Loop routes: great connectivity or just loopy?

I was having a trawl through recent changes to the London Underground network and noticed one change that had somewhat slipped past my attention – the adjustment of the Circle Line to something that’s now more of a “spiral route”, with the addition of a section from Hammersmith to Paddington. One of the reasons for making such a change could obviously have been the desire to get more services to Paddington, but through reading up on the change it also seems that there was a desire to shift away from the “loop” route patterns of the Circle Line.

The diagram below shows what the “Circle” Line looks like today: The difficulties in operating an orbital/loop route are noted in the Circle Line’s Wikipedia page as a reason for the change:

Orbital routes have an intrinsic problem of timetabling robustness. The trains are constantly in service and so there is little scope for “recovery time” if they are delayed. A single delay can have long-lasting knock-on effects and be much more disruptive than on a non-orbital railway. Recovery time can be created by timetabling longer stops at some stations, but this increases journey times. The current spiral route supposedly removed this problem because of the recovery time at both ends of the route.

That got me thinking about loop routes in general, and particularly Auckland’s best known example of a “loop”, the Link Bus service. I don’t catch Link buses particularly often, but when I do it is fairly plainly obvious that the buses suffer from what’s outlined above, probably to a greater degree than happened on the Circle Line because buses, when operating in mixed traffic, have many more possible causes of delay.

Link buses have an unfortunate tendency to “bunch”, because slow boarding times and unreliable traffic conditions mean that the first bus gets slowed down, while the bus behind it slowly catches up because it doesn’t have to pick up passengers and can therefore travel quite quickly. The longer the route gets, the more bunching you end up with – the end result quite often being three Link buses travelling one after the other, and then a huge gap to the next one.

Now this kind of thing can happen on any bus route, but the difference with non “loop” routes is that you generally have the opportunity to schedule a bit of “buffer” at the start and end of each run, meaning that if a bus is late (or early) there can be a re-timing of the service through the buffer, to give the best chance of starting its next run on time and therefore minimising the potential for bunching and unreliability. With the Link route (or any loop route for that matter), you are likely to have passengers travelling along each part of the Loop, (after all that’s one of their great strengths) which means that every time you have a “delay point” you annoy the heck out of passengers who have to sit at a bus stop for a few minutes twiddling their thumbs for seemingly no reason. I’m sure many readers would have experienced the “Victoria Park wait” on the Link bus over the years – to their great frustration (particularly as the bus drivers never seem to tell you how long it’s going to be).

When you’re trying to make public transport a more attractive option compared to driving, by improving its speed, reliability, convenience and so forth, having bunching buses or hugely long waits for seemingly no reason at Victoria Park don’t really help. I know of a lot of people who’ll avoid the Link bus for these reasons.

Yet I have to balance this against the advantages of “loop” routes. They do offer a connection between such a great number of places – particularly when it comes to the Link bus. Ponsonby to Newmarket: sorted; Parnell to downtown: sorted; Grafton to Ponsonby: sorted. If there are ways to minimise the unreliability, bunching and annoying waits associated with loop routes, they certainly have their many advantages.

So what might be a way forward on the issue of loops? I’m certainly not advocating for getting rid of the Link bus anytime soon – as it has been a significant success, despite its flaws. The high frequency and good connectivity of the Link has clearly struck a chord with the Auckland public right from when it was first introduced in the late 1990s. But how might we reduce the problems associated with the Link? Can we put in better bus priority measures at key points along the Link’s route where it experiences delays? Will faster boarding associated with integrated ticketing help reduce the ‘bunching’ caused by slow boarding? Can bus drivers be made aware of how far behind them, or in front of them, the other Link buses are – and adjust their driving accordingly? Is there a better place for the Link bus to pause than Victoria Park – which seems a very bus part of the route’s operation? It would be interesting to know the answers to these questions.

Furthermore, I also think that we should be wary of introducing further ‘loop’ bus routes – particularly if those routes are going to be longer than the current Link. The longer the route, the more opportunities for delays in mixed traffic, the more opportunity for bunching due to slow boarding and the more difficult it becomes to keep the route ‘on-time’ without having to introduce extraordinarily long waits at various points along the route – guaranteed to annoy the hell out of bus catchers.

