How Auckland will soon become one of the best cities in the world

Matt’s posts last month on the changes Auckland’s experienced over the last ten years and what might happen over the next ten years got me thinking. Here’s where I think the city could be in ten years:

Auckland will have the best transit system in Australasia. The CRL will only be a couple of years old, but well ahead of projections. More importantly the bus network will be carrying several times the patronage it does today, with most of the growth coming across the day, on evenings and weekends. People will have had seven or eight years to get used to the fact that using the bus network is fast and easy at any time of day, and usually easier than dealing with traffic and parking. Transit will become a normal thing, not a commuter thing. We’ve seen fourfold increases on the busway and rail as a result of changing to regular, usable systems. That is about to happen for every bus route on every street in Auckland.

A whole generation will have moved through high school and university knowing that it’s often easier to catch the bus, and cheaper too. And it will be cheaper, not just because of new “all you can eat” fare passes, but especially because the large increase in all day use will have bumped up the fiscal efficiency such that fares will be the same as they are today in dollar terms, and considerably cheaper in real terms.

Traffic will be as high as ever, sitting at about the same equilibrium. Parking will be more expensive. People will drive a lot less per capita, but there will be more people. Cars will look and feel much like they are today, as will roads. People will still call for huge new motorways, but the sheer cost of retrofitting them to the city will ensure they stay on the drawing board.

Cycling will be a big thing, still not huge in sheer numbers, but high profile. Trunk cycle ways will stretch across the region and cycle lanes will be painted on to city and suburban streets with every upgrade or repair.

Auckland will be a world capital of culture and cool. We are already on the radar of trend spotters like Monocle, it won’t take too much to bump us up to the top of the list. The city centre will go from strength to strength, and suburban centers will be copying and innovating too. Transport becoming far cheaper and easier will mean people go out more, boosting attendance at shows, plays, gigs, bars and restaurants, but also parks, playgrounds, beaches and squares.

This will have a huge impact on the vitality of Auckland. Just going out once a month more on average will mean an extra twenty million person trips and activities a year.

We are well past the turning point already. Auckland is already reurbanising in the best possible way. We can’t see it so much because we are in the middle of the change, but looking back in ten years we will see this as the decade where Auckland grew into its boots as a stunning, confident and fantastic city. Like everything, we’ll look back and wonder why we didn’t do it all sooner.

Guest Post: Dear AT HOP

This is a guest post by reader Frith Stalker

Dear AT Hop

I have used Auckland buses for 30 years

I am very smart, very pedantic, very polite and very Rule Abiding

I am your perfect customer.

I always thank the driver.

In days of old – I always had the correct change, now I always have my card.

I am always ready when my stop arrives, and I get off quickly and efficiently.

I give up my seat for the old, the very young, pregnant women and those with disabilities.

I ‘be the bad guy’ when no one will move down the bus, so we can all get on with the journey.

I pick up rubbish and I teach my kids bus etiquette.

I report the dangerous bus drivers, but yes I also commend the good ones.

I study your crazy maps, persist with your: series of bus cards, totally random electronic “real time” (ha ha) boards, user-unfriendly-websites – and log in repeatedly to your user accounts until I get to where I need to go, one way or another.

I have no choice.

I have no car.

Lately I got a Smart Phone. I got your App. I use it – every day – despite the times it monumentally lets me down.

But, you know, when a bus is finally in front of me, and I can’t get on it – despite my monthly pass – that’s when I finally say: ENOUGH.

You want to know why buses have a bad rap? You want to know why lower income users don’t use your AT Hop cards?

I’ve estimated my usage. A monthly pass is worth my while, just, as I spend near that (gulp) but importantly it allows me: jump-on-jump-off without calculating every single fare.

I’ve budgeted. I talked to the hotline to check my facts. I’ve loaded up $140 monthly pass on my card.

It was scary shelling out for that. It’s scary spending that anywhere. (I don’t spend that in one go on groceries for my family of four) It was not easy to put that money aside and spend it in one hit. I waited weeks to have it ready. Now I am off: Unlimited trips within Zone A for 30 days. Right?

