It is interesting that Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee invoked the Auckland Harbour Bridge in a recent interview about the Roads of National Significance. This is the first time that I have seen any real example to back up the vast claims the government and the NZTA routinely make about this programme.
Breakthrough transport infrastructure projects can produce extraordinary benefits to an economy and society and the AHB is a good example of such a project. The way that this kind of investment works is by making a radical change to a place; a transformation. Unlocking access to a resource or amenity hitherto unavailable and for which there is pent up demand. We can see exactly how transformational the old Coathanger was because its success even surprised the authorities who oversaw its conception. From Wikipedia:
The bridge was originally built with four lanes for traffic. Owing to the rapid expansion of suburbs on the North Shore and increasing traffic levels it was soon necessary to increase the capacity of the bridge – by 1965, the annual use was about 10 million vehicles, three times the original forecast.
This is a common characteristic of truly breakthrough projects. They are hard to sell because of the scale of change they will affect, they are almost unimaginable until completed. The difficulty for many, especially those responsible for running things as they are, is to imagine how much things could really be that different. Status Quo bias. The second characteristic is that the wrong lessons are often taken from such experiences, but we’ll come to that later.
More on the bridge from Wiki-
In the 1950s, when the bridge was built, North Shore was still a very rural area of barely 50,000 people, with relatively few jobs, and its growth rate was half that of Auckland south of the Waitemata. Opening up the area via a new main road connection was to unlock the potential for further expansion of Auckland.
So we can see how the bridge was transformational, there really was only a very poor connection across the harbour so a whole lot of really appealing land on the lovely and beachy Eastern Bays was suddenly made so much more accessible. It was like a whole new valuable area was fished Maui-like out of the sea really close to the city. Although of course this isn’t what happened but rather an existing underdeveloped place was effectively moved closer to the centre of economic activity- the city. This is still true even though the bridge itself is a fairly poor thing by many important measures, certainly aesthetically, but also because it is so mono-modal:
When the bridge was built, rail lines and walking and cycling paths were dropped for cost reasons. -Wiki
Especially when compared to its model, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is no ornament and it is still actually a barrier to anyone not in a vehicle. But even so, no matter how workman like and clumsily, it got the job done. Looking back it is easy to see that this was because of a near perfect confluence of timing, location, and mode.
Auckland, with the rest of the post-war world in the fifties and sixties was riding a baby boom, a driving boom, and a fashion for outward spread. The Bridge opened to satisfy a huge pent-up demand for residential land relatively close to town. A speculators’ and builders’ wonderland immediately followed.
The bridge worked because it unlocked a blockage to the expansion of an outwardly growing young city. Is this what the RoNS are designed to achieve; capitalise on demand for the further sprawl of Auckland? And Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch?
If so then this is the explanation for the sudden appearance of Warkworth as a future growth node on the Auckland plan. But we have to ask if the idea of expanding Warkworth from a charming riverine village of 3,500 souls to another Albany with an additional 50-100,00 people in low density auto-dependent suburbia is either desirable, likely, or even possible?
Desirable? No. Not for Warkworth, which would immediately cease to have what is valuable about it now; in the pursuit of country living suburbia has a habit of killing the thing it loves. Not for Auckland; to spread that far, to further disperse habitation and therefore work and play based on the private vehicle would be to add cost barriers and reduce productivity; this is anti-agglomeration. And not, of course, for the environment of New Zealand and the planet; more auto-dependant sprawl is not something to be subsidised and promoted for everyones’ sake.
Likely? I doubt it. And here we get to the nub of what is different about these projects. The bridge suddenly brought a development resource right onto the city’s doorstep. Will speeding country driving by 5 or so minutes over the distance of Auckland to Warkworth profoundly alter the economics of ex-urban development? Is there huge pent-up demand and capital ready to flood into new houses there? There are currently some 60 000 available residential building sites on the fringes of Auckland so while we may have a dwelling crisis it is hard to see how even more distant and yet to be serviced sites will face strong demand. And is the private car the new mode of growing demand? We are seeing all around the western world that the rising costs of vehicle use and indeed a new fashion in more urban living making the growth pattern of the post war boom no longer work as surely as it did, and it is no different here with all driving stats flat at best for the last seven years or so.
