Warning, this post contains no pictures, no maps, no links, no data and no evidence. It is 100% personal, editorial opinion. If you make it to the end I expect a strongly worded comment in return, whatever your views.
There I said it. In no time at all Auckland will easily have the best transit system in Australasia.
Am I crazy you ask, is this a wind up? Auckland, the traffic choked city with the laughing stock trains and disintegrated “spaghetti on a wall” bus network? Auckland, New Zealand… right? Right.
So I must be talking about after we build the City Rail Link and a bunch of new train lines yeah, maybe in fifty years when we’re digging metro tunnels and electric driverless buses zip up every street every couple of minutes? No. I mean soon, real soon, in a couple of years at most.
There’s all sorts of myths about Auckland and how public transport won’t work, that it’s too spread out, too low density, too this, too that. They are actually quite wrong, common truisms with little basis in reality, post hoc justifications for the current road centric transport outcomes we’ve been planning and implementing for decades.
Here’s the thing. Auckland is incredibly well suited to passenger transit. It’s just screaming out for it. It’s also not particularly well suited to road transport. But more importantly, Auckland now has the means to deliver the world class public transport to which it is ideally suited. So let’s try and take an objective look at the qualities and nature of Auckland, and how those relate to the efficiency and efficacy of passenger transit.
Geography and Topography
Auckland was first called Tamaki Makaurau, which translates roughly as “The Bride with a Thousand Suitors”. The name reflects the fact that Auckland has favourable geography that has been contested for hundreds of years.
The reasons the British colonists set up here are exactly the same reasons pre-european Maori did: a strategic pinch point on the land between north and south, blessed with two harbour giving sea access to both coasts, and a variety of bays, inlets and rivers giving cheap bulk transport access (i.e. waka and skiff) deep into the hinterland.
So Auckland’s geography is a geography of pinch points. At a macro level, Auckland is centred on a pinch of the upper North Island. The Isthmus means all transport and trade from Northland to Waikato has to pass through Auckland, a position equally ideal for an ambitious tribal chief or a nascent colonial administrator.
But it also means the same for travel within the city, any trip from the North Shore to South Auckland, or from Westieland to the Eastern Bays, it all has to pass through the same narrow strip of land. There are pinch points everywhere, some bridged, some natural. From the North Shore there are only two ways to access the rest of the city without getting your feet wet, the Harbour Bridge to central Auckland, and the Upper Harbour bridge to West Auckland. That means all traffic leaving the North Shore, be it car, bus, bicycle or llama caravan, has to pass along one of those points. The scenario is repeated to the west, to leave West Auckland you have the choice of the one bridge to the North Shore, the Northwestern Motorway causeway, or the thin strip of land straddled by New Lynn. Out south we see it again, all travel of any kind, except ferry, must pass across one of three narrow points: the Mangere Bridge, the Otahuhu isthmus, or the set of bridges at Panmure.
So what does this mean for public transport? As it turns out, a lot. At a very simple level transport networks are networks of geometry, and the geometry of traffic and PT are somewhat opposite. Road networks are least efficient when all traffic is forced into one place, we call that a traffic jam, a bottleneck. The tendency of traffic is to spread out. The great roadbuilders of Americas Midwest do everything they can to avoid a confluence of freeways. Public transport on the other hand work very well when you already have plenty of people all travelling the same way, it makes it easy and efficient to fill up buses and trains. Natural pinch points are perfect for PT.
Auckland is a city that is fundamentally and naturally perfect for public transport, and fundamentally ill-suited to mass road networks. Despite what the man on the street may claim about Auckland’s unsuitability, the opposite is a simple geometric fact.
The geography of Auckland means the natural success of our rapid transit system is just sitting there waiting for us to realise its potential. Going back to those pinch points let’s consider the opportunity of some examples. Every single trip from East Auckland to the central isthmus and onward to the west or north has to pass over one of two bridges, so everyone making the trip passes through Panmure or Silvia Park, where we already have rail stations with lines heading inbound and out. Over at Otahuhu it’s the same situation, anyone driving, cycling or walking on the motorway, Great South Road or a local street ends up within a few hundred metres of the rail station. At Mangere Bridge it is the same, all trips pass Onehunga station. Likewise from the north, all those trips over the Harbour Bridge run parallel to the busway, in the west they are all funnelled past the rail station at New Lynn. The two missing bits are the Upper Harbour and Northwestern motorway bridges, both corridors where AT have busways planned.
The geography of our city already funnels all long distance trips down to just seven pinch points. Five of those pinch points already have rapid transit lines running through them, while the remaining two have them on the horizon. We really couldn’t have asked for a better place to build rapid transit!
