How might the RMA amendments and the Auckland Plan impact on the Unitary Plan?

The advertisement below is from the last local government elections. Here Councillor Denise Krum rallies against the draft Unitary Plan, especially the degree to which it enables “intensification”. Denise’s advertisement claims the draft Unitary Plan is “too intense” and will “change our streets forever”. Instead, Denise advocates for greater restrictions on the degree to which property owners can develop their property in the urban area, and more expansion of the city. Denise was subsequently elected.

Denise Krum

Denise is particularly critical of 3 storey height limits, and goes to the trouble of hoisting herself up (some might say by her own petard) in a scissor-lift so as to highlight differences in building heights.

From this advertisement it seems clear Denise does not support the draft Unitary Plan and instead considers restrictions on intensification as being necessary to preserve community well-being. It is notable the advertisement does not contain any references to any research or surveys which support the positions Denise adopts on these issues. Is it too much for me to expect political advertising to include references to evidence supporting the positions being advanced? Perhaps.

When it comes to planning, however, evidence matters. Recent 2013 amendments to the RMA increased the burden of proof with regards to S32 reports, especially in terms of the economic analysis that should be undertaken to support proposed policy provisions. For those who are not familiar with planning jargon, a “S32 report” attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of proposed policies in comparison to potential alternatives. The 2013 RMA amendments requires S32 analysis to identify, and where practicable quantify, the economic benefits and costs of proposed policies. Some smarty-pants lawyers had this to say about the RMA amendments at last year’s NZPI conference (source):

“Arguably the most significant and material change is an expansion and detailed elucidation of the reference to “benefits and costs”, in the context of assessing efficiency and effectiveness … Post 2013s 32(2) requires, in much more detail, the following:

An assessment under subsection (1)(b)(ii) must—

(a) identify and assess the benefits and costs of the environmental, economic, social and cultural effects that are anticipated from the implementation of the provisions, including the opportunities for—

(i) economic growth that are anticipated to be provided or reduced; and

(ii) employment that are anticipated to be provided or reduced; and

(b) if practicable, quantity the benefits and costs referred to in paragraph (a).

The task of complying with these requirements is not insignificant. A systematic approach will need to be taken in preparing s32 reports to ensure that they are compliant and address environmental, economic, social and cultural effects, including opportunities for economic growth and employment.”

Ever since the RMA amendments came into force I have pondered how they might impact on the proposed Unitary Plan, especially with regards to density controls? I have also been wondering how the strategic direction established in the Auckland Plan, which I think was developed under the auspices of the LGAAA, would be relevant to the Unitary Plan?

My interest was further piqued when councillors, such as Denise, dramatically reduced the level of intensification that could occur in metropolitan Auckland, since which time house prices have soared. The differences between the draft and the proposed Unitary Plans is highlighted in the map below. Areas of red show areas where down-zoning occurred, which includes most of the isthmus. These are the areas where property prices are high (and increasing), i.e. where market-driven intensification seems most likely to occur.

Down zoning

From this it seems fair to say that proposed Unitary Plan imposes tighter density controls. The question is whether these controls are supported by economic evidence that meets the requirements of the (amended) RMA? And, moreover, how apparent tensions between the strategic direction of the Auckland Plan and the approach adopted in the proposed Unitary Plan would play out in a hearing context?

The economic costs of density controls are relatively intuitive: They forgo and/or displace land use development. This means we get less of it, especially in higher In terms of the economic benefits of density controls, those who are opposing intensification, such as Denise, will need to present evidence to show that levels of density which are common-place elsewhere, e.g. cities in Australia and Europe, will cause significant harm to communities should they be replicated in Auckland.

I’m skeptical as to whether this evidence exists. Most of the research I’ve read, such as this review by UNSW for Queensland Health, finds no conclusive evidence that higher density development has negative impacts on well-being. In fact, there’s evidence it’s beneficial to many outcomes, such as childrens levels of physical activity and obesity rates. So much for the meme that children need a big backyard to stay fit and healthy!