So I suppose in summary I think loop routes are best if they’re kept short and if we can get as good bus priority along the route as possible. This minimises the opportunity for unreliable services and the opportunity for bunching. Furthermore, in the case of the Link perhaps we should look at having a number of “waiting points” around the route, in places where patronage is at its lowest, to allow the buses to keep on time without making passengers wait forever – as currently happens on occasion around Victoria Park.

I am curious what others think though – are Loop routes great, or are they a loopy idea (please excuse the terrible pun)?

Fixing Auckland Transport: Lessons from the EU

There’s an interesting transport discussion, led by European Union member of parliament Michael Cramer on Tuesday evening. The event is being organised by Green MP Gareth Hughes, though Labour MP David Shearer and myself will also be speaking about the topic of key transport initiatives for Auckland and the way forward. Here are the details:

When: Tue, 01/03/2011 – 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Where: Ellen Melville and Pioneer Women’s Hall, corner Freyberg Place & High Street, Auckland CBD

Michael Cramer is a Member of the European Parliament and sits on their Transport and Tourism committee for the entire EU. He also has had many years of experience as a councillor in Berlin, promoting sustainable transport modes. He is a keen cyclist and has published guides to cycling in San Francisco and Berlin.

Auckland Council’s submission on holiday highway

The latest meeting of the Auckland Council transport committee includes, for information purposes, the final version of the council’s submission on the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. I previously blogged about the draft version of the submission, but as there was plenty of discussion on the matter at the last Transport Committee meeting, it’s worthwhile following up on the final form of the submission. For ease of reading, I’ve extracted the submission out of the agenda, and you can read it here. I’ve included below an overview of the submission: For a while, when I first read the submission, I wondered whether the Council had missed an opportunity to come out more strongly against the project. Transport committee chairman, Mike Lee, has been a long-standing opponent of the holiday highway, and in fact coined that phrase. Auckland Council Mayor Len Brown has been a bit more neutral about the project, but certainly I would imagine if he were given a choice between it and a number of the rail projects he wishes to advance (and I really do think we only have enough money for one or the other) Mayor Brown would go for the rail projects.

However, on reflection I started to think about it in more detail and I actually think Auckland Council is taking the right position – a relatively neutral position, but one that seeks to ask a lot of questions about the project. Questions like the following:

  • what are the project’s environmental effects and are they acceptable?
  • does the project represent a ‘cost effective solution’ to the problems faced along state highway one north of Auckland?
  • could we achieve many of the benefits of the project quicker and cheaper by advancing things like a Warkworth bypass and safety improvements?
  • how does the project fit within Auckland’s growth and transport projects?

These questions align reasonably closely with the questions I like to ask about a transport project – and in the case of the holiday highway the answers generally tend to point towards not undertaking the project. The environmental effects are particularly severe, the project’s cost-benefit ratio is very low – and dicey at that, we could achieve most of the benefits (reduced congestion and Warkworth and safety improvements) quicker and cheaper by undertaking something similar to Operation Lifesaver, and finally – the project works against our growth strategy by encouraging sprawl instead of intensification, and will take money away from project that are much higher on the region’s priority list.

One matter where the final form of the submission seems to have been elaborated on compared to the draft submission is in terms of the potential wider traffic effects of the project. The point that I am particularly glad has been mentioned are potential impacts of the project on traffic flows along the Northern Motorway and on the Harbour Bridge. One of the obvious effects of extending the motorway further north will be an increase in traffic using the existing motorway. In some places, like between Oteha Valley Road and Orewa, that’s fine – because there’s sufficient capacity remaining on the road. However, further towards the city the motorway is pretty close to capacity (or beyond it), so adding further vehicles to the motorway will negatively impact on North Shore residents trying to cross the harbour bridge to get to work every morning. This is the kind of issue that seems to get ignored usually, so I’m glad it has been brought up.

Hopefully NZTA undertakes an in-depth analysis to answer many of these questions. It will certainly be interesting to see their response to the feedback provided by the public over the past few months, and whether anything changes as a result of it.

The Roadfather

A great little sign spotted at protests against the Kapiti Expressway near Wellington:

What influences public transport patronage?

One strange thing about NZTA is that, despite being a generally roads-obsessed organisation, there are parts of the agency which come up with great initiatives and great work. Whoever write NZTA submissions on plan changes and resource consent applications in the Auckland area often comes up with great points to make (often a lot better than what ARTA had to say), while another great part of the organisation is the work done to fund interesting research into transport matters. One of the more recent research reports put together for NZTA looks at the various factors that drive public transport patronage increases or decreases. Written by Judith Wang, of Booz & Company, the report’s objective was to undertake an in-depth analysis of factors influencing public transport patronage and to develop a model for future forecasting of patronage demands.

