Thoughts on a Transport Accord

Over recent days and weeks the suggestion of an agreement between the Council and the Government – a Transport Accord similar to the Housing Accord agreed to in 2013 – have grown stronger and stronger. It’s easy to see why an accord would be desired from both parties. The council want a secure source funding from the government to help address the city’s growth. Similarly the government seem keen to have more definition around the cost implications but also there seems to be some political motivations at play. I think they want to be seen to be doing something and I suspect they may also want to get an accord signed before the main local body elections heat up as it’s likely transport will be a major talking point.

While there’s a lot of talk that an accord there’s not a lot of detail about just what it may entail. That’s because what work that has already happened is firmly behind closed doors and will likely stay that way for some time. The media so far have largely being playing the idea that an accord is primarily about agreeing on a set of projects and this has focused a lot around Simon Bridges interview on The Nation just over a week ago when he said he dismissed rail to the airport. I increasingly think that his comments reflect more of an ideological hiccup than any serious discussion that’s been had. By that I mean that when pushed to name projects that shouldn’t be on the list he retreated to the only one possible. For ideological reasons it had to be a rail project as criticising road or bus projects would have just made the rest of his comments seem absurd and it couldn’t be the CRL as the government have already committed to that – albeit not in the time-frame it is needed.

Thinking through what’s actually been said about the accord so far it seems that perhaps it’s not so much about specific projects but instead something more fundamental. Below are a few excerpts from recent articles. First from the interview on The Nation

What would a transport accord do exactly?
First and foremost, alignment. It would mean that— I think the questions you’re asking me would be answered. We’d have a sense of agreement on the problem, on the congestion numbers. We’d have a sense of the priorities and what we’re trying to achieve. Is it that fewer big projects, more projects around the city, or what is it? And then it’s that mix of projects that at the moment we don’t know.

And from Saturday in the Herald.

“It’s really about seeing if we can get better alignment between Government and council on transport priorities,” Mr Bridges said. “We’re conscious that we don’t want to make this too pointy-headed but it will be a quite complex, involved process, taking at least a year. We want to test each others’ assumptions and see if we can get alignment on the numbers.”

What we appear to be seeing is a continuation of the same kind of response from the government that was seen in the wake of the City Centre Future Access Study. Basically the government and it’s ministry’s don’t even agree with Auckland Council/Transport on key inputs into the decision making. That includes assumptions like how fast the city will grow (i.e. population or land use etc.), how costs and preferences will change and likely many other areas. They also don’t agree on the outcomes we should be focusing on i.e. should we be discussing congestion or access and how should the outcomes be measured.

The reason those aspects are so important is that sometimes even small changes in the assumptions you use or the outcomes that you need to achieve can significantly change the types of projects that will be needed. What’s more the less agreement there is between these fundamental issues the more changes there is for politicians to swing priorities without basis. An example is like the ruler in this video below. The ruler represents transport policy with the tip being specific transport projects while the finger represents the impact that politicians have. Currently we’re like the fourth example and swinging around like mad from even a little political pressure. Where a transport accord should hopefully be useful is to move us more towards the first example where there political pressure doesn’t exert that much change in policy

Essentially the process sounds like it’s doing a back to basics approach first and justifying each and every step and this time ensuring that all groups agree on the details. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it does kind of seem like redoing much of the planning work that AT have already been doing over a number of years. Given the amount of work AT have already done I’d then expect the results to come out similar to what they have already shown in planning documents like the RLTP. I covered whether Auckland has an effective transport plan just over a week ago. Here’s one of the outcomes showing a substantial lift in public patronage over the 30 year window from the more expensive plan.

pt-patronage-modelling

Just how the transport accord will end is unknown however I would hope that at least at a technical level there would be some fairly close alignment in most of the inputs and outcomes needed.

In saying all of this I think that in any criteria there also needs to be recognition from the government as to just what Aucklanders say they want for their city. This is especially important if the people making these decisions are sitting in a desk in Wellington. We have a good idea of what residents want from the LTP consultation as shown below and it is backed up by other surveys that have been conducted over the years. Just measuring outcomes based on impacts of a few measures such as congestion or required vehicle flows could lead to distorted and negative outcomes such as removing pedestrian, cycle or PT infrastructure in a bid to find more space for cars, the very things Aucklanders say they want more of.

2015 LTP Final Changes in transport Investment

Lastly I also hope that a Transport Accord could lead to innovation in how we plan for transport in Auckland. I think it’s absurd that given the interrelated nature of the regions transport systems that we have different organisations planning local roads/PT, state highways and rail projects. While I know the various organisations do work together there still seems like there’s a disconnect that leads each organisation of focus on their specific areas rather than seek the best overall solution to Aucklands issues. Perhaps it’s time for at least the planning and financing functions to be joined into one team – even if physical implementation is left with the various organisations.