  • Day One: Today seems okay. I Tag On/Tag Off and it’s working. It’s a good feeling.
  • Day Two: The morning is fine. The afternoon… I get on an Inner Link and Tag On (Ponsonby Rd). All good. At K’Rd, as I Tag Off, I catch something other than the green light out of the corner of my eye. But it’s too late to read the message – I heard the beep and now I am off the bus. Shrug. Run for the next bus.
  • Next bus, out of breath, I jump on (I am racing to take over childcare). I try to Tag On, but it reads “insufficient funds, please pay the driver”. WTF? $140.00 and now I can’t get on a bus. [In fact I refuse to get off. A lovely (or resigned) man offers to tag me on. The driver gives up, declines his offer and drives off. I’m humiliated. Angry. But at least I am on the way home.]
  • I phone the AT Hop number, they tell me my card has to be in credit (cash credit, over and above my $140 monthly pass) for my pass to function. I am disbelieving. I am also indignant: I did have credit. A few dollars. Otherwise how did my card work on Day One. Right? How can I fix it? Go to Britomart (ok, using my bus card? With my 2 year old? Shall I take time off work to go somewhere not on my way to fix a problem I didn’t create?)

This saga dragged on and my card was useless to me for the next two days. Something had gone wrong on that second tag off – and it wasn’t me. Credit had been removed from my card, and my monthly pass was non-functional until I could top up with more cash. There are two major problems with this, and a third catch:

  • I was not informed, upon purchase of my pass – nor on the Hotline when researching the pass – that a cash balance would be required on top of my $140 top up. Surely this constitutes a breach of good faith between customers and AT Hop?
  • There was cash on my card – entirely coincidentally. It was removed due to an error with AT Hop which they refuse to acknowledge.
  • I’m not due to go past a Top Up point until the day after next – no car, childcare drop off en-route to work. I have to plan my top ups with care…

So how to remedy it overall? Surely, AT Hop say ‘sorry! We messed up’ ‘please accept this credit on your card for the costs when you couldn’t use your card.’ Right?

Wrong. Email exchange with AT Hop: they refuse to refund my fares.  No cash fares refunds – not even with receipts. I suggest they credit me one extra day on my monthly pass. No. What if I spend $16 on my card (once my pass is expired) and they can refund that? No.

Can they explain what happened? No response. How can I be sure it won’t happen again? No response.

The final insult to injury is when the journey becomes visible (or not) on my online account. The story does not add up. At All. My trip from Ponsonby to K’Rd doesn’t even show. There’s one totally bizarre entry for that afternoon: a Tag Off on Customs St (missing Tag On). Now - I was nowhere near Customs St that day – and my email records prove that I was still at work over an hour later. 

My Tag On the Inner Link (around 5.00pm) was just fine – but it wasn’t even on the record. A more paranoid person might think At Hop had altered my record (I had told them in no uncertain terms how far I was willing to go to ensure the issue was not simply brushed under the carpet. It makes you wonder…)

AT Hop Monthly pass fail 700pix

So, I think this sort of issue is a fairly stern deterrent: I fork out 25% of my Gross Weekly earnings for a monthly pass, and five days later I cannot board a bus? Not good enough.

The existence of failures of this sort (technical) are not ideal, but I can understand and accept that they happen. Given they do happen, however, there must be something in place to protect the customer (I suggested pass holders present the receipt for their pass – with valid dates – to the driver for travel if their pass failed… No answer).

If issues like this continue to be swept under the carpet you will not get a culture of faith in the everyday workings of our transport network. When you don’t have a car – and therefore have no other means of transport – this is not just an inconvenience it’s a massive stressor and potentially a barrier to reliably participating in the workforce. Not good enough.

A century of changing transport spending

Via Donal Curtin, I got wind of a fantastic Statistics NZ visualisation of changes to the Consumer Price Index over the last century. The Consumer Price Index, or CPI, is a tool that statistics agencies use to track inflation over time. It tracks changes in prices in the goods and services that households purchase.

