Guest Post: Love for Our Imperfect Streetcar City

This is another Guest Post by Kent Lundberg and originally appeared on the Isthmus Group blog. It is reproduced here with Kent’s permission.

Patrick Condon’s new book Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities has extended discussion of “streetcar cities” and their efficient form. Built between 1880 and 1945 the streetcar cities all over North America and Australia became a significant mechanism for urban living and owning one’s own home. The streetcar increased the distance people could travel in 20 minutes from 1.5 km to 6km, thereby opening up significant area of the city for lower density living with convenient access to the city centre. Since the streetcar suburb functions on a combination of walking and relatively slow transport, the design is inherently efficient and affordable. The irony of the story is that while transportation technology has greatly improved since the 1900s, it has not necessarily improved our trips around town:

“Despite great changes in transportation technology between 1800 and 2000, it appears American always spent about 20 minutes on average getting to work- whether by foot, on streetcar, or in modern automobiles.”

Understanding streetcar cities is crucial to understanding the city’s DNA Condon argues.

“[The streetcar] pattern still constitutes the very bones of our cities—even now, when most of the streetcars are gone. To ignore the fundamental architecture when retrofitting our urban regions will fail. It is like expecting pigs to fly or bad soil to grow rich crops.”

Taking a look at Auckland it is intriguing to compare the fundamental metrics associated with streetcar cities and how they compare to other streetcar cities. Here is a screenshot of the historic tramlines in Auckland. For reference the Dominion Road line is about 5 kms long. Assuming a modest transport speed of 15 km per hour, the longest CBD commute would be about 20 minutes- comparable or perhaps quicker than today’s trip by car.
The pedestrian nature of the streetcar city is also revealed in examining the distances required to reach the tramline. The accepted standard of 400m for people’s willingness to walk to transit, is the typical yardstick of streetcar subdivisions. This can be seen across newer western cities from Vancouver and Seattle to Brisbane and Melbourne. Once you consider this pattern suddenly central Auckland starts making sense.

Why are some roads north to south, while others run east to west? Why do some blocks seem too long in one direction? Much of this can be explained by the streetcar genesis of the suburbs.

Beyond the neigbourhood level, let’s take a look at the 400m catchment city-wide. Here is an image that shows a 400m distance from former tram lines. The metric works almost perfectly with few holes and even less overlap (redundancy).

Understanding our streetcar city is critical to informing our land use and transportation decisions.

Vancouver CBD traffic: back to 1960s levels

With the final version of the City Centre Master Plan now approved, a key element of achieving the vision for the city centre that the Council wants will be achieving what seems – at first glance – to be an impossibility. How do you decrease road traffic, to free up space for pedestrians, while dramatically increasing the number of people living, working and visiting the city centre? Many more people visiting the city centre surely means, even with improved public transport, walking and cycling facilities, that more car trips are likely – right?

Well Vancouver’s experience over the past 45 years suggests perhaps not. As noted recently in the excellent Price Tags blog. Looking at a graph showing inbound and outbound vehicle volumes to Vancouver’s city centre for 1960, 1976 and today, the blog post reports a City transportation engineer noting the following:

When I plot our current volumes on this, it is slightly higher than 1960 and lower than 1976. So I approximated a date of 1965 that would be similar volumes for vehicles entering the downtown.

And here’s the graph. The background chart (black lines) is from the 1976 report on Transportation. The volumes added  in green and brown lines are from the 2010 screenline count of the downtown, October 2010.

The volume of vehicles heading into Auckland’s city centre has been steady, or declining, for a number of years now. This is largely due to the rapid uptake in public transport – which has enabled total travel numbers to the city centre to grow, but without the number of vehicles accessing the city centre growing. The bottom line of the table below shows the change in PT trips to the city centre  since the early 1990s over the past 25 years, with pretty steady growth over the past decade (table from here): 

Vancouver shows us that not only can better public transport keep traffic to (and inevitably around and through) the city centre from growing, even when employment and dwelling numbers increase dramatically, but actually that it’s also realistic to think we can decrease the number of vehicles without impacting on the viability of the city centre.

