Guest post: A right to reciprocal intensification

This is a guest post from Brendon Harre in Christchurch. It addresses an issue that’s near and dear to Transportblog: How do we better enable positive change in the built environment?

Solving the housing crisis in New Zealand will require many reforms and much effort. Some of the needed reforms will face opposition and will be difficult to implement. There will be tension between the national concern about improving housing supply versus some local interests in retaining the status quo.

I want to focus on one particular easy to implement policy option, which I think could successfully navigate this political dynamic. The essence of the proposed reform is to establish a nationwide intensification right for situations where neighbours agree. A right to reciprocal intensification will create a new urbanist tool for New Zealand, allowing a better housing intensification supply response, so that people can build in parts of our towns and cities where people want to live.

The first step would be to agree as a country on a height limit that all property owners could construct up to as a right. I would suggest three stories would be reasonable, as this is a similar scale to natural features like trees.


The ‘Six Sisters’, John Street, Ponsonby

Local areas through zoning provisions would still retain existing setback and shade planes rules that determine how far buildings must be constructed from site boundaries. For instance, a shade plane is an angle going inwards, which building height and bulk cannot exceed. It is taken from a certain height directly above the section boundary -2.5 metres in the below diagram. These rules also limit the size of buildings – and hence reduce the number of dwellings that can be built on a given site.


The second step, which is the main thrust of my proposal, is that New Zealand should adopt a system where neighbours can reciprocally agree to drop the shade plane and set back restrictions along their common border. This reciprocal intensification right could be implemented as a national policy statement under the RMA, which local authorities would then be obligated to implement. So in the above diagrams, if there was a section to the north or south and if the two property owners agree, then they would both have the right to build up to their adjoining boundary – utilising the appropriate building code for firewalls etc. If other adjoining neighbours disagreed, then on those boundaries the standard setback and shade plane rules would apply.

Of course there would be many property owners who wouldn’t want their neighbour to build right up to their boundary. But some would see the advantage in co-operating, so they have the option of adding a granny flat or redeveloping their entire site. Making this reciprocal intensification right a choice eliminates the major criticism of up-zoning. Being, up-zoning dictates an exchange of a neighbour’s access to sun, views and privacy for the opportunity to intensify. Some property owners believe they will be worse off if this exchange is codified into the zoning map.

If reciprocal intensification rights were spread across a large enough area, then this would give the opportunity for a lot of intensification – in the form of duplexes if two neighbours agree and European style terrace housing if many neighbours agree. There are 1.8M private dwellings in New Zealand – if just 1% of those properties were intensified from one dwelling to three per site over, say, ten years, that would net an additional 36,000 new homes. I am not sure if 1% and one house intensifying into three are reasonable expectations, but it shows that even with modest assumptions this proposed policy reform could have an impact on the housing market.

The main benefits of a right to reciprocal intensification are:

  • It decreases transaction costs for site assembly. The national policy statement would mean no resource consent or property purchase would be required to develop sites more comprehensively. Currently to achieve site assembly, either neighbours would have to go through a complex and uncertain RMA process or a property developer would need to buy up the neighbouring sections.
  • It encourages a more desirable urban form as it gives property owners the ability to build across their property frontage so that new housing faces the street. Currently our zoning rules encourage infill housing that goes down the length of the property.
  • It gives greater housing supply options for building types with construction costs per square metre comparable to standalone housing.  Small apartment buildings tend to be cheaper to build compared to high rise apartments because they can be built as 3-story walk-up units. There is no need for an expensive concrete elevator core, mechanical ventilation, sprinkler systems, underground parking and expensive structural engineering.
  • It allows housing supply to respond to locational demand.
  • It allows housing supply to respond to housing size demand.  There is evidence of an under supply of 1–2 bedroom homes in the property market: The largest increase in household groups are singles and couples, yet very few one or two bedroom homes are being built.


I believe reciprocal intensification will be driven by both supply – in terms of its ability to lower the cost of infill and redevelopment – and demand. Demand will come from urban areas with high amenities – like proximity to employment, easy public and private transport access, markets/shops, entertainment and desirable natural environments like beaches, parks and forest.

In Auckland not all high amenity areas have been up-zoned by the new Unitary Plan. So for the city most suffering from New Zealand’s housing crisis there is an opportunity for reciprocal property right supply to increase housing supply in places where there is a demand for it. Density maps of Auckland indicate that outside of the city centre there is a sudden drop-off to a flat density gradient, unlike similar sized and geographically constrained cities –such as Stockholm. Economic theory indicates density should gradually decline with what is labelled the ‘missing middle’ housing.

Missing Middle

Reciprocal intensification rights will not by itself be enough to enable all of the development we need. Other intensification restrictions such as minimum section sizes, minimum car parking requirements, site coverage rules, viewing shaft restrictions, heritage restrictions, secondary kitchens, etc may be as or more significant in the way they restrict the supply of housing intensification options and should also be reviewed by affordable housing policy makers.

However, I think reciprocal intensification rights would be a less controversial first step to intensification compared to widespread up-zoning, which results in some property owners who oppose intensification to fight such measures. These local interest groups which may only represent a minority of locals obstruct reasonable efforts to address restrictions on housing supply.

I believe New Zealand should give greater weighting to the national concern about affordable housing supply compared to the minority local interest in retaining the status quo. It has been my goal with this reciprocal intensification proposal to create a fair and appropriate first step to address this imbalance.


  1. This article was based on an article for titled Brendon Harre and David Lupton set out the case for more, and more variety of intensive housing options in New Zealand’s urban areas and a longer version of the article which also discussed the possibility of larger co-operative neighbourhood schemes.
  2. There are some architectural slides from a US city that transformed traditional standalone housing suburbs into suburbs of duplexes and terraces by reducing allowable section sizes to a little over 100sqm and by not having side yard setback and shade plane restrictions. The end result is quite pleasing.
  3. There is an article and podcast of an academic economic discussion of the wider costs to the economy that unaffordable housing imposes, how the various restrictions on house building contribute to this and some possible remedies, H/T Facebook group Market Urbanism.