A brief summary of the results is included in the table below – which were derived from looking at patronage trends over the past 10 years in NZ’s three biggest cities, then comparing those trends to various factors that were taking place over that time: There are some interesting results here. The strongest factor (showing up as important in all situations except Wellington’s buses) seems to be that service changes have an impact on patronage: increase the service frequencies, or improve the quality of the service in other ways (such as making it faster) and patronage will boom.

The ‘elasticities’ of the relationship between these various factors and public transport patronage was also analysed. The higher the number means the stronger the connection – with positive numbers showing that the factor (as it increase) led to increased use of public transport, with negative numbers indicating that as that factor went up, public transport usage decreased: If we look at the bus data first for Auckland, the best way to improve public transport patronage in the longer term was to improve services, although higher fuel prices also had a reasonably significant effect on patronage. Interestingly, both fares changes and income changes didn’t have much impact on patronage. However, car ownership levels had a huge effect – it would seem that any level of increase in car ownership will have a massive negative effect on bus patronage. This would tend to suggest that bus patronage is focused around those who don’t own cars, and as soon as they acquire a car they don’t catch the bus anymore.

For rail, things are quite different. Service improvements in Auckland had a big effect on patronage – to a greater extent than for bus service improvements. Fares also had a bigger effect on patronage than with buses, perhaps suggesting that the decision to raise rail fares a week ago may have a bigger impact on patronage than I had thought. Interestingly, unlike buses there doesn’t seem to be a connection between car ownership and rail patronage. It would seem that people are happy to own a car while still catching the train to work in a way that they’re not content to still catch the bus once they have a car. Fuel price also seems to have less of an effect on rail patronage in Auckland than it did on bus patronage.

The study draws a number of interesting conclusions out of this data: I think the result I get out of all this is the difference in factors affecting bus and rail patronage in Auckland. While both respond to service improvements, as income rises and (most particularly) car ownership levels increase bus patronage falls away dramatically whereas rail patronage is retained. This would suggest to me that Auckland’s bus riders are more frequently catching the bus because they don’t have a choice – in particular they don’t own a car. By comparison, it would seem that train riders may be doing so by choice – because even when they purchase a car ridership levels remain relatively similar.

This is not particularly surprising and reflects the fact that we’ve generally ignored our bus system (Northern Busway excluded, which I think would probably exhibit similar characteristics to the rail network if looked at individually) over the past decade. Buses are slow, relatively expensive and generally inconvenient – so it would seem that many people in Auckland who use them do so because they have no choice. What we want to aim for is a situation where people are choosing to ride the bus – like they choose to ride the train – because it’s faster and more convenient than driving. The analysis above suggests that service improvements that achieve this will result in a significant boost to bus patronage.

The next Government Policy Statement

The Government Policy Statement (GPS) for transport is a very important high-level document outlining what the government wants to achieve from investment in the transport network over the next three years. The current GPS was released in May 2009 – and unfortunately was a document stuck in the 1960s when it came to much of its thinking about transport investment. Many of the issues that we’ve had over the past few years about funding shortages for public transport projects have arisen out of decisions made in the preparation of the 2009 GPS – which, in the words of the Minister, ‘effectively capped funding for public transport’.

The GPS has a three-year timeframe, so unsurprisingly thoughts are now shifting to the shape and form of the next GPS – due to have effect from 2012-2015. The Transport Committee of Auckland Council have been brought up to date on this process in an agenda item to their upcoming March 1st meeting. Here’s the executive summary of the agenda item:

The last GPS caught me by surprise a bit – at that time I was still getting my head around how all our different transport plans, strategies, policy statements, programmes and so forth fitted together. I didn’t quite grasp the importance of the GPS until it had become operative. So I’m glad that the Auckland Council has jumped in early when it comes to informing the Regional Transport Committee about the process for putting together the next GPS, and I’m also quite pleased with the recommendations that are being established around what Auckland Council’s feedback and input into the next GPS should be.

