Postcard from Downtown Los Angeles

We’re going to need to re-inhabit and rehabilitate our cities and our urban neighborhoods whether we like it or not, because the suburbs are bankrupting our culture, economically, ecologically, socially, and spiritually. - James Howard Kunstler

On a recent west coast (US) whistle stop tour I took a couple of days to check out Downtown Los Angeles. For half a century downtown LA epitomised the country’s flight to the suburbs abetted by mass motorisation — fleeing businesses and residents, abandoned buildings, and a concentration of social problems. Over the last decade, and in particular the last few years, Downtown LA has emerged as one of the most interesting urban stories in America. From mothballed turn-of-the century buildings being re-imagined as lofts and co-working offices- to 21st century transportation systems both unlocking and re-centralising the place, Downtown LA has been quite seriously called “America’s Next Great City.”

Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles

Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles

Like 100 years ago Downtown benefits from a convergence of public transportation routes. I arrived from the south via Metrolink into the remodeled Union Station and effortlessly switched to the Red and Purple subway lines which overlap to provide 5 minute headways across Downtown. Los Angeles is rapidly extending and connecting this subway system. The Purple Line will be extended to the “Westside” (UCLA, Westwood) by 2035 and the Metro Line LRT will be extended from the busy 7th St/Metro Station all the way to the beach in Santa Monica by next year. In the short term (2020) the Central Connector project will allow the regional LRT lines from Long Beach (Blue Line) and Pasadena (Gold Line) to run through Downtown using a new alignment while adding three more stations.

Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles

Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles


Recently opened Spring Arcade under redevelopment

An ambitious focused rehab project is currently underway on Broadway. Widened footpaths, mid-block crossings, and tightened intersections are part of this ambitious project to help resurrect the district with 12 old theatres and dozens of amazing old buildings many of which remain mothballed above the street level. A circuitous downtown streetcar will be added along here as well. In the short term street upgrades have been “painted on” using the NYC interim design technique of textured paint and physical barriers. The recent changes don’t seem to cause any problems and the traffic is surprisingly tame and civil. The traffic signals are timed with very short phases and concurrent crossings (and better road rules), allow people to walk effortlessly across the numerous dense districts that form the downtown.


Los Angeles Theater. Broadway, Los Angeles


NYC-interim design on Broadway

The residential population in the city has exploded from 29,000 in 2006 to 52,400 in 2014 . While the local population looks very DINK-y (dogs, gym bags) a grade school was opened just last year. This new population has an abundance of consumer choices from the 600 new stores, restaurants and bars that have opened since 2008. In addition to steampunk bars and taco trucks local residents are increasingly being served by conventional retail. So not only can you buy a pair of brand new 1982 Nike Air Force sneakers from the specialty boutique store but you can also pick up a vacuum at Target or socks at Ross. Global brands like H&M and Zara have recently opened very successful flagship stores and the uber hip ACE Hotel has just opened in a refurbished old building.


Angel City Brewery, Arts District, Los Angeles


Urban Outfitters, Broadway, opened 2014.

According to a friend, the technology sector has reached a critical mass with tech companies like NationBuilder using a Downtown location as a key branding and talent attraction strategy. Other large, established creative firms like Yahoo which traditionally locate in Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Culver City are now looking for options Downtown.

During my time in LA I kept thinking about what Gordon Price said to me a couple of years ago- “In 10 years Los Angeles will be unrecognisable”. At that time he was referring to Measure R a successful local tax initiative that provided specific funding from sales tax for public transportation projects. Since that time Downtown LA is already unrecognisable. This is what a city looks like being turned over and re-imagined in real time, and like NYC, it will be worth revisiting time and time again to enjoy the changes. If you are in Los Angeles for a short period of time, do yourself a favour- skip the beach and head Downtown. If you are there after the extension of the Metro Line you will soon be able to do both.


7th Street, Jewelry District, Downtown Los Angeles

Changing transport trends being noticed

As mentioned yesterday, the second interesting paper going to the Council’s Infrastructure Committee is in relation to Transport Trends (page 9). It highlights many of the same trends that we’ve been noting for a few years now and shows that change is happening in how Aucklanders get around. A summary of the trends is below.

