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Newmarket Crossing gets green light

Auckland Transport have announced that they’d received consent for the Newmarket Crossing project which should also mean they can start getting on with the Parnell Station.

AT has received approval from independent planning commissioners for the construction of a bridge to replace Sarawia Street level crossing. AT has 30 working days to review and formally accept the recommendation.

AT sought consent for this last year and the bridge that will link Cowie St in Newmarket with Laxon Tce allowing for the Sarawia St level crossing to be closed.

Newmarket Crossing May 2015

The crossing needs to be closed as AT/Kiwirail say its proximity to the Newmarket Junction and rail safety procedures limit capacity and flexibility on the line between Newmarket and Britomart. AT have also said in the past that getting the level crossing closed is required before the Parnell Station can be opened.

In a tweet earlier today they suggested that with the consent issued they will start construction on the project later this year.

Of course that would assume there is no environment court appeal and given the attitude of some of the residents so far, I wouldn’t rule that out.

On the Parnell station, the platforms were completed last year but the station is waiting for Kiwirail to move the old Newmarket station building to the site as it was intended to be part of a faux heritage precinct but that’s now been scuttled after the Mainline Steam sheds were demolished to make way for a retirement village – although that’s better than an earlier suggestion for the site of bus parking. It also needs other station features like lights, signs and hopefully some shelter on the side opposite the old building.

Parnell pic June15

Another thing missing and that so far AT have no intention of providing is some way convenient to get across the tracks. If the station gets developed as AT say on their website, the only option will be a minimum 230m detour up to the existing underpass although if you were coming from the proposed access to Nicolas Lane it will be about double that.

Of course pretty everything about the planning for the Parnell station has been wrong. It should have been a few hundred metres further north with access from the end of Heather St which is closer to where more people live or are going for work or education along with an easier walk to Parnell. A few hundred metres can make quite a lot of difference, just look at the impact of Grafton Station compared to its predecessor of Boston Rd.

Parnell Station Alternate Location sketch

Lastly we’re hearing suggestions that only Southern Line trains will stop at Parnell although this hasn’t been confirmed. Based on discussions I’ve had in the past I assume this relates to modelling showing that if all trains stopped there it would have severe impacts on rail capacity and reliability.

Should buses have the right of way?

Sometimes it’s little things that can have a big impact on public transport and a bus full of people, stuck in bus stop because cars won’t let the bus out is a great example of one of those little things. It’s something that manages to tick mist of the boxes on the wrong side of the ledger and is frustrating while wasting both time and money. Some examples of why are:

  • For passengers it makes buses slower and therefore less competitive compared to driving and therefore less attractive to use
  • For operators and transport agencies like Auckland Transport slower buses mean they cost more to run because either more buses are needed to provide the same level of service or alternatively services need to be reduced.
  • For private vehicle drivers, others pushing past buses can slow the entire road down, this was seen following the conversion of the Tamaki Dr bus lanes to T2.
Give Way to Buses

From Perth

Yet changing our rules to make it easier for buses to get of bus stops has to be one of the easiest things we could fix. And that’s something that NZ Bus have now raised.

New Zealand’s biggest bus company is calling for a new traffic law to give commuter buses right of way over cars.

NZ Bus says some buses are waiting minutes at each stop in for cars to let them into the stream of peak traffic.

Two minutes might not sound like much, but when it’s added to every stop on a busy route, it means buses are constantly running late.

“We think letting the bus go first is actually going to be not only good for the bus, but it’s going to have less people in cars and more people on public transport, and that’s hopefully going to be a win-win for all,” chief operating officer Shane McMahon says.

NZ Bus says on average a peak-time bus in Auckland carries 35-40 people. But on busy routes like Mt Eden Road, Sandringham Rd, Dominion Rd, Remuera Rd there’s up to 70 people on board.

A lot of Auckland’s main arterial roads have bus lanes, but not all the way into the city.

Buses in Bus Stops

As mentioned in the article, many countries require divers to give way to buses pulling out of bus stops

Drivers in Australia, Singapore, and most of the UK must give buses the right of way. But with bigger traffic problems to fix, the Ministry of Transport says it’s not even on its agenda.

It would be interesting for one of our agencies to do an economic evaluation of the lost time caused by bus delays. A single bus with around 40 people on it delayed by just five minutes per trip equates to around 200 minutes which is over 3 hours, and that’s just for one bus on one trip. Multiply the delays across all buses across an entire year and the amount of lost time would be simply huge. My guess is the BCR would for fixing this would be off the charts and as a bonus, faster buses mean they’re cheaper to run and likely to attract even more passengers.

