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Postcard from San Francisco

San Francisco is a city that is hard on the knees. It’s hilly, really really hilly. The streets are laid out in a classic grid form with criminal disregard to the natural topography. Particularly downtown there are many roads that literally go straight up a small mountain. In some cases, such as the world famous Lombard St, the road cuts a tight series of switchbacks to overcome the grade, however in most they don’t. Stairs instead of footpaths are not unusual.

This inescapable steepness has lead to two key transit outcomes. The first of these are the historic cable cars, formerly right across the city these survive on three routes primarily for tourists. While they look superficially like any historic tram or streetcar they function quite differently. The vehicles themselves are motor less and steering less, the motive power comes from a fixed powerhouse that constantly pulls a steel cable buried in a conduit in the street, between the running rails which take care of the steering. The cable car driver (known as a ‘Gripman’) basically works a giant pair of pliers that grabs the moving cable to pull the carriage along. Think a sort of upside down ski lift. So what are the advantages of this? Well unlike buses and trams there are no motors to rev, no drive wheels to slip. The cable literally hauls the vehicle up the steep inclines like a winch. However with that benefit comes several downsides, they are hard to launch smoothly, they can get stuck on the cable, and most of all the routes have to be arranged as a series of straight cable runs while any curves have to be coasted through. Stuff up the shift from one cable to the next and you gotta get out and push. In most cities advances in electric streetcar technology super ceded the cable car.

The more modern response to San Francisco’s steepness is their trolley buses. These are electric buses running under overhead power by way of a pair of trolley poles. The rubber tyres provide heaps of grip on the steep streets, while the torque-y electric motors and limitless electricity supply provide the oomph to power up them. Seriously, these buses are heroic with what they do every day on the San Fran frequent network grid. They have automated announcements warning you to hold on for particularly steep hills, and is don’t just mean if you happen t be standing up!

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The buses are the workhorse of the ‘Muni’ system which also has lines of just about everything under the sun. In addition to electric and diesel hybrid buses, there are several lines of historic streetcar that also provide regular street level transit. Then there are the modern light rail lines which run on street corridors and their own tracks in the outer suburbs, but then run into metro tunnels in the city centre. Directly below the metro tunnel is the BART tunnel, which shares most of the same stations with a second pair of lower platforms. The BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, is a true rapid transit heavy rail metro system that has several lines on both sides of the bay and links to satellite centers and the airport. That system runs monster capacity trains ten or twelve cars in length, every few minutes at peak times. In addition to all this you have Caltrain commuter rail from satellite cities and the nearby parts of California, plus Amtrak long distance trains direct to places as far away as Vancouver, Chicago and New Orleans.

Most of this runs along Market St, the main route into town on the pacific side. Two levels down there are the two BART heavy subway tracks (carrying four frequent lines), one level down there are the light rail Muni metro tracks (carrying six frequent lines), and at street level the are the F line street car tracks in the centre, with separate bus lanes for a dozen trolley and diesel bus routes either side. Here is a question for readers, is this the most transit intensive corridor in the world? Please feel free to post your nominations.

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So enough frothing at the mouth over transit. I think it is very important to note that San Francisco is, despite the hills, a good walking city with high cycling rates. So again, if anyone tries to tell you Auckland is too steep for walking or cycling, point them in direction of San Francisco.

Here is a picture of the Castro district which is currently being reconstructed. They have taken out parking and traffic, leaving just two lanes for the trolley buses and service access. They are widening the footpaths greatly to provide space for trees, street furniture and outdoor dining. The old kerb line is where the chain link fence is. I’ll be keeping an eye on how this turns out, it represents a good possibility for Queen St.

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One last photo of some housing. I resisted the temptation to dwell on the Painted Ladies or any of the other beautiful historic houses of the Noe Valley or mission district. These are some more modern town houses, probably 70s vintage by the look of them. In my opinion these represent a good way to build the missing middle density of Auckland’s housing stock. They are all simple timber framed weatherboard construction, they are mostly low rise single houses or duplexes on separate sections, they all have one garage each… but no huge setbacks or wasteful side yards and efficient, affordable utilization of desirable land.

All up San Francisco is a wonderland for transport and planning enthusiasts, and provides some good examples for Auckland to take a cue from.

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Postcard from Portland

Portland has something of a reputation as an urbanists poster child and my first impression is that it is indeed doing things right. Portland’s renaissance stems back ultimately to a local government amalgamation in the early 90s that led to a compact city master plan for the region that could actually be put into place (well the bits within Oregon state at least). This lead to a big focus on transit, walking and cycling and intensifying in the city. Some big parallels with the Auckland situation there, hopefully Portland represents what Auckland will achieve.

A few observations are immediate. They have short blocks, with lots of cross roads. That means lots of street frontage and lots of corners. Not much in the way of lanes or arcades, probably because they don’t need them. Most intersections are either four way stops with pedestrian priority, or signalised. I noticed that the ped signals appear to be synchronised on some of the main streets, I walked about eight blocks without breaking my stride!

There are a lot of street trees. Lots. They provide shade from the sun and make thing just that much more pleasant. I’m no arborist but those trees look young, perhaps only ten or fifteen years old. I get the feeling they were recently added in a citywide programme to tree every street in the city. Auckland should do the same. Also something that is not immediately obvious is they have very little fast food chains downtown… but they do have a permanent hawker/food truck market covering two city blocks!

Unlike Vancouver or Seattle the streets in Portland have a narrow cross section, probably 20m from building to building. That’s the same as Auckland. In a way it makes the streets more homely and intimate, especially as they aren’t choked with traffic. Broad footpaths, cycle lanes, tram tracks, trees, just not parking and dozens of traffic lanes. Again they intersections don’t splay out for extra lanes or turn pockets. If anyone tells you Auckland streets are too narrow for this or that, point to Portland.

