Additional Harbour Crossing – Is NZTA Following The Law?

ATAP - Interim Report - AWHC

Back in May in this post, Matt highlighted the NZTA’s strategy of designating only for road tunnels across the Waitemata Harbour, leaving any rail designation up to Auckland Transport.  The NZTA have a total budget of $27m for the designation work, $14m million of which is an additional appropriation, approved under the delegated authority of the Chief Executive, to cover enlarged works at Esmonde Road and Victoria Park.   The work is proceeding even though the comparative Preliminary Business Case for a road only crossing calculated a BCR of 0.4.  The Western Ring route, which is designed to reduce pressure on the existing Harbour Bridge, is yet to open.

On the back of this I wrote to NZTA CEO Fergus Gammie pointing out that the NZTA’s governing legislation, the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA),  was not being complied with and therefore the route protection work currently underway should be placed on hold until a number of issues had been resolved.

NZTA have responded to the letter but, before we look at that, let’s take a quick look at the LTMA.

The LTMA was introduced by the Labour / Green government in 2003, and a ministerial press release at the time promised that it would “broaden the focus of the land transport system beyond just roads and represent a true multi-modal, integrated, approach to land transport.”

Since then the LTMA has been amended, but it still defines the objective of the NZTA to “undertake its functions in a way that contributes to an effective, efficient, and safe land transport system in the public interest.”

Key functions are:

  • to manage the State highway system, including planning, funding, design, supervision, construction, and maintenance and operations
  • determine whether particular activities should be included in a national land transport programme
  • approve activities or combinations of activities

The operating principles the NZTA must abide by include:

  • exhibiting a sense of social and environmental responsibility
  • using its revenue in a manner that seeks value for money
  • ensuring that it gives, when making decisions in respect of land transport planning and funding , the same level of scrutiny to its own proposed activities and combinations of activities as it would give to those proposed by approved organisations

When approving a proposed activity or combination of activities for funding, the NZTA must be satisfied that:

  • The activity is consistent with the GPS on land transport; and
  • is efficient and effective; and
  • contributes to the Agency’s objective; and
  • has been assessed against other land transport options and alternatives
  • relevant consultation requirements have been complied with

The NZTA must also take into account any national energy efficiency and conservation strategies, and act in accordance with its operating principles.

It should be clear from any reasonable interpretation of the law that any work on the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing does not qualify for payments from the National Land Transport Fund as most, if not all, of the above criteria have not been met. But let’s return to the NZTA’s response and see what they have to say.

Under the Land Transport Management Act heading, the NZTA claim:


The NZTA claim that other land transport options (which aren’t limited to roads by the LTMA) have been assessed.  But what the NZTA neglect to say is that the 2008 Summary Report found that for passenger transport alone, passenger transport in a new tunnel or on a new bridge between Esmonde and Britomart was the best option. No comparative cost benefit analysis was done for a rail only vs a road crossing – it was just assumed by the report that a road crossing was also needed.

The NZTA claim that the additional crossing was consulted on as part of the Regional Land Transport Plan (PDF 5 Mb).  The RLTP contains a single line item for the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing, for which no discussion on the shape or form of the route protection was consulted on:


The NZTA suggest “as the proposal is only to seek route protection at present, there is no need to include (or consult on) the construction of the crossing in the Regional Land Transport Plan”. I disagree.  Route protection defines the envelope of the project, and necessarily needs to cater for a chosen mode.  Right now on-going route protection work affects Victoria Park, Esmonde Rd and sensitive ecological areas. Exhaust stacks at Wynyard and Northcote or Esmonde Rd are included in the designation work because the chosen solution is a pair of three lane road tunnels, yet there has been no public consultation to date.  It is socially irresponsible and in bad faith for NZTA to leave consultation to the Board of Inquiry process.  The NZTA need to be getting feedback from the public and businesses now on the desired mode and how much road users would be willing to pay in tolls for the new crossing and also potentially the existing Harbour Bridge.

The NZTA don’t address the issue of efficiency or effectiveness in their response. Instead they rely on the fact that there will be a business case completed after the $27m budget for a road crossing designation has been spent. That business case will not examine whether a road crossing is required at all, because the decision has already been made.  The NZTA is clearly not using it’s revenue in a way that seeks value for money, nor has it adequately considered alternatives.


Even the Government Policy Statement appears to be disregarded by the NZTA in its pursuit of a road only crossing.   The GPS has the objective of mitigating the effects of land transport on the environment. The focus for Auckland is investment to maximise throughput of people and freight as Auckland grows, something the AWHC project which is dedicated to the movement of single occupant cars cannot achieve.

So what do you think? Is the NZTA following the law?