Deluge

This is a Guest post by Wellington Architect Guy Marriage

Wellingtonians get a hard press in the Auckland papers sometimes, but last Thursday we thoroughly deserved it. We are normally a fairly resilient lot, and put up with more than our fair share of howling wind and torrential rain at times, but regularly battle through with trains and buses all performing admirably. Even our regular rush hour traffic jams only just live up to their name, and are normally well over within the hour. We know about Auckland’s horrific traffic, and sympathies, we really do. But last Thursday, we suffered a total melt-down, and for a supposedly heavily resilient city, that was a pretty big fall from grace. So what happened?

brollies

As you may have heard, broadcast all over the evening news, we had a bit of excess rain. About 8 times more rain in an hour than we get in a month, or some such unbelievably wet statistic like that. And then the big wet went on and on, and eventually we had some slips, where our glorious hills decided they didn’t want to be vertical any more, and so they poured out over the flat bits along the edge of the water. Unfortunately for Wellington, all of our escape routes out of the city run along the same flat stretch of road to the Hutt, and so a small slip on the Hutt Road blocked off a route north along State Highway 2, diverting all the SH2 traffic to SH1. Doubly unfortunate really, because on the other side of the hills, SH1 was also blocked off, and that meant they had to send all the traffic back to SH2, over SH58. There is only one other road, the Paekakariki Hill Road, which is narrow and windy, and is frequently blocked by slips anyway, so inevitably that blocked up too. No way in, no way out. The capital was blocked off from the rest of New Zealand. Did you miss us?

WellingtonThursday

The road was therefore bumper to bumper traffic jam from Wellington all the way to Porirua, and also at a standstill over the hills back to the Hutt Valley on the other side. If you’re not from Wellington, then none of that will make sense, and the nearest I can give you as an example is if the Harbour Bridge was closed, and the NorthWestern motorway was closed as well, and all the traffic between Manukau and Auckland was diverted via Puhoi, and then all the cars stopped moving. Yes, exactly, a stuff-up in traffic terms of monumental proportions, one considerably worse than the average Friday night jam in Auckland, and we will inevitably face calls for yet more roads to be built, just in case this happens again.

NZTA WGTN flooding

But wait, there’s more. Surely none of those road closures matter, as Wellington is the most public-transport oriented city in the nation, is it not? Well, yes, but on Thursday even that let us down as well. Every single train to every single destination was cut, and the central Wellington Railway Station was closed down. That’s a station that normally is about 3 times busier than Britomart, and we have shiny new trains too for the most part. But that accursed rain had deluged rocks and washed out gravel over every set of tracks. Replacement buses normally suffice when there is a traffic setback, but with all the roads and all the rail out, there was no way that the few remaining charter buses could keep up with the demand. The city actually took the unheard of step of telling all commuters from out of town to stay in town, spend the night with friends, to rent a room or borrow a couch, and give up entirely on moving anywhere. I’m not sure if that has happened to any city in living memory before, outside of a war zone. Even when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, or when Super-Storm Sandy hit New York, they were still able to move people in and out of the city. But not Wellington, not last week. The only methods of transport still working were the planes (if you wanted to fly to Auckland and drive back down to Upper Hutt) and the ferries, which gave you a choice of sailing through the storm to Picton, or in a much smaller ferry, riding the waves up to Petone beach. Except of course that Petone beach has a damaged pier, and one of the small East-West Ferry boats was out of action, so that left just one small catamaran sailing back and forth to Petone all evening. I was fully expecting my floor to be full of refugees from the storm, but it was, miraculously, fugee-free.

NZTA WGTN

Wellington train_4740

Not that it really made the slightest bit of difference to Wellingtonians however. Within the city itself, there was a fair bit of wetness, more than usual, but nothing was broken. Everything still worked, everyone got home. Buses still ran, taxis still taxied, and cyclist continued to ride on their non-existent cycle network. We haven’t got a cycle network yet, because some pathetic councillors went feral, and have slowed everything down for reasons known only to themselves. We are, it seems, the only city in New Zealand with a pro-Green, fervently cycling Mayor, and yet we have not a single functioning separated cycle lane anywhere of any use on any major traffic route, which seems just a little bit odd. While the usual dips and hollows were fuller of water than usual, it seemed to me that the city performed admirably well, and lived up to its resilient reputation. You could have even thrown in a moderate earthquake or two, and the city would have shrugged them off as well, due to the steady stream of strengthening projects that have been going on. We’re a city that is like a brand new iPhone 6, already with a sturdy waterproof, shockproof rubber case on, and you could drop us from the upstairs balcony and we wouldn’t break, at least not completely. But we might bend a little if you sat on us.

But what this points to is that while Wellington City might be tough enough in parts, its the Regional Council and NZTA that were shown up as monumentally unprepared for disaster. I think we have just seen the biggest case for abolition of the Regional Council, right there. What if it had been a real, serious disaster, not just a few hours of torrential rain? The Civil Defence motto down here is “Get Through.” Clearly, that is not something that we yet can do.

WellingtonTransmission

NZTA have started work on the billion dollar highway known as Transmission Gully, an ironic name as they could only start work there when they had removed all the transmission lines, in case they fell over while they were digging out the gully road. One day, after an inevitable cost inflation to (probably) nearly two billion dollars, there will be a new road north, two lanes each way, all the way, and a new Petone to Granada link road – and you know what? If both of those roads had been built already, those other traffic snafu may well have happened just the same. The Petone to Grenada route will have to involve the moving / removal of some eight million cubic metres of rock, which wont be an easy task. The Transmission Gully route still relies on sending all the traffic along the waterfront and up the Ngauranga Gorge, both of which were heavily affected by last weeks rain, with several small slips/rockfalls and a lane taken out of action in the Gorge. Transmission Gully is also sitting firmly on an earthquake fault line and highly susceptible to slips as well, so there is a lot of work to be done securing hillsides before that route will ever be “safe”. We need NZTA to try a whole lot harder to battle-harden the existing network and we need Kiwirail and GWRC to make sure that public transport is a whole lot more resilient down here. 

Working paper: Trade-offs in urban planning

Back in April, I had the opportunity to present a paper on the economics of urban planning at the New Zealand Planning Institute’s annual conference. The paper, which benefited from the support of my employer, MRCagney, and discussions with a menagerie of planners and other economists, is now available online for anyone who’s interested. (As is inevitable, some of the table headings didn’t come out quite right in the online version. Oh well.)

