The Planning Paradox

Whilst I like to think of myself as a “public transport advocate”, in my ‘day job’ I’m a planner. This has influenced the angle to which I view transportation matters, and as I have explained before, has really determined many of my opinions on transport. But leaving aside transport for a moment, it’s also interesting to think about why I got into planning, and where I wish land-use planning could be different – in much the same way that I wish transportation policies and priorities could be different.

I remember when I have a job interview for my very first job as a planner I got asked the question “why do you want to be a planner?” Quite an interesting question, and the answer I had to it was fairly simple: “to try and make Auckland a better city”. Having grown up here and had a rather unhealthy interest in the structure of the city from a fairly early age, it had generally always fascinated me what parts of the city I liked, what parts I disliked, and so forth. Interestingly enough, after reading a variety of planning books, writing a rather long thesis on the topic and having a great number of discussions, my opinions have rather changed over time (I used to be quite a big fan of McMansions).

As my knowledge of Auckland, and of urban planning, has improved over the last few years, a rather large question has continued to pop up in my mind. I did talk  about it to quite a big extent in my thesis, and it also shows up in many good books on urban planning. The question is this: “why is it that the more effort we seem to put into planning for good urban outcomes, the results seem to be ever-worse urban outcomes?” This “paradox” can also be described as “why do we keep building crap?” When all our urban planning textbooks talk about creating vibrant, mixed-use, interesting and sustainable neighbourhoods, why is it that Auckland’s most recent subdivisions look like this?:

If one was to look at Auckland and try to work out the most ‘interesting’ suburbs, the most vibrant places, the areas where it seems like people want to be, they really do seem to be parts of the city that were built a long time ago. Interestingly enough, they generally seem to be parts of the city that were built before we started planning everything to the last detail, parts of the city built before the Resource Management Act or even before the Town and Country Planning Act (the legislation which preceded the RMA). In fact, if one was to appear rather uncharitable, it could be argued that all this planning has just made things worse.

And yet this is not for lack of trying. In fact, planners try incredibly hard to attempt to ensure that things don’t turn out badly (note this is different to trying to make things turn out well). I was recently peripherally involved in the final details of the Long Bay Structure Plan, on Auckland’s North Shore. This structure plan, which is basically a chapter of the District Plan, runs to well over 100 pages in length, and has an interim environment court decision that is 357 pages in length. Now clearly it’s too early to tell whether this structure plan will result in a development that is interesting, vibrant and so forth (as well as ensuring its adverse environmental effects are as minimal as possible), but on recent trends one would imagine it will end up being another soulless “anywhere-ville” like most of the rest of Auckland that has been built in the last 20-30 years (with the worst bit being that things seem to be getting worse, not better). But that’s not really the point. The point is that we genuinely do try really hard to come up with good outcomes, but for some reason we seem to fail abysmally over and over again.

I suppose an easy comeback to what I have been saying so far is “just because you don’t like what has been built recently, doesn’t mean that other people don’t like it”. And I guess that’s true to some extent – as obviously people buy houses in Flat Bush, Dannemora, Wattle Downs, Wainoni and all those other suburbs I just described as soulless. But my response to that argument would be that it’s not only me that’s saying this stuff – it’s mainstream planning literature, it’s seemingly what every planner around says, and so forth. Furthermore, it’s not like people have just started saying this stuff recently. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is one of the most well-known and respected planning texts of the 20th century (published in 1961 originally) says this (talking about what planners have done to ‘improve’ cities):

…look at what we’ve built with the first several billion. Low-income projects that become worse centres of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centres that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centres that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering places than others. Commercial centres that are lackluster imitations of standardised suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

Clearly there are some differences between 1960s USA and 2009 Auckland, but I find it fascinating that for nearly 50 years now it has been clear in the minds of planners that what we’re doing isn’t working. Fortunately Auckland has escaped the worst of the ‘urban-blight’ that has affected the inner parts of many American cities, but I think in other ways we have gone through something quite similar – the massive building of urban areas that haven’t really turned out to be particularly good neighbourhoods. And yet we still plan them. And yet we still build them. What’s going on?

In my thesis, I looked at this paradox in terms of an urban sprawl versus urban intensification debate. Auckland’s planners have been concerned about the city’s sprawl for many decades now, and since 1999’s Regional Growth Strategy have had a specific strategy to ‘work towards’ as an alternative to the sprawl development that has dominated Auckland’s growth over the years. And yet sprawl still happens, with the only thing holding it back being the Metropolitan Urban Limits, which themselves are probably greatly under threat because of the effect they have on house prices (unsurprisingly, if you cut back on the supply of land for housing, but don’t make it easy enough for people to intensify, house prices will go up as housing supply goes down). The reason for this paradox, I suggested, was a sort of “collective action problem” where sprawl was individually nice for each of us – the big house, the big garage and so forth – but collectively messed things up, through congestion, high servicing costs and the loss of countryside.

