RLTP: Investment in the Rail Network

The announcement that AT is looking at Light Rail has understandably received a lot of attention – and will continue to for some time – however there is a lot of other fascinating information in the draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) that is worth covering. Like more discussion of Light Rail, I’m going to try and get this information out over a few posts starting with this one.

One area in the document that quickly caught my attention is on what works are planned/needed for the existing rail network to get it working properly prior to the CRL. Improvements are needed to increase the capacity, performance and resilience of the network. Perhaps most concerning is they say that there’s still a significant amount of track and underlying formation that has yet to be renewed by KiwiRail.

The performance of passenger rail services has improved over the past decade at the same time as service levels have increased significantly. Service punctuality (trains arriving within 5 minutes of schedule) has improved from just over 70% in 2005 to around 88% in the year to June 2014. Delays to trains caused by network infrastructure problems have dropped from an average of 1.4 minutes per train in 2005 to just over 0.4 minutes in 2014. However, further improvement in infrastructure performance will be needed if desired levels of reliability and performance are to be achieved by the opening of the CRL.

One factor in improving punctuality and reliability will be ensuring that rail infrastructure is in a fit for purpose condition. While there has been significant improvement in the condition of the Auckland network over the past decade through KiwiRail’s DART and AEP projects, including total replacement of the signalling system, there is still a significant extent of track and underlying formation which has not been renewed.

To get the network up to speed there are four programmes of work planned.

Network Performance Programme – to address existing network performance issues, including catch up renewals to address existing formation, drainage and track issues and replace sleepers.

Network Resilience Programme – to improve current network resilience to provide additional operational flexibility, ability to recover from delays and incidents, make maximum use of the existing network capacity and capability, and improve management of network maintenance and development.

Network Capacity Programme – to enable the operation of regular 10 minute peak EMU services and existing peak freight services following the completion of electrification, and to provide the base for the pattern and frequency of passenger services planned for introduction following the completion of the CRL.

Level Crossing Programme – to remove level crossings on the Auckland electrified rail network to reduce safety risk for vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and rail users through closure or grade separation, including safety improvements at existing vehicle and pedestrian crossings.

This has set a few alarm bells off for me:

If there’s still a lot of backlogged maintenance yet to happen that means KiwiRail is likely to need a lot more network closures to get this work done. That could mean that we’re likely to continue to see parts of the rail network shut down during some long weekends and probably the Christmas/New Year period for this maintenance to occur. While AT and KiwiRail might try and minimise the impact but doing the work when the network is quietest, such shut downs will increasingly affect more and more people as patronage continues to grow.

The second concern is the suggestion that work is needed to enable 10 minute frequencies. These frequencies have already been delivered to the Southern and Eastern lines however we’ve been waiting for them for around 5 years after they were promised to happen when the New Lynn station was complete. Now admittedly this could just be me reading into the text wrong however later in the document AT say one of the benefits of the investment is to “Increase capacity to enable the operation of regular 10 minute peak passenger rail services and to cater for expected growth in both passenger and freight services“. In the meantime then until I see a Western Line timetable with 10 minute frequencies on it I will remain sceptical.  What is clear is that we need to get on with building the third main between Otahuhu and Papakura.

The third key concern is that to pay for what’s planned it relies on KiwlRail getting additional funding from the government. If that funding doesn’t happen then it could put the brakes on how well and how quickly the rail network develops and improves.

RLTP - Kiwirail funding

There does seem to be a few issues with this table due to there being nothing in the 2015/16 year and with the negative 2018/19 to 2024/24 column. This table from near the end of the document seems to be more accurate (click to enlarge)

RLTP - Rail Funding

In addition to the KiwiRail costs there are also Auckland Transport’s projects. The basic transport programme that has been proposed doesn’t include much in this regard with the only really notable point being the need to spend $8.1 million on refurbishing some of the old Diesel trains to service Pukekohe. I suspect that’s probably more than the trains are work these days.

RLTP - AT Rail CAPEX basic

This just really highlights that despite all the improvements in recent times that there’s still a lot of work to do even just to get our rail network up to a decent level of quality. Will the government provide the funding that KiwiRail need to get this work done?

We need more choice in transport markets

Via economist Donal Curtin, I ran across the draft report that the Australian Competition Policy Review issued last September. It’s a long and fairly technical document, but the introduction made some good points in accessible language:

Competition policy sits well with the values Australians express in their everyday interactions. We expect markets to be fair and we want prices to be as low as they can reasonably be. We also value choice and responsiveness in market transactions — we want markets to offer us variety and novel, innovative products as well as quality, service and reliability.

These are generally sound principles, and I think it’s worth considering how they might apply to transport policy. The first and most important observation is that New Zealand suffers from a serious dearth of choice in urban transport markets. Unlike most other developed countries, we have failed to invest in high-quality public transport, walking, and cycling alternatives.

This is what lack of choice looks like.

This is what lack of choice looks like in the US, another prominent exception.

In fact, it’s even worse than that: transport policy has actively sought to reduce or block choice and competition in urban transport markets. Late last year, I discussed how Auckland ended up with a motorway network rather than a regional rail network in the 1950s: politicians and planners misrepresented the costs and benefits of the scheme in order to scupper the alternatives. The same story has been repeated, with variations, over and over since then.