  • Journey to work information from the 2013 Census was released in February 2014. The journey to work data showed an increase in public transport modeshare from 2006-2013 from 8% to 10%, a reduction in private vehicle modeshare from 86% to 84% and an increase in walking and cycling modeshare from 5.9% to 6.3%. 44% of the growth in journeys to work between 2006 and 2013 was by public transport, 41% by private vehicles and 15% by walking and cycling.
  • Journey to work information from the 2013 Census was released in February 2014. The journey to work data showed an increase in public transport modeshare from 2006-2013 from 8% to 10%, a reduction in private vehicle modeshare from 86% to 84% and an increase in walking and cycling modeshare from 5.9% to 6.3%. 44% of the growth in journeys to work between 2006 and 2013 was by public transport, 41% by private vehicles and 15% by walking and cycling.
  • Slower growth in VKT, including declines in VKT per capita observed in Auckland and across New Zealand over the past few years are consistent with changes in transport trends observed internationally in a wide variety of developed countries. Most developed countries show a decline in VKT per capita and slower VKT growth since the middle of last decade (generally pre-dating the Global Financial Crisis) with some countries (such as the United Kingdom) exhibiting a decline in VKT per capita for a much longer period.
  • International literature outlines a variety of reasons behind the change in transport trends over the past decade. These include both short-term (e.g. effects of the Global Financial Crisis and subsequent widespread recessions) and longer term (e.g. cultural shifts, higher oil prices and growing urbanisation) causes.
  • Recent transport trends, both nationally and internationally, are important to note because they represent a significant change from many decades of consistent growth in both VKT and VKT per capita, as well as a change from previously persistent declines in public transport and active transport modeshare. Growing international recognition of the longer term causes of these changes is also extremely important in relation to future transport projections, to ensure that those forecasts are not over-projecting future VKT, leading to unnecessary investment.

The journey to work results from the census is something we’ve covered before including how it’s changed over time. The paper also compares Auckland’s results with those seen in some of the key Australian cities which shows that we still have higher levels of car use for getting to work than our neighbours to the west however we do seem to be doing better on walking.

Census Auckland vs Australian cities

The big news story from the census in relation to transport was that from 2006 to 2013 while all modes grew, the largest growth in trips to work was trips on public transport. It’s probably the first time in many decades that has happened. The report notes that it’s a clear sign the investment in improved transport choice and travel planning has had a major impact.

Census Auckland history

Census Auckland history graph

The report moves on to data from the Ministry of Transport on vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) and says that while the total number of VKT has increased since 2001, the majority was in the 2001-2006/7 period after which the growth slowed and even went backwards in 2011/12.  On a per capita basis however represents a real decline in how far people are driving.

NZ Regions VKT

We also know that similar trends of flat lining falling car usage have been seen overseas and the paper highlights this through the graphs below show US vehicle miles travelled in total and per capita. The second graph compares a number of other western countries, most of which VKT fall off. from around 2003.


INTL vkt trends


As to what’s causing the trends, this is summarised by this table

Change in transport trends

The report lastly covers off some of the implications from the changing transport trends. Probably the key is that the councils transport models will need to be updated and that is likely to result in changes in the mix of projects that are likely to get built.

Combining the changing trends with the tighter funding that is likely to eventuate and we might just end up knocking a few of the crazily stupid roading projects (like Penlink) off the list for some time.

This report was also picked up on by the Herald yesterday. It’s good to see the mainstream media finally starting to pick up on some of these trends.

Fanshawe St Goes Green

Not a new flag design [not bad though]. No this is a some seriously significant tarmac for Auckland. Why so? FANSHAWE ST BUSLANES_8083 The 28th of April 2014 is proving to be a bit of a red letter day for the minor revolution that is sneaking up on Auckland: The revitalisation of Auckland as a Transit city. Of course it marks the beginning of our new electric trains in ordinary service, but also another, smaller, much cheaper, but arguably just as significant change begins today: Northbound bus lanes on almost all of Fanshawe St. How could anything as boring as buslanes; patches of garish green crystals on existing Macadam be so significant, especially compared to the arrival of the long awaited electric trains?

FANSHAWE ST red and green

Red and Green: what could be better?

Well because they represent a new nimbler Auckland Transport. Able to act fast on good ideas, willing to listen to suggestions from outside their usual processes, and one looking significantly more interested in serving all road users and not just those single occupant car drivers. Here’s a little history: Luke’s post from February this year started the ball rolling, caught the attention of many at AT, particularly the Chairman of the Board and, waddayaknow? Action. And now: Done.

Take a bow Auckland Transport.

And now we know quick fixes can be done, so we look forward to many more like this one, I’m sure our readers have many more in mind. To start I guess the obvious one is the need to link these new bus lanes in Fanshawe St with the ones on the Central Connector through Customs St……


Street crystal joy

Also this is a good opportunity to point out another good recent upgrade; what it says on the back of that City Link Bus: Higher frequencies to Wynyard Quarter, an increase in freedom now amplified by this increase in road priority on this route with the new bus lanes. Imagine anyone using the Onehunga Line to get Wynyard Quarter must be feeling triple the love from AT today!

A resolution to make this city better

Regardless of what you may think of the Catholic Church or religion in general, most people can probably agree that Pope Francis’ down to earth manner combined with his simple and common sense messages prompting people to think about how they treat others has been extremely positive. A single sentence from his end of year service the other night was something I thought was particularly relevant to this blog.

He also encouraged people to reflect on whether they used 2013 to improve the place where they live. “This year did we contribute, in our own small ways, to make it more livable, orderly, welcoming?”

