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Taking the Train

Partially because I’ve done my best to avoid the mess that is Symonds Street at the moment (due to roadworks for the Central Connector busway project), and partially because I just like catching trains. I do travel between home and the city, or between Avondale and the city, reasonably often as my work is split between Avondale and the stuff I do for the Historic Places Trust in the city. Switching from the bus-to-train or vice-versa has possibly saved me a bit of time, and has given me a chance to actually experience Auckland’s train system. Something I haven’t really done consistently until now.

In general my experiences have been pretty good. The trains have generally shown up one time, the trips have been without incident and are usually much more comfortable and relaxing than being on the bus. On one occasion in the morning the train previous to the one I had been expecting to catch was about 20 minutes late, so by the time it reached Kingsland (which was only a few minutes after I arrived) it was totally packed. As Auckland’s Western Line trains are usually not nearly as crowded as those of overseas systems (or indeed, those on the Southern and Eastern Lines) it was an interesting experience. I suppose that I would have been grumpy about the train being late if I had been sitting there for 20 minutes, but I had enough time before having to be at work that it wasn’t much of a problem. In the afternoon/evenings it has actually been even more useful, as Symonds Street is particularly notorious in the evening peak (even without the current roadworks). The trip from Britomart to Kingsland takes just under 20 minutes, which is longer than it really should take (due to a lot of sharp bends, steep hills and the round-about route via Newmarket) but it’s still much faster than would be possible by bus. The transfer from train to bus at Kingsland is easy-peasy too, with the bus stop being just over the road – and peak hour buses coming along every couple of minutes or so. Wow, Auckland’s public transport actually impressing me for once.

It will be interesting to see what happens from next week onwards, with university back. Auckland City Council seem to be all over the place about their Symonds Street upgrade, first planning a major closure of parts of Symonds Street throughout the whole weekend, and (stupidly) also Monday. Now, due to a bad weather forecast (an accurate one too I must say, listening to the rain pour down outside) this work is now delayed until later in March. As I mentioned at the start of this post, Symonds Street has been a mess for the past few months – with the construction of the Central Connector Project. With the completion of the university section now delayed until a few weeks after university starts, it is really going to be insanity trying to get through there (as I assume the lanes will still be narrowed and reduced in number). So more people catching the train from Monday onwards I assume!

The Howick/Botany Line

A couple of posts ago I talked about the transport issues facing East Auckland. In particular, the lack of rail transport out there has created a part of the city that is incredibly car dependent. It also suffers from very slow bus services, and a lot of traffic congestion.

So what is the solution? ARTA have indicated the potential for a “Rapid Transit Network” line that would run on a Manukau-Flat Bush-Botany-Pakuranga-Panmure route. I think the current proposal is for this route to operate as a busway, utilising the wide median of Te Irirangi Drive for its southern portion, and then I assume a lot of property acquisition/tunnelling will be needed for the part between Botany and Panmure (ie. when the line swings to the left). I would be disappointed if this was built as a busway, unless it was obvious that the busway could be easily upgraded to a train line. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Buses are generally less of a quality ride than trains. The Northern Busway would have been built as a train line if there had been a way of getting the trains over/under the Waitemata Harbour.
  2. Buses would either have to terminate at Panmure and throw a lot of people onto potentially already overcrowded Eastern Line trains, or continue to the city via existing roads – which would pretty much negate most of the time gains that would have been achieved from spending many hundreds of millions (at least) on the busway itself.
  3. Buses on a busway will inevitably travel slower than trains (80 kph v potentially 130 kph). Therefore a potential 35 minute train trip from Botany to Britomart may be 45-50 minutes as a busway, negating much of the gain over people driving.

So I would definitely recommend building it as a train line. Obviously the cost would be greater, and you would have tricky bits like how to get the train line from Manukau City to Te Irirangi Drive (probably would need a very expensive tunnel underneath the Southern Motorway). The map below shows a couple of options for the line’s route.

howick-line-v2

The southern part of the Red Line is probably fairly set in concrete, except for a variety of options that would link Manukau City with Te Irirangi Drive. After Botany, the red option shows a possible option that would follow ARTA’s identified RTN route “roughly”. The advantage of this route would be that it’s a fairly direct link between Botany an Panmure, that the Ti Rakau Drive area is proposed for widening anyway so it’s possible that a rail reserve could be created as part of this process. Its disadvantages include that it runs through a largely industrial area for much of its route (the eastern half of Ti Rakau Drive) and also that much of the Howick/Highland Park area would be very poorly served by rail still. Ultimately its coverage isn’t great, so therefore I don’t think that’s the best option.

