A wheely suitcase in Europe #4: Llanca to Zaragoza

Leg four of our journey took us from Llanca to Zaragoza, as illustrated below.

trip 4

Compared to previous journeys (here, here, and here) this one was relatively straightforward: We caught a train from Llanca to Girona, and from there caught our ride share direct to Zaragoza, as illustrated below. This was the first, but is not the last, ride share we will take on our holiday. I think it’s worth discussing how it works because, for most of us, the concept of ride share is probably somewhat novel. But it’s something you’ll want to get your head around, because I get the feeling that in 5-10 years this will be the new norm.

Before I do I just want to give a shout out to the (relatively senior) man working at the Llanca train station cafe. With good grace, and despite our poor Spanish language skills, we happily negotiated our way to the best coffee we’ve had in Spain thus far. And all this happened at 730am on a Sunday morning. And for 1.50 Euro per coffee. Splendid.

Perhaps the next thing to mention is the circumstances that caused us to turn to ride share in the first instance: We decided to change our original travel plans at short notice. Initially we had planned (and booked) to travel all the way from Llanca to San Sebastian, which would have taken circa 9-10 hours. Instead, we opted to split this journey in two to travel in a more relaxed fashion, and in doing so we would be able to visit the city of Zaragoza, which we’d heard was rather fabulous.

So at short notice (2 days prior) we had to work out how to get from Llanca to Zaragoza? My first instinct was to consider trains, so I looked at the Renfe website. While there was approximately one service every hour between Girona and Zaragoza (via Barcelona), all the services between 9am and 4pm were already fully booked. This meant that if we’d caught the train, then we would have had to travel relatively early, or arrive in Zaragoza after 7pm, neither of which was particularly attractive.

Next, I checked out the BlaBlaCar website. For those who haven’t heard me rave about Blablacar in the past, you can read more about it here. I know that some people who work in the transportation sector tend to pooh pooh ride-share initiatives. While this is somewhat understandable, insofar as there’s been a lot of promise and false starts, it’s also true that Blablacar has taken off in a way that no other platform has managed. The previous link put is thusly:

BlaBlaCar now has 20 million members in 19 countries. In 2013, they declared that had successfully coordinated 10 million rides (covering 3 billion kilometres), which is as many passengers as the Eurostar (of which I am a big fan and consumer)

BlaBlaCar works as follows: They have created a ride-sharing community designed to connect those who are driving cars with people who need a ride. BlaBlaCar really took off a few years back, when the Icelandic volcano Gods decided to disrupt millions of people’s flights across Europe for several weeks, and it now covers most countries in Europe.

One of the more interesting aspects of BlaBlaCar in terms of urban transportation is that it caters for both one-off and regular ride-sharing. If you search for rides between any reasonably proximate urban centres, for example Amsterdam and Rotterdam (as shown below), then you will find a number of rides being offered by people who make the journey regularly. In the following figure, you can see that “Jos K” shows up twice – he appears to travel this route every Wednesday and offers rides for 7 GBP.


Thus BlaBlaCar is not only for tourists, but it also enables people to ride share in a way that could meaningfully impact on congestion. Unlike earlier ride-sharing platforms, BlaBlaCar, has for whatever reason, been able to achieve a critical mass of users that makes it useful for many journeys. One of the key advantages, from a travel perspective, is that BlaBlaCar is a very cheap way to travel. Indeed, I haven’t crunched the numbers but apart from flying it’s probably the cheapest per kilometre travelled.

Travelling from Girona to Zaragoza by train, for example, cost approximately 80 Euro per person for a 3.5 hour journey. And we would have had to travel either quite early in the morning or relatively late at night, because the trains in between those times were all full. In comparison, our BlaBlaCar journey cost only 30 Euro per person for the same travel time. So in this particular case, BlaBlaCar enabled us to travel at a convenient time and for a price more than 50% less than the train.

Pleasingly, uptake of BlaBlaCar has grown rapidly over the last few years, and it was recently able to raise hundreds of millions in venture capital to fund its ongoing development and expansion. Growth in the number of annual Blablacar rides to 2014 is summarised below.

So BlaBlaCar is cool, and it’s worth considering when making your way around Europe. If only beause it is a real useful travel option for those who are 1) price sensitive and/or 2) are looking to make a journey that is not well-catered for by more traditional transport modes. When combined with planes, trains, buses, and Uber, BlaBlaCar seems to represent the final piece of the transport jigsaw puzzle for those who don’t like all the hassle and cost associated with driving and parking?

How does the BlaBlaCar process work? Well, anyone can search for rides, so feel free to have a play. If you find a ride that you want to book, then just sign up with your personal profile (including identity verification and payment).

You can create ride alerts for journeys that you want to make well into the future. This means that if you are planning a trip in Europe, then you can actually create ride alerts well in advance, and be notified when they become available. It’s worth mentioning that most rides become available 2-3 days beforehand, so BlaBlacar may not be attractive for those people who like to plan in advance and/or are not flexible.

That’s enough about BlaBlaCar. The upshot is that it really helped us out of a bind, and saved us a lot of money in the process. If you’re planning a trip to Europe then I’d really recommend taking a look at the website and searching for some rides. It’s definitely the sort of thing that you feel more comfortable with once you have tried it. Of course the other thing you can do, if you do happen to be driving from place to place, is to offer your own rides to others.

But what about Zaragoza? Well, we stayed at Hotel Catalunya el Pilar, which made for an interesting change from the AirBnbs that we had booked until this point. The Hotel itself was a grand old building located right in the middle of town, and on the edge of a beautiful plaza replete with trees, fountains, and benches plus a giant cathedral of course.

Hotel el Pilar

Zaragoza itself is the capital of the Region of Aragon, and it has a history dating back to Roman times, when it was called Caesar Augustus. The Romans loved Zaragoza primarily due to its strategic location at the confluence of several important rivers, and it thrived in the period from 100 to 400 AD. During the 1980s and 90s, four previously lost Roman ruins were uncovered in the city centre, and can now be viewed for the cost of 7 Euro. I particularly appreciated the Roman latrines, which provided an open-plan pooping environment. I expect the passive surveillance resulted in less graffiti and mess compared to modern public bathrooms. Zaragoza’s come a long way in 2000 odd years.

Zaragoza’s long history means it is replete with a number of spectacular religious buildings. During the middle ages, Zaragoza was apparently “the” place to be. One of the more interesting churches is St Leo, which has changed hands between Muslim and Christian occupants over the years, as have a number of churches in Spain. Napoleon laid siege to Zaragoza at some point, and eventually won the day. In terms of more humble buildings, I particularly liked the art deco neighbourhoods located immediately to the south of the Old Town.

Ultimately, however, it is food – and in particular tapas – that nourish Zaragoza’s soul. The old town houses a tapas district known as “El Tubo”, which is one of the largest and buzziest restaurant districts I’ve encountered. While some of it is a tourist trap, there’s also a pleasing array of cheap-eats and dive-bars, especially in areas less well-frequented by tourists. We found it easy to dine out on fabulous food for less than 10 Euro ($15), including drinks.