In my experience living in Auckland and overseas, buildings of approximately 6 storeys seem to have relatively negligible negative impacts on well-being and/or amenity. The photos below illustrate two buildings from Amsterdam and Auckland, but I could have easily added many more photos of multi-storey buildings from Brisbane, Sydney, and Stockholm. While there are large differences in style, I find both buildings quite attractive (the first photo is used under license from myself; the second photo belongs to Ockham).

Amsterdam nightmare

_CM15340 crop-600-600-450-450-crop

For these reasons, I have been somewhat heartened to read the interim guidance on view shafts that was issued by the Commissioners who are overseeing the Unitary Plan hearings process. In this guidance the Commissioners note “the objectives, policies and rules in relation to viewshafts do not meet the s32 requirements of the Act” for several reasons, most notably “amendments were made to s32 in 2013 to require employment and economic growth opportunities (including lost opportunities) to be taken into account and these post-date many if not all of the legacy plans.” The Commissioners go on to note the “PAUP is the first substantive planning process to propose increased levels of intensification to achieve a quality compact city so it is appropriate that the viewshafts are now re-evaluated within that strategic context” and more importantly “… if it is possible to quantify those costs of the viewshaft provisions, then that would assist in decision …

I want to emphasise from the outset that I don’t have a strong view on the relative merits of view shafts. This post is less concerned with the nitty-gritty of viewshafts than it is with understanding how the 2013 RMA amendments and the Auckland Plan may impact on the Unitary Plan, most notably:

  • First, the presence of planning provisions in legacy plans is not strong evidence (in of itself) that those provisions should be retained in the Unitary Plan, mainly because the legacy plans pre-date both the 2013 amendments and the Auckland Plan. Hence, they have not been tested under the current legislative and strategic context.
  • Second, the Commissioners appear to consider that the strategic context provided by the (non-statutory) Auckland Plan, in addition to the Regional Policy Statement, is relevant to the provisions of the Unitary Plan, especially with regards to the development of a quality compact urban form.
  • Third, in light of the 2013 RMA amendments the Commissioners appear to place a higher expectation on economic analysis, especially where proposed provisions do not appear to align with the aforementioned strategic direction of the Auckland Plan.

The Commissioners thus seem to be attempting to strike a balance between strategic outcomes and economic analysis, and do not seem to be placing too much weight on legacy plans. This is heartening because, frankly, the legacy district plans contained many provisions that are of dubious value. Moreover, where provisions proposed in the Unitary Plan run contrary to the Council’s stated strategic direction, then there seems to be an expectation from the Commissioners that this misalignment is supported by robust economic analysis.

Of course, whether this preliminary guidance on view shafts is indicative of the Commissioners’ ultimate position and/or whether it apples to other topics, e.g. minimum parking requirements, is something that will only become clear in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Professional and personal disclaimer: The views expressed in this post represent the theoretical and philosophical musings of a not quite defunct economist. This economist is not a planner nor is he a lawyer (so don’t expect to be able to sue me for much money). The views expressed herein should not be construed to represent the views of my colleagues, clients, friends, or pets. They do represent the views of my Mum, whom I love very much. Nor do they necessarily represent my own views in the future – at which point my views may have changed in response to further evidence and information. 

SkyPath: Councillor v Advocate

Brewer v Reynolds

 

NBR Radio

In which Councillor Cameron Brewer tries extremely hard to find a possible cost to ratepayers in a privately funded and user pays addition to our transport networks, while ignoring the real cost of $13m to ratepayers for a free-to-use walking and cycle project in his ward [just one example].

Here at transportblog we are very keen on value for money for all publicly funded projects, which means every single transport project in the land. Except one. The SkyPath. To campaign that this project is some kind of burden on ‘the poor suburban ratepayer’ is so silly as to be beyond parody.

Ratepayers’ watchdogs play a potentially valuable role. But they need to be coherent and consistent, oh and factually accurate. Especially when they are taking a ratepayers salary to do it. Here Brewer is complaining about a user pays route but ignoring the fully subsidised one that happens to run through his ward. So either he really has no idea what’s going on or is being more than a little deceitful in order to score some kind of political point.