Density, urban form, population
For a new world city Auckland is dense, compact and constrained. Again people will tell you how we’re so spread out, so low density, so this and that. The myths are just that, myths, and the reality of the situation is quite the opposite. Auckland is hemmed in by two harbour, two mountain ranges and a series of hills. It just doesn’t sprawl the way the likes of Brisbane, Melbourne or Perth can, our urban form in contained and contiguous. In fact if you look at the population density of the non-rural area of the city we are tied equal with Sydney for the densest metropolis in Australasia. For sure we are no Hong Kong or Manhattan, but nor do we need to be. The density of our suburbs is more than enough to support very efficient bus and train routes. We might not be able to justify a tube station on every corner, but nor do we need that to have excellent public transport. We can have an exemplary transit system with the existing density and shape of our city.
Despite our density, or perhaps because of it, our population is growing strongly. Our people are breeding and migrants keep arriving. The economy is steady and strong, not so boom and bust as constant burn. If there is one constant we can rely upon it is that Auckland will grow. Our growth begets growth, our good city attracts people, which creates bigger markets, bigger labour pools and more of the things that make our city good, which in turn attracts more. The more urban we become, the more urbane. The more it grows the greater it becomes, literally and figuratively. We need housing, we need development, we need transport, and we can’t do it with sprawl and motoways. As Auckland grows it will grow into its boots. Back in the 1950s we might have been a large town, but now we are a dense and thriving metropolis where driving is simply not desirable in many cases, let alone a possibility.
This is the kicker for Auckland, not an exciting topic, but a very important one. Since the super city amalgamations we now have all our transport planning, land use planning, operations and infrastructure development under one roof. Well NZTA still hold the purse strings and the State Highway Network, but everything else falls under the Auckland Council family.
This is critical, it means Auckland has the remit to make good plans, and the means to deliver. All of what we see now, the New Network, the rail upgrades, Hop Ticketing, these all floundered for decades until Auckland Council and its subsidiary Auckland Transport were formed.
Head over to Australia and it is surprising anything gets done at all. The mix of federal, state and local government fractures their capital cities and makes implementation a chore. To change a bus route means dealing with an operator who delivers the route, dealing with the state who plans the route, dealing with the federal organisation that funds it, dealing with three or four little councils to move bus stops, all of whom have different ideas on how their streets should look, and what value they place on transit. Here we have just central government and Auckland. While they may not agree, there are only two parties at the arbitration table.
But what about the roads?
It is oft said that what you don’t build is just as important as what you do. This is true, it is hard to achieve a sustainable well-functioning transport system when you spend 90% of the budget expanding the road network. Even if we spent millions more on transit and active transport that would only go so far while we spend so much more on projects that undermine them.
So in the roadbuilders paradise of Auckland what hope have we for the future? Well plenty actually. The simple fact is we’ve already built all the big roads and motorways that we can do cheaply. The isthmus and suburbs are full, all that is left is built out neighbourhoods, harbour and inlets. There are no easy motorways left to build, no roads that it’s easy to widen.
The future of road building in Auckland is a choice of small, localised and efficient improvements, or massive economy-crippling expense. We are already seeing this: a million dollars a metre to widen the motorway through Victoria Park, $1.8 billion for the last few kilometres of the Waterview motorway, proposals for $5.5 billion (with a B) to duplicate the Northern Motorway across the harbour for the net benefit of a few thousand peak time car commuters heading downtown.
For sure the powers that be will continue to double down on motorways, but not for long. The bottom line will bite and we simply will not be able to fund any more. We simply must get smarter with our money. I’m actually confident we will not see a third harbour motorway crossing, if only because the cost is just so extreme.
The age of cheap and impactful road projects is done and gone. From now on we will need cheaper but more effective ways to retrofit transport into our city. This may sound like the fanciful wishes of a sustainable transport advocate, but the pure fiscal reality backs this up. Auckland has built its strategic roading network and needs to move on to cheaper and more effective ways to move people. The only question is whether we can make this shift proactively, or if we need one last gasp with an economic disaster like a harbour motorway tunnel to force our hand.
Auckland’s transit renaissance
We are in the middle of a revolution the likes our city has not seen since the mid 20th century. It may not feel like a revolution, because it’s fairly slow and we’re wading through the middle of it, but it is happening. Road use per capita is dropping while transit use is exploding, albeit the former from a very high level and the latter from a tiny base… but the winds of change are blowing.
Consider what we have now, an unintegrated legacy bus network focussed on moving workaday commuters to the CBD with a little welfare coverage on the side, a crippled lumbering rail system, separate fare products for everything, unreliability, poor service span, little frequency on the weekend, etc, etc. To be blunt what we are used to in Auckland is the textbook of what not to do, worlds worst practice public transport.
But consider what is coming up. An entirely redesigned transit network, rebuilt from the ground up to provide an integrated grid of connecting routes that run frequently all day and most of the evening, seven days a week. A completely overhauled rail system with brand new trains, directly integrated with the buses to form one region wide network of fast rapid transit stretching out into the suburbs. We will have a single simple fare structure with no penalty for transferring, with the liberating connectivity that brings, and we will have frequency and reliability gains. In short we are shifting rapidly to the world’s best practice transit network.
