Yes, it’s Melbourne Cup time, “the richest two mile handicap in the world” since 1861. So, it’s obligatory to find a horsey topic.
In SuperFreakonomics, their follow-up to the highly successful Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner relate the Parable of Horseshit, or how the car and public transport saved New York from asphyxiating under tonnes of dung.
The authors’ purpose was to show that trends don’t go on forever and that technological innovation can have a key role in addressing severe problems (although this got them into a huge controversy when they applied this way of thinking to climate change!), but I want to stick to the equine angle.
Eric Morris provides a knowledgeable and informed account of the enormous problems posed by animals in urban areas, most especially horses, in From horse power to horsepower. It’s only nine pages, however there’s a much briefer account by Elizabeth Kolbert, published in the New Yorker. It’s from her review of SuperFreakonomics. Even if you already know the outline of the story, she brings some interesting detail:
In the eighteen-sixties, the quickest, or at least the most popular, way to get around New York was in a horse-drawn streetcar. The horsecars, which operated on iron rails, offered a smoother ride than the horse-drawn omnibuses they replaced. (The Herald described the experience of travelling by omnibus as a form of “modern martyrdom.”) New Yorkers made some thirty-five million horsecar trips a year at the start of the decade. By 1870, that figure had tripled.
The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets. By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.
The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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 »
According to the New York Time’s Freakonomics Blog, the Balanced Transport Analyser “is a spreadsheet that models in intricate detail the daily flow of all transit – public, private, wheeled and bipedal – in New York City”. According to Wired, “over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people”.
It calculates “how new fees and changes to existing tolls affect traffic at different times of day and calculates which costs are borne by city dwellers and which by suburbanites. It calculates how long it takes passengers to dig for change and board buses. And it allows any user to adjust dozens of different variables—from taxi surcharges to truck tolls—and measure their impact. The result is a kind of statistical SimCity, an opportunity to play God and devise the perfect traffic policy”.
The Balanced Transport Analyzer was created by Charles Komanoff. The complete model can be downloaded here.
This paper is an object lesson in the pitfalls of attempting to introduce cordon pricing. Written by Bruce Schaller from the New York City Department of Transportation, it analyses Mayor Bloomberg’s failed 2007 congestion pricing proposal (it was ultimately blocked by the State legislature).
The key message is that gaining support for pricing proposals requires more than showing the social benefits – it is necessary to persuade individual motorists they will be better off. The New York experience shows small groups can have great influence – only 5% of workers would have paid the toll.
The author also argues that the best prospects for successfully implementing road pricing lie in initiatives like High Occupancy Toll lanes (see my previous post on this topic in relation to Melbourne) as motorists are less likely to feel they will be disadvantaged.
This table is a neat summary of the key views of proponents and opponents.