Don’t get me wrong, I am entirely in favour of both the taxpayer and ratepayer funding of the Eastern Connections route, but also think the SkyPath should be so funded. And it is also clear which route costs ratepayers more. A certain $13 million versus a possible future liability.

Basically the people of Auckland are getting a huge bargain with the SkyPath. Either it costs nothing, or a much lower sum than it would if funded like every road, bus lane, train station, or cycleway in the city. And this doesn’t even begin to calculate the years of free work contributed by those who have made it happen. And all to make up for what is essentially an institutional failure in transport provision. SkyPath is listed as the region’s most import Active route yet our current institutions weren’t able to get started on it themselves, somehow.

Perhaps it really is time Councillor Brewer took his financial expertise into the private sector…?

Sunday Reading 28 June 2015

 

 

new Tube Map

Gotta start with the local this week, as local news has been been interesting, and though not without struggle, generally very positive. Not that the coverage has been good, a notable exception is outgoing Metro Editor Simon Wilson’s summary here:

Councillors – the slimmest majority of them – have voted for long-term strategic planning, not short-term political expediency. Good on them. Theirs is just about the only example of such political bravery we’ve seen in this country for years.

Which, of course, is not how the New Zealand Herald sees it. You might think our local paper would campaign for a better deal for Auckland on issues like this. But no. Why bother, when it’s easier to rouse a rabble with invective against Len Brown and rates?

 

And, in a Sunday Reading first, here’s a plug for getting out of bed and nipping down to your cafe or magazine retailer to pick up a copy of the fresh-off-press latest Metro for my article on the history and possible future of Light Rail in Auckland:

METRO LRT

 

For those who want to stay put, here’s a lesson for the NZ Herald from the Sydney version for how to cover good infrastructure projects, ‘Sydney’s Light Rail…':

The Herald does not support any one mode of transport over another. In a metropolis like Sydney, trains, buses, the private car, light rail, cycling and walking all obviously have their role to play.

But the government should invest money in the mode of transport that fits the particular need of a particular space and of a particular travelling public.

This is an extremely important point. ‘Fitness’ in a Darwinian sense does not mean strength or stamina, it means appropriateness for a particular niche; how well a thing fits; its fitness. How well an organism fits in its ecological niche determines its success. So it is with transport modes, what a city needs will not be the same as what a provincial town needs, and even in certain parts of a city different options and services will be more appropriate than others. Getting the mix right will influence the performance of that place, its efficiency and productivity. In the competitive ecology of cities the ‘fitness’ of a place’s infrastructure and systems really does mean survival or not.

 

And on that issue of right mode for the job, here is this week’s summary of why more traffic lanes in urban areas simply leads to more driving and more congestion, via Grist:

traffic

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Adding more roads — and more lanes on those roads — does absolutely nothing for gridlock. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but it’s true: Five years, $1 billion, and at least one new traffic-hell moniker later (“Carmageddon”), L.A. drivers on the 405 freeway actually added a minute to their daily commutes, in spite (or because?) of a snazzy new carpool lane.

 

via Guardian Cities: Dublin becomes the latest city to see its future with fewer private vehicles dominating its streets:

A car-free Dublin?

As we recently explored, some cities, especially in Europe, are starting to discourage or even ban private car use. Now Dublin is poised to become the latest city to join the fray. Next City reports that Dublin’s City Council and Ireland’s National Transport Authority have proposed to ban private cars in sections of the city centre, in order to ease traffic problems and make Dublin a more pleasant place to live. The reduction of cars will also free up room for a new tram line, planned for 2017.

 

Returning to the local the Salvation Army has thoughtfully entered into the development discussion with a new report: Mixed Fortunes:

Geography matters in the real world, although it is often not that important in the worlds of economic theory and public policy. At the beginning of a seminal paper for economic geography Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman remarked that, ‘It seems fair to say that economic geography plays at best a marginal role in economic theory… On the face of it this neglect is surprising. The facts of economic geography are amongst the most striking features of real-world economies, at least to laymen’1.

