Gerry Brownlee on the CRL

Phil Tywford asked transport minister Gerry Brownlee in parliament yesterday about the CRL

Transscript is here.

Perhaps it is just me dreaming but Gerry did at least seem less negative about it than he had in the past. Based on his answers it suggests he waiting for the final version of the CCFAS to come across his desk before he can properly comment. At least he isn’t ruling the CRL out altogether which is at least a start.

However I must say, Gerry’s comments at the end were actually pretty good, although no one in parliament got the joke.

Belittling the City Centre

The results of leaked release of the Horizon survey and the CCFAS last week has clearly started to cause concern amongst the anti rail councillors with the number of comments from them, and George Wood in particular increasing quite a bit. With this post I want to focus on just one aspect that gets trotted out quite a bit, in this case by Mr Negative himself, Cameron Brewer (because I can’t think of a positive thing he has said for 2 years).

Mr Brewer said he had yet to be convinced about the cost and benefits of the project, including the benefits to nearly 90 per cent of Aucklanders who do not work or live in the CBD

As Nick showed in this post a few months ago, the CBD has traditionally been defined as the area within the moat that is the motorway system however really the central city area that would be impacted by the CRL is actually larger than that and encompasses some of the surrounding suburbs like Newton and Parnell. But even that doesn’t tell the full story as while it puts the central city employment percentage at over 20% it still implies that the are is insignificant regionally . But in reality, even at that level, the central city is head and shoulders above anywhere else in the region so I thought with this post I would try to show that. The map below shows the key employment areas in the regions and how many thousands of jobs are in them.

As you can see the central city with 134,000 jobs (of which 80-90k are within the moat) is far larger than any where else in the region. What’s more here are a couple of other interesting points:

  • There are more jobs in the central city than both the North Shore and West Auckland combined
  • The only group of areas where the number of jobs comes close to the central city is the group of areas from Onehunga to East Tamaki but that covers a massive area and is part of the reason why AMETI is so important.
  • 50% of all jobs in the region are located close to the rail network and so could benefit from increased frequencies that would be able to be justified due to the number of jobs in the central city.
  • Not included in the 134k figure for the city centre are ~60,000 students who attend the universities.

More people working close to jobs in the central city is well and truly much higher than anywhere else, do we really need to be focusing so much on growing that number even more. In a single word, Yes. The reason for that is due to agglomeration benefits which occur when you have a lot of people working close to each together means more economic activity can happen which in turn benefits not only Auckland but the whole country. Of course this applies not just to employment but also to residential density and this post yesterday on The Atlantic Cities looked cities across the US and found that generally cities with more dense urban cores performed better not only economically but across a wide range of factors.

Ever since Jane Jacobs, urban thinkers and economists have argued that clusters of talented and ambitious people increase one another’s productivity and the productivity of the broader community, spurring economic growth. So, what about economic growth: Is it higher in metros where density is more concentrated? The short answer is yes.

Economic growth and development, according to several key measures, is higher in metros that are not just dense, but where density is more concentrated. This is true for productivity, measured as economic output per person, as well as both income and wages.

The CRL allows for a lot more people to access the city centre which in turn will make it more attractive and encourage more jobs and residents in the area. Those additional jobs and residents will most likely provide considerably more economic impact than if they were spread out across the city, or even worse if they were out on the far flung edges. So at the end of the day, by arguing against the CRL on the basis on the current percentages of jobs and people in the CBD, these councillors are actually arguing against one of the best opportunities for economic growth we have.

Urbanism dividend: return on rates

The continuing weight of major centers, is in a way countersensical..dispersal would seem to be a good option given the high cost – Saskia Sassen, Global Networks, Linked Cities

I’m still fascinated with the results from earlier posts looking at land value in relation to cbd location. I figured there would be a premium to centrally located land, but I didn’t imagine it would be so extreme. If the three factors of production are land, labour and capital than it seems logical that many businesses would disperse to cheaper land outside of the cbd. But of course this is not happening since there remains a demand for highly connected and central land in the cbd.

