Introduction to Systematic Safety, The Principles Behind Vision Zero

Here’s a great video on the principles of behind “systematic safety” by Peter Furth. It’s really interesting how the approach is so different than current practice in the States, Australia and New Zealand.

And in case you missed it, Harriet had a great post on Dutch cycleway design last week, “Great Cycling Myths & Mistakes – How Auckland can easily be a Great Cycling City“.

Nelson St Phase 2

The Nelson St Cycleway was completed just over a year ago and has been a fantastic addition to the city.

Since then we’ve been patiently waiting for Phase 2, which has had a particularly long gestation period. It is intended to extend the cycleway to the Quay St cycleway and also includes extending it along Pitt St to Karangahape Rd. Auckland Transport originally consulted on a design way back in September 2015, months before Phase 1 even opened.

We weren’t thrilled with the design which would have seen the cycleway cross diagonally to the eastern side of Nelson St before sending cyclists along Sturdee St and Lower Hobson St, across in some places incredibly narrow footpaths, before reaching Quay St. We, and others, wanted the cycleway kept on the western side of Nelson St and linked into the tree lined Market Place. We also liked this well illustrated idea from reader Jonty to send it via the Hobson St Viaduct.

Just before Christmas, Auckland Transport finally announced the outcome of their consultation and the final design. Like we’d see in some earlier board reports, AT confirmed that the cycleway would now link into Market Place rather than using Sturdee St.

The link that will complete Auckland’s city cycle loop is a step closer.

The route, announced today, will connect the Nelson St Cycleway with the waterfront.

The connection along Nelson St to Quay St via Market Place, Customs St West and Lower Hobson St, will complete the loop.

The city cycle loop includes cycleways on Quay St, Beach Rd, Grafton Gully and the pink Lightpath.

Phase 2 of Nelson St Cycleway will include protected, on-road cycle lanes on both sides of Nelson St and Market Place from Victoria St to Pakenham St East.

Construction of this section will start in April and be completed by July. Plans for the remaining section of Market Pl, Customs St West and Lower Hobson will be made public in early 2017.

The major difference from what we suggested back in 2015 is that instead of the cycleway being completely on the western side, it will be split with northbound (downhill) cyclists staying on the western side but southbound (uphill) cyclists using the eastern side. We’re comfortable with that change.

As we understand, the biggest hurdle, and the reason it’s taken so long to confirm the design, has been the need to convince the traffic engineers that carmegeddon wouldn’t ensue from removing the two lane signalised slip lane from Nelson St on to Fanshawe St.

So here’s what AT plan to build (click to enlarge)

The cycle lanes on either side of the road will be protected. The biggest challenge will be the driveways and so all road users will have to take care here.

It’s the Nelson/Fanshawe intersection that will see the most change with the left turn slip lanes removed to allow the cycleway to be built and the kerb built out on the western side which will be a welcome addition to the many pedestrians that walk past here and who are currently squeezed into a narrow space.  The cycleway heading southbound will have a short section of being a shared path till it gets past Wyndham St. It will also require two legs to cross from Market Place which is a bit annoying.

Finally on Market Place the cycleways continue past Pakenham St.

AT are still working on the final design for Market Place which is why it hasn’t been included yet but from what we understand of it, it will good. From Market Place the intention is to use Customs St West and then Lower Hobson St.

The news for the Pitt St section isn’t so great though. Here, AT have scaled the design back to a simple shared path. They say this is caused mainly by the CRL and the significant disruption it will have on the area both during construction and after it with where they’ve decided to put vents.

Since design for this cycleway project started in January 2015, there have been changes to the CRL (City Rail Link) design, particularly the vent location in Pitt Street. The CRL team have advised that the CRL project will cause significant disruption including a very large excavation across Pitt Street in the Beresford Square vicinity.

AT met with key stakeholders in the area, including local businesses, NZ Fire Service, and St John NZ, to listen and understand their concerns.

Based on feedback received from submissions and also from meetings with key stakeholders, we have decided the cycleway should be re-scoped to provide an interim off-road shared path facility for Pitt Street.

AT is developing a design for CRL in the vicinity of Pitt Street and Beresford Square, incorporating the Pitt Street and Karangahape Road cycleways.

Here are the designs, which as you can see still retain a gap between Karangahape Rd and Beresford Square. It’s not clear how less confident cyclists will bridge this gap, presumably most would use the footpath.

As the press release earlier said, construction of the first section down Nelson St is expected to start in April and at least that and the section to Quay St are expected to be completed in the middle of the year.

AT’s Parking App delayed

Auckland Transport’s interesting looking parking app appears to have been delayed again. If you don’t recall, the app was first mentioned last year in a video about their recently adopted (and good) Parking Strategy.

In the video, it appears that you simply tag on within the app when you arrive and tag off again when you get back to your car so no need to fiddle around with parking machines or paper tickets.

Here’s what Stuff reports:

An app designed to replace pay-and-display parking machines in Auckland is facing delays of several months.

Auckland Transport’s $300,000 AT Park app was initially set to launch in September 2016 but was put off until early this year and now postponed again until late February or March.

The app, which will let people pay via credit card for on-street parking, would eventually phase out parking meters in the city.

Users would be able to log their location and car registration and then tag on and off.

Once the app was released AT would “thin out” the number of pay-and-display machines before scrapping them altogether over the coming years, AT’s parking design manager Scott Ebbett said.

