Category Archives: Urban Planning

Moving Cooler, part 1

Three years ago, an excellent report advanced my understanding of which transportation/land use policies can really help to tackle climate change. From all appearances, that report has disappeared beneath the waves without a trace; I’ve met few policy advisors who have read it.

The report is Moving Cooler, written by consultants at Cambridge Systematics in 2009. It’s a non-academic technical piece with good math but poor messaging and graphics, and while there was some promotion during the study process, I’ve seen no follow-through. Together, this probably explains why it went unnoticed.

I’ll walk through the report findings in four stages:

  1. Scope and approach
  2. What would happen if we deployed a sensible “bundle” of policies all at once?
  3. How do individual policies compare, within that bundle?
  4. What about at a “maximum” level? (Discussed in part two.)

My own perspective in this post will be to understand two questions:

  • How quickly can we realistically hope to reduce emissions within the transportation sector?
  • Which policies offer the greatest potential at a reasonable cost? (This will necessarily ignore other considerations, such as equity or acceptability. To me, the first question is “does it work?” and only then is it worth asking “is it fair?” and “is it politically realistic?”

The report itself was never freely available, but executive summary material and appendices were online until quite recently. As the report website has recently disappeared, I’ve reposted a few of the freely available items for reference:

Scope and Approach

There are three key items to be aware of when interpreting the study:

  1. The study scope focuses only on policies in two of four areas:
    • included: travel activity changes by reducing the distance travelled or shifting to more carbon-efficient modes of travel.
    • included: vehicle and system operations by improving traffic flow.
    • not included: vehicle technology, such as electric vehicles
    • not included: fuel technology, such as cellulosic ethanol Continue reading Moving Cooler, part 1

Canadian Government Scraps Long-Form Census

An appalling decision from the Canadian federal government today, reported by the Globe & Mail here: “Tories scrap mandatory long-form census”

The census is a vital data source for all sorts of transportation and land use planning.  A voluntary census is nearly useless, since the sample will suffer from voluntary response bias.  This will do nothing to reduce the number of analysts and bureaucrats – provincial governments will be forced to step in and collect the same data themselves, but this will inevitably result in the loss of province-to-province comparisons.

As for privacy, the alleged basis for this decision: Statistics Canada jumps through all sorts of hoops to ensure the privacy of respondents.  It would be difficult if not impossible to connect any of the published census data back to an individual.  Yes, the questions are detailed and probing; but the anonymization process used by Stats Can is tougher  than anywhere else in the world that I’ve seen.

IPCC and Land Use

Mike passed me a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III (Mitigation of Climate Change). The IPCC is quite famous for its reports summarising the scientific consensus on climate science, so I was curious to see what the process and results of their follow-up reports looked like. I only read the transport chapter, since it’s the part I understand.

Overall, it’s a decent summary of current understanding of transportation trends, which is difficult to do at an international level with a wide spectrum of urban forms and demographics. The report includes a summary, and working group members vote on each paragraph to establish the level of knowledge and agreement on the report’s conclusions. One paragraph in particular struck me:

Providing public transports systems and their related infrastructure and promoting non-motorised transport can contribute to GHG mitigation. However, local conditions determine how much transport can be shifted to less energy intensive modes. Occupancy rates and primary energy sources of the transport mode further determine the mitigation impact. The energy requirements for urban transport are strongly influenced by the density and spatial structure of the built environment, as well as by location, extent and nature of transport infrastructure. If the share of buses in passenger transport in typical Latin American cities would increase by 5–10%, then CO2 emissions could go down by 4–9% at costs of the order of 60–70 US$/tCO2 (low agreement, limited evidence).

[page 326, emphasis added]

I’m a little shocked that this paragraph garners low agreement and is considered to be backed by limited evidence. (I’ll exclude the final sentence, since I don’t know anything about that particular study.) The paragraph is already weakened by many words indicating uncertainty – “can contribute” … “local conditions” … “could go down” etc. But there isn’t even consensus with the weakened wording. I emphasised the one sentence on density and spatial structure – my personal research interest. Again, I’m astounded that there is still wavering about this subject.

