Feedback sought on Holiday Highway

NZTA’s consultation process for constructing the Holiday Highway has kicked off in a rather interesting fashion – as they’re inviting people to help “uncover Dome Valley’s secrets”. Here’s the media release:

Uncovering Dome Valley’s secrets – NZTA needs your help!

The new Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance is about the future but the NZ Transport Agency says planning and construction of the route also has a lot to do with its historic past and its present day environment.

One area attracting attention from the NZTA as its consults with local people about the new highway is the Dome Valley, which includes a section of the existing State Highway 1.

“This part of Rodney is significant for two very different reasons – one has to do with its past and the other with the present,” says the NZTA’s State Highways Manager for Auckland and Northland Tommy Parker.

The Dome Forest Conservation Area is acknowledged as containing a number of important heritage sites such as an historic log skidder close to the current highway. It is also the home to the endangered Hochstetter frog, one of four remaining native New Zealand frogs which is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The area is classified as an Outstanding Nature Landscape by the Auckland Regional Council due to its mature native vegetation, including kauri, rimu and kahikatea.

“Working together with the local community, local authorities and interested parties to identify special areas is vital for NZTA. Pinpointing as many special areas like this as possible helps us to do our very best to design a specific route that acknowledges those areas and provides mitigation where required,” Mr Parker says.

Other examples of important sites include businesses like Southern Paprika Limited north of Warkworth, family graves in rural areas, places of importance to Maori, and special fauna and flora such as rare native mistletoe.

“When it comes to the fine detail in planning the route of a new highway, there is no substitute for local information,” says Mr Parker.

Any further information on the project and the current consultation process can be found at www.nzta.govt.nz/puhoi-wellsford.

You are able to give rather specific feedback by filling in the “online consultation form”, which can be found here. I suggest with any feedback provide a liberal sprinkling of “this is a complete and utter waste of money” and “you’re condemning a lot of people to their deaths by not doing a safety upgrade to the road earlier“. I’ll put together my feedback and post it up here some time in the next few days once I’ve had the opportunity to have a good think about it.

One thing that is interesting, and it’s a bit of a conspiracy theory I suppose, is the slight feeling I get from reading that media release that NZTA kind of want problems for the road to come out of the woodwork, and want us to get an idea about how sensitive the environment through Dome Valley is in particular. I didn’t know that it was the home of the endangered Hochstetter Frog, I didn’t know that it as classified as an Outstanding Natural Landscape. To be honest, it’s actually rather odd that NZTA are telling us all this, as usually they try to downplay the environmental impact of any proposal.

Which is where my conspiracy theory comes in. Maybe this is a ploy by NZTA to invite problems for the project, because they’re smart enough to realise how utterly stupid it is, and what a complete waste of money it would be. Just as was the case for the review of the Harbour Crossing options – which I think Steven Joyce intended so that consideration of the ANZAC Bridge would occur, but that option has effectively been written off at the outset by 10 million uses of the word additional, I wonder if NZTA are almost trying to invite enough problems to ensure the project can’t get going before we have a different transport minister who’d be smart enough to can the whole thing.

Perhaps I’m completely wrong here and NZTA are just doing their job properly for once by trying to fully understand the constraints before they go and slam a motorway through an incredibly sensitive environment, but I’m sceptical. If my ‘conspiracy theory’ idea is right, then I have just three words to say:

Great work NZTA.

Parking and St Lukes

There’s a particularly large planning application (in the form of Private Plan Change 8) working its way through the Auckland City Council system at the moment, which relates to the possible expansion of the St Lukes shopping centre. The proposed expansion is pretty damn big – upping the possible size of the mall from around 45,000 m2 of floor area to a maximum of 92,500 m2, of which some would be office rather than retail. Similarly, the already rather large 2,018 space carpark would be increased to match the growth of the mall – to something near 4,000 spaces.

Along with 1100 others, I made a submission on the proposal – supporting some aspects of it but opposing others. I noted that some improvements would occur, such as enhanced integration with the surrounding area (the plan proposes to open up the mall to the street more, so it’s not just a big white box in a carpark) and attempts to improve walking/cycling/public transport access. However, I felt that overall these improvements were absolutely not counter-balanced by the negative effects that the enlargement would have – most particularly in terms of its traffic effects.