Is it possible? I don’t know but commenters on this site have suggested that the land around Warkworth is neither suitable nor appropriate for this scale of development. The are no services there to support such a population, and is this really the best economic model for the country anyway? Do we not already have too much capital tided up in houses and their supporting infrastructure? Much better to build more efficiently nearer to existing services as well as social and employment opportunities.
So for this particular RoNS to create a step change like the Harbour Bridge did through residential development I think falls somewhere between highly unlikely and completely impossible. It fails to meet even one of the criteria that the earlier project did. It is the wrong time [no pent up demand], the wrong place [too far from centre of activity], and the wrong mode [driving is on the wane, not growing, and facing increasing costs].
So perhaps the boom-burb model of economic development is not what the supporters of the RoNS believe make them so valuable and the example of the Harbour Bridge is really not what the Minister meant. Here is the other way that the RoNS are supposed to be so valuable:
Minister of Transport on the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance:
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: It may surprise the member to note that people cannot get their goods out of Northland unless there are roads outside of Northland. It sort of makes sense that if you want to get from Northland down to some other part of New Zealand, you need a road to get there. Eighty percent of all freight in this country is carried on the road. That is why we are putting the money into the road transport programme and the roads of national significance. Tell us, which of the roads in the programme would Labour stop?
-Parliamentary Question Time
So true, imagine if there were no roads, or rail line, or shipping routes, or flights to and from Northland, or at least if these were so suboptimal as to prevent any goods getting to market, milk spoiling, logs rotting, tourists unable to get to the Bay of Islands, then yes, making that connection for the first time would indeed be a breakthrough, and have a truly transformational outcome. Is this an accurate picture of the situation? Well there is one day of the year when traffic does get stuck heading north out of Auckland, December 27th, but even that dissipates well before it reaches Northland and only holds a cargo of impatient holiday makers.
As has been observed here time and again Warkworth could indeed do with a bypass, sections of State highway 1 should be made safer, the rail line is long overdue some work and especially the planned for connection to the natural deep port at Marsden Point should be built, but there are no cases of freight or people being unable to make it through to Auckland or offshore because of the lack of a four lane highway in the Auckland countryside.
Or is there even a cost barrier to these goods reaching Auckland? Will the time saving of 5 or 10 minutes that this project is planned to save change the value of Northland produce so profoundly? Anyway are these improvements certain to be delivered in practice because all such deliveries will still be subject any delays in the Auckland City part of their journey where being stuck for 5 or 10 minutes will only become more likely as a very consequence of the additional driving that this roads-only investment programme is bound to produce? Any economies from all this road spending are certain to be negated by the delays caused by the traffic induced by them and the lost opportunity to invest in other modes. Even a declining mode will have to be used if all other options are run down.
It is very difficult to see how any radical change in performance of Auckland or Northland’s economy can accrue from these investments. Taking the example of the Puhoi to Wellsford RoNS it is much more convincing that any improvements will be incremental at best and therefore greatly at risk from other changes such as rises in fuel price and are in any case nowhere near big enough to create a return on the vast expense.
It seems clear from the minister’s mention of the Harbour Bridge that the whole theoretical underpinning of this programme rests on a series of assumptions that are misplaced and dated. The RoNS look like a classic case of the general fighting the previous battle, assuming all conditions from that last campaign still hold, but being doomed to fail because he doesn’t see how the world has moved on. In this case it is necessary to believe that road is always the best mode, that sprawl will continue for ever, and that investing aggressively in both will always provide economic growth. The facts on the ground say otherwise.
And there is another way that the Minister is mistaken about this precedent; the success of the AHB was in fact all about the city. That land had been there all along, what the bridge did was make it instantly accessible to the city. The city is the true transformation enabler. This government and its supporters remain wilfully in denial about the economic force that are cities in general and New Zealand’s only city of scale in particular. Their insistence that wealth only comes from heavy lifting, preferably by a truck, and never from innovation and social interaction makes them dangerously reckless with our taxes.
And it makes them completely blind to another project that does fit all the criteria for being transformational, that offers improvements that are a step change and are not merely incremental. That has the power to change the shape and proximity of place. That is consistent with the growing direction of the zeitgeist, and helps answers the really big technological, economic, and environmental issues of our time: The CRL.
By working so hard to conform to the conditions of the last century they are blind to the realities of the current one.