Living in Auckland is great because no matter whom you meet and talk to, you are never short of at least two conversation topics. The first of these societal fall-backs is the housing market: either horror stories about how expensive it’s getting; or horror stories about how the market is tanking and everyone will be left with negative equity in their house. The second conversation piece is the traffic: how bad it is; how stupid it is that they are doing road works at this time of year; how terrible the public transport alternatives are; and how early everyone seems to leave work on Friday (about 11.30am). With these two topics in their back pocket, Aucklanders are confident in going to BBQs and other social events even if they know no one there.

This interesting article from citylab.com has given me some great additional material for the second topic of conversation, the Auckland traffic woes. The article is based upon a productivity analysis of 40 metropolitan areas in the USA of varying sizes by two academics of the Urbanisation Project at NYU. This analysis found that as cities grew in size, the commute doesn’t grow at the same rate. So:

“Take the comparative example of New York and Chicago circa 2000. New York at that time had more than twice Chicago’s population and nearly twice the jobs: 7.6 million to 3.9 million. But it didn’t have twice the commute trouble. On the contrary, workers could reach 85 percent more jobs in New York than in Chicago within an hour (6.2 to 3.6 million) and 82 percent more jobs within a half hour (3.7 to 2 million).”

The analysis seeks to answer why commuting in big cities does not become a time-wasting disaster and it focusses on three components: density, home/job relocation and overall mobility. These factors mean that City A with twice the population of City B will have on average a commute time only 7 percent longer.

The first factor is simple: bigger cities tend to be denser so that the distance to work is shorter than it would otherwise be. The US metro areas studied show that cities with twice the population fit into “just 70 percent as much area, on average”. (Surely this means 70 percent extra area?)

The second factor is that in larger cities businesses and employees tend to move locations to be closer to each other. Not only do workers tend to move towards work if the commute is too long, businesses also move closer to their workers which has seen the rise of multiple metro job areas in a single city.

The third factor is mobility:

“Finally, [the researchers] found that commuting times grew at a slower rate than commuting distances in larger cities as a result of greater mobility. They attribute these savings to traffic in larger cities shifting from low-speed arterial roads to higher-speed (and ever-expanding) freeway systems. (The researchers focused on metro area road networks, given that the overwhelming share of Americans still drive to work alone, but previous work has shown that public transport plays an integral and enormous role in urban agglomeration economies, too.)”

The three factors each played a major role in reducing the commute time in larger cities: “density contributed to 25 percent of the reduction, relocation 41 percent, and mobility 34 percent”.

The researchers concluded with broad policy suggestions for town planners: help people find affordable housing near work, help people find affordable homes near work, help businesses relocate near workers, and help commuters get from home to office. This is a wish list, not policy suggestions. What is more interesting is that the researchers are very car-focussed. Because in the USA, the car is how people commute. The longer-term vision sees the commute radically transformed by new technology: the driverless car. As one of the lead researchers said:

“The only realistic future, as far as I see, is replacing the car with driverless cars that are less polluting, require less road space and less parking space, and offer services for the car-less…Compact development along transport corridors is fine and I have nothing against it, but it is certainly not a comprehensive solution for cities that now have three out of four jobs outside these corridors.”

This sort of research is not only interesting, but very necessary with our increasingly urbanised world. Of course, none of this applies in Auckland, because we’re built on an isthmus and there is only so much room to put so many roads and we only grow North and South and not East or West. And anyway, they always stupidly do road works at the worst times…Driverless cars sound pretty cool though. They would make teaching my sons to drive that much easier…

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...