As someone who has lived near St Lukes for most of my life, and someone who still visits it fairly regularly, I’m aware of the well-known fact that the street network that surrounds the mall is pretty much at capacity during busy times. The traffic report with the plan change did not dispute this fact.  Furthermore, the traffic report confirmed the extremely low proportion of visitors to the mall who use public transport (under 5%), and the relatively low proportion of visitors to the mall who walk or cycle there. As I’ve noted in my recent attempts to improve the bus routes along New North and Sandringham roads, St Lukes is located in an extremely poor and downright annoying place when it comes to public transport. Compared to just about every other shopping mall in Auckland, it is much more difficult to serve well. There’s no train station nearby (unlike Sylvia Park, Henderson, New Lynn and Newmarket), there’s no bus hub nearby (unlike Henderson, New Lynn, Manukau City, Newmarket and in the future Albany) and it’s not even in a location that’s easy to serve with a logical bus route (unlike pretty much every other mall in Auckland). Somewhat bizarrely, the Booz Allen report which accompanied the plan change had this to say about the level of public transport service for St Lukes: Geez, I’m utterly terrified to think what their standard would be for a shopping centre poorly served by public transport. In the real world, bus services aren’t particularly frequent along New North Road & Sandringham Road (at least not the ones that divert to St Lukes), while the railway line is so distant that not even 1 per cent of visitors to St Lukes use it – which means that it can effectively be deemed irrelevant.

So ultimately, it is going to be a big challenge to significantly improve this 4% figure – which means that at St Lukes grows it is inevitable that unless something pretty drastic is done, most people will continue to drive there and the streets will be clogged up more and more. This will be particularly exacerbated by roughly doubling the amount of on-site carparking. To avoid this traffic nightmare, my submission proposed a cap on the amount of parking, and a cap on the amount of additional floorspace that could be developed until the modeshare of public transport, walking and cycling was increased (in other words, put the ball in Westfield’s court as to how they’d go about reducing their own car dependency).

In assessing the plan change proposal, Auckland City’s planner has recommended approval, but with a number of potentially quite interesting alterations. I’ll talk about the amendments that relate to public transport first, and then get on to the parking issue. This is what’s said about public transport:   I disagree with the final paragraph that it’d be impossible to propose a restriction – as in my opinion a District Plan rule can say whatever council wants it to say. Overall, it seems as though the planner’s report clearly recognises the problem that the plan change does nothing much to improve public transport – but then the planner backs away from actually trying to remedy that issue. A pity.

Looking at parking now, this is where things start to get quite interesting. The current mall has around one parking space per 22 m2 of floor space, and Westfield were proposing to retain that sort of ratio – although as a minimum rather than a maximum. However, perhaps as a result of my submission – and certainly it would seem as the result of pressure from ARTA and NZTA – the council wants to propose a maximum parking rate of 1 space for every 25 m2 of retail floor space. This is a step in the right direction, if a small one. However, Westfield are exceedingly grumpy about not being able to build as many carparks as they’d like (I often joke that they’d build a carpark over their grandmother they’re so keen on them). Westfield’s transport expert has this to say about why restricting parking is, in their opinion, the worst thing possible in the whole wide world: Let’s work through these points one by one. With regard to the first point, well the whole entire idea of restricting parking is to make it more annoying to drive and park there, and therefore encourage people to use alternative transport options. You only need to get stuck in a carpark for half an hour trying to find a carpark to learn that perhaps next time you should catch the bus or train there, or go at a more off-peak time. All of which are good things for the surrounding road network, as they reduce the peak-time loads on it. If restricting parking supply didn’t cause frustration and on-site congestion then there wouldn’t be any point to doing it!

In terms of the second point, that’s a complete red-herring as a District Plan rule or resource consent condition could require a certain amount of parking spaces be set aside for staff. Furthermore, isn’t it a good thing to encourage staff to use transport methods other than driving in order to get to work?

In terms of the third point, once again – discouraging those extra road trips to St Lukes at peak times is the whole point of restricting parking supply. I disagree that it would necessarily involve people travelling further to other shopping centres, as one could equally argue that people from afar would travel a long way to St Lukes (and therefore clog up the roads) if its parking was unrestricted. Nobody knows for sure which argument is stronger, so I think it should remain a moot point. What is obvious is that restricting parking would restrict the number of shoppers (unless Westfield actually got serious about trying to attract more people via public transport, walking and cycling rather than paying lip-service to it) and therefore hurt Westfield’s bottom-line. But, at risk of repeating myself, that is the point of restricting parking: to restrict the number of people that can drive to the shopping mall and therefore encourage more sustainable transport options.

There’s actually quite a lot of support for restricting parking supply from various agencies. NZTA’s planning expert has this to say:

ARTA’s planning expert has this to say: In my opinion even a 1:25m2 maximum is pretty tame compared to what is probably really necessary to help ensure St Lukes doesn’t just become a bigger traffic generating monster than it is now, and doesn’t make traffic jams around it even worse than they currently are. I remain enormously sceptical of the traffic modelling outputs that say (with a straight face, unbelievably) that doubling the size of the mall will not have a major impact on traffic, and will only require a few upgrades (like one more lane on Morningside Drive and one more set of traffic lights to access Exeter Road). One does wonder how a full 4000 space carpark will not create a lot more congestion than a full 2000 space carpark on the surrounding road network.

