CBD Tunnel Review: my thoughts on the MOT document

Well, what an interesting day. The review of the CBD rail tunnel project – a process that has been ongoing since December last year – finally spat out its results. And I stress the plurality of those results, because effectively we have ended up with two reviews: one from Ministry of Transport and Treasury officials, and one from Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and their various consultants. It’s somewhat strange and interesting to compare the two reviews.

This post will look at the MoT review. I will look at Auckland Council’s review in a separate post – probably within the next day or two.

I had the advantage of attending a “technical briefing” from the key Ministry of Transport officials late this afternoon, which involved some useful discussion about how the MoT review differs from the original business case, and then how the Council’s review differs from the MoT review. The differences are very complex, and have reinforced my long-held belief that transport modelling is an incredibly dangerous and confusing process, where slight changes to ‘input assumptions’ can make a huge difference to the final results. In essence it seems as though the MoT have changed some of the assumptions from what the business case used – resulting in a much lower cost-benefit ratio. Then the Council changed some assumptions to come up with a different cost-benefit ratio again.

This is the comparison that the MoT’s review made between their review and the original business case: As you can see, there’s an absolutely massive difference between the two. From my understanding, there are two main reasons behind the reduction in transport benefits:

Firstly, the business case made the decision that rail capacity would be hit in 2024, whereas the MoT review has looked at this question in a bit more detail, and says that capacity will be reached in different years on different lines. Some of MoT’s statistics on this matter are a bit hard to believe – such as their assumption that the Eastern Line will not reach capacity, even by 2041. For the Western and Southern Lines, there’s some demand that won’t be fulfilled due to overcrowding by 2041, but MoT’s numbers yet again seem illogically low:

The other big change to the assumptions is the parking charge in the CBD that has been “inputted” to the modelling. The business case used an inflation adjusted figure of $30 a day whereas the MoT review used an inflation adjusted figure of $16 (both in 2041). Once again it seems fairly illogical to assume that parking charges will stay pretty much as they are now (only adjusting for inflation) as Auckland’s CBD grows over the next 30 years and becomes increasingly dense. Of course Auckland Council could get the ball rolling by charging market rates in their parking buildings for once!

Both these changed inputs, along with some technical changes, have had a surprisingly massive effect on the economics of the project – as you can see in the first table. Indeed, MoT’s general assumption is that the rail tunnel won’t make a particularly massive difference to travel patterns into the CBD – as can be seen from the table below:

One thing that I found particularly interesting at this afternoon’s briefing with MoT, is that when I questioned whether they had assessed whether the city centre could actually handle all those bus and car passengers in 2041 – the MoT officials admitted that they hadn’t looked at this issue. Considering that currently we have around 23,000 bus passengers entering the city at peak times, it’s an interesting question to ponder whether the street network has the capacity to handle an increase to what MoT think will happen in 2041 with or without the CBD Tunnel. I can’t quite see, even with significantly enhanced bus priority measures, how we would be able to double the number of peak time bus trips to the city centre, particularly while people in cars would also (supposedly) be able to increase from 35,000 this year to around 40,000 in 2041. I just don’t see the road capacity, particularly if Auckland Council pushes ahead with its vision for making the city centre a nicer place for people.

So I must say that overall I see some major flaws in MoT’s review as it relates to traditional transportation benefits. Now this is not necessarily because MoT has done its job wrongly, but rather that their assumptions are a bit out of date – and don’t really reflect what is likely to occur in the future as Auckland’s city centre changes. They assume that the CBD can handle a doubling of buses at peak times, while still providing enough road space to handle more cars than we have at the moment. They assume that parking charges will barely change over the next 30 years and they assume – quite counter-intuitively I think – that the rail network has sufficient capacity to serve the CBD, right up until 2041 with only relatively minor problems on the Southern and Western Lines, and without any problems on the Eastern Line. Quite critically, the MoT review also doesn’t really consider the impact of changing around the bus network so that it is based around more services feeding into the rail corridor, instead assuming that the current mess of bus operations will continue.

Fortunately, the Auckland Council review considers these issues in much more detail – as well as undertaking an extremely interesting assessment of wider economic benefits. But that will be for my next post.

Auckland Council’s CBD Tunnel Review

In addition to the government’s review, here is Auckland Council’s full review of the CBD Tunnel – http://transportblog.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/City-Rail-Link-Summary-Report-13-May-2011.pdf

The executive summary:

Historically, a range of proposals have been developed for a rail tunnel through the Auckland city centre. In 2010, a preferred route for a tunnel, the City Rail Link, was identified and work commenced on a concept design and Business Case to support designation of the route. In November 2010, Auckland Transport (AT) and Auckland Council (AC) in partnership with KiwiRail Group (KRG) presented the case for the City Rail Link to the government for its consideration.

The Minister of Transport (MoT) requested a review of the City Rail Link (or CBD Loop) proposal. That Review has been undertaken over the last 5 months and its report is expected to be released shortly.

The government led Review has provided AT and AC with an opportunity to further review the assumptions, refine the costs and benefits, and identify the further work needed to secure funding for the City Rail Link. All of this work has been made available to the government led Review team and the same material used to prepare this report.

The Review confirmed that the costs of constructing and operating the City Rail Link are accurately estimated, with a small increase in operating expenditure arising from new information which became available after the original Business Case was completed.

