Auckland: a fresh start?

And so, a year and a half after the Royal Commission into Auckland’s local government reported back its findings, the Super City begins. It’s goodbye to Auckland City, Manukau City, North Shore City, Waitakere City, Rodney District, Papakura District, Franklin Districts and (perhaps the only one I’ll be sad to see go) the Auckland Regional Council – and hello to the new Auckland Council. Over the past 18 months I have taken an intense interest in how this whole process has panned out. From my initial thoughts on the Royal Commission’s report, to concerns I had about uneven ward sizes and my fluctuating opinions on the creation of the Auckland Transport CCO (first I thought it was a good idea, then a bad idea, now I’m back to thinking that it’s probably OK) it has been interesting to closely follow this process in Auckland’s history.

Overall, thanks in large part to the results of the election a few weeks back, I now feel confident and hopeful that the local government amalgamation will turn out to be a good thing for Auckland. I hope that it will provide us with a ‘fresh start’ of sorts – a chance to finally tackle regional issues in an integrated manner, to finally take on central government and get a better deal for the city and a chance to generally speak with one voice. Of course I still have many reservations: who will play the environmental watchdog role that the ARC has importantly done in the past 20 years? Will the Auckland Transport CCO be an open, accountable and transparent organisation – or will it operate in secret and be dominated by 1960s-mentality road engineers? How will we be able to integrate our land-use and transport thinking when they’re now located in two completely separate agencies? How much staff knowledge and expertise will be lost in the transition process? And so on.

However, I’m hopeful that things will be better with this new structure because, quite frankly, the old structure didn’t work very well at all. The city councils were too big to be local, but too small to speak with much weight to central government and think regionally. The ARC was hamstrung by efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to destroy it (ARC Chairman Mike Lee has written an excellent history of the ARC here by the way). In transport matters, the councils rarely agreed with each other, or with the ARC, or with ARTA or with NZTA on what their priorities were – with the result being that generally not much got done outside state highway upgrades (because NZTA could just get on and do them without having to worry about what the councils were doing). ARTA was rarely able to improve the cost-effectiveness of its bus services through extending bus priority measures – because they weren’t responsible for those: that was up to the city councils. The city councils couldn’t really see the direct benefits of bus lanes, just the noise made by those moaning about them, so were (and remain) incredibly reluctant to expand them.

So, apart from the oversight provided by the ARC on planning and environmental matters, I don’t actually think I will miss much at all when it comes to the old local government system. But the big question remains about the new system: while it might be difficult for it to be much worse than what we had, is it likely to be any better?

On transport matters, the signs are promising. Auckland’s new mayor and council seem highly willing to take their transport vision to the government and demand to be heard. It would even seem as though the government has got the message – and is making the most positive noises towards rail transport heard since it took office. But it’s not just the big expensive rail projects where I’m hopeful the new system can deliver better outcomes – it’s also the small stuff. It’s things like Auckland Transport having an incentive and the ability to improve bus priority measures because enabling buses to go faster will increase patronage, lower operating costs and improve their bottom line that will make a huge difference. While the early signs aren’t great, I’m confident that Auckland Transport will (eventually) become a pretty open and transparent agency: plus having all transport aspects thrown together into the one organisation will hopefully mean better consideration of public transport in all transport projects.

But these improvements aren’t just going to happen magically. There will undoubtedly be internal upheavals within the council’s structure for a few years yet, there will be the incredibly difficult process of working out how to fairly pay for all these grand ideas without pushing rates through the roof, there will be attempts by staff to establish opaque fiefdoms and much much more. If the new Council wants to achieve its very very admirable transport goals, then it will need to be on the ball and keep pushing things along every step of the way. I think it should have very detailed and well thought out plans for what it wants achieved by the end of 2011, 2012 and 2013: both in terms of taking steps towards the “big three” rail projects, but also in terms of maximising the benefits of integrated ticketing, electrification and ensuring we have a number of good “quick wins” along the way.

I do think we have the opportunity to make a fresh start on Auckland, to give the city a better and brighter future – not just transport wise, but generally. It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure.

CBD Tunnel on “The Nation”

TV3’s political show “The Nation” has this week focused on the rail plans the Super City has, and the government’s response to those plans. There are a couple of videos well worth a watch.