Street parking is uncommon and I can’t recall many parking buildings, bar one particularly huge monster downtown. I wonder if that one building does most of the parking for the whole city?

Portland has both streetcar trams and proper light rail. There is a distinction here. The streetcars are conventional, relatively small 20m trams that run entirely on street. They are effectively flash buses with nice stops, and are great to ride, however they do run in mixed traffic. Downtown they run kerbside, with only one track per street. Opposing directions run on different streets one block apart which can be confusing at first. Frequencies are quite good at ten to fifteen minute head ways most of the day.

The light rail is a different beast. The vehicles are longer, taller and wider, and seem to run exclusively coupled into pairs. A pair like that is about the same size as a single EMU in Auckland, so it’s by no means small. While they do run on street downtown like the streetcars they use different streets and tracks and have a nominally traffic free lane. The killer app here however is that once outside the downtown grid the light rail runs on its own dedicated railway lines, generally located alongside freeways. So they have excellent, if a little slow, penetration into the dense city core, and fast long reach in the suburbs. I caught this out to the airport and it was faster and more convenient than many other airport rail links. There are four lines each running at ten minute headways, but in the centre they pair up on two corridors given very frequent service all day. A great system, and again it could be a very effective option for new corridors in Auckland.

I don’t have a picture of it, but there is one odd street with three lanes: streetcar to one side, light rail to the other, plus a bus lane in the middle!

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A picture here of the Portland gondola, which they curiously call a tramway. Gondolas seem to be flavor of the month in transport terms, often they are an answer searching for a question with little regard given to their real life strengths and weaknesses. This application however does seem to be the right choice of technology. It serves a medical precinct and university built at the top of a very large, very steep hill, in an otherwise flat city. One of the streetcars terminates at the bottom station and there is a large paid bike parking lot, both of which give good access to the gondola.

Speaking of cycling, there is plenty of it but a conspicuous lack of segregated cycle lanes and cycle ways. Many city streets have painted-line-and-stencil bike lanes, and little else. Perhaps this is actually the holy grail for cycling: a city where cycling is such a normal, standard aspect of using the road, and where traffic is so light and civilized, that special cycling infrastructure just isn’t needed.

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A quick picture of their new waterfront development precinct. Human scaled buildings, street trees, cycle lanes, public transport, mixed use, some parking, short blocks and small intersections. Wynyard take note, this is how you do it right.

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Overall Portland is a great city that clearly enjoys the fruits of its labours over the previous two decades. Auckland has a lot to learn from this city which rightly deserves it’s reputation as a golden child of reurbanisation.

Postcard from Seattle

On first impressions Seattle is a lively and interesting place, but perhaps a little, er, grungy. It’s a hilly city with a downtown built across a reclaimed tidal beach and nearby cliffs which have overtime been regarded into some very steep streets. There is a very cute, if crumbling, historic downtown where fancy restaurants and hipster spots sit with some unease in amongst a precinct with a bad reputation and a large homeless population.

Overall Seattle seems quite a road heavy place despite the abundance of pedestrian activity. Actually I get a very Auckland vibe, it seems a place that is embracing its urban life and activity but doesn’t quite reach it’s potential just yet. The most obvious manifestation of Seattle’s highway history is the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This hideous beast is a giant double decked motorway viaduct running right down the waterfront of the city, with finger ramps snaking off into the city blocks. Counting the street underneath that’s three levels of heavy traffic severing the city from the beautify Puget Sound waterfront. A few businesses struggle to attract people down to the water, but I doubt they’ll ever achieve a nice waterfront while the viaduct stands. Auckland came close to building an exact clone of this monstrosity above Quay St, boy we dodged a bullet there!

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The classic symbols of Seattle are the Space Needle and the Monorail, two icons of one vision of the future from the modernist age. The monorail is fun, if basically useless from a transport perspective. Initially a temporary installation to shuttle people from downtown to the site of the 1962 worlds fair in a park a couple of miles away, it still does that only that today. It shuttles back and forth between the two termini stations every ten minutes.

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I caught the southbound Amtrak from Seattle King St station. America is filled with beautiful grand rail termini like this, most of them crumbling and vastly underused.

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Seattle has a fine fleet of buses of all types. Most seem to be articulated with metro style interiors, many routes are trolleys under wires while others are electric hybrids. They also run double deckers, single level rigids and seemingly everything else.

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Perhaps the crowning glory of transit in Seattle is the underground bus and light rail tunnel. Yep, it has both in the same tunnel. This looks and feels very much like a metro line, except for the vehicles the three city stations are quite reminiscent of the Washington DC metro. The tunnel takes buses from all over the city, originally special trolley buses but now they are fairly conventional low emission hybrids. It used to be just buses but they’ve recently added tracks for the airport light rail line. I’m of two minds of whether this is a good idea, and in wonder if it was a political outcome rather than a planning one. You see the station platforms are very long with multiple bays, capable of raking several light rail trains and a half dozen articulated buses. However they cannot overtake each other or pull in and out around stopped vehicles. This means the light rail trains have to wait for all buses to clear the platform before they can stop, likewise buses have to sit behind stopped trains. Several times my train sat stopped in the tunnel for that reason, and at one point I counted more than seven buses backed up on the approach to the station waiting for a single train at the platform. I believe this requirement to stay inline was added when the rail tracks went in because there is actually enough room for buses to pass otherwise.

