This is a Guest Post by regular reader Warren Sanderson
Gothenburg, Hanover, and Hamburg
What do these three cities have in common?
- In my view a real “sense of place”.
- Very efficient public transport systems
- They all had my wife and me as visitors in the month of July. We spent roughly a week reacquainting ourselves with each of these cities during our recent journey to the Baltic countries and northern Germany. For the record, not once in the six weeks we were away and touching eight northern European countries, did we travel in a private motor car. This was independent travel and our modes were bus, train, boat, river ferry boat, light rail, taxi (twice) and lots of walking.
Let’s have a look at transit in each of these cities in turn.
This city on Sweden’s west coast is smaller than Auckland with a metropolitan population of around one million. It was a pleasing city to visit without the hordes of tourists that plague some European destinations. It has an apartment culture in the inner city of mostly four or five storey buildings, but is still possible to see the church spires which I always find aesthetically most satisfying.
One of the advantages of having been born too long ago – and there aren’t many of them – is that it is easy to remember everything about Auckland’s trams because I travelled on every route at some stage.
Well – wow! Gothenburg still has a tramway system just like we had in Auckland until the 1950’s. And they all go through the centre of town and out to a suburb destination on the other side of town just like Auckland’s did. A point of difference though is that at the terminus end of the tracks Gothenburg has a large round turning circle so that the driver remains in the same cab, whereas in Auckland the driver switched poles, took his driving handle to the cab at the other end of the tram and commenced driving in the opposite direction from there.
Each Gothenburg route had a number prominently displayed plus the actual destination and it was very easy to ensure that one had boarded the correct tram.
I noted that both on week-days and at the week-end the two main streets were full of people, the remarkably quiet trams always appeared to enjoy excellent patronage and car traffic by comparison with Auckland was very light. It is also worth recording that in general the streets are quite wide and have room for a wide footpath each side, a bike lane each side, a single car lane each side and double tram tracks – sometimes these tracks are in the middle and sometimes on the side of the arterial route. When we caught a bus to Marstrand some 50 kilometres away, I noted that the tram tracks in the middle of a section of the road a little further out of town also served as a bus lane.
Like most European cities the Central Railway Station is a prominent feature. As well as the usual inter-city departure platforms, there a couple of substantial retail wings and a long covered bus station wing known as the Nils Ericson Terminal.
Intending pre-ticketed passengers queue at the appropriate gate number in the air-conditioned building and when the bus arrives, board it directly from the terminal rather like a modern airport. Seats are few within the Terminal.
Just across the street from the Central Station is the Nordstan Shopping Centre a very large shopping mall and beyond that the delightful city centre, pedestrian squares, covered market and parks.
It is evident that Gothenburg has a highly efficient transport hub, which not only serves commuters, but is integral to a vibrant retail, business and entertainment area. In addition there are time-tabled Gota River ferries serving a university precinct and other riverside locations.
Out of town I did not see a motorway with more than two lanes except on one occasion when the third lane was a bus only lane. They may have them but I didn’t see any. But I did see plenty of bikes – they are a very popular mode of transport.
As an important rail and road junction Hanover was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and this is reflected in the architecture which is obviously of post-war construction and in the main rather bland. As usual the Hauptbahnhof is prominent with a large and daytime busy Ernst August Platz in front of the main entrance. The façade of the Station is a post-war reconstruction of the old, but the interior is modern, busy and user-friendly with many shops.
They also have what they call trams but I would refer to as light rail. At some point they have dug up some of their now pedestrianized city streets to install the system, so to visit the Herrengarten we descended to a station under the main street, boarded the ‘tram’ and after a couple of stops at underground stations emerged on the surface and proceeded along the side of the arterial road to our destination, alighting at a raised safety zone complete with shelter. Apparently two out every three people in Hanover use these ‘trams’ every day.
If Hanover can build a tramway of 120 kilometres both underground and on the surface with a population of under 600,000 surely Auckland can build a three and a half kilometre City Rail – Come on National Government – get your priorities properly sorted!!
I must say that railed transit systems of any sort are very visitor user-friendly, even if you don’t speak the language. I never worry about mistakes – even if you go in the wrong direction or to the wrong destination, it is always easy to recover, just cross over and take next one back to where you came from. Bus routeing is less reassuring.
I really enjoyed revisiting The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, to give it its full title. With reunification it has recovered that part of its natural hinterland within the former East Germany. Its port has relocated and is massive. Brownfield sites mostly in central locations such as HafenCity (Harbour City) are being re-developed. The CBD was busy and vibrant on both week days and the week-end.