Now I must also say how good it was to see the media not just talking about the idea but showing just how much more efficient buses are by counting how long it took for the same number of people in cars to pass the bus stop, 1 minute 20 seconds. It’s why a bus lane that looks empty is actually doing its job and why filling those lanes up with electric vehicles is a really dumb idea.

As former (and now once again) Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa once said “a bus with 100 people has a right to 100 times more road space than a car”. If you haven’t watched his Ted Talk on Why buses represent democracy in action then you should, and if you have watched it, it’s always good to watch again.

This seems like one of those no-brainer changes, it’s insane that this isn’t even on the MoTs agenda.

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:

IMG_0375

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:

IMG_0331

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:

IMG_0263

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:

IMG_0262

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:

IMG_0423

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:

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

IMG_0456

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

The Main Risks of East-West

Last week I wrote about the East West Link Connections and how the cost of the project were ever increasing and how the staging for the project had changed. The post was based on a number of papers I received from the NZTA as a result of an OIA request.

East-West Preferred Option

The preferred East-West option

One aspect I didn’t cover were some of the major risks that have been identified for the project. These are described in the paper from December 2015, I’ve left out the funding risk as not really relevant to this post.

  1. The underlying land use and travel demand assumptions for the project are based on an agreed medium growth scenario associated with the Auckland Plan. Given the preferred option is a long-term response to current and planned future growth, there is a risk that the growth assumptions and associated travel demand may not materialise as planned. This could result in a transport response that is misaligned with the future needs of the network and as such, this will need to be reviewed at each funding stage as the project progresses.
  2. Given the early stage of the project, there is a future cost risk that outturn costs will exceed the expected estimate, based on incomplete knowledge. This has been accounted for by providing additional contingency in the current estimates. The top cost risk items are:
    • Property – the proposed alignment has attempted to minimise impact on industrial zoned property as far as practicable, however there are still a number of properties which will likely be required either in part or whole. Based on the current state of the Auckland property market, any delays to the property acquisition process are likely to result in inflated property costs above and beyond current market rates.
    • Neilson St Interchange – the design of the interchange is a complex task requiring careful balancing of competing priorities and community interests. There are significant consenting challenges both with the presence of natural volcanic features (Hopua tuff ring), but also the close proximity to the town centre and the foreshore, both of which have strong public interest. There is a risk that through the consenting process an alternative proposal is put forward that is significantly more costly (CapEx and/or OpEx) than the currently preferred option.
    • Foreshore – having regard to the NZ Coastal Policy Statement and recent case law, there are significant policy hurdles to pass with the proposed alignment along the foreshore. Conversely, early engagement with key partners has indicated conditional support on the basis that the proposed response could have the greatest opportunity for mitigation, particularly in tidying up historical reclamation and contaminating activities. It is expected that more than just mitigation will need to be considered to enable reclamation to be considered favourably, though the extent of works required and associated costs is unknown at this stage.

Let’s just step through them a bit

Land Use and Travel Demand assumptions – A lot of assumptions seem to be based most of the Onehunga/Penrose area staying industrial. Most of the area to the west of Onehunga Mall is already earmarked for mixed use and with land prices and demand the way they are it’s likely that over the medium to long term all of those will end up residential. It’s also quite likely that over time, a lot of the other commercial land in the area will be converted to residential, most likely through private plan changes. That will fundamentally change the transport demand for the area and likely the whole purpose of this project.

Neilson St Interchange – The NZTA’s predecessor originally planned to build this interchange as part of the Manukau Harbour Crossing project before revising their consent to not include it. From memory this was due to the significant impact it would have had on the area, especially the Hopua Tuff Ring and the need reclamation to accommodate it. It appears the road builders are emboldened to try again and with what appears to be very similar to what was originally proposed in 2006.

East-West - Neilson St Interchange Recomended Option

It’s also worth noting that Panuku is meant to be redeveloping the Onehunga Port area to be more people friendly just like they’ve done at the Wynyard Quarter. It remains to be seen how they’re going to make that a success when it will be cut off from the rest of the city by what is effectively a motorway and seemingly poor access for PT and active modes.

