Looking closer at the GPS

There has been an impression over the past while about how the government has adopted a more conciliatory approach to transport in Auckland. In some respects this is true, as they’re no longer getting in the way of quickly progressing the City Rail Link, they stumped up the Urban Cycleway Fund which is delivering some fantastic projects, and through ATAP there’s now alignment between the council and government on Auckland’s future transport needs including expanding the rapid transit network and a more open mind to road pricing. These are all very good things that are a big step forwards from where we were 4-5 years ago.

However, in other respects it seems that relatively little has changed. We still see crazy boondoggle motorway projects being announced before a proper business case has been done. We still see the highly sensible proposal for a regional fuel tax being knocked back for no good reason. And, when it comes to the Government’s most important transport document – the Government Policy Statement (GPS) – we still see a very State Highways focused strategy for transport.

This is the fifth GPS created since legislation was changed in 2008 requiring the document to be prepared. Only four of those have ever actually taken effect though, as the GPS released by the Labour government in mid-2008 was quickly replaced in early 2009 by the new National government. Each GPS provides a variety of strategic directions, objectives and measures, but where the GPS really has “teeth” is in defining upper and lower bounds for how much NZTA can spend on different funding areas – known as “activity classes”. By way of example here are the “funding bands” in the 2015 GPS (we don’t yet have the full 10 year bands for the current Draft GPS):

The real impact of these “funding bands” is that they prevent NZTA from continuing to spend in an area once that “allocation” has been used up, regardless of the merit of that potential investment. So, for example, even if a public transport project had a fantastic cost-benefit ratio and aligned really strongly with the strategic direction outlined in the GPS (and how NZTA gives effect to the GPS through more a more detailed framework), if there are too many PT projects in any given year then NZTA will be unable to fund them.

Given that this is the 5th GPS to be released, we can track how the proportion of investment in activity classes has changed over time. This task is made a bit more difficult as some of the activity class names have changed (for example PT services and PT infrastructure used to be separate but were then merged). To get around this issue and to also simplify it a bit, I’ve narrowed things down to State Highways (both improvements and maintenance), Local Roads (also both improvements and maintenance), Public Transport, Walking & Cycling, Road Policing and Other. While GPS’ are 10 year documents, we only need to consider the first three years as that’s how often the GPS is refreshed. I’ve summed the upper and lower bands for each three year period which is shown as the lighter shade. The (L) and (N) signify a Labour or National Minister of Transport who released the document:

What immediately stands out is how massively State Highway investment has grown over the course of time, nearly doubling from under $4 billion in Labour’s 2009 GPS to over $7 billion in the most recent draft. This has primarily been to fund the government’s expensive Roads of National Significance. Other areas have either remained fairly similar (road policing), grown slowly (local roads) or declined (public transport). Public transport funding is only just getting back to the level originally proposed in 2009 by Labour in the new Draft for 2018-21.

What’s also important to remember is that the overall size of the NLTF grows each year, so it’s worth looking at how the proportions have changed over time. For this I have used the “upper limit” of the funding bands as they are the most crucial in determining what NZTA can and cannot fund.

The most stark change is for State Highways, which have gone up from 42% of total investment in the 2009 GPS to around 55% in the most recent. Public transport, on the other hand, has declined from 14% in the 2009 GPS to 10% in both the 2015 and 2018 documents. Even Local Roads investment has declined, from 25% in 2009 to 22% in the 2018 plan.

Regardless of arguments about modes, it seems like we have a strategic approach to transport funding that is continuously putting more and more eggs in the basket of State Highway improvements. Many of these large State Highway projects have struggled to generate good cost-benefit ratios (another way of saying they’re pretty crap value for money) so it seems odd that we keep shovelling more and more money into them.

Over the next few weeks we will gather some key submission points and put together something to help you make a submission on the draft GPS. Feedback closes at 5pm on March 31.

Govt silly to reject Regional Fuel Tax

Last Thursday Finance Minister Steven Joyce announced that the government was “ruling out” using a regional fuel tax as one way to fill the $4 billion transport funding gap that was identified by ATAP. He noted a few reasons for this decision:

And second, I stress that we are not interested in introducing a regional fuel tax. I have reiterated to Mayor Goff this morning that we do not see regional fuel taxes as part of the Government’s mix for transport in Auckland because they are administratively difficult, prone to leakage and cost-spreading, and blur the accountabilities between central and local government.

In some respects it wasn’t particularly surprising that the government made this decision. They have long had a somewhat bizarre hatred of regional fuel taxes, not only cancelling Auckland’s proposed fuel tax in 2009 that was going to pay for the electric trains (a decision that probably delayed electrification for a year or two) but then also changing the Land Transport Management Act in 2013 to remove the possibility of Councils even applying to the government for such a tax.

Many of these “concerns” were addressed in a report (page 15 onwards) that the Council commissioned in 2012 to inform their submission on the LTMA changes. Looking first at the issue of cost-spreading (which basically means the risk that petrol companies will raise prices around NZ rather than just in Auckland to pay for the regional fuel tax):

With the level of scrutiny in this sector it seems pretty unlikely that we would see this happening. Furthermore it seems like there are good checks and balances that could be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen. So, not really a valid excuse.

Now for “leakage”, which is the likelihood of people travelling outside Auckland to “fuel up” and therefore avoiding the regional tax:

Once again it seems like these issues are marginal and can be easily addressed. This led the commissioned report to conclude that concerns that were raised in relation to a regional fuel tax at the time (which seem very similar to those mentioned by Joyce last week) can be easily addressed.

