Getting high patronage in a sprawling city

I’ve talked in the past about Calgary and how I think it’s an extremely useful city for Auckland to compare to and this article from The Transport Politic highlights why.

Calgary is a boomtown — the center of Canada’s resource economy, whose explosion in recent years has led to big gains in Calgary’s population and commercial activity. It’s the sort of place that might seem completely hostile to public transit; 87 percent of locals live in suburban environments where single-family homes and strip malls predominate; surrounding land is mostly flat and easily developable farmland; the city is almost 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, meaning it was mostly built in a post-automobile age; and big highways with massive interchanges are found throughout the region. Even the transit system it has serves many places that are hostile to pedestrians and hardly aesthetically pleasing.

It’s an environment that looks a lot more like Dallas or Phoenix than Copenhagen.

In addition to this it’s not a massive city population wise and is in fact is very similar to Auckland’s – and has had similar growth over the last 30 years.

Auckland vs Calgary Population

And yet Calgary is attracting big crowds to its transit system, and those crowds continue to increase in size. Like several of its Canadian counterparts, Calgary is demonstrating that even when residential land use is oriented strongly towards auto dependency, it is possible to encourage massive use of the transit system. As I’ll explain below, however, strong transit use in Calgary has not been a fluke; it is the consequence of a strong public policy to reduce car use downtown. It provides an important lesson for other largely suburban North American cities that are examining how to reduce their automobile use.

Much of the trend of increasing transit use has come recently, in part because of the expansion of the city’s light rail network, C-Train. That system, which opened in 1981 and has been expanded several times (it now provides service on 36 miles of lines), has become the backbone of the municipal transit agency and now serves more rides than the bus network. C-Train is now the second-most-heavily used light rail system in North America.

Calgary C Train network

Calgary C Train Network

Don’t be fooled by the term light rail, Calgary’s C-Train is the equivalent of our rail network and the Northern Busway – a rapid transit network providing a high capacity core network on a dedicated (largely on street) right of way. Supporting the C-Train network is a bus network based on the same principles as Auckland Transports proposed New Network. Both light rail and buses have seen growth over the last 17 years shown in the graph below although the light rail has clearly grown the strongest. Strong growth in rapid transit is a trend we’re really starting to see in Auckland.

The presence of rapid transit is clearly a critical factor in Calgary’s outstanding patronage results but it’ not the only factor.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a radically different view about how to manage automobiles downtown. Decades of progressive thinking about how to run downtown have produced a Calgary where there are no freeways entering the central city. Citizens there have been vocally opposed to building highways there since the 1950s, with the consequence that it is simply not that quick to get into downtown by car. This has a number of related effects, including the incentivization of non-automobile modes and the reduction in outward suburban sprawl (since it takes a longer amount of time to get to the center of downtown).

Perhaps most impressive have been Calgary’s parking policies. For decades, the municipal government has managed parking supply downtown, in part by directly owning a huge proportion of the spaces. The city has also limited the number of spaces allowed to be built in the center. In 1981, the city had 25 million square feet of offices downtown and 33,000 parking spaces (1,320 parking spaces per million square feet), but today, it has more than 40 million square feet of offices (and more under construction) and 47,000 spaces (1,175 spaces per million square feet, an 11 percent reduction). The limitations on the number of parking spaces has resulted in an expensive parking market; the city has the second-highest parking rates in the Americas, after New York City.

For car users wishing to get downtown, the city has compensated by investing in 17,433 park-and-ride spaces at almost every light rail station, of which 36 percent are reserved for people who have paid $80 a month, a considerable discount off the downtown rates. This emphasis on park-and-ride spaces departs from the typical urbanist emphasis on transit-oriented development as a strategy for station areas, but it seems to have worked in Calgary.

Charging for Park & Ride is a relatively new thing for Calgary and is a response to ever increasing demand for more and doing so has had no impact on patronage. The city is also now looking to reduce the number of P&R spaces it has by using them for development so the total number will drop over time.

I don’t how much office space Auckland has but as a comparison there are around 50,000 carparks in the Auckland CBD and many more on the fringes outside it.

CBD Parking Supply

And what of the impacts of the policy of restricting carparking.

These policies have produced the overall city transit ridership noted above, and have been particularly relevant in affecting travel trends downtown. Between 1998 and 2014, the share of downtown workers using transit to get to work has increased from 37 percent to 50 percent; a rise has also been noted in the share of people walking and cycling, which has risen from 8 percent to 11 percent over that period. That transit share is just a bit lower than that seen in Chicago’s Inner Central Area (55 percent in 2000), a central business district that was developed far earlier and which has a far more developed transit system.

