Suburban sprawl is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. Charles Marohn
In the recent article The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs Charles Marohn (@StrongTowns) takes on the awkward relationship between conservative Americans and cities. He questions why conservatives not only perpetuate myths around the suburban experiment but also cede urban issues to the left. Like Peter’s post on Monday this The American Conservative piece is a response to geographer Joel Kotkin’s love letter to the suburbs in Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives.
Marohn cites the federal largess of central government programs- the FHA, Fannie and Freddie and the interstate highway system – all of which have underwritten and subsidised the smudging of cities over the landscape.
The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.
That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.
He also questions why conservatives tend to entrench the notion of an urban left and a rural right when cities could benefit from a closer look at inefficient market distortions.
These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?
Strongtowns has been covering a wide range of transport and urban issues over the last several years including some highly critical pieces on the traffic engineering profession, transportation economics, and street design. During that time I never considered their work to be following a particular left/right political paradigm.
I’ve written a few things inspired by the Strongtowns aproach. Below is a diagram calculating the property value of various land development types (land value+capital value)/area. Note how poorly suburban/horizontal/car-based typologies perform compared to traditional land developments (see for example the Onehunga Mall property). This is how the ponzi scheme of suburban car-oriented development pencils out. Atlantic Cities wrote a great piece calling this “the simple math that can save cities from bankruptcy” which describes the thought process:
We tend to compare buildings to each other, without looking at their unit value. This would be like comparing the fuel economy of the tank of a Ford F-150 to the tank of a Prius. We don’t shop for vehicles that way, because that makes no sense. We look at miles-per-gallon, not miles-per-tank, because tanks come in all different sizes. We should look at buildings, Minicozzi argues, the exact same way.
In a country where many people derive income come from land productivity, it seems that this approach would resonate. But maybe not. One example is Westfield (malls) pleading in the Unitary Plan hearings to maintain minimum parking regulations.
Parking minimums, set at reasonable and appropriate levels, are essential to ensure that sufficient parking is provided for identified activities and localities.
Such regulation, requiring spatially inefficient development, ensures that the return on public investment – roads, pipes, footpaths – remains very low.
Property value – location and form
Here’s another example. This 3D graphic illustrates property values (land value+capital value/area) not height. The new, modest, 4-story apartment block (Ockham Building) has 13 times the property value as it’s neighbours (mostly one-story stand alone homes). This property value also translates to rates which for the most part fund ongoing road maintenance but also city services like community pools, libraries and berm mowing.
Doing the math – property value premium of infill intensification
This above image was cross posted to Facebook and someone (I assume) with a “conservative” disposition said:
It probably generates more than 13 times the cost involved to provide additional council services – plus additional congestion costs!
Lets take this comment at face value. Here is a project that has few car parks, is located on a frequent bus line, next to rail station, and within cycling (if not walking distance) from the largest concentration of jobs in the city. This part of town has a very active mode share and the shortest journeys to work averages (0-6km). Worrying about congestion in this context is a failure to understand the spatial implications of congestion mitigation (see image 1 above) or a very optimistic expectation about vehicle travel time contributing to economic productivity.
As far as the additional council services – I don’t know the specific impacts that 20 additional households has on existing schools or the pipes under the street, but a recent Council study has determined that attached dwellings are only 60-80% as costly to serve. (link)
Overall it seems very likely that 20 households in an existing neighbourhood close to the city centre in the space of 20 meters is much more cost effective than serving the same across 200m in a greenfield scenario. And it seems reasonable, and even fiscally responsible, that someone should do this math.
In the National Review, a conservative American magazine, Reihan Salam takes a look at the confused state of the American debate over intensification. His article, entitled “The Great Suburbia Debate” criticises the position taken by Joel Kotkin, a long-time campaigner for low-density suburban development. He writes:
Though I’m an admirer of Kotkin, and though I can’t speak for every conservative who has made the case for denser development, he gets a number of important things wrong…
For example, Kotkin claims that “some conservatives” (again, no names) have been “lured by their own class prejudice” into turning against market forces. “In reality,” Kotkin writes, “imposing Draconian planning is not even necessary for the growth of density.” Of course, this is exactly the argument that Edward Glaeser makes in The Triumph of the City, a manifesto for the pro-market, pro-density right. “In places that have both liberal planning regimes and economic growth, such as Houston and Dallas,” he observes, “there has been a more rapid increase in multifamily housing than in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.” Indeed, this is why many conservatives, myself included, have explicitly argued that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles should look to the liberal planning regimes of Houston and Dallas as a model. (To be clear, by “liberal” planning regimes, Kotkin means less-restrictive, more market-oriented planning regimes, and so do I.)
The global cities that manage to be both highly productive and affordable, like Tokyo and Toronto, tend to have liberal planning regimes, which allow for rapid growth of housing stock, and in particular of the multifamily housing stock. These regions are characterized by rapid housing development in the suburbs and in the urban core, and their “suburbs” tend to be more urban than low-density suburbs in the U.S. governed by stringent planning regimes that tightly restrict multifamily development. When Glaeser makes the case for density, he does so not by calling for “imposing draconian planning” on cities and towns. Rather, he explicitly calls for the relaxation of land-use regulation.
Kotkin relies heavily on the work of Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant who seems to believe that denser development is necessarily a product of central planning. In desirable regions, however, less restrictive planning regimes will naturally lead to higher densities, as property owners will naturally seek to maximize the value of their investments. Restrictive land-use regulations tend to limit density, not impose it on unwilling landowners.
