It is generally accepted that Auckland is a growing little city with a lot of potential. It is also generally accepted that it has a transport problem. Mostly this is experienced by people when driving, as the problem of congestion. There is also a problem for anyone who wishes to get around without driving (and therefore not take part in nor contribute to that congestion), because by most standards, the options for doing so are seriously limited for a city of Auckland’s size and ambition. Auckland also suffers from the problems of trying to accommodate increasing numbers of vehicles in many parts of the city, especially in its most successful places, like Wynyard Quarter and Mission Bay and so on. These are the problems of auto-dependency (little choice but to drive) and auto-domination of place (not just roads and streets dominated by cars, but also destinations).
Furthermore, it is alarming that these problems are projected to only get worse, no matter how much we spend under current plans.
It is also clear that these issues are interrelated. A recent in-depth study comparing Auckland’s transport provision with 13 other cities in Australia, Canada, and the US summed up Auckland’s transport situation thus (with impressive academic understatement):
“Auckland, it should be noted, is in the same low range as the US cities in [Public Transport] service quantity per capita and considerably below all the other Australian/NZ cities. This probably reflects decades in which public transport has been given a relatively low priority.”
In unpacking this observation it is our view that:
1. The lack of quality alternatives to driving at all times and for every journey explains why such a relatively small city, with such expensively built and high quality road resources, has a congestion problem. In fact it is the overbuilding of one type of movement system (driving amenity) and undersupply of fast and attractive alternatives (Transit and cycling and walking infrastructure) that is the root cause of this problem.
2. It is neither difficult nor too expensive to fix this imbalance in Auckland.
3. This can be done by building on the work currently underway by Auckland Transport, and is consistent with the stated aims of Auckland Council to improve the whole city’s liveability. But it will require us to prioritise our transport investment to correct this structural imbalance. It will require a conscious change of policy from those of the last six decades that built the systems we now have.
It is important, however, to note that this does not mean the end of spending on improvements to the road network, nor that driving will somehow cease to be the dominant movement method across the wider city. Rather, it means that in order for both driving and the growing city to thrive, we need to prioritise investment in the areas that have been neglected for so long. This is a key change.
How to build the missing Transit network
We have shown with our staged programme for the development of a world class, city-wide and interconnected Rapid Transit Network, built largely on existing but under-utilised resources, that this is entirely possible in Auckland. That it is not the cost nor technical difficulties that have prevented this from occurring in the recent past, but simply the lack of the necessary political will and vision. That the current condition simply “reflects decades in which public transport has been given a relatively low priority.”
In previous posts we have also shown that none of the clichéd arguments why Auckland doesn’t have acceptable levels of Transit and Cycling amenity are convincing:
- Auckland is not too spread out;
- Auckland’s topography does not somehow make Transit impractical;
- Aucklanders are not somehow uniquely wedded to their vehicles.
So, accepting that there are no insurmountable reasons for our lopsided transport offering – simply that it is the result of what we have invested in – in this post I wish to examine whether it is reasonable to expect Aucklanders to use new Transit services if we provide them.
I will do this in two ways. Firstly, we can use the Benchmarking Study by Ian Wallis Associates quoted above to compare Auckland to similar cities in the Pacific region, and secondly, we can look at the outcomes of recent investments in Transit in Auckland.
Here is the first chart from the report:
You can see the list of comparator cities. These were all chosen for being New World, Anglophone, Pacific Rim cities of a roughly similar size to Auckland. OK they’re not all on the Pacific, and some are smaller and some larger, and yes none are exactly identical to Auckland, but it is clear that they are certainly as close as it is possible to get. Of course no cities are precisely the same, but we are not comparing Auckland to Zurich, or Copenhagen, or Shanghai here.
And guess what? Auckland has the lowest number of Transit boardings across all modes per capita. It would take a 50% jump to catch the next worst cities, Brisbane and Seattle, and a more than 300% one to reach any Canadian city, and nearly that to reach Melbourne and Sydney.
Here’s another way to visualise it:
Clearly it’s not that we don’t have a high enough population to have better Transit performance: There are seven smaller cities on that list that are doing better than us, and of course all the larger cities rate better too, as Auckland is the class dunce by this metric.
OK, well let’s have a look by mode… perhaps if we had whatever systems those other cities have we would do better?:
It is interesting to note that the mode share for Ferries in Sydney is roughly 3%. Recently we’ve had people pop up in the media to say that we should look to Sydney and solve our transport woes with ferries. It doesn’t look like that’s likely to work – ferries in Auckland already carry a greater share than in Sydney.
No, it isn’t that we don’t have some services, it’s just that the services we have aren’t very good. Here are the bus customer satisfaction charts: rail and ferry are no better, and these are just comparing within New Zealand, with Auckland the school dummy again:
Well, what do you expect for a subsidised service – if only the users paid more for the service, then wouldn’t it be better like in those other cities? How much do Auckland Transit users pay for this dubious pleasure?:
The most! Auckland really is the outlier among these cities.
Of course if more people were using Transit in Auckland then the fares would come to a higher quantum without necessarily raising costs, so how is our efficiency?:
Oh dear. Crappy and expensive.