***

Based on current trends it is apparent that New Zealand is on a divergent growth path and that this path risks the creation of two New Zealands – Auckland and the rest. Recently released population forecasts suggest that over the next 25 to 30 years Auckland may account for over 60% of New Zealand’s population growth and that Aucklanders, in time, will make up about 40% of this population. In general, Aucklanders will be younger, wealthier, better skilled, and more ethnically diverse than the rest of New Zealand. Within such differences are the seeds for a growing divide in values and expectations.

 

One for the map and data nerds: Who owns the digital map of the world? asks Citylab:

Google Maps defines the way we navigate from A to B, for free, and it does so extremely well. It also sells its API to its a number of businesses. As of 2012, Apple, Foursquare, Craigslist, and Wikipedia (to name just a few) all built their maps using the Google Maps API.

But today, none of those companies are using Google—partly because of how much Google started to charge for its services and data, and because of the limitations it draws around what companies can do with them.

All four of the aforementioned companies moved to using OSM (partially, in Apple’s case) because it’s free, and often as good as Google. And because the value of proprietary map data is rapidly plummeting as OSM gets better and better.

 

On the subject of maps, here’s something I thought I’d never agree with: A New London Tube Map. Not just an update but a redesign, and by an amateur too. The rightly famous Harry Beck map from 1931 has been much updated and is unrivalled in the way it quickly came to symbolise the city itself. Now as London rides the global urban rail boom with a huge addition of new services, Beck’s model is coming under enormous strain. ‘SameBoat’, a Hong Kong resident, has made the best new iteration I have seen. Even if it does turn the famous bottle into more of a bed-flask:

Tube map details

Lastly, here’s a unique urban highway, also via Grist: Oslo builds a its bees a highway of flowers.

Oslo is transforming a strip through the city into a series of bee pastures — parks, and green roofs, and balcony flower beds — each a short flight from the next. I like to imagine that from the air you could look down and see ribbon of blossoms, stretching from one side of the city to the other.

 

LTP 2015-18 approved

Yesterday was really a day of funding news with the other big talking point being the Council finally adopting the Long Term Plan. The budget agreed yesterday is significant as for transport it represents probably the biggest single shift in funding priorities in many generations. Unimaginable just a few years ago, over half of the council’s transport funding (if you exclude renewals) is going towards public transport combined with around 10% going to walking and cycling – not including projects funded as part of other road projects.

The step change in funding has come about in part due to the transport levy now agreed – $99 for households and $159 for businesses. The impact the levy has is shown below as it enables the Interim Transport Programme.

interim-programme

*some of the figures might have changed slightly from when this table was produced

LTP infographic transport levy

In many ways I think Auckland has not been served well by it’s councils (and governments) who for decades have been too scared to make some tough choices and as such failed to invest enough in transport. The budget passing at 10-9 (two who most likely would have voted for it were away) shows that a large number of councillors wanted to continue this trend.

While I understand that people don’t want to pay more rates, the fact the money is going towards significantly investing in modes that we’ve neglected for decades and that are growing strongly is a positive thing. I suspect that if measured based on a return on investment metric we’d be getting a pretty good deal.

We and future generations should thank the 10 councillors from across the political spectrum who were brave enough to look to the future when making this decision. Those that voted for the budget were:

  • Len Brown
  • Arthur Anae
  • Bill Cashmore
  • Linda Cooper
  • Chris Darby
  • Alf Filipania
  • Mike Lee
  • Calum Penrose
  • Wayne Walker
  • Penny Webster

Of course the Herald ran with the story that many would see rates were going up over $1000. The council clarified that today with the following figures.

LTP 2015-18 rates impact

If there’s one area I think people should be upset it’s that the they have to pay GST on top of the transport levy. With around 454,000 households that’s almost $7 million a year extra going to the governments coffers that could be spent elsewhere. It perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if the government would promise to invest that GST back in to Auckland, that’s potentially a lot more cycleways or bus lanes.

PINZ in the Auckland housing balloon?

