Auckland 2025- the Last Decade in Review- Part 1

It’s the last day of 2025 so it is a good time to run through the events of the last ten years in Auckland. A decade of profound transformation for New Zealand’s largest city. A coming of age.

This is Part 1 of a 2 Part scenario.

Global megatrends mean local megachange, and Auckland is fortunate to have been well placed and nimble enough to largely come out on the positive side of these forces. We have seen the global trends of the first decade and a half of the 21C accelerate over the last decade, particularly:

  • Migration: Internationally another great age of people movement is clearly underway
  • Urbanisation: Both the developing world and the OECD nations have continued to urbanise and cities have become the economic force of our age
  • De-Carbonisation: The urgent need to reduce carbon emissions everywhere and in every way has been an increasing issue

RANGITOTO

Demographics

The strong population growth in Auckland seen just before this period has continued consistently. Auckland grew at around 2.5% per year from 1.5 million in 2015 to approach 2m this year [cf 2015 pop growth was 2.9%]. This has of course not been without difficulty, requiring the government and the council to work much better together with the private sector to deliver the required new dwellings; hence the huge building ramp-up we are seeing, especially of apartments and terrace houses, but also the demand side controls finally enacted by government to reduce the more egregious forms of speculation. The adoption of the first Unitary Plan which reduced density restrictions in some areas helped enormously; and especially led to the new vibrancy around Rapid Transit stations such as Albany, Papatoetoe, and Glen Innes. Who’d have thought Glen Eden, among other places, would become as cool as it has with all those car yards and panel beaters shops around the station now sprouting apartments?

And although we are along way from the various crisis points we are still at the end of the global movement of peoples we’ve seen over the last decade as another one of history’s great ages of migration picks up strength, New Zealand remains an attractive place to live and Auckland in particular an increasingly attractive place to work. Not to mention all those returning New Zealanders and [smarter] Australians fleeing those seemingly endless destructive weather events across the Tasman. It has been much more difficult in other places, especially Europe, although there too these changes have helped offset natural declines and ageing populations, and are proving quite stimulatory as well as disruptive.

World Urban growth

The ageing population is a huge issue here too; every year from 2011 another year of that demographic bubble from the post-war baby boom turned 65, the nominal age of retirement. The changes of this politically active and property rich cohort have had a big impact on the city and nation. Two main trends have been observable over the decade; one group have taken advantage of the secular price shift in Auckland property over their lifetime and sold up and headed for smaller centres around the country [providing population offsets there, but also en-greying these communities], the second group have downsized within Auckland; stimulating significant demand for rest homes but also smaller well placed dwellings, particularly apartments, in great locations near amenities. Thus we have seen the apartment boom driven by two very different ends of the market; older cashed up people and younger first home buyers and renters starting out. More on our new urban form below.

Next year of course, 2026, this group will enter a new phase as the first of them turns 80, we can expect further shifts in the retirement sector as well of increased hospital and care costs for the nation as a whole. The aged care sector is booming and the apartment market is diversifying as a result. And thankfully in Auckland the service and tourism sectors are growing strongly to contribute to these nationwide costs. We will need the regulatory changes that saw in the start of this period, the Unitary Plan, to continue to evolve in response.

The ‘Super Diversity’ trend has continued and strengthened, making Auckland a much more dynamic and vibrant place [eg Pakuranga Town Centre now in an intense rivalry with Balmoral for the bragging rights as the leading centre of Asian street style eating]. And a much more internationally connected and economically competitive one too; migrants always bring better and deeper connections back to their home nations for expanded trade and social interaction. Also the creative sector has witness a great outburst of productivity as people bridging more than one culture so often are stimulated to respond to the tensions of that situation creatively.

AKL CITY_6256

 

Urbanisation- and the rise of the Suburban Centres

Called the Metropolitan Revolution and the Great Inversion even before our period began, the stunning re-emgengence of cities as the economic, cultural, and environmental force of our age has continued strongly. The strength with which Auckland has risen to take its clear place as the Primary City of the South Pacific region has caused rumblings in the rest of the country, but happily successive governments have come understand the value of the city’s rise for the whole nation [and new urban policies have benefited our other urban centres too; for they too are having their own Metropolitan Revolutions]. Auckland is competing strongly with the equally resurgent cities of the Australian seaboard; Australian cities helping to soften the blow of the structural decline in the hard commodity extractive industries there, despite the climate impacts all through that continent.

Auckland City Centre population doubled from 20k in 2005 to 41k in 2015, and doubled again to over 80k now. These new apartment buildings substantially changing the skyline, and their new occupants substantially changing the street life below. Wynyard Quarter, the whole of the western side down from the Hobson St ridge, and elsewhere are now covered in new residential buildings and streets buzzing with new retail, hospo, offices, and above all that great resource; people. Architecturally the full range is on show, we all have our favourites [and otherwise]. I particularly like the new 50 story block with the grand atrium linking Fort St through to the new shared space on lower Shortland St, and of course the development of the parking stump [at last!] out the back of high street with new apartments above in the daring light-weight structure. Just a couple of examples.

But of course this growth of the centre is nowhere near the whole story, the strong boom in long dormant subcenters has been as a big if not bigger story this decade. New Lynn has its sixth apartment tower now, and looks unstoppable after the huge boost it received with the opening of the CRL [more on that in Part 2] and the conversion of industrial land to housing. Manukau City, is at last gaining a true identity on the back of its intensification, and even Pakuranga Town Centre is thriving, after that big fight over the now canned flyover; the Busway there is booming inevitably leading to talk of converting it to Light Rail in the future. Albany is now an actual place with residents in quantity giving even that maddeningly planed environment life and character, it has been extraordinary watching it really take off with the Busway extension and those new mixed-use apartments.

NEW LYNN_8503-2

Every Metro Centre has benefited from the removal of Parking Minimums and the rise of ride-share [more on that tomorrow too], the range of small and affordable living spaces all across the city made possible by unbundling them from parking and the improvements in Transit quality has been great for everyone, especially students and the many singles and couples not wishing to share. It has also led to many new entrants in the development business as the cost barriers to entry are lower. Smaller building firms are now building multi-unit dwellings instead of only detached houses, creating a much more varied market.

Local quality and identity is the new groove; made possible by new high volumes of dwellings clustered around Transit Stations. All sorts of places are transforming on this model from Papatoetoe, Onehunga, and Albany and of course all along the Western line, where the transformed access to employment, education, and entertainment made possible by the CRL has led to explosions of activity.

ALTERA + ILICO_3758

The rapid re-greening of the whole city secured through the somewhat controversial Urban Canopy rules in the Heat Island Regulation of the second Super City Mayoralty is now accepted as universally successful. This by-law requires every public parking space to covered by a solid canopy of tree cover or face a sharp penalty was of course resisted by carpark owners, but is well loved by the public and has generated measurable heat island effect reductions and rapidly improved the city’s tree cover with all the additional ongoing positive outcomes urban trees bring. While also making many previously dreary places instantly glorious. Not to mention creating a whole industry for arborists and landscapers, that newly sexy profession. The many passionate debates about tree varieties often pitting the urban food growing movement up against the botanically correct: It is interesting to see how by choosing a consistent kind of tree a community can almost brand their neighbourhood.

But it is the Centre City that has seen the most transformation; Albert St now is giddily vertiginous with so many new tall buildings, the rebuilt leafy and peopled streetscape, and of course the sleek movement of trains below. Everywhere within the broader Queen St valley from the University ridge to the east across to the western slope down to Victoria Park is thrumming with people and largely absent of cars and fumes. And the whole roiling scene now tips effortlessly down to the newly opened waterfront which offers such an irresistable pull: This is so obviously an extraordinarily positive and productive revolution that it beggars the mind what took us so long to achieve it. Perhaps it really did need the right Zeitgeist, or simply enough people of vision in positions of power?