Should Auckland still want to be “the world’s most liveable city”?

Indications are that new mayor Phil Goff wants a change to the current vision outlined in the Auckland Plan of becoming the “world’s most liveable city”.

Goff has also indicated that Brown’s slogan “the world’s most liveable city” will be phased out.

“People laugh when they are stuck in hours of traffic congestion about being the most liveable city. They laugh when they see that might be our slogan; but we are the fourth most unaffordable city to live in,” Goff said.

Goff, whose slogan is “a city where talent and enterprise can thrive, said like Brown and mayors who might follow him, he wants to stamp his own mark on the city.

This “slogan” was very strongly linked to previous mayor, Len Brown, so in some ways it’s not surprising that Goff wants to change it. But it’s a hard vision to move away from – do we no longer want Auckland to be the best place in the world to live? Or is it that we essentially want to continue down this path, just under a different name? To explore this question I’m going to take a look at the up-side and down-side of liveability – hopefully leading to a few suggestions for a vision for Auckland going forwards.

At its core, the concept of “liveability” is fairly self-explaining:


By wanting to be the “world’s most liveable city”, we are wanting to become the best place in the world to live, or the place with the best quality of life. Where it becomes tricky though, is that this concept of “liveability” has been captured by a variety of different organisations to try and compare how liveable different cities around the world are – usually with a fairly narrow target audience in mind. Wikipedia explains this pretty well:

The world‘s most liveable cities is an informal name given to any list of cities as they rank on an annual survey of living conditions. Regions with cities commonly ranked in the top 50 include Australasia, North America, North Asia, Northern Europe, and Western Europe.[1] Three examples of such surveys are Monocle‘s “Most Liveable Cities Index”, the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s “Global Liveability Ranking”, and “Mercer Quality of Living Survey”. Numbeo has the largest statistics and survey data based on cities and countries.[2] Liveability rankings are designed for use by employers assigning hardship allowances as part of job relocation, however the usefulness of using such a ranking to determine salary packaging remains unclear.

The final sentence from the paragraph above highlights the key issue – that these rankings are designed for internationally mobile high-wage employees. Not to give an indication of the quality of life for people doing the “daily grind”. Especially not for those struggling on lower incomes. For example, the methodology of the Mercer survey (which is the one most frequently referred to by politicians, perhaps because it’s the one that ranks Auckland highest?) is briefly outlined below:

Living conditions are analyzed according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories:

  1. Political and social environment (political stability, crime, law enforcement, etc.).
  2. Economic environment (currency exchange regulations, banking services).
  3. Socio-cultural environment (media availability and censorship, limitations on personal freedom).
  4. Medical and health considerations (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution, etc.).
  5. Schools and education (standards and availability of international schools).
  6. Public services and transportation (electricity, water, public transportation, traffic congestion, etc.).
  7. Recreation (restaurants, theatres, cinemas, sports and leisure, etc.).
  8. Consumer goods (availability of food/daily consumption items, cars, etc.).
  9. Housing (rental housing, household appliances, furniture, maintenance services).
  10. Natural environment (climate, record of natural disasters).

The scores attributed to each factor, which are weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates, permit objective city-to-city comparisons. The result is a quality of living index that compares relative differences between any two locations evaluated. For the indices to be used effectively, Mercer has created a grid that enables users to link the resulting index to a quality of living or hardship allowance amount by recommending a percentage value in relation to the index.

Auckland does pretty well, almost by default, on a lot of the factors that actually have relatively little to do with the Council – like climate, political stability, crime, education, personal freedom, healthcare facilities and availability of goods. Where we struggle, transport and housing being the obvious “big two”, seems to get a little bit swamped by these other factors in the overall scoring. Understandably, it’s difficult to fathom how we can be one of the most liveable cities in the world when people are living in cars.

Because the word “liveability” is potentially tarnished by both its association with the Len Brown and misleading rankings, but the concept of Auckland being a great place to live, work, play or visit seems pretty hard to argue against, I wonder whether Phil Goff’s stated vision (which is by law required to be articulated in the Auckland Plan) will pick up on these more generic words and perhaps highlight the need for Auckland to be a great place for everyone (not just those well off). At its core though the vision will probably be similar, just presented differently.

Unitary Plan hits a snag

In August we celebrated as the Unitary Plan was finally approved by the council and then formally notified after a four-year roller coaster of a process. Even better was the end result was actually pretty good, far better than we could have hoped for back in February after the agreed to most of the changes the Independent Hearings Panel made. Things were looking up, that we might actually be able to start to addressing the housing crisis that has pushed people out of the city or even worse, to have to live in a car.

Unfortunately, yesterday the council announced the plan had suffered the same fate as car below after running into an Auckland 2040/Character Coalition shaped bollard (we could also do with some of those bollards in our bus lanes)


Following notification of the Unitary Plan on August 19, there was a 20 working day window for people to appeal the plan. Appeals were possible to the High Court on points of law but there were limited rights of appeal to the environment court “where the council either rejects a recommendation made by the Panel, or accepts a Panel recommendation that is identified as being beyond the scope of submissions on the PAUP” (Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan). In total there were 106 appeals, 65 to the Environment Court, 41 to the High Court, and eight applications for a judicial review.

Most of those only related to specific sites, such as a land owner complaining about the zoning of their property. But the council have deemed that a joint appeal by Auckland 2040 and the Character Coalition on the residential zoning has meant that the zones and the zoning and maps can’t become operative. Here’s what the council says about it.

However a joint appeal lodged by Auckland 2040 and the Character Coalition, which is broad in scope, has the potential to impact residential development across Auckland.

