Northland, Politics, Transport, and Pork

On March 28 the (normally safe) National-held electorate of Northland heads for a bye-election. The outcome of the bye-election will be fascinating for several reasons.

The first reason is that it’s politically important. If Winston Peters wins then it will be more difficult for National to pass controversial legislation, because they will need the votes of not just one but two support parties.

Legislation like the Sky City casino-for-convention-centre deal and RMA reforms suddenly become pawns in a three-way game of arbitrage between parties with somewhat different support bases and philosophies. Amusingly, National could end up leading a government not too dissimilar to what they warned the opposition would have been like, had the latter prevailed at the last election.


The second reason the bye-election is so interesting is that transport has, somewhat unexpectedly, become a major campaign issue.

Early in the campaign, the Minister of Transport (Simon Bridges) suddenly found $69 million in previously stretched transport budgets for two-laning a number of bridges in Northland. This funding announcement was apparently made without any information or advice being sought, or received, from transport officials. This is an announcement that Winston himself would be proud of, indeed he’s pulled similar stunts in the past.

The reality for National, however, is that few people seem to have been impressed by the transport funding announcement. Instead, it has received considerable attention for delving so blatantly into pork-barrel politics.


Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of the spend. For many of the locals interviewed by Campbell Live, two-waying bridges seem to be far from the top of the priorities list.

National have also apparently linked funding for the Puhoi-Wellsford highway to the outcome of the bye-election. Amazing how an apparently essential piece of transport infrastructure can so suddenly becomes not so important when there is a bye-election.

I’ve personally found it interesting watching National’s transport pork-barrel approach in Northland, especially in light of recent political happenings in Australia, where I am currently based.

In Victoria, Dennis Nathpine’s Liberal Government tied their political fortunes to the eye-wateringly expensive $18 billion “East-West Link”. It was a bad pick, with polls showing the East-West link had levels of support that were half of comparable metro rail projects. Napthine was subsequently kicked out of office.

Article Lead - wide6165269910pke2image.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.10pfiz.png1412250883220.jpg-620x349

Meanwhile, in Queensland, Campbell-Newman built a reputation for delivering large, expensive, and largely unnecessary motorway tunnels. His Government’s promises of more roading pork were spectacularly dismissed after only one term in office after a 12% swing back to Labour.

And at the Federal level Tony Abbott’s unwillingness to fund passenger transport improvements in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is receiving growing criticism. This is in stark contrast to the former (and possible future) Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, who supports passenger transport.

As an economist, I think there’s a key message for National in all of these events. It’s not just that roading pork hasn’t been sufficient to save political bacon, but also that there is often a large gap between stated and revealed preferences.

Why is this important? Well, I suspect what all of these conservative parties have done, including National, is held focus groups where they’ve asked people whether they support more investment in roads. In response, many of these people have said “yes”. Something like these guys.




The problem with stated preference surveys is the trade-offs are usually not made explicit. More specifically, when you invest more in roads, you often find that you don’t get much bang for your buck.

So while people say they want more investment in roads, after a couple of years of fluffing about with largely ineffective road investments, they suddenly realise that they’re not actually much better off. Political strategies based on stated preferences may therefore work in the short run, but they are likely to run out of gas in the long run.

The lesson for National in all this, I think, is that they increasingly run the risk that people will catch onto the fact that their transport pork is failing to return much value. Every new road that opens which fails to meet forecasts, every new business case that is shown to be baloney, eventually creates the case for your opponents to shred your credibility. It won’t happen overnight, but it probably will happen.

This is especially true when you’re foolish enough to do what National have done, i.e. hang your dirty transport laundry out to dry in the blazing heat of a Northland bye-election.

This seems to be a timely and early lesson for Simon Bridges: Emulating the pork-barrel approach employed by Joyce and Brownlee will not necessarily bring you enduring political success. Just ask Nathpine, Campbell-Newman, and Abbott if you want to see the proof in that political pudding.

Image of the day: Museum Boulevard

This interesting image popped up on twitter today showing an earlier plan for the area behind the Auckland War Memorial Museum.


It looks like it would have been a fairly grand boulevard to complement the museum but it obviously never happened. This is how it currently looks.


The Demographics of Travel to Work

The last census was two years ago and there’s already been a lot of analysis of the results of it. In terms of transport the census asks about Journeys to Work and while it is a fairly flawed metric due to it ignoring other trip generators like journeys to education – a large component of the morning peak in particular – it still has shown some interesting results. From it we know that in Auckland the number of people commuting to work by car increased, however it has partially come from fewer people carpooling and even more importantly it was eclipsed by the number commuting by PT. Add in the strong growth in people using active modes and there’s been the below shifts in modeshare.


