City size, variety, and consumer surplus

In the 1990s, in the early years of the information technology revolution, economist Robert Solow famously commented that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Two decades on, that still rings true. Social life has been profoundly transformed by new technology: It has altered the way we communicate with friends and family, how we entertain ourselves, and even how we date.

how people meet romantic partners chart

When I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the early 2000s, the titular device still seemed like a fantastical idea: a handheld device you could use to access information (much of it inaccurate or incomplete) on anything, from anywhere.

Now, we all have smartphones. But productivity growth has stubbornly failed to take off over this period. Does this mean that technological progress has failed to deliver?

Journalist Ezra Klein (Vox) recently reviewed the current debate over technological progress. One perspective he discusses is that the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs) have largely accrued to consumers rather than producers:

Measures of productivity are based on the sum total of goods and services the economy produces for sale. But many digital-era products are given away for free, and so never have an opportunity to show themselves in GDP statistics.

Take Google Maps. I have a crap sense of direction, so it’s no exaggeration to say Google Maps has changed my life. I would pay hundreds of dollars a year for the product. In practice, I pay nothing. In terms of its direct contribution to GDP, Google Maps boosts Google’s advertising business by feeding my data back to the company so they can target ads more effectively, and it probably boosts the amount of money I fork over to Verizon for my data plan. But that’s not worth hundreds of dollars to Google, or to the economy as a whole. The result is that GDP data might undercount the value of Google Maps in a way it didn’t undercount the value of, say, Garmin GPS devices.

As Klein goes on to observe, ICTs have transformed our leisure time more than our work time – in large part, by giving us many more choices about where to dine, what television shows to watch, and who to talk to.

Interestingly, what’s true for technology might also be true for cities. The conventional narrative about agglomeration economies – the economic benefits of scale and density – is that their main effect is to lift productivity. But, as Stu and I have discussed in the past, there’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests that agglomeration also has significant benefits for consumers.

In recent years, economists have used micro-data on household consumption patterns to build a much richer picture of the impact of city size and structure on consumption choices. In short, larger cities don’t always offer lower prices – as you’d expect if higher productivity made it cheaper to produce goods and services. But they do offer a much greater variety of goods and services, which in turn translates into higher wellbeing for households.

A 2015 paper by Jessie Handbury and David Weinstein uses barcode data on retail sales in 49 large US cities to analyse prices and product varieties. They find that:

There are approximately four times more types of grocery products available in New York [metro population 21 million] than in Des Moines [population 456,000].

Because people in larger cities tend to buy a wider range of goods, including more expensive products, a naïve comparison of average retail prices would suggest that larger cities are more expensive. But Handbury and Weinstein’s analysis shows that, after accounting for product variety, prices in large cities are no more expensive than smaller cities. If anything, they tend to be lower:

When we use the data to construct a theoretically rigorous price index that corrects for product, purchaser, and retailer heterogeneity and accounts for variety differences across locations, we find that the price level is actually lower in larger cities. Consumers spend less, on average, to get the same amount of consumption utility in larger cities.

Moreover, what’s true in grocery stores is also true in restaurants. In a 2012 paper, Nathan Schiff took a look at the impact of city size and population density on restaurant markets in 726 urban places in the US. His key finding is that:

For the 182 cities in the top quartile by land area of my data (mean population 331,000), a one standard deviation increase in log population is associated with a 57% increase in the count of unique cuisines. A one standard deviation decrease in log land area–which increases population density without changing the size of the population–is associated with a 10% increase in cuisine count, equivalent to increasing the percentage of the population with a college degree by one standard deviation and larger than the effect of increasing the ethnic population associated with each cuisine by one standard deviation.

In other words, cities that are larger or denser offer people more choices about where and what to eat. Density is especially crucial in large cities, as people generally don’t travel long distances to dine. (Incidentally, relatively open migration policies are also an important enabler of restaurant choice in cities, as migrants bring new cuisines with them.)

Distances travelled to jobs and retail in Auckland

What does this mean for urban policy? I think there are two main lessons.

The first is that although agglomeration economies in production are important to long-run economic outcomes, we might be looking for the benefits of cities in the wrong places. They might not always appear in productivity statistics or price indices, but in the consumption choices that cities offer people. Measuring variety – and how people respond to it – is therefore crucial to understanding agglomeration economies.

The second is that conventional urban policy might be based on false premises. Ever since the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, policymakers have assumed that cities are good for businesses but bad for people. Accordingly, they designed transport systems and planning policies that aimed to disperse the city and to separate people from their workplaces and from each other.

That made sense when cholera was a major cause of death, but it’s increasingly illogical in today’s world. Urban disamenities such as air quality, crime rates, and infectious diseases are all improving, and the evidence increasingly shows that the consumer choices offered by cities (and dense urban places) have benefits for households. In this context, policies that enable urbanisation are likely to have larger benefits than commonly assumed.

What do you think about the role of consumer choice in cities?

Apartments, proximity, and living space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distances travelled to jobs and retail in Auckland

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

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

Auckland Art Gallery

Auckland Art Gallery

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

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

Interesting question.

