of LA, all help to explain the 1992 riot.

However they found little support for the notion that poverty is a major determinant of which cities riot. Nor did they find a connection between high levels of migration – a proxy for social capital – and rioting. They conclude that rioting is driven to some extent by the probability and size of punishment. An increase in the probability of arrest, they say, lessens the probability of a riot and its size. Individual costs and benefits matter.

We find some support for the notions that the opportunity cost of time and the potential cost of punishment influence the incidence and intensity of riots. Beyond these individual costs and benefits, community structure matters. In our results, ethnic diversity seems a significant determinant of rioting, while we find little evidence that poverty in the community matters.

Brendan O’Neill says the intrusion of the welfare state in the UK over the past 30 years “has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit”. The most striking thing about the rioters, he says, is how little they seem to care for their own communities – the violence is not political, but merely criminal: Read the rest of this entry »

-24 hours of LA traffic (animation)

Animation - 24 hours of Los Angeles traffic

This is a recently released animation of 24 hours of traffic in Los Angeles. It’s constructed from reports sent from the smartphones of Waze users. Waze is a “social mobile application providing free turn-by-turn navigation based on the live conditions on the road and driven by users”.

It starts at 4pm but really goes beserk the next day in the AM peak. As far as I can work out, red dots are concentrations of high congestion and green dots are hazards reported by Waze users.

Is a bigger Melbourne a better Melbourne?

The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.

He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.

Big city - East Village, Manhattan

So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.

The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.

But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.

There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.

There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles?

Deirdre Macken makes the point in today’s AFR (gated) that a large proportion of Australia’s population is located in a very small number of primate cities, unlike the US where there are very many smaller cities.

She argues that if you want an urban lifestyle in Australia you either live in a large capital city or you camp out, whereas in the US you are spoilt for choice. Instead of making our capital cities larger, she asks, why don’t we build up our smaller cities?

Good question and if I weren’t about to go to the Zombie Shuffle I might well have something to say about it. Perhaps another day.

Not the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle but the footy! (The Age, today)

However for the moment let me just respond to her claim that “if Sydney were transported to the US, it would rank as the second-biggest city after New York. If Melbourne were transported to the US, it too would be the second biggest city, just pipping Los Angeles’s 3.8 million”.

A mere 3.8 million people in LA? I’ve got a lot of sympathy for journalists but this seems a bit too obvious. Perhaps Deirdre doesn’t do much travelling. She’s also got form when it comes to playing fast and loose with the numbers.

Sydney’s population is currently around 4.5 million and Melbourne’s is 4.0 million. Los Angeles had a population in 2009 of 12.9 million. In fact there are ten US cities that are larger than Sydney and fourteen larger than Melbourne (see here and here). Read the rest of this entry »

Energy efficiency in transport – some surprises!

The latest edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 28 was released last year by the US Department of Energy (Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy).

I’ve derived the accompanying graph from Chapter 2 of the report. There are a couple of points of interest here.

In particular, the data shows that load factors are very important. Although public transport is more energy efficient than cars when it is fully loaded, it has to operate at off-peak times and on secondary routes, when patronage is low. Read the rest of this entry »