Because that appeal challenges certain zoning decisions, the zoning maps cannot become operative until that appeal is resolved. This may mean that applications for resource consent to develop a property will also need to be assessed against the relevant operative legacy planning zones and rules.

“Until all appeals are resolved, Auckland Council is required to assess all resource consent applications against parts of both the old and new plans,” says Ms Pirrit.

“Decisions will need to be made on a case by case basis as to how much weight can be given to the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan versus the operative legacy district and regional plans.”

“In practical terms, this will add greater complexity and a degree of uncertainty for applicants while the appeal process is ongoing.”

So to get consent, developments will need separately pass the old and the new criteria. That sounds onerous and something bound to add a lot of cost to the process or could perhaps even stall much needed developments for up to a year until the appeal is resolved. This almost sounds like a nightmare and one of the worst case scenarios that could have happened.

It appears that even the Character Coalition were unaware of just how much impact their appeal would have, perhaps they got some bad advice.

At the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me if council are being overly cautious about this and are playing it conservatively to prevent further issue if it was perceived they weren’t taking the process seriously. Either way I certainly hope this is able to be resolved quickly because Auckland can’t afford any delays in trying to address the housing crisis that already exists.

For the parts of the plan that aren’t affected by this appeal, the council are holding their final governing body meeting of the term and staff have recommended they make those parts operative. This will also be the final meeting for Mayor Len Brown and Councillors Arthur Anae, George Wood and Cameron Brewer who are not standing for re-election.

Zoning reform: Who submitted on the plan? (3 of n)

This is the third installment in an ongoing series on the politics and economics of zoning reform. Last week’s post took a look at the outcomes from the Unitary Plan process, which included a mix of political decision-making and technical assessment. The data in this post raised a few interesting questions, including: Why did councillors take a relatively conservative approach to the notified Unitary Plan?

In his fantastic book Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation, which I reviewed at the start of the year, William Fischel argues that zoning decisions generally respond to demands from politically active “homevoters” who agitate to minimise risks to their own property values.

While this doesn’t necessarily hold true in all cases, it’s a useful heuristic for understanding councils’ decision-making. And it suggests that when seeking to explain zoning decisions we should begin by asking: Who submitted on the plan?

After notifying the Unitary Plan to the public in September 2013, Auckland Council received submissions from around 9,300 individuals or organisations, who made a total of 93,600 unique requests. The submissions are all available online if you want to read them in detail.

I didn’t want to bother reading them in detail, so I started with some simple statistical analysis. Approximately 5,900 submitters provided an address, which allowed Auckland Council to match them to one of the city’s 21 local boards. This allowed me to identify which areas of Auckland had more or less submissions. Here’s a map showing submissions per capita.

UP submissions per 1000 residents map

Interesting map. We can immediately see three things:

  • People in rural areas – especially Rodney – submitted on the plan at higher rates than people in urban areas.
  • Two urban local boards stand out as having high submissions per capita – Orakei and Devonport-Takapuna. They are both relatively well-off coastal areas.
  • Submission rates in the west and south were much, much lower – as shown in the yellow band through the city.

All in all, people who lived in Rodney or Orakei were over ten times as likely to put in a submission on the Unitary Plan than people who lived in Henderson-Massey or Mangere-Otahuhu.

This is an extraordinarily large amount of variation, and it’s not matched by other indices of civic participation. For instance, voter turnout wasn’t ten times as high in Orakei as it was in Henderson or Mangere. So what factors are driving the differences?

Ideally, we’d be able to take a look at the decisions made by individuals – for instance, by surveying people on their decisions about whether or not to submit. But that’s a bit over the top for a blog post, so I’m going to take a quick look at some demographic factors that might underpin different submissions rates at a local board level.

More specifically, I want to investigate three hypotheses that are (loosely) derived from Fishel’s “homevoter hypothesis”. They relate to the time and money that people have to get involved in the process, and people’s sense of “ownership” over their neighbourhood:

  • Hypothesis 1: Areas with higher median incomes are more likely to submit at higher rates
  • Hypothesis 2: Areas with a higher share of home-owning households are more likely to submit at higher rates
  • Hypothesis 3: Areas with a higher share of people over the age of 65 are more likely to submit at higher rates

All demographic variables were measured at the local board level using data from the 2013 Census. (NB: These weren’t the only factors I considered, but they seemed to be the most relevant ones.)

The following table summarises results from a simple OLS regression, which measures the correlations between multiple explanatory variables (the local board demographic variables) and a single outcome variable (Unitary Plan submissions per 1000 residents). The statisticians among our audience will find it pretty intuitive; for the rest, here is an explanation of the findings:

  • At a local board level, a higher median personal income was associated with a higher rate of submissions on the Unitary Plan. This correlation was highly statistically significant (1% level). On average, every $1000 increase in median personal income was associated with another 0.51 UP submissions per 1000 residents.
  • A higher share of residents aged 65 and over was associated with a higher submission rates. This correlation was also statistically significant (5% level). On average, every 1% increase in the share of seniors was associated with another 0.47 UP submissions per 1000 residents.
  • After controlling for incomes and age, there was no statistically significant relationship between the share of households in rental accommodation and submission rates.
  • These factors “explain” about 56% of the variations in submission rates between local boards. In other words, income and age are quite important to overall outcomes.
Outcome variable: UP submissions per 1000 residents
Explanatory variables Model coefficients
Median personal income ($000s) 0.507***
Percent 65 years and over (%) 46.973**
Percent renting (%) 7.693
Constant -19.147**
Model statistics
Observations 21
Adjusted R2 0.557
Residual Std. Error 2.455 (df = 17)
F Statistic 9.365*** (df = 3; 17)
Note: *p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01

In short, areas with more wealthy people and more retired people tended to submit on the Unitary Plan at considerably higher rates. While there is an idiosyncratic story lurking behind every submission, demographic factors seem to have played a crucial role in shaping the submissions that Auckland Council received on the Unitary Plan.

