Follow us on Twitter

Archives

City centre employment and the CRL: good news or bad?

If you’ve been keeping up with the news or if you’ve been following our Development Tracker, you’ll know that there’s a lot of new office development activity starting to happen in Auckland’s city centre. And a significant amount of it right on the CRL route:

CRL + new City Centre buildings

Image from SkyscaperCity – development along the CRL route. Includes some non-office buildings, and doesn’t show all the office buildings discussed in this post

Under construction:

  • 151 Victoria Street West, with 17,600 square metres (sqm) due for completion later this year.
  • There’s 40,000 sqm of office space going up at the southern end of Wynyard Quarter in the VXV park. This is across three buildings, Fonterra, Datacom and VXV Three, due for completion in 2016 and 2017.
  • Also, there’s 125 Queen St which is currently being refurbished. That’s 15,000 sqm of space coming back into circulation after being vacant for some years.

Proposed:

  • The Downtown Shopping Centre redevelopment – this will add 35,000 sqm of office space for completion in early 2019. It will get underway next year, when the City Rail Link works begin.
  • 1 Mills Lane is being developed by Mansons and will have enough space for 4,000 workers.
  • Precinct Properties is developing 48,000 sqm of office space across five buildings in Wynyard quarter. The first stage of 12,000 sqm gets underway shortly.
  • Mansons are also developing 10 Sale Street, with 10,000 sqm of space.

All up, the projects currently under construction will provide space for more than 5,000 workers. The proposed projects would accommodate at least another 10,000. This excludes developments which currently seem to be off the boil but could come to life at any time, such as Shortland Star and the Britomart Central building.

This is during a time when CBD vacancy levels are at record lows, and the city centre simply doesn’t have the office space it needs to grow employment.

So, assuming these buildings are completed more or less on schedule, and the number of jobs grows to fill the new space available – all of which seems a reasonable bet, in the current climate – these would be significant increases in employment. Nationally significant, even. By comparison, New Zealand has increased employment by just 93,000 people in the last four years. Currently, the Auckland city centre has around 90,000 employees (in the Auckland Central West/ East and Auckland Harbourside area units), or 100,000 if a slightly wider definition is used (adding in Grafton East and Newton).

City centre employment

This sounds like a “good news” story, and for the most part it is. However, the reason we’re so interested in employment numbers on TransportBlog is that the government has said it will only support an early start on the City Rail Link (CRL) if Auckland is on track to meeting two targets – one based on train patronage, and one based on city centre employment.

We’ve written extensively on these targets in the past. We don’t think the employment target is a valid way of deciding when the CRL should start, for a number of reasons. It propagates the myth that the project is all about the city centre, which it’s not. It’s also a target that has little to do with the effectiveness of the CRL. Plus, there’s the “chicken and egg” situation where the CRL is actually the project needed to dramatically improve city centre accessibility, allowing much more employment (and other) growth there.

When John Key announced the government targets for early support of the CRL, he said that city centre employment would have to increase by 25 percent. As it happened, the target was so poorly defined that the Ministry of Transport had to go away and decide exactly how it would be measured. As I’ve argued in the past, the definition they eventually decided on was rather unfair, requiring 24,000 employees to be added to the CBD between 2012 and 2020. The linked post suggests that a start date of 2006 is “more consistent with the reference to the [City Centre Future Access Study] in National’s targets”.

So, as the government currently defines the target, do these new developments put us on track to achieve growth of 25% by 2020? No. Even if all these developments go ahead – and the Precinct Properties work at Wynyard is likely to take longer to be completed – we would still be a long way off achieving the target by 2020. However if we define the target in the way that I’ve argued is more consistent, we are on track. We’ve already had growth of around 13,000 employees since 2006, and with the developments that are currently under construction or proposed, we have a very good chance of reaching the remaining 11,000 by 2020.