Foreshore – The impact on the foreshore where the main thing that originally inspired this post. A number of the documents referenced in the post last week made mention of it and in particular mentioned NZ Coastal Policy Statement 2010 (NZCPS). Looking at it the NZCPS it’s easy to see why they’re concerned as it basically says they shouldn’t do it. Now to be fair I haven’t read all 30 pages of the document but if you have and I’ve got parts of it wrong then please let me know in the comments. For this I’m just going to focus on a couple of sections.

  • Reclamation – As mentioned it basically says that reclamation should be avoided unless there are no other options. But that isn’t the case with the East-West project as we know that other options not only exist but also perform better economically. Here’s what the NZCPS says about reclamation:

Reclamation and de-reclamation

  1. Avoid reclamation of land in the coastal marine area, unless:
    • land outside the coastal marine area is not available for the proposed activity;
    • the activity which requires reclamation can only occur in or adjacent to the coastal marine area;
    • there are no practicable alternative methods of providing the activity; and
    • the reclamation will provide significant regional or national benefit.
  2. Where a reclamation is considered to be a suitable use of the coastal marine area, in considering its form and design have particular regard to:
    • the potential effects on the site of climate change, including sea level rise, over no less than 100 years;
    • the shape of the reclamation and, where appropriate, whether the materials used are visually and aesthetically compatible with the adjoining coast;
    • the use of materials in the reclamation, including avoiding the use of contaminated materials that could significantly adversely affect water quality, aquatic ecosystems and indigenous biodiversity in the coastal marine area;
    • providing public access, including providing access to and along the coastal marine area at high tide where practicable, unless a restriction on public access is appropriate as provided for in Policy 19;
    • the ability to remedy or mitigate adverse effects on the coastal environment;
    • whether the proposed activity will affect cultural landscapes and sites of significance to tangata whenua; and
    • the ability to avoid consequential erosion and accretion, and other natural hazards.
  3. In considering proposed reclamations, have particular regard to the extent to which the reclamation and intended purpose would provide for the efficient operation of infrastructure, including ports, airports, coastal roads, pipelines, electricity transmission, railways and ferry terminals, and of marinas and electricity generation.
  • Walking Access – As mentioned in the quote above, public access should be provided to the coastal area.  The section on walking access expands on this more and none of the reasons given for reasons to restrict public from the foreshore seem to be relevant to this project.

Walking Access

  1. Recognise the public expectation of and need for walking access to and along the coast that is practical, free of charge and safe for pedestrian use.
  2. Maintain and enhance public walking access to, along and adjacent to the coastal marine area, including by:
    1. identifying how information on where the public have walking access will be made publicly available;
    2. avoiding, remedying or mitigating any loss of public walking access resulting from subdivision, use, or development; and
    3. identifying opportunities to enhance or restore public walking access, for example where:
      1. connections between existing public areas can be provided; or
      2. improving access would promote outdoor recreation; or
      3. physical access for people with disabilities is desirable; or
      4. the long-term availability of public access is threatened by erosion or sea level rise; or
      5. access to areas or sites of historic or cultural significance is important; or
      6. subdivision, use, or development of land adjacent to the coastal marine area has reduced public access, or has the potential to do so.
  3. Only impose a restriction on public walking access to, along or adjacent to the coastal marine area where such a restriction is necessary:
    1. to protect threatened indigenous species; or
    2. to protect dunes, estuaries and other sensitive natural areas or habitats; or
    3. to protect sites and activities of cultural value to Māori; or
    4. to protect historic heritage; or
    5. to protect public health or safety; or
    6. to avoid or reduce conflict between public uses of the coastal marine area and its margins; or
    7. for temporary activities or special events; or
    8. for defence purposes in accordance with the Defence Act 1990; or
    9. to ensure a level of security consistent with the purpose of a resource consent; or
    10. in other exceptional circumstances sufficient to justify the restriction.
  4. Before imposing any restriction under (3), consider and where practicable provide for alternative routes that are available to the public free of charge at all times.

Now the reason this is important is so far the NZTA have yet to say whether provision will be made for the public to have access, like they currently – a photo essay of which can be seen here. So far from what I’ve seen the NZTA have only resorted to saying that they haven’t decided yet.

The drawings developed for the detailed business case (46MB) suggest there will be a narrow path along the seaward side of the massive reclamation as well as the existing walking/cycling path but the new path appears a fairly barren and exposed place to be – perhaps a bit like the cycleway on the causeway along SH16. You can also see the intersection for this new road with Captain Springs Rd will also require people on foot or bikes to make up to three crossings to get across this new mega road.