PV = private vehicle


I just happened to be looking at Stats NZ a few days ago and came across data giving a demographic break down of the results which is something I haven’t seen before and the results are fascinating. In particular the results that caught my attention the most were those by age and gender and how that had changed over time.

First up the total number of people who said they worked on Census day and you can clearly see from this the aging of the baby boomer generation.

Census Journey to Work by Age - Auckland - Total

Unsurprisingly the number of people driving a private vehicle to work looks fairly similar to the graph above. What is interesting are the other private vehicle categories of driving a company vehicle, driving a motorbike or scooter and being a passenger in a car.

Census Journey to Work by Age - Auckland -  Private Vehicle

Moving on to public transport I’ve only shown bus and train below because ferries are included in the Other category. What’s remarkable about the changes is that it so clearly shows that the growth in PT is being driven by the younger generations. The question is what the people in these younger age groups will do once they start getting older and having families etc. The changes in the older age groups suggest that the numbers using PT won’t drop off as much as they have in the past which will have big implications for mode share in the future.

Census Journey to Work by Age - Auckland - Public Transport

I’ve also looked at the data for Wellington and while most categories have a fairly similar profile to Auckland, the one that stands out as being dramatically different is in train use. I suspect that as Auckland’s network matures it will start to look more like Wellington’s does now.

Census Journey to Work by Age - AKL & WLG- train

Next up are the active modes of walking and cycling with two very different trends. For walking its young people driving the change whereas for cycling it’s older generations making the shift.

Census Journey to Work by Age - Auckland - Active

Lastly it’s the Other – which is likely to primarily be ferries – and those who worked from home. The latter is primarily made up of people who live in rural areas and the wealthier coastal areas places within the urban area.

Census Journey to Work by Age - Auckland -  Other


Overall there are some very interesting changes happening with how we travel and those are primarily occurring in non-car modes. If the younger generations continue to keep the current trends up then it’s likely to have big implications for how people get around in the future. The question is whether what we’re building is going to support that change or hinder it.

The other piece of demographic information available is mode usage based on gender. Unlike age the gender split over each mode doesn’t seem to be changing much over time but what the data does highlight is that there is quite a lot of variance between the two based on which mode is looked at. Overall 54% of those who said they were working are men versus 46% women.

In the graph below are the total numbers of each gender for each mode – with the exception of Driving a Private Car as it’s so large it makes it difficult to see the other results. The first thing you notice is how over represented men are in driving a company vehicle. This is also the case for riding motorbike or cycling. In the other modes more women than men are likely to be a car passenger, use PT, walk or work from home.

Census Journey to Work by Gender & Mode - Auckland

To highlight the degree of over or under representation the graph below shows this for females (the opposite can obviously bee seen for males). Of these the quickest and easiest I think that we could change would be cycling and to do that it is essential we make our roads safer through far greater use of cycle infrastructure.

Census Journey to Work Female Over-Under Representation - Auckland

If anyone wants to look into this deeper this info is also available by local board level which I’m sure would show some interesting results between different parts of Auckland.

Sunday reading 22 March 2015

Every week we read more than we can write about on the blog. To avoid letting good commentary and research fall by the wayside, we’re going to publish weekly excerpts from what we’ve been reading.

Joel Leider, “House price-to-rent ratios in major US markets: a data visualization case study“:

My wife and I are buying (and selling) a house, and the metric I always return to is price-to-rent ratio. Sure, the real estate agent will show you comps for similar homes in the area. And all your friends, family, in-laws will chime in as to what they think a proper price. But price-to-rent ratio has the beauty of simplicity. It’s like a stock’s p/e ratio, and gives us a contingency plan. If you keep your price-to-rent ratio –price / (rent * 12)– below 20, at today’s interest rates you could rent out your house and still pay your mortgage plus tax. […]

Let’s look at price-to-rent ratios for some major markets. Below are the ratios for the Portland, OR metro area. In the city center, as well as some desirable suburbs, the ratio is getting high. In my situation, my wife and I are moving from Sherwood to Beaverton (ratio goes from 16 to 14). Sherwood is pink, but pretty far from the city center. With its amazing schools, it attracts the kind of people willing to pay somewhat of a premium to own over renting.


And, hey presto, some people have compiled a similar set of figures for Auckland’s suburbs:

Peter Nunns, Hadyn Hitchins and Paul Owen, “To buy or not to buy? A spatial analysis of house prices and rents in Auckland, 2001-2013” (pdf), Auckland Council technical publication:

We observe significant geographical variations in the relationship between rents and prices. Indicative rental yields are significantly lower in some areas than others, indicating that prices are high relative to rents.

