Where did the four new RoNS come from?

The draft Government Policy Statement document, that was released for consultation a couple of months back, was a highly perplexing and depressing document. Focusing an even greater amount of money on building new motorways, slashing (already slashed) spending on public transport infrastructure and capping money for new local roads and even the maintenance of existing roads is just plain stupidity – and is completely ignorant of recent transport trends both here in New Zealand and overseas. However, even within a document as nonsensical and bizarre as the draft GPS, there was mention of one thing that completely took me by surprise by its sheer strangeness: the list of future Roads of National Significance (RoNS). Here they are: These future RoNS came pretty much out of the blue – similar to how Puhoi-Wellsford bizarrely appeared on the radar as a ‘necessary’ future project a day or two after the Minister got stuck in a traffic jam opening the Orewa-Puhoi motorway. So a reader of this blog did a bit of digging – where did the four new RoNS come from? The first response, to an OIA request to the Minister himself, wasn’t particularly helpful: Well it seems pretty clear from the above that the projects didn’t have to go through any particular ‘filter’ or ‘assessment criteria’ to determine that they were worthy of becoming RoNS. It somewhat confirms my suspicion that the only criteria for a RoNS is “does the Minister like it?” Fortunately, not long after this, the Cabinet Paper referred to above became available – and you can read it here.

Initially, it would seem as though a State Highway classification system and identifying the next RoNS would be two fairly separate tasks. The classification system seemed, at least initially, to be a fairly clever idea: highlight which routes are of national strategic importance and which routes have more regionally based importance. Which routes are tourist-focused, which routes are freight focused and so forth. This could potentially helpfully provide design cues in the future – highlighting routes where extra pavement strength might be helpful, routes where environmental impact should be kept to an absolute minimum etc. However, it seems to have turned into just another path towards building even more super-expensive and super-unnecessary motorways. Here’s the connection between the classification process and the new RoNS: In fact, if you look at the map of the classification system across the whole country, the four RoNS projects combined with the existing RoNS projects pretty much cover the whole of the “National Strategic High Volume” routes: When you see it like this, one does start to think there might be some method behind this madness. However, when you start delving into the details of some of these supposedly “high volume national strategic” routes, looking at both their existing traffic levels and the growth rates of traffic, there are some rather surprising results.

Let’s look at the North Island proposed RoNS, and how they compare against the already decidedly dodgy Puhoi-Wellsford project:

State Highway 1 Wellsford south of Centennial Park Rd (South of Wellsford)
2006 traffic volumes 9,851 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 9,885 VPD
Traffic growth = 0.086% per annum

State Highway 1 Palmer Mill Rd (Nth of SH5/SH1 intersection Taupo)
2006 traffic volumes 5,331 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 5,183 VPD
Traffic growth = minus 0.92% per annum

State Highway 29 (400m East of Waimou Bridge)
2006 traffic volumes 4,133 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 4,206 VPD
Traffic growth = 0.44% per annum

State Highway 50A Hawkes Bay Expressway (Maraekakako Rd South of Longlands Rd)
2006 traffic volumes 4,743 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 4,655 VPD
Traffic growth = minus 0.46% per annum

The bizarre thing is that we have arterial roads in Auckland carrying ten times the volume of some of these supposedly “high volume national strategic” routes. In terms of freight (something that the government does seem to care about), routes that form part of AMETI have similar numbers of heavy vehicles to the Auckland Harbour Bridge – yet funding for local roads has been capped for the next 10 years.

In short, there really is no logic behind the additional RoNS. Except, perhaps a desire to find a bunch of projects that make Puhoi-Wellsford’s cost-effectiveness look good. Which is a pretty tough challenge.

Fare evasion slashed – really?

A few weeks back I wrote a post outlining my concerns over the large amount of fare evasion I was seeing on the rail network, as well as my concerns that the introduction of the HOP card to the rail network (which will happen in around November this year) may actually make things worse – rather than better. Clearly I’m not the only one concerned about this issue, as there’s a fairly lengthy discussion of the matter towards the rear of the operations section of Auckland Transport’s June Business Report. Here’s what it says:

Two things stand out here. The first is the dramatic drop-off in fare evasion, which I will talk about in more detail soon, while the second is the comforting mention that the Ministry of Transport, NZTA and Auckland Transport appear to be working on legislation requirements that would allow the kind of fare enforcement that I highlighted as necessary in my previous post on the matter. In essence, currently the worst that can happen to you if you don’t pay your fare is that you get chucked off the train. If that remains that case in a rail system without on-board fare collection and with most stations not being gated, I reckon evasion will skyrocket. So it’s good to see that some work is being done on that matter – let’s hope it’s completed before HOP goes live on the rail system.