Cross section of land values across Auckland’s city centre

Here’s a related look at land value but in this case it’s how much money is returned to the City in the form of rates (tax). This exercise has been inspired by the work of Peter Katz and Joseph Minicozzi as documented in this article in Better Cities Best bet for tax revenue: mixed-use downtown development. In their study they looked at various forms of development and concluded that there is a tax-revenue premium associated with high density, high floor area coverage, centrally located developments.

The studies, by Public Interest Projects, show that on a per-acre basis, sprawling single-use developments such as big-box stores do a poor job of providing governments with needed tax revenue. Dense, mixed-use development, usually downtown or adjacent to transit, is financially much more beneficial.

What is so interesting about the study is that it runs counter to many city’s development ambitions of attracting large stores for their sales tax generation ability. While we have a different property tax structure, in particular in regards to sales tax, I thought it would be worth sampling some areas around Auckland to determine the revenues for various types of development. Auckland’s rates are calculated by combining land value and improvement value into a ‘capital value’ for rates assessment. Below is a look at the various rate levels on a hectare basis.

Annual rates per hectare: Auckland, New Zealand

Besides the value of the CBD being off the chart, there are some other interesting revelations that I will explore later such as the role urban form, walkable neighbourhoods, land value taxes, and yes, even parking has on sustainable development patterns. For now, I’ll leave you with another quote from the earlier mentioned article:

The findings from the two studies, Katz says, “reinforce a concept advanced in the mid- to late 1800s by Henry George: the idea that land is our most precious shared resource. Since land is the raw material from which government derives most of its working capital in the form of property taxes, it makes sense to evaluate different forms of development in terms of their potential for revenue return.

Not a single metre of new bus lane in two years?

I was wracking my brain last night thinking about an interesting question – has Auckland Transport actually added a single metre of bus lane in the last two years since they came into existence? They’ve certainly wound the Remuera Road bus lanes back to being T3 lanes and, looking at the November board papers, it seems they’re even chickening out on creating a new T3 lane on Onewa Road westbound in the evening peak:Given that the Council has made it quite clear that improving public transport is close to the number one priority it has, it seems utterly incredible that Auckland Transport have been so useless that they haven’t managed to add a single metre of new bus lane in over two years from what I can remember.

The thing about bus lanes is that obviously they’re really cheap to put in, just a lick of green paint and a few signs, but they take a bit of courage because generally you need to either take away space from general traffic or you need to remove on-street parking. But the benefits are truly enormous:

  • Faster travel for public transport users – attracting more people onto the bus
  • Shorter journey times for the buses themselves mean significant operation cost savings because you don’t need as many buses on the road to deliver a certain service frequency
  • Much more reliable travel times for public transport user – which is extremely important as we shift to a public transport network that is based around transfers between services reliability is going to become increasingly important to ensure you don’t miss your connecting service

The really strange thing is that Auckland Transport should be far better than the old councils at delivering bus lanes, because it is Auckland Transport itself who benefit from them. Back in the “old days” I imagine getting a single metre of bus lane must have involved massive negotiations because for the council (who had the responsibility of putting them in) there was no real benefit, only grumpy car drivers and businesses who lost their parking. Yet we still managed to get a fairly extensive network of bus lanes in Auckland City and a few T2/T3 lanes on the North Shore. It always surprised me that supposedly “eco” Waitakere City didn’t have many bus lanes, it surprised me less that roads-mad Manukau didn’t have anything much at all.

Clearly there are a few projects in the works that will improve things for buses in the longer term – like a major rebuild of Dominion Road and the AMETI busway. However there are still an unbelievable number of “low hanging fruit”, like bus lanes along Manukau Road, through Newmarket, along Fanshawe Street at its city end, along Victoria and Wellesley Streets on their western sides and in many many other locations. It’s just truly astounding that absolutely no progress has been made on bus lanes along these streets in the last two years.

Come on Auckland Transport, you can do a lot better than this.