Perhaps that is somewhat the case. However, when driving around Flat Bush it is a little hard to believe that even individually what has been created is some sort of excellent outcome. In other words, it’s a bit hard to believe that people would enjoy living a million miles from anywhere with incredibly poor transport connections, not having a dairy or any other shop within a 20, let along 5, minute walk from home and having the only green space nearby being a stormwater pond. I mean really, is the picture below likely to be anyone’s ‘paradise':

House prices tend to indicate that creating a ‘sense of community’ and being within walking distance of a range of amenities does count for something, with the higher prices in Auckland’s inner areas not just being the result of a shorter commute to work. So if people want to live in interesting, vibrant and varied suburbs with destinations within walking distance, if our planning strategies and plans also favour such outcomes, what’s going wrong here? Once again I return to the basic question – why are we continuing to build crap neighbourhoods?

I have a few more ideas myself about the answer(s) to this question, and they very much involve transportation matters. But I’m curious to hear what others think.

Progress on Avondale & New Lynn

I went through Avondale and New Lynn today, so decided to take just a few photos showing progress on the upgrades to the train stations in both these suburbs. I think most of the current focus is on getting the areas around Newmarket and Grafton sorted out, as there weren’t  a huge number of workers around, but it is clear that progress is being made on these upgrades during the rail shutdown period.

This photo is taken at Avondale looking west towards the St Jude’s Street level crossing. In the foreground is where the future Avondale station is being constructed. I think this station will open around the middle of the year, and will provide excellent access to and from the Avondale town centre.

This photo is from the same spot but looking the other way. It looks like the large, oddly shaped, pieces of concrete are what make up the base of the rail platforms. Judging by the fact that they’re lying all over the tracks, I assume these will be put in place over the next short while. Which means that by the time the Western Line is operational again (January 18th) the platforms for Avondale station should be largely completed.

This photo looks west once again, and shows exactly where the limit of double-tracking is now located. I wonder if Ontrack will take the opportunity of this rail shutdown to extend that limit further west, and minimise the length of single-track that remains between Avondale and New Lynn. I know that a lot of double-track has been constructed on the other side of St Jude Street, but it just hasn’t been hooked up yet.

Now at New Lynn, this photo looks west from where pedestrians cross at the rather bizarre Clark Street/Rankin Ave/Totara Ave intersection. As you can see the trench is now pretty much completed, and this photo shows what a particularly large job that was. All that seems necessary now is to lay the track, and to build the future New Lynn train station.

This photo looks the other way, towards where the future New Lynn train station will be located. I think that the big concrete slab over the trench is part of the future train station. It will certainly be fun watching this station be constructed over the next few months. Opening is in the middle of the year I think.

Things are certainly progressing quite well. Hopefully in the next couple of days I’ll have the opportunity to visit the Newmarket/Grafton area and take a few pics of what’s going on there. For more updates, Jon at Aucklandtrains.co.nz seems to be spending his entire holidays taking photos of the rail works going on around Auckland, so has regular updates.

The Annual Traffic Jam

The NZ Herald reports that the new Orewa-Puhoi motorway has done little to fix congestion heading northwards on the worst day of the year for traffic jams heading that way – December 27th. Instead of the bottleneck being through Orewa, it’s now where the two laned motorway cuts down to one lane – proof perhaps that road-widening generally shifts rather than solves congestion?

Holidays start with a 25km traffic block

Thousands of motorists spent hours stewing in traffic jams between Auckland’s Northern Gateway toll road and Warkworth yesterday.

Traffic started banking up north of Puhoi at about 10.30am, and three hours later was jammed for about 25km from Warkworth back to the Hillcrest Rd bridge over the southern end of the toll road at Orewa.

The worst problems were where lanes merged, whether at the end of passing lanes or at the northbound entry to the Johnstones Hill tunnel at the Puhoi end of the toll road.

It was not until 4pm that the Transport Agency reported a relatively free flow had been restored to the tunnel, which is confined to one northbound lane for safety reasons at the other end, where traffic from the alternative free coastal route through Orewa merges with State Highway 1.

Transport Agency northern highways manager Tommy Parker said State Highway 16 through Helensville remained free-flowing throughout yesterday as an alternative route to Wellsford, and drivers should always consider that option if travelling further north over the holiday period.