Sure, we won’t have an underground metro system or skytrains, or whatever. But we will have a transit network that gets within five minutes walk of every house in the city, that never requires you to check a timetable or wait, and that allows you to easily connect to rapid transit for a fast trip across the region any time or day of the week, or to another local route to easily get between any two suburbs around. It hardly matters if you are getting on a street level bus or a tube train, if they both come frequently, connect readily, and provide a fast and useful trip.
We may not have quite the same high profile infrastructure, but we will have the network, the service, the outcome, the usability.
But what of the Australian cities? Surely they have better PT?
In some case and some aspects yes, but none of the Australian capitals will have the perfect storm of conditions we will. I only have a passing understanding of the situations across the ditch, but as I see it none of the aussie cities are as well placed for excellent transit as we are:
- Melbourne is perhaps the most railed city in the new world. It is thick with transit infrastructure, sixteen rail lines, a four track underground city loop, plus the world’s largest tram network at street level. And the worst bus system I have ever seen, the poorest integration. It is a city the rests on the rusting laurels of the previous generation. In my old neighbourhood the tram line stopped on a corner in the suburbs about 1500m from the train station in the town centre. Why? Because they were built around a hundred years ago by competing companies that didn’t want to cooperate. Ten decades later they still don’t. Two major rail routes just far enough apart that they might have been on other sides of the planet. It’s fine if you live inside the tram network or along the fingers of railway, but for the other two thirds of the city the situation is dire. Because of their masses of infrastructure, they can’t look at their network overall, the operation, the usability, falls to the wayside. Melbourne has huge potential but it also has huge inertia to overcome. They might get there, but not before Auckland.
- Brisbane is a city with a very strong CBD and some rail lines and gold medal busways feeding to it… but they generally just take commuters on weekdays and little else. It’s a much less useful system overall. The reason for that is the shape and form of Brisbane, it is very spread out and suburbanised in a way Auckland could never be, it’s just that much harder to make non-commuter PT work there, even if the demand cropped up. They have battles between buses and trains, they don’t have the structures to integrate their network. The fact that they are proposing to build a double decked metro tunnel with trains underneath and buses on top underlines their inability to coordinate. They are soaked with roads and freeways, and have plenty of room for more.
- Sydney is perhaps a big mature example of what Auckland should avoid. They also have lots of trains, multiple underground stations, plus dozens of ferry lines and a lot of buses. They spend their money on billion dollar train links and light rail schemes but can’t get the basics of their local buses right. Try getting around the suburbs on a weekday evening without a car. Sydney could also be a great transit city if they went back to the fundamentals and started from the ground up, but from what I understand of NSW politics that is unlikely to happen.
So what of Auckland in comparison. We shall become the leapfrog city. As they say when you are at rock bottom you can only go up. By virtue of starting low, without inertia or expectation, and with a fundamental base of qualities that support transit, we will surpass our Australian peers. I predict that within the next ten years Auckland will have the highest number of PT trips per capita of any city in Australasia. It saddens me to see reports coming out that can’t see the coming confluence of ideal factors, and Auckland Transport responding by lowering their targets.
So what do we need to do to make it reality?
Well, not much actually. We are blessed by natural and intrinsic conditions that support transit, we have a robust economy and strong population growth. Most of all we don’t have much choice but to shift to a more economically and socially sustainable transport system. The conditions are there, the groundwork done. All we have to do is implement the plans that we have right now. It’s about that simple.
The Regional Public Transport Plan, with its totally revised network design, will set the snowball rolling. It’s actually exactly what Auckland needs, no more no less. And that is the crux, we have plans that are realistic, implementable, affordable and most importantly, will be very effective. The RPTP draws on all of Auckland’s strengths of geography, topography, governance, planning and operations and does wonders within that context. Most importantly, it doesn’t rely on major new projects or significant changes to funding, travel culture or a huge shift in travel patterns.
Ok sure, it’s not slam dunk in its own. We need to make sure the supporting things like integrated fares on HOP and a range of fairly minor infrastructure and interchange upgrades can happen. Oh and more bus lanes. Plenty more bus lanes. Bus lanes on every frequent transit route. In my opinion that is the one missing aspect that needs to be brought forward, but luckily they are actually very cheap and incredibly effective, as long as we can get over the political hurdles. Slowly but surely we should be buslaning our main arterials all over.
Longer term, we just need to complete the CRL based upgrade of the rail system, and follow through with the provisions of the Unitary Plan. Maybe a new busway or two, or light rail, on a couple of extra corridors as suggested by the Auckland Plan and the City Centre Masterplan. I actually think all these things will accelerate once the RPTP network is deployed. I’m not sure if anyone is anticipating quite how revolutionary it will be, how much demand for PT use will be realised in such a short time. But in general we don’t need mega infrastructure to get world class transit, Good planning, network integration and governance will do it. If we can implement that we will have a transit system that is more efficient and more useful for daily travel than any other system in Australasia. If we follow that up with the CRL and other such projects we will blow them out of the water.