Orewa-Puhoi Motorway

In less than a month New Zealand’s biggest ever (by money spent) roading project will be opened, and Auckland will get its first toll road since tolls were taken off the Harbour Bridge in 1984. The last section of the Albany-Puhoi motorway (which began construction in the mid 90s I think) will be a pretty damn interesting road to go on, with a series of viaducts, the Johnson Hill tunnels and some other pretty amazing engineering feats.

A few days ago Leila and I went up to Tawharanui for the day, to meet up with her family who are camping up there for the whole week. On the way we passed by the last construction works of ALPURT B2, and got the chance to take some photos of it.

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I will hopefully being going up to Mangawhai Heads on anniversary weekend, which is when the road is meant to open. It will certainly be an interesting trip.

Avondale and New Lynn Rail Upgrades

Wow it’s been a busy couple of days. I will write more soon, but for now just a few photos of the upgrades happening at Avondale and New Lynn. Photos taken today:

Avondale

The works at Avondale are to lower the track and relocate the station. The current station is located at the top of a bit of a hill, and is also on a bend, but worst of all is utterly uselessly located for people actually at the Avondale shops. Although the eventual new station will be located at Crayford Street (pretty much straight down the tracks as seen from the last photo) a temporary station (away from the bulk of the works) has been built a long way away to the left of all the photos I took today. I’ll try to get a few shots of the temporary station in the next while.

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New Lynn

As you can see there are some pretty major works going on at New Lynn, largely to help with the process of constructing the large New Lynn trench. Eventually the railway tracks will drop about 6m down below street level, so the horrific roundabout will be eliminated and the two sides of New Lynn joined much more effectively. It’s a pretty huge project, but it does seem like good progress is being made.

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After taking those photos, Leila and I continued out to Titirangi Beach, where I don’t actually think I’ve ever been before. It turned out to be a very pleasant little beach indeed – and we spend a few hours just lazing around reading books. After that we headed off to the cricket match, which I think I’ll write about tomorrow.

The Spawl/Affordability Debate

I found myself in a really interesting debate on Frog Blog yesterday, on a topic that I know a fair bit about – and debating it with probably the one person in New Zealand who I would most want to have the debate with: Owen McShane. The original post was by Russell Norman, co-leader of the Greens, about the unsustainability of our debt levels – something that is clearly starting to bite and will continue to do so throughout the next year or so.

But anyway, Mr McShane – who is well known for being one of NZ’s best climate change deniers and also for his constant campaigns to denounce Auckland’s metropolitan urban limits, dragged the argument towards blaming those urban limits (and the whole idea of Smart Growth) for bumping up house prices and thereby allowing debt to get out of hand. His original comment:

About three years ago I worked with a bank economist to figure out how much in foreign exchange the Councils were costing us by inflating the value of land in New Zealand. We calculated the inflated portion of house prices for New Zealand as a whole using the Demographia affordability index. (we had already shown that one could “manufacture” a section outside Christchurch for $30,000 at reasonable profit but that section then was selling for $135,000.
Anyhow it turned out the total overseas debt equate almost exactly to the inflated portion of the value of the real estate market. I then found we needed the export receipts from the wine, fishing, horticulture, and film industry (and I think forestry) to pay that interest. So had we not inflated our real estate market those industries would have been real earners rather than paying interest on overseas borrowings.
I predicted these outcomes in my report to the Reserve bank of 1995. So when you look for who to blame – look at the planning schools.

Now first of all, I want to say that I’m not in total disagreement with what he’s saying here. Clearly, house prices going nuts throughout the last few years has been a massive factor is allowing debt to get out of hand. And I’m also in partial agreement that the stifling of land supply has been a factor in making house prices increase so much.

However, I absolutely do not agree that removing urban limits and allowing sprawl to happen is the cure for this problem. While someone living in an urban fringe house may indeed be able to purchase that house at a cheaper price if the urban limits were relaxed, it has been shown again and again that people living on the edge of cities end up having to spend a massive amount more of their time and income on transportation than those living in the inner-city. Furthermore, the cost to local authorities of providing these additional roads, water connections, sewerage systems and so forth ends up being horrifically unaffordable. In recent years councils have tried to get the developers to pay more of their fair share in providing these services, and you would not believe the fuss that has been kicked up.

So I suggest to Mr McShane an alternative way to improve housing affordability without adding to sprawl:

Surely allowing higher density developments would effectively increase land supply (ie. I can build 2 or 3 units on my 600 sq m site, rather that just one McMansion) in the same way, but without all the environmental effects of sprawl?

At 35% site coverage and 8m height limit you can get 400 sq m of floor space on my property. That’s 3 reasonably sized units, and hey you’ve improved affordability without creating a false economy of sprawl where people spend any money they save on rent/mortgage on getting to work each day.

He comes back with some reasonable points, but for some reason believes that someone living on the edge of the city would actually have the shortest commutes. I can’t quite see how that makes sense, as even if a lot of their trips were from suburb to suburb, that other suburb seems to end up on the opposite side of town as often as not.

That was the theory but the theory is disproven by real world experience.

Actually there are some efficiency gains in inner cities on expensive land from moving to single family homes to Town Houses (which is why I invented the word Town House as part of my work to free up housing markets and improve choice in the mid sixties) but forcing whole urban populations to live behind Urban Limits simply generates the cascade of increased costs experienced by Dave S and anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in a Smart Growth market.
In NZ especially going above two storeys adds dramatically to building costs because of our high earthquake and wind loads and of course the large amount of space allocated to public space such as stairs and lifts and parking etc.
Why do you think people on the urban periphery take longer to get to work each day? In the real world they have the shortest and least congested trips because they normally drive from suburb to suburb rather than to downtown.