Pro-transit policies have not produced a dramatic move of businesses away from Calgary’s center city — the fear many politicians and business promoters point to when complaining about limitations on automobile access to downtown. In fact, Calgary’s office market is doing quite well, with five office buildings over 500 feet completed downtown since 2010, compared to just one in Dallas, one in Houston, and none in Phoenix. Calgary’s downtown population has expanded rapidly to 16,000 people and now hosts 140,000 jobs and eight shopping centers. It should be noted that the Calgary municipal government has also played an important role in advocating for a compact city and directed local policies to support that goal.

In other words, restricting automobile use and encouraging transit ridership not only don’t hurt business — they may be encouraging it.

The 2015-2025 Government Policy Statement Confirmed

Simon Bridges has released the final version of the 2015/16 – 2024/25 Government Policy Statement (GPS) following on from the draft version earlier this year. The GPS is effectively the top dog when it comes to transport funding and policy as in the words of the minister:

The Government Policy Statement on land transport (the GPS) sets out the Government’s strategic and policy goals for land transport, as well as the funding direction necessary to achieve them. It guides not only an investment of $3.4 to $4.4 billion per annum from central government, but around $1.0 billion a year from local government.

The GPSs relationship to other key planning documents is shown below.

2015 GPS - Document heirachy

Very little has changed from the draft version we saw with the Ministry of Transport saying some of the changes are:

  • The upper ranges of funding available for public transport have increased, so up to $115 million more will be available for public transport projects between 2015/16 and 2024/25. This takes the potential spending on public transport to a total of $4.585 billion.
  • The objectives set down in the final GPS 2015 have been amended to ensure they are clearer and more well-defined. A new ‘efficiency’ objective has been added, while the ‘demand’ objective has been clarified so it refers to access to social and economic opportunities.
  • A definition of major metropolitan areas (reflecting the Statistics New Zealand definition) has been added, clarifying those areas which are eligible for funding under the Regional Improvements activity class.
  • The Auckland Transport Package (announced by the Government in 2013), Accelerated Regional Roading Package (announced in August 2014) and the Urban Cycleways Package (announced in September 2014) have been referenced throughout GPS 2015. While funding for these will be provided in addition to funding for activity classes, the packages will be considered and undertaken in a way consistent with other projects funded under the GPS.
  • The role that technology and innovation can play in managing network access and capacity has been reflected throughout the document, including the new crosscutting reporting line which will ensure technology investments (and the returns on these investments) will be transparently recorded.

In other words there’s been some tweaking around the edges but no significant change. That means there is still some massive hypocrisy and double standards contained within the document. As a quick example, while noting that vehicle travel has basically flat-lined and will “remain more muted than in previous economic cycles“, the maximum possible funding for state highways increases by 4%. By comparison almost all talk in the document about improving PT services comes with the caveat of “if justified by demand“. Simplified you could say PT investment has to justify its existence but road investment doesn’t.

Related, the maximum possible funding for PT increases by 3.5% per annum and the MoT say “This rate of increase reflects current and projected patronage growth“. Of course that level of projected patronage growth only exists because of the level of funding being made available limiting services. If Auckland Transport had more funding they could roll out the new network much faster and of course by doing so we would see stronger patronage growth much sooner.

One of the key things about the GPS is the funding ranges it sets. These funding ranges are meant to give the NZTA some (small) amount of flexibility when setting the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) which sets out the projects that are likely to be funded. The NZTA could theoretically use the maximum funding ranges in some categories at the expense of others however overall the exact amounts selected tends to be closer to the midpoint between the upper and lower figures.

GPS 2015-2025 Funding Range

And using the mid-point between the two figures, this graph highlights where the money is going over the next decade.

GPS 2015-2025 Funding Graph

In terms of the maximum extra $115m possible for PT, for the next three years the difference between the draft and the final version over the next 4 years are compared to the draft are just $5 million in 2016/17 and $10 million in 2017/18.

In addition to the table above the GPS also lists the funding outside of the categories above, in other words money the government is paying directly for transport projects such as the governments $100m Urban Cycleway funding that they announced in the lead up to the election. One of the things that’s odd about that particular funding stream is it seems to be broken up into state highways and local roads elements which is something that hadn’t been mentioned before.

GPS 2015-2025 Other Funding

Overall the direction of transport policy has changed little since 2008/09 and the focus remains on building massive state highway projects – most with low value outcomes – while the areas of the transport system that are seeing the most growth get ignored.

Does intensification increase traffic congestion?

Earlier this week, I took a look at the relationship between congestion and density. I was investigating geographer Phil McDermott’s claim, based on some dodgy data comparing between cities, that increasing density would increase congestion.