The agency regards December 27 as traditionally its second busiest day for traffic over the Christmas-New Year break after January 2 for the main road north from Auckland, with about 50 per cent more vehicles than the daily average, but Mr Parker said yesterday was even worse than usual.

“It was particularly bad this year – we have seen some quite large delays made worse by a lot of vehicles towing boats and caravans,” he said.

“We had expected the traffic would spread across a number of days, but people decided to travel on the same day.”

Mr Parker said traffic was unexpectedly light on Boxing Day, and he was at a loss to know why.

“Presumably people were all at the races or the sales.”

But after yesterday’s chaos, he was confident the traffic would also be “significantly lighter” today.

Despite extra difficulties observed by Herald staff where traffic ground to a standstill in attempted mergers at the end of passing lanes, Mr Parker said the agency was not considering temporarily closing the lanes to simplify flows.

He said that had not been done for years.

The agency had discontinued the practice because it believed some drivers became confused and erratic when confronted by cones blocking the lanes.

As well, the agency had no evidence that blocking the lanes improved flow.

Neither did he believe motorists had been short-changed by paying $2 to use the toll road, only to be forced to a slow grind little more than 2km along it, during the worst of yesterday’s congestion.

He said electronic signs south of the road warned drivers of queues ahead, giving them options of going to SH16 from the Silverdale interchange or using the Hibiscus Coast highway, which was also relatively free-flowing until it merged with SH1 near Puhoi.

The agency reported that other routes out of Auckland – including the Kopu Bridge at the gateway to Coromandel Peninsula – were relatively free of congestion yesterday.

But a police armed offenders’ squad callout caused traffic jams around Matatoki on the Thames-Paeroa road southeast of the Kopu Bridge.

Some people will scream for action – such as the proposed $2 billion Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. However, this is just one day a year that the road northbound gets stuffed up. I tend to think a better solution would be telling people to head north at a time other than midday on December 27th.

Kingdon Street station goes

After some last-ditch efforts to save the Newmarket West station, it appears as though today the station is being demolished. From Auckland Trains:

The debate about Kingdon continues this morning.

A dismayed ARC chairman Mike Lee, who had made a last minute plea for talks on the issue, called it “stupidity” and said: “As the saying goes ‘worse than a crime – a mistake.’”

And Campaign for Better Transport spokesman, Jon Reeves, told of the news, said: “And that was that. And in a few years time ATA (ex ARTA) will suggest a station for direct west services…..”

The debate is now over in that, by the end of today or lunchtime tomorrow, Kingdon St will be no more.

I have analysed this debate in detail previously, and come to the conclusion that keeping a station open at Kingdon Street is probably not worth it. However, I would also say that it seems a bit strange to actually demolish the station. Why not have it as a back-up? Or leave it open so that some services can go directly to Britomart, only stopping here?

I suppose it just seems strange to actually demolish a piece of rail infrastructure. And it will be annoying having to return to the bad old days of turning the trains around at Newmarket.

Merry Xmas

Well Merry Xmas everyone. I’ve finished with work for the year and a couple of weeks of very nice holidays beckon. It’s likely that my posting will reduce in frequency over the next couple of weeks, particularly in early January as I’m likely to be out of Auckland for a few days. I think it’s unlikely there will be any major transport stories, although it will be interesting to follow the works done to the rail corridors over the Xmas break.

As a Xmas present here’s a truly awesome video of Vancouver’s recently opened “Canada Line“:

Biggest Transport Stories of 2009

As we’re getting pretty close to the end of the year, we have the opportunity to look back at 2009 in a holistic manner. I suppose that overall it has been a topsy-turvy year for transport – with some particular highs and particular lows. I’m curious about analysing what people think was the biggest (or perhaps the series of biggest) transport stories for 2009.

Here are some ideas I have (going somewhat chronologically):