Of course Joyce’s final point – about accountabilities between central and local government, is probably the real reason for the opposition. Essentially government doesn’t want to give up the power it has through collecting fuel taxes. But this seems a bit petty and I’m sure in relation to such a high profile issue in Auckland (the funding of transport) and the broad agreement between Council and Government on what the priority investments are, there would be clear accountability with the public.

This rejection of the regional fuel tax now puts the ball back in the government’s court to come up with some other ideas for addressing the funding gap. They’d better hurry up as the clock is ticking to get this sorted in time for the 2018 transport funding plans.

Draft Government Policy Statement 2018-28: Roads Roads Roads

Yesterday the Ministry of Transport released for consultation the Draft Government Policy Statement (GPS) for 2018-2025. The GPS is refreshed every three years and as the name implies, it sets out the government’s policies and spending for transport over a 10-year horizon.

The single most important aspect of the GPS are the funding ranges for each of the 10 activity areas. The funding ranges set an upper and lower limit of how much money will be spent on each activity every year. These ranges are then used by the NZTA in conjunction with regional councils in setting the more detailed National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) and Regional Land Transport Plans (RLTPs) which will list specific funding levels. This is how the various transport documents are tied together and as you can see, other regional and national plans have to be consistent with or give effect to the GPS, meaning there aren’t a lot of options to stray from what the government wants.

In total, over $11 billion is expected to be spent over the six years from 2018 to 2024 but depending on circumstances that could be as high as over $12 billion.

And importantly, here are the individual funding ranges as a graph. This looks at the total range over three years and I’ve included the 2012-15 and 2015-18 figures as a comparison to show how they’re changing. Some notable things you can see:

  • There is another significant increase for state highway improvements. Many of the big Roads of National Significance projects will be winding up over that 3-year period but other expensive projects, such as the East West Link and Northern Corridor are expected to getting underway.
  • They’re lowering the bracket for local road projects saying it was consistently under spent but that the opposite is true of local road maintenance.
  • On top of the State Highways fund, there is a separate activity for regional projects which they admit are mostly state highway projects too.
  • Public Transport gets some improvements in range but it’s worth noting that this covers both services and infrastructure. Also with NZ’s weird funding rules, it isn’t allowed to be spent on rail infrastructure.
  • Walking and cycling does get a little boost but not a significant one.

To give an idea of where investment has been in the past, this shows the funding ranges for the 2015-18 NLTP and where within those ranges funding was allocated.

Much of the text within the document feels like it has just been copied and pasted from previous versions of the GPS but I went through (most) of it anyway and a couple of things stood out.

The document states that the GPS takes into consideration a range of government policies relevant to transport, this includes the Kaikoura earthquake and tsunami recovery. But oddly it makes multiple references to the fact it doesn’t fully take into account the ATAP work agreed between the government and the council as it’s waiting on funding decisions. This makes me nervous that the government are planning on picking and choosing from ATAP.

30. The Auckland Transport Alignment Project is a collaborative exercise between Auckland local government and central government officials. It has provided analysis to inform the development of the GPS. The Auckland Transport Alignment Project identified four key strategic challenges and a strategic approach to investment for Auckland. The strategic approach looks to make better use of existing networks, target investment to the most significant challenges, and maximise new opportunities to influence travel demand.

31. The draft GPS 2018 recognises the Auckland Transport Alignment Project and Kaikoura earthquake but does not fully take the funding implications of Auckland Transport Alignment Project into account. There is expected to be changes to the final GPS 2018 once funding decisions have been made.

Previous GPS’ have talked a lot about getting value for money from transport investment while at the same time promoting programmes like the RoNS and other government initiatives that assessment has shown to perform poor economically. Now they’re starting to drop the charade government projects will be good value and saying they’ll be done anyway, simply because the government like them. This is a massive double standard from the government who have for years berated Auckland for projects they claim have a low economic value.

36. It is expected that maximising value for money will automatically advance economic growth and productivity and road safety. However, there will be investments with a low benefit cost return that are necessary to advance Government policies. In these cases there will need to be a strong policy alignment (as expressed in the GPS) with Government policies and transparency about the reason for the decision.

……

61. For many investments it will be possible to obtain good benefit cost returns while providing the right infrastructure and services at the best cost. However to sufficiently advance some government policies, investments may require a lower than normal benefit cost return (i.e. less than the average Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) for the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP). Even in these cases, in general it is expected that the benefit cost ratio will at least exceed one.

One thing to remember about the GPS is that it only covers some areas of transport which seems short-sighted, even if they claim there will be integration with other modes.

39. Investment in movement of freight by road is covered by the GPS, but investment in movement of freight by rail, sea and air is not. However, coordination between the GPS and those responsible for different modes of transport can help to maximise the benefits of transport to the economy.

There are a few positive things to say about public transport and the role it has to play, such as:

115. Significant increases in public transport capacity have seen more people using and relying on public transport in the main metropolitan areas. These increases have occurred alongside increasing fare box recovery, indicating that the investment is resulting in more efficient outcomes.

116. The GPS will support this result by:

  • continuing to invest in public transport, including modal integration where appropriate
  • continuing the momentum set by GPS 2015 to increase the efficiency of public transport investment

Yet at the same time, they make some odd statements such as that forecasts are overly optimistic.

