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St Lukes Rd becoming safer for bikes

One of Auckland’s oldest cycleways is finally getting a much needed upgrade in the form of some protection. Here are a couple of tweets showing the new protectors that are in the process of been installed.

The protected lanes are a welcome addition as its common for the bike lanes to be ignored by other road users, As Brendon showed with this video last year. It was also not uncommon for vehicles to use the cycle lanes as extra queuing space.

Good on Auckland Transport for putting them. Perhaps they should put in a mass order of these barriers and start rolling them out to more of the existing painted cycle lanes around the city.

NZTA support light-rail to Airport

A briefing to Councillors (from page 251) included in an attachment for the Council’s Planning Committee meeting for next week says that both the NZTA and Auckland Transport boards have now agreed on a way forward for the city to airport corridor. And that decision will see the route upgraded to light rail, eventually.

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) shied away from saying light rail was needed and instead just referred to a number of strategic public transport routes as “Mass Transit”. We know that following ATAP, the NZTA commissioned a study to see if buses could meet the expected demand on the City to Airport route instead of Auckland Transport’s preferred light rail option. This was called the Advanced Bus Study (ABS) – as it happens I have an OIA request in for this report which was due back today but the NZTA have extended it by another 3-weeks. They even went as far as getting overseas consultants to do the study so it was completely independent to AT’s previous investigations on the issue.

The presentation states that like other recent studies, the ABS confirmed the proposed Queen St/Dominion/SH20/SH20A route which has helped “provide confidence and a degree of investment certainty” that they should get on with protecting it for mass transit. They also say it highlighted the need for better PT access from the East.

Here is a map of the route planned by the ABS showing it almost identical to the route AT planned for light rail.

The agreed way forward appears to be sensible. I read it as essentially being to make a range of short term improvements both north to the city and east to Manukau to help buses move around easier, which would likely take some of the current pressure off, while working to protect the route to the city for an eventual upgrade to light rail.

The short term improvements include infrastructure changes and it appears, additional services.

The changes to services are shown on the map below and would entail a number of new routes or changes to existing routes.

One interesting slide shows what the unitary plan allows for development in a rough walking distance around the proposed stations of both the North and East route. One aspect that stands out is the amount of almost white (single house zone) around some of the Dominion Rd stations. There is some mixed use density allowed close to Dominion Rd that is hard to see in these maps but the density does drop of quickly.

Light rail certainly feels like it’s going through the same sort of obstructive process as the CRL did before the government finally agreed to help pay for it and that it’s needed now. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long as the CRL did to get to that stage. The biggest unknown of course is the government who have been hostile to the project so far. I can’t understand what they would lose by supporting it, even if it was built in a decade or more, as the numerous reports back up the need for light rail and it’s a project that would be popular with voters.

Overall, it’s good to see there’s progress being made on this project and even better news that modern light rail continues to be the plan.

Fundraiser update

We are off to a great start on our fundraising drive. After a week and a half we have raised nearly a third ($6,200) of the target of $20,000. Thank you everyone that has pledged. Remember, in crowdfunding we must meet the target of $20,000 in order to make any money.

We want to give you more of a taste of what our fundraising is going to. Over the next couple of weeks we will give you an early look at three exciting developments.

The first is a look at website redesign. Besides an overall refresh, we have been redesigning the website to be attractive to both regular and new readers, as well as working well on mobiles.

The biggest change is the introduction of featured posts. Not all blog posts are equal and at times important ones get lost as they slip down the page. So whilst posts will still be organised chronologically, we want to make sure those important or topical posts get the attention they deserve. In addition, it will be used to feature campaigns – and we have one in development – and possibly to use this to re-introduce some of our “classic” posts that are still just as relevant today as they were when written – a useful to introduce newer readers to some of our core content as well as to provide some perspective on the city’s progress.

We are also considering adding new features such as an events page.

Below is a screen capture of the front page. What do you think? Are there any additional features that we should consider?

 

Why is PT ridership falling in the US, but growing here?

Jarrett Walker recently posed an interesting question, that he was after some more in depth research on than the usual ‘reckons’, “why is public transport ridership in the US falling so much?”

This builds on a tweet from Kirk Hovenkotter, showing that ridership had fallen in most large US cities over the past year, which was reported on CityLab:

A number of “culprits” are suggested. The obvious one being that oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few years, alongside an ongoing process where immigrants – or poorer Americans in general – are being priced out of transit rich inner cities and into more car dependent suburban areas:

Some of the factors behind these declines are national, as the transportation scholar David Levinson points out via email. The economy is expanding, and oil prices are plunging. People are buying more cars and driving them more often, both to work and to weekend activities that are better served by vehicles. American cities continue to suburbanize, and as they do, taking transit often becomes a less attractive option. Immigrants, long a strong base of ridership for agencies, are increasingly moving out of urban centers… and buying and driving their own vehicles.

Other suggestions are that people are shifting to using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft – but the evidence is pretty thin on the ground when it comes to that:

This argument probably holds truest for weekend boardings. But the best research out there (and there isn’t much yet) suggests most workers don’t rely on Uber and Lyft for regular daily commutes. Ride-hailing may even be more supportive of transit than competitive, at least in the biggest cities (smaller cities might be another question). At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be siphoning a significant number of riders away. When Uber and Lyft left Austin, mass transit saw a very modest one percent bump in ridership, according to the transportation consultant Jarrett Walker.

Of course, meanwhile in Auckland public transport ridership continues to grow strongly, as I noted yesterday February ridership was up 8.6% on February 2016, with both the rail network and the Northern Busway again registering double-digit increases.