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

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

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

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

copenhagen finger plan

Source: Living Rail

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

Eurostat detached houses and average dwelling size chart

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

What do you think of this data?

ATAP Interim Report

Yesterday, the second Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) report was released, with the third and final report due in August. ATAP is the council and government working together to come up with an agreed transport plan for Auckland, one that ultimately performs better than what is currently planned.

The first Foundation Report was about agreeing on the assumptions they would use (such as land use, growth rates etc), and looked at how the currently planned transport projects would perform in the future based on these assumptions. There was a lot of interesting information, but ultimately the report found that by 2046 the outcomes weren’t great, and highlighted that we need to improve our plans or face even greater congestion.

Now we have the Interim Report (2.1MB), which explains the outcomes and thinking so far from the work to look at how our transport plans could be better. The work so far includes looking at a range of transport interventions to see how what impact they have.

So far the media have focused on one very specific outcome of this interim report – road pricing – but there are a lot of other important points that needs to be covered. Perhaps more than anything, the important thing from ATAP so far is that it hints at thr old business saying of ‘joined up thinking’. That’s because it doesn’t just take a “build more stuff” approach, but looks at a mix of building stuff and also managing demand. So let’s go through what I thought were some of the key and interesting points found in the Interim Report.

Revenue Assumptions

While the purpose of ATAP is to come up with a better and aligned transport plan, it’s also important to consider how much that might cost. To that end, the ATAP team have taken a stab at how much money might be available to spend in the future. Investment in transport in Auckland has been much higher over the last decade, as the city has gone into catch-up mode, however they’ve projected that level of investment forward based on a couple of options. Continuing the current investment:

  • as a share of Auckland’s projected GDP – currently estimated at over 2.5%
  • on the same per capita basis.

Because productivity is expected to improve over time, the share of GDP measure results in a lot more transport spending and over a 30-year period results in total difference of around $23 billion. The two approaches are shown below, with the current expected spending also shown as far as is currently budgeted (10 years). The lump in current investment is the result of a heap of big projects on the books including CRL, East-West link, Puhoi to Warkworth etc.

ATAP - Interim Report - Revenue

Testing Alternative Packages

ATAP have tested alternative scenarios and condensed these down to two packages as shown below.

ATAP - Interim Report - Test Packages

These have then been modelled, to see how they perform relative to the Auckland Plan Transport Network from the Foundation Report. The outcome isn’t great, and they say that while there can be some improvements made in some areas, they are not to the level that would be needed to make a material difference. The colours on the graphs match the colours above.

ATAP - Interim Report - Package Modelling

The graphs above are at a regional level, but at a sub-regional level, things can be quite different. The Foundation Report highlighted big issues with accessibility from the South and West.

The big improvement in the Northwest for PT is the result of building the Northwest Busway, highlighting once again just how stupid it is that the NZTA aren’t building it right now as part of their motorway widening.

ATAP - Interim Report - Package Modelling - South + west

The report also gives a lot of backing to Auckland Transport’s plans for light rail – although without actually mentioning it. It talks about how a number of bus corridors to the city centre (North Shore, Northwest and Isthmus) will be subject to significant capacity issues unless something is done. The example given is of Symonds St showing that by 2045 it is well over capacity.

ATAP - Interim Report - Symonds St

The Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing gets a specific mention too, which is unsurprising because as currently planned, it’s by far the single biggest transport project ever planned in New Zealand. What is surprising, though, is that ATAP seems to pour a bit of cold water on the road-building side, saying that it doesn’t improve congestion and seeming to suggest that perhaps a PT-only crossing might be more appropriate.

Improving access to and from the North Shore

  • The bridge and its approaches are a pinch-point on the transport network, particularly during the evening peak in both directions.
  • An additional crossing significantly improves accessibility to/from the North Shore, but does not appear to substantially improve congestion results.
  • Projected growth in public transport demand appears likely to trigger the need for a new crossing within the next 30 years. There is potential for a shared road/PT crossing, but the costs and benefits of different options require further analysis.

High cost of potential solutions

  • Because any new crossing will be tunnelled, there is a significant opportunity cost arising from this investment. Fully understanding key drivers, alternatives, cost and benefits will be crucial before any investment decisions are made.
  • It makes sense to protect the route for a new harbour crossing in a way that integrates potential future roading and public transport requirements.

The congestion issue is highlighted in these results, showing it is just as bad or actually worse.

ATAP - Interim Report - AWHC

New Opportunities

New opportunities represent some of the potential changes that could be made to the system but which are not currently in plans. It’s possible that they might not all become reality, but they were included in a bid to see what impact they could potentially have.

Part of ATAP’s terms of reference was to look at the impact of road pricing as a demand management tool. While the media have picked this up as “motorway tolling”, the outcome ATAP is talking about is quite a different beast. In essence motorway tolling was about raising as much money as possible and trying to do that efficiently. Road pricing for demand management is primarily about trying to get more efficient use of the road resource we have. ATAP is talking about pricing roads regardless of whether they are motorways or local roads, across the entire region i.e. a network-wide solution.