This is not as simple as it seems at first, because people’s consumption habits and choices change over time. For example, one hundred years ago New Zealanders weren’t eating many avocados (not cultivated here until the 1920s), buying many laptops (not invented yet), or getting their legs waxed (not even considered at that time). So Statistics NZ has to periodically update the CPI by introducing new products to the “basket” and removing others.

As a result, CPI basket changes are a good way of looking at our changing consumption habits over time. Some of the changes are amusingly bizarre – for example, what was happening during the five year period from 1988 to 1993 when waterbeds and wine coolers were briefly a part of the CPI basket? (Younger readers might not want to think too hard about that one.)

Here’s are the transport goods and services that have been added and removed over the last century. They tell us quite a bit about how our travel behaviours have changed:

CPI basket changes transport

A few things strike me as notable:

  • Compared with other CPI areas such as leisure, home, and food, which can be seen on Statistics NZ’s website, transport has experienced relatively little change over the last century. The number of products introduced and removed is relatively small. The technologies that were available a century ago – trains, buses, cars, bicycles – are still useful today.
  • Tram fares were introduced to the CPI in 1924, as cities grew rapidly around tramlines, and removed in 1965 following the ripping-out of the tram lines.
  • However, other public transport technologies have stayed relevant – train fares were added 1924 and bus fares in 1949. Urban ferry fares are the newest addition in 2014, reflecting rising patronage in the largest cities.
  • The 1950s were a big decade of change, with motor vehicles and associated goods (petrol, driver licences) added to the CPI. Bicycles were also added!
  • Kiwis took to the air in large numbers in the 1970s, with domestic and international air fares added in 1974 and 1980, respectively.
  • The 1970s oil shocks led to a few changes to the CPI. 1974 saw the introduction of motorcycles, a fuel efficient option for many young New Zealanders. It also led to some short-lived changes in the fuel consumption of the car fleet – in 1988, diesel, LPG and CNG were added. But LPG and CNG were removed before too long, as lower petrol prices in the 1990s reduced the need for alternative fuels.
  • Technological changes and a return of high oil prices resulted in the introduction of hybrid vehicles in 2011.

Who said statistics is boring? There’s an awful lot of social history compacted into a dry figure like the CPI!

The map and the territory: Four Aucklands

Like any city, Auckland is the product of a mix of historical accidents, perverse consequences, failed dreams, and unfinished visions. Some plans succeed (often with unexpected results), while others fail, leaving nothing behind but some maps and occasionally a few hulking piles of cement.

The maps that are left behind can tell us something about a city’s past, present, and future. So here are four maps of Auckland’s transport networks – one as it was, one as it has become, one of a failed vision for change, and one that is, with a bit of luck, en route to realisation.

Auckland as it was: The electric tramways that were unceremoniously ripped out in 1956. This is the Auckland of my grandparents’ youth. This map’s legacy still haunts the isthmus – it can be discerned in the frequent bus network, in the spacing of shops along arterial roads, and in the width of certain streets.

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

Auckland as it has become: The 1956 De Leuw Cather plan setting out the future shape of the city’s motorways. It is due for completion in a few years’ time, when the Waterview tunnel borer finishes its work. This map has shaped virtually every major transport project of the past 60 years. Perhaps it is time for a different vision of the future?

Auckland Motorway Plan 1956

Auckland as it never was: Dove-Meyer Robinson’s 1972 “rapid rail” plan. Its unfulfilled aspiration of a working public transport network has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years with the completion of the Northern Busway, a New Zealand first, the development of Britomart and the electrification of the rail network. But the heart of the network – the City Rail Link – sometimes seems no closer than it did in the Muldoon years.

Auckland Rapid Rail Plan 1972

Auckland as it could become: Auckland’s transport maps got a futuristic addition last year – the Congestion Free Network. The map, which is based on the famous London tube map, envisages a future Auckland that’s connected not just by roads but by a rapid-transit network. In keeping with New Zealand’s DIY values, it’s not a rail network alone, but a mongrel mix of light rail, busways, and even ferries grafted onto the existing (and to-be-extended) commuter rail network.