I think Auckland could really do with a smaller version of one of these bus metro stations under Customs St to take all the Britomart buses. Also riding the light rail has made me consider this as a possibility for new lines in Auckland. It was very frequent with high capacity vehicles, and presumably is a lot cheaper than heavy rail due to the easy geometry.

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Oh and some very unique, if slightly gross street art. This is the Gum Wall, ’nuff said.

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To finish, an interesting factoid for urbanists, the street level of the old downtown is some two or three levels above the actual ground level. Years ago a great fire swept through the town, which gave the founding fathers an excuse to deal with the perennial problem of tides swamping the muddy streets. They used the reconstruction from the fire to raise the streets on retaining walls many metres above ground level, while the original footpaths and building entrances remained below. A series of municipal ladders were constructed at intersections to overcome the grade change of up to ten metres in places. After several years of inconvenience and numerous deaths from falls, they started to enclose the footpaths into vaults and converted the windows of the upper floors into new ground level entrances. Initially the old lower footpaths and levels functioned as a colonial era shopping mall, but overtime fell into disuse and were converted into subterranean speakeasies, brothels and gambling dens. They were latter condemned in the mid twentieth century, and only saved from being filled in by a local historian. Well worth a look if you’re ever in Seattle.

Has Len gone loopy?

A statement you won’t often hear on this blog is “I agree with Cameron Brewer” but you will hear it today. It’s in response to an his statements in this article in the Manukau Courier:

Public transport could get another boost if mayor Len Brown’s light rail loop for Manukau gets the green light.

“We want to run light rail from Manukau up through Clover Park, all along Te Irirangi Drive, up to Highland Park, up Panmure Highway and back to Manukau,” he says.

“The idea of getting mass transit into suburban areas is to give commuters flexibility.

“The key thing about running rail down Te Irirangi Drive is that people already complain about the traffic lights holding them up.

“The trains would run down the median strip in the road and they would take priority over cars.”

Light rail costs about an eighth as much as heavy rail to install, he says.

The trains would have a tighter turning circle and carry fewer people than the city’s new electric trains.

“Right now they are in the investigation stage. We really want to do a loop like that in Sydney.”

Brown is keen to get the project done quickly but says there are still many unknowns so no cost has been given.

He’s also keen to get smaller 20-person electric buses running between Manukau and Middlemore Hospital.

“It would also be great to build them here in Auckland and get the investment having a positive economic impact throughout the whole project.”

If I am reading things correctly it would be something like this.

Len Eastern Light Rail proposal

The section from Panmure to Manukau would not be able to use the existing rail lines due to the gauge of the tracks and the fact that the tracks are/will be full with existing passenger and freight trains. It would also be pointless to duplicate that when it has a considerable amount of capacity in it for quite some time. As for the rest of the proposal, breaking it down the section from Panmure to Highland Park is quite useful due to the huge amount of people living in the area however it does stop short of going a bit further to Howick. Similarly I think the North/South route, particularly the part from Botany to Manukau is useful and is actually listed as eventually being part of the rapid transit network. The median strip along Te Irirangi Dr is huge and supposedly was intended to be used exactly the purpose of running light rail down it.

Te Irirangi Median

and from above where you can see it’s wider than the two lanes either side of it.

Te Irirangi Median above

However while those two routes are useful I’m not sure how well they go together. For someone going from Botany to Panmure that’s quite a detour unless Len is intending this to be on top of the existing investment that is meant to be going in to the AMETI busway. It seems hard enough getting funding for that let alone this which at about 20km in length would surely be at least $300 million, probably more. Not only that it distracts focus from what are in my opinion much higher priorities like getting the CRL funded and getting the new network bus implemented properly – by which I mean with fully supported infrastructure like bus lanes and upgraded stops and interchanges. And it’s for this reason I agree with Cameron Brewer.

Councillor Cameron Brewer says the city’s bus infrastructure needs improvement before any light rail projects can get the go-ahead.

“I think the mayor needs to focus on getting the money for the $2.8 billion City Rail Link. This additional project is just not feasible in the foreseeable future.”

I view the mayor’s proposal as kind of like trying to run before you can walk. The other useful thing about getting the bus network sorted first is that it can start building up patronage which would make any future light rail network more successful. It’s also worth considering what the new network proposes for the area which is effectively the red and purple routes (the green route from Otara to Botany was upgraded to a frequent following the southern network consultation).

New Netowrk East

It’s also worth pointing out what we’ve proposed for the area as part of the Congestion Free Network.

CFN East

We’ve proposed these be busways like what is going to be done as part of AMETI as to us the most important thing is getting the quality of the service in as fast as possible. One of the great things about doing this with bus infrastructure first is that it doesn’t preclude light rail in the future but allows us to start getting benefits from congestion free PT corridors quicker and cheaper. So yes perhaps light rail in the area would be great in the future however the priority now is getting some basics done properly. In my opinion this suggestion from Len is an unneeded distraction at this time.

Photo of the Day: Euskotren Tranbia

As well as the Metro and an excellent bus system -Bilbobus- Bilbao also has a small tram system. Running CAF built Urbos 1 Light Rail vehicles, the route covers different sections of the city to the faster and longer reaching Metro, offering a highly visible distributor from a couple of Metro stations it connects with to important destinations like the Guggenheim Museum. It runs both on the city streets and on dedicated and grassed corridors by the river. The Quay side has a wide promenade and cycleways on both banks. The revitalisation of Bilbao is built on the back of investment in high quality public realm with thorough attention to Transit and Walking and Cycling networks. The Guggenheim Museum is really the icing on the cake of this rebirth, not the starting point.