Thinning out and then scrapping the parking meters sounds like a great long term goal as for one, it means one less thing to clutter up footpaths. I recall a few years ago reading that the parking meters we have are effectively obsolete and were in need of replacement. So replacing them with a phone app also sounds positive from a financial perspective, allowing more investment to be put into other areas of the transport system. Of course, I doubt removing all parking meters is something that will happen any time soon because smartphone usage is high but it isn’t 100%.

Based on these comments, I remain hopeful the app will integrate with HOP balances, plus also good to see that while delayed, the app has come in under budget.

An AT spokesman said it was “technically ready” for release but they were waiting to integrate it with the MyAT portal, where people can top up their HOP cards.

He said the app went through changes after its trial period, while technology for MyAT was also upgraded.

It had so far come in under the $300,000 budget, he said.

AT figures show there are 810 pay and display meters in the city, with the majority more than 10 years old.


Great Cycling Myths & Mistakes – How Auckland can easily be a Great Cycling City

Recently I have been doing a lot of research on cycling, reading CROW – Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic, the NACTO Guides, and reading/watching some great content over by Mark Wagenbuur at Bicycle Dutch. People have always told me that the Dutch are the Holy Grail of Cycling, I had some knowledge of Dutch cycling, but it made sense for me to check it out more extensively.

After this research my conclusion is this,

a) Dutch cycling infrastructure design really is great and
b) It’s made me think, are we prioritising on the right aspects (this question is more posed to engineers/designers), and are there some myths of Dutch cycling that we are to focused on (this question is more posed to us as advocates)

Not everything has to be segregated, like the Netherlands you just have to design it right.

When we think of the Netherlands we think glorious 2m+ segregated cycle tracks safe & protected from traffic, with room enough to overtake, or to cycle with friends/family. While it’s true that the Dutch segregate cycling for arterial roads with speeds above 30km/h, not every road in the Netherlands is an arterial, a large part of the streets network in the Netherlands are local streets which have speed limits of 30km/h, and at these speeds you can still have safety with unprotected cycle lanes, two examples are Fietsstrook streets where motorists can enter the cycle lanes to allow other motorists to pass as long as safe for cyclists, and Fietsstraat (Bike Streets) where motorists are allowed but are guests and must maintain low speeds.



Safety is about the Intersections

In NZ, we have a tendency to focus on cycle lanes, we put the cycle lanes in either along the street, or add them into the street, but as soon as we get to an intersection we stop. To the Dutch this would seem odd, mainly because it’s intersections where a lot of the danger is, opposed to the section of road we concentrate on.  Surely it makes sense to prioritise the least safe sections for funding, without compromising the network through stop/starting of infrastructure of course, and as these pictures/videos by Bicycle Dutch show fixing them is easier than you might think.

Protected Cycle Intersection

Continuity is Key

Continuity of infrastructure is important, if gaps exist, or it stops short, people wont use it to its full extent. Remember when trains used to stop at the Strand, sure the rail network existed and could be quick, but because it stopped short of the city, people didn’t see it as competitive. Or imagine driving on the Auckland motorway network, then all the sudden SH1 went from 3 lanes each way motorway standard to one lane dirt track then back to motorway standard every few km’s, it wouldn’t be a great drive in the AM peak that is for sure.

For the same reasons why those two examples would be awful for the users, the same applies to cyclists, stopping infrastructure at intersections, gaps in cycle lanes such as at bus stops, or stopping the infrastructure short of where people want to go will lead to infrastructure not being utilized to its full capacity. Arguably, these issues effect cyclists more than PT users/drivers because doing the above not only makes cycling harder, it has large safety effects. Gaps in cycle routes cause a reduction in the perception of safety which leads to potential users avoiding the route, or more likely not to cycle at all.

Therefore getting cycling infrastructure right, and continuous, can be more important for increasing use, than prioritising km’s of cycle lanes across a city.

Floating Bus Stop

Width is Important & not just for Safety.

Width of cycle infrastructure is important for cyclists, it gives more of a buffer against other modes when unprotected, and allows cyclists to overtake safely meaning commuter/social cyclists can ride at their own pace. But it isn’t just about safety, the Dutch believe having wider cycle infrastructure is important because it allows people to cycle together side by side, e.g. riding with your partner, or a mother riding with her children to school. It is understanding that social aspect of cycling is a hugely important part of the mix for driving cycling as a successful mode of transport, and is often mentioned in official guides such as CROW.

Is it time to give Roundabouts more of a go?

In many countries there is a preference to building signalized intersections with a perception they are safer than roundabouts, this is interesting to the Dutch who believe the opposite, over the years converting many intersections to roundabouts. Admittedly the Dutch design their roundabouts a little different, with protected cycle lanes, and with the aim of creating easy sight of conflicts for users, as well as slowing traffic down on the roundabout. This is backed up with the safety record that Dutch four-way roundabouts are around two times safer than Dutch four-way signalised intersections.

SWOV Intersection Safety Stats

Here’s a great video by Bicycle Dutch walking through examples of Dutch Roundabout Design

So what do you think?

Britomart’s new temporary entrance is open

The new temporary entrance at Britomart, which I’ll refer to as ‘the shed’ and is needed while the City Rail Link is built under the old Chief Post Office (CPO), is now able to be used by the public. From next week the CPO will close making the shed the main entry to the station and the only way to access it at the western end – the entrance under the EY building is unaffected.