And lots of street art. Love (source).

Aside from the dense city centre, there’s nothing particularly notable about Zaragoza from a transport and land use perspective. It has a single LRT line running on a north-south alignment across the river, with other public transport needs provided by buses. The long-distance rail and bus station is unfortunately a wee way out of town. To catch our early morning bus to San Sebastian we opted for the 10 minute taxi ride, which cost 8 Euro, rather than a 40 minute walk.

In a nutshell, if you’re ever travelling through northern Spain then I can highly recommend spending at least a couple of days in Zaragoza. While the summer weather is hot (approximately 35 degrees), it’s a dry heat. So if you plan your schedule to avoid the middle of the day, for example to write blog posts, then it’s perfectly pleasant. If you had more time then you could even use Zaragoza as something of a base to explore to the north and west, where you can find towns like Huesca, Logarno, Pamplona, and Valladolid.

Well I’m currently sitting on the bus from Zaragoza to San Sebastian, which is our next destination, and the view outside the window is getting increasingly interesting. So I think it’s time to close the laptop. Until next time, take care and have fun.

Rest assured that from afar I’m busy toasting to the passage of the (albeit imperfect) Unitary Plan, and Auckland’s future success. The next step? Central Government needs to get its act together and reduce incentives for property investment (NB: Please note that such moves are independent from people’s ethnicity. Anyone who comments on this post about ethnicity in relation to property investment in New Zealand will have their comments edited or deleted. I’m sick of dog-whistle racist shizz).

A wheely suitcase in Europe #3: Cassis to Llanca

Our third major sojourn (if you’re only tuning into these rants now you may want to read day one and two first) took us from Cassis, France to Lllanca, Spain.

Llanca is a small village located on the Mediterranean Sea about one hour north-east from Girona, in a famous part of the country known as Costa Bravas. Our motivation for stopping in Llanca was functional rather than inspirational: Llanca provided a convenient and cute stop-over on our way to northern Spain (specifically Zaragoza and San Sebastian).

This journey was one of the longest that we attempted on our holiday, and involved four trip legs and associated transfers (mapped in the following figure):

  1. Cassis to Cassis Station – bus 0.80 Euro
  2. Cassis Station to Marseille Saint Charles – train 4.90 Euro
  3. Marseille Saint Charles to Girona (with transfer in Montpellier) – train 86 Euro
  4. Girona to Llanca – train 4.90 Euro

Trip 3

Aside from the first trip leg, for which we caught a bus, the remainder of the journey was all by train. We left Cassis circa 830am and arrived in Llanca circa 6pm, so spent 9. 5 hours travelling all up. This included about 1 hour each in Marseille, Montpellier, and Girona between train connections. While these breaks stretched out the total travel-time, they also provided a nice opportunity to stretch the legs, grab a coffee/food, and have a quick look around the respective towns (NB: If you’re ever passing through Marseille St Charles station, then I can highly recommend l’Ecomotive, which is a vegetarian cafe located right outside).

Montpellier train station is definitely a lovely place to connect; it has a nice internal configuration, free wifi, and is close to the city centre. And/or light rail stops outside if you want to travel further afield.

The train from Montpellier to Girona was rather spectacular. For a large part of the journey the train travels along the coast, with beautiful salt flats and estuarine environments on one side, and open beach on the other. I also enjoyed the regional train between Girona and Llanca, which passed through the countryside, replete with sunflower fields.

From an initial observation, I’d say that the quality of the rail infrastructure and rolling stock in Spain (or at least Catalunya) is better even than that found in France. One of the most notable features was the high-quality signage; every station we passed through had legible signs for everything from tickets, to information, and toilets.

I do, however, have two words of warning for would-be train travellers in Spain. First, high-speed intercity trains are often full over summer, so it’s worth booking your ticket in advance to secure a seat at your preferred time of travel. I’ll return to this point in subsequent posts, where a combination of a changes to travel plans and full trains required that we find alternative transport arrangements.

Second, I found the Renfe (Spanish national rail operator) website to be a terrible piece of crap. The worst thing, I think, is that it doesn’t mention regional train services. To provide an example, here’s what the Renfe website says about services operating from Girona to Llanca tomorrow. That’s right; the Renfe website says there’s only one service per day, which leaves at 9am in the morning. If you were planning to visit Llanca, and you saw a timetable like this, then you’d be likely to be rather discouraged.

Renfe 1

Somewhat inexplicably, the public transport journey planner for Catalunya shows services operated by Renfe, as well as regional services. This means that there is actually one service between Girona and Llanca every hour. So it seems that Catalunya’s public transport journey planners shows all rail services, whereas Renfe’s website does not. Please keep this in mind if you’re planning to travel by train in Spain; the Renfe website is full of shiitake.

Aside from these minor issues, travelling by train in Spain is in of itself rather wonderful, and something I’d highly recommend, not just for long distance travel; the regional trains are really nice too.

Now for the juicy stuff: What is Llanca like? Well, we stayed in Llanca old town, which is set slightly back from the coast and centred on an old Romanesque era cathedral. The old town was generally lovely, replete with the typical attributes of a lovely European village: Lovely buildings, narrow lanes, and pleasant public spaces. We loved old town Llanca.


However, with a 10 minute walk towards the coast one stumbles into newer development around the port of Llanca, most of which appears to date from circa 1950 onwards. This part of town is not so pleasant, and was extremely automobile dependent by European standards. To some degree Llanca has the hallmarks of a town that is trying to keep everyone happy, and ends up pleasing no-one. One of Llanca’s natural challenges is that it is located at a natural junction in the road network. Hence it experiences considerable volumes of through traffic trying to access destinations further to the north and south along the coastline.

On the other hand, some of Llanca’s problems appear to be entirely of their own making. In many parts of town, for example, the footpaths and/or crossings are in a very sad state of affairs and/or even non-existent. I found this somewhat surprising given the demographics of the resident population, which appeared to be rather senior, and the dependence of the economy on tourism. I saw many people struggling to cross broken concrete and high kerbs with walking frames and sticks. When walking to the town from the train station, for example, one must traverse the intersection shown below. Ugggggggly. And not fun for those who are not able bodied.

llanca 2

We spent two nights in Llanca to recuperate before the next leg in our journey. On the second day we caught a bus from Llanca to Porto de la Salva, which is an even smaller village located 10km south along the coast. The bus ride cost only 1.70 Euro and provided spectacular coastal views. I have to say that Porto de la Salva was an absolute treat, and exactly what one thinks of when you hear the words “Spanish fishing village”, as you can hopefully gain from the images below.

Arriving in Porto de la Selva, we feasted on “tapes”, cervesa, and fresh peaches (which is a staple when travelling through France and Spain in summer) before walking to the beach and taking a swim. There’s a beautiful walk around the coast to the south of the town that is only accessible by foot, and which provides access to several beautiful swimming coves. Ultimately, I’d highly recommend a visit to Llanca, and especially Porto de la Selva. Just be aware that it gets busier over summer, although the latter seemed to be fairly sleepy, even at peak times.