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Photographs by Patrick Reynolds.

Photo of the Day: Caterpillar

From our now exiled oh.yes.melbourne Photographers and Urbanistas comes this Melbourne tram clearly posing as a brightly coloured caterpillar:

Melb Caterpillar Tram_ oh.yes.Melb

No more buses in the City Centre? Is light rail an answer?

An idea that crops up quite often is whether we can get rid of all the buses in the city centre. This idea is normally backed up with the suggestion that buses are dirty, smelly, noise loathesome things that have no place in a civilised city.

Now right up front I don’t agree with that suggestion. Modern buses are actually pretty clean and quiet, especially new hybrid and battery electric models. If we design our bus routes and infrastructure properly they can be very low impact and contribute nicely to the urban environment, but where we treat them like poor cousins or try and “paint the bus routes on afterwards” they can be horrendous.

But let’s ignore that reality for now and run with the premise: what would it take to get rid of buses from the city centre. I can see four general options:

  1. Stop all buses at the edge of town and make everyone walk in. I think this is a non starter, Auckland Central is just too big for this to work. Some people would be happy to walk a kilometre or two to get where they are going, but most want to get a lot closer than that. This idea also kills off any chance of connecting between buses to get across town.
  2. Stop all buses at the edge of town and transfer everyone to a light rail shuttle, tram loop or monorail circulator, etc. This I think is also a non starter. It overcomes the walk issue above but simply trades it for the inconvenience of a forced transfer on every trip. That’s not just unnecessarily inconvenient, it also requires some pretty massive terminus infrastructure to turn around hundreds of buses an hour at various points on the city fringe and get everyone over to some sort of shuttle thing. It also makes transfers across town awkward, although not impossible.
  3. Feed all buses into rail or busway tunnels and only have underground train/bus stations in the city. This is feasible, but would be very expensive. Given the current and projected bus patronage we would require two or three city rail links, or bus equivalents, to move the numbers. It also means you lose the easy street level access for more local trips, and would need to divert lots of local isthmus buses quite out of the way to link to connecting stations or bus tunnel portals. So without building something comprehensive, and expensive, like an underground metro network it’s hard to see how this could work, and indeed all the cities with the busiest metros still have masses of buses and trams running at street level.
  4. Convert all city bus routes to light rail, and only have light rail trams on city streets. This is the question I want to explore today, is it feasible to reinstall the Auckland isthmus tram system and only have light rail vehicles running on city streets?

Having only light rail on the streets is an appealing idea, people seem very fond of trams and the idea of an extensive tram network has little push back from architects and urban designers who are concerned with the look, feel and experience of the city. It’s hard to argue that trams aren’t nice to ride on, or that they don’t look cool. If done properly it would mean dedicated lanes for every transit route reaching the city, nice station style stops and permanent and legible ‘proper transit’ for a proper big city.

Light rail on street would have a few unique advantages too. One is that the corridors can be quite narrow given that the vehicles are stuck to their rails. The trams they use in Adelaide and Madrid, for example, are only 2.4m wide. This means a double tramway can fit in only 5m of road width, between stops at least. That could be very useful for our fairly narrow arterial roads, streets like Dominion Rd or Mt Eden Rd which are only 20m wide in total and where even basic bus lanes are difficult. Putting narrow trams in the middle might buy us enough space for cycle lanes, or a row of parking.

Skinny but capacious tram from Madrid.

So if we put aside the fact you can actually do much the same with buses, if you give them the same level of investment and attention, why wouldn’t we want this?

Well the simple answer is that it would cost a lot of money, money that might be better spent improving frequencies and adding new services rather than changing the existing ones from rubber tyres to steel wheels. So the question is how much would it actually cost, so let’s see. To work out this cost, I have taken the bus network published in the Regional Public Transport Plan and identified all of the routes that end in or pass through the city centre. I then grouped those together into bunches that run on the same corridor in town, giving six groups:

  1. Quay St: Tamaki Dr to Jervois Rd/Pt Chevalier, plus the Inner Link loop
  2. Symonds St: routes from Remuera Rd, Great South Rd and Manukau Rd
  3. Queen St: Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, New North Rd
  4. Albert St: Great North Rd, and Richmond Rd
  5. The Northwestern Motorway
  6. The Northern Busway

 

Indicative light rail corridors and groupings.

Indicative light rail corridors and groupings.

One thing to note here, I tried to be conservative with the track and make stuff as small as possible. To that end I’ve not replace some of the smaller bus routes that enter the city at all, I guess the idea is they would terminate at somewhere like Newmarket, Ponsonby or Parnell and people would have to swap to the trams.  This might not be the best way to run things for the network, but it seems to be a simple way to do it.

Adding these corridors up, we arrive at the following figures for the total track required (the total route length is longer because the routes share tracks near the City Centre).

Estimated cost of converting all routes reaching the Auckland City Centre to light rail.

Estimated cost of converting all routes reaching the Auckland City Centre to light rail.

For the city routes I’ve applied a cost of $12m per kilometre for track, power and roadway reconstruction. That’s a mid range estimate taken from review of recent light rail projects in Australia. I’ve also allowed for one pair of platform style stops for every 500m of track, costed at $500k each. On the Northern and Northwestern routes I’ve allowed for the addition of tracks to busway and motorway shoulders, and in the case of the Northwestern, some new stations at $10m each. This does assume that we can simply run light rail tracks on the busway, motorway shoulders and over the general lanes of the harbour bridge, probably in mixed traffic. Again that might not be the best way to do it, but it’s the cheapest. In addition, we’d need a maintenance depot and some stabling yards, total of $100m allowed there.