I still remain of the opinion that the development should be ‘capped’ at certain levels of additional floor area until the percentage of people accessing the mall via private vehicle can be reduced. This would ensure that effects on the road network are minimised and to ensure that St Lukes can be a step in the right direction in integrating transport and land-use – rather than a continuation of the extremely horrible “predict and provide” status quo that has led to Auckland being one of the most auto-dependent cities in the world. It would also force Westfield to be a bit creative about encouraging more people to use public transport to get to the mall (like providing them with free tickets with every $20 purchase perhaps?)

However, shifting to maximum parking rates is a step in the right direction, and it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is on that matter. Hopefully one day Westfield’s thinking on this issue will be dragged into the 21st century out of the dark ages, and they’ll realise that it’s actually in their own best interests to promote public transport, walking and cycling – after all it’s probably damn expensive building carparks!

Public Transport Lecture

I’m not sure if I will be able to make this, but it certainly looks interesting: If you do make it, it’d be great to hear how this went.

Simplifying bus routes: the east isthmus

Continuing on with my series of post about simplifying the structure of Auckland’s bus network, I thought that after a couple of reasonably simple routes (Sandringham Road and New North Road), I thought I’d take on a really horrible challenge: the eastern isthmus area of Auckland. Why do I say “really horrible”? Well, this is what the existing route structure looks like (focusing on the area to the east of the motorway): As someone recently put it quite aptly, it looks like someone threw spaghetti at a map of Auckland and that became the route network. Apart from Ellerslie-Panmure Highway, Remuera Road and (to a lesser extent) Tamaki Drive, there aren’t many core bus routes here like you get on the other side of the isthmus (where you have a whole succession: Great North Road, New North Rd, Sandringham Rd, Dominion Rd etc. etc.) This lack of structure to the street network makes life much more difficult when it comes to putting together an effective bus network, but I guess on the other hand we have the advantage in this part of Auckland of a railway line running through the middle of the area we’re looking to serve. This is shown in the map below: So the green lines form our “Rapid Transit Network” (RTN). Add to that the major radial suburb to CBD routes that would form a good part of our “Quality Transit Network” (QTN), which largely travel along the three main routes I noted above: Ellerslie-Panmure Highway, Remuera Road and Tamaki Drive. This is shown in the map below: As per my previous diagram of how I think Auckland’s bus routes should generally work across the isthmus, there would be a number of cross-town routes of QTN standard that would supplement these radial routes to form something of a real network effect. The result would be this: Now there are some pretty big “holes” in there between routes, so for those areas we would need to apply the third tier of the system, the “Local Connector Network” (LCN). Now I must admit I’m really not sure of the best way to apply LCNs to the system: whether they should run in short loops, whether they should try to follow a straight line or whether higgeldy- piggeldy is OK. I have added in a few LCNs that I think could be useful in providing a service to the gaps in the above map. Generally they feed into railway stations or into the higher frequency QTN network: Putting it all together, and adding in some possible route number to make the system more easily understood, I think that this is a reasonably first crack at it. Note the new train station (which would require some alteration to the train tunnel in that location!) which I think is necessary to provide useful connections to the bus network in the area. This largely makes up for the fact that Meadowbank Station is pretty terribly located for connections to buses. A a bit of a disclaimer I must admit that I have never lived in this part of Auckland, and have only ever caught buses around here extremely occasionally – so I am by no means an expert and by no means do I think that I’ve necessarily got this 100% right. It’s an interesting start though, and sure is a lot easier to understand than the current map!

More on the Auckland Harbour Crossing Issue

Given recent discussions on future options for crossings of the Waitemata Harbour, it’s quite amusing to note that on Friday NZTA announced a further study into considering whether a bridge or a tunnel should be considered as the preferred option for an additional harbour crossing. This new study is effectively a sop to proponents of the ANZAC Bridge idea – as NZTA has done this exact same thing previously: and came to the conclusion that there should be road and rail tunnels built as the preferred future option.

There are some interesting elements to the NZTA media release that deserve some further mention, and I’ll work through these bit by bit.

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), in partnership with KiwiRail, has appointed professional advisers who will carry out an independent evaluation of options for an additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing.

Three separate evaluations will assess the business case for either a bridge or tunnels between the Wynyard Quarter west of Auckland’s CBD and Esmonde Road on the North Shore, says the NZTA’s State Highways Manager for Auckland, Tommy Parker.

“They are the next important step in preparing for the additional harbour crossing,” says Mr Parker. “When completed, they will provide more exact information so that the NZTA, KiwiRail and the Government can make decisions about the options and timing of the crossing with more certainty.”

Interesting that the word additional has been used here again and again. The ANZAC bridge idea promotes a replacement crossing, but it seems that NZTA are pretty much rejecting that possibility straight away.