CFN 2030 South-Grafton

These maps are not descriptions of real (or longed-for) transport networks. They are interventions in how we see Auckland. Each map recasts our scale of Auckland – notice the way that the later maps zoom out from the isthmus, bringing more and more territory into the city and defining new edges for it. As the city grows, so too must the transport maps. Or did the expansion of the maps cause the growth of the city?

The maps offer very different levels of detail about the places that are connected by transport networks. The tramline map offers easily-readable details on the urban fabric – street and suburb names, major destinations, etc. The motorway map is incredibly spare by comparison – it omits place names in favour of a series of connecting lines. Major motorways are named, but all of the other details of Auckland are lost. This is interestingly suggestive of the priority that these types of transport systems place on movement versus place.

And, of course, these maps increasingly situate Auckland within globalised ideas about cities. The motorway map was, of course, prepared by an American consultancy in accordance with the antiquated fad for urban freeways. But the CFN map might accomplish an even more radical shift in perceptions. By emulating the famous tube maps down to the fonts and colour scheme, the CFN makes Auckland instantly recognisable by residents of other cities with similar maps – from London to Sydney to Amsterdam. Auckland: another aspirational global city in a globalised world?

Given the choice, which Auckland would you prefer to live in?

What happened to the promised bus lanes?

It has now been nearly 6 months since Auckland Transport opened their first bus lane. This was one Fanshawe Street, and followed a suggestion from this blog back in February. We were very impressed with Auckland Transport’s initiative in moving quickly on this, and it took less than 4 months from blog to bus lane. No doubt this was due to board chair Lester Levy following things up.

When the Fanshawe bus lane was announced Lester Levy promised that this was the sign of a new way of doing things.

Dr Levy says increasingly Auckland Transport needs to have pragmatic, interim solutions in place while working towards the more time consuming, ideal and more complete solutions – this response is a good example of this type of approach.

Fanshawe Day1

Fanshawe Street bus lane on day 1 of operation, April 28

However since April it seems to be business as usual for Auckland Transport with no progress being made on any new bus lanes, and nothing even seeming to have made it to consultation phase. A few months ago there were some promising lines in the AT Board reports. This from July:

Improvements for implementation this financial year to bus lane / prioritising for the proposed high frequency bus network are being developed.

This similar statement was in the August 26 and October 2 meetings:

Improvements for implementation this financial year to bus lane / prioritising for the proposed high frequency bus network are being finalised.

However in the October 28 report nothing was mentioned at all.

This is somewhat worrying. The period around Christmas and January seems like a good time to get any work done due to low traffic volumes. It would be great to have any new bus lanes in place for the annual March madness when tertiary institutions start their semesters. Therefore any consultation would need to get done quickly.

There is no shortage of obvious candidates for bus lanes on busy routes around the city, so here are a few to get AT started:

Onewa Road Transit Lane:

First there is the Onewa Road westbound Transit Lane. This project was even consulted earlier this year (following a failed consultation several years prior). The design is done, and this even has a full project page on the Auckland Transport website. However there are no hints of any progress.


Auckland Transport plan for Onewa Road Transit Lanes

The blog has also already outlined in detail a few priority streets in previous posts.

Upper Symonds Street:

I described the desperate need for improvements on Upper Symonds St in March. There is no city-bound bus lane between Mt Eden and Karangahape Roads despite there being 182 buses in the 2 hour morning peak, or one every 40 seconds. This leads to severe delays, on a bad day I hear it is quicker to walk 40 minutes from Mt Eden to the University rather than catch the bus, largely caused by congestion of buses around Upper Symonds.

Mt Eden Road:

I described the need for a bus lane along Mt Eden Road in detail in May. Despite perceptions, Mt Eden Road only has bus lanes along 30% of the total 10km (5km each way) route length from Mount Albert Road to Upper Symonds Street. In peak hours there is a bus at least every 3 minutes along this section, and the lack of bus lanes cause severe delays. Another simple issue is that parts of the bus lane only operate from 4.30pm to 5.30pm. This means that if you catch the very busy 5.05pm from Britomart, the bus lanes won’t be operating when you get to Mt Eden village!

There are plenty more obvious areas, however here are a few quick ones I know from around the city.