The drawings also highlight the massive extent of the planned reclamation. As a quick estimation, it appears to be at least 50m wide, if not wider in places and even straighter than the current foreshore which doesn’t seem to meet the requirements in the NZCPS.

It’s worth noting for these drawings the comments in the grey box which says that the “alignment is for cost estimation and to establish an indicative footprint” and that “the actual footprint and location is subject to change“. These drawings are also just a selection of what is in the document but for the foreshore are all fairly consistent.

East-West - Technical Drawing - 1

 

East-West - Technical Drawing - 4

East-West - Technical Drawing - 5

East-West - Technical Drawing - 9

The red part is a bridge

If this project does go ahead, it seems like a much better job needs to be done on the on the foreshore. As it stands, it appears the NZTA are going for the cheapest option available – which at $1.8 billion is not cheap.

Cycleway Use continues to rise

Auckland’s long summer appears to have helped boost the number of people on bikes, especially on routes in and around city centre. This is based on data from Auckland Transport’s network of automated cycleway counters around the region but most of which are now in and around the city centre to help monitor the effectiveness of the cycleway programme currently under way.

For the nine sites scattered around the region for which AT now have almost six years of data they say April had a combined increase of 19.3% compared to April-2015 and May was even better seeing a 22.6% increase compared to May-2015. The numbers passing in the morning peak saw an even stronger increase at 24.2% for April and 25.8% for May.

But those are just the results from nine sites and in total there are now 28 across the region but some only from as recently as December so we don’t have a full year’s history yet to compare performance. AT’s data gives a breakdown of each counter and within that there are a couple of noticeable star performers.

The biggest of these is Grafton Gully which has been seeing the highest improvement in usage for six months in a row now. The results for April and May are staggering with usage up a staggering 59% and 54% for each month respectively compared to the same month a year earlier. Not everyone needs to travel all the way down but some of that growth is also seen on the Beach Rd counters which have also been recording strong growth of 39% and 34% for April and May.

As mentioned this is now the 6th month in a row that Grafton Gully has come out as having seen the largest increase in use and six months ago corresponds with the opening of Lightpath.

Monthly bike trips - Grafton Gully

Even if people don’t use it themselves, it does seem to suggest that Lightpath has been crucial in raising the awareness and profile of cycling in Auckland.

Not far behind with an equally whopping 47% increase on last year was the NW Cycleway at Kingsland and that growth comes from a higher base too. This counter has been showing stronger growth since December and as you can see on an annual basis is now starting to see quite a rapid increase.

May-16 - Cycling Monthly - Kingsland - Annual

There are some pretty good results here and in other locations too which are great to see although also some decreases too, such as on the Mangere Bridge.

While we know they are seasonal drops, it’ll be interesting to see how the numbers hold up over the winter months.

Given we already seem to be having a bit of a network effect going on I expect it will only increase further as more projects are completed. The next part to be completed will be along Quay St which is officially due to open in July and some parts of which are already able to be used now. We also know that AT are busy working on sections of the city centre network – and the wider cycle network too which they will hopefully be able to talk about in the near future.

Auckland City Centre Cycle Map - Dec 15

 

Light Rail to the Sea

Takapuna is considered one of Auckland’s key metropolitan centres – which the Auckland Plan describes as:

Metropolitan centres, such as Takapuna and Manukau, will accommodate a large proportion of the city’s future residential, retail and employment growth. Generally these areas will serve a sub-regional catchment and be supported by efficient transport networks.

Outside of the city centre there are 10 existing or future (emerging) metropolitan centres across the region as shown in the map below from the Auckland Plan.

auckland plan development strategy

The comment about these centres being supported by efficient transport networks is interesting as one thing you may notice from the map above is that all metropolitan centres sit on the current or proposed Rapid Transit Network of rail lines or busways with the exception of one, Takapuna. This is also confirmed with the latest version we’ve seen of Auckland Transports proposed rapid transit network.

Rapid Transit Map

As I’ll hopefully explain below, I think Takapuna needs to be added to our rapid transit network.