The evaluations have been commissioned under three separate contracts:
1. Engineering and Planning: includes the type of crossing – bridge, tunnel or tunnels; connections with North Shore and Auckland; timing of construction. [awarded to Beca and AECOM]
2. Transportation Modelling: includes what types of transport can use the crossing; travel times; tolling [awarded to Sinclair Knight Merz and Flow Transportation Specialists]
3. Economic Justification: includes timing of project; funding; economic benefits for Auckland/New Zealand [awarded to PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER)]

Let’s hope that the traffic modelling is based on reality (declining traffic flows over the past five years) rather than some ten years out of date belief that traffic flows will always keep growing and growing.

Mr Parker says an additional crossing is not included in the NZTA’s current 10-year State Highways Programme for funding.

“However, it is important to plan for the future and use the opportunity we have now to evaluate and select the best option – whether it is tunnels or a bridge. We need another crossing that together with the Auckland Harbour Bridge will meet increasing volumes of traffic that are inevitable as Auckland continues to grow,” he says.

There we see that Mr Parker has fallen into that trap once again of thinking that traffic flows will keep growing and growing and growing and growing. Please explain the past five years then Tommy.

Mr Parker says it is expected that the additional crossing will be the direct motorway link across the harbour, and the harbour bridge could serve local traffic, with dedicated lanes for public transport, cyclists and walkers.

“These are the issues we will be evaluating over the coming months,” he adds. “The development of a robust business case is critical so that the best decision can be made to deliver a transport project that Aucklanders can be proud of, and help their city grow.”

Here we see further mentions of the word additional and the continuing acknowledgement that one crossing will be used for traffic travelling through the CBD (southbound) while the other crossing will be used for more local traffic going to the CBD. I am concerned that there’s no mention of the railway tunnels here though. I guess that’s not really NZTA’s business, which means that probably nothing will happen as KiwiRail don’t give a damn about this kind of stuff, and only consider themselves to be a glorified freight company. Sigh.

Mr Parker says that together, the additional crossing and the harbour bridge will improve transport security for Aucklanders. The risk of a shutdown because of an emergency like a crash is reduced with the two links, and people also have a greater transport choice to get across the harbour.

The NZTA recently moved to protect a route for the additional crossing with the lodgement of Notices of Requirement with Auckland and North Shore City Councils. The Notices refer specifically to tunnels, but a bridge is not precluded from that move to protect the route.

Once again we see the emphasis on the benefits of an additional crossing. I highly doubt that we’d contemplate having two bridges across the harbour (unless they were right next to each other and of the same design). Furthermore, the existing notice of requirement is for a tunnel and I certainly don’t think changing it to a bridge would be a simple matter.

The evaluation studies are due for completion by the end of the year.

A team of international specialists will also be appointed over the coming month to peer-review and test the findings and recommendations of the evaluations.

Together, they will help the NZTA make the best choice, Mr Parker says. The options for the additional crossing will be included in the Government’s National Infrastructure Plan.

It seems obvious to me that NZTA are simply “going through the motions” here in this new study. And I don’t blame them. As they recognise, the whole point of an additional harbour crossing is to get an additional harbour crossing – so just as the previous study didn’t even contemplate removing the existing harbour bridge, neither does this one. And I really can’t ever see us ruining the harbour by putting another bridge across it, unless they were right next to each other and of the same design (which would create problems around St Mary’s Bay in how to link up the motorways).

So really, this latest study is just a waste of money and will undoubtedly come to the same conclusions as the previous study: that a tunnel is the answer. However, I do hope that perhaps the one thing this new study will show is how we don’t actually need anything for a good while yet, and that hopefully it will show clearly the first thing built must be the rail tunnel. Hopefully it will show that 12-14 lanes of traffic across the harbour is stupid, unnecessary, extremely expensive and wouldn’t achieve much other than creating the biggest bottleneck ever around Esmonde Road.

Perhaps there will be a point to this otherwise pointless study after all?

The benefits of making off-peak PT useful

On Friday I had a meeting in Manukau City, and our work car was being used by someone else, so I thought I’d honour my public transport commitments and catch the bus down there from the CBD. The weather was utterly horrible, but I can’t really complain about the bus trip in terms of its reliability – in that it showed up at both ends exactly when expected, it arrived at Manukau City pretty much exactly on time and so forth. Furthermore, when I boarded the bus and offered a $10 note saying “Manukay City thanks” the bus driver asked whether I was coming back the same day, and then once I said yes, suggested that a $10 “bus about” pass would give me the best deal. I really like and appreciate that level of customer care and concern (so big kudos to the driver of the 471 bus that left Britomart at 10.30 on Friday). So certainly I could not have realistically expected the public transport service to be much better than it was.