Turning back to the dramatic drop off in fare evasion, from 9.7% in November 2008 to 2.8% in November last year, if true this is obviously fantastic to see such a big improvement. But I must say I’m somewhat sceptical. In the year to November there were 7,369,075 recorded trips on the rail network – which means that (if we assume these exclude the average level of fare evasion of just under 715,000 trips) the rail system “actually” carried almost 8.1 million. In the year to November 2010, there were 9,049,027 recorded trips (excluding the 208,000 missed through evasion). That adds to a total of 9.257 million.

While I’m not exactly sure whether patronage counts include or exclude evaded fares (I assume they’re excluded, as otherwise how would they know how many people used the rail network), what Auckland Transport seem to be saying is that a pretty massive chunk of patronage increase over the past couple of years has actually occurred simply because of reduced fare evasion. That just doesn’t seem to make sense to me, particularly when you think of the big improvements to the rail network during that time.

For those who catch the train regularly, what is your take on this? Do you think that fare evasion has increased or decreased over the past couple of years? Or more specifically, do you think that the dramatic decrease in fare evasion claimed by Auckland Transport is correct? I think that the November 2010 evasion stats probably underestimate fare evasion very significantly – as from memory this was around the time Auckland Transport advertised hugely that they were doing ticket checks. I’m guessing that people who normally evaded fares simply decided to pay up that day. I also think that measuring evasion at Britomart is pretty silly, as those most likely to evade fares (anecdotally, students) often don’t use Britomart.

May 2011 PT Patronage: very strong

Auckland Transport have released the May 2011 public transport statistics report, and the results patronage-wise are pretty spectacular. Here are the highlights:

These are particularly strong increases, as compared with April’s numbers we see all patronage increase by 10.3% (compared to 3.9% in April) and rail patronage grow by 21.5% (compared to 12.7% in April). It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t have had another 15,000 rail trips on the network to crack the magic one million mark, but it seems likely that getting more than a million passengers a month on the rail network is likely to become fairly commonplace over the next year or two.

Looking at the more detailed statistics, we see a really solid increase in general bus patronage (over 8%) and spectacular growth on the Western Line rail patronage (almost 30%). The investment in improving the Western Line over the past few years is really starting to pay off. Sneaking in at the bottom there is ferry patronage, which grew by an excellent 8%. Ferry patronage has been pretty static over the past few years so it’s good to see some growth there. Once the Hobsonville and Beach Haven ferries are up and running (some time next year I think) it seems likely that ferry patronage will grow once again.

The longer term patronage trends are shown in the graph below. What’s of particular note is that May was the third highest total (only beaten by March this year and last year) and the second highest month for rail patronage (even higher than March last year):

Once again the most significant growth in patronage is on the Rapid Transit Network (the rail network plus the Northern Busway). RTN patronage was up 20% on May last year: Helpfully, bus patronage on “normal routes” (by that I mean excluding the Northern Express) also increased by 8.2% – the biggest increase since October/November last year (and those results last year were the rebound from the bus lockout the year before). With around 4.7 million of the 6.3 million public transport trips in May occurring on ‘normal’ bus routes, it’s crucial that we continue to improve those services if we really want PT patronage to boom: Looking at the bus numbers in a bit more detail, once again it seems that the highest growth rates are in the north and south – generally the areas where we have seen service improvements over the past few years. One can only hope that Auckland Transport will eventually learn from this and embark upon comprehensive bus service improvements elsewhere in the region: The rest of the report is fairly stock standard. Rail reliability improved, although is still below the 90% level that many overseas cities would cancel contracts over if it was not achieved. Most of the delay minutes seemed to result from “operations”. By that I guess it is meant the age that it often takes for the doors to open and close at each station?

One useful thing that’s mentioned in upcoming PT improvements is a reworking of bus routes in south Auckland to feed into the Manukau Station when it opens in February next year. Let’s hope that might lead to a reduction in the 73 million bus routes from Manukau to Britomart.

Steven Joyce’s revenge? Big changes proposed to LTMA.

The government has today announced some pretty big changes are being proposed to the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA). This is a pretty vital piece of legislation, forming the legislative framework around which most of the country’s transport plans, policies, rules and guidelines are created. The proposed changes to the legislation appear to seek to simplify things quite a lot – and I can definitely see value in that (currently we have a huge number of plans: a GPS, NZTS, RLTS, RLTP, NLTP and probably others as well). However, some of the changes are pretty scary in terms of their potential impact.