Salam’s article is excellent and I recommend reading it in full. I pulled out these excerpts as they highlight a few essential facts that often go missing from the debate over urban policy:
- Denser development cannot be imposed by fiat – it will happen if and only if there is market demand for it (as there often is in places that are accessible to jobs and amenities). If nobody wants to buy apartments, then no apartments will get built!
- Urban planners can’t simply require people to build at higher densities – but they can limit density to below what the market wants.
- The rising demand for higher density development isn’t a market distortion, but evidence that the market is working.
In short, we must interpret rising population densities as the result of many individual decisions rather than the whim of an urban planner. My research shows that population densities are rising rapidly in Auckland and several other large NZ cities, which suggests that we’re voting heavily for density with our feet and our wallets. This is, as Salam suggests, a natural outcome of market forces and should be accepted with equanimity. We should recognise this demand where it exists and make complementary public investments in walking and cycling facilities and public transport.
Lastly, I’d note that people from all across the political spectrum should be able to appreciate cities. As Jane Jacobs observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a good urban neighbourhood demonstrates many of the virtues that conservatives celebrate, such as small business ownership, a close-knit community that watches out for itself, and independent-minded civil society (often battling against big government bureaucracy in the form of overreaching traffic engineers).
Jane Jacobs campaigned against this Pharaonic act of bureaucratic hubris (Source)
As a result, we often see centre-right mayors implementing good urban policies. Big-city mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, London’s Boris Johnson, and Buenos Aires’ Mauricio Macri have been right at the forefront of the movement for better cities. They’ve realised that better cities are more prosperous, and that it’s possible to improve a city by improving the choices available to people.
Details are starting to emerge from the Council’s review of its Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) to see if any changes need to be made to them. The CCOs were set up in 2010 by the government as part of the super city changes to manage many of the council’s functions. The CCOs are:
- Auckland Council Investments Limited
- Auckland Council Property Limited
- Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development Limited
- Auckland Transport
- Auckland Waterfront Development Agency Limited (Waterfront Auckland)
- Regional Facilities Auckland
- Watercare Services Limited
We’re not likely to see many changes to Auckland Transport or Watercare as their existence is enshrined in legislation however the other CCOs are not.
One change I’ve long liked the idea of is to merge Waterfront Auckland and Auckland Council Property Limited (ACPL) to create a region wide urban development agency. Waterfront Auckland has been the driver behind the spectacular and internationally award winning redevelopment of the Wynyard Quarter while ACPL manages almost 1200 properties around the region worth over $1 billion. They say part of their role is to facilitate development that supports the council’s broader place shaping and housing development objectives however on the surface it doesn’t appear that much has happened in this regard. A combined agency that is able to harness some of the knowledge and skills that Waterfront Auckland have built up and leverage that across the region would be extremely useful.
Density done well coming to Wynyard
I know many others who have expressed this view too and it appears this might be exactly what will happen.
The Auckland Council is considering merging its waterfront agency and property company as it focuses on how to improve run down main streets.
The new development agency is the biggest change being considered in a year-long review of council-controlled organisations, which has so far continued behind closed doors.
Council chief executive Stephen Town has provided a glimpse into the review, which will run for a further month.
Mr Town said the council had looked at similar re-generation agencies in Australia, which put existing council property into joint ventures, with the private sector or government.
“In some parts of Auckland we’ve got very large land holdings clustered in town centres,” he said.
“It’s not inconceivable to see $500 million to $1.5 billion developments occurring over 10 years.”
The council is loathe to name possible redevelopment centres at this stage. However there are obvious candidates.
On the same day as the council unveiled the agency proposal, members of Avondale Community Action appealed to the Auckland Development Committee to re-vitalise their neglected town centre.
Avondale includes vacant private sites in the middle of the town centre, run down council-owned facilities, and Housing New Zealand property ripe for redevelopment. Other long-established centres in decline include Mt Albert, Otahuhu and Papatoetoe.
Mr Town said the work though could begin in earnest before then, under existing council structures. He said the development agency would likely begin life inheriting a portfolio of surplus council property, but would be expected to enhance council finances, rather than be a burden on them.
If an Urban Development Agency is formed, it is expected to result in cuts to management within the existing Waterfront Agency, and Auckland Council Properties Limited. That has yet to be explored.
If it goes ahead the biggest risk is what kind of culture comes through and that will likely be determined by how the merger occurs. In my view it would be better to put the property acquisition and management experience into the Waterfront Auckland structure rather than to put the urban design, planning and development experience into the ACPL structure.
Overall a well run urban redevelopment agency would be a huge asset to the council that would enable some of the visions highlighted in the Auckland Plan to become a reality.
2011 saw the release of a study led by Ian Wallis Associates into Auckland’s public transport performance. It is a sober and restrained report that simply sets out to describe the performance of Auckland’s PT systems on comparative terms with a range of not dissimilar cities around the region. A very useful exercise, because while no two cities are identical, all cities face similar tradeoffs and pressures and much can be learned by studying the successes and failures of other places. The whole document is here.
The cities selected for the study are all in anglophone nations around the Pacific from Australia, the US, Canada, and New Zealand, with Auckland right in the middle in terms of size. And as summarised by Mathew Dearnaley in the Herald at the time, it showed Auckland to be the dunce of the class by pretty much every metric. Although the article is called Auckland in last place for public transport use it’s clear that the headline it would have reflected the report’s findings more accurately if the paper had simply said; Auckland in last place for public transport. Because it showed that the low uptake of public transport in Auckland cannot be separated from the low quality, slow, infrequent, and expensive services available.