This would be a really good time for the Ministry of Transport to take a hard look at their targets, and reassess whether they are defining them in the most sensible way. The good thing about the target being so vague is that they’ve left themselves a lot of wriggle room to reinterpret it from the current hardline position. This would be easier politically than scrapping it altogether. If they do what I’ve suggested, it won’t be long before the Prime Minister is able to come out and say, “With strong growth in train patronage, and city centre employee numbers set to grow substantially, the CRL has met our targets for early financial support, and we will be will be full financial partners to the Auckland Council on this”. Now that would be a good news story.

Photo(copy) of the Day: The Rational Plan

I guess this is just one of those ones we should have on high rotate. The advice from the North American consultants in 1965 for Auckland at the height of the sprawl era was this: ‘a co-ordinated bus and rail Rapid Transit plan‘ to go along with the gradual construction of motorways. How prescient this looks as the following 50 years have shown how inefficient and expensive a monomodal autodependent transport plan is for cities.

De Leuw Cather_Highway Report

And now as we finally inch towards the partial delivery of just such a system it is plainly obvious how rational it is; ongoing 20% growth on the Rapid Transit Network settles the long running claims that it would never work in Auckland.

It is extraordinary that the government claims Auckland Transport and Auckland Council don’t have a good plan. It’s only the same plan that we’ve always had, but have never been allowed to implement. First because the various councils ‘couldn’t agree’ but now because there is insufficient ‘alignment’ with the government’s plan, which is undisclosed in any holistic form, but clearly is just more motorways everywhere. The Auckland plan, is evidenced, popular, already working, but starved of cash.

To 1986 and beyond…

Indeed.

And here, on a projected future motorway map you can see the core rail part of the ‘coordinated bus and rail Rapid Transit plan‘:

 

DE LEUW CATHER_7416

*Thanks to the excellent Auckland Library archive.

Helping Our Heritage Come Alive – Karangahape Rd

This is an image from Mark Bishop. Here are the previous posts: Queen and Wellesley, Newton Rd, Kingsland, Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd

These images were developed by merging together various historic black and white photographs (all from the “Sir George Grey Special Collection” – Auckland Library) with contemporary colour photographs taken at the same location.

The black and white photographs were taken between the years 1900 to 1940, and cover a number of areas of the city and the outlying suburbs. The colour photographs were all taken in early 2015.

The intention of these images is to use photography to help show how much has changed – or not changed – over almost one hundred years by focusing on locations that are familiar to Aucklanders.

It is interesting to think that the people, horses and trams seen in these images passed by around a century ago where we walk and drive today.

View looking east on corner of Karangahape Road and Pitt Street .  Black and white photograph (1919) from  “Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W1682″.

History Alive - Karangahape Rd

Are vacant homes adding to Auckland’s housing shortage?

As Auckland housing hysteria gets more, well, hysterical, there seem to be a few people worried that investors are leaving homes vacant rather than bothering to rent them out – preferring to rely on capital gains as a source of income instead.

Leaving aside the obvious question of why you wouldn’t rent them out as well as getting capital gains (after all, this can be made pretty hassle-free with a property manager, and helps to cover the ongoing costs of the property), there is some concern that this is a widespread phenomenon and contributes to a housing shortage in Auckland.

I’m assuming from Peter’s post the other day that we’re now happy to broaden our readers’ musical education as well as providing commentary and encouraging intelligent debate about transport issues (although my “Transport-Related Song of the Week” post series never really panned out), so here’s a topical song:

North and South recently ran an article on the apparent phenomenon, called “Running on Empty” (which is also a catchy number by NZ band The D4). It does suggest that much of the issue is at the suburb level, which I’ll leave for another post. It also notes that some vacancies will be due to Kiwis now living overseas, or splitting their time between multiple homes:

Keith Rankin, who teaches economics at Unitec, has been noticing this “hollowing out” of the city with concern. He says housing patterns are changing radically on the Auckland isthmus, with young homebuyers pushed to the fringes – priced out of the market by speculators playing for capital gains.