The Blue Line option pushes the railway line further north, and therefore improves its residential catchment. A station at Cascades Road would allow for feeder buses and a park n ride to serve Howick and Highland Park much more realistically. On the down side it’s probably likely to be more expensive, as the terrain through Pakuranga Heights is quite steep and would require some tunnelling. I don’t necessarily think that it’s the ultimate solution either.

After much discussion on the bettertransport forums a few other ideas got thrown about. The idea of linking into the existing rail system nearer to Glen Innes than Panmure was an interesting one, with the big advantage that it would reduce travel times even more (a more direct route from Botany to Britomart) and would serve a greater part of the existing suburban area (Farm Cove, Highland Park & Half Moon Bay) than the other proposals. However, it would also possibly have the greatest cost, due to the need for a big bridge from Farm Cove across to Glen Innes, and would not serve Pakuranga. The bridge across Tamaki River might also be a difficult one to get consent for, as it would have a pretty major negative effect on residents located at either end of it. The environmental effects might be fairly significant too. Saljen off the forums suggested a variation of this route that manages to avoid most houses, sticking to a couple of streams that cross the Pakuranga area. That route is shown in green below, with potential feeder bus routes shown in other colours.

howickfeeders

This route I think could offer a journey time from Botany to Britomart of about 26 minutes. Compared with the 90 minute bus trip or well over an hour in a car (at peak hour) this would be an amazing improvement. I think that a lot of people would use such a line due to the amazing time advantages. Obviously some pretty big obstacles would need to be sorted out though. Would it be OK environmentally to run the line along a number of the area’s streams? Would it be feasible to build that kind of bridge across the Tamaki River? Would the effects on residents in the vicinity of the bridge be acceptable? What would the whole thing cost?

I know that a line such as this is many years away from even being planned in a concrete way, but I do think that a line serving this part of Auckland is well overdue. I also think that the Ti Rakau Drive route shouldn’t be thought of as the only option. There are at least two other routes that I think could offer even greater benefits.

New Digs

Leila and I hadn’t really planned on moving quite yet, although it has been on the cars for the last little while. Her commute to work is pretty nastily long, resulting in her being out of the house from about 8am to 6.30pm each work day. Furthermore, having Amalia living so far away is a real pain in the ass and has limited the number of times that I’m able to see her each week due to the rather long travel times between Sandringham and Beachhaven. Amber has also been planning on moving out for a while, to link into the arts scene a bit more through an inner-city apartment. However, we had thought that most of this moving stuff was a month or so away at least.

Until the perfect place came along. Wanganui Avenue is one of the nicest streets in Auckland in my opinion, with each and every one of its houses being a gorgeous Edwardian villa. It’s in Herne Bay, which is a very central suburb, though also generally Auckland’s most expensive suburb. So it was rather a surprise that we found an affordable two bedroom half-villa on Trademe. The weekend before last Leila and I went to check the place out and found, to our dismay, that even though we were 10 minutes early to the property open-home, it had already been let to someone who had turned up even earlier. It felt so unfair, but we checked the place out and left our details just in case something fell through. Amazingly, a few days later indeed something must have fallen through as I got a call from the owner asking if we were still interested. As I desperately tried to recall whether it would have been suitable after all, I confirmed that we were interested. The next day everything was confirmed and we will be moving in from March 5.

Yesterday we headed back to the ‘new place’ to sign the papers and check things out. The concerns that I had had were largely alleviated (the lounge/dining area should be big enough, we will have enough wardrobes and the bedrooms are bigger than I had thought) and Amalia was extremely happy to discover that her bedroom has a pink door. When I first found out that we had another chance I almost felt like it was a mixed-blessing – as the need for us to start on the house-packing dawned on me – but now I feel much more positive about it. I look forward to a much shorter drive to the North Shore, I look forward to living on one of the nicest streets in the city and I really look forward to living in such a central part of Auckland.

The only pain is that I’ll probably have to drive to work most days. Gah!