That sentence represents one of the report’s only discussions of urban form. It appears occasionally elsewhere in the chapter, but the framing unfortunately focuses on transportation, and treats land use as fixed – a massive oversight. While there are occasional mentions of the value of “co-ordinating” transportation and land use, these are not quantified and do not make it into the conclusions of the report. There is a separate chapter on housing, but it focuses on building construction and energy consumption, again omitting urban form. As so often in the past, urban structure is forgotten and falls into the cracks between disciplines.

The report sensibly treats the US as a “special case” in the international context, since it’s so low density. (e.g., increasing transit service in many US cities could plausibly increase GHG emissions – if no new riders are attracted but more buses are on the road). But it’s a double-edged sword – it suggests that US cities can continue to follow an auto-dependent path, since the report doesn’t contemplate changing land use.

At the end of the day, though, the main problem is the inconclusiveness of the research – the focus on the exceptional context of the USA has too often limited researchers from observing the clearer trends in other parts of the world. Integrated land use/transport models are still too immature for this type of policy analysis, and international comparison studies remain plagued by data incompatibilities. Finally, the field rarely presents its results in a policy-relevant manner – I have never seen a transportation/land use report that estimated the cost of a policy in terms of US$/tCO2-equivalent. It’s unfortunate – researchers in fields like biofuels are doing a lot of work to estimate greenhouse gas reductions, and their results are immediately relevant to policymakers.

Andy Barrie on Toronto

Andy Barrie (the CBC morning host, for the non-Torontonians in the crowd) gave a speech recently urging a more walkable Toronto, with better public spaces. A lot of it is familiar stuff for the pro-pedestrian crowd, but still encouraging to hear from a figure like Barrie. What I liked best, though, were his comparisons of Toronto and Montreal:

“After moving to Toronto in 1977, one of first things I noticed just walking around was that people didn’t meet your eye. Everybody I know comments on this. Nancy White, the singer/songwriter, calls Toronto the ‘city of the averted eye.’ People here just don’t look at you. In Montreal, when I first got there, I used to think that every single woman I saw in the street was coming on to me. Eye contact is a given there.

“Something I realized very soon after coming here,” elaborated Barrie, “was that Toronto was a city of strivers. The place is made up of people who wanted more than wherever they came from could offer so they went looking for a bigger arena, a better sandbox. They were very, very work oriented.

“After I had moved here a friend from Montreal asked me what it was like and I said that Toronto was like a woman you marry for her money. Montreal was like a woman everybody told you to get rid of because she’d eat you alive and yet you couldn’t pull yourself away.

Is it still accurate? Somewhat. True enough to be recognisable, and certainly matching some of my impressions when I landed back here one year ago.

Jetpacks & garden privacy

I just finished a term paper on “corridors in the polycentric city,” looking at various bodies of literature and their ideas for the urban form in transit corridors linking nodes in a city. Along the way, I read Stephen Marshall’s excellent Streets & Patterns, a well thought-out analysis of road hierarchies and the subtle auto-oriented biases they introduce. Marshall talked at great length about the Buchanan report (Traffic in Towns), a British government report from 1963.

The Buchanan report is an interesting beast. On the one hand, it documented all sorts of ills associated with the automobile in that era: parking everywhere, pedestrian injuries, derelict cars rusting in the middle of the city. On the other hand, the solution it proposed was to give the major street network over to cars entirely, labelling the main network “distributors.” It drew an analogy to a hospital: the rooms of the hospital (neighbourhoods bounded by distributors) are quiet, peaceful places; the corridors of the hospital are filled with food carts, stretchers and people moving everywhere. On the basis of this simplistic analogy, they recommended a similar treatment for cities. Is a city like a hospital, really? Should it be? Those questions went unasked. They also recommended rebuilding many major London streets with a pedestrian superstructure – rebuilding the outdoor pedestrian cafe experience one floor up on a system of walkways above the street. I’m glad that never happened.

The report was well aware of the coming storm: at the time of its writing, the majority of Britons did not yet own cars, but it was clear that the nation had but a few years left. Once the majority owned cars, it was clearly going to be difficult for a democratic government to limit their use.

But in its most entertaining content, the Buchanan report treats some very 1950s sci-fi ideas seriously, like personal jet propulsion:

The motor vehicle has been eroding most of the common amenities of life, but there is still some privacy left in back gardens, verandahs, bedrooms and on roof-tops. All these would be threatened if people could take off vertically at will.

Garden privacy is under threat!