“What is happening in places like Mt Albert and Mt Eden, Grey Lynn and Herne Bay?” he wrote in a blog post. “These are places where houses are being bought at very high prices, by people who themselves do not plan to occupy them” – and want to buy and sell as if tenants are incidental.

[Andrew King, executive officer of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation] reckons a lot of empty houses are owned by executives who’ve been seconded overseas and don’t want to lose their foothold in the market or have strangers living in their home

[Mike Atkinson, managing director of Aspire Property Management]’s take on Auckland’s “ghost” properties? Wealthy owners who split their time between multiple homes. The father of one of his friends lives on a boat but keeps a two-bedroom apartment in the Viaduct as a city crash pad. Another businessman he knows owns five houses, including property in Auckland, Wanaka and Mangawhai Heads.

The most easily accessible source of data on vacant homes comes from the census. The 2013 census shows that, on census night, there were 33,360 unoccupied homes across Auckland. That sounds like a lot. Out of the 500,000-odd homes in Auckland, it’s 6.6%, which might still sound like a lot.

However, it’s almost unchanged from 2006, when there were 33,330 unoccupied homes, 7.0% of the total. And not much up from the 29,586 recorded in 2001, also 7.0% of the total. When I first saw these stats, I thought of them more as something indicating the current shortage of homes – i.e. housing is tighter, so more homes are being occupied.

When you look at these stats on a regional level, you see that Auckland has a smaller percentage of vacancies than any other region except Nelson:

Unoccupied for regions

Again, this made me wonder if Auckland’s low vacancy rate suggested a persistently tight housing market. But then I looked at the stats for New Zealand’s cities, leaving aside the more rural districts:

Unoccupied for cities

This suggests that Auckland is actually in a similar range to most NZ cities – but no one is suggesting that there’s a spate of Invercargill investors leaving homes vacant just so they can enjoy the capital gain. It’d be interesting to look at this data more closely: I’d like to look at different Auckland suburbs in another post, and maybe there is some truth to the claim that it’s a problem in some areas – then again, maybe Herne Bay homeowners are simply more likely to be away on holiday, or overseas contracts and so on.

At a city-wide level, though, I don’t think there’s much we can take out of this. I think it’s a myth that there are large numbers of people leaving homes vacant for speculative reasons, and I think the data in this post goes a long way to busting it. I also don’t see support for my original hypothesis that low vacancies in Auckland suggest a housing shortage. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a shortage, but the vacancy data doesn’t really tell us. Of course, since the census we’ve had two years of strong population growth and not built enough homes for all the new Aucklanders…

Trade over distance and the Auckland export paradox

What, exactly, does Auckland do to pay its way?

Last year, I took a look at the geography of the New Zealand economy, finding that New Zealand’s three main cities accounted for at least 56% of GDP. Auckland alone accounted for at least 34% of economic activity – considerably more than the entirety of rural New Zealand:

City share of NZ GDP map v2

(By the way, these figures are likely to under-estimate the size and productivity of the Auckland economy. Dave Maré’s 2008 paper on the Auckland productivity premium used firm micro-data to get a more accurate estimate, finding that Auckland accounts for around 40% of New Zealand’s market economy. See page 15 for figures.)

So Auckland’s economy is large. But are Aucklanders doing anything especially productive, or are we just selling houses to each other? (Or worse, to Johnny Foreigner!)

As New Zealand is a small, open economy, we have a tendency to focus on exports as a key measure of economic success. This makes sense – we can’t make everything locally, so we need to earn foreign exchange to pay for all the cars and oil and smartphones and bicycles that we want to buy.