Perhaps the key reason I put the time and effort in to continually write this blog (often to frustration of my wonderful wife) is that at the end of the day I want to make Auckland (and New Zealand) a better place. I want it to be better for everyone and the main issues that we talk about of transport and urban form are ones that affect all of us whether we want them to or not.

In terms of Auckland it’s clear to most of us that we have made a lot of mistakes in the past and in both of these areas. In my opinion we can only fix them through intelligently working through the issues rather than applying some form of ideological solution – although some solutions probably require a bit of a leap of faith. I hope that we (as a blog) can help to facilitate intelligent discussion to help make this a reality – even if it seems we are often talking about what we consider silly ideas, it’s probably a bit of a case of it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Coming back to Pope Francis’ comment, I would like to think I can say that I have contributed to making this place more liveable and welcoming (not sure how we do orderly ;-) ). Further without people reading and supporting us we wouldn’t be able to get traction on many of the things we do, like we have with the Congestion Free Network as an example. So in a way you could say that by reading this blog you too are helping make this city more liveable.

But I guess I would also like each of you to think about what else you can do to make this a better place. Perhaps it’s engaging with others in your own communities to push for improvements, perhaps it’s taking some time out to do something like write a formal submission in support of ideas that make this place better and in opposition to ideas that don’t or perhaps in your professional life that you ensure that what you are doing will actually make a positive difference to everyone. I’m sure many of you are doing these things already.

This is also something quite similar to what Brent Toderian – who visited Auckland a few months ago – wrote a year ago on Planetizen and in my opinion is still just as relevant today.

Hello Planetizen readers – on this New Year’s Eve, I find myself “thinking with my thumbs” on my Blackberry as my wife and I explore Seattle before tonight’s festivities – thinking beyond the resolutions and goals for myself, my family, and my company. I’m thinking about us – a community of urbanists, who have been working for much of our careers to make our cities, towns and communities better.

Sometimes we’ve worked with success, often with frustration and fatigue, but always with a passion that keeps driving us forward.

We’ve known for decades the better ways to do things, for greater urban health, sustainability, resiliency, vibrancy and economic success. Ways to address critical challenges as diverse as affordability, our carbon and ecological footprint, public health crises, demographic shifts, on and on – many or most with the same “convenient solution”… better, smarter city-making.

The challenge isn’t one of not knowing. It continues to be a challenge of doing. Of having the will and skill to get past the short-term politics, the rhetoric, the market momentum, and the financial self-interest that has kept our better solutions from being realized. This is what we all need to be better at, in 2013 and beyond.

And he’s come up with some resolutions we should think about.

Here are a handful of resolutions, quickly written with my thumbs, for our community of international city-builders to hopefully embrace. They aren’t unique – we all know what they are, and any of us could write them – but like resolving to lose weight each year, it’s the doing that counts, not the uniqueness of the resolution.

If we can make these real in 2013, we would truly make our cities better.

- We resolve to come together as professionals and disciplines, and finally break the silos that keep us from achieving holistic, complete city-building. We will agree across professions to common definitions of success.

- We resolve to set better goals, and better measure the RIGHT successes, rather than optimizing the wrong things. Smart growth, not sprawl (and before someone says we need to define these better, or replace them with “fresher, cooler terms” – we’ve defined and debated such terms incessantly for decades, with not enough attention to achieving them). Shorter, smarter trips, with everything we need closer. More parks and public places that more people visit, and stay in longer. The key is to be clear, and to honestly measure success over time. In many cases, we’ve been busy measuring the wrong things.

- We resolve to not just increase density, but to do density better! With beautiful (but not necessarily more expensive) design, walkability, mix and completeness, amenities, and housing and population diversity.

- We resolve to stop feeding, or accepting, the unhealthy and distracting “war on the car” rhetoric, and inspire our cities with what true multi-modal cities can achieve. All ways of getting around work better, including cars, if we emphasize walking, biking and transit!

- We resolve to house the homeless, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it actually saves us money. We can’t afford to NOT house the homeless!

- We resolve to take back our own language from those who’ve made it code or ideological – words like livability, and quality of life. These are not left or right wing – they’re just smart, and critically important to successful communities.

- We resolve to stop accepting “false choices” that are dumbing-down our conversation about how to building cities. Heritage preservation OR smart growth. Good planning OR job creation. Beautiful design OR affordable design. Good city-making doesn’t play these false choice games.

- We resolve to stop using the eight most frustrating words in the english language – “we could never do that in our city!”

- Lastly, we as urbanists resolve to be not just involved in, but absolutely integral in, the broad conversation about the success of our cities and nations. We will be more clear, more persuasive, more “human” in our speech and writing. We will be a powerful voice as urbanists. And at the same time, we’ll listen and learn a lot better.

