Follow us on Twitter

Transport for suburbia: density is not destiny

Paul Mees’s new book, Transport for Suburbia: beyond the automobile age, arrived at my place yesterday and I have made a brief start on it over the last day and a bit. I suspect that as I make my way through this book there will be a number of worthy bits of it to blog about, and perhaps a few diagrams to post for discussion. Of particular interest is that I noticed there are about 10 pages of the book dedicated to Auckland’s transport situation. It will be interesting to see what Mees has to say about Auckland.

The central argument of this book appears to be that top quality public transport is very much possible to provide in low-density suburban cities – such as Auckland, Melbourne and most other places in North America and Australasia. Mees doesn’t necessarily argue that land-use planning is irrelevant when it comes to creating a city that is more public transport friendly, but rather that low-density suburbia shouldn’t be used as an excuse by transport planners to write off public transport. Indeed, it seems as though this book focuses on providing a range of examples where top quality public transport is provided in cities with relatively low population densities.

A few particularly interesting paragraphs that I’ve found in the first chapter takes a critical look at those who focus on land-use planning exercises to improve public transport, instead of simply focusing on improving transport policy and planning. Here they are:

“Urban planners across Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand insist that transport patterns are outcomes of urban form. The way to improve public transport is through compact cities, new urbanism, smart growth and transit-oriented design. In the words of one prominent New Urbanist, ‘we have to earn our transit through urbanism’. There is much less interest in directly tackling transport policy, reflecting a mindset among planners that goes back decades. Transport planning is boring and mathematical; design is artistic and creative. Planners ‘own’ city design; transport means working with engineers and economists, who are much better at maths than us. Urban design is what we do; transport planning is what other people do.

Many transport planners are happy to agree with these arguments. Even Switzerland has powerful highway agencies that specialise in building new and expanded roads. The professionals who staff these agencies are intelligent enough to realise that, as communities become more concerned about the environment, questions will increasingly be asked about the wisdom of continued large-scale road-building. The notion that urban form, rather than transport policy, determines transport outcomes is convenient for these bodies. It can also suit those responsible for providing public transport, because it pins the blame for poor services on suburban residents rather than public transport providers.

At first glance it might seem as though Mees is taking a different position to where I sit. I strongly believe that there needs to be better integration between land-use planning and transportation planning, and I do think that land-use changes can drive transport changes. But really, I don’t think Mees is arguing that’s not the case. His main point is that transport planners need to stop making excuses that their cities are too low density for public transport. In this corner of the world we can clearly see Mees’s point being shown as true: with Brisbane and Perth having significantly lower population densities than Auckland, yet significantly higher per-capita public transport usage. Why? Because they’ve invested in their networks and they’ve got transport planning right.

The other critical matter to consider is that if we’re relying on land-use planning changes to “fix transport” then chances are we’re going to be waiting a very long time. While there has been something of an ‘urban revival’ of inner city areas in many cities around the world – perhaps due to movements promoting Compact Cities, New Urbanism and so forth – it would seem as though most urban growth in developed world cities continues to be via sprawl. Mees picks up on this point:

Even if we wanted to see the end of suburbia… this would require the rebuilding of entire urban regions – a task that might take a century even if it were affordable or politically possible.

The difficulty of the task can be seen in the glacial rate of progress in the two decades since ideas like new urbanism and the compact city became dominant among planners. The amount of new housing that has been built in accordance with these ideas is vanishingly small, but more importantly, there is little reliable evidence that it has produced any appreciable reduction in automobile use. The slide shows look great, but where are the data on mode share? The new urbanist solution risks becoming like the new religion lampooned by G.K. Chesterton back in the 1920s: ‘it only manages to remain as the New Religion by always coming tomorrow and never today.’

Just to make the point clear – Mees does not advocate for sprawl and does not say that urban form has no influence on transportation outcomes. He notes that there certainly are things that land-use planners can do to encourage public transport use, as well as more walking and cycling. However, in the end it’s no match for actually doing the immediate job properly – and that’s planning transport the right way. And actually this is very good news for Auckland. While there are many reasons for Auckland to intensify around its transport corridors, and this will make a difference in the longer term, Mees’s argument is that we don’t have to wait 30 years to have decent public transport if we sort out how to plan it properly. Our relatively low population density does not mean that we’re destined to have poor public transport. Density is not destiny.

There is certainly more to come!