I was a bit surprised to hear the Property Institute of New Zealand warn of an “apartment bubble” in Auckland earlier this week. I was even more surprised when I read their press release. The CEO, Ashley Church, is predicting a bubble as a response to 1) banks being likely to decrease their deposit thresholds on apartments from 20% to 15%, and 2) the Reserve Bank potentially bringing in “loan-to-income restrictions”, where mortgagees would then only be able to borrow X times their income.

The press release then gives a hypothetical chain of events:

 1. The Reserve Bank restricts mortgage loans to a percentage of household income – effectively making the purchase of freestanding residential homes almost impossible to all but the very wealthy.

2. With median household incomes of just $76,500 – home buyers flock to the apartment market to find properties which comply with the new rules.

3. The relaxed deposit rules, by the major banks, allow buyers to borrow a little more if the apartment is new – (on average, a little over $400,000 if we adopt the Brit formula) – and this combination fuels a new wave of apartment building and streamlined marketing programs designed to entice buyers.

4. Property Investors – many of whom have also been caught by the new rules – also start buying apartments in large numbers.

5. The combined effect of this new wave of buyers quickly pushes up the price of apartments – fuelling an ‘apartment bubble’.

6. Perversely – the quality of new apartments suffers as developers focus on the ‘low-end’ of the market so as to appeal to as wide a range of potential buyers, within the Reserve Bank rules, as possible.

7. Meanwhile, the cost of renting free-standing homes in Auckland also increases as demand outstrips supply due to the absence of traditional property investors buying these types of properties.

8. Within 7 to 10 years Auckland becomes a highly ‘intensified’ city with large numbers of low quality apartments dotting the landscape and free-standing residential homes becoming the preserve of the well-off and wealthy renters.

However, this chain of events misses out half of what defines a bubble. He’s postulated a rise in prices, sure. But where does the subsequent decrease happen? To me, this sounds like a recipe for a one-off, permanent increase in apartment prices. A permanent shift in the demand curve, as it were. I’m not making any predictions on apartment prices, I’m just pointing out that the chain of events here doesn’t actually include a drop in prices, and therefore isn’t a bubble.

Moving on from that (rather important) point, there are a lot of other strange things in this press release. Firstly, it seems a bit far-fetched that the Reserve Bank would impose harsh restrictions to the extent that only “the very wealthy” could afford freestanding homes, and the press release also ignores the price response (i.e. prices would drop, and many people would still end up in those homes – there aren’t enough “very wealthy” people to fill them all up).

Secondly, if the Reserve Bank is going to clamp down on Auckland home loans, it’ll be because they’re worried about a city-wide bubble. I’d say this is a much bigger concern than an apartment bubble – it’d affect a lot more people.

Point 7 is one I’ve been reading a few variations of recently, which doesn’t follow from economic intuition. If landlords drop out of the market, do rents to rise? Given that each landlord dropping out of the market means there’s an owner-occupier there instead – and therefore a smaller rental market on both sides – the effect on rents might go either way.

Points 6 and 8 in the chain of events are odd too, essentially scaremongering about large numbers of low-quality apartments. The press release continues in a similar vein:

Mr Church says that he is aware that a focus on ‘intensification’ through building more apartments is consistent with the Auckland Unitary Plan and that some might see this outcome as a good thing – but he notes that this provision is also strongly rejected by a large number of Aucklanders and shouldn’t be forced on the city by the Reserve Bank.

“The drive for Intensification is based on a political ideology and is rejected by a large number of Aucklanders. It should only happen if Aucklanders want it”.

It’s a strangely political statement itself, coming from an organisation which began as the professional body for valuers. The PINZ’s statement in March that “the Reserve Bank Governor needs to “stop chasing shadows and stick to his knitting” seems a bit ironic.

As an aside, I think it’s great that the banks reviewing their lending policies on apartments; after all, it’s a more established market now than it was ten years ago, and there’s (hopefully) a lot less speculation going in that market than there was in the mid-2000s boom-bust. The banks will still be cautious about lending for leaky or leasehold buildings, and perhaps shoeboxes, and once those are taken out of the equation the apartments that are left should have a manageable level of risk.