Ultimately, there is a big gap between Auckland’s transport priorities and those of central government. The Auckland Council, Mayor Len Brown in particular, was elected on a general platform of focusing on improving public transport – whereas the government is mainly interested in building its road of national significance (RoNS): mostly motorways on the edge of our metropolitan areas. The clash between these two approaches is inevitable, and I think that arguments over the extent to which the GPS should reflect Auckland’s transport priorities versus the extent to which Auckland’s transport priorities should reflect the GPS will be interesting to see over the next few months.

In addition to the points raised above, I would hope that Auckland Council focuses on three additional issues that need to be addressed in the GPS:

Auckland’s population growth compared to the rest of the country:

The next GPS should reflect Auckland’s enormous dominance of the country’s population growth. With Auckland having over 60% of the country’s population growth over the next 20 years, and around 75% of the country’s growth over the next 40 years I think merely saying that Auckland should “get back what it pays” is underplaying the need for investment in our transport network. While it may not go down well in parts of the National Party’s traditional homeland, when it comes to new transport infrastructure, it seems pretty obvious that Auckland is where the bulk of investment needs to be: simply because that’s where the bulk of population growth is. To put it slightly crudely, the roads of Gore probably aren’t going to need too much widening any time soon.

In the past few years Auckland has started to get a better deal when it comes to the amount of transport money spent in the region (whether or not we’ve spent it well is a whole different question). But with Auckland adding the population equivalent of a Wellington City (the city council area, not the whole region) around every eight years, it should be obvious that we’re going to need an even bigger ‘slice of the pie’ in the future.

NZTA must be allowed to fund rail infrastructure projects:

One of the most frustrating and illogical things the current GPS does is effectively ban NZTA from funding rail infrastructure projects. Under the current policy framework, even though the CBD Rail Tunnel would benefit road users enormously by reducing congestion, we can’t ask road users to help pay for it (through their petrol taxes, which get spent by NZTA). As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, each peak time rail user in Auckland generates $17 in decongestion benefits for road users – so it’s obvious that if road users benefit from a rail project, they should also be required to contribute. Allowing NZTA to spend money on rail infrastructure projects, should they provide road user benefits, would not only be fair – it would also create a desperately needed ongoing funding stream for rail infrastructure upgrade projects, which suffer at the moment from having to go begging to the government for each project. At a time when the government’s finances are obviously stretched to an enormous degree, enabling NZTA to help fund rail projects would be a giant leap forwards.

Allow projects of different types to ‘compete’ for funding:

One completely illogical way in which transport funding is allocated in New Zealand is through setting aside different ‘funding pools’ for different types of projects. A certain amount of money is allocated to state highway improvements, public transport infrastructure, public transport subsidies, walking and cycling improvements and so forth – then different projects within those broad categories ‘compete’ against each other for funding.

The problem with this approach is that you inevitably end up with some categories having a huge number of project that ‘stack up’ well, but there’s not enough money available to fund them. Similarly, if you put enough money in the state highways budget then projects like the holiday highway can end up being funded, even though they perform far worse than smaller local road improvements, or new cycleways (or big projects like the CBD Tunnel). It would surely be much more logical for these funding pools to either not exist, or for the transfer of funding from one pool to another being much easier. Allowing all projects to compete against each other for funding will surely mean a better quality of transport expenditure.

There are probably many other things the council could say about the GPS at some point along the consultation process. Questions like how it responds to higher petrol prices, how it links in with economic development strategies, how it connecs with the Auckland Spatial Plan and so forth – but I think if the council focuses on these three matters to start with, hopefully we might see some useful improvements (assuming the government is willing to listen to the country’s biggest council).

Employment: to concentrate or to disperse?

I’ve spent the last couple of days at an interesting conference, based around trying to be smarter about how we intensify our urban areas. There seems to be general agreement – at least amongst planners, architects, policymakers, urban designers and so forth – that we do want to intensify our urban areas, for important sustainability reasons, but also for simple economic efficiency reasons (that I’ve discussed before). The problem is the disconnect about actually making it happen. For a number of reasons, it seems that developers just don’t want to, or can’t, build the type of intensive urban development that our regional policies want. Something’s getting lost in the process.