But surely more lanes will fix it?

Building more lanes will not give us more choice.

Things are changing – but too slowly. For example, changes to public transport policy and agency mindset are starting to deliver more useful bus networks. In Auckland, extensions of the rapid transit network – Britomart, the Onehunga Line, and the Northern Busway – have been highly successful. It is important to build on these successes, as they are integral to having real transport choices.

These people now have a choice.

These people now have a choice.

The Australian Competition Policy Review carries on:

Access and choice are particularly relevant to vulnerable Australians or those on low incomes, whose day-to-day existence can mean regular interactions with government. They too should enjoy the benefits of choice, where this can reasonably be exercised, and service providers that respond to their needs and preferences. These aspects of competition can be sought even in ‘markets’ where no private sector supplier is present.

This is especially true of transport. Low-income families have the most to gain from better transport choices, as they are in the worst position to afford the costs of owning and operating a car. As I found when looking at the costs of commuting by car and public transport, households could save thousands of dollars a year by cutting back on car ownership and riding the bus to work. (Findings reinforced by a recent study of commuter costs in Australian and NZ cities.)

Cycling is free! (Source)

Cycling is free! (Source)

At the moment, low-income households in Auckland and other large NZ cities disproportionately live in far-flung suburbs with limited transport choices (as I found when writing a research paper on housing and transport costs). Auckland’s New Network will improve service in many historically under-served areas of the city, but this is only a small step. As Luke showed when he looked at walking and cycling in Manukau, post-war suburbs are still pretty grim for everything but cars.

At this point, New Zealand’s transport policies should be oriented around giving people more and better transport choices. If we want transport to raise our quality of life, the best way to do it is to build our “missing modes”. More lanes on the same motorway will not cut it.

What choices would you like to make when travelling?

Of Experts, Damned Lies, and Pohutukawa

I have just returned from an extremely dispiriting experience. A room full of people including representatives from Local Boards, David Shearer the local MP, and many extremely frustrated members of the public were attempting to discuss the fate of the St Lukes Pohutukawa Six with a bunch of engineers from AT, NZTA, and the private sector. To no avail.

The meeting [which apparently wasn’t a meeting; but I’ll come to that later] was run by AT’s Howard Marshall, who despite an unfortunately arrogant air for such a role at least had the courtesy and courage to introduce himself, unlike the rest of the state and city apparatchiks and their subcontractors [who, for example, was the white haired man sitting with the public who summoned Marshall mid meeting into a whispered private conference from which he emerged even more defensive and inflexible?].

Marshall was determined that no discussion would take place, the commissioners had spoken, and as far as he was concerned that was all that mattered. A degree of self-serving pedantry that we have seen before on this matter. So here was a room full of the public faced with a public servant who somehow decided that the best way to get this beastly business over with was to define it out of existence; ‘this is not a public meeting’ he droned, over and over. The word ‘Kafka’ was soon being muttered in the row behind me as he answered very specific questions about the placement of lanes with his view on the metaphysics of this non-meeting.

But faced with the relatively straight-forward question about process he reached for new technique: ‘Could’, he was asked, ‘AT change its mind about destroying the trees if it found another way to deliver sufficient transport outcomes?’

Frozen silence.

Perhaps he was malfunctioning? Or was it just an absurd question to put to a Traffic Engineer? Could their work ever be improved? How could that be; look around this city – is it not an image of heavenly perfection? Or rather was he caught between admitting that they don’t have to do this, which is clearly true, AT change their minds frequently enough, and knowing that he was supposed to the hold the line against even the slightest hint that AT could stop this action by any means short of an order from the Environment Court? Yes.

St Lukes Masterplan

This all would be funny if weren’t for the miserably disingenuous document we were all given at the start of the non-meeting [presumably not-written and not-printed].

AT regrets’, it solemnly intones, ‘that the trees will be lost’ [lost; how careless!] ‘but a major benefit is that they will make way for cycle lanes to the motorway overbridge and for an extended buslanes and bus priority measures in Great North Rd’.

Ahhh so that’s it. It’s all those cycleways and buslanes… I see now, multi-laned bus priority and proper separated cycle lanes in every direction then? Marshall doubled down on this saying that the project is all about the great cycling, walking, and Public Transport outcomes.

Now really this has to stop. This is actually just lying. Shocking. Brazen. Barefaced lying; do they think we can’t see? Well in fact it is a bit hard to see. There was some considerable disagreement in the room about just how many traffic lanes we are getting across here. I make it 19 through the guts of it, including off ramps, and true, one of these is, briefly, a bright stripe of green for buses. One. The Traffic Engineer next to me thought he got to 17. But either way to characterise this project as anything other than a giant clusterfuck of autodependency is clearly wildly inaccurate. This is beyond double-down, this is gazillion-down. As is clear from the plan above, and despite the careful rendering of the gardening in rich tones to leap off the page and distract from the orgy of tarmac, the overwhelming majority of this part of the planet is now to be expensively dedicated to nothing but motoring. The World’s Most Drivable City. Place-Breaking.