Even across Canadian cities that we usually enviously compare ourselves, ridership growth is much slower than Auckland – although they start from a higher base. This leads to an interesting question of why Auckland is bucking the trends seen elsewhere so strongly. I think there are a few possible suggestions:

  • Auckland’s recent rapid growth and the growing congestion it has created, means that PT offers a pretty competitive travel choice for many people – especially when using the rail network or the Northern Busway.
  • We’re still seeing the benefits of recent investment in rail electification and integrated ticketing, as well as the improved “value for money” offering that came with zone-based fares last year.
  • Service network improvements, mainly in the south so far, have also helped increase ridership – some of that is a result of us shifting to a system that encourages greater transfers although indications are that overall journeys have increased too.
  • The NZ/US dollar exchange rate usually offsets fluctuations in oil prices so we don’t see as rapid increases/decreases in fuel prices at the pump as is the case in the US. Also a higher proportion of what we pay is tax when compared to the US.

All up we are doing well to buck the international trends and it should give us ongoing confidence in investing in public transport – that people will continue to flock to where improvements are made even when fuel prices are relatively low. We’ve still got a long way to go but perhaps one day soon we can be envied as a city used in case studies of what to do to make public transport better rather than our history of the opposite.

February-2017 Ridership

Auckland Transport’s hold a board meeting next week which means we finally get to see how public transport performed in February. February’s results are always slightly more interesting than normal as they give an indication of what kind of results we can expect from March Madness as the busy conditions usually start manifesting in late Feb – and so far, March has been noticeably un-mad. February this year had an additional dimension to keep an eye on as last year had an extra day due to being a leap year – although there were the same number of normal working days.

The good news is the results were strong, the highlights are:

  • Overall ridership for February was 7.38 million, up an impressive 8.6% on February-2016. That’s almost 600k more than in February last year and sees ridership on 12-month rolling basis, rise to 85.7 million trips.
  • The Rapid Transit Network continues to see strong growth with usage on the RTN clocking in with 2 million trips, up 11.3% compared to Feb-16. Within that:
    • Trips on the rail network increased by 10.3% to 1.6 million
    • Trips on the busway increased by 15.2% to 395 thousand
  • The big surprise from February’s results was the non busway buses which hasn’t been doing as well as other modes in recent times. In Feb though, usage on them rose an impressive 7.8% compared to Feb-16.
  • Ferries continue to glide along with nice growth, increasing 6.3% compared to Feb-16.

Most PT trips happen on work days and for those, you can see on bus and train that February was well ahead of previous years and that sets us up for a great March result. Could we see March reach 80,000 trips per day on the rail network?

If the current trends hold then we’re in for a bumper result in March, and without almost all of the cramming and missed buses of previous years.

The farebox recovery has been a measure we’re been keeping a watchful eye on a lot recently to see what impacts the various service and fare changes made in recent years are having. The results for February are notable in that for the first time, the net subsidy per passenger km for trains is lower than it is for buses.

We’ve sometimes seen subsidies measured on a per trip basis however per passenger km is more accurate as it takes into account that the average train trip of 13.26km is longer than the average bus trip of 7.54km.

One aspect that isn’t clear is what is causing farebox recovery ratios on buses to be falling. I suspect one element of it would be all the extra services that were put on both recently and prior to Christmas to help combat March Madness.

While not ridership specifically, AT added an interesting set of graphs to their Monthly Indicators pack. We’ve shown them before for specific projects, such as with AMETI. In all but one of the examples, you can see that PT can often compete with driving usually in the peaks – although we think PT needs to be more time competitive throughout the entire day. There are a couple of things that stand out though and the biggest one is how in most scenario’s the travel time via PT is at least in the range or close to it, with the exception of one – the northwest. This of course highlights once again how important it is we get a proper busway built along SH16.

Perhaps the buses along SH16 being so slow also has a small part to play in increasing popularity of the NW cycleway. For Feb, the counter at Te Atatu was up an massive 47% on Feb-16 while at Kingsland numbers were up a still impressive 18%

Lastly, Wellington also published their ridership numbers for Feb – but they’re definitely not quite as pretty as the Auckland results. For the month of Feb-17 compared to Feb-16:

  • Total trips taken were down 5.9%
  • Bus trips were down 4.7%
  • Train trips were down 7.7%
  • Ferry trips were down 20% – although this was off a very small base

 

Tauranga’s Ghost Motorway

Over the weekend I took a trip down to Paengaroa (about 30km east of Tauranga) to visit some family. After travelling through Tauranga, the fastest option for getting there is via only the second of the government’s Roads of National Significance to have been fully completed, the Tauranga Eastern Link (TEL) – the first was the Victoria Park tunnel.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve driven over the road and as with previous times, I was struck with the emptiness of it. So, I thought I’d look a little closer at it.

The TEL is a 21km, four lane motorway from Te Maunga in Tauranga (near BayPark stadium) through to the intersection of SH2 and SH33 just before Paengaroa. The first 6km upgraded the existing SH2 route to motorway standard and serves the ever expanding housing developments down Papamoa Beach. The remaining 15km is a completely new road bypassing the town of Te Puke and is tolled. The project was officially completed at the end of July 2015, about five months early. See below for a flyover of the road

It is also intended that eventually two additional interchanges along the route will be added, one roughly where the road turns away from being parallel with the coast to serve the continued residential growth in Papamoa (expected to be needed in about a decade) and the second for a proposed business park near the eastern end of the motorway. You can see the TEL to the right of the map below which is much straighter than old State Highway 2 through Te Puke which was rated as the second worst in the country for safety.