We only spent two nights in Llanca, before pushing onto our next destination: Zaragoza. This which is capital of the Aragon Province, and certainly upped the tempo from the previous two legs …

A wheely suitcase in Europe #2: Annecy to Cassis

Having enjoyed our four days in Annecy, it was time to heard further south and continue our search for sun. Next stop: Cassis.

The route we took from Annecy to Cassis is mapped below. It consists of three legs: 1) Annecy to Lyon Airport via rental car; 2) Lyon Airport to Marseille via TGV (high speed train); and 3) Marseille to Cassis via Uber (NB: Mapped using Rome2Rio, which is my favourite website after TransportBlog).

Leg 2

The drive from Annecy to Lyon Airport took just over an hour. I noticed a couple of interesting things about driving in France: 1) there’s a lot of toll roads, yet the payment technologies seem rather primitive and 2) speed limits on the highway vary up to 130km/hr, for no apparent reason (speed profiles I’m guessing, but they weren’t obvious to me). Nonetheless, the drive from Annecy to Lyon went without a hitch, and was rather pleasant. Nonetheless, after one hour of driving I was well and truly ready to abandon the car.

At Lyon Airport we returned the rental car and then went to catch our TGV train. As mentioned in my last post, the TGV station at Lyon Airport is spacious, gracious, and well-designed. While I appreciate that Auckland will never have stations on this scale, I did wonder what we might learn from TGV stations when designing the CRL stations. The value of strong design and natural light being the most obvious takeaway messages (albeit the latter is harder underground!). Here’s another image to titillate your transport taste buds.

Driving from Annecy to Cassis, then it would have taken us about 5 hours. In contrast, our journey took a total of 4 hours, and that’s including time spent returning the rental car, waiting for the train, and booking/catching the Uber.

In terms of cost, the TGV cost 130 Euro for the two of us. That may sound steep, except that had we driven then we would have had to pay 1) 30 Eur for another day of car hire; 2) 60 Eur to return the rental car to a different location (we picked it up at Lyon Airport); and 3) ~100 Eur in fuel and tolls. So ~190 Euro all up.

That’s before you include the cost of parking in Cassis. So all up, for this particular leg the TGV was faster, cheaper, and ultimately more productive, as it enabled me to write this post while travelling. I should briefly mention that Marseille St Charles station is also something of a treasure, although for entirely different (historical) reasons to the station at Lyon Airport. Here’s the view looking back to the station after exiting, which I think gives you a feel for the station as a whole. It’s a charming, grand old thing.

Once we got to Marseille the transport equation changed in two key ways. The first change was simply that we met up with our friend, so there were now three of us in total. The second change was that train services between Marseille and Cassis operate only every hour or so, and take approximately one hour in total, including a final bus connection to Cassis. So the train worked out at 20 Eur in total plus one hour travel time, versus 50 Eur for an Uber that took only 30 minutes. So we opted for the latter.

Putting transport to one side, let me now talk about our destination, Cassis. The town itself is shown below. In a nutshell: Cassis is a small town located in the south of France with a resident population of 8,000, although this swells markedly over the peak summer period when people like me, but probably wealthier, invade for a few months. Founded circa 600 BC, the village has long been known for its fish, stone, and wine. It’s rather picturesque.

As an aside, in that second image you can just see some vinyards located on the terraced slopes in the top left corner. I’d highly recommend the tour of the Closs Sainte Magdeleine vinyard, which you can walk to from the town. The tour takes only an hour, costs only 12 Euro, and includes wine tasting. You can book at the information centre, which is located on the wharf in the centre of town (I love information centres).

Cassis is certainly a tourist hotspot for reasons other than the town itself. One of the reasons is the stunning natural environs. To the east, steep cliffs tower over the sea (as per the previous image), while along the coast to the east is a national park and all its associated recreational activities, like walking and kayaking. Some of which bring you to places such as that shown below. We hired kayaks for half a day to explore the calanques, which was more than long enough in the sun for this Non-Indian pale male.

So what’s notable about Cassis in a land use and transport sense?

Well, the first thing you notice is that it’s relatively dense for a city of its size. The density reflects two attributes. First, all the buildings are between 3-4 stories high. Second, the roads are extremely narrow. In fact, most are so narrow they can only accommodate a small car in one direction of travel. The narrowness of the streets seems to have prevented Google’s StreetView car from covering the centre of Cassis to any large extent.

Here’s an image from one of the streets that they have managed to document (link).

Cassis streets

At night, many of the restaurants place tables out on the street, creating one of the most effective and enduring public-private partnerships known to human-kind. That is, streets are integrated into the town in a seamless and dynamic way. Yes, some streets accomodate cars at slow speeds and at some times. At other times the same streets become places for markets, pedestrians, and restaurant seating etc.

Street design in Cassis doesn’t feel like an optional extra, something that is tagged on after the fact. It feels like something that is intrinsic to making the town’s character. To provide you with a tangible example, here’s a photo of a small roundabout in Cassis. You will note that the centre of the roundabout is home to a fountain, trees, and a decent amount of seating.

Cassis roundabout

In Cassis, prime space such as the centre of the roundabout is not something to be squandered simply to accommodate vehicle traffic, but must instead be used to deliver a multi-functional urban environment in which vehicles are only one element. The attention to street design, even in a small coastal town such as Cassis, is mind-boggling. The other thing that I found funny, as someone who turns my hand to transport engineering from time-to-time, is the complete absence of AustRoads like design standards. Sightlines? Turning radii? Meh. Instead, vehicles are expected to drive slowly. And, for the most part, they do.

Aside from our Uber ride to get to Cassis in the first place, our four days were spent completely car-free. We walked, kayaked, and swum ourselves into a happy little stupor.

Now, however, it’s time for me to wander out into the mild evening air to enjoy some pizza, wine, and crepes. Tomorrow we leave Cassis, and the next stop is Llanca, Province of Girona. Until then, bon nuit.

A wheely suitcase in Europe #1: Amsterdam to Annecy

In the next four weeks I will be travelling from Amsterdam to Lisbon, and back again, with my trusty wheely suitcase in tow.

If you’ve ever lived somewhere like Amsterdam, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that “winter is coming”. Even in the middle of summer, winter feels like it’s around the corner. Hence it’s usually a good idea to make like a bird and migrate south to ensure that you get at least some summer. There’s many amazing things about Amsterdam, although the weather is not one of them.

These posts will document some of my more interesting travel experiences, albeit in an ad-hoc fashion. Where possible, however, I try and identify transport and land use issues that I think are relevant or interesting in the New Zealand context. This particular post details the first leg of our summer journey, which took us from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Annecy, France. The route is illustrated below, where I have mapped our movements using the wonderful multi-modal travel planner Rome2Rio.