Economists know that it is difficult to make inferences about causality using cross-sectional analysis. Simply looking at variations between different cities doesn’t allow you to form robust conclusions about how those cities got to where they are.

One of the ways in which economists seek to strengthen their understanding of causality is to look at changes over time. For example, if you observe that increases in density tend to be followed by increases in congestion, then that is stronger (although not necessarily conclusive) evidence that there is a causal relationship.

With that in mind, it is worth asking: How have congestion and density changed in New Zealand cities over time? Unfortunately, we don’t have enough data points to conduct a robust econometric analysis, but we do have enough to start painting a picture of recent changes. We can draw upon two relevant sources:

I’m going to focus on NZ’s three largest cities – Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch – as two of the three experienced big increases in density between 2001 and 2013. (MoT hasn’t collected data on Hamilton and Tauranga for as many years.) If these increases in density coincided with rising congestion, it may be an indication that intensification can lead to increased congestion.

Here’s the data. It shows that density has risen 33% in Auckland between the 2001 and 2013 Censuses, 17% in Wellington, and a mere 3% in Christchurch:

Changing density in large NZ cities chart

And here’s the Ministry of Transport’s Congestion Index, which measures the average minutes of delay per vehicle-kilometre, relative to totally free-flowing conditions. This is a bit of an unrealistic comparison, as a 2013 NZTA research report by Wallis and Lupton shows. The only way that you can totally avoid all queuing or stopping at traffic lights is if there are no other cars on the road. So it wouldn’t be realistic to say that we could speed up the average Auckland trip by half a minute per kilometre. However, this is still a useful indicator for changes from year to year.

While the Index bounces around a bit from year to year, the overall trends are clear. Levels of congestion are flat or falling in Auckland and Wellington, which experienced big increases in density over the last decade, and rising in Christchurch, which hasn’t gotten denser. In particular:

  • Average delay for Auckland drivers was 25% lower in 2013 than it was in 2003
  • Average delay for Wellington motorists fell 5% from 2004 to 2013
  • Average delay for Christchurch drivers rose a staggering 31% between 2004 and 2010. Unfortunately, MoT’s monitoring seems to have been disrupted by the earthquake, but anecdotal evidence suggests that congestion has worsened since then.

MoT Congestion Index chart

In short, data on changes in density and congestion in New Zealand cities contradicts the notion that intensification will necessarily cause worse traffic congestion. If anything, it suggests that rising density may do the opposite, by making it more feasible for people to walk, cycle, or take public transport.

Do we need to treat this data with caution? Most certainly. As I noted earlier in the week, there are a number of omitted variables that influence congestion, such as such as changing consumer preferences, macroeconomic changes, and significant investments in both roads and public transport over the last decade. But it does suggest that wild claims about the negative traffic impacts of new apartment buildings should be taken with a significant grain of salt.

What do you make of this data?

Arguing for sprawl with “strategic misrepresentations”

A number of recent posts have taken a look at some of the “strategic misrepresentations” that people have used to argue for a sprawled-out, roads-focused Auckland. We’ve taken aim at some of the common fallacies, including:

A while back someone sent me an article by geographer Phil McDermott that really hits the trifecta of fallacies. He argues that building apartment buildings on arterial roads – precisely where they will have the best access to frequent public transport services on Auckland’s New Network – is a bad idea because it will lead to increased congestion on the roads.

McDermott’s argument is long on subjective judgments (young people may want apartments but old people downsizing from big suburban homes never will!) and short on quantitative analysis. Here’s his key piece of evidence that constructing apartments on arterial roads will inevitably lead to more congestion:

Congestion – the elephant in the apartment

That might be just as well because mindlessly boosting residential development on arterial roads promises simply to compound Auckland’s congestion problems.

We know higher densities are associated with higher congestion. Auckland’s geography means it already performs poorly on this count. The Tom Tom Congestion Index confirms this.

When the 2013 congestion index for 65 American and Australasian cities is plotted against population density (sourced from the Demographia website) Auckland sits among the worst performers – Vancouver, Sydney, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Population Density and Congestion

McDermott density and congestion

This is not a serious piece of analysis – it is an insult to econometricians. McDermott makes three elementary errors in this short excerpt alone.

First, he uses bad data that misrepresents levels of density and congestion in these cities. Matt has previously taken a look into the guts of the TomTom Traffic Index and found that it is not a useful measure:

It measures the difference in speed between free flow and congested periods. That means cities with lots of all day congestion there isn’t as much of a difference between peak and off peak times and therefore they get recorded as having less congestion.