Part 2 up next: Transport.

NB: This ‘History of the Next Ten Years’ is a scenario, not a prediction, a possible future, perhaps even a probable one, but that depends on decisions made now and in the near future…discuss…

QUEENS WHARF_9778-3

Auckland’s migration boom (part 1)

New Zealand’s migration boom is still going. Honestly, I thought it would have been tailing off by now. I don’t think anybody thought it would last as long, or go as high as it has. This boom is unprecedented – it’s broken records for the last 17 months in a row.

New Picture (3)

There’s been plenty of media coverage of the boom, but I want to explore a few points which have been overlooked by most people.

Looking at the headline stats, you could be forgiven for thinking that Auckland gets less than half of NZ’s international immigration, with Auckland apparently getting 30,000 out of “a record net gain of 64,900 migrants in the December 2015 year”, or 46% of the total. These results, what I’ve called the “raw” results, are shown below:

New Picture

However, the way Statistics New Zealand reports these figures is a bit odd. They don’t impute missing data, meaning that when someone coming or going doesn’t specify a New Zealand region, they don’t get assigned to one. This substantially understates the true amount of net immigration to Auckland. I’d estimate the true figure to be more like 38,300 in the last year, or 59% of the national figures.

Those are really big numbers, because in a typical year Auckland’s “natural increase” (births minus deaths) is around 15,000.

Around 17% of immigrants don’t fill out which region they’ll be moving to, and 10% of emigrants don’t fill out which region they left from. It’s understandable that immigrants may not have the clearest idea where in New Zealand they want to live, but the figure for emigrants is high too. Perhaps we just have lousy handwriting?

Anyway, those missing figures turn out to make quite a big difference. Quoting from the Stats NZ page again:

“Just over half of all arrivals who stated an address on their arrival card indicated they would reside in Auckland. Of those who stated an address on their departure card, 42 percent were migrating from the Auckland region. In comparison, the Auckland region is home to 34 percent of New Zealand’s population (at 30 June 2015)”.

The number of people arriving is currently much larger than the number leaving, (giving high ‘net’ migration). The people arriving are also less likely to say what region they’re moving to. These factors combined add up to a big understatement of how much migration Auckland is getting.

I’ve ‘scaled’ the Auckland migration figures in the graph below, allocating migrants who didn’t state a region to Auckland in the same proportions as those who did state a region.* The NZ figures are still the same, but the Auckland ones (blue line) have changed.

New Picture (1)

What can we take from this?

  1. Net international migration into Auckland is much higher than most people think.
  2. Over the last 25 years, Auckland has always gained more people from overseas than it has lost, although there have been times when that gain is very small.
  3. The picture is very different for the rest of the country. In the 23 years from October 1990 to September 2013, New Zealand excluding Auckland averaged just 9 net migrants a year. The regions fluctuated between gaining people and losing them, with the years of gains cancelled out by the years of losses. The current boom is going some way to changing that.
  4. We’re not building enough new homes for all the new migrants coming to Auckland, and therefore some of them will be displacing people already here – they’ll most likely be moving to nearby regions like Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Northland.
  5. This continues a long-running trend of Auckland losing people to other parts of New Zealand on a net basis (i.e. net internal migration has been negative, although net international migration has been positive).

My next post will look at international students – they’re a big factor in the current migration boom.

 

* This scaling should be reasonably accurate, and I’ve checked it against another source. One of the questions in the census asks people where they were living five years ago, with one of the answers being “overseas”. And for the 2013 census, 46.3% of the people who were overseas in 2008 were now living in Auckland. My scaled data shows 47.3% of international arrivals settling in Auckland over the five-year period, a pretty close match. This is for arrivals of course – there’s no way of checking it for departures.

AWHC: Where Does all the New Traffic Go?

The Additional Harbour Crossing as currently proposed is a pair of tunnels containing six traffic lanes between the motorway at Esmonde Rd rejoining it at Spaghetti Junction [The CMJ] in the city. The publicly available schemes also show additional rail tunnels between Akoranga and Wynyard Quarter, but no connecting network for any trains to actually use. It is clear to see the appeal for NZTA of straightening and simplifying SH1 past the bridge, but the outcomes for the city are much less certain. Below for example is version T1:

AWHC T1

Clearly this or the other versions that date from 2010 are not the current versions NZTA are developing now, but until new versions are released these are still worth looking at in some detail as neither the various physical constraints or the overall aims that drive these options have changed. The options can be seen here.

Considering these there are several high altitude observations I think are important to begin with:

  • This will be the most expensive urban transport project ever undertaken in NZ; claimed to be $4-$6 billion. Two to three times the cost of the CRL.
  • Not least because of the massive cost it is extremely unlikely that both sets of tunnels and systems would be undertaken at the same time. They will be staged; one will precede the other.
  • The road scheme is essentially a SH1 bridge bypass, and therefore optimises through traffic, however it does not make any new connection that is not currently available nor in fact any increase in capacity on SH1.
  • There is little spare capacity in the CMJ for additional vehicles so the new connection will remain the current three lanes north and a reduction from four to three lanes south.
  • Essentially the bridge becomes a massive on/off ramp for city traffic and unless and until the rail tunnels and line are built more buses on bus lanes across the bridge will be the PT part of the project.

Here’s the set of variations currently available for the city end, all versions involve four tunnels under Victoria Park [3 new ones]:

AWHC Tunnell Options

All schemes also involve massive new interchanges on new reclamations at the North Shore end with flyovers and multiple connections between crossings, not unlike the new interchange at Waterview currently being built. Like the outcomes for traffic on North Shore local roads, the impacts of this project will be neither small nor all positive north of the bridge. However for this post I just want to focus on the city-side implications.

Assuming the road crossing is built first, which is consistent with assertions by politicians and officials with phrases like it will be ‘future proofed for rail’, as well as the lack of any real work yet on a rail crossing, it is worth asking exactly where will the new traffic enabled by the extra capacity across the harbour go once in the city?

Because the new crossing plugs directly into the CMJ, three lanes in and three lanes out, and because there are no planned increases in capacity through the CMJ, nor any space for any without further massive tunnelling, in effect the new capacity will be all on the bridge, so coming from the Shore this new traffic will all have to be accommodated by just three off ramps [same in reverse heading north]:

  • Cook St; with new direct connections through Victoria Park
  • Fanshawe St, especially for buses on new bus lanes
  • Shelly Beach Rd, and then on to Jervois and Ponsonby Rds.

None of these exits can accommodate any increasing in traffic well, or without considerable disbenefit, especially if that increase in traffic is large.

  • Cook St is pointed directly at the heart of the city, so this contradicts policy of reducing vehicle volumes in the city centre and is likely to infarct daily at the peaks as Cook St is close and perpendicular to Hobson and Nelson Sts which serve the Southern and Northwestern motorway flows. Gridlock is likely at the controlled intersections unable to handle large and peaky traffic volumes to and from these motorways. Additionally land use in this area is changing and intensifying making it even less suitable for the high speed motorway offramp it already hosts.
  • Fanshawe will have reduced capacity for general traffic as a multilane Busway will be required to take the increased bus volumes from the bridge, and anyway is already at capacity at the peaks.
  • Shelly Beach Rd is a narrow residential street not suited to the high volumes and high speeds it already suffers from the bridge now. Furthermore there is no benefit and little capacity for the streets beyond Shelly Beach Rd, particularly Jervois and Ponsonby Rds for a large increase in vehicle volumes.