There is, it’s true, proposed to be a new ‘shared path’, which of course is a footpath for both cyclists and pedestrians, where the six Pohutukawas are currently. A wide footpath is exactly what there is now, but under the limbs of those glorious trees. So how is a new one with only new smaller trees nearby an improvement? And why do they have to move it to where the trees are now? It couldn’t be because of the new double slip lane that AT insist on putting where the existing path is, could it? [never once mentioned by Marshall]. To claim that trees have to go for the ‘cycle lane’ [which isn’t even a cycle lane], but not because of the extra traffic lane is beyond disingenuous and is. really. just. lying.

All AT Experts Agree.

And as is clear from the following Tweet sent by the trees themselves, if it was really a matter of just finding space for a shared path then of course it could go behind the trees either through the car park as a shared space, or where there is currently mown grass under the trees. Not difficult to spot and design for an engineer of any competence, surely.

Behind the trees Behind the trees II

They must have considered this because our text informs us ‘AT would not proceed with the application to remove the trees… if there had been any other viable option, but all AT experts agreed that there was not’ Oh dear. Was this option considered he was asked? Of course, waving his hand dismissively saying it was presented to MOTAT and other local stakeholders that carparking would have to be removed to achieve this and apparently they all agreed that that couldn’t be allowed to happen. Delivered with the pained expression of a man explaining obvious things to a group of dimwitted children.

Fox in charge of the chicken coop. It is clear that this process is, frankly, rubbish.

Consider now how the pedestrian amenity in this ‘upgrade’ is to become more glorious by the removal of a direct route across Great North Rd. Once complete, any motorist lured to the lagoon of parking between the new Supersized SH16 and the new Supersized Great North Rd [or other actual pedestrians] will have to make three separate applications to the beg-buttons for permission to migrate from island to island to get to MOTAT or Western Springs. Should take about a week; or perhaps people will feel the hopelessness of this fate and either chance a gap in the traffic or just hurl themselves under a passing SUV….

So I call bullshit, AT, on any claim that this plan does anything except facilitate and promote further motorised vehicle use, and I don’t include buses in this. That they are intermittent buslanes on GNR hardly makes it a PT oriented project. That is the very least that the duplication of this road with SH16 should have long ago provided. Where is the North Western Busway: The Rapid transit line for this route for all those new citizens in the north west? The amenity that we know is the best way to keep the demand on the motorway from tripping into overload [from both the success of the Northern Busway, and theory]. Of the billions being spent on this massive project a couple metres of Kermit on GNR doesn’t give AT/NZTA any kind of figleaf to hide their Kardashian-scaled tarmac-fest behind.

But I digress, it is of course beyond AT’s engineers’ reach to fix the whole scope of the SH16 works, but still do they have to display their professional myopia quite so thoroughly on the small section of this massive but conceptually retrograde project in their care? And lie to us, and god knows to themselves, that they are really building a great new world for cyclists, pedestrians, and PT users?

‘Making travel by cycle and bus more efficient and convenient is consistent with AT’s drive to encourage Public Transport use. This will bring long-term benefits as more people choose alternative modes of transport to the car.’

Butter wouldn’t melt.

The withholding of one short traffic lane on GRN is all that is needed.

The double slip lane onto the bridge is not worth losing these trees for, but even if it were, why are there three east bound lanes opposite?  Two lanes turn from the bridge city bound onto GNR, and two lanes continue straight trough the intersection from west on GNR, one a disappearing buslane. That each of these traffic light cycles needs to leap from two lanes to three looks like mad super redundancy to this observer. Or at least having only two lanes for the length of the double slip lane opposite looks like a reasonable compromise as it would mean we could keep those trees. It’s just the reduction of this massive scheme by one lane for a short distance that resolves the issue. Can they really not manage that? Can they not see how this would also help conceal the full extent of the over-build here; would improve their project on every level?

But of course here we get to the real issue. I accuse those responsible for this outcome of professional incompetence. For they certainly are exhibiting it. What I mean, I suppose, is that they are being incompetent humans, more than incompetent traffic engineers. For in the extremely reduced definition of what they consider to be their job; maximising vehicle traffic flow through the monotonic provision of ever more lane supply and minimisation of ‘friction’ [anything, like pedestrian crossings, trees, whatever, to slow vehicles], they are efficient enough. But really should this job so defined ever exist? In isolation, that is, of course we want and need dedicated engineers, but can we as a city, as a species, afford to allow them this crazy disassociation of their task from the rest of life? Everyone gets benefit from those trees, not least of all those thousands of vehicle users that pass by them, or park under them. And they are now the only bit of civility and glory in an otherwise overkill of pavement. They are irreplaceable. And valuable beyond the dubious virtue of providing traffic flow predicted to be there, in 2026 no less, based on traffic models that are constantly shown to be wrong. Do these men see their job so autistically that they only value that tsunami of tarmac at any cost?

By rights these trees should still be there when both Mr Marshall and I are compost, our constituent atoms returned to make other life forms, in the great mystery of it all. They are a link to those people of The Great Depression who planted them, and even further back to when these trees and their cousins dominated this land. They are an invaluable link with the past through the present and into the future. How can it be that we grant people the right to blithely cut that link for one more lane in a world of nothing but traffic lanes?