300 Queen St: The Perfect Future Transit Station

This post is about the other critical break at the heart of Auckland’s RTN network: the Waitemata Harbour. The one that needs to be addressed after the City Rail Link mends the first one. Some may think that I’m getting ahead of myself here but I think it is important to look ahead so that near term projects are future-proofed and so that our thinking is kept open to all sorts of possibilities.

The power of the CRL is also in some ways its limitation, well certainly in the minds of its detractors, because much of what it achieves occurs on the already existing rail network. It is after all primarily just what it is called: A Link; outside of the Centre City it doesn’t expand the reach of the network directly but rather joins the currently separated ends of two long systems together to allow the true capacity and frequency of the whole network to be realised. This is what is so powerful about the project but is also so easily overlooked.

Don’t get me wrong, the CRL is clearly the urgent transformative move for Auckland; the ‘killer app’ if you like, because it will provide the necessary core to the Rapid Transit Network that will, with the new bus network it supports, transform Auckland into being a viable Transit City as well as a driving one. A transformation, already underway, that will enable more people in more of Auckland to function effectively without having to always drive. At once improving their efficiency and that of the whole city. It is a step change; the key to Auckland’s new urban future, enabling high quality growth and is the best way take pressure off the existing sunk investment in the road network so it keeps working well as the city grows.

But also let’s not forget that by solving the constraints of the current rail network it also invites its expansion to whole new areas, and that there is still another ‘Link’ that the system needs.

Clearly the relatively simple and obvious extension of the Onehunga line through Mangere to the Airport should follow swiftly after the CRL. But it is the next opportunity that I want to discuss here and one that the representatives for the North Shore really ought to have their sights set on too: A North Shore Line; converting some or all of the Northern Busway to rail and crossing the harbour with rail tunnels to connect this part of the RTN via a new station at Wynyard Quarter to the existing network.

We have shown that the growth in demand across the harbour is not in traffic but in Transit. But also any addition to traffic volumes entering the city would contradict everything the Council is working towards to improve the quality of life and place in the city as well as its economic intensity. So the next expansion in capacity across the Harbour needs to connect the break in the RTN between the southern end of Northern Busway and the Isthmus-only rail network. And this would be as shape changing as the CRL itself as it would bring much closer together currently separated parts of Auckland. It is also the other major move to make Auckland into a true Multi-Modal City.

Discussions of cost, funding, and even the route on the Shore are outside of the scope of this post, have been addressed elsewhere on this site and will be again in the future. This is an exploration of future possibilities. I am also assuming that electric rail is clearly the technology to take in tunnels under the Harbour not the more expensive, more dangerous, and lower capacity of buses. Argue if you must but it looks like a slam dunk to me, and I’m sure that will be even more certain post-CRL.

I have in the past written about the possibility of the elegant and efficient Cross patterned two line network [below]:  The Southern Line heading to town would after the new Parnell Station cross Grafton Gully above the traffic on a viaduct then enter a tunnel into Constitution Hill and head under Albert Park to connect with the CRL at Aotea Station before heading to a new station at Wynyard Quarter and across the harbour to the Shore. Albany to the Airport, with Wynyard Quarter, the heart of the city, and Newmarket in between.

‘The Cross’ possible North-South and West-East network model

Here’s a full city wide Rapid Transit Network adding future Busways to a pretty complete rail system, by Matt:

Matt’s Future RTN Network

There are a number of options for staging this line, especially at the Shore end, and even at the city side where the connection to the line at Parnell could be put off and the line run as a self contained Shore/City route at very high frequencies. And there is even a fairly lively debate among the editorial team here at the blog about the competing merits of a cheaper Light Metro system or continuing with the same kit we are about to get in order to integrate the Shore Line with the existing network. What I’m about to look at doesn’t depend on either system although the connection to the line at Parnell would require compatibility one way or the other. That’s a debate for another time. But here is another version based on Matt’s plan above:

Version of Matt's future map

Version of Matt’s future map

What I want to look at here is the future City connection for a Shore Line because the opportunities and the constraints are considerable. In this post I outlined how the midtown CRL station Aotea will replace Britomart as the most popular on the whole network and how the station design in a constrained footprint will have to be able to handle much much higher numbers of people than we see at our busiest station today.