From reading the details of the final version of the City Centre Master Plan, and how it compares to the Draft Plan, I sense there’s a bit of fear in reducing transport capacity in the CBD. The experience of Vancouver over the past few decades suggests we needn’t fear this outcome – as it’s entirely feasible to reduce vehicle numbers over a sustained period of time. That should be Auckland’s goal.

Auditor General comments on CRL

In an interesting move the auditor general specifically mentioned the City Rail Link in comments on the Auckland Council Long Term Plan, the NZ Herald reports:

 The Auditor-General is cautioning Aucklanders about the $2.86 billion inner-city rail loop, saying it will need to be reviewed if the Government does not support it.

In a rare move, the Auditor-General has included a statement in Mayor Len Brown’s first 10-year budget about the risk associated with the rail project.

“The main risks to the city rail loop project are that central Government will not agree to provide direct funding to enable the council to access alternative funding sources,” the statement says.

Speaking on behalf of Auditor-General Lyn Provost, audit director Francis Caetano told the council that if the council could not get Government support it would have to review the project as part of the next long-term budget in 2015.

Mr Brown has assumed the Government will fund half the $2.86 billion project in the 10-year budget, which yesterday received a “fit for purpose” tick by the Auditor-General and final sign-off by the council.

Personally I’m not too concerned about this as I do think the government will come on board, either as a result of a change in government or that the current crowd will support it to help gain votes to win an election. The auditor general’s comments just highlight that it’s unrealistic to expect the project’s construction to proceed without government support – once again something that we knew already. What’s more the project will probably end up being the most thoroughly researched transport project in NZ. This is because of the current opposition to it from central government, Auckland Transport is having to go back and make sure that it’s arguments are rock solid.

When the government rejected the original business case, they had a list of specific questions that the council/AT needed to address. These are currently being answered and I suspect that a will see the answers come out as part of the designation process.

So overall I’m not worried about this and perhaps the auditor general could also take a look at some of the claims about the RoNS projects.


AT seeks feedback on proposed parking changes

An earlier ATB post discussed Auckland Transport’s proposed changes to central city parking arrangements.

A central plank in the proposed changes is the removal of time-restrictions.  In their place, AT propose to use prices to manage demand. This simply means that prices will go up when demand is high, and vice versa when demand is low; the result will be that parking prices vary across the City Centre in response to demand/supply.

Here’s how Auckland Transport describe the proposed changes:

All time restrictions will be removed, but a new system for parking prices will mean that the longer you stay, the more you have to pay. Paid parking will also be extended to 10pm (from 6pm) in busy entertainment areas to improve parking availability for customers. New pricing will be introduced, with two price zones and hourly parking prices varying depending on demand. This means that the price for parking will be higher in the more central, busier areas and lower in areas where there is less demand for parking.   

You can read more about the proposed changes here. And if you’re keen to provide AT with your feedback then you can complete this online form. Feedback closes this Sunday, so get in quick!

Guest Post: Auckland Cityfix – Give Way Stripes

This is a Guest Post by Kent Lundberg and originally appeared on the Isthmus Group blog. It is reproduced here with Kent’s permission.

In order to improve conditions for all road users a small design tweak needs to be implemented at most intersections. This simple fix would go a long way to make the city more pleasant and safe for those walking around.

As designed and implemented the current stop line or give way stripe is placed too far into the intersection. The result is that vehicle drivers travel through the “pedestrian” zone before even considering whether a pedestrian may be present. So in effect every intersection becomes a serious peril for people walking and cycling. It also has the tendency to both prioritise and empower vehicular movement which degrades overall walkability/livability.

Below are several examples with red added to highlight this conflict area.