The East Auckland Problem

East Auckland is most definitely the most neglected part of the city when it comes to having good transport links. By East Auckland I mean everything east of the Tamaki River – ie. Pakuranga, Highland Park, Howick, Botany and Flat Bush. Up until the 1960s this area was barely developed at all, with Howick being the only town. 1959 aerial photography shows the part of Pakuranga closest to the city was only just starting to develop. Since that time there has been a huge amount of growth, first in the northern part of the area with Pakuranga, Howick, Highland Park, Bucklands Beach and so forth developing in the 1960s-1980s. My Nana lives in Highland Park, in a house that was probably built in the late 1970s. Later in, in the 1990s and early 2000s we have seen Botany, Dannemora and Flat Bush develop.

However, throughout all of this staged development nobody has ever put the slightest amount of thought into answering the question “how are we effectively going to link these people with the rest of the city?” Up until 1996 that question was particularly poorly addressed, as all the roads ended up feeding into a 4 lane arterial route through Mt Wellington and eventually feeding onto the Southern Motorway from Mt Wellington Highway. I never really saw this at peak hour, because we’d only go out that way on weekends, but I imagine it was pretty horrific. Since 1996 things have been slightly improved with the addition of the Southeastern Highway, but that road was built to a rather sub-optimal standard – with at-grade intersections where there should have been fully separated ones – and it still had the same problem of feeding into an already congested Southern Motorway.

Whilst buses out east have operated for an extremely long time, I think the Howick and Eastern Buses are the longest-standing bus operators in Auckland, it is probably the part of Auckland that is most poorly serviced by public transport. A bus from Howick or Botany can take significantly more than an hour to get to the city, due to terrible (ie. non-existent) bus priority measures throughout the Manukau City part of the trip, and then a long and fairly convoluted route that is taken throughout the Auckland City part of the route. Amazingly, a bus trip from Howick to the city takes about as long as one from Pukekohe or Orewa, even though these other places are far far further from downtown than Howick is. Therefore, it is absolutely no surprise that this corner of the city is the most car dependent part of Auckland. This isn’t helped by the area being characterised by incredibly stereotypical sprawl, but I think that the incredibly slow travel times for public transport are the main contributor to East Auckland’s automobile depedency.

At a risk of sounding harsh on past planners of Auckland, this situation is really utterly unacceptable. Back in the 1960s the whole area was undeveloped, and it would have been a piece of cake to set aside a corridor for a future rail alignment. The Eastern Line actually runs pretty close to where road bridges have been built linking East Auckland with the isthmus, so it surely wasn’t completely beyond the realms of possibility to think that rail could have served this area quite effectively. Even from the roads-centric point of view it’s obvious that there are going to be significant problems in feeding the traffic from the main roads of Pakuranga Road and Ti Rakau Drive (which are congested enough by themselves) over the Tamaki River bridges (which for some silly reason were basically built next to each other) and further on to link up with the Southern Motorway. A map below shows this mess quite clearly:

pakuranga-mess2

Oh, and just to make things worse, on that corner of Pakuranga Road and Ti Rakau Drive (which by the way is the busiest intersection in all of Auckland) we’re going to build a shopping mall, just to ruin the traffic even more. The lack of foresight that went into the planning of this part of Auckland is utterly reprehensible and the people who live out there today are still suffering because of it.

In the past few years there have been some vague attempts at trying to improve this situation. The Highbrook interchange was completed a few years ago, although I’m still utterly convinced that this was entirely built to serve the commercial area of East Tamaki and Highbrook – basically crapping on the poor people of Wymondley and Otahuhu to provide faster motorway access to a billion dollar commercial development. Nice. The Highbrook interchange still fails in relieving pressure from the pinch point – in that it’s terribly signposted from the Flat Bush side and also doesn’t have a logical link through to Te Irirangi Drive. Furthermore, it does nothing for public transport, so the area has remained a public transport wasteland. Not a particularly smart idea when you’re proposing a “new town” of 40,000 people out at Flat Bush.

The next step proposed to alleviate the mess is AMETI, the Auckland-Manukau-Eastern-Transport-Initiative… I think. What it should really read is the “roads, roads, more roads, maybe an odd bus lane to shut you dumb greenies up and we’ll think about a train line perhaps after 2020 initiative”.  The image below shows the AMETI plan…. lots of new roads and just a few bus lanes to keep the greenies happy.

ameti-2

So absolutely no mention of any additional rail capacity out this way. Perhaps the bus lanes might save a few minutes off the trip times between Pakuranga and Panmure but why are there no bus lanes planned for Pakuranga Road, or Ti Rakau Drive beyond its immediate proximity to Pakuranga? There’s no mention of what might be done to speed bus trips up once they have crossed the Tamaki River, or anything of that sort. So basically we get tonnes more roads with a few tiny concessions regarding bus lanes.