Broadly speaking, the city centre fringe areas, along with beach-side suburbs in east Auckland and the North Shore, tend to have lower rental yields. These geographic variations remained relatively constant over time – i.e. the areas with the lowest indicative rental yields in 2001 tended to also have the lowest yields in 2013.

These persistently low yields present a conundrum for interpretation. They highlight an important feature of the housing market: that dwellings are both simultaneously investment and consumption goods (Henderson & Ioannides, 1987). Low yields could be interpreted as an indication that buyers in some areas are investing in the expectation that prices will rise rapidly in the future. On the other hand, buyers may not be seeking investment, but rather placing a premium on the high amenity values in these areas. This is supported by the fact that owner-occupation in area units with less than 3 per cent rental yield is higher (68%) than those areas with a higher yield (58%).

Nunns, Hitchins and Owen indicative rental yields 2013

Adele Peters, “7 Cities That Are Starting To Go Car-Free“, FastCoexist:

After over a hundred years of living with cars, some cities are slowly starting to realize that the automobile doesn’t make a lot of sense in the urban context. It isn’t just the smog or the traffic deaths; in a city, cars aren’t even a convenient way to get around.

Traffic in London today moves slower than an average cyclist (or a horse-drawn carriage). Commuters in L.A. spend 90 hours a year stuck in traffic. A U.K. study found that drivers spend 106 days of their lives looking for parking spots.


Forty years ago, traffic was as bad in Copenhagen as any other large city. Now, over half of the city’s population bikes to work every day—nine times more bike commuters than in Portland, Oregon, the city with the most bike commuters in the U.S.

Copenhagen started introducing pedestrian zones in the 1960s in the city center, and car-free zones slowly spread over the next few decades. The city now has over 200 miles of bike lanes, with new bike superhighways under development to reach surrounding suburbs. The city has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Europe.

Carlton Reid, “The demise and rebirth of cycling in Britain“, The Guardian:

In car-centric Britain planners assumed that cycling was teetering on the edge of extinction, and by omission they would do all they could to hasten this demise. Civil engineer and planner Professor Colin Buchanan wrote a highly-influential 1963 transport report for the government which recommended that nothing be done at all to encourage urban cycling. Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns was used by town planners to bulldoze motorways through British cities.

Dave Hansford, “The Agony of Vanuatu and the New Climate Colonialism“, Public Address:

Aotearoa has become a pariah at climate talks, not least because it leads a camp seeking “opt-in, opt-out” provisions, and a ban on any legally-enforceable penalties should national targets be missed. It also seeks to have the warming effect of methane – one of New Zealand’s most voluminous pollutants – redefined so as to lessen our total emissions.


It insists that, given our preponderance of hydro power, there’s little more we can do to curtail energy emissions, as though our almost entirely fossil-fuelled land transport and industrial energy sectors were not, in fact, the fastest-growing sources of new emissions. As though this Government hadn’t borrowed billions for an orgy of motorway building. As though it hadn’t slashed spending on public transport, walking and cycling, even as it woed oil and gas companies with $8m of enticements last year.

Frederick Melo, “The Green Line at 6 months: How’s it doing?“, Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

Metro Transit’s Green Line debuted six months ago, promising a comfortable, modern light-rail connection between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Fans and foes instantly squared off, foreseeing a big boost to economic development along University Avenue or the demise of longstanding businesses.

Six months in, one thing is clear: Ridership has nearly surpassed projections for the year 2030. From June 14 through the end of November, about 5.6 million passengers rode the line, averaging more than 1 million rides per month. The state’s first light-rail project, the Hiawatha Line, or Blue Line, debuted in June 2004 and took more than two years to reach that level.

Emily Badger, “Why parking spaces shouldn’t be wasted on cars“, Wonkblog:

For the last few years, Philadelphia has converted a handful of parking spots in front of neighborhood businesses into temporary “parklets” no bigger than the space that might fit one or two cars (these tiny interventions are now popular in a lot of cities). Records from adjacent businesses show sales went up about 20 percent immediately after the parks were installed, relative to right beforehand.

David Roos, “Cycling to Work in Vancouver“: A nice little photo-essay that shows the city from a bike’s-eye view. It does a good job of highlighting Vancouver’s built form and partially-completed cycle network:

I live on a designated quiet street (Haro) on the edge of the West End in Vancouver and work Downtown on the corner of Hornby and Dunsmuir Streets – the two best downtown cycleways – making me a good candidate for cycling to work. Walking takes around 15 minutes. Cycling takes a variable amount of time, depending on how much excitement I want in my life.