This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive – it’s the best my thumbs could think of today. But I was inspired to share them with you because I’m inspired by the year we could have together, our community of urbanists. Feel free to add more, to contribute and debate, but most importantly, to passionately participate this year.

I think that 2014 has the potential to be a great year for Auckland and I’m certainly going to resolve to keep doing what I can to make this city better . Will you? (it’s certainly a more achievable resolution than losing weight or reducing alcohol consumption)

Peds Rule

Give Way Law change A4

Changing the road rules to favor pedestrians at intersections is something that will transform city life. It will allow people to move around more freely, access services and conduct everyday activities with less intimidation and inconvenience from marauding drivers. In conjunction with simple road markings, it will also help to liberate kids to travel to school or visit friends on their own, and encourage walking as a legitimate transportation mode.

As a recent immigrant I have learned to qualify my expectations, ranging from- this is different, but I can deal with it (eg. rugby league), to holy crap, this is mental, which is what I think of this road rule. With fresh eyes one can see how unique the pedestrian status is here compared to North American and European contexts. Here are a few examples:

  • At intersections and driveways it is common to see people running or madly jumping out of the way of turning cars; this doesn’t happen in large North American cities,

  • People walking are constantly looking way over their shoulders in a state of paranoia for cars to turn across their path,

  • Pedestrians increasingly cross mid-block in order to avoid the debacle of our intersections.

It didn’t take long before I became accustomed to the madness and started walking around town as if in a war zone.  This was brought to my attention on a recent trip to Vancouver when walking around downtown my friend stopped me and said, “you don’t have to worry, the cars will stop, it’s not like Auckland.” I was clearly suffering from a sort of post traumatic stress condition.

From an urban design perspective the road rules force a lot of knock-on problems that are difficult and costly to mitigate. For example, oddball pedestrian refuges are placed on insignificant side roads forcing intersections to be further blown out to accommodate rare large vehicle turning movements. Another example is the placement of speed tables in places that could easily be controlled by a regular crosswalk. While tables may make sense in the densest city centre context, it seems like overkill along regular corridors where a simple crosswalk would suffice.  I’ll write about stop signs and crosswalks in a subsequent post.

In the comments section recently we have been reminded of the tremendous progress that is being made to changing these road rules by  Walk Auckland, Living Streets Aoteroa, and the Waitemata Local Board. In addition to the other other sensible transport guidance the Waitemata Board supports changing this antiquated rule.

“Auckland Transport to advocate for a change of the give way rule requiring motorists to give way to pedestrians at intersections.”

And from Living Streets:

“…we think the Road Code should treat pedestrians as it treats other road users at intersections (mode equality). This would mean that turning vehicles would give way to pedestrians walking straight through (see the diagram below). This is already the law in Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.”

For those interested in the gory technical and policy details,  have a look at this comprehensive paper by Dan Ross (pdf) posted through Living Streets Aoteroa. Of the many interesting tidbits from this paper is the description of a ‘courtesy crossing’. (No points if you guessed who benefits from said courtesy.)

As a side note, it’s important to note the leadership of these local efforts. Urban innovation is increasingly being driven by cities, not national governments. You can expect to see more deviations from the typical car-first paradigm that is embedded in national and Canberra policy, where the applicability to urban Auckland in particular is suspect.

This rule change will happen, and like the new turning give-way rule, it will quickly be assimilated into our daily lives. Of course, comment away on how dangerous this rule would be to implement, in particular the ‘false sense of security’ it will provide.

For fun, this is how Dustin Hoffman deals with traffic in NYC (sorry no puppy photos).

Dr Paul Mees 1961 – 2013

It was with great sadness that we learned today that prominent Australian transport academic and public transport advocate Paul Mees has died following a 15 month battle with cancer.

Paul was an intelligent and passionate man, an accomplished academic, a remarkable public figure and a bloody good bloke.

Early in his career Dr Mees worked as a lawyer, specialising in industrial relations. Fighting alongside unions for the rights of workers is no doubt where Mees sharpened his wit and learned the craft of captivating and questioning an audience at the same time.

As president of the Victorian Public Transport Users Association for almost a decade he campaigned vigorously for investment in public transport services and greater mobility over inefficient roading programmes focused on congestion. He was also highly critical of the privatisation of public transport operations.

He subsequently entered academia, lecturing and conducting research at the University of Melbourne. His demand for evidence based transport planning and scientific rigour in planning research was consistent with his no bullshit approach to politics. Paul was not afraid to tell it like it is, or reap what he sowed. After being highly critical of the Victorian government of the day (describing  the authors of one government report of privatisation as “liars and frauds who should be in jail”), Dr Mees was unceremoniously demoted  in 2008 as the result of political pressure.

He chose to resign that post and took a position as Associate Professor at RMIT Melbourne instead. Personally I was very grateful for that once he ended up my new transport planning lecturer. He took the move in his stride, playfully referring to himself as a “political refugee from the other end of Swanson St”. His tenacity in politics was only matched by his wit and his resolve.