There was, however, a wide disparity between the benefits assessed by the MoT/Treasury Review compared with those estimated as part of the AT and AC update. This is largely due to the lower transport benefits assessed as part of the government led Review.

AT and AC consider that, taking into account the wider transport policy initiatives which are planned, the City Rail Link would deliver overall benefits exceeding overall costs, with the benefit cost ratio ranging from 1.1 to 2.3 (BCR = 1.1 to 2.3).

While there are differences between the findings of the government led Review and the AT/AC update, AT and AC and their advisors are strongly of the view that the overall evaluation results are sufficiently robust to justify the immediate commencement of the designation process, particularly as the CRL is economically justifiable in terms of its transport related benefits alone. This process needs to commence as soon as possible to minimise the potential for any development to increase costs, delay the project, or even prevent its implementation.

AT and AC acknowledge that, in line with all major project development programmes, more work needs to be done to further develop the case for funding of the City Rail Link. This work will take full account of central government‟s requirements for the development of public sector funding requests.

In addition to progressing with this work, this report recommends that the Auckland Council resolve to immediately commence the process to secure and protect the route of the Auckland City Rail Link.
This summary report presents AT and AC‟s key findings arising from participation in the government led Review of the City Rail Link project.

Let’s hope the council releases all their background documentation shortly, and that MoT do the same. It will be good to pin-point exactly why the two review differ so hugely.

CBD Tunnel Review

My understanding is that the review of the CBD rail tunnel project is to be released today by the Ministry of Transport. The key question is whether the Minister will allow KiwiRail to proceed with the designation protecting the tunnel’s route, with Auckland Council paying for that work at this point.

However, there will also be a lot of interest in the results of the business case review itself, and whether any agreement has been reached between the Council and central government on the project’s merit. My understanding here is that views are still very divergent, with the Ministry of Transport’s supposedly neutral review being highly politicised. Little agreement on the transportation and economic benefits of the project seems to have been reached between the parties.

A docment anonymously sent to me a few months ago indicated that much of the Ministry of Transport’s critique of the project’s transport benefits was based on the assumption that the city centre can handle 58,000 cars entering it at peak times. This is obviously nonsense, particularly as the City Centre Masterplan will reduce road capacity. I look forward to seeing if this document has been updated.

I have a pretty busy day so would appreciate it if the comments can add links and further detail once the information is released.


Government Media Release is here. Pretty much as expected – they have torn the business case to shreds wherever possible. The full documentation is here, with appendices here.

It’s particularly interesting to see how divergent the Council and Government’s views are on major things like the level of transportation benefits and wider economic benefits.

Here’s the Council’s media release:

Auckland Rail Link on track after business case review

The Mayor has announced the next steps in the construction of the Auckland Rail Link after an independent review of the business case for the project by Auckland Council and Auckland Transport concluded it would have transformative benefits to the region.

The review has been carried out in conjunction with a number of independent internationally recognised consultants and finds that the project would deliver overall benefits exceeding overall costs with the benefit cost ratio ranging from 1.1 to 2.3 (including wider economic benefits).

Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and our independent advisors are strongly of the view that the overall evaluation numbers are sufficiently robust to justify the immediate commencement of the designation process for the route.

The process needs to commence as soon as possible to minimise the potential for any cost increases or project delays.

In addition to progressing the designations, the Auckland Council needs to immediately commence the process to secure and protect the route of the Rail Link. This work is being funded in the 2011/2012 Annual Plan.

The Mayor says he will be proposing funding to commence the acquisition of properties necessary to make this project a reality in the draft Long Term Plan.

”The need for the tunnel is now urgent,” says Len Brown “Within two years most of the useable train paths in and out of Britomart will be in use, providing virtually no room to add future services at a time when public transport patronage is going through the roof.”

“The rail tunnel will unlock unused capacity across the whole rail network,” says Len Brown. “It will double the number of trains that can go through Britomart, let Aucklanders and freight more move around the region more easily, and reduce congestion on our roads.

The rail tunnel would include three stations at key locations to ensure most of the inner city is no further than 500 metres from any station and would mean more and faster services out to west and south Auckland..

“The potential urban redevelopment and additional growth derived from investment in this infrastructure would make the project transformational not just for Auckland, but for New Zealand as a whole.”

The review was prepared with the assistance of the following international experts:
• PricewaterhouseCoopers
• Parsons Brinkerhoff
• John Bolland Consulting
• M.E Market Economics
• Beca
• Ascari
• UC Berkeley Transportation Centre

The business case review says this about Auckland Transport & Auckland Council’s views on the project’s transport benefits:

Auckland Council and Auckland Transport note that the Review has identified and corrected issues with the way that the transport benefits were estimated in the Business Case. They consider that, combined with a number of other initiatives not included in the Business Case, the benefits would be significantly greater than the Review concludes.

Towards the end of the Review, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport presented a new policy case which estimates transport benefits between $1.2 and $1.4 billion.

The Review‘s purpose was to assess the Business Case and there was insufficient time to consider the policy case as it was presented while the final report was being developed. Central government agencies note that it may make sense to apply some of the changes set out in the policy case, such as more park and rides, and reconfigured bus routes, to the future electrified network as well as the CCRL. This issue would need to be explored and clarified in any future business case.

