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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.

The NZ Herald: Whipping up fear?

I’m a proud Aucklander.

My job often takes me overseas. I’m actually writing this from Brisbane. And often when I fly back to Auckland I find a small tear forming in the corner of my eye. I’m happy not just because I get to see colleagues, friends, family, and Baby Kuku (see below). I just generally love being home in Auckland.


I also find that every time I get back to Auckland something new is happening. I stumble across new cafes, new stores, new buildings etc. Houses on my street are being renovated and painted and generally tidied up. Even if the city is not perfect, it feels like things are heading in a positive direction. It just feels good.

Recently, however, the NZ Herald has started to run a number of very negative articles about the Unitary Plan (UP). In this recent post Matt outlined a number of ways in which these articles have tended to misrepresent information about the UP in an attempt to create “bad news” stories. This concerns me.

For all its talk of “multi-storey” development, the Herald has not – as far as I know – provided any examples of what 4-6 storey buildings look like overseas. Let me assist. The photo below, for example, shows a 6 storey building (including the attic) in Amsterdam. As Maurice put it “be ye not afraid.”


Now I accept that the UP is not perfect.

But the trade-offs involved are complex. Auckland is growing (nice problem to have), development needs to happen somewhere, less development in one area means more development somewhere else, different development patterns have different implications for infrastructure costs, and so on.

Raising height limits, for example, reduces the need for greenfields sprawl, and vice versa. The UP tries to find a balance between these types of issues.

From what I can tell the Herald is having none of it. This latest article by Bernard Orsman spends a lot of time taking things to a whole new level of uninformed emotive negativity. The views of a local resident and landowner, for example, are paraphrased as follows (emphasis added):

Statements like this provide little comfort … they confirm her worst suspicions that the council is paying lip-service and acting like the Government of Cyprus to steal property rights for a bankrupt agenda.

Even when you ignore the bizarre connection to Cyprus, this comment is simply illogical.

Let’s get this clear: Raising height limits enhances property rights, because it enables landowners to develop their properties more intensively. Repeat after me: “Raising height limits enhances my property rights“. To claim that the UP proposes to “steal” property rights is, in this context, completely illogical.

What’s more frustrating than the comment itself, however, was that the journalist does not subject it to any critical examination. There was no reflection on the tension between the resident’s property rights and the rights of her neighbours, nor how they might be resolved in a manner that was fair and efficient for the city.

Hypocrisy underscores much of the emotional rhetoric. The local residents, for example, felt:

“We are the landowners. We are supposed to have ownership of that land, but we have this group of people who have come to Mt Eden and made sweeping changes …”

At this point I had to laugh. Was the journalist not tempted to point out that all the UP does is enable development rather than require it. So if all the landowners don’t want to develop their land then that’s fine. If some of them do, then they can – up to four storeys. Sweeping? Hardly.

I guess it’s just easier to encourage NIMBYs to squeal like entitled little piggies. Not good enough, in my opinion. But then the article finishes with what struck me as truly awful journalism:

Hate speech is coming to a street near you – if you live in a quiet piece of suburbia, like Poronui St in Mt Eden, and object to your neighbourhood being rezoned for apartments and infill housing. In a sign that the council is losing the battle to persuade middle-class suburban Auckland to adapt to a new way of life, it has appointed 28-year-old councillor Michael Goudie to counter more conservative views.

Not only that, but wise heads like deputy-mayor Penny Hulse are turning a blind eye while Goudie promotes an anonymous blog article, We Hate Nimbys (Not In My Back Yard) that labels a “sea of grey hair” opposing a new planning rulebook “selfish, arrogant, narrow -minded and parochial people” who should “just hurry up and die”.

In one fell swoop the article seems to be implying:

  • If you object to the re-zoning proposed in the UP, then you will be subjected to hate speech.
  • That the Auckland Council is, first, trying to persuade people to adapt to “new way of life” and, second, that they are losing that battle.
  • Councillor Michael Goudie has been appointed by Auckland Council to promote the UP. But Goudie, sanctions hate speech and is tacitly endorsed/supported by Penny Hulse.

Weasel words like this are a red-flag for me, and they are often used by extremists like the Tea Party movement in the U.S. As Michael Higgins notes in this entertaining and impassioned debate with a Tea Party advocate, the general strategy is to ”get a large crowd, whip them up, and try and discover what is their greater fear. Work on that and feed it right back and you get a frenzy” (1:05).