Helmets are required by law. I see about 70/30 (helmets/no helmets). I’ve not yet been fined.

Josie Pagani, “Process, not pork the problem for National”, Pundit:

There’s nothing wrong with building bridges in Northland or roads in Tauranga, or even politicians promising to do these things in by-elections. Investing in infrastructure – roads, rail, energy – stimulates the economy when it is otherwise starved of capital.

The problem is process. You have to weight up the cost of spending $69 million on bridges up North against building bridges somewhere else, or building a new school or a hospital. You need a mechanism for deciding if a project is fully funded by government or costs are shared with private capital.

Sean Hollister, “Elon Musk describes the future of self-driving cars“, Gizmodo:

We’re a very long way from that, because there’s always going to be some—for a very long time there will be some legacy cars on the road.

And it is important to just appreciate the size of the automotive industrial base. It’s not as though when somebody makes an autonomous car, that suddenly all the cars will be autonomous. There’s two billion of them. The total number of cars and trucks on the road is two billion and climbing… The capacity of car/truck production is about 100 million a year.

So if tomorrow all cars were autonomous, it would take 20 years to replace the fleet, assuming the fleet stayed the same size. Arguably it could get smaller if things were autonomous, but still it’s maybe 15 years or something and it’s not all going to transition immediately. It’s going to take quite a while. And it’s the same for electrification of cars. Changing that industrial base to be electric — if all cars tomorrow produced were electric, it would still take 20 years to replace the fleet. And right now it’s 1 percent.

Adam Hengels, “Urban[ism] Legend: The Free Market Can’t Provide Affordable Housing“, Market Urbanism:

“Relaxing” won’t do the trick in a city where prices are high enough to justify skyscrapers with four to ten times the density currently allowed.  When considering a supply cap that only allows a fraction of what the market demands, one can not reasonably conclude “Unlimited FAR” (building density) would merely result in a bit more development here and there. A radically liberalized land-use regime would deliver numbers of units several times what is permitted under current regulation.

Ms. Cort correctly concludes that because of today’s construction costs, new construction would not provide housing at prices affordable to low income people.  This will certainly be the case in the most expensive areas where developers would be allowed to meet market demands by building 60 story skyscrapers.  Advocates of land-use liberalization who understand the costs of construction would not claim that dense new construction will house the poor.  But if enough supply is allowed to come to market today, today’s new construction will become tomorrow’s affordable housing.

Is PT, walking and Cycling advocacy “Leftist”

Last Monday the council held an Auckland Conversations event to discuss transport funding in the Long Term Plan. Overall I thought it turned out to be a very good discussion and you if you didn’t happen to be there or watch it online live you can view the recording here.

Auckland Conversations Transport LTP event

This was also where Generation Zero launched their Essential Transport Budget which in a case of the old and young combining has even been backed by Grey Power. You can see that specific part here.

However there was a bit of noise created before the event by the curmudgeouns Dick Quax and George Wood.

I assume they are primarily directing the comment at Patrick, Pippa and Sudhvir. One area I do happen to agree with them on is that it would have been good to see someone there representing the road lobby – for example perhaps the Road Transport Forum. However what I want to question is the idea that pushing for better walking, cycling and public transport – at least in the way that we and Generation Zero do – is somehow “leftist”. In fact if you look at the actual detail of much of the advocacy we do it could easily be classified as sitting on right of the political spectrum. Here are just a few examples:

Improved Choice

The idea that individuals should have the personal freedom to make their own choices is often considered a strong aspect of right wing politics and that’s something we agree with. In the area of transport in New Zealand our politics has focused on associating freedom with the ability to drive cars. I’m not sure of the exact reason for this, I assume it’s probably a combination of successful car company marketing, the fact that PT workers are/were unionised, that cars don’t need a timetable plus provide point to point transport and similar messaging coming out of countries we followed like the US.

Putting the messaging aside, for decades on only focused on building one mode of transport. Like almost everywhere else in the world we’re rational beings and the outcome of all that investment meant the only rational decision was to drive – and that’s what most people do. What we’re seeing now is that when high quality options such as the Northern Busway or the rail network are provided then people respond positively and will happily change behaviour.

Myth - Reality

One of the key reasons for our support of greater public transport, walking and cycling investment is that it improves the choice people have for how they get around.  It means the only realistic option isn’t sitting in a car (in traffic) but being able to choose the best option for the trip/s they want to make (which may still be a car).