I haven’t been though Britomart yet this year but Cam Pitches kindly grabbed some photos for us.

And here it is a little closer up

This looks quite different from the renderings Auckland Transport produced earlier showing it looking more transparent


The material is translucent though letting a lot of light in as shown in this image from AT when iwi blessed the entrance last week. I wonder the choice of material was to stop the place suffering from becoming a glasshouse effect during the heat of the day.

One can see above is the new train display that’s been installed. Here’s a better look at it from Cam and to me, it looks a considerably better than the old red LED displays in the CPO (above the HOP machines and ticket counters)

With most people arriving at Britomart heading south towards Customs St, the most heavily used entrance will see passengers pouring out onto Galway St. Here’s what that entrance looks like as finishing touches are put on.

For some time now, the footpaths on Galway St have frequently been parked over by delivery vehicles, tradies and taxi’s. With thousands of people daily now about to use it, it will be imperative that Auckland Transport step up enforcement and keep it clear

Here are also some photos by Luke

One thing to note is that there are no escalators from the ground level down to the lower concourse, only stairs or the elevators.

The entrance certainly looks temporary from the outside but as Luke mentions, and what I felt looking at it during construction, it does feel light and spacious. It will also be fascinating to see how long it lasts after the CRL is complete. Temporary structures tend to have history of sticking around a lot longer than intended with a great example being the slug on Queens Wharf.


Update: the CRL team have sent me this

The CPO Queen St doors will close after the last train on Monday night (for three years) and the new entrance will be in operation from first thing this Tuesday.

Slowest City tag meaningless

The media seem went gaga a few days ago about a new report that looks at the impacts of congestion in Auckland and other Australasian cities. It’s no surprise they reported on it either, transport in Auckland is a common gripe and so the story of Auckland being the slowest city, confirming what many people already believe, was too much to pass up.

But even reading the news articles, it struck me that this was likely another case of the wrong questions being asked but that by in large, the right answers were reached, much like ATAP. Perhaps even more so it wasn’t the main findings of the report that were important but some of the ancillary comments.

The report is by Austroads, a key organisation in the development of road networks in Australasia. Here’s some of what the Herald said about it.

Auckland commuters can groan in agreement with a report that reveals the city has the worst travel times and reliability in Australia and New Zealand.

This is despite having the fastest road in the two countries combined.

Austroads Congestion and Reliability Review measured the levels of congestion and traffic across major cities in Australia and New Zealand and released their findings in a report.

The cities were categorised into groups of similar population size. Auckland was in group two alongside Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.

In its group Auckland performed worst across “most measures”. These included the highest travel time delay, morning and afternoon peak reliability.

Auckland came out worst in it’s group with an average speed of 77.6km/hr. The other cities were between 82km/hr to 86km/hr. American cities of a comparative size went up to 104km/hr.

The slowest roads were St Lukes Rd, Wairau Rd and Lake Rd. While the fastest were the Northern Gateway Toll Rd (which topped the Australasian list with an average speed of 98.8km/hr), Upper Harbour Motorway and SH16.

By focusing on the speed of commutes, my immediate feeling was that this sounds like a very similar approach taken by Tom Tom and other organisations for their own congestion reports. This proved to be correct as this is what the press release says about the method they used.

The findings are based on an analysis of Google Maps data for 600km of roads for each major Australian city, enabling analysis of travel time along different road segments. The analysis was based on two months of data, comprising of 1km long road segments, with data points taken every 15 minutes, to calculate the six key congestion measures outlined in the report. An econometric analysis was then undertaken to provide insight into the drivers of network performance.

We’ve written before about TomTom’s reports, one of the key problems with reports that use this kind of methodology are that they are based on measuring the variance in the speed of traffic compared to the maximum speed limit allowed on the road. This ignores that roads can be more efficient and flow better with lower speeds, for example a motorway will move more vehicles an hour/flow better if they’re all travelling at 80km/h than 100km/h.

Also importantly, these reports only ever reference vehicle congestion/speeds, not the people using that corridor. Infrastructure like the rail network and Northern Busway allow a lot more people to be moved within a corridor, often faster and free of congestion. We know that 40% of people crossing the Harbour Bridge every morning on a comparatively small number of buses don’t suffer from the congestion those in cars next to them have endured.

But it’s here were we reach one of those right answer to the wrong question points. That’s because while we know that counting the speed of PT and other road users is key if we want a more accurate report, we also know that Auckland is one of the worst performers when it comes to use of other modes, something noted by the authors when they say

Auckland has fewer public transport options, compared with other cities. Plentiful low-cost parking in Auckland encourages commuters to drive.

Looking at the articles also raised a new potential issue with how these kinds of congestion metrics are created, in particular the mention that the Northern Gateway Toll Road was the fastest in Australasia. In short, why would you count a rural tolled motorway. Other than on holiday weekends, which wouldn’t be relevant in this discussion, this road has almost no bearing on the congestion most Aucklanders might experience. But that got me thinking, if the toll road is included in Auckland’s numbers, what else is included, especially in other cities.

So here’s Auckland’s map of the most delayed roads based on their methodology.

And as one example, here’s Perth which comes out much better in the metrics.