I clarify for him:

I’m not suggesting going above two levels, although obviously in the inner-city that makes perfect sense.

What I’m suggesting is re-looking at how density is controlled in places like Auckland City. If you take the current Residential 6a zone and apply is to a 600 m2 section (I use that size as I live on such a section at the moment), then you are encouraged to build a 400 m2 (200 m2 x 2 levels) monstrosity in order to maximise the value of your land. If you keep the maximum building coverage and building height the same, but stop controlling units-per-site you immediately allow potentially three times the number of units to be built on that same piece of land.

Clearly that would help housing affordability, and in a REAL way as you would have sufficient densities to make public transport viable, to make walking to the local shops viable, and with mixed-use developments you would also make it much easier for people to live closer to where they work and so forth.

The model you propose sees reducing land prices as the end point, rather than as the means to improving affordability as a whole. Plenty of research has shown that people living on the urban fringe spend masses more of their lives and masses more of their money on transportation than those living in inner-cities. Surely that’s unsustainable?

While I agree with you that planning regulations have driven up land prices, as Dr Kerry James Grundy states in the latest Planning Quarterly, that’s a pretty small-fry reason when compared with speculative investment. I think the main adverse effect of planning regulations on house prices is this obsession with units-per-site, which forces the under-development of inner-city sites that should most definitely intensify.

The idea of getting away from units-per-site is one that makes a lot of sense to me, and one that I have thought about quite a lot in recent times. When Auckland City Council gets around to notifying their Second Generation District Plan (which I think is meant to happen in about April 2010) I intend to submit on it (unless I’m working for them at the time, in which case hopefully I can make a difference from the inside) along these lines. As far as I know, Wellington City Council does not impose a density limit on development in its inner-city suburbs – but instead just looks at what the actual effects are (ie. height and building coverage). That same approach should absolutely be applied to Auckland City. The current rules, when applied to the property I live in (not that I own it, it’s just a good reference point) will only ever allow one house on that site. By law I actually couldn’t even internally split the house into two units, even though I reckon it’s definitely big enough for that to be realistic. Most large houses throughout Auckland City that have a granny flat underneath or indeed are split into two smaller units would not comply with the current rules.

But anyway, bringing this back to housing affordability and how my suggestions would reduce the necessity for sprawl, I think it’s pretty obvious that providing for much greater flexibility in the development of a site would allow a developer to still make money while at the same time provide a much greater number of affordable units within the Auckland isthmus. In fact, it has actually already happened in the past, although I often try to avoid bringing up exactly how it has worked. Throughout Auckland City there are a surprising number of ‘sausage flats’ – you know the ones: units built as a long slab perpendicular to the road. Not exactly a great design model from an architectural point of view, but I think it’s pretty difficult to comprehend how unaffordable Auckland City would be without sausage flats. I’m not suggesting a return to the days of sausage flats being built everywhere, but I don’t actually think that would happen. These days councils are much more aware of ideas such as urban design, and I’m pretty damn sure the rules could be written in such a way to ensure the greater number of units are built in an architecturally pleasing manner.

His response is quite interesting actually. He makes a couple of good points, but throws in a heck of a lot of rubbish too:

IT’s the scarcity that drives the speculation. Grundy has it hopelessly back to front. But he is no economist.
Have you tried designing the layout of the six units on your site?
Have you included car parking and manoevering, and some room for some planting etc. And what about kerb parking and so on. High densities increase traffic congestion rather than decrease. Trips per household decrease slightly but the added households generate far more trips.
Residential density does not make public transport viable – employment density does. That is why Manhattan has a high use of public transport.
The whole purpose of a large city is to enlarge the employment catchment. There is no city in the world where people walk to work unless they work in a takeaway, a TAB, a dairy, or a brothel.
The”plenty of research” you refer to is hopelessly wrong in that people optimise location on total costs and families in particular have multiple destinations. this is why people on the peri urban areas consumption of fossil fuel is much lower than people in inner city areas. It relates to household income.
And if the MUL was relaxed and land prices fell then developers could afford to build low cost housing like they did in Auckland pre Smart Growth. It’s high land prices which make McMansions necessary.
I am afraid you have been reading Smart Growth propaganda rather than real research by urban economists.

Yes I can see how the scarcity of land forces developers on the urban fringe to build McMansions. If they’ve had to buy the section for $300,000 alone, and are only allowed to build one unit on it, of course they’re going to build the biggest house possible so they can sell it for $700,000. I can see how employment density is a big factor in making public transport viable: after all that’s why trips to CBDs around the world generally have a far higher public transport share than trips to employment centres sprinkled around the rest of the city.

However, there’s also a whole heap of rubbish he’s saying. Firstly, I’m not suggested 6 units for my site (although, a very nice 6 unit development on a site very similar to mine is located just down the road from us). Parking, planting and so forth can be accommodated fine, as I’m not actually suggesting increasing the building footprint. I would certainly not require each unit to have 2 parking spaces , as 1 each would be fine, and would not obsessively encourage car use like existing rules do. I can’t comprehend how he just writes off the effect of residential densities on making public transport viable. Pedestrian-sheds (number of people within walking distance of a service) are the foundation of developing a public transport system – as obviously running a metro at 3 minute frequencies is utter stupidity through areas of single-unit sprawl, but works brilliantly in the high-density cities of Europe. I do accept though, that often it’s the quality of the public transport service that will lead to an improved share of trips, rather than simply the residential density. His assertion that hardly anyone in any city around the world walks to work is simply hilarious – I guess he’s never been to a mixed-use high-density European city.