Trip leg 1

Why do I refer to wheely suitcases in the title of this series of posts? Well, I happen to think that wheely suitcases are a good example of a humble yet transformative transport technology. Approximately 5 years ago, I saw a presentation by Todd Litman where he was asked his views on the most transformative technological development to emerge in his lifetime. To my surprise, Todd replied “the wheely suitcase”.

His argument? Unlike things like space travel, wheely suitcases have expanded accessibility for a huge number of people. I have a personal fascination with the history of humble urban technologies, such as street lights, elevators, and wheely suitcases. As per this interesting blog post, it seems that Todd and I are not the only people who think about such seemingly mundane issues:

Can you imagine that it took close to six thousand years between the invention of the wheel (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) and this brilliant implementation (by some luggage maker in a drab industrial suburb)? And billions of hours spent by travelers like myself schlepping luggage through corridors full of rude customs officers.

Worse, this took place three decades or so after we put a man on the moon. And consider all this sophistication used in sending someone into space, and its totally negligible impact on my life, and compare it to this lactic acid in my arms, pain in my lower back, soreness in the palms of my hands, and sense of helplessness in front of a long corridor. Indeed, though extremely consequential, we are talking about something trivial: a very simple technology.

But the technology is only trivial retrospectively—not prospectively. All those brilliant minds, usually disheveled and rumpled, who go to faraway conferences to discuss Gödel, Shmodel, Riemann’s Conjecture, quarks, shmarks, had to carry their suitcases through airport terminals, without thinking about applying their brain to such an insignificant transportation problem. And even if these brilliant minds had applied their supposedly overdeveloped brains to such an obvious and trivial problem, they probably would not have gotten anywhere.

Of course this is all a little tongue in cheek; it ignores the indirect technological developments that have emerged from the space programme. Things like satellites, GPS, and heat-resistant ceramics, for example, have transformed our lives in a myriad of ways. On the other hand, people like Todd might argue that if you took those squillions of $$$ invested in the space programme, and instead invested it directly into research and development, then we may well have ended up with even more useful technologies. I’ll leave this discussion here for y’all to debate over your next pale ale, but I think it’s interesting to keep in mind.

Our journey will start and end at Muiderpoort station, which is my local station. As you can read about here, construction of Muiderpoort station finished in the 1930s. The station’s aesthetics reflects the modernist influences of the day, while also paying homage to the style of traditional Dutch public buildings, most obviously churches. Other similar train stations include Amstel and Naarden-Bussum, which are located on the same line, but further south.

Muiderpoort has a somewhat dark history, which is reflected in a little statue located in the plaza outside the station. At the onset of WWII the newly-finished Muiderpoort station was used by the Nazis to cart Jews off to concentration camps elsewhere. Prior to WWII, Amsterdam was actually home to one of the largest (in an absolute and proportional sense) Jewish populations in Europe. Tragically, by the end of WWII this population had been decimated, and it has never recovered. Whenever I catch the train from Muiderpoort I reflect on sacrifices made by previous generations, which helps to put current tribulations into perspective.

Moving onto more positive historical developments: Muiderpoort is my gateway to the Dutch heavy rail network, which is rather impressive. To put some numbers around that statement, on an average day it carries just over 1.2 million passenger journeys (source). That’s not too dissimilar what Auckland’s rail network carries in an average month. The schematic below illustrates some of the underlying structure. It is immediately apparent that the rail network provides excellent coverage, but also that it is very much focused on the north-west of the country, in region known as the “Randstad”.

To give you a sense of its capacity, there are approximately 10 double-decker 8 car trains carrying up to 2,000 people operating between Utrecht and Amsterdam in the peak hour. That’s equivalent to the capacity of a 10 lane highway on one single route, and it wouldn’t surprise if most of this capacity was used.

My Muiderpoort is only a minor station in the scheme of things. Nonetheless, it enjoys frequent service from early in the morning to late at night. When we arrived at Muiderpoort at 6am, for example, there was a direct service running to Schiphol every 30 minutes, in between which were other services from which we could connect to services travelling to Schiphol. Basically, even minor stations in Amsterdam, like Muiderpoort, enjoy turn-up-and-go levels of service, for most hours of the day, and almost all week.

What about ticketing? Well, in the Netherlands, one smartcard is used for all public transport services across the entire country. Our 30 minute journey from Muiderpoort to Schiphol cost 2.50 Euro, which I think is great value compared to airport connections in most places.

One of the reasons it’s so cheap is because I’ve loaded a discount onto my card, which entitles me to a 40% discount when travelling outside of peak times. To qualify for this discount I have to pay an annual fee of 50 Euro. I think this is an interesting approach to delivering discounts: The discount is effectively a subscription, rather than applying to all journeys. By limiting access in this way, NS can in turn afford to offer a larger discount. One of the really nice – and less well-known – features of this particular discount is that it can be “loaded” onto up to two other smartcards. Thus I can “share” my discount with other people I am travelling with, which is great for families and groups. Smart and convenient, and something that could be done with HOP as a way of delivering targeted discounts.

Rail services go underground as they approach Schiphol airport. Passengers exit the station into a covered plaza located between the two major terminals. Train and flight information is readily available. Schiphol is one of the five largest airports in Europe terms of passenger movements (source), and it is growing faster than any other in the top five with the notable exception of Istanbul. As far as large airports go, Schiphol is actually fairly pleasant, even if it’s almost always busy. I’d choose Schiphol for connections over, say, Heathrow, Frankfurt, or Paris.

As an aside, I love the blue livery of KLM’s s planes, which really brighten up what are otherwise rather dull airport environs. Seeing them always makes me ruminate on Air New Zealand decision to abandon the traditional teal colour in favour of black. I appreciate that black is associated with the All Blacks, but New Zealand is, and will be, so much more than simply a rugby team. And that’s from someone who loves rugby. I wonder if Air New Zealand will come to regret abandoning what I thought was a vibrant and distinctive teal colour? In saying that I’m open to being convinced otherwise …

EasyJet flight EY7911 left Schiphol Airport bound for Lyon at 7.30am with us onboard. Our tickets cost 50 Euro each, which is the main reasons why decided to fly from Amsterdam to Lyon rather than travel by train (time was the other factor: 3 hours by plane versus 8 hours by train). Rest assured that we used more sustainable transport options for most other legs of our holiday. We checked in via EasyJet’s app and made our way straight to the gate; the topic of apps will come up repeatedly in this series of travel posts, for the primary reason that they have made our travels really easy.

Once on-board I noticed there seemed to be more legroom on the flight than I remembered from other low-cost carriers. I wonder if this is because airplane seats have become less bulky, especially when they don’t have electronic screens in them. At 1.82m I’m of fairly average height, yet even I had a healthy 10cm gap between my knees and the seat in front. Very nice.

Arriving in Lyon, we found the airport was undergoing a major renovation. I must say that Lyon airport did not make a good first impression; it has a strange circular layout and the signage is not great. I got the feeling that it is a good example of what Jan Gehl calls “bird shit architecture”. That is something which is designed to look from above, but which is dysfunctional at the ground level. In contrast, Schiphol looks ugly from the air but works well on the ground.