Here is a detail of the CRL alignment map showing the Aotea Station footprint:


In recent discussions with the Council’s head of Urban Design Ludo Campbell-Reid he mentioned that the new owner of the empty site between Elliot and Albert St is keen to integrate the station exits into the retail floors his proposed tower which will bring people onto the new shared space of Elliot and Darby Streets and level with Queen St at the Station’s northern end. There will of course be exits further west for those heading up hill [maybe even up to the coming Federal St shared space and Sky City] and at the southern end on Wellesley Street where the Council owns property on two sides of that intersection.

Here is a rough schematic of ‘The Cross’ that I did for that earlier post:


A closer look at this idea and it is pretty clear that inserting a station somewhere under the University or Albert Park would not only be almost impossible and very expensive but also unnecessary [it is the stations that are really expensive on underground lines rather than the tunnelling]. Not least of which because the distances between the stations are too short but also because the balance of the demand is really further south than the point indicated above. There is no doubt that the Universities are a huge generator of Transit traffic and it is important for the city that we meet that demand as efficiently as possible, but the key word in that sentence is Universities, plural; the growing AUT campus is much closer to Aotea Station than it is to the northern end of the University of Auckland. And if we can inch some Aotea Station exits across Queen St we can not only help serve this market well but also help deal better with the likely pedestrian flows at the peak hours. And not only will it have to cater for transfers between the lines but as it is also clear that Wellesley St will continue to be the main crosstown bus route so this placement is well placed for connections between modes too.

Here’s my suggestion for alignment of the North Shore Line platforms at Aotea:

Wellesley Station

As you can see I have biased the overlap between the two lines by bringing the Shore Line platforms east under Queen St. They are offset enough that you could give it its own identity; say Wellesley St or Queen St Station. Or Horotiu, after the Taniwha and his stream the Waihorotiu that runs under Queen St. Or just call them platforms 3 + 4 at Aotea. No matter, the point is that there are some really good reasons to orient the station like this. Because to add another busy line to this station some serious people management is going to have to take place.

Happily here the Council has also already done a great job with another of its shared spaces:

Lorne St Shared Space

Not only is there already a big pedestrian plaza here that can absorb those Transit riders but it is really close to a lot of attractors. The tower at the end of the street is an AUT building with the rest of the campus up behind, the always busy Library is on the left, and of course the surely-to-be-restored St James on the right. Also there’s the wonderful new Art Gallery, the Civic back across Queen, and of of course the other University also just a little up the hill. Add the Town Hall, Q-Theatre, and the Aotea Centre and at last we really have the cultural amenity for a true and vibrant Civic Centre. Just not yet the transport amenity.

But not only that impressive list of destinations but also there are some underperforming sites ripe for revitalising. Chief among those being the St James. But there’s also the building you can see a corner of in the shot above just behind the guy taking a photo with his phone:

300 Queen St_ northeast

The 1965 head office of the ASB by the wonderfully named Beatson Rix-Trott Carter & Co architects. The Queen St frontage still houses a branch of the ASB and a kebab shop, but the other sides are lifeless and unused except as access to some 58 car parks [10 more than the limit- a variation granted in 1996] that have been rammed into 3 ex-office floors above the shops and accessed through those rollers doors opening onto Lorne St. I can only assume that the basement is currently unused.

Here’s the thing: The back end of this building is the perfect location for the eastern entrance to a busy cross town underground Rail Station. The removal of that parking inside this building would greatly enhance the shared space as they are the only traffic generator on this street outside of deliveries. The building itself could do with an upgrade and I’m sure the owner would make the calculation that having tens of thousands of people everyday right in their building is much more valuable than the return on 58 car parks.


300 Queen St_east elevation

It’s actually a pretty nicely detailed building if you look past the abuses, bronze windows and they took the granite all the way round to the back. Well except where those nasty rollers are now. This could scrub up well at street level, and then would certainly be able to accommodate development above too, a cafe on that podium and all sorts of retail opportunities on the currently car violated mezzanine and 1st and 2nd floors and either upgraded offices or apartments above. Just no parking. This is a good solid example of midcentury boxy corporate modernism awaiting rediscovery and a new life.