Why is the government aiming so low?

On the whole the government’s new policy of opening up excess land in Auckland for development is not a bad one. As I mentioned when it was announced, the devil was always going to be in the details and on that front the government hasn’t been doing so well. The two most prominent issues that have emerged have been:

  • The dispute with local iwi over whether they should have the first right to buy the land. Interestingly the iwi have noted that they support the policy and actually want to be involved in the development of housing. They are heading to court today over the issue.
  • That the vast majority of the first piece of land the government showed off turned out not be owned by the government but instead by the council. The site is shown in yellow below.

Govt Manukau Land Sale

Combined the issues suggest an element rushed policy making where the details simply haven’t been thought through. In my view, of the two the first is by far the most serious issue and one probably best left with others to talk about. The second one raises some additional questions – some of which have been highlighted well by Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse.

First and foremost, as part of the Unitary Plan the site is zoned as part of the metropolitan centre as shown below.

Unitary Plan - Manukau

The zoning means it’s possible to build mixed use and up to 18 storeys on the site although it feels like it has mixed potential. It’s sandwiched between the motorway and some large, not overly pedestrian friendly roads – Manukau Station Rd should have scaled down after the motorway was finished. It kind of has the feeling of being land in the middle of a motorway interchange.

The image below shows the intersection of Manukau Station Rd and Wiri Station Rd/Davies Cres. As you can see it looks like a traffic engineers dream with slip lanes on all corners and extra lanes for those turning right

Govt Manukau Land Sale - Intersection

On the plus side it is just across the road from the Manukau Train Station and new MIT campus while obviously a short walk to the rest of the Manukau city centre. That alone makes it odd that the government suggest only putting around 60 terraced houses on the site. This isn’t to say the site should have to be developed to 18 storeys but given its location and the demand for housing it seem insane to only think about putting 60 dwellings on it.

The situation raises two questions in my mind.

  1. First why is the government aiming so low. Is it just that they simply don’t get the urban reality and think that everyone only wants low rise? Some government ministers – such as Bill English – have at least acknowledged that intensification is needed and issues such as NIMBYism need to be addressed. This is one of the locations that such intensification can easily occur without any issues from surrounding neighbours. Bernard Hickey had a good piece in the Herald yesterday suggesting that the council and government need to do more to show that density isn’t bad, this is just one of many easy opportunities to do so.
  2. Secondly one of the reasons this hasn’t been a bigger issue is the council have said they’re keen to work with the government on developing the site (to a higher density). Given this is the case then what have the council and its CCO’s being doing just sitting on the land for so long. Surely if they were concerned about it they should be getting on with developing the land rather than just sitting on it, effectively land banking.

CRL Stage One construction details emerge

Contractor Magazine have run an article on the CRL early works, here.

Britomart Axio

Here is an update on projects underway or planned to start soon on the northern part of the route.

Government Says No to Road Pricing

How Auckland’s transport system develops and how it is paid for is probably something that will be debated until the end of time. That doesn’t mean we should just sit back and endlessly debate it though. Almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done to and it seems many are even prepared to pay extra for it.

If there’s one thing that’s been clear for many years now it’s that Aucklander’s want more choice in how they get around. Many have either travelled to, lived in or come from other cities around the world that provide residents with greater transport choices and have therefore seen first-hand the benefits greater options provide residents. However in Auckland they primarily turn to the car as for most that’s the only realistic option for getting around. The car might be preferred by many but a lot of people would love to have options and that’s come through in survey after survey. The most recent case of this was the Long Term Plan where the feedback was overwhelmingly in favour of focusing more on public transport and cycling. The desire for more transport choice was something the AA noted too in their survey.

2015 LTP Final Changes in transport Investment

It’s this strong feedback that is almost certainly a factor in the majority of the council’s Interim Transport Programme – which is possible due to the new transport levy – going towards PT and active modes.

interim-programme

However the transport levy is only meant to be an interim step until a longer term funding solution can be found. During the LTP the council consulted on taxes and rates or tolls on motorways. I was quite surprised that just over half supported the tolling options in some manner – although that could also be an outcome from the binary choice that was presented.

