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Robert Ellis’s apocalyptic vision of Auckland

This blog has often written about Auckland’s 1950s-era motorway development plan, which transformed the city in fundamental ways. New Zealand painter Robert Ellis was one of the first to grasp the significance and character of that transformation. His Motorway/City series, painted in the 1960s and 1970s, shows roads invading and dividing urban space. (As they proceeded to do in real life.)

The Auckland City Gallery is about to host an exhibition of Ellis’s paintings that will run from 9 August 2014 to 15 March 2015. From the press release:

Opening on Saturday 9 August at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Robert Ellis: Turangawaewae | A Place to Stand is the first solo exhibition in a public museum by senior Auckland artist, Robert Ellis in his ‘hometown’. Including many of his most important paintings, the exhibition will present Turangawaewae Maehe 1983, painted in 1983, a gift from the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery to mark their 60th anniversary this year.

‘Together with Auckland artists Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich, Pat Hanly and Gretchen Albrecht, Ellis is nationally regarded for producing ambitious paintings on a large scale,’ says Auckland Art Gallery Senior Curator New Zealand and Pacific Art, Ron Brownson. ‘As a major figure, Ellis’ art addresses many cultural issues. His subjects range over tensions between transport and urbanism, contrast ecology with spirituality and look at the on-going nature of Māori-Pākehā relations.’

Here’s one of the more well-known works from Ellis’s Motorway/City series, which can usually be seen in the City Gallery:

Now, I’m an economist rather than an art historian, but Ellis’s vision of the city seemed to be something new in New Zealand art. New Zealand artists had not tended to focus on cities – think of all the attention Colin McCahon lavished on New Zealand landscapes – and when they did, it was to present vague, idealised scenes. Ellis was different. He showed the city in the process of expanding and mutating, and in the process creating a different New Zealand.

Here’s number 15 from the Motorway/City series. It contrasts New Zealand’s stereotypically bucolic rural space (below) with the encroaching city (above). The latter is dynamic, disordered, vaguely sinister. (What was it that Allan Ginsberg wrote about “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone”…) And it is ceaselessly growing into the countryside.

In other paintings, Ellis depicts the city not as the invader of a rural landscape but as an invaded space. Motorway/City number 22, for example, appears to show an existing urban fabric, complete with a more or less rectilinear street grid, that has been overwritten by the smooth curves of the motorway. The pre-existing city has rendered incomprehensible in the process – notice how the lines of the motorway draw in your attention instead.

I’m often struck by how quickly artists and writers grasp emerging truths, especially when compared with technical experts of various stripes. Robert Ellis’s art was an especially prescient view of New Zealand cities – painted at a time when New Zealand had barely begun to think of itself as an urban country and when the promise of the motorway was still novel enough to be seductive. I highly recommend going to see the upcoming exhibition.

Petrol price elasticity, and supermarket vouchers

As we all know, when the price of something goes up, we buy less of it. For some products, we’ll change our behaviour significantly (holidays or books, perhaps). For other products, we just grit our teeth, hand over the credit card, and don’t manage to cut down our consumption much. Petrol and cigarettes are the classic examples of this: what economists call “inelastic goods”.

The elasticity of petrol in New Zealand is estimated at around -0.15, which means that when the price goes up by 10%, we’ll only buy 1.5% less. That’s pretty inelastic! It’s often thought that New Zealand is much less responsive to petrol price changes than other countries, probably because we have such poor public transport, and are a spread out country. However, this may not be the case for all situations. Firstly, the petrol price rises over the last decade were almost unprecedented, and we may reach the point where petrol eats into our budgets so much that we simply have to cut down. Secondly, there have been some interesting changes in the last decade, including the introduction of petrol discount vouchers at supermarkets.

14 - Jun Weekly Breakdown 2

Petrol prices, 2004-2014. Ouch.

Supermarket petrol discount vouchers have been a fact of life for almost eight years, and they’re still widely used. Surveys by Canstar Blue show that almost 80% of Kiwis visit particular petrol stations based on their price promotions – although the surveys don’t say how often people use the vouchers.

So, people do seem quite willing to change their petrol buying habits based on these vouchers. That’s not a costless process – you might have to drive a bit further to get to the petrol station which accepts your voucher, which costs you time and a little bit of money. You also have to hang on to the vouchers, figure out which one is which, enter the code, wait a little longer at the till and so on. The thing is, though, for a voucher offering 4 cents off a litre, the discount on the pump price is only 1.8%. For 6 cents off, the discount is 2.7%. That’s pretty tiny, and most retail stores wouldn’t even bother advertising discounts this small. And yet, when applied to supposedly inelastic petrol, it can be pretty effective.

