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Too High a Cost.

AT are doing some very very good things at the moment, they are showing leadership and courage to make rational but bold decisions.  Like dropping the Reeves Rd fly-over in favour of a BRT solution, creatively investigating ways to bring modern light rail to over-crowded bus routes, and quickly rolling out long overdue bus lanes on arterials. These are all fantastic and are signs of a nimble and lively institution, one that is responding to a changing world with a changed response. One that is resisting the natural tendency of public agencies to just roll on doing the same as before and not risk trouble. I applaud this and the hard working and dedicated individuals who are carrying out.

But at the same time, at least at the time of writing, AT has lost its way on Great North Road. So why have they got it so wrong here?

Looking at that first list we can see what all these issues have in common; they are all discretely transport issues; as you’d expect this is AT’s core competency. BRT versus a traffic flyover in Pakuranga? This is a debate between competing transport projects, each can be costed and outcomes evaluated. Analysing whether more buses will be able to deal with the demand on Isthmus and City routes or whether a higher capacity technology may be needed? Again this is problem of spatial geometry, vehicle size, route speed, likely passenger volumes, boarding times, vehicle dimensions etc. All the kinds of things a transport organisation ought to excel in, and that AT increasingly shows it does.

St Lukes Interchange Plan

But in examining the widening of Great North Road as if it only has transport outcomes they are showing the limits of this competency. That ‘place value’ just doesn’t compute is shown by the bewildering array of excuses being rolled out by AT to justify an act they clearly consider trivial: The removal of the six 80 year old Pohutukawa. First was an attempt to blame the need for killing these trees on improved cycling and public transport amenity in order to ‘bring long-term environmental benefits’:

We regret that the trees will be lost but a major benefit is that they will make way for cycle lanes to the motorway overbridge and for an extended bus lane and bus priority measures in Great North Road.

Making travel by cycle and bus more efficient and convenient is consistent with Auckland Transport’s drive to encourage the use of public transport. This will bring long-term environmental benefits as more people choose alternative modes of transport, to the car.