The aim of the paper was to illuminate some of the trade-offs – and unintended consequences – that can occur as a result of urban planning. It presents three short case studies that illustrate different aspects of the choices facing us in urban planning:

  • Minimum parking requirements, which were aimed at managing congestion and keeping down parking search costs – but which actually managed to increase congestion, reduce the viability of public transport, walking, and cycling, and require us to use scarce land inefficiently
  • Heritage preservation policies, which are attempting to balance the preservation of “aesthetic externalities” from nice old buildings with the process of urban change
  • Opportunities for new development – is it possible to build affordable housing in areas where land prices are high? Can we just keep building standalone houses, or are higher density housing choices required?

As it’s a conference paper rather than a research paper, it focuses on pulling together some disparate perspectives on urban planning rather than evaluating policies and recommending specific approaches. If you’re interested in a brief, non-technical overview of the subject, give it a read. Here’s an excerpt:

I’d like to close by discussing one major trade-off we face: the choice between low-density cities and affordable cities. It is simply mathematically impossible to combine high land prices, low densities, and home affordability. In areas with high land prices – which we would expect to see in any economically successful city – we need to ask: would we prefer to have affordable housing or low densities?

urban policy trilemma

We can think of real-world examples of places that conform to each edge of the triangle. It’s easy to find low-density, affordable housing in (say) Pokeno or Huntly, as land values are low enough to sustain it. But in inner-city Auckland, high land prices mean that we must choose between our desire for space and our need for affordable housing. We’ve resolved these trade-offs differently in different areas. In Ponsonby, we’ve preferred to maintain lower-density heritage housing, which has priced many people out of the suburb entirely. By contrast, building many apartments at all price points has allowed the city centre itself to remain affordable.

Some people argue that Auckland should aim to bring land costs down in order to improve housing affordability. In my view, this view ignores the market realities. High land prices are an indicator of urban success – they demonstrate that people and businesses want to be there. We may be able to lower them through, say, a deep and prolonged recession or years of net emigration. But it’s unlikely that the benefits of reduced land prices would justify the economic and social costs of doing so.

Furthermore, greenfield land supply alone won’t solve our problems. While land does tend to be cheaper on the edge of the city, households that locate there tend to incur higher transport costs. Previous empirical work has shown that higher commuting costs entirely offset savings on housing cost in fringe suburbs (Mattingly and Morrissey, 2013; Nunns et al, 2014). As a result, if we want affordable housing we have no choice but to deliver it in places that are accessible to employment, education, and amenities.

Fortunately, we have choices. Technological innovations – steel-framed buildings, indoor plumbing, and elevators – have freed us from the tyranny of horizontally. We have the option to build up, if we are willing to take it.

Finally, while writing this paper, I put a fair bit of thought into how economists, urban planners, and citizens in general talk about urban policy issues. In my view, many of the disagreements that we have when talking about urban policies are best thought of as differences in terminology, not differences in values. At the end of the day, most people would like to live in a city that gives them good choices about how to live, work, and play, and doesn’t waste too much of their time or money. But sometimes we talk about that in different terms.

One morning, I was lucky enough to run across a scene that illustrates how good urban policies can enable outcomes that different people may find pleasing in different ways. I took this picture on the Fort Street shared space, where a loading dock has been converted into a container cafe. They’ve slapped up a mural on the wall, put out a few chairs, and gone into business:

20150210_100533 copy

Now, as a dour, fun-averse economist I find this scene beautiful because it shows underutilised resources being put to higher and better uses. Multifactor productivity in action! An urban designer or architect may find it beautiful for the way it’s “activated” a blank loading bay as a people space. A passer-by may simply enjoy the way it looks, or be enticed to go in to try their coffee. Others may appreciate the employment opportunities it makes available.

All of which demonstrates one of the wonderful traits of cities: how their diversity and vitality can satisfy the needs and desires of many different people.

RPTP update: Integrated Fares, LRT and more

In 2013 Auckland Transport adopted the current Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) – a document required by legislation and which sets out how the regions public transport system will be developed and operated. The 2013 RPTP was significant as among other things it officially added the New Network to Auckland’s plans. There were however a number of issues left unresolved and in the last 18 months there have been other developments in AT’s thinking on PT in Auckland. As such AT are now consulting on a variation to the RPTP to include all of this. The consultation will cover and be limited to only four specific areas:

  • The proposed introduction of simplified zone fares
  • Proposals for a new light rail transit (LRT) network on some major arterial routes
  • Service and infrastructure changes arising from the Ferry Development Plan which was approved by the AT Board in December 2014
  • Revised service descriptions arising from community consultation on the new bus network

Submissions on the RPTP variation open from today to 05 June and AT hope to have the variation adopted in July. Below is a bit more detail about each of four areas mentioned above.

Simplified zone fares

This is another name for integrated fares and AT are setting out how they think the system should run. This includes both the fare zones themselves and future fare products.

For HOP card users, fares will be based on the number of zones travelled in as part of a journey. A journey may involve travel on up to three different services, provided the transfer between services is made within the prescribed transfer time limit.

The zonal fare structure will apply across all bus, train and future light rail services. For ferries, the existing point-to-point fares will be retained, subject to further investigation of how they should be incorporated into the integrated zonal structure in future. The different approach to ferry fares reflects the fact that some ferry services are deemed exempt services, and not subject to the policies in this Plan. It also reflects the higher operating costs and premium quality of ferry travel.

