Parks and public safety

I spent the last hour and a half working from a park near my house in Barcelona. It helped that I wasn’t using my laptop – I was mostly working with a notebook and pen. The incredible thing was that never once did I feel unsafe working in that park, and it has to do with the park’s design.

I got accosted by a human only once – by this guy asking me if I had a cigarette lighter and who walked away when I said no, and by dogs (of all shapes and sizes) multiple times. Despite the fact that I was in a park, and people don’t go to parks at 10 am on a weekday morning, there was a constant flow of people in front of me. There were, to put it in other words, sufficient “eyes on the street” which contributed to the place’s safety.

I’ve ranted sufficiently on this blog about the design (or lack of it) of Bangalore’s public parks (one with a name sufficiently similar to that of this post). The problem with the parks, in my opinion, is that they are exclusive closed spaces which are hard to access.

The sprawling Krishna Rao Park in the middle of Basavanagudi, for example, has only two or three entrances, and the number of trees in the park means that large parts of it are hardly visible, providing a refuge to unsavoury elements. This phenomenon of few entrances to parks is prevalent in other city parks as well, with the consequence that the BBMP (city administration) closes off the parks during the day when few people want to go in.

The park I was sitting in this morning, on the other hand, had no such safety issues. It helped that there weren’t too many trees (not always a positive thing about parks), which improved visibility, but most importantly, it was open on all sides, providing a nice thoroughfare for people walking across the area. This meant that a large number of people in the vicinity, even if they didn’t want to “go to a park” ended up passing through the park, because of which there was a constant flow of human traffic and “eyes on the park street”, making it a significantly safer space.

There might be (maintenance-related ) reasons for having limited entrances to parks in Bangalore, but the administration should seriously consider opening up parks on all sides and encouraging people to walk through them (after all, walking paths are an important part of Bangalore parks). Maintenance costs might go up, but safety of parks will be enhanced significantly, and it will be possible to keep parks open at all times, which will enhance their utility to the public.

Maybe Krishna Rao park, with roads on all sides and in the middle of Basavanagudi, might serve as a good pilot case for this.

The myth of affordable housing

Cities are unaffordable by definition because of the value that can be extracted by living in them. 

A few months back, my Takshashila colleague Varun KR (Shenoy) asked me if there is any city where housing is not prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. While answering “no”, I went off on a long rant as to why affordable housing is a myth, and why housing in urban areas is by definition expensive. I had been planning to blog it for a while but I get down to it only now.

Cities are expensive to live in due to a simple reason – lots of people want to live there. And why do lots of people want to live in cities? Because the density in cities means that there is a lot more economic activity happening per capita that results in greater productivity and happiness.

If you are in a rural area, for example, there are few services that you could afford to outsource, for the small scale means that it doesn’t make sense for people to provide that service. Even when such services exist, lack of competition might mean a large “bid-ask spread” and hence inefficiency. This means you are forced to do a lot more tasks which you suck at, leaving less time for you to do things you are good at and make money from.

Needs of a rural area also means that there is a natural limit on the kind of economic activities that can be remunerative there, so if your skills don’t lie in one of those, you are but forced to lead a suboptimal existence.

Larger agglomerations (such as cities), by putting people closer to each other, provide sufficient scale for more goods and services to become tradable. Transaction costs are reduced, and you can afford to outsource a lot more tasks than you could afford to in a rural area, thus boosting your productivity.

Economist and noted urban theorist Jane Jacobs, in her book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, argues that economic development occurs exclusively in cities and “city regions” and proceeds to demolish different theories by which people have tried to create economic value in remote areas (my review of the book here).

The larger a city is, the greater the benefits for someone who lives there, controlling for ability and skill. Thus, ceteris paribus, the demand for living in cities exceeds that of living in smaller agglomerations, which gets reflected in the price of housing.

It might be argued that what I have presented so far is only an analysis of demand, and supply is missing from my analysis. (I don’t understand who is on the left and who is on the right on this one but) One side argues that the reason housing is not affordable in cities is that strict regulations and zoning laws limit the amount of housing available leading to higher prices. The other side talks about the greed of builders who want to “maximise profits by building for the rich”, which leads to undersupply at the lower end of the market.

While zoning and building restrictions might artificially restrict supply and push up prices (San Francisco is a well-known example of a city with expensive housing for this reason), easing such restrictions can have only a limited impact. While it is true that increasing density might lead to an increase in supply and thus lower prices, a denser city will end up providing scale to far more goods and services than a less dense city can, thus increasing the value addition for people living there, which means more people want to live in these denser cities.