This is to draw an extraordinarily long bow. There are no ‘cycle lanes to the motorway overbridge’ in the proposed plan. There is absolutely no more cycling amenity on Great North Rd than there is currently, ie a wide footpath, except the new one will have no shade nor glory from the grand Pohutukawa. There is proposed to be a slightly longer but still intermittent bus lane. And as all this takes place as part of a massive increase in traffic lanes, including a double slip lane, to say that this project is designed to ‘bring long term environmental benefits as more people choose alternative modes of transport, to the car’ is frankly, an untruth.
That statement would be justified if fully separated cycle lanes and proper Rapid Transit was at the core of the project. They are not.
Now we have a new justification, signed by the same high level AT executive, published in Metro Magazine: Cost.
Both AT and NZTA spend public money and it is our legal and moral responsibility to deliver the most objective cost-efficient solutions to the ratepayers and taxpayers that planning and engineering can devise, for the least possible cost.
Absolutely right. Cost, and value, is exactly the issue here. We all certainly want our money spent wisely by our public servants. But there are obvious problems with this assertion, first the cost is only relevant in the context of the value; a cheap thing is a waste if it is not very good. And the people of Auckland see losing the trees as too high a cost for what they propose. That AT don’t see they value of the trees how and where they are, or so discount it so, is essentially the heart of the disagreement. We understand that they have a low transport value, but AT cannot ignore values outside of their core discipline, particularly place values, as their actions have huge effects on the quality of life and place that are not captured by driver time savings, traffic flow, or PT ridership numbers. Neither AT nor NZTA can just ignore these issues and simply hide within their speciality. And nor can they claim that a couple of new trees are the same as magnificent ones that have witnessed the last 80 years at this spot.
Additionally, there is no evidence that the preferred option is less expensive in direct financial cost than say Option Six, which the peer review found to have no significantly different traffic outcomes. In fact Option Six must surely be cheaper to construct as it is one lane narrower and doesn’t involve removing the trees:
Pohutukawa Option 6
There are other issues that could be raised with this text like the bold claim the whole purpose of the Super City is to reduce congestion:
The founding premise of the Auckland super city was that the city’s congestion was costing $1 billion a year in lost productivity and this had to change.
Both this idea of the centrality of congestion busting to the whole purpose of the city and the quoting of a $1billion annual congestion cost figure show how blind AT have become to other issues of value. Other costs. Especially perhaps things that are hard to quantify. But then congestion cost itself is a very hard thing to quantify. The most recent attempt in New Zealand, published by NZTA itself [Wallis and Lupton 2013] find that the figure for Auckland is more likely in the realm of $250 million.
Wallis and Lupton 2013
But regardless of this supposed quantum it has long been understood that congestion is not solved by building more roads, that in fact while temporarily easing one route, overall this only encourages more driving and auto-dependency for a place, and ultimately worse congestion everywhere. It is, quite literally, the loosening of the belt as a ‘cure’ for obesity. It is also understood that the best outcome for all road users, the best way to combat congestion, is to invest in the alternative Rapid Transit route, particularly where none currently exists:
This relationship is one of the key mechanisms that make city systems tick. It is basic microeconomics, people shifting between two different options until there is no advantage in shifting and equilibrium is found. We can see this relationship in data sets that make comparisons between international cities. Cities with faster public transport speeds generally have faster road speeds.
So again the heavy cost of this work, both financially and in the loss of the trees, a massive reduction in place value, is too high for this outcome.
As some levels of AT seem to admit they place no value on the trees, or indeed anything that isn’t directly transport related, the best outcome would be for the Board to give them direction to find a solution that both keeps the trees and meets reasonable near term traffic demand and in fact meaningfully incentivises the mode shift that AT correctly values:
Urban roads and state highways working together to keep the traffic flowing and fast, efficient road, rail and ferry passenger services that — together with walking and cycling — entice Aucklanders out of their cars.
 -Auckland Transport Metro Magazine
This is an issue of cost, and value. The people of Auckland, Auckland Transport’s ultimate customers and employers, find the cost to place-value too high, and the value of the proposed outcome too low, to justify this action. The public may have been slow to realise what was planned here but have now made their views clear. Recently we have come to expect bold and innovative solutions from AT for all sorts of difficult problems. So it would be very unfortunate if the Board were to miss an opportunity to call a halt to this irreversible action and to seek a smarter solution.
And because work has begun the most efficient and cost effective solution is probably to make the small but significant change to Option Six, leaving the trees, adding the additional slip lane, but settling at least for now, for the two east bound lanes away from the motorway overbridge instead of three. It would be good to see the real effects are after the opening of the Waterview connection before rash actions are taken. If a third lane is deemed necessary here [even though only two lead into it] it is clear that could be added in a few years as MOTAT as planning to restructure their whole relationship with this corner. AT can save some cost and some grief now and revisit the issue with more information and without the pressure from a NZTA deadline. It could be that they find that an east facing buslane and separated cycle way is of higher value through here…?
Pohutukawa Blossom, Elsewhere

Pohutukawa Blossom, elsewhere

34 comments to Too High a Cost.

  • Trev

    Given that it’s clear Auckland Transport is narrow minded to only transport outcomes (maybe not an issue as that’s their job) at what point does the Council come in over the top and direct a different solution?

    They are meant to be a council controlled organization after all.

    • Damian

      They cannot direct AT directly – but they could give a strong sign. Sadly, our Council (with the exception of the local boards and maybe one or two Councillors like Chris Darby), has been very silent on this. Almost as if it wasn’t in their city.

    • Well the Council in the form of the Local Boards have been unrelenting in ‘instructing’ AT of the value of the trees. But AT have chosen not to hear this. The main Council?, most have been distracted by other issues, anyway AT was specifically structured to be independent of them. I’m sure AT like good relations with one of their main funders, but on the whole it seems they feel more commonalty with the their other partner, NZTA. Another transport institution, and one that doesn’t face elections, and is even further removed from the messy and non-transport business of place quality.

