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The Steady Transformation of Travel to the CBD

Despite the critics, Auckland’s city centre is probably in better shape than it has been for decades. Foot traffic is high, new streetscape improvements continue, Queen Street is clearly still extremely “hot property” and the place just feels vibrant. Looking into this steady, almost sneaky, transformation of downtown over the last ten years or so, I went searching for what seemed to possibly be the cause. Clearly one of the parts of town that has improved the most during this time is around the Britomart precinct, which is a lot to do with Britomart train station. So improved public transport is clearly a candidate. But, for some reason, it also feels like we’ve slowly managed to claw back the city centre from vehicles – little by little, bit by bit.

This ‘clawing back’ hasn’t just been through the flagship shared space projects, but also through little tweaks here and there – like the double-phasing of pedestrian crossing signals on Queen Street, like some of the small infrastructure improvements which make life just that little bit nicer for the pedestrian. Sure, there’s still a long way to go but it feels like things are certainly a lot better.

In looking for some quantification of how traffic to the city centre has changed in this time, a report to the September transport committee provides some really useful numbers using the annual “screenline survey”, which has tracked public transport since the late 1980s and modal splits between PT and private vehicles since 2001.  Looking first at public transport usage, we can see that the number of people using PT to enter the city centre during the AM peak period has increased massively over the past 11 years, up from 21,000 to 33,000:

The next thing to look at is modeshare between public transport and private vehicles (other screenlines take into account walking and cycling but the CBD doesn’t for some consistency reason). Yet again we can see that over the past decade the proportion of vehicular trips into the city centre has significantly swung towards public transport:

The graph below shows the growth in public transport use over the past decade and splits it up by mode. You can see that all the modes have grown well, but particularly we have obviously seen massive growth on the rail system.

But getting back to my earlier points in this post, what is really fascinating is not just what has happened to public transport use for trips to the CBD over the past decade, but also what’s happened to car trips. Using the PT patronage totals and the modeshare totals we can compare the number of car trips to the CBD in 2001 with today.  
The number which clearly jumps out the page at me is the massive drop in private vehicle trips to the city centre over the past decade: over 6,100 fewer vehicles in the AM peak – over 15% fewer vehicles all up wanting to enter the city at peak time. This is illustrated in the graph below:

With a typical arterial road (with regular intersections, like what happens in the city) able to cope with around 600 vehicles per lane per hour, this is over 10 lane-hours worth of roadspace that has been completely freed up.

I still don’t think we’ve yet taken advantage of this simply massive reduction in traffic in the city that has happened over this time. Put simply, we now probably have a vast excess of roading capacity compared to what we need and it’s about time we put that to better use – like a pedestrian space along Quay Street, bus lanes on Customs and Wellesley Street, closing Queen Street to general traffic and building that lovely linear park on Victoria Street. We’ve done the hard yards in terms of removing the traffic to make these improvements possible – now let’s cash in on all that hard work to make the city centre the heart of truly the best city in the world.

31 comments to The Steady Transformation of Travel to the CBD

  • Hopefully these street upgrades can be implemented in the next few years.

  • Thanks Mr A for aggregating these figures into one place. Perhaps we might get those retailers in the CBD who think their businesses are all about driving and parking that this ‘suburban mall’ retailing model isn’t the central city’s competitive advantage.

    • Max

      Lol, Patrick, you are an optimist* – those retailers can probably look at these traffic numbers, look at their retail sales over that same period, and “prove” a correlation that this change has hurt them! Of course nothing to do with the economic climate ;-)

      *Me too, one has to be!

    • Peter M

      Considering that new retail outlets seem to be popping up everywhere in the CBD I wonder whether they might have escaped the tough economic times to an extent. I guess that depends on what part of the retail market you’re looking at.

  • Stu Donovan

    Fascinating stuff. Shows that public transport has effectively helped to decouple growth in the city centre from growth in vehicle trips. Long may it continue.

  • Stu Donovan

    Also interesting that peak bus trips into the city centre are only just getting back to 1988 levels.

  • Comment Box

    I recall it being in the papers a couple of times recently that PT usage has actually stalled and even declined from back in 2010. From memory they were only talking about the month of September and so I don’t know how this fits in the bigger picture. I think it was also primarily in reference to rail which had seen a large reduction which was not offset by a small growth in bus usage.

    • Not wanting to sound like a bit of an apologist but part of the problem tends to be how AT report the data. They report on the total trips for the month but that gets influenced by things like the number of working days and rail shut downs etc. I have been told that weekday rail patronage is still growing and have suggested that it might be a good idea to show that.

    • NCD

      The rugby blip last year will make the next 12 months look flatter for year on year comparisons

    • Comment Box

      Yes but what they showed was that there was less this year than the year before the rugby. I guess they need a working day average for each month.

      • Yep a working day average is what I suggested. There were two less working days in the month than the last few years and there were two weekends where there were shut downs compared to none the previous year (and I’m not sure about the year before), all up that could be 100k or more worth of dropped patronage.

    • Stu Donovan

      Comment Box what you read in the papers is not true. Patronage has certainly grown since 2010, mainly on buses and in particular the QTN. Ferry patronage has also grown strongly in recent times. It is true that rail patronage has stalled, primarily because the RWC pushed it above trend for a while, to which we are now returning – this will show up as flat or subpar growth for about 12 months. But it’s not correct to say that patronage has returned to 2010 levels, even if it’s not growing as strongly as it has in the past.