At a national level, we export around 30% of GDP, which is low by the standard of other small open economies and worrisomely concentrated in a few undifferentiated primary commodities:

Source: World Bank

Source: World Bank

By comparison, a 2010 study commissioned by Auckland Council found that exports of goods and services accounted for around 14-16% of Auckland’s GDP:

The value of Auckland region’s exports has increased relatively steadily over recent years, with an average annual growth rate of around 2 percent recorded for both commodity and services exports for the period 2001-2008. The economic impact undertaken as part of this study suggests, however, that there has been a small decline in the relative importance of export sales to the Auckland region economy over this period. First in terms of commodities, it is estimated that the direct and indirect value added impact produced by commodity exports as a percentage of Auckland’s GDP has fallen slightly from 9 percent in 2001, to 8 percent in 2008…

Measured in value added terms, the direct and indirect contribution of service exports to the regional economy has remained fairly constant over the last decade at around 6-7 percent of GDP.

So Auckland’s not exactly an export powerhouse. What, then, are we doing to afford the food that we’re buying from rural New Zealand and the manufactured goods we’re buying from offshore?

Last year, the Productivity Commission published some new research that points towards an answer. Their report, which has the attention-grabbing title of “Trade over distance for New Zealand firms: measurement and implications“, looks at the degree to which firms in different industries are co-located with their domestic customers. They put together some nifty measures showing how likely different industries are to “trade” across New Zealand regions.

The Productivity Commission researchers concluded that:

In New Zealand, firms producing highly tradable services tend to locate in the main urban centres (Figure 8a). Wellington has the highest employment share in high and medium tradable service industries, reflecting the concentration of government in the capital. Market-based services that are tradable over distance tend to concentrate in Auckland – there is a positive and significant correlation between tradability in market-based service industries and their Auckland-based employment share (Figure 9). As such, around 40% of total employment in market-based service industries in the medium to high tradability category is Auckland-based (Figure 10). For services in the low-tradability category, the share of employment based in Auckland is 32%.

In other words, Auckland has a comparative advantage in producing services that it can “export” to other New Zealand regions. Here’s a key chart from the report, which compares tradability (y axis) with Auckland employment share (x axis) across high-level industries:

PC tradability and Auckland share chart

If you look at the service industries (orange dots), excluding public administration, you can see the clear correlation between tradability and Auckland share of employment. Industries that have to be very close to their customers, like retail and health, aren’t concentrated in Auckland.

On the other hand, four especially tradable service industries – finance and insurance; information, media and communications; professional, scientific, and technical services; and wholesale trade – are highly concentrated in Auckland. (Interestingly, these industries span both blue-collar and white-collar work.)

So perhaps the story is that Auckland “pays its way” by producing services that the rest of New Zealand buys. The work that Auckland does for the rest of the country isn’t always visible – we’re not trucking boxes of it south from Auckland to the Waikato – but it is very real.

Furthermore, Auckland’s “exports” of services to other New Zealand regions have implications for the national trade balance. If Auckland wasn’t doing the banking, engineering, accounting, and wholesaling, we’d probably have to purchase those services from Australian cities instead. (Jane Jacobs would observe that Auckland is following the typical path to urban success – “import-competing” economic growth.)

By way of illustration, consider where Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest exporter of dairy products, chooses to locate its headquarters. They’re not based in Hamilton or Christchurch, closest to the cows and dairy factories. No: Fonterra is in Auckland, which doesn’t produce much milk but does offer the best access to skilled labour, professional services (accounting, legal advice, advertising, etc), and international connections (i.e. the country’s main international airport). They value those services, and recognise that they can’t get as many of them outside of Auckland.

What do you make of Auckland’s role in the New Zealand economy?

Submit on the Rules Reduction Taskforce

The Government has set up a “Rules Reduction Taskforce” to look at options for revamping housing and property rules. They’re currently asking for online submissions to help inform their work. Submissions close on Monday 1 June, which is next week, so if you want to have a say, head to their website and put in a submission.