Likewise, I’ve done some empirical work on population densities in New Zealand and Australian cities that has showed that Demographia’s statistics are similarly meaningless. Demographia measures the density of the average hectare of land in the city, rather than the density of the neighbourhood in which the average person lives. Nick has shown how badly these figures misrepresent the actual density of New Zealand cities:

Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_1

Second, McDermott omits important variables and makes inappropriate inferences about causality. While he observes a correlation between two variables, that’s hardly sufficient to prove that building apartments will increase congestion. The causality could very easily run the other way. For example, it could be the case that the presence of congestion creates an incentive for people to live closer to employment and amenity. If that’s the case, then McDermott’s preferred policy of banning apartment developments would make Aucklanders much worse off by preventing them from minimising their travel costs.

Another possibility is that the relationship between density and congestion is mediated through other factors. Both may be caused by a third variable that McDermott has omitted, or there may be an intermediate step between density and congestion. (Or, as noted above, the measures themselves might be rubbish.)

A while back, CityLab’s Eric Dumbaugh provided an excellent illustration of the complex nature of congestion. He looks at data on US cities and finds that higher congestion is associated with higher, rather than lower, levels of productivity:

As per capita delay went up, so did GDP per capita. Every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. For those interested in statistics, the relationship was significant at the 0.000 level, and the model had an R2 of 0.375. In layman’s terms, this was statistically-meaningful relationship.

Dumbaugh congestion and productivity chart

Such a finding seems counterintuitive on its surface. How could being stuck in traffic lead people to be more productive? The relationship is almost certainly not causal. Instead, regional GDP and traffic congestion are tied to a common moderating variable – the presence of a vibrant, economically-productive city. And as city economies grow, so too does the demand for travel. People travel for work and meetings, for shopping and recreation. They produce and demand goods and services, which further increases travel demand. And when the streets become congested and driving inconvenient, people move to more accessible areas, rebuild at higher densities, travel shorter distances, and shift travel modes.

In light of these counterintuitive relationships, the simple two-variable OLS regression that McDermott is relying upon is almost certainly misleading.

Third, McDermott fails to recognise that people are less exposed to congestion in denser, mixed-use cities. It’s simple: when people have better transport choices – i.e. access to frequent bus services and rapid transit, and safe walking and cycling networks – it doesn’t matter as much that the roads are congested. Increasing Auckland’s density by constructing apartment blocks and terraced housing on arterial roads will make it easier for people to have those choices, because the arterial roads are where the frequent bus services under the New Network will go:

Frequency is freedom

Frequency is freedom

Furthermore, density allows people to be closer to where they want to go. I find it odd that McDermott (and others) underestimate the importance of physical proximity in cities, even as people are paying high prices for the privilege. Building more homes in the areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities will allow more people to choose proximity over long commutes. (Without preventing others from making a different choice.)

A question for the readers: Would you rather have a 40 kilometre commute travelling at 80 km/hr, or a 5 kilometre commute moving at 30 km/hr? Show your work…

An ode to oil

Crude oil is a fantastically useful energy source, and has become enmeshed in our daily lives. It’s used to make petrol, plastics, and asphalt. Oil products are used in almost all motor vehicles today, but that wasn’t always the case:

The electric motor predates the internal combustion engine, and many early motor vehicles ran on electricity rather than gasoline. However, oil-based fuels had a number of advantages over electricity. The International Energy Agency points out that these fuels gave much more energy per unit of volume or mass than batteries, and were easy to handle, transport and store. These advantages, combined with the fragmented nature of electricity networks at the time, led to oil-based fuels becoming the dominant source of transport energy.

So, crude oil has several advantages over electricity, and many other fuels besides:

  • High energy per unit of volume/ weight (see below)
  • Easy to handle, transport and store (storing electricity is tough)
  • Low infrastructure requirements

That first bullet point is still a major advantage for oil-based fuels, as per the table below which shows energy content (megajoules, MJ) per kilogram or per litre:Fuel propertiesSources: MBIE, Wikipedia

As you can imagine, when talking about transport, it’s important that the fuel isn’t too heavy and doesn’t take up too much space. Petrol and other oil-based fuels are very well suited to this. Gas, coal and wood don’t make the grade – you’d need to hunt further to find some MJ/litre figures for them (and they’ll vary depending on a number of factors), but they certainly don’t compare to petrol. Ethanol, which is the main biofuel being produced today, has much lower energy content on both measures.

The values for batteries, at the bottom of that table, show that we’ve still got a way to go before electric vehicles can measure up to conventional ones. For the time being, their batteries can weigh hundreds of kilograms and take up plenty of precious interior space.