The fact that ferry services will sit outside the rest of the fare structure seems to once again highlight the stupidity of the government’s decision to bow to the lobbying of fullers and allow some of the ferry routes (Devonport, Stanley Bay, Waiheke) to sit outside of the rest of the PT system. The zone boundaries are based on approximately 10km intervals from the city centre. We saw a low res version of the proposed zones around a month ago.

RPTP Integrated Fares Zones Map

I still think there needs to be some larger zone overlaps, particularly between the Isthmus to Manukau North/Waitakere zones and Waitakere to Upper North Shore. As an example it seems like the Upper North Shore zone should extend to cover Hobsonville Point.

Looking to the future AT say they hope to replace the monthly passes with weekly caps that will automatically limit the amount that customers will be charged for travel in any calendar week. They also say that in future that using stored value on a HOP card will be a minimum of 33% off the cash fare to encourage HOP use. As a comparison currently all fares 3 stages and over are just 20-26% of cash fares. AT also mention wanting to look at ways of using fares to grow patronage – especially in the off peak where there growth doesn’t affect operational costs. This includes wanting to:

  • Investigate and implement off-peak fare discount options to spread peak demand and encourage off-peak trips
  • Introduce 24/72 hour pass options to encourage off-peak travel by residents and visitors
  • Provide fare incentives for weekend family travel

All of these things are aspects we and many readers have suggested for a long time so it’s great to see AT pursuing them. One thing that is important to note is that it’s not likely all new fare products will be introduced at once and instead AT are likely to stage implementation over a period of time.

Light rail

PT services can’t be implemented if they aren’t in the RPTP and so AT are adding in the references to light rail now so that it’s possible for them to proceed with the project in the future should they wish to. We’ve already covered off AT’s light rail proposals quite a bit already and the proposed variation focuses most attention on the changes that would be needed to implement light rail on Queen St and Dominion Rd. There isn’t a huge amount of new information in the document with one notable exception – mention of light rail to the airport.

Subject to the outcome of these investigations, approval to proceed and funding, AT proposes a staged implementation of light rail, with completion of the initial stages (Queen Street and Dominion Road, with a possible link to Wynyard Quarter) within the 10-year planning horizon of this Plan. A possible extension of this route to the airport is also under investigation, along with metro rail options

The potential extension to the airport is also shown in the map below. I still believe that duplicating and extending the Onehunga line would be a better option due to a speed advantage compared with going via Dominion Rd- although it would possibly be a more expensive option.

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

Ferry development plan

Ferries are often touted as an area Auckland should focus on more and frequent suggestions included adding ferries to places like Browns Bay, Takapuna and Te Atatu. The RPTP suggested a review of the role of ferries and so last year AT created a Ferry Development Plan that was approved by the board in December. The outcomes from the development plan are included in the proposed variation. While I haven’t seen the full plan it appears from the variation information that AT’s have taken a sensible approach.

The Ferry Development Plan focuses on improving existing services and infrastructure and on greater integration of the current ferry network with local bus routes and supporting feeder services. It calls for service level improvements on existing ferry services to reach the minimum levels specified in the RPTP, with further increases to be implemented in response to demand. It also identifies a number of ferry infrastructure improvements and renewals that are needed to address capacity and customer amenity and safety issues at key ferry wharves.

The Plan also evaluated proposals for extensions to the existing ferry network, including new services to Browns Bay, Takapuna and Te Atatu. It concluded that due to the high infrastructure costs involved with new services, the priority for additional resources should be on improving the frequency and capacity of existing ferry routes, rather than network expansion.

The reality is the immediately viable ferry routes have already been developed and with the bus infrastructure that exists (or will shortly) it will be very hard for ferries to compete on speed, frequency, coverage and operating costs with some of the other locations mentioned. Getting service on existing routes up to regular all day every day frequencies will help make them a much more viable form of PT and useful not just for commuting.

New Network service descriptions

As mentioned at the start the RPTP sets out how the PT system will run and that includes exact and minimum frequencies. Since the RPTP was adopted AT have consulted on the new network for Hibiscus Coast, Pukekohe, South Auckland, West Auckland. The variation will update the RPTP with the changes that have already been consulted on.

There are also some changes to the network categories and maps with the new ones shown below.

RPTP Network Categories

As our network exists now, as you can see not much of the network meets the frequent definition being just a few bus services and the Southern line north of Penrose although arguably it should also be considered frequent between Westfield and Puhinui. You will also notice many of the ferry routes don’t exist on the map as they don’t have all day frequency.

RPTP Current Network

By 2018 with the new network implemented and all electric trains rolled out this is what we should have.

RPTP Proposed 2018 Network

And by 2025 with the CRL and even more bus improvements this is where the city will be.

RPTP Proposed 2025 Network

Council and Government fight over sprawl

The Auckland Council and the government have locked horns over the council rejecting three greenfield Special Housing Area (SHA) developments in the North West of Auckland. At the heart of the matter is who should pay for the infrastructure needed to support the development. There is already a lot of pressure on existing infrastructure as well as council budgets and the council have (in my view) rightly chosen to focus on fixing or at least improving the existing transport network first. Increasing rates by the amount likely to be needed is almost certainly not going to impress existing ratepayers and nor is cutting much needed projects in other parts of the region.

Auckland deputy mayor Penny Hulse is defending the council’s decision to reject three special housing areas proposed for the city’s rural north-west under the Auckland Housing Accord.

The council maintains that before there is any further growth in the rural area the Government needs to commit to much-needed transport infrastructure.