As mentioned, the project was designated a road of national significance by the government in 2009 and one of the reasons for that was in this cabinet paper outlining why the route should be tolled.

TEL has been specifically developed to generate economic growth within the Bay of Plenty region. The Western Bay of Plenty continues to be one of the fastest growing areas in New Zealand. The NZTA advises that TEL will contribute to economic growth by providing convenient, reliable access to areas of employment, and by improving access for freight to the Port of Tauranga and to new urban and industrial developments.

Currently, TEL is prioritised 45th in the NZTA‘s 2009/2010 State Highway Plan. Based on this programming, construction would not begin for an estimated 5–7 years if it were funded entirely from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF). The NZTA‘s view is that borrowing, supported by tolling, would allow construction to commence in 2010/11. This approach requires Cabinet approval. A similar approach has previously been used in relation to the Northern Gateway Toll Road (NGTR).

At the opening of the road, Transport Minister Simon Bridges and then Prime Minister John Key praised the road as being a game changer for the Bay of Plenty.

The new Tauranga Eastern Link has been described as a “game changer” that will bring the Bay closer together and “ensure economic growth”, Transport Minister Simon Bridges told dignitaries at its official opening yesterday.

It was the “best road in New Zealand,” the largest in the Bay of Plenty and the most highly specced you could build, with four lanes, seven bridges and the biggest roundabout in the country – all completed five months ahead of schedule at $455 million, he said.

The 21km road, that heads towards the Port of Tauranga, would increase productivity and shave about 24 minutes off a return trip between Paengaroa and Te Maunga, creating quicker access for inter-regional freight to the Port of Tauranga and driving down costs.

Prime Minister John Key echoed those sentiments and said the highway had been designed to open up the region.

“This will help grow industry and jobs, improve safety and support economic development and growth.

“By improving links between centres of production and ports or airports, we can improve our international competitiveness and achieve the strong and growing economy that supports more jobs and higher incomes.”

The most highly specced is another way of saying the road had been gold plated and it certainly feels that way to drive on it. And Bridges isn’t kidding when he says it has the biggest roundabout, the whole interchange at the Paengaroa end is probably the most space hungry I’ve seen.

But when it comes to just how useful it is to the economy, it appears to be more like a movie that never lives up to its hype.

Historically most transport projects are paid for out of the National Land Transport fund but as quoted earlier, the NZTA, through the government, borrowed month to allow them to start the project sooner than otherwise would have been possible. the Cabinet paper referenced says they would borrow $137 million for the road. On top of that, interest would be capatalised to the loan and which had a potential range of $59-151 million. That $137 million would be paid for over 35 years by tolls – which are capped at $2 for light vehicles and $5 for heavy vehicles (in 2008 values), with only CPI increases allowed.

Now of course servicing that debt relies heavily on there being enough traffic. The NZTA predicted that 8,600 vehicles would use the road daily in 2016 rising to 21,200 in 2031. It’s also worth pointing out that SH2 at Te Puke never saw traffic volumes reach 21,000 and in 2006 were just over 18k per day and they peaked a few years later at just over 19k per day.

The monthly data from the NZTA only includes the TEL from March this year, ideally we’d have more results, but it shows traffic volumes are less than half of what was expected with an average of about 4200 using the road on a daily basis. Residential streets in Auckland move more people, plus in a lot less space. The results also show about 600 heavy vehicles using the road per day, only about a quarter of those using old road before TEL opened.

Lower volumes also mean lower revenues to help pay off the loan. We can see the difference between heavy and light vehicles, we can estimate what revenue would be for each month. Over the nine months we can see in the graph above, I estimate the average amount that was collected was just under $320k per month. Even with low interest rates, that’s about half of what would be needed to pay back that $137m loan. Here’s some what the Cabinet Paper says about should this situation arise.

One of the risks of any tolling proposal is that deviations from the traffic volumes forecast would have implications for revenue, and consequently on the ability of the project to repay the debt. To generate the traffic forecasts for this project the NZTA sought input from a third party, Beca Consultants.

In the event that there is a shortfall in debt repayment on TEL due to lower than expected toll revenue, the NZTA will be responsible for meeting this debt through planned risk mitigation measures.

The NZTA advises that these measures could include remodelling of the toll strategy, revisiting the toll collection strategy, identifying potential cost savings within the processing system, and potentially reconsidering the approach to managing the alternative route (while ensuring that this route remains a feasible option). If all of these measures are unsuccessful, the NZTA would then look to review the financing options (for example extending the tolling period)

I wonder at what point the NZTA push the panic button on this road. It is also probably a good example highlighting that people’s willingness to pay is often considerably lower than the perceived value of the time savings, which is important given how much importance time savings are given in project assessments.

Is it too early to call this a white elephant yet and will anyone be held to account for the wildly inaccurate traffic modelling and assessment? And yet despite its issues, it’ll look like a sane investment next the proposed motorway between Warkworth and Wellsford.

 

Update: it turns out the results the NZTA included in the data I used for this were only for one direction, not both directions like every other road in the dataset provided. I apologise for not picking this up.

Tame on the money

TVNZ’s Breakfast host Jack Tame wrote an excellent opinion piece on transport in Auckland in the Herald on Sunday yesterday.

I can’t read the future but I can tell you right now it’ll be packed tomorrow morning from Drury to Takanini.