Their hypothetical solution looked at having varying charges between 3c and 40c per kilometre depending on time of day, location and the type of network the travel occurs within. As a comparison, a rough estimate suggests current fuel taxes are about 6c per kilometre now. An example of how the pricing could differ is shown below.

ATAP - Interim Report - Road Pricing Differences

This would still need some infrastructure investment, particularly on PT to give people options and these were included into a fourth package for modelling. As you can see, this fourth package (in blue below) performs significantly better than the other packages above when it comes to congestion.

ATAP - Interim Report - Manage Demand

This initial work suggests that the package of ‘road pricing plus extra public transport investment’ makes a massive difference, for both congestion and accessibility as shown in the two images above. ATAP says more work is needed to determine the exact impact, but it seems that road pricing is likely to have a major role in Auckland in the future. This has also now been confirmed by Simon Bridges, whose predecessors were very negative about earlier tolling ideas. This is a significant change and a welcome one.

In addition, ATAP also considered the impacts of technology, such as higher occupancy vehicles, most likely through ride-sharing and connected vehicles. They say the results are encouraging but also warn they likely reflect a best case scenario. Furthermore, as they don’t include any potential impact on overall travel demand (which could be significant), those savings could disappear.

ATAP - Interim Report - technology

Emerging strategic approach

ATAP say they asked the question of Should we build more or should we address demand? Ultimately, they suggest the outcome is likely going to be a mix of infrastructure and demand management. They highlight that there are likely diminishing returns on infrastructure, since it is increasingly expensive to provide to the existing urban area, so building our way out isn’t an option. This is an issue being faced all over the world.

All of the work above leads to the high level strategy ATAP will take – which is not all that different to what we’ve seen suggested before in various documents.

ATAP - Interim Report - Emerging Stragetic Approach

Overall, ATAP seems to be on the right track with the approach they’re taking. With the government, the council and all of the relevant agencies working together, it’s likely we’ll end up with a lot more agreement on transport in Auckland than we’ve had in the past. Have you read the document, if so what are your thoughts?

Sunday reading 5 June 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading this long weekend.

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

DOWNS-THOMPSON PARADOX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2-en

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHCH slow streets

Christchurch 30kph network

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

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

London Population changes

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

London Housing supply

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

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

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

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

 

SuperGold on HOP

In just over a month those over 65 will no longer be able to just wave their SuperGold card to get free public transport. Instead, following changes made by the government, they will be required to have an AT HOP card with a concession loaded. There are currently about 180,000 people in Auckland with a SuperGold card and that is growing by about 7,000 a year and AT say almost 42,000 already have a HOP card with the SuperGold concession loaded. That also means that potentially around 140,000 people won’t be able to travel unless they make the change over the next month.

Auckland Transport have launched a campaign to get those with SuperGold cards on to HOP including introducing a new SuperGold specific HOP card – although those with blue HOP cards can keep using those.

Gold AT HOP

Switching SuperGold public transport use to the AT HOP card will also reduce improper use of the SuperGold concession and permit improved planning of public transport services making the scheme more sustainable, reducing taxpayer and ratepayer costs.

Mr Lambert says seniors using public transport in Auckland who do not yet have an AT HOP card will need to purchase one by 30 June, at a cost of $15 (the AT HOP card costs $10 and it must have a minimum of $5 credit loaded onto it at the time of purchase) The $10 card purchase price is non-refundable.

“We’re working with the Ministry of Transport and directly with seniors’ advocacy groups to make the process as easy as possible for seniors,” he says.

Auckland Transport is making an information pack available to all SuperGold cardholders, advising seniors of the changes and explaining how to purchase an AT HOP card and load a SuperGold concession.

“We have worked directly with seniors in focus groups to ensure the information provided is clear and easy to understand,” Mr Lambert says.

SuperGold card users purchasing an AT HOP card from 9 May will be issued with a specially designed, distinctive gold AT HOP card. However, blue AT HOP cards loaded with a SuperGold concession will continue to be accepted after 1 July 2016. Auckland Transport will be in contact with individuals who have a blue AT HOP card loaded with a SuperGold concession regarding the process to swap out their blue AT HOP card for a gold AT HOP card free of charge after 1 July 2016.

Having a specific SuperGold card is a good idea but oddly though it’s not a replacement for the SuperGold card so those eligible will have to carry both cards. Similarly, the Ministry of Social Development appear to have refused to help AT in the change over. I understand this isn’t the first time the MSD has done this and it appears to me that they want to operate in a silo over the whole thing.

At the same time Grey Power is calling the requirement to buy a HOP card cruel. While I understand why they’re saying it, I personally thing that’s a bit rough given that Auckland Council/Transport go beyond the SuperGold benefits and also cover evening peak travel too. Paying $15 for essentially unlimited free travel is still a very good deal.

I would expect most people who read this blog are likely to already have a HOP card with the concession loaded but

With the discussion on SuperGold I thought I’d also take a quick look at some of the figures around SuperGold which can be found on this NZTA site. It has annual data up to the end of June last year

In total there were 12.6 million trips via SuperGold across NZ in the 2014/15 year and that was worth just over $26 million in fares.