The government-driven accord with the council is half-way through its three year life. It has the goal of accelerating home building and creating new residential sections.

The rejection of the three special housing areas is the first manifestation of growing tension between the accord partners over the burden on ratepayers of providing services to large rural housing developments.

Ms Hulse chairs the council’s development committee and told Morning Report that with the Government cool on council ideas such as motorway charges and a transport levy, it needs to help build projects such as a dedicated busway on the Northwestern motorway.

“It’s quite appropriate for us on council’s behalf to stand our corner and our ground for the people of Auckland,” she said. The refusal did not mean future growth would never be allowed.

The council have instead said they will focus on SHA’s in existing urban areas “which already have good levels of infrastructure service”.

UP - North West growth

The proposed “Future Urban” area around Whenuapai and Kumeu is is shown in yellow

 

In response Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith is threatening to override the council

“The Government also the power to create special housing areas without the approval of the Auckland Council, if they choose to overplay their cards and demands for money,” he said.

“The legislation makes plain that the Government’s strong preference is to work in co-operation with the Auckland Council, and to work on these issues together and those arrangements are still robust.

“If the Auckland Council overplays its card the legislation does make provision for the Government to approve SHAs without the approval of the Council.”

As reader Liam Winter pointed out on twitter, the legislation states that there needs to be confirmation that sufficient and appropriate infrastructure will be provided to the development.

Nick Smith also said

Dr Smith said the council could recoup infrastructure costs from the developers and once the houses were built $1 million of income is created for every 300 new ratepayers.

He said if the Government was to create special housing areas on it own, under the legislation it too could levy developers for the cost of infrastructure.

“Now I’ve got developers in Auckland who are willing to meet the cost of the infrastructure, who are wanting to get on and build their homes who feel frustrated with the Auckland Council that they won’t get on and deal with them, and that is why we’re going to continue to put the pressure on the Auckland Council.”

Auckland is already getting more than a third of the Government’s capital expenditure for transport infrastructure, but Dr Smith said the Government would consider spending more.

In some ways the government taking on the infrastructure burden and levying developers could be a good way for them to understand the pressures councils (and not just Auckland) are facing. Of course balancing that out is the thought that they would likely push for the cheapest and most auto dependant infrastructure they could.

As for developers willing to meet the costs – I wonder if that’s the full costs or just the ones directly inside their development. It’s an important distinction as developers have always been required to fund infrastructure inside their developments however it is up to the council to build the infrastructure leading to the development. To make matters worse development contributions only cover a small portion of the actual infrastructure costs. As an example the massive Mill Rd project in South Auckland is expected to cost up to $800 million yet there are only planned to be about 24,000 new dwellings in the area. The council’s draft development contributions policy states that in the South they can only collect about $3,500 for transport infrastructure. That means all up to build Mill Rd to support that growth existing ratepayers and taxpayers could end up subsidising the developments to the tune of around $30,000 per dwelling.

It’s that massive subsidy from ratepayers/taxpayers as to why the council is right oppose the government on this issue

Prior to this it also appeared the council were in a no-win situation. The government has long made it clear by their words and actions that they don’t like Len or the council. Further no matter what the council do the government have continued to shift the blame for housing to the council. By fighting back I guess the council see there is a more of a chance of getting a better outcome.

It seems to me that no one (other than the developers) will really benefit from this stouch. As such below are a couple of quick thought experiments as to the outcome.

  • If the government do help to fund more infrastructure do they then open themselves up to more calls for assistance not just from Auckland but other regions too. In addition they have recently been focusing on trying to shore up their regional support following the Northland by-election. Giving Auckland more money won’t be too popular with the regions.
  • If the council backs down other projects will need to be cut or rates increased to pay for the infrastructure. That’s not going to be popular with ratepayers.
  • If the government overrides the council and also forces the council to pay for the infrastructure then not only would ratepayers probably be unhappy but it could affect the next local government election.

After the initial bluster from both sides it’s now likely we won’t hear too much more publicly with both sides likely to take their bickering behind closed doors. I just hope the council continue to have the courage to stand up to the government for what is right for Auckland.

Do parking minimums restrict competition?

During the Unitary Plan submissions process, a number of retailers and shopping centre owners took a pretty conservative stance on transport. They argued for maintaining parking minimums, replacing maximums with minimums in some areas, and so on. Some argued that cars would always be the main way of getting to shops, and this should be written into the Unitary Plan. I’ll tackle that in another post, but for now, let’s talk about parking minimums and competition.

Raising the barriers to entry?

Among their other faults, parking minimums can actually be quite anti-competitive. Looking at supermarkets, for example, reviews both here and in Australia have shown that the biggest “barrier to entry” for new competitors is the difficulty in acquiring suitable sites.

Parking minimums make it even harder to get sites which are large enough. If you want a 3,000 square metre supermarket, say, and the rules say you need to have 1 carpark per 25 square metres of space, then that’s 120 carparks you’ll need. Those will take up about 3,600 square metres, so overall you need to find a site which is 6,600 square metres in size and meets your other location criteria. Not an easy task. If not for the parking minimums, you might decide you’re happy with 60 parks instead, for example. That’d shave 1,800 square metres off the size of the site you’d need. That’s a hypothetical example, and you could make the same argument for department stores, hardware stores, shopping centres, or really any kind of retail development, large or small.

BOTANY

Botany Downs: a popular retail node, but very car-centric

The extra competition from removing parking minimums can mean lower prices at the shops, but it’s not just about that. It also means lower time and travel costs for consumers. If you live 10 km from the nearest supermarket, but then one opens up just 5 km away, you’re better off, even if the prices are the same.

