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Liveable Streets

I have been doing a fair bit of observation around Central Auckland (in particular) over the last few weeks, trying to work out what particularly works and what particularly doesn’t work. The first outcome of this observation was my cry for Queen Street bus lanes in a post a week and a half ago. Experiences since that time, including a near 10 minute crawl on a bus to get about 50m up Queen Street and through the intersection with Victoria Street has only strengthened my belief that bus lanes are an utter necessity for Queen Street to truly become a “heart of the city”.

My other observations, backed up with a fair amount of reading in recent days, has been a general look a the liveability of Auckland’s roads and streets – not just within the CBD (although obviously probably most applicable there), but also throughout the rest of the city. Obviously, roads and streets aren’t just networks for traffic to pass through, they are also the public realm setting within which buildings are located. Yet, particularly in Auckland there’s absolutely no guessing who’s boss out there: the private car without a doubt. A trip out to Pakuranga today (admittedly by car, public transport in that part of the city is near non-existent) confirmed the obvious “priority” given to private automobiles wherever possible in Auckland – so clearly exemplified by Pakuranga Road’s 6 or so lanes of general traffic and its token 20m long bus lane (to help with merging after an intersection I assume).

But anyway, I kind of digress. As much as I hate the super-highways of Manukau City, they’re not really the point of this blog post. I can’t really hope for them to every be truly “liveable streets”, unless something radical like a tram-line was constructed down the middle of them. No, if we’re ever going to find liveable streets in Auckland, they’ll probably pop up in the older and more central parts of the city: the CBD and its surrounding inner-suburbs.

So what is a “liveable street”? Livablestreets.com provides some sort of a definition:

A livable street is difficult to define; they serve as the fabric that holds together extraordinary urban spaces and ultimately build desirable communities. They strike a balance between the vehicles that travel through them and the community that lives there, works there, and plays there. They are functional corridors of public realm where people live, shop, interact, travel, and resolve their daily needs. Livable streets establish great neighborhoods and the possibility for true community building. Goods and services are readily accessible while adequate open space is provided for the local community. Unlike other streets that primarily serve the needs of traffic, they cater to the needs of everyone using them.

I think in some ways it’s simpler than that. A liveable street is simply one where the car is no longer king. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the car doesn’t exist (although personally I always think the best street is a pedestrianised one, I guess that’s a hangover from loving Venice so much), but rather that the car really does share the street-space with the pedestrian, the cyclist and the public transport user on a level-pegging, or possibly even with the pedestrian having ascendency.

If I think around Auckland there are extraordinarily few examples where this happens. Perhaps on High Street, where the road has been narrowed enough and has enough humps and other impediments for cars to slow them down to almost walking pace. Yet once again High Street feels like a bit of a half-arsed job in that it could have been fully pedestrianised, or it could have become more of a true shared space or woonerf, where pedestrians and cars are mixed together in ways that cleverly define the roadspace as clearly pedestrian. Kerbs distinguishing the footpath from the road could have been removed on High Street, along with the on-street parking that is surely completely unnecessary from a shoppers’ perspective (once again, how many people drive to the city and park on the street to shop, surely a fairly insignificant number compared with other users). If this had been done, then High Street could quite clearly become a shining example of a liveable street within Auckland. It’s still possibly our best attempt, which is a particularly sad indictment on the rest of us – especially compared to the direction that Paris seems to be heading.

Woonerfs (called Home Zones in the UK) are a Dutch concept that seems to run contrary to every possible thing a traffic engineer has ever been taught about road safety and efficiency. Yet, they have been shown to work enormously effectively. As “Liveable Streets” notes: “Because home zones provide no clear division between pedestrian space and auto space, vehicles must travel with great caution.” This great caution leads to slower speeds, more courteous driving and a far superior urban experience. In other cases, they have been called “Naked Streets”, generally because there are little or no road signs, little or no road markings and little or no distinction between the pedestrian zone and the road zone. A particularly cool “Naked Street” is being constructed at the moment on Exhibition Road in South Kensington London: one of the most famous roads in London for its many museums (Natural History, Science and Victoria & Albert). A fascinating image of how it will look is included below:

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The cars are clearly mingling with pedestrians, there is no distinction between what is a footpath and what is the road – which combined with cobblestone paving makes it appear as though the whole place is a kind of footpath. I hope that Auckland’s city planners take note of this project as it unfolds, and see how it could be applied to Auckland in the future.

So, bringing this all back to Auckland, what could be done here to make our streets significantly more liveable? If I am to focus on Auckland’s CBD for now, it’s clear that significant and fairly straightforward steps could be taken to improve the pedestrian experience for those walking around the central city. Clearly, for a start it is unrealistic to expect Queen Street to become a woonerf/home-zone/naked street any time particularly soon. In my opinion this is largely because I think it has a significant public transportation role to fulfill in the next decade or so. As I’ve mentioned previously, the construction of bus lanes is essential for this purpose to be achieved. For other main streets in the city, like Wellesley, Victoria, Customs, Nelson, Hobson and Fanshawe streets I think improvements will need to be made in a way that is mindful of their important roles in shifting traffic in, out and around the city. Bus lanes along the part of Victoria Street serviced by the Link bus would also be a good idea, but once again that’s a fairly separate issue. However, in the longer-term I think there must be an ultimate aspiration for pedestrianising Queen Street. When the various responsible agencies for Auckland’s CBD rail loop eventually get their act together and build it (maybe by 2025 if we’re lucky) there is hope that most people using public transport to get around the city will use the train, or perhaps a tram-line that could be laid along an otherwise pedestrianised Queen Street.