Nonetheless, here are the forecasts they have come up with, Shelly Beach Rd with a 63% increase, is basically filled with bridge traffic by 2026 and the new crossing:

AWHC Forecast Daily traffic flows

20,300 additional cars modelled for Fanshawe + Cook St with the AWHC option (assume that is all day on a weekday?). Even at the best sorts of turnover that would require around 10,000+ new carpark places. The downtown carpark has 1890 spaces. So where exactly do we put six new downtown carpark buildings? And what six streets get sacrificed to feed them?

20,300 cars carry perhaps 25,000 people. The CRL at capacity will carry that entire amount in 40 minutes. As could a North Shore rail line of similar specification. If the net outcome of this project is to take 20,000 commuters to midtown, why not do it with rapid transit at a third the cost with none of the traffic congestion?

“The significant increase in traffic movements conflict with many of the aspirations outlined in current Council policies, strategies, frameworks and master plans.”

P 65 Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing Network Plan, NZTA, 2010.

Obviously these higher traffic volumes are not good for every pedestrian, resident, and general city user in these areas but there is one other group that this situation in particular is going to make miserable, and that’s the motorist. There is a word for all this additional driving everywhere on city streets: congestion. Yup this increase in capacity across the harbour may speed that part of the journey but it’s going to make arriving anywhere in the city in your car much more hellish than it is now. And don’t even think about finding or affording somewhere to park.

What NZTA’s consultants say about this:

AWHC City exits

The increased traffic flows through St Marys Bay on both Shelley Beach rd and Curran St look to lead to particularly poor and unfixable outcomes:

AWHC Local Roads

It seems optimistic to say that because there are cafes, and strongly increasing pedestrian volumes, on Ponsonby Rd, that drivers won’t try to drive there, especially if other bridge exits are controlled or too busy. After all the first rule of urban traffic is that it will expand to wherever it is allowed to go. So, in the end, taking measures to dis-incentivise drivers to use these exits, is the consultant’s advice:

AWHC City Streets

It does seem kind of odd to spend $4-6 billion to increase capacity across the harbour only to then introduce other measures to try to stop people using it.

And it won’t be just parking, there’s also likely to be tolls, it appears the model says they can pretty much eliminate the traffic problem with an $8 toll!:

AWHC Tolling both crossings

If only there was a way to enable more trips without inducing more and more cars to also be driven into the crowded city streets. After all the City Centre has been growing strongly without adding more cars most of this century:

CBD Transport Change

In fact it looks like we are already at or even above the limit of desirable vehicle numbers in the city, and future developments like replacing car access to Queen St with Light Rail are likely to make even current numbers face pressure.

Additionally there is an issue with bus volumes as well as car numbers on the city streets, even though the New Bus Network, the CRL, and Light Rail, if it happens, will reduce bus numbers from other parts of the city, there is certainly a limit to the numbers of buses from the Shore that can be comfortably accommodated too. Below is the predicted year of maximum bus capacity at major entry points to the city. The role of the CRL in reducing bus number pressure from the Isthmus is obvious, so why not do the same thing for buses from the Shore?

AWHC Year of Buslane max capacity

So perhaps the answer is to reverse the assumed staging and build the rail Rapid Transit tunnels first, leaving space for the road crossing to come later. This certainly looks physically possible in the maps above. This would enable all of those possible trips across the Harbour that NZTA identifies to still be served but without any of the traffic disbenefits that so clearly dog the road only crossing. In terms of people capacity two rail tracks can carry twice the volume of six traffic lanes. Furthermore it can be built without disturbing the current crossing and its connections. And rail crossings have proven in the past to be good alternative routes in an emergency.

This would add the real resilience of a whole other high capacity mode across the Harbour instead of simply more of the same. It would make our Harbour infrastructure more closely resemble Sydney’s where most of the heavy lifting in terms of people numbers is done by Rapid Transit, as shown below. We already have ferries, buses, and cars bringing people across, isn’t it time we added the particular efficiency of electric rail?

Sydney Harbour am peak

It seems particularly clear that whatever we add next really can’t involve trying to shove ever more vehicles [cars and buses] onto our crowded city streets; that will simple hold everyone up.

All the information above was gleaned from the work done some six years ago for NZTA, from here, and Auckland has moved on a great deal from where it was then. Among other things that have been proven recently is that when we are offered a high quality rail system we will use it. We are also discovering the value of our City Centre as a place to live, and work, and just be in, and how this is only possible to continue this improvement with fewer cars on every street. We certainly believe that there are more options for a far greater Auckland than the simple binary ones studied above: the road crossing ‘future proofed’ for rail, or the ‘Do Minimum’ which is nothing.

So we have asked, as part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Process, for a Rapid Transit crossing as the next additional crossing to be modelled too. So we can compare the status quo with the road crossing, and with a Rapid Transit crossing separately. Additionally we know that AT are now working on how various rail systems could work so in time there will be properly developed rail options to compare with the road one.

There is time as well as the need to get this right, the Western Ring Route will begin to become more complete next year with the opening of the Waterview tunnels, and that whole multi billion dollar system is of course an alternative harbour crossing system and will alter both the performance of  both the Bridge and the CMJ. Similarly decisions about AT’s proposed LRT system too has a bearing on options, as will the opening of the CRL next decade. Not least because the addition of these high quality systems will make movement through the city without a car much more common, as is the case in many overseas cities of Auckland’s size and quality.

The road crossing looks very much like an extremely expensive ‘nice to have’, that duplicates and tidies up the State Highway route, something to add when the missing alternatives have been built and there is spare budget to spend on duplication. Because on balance the road first additional crossing proposal really achieves little more than this:

AWHC 'City Roads' image

end.

Draft Domain Master Plan

The council have released a draft 20-year master plan for the Auckland Domain that if enacted would see some major and positive changes to how people access and use Auckland’s oldest and one of its largest parks. The purpose of the master plan is described as:

The purpose of the Auckland Domain Masterplan is to identify all the various projects and work streams impacting on Auckland Domain, and to create a coordinating plan that consolidates its position as Auckland’s premier park. The masterplan is a twenty year aspiration for how the park can develop and help to achieve the Auckland Plan’s vision to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city.

The implementation of the Auckland Domain Masterplan will help to realise the particular Auckland Plan outcomes of:

  • A fair, safe and healthy Auckland
  • A green Auckland
  • A well connected and accessible Auckland
  • A beautiful Auckland that is loved by its people
  • A Maori identity that is Auckland’s point of difference.

There are seven key principles behind the master plan and for each the draft plan lists observations and key proposals.

  1. Enhancing the Domain for peaceful respite.
  2. Enhancing the role of the Domain as an important cultural and heritage site.
  3. Creating safe, people friendly places and routes with high amenity.
  4. Improving connectivity to the Domain and to the key features within it.
  5. Improving the Domain as a recreation and event destination.
  6. Enhancing and maintaining the amenities and facilities within the Domain.
  7. Creating an environmentally sustainable park that is an exemplar on the world stage.

Of those number 3 and 4 are ones that will have some significant implications, especially on transport. The observation for number 3 says:

Since the introduction of motor vehicles to New Zealand, Auckland Domain has catered for their use, enabling vehicle access to the doorstep of the Auckland War Memorial Museum and throughout the park. This philosophy of a carfriendly park has carried on unchallenged for almost a century and even the Auckland Domain Management Plan 1993 is permissive of continuing their dominance of the park. The car and tour bus domination of Auckland Domain detracts from the safety and amenity of pedestrian and cyclist experiences.

Further, it prevents the full potential for creating high quality pedestrian environments in key areas of the park, such as those adjacent to the Museum. Cars and buses also detract from significant and important views from within the Domain, such as those to the Museum.