It’s a simple process that should only take 5-10 minutes. Here’s some motivational music:

[As an aside, I’m not sure whether I like the Taskforce’s name. International indices like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking suggest that we’re not exactly over-regulated:

World Bank ease of doing business rankings

Perhaps “Rules Optimisation Taskforce” would have been a better name. It seems to me like we have too many rules in some areas, and too few in others. Well-considered reductions in rules can be a very good thing – look at the positive effect removing minimum parking requirements has had on development in Auckland’s city centre – but eliminating regulations based solely on ideology can be costly and dangerous – consider the leaky building crisis!]

If you’re looking to make a submission, I’d encourage you to take a look at Transportblog’s submission on the Auckland Unitary Plan, which highlights a number of planning rules that may pose a barrier to development, such as:

  • Minimum parking requirements, which impose large costs on businesses and households that may not necessarily want or need as much parking as rules require
  • Various regulatory limits on more intensive development, ranging from controls on the number of dwellings that can be built on a single site to building height limits.
  • Limits on building accessory dwellings/granny flats (which have been a big hit in Vancouver) and converting standalone houses to flats.

I’m sure readers will have some other good ideas about submissions – please leave your thoughts in the comments!

The high cost of low rise

Last week the Government announced an interesting scheme to advance housing supply by redeveloping up to 500 hectares of State land. It’s still not clear how the land will be released, what the land tenure arrangement will be, or how affordable units could be delivered. Without knowing the full details of the initiative, this seems like a worthwhile initiative, one that has a lot of similarities with a plan recently proposed in New York City.

To get a feel for the extent of public land across the City, I took a look at ownership data from LINZ. Here’s a look at the public land in Takapuna (Blue = Crown, Yellow = Council). Takapuna is not unique in having boatloads of developable public land. In Takapuna the public is blessed with multiple lawn bowls, a golf course, and parking- heaps of council parking- reminding me of the Shoup-y quote, ‘we have a city where parking is cheap for cars and housing is expensive for people.’

takapuna

Government land in Takapuna. Source: LINZ

Taking a closer look at the Crown land reveals a crazily undeveloped piece of property at the corner of Anzac Street and The Terrace. The property (below, red) has two old buildings serving the police department and of course more car parking. Besides the disamenity of having sloppy, low density buildings in a town centre. there is a real opportunity cost with having such an unproductive piece of land regardless of property owner.

Because the property is so under-captilised it only contributes $24,306 to the Council’s base rates or $9.44 per m2.

zoomwithdetails

Council rates of Government land. Source: Auckland GIS viewer, LINZ property ownership data.

To put how poorly this property is performing in perspective, lets do the math. (See also: Want lower rates cut back on urban sprawl). Below is the new Turing project on Great North Road consisting of 27 apartment of a variety of sizes and bedroooms.

Turing - photo from Ockham (ockham.co.nz)

Turing – photo from Ockham (ockham.co.nz)

Using the rating data from the Council GIS viewer the property I compiled the CV data for each unit. The 27 dwelling units combined total over $15 million of rateable improvement value on top of  $8 million in land value. Applying a .73% tax rate across the site (the ratings data is not showing yet) yields a whopping $168,000 per year.

This site is less than half the size of the Takapuna site but yields more than seven times the ratings base. On a per m2 basis the Turing is 17 times more productive than the Takapuna site.

x

Turing: mid-rise residential development on Great North Road

The Takapuna site is uniquely re-developable since it is has such a low improvement value compared to its land value, but this is no different than the rest of the Council car parks around the town centre, and in fact all over the city. There is no shortage of urban land.

How is it fair that these two properties have such disparate rating values? This is where a land tax would help. Taxing land separately and at a higher rate than the buildings and other improvements that sit on top of that land would help to remove barriers to property being put into more productive uses (housing anyone?), and create a disincentive for what is essentially land banking.

Releasing public land across the city for residential uses is a good start. Ensuring that all property across the city  can be more productive by removing the barriers to redevelopment, including the tax regime, would be even better.

concept

Mid-rise development concept in Takapuna using Government land.

