Transport in 2011: some steps forward, some steps backwards

Trying to get my head around whether 2011 was a good year or not such a good year for advocates of a more balanced transport system like myself, is a bit of a challenge. There were a number of good things which happened, but at the same time there were also a number of steps backward. Here’s my brief summary of the year.

The early months of 2011 were a time when Auckland Council and Auckland Transport were still very much “settling in”. We saw some really interesting first glimpses of what the council’s vision for Auckland’s city centre was in January, we found out that Len Brown’s goal for public transport patronage was 150 million trips a year by 2021 (and we wondered how that would be achieved). We also saw construction of the now open Wynyard Quarter tram loop. Submissions on preferred options for the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the holiday highway were written.

The February 22 earthquake in Christchurch obviously stands out as the whole country’s biggest event of the year, but seemed to have a remarkably little impact on the transport discussion here in Auckland. The government passed over a golden opportunity to back down over Puhoi-Wellsford (or at least downgrade it to something more sensible at a time when the whole country would have understood such a move), while Auckland Council sensibly pointed out that it would be many more years before serious money for the City Rail Link project was required. Behind the scenes, it was becoming fairly clear that officials reviewing the business case for the CRL were unlikely to come to agreement on the project’s merits.

In March the Auckland Unleashed discussion document was released, outlining the Council’s vision – at a broad-bush level – for Auckland over the next 30 years. We saw a great video of Len Brown’s rail vision for Auckland, but once again this positivity was tempered by the government’s feedback on the document (weirdly released before the discussion document) that pushed for more sprawl and more roads. Following hot on the heels of all that spatial plan discussion, we finally saw some progress on the implementation of a smartcard ticketing system in Auckland, with the launch of HOP. Unfortunately the complexity of the deal done between Auckland Transport, Thales, Snapper, NZ Bus, NZTA and so forth meant that the launch was generally met more by confusion than celebration.

From the optimism of those early months (earthquakes aside), the middle months of the year were a little more depressing – although the superb patronage stats throughout the year tempered this disappointment. The 2012 Government Policy Statement for Land Transport Funding turned out to be even stupider and more roads-obsessed than its 2009 predecessor, proposing additional RoNS that were so crazy they didn’t even end up being adopted into National’s election transport policy. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of those middle months was the review of the City Rail Link project, with the narrow-minded thinking of Ministry of Transport officials ignoring matters as fundamental as the bus and car capacity of the CBD when assessing the merits of the project. It was not a great year for the MoT, who also managed to forget to record the spending of around $180 million.

On a brighter note, the actual implementation of the HOP card went smoother than most (including myself) had expected. Bus loading times declined dramatically thanks to the speed of tagging on (although I still get annoyed at the cash-paying idiots who block the whole entranceway – any chance of some signage NZ Bus?) On a personal note, June was a pretty epic month with baby Adele arriving five weeks earlier than anticipated, leading to a couple of weeks of very regular travel to the hospital.

August saw the introduction of the Outer Link bus, as well as significance reconfiguration of all Western Bays services. Although further tweaks have been necessary (and probably will continue to be necessary in the future), overall the changes were very positive and have led to an increase in patronage exceeding what was forecast. After that, all eyes turned to the Rugby World Cup, which began on that fateful day of September 9th.

The transport chaos of RWC opening night was very unfortunate, but told us some very insightful things. As suspected, the CCO model of delivering many of council’s services through separate agencies did mean that they became siloed and didn’t talk to each other over matters as simple as the number of people expected to attend opening night. The highly fractured structure of running public transport in Auckland meant that everyone could point the finger at everyone else, whilst avoiding responsibility for that happened. But more positively, we also saw (and hopefully didn’t put off forever) an unprecedented willingness of Aucklanders to use public transport. There were over 140,000 rail trips around Auckland on September 9th, there probably could have been over 200,000 if we had the system to cope with them. I don’t think we’ve seen too much long-term damage from that evening, but perhaps we might see some long-term benefit with the realisation that it very much is Auckland’s public transport system that lets us down in our quest to become a truly world-class city.

During, and just after, the RWC, we saw draft versions of a number of really important documents that will help guide Auckland’s future. These included, the Draft Auckland Plan, the City Centre Master Plan, the Waterfront Plan and an Economic Development Strategy. I put together a fairly detailed submission on the Auckland Plan, and overall many thousands of submissions were received by the Council. Final decisions on these plans will be made in the first few months of next year.

In September we also  found out one of the best pieces of transport news for the year – that we would get 57 electric trains rather than the originally proposed 35. The excellent work by Auckland Transport to secure this deal probably hasn’t been given the praise it deserves, especially as many tens of millions of dollars were squeezed out of the government as their contribution to the additional trains. It was also very welcome to learn that the trains are going to look damn nice too.

