The City as Dynamic System

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 18, 2008

I wrote yesterday about the complex and often counterintuitive properties of networks, and the role that simplistic "common sense" thinking can play in leading people to false conclusions about how to make networks work more effectively.

I'd like to take a different tack today and look at the one-way / two-way debate in terms of the workings of downtown as a complex system.

I think part of the reason many people can't see how two-way conversion will be beneficial is that they persist in thinking about the issue in terms of simplistic, single variable reductionism.

Single Variable Analysis

Think of a very simple science experiment: you manipulate one variable (the independent variable) and watch to see what happens to another variable (the dependent variable). If you're careful, you'll make sure that you're not accidentally changing anything else at the same time.

Some opponents of two-way conversion seem to think this is how a city works: that if we were to change one variable (one-way to two-way), only one thing would change (traffic speed).

If you assume, like Councillor Tom Jackson seems to assume, that the way to make downtown "more customer-friendly" is to make it easier to drive there, then it seems logical to leave the streets one-way, since converting them to two-way would make driving slower.

Again, if no other variables changed, it would make sense to conclude that converting the streets to two-way would make downtown less "customer-friendly".

Organized Complexity

However, a city is a dynamic system of organized complexity, with multiple independent variables that all affect each other, not to mention positive and negative feedback mechanisms - and this is where the facile, reductionist analysis breaks down.

When you convert streets to two-way (and especially if you combine conversion with sidewalk widening, tree planting, and so on), lots of other variables start to change at the same time.

When traffic moves more slowly, more people are willing to ride bicycles because. At the same time, the Downs-Thomson Paradox takes effect and more people start taking transit.

When the sidewalks become more pleasant, more people are willing to walk on them. With more people on the sidewalks, investors and entrepreneurs open more businesses to reach those pedestrians, and simultaneously open more apartments and condominiums so people don't have to find their way in.

That higher concentration of business draws still more pedestrians and move-ins in a positive feedback loop which is soon augmented by high-value employers moving back into the urban space or launching new business ventures to locate closer to a creative, risk-taking workforce (city initiatives to promote the arts and entrepreneurship can help here as well).

All that new activity and increasing population density increases traffic congestion further, which makes walking, cycling transit and proximity that much more viable and valuable as alternatives to driving, feeding still further into the growth / intensification dynamic.

Demographic One-Two Punch

Another major factor is the larger demographic movement in which Hamilton's local dynamics take place. We're in the early stages of two major demographic shifts that are going to have a huge impact on future growth patterns:

  1. Baby boomers whose children have moved out are starting to sell their big suburban houses and move back downtown so they a) don't have to drive as much, b) are closer to social amenities, and c) are closer to medical facilities.

  2. Young people today are far more likely to move into an urban neighbourhood than young people even ten years ago. The cultural mystique of the suburban house largely run its course.

Those two cohorts are going to want to move into cities at the same time. Will Hamilton be able to accommodate them? If not, the wealthiest and most creative segments of our population are going to find accommodations and opportunities elsewhere, taking their wealth and creativity with them.

No More Cheap Energy

The final big factor, of course, is the changing framework of price signals for energy use. Single-use suburban automobile-dependent land use and transportation patterns are only viable for a large segment of the population when energy is cheap and abundant.

Those are the people who want fast arterial one-way streets to rush across town in their cars.

With global oil production going into permanent decline, the cost of that living arrangement is going to keep on rising, leaving fewer and fewer people in a position where they can afford to maintain it.

People respond to price signals, and rising energy prices will result in more people choosing living arrangements that limit their exposure to those prices. That means more people will seek to live downtown, even aside from the two demographic shifts I mentioned above.

Look to the Future

At some point, Hamilton's decision makers are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the past fifty years will no longer be a useful guide to future development. Designing land use around the car has never been good for neighbourhoods in and of themselves, but it will no longer be viable economically.

I'm not just talking about council, either. The school boards need to stop trailing demographic trends by ten or twenty years and start thinking about future needs. That means keeping urban schools open so that families with young children can move back into urban neighbourhoods.

Again, if they can't find the amenities they need in Hamilton, they will go elsewhere to settle down. We will lose out on their contributions to the economy, to culture, to neighbourhood life - and some other city with better foresight will gain.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted July 18, 2008 at 19:02:37

these councilors never cease to amaze. I forgot how "customer friendly" downtown Hamilton already is. How crazy of us to want to make changes when it works so well.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2008 at 23:30:52

Have you ever heard of Manhattan? Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue are both one way streets, and yet they are also considered world class shopping districts.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 19, 2008 at 00:35:30

Madison has 5 lanes, but both outside lanes are street parking - a buffer that makes it much more comfortable for pedestrians. That's akin to removing two lanes altogether from main. I agree that such a measure would make the one way streets a lot more bearable.