And Brisbane

One thing worth noting is it appears these maps are not at the same scale, the furthermost point away from the Auckland City Centre is about Drury, 30km away. By comparison in Brisbane and Perth some of the locations shown are over 50km away from the city centre. This hints at one of the potential issues, there are a lot more uncongested rural highways included in the numbers of other cities compared to Auckland. To be fair, in the middle of the report they do say that the types of roads selected for this report will impact the results i.e. more motorways generally results in higher average speeds.

The report also looks at some international cities as comparisons but oddly they decided specifically to choose cites with similar PT modeshares to the Australasian cities which means cities of similar sizes and densities in places like Europe and North America can’t be compared to see if there’s something cities here could learn if there was a different transport/land use focus.

As mentioned earlier though, despite issues with some of the ways this report has been approached, I do think it comes up with some useful points.

More important that the speed of a particular journey is the reliability of it. If you know it’s always going to be slow then at least you can accept that, or adjust when or how you travel to avoid it. But when that varies considerably every day it can be infuriating. Of course, Auckland fares poorly in the reliability rankings

They also make some very salient points about why Auckland performs poorly. These include:

  • Auckland’s geography, particularly its harbours and waterways, impose constraints on the transport system, meaning the main transport links are confined to narrow corridors
  • Compared with other cities there is a lower level of public transport provision for commuters
  • There exists highly available and low cost parking in Auckland which encourages commuters to drive

Auckland’s geographic constraints forces a lot of people to travel through narrow areas, if only there was a way to move a lot of people without needing a lot of space to do so. Despite what some urban myths would have you believe, that makes Auckland ideally suited to public transport, if was provided it well. This is something backed up to some degree by ATAP, which noted that there are only limited options for expanding road capacity within most of the urban area.

There is no one solution to ‘solve’ congestion but definitely a “more of the same but bigger” approach will not work. If Auckland wants a chance of improving congestion it will need provide better alternatives so the best option isn’t to sit in a car and hope for the best.

ATAP ASAP’s – Extra Trains

In Part 1 of my series I wrote about the Third Main between Westfield & Wiri as being an ATAP (Auckland Transport Alignment Project) ASAP, a first decade project that in my opinion needed funding straight away, my second post of this series is about the need for extra trains pre-CRL (City Rail Link).

Currently we have 57 three-car trains and anyone who uses trains on a regular basis will have seen the massive growth in patronage. People at peak report crowded trains, as well people in some shoulder peak services in which some services are only three-car trains instead of six. Even I have noticed it the 5:58am from Avondale which is no longer a very empty train. But don’t take my word for it, the patronage figures speak for themselves.

By allowing for more efficient operations, the CRL will improve capacity but that is not due to be finished until 2023which means we have a long way to go & a lot of growth needing to be accommodated.

ATAP states that three tranches of 21 extra trains are needed over the 30-years between 2018-2048, one tranche per decade. In order to cope with the growth we’re already seeing, let alone what the CRL will deliver, we really need to order the first tranche of additional trains now. That will allow Auckland Transport to run more services as six-car trains, ensuring that all peak and shoulder peak trains are appropriately bulked up, especially in the afternoons where trains are used for school students.

Rail Development Programme

It is imperative we order the trains sooner rather than later as the trains have about a 2 year lead time, meaning if we ordered them today they still wouldn’t arrive until late 2018, by which time services will be significantly more crowded. Of course trains don’t come cheap and each one costs around $10 million and ATAP budgets $210 million for each of the first two tranches. We also know that AT have been looking at the idea of buying some battery powered trains to allow them to serve Pukekohe without needing wires.

Regardless, the network is growing like crazy and we need the capacity to get through to the CRL. Add in the long lead times for production and that we’ll definitely need them once the CRL opens and I think we have ourselves an ATAP ASAP.


I have an extra set, but it may still have capacity issues :D

I have an extra set, but we may still have capacity issues 😀

So what do you think?

Wanderlust: One week in Bordeaux makes a hard man crumble

Wanderlust: Strong longing for or impluse toward wandering (source)

Imagine you own a house in the French countryside, where you live with your dogs and horses. Now imagine that you want to spend Christmas with your family in the U.K.

Such situations are exactly what the website Trusted Housesitter sets out to resolve. Once you have signed up, then all you need to do is list photos of your house, the dates you’re away, and what animals needs to be looked after. Then people can apply to look after your house and beloved (usually furry) friends for no cost. You give them accommodation; they look after your animals. Like many online platforms that rely on trust to some degree, they use upfront identity checks and follow-up reviews to try and keep people honest.

We recently made use of Trusted Housesitter to find a house in the Aquitaine region in France, where we spent a week over Christmas. For those of you who don’t know so much about European geography at the regional level, then look at the map below and think mustard yellow and south-west (that’s bottom-left, for the even more geographically challenged).

Bordeaux is the capital of the Aquitaine region, and it is a historical city that is famed for its red wine. When photographed from a particular angle in certain climatic conditions, part of Bordeaux looks like this. That is, quite nice.

I understand the central city is UNESCO heritage listed. We spend three nights in Bordeaux itself, and especially enjoyed walking through the Old Town, along the river, and then looping back through the old wine district. I could actually see myself living and loving here. Bordeaux is lively, with good restaurants and bars, without too much hustle and bustle.