As for regulations that dictate that “affordable housing” be built, one needs to look no further than the “Slum Rehabilitation Apartments” that have been built in Mumbai on land recovered from slums (the usual deal is for a builder to commit to building a certain number of “affordable” houses for the erstwhile dwellers of the slums thus demolished apart from “conventional” housing). Erstwhile slumdwellers rarely occupy such apartments, for they are willing to accept a lower quality of life (in another slum, perhaps) in exchange for the money that can be generated by renting out these apartments.

This piece is far from over, but given how long it’s been, I’ll probably continue in a second part. Till then, I leave you with this thought – a city becoming an “affordable” place to live is a cause of worry for policymakers (and dwellers of the city itself) because it is an indicator that the city is not adding as much economic value as it used to.

 

Why Delhi’s odd-even plan might work

While it is too early to look at data and come to an objective decision, there is enough reason to believe that Delhi’s “odd-even” plan (that restricts access to streets on certain days to cars of a certain parity) might work.

 

The program was announced sometime in December and the pilot started in January, and you have the usual (and some unusual) set of outragers outraging about it, and about how it can cause chaos, makes the city unsafe and so forth. An old picture of a Delhi metro was recirculated on Monday and received thousands of retweets, by people who hadn’t bothered to check facts and were biased against the odd-even formula. There has been some anecdotal evidence, however, that the plan might be working.

It can be argued that the large number of exceptions (some of which are bizarre) might blunt the effect of the new policy, and that people might come up with innovative car-swap schemes (not all cars get out of their lots every morning, so a simple car-swap scheme can help people circumvent this ban), because of which only a small proportion of cars in Delhi might go off the roads thanks to the scheme.

While it might be true that the number of cars on Delhi roads might fall by far less than half (thanks to exemptions and swap schemes) due to this measure, that alone can have a significant impact on the city’s traffic, and pollution. This is primarily due to non-linearities in traffic around the capacity.

Consider a hypothetical example of a road with a capacity for carrying 100 cars per hour. As long as the number of cars that want to travel on it in an hour is less than 100, there is absolutely no problem and the cars go on. The 101st car, however, creates the problem, since the resource now needs to be allocated. The simplest way to allocate a resource such as a road is first come-first served, and so the 101st car waits for its turn at the beginning of the road, causing a block in the road it is coming from.

While this might be a hypothetical and hard-to-visualise example, it illustrates the discontinuity in the problem – up to 100, no problem, but 101st causes problem and every additional car adds to the problem. More importantly, these problems also cascade, since a car waiting to get on to a road clogs the road it is coming from.

Data is not available about the utilisation of Delhi roads before this new measure was implemented, but as long as the demand-supply ratio was not too much higher than 1, the new measure will be a success. In fact, if a fraction f of earlier traffic remains on the road, the scheme will be a success as long as the earlier utilisation of the road was no more than \frac{1}{f} (of course we are simplifying heavily here. Traffic varies by region, time of day, etc.).

In other words, the reduction in number of cars due to the new measure should mean significantly lower bottlenecks and traffic jams, and ensure that the remaining cars move much faster than they did earlier. And with lesser bottlenecks and jams, cars will end up burning less fuel than they used to, and that adds a multiplier to the drop in pollution.

Given that roads are hard to price (in theory it’s simple but not so in practice), what we need is a mechanism so that the number of cars using it is less than or equal to capacity. The discontinuity around this capacity means that we need some kind of a coordination mechanism to keep demand below the capacity. The tool that has currently been used (limiting road use based on number plate parity) is crude, but it will tell us whether such measures are indeed successful in cutting traffic.

More importantly, I hope that the Delhi government, traffic police, etc. have been collecting sufficient data through this trial period to determine whether the move has the intended effects. Once the trial period is over, we will know the true effect this has had (measuring pollution as some commentators have tried is crude, given lag effects, etc.).

If this measure is successful, other cities can plan to either replicate this measure (not ideal, since this is rather crude) or introduce congestion pricing in order to regulate traffic on roads.

Charging for parking

In a potentially interesting move, the Delhi government has declared that starting from 2016, only half the stock of Delhi’s cars will be allowed on the road each day, based on the parity of the number plate.