After the RWC was finished, the election rolled around pretty quickly. While the overall result wasn’t particularly positive, as it seems we will see more of the same from central government, there were some interesting outcomes. We will have our first transport planner MP, in the Greens’ Julie-Anne Genter, Labour’s new leader David Shearer has been a long-time supporter of public transport in Auckland, while Phil Twyford becoming labour’s transport spokerperson should also lead to a greater focus on Auckland transport issues. In the interests of fairness, we should give new transport minister Gerry Brownlee a chance before passing final judgment on him.

So overall it has been a pretty damn busy year when it comes to Auckland transport issues. As I noted at the start of this post, there have been a number of steps forward but also a number of steps backwards. 2012 should hopefully see the resolution of a number of these issues: a finalisation of the spatial plan, hopefully some agreed way forward on the merits of the City Rail Link, the proper implementation of integrated ticketing and many more interesting things.

I’m just hoping for a slightly less crazy year than this one.

Boulevards – the best of both worlds?

Urban transport is a tension between the “through” and the “in”, as I have described many times before on this blog. We need to shift people around a city, but often that process of shifting them destroys the quality of the city itself. A motorway is the most obvious example of this – all ‘through’ and no ‘in’. But many of our main roads are arguably even worse, because we want to be locating more people and business along these routes (especially if they have high frequency public transport), but the heavy traffic and completely ‘through-focused’ street environment makes these places incredibly unattractive to live, work, visit or shop.

Take Pakuranga Road for example, this isn’t the most inviting urban environment you’ll come across: Six lanes of traffic, narrow footpaths, the noise and pollution putting off any street activity. On-street parking is restricted at peak times – although it doesn’t really seem like the kind of road you would want to park on any time of the day. The residential development is generally low density, shielding itself behind large fences, walls and hedges, from the street.

At first glance, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York City, doesn’t look particularly different to Pakuranga Road. A similarly large number of lanes and probably a similar number of vehicles carried:

But if you look a bit closer, at the sides of Ocean Parkway, you can see that it’s not just a normal road – it’s a multiway boulevard. The slip-lanes on each side create an interesting combination of allowing a lot of speedy through-traffic in the middle but access and a nicely buffered area to the houses. Looking at the houses that front Ocean Parkway, it’s fairly obvious that they’re much more valuable than what fronts Pakuranga Road. Despite being a very busy road, Ocean Parkway is still very much the kind of road that people want to live along: There are two boulevards like this in Brooklyn, built in the late 19th century and described in superb detail in the excellent The Boulevard Book, by Allan Jacobs, Elizabeth MacDonald and Yodan Rofe. Ocean Parkway is the longer of the two, cutting a huge north-south swathe across Brooklyn: Another city that has plenty of boulevards, and is in fact most famous for them, is Paris. We often think of Paris as such an incredibly different urban environment to Auckland that there’s not much point trying to emulate too much of what is there, but it’s interesting to see how they have managed to combine very busy roads with retaining a quality built environment. Two boulevards that are looked at in some detail in The Boulevard Book are shown in the map below:

Avenue de la Grande Armee is a continuation of the very famous Champs Elysees to the northwest, and carries an incredibly high 92,000 vehicles a day (compared to around 60,000 on Pakuranga Road, New Zealand’s busiest non-motorway road). This is what the main roadway looks like: Not a particularly welcoming looking street at first glance, but remember this road carries half again as many vehicles per day as the busiest non-motorway road in the whole of New Zealand. But once again, if you glance towards the edges of the road you can see some pretty high quality buildings. Look closer and this is confirmed – not only are these your typically nice Parisian buildings, but they’re also being put to fairly high-rent uses. Of course the wide road, the slip-lane, the wide footpaths, the two rows of parked cars and so forth take up a lot of space. The width of  Avenue de la Grande Armee is a pretty mighty 70 metres from building to building. This is twice the width of Pakuranga Road, measured front fence to front fence.

But not every Parisian boulevard is as extremely wide as this. Just around the corner we have Avenue Marceau, which is 35 metres across from building to building. This boulevard is one of my favourites: 

The traffic lanes on the main roadway are split into three in one direction and a bus lane in the other direction, but it could be split any way really. The slip-lanes are really narrow, but theoretically could be narrowed further  for wider footpaths by only having one row of parking:It’s hard to imagine a better way of using a 35 metre wide street, in terms of being able to shift traffic, provide a buffered place for pedestrians and local traffic, provide some nice trees, a good pedestrian environment and generally create a high quality place that’s desirable for people to live, work, visit and shop in. As I noted above, probably the only change I would make is reducing a bit of the parking and increasing the footpath width.

To be realistic, it’s difficult to imagine too many opportunities in Auckland to “retrofit” these kinds of boulevards. It may be possible along Pakuranga Road, if we ever decided that it was important to turn that road into more of a corridor. However, in the parts of Auckland to be developed (and, whether we like it or not, there is likely to be quite a lot of urban expansion over the next 30 years in Auckland) these type of roads could play a really important role. Ormiston Road in Flat Bush is an obvious candidate, the Mill Road corridor proposed to link Papakura and Flat Bush could be done similarly. Hobsonville Road and the old State Highway 16 through Westgate, West Harbour and onto Hobsonville may also suit becoming this type of boulevard – being both important regional routes (though thankfully not to the same extent they are now) but also roads we really want to encourage urban activity on.