  1. The opening of the Orewa-Puhoi Motorway. Massive traffic jams and Steven Joyce’s announcement that he wanted to extend the motorway to Wellsford.
  2. The cancellation of the Regional Petrol Tax, throwing into doubt rail electrification, integrated ticketing and a variety of other projects.
  3. Changes to the Government Policy Statement, shifting masses of money into state highway building and away from other transport areas.
  4. The Super City announcements (partly related to transport!)
  5. The changes to the Waterview Connection route (which have subsequently largely been reversed).
  6. The Harbour Bridge Crossing. My word that was an enormous amount of fun – for one morning we stuck it to NZTA and took back the Harbour Bridge.
  7. The announcement of changes to the Public Transport Management Act. This will most likely be a bigger story during 2010, and didn’t get much press, but could certainly have some significant repercussions for Auckland transport.
  8. Integrated ticketing contract awarded to Thales. Although there was certainly a lot of drama surrounding this initial announcement in June – before things were finalised just a few weeks back.
  9. The bigger trucks debate. We still haven’t had it confirmed whether these larger trucks will be allowed on New Zealand’s roads yet.
  10. Announcement of a study into the CBD Rail Tunnel. Perhaps this could win the award for the most under-recognised transport story of the year.
  11. The Puhoi-Wellsford Motorway debate. Mike Lee’s “holiday highway” term has spread like wildfire.
  12. The establishment of the Auckland Transport Agency as the transport branch of the future Super City. Originally I thought this was a good step, now I’m very much not so sure.
  13. Possible cutbacks to electrification. Fortunately these didn’t happen quite so harshly in the end.
  14. Slow progress on the Onehunga Line. A source of much frustration for public transport campaigners, it finally looks like progress is being made on building the stations for this line.
  15. The $860 million widening of the Northwest Motorway. This one came rather out of the blue, and I think is an enormous waste of money due to induced traffic.
  16. The debate over prioritising projects. Otherwise known as the ARC versus the government.
  17. The release of the draft Regional Land Transport Strategy. Most probably Auckland’s best transport strategy in 60 years.
  18. The debate over whether Auckland’s next harbour crossing should be a bridge or a tunnel. Personally I vote for a rail tunnel and that’s it.
  19. The bus lock-out. I wonder if the NZ Bus public relations person has lost their job yet? What a botch-up that was on their behalf.
  20. The announcement of funding for Auckland’s rail electrification. Yay!
  21. The end of the Helensville train service. Many say it was doomed from the start and I would have to agree – Helensville is probably just not big enough to justify a rail service.
  22. Another change to the Waterview Connection route! We’re almost back to where we were pre-May, which I guess is a good thing for the local community.
  23. Transmission Gully gets the go ahead (not Auckland I know). This is despite it having an incredibly low cost-benefit ratio of around 0.3-0.5.
  24. The Snapper/Thales battle over integrated ticketing. I think in the end Thales have won – although that will depend on the extent to which the PTMA is gutted next year.

A pretty busy year all up actually. The two issues which drove the most traffic to this site were, interestingly enough, the May Waterview Connection announcement and the October bus lockout.

Your thoughts? Top story? Top 5? Anything I’ve missed?

Airport Wakes up to Importance of PT

After quite some time when nobody was really sure what the Auckland Airport company thought about the idea of a rail link from there to the CBD, it does indeed appear as though the airport has finally realised that this might indeed be a good idea. Importantly, they have made their voice loud and clear that it is not acceptable for the Regional Land Transport Strategy to predict that an Airport Line will not be constructed until 2031-40. Here’s the full press release:

Auckland Airport calls for accelerated public transport solutions

Auckland International Airport Limited (“Auckland Airport”) is calling on regional transport planners to accelerate improvements to Airport-related public transport services, including the eventual provision of an Airport rail link.

In its submission to the Auckland Regional Council on the draft Auckland Regional Land Transport Strategy (“RLTS”), Auckland Airport says plans for a Rapid Transit Network (“RTN”) link to the Airport, whether rail or some intermediate step, should be accelerated and ideally put in place prior to 2020. The draft RLTS proposes an Airport rail connection in the 2031-40 timeframe.

In the shorter term, public transport services should be upgraded to Quality Transit Network (“QTN”) standards (such as dedicated bus lanes) to provide an appropriate connection to the Airport from both the CBD and the North Shore.

The submission also points out there is no commitment in the RLTS to creating a direct connection to the CBD and other centres for both QTN and private transport. For the foreseeable future, the main CBD route will still be via the suburbs of Royal Oak and Epsom “this is fundamentally incompatible with the character of those suburbs which are predominantly residential and have a very high concentration of schools.”

Auckland Airport says public transport connections to the Airport are currently weak by international comparisons and as a consequence patronage is low. Although improvements are being made to Airport Express bus services, service quality is hampered by wide variances in travel times due to traffic congestion.

The submission notes the overall intention of the RLTS is to invest in public transport services ahead of demand. But there is no significant short-to-medium-term investment planned to ensure that the Airport has reliable public transport connections to the region that will be attractive enough to incentivise greater use. “Public transport connections to the Airport are already insufficient to meet existing demand and therefore require significant investment by transport authorities to bridge the existing gap before capacity for future growth can be provided.”

Auckland Airport General Manager Property Peter Alexander said: “We’ve made this submission as an advocate for the millions of travellers who fly into and out of Auckland Airport each year, the thousands of airport workers who commute on a daily basis, and the hundreds of companies that reside within or rely on the airport business district. Further improvements to ground transport links are essential if Auckland Airport is to maximise its already significant contribution to the Auckland regional and national economies.”