The comparison with batteries brings me to another advantage of oil: it’s relatively cheap, given all the things it can do. It’s pricier than wood and coal, of course, which are abundant worldwide and have less inherent value. But as a means of energy storage, it’s much cheaper than the current generation of batteries in electric cars.

I’ve looked at oil prices over time here. The rosy picture of low prices through most of the 20th century came to an abrupt end in the 1970s, when OPEC formed and the oil shocks began. Which brings me to the first major disadvantage of oil, summarised nicely in the following quote:

“Oil prices have been highly volatile [since 1970], and seem likely to stay that way… the oil market as it is structured today seems inherently prone to further disruption”

So, oil prices can swing wildly, as they did in the 70s and again since 2000. We’re seeing this again now, with oil prices falling dramatically in the last few months, along with many other commodities.

The second big disadvantage started to become clear by the 1990s, as scientists grew increasingly confident that man-made emissions of CO2 – mainly from burning fossil fuels such as oil – were contributing to global warming.

Overall, oil has played a massive role in the last 100 years of human history. Today, oil production has essentially plateaued (or begun to decline if “non-conventional” sources are excluded), with demand also on the wane in developed countries like New Zealand, versus rising demand in the developing world.

Oil is still a critical part of our economy, though, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Its many advantages and uses mean that we’ll still need it for many years to come, although there are plenty of things we could do to try and reduce our dependence on it – indeed, things we should do given its disadvantages. But those can wait for other posts.

The real surprise from the census data, part 2

Following on from a post here, I thought I’d take another look at the Auckland city centre’s population, now there is some more information available.

90 years of change in the inner city

I came across a fascinating paper here thanks to one of the other bloggers – it’s a thorough exploration of the changing population and demographics of inner-city Auckland, including the suburbs. I’ve updated a graph from the paper which shows how the population has grown over the long term (thanks to the author Ward Friesen, who kindly sent me the population figures he used up to 2006 so that I could update them to 2013):

Inner city population

This graph also shows the population of the inner suburbs, excluding the city centre. See Ward’s paper for a list of what is included there, but essentially it’s everything from Herne Bay through Grey Lynn, Eden Terrace, Newmarket and Parnell.
Both the city centre and the inner suburbs have seen similar trends over the last 90 years, with residential populations that fell in the post-war period, bottomed out in around 1991, and have since grown strongly. Today, the city centre’s population is larger than it has ever been, whereas – despite all the angst around intensification – the inner suburbs are still well below their pre-war levels.

The latest on the city centre’s population

I wrote in the earlier post that “it’s now likely that the CBD has a population of at least 28,000 people – and this is the kind of estimate Statistics New Zealand will end up with when they re-calculate their estimates next year.” Indeed, the new estimates show a population of 27,810 as at June 2013, and another big increase in the last year, taking the population to 30,130 as at June 2014.

I’m a little suspicious of that increase in the last year – I can’t see where an extra 2,320 people came from, given that there haven’t been many apartments completed. As highlighted in the original post, the population estimates can be prone to error. However, these figures do suggest a strong future growth path, especially as there are now hundreds of new apartments under construction.

On a final note, Auckland’s city centre now has a residential population the size of Taupo, Blenheim or Timaru, and it’s growing much faster than any of them. The size of its economy is several times larger, with 90,000 people working in the CBD. That’s a lot of activity taking place in a pretty compact area.

The sticky mess of the transport budget

The big news that the Council will be pushing back its preferred start date for the main part of the City Rail Link was not a huge surprise – aside from the enabling works the project’s probably not practically ready to start so quickly, even if funding support was available from Central Government (which it’s not). However, this is hardly a “win” on any account, as reduced spending on CRL in the next few years doesn’t free up money for other projects – as we stressed last month. This is because CRL doesn’t have an impact on rates until it opens, and it apparently is the level of rates income that constrains the transport budget.

So what does the rest of the transport budget look like? Looking at the details, the result is quite a mess, particularly during the first five years. This will become a core part of the big LTP question around whether the public wants a much larger transport programme and if so, how we’d prefer to pay for it (rates & fuel tax increases or a motorway toll). Hidden away at page 252 and 253 of the November Budget Committee agenda (27MB PDF) is the 10 year transport programme (although this is from before yesterday’s decision to delay the CRL):


This reflects the list of projects “above the line” in Auckland Transport’s ranking of all projects and reflect’s what’s possible in the “Basic Transport Network”. I don’t have a huge concern about the project list itself, although there are a few pretty low value things in there like Mill Road. The issue is more about the timing and sequencing of the programme – especially in the first few years.

