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Time running out to submit on the RPTP

A timely reminder from Auckland Transport that submissions on the draft Regional Public Transport Plan close on November 5th: next Monday.

Time is running out to have your say on the future of public transport services in Auckland.

Transforming Auckland’s current complex mix of public transport services into a mature city-wide network of connected, reliable and frequent services is a key proposal of the Auckland Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP). Public consultation on the plan closes at 4pm on Monday 5 November 2012.

The plan outlines the public transport services and policies proposed for the region over the next 10 years. It is viewed by Auckland Transport as a change maker in respect of the way public transport will be delivered for customers.

The draft Plan proposes a simpler, more integrated network. This will enable improved access to more destinations through better connections, reduced waiting times and deliver a network of frequent services at least every 15 minutes. It will change the way public transport is delivered in Auckland.

The Plan is built around a frequent service network, which includes rail, and the Northern Busway, supplemented with high-frequency bus routes connecting major centres; it will deliver at least a 15-minute service, from 7am-7pm, with reduced frequencies outside those hours. The network will be complemented by connecting routes which operate at half-hourly frequencies. Supporting this are local services, peak-only services, and targeted services catering for specific local needs.

A copy of the draft Plan, summary document and feedback form can be found at www.aucklandtransport.govt.nz/rptp

Key initiatives for the plan include the exciting new public transport network and a zone based integrated fares system. Both initiatives are really great to see and will contribute to the necessary and long overdue overhaul of our PT system. It’s important for submissions to support such bold initiatives and inevitably there will be those who oppose change – and we can be sure they will jump up and down to make their voices heard.

What’s Best for Northland?

Pretty much every single time we hear the government talk about the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance they say that its crucial to Northland’s economy, even standing up and saying so in parliament  here are a few quotes from different exchanges:

Dated 15 August 2012

Phil Twyford: Does it make economic sense to borrow to fund the Pūhoi to Wellsford “Holiday Highway”, which has a benefit-cost ratio that barely breaks even and costs $1.7 billion, when a $400 million upgrade would fix the congestion and safety problems?
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: Although I disagree with many of the assertions made in that question, I would say that I think that providing a stronger link to Northland, where there is so much poverty yet so much economic potential, is a good idea.

Dated 30 August 2012

Phil Twyford: Has any assessment been done comparing the impact on Northland’s economy of spending $1.7 billion on a roading project that is not even in Northland with other options such as upgrading the North Auckland rail line, more quickly and cheaply improving safety on State Highway 1, actually upgrading roads in Northland, or a regional economic development package?
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?
Phil Twyford: Will he confirm that the proposed spend of $33 million on the Pūhoi to Warkworth design and property purchase while downgrading Warkworth to Wellsford to being a possible road of national significance confirms that the project has nothing to do with improving Northland’s economy, and everything to do with making it faster to get to the Prime Minister’s holiday home in Ōmaha?
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: Well, firstly, I reject that last statement; I think it is outrageous that the member has been so stupid as to make it. Let me tell you this: the programme has always had the Pūhoi to Wellsford road being designed, the designations put on it, the properties acquired, etc., in the current land transport period. It will be built in the 2015-18 period, unless we get a Labour Government, which will can it.

Yesterday Campbell live revealed that the benefit cost ratio for the Mackays to Peka Peka part of the Kapiti Expressway to be only 0.2, well it seems that isn’t the only project to see its BCR fall. First this document which is undated but the NZTA tells me was sent to the ministers office on 16 August 2012.

But how much is it meant to cost again, this from a document that was sent to the minister dated 03 August 2012 which is still using figures from 2009.

But putting aside the benefits and costs, is the Puhoi to Wellsford route the best way to improve the Northland economy? Well if improving the Northland economy is the goal then even the NZTA don’t seem to believe that the road is the best way to achieve that. Also from the document dated 3 August they state that the best thing we could do is to improve access to Marsden Point and getting goods to other destinations clearly comes in second.

Wow, who would of thought that the best way to get transport to improve the economy of Northland is to actually spend money on infrastructure in Northland. Of course these aren’t the first issues we have raised, the 2008 study showed there was little benefit in upgrading the route while we also showed that based on Gerry’s answers to written questions you would have to travel at up to 250kph to achieve some of the time savings that the benefits above are based on.

As Mr Anderson said yesterday, its really time for an independent inquiry into the NZTA and transport priorities, there is just far to many issues cropping up.

Kapiti Expressway’s BCR is actually 0.2!