The Ministry of Transport has a useful summary of the proposed changes on this page (more detail is available on this page) and outlined below:

  • Put in place a clearer, more straightforward, statutory purpose for the LTMA to drive better decision-making
  • Significantly reduce the number of assessment criteria used throughout the LTMA
  • Rationalise national level strategic documents and clarify their relationships with lower level documents, to allow for clearer national guidance
  • Extend the role of the Regional Land Transport Programmes so they identify the outcomes, objectives and interventions proposed for at least 10 years, and remove the requirement to produce a separate Regional Land Transport Strategy
    provide more flexible, less prescriptive consultation requirements
  • Enable Regional Transport Committees (RTCs) to be smaller and more focused by removing the requirement to have appointed members to represent various transport objectives. RTCs can still use external advisers if they wish but this will not be prescribed by the legislation
  • Create more flexibility in the LTMA to use borrowing to support land transport investment should future circumstances make this desirable
  • Improve the tolling and public private partnership (PPP) provisions in the LTMA to reduce barriers to their use
  • Repeal the provision for regional fuel taxes.

There’s always a tricky balance between making a system too complex, which potentially the current transport framework is, and leaning too far the other way towards a system that could end up with giant holes in it. It’s a bit too early to tell whether the legislative changes swing too far the other way, but there are a few issues which I have some pretty big concerns about.

Perhaps the most obvious concern relates to the balance between regional and national influence over transport decisions. Obviously this is a huge issue in Auckland at the moment, with Auckland Council having a very different viewpoint from the government on transport priorities. Legislative change that gives the government even more power to ignore the transport wishes of Auckland would be a giant step in the wrong direction. It will be interesting to see what the details of the legislation say on this matter – I’m suspicious that Steven Joyce is using this as a way of getting around the Council.

Fitting into this concern, to some extent, is another concern I have about the removal of the Regional Land Transport Strategy as an important document in the formulation of transport policy. While past RLTS’s did often seem to involve a lot of waffling and very little action, the most recent one did list major transport projects over a 30 year timeframe and discussed how they could be sequenced and potentially funded. Having a 10 year Regional Land Transport Programme as the only regionally-based transport policy/strategy seems inadequate to me: many of our larger transport projects clearly need to be assessed, discussed and sequenced over a longer period than 10 years. Yet again I’m suspicious that this change has occurred simply because the government disliked the most recent RLTS, because (horror of horrors) it proposed to spend around the same amount of money on roads as public transport over the next 30 years.

It’s also concerning to note that the preparation of this extended 10 year RLTP will be done by the Board of Auckland Transport, rather than involve elected councillors (as will happen everywhere else in the country). In the new Super City set-up, it was to be the responsibility of Auckland Council, and not Auckland Transport, to prepare the RLTS – reflecting the need for the wide-ranging strategy to have political buy-in. While the Auckland Spatial Plan will obviously serve this purpose to some extent, the proposed change will clearly take a bit more power away from the Council to influence transport decisions in Auckland.

The other changes, such as making it easier for toll roads to be established, enabling the borrowing of funds for transport projects (where the NLTF cannot cover their cost) and repealing the regional fuel tax provisions, are a mixed bag. I have nothing against toll roads – and I’d actually prefer to see tolls cover the cost of many of the new roads being proposed, freeing up funding for a more balanced approach to transport. But I am suspicious of the other changes: enabling borrowing for state highway projects seems like a pretty ugly path to go down: not enough money in the NLTF for the various roads of national significance? Right, let’s just borrow more money to build these pet projects. Finally, it does seem bizarre that the government dislikes regional fuel taxes so much (after all, the regions need to wear the political cost of applying such a tax) – presumably the problem is that such taxes give the regions more power over deciding what their transport priorities are.

Overall, while the desire to improve the simplicity of the transport policy framework is laudable, the details of the proposed changes to the LTMA seem to me as though they’re more based around a continued centralisation of power with the government over the transport decision-making process. In particular, the changes seem to be an attempt to stymie the ability of regions such as Auckland to have more say over their transport priorities. It does seem as though this is perhaps Steven Joyce’s revenge against Auckland for having such different transport priorities to that of central government. He’s going to do everything he can to legislate away Auckland’s ability to implement its vision.

I hope I’m wrong.

The MUL and housing affordability

An article in today’s NZ Herald notes that new councillor Dick Quax, who replaced Jami-Lee Ross as the representative for the Howick Ward, argued against the council’s generally agreed position of preferring a ‘compact city’ in his maiden speech. I’ve discussed the metropolitan urban limits (MUL) in many previous posts, including reference to a pretty detailed study undertaken for the ARC that showed an expansionary model of urban development generally delivered the worst outcomes for the highest cost. However, Cr Quax raises an interesting issue related to the MUL that does need further consideration:

Mr Quax, on the Citizens & Ratepayers ticket, told the council last week that the city faced huge challenges over the next 30 years when the population would increase by about 650,000.