You’ll see a number of important projects in there that are based around supporting the new public transport network that Auckland Transport are implementing over the next few years. Projects like the Otahuhu, Te Atatu and Manukau interchanges. Or the necessary improvements to Wellesley Street so it can cope with becoming the main east-west bus route across the city centre. The big problem is that these projects don’t appear to be funded until 2021 or in some cases (like Wellesley Street) even later:


This is a pretty insane situation, especially for projects like the Otahuhu interchange which is utterly fundamental to any implementation of the new PT network in the south. AT have started on the project but it seems they only have enough money for early works and design. The other big issue is the walking and cycling programme – which appears to be the line item “W+C Programme Risk Management”, that doesn’t have any funding at all for the first five years of the budget period.

The numbers at the bottom of the table above tell a rather strange and difficult to understand story about the total amount of funding available for transport over each of the next 10 years, jumping all over the place from a low of $453 million in the 15/16 year up to a whopping $978 million in 20/21 before dropping back down again significantly. The CRL numbers will change a bit, but remember not the rest of the programme.

But even within the funding envelope available, it seems that Auckland Transport has made some strange decisions around the timing of projects. Why is Albany Highway such an extremely high priority that it sucks up nearly $40 million in the first couple of years? Why is there no funding for AMETI, then one year of funding, then no funding again? Some of the project costs raise questions too – how does a Te Atatu bus interchange cost $46 million? How can a Wynyard interchange cost $25 million and a Downtown one $24 million when a Learning Quarter interchange only costs $8 million? Should we really be spending $171 million on the Reeves Road flyover?

There seems to be an expectation that the “Basic Transport Network” is just an academic exercise, with the public supposedly hugely in favour of the motorway tolls scheme (or higher rates and fuel taxes) that will “save the day”. I’m a bit sceptical about this – the government has not greeted the tolls scheme warmly and the public seem to be screaming even about the proposed 3.5% rates increase. We could very well be stuck with the Basic Transport Network for the foreseeable future, which means it needs a hell of a lot of work to ensure the new public transport network doesn’t fail, to ensure momentum on the walking and cycling programme is not lost and to finally make some tough decisions around whether we should be spending $143 million on Mill Road, $171 million on the Reeves Road flyover or $135 million on the East West Connections project.

The currently proposed budget is just a sticky mess that seems almost designed to fail.

Is New Zealand getting public transport right?

Increasingly, the answer is yes – although we certainly can’t rest on our laurels yet. Read on if you want to know how and why…

I recently read Paul Mees’ excellent book Transport for Suburbia, which argues that high-quality, useful public transport services can be provided even in the low to medium density cities of Australia and New Zealand. Reader Warren S gave a glowing review of the book earlier this year.

Mees, who did his initial research on Auckland in the 1990s, was quite scathing about the decades of planning failures that led to the city having an underutilised and not especially useful public transport network. The user experience has suffered, he argued, due both to decades of underinvestment and a refusal to plan an integrated bus network that would be useful throughout the growing city.

The key to any good public transport network, Mees argued, is that it must function as a network. A 2010 NZTA research report (pdf) that he co-authored identified two key principles of network structure.

First, the network should be stable throughout the day, as shown on the right hand side of the diagram. In other words, the bus lines that are running in the peak should be running in the middle of the day, in evenings, and on weekends. This has important benefits for users, because it gives them a lot of certainty. For example, a working mother who rides the bus to work doesn’t have to worry that she won’t be able to make it home in the middle of the day in case of a medical emergency. The bus will always be running down the same streets.

Mees principles of network design

Second, frequent connective services are essential if public transport is going to serve a diverse range of trips. As Jarrett Walker says, frequency is freedom: when you know that you’ll never have to wait long for a bus (or to transfer between services), then it’s really convenient to choose to take the bus. The following diagram is somewhat difficult to read at first, but it depicts how much more mobility is enabled by a frequent connective network. This is really, really good for users, because it gives them many more choices about where to travel and how to get there.

Mees Squarevill example

Based on the best practice from overseas, Mees argued that New Zealand needed to make some crucial changes in three main areas. As the table below shows, we’re actually well underway (or finished with) most of these changes! Moreover, we’re seeing the benefits of many of these changes already, meaning that they will be easy to build upon and hard to reverse.

Of course, we’re not yet in the promised land of PT, and the devil is often in the details. While Auckland’s New Network represents a real improvement in the quality and usefulness of the city’s PT offering, Mees points out that there are many elements of network design that will require fine-tuning. That means things like rolling out bus lanes on more routes, getting bus stops in the right place, and making connection points between frequent routes comfortable and easy to use – all of which requires on-the-ground knowledge.