Traffic engineers will probably scream over the complexity of intersections, but The Boulevard Book explains in nice detail that complexity generally leads to greater safety as people are careful. This type of road, in the right location, seems to be a great way of achieving that seemingly impossible dream: “to shift a lot through without destroying the in“.

Improving bus efficiency

I have noted in previous posts how many of our long-haul bus routes duplicate the rail network, leading to needlessly wasted money on subsidising buses and trains that compete with each other for passengers. Running all those Howick and Eastern buses right past Panmure station, Ellerslie Station, Greenlane Station, Remuera Station, Newmarket Station, Grafton Station to terminate right next to Britomart station seems a rather pointless exercise in my opinion.

The bus network itself has a large number of inefficiencies – generally resulting from its “branching” structure. A good example of this is to look at buses that pass through Newmarket – fed from a number of parts of Auckland: red being south (4xx routes generally), blue being the southeast (5xx routes for NZ Bus and all Howick & Eastern services), green from Manukau Road (3xx services) and orange from Remuera Road (6xx routes): The overlapping of routes over one another means extremely high frequencies – although often not in a way that’s aligned at all. So you might have no buses for 15 minutes then have seven come along one after the other. It seems that the main cause of this ‘branched’ network is the design of Auckland’s street network , which funnels one road after the next into bottlenecks like Newmarket (or the Harbour Bridge), rather than providing a series of parallel streets on a grid, where routes could be distributed more evenly. You sort of see more of a grid in the western part of the isthmus, but even those parallel roads (Manukau, Mt Eden, Dominion, Sandringham, New North & Great North) come together in bottlenecks of their own – like the top end of Symonds Street.

To get an idea about the number of routes and services that converge along this section of Great South Road and Broadway, I had a dig through MAXX timetable information to come up with the following: I’m not really sure whether Great South Road between Greenlane and Manukau Road generates demand in and of itself to justify a bus every 2 minutes at peak times, or that Khyber Pass generates demand to justify a bus every 40 seconds. I also think the fact that more than 50 different routes pass through these points in a given day is likely to mean there’s little co-ordination between timetables to avoid the vast platooning of buses. And remember, this is in a part of Auckland that’s pretty well served by rail too. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Remuera and Greenlane are two of the least used stations on the network.

In short, the branched route system leads to vast over-provision of services in inner areas, because of the overlapping of so many routes. Now this is great if you’re travelling between town and the hospital for example, but is it really the wisest spend of our transport dollar to be providing such an extremely high number of buses (most of which aren’t express services, and parts of the route have poor priority measures like through Newmarket, so this is no Northern Busway) here? Would we prefer to see that money spent on a high-frequency cross-town services? Cheaper fares? A higher farebox recovery rate so less reliance on subsidy? The low seat utilisation of buses crossing Grafton Bridge seems to reinforce my thinking on this matter.

Of course the main reason why we have so many buses travelling along the inner part of the routes shown above is for capacity (notwithstanding the low seat utilisation). A pretty large chunk of Auckland is served by these routes, which means a lot of people rely on them. But at such high levels of demand, one would think that shifting more people onto trains starts to be a more logical thing to do – especially if the train trip can be much faster for the traveller. For Howick and Eastern passengers headed for the city, transfering to the train at Panmure is going to cut a massive chunk off their travel time, even if they need to wait 5-10 minutes for the train and even if they then need to walk 5-10 minutes from Britomart to their destination. If we can make better use of the capacity that the rail network has (especially post electrification), then we shouldn’t need to run anywhere near this many buses between Greenlane and Grafton Bridge.

So how might we do things differently? As a basic structure, I’ve often thought about the following being a useful start:

  • Cut every route south of Manukau City at Manukau, turning them into feeders to the new railway station and a “400″ route b.line between Manukau and midtown (not Britomart as the train goes there). Frequency could be something like once every 10 or 15 minutes during the day, perhaps a bit more at peak and a bit less in the evenings and at weekends. This would be a reduction from the “bus every 5 minutes” service level we have now along Great South Road south of Greenlane, but would still offer a nice level of frequency along Great South Road all the time (for trips to and from places not easily served by rail), with excess demand in the south being soaked up by rail services from Manukau.
  •  Cut every route south of Onehunga (from Mangere) at Onehunga, turning them into feeders to Onehunga station and a new “300″ route b.line service along Manukau Road between Onehunga and midtown (once again, not Britomart as the train goes there). Frequency could probably be every 10 minutes most of the time, perhaps every 5 minutes during peak as the Manukau Road corridor doesn’t duplicate the rail network (unlike Great South Road). This would be a reduction from the 37 buses in the AM peak, with Onehunga rail services probably needing to go to every 15 minutes (so therefore post City Rail Link for full implementation) to soak up extra demand. It would be interesting to do an ‘origin-destination’ study for trips from Mangere, as I’ve heard that only a tiny fraction are to the CBD.
  • Cut all Howick and Eastern services at either Panmure or Ellerslie station, turning them into feeders. I need to have a bit more of a think about whether it’s best to cut these at Panmure then run a “500″ b.line between Panmure and midtown along Ellerslie-Panmure Highway or whether to continue all Howick and Eastern buses to Ellerslie, allowing transfers to the southern line and Great South Road buses. Any Panmure to midtown b.line route would probably have similar frequencies to the 400 Great South Road b.line, as it would only be the Ellerlise-Panmure Highway section that didn’t either duplicate the rail network (and the 400 route) or was relieved by transfers to rail at Panmure.
  • Remuera Road buses need a drastic simplification – probably combining a great number of routes into a simple ’600′ b.line service. This would be a good route to run through the city to Wynyard Quarter or even to the North Shore, as it “joins” our system too late for transfers to be attractive.