Although pleasing progress was being made on better roading infrastructure (such as the State Highway 20 upgrade and the second Manukau Harbour crossing), more needed to be done in the area of public transport, Mr Alexander commented.

A full copy of the Airport’s submission on the RLTS can be viewed here.

In previous years the Airport had been very lukewarm about the idea of a railway line. There are perhaps a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I think they realised that until recently the railway idea was very much a “pie in the sky” concept, and rather understandably they instead focused on more short-term gains like improving State Highway 20 and improving the AirBus service. Secondly, I think that the Airport has found themselves in a rather strange situation where the poor public transport links actually work in their favour – at least until now. They make a truckload of cash from charging people for parking, and they make money from licensing taxi operators as well. So really, I think that the Airport could never really manage to genuinely put some effort into improving public transport as there was a general perception that it would hurt their bottom line.

However, in more recent times I think the Airport has realised that all the land they have set aside for parking is in fact not necessarily the most economically productive use for land that is so well located in its proximity to the Airport. An airport hotel is under construction at the moment on land that used to be carparking, while the Airport also has longer term plans to turn the area into something of an “Airport Business District”. However, they have also realised that increasing numbers of people will need to get to and from the Airport over the next few decades, and in order for this to be possible there is simply no alternative to improving public transport.

There have of course been plans for an Airport Railway Line for a while now, most probably along the alignment shown in the map below:

Of course it’s anyone’s guess when the money might be available for such a project (one suspects it would have to happen instead of a whopping big state highway project, which seems unlikely in the current political climate). However, it is critical that the route for this line is protected as soon as possible – and the Airport want its final alignment to be sorted out so that they can redevelop their land with some certainty, which I think is a big part of their current “push” for this project. As even in a “best case scenario” it’s unlikely the line will be built for 10-15 years, there is also the need to work out ways to improve public transport in the here and now, and I also support the Airport’s push for better bus lanes – probably along Dominion Road – as an intermediate solution.

Hopefully a designation to protect the Airport Rail route is lodged some time in the near future, so we can move ahead on this project with some certainty.

Auckland vs Wellington – the transport battle

One of the most interesting aspects of following transport this year has been the emerging divide between what central government in Wellington wants to be the direction for transport to take, and what the Auckland Regional Council – and increasingly other local politicians – want. Perhaps most obviously, this difference shows up in the respective transport strategies of the two parties – the Government Policy Statement and the Regional Land Transport Strategy. Let’s compare paragraphs from their respective introductions to get an idea of the gap we’re talking about here.

First, the Government Policy Statement:

The GPS closely reflects the modal choices that are realistically available to New Zealanders. Approximately 70 percent of all freight in New Zealand goes by road, and 84 percent of people go to work by car, truck or motorbike, so we need good roads to move freight and people. The government supports some mode shift over time, especially in our major cities of Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch, but considers that this should not be accelerated to the point where the outcomes are economically inefficient.

And the Regional Land Transport Strategy:

There will inevitably be scepticism over perceptions that this is a ‘green’ transport strategy because it places increasing importance on developing public transport and anticipating and responding to sustainability challenges such as ‘peak oil’ and climate change, despite the Government’s priority of developing national roads. Roads have their place in any transport system as do trains, ferries and buses particularly in urban areas. A balanced investment is needed to ensure Auckland and Aucklanders are able to achieve their full economic and social potential with minimised environmental costs.

So yeah, quite a difference there. At times this difference has led to quite heated debate between Auckland and Wellington – particularly over the prioritisation of the Puhoi-Wellsford Road, known to most as “the Holiday Highway” (credit to Mike Lee for that name).

With Auckland becoming a “Super City” next year, the potential for this battle between Auckland and Wellington to intensify seemed to me as a fairly likely outcome. For as long as Auckland has been the biggest city in the country, yet Wellington remaining the capital, I think central governments have been quite happy to “divide and rule” over Auckland, to ensure that no Auckland local government would be strong enough to be a viable “counter-point” to what happens in the capital. The Super City is effectively an end to that tactic, as there is little doubt in my mind the future Auckland Council will be a very powerful body, and its future Mayor a very powerful person.

Bringing that same logic to transport matters, I would say that central government would have been pretty freaked out by the possibility of Auckland becoming a more powerful entity, particularly because of the diametrically opposed transport strategies that we have seen emerge over the past year. This would have presented a huge problem for the Minister and for NZTA, who are dead keen on spending around $11 billion on new state highways over the next decade, while Auckland’s local and regional politicians seem more focused on things like the CBD rail tunnel, rail to the airport and other public transport improvements. It would have been a pretty ugly and messy battle.