In any case, leaving aside Queen Street and the other main streets of Auckland’s CBD for now, there are actually a huge number of small, narrow little streets that would be perfect for becoming more liveable, shared spaces. At a glance Elliott, High, Lorne, O’Connell, Wyndham, Durham, Federal, Fort, Shortland and many other streets could easily be classified as “shared spaces”. These streets could then have a particularly low (20 kph perhaps) speed limit imposed upon them, progressively have their kerbing removed and be paved rather than asphalted to make it totally obvious to drivers that they are clearly within a pedestrian zone now. Considering that council plans to revamp a decent number of inner-city streets over the next decade or so (assuming that the current council doesn’t can the lot, as it seems to want to), taking those upgrades one step further to actually create high-quality liveable streets where clearly the car is no longer king, would surely help lift Auckland beyond the kind of ‘overgrown town’ feeling one gets of it at the moment. But I fear the short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness of council is difficult to over-estimate these days and I can’t really expect anything half-decent from them. A pity.

Waterview Connection now too Expensive?

Well there has been a very interesting/horrifying (depending on your point of view) report that has come out today on the Waterview Connection, which points towards the cost of the tunnels being $2.77 billion rather than the $1.89 billion estimated a year or so back when the tunnel was first decided upon as the best option. As the reports says:

Funding the project through the Crown account would create a liability on the Crown balance sheet. The cost of the Waterview Connection would increase the Crown’s gross debt by a little less than one percent of GDP. Given that gross debt is already forecast to exceed the Government’s target of 20 percent of GDP, Ministers need to consider whether this project is affordable, given its relatively modest net economic benefits if built now

Now I’m feeling quite mixed about this. For a start, I’m fairly mixed on the Waterview Connection project altogether as I’m against building more motorways in Auckland, I’m against a roading project eating up THAT much transport funding; yet at the same time if the project is to be built I absolutely want it to be a tunnel and not a surface motorway. Also the idea of a 5km long tunnel in Auckland is pretty cool from a pure engineering feat kind of perspective. It’s definitely something I would have found hugely exciting a few years ago.

The Waterview Connection is considered by a lot of people to be a pretty critical link in Auckland’s motorway network. Yes, it is the last unbuilt part of the “Western Ring Route”, which is supposed to be a viable alternative to State Highway 1 and therefore ease congestion through the central part of the motorway system significantly once it’s complete. I’m a little dubious about the expected traffic benefits, as traffic engineers have a really nasty habit of ignoring “induced demand” and just expect that if 100,000 cars a day are removed from the Central Motorway Junction by the Waterview Connection, that roadspace will remain free and clear and congestion on Auckland’s motorways will be a thing of the past. In my view that’s total rubbish. For a start, a four-lane tunnel would struggle to cope with 100,000 cars a day: Victoria Park’s viaduct has about 90,000 a day and is one of Auckland’s worst motorway bottlenecks. Furthermore, the Waterview Connection is actually a heck of a long way away from State Highway 1 and I imagine that a lot of the trips it would attract are made by people who currently use parts of the Northwest motorway or local roads to join in with Hillsborough Road and State Highway 20. In summary, I reckon the motorway’s time-saving and congestion-easing benefits have probably been hugely over-stated. And when one considers that a cost-benefit ratio of 1.15 is totally dependent on time-saving and congestion-easing it’s pretty easy to see how it could turn into a pointless project.

It is true that I am not a traffic engineer and I might be wrong in the above analysis. That’s why I have been looking forward to reading the traffic report for this project for a very long time. I’ll get hold of it…. one day.

So, if a $2.77 billion price-tag does make the project a non-starter, which seems very likely from what the transport minister is saying, where to from here? Obviously there are two options: either forget about the project altogther or find a way to build it cheaper. The first I’m OK with, as even a small proportion of those funds (whether it’s $1.89 billion or $2.77 billion) invested in Auckland’s public transport system could have a much greater benefit than building a 5km stretch of road, in my opinion.  The CBD rail loop has been (perhaps conservatively) costed at around $1 billion. The long-term benefits of this project, in nudging our rail system significantly along the path to being world-class, would surely be greater than a shortish stretch of new motorway. You could also have enough spare change left over to build a railway line to the airport. So I’m fine with the project being indefinitely delayed or cancelled. With the effects of peak oil just around the corner if the project is pushed back ten years or so it’ll be a complete non-starter.