Growth in cycling on new separated cycleways

Last week, Auckland Council unanimously voted to approve the construction of Skypath, the long-overdue walking and cycling link across the Waitemata Harbour. (There is still the hurdle of a potential Environment Court appeal by opponents.) Well done to all the councillors, some of whom had previously expressed scepticism – the city will be better for their votes, and their willingness to rethink an occasionally contentious issue.

In the wake of the Skypath decision, it’s worth taking a look at what’s happened to cycling in the city over the last year. The other week, Bike Auckland published some valuable new analysis of Auckland Transport’s cycle count data. Thanks to AT’s programme of rolling out new cycle counters, we now know a lot more about where people are cycling.

We also know a lot more about the outcomes from recent investments in new safe cycle facilities, such as Grafton Gully, the Pinkpath, Nelson St, and the newly installed Quay St cycleway.

The summary is that these cycle investments have been quite successful. The number of people cycling has increased in locations where safe cycling facilities have been rolled out, while staying relatively constant in other places. (This is, needless to say, good news for the fortunes of Skypath.)

Over to Bike Auckland:

AT is now also reporting the details of those counts much more openly, here. The summary data for June is not available yet – although we have the data for individual locations, as seen on the graphs below – but we do know that in May 2016, cycle numbers were up 22% on May of the year before!

If this growth continues, Auckland may well be the city in New Zealand furthest along on the way to reaching NZTA’s goal of 30% growth in urban cycling by 2018.

…it is pleasing (if not unexpected) to see where the greatest growth is.

Surprise! It’s where new cycleways have been built… and on the routes leading to these new bikeways. This is the network effect – another way of saying ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ – and it’s really starting to kick in.

And especially on those routes, we see an interesting change – the usual winter drop-off is much shallower than usual, and in some cases hardly seems to be happening. Can it be that, with better cycleways and more company, riders are happier to keep going when it gets chilly, damp, and dark in the evenings? Is Auckland exhibiting a bit of the ‘Viking biking’ spirit of our Scandinavian antipodes?

Richard Easther, one of Bike Auckland’s associates, has done us all the lovely favour of putting those dry numbers into easy-to-grasp visuals, so we can see how and where Auckland biking is growing. Below, see some fascinating graphs of the flows at some of the counters around Auckland…

[Ed note: if you’re not a graphs or data person, two things to note: the numbers up the left hand side show the monthly total of bike trips; and you’ll notice a dip in the middle of each year as winter arrives. What’s striking about the growth on the new and newly connected paths is that not only is the annual ‘high tide’ getting higher, but the ‘low tide’ is too.]

Beach Rd

Clearly Beach Road is benefitting from all the improvements, including Grafton Gully and its own Stage II extension. A jump of around a third in many of the months earlier this year!

A few instructive contrasts, and some (brief) added commentary from me.

The first thing has been that new cycle investments in and around the city centre haven’t simply cannibalised existing cycle numbers. Cycle counts on Beach Road (and the off-road Grafton Gully cycleway) are up, in spite of the competition from the PinkPath / Nelson St. And, if you follow the link through, you’ll also see that cycling on Symonds St and K Rd has held steady:

Nelson St cycleway

Nelson Street (i.e. through the City itself, not Lightpath) is showing very heavy numbers. The REAL growth here is not visible in the stats: after all, before the protected cycleway opened, this route had just some 5-10 incredibly brave cyclists every morning… now there are several hundred daily, even though the route is still truncated and stops at Victoria St.

The second is that investments in and around the city centre have been followed by significant growth on existing parts of the cycle network. That’s most clearly in evidence on the Northwest Cycleway, which is seeing the largest annual growth ever:

NW Cycleway (Kingsland)

Here’s where the network effect rubber really hits the road, er, off-road cycleway. You can see how the magnetic field of the pink path boom (and the related Grafton Gully effect) has spread far and wide – even more than 5km away, in Kingsland, where numbers are massively up on 2014 and 2015.

NW Cycleway (Te Atatu)

And the effect continues at Te Atatu over 10 km away; if the numbers traveling to the city from further out are a bit lower, they’re still really really high (and resisting the usual winter drop-off). Recent cycleway improvements along the causeway will definitely have helped with this.

The third finding is about the dog that didn’t bark: cycle counts on streets that have not seen investments in safe separated cycle facilities. Some of these streets show some minor growth, but by and large demand is not increasing. That’s in evidence on routes like Tamaki Drive:

Tamaki Dr (EB + WB)

We see a slight boost on Tamaki Drive – but the real growth will come from Quay Street (now open), Quay Street to Ngapipi (~2017-2018) and Glen Innes-Tamaki (2018). Until then, though, our busiest cycle route continues to pedal along in huge numbers.

