Slowness

Whilst I have many problems with Auckland’s public transport: frequencies, reliability (especially the trains), ticketing and so forth – I think perhaps the biggest issue, and one which doesn’t seem to get the attention that it should, is simply the fact that it’s so darn slow. In most other cities around the world catching public transport is faster than driving, particularly at peak hour. This is somewhat because, contrary to popular belief, Auckland’s motorways aren’t actually particularly congested by international standards, and are actually incredibly comprehensive by international standards. While a lot of focus goes on the unreliability and lateness of many services, I think a significant deterrent for people using public transport actually happens after they’re on the bus/train.

A couple of examples. From my work in Avondale there is a bus stop just a couple of minutes walk down the road. The service is reasonably frequent during the day, at 15 minute intervals (although I’m sure there used to be a 10 minute service a few years back along New North Road). Whilst some of the routes are inevitably late (the 224 which I have a personal vendetta against), the 211 and 212 services are generally very reliable. However, it’s a minimum 40 minute bus trip into town from here. A couple of times it has stretched out to 50 minutes if I’m unlucky and end up on a 224 which goes via a slight detour to St Lukes or the bus is particularly heavily loaded. This is off-peak, and as there are no bus lanes along New North Road until you get to Kingsland (about 2/3rds of the way in along this route) I can only imagine that at peak hour the trip takes even longer. By comparison, at off-peak times I can probably drive into town from here in 15 minutes maximum. My boss and I, when we do need to take trips into the city for meetings and the like, really do want to catch the bus so that we’re acting more environmentally sustainable and supporting Auckland’s public transport, but a lot of the time it’s just a no-brainer when you compare the length of time the trip takes.

A second example comes from yesterday actually. After many attempts, I finally managed to meet up with a friend from the Skyscraper City forums. He lives out in Meadowlands, which to be fair is a heck of a long way from the city. Meadowlands forms a part of East Auckland that has grown like topsy throughout the last 10-20 years into the most horrific part of the city in my opinion (no offence to people who live there, it’s not your fault). It is the most classic example of urban sprawl you’ll ever come across – massive houses, cul-de-sacs everywhere, completely residential neighbourhoods and an utter belief that everyone will drive everywhere. I met up with my friend (Marcus) at just before 6pm yesterday afternoon, after he’d caught a bus into the city from Meadowlands. The trip down Symonds Street was so slow (although this is because they’re constructing 24 hour bus lanes, so council don’t incur my wrath for this) that he got off at the university and walked down to where I met up with him. Now the scary part is to come, he got on his bus at 4.10! That means it took almost two hours for him to get from Meadowlands to central Auckland, two hours! That’s to cover a trip which I’ve measured to be (approximately) 23km long. That’s an average speed of not much more than 10 kph – you could almost walk that distance faster!

Now perhaps that was an unusually slow trip, and it did coincide somewhat with the evening peak (even though he was going counter-flow), but to me it truly shows why that part of Auckland has the lowest levels of public transport use in the whole of Auckland. Who would be crazy enough to put themselves through that each and every day? Clearly, it’s criminal that such a large part of Auckland was developed without provision being made for a railway line. It is also criminal that there aren’t even bus lanes along the two main routes out that way: Pakuranga Road and Ti Rakau Drive. Yet there are no real plans to do much about it. ARTA does plan some sort of RTN (rapid transit network) to go up Te Irirangi Drive and then along Ti Rakau Drive, but who knows how they’d ever be able to build it? An RTN should be either a rail line or a proper busway (very different to bus lanes) so unless ARTA magically is going to end up with hundreds of millions of dollars to buy an enormous number of houses to build a proper transit line through the area, the best it seems we can ever hope for are top-quality bus lanes. Great job planners of the area in the 1970s-1990s. NOT.

But anyway, bringing this back to the main topic of this post. Why is public transport so slow and what can be done about it? I guess for a start buses are inherently a slow form of public transport, and as about 80% of Auckland’s public transport trips rely upon buses, it’s no wonder PT can’t compare with the car when it comes to the speed of trips. It’s interesting to note that along the very limited number of corridors where decent bus lanes have been constructed and there is significant traffic congestion (Onewa Road and Dominion Road), public transport is actually enormously popular. Apparently 50% of people travelling along the Dominion Road corridor in the morning peak use public transport, and I would imagine Onewa Road would be fairly similar. This clearly shows that speed is a huge issue for people commuting: make public transport faster and people will definitely use it. Other areas where public transport is probably the fastest method of getting to the city would be along the Eastern Line railway, which once again is enormously popular by Auckland standards. This situation was identified as horribly intolerable by John Banks a few years ago, who proposed to build a massive motorway along the railway route to ensure that the normal situation of ensuring the car was the fastest way to travel, was restored. Fortunately that project has been shelved.