That’s massively different to the government’s transport benefits (of around $300 odd million). There’s also huge disagreement over the wider economic benefits:

Auckland Council and Auckland Transport officers also consider that the Business Case and subsequent additional work has only partially captured the potential WEBs. This is because it has not assessed the growth in the regional economy through efficiency gains in Auckland‘s spatial economic structure as a result of the project. They estimate that this growth could result in up to $1,300 million in benefits for the project, although they note that only a component of this number is additive to other benefits.

Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have advised that combining the conventional transport benefits from their policy case, and estimating WEBs based on the policy case equates to total benefits of $1,863 million or up to $3,868 million if regional economic benefits are included. This equates to a total benefit to cost ratio of between 1.1 and 2.3.

Central government officials have considered these additional WEBs in light of best practice and conclude that due to a number of evidential and methodological issues they are not appropriate for inclusion in the economic assessment.

The main good news is that the project will proceed at least as far as designation. Hopefully by the time we’re ready to need central government funding, the disagreements over the details of its costs and benefits will have been sorted out. Surely there’s a right answer out there somewhere!

What happened to “B-Line”?

Back in the middle of last year two “B-Line” routes were launched in Auckland, along Dominion Road and Mt Eden Road. I was a bit ambivalent about them at the time, mainly because they “undersold” the actual quality of those two bus routes. But I could see the point: raising the quality (or at least the perception of quality, which is equally important) of bus travel along high frequency bus corridors. One of the main reasons why the “quality guarantee” of a bus every 15 minutes, 7am-7pm Monday to Friday was set so comparatively low – Mt Eden Road buses operate at least every 10 minutes, Dominion Road buses at least every 5 minutes) was to enable further routes to be added as “B-Lines”, without the need to undertake impossibly expensive service frequency improvements.

By all accounts, the B-Line initiative has been reasonably successful. Mt Eden Road and Dominion Road buses are busier than ever – to the point that extra services needed to be added in recent times. However, nearly a year after the rollout of the first two B-Line routes – what’s happened to the rest of them? Not only have there not been any further B-Line routes, all of Auckland Transport’s reports seem to indicate that there aren’t any further ones planned for in the short to medium term future. Why not?

The particularly bizarre thing about the lack of progress on implementing more B-Line routes is that a number of routes would appear to have sufficient frequencies (with only mild alterations) to fit the criteria of being a B-Line. All Auckland Transport would need to do is even out a few of the intervals between buses, publish a few new timetables, get some fancy yellow signs on the buses and it’d be done!

So where could a few of the additional B-Line routes be?

Remuera Road:

By simply combining the, 655, 635 and 625 into a single route, and aligning the timetable so the buses ran every 15 minutes rather than at 10, 20, 10, 20 minute gaps, a B-Line service could be initiated along Remuera Road between the city and Glen Innes: In fact, in the not too distant past Remuera Road effectively did have a B-Line service: the good old “Remuera Rider”.

Onewa Road:

By aligning timetables of Beach Haven and Glenfield buses so they spaced the buses down Onewa Road more evenly, a B-Line quality service could easily be provided along Onewa Road, at least as far at Highbury Shops. Even the Beach Haven buses alone aren’t too far off providing B-Line frequencies. T3 lanes heading up Onewa Road in the PM peak would be a necessary improvement to accompany this route becoming a B-Line, but that’s an absolute no-brainer in any case.

Sandringham Road:

This is another fairly easy one, with just minor alterations to the timetable (as a result of the 233 being ruined by St Lukes’s stupid location) required to bring it up to a 15 minute frequency. It already has decent bus lanes along most of the route that would become part of the B-Line. I probably wouldn’t add in New North Road for now, even though it does have decent enough frequencies. The Western Line on the rail network mirrors New North Road’s bus service to a fairly significant degree, plus there is no existing bus priority measures west of Kingsland that would make a B-Line problematic.

Great North Road:

However, Great North Road on the other hand I think would be very suitable for becoming a B-Line route – between New Lynn and the CBD. This will particularly become possible when the Waterview Connection project creates a bus lane along a fairly critical section of Great North Road and hopefully eases a bit of the congestion along the “Waterview Straight”. A huge number of bus routes currently trundle along Great North Road from all parts of West Auckland. I’d probably chop everything at New Lynn, giving people the choice of transfering onto the train or onto a high-frequency B-Line service that serves quite a separate corridor to the railway line between New Lynn and town. It could even be called the “100 route” to make life extra simple: There’s even an existing dedicated timetable for the services.

Other possible B-Lines include Great South Road between Otahuhu and town, and the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway as well. The point being that there are plenty of fairly easy B-line routes to implement. So what have you been doing Auckland Transport? Or don’t you like the B-Line concept anymore?

Darby Street Video

Auckland Council have put together a really great video on the Darby Street shared space:

I was just wandering around Darby and Elliott streets at lunch time today. It was heartening to see so many pedestrians, and also to see what good progress there is on Elliott Street. It’s going to look great when it’s finished.

Falling into your own trap: the problem with fixating over technology

It’s impossible to be in transport circles for too long before the good old arguments of ‘buses versus trains’ or ‘BRT versus LRT’ and so forth come along. I suppose that it’s inevitable to end up in such technological debates – as while each technology tends to be best suited for a particular type of job, there’s an enormous level of crossover. For improving Dominion Road’s public transport priority measures, for example, we could focus on better bus lanes or we could look at light-rail. Both options have their pros and cons, there’s not an obvious solution – at least not at first glance.