And, on the North Shore, East Coast Rd:

East Coast Rd

Numbers on East Coast Road near Constellation Drive have been static – not surprising, as little cycle investment has occurred in the area in recent years.

The good news is that we can learn from the positive results on and around new separated cycleways. If we want to boost cycling elsewhere in the city – and we should; it’s the cheapest and most efficient way to get around in cities – it’s pretty clear what we should do.

Sunday reading 24 July 2016

Bisbane, Queensland, Ausdtralia

Bisbane, Queensland, Ausdtralia

Welcome to Sunday Reading. I’m phoning in here from Brisbane. On Friday Patrick and Matt gave a talk about urban advocacy and the role of the Blog to a local planning firm Buckley Vann. We’ve enjoyed being able to connect with Greg Vann on several occasions both in Brisbane and Auckland. Greg is busy with an update to the South East Queensland Regional Plan where is has established an impressive public communication program that feels a little bit like our Auckland Conversations. Greg is particularly passionate about equity in cities and he speaks regularly on the subject heading “Fair Cities”.

Greg also has an interesting blog covering a wide range of urban issues. Here is an interesting post taking a long view of the arc of urbanism in Brisbane. It’s the vibe, Brisbane!, Reviewanew.

I reckon Brisbane really came of age in the 1990s. We started to believe that we could do things in our own way, that we had something special here, that our city is different from other places. Since then we have developed a rich history of contemporary subtropical architecture, which is uniquely Brisbane and much admired around the world. My good friend former Vancouver city councillor, Gordon Price, always sings its praise – the use of colour, the blurring of the indoor and outdoor, and public and private space, together with buildings made more interesting because of external treatments that improve environmental performance – shades for temperature control and the like.

How does the quality of cycling infrastructure design influence the usefulness and attractiveness of cycling? Here Henry Grabar describes how crappy cycling is in NYC and compares it to London where they have shifted from compromised designs to fully separated facilities – “Why Bicycling Infrastructure Fails Bicyclists“, Slate.

The city’s 1,000-mile network of bike lanes is riddled with gaps and incongruities. Outside of some very fine greenways, the system rarely measures up to global standards. Our 400 miles of bike lanes free of vehicle traffic are expanding at a rate of just 5 miles a year, and the network is only as strong as its weak points, which can be very weak: Sometimes lanes suddenly switch from one side of the street to the other. Sometimes they end without warning. Cars turn across them without signal permission. Mostly, they are full of double-parked cars. This doesn’t always feel like a big deal: We can ride our bikes in traffic with cars, trucks, and buses. But sometimes it puts us in uncomfortable situations. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

For a glimpse of what could be, we can look to London, where Boris Johnson—yes, that one—helped push through a network of bike lanes physically separated from traffic. (Financial Times reporter Robert Wright recently wrote a delightful dispatch on the differences between riding in the two cities.) London has almost 50 percent more bike journeys per day than New York but fewer bike deaths. Most remarkably, the ratio of cars to bikes in central London has fallen from 11-to-1 in 2000 to 2-to-1 in 2014. In three years, if trends continue, more people will be biking to central London than driving.

Why do bike facilities suck in most American cities? Tom Babin thinks it has something to do with a philosophy known as ‘vehicular cycling”. “The philosophy that has pitted cars against cyclists for the last 40 years is finally dying“, Los Angeles Times.

What would-be cyclists respond to is safety, or at least the perception of it. Most people, when presented with the idea of “bicycle driving,” as Forester sometimes called it, choose not to ride at all. Safety concerns also help explain why simple painted bike lanes have failed to attract cyclists in large numbers. For many tentative cyclists, only a physical separation from moving automobiles can make them feel secure.

From a distance, it’s obvious the notion of vehicular cycling was misguided. Not only did Forester’s theory put cyclists in harm’s way, it generated anger among motorists and taught them to see bikes as nuisances. This enmity, in turn, arguably hamstrung local governments’ efforts to build more and safer infrastructure.


via Stong Towns

Charles Marohn, The Shopping Mall Death Spiral, Strong Town Journal. Chuck and Joe Minnicozzi have teamed up to quantify the costs of sprawl, specifically large format retail. Strong Towns has enlisted been running a series on the “rigged game” that us urban retailing in America.

These buildings require millions of dollars of pipes, streets, sidewalks and curbs to function. When they were originally built, loose money from the Fed along with a myriad of federal, state and local tax incentives made it easy for the Wal-Marts and Bass Pro’s of the world to absorb these costs. Now the cost of maintenance is the city’s, i.e. the local taxpayer.

Walking away from these really bad investments would be easy if it weren’t for the fact that most cities use these “investments” to juice horizontal growth in other, less-accessible areas. So you can ignore that pipe that needs replacing, but then you have to deal with the plethora of housing subdivisions, low-value retail and storage sheds upstream.