So what to do about this situation? Clearly there was a lot of discussion between those setting up entities such as the future Auckland Transport Agency, the drafters of the third Super-City bill, and others who find themselves involved in transport/local government matters. This is where ARC Councillor Joel Cayford, who has looked into the details of this bill in far greater depth than I have, provides some excellent analysis on his blog:

What Auckland Transport is, and how it differs from other CCOs

According to the Bill, this entity is “a body corporate with perpetual sucession” and “a council controlled organisation of the Auckland Council”.

But – and it’s a big “but” – various Local Government Act provisions relating to CCOs will not apply to Auckland Transport.

For example, Auckland Transport, does not have to comply with ss. 59, 60, 64 and 74 of the LGA. This means:

a) (s 59 does NOT apply) Therefore the principal objective of Auckland Transport is NOT to achieve the objectives of its shareholders (in this case Auckland Council), as specified in the statement of intent; and it is NOT to exhibit a sense of social and environmental responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates….; (My interpretation: Auckland Transport does NOT have to deliver the objectives of Auckland Council – which might be embodied in annual plans, policy statements, spatial plans.)

(b) (s 60 does NOT apply) Therefore decisions relating to the operation of Auckland Transport DON’T have to be made in accordance its statement of intent; and its constitution…; (My interpretation: Even if Auckland Transport has a Statement of Intent – or Constitution – its Board can make decisions that are not consistent.)

(c) (s 64 does NOT apply) Therefore Auckland Transport DOESN’T have to have a statement of intent that complies with the detailed information requirements set out in clause 9 of schedule 8 of the Local Government Act…; (My interpretation: The SOI requirements for Auckland Transport are totally undefined. It appears to be able to decide its own direction, with little reference to Auckland Council. Strangely, however, s34 of the Bill requires that Auckland Transport “must have a statement of intent that complies with the LGA” – so – I don’t know. Can’t have it both ways…)

(d) (s 74 does NOT apply) Therefore the usual official information provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act DON’T apply to Auckland Transport. (My interpretation: Auckland Transport will NOT be publicly accountable in the same way other CCO’s have been. However this is qualified by a specific provision which DOES make Auckland Transport subject to parts of LGOIMA.)

Those are important, although relatively technical matters, the real crunch is a bit harder to find:

One of the key functions of Auckland Transport is to “prepare the regional land transport programme for Auckland in accordance with the Land Transport Management Act 2003…”.

This is the area – as former chair of Auckland’s Regional Land Transport Committee, tasked with establishing Auckland’s Regional Land Transport Strategy – that I wanted understand. Took a little time to unwind. Not a happy experience….

The difference between the requirements for preparing the RLTP under the current system (on the left below) and the proposed system under “Auckland Transport” (on the right below) take a bit of analysis to figure out, but are quite telling:

You’ll see that s15(b) has gone. The key thing here is the loss of the power or influence of the Auckland Regional Land Transport Strategy to drive transport investment in Auckland. Previously, ARTA was required to “give effect to the RLTS”. Under these changes, the RLTS and the GPS are on the same policy level. Who knows how the Board of Auckland Transport will resolve any differences?

I think I know.

Once it’s all pulled together the consequences of this potentially minor difference in wording become clear:

What does it all mean?

Auckland Transport is not your usual “Council Controlled Organisation”. Because there are so many exceptions (noted above), and exemptions (noted above), and freedoms (noted above), really, Auckland Transport is a Crown Entity.

It is a Government Controlled Organisation.

If Auckland Transport is established as proposed, Auckland will lose something significant. It will lose its ability to determine its transport future. Auckland Council will become little more than an entity set up to extract rate revenues from Auckland ratepayers, and these revenues will then be directed to Auckland transport investments that central government considers are priorities in delivering its objectives, and not Auckland Council objectives.

So I guess that’s how central government has worked out how to avoid battling with regional and local councillors over transport matters. It will simply bypass them through the establishment of Auckland Transport, and the legislation which requires Auckland Transport to take into account central government’s policy directives as what the Auckland Council wants to do.

When we remember that Auckland Transport won’t have any say over what happens to state highways and railway lines anyway, it’s starting to become pretty obvious that the future Auckland Council won’t have much power at all when it comes to transport matters.

Waterview Connection route changes AGAIN!

An interesting announcement by NZTA today that the preferred alignment for the Waterview Connection motorway link has changed again – and quite significantly so.Here’s the full press release from NZTA:

Fewer affected homes and less disruption for revised Western Ring Route

Design improvements for the Waterview Connection section of Auckland’s Western Ring Route will require fewer houses and significantly reduce disruption to residents and commuters on Great North Road.