 

2015 LTP Final network and funding preferences

To be honest I’m not a huge fan of motorway tolling – or at least not what was proposed. That’s because I feel that just targeting motorways is likely to have a number of large side effects such as pushing a lot traffic that would otherwise be on the motorway onto arterials and then making it more difficult to roll out PT and cycling initiatives. A road pricing scheme that was more focused on getting the most out of our entire road network by better managing demand rather than a scheme focused primarily on raising revenue seems like better option to pursue.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like any kind of alternative funding method is going to get much support from the government. They’ve previously signalled they don’t like the idea of tolling or other ways of raising taxes which is why the council adopted a transport levy. Now it seems they are ruling out the toll idea completely with Radio NZ reporting that Transport Minister Simon Bridges has written to Mayor Len Brown saying the government is unwilling to even consider the idea.

This stance is really quite absurd. It’s not like Auckland was just asking for a huge wad of cash the government but instead just to be allowed to raise funds in a new way to pay more projects itself and the political risk in doing so sits firmly with the council, not the government. It makes me wonder what the government is so afraid of, that it will be so successful that Auckland improves faster and better than they’d like.

I’m not sure if this is just the reporting or if it actually reflects Bridges/the government’s views however if it’s the latter it’s concerning that he seems to be suggesting that the only role in PT is in reducing congestion rather than it enabling greater access to the wider city. It reflects that the government seem to see PT only as an option of last resort for the poor or those that can’t stand congestion rather than it having the ability to be a mode of choice. One such example is the Northern Busway which now gets high usage all across the day thanks to the investment to give it a congestion free and therefore a time competitive route.

He’s proposing a year-long negotiation with the council on an agreed 30-year programme focusing on reducing congestion, and boosting public transport where that reduces congestion.

Of course Len Brown seems to be acting like nothing’s ever happened with Radio NZ reporting that he still thinks the government might eventually change their mind and approve it. I think he’s dreaming if he thinks that and also if he thinks the government is going to respect the council’s transport plans. In fact given the time-frames involved it seems more like the transport accord is more of a way to buy some time on making a decision.

This news comes hot on the heels of a report from the OECD suggesting that Auckland/the government needs to consider road pricing but to help manage the congestion. They also note that more PT would be needed to give people more options and the ability to avoid the costs. Note: there’s quite a number of concerning aspects of the OECD report which I’ll cover in a separate post.

 

City centre employment and the CRL: good news or bad?

If you’ve been keeping up with the news or if you’ve been following our Development Tracker, you’ll know that there’s a lot of new office development activity starting to happen in Auckland’s city centre. And a significant amount of it right on the CRL route:

CRL + new City Centre buildings

Image from SkyscaperCity – development along the CRL route. Includes some non-office buildings, and doesn’t show all the office buildings discussed in this post

Under construction:

  • 151 Victoria Street West, with 17,600 square metres (sqm) due for completion later this year.
  • There’s 40,000 sqm of office space going up at the southern end of Wynyard Quarter in the VXV park. This is across three buildings, Fonterra, Datacom and VXV Three, due for completion in 2016 and 2017.
  • Also, there’s 125 Queen St which is currently being refurbished. That’s 15,000 sqm of space coming back into circulation after being vacant for some years.

Proposed:

  • The Downtown Shopping Centre redevelopment – this will add 35,000 sqm of office space for completion in early 2019. It will get underway next year, when the City Rail Link works begin.
  • 1 Mills Lane is being developed by Mansons and will have enough space for 4,000 workers.
  • Precinct Properties is developing 48,000 sqm of office space across five buildings in Wynyard quarter. The first stage of 12,000 sqm gets underway shortly.
  • Mansons are also developing 10 Sale Street, with 10,000 sqm of space.

All up, the projects currently under construction will provide space for more than 5,000 workers. The proposed projects would accommodate at least another 10,000. This excludes developments which currently seem to be off the boil but could come to life at any time, such as Shortland Star and the Britomart Central building.