Contrast this with the traditional development pattern of the downtown. When one of those businesses close, what happens? We all know: something else takes it place. In our nasty downtown here I’ve seen — in my short life — one storefront be home for dozens of different things, from a pizza restaurant to office space to retail establishment. Downtown, we may not be able to get 48 different kinds of mustard in the same store where I can buy car tires and flannel underwear, but we’re also not going to go broke as a community.

After the malls, the big box stores will be the next species to falter and go on the endangered list. Strip malls and drive-through restaurants may hang around longer and may, in some places, find ways to adapt, but their general model is going to die as well. Cities that tethered their future to this experiment are going to struggle while those that still have a pulse in their core neighborhoods will have a chance at renewed prosperity.

via Streetsblog

via Streetsblog

Many people are over commuting long distances. Here’s the story from Melbourne. Katherine Townsend, “Walk to work: the Melburnians ditching the suburbs for inner-city life“, Domain.

He says many buyers from the outer suburbs trying to move to within one kilometre of the city are just “over it”. “They’ve bought into the Great Australian Dream with the quarter-acre block and the free-standing house but the congestion of trying to get to work wears them down. They think ‘if I can save two and a half hours a day, I will’.”

Here’s a House of Lords select committee report on the housing crisis in the UK.  Some of the problems cited here are relevant to New Zealand. Daniel Bentley, “Notes on an oligopoly: What did we learn from the Lords’ report on the housing crisis?“, CityMetric.

England needs 300,000 homes a year – not 200,000

The government’s commitment to building 1m homes by 2020 (equivalent to 200,000 a year) will not be enough to meet future demand and tackle the backlog after years of undersupply. “To meet that demand and have a moderating effect on house prices, at least 300,000 homes a year need to be built for the foreseeable future,” the committee says. “Otherwise the average age of a first time buyer will continue to rise.”

Note too that the government is nowhere near hitting even 200,000 a year. Completions last year were just 155,000, just over half what is now recommended.

The large housebuilders restrict output to optimise profits

Private developers alone have neither the ability nor the motivation to build all of the homes we need. The housebuilding market is “oligopolistic”: its business model is to restrict the volume of housebuilding in order to maximise profits.

The government’s reliance on the private sector to meet its housebuilding targets is therefore misguided. “To achieve its target the government must recognise the inability of the private sector, as it is currently incentivised, to build the number of homes needed,” the peers say.

IPENZ talk: Our future with climate change

This Wednesday the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand is running a seminar on our future with climate change. It’s open to the general public as well as IPENZ members, so come along if you’re interested in the topic.

Apologies for the formatting on their advert; I couldn’t figure out how to copy it across properly:

IPENZ Transportation Group Auckland invites members to:

Our Future With Climate Change

A joint event with EECA, NZPI and CILT. This event is free and open to the public.

“This event will be looking at what a sustainable transport future for NZ looks post the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference…both now and then into the 2040s…What will our energy patterns and sources look like? How will we be travelling? What will we be travelling in? Why will we be travelling? How resilient will our future be? How will energy help and hinder us?”

Date: 20th July 2016

Venue: Studio One (the Artstation), 1 Ponsonby Rd Ponsonby, Auckland.

Time:  5:00pm – Drinks and networking (There is a free bar tab so come in early!)
6:00pm  – Presentations


Our Future with Climate Change
Our Future with Climate Change
Our Future with Climate Change - Sponsors

Sunday reading 10 July 2016



Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here’s a collection of articles I hope you find interesting. Please add yours in the comment section.

Anton Babadjanov, “The Supply And Demand Of Street Space“, The Urbanist. Here’s a nice compilation of the spatial capacity of various modes. We did a count on Symonds Street a few weeks back and found that one lane in the peak hour moves about 710 cars, compared to over 4,000 people in the bus lane.

Bicycle lane throughput varies based on width. A study from Davis, California reports the capacity as 2,600 bicycles per hour per 3.3 feet of lane while most other studies have actually found higher throughputs, so we’ll use this as a lower bound.

Regardless of whether bike lanes are installed in place of 8-foot parking lanes or up to 11-foot travel lanes, we can assume at least two bike lanes per original lane. This gives us:

Bike Lane: 5,200 people / hour




Hayes Valley, San Francisco. Photo: John King (San Francisco Chronicle)

Octavia Boulevard remains a remarkable example of how land-wasting motorways can be re-purposed into urban boulevards.   John King takes a look at the architecture that now fills in the road reserve of the former Central Freeway-  “In Hayes Valley, old freeway site is now architectural showcase“, San Francisco Chronicle.



The Somerville, Mass map (above) identifies the properties that conform to the zoning code. Daniel Hertz, “More on the illegal City of Somerville“, City Observatory.