Wynard Quarter: red depicts pedestrian conflict area

Karangahape Rd: red depicts pedestrian conflict area

Pitt Street stop sign: red depicts pedestrian conflict area

Of course there are some bigger issues with overall pedestrian priority and status in New Zealand as discussed in this Herald article (and in many cases give way scenarios should be changed to full stops). But if Auckland is going spend millions on streetscape upgrades, shouldn’t we be able to get these fundamental design elements correct? And as far as low hanging fruit go wouldn’t reworking these stripes be an effective strategy to make places like the CBD more pedestrian-friendly?

It’s interesting what the opposite side of that Wynard Street above looks like. Was this a mistake? Perhaps we should look at this precedent as an evolutionary design; an unexpected adaptation that may help to change the rest of the city for the better.

Wynard Quarter: clear demarcation of pedestrian area.

And of course we can’t help but suggest that Auckland needs a localised version of Manual for Streets. Below is a simplified graphic that might be appropriate for it.

Integrated Ticketing in Parliament

The HOP Card fiasco has continued in the last couple of days, with articles in the NZ Herald, on the news, on the radio and now in parliament – with Phil Twyford asking some questions yesterday around whether Auckland Transport were pressured by the government to allow Snapper to launch its product as a rebranded HOP card back in the first half of 2011. Here’s the video:

The transcript can be read here.

At first glance there’s nothing particularly interesting about the answers – except perhaps to the very last question:

Phil Twyford: Did his predecessor intervene on behalf of Infratil to pressure the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, and, subsequently, Auckland Transport, and the Land Transport New Zealand boards to allow the Snapper card to be rolled out in advance of the integrated ticketing system?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: No, that is not my understanding. The member may want to take that up with Auckland Transport.

I may be reading a bit too much into this, but it seems a bit odd that Brownlee has effectively asked Phil Twyford to take the issue up with Auckland Transport. Does that mean there might have been? Does that mean Brownlee’s just sick of answering questions about something which is largely a local issue (although the fairly significant NZTA funding contribution to integrated ticketing should make it a matter of concern for the government). I guess time will tell.

Time will also tell in regards to whether Snapper can meet the November 30 deadline. They say they can, so perhaps all we can do is take their word with some whopping great penalties if they don’t meet the deadline. It might also be wise for Auckland Transport to start looking for a Plan B if Brownlee holds true to his promise and NZ Bus are “off the run” come November 30 if Snapper can’t deliver. After all around half of all PT trips in Auckland are taken on NZ Bus services.

Auckland supports the CRL and the CRL supports Growth

In news sure to annoy the government, a recent survey shows that almost 2/3rds of Aucklanders back the City Rail Link.

According to Research New Zealand, 63 per cent of Aucklanders surveyed are in favour of the link, while 29 per cent were against it and eight percent didn’t care.

63% is a pretty high level of support for a project with a cost like the CRL however it would be interesting to see how the questions were asked. Here’s what Len Brown has had to say about it.

“The vast majority of Aucklanders understand just how critical this piece of infrastructure is to the future of our city because it will reduce journey times across the entire rail network,” Brown said.

“Common misconceptions that the benefits won’t be felt beyond the central city are finally being dispelled and we can now move to an educated debate on how we pay for this and a number of other major infrastructure projects necessary to get our city moving.”

I’m not so convinced that the wider public are really that aware of just how much the CRL will benefit the rest of the region and that was made pretty clear in feedback to the RLTP where even some local boards, who would have seen more information than most of the general public, didn’t understand it’s benefits. That is part of the reason why we have created a permanent page for the project on the blog  and are working to come up up with new ways of explaining the project that AT could potentially use.

In other news, today the Auckland Council will debate and should adopt the final version of the city centre master plan. This plan is pretty important and sets out how the CBD will develop and with the exception of a few wording changes is pretty much the same as what was initially put out and one of the key projects is of course the CRL. We have had quite a bit of coverage on topics like what service patterns the trains should run, how many stations we should have etc. but one thing we haven’t really had is just how much development the CRL allows for. Now this information was actually in the draft city centre master plan in a very graphical format but it is worth just stripping out the numbers to highlight them. This is the indicative growth potential for each of the stations:

To put that into perspective, the growth potential is equivalent to about 50% of all of the land in the CBD, which is traditionally considered to be the land currently boarded by the motorways and the harbour. That percentage would increase if you took out all of the land taken up for streets and parks. The commercial space for an extra 30,000 workers represents an increase of employment of over 33% while an additional 22,000 people living in the area would be almost double what is there now.