Here’s the uptake overview:
So it’s clear that population alone is no determinant of PT uptake. If it isn’t the size of the city what is it? Various people have their pet theories, some like to claim various unfixable emotional factors are at work, like our apparently ‘car-loving’ culture, though is it credible that we have a more intense passion for cars than Americans or Australians? The homes of Bathurst and the Indy 500? Others claim that the geography of this quite long and harbour constrained city somehow suits road building and driving over bus, train, and ferry use. A quixotic claim especially when compared to the flat and sprawling cities of the American West which much more easily allow space for both wide roads and endless dispersal in every direction. Another popular claim is that Auckland isn’t dense enough to support much Transit use. Yet it is considerably denser than all but the biggest cities on the list.
So what does the study say is the reason for Auckland’s outlying performance?
It considers service quantity [PT kms per capita], quality [including speed, reliability, comfort, safety, etc] and cost both for the passenger and society, and easy of use [payment systems]. Along with other issues such as mode interoperability, and land-use/transit integration. And all at considerable depth. The report found that Auckland’s PT services are poor, often with the very worst performance by all of these factors and this is the main driver of our low uptake.
And happily some of the things that stand out in the report are well on the way to being addressed. Here, for example is what it says about fares:
The HOP card is no doubt a huge improvement and has enabled some fare cost improvement. And we can expect more to be done in this area soon, we are told, especially for off peak fares. Additionally the integration of fares is still to come [zone charging].
Here’s what it says about service quantity and quality:
Yet there is one thing that the report returns to on a number of occasions that perhaps best captures what’s wrong with Auckland, and offers a fast track to improvement. And, even at this early stage, gives us a way of checking the theory against results in the real world:
Right, so perhaps the biggest problem with Auckland’s PT system is simply the lack of enough true Rapid Transit routes and services. To qualify as true Rapid Transit it is generally accepted that along with the definition above, a separate right of way, the services must also offer a ‘turn up and go’ frequency, at least at the busiest sections of the lines. And that this is generally considered to mean a service at least every ten minutes, but ideally even more frequent than that.
In Auckland we only have the Rail Network and the Northern Busway that qualify as using separate right of ways, and the busway for only 41% of its route. At least the frequencies on the Busway are often very high, where as on the Rail Network they only make it to ten minute frequencies for the busiest few hours of the day. So to say that Auckland has any real high quality Rapid Transit services even now is a bit of a stretch. However these services have been improving in the three years since the report was released, and will continue to do so in the near future with the roll out of the new trains and higher frequencies on the Rail Network, and more Bus lanes on the North Shore routes especially at the city end of their runs.
Here is a map with a fairly generous description of our current or at least improving Rapid Transit Network:
Even though it is only three years since the report was released, and there is much more to come, there have been improvements, so we can ask; how have the public responded to the improvements to date?
Below are the latest Ridership numbers from Auckland Transport, for August 2014:
SOI: Statement Of Intent, AT’s expectations or hopes. NEX: Northern Express.
So the chart above, showing our most ‘Rapid’ services, Rail and the NEX, are clearly attracting more and more users out of all proportion with the rest, and way above Auckland Transport’s expectations or hopes as expressed by the SOI, is a pretty good indication that both the report authors were right, Auckland is crying out for more Rapid Transit services and routes, and, at least in this case, Einstein was wrong: Practice does indeed seem to be baring out the Theory.
And from here we can clearly expect this rise in uptake to continue, if not actually increase, as the few Rapid Transit routes we have now are going to continue to get service improvements. And 19% increases, if sustained, amount to a doubling in only four years! Rail ridership was around 10 million a year ago, so it could be approaching 20 mil by mid 2017, if this rate of growth is sustained.
But this also means we can clearly expect any well planned investment in extensions to the Rail Network [eg CRL] or additional busways [eg North Western] to also be rewarded with over the odds increases in use. Aucklanders love quality, and give them high quality PT and they will use it.
Furthermore, given that these numbers are in response to only partial improvements even extending on-street bus lanes for regular bus services looks highly likely to be meet with accelerated ridership growth. I think it is pretty clear that Auckland Transport, NZTA, MoT, and Auckland Council can be confident that any substantive quality, frequency, and right-of-way improvement to PT in Auckland will be rewarded with uptake.
Given that Auckland’s PT use is advancing ahead of population growth [unlike the driving stats] I believe we have already improved that poor number up top to 47 trips per person per year. So there’s still plenty of room for growth even to catch up with the next city on the list. So perhaps it’s time to formally update that report too?
Imagine just how well a full city wide network of Rapid Transit would be used? Clearly Auckland is ready for it:
John Key announced his new cabinet line up today and of most interest to this blog is that we have a new Minister of Transport in the form of Simon Bridges. His other portfolios of Minister of Energy and Resources and Associate Minister for Climate Change Issues could provide for some interesting synergies should he choose to explore them – our current transport system relies heavily on the use of extracted resources and is a major contributor to climate change issues.
He’s also no stranger to Auckland having been born here and growing up in Te Atatu before moving to Tauranga in 2001. Simon was also the Associate Minister of Transport from April 2012 to January 2013.
Hopefully he’s not opposed to other modes of transport
I genuinely hope Simon will be willing to me with me/us to discuss transport issues faced in Auckland and NZ but I guess only time will tell.
Craig Foss has also been given the role of Associate Minister of Transport.
John Key by Platon
On the Monday night after his impressive victory in the election the Prime Minister presented a very statesman like and inclusive tone in an interview on Campbell Live:
“I will lead a Government that will govern for all New Zealanders” was a quote from Mr Key’s acceptance speech that stood out for many, writes Campbell.