You don’t need to live in Auckland to know how frustrating it is to be sitting in traffic.

Congestion is a great equaliser. You can be a multi-millionaire in a kitted-out late European, or struggling to make ends meet with an unregistered, bunged-up, eighth-hand Mitsubishi and it all works the same.

Traffic doesn’t care for fancy cars. It’s not moving faster for anyone.

Sitting in traffic for hours is such a normal part of the week for so many Aucklanders I can sympathise with people who live elsewhere and turn up their noses at our beautiful harbours and warm weather. It’s a serious quality-of-life thing.

The last point is important, in my opinion, Auckland has some of the best and most unique mix of natural features for a city anywhere in the world. The harbours, the Hauraki Gulf and islands, the volcanoes, the beaches and ranges. But the city is let down by its built form and nowhere is that more noticeable than with transport.

 

Auckland’s geography creates numerous pinch points that funnel people through narrow corridors. If any city could benefit from high quality public transport to help move more people through those pinch points, it’s Auckland. Yet for decades we’ve spend most of our transport effort in trying to solve these problems though the least efficient way of doing so, roads.S

Next Jack uses a line we’ve been known to use on more than one occasion.

No city ever solved its traffic problems by building more roads. And with a significant slab of the migration surge focused on the Auckland region, the morning commute won’t get much shorter any time soon

According to the Ministry of Transport, registered vehicles on New Zealand roads increased by 185,000 in 2016. Only so many motorway extensions and tunnels will cope with that kind of growth.

Traffic is Auckland’s great shame.

We already know a solution will involve massive investment in public transport. Friends visiting recently from overseas were staggered to discover even a light rail link to the airport is potentially more than a decade away.

This in a city of more than 1.5 million people.

But anyone who suggests there isn’t an appetite for change need only consider Auckland’s jam-packed city buses and increasingly popular commuter trains.

Who in their right mind would choose an idling first gear crawl over a shorter, smoother, commute to work?

I can’t disagree with any of that and we know that when high quality solutions, like rapid transit, are provided, that people flock to use them. What we need is to provide more of those high quality options to a greater number of people around the region. And as the rapid transit network expands and interconnects, its usefulness will multiply seeing even more people wanting to use the trains and buses we already have.

With the council and government now both agreeing on the need for a strategic PT network, now’s the time for them to put the money up and get it built.

Jack finishes up with this.

Every morning I read the traffic report and watch our live motorway shots with a mix of sympathy and disdain.

Then I leave the studio, wipe off my make-up, get on my bike and ride home.

AT’s Albert St preliminary design

On Friday, Auckland Transport released some new images and a jerky video of their preliminary design for Albert St after the City Rail Link is completed.

Improving Albert Street for pedestrians and public transport reliability are the top considerations in a newly-released concept plan for the busy central Auckland route.

The preliminary designs show the potential of a reinstated Albert Street, once the City Rail Link (CRL) project’s underground tunnels and stations are completed.

The tree-lined Albert Street of the future has a vastly improved pedestrian environment, with broad footpaths, improved footpath (and road) surfaces, better bus stop facilities and attractive street furniture.

The design also provides for a reliable frequent bus service along the route, with dedicated bus lanes down both sides, as part of this city busway corridor.

Sustainability measures have also been considered in the design, including the potential to add a “green” wall of vertical plantings to one Albert St building, where space constraints prevent trees being planted in the footpath. Tree pits will be used to filter and cleanse road surface run-off before it goes out to sea. Materials and detailing have also been carefully chosen to make maintenance and operations more cost-effective.

The preliminary designs sound like there’s quite a bit of effort that’s gone in however despite that, there are no actual plans or cross sections that have been released, only some images out of some 3D modelling program. The first shows many mature trees combining to form a lush, desirable street.

But those trees disappear outside the district court.

Same too in Lower Albert St which will be a key downtown bus interchange after the completion of the CRL and Commercial Bay development.

 

The images come from this video AT have also released on the design. Here are a couple of things I picked up from it:

  • The area outside of the Crowne Plaza appears much improved on what exists now. But the same can’t be said for the proposed NDG building on the currently empty site boardering Albert, Victoria St and Elliot St with its deep porte cochere and entrance to the lower level service lane (that exits by Wellersley St).
  • There’s also a noticeable amount of space taken up in the middle of the road for skylights for the Aotea Station.
  • Despite being right next to what will be one of the busiest pedestrian fountain in the city, the Victoria St entrance to the CRL, there seems to be a distinct lack of space for pedestrians on the corner of Albert St and Victoria St, especially on the eastern side.
  • Speaking of Victoria St, while I appreciate it isn’t the focus of this video, there is definitely four lanes of traffic crammed in there and no Linear Park, in direct contradiction to the City Centre Master Plan. There also doesn’t appear to be any bike lanes despite that being a requirement as part of the government’s Urban Cycleways Programme.
  • The Albert St access to Durham Lane looks a lot better without the bridges to the carparks – which are being removed as part of the CRL project. It’s also great to see what appears to be more space for pedestrians on top of the wall as well as bus lanes southbound in this section. There is a distinct lack of trees here though and I wonder if more could be done to incorporate them.
  • Perhaps it’s the video by Wyndham St looks to be a more appropriately scaled width compared to what it is now.
  • The section from Swanson to Customs St with a dense urban canopy looks a lot better – although it would obviously take a considerable amount of time for any trees planted to get that mature. They haven’t said what species are being considered.
  • While I realise they’ll still be working through the details, there seems to be a distinct lack of details and amenity around the bus stops at Lower Albert St

While what’s shown is interesting, it’s also worth noting what’s not shown. As mentioned earlier there is no linear park or bike facilities on Victoria St. There are also no bike facilities on Albert St either – AT’s intention is for cyclists to use Federal St.