Park Road and Khyber Pass Road:

The Central Connector was the flagship project for bus transport in Auckland City in the mid 2000’s, and was supposed to provide a very high quality public transport link from Britomart to Newmarket via the University and Hospital. The Symonds Street section is generally good, however as soon as you get across Grafton Brdige is is back to usual with a few stop start lanes, especially heading towards Newmarket. On Park Road by the Domain, 15 carparks are seen to be much more important than thousands of bus passengers. The same issue is seen on Khyber Pass, where the buslanes only go part way along, and then parking is seen as more important for the last 300 metres towards Newmarket.

Park Road buslanes

5pm bus jam outside the hospital. Congestion caused by a handful of carparks immediately south of here.

New North Road:

The bus lanes along New North Road do no begin until west of the Dominion Road flyover, before this is just a peak time clearway. Then they only run for 500 metres until just before the Sandringham Road intersection before they become a clearway again. Very simple to change these clearways to give consistent bus lanes from Newton to Morningside.

Sandringham Road:

Similar issues as to Mt Eden Road. Listed as having bus lanes, however there are still plenty of gaps which cause significant bus congestion.

Constellation Drive interchange:

While Northern Express buses can fly up to from Britomart to Constellation Station in just over 20 minutes, it can take almost as much time to travel the last 5 kilometres to Albany station. This is largely caused by the need to exit the station, travel along Constellation Drive, under the motorway and enter the northbound on-ramp. While the obvious solution is extending the busway to Albany, in the short term things could be improved with a combination of bus lanes and smart traffic signaling helping the buses get through.

Constellation Drive buslanes

Constellation Drive. 2 buses can be seen stuck in traffic, having just left Constellation Station bound for Albany.

I would also be keen to hear a few more readers suggestions about places where buses get severely congested at peak times, and bus lanes could be built to help sort the issues quickly and easily.

Bus lanes are the best value investments that Auckland Transport can make that help people get around our city. Sorting out these 7 heavily used bus corridors would help tens of thousands of commuters each day. Not only would this reduce journey times, but also improve service reliability and reduce costs for bus operators and Auckland Transport.

So why not get on to it Auckland Transport, would be great to see progress over summer, and we look forward to congratulating you on more implementation of bus lanes.


Stuart’s 100 #54 Open Late

54: Open Late


What if shop opening hours reflected when you want to shop?

Much has been said over a number of years now about the future of retail in the digital age. Many have predicted its almost wholesale demise, and then been surprised by its resilience. There seems to be a view now that e-tailing will top out at a certain percentage of all retail sales meaning there will still be a place for bricks and mortar retail in our cities.

Currently it seems the trends around in-store retail are all about providing destination in-store experiences that are all about the tangible, physical, spatial, and sensory worlds that one doesn’t experience making purchases at home in bed or on the sofa.

This makes a lot of sense and points to the new reality that people now often need a good reason to head out to a store. So why do we make it so hard to do so with opening hours? They just don’t make any sense for most people most of the time. Particularly on weekdays, who is lining up to go to shops at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning? Wouldn’t it make more sense to open later and shut later in the evening? This gives people with day jobs more of a chance to visit stores after work.

Interestingly, Melbourne is on to this. In April this year, it was announced that almost 100 stores in Melbourne’s central shopping precinct around Bourke Street Mall will now trade until at least 7pm every night, with late-night trading until 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays (for more there is a story in The Age here:

Interestingly, this is one area where the big shopping malls in Auckland’s suburbs appear to be already ahead of the game. Sylvia Park already matches these hours being adopted in Melbourne. So can we make this work in our primary street-based retail areas in the city centre, Newmarket and Ponsonby Road? Downtown there certainly seems plenty enough foot traffic on Queen Street of an evening to make this work. What about other locations?

Stuart Houghton 2014

Queen Street and the Santa Parade

The annual Santa Parade is coming up is just under 3 weeks on Sunday 30 November. This is the one-day a year when families and children are really welcome in our CBD.



As part of this Queen Street, Albert Street and many surrounding streets are closed, supposedly from 12pm to 4pm. The parade itself goes from 2pm to 3.30pm. Families are encouraged to head down to Aotea Square after the parade where Santa’s Party keeps the festivities going with a stage set up.