While in theory it might work, the dependence of Delhi people on cars, ownership of multiple cars and possible number-trading might render it moot. Also, given that not everyone uses their car every single day, a simple car swap arrangement (like Zipcar; but we need to figure out liability properly) might defeat this regulation.

The more sure-fire way to reduce the number of cars on the road is to impose a congestion surcharge but it it is not an easy regulation to implement – given that you’ll need electronic modes to collect tolls, devices in cars, etc (not that it hasn’t been done, but given India’s scale it’s considerable effort).

A better way to implement congestion surcharge is to charge economic rates for parking. In most cities in India nowadays, parking is highly subsidised (in terms of money) which results in more people taking their cars out, not being able to park them, and creating further congestion by driving around looking for a place to park (Brigade Road in Bangalore is a good example of parking-led congestion thanks to slow-moving cars looking for a place to park).

The question is what an economic rate for parking must be, and that can be determined by looking at the prevailing real estate rates in that area. In the area I live in Bangalore, for example, the “guidance value” (rate used by the municipal corporation to determine the “fair value” of a property in order to tax sales) is about Rs. 8000 per square foot.

Assuming a price to earnings ratio of 20, this translates to Rs. 400 per square foot per year, or little more than a rupee per square foot per day. A parking lot is about 9 feet wide and 18 feet long (based on US standards, assuming India is the same). Let us assume a 50% overhead for space needed to move the car in and out of the lot. Based on this, the “fair rent” for one car parking space in my area is 18 * 9 * 3/2 * 400 / 365 = ~Rs. 270 per day, or translates to around Rs. 11 per hour.

Notice that all the calculations above were either multiplications or divisions, and hence the per hour parking price is directly proportional to the guidance value of property in the area. Based on the numbers above, a good rule of thumb for “economic cost” of an hour parking space is 11 / 8000 or about 14 basis points (a basis point is one hundredth of a percentage point) of the per square foot guidance value.

Of course, there are transaction costs (of putting the car in and out) and demand varies by time of day (so we might have an element of “surge pricing”). Yet, what we have is a good rule of thumb to decide the per hour parking rates.

Large sites and universally accessible blocks

Currently reading this paper by Brelsford, Martin, Hand and Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute (did I tell you I just got my first MOOC certificate from this institute last week?) on the topology of cities. I have only a rudimentary understanding of topology (thanks to an excellent session with Dr. V Vinay), but considering that I know Graph Theory fairly well, I’ve been able to follow the paper so far.

The paper talks about “universally accessible blocks” in cities, which is basically about blocks where each unit can be accessed directly by road without going through other units. Developed cities, the paper argues, has mostly universally accessible blocks, while non-universally accessible blocks are artefacts of non-developed countries and old cities.

The problem with non-univerally accessible blocks is that the “inner units” in such blocks (which are not directly accessible by road) are mostly deprived of public and emergency services and this affects the  quality of life in such blocks. The paper, for example, talks about mostly slums having such architecture, and that newly developed cities usually try to have universally accessible blocks.

When Bangalore was developed in a planned fashion starting in the 1950s (led by the “City Improvement Trust Board” which later morphed into the “Bangalore Development Authority”), a number of new areas were designed for large houses. Large sites were allotted, and regulations framed such that buildings on such sites be sparse (they were called “bungalow sites”). The part of Bangalore I live in, Jayanagar, for example, has a large concentration of such bungalow sites.

While in theory such sites make sense, the fact is that not too many people were enthused about sparse buildings on such sites. So they took advantage of loopholes in regulation (even best designed policies have loopholes) to build multiple buildings on the site. Later on, these sites got partitioned into smaller sites, with at least one building on each smaller site. As a result of partitioning, a large number of units thus created were not “accessible”.

Allotting big sites and getting people to build big houses on them in order to “lead development” into a new area might have been a great idea in theory, but the fact that most people could not afford to build such big houses and loopholes in regulation resulted in non-accessible units! Of course it results in lower infrastructure costs (since the road network is sparser than is necessary), but it comes at a price since not everyone has equal access to infrastructure.

As a wise man once said, #thatzwhy we need strong regulation.

Car-free days, traffic jams and social capital

While most news nowadays is fairly hilarious, one piece was more hilarious than the others. This was about traffic jams in Gurgaon yesterday, a day that had been declared as a “Car Free Day”.

You might wonder why there might be traffic jams on days that are supposedly “Car Free”. I don’t know the precise effect this can be classified under, but it’s somewhere in a linear combination of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons and correlation, all led by a lack of social capital.