But it’s worth underscoring that this is more than just a funny legal “whoops,” the land use equivalent of those old laws about not whistling on Sundays. These sorts of nonsensical land use rules both have serious consequences and are the results of predictable political dynamics—which have, predictably, led to them being adopted in various forms throughout the country. In other words, though we’re using Somerville as our example here, it’s far from an outlier among American cities.

And the problem isn’t just housing, per se. It’s a shortage of exactly the kinds of communities that Somerville represents, and that its zoning code outlaws: relatively dense, walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Research by Jonathan Levine and many others have both established that demand for these sorts of neighborhoods outstrips their supply, and that the result, too often, is higher prices, more economic segregation, and less opportunity for lower-income people.

Houston’s zoning battles (Photo: John Everett, HC Staff)

Conor Dougherty covers the growing YIMBY movement in the States and the focus on zoning reform-  How Anti-Growth Sentiment, Reflected in Zoning Laws, Thwarts Equality, New York Times.

Zoning restrictions have been around for decades but really took off during the 1960s, when the combination of inner-city race riots and “white flight” from cities led to heavily zoned suburbs. They have gotten more restrictive over time, contributing to a jump in home prices that has been a bonanza for anyone who bought early in places like Boulder, San Francisco and New York City. But for latecomers, the cost of renting an apartment or buying a home has become prohibitive.

In response, a group of politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown of California and President Obama, are joining with developers in trying to get cities to streamline many of the local zoning laws that, they say, make homes more expensive and hold too many newcomers at bay.

To most people, zoning and land-use regulations might conjure up little more than images of late-night City Council meetings full of gadflies and minutiae. But these laws go a long way toward determining some fundamental aspects of life: what American neighborhoods look like, who gets to live where and what schools their children attend.And when zoning laws get out of hand, economists say, the damage to the American economy and society can be profound. Studies have shown that laws aimed at things like “maintaining neighborhood character” or limiting how many unrelated people can live together in the same house contribute to racial segregation and deeper class disparities. They also exacerbate inequality by restricting the housing supply in places where demand is greatest.The lost opportunities for development may theoretically reduce the output of the United States economy by as much as $1.5 trillion a year, according to estimates in a recent paper by the economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti.

Regardless of the actual gains in dollars that could be achieved if zoning laws were significantly cut back, the research on land-use restrictions highlights some of the consequences of giving local communities too much control over who is allowed to live there.“You don’t want rules made entirely for people that have something, at the expense of people who don’t,” said Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


Postcard from Truckee

After leaving Denver I went to the Lake Tahoe area in Northern California / Nevada for my friend Jesse’s wedding. (Which went great, incidentally. Mazel tov to the happy couple.)

Along the way, I stopped in for a visit to Truckee, California, which recently elected a friend of mine, Morgan Goodwin, as vice mayor. Truckee’s a town of around 16,000 people that was originally set up as a railway stop in the late 1800s but only incorporated as a town in 1993. Since then, its population has grown almost fivefold, which has brought a variety of challenges and opportunities.

Here’s a picture of Morgan standing on main street during Truckee Thursdays, an open streets event the downtown merchants association runs every week during the summer. (He’s in the process of waving to a passing friend.)


Truckee Thursdays was pretty busy, but apparently it’s usually even busier. The mix of foods, merchandise, and music on offer reflected the interesting demographics of Northern Californian towns: ski bums and alternative-lifestyle types mixing with blue-collar hunting and fishing types. E.G.:


Truckee’s historic downtown is small but vibrant: starting in the 1990s the old shopfronts started to get occupied by new businesses. There’s a mix of art and jewellery stores that mainly cater for tourists as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants that draw in more locals. To support pedestrian vibrancy, the town has rebuilt and extended the half-mile of sidewalk that they started with in 1993:


On the whole, the Truckee main street reminded me a bit of the university town where Morgan and I studied: lots of opportunities to bump into people you know and start conversation.


Although it’s small, Truckee’s facing the same pressures as many other growing towns and cities in the American west: housing and infrastructure. It’s riding the same property wave as the rest of California – money earned in San Francisco often translates into holiday homes purchased near Lake Tahoe. And long-term fiscal sustainability is a challenge, as the town has to maintain a lot of roads for its population.

Since being elected, Morgan’s gotten interested in the Strong Towns movement. I think that’s a common experience for a lot of small-town politicians seeking to manage long-term fiscal challenges in the US, as growth has often been done in a way that leaves funding gaps for future generations. Truckee’s submission to the recent “Strongest Town” competition, which Morgan helped write, highlights some of the things that the town’s doing to change that dynamic.