SuperGold trips in Auckland accounted for about 56% of that national total although only 54% of value of fares. For 2015 the breakdown of trips by mode and the percentage of total trips by that mode were:

  • Bus – 5.9m (9.9%)
  • Train – 680k (4.9%)
  • Ferry – 445k (8.0%)
  • Total – 7.1m (8.9%)

Auckland SuperGold patronage

The costs are quite different though due to the high cost of ferries. In the brackets is the cost per trip

  • Bus – $9.8m ($1.66)
  • Train – $1.5m ($2.27)
  • Ferry – $2.8m ($6.24)
  • Total – $14.1m ($2.01)

Auckland SuperGold costs

Budget day 2016, what we want to see

Today is budget and while we wait to see what, if any, goodies Bill English will announce, I thought I would list some of the things I’d like to see and what we may actually see. My gut says we won’t see anything too significant as the government often now announce or at least hint at changes in advance.

What we want to see

City Rail Link

Back in in January the government gave certainty to the City Rail Link when they agreed it should start construction sooner than they had originally anticipated. This was primarily in response to two things:

  • significant growth the rail network has been experiencing with sustained increases of more than 20% year on year
  • pressure from private developers like Precinct Properties – the ones behind Commercial Bay (Downtown Shopping Centre) and others – who we understand are keen to get on with their development and which is intrinsically tied in with the CRL.

But at the same event where John Key announced the government would support starting sooner the CRL happening sooner, he also said it would be subject to addressing a number of issues with the council.

We still need to work through a number of important and quite complex issues with the Council.

These include how project costs will be finally shared between the Government and the Council and how the Rail Link will be owned and managed.

Providing these issues are resolved – and I’m confident they can be – we’ll aim to finalise the business plan later this year.

The government announcing that the issues had been resolved and that funding is being forward for the project would be welcome news.

Rapid Transit

Getting more in to the realms of funding fantasy, it would be great if the government were to announce a number of rapid transit projects to complement the CRL in a bid to keep Auckland moving.

Rapid Transit Map

Some specific projects that could do with a boost include:

AMETI

AMETI is really in need of some funds to get it moving faster because at the current rate just the busway just from Panmure to Pakuranga is not due to start till 2021 and it could be almost a decade from now before it is finished. East Auckland needed this busway built years ago and so anything the government can do to speed that up would be welcome.

AMETI Buslane - Pakuranga Rd

NW Busway

With so much growth planned and already happening in the North West it will be critical that we have some good quality PT options. We know the project is bubbling away slowing with Auckland Transport and it could do with a push to get moving faster.

A second batch of trains for Auckland

AT continue to say that they have enough trains and that it will remain that way even after the CRL is finished. My view is that they have severe case of wishful thinking. Given the trains have a two year lead in time it seems imperative that we get them ordered now. AT have also been talking about buying some with batteries attached so they can run to Pukekohe without them having to string up wires. If that’s a viable solution, then they could be ordered at the same time.

EMUs at the Depot

Photo by Patrick Reynolds

What we might see

Transport for housing developments

There’s been a lot of talk recently about housing and in particular about greenfield growth. As we pointed out last week, one of the issues is not so much the overall amount of land but the amount of land that is serviced with infrastructure. The problem is that building this infrastructure is very expensive with just the bulk infrastructure to support the proposed growth estimated at around $17 billion. Of course in some places within the existing urban area infrastructure also needs to be upgraded to support growth.

That’s why I think it is quite possible the government may attempt to start addressing the issue by directly funding infrastructure or by introducing other mechanisms to enable it.

Kiwirail Funding

In the last budget the government signalled a pre-commitment for this budget of $190 million for Kiwirail. We may see a change to that figure or alternatively another pre-commitment for next year’s budget.

Regional Highway projects

Last year the government announced $97 million a number of regional highway projects. It’s possible that funding could be extended to cover projects in more areas.

 

What would you like to see in the budget and what do you actually think we will see?

 

Opening up NLTF to all modes

The Green Party released a new freight policy yesterday. They’re looking at ways to invest to increase safety and reduce carbon emissions:

The Safer, Cleaner Freight policy sets a target for moving half of freight on rail and by sea within 10 years of the next election. It allows the transport budget to be used to fund rail projects, and commits to the electrification of rail between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

“National’s single-minded focus on a few expensive highways is downright irresponsible, and will ultimately force more and more trucks onto New Zealand roads,” said Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.

“National spends five times more on a few low-value motorways than it does on the entire rail network. National’s pet projects will actually increase congestion and the number of trucks on New Zealand roads, meaning within a decade Kiwis will have to share the roads with an additional 1.7 million truck trips every year.

“New Zealanders are sick and tired of more and more trucks congesting their towns and cities and bearing down behind them on the road. Every year, an average of 55 people are killed in crashes involving trucks, and over 850 are seriously injured.

“Rail is our second corridor. A single train can remove 70 heavy trucks from the road. By investing in rail and shipping we will not only make roads safer, but the air cleaner, and create a safer climate for future generations.

“We will invest $860 million to electrify rail between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga – New Zealand’s busiest freight corridors. This will help to move freight safely off the road, and create a zero emissions freight service in ‘the Golden Triangle’.