So why so slow? Clearly the first reason is the lack of bus lanes. Where buses have to intermingle with traffic they will always end up slower than someone driving along the same road – simply because they need to stop and pick up passengers. However, even on roads with bus lanes often the bus stops aren’t actually indented towards the footpath, which means that any bus coming up behind another bus that has already stopped has to either stop itself, or pull into the general traffic lane/lanes, thereby negating much of the advantage a bus lane creates. While Auckand City and North Shore City have done a good job over the past few years expanding their bus/transit lanes, there is still a long way to go. Why doesn’t Manukau Road have bus lanes? How about New North Road? Ellerslie-Panmure Highway? Lagoon Drive? The list goes on. And that’s not to even mention the lack of action by Manukau City and – somewhat surprisingly given their eco-city image – Waitakere City. The second reason is the often circuitous routes that many buses travel along. Sure, this is useful in terms of maximising the number of people who are close to a bus stop, but it certainly comes at a cost. Another clear reason why buses travel so slow is that they’re often forced to do right-turns at very busy intersections at peak hour, which when they’re stuck behind a line of traffic can add up to 5 minutes to a journey. There’s a classic example of this just up the road from me, where the 233, 007 & 008 bus routes are forced to make right-turns onto Mt Albert Road that I wouldn’t even consider making at any time close to peak hour. Somewhat fortunately the bus drivers take a “might is right” attitude and edge out onto the main road making the other drivers stop for them. However, that’s not much help if they’re stuck behind a slightly timid driver for 5 minutes waiting to make a right-turn. Surely, the location of traffic lights should be matched up better with bus routes, or alternatively the bus routes be modified to avoid situations like these.

Finally, and most significantly I think, buses are slow because they’re so incredibly slow to board. I have gone on about this before, but I think it’s an utterly critical point. By requiring the driver to interact with everyone getting on board a bus, it just takes forever for the bus to load if there’s more than 5 people waiting. This becomes particularly obvious on Symonds Street in the evening peak when all the university students load up the buses through a procedure that takes just as long as actually driving up this highly congested road. While I understand that some people won’t have a bus pass (which one would hope can be solved once integrated ticketing occurs – as I would personally send everyone in Auckland a transport pass to encourage usage) and therefore have to pay cash, it seems nonsensical that someone with a bus pass can’t just validate it at another machine on the bus and find their seat all while the bus driver is digging around for change to give the original person. However, at the moment no, the bus pass holder must wait in line themselves along with everyone else, while those already on the bus tear their hair out and vow to drive to work from now on.

Projects like the Northern Busway have shown that Aucklanders will most definitely catch public transport. However, it is utterly critical that everything possible is done to improve the speed of services. I strongly believe that is the only way we’re ever going to get more than 7% of the population catching public transport. Which is a rather embarrassing statistic to be honest.

Walk or Cycle Across the Harbour Bridge

A few months ago the idea was first floated to add a walking/cycling lane (or both preferably) to the sides of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. I think the idea formed out of the cycling lobby initially, but made a lot of sense as the NZTA (who own the bridge) were spending $40 million or so to upgrade the clip-ons so they didn’t fall off. It seemed that with all this work going on anyway, a few extra million to add a bit of extra width wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Furthermore, it would finally address an utterly horrific issue that I have with the Harbour Bridge, that bus and car are the only ways in which to get across it. In Sydney you can catch a train across their bridge, or walk across it, or cycle across it – but here in Auckland you were forced to jump into some sort of road vehicle in order to make your way across. I guess it shows Auckland’s attitude to transportation most clearly.

The idea of adding on a walking and/or cycling lane got a mixed reception. The Auckland Regional Council were really keen, as was the North Shore City Council. The car-lovers at Auckland City Council couldn’t understand the concept as they were probably hoping for another lane of traffic. There was a significant push for the idea from the cycling lobby, but at the same time Brian Rudman – who I usually agree with on most urban matters he writes about in the Herald – strongly opposed the idea for reasons I am still trying to get my head around. However, it still seemed to me like almost everyone was missing the point, as they became fixated on how many cyclists would use the bridge to commute to work on weekdays. Right from the start I saw the best part of the idea as simply making it possible for people to walk across the bridge, particularly on a nice sunny day at the weekend. The view from the Harbour Bridge – particularly looking east – is utterly spectacular. I’ve been across it thousands and thousands of times yet I’m still impressed. However, it is a little frustrating that you have to be driving at 80 kph to actually enjoy what is probably the best view in Auckland. A few weeks back I caught a bus up to Albany along the Northern Busway, and it was actually amazingly nice to head across the bridge for once and not have to be concentrating on driving, although once again the view did pretty much zip by.

So I think that making it possibly for people to walk and cycle across the bridge would have its biggest benefit in much broader ways than just allowing people to commute via cycling from the North Shore. It would be one hell of a good tourist attraction for the city to market, and a great way of celebrating our beautiful harbour. Furthermore, it would also be a clear sign that the city does give a damn about more than just cars and is actually concered about providing for people.

Unfortunately, it does seem like the NZTA can’t quite get their head around the wider benefits of this project, and has not included it in their list of project priorities for the next year. It is a pity that our transportation agencies continue to be so narrow minded.

The Calm After the Storm

After the craziness of the pre-election weeks in October and the very start of November, more recently it seems like everything is in a giant post-excitement vaccum. There were of course the somewhat interesting (and eventually depressing) moments while we waited to see what the government would end up exactly looking like, but really in the past week it seems like there’s been little if anything particularly exciting going on in the world. Oh, an obvious exception to that can be the awesomeness of the New Zealand Rugby League team winning the world cup, a feat that has evaded our (supposedly) superior rugby union team for the last 20-odd years. That was definitely a bright spot, which nicely disguised the disappointment of another thrashing in the cricket.

So, in the absence of any particularly exciting news in the world of Auckland’s transportation, I think I’ll just describe what I got up to this weekend.