From a transport perspective, the most interesting aspect of Bordeaux is probably the LRT; in the city centre the system is powered by induction loops embedded in the pavement. I understand the use of induction was prompted by the desire to avoid the visual polllution caused by overhead wires. Like most innovative technologies, this one has encountered its share of reliability issues. Could cities like Auckland learn from the issues Bordeaux encountered?

The city itself is also very flat, and I was somewhat surprised with the lack of cycle infrastructure, especially compared to the Netherlands and even Paris.

Nevertheless, after three nights in Bordeaux itself, we grabbed our hire car and escaped to the Aquitaine countryside to take up residence. The house we were living in was located in a little hamlet called Lunas, which was about 15 minutes drive north from Bergerac. The house we stayed in (with our Dutch friend Nienke) was rather delightful, as shown below.

During our stay we were charged with looking after Filou (brown dog), Elmo (black dog), Thomas (black horse), and Blue (white horse). I am pleased to report that all are still alive, even though Thomas did try and have a chew of my jacket.

During the middle of the day we ventured forth to surrounding towns and villages. Aquitaine is an interesting region partly because it was ruled by the English royals for approximately 300 years from 1154 until the end of the so-called Hundred Year’s War in 1453, when it was annexed by France (source). Thereafter the region sustained a high proportion of French Protestants, or Huguenots, at least until St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, military defeats, and loss of rights resulted in sustained emigration to new world countries with more tolerant religious climes (NB: Game of Thrones fans may want to read-up on these events, as I understand they inspired the Red Wedding scene). Or for a somewhat related take on the European (Norman) influence on England, some of you might be interested in this article.

Partly because of this historical legacy, Aquitaine is peppered with partially fortified villages, called Bastides, which combined a central marketplace, church, and fortification. On our day-trips we visited several lovely small villages, such as St Emilion, PerigueuxLimeuil, and Monpazier. Here’s a couple of pics to tease the taste-buds. We were there in winter, so many of the shops were shut. Nonetheless, we always found somewhere decent to eat and as well as some talented local artisans hawking their wares. I have heard, and can imagine, that these places bustle during the peak summer months.

Our week in Aquitaine makes a hard man crumble like a freshly-baked croissant. The food was amazing, and very affordable. We ate several three course lunch meals for 15 Euro, or 23 NZD. And when I say three course meal, I am talking about a shrimp risotto entree, marinated roast duck mains, with creme brulee for dessert. That is, a decent poke of the tasty food stick for a small piece of the old travel budget. I’d highly recommend the restaurant Euskadi, Bergerac. For those who don’t know, lunch is a serious event in France — and most tourist places will shut between 12-2pm. Be warned and plan ahead; I’d recommend joining them in enjoying a slow lunch.

One of the most impressive things about Aquitaine is that it’s quite wild. In the woods close to where we were staying, wild deer and boar roamed relatively freely, at least until they were hobbled by a hunter. Indeed, one long-term upside of the gradual decline of rural areas in many parts of Europe is the gradual “re-wilding” of marginal land that was previously used for farming. This is a topic to which I’ll return in a future post, as it’s been the topic of considerable debate, especially when it is accompanied with the return of mega-fauna, such as bears and wolves (source).

Either way, the key messages of this post are:

  1. If you are an animal lover with wanderlust, then check out The site operates in many countries around the world, including New Zealand and Australia. If you’re somewhat flexible, then it’s a great cost-effective way to travel and also puts you in touch with locals who can advise on things to do.
  2. If you want to go off slightly the beaten track in France, then I’d recommend Aquitaine. You can easily spend 1-2 weeks visiting the towns and villages, even in winter. If you’re short on time, then I can recommend St Emilion — as it’s close to Bordeaux and has a wonderful monolithic cathedral in the centre of town.
  3. Rural areas around the world are struggling with demographic, environmental, and technological change. Is it possible for government policy to help rural areas transition their economy away from marginal extractive and/or agricultural industries? In ways that will benefit both urban and rural areas? I’ll be pondering such issues in an upcoming post.

Until next time, travel safe. And to finish, here’s some lovely street art from Bordeaux. Goodbye concrete; hello psychedelic wolverines. Have any of you travelled in theAquitaine region? If so then please feel free to share your experiences and advice in the comments section. I’d personally be keen to know a bit more about the Atlantic coast, which we didn’t visit on this trip — but may do on another.

Driverless Impacts

The discussion around driverless vehicles has increased dramatically over the last few years and I suspect will only continue to escalate in the years to come. What’s also increased is the almost religious zeal by which some preach the technology, promising it will deliver some form utopian future. Many of the common claims used by were covered off in an opinion piece by Rodney Hide yesterday. There are a couple of points highlighted in there I want to explore further.

1. Safety

Improving safety on our roads remains the biggest promise of driverless vehicles. It means 300 fewer people in New Zealand and more than 1.2 million worldwide might not need to die on roads. Especially early on, this improved safety will be achieved by the vehicles being much more cautious on our roads as human drivers are much less predictable. More cautious also means slower and how will a trip taking longer by being driverless affect usage. Of course as I’ve pointed out before, it won’t take long for pedestrians to catch on and effectively reclaim the streets simply be threatening to walk across the road and all cars will stop.

Of course, driverless vehicles will only be as good as the technology behind them and based on. For example Uber’s driverless car that was being trialled in San Francisco ran red lights and performed dangerous turns that could have injured people on bikes.