That meant about 300,000 new houses had to be built.

“However, there is a projected shortfall of 90,000 homes. More land and supporting infrastructure will be needed if the goal to unleash Auckland is to be realised.”

He said too many Aucklanders had no stake in the region or their community, were shut out of the housing market and would be renters for the rest of their lives.

He goes on to talk about other issues that he thinks will result from urban intensification – like pressure on infrastructure, crime, pollution and so forth. Generally I think those other issues don’t have much merit: the ARC study showed quite clearly that the cheapest option infrastructure wise is to focus on intensification, more compact cities are typically more sustainable and therefore less polluting, while the crime issue is probably neither here nor there (highest crime levels are generally not in the densest parts of the city).

I think the issue of housing affordability is more valid though. The MUL clearly limits the supply of land for urban development, so naturally that’s likely to increase the price of urban land. A more in-depth study by Motu Research into the issue seems to generally confirm this, in particular noting the big difference in price of land just in and just out of the MUL. Generally I think that applying the MUL in Auckland has probably contributed – to an extent – to the reduction in housing affordability.

However, I still get annoyed by people such as Dick Quax thinking that getting rid of the MUL is both the only way to improve housing affordability significantly, and that it’s supposedly the magic bullet for achieving this. There are a number of reasons why I think this, which leads to why I reckon getting rid of the MUL (and not replacing it with some sort of sprawl tax) will have costs that aren’t worth the benefits.

For a start, I think there’s a need to separate out land costs and housing costs. While it’s obvious that and urban limit would increase the price of land inside the limit (because of the constrained supply), that doesn’t necessarily need to carry through to higher housing costs – one could simply allow higher densities to make more efficient use of the land. I used to live on a 600 square metre section in Sandringham that had a pretty standard zoning for Auckland City, allowing one unit per 375 square metres as its maximum density level. The main other controls on development intensity were a two storey (eight metres) height limit and a 35% site coverage limit. This means that theoretically one could build a house with 400 square metres of floor area (freaking massive), but not ever more than one unit, because two units requires a site area of at least 750 square metres. If you were designing residential development controls to undermine housing affordability, you’d struggle to do better than the controls we currently have.

So a tweaking of the general development controls on residential land within urban Auckland could make it possible for more housing units to be built on our urban land – thereby improving affordability as land costs would reduce as a percentage of a house’s total cost. There’s a reason why central parts of large cities in Europe and older North American and Australian cities tend to be full of apartments, terraced houses and townhouses: they make the best economic use of the land. Many of our current planning rules prevent this, and I would argue contribute more to housing unaffordability than the MUL does.

Secondly, I must say that it just doesn’t seem to me as though we’ve tried very hard with our planning regulations to promote housing affordability (in fact, as I noted above they generally do the opposite). In many overseas cities there are floorspace or development bonuses set aside for developments that incorporate a level of affordable housing. There might be specific planning rules that allow “granny-flats” to be built on sites not really large enough for two full houses (some councils in Auckland have this). Development contributions could be raised or lowered depending upon the level to which affordable housing was provided as part of the development. The key point to make is that there are some obvious planning tools out there that could be used to provide affordable housing – we just haven’t used them yet.

Finally, even if allowing much more sprawl did improve housing affordability, I do wonder whether much of the improvement would actually be a false economy. What people save on housing costs they may need to spend on transport costs – travelling far greater distances than they would in more central areas. The affordability of new housing on the periphery is also likely to depend upon the extent to which the real costs of developing that land are subsidised by the rest of the city. Over the past decade it’s clear that many parts of Manukau City have had to go without in order to stump up the money necessary to construct Flat Bush, while the money that the Ministry of Education has spent on all the new schools out there is simply mind-boggling. If these costs were actually put into the cost of greenfield properties, I doubt they would be particularly affordable.

So really, when people like Dick Quax (or Owen McShane) reckon that removing the Metropolitan Urban Limit and allowing Auckland to sprawl will solve the housing affordability issue, I think they’re grossly over-simplifying the issue. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of our planning system on house prices: it’s pretty clear that the policies of the last decade, which have chopped development off at the sides and made intensification difficult, have contributed to affordability problems. But let’s be smart in how we approach this issue, to ensure that efforts to make housing more affordable don’t come at the cost of increased transport costs or require massive sprawl subsidies from the rest of the city.

    Auckland Transport to designate CRL?