What I am truly worried about is if the government starts looking at options for a surface route, which I am sure they will be doing. This is despite the fact that surface-route options have been analysed over and over again throughout the past 5-10 years and always found to have unacceptable effects on the environment and the local community. One of the main justifications for the tunnel proposed was that compared to a surface level road the cost difference wasn’t actually that great, largely because a significant amount of property acquisition could be avoided. Furthermore, along a potential surface route there are some enormous questions to be answered: how to get around the Auckland urban area’s largest waterfall? How to not completely destroy Waterview? How to not destroy Oakley Creek? How to compensate for an enormous loss of public open space? How to work within the rail designation where it exists to make sure a future Avondale-Southdown rail route is not compromised? And how to actually successfully designate the area northwest of New North Road that has never been ‘set aside’ for a motorway project.  The last time NZTA tried to designate land in Auckland City, for the Manukau Harbour Crossing Project, they got criticised hugely by the Onehunga community and eventually withdrew their notice of requirement and agreed to abandon upgrading the Onehunga interchange.

I was already thinking about making a submission against the Waterview Connection – on the grounds of it not being justified and also because of worries about air pollution from the ventilation towers. If a surface route is proposed I’ll be rather widening my opposition I think.

No matter what happens, we’ve just added at least another couple of years to the timeline of the Waterview Connection being completed. All the consenting documentation for the tunnel had been completed just before Christmas (after close to two years of work on the design of the tunnels) so if all that work is now pointless it’s going to lead to a huge delay in this project happening. Which, as I said before, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Avondale Rail Update

It’s now a couple of weeks since the trains started going again on the Western Line, and about three weeks since I posted some photos of the works that went on in the Avondale area during the Christmas and New Year break. So I thought it was about time I headed out again for a quick wander around to see how things have sorted themselves out.

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As shown in the photo above, the new Avondale train station is open and operational at the moment. The platforms certainly have quite a “permanent” look about them, although this is apparently because there are pretty high standards that rail platforms have to be built to. So one can’t really cut too many corners when building a temporary station in this regards. The rest of the station is pretty basic, what you’d expect for something that’s only going to be there for a year at the longest. I suppose that the location of the station is not really worse than where it used to be – although it certainly isn’t better. We’ll have to wait for the permanent station to be built at Crayford Street before Avondale really starts to benefit from actually having a train station that is accessible from the town centre.

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This photo looks west from the station to underneath the Blockhouse Bay Road bridge. The line has been dropped down quite significantly from its previous height, although sadly I don’t have any old photos to compare it to. One of the main reasons for this lowering of the track is so electric wires are able to fit under the bridge. So in some ways this project was a first step towards electrification of Auckland’s network – an exciting project that hopefully we’ll see much more of as the year passes.

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This photo shows the Blockhouse Bay Road bridge. The traffic lights are new, and designed to assist with pedestrian safety for people crossing the bridge and wandering down to the train station. Blockhouse Bay Road is dangerous as hell around here so I’m hoping the lights stick around for a while.

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This photo looks west from the Blockhouse Bay Road bridge, and gives a good indication of the new rail alignment. Some very serious earthworks went on here over a pretty short period of time. It’s interesting that concrete rail sleepers seem to be preferred these days.

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This photo looks in a southwest direction from Rosebank Road. The new station is to be located just around the corner. Hopefully the area in the foreground becomes a park and ride facility once construction is complete. Or a bus/train transport interchange as a decent number of buses drive past this spot. Certainly plenty of potential for a good transport integrated development, no matter what form it takes.

So overall I’m pretty impressed by what’s been achieved at Avondale over the past month. It will be interesting to see how construction of the actual permanent Avondale station goes, and whether we end up with something a little more interesting than the typical basic shelter. I suppose that I take a somewhat particular interest in Avondale, as I have worked around there for the past three years and I also used the area as the focus case study for my thesis back in 2005. It is an area with plenty of potential to become a great rail-based high-density growth node, and although significant redevelopment is unlikely in the near future, longer-term Avondale has huge potential to be a very interesting place. The new train station will be in the heart of that change, and finally be located in a spot that’s connected to the local community and of some use to them.

ALPURT B2

I had a great weekend up north at Mangawhai Heads. There was of course the huge advantage that the weather was utterly fantastic, so we were able to spend a fairly decent chunk of the time on the beach. I hadn’t been to Mangawhai Heads for quite a few months – fairly typical for me in many ways actually – but it was good to get there and have a fun weekend.

On the way back we got to check out the new Orewa to Puhoi motorway, officially known as ALPURT B2 or the Northern Gateway. It’s a fairly spectacular piece of motorway that has been under construction for the past few years and is actually New Zealand’s most expensive ever roading project, largely due to the extremely hilly terrain that it had to go through and also the high environmental standards that were used – a nice change from many motorway projects in the past.

Leila managed to take some good photos:

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This photo is taken out looking back towards the southern portals of the Johnston’s Hill tunnel. The northbound carriageway cuts down to one lane here for safety reasons, although importantly the tunnel is wide enough for two lanes of traffic eventually, once the motorway is extended further north (assuming that happens).

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This photo is of the “Chin Hill” cut. The amount of earthworks to create this cut was apparently enormous.