2. Touch of a button mobility

The idea most talked about with driverless vehicles is that people will no longer own a car themselves but instead they will be companies like Uber providing fleets of vehicles for people to use at the push of a button.

Your ride will arrive with a tap of your phone. It will whisk you to your destination and disappear to the next fare.

That’s fine and a great vision but what does that mean in reality, especially when everyone is using the system. Particularly in the suburbs, does this mean there will need to be enough vehicles nearby so people never need to wait more than a few minutes and if so, where are these cars stored. Perhaps they’re just roaming the streets, racking up the kilometres just waiting for someone to need to make a journey. Do we really want to encourage the streets to be constantly filled with vehicles all waiting for a passenger?

3. Land use impacts

If the driverless utopia visions are correct then the land use impacts of the technology could be just as, if not more significant than the transport impacts. Rodney hits at a few of these in his article

No need to own, maintain or garage a car. No need to park it.


No wasted space for the parking of cars on the side of the road. No car parks.

If the promised revolution comes anywhere near as soon as some like to suggest then councils and transport agencies need to dramatically change their thinking now on many issues, especially parking. For example, while the Unitary Plan removed parking minimums from many locations, they will still be required in lower density developments. This could saddle property owners with a ‘feature’ which could shortly be obsolete. Freeing developments from parking and associated driveway infrastructure would likely have significant impacts on both the costs of development and the amount of land needed.

Perhaps an even greater impact from a city point of view is the amount of urban land in many of our town and metro centres that suddenly gets freed up and can be used for other purposes. It is interesting to think what impact that would have on urban land prices. As an example, in the map below of Botany, red is buildings and grey is parking.

By removing the need for parking it also means we do not need to invest in expensive park & ride and parking buildings become an obsolete asset. This raises the question of whether we should be making policy changes now in advance of the introduction of driverless vehicles such as divesting or redeveloping parking facilities now and diverting any planned expenditure on new parking facilities elsewhere.

4. Road impacts

Related to above, what happens to our roads if we no longer need to provide on-street parking. Demands for on-street parking by residents and businesses remains one of the biggest barriers to implementing better streets, providing more space for walking, cycling or transit. If driverless vehicles are coming then there should be no reason why agencies like Auckland Transport can’t be much more aggressive in rolling out these networks.

Interestingly the transition to driverless vehicles might not be as smooth as some assume. As this article from the BBC on research in the UK highlights, driverless vehicles will more safety conscious and therefore likely drive slower and more defensively than meat bag driven ones. That could result in a reduction in road capacity until there is enough of them on the roads.

5. Transit impacts

When reading the article, I was wondering at what point I would see the comment below, to be honest I was surprised it was so far near the end.

The investment in trains in Auckland will look as clever as if we had built canals for barges pulled by horses.

The idea that driverless vehicles will suddenly replace the need for well-designed public transport is frankly absurd. As we’ve commented before, driverless technology will also be able to be applied to buses and light rail, and it’s already possible to have driverless trains. Removing the driver will also removes a lot of the marginal cost of services so it means we can run more services for the same amount of money.

Additionally, while driverless vehicles are ultimately likely to improve road throughput, it still won’t be enough in dense cities. As Jarrett Walker points out, it’s not an engineering problem, it’s a geometry problem.

So a bus with 4o people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of two each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles?   It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless.  Where will they all fit in the urban street?  And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?

A driverless vehicle from your house is probably as likely to drop you at a train or busway station to continue your journey as it is take you all the way yourself.

6. Job impacts

The impact the technology will have on jobs is one not often discussed but rapid adoption is likely to be seriously disruptive to all of society.

There won’t be neighbourhood auto shops.

There will simply be fleets of driverless vehicles to maintain. The vehicles will be run 24/7 and serviced accordingly.

The savings will be dramatic. There will be no drivers. Freight and people will be shifted quickly, safely and efficiently.

Driverless vehicles will transport your children to school like a taxi, cheaper than a bus.

A trip to Christchurch will be done overnight while you sleep. The fare will be the running cost plus your minuscule share of the vehicle’s depreciation and maintenance.

According to Stats NZ, as of 2015 there were the following numbers of people employed in these industries:

  • 18,970 people in Automotive Repair and Maintenance
  • 17,390 people in Motor Vehicle and Motor Vehicle Parts Retailing
  • 7670 people in Motor Vehicle and Motor Vehicle Parts Wholesaling
  • 36120 people in Road Transport – this includes both freight (72%) and passenger transport (28%)

Combined, these make up about 4% of all jobs in NZ and I’m sure there are many others directly or indirectly associated with our road transport system. Now obviously not all will disappear with the advent of driverless technology but a good number would, almost certainly more than half. If it were to happen suddenly then the impact on employment in NZ would be greater than the Global Financial Crisis had where the number of people employed dropped by 2.5%.

6. Financial impacts

Finally, driverless vehicles are likely to have some serious financial implications with some potentially massive savings. One, even acknowledged in ATAP was that it “could present opportunities to defer or avoid future investment in additional road capacity”. In other words, we don’t need to spend more on new/bigger roads if the technology makes the current ones safer and have greater capacity. It also saves money in other areas too, such as road policing which is currently funded out of fuel taxes to the tune of over $300 million annually.