As a major centre and urban area within Auckland, Takapuna is quite unique being situated next to both a beach and a lake and those factors help to make it a very desirable location. With the strategy of developing the area the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan allows for quite a bit of development by way of the Metropolitan Centre (pink & purple stripes) and Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings (Gold), although we’ll have to wait till later this year to confirm the final zones and rules. Much of the area including most of the THAB has already been listed as a Special Housing Area.

PAUP - Takapuna

Zoning is one thing but we’re already starting to see a lot of proposals for the area popping up, particularly on and around Anzac St. Here are some of them:

Whether these exact proposals all go ahead remains to be seen but over 30 years many will and so it’s quite likely the area will look very different in the future. Regardless we can count on the centre itself looking quite different with Panuku Development Auckland looking to “unlock” it including developing some council sites such as the Anzac St carpark.

Takapuna Centre Plan - Anzac St carpark concept

Takapuna has the chance to become one of Auckland’s urban jewels but accessing it can be already mixed bag when it comes to non-car transport. Its geographic location means the highly successful busway sails by about 1.6km away. Currently the primary bus services linking the Takapuna and the city are made up of a number of routes from the mainly the East Coast Bays that funnel through Takapuna – although given they often have long windy routes and little bus priority it means trips to the city can have very poor timekeeping at times.

The new network deals with Takapuna by way of a frequent route (N4) that starts in Milford and a couple of routes that pass through Takapuna on their way to/from Akoranga Station. In the city the N4 route will go via the middle of town.

North Shore New Network Takapuna

Even with the new network, accessing Takapuna by bus from the city – like I do on a daily basis – can extremely frustrating. It’s not so bad for those that can start or end their journey in the middle of town but for those like me need to get to/from Britomart, the changes to accommodate the construction of the City Rail Link mean that it now requires two buses or one bus and a long walk. Some of the issues will be resolved by the completion of the CRL which will link in with North Shore buses along Fanshawe St giving a direct connection.

AT’s info on the services show that the N4 route would run ever 7-8 minutes in the morning and afternoon peak along with every 15 minutes during the day. With the level of growth planned that might not be enough and while more services could be added, just like in the city centre there are some real issues with not enough space on the roads.

When it comes to PT, Takapuna needs a better long term solution, and it needs to be a RTN in my view.

Using a bike to access Takapuna can be equally arduous. The main approach roads of Taharoto Rd and Lake Rd have painted cycle lanes (despite the former being massively wide) but those cycle lanes stop short of the centre itself leaving riders to brave the roads which can be particularly unpleasant on Anzac St. That of course could be fixed and along with Skypath and Seapath would provide a cycle route to the city or elsewhere.

So what options are there to include Takapuna on the RTN? We know that AT have recently been looking at RTNs to the North Shore but we don’t yet know what’s been recommended, or in fact any details about it. Despite that I think there’s quite a good chance some form of light rail will be seen as the preferred option to eventually be used on the busway and if we did that it could allow us the ability to send light rail spur off to Takapuna, perhaps something like the route below. It would require a little work and a bit of property acquisition but seems doable.

Takapuna Spur LRT idea 2

From Akoranga the route could head to the city then perhaps join up with one of the isthmus routes shown the RTN map earlier. We’ve suggested in the past that this spur could even be part of the first stage of any rail connection the shore with the second stage seeing the busway converted.

With Takapuna already a popular destination and that only likely to increase in the future with both residential and commercial developments this route is likely to be quite popular. Even today buses in the middle of the day can get very full, especially in summer.

So what do you think, should we start thinking about light rail to the sea?

PT to miss this years targets

Is Auckland Transport doing enough to improve public transport or is it resting on its laurels basking in the glow of the spectacular increases being seen on the rail network and busway. That’s a question asked by Radio NZ the other day in highlighting that patronage on the bus network outside of the busway has actually fallen recently and will mean that AT misses its PT targets for the year.

The number of trips being taken on Auckland’s public transport network looks set to miss targets this year, and a new survey shows public perception of the services is worsening.

There has been strong growth on trains and the dedicated Northern Busway but fewer people are using the general bus network, which carries 75 percent of the city’s public transport users.

With two months to go, patronage is down slightly – despite population growth – and overall bus trips are expected to fall short of the annual target of 51.5 million, by more than 4 percent.

I’m not quite sure where the 51.5 million comes from as buses already carry well more than that so it might be a year to date target but that doesn’t change the fact that patronage has dipped in recent months. The four graphs below show how we’re performing across each of the modes and the targets are based on information from the Council’s Long Term Plan debate last year. As you can see both trains and ferries have already exceeded targets but bus use has tailed off and that’s dragged the overall total down.