Passenger numbers have increased recently and are forecast to increase in Auckland and Wellington over the short term (and in Christchurch in the medium term). Although forecasts of increased passenger numbers have typically been overly optimistic. Auckland and Wellington public transport plans are based on an increased public transport task.

Fare box recovery rates have improved in Auckland and Wellington. Currently expenditure is in the middle of the funding range.

The proposal is for a gradual increase in the funding range to cover forecast passenger growth and for some public transport infrastructure work (such as park and ride facilities).

There is a need to keep focus on value for money, and ensure fare box recovery rates are at the expected levels.

Over optimistic forecasts, that’s a bit rich coming from the MoT, for example remember this graph showing actual vs forecast vehicle travel.

Of the big investments in PT in the last decade, the rail network and the busway, in both cases they are performing ahead of expectations. In the case of the rail network, we are ahead of those expectations despite the trains taking about 2 years longer to fully enter service like the earlier assessments had identified. We’re also performing ahead of the MoT’s expectations when it comes to ridership for the CRL. At one point, they claimed we wouldn’t meet the 20 million trips by 2020 yet at current rates, we’ll hit it this calendar year.

Consultation on the GPS is open till the end of March.

Agreeing with Joyce

Last week Finance Minister Steven Joyce gave a speech to Massey University and Auckland Chamber of Commerce about the economy and this year’s budget. There were some notable elements related to transport in it worth highlighting, especially those in relation to demand management.

The demand management part of the speech came after a decent amount of chest puffing and back slapping over all the major transport projects underway in Auckland including motorway projects, local road projects and the CRL.

However as this work comes to fruition over the next five years, Auckland as a city is going to come up against a hard constraint, and that’s one of geography.

There is no getting away from the fact that central Auckland is built on a narrow isthmus which makes it hard to get around – and the available land transport corridors are rapidly being used.

So beyond the current building programme we are going to have to look at demand management to reduce the reliance on the road corridors, in favour of buses, trains and ferries.

That was one of the conclusions of the joint Government/Auckland Council ATAP process last year.

To have this being acknowledged by Joyce is hugely positive given many of the comments he’s delivered over the years about transport issues in Auckland, especially during his time as Transport Minister. Quite how he’ll act on it could be another thing entirely though and so we’ll need to wait to see if as Finance Minister he delivers any money for PT projects.

If in the future we were to look back on what ATAP achieved, getting the government to finally acknowledge that we can’t just rely on more roads in Auckland will surely be near the top of the list.

Another big outcome from ATAP was the general acknowledgement between government and the council on the need for demand management, including the use of road pricing to achieve that. One positive of ATAP was that it assessed the need for road pricing outside the need to raise additional revenue to pay for infrastructure but even so, it found that just in the next decade alone an additional $400 million per year is needed.

The Government is developing a work programme to look at demand management tools including electronic road tolling in the medium to long term.

But to be clear, we see this primarily as a way to make the roading system work better – and not as a revenue raising exercise.

And today, I can confirm the Government’s position is:

First, we would expect that any road pricing initiative on existing motorways and highways would predominantly be a replacement for petrol taxes and road user charges not in addition to them.

We’ve suggested for many years that if introduced, road pricing should initially done so in a revenue neutral manner by replacing existing rates and/or taxes. While some would pay more and some less than they do today, the idea is that overall revenue gathered remains about the same which would help improve acceptance of any road pricing scheme. So in this case too it feels we’re roughly aligned with Joyce. This isn’t to say there still shouldn’t fuel taxes though, we still want to encourage moves to more fuel efficient vehicles after all.

The next part to note relates to his response to Mayor Phil Goff who had been pushing for a regional fuel tax.

And second, I stress that we are not interested in introducing a regional fuel tax. I have reiterated to Mayor Goff this morning that we do not see regional fuel taxes as part of the Government’s mix for transport in Auckland because they are administratively difficult, prone to leakage and cost-spreading, and blur the accountabilities between central and local government.

However we are keen to have a more detailed discussion about demand management tools, and explore further options for longer term funding for new infrastructure, including the use of private finance for certain projects, such as Penlink for example. Mayor Goff and I have agreed to work together on those.

Finally something to disagree on, I honestly can’t see how regional fuel taxes would be administratively difficult. I’m sure fuel companies know how much they sell at each of their stations and how many people are realistically going to drive outside the Auckland to get fuel. With the exception of a few people, most would probably spend more on the fuel to get out of the Auckland region than they’d save on petrol prices. Fuel taxes certainly may be a raising additional revenue in the short term till other solutions are put in place – and remember ATAP suggests we need to raise $400 million extra each and every year on top of what we’re already spending.

This announcement disappointed Mayor Phil Goff who claimed that without a new funding source, rates would need to rise by 16% – although that also includes covering for the special transport levy which we (and the AA) feel should be retained.

The last comment quoted above is concerning though, Penlink has long been proposed as a toll road but the problem with it has always been that tolls would only cover a small fraction of the costs. Waiving the PPP phrase around doesn’t suddenly make it more viable, in fact it is likely less so as PPPs require significant contracting work by agencies and are ultimately just a private loan which ratepaters would be paying back.

Sunday Reading 12 February 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading.

