Land-based public transport in Auckland is currently provided in two ways, through buses and trains (don’t let anyone tell you that taxis are public transport, they’re for-hire private transport that don’t offer any of the efficiency gains of real PT). Over the past 10-15 years there have been on-off arguments in Auckland about whether there’s a place for something to sit between trains and buses: in the form of light-rail. Initially, light-rail was probably seen as a potential replacement for the heavy rail system, and it seems for this reason that whenever someone suggests a tram/light-rail line Auckland City Council (who did most of the debating about light-rail) start talking about the CBD Rail Tunnel and that it means we won’t need light-rail.
The legacy of the light-rail debates that Auckland has had in the past have left us with some interesting results, like a Northern Busway that is supposedly “future proofed for light-rail”, and a wide median of Te Irirangi Drive that is similarly “future-proofed”. Not that I have anything against future-proofing (in fact I think we don’t do nearly enough of it in Auckland), but it seems as though the term “future proofed for light-rail” is a bit of a joke in Auckland, and generally means that it’s an alignment we’re going to need full heavy rail trains to run along at some point in the future. Rather than as a substitute for heavy rail, I do think that light-rail/modern trams have a place in Auckland’s transport future – as the best part of the Quality Transit Network.
First things first though, I do think it’s important to restate that the debate over whether buses, trams or trains provide the best solution is a stupid debate. Each different transport option has its strengths and weaknesses, and therefore works best in certain circumstances. We need buses, we need trains and we also potentially need trams to sit between the two, where the situation is right. The second thing I probably need to state is what I actually mean by tram/light-rail – and why I use the terms interchangeably. What I mean is something that runs on the existing road, but generally with its own lane to operate in. In some cases it might end up with a street to itself, but generally there would be other vehicles on the same street. Something like this: While it is true that there’s something of a convergence between the technologies emerging, in my opinion there is still a point where demand reaches a level that starts to be difficult to serve by buses (particularly if they’re operating at-grade rather than on a grade-separated busway), but isn’t high enough to justify spending billions of dollars on an underground railway line. There is also the issue of what kind of corridor we are trying to serve, and the technology that best suits that requirement: is it a widely spaced series of nodes that are well suited to being served by a train line that stops every kilometre or two, or do we have (or potentially have) a more even corridor of development where you would want more frequent stops?
If we’re being sensible about looking at the place of light-rail in Auckland (or any city for that matter), proper consideration must be given to the fact that it is expensive, particularly in terms of its capital costs, and that we want to make sure we’re measuring its benefits in the right way. As Jarrett at Humantransit loves to say, light-rail probably won’t provide you with any mobility benefits over and above what you could get out of good bus-priority (which would probably be a lot cheaper than a light-rail line). Light-rail is unlikely to be faster than what you could achieve from a bus, as what determines that is usually whether you have bus lanes, how good you are at boarding quickly, how much priority your buses/trams get at traffic lights and so forth. So it should be recognised that we’re not doing this for speed reasons, although the level of investment that would go into creating a tram line means that you probably would end up with better priority measures than you would for a bus lane.
There would be the capacity reason to do light-rail. As the picture above shows, the vehicles can be pretty long and therefore can carry a large number of people. This means that one tram every 5 minutes could carry as many people as a bus coming every 1-2 minutes. In the longer run, this is good for operating costs as you have fewer drivers – and I imagine electricity is cheaper (or certainly will be in the future) than diesel. It also means that if you do run trams every 2 minutes, your corridor capacity is much greater than what would realistically be possible with buses (once you start getting large numbers of buses they start blocking each other and slowing each other down, even given priority). Auckland’s CBD is starting to have problems with the number of buses heading in and out of it at peak times, particularly around Britomart. More people on fewer vehicles has some big advantages as the ability of the CBD to cope with more and more buses in the future is pretty limited.
The other main reason why I think light-rail could benefit Auckland is through those rather ephemeral things called “wider economic benefits”, or perhaps more specifically in the case of light-rail: the way in which providing such a line would result in intensification and economic development along the corridor being served. There are also potentially significant benefits in making it easier for tourists to get to the various places they want to go – and that becomes quite clear in the location of one of my lines. In terms of the secondary benefits to the economy, and to the achievement of our land-use plans and strategies, this has often been the main reason why North American cities have promoted light-rail lines over the past couple of decades. If we take Portland as an example, the light-rail system has played a huge part in the regeneration of ex-industrial areas and in helping Portland achieve their growth management strategies. Portland’s actual number of public transport riders isn’t particularly amazing, around a 12% modeshare – higher than Auckland’s but lower than Vancouver, Seattle and many other North American cities – but perhaps that’s not necessarily as important as the secondary effects of light-rail on the redevelopment of areas or the intensification of corridors.
