Unitary Plan Recommendations Revealed

Yesterday the council released the recommendations from the Independent Hearing Panel (IHP) for the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) and as expected when there are over 1000 pages of recommendations there’s a lot to talk about, way too much for one post. As we also expected there is a mix of outcomes, some are good and others not so good. An overview of the changes is provided in this 123 page report which is what I’ll mainly focus on for this post.

First up the council had a couple of big wins with the IHP agreeing with many of their high level objectives for managing growth, such as:

  1. Affirming the Auckland Plan’s development strategy of a quality compact urban form focussed on a hierarchy of business centres plus main transport nodes and corridors.
  2. Concentrating residential intensification and employment opportunities in and around existing centres, transport nodes and corridors so as to encourage consolidation of them while:
    • a. allowing for some future growth outside existing centres along transport corridors where demand is not well served by existing centres; and
    • b. enabling the establishment of new centres in greenfield areas after structure planning.
  3. Retaining the Rural Urban Boundary (together with a substantial area of land zoned Future Urban Zone inside it) as a means of managing large-scale growth and infrastructure planning (this last point has a bit of a catch though which I’ll cover off later.)

That means the IHP didn’t just throw everything out and start from scratch but have made changes that address many of the shortcomings from the notified plan and the biggest of these is that the notified plan simply didn’t allow for enough growth. In this regard the IHPs recommendations are said to lie somewhere between what the council originally notified and what submitters like Housing NZ were after which was much more widespread upzoning across the region.

One of the areas they haven’t changed are the residential zones themselves. There are still the main urban zones of Single House (SH), Mixed Housing Suburban (MHS), Mixed Housing Urban (MHU) and Terraced Housing and Apartment Building (THAB) and many of the rules for the zones, such as height limits, remain the same. One big change is the removal of density provisions on the MHS so it matches the MHU and THAB zones – although there are various development standards and levels at which resource consents apply. Importantly where each zone is applied has also changed, one example being that the council walkable catchments for higher density zones of 200-400m while the IHP have recommended it be doubled to 400-800m. It is those and other amendments which are behind the changes in development capacity.

The level of development capacity has been a crucial issue for the IHP. They have agreed with the high side predictions of need to provide around 400,000 dwellings over the next 30 years and that for planning purposes it’s better to err on that high side. In short better to allow too many dwellings to be built than not enough. To this end they also say:

It became apparent early in the hearings that in the development of the proposed Unitary Plan the Council had relied on the theoretical capacity enabled by the Unitary Plan, rather than on a measure of capacity that takes into account physical and commercial feasibility, which the Panel refers to as ‘feasible enabled capacity. Feasible enabled residential capacity means the total quantum of development that appears commercially feasible to supply, given the opportunities enabled by the recommended Unitary Plan, current costs to undertake development, and current prices for dwellings. The modelling of this capacity at this stage is not capable of identifying the likely timing of supply.

When you look at the PAUP in this regard there becomes a huge issue with it estimated to only be able to provide 213k dwellings, well short of the 400k needed. Through the changes they’ve made they estimate that the feasible enabled residential capacity has almost doubled, going from 213k to 422k. As you can also see, the biggest two changes have come from within existing residential areas and within centres and mixed use areas.

Recomended UP - Change in Feasible Capacity

The impact of the changes can be seen on the two maps below showing what was feasible under the PAUP on the left and what is feasible under these recommendations. As you can clearly see there is a lot more development that has been enabled – although it seems more still could have been done on the isthmus.

Recomended UP - PAUP vs Recomended Feasible Capacity

You may recall the Auckland Plan development strategy had a 70:40 split, up to 60-70% of development occurring within the existing urban area and 30-40% occurring on greenfield land. Yet thanks to council getting scared of the noisy groups opposing housing, the PAUP as effectively flipped those numbers around. While the IHP have recommended that spatial distribution be deleted, the changes above have helped to return the Unitary Plan to that level. This is shown below.

Recomended UP - Distribution of Capacity

The table below is based on some early analysis by council on the recommendations showing how much land was included in PAUP vs what is in the recommendation. As you can see there are some quite significant differences.

Recomended UP - Zoning ha Changes

As mentioned earlier, the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) stays but it has been changed significantly, both in scale and how it will work in future. One key change is the IHP say the exact location of it should be decided at the district plan level. That means it could be changed in the future through private plan changes. That makes it a soft boundary and as I mentioned yesterday, could make it more difficult to plan big infrastructure projects.

Lastly just to quickly touch on one of the points I raised yesterday that I haven’t already covered, parking rules. The IHP have retained parking maximums in the City Centre Zone while the other Centre zones, the Business, Mixed Use and THAB zones and the Centre Fringe Office Control area have neither minimums or maximums with the main exception being for retail and commercial services activities where a minimum of 1 space per 30m² has been recommended. This is a big win for the major retailers who wanted minimums for anti-competitive reasons, making it harder for small businesses particularly in town centres to afford to compete. Outside of the zones mentioned previously, all other areas will have minimums applied.

In another post I’ll look at comparing the maps of the proposed plan and what has now been recommended.

The council are due to start formally debating the plan on August 10 and have that wrapped up on August 18 so the plan can be formalised. If they don’t agree with an IHP recommendation they can’t just reject it and instead have to provide an alternative solution and produce a cost benefit ratio for it. Overall the recommendations represent a vast improvement to the Unitary Plan and while not everything is what we hoped for, there was always going to need to be some compromises. After dragging on for about four years now, the finish line is in sight and it seems to me that councillors should just be encouraged to pass the plan as it is.

Unitary Plan: what to look out for

So today’s the big day that the independent hearings panel’s recommendations on the Unitary Plan get unveiled. It’s not exaggerating to say that this is a hugely important document as the rules and controls included in the plan determine what is allowed to be built and where.

The Unitary Plan is a monumentally huge plan, running over 9000 pages apparently and with very complicated overlapping controls relating to zones, overlays, precincts, development controls, urban boundaries and so on. However, 95% of the plan is probably of little interest to most people and won’t be what the big debates over the next few weeks will centre on. So let’s run through what I think are the big issues and what you should look out for when the plan is released at 1:30 this afternoon. In a rough order of importance:

  • Zoning in the central isthmus and around major public transport corridors
  • The location and nature of the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB)
  • Height limits in centres
  • Parking rules
  • Residential development controls

Let’s go through each in turn.

Zoning in the central isthmus

The biggest disappointment with the Proposed Unitary Plan was how little upzoning occurred in the parts of Auckland that have the best transport options and are market attractive to higher density development – namely the central isthmus. This was a direct contradiction from the Auckland Plan’s development strategy, which highlighted the isthmus as a key location for growth:

ap-paup

Since the Unitary Plan was notified in 2013 the importance of upzoning this area has increased further, with Auckland Transport announcing plans to build light-rail along some of the key arterial roads to ease bus congestion in the city. Ensuring the planning rules in this part of Auckland enable a lot of redevelopment into terraced houses, townhouses and apartments is crucial to the question of whether light-rail should go ahead or not.

