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Thoughts on “Band-Aid” solutions

There are often two competing arguments when it comes to transport investment:

  1. Build the project now, you’re going to need it eventually
  2. Only build what you need when you need to build it

This is a really interesting debate, because both sides of the argument have a good point to make. The first argument suggests that if we’re going to really need a piece of infrastructure a while in the future there’s little point “wasting” money on an interim fix – you might as well bring forward investment on the big project. But at the same time, we need to recognise the concept of  “net present value” and noting that if we’re spending money on something we only kind of need now, we’re probably taking money away from something we really need now.

There are a few classic example of this debate around at the moment. With Puhoi-Wellsford, we have seen necessary short-term projects put off (like upgrading the notorious Hill Street intersection) because the larger project is going to bypass this anyway – at some point in the future. Another example is the City Rail Link, where the debate seems mostly around when we will need this project, rather than whether  we will need it: even Steven Joyce agreed that the CRL was the logical next rail project for Auckland and it ‘made sense’ to protect its route.

It’s quite possible that the absolute need for the CRL could be put off for a bit by spending big bucks on bus infrastructure around the central city and its main feeder routes – but if we’re going to end up needing the CRL anyway in the not too distant future, why bother with all of that? Of course some improved bus infrastructure will be needed regardless of whether the CRL is built, but how much value would we really get out of a ‘band-aid solution’ in advance of the CRL? This is a similar question to one raised by the Transport Politic blog  (brought to my attention by this post) in relation to Ottawa, Canada: which is now looking at replacing its BRT system with a light-rail system:

Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.

But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway… Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?

The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.

Ottawa has incredibly high public transport use, and on the one hand the BRT system has clearly “built the demand” for the light-rail system. But on the other hand, the BRT system clearly took a lot of time, effort and money to put in place – and it’s now needing complete replacement. Why not have just built the LRT system in the first place? This question is explored further:

With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?

In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.

I think there’s a cursory lesson for the CRL in particular here, but also wider in terms of helping us get a better answer about the appropriateness of “band-aid solutions”. There are some key matters to consider:

  • What’s the cost of the interim measure and will its benefits be realised by the time you further upgrade to the “real” long term solution?
  • What of the interim measure will still have some functional and helpful use even after the long-term solution is implemented?
  • How far into the future do the interim measures really push the need for the ‘proper’ project?

Vancouver’s B-Line bus services are an example of a good “band-aid solution”, as they fit well with our criteria noted above. They involved relatively little infrastructure spend (the benefits of the initiative could be realised extremely quickly), they helped build a market for future Skytrain lines and they managed to effectively shift a lot of people pretty quickly. This has meant the B-Line services did a pretty good interim job and made it possible for Vancouver to focus on constructing one major line at a time, rather than jumping into a heap at once.

Looking at Auckland, applying the same criteria provides us with a useful process for understanding just how far we should go with further bus investment before we really bite the bullet and build the CRL. As far as I can understand it, the way Auckland operates its bus network in the city centre doesn’t work very well even at the moment. That can be improved through changing the routings and through some infrastructure investment (particularly better bus lanes), but really this only fixes things to a certain extent, or for a certain length of time. After that it will really be necessary to either spend some serious cash on finding a way to make the city (not just the city centre, but right across Auckland) handle even more buses (ignoring, for the time being, the issue of trying to create a world-class city centre) or build the CRL. That’s when we really start to ask ourselves whether those additional interventions are desirable – even if they are feasible and could push the need for the CRL out a bit further into the future – or whether we just cut to the chase and build the darn thing.

If we are smart enough to learn from Ottawa, we will realise that spending serious cash on what will always be a ‘band-aid solution’ just doesn’t make sense.

43 comments to Thoughts on “Band-Aid” solutions

  • [quote]If we are smart enough to learn from Ottawa, we will realise that spending serious cash on what will always be a ‘band-aid solution’ just doesn’t make sense.[/quote]

    There are two issues here
    – staging of a major project (general)
    – CRL

    Remember that people value solutions and benefits that are coming today not in 30 – 50 years time. There’s a powerpoint presentation detailing the development of BRT in Ottawa from Alain Mercier, titled “Rapid Transit in Ottawa BRT Today and Tomorrow” and I think it would be a good read for many.

    Had Ottawa built rail to start with, it would have a rather less extensive system. And it is important to note that only the CORE section of the Ottawa transitway is being replaced.