Or making it easier for freeloaders?

Most of these submitters were concerned about freeloading, and they argued for minimums to remain to prevent this. The argument is that another developer could come along, build a store or shopping centre, and not provide enough carparks. Their shoppers would then overflow into other areas, parking in existing carparks on the street or (more relevantly) by existing stores. Those carparks would then become unavailable to the existing stores’ customers.

This is a “negative externality” in economics jargon, and it’s legitimate for retailers to be concerned about it. We’ve probably all been guilty of using one of those carparks when dashing to another store, the post office etc. But the argument is also one which can restrict competition. Parking minimums are often arbitrary – quite ridiculously so for taverns – and different retailers will have very different requirements based on their business model, location, availability of driving alternatives and so on. Generally, those retailers or shopping centres have a good idea of how many parks they will need, and should be free to provide as many or as few as they like, with the costs internalised (more jargon).

What’s the way forward?

The Unitary Plan has to find a balance between two sides. On the one hand, you have retailers who don’t want their carparks being used by freeloaders, with new competitors having an unfair advantage if they don’t have the same requirement to provide parking. On the other hand, parking minimums have their own problems – they can encourage undue reliance on cars, a larger-than-optimal amount of parking, more pressure on the road network, and so on. These are externalities too. Plus, as I’ve argued above, there’s the externality of reducing competition.

We need to be careful with whether we let the car-dependent business models of today to be enshrined into the future; retail should be free to adapt and change. It’s the nature of the beast. The Unitary Plan will last for ten years. A decade is a long time in retail, and the new shops that we build in the Unitary Plan’s lifetime will be around for much longer.

In defense of population growth

Growth: what is it good for?

Accommodating a growing population can certainly be challenging. It means having to find more money to invest in transport and water infrastructure to enable new residents to live and travel in the city. As Auckland Council’s recent consultation on the Long Term Plan shows, asking people to pay more is never a very popular proposition – even if they like how the money’s being spent.

And, as Stu pointed out in his post on Auckland house prices this Monday, population growth can also put pressure on housing markets. Multiple research papers from the Reserve Bank have shown that increases in net migration tend to be followed by increases in house prices – shown in this chart. Obviously, homeowners do quite well out of this, but others face added costs:

RBNZ net migration and house prices chart

In short, it’s not surprising that some people feel trepidatious about population growth and migration. And it’s not surprising that those anxieties are especially present in Auckland, which is projected to continue growing rapidly over the next three decades.

While unease about population growth is understandable, I’d argue that it’s misplaced. In my view, the benefits of urban population growth in New Zealand far outweigh the costs. While large urban areas can become dysfunctional – think of Beijing’s astonishing smog problems or the high cost of infrastructure in sprawling American cities – New Zealand’s cities are nowhere near large enough for the diseconomies of scale to triumph over the economies of scale.

This is easy to see if we look at the periods when Auckland hasn’t been attracting migrants. Here’s a chart from a presentation on Auckland’s demographics by Auckland Council social researcher Alison Reid. It displays the composition of Auckland’s population growth since 1922. In recent decades, natural population increase – i.e. people having babies – has been the biggest source of growth. Net migration is important, but it can be quite volatile – surging up and then crashing back.

Auckland components of population growth 1922-2012

What stood out to me from this chart was that the years with little or no net migration to Auckland have not been good times for the city. Net migration slowed to a trickle during the Great Depression, and turned negative during the constrained years during and after World War Two. More recently, quite a few people fled Auckland during the economically calamitous Muldoon years. Net migration remained low during the painful adjustments imposed by the following two governments.

I wasn’t living in Auckland during the 1990s – my parents had joined the queues leaving via Auckland airport – but friends who were say that the city was turning into a ghost-town. History shows that shutting off the migration tap has never led to a better, more vibrant city or more opportunity for residents. It’s simply been a sign of failure.

My hypothesis is that New Zealand has a strong feedback loop between net migration and economic growth. When growth prospects get worse – as they did in the 1970 and 1980s – it dissuades people from coming here and encourages Kiwis to leave for greener pastures. This in turn worsens growth prospects by sucking consumer demand out of the economy and reducing perceived household wealth (i.e. lowering house prices).

By contrast, good growth prospects tend to attract migrants to New Zealand’s cities and encourage potential emigrants to stay. This in turn leads to a virtuous cycle between higher growth and increased migration.

We can’t fully control this process, as it depends in part on what’s happening in Australia and the rest of the world (not to mention macroeconomic variables that we don’t fully understand). But we can make sure that our cities are in a good position to take advantage of population growth.

The first, and most important thing we can do is to build better cities that are able to attract and efficiently accommodate more people. In Auckland, for example, we’ve got some challenges, including transport investment that’s been heavily skewed towards cars (and only cars) and rising house prices. But the flip-side of those is that we’ve got great opportunities to:

  • Improve transport choice by investing in Auckland’s “missing modes” – a frequent bus network throughout the city, rapid transit infrastructure, and safe walking and cycling infrastructure
  • Improve housing choice by providing opportunities for people to develop higher-density residential typologies in market-attractive areas
  • Invest in great public spaces, such as Auckland’s waterfront and increasing numbers of shared spaces.

Second, as we attract more people to our cities, we need to accommodate them in an efficient and environmentally responsible way. This means enabling people to live in areas that are accessible to jobs, shops, and other amenities. As I found when I looked at carbon emissions from commutes in New Zealand cities, people in inner-city areas are considerably more environmentally friendly than their co-workers from the urban fringe.