This is during a time when CBD vacancy levels are at record lows, and the city centre simply doesn’t have the office space it needs to grow employment.

So, assuming these buildings are completed more or less on schedule, and the number of jobs grows to fill the new space available – all of which seems a reasonable bet, in the current climate – these would be significant increases in employment. Nationally significant, even. By comparison, New Zealand has increased employment by just 93,000 people in the last four years. Currently, the Auckland city centre has around 90,000 employees (in the Auckland Central West/ East and Auckland Harbourside area units), or 100,000 if a slightly wider definition is used (adding in Grafton East and Newton).

City centre employment

This sounds like a “good news” story, and for the most part it is. However, the reason we’re so interested in employment numbers on TransportBlog is that the government has said it will only support an early start on the City Rail Link (CRL) if Auckland is on track to meeting two targets – one based on train patronage, and one based on city centre employment.

We’ve written extensively on these targets in the past. We don’t think the employment target is a valid way of deciding when the CRL should start, for a number of reasons. It propagates the myth that the project is all about the city centre, which it’s not. It’s also a target that has little to do with the effectiveness of the CRL. Plus, there’s the “chicken and egg” situation where the CRL is actually the project needed to dramatically improve city centre accessibility, allowing much more employment (and other) growth there.

When John Key announced the government targets for early support of the CRL, he said that city centre employment would have to increase by 25 percent. As it happened, the target was so poorly defined that the Ministry of Transport had to go away and decide exactly how it would be measured. As I’ve argued in the past, the definition they eventually decided on was rather unfair, requiring 24,000 employees to be added to the CBD between 2012 and 2020. The linked post suggests that a start date of 2006 is “more consistent with the reference to the [City Centre Future Access Study] in National’s targets”.

So, as the government currently defines the target, do these new developments put us on track to achieve growth of 25% by 2020? No. Even if all these developments go ahead – and the Precinct Properties work at Wynyard is likely to take longer to be completed – we would still be a long way off achieving the target by 2020. However if we define the target in the way that I’ve argued is more consistent, we are on track. We’ve already had growth of around 13,000 employees since 2006, and with the developments that are currently under construction or proposed, we have a very good chance of reaching the remaining 11,000 by 2020.

This would be a really good time for the Ministry of Transport to take a hard look at their targets, and reassess whether they are defining them in the most sensible way. The good thing about the target being so vague is that they’ve left themselves a lot of wriggle room to reinterpret it from the current hardline position. This would be easier politically than scrapping it altogether. If they do what I’ve suggested, it won’t be long before the Prime Minister is able to come out and say, “With strong growth in train patronage, and city centre employee numbers set to grow substantially, the CRL has met our targets for early financial support, and we will be will be full financial partners to the Auckland Council on this”. Now that would be a good news story.

Photo(copy) of the Day: The Rational Plan

I guess this is just one of those ones we should have on high rotate. The advice from the North American consultants in 1965 for Auckland at the height of the sprawl era was this: ‘a co-ordinated bus and rail Rapid Transit plan‘ to go along with the gradual construction of motorways. How prescient this looks as the following 50 years have shown how inefficient and expensive a monomodal autodependent transport plan is for cities.

De Leuw Cather_Highway Report

And now as we finally inch towards the partial delivery of just such a system it is plainly obvious how rational it is; ongoing 20% growth on the Rapid Transit Network settles the long running claims that it would never work in Auckland.

It is extraordinary that the government claims Auckland Transport and Auckland Council don’t have a good plan. It’s only the same plan that we’ve always had, but have never been allowed to implement. First because the various councils ‘couldn’t agree’ but now because there is insufficient ‘alignment’ with the government’s plan, which is undisclosed in any holistic form, but clearly is just more motorways everywhere. The Auckland plan, is evidenced, popular, already working, but starved of cash.

To 1986 and beyond…

Indeed.

And here, on a projected future motorway map you can see the core rail part of the ‘coordinated bus and rail Rapid Transit plan‘:

 

DE LEUW CATHER_7416

*Thanks to the excellent Auckland Library archive.