300 Queen St_Plaza

Its unactivated Lorne St side already faces a lively plaza especially since the upgrade and traffic de-privileging. There is in fact lots of unusually wide pedestrian amenity on both sides of Wellesley St at this point:

Wellesley St heritage loos

So not only is there also space for a station exit on the northern side of Wellesley but arguably it’s already there! I’m reliably informed that the now unused underground women’s loos are pretty flash inside. Surely there’s a way they could be incorporated into another exit?

The building on the left in the shot above, the ex-Contemporary Art Gallery, is about to be developed into highend retail and an article discussing its prospects bragged about a one day pedestrian count around here of 16,526 people [Wednesday Oct 17]. I think we can send that number a great deal higher in ways that can only be good for the commercial and cultural vitality of this end of town. And make the old ASB building more useful as well as more valuable, and wouldn’t it be great to see this whole block including the wonderful St James sparked back into life?

300 Queen St

And interestingly in that Library on the shared space I found this plan for an inner city underground rail system. It’s from the 1965 De Leuw Cather Report, the famous one that proposed both a Rapid Transit system and expanded motorways for Auckland but that has suffered from half of it being ignored ever since. And look where that station is, close:

De Leuw Cather Report 1965, detail.

Interesting that they named that station ‘Civic-Centre’ because despite all the millions spent by various Councils on driving amenity in this area to try to make a Civic Centre around the Town Hall [Mayoral Drive, the twice built underground car park] it has really only had any kind of success since Auckland’s recent Transit and pedestrian revolution started to take off this century. People, on the streets, and in quantity, are key to vibrant and successful urban places.

And here’s the whole region in that same report, look at that North Shore Line, not bad:

De Leuw Cather Report 1965: Rapid Transit plan for Auckland

And since we will soon have finished building all the motorways we’ll ever need it’s clearly time to get on with fixing the missing complementary Rapid Transit network.




“It’s the economy stupid #3” – Is there an optimal city size?

Previous posts here and here have discussed how the growth of cities can be attributed to some underlying economic advantages, namely shorter travel distances and economies of scale in the presence of fixed costs.

In this post I want to flesh out these economic factors in more detail. I’m particularly interested in whether cities will continue to grow, or whether they will reach an “optimal” size. To finish I outline the structure of a stylized model of the economic forces influencing city growth.

Before we get into too much detail I think it’s worth quoting J. K. Galbraith, who observed the “only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” Now while I’m a sceptic insofar as I accept models cannot replicate real-world complexity, I nonetheless think they are relatively useful “learning” tools.

They key question I want to know more about is whether there is an “optimal city size”. By “optimal” I mean a city size that maximises the economic welfare of its inhabitants. This question is important for obvious reasons. While cities overall are continuing to grow, which cities in particular can we expect to grow the fastest? And is city growth something we should encourage/discourage beyond a certain point?

I think it’s important to hypothesize in advance what I expect to find, if only to reveal my own hidden preferences and human tendency to “model what I am looking to find”. My perspective is that “yes” I do believe there is an optimal city size, at least from an economic perspective, beyond which further growth in city size becomes economically undesirable, at least from a social perspective.

Why do I think this? After all, the persistent growth of cities suggests the factors “pushing” us together are winning out over those that are “pulling” us apart. My reasoning is two-fold:

  1. While more people are living in cities, this is not the same as evidence to prove that individual cities themselves will continue to grow ad infinitum. Indeed, there is some speculation that it is medium sized cities that will drive the bulk of future growth; and
  2. More specifically, I believe the economic forces “pulling” us apart tend to increase as city size increases, whereas the economic forces that “push” us together tend to exhibit diminishing returns as a city grows larger. Put simply, there are benefits to increased size, but these benefits tend to level off.