The pace of transport policy innovation

Economists who study firm performance or countries’ economic development know that the best way to get ahead is often to adapt or adopt proven ideas from elsewhere. Technology transfer has always been a crucial part of innovation.

What’s true for firms is also true for cities. Cities in New Zealand can and should benefit from adopting proven ideas from all around the world. There are a lot of things that we could easily do that would make us much happier and wealthier, including:

  • Investing in the City Rail Link to provide metro-style train frequencies throughout much of Auckland
  • Building more rapid transit to underserved areas such as northwest and southeast Auckland – busways are a proven and cost-effective solution for congestion-free mobility
  • Reclaiming some of our overbuilt road corridors for the movement and use of more people – which means painting more bus lanes, putting in protected cycle lanes everywhere, and fixing our many hazardous and unwalkable intersections.

Fortunately, the evidence shows that we can adopt good urban ideas when we put our minds to it. In a post last December, I reviewed some of the progress that we’ve recently made in public transport network design and delivery in NZ cities. I found, much to my surprise, that Auckland and other big cities are swiftly progressing towards international best practice.

Northern Busway efficiency

Time for an anecdote: I had a couple of American friends staying with me over the holidays. On their first day here, I got them a pair of HOP cards and explained how to get to the city centre and a couple of other destinations on the Mount Eden bus route and the Outer Link. With the aid of Google Maps, it was easy for them to travel to all sorts of places via PT – city centre, War Memorial Museum, Devonport, Balmoral for dumplings, even Takapuna for dinner one night. After a few days, they were praising the usefulness of Auckland’s PT system. That’s real progress.

So: Are there any other innovative policies that we should also be adopting?

A recent London School of Economics report entitled “Accessibility in Cities: Transport and Urban Form” (pdf) highlights the rapid growth of sustainable transport systems in recent decades. It finds that “several sustainable mobility concepts may be at a tipping point globally, as more and more cities are adopting these solutions to enhance their efficiency, competitiveness, social equity and quality of life.”

The following graph, from page 30 of the report, illustrates the rise of innovative new transport policies throughout the world:

LSE global adoption of sustainable transport

It displays several important trends that New Zealand cities need to partake in:

  • First, as I observed when looking at historical changes in Kiwis’ consumption of transport goods and services, vehicle technologies have not changed very much. We still get around on foot or on rubber or steel wheels, powered by fossil fuels, electricity, or the food we eat. We cannot expect that to change.
  • Second, urban passenger rail systems continue to be useful 150 years after they were introduced in London. Cities are still building metro systems for a good reason: they are the most space-efficient way to move lots of people. However, bus rapid transit (BRT), which was pioneered in Brazil in the 1970s, is now almost as popular, due to both its cost-effectiveness and the fact that it can “address the crucial challenge of lock-in presented by urban motorways by converting them to high capacity public transport corridors”.
  • Third, while vehicle technologies haven’t changed, the way we interact with them is changing. In particular, smart cards for paying PT fares and PT web apps are making integrated PT networks much more legible and usable – as my American friends found when visiting Auckland. These innovations will drive growth in PT use, as they open up PT networks for more users and for many more types of trips.
  • Fourth, innovations in street design recognise the need to put pedestrians, not cars, first. This is crucial for a number of reasons. By building roads that are inhospitable to walking or cycling, we have created an entirely preventable public health crisis – diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. By failing to recognise that people, not cars, buy things, work, and develop and exchange ideas, we have undermined our economic performance. That’s one of the reason that complete streets and car-free zones are two of the most popular policies on the list.

Lastly, the LSE report finds that policy changes, not new technologies, are key to developing efficient and productive urban transport systems. For one thing, the availability of new technology does not guarantee consumer uptake – as I found when looking at the slow rate at which people are buying hybrid and electric cars.

By contrast, local and central governments can achieve change much more rapidly by implementing policies or making investments that have been successful elsewhere. This can clearly be seen in the rapid pace at which cities have bought into many sustainable transport innovations. If our transport policies are going to meet our need for better, more prosperous cities, they must be outward-looking and forward-looking. We can’t just double down on 1950s-era ideas that have failed us time and time again.

Do you think that New Zealand can raise the pace at which it adopts good ideas?

Uncommonly Good: Melbourne Apartments show the way forward

‘The Commons’ is a new small apartment block next to a train line in Brunswick, inner Melbourne by Breathe Architecture. It is noteworthy for  the cost of the apartments [pretty affordable for the area], its strong sustainability credentials and design features [especially the shared areas], its financial success as a development, but most of all because it is a concrete example of a great way forward for urban redevelopment. It ticks every box for accessibility, humanity, and public good. Here is how it was covered in last Thursday’s The Age. Be sure to watch the video.

The Commons sarah-hurst

It is such a success that another block is underway nearby but this time not funded by a traditional developer but sort of crowd sourced, mainly by the architectural community, and it will be marketed in a fresh way too.

The total absence of any onsite car parking and mechanical aircon along with clever use of communal services that enable the generous size of the living areas and the high build quality for the price point. This shows how the removal of anti-urban planning regulations that most western cities have inherited from last century can stimulate innovation by architects and developers.