There were many reasons for this discussed at the conference, issues like a misalignment between regional policies and ‘on the ground’ District Plan rules, the effect of minimum parking requirements, the mis-match between the location of “growth nodes” and where the market for higher density development actually is, the practical difficulties in amalgamating land – and so forth. Perhaps one of the most useful parts of the conference was learning about things a bit more from the developer’s, or real-estate expert, point of view. Trying to work out why they’re not particularly keen on building apartments next to the New Lynn rail trench, but instead want to build massive houses on 400 square metre sections in Flat Bush – and then discussing what interventions might be useful in turning this around so that the reality can match the regional strategies for once.

Interestingly, most of the discussion was about residential intensification. It seems that when we talk about intensification we often tend to really focus on answering big questions like “Auckland’s going to need another 350,000 dwellings by 2041, where the heck are we going to put them?” Incidentally, that number is true and we certainly will have to work hard to find out where to put those dwellings: in centres, along development corridors or through urban expansion? That is perhaps the biggest question that the upcoming Auckland Spatial Plan will need to answer.

But that’s only half the story in many respects. In 2041 Auckland will also have a whole pile more jobs, and probably will have jobs of a different kind than we do now as the economy changes and develops over time – particularly in response to technological advancements. An equally interesting question is “where are we going to put those jobs?” Are we going to sprinkle them around the region or are we going to concentrate them in the city centre and in a few key growth nodes? Drilling down a bit further, we obviously have different kinds of business activity – some being very jobs intensive (like offices) and some being very space intensive (such as warehousing and industry). Where are the most appropriate, efficient and sustainable locations for offices, where are the best places for less concentrated employment zones? Should we be letting offices establish in areas originally set aside for light industry and/or warehousing?

Now this being a transport blog (primarily) one thing that I find interesting is thinking about the different transport patterns that might result from different ways in which we structure the location of our employment nodes in the future. Furthermore, the decisions we make about what transport infrastructure to invest it will have a huge impact on where the market may wish to locate – improving access to the city centre through a project like the CBD Rail Tunnel is likely to make that area more attractive, and therefore in the longer run would encourage office space to locate there. Similarly, if we make planning provisions to focus office development in the city centre, Newmarket, Manukau and another couple of locations with excellent public transport links – both by encouraging it there and by discouraging it elsewhere – we can support investment in our public transport network.

If we looking internationally, it actually seems as though it’s the location, concentration and density of employment that has a bigger impact on the popularity and effectiveness of public transport than the density of residential dwellings. In fact, if we look at population density and try to compare it to public transport use we get confusing results: Sure, those are just four cities I’ve plucked results from, but they seem to clearly show that the relationship between population density and transit modeshare is somewhat more complex than one might think. I would suggest that perhaps a focus on employment density might be more useful: after all Los Angeles have highly dispersed employment compared to New York City, which has, in the form of Manhattan, some of the highest employment densities in the world. (Oddly enough though, Vancouver has a similar percentage of its jobs in the CBD as Auckland, yet has well over twice the PT modeshare – they just to PT well in Vancouver I suspect.)

If we bring this back to Auckland, statistics show that our employment is incredibly dispersed:

The region’s biggest single growth “hub” since 1996 has been in what Statistics NZ calls “North Harbour East”.

That and neighbouring Albany have grown from having 0.8 per cent of the region’s jobs in 1996 to 2.7 per cent in 2006.

The other two biggest growth areas are East Tamaki/Otara/Flat Bush (up from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent of the region’s jobs), and Auckland Airport (up from 1.9 per cent to 2.3 per cent).

There has been modest growth at Mt Wellington/Penrose (up from 5.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent) and around Manukau Central and Wiri (up from 3.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent).

Two other traditional business centres, Newmarket/Grafton and Takapuna/Westlake, have had their shares of the regional workforce shrink slightly, although with 3.2 per cent of the region’s jobs Takapuna/Westlake is still marginally ahead of its upstart rival at Albany.

But the overwhelming pattern in the region is that jobs are scattered widely – almost two-thirds are outside all of the “hubs”.

The last line is quite amazing. Two thirds of jobs in the Auckland region aren’t actually within any particular employment hub. While in some respects that might be good, if people live and work locally, what it also probably means is that if they don’t work near where they live, they’re almost certainly going to be driving to work.

Furthermore, in growing employment hubs, we aren’t exactly designing these places to be public transport friendly. This is an aerial photograph of “North Harbour East”: All those buildings are 2 to 3 levels of offices. They’re located in a way that’s actually fairly difficult to service with good quality public transport (even though the Constellation bus station isn’t too far away, it’s probably just beyond walking distance). This means that two-thirds (at least) of the land “needs” to be dedicated to parking – a somewhat inefficient use of land one would think.

