There are two good reasons for building cities with the entire road network under ground. The most obvious is that it would make the city more pleasant to live in.
The other reason can be more difficult to spot. It is that ultra compact cities will become highly efficient economic powerhouses due to the good infrastructure and high population density they can create.
That ultra compact cities have the potential to have very good communications is obvious. Both cars and public transport can be given good operating conditions. This is good in itself, reducing time spent commuting. But it also has another, more indirect effect. Good communications and high population density means there will be a customer base for really specialized shops and services. This not only means businesses serving the needs of the consumer, but also other firms. And specialization is one of the key ingredients in heightening economic output.
People will also find it easier to locate jobs in the vicinity which fits well with their skills. Again, this will help aid specialization and with it economic efficiency.
A few links on the subject:
Europeans have been rather annoyed with Americans over the last decade due to the latter’s total disregard for the need to reduce emissions of climate change gases.
However, the funny thing is that USA’s CO2 emissions are falling, while EU is burning more and more of dirty coal.
US shale gas combined with counterproductive European energy regulation
What has happened? Well, US focus on finding cheaper energy resulted in development of fracking technology that enables shale gas to be produced. The abundance of shale gas has resulted in very low gas prices, which drives a shift from coal to gas in energy production. The coal that USA no longer needs is being exported at cheap prices to EU (coal is easier to export than gas), where coal power plants are increasing their share of the energy mix. Gas on the other hand is being pushed out by renewables because wind power is given right-of-way on the energy grid during peak hours (Gas is more expensive than coal but has made up for this by being more capable of utilizing the higher peak load prices in the middle of the day).
Burn, baby burn
So – massive amounts of natural gas pushes out coal in USA, causing CO2 emissions to fall. In EU, a massive investment in renewable energy causes gas power generation to fall while cheap coal causes coal use to increase. Strange things can happen when the wrong policy tools are being used!
(To be fair: EU’s CO2 emissions are also falling, but less than USA’s emissions)
Source: The Economist: Europe’s energy policy delivers the worst of all possible worlds
Carbon Tax vs Cap’n Trade – an example
EU has currently got a Cap’n Trade scheme going, which oil companies operating on the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS) are participating in. One of many problems with such cap and trade schemes is that they block all additional CO2 reduction programmes – as the example below shows:
Let us assume that the Norwegian government feels very rich and decides to spend some of its oil wealth reducing the NCS emissions to zero over the next n years.
Oil platforms need very large amounts of power, which is produced offshore in compact but inefficient natural gas generators
What’s the result?
Net reductions of zero but EU’s green industries are wiped out.
?Why? What happened?
Assumptions for this example to work out:
The emissions from these companies is X% of EU’s total.
EU is planning to reduce the qouta cap by <=X% over the next n years (same amount as NCS emissions or less)
Cap’n Trade blocks all other reduction efforts
Supplying electricity to oil platforms would be a natural first step for offshore wind energy
Firstly, the effect of this laudable action from the Norwegian government on EU’s total emissions will be exactly zero. This is because the NCS emissions reductions means that the NCS oil companies don’t have to buy X quotas. These quotas will be available for use in the EU, which will have X higher emissions than without the Norwegian efforts. The only effect is that Norway sponsors EU’s emissions reductions in these years.
Additionally, the move will be disastrous for all companies that have invested based on a belief that emissions qoutas will be restricted (and qouta prices high). All sorts of green tech companies in EU will be wiped out by the Norwegian generosity.
A Carbon Tax makes additional reduction efforts cumulative
Compare this with a Carbon Tax. Here Norway’s actions would have no impact on the rest of EU’s interest in reducing emissions – the tax pressure would remain unchanged. Just another area where a Carbon Tax is better than Cap’n Trade.
The first argument people raise against a Carbon Tax is often “it’s not politically viable”. While this isn’t really my concern – I’m discussing what we ought to do – it is of course an important detail.
Connect the Carbon Tax directly to reductions in other taxes
I believe it would be very smart to try to steer clear of the eternal right/left debate about higher/lower taxes and bigger/smaller government. To do this, the Carbon Tax should come with mechanisms to cut other taxes simultaneously, making it revenue neutral. Preferably, the tax cuts should be itemized to every taxpayer to remove any doubt about the connection between higher petrol prices and lower taxes.
How do we get political consens on policies to stop putting so many of these in the atmosphere?
How the taxes should be cut would of course be a source of debate. The most economical would perhaps be to cut taxes that discourage value creation, such as the income tax. More left leaning people would perhaps prefer giving all taxpayers an identical tax cut – an increase in the assessment limit.
It is also worth noticing that the income from a Carbon Tax is intended to come as a hump. First the intake will increase, before falling again later as the economy gets decarbonized. This is also a reason why it will be prudent to include a mechanism that links the Carbon Tax take directly to a tax refund instead of letting the Carbon Tax simply enter the exchequer’s coffers. This way we avoid the headache of having to find new tax income when the carbon tax take starts to fall as the economy is being de-carbonized.
