Operation Home Town

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Later this week I’ll be speaking at a conference purporting to be about “smart future cities.” As someone who has spent his career researching and contributing to the built form of cities, I’m puzzled. What is it with the preponderance of talks in the program from electric car experts, and battery experts? And why in hell’s name did the poster promoting the conference feature a picture of every urban theorist’s arch enemy, the sports car, as though driving is something any right minded person would want to encourage more of in cities? You would think Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of American Cities had never been written! Surely this is to be a conference about dumb cities of the fifties and sixties, wasting their brainpower looking for new ways to keep driving.

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My PhD isn’t in battery technology or efficient engines for cars. It’s in the history and theory of architecture and urban design. The transport energy intensity of Newcastle, where the conference is to be held, is a problem that can fixed at the source, with a sustained plan to change the design of the city, not the machines we use in it. Every new building, not every new vehicle, would be step toward the smart city. If we followed the trend being set by some truly smart cities in Europe, this would be a city where vehicles play a secondary role to free active transport. Why find power for a huge fleet of cars to cope with vast amounts of travel, when internationally the trend is for compact cities with public transport, and increasingly cycling, as their main means of transport?

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Here’s your argument for sprawl and more cars. If you crop a map of the region in the way I have here, it’s possible to think of Newcastle as a beach side dormitory suburb providing workers to the mines in the Upper Hunter Valley. At this scale the city looks too compact. Let it spread more to the West. It’s not as though we’re talking about a great deal of housing: the mining industry needs machines, not millions of people. And it’s not as though we will have to increase road capacity to accommodate a population dependent on cars. In the case of this region, the greater demand for roads just serving the mines guarantees there will always be excess capacity for private cars—at least on roads West of the city.

I’m willing to admit that a sprawling car-dependent conurbation is a suitable model of urban development if the aim is to extract natural resources from far flung patches of ground. Albeit on a much smaller scale, Newcastle has always been a spread out conglomeration of coal mining centres. A century ago it was Lambton, Wallsend, Waratah, Tighes Hill etc., all with swamps and green fields in between. These days its Cessnock, Singleton, Muswellbrook etc., separated by long stretches of highway.

However, we should not be looking at this city through the prism of only one sector. Here in Newcastle we ought to have learned the lesson of tying our wagons to one horse in 1983. That’s the year BHP sacked 13,000 workers at once.

Let’s look at Newcastle through the prism of its knowledge economy. Other cities with strong tertiary education sectors, advanced manufacturing, creative industries and lots of IP, don’t have their populations tied up working in conservative jobs to cover the high cost of housing and transport. Smart cities also offer very fast trip times (relative to the size of their populations), to work, school and shops.

Cheap housing. Cheap transport. Fast trips.

Although mega cities in the 6,000,00 plus category don’t give us apples-for-apples points of comparison, they show us the end game resulting from various models of urban growth. Ask yourself, then, if you would rather live in New York or Dallas Fort Worth. Reports on the astronomical cost of apartments in Lower Manhattan are a little misleading. Within a 20 minute bike ride of Wall Street, Chelsea, SoHo etc., all on safe bike paths, you can find affordable housing in a place like Red Hook. Queens, Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan all have some affordable housing that’s close to the city by bike.

Housing costs, travel times and access to markets for the 6 million people in the Dallas Fort Worth conurbation come out on par with those for New York’s 7 million. The difference is hardly anyone in Dallas Fort Worth has the option of travelling for cheap on a train, or for free on a bike. Everyone is burdened with the cost of car ownership, insurance and fuel. (As an aside the whole nation is burdened with the cost of freeways to keep so many cars moving, while the whole world pays with wars and global warming for their dependence on oil).

But what’s the cost to Dallas Fort Worth? The cost of transport means people have no way to go part time at work and try something risky. The new clothing ranges, film scripts, cottage industries, inventions, web platforms, musicians etc., don’t come from Texas. They come from New York.

Let’s scale it down now to cities our size. What are some medium sized cities with strong knowledge economies? Three I want to hold up are: Copenhagen in Denmark, with 500,000 and a leading greentech and biotech sector;

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Groningen in the Netherlands with 200,000 and a huge tertiary eduction sector;

groningen-shoppersand Malmo in Sweden with 330,000 and an economy coming out of the doldrums thanks largely to startups—7 new company registrations per day.