One of the key moves is a new mixed-use, mid-rise development on the railyards near the historic downtown. Because Truckee originated as a small railway town, it’s got a large railyard and balloon loop immediately adjacent downtown. That’s an obvious way to expand the historic downtown – i.e. to get more buildings like the one above – and ease future infrastructure challenges.

Here’s what the site currently looks like:


Here’s the site plan and some renders – you can see a bit more of the detail on the project website:


The development has been a long time in the making. The town council is currently voting on the rezoning proposal, development plan, and infrastructure contributions. But all up, it’s taken over a decade to pull the project together, including a lot of work with a Sacramento-based developer and with a whole bunch of other agencies responsible for roads and rails. There’s also been a whole bunch of work to rope in subsidies for affordable housing and sustainable development. (Belying the US’s lassez-faire reputation, it is awash in subsidies for development.)

What’s really interesting about the Railyards development is its scale. Truckee’s not a large town – it’s around the same size as Feilding – but it’s getting on with a pretty big project to extend and improve its downtown and expand the mix of housing and retail. To an extent, this is due to the fact that Truckee’s riding a West Coast-wide economic and housing wave. But it also seems to have a vision of what kind of place it wants to be. Smaller towns in New Zealand could do well to think about how they will choose to change.

Auckland Conversations: The Future of Housing in Auckland

Postcard from Denver

Greetings from the United States, where I’ve been helping a friend get married and generally visiting friends and family. Along the way, I got to visit Denver, where one of my two brothers now lives. Here’s a picture of all three of us hiking in a state park near the city. I’m the one in the middle:


A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about Denver’s relatively new and expanding light rail system. The city seems to be growing and changing. It’s also seeing a fair amount of spillover from the overheated Californian real estate market. So I was interested to see what the place was about.

A couple of random impressions.

Like most other American cities, Denver is built around the car. It’s big, and there are a whole lot of big roads like this:


This is a pretty typical American suburban landscape, but there are some Colorado-specific elements to it. Due to the fact that the state legalised marijuana in 2014, marijuana dispensaries seem roughly as common as liquor stores. Here’s one tucked between a brunch place and a Mexican restaurant in a neighbourhood shopping centre – the “Lucy Sky” dispensary:


At least in the older parts of the city, Denver’s residential suburbs are about as pleasant as American suburbs get. Lots of street trees, modestly-sized, attractive standalone houses, decent sidewalks, and an extremely functional street grid system. (Once you get to the places that were developed in the last few decades, it all dissolves into cul-de-sac mush, unfortunately.)

Here’s what it looks like from the air:

Denver street grid

And here’s what it looks like on the ground. Note the absence of driveways at the front of houses – cars are either parked on-street or in driveways off rear lanes. That’s smart:


We went to Washington Park, the big park in the map above, one afternoon. It was packed full of people playing pretty much every sport imaginable. It’s a very fit city by US standards – Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate – and so it was a bit surprising that cycling wasn’t better catered for on streets. I saw a few sharrows and painted bike lanes, but no serious effort to make it safer to cycle.

That being said, the street grid creates a lot of low-traffic back streets, so it’s probably possible to cycle around without spending much time on high-traffic arterials.

Lastly, the rail system. I was kind of curious to see how this worked, so I took the train to the airport when leaving. Basically, it does seem to be working. Even though I was travelling after the peak, a reasonable amount of people seemed to be riding.

One of the weaknesses of the system, I think, is that it often runs alongside motorway corridors. Although rights-of-way can be cheaper here, the ambiance is somewhat lacking. This was where I caught the train: In a darkened cave next to a motorway trench:


However, on the inner stations, where the rail lines deviate from the motorway, it is very apparent that Denver’s light rail system has been a catalyst for redevelopment. There are midrise apartments clustered around a number of stations. I particularly liked these ones a few blocks away from Union Station, which sits off to the side of downtown:


And these, immediately around Union Station and the underground intercity bus terminal (!!!).


The transfer to the airport line was pretty straightforward, and the train passed through the city’s industrial belt and then a whole bunch of empty paddocks before arriving at the airport. Which is, incidentally, home to a terrifying statue of a demon horse that killed its own creator, along with a variety of other conspiracy theories.

denver blucifer

Source: Slate

Do motorways inevitably generate economic growth?

There were a number of odd things in the report released several weeks ago by the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development (NZCID), a lobby group. Matt has already reviewed the report in detail. Perhaps the oddest part of it was this sentence:

Motorway capacity is essential because motorways generate economic activity.

NZCID presents this as a factual statement – or perhaps an article of faith? – but does not attempt to justify it or offer much supporting evidence.

From an economic perspective, this is an odd statement because transport infrastructure does not and can not generate economic activity. Roads are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. They can enable some economic activity, by allowing people to make journeys that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, but they can’t actually generate it themselves. (Unless you think that the roads physically lift themselves up off the ground and start moving around and working in factories and stuff, in which case I recommend a psychiatric evaluation.)