What was interesting though was to note the people on board the bus (which went up and down at various points of the 50 minute each way trip). While there was quite a mix of types, including what seemed like most of a kindergarten class at one point, what seemed particularly noticeable to me was a big absence of people between around 20 and 65 years of age. This dichotomy, with only the old and the young seeming to use public transport, was also evident last weekend when I visited New Lynn train station to take some photos of how it’s coming along. All the people waiting for the train, or for a bus at the rather sad looking old New Lynn bus terminal, once again either seemed to be teenagers or pensioners.

I suppose that the obvious conclusion to come to is that during these “off-peak” times, generally it seems as though the only people who use public transport are those who don’t own a car: either they’re too young, too old or too poor. Now obviously it’s crucial that public transport is there for these people, as if they had no transport choices whatsoever it would be grossly unfair, but it does seem to me as though the whole off-peak public transport system is designed around the idea of only providing for those who unable/unwilling to drive – in other words, it’s a second-class system with nobody there by choice.

One only has to look at how busy Auckland’s road remain at weekends and during ‘inter-peak’ times on weekdays to realise that an awful lot of people still need to get around the city during these off peak times. The majority of trips in urban areas aren’t commuting trips, but rather simple “errands” trips – getting milk from the diary, dropping the kids at school or at a friend’s house, visiting friends and so forth. Yet it would seem that for just about all these trips, one would only ever use public transport if you didn’t have a choice.

In some respects, off-peak car trips aren’t so much of a problem as long-peak hour commuting trips – for which public transport can offer a service that people would choose to use over driving (although generally only where public transport priority exists in the form of bus lanes or a railway line, or when parking costs a lot). Congestion is lower during off-peak times, so the benefits of removing vehicles from the road through offering a better public transport option aren’t seen as so significant – or at least that appears to be the argument in NZTA’s economic evaluation manual when it comes to assessing the benefits of public transport: As you can see, the benefits (particularly the “road traffic reduction benefits”) are way higher for getting peak time PT boardings than off-peak PT boardings.

However, this misses something potentially quite important. As I was slowly making my way out to Manukau on the bus (and this would have worked even better on a train) I was able to read through some background information relating to the meeting that I was attending, and I was able to keep up with emails and so forth. In short, I was able to to productive in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible if I was driving my way out there. Sure, the bus trip seemed to take forever (another thing that hopefully a train service would improve upon), but surely there was an economic gain from me being able to be somewhat productive during that time.

People have to travel between offices to attend meetings all the time when it comes to their work, and I imagine in Auckland that about 99.99% of those trips at the moment are undertaken by car or by taxi (the latter of which I suppose enables the possibility of being productive while on the go, but of course is very expensive). To me that seems like a huge amount of lost economic activity – with everyone driving when (at least theoretically) if they were on a bus or train they could be being somewhat productive with that time.

So what’s causing the almost complete absence of people making public transport trips for these purposes? Well I got a clue when I said that I’d think about catching the bus out to Manukau, with the general response being along the lines of “good luck with that”. In short, it would seem as though the image problem faced by public transport is particularly severe when it comes to off-peak public transport. Sure, I could have done my trip quite a bit faster by car (which is an issue that needs attention in my opinion), but otherwise the service was reasonably convenient, reasonably inexpensive ($10 return wouldn’t have paid the petrol between the CBD and Manukau return I suspect, and pales into insignificance compared to a taxi fare or rental car) and everything turned up when it should have – so it was reliable.

Perhaps some of the answer is a hangover from when Auckland’s public transport was truly terrible. Perhaps some is because we rarely hear about public transport when it goes right, only when it goes wrong. Perhaps it is some sort of anti-bus bias – that perhaps could be resolved through the upcoming rail link to Manukau (even more so when we have sparkly new train to run on it).

In the end, I think there are significant, and real, benefits out of somehow breaking down this mentality that you’d only use public transport for a non-commuting trip if you didn’t have any alternative. Workers could be more productive, workplaces could save significant amounts of money currently spent on rental cars, taxi-fares and so forth, and unnecessary car trips could be eliminated – with the resulting environmental benefits that would bring. However, I really do think that something drastic needs to be done to improve the image of public transport for this to be possible, and – critically – it needs to be a lot faster. Spending almost two hours of Friday on a bus really did rip a big chunk out of my day.

Embracing Congestion

In a few posts recently I have hinted at the need for us to fundamentally re-evaluate the way we approach transport policy and planning. Just quickly I will briefly summarise a few posts I have made previously on the issue:

I still don’t think I’m quite there in fully developing my thinking in terms of how this all fits together, but I do think there are some fundamentally interesting issues here to look at, and also some fundamental challenges to our approach to transport policy that might be necessary.