    More detail in Alain’s powerpoint:

    Reasons for Ottawa’s Selection of BRT in the 1970s
    • Capable of being built in stages
    • Avoided high cost of building infrastructure downtown
    • Lower construction costs than rail
    • Lower operating costs than rail with 1970s- 90s population and ridership

    Reasons for the Recommendation of Light Rail in 2008
    • Higher capacity downtown than BRT
    • More reliable service at close frequencies
    • Promotes dense development along major urban corridors
    • Lower operating costs with 2010s-30s population and ridership

    • Bryce

      Great reading. I’m all for 80% solutions unless it is pointless like building the CRL without the planned stations.
      Page 27 was interesting: “No new roads planned” and “all growth to be on transit”

    • Stu Donovan

      That’s interesting, so does this suggest that if Ottawa had opted for more expensive and less extensive LRT system in 1970s then it may not have ever grown it’s PT market to the extent it is today? In that way BRT –> LRT, but you can’t just jump to LRT (as this article seems to suggest).

  • The CRL is only a stage of course, a much delayed and vital stage that unlocks vast value in the rest of the network. It isn’t a new system, but plugs directly, efficiently (and cleverly!) into an existing and rapidly becomming over capacity one.

    Also because of the time it will take before it is operational even if it were funded tomorrow we will still be plugging the gaps with buses and everything else. To try to spin this out beyond 2018 or so would be deeply detrimental to Auckland’s effectiveness.

    Which is part of your point, Peter, opponents to the CRL seem to be fixated on mode; never seen a bus they didn’t like nor a train they did. Very odd, especially considering that when they say bus they really mean road and therefore car.

    It is apparent that a huge amount of work by highly paid professionals (MoT and others) is going into trying to find ‘band-aids’ under every rock in order to justify the ideologically based refusal to fund this project yet it has long been clear that

    1. the city cannot take more buses on its streets and
    2. any bus tunnel ideas will be no cheaper nor anywhere near as effective than the CRL.

    • Nick R

      Yes the CRL is a stage:
      Stage 1: Run some refurbished diesels on the old rail network
      Stage 2: Double track and upgrade the rail lines, stations and signalling.
      Stage 3: Purchase new fleet of EMUs and electrify lines
      Stage 4: Build CRL to link lines together
      Stage 5: Extend network to airport, North Shore etc.

      However, that is in the context of having three very good but underutilised rail corridors already. On fresh corridors, bus is much easier to stage in chunks where and when they are needed. You can start at the outside, skip the hard bits, go round obstacles etc. Light rail is stagable, but in a more constrained fashion (you have to start somewhere meaningful, like the CBD, and then work outwards along a contiguous path).

      • Stu Donovan

        What are people’s priorities re: Airport line versus North Shore line? My gut feeling is that a new rail line is better than one that replaces a reasonably solid busway.

        • Yes, pretty clear that that’s the case in all polls. Below i comment on Harbour Crossing, which can be viewed as a separate project to changing the busway. It ain’t broke Akoranga North.

        • Richard D

          I think it also depends on where you see the value – improving the commuter network or improving access between airport and CBD for business customers and tourists.

          I suspect that the benefits from the former are relatively easy to take a view on quantification. Also the majority of the beneficiaries already live here and can make their views known.

          Quantifying the latter will be harder: in terms of attracting international business a lot of the benefit may be in the perception of accessibility. How do you quantify the businesses that would otherwise have located an office in Auckland rather than Brisbane, had it not been that the CEO didn’t like the idea of him or his clients fighting through the morning road traffic from the airport to the Auckland office? I have heard that one of the factors in Boeing locating one of its offices in Sheffield in the UK was the direct link to the international airport at Manchester.

          • I don’t agree that that’s the question at all. We need a network (or rather a set of interlinked networks) that serve all users. Commuters, travellers, workers, shoppers, day trippers. Be wary of over proscribing the market. The airport line would clearly have a service that included the high volume stations in the city but it would also be used by people who don’t go to either end of the run. Each addition to the network grows the whole and is not so dependent on some particular identified market. There are a lot of workers in the airport area for example and the new Rapid/Frequent networks will make PT a much better option for them too.

          • Nick R

            ‘Airport’ line first in my opinion, although we should really call it the Southwest line to avoid focussing on one destination at the expense of its wider role for residents and workers in the southwest, and the network effects it affords.

            I can only see two reasons for north shore rail, neither likely to happen in a hurry:
            1)The busway becomes oversubscribed and inefficient in a way that can’t be addresses with the existing bridge/Fanshawe St corridor.
            2) As a ‘sop’ in lieu of building a new motorway crossing.

            In the longer term I think it should do both, but not in the near future.

  • The CRL Business Case that recommended the rail tunnel also considered both improved street based bus services AND a bus tunnel. My analysis of the CRL Business Case indicated that an Auckland Bus Tunnel will deliver more commuters on dedicated PT corridors than the recommended CRL option and is clearly superior in both costs and benefits.