Parade Map

parade map

Before and after the parade people are allowed the much too rare pleasure of walking along Queen Street freely, and the volume of people attending means huge numbers of people are in the streets before and after the parade.


Santa Parade 2013: Queen Street, soon after the parade passes

However rather than encouraging people to stay around the organisers, council and the police want to rush everyone off the street as soon as possible and get the roads open to traffic.


Santa Parade 2013: Clear away, cars must be let free!

Police cars with lights and sirens crawl down Queen St, and police officers yell at everyone to get off the road with their loudspeakers. Really a very unpleasant end to what should be a happy day.


Santa Parade 2013: The police officer in his car is yelling at the crowds through his loud hailer.

By doing this the police are actually endangering people, as huge numbers of people are forced into narrow footpaths. This shows an extremely warped sense of priorities. The entire point of this seems to be to open the street to cars as quickly as possible. Last year the area outside Aotea Square was open to traffic less than 30 minutes after the parade finished passing. This is especially bizzare as 100’s of families were heading this way to go to Santa’s Party.



Santa Parade 2013: Very soon after the parade passes, dreary normality resumes. Note the volumes of people on the footpath.

An obvious thing to do would be to keep Queen St closed all afternoon, and have some sort of street festival. The Federal Street party on Friday was a huge success, although very much an adult focussed event. The afternoon of the Santa Parade would be a great day to run a family and Christmas themed street party. The traffic management costs are already largely covered by the parade, so the extra cost should be minimal.

It may be too late to do a properly organised street party this year. However there is no reason at all why the authorities should rush to open Queen Street. How about leaving it closed until 6pm or 7pm, and allow the crowds to stroll and shop. A few entertainers and characters could easily be added to give the street a bit more life.


Santa Parade 2013: ready made crowd for a street festival

A separate issue that comes up is in regards to transport. The Santa Parade has a long held tradition whereby parking in council buildings is free for the day. This seems perverse when the organisers are warning of traffic chaos. Why not use the revenue and make major public transport services to the event free instead?


Santa Parade 2013: Northern Express post Santa Parade. Huge queue caused by manual payments.

A few extra services would probably be handy too, as Sunday timetables are still stuck in the dark ages for every public transport service apart from the Northern Express and Links. Last year the trains were actually free, although Auckland Transport did not even advertise this in advance! The only special public transport that was organised last year was the Northern Express, and this was done well as usual. However the need for people to pay one at a time while in a very long queue meant that boarding was very slow. Making the services free would make them much more efficient.

So how about it Auckland Council and Auckland Transport. By turning the parade into a street party, and providing free public transport, the Santa Parade would be cemented as the premier free day out for Auckland families.

@akltransport – Please fill in a form

Social media has become an important tool for many organisations in how they engage with their customers. It’s become a tool for both marketing and customer service, and there are a number of examples organisations who do it right. Some good local ones include Air New Zealand, most of the major banks such as ASB and even the NZTA do a good job of engaging with the public. Most importantly these organisations don’t just use social media for a one way conversation. Below is an example of Air NZ’s twitter feed where you’ll notice a bit of everything, some engagement with the community, a marketing promotion and at the bottom some customer service.

Air NZ Twitter Feed

Auckland Transport’s social media presence is limited to twitter and it used to be decent, similar in many ways to the examples above. Issues affecting roads or public transport were communicated and were generally far more accurate and timely than most other channels AT have. More than once it saved me from running to catch a train that had been cancelled anyway. Importantly customer service did take place and if someone had an issue the details would be passed on to the relevant teams and followed up.

Unfortunately the person who ran the twitter feed left and since then the AT’s engagement with the public through social media has been absolute crap and an unmitigated disaster. In my opinion they are now doing serious damage to their reputation with their poor management of it. The key issue is that there is simply no responsibility being taken to manage customer queries or issues or provide vital information on services to the public. Questions or even complaints get met with an almost stock standard “Please fill in a form” response, that’s if you get anything at all. A few of the many examples are below.