I do see driverless vehicles becoming an important part of our transport system but I don’t think they’re going to deliver the utopia some believe.

Sunday reading 8 January 2017

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This is my first edition of the year. As I’ve been tramping over the holidays, it’s mainly composed of things I started reading back in December.

The best thing I’ve read in January – after striking a few days of wet weather on the track – is Tramping New Zealand’s guide to what to wear tramping:

The theory is to have one set of clothes that is going to get wet during the day, either through precipitation, or perspiration, and one set that stays dry, to keep you cosy at night.

That’s it.

You travel in and out with your dry set, change to the wet for walking, change back out when you have your accommodation sorted to stay warm, clad yourself in the wet in the morning, you were saying how tough you were, etc.

There’s no great benefit in taking two wet, or two dry sets. Just take what you are going to use.

And, maybe, a spare pair of dry socks.

Oh, don’t forget underwear, that doesn’t weigh excessively.

Sounds about right to me. My current theory is that “breathable”, as applied to wet weather gear, is code for “you will get wet before long”. Consequently, you’re probably better off in a wool bush shirt and a plastic poncho than a $500 Gore-Tex jacket.

While we’re on the subject of the great outdoors, Toby Manhire’s interview with Laura Wallace from GNS Science (in The Spinoff) provided an illuminating perspective on a geological detective story:

The Kaikoura earthquake wreaked destruction, tragedy and misery, but it also generated much scientific fascination. Including: what was going on in the Hikurangi Subduction Zone and those mysterious slow-slip events? […]

These slow slip events, they’ve been called “silent earthquakes”?

They’re similar to earthquakes, as slow slip events accommodate more rapid than normal movement on the plate boundary fault, in this case the Hikurangi subduction zone. Unlike earthquakes (which involve slip along faults in a matter of seconds), slow slip events can take weeks or months to occur. Because slow slip events are slow and don’t occur suddenly enough to release seismic energy, we have to use GPS to detect them. Basically, we look for mm-level changes in the position of the land above the slow slip events. East coast North Island slow slip events typically show up as 2-3 cm eastward shifts of the land on the GPS.

The slow slip event we are observing off the North Island’s east coast right now appears to have been triggered by the 7.8 earthquake, probably due to very small stress changes induced by the passing seismic waves from the M7.8 earthquake. We’ve seen slow slip events triggered by earthquakes in New Zealand before. The Te Araroa Earthquake that happened in early September triggered a slow slip event off East Cape. There was also an earthquake near Gisborne in late 2007, that triggered a slow slip event near Gisborne. In this case the M7.8 earthquake appears to have triggered slow slip over a larger part of the Hikurangi plate boundary, going from about southern Hawkes Bay up to East Cape. We haven’t seen this happen simultaneously over such a large area before, and this makes it a really interesting event.

Slow-slip events at tectonic plate boundaries were first discovered in North America’s Pacific Northwest – and it’s a good thing they’re happening there, as pressure would otherwise build up faster for a massively destructive earthquake. As it is, Seattle is in the midst of another tectonic shift in housing development. Mike Rosenberg reports on the building boom in the Seattle Times:

The apartment boom in Seattle has already reached historic heights — more units opened in each of the past four years than ever before.

Now, the real boom is about to begin.

Seattle is set to see almost 10,000 new market-rate apartments open in 2017, nearly twice as many as in any other year in the city’s history.

With the construction surge set to continue through the rest of the decade, rent increases that have hit Seattle about as hard as any city in the country are forecast to be cut in half during 2017.

[…] Other cities have already seen this scenario play out. New York had a record number of apartments open in 2015, and rents there finally stopped climbing in 2016. Rents have also slowed recently in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and Houston following a rise in apartment construction in those cities.

“It is a pattern that’s registering in a lot of other places,” said Greg Willett, chief economist for the rental firm RealPage.

On the opposite end, Sacramento, Calif., stopped building apartments in the last decade and has now seen its normally tepid rental market surge to become one of the hottest in the nation. Ditto for Oakland.

The Seattle metropolitan area is a bit over twice as large as Auckland, so if we were trying to match their performance it would mean building around 5000 apartments next year.

A lot of the economic commentary from the US in November and December focused on what (if anything) can be done about the regional disparities that are (in part) driving dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo. More specifically, how do you revive the fortunes of declining manufacturing areas in the Rust Belt?

Paul Krugman, who earned his Nobel for work on trade policy and regional economics, is quite skeptical that any of the likely policies are likely to succeed:

So maybe the answer is regional policies, to promote employment in declining regions? There is certainly a case in principle for doing this, since the costs of uprooting workers and families are larger than economists like to imagine. I would say, however, that the track record of regional support policies in other countries, which spend far more on such things than we are likely to, is pretty poor. For example, massive aid to the former East Germany hasn’t prevented a large decline in population, much bigger than the population decline in Appalachia over the same period.

And I have to admit to a strong suspicion that proposals for regional policies that aim to induce service industries to relocate to the Rust Belt would not be well received, would in fact be attacked as elitist. People want those manufacturing jobs back, not something different. And it’s snooty and disrespectful to say that this can’t be done, even though it’s the truth.

In a subsequent post on his New York Times blog, Krugman also argued that an attempt to use protectionism to break down global value chains and bring manufacturing back to the US would be dangerously disruptive.

