A wheely suitcase in Europe #5: Zaragoza to San Sebastian (plus some musings on high speed rail and one-way streets)

On leg five of our journey we meandered from Zaragoza to San Sebastian (Donostia in the local lingo, which I respect even if I revert to San Sebastian for the remainder of this post). For this particular leg we took the bus (ww.alsa.es), mainly because it was about the same travel-time as the train (3.5 hours) and cost only half the price. Plus the bus left at a more convenient time for us than the train. The route we took is illustrated below.

Trip 5

The bus left at 8.30 and dropped us in San Sebastian 3.5 hours later, pretty much right on-time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was free wifi on the bus, which appears to be a standard feature on Elsa long-distance bus services in Spain. Worth remembering, because free wifi is honestly a god-send for travelers who may not have a local mobile data connection. And it’s definitely an advantage over BlaBlaCar ride-share, which we used for our last leg (you can read about here).

The first half of the journey traversed relatively flat dry (albeit fertile) land in the Ebro river valley. In terms of history, I understand the Pamplona marks the northern-most point in the Moors occupation of Spain, which began with an invasion from North Africa circa 700AD. In the following map, you can see just how much of modern Spain was initially occupied, and also how long it took for Christian forces to re-conquer the territory (source). Even 600 years later, there was still a sizable area of Moor occupied territory.

From Pamplona to San Sebastian, the road took us into greener and more mountainous terrain. Indeed, it was these mountains that protected northern Spain from the invasion. They create a natural barrier and are partly the reason why the rail network in this part of Spain is relatively indirect / convoluted.

All this, however, is set to change over the coming years; the Basque region is in the process of developing their own high speed rail network linking Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and San Sebastian, as illustrated below.

More details on the project, including origins and financing, are available here. There’s a couple of interesting aspects of this high-speed rail network that are worth dwelling on. The first is that it connects to a wider high-speed rail network in two places: Madrid to the south and Bordeaux to the north.

These two connections change the optimal route for trains travelling between France and destinations in Spain to the south. As you can see in the image below, the optimal route between Paris and Madrid is currently via Zaragoza to the east, whereas the new HSR network may make it more efficient to connect via Vitoria-Gaistez to the east. Incidentally, travelling by train from Paris to Madrid takes 12 hours in total, of which the section from Paris to Bordeaux only takes 3 hours while the section from Bordeaux to Madrid currently takes 9 hours. The ability for the Basque HSR network to reduce these travel-times is the main reason why it has attracted EU funding.

Paris to madrid

The second interesting thing about the Basque HSR network is that it looks like there’s a  couple of branches to San Sebastian and Irun. Now, as Jarrett Walker has written about here, branches dissipate frequency and complicate network design. My hunch is that these cities do not receive direct HSR service, but must instead use local services on their respective branches to connect to a HSR station somewhere further down the line, perhaps Vitoria-Gaistez.

Nonetheless, the development of this network is rather exciting, and it’d be interesting to see how it turns out, and the impact it has on regional connectivity, which incidentally is rather poor at the present time.

In terms of San Sebastian itself, well it’s simply stunning and perhaps the most beautiful city I’ve ever experienced. The reason I say this is because it is beautiful in both a natural and a built sense; the harbour, hills, beaches, and buildings all combine to create an extremely aesthetic experience. The image below gives you a sense for the wider area (source).

San Sebastian occupies an extremely strategic location right on the Spanish / French border. It was also a decent harbour and relatively defensible. Hence it was one of the first locations occupied by Napoleon’s armies, and it was subsequently razed to the ground while being “liberated” by the British and Spanish forces. So circa 1815 the entire town effectively needed to be re-built. The “old town” was rebuilt more or less on the old street grid, with a few changes here and there (slightly wider pedestrian streets etc).


Then, in 1863, the town won the right to demolish its fortifications and expand. Wiki puts it thusly:

In 1863, the defensive walls of the town were demolished (their remains are visible in the underground car-park at the Boulevard) and an expansion of the town began in an attempt to escape the military function it had held before.[14] Works were appointed to Jose Goicoa and Ramon Cortazar, who modeled the new city according to an orthogonal shape much in an neoclassical Parisian style, and the former designed elegant buildings, like the Miramar Palace, or the Concha Promenade.[11]:145–146 The city was chosen by the Spanish monarchy to spend the summer following the French example of the nearBiarritz. Subsequently the Spanish nobility and the diplomatic corps opened residences in the summer capital. As the “wave baths” at La Concha conflicted with shipbuilding activity, shipyards relocated to Pasaia, a near bay formerly part of San Sebastián.