‘Thanks, but no I really don’t need a lift’

The Public Transport offer in Auckland has a long way to go, but on some routes, especially in the inner city, it can be not only the quicker but also more pleasant option than driving, particularly once the hassle and costs of parking are considered. We look forward to this advantage being spread out to more areas and for more people as the Electric Trains, the New Bus Network, Proper Buslanes, and Integrated Fares roll out over the next couple of years.

Yet there is still the issue of people’s mindset. I understand this well as it wasn’t until I returned from living in Europe that I just didn’t unthinkingly reach for my car keys to undertake even the shortest or most ill-suited of journeys in Auckland. But also over that time PT services have improved from almost completely useless to on many occasions pretty handy. The Rapid Transit system is at last reaching utility as can be clearly seen by consistent rise in uptake, but there are also bus services like the Inner Link that I now use regularly because, once armed with a HOP card, it is often the best option for many journeys. Frequent enough, and a great place to check my messages between commitments, or just stare out into the city sailing by, perhaps even thoughtfully. It can also be pretty social:

BUSES ETC_8274

Ride Social: On the Inner Link

My partner and I have recently had two instances that are deeply illustrative of how far many Aucklanders have to go with their car addiction. An addiction born of the environment; as for so long only one means of movement was well supported.

Both times we were happily bussing it, only to be dragged off into relatively unpleasant and time wasting car experiences by people determined to do us a favour and generously save us from perfectly efficient and enjoyable Transit trips.
The first, after a dinner out we were dragged, past our bus stop, into the limitless helllhole that is the SkyCity car dungeon, our hosts struggling to find their car on the bizarre sloping and labyrinthine parking floors, paying an absolute fortune to release it once found, seriously taking way longer and much less pleasantly than hanging on Albert St on a clear evening, even for the relatively roundabout 020. 
It was very kind of our friends but I really really would have rather had the bus trip home. The conversation, thereafter, became all about how vile SkyCity is as an experience and how expensive the parking was; which was an order of magnitude higher than our combined busfares.
The second, Maria was on Ponsonby Rd buying flowers en route to the hospital (Bhana Bros; what will we do without you?), only to bump into a mutual friend who insisted on driving her to Grafton. What ensued was a longwinded driving/parking hopeless nightmare. Compared to taking the Link, as she’d intended [directly point to point; unlike the drive], or riding, as I usually do to get to the hosp. and there’s been a lot of that over last few years, what a stupid way to cover that route! Yet this person wouldn’t have a bar of it, absolutely full of how she’d saved Maria from some kind of malady and done her a great favour…. But it actually made her late for her next appointment and robbed her of a contemplative moment on the bus.
Nick adds:

I had a similar experience not too long ago. Drinking near Britomart late at night, group decides to go to a bar in Ponsonby. They start the inevitable horse trading of who is driving what and where and whose car I have to go in the boot of.  I say bugger that and announce I’m catching a bus, the rest look at me like I’m insane. Basically begging me to cram into their car which is parked in some building like they are saving me from some huge hardship. Me and one other get the Link up no worries, and are well onto our second drink before the rest arrive complaining about nowhere to park etc. All absolutely flabbergasted we got there faster on a bus. One person didn’t believe us and said we must have run straight to a taxi. Anyway, who wants to be driving when bar-hopping?
I get this totally because if you don’t use PT at all you sort of don’t see it, except as that thing blocking your way when driving, also you don’t know how it works, where to catch a service or how long it might take, or what the hell a HOP card is. And it also means you pretty much always have your car with you piling up parking charges or nagging you about the wisdom of having that drink. I really do feel much freer in the city without my car, free to change plans, free to socialise. In the city the car is a burden.
And continued improvements to services are baked into the pie, especially now the the Transport Levy is in place. Although it is extension to the Rapid Transit Network that would be truly transformative. Here is the coming spread of the Frequent Network:
RPTP Current Network
RPTP Proposed 2018 Network
RPTP Proposed 2025 Network
Those that still only ever think of driving are clearly the majority in Auckland but there is a considerable upside to this observation because as the kinds of improvements that are available in only some places become more widespread it means that there are many more Aucklanders who will discover this advantage and add using these services to their options for movement. When and where it makes sense to.
The data supports the idea that this is already happening as the transit trips per capita figure keeps steadily advancing despite the rising poulation. It is now at 50.5 PT trips per capita from 44 in 2011, still very low compared to similar cities, and reason enough to expect ridership to keep climbing. As long as Auckland Transport keep improving services measurable.
But also thinks of new ways of getting HOP cards into more new hands. Events where PT journeys are part of the ticket price are currently the main way that AT are doing this. But with Fare Integration I think its time they started approaching major employers near good services to include HOP cards in renumeration packages. And for the government to revisit Fringe Benefit Tax rules for both PT and car parks.