The greatest fear held by some of Auckland’s residents seems to be multi-storey development, and the Herald is now dutifully whipping this fear up into a frenzy.

Now I appreciate that the Herald needs to sell newspapers, and the negativity they push may achieve that end. I also understand readers of the Herald tend to be older and more conservative, which in turn is likely to be reflected in the types of articles that are pursued by Herald’s editors and journalists.

Basically, I understand that the Herald has a commercial prerogative to reflect the views of their readers.

Nonetheless, I think the Herald’s coverage of the Unitary Plan has now crossed some sort of ethical line. Their negative and imbalanced reporting on the UP is certainly not what a responsible newspaper would do, nor is it – I suspect – what decent Aucklanders want.

Most decent Aucklanders would, I think, recognise the UP is too important to be exploited for political or commercial gain. To do so would be akin to crapping in your own backyard – because your actions will, in the long run, harm the community around you (that you rely on for your business).

By not providing more balanced reporting on the Unitary Plan I think the Herald is betraying the future of our city. Emotive words perhaps, but that’s nonetheless how I feel.

At the end of the debate, Higgins suggests his Tea Party opponent should “be proud to be a decent American, rather than be just a wanker whipping up fear” (4:12). I’d like to send a similar message to the Herald.

Be proud to be decent Aucklanders, rather than just wankers whipping up fear.

Movement and Place – Taking a historical perspective

“Movement and place”: A simple concept that underpins many of the debates on this blog.

For those who have not heard of the “movement and place” concept before, let me briefly re-cap. “Movement” describes how cities need to accommodate flows of people and products. “Place”, on the other hand, describes how cities need to provide locations in which socio-economic activity can thrive.

In my mind, “movement and place” describe extreme ends of a mobility/accessibility spectrum, between which there are many nuanced variations. Train stations, for example, are “places” that facilitate “movement”, as is on-street car-parking. There is of course a need to distinguish between the functions of public and private “places”. Notwithstanding all these nuances, I think “movement and place” is a useful concept because it highlights a key trade-off that emerges within almost every urban transport planning project: How can we enable movement while sustaining place?


Finding an optimal balance is rarely easy. The first reason is that movement and place are often competing for the same physical space. Think of bus lanes on Symonds Street. The second issue is that movement itself tends to generate negative effects, such as noise and air pollution, which undermine the quality of a place. Again, think of Symonds Street.

In this post I wanted to try and provide some historical perspective on “movement and place”. I have been pondering for a while now whether the optimal balance between movement and place is shifting over time and, if so, what the implications of such a shift might be. And when I say “over time” I don’t mean in the last few years. I’m actually talking about experiences of the last hundred years, as examined through the life of my grandmother.

Violet Donovan was born in West Ham, London in 1920 (shown below). Post-WWI Europe was not a particularly happy place, so her family soon migrated from to the U.S. They promptly settled in the booming industrial town of Buffalo. As a child Violet went to sleep listening to the echoes of gun shots resonating across Lake Erie, where the U.S. Navy was engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent bootleggers from spiriting moonshine into the U.S.

West Ham 1920s

They were hard times.

Like many “poor” children my grandmother was sent to summer camp. While there Violet befriended another young girl called Alice. Years later my grandmother discovered that Alice’s father had ended up in jail after he was caught stealing bread to feed his family. She also discovered that at the time social welfare assistance was not extended to the immediate families of criminals and that Alice had died of starvation.

As an adult Violet would later pen this poem about Alice, which was titled “Inside”:


You never met Alice, – I wish you had,

She is a very good friend of mine,

One I have known for a long, long time,

Her skin is black, and mine is white

And yet, I think we look alike

Inside, if you know what I mean.


You never met Alice, – I wish you had,

I called her Lily, – it sounded right,

She called me ‘Tiny’, – I wasn’t quite,

Each read the other like a book

Saw ourselves as we thought we’d look

Inside, if you know what I mean.


You’ll never meet Alice, – that’s too bad,

Alice went away, – she had to go

A ‘Lily’ doesn’t last long, you know

Now, it isn’t that she hides,

But rather that she always bides,

Inside, if you know what I mean.