Finally, I worked out what would be required for a peak frequency of one tram every five minutes on each street level route (giving better frequency where they overlap), while I allowed for one every three minutes on the Northern and Northwestern corridors. Overall that requires 94 light rail vehicles, each costed at $5m.

All together that adds up to 152 route-kilometres operating on 119.7 kilometres of double track electrified tramway, with 119 stations served by 94 vehicles running every five minutes at peak times. That would leave Auckland in a sort of Melbourne like position. Heavy rail for the main trunk routes from most of the region, light rail filling in some other radial corridors, the inner suburbs covered in street level tram lines and buses relegated to feeder and crosstown routes well away from the City Centre.

So, what is the magic number to get rid of buses by building a light rail network covering all routes entering the City Centre? Add it all up and we get an estimate of $2.36 billion dollars (I actually think that is a bit light, not for the street level stuff but I fear the Northern and Northwestern motorway based ones could in practice get very expensive indeed).

The question is, is it worth it? Could we do better with that money?

Well at a service level it’s really no better than what we will have with the New Network buses, at least in terms of frequency and accessibility. Spending that money would buy us a lot of reliability, assuming that the tram tracks would be closed to traffic for the most part and the trams could run without interference at any time of day. However we could do the same with an aggressive programme of bus lanes for a lot cheaper. Likewise with the new station style stops, the corresponding street upgrades, the modern cool looking and comfortable vehicles. We’d get all that, but the question remains could we not do the same with our bus stops and save a whole lot of money in the process. Another point is this would deliver a multi-billion dollar transit boost to the isthmus and the North Shore… which are, excluding the CBD and parts of Glen Innes, precisely those areas that see the least allowance for development in the Unitary Plan.

I’d love it if some minister turned up with two and half billion for such a project, and I do believe Auckland would be an amazing place if this were done. But is it really something to aim for, or can we do better with our money?

Curiously the cost of an isthmus tram network is about the same as the CRL, so should we do that instead? I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, the CRL would need to come first, or at least at the same time, before we look at anything like this. I can see two reasons for that stance.
Firstly a light rail system wouldn’t actually add that much capacity, because it is simply replacing the buses we already have. There would probably be some boost to speed, capacity and reliability, but not that much if it is a case of just changing vehicles and guideway on the same corridors. By most estimates the CRL gives us the ability to run about 48 trains an hour in total, or an extra 28 over current capacity. Twenty-eight full size EMUs is equivalent to about eighty-four light rail trams an hour, or 420 buses!… and that’s new capacity.
The second point is that the CRL really supercharges the regional rail network, which focuses on the suburbs outside the isthmus more than anything. As noted above it’s the rail served suburbs of the west and south that really have the potential to grow under the unitary plan, not the isthmus, so we should build the transport they need first.

Let us know what you think, I hope to see lots of juicy debate on this one!

Wellington PT Spine decided

A final decision on the future Wellington’s PT Spine has finally been made and it’s one that might upset a few people.

Faster, bigger buses have been officially chosen as the future of public transport in Wellington, snuffing out any chance of having light rail in the capital for the foreseeable future.

The Regional Transport Committee – a collective of Wellington’s mayors and the NZ Transport Agency – voted today to push ahead with plans to build a $268 million bus rapid transit network between the Wellington CBD and southern suburbs.

Detailed plans are yet to be drawn up, but it will involve hi-tech articulated or double-decker buses running along a dedicated busway between Wellington Railway Station and the suburbs of Newtown and Kilbirnie.

The route forms the southern part of Wellington’s public transport “spine”.

Today’s decision brings down the curtain on the Wellington Public Transport Spine Study, which began in 2011.

The Spine Study had looked at a number of different options for improving PT in Wellington from simple bus lanes all the way up to extending the existing heavy rail network through the CBD and beyond. The options were narrowed down to three:

  • Bus priority – $59 million, which involves more peak period bus lanes and priority traffic signals for buses, along the Golden Mile and Kent Terrace, through the Basin Reserve and along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through the Hataitai bus tunnel to Kilbirnie.
  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – $209 million, which involves a dedicated busway, for modern, higher capacity buses separated from other traffic as much as possible, along the Golden Mile and Kent/Cambridge Terrace then around the Basin Reserve and along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through the (duplicated) Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.
  • Light Rail Transit (LRT) – $940 million, which involves new tram vehicles running on dedicated tracks along the Golden Mile, Kent and Cambridge Terraces then around the Basin Reserve along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through a separate Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie

Spine Study Route Alignments

One of the big problems with the spine study is it made some odd assumptions like that light rail would require its own dedicated new tunnel under Mt Victoria while BRT wouldn’t, instead using a second Mt Victoria tunnel the NZTA plan to build as part of the RoNS work.

However even putting that aside I do feel that the BRT option is probably the right one. One of the reasons for that is that the BRT option wouldn’t just benefit the dedicated buses that might run on routes above but that other buses from the wider area would also benefit. This is as what we currently see in Auckland on the Northern Busway where the Northern Express services only run on the busway route however a large number of other bus routes like the popular 881 use the busway for part of their journey. This appears to have been a key factor in the decision.

Committee chairwoman Fran Wilde said the ability of rapid transit buses to go beyond the dedicated spine and continue to suburbs like Island Bay and Karori made it a winner.

“With some of the bus technology that’s now on the books, the difference between what people consider light rail and bus rapid transit to be is getting smaller and smaller.”

Building a light rail network through the middle of Wellington would have also caused severe disruption to those living and working in the city for a number of years, she said.

Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who was first elected in 2010 on the back of campaign promises to push for light rail, said today she had also been swayed by the ability of buses to go further than trams.