Helping Our Heritage Come Alive – Dominion Rd

This is an image from Mark Bishop. Here are the previous posts: Queen and Wellesley, Newton Rd, Kingsland, Mt Eden Rd

These images were developed by merging together various historic black and white photographs (all from the “Sir George Grey Special Collection” – Auckland Library) with contemporary colour photographs taken at the same location.

The black and white photographs were taken between the years 1900 to 1940, and cover a number of areas of the city and the outlying suburbs. The colour photographs were all taken in early 2015.

The intention of these images is to use photography to help show how much has changed – or not changed – over almost one hundred years by focusing on locations that are familiar to Aucklanders.

It is interesting to think that the people, horses and trams seen in these images passed by around a century ago where we walk and drive today.

View looking south down Dominion Road near corners of Walters Road and Valley Road.  Black and white photograph (1910) from “Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 255A- 93.”

History Alive - Dominion Rd

The SH1/SH26 roundabout – what is going on?

In this recent post Matt asked why we were still building dangerous intersections. One part of his post caught my eye, specifically proposed changes to the intersection of SH1 and SH26 in the Waikato. The location of this intersection is shown below.

SH1 and SH26a

 

You can see that the intersection exists firmly within the Hamilton urban area. Moreover,  I understand the area to the east is planned for residential growth in the future. I.e. there will be more and more residential development to the east.

The reason this caught my eye is because the proposed changes, in my opinion, seem likely to result in a horrific clusterfuck of an intersection that will, at a minimum, destroy urban amenity and, potentially, result in pedestrian carnage. In my opinion, this roundabout design is completely inappropriate for an urban area. And unlike NZTA I don’t agree t hat potential delays to vehicles are sufficient reason to provide wholly unsatisfactory facilities for pedestrians. Facilities that are so lacking that they seem likely to increase the risk of injuries to pedestrians who need to cross at this intersection.

The proposed changes are illustrated below.

Hamilton SH1 -SH26 upgrade

 

Now I should mention that the NZTA press release for the changes mentions an additional pedestrian crossing is to be located on SH26 to the east, which I presume (although can’t be sure) is beyond the extent of works shown above. The press release also noted the presence of a pedestrian underpass on SH1 to the south, which is being retained in the new design.

What NZTA are proposing for the southern and eastern approaches to the roundabout is relatively poor practice and ill-suited to an urban area such as this.

But perhaps most importantly, the proposed pedestrian facilities don’t seem to address what happens on the western approach to the roundabout. As anyone can easily see from StreetView below, NZTA’s beautiful junkspace landscaping is *already* being severely trampled beneath the feet of hapless pedestrians as they scamper across the existing road. QED there’s an existing problem that needs to be resolved, not ignored as the proposed design has done.

Crossing

Anyway, I was sufficiently motivated by this proposal to start digging for more information.