The debate is also complicated by romanticism to some extent. Trains and trams have a history, or perhaps better put – they have a culture associated with them that buses seem not to have. This may mean that a rail-based solution can sometimes be promoted when buses would do just fine; but the on the other hand evidence seems to show that trains and trams do attract ridership that buses simply don’t attract. So there is a level of attractiveness to rail-based solutions that perhaps cannot be explained through the analysis of numbers.

That said, public transport advocates who are blind to the benefits of buses do themselves no favours by being fixated on technology: buses are cheap, flexible, fast-to-implement and so forth. As I have said on numerous occasions before, if we wanted to do one thing cheaply and quickly to dramatically improve Auckland’s public transport system – the best thing we could do is drastically expand the city’s bus lane network.

But what’s important here is a ‘horses for courses’ approach. In some situations our existing infrastructure, the type of demand along the corridor, the land-use patterns and whatever other relevant factors there are will combine to tell us that buses are the best solution. In other situations they will combine to tell us that rail will work best. There are likely to be further subdivisions too: light-rail or heavy-rail? What level of bus priority do we need? Is demand so low that what we really need is some sort of demand-responsive van system?

A common criticism made by bus advocates is that those promoting rail solutions are only doing so because of the romanticism associated with rail. Bus advocates like Australian David Hensher (who commented on this blog once, though unfortunately he never replied to a few questions I put to him) can sometimes fall into this trap. Mr Hensher puts together excellent critiques of how we cannot continue to have such roads-centric transport policies, and he calls for a balanced approach to PT that focuses on cost-effective improvements and a blind-eye to technology. But then he goes and throw away all that good work by forever focusing on how fantastic bus rapid transit (BRT) is, and slamming any other technology.

For example, in this document even the abstract shows quite clearly his contrary approach:
Right up until the last sentence I could not agree more with what he says. An integrated multi-modal system based around frequency and connectivity – I absolutely agree. And BRT, with feeder buses may well provide what we’re after in some circumstances. It seems to be working pretty well on the North Shore, and I’m supportive of Auckland Transport’s plans to create a busway between Panmure and Botany as part of the AMETI project. In the right situations, BRT will be the solution.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean buses will always be the right technological solution to a transport issue. And this is where Mr Hensher falls into his own trap, decrying others for focusing on a particular technology but then doing so himself. It is a pity actually, because Mr Hensher’s analysis of the need to find cost-effective public transport solutions is very sound. This is outlined in another paper of his:

There is growing support for an attractive alternative means of transportation to the car in cities. If increased public transport capacity is the way to proceed, it is very important that the investment in such systems is made in a rational way. There is a need for sensible selection and funding of technology and consideration of appropriate ways of addressing the problems attributed to the automobile.

I couldn’t agree more. Especially in New Zealand where our central government is focused on building crazy motorways everywhere we will need to make sure that the scraps available for public transport are spent carefully. He also says (from this article again) good things about the need for a multi-modal approach:

Public transport investment is being touted as a key springboard for a sustainable future, especially in large metropolitan areas with growing populations. Public transport, however, is very much multi-modal and should not be seen as a single mode solution as is so often the case with many ideologues. Hence, any commitment to improve public transport has a growing number of options to pursue.

The problem is he then goes on to argue that buses are what you need in pretty much every situation, that rail is too expensive and so on. This from his other article:

There is growing evidence around the world, in origin–destination density contexts similar to the locations proposed for light rail, that a dedicated BRT system (i.e. road infrastructure dedicated exclusively to buses as in Brisbane, Curitiba, Bogota, Pittsburgh, Ottawa etc.) can carry the same number of people as light rail for a typical cost 4–20 times less than a LRT system and 10–100 times less than a heavy rail system (USA General Accounting Office, 2001). It is flexible, it is as permanent as light rail and it can have the image of light rail (rather than the image of boring buses) if planned properly. The USA General Accounting Office (2001) audit of BRT and light rail in six US cities found that the capital cost per mile for LRT compared to BRT in its own lane was 260% more costly. Comparisons with BRT on street or on an HOV lane are not useful and have been excluded. When one also notes BRT’s lower operating costs for both institutional and maintenance reasons, the case is clear.

If one was building a city from scratch and deciding what transport technology would offer the best bang for your buck, then all of what is said above would probably be incredibly important to consider – and chances are you would think very strongly about the credentials of BRT as a ‘system-wide’ solution. However, in the real world that isn’t the case, we have to deal with issues like the following:

  • What existing infrastructure do we have and how well utilised is it?
  • How much physical space do we have to upgrade this corridor?
  • What are the existing land-use patterns and how might they be affected (positive and negatively) by the different technology chosen?
  • How do operating costs compare at different demand levels, and in different countries?

If we take the CBD Rail Tunnel project for example, the ability to generate its benefits from bus improvements seems ludicrous. One of the main benefits of the rail tunnel is to unlock the capacity of the existing rail system – enabling it to carry far more people and therefore take pressure off the roading system. Any bus solution that would increase capacity to the CBD would probably increase congestion (not only of buses, but also of cars as many streets would probably need to become bus only) and would only add pressure onto parts of the transport network with no spare capacity.