Throughout the interview he gives a strong impression that he has no intention of standing still in the glow of this endorsement, he clearly has ambitions to cement his appeal across as a broad spectrum of the public as possible. If he is to achieve this then it will likely involve reaching across traditional divides in policy to bring even more people into his camp. Of course he will also want to carry his base with him if he is to initiate anything new, so it will need to be acceptable to general market-led philosophy even if novel for National otherwise.
The other increasingly important issue to him now will be thoughts of legacy, of history’s judgement. I see an appetite for more than ‘steady as she goes’ for this term, both in terms of building for another or if it were to be his swansong. I believe we can expect a more creative and dynamic John Key, looking to make a make a mark beyond being a good manager and a great salesman:
Robert Muldoon’s ambition, “to leave the country in no worse shape than I found it”, Mr Key describes as having an incredibly low ambition.
“I want to leave the country in better shape than I found it,” he says. [ibid]
It is certainly the case that Key has a unique opportunity to be bold, especially within his own party, as no Prime Minister in recent memory has such a strong position to carry even the most sceptical and conservative caucus or cabinet into unfamiliar waters. But where are the opportunities for change?
I will argue here that there is one area that he can certainly do this, that is consistent with modern market-led conservatism [if less so with our own rather parochial traditions], that it is consistent with his type of leadership, and importantly, is already working for those he admires overseas. Furthermore he has already shown some movement in this direction. This opportunity is for him to position his government as the driver of the economic transformation already underway in our cities, and in particular in our one city of scale: Auckland [but not exclusively].
This is to place Key in the similar mould as the UK’s David Cameron [who he expressly admires] and other right of centre leaders such as London Mayor Boris Johnson and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. These are three modern conservative leaders who have built their reputations in large part by championing the power of cities for economic, environmental, and social transformation.
John Key could go down in history as the man who added a new layer to New Zealand’s economy and identity: the man who added another support to our currently somewhat unstable economic structure, and added another, urban, thread to our social fabric, and who began the turnaround in our environmental performance. And it all starts in our cities.
This does not involve abandoning nor neglecting the countryside, that is already getting huge attention from this government which should continue. But that this is an additional opportunity to add to that work which would remain at the core of his government’s activity.
And conditions are perfect. This is the moment to seize. This is the direction being taken by governments and cities everywhere in the developed world, while perhaps radical here, it is rapidly becoming orthodox and necessary policy to invest in changing urban form to compete for talent and new business. It can be argued that this government has been lucky with the soft commodities boom but that now that is clearly on the wane, but we have already seen that the services sector is already there to at least soften that blow:
Gross Domestic Product rose by 0.7% in the June quarter, according to Statistics NZ, driven by strong growth in the services sector.
The main driver was a 4.2% increase in business services activity, which was partially offset by a 2.8% decline in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
There is economic growth to foster in town and it has different needs to the traditional industries based in the countryside. And we need as a country to diversify our economic base. Urban areas and Auckland in particular are growing in population, activity, and infrastructure requirement and offer just such an opportunity:
Data source: http://www.motu.org.nz/publications/detail/a_new_zealand_urban_population_database
A leader who rejects the mistaken idea that urban growth must somehow be restricted for the rest of the nation to prosper will be the one that can ride this economic force for the good of the whole country. And again Auckland in particular seems right now to be at the sweet spot in terms of scale, density, and growth for this boon. Furthermore his government has already set the foundation for a new urban policy with two earlier decisions that are now bearing fruit: the Super City amalgamation and the electrification of the rail network.
Also because of both the existing conditions in our cities and in the stated preference of their citizens there is actually much less risk to such a pro-urban policy change than it may seem to anyone familiar with the usual cliches of New Zealand Party politics. While it would be a bold move for a leader of the ‘country Party’ that is actually the genius in the idea. It seems clear to me that the notion that National must force the same policies on the cities as fit their core constituents in the provinces is as flawed as the corollary that other parties must try to force urban conditions onto rural communities. This is a lazy idea can can be easily blown open by confident leadership. Different horses for these two courses is clearly what is required for the good of all.
At the core of the policy difference required between urban and country areas is in the type of transport infrastructure investments that have the most effective outcomes. Roads, Ports, Rail for freight, are needed in the countryside. Cities need these too, but they also need the spatial efficiency of quality passenger transport systems. And nowhere is this more true than in Auckland right now.
Let’s consider the evidence: Stated preference, revealed preference, and overseas examples.
1. Stated Preference:
Such an astute student of public opinion polls and changes in sentiment will not miss the profound changes happening in cities all across the world and clearly in evidence in Auckland? Here is what Aucklanders say their city needs:
Ok well this is all very good, but are they voting with their feet, are they using the public transport there already is? Well yes:
2. Revealed Preference:
This century has shown a very strong growth in uptake of our often substandard-but-improving Public Transport systems. Here is a recent example, the latest figures for the rail network:
And if we look at the figures in detail one very very clear theme stands out loud and clear: The services that approach Rapid Transit standards, ie are on their own right of way, have a high frequency, and offer better quality service are the ones that are growing way above all else. In Auckland that means the improving rail network and the buses using the Northern Busway, each of which attracted around 18% more users this August than last.
And in particular all of the growth in numbers accessing the vital economic heart that is the City Centre has been met by our Transit Systems. Especially Rail and the NEX, but also walking, cycling, and ferry use. So much so that the economic value of the City Centre can only grow through these modes, space for private vehicle access is finite and to try to expand it can only come at considerable cost to the economic performance and appeal of the area.
3. Overseas Example:
Mr Cameron said: “Big infrastructure projects like Crossrail are vital for the economy of London and the rest of Britain. They are the foundation-stone on which business can grow, compete and support jobs
From coverage of a visit by David Cameron and Boris Johnson to the tunnels of the Crossrail project in the Telegraph.