Fiscal Conservatism

We’ve been constantly appalled by the council’s transport plans which effectively seek to build everything ever thought up of over many many years. It’s the build everything approach that has contributed to the $12 billion shortfall which the council is trying to find a way to fund and is looking at either tolls or increased rates and fuel taxes. Over the years we’ve frequently looked for ways that we can both reduce spending but at the same time improve outcomes and of course that was one of the key reasons behind the Congestion Free Network.


We’ve taken the same approach with government spending. Some of the Roads of National Significance simply don’t provide good value for money and we’ve suggested some be cut back or cancelled as a result. The money saved from doing so can then be used deliver projects that will deliver better overall outcomes.

None of this approach is about being anti-car but improving what we build

Improved Efficiency

One thing that both advocates and transport agencies agree on is that we need to get more out of the transport system we already have. That means we need to move more people and goods via already scarce transport resources. In an urban area private vehicles take up massive amounts of space. One of the big advantages of public transport, walking and cycling is that they have the ability to move large numbers of people in less space so can play a bit part in improving the efficiency of our transport networks. Of course for those alternative options to be used we have to invest in them to make them usable to a wider segment of society.

Reduced Subsidies

To get people using PT though we need to improve the quality of the PT offering and the old business analogy of “you have to spend money to make money” seems quite appropriate. By investing in the network in the right way it allows us to improve PT and ultimately reduce the amount of subsidies required. As an example a bus lane allows buses to travel faster along its route by no longer subjecting it to normal congestion. Faster journeys are great for existing passengers and help accelerating patronage growth. However bus lanes are also good from a subsidy point of view. By speeding buses up you either need less of them to do the same job or can run more services for the same amount of money – thereby attracting more people to use it. Either way you reduce the level of subsidies needed which is good for ratepayers and taxpayers.

Public Investment - Wasteful Subsidy

Encouraging businesses

We’ve seen both locally and internationally that when there is a focus on improving the walkability and the pedestrian environment (that includes wheeled pedestrians) a couple of significant things happen. One is that people shop more boosting local retail, perhaps the best example of this is the upgrade of Fort St to a shared space which has seen the hospitality retailers revenue increase by a staggering 400%. The second thing is that people walking (and cycling) more is good for them, improving health and therefore reducing long term costs to the health system. This is further enhanced as often these improvements also see a reduction in traffic crashes. So once again we see a case where we can lower costs while also increasing revenue and therefore tax at the same time.

There are probably many more examples like the ones above, but they give a good overview of why transport policy (and land-use policy) really doesn’t fit well into a traditional “left-right” ideological spectrum.

The evolution of St Mary’s Bay

A few weeks back the fantastic Westhaven Promenade officially opened significantly improving pedestrian and cycle access to the area.

Westhaven Boardwalk_01

Westhaven Boardwalk_02

As part of the opening Waterfront Auckland sent me these images showing what the area used to look like. One thing is for sure, we’ve significantly changed the area.

St Marys Bay 1904

St Marys Bay circa. 1904

St Mary’s Bay Pier and Slipways circa. 1920

St Mary’s Bay Pier and Slipways circa. 1920

Shelly Beach circa. 1930

Shelly Beach circa. 1930

St Marys Bay & Shelly Beach 1930

St Mary’s Bay and Shelly Beach circa. 1930

Westhaven 1940

Westhaven 1940


Westhaven 1949

Westhaven 1949

Westhaven 1959

Westhaven 1959


Westhaven 2010

Westhaven 2010

Postcard from South Africa #2 – Durban Beachfront

This post doesn’t really have anything to do with the first Postcard from South Africa post, but I should probably put a link in anyway. It has more to do with this post.

Going to South Africa is all sorts of culture shock. But one of the things that surprised me the most when I went there with my then-girlfriend in 2010 was that there weren’t really any taxis as we know them. I was also told that it wasn’t safe to take public transport, and tourists didn’t have much choice but to hire cars to get around. I couldn’t accept the taxi thing, though: surely where there is demand from tourists and locals, there must be taxis? It turned out there were some in Cape Town – they’re called “meter cabs” – but not in many other places.

Going back in 2014, though, there were a lot more, including in Durban. It seems to be a much less formal setup than in NZ, with more independent operators than large companies. Uber also seems to be taking the country by storm – when you’re cautious of your safety, and many of the cab drivers are independents so you have no real way of knowing how legit they are, an app that lets you book a driver and see the reviews they have is pretty appealing.