Trains to charming suburbs such as Blankenese [underlined in red below] worked well for us and ferries plying the Elbe are available. After a few years of stall the population is again growing and is officially recorded as 1,741,000 inhabitants.
What I really wanted to convey to readers is that I had the opportunity to pick up, from the splendid Rathaus, a booklet entitled:
‘GREEN, INCLUSIVE, GROWING CITY BY THE WATER – PERSPECTIVES ON URBAN DEVELOPMENT IN HAMBURG’.
It has a foreword by Jutta Blankau, Senator for Urban Development. This is really the approved vision for Hamburg. It is well illustrated and surprisingly was available in both German and English. Overview here.
What follows are some bullet points I have selected and uplifted from various sections of the document;
- More City in the City
- Internal Development Before Expansion
- Good Quality Open Space Even As The City Becomes More Compact
- People Are Already Increasing Their Use Of Street Space And Public Squares
- Hamburg Will Not Become A City Of High Rises – The Ideal Height For Urban Density Is Six To Seven Floors
- When The Port Operations Were Moved To Their New Location Hamburg Is Accepting The Challenge To Create New Residential Areas, Work Places And Attractive Places
- Improving Urban Quality Including – Constructing a new S4 Train Line to the East of Hamburg.
- Roofing Over A7 Motorway Cuttings to Reconnect Severed Parts of the City in the West.
Now some points uplifted from the section entitled: Mobility – From Owning To Using:
- The car is losing its importance as a status symbol
- Various modes of transport are to converge and link up at mobility service points in order to make private travel superfluous
- Hamburg must not be allowed to lag behind comparable big cities which are considerably expending their Metro systems
And the most interesting of all the statements under this heading of Mobility –
“ The core conflict in the town planning debate of the last century – the battle between car friendliness and urban life in the city – is now drawing to a close. The city of the future will be liveable and allow mobility also.”
This is a significant (and not necessarily recent) attitudinal change for a major city in a country in which the export of motor vehicles plays such an important role in foreign exchange earnings. Regretfully and on this basis, our current National government’s thinking hasn’t moved into the 21st century and in New Zealand we are stuck with poorly targeted and excessive spending on the single mode of of roading and particularly duplicate roading, and motorway expansion. The direction being taken by other civic jurisdictions is clear and well elucidated in the document from Hamburg.
Far and away, Auckland will be New Zealand’s only international city. The trends and evidence in support of more balanced urban mobility options for a city like Auckland are abundantly clear.
The Transport Blog has been carefully analysing and presenting researched factual data in support of changed transport policies for some years now.
For the sake of those who live in Auckland now, and who will live in Auckland in the future, it is time to demand that the Government accept the necessary mindset change and as a first step, provide their share of the finance for the early construction of the City Rail Link.
A stunning little time lapse video of some of the public transport offerings in Vienna, Austria:
Best watched at a reasonably high definition.
If New Zealand hadn’t ripped up its tram tracks in the 1950s, I’m almost certain that some risk-taking Kiwi would have invented this first:
Czech artist Tomáš Moravec… cut down the dimensions of a standard, European wood pallet, or “Eur Pallet,” and fastened what appear to be small cart wheels to the bottom, creating a giant—and specialized—skateboard. The Pallet Skate fits snugly into the tram tracks running through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and with a few pushes, Moravec glides smoothly around the city.
Moravec’s invention is unconventional, extremely risky, able to be cobbled together in the average garage workshop, and almost certainly illegal. In other words, it’d probably go over well in NZ, the country that came up with bungee jumping, longboarding on motorways, and drift trikes.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oh and some very unique, if slightly gross street art. This is the Gum Wall, ’nuff said.
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.
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.
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.
and from above where you can see it’s wider than the two lanes either side of it.
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).
It’s also worth pointing out what we’ve proposed for the area as part of the Congestion Free Network.
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.
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.
Photographs by Patrick Reynolds.
From our now exiled oh.yes.melbourne Photographers and Urbanistas comes this Melbourne tram clearly posing as a brightly coloured caterpillar:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Quay St: Tamaki Dr to Jervois Rd/Pt Chevalier, plus the Inner Link loop
- Symonds St: routes from Remuera Rd, Great South Rd and Manukau Rd
- Queen St: Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, New North Rd
- Albert St: Great North Rd, and Richmond Rd
- The Northwestern Motorway
- The Northern Busway
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.
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!