Eventually the lingering Great Depression caused Violet’s father James – my great grandfather – to lose his job. With limited few opportunities in the U.S., Violet’s family promptly decided to migrate again, this time to New Zealand, where James had landed a job at the Devonport Naval Base. Violet celebrated her 16th birthday on the voyage to New Zealand.

Violet’s family arrived in Wellington after sunset and promptly boarded an overnight train bound for Auckland. Then, upon arriving in Auckland, the entire family finally boarded the ferry to Devonport (like the one shown below) – just as the sun was rising over Rangitoto. Apparently the spring sunlight lit the waters of the Waitemata in sparkling hues of blue that Violet would never forget, even as she grew old.


After the industrial drudgery of Buffalo and London Auckland must have seemed like a verdant oasis. Not that life in Auckland was necessarily easy: Violet would later raise three children on her own, at a time when women were paid approximately half a man’s wage for the same job. At one point she was working three jobs, seven days a week, just to get by. She never had sufficient time or money to learn to drive, let alone buy a vehicle;  Violet depended on public transport her entire life.

I suspect that few people today, myself including, can fully comprehend the degree to which my grandmother relied on public transport. For example, as a keen carpenter Violet would transport lengths of timber home from the hardware store by laying them down the aisle of the bus. And when in the 1980s Auckland’s bus services were cut in response to declining demand, the bus stop closest to Violet’s unit was no longer served. She immediately went out and purchased some roller skates, which she used to skate to the bus stop that was now closest to her hours.

Yes that’s correct – at the grand old age of 60 my grandmother invented “roll and ride” (R&R).

Violet so loved Auckland that – once settled here – she rarely left, except perhaps for the occasional day trip to Waiheke or Waiuku to visit her increasingly spoilt and precocious grandchildren.

I think Violet’s life is remarkable not just for what she endured; indeed hardship was not uncommon to the generation born immediately after WWI. The causes of socio-economic troubles were many and varied, such as the global influenza epidemic, the Great Depression, WWII, and finally the Cold War, among a number of other trials and tribulations. Instead I think Violet’s life is remarkable because of the historical perspective it provides on the relative importance of movement and place. The reasons why people really need to be able to move and what they do when they eventually find somewhere that they life.

International travel was a life-raft that enabled Violet’s family to escape first from the U.K. to the U.S. and then again from the U.S. to N.Z. It was the ability to travel that enabled Violet’s family to access a better life in N.Z. While the waves of international migration that dominated our early European history have gradually receded, we are now in the grip of other, more local, migratory trends – such as rural to urban drift. Here the role of push and pull factors, plus transport’s enabling function, seems to be very much the same as it was in Violet’s day. Transport enables people to access opportunities that don’t exist where they currently live.

We now live, however, in a vastly different global environment. From what I can tell much of the world has got its act together. New Zealand, in general, and Auckland, in particular, no longer has the inherent competitive advantages we once had as an affluent safe-haven in a war-ravaged and uncertain world. Global competition for labour is more intense, while the real costs of long-distance travel have declined – making it easy for people to come here, but also making it easier for people to leave – both locals and immigrants – when they don’t find what they are looking for.

I think this post is already long enough so I’m now going to just say what I think, even if I’m the first to admit that the supporting arguments are not fully formed: I think New Zealand’s urban areas need to place a greater emphasis on place. I can understand New Zealand’s historical emphasis on movement, because there were a lot of people moving around. But the benefits of movement seem to be diminishing by the day, whereas the benefits of place, insofar as it provides us with a competitive advantage in the great global competition for skilled talent, seems to be increasing.

New Zealand truly needs, but doesn’t yet have, cities and towns in which people can live, work, and play – all without the need to travel very far. We need to start making places that provide joy and intrigue to our urban areas.

I want to wrap up by listing a few final questions for you good people to chew over:

  1. As New Zealand’s cities and towns become more settled, would you not expect the relative importance of “place” to increase?
  2. If so are similar trends emerging in countries overseas? Is there evidence to suggest countries with similar histories, such as Australia, are experiencing a similar shift, i.e. away from movement and towards place?
  3. If there has been an increased emphasis on place, what are the different ways in which it surfaces ? For example, are we now more willing to pay for quality public spaces?
  4. Does an increased emphasis on place need to be reflected in our political institutions and governance arrangements? Should we consider:
    • Develop a new place-based agency, e.g. the “New Zealand Place-making Agency” (NZPA) to sit within the MfE as a counter-balance to movement-based agencies, such as the MoT and NZTA? Or
    • Delegate the place-making function to local councils, albeit empowered with a new mandate to reinvigorate “life between buildings”?