It was a fairly interesting weekend I suppose, if for the utterly weird weather as much as anything else. Saturday felt like summer, Sunday it was windy as hell and extremely rainy. I guess both days also had everything in between – typically Auckland perhaps. I think the heat on Saturday ended up giving me a headache and making me feel utterly exhausted, to the point where just after 9pm I felt like crawling into bed. Other than Amalia’s usual swimming lesson on Saturday morning, it was a fairly uneventful day I suppose. Sunday was a bit more interesting, as we went to the Elam Fine Arts open day at Auckland University – largely to check out the final version of Amber’s work which we’ve seen evolve in our lounge over the past few months (and it was awesome to see the finished product), but also to check out the wide variety of stuff that other people had come up with. Overall I found the quality of everything incredibly impressive, although I’m not a particular expert on modern art. However, I have visited the Tate Modern and the Pompidou Museum, so I do have some idea about what is considered “exceptional”, and it certainly felt like I was in the middle of an awesome modern art museum as we wandered around the place. I think that Amalia found it all quite interesting too, particularly some of the more complex ‘installation’ spaces.

Through some clever swapping around of Leila’s A Zone bus pass, which I used after dropping her off at Elam, Amalia and I managed three trips on the bus. She was really getting into it at the end and actually signalled down the bus driver on the final trip that we took. It’s pretty cool considering when I think back to my childhood I only really remember one bus trip I took that wasn’t related to a school trip – when my Dad and I caught a bus back home from town after going to Rangitoto for the day. Interestingly I was 4 at the time and still remember it pretty clearly.

Ticketing

Auckland’s public transport ticketing system probably annoys me more than most other things in life. In fact, there’s little good to be said about it at all. Let’s run through the problems:

  • It’s slow. A lot of interaction with the bus driver or train clippie is necessary. This doesn’t hold up the operation of the train as much as it does for a bus, but can make it difficult for the clippies to collect each and every ticket on a busy train ride.
  • It’s confusing. For example, a trip from the CBD to Glen Innes is 2 stages on the train, 3 stages on some bus routes and 4 stages on other bus routes. This is crazy. There are also just too many ticket-types: cash, multi-journey, stored value, monthly pass etc.
  • It’s outdated. On the train the main ticketing system still involves someone wandering around the train clipping tickets, it still involves little paper tickets that a guy has to take off his collection, clip with his clipper and then hand to you – oh and that’s in addition to having to stash away the money you give him and also for him to give you change. Same for Birkenhead Transport, who still clip your 10-ride cardboard tickets.
  • It’s incompatible. This is my big annoyance, and I will write more on it below.

So yes, there isn’t really much good to say about our ticketing system at all. While the slowness, confusion and outdatedness of the ticketing system are somewhat bearable most of the time, the lack of integration is what totally kills our public transport system. Train tickets aren’t valid on the bus, some bus companies tickets aren’t valid with others, nor with ferry tickets and so on. Some bus companies have unlimited travel tickets, some don’t – it’s enough to make you tear your hair out. For years our public transport agencies have gone on and on about “working towards integrated ticketing”, but apart from a horrifically overpriced Discovery Pass, there’s absolutely nothing to show for this “working towards”.

I propose a solution, which is a whole new ticketing system for the Auckland Region. It is composed of six zones, which I will show the boundaries for on maps of Auckland’s four main areas (North, West, Central and South) in a minute. There is probably a 7th zone for all other areas not covered by the original six zones, but anyway that’s not a major as it would only cover areas such as Pukekohe and Helensville which generally require a special fare in any case for the trains and buses that serve them. The idea behind this new system is that it’s completely based on the simple notion of how many zones will one be travelling in. Although it’s CBD focused, that doesn’t at all mean that zone 1 is the zone around the CBD and central area, and that each zone further out is zone 2, 3, 4 and so on. I envisage the zones as not being hierarchical at all. So, a travellers works our how many zones they want their public transport ticket to take them through, and then they buy the appropriate ticket. Tickets can be for two hours (single-trip with transfers), one day, one week or one month of travel.

By giving people more unlimited travel options with their passes, hopefully a greater proportion of users would choose to buy weekly or monthly passes. I consider this to be an important part of increasing the use of public transport in evenings and at weekends, generally on services that aren’t particularly busy at the moment. The current monthly pass system is only really useful if you travel 3 stages ten times a week, or close to that.

So my new ticketing options would be as follows:

  1. 2 hour pass across 1-6 zones. Fare would vary from $1.60 to $7.50, the current prices for a 1 stage ride and a 6 stage ride.
  2. Day pass across 1-6 zones. Fare would vary from $5 within just one zone for the day, and maybe $12 for unlimited daily travel anywhere on the network. Importantly, one would be able to buy a day-pass for travel within two or three zones, depending on necessity, allowing better value to be had (as at the moment there are relatively few day-pass options).
  3. Weekly pass across 1-6 zones. These give unlimited travel for one week within the specified number of zones. The pricing would probably give a 15% discount on 10 two-hour passes for that number of zones (eg. $14 approx for a 1 zone weekly pass). I would probably cap the cost of a weekly pass at around $40, a quarter the price of the current all zones monthly pass, so that people are no worse off under the proposed system than they are under the existing system.
  4. Monthly pass across 1-6 zones. These give unlimited travel for a whole month within the specified number of zones. The price might be a slightly discount on the equivalent number of weekly passes to encourage people to use a monthly pass. Price would be capped at around the current price of an all-zones pass ($160).