The ATAP interim report highlighted a shortfall of 50,000 dwellings on the isthmus in the Unitary Plan compared to the Auckland Plan so we’re not talking about a little tinkering here and there with the upzoning. We’re talking significant change from what was in the proposed plan.

My best guess is that the IHP will recommend more upzoning in the isthmus, but probably not enough to close the 50,000 dwelling shortfall. It will then be really interesting to see how the politicians respond and whether the councillors representing this part of Auckland actually want to do something bold to improve housing affordability or not.

The Rural Urban Boundary

A lot of discussion about how the Unitary Plan can help bring down houses prices has focused on the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) and the supply of greenfield land. As I explained back in May, much of this talk misunderstands what the RUB is – which is a long-term line that separates land likely to be urbanised at some point over the next 30 years compared to land intended to stay rural in the long-term. Changing the location of the RUB isn’t the main way to make more greenfield development happen: there’s already an area of about two Hamilton’s of greenfield land inside the RUB and the key is being able to service it with (expensive) infrastructure. But the chatter continues and it will be interesting to see both where the IHP recommends the RUB goes, as well as whether it’s a “hard RUB” (only able to be changed by the Council, giving greater certainty to infrastructure providers about where development might happen and allowing them to invest with confidence) or a “soft RUB” (able to be changed by anyone through a private plan change, removing certainty for infrastructure providers and making their investments much more risky).

I’m not very optimistic about this one, as it seems likely the IHP will recommend a soft RUB, which could actually delay greenfield development by making infrastructure investment far more difficult to plan and a much riskier proposition.

Height Limits in Centres

The Unitary Plan has a pretty sophisticated hierarchy of centres, from the City Centre right down to the tiniest little neighbourhood centre. Generally these areas are the focus for a lot of future growth and a real mix of uses: allowing retail, offices and apartments to be built. The real test will be in relation to the height limits of these centres and whether they allow enough redevelopment potential for it to be viable and for a good chunk of Auckland’s future growth to be located in areas where people can do many of their daily tasks without having to travel far at all.

I think there might be some improvements in the IHP’s recommendations but this will be strongly linked to where the panel land on the volcanic viewshafts as it is these view protection restrictions that limit heights in many of the most important centres for redevelopment (Newton, Newmarket, Mt Eden etc.)

Parking Rules

We’ve been going on about the evils of minimum parking requirements for years and the Unitary Plan takes some good steps towards eliminating or lowering these stupid rules. The council’s closing statement to the hearing on parking suggested the main area of contention was whether minimums should apply in major centres, with some major retailers arguing for them for anti-competitive reasons because they were worried that people visiting the area would park in their carparks. Importantly, the council’s position on residential parking minimums shifted from the proposed plan so that nowhere will more than a single space be required per dwelling (and in a lot of zones, no parking at all will be required).

I’m pretty confident of a good outcome here and a major step forward in reducing the evils of parking minimums. There’s always a chance the IHP might have read Donald Shoup and get rid of parking controls altogether.

Residential Development Controls

Before the Unitary Plan was notified in 2013 this is where most of the controversy was focused: on the detailed rules and regulations that governed height limits, density controls, setback requirements and many other restrictions in the residential zones. However, in the hearings this became less of an issue as most of the major submitters came to an agreement with the council to relax density controls and instead focus on controls that affect the building envelope (height, site coverage etc.) In general this is a step in the right direction, as it is density controls (how many square metres of land per unit) which really undermine the provision of affordable housing as they force larger house sizes to maximise profitability.

Without reading through the screeds of detail it looks like a reasonably good outcome is likely here. However, this section really just lays out the rules relating to each zone: how the zones are distributed is a whole different question and will inevitably be the focus of so much discussion going forward.

Local board Rhetoric Doesn’t Match Reality

Let’s start with a quick pop quiz: you’ve got an existing town centre that you want to improve, making it more vibrant and successful. Do you

A) Encourage more people to live locally who will use the town centre

B) Encourage more people to live locally who will use the town centre

C) Encourage more people to live locally who will use the town centre

D) Oppose people living nearby and worry about the cars trying to drive through and past your town centre being ever so slightly hindered.

If you answered A, B or C then correct, have a gold star, but it seems far too often our local boards reach for option D. The latest such example was a few days ago out west were the Waitakere Ranges Local Board have appeared opposing housing in Glen Eden.

Ten-storey towers of mostly one-bedroom flats have been proposed for suburban west Auckland, prompting local fears they will turn into slums.

Developers have applied for non-notifiable resource consent to build blocks of apartments in the centre of Glen Eden, adjacent to the railway tracks and cemetery.

Smaller dwellings and apartments have been touted by many as the future for Auckland and as one solution to the city’s housing crisis.

If given the go-ahead, the apartment blocks would house 168 one- or two-bedroom units and townhouses along with carparking, retail space and some outdoor space for residents.

The Waitakere Ranges Local Board said it was a radical proposal.

The plan for twin ten-storey towers raised many concerns especially as the height would be more than what was allowed for in the Unitary Plan, the board said.

“With most apartments being one bedroom the development will favour young residents. We would prefer to see some three-bedroom apartments and a greater mix of apartment sizes so that all stages of life are covered and a more mixed population live in the area.”

Let’s just think about some of this for a second

Firstly the proposal is right next to a train station and the town centre. That’s pretty much perfect and if anything the local board should be celebrating that. Furthermore it sounds like the closest neighbours are the residents of the cemetery. For some reason I hardly think they’re going to complain about a 10-storey apartment building nearby.

One of the oddest comments is the local board trying to get more three-bedroom apartments. If this were a brand new area or even perhaps the city I might agree that would be good – not that it should be regulated for. But this isn’t the city and is surrounded by many dwellings have 3 or more bedrooms. In fact I took a look at some of the numbers from Stats NZ and as of the last census in the areas in and around Glen Eden there were 10,881 dwellings for which they have details on bedrooms. Below is the number of dwellings by the number of bedrooms they have.

 

Bedrooms Dwellings %
One Bedroom 771 7%
Two Bedrooms 2067 19%
Three Bedrooms 5724 53%
Four Bedrooms 1749 16%
Five+ Bedrooms 570 5%

As you can see almost three-quarters of dwellings in area have three or more bedrooms. That is quite different to the population distribution where 48% of dwellings house only one or two residents while 68% have three or less. The graph below shows the number dwellings based on the number of usual residents and the number of bedrooms. The biggest single group is for two people to be living in a three bedroom home.