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This photo shows one of the eco-viaducts that were a big part of the project. I was a little disappointed not to be able to get more of a sense of the viaducts’ scale, but I guess that’s only really possible if you’re not on them.

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This photo looks towards “Pukeko Bridge”, which is amazingly high above the motorway. You can’t quite get a sense of it’s great colour as the light was starting to fade by the time we took the photos.

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These are the electronic toll ‘gates’. No stopping here – just cameras taking photos of your number plate, which you then have three days to pay the $2 toll.

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This is the new Orewa interchange. Before last Sunday someone heading north had to exit here and trawl their way through the back-streets of Orewa. I certainly won’t miss the horrible orange-roofed houses at Orewa!!!

Queen Street Bus Lanes

It took me a little while to notice, but there has been a significant if subtle change to the way Queen Street – Auckland’s main street - functions for the last few weeks. It all comes down to traffic light phasing actually, with the phasing of the lights at the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street (and also on the corner of Queen Street and Wellesley Street I think) being adjusted to favour the pedestrians more and the cars less. Previously, there was the typical cycle – in the case of the Queen Street/Victoria Street intersection it would go as follows:

  1.  Turning traffic from Victoria Street into Queen Street (both ways)
  2. Straight through traffic from Victoria Street passing across Queen Street (both ways)
  3. Northbound (downhill) traffic from Queen Street, also including a right-turn arrow
  4. Southbound (uphill) traffic from Queen Street, also including a right-turn arrow
  5. Pedestrians

In itself, this phasing was a change from how things used to be before the Queen Street upgrade took place in the last few years. The pedestrian phase included a funky looking walking green man, and a count down timer once a person should only be finishing their crossing of the intersection. The last aspect I think was particularly directed towards young Asian women who for some reason have a particular tendency to wander across that particular intersection at the last possible minute.

This phasing was pretty typical of traffic lights around Auckland, although the “Barnes Dance” situation where pedestrian cross all together (and can therefore cross diagonally) is fairly unusual. However, for the Queen Street and Victoria Street intersection this Barnes Dance is particularly important, as I’ve heard it is one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the Southern Hemisphere. But anyway, in the last couple of weeks the phasing has been different. Originally I thought it was a malfunction on behalf of the traffic lights, which has happened before (particularly at the Wellesley Street intersection) where for some reason a phase keeps on getting missed – damn frustrating if you’re kept waiting forever. However, after a bit more careful observation this isn’t a malfunction, and is a deliberate change. Effectively, this is what happens now:

  1. Right turn for Victoria Street traffic into Queen Street (both ways)
  2. Straight ahead traffic from Victoria Street across Queen Street (both ways)
  3. Pedestrian phase (Barnes Dance)
  4. Northbound Queen Street traffic (straight ahead and right-turning)
  5. Southbound Queen Street traffic (straigh ahead and right-turning)
  6. Pedestrian phase (Barnes Dance)

Yes, I know it’s a little nerdy for me to notice all this, but I do use this intersection a fair amount and I am the kind of person to note such happenings. Now, the obvious change is that an extra pedestrian phase has been squeezed in between the Victoria Street traffic and the Queen Street traffic. First things first, this is great. Queen Street is primarily a pedestrian-oriented area (or at least should be) so it’s absolutely fantastic that council has taken one further step towards prioritising pedestrians ahead of cars. It’s a pity that more significant efforts like considering the full pedestrianising of Queen Street or narrowing it down to one lane of traffic each way wasn’t fully considered in the upgrade of a few years back, but I totally support any step taken to make life easier for pedestrians and this certainly does, but halving the length of time that one has to wait to cross this very busy intersection. However, more than that it is a good symbolic move by council that clearly says “the pedestrian has priority here, yes sit in your car and watch them all crossing the road…. again!”

However, with the extra 45 seconds or however long that pedestrian phase is, clearly the effects on Queen Street’s traffic have been significant. Today in particular it seemed semi gridlocked for almost the whole day for traffic heading up Queen Street approaching this intersection. Now I don’t have a problem with that in one sense. As I mentioned before, all efforts should be made to present Queen Street as a place where you should avoid taking your car – it is Auckland’s “main street” and a lot of money has been spent on creating a nice pedestrian environment for people wandering up and down it. It is a very vibrant street, with thousands walking along the footpaths at most hours of the day, but particularly around lunch time. A few years back I did some pedestrian counts for McDonald’s and we were hitting close to 5000 people wandering past certain locations between 12pm and 2pm every weekday. Outside Vulcan Lane on a Friday I think the final total was close to 7000. So I’m not concerned about car traffic being held up by particularly slow traffic traffic light phasing – if you take your car into town and think you can drive it along Queen Street then I reckon you deserve to get stuck in a traffic jam and for it to take you 20 minutes to drive its length. Perhaps next time you’ll think twice about it and catch a bus into town.