One aspect that caught our attention the last time Albert St designs were discussed was the issue of indented bus bays (stops). The video doesn’t appear to show any so I asked the CRL team if they were still part of the plan. Here’s what they said.

there are indented bus bays in the design with provision for their future removal if PT reliability can be maintained without them.

I’ve looked through the video multiple times and haven’t once been able to see indented bus bays -. More importantly, AT’s stance on this issue is at odds with their own design standards and international evidence – and even ignoring all that, at the very least they have the ordering the wrong way around and they should only be added if reliability is an issue. Here’s what some of their Code of Practice says about indented bus bays.

Historically, in Auckland and many other cities around the world, bus bays were often the preferred layout for bus stops as the priority was to maintain the general flow of traffic. Consequently, there are many full or half-indented bus bays within the Auckland region.

Bus bays, however, present inherent operational problems for buses and passengers. The disadvantages of this type of layout are:

  • bus drivers often find it difficult to merge back into the mainstream of traffic causing delays of approximately 2 – 4 seconds at each stop13. This can be much longer in heavy traffic. This problem is particularly felt in Auckland as drivers are not legally required to give way to buses (as they are in many other countries) and consequently often do not. The variability of this hold up leads to unreliable and bunched services as well as general bus delay;
  • bus bays require a significant area to ensure buses are able to pull in flush with the kerb. A ‘standard’ bus requires a full bus bay area to be 46.5m long from the start of the approach taper to the end of the exit lane. The impact on the surrounding landuse means that there is less area available for wider footpaths, streetscape, berms, landscaping, or on-street parking;
  • the design of many existing bus bays is unsatisfactory, particularly where their geometry prevents buses from reaching the kerb effectively (ideal gap is generally within 50-75mm, maximum gap is 200mm), resulting in poor accessibility for passengers. Some drivers may also choose not to pull in close to the kerb to ensure that the bus is at a better angle to re-enter the mainstream of traffic;
  • bus bays are also prone to attract inconsiderate parking or unloading, especially at high activity areas e.g. town centres, shop frontages etc. This again prevents the bus from reaching the kerbside, forcing passengers to board or alight from the road, causing difficulties for some passengers;
  • bus bays widen the carriageway area creating the opposite effect of traffic calming measures, including encouraging speeding, increased difficulty for pedestrians to cross and an unattractive street environment.

Current thinking has shifted towards giving greater priority to buses as more ‘efficient people movers’, even if this is achieved at the expense of slowing down general traffic. In view of the above reasons, bus bays should only be provided where justified by compelling safety or operational reasons.

In fact, several cities (London, Portland for example) have a policy to infill or remove bus bays altogether from major arterial roads (or where the posted speed limit is 50km/hr or lower)

To highlight just how inefficient they can be, the Code of Practice example shows that 70m of kerb space is needed for just two bus stops. At that length, space would be taken from pedestrians for most of any block they were put on.

Given all of this, it’s absurd that AT are even considering putting them on Albert St. Perhaps before signing off on indented bus stops, AT could trial not having them after the tunnels are complete but before making the changes permanent as part of the end result?

Overall, I think it’s hard to judge just what’s planned given the lack of AT releasing any actual plans, cross-sections and seeming lack of disregard for not only their own standards but also council strategies too. The CRL is a massive opportunity to make Albert St and many other parts of the city centre considerably better but at this stage it appears they could do better.

Sunday reading 19 March 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading.

This week, I want to highlight a really important article by Joe Cortright (City Observatory): “Going faster doesn’t make you happier; you just drive farther“:

We’ve long assumed that one of the goals of our transportation system is to enable us to move as quickly as possible when we travel, so it stands to reason that the people who live in “faster” cities ought to be happier with their transportation systems…

The following chart shows happiness with the regional transportation system on the vertical axis, and average speed on the horizontal axis.  Higher values on the vertical (happiness) scale indicate greater satisfaction; larger values on the horizontal (speed) scale indicate faster than average travel speeds.  The data show a weak negative relationship that falls short of conventional significancel tests (p = .16).  While there isn’t a strong relationship between speed and happiness, if anything it leans towards being a negative one; those who live in “faster” cities are not happier with their transportation system than those who live in slower ones.

Cortright goes on to investigate this relationship in more detail. It turns out that the main effect of faster speeds is that people travel longer distances. And travelling longer distance is associated with less happiness:

To tie this all together, we thought we’d look at one more relationship:  How does distance traveled affect happiness with an area’s transportation system? This final chart shows the happiness (on the vertical axis) and vehicle miles traveled (on the horizontal axis). Here there is a strong negative relationship: the further residents drive on a daily basis, the less happy they are with their metro area’s transportation system.

We think this chart has an important implication for thinking about cities and transportation. Instead of focusing on speed, which seems to have little if any relationship to how people view the quality of their transportation system, we ought to be looking for ways to influence land use patterns so that people to have to travel as far. If we could figure out ways to enable shorter trips and less travel, we’d have happier citizens.

Traffic engineering consistently advocates trading off place for speed, reasoning that faster traffic will give people more choice and opportunities for happiness. But if that isn’t the case, then the profession is damaging people’s health and happiness for no good purpose other than blind adherence to an incorrect idea. Engage with the evidence, traffic engineers!