    You rightly note the Ottawa’s BRT already delivers the level PT usage into its CBD that Auckland still dreams of but without needing the massive investment in rail. Yes, it is so successfull the CBD streets are now the constraining bottleneck to increased usage. Of course an Auckland CBD Bus Tunnel directly addresses this constraint before it occurs.

    I have to highlight another interpretation of the Ottawa story is that BRT CAN deliver effective mass transit capability without rail but it needs to be undergrounded in the CBD if it is to go past Ottawa levels.

    • Nick R

      The bus tunnel plus street services is infeasible because the volume of buses would require every remaining arterial leading to the CBD to be fitted with bus lanes, some of them double wide. Our good bus corridors are already chockers with buses. To add another 300 per hour to the streets would require closing most of the inner area to general traffic, plus you’d still be stuck with street running speed constraints.

      The bus tunnel plus busways option would be much better, but in addition to the CBD bus tunnel you’d need to build two new offline busways too. That pushes the price well ahead of the rail tunnel option, simply because you need to duplicate the rail lines with new busways.

      The beauty of the rail tunnel is that it utilises the three high speed grade separated rapid transit corridors that already exist, and are sitting idle.

      Of course we need excellent bus provision and BRT on our streets, but we need that anyway. Buses on city streets can’t fulfill their existing role and take on regional rapid transit too.

  • Malcolm M

    There’s some interesting discussion in Perth about why their underground line, completed in 2007, wasn’t “future proofed” by building the stations capable of holding 9-car trains. Shortly after opening there were newspaper reports about overcrowding, which were exacerbated when the new conservative government cancelled an order for new trains. After that they placed an order in a hurry. They are now trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of a PT-favouring electorate by proposing a $1b light rail line. Will this be how conservative governments act in New Zealand in 10 years time ?

    • Agree. Everything is building up for a PT ridership avalanche in Auckland over the coming years. It is my view that even the most optimistic forecasts will be exceeded, except where undercooked provision prevents potential demand being met. I get the feeling that AT are writhing like mad to try to meet this demand as so much needs a total rebuild while desperately trying to keep NZTA in bed with them like some kind of dominating but reluctant boyfriend…..

      Perfect storm brewing:

      Push factors are there; the increasing cost of driving and parking, a 180 degree change in the culture around the social caché of PT [becoming cool].

      Pull factors; continuing improvement in service provision over this period, the discovery once tried that it actually works can be a habit changer: New Bus Network, Integration, and shiny new EMUs…. revolution.

      And because AK has such a low ridership per capita compared to similar cities it doesn’t require anything unusual to happen for this to be the case. No need to convert committed petrol heads; plenty of them in Canada and Australia too.

      The new changes underway now will provide the bedrock of this and speed up the already building avalanche, but the CRL is the huge transformer: I’ve said it before, it will completely change the whole idea of Ak: Once the CRL is open people in areas hitherto dismissive of transit [The Shore, The Far East] in AK will be complaining that it’s not fair that they don’t have a line…. just you wait.

      It will be the coming of age for this city; our 21st. So I’m picking that the Mayoral election after this one [where the right will fail in part because they will run on a don't build it, but we do support really ticket], and even to some extent the next general election will have all parties out bidding each other with schemes [there will be some parties misrepresenting their role in recent events for example].

      Tell me why if you have another version? [outside events like global economic decline could go either way for PT; provide more users but make development funds harder to get?]

      • swan

        “Once the CRL is open people in areas hitherto dismissive of transit [The Shore…”

        What is Aucklands busiest transit route again? Oh thats right – Harbour Bridge to Fanshawe St. And that isnt even fully mode separated, let alone grade separated. Aucklands PT is buses, and will remain so, despite massively unbalanced PT funding going into rail (even absent the CRL that will take everything).

        • True now, simply because that is the most perfect transit corridor, restricted, when there is rail across the harbour that will no longer be the case. You’ll note the time scale of my prediction. Buses will still carry more people in total in AK but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that people who currently are against investment in rail because it doesn’t serve their area, like George Wood for example, will change that complaint to one of wanting investment for them instead of opposing all investment. I’m sure of it, can’t prove it, we’ll have to wait an see. [I admit that it's speculative but I'm quite good at that sort thing- apologies for the immodesty].

          So I see a situation where local leaders like Wood instead of putting so much energy into attacking rail investment [he does, while being pro-bus] will be arguing for his area to be getting a line instead of somewhere else. And this will not be a left right thing, as in Malcolm’s Perth example above.