But doesn't it make more sense to convert to two way, allowing us to retain more lanes in each direction and still reaping benefits for pedestrians, residents and business owners?

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 08:18:12

yes, we've heard of Manhattan. Turn Lower Hamilton into a 2-mile wide island with 15 million people working in it each day and we'll have a different discussion.

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By Reason (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 11:38:48

Jason, your simple-minded sarcasm is in stark contrast to Ryan's well-thought out rationale. There is much in what Ryan says that is worthy of comment. You add nothing to this and other discussions, or.. so I don't fall into your mud-slinging, almost nothing. Jason, button it.
Let us digest what Ryan is saying.

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By omro (registered) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 12:58:23

Manhattan's sidewalks on Fifth and Madison are at least 3x the width of Hamilton's on King and Main.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 13:01:55

If you take the time to visit Manhattan and pay close attention, you'll discover it is a great example of the city as a dynamic system. Sidewalks are very wide accommodating a sea of pedestrians. The subway system is so extensive you never have to walk more than 10 minutes in any direction to get somewhere. Pedestrians take the subway trains to get to work, shopping outings, dinners, and nightlife and finally back home. I have relatives there who make 6 figures and don't own cars. Street life is abundant. Cars are rarely able to go above 40km/hr due to all the street life. This is one reason why there are so many yellow cabs all over the place. Only the very rich can afford a car in the city, most people in the shopping district are seen getting into cabs or a subway train with their purchases. I lived in Manhattan for a week and was able to see every single attraction and meet up with all my relatives using the subway and walk up to 10 minutes where I got off. My relatives in Manhattan would have laughed at me if I would have tried to rent a car and park it for the duration of my stay there!

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 23:37:43

If you take a look at Google maps and compare Main street and Madison Ave, you will notice that the sidewalks are almost equal in width.

The big difference is in the population density between the two cities. Manhattan is extremely crowded relative to Hamilton, and this has the effect of slowing traffic down and filling the streets with people.

If height restrictions were abolished in Hamilton, the result would probably be more high rises, and therefore more people living per square km than is currently the case.

Rather than hurt property values, this would increase the commercial value of all land. Since businesses would now have many more customers within walking distance, the income potential per square foot of business space would be much greater than it is today.

By abolishing height restrictions on new buildings, the city would foster a livelier urban environment. Slower traffic would be one of results of this increased population density, but not necessarily the cause of increased urban activity.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 20, 2008 at 07:50:14

unless I missed Madison, I don't recall any streets in NYC having sidewalks as narrow as Main St (other than some residential side streets).

Adam1 - excellent comments. Manhattan is a great example of a city that functions darn well. Any city should strive to give people enough options so that many scratch their heads in amazement at those who want to drive. In Hamilton we scratch our heads at anyone who doesn't.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 20, 2008 at 10:35:57

Since height restrictions are easily bypassed through zoning variances, abolishing them wouldn't do nearly as much to foster a livelier urban environment than abolishing the parking requirements.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 20, 2008 at 14:33:55

Reason - there was nothing sarcastic about my comment. Hamilton has 500,000 people. Manhattan has millions and is a few miles wide. I'm sorry if you found it offensive for me to point out the glaring differences between the two cities before we get too carried away comparing them.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2008 at 22:58:36

Comparing Hamilton to NYC is like apples to oranges. Ryan wrote a great article here. Lets focus on that.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2008 at 23:20:45

Comparing Hamilton to NYC is like apples to oranges. Ryan wrote a great article here. Lets focus on that.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 01:29:29

You are correct highwater, what would be wrong with letting the two interested parties figure the optimal parking spots?

Reduce the regulations, allow adults to make their own decisions, and watch the free market build what there is a demand for.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 09:45:51

yes, great piece Ryan. It is long overdue to change our zoning bylaws. It's ridiculous how much parking the city demands in new developments. Let the city act and function as a city. Quit trying to ram suburbia down the city's throat.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 14:02:47

Ryan, I agree with you that "common sense" often results in poor outcomes. Since we tend to only look at the primary effect of our actions, we are confused when secondary effects undo the desired outcome we are trying to obtain.

As an example, when government tries to protect its citizens by regulating gas prices, they only focus on the primary effect they are trying to obtain, cheap gas. However, since production costs can no longer be passed on to the end consumer, oil companies reduce production, and the result is gas shortages.