Paul Mees’ recommendation Are we doing it in Auckland?
1  Appropriate institutions and public processes:
Establish a public agency to plan the network across the whole urban region. Auckland Transport is doing this – it seems to be earning more bouquets than brick-bats in the process
Redirect private-sector competition into producing best-value tenders for the delivery of part, or all, of a publicly planned system. Done – changes to PT contracting under the last two governments have given transport agencies back control of network planning
Use well-designed public education and consultation programmes to manage changes. Done – AT’s consultation on the Southern New Network was praised
Provide a simple fare system that avoids the imposition of penalties for transfers. HOP cards have given us integrated ticketing; integrated fares are (hopefully) up next
2  Network structure:
Provide a simple and stable network of lines throughout the day. In progress – that’s the goal of the New Network
Base mode choice for different lines in the network on required capacity, comfort and speed. In progress – CRL and more busways planned in AT’s capital programme
Consider locations for suburban interchanges on the basis of predicted travel patterns and efficient vehicle operations. In progress – Panmure Station successfully implemented, Otahuhu to follow
3  Network operations
Simplicity and directness:
Organise the network on the principle of ‘one section – one line’. Done in New Network
Avoid deviations in the physical routes chosen for bus services. Done in New Network
Provide pendulum lines through key activity centres and interchanges. Done in New Network
Speed and reliability:
Aim for travel speeds comparable to, or faster than, door-to-door travel times that can be achieved by car. Already done on selected routes – e.g. the Northern Busway and some isthmus routes
Provide on-road signal and traffic-lane priority to allow buses to meet connections. In progress – e.g. with the quick win on Fanshawe St – but not fast enough
Aim to have vehicles stopping only as required to pick up and drop off passengers. Already standard practice
Establish ’forget-the-timetable’ headways (10 minutes or less) in key travel corridors. Key principle in New Network, although that aims for 15 minute frequencies as a minimum
Set up integrated timetables outside high-frequency areas. Key principle in New Network
Location of stops and access to services:
Carefully plan the location of stops to minimise the number of stops and ensure their optimal location in relation to major trip attractors, intersecting lines and pedestrian accessways. Hopefully underway as part of New Network route design… AT’s been doing some work on new bus shelter designs
Locate stops in car-free precincts close to important destinations, to give public transport a significant competitive advantage. We haven’t yet started to think about this – perhaps time to get started?
Change current access to ‘trunk’ services from ‘park-and-ride’ facilities to access by walking, bicycle, or feeder bus, in order to cater for long-term growth in patronage. More could be done
Ensure that walking distances between services in interchanges are very short: preferably no more than 10 metres.
Marketing for first-time and occasional users:
Create a simple line structure that makes the network easy to understand. Done in New Network – have you seen the maps?
Use maps, on-line information, vehicle livery and on-board displays to reinforce understanding of the line layout and transfer opportunities. Some bus routes (e.g. Northern Express, Link Buses) have branded livery; real-time information is improving but still spotty

Moreover, this is not just an Auckland phenomenon – other New Zealand cities are eagerly embracing the principles of PT network design. Wellington and Dunedin are at work applying the same set of principles to their public transport networks. This week, Christchurch’s own frequent connective network went live – a significant milestone for a city that’s still rebuilding following the earthquakes.


In short, there has been a quiet revolution in public transport planning in New Zealand. Many regional transport agencies (and central government) have looked at best practice from overseas and gotten on with implementing it. Paul Mees might have torn his hair out when studying the mess that had been made of PT planning by the 1990s – but things are now turning around. Long may it continue!

Flyover Fund: Wellington Auction Tonight

The Architectural Centre’s Auction for the Anti- Basin Flyover Fund takes place tonight at  7:30pm St Joseph’s Church, 42 Ellice St, Mt Victoria, Wellington.

The auction is happening because NZTA are still trying to force this pointless and expensively hideous structure on little Wellington despite losing the case for it at the Board of Inquriry. More millions of our  tax dollars on QCs…

Here is the catalogue of donated works.

There is a great range and something for all tastes, I have donated a print of my 1988 portrait of Ralph Hotere [selenium toned silver gelatine print], because I know which side he would be on:

Ralph Hotere

Here’s a short description of my experience of meeting Ralph for the first time on the visit that I made the portrait:

In winter 1988 I had the opportunity to visit Ralph Hotere at Careys Bay near Port Chalmers for a few days and make this portrait of him. It was an extremely rich experience, he had a way of offering things in a simultaneously casual and formal way; looking back I can see now how lucky I was, although at the time I was principally concerned about whether I was ever going to get a chance to take the portrait.
I got to hang out at his house; major works by his own hand and others, including McCahon, stacked deep against the walls, and down at the pub, which back then was a seriously quotidian operation, focussed on serving the fishermen from the boats that tied up across the road. Ralph cleaned up all-comers on the pool table. The pub seemed to never close. Both buildings were freezing.
We drove around in one of his lovingly maintained old Jaguars, up to the cemetery on he hill where he said there was a headstone McCahon had painted I should see, and, where he suddenly turned to me and asked, almost accusingly; ‘got your camera?’ He clearly had decided this was where he wanted to be photographed, he then arranged himself apparently casually but in fact quite deliberately. He gave me the shot.
He also took me to a studio he kept in the stables of a Victorian estate up on Observation Point, overlooking the port. He spoke of the great sculptural qualities of the straddle cranes working below. He was at that time fighting to save the headland from the port company’s land eating expansion plans.
Thinking of an appropriate image to donate to this auction I immediately thought of Ralph: he often found himself at odds with the plans of powerful public institutions. And not because of a resistance to change or progress, but because so often those plans resulted in brutally clumsy outcomes developed through poor processes. In particular those that discount long lasting negative effects on people and place. So it is with this proposal.


Supply curves slope upwards. Demand curves slope downwards. Are we accounting for this?

In a number of recent posts I’ve taken a look at both the demand for new roads (tends to be lower than expected) and the cost to build new roads (tends to be higher than expected). This has led to a bit of trouble for road builders in many developed countries – it’s getting harder and harder to find good projects.

This wasn’t always the case. Fifty years ago, people were flocking to new roads, even toll roads like the Auckland Harbour Bridge. But the transport market has shifted over the last decade. I would argue that we’re seeing signs that the market for driving is saturated. New Zealand’s road networks are mostly complete, and they have already succeeded in attracting the highest-value trips. Further road expansions will, by and large, serve lower-value trips.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here – just restating some concepts from Economics 101. It’s worth going back to the basics of supply and demand to consider what might be happening in New Zealand’s road markets.

First, supply curves tend to slope upwards. In the case of transport investment, this reflects the fact that it tends to be increasingly expensive to build more road capacity as the network expands. Building the first ten kilometres of road may be cheap – the next 1,000 kilometres, not so much.


Second, demand curves tend to slope downwards. Effective, what this means is that the people with the highest willingness to pay tend to be at the front of the queue. The first people to use a new road will tend to be the people who place the highest value on travelling. The people who come later – perhaps as the road is being expanded – will tend to value travel less.


So far, so good. In a typical market, the quantity supplied would be determined by the intersection of the two curves. If transport agencies applied similar thinking, they would seek to build roads to the point at which the marginal willingness to pay for more driving was equal to the marginal cost of the next road. That’s shown in the green circle below.


However, transport infrastructure is not a typical market – it’s provided free of charge by monopoly infrastructure builders that must estimate (rather than observe) the amount of demand for their products. And rather than specifying a downward-sloping demand schedule, NZTA’s Economic Evaluation Manual (EEM) simply presents a standardised average figure for the value of time for travellers. (More precisely, a set of different averages for different types of roads and types of users.) The result of that – shown in the graph below – is effectively a flat demand curve.


If estimates of future demand are based on the value of time for the average current user rather than the marginal new user, they will significantly overestimate people’s desire to drive on new roads. In theory, the EEM includes procedures to correct for this – principally, their application of the “rule of half” to scale down transport benefits for new users. In practice, a lot of analysis seems to be done on the basis that future users will value driving in much the same way as previous users. Furthermore, demand forecasts can be developed in a fairly crude way that doesn’t take into account people’s marginal willingness to pay for new road capacity.

The graph below shows this dilemma. Effectively, if we don’t take account of the fact that demand curves slope down, we run the risk of massively overspending on new roads.


But that’s just the theory – has this actually happened in reality? There is some evidence that it has. For example, the failures of private toll roads in many developed countries suggest that road-builders may not have accounted for people’s declining marginal willingness to pay for travel time savings. Broader support for this hypothesis is provided by the fact that vehicle kilometres travelled in New Zealand have flatlined over the last decade, in spite of major investments in new roads:


Why won’t it grow? We thought it would grow! (Source)

Can we expect the same thing to happen in public transport or cycling networks? Eventually, yes, it will. But right at the moment the fact that these networks are incomplete means that improvements may attract new users faster than expected. For example, the City Rail Link is a three-kilometre tunnel that will give Auckland Transport the ability to double train frequencies throughout the entire 100km+ network. Doing that will make rail a lot more useful throughout Auckland and attract new users who otherwise wouldn’t have taken the train. Recent improvements to PT seem to have had this effect – i.e. attracting users more rapidly than expected.

CRL Times Western Line

But that’s a story for another day…