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Sep 10, 2017

That was The week That was… w/e 10 September

Tw3 is a short commentary on stories in the news over the week ending 10 September 2017 bearing on the delights and discontents of urbanism

(source: The Atlantic)

In this week’s Tw3, The Urbanist comments briefly on:

  • Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
  • What makes Paris look like Paris?
  • Cafe-fication of strip shopping centres
  • Residents and developers brawl over North and West Melbourne apartment boom
  • Nationals senator John Williams wants mobility scooters limited to top speed of 6kph
  • Will relaxing the helmet law lead to a lot more cycling?

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone…There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

I’m suspicious of grand theories like this. We’ve seen it before with claims that lead in petrol was “the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic” and legalised abortion reduces crime. There was some truth in these claims, but they tended to be exaggerated.

I won’t comment on the alleged link with mental health, but I’ve got a bit to say about the claim that social media caused the drop-off in driving among members of iGen (oldest turn 22 this year). Here are some alternative explanations for the decline:

  • It’s gotten harder to get a licence e.g. in Victoria, it’s 120 hours of supervised learning
  • More children stay at home where parents usually have two cars and the inclination to drive their children most places
  • More children go on to full-time tertiary education and hence can’t afford to have their own car
  • There are more competitive alternatives to driving e.g. (a) public transport is better and safer, and (b) innovations in hire-car services, notably Uber, have lowered costs
  • The cost-benefit of driving is declining e.g. (a) growing congestion, and (b) RBT, traffic cameras, larger penalties, tolls, insurance surcharges for young drivers.

I accept smartphones have some effect, but what about empirical evidence that communications improvements like smartphones tend to promote face-to-face contact rather than reduce it?

I’m struck by the fact that over 70% of US twelfth graders still had a driver’s license in 2015 (note the y axis in the exhibit is truncated). That’s still a big number. There might be other forces at play. We know, for example, that driving is falling much faster among millennial men than women, especially in the US (see Are millennials driving less?). If that’s also true for iGens, it puts a question mark against the smartphone theory (it’s certainly true of my 21 yr son and 19 yr daughter!). I’d like to see if the decline is also related to the socioeconomic circumstances of children’s families (is immigration a factor?) before conceding a big causal role to social media.

What makes Paris look like Paris?

We ascribe symbolic value after the fact. There was nothing inherently Parisian about the Eiffel Tower, until it became the essence of Paris

Many Parisians in 1889 would’ve been impressed by the scale and technology of the Eiffel Tower, but seen it as jarringly modern rather than as the romantic steam-punk emblem many see it as now. It shows that structures that at the time seem completely at odds with the status quo can eventually be accepted and even become part of a city’s aesthetic spirit. City marketers should understand, though, that the odds of any new structure becoming an international icon, much less the soul of a city, are vanishingly small. It can happen, but it’s highly unlikely (see Would we build another Opera House?).

And while the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris, it’s arguable that it captures the city’s essence. As I’ve noted before, what makes Paris “look like Paris” is the cumulative effect of a lot of small but distinctive attributes. A data mining analysis of images found that it’s those characteristic doors, balconies, windows with railings, street signs and lampposts that define the look of Paris (see Paris – what’s that certain something?).

Cafe-fication of strip shopping centres

For the better? I doubt it, because – on this end of Chapel St. – they’ve killed the diversity. When I first came here, there were three banks, two greengrocers, two butchers, a supermarket and two sewing machine places. Now, apart from cafes, eating places and hairdressers, there’s very little. That doesn’t encourage people to come down and have a look. It’s just a lot of shops that look the same… It’s the rent thing… It’s not gentrification. It’s cafe-fication.

That’s St Kilda book seller Penny Syber. Something similar happened in my local strip centre; it’s kept the banks and it’s added supermarkets, hairdressers and health-related businesses, but lost the hardware store and the menswear store. Most of all, though, it’s added restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.

Some observations:

  • Many of the things we like about these places now weren’t part of the traditional shopping centre. Back in the 60s and 70s there was probably only one restaurant you could go to for a meal of good quality. The supermarket and hardware store had a limited range and not much competition. Most centres didn’t have bookshops and those that did usually had general book stores, not literary ones.
  • The loss of sewing machine shops, bookstores and banks is largely the result of structural changes that are way upstream of local centres policy. When imported clothes are cheap as chips, sewing at home becomes a craft rather than a necessity. My brother-in-law knits for pleasure; his mother knitted because she had to.
  • It’s the choices of the residents that are fundamentally driving the changes, not planning policy. The biggest change – the multiplication of food outlets – is the result of households outsourcing food preparation. Indeed, many of the changes can be sheeted home to outsourcing. Given the cost of travel, consumers choose the larger range and greater price competitiveness of big-box centres and malls when they want to buy clothes or hardware.