There are no rules that declare the day to be car free. It’s just a “request” by the local government (traffic police in this case). While there were some nominal efforts to improve public transport for the day, etc, there was nothing else that was different yesterday from other days. So why did it lead to a traffic jam?

If you know it’s a car free day and you have a car, you’ll assume that other people are going to leave their cars at home, and that you are going to have a free ride in free-flowing non-traffic if you take out your car. And so you take out your car. Unfortunately, the number of people who think such is enough to cause a traffic jam.

The problem stems with a lack of social capital in Indian cities (based on anecdotal experience (my own data point from 2008-09), I would posit it is lower in Gurgaon than in other Indian cities). As a consequence, when people are trying to make the “great optimisation”, they allocate a greater weight than necessary to their own interests, and consequently a lesser than necessary weight to others’ interests. And thus you end up with outcomes like yesterday’s. More generally, “requests” to people to give up a private benefit for others’ benefits can at best turn out to be counterproductive.

While designing policies, it’s important to be realistic and keep in mind ease of implementation. So if the reality is low social capital, any policy that requires voluntary giving up by people is only going to have a marginal impact.

Coming back to traffic, I’m increasingly convinced (I’ve held this conviction since 2006, and it has only grown stronger over time) that the only way to make people switch to public transport is to lead with supply – flood the streets with buses, which among other things actually increase the cost of private transport. Once there is sufficient density of buses, these buses can be given their own lanes which further pushes up the cost of driving. Then we can look at further measures such as prohibitive parking costs and congestion pricing.

We can have these notional “no car days” and “bus days” and “no honking days” but it is unlikely that any of them will have anything more than a token effect.

Getting BRT to work

Dedicated bus lanes are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for BRT

After significant success in Ahmedabad and spectacular failure in Delhi, Pune is the latest city in India to embark on a “Bus Rapid Transport” (BRT) project. As the name suggests, the point of a BRT is to provide fast and convenient transport to people on buses that ply on existing roads, with some sections of some roads being reserved for buses.

However, in popular imagination, BRT has become synonymous with bus lanes (a lane of road reserved for buses), and the whole controversy in Delhi (which caused the project to be shelved) was about a lane of an arterial road being reserved for buses. In fact, however, a dedicated bus lane is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for implementation of BRT.

The attraction of BRT is that it comes with low infrastructure cost – unlike a train or monorail (or even a tram) line, there is not much investment required in terms of physical infrastructure. The challenge with BRT, however, is that its buses are liable to get stuck in traffic (just like every other vehicle) which might prevent it from living up to its middle name.

For this reason, certain changes are made to traffic patterns so that BRT indeed remains rapid. For example, traffic signals on arterial bus routes might be designed to give priority to the directions where buses travel. You might have bus stops in the middle of the road for people to get on to buses. And you might reserve lanes on roads for buses. Once again note that the last named is not a necessary condition for BRT.

What BRT should deliver is a dense and reliable network of buses. On arterial and other key roads, frequency of buses should be extremely high. Our current model of point-to-point and hub-and-spoke based bus routes need to be given up in favour of a more dense network, where it might be quicker for people to change multiple buses to get to their destination. This also warrants a change in the ticketing system, using a zone-based ticket than the current point-to-point ticket, and moving ticketing offline.

 

The fashion so far in India (with Ahmedabad being a possible exception) is to announce arterial roads as “BRT corridors” and start off the BRT services by reserving lanes on these roads for buses, without bothering about linkages and networks at either end. The problem with this is that the losers of the road space “pay” immediately, but the benefits of BRT are not immediately forthcoming.

A better method of implementation would be to make reservation of bus lanes the last step in BRT. The first should be to increase the density of buses and creation of networks. The problem with this is that it requires investment and the expanded (and densified) network might run far below capacity for a while. Yet, as the network expands (even without dedicated lanes), people will begin to see the benefits and convenience offered, and demand for BRT will increase.

Two things will happen – firstly, the expanded and densified network of buses will start crowding out (literally) private vehicles on the road. Secondly, people will see the relative benefits of taking these buses and these buses will start filling up. As these two effects take place, there will come a point when lanes can be reserved for buses without slowing down any of the rest of the traffic.

What we need, in other words, is “system thinking“, and to look at BRT as a solution to move people to their destination in a more efficient manner. Once policymakers recognise that bus lanes are only a means to this end, we can expect BRT to implemented in a proper fashion.