First, a story outlining the details of the CBD Rail Tunnel – with interviews of Len Brown, Mike Lee, Christine Fletcher and others (click image to be taken through to TV3 website and watch the video). I’m glad that the media has finally done some decent background research into this project. The potential cost of $2 billion rather than $1.5 billion is concerning though – originally in 2004 it was costed at $500 million. However, I’m still confident that the benefits are significant enough to make it worthwhile.

A second video is an interview of Steven Joyce and discusses a variety of longer-term transport projects in the Auckland Region (once again, click the image to watch the video). It seems as though Joyce is warming to the tunnel – which is excellent. It’s also good that he said that central government will have to make a contribution to the cost of the CBD Rail Tunnel project – the question now is “how much”. However, I still can’t quite understand why another harbour crossing is such a high priority when vehicle counts are falling.

Overall, a couple of very interesting videos and it’s interesting to see this debate on TV.

Urban sprawl – not the way of the future?

I have long argued against urban sprawl as a pattern of development, because of its inevitable car dependency, its poor sustainability and its general soullessness. With the government undertaking a serious overhaul of planning regulations that relate to urban areas – potentially making it easier for our cities to sprawl – I read with interest an article from the USA which argues that our changing demographics and cultural preferences mean that the demand for sprawl is simply unlikely to be there in the future. Instead, as our population ages and as younger generations place greater emphasis on living in vibrant and exciting town centres, we may already have more than enough low-density single-dwelling houses out there. What we’re likely to end up having a shortage of are smaller places in walkable urban areas.

It’s well worth a read. Here are some sections:

We’re unlikely, however, to see a real estate recovery based on a continuation of the type of development that has driven the industry for the past few generations: low-density, car-dependent suburbs growing out of cornfields at the edge of metropolitan areas. That’s because there is now a massive oversupply of such suburban fringe development, brought on by decades of policy favoring it—including heavy government subsidies for extending roads, sewers, and utilities into undeveloped land. Houses on the exurban fringe of several large metro areas have typically lost more than twice as much value as metro areas as a whole since the mid-decade peak. Many of those homes are now priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them, which means that their owners have no financial incentive to invest in their upkeep. Under such conditions, whole neighborhoods swiftly decline and turn into slums. This happened in many inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s, and we’re seeing evidence of it in many exurban neighborhoods today. The Los Angeles Times reports that in one gated community in Hemet, east of L.A., McMansions with granite countertops and vaulted ceilings are being rented to poor families on Section 8 vouchers; according to the Washington Examiner, similar homes in Germantown, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., are being converted to boarding houses.

In New Zealand we never ended up with quite the same extreme level of “over-building” during the real-estate boom years – perhaps because of planning restrictions such as the MUL. This has meant that house prices haven’t crashed in the way they have in parts of the USA.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession has highlighted a fundamental change in what consumers do want: homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit. Such “walkable urban” real estate has experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak. Ten years ago, the highest property values per square foot in the Washington, D.C., metro area were in car-dependent suburbs like Great Falls, Virginia. Today, walkable city neighborhoods like Dupont Circle command the highest per-square-foot prices, followed by dense suburban neighborhoods near subway stops in places like Bethesda, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia. Similarly, in Denver, property values in the high-end car-dependent suburb of Highland Ranch are now lower than those in the redeveloped LoDo neighborhood near downtown. These trend lines have been evident in many cities for a number of years; at some point during the last decade, the lines crossed. The last time the lines crossed was in the 1960s—and they were heading the opposite direction.

It would be very interesting to see a comparison across Auckland as to which suburbs have held their real estate values the best over the past couple of years, and which suburbs have experienced declining real estate values.

But while looking back to the past provides something of an economic argument against encouraging too much sprawl, the really interesting things emerge when we start to look forward into the future – and start considering changing demographics and changing social preferences:

But the biggest factor, one that will quickly pick up speed in the next few years, is demographic. The baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, are looking for places to live and work that reflect their current desires and life needs. Boomers are downsizing as their children leave home while the millennials, or generation Y, are setting out on their careers with far different housing needs and preferences. Both of these huge demographic groups want something that the U.S. housing market is not currently providing: small one- to three-bedroom homes in walkable, transit-oriented, economically dynamic, and job-rich neighborhoods.

The baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, remains the largest demographic bloc in the United States. At approximately 77 million Americans, they are fully one-quarter of the population. With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty-five years old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care. Some boomers are drawn to cities. Others prefer to stay in the suburbs but want to trade in their large-lot single-family detached homes on cul-de-sacs for smaller-lot single-family homes, townhouses, and condos in or near burgeoning suburban town centers.