I envisage using a smart-card system to allow this ticketing to be introduced. A stored-value pay-as-you-go system would also be included, generally giving 10% off the price of a 2 hour pass for irregular users. Potentially there could also be a similar system to what London’s Oyster Card uses, whereby they get charged at pay-as-you-go rates until they reach the amount of a day-pass, and then each subsequent trip is free. That system ensures that Oyster Card users are always getting the best value, and is a great idea. Cards could also be topped up online, avoiding the horrific queues that many university bus users face, and the annoyance of having to find a ticket agency that many other users face (plus avoid bus drivers having to sell the passes too).

If this all sounds a bit confusing, it starts to make sense once we have a few maps up. Here’s a map of Auckland City, where I would have three zones.

rail-zone-mapscopy

The current Auckland City area is split into three zones, with each of them kind of radiating out from the CBD. As explained earlier, anyone travelling within this area would purchase a 2 hour, day, week or monthly pass relating to the number of zones they want to travel across. In my case, I live within the Green Zone, work in the Blue zone and often travel into the Red Zone. If all my trips originated from home then I’d probably be OK with a two zone pass, as I’d never be catching a trip that took me across three zones. However, as it happens I do often catch buses from work into town, so at times a three zone trip would be necessary. Pay-as-you-go would possibly work best for me as my trips vary in length and are a bit all over the place. It would mean that a trip to Parnell or Ponsonby would be greatly simplified, as the Link bus would become a free-transfer under the “2 hour trip” window. A ticket would be printed off that would show the zone I entered and the number of zones that my pass covers – so either a ticket inspector or a suspicious bus driver could tell if I had over-travelled.

Below are my zone boundaries for North Shore City, Waitakere City and Manukau/Papakura. I imagine that the Whangaparaoa Peninsula would be in Zone 6, like Papakura is.

North Shore City:

zones-northshorecopy

Waitakere City:

zones-westcopy

Manukau/Papakura:

zones-southcopy

My Commuting

I have a strange combination of methods by which I get myself to and from work during the week. In fact, I don’t think any two days of the week are exactly the same, which is quite interesting. I suppose that the down-side of this is that there isn’t a nice comfortable pattern to sink myself into, although at the same time I could think that the up-side is that there isn’t a comfy pattern to get bored by.

There are bits of my commuting cycle that I find nicer than others, unsurprisingly I suppose. I always quite enjoy the way that Leila and I catch a bus into town together on Monday mornings. It’s nice having the opportunity to chat with her on the bus, and I think that I enjoy catching a bus during the morning commute because the public transport system actually feels half-decent for once. The buses come every 2-3 minutes, they actually travel faster than the cars (when they’re not picking up passengers) because there are bus lanes and so on. On the down-side, we often find ourselves on the same bus as a million Auckland Girls Grammar students, who can make one hell of a loud racket when they really try to. Or at other times we’re worrying about how long the bus will take and whether there will be time for a coffee in town before Leila needs to catch the Link bus over to her work – generally we are fine though. Perhaps I am interested in morning-peak bus trips because generally I haven’t taken too many over my years of bus catching. Especially not when I compare it with the number of later-morning buses that I’ve caught, or even with the number of evening peak buses that I’ve caught. I guess it’s a novelty factor that will probably wear off once I get a job working in the CBD and find myself catching morning peak buses to work each and every day.

Another aspect of my commuting habits that I enjoy is the local 008 bus which I catch directly to my normal work (ie. if I’m not heading into town on this particular day). This usually ends up being Tuesday and Thursday mornings. While it’s super-annoying that this bus is operated by Urban Express and not NZ Bus, which means that I have to pay cash each time as my GoRider card isn’t accepted (gah bring on integrated ticketing), because this is a fairly infrequent bus route I find myself on the bus with the same people just about every morning I catch it. There are the two kids that get off the bus at a particular stop each day so they can wander down to their school, the other two kids who get on at the same stop – sometimes puffing like crazy after sprinting along Richardson Road to catch up to the bus, and so on. I guess I kind of enjoy the familiarity of it all, even if I feel like a bit of an outsider still (as I only catch that bus 2 mornings a week).

Of course all my public transport experiences in Auckland aren’t positive. I particularly find myself getting annoyed by things that could fairly easily be fixed up. Like bus drivers paying a bit more attention to when you’re trying to signal them, or not going through red lights when you’re trying to walk across the road, or ARTA actually replacing bus timetables, or buses actually showing up on time. OK, so I guess that the whole “late bus syndrome” has probably been around for just as long as buses have been. Generally in Auckland it’s a result of having stupidly windy and overly long bus routes. The 224 route is a classic example, and I have developed a person vendetta against that route because whenever I need to catch a bus along it into town, the bus is inevitably about 15 minutes late. This solely happens because the route is stupidly long, originating in Henderson (even though a million other routes serve Henderson to New Lynn). I’ve written a letter to ARTA about cutting it back to the route of the old 223 (which started at New Lynn) so that the 224’s punctuality can be improved. I wonder if that’ll have an effect.

I really want to actually commute by train. It’s so much nicer than on the bus. Perhaps after 2013 when we have electric trains I’ll make sure where I live is close to a train station.

Transport News

There has been a reasonably large bundle of transportation news in the last week or so to come out. I definitely don’t see this blog as being a news source, as personally I find that a little boring, but I probably should at least keep somewhat up to date with what’s going on.