If you’re lucky there’s occasionally a variations such as “Call us to report it”

Of course even if you fill in a form as they want you to, it doesn’t mean they will do anything.

It feels like whoever is running the account at Auckland Transport simply doesn’t care about the customers and is simply pushing out a stock response as that’s the easiest and laziest option for them – if they respond at all. But it’s not just replying to questions or comments that has been substandard, there is now often no information given network issues such as congestion affecting buses or rail issues such as a signal failure. It seems the NZTA have had to pick up some of the slack and it’s not uncommon to see them discuss issues seen as being out of their remit such as on the rail network. Here’s the NZTA even suggesting to use PT.

The whole situation kind of reminds me of this.

My understanding is that a large part of the issue is that the role of managing twitter keeps getting passed around to different departments with little accountability for what’s happening. What I do know is that Auckland Transport are rapidly becoming a very unfunny joke and an example of exactly what not to do when engaging with the public. They need to change this and change it fast.

Stuart’s 100 #44: Express Lunches

44: Express Lunches


What if Auckland had better express lunch options?

One thing that has always surprised me is the paucity of good and fast lunch options in the city centre. Trying to get a good, freshly prepared food, and pronto with it, seems a remarkably rare commodity given there are 90,000 odd workers in the city centre. It can often seem easier to grab a great sandwich or salad out in the suburbs. Why is that?

Is the City Centre Deprived?

*16/10/2014: updated with interactive map*

Radio New Zealand recently ran an article titled “Slum warning over Auckland CBD”, which began:

Auckland’s central city is home to some of the region’s poorest people, living in tiny overcrowded apartments which are threatening to turn some areas into slums.

Census data shows part of the inner city has a deprivation level of 10, which is the same as some of the poorest parts of south Auckland – such as Mangere, Papakura and Otara.

Once you get past the somewhat sensationalist headline and opening, this is actually a relatively informative article, but I think a bit more context is required. My response is possibly a bit too much context, so feel free to skip to the last few paragraphs.


What is Deprivation?

According to the University of Otago, who publishes the New Zealand Index of Deprivation, “deprivation has been defined as a state of observable and demonstrable disadvantage relative to the local community or the wider society or nation to which an individual, family or group belongs”. It’s a multi-dimensional and evolving concept, and can be assessed in a number of different ways.

The New Zealand Index of Deprivation uses census data to gauge deprivation at the local (but not individual/ household) level. In the latest index, based on the 2013 census, the following variables are used, in order of decreasing weight in the index:

Dep Index variables

The index uses aggregated data to provide useful information about whether people living in a given area are more or less likely to be deprived. The data is based on what’s available from the census, and is more limited (and less direct) than the range of questions we’d focus on if we were interviewing individuals or households, for example. In fact, the University of Otago has also created a New Zealand Index of Socioeconomic Deprivation for Individuals, which is an interview-based system.

Similarly, Statistics New Zealand ask a wide range of questions in their Household Economic Survey – whether household members have shoes in good condition, or do things like go without good meals, doctor’s visits and so on to save on costs. The survey used to ask “how often in the last twelve months [the interviewee] had stayed in bed longer to save on heating costs – never, occasionally or often”, and I used this variable in my dissertation to look at energy poverty – one of the many dimensions of poverty, which is a related concept to deprivation.

As you can see from these questions, there are a range of things that people can end up going without, which many of us may not really come across in our everyday lives (although we may have been through phases of this, e.g. while studying). These are social issues and not generally the domain of this blog, but I mention them for context and to give an idea of what deprivation indices are really trying to get at.


Is the Index of Deprivation well suited to looking at the city centre?

The New Zealand Index of Deprivation is an excellent resource and useful for comparing different areas, assessing the need for health and social services and so on. However, I think the Radio New Zealand article above, and the New Zealand Index of Deprivation itself, probably overstates the degree of deprivation in the city centre, although there are certainly deprived people (and arguably even deprived areas) in the city centre.