And here are some images the council put together to represent this.


K Rd




Big changes in store for KiwiRail

Some interesting announcements by KiwiRail today – confirming that their freight business will essentially be split away from the network business, which is in charge of maintaining, operating and developing the rail network (the tracks and associated infrastructure). Here’s KiwiRail’s media release:

At KiwiRail’s Annual Public Meeting in November 2011, we outlined our intention to make a change to the Balance Sheet that would reflect a standard commercial valuation approach.

We are pleased to confirm our shareholder (the Crown) has supported this change and are now putting in place the needed technical and legal process for it to proceed.

“Consistent with our indicative outline last year, the commercial arm of KiwiRail will carry assets valued at approximately $1.1 to $1.3 billion, reflecting the revenue they generate, rather than the current value of approximately $7.8 billion,” said KiwiRail Chairman John Spencer.

“This is a much more realistic valuation of the company’s assets which will greatly assist KiwiRail in meeting its commercial objectives and provide more discipline in driving improved performance. We are amending our accounting methods to align to those objectives.”

To enable this change a new State Owned Enterprise (SOE) will be created which will own and operate the rail and Interislander businesses under the existing KiwiRail brand. Crown land held for rail purposes will be retained by New Zealand Railways Corporation (NZRC) and made available for use by KiwiRail.

According to Chief Executive, Jim Quinn, staff and customers won’t experience any change to their current situations.

“It will be business as usual for our relationships with customers and stakeholders, and our staff will simply be transferred with all their current entitlements to the new SOE,” said KiwiRail Chief Executive, Jim Quinn.

Further background

The revaluation of the assets to be vested in the new KiwiRail SOE is expected to result in a write-down in the net value of those assets, estimated to be approximately $6.7 billion. NZRC has revaluation reserves of approximately $5 billion, which would be written off first as a result of a write-down in the assets’ value. Any write down in excess of $5 billion would affect NZRC’s bottom line.

As the KiwiRail Board now consider the assets to be held primarily to generate profits, and are managing them on that basis, the write-down of assets will occur in the accounts for the year ended 30 June 2012. The final amount of the write-down will be determined after independent valuations are completed, approved by the Board and disclosed in the year end accounts.

The company will work with the Government to use a statutory process under existing legislation to vest the new KiwiRail SOE with all the rail and ferry operating assets and liabilities of NZRC (other than Crown land).

The composition of the Boards of the new KiwiRail SOE and NZRC has not yet been determined but they are expected to include a majority of common directors.

Splitting up the freight side of KiwiRail’s business from the network makes sense because they’re two very different things. One part should be looking to operate as a profitable business shifting bulk freight around New Zealand while the other needs to look after a core piece of the country’s infrastructure. In the future, I don’t necessarily see why other rail freight companies couldn’t – if there’s a market – start running their own trains on the network ensuring the best utilisation of the rail network.

Not having to worry about generating sufficient freight business to maintain a whole massive piece of the country’s infrastructure should enable KiwiRail to operate better. Similarly, having NZRC (I wonder if it will return to being known as Ontrack) focus on its role is sensible and should mean that the rail network is properly considered a core part of the country’s transport infrastructure.

The next logical step is to have NZRC incorporated into NZTA – giving the rail network a similar status to the state highway network as core infrastructure.

Updated: Closer inspection of the media release suggests that the tracks will remain in the ownership of KiwiRail while the land underneath goes with NZRC. This suggests that the whole exercise is just a stupid accounting trick rather than a strategic shift to make rail work in a more sensible way – which is disappointing.