It also shows that to really offer choice and increased affordability into urban housing markets cities need to make two coordinated moves: remove the straitjacket of Minimum Parking Regulations and other dispersal enforcing regs and upgrade its Transit and Active systems to as high quality, frequency, and permanency as possible. Together these moves enable the market to provide real TODs, Transport Oriented Developments, of all sorts of scales for all sorts of markets, on currently undervalued brownfields sites.

Once these conditions exist then change can occur on scales more attractive to a variety of players driving experimentation and innovation. After all, whatever government, Council, and the market is doing now in Auckland for dwelling supply isn’t working as well as we need. Significant improvement is coming to our transport systems, now lets get the dwelling regulatory environment fixed too. Then good things will follow. As one fix is nowhere as powerful without the other.

Below, the parking [from here:http://www.redshiftaa.com.au/portfolio/apartment-design-as-it-should-be/]:

Redshift_The_Commons_Bicycles

Will people choose to buy new vehicle technologies?

Last year we started to take a look at an emerging technology that some claim will revolutionise urban transport – driverless cars. My view is that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – if we wanted to, we could easily get the purported benefits by investing in existing, proven technology:

While driverless cars (or hoverboards for that matter) sound exciting, we can’t afford to pin all of our hopes on them. The pragmatic, proven way forward for transport in a big city is the same as it’s always been: Give people good transport choices by investing in efficient rapid transit networks, frequent bus services, and safe walking and cycling options.

If we want a safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly transport system, we can achieve it now by making smart policy changes. We don’t have to wait.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we did want to wait for driverless cars to solve our self-imposed problems. How long would it take, exactly?

The wait would be a function of three factors:

  • First, how long it takes until driverless cars are proven and widely available for purchase in New Zealand. Most people agree that the technology is improving and may be ready for wide deployment sometime in the next decade. (Obviously, regulatory barriers could slow uptake as well.)
  • Second, how long it will take the New Zealand vehicle fleet to turn over – i.e. how long until the cars that’s currently on the road is scrapped and replaced. At the moment, the average NZ vehicle is around 13 years old, meaning that we’d expect it to take at least 13 years for half of the fleet to be renewed. Full replacement of every car on the road could take 25-40 years – a quick glimpse at Trademe shows that people are still buying and selling cars built in the early 1980s.
  • Third, and possibly most importantly, how rapidly driverless cars gain market share. Even after the introduction of driverless cars, most people will continue buying self-drive cars, which will dramatically slow the transition to a driverless fleet.

People have spent a lot of time thinking about the first two points, but I haven’t seen any commentary on the third one. Fortunately, we can draw upon some real-world data to get a sense of how rapidly consumers take up new vehicle technologies. Over the last decade, hybrid and electric cars have become commonly available, with cumulative global sales figures in the millions. While they tend to be more expensive to purchase, they offer savings on fuel costs and improvements in environmental performance.

So: How have consumers responded to recent technological transformations?

In short, they have hardly noticed. People are not rushing to give up their petrol (and self-driving) vehicles, even though there are now viable alternatives. A recent study from the US has found that hybrid vehicles’ market share has stayed low, even though car-makers have introduced many more new models. Over a decade after the Toyota Prius first arrived on the market, hybrids account for only one in every thirty new car sales in the US:

hybrid-car-market-share

Source: IHS/Polk

Obviously, uptake of hybrid and electric vehicles has been faster in some places than others. However, a 2013 New York Times article on new vehicle technologies found that alternative vehicles have failed to capture a majority of the market even in the most favourable environments:

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It would seem to be a good time to own an electric car in Santa Monica. From the charging stations dotted around town to the dedicated public parking spaces — all provided at no cost by the city — Santa Monica has rolled out the welcome mat for electric cars.

But even here, in this wealthy, environmentally conscious city of 90,000 west of Los Angeles, only a core group of owners has switched from traditional gasoline-powered cars.

Less than 4 percent of registered cars run only on battery power, according to an analysis by the industry researcher Edmunds.com of data from R.L. Polk, which records vehicle registrations nationwide. Hybrids, which run on some combination of gasoline and battery power, account for 15.5 percent, the data says, but many of those are traditional hybrids, which do not require a plug-in cord for recharging.

In other words, after a decade, over 80% of Santa Monica’s car fleet is still composed of conventional petrol cars. And that’s about as good as it gets anywhere in the US, which is on the leading edge of many new trends in vehicle technologies.

The picture isn’t much different outside of the US. Research on vehicle fleets in 19 countries shows that there are only two countries where hybrids and electric vehicles account for more than 1% of vehicle fleets. Norway (largely electric cars) and the Netherlands (mostly hybrids) were far and away the leaders in uptake, due to extraordinarily generous subsidies for buyers. Everywhere else lagged far behind:

In short, people don’t seem to be rushing out to buy new vehicle technologies. Although we all have the option to buy electric now, few people do in practice. It is very likely that driverless cars, when or if they become readily available, will follow a similar pattern. Initially, at least, they will be costlier and seem riskier than self-drive cars. Current rates of uptake for hybrid and electric cars suggest that it could take half a century or more for petrol cars to vanish from the road. Why should the transition to driverless cars be any faster?