On the other hand, Bloomberg View columnist (and economist) Noah Smith takes a more optimistic view. He outlines “four ways to help the Midwest“:

No. 1 Infrastructure

Sick economies and shrinking population have left Rust Belt states and cities unable to pay for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many cities look like disaster areas. The federal government should allocate funds to repair and improve the Midwest’s roads, bridges and trains, and to upgrade its broadband. Sen’s pension bailout idea could also be instrumental in helping states buff up their infrastructure. Better transportation makes it easier for people and goods to flow between cities in a region, and for the region to export products to other places. Infrastructure is doubly important in a region like the Midwest, where winter weather can quickly make travel difficult.

No. 2 Universities

Universities are helpful for regional economic growth. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.), but more could be built, and existing universities could be expanded. Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. As things stand, Midwesterners tend to move away as soon as they graduate from college. Creating more industries specifically for these graduates would keep talent in the region.

No. 3 Business Development

Some cities in Colorado have embraced a development policy it calls economic gardening. The program helps provide resources for locals to start their own businesses. It furnishes them with market research and connects them with needed resources. Small businesses provide more employment than large ones, and offer a ticket to the middle class. They also have a chance of growing into large businesses. The Midwest should consider emulating Colorado’s plan, which seems to be getting results.

No. 4 Urbanism

Tech hubs like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are using development restrictions to keep their population densities in check. That gives Midwestern cities an opening to attract refugees from the high-rent metropolises of the two coasts. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland can work on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to the creative class, while allowing housing development to keep rents cheap. College towns like Ann Arbor can reduce their own development restrictions and allow themselves to become industrial hubs. And cities can copy the crime-fighting techniques of cities like New York and Los Angeles that have become much safer during the past few decades.

By the way, we will probably be facing similar questions in New Zealand. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has been quite forthright about the problems caused by regional disparities. In Stuff, he writes about the “plight of regions: hope v futility“:

Our regions are growing further apart. Incomes after adjusting for living costs have risen significantly in Auckland and Wellington.

The commercial and political capitals are pulling away from other regions.

Astonishingly, of the remaining 14 regions, only six have experienced real income gains over the last three decades. That is, eight regions have seen declines in real incomes over a three-decade period.

The regional divergences we see today are not new, nor unique to New Zealand. We see similar patterns in other advanced economies around the world too.

While incomes are growing much faster in Auckland and Wellington, there is a large gap between high and low income earners. In contrast, incomes are more equal in the provinces, but more equally low incomes.

The income divergence across our regions is rooted in deeper economic and demographic changes.

Changes in the economy, towards more services sector jobs, is favouring urban sectors.

Globalisation and technological change are offshoring or mechanising manual work – which is affecting provincial economies harder.

Our thinking in local government and economic policy is based on an expectation of continuing growth. Stagnation and decline are seen negatively.

Yet, that is reality of ageing populations and young people leaving the provinces for economic and other reasons for urban centres.

Eaqub’s analysis of the potential policy solutions is (I think) extremely realistic:

The international evidence from the United Kingdom, United States and France for growth fostering measures is troublingly mixed.

While regional interventions often work for the specific region, it comes at the cost of neighbouring comparable regions.

There is often no net gain for the country as a whole. Worse, once the programmes finish, the benefits also tend to fade in most cases.

Where the growth fostering policies have worked, they had some inherent strength in their location or economic potential, for example natural resources and weather amenable to year round tourism.  

Regional development is a topic that needs much further research and attention. There is no recipe that will work in every occasion.

This is a debate that will definitely be worth following closely in the coming year, especially if any new policies get put to the test. For what it’s worth, I agree with Krugman that trade protectionism and industrial subsidies are likely to be ineffective at best, destructive at worst. Smith’s ideas are likely to be useful at the margin, but I doubt that they will succeed in reversing longstanding trends. Similarly, a one-size-fits-all approach to trying to revitalise regions that have had technological, economic, and social trends turn against them is unlikely to work.

One thing that is worth reading if you’re interested in solutions is a paper by Paul Conway, the Productivity Commission’s head of research, entitled Achieving New Zealand’s Productivity Potential. I had a chance to skim it a few weeks back and am planning on writing a full post on it sometime in January.

To close out the week, two more bits on apartments and housing development. First, Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff interview Mike Davis, the “chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade” (in Boom California). I’ve long been a fan of Davis’s work on cities and the history of Los Angeles. While he’s got a larger, more radical critique of contemporary development, I’m often most struck by his talent for observing small details of urban life. For instance:

The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.

Finally, Charlie Sorrell (FastCoexist) points towards a great bit of data on outcomes following the development of low-income housing:

What happens to nearby property values when low-income housing is built in a neighborhood? They drop, right? Because claiming those non-rich individuals and families bring down housing prices is, apparently, a more palatable argument to make than saying poor people shouldn’t be in the neighborhood. The truth is that low-income housing does basically nothing to the prices of neighboring properties. They keep on rising, just like they did before.

Trulia, the real-estate listings service, dug deep into its data to track home values in areas where low-income housing was built. Author Cheryl Young looked at 3,083 low-income housing projects built from 1996 to 2006 (prior to the price-distorting housing bubble beginning in 2007), in “the nation’s 20 least affordable markets.” With just a few exceptions, the low-income housing had no effect on house prices.

That’s all; enjoy the rest of the weekend!