Generation Y has a different story. The second-largest generation in the country, born between 1977 and 1994 and numbering 76 million, millennials are leaving the nest. They may sometimes fall back into the nest, but eventually they find a place of their own for the first time. Following the lead of their older cousins, the much smaller generation X (those born between 1965 and 1976), a high proportion of millennials have a taste for vibrant, compact, and walkable communities full of economic, social, and recreational opportunities. Their aspirations have been informed by Friends and Sex in the City, shows set in walkable urban places, as opposed to their parents’ mid-century imagery of Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch, set in the drivable suburbs. Not surprisingly, fully 77 percent of millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores. The largest group of millennials began graduating from college in 2009, and if this group rents for the typical three years, from 2013 to 2018 there will be more aspiring first-time homebuyers in the American marketplace than ever before—and only half say they will be looking for drivable suburban homes. Reinforcing that trend, housing industry experts, like Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, believe that this generation is more likely to plant roots in walkable urban areas and force local government to fix urban school districts rather than flee to the burbs for their schools.

While New Zealand is certainly not a carbon-copy of the trends being experienced in the USA, there are many similarities. I think there has been a growing embrace of urbanism in Auckland over the past decade or so – perhaps partly as a result of our emerging ‘cafe culture’, perhaps as a result of our growing ethnic diversity with many new arrivals from parts of the world used to large, busy and high density cities. Obviously we are also experiencing the same demographic shifts as the USA. It remains to be seen to what extent baby-boomers want to abandon their suburban homes for something more ‘inner-city’ (as opposed to shifting to other parts of NZ or to lifestyle blocks), but certainly it’s easy to see how the demand for your typical suburban family home is not going to increase as much as other housing forms in the future.

Furthermore, there is likely to be a growing realisation – particularly for “generation Y” people like me – that living in places where you’re not dependent on your household owning two or three vehicles will make a big difference to your financial situation.

Most importantly, the very act of moving to more walkable neighborhoods will free families from the expense of buying, fueling, and maintaining the two or more cars they typically need to get around in auto-dependent suburbs. Households in drivable suburban neighborhoods devote on average 24 percent of their income to transportation; those in walkable neighborhoods spend about 12 percent. The difference is equal to half of what a typical household spends on health care—nationally, that amounts to $700 billion a year in total, according to Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Put another way, dropping one car out of the typical household budget can allow that family to afford a $100,000 larger mortgage.

An interesting way of putting it. Owning one fewer car frees up enough of your income to make it possible to service a mortgage $100,000 greater.

Roads-focused transport spending and planning regulations that encouraged urban sprawl formed a self-reinforcing cycle throughout much of the second half of the 20th century and produced a series of more and more auto-dependent suburbs in Auckland, as well as throughout the USA. But there’s nothing stopping the same process potentially working in reverse in the future:

The coming demographic convergence will push construction inward, accelerating the rehabilitation of cities and forcing existing car-dependent suburbs to develop more compact, walkable, and transit-friendly neighborhoods if they want to keep property values up and attract tomorrow’s homebuyers. All this rebuilding could spur millions of new construction jobs. But more importantly, if done right, with “smart growth” zoning codes that reward energy efficiency, it would create new markets for power-conserving materials and appliances, providing American designers and manufacturers with experience producing the kinds of green products world markets will increasingly want.

In the end, we cannot escape the consequences of demographic change.  Our population is getting older, our household sizes are getting smaller, the stereotypical “mum, dad and two-and-a-half-kids” family is getting rarer and rarer. Isn’t it time our planning system, and our transport policies, starting catching up with these changes?

Will “Auckland Transport” be a secretive agency?

One of my biggest gripes with the decision to hand transport matters in Auckland over to a semi-independent “Council Controlled Organisation” as part of establishing the Super City was whether that agency would end up doing most of its work in secret. At the moment (well, until Monday when the new Council is formally established) there’s quite a bit of information available on what transport stuff the various councils are up to. One of my best resources has been the agenda and minutes of the ARC’s Transport and Urban Development Committee, as well as what the Regional Transport Committee got up to over the last couple of years as it stitched together the RLTS. Information from the Transport Committee of Auckland City Council, and other committees from the various other councils often proved fertile ground for gathering information on the latest happenings in Auckland related to transport.

