Those promoting a transport and urban outcome based around smart growth, a compact city, a more balanced transport policy and more investment in public transport, walking and cycling – instead of on road capacity – have long based their arguments on the need for change. This had some logic to it as the general trend the world was heading seemed to be towards more urban sprawl and more car dependency – which has some serious negative consequences for the economy, society and the environment. The paradigm could be summarised as follows:
The market is delivering more sprawl and more car dependency, which is collectively a bad thing, so we must intervene in the market for the common good
Pretty much everything is couched on this world-view: from both sides of the argument actually. On the side of smart growth and a balanced transport policy we still hear much about the need to “change behaviour”, the need to “curb urban sprawl”, the need to “get people out of their cars” and so on. On the ‘other side’ of the argument, we hear a lot of criticism about planners engaging in “social engineering”, about public transport advocates wanting to “force people” out of their cars. Essentially both sides of the debate are making the same assumption: that the market (being the aggregated wants and needs of the population) wants to deliver car-based urban sprawl. They only differ in whether this outcome should be allowed or discouraged.
One of the key things that various posts on this site over the past month or two have tried to emphasise is that this paradigm has changed. Increasingly, the evidence is pointing towards the market making a pretty radical departure from its general trends of most of the last century, with a new and thoroughly different paradigm emerging – the market actually wants less sprawl and less car dependency. People actually want to catch public transport because it makes sense for them. People want to live in central parts of the city, not on the urban periphery. People are smart enough to realise that what Auckland needs is not a whole pile more roads, but a world-class public transport system to complement our existing roading network. In short, those promoting this new paradigm no longer need to couch their arguments in terms of the need for change or the need for intervention, increasingly they can simply focus on allowing and enabling this shift to happen.
There are two key pieces of evidence in relation to this paradigm shift: traffic volumes compared to public transport patronage growth being the first and the location of housing demand (highlighted most clearly through house prices) being the other. Let’s start with traffic volumes compared to PT patronage.
Stu’s two posts a few weeks back really highlighted that the current ‘flat-lining’ of traffic growth is not only a pretty dramatic shift from constant increases over much of the last century, but also that this flat-lining has been going on now for quite a long time: seven whole years. Furthermore, a ‘de-coupling’ of traffic growth and economic growth has been going on for around 14 years now, meaning that for the first time we’re able to grow the economy without a similar level of growth in traffic volumes. And in more recent years we’ve been growing the population quite significantly but once again without a commensurate increase in traffic volumes:
The idea that traffic volumes won’t continue to increase, or at least that they might increase at a slower rate than population growth (as each person travels less) is a complete anathema to the “old paradigm”. Under that old paradigm volumes always increase by around 3-4% a year and always would. With most roading projects justified by forecasts of increasing traffic in the future (and the horrors if a road is not widened or added to cope with that increase), the huge dip in per capita travel over the past five years is utterly devastating to the business case for pretty much every new roading project. If our system for assessing such projects actually recognised this fundamental shift, which it doesn’t.
In contrast, public transport patronage in Auckland most particularly has grown in leaps and bounds over this same period – up by around a third since 2006: Comparing the trends of traffic growth and PT patronage growth, the way to structure arguments for a shift in funding becomes clear: it’s not about what modes we should spend the money on for broader reasons (although those arguments are still valid), but a much simpler “people are using PT a lot more, people are driving less, we need to reflect that in our funding balance”. By the way, the current government funding plan spends about $27 on state highways for every dollar spent on PT infrastructure – about as ignorant of these trends as practically possible.
The second paradigm shift relates to that vexed issue of “how should Auckland grow?” The common assumption is that “the market” wants to grow through urban expansion or sprawl, and that planning intervention is required to encourage/force people to live more intensively and ‘save’ the rural hinterland. Yet again, both sides of the debate accept the paradigm that everyone wants to live on the urban edge, in a “quarter acre paradise”. However, a series of posts – this time mainly by Patrick – have highlighted that the reality these days is actually quite different.
Patrick has noted a series of articles in the NZ Herald and other overseas publications over the past few months which consistently say the same thing: house prices in the inner suburbs are soaring while (especially in the USA) they are still falling on the urban periphery. There are a wide variety of reasons given for this phenomenon, things like higher fuel prices, changing demographics, smaller household sizes, cultural shifts and so forth – all of which are interestingly similar to many of the causes that might be behind the stagnation in traffic volumes over the past seven years.
So the paradigm of “allowing sprawl or forcing/encouraging intensification” really may not be valid anymore, just like the “providing for vehicle growth or encouraging/forcing people onto public transport” is now outdated. People are changing their habits already. The trick now is to ensure that policy decisions, especially when it comes to decisions over where transport money is spent, reflect this new reality. We plan for the future, both in land-use decisions (whether to expand urban boundaries or make intensification easier) and in transport decisions (whether to spend money on holiday highways or city rail links) – let’s ensure that our decisions reflect the new reality of what people actually are doing and what people want. Not an outdated, old paradigm, version of that.
We don’t have to force change anymore, let’s allow it to happen.