The NZ Transport Agency Board has confirmed a final alignment for SH20 from Mt Roskill to the Northwestern Motorway that will reduce the number of houses affected to 205 compared to the 365 estimated in May when the combined surface tunnel option was announced.

Of the 205, 140 are already owned by NZTA. Of the 65 residential properties still to be acquired 27 are newly affected, because of the revised alignment and resulting revisions to the rail designation in the Alan Wood Reserve area. It is anticipated that only three of these houses will need to be removed when the corridor is developed, with the remainder requiring partial land purchase from the rear of the section.

Board chairman Brian Roche says a concerted effort to develop project design to minimise community impacts combined with a better understanding of local geology had allowed the NZTA to shorten the SH20 route while making the tunnelled section deeper and longer.

“This refinement to the combined surface-tunnel route means the tunnels will be continuous from where they go underground in Alan Wood Reserve to where they rise to the surface to meet SH16 at Waterview Park. It will eliminate the previous gap between the two tunnelled sections.

“Building the tunnels further east without a gap between them can be completed within the original project budget and is the most cost effective option for constructing this section while also responding well to community concerns with the previous proposal.”

“Keeping the tunnels deeper means they can be extended further north which significantly reduces disruption on Great North Rd. Only a short length of surface construction will be required to allow the tunnel to cross underneath. All of this will help to reduce community effects,” he said.

In addition to the reduced surface property effects, the need to purchase underground land from residential properties above the tunnels reduces slightly from 111 to 105. The changes to the alignment mean that about 60 of these properties are newly affected.

Mr Roche said the board had decided against including a central interchange at New North Road because it would contravene accepted safety standards for traffic merging, remove more housing and open space and increase traffic through Avondale.

The NZTA is working closely with Auckland City to replace council land required for the project and upgrade facilities to allow for increased use. Improved linkages for the community are also planned through pedestrian and cycle bridges that will better connect local reserves.

Mr Roche said that while the Board was pleased that the new alignment would go a long way to addressing community concerns, they remained keenly aware of the impact on affected residents and property owners.

“Completing the Western Ring Route is crucial for New Zealand’s economic development, but we recognise that the concerns of affected communities are real, and we are committed to continuing to work with them as the project is progressed.”

The design development for both SH20 and the SH16 improvements from St Lukes to Te Atatu will be shared with the community at a project expo planned for late February 2010.

Construction on the project is likely to start in mid to late 2011 with an anticipated completion date in the 2015/16 financial year.

Here’s a map showing the difference between the two alignments:

The new alignment supposedly will affect less houses, and certainly will reduce impacts on Great North Road during construction. It appears to involve a significantly longer tunnel than the previous option, with the length of the full tunnel getting somewhat close to the length of the tunnel in the original, pre-May announcement. There are certainly some positives, some negatives and some as yet unknown outcomes from this change of alignment.

Positives:

  • As stated above, this route will affect fewer houses. This is particularly the case along Great North Road, where the previous alignment involved huge effects on properties along this road through Waterview.
  • The length of the tunnel has been increased, and there’s no messy portal halfway between two tunnels.
  • The impacts along Great North Road will be far less significant than in the previous option.

Negatives:

  • Now that Great North Road isn’t being touched, I think it’s very very unlikely we’ll see NZTA sending much money towards Auckland City Council for the previously mooted bus lane upgrades.
  • Cost. It’s hard to imagine how this option can cost the same as the May 2009 option.
  • Potential effects on open space land through Phyllis Street reserve (is the motorway a bored tunnel there or cut and cover?)
  • Potential effects on Oakley Creek. Once again this depends on whether the motorway is a bored tunnel or cut and cover.

Unknowns:

  • As noted above, it’s not really that well known whether the motorway is a bored tunnel or cut and cover. This will have a huge impact on the level of effect it has on Phyllis Street Reserve and Oakley Creek. It will also have a huge effect on the cost of the project.

Subject to confirmation that the whole tunnel will now be bored/driven (as opposed to cut and cover), I think that this change is a positive step and the new alignment will have reduced effects on the community and on the environment. Now if only they could underground the motorway through Allan Wood Reserve we’d be back to where we started.

How on earth did that extra tunnel through Allan Wood Reserve end up being the difference between a $1.4 billion price tag and a $2.77 billion price tag? Something strange is going on.

Fewer affected homes and less disruption for revised Western Ring Route

Balancing transport

As a planner, a lot of my work is based around the much-maligned Resource Management Act, and various aspects of it. This piece of legislation generally finds itself being attacked on multiple fronts – whether it’s from land developers considering it as far too much “red tape” for anyone’s good, or whether it’s from environmentalists thinking that it’s far too weak in protecting the environment. Probably they’re both right, and perhaps that says that it’s doing its job not too badly.