In contrast, ARTA have acted pretty secretly, with the only information they’ve shared being the Monthly Business Reports. While these reports are certainly very interesting, particularly in updating us on patronage statistics, by in large we’ve been left in the dark as to what else ARTA has been up to. For example, how’s progress going on integrated ticketing? Nobody really knows as we haven’t been able to read up on the various reports from ARTA staff to their board that I am sure must have been written over the past year since ARTA signed the contract with Thales to implement that system. How’s progress going on completing the CBD Rail Loop study that was meant to be finished in September? Once again, nobody knows because of ARTA’s secrecy.

So will Auckland Transport turn into a much larger version of the highly secretive ARTA, or will it turn into an open agency much like the transport committees of the various councils that exist at the moment? The final details of the legislation surrounding the establishment of Auckland Transport suggested that because the CCO will be doing so much work that was previously undertaken by Councils, it would need to be more transparent and accountable. But how will this actually translate into reality? Who knows?

In part there is some selfishness behind this concern, in that a lot of my potential blog posts over the next few years will depend on knowing what Auckland Transport is up to – if they make it difficult to find out what decisions are being made and what is happening, then that will make it difficult for me to keep ‘up to date’ with what’s going on. But there’s also a more fundamental reason why they should be open – transport will account for over half of Council’s spending and it’s arguably Auckland’s number one issue. We need to know what Auckland Transport’s up to because we’re trusting them with a huge amount of money and trusting them to help improve Auckland’s biggest problem: its transport situation.

Early signs are not necessarily that promising. Over the past week or so the websites for Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have emerged and progressively been updated and populated with information from the old websites of ARTA and the various Councils. As I noted in yesterday’s post about St Lukes, the Council website already has been populated with agenda items for the first meeting of the new Council next week. It’s obvious on the website where further information will go, and now we know what the structure of the Council will be I imagine we will see the establishment of various places where meeting agenda and minutes will be uploaded to.

By contrast, while the Auckland Transport website is fairly comprehensive in what it says about various transport projects happening around Auckland, there seem no obvious place where we will be able to find out what their board is up to and what decisions are being made. Perhaps it might be added over the next few weeks when the Transport CCO board has their first meetings, I certainly hope so.

Ultimately, I think it is critical that Auckland Transport is as open and transparent as possible about what it gets up to. Over half the Council’s spending is likely to be on transport matters. While the Council’s transport committee will certainly play an important role in setting the big picture strategies, goals and plans the Council wants Auckland Transport to implement, many of the important decisions in terms of implementing these strategies will be left to the Board of the CCO. It’s important we know what they’re doing with such a significant amount of public funds. It’s important we know what progress they’re making on implementing the Council’s vision for transport. It’s important we know the reasoning behind decisions they make, so that those decisions can be analysed and critiqued.

It’s extremely important that Auckland Transport does not become a secretive agency. We have a right to know what they’re up to without having to go through the long-winded process of making official requests for information. I look forward to seeing Auckland Transport being an open, transparent and accountable agency.

Council structure announced

The make up of the new Auckland Council was announced today by Mayor Len Brown. The structure of the council, and the chair of each of the committees, sub-committees and other forums are outlined below:

Structure and appointments:

Committees of the Whole

Strategy & Finance Committee – Penny Webster

Accountability & Performance Committee – Richard Northey
– CCO Strategy and Appointments Sub-Committee – His Worship the Mayor
– CEO Review Sub-Committee – His Worship the Mayor
– Tenders & Procurement Panel – Jami-Lee Ross

Regional Development & Operations Committee – Ann Hartley
– Social & Community Forum – Cathy Casey
– Culture, Arts & Events Forum – Alf Filipaina
– Economic Forum – Arthur Anae
– Community Safety Forum – George Wood
– Environment & Sustainability Forum – Wayne Walker
– Parks & Heritage Forum – Sandra Coney
– District Plan & Urban Design Forum – Cameron Brewer

Auckland Future Vision Committee – His Worship the Mayor / Deputy Mayor
– Transport Committee – Mike Lee

Standing Committees

– Hearings Committee – Noelene Rafills
– Regulatory & Bylaws Committee – Des Morrison
– Audit & Risk Committee – Sharon Stewart
– Civil Defence & Emergency Management Group – Michael Goudie

Advisory Panels

– Maori Statutory Board – Alf Filipaina
– Pacific Peoples Advisory Panel – Arthur Anae
– Ethnic Advisory Panel – Mike Lee
– Business Advisory Panel – Cameron Brewer
– Rural Advisory Panel – Des Morrison
– Youth Advisory Panel – Michael Goudie
– Social Policy Forum – Calum Penrose

No real surprise to see that Mike Lee has been appointed chair of the Transport Committee. It will be interesting to see the split between work done by the transport committee and work done by the board of Auckland Transport.