Free highways are another example of this, since the marginal cost of using them are zero, there is a great incentive to do so. The result is a large demand, and a perpetual smaller supply, which leads to traffic congestion.

That is why I continue to believe that Hamilton requires less government help, and more self reliance. Common sense tells us that government help is a good thing, however, it also creates a dependency on the politician for all the answers.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 15:56:08

I completely agree Asmith. Lets do away with the inner city highways that are Main and King. But try not to oversimplify the system by abstracting it into a basic supply/demand question. The city as a dynamic system has many more variables.. reread the article if you feel the need.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 23:36:36

Ryan makes the point that human decision making is often flawed, because it fails to take into account how multiple variables interact with each other. I agree with this thinking, but I am not sure how that argues for two way streets.

Just as two way streets have positive effects that common sense thinking doesn't account for, one way streets also have positive effects, that common sense doesn't account for. The logic has to go both ways. Each scenario has obvious pros and cons, but both also have more hidden positives and negatives.

I don't think either scenario is dramatically superior to the other, and any conclusion would tend to be very subjective. If you were a pedestrian, perhaps two way streets would be more favourable because traffic moves slower. However, I have also read that one way streets tend to be safer due to the simpler flow of traffic.

I personally don't think that two way streets are the spark that will turn Hamilton into a growing city, but I don't think it can hurt either. I would rather we look at the unintended consequences of looking to government handouts for our success.

I understand that going cold turkey would be rather disruptive for many, but the less we look to government for help, the more creative, and self sufficient we would become. Self sufficiency and economic strength would not be the primary effect of going more on our own, but it would be the neccessary balance to the stress of having to go it on our own. Just like the old saying, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger.".

Conversely, when we receive more than we send to the government, the primary effect is obvious, we appear richer because of it. However, if we accept that our first impressions are usually flawed, is it possible that the secondary effects of receiving handouts actually do more harm than good?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 22, 2008 at 09:12:57

Geez ASmith, you were actually making some interesting points there, but then you had to go and climb back up on your zero government hobby horse. We all know where you're coming from by now. You don't need to bludgeon us over the head with it in every post.

In any case, I don't see how your zero government model applies in the case of one-way versus two-way, unless you're suggesting that two-way proponents stop waiting for a 'handout' and go and start painting the yellow lines tonight. Tempting.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 22, 2008 at 14:17:34

I am not against government, I am against the idea that government handouts can help build a prosperous city, or individual for that matter. In fact, all I am doing is following the line of thinking that Ryan mentions in this article

Conventional thinking tells us that getting money, whether from government, or from a lottery is an unequivocal good. However, as Ryan points out, conventional thinking usually fails to look at the more subtle secondary effects.

Therefore, when I mention that Hamilton would be better off with "less" handouts from government, it is because I believe these secondary effects are limiting the very progress everyone wants to see take place. Those that fail to see this, are falling into the very trap that Ryan is warning us about, only looking at the obvious effect of how free money could help us.

That is why I talk about catering to businesses, not because I love rich people, but because I know the secondary effects of these actions would help average people more than rich people.

This is in contrast to the conventional idea that says governments should try to cater to the average citizen, because it is they that need the help. However, if we learn anything from this article, it is that we want to avoid the obvious, because it is usually wrong.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2008 at 23:04:30

A Smith wrote:

if we learn anything from this article, it is that we want to avoid the obvious, because it is usually wrong.

I wasn't trying to argue that common sense is "usually" wrong, but rather that it's important to test our assumptions, especially those assumptions we hold most deeply.

I understand that you come at this as a free market fundamentalist, but the warning against uncritically accepting assumptions applies as much to economic theory as to anything else.

For example, it's a common sense assumption that increasing the price of something causes demand to go down. This is the argument that neoliberal and Austrian school economists use against minimum wage laws, which ought to reduce employment - according to the assumption from economic common sense.

However, the evidence abundantly does not support this assumption:

The Florida Minimum Wage After One Year.

Summary: none of the dire predictions of job losses came true, the Florida economy continued to lead the country in job growth, and the unemployment rate continued to decline steadily, while economic growth accelerated.

The Economics of the Minimum Wage.

Summary: minimum wage increases have little or no impact on employment rates.

Step up, not out: The case for raising the federal minimum wage for workers in every state.

Summary: critics argue that, faced with rising labor costs, employers are forced to lay off workers. This claim has been carefully studied by labor economists who have found little evidence that minimum wage increases lead to significant job losses. In fact, the research unequivocally shows that the benefits to low-wage workers and their families far outweigh the costs.