From the Devonport Ferry. If your commute has tourists taking selfies on it then I’d say it’s probably pretty good:

Devonport Ferry ©Patrick Reynolds 2017

Here is a clipping from yesterday’s Herald Commercial Property section. It neatly encapsulates the value of sorting out planning restrictions [Unitary Plan] and making high quality Transit investments [City Rail Link], naturally, given the context, through a property value lens:

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the salesman’s boosterism in the second paragraph, as the main point is that the only way for tatty low value (in the broadest sense) parts of the city, like the current low rise commercial city fringe, to attract investment and therefore improvement is through value uplift. Outside of large scale direct public investment, that is, which is no straight forward business in these kinds of areas. This is happening in other parts of the city, Tamaki etc, but it is very hard to do everywhere, and anyway is probably not desirable as the only means of development anyway. There is a good role for the private sector in city building. The city and its citizens are winners through either this process, after all no one can live in an apartment that doesn’t get built, nor use or work in a retail or commercial property that isn’t there, so more is certainly more in a thriving city.

All transport infrastructure investments provide opportunities for different groups, and after 65 years of only rewarding ex-urban land bankers and detached house volume builders with tax funded transport investments (motorways) it is good to see a better and more efficient urban form being incentivised here.

And particularly good to see both levers, planning code and Transit investment, being pulled at once, and in the same direction. This is absolutely something that Auckland is getting right. Those interested in these city shaping issues globally will know that it is surprisingly difficult to achieve such obvious coordination. The main barriers to this are fractured governance in cities, so we can put this success down to the amalgamation of Auckland’s previously hopelessly squabbling and disunited political organisation, and subsequent weakness in the city’s dealings with the much more powerful central government.

April sees the Waterview tunnels open. Print media is starting to look forward to the project. I see NZTA are already trying to play down expectations of congestion reduction. As well they might:

It is not a means of removing congestion altogether, especially in peak periods, which is no different to other major cities across the world,” Gliddon [NZTA] said.

Perhaps we should be expecting them to spend our money in smarter ways, like on actual alternatives to everyone always driving for example, then?

Plus some thoughts from this fellow:

Here’s a ripper from the ‘surprising things that generate big efficiencies’ department, here:

UPS drivers don’t turn left—and it saves them 10 million gallons of gas a year

If there is one thing I do like about American traffic management in cities is their enthusiasm to restrict cross traffic turning. Left in their case, right in ours. Our agencies seem obsessed with making horrible oversized intersections with individual lanes and light phases for every possible turn, including the most lethal and disruptive of them all; cross traffic ones. I have long called for the removal of right hand turns into and out of most Queen St intersections for both safety and efficiency reasons. And we all know that AT are just plain wrong on this issue in Mt Albert. Note to traffic engineers; heritage isn’t a thing in your profession; just cos you’ve always done it one way it doesn’t you should keep forcing it on us (actually almost certainly the reverse is true).

UPS have moved away from trying to find the shortest route and now look at other criteria to optimize the journey. One of their methods is to try and avoid turning through oncoming traffic at a junction. Although this might be going in the opposite direction of the final destination, it reduces the chances of an accident and cuts delays caused by waiting for a gap in the traffic, which would also waste fuel.

So now there’s evidence that Traffic Engineering has been wrong all along anyway, as the standard argument for keeping dangerous and delaying right hand turns is that to remove any decreases vehicle efficiency. Busted again Traffic Engineering: I sometimes wonder if there is a discipline with less intellectual curiosity about its habits than this branch of engineering?

Note to AT: MacKelvie St/Ponsonby Rd. So often there is broken glass here, being so close to the Richmond Rd intersection right turning both into and out of this street are seriously disruptive, dangerous, especially with the volume of other road users in this busy retail area (and the bus stop). Stop the right -hand turns and the very wide MacKelvie could be narrowed with widened footpaths and street trees on the southern, sunny side, and the road space on Ponsonby currently as a wide painted median for this manoeuvre used more productively.

This is undeniably true: Decisions about transport investments are really about what kind of future city we desire. For a quick overview, with lots of links, of this claim head to this CityMetric article.

The article questions reliance on cost benefit analysis, where as I think that they are an important part of the evaluation process. I guess the issue really is one of balance. For example we have for many decades had far too much priority given to the results of traffic modelling, whereas these outputs should be of a secondary value in city design, not primary. Because if we build for traffic first, all we get is traffic, and much less city.

Thinking City has a nice post up on cultural representations of cities.

Breaking Bad is amazingly powerful drama, but who thought it would also turn out to be positive for Albuquerque? Not the local authorities, for one. But there were wrong:

The funny thing is, even when a place is portrayed in a negative light, it can actually end up having a positive impact on that area. Take the US city of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest metropolis, home to roughly half a million people. It is also home to the fictional characters in the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, about a teacher with cancer who turns to drug dealing. Following the success of the show, tourism to the New Mexico city was massively boosted – turning around struggling businesses, generating new ones and contributing hugely to the local and state economy.

From the ‘the whole world is an integrated economy’ file, Bloomberg has the fascinating tale of one tiny widget in a nice interactive, click though to the the link for the full experience:

 

Related:

I have always like the line: ‘California must exist for even America needs an America’.

Immigrant Shock: Can California Predict the Nation’s Future?