GE Residents and Bedrooms

 

There are of course many factors that go into housing choice and it’s not for us, or anyone, to say how people should live but what this does suggest is that if there’s an imbalance in housing in the area it’s not from a lack of 3 bedroom dwellings but from not enough smaller ones. Furthermore the suggestion that small dwellings are only suitable for young people is utterly divorced from reality. Many older people enjoy the opportunity to live in smaller dwellings where they have less maintenance to deal with and can remain close to friends, family and the communities they’ve lived much of their lives in.

Then of course there is the almost stock standard response we’ve come to expect from so many in housing discussions.

In its submissions to the council, the Waitakere Ranges Local Board voiced concerns on potential traffic generated by Glen Eden’s proposed towers in an already heavily congested intersection.

The developer has requested its application not be made public, to which the board has objected.

Some west Auckland residents are worried about the proposal, saying there is already too much demand for parking in the area and that one-bedroom flats next to a railway line would inevitably turn into slums.

All of this brings us to the point that if we want local board to stop trying to oppose developments with spurious arguments, we probably need some better people on them. Today nominations have opened for local body elections later this year so if you or someone you know have been thinking of standing, why not give it a go.

The A Train: Rail to the Shore and elsewhere

Within the Auckland Transport Alignment Process Interim Report is the news that the six lane highway across the harbour as currently planned, the Additional Harbour Crossing, just doesn’t work, and is now at least mortally wounded, if not actually dead.

ATAP - Interim Report - AWHC

Clearly a total re-think of ways to serve the growing movement demand between the city and the north east is required. In January the Waterview connection and the supersizing of the North Western will open, and later a new interchange between SH 18 and SH 1 will complete the next road connections between the upper harbour and the wider city.

Additionally the SkyPath, SeaPath, and improvements to ferry services will also be added to the mix for the inner harbour, for the Active modes.

The great missing piece in the movement jigsaw for this part of the city [as elsewhere] is a Rapid Transit connection across the harbour and through the Shore. The case for the next major connection across the harbour utilising the high capacity, smaller foot print, and traffic reduction outcomes of Rapid Transit is now all but made.

Here I want to explore the options for an actually successful harbour crossing, particularly in light of recent announcements about the Mangere/Airport RTN, but also because of the need for a viable near term system that fits into the longer term needs of our growing city. I can’t emphasise this enough; for a system to actually get funded and built it surely must fit both those criteria, and that is not easy.

What follows is an exploration of possibilities done with a fairly broad brush; a high altitude view, with a lot of scope for variation in detail.

In 2012 I wrote a couple of speculative posts proposing the Shore Line as an extension of our current rail network. Here and here. I was interested in looking beyond the CRL to examine future improvements to the Shore and through Mangere to the Airport. In particular in offering an Albany to Airport one seat ride through an east-west CRL II type project, like this:

CITY CENTRE 'The Cross'

CITY CENTRE ‘The Cross’

While there is some elegance to these proposals [and some problems] it is clear that I started from an unexpressed assumption that all future rail systems would be extensions of the current network. This is no longer my view primarily because our current network has very firm structural upper limits for train movements, that means at some point it becomes limiting to try to add ever more arms to this body. Adding an additional high demand area like the North Shore will bring those limits forward, especially to hard to expand pinch points like Newmarket Station and Junction. Remembering too that freight movements are growing on parts of the network too. This isn’t to criticise our re-born urban rail system, it will remain the vital core of Auckland’s RTN, growing quickly post CRL to 50m trips pa. and beyond. But rather to recognise that it needs to be free to serve these core roles, supported by other existing and enhanced networks, and some new ones.

I also suspect that the required crosstown tunnel would be prohibitively expensive, especially when combined with a cross harbour one. Together these costs could be sufficiently high to kill the plan.

Instead, adding a new and complimentary network, making connections by transfer at interchange stations, adds resilience as well as more capacity, in that problems on one network won’t affect the other. This also allows us to tailor the next network to our current demands and utilise all the latest technology and thinking without needing to accommodate it to the physical parameters of the existing system [freedom from the ‘happenstance of yore’].

On the assumption that the current Busway can be relatively easily converted to Light Rail, the obvious opportunity is leverage off AT’s Light Rail plans for a Queen St-Dominion Rd system through Mangere to the Airport so that this:
AIRPORT LR

becomes this, an idea we have explored in the past:

A LINE I

So the return of the highly desirable one-seat ride from Albany to the Airport, on a high catchment spine; the A-Train, but this time via Light Rail, on a combination of higher speed grade separate paths, and high access street running. The advantages and disadvantages of these conditions have been debated at length on previous posts, what I want to examine here are future network possibilities of such a system, because networks are always greater than their parts. However it is worth a visit to this analysis of the recent addition of Light Rail to Paris’ Transit mix on this very issue; degrees of separation, I guess you could call it. Basically it concludes that while it is always better to strive for as much separate running as possible, this needs to be balanced against both capital cost and quality of access. And especially the quantity and quality of the transfer nodes with other major Transit Networks.

It takes just a few seconds looking at the RATP map to see why the Paris trams are so useful. In Paris’s hub-and-spoke transit network, they are the rim of the wheel, connecting the ends of Metro and RER lines in far-flung parts of the region. All nine lines offer at least two stations that connect to other modes of transit. Some offer many more:

No. of transfers No. of total stations Pct. of stations with transfers
T1 8 36 22%
T2 4 24 17%
T3a 12 25 48%
T3b 8 18 44%
T4 2 11 18%
T5 2 16 13%
T6 3 21 14%
T7 4 18 22%
T8 3 17 18%

So returning to Auckland and the proposed A Line we can see that while it would be a great complement to our existing fast growing Rail Network, and likely further RTN extensions including AMETI, and the North-Western, it still only connects with it at the four stations indicated with blue dots above. However the possibilities for leveraging off this system to create a second route with a rich abundance of connectedness:

B LINE

The western section carries along the grade separate SH20 alignment to a new station at Owairaka, then continues to Mt Albert Station, Unitec, and to the future RTN station at Pt Chev on the North-Western line, on-street [The RTN connections are why I prefer this possible extension over one to the metro-centre of New Lynn]. The southern to Puhinui Station and the Manukau City Interchange Station down Lambie Dr, again mostly on its own alignment.

Which of course can be extended to include AMETI:

A B lines

The simplest idea would be to run these as two overlapping lines A and B, giving the Airport and Mangere great connectivity west, south, north, and east. Direct to the City Centre and great connectivity with every branch of the RTN, including of course the Onehunga line. Or say three lines all converging on the Airport. Such a system is also highly stageable, and you all can haggle over your favourite technology for each part….

2 LINE LRT

The key principle though must be future proofing for upgrades. I think it is vital, for example, that the harbour crossing, if it is to be Light Rail, is built so it can take Light Metro for the time in the future that the demand from the Shore is high enough to justify a tunnel from Wynyard to Aotea Station and the option of implementing a fully driverless system as then it would be 100% grade separate. I’m sure some would like to start straight off with such a system, but I think it is clear that designing systems that can grow with the city is the only viable way forward.