  • Stephen F

    Looks like untruths throughout. Protected 80 year old native tree looks like the only truth I see! Credibility of whole project and statements made zero!!! Over dimensional route when motorway right beside it, interesting and can be on other half of road, 11.5m width when about 20m wide. Zero gain in Cycling and Public Transit! CAA thinks a dog, Maori don’t like it, even peer review thinking different option. Liveable City..no, Engineering Ethics doesn’t look like it. What does this project have going for it apart from how ridiculous traffic engineering can be when inputs are wrong, and outputs look even worse. Overall a perfect example of what not to do a bit like the 1.4 b project right beside it and only forced to put in some cycle connections through the courts. Direction still 180 degrees out of whole industry maybe a 30 degree turn so far by AT on other projects.

    • David B.

      Something fishy with this one alright – the local board is opposed, the public are opposed, all visible councillors are opposed, so what could be motivating AT here and why are they accountable to nobody?

      • The project is driven by NZTA, not AT, as part of the Western Ring Route project. Officially it is a joint sub-project of the overall project, but since it’s all about the motorway, I’m cetain it’s always been about what NZTA want.

        • Indeed but the only way we could get any democratic influence was through AT, as NZTA are a law unto themselves. And it worked as far as it could. We never expected we could change NZTA’s mono modal and retrograde plans here.

          They are next though.

  • DF

    This article nails it.

  • Realist

    Patrick – your article is correct in the fact that only AT, as the requiring authority, can now make the decision to keep the trees.

    However a lot of your criticism should be directed at the Council. What was the view of the planner making the recommendation on the NOR whose job is to do exactly what you describe – weigh up the positives and negatives and to come to the correct conclusion.

    If the Council planner was too inept to make the recommendation that the trees be kept they share the blame equally, if not more.

    • I’m really not very interested in blame, but rather in encouraging who ever is able to prevent an unrepairable disaster. And as you say right now that looks like the AT Board.

      How we got here is important in avoiding similar issues in the future and the Council’s role and the weight that the process gives to difficult to quantify values such as those held by these trees is certainly worth reviewing.

  • luke

    Follow the money, who stands to gain from this road buildig frenzy?

    • Stu Donovan

      The beneficent road lobby deserves all of your coin. All of it.

      • Max

        Which is kinda double-stupid, cause they could just make their dollar off PT, cycleway, footpath and public squares construction. It’s not like we would really be spending less on transport/infrastructure – we’ve got decades of urban realm neglect to repair, lots of old stuff to pull out and replace with better, lots of work.

        • Stephen F

          Agreed lots of work to do. Step 1 is actually reprioritising asphalt width and intersection controls in the full 180 degree direction if we want liveable then spending every cent wisely from there. Car level of service is actually at the bottom but will improve as network clears. It is the other modes where we need top level of service right now even at expense of car capacity and parking.

        • Finanicers prefer clipping the ticket on large infrastructure projects rather than many smaller ones. This govt loves financiers, as shown by the arrangements and priorities it has put in place.

  • George D

    It’s the complete bypass of outcomes that really bothers. If this was truly trees vs transport, then we might understand these plans. But it isn’t about the movement of people, it’s about the facilitation of congestion, given that single occupant vehicles are a very limited capacity mode which fill a space at a fraction of its people-moving ability.

  • Mr Plod

    Well said and timely, Patrick. Love the last photo as every Kiwi must.
    I’m looking forward to very different blog post this afternpoon, after the AT Board Meeting. Fingers crossed.
    Good luck to those attending and to the AT Board “Let Courage be Thy Test”.

  • Stu Donovan

    well said Patrick, thank you for writing this post.

    It’s quite simple really: The trees should not be cut down, and I suspect most people, even at AT, are in agreement. I’d be really interested to see an internal poll of AT people actually, as the reality is that this outcome is so out of touch with communities values that I’d be surprised if more than 10% of AT’s own staff supported it.