The structure is summarised in the diagram below: In planning terms, it seems as though Ann Hartley and Cameron Brewer will be the key councillors in ensuring that Auckland gets its planning documents right over the next three years.

St Lukes – the ultimate planning failure?

On Monday next week the new Auckland Council formally comes into being. The agenda for its first meeting has already been uploaded to the new Council’s website. Let’s hope such timely uploading is a sign of good things to come! Much of what’s included in the agenda for the Council’s first meeting is standard “house-keeping” stuff – although it will be interesting to find out the structure of the different Council committees, including who ends up chairing them. But hidden as the last agenda item in the meeting is the first difficult decision the council will need to make: whether to approve the St Lukes Plan Change or not. Auckland City Council it would seem didn’t get around to making such a decision (I originally called this gutsy to potentially go against the recommendation of the commissioners, but now I actually think it was gutless of the previous Council to simply put it onto the new Auckland Council). I’ve previously blogged about it here, and to summarise basically it will allow St Lukes shopping centre to double in size.

The situation facing the new Council with regards to the St Lukes plan change is summarised here. Effectively, they have incredibly little scope to do anything but approve the plan change – despite the huge community opposition that appears to be mounting. The officers present the Council with two options:
While it’s very likely someone will appeal the Plan Change should it be approved, the decision made by Council is important, because it determines what side of the fence they end up on in the appeals process. With the new Super City structure in place there will also be no opportunity for someone like the ARC to support local community groups in their opposition, which means that any appellants will be taking on both the Council and Westfield. A pretty scary prospect if you ask me. Perhaps the one potential saving grace is that both ARTA and NZTA submitted on the plan change – so that might mean (I’m not sure of it though) that Auckland Transport could appeal the plan change if they so desired.

But anyway, it seems very likely the Council will have to approve the plan change. But is that the right decision? As I was a submitter on the plan change in the first place (back when it was notified I lived locally) I have received all the documentation and had a good read through the logic behind both the planner’s recommendations (which recommended approval subject to a number of amendments) and the final decision (which seems to have largely bowed to what Westfield wanted in the first place). So I’m reasonably up to speed with what has happened here thus far.

My general opinion, right from the start, has been that St Lukes is simply is the wrong place to become Auckland’s biggest shopping mall. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. It has relatively poor access to public transport. Most other shopping malls in Auckland have far better public transport access: Henderson’s next to a train station, so is New Lynn and Newmarket, Manukau City will be next to a train station by the middle of next year. Albany has a busway station that’s nearby. Sylvia Park has a train station next to it and so forth. St Lukes really is the odd one out in being away from the train network (Morningside station really doesn’t count in my opinion) and not even properly on a bus route (all the buses on New North Road and Sandringham Road have to detour to get there.
  2. It’s not in a ‘proper’ town centre. Aside from Sylvia Park (which seems to have aspirations of becoming a town centre) most of the other shopping centres are generally located in areas with a mix of other shops too – and are often traditional town centres. Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Glenfield, Shore City and Milford are all examples of this. What happens in these situations is that the shopping centre assists the town centre by attracting people to the area – perhaps the best example being Dressmart’s contribution to Onehunga. In the case of St Lukes, it just eats away at nearby town centres like Balmoral and Mt Albert, undermining – rather than contributing – to their success.

These two factors seem pretty obvious, and pretty fundamental to the question of whether or not approval should be given to this plan change. However, because of the convoluted nature of Auckland’s planning system – and the reluctance of various agencies to do their job properly in my opinion – these fundamental issues have generally been given scant consideration in the final decision-making process for the plan change. And what’s worse, because of the nature of the planning system, they have quite rightly been given this scant consideration.

Let’s look first at the “town centre issue”. It seems fundamentally obvious to me that St Lukes is not a proper town centre. Sure, there’s a big white box surrounded by carparks the makes up the main mall – and across a million lanes of traffic (which takes pedestrians about half an hour to cross because of the horrific traffic-light phasing) there are a bunch of other shops hidden behind a giant carpark. But does that really make a two centre? How does that compare to places like Mt Eden Village, New Lynn, Takapuna and Newmarket or local centres like Mt Albert or Balmoral? There’s no public space, there are few community facilities, there’s an utterly terrible pedestrian environment, there’s no relationship between the street and the shops (although the proposed improvement to this is perhaps the one saving grace of the plan change).