There are some interesting debates to be held around the question of whether we want to concentrate or disperse employment – particularly where we want to locate office buildings that naturally will have a higher intensity of employees compared to warehouses of the same building size. Certainly having more employment on the North Shore has reduced peak-time pressure on the Auckland Harbour Bridge (peak time flows haven’t increased since the early 1990s in terms of vehicles), in south Auckland the development of new employment areas around East Tamaki and the Airport has certainly provided some people with the ability to work locally. Once again, if we look at the statistics we certainly see this happening:

Obviously breaking this down into former council areas is somewhat out of date, but it provides some useful patterns. We can see that around 60% of people living on the North Shore work there too, with a similar percentage in Manukau City. For Auckland City around 80% of people worked ‘locally’. Only in Waitakere City did more than half the population have to leave the area for work, but even there more Waitakere City residents worked locally than in Auckland City. It goes without saying that the shorter the distance people have to travel, the less pressure they place on the transport system and the more sustainable our outcome is. So employment dispersal certainly appears to have had some benefit.

But I can’t help but think there is also a cost here. It was probably reading through the business case for the CBD Rail Tunnel, and subsequently doing more research to learn about wider economic benefits, that I started to wonder whether Auckland is missing out on something by having such dispersed employment patterns. The enormous amount of money we have to spend on providing parking, the enormous amount of time our businesses must spend getting from “North Harbour East” to see their various clients and suppliers, the enormous cost that employees are burdened with when it comes to ensuring they’re able to drive to work, what is the economic impact of that? Furthermore, what is the cost when it comes to not enjoying the agglomeration benefits that may arise from a greater concentration of employment activity?

One theme of the conference was highlighting areas where we don’t know enough, where we haven’t undertaken enough research to really know what the best way forward is. I certainly think that the question of whether to concentrate or disperse employment is something we need to understand better – and should form a critical part of the Auckland Spatial Plan. I suspect that Auckland would benefit hugely, in economic terms, from having more concentrated employment patterns – because it would unlock agglomeration benefits, because jobs located in the higher concentration areas are likely to be more productive, because we won’t have to spend so much money, and two-thirds of our city, on providing parking. Of course, the fact that we’re also likely to be less auto-dependent in a city with a greater concentration of employment is also a positive, but I tend to think of public transport as the enabler of higher employment densities, not the reason for them.

Ultimately, I think we need to know whether it makes a difference to Auckland’s prosperity if a particular job is located on Apollo Drive in “North Harbour East” or whether it’s located on Albert Street in the CBD. I suspect, through agglomeration benefits and productivity effects, that Auckland would be better off having that job on Albert Street. But I think it would be helpful for the Auckland Spatial Plan to provide more clarity on this matter.

The Tiverton-Wolverton upgrade

Auckland Transport’s latest board meeting reports that an upgrade to Tiverton Road and Wolverton Street in New Windsor (between Mt Roskill and New Lynn) is likely to be fast-tracked as a project for completion before October next year. This corridor is shown below – with the red section indicating the part of the road upgraded a few years back and the blue section showing that yet to be upgraded, but which now forms part of the project proposed for completion over the next year and a half. As you can see from the map above the corridor is a key connection between State Highway 20 and west Auckland. Maioro Street was upgraded to a four-lane arterial as part of the Mt Roskill extension project, while Clark Street has been upgraded by Waitakere City Council as part of the New Lynn transport initiatives: just leaving the section in between.

The project was meant to be finished by the time the Mt Roskill motorway extension opened – back in 2009. However, Auckland City Council deferred the project to save money, and the result has been some pretty significant congestion because of the bottleneck the remaining two-lane section has created. A bit more background in the project is outlined below: So, how does the project stack up against the measurements I established when assessing Penlink? Well, in terms of its cost-benefit ratio, it very strongly ‘stacks up’ as shown below: As noted above, the road is a potentially very useful east-west bus connector: with a fair few bus routes using it at the moment. From what I’ve seen of the design there’s no dedicated bus priority measures included, which is a bit of a pity, but buses should still benefit from reduction in congestion that will occur from removing the bottleneck. So I think it does OK in terms of not hugely exaggerating our auto-dependency, I also hope that providing better access to areas like New Lynn might encourage further development there: a very transit-friendly bit of Auckland.