2016-04 - Patronage vs target

So what’s causing this drop. AT attribute to a number of factors such as charging for the City Link which they say has seen the biggest change and resulted of around 700,000 fewer trips, something AT seem fairly nonchalant about. But seeing as they’ve been doing a lot of advertising recently including large ads in Britomart and people walking around with the modern day version of a sandwich board it’s obviously trips they want back on the buses.

“If you’re transferring from another bus or another train using the AT HOP card, the service is still free,” AT Metro general manager Mark Lambert said.

“But I guess some of those people who were using the City Link for relatively short distances would rather walk a few hundred metres than pay a 50 cent fare. That’s completely understandable and that’s probably a good thing.”

Other factors likely include that people are being put off some buses as a result of the bus stop and route changes made to accommodate the construction of the CRL and possibly even lingering effects of people put off by the bus strike and March Madness a few months ago. But I suspect there are additional factors too.

Over the 18 months or so, AT plan to roll out some of the biggest changes we’ve seen for PT in the form of Integrated Fares (next month) the new bus network (South Auckland in October and the rest of Auckland some-time between then and early 2018). Both of these changes will undoubtedly be positive when they arrive and be the result of countless hours and effort put in by AT staff. Yet at the same time I also wonder if they’re hiding a little behind those projects or perhaps that they’ve just got so much resource tied up in getting those projects over the line that other improvements suffer.

AT said the bus network had suffered years of neglect, but new fares and a redesign of routes over the next 18 months were expected to provide a boost.

“As we change the bus network there may be a localised stagnation, as people get used to the changes, but we certainly expect to see strong growth as a result of those service re-designs,” Mr Lambert said.

One such example which is seemingly languishing on AT’s list of projects includes the roll out of bus lanes on which their latest report says they have under spent for this year.

Bus Priorities and Bus Lanes

Whilst we have received a number of requests from AT Metro in the last few weeks, we are still forecasting to underspend by $1.5m as undertaking any physical works this FY related to those requests will not be possible.

Just one example are the proposed transit lanes along Manukau Rd which would cut journey times for bus users and thereby making the buses along the route much more attractive and efficient. Other routes they’re looking at are shown below from their latest report but it seems the roll out of them is going far too slow.

Bus Lane Rollout

What do you think, are AT doing enough to keep patronage on buses growing or should we just hang around till October when the new network starts rolling out? If you were in charge what would you do to get that growth happening again?

Parking Shuttle flop

Back in March, Auckland Transport announced a special shuttle to link a Park n Ride at Lloyd Elsmore Park to the Half Moon Bay Ferry Terminal. At the time it was announced I thought it was a silly idea but said that at least AT were trying things.

Half Moon Bay P&R shuttle route

A  LGOIMA request from reader Felix Lee has discovered just how silly the idea is.

He asked:

  1. For the 5 trips being operated each day, can you tell me the average passenger number for each trip?
  2. Can you tell me the cost to operate this service?

The response from AT is below. It covers the period from 21 March when the service started to 21 May, a total of 42 working days (which is only when the service runs).

Half Moon Bay park n ride shuttle patronage

So a grand total of just 23 trips and it would seem that about 9 people didn’t even make the return journey. That seems like an abysmal failure to me.

But then we also need to consider the cost. AT say:

Half Moon Bay park n ride shuttle Cost

So over the 42 days covered above it cost about $7650 to run services on which just 23 trips were made so just over $330 per trip. Based on a quick search, at $175 for a 12 minute flight, it would have been almost half the cost to helicopter them directly to the city.

As I’ve said a number of times before, I believe that park n rides are often over-rated and clearly this example shows that parking then taking a shuttle to catch another PT service just isn’t attractive.

As I also said when this was announced, I think using the park as a park n ride is not a terrible idea but it should really be linked to bus services along Pakuranga Rd which AT have confirmed needs bus lanes in the recent information released about the Reeves Rd Flyover.

One other thing this episode highlights is the arguments over the bus colours recently. If you recall, those opposing the changes baulked at the suggestion that it might cost $9,000 to paint a bus and claimed that money could be better spent on new services instead. Here we have a service that runs just five times a day over ~2.6km for two months costing almost the same amount. This suggests that any meaningful addition to services on other routes will cost a lot more in a year than painting a few buses, the cost of which can be spread out over multi-year contract.