Probably the big piece of news in the last couple of days has been confirmation that Auckland City Council is slashing projects left, right and centre in order to keep rate increases under control. Whilst this was rather inevitable, subsequent to John Banks’ election as mayor last year and his accompanying Citizens and Ratepayers council, it’s still a rather major kick in the guts for Auckland’s future. It’s pretty much universally accepted that transportation is a huge issue in Auckland, and that our transport system is horrifically lop-sided in its dependence upon the private vehicle. A few days ago John Banks seemed in agreement with this view, arguing like crazy for the incoming government to invest heavily in Auckland’s infrastructure. Yet when it comes to Auckland City doing its bit, he’s off running in the opposite direction like crazy. Having the cycling and walkway budget being slashed from $27 million to $4 million over the next 10 years is utter insanity, when most of our transportation policies commit to further encouraging walking and cycling – not only for their important effect on reducing traffic flows, but also for their health benefits. $4 million over 10 years is practically little more than paying council staff members, so we certainly won’t see any improvements over that time. Even some of the cuts to roading projects are nonsensical, with an upgrade to Tiverton Road and Wolverton Street getting the boot, even though a motorway (due to open in April next year) is about to feed a significant amount of traffic onto an arterial route that already struggles big time at peak hour. $400 million has also been sliced off the AMETI project (which is a huge roadsfest, so I have no problems there).

So much, it seems, for trying to drag Auckland into the 21st century. So much for trying to make us a world class city. While I do understand that councils are in a pretty unenviable situation with regards to having to be funded by rates dollars alone, the prioritisation of funding is certainly annoying. In the end I think the big hope is that Auckland City Council won’t actually survive as an entity for the next 10 years. The Royal Commission for reorganising Auckland’s local government is due to report back in March next year, and will hopefully lead to a significant revamp of how local government operates in Auckland. I would hope that we’ll end up with a significantly more powerful regional council supported by about 20 small community councils. Issues such as planning and transportation will end up in the hands of the regional council, which will hopefully lead to far better integration and consistency across the region. With the extra power hopefully Auckland will have a better chance at ensuring it gets it fair share of the ‘pie’, and has a bit more money to spend on important projects such as public transportation, walking and cycle routes.

Another interesting news story that emerged this week was the possiblity of extending the Northern Busway from its current terminus at Constellation Drive all the way up to Orewa. This would be a very significant extension, potentially quadrupling the length of the current busway, at a significant cost of $700 million to $1.2 billion. I have kind of mixed feelings about this proposal. To start with the positive, I can see the point of extending the busway at least to Albany. Although I’ve never been on the busway at peak hour, I imagine that the trip is fairly severely slowed down between Constellation Drive and Greville Road in particular by the need for buses to share motorway space with general traffic along what is actually a fairly congested stretch of road. Having to cut across Constellation Drive when heading northbound also is probably non-ideal, especially at evening peak. So this stretch of the busway would be particularly useful in my opinion. Unfortunately, this bit of the busway would also be fairly difficult to construct, as the Constellation Station and the existing busway is on the eastern side of State Highway 1, while the Albany Station (and the easier gradients for construction) are on the western side of the motorway. Cue expensive bridges and tunnels. Regarding what happens further north than Albany, in reality that bit of motorway doesn’t really get congested particularly badly and I don’t see what advantage a busway would have over buses running along existing lanes of the motorway. Perhaps as a long term project where the alignment could become a railway it would make more sense.

In any case, just because a project isn’t justifiable at the moment it shouldn’t mean that future planning for it disappears. The Transport Agency should proceed with designating all the necessary space for the whole future busway as soon as possible, so that it is at the very least future proofed. The last thing they want is for someone to go and build a new apartment building right in the way of where the busway would eventually end up going. But as for construction, I definitely think additional busways out east should happen before this project. That’s where the real problems are.

Trams for Auckland

I have had this idea for a while now. It seems a strange one at first, a kind of weird overkill that originally doesn’t seem particularly feasible, but I reckon it could work. The idea takes a lot from San Francisco, where the F-Line has operated enormously successfully for the last 15 or so years. Basically, it involves bringing trams back to Auckland. In particular, for them to run along Queen Street and Tamaki Drive, providing both a commuter service for people living in the eastern suburbs (which is a reasonably popular series of bus routes, although I’ve never caught any because it’s not that obvious where the route starts and finishes) and also a great tourist attraction.

Now there’s actually nothing particularly new about the idea of running trams along Queen Street. In fact, Auckland’s suburban development was largely dependent on the tram system – which first opened in 1900. Most of the bus routes that link the CBD with parts of the isthmus are the remnants of tram routes that used to run throughout the city. While we never had a system approaching the complexity and vastness of American cities such as Boston and New York, for Auckland’s size the tram system was fairly significant. It reached as far as Onehunga, Avondale and Ellerslie. The layout of streets in areas served by trams was largely a result of their presence, with a semi-grid format allowing quick access to the main arterial routes for as many people as possible. Most of these routes fed into Queen Street, which truly was the tram hub of the city, as a photo from 1919 below shows:

800px-Queen_Street_Lower_Auckland

Auckland’s transportation heritage isn’t particularly well celebrated. Sure, we have MOTAT (the Museum of Transport and Technology), and a tourist tram line running between the two halves of this museum, but apart from that our general attitude towards transportation has been ‘out with the old, in with the new’. Classic examples of this include having an incredibly grand railway station which has been neglected to the point where it can’t even be used as student accommodation any longer as it was pretty much falling apart, the removal of the whole tram system in the 1950s, and the way the Newmarket train station building has been ‘hidden somewhere’. Bringing back trams to Auckland’s CBD would be a great way to celebrate our transportation heritage in my opinion. MOTAT continues to have a large number of old heritage trams, while I am sure there are many others out there somewhere just awaiting a reason to be restored to their former glory. San Francisco uses restored trams from all around the USA, and also some that have been imported from Milan in Italy, to fulfil its demand. I’m sure that Auckland could pull off something similar.