Let’s expand on that second point a little. Transport costs are a useful example, because they are an economic factor that both makes cities more and less attractive as they grow. While people coming together in cities reduces travel distances, it also tends to create congestion. So if we were solely seeking to minimise transport costs then one would have to conclude that we probably would not allow cities to grow beyond a certain point.

Without further ado let’s outline some of the forces that would need to be in a model of the economic benefits of city size. In my mind the key economic forces such a model should consider are:

  1. Direct transport costs – i.e. what you pay in cash terms to move about.
  2. Congestion – i.e. the costs of additional travel time due to delays from things being busy.
  3. Economies of scale – i.e. efficiencies in the provision of public goods.
  4. Agglomeration economies – i.e. the economic benefits of density.
  5. Purchasing power – i.e. the value that you get for every dollar.
  6. Amenity – i.e. the impact of other people on your amenity.

Let me know if you think I have missed factors that you think are important.

In terms of how these forces vary with population, my gut feeling is that 1) direct transport costs more or less linearly as a city grows; 2) congestion increases non-linearly; 3) economies of scale increase, but at a reducing rate; 4) agglomeration economies increase, but also at a reducing rate; 5) purchasing power increases , but how I’m not so sure; and 6) amenity increases but then decreases (amenity itself is a bit vague).

In the next post I hope to outline some of the results of the model itself, but before I do I’d like to get some feedback on the forces that are in/out and how they might be modeled. How say you all-knowing blogosphere?

Treasury’s interesting position on road pricing

The National State of Infrastructure Report was released by Treasury’s Infrastructure Unit a few weeks back, and makes for some quite interesting and amusing reading in relation to transport. I’ll leave what’s said about transport in Auckland to another post (basically it seems like they’re suggesting Auckland needs a whole pile more motorway but aren’t quite sure where they’ll go), but perhaps one of the most amusing parts of the document is in relation to road pricing.

One would think that Treasury, being a bunch of purist neoliberal economists, would love the concept of road pricing. And on the one hands it seems they do:

There is near consensus among economists that managing demand and optimising our transport networks through some form of more targeted road pricing should be part of the transport programme for Auckland, especially considering the forecast increase in congestion over the medium/long term. However, road users are deeply suspicious of road pricing, especially in the form of tolls and cordon fees, such as used in Singapore and London. In fact, managing demand on our roads using road pricing seems to be an issue with the widest gap between economists and the motoring public. This is despite the large scale of road pricing tools that we already have – Fuel Excise Duty (FED) and Road User Charges (RUC) – although these do not accurately reflect all the full costs imposed on road users. For example, motorists pay the same regardless of whether they travel at peak times or off-peak. Implementing a more comprehensive and detailed road pricing regime would have a number of key benefits.

I get the feeling there’s some interesting politics behind this section. Interesting because we’re in a rather bizarre situation of Auckland Council – with a ‘left-leaning’ Mayor, being keen to investigate revenue mechanisms which include road pricing while there’s a centre-right government who are running away from the idea utterly terrified. This gets reflected even more in the next paragraph:

On the other hand, public reaction to the general concept of targeted road pricing is usually negative, often coming from a fairness perspective. Cordon pricing in London has been seen as being very effective at pricing poorer people from the suburbs off the roads, while enabling richer central city dwellers to move around more freely. The high cost of bringing a car into the city may deprive lower-income people of important options, particularly when public transport does not provide the flexibility that a car can provide. A further concern is often a lack of trust that government will use the revenue raised for the purposes advised.

I’m not sure whether we see too many “lower income” people driving their cars into the CBD these days, due to the cost of parking. So that’s perhaps a bit of a red herring issue in terms of a road pricing scheme structured as a cordon around the CBD. It’s probably a more reasonable concern for wider schemes.

 Considering this discord, it is often difficult to know where to start and how to progress the debate in a positive manner. Fundamentally, the challenge is to understand how the current network is being used and determine whether this use is as effective and efficient as it can be. Knowing this demand, and ensuring the network is being used as optimally as possible, provides clarity and robustness around what future investment will be required and when.

Oh the pain! This is just so hard!