It seems to me that the commissioners understood this situation to some extent – that St Lukes is really pushing the limit of what might be called a town centre. I think the commissioners also felt that it the question of whether or not St Lukes was a town centre was quite fundamental to their decision on the plan change. However, once again due to Auckland’s convoluted planning system and despite all evidence pointing otherwise, an official decision had actually already been made – due to a recent environment court settlement (between Westfield and the Regional Council) on Plan Change 6 to the Auckland Regional Policy Statement, St Lukes had officially been declared a “town centre”. The commissioners noted the importance of this decision:

In so many respects, the settlement of the ARPS plan change appeal, leading to the designation of St Lukes as a ‘town centre’, sealed the fate of this subsequent plan change. I imagine the commissioners mulled over the question of “how could St Lukes be a town centre and then have the City Council not approve a plan change that seeks to try as hard as possible to give effect to this”?

In short, the environment court settlement between the ARC and Westfield meant that the fundamental question of whether or not St Lukes is the right place to build Auckland’s biggest shopping mall could not really be taken into much consideration. Despite the commissioners probably feeling that St Lukes really doesn’t look or feel like a town centre, they had to ignore such fundamental problems and questions. This is outlined below: …and…
I guess we can only contemplate whether the commissioners would have come to a different recommendation on this plan change had the ARPS not included St Lukes as a town centre – but my feeling is that would have been quite likely.

Turning now to the other fundamental issue – whether St Lukes’ poor level of public transport provision should have swayed the commissioners towards declining the plan change. This issue is mentioned by the commissioners in an introductory way when they consider how much of a ‘town centre’ St Lukes really is:
PC6 refers to plan change 6 of the ARPS, rather than the specific plan change the commissioners were consideration (which is PC8). Interestingly enough, this shows that they really did consider the St Lukes centre to be “out of step” with what would normally be considered a ‘town centre’ – and a major reason for that consideration was the lack of public transport. However, they then fall into the trap of stating that “it’s not Westfield’s problem”. While certainly Westfield is not responsible for providing public transport, if we continue to separate the decisions we make on land-use planning from their impacts on transport we will continue to make the same old mistakes, undermine public transport and increase our auto-dependency.

One of the interesting things in the commissioners’ decision, as it relates to transport matters, is how it would appear Westfield argued both that public transport to the area wasn’t as bad as people were saying (and therefore the plan change shouldn’t be declined for such a reason) but also argued that public transport to the area was generally poorer than to other shopping centres (and therefore they should be allowed to provide a huge number of parking spaces). Here’s what Westfield’s transport expert says about the quality of PT provision:
The difficulty with making this “ARTA’s problem” is that, once again, fundamentally St Lukes is very difficult to serve with high quality public transport. Diverting more Sandringham Road or New North Road buses via the mall creates a significant loss of time for all other commuters on those routes. The Morningside train station cannot magically be pulled closer to the mall. Perhaps the one easy thing to do would be an increase in weekend cross-town 007 services, but compared to other shopping centres and other real town centres, it is damn difficult to improve public transport provision to the area – hence the fundamental question of whether St Lukes is the right place for this (or indeed the right place to be designated a town centre in the first place).

The poor provision of PT (and the limited ability to improve it) ends up being used as justification to effectively “exempt” St Lukes from region-wide policies designed to cut back on the amount of off-street parking provided, and thereby encourage people to use alternative transport options – rather than clogging up the roads with their cars:
Once again, the problem is not that St Lukes doesn’t attract enough public transport patrons for it to be provided. The problem is that St Lukes is simply located in the wrong place – not on a public transport corridor. Fundamentally, it’s just in the wrong place.

So what to make of this all? Well, overall the whole thing in my opinion is just a giant mess. An utter planning failure all around. While I disagree with the extent to which the commissioners separate out land-use and transport (the “let’s make it ARTA’s problem” approach), in general I completely understand why they have decided to recommend approval. In essence, the decisions made on the Regional Policy Statement PC6, to (for some unknown reason) make St Lukes a town centre meant that the commissioners’ hands were tied. They asked themselves the question of “as this is (supposedly) a town centre, how can we decline a plan change that seeks to formalise that?” Of course, the answer they came to was “well we can’t”. And this is the decision that the Council will, inevitably, have to end up making (and probably the Environment Court should it go to appeal) – that given the regional planning framework in place, there’s simply no way to do anything but approve this.

That certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good planning outcome though. As a result of this mess we’re going to end up with St Lukes nearly doubling in size, the addition of a huge number of parking spaces (and therefore huge amounts of traffic) and little, if any, improvement to public transport to serve this. The disjoint between land-use and transport will be exacerbated, undermining the integration that so many of our planning documents and strategies have tried – so unsuccessfully – to achieve. I don’t even know what’s the best we can hope for now – perhaps making crossing St Lukes Road more pedestrian friendly and thereby integrating the two halves of this supposed ‘town centre’? But St Lukes Road will be so busy, from all this extra shopping traffic, that it will be incredibly difficult to achieve this. What about ARTA’s plans to implement a QTN along St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive? Well with all this extra traffic I think we can probably kiss that goodbye – as there will be no chance of managing to implement bus lanes. St Lukes will continue to undermine the viability of nearby real town centres: like Mt Albert and Balmoral, probably to a greater extent than ever before given its ability to become such a “mega-mall”.

There’s probably some ability to still argue over the details: whether the interface controls between the expanded mall and the neighbouring residential properties can be improved. Whether the heights are exactly right. Whether ARTA wanting to put a QTN through the area means a big rethink in the traffic plans. Whether it’s possible to narrow St Lukes Road a bit so that it’s more like a normal town centre main street and so forth. These are important arguments that might yet require consideration at an appeal, but fundamentally I don’t think there’s any chance that this won’t eventually be approved.

I guess if we are to try to find a silver lining in this complete and utter mess, it is that while the Auckland Council spends 2011 formulating the Spatial Plan they will have the perfect example of why we need a Spatial Plan – in the form of the mess of the St Lukes situation. The Council will hopefully learn the importance of being careful about where it selects ‘town centres’ to be, so that they are real town centres located on logical public transport routes. The planning disaster that St Lukes has turned into will hopefully show the Council exactly why it is so important to properly integrate land-use and transport planning. Perhaps, in a similar (although somewhat less dramatic) way that the demolition of Pennsylvania Railway Station in New York City led to the formation of a heritage protection movement there, the complete and utter planning disaster or St Lukes will waken us up to the need to get our regional planning right. Because, as St Lukes has shown, if you stuff up the big picture strategies everything falls apart.

Jan Gehl – Cities for People

Looks like I’ll have to get this book:

Product Description

For more than forty years Jan Gehl has helped to transform urban environments around the world based on his research into the ways people actually use—or could use—the spaces where they live and work. In this revolutionary book, Gehl presents his latest work creating (or recreating) cityscapes on a human scale. He clearly explains the methods and tools he uses to reconfigure unworkable cityscapes into the landscapes he believes they should be: cities for people.

Taking into account changing demographics and changing lifestyles, Gehl emphasizes four human issues that he sees as essential to successful city planning. He explains how to develop cities that are Lively, Safe, Sustainable, and Healthy. Focusing on these issues leads Gehl to think of even the largest city on a very small scale. For Gehl, the urban landscape must be considered through the five human senses and experienced at the speed of walking rather than at the speed of riding in a car or bus or train. This small-scale view, he argues, is too frequently neglected in contemporary projects.

In a final chapter, Gehl makes a plea for city planning on a human scale in the fast- growing cities of developing countries. A “Toolbox,” presenting key principles, overviews of methods, and keyword lists, concludes the book.

The book is extensively illustrated with over 700 photos and drawings of examples from Gehl’s work around the globe.

Washington DC Metro Photos

For some reason, while I had always planned to post a selection of photos from my visit to Washington DC as part of last month’s holiday, I never quite got around to it. It seems to be a relatively slow day for transport news, so here’s some great rail eye candy from the Washington DC Metro:While I knew about the concrete “vaulted” design of the stations, I wasn’t actually aware that all the underground stations had this design. One might think that the repetitive design would become boring, but actually I felt it was really good – giving a consistent feel to the system as a whole and making it very easy to use and understand – because generally once you worked out the design of one station you could apply that knowledge throughout the system. Very user friendly.The simplicity of the stations’ design is great. One useful thing is that the lights at the side of the platform start flashing about a minute before the train arrives – just so you’re aware to start getting ready to jump on the train.The photo above shows a pretty major interchange station – either Metro Centre or Gallery Place-Chinatown, I can’t quite remember. If you look closely, you’ll see that around halfway along the platforms the space of the station opens up on either side. Underneath this section of the station there’s another line travelling at a 90 degree angle to this one, but all within the same space so once again it’s easy to understand how the whole thing works and easy to navigate your way around the system.

