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Myth Busting: Aucklands Geography

Myth: Auckland isn’t geographically suited to public transport.

I’m not sure where this myth even came from but if I had to guess, it would have been from the 50’s or 60’s, the same time that many of our transport myths originated from those looking to justify building the motorways instead of public transport. The theory goes that cities like Wellington are more suited to public transport, and in particular rail, due to the the geography largely forcing development into a couple of long thin corridors. As such, Auckland which extends out in all sorts of directions is said to be more suited to car based transport.

At first that seems logical which is why I guess so many people have taken it to be true but then how do you explain why public transport is able to be provided easily in river cities. Some of the worlds greatest cities sit on river plains and they spread out in all directions yet they have been able to build fairly extensive PT systems. Some of that is related to density (and I will address density in a future myth busting post) but not, an example I have experienced myself is Munich where urban area itself is not that much smaller than Auckland’s and the population is a fairly similar size.

What is interesting about Auckland is that unlike many cities, the outer parts of the urban area are naturally shaped into a handful of fairly defined corridors that connect to the isthmus at just a dozen pinch points, something that is actually perfectly suited to PT. This is further helped by some of the infrastructure we have already put in place like the rail lines and funnily enough those motorways.

  • The North Shore, which thanks to the Hauraki Gulf and the Waitamata Harbour is a fairly defined corridor all the way up to Albany.
  • To the West we have the land curving around and bordered by the Whau river on the eastern side and hemmed in by the Waitakere ranges and foothills on the western side.
  • SH16 has opened up a further corridor to the North West which is again bordered on one side by the upper reaches of the Waitamata.
  • In the East we have a similar situation to the west, in this case with the Tamaki river on one side and more hilly terrain on the other.
  • Lastly to the South we have development that has largely followed the rail line and motorway stretching development out in a long ribbon.

When you also add in our current and planed rapid transit network (RTN) you can see how the the areas away from the isthmus are largely contained into a few defined areas. In fact all most of the cities development is within ~1.5km of these RTN lines, including those bits within the isthmus. Lets have a look:

On top of this many of our older suburbs on the isthmus were actually developed with the help of public transport in the form of trams. These suburbs are uniquely suited to the provision of PT both in the past and in the future. However we don’t have to wait for decades to be able to afford this. As we have seen recently with the proposed new bus network, we have been able to get significant improvement out of our existing resources and as such by 2022 we will see the percentage of households that are within 500m of a service that runs at least every 15 minutes from 7am to 7pm will jump from 14% to 40%. Here is the 2016 version of the proposed PT map showing just how much coverage the new network will have.

So really Auckland is really quite suited to the provision of public transport. In many ways is not suited to urban motorways as those pinch points act to funnel traffic into a handful of places, something which decent public transport infrastructure can easily bypass while moving huge amounts more people. Further that motorway infrastructure has required huge physical alterations to our environment which have led the wholesale removal of suburbs. What has stopped us up until now has been poor decisions and planning that have forced PT to become substandard. The good news is that with a little bit of work, like the bus network redesign, we will be able to get it working much, much better.

51 comments to Myth Busting: Aucklands Geography

    • Mr Anderson

      What’s your point Grum? This argument is rolled out quite frequently – for example by some councillors to justify the Auckland Plan having so many dumb roading projects in it.

  • Greg N

    40% within usable distance of PT by 2022, sounds grand, but that means 60% of the population in 2022 won’t be. So will have to use other modes like cars for some or all of their journeys.

    I’m not sure how %age that compares to say Munich, but I would have thought it on the “low side” for whats required for the population of the time span covered by the Auckland plan.
    Sure, not all the growth in that plan is to be at the edges (where PT is hardest to deliver), but even so, by how much will that 40% change after 2022 (or more importantly, how much will it need to change to after 2022)?

    I assume your 2022 plan includes CRL, so if CRL is delayed, it will have a big impact on the 40% target will it not?

    • That’s 40% with 500m access to high frequency all day coverage (and I believe it is much higher for work places) with the % close to a service that meets the next criteria down being much higher. The next level down could just means the off peak frequency is between 15 and 30 minutes but doesn’t mean they will all be at that lowest level. At peak times there are considerable extra peak only services that bolster frequencies to most places.

  • Greg the point Matt is making is that there is nothing inherent in Auckland’s geography that prevents a good Transit service; if we don’t have one that’s because we haven’t organised one.

    How much or little movement choice we get in Auckland is up to us humans. We can’t blame god.