To give more detail, the index assigns each of the 2,000-odd geographical “area units” across New Zealand a ranking of 1 to 10, with the same number of area units in each decile, and 10 being the most deprived. One of the “area units” in the city centre, Auckland Central East (east of Queen St), was ranked 10 in the 2013 index, whereas Auckland Central West (west of Queen St) was ranked 9 and Auckland Harbourside (north of Customs St, the Viaduct, the Scene apartments etc) was ranked 6.

I’ve listed the variables that go into the index above. and as you can imagine, there are some indicators that are less relevant to a high-density context, and there are others that are less relevant to areas with a younger population. The University is aware of this, and mention in their FAQ here:

What happens if people choose not to own one or more of a house, a car or a phone?

We are restricted to information available from the census forms, which do not include information about choice for these items. However, the NZDep index includes information from six deprivation variables which are unlikely to be relevant to people who make such choices, such as some people living in inner-city apartments, so the index-value for a small area is unlikely to be substantively affected by the lack of choice information for the other three index variables.

An important aspect of deprivation is the lack of choice in going without certain things – it’s really about people who feel forced to go without “a house, a car or a phone”, or from further up in this post, “wearing shoes with holes because you could not afford replacement” and so on, rather than choosing to do without for lifestyle or other reasons. So the first point I’d note is that people often choose to live in the city centre and not own their apartment, a car etc, while I also acknowledge the university’s comments on the other variables in the index.

Secondly, areas with a high proportion of students also tend to come out badly in the index. Students obviously tend to perform poorly on income measures, and also on unemployment ones – based on customised census data, 10.3% of full time students in NZ are unemployed, vs. 4.5% for the general population (and the unemployment rate, which is different, is 22.0%).

In Dunedin, for example, students are heavily concentrated in the “Otago University” and “North Dunedin” area units, both of which have a deprivation index of 9. I lived in this area for 18 months, and while there are certainly students living in substandard conditions, again there’s an element of choice; going without now to earn higher incomes down the track.

That brings me to another important point, which is that deprivation for individual students is likely to be short-lived, rather than entrenched. Student-oriented areas may be “deprived” and remain so over time, but that’s arguably less of a social issue than areas where you have the same people living there for years and remaining deprived.

As you’d expect, the University of Otago is clued up about this. They make some effort to adjust for the student factor, e.g. through leaving the Student Allowance Benefit out of the benefit variable in the index (“it was considered that the majority of people on this benefit were probably not disadvantaged or socioeconomically deprived in the same way as those on the other means tested benefits”), but generally the index is still a bit less meaningful for areas with a large proportion of students.

Thirdly, the city centre, being dominated by apartments, will come out very well on some measures which aren’t recorded in the index – apartments aren’t usually damp and cold, as so many NZ houses are. On the other hand, many of them could still be seen as substandard, in terms of minimal living space, poor facilities, not much natural light or ventilation and so on.


So, is the City Centre Deprived?

Here’s a map of the Index of Deprivation scores for meshblocks across the CBD:

I’ve done some analysis on the city centre using the variables which go into the Index of Deprivation, and my conclusions would be that the city centre is still relatively deprived in many ways – but it’s probably not as bad as it looks in the index, and the deprivation for individuals is less likely to be long-term.

Unemployment rates for city centre residents are high however you slice it, for both students and non-students. I expect that a lot of that has to do with the age structure (youth unemployment is much higher) and ethnic mix (unemployment for Asian ethnic groups is somewhat higher).

The city centre also comes out badly on the “living space” variable, as you might expect given high land costs and generally smaller dwelling sizes. Using a simple measure of overcrowding – more than two people per bedroom – 3.5% of CBD dwellings are overcrowded, vs. 1.2% across New Zealand. The index measure is a bit more in depth, and looks at the number of “spare bedrooms” compared to an occupancy standard; if anything, the CBD probably comes out worse on that measure.

On the “support” variable, there are also quite a lot of single parent families in the city centre. So, there are some warning signs here – I’d hope there is a good support structure in place for these families.

So, there is deprivation in the city centre, and it needs to be acknowledged. I don’t think it calls for a hysterical response, but there are social issues which should be recognised and addressed. It’s important that the CBD has good social services in place – and I think it generally does – and that these continue to improve as the CBD’s population continues to grow.