    The agenda for tomorrow’s meeting of Auckland Council’s governing body contains a very interesting item on the City Rail Link project (page 27 onwards). It would seem as though Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have become somewhat sick and tired of the government’s tactics in relation to the project – and are looking to effectively “go it alone” in terms of advancing to the next stage of making the project a reality: designating the route and acquiring all the necessary consents.

    This is interesting because the one piece of good news that came out of the government’s review of the project’s business case was the recommendation that it ‘made good sense’ to designate the route – and the government would allow KiwiRail to be the agency that did the designation (with Auckland Council picking up the tab). Therefore, it’s not like Auckland Transport has to be the agency undertaking the designation – they have made the choice to do so. This is what the agenda item says on the issue: Given the government’s attitude towards this project so far, I quite like the idea of not having to deal with an agency like KiwiRail for now. I imagine that eventually the tracks may fall into KiwiRail’s ownership (although if Council pays for the full cost of the project, I don’t see why they wouldn’t retain ownership) post completion, but my understanding of the RMA is similar to that of the legal opinion obtained by Auckland Transport – if they have the financial responsibility for the project and are legally designated as a requiring authority then I can’t see why they wouldn’t be able to designate the route themselves.

    The Council is also requested to pass a number of recommendations, which hopefully will go through: I am particularly fond of recommendation (b).

    I like the point that Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have got to now. There seems to be a realisation that while they need to continue to discuss funding with the government and come to some agreement on outstanding differences with the project’s business case should central government be requested to provide a contribution to the project’s cost, the work that’s needed to be done over the next year or two does not require central government input – and in fact the involvement of central government so far has done little but delay thing by about 6 months.

    It’s hard to understand exactly what happened in the preparation of the project’s original business case, but it would seem that at some point it morphed from being a general overview of whether the project provided value for money to support the important first step of getting the route designated, to something that tried to achieve the impossible of getting a government that’s generally sceptical of rail to stump up with over a billion dollars in funding for a project that wasn’t their idea. Yet because this transition happened partway through the preparation of the business case, it wasn’t put together in the exact way that would have ticked all the government’s boxes. The subsequent review, while an interesting exercise in helping us realise exactly how myopic the Ministry of Transport is, really achieved little more than wasting six months that should have been spent finalising documentation to support the designation process.

    Let’s hope that all the recommendations go through tomorrow and that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport can just get on with sorting out the background work that’s necessary to protect the project’s route and gain all the necessary consents. While they’re doing this, one also hopes that a greater level of analysis can be undertaken into the project’s benefits, that all alternatives can be more fully explored (even if the inevitable outcome is to highlight that there really are no decent alternatives) and that perhaps the Ministry of Transport might wake up and realise it’s not the 1960s anymore.

    In short, we can talk funding later – we’ve got a lot to sort out before then. Finally, it would seem that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport understand this.

    Transforming Auckland’s city centre

    One of the best things that has come out of the creation of the Auckland “Super City” Council so far has been, in my opinion, the fundamental reconsideration of how Auckland should work. In documents like the Auckland Spatial Plan, the City Centre Master Plan and the forthcoming Unitary Plan, we have the opportunity to completely reanalyse the plans and policies that will guide and shape Auckland’s future. While a lack of plans and policies has never been a problem in Auckland, now that we have one Council it seems like there’s a greater opportunity than ever before to actually see much of what is talked about in these voluminous documents actually becoming reality.

    In particular, I have been excited to see the significant emphasis that Auckland Council is putting on making the city centre a better place – a true heart for the entire region. More and more, it seems that there’s growing recognition at both political and officer level within the council, that the key to making the city centre work better is making it a nicer place for pedestrians – even if that comes at the cost of reducing a bit of road space. This is a fundamental shift away from decades of planning in Auckland, which has typically given 90% of its consideration to cars and about 10% consideration to people. It is no wonder that, for example, the Ministry of Transport’s review of the City Rail Link project could not begin to comprehend that it might not be a smart idea to run 200-300 buses an hour along many of the main streets in downtown Auckland.

    However, transforming Auckland’s city centre will not be an easy task. We have seen decades of planning decisions that have alienated and sidelined pedestrians. Mayoral Drive slices a giant gash through the urban grain of the city centre, Hobson and Nelson Streets act like defacto motorways, Queen Street has some of the highest pedestrian counts anywhere in the country – but for some bizarre reason is still a four-lane highway. High Street provides so much space for parked cars that its pedestrians can barely fit on its narrow footpaths. Not to mention the abomination of Quay Street, slicing the city off from its greatest asset – the harbour. It’s somewhat difficult to know where to start in fixing such a giant mess – but at least it seems that we’ve finally made the decision to start somewhere (in the form of the various shared spaces that have opened recently or are under construction).