These are the sorts of (complex) questions that arise when one takes a historical perspective on “movement and place”; I’d appreciate your help in answering them!

*** This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Violet Donovan. May your words, cheekiness, and spirit live on. ***


NIMBYs: Redefining community?

Of late we’ve seen a number of rather animated discussions on the topic of “NIMBYs” (not-in-my-back-yard), such as:

  • Milford - where people objected to a proposed plan change for higher density apartments and townhouses on the grounds that it was “out of character”.
  • Ponsonby - where locals objected to a new building because of its height (two-storeys), under-provision of car-parking, high floor/area ratio, and modern architectural style.
  • Te Atatu - where some locals have opposed the development of a bus station because of “the types of people bus shelters might attract” (like me!).
  • Onehunga - where locals have objected to a three-storey development on the grounds of parking provision and appearance.
  • Northcote Point – where locals are opposing the development of a walkway/cycleway over the harbour bridge.

Lest we forget Orakei Point: Where the following development got caught in a maelstrom of NIMBY outrage (source):


As you can see from these images, the proposed development at Orakei Point would have been something of a focal point for conspicuous consumption, and therefore quite out of character with the rest of Orakei. Not. Anyway, partly as a result of NIMBY grandstanding, the Orakei Point development has not yet got off the ground – approximately 6 years after it was first proposed. And that means Orakei – and perhaps more importantly Auckland – now has ~400 fewer homes than we might have had otherwise. That in turn means that house prices will be that much higher.

But experiences such as those listed above finally seem to be prompting a public backlash, with the “Eye on Auckland” blog launching what I thought was a humorous – if indiscriminate – assault on Auckland’s NIMBYs. You can read the two blog posts here and here. The author’s disdain for NIMBYs is evident in almost every sentence; here’s just a taste:

Let me start by telling you about a conversation I had with a woman a few days ago. Immediately upon meeting me she presumed that I am a follower of her cult and starts off with a rhetorical question “who wants to live in a high-rise” I replied with a resounding I do. She looked at me as if I had three heads.

Fumbling around for words she ignorantly and arrogantly stated that much of Auckland will turn into a slum. I calmly told her that I live in a high density development which has won awards both locally and internationally – it couldn’t be further from a slum.  Again she just stared at me, aghast and surprised, trying to fire up both of her brain cells. I also reminded her that many single dwelling suburbs are bigger slums than any apartment building that I have seen.

I asked her where she lives and she told me that she lives on an amazing lifestyle block. I should have guessed. I responded by telling her that best she starts worrying because the likes of Dick Quax, Cameron Brewer, Jan O’Connor, Grant Killon, Amy Adams and Nick Smith will soon be arriving on her land with huge bulldozers to make way for endless rows of affordable housing while singing hi-ho, hi-ho it’s off to work we go.

The look on her face was classic. Not once had she thought of that possibility. This is something that the crusty and rusty brigade will not be telling their blind mice. Instead they feed them morsels of lies, chunks of exaggeration and pellets filled with poisonous nightmares. The nimby’s happily consume it – ignorant and totally detached from reality.

The strange thing is that the [Unitary] plan actually puts in massive protections for single dwelling sites. No longer will you be able to build an apartment building down a small cul de sac. Rather they will be confined to town centres. The plan will formalise and control a situation that is already happening.

Personally, I also struggle with NIMBYs blatantly self-centered objections to developments in their community.

I’m astounded that NIMBYs are so happy to flip the “veil of ignorance” concept on its head, and instead assume that everyone else is as selfish as them. When you challenge their views on a particular development they often retort by saying “I’m sure you would not want to live next to THAT kind of development now would you?” To which my answer quite often is “yes I would actually”. It’s also ironic when NIMBYs’ self-centered positions lead them to take hypocritical stances. In Orakei, for example, you had a group of NIMBYs living in large detached dwellings miles from anything, who subsequently drove their cars everywhere, who then had the gall to turn around and oppose a medium-density, mixed-use development adjacent to a train station – on the grounds it will generate “too much traffic”. Oh dear, hypocritical much?