This raises several questions:

First, how much stock should policymakers place on submissions as opposed to inputs gathered from other sources, like demographically-representative surveys? In asking this question I am not dismissing submissions entirely – the people who submit are also more likely to have relevant knowledge about the issue at hand. But is it plausible to think that people in wealthier and older areas are ten times more knowledgeable than people in poorer and younger areas?

Second, how should planning processes account for the preferences and needs of people who are invisible in the consultation process? If you care about the substance of democracy as well as the form, as I do, this is an important question. There are in fact many things that can be done to divine people’s underlying preferences for various things in cities. Perhaps we should invest more in this sort of research.

Third, to what extent did submissions on the Unitary Plan affect the process at different stages? For instance, were the areas that Auckland Council chose to “downzone” between the draft and notified versions of the Unitary Plan concentrated in local boards with higher submission rates? And what about the outcomes from the final Unitary Plan recommended by the hearings panel? These are obviously hard questions to answer in full without an extremely in-depth analysis of the 93,600 unique requests that people made. But there may be some simple insights we can get from a higher-level analysis; stay tuned…

What do you make of the data on Unitary Plan submission rates?

Five Years

Exactly five years ago last month, August 30th 2011, my first ever blog post ran on Transportblog. While I am astonished it’s already been five years, what’s really astonishing is what we, my colleagues here, you the readers, and the growing force of friends and allies elsewhere [shoutout to Generation Zero and Bike Auckland especially], and of course the many good people official roles, have helped achieve in Auckland in this time. We have certainly raised the discourse on urban issues and influenced some real outcomes, for the better. Exactly what we set out to do, and what we continue to strive for.

But there is one thing that has still remains unfixed and that is the subject of my first post, which is reproduced in full below.

Why Are There Cars on Queen St?

This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds and was originally published in Metro magazine

Queen St, from the water to Mayoral Drive, has an unusual and unexpected feature for a city street in Auckland. It’s easy to miss but it’s true: There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St. Not one car parking building, not one loading bay, not one ramp to an executive garage under a tower block. The only way to enter a building from Queen St is on foot. There are a few very short term road side parks among the bus stops and loading bays, but really every car in Queen St is on its way to and from somewhere else. And so slowly.

People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.

No traffic moves well on Queen St, certainly not the buses, it is usually quicker to walk from the Ferry Building to the Town Hall than to catch any Queen St bus. Emergency vehicles get stuck, deliveries battle their way through. It is clear why there is traffic on the four east-west cross streets of Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. These are essential through routes to and from motorways and parking buildings. But they too get held up by all the turning in and out of the intersections with Queen St. Because as it is now the lights have long and complicated phases to handle every possible car movement and the growing volume of pedestrians.

It seems likely that simply by removing the private car from the three blocks from Mayoral Drive down to Customs St the city will function so much better. The intersections of Customs, Victoria and Wellesley, will be able to have much better phasing for both pedestrians and the cross town traffic, as well speeding the buses as they would effectively be on bus lanes all the way up Queen St. Air quality in the Queen St gully would improve immensely. The bottom of Shortland and the newly refurbished Fort streets will become the sunny plazas they should be. Inner city retailers should see the benefits of the Queen St becoming a more appealing place to be in and the cross town traffic flowing better will make car use more viable.

And there will the space to convert the smoky diesel bus routes into modern electric trams to really make the most of this improvement and speed even more shoppers and workers to and from the rest of the city.

If we’re brave enough to take this all the way up to Mayoral Drive we get the real chance to link the new Art Gallery, the Library, and St James area across the Queen St divide to Aotea Square, the Town Hall and the new Q Theatre. A chance to really build a cultural heart at this end of town.

Furthermore it could all be done with a few cones, signs, traffic light changes and a media campaign. At least to start.


And I still believe that AT/AC are not addressing this issue as well as they should. Waiting for Light Rail to improve our city’s main street lacks leadership and strategic focus, and may well even turn out to be risky to the approval that project. It will, I believe, help the argument for Light Rail here to show that Queen St isn’t a necessary or desirable place for general traffic, and that its continuing reduction is far from negative for commercial performance in the City Centre, by actively encouraging its departure. We know that the last restrictions had way better results than anticipated, halving the amount of vehicle traffic and boosting the much more valuable pedestrian numbers and economic activity, see here.

Queen St volumes - Total

Since my post above AT have recently added partial bus lanes to the two lower blocks, which is good, but not much in five years. I would like to see these lanes continue through to Mayoral Drive. I really think this valley needs to be addressed strategically, and not just reactively, which after all has been well studied by AT, e.g. The City East West Study, CEWT.

Adding north/south of Queen St to this mix we get a hierarchy like this:

  1. Pedestrians in all directions
  2. Transit north/south on Queen and east/west on Wellesley and Customs
  3. Deliveries
  4. General traffic east/west on Mayoral, Victoria, and Customs

And above all of this is the plan to remove all general traffic from Wakefield St north to be worked towards; to continue the current trend.

So improving the Queen St intersections by removing right hand turn options matches this hierarchy perfectly, in particular at Victoria St. This is now a more difficult idea since the Link bus turns from Queen here, but the turn could be made bus only. Victoria St is currently narrowed by CRL works, and will be permanently reduced in width by the Aotea CRL station entrance which will be in what is current road space. So getting drivers used to both the narrowed Victoria St and out of the habit of turning here is surely a strong plan.

Now of course AT are getting pressure from angry motorists over the CRL works, and seem to have responded to this by dropping the double pedestrian cycle from the big Barnes Dances on Queen. This is clearly counter productive to the strategic aims. Instead if they removed right hand turning at Victoria this would improve the adjacent Victoria St intersections for all users and enable either concurrent crossing on Queen or allow the double Barnes Dance phases to be restored. Then there is the festering sore that is lower Shortland St, which clearly has just been shoved into the too hard basket.