I’m pretty sure by implementing this plan we would save money (nowhere near as many duplicating services in our inner sections), give faster travel times (thanks to rail being much quicker than buses from Panmure, Manukau and Onehunga stations), provide a more easily understood bus network (based around the 300, 400, 500 and 600 b.line routes compared to the 61 routes that current serve the area) and a bus network that offers more regular services during weekends and off-peak (money saved on cutting back duplicative peak time services could be reinvested in better frequencies at other times).

Downsides are obviously a much greater reliance on transfers – both bus to train and bus to bus. We would need integrated ticketing and zone-based fares for this to truly work. We would also need good timetable alignment and excellent infrastructure at key transfer nodes like Manukau, Onehunga and Panmure. I’m guessing that many people would choose to take advantage of the faster travel speeds offered by rail, meaning that increased pressure would be placed on the rail network. Perhaps for this reason more than any other, a shift to this type of bus network would need to be implemented incrementally – particularly built around the introduction of our electric trains (and later the City Rail Link, particularly to allow more trains to serve Onehunga).

I think overall the positives significantly outweigh the negative though.

Peak Traffic ctd.

Admin’s post the other day about Peak Traffic got me thinking about what some of our state highways would look like if we graphed their traffic volumes. Luckily the NZTA have published state highway volumes from between 1975 and 2010 which makes this fairly easy to do (although there are some gaps in the data which is a little annoying).

I have picked four points around the city to look at, they aren’t nessessarily the busiest parts but ones with a decent amount of data so that we can see some trends. The four places I picked are the Harbour Bridge, Northcote Rd to Tristram Ave, the SH16 causeway between Waterview and Rosebank/Pataki and the Newmarket Viaduct. Petrol Prices are often quoted as having an impact on traffic volumes so I have also added in the inflation adjusted price of petrol for the same timeframe thanks to the Ministry of Economic Development who publish it quarterly.

If you recall these two graphs, the first from the US and the second from the UK (thanks Patrick) both show traffic peaking and declining slightly over the last 4-5 years.

So who do the four spots I looked at compare?

As you can see they look very similar but interestingly all four of these lines flattened off in the early 2000′s so even earlier than the overseas ones. The only line to still have had some growth recently was Tristram to Northcote which had capacity added at the same time the busway was built but that seems to have flattened out again. That growth also hasn’t flowed onto the Harbour Bridge so is most likely a result of more local traffic using the motorway which means some of the local roads like Wairau Rd should hopefully have seen a similar reduction in traffic.

Petrol would definitely had a bit of an impact in recent years however it is worth noting that even in 2003 when petrol had come back down after a spike that vehicle numbers remained flat. Even things like the improvements to the capacity of CMJ don’t seem to have had an impact on the number of people travelling across the Newmarket Viaduct (with the exception of the periods of construction in the early 2000′s and recently with the bridge replacement).

Based on what we can see it would be interesting to see what the projections were for projects like the CMJ upgrade, if they are relying on the same long term increases that we saw before then there is a good chance the expected benefits of them won’t be fully realised.

Holiday works on the rail system

While the rail system is shut to trains over the next few weeks, quite a lot of important works will be taking place. I’ll try to get out and about over my break to take some photos of what’s going on, but here’s a summary from Auckland Transport:

While most Aucklanders are enjoying their Christmas holidays, train stations and other parts of the rail network will be getting an upgrade.

Auckland Transport with partners KiwiRail and NZTA are making full use of the annual rail network closures to continue their extensive rail construction and maintenance programme.

Starting Boxing Day, the old Mountain Rd Bridge near Panmure Station will be demolished to make way for a new bridge as part of the AMETI Panmure transport project. This will allow for a new road next to the rail line, as well as allowing for electrification of the rail network. KiwiRail are currently carrying out preparatory ground work at two other overbridges; Morrin Rd and Orakei Rd ahead of building replacement bridges with enough clearance for electricity lines to run underneath.