This photo shows a bit more clearly how the interchange works. There’s another line running on the lower level , with plenty of escalators providing access. You can even peer down over the side barriers and see the tracks below.

I must say I find myself wondering whether something like this is what we should be thinking about for a future Midtown railway station – as part of the CBD Rail Tunnel. As I’ve alluded to before, I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to, or want to, link a future North Shore Line in with the CBD Rail Tunnel. My proposition would be to run it at right-angles to the CBD tunnel and provide a cross-CBD connection, as shown in the map below:As you can see, the North Shore to Botany Line intersects with the CBD rail tunnel at Midtown Station. While I don’t think we need to build this second tunnel any time particularly soon – it would pay to think about how we might connect to such a tunnel when designing Midtown station. The station design above is one possible way of how such a station could work.

On-time PT stats: too blunt a measurement tool?

Humantransit has a thought-provoking blog post on whether measuring “on time performance” is really the best way to gauge the effectiveness of public transport in providing what its users want and need. Here’s a couple of interesting paragraphs:

I have a great deal of sympathy for transit executives trying to deal with on-time performance, because many of the causes of delay are outside a transit agency’s control. Still, there are two major problems with the measures of “on-time performance” that prevail in the industry.

1. They are not customer-centered. They report the percentage of services that were on-time, not the percentage of riders who were. Because crowded services are more likely to be delayed, the percentage of customers who were served on-time is probably lower than the announced on-time performance figure.

2. For high-frequency, high-volume services, actual frequency matters more. Suppose that a transit line is supposed to run every 10 minutes, but every trip on the line is exactly 10 minutes late. A typical on-time performance metric (e.g. the percentage of trips that are 0-5 minutes late) will declare this situation to be total failure, 0% on-time performance. But to the customer, this situation is perfection.

For a while this year ARTA and Veolia placed significant emphasis on advertising their ‘on time’ stats – even though in the early part of the year these statistics were truly horrible for Auckland’s rail services. Yet at the very same time as rail performance was so terrible, we saw rail patronage skyrocket to record levels.

ARTA’s main response to the poor performance stats fell into the traps outlined above – too focused on the simple ‘statistic’ and not focused enough on the experience of the rider. Basically, they made the timetable slower. While a greater percentage of trains now get to their destination “on time” (in the crazy world where on time means no more than five minutes late) because they do this by simply adhering to a slower timetable, chances are that your average Western Line user (in particular) has a slower trip now than they did back when the trains were so unreliable (particularly now that the Western Line’s express trains have been removed from the timetable).

I think the points made in the Human Transit blog post are highly valid when it comes to Auckland – that what we really need to be measuring are statistics that people using the rail system find important. How long are they likely to have to wait for their train? How likely is it that their train will get them where they’re going in the time it should? How long will their trip take? While reliability – which is really all that on-time performance stats measure – is very important, so are other aspects like ensuring consistent spacing between services and trying to get the trains to travel as quickly as possible.

I suppose that the main problem I have with the current focus on “on-time performance” is that it encourages overly slow timetables. This may make the statistics look nice, as it’s pretty easy to keep to a very slow timetable, but in the end the slower you make the train trip – the more likely someone is to choose to drive instead. So perhaps we need to broaden our measurement of how good the rail service provided actually is. Perhaps we need to think more about what really matters to customers, rather than trying to find a simple measurement statistic that perversely makes our trains slower by encouraging an overly forgiving timetable.

On time performance is useful, but not in isolation and not to the cost of everything else (like speed and frequency).

What’s wrong with this picture?

Anyone able to guess where this might be? Source:

Believe it or not, this is the sole pedestrian link between Auckland’s second busiest railway station and the main shopping street adjacent to that station. This is the link between Broadway and Newmarket train station.

If you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for, you would miss this. In fact, I’ve missed it a few times even though I knew exactly what I was looking for. Where’s the signage? Where’s the visual clues that we spent tens of millions of dollars building this flash new railway station?

Why does Auckland so often screw up on the easy stuff when it comes to rail infrastructure?