Basically, the expansion of San Sebastian catalysed a re-focusing of the town onto recreational activities, with industrial activities relocated to surrounding environs and/or even, in the case of port operations, nearby towns. Moreover, the resulting street network and architectural style really is rather lovely. The connected nature of San Sebastian’s street network is evident in the following image, which is taken from Google Maps.

San Sebastian

One of the interesting things about San Sebastian is its wide deployment of one-way streets. Now I know many urban designers gag at the thought of one-way streets, and partly for good reason: In the Auckland context, Nelson and Hobson Streets are horrendous place-destroying one-way monsters. In San Sebastian, however, the outcome is usually (not always) rather different. More specifically, in San Sebastian the negative impacts of one-way streets is mitigated to a large degree by urban design treatments. This includes wide footpaths, many pedestrian only streets, and long / frequent pedestrian phases at signalised intersections.

This reminded me of a post I wrote a while back about how it may be possible to “upgrade” Nelson and Hobson Street while retaining the one-way function. In this post I describe how an urban boulevard design treatment on Nelson and Hobson could seek to split the through and local traffic functions, thereby creating low speed access lanes adjacent to buildings on either side of the street. The speed of vehicles travelling adjacent to the footpath would be considerably reduced. You might even implement two speed limits: 30km/hr on the access lanes and 50km/hr on the through lanes.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, such a configuration would free up space for wider footpaths and all manner of other amenities.

I don’t know what the status of the planned two-waying of Nelson and Hobson Streets, but it may be worth considering an option that retains the one-way function of Nelson and Hobson, while transforming them nonetheless into much nicer places to be. If anyone out there is interested in seeing how one-way streets might work in a sensitive urban environment, then I’d recommend visiting San Sebastia.

At the present time I’m actually sitting further east in Gijon, Asturias, i.e. I’m one step behind in documenting our travels. So it’s probably an appropriate time to for me to finish this post, have a glass of rioja, and start thinking about the next post. Adios.




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.

Watch: Gil Penalosa in Auckland

On Wednesday the latest and one of the best Auckland Conversations took place with the renowned Gil Penalosa in Auckland and talking about creating vibrant and healthy cities. It’s something I think all current or aspiring politicians should watch.

The talk was full of energy and passion for improving cities for all residents regardless of age, wealth or social status. He focuses on the need to improve out public spaces to improve the health and livability of cities and that includes the single biggest source of publicly owned space in cities, our streets. To do that it also requires we deal effectively with the CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and how we need to stand up to the civic cadavers who resurrect themselves every few years to oppose change.

How can we create vibrant and healthy cities for everyone, regardless of age or social status? What is the role of streets – the largest public space in any city? How can parks improve the quality of life that attracts and retains people to their communities?

Gil answers these questions while also explaining a simple and effective principle for inclusive city building: ensuring the safety and joy of children and older adults (from 8 year olds to 80 year olds) are at the forefront of every decision we make in our cities. Drawing on his experience as Commissioner of Parks and Recreation in Bogota, Gil presents some of the now widely celebrated approaches to urban regeneration through investments in parks and public spaces. Gil also draws upon examples from cities around the world which demonstrate the power of parks and public space in making lives happier, communities better, and economies stronger.

and if you want an audio only version,

Did you go or have you watched the talk, if so what did you think.

20 Things for Auckland

Investor, business commentator and friend of the blog, Lance Wiggs, has written an excellent post on 20 obvious things to remember for Auckland, especially with local body elections coming up. Most of it relates to topics we’ve talked about before.


We can easily forget that most people don’t read Transport Blog, find The High Cost of Free Parking obvious or understand that great cities are great to walk in – and lousy to drive in. Many of us have lived overseas though, and we just tend to forget just how things worked over there and what is missing here.

So here are 20 (not so) obvious things about cities, and Auckland in particular, that we should all remember.

1: Many people living in a small area makes for a better life for all. It’s more efficient, more fun and increases business, and that’s why people choose to live in big dense cities.

2: Large roads create moats that block parts of cities from each other and we risk losing the benefits of urbanism. Many of the motorways that carved up cities overseas are now being removed, and the same applies to ports.

3: Parking spaces not only take up valuable land, but they also reduce the positive effects of urbanism. They are expensive and should be removed or charged for accordingly.

4: All the great cities of the world are horrible places to find and pay for a car park. That’s a design feature, as they prioritize walking and public transport to cope with the demand for moving people.