Cameron and Johnson in Crossrail
Crossrail, while in fact the third layer of underground rail for London, is, on a scaled basis, very similar to Auckland’s City Rail Link project. While it is much bigger and much more expensive it does exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. It comprises of a core section underground through the Centre of the City that connects to existing rail lines that reach out into the edges of the city. So while the new work is under the centre the reach and value of the project is spread right to the peripheries. It brings a new capacity to a growing Centre that is extremely spatially efficient: it delivers the economic power of concentrations of people without occupying land and buildings or clogging streets with vehicles.
But the key point here is in the UK, as in the US, understanding of the economic value of urban passenger transport systems is not captured by one side of the political divide. In fact the most dynamic conservative leaders, like Cameron, Johnson, and Bloomberg are leading the charge on these projects. Because they make the most economic sense in cities.
CROSSRAIL BUSINESS CASE SUMMARY REPORT
The Crossrail Business Case Summary Report published in July 2010 presents the latest update of the business case for Crossrail, a new world-class and affordable railway across London.
The report confirms the project is supported by the Coalition Government and forms a key part of theMayor’s Transport Strategy, published by the Mayor of London in May 2010.
And for Cameron as for other modern right of centre leaders it isn’t just about the biggest cities. Speaking at the launch of a programme for investment in Rail for Glasgow, Cameron said:
And for too long governments in London and Edinburgh have acted as though taking powers away from Britain’s great cities is the best way to create growth, rather than trusting the people living there to find their own specific solutions to meet their own unique needs.
Before the election our Prime Minister made a first move towards supporting the changing shape of cities by announcing a new policy to fund urban cycleways
nationally. This surely is just the start.
So, in summary, I am proposing that were John Key looking for something fresh, something that will deliver results, something that could define at least this term of his leadership if not something that could lift him up to the ranks of our greatest Prime Ministers, like King Dick Seddon, then adding Minister for Auckland, or perhaps even Minister for Urban Growth, or Minister for Cities, to his roles could be the stroke of genius he is looking for. Perhaps with Nikki Kaye as associate.
In practice this would then mean:
- Government working much more constructively with the Auckland Council and abandoning any petty obstruction that some less mature players on the right have towards it because of their dislike of Len Brown. Key is surely well above that.
- Championing the economic potential of our cities for the whole country. Showing that this does not come at the expense of the rest of the country and the primary sector in particular.
- Advancing the CRL expeditiously. After all; is there a better reading of those letters than: Centre Right Legacy?
- Recognising that the idea that efficient urban passenger transport is somehow left-wing is a curious and outdated local relic.
- Accepting the clear evidence that the top priority for the city in terms of transport infrastructure need is a full Rapid Transit System of a mixture of modes, like our CFN.
- Listening to all the evidence on urban form and housing affordability, and not just the lobbying of vested interests and the Demographia lobby who monotonically urge more sprawl, as there is so much evidence in favour of the economic efficiency of a more compact urban form leading to more international competitive cities.
- Taking seriously the opportunities that cities offer for improving our energy efficiency and environmental performance nationally.
This government has officially had a policy of being a ‘fast follower’ on climate change. In practice it has done little, fast or otherwise, and always claimed that the reason for this is that it won’t do anything to add cost to the primary produce sector. Well that doesn’t explain its failure to act in the urban areas, where transport, and especially personal transport, is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions. There is a great deal of opportunity to take on all fronts by listening to the desires of city people in the transport and housing sectors and one day some leader is going to take that opportunity. Could it be now? And could that be John Key?
In some respects Saturday night’s election result changes nothing from a transport perspective. It seems as though the government that will be formed over the next three years will be remarkably similar to that we’ve had for the past three years and there’s certainly no indication of a change in direction for transport policy from what we’ve had over the past six years. However, this has some important implications:
- It’s almost certain that Puhoi-Warkworth will be built, with construction likely to start before the 2017 election and the project built/funded as a PPP.
- There will continue to be a lot of discussion around the timing of City Rail Link and whether the Council or Government budges from their preferred start date.
- Progress on any alternative funding mechanisms to close the so called “funding gap” for transport seems pretty unlikely. This is despite the fact some government departments have also being doing their own investigations on alternative funding sources due to lower than expected revenues into the National Land Transport Fund.
- There is likely to be more money for cycling projects thanks to the $100 million for urban cycleways around the country over four years
Cam discussed Puhoi-Warkworth in his post yesterday, so in this post I’m going to focus on the CRL and alternative funding, particularly what the election results means for these two key (although not necessarily connected) issues.
Starting with the CRL, a start on the project as a whole anytime in the next three years now seems fairly unlikely. This means hopes of completing the project by 2021 are probably slim unless the Council can talk government into a very big change of position. The Council is keen to progress talks with government about the timing and funding of CRL, but it seems likely that these talks will focus on funding of the section underneath the downtown shopping centre:
Although the council wants to start CRL by 2016, the previous Government indicated no funding before 2020 unless certain rail patronage and employment targets were met. But [Penny] Hulse remains confident of middle ground.
“We’ve been working well with the Government over the last three years and we don’t expect that to change. The start time and funding are things we need to talk to the Government about,” she said.
This section is particularly important as it is key to delivering not just the redevelopment of the downtown shopping centre site but also a whole raft of projects that are part of the Downtown Framework including making things better for buses on Customs St.