Fundraising Film Night

We are all really pleased to announce a fundraising film night for the Auckland Transport Blog in August. With kind sponsorship from Isthmus Group, MRCagney, Auckland Transport, Odyssey Wines, CityHop and Tim Gummer Design we have a really fantastic evening with a really fantastic film in store. We thought it was a good time to offer the opportunity for a little actual mingling with the growing number of readers and commenters on the blog. For those who wish to, of course. Here’s the poster:The Urbanized documentary looks really fascinating too – you can see a trailer for it here and book your tickets here.

Discussion about transport can last for ages, so we’re looking at finding a place to eat/drink/chat transport in Balmoral before the movie. Suggestions will be most welcome.

As a bit of fine print, money made from the event including the sponsorship will be donated to the Campaign for Better Transport as a ring-fenced donation to be used to support the hosting of this blog. We are shifting to a New Zealand based server in the next week or two (hopefully it works this time) and that means the cost of hosting skyrockets – but page loading should be much much faster. The booking is done through the volunteer efforts of Kent Lundberg at Isthmus.

How would you spend an extra $77k

Cars are great for a huge number of things but at the same time they also cost a lot of money, not just to buy but also to keep running. When talking about running costs most people immediately think about fuel prices but that is only one part of the equation as when other things are added e.g. registration, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, as well as possibly finance costs then things quickly add up to the thousands. These running costs tend up be up around the amount of $7k-$8k per car per year. Due to the way that the city and the country in general has developed, it means that for most people not having a car is impractical and of course opponents to projects like the CRL will happily remind us of that. Now I actually agree with some of that line of thought, for example my parents live in a semi rural part of Auckland and without a car there is no practical way for me to visit them, but I think where things fall down is the number of cars that households need.

One of the biggest benefits of having a strong public transport system in a city like Auckland is that it means households can get away with only having one car and by doing so they have the ability to save substantial amounts of money which possibly it might enable them to buy a better house. I am going to look at two situations where having only one car could make a difference in someone’s life.

Situation 1

A young couple are looking to buy a house, both work in different parts of the city and they each drive to work every day in their own cars. Lets say they both earn a salary of $50k so plugging there details into a loan affordability calculator we get this: (note I have used the ANZ calculator simply because it has the number of vehicles built in and I don’t feel like doing a full made up budget)

Being able to buy a house up to $770k is pretty good although most likely people will want to have a lower loan to value ratio than 95%. But what happens if our PT system was was good enough that they could get to work and other activities using that instead of having to drive.

By simply reducing the number of vehicles that the couple have to 1 they can now afford a house worth up to $77k more than they could before which in this particular case represents a 10% increase in affordability. The interesting thing is changing numbers in the calculator around shows that regardless of your income, each extra car you have impacts affordability by the same amount of $77k. The reason for this is simple and relates back to the fact that cars cost a lot of money to run and by not owning a car you have more money that you could use to pay a loan.

Scenario 2

In this case we have a young family that are struggling to get by, they are renting a house and again both adults work in different parts of the city and both drive to get to work. Due to the need to drive they spend a lot of their income on keeping the cars on the road which are primarily for them to get to and from work. This puts a lot of pressure on their finances which means that often their kids miss out on things, an all too familiar story in some parts of the city. Now once again lets think what difference could be made as a result of having a decent PT system, the improved service allows both parents to use PT to get to work and even though they have to pay for their bus/train it still works out substantially cheaper than driving. This allows them to get rid of one of their cars keeping the other one for times when the whole family need to be shuttled around. As a direct result of this the family are able to save thousands per year which is money that they can use to improve the quality of life for them and their children.


It is pretty unlikely that we will see the city develop to the point where a large number of households don’t need a vehicle at all any time soon but one of the biggest benefits of an improved PT system is that we should be able to reduce the number of cars that we need. This will reduce the amount of money we each spend on transport and that is money that we can put to other uses whether it be from buying a better house to helping to feed the family. To me this is one of key reasons we need to really develop a quality PT system and it was exactly the reason why my wife and I decided to pick a house within walking distance of a rail station. As a result we have only needed one car which has been a huge saving and I can only think of one or two times over the last 4 years where having a second car would have been useful.