“Instead of demanding that rail return a profit, which has set rail up to fail, we’ll fund it from the transport budget in the same way roads are, providing the investment needed to move freight in the most effective and clean way.

“Moving freight by rail and ship is not only safer and cheaper, but better for the environment. Shifting half of New Zealand’s freight by rail and ship is the equivalent of replacing over 1.6 million petrol and diesel cars with electric vehicles.

Possibly the most interesting part of this is the proposal to open up the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) to allow it to fund all modes. We’ve just seen an example of the problems with mono-modal transport funding, with NZTA charging on with planning a third road-only Waitemata harbour crossing rather than considering all the alternative ways to get people across the harbour.

Allowing rail infrastructure to be funded by directly out of the NLTF is an idea that we’ve long augured for. The NLTF is used to help fund public transport services and some infrastructure on the basis that those services help alleviate some pressure from roads and therefore drivers. Why should the same principle not apply to other areas of the transport space and while the Greens’ proposal focuses on freight, but surely it would also make sense for NZTA to adopt an all-modes approach for urban passenger transport as well.

Their proposal to electrify the “Golden Triangle” rail line sounds pretty expensive and there is no way Kiwirail in it’s current state could even consider it – although I suspect the economics of it would be challenging under any funding regime. However, this route is the busiest freight corridor in the country, so if there’s a case to do it anywhere then it’s here.

By way of illustration, the Ministry of Transport’s 2014 National Freight Demand Study found that the rail moved a total of 4.7 million tonnes of freight between the Auckland, Waikato, and Bay of Plenty regions in 2012 (see Table 4.4). That’s around 29% of the total inter-regional freight movements of 16.4 million tonnes (Table 4.7). The image shows rail freight movements by volume and comes of an interactive visualisation by Aaron Schiff who used the data from the National Freight Demand Study.

Rail Freight in NZ

In the short term, the best way to get the most out of the upper north island rail network might be to build more passing loops to increase rail freight capacity. For example, the rail line from Hamilton to Tauranga is largely single track with a few passing loops, which limits it to only four trains an hour (two each way). The last passing loops added just a few years ago as part of a $13 million package of works and doubled capacity on the line between Hamilton and Tauranga, compared to many transport investments that is very cost effective.

Inside Auckland, building a third main line for the Southern Line is pretty crucial as there are already conflicts between passenger and freight services that will get worse after CRL. We understand the cost of doing so is fairly cheap compared to most transport investments we hear about but the project has been languishing as Auckland Transport and Kiwirail can’t agree on who should fund it.

While these are fairly specific examples, on the whole it seems like would be easier to make beneficial (and relatively cheap) investments like these if rail could compete for funding out of the NLTF just like other transport projects.

Additional Harbour Crossing ill-considered and over-rushed.

We are increasingly concerned that Auckland is in the middle of very poor process where by far the nation’s biggest ever infrastructure project is being forced along and at ill-considered speed without anything like the level of public participation nor detailed analysis that it should have.

AWHC Sulhur Beach

NZTA are relying on a 2008 study into possible future harbour crossings to just get on with designing and designating a road only crossing. This study started with the assumption that any additional crossing would be a road lane crossing. No kind of comparative analysis of all options like the Centre City Future Access Study that was done to be certain that the City Rail Link is the right mode and route for that need has ever been undertaken.

Looking at the current options across the harbour it is clear that the highest capacity urban transport mode is what’s missing. There are 13 general traffic lanes across two bridges, and some passenger ferries, but no dedicated Rapid Transit route. We hold that it is absolutely necessary to do a proper comparative analysis between modes for the next harbour crossing before any designation or final design work is undertaken, and have been consistent in requesting it. We are not claiming to know what the outcome would be but that it is frankly irresponsible to proceed any further without such a study.

Particularly as a great deal has changed since 2007 when that report was commissioned. Aucklanders have proven that they are just like city dwellers everywhere else in the world and are very keen to use good quality Transit systems when they get the chance. Since the upgrade and electrification of the existing rail network we have been piling onto our new trains at a rate well in advance of expectations. The Northern Busway too has excelled expectations even though it has to share lanes with general traffic on the bridge and therefore is not as Rapid as a dedicated route would be. These two top tier systems are attracting riders at a rate of 20%+ year on year, and while there is relief ahead for the rail network with at last the CRL underway, there is no plan to deal with an ever rising flood of buses into the city centre with this hugely expensive project.

The line that ‘Aucklanders just love their cars’ as an excuse to not provide quality alternatives to driving has been forever proven to be the nonsense it always was. Aucklanders are the same as everyone else; we love what ever works well for our needs. So when we get options like the example below from Panmure for reliable fast travel we take it.

Pete Clarke Panmure

Furthermore it is well understood that it is the quality of the alternatives that govern the speed and reliability of the surface routes. So that in this example the car and bus speeds and reliability would be much worse without the separate Rapid Transit alternative. The same will be the case for across the harbour; a great alternative means freer roads, another driving route means more cars everywhere; more congestion See here for a discussion on this:

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

Additionally the commitment to this road only crossing is made before the completion of the Western Ring Route, the current multi-billion dollar bypass for cross harbour traffic. It is also being made without any kind of business case. Existing estimates are up to $6Billion dollars for a return of 30-40 cents on the dollar. This desperately needs proper and thoughtful analysis, without the ridiculous haste from politicians.