An interesting observation with regards to a Carbon Tax is that it would mean that oil consuming states would be levying a tax on the world’s oil deposits – effectively transferring some of this natural resource wealth from the world’s oil producing states.
Well, a Carbon Tax being levied by consuming countries would of course increase the total price of energy containing goods. But it would also push down the demand for fossil fuels, and consequently the price of fossil fuels. This difference can thus ultimately be pocketed by the taxpayers of the oil consuming country. In effect a globally agreed Carbon Tax would constitute a buyer’s cartel – the opposite of OPEC.
Good or bad? It would reduce the income of states such as Saudi Arabia, Russia or Norway at the expense of USA or the EU. If you like it or not probably depends on where you live.
A Carbon Tax is the best way of combating climate change because it gives firms the most stable and easily predicted operating environment. A stable and predictable regulatory framework reduces risk, and risk is costly.
Cap’n Trade gives unpredictable price variations
Trade in Carbon Credits (Cap and Trade – or Auction and Trade) will result in a lot of on-off price signals to ensure that the target emissions reductions are met, and not over- or underfulfilled. These variations in emissions price will make companies that are heavily exposed towards the carbon price – either heavy polluters or very green – lose or earn money in an unpredictable fashion. Their operations will be disturbed, and some firms may even go bust due to an unexpected reversal in fortunes. Such price variation can be very expensive, and may wipe out entire industries – all for nothing since the reduction targets are all completely arbitrary, chosen for being assumed affordable and not for being “the exactly right reduction”.
Carbon Tax gives a predictable investment climate
Can you see The Future? Uncertainty ain’t good for business!
A Carbon Tax on the other hand is easily predictable. Firms choosing to make investments in green technology must take a lot of risk to begin with – will the technology work, will the market buy their products – and the very least society can do to help is to give predictable operating conditions.
Why did the world end up with Cap’n Trade instead of a Carbon Tax to curb climate change emissions?
I believe the answer lies in the idiosyncrasies of the political right and left: the left loves taxes but distrusts markets and prefers subsidies while the right understands markets but dislikes taxes.
The Carbon Tax is really all about letting the market solve the problem. Make it progressively more expensive to emit climate change gases and let the market find the best ways to reduce them. It would be natural for market minded people to fight for this solution – except for the problem that marked minded people normally don’t like the T word.
Why are international climate change treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol unenforceable? Is there anything that could be done about it?
A Carbon Tax Treaty would enforce itself
If we were to agree upon a global “carbon tax” instead, the treaty would be much easier to enforce, since firms and countries would be watching each other to ensure nobody is getting an unfair advantage through a lower carbon tax regime.
Carbon Tax – the most effective method to reduce pollution
It is much easier to agree upon whether the current tax rate is as agreed or not than whether an emissions target will be met in x years time. Just look at the effects of the Kyoto Protocol – nobody has managed to follow it and it has had zero consequences. International free trade agreements regulating tolls and tariffs on the other hand – they work!
Violators refusing to implement a Carbon Tax could be brought in front of international arbitration mechanisms as modelled on existing WTO dispute settlement procedures, and countries refusing to sign the treaties would eventually end up being locked out of international trade. Eventually everyone would have to join the club and everyone would have to follow the rules.
In the late 1990s the Chinese government started developing an area of farmland and countryside on the east side of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and a few years later it emerged as an upgraded version of Manhattan with skyscrapers built to impress.
Pudong New Area, Shanghai
The entire area is cool looking, but … not very walker friendly. Huge roads (almost) makes it necessary with a car to cross the street, and buffer parks around each building makes the distances even longer. In general, it is actually not a very human-friendly area once you go outdoors.
How could it have been if the roads had been put under ground instead? By putting “lowrise” houses and piazzas between the skyscrapers it would have been fully possible to create a pedestrian environment on par with any pedestrianized Italian renaissance city, while still maintaining the skyscraper skyline. Would it have been a lot more expensive to build? Probably not – the average height of the surrounding buildings is around 40 floors, one extra basement area for cars should not matter much. And given the general property prices the additional building space would probably pay for the additional expense on its own.
That discussing a Climate Change Tax will be more fruitful than discussing emissions reductions directly may sound counterintuitive. Why not discuss what matters – the reductions?
The problem with emissions reductions is that it is very hard to know how much they will cost. Will a 20% of European emissions by 2020 destroy the economy, or cost almost nothing? Impossible to say, and consequently impossible to agree.
If the discussion focuses on a tax instead, then the discussion will focus on costs. Cost of petrol, cost of electricity or the cost of a steak. All of these can easily be estimated: If nobody finds ways of producing the goods with fewer emissions then the new price will be the current price plus the new tax. Is the new price acceptable, or not? This will be a considerably easier discussion than debating reductions by itself. And it’s not as if EU’s 20-20-20 targets for reductions were chosen due to decades of research showing that exactly these are the numbers that will save the planet!