It takes a look forward to the post 2016 (read: bloody ages away) concepts before we even get mention of something that might possibly be a future rail line to serve this part of the city. No real plans though, at least not in the detail that has been done for the roading parts of AMETI, just a few squiggly lines:

Print

On the up-side, if the green lines were all built as railway lines then there’s the potential for Auckland to have a fantastic rail network. On the down side, it seems like the planners of AMETI are giving themselves every opt out clause possible. Indicative alignments only, some time post 2016 plans and so forth. Of course this is translation for “once we sort out the roads we’ll see what’s left in the budget for public transport”. The other problem with the proposed additional “rapid transit networks” (which could be a busway, train line or seemingly even bus lanes according to the planners of the Central Connector) is that a huge part of East Auckland remains unserved. Howick, Highland Park, Bucklands Beach and so forth remains a heck of a long bus trip away from a railway station. Instead, we have the railway line serving a light-industry area along Ti Rakau Drive between Pakuranga and Botany. Once again, hardly ideal.

I shall attempt to offer some real solutions to the “East Auckland Problem” in my next post. The solutions are unlikely to be easy – the lack of foresight shown by planners in the past 50 years have put paid to that being a possiblity – or cheap, but they are there. One just needs to think about it a bit and consider East Auckland as actually being a part of the city that could be a real success story for public transport in the future.

Why Sprawl Sucks

Although most of the world seems to be coming to their senses that urban sprawl is an unsustainable remnant of the late 20th century, it appears as though that battle is far from won in New Zealand. The Auckland Regional Council had put in place a Metropolitan Urban Limit since 1999 that has curbed the previously crazy greenfield expansion of the city (or at least made it happen in just a few places), yet it seems that day after day the ARC takes flak for doing this. In recent consultation with councils over what the future shape of the Auckland Regional Policy Statement (which enshrines the MUL) should be their policies of limiting urban expansion came under some pretty surprising attack by a number of Auckland’s smaller councils. Of note, on page 19 we have this little gem:

“…other submitters including Rodney District Council, Papakura District Council and Manukau City Council supported a moveable Metropolitan Urban Limit that is able to respond to changing capacity needs, particularly to provide the opportunity for additional business land.”

Now I do understand that in some cases the MUL should be extended: for example up near Hobsonville when the new SH18 motorway is completed, or perhaps around the Westgate shopping area so that the shopping centre can actually have a residential catchment (rather than the current situation which makes it the most horrific shopping centre in Auckland as you have to drive to get there, drive from one side of it to the other every time you want to go to a different shop and so on). However, a moveable urban limit has been trialled in the past, and effectively operated as a non-limit. Land outside the limit would be zoned future urban, eventually there would be a master-plan for that land, it would become urban and the city would spread. Repeat 100 times and you have Auckland.

Pages 29-43 of my thesis looks at sustainability and sprawl, with the conclusion that while urban environments are, almost by definition, unsustainable there are certainly different types of urban environments that are more or less sustainable. Urban sprawl is clearly the least sustainable form of urban development environmentally, economically, socially and culturally.

Environmental Issues

There are two main ways in which urban sprawl is environmentally unsustainable: the land that is consumed by the city and the air pollution (including CO2) emissions that are caused by sprawled cities being so automobile dependent. Around 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) of prime farmland is lost to sprawl each and every year in the USA according to the American Farmland Trust (reference on page 32 of my thesis). This is largely due to sprawl, not population growth, as many cities in the USA continue to grow even though their population is declining. Those cities which are growing consume farmland at an even more insatiable rate. About three times as many people live in America’s urban areas today than did in 1950, however the amount of land taken up by those people is 50 times greater.

Sure, it’s not like New Zealand or even the USA is going to run out of land to build cities upon. However, the land that surrounds our urban areas is often of particularly high productive potential (given that cities are generally located in advantageous positions for historical reasons), which means that the land lost is precious. Much of the greenfield land surrounding Auckland that isn’t used for “countryside living” (which is effectively just a really low density version of sprawl) plays a really important role in providing the city with food products. Food that needs to be shipped in from further afield obviously generates further traffic and emissions from its transportation.