    Obviously the process of transforming Auckland’s city centre will be a lengthy one. And that’s fine. Copenhagen’s city centre has taken decades to be turned from an uninviting car dominated area to the pedestrian focused highly popular downtown that it is today. Inevitably there will be a mixture of large projects and smaller ones that contribute to this transformation – from the City Rail Link down to simple things like not designing intersections in ways that actively try to kill pedestrians. While we obviously need a great looking vision for the plans to all aspire to, I think we also need to be careful to ensure that not every step along the way is enormously expensive and time-consuming. Otherwise we might not get anywhere for a long time.

    A reader of this blog directed me to a series of photographic mockups that he has put together to provide some of the ‘great looking vision’ for the future of Auckland’s city centre. While these look fantastic, perhaps what I appreciate just as much is the fact that there’s a mixture of big ticket projects (like light-rail up Queen Street) and more simple things, such as a fairly basic two-waying of Hobson and Nelson streets. Let’s start with those streets first – here’s an overview of his idea: I’ve noted before how much of a big fan of protective cycle lanes I am – because they not only make cyclists safer, they critically ensure that cyclists feel safer. Here’s a before and after of what Hobson Street could look like:

    As you can see the changes are fairly basic. There are no huge shifts in the curb lines, which means that costs could be kept down as services wouldn’t need to be relocated. There’s probably something of a debate over whether on-street parking of a wide median (potentially planted for a boulevard effect) is desirable, but what’s shown above could potentially be an interim solution to a more boulevard like long-term solution. They key point is that we get a two way road, we get good cycle lanes and we can do it pretty cheaply.

    Turning to Queen Street, the vision for the section between Mayoral Drive and Karangahape Road is pretty exciting: Once the Wynyard Tramway has been extended to Britomart, and we start to think about light-rail as the possible long-term option for the Dominion Road situation, perhaps the obvious connection between the two is via a tramway along Queen Street. I quite like the idea of having its tracks grassed, as it introduces some nice greenery to the city centre – at least in this section of the street. Further down it might not be as appropriate. A before and after is shown below: A before and after of Queen Street next to the Civic Theatre looks pretty exciting too: Another potentially exciting corner of Auckland’s city centre is around High Street and O’Connell Street. This always seems to me to be one of the most distinctive and authentic parts of central Auckland, perhaps because its built heritage remains more intact than in most other areas, perhaps because it has a fineness to its urban scale that is generally not present elsewhere. The many smallish buildings, the narrow streets, the character. Of course, this could be further enhanced – as shown below: Credit to Cornelius Blank for allowing me to share these images.

    I think we do need to dream big when it comes to transforming the city centre. But we also need to be realistic – with much of the Council’s spare cash likely to be spent on projects like the City Rail Link and possibly rail to the Airport over the next 10-20 years we need to be looking for ways to improve the city centre at relatively low cost. That’s why I like simple approaches to two-waying Hobson and Nelson street: they might have a chance of happening. Or why I like focusing improvements to pedestrian amenity on the small lanes – because they’re probably cheaper than repaving the whole of Queen Street, for example.

    It would be really interesting to see what things will be like in 20 years time.

    Looking at Auckland’s economic future

    An opinion piece by sprawl advocate Owen McShane in the National Business Review refers to a series of research papers undertaken by the Ministry for Economic Development over the past few years. The papers relate to MED trying to get a better handle on what policy interventions in Auckland are likely to have the most impact on improving the city’s economic performance.

    Reading McShane’s piece, I must say my eyes rolled a bit as it seemed as though the central government agencies had yet again outlined a policy position on Auckland that is straight out of the 1960s – much as they did on the Auckland Spatial Plan and their review of the City Rail Link:

    The Auckland Policy Office, led by the Ministry of Economic Development, has released the nine reports generated by its three-year research programme on Auckland’s social and economic development.

    These reports openly challenge many of the assumptions behind the discussion document “Auckland Unleashed” and provide substantial data in support of the Ministry of Transport’s skeptical response to the current proposal for a mono-centric, high-density, public transport dependent, Auckland Council…

    …The reports also recognise the simultaneous decentralisation of work. “The availability of cars enabled people to live in locations far from the central city where land was cheap, life was less crowded, and where new firms were locating. The result is the decentralised, often sprawling and seemingly unplanned modern city, frequently characterised by a polycentric form featuring many subsidiary sub-centres far from the traditional city centre.

    This sounds awfully similar to what the central government agencies have been saying about the spatial plan and the City Rail Link project, that they expect the trends of the past few decades to continue into the future. They expect more decentralisation, more sprawl, more auto-dependency and so forth.