12 comments to Transport for suburbia: density is not destiny

  • Al

    Good question. Does land use and urban form shape (public) transport patterns, or do transport patterns influence land use. Of course the answer is both. But certainly the ability of (public) transport provision to influence land use and urban form is often the neglected one, but possibly the most relevant one for us.

    The problem is that buses (that is conventional bus provision as we currently know it) do not influence land use in any meaningful way. The assumption is that buses can go almost anywhere, but the provision can change overnight, and buses are still subject to congestion and delays. In other words, they fail to offer significant benefit over the car.

    Fixed rail (light or heavy) on the other hand is recognised as being permanent and largely avoids the roads (and therefore regular congestion). Consequently, a fixed rail system will have a significant influence on land use decisions – where people choose to live and where businesses choose to locate. This is clearly evident in cities with good fixed rail systems, with land use around rail stations commanding up to a 15% premium (Peter Newman talks about this frequently).

    Check out this video, even cities like Phoenix are realising the land use benefits of fixed transit…
    http://www.streetfilms.org/phoenixs-metro-light-rail-takes-flight/

    But I accept the expense of fixed rail can be enormous and prohibitive. The trick is therefore to get our buses to behave like fixed rail or trams. Provide more segregation from traffic, more doors / entrances, smart card or pre-paid ticketing, simple easy to remember routes etc.

    Check out the Phileas system in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
    This video is really cheesy, but does show a bus that acts like a tram, without the infrastructure investment. Is this a good lesson for us?

  • Wow excellent comment and thanks for those links. I agree the answer is certainly “both” land use effects transport and transport effects land use. I would argue the latter relationship is much stronger though.

    I think planners (and I myself was very guilty of this for a long time) have an assumption that people will want to build and develop where they are told to. I think that simply is not the case. They will build where there is demand, and demand strongly depends on transport accessibility or perceived transport accessibility.

  • Nick R

    Al, I agree with you regarding basic bus serivices inability to have a significant outcome on urban form and the value of fixed (usually rail based) public transport infrastructure. I think Auckland in particular needs to expand the trunk rail network to all corners of the region, plus investigate more light rail or busways on medium capacity routes between and around the trunk.

    But let’s not turn our back on the local bus just yet, suburban buses shouldn’t be the backbone of the system but they will always be the foundation.

    One of Mees’ strongest pushes is for the integration of local buses into a wider interconnected network that takes in core rail based trunk routes. This doesn’t involve changing much about the nature or operation of local buses, but more about shifting their function to a local feeder/connector routes. The theory is that by rearranging routes to connect with each other and permanent guideway systems via passenger connections, you can create a wide reaching efficient transport network using basically the same amount of vehicles and drivers. Furthermore such a ‘network effect’ should lead to greater occupancy rates across the board, in particular this would avoid the situation where roughly half of your bus miles are near empty counter-flow return runs. Therefore this arrangement could lead to a much greater farebox recover ratio (perhaps even approach net profitability) if you can use the same amount of vehicles, staff and infrastructure but keep them mostly full all the time.

    I agree with Mees in this regard, i.e. you can have a bus through you suburb every ten minutes or so that doesn’t necessarily head downtown, but rather connects to you local shopping centre, civic facilities, train or busway station and other nearby bus routes. With this local could take this one bus for all their travel needs, either by accessing local facilities directly or by connecting to trunk routes to other parts of the city. There would be no need for more than one bus in each suburb, and hence they would be well utilised with high patronage.

  • Nick R

    Hey Jarbury, just took a look at an excerpt from Mees’s new book online, the first chapter about Monash Transport 101 describes exactly what I do every day to get to work, train to Huntingdale station then Smartbus to the campus!

    Mees is quite right about the terrible interchange facilities (although a touch better than not having any at all, a la Auckland) and as he notes there was a total lack of timetable integration back when I started working at Monash almost two years ago. Recently there is almost always a bus waiting for the train, due in part to the 10 minute frequencies they now run on and some adjustments to the timetables. However in the evening there are still some routes that consistently arrive back at the station two minutes after the train has left.

    Anyway, a good example of how something as simple as a negligible timetabling adjustment can turn two ineffective routes into an actual system.

    A few months ago I enquired about salary packaging a monthly metcard, quite a common thing in some companies here where the metcard is considered part of your remuneration package and the cost is taken out of your pre tax pay. The response I got from the Monash administration was “why would you need to package a metcard? We already have salary packaging of staff parking permits available.”

    Can you believe that?!

  • LOL Nick, looks like Monash’s terrible PT is ingrained in their thinking. I thought that chapter might be relevant to you.