My second issue with NIMBY sentiment is related to – but nonetheless distinct from – the first issue. That is, NIMBYs rarely – if ever – seem to consider what would happen if the constraints on development that they seek were to be extended universally over the rest of Auckland. Consider the example of St Heliers, which is discussed in the “Eye on Auckland” post. Here, people seem to be objecting to a proposed multi-storey development on the grounds St Heliers is “special”. But hang on a flame-grilled marzipan minute: Is not every community in Auckland special? At least for the people that live there? And does that mean we should we constrain development in every community that considers itself special? Exactly how does one define “special”? Unfortunately NIMBYs aren’t very keen to look into the “special” wormhole they have created.

Every community that quarantines itself from further development is effectively causing more intensive development to happen somewhere else (NB: As an aside the same applies to the metropolitan urban limit, but that’s a discussion for another day). Put another way, constraints on development proposed by NIMBYs would, if generalised across the rest of Auckland, mean that the demand for new development was inevitably funneled into ever fewer locations. These places would, in turn, need to be developed to much higher density than they would have  to in a situation where development was shared more evenly across Auckland’s communities. As an aside, that’s one of the benefits of Auckland Council’s online “Shape Auckland Housing Simulator“. Go on NIMBYs have a play.

Now having said all this, I’ve started to think that perhaps I need to modify my NIMBY engagement strategy to be less belligerent. After all, some NIMBYs do have a genuine attachment to their community – even if I consider their definition of community to be too narrow to encompass a functional socio-economic unit. To highlight the difference: Whereas NIMBYs usually define their community in terms of their suburb, I will define my community as the city. Right now, I define my community not as Grafton, but Auckland – the latter is the city where I work, live, and play.

I then sat back and considered what factors might explain the differences between how we define community? I’m sure some of it is personal, rather than logical – as much as our own egos tries to convince us that all our positions are premised on the latter. For example, in my life (thus far) I have lived in Waiuku, Northcote, Newmarket, City Centre, Parnell, and Grafton. This diversity of abodes would probably lead me to appreciate more of the city than most. Perhaps some of my attitude is also attributable to my age and preferences: In that I’d much prefer to be out and about scouring the Waitakere Ranges than sitting at home in my undies sipping cups of tea .

Either way, I think it’s important critics of NIMBYs, such as myself, are first honest with ourselves about why we define our community more broadly than those they are criticising. I think there’s good reasons to define a community as being more broadly than a suburb, especially in a world where communications are making it increasingly easy to develop and maintain connections across distance . Nonetheless we owe it to ourselves and the targets of our criticism to be able to articulate the reasons why we prefer a broader definition of community.

For me personally, my definition of community starts with an appreciation of the following points:

  1. Suburbs do not exist in socio-economic isolation. They are part of a much larger economic unit called “Auckland”, which means they are, for example,  part of a larger housing/job market.
  2. Auckland is growing and changing. Inexorable population growth and demographic trends mean Auckland needs to accommodate a larger and older population with smaller average household size.
  3. These trends will gradually transform/re-shape Auckland’s urban form. In particular, we will likely need to greatly expand the number of compact houses located in proximity to town centres/facilities/amenities.
  4. It’s better for everyone if more communities help to accommodate this transformation. The more we spread the growth/load across existing town centres, the less any individual centre will need to develop.

So rather than simply hating on NIMBYs, I think a better approach is to try to redefine their concept of “community”.

This could be by explaining the points I have outlined above, or alternatively you could ask them where their friends and family live, where they work and shop, or which regional parks they like to visit. As they talk, you could then draw dots and lines on a map in front of them. In doing so, you may help them to develop at least a visual appreciation that their community goes a wee bit further than the suburb in which they live. Make sure you emphasise that less development in St Heliers, for example, will mean more development in Orakei, and that their Dentist in Orakei would probably prefer if St Heliers picked up it’s fair share of the growth, and vice versa.

Easier said than done perhaps, but nevertheless worth a shot. If you asked me what we have got to lose then I would respond “the city’s future”; yes I think the battle with NIMBYs is – in the long run – that important. That’s why I’d like to finish this post by praising (Deputy Mayor) Penny Hulse for taking on the NIMBYs in St Heliers when she said ““You can’t put a bell jar over the top of St Heliers and have no change.”  Thank goodness for Ms Hulse’s strong political leadership on this issue; let’s have some more of that.

Ding ding let the battles begin.