At the other end of the scale, Z Energy have very openly taken a different approach – they’ve steered away from heavy price discounting, and pitched themselves as offering better service instead. They’re targeting the customers who are happy to pay a few cents a litre if they get a better experience. No doubt that’s a sensible move, if the other big companies are positioning themselves in the price competition space.

So, what does this all tell us about consumer behaviour? Looking at elasticity figures across an entire country can be a little misleading. Within any customer group, there’ll be those who are more price sensitive and those who are less. The “holy grail” for any business is to figure out which is which, and charge the less “price sensitive” people more! Discount vouchers are one way of doing this, as the people who are most likely to bother with them are those who are the most sensitive to price. There’s probably a fascinating study hiding here – and we might find that Kiwi consumers are more complex than the old figures suggest.

Initially written for RCG’s News In Brief, original version here

Photo of the Day: Auckland’s Civic Theatre

The New Zealand International Film Festival begins tonight, with a sold-out premiere of the The Dark Horse. It’s an appropriate time to take a look at the wonderful Civic Theatre. Each year, the Civic becomes one of the main venues in the film festival, with a capacity of around 2,400 people and hosting the largest events – including the opening and closing films, silent films accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra (this year: Prix de beauté) and more.

The Civic

Photo: Patrick Reynolds

It’s impossible to capture all the magic of the Civic in a single photo, although Patrick’s one here shows a vivid and colourful scene. There are too many sumptuously decorated, Orientalist-themed corners, sweeping staircases, and elements that look amazing whether brightly or dimly lit. Personally, I love looking up at the imagined starscape on the ceiling, especially as the lights go down.  I’m also a fan of the delightfully kitsch electronic eyes peering out from the lions at the bottom of the stage.

I found this piece on the Civic in an old Statistics New Zealand yearbook:

Auckland’s Civic Theatre is regarded as one of the best preserved examples of the atmospheric picture palace in the Southern Hemisphere.

This extraordinary building was built in only 33 weeks in 1929 for £250 000 by the hard-driving entrepreneur Thomas A. O’Brien, then the owner of New Zealand’s third largest cinema chain. He promised ‘the Dominion’s finest theatre built in the new atmospheric style’. He imported Australian cinema architects Bohringer and Taylor, already the designers of over 60 Australian picture palaces, and their team of over 100 plasterers and designers. It was opened on 20 December, supposedly in time to catch the Christmas rush.

Unfortunately, it also caught the beginning of the Great Depression. Thomas O’Brien went bankrupt nine months later.

In the atmospheric cinema craze of the late 1920s, theatre owners vied with each other to create total fantasy environments. Movie-goers could forget their worries for a few hours, entering an illusion of wealth with lavish decor, reproduction antiques, uniformed attendants and beautiful flower arrangements. A typical night out could include a Wurlitzer organ recital, dance troupe, full orchestra, news shorts and a main feature.

The Civic auditorium is elaborately decorated as an Arabian walled garden, complete with twinkling stars in a night sky. The foyer is styled as an ancient Hindu temple, with humorists claiming the strange choice was due to an order for ‘Red Indian’ decor being misinterpreted.

The ‘Wintergarden’ nightclub in the basement came into its own in the 1940s, when Auckland was used as a recreation port by US troops.

Today, as the accompanying photographs show, the Civic is little changed. Major alterations in 1975 saw modern climate control installed, but also the loss of the organ, hydraulic orchestra pit and Wintergarden nightclub to make room for the Civic 2 theatrette.

Built on a public reserve, hence the name, ownership of the Civic reverts to Auckland City on the last day of 1993. Despite a Historic Places Trust ‘B’ classification, its future is currently uncertain, although Peter Wells’ and Stewart Main’s 1989 film The Mighty Civic helped re-awaken interest in the subject.

Other notable survivors from the golden age of cinema include Auckland’s St. James, Wellington’s Embassy (much modified), Palmerston North’s Regent, and Dunedin’s Regent and St. James.

The Civic received a major refurbishment in the late 90s, and is as stunning today as it ever was, perhaps even more so because so few places like this are left. I highly recommend heading along to whatever films in the festival you can make it to, and especially keeping an eye out for screenings in the Civic.