          Transport investment will always be political but I do look forward to the day when it is not so divided on party lines like it is now in NZ. And believe that will come quite soon and quite suddenly simply because it is the way the zeitgeist is heading overwhelmingly. More conservative politicians are going to u-turn on this one. Soon-ish. Although it may take a change of people more than a change of mind, although politicians can be very flexible, even ‘elastic’ when it suits.

          • Not true now, about 30% of Auckland’s passenger-km are carried by rail. Post CRL it might be pushing 50%.

          • Stu Donovan

            Yes, but I think Swan’s point is that rail has received more than it’s fair share of CAPEX investment.

            The average length of trips on the rail network are also a function of the corridors it serves rather than the mode itself. I mean if you extended the Northern Busway to Silverdale then you would get a lot of long trips as well. But it’s a really dodgy debate this one – horses for courses IMO.

          • I don’t think so, with three sweet as rapid transit corridors sitting there doing bugger all it makes sense to throw some money at them and get them zinging. I don’t really care that they are rail, just that they are rapid transit, and I do think rapid transit should get a ‘disproportionate’ amount of capex. At 50 million a km the northern busway cost much more per km than has been spent on rail, the AMETI busway will be more again. But who really cares that one route has rubber tyred buses and the others steel wheeled trains?

            Anyway, my comment was spurious. Dishing out capex (i.e. investing in future outcomes of an improved network) based on what the old network has achieved in the past is Brownleeonean recursive thinking.

  • Richard D

    Isn’t this a common problem?

    There are two factors –

    Firstly, “Sceptical people” be they politicians, finance departments, or authorising bodies, don’t put a lot of faith in transport planners’ ‘gut feel’ and want to see hard numbers backed up with evidence. So you end up with ‘project lite’ with a good business case and backed with solid numbers, and ‘project heavy’ probably using the planner’s ‘high end’ scenario which the planner himself is pretty sure will come about but he just can’t prove, and possibly with a worse business case. Those ‘sceptical people’ then have a choice – support ‘scheme lite’ and see a successful scheme built on their watch , or support ‘scheme heavy’ and possibly be remembered for authorising a ‘white elephant’ that only after they have long gone is seen as a success with good forethought.

    And then there is the discount rate (sorry to bring it up again).
    At an 8% discount rate, you do not have to delay enhancements many years to have justified not building them with the main scheme in the irst place.
    For example, (ignoring any extra benefits from the larger scheme) if you are using an economic analysis regime with 8% discount rate, and ‘scheme lite’ costs 1, and making it into ‘scheme heavy’ would make the scheme cost 1.5 now, or an extra 1 if done in the future, then only if the enhancement has to be built n year 8 or sooner, was not building it in the first place the wrong decision, If, instead, the analysis regime uses 6%, then if the enhancement is needed before year 12 not including it in the first place was the wrong decision. And if you are using a 3.5% discount rate, then if the enhancement is needed before year 20 not including it in the first place was the wrong decision.

    So the discout rate used in the analysis makes a huge difference in how justifiable it is to include future-proofing in the original scheme

    • Richard D

      Of course limited budgets and competing schemes are also a factor – if ‘scheme lite’ has a BCR that gets it to the top of the pile with a cost that can be accommodated, whereas ‘scheme heavy’ has a BCR that forces it into the mix of schemes comepeting for funding, or if finding the incremental cost wouild mean other favoured projects could not go ahead then the pressure to go for ‘scheme lite’ and worry about the consequences of no future-proofing some later time will be quite strong.

    • Richard I think it’s even worse than as outlined in your first para: we’ve had [until recently] transport professionals, especially traffic engineers, with no idea of how things could be different and politicians staring at ‘solid numbers’ who prefer to follow their own feelings, especially the ones that say ‘I’m only going to drive’ or who are beholden to special interest groups who profit from the status quo…. und so wieter….

      And yes the discount rate…. sigh, I see that NZTA are pushing for lower discount rates, but only to improve BRCs on the RoNS, to inch them over the line.

      Remember in London the are still running trains through mid Victorian tunnels…. 150 years… so what should the rate be on the tunnel part of the CRL? 0.1%

  • There are probably different types of lack of future proofing that exists out there. In Auckland for example the Northern busway was said to have been designed to be upgraded to light rail but we all know that isn’t really useful if we decide to put heavy rail over there (which is what was being discussed when that was being built) meaning much of the work will have to be redone if we go ahead with it. If instead we had spent just a little more and made the corridor definitely wide enough and the structures strong enough it could have been a case in the future of simply ripping up the asphalt and laying tracks etc. when we are ready to convert it.