No, my concern is how this effects the many buses that make their way up and down Queen Street throughout the day, particularly in the evening peak when a trip up Queen Street on a bus can take about as long as the rest of the trip from the top of Queen Street all the way to Point Chevalier (something Leila experienced on many occasions). Due to the lack of a city rail-loop, a number of routes that utilise Queen Street and the existence of 50c bus trips within the bounds of the CBD, the buses that head up Queen Street are very popular. In fact, the few times I have caught a bus up Queen Street recently (usually getting up to Karangahape Road to have an awesome Kebab at the Turkish Cafe) the buses have been busier than any bus I have ever seen travelling along my usual routes (New North Road and Sandringham Road). The congestion that these buses have to deal with on Queen Street inevitably leads to longer trip times, less reliability and general all-round frustration. I can speak from experience that this has got significantly worse in the last few weeks since the signalling changes were undertaken.

The solution is pretty simple though: bus lanes for Queen Street. There are a number of streets in the CBD that now have bus lanes: Fanshawe Street, Albert Street and Symonds Street in the near future. In many cases these bus lanes operate at all times or at least for extended hours compared to the suburban ones. This enables a significantly increased number of buses to travel along these routes as they are not held up by the general congestion that other cars cause. Having caught many buses down Albert Street during the evening peak I can say that the prior situation was very dire, with the buses often taking 10-15 minutes to travel from Victoria Street down to the Waterfront. One could walk that distance in half that time I imagine. Whilst I haven’t caught many Albert Street buses of late, I imagine that the bus lanes have fixed that problem significantly. Bus lanes on Queen Street would also have an excellent precedent in the form of Lambton Quay: Wellington’s main street. Lambton Quay is definitely the closest approximate to Queen Street you can get anywhere in New Zealand and there are bus lanes along almost its complete length. Just about every bus servicing Wellington’s CBD runs along Lambton Quay without any congestiong problems that I noted. In fact, even the general traffic lanes were pretty quiet as motorists clearly reliased it was not their domain, and stuck to the wider one-way streets located further towards the waterfront.

Council did in fact investigate the option of bus lanes a while back, but abandoned that proposal because even though most people they consulted thought it was a great idea, shop-owners couldn’t get their heads around the idea that someone might actually buy stuff even though they didn’t drive there! The whole opposing argument to bus lanes on Queen Street was pretty laughable really, and in actual fact was only a disguise to opposing the removal of parking spaces from the side of Queen Street. According to Mr Spencer in the above linked article, each P15 free parking space had a significant economic benefit to the street, which had (somehow) been calcuated at around $500,000 a year per space. Now while I still think it’s dumb to really think that people drive into Queen Street to do their shopping in 15 minutes before driving home again, I can somewhat see a logic in that removing parking space might actually have an effect on businesses. However, that argument is long gone as most of the free P15 parking spaces were actually removed from Queen Street to widen the footpath. Most of the remaning spaces are loading zones rather than parking spaces, but for most of the street’s length (between Customs Street and Mayoral Drive in particular) there are simply the four lanes of traffic and then the footpath.

I also don’t get how having bus lanes would adversely affect business activity. The lanes are not going to take up parking spaces, they would take up a lane of general traffic in each direction. So there is no sense in the previous argument made my Mr Spencer. Furthermore, the argument that “far more people drive than catch the bus” is probably moot point. Perhaps council did over-estimate the number of people riding the bus along Queen Street during the course of a day – particularly when one considers that buses don’t actually operate 24/7. However, it is clear to me that the average passenger load is far more than seven people per bus, unless of course you’re counting right at the bottom of Queen Street when everyone has either already got off the bus, or the bus is only just starting its route and has yet to pick people up along Queen Street.

So all in all, with the recent changes to the signals at two of the major intersections along Queen Street and the irrelevance of the “parking space” argument, I think it’s high-time that Auckland City Council looks again at installing the bus lanes along this critical public transport route. I recognise that this is not a time that they want to be embarking on huge projects, but I can’t see how implementing bus lanes would be a huge project. You just need to paint some of the road, put up a few bus lane signs, perhaps install a ‘bus priority’ signal at all the traffic lights and you’re done. No costly earthworks, no massive disruptions to the street itself. And once you’re done with it, the buses will flow easily up and down Queen Street in a similar manner to how it works on Lambton Quay in Wellington. Even more people will be able to easily access the CBD, bringing in more shopper for those complaining businesses. For those who insist on driving their cars along this street, well they can continue to suffer in the traffic jams that will inevitably occur. And all I can say is shame on them for being stupid and choosing that street to drive along. It’s not like there are no other options. Perhaps in their gridlock they might even be held up long enough to pop out of their cars and into the nearby stores – now that would make the business owners happy!

Re-Opening the Rail System

As a few of my recent posts have shown, a significant amount of work has gone on throughout Auckland’s railway system over the last few weeks. Yesterday the Southern and Western Lines reopened for the first time since Christmas, with trains operating once again throughout the whole network.

It is quite impressive to see what OnTrack have achieved throughout that time. The Avondale work I have covered in a previous post, although I will at some point head back there to take some more photos of the finished product (well, the finished product at this point, as the final train station is probably going to be slowly constructed over the next year). However, there was also a huge amount of work around Newmarket and also between Newmarket and the Boston Road station. OnTrack have fantastically kept a great record of the works they’ve been doing on their website. A few pictures from that site are included below:

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This photo appears as though it’s taken from the Broadway bridge over the rail line, looking east. It’s interesting that the entire track base has been concreted in this area – I guess there must be some instability in the ground around here. I still haven’t figured out exactly how the train movements will work through Newmarket when it’s complete (the under-construction station is over to the right side of the picture), but I think the two tracks clearly in picture are mainly to be used over the next year or so while the rest of the station area is constructed.