She welcomed the decision to proceed but cautioned that Wellington’s topography and road layout would make it impossible to build the type of busways seen oversees, which were generally isolated from all other traffic by concrete barriers.

“This is not going to be the highest quality bus rapid transit network in the known universe because that just wouldn’t work.”

Ms Wade-Brown said all options had been thoroughly considered as part of the spine study. The $380m cost of a rail tunnel was not the critical element holding back light rail, she said.

There are a couple of key comments in here that are worth expanding on. As Fran Wilde notes the differences between buses and light rail are getting smaller and smaller and that is likely to continue. Wellington already has some trolley buses however with other electric bus options being developed it doesn’t have to mean that BRT is any worse environmentally than light rail. Even more traditional looking diesel buses don’t seem to have been a problem in attracting passengers for Northern Busway services.

The other key comment is from Celia Wade-Brown where she says that Wellington won’t have the highest quality fully separated BRT. The reality is that any light rail system would suffer exactly the same constraints as the bus option.  Even so I’m sure they will be able to significantly improve bus priority along the route. This is also recognised in the spine study in that the estimated travel times for both BRT and LRT come out almost identical. 

In addition to all of this another advantage of the BRT option is simply that it can be built over time and in doing so each section can provide immediate benefits to existing services. Under a light rail scheme it isn’t until an entire route is really in place that the infrastructure becomes usable. That staging ability combined with the fact that buses from outside of the immediate area of the spine can also benefit from the infrastructure then I think it becomes quite clear that the BRT option was the better one.

But all of this doesn’t mean that light rail couldn’t happen at some point in the future, in fact most of the works needed to secure the right of way to implement a BRT system would also apply to a LRT system so that work would already have been done and it would just come down to the cost of laying tracks. BRT could be seen as means of building patronage numbers faster than possible otherwise which might help better justify light rail in the future. For those pushing for light rail it could be a case where sometimes the best way to achieve your goal is not always to go straight to the final solution.

Now that a final decision has been made hopefully those supporting PT in Wellington will focus on pushing to get the BRT infrastructure needed in place as soon as possible.

Learning from Calgary

As Auckland develops I find it’s always useful to compare how Auckland performs in relation to other similar cities around the world. It allows us to see what they do well and what they don’t and use that information to guide us in making our city better. There are two cities we frequently use as examples Vancouver and Perth. Both cities are larger than Auckland – 2.4 million and 1.9 million respectively – on average have less population density (not that I particularly like that measure) and have similar levels of CBD employment as Auckland. Both cities have also invested quite a bit in public transport over the last 30 or so years. Vancouver has built their Skytrain system after having no rail network at all while Perth started out with a diesel network carrying about the same number of passengers our network currently does, it has electrified and expanded the system considerably and patronage has grown. They even managed to find a city to sell their old trains to (us).

But with this post I want to suggest a new city we should be adding to the comparison list – Calgary.

So why Calgary? Well first of all unlike the two cities already mentioned which have larger populations than Auckland- and therefore are useful to compare where Auckland might be in 20-30 years’ time, Calgary’s population is slightly smaller at about 1.15 million. Yet over the last 30 years the two cities have shown remarkably similar growth with Auckland’s population having increased by 81% while Calgary’s increased by 85%.

Auckland vs Calgary Population

Like the other cities mentioned, on average Calgary is also less dense than Auckland and being on a river plain there is little geographically to stop development from spreading in all directions. It does seem to have a slightly higher share of its population work in the CBD but the numbers are on par Auckland if you included the fringe areas like Newmarket, the Hospital etc. Further if you look at the CBD from satellite maps you can see massive amounts of car parking on otherwise empty sites all around the city. So by most measures you would expect that Calgary would perhaps perform fairly similarly to Auckland when it comes to public transport – and by similar I mean poorly. But it doesn’t as you can see from the graph below (note the big dip in 2001 was due to an almost two month strike).

Auckland vs Calgary PT

When you combine the population and PT boarding’s you can see that the key difference between the two cities is that Calgary managed to slightly increase its per capita PT boarding’s while in Auckland the number more than halved in the 10 years from 1984 to 1994.

Auckland vs Calgary PT per Capita

What was different between the two cities that meant Calgary was able to keep its PT system performing and improving while in Auckland things went through the floor? I’m sure there are quite a range of reasons however one of the most obvious has been the effort that has been put into developing a rapid transit network for the city. Starting in 1981 the city built its first light rail line and have expanded it quite a bit since then. But this isn’t just an old school street running tram system, like the one that used to exist in Auckland but a rail network that runs on exclusive right of ways through much of the urban area with occasional level crossings. In many parts it runs in the median or to the side of motorways, much like the Northern Express. The only place that the system runs in the street other than a level crossing is through the CBD where the route is only shared with buses and emergency vehicles. The Calgary Transit site has a useful history of the system showing how it has been frequently been extended.

1978 – construction of the first leg of the CTrain began.
1981 The 10.9 km south line from Anderson Road to 7 Avenue S.W. was officially opened on May 25.
1985 – Service commenced on the northeast leg of the CTrain. The northeast, 9.8 km line extends from the east end of 7th Avenue, across the Bow River and northeast to Whitehorn Station.
1987 – The third leg of the CTrain system was completed in the northwest. The northwest line extends from the west end of 7th Avenue, across the Bow River and north to the University of Calgary.
1990 – The northwest leg was extended to Brentwood Station, increasing the line to 6.6 km.
2001 – The south CTrain line was extended to Canyon Meadows (2.0 km) and to Fish Creek Lacombe (1.4 km.
2003 – The northwest CTrain line was extended to Dalhousie (3.0 km).
2004 – The southwest CTrain line was extended to Shawnessy and Somerset/Bridlewood (3.0 km).
2007 – The northeast CTrain line was extended to McKnight-Westwinds (2.9 km).
2009 – The northwest CTrain line was extended to Crowfoot (2.2 km).
2012 – The northeast CTrain line was extended to Martindale and Saddletowne (2.9 km).
2012 – The West LRT CTrain line opened, between downtown and 69 Street W (8.2km).