  • The good thing about ‘The Cross’ 2030-ish pattern is that it both reaches a whole new huge area North Shore and enables much more capacity on existing lines, therefore freeing the CRL to service the Eastern and Western lines much much more, which i think it will be needed by then. So I am not concerned about the capacity of the tunnel but am concerned we may under-build Aotea Station, which is why I wrote this:

    http://transportblog.co.nz/2012/04/12/how-aotea-station-will-become-a-new-heart-of-auckland/

    The Cross:

    http://transportblog.co.nz/2012/04/20/the-cross-future-pattern-for-auckland-rail/

    • Stu Donovan

      Just to be clear – both Takapuna and Akoranga already have PT service, in fact they have a good bus service that has the potential to get much better. So it’s a stretch to suggest that rail to the shore would open up a “whole new huge area”.

      Spend billions building rail to the Shore if you want, just don’t justify it on the transport grounds. The only thing that rail to the shore does is remove the need to transfer to connect with whatever rail line it’s through routed to (probably the south-eastern).

      • Open up a whole new area to the rail network is what I meant. And no I’m not saying there is no transit on the Shore. But there are ‘transport’ reasons for considering taking rail across the harbour;
        to take pressure off the Bridge;
        to delay or avoid the need to build another road crossing;
        to considerably free the city streets of buses;
        to offer a quicker service;
        to provide more capacity on this route;
        to directly connect these parts of the RTN network;
        to extend the access to electric transit.
        Seven reasons right there. This thread started with me predicting, and I stand by it, an eighth; many more people, having experienced the new trains and especially the CRL will want it.

        Yes I do see qualitative differences between buses and trains. Buses are doing a great job, but i can see a time, not too distant, when it will be worth converting some high volume routes from bus to rail. And no route, as Swan observed, is higher volume and it is already constrained across the Harbour and in the City. Although if is Southern line to Akoranga [or Takapuna] it’s not so much a conversion but an addition.

        Post CRL, post South Western extension [Airport Line]

      • Peter M

        I’d love to know where this mythical Northern Busway is, south of Akoranga.

  • KLK

    Yes, can see some areas wanting their own rail line once the CRL has transformed the existing corridors.

    I am assuming a Onehunga-Airport-Manakau link (SW line) is the low-hanging fruit that will be first up. There will still be capacity in the Northern Busway, the AMETI busway will be open in the SE, and we will (hopefully) have something resembling a NW Busay by then (and its too close to the western line to have rail). The SW and linking Manakau and the city up to the airport seems a no-brainer as rail project #2 after the CRL….

    • Agree, as does two out of three Aucklanders. About airport rail that is. Next cab off the rank. Though while the northern busway proper will still have capacity the bridge and the city won’t for many more buses, so a rail crossing will stack up sooner than the busway fills. Hence the idea of retaining the busway to Akoranga which then becomes a transfer station like Panmure. Until converting the busway is required.

      Also all that southern action on the rails will need balancing and the people of the Shore will deserve to join the party… Not to mention a direct route to the airport….

    • Nick came up with a genius South Eastern Route across the Tamaki from GI through Pakuranga to Manukau. 2040s I reckon. But at that time scale things are so unknowable that I don’t mention that too much for now. But my point remains: The CRL will tip the balance in the minds of many because it will show an alternative future that is working.

      The point about discussing the Harbour Crossing option is that it has a bearing on how Aotea Station is designed and, vitally, it is out there as a way to see off any insane third road crossing. It is also the planning behind meeting the growth on Wynyard Quarter- which has a way to go yet.

  • Ross Clark

    This report has more details on the Ottawa scheme, specifically at page 15 (p35 of the .pdf):

    http://www.nbrti.org/docs/pdf/BRT%20Network%20Planning%20Study%20-%20Final%20Report.pdf

    The LRT option they are looking at also involves two miles of tunnelling, and the last reported cost I saw for this was $C2.1bn.

    • Stu Donovan

      Yes I think that’s the key point for me: Ottawa’s experience does not prove BRT fail (or success for that matter), because the same central city capacity issues would confound both mode. The shift from BRT to LRT in Ottawa seems politically driven more so than technically justified – as they could have just as easily increased BRT capacity with a tunnel (maybe the tunnel would be slightly wider but the vehicles and fit out would have be cheaper).

  • Ross Clark

    In context, the original busway scheme cost about $C660-700m in today’s money, for about nineteen miles of grade-separation.

    • So, no surprise then, tunnelling costs more than surface ROWs. Shame our idiot masters in the mid/late 20th century smugly decided that there’ll be no need for transit in the glorious car only future and determinedly denied us a few corridors across empty farm land.

      So glad men that think like that don’t rule us anymore… oh wait….

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