So it’s interesting to read an article calling California as showing the direction the rest of the US will follow. Is California just America’s dream of its own future? After all in the long run everything follows demographics; economics, politics…

Thank’s for reading, see you next week…

50 Years of waiting for an Auckland Rapid Transit system.

Ian Reynolds 1946 by Brian Brake

My father, Ian Reynolds 1922-2005, was an architect (as was my mother). He was also a what was then called a Town and Country Planner. After returning from working in England after the war he spent the rest of his career as partner in a big multidisciplinary practice in Auckland (missing the city of his youth: Wellington. Office in Wakefield St, where the AUT business school is now). There he was responsible for a chunk of our post-war modernist heritage, as well as a lot of planning work. Especially at the University of Auckland, master-planning the campuses and involved in the campaign to retain the city one, which thankfully won out. Notable design work includes the School of Engineering and the Thomas Building both on Princess St, his practice also designed the School of Architecture while he was head of the architectural division.

In 1967, which is of course now 50 years ago, he was interviewed by the Herald about transport in Auckland (in full below). And it makes for a pretty interesting read, surprisingly relevant still, perhaps alarmingly so. I’m pretty sure his 1967 self would be very surprised that we are only now getting round to building the Rapid Transit Network he describes from the De Leuw Cather report. Although later of course he witnessed the defeat of Robbie’s Rail, and much else that should have given life to the 1960s plans for balanced transport networks. The interview shows a clear vision of that possibility, and how that would have led to a different more urban pattern of development for Auckland than we currently have:

Readers will no doubt feel that indeed; some apples don’t fall very far from the tree, yet re-reading this I am amazed now at how little I ever discussed these issues with Ian. I think on his side that was because of a sorrow felt by the idealistic modernists of his generation about the development of Auckland in the later part of the last century. Interestingly for many there was a move into environmentalism from urbanism (not that either phrase were current at the time) as centrally directed motorways and private land speculation took over completely from state planning and housing investment. Perhaps that is where this generation’s lasting legacy can be seen. Especially evident in the careers of two of Ian’s colleagues; captured perfectly in this obituary of planner FWO Jones (known even to us kids as ‘Fwo’) and the just recently deceased KRTA partner Dave Thom, who was very active in the national parks programme, and in making the theoretical case for environmentalism as a core practice of engineering internationally.

But it must be remembered that the denser city was always considered the necessary corollary to the protected wilderness, as this keeps the city from spreading so much into the country. The term sprawl is after all the shortened version of urban sprawl. His generation did achieve much in protecting key wild places, but I think Ian keenly felt that on urban form they suffered a life long defeat. So it would be good to show him Auckland now, the last ten years since his death have seen a profound change. I think he would be gratified by many of the trends; the full return of the university to the city, the strong revival of inner city living (though not so much the design of many of the buildings), the rail revival (he was a dedicated train user; taking the overnight train to Wellington regularly instead of flying, which he loathed, he was also an equally dedicated pipe smoker; which got him in the end).

There is so much that is still accurate in the document, both happily and otherwise, I think he is right both about our relative lack of corruption and waste, but also the dominance of political expediency over good policy in transport and urban form:

Here he refers to the ‘Morningside Deviation’ the 1940s version of the CRL suffering the same fate (see here for earlier schemes):

It is important to remember that at the time of the interview the population of Auckland was around half a million, so the arguments then are even more pressing now there’s another million souls living here. And some concerns have disappeared completely, such ‘inner city decline’. Of course had the described bus/rail system been developed alongside the motorways the pattern of the city’s development would be different; less sprawl, more complexity, not radically different just less monotone. A city of greater variety and one less entirely dominated by traffic. One that pushes less aggressively into the surrounding countryside… Instead we have built one network entirely, the motorway system, and largely one developmental typology, low density dispersal, and the city is poorer for it. And now we must urgently add the missing complementary Rapid Transit Network, as those 1960s planners quite correctly foresaw would be required to prevent a road only system choking to death on its own overuse. At least as the city is three times the size it is so the cost is now affordable; if only we would stop so expensively adding to the one now complete system….

Sketching in Kendal 1950

The politics of Auckland

Elections last year in other English-speaking countries got me thinking about the urban implications of political geography. The US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit vote both featured large divides in voting patterns between big cities and rural areas and small towns.

As the Economist observed, the US electoral map actually consists of a whole bunch of Democratic-voting urban areas and Republican-voting rural areas, rather than red and blue states. Even in Texas, which votes consistently Republican, Houston voted massively for the Democratic candidate. The red areas in this map are mostly empty:

And as the BBC observed, the vote against Brexit was strongest in London, a few other large cities like Manchester, and Scotland, while smaller towns and rural areas went the other way.

As much as anything, this speaks of a cultural and political divide between urban and non-urban areas. Many people have written tedious articles on this issue, implicitly claiming that this area or that represents “Real America” or “Real Britain”. (My perspective: If you have a definition of “Real America” that excludes large cities, you’re doing it wrong because most Americans live in large cities.)

I don’t want to get into that debate here. Instead, I want to ask: Is the same thing happening in New Zealand? Are our large cities – Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch – diverging from the rest of the country?

Demographically, Auckland is different. It’s faster-growing than the rest of the country, as is Christchurch. It has more young people, and more people who were born overseas. (Many of whom have come to identify as New Zealanders and share New Zealand values.) But is there evidence that Aucklanders think differently than people elsewhere?

Electoral returns provide valuable information on peoples’ preferences and values. Peoples’ votes reflect, to a degree, how they see the world and what they value. Consequently, I’ve analysed data from the last six New Zealand general elections (1999-2014) to understand how big-city New Zealanders compare to the rest.