I’m still confident the rail patronage targets set by the government – that patronage will track towards hitting 20 million journeys per year by 2020 – will be met or even exceeded, plus of course there’s still another election in 2017 between now and the government’s current preferred start date. But it seems prudent, for now at least, for the Council to just get on with building the section under the downtown shopping mall – like I said in this previous post. Once CRL is started, it will be much easier to “complete” and the section underneath the downtown shopping centre will make constructing the rest of the project much easier – especially if they can get the bit under Customs Street built as part of this first stage:
So I don’t really think Saturday’s election results change things much for the CRL. I would imagine that the main focus to negotiations over CRL between government and the Council is likely to be around whether the government stumps up with half the cost of the first stage of the project or whether they force Council to fund the whole thing – like has happened so far. I think it would be quite a good look for the government to provide CRL with some financial support for the first stage, to show that it’s serious about believing in the CRL project and to show that it values redevelopment of the city centre.
In relation to alternative transport funding, this might be a bigger hurdle to resolve as the government has been pretty clear on its position previously – no congestion charging and no additional tolls on existing motorways. To some extent this may not be an issue, as I highlighted a few weeks back the “baseline transport programme” (what can be afforded without additional funding with 2.5-3.5% rates increases over the next decade) doesn’t actually look too bad, at least in terms of what big projects are in (CRL, AMETI, new bus network stuff etc.) and out (Penlink). The devil may come in the details of what projects can be afforded when and how much additional walking and cycling funding is available, but at least for now it doesn’t seem like the end of the world if there’s no progress on alternative funding schemes in the next three years. Unless you’re a Penlink supporter, of course!
In saying that it also seems government agencies are becoming increasingly interesting in the issue of alternative funding as a way to provide certainty to the revenues flowing into the National Land Transport Fund (the account that collects all of the transport taxes). It may be a few years away yet but I get the feeling the noise surrounding alternative funding sources is just going to get louder and louder so we’re likely on a course to needing a nationwide discussion about them. When this happens the work put in by the council on the matter is likely to come in quite handy.
The last main issue relates to cycling improvements. From a transport point of view this was one of the highlights of election campaign as every major party (and most of the minor ones) all agreed on the need to spend considerably more on walking and cycling than currently happens. For their part National promised to spend $100 million over four years on urban cycleways. Based on Auckland’s share of the urban population that could see it receiving over $40 million over the four years which would represent an approximate doubling in spending. In saying that a lot will hinge on just how much the council agree to in the Long Term Plan. With the government now seemingly on board with cycling there is a risk the council will try to use the enlarged cycling pot as a chance to cut back on some of the council’s spend. Instead the opposite needs to happen and they need to at least double funding to go on top of whatever the government plan to provide.
So overall, aside from the fact we’re near certain to waste three-quarters of the billion dollars plus whatever the PPP costs on Puhoi to Warkworth, I don’t think the election results is too much of an issue for advancing key transport issues in the next few years. It does mean the slower delivery of CRL, but that’s not unexpected and may help ensure key bus infrastructure for the new network can be completed in time. There’s a certain irony that the government’s dislike for alternative transport funding options probably means a delay to Penlink, a project I understand the local National MP has pushed strongly for, but that project’s a waste of money anyway.
Lastly it was disappointing that despite many requests the first time we got to meet transport minister Gerry Brownlee was at the election debate night. I will also be keeping an eye out to see if we get a new transport minister and whoever it is, I hope they become open to meeting with us this term.
So, the 2014 election results are in, with an emphatic win for National. Six years into his Prime Ministership, and having just been re-elected for a third term, John Key has achieved what very few NZ politicians have done before him; he remains trusted, respected, admired and even liked by a large proportion of the public.
As regular readers of the blog will have gathered, we consider National’s policies on transport, urban issues and climate change to be outdated and misguided. From that perspective, their election win is unfortunate, but transport doesn’t seem to get a lot of discussion at (central government) election time; urban issues and climate change are even more minor.
And, to be fair, when you look at the government financial accounts you realise that transport is actually a pretty small part of what the government does:
Of a budget of around $90 billion, the central government spends around $9-$10 billion a year on “transport and communications”. However, there’s only around $2.8 billion that comes through the National Land Transport Fund each year, and that’s essentially the transport part of the budget. Of that $2.8 billion, half of it gets passed through to councils for them to spend (although central government still gets to have quite a say in how the councils spend it, via the Government Policy Statement).
So, transport is not a big component of the government budget. It’s quite understandable that people aren’t going to cast their vote based on it. And while the Roads of National Significance program is a deeply flawed one, and many of the roads themselves are very inefficient, there’s some comfort in knowing that this wasted spending is just a small part of a large economy.
…That’s not the last word, I do have more to say on this below…
This is a broad topic and I won’t try to address it here, but long story short, I don’t see much to inspire me in either Labour’s or National’s urban policies. I think there are people at the top of both parties who have a good understanding of urban issues, but this gets swamped by populist policies which are not well thought out. Urban issues are mainly a job for local government, but the central government still has a big role to play. I’m confident that both major parties are likely to eventually figure this stuff out.
I’ve previously made my views clear on National’s climate change policy, and I hope they come around to acknowledging this issue as a serious one. However, climate change barely registered on the agenda this election. I can’t even remember it being mentioned in the Green Party’s collateral that ended up in my letterbox, and I barely saw it anywhere else either. I’m sure these issues will return to the public consciousness at some point; I’m just disappointed at all the opportunities we’re missing, the low hanging fruit, and the likelihood that there will be much higher costs if we wait. In the meantime, NZ’s emissions continue to increase, and there’s absolutely no leadership being taken on making any serious reductions to those emissions. This issue is strongly linked to transport, and those are where many of the reductions will need to be made. We need to take steps to decarbonise our transport system, starting right away. National have not shown any interest in doing so, and are actually doing their best to head in the opposite direction.