Air pollution is another significant environment effect that is generated by sprawl. Sure, the densely populated cities of Asia may appear to have more air pollution that somewhere like Auckland, but on a per capita basis what we generate in our car dependent city is immensely polluting. I remember reading a year or so back that more people died prematurely from the effects of air pollution in Auckland each year than died due to the country’s road toll. Pretty amazing considering all the effort that goes into reducing car crashes. Urban sprawl, by definition, enforces automobile dependency by creating large areas of low-density, single-use development where public transport is not viable (due to low residential and commercial densities and circutous routes), walking or cycling is particularly unviable, and car trips for even the most basic of tasks (like getting milk from the diary) get longer and longer. Much has already been made of the effects of CO2 emissions on global warming, so I won’t dwell on those, but obviously they are a significant issue that may fundamentally alter the way we create cities in the future.

Economic Issues

I really like spouting how unsustainable urban sprawl is economically, as generally those who support it are the types who disregard social, cultural and environmental concerns to focus on their beloved economic efficiency and bottom line. The economic inefficiency of sprawl therefore becomes, in many cases, the strongest argument against it – not because they are necessarily the most damning, but rather because of the reason I just mentioned: proponents of sprawl are generally obsessed with economic effects and to hell with everything else.

So, what makes sprawl economically inefficient? For a start, the provision of services and infrastructure by local governments can be much more efficient in a higher-density city. The roads are used more often and by more than just cars, the waterpipes, wastewater pipes, electricity lines and so forth don’t need to be as long. A Burchel & Mukherji study in 2003 found that 150 million gallons of water and sewer demand PER DAY in the USA could be saved simply through more compact development. The same study indicated that over $100 billion of roading investment could be avoided between 2000 and 2025 if a more ‘managed growth’ form of urban development was undertaken. These are significant numbers. Furthermore, generally the cost of providing the inefficient services that sprawl demands are generally met by existing ratepayers within the bounds of the city. As (particularly in the USA) residents of the inner city tend to be poorer than those occupying recent sprawl developments, you get a situation where the poor are subsidising the rich. Maybe that’s why right-wingers are generally so fond of sprawl?

Social Issues

While the societal effects of urban sprawl are very difficult to measure accurately,they are also perhaps the most damning evidence of its unsustainability. Reduced social equity, negative health impact, a loss of community, segregation, polarisation and an inability to adapt to changing lifestyles and family structures are just some of the ways in which urban sprawl is said to adversely affect social sustainability.

Added to that we just have the way in which sprawl suburbs just appear to be so “dead” in terms of their vibrancy. Without a mix of uses areas are either abandoned during the day (when everyone’s at work) or abandoned in the evening (when everyone’s gone home). As people drive everywhere they do not have the opportunity to mingle with other people, further creating a feeling of social isolation. I noticed this a lot when returning from my holiday to Europe last year, and it took a couple of months to realise that I needed to make a real effort to escape the socially depressing clutches of urban sprawl by catching buses to work and regularly visiting the Auckland CBD to experience at least a tiny amount of the vibrancy so obvious in European cities.

So I think it’s pretty obvious that sprawl sucks – economically, environmentally and socially. While it may appear to have its private benefits in a large house, a lot of roads upon which to drive one’s car and so forth, in the end there is a big price to pay for these “luxuries” in the form of the highly unsustainable cities that we live in. And this doesn’t even consider the concept of peak oil (which I, admittedly, hadn’t heard of in 2005 when I wrote my thesis). I believe that the onset of peak oil will very quickly make it obvious how unsustainable sprawl is. And perhaps that won’t be a bad thing at all.

Auckland’s Weather

How could I go through this entire week and NOT mention the weather that has been going on in Auckland? It has seemed to be the ‘talk of the town’ even more than usual, which is potentially quite difficult as Aucklanders love to talk about the weather as much as your stereotypical Brit. But anyway, this week’s weather has been noteworthy enough to talk about.

For a start, it was HOT. I mean really really hot from Monday through until Thursday afternoon. Not the kind of “sunny hot” that we’ve had pretty much since the New Year with a few gaps, but what I like to call “Singapore hot”, where the air is so humid and warm that it feels like the oxygen has been sucked out of it completely. Needless to say, I do prefer sunny hot to Singapore hot – as at least you can escape it by zipping away into the shade. For example, last Sunday Leila, Amber and I spent a few nice hours at the beach on the North Shore and it was great. The sun was very very hot – up to 31C according to my car’s air-conditioning (which admittedly probably isn’t that reliable) – but because it was just the heat of the sun creating the warmth I had no problems escaping it by simply sitting underneath a nice Pohutukawa tree. However, from Monday onwards the cloud rolled in, the humidity skyrocketed and “Singapore hot” arrived. The way in which rooms seemed to become breathless was quite unusual, and pretty extreme as I actually noticed a quick rush of fresh air when opening my wardrobe one morning! On Thursday afternoon Auckland hit what was apparently its highest temperature in about 120 years, although oddly enough after that it became cold again with a fair bit of rain over the past few days.