Over this time, political parties’ fortunes have swung dramatically. The National Party’s share of party votes has been as low as 21% and as high as 47%, while Labour’s has been as low as 25% and as high as 41%. The Greens doubled their vote share over this period, from 5% to 11%, while NZ First came back from a brush with death due to a 4% party vote. Other parties – the Alliance, ACT, United Future – have ceased to exist or survived only as single-MP zombie parties.

Consequently, I’m most interested in changes in party vote shares in different places. That will tell us whether big-city Kiwis are responding to changes in parties’ perceived competence, policies, and the general economic and social environment as rural and small-town Kiwis.

The following chart summarises the share of party votes that National received in Auckland (23 electorates in 2014), Wellington (6 electorates), and Christchurch (5 electorates). I’ve started with National as it got the most party votes in the most recent election. This graph shows that:

  • Auckland tends to vote for National at a similar rate to small-town and rural New Zealand
  • Wellington, on the other hand, has diverged – it has been substantially less National-leaning than non-urban parts of the country since 2005
  • Prior to 2011, Christchurch also seemed to be less National-leaning, but this gap has closed since the earthquakes.

Here’s a similar graph for the Labour Party. This time, Auckland has matched the “Rest of NZ” trend less closely, with the result that it is now somewhat more likely to vote for Labour than non-urban parts of the country. Wellington, again, has usually voted for Labour at substantially higher rates.

The Green Party is where things start to get interesting. Both Wellington and Christchurch give a substantially higher share of their party votes to the Greens than the rest of the country, and this gap has widened in every election since 1999. Auckland, by contrast, continues to vote for the Green Party at a rate that’s similar to small-town and rural New Zealand. This data doesn’t allow us to understand why – it could be due to policy preferences, or simply to the fact that the Green Party hasn’t historically had many Auckland-based MPs to campaign for the vote here.

Finally, New Zealand First. This is the only area where we can observe large divergences between how Aucklanders vote and how small-town and rural New Zealanders vote. Over the last six elections, there has been a consistent gap between the NZF party vote in the three big cities and in rural areas. This is likely to reflect NZF’s political positioning, including its opposition to immigration and advocacy for policies to support small towns rather than big cities.

The broad lesson from this data is that Auckland’s political preferences do not not seem to be diverging from small-town and rural New Zealand. Across the city as a whole, Aucklanders vote much the same as other New Zealanders. This is very different than the trend observed in the UK and US, where recent elections have brought differences in preferences and values into sharp relief. And it’s also different to the trend observed in Wellington, which is substantially more left-leaning than non-urban NZ.

A provocative hypothesis

Without getting into the rights and wrongs of different political parties – Transportblog is a nonpartisan endeavour – I would argue that this data is good news for Auckland and New Zealand. The way we vote suggests that we are less likely to suffer from the same ills as the UK and the US. And, over time, it should mean that we get better urban and transport policy from central government.

First, in spite of the demographic differences between Aucklanders and New Zealanders living outside the big cities, voting data suggests that we broadly share the same values and preferences. On the whole, Aucklanders have responded the same way to parties’ electoral appeals, suggesting that they too are bound by common interests and respond to the same economic and social trends.

This reduces the risk that we end up in a similar place as the US or UK – unable to agree on basic aspects of how our society should operate, with sharp divisions between people in different places.

Second, because Auckland sits in the political centre, political parties must pay attention to its needs if they want to get elected. As the past six elections show, Aucklanders’ votes are available to centre-right parties and centre-left parties, provided that they make a good case for themselves. And, unlike in the US where you can win the presidency while losing New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Seattle, inner Atlanta, etc by 50 percentage points, it’s not possible to lose big in Auckland and win the national election.

This is a very good thing for Auckland, as the city has some unique needs as a result of its rapid population and economic growth. It needs policy support to enable it to build more housing, especially in the existing urban area, and transport investments that are fit for purpose, including greater attention to its rapid transit network and urban cycling. These ideas are broadly popular with Aucklanders:

Local government can address some of this, but central government needs to come to the party as well as it is an important source of funding and policymaking. The politics of Auckland create strong incentives to do that. Over time, this will mean a city that gets more of its problems fixed, and more of its opportunities realised. And New Zealand as a whole will benefit from having a more productive, dynamic city that can, say, pay taxes to fund comfortable retirements in Whakatane and Timaru.

What do you think about the way Aucklanders vote?

2017 – The Year Ahead

In this last post for the year, I want to look at some of the things I think will be big discussion points during the year as Auckland continues to transform into a better city.

City Rail Link

With works now well underway on the first sections of the CRL the project will remain a strong talking point in 2017 as we follow its progress. We start the year with changes at Britomart with the new temporary entrance coming into use. Early in the new year the CRL team are expected to put the rest of the project out to tender.

Well also be focusing a lot on what happens to the streets after construction is finished. The works so far have shown the city can still function well with the significant disruption that’s occurred already and so we believe there’s an opportunity to vastly improve them for pedestrians, not just put them back as they were.

Mass Transit

The government don’t like the idea of Light Rail on Dominion Rd but begrudgingly acknowledge the need for more rapid transit capacity. So in ATAP, they referred to the idea as ‘Mass Transit’ and said the NZTA would be looking at bus alternatives before confirming what would happen in the future. This work is already well underway and I’d expect it to be released early in the new year. We know AT had already put a lot of work in before deciding on the Light Rail option, including analysing many bus alternatives. So to be credible, this new study will have to show how it deals with the issues, like city centre street capacity, that led to AT picking light rail in the first place.