After all, resource management and planning is all about balance. About finding the right balance between letting people “do stuff” to provide for their, and society’s, wellbeing; while at the same time ensuring that the environment is adequately protected. This balance is outlined in Section 5 of the RMA, which is the core “purpose” of that Act:

(1) The purpose of this Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

(2) In this Act, sustainable management means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing and for their health and safety while—

  • (a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
  • (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and
  • (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.

While the RMA is an incredibly complex piece of legislation which (after the recent poorly named “Streamline and Simplification” amendment bill added nearly 100 pages to its length) is well over 700 pages long in print version, in the end it all comes back to this core section 5 – which outlines that everything in the Act is about finding a balance between allowing use and development while at the same time protecting the environment for future generations. To me, this means finding “win-win” situations wherever possible, and making sure that if we do have a negative in any way, that’s balanced by a positive – which is where remedying and mitigating come into play. Of course, if something in unavoidably negative then it should either be avoided, or its benefits need to be particularly significant to justify the “loss”.

As I have explained in previous posts, I think that I take this “balance” approach to my thinking about transport – and it greatly influences how I perceive the interaction between transport and the urban environment. In short, we need to get around our city to make it possible for us to “provide for our wellbeing”, but at the same time the process of moving from one place to the next has an effect on the location which you’re passing through. So there’s a balance to be struck between getting people around, and ensuring the way in which you’re getting them around doesn’t ruin the city.

I sense that there’s a growing realisation of the downside of getting the balance wrong, with too much focus on the “through-movement” and not enough focus on the effect that has on our cities. Auckland City Council’s reactions to both the Waterview Connection and State Highway 16 project make it appear as though they recognise a need to ensure that these large (and very expensive) motorway projects have their environmental effects on the local community avoided (where possible) remedied or mitigated – as shown in point (c) of the purpose of the RMA. And we’re not just talking about “natural” environmental effects like stormwater runoff, effects on vegetation and the like – we’re talking about clearly “human” effects, like the way in which motorways can divide communities, the effects on the functioning of town centres and other similar stuff.

It is not just in managing the effects of motorway projects where finding a balance between shifting people and protecting the attractiveness of our cities is necessary. In my opinion it’s about working out how that balance varies according to different places. A large city like Auckland of course needs to shift a lot of people and stuff around, but certainly we don’t want to give up all our streets to that process. In high pedestrian areas like the CBD we should be balancing much further towards the quality of the urban environment, and less towards simply shifting people through the place.

As well as ensuring that negatives are balanced by positives, as I stated above good planning and resource management is about finding the “win-win” situations. In a transport sense, that means finding out ways in which we can shift people yet at the same time do that in a way that positively impacts on the urban environment – or at the very least has a small to negligible adverse effect on the environment. Clearly, urban environments where people feel encouraged to walk and cycle are likely to be “win-win situations” to some extent, although there are limits to the distance that people are willing to walk. I have a pretty strong belief that the more we provide for private vehicles to travel through a space, the more that space is degraded – so that leaves us with looking into public transport options.

While I will admit that stacks of railway tracks most certainly aren’t beautiful, and railway lines can be just as dividing for urban communities as motorways, there’s certainly something about public transport which means that we end up “embracing” our urban environment, as opposed to the situation when people are isolated in their cars – where the result is an effective “dis-engagement” with the city. When I use public transport I walk to the bus stop, I wait at the stop with other people, I make a connection with my surrounds through my walk. Then, at the other end of my trip I wander down Queen Street before I get to work. In the evening the same is true again, I wander through the city on my way to the bus stop – engaging with the city all the time and adding (in a small way) to the place’s vibrancy.

On the other hand, someone driving from their own (potentially internal) garage to a parking building, then staying inside yet again between the parking building and their eventual workplace, followed by doing the opposite at the end of the day, simply doesn’t engage at all with the city around them. Over time, this lack of “human-scale” interactions between people and their surrounds means that the city ends up being built at a scale that is most suited to cars, rather than people, and we end up with the awful mess many parts of Auckland are in at the moment. It seems that without the interaction with their environment that people get from walking around the city, to the bus stop, to the train station, we somehow lose something, perhaps a connection with where we live, perhaps over time we also end up caring less about the area we travel through – as we’re far more isolated and ‘protected’ from it in the capsule of our cars.

This loss of interaction with the city, in my opinion, leads to the balance between shifting people through the city and keeping the city’s quality being upset – in favour of movement. Just another part of auto-dependency I suppose.