I think that if road pricing was proposed as analternativeto existing transport revenue sources – rather than in addition to them – most of the opposition to it would disappear. If people had the choice between a road pricing scheme that varied the amount they paid by time of day or particular road used while significantly reducing petrol taxes or rates, we could have an interesting discussion around how it compares to these other transport funding mechanisms and whether it would deliver better transport outcomes while raising the same amount of revenue.

The big problem in all the debates about road pricing is that it’s always put forward as a revenue raising tool, when it fact it’s actually a market-based demand management tool which prices the roads to ensure a better match between demand and supply: just like we price bread, computers and Ferraris to get the most efficient outcomes. Of course there will be the potential for adverse social impacts of a road pricing scheme, but that’s just the same as the adverse effects of current rating schemes or the unfairness of someone having to pay the same to use the roads when they only drive around at the weekend as someone who makes long trips during peak times and helps contribute to the traffic jams around Auckland.

I’m not quite sure why Treasury don’t understand this. Or maybe they do, but it’s politics getting in the way?

Sydney Morning Herald predicts Auckland’s Future

People seem to love to compare us to Sydney, it is after all the closest international to Auckland and one of the things that is frequently commented on is the their public transport system, in particular their train system. But there is one area where Sydney has been behind us and that is in integrated ticketing (and I’m not suggesting that we are the model system). Like Auckland, Sydney has had a number of false starts but they are now starting to roll a system out. But this post isn’t about Sydney’s integrated ticketing but about the cartoon below which accompanied an article in the Sydney Morning Herald and which seems eerily accurate for Auckland.

Finding Lost Space

Williamson Ave dragstrip. Auckland

The “flush median” is a pernicious road design that lingers in many places around Auckland and is still being utilised in many new road designs. I can only guess that its genesis originated in the late 60’s as a way to separate cars from the most severe of collisions, the head-on. It remains today, as that pesky give-way rule did, as a sort of monument to a particular era of traffic planning.

Besides providing a buffer distance between moving vehicles the flush median’s main purpose is to let cars turn left or right whenever they want, as infrequently as it may happen, while not obstructing the almighty flow of traffic. The flush median by design reduces the friction between vehicles moving in opposite directions and raises driving comfort and ultimately speed. Other such safety-minded designs such as the introduction of wide lanes, the removal of hazardous objects (aka trees), and over-scaled intersection geometry all are a form of “passive” design, an effort to physically design safety features into the environment. With the benefit of hindsight we know that this well-intended design philosophy combined with the desire for unimpeded flow often makes streets more unsafe, since it leads to speeding and driver inattention.

The unintended consequences of modern traffic engineering has now been widely documented on blogs like Strongtowns, and general audience books like Walkable City and Traffic, where Tom Vanderbilt sums up the situation nicely:

The pursuit of a kind of absolute safety, above all other considerations of what makes places good envrionments, has not only made those streets and cities less attractive, it has, in mnay cases, made them less safe.

So back to the flush median. There are opportunities in Auckland to recapture this space for better uses that in coordination with more progressive street designs will serve a wider range of users, notably people walking and on bikes. I’ve seen example of this wasted space along parks edges, in town centres, and even remnants lingering in the cbd– all places you would never need a turning lane, let alone a street design that encourages speeding.

A little trickier perhaps, but I see a street like Williamson Ave in Grey Lynn as a good candidate for such a rethink. The street is primarily residential in context, though it does serve a  morning peak hour pulse of traffic (including buses) in a sort of “grids gone wild” way.  Does it really need a flush median from end to end? I think it would be better served by a single central stripe with a few devoted (and short) turning pockets at a couple key intersections. This would open up the street to bike facilities which would have a significant network function of bringing people into the city centre.