Speaking of mythbusting, University of Auckland professor Alistair Woodward has just released some new research on the safety risks of cycling. He explains his findings in a blog post:

We found the risk of injury while riding a bike is actually very small. Taking injuries that lead to claims to ACC, we found these occur roughly 9 times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips; the chance of receiving an injury sufficiently severe to cause a visit to the hospital was similar. If you rode a bike three times a week, most weeks, the chances are you would suffer one moderately severe injury every 70 years.

We estimate the risk of injury on a bike is similar to the risk associated with DIY activities in the home, more than a 100 times less than the risk of snow sports, and 500 times safer than playing rugby (see Figure 1, which uses a log scale).

Figure 1. Risk of injury sufficient to cause a visit to a hospital emergency department, or lead to a claim to ACC, per million typical exposures (such as a half hour bike ride, a game of rugby, half a day on the snow)

There are many assumptions and approximations in these results, so they should not be treated as precise measures. But the take home message, we suggest, is that riding a bike on New Zealand roads is not particularly dangerous (1 moderate injury in 70 years!), and indeed the risk is considerably less than that associated with some other common activities. (Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to ride to sports, but the bike trip is roughly 500 times safer than a game of rugby, for instance).

Woodward concludes with a suggestion:

The most powerful way to bring bikes back from the margin is to provide safe spaces for cyclists of all abilities to get to where they want to ride. Separated cycle ways are part of the fix, but not enough. There need to be changes on the road as well, such as slower vehicle speeds, better intersections, and wider shoulders to include cyclists. More people riding, and public spaces that celebrate two wheeled choices, will do two things – make cycling (even) safer, and reduce the fear of the bike.

On a related note, a new piece of research from the US looks at the reasons why people on bikes break some traffic rules. According to the press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Study reveals a ‘Wild West’ with rules of the biking road“. It highlights the importance of poorly thought-out road rules and hostile driver behaviour in conditioning some cycling behaviours:

Just as many drivers accept violations of speed limit laws as the norm in certain situations, bicyclists often accept violations of some traffic regulations as the norm under certain circumstances.

However, based upon a recent survey of more than 14,000 Americans, consensus is lacking on how bicyclists should safely maneuver through mixed traffic. Depending upon their bicycling experience, motorists can have very conflicting views on appropriate biking behavior amid automobiles.

The uncertainty about how someone should ride a bike in traffic can be dangerous if a motorist responds aggressively to a cyclist’s actions. Aggressive driving contributes to accidents and near misses. That, in turn, scares many people away from biking.

“We know it’s the Wild West out there,” said Daniel P. Piatkowski, assistant professor in the community and regional planning program of the College of Architecture at Nebraska. “There are all these conflicting ideas of how a bike rider should behave — some legal, some illegal. We found that, regardless of how people are riding, most are doing so to avoid being injured or killed by a driver.”

One interesting finding from the study was that drivers often have hostile (and potentially life-destroying) responses to legal behaviours such as ‘taking the lane’:

“When a perfectly legal bicycling maneuver like taking the middle of the lane elicits an aggressive response from a significant number of drivers, that is a big problem,” Marshall said. “This sort of disconnect helps explain a lot of the behaviors we’re seeing out there.”

And now for something completely different. Footrot Flats cartoonist Murray Ball died last week. He’d been ill and out of the public eye for years, but it was still sad to hear as I’d grown up with his characters. By all accounts, he was a thoroughly decent bloke who stood up for a kinder, more inclusive society. So in memory of Murray Ball here’s Jane Thompsen’s 1984 profile of him at work at his place in Gisborne:

by Jane Thompsen, originally appeared in School Journal, 1984, Part 4, number 2.

AT NINE O’CLOCK every morning, from Monday to Thursday, Murray Ball goes to a quiet place to think of ideas for his cartoons.

He might go to the top of a hill near his house, or under a tree in the garden. It has to be somewhere he won’t be disturbed—because he needs to sit down, make himself comfortable, and go into a kind of a dream. It is almost like going through a door, shutting it behind him and finding himself in another world—the topsy-turvy world of Footrot Flats.

Many characters whom he knows very well live in that world. There’s Wal, a farmer, thoughtless and dour and mean, who also has some good qualities—he would never do anything dishonest. There’s his dog, who adores him and would do anything for him, although he tends to be rather greedy and jealous. There’s Cooch, a much more sensitive farmer, who even tries to protect pests such as blackberry and possums. There’s fussy Aunt Dolly, who tries to tell Wal what to do. There’s a big fierce cat called Horse who terrifies many of the other characters. There are a cow, a goat, geese, a ram called Cecil, a corgi dog called Prince Charles, a girl called Pongo, a boy called Rangi, and many other characters.

They are all very real to Murray Ball, and so are the places where they live. He knows just what Wal’s back door looks like, and his living room, and the kennel where the dog lives, and so on.

But there’s something wrong with that world when Murray Ball goes into it every morning. He can’t just lean over the fence and enjoy watching it, because it’s all standing still—nothing’s happening. And nothing will happen until he thinks something up.

I read once that Murray Ball decided to wrap Footrot Flats up in the early 1990s, after the Rogernomics revolution had dismantled the economic underpinnings of his fictitious world. Things have certainly continued changing, both in positive and negative ways, since then.

In the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on some new research into the causes of rising income inequality: “‘Superstar firms’ may have shrunk workers’ share of income“. It’s an interesting piece of the economic puzzle:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most, according to research that analyzed confidential financial data from hundreds of companies.

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.