All over the world cities are kept moving by building high capacity spatially efficient Transit systems. Auckland is simply at the point where it can no longer delay adding this essentially weapon to its arsenal of movement options. From statements by NZTA they agree that a Rail crossing is required but they insist, without any analysis or study, that this must come after another road crossing.

Three road crossings, and no more spatially and energetically efficient option? We would like to see analysis of what reversing this timing could achieve. What if the next crossing is high capacity electric rail? Especially driverless low operating cost rail.

  • What are the outcomes for traffic congestion across the wider city?
  • For land use?
  • For the local environment?
  • For Carbon Emissions?

We know that the people constantly say they want extension of quality Public Transport:

AA LTP Survey - PT v Roads

Survey of Automobile Association members

The public deserve to have a say in what is being done in their name and with their money. There are so many questions. NZTA know that this project will flood the city centre with cars and that there is simply nowhere for them to go. They also quietly discuss levels of tolling on both the new crossing and the old bridge. This massive project will not only soak up huge sums of investment funding closing off opportunity to make other decisions across the city and nation, but also induce more traffic everywhere on Auckland’s roads. It is also the reverse of future proofing as it commits us all to more driving:

AWHC - Induced Demand

The road only crossing is a huge Traffic Inducement scheme, as NZTA explain in this slide.

To claim all environmental and traffic congestion concerns can be waved away because of future technology is very weak. That argument suggests that the time to build this kind of infrastructure is when we all do have electric cars, not on the prospect of their arrival some time in the future. And if driverless cars are to be that revolutionary then perhaps all this expensive additional road space will not be required? Meantime there is current electric and driverless technology that can be invested in right now.

In Vancouver the SkyTrain mass transit system shifts 117m people per year, at frequencies often down to a train every 2 minutes, running from 5am to 1:30am daily and all at an operating surplus. Driverless, Electric Light Metro. North Shore people have already shown they are not too posh to bus, they certainly won’t be reluctant to use a quicker, quieter, cleaner, more direct, 21st century movement system like this.

skytrain-millennium-line-wide

 

The end of Auckland’s old growth model

The New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development’s public shark-jumping exercise the other week got me thinking. While their flagship policy of a new megabillion eastern tunnel project is a bit mad, their report does a reasonable job of diagnosing one of the core problems facing Auckland. That is, the city’s land-use and transport plans are not always well aligned.

That’s illustrated nicely in their maps of intensification opportunities around rail stations – red circles indicate places where apartment and townhouse development is generally discouraged under the draft Unitary Plan.

NZCID - ATAP response - Land Use Train

In short, we’re fixing our city’s rapid transit network – and it’s long since time we did that! – but we may need to do more to get the best out of the investment by enabling intensive development around train stations.

As a point of contrast, I recently visited Sydney on the way back from a work trip to Australia and spent a day wandering around the city looking at stuff – it’s a great walking city. And I’ve got to say: they don’t waffle around with upzoning there. When they choose to redevelop a brownfield area, the debate isn’t between whether two or three storeys should be allowed. The question is whether to go ten, twenty, or thirty storeys. And they’re willing to back that up with new rapid transit where needed.

Auckland is different. We build rapid transit infrastructure haltingly, in fits and starts, and when governments choose to accelerate road projects, busways are left to progress through the queue. And while the Unitary Plan is a fine step forward, it’s really just the start of the conversation about how we should modernise our planning rules for a 21st-century city.

But change is needed. Because, as NZCID’s report unintentionally illustrates, Auckland’s arrived at the end of its growth model of the past 50 years. It’s kaput. We may be able to kludge it back into action for a bit, but make no mistake: it will seize up again. And so we need to design a new growth model.

The old growth model was as follows:

  • Build some roads and water pipes out into the countryside
  • Build some houses on the paddocks this opens up for development
  • Repeat when necessary.

This isn’t necessarily a bad model. It’s simple, and it works reasonably well provided that some schools and shops and jobs move outwards as well. But it’s got some subtle pathologies – e.g. street networks that preclude future transport choices, environmental impacts, etc.

And, more importantly, this growth model is inherently self-limiting in a location like Auckland. There are two reasons for this:

  • First, geographic constraints. Auckland is situated on a narrow isthmus between two harbours. We run out of proximate land for housing much more rapidly than other cities – which means that we must build up much more rapidly than other growing cities.
  • Second, the spatial cost of road transport. Geography gives Auckland many pinch points – over the Waitemata Harbour and across the portages at either edge of the isthmus. It’s intrinsically challenging to keep pumping cars through narrow pinch points. Adding motorway lanes will only get more costly in the future – as NZCID’s eastern motorway proposal demonstrates.

We can’t avoid the consequences of these constraints by metamorphosing into a polycentric city… because that’s already happened. Only one in five jobs is located in the city centre and fringe. The rest are elsewhere. If there are major gains to be had from dispersal, we have already achieved them. We can’t count on more of the same to help us escape the geometric realities.