Photo of the Day: Harmonic Testing

On Sunday morning Transdev/Kiwirail conducted a large scale test of our electric trains. I understand the trains had been creating harmonics through the lines. This wasn’t affecting trains but was creating impacts outside the network – although I’m not sure of the full extent of the issue. The test saw seven 6-car EMUs running between Papakura and Britomart via the Eastern Line which I believe is the most electric trains that have run on the network at any one time so far. When two EMUs are joined together they have the capacity to comfortably carry 750 people although during an event or during a busy peak I suspect that number could be closer to 1,000.

These photos were taken by Patrick Reynolds taken from the Pt Resolution Bridge.





And this one is from Alex Burgess of one crossing the Orakei Basin

Double EMU Orakei Basin

Footpath Clutter

When I was out looking at the trial bus shelters on Sunday I was reminded of an issue that plagues our footpaths – clutter. Symonds St where the bus stops are suffers from this quite a bit but by no means is it alone. In the case of Symonds St the footpaths are made quite narrow by the presence of the bus shelters and is made worse by a mixture of

  • Light poles
  • Real Time Displays and electrical plinths
  • Bus Stop and bus lane signs

All this can make it quite difficult for people walking to get through the area, especially if a lot of people are trying to get on a bus and it must be terrible for someone in a wheelchair or mobility scooter. Some examples of the clutter on Symonds St are below.

Footpath Clutter - Symonds St 1

Real time Displays, sign poles and even a car to get around – the car belonged to one of the guys finishing the installation of Shelter B and there wasn’t enough space for someone in a wheelchair to get around

Footpath Clutter - Symonds St 2

Looking straight on you can’t actually see down the footpath thanks to the light pole.

Footpath Clutter - Symonds St 3

And from a different angle you can see again the light pole, real time display and further down sign poles blocking the path.

One example I experience every day is on Albert St while waiting for my bus to Takapuna. The bus stop pole, light pole and bus stop board combine to completely block the view up the road (note buses usually stop with their front doors between these two poles).

Footpath Clutter - Albert St 1

Auckland Transport should really have a programme to identify and fix sites like this to improve the pedestrian realm and waiting experience for PT users.

I’ve seen plenty of other examples recently and I know many other readers have too judging by our twitter feed.

Photo of the Day: Studio One – Toi Tū






The 1906 Newton Police Station and Barracks at the top of Ponsonby Rd has been re-opened as a creative community space by the Waitemata Local Board called Studio One Toi Tū. And is now graced with a new installation by design company Alt Group. More details here.


photographs: Patrick Reynolds



City centre parking rates: economic literacy versus special pleading

This weekend the NZ Herald’s motoring correspondent Matt Greenop published an article denouncing the “insult” of parking fees. Now, at Transportblog we’re always up for a good debate over the merits of different parking policies, but this doesn’t add much to the conversation:

Parking used to be a doddle. Now it’s just another cost of car ownership that makes us feel we’ve committed a heinous crime against humanity by daring to buy and use our own vehicle.

Every little bit that gets added on to the cost of driving a car in the city is an insult — and the next insult we’re facing is another hike in parking fees.

From an economic perspective, this is a totally absurd statement. It completely ignores the supply and demand dynamics at play in urban areas. Parking takes up space, and as anyone who’s been downtown in the last decade has noticed, there’s a limited amount of space in the city centre. Demand for commercial and residential space in the city centre is increasing. The residential population tripled from 10,200 to 31,300 between the 2001 and 2013 Censuses; over the same time period, employment in the city centre rose by a quarter, from 81,000 to 100,100.

Using prices to manage demand for scarce resources is an efficient and sensible response. This is basic Econ 101 material, and we accept it in most areas of life. City centre office space is priced, and priced highly, due to the fact that a lot of people want to locate there.

It would be ridiculous if companies leasing space in the city centre to complain that a rent increase was an “insult”. And if they insisted on paying no rent at all, we’d recognise it as special pleading for a market-distorting subsidy.

It’s the exact same thing with parking. Essentially, the Herald’s using emotive language to demand a costly, distortionary subsidy for a small number of people.

If the Herald wants to avoid printing such embarrassing nonsense in the future, I strongly recommend that they run their articles by an economist first.

Photo of the day: Clearing the weeds

An excellent cartoon from Andy Singer on how our cities have treated Transport over the last few decades.