And finally, most hilariously, he tries to state that fossil fuel usage of someone living on the edge of a city (or whatever peri-urban actually means) is likely to use less fossil fuels than someone living in the inner-city. Surely this is a joke, as a person on the edge of the sort of city Mr McShane seems to be promoting would never have the opportunity to walk, cycle or catch public transport anywhere. By constrast, someone living towards the centre of a higher-density, mixed-use city with good provision of public transport might rarely have the need to use their car.

I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in him really. He makes a few decent points, but some of the things he comes up with appear simply laughable. As I said above, I do accept that relaxing the MUL would probably have a positive effect on land prices – however that would come at an enormous cost. Unfettered sprawl is what has got Auckland into the huge problems that it faces now, with horrible traffic congestion, crazy automobile dependency, bland and boring suburbs and increasing environmental pressures on our surrounding farmland. I agree that to make housing more affordable in the future – even though that problem is kind of solving itself now as the real estate bubble has burst – the supply of sites needs to be increased. However, I think that supply can be increased within the current urban boundaries by getting away from our obsession with ‘units per site’ controls. By allowing more development within the city, we’ll be able to avoid all the negative effects of sprawl, we’ll be able to increase our urban densities and make public transport, walking and cycling more realistic travel options – all while achieving the same affordability benefits as sprawling would.

Surely it’s a no-brainer.

Rail Network Upgrades

After briefly mentioning the upcoming rail network upgrades that will be happening in the holidays, I thought it would make some sense to expand a bit upon what they will be. ARTA has a useful summary of them:

Newmarket – major work to build the new track layout through the new station and junction area.  The works in the junction area will take the full three weeks to complete, as this involves the pouring of a large amount of cement to enable the continued construction of the new station.

Boston Rd – construction of two new temporary platforms. Work to lower and widen land around tracks to prepare for electrification, double tracking and the new re-located station.

Avondale – construction of two new temporary platforms. Earthworks to prepare for double tracking, the future re-located station and electrification.

New Lynn – building new interim roundabout. Trench wall construction will continue.

Quay Park – works to reconfigure the tracks, in preparation for future signalling works which will allow for the continued improvement of rail services into Britomart.

Eastern Line – new drainage installed at the Glen Innes Tunnel.

Helensville area – replacing two bridges with culverts.

Regionwide – maintenance and renewal works on the tracks and at level crossings (pedestrian and vehicle). Some works in advance of electrification.

The first 5 are most interseting, as the drainage near Glen Innes, the culverts near Helensville and a bit of routine maintenance around the network aren’t particularly exciting.

The Newmarket station redevelopment seems to have progressed pretty damn well over the past few months. There’s a fair bit of information availabe on the redevelopment of the station here, and a really awesome looking render included below:

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A few photos of how the construction is going can be found here: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?p=29181156&postcount=2069

So hopefully once Newmarket is finished (and the holiday shut down should aid in speeding up its construction) we’ll have two proper railway stations in Auckland (with Britomart being the other, of course). The success of Britomart in growing rail patronage suggests to me that the quality of a station really does impact upon the likeliness of people to use it. Newmarket’s a strong growth area: both commercially and residentially, so I certainly hope that the railway station helps increase patronage over the next few years once it’s complete.

The Boston Road/Khyber Pass Road project is essentially finishing off one of the last two spots where the Western Line is a single-track. ONTRACK left the trickiest little bits to last, as two overhead road-bridges need to be reconstructed as part of this fairly small project. Importantly, the project also includes the slight relocation of the Boston Road station, out from underneath the motorway and closer to the hospital. Hopefully that also helps grow patronage to what could be a pretty busy station in the future.

The Avondale project is just down the road from where I work, so it should be pretty easy for me to take a number of photos throughout the next few weeks showing how progress is going. The lowering of the track through Avondale appears to be an important first step in the electrification project (as the track needs to be lower so the wires can fit underneath Blockhouse Bay Road. It’s also a step towards finally relocating Avondale’s train station to a spot that is actually sensical. The current station is located quite near the town centre, but involves a stupidly long round-about walk in order to get there from the station. The new station will be located properly, and Avondale has the potential to become a pretty busy station in the future (especially if Auckland City Council has some guts for once and lets intensification take place there).

At New Lynn, work on the trench that will take the train line underneath the roads, and allow for double-tracking, seems like it will continue. I had lunch at New Lynn today and the whole railway area has changed vastly in the past few months. Apparently it’ll be another year before they really start digging out the trench, as at the moment all the piles are being driven to form the edges of it, but this is one project that will be very interesting to watch evolve. Anything will be better than the current Clark Street roundabout, so I’m curious how this temporary roundabout will work.

And finally, the Quay Park works are interseting, mainly because I haven’t really heard much about this project. I assume it’s largely signal and points upgrades that will eventually help both of the tracks that lead into Britomart to become bi-directional (therefore increasing the capacity of the tunnel and Britomart station). Of course the only real solutions to improving the capacity of this obvious bottleneck in the network is to 4-track the tunnel, or even more ideally build the CBD loop. But both are massive projects that will take a long time to be implemented (although planning for them should continue as quickly as possible) so hopefully the Quay Park work will help ease pressure in the meanwhile.

So, overall it will be interesting to see what happens in the next while. 2009 looks like it’ll be another pretty busy year for rail developments in Auckland.

The Damn 224

I had another annoying experience with the 224 bus route today. I had a meeting at 10.30am in town, but needed to head to work in Avondale first to ensure that I was able to get myself Coldplay tickets. Mission accomplished, at a rather expensive rate, I then worked out my bus options to get into the city.