In the transport planning world he is probably best remembered by the maxim “density is not destiny”, tirelessly sloughing away old truisms about public transport in young new world cities. In his seminal work Transport for Suburbia Mees argued that the population density of Australasian suburbs is no constraint for a properly integrated public transport network. In fact Mees has even been cited as the creator of the ‘network effect’ in print (a claim he magnanimously denied, rightly pointing out that such a fundamental aspect of geometry has always existed).

He is also notable for his distaste for grandiose schemes and expensive technological solutions, preferring to focus on getting the nuts and bolts of service delivery right first.

Mees has written extensively on the topic of transport in Auckland and New Zealand, regulars here may remember him from the City of Cars video, an NZTA report on best practice for public transport in New Zealand, and his paper The American Heresy: Half a Century of Transport Planning in Auckland.

Dr Paul Mees


How does a giraffe get to work?

*** Have you ever wondered how a giraffe gets to work? Read on and you will find out – the following poem was inspired by Darren Fidler and penned by Christopher Llewelyn. For those of you who are parents of young children, I’d suggest reading them this poem to help them understand how a multi-modal transport system is able to meet the needs of a relatively diverse range of “customers” ;) ***



It’s a little known fact, but definitely true,

The animals only work at the zoo.

At night they go home like the rest of the staff,

The zebra, the tiger, the chimp, and giraffe.


The next day after toast, or a lightly grilled mouse,

They wash, clean their teeth, and then leave the house.

From across the whole city, they all make their way,

Back to the zoo for the start of the day.


The zebras and antelopes crammed on the bus,

Sit at the front not making a fuss.

Avoiding the back seat, the lion’s domain,

Where he sits with the crossword, scratching his mane.


Outside on the pavement in full running gear,

The bus passes by the emu and rhea.

The ostrich usually jogs with them too,

But today she’s at home with a touch of the flu.


A car toots it’s horn as it speeds past the pair,

Gripping the wheel is a grizzly bear.

A camel and llama sit in the back,

A gigantic tortoise up on the roof rack.


A few other creatures are hitching a ride,

The glove-box has twenty-two spiders inside.

In the boot still asleep, as they drive down the road,

Is a skink, and a snake, and a big warty toad.


The car stops at the lights as a train rumbles through,

Staring out of the window are two caribou.

Reading the paper in the next seat along,

Is a chimp in a hat and a salesman named John.


Grunting and mooing into their phones,

From carriage to carriage the buffalo roam.

While a family of wolves sit, snarling and yawning,

They’re best left alone first thing in the morning.


A tiger is revving his bike by the track,

In a black leather jacket with a skull on the back.

The lights at the crossing turn green from red,

And the tiger rides off on a tiny moped.


A deep growling engine fills up the air,

And a huge motorbike appears from nowhere.

The tiger looks over at the rider in pink,

And a small flying squirrel gives him a wink.


On the back of the bike holding on tight,

Sits the slow loris, her eyes wide with fright.

With a twist of the wrist, the front wheel leaves the floor,

And the pair disappear with a deafening roar.


The roar becomes muffled under the ground,

Replaced by a clickety clackety sound.

As the metro rolls by, completely jam packed,

With people in suits, mandrills, and macaques.


Reading a book as it hangs from its tail,

A lone howler monkey grips the hand rail.

While a troop of baboons squabble and fight,

A row of red bums keen to alight.


As the metro arrives at the station below,

At the gates of the zoo the air starts to blow.

The chopper’s blades whirr as it touches the floor,

And a long sturdy beast slips out of the door.


The creature is dressed in fine reptile skin,

With a single gold tooth from a lottery win.

In designer sunglasses he thinks make him cool,

The crocodile waddles away to his pool.


With three of the animals still running late,

A taxi cab skids to a halt at the gate.

Two kangaroo’s hop out of the cab,

Taking coins from their pouches to settle the tab.


With only one animal left to clock-in,

The zoo keeper waits rubbing her chin.

Then over the crest of the hill comes a speck,

Which turns into a head on a very long neck.


Freewheeling downhill, the animal zips,

All legs and knees, and smile on its lips.

So how does the giraffe get to work everyday?

On an old penny farthing he found on ebay.


P.s. The giraffe himself informs me that he was particularly bad tempered last night and actually swore at a motorist that insisted on weaving in and out of the cycle lane. He would like to apologise for his bad behaviour and hopes it does not give giraffes a bad name.

P.p.s. If you have not been recently then I’d recommended following up this poem with a trip to Auckland Zoo – personally I think it’s one of Auckland’s somewhat hidden gems. They also do a lot of great conservation and education work, which deserves to be supported.