  • Also that 40% figure is for within 500m of an RTN or FTN service; there is still the more widespread local bus and ferry service below that. And of course park’n’rides at the more rural stations. So in practice a far greater proportion will have pretty good options in a few years. But yes, we still still have cars and roads too.

  • You haven’t written the myth quite the way people say it.

    It is true that cities like Wellington are better suited for PT, however the myth tends to say that Auckland is not suited.

    The case is more that it’s not quite as easy but it certainly is more than capable of providing a good PT network.

  • Nick R

    I might also add the 40% figure is for 2016, the 2022 frequent coverage is actually jus over 50%.

  • Simon C

    I hope you guys do a myth-busting post on the population density too low to have a great RTN compared to other Australasian cities. That’s a common myth brought up by the anti-PT brigade.

  • JR

    What was the point of this post?.. I though you were going to make an argument for the CRL, NRL (Nothern), WRL (Western) etc. Well done on proving buses are a reasonable means of PT in Auckland. Helped immensely by motorway.
    This post is a joke.

    • No. The bus network above cannot function without the RTN network (rail + NBW) it is integrated with. It is only one layer, the system needs all three: RTN, FTN, and local network. The post is about how there is no geographic reason that Auckland shouldn’t have a good Transit Network, like it says at the top.

    • The point of this post is that there are people out there who say that Auckland isn’t geographically suited for PT when in fact there are some very distinct corridors of development that are actually perfectly suited to PT. Buses are incredibly and useful but that doesn’t mean they will be able to do everything and we have to use the strengths of each mode in an integrated manner if we want a successful system.

    • Bryce P

      The observation that there are more and more, what seem to be anti-pt, people visting this site and leaving comments is heartening. It means that they are scared there is a groundswell of support for PT initiatives and they are worried that the ratio of transport spending is going to change. Onwards and upwards :-)

    • Buses are a reasonable means of PT in Auckland!

      • Yes and the existence and utility of buses does not constitute any kind of argument against the existence and utility of rail. It is not either or in a place of AK’s size and shape. The importance of buses to Auckland’s Transit mix is no kind of reason to not want to get the best possible value out of our extensive but disconnected and currently bottlenecked rail network

      • Bryce P

        I needed to get to the ferry a few weeks ago and travelled on one of the new GoWest (new NZBus ADL?) buses to avoid the hassle of parking etc. What a nice bus. Bit cramped with the weekend bags but quiet and civilised. Thanks NZBus. Looking forward to ‘hop’ing on/off the bus and ferry next time.

  • Kleefer

    You’re right that Auckland’s geography is suited to public transport. Unfortunately Auckland’s lack of wealth compared to other international cities isn’t suited to expensive train sets (it’s the cost of the trains rather than the trains themselves most people are worried about).

    In almost every major city worldwide, commuter train services run at a loss and are subsidised by the cities. They also tend to be CBD-centric and while they are good at moving lots of people in and out of the CBD, they usually make up a small share of overall commuting figures. These bigger, wealthier cities can afford to splash out a bit of cash to say “look at our great rail network!”

    Auckland, and indeed New Zealand (seeing the government will have to chip in to help fund any major new works), don’t have the luxury of vanity projects with low pay-off. Sure, improve the quality and speed of the current train services, which have seen rapid increases in patronage despite frequent delays etc. But we need to be very careful we don’t get caught up in the hype that tends to come with trains (who doesn’t love trains) and end up spending loads of money on projects that don’t add significantly to the number of people using the trains.

    A north shore rail link might be a good idea, if we can use an affordable option like the one suggested on this blog a few weeks ago. But I remain dubious about the benefits of the central rail link at the current price being quoted. Again, I am not opposed to the idea, but it’s just a question of whether the numbers add up.

    • Have a listen to the videos on this post from yesterday. It is the presence of rail that has allowed wealthy cities to generate their wealth as it allows for more jobs in an intensive area which produces strong agglomeration benefits.

      Also have a look at the this post, all transport requires subsidies its just we have trained ourself to ignore the roading ones while attacking the PT ones.

    • Yes, there is no way Auckland can compete with wealthy cities like Prague, Bucharest, Kiev, Lisbon, Warsaw, Cairo, Santiago, Tehran, Athens or Dublin. All of those cities either already have, or are building, major rail based transport systems.

      You seem to miss the point that PT actually helps lower income people by offering much cheaper transport alternatives. Only in a country as auto dependent as NZ would anyone suggest that cars are a better alternative for low income people. As a country, we are spending ourselves into a hole with the huge amount of waste every year on transport.

      Have you actually ever lived in a true transit city?