To make something of a rather broad statement, I think that the easier and faster it is to go through a particular part of our city, the less attractive it will be ‘in’ that space. A motorway is the classic example of this, but it’s seen pretty much everywhere: the wider and faster a road is to travel along, then the less likely you’d want to be walking along it or sitting outside a shop having a coffee. Similarly, the more we slow vehicles down the more we humanise the space and make it a nice place to be. Vulcan Lane in Auckland’s CBD might be our opposite end of the spectrum to a motorway: where we have no vehicles at all passing through the space and therefore it’s an exceptionally nice place to be in.

Obviously we can’t turn the entire city in Vulcan Lane, so we have to find some sort of balance between making it easy enough to get around our city while at the same time ensuring that we don’t kill the city in that process. In my opinion Auckland has focused too much in the past on the “making it easier to get around” and too little on the “what effect does that have on the city”.

This is where public transport comes in, because it can be the “win-win” that we’re looking for. Public transport can shift a vast amount of people within a small physical area, in other words it can both shift people around and ensure the city itself remains a nice place to be. Train stations become hubs of activity, creating vibrant places, whereas motorway interchanges are the antithesis of this. Furthermore, public transport has the nice outcome where the more people who use it, the better the service gets (as higher frequencies become more viable).

However, public transport will not “fix congestion”, but neither should it. Congestion actually does a lot of good in my opinion: it is a very progressive pricing scheme to discourage people from driving at peak times on busy roads, in the shorter term it encourages people to try a different route or drive at a different time, in the medium-term it may convince them to take the bus, train, cycle or walk (if that alternative manages to avoid congestion through priority measures or a separate right-of-way) and the the longer term people shift closer to their jobs (or find jobs closer to their houses) in order to avoid congestion: both of which have good effects in terms of simply reducing travel – and therefore all the adverse effects of focusing too much on the “through” (and all the CO2 emissions etc.)

Road pricing may be effective at reducing congestion, but if its net effect is to simply make it easier once again to drive lots (for those who can afford it) then what have we really achieved? I think that we need to start viewing congestion differently, not as the “something to avoid at all costs” that we have done so for the past few decades, but rather as a very very effective tool in discouraging the excessive car dominated travel that I think is currently destroying Auckland. Of course people still need to get around the city, and that is why we need to provide better alternatives: better public transport (particularly public transport that operates in its own right-of-way or with priority) and better environments to walk and cycle in.

In short, I think we need to embrace car congestion as a good thing. Revolutionary thinking I know.

Thoughts on Land Use/Transport

As an urban planner, with a particular interest in transport matters, I find myself fascinated by the meeting point of land-use planning and transportation planning – the questions of whether land-use patterns drive transport or whether transport drives land-use patterns, whether it’s both, how they interact with each other and so forth.

If we look at how one arrives at land-use outcomes (or, put more generally, how our city ends up) there are probably three key matters for consideration:

  1. Matters that drive demand for redevelopment in certain areas (and not in others).
  2. Planning rules and the restrictions they apply.
  3. Intermediary matters making it more or less difficult to develop (incentives, availability of credit etc.)

When we’re talking about the effects of transport policy on urban form (by that I mean how different transport policies generate different land use outcomes, such as motorways promoting sprawl), we’re talking about the first matter shown above, what drives demand. Clearly, what drives demand is tempered by the planning rules – as almost by definition they restrict development to ensure that it fits in with what’s around it, or is otherwise appropriate for the area. The intermediary matters are also important, as often (for example) there might be demand for intensive housing, planning rules that allow and promote it, but other matters such as inflexible development levies, a lack of available credit or something else which prevents this from happening.

If I was to have one big criticism of land-use planning in Auckland over the past 10-15 years it would be that so much attention has been placed on “matter 2″, while the other two have been generally quite ignored. I think there’s a trap, which I have certainly fallen into in my thinking at times, that planning rules will determine urban outcomes – that development will simply just happen where we want it to happen, and will simply not happen where we want to avoid it. So much land-use planning is aimed at “stopping stuff”, perhaps because the resource management act is fundamentally around avoiding, remedying or mitigating adverse effects on the environment – ie., not making things worse than they are now. That’s fine for relatively untouched natural, or rural, areas – but really when one is planning urban areas, particularly if one is trying to intensify or improve existing urban areas – what you are trying to do is actually make things better.

Because our planning framework is very much based around “stopping bad stuff from happening”, we have been reasonably effective at making planning rules to restrict development – particularly in terms of using the Metropolitan Urban Limit to minimise the amount of urban sprawl, or at the very least ensure that it only happens where we’ve directed it to. However, this is a constant battle, and because restricting sprawling development is only half the story in terms of making a ‘compact city’ (the other half being promoting intensification), what planning rules and regulations over the past 10 years have generally most achieved is simply: stopping development. The natural result limiting the supply of housing, while demand has continue to increase, is that prices have gone up.