Looking east along Williamson Ave towards Ponsonby Road, Auckland, 1963. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries)

There’s a lot that can be done in a street cross section when you “find” an extra 2.8m.  With changing values,  different economic circumstances, and a better understanding of how cities work, there’s no better time to reconsider the simple allocation of space in our urban environment. To return to a quote used before on this site from Enrique Penalosa:

“Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted.” -Enrique Peñalosa

Residential through street, Melbourne. (Google Streetview)



Did the NZTA just admit they are incompetent

Last week the NZTA and government announced that they were going to build Transmission Gully using a PPP and in the process seem to either shovelled a whole pile of ideological crap or admitted they are completely incompetent at the one thing we thought they seemed good at, building roads. To see why that is the case, first you need to look at the details of the project and the PPP so lets start with those. The project according to the NZTA:

Transmission Gully, which links MacKays Crossing in the north with Linden in the south, is a 27km section of the 110-km Wellington Northern Corridor Road of National Signficance, which is being developed as a four-lane expressway from Wellington Airport to Levin to enable economic growth, improve road safety and reduce traffic congestion.

Now they make it sound like its a great project but it isn’t all pretty flowers and butterflies. The reality is that despite being talked about for decades, there is a reason it hasn’t been built up until now and that is because it will be incredibly difficult to do due to things like the terrain and geological conditions, as such the project isn’t going to be cheap with this section alone coming in at around $1 billion. It also hasn’t performed well in economic tests with the last BCR seen for it having a result of 0.6 although I have heard rumours that it is even less than that. The short version is that section is clearly in the c”we should not be building this” category. But the NZTA are of course proceeding with it, most likely because their political masters told them to.

So what about the PPP, heres what the NZTA has to say:

The NZTA will use an availability and performance-based contract, which means the PPP consortium will be paid for making the road available to traffic when they have achieved specified performance levels. Payments are not linked to the volume of traffic using the road. An availability PPP contract is more attractive to potential consortium partners as it removes demand risk. As a result, availability contracts offer greater potential of delivering value for money for the government.

What that effectively means is the private company will finance, build and maintain the road and the NZTA will pay them an annual fee for doing so. In other words it is just a form of lending that allows them to keep the debt off the books. Currently all roads are paid for using PayGo where we pay for the project in full up front. Now I don’t mind using debt to pay for projects as in many ways the benefits of particularly these large projects will be felt more in the future than now however it is the use of a PPP for the debt that I do have an issue with. That is because there is simply no way that the private companies can lend the money at rates as cheap as the government can so in an effort to keep debt off the governments books, we as a society end up paying more.

Even the NZTA seem to acknowledge this but give this answer, which seems straight out of the Act party, to the issue,

Although the cost of capital is higher for the private sector than for the government, this cost differential can be offset through private sector innovation and efficiencies in design, construction, operation and risk management. In other words, private sector efficiencies can outweigh the higher private sector cost of capital.

Putting private sector capital at risk is an incentive for the PPP consortium to deliver optimal whole-of-life performance and innovation. Typically, the larger the project the greater the ability for private sector innovation and efficiencies to offset the capital cost differential.

They also say

The NZTA will only proceed with a PPP if it offers a value for money proposition that betters the cost of traditional public sector procurement.

The additional private sector finance costs on a $1 billion project over 25 years are going to add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. It seems to me that they are suggesting that their traditional competitive tendering processes are so bad that we are paying hundreds of millions extra for projects than we need to. If so then those running these tender processes should be shown the door this afternoon. Personally I don’t believe they could be that bad and as such think that the agency is effectively shovelling a load of of ideological crap. It is the crap that says the private sector is always better and more efficient at everything.

This isn’t the only thing with this issue though. One of the points of financing this project through debt is that it reduces the current demands on the NLTF by $1b. We already know that the NZTA has been struggling to pay its bills and even had to get some temporary financial help from Auckland a while ago so what are they going to do with the money that had previously been earmarked for Transmission Gully? Well they will pour it into other state highway projects, including other parts of the Wellington RoNS, to get them going faster.

Really this PPP decision is about the government trying to load up as many road projects as possible to prevent them from being stopped in the future. Further by doing this, all transport capital will be so tied up for so long into the future it will help to make it difficult for any future government to really do much. You really have to wonder if this is the part of last hurrah when it comes to motorway building.