    Of course, this gets Owen McShane very excited indeed:

    Surely, the best way to develop the Auckland brand is to exploit the green and blue arcadian spaces that penetrate and punctuate its existing and distinctive form. Future development should reflect the fractal nature of Auckland’s setting, its extensive rural hinterland, dramatic coastal and bush-clad edges and the desire of so many residents to live a “greener” lifestyle. The last thing our brand requires is more urban containment and its consequent congestion, pollution and over-crowding.

    The council still seems convinced Auckland is a radial monocentric city in which future economic growth should be jammed into the circular central isthmus. In reality, Auckland’s natural destiny is to be a linear city, say 100km long, with a string of major and minor centres connected by fields of green overlooking seas of blue.

    Auckland’s brand of Pacific green urbanism need not be beholden to a perverse Euro-envy. We don’t need to aspire to the splendid urban spaces of Sienna or Salzburg – or to the hideous concrete deserts and slabs of Halle-Neustadt, or Pyongyang, which would be our own more probable destiny.

    Our brand should be about space, sea and sky; weather and vegetation; and openness. The “creative set” are leading the way.

    It’s amusing how he equates a low density auto-dependent lifestyle with one that is ‘green’. I tend to think that his ‘anti-urbanism’ probably fitted quite well with the hopes and dreams of the baby-boomer generation – who seem to aspire to having a lifestyle block on the urban fringe, even if it means huge reliance on their cars. Whether anti-urbanism fits with younger generations is more dubious I think.

    But anyway, getting back to the Ministry for Economic Development papers, I thought I’d go check them out just to see how bad they were in supporting a “what has happened in the past will continue to happen” approach to planning Auckland’s future. There are quite a number of papers, but helpfully there’s also a summary paper which puts together the major findings and then has some discussion of them. Here are some of the findings: On the transport issues, I am a bit surprised that Motu (who did most of the background research for MED) didn’t highlight their very own paper into the economic benefits of the Western Railway Line that I mentioned in this previous blog post. Perhaps the timing of the research papers was to blame? One thing that I do find interesting is the emphasis placed on the benefits of enhancing intra-regional, rather than inter-regional, transportation. This is explained further below: That doesn’t exactly match up with what Owen McShane was saying about transport in his opinion piece:

    The northern “holiday highway” – with its splendid “portal to the sky” – will add to our other “holiday highways” with their own splendid views of our blue and green world, such as the Newmarket Viaduct, the Harbour Bridge, and the new Mangere Bridge. Let’s make all our highways “holiday highways” – they all add to our brand.

    Hmmm… that must be the strangest justification for the “holiday highway” that I’ve come across yet. But how about what the MED study says about the built environment – does that match with what Mr McShane was saying the study had concluded – that Auckland continues to decentralise and that’s a good thing? Well, not really:

    Enhancing the accessibility and attractiveness of downtown for mixed use development – well that sounds exactly like what the City Rail Link project intends to achieve. Connecting up subsidiary centres that service and provide local employment, well that potentially sounds a lot like what projects such as the southwest (Airport) railway line could achieve: connecting major employment hubs like Manukau City and the Airport with parts of the city that currently under-perform, such as Mangere and other parts of South Auckland.

    Reading through the research papers in a bit more detail is something of a disappointment, in that what they most commonly seem to note is the absence of a logic or pattern to where people and businesses locate. This suggests that perhaps they are looking at the wrong issues – there seems to not be a particularly extensive analysis of planning controls other than the Metropolitan Urban Limit. Or alternatively, the absence of logic may be the result of the confused and contradictory planning and policy situation that Auckland currently has.

    Either way, it seems that Owen McShane was either reading a completely different set of papers to what I have flicked through, or that he just cherry-picked a couple of small things and used them to try to pretend that the papers supported his utopian vision of Auckland as a completely decentralised auto-dependent city that stretches from Whangarei to Hamilton.

    Changing transport trends

    In a comment on yesterday’s post about changing attitudes towards transport among young people, Stu Donovan pointed towards a very interesting piece of research undertaken by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute on changing transport trends in a number of different countries around the world. The argument of the paper is quite simple – and very much linked with what I’ve been pointing out has been happening in New Zealand recently – that the decades long trend of more and more automobile use seems to be tapering off and even declining in a number of developed world countries.

    Here’s the paper’s abstract:

    I’m not going to run through every detail of the paper, because it’s pretty lengthy, but rather pick out a number of the graphs and tables that I think are interesting.