Track enabling work at the proposed location for the new Parnell station is well underway including lowering and realigning the tracks over a 600m track section. Replacement bus services are in place to replace trains between Newmarket and Britomart.

Further back at Ellerslie, the $8 million station upgrade which includes relocating the Southern Line tracks to create space for an additional northbound motorway lane is progressing well. Already the old concrete ramp has been replaced with a set of stairs and a second passenger shelter has been added to the platform. When the seven month project is complete the station will have additional shelters and improved accessibility measures including new lifts for pedestrian access connecting to bridges over the motorway and train lines.

At the southern end at Papakura, the station is being upgraded to meet future patronage growth and modernise existing platform amenities. At the same time KiwiRail is undertaking a rearrangement of the tracks to provide a dedicated freight line through the station as well as optimising track and platform layouts ahead of the new electrified network.

Papakura is the southern extent of electrified railway and will provide integration for the continued diesel services south of Papakura to Pukekohe.

Auckland Transport Project Director for Rail Improvements Nick Seymour says: “The overall intention of the station upgrade programme is to improve the functionality of stations from both a passenger experience and a transport efficiency perspective.

“We have a lot to do in a short space of time and will be working around the clock in some locations. It is our intention to work as quickly and quietly as we can and return to normal services with minimal impact on surrounding businesses and communities.

“Although we understand there will be inconvenience for passengers the station enhancements will result in greater amenity and passenger comfort, with modern platform furniture, increased CCTV coverage, and improved access for mobility users.

“Working with both the NZTA and KiwiRail means a saving on time, money and minimum disruption to the roading and rail networks,” Mr Seymour says.

Auckland’s rail network is being upgraded to enable more frequent and reliable commuter services, and prepare for electrification in time for the delivery of Auckland’s new electric trains. Auckland trains will be out of action over the Christmas and New Year period with commencement of some southern services from the 4th Jan 2012. Full opening of the Auckland rail network is scheduled for the morning of 19th January 2012.

It seems that Parnell, Ellerslie, Panmure (for AMETI works) and Papakura will be the most interesting places to see the works that are happening. I also imagine that KiwiRail will be taking the opportunity of a closed network to also put up a lot more electrification masts and foundations.

I’m always amazed at how much work gets done in the short shutdown period. And I also give thanks to all the workers slogging away while we enjoy our holidays.

Peak traffic?

Another article has highlighted that Auckland’s traffic volumes aren’t growing anymore – rather stagnating and even falling slightly:

More Aucklanders are leaving their cars at home for the commute to work as high petrol prices bite.

New figures show almost 900 fewer cars a week travelled over the Auckland Harbour Bridge this year compared with last year.

The drop corresponds with a fall in petrol sales in the city and an increase in public transport patronage.

NZTA figures show 1,684,601 cars crossed the bridge in the year to December, 44,545 fewer than last year.

Figures provided by New Zealand-owned petrol retailer Gull from local authority levies on petrol sales in the Auckland region showed 19 million fewer litres of petrol were sold in the year to June – a two per cent drop on the previous year.

The change in volumes over the harbour bridge is very slight (and the above article is wrong with its yearly total as around 160,000 vehicles cross the bridge a day, meaning you’d get to 1.6 million in just over a week, not in a whole year) but the change in petrol sales is perhaps most interesting, highlighting a reduction in driving throughout Auckland, not just a shifting of traffic away from some roads and towards others.

This isn’t just an Auckland phenomenon either, with a more enlightened than average traffic engineer in the USA pointing out that traffic projections may need to be fundamentally changed from how things have been done in the past. He notes:

I’m working on a traffic study where the reviewing agencies asked us to prepare 20 year forecasts in addition to looking at the build out year. Typically, we look at data trendlines on nearby roads and throughout the county to determine a “typical growth rate” for traffic in the area. This has historically been an annual growth rate of 1 to 3%. This often leads us to factoring traffic up 50% or more over 20 years and then layering on the traffic from the proposed development. Factoring existing traffic volumes up approximately 50% is also how traffic forecasts are often prepared for road design projects.

I’m strongly reconsidering this approach. Consider Figure 1 below from the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Highway Policy Information website. From 1986 to 2006, traffic on all of our highways did fit the model of growing by about 2 to 3% a year (or 50% to 60% over the 20 years). But since 2005, we’ve had a significant drop in traffic and the trendline sure makes it look like traffic growth has plateaued.

Here’s that figure one:Further analysis from the famous “Texas Transport Institute Urban Mobility Report” highlights that congestion has remained roughly the same over the past decade, once again reversing a long-term trend of ever-worsening congestion: Mike Spack, who wrote the blog post, makes the obvious – but incredibly important – conclusion from the above data (and a pile of other data he quotes in his post:

Based on national and local trends, my conclusion is that it is very reasonable to think traffic growth has plateaued. The punchline for traffic impact studies: the “no-build” traffic forecasts should be the same as the existing traffic volumes. We don’t need to do opening day forecasts and 20 year forecasts because they can reasonably be expected to be similar.

