This is the second of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US
I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.
There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.
I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.
Auckland is sometimes described as the Los Angeles of the South Pacific. Both cities experienced their early growth in the streetcar years, and both cities replaced the rails with freeways and wide arterial boulevards in the 1950s. Since then, they have metastasised into their agricultural hinterland – Auckland spreading west through the orchards and vineyards of the Waitakeres and south through the horse and dairy farms of Manukau, and LA replacing orange groves and orchards with tract houses for a hundred kilometres inland. In spite of frenetic road extensions and widening, both cities suffered from worsening traffic.
LA’s traffic is as bad as advertised. I spent a day visiting friends and sites of interest across the region, and noticed the incredible volumes of cars and trucks (many, many trucks delivering freight from the Ports of LA and Long Beach to distribution hubs in the Inland Empire) circulating on the roads. People in LA give directions starting with a freeway onramp and continuing with their personal theory of how best to negotiate traffic. Angelenos make small talk about traffic the way Aucklanders do about the weather. Regardless of the time of day, the freeways were prone to random intermittent congestion and speeds dropping to under 20 kilometres per hour. LA has tried to mitigate this by introducing designated all-day carpool lanes on freeways – with only partial success.
If the freeways were stressful, I was surprised to discover that there are some quite nice urban places dotted throughout the region. For example, Pasadena, which sits at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, has preserved its old town and built a significant amount of medium density housing around the university. Even in newer areas of LA, I was surprised to see a mix of low-rise apartment buildings in among ranch houses. However, there wasn’t that much evidence of mixed-use development, meaning that many people seem to drive incredibly long distances to work or shopping.
As dysfunctional as its traffic environment is, Los Angeles does seem to have taken the cue to develop new transport options. While road widening and surburban sprawl has continued apace over the last two decades, the region now has an extensive and growing rapid transit system. Starting in 1990, Los Angeles has built a rapid transit system consisting of two heavy rail lines, four light rail lines, and two bus rapid transit lines. Some lines run along existing rail corridors, while others operate in freeway medians. The system as a whole serves almost 110 million trips per year – exceeding early projections for some lines by tenfold. (However, in spite of Metro Rail’s success buses still account for three-quarters of the region’s PT trips.) After securing long-term funding from a referendum on a regional sales tax, Metro Rail is planning for expansion.
I rode the Gold Line in from Pasadena to Union Station to meet up with an old friend. It seemed like the most convenient way to make that trip – the trains ran every six minutes at peak times and took 15 to 20 minutes to cover a distance comparable to the train trip between Otahuhu and Britomart. It turns out that he got there by the train as well – he’s living the car-free life in a walkable 1920s-era neighbourhood near downtown Los Angeles. He commutes to work in Koreatown by bike, and has found that it’s possible to run pretty much any errand on bike or PT. Cycling is made easy by LA’s climate – the normally arid region has had less than 4 cm of rain in the last two drought years – but difficult by easily frustrated drivers. As in San Francisco, bike lanes are slowly appearing on the roads, but not yet being respected. We traded tips for cycling in two cities that are only slowly becoming accustomed to bikes.