    • Also “they usually make up a small share of overall commuting figures”.

      Did you do any research before writing that factually incorrect statement? Metro systems in most European cities move the vast majority of the people every day, especially to the CBD.

      By example, the Prague metro (and Prague is neither wealthier nor bigger than Auckland) is used by everyone rich or poor because it is cheap, safe and incredibly effective.

      • Luke C

        Would be interesting to see some data about how ‘CBD centric’ european cities with successful metro’s are. Certainly in most cities visited by tourists, there are at least 2 distinct town centres, a tourist one with a lowrise old town, retail, museums etc but still a fair number of jobs, however there is usually a second one (or several) that is full of modern buildings like Bank HQ’s etc, and these are located several km’s away from the traditional town centres. I guess the best example of these are Canary Wharf in London, and La Defense in Paris but many smaller cities have versions too.
        There are a few exceptions like Brussels and Frankfurt that have numerous high rises in the traditional CBD, but seens quite rare.
        This shows that rail systems can successfully serve cities that have multiple centres, just need to be transfer based model.

    • Vanity projects like motorways to Wellsford parallel to half empty state highways perhaps?

      At the end of the day sorting out the core of the rail network with the CRL allows the double of capacity systemwide (i.e. from Swanson to Papakura and all points between). That’s a capacity increase of up to 15,000 passengers per direction at the peak point. In other words, it’s the same capacity as building a new six lane motorway from Swanson into town then out south to Papakura. That’s not a vanity project, that’s a major, game changing increase in transport capacity for the region. Arguably it may still not be worth the money, but it certainly isn’t a vanity project.

    • Cost goes like this

      rail < buses < cars

      Basically, due to the sheer stupidity of the politicians, Auckland and NZ in general has the most expensive transport system available.

    • New Zealand seems to have plenty of transport money to throw around. Look at the Holiday highway.

    • KLK


      “…… good at moving lots of people in and out of the CBD, they usually make up a small share of overall commuting figures. These bigger, wealthier cities can afford to splash out a bit of cash to say “look at our great rail network!”

      I will assume you haven’t lived in a city with decent rail? Pick anyone you like and you will find that in most cases they cover an entire region, not just a CBD, and it’s used by people to travel around that region. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong

      “Auckland, and indeed New Zealand (seeing the government will have to chip in to help fund any major new works), don’t have the luxury of vanity projects with low pay-off.”

      Our govt thinks otherwise – check out most of the RoNS. or are they held to a different standard? If we had a piece of road that was restricting the capacity and performance of the entire road network in Auckland, we wouldn’t even blink at $2bn to fix it. It’s hypocritical.

      “Sure, improve the quality and speed of the current train services, which have seen rapid increases in patronage despite frequent delays etc.”

      The entire network is almost at capacity for services (years ahead of schedule) and that will come sooner with the inevitable rise in passenger numbers to come from electrification and integrated ticketing. So, given that, soon, we won’t be able to add any more capacity with the existing layout, how do you propose to increase capacity and speed? You can tinker round the edges with things like a west-south service bypassing Newmarket, but it’s a short term solution. You simply cannot improve speed, frequency and capacity across the entire network (not just the CBD) to any great degree until The Britomart bottleneck is fixed. And that’s where the CRL comes in. If you have an alternative to the CRL to fix that bottleneck, we’d love to hear it.

      “But I remain dubious about the benefits of the central rail link at the current price being quoted. Again, I am not opposed to the idea, but it’s just a question of whether the numbers add up.”

      Would you like more people traveling by rail across more of the region? Then you have to fix Britomart and make it a through station. It’s really very very simple. We get a bit frustrated with people not knowing enough about the basics of the CRL and the benefits it provides. But that’s not surprising when people don’t really even understand the problem – how Britomart as it is is constraining growth across the entire network, not just the CBD.

      • Kleefer:

        Yes the rail network serves the centre, but that is only half the story, obviously, those train riders have to come from somewhere. And they do, from Swanson, from Papakura, from Glen Innes….. And also the centre is vital for the whole city and therefore the nation.

        However if your concern is that the current rail network is too centre focussed, I can only agree, because every train has to terminate at the deadend of Britomart. By through routing this blockage, by building this link, we cleverly open up the currently under exploited existing rail Right Of Way to much more efficient use and provide much better interconnection between points in addition to the centre.

        This is not a ‘trophy’ project, but the vital ‘killer app’ for Auckland’s economic growth.