It’s also underground, reflecting the lack of physical space (but cheaper than a bus tunnel) and supports existing land-use patterns by encouraging the concentration of economic activity in the city centre, and the intensification of suburbs along the rail corridors. Finally, one would imagine that the operating costs of running electric trains that carry up to 1000 passengers with only one driver (here’s hoping) is likely to be lower than carrying those 1000 people on about 15 diesel buses – especially if fuel prices increase further in the future.

Another example where the bus versus train debate often flares up is how to provide rapid transit to Auckland Airport. The current PT situation for the airport largely involves the Air-Bus: which is a reasonably decent bus service that runs along the motorway for much of its trip, before travelling along Mt Eden Road (soon to be Dominion Road as well) on its way to the city. With the opening of the Mangere Bridge duplication project last year, the motorway part of the trip is probably fairly congestion free (at least for now, induced demand will probably eat away at this within the next 2-3 years), with the route along the arterial roads likely to be slowest. This is relevant because there are effectively two “parts” to the airport to city route:

  1. between the city and Onehunga
  2. between Onehunga and the Airport

Assuming that we consider it highly important to offer people a one-seat ride between the city and the Airport at a rapid transit quality, that effectively means we either need to find a way of providing a busway, light-rail or heavy-rail line along that whole distance. And here’s where the importance of our existing infrastructure shines through. Anyone got a good idea about how to thread a busway or light-rail line between Onehunga and the city centre? Aside from taking two general traffic lanes away from the southern motorway (not that I would necessarily oppose such an idea) the proposition of an additional RTN between Onehunga and town, duplicating our existing railway line, is not only impractical, it’s also pretty stupid. This tilts the arguments towards rail as the preferred solution for rapid transit to the airport very significantly.

The excellent blog “The Transport Politic” looks at this argument in quite a bit of detail in a recent post – usefully pointing out the following:

What is clear is that for the majority of American cities — excluding only a few in the Northeast — buses will remain the predominant mode of public transit for most riders, even after major expansions in train networks planned for cities from Charlotte to Phoenix. So even cities that choose to invest in rail projects must also spend on the improvement of their bus lines.

Nor is the difference in costs between rail lines and BRT nearly as great as some would argue. The Journal article quotes Dennis Hinebaugh, head of a transportation center at the University of South Florida, saying “You can build up to 10 BRT lines for the cost of one light-rail line.” That might be true if you’re comparing a train operating entirely in its own right-of-way with a bus running in a lane painted on the street. But a streetcar is probably cheaper than a busway. Just ask Hartford, whose busway project will cost $60 million a mile to build.

One thing that can make bus solutions cheaper is that they’re easier to have short-cuts. If we think about the Northern Busway, it’s really only a true rapid transit corridor for part of its length. It shares a lane with general traffic across the Harbour Bridge, it doesn’t have full priority at intersections in the CBD and between the harbour bridge and once again it shares motorway lanes with general traffic between Constellation and Albany stations. While a railway line would have required a higher standard of alignment geometry and therefore more earthworks, the primary reason the busway is way cheaper than a rail option is due to the short-cuts it has taken.

The Transport Politic’s post also points out the primary situations where rail offers something that a bus solution simply cannot (while also pointing out that these scenarios are relatively rare):

The best argument for rail is that it has the ability to provide massive rush-hour passenger-carrying capacity without destroying the city through which it runs. Whether buried in a subway or operating quietly along in grassy medians, trains can be integrated into the public realm without diminishing the pedestrians-friendly qualities all urbanists should hope to encourage. BRT boosters often argue that their mode of choice can carry a similar number of riders, but neglect to mention that this is only possible when buses arrive every 10 seconds along highway-like four-lane corridors. These are conditions that destroy the walking environment.

Fortunately for American cities looking to invest in new public transportation infrastructure, there are few places that demand the passenger-carrying capacity provided by those freeway-based BRT lines in places like Bogotá. In most metropolitan areas, a two-lane busway inserted on an arterial is perfectly appropriate and sometimes even beneficial for a city. Indeed, as we all know, the story that is too complicated for any mainstream paper to explain is that BRT can mean any number of things. The most rudimentary elements of BRT — the nice buses, the well-articulated stops, the traffic signal priority — are basics we should expect from all of our bus lines. Pushing for their implementation along certain corridors shouldn’t arouse much controversy.

Neither buses, trains nor trams are inherently better than the other. Each technology has an important place in developing a proper public transport system – especially in a city like Auckland. When deciding on our preferred technology cost-effectiveness is obviously going to be a key factor, but cost-effectiveness does not simply mean “which option is cheapest to build?” It also means which option best utilises our existing infrastructure, which option will integrate best with the surrounding environment and which option will make economic sense in the long-run. In some situations that will be a bus, some a train and some a tram.

Anyone who thinks that one particular technology is suitable for all situations – while criticising others for being obsessed with their favoured technology, is really falling for their own trap.

New York’s pedestrian improvements

Here’s a great video I came across explaining the improvements for pedestrians that have been made in Midtown Manhattan over the past few years.

A few things really stood out for me:

  • That reducing the roadspace didn’t lead to more congestion – in fact the simplified intersections meant less congestion and better flowing streets.
  • That there was a dramatic reduction in pedestrian injuries.
  • That foot traffic increased after the projects were completed, by more than 10% in Times Square (quite an achievement considering the massive numbers already).