South Africans do use “taxis”, but the word means something very different than it does in New Zealand. Essentially, taxis are minivans like the one below, which operate a sort of informal bus service. There are very few full-size buses, but these taxis seem to travel along fairly well-defined routes, although I doubt if there’s any kind of timetable. As far as I can tell, drivers are completely independent and don’t coordinate with each other at all, so there might be five taxis passing your stop in ten minutes or there might be none.


Every now and again, well-meaning people (and the odd sprawl pusher) ask why New Zealand cities don’t adopt minivans as part of their public transport, with minivans making it easier to serve more different places (and “point to point” service) compared with larger buses. Even the most basic financial analysis, though, shows that it won’t stack up – the labour costs are too high in countries with a reasonable minimum wage, the capital costs are too high, and there’s not much fuel efficiency gain compared with private cars, so not much saving there either.

Like Auckland, Durban is a city defined in large part by its coastline – although the main beachfront, next to the CBD, probably has more in common with somewhere like Surfers Paradise. Good surf, high temperatures and the odd shark. The beach carried on unbroken for seven sandy kilometres, lined with retail stalls, amusement parks, pools, casinos, hotels and the occasional car park. The picture below probably isn’t the fairest one, a typical shot of the beach would show more people and fewer car parks, but this is the one I’ve got:


The promenades along the beach have been upgraded, and a typical summer day now sees plenty of families walking, cycling and generally just enjoying the beach. It was a sight that made my now-wife very happy, as these improvements have made the beach much more accessible and family-friendly than when she was growing up there.


As our cab driver told us, there are now a lot more tourists coming to Durban, and the city is vying with Cape Town to attract more international visitors. Anywhere in the world you find tourists, you’ll find locals cheerfully devising schemes to part them from their money, such as the one below which I’m going to call a gaudily decorated rickshaw thingy, although there may be a more technical term for this. This probably isn’t a very effective means of transporting people along a 7 km beach, but I think it was at least 35 degrees and humid on the day I took this photo, so let’s all have a moment of sympathy for the poor bugger.


One last shot, taken from one of the many piers along the beach:


Opening up the data

An interesting TED Talk on opening up data from cities

City agencies have access to a wealth of data and statistics reflecting every part of urban life. But as data analyst Ben Wellington suggests in this entertaining talk, sometimes they just don’t know what to do with it. He shows how a combination of unexpected questions and smart data crunching can produce strangely useful insights, and shares tips on how to release large sets of data so that anyone can use them.

Auckland’s public transport growth – How good is it?

As discussed in this recent post, public transport patronage in Auckland grew at an annualised rate of 9% last month. This growth was led by the rapid transit network (rail and busways), but underpinned by solid growth across the rest of the network.

While this is obviously a positive result, I found myself pondering the question of just how good is it?

One way of answering this question is to place the recent patronage growth within a historical context. In the figure below I’ve plotted annual PT patronage growth from 1921 to the present (NB: I’ve excluded a couple of outliers). The red line on the right shows what would happen if the current annualised rate of 9% holds for the whole financial year.

Annualised PT Grpwth

On this basis I’d conclude:

  1. In the last 20 years, Auckland’s patronage growth has ranged from -2% to +11% with an average of 4-5% p.a; and
  2. In this context, patronage growth of 9% p.a. is at the upper end of what one might expect, but not completely unprecedented.

In my experience, people who doubt the strengths of Auckland’s PT renaissance tend to fall back on some common refrains when presented with such data.

The first refrain is that Auckland’s public transport is starting from a low base. This argument observes that our current high annualised growth is being occurring from a low baseline level of PT usage. This comment has some merit; Auckland does indeed have a low base of PT use, especially compared to many cities and/or levels of private vehicle use. But this argument is also rather disingenuous for two reasons.

The first reason is that PT patronage is high in the places and at the times when it matters the most. Screenline surveys, for example, show that approximately 50% of peak motorised trips into the city centre are on PT. Similarly, data shows that at peak times almost 13,000 passengers are travelling by train. And that’s just rail – you need to multiply that by a factor of approximately 5 to get an indication of total peak travel on PT. Yes that’s right – at peak times approximately 65,000 people are travelling by PT. To shift that many people by private vehicles we’d need the equivalent of 30 additional lanes of motorway. By extension, the fact private vehicles are used for most travel across the rest of the day and week is not evidence which can be used to downplay PT’s transport contribution. 

The second reason is that with growth rates of 5-10% p.a., low levels of demand can quickly become quite large. That is, if Auckland’s PT patronage grows at circa 9% for ten years then twice as many journeys will be undertaken by PT as currently. Experience also suggests that in a transport and land use context growth rates of 5-10% are actually relatively high. If we consider data from the Auckland Harbour Bridge (AHB), for example, then you’ll find the highest recorded annual growth rate in vehicle traffic was approximately 16%. That’s right: Even a transport project as transformational as the AHB didn’t hit annual growth rates above 16%. What the AHB did achieve, however, was to sustain high-moderate levels of growth for a very long time (approximately 30-40 years). That’s how it became the critical piece of infrastructure that we know today.