In the recent past I have tried to avoid the 224 route buses. The bus starts all the way out in Henderson for some absolutely unknown reason, which means that by the time it winds its way to Avondale it’s just about always 15 minutes late. Generally the only times I find myself catching it is when I’m actually waiting for the NEXT bus and find the 224 arriving a couple of minutes before it. So, I worked out the timetabling for the bus and looked to avoid it by instead catching the 9.40am 211 bus. The 211 route is far more sensible, and always runs on time pretty much. However, frustratingly today it ran a bit too well, and I must have missed it – even though I did get to the bus stop a couple of minutes before it was due. Of course, I didn’t realise this error until about 10 minutes later – always hoping that it was just around the corner. This meant that my next bus – at 9.55am – would be the 224.

And I just knew it would be late. As I said before, this bus never shows up on time and it consistently 15 minutes late. It’s pretty unbelievable that such a situation can occur, that a bus route is just accepted as OK when it ends up being 15 minutes late each and every time it operates. The main purpose of the inter-peak New North Road services is to provide a 15 minute frequency along New North Road, put together by 211 & 212 buses from the Rosebank peninsula, and 224 buses from New Lynn, and stupidly, Henderson. During the middle of the day the buses generally alternative, a 211 or 212 and then a 224. The problem is that the 224 buses take so long to complete their Henderson to New Lynn and then to Avondale section, that we actually end up with the 224s always being 15 minutes late, so therefore they actually come at the same time as the 211 or 212 route bus. So what should be a 15 minute frequency service effectively becomes a 30 minute frequency service, but stupidly with twice the number of buses that you actually need for that (pathetically low to be honest) level of service.

OK, well that’s my rant. I eventually got on the next 212 bus at 10.10am, so who knows when the 224 did actually show up. I was late for my meeting (although not too badly). Ugh, stupid stupid buses.

 Time to annoy ARTA about it I think. They’re going to start to get to know me pretty well.

The Last Oil Shock

I am reading a rather interesting book at the moment: The Last Oil Shock. Last year I read another book about impending peak oil, The End of Oil, and found it really interesting – although at the same time somewhat annoying as it was published in 2003. Clearly, so much has happened with oil prices, oil security and peak oil theory since then that this was like reading a book about Adolf Hitler that was published in 1939. That’s no disrespect to “The End of Oil” at all, as it’s a damn interesting book and really taught me a lot about why peak oil will happen, what we can possibly do about it and how this all tied in with climate change issues as well. So I was pretty happy to find another book about a fairly similar subject, but one that was published as recently as 2007. While it still misses the insane fluctuations of oil prices since then, the trends were definitely emerging enough by the time this book was published to provide more insight into the whole issue of peak oil.

I’m only just over halfway through “The Last Oil Shock” so far, so I cannot really comment on the book as a whole quite yet. However, what I have read so far is, indeed, incredibly interesting. It avoids being repetitive, even though being repetitive about peak oil is very easy to do. The first chapter sets out in no uncertain terms (and with very difficult to argue logic) that the Iraq War was most definitely about oil. Although most of us suspected that to be the case anyway, it’s pretty scary when all the dots are joined together. Subsequent chapters have looked at how the theory of peak oil came about, and how it has been proved over and over again, through a huge variety of different models. Interestingly, the guy who originally came up with the idea of peak oil, M. King Hubbert, was clever enough to prove that US oil production would peak around 1970 that he used three different methods to come up with the same figure. Indeed, 1970 was the year when oil production in the US peaked, and it’s been going backwards pretty much ever since.

I think the most interesting part of the book so far is what I’m reading at the moment, which relates to how inter-connected cheap oil is with the functioning of developed-world economies. Although less oil per GDP dollar is used these days than back in the 1970s, the more I read the more obvious it seems that a huge chunk of economic growth has occurred pretty much simply because we have got better and better at using more energy more efficiently. I guess that makes most sense when one looks at what around them makes their work more efficient: computers, machinery, better transportation technologies and so forth. All of it is dependent upon utilising energy, effectively making it possible for us to chip in less of the energy ourselves per unit of activity created. So in short, we’re enormously dependent upon energy – and crap loads of it. Throughout the last 100 odd years most of that energy has come from burning stuff such as oil (though also coal and natural gas, which will peak themselves, if later in the piece). Of course we don’t have to make energy out of oil, gas and coal. Renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and wave power clearly are the ultimate solution. Hydrogen is NOT a realistic option, until we figure out how to make it from something other than natural gas effectively and cheaply.

Nothing particularly new there I guess. But it is interesting to note that energy has been somewhat ignored as a major factor of economic growth by many economists around the world. Perhaps we don’t quite realise how utterly dependent we are on the supply of adundant, and cheap, energy? So the question sits there about what will happen once a major source of cheap and abundant energy runs out? I should be majorly worried. There’s a reasonable argument that exceptionally high oil prices were the catalyst for the “current economic crisis” that’s taking place around the world – as more money going to the sheikhs of the middle east meant less for everyone else, which coupled with all the other mistakes being made, ended up being a straw that broke the camels back (as the saying goes).