        Looking for low value wasted capital spending in the transport sector? Those huge duplicate highways where there is no current restraint and declining traffic volumes. 10+ billion with no economic foundation what so ever, simply the government’s faith that this century is exactly like the previous one. The RoNS programme is a disaster of scandalous proportions and deserves much more scrutiny.

      • Kleefer

        Just to clarify something, I do not support the RONS, which I believe is pork-barrel politicking at its worst. I also do not support National.

        To KLK, I understand the problems of Britomart’s design better than most as I have spent the better part of six years using the trains to get in and out of it. I am not some anti-rail campaigner as you seem to think. I used to take the train from Pukekohe; it takes over an hour to get to Britomart and it runs only a handful of times a day. How will the CRL change this? Again, I’m not opposed to the CRL per se but I think there are more pressing issues to sort out if the goal is to get more people on trains.

        Like Patrick said, many people take the train from the outer suburbs. How much time will the CRL shave off trips from places like Papakura and Swanson? Those who don’t take the train do so for reasons such as inconsistent service (breakdowns etc) and because they might not live close to a station. The CRL does nothing to address these fundamental issues.

        • Nick R

          Kleefer, the CRL addresses a system wide constraint on train frequency, by allowing many services to bypass Newmarket junction and avoid doubling back through Quay Park junction. That means both service frequency and capacity. It literally doubles the number of trains that can be run across Auckland. Right now we can only every run a timetable of around 20 trains an hour across all of the region. With the CRL bypass we get 40 an hour across the region.

          How does it help Pukekohe? Well right now with the network more or less at capacity, any one train routed from Pukekohe is one that cannot be run from Swanson or Manukau or Onehunga. The frequency of service has to be proportional to demand across the lines, effectively they are competitive. Now say you want more frequency out of Puke, but you can only fill up a single train… however over on the western line you’ve got demand to fill up a double train set. In that case you have to allocate the slot to the double because it benefits twice as many people. If you double the systemwide frequency, you can double the number of trains an hour from Pukekohe while also doubling the number of trains from everywhere else. Without it nobody gets any more train frequency.

          That frequency helps every trip at every station. Leaving Swanson? Well at best you’ll see ten minute headways without the CRL. With the CRL that can be five minute headways. You’ve just saved several minutes off every single journey. It also becomes more reliable too. You’re no longer ramming every last train you can through a series of junctions at maximum capacity to squeeze every last slot out of the network. With the CRL you can bypass a lot of those conflicting movements and congested junctions. End result is every train becomes more reliable and less susceptible to delays.

          It also allows lines from either end to be through routed in a meaningful way. For example, you might have a through route from the western to the eastern, making a trip from, say, New Lynn to Glen Innes not only more direct (avoiding the Newmarket dogleg and double back) but also much faster by avoiding the need to change lines.

          Perhaps the most important factor, once the CRL can provide enough regular frequency and capacity it becomes feasible to intergrate the bus and rail networks directly. The new RPTP will start this on the strength of the EMU fleet, but the CRL is really needed to make that work. But once that frequency is there we can have local buses circulating very frequency around neighbourhoods connecting to local centres and trains stations, from where very frequent train services will speed people across the city for longer trips. The CRL, by virtue of doubling suburban train frequency and capacity, will allow the catchment of the rapid rail network to extend to every street in the city. Walking distance no longer becomes a constraint with an integrated network.

          The CRL may only physically connect the lines at the core of the network, but in doing so it fixes up the whole regional system. So yes, it does an immense amount to address the fundamentals of faster trips, higher frequencies, higher capacities and network integration across the region.

          • Spot on with your explanation and also as far as reliability goes, wont electrification mean that we have a far more reliable system and electric motors are much more relaiable than diesel engines, let alone the fact the electric motors are brand new while the current diesel engines include engines that were basically thrown away by Perth in 1993.

            Kleefer, dont you see that all the problems you describe only exist beacuse NZ governments have consistently refused to spend money on rail in Auckland. Dove-Myer Robinson tried desperately to have the CRL built in the 70’s and 80’s and if opnly he had succeeded what a great city it would be. We are using a rail system that would be an embarrassment in far poorer and less developed countries than NZ. Other than a few cities in SW USA, we have the worst PT system of any city in a developed country.

            You dont seem like a guy who is anti-rail as such so you should spend some time to read the really excellent posts put together here that explain in minute detail all your concerns. If you are really open minded I fail to see how you couldnt be convinced.

            You have to ask why almost every city in the world is building more rail. They cant all be deluded (though Andrew Atkins seems to believe they have all been brainwashed by Hitler, at least I think that was his point).