As part of the plan the council are proposing to close some of the roads within the park, upgrading and turning them over to people and bikes. This includes all of the roads currently circling the museum and the surface carpark at the southern entrance. Where vehicle access is retained it’s also suggested reduce the dominance of it by narrowing roads and reducing the numbers of carparks. The image below shows where they plan to improve walking and cycling options with the lines in red roads that will be closed. As you can see there are a lot of interesting projects on the list.

Draft Domain Plan - Walk cycle improvements

The map below shows more explicitly the areas that vehicles will have access to if this plan is approved.

Draft Domain Plan - Vehicle Access

Here are a few impressions of what the changes could mean.

The surface level carpark at the Museum could become a people space – although it looks like it needs some more activation to ensure it isn’t just an expanse of unused paving.

Draft Domain Plan - Museum Carpark

The Crescent would be narrowed and a shared path added.

Draft Domain Plan - Cresent western end

The Grandstand Road would also become a shared path.

Draft Domain Plan - Grandstand Road

Through parks shared paths probably aren’t too bad but it does seem odd that they’re suggested to be so narrow at only around 3m in width and slightly less on the Grandstand Road one. Given how popular the Domain is, they would be used by a lot of people on foot and on bike. At the very least wider paths are needed.

Here is a list of some of the other amenity improvements that are included in the plan.

Draft Domain Plan - Amenity improvement

Overall there looks to be some good ideas in the draft plan that will make the park even better. Submissions are on it are open till the end of the month and there is an open day on Saturday February 13 at the cricket pavilion from 11am to 2pm.

Houston and the fallacy of “roads first” transport policy

Over the last 50 or 60 years, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of other countries have pursued a “roads first” approach to transport policy. There have been significant public investments in (generally un-tolled) roads, and relatively few investments in competing transport modes.

It’s hard to justify this approach based on preexisting travel patterns. Take Auckland as an example. According to Paul Mees [Transport for Suburbia, p. 21], in 1954 Auckland’s public transport network “accounted for 58 per cent of trips by motorized modes, private transport only 42 per cent. When walking and cycling, which were not surveyed, are taken into account, it is likely that fewer than a third of daily trips were by car.”

However, from this date onward roads – not public transport, and certainly not walking or cycling – have dominated transport spending. Spending on a new system of motorways and arterial roads was considerably higher than spending on other modes that carried more journeys. In other words, public spending to enable car travel did not respond to existing demand – it was intended to shape future demand. (And in doing so, change the shape of the city.)

Another potential justification for disproportionate spending on roads is that it’s just what people wanted. Cars were invented and then cheaply mass produced, people wanted to use them to travel everywhere, so transport agencies had to build more roads.

There is some truth to this. Cars are very convenient for many journeys. But it can also be convenient and cost-effective not to own a car. PT tends to be cheaper than driving to places where you have to pay for parking, and cycling is often quicker than driving, and more enjoyable if there are enough safe bike lanes.

But this argument also ignores other policy factors that shape transport demands. In particular, planning regulations enacted and progressively tightened throughout the 20th century have tended to:

  • Make it more difficult for people to live near where they work, by zoning different areas exclusively for different uses
  • Discourage people from living at medium or high density by limiting building heights and setting minimum lot sizes for dwellings
  • Subsidise the ownership and use of cars by requiring all new buildings to have a significant amount of on-site parking.

But what, then, should we make of Houston, which lacks a zoning code but nonetheless has ended up with lots of driving, low public transport ridership, and a low-density urban footprint? Is Houston evidence that in the absence of planning regulations that distort people’s location choices, people will choose to live at a distance and drive to get around?

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Houston from space. This image is 100km across. Source: NASA Earth Observatory

In a word: no.

It turns out that Houston is not actually as unregulated as people make it out to be. While the city lacks a comprehensive zoning code that rigorously separates different uses, several other planning regulations (and similar measures) have distorted its urban form and transport choices. A 2005 article by law professor Michael Lewyn identifies four important ways in which planning has influenced transport outcomes in Houston:

  1. Houston enforces a byzantine and quite restrictive set of minimum parking requirements (MPRs). As I discussed last year, these include a parking requirement for bars that defies all concepts of prudent regulation. These requirements make parking cheap, and walking to the shops hard.
  2. While Houston doesn’t formally limit building height, it does establish a minimum lot size of 5000 sq ft (or around 460m2) throughout most of the city. This discourages PT, walking and cycling by increasing the distance between dwellings and discouraging space-efficient typologies like terraced houses and small apartment buildings.
  3. Houston requires streets to be wide, blocks to be long, and buildings to be set back a considerable distance from arterial roads. All of these policies make it dangerous and unpleasant to walk there.
  4. Lastly, new developments in Houston make extensive use of private covenants that restrict uses and building designs. These agreements often simulate zoning, with the result that Houston has similar levels of racial, income, and housing segregation to (zoned) Dallas. Houston has chosen to imbue private covenants with the force of public authority – the city will pay to enforce them even if the people subject to the covenant would rather not.

As a result of these policies, Houstonians cannot make free choices about where to live, where to work, and how to get around. Their decisions are strongly influenced by a suite of planning regulations that, as in many other cities, conspires against density and against non-car travel. Houston’s heavy use of the car is not a natural outcome, but one that has been engineered by policy.

Seen from this perspective, “roads first” transport policies seem less like an exercise in meeting demands, and more of a component of a large social engineering programme.

The results are not necessarily stellar. While the city is known for low house prices, Todd Litman points out that Houston is relatively unaffordable for its residents, compared with other large US cities, once transport expenditures are factored in:

Litman US city housing and transport costs chart

Furthermore, Houston’s commuters experience more hours of delay in traffic than most other US cities. New York, on the other hand, looks pretty good. Although it is large and congested, many commuters choose to opt out and take the subway instead. In Houston, they lack that choice:

Litman US delay hours per commuter chart

What do you think would happen if we tried to facilitate choice instead?

Aging gracefully?

This month, my grandma moved into a retirement community. In some respects, it’s a significant change for her. After 95 years living in standalone houses, she will be moving into a small, sunny apartment. To do that, she’s had to downsize significantly – donating furniture, giving away belongings, and simply leaving some things behind. (The cycad that my parents gave her decades ago; the lemon tree that I’ve greedily harvested for years.)

Grandma's new neighbourhood.

Grandma’s new neighbourhood. Wish we built places like this for young people too.

But in other respects it’s not such a big step. She’s not moving far – only from Takapuna to Milford. Because there are retirement apartments sprinkled around Auckland, she is able to downsize and stay in the same community. (As John P’s excellent RCG/Transportblog development tracker highlights, there are many more such developments in the works.) That means that she can maintain all of her social ties and everyday habits – same church, same lunch groups, same healthcare facilities, and same proximity to family.

So I’m not worried about Grandma. But it’s making me wonder what’s in store for my parents, who are now in their early 60s.

They live, as they have done for most of the last two decades, on a large section on the edge of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s many excellent regional parks. It gives them plenty of space to run a business and pursue their hobbies, like my mom’s wine-making and my dad’s shed Ponzi scheme. (He builds workshop space to house the lumber and tools that he will need to build more sheds.)

But it’s not exactly convenient if you can’t drive. (Or bicycle – they’re now spending more time on electric bikes.) Their house is at the top of a rather steep hill, the sidewalks are pretty patchy, and the nearest stores are three kilometres away. There is no bus service anywhere in the vicinity. Things are very spread out in the California suburbs.

While my parents are fit and vigorous, the fact is that at some point in the next two or three decades, they won’t be able to drive. At that point staying in place will no longer be an option. And if they don’t plan ahead, possibly by moving to a more accessible location before they absolutely need to, it could be a difficult change.

I suspect that they are not the only ones facing this dilemma. Many Baby Boomers will not be able to age in place. The post-war sprawl suburbs where they have spent their adult lives are not suitable for people who can’t drive.