The best thing about Lyon Airport, in my opinion, is its TGV station. The beauty of the station is not only how it looks from the outside, but how it feels and functions internally. The design brings abundant natural light into the interior, which is characterised by clean lines and simple materials. Pedestrian desire lines rule. Bravo.

Upon arriving in Lyon, we collected our rental car and drove to Annecy. Our car was a Fiat 500, and for five days it cost 120 Euro in hire costs plus 80 Eur in fuel, tolls, and parking. That’s about 40 Euro per day, which is pretty good value – and not much more expensive than return train tickets from Lyon to Annecy for the two of us. Plus with the car it was much easier to access the mountains around Annecy.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Annecy is beautiful. The city has a lovely mix of buildings from various ages, with a medieval centre surrounded by more modern styles, most notably from the early 1900s. The town itself is situated amidst canals, on the shores of a beautiful lake, which is nestled in between spectacular mountains flanked by verdant forests. Here’s some teasers for you.

Our time in Annecy was spent cycling around the lake (4 hours), climbing La Tournette (5 hours; altitude 2,300m), and generally meandering through long sunny days. All very pleasant.

One of the most striking things about Annecy, which is relevant to Auckland and discussions on the Unitary Plan, is how dense it is: the centre of Annecy is dominated by 4-8 storey buildings, many of which are apartments. These are the sorts of apartment development that Auckland is lacking, and this is in a city with a population of under 100,000.

Having lived and traveled around Australia and Europe for several years, I can’t help but feel that Auckland is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to apartments. While the rest of the world has and still is embracing medium density developments of up to 7-8 storeys, Auckland seems paralysed by proposals to allow buildings above 3 storeys. It’s as if Auckland still can’t quite accept that it’s a city where land is scarce, such that compromises must be made.

I know that some people like Brian Rudman believe that 3 storeys is already a compromise, a nod to higher density. Such positions are, I think, painfully naive.

Cities everywhere, for centuries, have built up to 5-8 stories in order to house their growing populations. Restraining most of Auckland to 3 storeys or less is basically committing ourselves to supplying 50% fewer dwellings than would be available in other places for a physical given footprint. I don’t think many Aucklanders appreciate just how much density controls have constrained the supply of housing, and just how much this will negatively effect socio-economic and environmental outcomes for decades to come.

Anyway, for now I’m going to get out there and enjoy Europe and leave the rest of you to fix Auckland. My next update will be from Cassis, where most of the buildings are more than 2 storeys, where most of the inner city streets are too narrow for cars to access even in one direction, and where the atmosphere is oh so lovely.

Somehow the town still functions; I’m still trying to work it out and if I do then I’ll let you know.

Until next time, go well.

Photo of The Day: Signs of a Better Auckland on its Way

Cranes. Lots of cranes on the Auckland skyline at the moment. Many of them are building apartment projects, especially in the shot below.


I particularly like this view because it shows that an area that long been dominated by one type of dwelling; detached Victorian houses, is now getting this resource complemented by a good volume of a different kind of dwelling. This is especially important as these old buildings have recently become extremely expensive through both further investment [massive upgrades] and good old fashioned scarcity plus neighbourhood desirability. So more people and different kinds of households are now entering this lovely neighbourhood with its existing infrastructure and great proximity to the city.

While the prices of the apartments reflect these qualities of the location [naturally] and therefore are not as cheap as those out at the end of the motorways, they are still easily under half the price of the surrounding done-up detached houses, and even many that are entirely uninhabitable. And therefore will help to add to the range of price points in the local market as well as the total number of dwellings.

Additionally, and something that’s dear to my heart as an existing resident of the area, all these additional locals mean new and better local amenity; more cafes, restaurants, and employment opportunities as more businesses move in to serve them [all three of my children work locally]; essentially more choice and vibrancy, because there’s simply more people on the streets. And it means that our neighbourhood will earn the right to better social services too, like more frequent bus services, street and park upgrades, and more funding for cultural events. In particular the new intensity along Great North Road is making a strong case for this route to both to be upgraded to a real boulevard, and to one day perhaps providing sufficient demand for the transit route west here to be upgraded to Light Rail.

It is especially pleasing too that these new apartment buildings are clearly better designed and built than those of the last boom in the mid-2000s. And what are they displacing? Car yards. Low land value, slow turnover carparks; what could be better?

This is picture that makes me a very happy urbanist and an even more happy local.

Photo of the Day: Mere Kirihimete

Christmas trees and the changing city:

37 ANZAC_5494



Two of my favourite things; a more dynamic city and Pohutukawa trees. Have a great day and we’ll see you for an even more urban 2016!




Postcard from Freiburg

After Paris we spent a day and two nights in Freiburg before heading on to Switzerland to meet Stu Donovan and go skiing. By the time you read this, we will be on the slopes! Here are a few thoughts and impressions of the place.

Freiburg is a small city of about 220,000 people near the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. It’s gained an international reputation for being one of the most sustainable cities in Europe. What this means, in practice, is that it seems to combine the best of both big cities – on-street vibrancy, especially around the historic downtown – and small towns – quiet, safe neighbourhoods that are good for young families.

According to our hosts, the city’s cycling mode share – for all trips, not just commuting – is roughly equal to its car mode share. About 30% of trips are on bicycle, and 30% are in cars. The remainder is split between the city’s light rail system and walking.

But it hasn’t always been thus. Freiburg was headed down the road to motordom in the 1950s and 60s. But, like many Dutch cities, it took a different direction in the 1970s, expanding its tram system rather than pulling it out, and starting to build cycleways. They’ve got 420 kilometres of bike lanes, including separated cycling highways, 36 kilometres of tramways, and expansions in the works.

Freiburg’s public transport system has roughly the same level of patronage as Auckland – almost 80 million trips a year. (And, apparently, a farebox recovery ratio of over 80%.)

So far, so good. But Freiburg is growing quite rapidly – a consequence of its attractiveness as a place to live, I suspect – which is putting pressure on housing. Rents are apparently rising, and the city council (which is led by the local Green Party) has to plan for this growth. Freiburg is already a midrise city – three to five storeys in most places – so it is debating its next steps.

In line with past practice, this means a bit of up and a bit of out. New apartments are being planned for some parts of the city, and the city’s negotiating with farmers to buy some more land at the edge. Hearing about the options, and the constraints, I was struck by how familiar it all would seem in Auckland. The farmers were holding out for higher prices for their fringe land. Heritage preservation policies in the old parts of the city make it difficult to build up there. It’s not possible to develop in biodiversity areas or in the Black Forest. Minimum parking requirements add significant cost to new housing.

Wait, minimum parking requirements? In the sustainable city of Freiburg?

Apparently, yes. MPRs in Germany were imposed by a federal law in 1939 – perhaps the earliest example on the books, which would make them literally a Nazi invention. They are still generally in force today, although there’s been a trend to devolve control over minimums to local governments. In Freiburg, the minimums have recently been reduced from one parking space per dwelling to 0.6 spaces per dwelling. (In Berlin, by contrast, they have been removed entirely.)