P.p.p.s. Before I forget – this seems like an appropriate time and place for this week’s puppy photo. Princess Kuku is, after all, something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And like the wolves she’s best left alone first thing in the morning because she likes to stay snuggled up in bed.

Princess Kuku2


36 hours in Auckland – May not be enough?

Every now and then I receive external confirmation of just how rapidly Auckland is transforming itself into a much better city. The latest and perhaps greatest – at least in terms of its global reach – reminder has come courtesy of the New York Times, which recently published this article titled “36 hours in Auckland“.

The introduction to the article is worth quoting in full:

Admittedly, few fly all the way to New Zealand just to visit Auckland, the country’s largest city. Most aim to explore the otherworldly landscapes with which, thanks to the silver screen, this remote nation has become associated. But before delving into the cinematic beauty of the North Island countryside, discover the San Francisco-steep streets and regenerated neighborhoods of newly vibrant Auckland. This multicultural city, home to a third of all Kiwis, has recently welcomed a raft of bars, boutiques and restaurants that highlight locally made products, from excellent craft beer and wine to fashion and art. And none of it has anything to do with orcs or rings.

I think there are several interesting aspects to the introduction. The first is the reference to San Francisco, after which the article goes on to mention Seattle. Indeed, on my last trip to Seattle I was struck but how it felt like a bigger, bolder American version of Auckland. I think Seattle is a city Auckland should compare itself too, and try to emulate in some respects (perhaps not weather wise).


Another interesting aspect of the introduction is the mention of Auckland’s multi-cultural society. Speaking as an employer, I can say that Auckland’s cultural plurality is quite an important attribute when trying to attract skilled staff from overseas, which is something that I’ve recently had to do. In Auckland you can be comfortably “different”.

But the more interesting aspect of the introduction, I think, is the length to which it goes to challenge what it believes is the common understanding of New Zealand as a destination that does not normally include AucklandI think this common definition of “destination NZ, but not Auckland” is real, understandable, and yet rapidly changing.  

Its “real” because our tourism marketing has often emphasised our natural areas. It’s also “understandable” because NZ does have outstanding natural features and landscapes. While I’m an ardent advocate for more liveable urban areas, I am equally passionate about NZ’s wild side. There are few things I enjoy more than travelling around NZ, and I suspect many other NZers feel similarly.

The focus on NZ’s natural qualities is also understandable, however, because NZ’s generally not done very well at creating pleasant cities and towns. Auckland has, historically at least, sat proudly on top of NZ’s dung heap of urban shame. But it seems that Auckland’s reputation is (finally) rapidly changing, and deservedly so.

A variety of decisions made by a variety of councils has resulted in urban places that are both good for people and fun for visitors. Streets are cleaner and many have been upgraded; public transport is much better; and we invested in civic facilities, such as Britomart, the Museum, and the Art Gallery (pictured below). This has not only created places to go and things to do, but in turn helped to stimulate private sector development in the surrounding areas.


And I suspect Auckland is only going to get better.

Right now we’re staring down the barrel of 5 years of transformative PT improvements, spearheaded by integrated ticketing, electrification, and the New Network. Meanwhile, Wynyard Quarter should gradually become a waterfront precinct of international quality. And in the background a steady programme of streetscape improvements should create more places where people want to stop, pause, and take a photo (thanks Auckland Council!).

Anyway, for now let’s just enjoy some external confirmation that the Auckland we know, and generally love, is headed in the right direction. Who knows – if we keep working hard and focus on being decent Aucklanders, then perhaps in a few years time the New York times will feel compelled to spend more than 36 hours in Auckland? Let’s hope so.

Get Connected – Futures in Public Transport

Approximately two months ago we – being MRCagney and T2 - organised this careers evening at the University of Auckland.

The success of the evening exceeded our expectations, at least in terms of the number of students who turned up. In fact we just about managed to fill one of the University’s larger auditoriums with a range of bright and sparkly faces who were evidently prepared to stay after lectures and listen to members of the “rusty and crusty” brigade.

Perhaps many of them came just for the free pizza and I think that’s OK: Even I will admit that there are a few things more important than public transport; food for malnourished students being one.

Those who did attend were treated to the following speaking line-up:

  1. Joshua Arbury – Principal Transport Planner at Auckland Council, perhaps better known as the grand-daddy of the Auckland Transport Blog (cue cries of gleeful e-appreciation).
  2. Pippa Mitchell – Consultant with T2, perhaps better known as “the bus whisperer” (i.e. Pippa has been talking with those ghost buses for over a decade).
  3. Anthony Cross – Public Transport Network Planning Manager at Auckland Transport, who is one of the key people behind Auckland’s New Network.
  4. Jarrett Walker – Associate Consultant with MRCagney, author of the Human Transit book and blog, and general PT extraordinaire.