However, interestingly enough I’m not worried about it. Well, perhaps not as worried as I should be. First, to talk about the aspects of peak oil that are worrying. It is very worrying that so many of our fertilisers are dependent upon oil for their creation and transportation. Lowering food output, especially in the third world, is a recipe for disaster in the longer-term. The obsession with biofuels is also problematic, potentially taking land away from productive food output to be used for biofuel creation. The amount of grain that goes into one tank of petrol could, apparently, feed someone for a year. I know where I’d rather that amount of grain went, and it certainly isn’t into someone’s SUV. I’m also worried that it will become much more difficult to make important stuff, like plastics. However, as peak oil doesn’t necessarily say that oil will simply run out, but rather that after a certain point it will just get really expensive, I imagine that plastics will be around for a good long while yet, they’ll probably just be more expensive. The other main way that peak oil worries me is its effect on air travel. This is largely because I live in New Zealand, a heck of a long way away from most other people on the planet. Peak oil could be incredibly isolating for us, making NZ very inaccessible for tourists (a hugely important part of our economy) and also making it damn hard for me to visit other parts of the world. Biofuel doesn’t work in aeroplanes because it gets too cold, and I can’t exactly see how a solar or wind-powered plane is going to work. In the shorter-term, I can see our government having to subsidise air travel in the future to protect the tourist industry – though that certainly can’t last forever.

However, regarding most other aspects of peak oil, I say bring it on! While the advent of cheap oil over the past 100 odd years has enabled unprecedented economic growth, it has also enabled unprecedented environmental destruction and unprecedented horrible urban outcomes. In a car-obsessed country like New Zealand, I believe that impossibly high petrol prices is the only way we’ll ever be able to curb sprawl and create more sustainable cities. Once it becomes impossible to simply drive everywhere, our cities will have to become more compact, public transport will have to be improved and the blight of sprawl will have to be eliminated. Perhaps it is the blight of urban sprawl, and my annoyance at our automobile dependency that makes me almost look forward to the days of unaffordable petrol. If it happens too quickly though, we’ll definitely be stuffed, but if the increase happens over a period of 10-20 years as seems most likely, hopefully planners and policymakers out there will realise what is happening, and we’ll see a huge rethink about the way our cities operate. In some respects that was starting to happen, before the economic crisis hammered oil prices down.

I think the other main reason I find myself almost looking forward to peak oil, is that there’s a reasonable chance it will be the only way to actually stop climate change from REALLY destroying the planet. Of course there’s the huge worry that people will switch from using oil to using coal (which is more environmentally destructive, but probably has bigger reserves), but putting that aside peak oil is potentially a huge ally in the battle against climate change. Hopefully it happens first, to really force people to change their ways, as has seemed almost impossible by just telling them how bad climate change will be when it really kicks in. As I mentioned to my mum a few weeks back, the problem with the climate change issue is that nobody’s really suffered yet, and people just simply aren’t willing to give up anything because they don’t see the point. Effectively they don’t see that there’s a problem because they haven’t suffered yet. Peak oil could be that kick in the guts that forces people to change, with reducing the extent of climate change being a nice little side-effect.

So yeah, it’s an interesting book which hasn’t really changed my viewpoint on much, but has helped me understand the issue in far more detail. I may blog again once I’ve finished it.

Transport News

After a bit of a drought in transport news coming out of anywhere, it is almost something of a relief to see the Herald running a couple of articles today, on ticket-gates and the Manukau Harbour Crossing Project.

Regarding the ticket gates, surely they must be an inevitability. Auckland’s train system currently operates on a highly antiquated system of fare collectors wandering around the trains working out who got on where, who has paid and who hasn’t paid, who has over-ridden and so forth. Apparently trains are often so full that the fare collectors can’t even get around them. Then people end up with “free” rides, although of course those who choose to buy monthly passes get no such luxury. So therefore, of course having ticket barriers and being able to largely (I say largely because it’s surely going to be a long time before all stations are gated) do away with the current system, is a good idea.

I suppose that the main problem is that operating an effective “barrier” system is quite a lot more complex than you’d think. It means that people need to be able to buy their tickets from somewhere other than the train. While this may be easy enough at Britomart – where surely a few automatic ticket machines could be installed (and the current ticket booth actually staffed!) – it’s going to be damn difficult to make it possible for people to buy train tickets at other stations. I would guess that a minimum of one automated ticket machine at each station would be necessary, and considering the current state of many railway stations vandalism and so forth is going to be rather problematic I would think. Another issue, when one thinks about it, is where on earth will the gates go at Britomart? The only place I can think of with anywhere near enough room is all the way down at train level. There are other entrances to Britomart as well…. so you are going to need a pretty significant number of gates for the project to be worth it. Perhaps people will realise it might be a heck of a lot cheaper just to have more staff on board – although clearly that would be a shame as a gate system is pretty essential eventually if we want to drag our train system out of the 1950s.

Regarding the Manukau Harbour Crossing story, it is good to see the project progressing well. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I have various issues with this project, in that it’s pretty much designed to induce traffic and only provides a half-hearted attempt to help public transport in the form of bus lanes. It’s also interesting that seemingly half the bridge has been built, while at the same time Auckland City Council haven’t actually finalised how the part of the project through Onehunga Bay is going to work. There are a few “dreamers” out there hoping for trenches and the like, but to me it seems pretty unlikely there will be much change – considering a large chunk of the project is already being built!

Emailing ARTA

I have been fairly busy for the last couple of days, hence the lack of updates. There also hasn’t been particularly much news, although I have read through the somewhat interesting briefs to the incoming Minister of Transport from the Ministry and also NZTA. Interestingly there is a reasonable amount of reference to public transport, with the Ministry of Transport being particularly conscious of issues such as climate change and peak oil (although peak oil seems to have fallen off the radar with the most recent plummet of oil prices). I know it’s a bit more political that I usually blog about, but central government affects a LOT, so it’s good to get some idea of what the central agencies are up to.