What seems to have been the key to the project’s success is that the changes were put in place just temporarily at first – they were “given a go” to see how things went. After watching Campbell Live on Friday discuss pedestrian improvements to Auckland’s City Centre I’m convinced that the next step forwards for Auckland is to try something similar – trial out a few things like pedestrianising parts of Queen Street, perhaps on weekends, perhaps at lunch-times, perhaps permanently. But just give it a go and see what happens.

Stupid urban planning

As a planner by profession, I can quite honestly say that more often than not we do urban planning in Auckland utterly terribly. We focus enormously on silly details: recession planes, consistency with minutely detailed assessment criteria, road-widths, numbers of parking spaces per unit, number of units coming off driveways and so forth – but we miss the really obvious stuff. Like the following:

  • Will it actually be feasible to operate a bus service through this area?
  • Can people walk to the local shops?
  • How can we create vibrant and interesting neighbourhoods?

One particularly important part of urban planning that tends to get completely overlooked – or tossed over to the road engineers, is the fundamental question of “where will the streets go?” As I noted in Friday’s blog post, street patterns have an enormous ability to influence the viability of public transport – with a grid of arterial routes (like Vancouver has) making life far far easier when it comes to serving an area with a decent bus network.

One thing that’s extremely depressing is to see how some of the most recent parts of Auckland are actually the most utterly hopeless at providing a decent street network. In fact, there are areas of the city built in the past few years that are actually nigh on impossible to serve with any form or public transport at all.

An extreme example of planning stupidity is down Schnapper Rock Road near Albany. There are probably hundreds of houses down this road and the various streets that come off it – all developed within the past few years. Potentially well over a thousand people might live down this road – but look at how massively disconnected from the rest of the city they are: By my analysis of the aerial photographs, and a couple of visits to the area, there are no shops at all down Schnapper Rock Road, meaning that your options for doing anything without driving at almost non-existent. How about the public transport – well that’s an interesting route option to try and ask MAXX about: a peak time trip from Dove Place to town gives some interesting options: It takes me an hour and a half, costs me nearly $10 and requires a trip on a freaking school bus! Talk about designing for auto-dependency.

Just down the road things are arguably even worse – thanks to the failure to connect up the two ends of Kyle Road, which should have been an absolute requirement before any development took place around Upper Harbour Primary School: Quite bizarrely, some planner made the decision that William Gamble Drive shouldn’t connect with Huntington Park Drive – which means that the two residential areas located right next to each other are hugely isolated from one another. Furthermore, the one road connecting the William Gamble Drive area with the rest of the world doesn’t even have a footpath along most of its length – meaning that to get anywhere else without driving is pretty much a suicide mission. Fortunately there is a pedestrian connection between the two ends of Kyle Road, which means that it’s only a 1.5 kilometre walk from William Gamble Drive to the nearest bus stop.

Moving further south, the new developments on the Hingaia Peninsula near Papakura aren’t much better, once again having exceedingly poor connectivity to the rest of the road network: This is another place that has some rather amusing public transport options: So I get to walk for two and a half kilometres in order to have the pleasure of a 90 minute bus trip into town. Gee that sounds fantastic!

Even in more inner areas, new developments have often seemed to design their street networks with the expressed purpose of being as useless for public transport as possible – Stonefields near Mt Wellington is a classic example of this: While Stonefields has quite a nice grid, the fact that no effort was ever made to connect up the street network with its southern and western edges means that every future bus route through the area will need to be a pointless loop. While I obviously realise this is a former quarry site and there are some pretty big stone walls making the connection difficult, I am sure if a southern street connection had been a condition of allowing any development in the quarry, it would have happened.

The poor street connectivity means that the new residents of Stonefields need to take a 1.5 km trek to access a bus service: Now I hear there’s an entire “land-use transport integration team” at Auckland Transport these days. Let’s hope that their primary job is to ensure that nothing as stupid as the various recent subdivisions I’ve shown above ever happen again.

Rail rolling stock: looking ahead

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of trains in Auckland: the “Diesel Multiple Units” that we bought second-hand from Perth in the mid-1990s and the locomotive hauled carriages that were bought second-hand from the UK and then significantly refurbished, and now get hauled around by locomotives leased off KiwiRail. Some of those locomotives are 40-50 years old, while some of the Perth DMUs also date back to the 1960s (the ones without air-conditioning, known as the ADKs). (Note to rail nerds, I haven’t forgotten about the SX). Below are a couple of carriages from an SA train:

Up until around the time Britomart opened the rail network was pretty much solely operated by the ex-Perth DMUs. The impending patronage boom that Britomart was to bring (and obviously has brought) meant that additional capacity was required, and the SA/SD trains have provided that over the past few years. When there are debates about whether or not to sell the Port of Auckland, it’s worth remembering that the dividends on profits from the Ports are pretty much what has paid for the purchase and refurbishment of all the SA/SD trains that now form the majority of Auckland’s rail rolling stock.

But that’s enough history, the point of this blog post is to look forward. In the near future, it seems that we will have the last of the SA carriages coming online within the next couple of months to add capacity to the southern and eastern lines, now that their platforms have been lengthened to accommodate six carriage trains. This was outlined in a recent Auckland Transport media release:

Longer trains are being added to the rail network to help cater for the increasing popularity of Auckland’s public transport, which was up eight per cent for the year to 30 April.

From 17 July trains will use five and six carriages on the southern line, following the completion of platform extension works. Six carriage trains began operating on the Western Line last September. Longer trains allow more passengers on each service.