3 LINE LRT

 

SOUTHWESTERN LINK

Without trying to put a date on it, below is a pretty good integrated RTN future to aim for:

Rail running at 5min frequencies on the outer lines so a train every 2.5 mins in the CRL and other places [Red and Green]

LRT also at varying frequencies depending on place, perhaps even two routes from Wynyard to the city

More Ferries, Rapid Bus on Gt North Rd and the NW and across the Upper Harbour, although especially from Pt Chev to the city could be LRT too.

When or whether parts of this are Buses or Light Rail, are not so much my focus but rather getting the coverage optimised, and the routes protected.

No doubt it will change but here’s a potential version. Discuss:

AKL RTN II

Apartments, proximity, and living space

Housing is a normal good. That is, it’s something that people tend to want more of as their incomes increase.

“More” doesn’t necessarily mean “larger”. People do tend to prefer larger homes as they get wealthier, but that’s not the only thing that matters. They may be willing to compromise on space in exchange for a higher-quality living space – bring on the granite countertops! – or a home in a better location. A “better location” could in turn mean anything from proximity to jobs (resulting in efficient use of valuable time), proximity to shops or cultural amenities, location in a good school zone, or access to parks or beaches.

One interesting phenomenon is that people seem to be willing to travel further to work than to consumption amenities (ranging from retail to concerts). In their fantastic book Cities and the Urban Land Premium, Dutch economist Henri de Groot and several co-authors provide some data that shows that people are, on average, willing to travel considerably further to work than to consume. They show that this results in a higher urban land premium for accessible inner-city areas, as vibrant downtown areas have the most varied and interesting consumption opportunities.

Furthermore, you’d expect this premium to rise as incomes rise, as people with more disposable income will have an increasing preference for close proximity to consumption and cultural amenities.

Is the same thing likely to be true in Auckland? Nobody’s done a survey, but we’ve got some data on the distance that people actually travel to access jobs and retail.

In a paper two years ago, I analysed Census data on commuting distances in order to understand what Auckland households spend on housing and transport. I went back and re-analysed that data to get an estimate of the distribution of commuting distances in Auckland. This data suggests that 50% of Aucklanders commute less than 9km, while less than 2% are super-commuters travelling longer than 50km.

As a point of comparison, I used data on retail spending patterns compiled by economist Susan Fairgray in a 2013 report on the Auckland retail sector. Based on electronic card spending data, Fairgray estimates that 50% of Auckland retail spending is done within 5km of people’s homes. (See Table 3 on page 58 of her report.)

Here’s the chart. As in the Netherlands, distances travelled to consume drop off more rapidly than distances travelled to produce.

Distances travelled to jobs and retail in Auckland

There are several implications for how we build cities. The first is that we should expect retail, personal services, and recreation to be widely distributed throughout the city. Large tracts of houses without good access to shops and recreation are not likely to be awesome in the future. There are various ways to cater to these needs, ranging from mixed-use zoning that allows retail and housing to colocate to distributing small retail centres throughout suburbs (a la Auckland’s tramway suburbs).

The second thing is that we should think more carefully about how preferences for centrality are changing. The consumption amenities that cities offer play an increasing role in their success or failure. Some important consumer amenities tend to be located centrally. For example, nightlife and entertainment districts are almost always located near the city centre – think of Ponsonby or K Road in Auckland. Likewise, museums and public art galleries are usually located downtown – e.g. Te Papa in Wellington or the Auckland Art Gallery – to maximise the number of people that can access them.

Auckland Art Gallery

Auckland Art Gallery

As demand for consumer amenities will tend to increase with rising incomes, we’d expect demand to live close to them to increase in the future. Meeting this demand in a growing city will, in turn, mean building more apartments.

But wait! If people also want more living area as they get wealthier, doesn’t that mean that they’ll reject apartment living? Won’t apartments simply be too small to meet their needs, even after taking location into account?

Interesting question.

It is the case that new apartments tend to be smaller than new standalone houses in New Zealand. Over the last five years, the average standalone house consented in Auckland was about twice as large as the average apartment consented in Auckland.

However, there’s no universal law that says that apartments have to be small. Policy can play a big role in keeping apartment sizes down, or enabling them to be more spacious. As LSE economist Paul Cheshire observes, planning policies (and other things like tax policies) can have the unintended consequence of discouraging adequately-sized housing:

If you really want to plan to protect and provide better access to green space and open countryside without artificially constraining land supply and forcing up house prices, then Green Fingers (or Green Wedges) would seem to be the best solution. That is what more egalitarian Scandinavians have. Copenhagen has its Green Fingers – really brown urbanisation along the radial routes out of the city with protected countryside each side. Denmark has not just got cheaper housing: according to the Dallas Fed’s data, the real house price has increased by a factor of 1.6 in Denmark compared to 3.4 in the UK since 1975 but new houses in Denmark are a lot bigger: 80% bigger in fact.

As Cheshire’s example of Copenhagen shows, it’s possible to build dwellings that meet people’s needs for living space and preserve usable open space around cities. You just need to be willing to build intensively where you do build – and integrate it with rapid transit.

copenhagen finger plan

Source: Living Rail

For a less anecdotal look at the issue, I used Eurostat data to measure the relationship between dwelling size and dwelling type in 29 European countries. Here’s a scatterplot showing the relationship between the share of dwellings that are detached houses (X axis) and average dwelling size (Y axis). Observe how there is almost no relationship whatsoever. If anything, there’s a slight negative relationship – countries with more standalone houses may have slightly smaller dwellings, on average. (There’s probably an income effect in there that I haven’t controlled for – richer countries tend to be more urbanised, which will tend to mean more apartments, and also have larger dwellings.)

Eurostat detached houses and average dwelling size chart

But basically, there doesn’t seem to be an inescapable trade-off between dwelling type and size. Apartments can be small… but they can also be large. And cities that are willing to let people more apartments get built will, in addition to being more affordable, give people more opportunities to realise their demands for both space and proximity.

What do you think of this data?

Light Rail to the Sea

Takapuna is considered one of Auckland’s key metropolitan centres – which the Auckland Plan describes as:

Metropolitan centres, such as Takapuna and Manukau, will accommodate a large proportion of the city’s future residential, retail and employment growth. Generally these areas will serve a sub-regional catchment and be supported by efficient transport networks.

Outside of the city centre there are 10 existing or future (emerging) metropolitan centres across the region as shown in the map below from the Auckland Plan.

auckland plan development strategy

The comment about these centres being supported by efficient transport networks is interesting as one thing you may notice from the map above is that all metropolitan centres sit on the current or proposed Rapid Transit Network of rail lines or busways with the exception of one, Takapuna. This is also confirmed with the latest version we’ve seen of Auckland Transports proposed rapid transit network.