However, there have also been some innovative ways to get around MPRs. For example, the suburb of Vauban was developed as an energy-efficient, car-free neighbourhood. Requiring one carpark per home would have undermined the concept pretty badly, so parking was instead provided in three garages at the edge of the development.

However, one of those garages was not actually constructed. Instead, everybody in Vauban who didn’t want a car bought into an association that had the option to develop the underlying land for carparks. In effect, rather than buying a carpark, they bought insurance against the possibility that they would need one. Apparently this saved car-free households around 18,000 euros. And the third parking garage still hasn’t been built – the land is still being used as a playground.

The word “association” seems to be an important one when it comes to housing development in Germany. Germany law and tax policies make it easy and advantageous for people to club together to develop multi-family dwellings. A lot of the apartment buildings and terraced houses in Vauban were built this way. Basically, get together with some friends, buy a bit of land, and hire an architect to design an apartment building for you. You’ve got to comply with some high-level rules about bulk and form, but other than that the design is up to the occupants.

I would be interested in learning more about this model. It could be really compatible with New Zealanders’ aspirations for housing – we have a preference for designing (and even building) our own houses, but Auckland’s high land prices make it costly to build standalone dwellings. Midrise apartment buildings could fill the affordability gap, but the current developer-led model doesn’t suit everyone. So perhaps look to Germany for an alternative model?

Phil Goff: For a better Auckland?

On the weekend Phil Goff announced his bid for the Auckland mayoralty. Several interesting articles on Goff’s bid have been published, for example ones by the Herald and Radio NZ here and here respectively. A more recent article by the Herald is available here, which suggests Goff may be the favourite and exhorts him to “exert control”.


In this post I’ll discuss and interpret some of Phil Goff’s comments on local government in Auckland. The post is split into three juicy topics: 1) Rates; 2) Asset sales; and 3) Intensification. I should note that it’s relatively early on in the campaign, so in some ways this post raises more questions than answers. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

1. Rates

So what is Goff’s position on rates? Well, for starters at least Goff has his figures right: He notes that rates for the average household increased 3.5%, while also observing that some households experienced increases of up to 10%. Basic data analysis is something that seems to escape some journalists.

Now don’t get me wrong: 10% increase in one year is a big jump.

However, one of the things that got lost in the recent clamour is that some of the increase in household rates was associated with adopting single rating system for all of Auckland. This required harmonizing quite disparate rates across Auckland. Naturally, some people found their rates went up, while others found their rates went down.

The good news for Goff, and any other mayoral candidate, is that the difficult process of harmonizing rates is now largely complete. Len Brown has borne the brunt of that central government hospital pass. As such, the incoming mayor – whoever they are – will benefit from this issue dropping off the radar. So how will Goff seek to keep rates under control in the future?

Well, in his interview on Radio NZ Goff talked “prioritizing” projects, i.e. less important things give way to more important things. This really was the thrust of this recent post which I wrote on the effectiveness and efficiency of local government in Auckland.

Unfortunately we don’t know yet what Goff’s priorities are, so it’s hard to assess the size of the potential savings. There are however a number of poorly-performing transport projects which could be ditched, such as PenLink and Mill Rd. Right there Goff could save the mighty taxpayers of Auckland several hundreds of millions of $$$.

One issue Goff didn’t discuss is Auckland Council’s desire to shift the burden of rates away from businesses and onto residents.

This shift, as I understand it, is designed to reduce the costs faced by businesses, so as to 1) reduce prices for goods/services and 2) increase employment, both of which ultimately benefit residents. While this is a policy direction that I happen to support, it has also contributed to some of the recent increase in residential rates. We don’t yet know where Goff stands on this issue, but it’d be interesting to find out because it is one factor that will cause residential rates to rise faster than inflation.

2. Asset sales

Now we start to get into the nitty gritty about how to keep rates under control. One of the more controversial ideas that has been in the media lot lately is the subject of asset sales. It’ll be interesting to see where the mayoral candidates fall on this issue, because it really is the primary opportunity to find more money to invest in things that will make the city better.

In his interview on Radio NZ Goff distinguishes between what he calls “strategic” and “non-strategic” assets. He says no to the latter, especially in the context of Watercare. Auckland Council’s shares in Ports of Auckland and Auckland Airport, for example, also appear to be in the “not for sale” basket.

Now I can appreciate the need to distinguish between strategic and non-strategic assets, where the former are deemed to provide efficient support to Council’s strategic direction and the latter do not. However, I think there’s a need for Goff to outline not only which assets he considers to be strategic, but *why*. This would help shed light on his underlying values, and mitigate against the “slippery slope” arguments that are advanced by some people in discussions of asset sales.

On the other hand, it should be noted that from the interview it seems that Goff’s views on golf courses are relatively well-aligned with our own views here at TransportBlog. I’ve paraphrased the most relevant parts of the Q&A as follows:

  • Interviewer: What about flicking some of the golf courses?
  • Goff: Remuera golf course is worth $560 million and the subsidy for every golfer is $11,500 per year.
  • Interviewer: So we could expect some golf courses to be sold for housing?
  • Goff: I’m going to look at the facts before I make a commitment on that. But I don’t think it’s fair for Aucklanders to be subsidising those people who are lucky enough to be members of a golf course …

FYI here’s what a subsidy of $11,500 per golfer per year buys them.


Or here’s another fact just to ram it home: The annual subsidy for golf courses in Auckland is approximately equivalent in value to the annual cost of operating Auckland’s rail network. So when someone tries to tell you that asset sales will not have a meaningful impact on Council’s ability to deliver other goods and services, you should tell them they’re dreaming.

Personally, Goff’s views on rates and asset sales seemed fairly reasonable to me, even if more details are needed (NB: The same goes for all the mayoral candidates of course).

3. Intensification

Now let me present one psuedo-question in the Radio NZ interview and the subsequent response from Goff:

  • Interviewer: There’s more talk today about intensification in some of those inner-city suburbs, such as Mt Eden.
  • Goff: I don’t see us putting up tower blocks in some of those really nice areas. What I see us doing is working down the main arterial transport routes, looking at places like New Lynn and Panmure. Those are the ideal places where you might want to put 3-4 storey intensive housing, plenty of public open space and making sure it’s good urban design. I don’t think that you start to encroach on the most beautiful parts of the city, before you, say, let’s follow the transport routes so that people can be close to where they are moving to.

There’s some good stuff in what Goff says, e.g. on concentrating development in areas where transport infrastructure exists and the need to focus on urban design, both of which have been somewhat lacking in earlier iterations of Auckland’s development.

There are also, however, some very unfortunate words and attitudes underlying Goff’s comment. Here’s the part I was most concerned by: “I don’t see us putting tower blocks in some of those really nice areas“.At this point my little red alert warning signals started to go whoop whoop. More specifically, in this comment Goff strays into very dangerous territory my friends.

Let me explain why.