A great scoop by Campbell Live tonight showing that the cost-benefit ratio of the Mackays to Peka Peka part of the Kapiti Expressway – a key section of the Wellington Northern Corridor RoNS project – has been recalculated recently as being 0.2. That is, for around $630 million worth of spending we’re only going to get roughly $120 million of benefit. Click the picture below, or here, to watch the video: 

To be honest I’m not surprised that more detailed analysis has shown that this project makes no economic sense. In some respects it is a solution in search of a problem – much like Puhoi-Wellsford. The Wellington region simply isn’t growing in population very much, plus it has a pretty effective existing rail system. There simply isn’t the need for a vastly oversized piece of infrastructure like what is proposed.

However, I think the real story becomes clear when we start putting the pieces of this puzzle together. Recently we’ve found out that NZTA are happy to fudge the numbers on their $5 billion harbour crossing project and that they generally vastly over-estimate the benefits of their motorway projects. One wonders whether they just typically bury reports – like the one obtained by Campbell Live – which don’t give them the answer they’re after and shop around for something more palatable. In any case I think it’s time for some sort of independent investigation into NZTA as clearly they’re doing a rubbish job at assessing the merits of transport projects and there are, literally, billions of dollars at stake to get this right.

Short and awkward with a big mouth

This is something that has always bugged me as I walk up and down Queen St. Take a look at the intersection of Airdale St. Airdale is a little left over remnant of a road that got sliced off by Mayoral Drive. It wasn’t much of a street to begin with, but now it almost doesn’t exist. But look at that intersection!

What really gets me is that the mouth of this street is 20m wide. That’s as wide as Queen St itself, and as wide as Dominion Rd including the footpaths. The street itself is only 70m long. It’s so wide the built a pedestrian refuge island halfway across.

I have to ask why this stubby ex-street required such a huge width? Why is the intersection almost twice as wide as a comparable minor street elsewhere in the city? It can’t have high traffic flows as it is a complete dead end. Not a cul de sac even, just a dead end. A quick scan reveals eight on street parking spaces, a loading zone, and access to two building’s garages. Neither of those are big carparking buildings mind, just a few dozen spots across two office buildings. Why widen it so much, presumably for high speed cornering geometry, but then go an build in a raised pedestrian table? The really funny thing is the pedestrian island and the curve of the curbs mean you can’t get two cars abreast at the intersection. The intersection is as wide as a four lane road for no reason I can see.

I should point out that this isn’t still the old intersection from the days when Airdale St was a long city street, this was designed this way only a few years ago when it was totally rebuilt as part of the Queen St streetscapes upgrades. Someone chose to make it this way. I wonder if the intersection wasn’t so wide then maybe they could have managed more than a solitary cabbage tree to green up the space, perhaps a little pocket park or similar feature. Maybe with more pedestrian space they MLC cafe could manage more than four chairs out front.

I’m no traffic engineer and I don’t really have any idea what informs these design decisions, but can somebody please enlighten me why such an insignificant service lane was recently built with such a huge intersection on the city’s busiest pedestrian corridor?

Federal St upgrade announced

The council has finally released plans to create a shared space on part Federal St in conjunction with SkyCity. The upgrade has been proposed for some time and originally was going to be paid for by SkyCity and built in time for the RWC in return for getting the right to build another larger skybridge across the road. A number of people didn’t like the idea of the air bridge so the plan got delayed and the casino eventually gave up on that plan and have worked with the council on just the street upgrade. This will see Federal St between Wellesley St and Victoria St upgraded along with the plaza around the base of the Sky Tower. The objectives are that it:

  • integrates with other city centre upgrade and transport projects
  • provides an intimate, high quality pedestrian-focused street that encourages pedestrian activity
  • supports local businesses and attracts investment by providing an appropriate level of vehicular movement and servicing activity
  • is a distinctive destination entertainment precinct with a unique mix of retail, cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues
  • provides a high quality, attractive, safe and durable streetscape.

The plan is being jointly funded by the council and SkyCity at a total cost of $10m however it hasn’t been mentioned how much is coming from each party. The plans include:

  • a shared space streetscape environment be introduced between Wellesley Street and Victoria Street
  • maintenance of the current one-way direction of traffic flow (south to north)
  • long-term bus/coach parking areas be removed
  • introduction of a signalised pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Wellesley and Federal Streets.