Coming back to the shuttle, the whole thing seems to have been a thoroughly predictable outcome. I guess the only real question is how much longer will AT keep the service running before they finally pull the plug on it?

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?

Are vacant homes adding to the housing shortage in our leafy suburbs?

People sometimes worry that investors (or foreigners) are buying up properties and leaving them empty, speculating on capital gains instead – but if this is happening at all, it seems to be on a very minor scale. In a post last year, I looked at unoccupied homes in Auckland and other NZ cities, using census data. Most of them, including Auckland, had similar percentages of unoccupied homes – roughly 5% to 8%.

In this post, I’ve dug deeper, looking at the unoccupied homes figures for each Auckland suburb. I’ve also put together an interactive map showing the percentage of unoccupied homes for each area:

 

Across the Auckland region, there were 33,201 unoccupied dwellings on census night 2013. This sounds like a lot, but as per my earlier post, the fraction of homes that are vacant is pretty similar to other NZ cities, and to the other ‘snapshots’ taken in the 2001 and 2006 censuses.

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of vacant homes on some of our offshore islands – Kawau, Great Barrier, Waiheke, with around 2,500 between them. Most of these, of course, are used as baches.

Most of the other ‘ghost areas’ are also bach hotspots – the highest percentage of vacant homes are in places like Leigh, Omaha, Snells Beach, Waiwera and Point Wells. Around 2,700 vacant homes are in these northern holiday/ lifestyle areas.

Still, most vacant homes in the Auckland region are in the urban area. This is what we’d expect given that’s where most of Auckland’s 507,000 dwellings are.

Within the city, Hobsonville stands out as an area with a lot of empty homes, presumably because many of the homes have just been built and not yet occupied. In fact, the Hobsonville East area unit had 363 occupied dwellings, 120 unoccupied, and another 18 under construction. That construction figure seems implausibly low, so my guess is that many of the “unoccupied” homes hadn’t actually been completed and certified yet, even if they looked habitable.

Auckland Central has 2,200 unoccupied dwellings, according to the 2013 census. It’s quite common for CBDs to have lower occupancy rates, due to several different factors:

  1. With a ready market of people wanting to stay in the CBD for a night, a week or a month, apartments are more likely to be rented out as short-term accommodation than a house in the suburbs
  2. Some people can afford to keep a CBD apartment for weekday or occasional use, and spend the rest of the time in a house elsewhere in Auckland, or somewhere else in New Zealand, or even overseas.
  3. Although legally everyone is supposed to fill out a census form, not everyone does. The ‘response rate’ is likely to be lower in the CBD (language barriers, privacy desires, age cohort factors etc), plus it’s harder for the census collectors to tell whether an apartment is occupied or not, compared to a house. Some apartments will have been incorrectly tagged as ‘unoccupied’.

In my previous post, I quoted North & South magazine, who give “Mt Albert and Mt Eden, Grey Lynn and Herne Bay” as examples of suburbs where ‘ghost houses’ are apparently common. But the census data doesn’t show that at all. Most of these suburbs are spectacularly normal. They have vacancy rates at very typical levels, in line with the averages for Auckland and other NZ cities. Herne Bay is slightly high at 9.1%, but it was 9.3% in 2006 and 7.9% in 2001. And those ‘higher’ rates seem to be typical for the wealthiest suburbs – Remuera is similar.

I initially thought that wealthier suburbs might be more likely to have unoccupied homes – since people living there might have more mobility, travelling overseas for example. However, there’s no evidence of this in the data. I’ve done a few really basic regressions, all of which fail to show a relationship between incomes and the percentage of unoccupied homes. Here’s one example:

Vacant homes vs income

 

Finally, I’m open to the idea that the number of empty homes has crept up since the 2013 census – that this is becoming an emerging issue – but it doesn’t seem likely. We’re not building enough homes, and there’s plenty of demand from people looking for places for to live (giving rise to issues like overcrowding). If anything, there’s more incentive to rent out an empty house now than there was in 2013. My two cents is that we need to put our energies elsewhere if we want to get the housing market into better shape.

New Zealand isn’t the only place to be concerned about empty homes. This article from Sydney uses 2011 census data for the city, similar to what I’ve done here. And this article from Melbourne uses a methodology I quite like – they’ve estimated the number of empty homes, based on homes with abnormally low water usage.