5: Public transport takes cars off the road and increases, dramatically, the ability of a city to deliver people to and from work and shops, and with very limited use of land. It is far cheaper, based on both marginal and capital costs, to move people with public transport than cars.

6: An empty rail line or bus lane is a good thing – the point is to make their lanes congestion-free so that riders can get to their destination faster.

7: Removing cars and car parks, broadening footpaths and installing shared spaces increases business (significantly) to the local merchants, and makes for higher value commercial buildings as well. People want to be in spaces that are friendly to people.

8: Apartments can be awesome places to live – and they should come in all shapes and sizes to cater for all stages of life. They are also intrinsically cheaper to build, supply with services and, with urban density, commute and shop from. You can generally survive without a car.

9: Driving to work is a horrible experience versus walking, riding and public transport – in that order. If you have the other options then take them.

10: To get people out of cars and onto cycleways and walking we need to provide pleasant and safe environments for walkers and cyclists. It’s not enough to do big projects – we need a network from homes to school, shops and work.

11: Driving kids to school is a confidence trick – switching back to kids walking and cycling will make everybody safer by removing cars from the streets, making kids healthier and providing critical mass of kids to react to and prevent any low probability but newsworthy predators. But we need to switch entire schools at a time to make this work. We also need to be smarter about buses for schools.

12: We make personal choices for transport that are not our own best interests, such as choosing to drive (and be traffic) rather than, say, walk. The right economics, such as variable tolls and parking charges and cross-subsidization of public transport nudge us into making better choices and save money for everyone.

13: New Zealand has one of the world’s most efficient domestic airline systems. Getting from the airport to Auckand city though is embarrassingly poor – great cities offer rail or light rail.

14: Autonomous cars are still cars, and risk clogging the roads even more as they reverse commute after dropping passengers. Autonomous taxis are still taxis. Neither takes cars off the roads – people will still want their Toyotas, Fords, BMWs and Mercedes Benzes with their stuff inside, while those shared cars will need constant cleaning.

15: Auckland has the potential to be one of the world’s great cities. We are rapidly building in population, especially downtown, and we need to invest to grow. That means increasing our debt funding, making sure the rates are set at the right level (they are amongst the lowest in NZ), building smart infrastructure to allow for density, removing trucks and cars by providing better alternatives and unleashing bigger buildings in and around downtown.

16: Allowing bigger buildings in your property zone will increase the value of your property – a lot. That’s free money. You may even find a developer who will buy your place for a lot of cash and give you a free apartment in their new development.

17: In large cities the houses with backyards, as we have in the leafy inner city suburbs, belong to a few extremely wealthy families. In Auckland the pressure is building to convert those houses to much higher value apartments.

18: Global warming will make beach front property more marginal – but property overlooking the coast will always be valuable.

19: Induced demand, where if you build it they will come, applies not just for roads, where new roads rapidly get clogged, but also for rail, light rail and bike lanes. The latter also increase the value of surrounding property. Build the bike lanes and they get used, and the evidence is clear to see.

20: In short Auckland needs to maintain or increase rates as a percentage of home value, borrow more, unleash the ability to build bigger commercial and residential buildings, invest heavily in public transport including rail, light rail and bus lanes, expand the walkable areas and cycle lanes, look to move the port within 10 years, say, increase the cost and reduce the supply of parking and work with schools and businesses to acelerate the transition to walking, cycling and public transport. And they can use an abundance of evidence from Auckland and offshore to make these decisions.

The reason Auckland is doing so well is that the current CEO and people that work for Auckland Council and aligned organizations as well as the private sector are working hard to achieve these goals. The central government is also largely aligned. The results, like the crowds in Britomart and Wynyard Quarter, the number of cranes downtown, the rapid rise in public transport, walking and cycling and increase in collective prosperity and delight in the inner city are clear for all to see.

However we need a Mayor and Council that support growth, that support investment and that support rather than constantly undermines the largely excellent work done by Auckland Council. We need Councillors who not only read their papers (and many don’t I’m told), but who also read and understand the vast body of work and international experience on urban and transport planning. We need Councillors who use, as National MP Simon O’Connor recently said to Parliament, reason, evidence and experts inform and make decisions. We need a Mayor and Councillors who are positive about the future of Auckland, who are inspiring and who have the skills and experience to do the work.