All in all, recent market realities should encourage caution about driverless cars. Slow rates of uptake for new vehicle technologies mean that they aren’t going to solve our problems any time soon. A 2014 London School of Economics report on the state of urban mobility (pdf) described the dilemma of vehicle technology innovation well. They noted:

Regarding the development of new transport technologies, key actors (above all the automotive sector) have failed to convert technological progress into substantive improvements in energy efficiency and vehicle emissions or more broadly transform modes of accessibility in cities.

The clear implication is that if we want better transport outcomes, we must implement better transport policies. The data shows that waiting on new technologies is not a sensible option. If we want to lower the road toll, we must invest in safe roads, including protected cycle infrastructure. If we want a workable solution to congestion, we must build rapid transit infrastructure, bus lanes and walking and cycling improvements to give people the choice to avoid it.

There is no realistic alternative – so why don’t we get on with it?

On This Day… Park-and-ride, boon or boondoggle?

Today’s “On this Day” post comes from 2012 and was written by Stu Donovan.

Matt L has just dissected AT’s recent announcement regarding the expansion of the Albany Park and Ride.

Park and ride is a vexed transport planning issue: It’s very popular with middle-class commuters and as a result tends to receive a lot of public/political support.  On the other hand, P&R’s merits are often not well understood.  Is P&R really the boon it is made out to be?

Let’s consider the arguments usually put forward in discussions on P&R; turning first to the downsides:

  1. P&R requires considerable tracts of land.  For this reason it tends to be very, very expensive to provide within the urban area, unless opportunistic (read CHEAP) land parcels are identified (more on this later).  Given the cost of land and the general constraints on PT funding in Auckland, it is quite reasonable to ask whether P&R in urban locations represent value for money – compared to other possible PT improvements.
  2. The second issue is a logical extension of the first: Because P&R requires so much land it squeezes out opportunities for intensive land use development, often in the very locations that have good PT access.  This second issue is very important, because it means that P&R may actually generate relatively few *additional* trips per sqm, above and beyond what would be generated by the intensive land uses that would exist in the absence of the P&R.
  3. The third major issue with P&R is that it competes with other modes to provide access to PT stations.  Surveys of the Northern Busway have shown that approximately 50% of users previously used local buses.  The message is that providing free P&R can encourage people to drive down the road and park, when they previously waited for a local bus (which is typically going to run anyway, i.e. relatively low marginal economic costs).
  4. The final major issue with P&R is that it concentrates vehicles on what are often strategic locations in the road network. In the case of Albany, the provision of 1,100 car-parks within the town centre itself represents about one full lane of traffic.  By concentrating vehicle volumes at these locations, large amounts of P&R may soak up capacity in the surrounding road network and cause localised congestion.

Just to re-cap the points made above: 1) P&R can be expensive to provide (because of the land that it occupies); 2) may generate little additional patronage (above and beyond what we would get anyway); 3) tends to compete with other modes of access to PT stations (which are often more cost-effective); and 4) can cause localised congestion.

Given these issues you might reasonably ask under what circumstances would you ever want to develop P&R?  The answer is that P&R can be useful where:

  1. Alternative means of PT access (primarily local bus services) are ineffective.  In these situations P&R can help to focus PT demands to a level that supports a modicum of PT service.  This tends to be outside the main urban area, where land is cheaper to provide (especially where you can identify opportunistic land parcels, such as sites beneath high-voltage power lines or in flood prone areas, as is done for some P&R sites in Vancouver).
  2. It is priced appropriately.  Charging people to use P&R generates revenue from users and mitigates two of the issues noted above.  Namely, the cost (or subsidy) of providing P&R goes down, while also reducing the degree to which  P&R competes with other (substitutable) modes of access.  Pricing P&R really just levels the playing field with other possible ways of getting to the PT station.  It can also reduce the congestion caused by P&R.
  3. The PT station has been provided in advance of more intensive land use development.  Here P&R simply becomes an interim land use, until such time as development is ready to occur.  At this point the land on which the P&R sits can be sold and the costs recovered.  This practise of “landbanking” is not a bad strategy, especially where the interim P&R allows PT services to build to the point where they support relatively intensive development.

Given these pros and cons, as well as the general public/political pressure, it is perhaps not unsurprising that PT agencies struggle to find an appropriate role for P&R. In my experience most cities have relatively ad-hoc approaches to the development P&R.

So where to from here?  Well, I thought I’d round out this post with a few takeaway P&R messages that I’ve collected during my years working as a transport consultant working in New Zealand and Australia:

  1. The party rarely lasts – P&R is usually an interim activity.  P&R should be viewed less as a permanent feature of the PT network and more as an interim activity that is redeveloped at some point in the future.  Rose-tinted press-releases (such as that released for Albany) create the illusion of a never-ending feast of free P&R and build a public rod to beat the backs of future decision-makers (as an aside, there is a general need for transport agencies to better manage public/political expectations).
  2. Ain’t no party like a policy party – the development of P&R should be governed by policy.  Experiences in cities overseas has highlighted the issues that may arise with ad-hoc P&R development.   In San Francisco, the (private) operators of BART had a pig of a time trying to redevelop and/or charge for P&R decades after the development of the system, even though the land on which the P&R sat was wholly privately owned.
  3. No party is that cool – P&R is just another form of PT investment.  Ultimately, P&R is just another way of getting people onto the PT system.  As such, any proposed investment should be compared against other possible uses of that money.