While it has actually felt quite cleansing and refreshing to get a bit of rain here, it was a right pain in the arse in Brisbane as a fantastically exciting cricket match was ruined by a fairly typical tropical downpour. Maybe cricket should be played in Brisbane’s winters? The irony of the downpour – when happened at a point where New Zealand was probably favourites to take out the match over Australia and therefore the series – was that I had been just about begging for such a downpour to happen only a few minutes earlier (obviously when we weren’t doing quite so well). I suppose that my earlier frustration was due to a great series, locked at two games apiece, seemingly being decided by a half-arsed 20 over lottery-game. While I do see some merit in the Twenty20 format of cricket, there is a significant amount of luck that is involved, much more luck than is the case for longer versions of the game. Therefore, it seemed sad that the series would be decided in such a way. I eventually got my wish – in a way – and the game was abandoned, with the series tied. Unfortunately this means Australia keep the Chappell-Hadlee trophy, but a 2-2 result is almost a moral victory to New Zealand in some ways.

I have quite a few ideas for posts next week, somewhat inspired by an interesting comments thread at the Green Party blog. Hopefully I’ll feel inspired enough to explore a few ideas behind why I think urban sprawl sucks, why Auckland has become an automobile dependent city and what I think should be done about it. I’ll also hopefully update the rail diagram I put together yesterday.

Auckland’s Rail Map in 2030?

Perhaps this post is aimed at laying down a challenge to our future transport planners. It’s clear that rail needs to play a significant part in Auckland’s transportation future, with peak oil either just around the corner or having already happened, ongoing population growth that will lead to further traffic congestiong and (hopefully) growing concern about the effects of an automobile dependent city on climate change. Last year saw an 8% increase in the number of people using public transport – with more than a million additional rail trips being made in 2008 compared with 2007.

Some good steps have been made to bring Auckland’s rail system into the 20th century in the last few years, and in the next few years we should see some further steps that might at least partially bring it into the 21st century – with electrification being a critical step in the future of our rail network. However, it’s crucial that we do not rest on what improvements have been made, but rather strive to do better. Auckland’s rail system remains incredibly poor by international standards, the city in general remains incredibly car dependent while those who do catch trains (or buses for that matter) generally have to put up with poor conditions, frequently cancelled services and (believe it or not) over-crowding due to poor frequencies.

I have put together a map of what the rail network should look like in about 2030. That gives us 20 years to do these projects. Beyond 2030 there are probably further lines that could be built (such as an Albany to Henderson line or an extension of the North Shore Line to Wellsford). However, if we can have this system by 2030 (with enough tracks and trains to operate it effectively, I do think Auckland will be well on the way to having at least a half-decent rail system – if not something truly world class.

For a start, let’s look at a diagram of the current system:

600px-Auckland_Railway_Network_Diagram

OK, pretty pathetic. Right moving on here’s what I suggest for our system in 2030:

auckland-rail-dream_copy

There are still three lines, although effectively there are actually six different lines, I’ve just coupled them all together to make it possible for routes to travel across the city rather than just into Britomart and out of it again. Obviously, a number of projects are necessary to make this a reality – beyond ones already underway such as the Onehunga Branch and the Manukau Link. By my reckoning there are four really big rail projects that would be necessary to undertake in order for this to be a reality.

  1. The CBD loop. Clearly nothing can happen in terms of adding new lines until we fix up the capacity issues faced by Britomart. As I have three lines approaching Britomart from the east it would probably be necessary to duplicate the existing access tunnel as well as building the CBD loop. Midtown and K Road are two new underground stations that would be built.
  2. Airport link. I would do this project second as it’s pretty embarrassing Auckland doesn’t have a rail link to the airport. The air bus is pretty popular, but can get stuck in traffic and in any case is not the same as having a proper rail link. New stations at Mangere and Mangere Bridge would significantly improve the access to the city from these two suburbs.
  3. North Shore Line. This would require a rail tunnel under the harbour, and conversion of the existing busway into a railway line. Initially I would have the rail line terminate at Albany, but there is potential for it to eventually continue to Orewa. This would provide a much better public transport link to those in Silverdale, Orewa and on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.
  4. East Tamaki Line. This would potentially be the most difficult, as it’s a very long line that has never really been planned for. Supposedly Te Irirangi Drive was built so that future light-rail could go down the middle of it, but I think heavy rail is the ultimate answer. Perhaps some serious tunnelling would be required, but I think in the long run this line is worth it. The communities it would serve are among Auckland’s most car dependent and have to put up with probably the worst public transport provision in the city.