Finally, after much ado, I have managed to compress/upload the resulting videos to YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

After the evening we received the following feedback, which was certainly appreciated and worth repeating in full for any budding social scientists out there:

I was in the audience as an anthropologist guest, and I thought the event was superb–that it could not have been done better: a wonderful balance of speakers organized well by the coordinator, who each brought a specific aspect of work and concepts in transport to life, and then that the questions from the audience grappled with real issues so that the students there interested in careers had a glimpse of what they might come to grips with if they go into transport. It seems to me that there is a golden moment right now in transport planning for the city–the miracle of people exhilarating and exhilarated with passion and intelligence, working together across agencies, free from the all too frequent plodding literal-mindedness that comes with designing diplomas and certification in a field– that there is something remarkable with this present combination of people with backgrounds from the broad perspectives of geography and literature from which they draw resources to think imaginatively, both remembering to keep returning to the high altitude of the bigger long-term picture as they also deal with the practicalities of day to day bus stops. It must have given inspiration for students in the Arts and Social Sciences who have only too many doomsayers declaring that students cannot afford to get a general education because it is useless for employment: this event showed the strengths of Humanities and Social Sciences for innovative thinking.

Before I wrap this up I would like to thank the following people for making the night possible:

  • All of our speakers;
  • Patrick Reynolds for gently guiding the evening’s discussion into all sorts of sordid directions;
  • Marc Tadaki and Reza Fuard from CubeBrick Studios for assisting with filming and editing respectively; and
  • Career Help and Development Services at the UoA for assisting with the venue.

And thanks of course to all the people who attended – your interest helped to inspire the rusty and crusty brigade that came along with the intention of inspiring you!

P.s. I hope you enjoy the videos, and let us know if you have any ideas for how we might improve future evenings.  I hope this can blossom into an annual event that supports the development of a new public transport industry in NZ.

Further clarifications about time-of-use transport pricing

In this recent post on Auckland’s transport funding gap, Peter Nunns espoused the merits of time-of-use transport pricing as a way of increasing the productivity of the transport system. Peter came up with this analogy to help highlight the merits of time-of-use transport pricing:

Let’s say you’re managing a factory. Your machines are running at 100% utilisation ten percent of the time, and 20% utilisation the rest of the time. This is constraining your ability to produce more, so you ask the chief executive for money to buy more machines. His answer, if he’s got any sense, will be: “Get knotted. You need to manage your workflow better.”

As some of you may know I also support time-of-use transport pricing (articulated in posts here and here). Notwithstanding my general support, I do accept there’s important design and implementation issues to work through. For this reason I’m relatively relaxed about timing and would prefer that – instead of rushing headlong into a particular solution (as the NZCID would have us do) – we instead took the time to have a decent/informed public debate about the concept. I hope that such a debate would end with the majority of people supporting the idea in principle, which would then enable political/technical leaders some space to work out exactly what we should do, how we should do it, and by when.

In this post I simply wanted to reflect on two of the dissenting comments raised in response to Peter’s post. For example, one person commented:

My understanding is that NZTA and the government are principally opposed to a discriminatory tax on assets that have already been paid for.

This statement suggests that time-of-use road pricing is a “tax”. From what I understand, taxes are typically used by governments to fund any number of activities that are largely unrelated to the activity being taxed. Income tax and GST, for example, are used to fund a whole manner of things, such as education and health. In contrast, revenue raised from transport activities (at least in New Zealand) are hypothecated to operating, maintaining, and improving the transport system (the MED website provides a breakdown of the various duties, taxes, and levies that are applied to liquid motor fuels in New Zealand for those are you who are interested).

The second part of the aforementioned comment  part inferred that time-of-use transport pricing was wrong because the “assets have already been paid for“. I don’t think this is a credible argument for several reasons.

The first reason is that it presumes new roads do actually pay for themselves, insofar as the fuel duties paid by drivers are adequate to cover the lifetime costs of construction and maintenance. This is patently not true of local roads, where costs are part-funded by rate-payers, not road-users. I suspect it’s also not true of many of the RoNS, which would certainly struggle to cover their costs. Hence, it’s not really the case that new roads are paying for themselves, it’s just that their financial ass is being covered by old roads that have more than paid for themselves. I don’t know when roads actually “break-even” (and suspect it varies a lot from place to place), but suspect that many of our recent improvements don’t come close.

But the more critical issue with the suggestion that the “assets have already been paid for” is that the costs of a road do not end with construction and maintenance.

More specifically, roads incur ongoing congestion costs, which tend to arise at  peak times. Now I do understand that congestion is a less tangible economic costs than construction and maintenance costs, which must be funded directly out of the transport budget. In contrast to these costs, congestion is an external, non-monetary cost. When we say “external” we are referring to the fact that the person who chooses to drive in congested conditions does so without having to bear the additional delays they cause to other drivers that are stuck in the queue behind them. Hence congestion is an external cost that arises from our individual decisions to drive. Despite being less tangible, it’s nonetheless real – as any commuter will know!