    Vehicle ownership rates seem to have hit a peak in the USA over the past decade, although the very high levels of car ownership seem to indicate that’s probably the result of market saturation: Perhaps a bit more interesting than car ownership rates is the fact that distance travelled per person has also tapered off over the last seven years compared to the rapid growth in earlier decades: It’s worth remembering that these numbers are per capita, so between 2000 and 2007 we would have still seen increases in total VMT, due to population growth. One does wonder why the last 10 years has varied so much from what happened in the 1990s though – perhaps the USA experienced more economic growth in the 1990s? Perhaps the very low oil prices of the 1990s, and the higher oil prices in recent years, have had an impact? Perhaps there are changing land-use patterns with a ‘re-centralisation’ of many cities.

    The next graph doesn’t necessarily answer the questions above, but does show something quite interesting: that most of the slowdown in per capita VMT between 2000 and 2007 probably occurred in the last two years of that period, and that this trend has continued (and intensified) since 2007: There are some obvious similarities between the graph above, and what’s happened in New Zealand over the past few years – shown in the graph below: While one reason for the slowdown over the past few years might well be the economic situation, it’s interesting to see that in both NZ and the USA the large recession which occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s doesn’t seem to have had the same impact on transport trends as what we’ve seen in the past few years.

    The paper quotes Lester Brown, who suggests a potential social reason behind some of these changes:

    There were probably quite a lot of teenagers in the late 1970s, due the baby boom of the post-World War II years, but even on a per capita basis the proportion of teenage drivers with licenses has declined in the USA in more recent times: Looking at the last 10 years, for most of these years the increase in public transport has been larger than that for vehicle use. The gap was particularly massive in 2008, when oil prices spiked: Of course there’s still some uncertainty over the question of whether what’s happened in the past few years is the exception to the long-running trend of increasing automobile use, or whether we really are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in transport trends. The more general ‘cultural shift’ of young people away from cars and towards other technologies is perhaps the most difficult thing to measure, but potentially very significant. I tend to think that rising oil prices have also had a fundamental impact on transport trends in the past few years, and it seems likely this will continue into the future too.

    Is PT the new “cool” way to travel for young people?

    An interesting article in the Perth newspaper “The West Australian” highlights a potential culture shift that I had seen mentioned in a number of previous articles. A culture shift among young people away from cars and towards technology like laptops, iPads, Smartphones and so forth – technology that fits more easily with public transport use than driving everywhere.

    Here’s a brief part of the article:

    Generation Ys now represent more than one-third of all local train and bus commuters, with numbers expected to reflect worldwide trends and continue to soar.

    New 2011 figures released by the Public Transport Authority show that commuters aged between 18 and 25 now make up 35 per cent of all train users and 40 per cent of all bus users – up from 30 and 38 per cent on last year.

    The increase is being partly attributed to new communication technologies and the desire by young people to “stay connected”.

    “Previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car,” Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman said. “But Generation Ys find their freedom and flexibility by staying connected to their friends, family and workplaces through the various information devices – like their laptops, or iphones.

    “They can stay connected on a bus or a train. They can bring the office with them. They can bring their study with them. They can bring their friends with them. They can’t if they’re driving.”

    It’s always difficult to gauge the importance of things like this when it comes to understanding the revival of public transport over the past 20 years – which has been immense in Perth. However, I do think there’s some truth in new technologies making catching PT a more pleasant experience. You can be productive on the train with a laptop, you can relax in your own world with an iPod, you can stay in contact with your friends via your cellphone. None of this was particularly possible a mere 10 years ago. I certainly remember the first time I took a lengthy bus-trip listening to an iPod: it made the trip a whole heap more pleasant.

    A useful question to consider is how we take advantage of these changing cultural trends. For so long public transport has been seen as the transport option of last choice, effectively a social welfare service for those too young, too old and too poor to drive. Perhaps we need to rethink ways in which to make PT the most attractive transport options, capitalising on its inherent advantage when it comes to new communication technologies. Perth is pretty onto this:

    The PTA has recognised that more and more commuters are using communication technologies while travelling and have created a variety of social network tools to provide easy access to timetables and the latest service information.

    There are also plans to fit trains with bluetooth wireless technology during the construction of the Perth City Link project to allow messages to be conveyed to commuters quickly.

    One wonders how easy it would be to put free wifi on all the trains in Auckland – and perhaps all the buses in the longer term. While sure many people are switching to smartphones, I generally take the opportunity to connect to a wifi hotspot where I can so I’m able to save on my data usage. I’m also hopeful that PT in Auckland will become more engaged with new communication technologies. The MAXX website is still pretty much impossible to use on my Android smartphone.

    I think it’s critical that we start showing public transport as the cutting edge, forward-looking way to travel – where you don’t have to spend your time concentrating on not crashing into the car in front of you. Instead, you can be productive, properly relaxed or connected with others while you travel. The combination of technology and PT can potentially give you much of your commuting time back to you.