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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.

16 comments to Thoughts on Land Use/Transport

  • Scott M

    Josh, please get a job at the new transport agency or in a policy department at the Council!!

    What do you mean by “quite scary stuff” could happen?

    My criticism of the Auckland City Council planners over the last 15 years is that they’ve been so weak kneed about everything. The City Planning department basically leaves transport to the Transport Department, as if transport somehow isn’t a “planning matter”. Its crazy stuff. The result is things like bus lanes going around the back of shops in Dominion Road i.e blinkered thinking.

    But you are right, until we get rid of the RMA, urban outcomes are always going to be mediocre. However, with a National Government that quite clearly hasn’t shaken of the “market knows best” mantra, we are very unlikely to see the effects/market based approach scrapped :(

  • Lol, cheers Scott!

    I mean by “scary stuff” that we need to completely rethink our approach to transport policy in particular. For example, we would start viewing congestion as a good thing because it encourages shorter trips and therefore a more compact & mixed use urban form (surely what we want?)

    I agree that Auckland City Council has been pretty hopeless at achieving anything in this regards. The amount of Residential 8 zone that has actually been achieved is utterly negligible, which is a disgrace and a significant reason why house prices have gone so insane in the past decade.

    I’m not sure whether the RMA is the problem – more the fact that District Plans end up really really out of date. And that we have so many counter-productive rules, like “units per lot” controls and minimum parking requirements.

  • Scott M

    Very diplomatic taking out my comments. :P

  • Brent C

    In suburan cities, the council is going to have to think of ways to attract urban regeneration. I cannot see any reason why anyone will want to live in Manukau City as it has poor livability and great drivability.

    Historic buildings seem to play an important role in popular urban spaces, this is notable in areas built before WW2. But much new development has been poorly done since and lack attraction. These centres are mostly retail focused and lack many quality aspects which make the urban environment desirable. I believe that councils will have to kick start invest in these suburban city centres, in developing quality design, mixed use developments and creating historic buildings now for the future.

  • Scott M

    I agree Brent.

    The traffic engineers have had way too much say in Manukau and look at the results. The urban form around Botany Town Centre is some of the worse urban blight in New Zealand in my opinion:

    - 6 lane highways
    - Sprawling parking lots
    - Wind swept and particularly unfriendly to pedestrians

    Shame on you Manukau City Council!

  • I agree fully Scott. I mean look at it:

    Great “town centre”.

    • James B

      It’s so car friendly that if this was the first view that aliens got of Earth they might think we were 1-2 tonne metal boxes on wheels.

  • Brent C

    Levin is an example of an area where the down centre has been developed over the last 100years. There is free parking, but it is supplied behind the building on the main shopping strip, out of the way. Along the strip there is a small parking fee which ensures that there will always be a spare park.
    However in the Botany example, it shows with the development of the car, we have only gone backwards in developing urban livability. Historic ways we planned cities, we allowed room for all types of transport.

    Corner stores in a commercial zone have the highest value! And Jane Jacobs will tell you about the increased human interaction that occurs at intersections. Its a pity their value is overlooked for free vechile turns.

  • That’s the big problem with Botany, it’s completely “back to front”. If there’s one planning rule that is needed more than any other I think it should be absolutely compulsory for all retail parking to be behind the shop and hidden from the road.

  • Brent C

    On the bright side, there is plently of room to fully develop a quality RTN without causing too much fuss!

  • That’s true. And also there’s nothing stopping the building of something pretty impressive on the corners in the future. You could even go fairly high-rise to compensate for the extremely wide roads, and to create some sort of skyline landmark. (Although of course there’s still the issue of why the heck you’d want to live in an apartment in Botany).

  • Luke

    The really annoying thing about these is that even keeping the 6-lane highway and vast parking lots, a far better outcome could have been obtained by repositioning the buildings and parking.
    This would future proof it so when there was decent PT in that area it would be easy to implement. However the current set-up of Botany is just plain disastrous and very difficult to adjust to high oil prices.
    I think Albany is a little better with a front of the mall facing a narrow road, and an outlook onto a park.
    However the real issue is with the big-box retail that isnt part of the mall itself.
    A proper town centre plan needs to be done first, and this needs to include controls over where buildings and parking is positioned in relation to the street and other shops.
    I guess at the moment the district plan is silent on these matters.

  • Brent C

    Yes I do wonder what would attract people to live in Botany town centre. But that has to be the goal of the Auckland Council. Manukau City Council would have to lead the way in any development of residential dwellings to work with future plans for the town centre. Developers cannot be expected to develop this land if its not profitable and little in the way of urban improvements, such as livability (eg, pubs, cafes and night life).

    ‘Design E2′ on thursday (TVNZ7 @ 730) looked at the development of inner Melbourne. The programme disscussed the increasing apartment population in the city made a more attractive place to visit and not just a place to commute to for work. Many of these suburban centres are just places to drive to for retail, often closing at 5pm and lack garden bars and cafes.

    I do wonder about the long term survival of big box shopping with oil prices and traffic access issues. Many Big Box stores are located away from PT infrastructure and are not so attractive to those who don’t drive. If I have to walk, I wont be choosing shopping strips where I have to cover big distances between stores (I would require a large discount to make me think twice).

  • Scott M

    Parking behind buildings or even better making parking having to be provided in multi-storey parking buildings to ensure we don’t waste oodles of space on tarmac.

    • Some sort of “maximum percentage of site dedicated to parking” control might be useful. If you restricted it to say 10-20% of the site you could make a huge positive difference to the character of an area, without necessarily restricting the number of parking spaces (ie. if the company really really wants them then they can build underground or go up, but at their huge cost).

  • James B

    When implemented well 6 lane avenues can be fantastic. Exhibit below Avenue Diagonal in Barcelona. I like the fact that it has medians that seperate local traffic from through traffic. But I agree that most examples of big wide roads in NZ are shocking.,+Catalonia,+Spain&ll=41.390912,2.16392&spn=0.023052,0.038581&z=15&layer=c&cbll=41.395296,2.15456&panoid=Y_Mqu3yP-u4IBjZ_Z9vXvA&cbp=12,69.44,,0,10.41

    I think we also lack an intermediary medium density zone in Auckland. We go from skyscrapers straight to suburbia within a very short distance. It would be nice to designate some medium density say no more than 4-6 stories in locations with good public transport connections. I wouldn’t want to start tearing down villas in Ponsonby or Parnell but surely somewhere like Mt Roskill or Mt Wellington could be converted without destroying too much heritage.

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