And here’s the thing: If we insist that we must keep on doing more of the same, we will instead do nothing. If it is truly necessary to build something like NZCID’s eastern motorway tunnel to enable urban growth in Auckland, we probably won’t grow. It’s not feasible to spend a decade of Auckland’s transport infrastructure budget on a single road. (And it’s not ethical to borrow the money from future generations, who don’t have a say in what gets built.)

So we need a different growth model. I don’t have all the answers – who does? – but here are a few thoughts on what that might look like, focusing on the transport infrastructure part of the picture. (Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the role of pricing and the need to rethink policies that limit housing choice.)

First and foremost, we must recognise that this growth model is self-limiting due to its reliance on a single transport mode – cars. Cars are great for lots of things, but they occupy a lot of space both when in motion and when sitting around. This is not an advantage in a city as geographically constrained as Auckland.

If we invest in a way that ensures that all new entrants to the city must use cars for most travel, then it will come back to bite us. If people know that new housing in their neighbourhood will inevitably mean more people parking in their preferred spot on the street, they will oppose it. (No matter how mindlessly hypocritical it is to claim a property right over a public street!) If they know that a new suburb on the edge of town will mean more cars jostling for space on the road during their morning commute, they will oppose it.

And if they’re presented with the bill to build all the new roads needed to keep the cars flowing, they’ll vote against it. Roads are expensive, and people don’t like it when their rates go up.

Second, we must recognise that there are alternatives. Public transport and cycling can offer great mobility at a much lower spatial cost than cars. If we want to increase mobility in a growing city, we need to make much greater use of these transport modes.

Litman-space-required-by-mode

It can be challenging to make the transition, as developing these networks means thinking about infrastructure and transport services differently. It means paying much more attention to how humans may behave out there on the street – i.e. what will make them feel safe in a cycle lane, or what will make it possible for them to transfer painlessly between buses. But it’s fundamentally possible.

Third, one key consideration when building these modes is that they should be built in advance of growth, so that they can lead and shape development rather than trying to catch up with it. At present, we very much take a “roads first” philosophy to greenfield areas – i.e. building lots of lanes on day one, and coming back years later to retrofit public transport to address the resulting congestion.

The perverse consequence is that this locks in a largely car-dependent urban form on the edge of the city, exacerbating the self-limiting features of our current growth model. Unwinding that is costly and difficult. A “rapid transit first” approach would save us a lot of that trouble.

Fortunately, as Matt highlighted in a recent post on Auckland Transport’s consultation on transport for future urban growth, that’s a realistic option. We’ve got the ability to develop rail stations in Drury and extend busways to Silverdale and Northwest Auckland.

TFUG - Draft Preferred Plan - South

But change doesn’t happen of its own volition: policymakers have to choose to change. So here’s a simple message: If you start a sentence by saying “we need more land for housing…” the next words out of your mouth should be “… and therefore here are some rapid transit investments we should make to support it.”

Removing the RUB won’t necessarily work as planned

Yesterday Phil Twyford announced that it would be Labour’s policy to abolish Auckland’s Rural Urban Boundary (RUB), as part of a policy to improve housing affordability.

Labour wants the Government to abolish Auckland’s city limits to get people out of cars, caravans, garages and tents.

Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the urban growth boundary had to go because it has fuelled the housing crisis and people would not be forced into bad circumstances if the Government acted.

“The Government should rule out any possibility of an urban growth boundary in Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan if it is serious about fixing the housing crisis,” Twyford said.

“Over 25 years the urban growth boundary hasn’t prevented sprawl, but it has helped drive land and housing costs through the roof. It has contributed to a housing crisis that has allowed speculators to feast off the misery of Generation Rent, and forced thousands of families to live in garages and campgrounds,” Twyford said.

“Labour’s plan will free up the restrictive land use rules that stop the city growing up and out. It will stop land prices skyrocketing, and put the kibosh on landbankers and speculators.”

There’s no doubt Auckland has a housing crisis at the moment, with house prices increasingly dramatically over the past five years. Rents rose more slowly but the impacts for some families are still alarming. There’s also no doubt that planning restrictions have played their part in creating this crisis – by making it too difficult to build the required number of houses that Auckland has needed.

Addressing regional scale issues like housing and transport was one of the key reasons Auckland Council was amalgamated in the first place and why one of its first tasks was to rewrite the city’s planning rulebook through the Unitary Plan.

But will abolishing the Rural Urban Boundary help? To answer that question it’s important to understand what the boundary is, and what it isn’t. As its name suggests, the RUB is the boundary between land where urbanisation is anticipated and provided for over the next 30 years and land which is intended to remain rural over that time. If you take a look at the map below, it is the black dashed line that separates the yellow-coloured “future urban” zoned land from the brown rural zones:

rub

It’s also important to recognise that the RUB doesn’t exist yet as it’s part of the Unitary Plan being decided by the Independent Hearings Panel. It’s quite a different tool to the old metropolitan urban limit (MUL) that was typically set up against the edge of the existing urban area and made any urban expansion a significant challenge.