Oh and now I discover I have written about this in 2013 too: Clusterbus, Busageddon, Busapocalypse…

In short there are ways that AC/AT could be advancing their strategic aims in the centre city before Light Rail is begun, but they don’t seem to be doing this. I think they should.

Will I be banging on about still in another five years, or can the city grow up already?

‘…Five Years, what a surprise’

Zoning reform: Is the Unitary Plan any good? (2 of n)

This is the second post in an ongoing series on the politics and economic of zoning reform. The first part looked at the costs, benefits, and distributional impacts of reforming urban planning rules to enable more development. This part takes a more specific look at the most recent reform to Auckland’s planning system: the Unitary Plan.

Now that the hearings are over, the submitters have been heard, and the politicians have voted, it’s worth asking: What have we gotten from the Unitary Plan? Does it take us in a useful direction, and to what degree?

In order to give a coherent answer to this question, I’m going to have to simplify matters. The UP does a lot to regulate development and local environmental issues – addressing everything from air quality to zoning for factors. But it has the strongest effects are on the city’s housing market. The UP shapes how much housing can be built, where it can be built, and how easy it is to get permission to build it.

Consequently, I’m going to focus on the impact of the Unitary Plan on people’s ability to build more homes in the city. Zoning capacity isn’t the only thing that matters, but it’s important. Cities that have “downzoned” severely, like Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, typically experience rising housing prices, while cities that “upzone” significantly, like Tokyo in the 1990s, tend to have an easier time keeping prices under control.


The great down-zoning of LA (Morrow, 2013)

In order to estimate the UP’s impact on Auckland’s capacity to build more homes, I’m going to draw upon “capacity for growth” modelling produced by Auckland Council and subsequently updated throughout the hearings process. As changes to the modelling methodology make a like-for-like comparison a bit difficult, I’m going to have to piece together the overall results.

The 2012 Capacity for Growth Study estimated the number of homes that could be built under the legacy zoning rules that were put in place prior to Auckland Council amalgamation. The modellers estimated a measure of “plan-enabled capacity” – i.e. the total quantity of housing that could be built within the city if everyone (re)developed their site to the maximum permitted under the zoning rules.

This is obviously an implausible scenario, as many people won’t choose to redevelop, at least for a while. So the results are best thought of as a theoretical upper bound rather than a realistic estimate of what would happen in practice. As we’ll see, this was addressed in subsequent modelling undertaken during the hearings.

With that caveat in mind, the modellers found that the legacy zoning rules allowed between 250,000 and 345,000 additional dwellings to be built in Auckland. The lower number reflects the maximum capacity for infill development, while the higher number reflects the maximum capacity for redeveloping residential sites.

The 2013 Capacity for Growth Study used the same methodology to assess the version of the UP that was notified by Auckland Council after consultation on the plan. This showed that the notified UP had only made incremental increases to infill and redevelopment capacity within the city.

The modellers found that the legacy zoning rules allowed between 258,000 and 417,000 additional dwellings to be built in Auckland. The lower number reflects infill capacity, while the higher figure reflects redevelopment capacity. However, it also noted future greenfield areas with capacity for around 90,000 additional dwellings.

Taking the greenfield areas into account, the notified UP would have delivered a 39-47% increase in capacity for housing, relative to the legacy zoning. That difference is shown in the following diagram. Essentially, the Unitary Plan as originally conceived would have been at most an incremental improvement.

CfGS legacy plans and notified UP chart

Things get a bit more complex when comparing between the notified UP and the final version of the UP that was recommended by the Independent Hearings Panel and approved (with minor tweaks) by Auckland Council. The modelling methodology changed in the course of the hearings, with the focus shifting from “plan-enabled” capacity to “commercially feasible” capacity. In effect, a new model was built to filter out sites that wouldn’t be profitable to develop.

The result was the final numbers presented in the Independent Hearings Panel’s report (and covered, somewhat hyperbolically, by the Spinoff) are lower – but considerably more realistic – than the figures reported in the Capacity for Growth Studies.

You can see that in the following chart. The commercially feasible capacity enabled by the notified UP is 213,000 additional dwellings – only 42% of the full plan-enabled capacity.

The key thing in this chart is the change between the notified UP and the final UP. Feasible capacity has increased from 213,000 to 422,000 dwellings, or a 98% increase. Most of the increase in capacity comes from within existing residential zones, thanks to rezoning and changes to zoning rules to allow people to build more dwellings on the same amount of land.

Recomended UP - Change in Feasible Capacity

So if we squint a bit, we can put these estimates together to get a rough picture of the overall outcome:

  • The notified UP increased plan-enabled capacity by 39-47% relative to the legacy plans
  • The final UP increased feasible capacity by 98% relative to the notified UP
  • This implies that the final UP has increased the zoning envelope by around 175-190%, relative to the legacy plans (i.e. 1.98*1.39 to 1.98*1.47).

Equivalently, if we assume that only around 42% of the plan-enabled capacity under the legacy zoning plans would be commercially feasible (a similar ratio to the notified UP), we can put together the following chart:

Feasible capacity legacy plans and Unitary Plan chart

Is this sufficient? Time will tell. Getting housing, transport, and place-making right for Auckland doesn’t end with a planning rulebook. But the final UP is undoubtedly a large step away from the broken status quo.

As this is a series on the economics and politics of zoning reform, I want to close with a few simple observations that arise from the quantitative analysis in this post.

  • The incremental changes observed between the legacy plans and the notified UP reflect the outcome of a political process. Council put out a draft plan for consultation, and then pulled back a lot of the changes in response to criticism.
  • The considerably larger changes between the notified UP and the final UP arose from a technical process – the independent hearings.
  • Although the IHP recommended, councillors decided. The final UP was voted up by many of the same councillors who had pulled back to a more conservative position three years before.