However, although the heritage reasons for this idea are important, in the end it should be mainly looked at as a way to improve transportation access in and around the parts of Auckland where it would travel. In my opinion, Queen Street does suffer from having too many buses run along it. Until we have all our buses being quiet and non-polluting, they are somewhat of a blight on what should be a predominantly pedestrian focused street. Whilst it is obvious that many buses will need to continue to use Queen Street, hopefully a tram route which travels along its entire length would mean that routes which begin and end on Queen Street might not have to run along its entire length. Secondly, the route along Tamaki Drive out to Mission Bay and St Heliers is one of Auckland’s most scenic. Driving along there certainly makes me happy to live in this city, particularly on a nice sunny day. On weekends there is significant congestion trying to get through Mission Bay, simply because there are so many people there. I haven’t yet caught a bus along Tamaki Drive on the weekend, but I am guessing that they would be pretty popular. During the week I also imagine that it’s a fairly popular bus route for commuters, and also for tourists visiting Kelly Tarlton’s, Mission Bay or St Helier’s Beach.

The map below shows the route of my proposed tram line:

tram-route

But why a tram? Isn’t it going to be super-expensive? Yes I certainly agree there will be a reasonably significant cost in establishing this line. Tracks would need to be laid, the roads might need widening in areas (particularly along Tamaki Drive) and there would need to be overhead wires too. However, in my opinion the success of this route is dependent on it being a tram and not just another bus route. Riding the tram would be part of the experience, and therefore it would capture a LOT of tourists, and also Aucklanders travelling around their city for play on weekends, or to get to work during the week. Because a tram has fixed infrastructure, people have some faith in knowing where the tram they get on is going to go – the simplicity of the single route would attract a lot of people who would normally not be bothered with public transport and just take their car. In fact, if there has been a problem with the F Line in San Francisco, it is that the line has been FAR too popular. The operators of the line, MUNI, are scrambling to ensure they have enough streetcars, as the line has been enormously popular with tourists and local alike.

Ugh

Well it was definitely to be expected, but the election result was still disappointing and depressing. All the potential ways in which Labour could have at least made things close (picking up huge votes in South Auckland again, having New Zealand First crack 5%, having the Greens get up around 10% and so on) didn’t eventuate. I always knew that National were going to end up with more votes than Labour, but I didn’t quite expect the margin to be as big as it’s turned out to be. This means that National can form a government without needing the Maori Party – and therefore my big hope of that being hugely problematic and opening the door for Labour – has disappeared.

OK, let’s (try to) look for some positives first. The Greens did increase their vote from the last election and they’ll end up with two additional seats (possibly even three if the special votes go their way as they have a habit of doing). However, I think the Greens will be disappointed in many ways. A lot of polls had them up around 8 or 9%, so 6.5% is a bit disappointing. Maybe a lot of potential Greens voters switched to Labour at the last minute, or just didn’t bother voting at all. It’s hard to say, I guess maybe the polls were just out. Any more positives… ummm… nope.

The negatives are almost too numerous to mention. Labour lost the West Auckland vote to National – which is almost unbelievable. They lost every electorate outside Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, except for Palmerston North. They lost Auckland Central, and electorate that National has NEVER won before. Act won five seats, which means that they’ll have a reasonable say in the next government – a scary thought if I’ve ever come across one. Winston Peters disappeared, which in some ways I guess is a positive as he annoys the hell out of me, but if New Zealand First had managed to get up to 5% Labour might have had a chance of forming a government.

Helen Clark stepped down as leader of the Labour Party, sad but I think definitely something that was expected to happen. The last thing I would want to see is her party turning against her, like what has happened to every leader of the National Party in my living memory. I’m pretty sure she is the longest serving leader of the Labour Party ever (since 1993!) and did a damn good job as Prime Minister. The fact that John Key had to drag National well into the political centre in order to defeat her at this election says an awful lot for the success of Helen as Prime Minister and also of the success of the Labour Party as our government throughout the past nine years. As much as Act, along with the right-wing branch of the National Party, would like to deny it, it surely seems like the neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s is finally dead. In a way that is an enormous relief to me and to the whole country. Whilst I’m still gutted that Labour lost, it is a relief that I’m getting a National government that will hopefully not be too different to what I’ve enjoyed throughout the past nine years.

So where to from here I wonder? For National, they seem interested in forming a pretty big ‘super government’ involving everyone possible from Act to the Maori Party. I’m a bit sceptical about how this will work out, as they only really NEED the support of Act to govern. However, if some agreement with the Maori Party can be hammered out it would be useful for National to have an alternative option to Act when it comes to passing legislation. If the Maori Party, along with Peter Dunne, can pull National in the opposite way to how Act will be pulling them, then hopefully we won’t see too many extreme-right policies. For Labour, there is definitely going to be a time of change happening. Phil Goff and Annette King seem to be the most likely leadership team to replace Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. They’re not exactly “fresh-faced” in terms of their age and their political experience, but I think they’ll do and OK job. It will be hard for Labour to come back from this hammering, especially after losing their two best assets in Clark and Cullen. I strongly believe they will need to work with the Greens a lot more over the next three years to provide a good, united opposition and to hold National to the promises they have made in the past few months regarding issues such as asset sales, keeping Working for Families, keeping the emissions trading scheme and so forth. Regarding the Greens, I also think they’ll need to get closer to Labour and work hard to help Labour as well as themselves. Realistically, the Greens are only ever going to be part of a Labour government, so it’s certainly in their best interests to help them out.