        • Further to Nicks comment, you asked about how much time would it save. Well the west sees the biggest benefit as it cuts a couple of km off the journey to town due to trains not having to go the long way around to the CBD. That alone will be worth 5-10 minutes. On top of that, most employment in the city centre is actually closer to the Aotea Station rather than Britomart. This benefits users of all lines as for many it will cut down on the walking distance from the station to their workplace so that could perhaps be another 10 minutes saved. That means someone living out west and working around Wellesley St could perhaps save 15-20 minutes on their commute.

          This time saving is going to make rail a very attractive option at peak times and drive up patronage which in turn helps to justify higher frequencies. Higher frequencies makes services more attractive meaning more people feel comfortable using it. With the CRL in place I think we are likely to see at least peak frequencies at every 5 minutes across most lines within a few years of opening.

  • JoeCrow

    I believe that what really drove those short-sighted planners of the 50s/60s was the belief that suburbanisation was The Way of the Future – meaning the CBD could be left to stagnate and public transport “wouldn’t be needed,” because folks could just work from home or drive around in a private motorcar when they weren’t. Look at Kenneth Cumberland’s Landmarks TV series of the early 80s – particularly the silly episode where he posits Twizel as a model for Town of the Future.

    • Yeah I agree, I think that it is a bit like a pendulum, we started off with dense urban environments due to it being a more efficient use of space. As the car in particular came along it allowed us to travel further with ease and so we spread out however now it is swinging back the other way as people rediscover what makes cities interesting which is the people and the unique things that are only possible to justify due to things like higher density.

    • Bryce P

      In the same way we are being told that with the internet, working from home is the way of the future, but the reality is that, yes there are people who can do this successfully, but there are also many more who cannot and then there are people who like to socialise and talk to people (not via FB or twitter) in places that they can easily walk to.

      • Bryce the evidence is that more internet connectivity does not lead to less desire for face to face at all; in fact the reverse is the case. All over the world people industries are congregating together simply because meeting people, accidentally as well as by arrangement, is more vital than ever for business.

        We are not spreading out across the world and just skypeing and emailing each other; we are doing that, but from intensely occupied places called cities.

        Counter intuitive to many, I guess.

        • Stu Donovan

          Not completely sure about this – I think it’s a mixed bag and too early to tell. I can readily point to situations were telecommunications have helped me to avoid the need to travel. Also quite easy to identify activities, such as internet banking and online booking that have defnitely affected trip generation rates for those activities.

          • Sure, but you haven’t rushed out to exurbia and abandoned the high costs and terrible crush of city to spend your days working online have you? Oh and nor have very many others, in fact the rise of this technology has been accompanied by the complete reverse of this, across the world.

            And let’s be clear about this; this was the prediction, and in fact still is by those who refuse to see what is happening, has happened all this century. And it’s all across the globe. And why? Because clumping together, no matter how smart our phones or how fat our pipe [!] works out better for us. As Ed Glaeser puts it: it makes us wealthier, healthier. and happier.

          • Stu Donovan

            I don’t believe that telecommunications are a threat to urban living at all.

            But I do think they are reducing the need for motorised travel, especially in peak periods for white collar workers travelling to the city centre. People still leave the house to see other people – just not so much at peak times.

            It’s now at the point where, for example, the account fees that banks charge actively discourage you from coming into the store in person and instead deal with it online. It won’t be long before other service providers go the same way.

            I’m also a firm believer in “thresholds” whereby complimentary technologies suddenly enable rapid change. Cloud based computing is one such technology that simply builds off existing technology to create a product that may have a major impact on the way that we do business. But I fully accept it won’t happen overnight and it won’t solve all our transport problems.

  • Suggestion: Create a link to these Myth busting posts on the top menu of the blog.

  • Stu Donovan

    Auckland is wonderfully suited to public transport – this is a useful myth buster. It’s relatively dense (for a new world city), walkable, has a half-decent arterial street network, and surrounded by chokepoints; what more do you need? Oh I know, a central government that supports, rather than dictates, regional ambitions.

  • lastpost

    I cant wait to see what fantasy world the larbour & Greens come up with.. Mr Anderson now the architect. Not sure though your head can get any bigger!

  • The main reason Akl’s geography is suited for PT is that it is a linear conurbation (as a consequence of the uncommon, isthmus location). This reason can only grow in its importance as the current 100 km-long metropolitan grows into a 200 km-long city-region by 2030 or 2040.

    • Frank McRae

      Dushko Bogunovich – A 200 km long sprawl is not a city. Your theories on the city sound like something from a 1950’s text book with a few sustainability buzzwords thrown in.

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