Now I just have to find $10 billion to fund this all.

Auckland Transport Ignored by Stimulus Package

After much umming and arring, and pretending that tax cuts are sufficient for economic stimulus, it appears as though the government has finally got around to putting together a proper economic stimulus package to help get us through the rather dire recession that’s going on here and around the world. At first glance the numbers seem reasonable, although it’s obvious that most of the emphasis (and therefore money) has been spent on the tax cuts we’ll be getting on April 1st. While of course it’ll be nice to get a tax cut, for many people it won’t be much help if they’ve already lost their jobs.

Firstly, there’s nothing for public transport. While disappointing, it’s not unexpected. An economic stimulus project really does need to be ‘ready to go’, and unfortunately – due to the general disdain government has viewed public transport with – there are hardly any projects that are ‘ready to go’ but not actually already underway (electrification of Auckland’s rail network being an example of a project already underway). So what is in the stimulus package for transport? Well, according to the Transport Minister there are five major projects accelerated by the package: the Kopu Bridge, Matahorua Gorge realignment (somewhere in the Hawke’s Bay), the Hawke’s Bay expressway extension, Rimutaka Corner Easing and the Christchurch Southern Motorway. So, clearly nothing for Auckland then. That’s not to say Auckland doesn’t have its fair share of transportation projects going on at the moment – in fact it’s such a struggle trying to list them all I can’t be bothered at the moment, particularly motorway building projects. However, there are a couple of ones that could have very easily been included: namely the Victoria Park Tunnel (which perhaps wasn’t included as it’s meant to start this year anyway) and the Manukau Rail Link, which – quoted from the ProjectDART website – “at this stage has no timetable for construction”. I suppose that a lot of pressure was put on to have projects that would create jobs in the regions, where unemployment is most likely to rise, but it still seems like a bit of an opportunity has been missed for Auckland.

Regarding public transport projects, I do hope that in the next couple of years the planning and design work for major improvements such as the CBD tunnel loop and the railway to the airport can be completed, so that if further stimulus packages are required, next time we might have some ‘ready to go’ public transport projects.

I’m a reasonable fan of the other projects announced, such as the insulation of all state houses, the building of extra schools and the addition of many buildings on existing schools. However, it just seems like we’re being given a pretty small package compared with other countries around the world (even on a per capita basis) by a government that is fixated by tax cuts for the rich. A lot of analysis in the USA showed that giving tax cuts to businesses and richer individuals was the least effective way of spending stimulus money (as they tended to save the extra money rather than spend it, quite a prudent move at the moment from an individual’s perspective). I guess it’s hard for the National government to forego their ideological beliefs in tax cuts.

Eden Park Transport Upgrades

In 2011 New Zealand will be hosting the Rugby World Cup, which ever since the announcement was made in late 2005 has been shoved down our throat ad nauseum. Not to say that it isn’t an exciting event to happen, as it will be pretty awesome for New Zealand and Auckland in particular during the later parts of the tournament. I’m not going to talk about the Eden Park upgrade itself at the moment, although I’m sure eventually there will be a good reason for me to post a few photo of the redevelopment of the ground. Instead, I’m going to briefly discuss the transportation upgrades that are going to happen around Eden Park so that it isn’t a giant disaster.

At the Bledisloe Cup rugby match between New Zealand and Australia last year apparently the Kingsland Railway Station (which is the main station which serves Eden Park) got rather overcrowded at the end of the match. As the capacity of Eden Park is being increased to 60,000 – and probably a greater proportion of crowds at the World Cup wouldn’t be locals – there will be significantly more pressure put on that station when the World Cup rolls around. So there has been a proposal to widen the platforms for the train station, which then means that it is necessary to realign a part of Sandringham Road. The latest report by council on the job was approved last week, so the project will be going ahead, which is a good thing. A plan of the proposed station and realignment of Sandringham Road is shown below:

kingsland-stn

That plan is a little technical I suppose, but effectively Sandringham Road is shifted slightly southwards, which will mean a bit of property taken from the houses at the bottom of the plan above. Bus lanes will also be added to the southbound part of Sandringham Road too. This is a good improvement as that area is a bit of an inexplicable gap in what is otherwise a good provision of bus lanes along this road.