  • Nick R

    It is I think, because we are a mostly suburban, car based, freeway-accessed campus perhaps we tend to think along those lines due to daily expereience. Monash is a very young university and was only built in the 1960s just as modernist planning became mainstream.

    That’s certainly something Mees said in one of his lectures, that the Monash Institue of Transport Studies has some good ideas for public transport but they always feel the need to defend new freeway projects and the like at the same time.

    In a way Mees concepts are sort of the ‘unified field theory’ of transport planning, where you can have effective and cheap public transport without ‘unAustralian’/anti-quater-acre-paradise concepts like limiting suburbs or backyards and forcing people to live in mixed use high rises.

  • Yes I think his main point is that we shouldn’t use land-use patterns as an excuse to not try our best to get public transport right.

  • Luke

    I do wonder sometimes whether we spend too much time looking at how to plan new areas of the city. This is certainly necessary, and we still haven’t got it right yet. In fact we seem to be almost be getting worse with Albany, Westgate, Flat Bush etc. However just as big an issue in many places will be how to adopt existing areas of the city to cope with a resource strained age. This will be especially acute in the areas that have developed between about WWII and the present day. This is much more of an issue for transport planners than urban designers, because it is not feasible to totally redesign the land uses and layouts of existing low-density housing areas and office/industrial parks. So therefore it will have to be built around getting the transit networks to function much more effectively, so they can serve a wide range of origin and destination points. The interesting thing is that those suburbs that developed prior to WWII, especially the tramline suburbs will handle this change much easier because of their generally simple, linear nature.

  • Luke a LOT of effort has gone into trying to encourage Auckland to intensify over the past 10 years. We have had the metropolitan urban limit effectively place a fence around Auckland and not allow much urbanisation outside it.

    Yet in many ways this hasn’t worked well. We haven’t seen the level of intensification that was hoped for, we haven’t seen the pressure for sprawl decline, and we haven’t really seen Auckland develop in a way that’s more public transport friendly or in fact, more environmentally friendly. There seems to be something missing from the mix.

    Heritage matters are an issue when it comes to intensifying inner suburbs, although there are plenty of former light-industrial areas with masses of development potential. But over the past decade it generally hasn’t happened. Why not I wonder?

  • Luke

    I think development finance may well be another issue, and this is likely to get even harder to get following the destruction of the 2nd tier finance sector. These multi-storey projects are generally highly specualtive ventures, with very high financing costs for the developers. The govt(local and central) needs to take more a lead approach, especially when you’re looking at major redevelopment of the larger light-industrial areas. I believe this is reasonably common overseas, but the lesser govt approach seems to have killed off a lot of this.
    Ventures such as the Talbot Park (Glen Innes) Housing NZ redevelopment were a good start, but I would assume this would have be killed off with the new govt.

    I also understand Flat Bush is being jointly developed between MCC and a developer. However it will be interesting to see how this is getting along as the several of the developer Nigel McKenna’s projects have gone bust, so Flat Bush may stall for a few years as well.

  • jonathon letts

    I remember clearly the old quarry near Lynn Rd and near Marua Rd(that’s another interesting story jarbury, but one thing at a time) in ellerslie panmure
    being talked about as high density housing for the 21st century. I haven’t returned to Auckland since 2000 so what’s going on there? relatively close to meadowbank station as a transit point to town. Would be keen on a reply here.
    I said a few weeks back Govt needs to get back into housing in a big way…andnot just from a transit perspective but a democratic one…the property market is getting ridiculous…my parents for example own about 6 houses and are creaming it,
    yet many generations can even dream of purchasing (not blaming my parents here, they see opportunity so good for them)..but there really should be a reinjection of decent housing for families….. Building apartments non stop here in Korea. i think govt here in korea gives huge tax-breaks and incentives to apartment buildin companies.

  • Luke

    the development of the old quarry is progressing, albeit slowly. Checkout http://www.stonefields.co.nz, or take a look on google maps to see what has happened so far. Unfortunately it will certainly not be an affordable subdivision. Minimum house prices are $600,000.
    The developers themselves are often to blame for the high price of new houses. They progress their subdivisions very slowly, only allowing small amounts of houses onto the market to keep the price elevated. Therefore developments like this take upwards of 10 years to complete. They also seem to large build very large houses, when you might think that with an ageing population we would need more smaller, 2 bedroom houses that are more suitable for retired people.

Leave a Reply