Consequently, we must ask: Is there evidence that past motorway investments have raised productivity elsewhere in the economy?

Although the NZCID hasn’t cited it, there is relevant empirical research that addresses this question, including in New Zealand.

Before I get on to that, here’s some macroeconomic data. The top graph, sourced from OECD data, shows New Zealand’s investments in roads in dollar terms. Observe how it started to rise sharply after 2003 – that’s approximately when we started building more motorways.

The bottom graph shows Statistics NZ’s labour productivity index for the measured sector – a measure of changes in GDP produced per worker. Observe how there has been absolutely no change in the productivity growth trend, in spite of a threefold increase in the amount of money being spent on roads.

Correlation is not causation, but an absence of correlation is often evidence for a lack of causation.

NZ road spending and productivity chart


This graph makes me doubt NZCID’s assertions about motorways and economic activity. For one thing, if building motorways truly was an economic panacea, shouldn’t tripling roads spending since 2003 be observable in the data by this point?

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at the effects of motorway spending on economic output. Three OECD researchers, Balázs Égert, Tomasz Koźluk, and Douglas Sutherland, have taken a look at the issue. In a 2009 paper entitled “Infrastructure and growth: empirical evidence“, they examined the impact of infrastructure investment on economic growth using data for 24 OECD countries from 1960 to 2005. They looked at how investment (or disinvestment) in roads, motorways, rail, electricity generation, and telephone networks flowed through into subsequent economic growth.

Importantly, Égert et al found that the effects of infrastructure investment varied between countries – investments that had a positive impact on growth in one country can have a negative effect on growth in another. This could reflect differences in, for example, economic structure or quality of investment decisions.

Their key findings for New Zealand (from Table 1) were that:

  • Road investment had a positive impact on economic growth throughout the period
  • So did rail investment, although the effect was not quite as strong
  • However, motorway investment had a negative impact on economic growth.

This is, again, the exact opposite of what NZCID have asserted. Transport investment in general appears to have had a positive impact on economic growth, but motorway investment in particular was a drag on growth.

Moreover, the authors considered the possibility that the returns from further investment changed over the course of the period. This is a reasonable hypothesis – after all, in 1960 many OECD countries were undergoing rapid economic change, and trying to build new infrastructure networks to keep up with it. Today, they are largely investing in incremental improvements to existing road and rail networks.

When Égert et al modelled the effects of infrastructure investment over the last decade or so of the period – around the time New Zealand was thinking about ramping up road spending – they found that:

“…in a number of countries the effect became stronger, suggesting for example that further increases in electricity generation capacity can be related to a decrease in output in Australia and Austria, similarly to motorways in Austria, New Zealand and Switzerland and rail tracks in Ireland and the Netherlands, whereas increases in road capacity may be associated with an increase in output in Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom and additional electricity generation capacity in Portugal may support growth”

Again, not great news for NZCID’s argument that motorways generate economic activity. If the OECD researchers had simply found that past motorway spending in New Zealand had an ambiguous or negligible effect on growth, I’d be willing to accept the possibility that we could achieve more positive outcomes from further spending. But their finding that past motorway spending has been a drag on growth makes me worried about NZCID’s policy prescriptions.

There is, in short, a risk that NZCID is confidently recommending the wrong strategy for New Zealand. A strategy that has little robust empirical evidence to back it up, and which could easily backfire and reduce our growth prospects.

What could a responsible lobby group do differently?

First, rather than arguing for an increase in the quantity of investment, it could argue for an increase in the quality of investment. We know that this is a challenge for current transport spending. For example, a Ministry of Transport review that I covered last year (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) found that benefit-cost ratios for new and improved state highway have fallen significantly over the last decade:

MoT state highway BCRs 2005-2012

Second, it could consider the role of transport investment in improving the choices available to people. As I’ve argued in the past, cities are diverse places, and the people living within them don’t all want the same thing. Some people love the big car and the big house – which is great, as long as they pay for the carbon pollution and don’t run anyone over. Others would be happier living in an urban neighbourhood and getting around on foot, bicycle, or public transport – and that’s also great.

Having more choices raises individual and social wellbeing. Unfortunately, transport policy has historically been “one size fits all” rather than “made to measure”. As there’s no real evidence that motorway spending has a positive effect on economic growth in New Zealand, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in improving transport choices instead?

Motorways and economic growth: What do you think?