Residents and developers brawl over North and West Melbourne apartment boom

Places like New York had “kept those villages, and they are some of the highest-amenity, most diverse, interesting places on earth”, Professor Buxton said. “Why would we not follow that model?”

This is a report about inner city residents resisting taller buildings and increases in density. But the appeal to diversity is wrong. The parts of New York that correspond to North and West Melbourne are Manhattan and Brooklyn, but they’re not diverse, not any more. They’re a monoculture like Carlton and Paddington and North and West Melbourne. The poor and poorly educated are under-represented. Here’s Charles Murray writing in 2010 in Coming Apart (see Are houses so big they’re unseemly?):

At street level, life in New York still had the same crackling energy in 2000 as it had had in 1960. Visually, it was far more diverse, its sidewalks even more packed with people from around the world. To the casual eye, it also still seemed to have the same riotous diversity of activity, investment bankers brushing by ConEd workers and street vendors selling hot dogs to advertising executives. But the diversity existed only on the streets. As soon as people entered their office buildings or their apartments, they were surrounded by colleagues and neighbors who were in the top few centiles of education and income.

Murray points out that the proportion of adults with college degrees south of Ninety-Sixth Street (excluding the Upper East Side) rose from 16% in 1960 to 60% in 2000. The median income increased over the same period from $39,300 p.a. in 1960 to $121,400 in 2000.

One reason these areas are socioeconomic monocultures is because constraints on dwelling supply help keep out new settlers.

Nationals senator John Williams wants mobility scooters limited to top speed of 6kph

Mobility scooters should be prevented from travelling faster than six kilometres per hour, according to Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams…Senator Williams, best known for his outspoken criticism of the banking industry, was prompted to investigate scooter regulations after his wife was injured in a footpath collision last year.

The Senator has a point. These are heavy vehicles with a large footprint. They’re a substitute for walking so there’s no reason why they should go faster than walking pace when in spaces used by pedestrians e.g. footpath, mall, square. Some will doubtless argue they need the capability to go faster in an emergency, but that’s car-centric thinking; there’re plenty of pedestrians, especially the elderly and unfit, who lack that option. If we think scooters should go faster, then we need to provide dedicated infrastructure.

Will relaxing the helmet law lead to a lot more cycling?

But the problem with helmet laws — and the reason only New Zealand and the UAE currently have similar laws out of 191 other jurisdictions in the world — are the unintended consequences…Any law that stops people cycling is a terrible law.

This OpEd is notable because it was published, of all places, in the Herald Sun. I agree with the writer that we want more cycling, but repealing the law is a false hope; there’s no reliable evidence it would drive a significant increase in cycling. There’s no low-cost silver bullet; the only way to give cycling for transport a big boost in Australian cities is to massively improve infrastructure.

The repeal push is essentially a libertarian agenda; that might in itself be sufficient rationale to do away with the law but doing so is not going to give rise to a substantial increase in utilitarian cycling. The justification for the helmet law will disappear when the construction of good infrastructure convinces the wider population helmets aren’t necessary. I’ve discussed the pros and cons for the helmet law numerous times before e.g. see Is the bicycle helmet law such a big deal? and Should repealing the bicycle helmet law be a priority?.

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One thought on “That was The week That was… w/e 10 September

  1. meltdblog

    Australia as a whole doesn’t compel cyclists to wear helmets, we have the NT where adults can ride without helmets elsewhere than on the road. Which is the second most contentious cycling impediment, only NSW and VIC outright prohibit cycling on footpaths. But even with those barriers out of the way does dead flat darwin have a high rate of cycling compared to the rest of Australia? No. I’ll agree with you its infrastructure that drives cycling.

    Mobility scooters are already limited to 10km/h (though no requirement for active braking downhill) otherwise they become a motor vehicle and require registration. Like with powerful electric bicycles, brommers, and small motor cycles all of which you can see routinely around Melbourne suburbs its a lack of enforcement of the current rules that leaves these vehicles operating in public spaces without registration and insurance. The current rules make a good distinction between what is and isn’t a motor vehicle.

    A possible improvement would be to make it easier to register and insure these sorts of intermediate vehicles that are lightweight, affordable, and compact to park. At the moment it is extremely onerous to get registration on vehicles that do not have manufacturers compliance, and that compliance is an expensive and complex undertaking for importers/manufacturers. I know of several people who have investigated this market over the years and its a non-starter unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at a single model of vehicle before making a single sale. There is a need for local short distance transport options where a car is simply excessive but there is little on the market.

    Finally, Charting Transport extensively covered drivers licensing rates in Australia including breakdowns in ages:
    https://chartingtransport.com/2015/03/09/trends-in-drivers-license-ownership-in-australia/