The second refrain is that Auckland’s PT patronage growth is being driven largely by population growth. Again there are several factors that do not support this perspective.

The first reason is fairly obvious. That is, Auckland’s population is growing at only 1-2% p.a. As such, while population growth explains approximately one-half of the growth in PT patronage, it does not explain the balance. We can show this by calculating PT trips per capita p.a., as illustrated below.

PT trips per capita



This shows PT trips per capita p.a. growing by a touch over 2% p.a. since hitting a low point in the mid-1990s. Another way of putting this is that the average Aucklander is now using PT 50% more than the average Aucklander was 20 years ago.

There is one more reason why Auckland’s current rates of PT growth may be rather special: In the last 5 years vehicle travel per capita has fallen by 23%. I’m personally fairly optimistic this decline will be sustained for a while yet, especially if Auckland accepts the need for the city to intensify (and subsequently removes density controls).

Vehicle trips per capita

This graph also makes it clear, however, that the average Aucklanders makes approximately 1,800 vehicle trips p.a. compared to only 50 trips by PT. So even while I am a believer of the ability for PT to contribute to meeting big chunks of travel demands in key locations and key times, we shouldn’t over-estimate its importance either.

One thing is relatively clear, however: PT patronage in Auckland has been on the rise for over two decades. In my opinion the job is only half-done: If PT is to rise to real prominence in Auckkand, then we’ll need to sustain current rates of growth for a good decade. This would place Auckland’s PT use per capita on par with South East Queensland’s (Brisbane) levels of usage. I think a combination of electrification, integrated ticketing, the New Network, and the CRL will get us to a respectable level of PT usage.

It is, however, what I call the “next round” of PT investments which will get Auckland to a point where it challenges the likes of Melbourne and Sydney, and perhaps rightly lays claim to being the “world’s most livable city”. The sorts of projects in the next round include light rail, SH16 rapid transit corridor, and major city centre bus infrastructure.

But for now let’s just enjoy the moment: Public transport in Auckland is doing pretty well; long may this continue.

P.s. And thanks to all the people who have worked hard over the last two decades to help Auckland get to this point. You know who you are …





Sunday Reading 8 March 2015

Every week we read more than we can write about on the blog. To avoid letting good commentary and research fall by the wayside, we’re going to publish weekly excerpts from what we’ve been reading.

Tanvi Misra, “Young people are pulling jobs back to city centres“, Citylab:

Talented young people are moving to urban centers, raising the skill level of the labor force and attracting the attention of businesses. As a result, some of the job sprawl that took place in the early 2000s has started to swing back to cities, concludes a new analysis by the City Observatory think tank of Census data on local employment and housing.

Kirk Johnson, “Targeting inequality, this time on public transport“, New York Times:

SEATAC, Wash. — On Sunday, the county transit system for the Seattle metropolitan area began hurtling down a road that few cities have traveled before: pricing tickets based on passengers’ income.

The project, which is being closely watched around the nation, gives discounts on public transportation to people whose household income is no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — for instance, $47,700 or less for a family of four under the 2014 guidelines. The problem it addresses is that many commuters from places like SeaTac, an outlying suburb, are too poor to live in Seattle, where prices and rents are soaring in a technology-driven boom. If they are pushed out so far that they cannot afford to get to work or give up on doing so, backers of the project said, Seattle’s economy could choke.

Timothy B Lee, “How NIMBYism is holding back Silicon Valley and the American economy“, Vox:

[Google and o]ther technology companies in the region have also faced resistance from not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocates. The result: not only is the Valley failing to deal effectively with growing congestion and soaring housing costs, these myopic local policies could end up hampering the country’s most important driver of economic growth. So what looks like a local issue has broader implications.

Ignoring the pressure for more development is short-sighted. A better approach would be to accept that growth is inevitable and start planning ways to accommodate it gracefully. That means allowing high-density development in certain areas, positioning these developments so that some residents will be able to walk or bike to work, and making sure these areas are well-served by transit so they don’t overwhelm the city’s streets.

One of the biggest problems in Mountain View (and surrounding cities) is that more than 85 percent of workers there get to work by car. That works fine in a typical suburb, but it’s becoming increasingly untenable as the region becomes more populous.