More detail on the project is outlined below: I think overall it’s good for Auckland Transport to fast-track this project. It certainly appears to offer excellent value for money and is necessary to remove a bottleneck along this important east-west corridor. I guess I hope that the stronger east-west connection will eventually lead to a better quality public transport route being offered in this area.

Update: Jon C from Auckland Trains was at the board meeting of Auckland Transport and reports that funding for the project wasn’t agreed upon – only that the project was supported ‘in principle’.

Penlink’s business case

There has been quite a lot of discussion in the last week or so about what the priority of the “Penlink” road is. This connection would provide much quicker access between the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and the Auckland urban area, by cutting off a relatively huge detour vehicles must make at the moment. It would also provide the transport network with greater resiliency as there would be more than one way in and out of the peninsula.

A map showing the project is included below:
When it comes to ‘taking a position’ on transport projects I try to start off in a fairly neutral position and ask some key questions:

  1. Does the project ‘stack up’ in terms of its benefits outweighing its costs?
  2. Is it possible to achieve the project’s benefits (or a great big chunk of them) through a lower cost alternative?
  3. Will the project have significant adverse environmental effects and can they be avoided, remedied or mitigated?
  4. How does the project fit within our general transport strategy?
  5. Will the project foster more or less auto-dependency?

To answer the first of these questions, it’s always useful to get hold of the project’s business case – and I have done that for the Penlink project. In October last year, merely days before they got rolled into Auckland Transport, ARTA had completed for them a review of Penlink. That is the document linked to above, which provides a very up to date analysis of where the project is at.

The review sought to answer two main questions:

  • Whether the PENLINK business case is robust and therefore justifies funding ahead of other projects in the programme;
  • Whether the revised scheme satisfies the original designation requirements and is sufficiently robust to meet its objectives and future needs.

It seems like over the last few years there have been a few amendments to the design of the Penlink route, to provide the same level of functionality at a lower capital cost, and this review was to test whether the project makes economic sense (remember that NZTA seemed to put a big question mark around this matter in their NLTP). These revisions are outlined in more detail below:
So less widening at the Whangaparaoa end and the inclusion of electronic tolling gates.

If we look at our first question outlined earlier in the post, the business case document suggests that the project does ‘stack up’, with a fairly decent cost-benefit ratio:
The review document doesn’t provide much detail on how these numbers have been calculated (business cases rarely do for some reason, we’re just supposed to take the results as gospel), but it would seem as though – at a very basic level – this project wouldn’t be a money loser like the holiday highway.

In terms of our second question, about whether we could achieve the benefits of the project by way of a cheaper alternative, the review comments on this matter:
In short, the widening of Whangaparaoa Road between the Hibiscus Coast Highway and Red Beach road would alleviate many of the congestion problems likely to be suffered along Whangaparaoa Road if Penlink doesn’t proceed. This could be done at a much lower cost than Penlink and therefore has a much higher cost-benefit ratio. However, this would not achieve all the benefits of Penlink, such as a more resilient and robust transport network and the removal of conflict between commuting traffic and local traffic.

The concerns I have about the project probably fit within the last three questions I laid out at the start of this blog post. What would the environmental effects of the project be? Is this project a strategic priority compared with other things going on around the region (for example the project’s cost would be a significant contribution to the CBD rail tunnel or could provide light-rail along Dominion Road)? Does the project contribute to growing auto-dependency by encouraging further development in a fairly far-flung corner of the city and not offering dedicated bus lanes and perhaps not even a dedicated cycleway along its whole length?

I think overall I probably find myself coming to the conclusion that Penlink is a worthwhile project, but the real question is “when?” While it might have been the number one priority for Rodney District Council, when that was a separate council, I wonder how it stacks up against other necessary transport upgrades throughout Auckland. Furthermore, if many of the congestion relief benefits can be achieved by widening Whangaparaoa Road – at a fraction of the cost – then maybe it could be better to embark on that project first.


My word, what a truly horrible afternoon. Since about 1.30pm – when I found out about today’s Christchurch earthquake – it has been a truly surreal afternoon watching on TV, listening the radio, following updates on Twitter and so forth as events have unfolded.

Latest updates say that 65 people have been confirmed dead, which is a horrifically huge number. I feel so incredibly deeply sorry for the people of Christchurch.