Last week wasn’t a good week for Transport Minister Steven Joyce. Starting on last Sunday, highly acclaimed business journalist Rod Oram wrote a superb article completely slamming the business cases for a variety of the roads of national significance that Joyce is so fond of. Then on Wednesday the business case for the CBD Rail Tunnel comes out – a project that he has been very very lukewarm on. Worst of all, the business case is ‘compelling’, mainly on the grounds of things like boosting productivity, transforming Auckland into an ‘international city’, freeing up the roads of 10,000 vehicle trips a day to the central city – so that roadspace can be used for freight, other business trips and so forth. Heck, the business case speaks so much his language – or the language of this government – in terms of things like labour productivity, increased wages and so forth that you would almost think he’d written it himself.
Except he hasn’t – and his good mate Bill English has said that there’s no more general government funding for rail ever again because KiwiRail’s turnaround plan has used up far more than his limited goodwill when it comes to rail. So really, Joyce know that if the government is to contribute to this CBD Rail Tunnel with the annoyingly good business case there’s only one place for the money to come from. And that is from his beloved Roads of National Significance. Most annoyingly (for him) the particular road of national significance that most people are talking about stopping – or dramatically cutting back – is his particular pet project: the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway. To make matters worse, current MP for Rodney electorate Lockwood Smith is retiring from being an electorate MP at the next election and he’s been eyeing up this electorate for a long time. Cancelling a huge motorway project that he’s championed so strongly to divert the funds to a darn railway project – who uses the trains in Auckland anyway, none of his mates that’s for sure – is the last thing in the world he wants to do.
It’s a pretty tricky situation. The cost-effectiveness of your pet project is being attacked left, right and centre. There’s another project – one that you’ve never been keen on – waiting in the wings to take most of your favourite project’s funding – and it seems to have a compelling business case. What do you do?
Well, you go on the attack of course. First you slam the business case for this annoying rail project – even if a bit of what you say isn’t quite comparing apples with apples. Then you scramble around to try and appeal to the masses that the column written by Mr Oram last week wasn’t correct and in fact you have the best interests of the general public at heart after all – even if they voted overwhelmingly for a pro-rail mayor. (Oh, and you work out who the idiot was who thought up of this whole Super City idea – didn’t they know it would make Auckland an annoyingly powerful beast?)
The result is a rather bizarre opinion piece in today’s Sunday Star Times (when was the last time a Minister wrote an opinion piece in a Sunday newspaper I wonder?) Cam Pitches over on the Campaign for Better Transport blog has a great paragraph by paragraph analysis of Joyce’s opinion piece – so I’ll focus more generally. His defence of the roads of national significance is pretty weak – as the only real thing he says is that “they weren’t plucked out of thin air and that they are crucially important to the country’s economic future”. I would say that’s possibly true of a few of them: like the Victoria Park Tunnel and completion of the Western Ring Route – but for others the benefits appear relatively minimal when looked at by the experts, particular when the benefits are weighed up against the pretty significant cost. Once again, I think it’s useful to show the graph below – which illustrates how the benefits of the CBD Rail Tunnel stack up against the seven roads of national significance: Joyce then goes on to tell various lies about investments in the rail network – claiming that $4.5 billion will be spent on turning around KiwiRail (only $750 million is being spent by government on that, the rest is to come from within KiwiRail); claiming that the current government is spending $1.6 billion on Auckland’s rail network (the $600 million Project DART was funded in the 2006 budget, $500 million for electrification infrastructure was funded in the 2007 budget and the $500 million for rolling stock is the subject of a lengthy ongoing debate and may be paid for by Auckland ratepayers in the end.)
But perhaps what I find most insightful – and most concerning – is what’s written in the last few paragraphs of his piece:
Some people believe the way our cities have grown is wrong. They think the quarter acre section is a fool’s paradise. People should live more in apartment buildings and less with a backyard, or heaven forbid, in a small town outside of the city.
It’s a philosophy that argues that urban planners should have much more say about how we live our lives; and it’s an agenda that the old ARC had in Auckland for a long time: have a cast-iron metropolitan urban limit, force up the price of sections, increase the density of our suburbs, have people live in high-rise apartments, don’t let people get off the highway at Puhoi. And so on. If you follow that logic too far, the Auckland Harbour Bridge would never have been built, and the North Shore would still be a couple of seaside villages.
The truth is more prosaic. Yep, we should allow the city to increase in density (watch councillors run a mile when it comes time for the district plan changes), and we should support cost-effective transport options that support that. But we also have to understand that people like to live where they want to live, and provide cost-effective transport options (roads even!) for those people too. Amusingly, Auckland has increased in density in recent times. But largely not where the central planners said it would, (along the transport corridors) and instead in the beach-side suburbs. Fancy that.
And that will be the challenge for Auckland’s spatial planners. Not to impose their ideal Auckland on us, but allow for an Auckland that reflects the varied ways in which the people of our biggest city already choose to live.
Well, there’s certainly going to be an interesting battle between local government and central government when it comes to the final details of Auckland’s first spatial plan. I must say that I get really annoyed by the line of thinking that Joyce is peddling here – that naturally our cities want to sprawl and we should allow and encourage it to happen. The corollary of this statement is also very annoying – that supposedly this whole public transport and intensification push just comes from a few nasty planners wanting to tell us how to live our lives.
What this debate – and Joyce’s position – completely misses is the fact that sprawl doesn’t just occur naturally. In fact, around 95% of our current planning rules actively promote sprawl: minimum lot sizes, maximum building heights, minimum parking requirements, minimum building setbacks, maximum site coverage, maximum density limits – they all seek to do nothing but limit the intensity of development. While in many cases this is perfectly understandable – it must be recognised that just about every rule in the planning books actually works to encourage – not discourage – low density, single-use, auto-dependent development patterns. Sprawl doesn’t just occur by magic, and in fact cities built before we had lots of planning rules tend to be higher-density, mixed-use, walkable settlements. The kind of places that supposedly are being forced onto an unwilling public by nasty planners at the Regional Council.
The other issue that Joyce completely ignores is the whole question of economic efficiency. How much money has been spent in Flat Bush – for example – building all those brand new schools, all those brand new roads, all that fancy new parkland and so forth? Furthermore, as areas like Flat Bush inevitably tend to be auto-dependent, all the car trips generated by that area need to be accommodated around the region – hence the “need” to spend up large on projects like AMETI, the Highbrook motorway connection and so forth.
An ARC study earlier this year compared the economic efficiency of a sprawl-based future with that of a compact city based future. The results were very interesting: In short, the expansive scenario (that Joyce seems to be promoting) has infrastructure costs around $10 billion more than the other scenarios – but provides the worst outcomes in terms of accessibility and trip reliability. So even if people supposedly “prefer” sprawl (and yet again I would point towards most planning rules promoting sprawl by stopping more intensive developments that it would seem to me most developers actually want to do), if it gives the city overall the poorest outcome for the highest price – why would you do it?