The map below shows the reach of the system with each colour representing one of the extensions above, the most recent of which was less than a year ago.

Calgary Existing LRT

Calgary Transit doesn’t break down the patronage by mode but some figures they do release suggest that the LRT system accounts for 50-60% of all PT trips. The LRT network is also supported by a bus network that has a similar design to what Auckland Transport is about to roll out with buses that connect into stations and allow transfers rather than try to be everything to everyone.

But it hasn’t just been a case of extending the LRT network as Calgary has also focused a on a number of Transit Oriented Developments (TODs). The one in the image below is a place called Saddletowne, a greenfield site at the end of the North East line. The satellite images cut off half way the centre through however you can quite clearly see the beginnings of a town centre (looks like a strip-mall though) next to the station. Houses radiate out from it. The LRT line was extended to the town centre just over a year ago and a recent study suggests that over 8,700 begin or end at the station every day with 63% of people getting to the station by walking. To put it in perspective, that is busier than Newmarket. What’s more you can quite clearly see that the city has planned for potential future expansion by leaving a corridor of development heading north for the next sprawl suburb.

Saddletowne TOD

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Calgary is how they are planning for future PT expansion. They have just completed a 30 year plan called Route Ahead which looked at exactly how they will expand and improve the PT system. But this wasn’t just planners deciding how they will develop the system but they involved the public all the way along, including what corridors and modes would be used. Most of the plan is fairly typical including stuff about how people will access the system, what the customer experience will be etc. As part of the process they have created and published a future RTN map showing how they intend to connect the rest of the city up with a comprehensive system of LRT, BRT and Transitway (Bus Lanes).

Now this on its own isn’t unique and many cities have these types of plans however the thing that interested me the most was that the city is planning to fast track a large proportion of the network over the next 10 years. That plan also includes starting to build the patronage on what will be the third pair of LRT lines but starting off initially with a cheaper BRT solution. The future RTN and the 10 year fast tracked system is below.

Calgary future RTN 10 year plan

Why this is so interesting is that it is a similar approach we have suggested that needs to be taken in Auckland with the Congestion Free Network. We have shown a vision for how we could develop a high quality RTN network that covers much of the city that is a fraction of the price of the massive roading spend up planned and have said that we should fast track it to really reap the benefits.  By doing so we could quickly get a much greater balance in out transport system giving Aucklanders some real choice in how they get around.

The development of places like Saddletowne – while not perfect – also provide an example of what we should be doing with the greenfield Special Housing Areas recently announced. If we have to sprawl then we should at least be trying to do a much better job of it than we have in the past by designing them right from the start to be easy to serve with public transport.

The one thing that is clear from the example of Calgary is that the on-going development of an RTN quality service has been absolutely critical in the performance of their PT network and making it attractive to use by a large number of people. Auckland didn’t really start developing its RTN until 2003 with Britomart, over 20 years later. Further, to get to where they are now (and what they are doing in the future) they have put effort into creating an easily understood vision and getting the public on-board. I firmly believe that if AT/the council were to present a comprehensive vision for PT in Auckland like we have done with the Congestion Free Network then many of the conversations and arguments we as a city would be having would be quite different. They would largely turn away from bickering about individual projects to discussions about how we get if built sooner.

Chance to Give Wellington Some Spine

This is a Guest Post by Generation Zero Wellington member Paul Young

Following an 18-month process, the Wellington Public Transport Spine Study was finally released in June and picked bus rapid transit (BRT) in favour of light rail as the best option for a new high-quality public transport system in Wellington city. Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently taking submissions on where to next, closing tomorrow. On one hand it’s positive that things are progressing.

However, the results and many assumptions of the study are highly dubious and have raised the eyebrows of many in the transport world. World-renowned transport academic Professor Peter Newman (also a board member of Infrastructure Australia) weighed in on it while in Wellington recently, saying the study “doesn’t do justice to light rail”.

Generation Zero has put together a quick submission form for people to easily have their say along the lines of our views, as explained in this handy little graphic.

LRTvsBRT-723x1024

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with BRT, and we aren’t blind light rail evangelists – in fact following the release of the study I was pretty convinced BRT was the way to go. But having read up and considered the evidence we believe it’s a short-sighted and problematic choice for Wellington. Light rail is a future-proofed option that we believe would deliver more benefits.

Here are some key points from my perspective about the study and the two options.

Cost and route

The study gave an extremely high cost for light rail ($940 million) because it chose a split route which involved building a whole new tunnel through Mount Victoria. Meanwhile the BRT option got a free tunnel by sharing the second Mount Vic car tunnel proposed to be built following the Basin Flyover. Doing this, by the way, would no doubt cause problems and delays by buses getting caught up in traffic congestion.

 

We believe cheaper options that avoid the need for a tunnel are feasible. In particular, a single line from the Railway Station to Newtown and then to Kilbirnie over Constable St and Crawford Rd was unduly dismissed in the study. The original reason cited in the study was just that it was “too slow”, but this later evolved into “you’d have to demolish a row of houses”. A quick play on Streetmix suggests otherwise, so long as we could find a way to remove the on-street parking.