There are three main problems with aging in a typical post-war suburb. Fortunately, all can be corrected or ameliorated – but doing so will require us to do some things differently.

The first is a transport problem: street networks and transport choices. As I highlighted in a post last year, designing neighbourhoods primarily for cars – with a hierarchy of cul-de-sacs, collector roads and arterials – don’t work for other transport modes. You can’t run efficient, usable bus services through these neighbourhoods, and it’s slow to walk anywhere. Furthermore, as shown the following image illustrates, changing that is hard due to the fact that you’d need to re-route street patterns:

Sprawl repair manual subdivision rebuild

A related issue is the quality of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian infrastructure. In suburbs where most people drive, these tend to be in poor condition or simply non-existent. I have full use of my legs but still find this exasperating. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with limited mobility.

Poor transport choices often coincide with segregated land uses. Because older people tend to be less mobile, regardless of mode, their lives can be better when distances to retail and social destinations are short.

Unfortunately, a second issue that will face aging boomers is that post-war zoning codes have generally mandated rigid separation of residential and commercial use. Houses go in one place; shopping and work goes in another.

Here’s an illustration from Pakuranga and Howick in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. The bright pink areas are “centre” zones that allow both residential and retail. Most of the rest – the cream and orange colours – is exclusively residential. While the cream areas are undoubtedly nice beachfront property, people living in them will face constraints as they grow old.

Unitary Plan Howick

However, this isn’t the only way to build a city. When I was visiting Paris in December, I was struck by the vibrancy of retail options on just about every block in the city. Due to the fact that Paris lacks single-use zoning, it’s possible to get most of life’s daily needs – groceries and company, in particular – met without walking more than 100 metres.

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

That leads on to a third issue for aging boomers: a lack of housing choices for young and old people alike. Post-war planning has embraced “exclusionary” zoning policies such as large minimum lot sizes or tight controls on multi-family dwellings. Unless these policies are unwound, they will have two negative impacts for aging boomers who are seeking to age in place:

  1. A lack of neighbourhood density means that local retail and social facilities are not economically viable. Mount Eden, where I live, is a great example of how a mix of housing choices can enable vibrant local retail opportunities. The much-derided 1970s “sausage flats” mean that there is a sufficient critical mass of customers within walking distance. This creates positive spillovers for people living in the suburb’s standalone houses.
  2. A lack of options for downsizing in place will force people to leave their communities as they age. Retirement homes alone are not a solution to this problem, as some people may prefer to move into a smaller dwelling before they need of aged car. A greater mix of apartments, terraced houses, and units are important for filling this gap in the market.

Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.

However, I would argue that people who are middle-aged today have a strong incentive to vote for change. Retrofitting the suburbs with better transport choices, more housing choices, and more social and economic opportunities will benefit people of all ages. But it is likely to be especially beneficial – and urgent – for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will soon face some hard choices about where to live. It will offer them the best chance of aging gracefully, rather than facing disruption in old age.

What do you think is important for a happy retirement?

The Herald and Housing Affordability

The media are once again going off on the topic of housing affordability, after the release of the latest report by Demographia saying that Auckland is one of the most unaffordable cities in the world.

A survey of the median house prices around the world has revealed Auckland to be among the five least affordable cities to buy a house. The annual Demographia survey, released today, compares prices to incomes in 367 cities. Auckland is one of the worst in the world due to extremely high house prices coupled with moderate wages.

We’ve often talked about the issues with how Demographia produce their results. They take an overly simplistic view of the discussion, and exclude important factors. But while the scale of the issue is likely wrong, that doesn’t mean the general outcome – that housing affordability needs to be improved – isn’t correct.

We also disagree with their proposed solution of unfettered greenfield development. For Demographia, it seems that opening up greenfield land is always the solution, regardless of the question being asked. While land supply is an issue, they like to conveniently ignore the impact of planning regulations on existing urban land that prevents development across most of Auckland. They also like to ignore the cost to tax and ratepayers of providing the infrastructure needed to enable that greenfield development. For example, based on Auckland Transport’s figures it will cost about $67,000 per dwelling to provide the roads needed in the major new greenfield areas that are proposed.

Future Urban Land - North Transport Networks

Many people may want a home with a large backyard on the fringe of town, but many just want a home. A lot are prepared to forgo a large backyard for the added amenity of living closer to the city or other urban centres – but they are unable to do so, as so much development has been restricted.

This brings me to the main point of the post, the media (especially the Herald) who want to have it both ways.

While today they’re lamenting house prices, the Herald has spent much of the last few years championing opposition to one of the key tools that will help address housing supply, the Auckland Unitary Plan. From when the draft plan was released almost three years ago, they’ve given countless space to those opposing any change in Auckland. They’ve deliberately misled the public and recently they’ve even become so absurd as to call two-storey townhouses “Highrise” in their bid to whip up fear and anger over the plan.

Of course politicians of all stripes shouldn’t escape blame. Whether they’re also trying to whip up fear, generally oppose change or just have it happen in some other neighbourhood they are as much to blame. They also seem to me to have less desire to actually fix problems. After all, which of them are really going to stand up to house owning voters and say they’ll enact policies which could result in existing house prices falling or at best stagnating for many years as a result of changes.

Regardless of what you think the solutions are, it still feels like we’re some way off any real changes happening.

On a related note: I suspect we could see John Key include housing announcements in his announcement on Wednesday when he also announces support for the CRL to start in 2018. There have been suggestions the government have been talking to the council and CCOs like Watercare looking at what other big infrastructure projects could be brought forward to help speed up housing supply.

Book review: William Fischel, Zoning Rules! (2 of 2)

Over the holidays, I read William Fischel’s new book, Zoning Rules! It’s an important text for anybody seeking to understand why zoning (and urban planning in general) was invented and proliferated, and how they influence the shape of our cities and societies.

In the first part of my review, I examined Fischel’s analysis of the origins of zoning. In short, it was the homeowners who dunnit: their demands for restrictions on land use led local governments to put them in place. This is an inconvenient truth for critics of planning, as it suggests that there will be ongoing, bottom-up pressure to reverse any liberalisation of controls.

Fischel Zoning Rules cover

This week, I want to look at Fischel’s analysis of the economic efficiency of zoning. It’s well thought out and a bit counterintuitive.

Fischel focuses mainly on “exclusionary zoning”, which refers to policies like minimum lot sizes or minimum dwelling sizes. These policies implicitly require people to have a certain minimum amount of income or wealth to live in a suburb or neighbourhood, as land is often expensive.

A local example is Auckland’s single house zone, which requires a minimum lot size of 600m2. If you want to know why house prices in much of the isthmus start at upwards of $1 million, it’s because you’ve got to buy lots of expensive land to get a house there.

The single house zone in the notified Unitary Plan (Source: Aaron Schiff)

Exclusionary zoning is a hard case to defend, because it is often predicated on keeping “the wrong types of people” out of a place. This can have serious negative consequences across multiple geographic scales:

Zoning is not simply retarding the mobility of the poor from central city to suburbs. According to an important study by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag (2013), land use regulation is retarding the mobility of low-income people within the entire nation… [They] show that rising house prices have substantially reduced America’s intranational tradition of moving to opportunity. Like some other researchers, they have found that high housing prices repel potential workers from regions (Raven Saks 2008; Young, Varner, and Massey 2008) and that this pattern is strongly associated with land use regulation (Gyourko, Mayer, and Sinai 2013). [Zoning Rules!, pp. 164-165]

Notwithstanding these issues, Fischel lays out the argument in favour of exclusionary zoning. At least in the US, minimum lot sizes interact with local property taxes (and local expenditures) and with the large number of local governments in the US. In this context, they can play a role in managing fiscal burdens on local governments, albeit with an economic cost.