Consultation is now open till 5pm November 16. Its good to see this project moving forward and I’m pleased that a shared space has been proposed, unlike what was done with O’Connell St. It would however be nice to also see some upgrade love being shared to other parts of Federal St, the section between Victoria and Wyndham St is particularly horrible while the section to the north of St Patricks Square, including the side streets of Swanson St and Wolfe St could also be vastly improved into quite a nice corner of town.

Government response to the productivity commission

The government has released its response to the Productivity Commission report on housing affordability and unlike ideological burp that the commission produced it seems the government has a bit more faith in what the council is doing (which in itself is odd given the history these two entities have had). In fact many of the outcomes of the report suggest the need for much more involvement with councils which seems out of character with the  government. Here is the governments response:

The Government agrees with the Productivity Commission that housing can be made more affordable, and has embarked on a wide-ranging programme to make that happen, Finance Minister Bill English says.

The Government today issued its response to the Productivity Commission’s report on housing affordability.

“High house prices matter because many New Zealanders spend a large portion of their incomes on housing and that has helped fuel household debt and contribute to damaging imbalances in the economy,” Mr English says.

“In particular, high housing debt diverts money from more productive investments, contributes to New Zealand’s significant overall level of indebtedness and exposes taxpayers to growing demands for State assistance with housing costs.

“Those factors make it vital that housing becomes more affordable. In addition, projections suggest that many more homes will be required in coming years than are being built.”

Mr English warns that there will be no quick fixes and instead, work is needed in a number of complex areas and across multiple government, local government and private sector agencies to tackle issues that are deeply embedded.

Having carefully considered the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, the Government is today responding with a comprehensive work programme with four key aims:

  • Increasing land supply - this will include more greenfields and brownfields developments and allow further densification of cities, where appropriate.
  • Reducing delays and costs of RMA processes associated with housing - this includes introducing a six-month time limit on council processing of medium-sized consents.
  • Improving the timely provision of infrastructure to support new housing - this will include considering new ways to co-ordinate and manage infrastructure for subdivisions.
  • Improving productivity in the construction sector – this includes an evaluation of the Productivity Partnership’s progress in achieving a 20 per cent increase in productivity by 2020.

“Decisions made by local councils not only affect their local communities, but have wider effects on the economy and the Government’s books.

“Many of the changes that will make a difference lie with councils and the Government expects them to share the commitment to improving housing affordability,” Mr English says.

Some of the programme is already well advanced, with work under way in the Building and Construction, Environment and Local Government portfolios.

Other recommendations from the Productivity Commission require more detailed exploration and the Government has asked for more work to be done on specific policy proposals including:

  • Whether Building Consent Authorities can be consolidated in a regional or national hub.
  • The possible establishment of a competitor agency for resource consents/plan changes.

In addition, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment will undertake a market-level inquiry into the construction sector to identify barriers to improving housing affordability.

More work will also be commissioned on the specific problems of the Auckland and Christchurch housing markets.

Mr English says the current economic climate, as well as projections of housing need, make it more important than ever for the housing market to function efficiently.

“Our response to the commission’s report also reinforces our existing programme aimed at reducing New Zealand’s vulnerability to foreign lenders, and removing economic imbalances caused by a disproportionate investment in housing.

“If implemented fully, today’s announcements on housing affordability will reduce housing stress and enable the housing market to better meet the needs of middle and low income New Zealanders,” he says.

And in an attachment they provide more detailed answers to the points raised by the commission. In relation to Auckland, there seems to be quite a lot of comments that suggest the government is now supporting the councils housing plans and suggest that they maybe satisfied with the amount of intensification proposed. If this is followed through with it represents quite a shift for the government who previously had been singing a very similar song to the commission, especially around opening up greenfield land to be developed. I understand that the council did a lot of work to provide evidence around the costs of sprawl so perhaps that paid off and makes me wonder if we see something similar happen on transport priorities once the City Centre Future Access Study is released. Of course while this appears not to be as bad as we feared, we will still have to wait to see some of the finer details.

One big area that both the productivity commission and the government failed address is the impact that transport has on the debate. Its all very well developing on the edge of town but without looking at the impact that has on a home owners transport costs as while it may be cheaper to buy a house, it takes a lot longer (and therefore costs more) to get around. Interesting that a similar exercise on housing affordability is going on in Melbourne however they seem much more aware of the transport issues.