We don’t need Councilors who are sports or media celebrities with no real qualifications for the role. We don’t need Councillors who say no to every proposal without reading or turning up to resident events. We don’t need Councillors who undermine the CEO and Auckland Council, such as those who voted against he Unitary Plan submission.

It’s time to professionalise Auckland Council. Let’s make sure that there are enough high quality independent and party aligned candidates for all electorates. And if you are considering standing on the sort of platform outlined above – then please do so. I’m willing to help.

Petrol station shakeup

Last year, Z Energy announced its plans to buy Caltex’s New Zealand operations. The merger was approved in April 2016, and took effect last week on 1st June.

This is quite a shakeup in the fuel retailing market – we’re going from four major companies to three – but in a way, the consolidation was inevitable, and reflects the way the market has been heading for a number of years.

A 2008 report identified 1,265 petrol stations, with 20.2% branded as BP, 18.5% as Shell (now Z Energy), 17.0% as Mobil and 16.9% as Caltex. The remaining 27% were independently branded. It’s all a bit more complicated than that, though, since many of the ‘corporate’ branded stations were actually run by franchisees (who may or not have the ability to set their own prices), and most of the ‘independents’ are, at least, supplied by the big corporates.

Fuel retailing (aka petrol stations) has changed a lot over the years. 50 years ago, every small town had one, and they were often “garages” as well, servicing and fixing cars, changing tyres and providing all sorts of other services.

That’s changed, and most of the small stations are now gone. Instead, modern petrol stations tend to be large, selling much higher volumes than they used to. They don’t service your car anymore, but they have a heavy focus on food/ convenience items sold in store.

As a result of this, the number of stations has dropped from around 3,800 in 1976 to 1,265 in 2008:

Petrol station numbers historical

Numbers have levelled out over the last few years, but we’re now sitting a little below 1,200.

On the topic of “food/ convenience”, the 2008 report mentions that for Australia, non-fuel sales actually make up about 70% of the gross profits. The report also makes a rough calculation which suggests similar figures for New Zealand. As surprising as it sounds, petrol stations actually make most of their money from what they sell in the store, rather than petrol.

Since 2008, many of the big oil companies (i.e. Shell, Caltex, Mobil, BP) have been selling their fuel retailing businesses, not just in New Zealand but in a number of other countries. Mobil were looking to sell in 2009, but nothing came of it. Shell sold their business to what is now Z Energy in 2010. And effective from 1 June 2016, Caltex has also sold their business to Z Energy, which brings us up to the present day.

In cases like this, the Commerce Commission looks very hard at whether the merger will “substantially lessen competition”, both at the national level and for smaller markets (e.g. a town or city). They’ve decided that, provided Z Energy sells 19 petrol stations to other operators, the merger can proceed. For example, Z Energy and Caltex are the only operators in Kaikohe, so the Commission will probably require one of the stations to be sold to BP, Mobil or another company to keep the market competitive.

Z plan to keep the Caltex chain under separate branding – they currently have two years’ rights to retain the Caltex branding, and presumably have the choice of either creating a new brand (Y Energy: you heard it here first) or paying to extend their rights over the Caltex brand.

Z Energy will now have a much higher market share, so it’s unlikely to go through any other major mergers. However, it’s quite possible that some of the smaller companies that compete with Z could merge. Even a merger of BP and Mobil isn’t out of the question – this would be similar to what happened in the supermarket industry a decade ago.

Foodstuffs (operating New World and Pak ‘N Save) had a commanding market share, but the two smaller companies (Woolworths, Countdown and Foodtown) were allowed to merge. Supermarkets are now essentially a duopoly, with Foodstuffs on the one side and Progressive (who have rebranded all their supermarkets as Countdown) on the other.

Even if something like this happened with BP and Mobil, there would still be more competition in the fuel retailing market than there is for supermarkets.* There are more outlets in total, and independents also have quite substantial market share.

* Probably. I’m oversimplifying things, and there are also other markets which would get considered besides just petrol stations: wholesaling, refining, bitumen and so on.

“The train that saved Denver”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “the end of Auckland’s old growth model“. In that post, I argued that the old pattern – build roads and pipes into some paddocks and orchards, and subdivide away – is now kaput. It isn’t the 1960s anymore:

Auckland North Shore before AHB

A land-constrained city with pinch-points on all its key transport corridors cannot afford to provide sufficient road capacity to serve all new demand. More space-efficient transport – which means rapid transit for long-distance trips and walking and cycling for local trips – is a prerequisite for ongoing growth.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s happening to the cost to add road capacity in Auckland. A decade ago, we could build urban motorway extensions for less than $10 million per lane-kilometre. Over the next decade, we’ll be lucky if we can keep costs to $50 million per lane-km.