Rapid Transit Map

As I’ll hopefully explain below, I think Takapuna needs to be added to our rapid transit network.

As a major centre and urban area within Auckland, Takapuna is quite unique being situated next to both a beach and a lake and those factors help to make it a very desirable location. With the strategy of developing the area the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan allows for quite a bit of development by way of the Metropolitan Centre (pink & purple stripes) and Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings (Gold), although we’ll have to wait till later this year to confirm the final zones and rules. Much of the area including most of the THAB has already been listed as a Special Housing Area.

PAUP - Takapuna

Zoning is one thing but we’re already starting to see a lot of proposals for the area popping up, particularly on and around Anzac St. Here are some of them:

Whether these exact proposals all go ahead remains to be seen but over 30 years many will and so it’s quite likely the area will look very different in the future. Regardless we can count on the centre itself looking quite different with Panuku Development Auckland looking to “unlock” it including developing some council sites such as the Anzac St carpark.

Takapuna Centre Plan - Anzac St carpark concept

Takapuna has the chance to become one of Auckland’s urban jewels but accessing it can be already mixed bag when it comes to non-car transport. Its geographic location means the highly successful busway sails by about 1.6km away. Currently the primary bus services linking the Takapuna and the city are made up of a number of routes from the mainly the East Coast Bays that funnel through Takapuna – although given they often have long windy routes and little bus priority it means trips to the city can have very poor timekeeping at times.

The new network deals with Takapuna by way of a frequent route (N4) that starts in Milford and a couple of routes that pass through Takapuna on their way to/from Akoranga Station. In the city the N4 route will go via the middle of town.

North Shore New Network Takapuna

Even with the new network, accessing Takapuna by bus from the city – like I do on a daily basis – can extremely frustrating. It’s not so bad for those that can start or end their journey in the middle of town but for those like me need to get to/from Britomart, the changes to accommodate the construction of the City Rail Link mean that it now requires two buses or one bus and a long walk. Some of the issues will be resolved by the completion of the CRL which will link in with North Shore buses along Fanshawe St giving a direct connection.

AT’s info on the services show that the N4 route would run ever 7-8 minutes in the morning and afternoon peak along with every 15 minutes during the day. With the level of growth planned that might not be enough and while more services could be added, just like in the city centre there are some real issues with not enough space on the roads.

When it comes to PT, Takapuna needs a better long term solution, and it needs to be a RTN in my view.

Using a bike to access Takapuna can be equally arduous. The main approach roads of Taharoto Rd and Lake Rd have painted cycle lanes (despite the former being massively wide) but those cycle lanes stop short of the centre itself leaving riders to brave the roads which can be particularly unpleasant on Anzac St. That of course could be fixed and along with Skypath and Seapath would provide a cycle route to the city or elsewhere.

So what options are there to include Takapuna on the RTN? We know that AT have recently been looking at RTNs to the North Shore but we don’t yet know what’s been recommended, or in fact any details about it. Despite that I think there’s quite a good chance some form of light rail will be seen as the preferred option to eventually be used on the busway and if we did that it could allow us the ability to send light rail spur off to Takapuna, perhaps something like the route below. It would require a little work and a bit of property acquisition but seems doable.

Takapuna Spur LRT idea 2

From Akoranga the route could head to the city then perhaps join up with one of the isthmus routes shown the RTN map earlier. We’ve suggested in the past that this spur could even be part of the first stage of any rail connection the shore with the second stage seeing the busway converted.

With Takapuna already a popular destination and that only likely to increase in the future with both residential and commercial developments this route is likely to be quite popular. Even today buses in the middle of the day can get very full, especially in summer.

So what do you think, should we start thinking about light rail to the sea?

“The train that saved Denver”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “the end of Auckland’s old growth model“. In that post, I argued that the old pattern – build roads and pipes into some paddocks and orchards, and subdivide away – is now kaput. It isn’t the 1960s anymore:

Auckland North Shore before AHB

A land-constrained city with pinch-points on all its key transport corridors cannot afford to provide sufficient road capacity to serve all new demand. More space-efficient transport – which means rapid transit for long-distance trips and walking and cycling for local trips – is a prerequisite for ongoing growth.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s happening to the cost to add road capacity in Auckland. A decade ago, we could build urban motorway extensions for less than $10 million per lane-kilometre. Over the next decade, we’ll be lucky if we can keep costs to $50 million per lane-km.

Cost per added lane-km chart

Rising costs to add new road capacity reflect fundamental spatial challenges. Due to geographical constraints and the existing built environment, new roads must go in tunnels (VPT, Waterview), on viaducts (Reeves Road), or reclaimed land (East-West). All three options are expensive.

Space for rapid transit is also expensive… but the difference is that rapid transit systems allow many more people to move on busy corridors. Consequently, the space required per user can be significantly lower.

But: can rapid transit also play its role in supporting land use and development?

Evidence from the US suggests that it can. A recent article by Colin Woodard (in Politico Magazine) reviews Denver, Colorado’s successful development of a new rapid transit system:

Denver has done something no other major metro area has accomplished in the past decade, though a number of cities have tried. At a moment when aging mass transit systems in several major cities are capturing headlines for mismanagement, chronic delays and even deaths, Denver is unveiling a shiny new and widely praised network: 68 stations along 10 different spurs, covering 98 miles, with another 15 miles still to come. Even before the new lines opened, 77,000 people were riding light rail each day, making it the eighth-largest system in the country even though Denver is not in the top 20 cities for population. The effects on the region’s quality of life have been measurable and also surprising, even to the project’s most committed advocates. Originally intended to unclog congested highways and defeat a stubborn brown smog that was as unhealthy as it was ugly, the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted, from revitalizing moribund neighborhoods, like the area around Union Station, to creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass.

In other words it’s taken Denver only two decades to build a successful rapid transit system from scratch. Further expansions are underway. To be fair, Auckland’s accomplished something similar. The city’s rail network had a near-death experience in the early 1990s but its fortunes have turned around due to some far-sighted decisions – purchasing surplus railcars from Perth; building Britomart; rail electrification; and the Northern Busway.

Daily Britomart Passengers - Actual vs Projected 2016

However, Denver has arguably done better than Auckland at using rapid transit investments to enable urban development. This has included a mix of urban redevelopment and more intensive greenfield development:

Denver’s leaders had, by accident, built something extremely valuable, but because they had misunderstood its real purpose at the outset, some potential had been squandered. “They were really asking the wrong question: How do you reduce congestion on highways?” says Wesley Marshall, a transport engineer at the University of Colorado Denver. “The obvious answer is to put transit adjacent to highways and to surround the stations with park-and-ride lots.”