It’s worthwhile to note that under the current plans, these will be the last additional bit of rail rolling stock capacity that will be added to the network until electrification in 2013/2014. Unless we can find some ‘stop-gap’ measure to get more trains (or longer trains) on the network, my understanding is that from July this year until the new electric trains are operational in 2013/2014 we will have to manage with the same number of trains. An interesting prospect if rail patronage continues to grow at 10-15% a year. This issue was noted in Auckland Transport’s April business report:

I‘m still yet to quite figure out how the further optimisation will work in early next year. Not only will this include the improvement of peak time frequencies on the Western Line from a train every 15 minutes to a train every 10 minutes, but it will also include the introduction of trains to Manukau Station – presumably achieved by extending all the current ‘short-runner’ services to Otahuhu all the way down to Manukau before terminating them there. With the longer running time between Manukau and Britomart compared to between Otahuhu and Britomart, there will clearly be an increased number of trains required. I’m starting to think that having six carriage trains could be a pretty short-lived exercise – as from next year the carriages will need to be distributed to a larger number of trains.

As I have discussed previously, the concept of having fare differentiation between peak time rail travel and off-peak travel is a good one. Shifting some of the “peak of the peak” into times just before and after the main crush of passengers means that you can use your existing rolling stock more efficiently and effectively. Adding off-peak services is pretty easy as you don’t need more rolling stock and you don’t need more track capacity – you just need to work the system at the peak level for a bit longer. Getting 15 minute inter-peak frequencies on weekdays, longer peak-time frequencies in the evenings and at worst half-hour frequencies on all lines at weekends would be easily and quickly achievable without having to purchase any more rolling stock. Having hourly weekend frequencies on the Western Line, and no trains past Henderson on Sundays, it just downright stupid – as the Western Line passes near five large shopping centres (city centre, Newmarket, St Lukes, New Lynn and Henderson) and could be hugely popular on the weekend.

But even with fare differentiation and better off-peak services, I think by the time we get close to the rollout of the new electric trains on the network things are going to be pretty squashed. Which is why I have found the never-ending delays to the electric train procurement process so utterly infuriating.

The order of electric trains (well, my understanding of it) includes 35 three-car electric multiple-unit trains, plus a number of electric locomotives. The locomotives are necessary for the obvious reason that we have a large number of SA/SD trains around Auckland at the moment and not only would it be stupid to get rid of them when they have a lot of life left, but also that we don’t have enough money to purchase sufficient EMUs to operate the network alone. My understanding is that at peak times the EMU trains will generally be “paired up” to form six carriage trains, and will operate on the Eastern and Western lines. Single three-carriage trains will operate on the Onehunga Line, while the Southern Line will be served by the current SA/SD trains, but pulled by new electric locomotives rather than the ancient diesel locos that pull them along at the moment. Because there will be a lot of SA carriages available, my hope is that the current platform lengthening exercises being undertaken on the Southern Line will provide for eight-car trains to be operated.

One great irony of electrification is that it won’t actually result in any more trains being operated on the rail network at peak times – compared to what we’ll have in early next year. Until the CBD Rail Tunnel is constructed, Britomart can only handle around 20-21 trains per hour – which means six from each of the three main lines plus two from Onehunga. Of course electrification will enable the trains to be faster, quieter, smoother and longer – which will add capacity to the system – but until we build the CBD tunnel our ability to get more trains into the city at peak times is constrained.

Furthermore, the desire (and need) to operate the network as efficiently as possible will mean that the mixing of diesel and electric trains is likely to be avoided wherever possible – as the diesels obviously accelerate slower and would therefore “hold up” electric trains. So that means all trains from beyond Papakura and Swanson will only be shuttle trains to the end of the electric line. The newer of the Perth DMUs (known as the ADLs) should fulfill this function fairly effectively, and they could serve out to Hupai (or beyond if demand was there) on the Western Line and also potentially beyond Pukekohe on the Southern Line.

So in the period between electrification and the opening of the CBD rail tunnel (so say between 2014 and 2021 if we’re optimistic about the CBD Tunnel) the new electric trains will be used in combination with SA Trains being hauled by new electric locomotives, plus the use of some of the DMUs for shuttle services. Additional capacity could be added (if the trains were available) by running services between the Western and Southern lines directly, without having to have every train go into Britomart. I know that maximum loading points on the Western Line generally occur between Mt Eden and Grafton station as many Western Line users have their destination at either Grafton or Newmarket. So that’s a potential way of squeezing the most out of the system up until around 2021 when the need for the CBD Tunnel will be dire.

Now, if we look at rolling stock requirements post-CBD Rail Tunnel, things become rather interesting. In the CBD Tunnel’s business case a rather bizarre operating pattern was suggested: The option above requires a lot of additional trains, so an interim option was considered that would utilise the existing number of post-electrification trains: I thought both options were far too complicated, and suggested my own operating pattern:

One big spanner in the works of all this is the likelihood that the SA Trains won’t be able to operate through the CBD Rail Tunnel, because it’s too steep (and also something to do with fire-ratings). EMUs can generally handle steeper gradients than locomotives, because the train is being driven from more points – kind of like how a four-wheel drive vehicle provides more control on slopes than a two-wheel drive vehicle. Because the CBD Tunnel is going to be very much at the maximum end of track steepness, it seems that in all likelihood it will only be EMUs that can operate through it.