And given our huge budget shortfalls, this should also mean a policy of fixing the infrastructure we have. NOT expanding our transportation system to add capacity.

There are some excellent points made in the  comments too. This one in particular is very relevant to our debates here in Auckland:

As always, this can be tied back to money. As long as outside funding sources (e.g. state, federal) continue to reward agencies with inflated no-build volumes, there is little benefit to agencies for projecting more realistic no-build volumes.

In addition, many agencies rely on inflated no-build volumes to justify the “need” for a project as required by federal environmental documents.

I suspect that the cost-benefit ratios of most of our proposed roading projects would plummet if we shifted to a “no growth” assumption for traffic volumes. Most projects derive their ‘benefits’ from projecting how utterly terrible things will be 20-30 years down the track if the project in question isn’t built (the increased ‘no-build’ volumes), then highlighting how the project in question will ensure that scenario does not occur. If things aren’t going to get worse in the future, when it comes to congestion and car volumes, then the justification for so many projects just disappears.

Don’t drive north tomorrow

Tomorrow, December 27th, is the one day of the year we actually could do with the Puhoi-Wellsford holiday highway. Here’s what happened last year:

Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched almost the length of the 7.5km toll road between Orewa and Puhoi for three hours from late yesterday morning.

Some hot and frustrated drivers and passengers got out of their cars to stretch their legs and cool off.

Angry motorists vented their frustration on Twitter.

Doug Hanna wrote that he had visitors from Auckland staying with him at Oakura, north of Whangarei: “Took 5 hours 40 to get here today. Took us 3.10 yesterday.”

Hamish Rouse was travelling in the opposite direction: “NZ Traffic anywhere out of Auckland is insane. Just came down from up North. Poor northbound travellers.”

The giant traffic jam was caused by two lanes of motorway traffic having to merge into one lane before the Johnstone’s Hill tunnel, and then merge again with vehicles from the coastal road on the one northbound lane beyond the toll road.

Although the Government has designated a $1.65 billion four-lane highway from Puhoi to Wellsford as one of seven “roads of national significance”, the first stage to Warkworth will not be completed until 2019 and the final stage not until 2022.

And here’s what happened in 2009:

Thousands of motorists spent hours stewing in traffic jams between Auckland’s Northern Gateway toll road and Warkworth yesterday.

Traffic started banking up north of Puhoi at about 10.30am, and three hours later was jammed for about 25km from Warkworth back to the Hillcrest Rd bridge over the southern end of the toll road at Orewa.

The worst problems were where lanes merged, whether at the end of passing lanes or at the northbound entry to the Johnstones Hill tunnel at the Puhoi end of the toll road.

It was not until 4pm that the Transport Agency reported a relatively free flow had been restored to the tunnel, which is confined to one northbound lane for safety reasons at the other end, where traffic from the alternative free coastal route through Orewa merges with State Highway 1.

Transport Agency northern highways manager Tommy Parker said State Highway 16 through Helensville remained free-flowing throughout yesterday as an alternative route to Wellsford, and drivers should always consider that option if travelling further north over the holiday period.

The agency regards December 27 as traditionally its second busiest day for traffic over the Christmas-New Year break after January 2 for the main road north from Auckland, with about 50 per cent more vehicles than the daily average, but Mr Parker said yesterday was even worse than usual.

“It was particularly bad this year – we have seen some quite large delays made worse by a lot of vehicles towing boats and caravans,” he said.

“We had expected the traffic would spread across a number of days, but people decided to travel on the same day.”

Mr Parker said traffic was unexpectedly light on Boxing Day, and he was at a loss to know why.

“Presumably people were all at the races or the sales.”

But after yesterday’s chaos, he was confident the traffic would also be “significantly lighter” today.

Despite extra difficulties observed by Herald staff where traffic ground to a standstill in attempted mergers at the end of passing lanes, Mr Parker said the agency was not considering temporarily closing the lanes to simplify flows.

He said that had not been done for years.

The agency had discontinued the practice because it believed some drivers became confused and erratic when confronted by cones blocking the lanes.

As well, the agency had no evidence that blocking the lanes improved flow.

Neither did he believe motorists had been short-changed by paying $2 to use the toll road, only to be forced to a slow grind little more than 2km along it, during the worst of yesterday’s congestion.

He said electronic signs south of the road warned drivers of queues ahead, giving them options of going to SH16 from the Silverdale interchange or using the Hibiscus Coast highway, which was also relatively free-flowing until it merged with SH1 near Puhoi.

We could go and spend close to $2 billion on solving a problem that happens one day a year – or we could spent a fraction of that money on a bypass of Warkworth and a safety upgrade along the Puhoi-Wellsford section of road: greatly improving things much quicker for users of this road 364 days a year.

I’ll bet there are further Herald articles on Wednesday describing the hours and hours people spent travelling north and how the Puhoi-Wellsford road is so incredibly necessary because of this horrific traffic jam. Or, people could just not drive north tomorrow and we could save well over a billion dollars.