Another interesting part of the proposal is the planned link road between Sandringham Road and Walters Road. I’d never quite realised before, but this link road would provide a much more direct route from Kingsland to Eden Park and would allow people to avoid the potentially congested pedestrian bridge over the railway line. A plan of the link road is included below, which has been designed in a nice “shared space” way that I mentioned a few posts ago when I wrote about Liveable Street.

linkrd

There was some opposition to the link road in particular, as it will involve the removal of a couple of nice old houses, and will probably increase traffic using Walters Road as a link between Sandringham and Dominion Roads. However, I still think that its positives far outweigh the negatives, as getting people away from Eden Park after big games is a major priority – in particular separating people who want to use the train station from those who don’t. I also think that adding in the bus lanes on Sandringham Road will also have an important benefit for public transport users along this road (which does just happen to be me at the moment).

RMA Reforms

While it’s not necessarily directly related to Auckland’s transport, as my day job is being a planner I do live and breathe the Resource Management Act on a daily basis, so therefore the reforms proposed by National last week are definitely worthy of some sort of comment. There may also be ways in which the reforms eventually do affect the development of Auckland’s transportation.

I guess for a start they could definitely be worse. Original proposals had the definition of “environment” stripped down to simply natural and physical resources, which would have completely gutted the RMA and the whole idea of planning. Thankfully that wasn’t included, so things like amenity effects and effects on Maori values remain important aspects of the enviornment. Furthermore, a reasonable number of the proposals are justifiable: like searching for ways to reduce trade competitors from using the RMA to wage their trade wars, increasing the fines for non-compliance with resource consents and also a few of the proposals that will hopefully speed up the processing of consents and council plan changes.

However, at the same time there are also a number of worries that emerge from these procedural changes. Submitters appear to be more limited in what they can appeal to the environment court, applicants appear able to choose the commissioners they want at their hearings, those appealing to the environment courts may have to stump up thousands and thousands of dollars as security against costs if they lose their case and so forth. These are worrying steps that are being dressed up as “removing the handbrake from development”, but in effect actually involve taking away the rights of those to have a decent say in developments that happen. I don’t deny that the current situation has its problems, but I do think that in general the existing RMA is quite robust and flexible with problems often resulting from poor council rules and regulations, or from the Ministry for the Environment not having the guts to create enough National Policy Statements (until the last couple of years) and not ‘calling in’ enough major projects (once again, until the last couple of years). It is a worry if taking a case to the environment court becomes something that clearly the rich can only afford, and that is a possibility under these changes.

My main issue with the proposed changes relate to a bit that everyone else seems to have ignored. It sits on page six of the proposals and reads:

Inserting provisions into the RMA that remove the ability for blanket tree protection rules to be imposed in urban areas. These rules generate more than 4000 resource consent applications annually.

Now this is a pretty freaky legislation change to make. Actually banning councils from creating a particular rule seems to be a huge trampling of local government by central government, not to mention the enormous risk to trees around the country. There is a reason that local councils impose blanket tree protection rules – generally to trees over 6m in height, although sometimes there’s a lower limit when it comes to native trees. Alternative ways of protecting trees would involve the identification of potentially thousands of trees within a District that were considered worthy of protection. Without blanket protection I would imagine that a huge number of trees would be cut down in urban areas, as already there are not only the large number of consent applicatons but also a significant number of situations where people illegally remove trees. It would be very sad to see a city like Auckland lose a huge number of mature trees, which is very much a possibility if this change goes ahead.

That’s not to say there are problems with the current tree rules. Obviously, one unintended consequence of having a blanket protection is that people are put off planting trees or have them taken out at 5.5m, to ensure they won’t become problematic later on. Furthermore, many councils (like Auckland City) have written stupid rules that only allow applications to be assessed on the basis of a tree’s health, rather than wider environmental concerns. However, this isn’t reason to completely abandon such rules – it feels like using a sledgehammer on a problem that could easily be sorted out through smarter and more flexible council rules.

I suppose that’s the kind of feeling I get about all the changes, where it feels like the RMA is getting blamed for problems that probably only occur in situations where it’s poorly implemented. It seems that the government couldn’t really moan about the RMA forever without at least looking like it was making dramatic changes to it. I guess we’ll see what survives the select committee process, hopefully not the tree rules that’s for sure!