Fischel begins by observing that local property taxation in the US funds a range of services and local public goods. This includes some things that are locally-provided in NZ, such as transport, parks, and libraries, as well as many services that are provided by central government in NZ. For example, local property taxes provide the overwhelming majority of funding for primary and secondary schools in the US – education consumes around 36% of local government budgets. Police and fire departments are also funded locally, and some local governments run their own welfare systems, provide water and power, etc, etc.

Many of these things can be thought of as “common-pool” goods. If overconsumed, they become rivalrous – i.e. one person’s enjoyment of them reduces someone else’s ability to enjoy them. However, they’re difficult to exclude people from at the point of consumption. (Although certainly not impossible, as toll roads and congestion pricing schemes show.)

Wikipedia types of goods table

Different types of goods (Source: Wikipedia)

In this context, exclusionary zoning can be used to regulate access to common-pool resources – or, at least, to ensure that new entrants to the community have sufficient financial means to pay for their share. As the logic goes, if you have enough money to buy 600m2 of land, you also have enough money to pay sufficient property taxes to put your children through school. This can be described as “fiscal zoning”:

What the present chapter has argued is that the community itself – its elected and appointed officials, more or less responding to established residents – actively shapes and manages the property tax system in a way that would be difficult to do with any other tax base. Local land use regulation constrains the wholesale tax-avoidance behaviour that bedevils most other potential tax bases. Supplemented by revenues from impact fees and negotiated exactions from developers, fiscal zoning makes most development pay its own way. [Zoning Rules!, pp 160-161]

Of course, a key assumption that Fischel is making is that residents have choices about where to live, both at a national level and within individual urban regions. (Or, in economese, there is Tiebout competition between local governments.) This seems like a plausible assumption in the US, where there is a very large number of local governments – perhaps 85,000 in total. For example, here’s a map showing the fragmentation of local government in Massachusetts, which has 50% more inhabitants than New Zealand but roughly four times as many local governments.

In principle, choice between different local governments that offer different planning rules, taxes, and public services should ensure that everyone has a place to go – regardless of exclusionary policies in any one town. Consequently, Fischel takes a moderate view on the good or evil of individual policies. When commenting on Houston (which lacks comprehensive zoning) and Portland (which combines an urban growth boundary with policies to enable infill and intensification), he concludes that:

It is difficult to be too censorious about either city in a nation where most adults have some choice about where to live. [Zoning Rules!, p. 312]

That being said, Tiebout competition seems to work in principle but not in practice. As I discussed last week, bottom-up demands for restrictive planning rules are widely distributed – every community has its share of loud homeowners who will argue in favour of preventing change. Consequently, tight land use restrictions also seem to have proliferated widely. The exceptions, in the US, are places with relatively undemocratic local governments that do not have to respond to the demands of voters:

The South is different from both the North and the West. The South lacks the fragmented local governments that characterize the North, and it uses the voted initiative sparingly and hardly at all on land use matters [unlike the West]… If the demand for zoning is an expression of popular control, why has the South refrained from developing similar mechanisms by breaking up counties into more autonomous municipalities and enabling the voter initiative for land use measures? The answer is the legacy of slavery and racial segregation… [which] undermined the creation of local institutions… [Zoning Rules!, p. 315]

To conclude, it’s worth considering whether Fischel’s arguments about the efficiency of exclusionary zoning apply in New Zealand. In my view, they do not:

  1. Unlike the US, New Zealand has a small and decreasing number of local governments78 in total. Consolidation of borough councils in 1989 and the creation of the unitary Auckland Council in 2010 are likely to have reduced competition between local governments. This is in some respects positive, as it prevents small councils from simply assuming that their neighbours will house the people they don’t want, but it may also imply an increasing need to restrict local governments from pursuing exclusionary planning rules to prevent them from exercising their monopoly powers.
  2. Unlike the US, local governments have much more limited fiscal powers and responsibilities. Crucially, they do not have to fund schools, which are an important common pool resource that is funded locally in the US. As a result, there is no good reason to regulate to keep people out of individual school districts – I’m looking at you, Grammar Zone – as those schools are funded by everyone’s taxes, not just local property taxes.

Consequently, the case for exclusionary zoning to “keep the wrong people out” is likely to be especially weak in New Zealand. That doesn’t mean there’s no case for urban planning at all – after all, other types of rules are often aimed at managing real nuisances and spillovers associated with development.

What do you make of the arguments for and against exclusionary zoning?

Book review: William Fischel, Zoning Rules! (1 of 2)

Over the holidays, I read William Fischel’s new (2015) book on urban planning, Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation. It’s an important, interesting, and – fortunately for me – readable book on the topic. Fischel draws upon three or four decades of research on the topic, as well as his experience as a member of his local zoning board in New Hampshire.

Zoning, or urban planning more generally, exerts a strong influence on the shape of cities. It influences where people live and work, as well as the housing choices and prices that they face. It is a dull-sounding topic with important ramifications – very similar to transport policy in that regard. And, like transport, it arouses a surprising level of passion.

Fischel Zoning Rules cover

In the book, Fischel addresses two main topics:

  • First, how did zoning / urban planning arise and proliferate? A century ago, cities did not have comprehensive zoning codes that defined how intensely people can develop land and what types of activities can happen in different places. Now, virtually every city has zoning / planning regulations. What changed?
  • Second, under what conditions is zoning economically efficient? Many commentators and researchers have critiqued the cost of planning rules, but there are also benefits – and complex interactions with other policies such as local government property taxation. What ties all this together?

In the first part of this review, I’ll discuss Fischel’s (convincing and well researched) answer to the first question.

Let’s start with a common story about why bad planning regulations exist. Here’s Finance Minister Bill English fingering some suspects in his recent speech on the topic:

Your prospects of being able to buy a house are directly related to the decisions made by planning officials about the availability of land, the environmental standards they apply to building, and the way infrastructure is allocated.

It’s very difficult to understand how planners do that, even though the consequences for the community and the economy are significant.

Central government has had the opportunity to sit alongside councils to understand how they make their decisions.

Some of those decisions appear quite arbitrary.

They can be driven by the tastes of individuals who have the power to make decisions.

English argues that planning rules are imposed in top-down fashion by council planning staff. In this narrative, planning rules exist because local governments have chosen to supply them to us in preference to other models.

Fischel argues that this story is backwards: urban planning rules have generally not come about due to top-down bureaucratic decision-making, but as a result of bottom-up democratic pressure. Politically active home-owners, or “homevoters”, advocate for tighter planning restrictions. Because the majority of the average homeowner’s wealth is tied up in their home, they have a strong incentive to vote to prevent developments that might put the value of their home at risk. In planning, ideas are secondary to self-interest:

Public officials respond to the interests of their constituents, and public ideologies such as city beautification, hearth-and-home, and environmentalism come to the fore when they serve the interests of property owners. [Zoning Rules!, p 215]

There is a significant amount of empirical support for the “homevoter hypothesis”. Saiz (2010) found that US cities with more severe geographic constraints also have more restrictive planning rules – suggesting that people who own expensive property are more likely to vote to limit development. (I recently reviewed Saiz’s paper.) At an international level, Germany and Switzerland have the lowest home ownership rates in the OECD and also some of the most affordable housing. At a hyper-local level, case studies of the great down-zoning of Los Angeles reveal the key role played by a relatively small number of vocal homeowner activists.