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The sine qua non of each of these cities isn’t big government, or bike infrastructure per se. It’s blocks of small flats without any parking. Wherever you have a concentration of people who aren’t invested in driving, you find mayors elected on the promise of no-through-roads, lower speed limits and separate bike infrastructure on the handful of roads that still carry car traffic. Some would attribute the high rates of urban mobility that comes from having lots of bike transport, to the bike infrastructure. That’s true, but you don’t get the bike infrastructure without blocks of flats with no parking. There’s not the political will.

Why is it then that those Northern European cities I’ve mentioned have that kind of building stock and we don’t? The pat answer is it’s all social housing and they have large socialist governments.

But in reality big meddlesome governments are our problem, not theirs. We are the ones whose local governments are doing the bidding of NYMBYs by not letting inner suburbs densify in the organic way they’ve been doing since Roman times. Free standing houses on quarter acre blocks in the city have always been knocked down to make way for multi-res built to the boundaries.

The freestanding house above on 153rd Street New York was knocked down in the 20s to build the apartment block in the photo below. There could easily be 60 apartments in a block of that kind, built to the side boundaries and street. (Source.)

The next image is of Park Avenue New York. The freestanding buildings would all still be there if an Australian local government had had any say. What wouldn’t be there, is New York.

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So we have a shortage of apartment development sites in our cities. We exacerbate that problem by requiring enormous garages with every development application (DA). 

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A third of the volume architects have available for squeezing in people can be absorbed just squeezing in cars. Each new development in turn adds to the volume of car traffic in town, eventually causing traffic to grind to a halt.

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We have a perfect example in Sydney. People have moved back to the city from the suburbs, which is great, but they’ve brought their cars with them. The result is cripplingly slow transport for people in cars, and cars warding off cyclists who would make better time. Ultimately, the access to markets that a city the size of Sydney should offer, falls in a heap and people resign themselves to life in a small urban village, hoorah.

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So to this fluid form of transport you can tell I’m a fan of. It isn’t for everyone. It only works for able bodied people between the ages of about 80 and 8, regardless of gender. That’s roughly the demographic on bikes in Groningen, where 60% of all trips are by bike.

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Disabled people, or those outside the age bracket I mentioned, have the option of riding mobility scooters among all the cyclists, or they can use trams.

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As a last resort they can take the circuitous option of driving. But if they possibly can they’ll choose cycling, because it’s the fastest.

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Oddly enough, it’s easier to see how cycling is faster if we look at cities beyond the scale of existing bike cities. London, Tokyo and Hong Kong are three large cities designed around public transport. Their problem is that average trip times are in the order of 45 minutes, which we all know means 2 hour commutes for everyday poor folk.

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The paradigmatic car city is one I’ve already mentioned, Dallas Fort Worth. Based on data collected using travel diaries that participants keep in their cars (meaning they don’t count time crossing car parks by foot), proponents of driving boast average commute times of half an hour among the region’s 6 million. It’s that speed, or “level of service” as traffic engineers like to say, that keeps the whole world believing in freeways and vast conurbations.

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Hypothetically, a city of 6 million people, if it were purpose-built to optimise cycling, would provide even faster commutes.

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Within a 15 km diameter hypothetical city, you could fit 6 million people living in New York style apartments. As the crow flies the average distance between any two randomly selected points would be 6.79km (d = 128r/45π).

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That’s crows. What about bikes? With permeable street grids and diagonal slices (two things Newcastle has, as does Barcelona, pictured above) the real distance between any two randomly selected points in a 15km diameter city should not exceed 9km.

We can reduce that to 6 though. Transport engineers measure their level of service according to trip times to two thirds of available jobs, not all of the jobs in a city. 6km then becomes the average commuting distance in a paradigmatic bicycling city of 6 million people.

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But the question we’re asking isn’t one of distance, but time. How long does it take to ride 6km, accounting for slow riders and traffic?

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In Groningen, where nearly every able bodied person rides bikes, they’ve found the average speed is 15kph—which happens to be the speed a bikes goes without any more Watts than we put into walking. But here’s the kicker. Effective speed, and cruising speed, are exactly the same when modelling bike transport—at least that’s the case cycling is prioritised over car transport. Dutch cyclists never slow down. In the quiet streets they filter through intersections like schools of fish.

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On arterials where they’re crossing car traffic, cyclists from every direction all get the green light at once—can you imagine the smash up derbies if we did that with cars!