Why I’m Voting Green Tomorrow (and why you should too)

I have battled with my decision about who to vote for over a fairly lengthy period of time throughout the past few months. At the last two elections I have proudly given both my two ticks to Labour, and quite thankfully too at the last election in particular. At the 2002 election I was fairly unimpressed by the Greens throwing their mental about genetic engineering and the whole moratorium issue. In 2005 I was happy that Labour and the Greens seemed to have sorted out their differences, but because the threat of Don Brash was so great I felt compelled to vote Labour once again. However, I was greatly saddened that in the end the Greens were only a little bit short of what they needed for one more seat, especially when that one additional seat could have meant that them and Labour would have been able to form a government, rather than Labour relying upon New Zealand First and United Future.

I think throughout the last couple of years everyone has woken up a lot more to the environmental issues facing the world. 2006 was the big ‘Climate Change Awareness” year in my opinion, where a huge shift from scepticism to acceptance seemed to happen across society. Rising petrol prices hammered home the concept of peak oil, rising food prices hammered home worries about sustainability and that was reflected in political changes in New Zealand and many other countries. Australia finally joined the Kyoto Protocol last year, the government came up with an emissions trading scheme at long last that should hopefully do something to reduce our carbon emissions, even National finally accepted that climate change is real and environmental issues in general can’t actually be ignored anymore. In many ways perhaps this took some wind out of the Greens’ sails as they initially seemed to lose their point of difference from other parties. As I’ll mention later, this hasn’t actually happened as most other parties (particularly Labour, unfortunately) are great with the rhetoric on environmental improvements, but are yet to walk the walk.

For quite a few months I have found myself tossing up between Labour and the Greens. Transportation is a really important issue to me (as obvious from this blog) and it is one area where the Greens have always been vastly superior in their ideas than any other party, including Labour. Yes, Labour did buy back the railway network and they have invested a lot of money in upgrading Auckland’s rail system. They have also cleared the path for Auckland’s rail electrification to be possible, and this is great. I certainly am thankful for all that. However, for every dollar they’ve invested in public transport it appears as though they’ve put three dollars into roading. I can’t even keep track of how many motorway projects are either underway or about to get underway, even in Auckland alone. While it’s excellent that Auckland’s finally getting the infrastructure investment that it so desperately needs, we are talking about hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent on roads that – in all honesty – we don’t know will have more than a 15-20 year life-span. Although petrol prices have decreased significantly in recent times, this is ONLY because of the financial crisis. Perhaps the reduction in petrol use will mean that prices take a little bit longer to go through the roof than previously thought, but that does not mean it won’t happen.

Peak oil is not a theory, it’s a certainty. The only debate is when it will happen, or whether it has already happened. A lot of evidence points towards it actually already having occurred, otherwise why didn’t oil-producing countries increase their output when prices were so high in the middle of the year? The simple answer is that they didn’t because they couldn’t. In the space of 3-4 years we saw petrol prices increase from around a dollar a litre to almost $2.20 a litre. I remember as a child having petrol prices of around 90c a litre, which clearly shows how sudden this increase of the last few years has happened. In this situation, when even your own transportation agency has projected lower numbers of car-trips on the roading network over the next 8 years at least, I cannot understand Labour’s continuing obsession with funding roads, roads and more roads. But don’t think this is just a critique of Labour, as National are far far worse with their transportation policies. I’m not sure if they even know what a train is, with their attitudes towards building more roads no matter what coming across as absolutely reckless.

This is not to say that I’m 100% in agreement with all the policies of the Greens. While their economic policies are justifiable, they do come across as fairly radical. Shifting the tax burden from earners to polluters is a great idea, however there is no other country in the world embarking upon something quite so radical, and I worry the Greens can frighten just too many people. It was hard enough for Labour to convince businesses that it could manage to economy when they first came to power in 1999.  I’m also in disagreement with aspects of their foreign policy – particularly their opposition to free-trade agreements and New Zealand “doing our bit” in Afghanistan. I’m definitely no war-mongerer, but because we’re such a small country and will never be able to defend ourselves if need be, it is important for us to do our bit on the international scene where it is justified. I think Labour have done extremely well in maintaining an excellent international reputation for our country, particularly by not getting involved in the Iraq war.

However, being the strategist that I am, I have worked out that a vote for Green is effectively two votes – one for the Greens and also one for Labour. In recent weeks just about all the minor parties have sided one way or another. In the case of New Zealand First they didn’t really have a choice, but United Future and Act have stated they’ll only support National, while Jim Anderton’s Progressives and the Greens have stated they’ll only support Labour. The Maori Party remains as the only party that could “swing either way”, although because their supporters have strong historic links with the Labour party I would be surprised to see them go with National. Not only surprised, but logically I just can’t see National and the Maori Party being able to work together. Their ideologies come from widely different ends of the spectrum, and even if they did stitch together a deal I don’t know if it would last (NZ First post-1996 election ringing any bells?) This means that there aren’t any parties out there obsessed with supporting the party with the most votes first (not that I’d have an issue with them if they did, as it seems the fairest way to decide which party to support if you’re thinking of swinging either way). Therefore, unlike last time it is not essential for Labour to get more votes than National from my perspective. In fact, I highly doubt they will get more votes than National when one considers that they haven’t led in any polls since some time last year.