Annual CO2 emissions per commuter DRAFT v1

Moreover, the data shows that increasing density can be a positive-sum game for existing communities as well as for the environment. At the city level, we can’t observe any relationship between rising population densities and congestion – fears of traffic-choked streets just don’t seem to have materialised in practice. (So much for diseconomies of scale!)

On the other side of the ledger, suburbs with higher population densities have better consumption choices. Many of the services that people rely upon – from vege shops to Japanese restaurants to public transport to roads – exhibit strong economies of scale, which means that they get better when there are more people around.

Which suggests that there is also a third important thing that we need to do, which is to tell good stories about the opportunities that urban growth will offer us. New Zealand’s used to thinking of itself as a rural economy with some cities sprinkled around as afterthoughts. That’s a dated and inaccurate self-image when over half the economy is located in our three largest cities.

So, what’s your perspective on urban growth?

Less parking, more city

A neat little video from Mexico explaining simply connection between housing and transport – in particular the cost that minimum parking requirements have on the city. It comes from Mexico branch of the The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

H/T  

City Centre Investment Map

The last five years have seen Auckland change dramatically for the better. If you were in the city then you wouldn’t have found any of the shared spaces, much of the area surrounding Britomart was still run down and unused and Wynyard Quarter as a people place didn’t exist. While we’ve already seen a lot of change the next 10 years promises even more and much of it – such as the CRL – will fundamentally alter Auckland for the better.

In fact there is so much going on in Auckland’s City Centre right now that it’s starting to resemble a sand pit. There are a huge number of publicly and privately funded improvements happening. Importantly they are leveraging off each other to make Auckland a more liveable and attractive place. That’s good for Auckland’s economy which in turn is good for the entire nation. It also bears reminding that the changes and growth that’s occurred in recent years hasn’t spelt doom on the regions roads as all the growth in travel to the centre has happened not on in cars but via PT and active modes.

To highlight all of the known changes that are planned or desired for the next decade the council have created a map showing all the ones they know about (there are bound to be more appear over that time – especially private developments). Note: not all of these projects have funding confirmed yet so not all might happen. Click to enlarge the images or go here for the PDF version (2.6MB).

City Centre Projects April 2015

City Centre Projects April 2015 Legend

There are of course a few things missing from this map. A few I noticed quickly are AT’s Light Rail plans, Cycle lanes on Pitt St as part of the Nelson St Cycleway and cyclelanes on Karangahape Rd as part of the city centre priority routes.

The major criticism I can see in all of this is that the map is focused on the city centre. That’s understandable seeing as it’s come from the city centre integration group however perhaps the council should create an interactive version for the entire region. It could show what’s going on and how projects like the CRL benefit the entire region.

I’m looking forward to the changes that planned. It should make the city centre a much more vibrant and interesting and liveable place.

What’s with ‘The Void’?

Could Auckland have something like this running on a couple of major city routes before this decade is out? The AT board is to decide later this month how to proceed with its Light Rail plan and with what sort of pace. Everybody it seems loves trams, but why now and why there? What problem are they addressing? In a follow-up post I will discuss the financial side of the proposal.

CAF Urbos Light Rail for Utrecht

CAF Urbos Tram recently ordered by Utrecht

First of all lets have a look at Auckland’s situation in general terms. Auckland is at a particular but quite standard point in its urban development: 1.5 million people is a city. The fifth biggest in Australasia; behind Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. But on the location with the tightest natural constraints of the group; squeezed by harbours, coasts, ranges, and productive and/or swampy farmland, it shares the highest density of the group with Sydney in its built up area. And is growing strongly. It also has the poorest Transit network of the group and consequently the lowest per capita Transit modeshare [although the fastest improving one].

So these three factors scale, growth, and density are all combining to create some serious pressure points that require fresh solutions especially on existing transport routes, and particularly on the harbour constrained city isthmus.

This pressure is on all transport infrastructure, at every scale from footpaths [eg Central City, Ponsonby Road]; the desire for safe cycling routes; on the buses, trains, and ferries; to road space for trucks and tradies, and of course road and street space for private vehicle users. Transit demand in particular is going through the roof and this is way ahead of population growth and traffic demand growth, especially at the higher quality Rapid Transit type of service where growth over the last year has been at an atsonishing 20%.

This is to be expected in a city of Auckland’s current state as Transit demand typically accelerates in advance of population in cities of a certain size, because of the universal laws of urban spatial geometry, as explained here by Jarrett Walker;

This problem is mathematically inevitable.  

As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America.  This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit.  In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population.  Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing.  But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service.   Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.

And that this means that the infrastructure needs of our growing city is likely to be ‘lumpy’. Big long lasting kit that is costly and disruptive to build become suddenly urgent:

As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel.  Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses.  I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles,  Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.

Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed.  In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight.   In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.

As driving amenity is very mature in Auckland there is very little opportunity to add significant driving capacity to streets and roads to much of the city at any kind of cost, and certainly not without a great deal of destruction of the built environment. This has long been the case so in a desire to solve capacity and access issues with a driving only solution we did spend the second half of the last century bulldozing large swathes of the Victorian inner suburbs into to make room for this spatially very hungry mode. This solution is no longer desirable nor workable. Below is an image showing the scar of the Dominion Rd extension citywards and the still extant Dom/New North Rd flyover. These were to be the beginning of a motorway parallel to Dominion rd to ‘open up’ or ‘access’ the old isthmus suburbs.