If they ignore those issues, it will put Light Rail on the same track to existence as the CRL did with the government and its agencies producing competing and often incomplete analysis before finally agreeing with the project.

The issue of congestion around the airport is also likely to be a big factor and one I think will only increase pressure on politicians to get this addressed.

Rapid Transit

I expect we will hear more in 2017 about how AT plans to develop the Rapid Transit Network. At the very least the Northwest Busway which was identified in ATAP as needed in the first decade. We know AT have already been doing some work looking at this. I also think we’ll hear more about other RTN projects such as AMETI and how to deal with electric trains to Pukekohe, either extending the wires or using battery powered trains.

New Network Rollout

In 2017 we are will see the roll out of the new bus network in West Auckland in June followed by Central Auckland a few months later.

Parnell Station and new rail timetable

In March the new Parnell Station is finally due to open. The old Newmarket Station building was moved to the site just before Christmas and is being refurbished as part of the station. The opening comes alongside a new rail timetable that AT say will speed up services – although that may be only by a couple of minutes so not the significant improvements that are needed.

Government Elections

Government elections will likely be a strong point of discussion in the coming year, especially in the latter half as voting draws near. It was of course made more interesting by John Key’s sudden resignation a few weeks ago. Transport is not usually a major talking point but we’ll certainly be watching it. Housing is certainly shaping up to be a massive issue though so it will be fascinating to see what impact that has.

Cycleways

We’re expecting to see a lot of progress on cycleways this year we move ever closer to mid-2018 cut off of the Government’s Urban Cycleway Fund. Some of the ones due to start this year include

  • The Nelson St extension from Victoria St to Quay St
  • Quay St extension to The Strand
  • The next sections of the Eastern Path
  • Ian McKinnion Dr
  • Franklin Rd

We’re also hoping to see progress on Skypath this year now that the consent issues are out of the way.

 

Waterview

After around 5 years of construction, in April the Waterview connection is finally due to open. It will be fascinating to see just what impact the project has as there’s a very high chance it will cause significant congestion, especially leading to the city.

SH20a – Kirkbride Rd interchange

The grade separation of Kirkbride Rd and SH20A is also due to be completed in 2017

East-West Link

The hugely expensive East-West link is going to get a lot of attention in 2017 as it moves through the consenting process. The NZTA lodged applications for consent just a few weeks ago and the EPA process needs to be completed within nine months of that. A lot of mainstream media focus will be on the Onehunga area where there is a lot of opposition to what the NZTA have proposed.

Northern Corridor

The Northern Corridor will also be going through the same process as the East-West link but so far there hasn’t been anywhere near the level of opposition to the project, especially seeing as extending the Northern Busway is now a key feature of the project.

Auckland Plan refresh

A big discussion this year will be the refresh of the Auckland Plan, the 30 year strategic plan for Auckland. Since the first Auckland Plan around six years ago, we’ve made significant progress on some issues, such as the CRL and Unitary Plan but we also face a lot of new challenges, especially around the provision of housing. It will be interesting to see how much the vision for Auckland changes.

Auckland Transport

We’ll obviously be following closely what happens with Auckland Transport in 2017. One big thing to watch is that AT will be hunting for a new CEO this year.

All up, 2017 is shaping up to be another huge year and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens. See you next year

2016 – A Year in Review Part 4 – Everything else

This is Part 4 and the final part of our series wrapping up the year and in this post I’m looking at everything else. You can also see:

Unitary Plan

The completion of the Unitary Plan has been one of the biggest and most important discussions Auckland has had for the last few years. The plan sets the rules by which Auckland can develop and previous planning rules were far too restrictive, especially in relation to allowing for urban development. Since it was first discussed in 2012, council in responding to groups like Auckland 2040 had wound back many aspects of the plan. It was better than what we have but not as good as it should have been.

At the beginning of the year the plan took a blow as Councillors buckled to a small group of vocal residents who had been whipped into a frenzy by incorrect information from the likes of the Herald and voted to withdraw it’s evidence on residential zoning under the false pretense of preserving a process. That crazy act meant the council wasn’t able to be a part of the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) when discussing this massive and important topic. But the act ultimately proved fruitless as the IHP were the ones controlling the process

In July, the IHP released their recommendations which significantly increased what they called Feasible Enabled Capacity.

In August the council accepted almost all of the recommendations from the IHP. Interestingly the opposition groups seemed to just melt away and not much was heard of them during this time. This was a huge achievement and something that looked unlikely even six months earlier.

The process isn’t fully over yet though, there are still some appeals to be worked through and one of those from the Character Coalition caused a major snag. It was so broad in scope the council couldn’t make the plan operative. The appeal was later reworded to focus on character housing not all residential zoning.

TFUG

A important discussion this year was a project called Transport for Future Urban Growth (TFUG). This was Auckland Transport and the NZTA looking at what big pieces of infrastructure were needed to support all the greenfield growth areas identified in the Unitary Plan. This is mostly a lot of big arterials and expanded state highways but there is some PT in the mix too. All up it is likely to cost at least $10 billion for the infrastructure planned, about $200,000 per new dwelling it enables. The final plan was released just before Christmas and I’ll cover that in the new year.