So rather than being a tax, time-of-use transport pricing is, I think, better seen as a targeted user-charge. One which seeks to place the costs associated with travelling at peak times at the feet of the people who are making those decisions. And given that much of our transport budget is currently being spent on transport projects that are designed to cater for people that are travelling at peak times, then it makes sense to charge more for these trips than for trips that take place at off-peak times.

Having raised those two issues, the same person went onto state:

The charge is a mechanism to force people to change the mode they use to travel. In the case of congestion charging it makes PT more attractive in comparison to driving … In effect you are shifting the equilibrium in favour of the poor using PT and the wealthy driving.

My first issue with this statement is the presumption that the primary benefit of time-of-use road pricing is that it changes existing behaviour. Naturally modal shift from cars and to PT would occur and result in less congestion. Such a benefit can be thought of as a “static efficiency“, in that the benefit arises from improving the efficiency with which people currently travel. In saying that the experience with time-of-use road pricing overseas is that 80% of people keep driving, i.e. the majority of people kept doing what they have always done, and there is very little change in PT use.

So I would argue that the primary economic benefit of time-of-use road pricing lies less with it impacts on people that are currently driving, and more with how it impacts on people’s future decisions about where they live/work/play; it impacts on our future land use and transport decisions.

Benefits from more efficient decisions being made in the future can be thought of as “dynamic efficiencies“. By sending a price signal about the relative scarcity of road space at peak times, time-of-use road pricing will progressively encourage people and businesses to make choices in the future that help them to avoid situations the need to drive at peak times. Thus, the dynamic efficiencies of time-of-use transport pricing will accrue progressively over time, by discouraging people from making decisions that result in inefficient transport and land use outcomes.

I would suggest the dynamic efficiencies of time-of-use transport are more important in a city like Auckland, which is expected to grow rapidly over the coming decades.

As an aside, the potential for time-of-use road pricing to deliver dynamic efficiencies is a major reason why I don’t buy the line that “we need to invest in alternatives first” before we consider implementing a time-of-use transport pricing scheme. The reality is that we already have the primary “alternative”: We simply need people to exercise more discretion about where they live/work/play to ensure they don’t end up driving so much at peak times. And the longer we go without time-of-use transport pricing, then the fewer people who make transport/location decisions in consideration of their true costs and the harder it will be to implement such a scheme in the future.

Consider, example, the Auckland Plan’s proposed greenfields development around Hobsonville and Pukekohe. Do you think such locations would be equally attractive with time-of-use road pricing? And do we think that implementing time-of-use transport pricing will be more or less easy once these suburbs have developed and lots of their residents are now driving elsewhere to work? Personally, I think the answers are “no” and “much less easy” – which is why I suspect the dynamic efficiencies of time-of-use transport pricing would quickly dominate the static efficiencies associated with (relatively small) mode shift.

The second issue that I would like to address is the suggestion that “the equilibrium will shift in favour of the poor using PT and the wealthy driving“. The point that is being made here is that time-of-use transport pricing is likely to result in our transport system being prioritised for high-value travel. And it is true that the latter is positively correlated with income.

In saying this, I think it’s important to consider the following issues:

  1. Income is not the primary/sole determinant of people’s willingness-to-pay for travel. I would argue that many other factors determine how much someone is willing to pay for transport, e.g. the purpose of a trip is more important than someone’s income. Speaking from personal experience, I know that if am travelling for work purposes then I am more prepared to pay more than if I travelling for recreational purposes. The key point to note here is that willingness to pay varies greatly depending on the reasons why someone is travelling and while income is likely to play a role (if only for framing their perspective on relative costs), it’s not as straight-forward as the comment above makes out.
  2. It makes presumptions about how a scheme would operate. As mentioned in some of my earlier posts, the degree to which a time-of-use road pricing scheme impacts on low/high income households depends very much on its design and wider policy decisions about how the resulting revenues are used. If the scheme was designed to be revenue neutral, for example, then the additional revenue could be used to lower fuel excise duties and/or improve public transport – in this way resulting in a situation where low income households were much better off (remembering of course that low income households tend to drive less, especially at peak times, and own less efficient cars – hence they pay more fuel tax per kilometre).

Before I wrap up, I should say that I think the whole time-of-use transport pricing debate could be flipped on its head if it was presented as 1) revenue neutral and 2) linked to lower prices for off-peak travel. In fact, what we should actually be discussing is not “higher peak charges”, but higher peak charges that are used to fund lower off-peak charges.

Finally, some of you may have noted my preference for “time-of-use transport pricing” rather than “time-of-use road pricing”. The reason I prefer the former terminology is that it emphasises the general concept, rather than its specific application. Indeed, very similar arguments apply to the use of public transport: Maybe we should consider charging public transport users more to travel at peak times, with the additional revenue in turn helping to fund lower off-peak travel? I think so.