If Mountain View allowed high-density housing to be built in the area around Google’s headquarters, that could not only help lower the area’s sky-high housing costs, it could also encourage more people to walk or bike to work, relieving some of that congestion.

Eric Crampton, “Dreaming A New City: Optimistic for Christchurch long term, pessimistic for short term“, NBR:

Labour’s 2014 Ilam candidate, James Dann, blogged recently that while the planners envisioned a compact and vibrant downtown core, planner incompetence will instead have achieved a “Turbo Timaru or a Hefty Hamilton.”

I’m a bit less pessimistic, at least for the longer term.

The government rightly took a lot of criticism for its initial attempts to artificially restrict downtown land supply to force a compact city form and encourage higher-valued development. The planners here exhibited basic cargo-cult thinking: because successful cities have high downtown property prices, they thought they could make Christchurch successful by forcing prices to be high. Well, that doesn’t work: high prices in successful cities reflect that people get a lot of value from being located in great downtowns, not the other way around.

In the longer term, because so much has moved on to the suburbs and to neighbouring districts, downtown land prices will have to drop. When that happens, developers will be able to bring to market properties with rental rates that could draw in tenants – if the planners don’t mandate that everything be plated in gold. Downtown will then come back but as part of a polycentric city.

German Lopez, “The Dutch embassy is trolling all of Washington, DC with this infographic“, Vox:

The Dutch embassy doesn’t appreciate people comparing Amsterdam to Washington, DC, just because the District legalized marijuana on Thursday…


Ben Adler, “Care about global climate change? Then fight local air pollution“, Citylab:

The dirty fuels that cause particulate pollution are the same dirty fuels that cause global warming. Cracking down on local air pollution will not only save lives, it will shift the economics of energy toward cleaner sources that produce less carbon. The willingness of India and other populous developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia to adopt such policies may determine the fate of the Earth.

A principal challenge to decisive, coordinated global action against climate change is the reluctance of developing countries to get onboard. Historically, poor nations have quickly escalated their energy use as they move from a rural farming economy to an urban industrial one. In China, both carbon emissions and particulate pollution have skyrocketed in recent years as the country’s economy has boomed. Now that its cities are choked in smog, China has finally begun to invest in cleaner energy.

World Streets, “Welcome to World’s Streets Worst Practices Department“:

A new mobility killer promoter proposal for Mexico City. (They’re kidding, right?)

worst streets practices department

…what chances do you think the hapless (and only) ped (bottom right) has of actually making his way across the street?

T. Duran, “Pushing the wrong road: Faults and fallacies in the Takapu Valley plan“, Wellington Scoop:

Did anyone point out that having two parallel highways could be a liability in a major event? That it could leave multiple routes to be cleared instead of one, dividing their resources? Ask Christchurch about triage. Do you think the chief executives were shown the map showing the bits of SH1 that are listed as earthquake vulnerable? Including that controversial stretch above the school? And were they told that the Transport Agency has said that if if it gets to build the new Takapu highway, it’s not going to bother strengthening SH1? Because, you know, building a new greenfields road is so much more fun than maintaining an existing one. People complain about the road cones. Best to just let it fall down first, and then make people beg you to fix it — like they did with SH58.


Here’s the kicker, though: the Transport Agency is pushing the wrong road. Of the four options it analysed for the route north of the saddle, the one that was closest to the originally proposed route — what was “Option A” that came out at Grenada Village — was the best option, according to its own project goals and its own internal experts. It had good natural resilience, did the least damage to the environment, didn’t have bizarre snarly interchanges that tried to mash together two motorways with eight local streets, a train station and a footpath, and most importantly, it made the traffic flow best. But the Agency rejected that option.

Liz Stinson, “Stylish low-cost houses designed for singles“, Wired:

Some of our most vibrant cities are in the midst of a housing crisis. Rents continue to rise, while wages stay relatively stagnant, save for a select group of people. The average resident of New York City, San Francisco, London, and comparable cities, can no longer afford to live in these there, at least not comfortably. Thinking of living alone? Great idea, see you in Iowa!


It’s interesting then that a new proposal from Dutch construction company Heijmans has found a way to make low-cost housing look swank. The Heijmans ONE is a prefabricated home meant for residents who are young, single and just beginning to build their careers. This “not quite” generation, as the company describes them, has a steady job and makes a decent living, just not enough for them to live on their own in an expensive city. The ONE is solves for that by offering a two-story, 45 square-meter home for €750 a month, cheaper than what someone would pay to live in Amsterdam’s city center, and far less than NYC’s own micro-apartment proposal, which is offering 260 to 360 square-foot homes for $2,000 to $3,000.