Problem is, while transit really does mitigate congestion in the long term, it does so by facilitating better, often denser land use, rather than by offering an alternative to getting from point A to point B on the interstate…

One of the best examples of this is the area around the 10th and Osage Station just south of the city center. The Denver Housing Authority wanted to replace the South Lincoln Homes, a distressed, low-slung 270-unit public housing project on 15 acres with mixed-income housing. The two key criteria critical to attracting middle- and market-rate tenants, DHA Director Ismael Guerrero says, were proximity to downtown and a light rail station, but they also wanted to ensure nobody was unwillingly displaced.

“This is a close-knit community and a lot of history, where people live for generations and have family close by,” Guerrero notes. “Residents told us they wanted to make sure that we weren’t just replacing housing but improving the quality of life.”

The result is Mariposa, a 900-unit development of energy-efficient three- to nine-story buildings with shops and office spaces mixed into a network of parks, bike paths and community gardens, some of them on land transferred by RTD to the city. Osage Café, a breakfast and lunch place, is actually a culinary academy training local teens. Arts Street, a non-profit providing arts-oriented “learn and earn” sessions for at-risk youth, moved into the complex from temporary digs at DHA’s invitation.

Denver Mariposa apartments

Mariposa Phase II apartments (Source: Politico Magazine)

[…] Mariposa, now nearly complete, has retained more than 40 percent of South Lincoln Homes’ residents, Crangle notes, about four times the national average for similar projects. The net result has been diversification, not just gentrification, according to Todd Clough, executive director of the nearby Denver Inner City Parish, which helps the poor. “I was anticipating eight or 10 years ago that we would be gone by now, but because of light rail and Mariposa, we’re still relevant,” he says. “I’m a cynic; I serve poor people, that’s what I do. But, you know, this project is about as good as you can do it in a city that’s on fire.”

Basically, if it’s done well, rapid transit works. If you put in a system that is useful to people – i.e. one that connects them to places they want to be, in reasonable comfort – it will in turn shape urban development. If it goes into an existing urban fabric, it will be a lever for getting better outcomes from future redevelopment. If it goes into greenfield areas, it will shape its development form for decades to come.

I’m actually going to be in Denver at the end of this week – one of my brothers has moved there. Will be interesting to see how the place works, if only as a tourist.

Sunday reading 5 June 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading this long weekend.

We start this week with a borrowed slide explaining the way that the quality of your city’s Transit system controls the quality of your driving commute:

DOWNS-THOMPSON PARADOX

This explains what’s wrong with current expansion of SH16 and the completion of the Western Ring Route. The Transit part of this project is woefully inadequate: Intermittent bus lanes on the shoulder of the motorway are unlikely to lead to sufficiently fast or reliable bus travel times, this means the choice of taking the bus will probably not be attractive enough to tempt enough people away from driving on the newly widened motorway. This will lead to more induced driving and an increase in traffic congestion [which ironically will further slow those buses, because they are not on their own RoW]. Perhaps not immediately on the new parts of motorway itself, but certainly on local feeder roads and especially in the city and CMJ where the State Highways 1 and 16 and city exits all meet.

The biggest beneficiaries of high quality Rapid Transit are those who need or choose to drive. The better the alternative; the better your drive.

Staying with the value of Rapid Transit let’s head to Montréal where plans for a new layer of Rapid Transit has just been announced [in Lime Green below, with existing networks], which raises important issues around driverless technology:

reseau-electrique-metropolitan-montreal-metro-subway-map-connections

Similar to Vancouver’s Canada Line, a system that CPDQ also has a financial stake in, trains will run every three to six minutes along the mainline and every six to 12 minutes on the three branch routes, including the train service from the airport to downtown. In contrast, the Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is limited to every 20 to 30 minutes during rush hour and every hour outside of rush hour on weekdays.

But these high frequencies are only possible due to the nature of automation, which makes frequent train services significantly more economically feasible to operate. If there is a surge in demand, operators can easily and quickly increase frequency by deploying more trains by switching the controls at the operations centre.

With driverless technology, the operating costs are markedly lower than systems that require drivers and it has the potential to attract more ridership given that frequent services and superior reliability increase the utility of a transit system. Knowing that a train or bus will come soon, a transit service with a high frequency means transit users do not have to worry about service schedules. This reduces waiting times and connection times between transit services.

We really need to have a Transport Minister and Ministry just as excited about the opportunities for these technologies in the PT space as they are about them for private vehicles, the value is huge and the technology proven. SkyTrain in Vancouver has been driverless since 1985, carries 117m pax pa, and has run at an operating surplus every year since 2001.

Staying in Canada, here is how Montréal can have such ambitious city-building plans, central government is chipping in:

The new Canadian government is shifting investment to sustainable and social assets, away from Carbon intensive assets likely to become a burden on future citizens, and away from the failed ideology of austerity:

Investing in infrastructure creates good, well-paying jobs that can help the middle class grow and prosper today. And by making it easier to move people and products, well-planned infrastructure can deliver sustained economic growth for years to come.

At the same time, new challenges have emerged that make the need for investment more acute: things like the rapid growth of Canada’s cities, climate change, and threats to our water and land.

Congestion in Canadian communities makes life more difficult for busy families, and has a negative effect on our economy—when businesses can’t get their goods to market, it undermines growth.

A changing climate is also hard on communities. From floodways to power grids, investments are needed to make sure Canada’s communities remain safe and resilient places to live.

Investing in infrastructure is not just about creating good jobs and economic growth. It’s also about building communities that Canadians are proud to call home.

With historic investments in public transit, green infrastructure and social infrastructure, Budget 2016 will take advantage of historically low interest rates to renew Canada’s infrastructure and improve the quality of life for all Canadians.

In Budget 2016, the Government will implement an historic plan to invest more than $120 billion in infrastructure over 10 years, to better meet the needs of Canadians and better position Canada’s economy for the future.

2.2-en

Frankly I expect this kind of approach to become orthodox this century. That is once we can shake the stultifying grip of last century’s habits and world view, and properly start to address the issues in front of us.

More on vehicle speed and safety, this time from Nate Silver’s 538:

Given the social and economic toll of speeding, one might assume that we set speed limits with careful calculations aimed at maximizing safety. But that’s not exactly how it works, and a history of questionable applications of data is partly to blame.

Roads are planned according to a concept known as design speed, basically the speed vehicles are expected to travel.3 Engineers often apply the 85th percentile rule to a similar road to arrive at the design speed for the proposed road. It might make sense, then, that the design speed would become the speed limit. However, in practice, the design speed is often used to determine the minimum speed of safe travel on a road.

Confused? So was I. Norman Garrick, a professor of engineering at the University of Connecticut, explained how this works using the example of a commercial office building.

“It’s completely unacceptable for someone to die in a plane crash or an elevator,” he said. “We should expect the same of cars.”