Bringing things back to Auckland, as I said at the start of this post I think there is a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future. While in many respects it is a tragedy that Auckland ripped out its trams in the 1950s, the way the city has developed since then means that simply re-creating that system wouldn’t make too much sense today. The two lines that I would create are shown (approximately) in the map below (higher resolution here): As you can see, the system is not particularly extensive, at least not initially. I have also stuck to routes in the inner-isthmus area, as North American cities have also generally used light-rail along reasonably short inner-city routes (at least when it’s not grade-separated). I am hesitant to use light-rail further out, at least initially, because either you’re going to end up needing to operate very long routes (which are likely to be slow for travellers) or you’re going to be operating your routes as feeders to the heavy rail system, in which case I think it’s reasonably unlikely you’d need anything beyond a bus. Furthermore, the type of intensification that light-rail routes can generate is most suitable and desirable in the more inner parts of the city.
So we have a green line and an orange line. I will describe both lines and my reasoning behind them:
Effectively this is the Dominion Road corridor, which I have discussed as being suitable for light-rail in the future in a few earlier posts. The potential suitability for Dominion Road to have light-rail in the future is part of my thinking of why having median bus lanes may also be a good idea: as you’d be most of the way there towards creating a light-rail line in the future: just slap down some rails and up some wires when the capacity necessitates the upgrade.
At its southern end, the line would at some stage in the future connect with the Avondale-Southdown heavy-rail line, and in the meanwhile would be a hub for feeder buses serving the southwest part of the Auckland isthmus: suburbs from Hillsborough, through to Lynfield and Blockhouse Bay could all feed into the tram line, which would then offer a high-quality, high-capacity ride into the city and along the corridor.
At the city end, the route runs down Queen Street, then turns left and serves the Wynyard Quarter. The tram-loop that the ARC is currently planning would become a key part in turning the trams around before they headed back south on their journey out of the city.
In terms of satisfying my above criteria for light-rail, the Dominion Road bus route is already pretty damn popular, being close to capacity for the current bus lanes during peak times and busy enough to justify 5 minute frequencies during the weekday inter-peak period. With further development likely to happen along the corridor in the future and higher petrol prices likely to mean a general greater uptake of public transport, it’s not hard to see the current bus lanes being overwhelmed at some point in the not too distant future. So it ticks the capacity box. In terms of potential to stimulate land-use change, Dominion Road has masses of potential here, with much of the road (especially south of Balmoral) being bounded by low-rise 1950s housing of not particularly fantastic merit. The potential for that to be replaced with 3-4 level townhouses and terraced houses is immense, something just needs to help “make it happen” – and a light-rail line could be that catalyst. So the other box is ticked.
The orange line is a longer, and more complex line – going from Unitec in the west to St Heliers Bay in the east. Effective it is two lines joined in the middle: one serving the inner-west part of Auckland and the other running along Tamaki Drive. Undoubtedly this line is a bit more questionable than the Dominion Road one, and would almost certainly be built later, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a good idea: because I think it would.
Starting with the western section of the line, there are a very large number of buses that travel along Great North Road – so there may be some capacity issues along this road in the future. A lot of the buses come from a long way west, but that may change in the future as buses in the west get terminated at New Lynn for people to either transfer onto a train or onto some sort of high-frequency bus link between New Lynn and Britomart via Great North Road. There is also the potentially significant patronage generator of Unitec, some top tourist attractions in the Zoo, Western Springs Park and MOTAT, and huge intensification potential between Ponsonby and Grey Lynn along the Great North Road ridge.
I would then have the line duck down through Freemans Bay to emerge at Wynyard Quarter. Freemans Bay also has significant redevelopment potential: at least along the streets that aren’t full of lovely heritage housing. Wynyard Quarter is a massive potential trip generator in the future (and will have to be well served by public transport because there is so little road access), so it makes sense to link through to there, then onto Britomart.
With the western section, this would operate as quite a different types of line: largely for leisure travellers and tourists rather than commuters – along Tamaki Drive. While the capacity issues of the green line and the western section of the orange line may not apply here, and also it’s unlikely to generate much intensification – I think that there may well still be significant economic benefits of this line, achieved by linking together many of Auckland’s top tourist attractions on the one line, and also making the connection high-quality. Much of my enthusiasm for this part of the line is based on the enormously successful F & Market Line in San Francisco, which similarly operates along their waterfront.
I do think these two lines have the potential to transform Auckland in a way that simply wouldn’t quite be possible through a bus route. Now that’s not to say that many of their benefits wouldn’t also be enjoyed through the creating of a high-quality bus route – but when it comes to capacity, the ability to stimulate development and the ability to attract leisure and tourist trips that would almost certainly otherwise be made by cars, along certain corridors I do think there’s a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future.