Have your say on the Unitary Plan

The Auckland plan set the vision for the next 30 years but the council now has to turn that vision into reality which is why it is so critically important that they get the unitary plan right. The unitary plan is the combination of all of the individual district plans that act as the rulebooks that specify where and how development can occur. We have already covered some of the decisions that will need to be made in the unitary plan, particularly around minimum parking requirements.

As the council goes through the process of developing the plan they have already started engaging with the public on various issues. On Saturday I, along with a number of others took part in a workshop to talk about our thoughts. We were all divided up into different groups and talked through a number of key points. The tables I sat at all seemed to be fairly diverse groups covering pretty much every part of different spectrum’s. Considering this, perhaps what surprised me the most was just how much consensus there was on most issues we discussed. The day was divided into three sessions and in between each session we were encouraged to walk around and see the key points raised at the other tables which had been written down on paper. When doing so, not once did I see mention of wanting more motorways and very little focus on roads but I think every single table had listed that they wanted PT improved, in particular rail.

The discussion on housing options is perhaps where things surprised me the most. I never once heard someone complain about the need to intensify the city and most seemed quite open to it. Everyone it seemed identified that it is key that if we are to make intensification more attractive then we need to to improve the not just the design of buildings but ensure that they are livable by through things like good access to amenities. As an example, the council had proposed only allowing the most intensive developments allowable within 250m off development centres but at my table every single person rejected that saying it should be more like 500m-1km, the recognition was that people were prepared to walk/cycle further if the amenity was available. In fact while it wasn’t said directly, making our city less auto dependant was very strong theme in most of the points that people raised. Overall I got the impression that there is a lot more consensus on how we solve the issues that the city faces than perhaps comes across in the media or online.

The council have also set up an online forum at which you can share your thoughts and obviously respond to the thoughts of others. You should also join the councils Peoples Panel which is also used for other surveys.

Reviewing NZTA Projects

One of the criticisms that we have had of the NZTA in recent years has been that there they don’t appear to go back and check if the what they predicted to happen turned out to be accurate. This is pretty important as they are spending huge amounts of our money on various projects and as we showed last week, it appears that sometimes they aren’t even using real data in their business cases. I reported on the review of the northern Busway back in June so I decided to ask them (via an Official Information Act request) for any other post implementation reviews that they have done in the last 5 years for the Auckland region. Here is what they provided me, first up the letter that came with the response:

Five post implementation reviews of state highway projects in the Auckland region have been carried out over the last five years. These are as follows:

  • State Highway 1 Stafford to Esmonde bus priority lane
  • Newton Road to Western Springs auxiliary lane
  • Puhinui intersection grade separation
  • Northern Busway
  • Greenlane East amalgamated improvements

Please refer to Attachment G for summaries of these reviews.

While these reviews have identified ways that we can improve our project planning and management practices, they are not a statistically significant sample. For this reason, we consider their results and findings to be indicative rather than conclusive.

The NZTA has two initiatives underway to better measure the outcomes from our investments. These are:

  • Approved Organisations (including the NZTA’s Highways and Network Operations group) will be required to formally agree performance measures at the time of funding approval and to report back at agreed dates. In time, this will provide a much more statistically robust picture of the performance of the improvements programme overall. This initiative is in the final stages of development and is to be applied to funding approvals from 1 July 2012. We recognise that it will take time to gather the post-implementation information and we will need to continue with our current programme of post implementation reviews in the meantime.
  • We are reviewing our post implementation review methodology. The intention is that the new methodology will focus on the underlying benefits of a project rather than being based on a recalculation of the benefit-cost ratio. The new methodology will investigate and explain variancesin both cost and benefit achievements in greater detail so that lessons can be learned and applied to future decision making.

You will note that some of the reviews are for projects that were started some years ago. Where applicable, one of the pieces of information we collect before starting projects is the crash history of the section of road over the previous five years. To allow us to rate how effective the project is in reducing the number of crashes, we need to compare the earlier crash history data with that collected at least three years after the project is completed.

What I found immediately interesting was how few projects were on the list considering the amount of NZTA projects that have gone on in recent years, e.g. why has no PIR been done on the section of SH18 from Greenhithe to Albany Highway, or the extension of SH20 to Maioro St. I’m sure there have been quite a few other projects finished within or close to that timeframe. I was also surprised by just how long the explaination was but that perhaps made a bit more sense after reading the attached document. It was really just a summary of the outcomes but there are certainly very concerning comments from the auditors. Here are the road based ones.