And for some local flavour via Stuff: Drivers not coping with Christchurch’s new central city 30kph limit:

Acting Senior Sergeant John Hamilton said police spent 90 minutes on Friday to see if drivers were abiding by the new limits. Stuff witnessed about 10 drivers being pulled over for speeding on the corner of Montreal and Cashel streets within 30 minutes, including two Christchurch City Council staff. 

Hamilton said most of the drivers ticketed were driving between 50kmh and 60kmh, with one motorist spotted driving 65kmh.

Now I have some sympathy with these drivers for the simple reason that the both street [see above] and vehicle design mean that to stay below 30kph in anything other than congested traffic takes a huge amount of attention and control. You might argue that we should be attentive and ‘in control’ whenever we are driving, and of course that’s true, but the fact is that most operation of the vehicle for anyone but learner drivers is a subconscious act, and in fact needs to be as we should be focussing on the environment and not constantly checking the speedo. But of course, in truth, half our minds are really elsewhere, on other things when we drive; we do it on a kind of human autopilot. So if we want drivers to keep to safer slow speeds in cities, or around schools, or wherever, we really need to change the physical environment to forcibly slow the ‘natural’ speed of those places.

As for the cars themselves, well that’s a lost cause, even the simplest little car is way overpowered and torquey for these environments: they just want to get up to highway speed and stay there. Perhaps these slow streets won’t really work until those law abiding pendants the bot-cars are ponderously pootling us around…? Note these drivers weren’t just breaking the 30kph limit they were all also breaking the old 50kph one!

CHCH slow streets

Christchurch 30kph network

Related: we do like this more creative communication from some Transport Department:

Below a very interesting chart showing population change in London. I like that it has a name, and a good one, for the cycle we are clearly in now: City Renaissance and that it dates its beginning unambiguously to the early 1990s:

London Population changes

Note also that London’s population growth in this City Renaissance period has decidedly been both up and out, not just up. The rest of the paper, City VillagesPDF, from the Institute for Public Policy Research is very interesting too and relevant to Auckland’s situation. Basically the housing supply problem can be pretty clearly matched to the abandonment of public housing construction under neoliberalism, same as in NZ. Despite population growth, State and Council dwelling numbers have been falling not growing in recent decades:

London Housing supply

And lastly, something from the energy transition department. Luís de Souza is a scientist from Portugal who is always worth reading on energy supply, especially for anyone interested in the longer term trends than the noise of the trader market as reported in the MSM. Here he is calling 2015 as the year of Peak Oil:

Titling the last press review of 2015 I asked if that had been the year petroleum peaked. The question mark was not just a precaution, the uncertainty was really there. Five months later the reported world petroleum extraction rate is pretty much still were it was then. This is not a surprise, but the impact of two years of depressed prices is over due. 

Nevertheless, during these five months of lethargy the information I gathered brings me considerably closer to remove the question mark from the sentence and acknowledge that a long term decline is settling in. Understanding the present petroleum market as a feature of the supply destruction – demand destruction cycle makes this case clear.

So happy Birthday Queen Victoria [yes it’s actually her birthday], and happy reading…

 

Early June AT Board Meeting

The next AT board meeting is tomorrow and as I always do, I’ve been having a look at the publicly available reports to see what’s interesting. I usually cover off the items at the closed session of the board meeting however at the time of writing this post that agenda hadn’t be published online.

Board Report

The board report usually contains quite a bit of information although this month there doesn’t seem a whole lot that’s new and interesting. What did catch my attention is below.

Rapid Transit – There are two pieces of busway news. AT say they’re starting an indicative business case this month for the North-Western Busway between the city and Westgate and that it will identify the alignment and station locations. They also say they’re developing an agreement with the NZTA on planning and consenting processes for a new Northern Busway station at Rosedale Rd which will be built as part of the Northern Corridor works.

Nelson Street Cycleway – News on the next phase of the of the Nelson St cycleway from Victoria St to Quay St has been pretty hard to come by since the consultation and AT saying that they were investigating some of issues we raised. AT now say it:

has been re-scoped due to changes to some AT Metro bus routes to accommodate CRL construction; this meant that cycleway and bus traffic could not safely co-exist in parts of the planned cycle route. Design began in May for a route from Fanshawe Street to the Waterfront via Market Place. Construction is planned to commence around January 2017.

I always thought the route along Sturdee St wasn’t ideal and it seems bus changes have confirmed that. It’s great that AT seem to have come around to the Market Pl option. With an upgrade and addressing the parking I think that route will be popular.

Market Rd option

Newmarket Crossing (Sarawia St level crossing removal) – AT expect a decision back on the Notice of Requirement this month although residents who have been opposing it may yet appeal to the Environment Court.

Otahuhu Bus interchange – This is still reported to be on track for completion in August

Route Optimisation – AT say they’ve completed upgrades to 145 intersections out of the 212 they have planned for this year with the rest under way.

HOP and Integrated Fares – Integrated fares still on track for the end of July and interestingly “Development of a product transition plan will result in the new monthly pass being marketed in May 2016 for June 2016 launch”. As May has now passed I’m assuming we’ll hear something soon. The report also says AT were going to go live with HOP on Explore ferries on May 18, just 3 weeks after Explore pulled the plug on services to Waiheke. They are also working to have HOP on Sealink ferries for SuperGold use. Another positive is they say HOP use had it’s highest use ever on May 9 with 84.3% of all trips being via HOP.

New Network – The final route decisions for the Central and East Auckland new bus networks are expected to go to the board in the meeting at the end of June although at this stage it may not be rolled out till early 2018.

Bus Shelters – The new design shelters are being rolled out, particularly in South Auckland in advance of the new network although in other places too. The first intermediate size one was installed outside the Homai station.

Bus Shelter Design A Range

Managing Traffic in the CBD

A separate report to the board is titled Managing Traffic in the CBD and covers off how AT have created a dedicated team to manage the road network within the city in response to there being so much construction happening in the city over the next few years.

The City Centre Network Operations (CCNO) team has been set up to co-ordinate the operation of the transport network in the city centre both in real-time and for planned events. This team will oversee proposals for changes on the network resulting from planned projects such as the CRL and private development. The team is empowered to undertake changes on the network to manage traffic flows, pedestrian safety and public transport reliability.

One aspect that is good is that they’re noting that PT trips now account for more than 50% of trips to/from the city in the peaks. Growing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists help boost the non-car mode share up even higher.

The area covered by the CCNO team is shown below with the black dots being signalised intersections.

City Centre Network Operations Area

Having a team focusing on the city centre should be a good thing but ultimately it will depend on what their priorities are. For example, the Downtown Mall has now closed and as part of the demolition that will soon be taking place the footpath along the northern side of Customs St has been closed off (as has the eastern side of Albert St). This means that pedestrians in this area only have the northern side of Albert St to use, which itself is often busy with people waiting for buses. It seems that this in order to maintain traffic flow more than anything else. This has already resulted in people walking along the traffic lanes to get to their destination rather than wait to cross multiple intersections.