A more holistic study of the system of employment, wages and economic growth reveals dynamics that seem counterintuitive at first blush.

Simplistic models of free exchange miss the fact that employers and workers are asymmetric agents in in monopsonistic unskilled and semi-skilled labour markets. That is, employers have considerable power to drive down wages (since a corporation is a formal combination of thousands of shareholders pitted against separate and individual workers).

As a result, employers can pay workers less than a market with perfect competition would produce.

Raising the minimum wage restores a price for labour that still allows employers to be profitable but leaves more money in the hands of workers. This, in turn, leads to more consumer purchases, which provides more revenue for employers to offset their higher labour costs (something Henry Ford understood).

It also attracts people on social assistance to enter the labour market, which increases employment, economic activity, and consumer purchasing power, and alleviates public spending (which can go into other investments or into tax cuts).

Overall, raising the minimum wage appears not to reduce employment (in some cases, employment actually increases) and to have a slightly positive affect on GDP.

Now, I don't mean to pick unfairly on economics. As a field of study, economics seems to be coming around to the idea that its theories need to be tested empirically (notwithstanding a few holdouts like the Austrians who refuse to sully their a priori tautologies with actual data).

Another discipline at a similar cusp is the field of urban and transportation planning. Despite vehement insistences from all corners that North American drivers are somehow exceptional and that they simply don't obey any laws of supply and demand.

While it's true that demand for transportation fuel is somewhat inflexible over the short to medium term, it turns out not to be true that people will keep on driving no matter what.

Overall, driving is down around five percent over the past year, and transit use is up around five percent (with LRT use growing by over 10 percent).

(In Hamilton, thanks to two fare increases last year, transit use is up by less than one percent.)

This seems to demonstrate that our exceptionalism about driving and transit is unfounded. People do respond to price signals (though not always in simplistic ways).

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2008 at 00:55:50

Ryan, if raising the minimum wage has zero negative effects on businesses and workers, then why don't governments ramp them way up?

Is there a point of diminishing returns, and if so, how do we know where it is? I am not against helping workers, but I don't believe there are free lunches in life. If I am wrong, and somehow minimum wages can drive growth for both businesses and workers, then I would be all for it. Either way, lets be bold and do it right, push the minimum wage up to $20/hour and see what happens.

I would offer another explanation for the robust Florida job market during the time period studied, immigration. Florida has the fourth largest immigrant population in the U.S. (~ 18.5%), and in contrast to Canada, many of the immigrants are uneducated and lack marketable skills.

Conventional thinking tells us that immigrants, especially low skilled ones, reduce the prospects for natural born workers, however, as we have been discussing recently, conventional thinking is usually misguided. In fact, countries that have strong records of allowing foreign workers into their country, also produce excellent wealth creation for their citizens. Luxembourg is a great example of this, they allow businesses to dictate how many workers they need, and they just happen to be the richest country in the world.

I have mentioned in previous posts that under Bill Clinton, spending targeted towards poor and middle class grew very slowly as compared to the current president. The crowd would tell us that that was a bad thing, however, it also led to a huge increase in real median wages. Something bad (less spending on poor people), resulted in something extremely good (great economy for all levels of income).

That is the funny thing about life, we all tend to focus on the getting the things that we think will help us, but the only way to do this is to embrace the things that scare us.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2008 at 23:29:52

Is there a point of diminishing returns,

There almost always is. Both dihydrogen monoxide and sodium chloride are essential for life, and yet both will kill you in excess.

if so, how do we know where it is?

In general, we can figure this out through a combination of modeling and testing (trial and error), informed by observations of previous increases.

I don't believe there are free lunches in life.

Nor do I, but there's room in life for potlucks, family meals, romantic dinners, and so on. One size does not fit all.

lets be bold and do it right, push the minimum wage up to $20/hour and see what happens.

Do you have a basis for this other than reductio ad absurdum? If not, I think you are veering into strawman territory.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 24, 2008 at 14:40:15

Ryan, did you know that Denmark has a corporate tax rate of 25%, while Sweden stands at 28%?

Conversely, both Denmark and Sweden have high personal tax rates, at 59% and 60% respectively.

By treating citizens with toughness, and businesses with care, the government produces the opposite effect.

If you want to move to this model, then I think that would be great.

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By Campbell (anonymous) | Posted July 28, 2008 at 17:51:02

Apples and Apples: Why don't we compare downtown Hamilton (1-way) to downtown Kitchener (2-way).

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