But timing also matters, as zoning is a relatively new phenomenon. Fischel identifies two critical periods in the development of urban planning. First, zoning was invented and subsequently spread quickly through America in the 1920s. Second, in the 1970s, zoning was tightened significantly, with increasing restrictions on both density and suburban expansion. Here was the result in Los Angeles:

FrameWORK_Housing_ZoningCapacity

The great down-zoning of Los Angeles (Source: Morrow, 2013)

Synchronised changes of this nature require synchronised causes. Fischel argues that zoning first arose as a result of a transport revolution in the 1910s and 20s:

As trucks, buses, and cars replaced rail-bound modes of transportation, suburban residential districts could no longer rely on nuisance law, informal pressures, control of rail routes, and piecemeal covenants to protect their residential investments from incompatible use. Zoning was a response to potential insults to their homes from near-nuisances transported to their neighborhoods by footloose trucks and buses. [Zoning Rules!, p 216]

The urban planning clampdown of the 1970s occurred as a result of a more complex mix of factors. The backdrop to these changes was the subsidised expansion of home ownership after World War II: governments handed out subsidised mortgages like candy, thus expanding the number of homevoters. Fischel identifies six main factors that increased homeowners’ demand for tighter zoning controls, and made it easier for them to get what they wanted:

…the three demand factors that led to the 1970s growth control movement were (a) the growing suburbanization of employment (as opposed to just residences) resulting from the construction of the interstate highway system and the spread of containerized shipping; (b) the expansion of equalitarian legal principles that derived from the civil rights movement of the 1960s; and (c) the sudden growth of housing values in the portfolio of homeowners [resulting from high 1970s inflation]. The three elements that facilitated the supply of exclusion were (a) the expansion of legal standing to opponents of development; (b) the federalization of the environmental movement that dawned on the national scene in 1970; and (c) state legislation that established multilayered review of many projects that were formerly regarded as entirely local. [Zoning Rules!, p. 217]

The details of the story are different in New Zealand than in the US. Our history with zoning as a means of racial exclusion is nowhere near as shameful as America’s. And planning legislation has followed a different (and, I hope, more efficient) course than in the US. But many of the key elements are likely to be similar. New Zealand cities have experienced the same revolutions in urban transport and suburbanised population and employment to a similar extent. And, of course, we also have a class of stroppy “homevoters” who will advocate for tighter planning regulations to maintain or increase their property values.

If you think that urban planning rules should be changed, it’s essential to understand the bottom-up drivers of those rules. Many critics of zoning are oblivious to the popularity of zoning among a vocal segment of home-owners. As City Observatory’s Daniel Hertz recently wrote:

anyone who thinks there is a “consensus” about the damage caused by too-strict zoning ought to attend the next community development meeting in their neighborhood.

Fischel’s excellent history of zoning is a useful reminder that urban planning policies generally arise as a result of pressure from homeowners, not as a result of a conspiracy of planners. Consequently, the path to reform or liberalisation of planning rules is a difficult one for local government politicians to walk. If they vote for significant loosening of planning rules, they increase their risk of losing the next election. And successful challengers may simply turn around and tighten the rules back up again.

Fischel’s awareness of that dynamic flavours his policy recommendations. Zoning Rules! closes with no proposals for sweeping change. Instead, it proposes various ideas for how a challenging “bottom-up” dynamic could be incrementally improved. At the top of the list is an important long-term play: reduce the demand for strict planning rules by cutting back tax subsidies for home ownership, like New Zealand’s lack of a comprehensive capital gains tax.

Next week: Fischel’s analysis of the economic efficiency of zoning.

Will the proposed Waitemata Harbour Crossing be good for drivers?

There are many reasons to be concerned about the plan to add more road lanes across Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour: from the extreme cost of building such big tunnels and interchanges [$5-$6 billion and four times as much as just building rail tunnels], to the undesirable flooding of city streets and North Shore local roads with even more cars, to the increase in air pollution and carbon emission this will create, the loss of valuable city land to expanded on and off ramps and parking structures, to the impact on the harbour of exhaust stacks and a supersized motorway on the Shore, to the pressure this will put on the rest of the motorway system particularly through the narrow throat of Spaghetti Junction. It is both the most expensive and least efficient way to add capacity across this route, and if resilience is the aim then the double-down on reliance the motorway system rather works against this. This one project will simply crowd out any other changes we could make of scale in Auckland or the country for years; yet it changes almost nothing; it simply enables more vehicles to travel across a short point in the middle of the city, yet this is by no means an obviously good thing: The list of unwanted outcomes from the current proposal is so extensive that the benefits had better be so extraordinary and so absolutely certain in order to balance them all.

But perhaps there is no greater reason to not do it than that it simply won’t improve things for drivers.

Really? How can this be? As well the obvious problem with this project that it will add super capacity for a short stretch of the motorway network and therefore just shifts any bottleneck to the next constriction, particularly the extremely difficult to expand CMJ or Spaghetti Junction, there’s also a bigger structural problem with building more roads to fight traffic congestion. It can’t work. We all have experienced being stuck in traffic on a motorway and sat there wishing if only the authorities had just built an extra lane all would be sweet, well it would, wouldn’t it? However the evidence from all round the world shows that while that may help for a little while it never lasts, especially in a thriving city and especially if these extension starve the alternatives of funding, condemning ever more people to vehicle trips on our roads. Soon we’re stuck again wishing for another few billions worth of extra lanes all over again.

I-10 Katy Freeway

Here’s how it works; each new lane or route simply incentivises new vehicle journeys that weren’t made before; a well known phenomenon called induced demand. Road building is also traffic building, the more we invest in roads the more traffic and driving we get, and not just on the new road; everywhere. Traffic congestion is, of course, simply too much traffic, too much driving. Take for example the I-10 in Houston, the Katy Freeway. In that famously auto-dependent city they freely spent Federal money and local taxes disproportionately on just one way to try to beat traffic congestion, the supply side: ever more tarmac [Houstonians can boast the greatest spend per capita on freeways in the US]. The I-10 which began at six to eight lanes has just had its latest ‘upgrade’ to no fewer than 26 lanes! That ought to be more than enough in a flat city with multiple routes and only half the population Los Angeles. So what happened? According to recent analysis it has made driving this route significantly worse.

Traveling out I-10 is now 33% worse – almost 18 more minutes of your time – than it was before we spent $2.8 billion to subsidize land speculation and encourage more driving.

But hang on, those trips must need to be made, right, or people wouldn’t make them. Well in the absence of direct pricing it is hard to know exactly how valuable these new trips are. So first they really ought to price routes like the I-10 properly to reduce unnecessary journeys clogging up the valuable ones, like the truckies and trades [it is partially tolled now]. But the real problem in cities like Houston is the absence of any useful alternatives to driving [an earlier extension of I-10 took out an existing rail line!]. Providing those alternatives is how congestion is best dealt with. Not completely solved of course, that can only happen by collapse of the city economy like in Detroit, and no-one wants that solution. But traffic congestion can be made both manageable and, for many, no longer an issue, by providing them with attractive alternative options. And in turn this frees up the roads sufficiently for those who have to or prefer to drive. Especially when this is done in conjunction with direct price signals- road pricing; tolls or network or cordon charges.

Houston may be forever too far gone down this hopeless road but that doesn’t mean we have to follow it. Here is a description of the same problem in Sydney, with the solution:

Most people will take whichever transport option is fastest. They don’t care about the mode. If public transport is quicker they’ll catch a train or a bus, freeing up road space. If driving is quicker, they’ll jump in their car, adding to road congestion. In this way, public transport speeds determine road speeds. The upshot is that increasing public transport speeds is one of the best options available to governments and communities wanting to reduce road traffic congestion.

This is called the Nash Equilibrium [I would rather say better than faster; there are a number of variables including speed that inform our choices];

This relationship is one of the key mechanisms that make city systems tick. It is basic microeconomics, people shifting between two different options until there is no advantage in shifting and equilibrium is found. We can see this relationship in data sets that make comparisons between international cities. Cities with faster public transport speeds generally have faster road speeds.