 

Constable 2

Based on a similar cost per kilometre used in the spine study (~$56 million/km), this route would cost less than $400 million (compared with the study’s $207 million for the BRT option).

This route also doesn’t depend on building big new roading projects first, and avoids destruction of town belt land to widen Ruahine St. It would mean adjustments such as loss of parking on Constable St and slightly slower travel times to the CBD for Kilbirnie passengers, but benefits would include higher frequency service for Kilbirnie and Newtown residents and hence shorter waiting times.

Capacity

In narrow corridors  typical of Wellington, light rail has a much higher maximum capacity than BRT – approximately 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction, compared with just 3,000 for BRT. This is primarily because of smaller vehicle capacity (Wellington could handle buses for about 100 people, but trams for up to 300) and restrictions on how many vehicles can use the corridor per hour in order to give them full priority at intersections and maintain reliable service.

Retired transport engineer Kerry Wood gives a detailed explanation in this post on Scoop, and you can read his full 30-page submission here.

The study actually found that for the proposed BRT route, service from Kilbirnie through the proposed second Mount Victoria tunnel was at capacity from day one – let alone with any patronage growth. Information about service in the Golden Mile is unclear in the report but it seems BRT may be overloaded from the beginning here too. [1]

What is certain is that BRT doesn’t allow for significant future growth in ridership without compromising the service reliability and quality. Why invest hundreds of millions in a short-term option that will struggle from the beginning?

 Ridership

The modelling done in the study made no consideration for the higher ridership appeal of light rail over bus rapid transit, when there is strong international evidence demonstrating this.

A recent meta-study by Peter Newman and colleagues [2] shows rail outperforming bus in attracting trips from 1995-2005 throughout Australia, the US, Canada, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong. Another meta-analysis for North American cities found that from 1996-2003 public transport trips increased by an average of 16% in cities that built light rail versus just 1.7% in  cities that built bus rapid transit. [2] For a range of reasons, people tend to find light rail more appealing.

The study concluded that light rail would only attract as many extra PT riders as an enhanced bus service – overall growth of just 1% by 2040 – and that bus rapid transit would attract a lot more riders. This is way out of line with international experience and warrants strong scrutiny. The low predicted patronage growth in general needs to be questioned in light of NZ evidence shown on this blog of annual growth on the order of 16-20% following the opening of Britomart and the Northern Busway, vastly exceeding projections.

Transfers and the wider network

The main reason given for light rail coming out so bad compared with BRT is transfers. The study says light rail requires a lot more of them because – in theory – the BRT buses can continue out the ends of the corridor.

The modelling used a “transfer penalty” of 5.5 minutes – which is added to the actual expected waiting time – to capture the “inconvenience of transferring and boarding another service”. [4] Apparently this is actually a lower value than often used overseas. But again, the results are strongly at odds with observed outcomes in New Zealand and overseas and need to be questioned. Another point to note is that feeder bus services were not optimised.

It seems questionable whether BRT buses will really be able to continue outside the main corridor – at least without considerable adjustments and cost. Remember  these will be big, articulated “bendy buses” (I suspect double-deckers may be a hazard on the infamous windy days!). Will Wellington’s tight streets really be able to handle these big buses as is, and will local residents tolerate it? It appears the study assumed no extra infrastructure cost outside the main spine route(s) despite the suggestion that “BRT” buses will be doing this:

BRT routes

Note that the dedicated corridor only operates between the black dots.

Perhaps the bigger question this raises is about reliability. If you have a light rail or BRT system operating entirely in a dedicated corridor with priority at intersections, the service can be very reliable and maintain regular frequency. If BRT buses are venturing out of the corridor they are bound to get delayed in traffic causing variable trip times. This was not considered in the study.

And while we’re on the topic of buses mixing with traffic, will the BRT really have dedicated right of way through the proposed second Mount Victoria tunnels? If not, will the supposed 3 minute time saving of the split route to Kilbirnie simply be eaten up by buses getting stuck in car traffic?

Economic development

The spine study suggests approximately equal overall land value uplift from light rail or BRT of about $240 million, but again this seems at odds with international evidence that light rail offers larger and more reliable increases in property value.

 

Calculations by Tom Pettit as part of his postgrad research on the PT spine gave an expected land value uplift for light rail of $2.5 billion based on an an international review of over 50 installations across the world – an order of magnitude higher than the study’s estimate. He also estimated the increase in rates and fare recovery over 30 years would be $712 million, nearly paying the capital cost back twice. [5]

Wrapping up

 So that’s some of the key points, leaving aside some of the more intangible things around benefits to the urban environment, benefits of electricity as a fuel source, and so forth.

 

I guess a good note to end on might be to return to another nugget from Peter Newman, reported by Tom Pettit: There are 170 cities around the world with less than 150,000 residents that have light rail that is working. Why can’t Wellington?

 We encourage readers to make a submission by Monday either using our form or the one on the GWRC site.

 

References

[1] Wood, K. (2013). Submission on Wellington Public Transport Spine Study. See “BRT capacity” section, p15.

[2] Newman, P. et al. (2013). Peak Car Use and the Rise of Global Rail: Why this is happening and what it means for large and small cities, Journal of Transportation Technologies, Vol. 3, No.4.

[3] Henry, L. & Litman, T. (2011). Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

[4] GWRC, PTSS Short List Evaluation – Modelling Report. See pp79-80.

[5] Pettit, T. (2013). Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail? Presentation at Exploring the Spine Study event, 23 September.

[6] http://prezi.com/qycr880likbc/bus-rapid-transit-or-light-rail/