Now there are a great number of reasons why the “other half of the bargain” in developing a compact city, and by that I mean development through intensification, hasn’t happened as much as anticipated over the past decade. Planning rules have been incredibly slow in changing to allow intensification, there has been a public backlash against it because much of the intensification that has been built is complete rubbish, there has been the leaky buildings crisis, banks have been less willing to lend for these kinds of development, developers have to “try something different” which is a bit scary, the list goes on. But I think that one very overlooked aspect of answering the question of why we haven’t really achieved the level of intensification hoped for over the past decade  comes down to our transport policies – and the fact that they’ve often worked in complete contradiction to what our land-use planning policies are trying to achieve.

As I explained in a recent post, if we base our transport investment around how it supposedly will “save time”, what we inevitably do is encourage people to drive further – and over time encourage our urban environments to spread out more. Well known British transport academic David Metz argues very convincingly that our ‘time budget’ for travelling has remained fairly constant over time, so any improvements to the transport network (which usually involve making travel faster) tend to result in the average trip length getting longer and longer. While this might be good in terms of enabling us to access more places, in terms of the effects on our urban environment this is bad news – as it tends to result in development further and further out becoming viable.

It’s not like transport planners are unaware of this situation, if we look at the justification of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway“,  we see this as one of the project’s core objectives:

To improve the connectivity between the growth areas in the northern Rodney area

In other words, “to enable further sprawl on the very edge of the Auckland region”. Now while I realise parts of Rodney District have been identified for further development in our growth strategies, we’ve generally had little problem in making sprawl happen in the past, so I don’t see why we’re spending $1.6 billion to just encourage it further.

In short, transport investment shapes our urban environments. The faster we make transport, the further we encourage people to travel, and the more spread out our cities become. There is a huge amount of “talk” about how Auckland needs to align its transport and land-use policies – and this seems one of the major drivers of the upcoming “Spatial Plan“, but if we truly delve into how transport investment shapes our cities I think we’re going to come up with some interesting outcomes that strike at the core of how we currently view transport policies. Perhaps we’ll need to look at the advantages of making transport slower, rather than faster, we’ll need to concentrate on how to make busy transport corridors interact sympathetically with the people who live/work/shop along them and I think we’ll certainly need to find better ways of measuring transport benefits than simply “how much faster does this enable people to travel?”

While I bemoan the lack of integration between land-use and transport policies, perhaps one of the major reasons why this integration has been so difficult is because what it could lead to is quite scary for both land-use planners and transport planners.

Central bus lanes idea spreads

The idea of putting Dominion Road’s bus lanes in the middle of the road, rather than at its edges, seems to be gaining traction – with a NZ Herald article today discussing the matter. Some extracts from that article:

Auckland’s Dominion Rd could have bus lanes running up and down its centre, just as trams did until the middle of last century.

The idea has been raised by Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, amid uncertainty over kerbside bus lanes introduced in 1999.

Although he has criticised a decision by Auckland City’s transport committee to consult the public on whether to open the lanes to all vehicles with one or more passengers, committee chairman Ken Baguley agrees running buses along the centre of Dominion Rd merits consideration.

The council is planning a $50 million-plus upgrade for the road, which will include widening long stretches by up to 2m.

Even so, space will remain tight through intersections with Balmoral and Valley Rds after the abandonment of a proposal for bus loops, which would have turned shopping centres into islands.

“If you could treat the bus as a tram and have it going on its own set of lights through one central lane, far less road is going to be required by the bus lane,” Mr Baguley said…

…Mr Lee said that if there was a problem with bus lanes along the edges of Dominion Rd, conflicts with vehicles pulling out of driveways or side streets could be removed by running buses down the middle.

Traffic lights could be used for passengers to reach platforms in the middle of the road.

“Such a system would cope with far higher numbers of buses than the current system or the proposed retrograde T2 idea [of allowing cars with two or more occupants into bus lanes].”

He said afterwards that the system could also future-proof Dominion Rd for light railcars once passenger demand grew beyond the capacity of buses.

Now a couple of comments are probably worth making straight away. First is that the idea I talked about in this previous post (and Mike Lee’s idea) is about two central bus lanes, not one solitary (presumably reversible) lane that Ken Baguely seems to have interpreted it. A cross-section of the road would look something like this: Undoubtedly at the main shopping centres thing would need to be narrowed down quite a lot: narrower footpaths, cycle lane, and no median – but that’s not particularly impossible to achieve. Also where the buses stop you would need to narrow it down (though you’d stagger the stops slightly so that you didn’t need a central island platform – you could have your bus stop between the bus lane at the general traffic lane, which means that you could run normal buses on it (otherwise people would be boarding from the other side of the bus).