Which brings us to the Waitemata Harbour. It currently has 13 general traffic lanes across two bridges, one walking and cycling lane on the upper harbour bridge, and some ferry services generally not competing with these crossings. The Harbour Bridge carries increasing numbers of buses from the hugely successful Northern Busway, the very success of which exactly proves the theory of the equilibrium described by Dr Ziebots above. In the morning peak the buses carry around 40% of the people without even a single dedicated lane on the bridge itself. And it is all the people using the busway that allow the traffic lanes to move at all. In fact NZTA argue that one of the main reasons for building a new crossing is the numbers and the size of the buses now using the current one.

The Upper Harbour Bridge is about become significantly busier because of the multiple billions being spent on the Waterview connection between SH20 and SH16, the widening of SH16, and the bigger interchange between SH81 and SH1 on the Shore. These huge motorway expansions will generate more traffic of course, but also will provide an alternative to driving across the lower Harbour Bridge.

What is missing anywhere between the North Shore and the city is a Rapid Transit alternative to these road lanes. Like Sydney always has had.

Sydney Harbour am peak

It is its [Sydney Harbour Bridge] multi-modality that makes it truly impressive, some 73% of the people entering Sydney on the Bridge from the Shore at this time are doing so on just one of the train lines and one bus lane; a fraction of the width of the whole structure. So not only does it shame our Harbour bridge aesthetically it completely kills it for efficiency too.

Auckland’s bridge was always only ever designed for road traffic, and should be left that way, the clear way forward is to add the missing Rapid Transit route as the next major additional crossing [after adding the SkyPath to the existing bridge].

In 1992 it  [Sydney Harbour Bridge] was supplemented by a pair of two lane road tunnels that up the cross harbour tally for this mode to match the number coming over by train [bridge plus tunnels = 12 traffic lanes], but that wasn’t done until the population of the city had hit 3.7 million. The high capacity systems on the bridge saved the people of Sydney and Australia from spending huge sums on additional crossings and delayed the date they were deemed necessary by many decades. But anyway, because the additional crossing is just road lanes it only adds around 10% extra capacity to the bridge. To think that the government here and NZTA are seriously proposing to spend multiple billions in building a third Harbour Crossing in Auckland with the population only at 1.5m, but not only that but they are planning to build more capacity for the least efficient mode; more traffic lanes.

The good people at NZTA of course know this, but we just seem stuck in a bad habit of road building in a similar way as Houston is, because the money for motorway building comes from central government some people believe this makes it free, in a similar way that the highways in the US are largely funded by the Federal government, unlike public transport, which is more locally funded [Known as ‘path dependency’ and is well covered in the academic literature: Imran, Pearce 2014]. This means the pressure to evaluate the effectiveness of motorways over the alternatives is much weaker. Here is a slide from an NZTA presentation proudly proclaiming how much more traffic this massive project will generate:

AWHC - Induced Demand

Of course this growth can be met by a parallel Rapid Transit system instead. The success of the Busway here and the enormous uptake of the recently improved Rail Network show that Aucklanders are the same as city dwellers everywhere and will use good Transit systems when they get the chance. And two much smaller and therefore cheaper train tunnels have much greater capacity than the proposed six traffic tunnels. Twice as much in fact: the equivalent of twelve lanes and without adding a single car to city streets. Furthermore converting the Busway to a rail system, which is entirely possible, and depending on the system may even be quick and easy, means that buses can be completely removed from bridge freeing up more capacity there for general traffic; cars and trucks:

  • Removing buses from the existing bridge would free up some capacity. 200 buses per peak hour ~= 1,000 cars ~= 60% capacity of a traffic lane. So a dedicated PT crossing provides car users with an extra lane (once you account for reverse direction). Not huge, but not negligible either.
  • Mode shift: by providing a fast and more direct alternative route you will get mode shift, providing more space to the cars that remain. So you have more vehicle capacity and less demand = a real congestion benefit.

So compared to a new road tunnel where both crossings would need to be tolled, and simply generate more competing traffic for drivers through the whole city, the dedicated PT option would seem to be better even for motorists. The better, faster, and more attractive the Rapid Transit route the freer the driving route will remain; with more people choosing the car-free option: The higher the Transit utility; the higher the driving utility.

Of course while a rail crossing will be considerably cheaper to build than a road crossing it still needs a network either side of the harbour to make it useful. Are there good options for this? In fact there are a number of very good options, all with varying advantages and disadvantages that need serious investigation. And it is important to remember by the time this project is being built the public transit networks in Auckland will be considerably more mature. The City Rail Link will have transformed the newly electrified rail network to a central role in the city, it will quickly have doubled from 2015’s 15 million annual trips to 30 million and more. The New Bus Network will be functioning and with the new integrated zonal fare system meaning people will be used to transferring across routes and modes to speed through the city. The increase in bus numbers and population will make driving in the city less functional. There will certainly many tens of thousands more people in the city without their car, many with business or other reasons to travel across to the Shore.  And importantly there will almost certainly be a new Light Rail system running from the central isthmus down Queen St and terminating downtown.

The quickest and cheapest to build will probably be to take the city Light Rail system through Wynyard Quarter and across the harbour, as outlined by Matt here. The busway can be most easily converted for this technology, as it is already designed for it. Furthermore being the only rail system that can run on streets it can also most easily include branches to Takapuna and even Milford to the east, and from Onewa up to Glenfield. This also has the advantage of balancing the existing city-side routes, unlocking a downtown terminus, not unlike the CRL does for the rail network.

What a North Shore light metro network map might look like.

What a North Shore light metro network map might look like.

Higher capacity and with the great advantage of cheaper to run driverless systems are is Light Metro like the massively successful SkyTrain in Vancouver. As described for Auckland here. However like extending our current rail system to the harbour it would require a more expensive city-side tunnel to Aotea Station for connection to city network. We know work has been done to prepare Aotea station for this possibility. Matt has also explored other variations here.

Light Metro North & Northwest

Perhaps the best answer for both the near term and the long term is to build tunnels that can take our new Light Rail vehicles for the years ahead but are also capable of being converted to the higher capacity Light Metro when the demand builds so much to justify the further investment of the city tunnel between Wynyard and Aotea Station. Bearing in mind the LR vehicles AT are planning for are high capacity [450pax ] and they can run in the cross harbour tunnels and the busway at very high frequencies. And that Light Metro systems can use track geometries much closer to LR than can conventional rail systems.

So in summary, the bane of the motorist and the commercial driver, traffic congestion, is best dealt with on the demand-side as well as the supply-side. We have spent 60 years just supplying more tarmac, and now it is time to get on with addressing the demand side: Building quality alternatives and providing clear incentives to fine-tune peoples choices.

And, just like road building, investing in quality Rapid Transit will grow the demand for more of it. It will also shift land use, incentivising agglomeration economies and greater intensification around transport nodes, as well as individual habits to suit this option more. What we feed, with infrastructure investment, grows. And vitally, inducing this sort of movement instead of driving is entirely consistent with other the demands of this century; especially our country’s new commitments to reduce our carbon emissions, and the use of our own abundant and renewably generated energy.

This project is both so expensive and potentially so valuable or so damaging that it needs a fully informed public debate about the possibilities. Gone are the days that NZTA can just keep building what its used to without real analysis of all alternatives, or that a politically expedient option sails by without serious evaluation. Because it can be transformed into a truly great asset for the city and the nation on this important route from the eye-wateringly expensive and clearly dubious idea from last century that it is now.

What’s clearly missing from this picture, especially once Light Rail fills ‘The Void’, and some form of rail goes to the airport?:

CRL Outline-Train-Plan-31July2014

Body without a head: Official post CRL rail running pattern