We strive to be non-political, or non-partisan, or both – I’m not even sure what wording we’re going for, but hopefully you get the idea – but transport is a political issue in NZ, so inevitably we do end up taking stances on issues which are deemed to be political. I’m optimistic about some of this stuff, though. I think we are working towards a point where there is broad recognition that we can’t go on doing things the way we always have, spending all our transport money on roads and cars and having no thought to anything else. Labour and the Greens (and even New Zealand First) are well ahead of National on this, but I expect even National to figure it out in the next few years. There will be more of a common direction set, and the Roads of National Significance binge will be the last one. A few billion dollars will be wasted, and that’s sad, but as I said above, it’s a small part of a large economy.
Likewise, I’m optimistic on our cities, with the possible exception of Christchurch. I’m pretty sure that people will figure this stuff out in the next few years. In the meantime, some decisions are being made which we’ll look back on as bad ideas, and that will cost the country, but it’s surmountable and it’s not the end of the world. I’m less optimistic about climate change; the fact that it barely rates as an issue worries me. The fact that we’re not taking steps now to future proof our transport systems and cities worries me. The first step is to get climate change back on the agenda. It hasn’t gone away because we’ve stopped talking about it; it’s kept happening, and the need to take action is growing ever more pressing.
I think this blog has an important role to play in all of these issues. I want us to educate the public, critique the silly decisions that are made on these topics, push for better solutions, and work towards a broader consensus across the country as to how they should be handled. We should do that through reaching the public, councils, and the government. And we should strive to get more agreement on these issues, so they can be depoliticised and people can get back to voting on the real issues like class sizes and whether we’re providing enough funding for cosmetic surgery and which leader has better hair and who said or did something inappropriate and that kind of thing.
In politics, transport sits in a weird space. It’s a key topic in local body elections – which is understandable as people’s interactions the transport system are experienced at a local level – however it’s at a national level where most of the key decisions around funding and overall transport policy are made. Yet despite this transport remains a second or even third tier issue at a national level. Instead the focus tends to be on the Economy, Health, Education and Welfare. In many ways this is odd as transport policy is perhaps the one intervention that can have hugely positive or negative impacts all of those and other issues. This is one of the reasons why I think transport policy should have much more attention and importance placed on it.
With that in mind and with the election just a few days away I thought it was about time to do a wrap up of the transport policies of the parties that might get over the 5% threshold to enter parliament.
- Keep building the Roads of National Significance to address capacity constraints on our roading network and encourage economic growth.
- Kick-start the Accelerated Regional Roading Package with a $212 million investment in a suite of important regional roading projects.
- Accelerate important State Highway projects in Auckland to reduce congestion, capitalise on the Western Wing Route, and improve connections to the airport.
- Start the Urban Cycleways Programme to make it easier and safer for people to cycle to and from work.
For the most part National’s transport policy seems to follow the theme of not rocking the boat. It’s about them keeping on doing what they have been doing with a particular focus on the completion of the RoNS. This is not surprising as many of the RoNS projects are currently under construction and the reality is they would need to be finished regardless of who’s in power and they were hardly going to stray far from the draft Government Policy Statement released in June. Of the RoNS there are a couple of projects that would get underway during the next government if National are still in charge and they are:
- Puhoi to Warkworth
- The Huntly and Hamilton bypasses and the Longswamp section
- Sections of the Wellington projects
- Sections of the Christchurch motorways.
In addition to the RoNS the government announced at the budget it would spend $212 million on a series of regional roads around the country. It turns out some of the projects aren’t that bad and probably would have been funded sooner if the government hadn’t sucked up as much funding as possible for the RoNS programme.
The most surprising announcement from National was a few weeks ago where they promised to invest $100 million into urban cycling facilities over four years. This would be a welcome boost to a meagre cycling budget and it’s great to see National finally recognising the need for urban cycling infrastructure.
Lastly when it comes public transport there is simply nothing really being promoted in the their policies other than the claims about how much they’ve spent on PT – all of which was initiated under the previous government. This contributes to the fact that over the last six years the government haven’t funded, let alone announced a single new PT project (funding the CRL in 2020 doesn’t count in my books).
- Build a 21st century transport system that provides choice and is cost effective
- Rebalance the transport budget away from the current government’s exclusive focus on motorway projects towards a more rational investment in the most efficient and sustainable combination of transport modes. For freight this means investing in roads, rail, our ports, and coastal shipping. In our cities it means a greater emphasis on public transport, and walking and cycling
- Invest in the Congestion Free Network for Auckland
- Reduce congestion in Auckland by building the City Rail Link immediately, funding it 50:50 with Auckland Council
- Eliminate an unnecessary hassle by removing the annual registration charge for light trailers and caravans
- Reduce congestion and make the roads safer by requiring trucks to not drive in the fast lane on three and four lane motorways
- Reduce costs for motorhome and campervan owners by reversing changes made by the current government that have doubled their Road User Charges
While National may be trying not to rock the boat too much Labour seems prepared to do it, but if it doesn’t upset some people.
Their transport policy is much more PT friendly, even talking about improved PT as giving people a choice in how they get around. Fantastically they have even agreed to support the Congestion Free Network which is great to see. In addition to Auckland they say they will invest heavily in PT for Wellington and start rail services in Christchurch starting with services to the north of the city.
When it comes to active modes Labour seem to be the most vague, they talk about how National’s cycling plan is too little too late and that they will invest more but are oddly quite about just what they would do or how much it would cost.