This in turn raises two questions that I will revisit in future posts in this series. First, why did the political process deliver a more conservative outcome than the technical process? And second, what changed between 2013 and 2016 to obtain a different outcome from the council votes on the plan?

What do you make of these figures?

Airport RTN: a quick first step

AT have now put the SMART study documents on their site, here. There’s a lot to review there and this post is not a look at the whole report and its conclusions, but rather is a response to the problem of the length of time this project is likely to take whatever mode is selected.

All of the proposals in the report are capital intensive, without any currently identified funding source, and the timing of the RT route looks likely to be complicated by the Airport’s development plans, particularly those for the second runway, so there is a good case for looking at interim improvements for Airport/RTN interconnection while these bigger decisions are being resolved. I am focussing on the airport because of its fast growth is clearly a major generator of increased traffic congestion for the whole Mangere area.

First some background from the report. Just setting aside travellers for a moment, what about the workforce at and around the Airport, what are their current patterns?:

AIRPORT Commuter movements

So we can see in the above data from the 2013 census that the key connection for workers is east to Manukau area, followed by that to the centre. Furthermore that employee movement is still quite peaky, despite the airport itself obviously being a 24 hour operation:

Airport worker arrivals


So what opportunities are there for a quick and relatively low cost connection between the Airport and the current RTN, particularly with the above information in mind, that could be built while the full Mangere/Airport RT route is being developed, whatever the mode? RTN 2016 AirportThe first and obvious point is that there is already, right now, great service on the spine of the Southern Line relatively close to the Airport, particularly to the City Centre, but also south and across to Manukau City. Where the red and blue lines overlap there are services every five minutes at peak. So there seems to be a clear opportunity to improve connection east from the Airport for its own catchment while that also will connect, via the rail system, the City Centre and anyone who can access a train station.

Currently the connection between rail system and the Airport is very poor, as anyone -like me- who has used it will tell you.

New Network South

The 380 via Papatoetoe station is not a viable option because of three problems [the longer and slower route to Onehunga is even worse, as well leading to an equally low frequency train]:

  • Low frequency: 1/2 hourly service
  • Slow route; the 380 has no priority on its route so therefore is subject to both delay and unreliability caused by other traffic [I have been on this bus stuck in traffic for tens of minutes]
  • The Station/Bus physical connection at Papatoetoe does little to encourage the transfer.

So why not investigate a dedicated shuttle between the even closer Puhinui Station and the Airport on a minimum 10 minute frequency with dedicated lanes on Puhinui Rd and improved passenger interchange at the station, complete with lifts for people with luggage, and all weather cover? Puhinui is currently timetabled at 33-35 minutes from Britomart [this should improve with current work] with a train leaving every 5 mins at the peaks, exactly when traffic congestion is at is most disruptive. With bus lanes on Puhinui Rd the journey to the terminals would be a reliable 10 mins. Including an average wait time of 5 mins that’s a perfectly satisfactory 50 minute journey from Britomart to the Airport. Because this journey time is reliable and not subject to congestion and avoids the time and cost of parking at the Airport it should be competitive enough for a good proportion of travellers and workers. As shown below, there is space to build an interchange and turning space to the west [Airport] side of the station, this would need to be of interchange standard.


The Puhinui Rd/20B road and bridge are due to be upgraded or duplicated soon in the on-going work to increase general traffic access to the Airport [what you feed grows] surely it would be wise to actually include dedicated transit lanes on a bridge in Auckland for once? This is a future RTN route, the route is flat and unconstrained by buildings; these are good practical and cost arguments for bringing this section forward. Shoulder lanes, or better, a dedicated busway and bridge, LRT ready, would be real ‘future-proofing’ [a phrase it is hard not to be cynical about in Auckland as it generally means doing less than nothing in practice].

With this service then it would be viable and essential to brand both the shuttle bus service at the terminals and the Southern and Eastern line services, both of which, with no changes to how they currently run, then become true Airport services.

Of course the transfer is less ideal than a system that takes you on one seat right into the Terminal either as a flyer or an employee there, however we know many travellers currently transfer from their cars to various bus shuttles in order to get cheaper parking, and surely many workers would be happy to not to have to battle increasing congestion with a reliable and cost effective alternative. In other words by optimising the bus connection we will further unlock the value of investments recently made in the rail system. It probably makes sense on those grounds alone.AIRPORT -Puninui

This should not be seen as instead of a north/south pan Mangere RTN, but it would surely make a good start, especially as this is the route for the future Botany-Manukau City-Airport RTN. So it would be even better if it continued to the new interchange at Manukau City, and then on to Botany and AMETI. And ensuring all hard infrastructure is built to be efficiently upgradeable to Light Rail in the longer term. Improving eastern connectivity is completely compatible with the northern Mangere routes discussed in the study, and indeed the current Airbus service, so arguably is an even more urgent direction to improve. There is no duplication in sorting this connection out first.

Botany Line

Incidentally this map clearly shows the other areas lacking RTN coverage: the Northwest and Upper Harbour, and the Isthmus and Mangere….

Which is exactly what AT have on their future RTN maps, but far too far into the future in my view. This is still based on last century’s thinking where every road is widened first, leading to the inevitable dysfunction and only then do we try to relieve this adding quality RT alternatives.

To summarise: we already have a high quality Rapid Transit service almost all the way to the airport, it seems to me that the addition of a high quality connection between these points would be a very useful first move in improving connectivity in this important area, especially if taken at least to Manukau City too, and as soon as possible.

August 16 AT Board Meeting

Today the Auckland Transport Board have their latest meeting and I’ve taken a look through the reports to pull out the interesting bits.

Firstly and surprisingly the agenda for the closed session is surprisingly bare. The only non-regular item is Tamaki Regeneration Project – funding and governance agreement.

The main business report seems to have a bit in it to cover. As always, this is based on the order they appear in the report.