Bringing things back to Auckland, I emailed ARTA about integrated ticketing the other day, mainly out of worry that we hadn’t heard anything about the issue for a bit too long. My email kept things fairly straightforward:

Hi there,

I have been reading about your Integrated Fares project, and specifically that the Smartcard Contractor is to be announced in the 4th quarter of this year. I am curious to know when this announcement will actually be made, as it will be the first clear step towards having integrated ticketing for Auckland’s public transport, a project that ARTA describes as being “…far from simple and has been the centre of substantial national and regional discussions for more than 10 years.”

I certainly hope that everything is still on track and that we won’t be waiting another 10 years for integrated ticketing to be implemented.

I have thought about how Auckland ‘s transport fare structure could be reorganised myself. You may find my thoughts interesting: http://transportblog.co.nz/2008/11/19/ticketing/

Kind Regards,

Joshua Arbury

I did, eventually, get a response. Well, I guess it could be called that:

Dear Joshua

Many thanks for your interest in ARTA’s Auckland Integrated Fares and Smartcard ticketing project and for the feedback that you have provided both in your email and on your website. ARTA seeks to deliver a world-class public transport system that makes Auckland an even better place to live, work and play. Integrated fares and ticketing will assist ARTA in delivering equitable and quality access to our public transport networks.

Auckland Regional Transport Authority

Gah! I mean what kind of rubbish response is that? They are thanking me for my interest? Integrated ticketing and fares will assist them in delivering a quality public transport network? Yeah no shit, a 5 year old would know that. They could have at least let me know when we might find out a bit more news on the issue, considering we’re getting very close to the end of the 4th quarter of 2008 (the time when we should know something definite about integrated ticketing).

So I sent back a (very polite in my opinion) reply:

Hi there,
Thank you for your reply to my email. However, you haven’t really addressed any of the questions that I was asking about. Maybe I should clarify:
1) Do you have any further information that it is possible to share about the progress of integrated ticketing? I have recently seen a few shops around Auckland being able to use “Snapper Cards”, a smart-card technology that is used on Wellington buses (although owned by Infratil). Is this perhaps what might end up being used in Auckland too? I guess it’s useful to have similar systems in Auckland and Wellington, although obviously you wouldn’t want NZ Bus using Snapper Cards but nobody else, as that would totally undermine the point of integrated ticketing.
2) Do you know if ARTA is likely to look at completely revamping the fare/stage/zone system? I assume you read my website post about the issues that I have with the current system and how a more simplified zoning system could encouraging greater use of public transport. Or are we likely to keep the current system where each route specifies its own stage boundaries?
3) On a somewhat related topic, I was curious when we might find out what type of electric trains the ARC/ARTA is likely to be purchasing. I assume that will need to be confirmed in the fairly near future right?

Thanks for your time,
Joshua

I do await with somewhat great interest to see what response I get this time. Perhaps they find me annoying?

Integrated Ticketing – PLEASE!

I had resisted getting a bus-card for my Urban Express trips from work to home, largely out of protest more than anything else. I already have a “GoRider” pass from NZ Bus, which I can use for trips from home to the city or from work to the city and back. In fact, probably 90% of the routes that I would ever end up catching a bus along are operated by NZ Bus (in one of its confusingly large number of colours). However, frustratingly the 008 route from my home directly to my work isn’t operated by NZ Bus, but rather by Urban Express. Urban Express is, in all honesty, a stupidly tiny bus company that doesn’t really achieve any purpose in life other than annoy me by not being NZ Bus. Actually perhaps that’s a little harsh, as the drivers always seem reasonably friendly.

In a half-decent city, the fact that the bus I catch between home and work is operated by a different company to the one that operates most other buses wouldn’t really matter. Any sensible, half-decent city would have a ticketing system that allowed by pass to be used on any of the bus companies, and also on the trains and ferries, should I choose to do so. However, of course this is not the case in Auckland. Along with the fact that our public transport is slow, unreliable and infrequent (geez it’s a wonder anyone bothers to use it when I put it that way), as I have mentioned before the lack of integrated ticketing is a serious problem and definitely contributes to Auckland’s enormous car-dependency.

So, in order to avoid the need to forever carry change around with me for the bus, Urban Express charged me $10 for the privilege of being issued a standard card-sized piece of plastic. Hilariously enough, the “Conditions of Use” on the back of the bus pass categorically stated both “This card may only be used by the original recipient and is not transferable” (so don’t even think about paying for two fares at once with it or lending it to your friend) and “This card remains the property of Urban Express”. So effectively I’ve just paid $10 but not actually bought myself a bus card. Helpfully, point 6 on the back of the card notes that “The payment made at the time of issue, (comma there?) is a Card Issue Fee, (another comma?) and is not refundable. So basically I have paid $10 not for the card itself, but only for issuing me the card? Which furthermore I’m not actually supposed to lend anyone, and it’s not refundable either. I guess fortunately the drivers don’t seem to have read the stupid conditions of use themselves (whoever does apart from me when I’m bored) as every single morning I catch a 008 bus there are two kids who both use the same card to pay for their fares. I think the lawyers at Urban Express need to take a chill-pill.

On the bright-side I get 20c off each trip, if I top up my card in 10 ride chunks. So it’ll (only????) take 50 trips for me to get my money back. I suppose that I’ll manage that eventually. Plus it will mean I don’t have to buy quite so many Cookie Times from the dairy to get cash out for my trip.