First let’s consider what Goff is trying to say. From where I’m sitting, it seems that Goff is saying let’s not intensify in areas that are “nice”. Why? Well, the obvious implication is that intensive development is not nice?!? Goff meet Ockham. More specifically, if Auckland is to progressively change the discourse around housing, and thereby lance the housing boil that threatens our entire economy, then we need large numbers of apartments and town houses to be built. And we need them to be built all across Auckland’s central suburbs, where people want to live, not just in a few places like Panmure and New Lynn.

Second, in this sentence Goff implies that he will seek to undermine normal market forces. More specifically, if an area is “nice” then people are going to want to live there right? Goff seems to be saying that as soon as an area becomes “nice” then Council is not going to allow development there. By extension, Council will presumably only allow intensive development in location that are not nice? Where there is no demand to live? Great, Council can zone away its heart’s content, but it won’t ultimately change anything, all we’ll get is higher property prices in areas that are unable to be developed further.

Which brings me to the third issue with Goff’s seemingly innocuous statement: Goff’s use of the word “nice”. What does this imply for the areas of Auckland that are not like Mt Eden? Goff seems to think Council can identify a couple of not nice places and direct all the “poor” people (who can’t afford to buy a nice big ol’ villa on a large section in Mt Eden) to live there. Think again. Question: What if people all over Auckland come forward and argue their neighbourhood is nice just the way it is?

Answer: Goff either has to 1) tell them that they’re wrong or 2) roll back the intensification planned for those areas. That’s right: In arguing that we shouldn’t intensify certain areas because they’re “nice”, Goff has unwittingly created a rod that any NIMBY anywhere can use to beat back proposed intensificatio – on the grounds that their area is already “nice”. End result? Whole-sale down-zoning in response to self-interested parochial interests.

Now, in Goff’s defence, he is not alone in slipping down this slippery slope.

In fact, the interaction between planning regulations and political economy has been studied elsewhere. This interesting article from Los Angeles, for example, discusses how their planning regulations prevented intensive developments from occurring in areas where there was demand. Sound familiar?!? These regulations were found to have a massive negative impact on development capacity in Los Angeles, as illustrated in the figure below.


For this reason it is not surprising that Los Angeles has had the “fastest increase in home values since 2000” and “has become the least affordable major city in the country“.

In a nutshell: The more Goff is inclined to pick “winners” and “losers” when it comes to what types of housing can be developed in which areas of Auckland, then the more expensive and segregated Auckland is likely to become. Personally, I struggle when residents and politicians effectively say “we want the kinds of people who live in apartments to live over there, because this area is too nice for them“. That’s the definition of snobbery.

The discourse surrounding this issue is even more farcical when you realise that many of Auckland’s older suburbs are already peppered with 3-7 storey apartment buildings. Like my apartment building, which is over 100 years old. Like many apartment buildings in Auckland that were built before regulations and locals made it too difficult.

And let’s be honest: The debate we’re having is not about “tower blocks”: It’s about whether you should be able to build a 3-7 level building in Auckland’s extremely valuable and desirable central suburbs. You know, like the kinds of development that one finds Sydney and Melbourne. To which I say abso-bloody-lutely.

End result? I think Goff needs to think more subtly about intensification.

4. Conclusion

Overall score for Goff’s initial foray into local government issues? Well, I’d give him a 2/3. When it comes to rates and asset sales, Goff stated some reasonably coherent positions, while also appearing open to debate and discussion. Which is good, because after all he’s only one vote on Council so at the end of the day we shouldn’t overstate his importance.

While Goff is shaping up to be a good centrist mayoral candidate, it looks like housing and intensification may be areas for improvement.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that Goff naturally wants to win, and winning involves appealing to people from across the political spectrum – many of whom like Auckland the way it is and don’t want it to change. But allowing more housing, and more intensification in particular, is the single most important issue facing Auckland right now (yes bigger than transport).

For this reason, Auckland’s next mayor needs to champion Auckland as an integrated city, not a collection of self-interested suburbs.The reason we should sell Remuera golf course is the same reason we should allow for more development in Mt Eden: Because it’s in the best interests of Auckland as a whole. Both now and into the future.

I would like to elect a mayor who doesn’t apologise for the need for intensive development in central areas. A mayor who engages with the concerns of existing residents, but doesn’t compromise on the underlying reality facing Auckland and the city’s growth. Development is not a disease that needs to be quarantined in not so “nice” places. Multi-storey buildings already exist in Auckland’s inner-city suburbs, like they do in Melbourne and Sydney and almost any city of similar size.

Indeed, I’d personally argue that Auckland’s lack of density, and the consequences for civic life, is a primary reason why Auckland struggles to retain its young people. The life of cities like Melbourne, Sydney, London, and Amsterdam is what attracts young peolpe like me. I think our approahc to housing needs to be framed in that context: If you want your grandchildren to live in this hemisphere, then you’ve got to allow for more intensive development in Auckland.

Goodbye, goodluck, and godspeed to you my fellow Auckwooders. May Goff be with you.

Goodbye BMD. We’ll miss you

And now for something completely different. I was saddened to learn that the street artists BMD are disbanding:

The legendary street art collective BMD has split up.

Known for their distinctive wall markings, often including warped animals and cartoon objects, the two Taranaki artists behind BMD have announced they are parting ways.

As part of the separation process they have revealed their identities as Damin Radford-Scott and Andrew J. Steel.

The contemporary art duo have spent the past 10 years building their brand into an internationally recognised mark.

Throughout their partnership the men behind the murals chose to conceal their individual identities.

They once cited the reason for their anonymity was an effort to have their work judged for what it was and not for who the artists were.

But since announcing their split the pair have decided it was now time to unmask themselves.

Friends since the two attended Devon Intermediate School in New Plymouth Radford-Scott and Steel have spent a decade embellishing public spaces throughout the region, across New Zealand and overseas.

However, in more recent times the pair had started to move in different creative directions and they agreed the split had been on the cards for a little while.

Radford-Scott, who works independently under the artistic moniker of Milarky, said it was inevitable.

“We’ve changed as people, we used to gel really well together but it’s not quite like that anymore,” he said.

BMD are responsible for some weird and wonderful murals on walls up and down the country. I’ve seen their work on K Rd, Carlton Gore Rd, down in Taupo, New Plymouth, Wellington, and Christchurch, and even a couple odd paint-jobs next to obscure highways up north. Once you’d seen a few pieces of their art, it was instantly recognisable – vivid colours, animals with weird human expressions.

You can see their work here. Here’s a few of my favourite pieces.

BMD for anti-shark finning, Wellington, 2013. Photo: Norman Heke

BMD for anti-shark finning, Wellington, 2013. Photo: Norman Heke

Auckland, 2013. Photo: BMD

Auckland, 2013. Photo: BMD

Taupo details, 2011. Photo: Blake Dunlop

Taupo details, 2011. Photo: Blake Dunlop

I’m sad to see BMD end. Damin and Andrew have done a great job beautifying New Zealand’s cities. But I’m also looking forward to seeing what they come up with on their own.