Newton Road to Western Springs auxiliary lane

Greenlane East amalgamated improvements

Puhinui intersection grade separation

So while I agree this isn’t a statistically significant sample, it certainly isn’t a good look. It hints that there are certain elements within the organisation that are so determined to build roads they will ignore economic advice and funding conditions to get things done. It really makes me wonder what else has been going on within the organisation and will the big motorway projects like Manukau and Hobsonville etc. get similar results. We certainly shouldn’t be thinking of embarking on building another harbour crossing for a cost of $5 billion if we can’t get projects like these correct.

Here are the comments for the other two projects:

State Highway 1 Stafford to Esmonde bus priority lane

Northern Busway

Are driverless cars the future?

I wonder if you can guess who wrote the quote below?

Cars are noisy, they’re dangerous, they emit fumes, they take up so much space that our cities seem to be built for cars first and people second, and they are not much fun to sit in on a jammed Auckland motorway.

The price of petrol seems to go higher and higher, and it is true that some of the roads being built which seem like a great idea (e.g. the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension) don’t actually pass muster with some cost-benefit analyses.

If you read the quoted text above you could be forgiven for thinking it is something that we had written but no, this text came from a blog post yesterday on the Act party website. Now after picking yourself up off the floor and thinking that there may be a glimmer of hope the party was finally be starting to understand transport and urban issues, you can think again. The rest of the post is dedicated to enthusing how driverless cars and other technologies mean we should keep investing in roads and only roads. So lets have a look at some of their claims in a bit more detail.

The first claim is that driverless cars will give people some of the benefits of PT by allowing them to do things like read books or do work instead of driving while cars will also be driven better without humans at the wheel. Both claims are probably true but to really see the benefit of these cars we will likely have to wait until a substantial proportion of the existing vehicle fleet is replaced. Last year there were ~145,000  new cars registered and the total car fleet rose to just over 2.8 million vehicles. Even if every single car that came into the country tomorrow was driverless, it would take at least 20 years to replace the current fleet. In reality we are probably looking at more like 30-40 years, perhaps longer as it will take a while for the technology to start being embedded in all new cars made, that’s a long time to wait.

Of course what happens after your driverless car drops you at work. Well Act suggest that the car will take itself away somewhere and park itself. That all sounds nice but when every other person is using a car at the same time it means we either need to spend millions on additional parking buildings to house them all. Alternatively they could just go home and return when you need to be picked up but that brings about its own problems. What happens if you don’t have a set time to leave a certain place, does that mean you need to request your car and wait for perhaps 30 minutes or more for it to arrive?  Alternatively perhaps they are suggesting some kind of shared car scheme in which case it would likely require the government/council to purchase huge numbers of these driverless cars, how much would that cost taxpayers.

Act and many driverless car advocates also suggest that these computer controlled cars will be able to run closely together allowing for much more capacity to be achieved out of the existing road network. If that is the case then isn’t it a perfect reason NOT to invest in new roads as we would be better off to wait and see exactly what impact these cars have before spending millions on roads we may not need. I can’t help but think the party still ignores the reality of real live and still has this video on repeat:

Of course one thing all of the driverless car advocates don’t realise is there is a pretty big elephant in the room. As these cars will be so much smarter and also programmed to avoid crashes they will automatically stop (and tell the other vehicles around them to stop) if someone walks out on to the road. It shouldn’t take long for people to realise that they can easily take back the streets but just using them how they want and the cars will be forced let it happen. So perhaps we should welcome driverless cars, we can get shared spaces without it needing to cost ratepayers a thing (bet they didn’t think about this issue).

AT HOP is finally live

Its been a long time, sometimes it felt like an eternity but HOP is finally here for train which is great. I have been using the card for a couple of weeks and found the system painless an extremely easy to use and now thousands of others can get these benefits too. To date Auckland Transport tells me that to date, around 11,000 people have brought AT HOP cards which is a pretty good effort considering they have only been on sale for 5 days. Here is a little video that AT have put together showing how to tag on and off:

The other thing that has gone live is the AT HOP website which allows you to register your card, which is useful if it gets stolen or lost, and also to top up the card. Here is what it looks like once you have registered.

 

To be able to top up online you need to first add your payment details by going to the My AT HOP Details section and selecting the Payment Details but everything seemed pretty straight forward. A couple of the other features like reporting a lost card seem to be unavailable at the moment so hopefully they will go live soon. Also I couldn’t see anywhere to get my transaction history.

I happen to be going to town today so I’ll get to give the fate gates a go. For those of you who weren’t part of the pilot, have fun using it.