So we charge a lot for whatever service there is, and we haven’t yet added any sophistications that we’re all used to when overseas like Oyster cards to made jumping on transit easy. Until recently we’ve only had unattractive stations, and we still run ancient trains and a slowly improving bus fleet, but what else could explain these consistently poor results? Ian, whaddayasay?:
Ah-ha! yes we’ve got trains, buses, and ferries, but we haven’t run them at all well, neither with sufficient separation from general traffic (in the case of the buses), nor with sufficient frequency (in the case of the trains and boats).
Nor have we integrated them all together, been smart about payment either as a process nor as a quantum, nor have we built agreeable, well placed stations for departure, arrival, or transfer.
But still, what if those other places are just different? What happens when we look at our own history? Here is what happened after we moved a train station to a new, smarter building, closer to the biggest concentration of workers and students in the country – certainly better than expected:
Britomart has exceeded its modelled patronage significantly – in fact, it had already exceeded the 2021 forecast by 2011.
Here is a chart for journeys to the area with the two recent ‘rapid transit’ investments, the City Centre. Before Britomart and the Northern Busway, up to 80% of all journeys to the city in the morning peak were by private car (with that share maximised in 1994). These two investments have taken that to below 50% (note that this chart doesn’t include ferry, walking, and cycling for some reason). So, these two investments have helped more people to access the commercial centre of the city, and have helped it to develop without having to accommodate ever-increasing quantities of cars, both moving and parked. This enables the kind of productivity growth and efficiencies that make cities successful.
The figures for the Northern Busway – remember, the only ‘Rapid Transit’ quality bus service in Auckland – are just as impressive. The mode share for the morning peak for the bus jumped from 18% to over 40% once that service was improved by providing the separate busway for some of its journey. Keeping the general traffic flowing easier over the bridge while more people are actually getting to the city and back from the Shore, without adding more vehicles and therefore increasing congestion problems. Today, in the morning peak, more than half the people travelling across the Harbour Bridge to the city do so by bus.
What is important too is that the answer isn’t an argument about what sort of vehicle, so much as how it is run. It can be a bus or a train, but the really important issues are that it is:
1. On its own right of way so that it isn’t stuck in traffic with everything else
2. Frequent enough to offer a ‘turn-up-and-go’ user experience
Trains always have to have a clear right of way, but are expensive to build. Buses are cheaper to introduce, but really don’t meet the grade if they are just thrown in with all the other traffic. So either way there has to be some serious investment. And why should car drivers care for such a cost to the community?
Well, here is Brian Rudman in the Herald, describing how easy the traffic is during the school holidays when school drop-off trips are removed from the system. An estimated 5% reduction in total, but enough to make the traffic flow so much better. The kind of reduction that an interconnected, well run, frequent, fast and attractive to use Transit network is more than likely to achieve in Auckland, just like those comparator cities. And of course, if we do it really well, we could experience even more significant efficiencies. There is a reason that cities the world over invest in more than one transport network; they act in a complementary way.
Here for example is what happened in Perth after significant investment in their old rail system (slightly larger population than Auckland, but at a lower density):
So, Auckland’s rail patronage is at the same point as Perth’s before they radically improved the entire network: electrification, new trains, an underground City Link, and an additional line, and then later a further one too. Each time the system’s appeal and uptake lifts significantly. All of these riders are no longer on the road forming that congestion. It is important to note that dip in patronage as the works of the upgrade are carried out. Auckland is experiencing that phase now as it undertakes some similar improvements to Perth.
Auckland Transport is currently making a whole lot of necessary changes to their services. Over the next couple of years we will get new and fast electric trains, be able to seamlessly jump from service to service just by waving a HOP card, and watch as the whole bus network is radically redeployed to give us much more frequency and new options.
But it is our contention – and we believe the PT Benchmark study and our own recent history of response to investment supports this – that it is only by a determined effort to build a coherent, grade separate Transit network, sitting at the top of Auckland’s new Transit mix, that all of this effort will reward the people of Auckland with a true alternative to taking part in vehicle congestion. In short, without the pursuit of the vision similar to that expressed in our Congestion Free Network, we cannot expect Auckland to unlock its potential, and get the most value from all its new and existing transport systems.
In summary, it is our view that investment in the ‘missing modes’ in Auckland’s transport mix offers the best value use of transport funds because:
- The urban motorway system is both nearly complete and lavish;
- Further urban motorway extension only reinforces auto-dependency which is, after all, the root cause of congestion;
- Further motorway additions at this point are only incremental, and are extremely expensive in the city environment;
- The Transit and Active modeshares are so low by any reasonable standard, that the return on investment is more certain;
- Investing in the ‘missing’ complementary networks builds much-needed resilience into the movement infrastructure of our biggest city;
- Both these modes also offer considerable other benefits for the city and its viability and liveability: improved health outcomes, improved air quality, improved safety, reduced emissions, and reduced dependence on imported fuels.
As celebrated computer scientist Sir Anthony Hoare observed:
“Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out.”