ATAP

I’ve already covered ATAP a bit in previous posts but in this one I wanted to point out a couple of important parts. One is that the project identified full road pricing, not just tolling a few roads, would likely be needed in coming years to help manage demand. This is important as up to that point the government had been very opposed to the mere suggestion of this. They still aren’t fully supporting it and there is a lot of work that needs to happen before we’ll see anything like road pricing introduced but if feels like the idea is now firmly in the discussion and likely to be a key discussion in coming years.

The second is that ATAP came up with some indicative timings for when projects might happen, this is shown below

ATAP Indicative Interventions

New Council

In October we had local body elections and Len Brown wasn’t standing again meaning we would definitely be getting a new mayor. Phil Goff, who officially announced he was running in late 2015m, had been the front runner for a long time and in the end won by a considerable margin.

In November he released his first rates proposal, something that will be a key discussion in the first half of next year. While capping rates increases at 2.5%, he also sought to look at other ways of funding Auckland’s growth such as introducing visitor levy, a targeted rate on areas to be developed to help pay for the new infrastructure those areas and raising the topic of regional fuel taxes.

Goff campaigned on making the Council Controlled Organisations more accountable and just a few weeks ago we saw the draft letters of expectation to the CCOs. We covered the letter to AT which was fantastic, effectively calling out AT on issues like ignoring the councils City Centre Master Plan with their stupid plans for key streets after the CRL is completed. It also asked AT to focus on some other key areas too, such as “aggressively pursuing strong growth in public transport use and active modes” and improving speeds on the rail network from shorter dwell times. It will be interesting to see how AT respond.

Blog

We’ve had another fantastic year on the blog and it’s great to see many new people starting to read and join in the conversation. Here are couple of stats for you.

Thank you to all who have read the blog and helped support us.

We do have one post left to go for the year, tomorrow I’ll take look at what we might see in 2017

Guest Post: Hamilton Trumps Wellington?

*This is a guest post by regular reader, Mr Plod, who may or may not have worked for Fonterra in Hamilton.

Hamilton now has a reason to be.

Wellington has suffered hugely at the hands of the Kaikoura earthquake. An earthquake that wasn’t even centred on one of the massive fault lines that run through Wellington. “While the precise scope of damages and their ongoing effects are still being assessed, currently it is believed that 16 buildings comprising 11 per cent or 167,300 sq m of Wellington CBD’s total office building stock, have been closed to occupiers – 47 percent of this space is classified by CBRE as prime quality stock,” A report from CBRE said

Using a generous 20 sqm per person (link) this amounts maybe 8,300 workers and some number of residents requiring temporary or permanently rehousing.

And this wasn’t the big one. Just imagine the carnage if it was.

What strategy should we adopt to manage the risk this imposes on New Zealand?

For the most part, Risk Management strategies adopt the following approach:

Once risks have been identified and assessed, all techniques to manage the risk fall into one or more of these four major categories:

  • Avoidance (eliminate, withdraw from or not become involved)
  • Reduction (optimize – mitigate)
  • Sharing (transfer – outsource or insure)
  • Retention (accept and budget)

(source)

All the current approaches are based around RETENTION, SHARING and REDUCTION with all of New Zealand collective underwriting the potential cost directly through our EQC levies and/or our willingness to do whatever is required in the event. I think it is time to move into AVOIDANCE mode.

The time is right to reconsider the role Wellington plays in New Zealand’s future as a centre of Government, Commerce and a place for investment. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place. My parents grew up there and I harbour many fond memories of long holidays there as a child and popping in and out for work since and passing through on my way to & from the South Island. On a good day Wellington sits majestically at the edge of a wonderful harbour and there’s nowhere better.

However, I’m not thinking of good days, I’m thinking of dark catastrophic days when ‘the big one’ renders large chunks of Wellington to rubble with significant loss of life and with mammoth cost and disruption to the country.

Our civic bodies, engineers and institutions are doing the right thing in forcing property owners to prepare by strengthening their buildings and building new ones to higher standards. This a great strategy but pales compared to the avoidance startegy. This is where Hamilton comes in.

It’s time to move our seat of government out of Wellington and to Hamilton. And do it now before another small fortune gets spent on ‘finishing’ the current Parliament Building complex.

And why Hamilton? Well, it’s not Auckland for starters and don’t underestimate the importance of that to the rest of NZ. It is probably at or soon to be at the population epi-centre of New Zealand. It has a good airport nearby, unlike Dunedin. It is doughnut shaped with an underperforming city centre just ripe to host an exciting new parliamentary precinct to house all our civil servants. It is nearby the residence of the Maori King. It already has an underground rail station (sort of) and this move would provide the impetus for a high speed rail service to Auckland & Tauranga. Its by-passing motorways are nearly complete so for those of us who wish to avoid central government we can cheerily drive on by to Taupo, Ruapehu or points further south. It is within the ‘golden triangle’ of Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton, that Robert Jones of Fulton Hogan calls on to invest more capital into.  And government moving there would really turn the fortunes of the long floundering central city around.

I think it’s time to act absolutely positively on this as Wellington is going to wither anyway, and Hamilton is city of the future. I am sure the corporates and those who employ those large numbers of people already displaced will be seriously considering their options. The Directors of those companies are duty bound to do so. I’m equally sure that many will take the easy option and just move to Auckland adding to the housing and infrastructure problems here. Or even skip that option and go straight to the solid rock of Sydney. If those organisations already see a benefit in being close to the seat of power in Wellington won’t Hamilton be just as attractive? So let’s exploit that attraction, avoid the inevitable and keep them out of Auckland by moving our central government to central Hamilton. NOW!