So, a lack of integrated ticketing in Auckland totally sucks. The question remains what is being done about it. Which means we get back to ARTA, who inevitably always seem to end up with the blame for everything that’s possibly wrong with Auckland’s public transport system. A search of their website for “Integrated Ticketing” turns up the aptly named Auckland Integrated Fares System (AIFS) Programme. This provides some information on where we’re at with implementing integrated ticketing in Auckland, but also clearly outlines the frustrating lack of progress that has happened over the past decade on this issue. The page clearly outlines what the problem is:

Currently, each public transport operator has their own multi-trip and concession tickets and smartcards, which can’t be used on another operator’s service.

There are some minor exceptions to this rule, with Discovery and Get About passes able to be used on all public transport operators. But generally these passes are so supremely expensive that only about 30 monthly Discovery Passes ever sell (or something along those lines). The next bit drives me insane though:

Developing an integrated ticketing solution for the Auckland region is far from simple and has been the centre of substantial national and regional discussions for more than 10 years.

More than 10 years???? MORE THAN TEN BLOODY YEARS!!!!!!! How the hell can you “discuss” integrated ticketing for more than ten years and get absolutely nowhere? This shows utter incompetence on behalf of everyone in my opinion, and simply putting this incompetence aside by stating that “developing an integrated ticketing solution for the Auckland region is far from simple….” is utter rubbish. OK, well to be fair I am being a tad harsh on ARTA. For a start ARTA has only been around for around four years now. Secondly, up until very recently (with the passing of the Public Transport Management Amendement Act, or something along those lines) councils could ‘discuss’ integrated ticketing as much as they liked with the various bus companies, but they had absolutely no power to ensure the companies actually went with it. Each company was stupidly selfish about their own ticketing systems (without realising that they should try to grow the pie rather than just trying to keep their piece of the tiny pie) and refused to co-operate. Fortunately, with the passing of the aforementioned legislation, over the next year or so every single public transport route operated will come under the direct control of ARTA, so they will be able to make sure integrated ticketing does actually happen. But still, more than 10 years? It really does make you bang your head against a wall in frustration.

Now it seems like ARTA wishes to accomplish everything with this Integrated Fares System Programme. It will implement a new (presumably integrated) fare system for Auckland (hopefully somewhat along the lines of what I’ve suggested in previous posts on this blog) and will also introduce a “smart-card” system that uses a simple “touch-on, touch-off” technology to speed up the boarding of buses in particular. Well as long as it is properly done, this is definitely good news all round. Smart-card systems are the way of the future, and I very much enjoyed using an Oyster Card when in London. Although the technology is considered “cutting edge” in some respects, Hong Kong has now been operating its “Octopus Card” for around a decade, so it has certainly been well tested. I just do wonder how “smart” these new card will be. Will I be able to top it up online? Will I be able to use the card to buy other stuff like people do everywhere in Hong Kong? How expensive will this all be, and will it be worth it?

In some ways I wish that ARTA would just focus on implementing an integrated system using the simplest technology available (paper?) first. The smart-card system should definitely still happen, but the shift to integrated ticketing has already taken so long that I wouldn’t want that aspect of it to be held up by the costs associated with a smart-card system (such as gate-barriers at large train stations). Fortunately, it seems like something along these lines is being planned by ARTA, as the project is to be implemented in stages:

  1. System procurement – the smartcard Contractor to be appointed in the 4th quarter of 2008 (still waiting for the announcement though?)
  2. ARTA fares policy implementation – using existing technologies and systems where possible – in the 3rd quarter of 2009. (An excellent first step to make.)
  3. Smartcard development and implementation – the core smartcard system in operation in the 3rd quarter of 2010 (Less than 2 years away, a lot of work to be done by then I would think).
  4. Smartcard system enhancement – enhancements to the system completed by the end of 2011 (well… hopefully before the World Cup).

Now as long as things are still progressing as planned I’m fairly happy with this timeline. I do worry, largely because it has taken so long for this project to get where it is (which is basically nowhere) that we will just see more and more delays.

Now, if ARTA were clever they’d send every household in Auckland a free smart-card when the system is implemented. Maybe I’ll ceremoniously burn all my existing bus cards when that day comes.

QTN

The Auckland Regional Transportation Authority (ARTA) have some interesting transportation policy documents on their website if you look hard enough. In particular, the Passenger Transport Network Plan details how our public transport system is likely to look in 2016 and beyond. The plan cleverly looks to develop a hierarchy of transport options, crucially linked by integrated ticketing, which will hopefully happen some time before the end of the world (although judging by how it has progressed so far I wouldn’t be too hopeful). But anyway, I’m not going to moan constantly about the lack of integrated ticketing, as I’ve already done that a million times before.

So looking at the positive side of our transportation future, ARTA has divided how public transport will operate into four categories. The fourth, Targeted Services, is not particularly relevant to most of us, as it focused on the (very necessary I might add) need to provide on-call services for those who are unable to utilise normal public transport. It also includes school buses, which hopefully will be used in greater numbers in the future, rather than parents driving their kiddies to school all the time. But anyway, leaving Targeted Services aside, we are left with three levels of public transport provision: The Rapid Transit Network, the Quality Transit Network and the Local Connector Network. Instead of having all our bus, train and ferry services competing against each other to provide one-size-fits-all long-haul services, the idea of a transport hierarchy is to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of our future public transport network. My focus for today’s post is not the Rapid Transit Network (RTN), which is the train system and the Northern Busway, or the Local Connector Network (LCN), which is probably feeder buses and so forth, but rather that important one that fits between the two – the Quality Transit Network (QTN). The QTN is defined by ARTA as follows:

Fast, high frequency, and high quality transit services operating between key centres and over major corridors, providing extensive transit priority. In conjunction with the RTN it will facilitate high speed reliable access around the region through the integration of radial and cross-town services