    What AT seems to be struggling with is finding a way out that doesn’t make themselves look foolish; ego is likely to be the only thing keeping this proposal afloat right now. Technical professional’s are humans like the rest of us, and we find it hard to walk away from our proposals when doing so implicitly acknowledges we probably made the wrong call back at the beginning, as seems to be the case here. I’ve been in that position myself, and it’s demoralising – easier to close one’s eyes and look the other way.

    There’s also a wider narrative to this issue that Patrick rightly touches on: Liveable cities learn when to say “no” to wider roads. In this particular urban context, a big ass intersection should have been off the table from the outset. Until I see AT making these hard calls in favour of building a liveable urban area more regularly, then I fear the Council’s ambitions for Auckwood are unlikely to be achieved.

    • David E

      Absolutely Stiu, that wider narrative you mention is the problem and you have to wonder at the quality of the questions when the answer looks like this.

    • I agree ego is a ‘root’ cause of the problem. Can AT somehow save face by claiming to have recently re-examined option 6 and to their surprise realised it delivers the transport outcomes they specified, and even saves money?

      • Stu Donovan

        it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with now.

        My instinct is that it’ll either be something similar to option 6, or alternatively the “do nothing”.

        The latter is not such a bad option in the context of the wider land use and transport system, which appears to be in a state of flux – e.g. Waterview opening and MOTAT re-development. And given AT’s capital budgets are so stretched, the “do nothing” would at least free up $5.5 million for other (arguably more valuable) projects.

    • anna

      Thankfully the board has chosen to prevent the trees being cut down. Great result.. the furore over the trees has probably distracted attention away from the fact that of the scale of the ‘improvements’ for this intersection overall. The Western Ring Route network plan identified there would be a 26% reduction in traffic exiting to go onto St Lukes Road. (makes sense when you can stay on the motorway). But this exit, along with the others are all getting upscaled.. even though there remains only one lane if you are travelling east. As to buses on the over bridge.. serioiusly how many are there now.. and how many are there predicted for the future? Not many i suspect.. but AT has switched on to the popularity of active modes and green washes its proposals. Well done Transport Blog for cutting through the greenwashing.

  • It seems odd that AT are holding so firm on this when they regularly give in to any opposition to their plans. Especially for cycling projects. The latest cave in is for Te Mahia station which will now remain open after a few people complained despite being one of the lowest used on the network. http://business.scoop.co.nz/2015/02/19/te-mahia-train-station-has-been-saved/

    Their resolve on this project seems to have the invisible hand of the NZTAs Highway Network Operations all over it

    • Stuart

      Yeah great point. How come they change plans when a couple of householders or businesses protest about the loss of parking spaces but won’t change their mind when 1000s of people from a community protest?

  • mfwic

    https://www.google.co.nz/maps/place/Taharoto+Rd,+Takapuna,+Auckland+0622/@-36.790016,174.762057,3a,75y,122.97h,90.76t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s7bTQV1wRzWTh6OzCV7eV5A!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x6d0d39c8b57986c9:0xc36c761cb11dd9
    Check out the massive Morton Bay Fig on the corner of Kilarney St and Anzac St. Roading engineers wanted to chop it but Councillors said we are keeping it so it stayed. A victory for proper public representation. (Also note how all the drip line nonsense arborists go on about doesn’t seem to matter!)

  • Our construction cost is too high due to lack of agency competition.
    We need more than two construction contractors.
    AT should open tenders to other construction contractors to get a competitive price.

  • Realist

    Looks like you guys won!

    Check out Herald website.

    Congratulations!

  • ianauldnz

    A big thank you to Transport Blog and the other groups who have been active in opposing the removal of these trees. Today’s decision is a big win for the people of Auckland and New Zealand.

  • Will post about it all when I have a little less Champagne in the bloodstream, but Jolisa was a star; what a speech!

  • Stephen F

    Jolissa had a higher strike rate than Brendan. Truly a star. Good on AT Board, evidence based outcome listened to facts and want a top notch PT and cycling and walking outcome. A top day for NZ Transport and the NZ Cricket Team!!!!!

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