Amsterdam is “bad ass”

Greetings from Amsterdam. As some of you may know, I’ve recently moved here from Brisbane to begin a PhD in Economics. Fun times.

In this post I want to briefly touch on some reasons why Amsterdam is such a “bad ass” city and possibly glean some information that may be relevant to Auckland. As discussed in this TED talk which Matt linked to recently, Amsterdam’s city flag is relatively “bad ass” insofar as it follows principles of good flag design, as illustrated below.


Before we begin please ponder a question: What do you think of when you hear the word “Amsterdam”?

In my experience, for many New Zealanders the word Amsterdam evokes images of a psychedelic mash-up of bicycles, tulips, joints, and red lights. As is often the case, however, impressions formed from afar tend to reveal more about the place from which the observation is made than the place that is being observed.

As any one of the many kiwis I have met here will attest, Amsterdam’s “spirit” is not found in the red light district nor in its liberal approach to managing psychedelic substances. Nor even cycling. Why are foreigners so fascinated by bicycles? Indeed, for the locals, the usefulness of a bicycle is a given. It simply is the best way to get around, and the most efficient form of urban transport. Hands down.

These things are simply consequences of much more profound socio-economic factors.

In my view, the spirit of Amsterdam is encapsulated in an attitude of “practical and engaged tolerance”. It’s an attitude which says “I don’t mind what you do, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact me.” And if something you’re doing does negatively impact me, then I’ll simply let you know and we’ll sit down and have a rational and informed conversation about what to do about it. Or I’ll find a way to avoid the problem.

Like cycling. Many people are of the view that the Netherlands has always been a cycling nirvana. That perception is incorrect. From a policy perspective, the Dutch only really started to consciously embrace cycling from the 1960s onwards. This was a deliberate policy decision made in response to two main factors:

  1. Peaceful but widespread protests by residents in response to the growing number of cyclists who were being killed by private vehicles; and
  2. The oil shocks of the 1970s, which the Netherland’s government decided was a good reason to develop a more sustainable transport system.

Both factors are discussed in this fantastic video, which is titled “How the Dutch got their cycle paths“.

Basically, it was felt that there was 1) a moral need for safe cycling facilities and 2) an economic rational for doing so. The result? Elected representatives and policy-makers put their heads together and made sustained investment in cycle facilities over many years. Has Amsterdam failed as a consequence of what was, at the time, a rather significant shift in transport policy?

No, if anything it has prospered. PwC’s recently released Global Cities Study scored Amsterdam as follows:


By this measure, Amsterdam was ranked fourth in the world and second in Europe. Amsterdam scores first on both “health, safety, and security” and “sustainability and natural environment”. In short, Amsterdam is a socio-economic powerhouse. This is the view that I try and give to people when they ask me “what is Amsterdam like?”. Yes, Amsterdam is business time.

Sure, as well as having great jobs it’s also a great place to live. Why? Well, residents tend to identify strongly with and celebrate being in Amsterdam. For example, a few weeks ago Amsterdam celebrated “Sail”, which is an event held every five years that brings together tall sailing ships from around the world. I understand the event is the largest of its kind in the world and requires the Port of Amsterdam (which is a major sponsor) to be shut for several days.

It’s big bikkies and the time lapse video below gives you a feel for the scale of the celebrations.

There’s many other similarly amazing events. “Museumnacht”, for example, is an annual event where the museums are turned into nightclubs with top DJs from around Europe. People buy a ticket to the whole event which gains entry to all museums and dance their way around top artworks.

So I hope that gives you a feel for Amsterdam.

But how is Amsterdam doing on the land use and transport front in more modern times? Well, I’ve only been here 4 weeks so I need to do more research. However, I can briefly outline two reasons I’ve already found for why Amsterdam is doing fairly well in a few areas where Auckland might still be able to learn a few tricks.

The first thing is that minimum parking requirements simply don’t exist. That’s right: Developers can choose how much parking to provide to meet the needs of their customers. While parking management policies (e.g. parking prices and/or travel demand management measures) may be something the developer will discuss with the municipality during processing of their application, there does not seem to be any stipulated requirement to provide a certain amount of parking with certain types of developments. Instead, there is simply an expectation that the developer will “think about it”. How bizarre. And effective.

The second thing is that Amsterdam has, for more than 5 years, focused on one public transport project: The North-South metro line. While Amsterdam scored relatively well in the aforementioned PwC survey, one area where it did not score so highly was in the “transportation and infrastructure” category. On the surface this seems strange. I mean, Amsterdam achieves ~35% cycle mode share while another 20% use public transport. The City also benefits from an extensive national heavy rail network which carries 1.1 million passengers per day across the Netherlands. As an Aucklander it’s sometimes hard to think how the transport system could get any “better”.

However, when it comes to transport there are two things to remember about Amsterdam.

The first thing is that because Amsterdam is successful, Amsterdam is congested. There’s a lot of things going on pretty much all the time. Special events such as Sail are a regular feature of the calendar. Hence, if you are not cycling, then the roads and public transport are quite congested. No shame there, but I think it’s interesting that policy-makers in New Zealand still don’t understand that a successful city will likely be congested. In other words, places that aren’t congested aren’t successful. It’s important to note that this is not equivalent to saying “we shouldn’t worry about congestion”, but simply noting that no congestion is not the end goal. Instead, the end goal is a city where many people can avoid congestion altogether, when and where it eventuates, by using alternatives.

The second thing to note is that public transport in Amsterdam’s is not that great by European standards. The LRT has good coverage but is relatively slow and somewhat infrequent while the metro has limited coverage and is relatively indirect for many journeys. As you can see from the network map below (NB: The northern terminus of the Green metro line looks strange until you realise that it connects with a frequent heavy rail connection that exists between Slöterdijk and Centraal).


So how do policy-makers in Amsterdam propose to “fix” their transport problems? Well, the “North-South” metro line includes six new stations and an extension to the north shore, as illustrated in blue below. Boom. It’s as if Auckland looked to combine the CRL and a metro rail to the North Shore into one project.


The contrast between the North-South metro line and what NZTA are planning for the next harbour crossing in Auckland could not be more stark. Whereas NZTA is planning to spend billions to achieve a relatively marginal increase in capacity within an existing highway corridor that by world standards is only moderately congested, Amsterdam is already spending similar amounts of money on a project that massively expands the coverage and directness of their rapid public transport network.

In a nutshell: There seems to be widespread acceptance among policy makers in Amsterdam that if peak urban travel demand is the problem, then investment in road capacity is not the solution. Instead, the preferred solution here is to invest in strengthening the rapid transit network first, and then investing in frequent local PT that connects to this RTN network. While Auckland gets the latter part of this equation, it has not yet realised that this investment needs to happen *instead of* investment in highways.

There’s many other reasons why Amsterdam is a great place to live, and I’ll no doubt explore some of them in future posts, assuming that I manage to survive my courses. In the meantime, rest assured that notwithstanding the weather and the pain of having to study graduate microeconomics, life “ist goed.” Tot ziens!