Following these three P&R ‘party rules’ can help ensure that investments in P&R are a boon, not a boondoggle.

Update:

We haven’t seen much actual expansion of park and rides in Auckland over the three years since this post was published. However, the Draft Parking Discussion Document – released by Auckland Transport last year – did seem to have quite a strong focus on expanding Auckland’s park and ride capacity.

As Stu articulated in the post, park and ride is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it all depends on the situation. A park and ride at Drury or Silverdale clearly makes sense – capturing PT riders who would be very inefficient to capture in other ways. The park and ride at Orakei is clearly insane.

The geometry of urban labour markets

Every half-decade, Census data gives us an interesting and detailed insight into how New Zealanders are travelling. Back in August, the Ministry of Transport published a comprehensive analysis of journey to work patterns in Auckland (ably summarised by Matt here).

Here’s one of the key maps from the report. It shows average distance travelled to work for all suburbs in Auckland. Blue means shorter trips, red means longer trips. As you can see, average commutes get a lot longer if you live further from the city centre:

Trip Length residential 2013(I’ve used the same data to take a look at issues like housing and transport costs and greenhouse gas emissions from commutes in NZ’s large cities. It’s definitely a rich source of insight into how we live.)

The Census journey to work data presents a conundrum. Auckland is not a monocentric city in which all employment is concentrated in the centre. It is in fact highly polycentric, with employment dispersed throughout a number of locations. The map below, which I put together quickly using Statistics NZ’s Business Demography employment data, shows this. There are certainly many jobs in the city centre – around 15% of the total – but employment is spread around the entire Auckland region.

Auckland_employment_by_AU_2014

Given this, why aren’t people in outlying areas simply commuting to the nearest jobs, and skipping the long average commutes across town? Why aren’t the residents of Browns Bay commuting to Albany, the residents of Glen Eden to Henderson, and Howickians to East Tamaki? Auckland’s employment has long since decentralised – so why haven’t our travel patterns decentralised as well?

To answer these questions, we must consider the dynamics of urban labour markets. Here’s an illuminating graphic from Alain Bertaud’s recent talk in Auckland, which I reviewed here. It shows four different models for urban labour market, ranging from a totally monocentric city (all jobs in the centre) to a totally dispersed city (all jobs randomly dispersed). Auckland is clearly what Bertaud calls a “composite” city. It has a strong and growing city centre, but also a lot of jobs spread around other metropolitan centres, industrial parks, local shops, etc.

In a composite city, people do not simply commute to the nearest offices – they will actually travel to jobs all throughout the city. The “urban village” idyll simply doesn’t happen in real life. There are three big reasons for this:

  • First and foremost, labour markets are dynamic. Even if people start out working near where they live, this happy state of affairs doesn’t necessarily continue. Companies go out of business, workers get offered better jobs elsewhere, and people change careers. This happened to me earlier this year – a job change saw me swap my short commute from Mount Eden to the city centre for a longer commute to Takapuna.
  • Second, most households include multiple workers, who may have jobs in very different places. If you’re a baggage handler at the airport married to an accountant who works in Newmarket, it’s not going to be possible to live anywhere that offers you both a five-minute commute.
  • Third, people don’t necessarily want to live right next to their jobs. While commute costs are an important determinant of household location choices, we also consider a range of other factors, such as proximity to beaches and parks, school zoning, the location of family and friends, and so on and so forth.

Bertaud urban structure graph

Because labour markets are dynamic and people’s location choices are influenced by a range of factors, average commute distances tend to follow the location of the average job in the city. In other words, if you live in a neighbourhood that is ten kilometres away from the average job, you’d expect your neighbours to commute ten kilometres, on average. Some of your neighbours will have shorter commutes to local jobs, while others will travel longer distances to jobs on the far side of the city.

With that in mind, I’ve calculated the weighted average location of jobs in the Auckland region using Statistics NZ’s Business Demography employment data for 19 high-level industries. (Without going into the details, you can think about the method as follows: Let’s say that one individual industry has 200 jobs in Albany and 100 jobs in Takapuna. Then the weighted average job would be located two-thirds of the way from Takapuna to Albany. That’s what I did, except I was working with data on over 400 Auckland suburbs.)

The following map plots a centre point for each of the 19 industries. It shows that the average job is located in the Auckland isthmus. The average job in “blue collar” industries like manufacturing and warehousing tend to be located much further south – a result of the concentration of those industries in places like Mount Wellington, East Tamaki, and near the Auckland Airport. “White collar” industries like finance and insurance and professional services, on the other hand, are much further north, as they tend to be more centralised in the city centre and, to a lesser extent, in metropolitan centres like Newmarket and Takapuna.

If we look back to the first map, from the Ministry of Transport’s analysis of Census journey to work data, we can see that the geographic centres of Auckland industries fit within the blue swathe of relatively low average commute distances down the middle of the isthmus.