The high cost of fossil fuel subsidies

One challenge in writing about hyper-local issues like transport infrastructure and urban planning policies is that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Planet-wise, the big picture is climate change. As California Governor Jerry Brown said in a recent interview, our environmental impact increasingly has an “uncompromising gravity”: climate change is a potential extinction event for the human race. This is difficult to comprehend:

The trouble with climate change is that you can pass tipping points, and down the road it is going to be enormously difficult and expensive to change with all the embedded infrastructure. Enormously difficult. Even though today it’s relatively trivial. To de-carbonize the economy, even though it’s massive and would take trillions of dollars, it could be done. But it would take a real mobilization….

And there’s an industry of denial, of manufactured skepticism, all for short-term gain, or because of an ideological fear of more regulation that will curb unfettered market behavior or individual consumption. So people don’t want to believe there’s an absolute out there called the environment, called the climate system. But we know there is. We didn’t make the sun shine today. It was raining for a couple days. We didn’t do that. So what made that? What made that is the whole atmospheric chemistry.

Now, can 7 or 9 billion people, can several billion cars and coal plants affect that? Most of the scientists say yes. And if they can, how are we going to un-affect it? See, that’s the simple-minded thing. Up until 1850 you never had more than a billion people. And what did they do? Run around in their little clothes and with a little bit of gunpowder here and there.

Now we have massive technology. The human impact is multiplied, is unimaginably greater. But the human capacity for wisdom has not improved an iota. So there’s the problem.

The impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions can readily be observed in the temperature record. For example, climate scientist Ed Hawkins recently made this mesmerising and worrying animated gif of 156 years of temperature deviations:


As Jerry Brown notes, durable investments like transport infrastructure, electricity generation, and the built environment in general lock in future emissions. The things we build today will shape our behaviour and constrain our options in the future.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to build cities that give people the opportunity to live in proximity to jobs and urban amenities, and which offer people abundant and attractive transport choices. The alternative is travelling ever-longer distances by car, and emitting ever-more carbon dioxide.

In the long run, electric vehicles might make this tenable for the climate, but it ain’t going to happen quickly. The NZ government’s current expectation is that EVs will make up at most 2% of the fleet in 2021. (I would love to be proven wrong about this!)

However, sticking with the “big picture” theme of this post, urban form isn’t necessarily the biggest problem we face – or the biggest opportunity to do better. A consistent global approach to carbon pricing would be fantastic. More rapid uptake of carbon pricing at a national level would be almost as fantastic.

Or how about a really radical idea: Stop subsidising fossil fuel extraction and use.

The costs of fossil fuel subsidies are large, and probably outweigh the total value of carbon taxes levied on burning them. New research from UK economist Radek Stefanski suggests that subsidies for fossil fuels cost a total of 3.8% of global GDP, or $1.82 trillion per annum.

Because consistent data on fossil fuel subsidies is hard to come by – many subsidies are buried in obscure expenditure categories, or disguised as distortions in the tax code – Stefanski develops an innovative estimation technique. He observes that emission intensities – carbon emissions per dollar of GDP – follow a predictable “inverted U” shape, as shown in the following chart.

Stefanski emission intensity chart

But some countries deviate from the trend: their emissions are higher than predicted by their development level. Stefanski uses that to identify the degree to which governments must have intervened in order to make fossil fuels artificially cheap.

Interestingly, this results in a lower estimate than previous studies using alternative methods, e.g. focusing on variations in prices for fossil fuels. This suggests that, if anything, Stefanski’s estimate of $1.82 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies is on the low side.

The disturbing thing is that there has been an increasing trend towards subsidising fossil fuels over the last 15 years, in spite of the fact that the evidence on the ill effects of burning them is increasingly clear. That’s illustrated in the following chart, which illustrates variations between countries that “tax” fossil fuels and those that subsidise them. Essentially, the taxes have grown smaller and the subsidies larger.

Stefanski global fossil fuel subsidies chart

The Oceania region has also moved towards offering substantial net subsidies to fossil fuels. As Stefanski doesn’t provide a country-by-country breakdown, it’s not clear whether this trend is driven by Australia’s fetish for coal mines, or whether New Zealand also participates in the madness. But it’s not good.

Lastly, it’s worth considering what the optimal tax on fossil fuels might look like in the aggregate. (It’s almost certainly not a $1.82 trillion subsidy!)

Credible estimates of the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions range from around US$37/tonnne to US$220/tonne. (There is significant uncertainty about exactly how bad climate change will be for human civilisation.) Globally, we emit around 35.7 billion tonnes of CO2 from burning fossil fuels.

That implies that burning fossil fuels imposes a social cost – which will be experienced primarily by young people and future generations – in the range of $1.3 trillion to $7.9 trillion.

Basically, instead of subsidising fossil fuel extraction and use to the tune of 3.8% of global GDP, we should tax it a similar amount. That’s a measure of how bad current global policies on climate change and fossil fuel use are.

Something to keep in mind…