Supergold – at the time of writing the report, AT say they had almost 105k cards loaded with SuperGold concessions (both the blue and gold ones), up from 45k in May. A recent press release also stated that now 97% of SuperGold trips were taking using HOP cards. The map below shows where paper tickets were still being issued

2016-08 - SuperGold Heatmap

Urban Redevelopment – AT say give a brief overview of some of the work they’re doing to work with Panuku Development Auckland.

Key priorities at this stage include:

  • Takapuna – Ongoing input into options for development of AT parking sites, and identification of short and long term public transport infrastructure requirements.
  • Manukau – Ongoing input into the Manukau Framework Plan currently under development. This document will identify potential streetscape upgrades, and potential sites for redevelopment including parking sites.
  • Onehunga – Analysis being undertaken on the potential impact of East-West Connections and Airport-Mangere rail on future development proposals.
  • Henderson – Early stages of high level visioning. The AT focus is on providing for train station expansion requirements associated with CRL operations, and on any implications of street network proposals including on level crossings.

Northwest Busway – They have selected Aurecon to develop the Indicative Business Case for the NW Busway between the City Centre and Westgate and is due to be completed by April 2017.

Harbour Crossing (AWHC) – Their work on the future RTN options as part of AWHC now includes prototype designs for several RTN modes

Tertiary Student Travel Survey – AT conducted their biennial survey and covered 2,108 interviews at campus’ across Auckland.

The surveys show that there has been a significant growth of students using public transport since 2014. Total public transport main mode travel to campus has increased from 41% to 48% and non-car travel has increased from 60% to 63%. Student attitudes towards public transport are strongly positive and nearly all students have an AT HOP card. Price and overcrowding are now seen as the biggest barriers for increasing use. Use of AT sources of information (e.g. journey planner) have significantly fallen since 2014 as the use of google maps for transport information has grown. Attitudes and use of public transport are similar across all CBD/City Fringe campuses and suburban campuses. MIT Manukau students are highly represented in train statistics.

Lincoln Rd – AT lodged a Notice of Requirement to widen Lincoln Rd. Notification is expected in September.

Albany Highway – The upgrade of Albany Highway north of the motorway has been going on for some time but AT now expect it to be completed in October, well ahead of what was in the contract.

Glen Innes to Tamaki Dr Shared Path – Section 1 from Merton Road to St Johns Road is expected to be completed by the end of September, Section 2 to Meadowbank Station and Section 3 to Orakei are expected to have resource consent completed soon with Section 3 due to start construction in October.

Newmarket Crossing (Sarawia St) – As expected the Cowie St Residents Association have appealed the consent to the Environment Court. AT now expect a likely decision on this in March/April 2017 although based on other projects like Skypath, that seems optimistic. In the past, AT have said that the opening of the Parnell Station is dependent on the Sarawia St crossing being removed.

Bike thefts – AT say they’re working with the police and our friends at Bike Auckland to address bike theft which has been increasing as cycling becomes more popular. This will include extra CCTV cameras and an education campaign.

Manukau Rd Transit Lane – The new transit lane is saving buses and T3 cars 4-5 minutes during the morning peak and has increased the people movement efficiency of the corridor by 10% – and based on anecdotal reports, that’s still with a lot of single occupant vehicles being driven in the lane.

New Bus Lanes – AT claim they are planning to deliver 19.1km of bus lanes this financial year and the first of the physical works were due to start by the end of August – but I’m not sure where. One of the lanes being added will be Gt North Rd at Waterview which is being done in conjunction with the Waterview project and expected to start construction in September and be finished by March 2017. An indication of some of what is being worked on is below.

2016-08 - Bus lane Programme

New Bus Network – Things are on track to go live with the South Auckland network on 30 October. Tenders for West Auckland are being assessed still while the tender for the Central and East networks have gone out.

Station Gates – Designs are complete for electronic gates to be installed at Henderson, Manurewa and Papatoetoe. They don’t say when they might be installed though.

Train performance – More work to speed up trains is being planned and includes line speed, interlocking and signalling works. The report says this is for a new recast timetable in March/April 2017. Previously they’d suggested a new timetable was due in February so it appears this has slipped.

There is a separate paper about HOP which deserves its own post and will be going up at midday.


Is there anything else you’ve seen in the reports you’ve found interesting?

How Councillors voted on the Unitary Plan

At 5pm on Friday the Unitary Plan was officially notified with this notice appearing in the NZ Herald.

NZ Herald Notification notice

The documents that were made available at 5pm included the final version of the plan the Council finished agreeing to earlier in the week. Also available from then were the minutes from that council meeting and so while we wait to see if there are any appeals, I trawled through the minutes to see which way the Mayor and Councillors voted on key issues and tried to put that information into a table. This includes both votes where a division was called and the Mayor and Councillors individually stated their position and votes where the resolution was passed but someone wanted their dissent noted.

A couple on notes about the tables.

  • While most of it was fairly straight forward to follow, it can get a bit confusing when some votes are delayed or especially in the case of item 6.14.1 (which covers the zoning maps) it can be hard to follow who was at the table, who wasn’t and who couldn’t participate due to conflicts of interest.
  • I don’t intend on posting all of the results as some of them are fairly boring technical matters where everyone agreed so I’ll just focus on a few key areas. You can click on the images for a bigger version.
  • The outcomes as to whether a vote was good or bad is based on my judgment call based on what we’ve discussed in the past or the result that will make it easier to deliver more housing. On some votes you may disagree with how I’ve scored it.
  • Green = Good, Red = Bad, C = Conflict of Interest and blank means they weren’t at the table.
  • I’ve only included a small explanation of the items voted on but have also included the page number the vote appeared on in the minutes should you wish to scroll through to see more information.

First up a number of hot topics including heritage and viewshafts

Final UP - Voting Table 1

Here are some of the items related to the City Centre and business zones. We were supporters of deleting the minimum dwelling sizes so most Councillors get marked down for voting to keep them.