Playing in the Streets

This looks awesome:

Playing in the Streets clears Queen Street of traffic for a day and opens the road up for kids, young people and families. Aucklanders will be free to populate the roadway, creating a space of joy and amazement in the heart of the city.

This unique event will turn Queen Street into a sports park, with five-a side-football, cricket, squash, netball, badminton, gym sports, Zumba and aerobics taking place between the kerbs. Kids will be able to have a go at a range of sports, and meet some of their sporting heroes.

Cafes and shops will be open and picnic spots will be provided, so families are invited to come along and make a day of it. When
Sunday 19 February, 11am-4pm

Where 
Queen Street between Customs and Wyndham streets, central Auckland

Events like these are a great first step towards permanently pedestrianising Queen Street. I can’t wait.

020 tweaks implemented in February

Tweaks to the 020 route, including the introduction of an 020X service, will occur in February. These tweaks were proposed a few months back, in response to some complaints about the severance of links between Freemans Bay and K Road.

The current and proposed routes are shown below: The route is a bit more higgledy-piggledy – which is never ideal. However, importantly this route will be supplemented by a faster 020X bus at peak times that will travel via Hopetoun Road: Here’s what Auckland Transport has said about the feedback they got on the proposed changes:

Between 14 October and 4 November 2011, Auckland Transport carried out a consultation process on proposed changes to the 020 bus service, and you indicated that you would like to be informed of the results of the consultation.

The proposed changes included:

(a) diverting the current 020 route via Howe St, K Rd and Vincent St, to restore a link to K Rd;

(b) converting five morning and five evening peak trips to 020 Express trips (020X) which would run via the Hopetoun St Bridge; and

(c) reinstating the start and finish of the route at the Westmere shops (on Garnet Rd, near Oban Rd and Faulder Ave).

339 people provided submissions via the feedback form (online and hardcopy). 74% supported or strongly supported the proposed changes, while 21% did not support or strongly did not support the proposal.

Given the strong level of support for the proposed changes, Auckland Transport now plans to make the route changes through Freemans Bay and introduce the 020X Express as outlined in the proposal. These changes are likely to be implemented in February 2012.

At this stage, the issue of the Westmere terminus location needs to be investigated further. A solution needs to be found that balances the impacts on local residents, the needs of bus users and takes into consideration traffic safety issues. Auckland Transport is working with the bus operator (NZ Bus) to resolve this issue. Once a final decision has been made people providing feedback will be notified of that decision.

The actual date that changes are to be implemented will be advertised at least two weeks in advance.

Hopefully the proposed changes will help both ensure that peak time travellers get a faster trip, but also that off-peak travellers who have a bit more time, are better served in terms of convenience.

Analysing critiques of the City Rail Link

I am glad that the “City Rail Link” name for the Britomart to Mt Eden Tunnel has replaced previous names for the project – like the CBD Rail Tunnel, the CBD Rail Link and (my least favourite) the CBD Loop. Calling this project a “City Rail Link” emphasises the fact that its benefits are not just felt in the city centre, but across the whole of Auckland.

And this is important, because we are consistently seeing this project being attacked on the basis that it will only provide a benefit to those working in the CBD – and that’s a relatively small proportion of Auckland’s employment. One recent example of such criticism comes from a blog post on the “Cities Matter” blog  (a rather ironic name for what seems to be a very anti-cities blog), written by Phil McDermott – a consultant in ‘urban, economic and community development’ .

The post makes the following critique of the project:

Around 21,000 trips a day from the West and the North of the region went to the CBD in 2006. But 38,000 had to get past it (although some from the west would have gone near it at all).

Significantly fewer north- or west-bound trips indicate more limited employment opportunities in those areas. But there were still 15,000 from south of the CBD to the north or west.

So, 54,000 trips went past the CBD, nearly as many as destined for it (58,000). And 127,000 went to other parts of the Isthmus. While the CBD is the largest single destination (around 14% of the city’s total jobs using our definition) the real congestion issue is how to cater for – or reduce — cross-city commuting, and especially north-south trips that must use the motorway system to drive round it.

Will the proposed city rail link meet the Plan’s expectations? No. Not just because it does not address cross-city congestion. But also because in 2006 30% of trips from elsewhere on the Isthmus into the CBD already used PT. In some nearby Isthmus areas the figure was much higher e.g., 50% for Mt Eden North, 40% Newmarket, 42% Sandringham, 41% Newmarket, and 40% Surrey Crescent. And a substantial 26% of commuters from the North and 27% from the South to the CBD also used PT in 2006. (These figures do not include ferries, which accounted for 7% of PT boardings in the year ending October 2011 – all to the CBD)…

…It must be asked: how we can justify over $2bn in capital spending to raise rail’s share of CBD-focused travel in which PT already plays a large part? Because we face the prospect of diminishing returns by way the high cost of each additional unit of demand that might be satisfied by spending up large on the rail link, especially because this does not really address where the problem really lies: with cross regional travel. There may be more cost effective and enduring measures we can take.