A helpful map is included showing proposed QTN routes. It’s not that obvious in the key, but the QTN routes are shown as the green lines in the map below:

QTN-plan

Each QTN is supposed to provide what ARTA describes as a ‘superior bus service’, whatever that actually means. Frequencies are meant to be high enough that a timetable is not needed (which to me means at worst 10 minute off-peak frequencies during the week and on Saturdays, 15 min on Sundays), the vehicles are meant to be ‘branded’, while the routes are designed to have ‘on-street running with extensive priority including bus lanes and signal priority in congested areas’. Unfortunately, page 18 of the Passenger Transport Network Plan defines frequencies high enough to not need a timetable as 10 minutes during peak hour, 20 minutes inter-peak and 30 minutes for evenings and weekends. Furthermore, there’s even a bracketed possibility that we might have 60 minute frequencies for new services and ferry services. Heck, I’m struggling to think of many bus routes that have services that BAD at the moment.

So anyway, assuming that those proposed service frequencies from ARTA are just a bad joke – and I’m possibly right in that assumption as the only ‘superior bus service’ that has been implemented so far is the successful Northern Express (which is technically an RTN, but whatever) has 10-15 minute frequencies at worst – even on a Sunday – where are the QTN services going to run, what will they be like, how will they be ‘superior’ to normal bus services? All damn good questions that I would dearly love to pose to ARTA. Anyhow, in the meanwhile here are my thoughts on what could work. I’ll focus on Central Auckland for now, as that’s the area I know best.

The above map shows seven or eight possible QTN routes, although it’s not particularly clear what happens around the Mt Wellington area. These routes are (I think) as follows:

  1. Great North Road. Follows the route of most West Auckland buses at the moment, but interestingly includes Great North Road to New Lynn and also the Northwest Motorway.
  2. Dominion Road. Possibly the most obvious QTN to implement in Auckland. Seems to end at Mt Albert Road.
  3. Mt Eden Road. Once again terminates at Mt Albert Road to the south.
  4. Manukau Road. The traditional link between the city and Onehunga.
  5. Mt Albert Road. The main cross-town route on the western part of the isthmus.
  6. Remuera Road. The main link to the eastern part of the isthmus.
  7. Great South Road. Interesting route as it seems to split off onto Ellerslie Panmure Highway (for east Auckland routes) but also continues further south (for south Auckland routes I presume).
  8. Mt Wellington Highway/Neilson Street/SE Highway. Routes that seem to be shown but it’s unclear how they’d work.

Now at the moment all of these routes are served by pretty frequent buses, except for Mt Albert Road and perhaps the variety of roads I’ve classified as “Route 8”. In particular, Great North Road and Great South Road have a very significant number of buses travelling along their inner-parts – although this is only really because there’s an enormous bunching of routes the end up fanning out throughout Waitakere and Manukau cities respectively.

I’m assuming that creating a QTN along these routes would involve simplifying the way in which bus services run – to form more of a spoke-and-hub type system. Each QTN would have an obvious ‘terminus’ at the non-CBD end of its route. Local Connector Network buses would operate from these termini, providing a wide variety of routes to service areas further out, but instead of continuing their run all the way into the city (as currently happens), passengers would transfer onto the QTN bus as the termini, and their trip would continue on this ‘superior bus service’ all the way into the city. Unlike the Local Connector Network buses, QTNs would run at higher speeds due to bus lanes and other priority measures. I’m assuming that there would be a mix of express and all-stops QTN buses, and that they would have higher than normal capacities, possibly through using modern-equivalents of the good old bendy bus.

Of course there are QTNs that operate outside the isthmus, so this would reduce the number of people needing to transfer from an LCN to a QTN. However, I still think that in order for people to not be turned off using the system by the need to transfer, high frequencies are pretty essential. If people have to wait 10 minutes for their LCN bus, then put up with 15 minutes of a windy route through the suburbs to the QTN station, they’re just not going to stand for another 10 minute wait before their QTN bus shows up. Hence further proof that the frequencies suggested by ARTA are total nonsense.

So, amid all this confusion there is an obvious conclusion to be made. The hierarchical bus network idea is a good one no doubt. The current system really doesn’t work, as the routes are too long, too indirect, too unreliable and too slow. The QTN is a critical part of fixing these problems, however it certainly seems as though a lot more thought needs to be put into ensuring that the QTN does, in fact, produce a ‘superior bus service’ as it should. If I were ARTA I would model the QTN system on Vancouver’s B-Line services, which provide a high-capacity and extremely frequent service along a few of Vancouver’s busiest routes. As I mentioned above, if users of QTN services are truly supposed to not need a timetable, then it needs to be made sure that frequencies are kept very high 24/7, not just during peak hours. Furthermore, I really like the idea of ‘branding’ a QTN route. Perhaps reserve the 100, 200, 300 etc. bus route numbers for QTN routes solely, have specific rolling stock for each of the routes (like is done for the Northern Express) and link the rolling stock clearly to the way the route is branded (for example matching the colour the buses are painted with the colour the bus shelters are painted).

In the end it must be remembered that most QTN routes are already fairly well-served by public transport – at least on the Auckland isthmus. There must be an advantage to users of the change, especially if it comes through the (potentially slight) disadvantage of requiring more people to transfer buses. Good branding and high-quality rolling stock will help, but in the end I am sure the success of failure of the QTN idea will come down to two issues: how frequent the buses are and how fast they will be able to go. I think it goes without saying that high-frequencies and bus lanes along most (ideally all) the QTN routes are essential for the plan to be successful.