This means that one is essentially voting for one group of parties or another group of parties: the ‘centre-left’ or the ‘centre-right’. Which party you vote for within that group only really effects what voices within that group you wish to be heard the loudest, not which group you’d prefer. Clearly if the Greens and Labour are in the same group of parties, then whether one or the other gets my vote is irrelevant: it only affects the balance of power within that particular group. In my general assessment of the Labour government since 1999, and in my general assessment of the policies of the parties within the ‘centre-left’ group that I support, I do think there is a need to shift the balance of power within that group further towards what is proposed by the Greens. We need to strengthen our efforts to battle climate change; we need to ‘walk the walk’ in becoming a world-leading sustainable country; we need to improve even further our efforts to eliminate poverty; we need to do more to prevent health problems and crime and we need to shift our transportation system away from a reliance on oil. I am a big fan of Helen Clark, and I believe that she (and much of the Labour party) would agree with me on all these issues. In the past Labour have been hamstrung by a reliance upon New Zealand First and United Future to form a government and haven’t been able to achieve these issues. With strong input from the Greens I think Labour will be able to achieve many more of their aspirational goals.

I haven’t talked much about the financial crisis I know, and it is worth addressing because it will play a lot on people’s minds tomorrow when they do go to vote. My take is that as a country we’re in a reasonable position to weather this storm, thanks to pretty careful budgeting by Labour over the past nine years. We will get through this, and policies put forward by both Labour and National seem to respond to this crisis fairly well. A few jobs will be lost, but our unemployment is still extremely low by international standards thanks to an effective Labour government. In other words, we will get through this, especially if we turn the crisis into an opportunity to strongly invest in public housing, rail projects and other important pieces of infrastructure. The people who will suffer most are probably those who have been least cautious with their borrowing and spending over the past few years, and I would hope they will learn from the experience and realise that there is not such thing as a free lunch, and if something seems too good to be true (such as forever rising house prices) then it most probably is.

I am more worried about our long-term future. I am worried that we simply won’t have invested in the necessary transportation infrastructure to cope with higher oil prices in years to come. I am worried that one of the three-hundred people per year in Auckland alone who die prematurely because of our air pollution might be me in the long-term. I am worried that when Amalia’s my age we really will be up shit creek regarding climate change, environmental sustainability, biodiversity loss and so forth; that she will have to tell her kids about “the good old days” when we had such things as Polar Bears. I am worried that we don’t have a plan for the huge problems the world will face in the next few decades. However, the Greens do have a plan, the Greens are not living with their heads in the sand. Many of their policies may come across as unpalatable now, but when compared with what our long-term alternatives might be, I think we all need to have some short-term pain for a long-term gain. I have to vote Greens, for my sake, for my friends and family’s sake, for the planet’s sake and for Amalia’s sake.

You do too.

Thank You America

Well what a great day yesterday was. I feel like I’m still buzzing from the excitement of it actually. The morning seemed to take forever, waiting until 1pm when the results from the US presidential election would start rolling in. Unlike our New Zealand election, I actually felt reasonably confident of a good outcome in the USA. However, I was probably also a bit more nervous about that result as I had expected Obama to win, and any other result would have been a huge disappointment. In contrast, while I give Labour/Greens a better chance on Saturday than they seem to be getting in the media I’ve certainly got lower expectations.

So after 1pm the results did start rolling in from the USA, and they were reasonably good. The first few states went as expected: Kentucky for the republicans, Vermont for the democrats. No real surprises there. I had about three different election pages running, with a good live feed from BBC world being the most useful. When Obama was confirmed to have won Pennsylvania I felt pretty damn confident things weren’t going to go wrong from then on. Florida and Ohio looked good for him as well, even Indiana where Bush had won by 20% or so back in 2004 was extremely close. Obama was winning his safe states easily, and challenging McCain in a lot of states that had been pretty safely republican for decades. Once Ohio had been confirmed for Obama everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he hit the magic 270 electoral college votes. At 5pm New Zealand time the results for California and Washington State were confirmed, which pushed Obama over the threshold. Cue wild celebrations.

I got home in time to watch a decent chunk of his acceptance speech. Whilst I’ve heard a number of amazing speeches by Obama before, I think this one really topped the lot. The moment felt historic, like we were all witnessing history. Which I guess makes perfect sense as indeed we were. The happiness on the faces of so many people was truly moving, while the messages of hope and change that Obama stated may have been mainly directed at people within the USA, but his standing internationally makes me truly confident that this is a giant step in the right direction for the world as a whole. Whilst the challenges facing Obama are clearly huge, and seemingly impossible, I really strongly believe that he can make a huge difference simply by his inclusive attitude, the huge support that he’s received, the way that so many previously alienated people can now truly believe in their president, and because he is just awesome.

So I would very much like to thank America for finally coming to its senses again. I would like to thank the American people for putting racial insecurities behind them, for finally rejecting the divisiveness of the republican party and for electing an incredibly charismatic, intelligent president.