Downtown Mall - Pedestrians on Road

Forward programme

One of the agenda items is what AT call the forward programme which gives an idea of what topics will be coming to the board and its committees in the future. Some of the interesting topics set for the next closed session of the AT board meeting (27 June) include:

  • The North Shore Rapid Transit Network work that AT have been doing looking at the future of the rapid transit to the shore.
  • An electric bus strategy
  • Their future Parking platform which I’m guessing is related to the app we saw in the parking strategy video last week.

 

Is a “lack of land supply” the Council’s fault?

Over the weekend Bill English was interviewed on “The Nation” about the budget and how it contained very little to respond to Auckland’s housing crisis. The Minister seemed very keen shift housing discussion away from the budget, instead laying the blame on the Council (well one that hasn’t existed for 6 years).

Bill English - The Nation May-16

Yes, but we don’t make the decisions, Lisa. Auckland City Council make the decisions. Even the government can’t build a house in Auckland unless Auckland City Council frees up the land, provides the subdivision consent, processes all the consents, provides the building consent and allows the house to be occupied…

…This kind of takes us back to where I started here — the people in the cars, the first-home buyers who are locked out of the Auckland market, Auckland infrastructure. People will look at this and think that you are effectively asking those people to hold tight for at least another year so that you can afford to give tax cuts.

No, that’s not the case. For instance, for the cases that have been in the media around living in the cars, a lot of those are a bit more complex than people might realise. But in any case, we have more money than we can spend on places, on houses for people in serious housing need in Auckland. The problem isn’t money; there’s enough of that. The problem is getting enough houses. Even though Auckland City is actually completing 40 houses every working day, it’s still not enough. And that’s why in the next few months we’ve got to work hard with the Auckland City Council to get more houses, because the government can’t just magic up houses; they have to be built by real people on real land. And that’s controlled by the Auckland City Council…

…Okay, well, just let’s look at some of those figures. I mean, experts can’t agree exactly, but they think that we’re down about between 20,000 and 50,000 houses in Auckland — we’re short of those — and that we need to build about 13,000 a year to play catch-up. We’re not building 13,000 a year, so the supply must be getting worse.

Well, and that’s in the hands of the Auckland City Council, who are the people with the legal and community responsibility to get more land available so that more houses can be built faster. We’ve been through this in Christchurch. You can ramp up the construction workforce. You can change the planning rules. In Christchurch, house prices are flat to slightly falling, despite the fact that two or three years ago there was very substantial demand. And I might say the same kind of stories about it. Now, there was a lot of tension at the time in Christchurch as the system cranked up supply to meet the strong demand.

The thing is you point the finger at the council there, but the council has been very clear about the fact it needs help with infrastructure. it says it needs 3 billion in the next 10 years for infrastructure. Where do you think that money’s coming from? Because the council’s nudging its debt ceiling. It can’t rate people off their properties. So where is the money coming from?

Well, fundamentally, that’s Auckland’s issue to deal with. We are certainly contributing. I mean, right now we’re in intensive negotiation for a contribution of over $1 billion from the taxpayer to an Auckland City Council transport project called the Central Rail Link. Now, in the normal course of events, they would pay for that. We’re negotiating where taxpayers will pay for that. That’s a significant reduction in the burden on the council, and it allows them to pay for other infrastructure.

Minister, isn’t it central government’s responsibility to assist with that infrastructure?

No, fundamentally it isn’t. It is the council’s responsibility. That’s the deal. They get to decide on how their city is planned, and they get to pay for the development. And for a lot of the people living outside Auckland and inside Auckland, there are real benefits from growth. And part of the puzzle here is that as more people turn up in Auckland and as incomes rise, growth is good. The council benefits from that, and so do ratepayers. And so they’ve just got to work out a better alignment between the funding and the growth.

A lot of blame laid on the Council (and also a weird interpretation of what’s happening with the City Rail Link as usually government has paid for 100% of rail infrastructure projects, it’s actually odd that the Council is paying around 50%, but that’s a whole different debate!)

This “blame the Council” game is also popular with a number of supposedly informed commentators:


But is this a fair criticism? Is the Council holding back land supply and slowing down the construction of desperately needed new housing? This is worth looking at a bit further.

One of the reasons the government amalgamated the eight previous and often bickering councils that governed Auckland and set the newly formed single council the task of coming up with a 30 year vision for Auckland (The Auckland Plan) and bringing together all of various plans and civic functions of Auckland.

Where the Unitary Plan provided the vision, the main tool at the Council’s disposal to enable or restrict land supply is through the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan. Compared to the old plans that governed development and use of land, the Unitary Plan enables around 11,000 hectares of additional “Future Urban zoned” land to be developed. At a broad 60/40 split between growth inside and outside the old urban limits, and at a high population growth rate, this is enough land for around 30 years of greenfield land. As I explained in this recent post, it is a really really big amount of land. This is not the plans of the previous councils and addressing issues like land supply was exactly why the government amalgamated the council in the first place.

So the Council has certainly outlined its intention to enable a lot more greenfield development to occur in the future. In a basic sense, the amount of “land supply” has gone up a lot. Let’s leave aside the question of whether this is enough “Future Urban” land and focus for now on the criticism that the Council has been far too slow to increase land supply. There’s actually a decent amount of evidence to show huge hurdles have been cleared to speed this process up. For example:

  • Government made changes to the RMA to allow the Unitary Plan hearings to be fast-tracked in at least half the time the process would normally take – although it’s worth noting that the Council originally requested that the plan would be granted immediate effect upon notification and which the government rejected.
  • Special Housing Areas were established that essentially brought forward the Unitary Plan (in its proposed version) and created a fast-tracked consenting process

In some cases Special Housing Areas were rejected by the Council, which could be seen as a way of slowing down land supply. However, in the main these occurred because of transport problems on the State Highway network, which is owned and operated by the Government through NZTA.

Of course the Council is not blameless when it comes to decisions it has made to increase housing supply and improve affordability. In February this year the Council made a completely stupid decision to withdraw its evidence from rezoning hearings because a majority of the councillors were worried about three storey buildings in suburban areas, areas with existing infrastructure where new development could happen tomorrow if the planning rules allowed it. As expected that proved completely pointless as other submitters such as Housing NZ were still allowed to use the Council’s evidence.

Overall it’s hard to see what more the Council could have done over the past few years to speed up the supply of greenfield land. The fact is that developing this land takes a long time – not just to go through the RMA processes but also to get that land serviced with infrastructure and ready to build. Even with all the money in the world, a major wastewater pipe or new road takes a number of years to build and greenfield growth often can’t occur without it (no point building new houses if the taps don’t work and the toilet doesn’t flush). It’s time that politicians and supposedly informed commentators realised this.