    • Comment Box

      As I said it was only for the month of September, and I also said the buses had increased in patronage. But yes I agree, quite often what you read in the papers is just somewhere in the range of being right but never exactly right.

      It is interesting though, you get car growth flattening off during a GFC and folk claim that we can safely assume a 5% reduction in per annum from now on, but if there is a blip in PT patronage growth its all, oh no that’s just a blip its going to keep sky rocketing up.

      • Nick R

        The vkt growth trend stalled in 2003 and hasn’t changed back to the old pattern since. The GFC no doubt had a large impact, but things were changing already. Back in 2005 no one was talking about an actual change in car patterns, but almost a decade after the shift started it’s reasonable to assume something other than a blip is going on. Likewise with PT, one year without growth is probably just noise or localized effects, but nine years later it would be reasonable to call it a whole new paradigm.

      • Well other than any changes discovered in the numbers by the more certain data from the HOP card introduction (probably up- long been dodgy) it is highly unlikely that rail pax will change much at all until the new trains and services are operating. Core services are currently often full and there will be no more units nor higher frequencies until we have the new trains. Off peak is still very poorly served which discourages any use at all, and of course weekend closures will continue as masts and wires are rolled out.

        So there is very little point in looking to the next two year’s figures for a picture of demand, as limited supply will keep it constrained. Which is likely to make for a dramatic jump for the new kit so long as it is introduced well, with the new frequencies from the start and, ideally, integrated fares so the whole new age of Transit in AK can be marketed together.

        Is that the plan AT?

        • I think they are missing a trick not boosting interpeak and weekend frequencies in the mean time. As you say the peak capacity is saturated, but the peaks are only four hours a day five days a week. The other 148 hours a week are sorely lacking. People travel a lot more than just weekday peaks, and we need to start letting people know that they can rely on public transport for transport whenever they need to travel, not just for city commuters.

          AT have come up with a marvellous intergrated PT network based around a network of frequent all-day every-day bus and train routes… so why wait until the new trains have arrived to implement that, why not start now by spreading the peak timetable and boosting weekends and evenings? Little things like a Sunday timetable that matches the Saturday one, and a minimum 30 minute headway of any time day or night would do wonders.

          • I’m sure the answer is cost, those ancient inefficient diesels ain’t cheap to run and all eyes are on getting out of them. Training will surely all be focused on the coming kit… I can see how the attention fades from the current service. The risk is to the new network, it all depends on timing; no point in bringing those bus loads of connectors to trains stations with few trains is there?

            Best hopes this is all being planned for…? It’s a very job for AT.

  • Those mode-share changes are misleading, because they’re reporting percentage point changes not actual percentage changes. The Central PT share change between 2009/10 and 2012 is 4.4% not 2.1%.

    That reporting masks the true magnitude of some of the changes, too. Manukau, for example, has seen a 46% increase in PT mode share, while the North Shore has seen a 19.4% decrease. Those are huge, and reporting the percentage point changes hides how huge they really are.

  • Josh

    Don’t forget the private sector please. In particular the financial sector which has paved a simple yellow brick road to most bars in the britomart area. I suppose you can define the mode of transport and changes but I can assure you those upgraded precincts make individuals want to use those different modes. Sorry to say alcohol is a contributor but lets give a shout out to the Auckland police removing would be d drivers from the scene.

    • You make it sound like a bit of a chicken and egg argument. I would say its a combination of factors all working together in a bit of a feedback loop. Improved PT makes it more viable to go out and have a few drinks after work which means the bars can perform better and leads more being developed and then creates more demand for further improved PT services. Other factors are all playing a part too but I think that if there was a single reason for much of it, it would have been the construction of Britomart signalling a renewed focus on the importance of the CBD and of PT which has impacted all modes.

  • Kent Lundberg

    Waiting for the banners across Queen Street: “Thank you for not driving into the city”.

    • Peter M

      Waiting for Queen Street to be pedestrianised.

      • Kent Lundberg

        Pedestrianised with beer gardens.

        • Beerdestrianisation? I like it.

          • Luke C

            Bratislava’s old town is really good for that. Thinking of that on a 2 month European trip I think every main city I saw had a major pedestrian shopping street. This includes places further east like Budapest, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Bratislava, Istanbul.
            Totally agree about traffic volumes too, last time I was walking down Queen St at 5pm there were a handful of cars but paths were very crowded with people. This was near Britomart. Soon could get to stage where is dangerous not to do so.
            Might have an opportunity with CBDRL. I think the Albert St stormwater main has to be moved to Queen St, so street will need to be closed to cars for construction. Hopefully it will never reopen!

      • Peter M

        I was thinking yesterday afternoon how crowded the footpaths felt and how utterly empty the road was. Love to know what has happened to traffic volumes along Queen Street in the past few years. Surely that info would be somewhere?

  • LucyJH

    they are but not in a particularly accessible format. I think Auckland City Council used to have a cool online table where you could just plug in a particular street and get back traffic counts specifically for that. Now you have to wade through huge excel spreadsheet. http://www.aucklandtransport.govt.nz/improving-transport/maintenance/Road/Pages/Traffic-Counts.aspx

  • LucyJH

    ok, I actually don’t think this data is anywhere near complete. I am sure Auckland City Council used to have much more detailed traffic counts than that available. perhaps email AT and ask them?

  • Publius

    I’d think the Grafton Motorway would account for some of the decrease. No need to travel thorough the CBD unless it really is your destination now.

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