Final UP - Voting Table 2

And here are some of the residential zones. One odd observation is that Cameron Brewer supported keeping minimum dwelling sizes in the City Centre but opposed keeping them in the general residential zones.

Final UP - Voting Table 3

There are obviously a lot more votes and as mentioned, many are fairly boring.

One of the reasons for pulling the data together was also to see which Councillors were the most or least supportive. The graph below counts the total number of red boxes from the tables above and the rest of the results. As you can see there was clearly one Councillor whose name came up more than others. To be fair not all votes are necessarily equal, especially some of the dissents which can be for fairly minor things but I think it is interesting none the less.

Final UP - Votes Against

What do you think of the results?

Zoning reform: Costs, benefits, and distributional impacts (1 of n)

This is the first part in an open-ended series on the economics and politics of zoning reform. The Unitary Plan decision means that Auckland’s urban planning framework is set for the short to medium term – albeit with inevitable appeals and changes. But the issues we’ve been grappling with over the past few years – i.e. how, where, and why to adjust the rulebook – will keep coming back. A growing city must also be a continually changing city, and zoning decisions can either help or hinder that.

A good starting point for thinking about the economics and politics of zoning reform is to ask: What are the costs and benefits of allowing more housing to be developed? And how are these costs and benefits distributed?

I investigated these questions in a conference paper at this year’s New Zealand Association of Economists. Without getting into the numbers, we can identify three main effects:

First, the benefits of new housing primarily accrue to people who are newly entering the housing market. For instance, young people trying to buy or rent a home benefit from there being more homes, as it means they can get better housing or cheaper housing. Equivalently, restrictions on new housing development mainly impose costs on people who don’t already own homes. When the supply of housing is restricted, then they face a choice between paying more for housing that meets their needs, living in substandard or crowded housing, or leaving the city entirely.

Second, the costs – adverse effects – of new development are location- and context-dependent. The distributional impacts – who is affected? – can also vary quite a lot. For instance, a new subdivision on the city fringe probably wouldn’t shade anyone’s home or block its view, but it might worsen water quality or biodiversity. And, given the dysfunctional way we build new suburbs, it will definitely increase traffic congestion.

By contrast, redevelopment and infill within the city will tend to have fewer environmental impacts – it’s already a city! – but there are more neighbours who may be affected by the various nuisances associated with development, like having new buildings casting shade on adjacent properties or more people parking on “their” street. People don’t like change very much… but they can easily adjust to different “status quo” scenarios.

For instance, consider Ponsonby. It would all be horribly illegal under today’s zoning codes. Lot sizes too small, buildings too close to each other and taking up too much of the lot, no parking, etc, etc. If you tried to get houses like these consented today, especially in an existing suburb, you’d be refused in about three seconds flat. But because they’ve been there for decades, people see them as something that should be protected – present-day zoning code be damned!

Ponsonby Russell St

Third, enabling housing development can allow cities to grow larger and in a more economically efficient pattern – leading to enhanced agglomeration economies. The benefits of increased productivity and greater consumer choice accrue broadly to most people in the city, or potentially even to the entire country. (Taxes paid in Auckland pay for retirements in Tauranga!)

Conversely, evidence from overseas cities suggests that restricting housing supply can result in large economic costs as a result of the misallocation of workers throughout space. For instance:

  • In the US, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti found that high housing costs have discouraged people from getting jobs in high-productivity cities – in particular New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. If those cities had allowed more homes to be built over the past three decades – which would have entailed more intensive development – the US economy would now be 9.7% larger than it actually is, with commensurate gains in income.
  • In the Netherlands, Wouter Vermeulen and Jos van Ommeren found that housing supply, not productivity or availability of jobs, has driven cities’ growth. Rather than moving to locations with abundant high-income jobs, people move to places with more homes – again, with a cost to overall economic outcomes.

As Matt Yglesias observed, agglomeration economies benefit workers with different skills… provided that they can afford to locate in high-productivity cities:

…just as factories served as economic anchors for regions, today’s big industries produce broader local prosperity.

Here are some examples from the San Francisco area:

The problem is that for most residents of these places, the higher cost of living erodes the benefits of higher pay.

So how does all this add up? There are two answers. The first is that the benefits of urban development tend to outweigh the costs… provided that it isn’t happening in a totally dysfunctional way, like paving over the habits of endangered birds or building astonishingly unredeemable eyesores. In other words, the benefits for people who are getting housed, plus increased agglomeration economies, outweigh the costs from negative social or environmental impacts. So from the perspective of long-run social wellbeing, zoning that enables more development seems like a good idea.

The second answer is that the distributional impacts tend to determine the politics of zoning. As economist William Fischel observed, local governments tend to be dominated by “homevoters” who are mainly worried about risks to their property values and quality of life. In this context, the fact that enabling urban development mostly has benefits for new entrants to the housing market – i.e. young people and people moving into the city from elsewhere – is pretty important.

National and local voter turnout chart

As economists like to say, the incentives facing local government voters aren’t well aligned with long-run social wellbeing. To current voters, zoning reform isn’t necessarily an appealing proposition. It appears to create uncertainty for their neighbourhood and property values, while principally benefitting other people.

This is a very understandable view for individuals to hold, but it’s not awesome for society as a whole. If cities and economies don’t change, they wither and die, creating vast human misery in the process. In order to prevent that from happening – i.e. to keep people from crowding into unsanitary accommodation or going homeless – we need to be willing to reform our zoning policies.

In the subsequent posts in this series, I’m going to take a look at what that might look like. In the first instance, I want to focus on the institutional arrangements that enable reform, considering issues like:

  • The trade-off between localised and centralised decision-making
  • The good and bad in New Zealand’s legislative framework
  • The role of analysis and evidence in planning decisions
  • The role of social norms in encouraging (or discouraging) people to plan for future generations.

As always, leave your views in the comments.