There has been quite a lot of very interesting debate on the Dominion Road bus/T2 lane issue on the Aucklandtrains blog, with councillor Mark Donnelly providing some very interesting input to the comment section. His main concern seems to be ensuring that Dominion Road does not become the kind of “de-facto motorway” that other four-lane roads with no parking on their sides (such as Balmoral Road) have kind of become. I think he has a reasonable concern, although in some respects putting the bus lanes in the centre of the road could assist in solving this problem – because that would become the part of the road where you’re focused on the speed of getting people through the village centres, whereas the general traffic lanes could be “humanised” through paving, narrowing and other landscaping to slow traffic down as it passes through the town centres: thereby making the places more pedestrian friendly.

I think there are some key questions that we need to consider about what to do with Dominion Road. The first is whether there’s a place for on-street parking – and I think we need to consider both the for and against arguments. While allowing parking is a fairly inefficient use of what is extremely valuable “through-space”, it generally does help support local business centres and it also provides a barrier between pedestrians and the road, often making the pedestrian environment more friendly. Cars slow down because the road is narrower and they’re cautious about people stepping out of their cars and so forth – it does help humanise the road a bit. My general opinion is that retaining some level of on-street parking could be nice, but I just don’t know where it could go in terms of other priorities we have for this route.

The second key question is about the hours of operation for the bus priority lanes, whether they’re at the edge of the road or in the middle. As noted in the herald article above, Ken Baguley seems to want to restrict bus priority to peak hours, whereas the original proposal was for the priority to be at all times. I think the current “peak hours” of 7-9am inbound and 4-6pm outbound is completely insufficient – as we have 5 minute bus frequencies interpeak on weekdays. Even on Saturday the buses run every 10 minutes along Dominion Road throughout the day. I think ideally the bus lanes should operate 6am-7pm, seven days a week. It seems a bit pointless keeping the bus lanes in operation at 3am in the morning when there are absolutely no buses. Extending the hours of the bus lanes to beyond just the peak times recognises that Dominion Road really is urban transit, and not just commuter transit, a point that the current b.line concept also tries to emphasise.

In the end, I think that we need to think clearly about “what is the core purpose of Dominion Road in Auckland?” Obviously we want to run cars along it, obviously we want to ensure that the village centres along it can be vibrant, obviously we want to provide cycle lanes where possible, and obviously we want to make it a good public transport route. But quite simply there isn’t enough space along the road to provide perfectly for everyone, so we need to prioritise. On almost every single road in Auckland, cars passing through or cars parking are given priority. We have an extensive motorway system where cars are given exclusive priority, we have enormous carparks all over our city where cars parking are given priority – so surely on perhaps Auckland’s best bus route we should, for once, start off our thinking by asking “what works best for buses here?” and then fit everything else around that.

And that’s why I ultimately think that putting the bus lanes down the middle of the road is the best idea. Because it’s what would work best for the buses, and they’re our priority on this corridor – for once.

How do Auckland’s Bus Subsidies Work?

The process by which Auckland’s bus system is organised seems very very complicated, with strange relationships between ARTA and the different bus companies, which seems to vary according to route, and even down to particular services.

This is my understanding of how bus subsidies work in Auckland:

- Routes and services are identified by ARTA via documents like the Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP).

- If a company wants to run the service and doesn’t think they’ll need a subsidy for that route/service, then they can register it and operate it as a commercial service. Up until relatively recently, ARTA had pretty much zilch control over how these services operated and pretty much zilch knowledge of whether the routes were profitable or not, which became problematic when bus companies started abandoning the commercial services saying they were unprofitable a few years back.

- If no company thinks they can run the service commercially, then ARTA has a choice to ‘contract’ the service via ‘net contracting’ or ‘gross contracting’. Net contracting means that the bus company keeps the fares and gets “topped up” by ARTA, while gross contracting means that ARTA keeps the fares and pays the bus company a set amount to operate the service. The Northern Express service is ‘gross-contract’, but I think that most other services in Auckland are ‘net-contract’.

- The companies won’t release the profitability information (i.e. how profitable it is) to ARTA under commercial sensitivity rules. If a run that is profitable suddenly becomes unprofitable the private bus company will make a claim for a subsidy and ARTA essentially takes the companies word on this.

While gross contracting has always been possible, the Public Transport Management Act (PTMA) has made it easier for gross contracting to actually work. This is because the PTMA (as it currently stands) can prohibit commercial services where ARTA doesn’t want them to operate. After all, there’s no point in operating a ‘gross contract’ on a whole route when the most profitable peak hour runs can be commercialised. This is the ‘privatise the profits, socialise the losses’ issue that the PTMA needed to resolve.

The current situation is messy, but that’s largely because most current contracts existed before the PTMA came into effects. As this legislation currently stands, ARTA could end up gross-contracting everything in the future: which is quite typical internationally. However, unfortunately the PTMA is under attack from the government. So the mess may unfortunately continue in the future.

It’s not just me who thinks the current (well, old pre-PTMA) system is a mess, right?