Cost per added lane-km chart

Rising costs to add new road capacity reflect fundamental spatial challenges. Due to geographical constraints and the existing built environment, new roads must go in tunnels (VPT, Waterview), on viaducts (Reeves Road), or reclaimed land (East-West). All three options are expensive.

Space for rapid transit is also expensive… but the difference is that rapid transit systems allow many more people to move on busy corridors. Consequently, the space required per user can be significantly lower.

But: can rapid transit also play its role in supporting land use and development?

Evidence from the US suggests that it can. A recent article by Colin Woodard (in Politico Magazine) reviews Denver, Colorado’s successful development of a new rapid transit system:

Denver has done something no other major metro area has accomplished in the past decade, though a number of cities have tried. At a moment when aging mass transit systems in several major cities are capturing headlines for mismanagement, chronic delays and even deaths, Denver is unveiling a shiny new and widely praised network: 68 stations along 10 different spurs, covering 98 miles, with another 15 miles still to come. Even before the new lines opened, 77,000 people were riding light rail each day, making it the eighth-largest system in the country even though Denver is not in the top 20 cities for population. The effects on the region’s quality of life have been measurable and also surprising, even to the project’s most committed advocates. Originally intended to unclog congested highways and defeat a stubborn brown smog that was as unhealthy as it was ugly, the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted, from revitalizing moribund neighborhoods, like the area around Union Station, to creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass.

In other words it’s taken Denver only two decades to build a successful rapid transit system from scratch. Further expansions are underway. To be fair, Auckland’s accomplished something similar. The city’s rail network had a near-death experience in the early 1990s but its fortunes have turned around due to some far-sighted decisions – purchasing surplus railcars from Perth; building Britomart; rail electrification; and the Northern Busway.

Daily Britomart Passengers - Actual vs Projected 2016

However, Denver has arguably done better than Auckland at using rapid transit investments to enable urban development. This has included a mix of urban redevelopment and more intensive greenfield development:

Denver’s leaders had, by accident, built something extremely valuable, but because they had misunderstood its real purpose at the outset, some potential had been squandered. “They were really asking the wrong question: How do you reduce congestion on highways?” says Wesley Marshall, a transport engineer at the University of Colorado Denver. “The obvious answer is to put transit adjacent to highways and to surround the stations with park-and-ride lots.”

Problem is, while transit really does mitigate congestion in the long term, it does so by facilitating better, often denser land use, rather than by offering an alternative to getting from point A to point B on the interstate…

One of the best examples of this is the area around the 10th and Osage Station just south of the city center. The Denver Housing Authority wanted to replace the South Lincoln Homes, a distressed, low-slung 270-unit public housing project on 15 acres with mixed-income housing. The two key criteria critical to attracting middle- and market-rate tenants, DHA Director Ismael Guerrero says, were proximity to downtown and a light rail station, but they also wanted to ensure nobody was unwillingly displaced.

“This is a close-knit community and a lot of history, where people live for generations and have family close by,” Guerrero notes. “Residents told us they wanted to make sure that we weren’t just replacing housing but improving the quality of life.”

The result is Mariposa, a 900-unit development of energy-efficient three- to nine-story buildings with shops and office spaces mixed into a network of parks, bike paths and community gardens, some of them on land transferred by RTD to the city. Osage Café, a breakfast and lunch place, is actually a culinary academy training local teens. Arts Street, a non-profit providing arts-oriented “learn and earn” sessions for at-risk youth, moved into the complex from temporary digs at DHA’s invitation.

Denver Mariposa apartments

Mariposa Phase II apartments (Source: Politico Magazine)

[…] Mariposa, now nearly complete, has retained more than 40 percent of South Lincoln Homes’ residents, Crangle notes, about four times the national average for similar projects. The net result has been diversification, not just gentrification, according to Todd Clough, executive director of the nearby Denver Inner City Parish, which helps the poor. “I was anticipating eight or 10 years ago that we would be gone by now, but because of light rail and Mariposa, we’re still relevant,” he says. “I’m a cynic; I serve poor people, that’s what I do. But, you know, this project is about as good as you can do it in a city that’s on fire.”

Basically, if it’s done well, rapid transit works. If you put in a system that is useful to people – i.e. one that connects them to places they want to be, in reasonable comfort – it will in turn shape urban development. If it goes into an existing urban fabric, it will be a lever for getting better outcomes from future redevelopment. If it goes into greenfield areas, it will shape its development form for decades to come.