So, you may have concluded that transport will be pretty dreary in an Ultra Compact City, with all travels being done under ground?
Well, why not try to liven it up, with skywalks and flying cars?
Cable cars are grossly underestimated as modes of public transport. When it comes to transporting a very large number of people relatively short distances they are unrivalled, and since they come and go continuously ”waiting for the bus” will be a thing of the past. They are also electrically driven and pretty energy efficient, and they can be the arteries of a walking based transport network.
Cable cars over London
If they are so great, why aren’t they more popular? The answer lies partially in the difficulty of retrofitting such an installation to an existing city. It can be difficult – at least in dense areas. But if the city is being built from scratch it can be planned with gondola stations in high-rise buildings and cable car lines going up and down the entire city.
To get access to the cable car stations a public street network could be created somewhere around 30th or 40th floor of the city, with bridges between the skyscrapers connecting a floor of shopping-centres in each building. The cable car stations would be located a couple of floors above this skystreet and the whole thing would be connected to ground level with public access lifts.
The end result would be a very pleasant 2nd street level, useful for walking from your home to the cable-car link, and then from the cable car station to your final destination. When going back home you just pick up some groceries from a local deli from dinner – no hassle.
Would an Ultra Compact City qualify as an eco-city?
Purists may say no, as it is all about making room for cars in a better way. But who would like to don the hair-shirt and live in a city without cars for transport? For a lot of transport jobs cars are essential, either for making deliveries or to make a quick point-to-point trip. No public transport network will ever beat cars at this, no matter how extensive it is – at least as long as congestion is avoided.
However, an Ultra Compact City will reduce the distances travelled, something which will reduce energy usage considerably. Compact building also gives a customer base for public transport that enables it to have both an extensive network and to run continuously. Consequently it is likely that most trips will be made by foot + public transport.
The lower energy usage due to a diminished need for transport will consequently result in an Ultra Compact City having a considerably lower carbon footprint than the cities we are building today – making it an Eco City that people would actually love to live in.
A new topic has been started under the heading Money Matters, and the two first articles are about bank regulation and climate change policy. Enjoy.
This website badly need some graphics of what Ultra Compact Cities could look like to spice it up, and I’m wondering if there are any volunteers out there who’d like to contribute? Please send me a note if you can help out!
I once visited Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, and stayed B&B in a communist era housing complex.
This was in the late 1990s, and maintenance wasn’t good. In between the blocks there were trees planted, and they hadn’t been pruned for at least a decade, towering above the 6-7 storey houses.
The effect was surprisingly pleasing, with these really big trees really close in on the houses one could really start arguing if there was a forest in the city or a city in the forest.
The cities being built now in countries like China or India typically consist of 5-10 storey buildings, normally connected with large but overflowing road networks.
With such a setup a lot of land area is lost to roads, and the noise and pollution from the traffic makes it a rather unpleasant habitat. Some places city planners try to improve this by putting parkland as buffers between the houses and the roads, but this causes even more land to be lost and these areas are normally not very successful as parks. The end effect is a rather spread-out city where having access to private transportation is a requirement for a practical life, but where everybody else’s need for the same makes life considerably less pleasant.
The most effective way of reducing emissions from traffic and maintaining an area usage that does not require the entire country to be paved over is to build cities that are very compact, thus reducing the need for transportation.
Have you ever walked along the boulevards of Paris or strolled up from Tianmen Square into the Forbidden City? How did it make you feel? Probably as the designers intended – small!
Human beings generally like to spend time in more human-sized areas. Parks or narrow alleys are much more pleasant to stroll around in. A human-friendly city should not consist of huge squares or ultra-wide streets built to impress and to give military forces an easy task of subduing the inhabitants.
Think of the winding alleys of an Italian medieval city, with its small parks and squares. Wouldn’t you like to live there? Especially with the cars and motorbikes gone?
With an absence of noise and traffic it would also be attractive to live in the city centre, instead of commuting in from the hinterland. Thus you would have a good chance of being able to walk to work, or at least doing a very short commute.
Broad avenues, asphalt and wide parking lots are great for steel boxes on wheels. What human beings need, though, is smaller scales, narrow and winding alleys, trees and green grass.
However, when we design cities for the automobile to easily get around we get cities that you can’t walk around in. It takes ages to cross a square, an eternity to walk down a street, nothing to see or do along the way. Such cities are built not for people to live in, but for cars.
With an ultra compact city, we can put the cars where they belong – under ground – and get the people up into the fresh air and sun!
So, now these pages are online! Enjoy!
The planned topics will firstly be the construction of eco cities, or green city planning and green urban development in general. The first articles will be about how very dense, “ultra compact cities” can be constructed by putting the entire road network under ground. Later I plan to add some articles about policies to counter the emissions of climate change gases and why a climate change tax is far more beneficial than the currently favoured “cap and trade” system.