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This is a particularly interesting photo as we don’t often get to see ‘close up’ how the tracks are constructed and tested. Perhaps the machine above is ‘bolting’ the tracks to the sleepers between them or checking that they have a consistent width. I’d be curious to know.

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I am pretty sure this photo looks back towards the same bridge that the first photo was taken from. Pretty amazing to think that this crazy work site is now a completely functional rail line again.

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This is another interesting photo of the Newmarket area. I’m not sure exactly where it would have been taken from, but I think it looks south towards where the station is being constructed.

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This photo shows a part of the recently double-tracked line between Newmarket and Boston Road. Previously the double-track line finished about where the photo is being taken from, but now it extends further towards Boston Road. I need to get to this area and have a look at it myself to see exactly what progress has been made – perhaps I will be able to get out there myself in the next couple of weeks.

I am particularly looking forward to Newmarket station being opened. Another year….

Life

Amid the reasonable number of transportation oriented posts that I come up with, I guess it’s important for myself as much as anyone else to write some sort of record about what’s actually going on in my life at the moment. I suppose that it hasn’t been particularly interesting or noteworth of late, but still worthy to mention.

It’s now about a week and a half since I’ve been back at work – not too far short of the length that I was on holiday for. Of course it’s always slightly depressing to head back to work after the Christmast-New Year’s holidays, knowing that the next break is most probably a significant while away. However, I’ve managed to keep reasonably busy over the last week and a bit, which has kept things fairly interesting. Life has settled back into a bit of a pattern that actually feels nice in some respects – although I definitely miss the sleep-ins that I enjoyed over the holidays. I had a fairly quiet weekend when I think about it, although at the same time it did feel very pleasant. On Saturday I took Amalia out to see my Nana, along with Ella and Joseph. It was pretty good and I think it brightened up my Nana’s day quite a lot, as she has pretty nasty health issues and doesn’t get out much. Later in the day I bought the movie Wall E, and the whole flat watched it together which was also very nice.

A few months ago Leila and I took Amalia to see Wall E at the movies and I really absolutely loved it. It really felt like the kind of movie that Pixar have been wanting to make for years (the idea had actually been floating around since the days of Toy Story) but I presume had never quite had the guts to do it. To be fair, it is a very different kind of movie – especially for kids – as it has barely any dialouge throughout its first half, and is basically a love story between two robots that can barely say anything more than each other’s names. Yet it is so well shot, the characters are so amazingly complex and the sounds that they do make are so well thought out that I honestly didn’t really notice the lack of dialouge until about halfway through the movie when the humans enter into the story. I remember when I watched the movie the first time, when the humans did enter the story and start talking I thought for a while that something different had happened and it actually took a while to realise that the movie now seemed different because there was dialouge – I hadn’t actually noticed the lack of it before! Wall E is an incredibly sweet movie, but at the same time one with a very necessary and at times quite disturbing message. Is our planet doomed to end up in a situation where it is nigh on impossible to live on it? Are technological advances necessary always going to be a good thing? I think it’s really great that such essential questions for the future are being explored by a kids film, and explored in a really strong way. There’s a lot to learn from that movie for all concerned.

On Sunday Leila, Amalia and I spent most of the day at Ella & Pete’s place, which was also quite nice. Although Ella has now been back from Europe for almost a year, the time when she was away still seems fairly recent in some respects, so it was nice to spend some extended time with everyone. Amalia certainly enjoyed playing a lot of “The Sims” with her.

Next weekend is Anniversary Weekend, and I will have the opportunity to spend a couple of days at Mangawhai Heads, which will be great as I haven’t been up there for ages. Furthermore, on the way back we will get to drive along the newly opened Orewa-Puhoi motorway for the first time – something I have been looking forward to for quite a few years now!

Super City

A big piece of news in the last week has been news that the Royal Commission into examining Auckland’s local government structure is likely to recommend that a ‘super-city’ be established that amalgamates all the current City and District councils together into one entity. This isn’t really a big surprise, as most of the submissions made to the Royal Commission were along those lines. I actually made a submission myself, proposing and “Urban Auckland” council and another “Rural Auckland” council. Since I originally made that submission I read a fair number of additional submissions, particularly the one made by the Auckland Regional Council, and adjusted what I thought would be the best option for the reorganisation.

The ARC’s submission was to amalgamate all the councils, but at the same time create a number of “Community Councils”, perhaps along the lines of electoral boundaries or existing council wards. But in any case, there would be 20-25 of these councils with about 50,000-60,000 people. This level of council would truly put the ‘local’ back in local government, and would be in charge of local activities like parks, footpaths, libraries and so forth. At the moment, community boards are supposed to fulfil this ‘particularly local’ form of government but they really have little power to do much more than make submissions, recommendations and hold meetings every now and then. A community council would have the ability (hopefully) to impose targeted rates, so where a new library or park or whatever is deemed important by the local community a particular targeted rate can be imposed to fund that project.