[…]

Research has shown that in pretty much every industry, most of the income differential among workers is not a result of a chasm between the highest and lowest paychecks within one company, but rather differences among companies.

Larger companies tend to pay better than smaller ones, Mr. Autor and the other researchers say, and in the technology sector especially, salaries can be impressive. Workers there are sharing in the larger pie — there are just fewer of them to do so.

The researchers examined six industries that account for 80 percent of private employment in the United States. In each one, they discovered “a remarkably consistent upward trend in concentration.” In manufacturing, for instance, the top four companies controlled 43 percent of sales in 2012, up from 38 percent in 1982. In finance, the figure grew to 35 percent, from 24 percent, and in retail trade it went to 30 percent, from 15 percent.

The faster concentration grew, the bigger the drop in labor’s share.

“What’s different about new superstar firms is they don’t have the cadre of middle-class jobs for nonelite workers,” said Mr. Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.

For what it’s worth, economists are generally not in favour of highly concentrated markets, at least when they result from some sort of barrier to entry or monopoly power. But I think there is some degree of confusion about why firm concentration is happening, and whether it has some broader negative effects.

To conclude, something on the Auckland housing market. To help launch the news venture Newsroom, Bernard Hickey wrote a great article on the current state of the Auckland housing market… and the unanticipated barriers to fixing it. It’s well worth reading in full:

So surely someone has tried to fix the RMA and remove those council funding restraints?

The combination of Auckland’s councils into the Super City was supposed to make it easier to grow, as was the passing of the one plan for them all — the Unitary Plan – which extended the city’s boundaries for new suburbs and changed the rules to make it easier to build apartments, terrace houses and townhouses closer to the CBD.

The Government has also tweaked the RMA a few times and introduced a stop-gap measure called the Special Housing Areas (SHA) Act. It pushed through some developments in a faster timeframe than the RMA, but it expired late last year. The Government hopes the Unitary Plan and a new National Policy Statement on Urban Development will nudge councils to fund and approve the infrastructure needed to support new houses.

The Government has also offered $1 billion to help Councils fund the pipes and roads needed to bring forward housing development. It hasn’t approved any projects yet and Prime Minister Bill English has already pushed back at some of the proposals, saying they aren’t really bringing forward new projects, but are only funding projects already in the plan. Approvals are many months away, or even longer. There is still a debate to be had about the structure of the vehicles that build and own this infrastructure, so this funding is no quick fix.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has tried to get another tool to deal with a $4 billion shortfall in transport funding in coming years, but his idea of a regional fuel tax was rejected outright this month by Finance Minister Steven Joyce. Revenues from GPS-style congestion charging are still up to a decade away.

The short answer is the funding restraints for infrastructure development are not solved yet, with the biggest problem being the Council has few incentives to invest heavily for growth when the Government in Wellington gets most of the benefits and does not have to pay for local roads, some of the railways and none of the pipes.

But that’s it right?

No. Unfortunately, the RMA and infrastructure funding issues are not the only blockages to new houses being built. Risk of losses in any downturn, access to bank loans and land banking are also issues.

Most developers buying the land for a development, paying for the plans and contributing to the infrastructure need to borrow the money from a bank. To do that, they need to be confident they can sell the development to rental property investors, first home buyers and others, and then prove that to the bank.

The developer has to be confident they will not be left holding the parcel of land or a half-built apartment if the market suddenly cools and buyers can’t or won’t stump up the balance between their deposits and the sale price. They also have to be confident that construction or legal costs won’t blow out over the time it takes to get resource and building consents and funding.

Meanwhile, the banks have to be confident they’re not going to be left holding an unpaid loan to a developer if the market suddenly grinds to a halt and land prices start falling. The best example of what a property development loan looks like to a lender when the music stops is what happened from 2007 to 2012 when finance companies collapsed because they were stuck with empty holes in the ground all over Auckland and Queenstown. Finance company investors and a couple of overseas banks – Bank of Scotland in particular – had to book big losses. […]

The toughest of all the knots is the way developers and new home buyers feel about market risk when house prices have trebled in 15 years and house price to income multiples are well over 10 – three times what most international experts consider an affordable level. No one wants to buy if they think a market is peaking. It creates a Catch 22: very high prices both encourage and discourage development, depending on how close the cycle is to peaking.

Dammit.

That’s it for the week – see you next time!

Rethinking Traffic Offences – Drink Driving

  1. I recently bought a copy of Roger Brooking’s Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, I have found it so far to be a very insightful read, there was a section on Driving under the Influence, what I read was astonishing and decided to post about it due to the many deaths/injuries/near misses that happen on NZ Streets as a result of people under the influence.

From Flying Blind

The only drink-drivers in New Zealand required by law to attend an alcohol and drug assessment are those given an ‘indefinite’ disqualification – affecting only about 1,500 of the 30,000 people convicted each year. The vast majority of drink-drivers are disqualified for between six months and 12 months, and automatically get their licence back at the end of the disqualification – with no questions asked.

Every year, one third of those convicted are repeat offenders and many drink drivers continue driving while disqualified – and sometimes end up killing someone. Disqualified drivers involved in fatal accidents are three times more likely than other drivers to be under the influence of alcohol.

Surprisingly, treatment for alcohol dependence is not required even in the most serious cases when someone has been killed. For instance, in September 2009, 71-year-old Alison Downer was driving drunk and killed a cyclist near Otaki. It was her fourth conviction. Ms Downer was sent to prison for 2½ years and given an eight-year disqualification.