You really want more roads

Another great cartoon from Emerson in response to the governments package of rural roading projects


The impact of rail service-based inversion in Japan and what it can teach us ‘Downunder’

This is a guest Post by Rob Mayo

My background is in marketing, advertising and customer experience development. Since the 80s, with an MA in Japanese under my belt, I have lived and worked in the Tokyo/Yokohama area as well as in a number of cities in the Asia region. From 2009, I’ve been working on transit network-oriented customer marketing and service delivery initiatives in Japan, part of that time running the country’s largest cross-media marketing agency.

Over the years I’ve seen the result of a Japanese variant of the urban phenomenon known as ‘inversion’ – a term made popular by Alan Ehrenhalt in his 2013 book ‘The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City’.

Inversion has been shaping cities and towns all over Japan since the 1950s and it is very much tied in with the growth in commuter rail services.

One area of Tokyo that I lived in, is a product of that inversion process – a process that in fact took place there from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. In the picture below, the red Google marker point is the house my family and I lived in. Near it are three rail lines – the Ikegami Line running roughly east-west, the Yokosuka Line running roughly north-south and a third east-west line following the Tama River – the Mekama Line, now called the Tamagawa Line.

Rob Mayo Tokyo suburb

The large green patches dotted around the area towards the river that is about a kilometre from our house, are the residences of the landowners who still own the large tracts of subdivided land within a 5-10km radius of their ancestral homes.

After the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were opened in the 1920s, land subdivision all along each line took place in the 1930s and by the early 1960s, inversion in suburbs such as ours (Ontakesan / Kugahara) was well underway, because at that point, the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were connected up to the nearby Toyoko Line between Tokyo and Yokohama which in turn was linked into the Tokyo subway system and the overground Yamanote loop line.

All land area north of the Tama River quickly became sought after due to the number of rail lines criss-crossing the area, their seamless integration into the overall rail network and the ability for large numbers of people to reach any part of the Tokyo metropolis with ease.

The density and property size diversity as shown in this Google map picture of 2014, has been pretty much in the same state since the mid 1960s. Ancestral homes dating back to the 1800s and earlier, sit alongside ‘new money’ homes from the 1900s-1930s and thousands of middle class homes and government housing built in the same area from the 1940s onwards – all properties coexisting either cheek by jowl or in clusters by housing type, yet all still within cooee of each other.

Urban Inversion in Tokyo has happened in this manner in waves over the years from when rail lines were put in or existing lines extended/interconnected. The inversion processes in various parts of the Tokyo metropolis have occurred over a comparatively short period of time – on average each taking place during a 15-20 year period, sometime even faster.

Yes, Tokyo has sprawled like any other city and when you go from Tokyo through Kawasaki to Yokohama for example, it doesn’t feel like three separate cities you’re moving between but through one large sea of concrete. However, as much as people have spread out over a 20-30 year period, they have also spread back in at the same time and this is due to the rail system that became fully interconnected and interwoven into the social fabric from a very early stage.

The other reason that inversion has happened in Japanese cities so quickly, is societal. Japanese society places much emphasis on respect for elders and the importance of maintaining an overall social cohesiveness. This means that there has never been the kind of housing / social segregation that is so common in North America, the UK and Oceania. Although their children may go to schools outside the area, families from all social classes share the same suburbs, shop daily at the same local outlets, eat out at the same local restaurants and attend the same local festivals throughout the year. That level of social interaction is reflected in the development of commuter rail services and those commuter rail services have in turn directly influenced where/how people live and the speed at which urban density has developed.

Over the years, the urban density / rail service interlinks that Japan has home-grown, have been replicated consciously or subconsciously in Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong since the 1970s and in a highly planned/ordered variant deployed in Singapore throughout the 80s and 90s.

What I believe Japan can teach us here ‘Downunder’ in 2014, is how rail lines facilitate ‘positive density’ quickly through retail and amenities placed right next to, above or below stations…and how narrowing of streets makes cycling to school, work and local amenities easy and makes societal interactions necessary and ‘compelling’. Direct-connect retail at stations need only be a small supermarket or a convenience store, a florist and a bakery to be immediately successful and that is not anything particularly Japanese…it is common to all of us humans – we are attracted to places where we can easily see others obtaining food and drink.

Japan can show us how we can make inversion happen / continue to happen in a number of places city-wide in Auckland and how it can break down societal / class barriers, rejuvenate, reconnect and interconnect communities.