Auckland_employment_centre_industry_2014

In other words, centrality still matters even in a decentralised city! In a dynamic labour market, it is beneficial to live near the average job because it will tend to minimise expected commute distances over time as you change between jobs. That’s one of the reasons why prices are so high in the most central areas of Auckland: people seem to be paying a premium to be closer to the average job.

Of course, the data in the last map also shows that workers with different skills may have different optimal locations. If you expect to work in a “blue collar” industry, living further south might be a better strategy for minimising your expected commute distances. On the other hand, living further north might be better if you’re expecting to work in office jobs. However, labour markets are dynamic in another way as well – people may retrain or change industries throughout the course of their lives, and children may aspire to different professions than their parents. If that’s the case, living closer to the centre still offers more flexibility.

International air travel and emissions

I’ve just come back from a holiday in South Africa, and it occurs to me that flying there and back blows my other transport-related emissions for the year out of the water. My partner and I use around 1,000 litres of petrol a year between us, travelling 10,000 km or so. Our CO2-equivalent emissions from this driving are around 2.3 tonnes. On this holiday, though, the return distance is about 28,000 km, or 56,000 km between the two of us (I’m assuming all the flights are in a straight line, to keep things simple). That’s a pretty long way to travel – almost one and a half times around the planet, and probably one of the longest trips you could make from New Zealand, although not that much further than going to Europe.

Long-distance air travel burns a lot of fuel. As a rule of thumb, the level of emissions from this fuel combustion is about the same as a single-occupant car, per passenger kilometre. Aeroplanes are usually at least 60%-70% full, of course, compared to a 20% full car, but it takes rather more energy to sling people through the sky at 900 kilometres an hour. My flights were with Qantas, and – good on them – they’ve got an emissions calculator and ask you if you want to offset your emissions. Here’s the results I got, which seem reasonable.

Qantas emissions results

In total, the calculator tells me that the flights created just over 4 tonnes of emissions per person, which you can then offset at a cost of less than AUD $10/tonne (reflecting low market prices for emissions in the schemes where they are traded, which may not be a true picture of their impact). I didn’t pay the offset – I’m wary of tokenism – but that’s not really what this post is about. I’m wanting to highlight a couple of other issues.

Firstly, the Qantas calculator, like most other ones you might be able to find, is based mainly on the direct emissions from fuel combustion. However, total flight emissions can be quite a lot larger than this. Air travel makes a big contribution to climate change through high-altitude emissions of water vapour, nitrous oxides and other gases which are believed to have a greater impact than they would at ground level. Most (all?) emissions tax/ trading regimes don’t take this into account at the moment, because there’s still a bit of debate around the size of the effect. Presumably this will change at some point, as the science becomes more precise. For now, I’d just note that the estimates you’ll get from these calculators should be considered very much at the low end.

Secondly, long-distance air travel is an amazing thing. You can now get to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours, even with a stopover or two along the way. This has made all sorts of new trips possible, and air travel has grown at an astonishing rate over the last 50 years or so. The lack of substitutes for this rapid, long-range travel makes it all the more important that some solutions are found to the problem of its emissions. Progress is being made – see this post, and I’ll write soon about the potential for biofuels to be used in aviation – but there’s a very long way to go. Realistically, it’s going to be much easier for the world to cut emissions in other areas, rather than aviation.

Thirdly, countries like New Zealand should be very aware of this kind of thing; tourism is a big earner for our economy, and many of those tourists come from distant markets like Europe or America. Greater awareness of climate change issues could affect long-haul travel. South Africa’s in a similar position, if not as remote as NZ – there was a quote I read somewhere which said that, given the problems they have with animal poaching, the only way South Africans would respect and value their wildlife and wilderness areas sufficiently would be if they could build a sustainable eco-tourism economy out of them. As for outbound tourism from NZ, i.e. Kiwis travelling overseas, the reality is that we do a lot of it, and it’s a big part of our lifestyle. I’d argue that this creates a need to focus more on emissions here at home, if we want to keep enjoying the benefits of overseas travel. There are plenty of people who, like me, actually create most of their emissions when going on holiday rather than through what they do at home.

The Alternative Funding Discussion

Yesterday Radio NZ aired a panel discussion Len Brown, our Patrick Reynolds and David Shand – who was a member of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance and chaired the 2007 Independent Commission of Inquiry into Local Government Rates. The discussion was focused on the issue that is likely to occupy a lot of space for the next six months or so, alternative transport funding.

or listen here

In the past we have been critical of the giant wishlist the council have been aiming for. Since then and as Patrick states in the piece, Auckland Transport has actually done a decent job of cutting it must of the crap projects. That’s left us with a much more realistic list of what’s needed however the big issue that remains is the same process doesn’t seem to have occurred at the NZTA who are plowing on with many very expensive motorway projects. A more realistic view of what motorway projects we actually need – i.e. having a proper discussion about projects like the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing – is needed. While I don’t think we can completely remove the funding gap, such a process and changing the way we think about funding transport on Auckland could reduce the gap significantly which might in turn change what funding options are best.

Over the next few weeks and months it’s an issue we’ll look at in much more detail along with some proposals of our own.