That gives us a bit of a headache about what to do with all our electric locomotives and SA/SD trains – that still will have a lot of life left in them come 2021. I wonder if Wellington would be prepared to swap some of its Matangi Trains for loco-hauled SA/SD trains? It’s an interesting possibility.

Bus route planning – a challenging balancing act

The significant changes proposed to buses in central Auckland, plus my recent blog posts about how to improve bus flow through the city centre have highlighted to me what a challenging balancing act it must be for people whose job it is to improve the bus route network. That said, it’s also an incredibly important job, as Auckland’s current network has a huge number of inefficiencies, areas of duplication, areas of poor service, areas of overly long routes and so forth – all put together they produce a bus network map that does look like someone’s thrown spaghetti at a wall.

But this is not just an Auckland problem. Large parts of Sydney’s bus network are pretty difficult to make sense out of too:

That red route – the 473 – could hardly take a more indirect and slow route through Bardwell Park and Turrella if it tried. This is an example of a somewhat unbalanced approach to bus network planning, where all the emphasis is on getting the most people within a few minutes walk of the bus route – at the sacrifice of the speed and attractiveness of the route for people who have a choice between catching the bus and driving.

I suppose this is the most obvious balancing act when it comes to planning bus networks: the trade-off between speed and accessibility. You obviously want as many people to have access to the bus as possible, but at the same time you also obviously want to ensure the bus ride is not painfully slow. An example of something at the other end of the scale might be the Northern Express bus route in Auckland – it’s about as direct and fast as possible, but aside from around Sunnynook station, relatively few people live in close proximity to the route – meaning that there’s a reliance on park and ride stations, plus feeder buses.

A second trade-off is between network complexity and simplicity. How many different routes and route variations do you want? On the positive side of complexity is the ability to offer targeted products to what the demand might be: a slower and less direct route serving more places in the off-peak, express routes, peak direction only routes and so forth. But on the down side of that, the map and system can become very difficult to make sense out of – and public transport just becomes “too hard” to bother with. Not that I have much experience of it, but the bus network to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs does seem to have a particularly high level of complexity to it:
You have a bunch of normal routes, some routes beginning with X, some routes highlighted as pre-pay only, some routes beginning with L. And even then within the “normal routes” you have a bunch of very similar routes (for example the 372, 373, 374, 376 and 377) that by in large follow the same route – except for slight variations near their terminus.

That’s not to say you can’t go too far in the other direction as well – over-simplifying the network. While I would generally consider Auckland’s bus network to be over-complicated, some of that complexity has a useful purpose – like express and short-running buses on Dominion Road, or peak services that do extend to parts of the city (for example, Chatswood on the North Shore) that wouldn’t have the ridership to justify an all-day service. While I generally support the simplification process proposed in the changes to buses in the central city – I do wonder whether there’s the opportunity to overlay some peak-time express services (particularly on the 020 route) to give people what they really want at peak times: a fast and reliable service. I’m not quite sure that the 020 will provide that with its detour through Freemans Bay:

A good bus network is largely dependent upon the street network that it has to work around. Possibly the best bus and most effective bus network that I’ve seen is that in Vancouver – enormously aided by its gridded street pattern:

The gridded system enables so many “win-win” outcomes. By running buses along the major corridors (both north-south and east-west) all the routes generally operate in the fastest possible way, but they’re close enough together to ensure that everyone’s within a few minutes walk of a bus stop. So we solve that speed versus accessibility issue. We also solve the complexity issue because the routes are simple and easy to understand – they go along a particular road for most of their journey. Even if there are variations (express services or some variation from branching close to the route’s terminus) these are fairly easy to understand because the vast majority of the route is simple.

It’s not surprising that Auckland’s bus system seems most successful and effective in parts of the city with a street pattern that most clearly follows what’s in Vancouver. By contrast, the street pattern in the eastern isthmus makes a legible bus network nigh on impossible (although I’m sure we can improve on the incomprehensible mess that’s currently there.

There are of course many other issues to balance. Do we have stops further apart (faster journeys) or closer together (shorter walk to the bus stop)? Do we have long routes (allowing a lot of trip possibilities on the one route), or shorter routes (probably improved reliability)? And of course the big question – do we design a system that seeks to avoid transfers, or do we design a system that takes advantage of the benefits offered by transfers? Each has their pros and cons.

Clearly there’s no single best way to design a bus network in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly improve on what we’ve got in Auckland. If you look at Auckland’s bus network it generally doesn’t seem to have got the balance right: it’s overly and unnecessarily complex – seemingly a relic of 1970s thinking which was “the more routes the better”. Furthermore, I tend to think that Auckland’s bus network doesn’t get the balance right when it comes to speed versus accessibility either – with a few exceptions such as the Northern Express route, it seems as though the bus network has been designed with the assumption that it’s only there to serve people who can’t afford to drive or aren’t able to. It puts accessibility too far ahead of speed – meaning that we end up with a huge number of very very slow and windy bus routes.

A lot of the problems with Auckland’s network are historic – based on assumptions that buses are only there to serve those with no choice, based on extremely poor integration with the rail system and generally based on a desire to avoid transfers at all costs. While we must be careful not to go the other way too far – and I think many routes could handle increased stopping pattern complexity (i.e. more express services and short-runners rather than all buses having the same stopping pattern) – overall to give the network a better balance we should be aiming to simplify and to speed things up.