At the same time, many of the other roles that councils currently fill would be taken over by the new ‘super-city’. This would include transportation, planning, environmental services and so forth. It would certainly make my life a million times easier to only deal with one District Plan for the entire Auckland region rather than the current seven plans. Similarly, the fact that if planning was centralised it would be essential to completely start from scratch with the new plan would, in my opinion, be a brilliant opportunity to fix a huge number of the problems with our planning documents. The kind of problems that make it impossible to build the kind of neighbourhoods that Aucklanders value (Ponsonby, Grey Lynn & Herne Bay) but easy peasy to build the soulless crap that we see throughout the new suburbs of Auckland. The ‘fresh-start’ would be a huge opportunity for Auckland, and I think one of the biggest benefits that the amalgamation would have for Auckland.

Other proposals include some sort of executive power to the Mayor of the super-city, kind of like what has happened in London throughout the past few years. From what I’ve heard this has been reasonably successful for London, although it is largely dependent upon the city electing a good mayor. I’m not quite sure I trust Auckland enough to elect someone half-decent, considering most of the populace doesn’t give a crap about local government.

 It is interesting to see how this proceeds over the next few months. The Royal Commission reports back in full on March 31st. I’m certainly looking forward to reading their full report.

The Britomart Problem

I spent about half an hour writing this post last night before my computer decided it wanted to eat it. But I’ll give it another go – perhaps it will turn out better second time around. Who knows.

Anyway, this post is about the Britomart Transport Centre, the hub of Auckland’s rail system. Britomart was opened in July 2003, bringing trains back into the CBD for the first time in over 70 years. Since that time rail patronage in Auckland has really taken off, as people now see catching the train as a far more viable option than before – when the Beach Road station was very much in no-mans land at a far corner of the city centre that wasn’t really within easy walking distance from the main shopping and office areas. So there is no doubt that Britomart has been a big success, that it is the best thing to happen to Auckland’s rail network in well over 50 years and that it can take the credit for a huge revival of Auckland’s public transport fortunes, particularly when it comes to rail patronage.

However, because of the rather fraught and controversial history of Britomart, when it eventually got around to being built a rather half-arse job was done in some respects. The obvious problem with Britomart is that it’s a dead-end station, which means that every train that comes in must leave from the same direction. The other big problem is that all this must be done through a two-track tunnel which links the station to the rest of the rail network to the east. These two problems create a situation where a maximum of only 18 trains per hour can enter and leave Britomart. Even though there are five platforms, the fact that all arriving trains have to travel along one line of track and all leaving trains must travel along the other means some pretty complicated signalling needs to happen to ensure that none of the trains crash into each other as they head from their allotted platform to the necessary track and back up the tunnel (or vice-versa of course). I’m not sure whether the current peak hours schedule 18 trains per hour, but we might be fairly close to that situation and I know that if one little thing goes wrong with the signalling the train systems ends up back in the stone-age with paralysis spreading across the entire network incredibly quickly.

Over the past few weeks, while the train system has been in Christmas shutdown, the tracks at the eastern end of the Britomart tunnel have been getting an important upgrade that will allow both the tracks to become bi-direction (in that trains can enter or leave along either of the two tracks). Apparently this will allow up to 24 trains per hour to come and go from Britomart, a fairly useful increase. I’m certainly no expert, but making both tracks bi-directional means that you put a lot of faith in ensuring that your signalling system is working perfectly, so you don’t end up with head-on collisions or one little fault messing everything up and once again paralysing the rail network almost instantly. The upgraded signalling hasn’t been installed yet, but when it does I guess we can assume that Britomart will have a working maximum capacity of 24 trains per hour.

This should cover us for the next few years. As I said earlier I’m not sure exactly how many trains use the station at current peak hour, but assuming that ARTA’s goal of 10 minute frequencies comes to fruition in the next few years that would equate to 18 tph if the three lines are combined. Add in a few Onehunga/Helensville/Hamilton services that may come on board in the next few years and we’re getting pretty close to that 24 tph limit. Furthermore, it is really highly debatable whether 10 minute frequencies are going to be high enough – not so much to create a good level of service (which a train every 10 minutes possibly is, especially for Auckland) – but largely because I don’t think that will be enough trains to cope with patronage increases. Assuming that current low petrol prices are the exception and not the norm, that electrification improves the perception of the rail network tremendously and that integrated ticketing makes it much easier for people to catch feeder buses to train stations, I think it’s quite conceivable that rail patronage could at least double by 2015 from where it is now. Last winter, with petrol prices skyrocketing, trains became unbearably overcrowded (although this was partly due to stupid train allocation). With a doubling of patronage by 2015 I don’t think 10 minute frequencies on the three main lines will be sufficient. But putting aside the question of ‘will we have enough trains’, how long is it going to be until we hit that 24 tph Britomart capacity?