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

Where we can’t nor want to build ever wider roads we can of course add that needed capacity though the higher capacity and spatial efficiency of Transit. Most easily with buses and bus lanes. There are also potential significant gains to made at the margins by incentivising the Active modes with safe routes especially to Transit stations and schools and other local amenity.

However as Jarrett Walker describes above there comes a point where buses, through their own success, cannot handle the demand as the number of vehicles required start to become both less efficient and more disruptive than is desirable. At this point demand can only be met with higher capacity systems with clearer right of ways. Such systems require expensive permanent infrastructure and are never undertaken lightly.  The CRL, being underground, clearly fits this definition and is due to begin in earnest in the new year. And although the physical work and all of the disruption of the CRL build occurs in the Centre City, the capacity and frequency improvements are to the entire rail network, and therefore much of the city: West, East, and South.

But not everywhere. Not the North Shore, not the North West, and not in ‘the Void’, as AT call it, the isthmus area between the Western and Southern Lines. Shown below in purple with the post CRL Rapid Transit Network. This area has a fairly solid and quite consistent density, housing about the same number of people as West Auckland, around 150,000. Note also the South Eastern Busway [AMETI] plugging directly into Panmure is very much a kind of rail extension for the Transit-less South-East, as is the Manukau spur further south.

RTN Void

The Void

These three major areas will still be relying on buses. The CRL, New Bus Network, and Integrated Fares will enable and incentivise more bus-to-train transfers that expand the reach of the core rail network and that this will help limit the numbers of buses going on all the way to the city. But this is primarily for the South, South-East, and West of New Lynn, there will still be an ever increasing number of  buses with from the remaining areas converging on the City Centre. AT calculates that we need to act now to cut the bus numbers from at least one of these major sources to leave room for growth from the others, and all the other users and uses of city streets. [More detail on this in Matt’s previous post, here].

The North Western is currently getting more bus priority with the motorway widening, and hopefully proper stations at Pt Chevalier, Te Atatu, and Lincoln Rd [although NZTA and/or the government are showing little urgency with this aspect of the route]. Also priority improvements to Great North Rd and further west too. The North Shore is the only one of the three with a Rapid Transit system [which also should be being extended now], and while there is still plenty of capacity on the Busway itself, like the other routes these buses are constrained once in the city. This leaves the very full and frequent ‘Void’ bus routes as the ones to address with another solution first.

So essentially LRT for this area has been selected because of the need:

  • for higher capacity and efficiency on core Isthmus bus routes
  • to reduce bus numbers on these routes and especially in the central city
  • adds Queen St as an additional high capacity North-South city route
  • for extra capacity both before and after CRL is operational
  • to address Auckland Plan air quality, carbon emissions, and resilience aims
  • to enable major public realm improvements along routes, especially Queen St

and possibly because:

  • it may be able to be financed as a PPP so helps smooth out the capital cost of building both projects [more on this in a follow up post]
RTN + LRT
Above is a schematic from AT showing the two proposed LRT branches. The western one leading to Queen St via Ian Mackinnon Drive from Dominion and Sandringham Roads, the eastern one down Symonds St from Manukau and Mt Eden Roads, some or all routes connecting through to Wynyard Quarter. More description in this post by Matt.
It is worth noting that this area, The Void, gets its very successful and desirable urban form from this very technology; these are our premier ‘tram-built’ suburbs. With all the key features; an efficient grid street pattern, mixed use higher density on the tram corridors, excellent walking shortcuts and desire lines. So what the old tram made the new tram can serve well too.
Auckland Isthmus tramlines

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

With all door boarding and greater capacity LRT will speed more people along these routes with fewer vehicles and lower staffing numbers. Frequency will actually drop from the current peak every 3 minutes down to 5 or 7 minutes [I’m guessing]. This along with the narrower footprint required by LRT is a big plus for other users of the corridor. But the huge gain in travel time comes from improvement to the right of way and intersection priority that can be delivered with the system. Stops are presumably to be at intersections, instead of midblock as buses are, so the passenger pick-ups are coordinated with traffic lights.
But best of all for this writer is that LRT is a tool to drive enormous and permanent place uplift. The removal of cars and buses from Queen St, improvements to New North and Dominion Rds, hopefully including that intersection itself, a fantastic new Dominion road with the potential for real uplift to premier status.  It will spur the redevelopment of the mixed uses zone all along Dominion Rd. This is real place quality transport investment. And all of course while moving thousands and thousands of people totally pollution free and with our own mostly renewably generated electrons. Breathing in the Queen St valley will become a fresh new experience.
Light Rail in Queen St 1 - Nilut
We all look forward to hearing the proposed details of the routes and of course the financials. I will follow up this post with my understanding of the thinking on this next.
Light Rail in Queen St 2 - Nilut
Finally it is very good to see that there is no dispute over the necessary solutions to Auckland’s access and place quality issues, just the details and timing. Auckland Transport’s map above is pretty much the same as our solution in the CFN. We are delighted that AT are planning for four light rail routes were we proposed one.
CFN
There are of course plenty of debates to had about further extensions to the Transit networks that this proposal invites; LRT in a tunnel from Wynyard to Onewa, Akoranga, and Takapuna? Then up the Busway? From Onehunga to through Mangere to the Airport? Along Grey Lynn’s apartment lined Great North Road, to Pt Chevalier, and the North Western? Panmure, Pakuranga, Botany, Manukau City Airport? Which of these need to be true grade separate Rapid Transit and for which are bus lanes or busways a more cost effective option? Are their others that would be better suited to extending the rail network? Is there enough density elsewhere in the city to justify other LRT routes?
CFN 2030 + Light Metro