The disqualifications given to these drink-drivers who caused death, range from 3½ years to 8 years. Irrespective of whether they were sent to prison or not, they were given much longer periods of disqualification than normal because someone was killed. However, not one of them was required by the judge to attend an assessment or treatment for their drinking problem. Because none of them were disqualified ‘indefinitely’, they’re all eligible to get their driver’s licence back at the end of their disqualification without being required to attend any treatment.

The Dominion Post picked up on this anomaly in August 2010 and described it as a ‘loophole in the law which serious drink-drivers were slipping through’. This description is inaccurate because it implies there is a legal wall in place which effectively blocks the vast majority of drink-drivers from getting their licence back without treatment. Such is not the case. Currently, 95% of disqualified drivers get through the wall because there is no legal requirement to mandate drink-drivers into treatment (except the 1,500 given an indefinite disqualification). drives through. Each year up to 4,000 disqualified drivers get through one particular hole allowing them to apply for a limited licence – which theoretically enables them to drive for work-related purposes only.

Even for those given an ‘indefinite’ disqualification, the outcome is fairly meaningless. There’s nothing ‘indefinite’ about it. After a minimum period of one year and one day, drink-drivers with an ‘indefinite’ disqualification can see an approved alcohol assessor and begin the process of getting their licence back. If they pass the assessment, and resit their licence, they can be back on the road within 18 months. Although 1,500 people a year receive indefinite disqualifications, about 1,000 others with indefinite disqualifications get their licences back each year. Even recidivist drink-drivers with five or more convictions seem to have little difficulty regaining their driver’s licence.

So some scary stats

  • A third of the 30,000 convictions for drink drivers are re-offenders
  • Only small number of people convicted for drink driving receive a drug/alcohol assessment. But even then, these assessments are not necessarily done by addiction experts, the blood tests can be unreliable as for most people, stopping drinking for about a month will allow them to pass, and if a person gets an unsatisfactory result they can go to a different assessor to try get a satisfactory result. – Drink Driving Intervention Trust Submission on the Amendment
  • Most people convicted of Drink Driving never receive drug/alcohol counselling and/or treatment before getting their licence back

Questions should be asked, is a system where people automatically receive their licences back a smart one considering the road toll, and the danger to society it poses. Surely it would make sense to have a system where people convicted of drink driving undergo a drug/alcohol assessment to determine if person has dependency/addiction and:

  • If no, was it a stupid mistake that they are unlikely to repeat.
  • If yes, undergo successfully a best practice drug/alcohol treatment programme to help with dependency/addiction before returning licence.

To put things another way, imagine if after a set period we just returned without question firearms licences to people who were convicted of using firearms while under the influence.

I looked up the Ministry of Transports Alcohol & Drugs Report which had some interesting information on the issue

  • 28% of Fatal crashes had Alcohol & Drugs as the sole cause or a contributing factor.
  • For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who died in road crashes, 47 of their passengers and 24 sober road users died with them.
  • In 2015 90 people died, and 1623 were injured in crashes where alcohol/drugs was at least a contributing factor

Another initiative that the government has introduced is Alcohol Interlocks.

After the mandatory interlock period expires, if a person still has dependency/addiction it hasn’t solved their issue and they could re-offend, this is no different from prison where after release the same environment exists and the person can relapse. Since the interlock period is 1 year, around the average time a person pre-mandatory interlock would lose their licence anyway, it may not address long term re-offending of those who have addiction issues.

Mandatory Interlocks may help keep drunk drivers off the road, however if a person has dependency/addiction that doesn’t mean overuse/misuse of alcohol will stop, which can have flow on negative social effects in areas outside of transport such as Health, Social Services & other Criminal offences etc. NZ Law Commission Alcohol in our Lives, An Issues Paper on the Reform of New Zealand’s Liquor Laws, July 2009, Wellington, p 245 found that 80% of all offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol also plays a major role in violent crime. New Zealand studies suggest that more than half of the 140,000 physical and sexual assaults which occur every year involve a perpetrator who had been drinking. Alcohol also seems to be the drug of choice for murderers. Between 1999 and 2008, there were 489 murders in New Zealand. In half of these, either the perpetrator or the victim (often both) was under the influence of alcohol – Stevenson, National Alcohol Assessment, April 2009.

The new interlock system understands the reason they need to be mandatory, but does not address the fact well. The situation which was happening before was that the person had to pay for the interlock, as these are nearly $3000 a year these interlocks were unaffordable for many who were convicted, knowing this lawyers would ask judges to not give an interlock sentence and instead suspend licence. With the change now being mandatory with the low subsides being available many with struggle financially with could effect families or more realistically the person never being able to get licence back due to being unable to afford to pay for the Interlock. Thus at current this change very heavily hits the poor disproportionately.

Mandatory Interlocks don’t necessarily help people overcome dependency/addiction, we have to ask a question as a society if all we want to do is keep drunk drivers off the road, or do we want to treat this as a public health issue helping people who struggle with dependency/addiction which will reduce harm in the long run in more areas than just transport.

For those who want to read further the Drink Driving Intervention Trust Submission on the bill which goes into more detail on the matter of the effectiveness of interlocks, the current assessments & financial burden of interlocks can be found here which Roger Brookings was an author of.

While great strides have been taken on reducing Drink Driving, with better enforcement as well as education like Auckland Transport’s recent Drink Drive Free Campaign which has made Drink Driving much more socially unacceptable, and of course the famous Safer Journeys Ad, more needs to be done on making sure that people with dependency/addiction issues receive treatment before being let back on our streets.