The information above is informed by a table, showing journey to work patterns around Auckland (which seems to match up with this other table?):This kind of analysis of the City Rail Link project has two obvious flaws, which I will get onto soon, but the fact that this type of critique continues to emerge highlights the need for the regional benefits of the project to be explained in more detail and given a bit more focus.

The first flaw is to ignore the fact that cross-town trips obviously do benefit from there being fewer ‘suburb to CBD’ vehicle (either by car or bus) trips. Someone travelling from New Lynn to East Tamaki clearly benefits from not having to compete for road-space with someone who used to drive along some of the same roads on their trip from Avondale to the CBD, but now catches the train. Ultimately, we all know that Auckland is growing quite significantly (another million people by 2040) and we know that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to expand the road network to accommodate all these extra people – so the need to use our rail network more efficiently is obvious. As, once again quite obviously, the only way we can squeeze a lot more out of the rail network is by building the City Rail Link, to ease the Britomart bottleneck.

The second flaw is linked to the first, being an ignorance of the City Rail Link’s ‘enabling’ of higher frequency trains to be operated across the whole rail network. In March next year, when the next rail timetable comes into effect, we will be maximising Britomart’s ability to handle trains at peak times. Even post-electrification we won’t be able to run more trains at peak times (although they will generally be much longer). If we are to run frequencies across the whole network that are better than one train every 10 minutes, then we need to build the City Rail Link. If we ever want to expand the rail network (building Airport rail or whatever), then we need the City Rail Link. Higher train frequencies and the potential for an expanded rail network clearly benefits far more people than just those travelling to the CBD. If you travel from Papakura to Ellerslie for work, then you’d benefit from having a train every 5 minutes rather than every 10, same for people travelling from Henderson to New Lynn. A higher frequency rapid transit network will help increase the very low rail modeshare for trips to employment centres along the rail network other than the CBD. Once again, this will help take more cars off the road than we would otherwise see.

Another critique of the project made in the blog post, relates to the belief that investing further in the bus network is an alternative to building the rail tunnel:

Buses account for the bulk of the growth in public transport patronage to date, and will continue to do so whether or not a city rail link is built.

Bus services offer relatively low marginal costs for expansion, route and service flexibility, capacity for continuous improvement to rolling stock, and a better ability to cope with disruption than rail. They offer wider network capacity and greater passenger convenience and responsiveness. They are less prone to system-wide disruption.

Given a long-standing legacy of rail transport to a few suburbs it may make sense to incorporate what we already have into a multi-modal system, but putting a lot more money on the line to “benefit” from sunk costs in a system that is inferior to the alternative is not good economics.

Auckland Transport, and ARTA before them, have brought on this type of critique by not reforming the bus network over the past few years to reflect that we now have a functioning rail system in Auckland. We still run buses from Swanson and Papakura all the way into town, competing and undermining the rail network – having huge over-provision of services on inner parts of Great North and Great South roads, not only clogging the city centre with buses at peak times but also wasting a huge amount of public subsidy on service kilometres that just aren’t necessary (evident from the low seat utilisation of these services).

Buses clearly have their place, and in Auckland will continue to provide the bulk of public transport trips. However, they aren’t particularly efficient when it comes to long-haul services (a lot of driver time per passenger carried) and could be reworked to improve both their efficiency and the efficiency of the rail network by becoming feeder services in many more parts of the city. While buses do offer route and service flexibility, greater convenience and coverage than rail, and lower capital costs, at the same time they obviously don’t offer anywhere near as much capacity (per vehicle) as rail does, meaning they end up taking up a lot of space at high levels of demand. In effect, buses should focus on what they do best, rail should focus on what it does best, and they should integrate – not compete – with each other.

There is certainly going to be ongoing debate about this project, perhaps particularly around its land-use interaction. While the whole of Auckland does benefit (directly or indirectly) from the City Rail Link, the benefits are certainly most acutely felt in the city centre (largely by increasing its accessibility and ensuring it avoids being clogged with buses and cars). It should encourage more businesses to locate in the city centre, particularly around the three proposed station sites, just as Britomart has been a boon for development near the waterfront. By encouraging a centralisation of employment, and encouraging more people to live along the rail corridors to take advantage of the accessibility benefits the project brings, the City Rail Link works to support the council’s overall land-use strategies – unlike many other transport projects that often actively undermine those strategies.

What this means is that the question of whether we proceed with the City Rail Link, or look for alternative ways to boost the capacity of Auckland’s transport infrastructure, is somewhat dependent on what our vision is for Auckland’s future form. Clearly Phil McDermott, the author of the blog post criticising the City Rail Link, thinks that the city should decentralise and sprawl – something that the CRL would undermine. Clearly the Council (and I, for that matter) thinks that the city centre should play a more important role in the functioning of Auckland, wants development to be focused around the rail corridors and wants to limit (to an extent) the amount of sprawl allowed.

To achieve this vision of Auckland, the CRL is utterly critical.