So long as it’s not obstructed by vehicular traffic, which is inherently jarring and sticky, this slippery form of traffic delivers an absolutely predictable speed: 15kph. So 6km takes 24 minutes, guaranteed. In a dense city that means faster access to markets than people have in Dallas Fort Worth. Unfortunately it is only the Danes and the Dutch who seem to have figured this out.

But it isn’t too late for Newcastle to join them. We haven’t yet filled our city with basement garaging like Sydney, or condemned our streets to permanent gridlock. All we need to do, is be informed of the benefits of a city with rapid free transport and affordable housing, and not be distracted by bullshit objections.

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One bullshit objection to Newcastle becoming more like Copenhagen etc., is that those cites are flat, and this one is hilly. We actually have Australia’s first ever topographical map, from 1913, to prove that it isn’t. It was built in the same way as any Dutch city, on low land with flood mitigation—in our case low friction canals.

The other argument is that people like freestanding houses and cars. So I’m not people? My wife and kids who prefer our 3m wide terrace jammed into the city… they are not people? The thousands of Asian students who come to this country and are freaked out by the dark lonely streets… they are not people? New Yorkers aren’t people? Parisians aren’t people?

The truth is we do not know what market demand may exist for a bounty of affordable apartments without the garaging. There’s been no market research. Why would there be, when there’s no possibility of increasing supply? What we can say is that small flats with no garages are not sitting empty in Copenhagen, Malmo or Groningen.

That will be the gist of my presentation on Friday. So glad you can’t make it! I guess I’ll conclude my presentation on Friday with a summary of my proposal to get the ball started, my so-called “Newcastle Waterway Discovery Loop” plan, designed to appeal to people who don’t even know they’re about to start cycling, while at the same time getting affordable apartment development kick started on brownfields where NYMBYs won’t notice.

7 Comments

  1. Ian S says:

    Where are people going to park their 4B, boat, caravan and all of that other costly junk held like prized possessions? You’re wrecking people’s debt ridden dreams of being free.

  2. David Hall says:

    I was out of town for this weekend. Can you give us an update on how your talk went?

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for inquiring 🙂 The three of us with talks about cycling were partitioned into one session lest we disturb the engineers with their very important talks about stuff. I was very pleased though that Professors Tim Roberts and Mario Minichiello chose our session—actually Mario made the trip into town (on his bike) especially for it. The conference also helped me think of these answers to questions I often get after talks. http://cycle-space.com/faqs/ The other great insight from the conference was that a high level transport planner for NSW fantasises about how AV tech. will help him funnel many times more cars through the city. Check him out: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/david-wilson/28/703/9b4

  3. Dan Endicott says:

    Great article Steven. The future “sexy” car is the next part of “progress”. And all new “high” tech “progress” is loved by consumer culture. Australia is unprogressing into a unhappy, jobless, traffic jam, with more time wasted in car congestion. What you think of: http://newcastlebikeecologycentre.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/faster-roads-and-transport-systems-frts.html.
    Aims:

    1. Better main roads with higher speed limits (Faster travel)

    2. Road solutions that increase business for businesses (more jobs)
    3. More people on more frequent public transport (Faster travel)

    4. Save gym time by walking and cycling on safer local roads and paths (Faster travel, happiness)

    5. Less road rage and sprawling traffic congestion less stress (happiness)
    6. Shops, school, work, and recreation places closer to homes (Faster travel)
    Ethical, Science based, World’s best practice solutions to create awesome livable cities (Awesomeness)
    We must all unite for a better Newcastle (and the Hunter). No longer is it motorists vs pedestrian vs Community group, etc, and the other petty arguing and road rage. We are all people and we are all pedestrians and only when we unite in a common campaign will we get the whole system fixed for us all.

    • Steven says:

      I understand your suspicion of those old Enlightenment myths about “progress”—I’m a humanities academic and Francois Lyotard’s famous line about the Postmodern condition being a suspicion of metanarratives ought to be tattooed on my arm. Nonetheless you and I are still talking about about progress and happiness. The question is how do we get there. We’re seeing small groups of inner urban progressives talking about the common good, but the brainwashed consumerist masses (and let’s face it, circumstances have wiped their IQs) aren’t with the project. I think we do need a glitzy vision of the future where everyone is happy and futuristic. The bike will always be simple, but the urban environment we build around it can be star spangled. Thanks for getting us thinking! (btw: are you “Dan the Bike man” with the bike library?)

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