It’s when it comes to roads that the party seem to be the most in conflict with themselves. They support Operation Lifesaver which would scale back the Puhoi to Wellsford RoNS but have also given their support to other low value projects on the RoNS list like Transmission Gully – instead fighting the PPP building it. The big challenge for Labour will be to see if the projects mentioned can be stopped because them being able to do so will be essential to freeing up funding for the other projects on their list to do.
In addition to above, Labour are also promising a raft of smaller changes like with things like banning trucks from using the fast lane and reducing costs for caravans.
Overall Labour’s transport policy has some really good stuff in it but also seems to be a bit of a compromise which perhaps stems trying to placate their regional based MPs/candidates trying to win local elections.
A bus or train every few minutes. By investing in an integrated network of trains and buses with dedicated rights of way, we can make it easy to get around our largest cities without a car.
Unlocking Auckland to become a vibrant city where public transport is fast, clean and affordable, and where cycling for adults and kids is safe. We will implement the Congestion Free Network including underwriting $1.3 billion in funding for the Auckland City Rail Link to start immediately, and extending rail to the Airport and the North Shore within 15 years.
Safe walking and cycling. The Green Party will invest at least $100 million a year in new, safe, separated walking and cycling infrastructure in New Zealand’s small towns and big cities.
Resilient regions. Our switch in spending away from a few motorways in urban areas will result in increased transport funding so regions can contest for projects that will best serve their transport needs. We will also reverse the neglect of our rail network, and invest significantly in the transport backbone of New Zealand.
Affordable fares. The Student Green Card will give free off-peak travel to all tertiary students and apprentices. We will investigate options to lower fares for everyone, and implement smart, integrated options for monthly and annual passes.
As expected the Greens are primarily pushing PT and active modes of transport strongly. One thing I particularly like about the overall policy is that they have gone to the extent of creating a mock version of the Government Policy Statement to show that they have thought through the issues of funding. Like Labour the challenge for the Greens is that a lot of the transport budget is likely to be tied up in the RoNS that are already under way for some time yet which will impact on how much they can do.
Fantastically they too have adopted the CFN as part of their core transport plan (to be fair they announced their support for it first) and have even gone to the extent of creating their own stylised version of it.
They have also backed the Fast Forward plan for Wellington which would see a light rail network built around the city. I’m yet to be convinced this is necessarily the most practical solution for Wellington but I certainly agree a comprehensive plan is needed. In Christchurch the party have stopped short of suggesting the solution but say they would work with the region to come up with a rapid transit solution for the city. They say there will also be money for an interim commuter rail service to be set up until the future of rapid transit is decided. All of this would be assisted by the creation of a single transport agency for the city similar to Auckland Transport. I think this is a good idea and perhaps one they should have suggested for Wellington too.
For all cities use of PT is expected to be helped by way of a Student Green Card which gives free off peak travel for students. Again like the Wellington plan the policy isn’t terrible but I do think the money could perhaps be used for other things better such as lowering the cost of PT for a wider section of society.
For all cities walking and cycling feature strongly too with the Greens promising to spend $100 million a year on cycling around the country which is a significant amount more than National plan to spend. I can’t speak as well for other cities but in my view we will need as much as we can get if we want to create a decent, connected and safe cycling network so the amount proposed be a welcome change.
The NZ First transport policy contains a number of quite positive as well as some bold moves. There’s a lot of talk about creating a more balanced policy including much more investment in PT and rail in particular. In some cases this appears to be focused on rail for freight purposes however they have also said that if they were the government they would contribute 75% of the money needed for the City Rail Link (Greens have said 60% while Labour and National are offering 50% – with the later not till 2020). One thing they say is they want all new urban road projects assessed to see if a PT option could partly or wholly achieve a better outcome. For that to happen it’s likely the transport modelling and assessment criteria would need to be updated – and that’s not a bad thing at all.
In terms of bold moves I think that the fact they even mention the idea of introducing road pricing is a positive move as it’s a discussion I think we as a country need to have fairly soon.
The Conservatives don’t seem to even have a transport policy and the only mention of transport is in a question to Colin Craig. The answer might be funny if it weren’t for the fact the party might end up making it to parliament. Craig says:
In respect of rail, In Auckland light overhead rail is an affordable and realistic public transport solution. It is unlikely population numbers in other centres would support a big investment in public transport.
I can only assume he’s referring to a PRT pod type system, like he did when he stood for Mayor in 2010. He further comments:
The provincial and national rail network is economic in some cases but not all. We are a very big but sparsely populated country and it is not economic to have a full rail and full road network competing for the movement of a limited number of goods. National has elected to invest into roads rather than rail and in some areas this is the best option.
Road building is way behind the population growth mainly as regional fuel taxes ended up being taken into the consolidated fund and “lost” not put back into roading. Regional fuel taxes should in future be in a separate account that is used only for transport to stop that happening again. Road improvements shouldn’t be just about the big roads as there are many smaller improvements that would be very helpful.
If he gets in to parliament someone will need to tell him that fuel taxes were hypothecated by the previous government.
There are of course a couple of other minor parties that could squeak in based on winning an electorate but I’m going to ignore them for this post as it’s long enough already.
On Friday Night Prime TV’s Prime Time with Shaun Plunket hosted a debate on transport with Gerry Brownlee, Julie Anne Genter, Cameron Pitches and Ken Shirley (CEO of the Road Transport Forum). You can watch the discussion here.
There wasn’t anything new that came up from the discussion however perhaps my favourite part of the whole thing was before the cameras started rolling. The picture below emerged on twitter from before the debate showing Julie Anne and Gerry in a discussion. I find this picture fantastic in so many ways and it has one of my favourites of the election (so far). So lets have some fun with a caption competition.
Comments to be funny and not abusive