The RUB, by contrast, isn’t designed as a permanent boundary. It provides for a substantial amount of greenfield growth – enough to meet 40% of Auckland’s growth over the next 30 years.  The scale of the areas in yellow is highlighted in an Auckland Transport video that looks at the future transport requirements to enable their urbanisation:

The main argument against the RUB is that it creates a scarcity of land where urbanisation is possible, which drives up the price of that land. Over time the high price of land translates into higher house prices and reduced affordability. Fair enough. But what can we actually do about that?

As Auckland Transport’s consultation video above shows, the RUB isn’t simply a line on a map: it’s a plan to provide publicly-funded infrastructure to new urban areas. If you wanted to expand the yellow future urban zoned areas on the map, you’d also have to find the money for additional infrastructure.

In other words, greenfield land is in scarce supply because it’s currently farmland that requires roads, pipes, train stations, parks, schools, hospitals and a myriad of other infrastructure investment to take place before development can actually happen. Making a dent in the housing shortfall by enabling more urban expansion to occur is therefore entirely about speeding up infrastructure, rather than whether or not there is a line on a map.

As we’ve talked about before, the costs of supplying bulk infrastructure to greenfield areas are large. It is time-consuming to investigate, design, consent and build these projects. There’s no quick and cheap way to make a whole heap more greenfield land “development ready”.

In fact, removing the RUB could easily disrupt existing infrastructure plans and slow down overall development. If you take a look at the work that’s been done on transport for future urban growth, the networks are optimised around the location of the RUB. Scattering small developments around the region could force AT and NZTA to react to piecemeal development rather than taking a more strategic approach to infrastructure development.

I suspect that the first thing to get cut due to funding pressure would be the city’s rapid transit plans, which have already been delayed long enough. This would have the perverse effect of putting a damper on the 60-70% of development that’s intended to occur within the existing urban area.

TFUG - Draft Preferred Plan - Northwest

In short, abolishing the RUB isn’t a straightforward proposition. It’s not actually obvious that you could abolish it, as infrastructure plans would simply turn into a de facto RUB.

Ironically, Twyford acknowledges as much in his press release, where he says:

There is a smarter way to manage growth on the city fringes by properly integrating land use with transport and infrastructure planning. There should be more intensive spatial planning of Auckland’s growth areas in the north, north-west and south. Land of special value can be set aside, like the northern coastal strip or Pukekohe’s horticulture soils. Corridors should be acquired and future networks mapped for transport and other infrastructure

Let’s unpack this. First, he says that he’d like to see “intensive spatial planning of Auckland’s growth areas” with “future networks mapped for transport and other infrastructure”. That sounds a lot like the process that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport are currently undergoing for the yellow-coloured future urban land.

Second, he says that “land of special value can be set aside, like the northern coastal strip or Pukekohe’s horticulture soils”. That sounds a lot like some sort of boundary between urban land and non-urban land, which is exactly what the RUB is intended to be. Basically, if you read beyond the headline soundbite, Twyford’s policy starts to sound a lot like Auckland Council’s current policy, just under a different name.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the current government has been looking at this issue for half a decade now, and they’re pretty critical of restrictions on land supply. If it was a simple matter to abolish the RUB, they probably would have done it by now.

So what could we do differently?

There aren’t necessarily any “magic bullet” solutions to land supply. Greenfield land needs infrastructure to be useful, and infrastructure is expensive and slow to build. Shifting some of those costs onto developers, either through development contributions, targeted rates, or design rules that reduce the need for hard infrastructure (e.g. stormwater pipes) can allow more of it to happen. But the problem is that the developers push back, which limits the gains that can be had in this area.

Consequently, other policies are also needed to enable housing supply. That means relaxing or removing restrictions on building height and density within the urban area. While Tywford and Labour have also said they support this approach, they devoted only a single sentence to it:

Freeing up growth on the fringes needs to go hand in hand with allowing more density – so people can build flats and apartments in parts of the city where people want to live, particularly around town centres and transport routes.

That’s a great aspiration, but to be useful it needs to be backed up by specific policies to limit the use of height limits and other density-killing rules like minimum parking requirements. For example, would Labour lift building height limits throughout the urban area? If so, how high?

Lifting building height limits and density controls would have some immediate benefits for housing supply. For one thing, the transport networks and water pipes have mostly already been built, meaning that there’s no lag time waiting for the infrastructure providers. For another, it would make the housing market a hell of a lot more competitive by opening up lots of new development opportunities in the places that people most want to be.

This would also have the benefit of allowing people to avoid the high transport costs associated with sprawling development patterns. Even given Auckland’s dispersed employment patterns, the further out from the centre people live, the further they need to travel to work. This map from a Ministry of Transport analysis of the 2013 census data which shows how far people travel to get to work based on where they live:

This trend is repeated around the world, with more spread out cities requiring a greater amount of travel and, consequently, a higher proportion of income being spent on transport. In some cases this can end up outweighing any savings in housing costs. If we’re going to lift restrictions on housing construction, it makes sense to prioritise lifting the ones that also pose a barrier to efficient travel patterns.