ONTRACK, the government agency that owns the tracks, reckons this will probably start to become a problem around 2015 – which fits in quite well with my estimates. So what are the options for relieving this? Well in my opinion there are two options (or three, as “doing them both” is probably necessary in the long term).

  1. Build the CBD loop tunnel
  2. Duplicate the rail tunnel into Britomart

Building the CBD loop tunnel is definitely the ‘prefered option’ of the two above. This would turn Britomart into a through station (for at least the outside two platforms) which would certainly relieve things as trains wouldn’t have to come back along the same way they arrived. With most trains continuing through Britomart (either clockwise or anti-clockwise around the loop) an in-movement effectively also becomes an out-movement and the same in the opposite direction, so effectively the capacity is doubled (although probably a bit less as not all 5 platforms will be continued straight ahead.

Having given it a bit more thought, and with a bit of help from various people on the Better Transport Forum, here’s how I think the services through the loop should operate:

CBDloopcopy

The way this would work is dependent upon a fourth ‘Airport’ line being created. Ideally this line could continue from the airport through to the NIMT around Puhinui, and become the main inter-city line (so that people from other parts of New Zealand could easily catch a train to Auckland airport without having to go via Britomart). But anyway, the current three lines that Auckland operates is upgraded to make four lines: the Western Line, the Southern Line, the Eastern Line and the new Airport Line. The four lines are ‘paired together’ to create effectively two lines, each of which travels around the CBD loop. This would lead to a significant number of trains travelling around the loop, which is obviously desirable, and would also shorten the trip from the Western Line into the city quite significantly, as the trains would not have to loop all the way around via Newmarket anymore.

A couple of minor disadvantages emerge from this. The first is that people wanting to get to Newmarket from the West have their trip lengthened, as they would have to go via the CBD loop and Britomart. To me this isn’t really a biggie as I reckon more people from the West want to travel to the city, so the time savings there more than make up for the time-loss by the longer trip to Newmarket. The other problem is slightly more significant, in that Boston Road station is no longer served by the Western Line at all, so to get there from the west you’d have to transfer at Mt Eden. That seems highly possible, and is possibly outweighed by the fact that Boston Road is now easily reachable from both the south (via the Airport Line) and the east than it ever was before. Once again, this is possibly more of a gain than a loss.

The big disadvantage of the CBD loop is its cost, which seemed to be going up all the time. When I first hea
rd about this project the estimated cost was around $500 million, whereas now it is 2-3 times as much. The other problem is how long it will take to build, even assuming that the cost can be covered. It’s not likely to be operational for at least another 10 years, which means that the capacity constraints of Britomart will be reached before that time.

Which brings us back to option 2, duplicating the Britomart tunnel. I’ll talk about that next time.

Avondale Rail Upgrade

At the moment there is some serious work going on to improve Auckland’s rail network. Over the quiet January period large chunks of the network are being closed down so that crews can work around the clock to get as much done as possible on key projects. The upgrade of tracks around Avondale is an important part of the network upgrade, as tracks need to be lowered for electrification and also the current, poorly located station, is to be rebuilt. More information is available here, and it all sounded so exciting I had to check it out for myself.

I took along my camera too:

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This photo looks westwards from the Blockhouse Bay Road overbridge at the site of the old Avondale station. It appears that most of the earthworks for lowering the tracks has been done, but (obviously) there aren’t any tracks so that will be the main focus for the next week and a bit before the line reopens.

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This photo looks the other way (towards the city) from near the Blockhouse Bay Road bridge. I couldn’t get on the bridge and look eastwards because of the mass of cranes and trucks parked there. The platforms down there are temporary, while the future permanent station is built further back to the west (photos of that to come).

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This photo looks from Rosebank Road towards the line. This is roughly the place where I took a couple of photos on Boxing Day.

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This photo looks from Layard Street up towards the line. There used to be a much more significant bank here, which has been largely removed to help lower the line through this area.

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This is another photo from Layard Street, looking towards roughly where the eventual permanent Avondale station will be.

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This photo is of where the eventual permanent Avondale station will be, at Crayford Street. A lot of earth has been removed out of this area in the last couple of weeks and the line has been lowered significantly. The new station will offer significantly better access to the Avondale town centre that the old (or the temporary) stations do.

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This photo is taken from near the St Jude Street level crossing. It looks back towards the site of the future permanent Avondale station. This section of track used to have quite a steep rise in it, but the works of the last couple of weeks have levelled that off hugely.

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This photo is from roughly the same spot as the previous one, but looks westwards. Significant works are underway between St Jude Street and the Whau River to double-track this section.

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This shot is from the other side of Crayford Street, looking down on the site of the future permanent station. Looks like some track laying is going on.

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This is another shot of where the future permanent station will go. See what I mean about the serious resources being thrown at the upgrades over this period. Keep in mind these photos were all taken on a Sunday.

So I have to say I am pretty impressed by the progress that has happened in the past few weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how this work continues in the future. The lowering of the track is one of the first steps in Auckland’s rail electrification project (as the tracks need lowering so that the wires can fit under Blockhouse Bay Road) so it’s pretty exciting in that sense in particular.