The background study for these intersection changes was completed in 2008. Given that it’s now almost 8 years since the study was completed, I thought I’d go and look at traffic volumes since that time. In the figure below I’ve totalled the AADT on the two closest counts on SH1 and SH26 over time (NB: This will double-count many vehicles, which is why the total AADT shown here is significantly higher than the figure of 37,000 vehicles per day using the intersection that is quoted in the NZTA in their press release. Nonetheless it’s likely to be broadly indicative of general trends in AADT).

AADT

 

The volumes bobble around a bit, although current AADT is about 3% below the level achieved in 2008, i.e. the time that the report supporting the proposed changes was developed. Is it reasonable to assume that vehicle volumes will increase or decrease from here?

Well, there’s some growth out this way so it’s plausible to suggest there may be more demand. On the other hand, there’s one major question that I’m not confident is addressed by the studies associated with this upgrade: The Waikato Expressway, specifically the Hamilton section.

For those who aren’t familiar with this project, it’s part of the RoNS programme.

While I’m no fan of the RoNS programme per se, if these projects are to go ahead then I would at least expect NZTA to maximise their potential benefits, especially with regards to re-configuring parallel routes to support more livable urban places. In this context, the Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway is  high-speed, high-capacity route that seems likely to shift vehicles away from the existing SH1 and away from this roundabout. Construction of the Hamilton section is expected to start in 2016 with a target opening date of 2019.

I note that the NZTA website states that the Hamilton section of the expressway will:

  • Connect the Ngaruawahia section of the Expressway, completed in late 2013, to the Cambridge section, due for completion in late 2016.
  • Reduce traffic congestion and improve safety on Hamilton’s local road network by significantly reducing through traffic.”

And yet NZTA’s proposed changes to the SH1 and SH26 intersection (which appear to have been formulated prior to the RoN being confirmed) are designed to increase capacity.

One has to wonder why the NZ Transport Agency is spending $2 million to create a situation that is more dangerous for pedestrians than the present one, while at the same time spending the best part of half a billion dollars building a high-speed bypass around the same intersection.

Call me a simpleton if you will but I would have thought the more logical sequence of actions would be:

  1. Complete the Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway in the next 3 years as planned; and
  2. Monitor changes to vehicle volumes in response to growth (which apparently is quite low at the moment) and expressway; and
  3. Develop options for the intersection which respond to these changes, but which are also appropriate for an urban area.

In terms of #3, this really brings us full circle. I cannot understand why NZTA would think the proposed design is appropriate for an urban area. I can tell you that in my opinion it’s most certainly not. While I’ll reserve my full and final judgment until I have more detailed information to consider, the proposed intersection seems to compromise pedestrian safety to a level bordering on negligence.

I know that’s a big call so let me present some reasons why:

  1. The design does not seem to meet the present need for a pedestrian crossing on the westbound SH1 approach, e.g. to access the adjacent school. There is already demand for this pedestrian movement, as we can see from StreetView. This demand will only increase as the area develops in the future.
  2. The approaches are wider than the current facility. The western approach on SH1 , for example, is three lanes wide. This will increase the distance pedestrians will have to cross before they reach the landscaped sliver of land in the middle of the road.
  3. The design incorporates features that seem likely to increase vehicle speeds. The western approach on SH1, for example, now includes what is effectively a “slip lane” for vehicles travelling through. This features will enable/encourage vehicles to maintain their speed on their approach to (and exit from) the intersection. This will increase risks to pedestrians who (legitimately) need to cross the western approach, and the severity of accidents.

I draw two *preliminary* conclusions from all this. First, the proposed changes to the intersection is unacceptably dangerous for pedestrians and should not proceed as designed. Second, the proposed intersection has been designed without consideration of the Waikato Expressway and thus are likely to represent poor value for money and low strategic fit.

I’d really like to know what others think: Am I mis-reading the situation here? Or is it as bad as it looks? An outdated and seemingly dangerous design being imposed on what is very much an urban area, just prior to a major expressway bypass opens? What is going on?