I’m actually going to be in Denver at the end of this week – one of my brothers has moved there. Will be interesting to see how the place works, if only as a tourist.

Transport system more like Vancouver, Vienna or Zurich, Yes Please

One of the aspects I thought odd about the NZCID report released the other day was the revival of the 1965 De Leuw Cather motorway network plan and a comparison of Auckland’s motorway network to the motorway networks of “other liveable cities”. Here’s what they say:

The comparative decline of Auckland’s once ambitious motorway system, which for half a century has enabled the city to function in spite of deferred investment and poor public transport, can be seen in comparison to other liveable cities. Figure 31 superimposes to scale the motorway networks of various comparable metropolitan areas with populations between Auckland’s existing 1.5 million and its 2045 future of up to 2.5 million (Brisbane, Portland, Vienna and Vancouver each have urban populations of around 2.3 million, Zurich around 1.8 million). In all cases, the motorway networks today are more comprehensive than Auckland’s is projected to be in 2045

The limited reach of Auckland’s strategic road network in comparison to the city’s international competitors is not the only problem. Disproportionate dependency upon several key parts of the network where capacity is constrained has ripple effects across the entire transport system. Pinch points around the CBD, Mt Wellington and Greville Rd compress traffic, stymieing movement many kilometres away throughout busier periods. Although Greville Rd is now being addressed, there are no plans in the next thirty years to address capacity issues at either Mt Wellington or around the CBD.

Similar efficiency improvements to capacity-constrained parts of the strategic network appear less problematic in most liveable cities. While Vancouver has enforced a moratorium on motorway improvements near its congested urban core (but has expanded the network elsewhere), other cities address bottlenecks. Vienna’s Prater Interchange, for example, is currently undergoing a major renewal and capacity improvement to meet demand.

NZCID - ATAP response - cities motorways

Superimposing other cities motorway networks over Auckland in is just plain silly, for a few reasons.

  1. it ignores the unique geographical conditions of each city which severely affect how their transport system has developed.
  2. it ignores the urban of these cities. Some such as Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich have quite dense cores and no motorways running through them
  3. it ignores the other transport networks that help to complement the motorway networks

So let’s have a look at some of the factors for these other cities (maps not to scale)


Vancouver was one of the few Anglophone new world cities to not build motorways in its city centre – which came about as locals rejected the plans to do so. To mimic Vancouver for motorways we’d be pulling out the central motorway junction and motorways would just be in outer suburbs.

Vancouver Map with motorways

In the 1980’s Vancouver decided to start building their fantastic Skytrain system. Now over 30 years later and with a number of additions and extensions the network has over 117 million boardings as of 2013. That’s out of a total of over 350 million boardings for the entire PT system. The city has also been improving its cycling facilities and seeing good growth. As of 2015 for trips to work it is estimated that 10% of people cycle, 24% walk, 24% catch PT and only 41% drive. Below is Vancouver’s rapid transit network and that is also supported by a large number frequent bus routes – much like Auckland Transport are starting to introduce later this year.

Vancouver Rapid Transit Network

To be more like Vancouver is we’d need to invest in our PT and active networks and not new motorways to and through the city.


Vienna is a great city with a lot of history and no motorways through the middle of it. Like Vancouver the motorways stop short of the city centre with one passing to the side of it.

Vienna Map with motorways

Of course within Vienna there is also a fantastic PT network consisting of extensive U-Bahn, S-Bahntram and bus networks. The U-Bahn was opened in the mid 70’s and that alone carries over 1.3 million trips a day. The map below shows just the U and S Bahn

Vienna U + S Bahn map


With Zurich, again there are no motorways blasted through town with them stopping short or going around the city and most of them through the countryside rather than through an urban area like the NZCID propose.

Zurich Map with motorways

Despite the motorways, it is estimated that about half of all trips within Zurich take place on their extensive train, tram and bus networks. The map below is just a small sample of their tram network

Zurich tram-map


Of course as I mentioned yesterday, at the time of the De Leuw Cather road network that the NZCID lament was never fully implemented, they also produced a rapid transit plan even saying it was needed first to avoid many of the issues we’re now facing.


If the NZCID want us to have transport more like some of the cities they mention then we’ll fully support that, but that would mean focusing on getting PT and active modes sorted first so their Eastern Ring Route would have to stay on ice for a while.