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Arguing for sprawl with “strategic misrepresentations”

A number of recent posts have taken a look at some of the “strategic misrepresentations” that people have used to argue for a sprawled-out, roads-focused Auckland. We’ve taken aim at some of the common fallacies, including:

A while back someone sent me an article by geographer Phil McDermott that really hits the trifecta of fallacies. He argues that building apartment buildings on arterial roads – precisely where they will have the best access to frequent public transport services on Auckland’s New Network – is a bad idea because it will lead to increased congestion on the roads.

McDermott’s argument is long on subjective judgments (young people may want apartments but old people downsizing from big suburban homes never will!) and short on quantitative analysis. Here’s his key piece of evidence that constructing apartments on arterial roads will inevitably lead to more congestion:

Congestion – the elephant in the apartment

That might be just as well because mindlessly boosting residential development on arterial roads promises simply to compound Auckland’s congestion problems.

We know higher densities are associated with higher congestion. Auckland’s geography means it already performs poorly on this count. The Tom Tom Congestion Index confirms this.

When the 2013 congestion index for 65 American and Australasian cities is plotted against population density (sourced from the Demographia website) Auckland sits among the worst performers – Vancouver, Sydney, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Population Density and Congestion

McDermott density and congestion

This is not a serious piece of analysis – it is an insult to econometricians. McDermott makes three elementary errors in this short excerpt alone.

First, he uses bad data that misrepresents levels of density and congestion in these cities. Matt has previously taken a look into the guts of the TomTom Traffic Index and found that it is not a useful measure:

It measures the difference in speed between free flow and congested periods. That means cities with lots of all day congestion there isn’t as much of a difference between peak and off peak times and therefore they get recorded as having less congestion.

Likewise, I’ve done some empirical work on population densities in New Zealand and Australian cities that has showed that Demographia’s statistics are similarly meaningless. Demographia measures the density of the average hectare of land in the city, rather than the density of the neighbourhood in which the average person lives. Nick has shown how badly these figures misrepresent the actual density of New Zealand cities:

Auckland Wellington Christchurch charts_Page_1

Second, McDermott omits important variables and makes inappropriate inferences about causality. While he observes a correlation between two variables, that’s hardly sufficient to prove that building apartments will increase congestion. The causality could very easily run the other way. For example, it could be the case that the presence of congestion creates an incentive for people to live closer to employment and amenity. If that’s the case, then McDermott’s preferred policy of banning apartment developments would make Aucklanders much worse off by preventing them from minimising their travel costs.

Another possibility is that the relationship between density and congestion is mediated through other factors. Both may be caused by a third variable that McDermott has omitted, or there may be an intermediate step between density and congestion. (Or, as noted above, the measures themselves might be rubbish.)

A while back, CityLab’s Eric Dumbaugh provided an excellent illustration of the complex nature of congestion. He looks at data on US cities and finds that higher congestion is associated with higher, rather than lower, levels of productivity:

As per capita delay went up, so did GDP per capita. Every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. For those interested in statistics, the relationship was significant at the 0.000 level, and the model had an R2 of 0.375. In layman’s terms, this was statistically-meaningful relationship.

Dumbaugh congestion and productivity chart

Such a finding seems counterintuitive on its surface. How could being stuck in traffic lead people to be more productive? The relationship is almost certainly not causal. Instead, regional GDP and traffic congestion are tied to a common moderating variable – the presence of a vibrant, economically-productive city. And as city economies grow, so too does the demand for travel. People travel for work and meetings, for shopping and recreation. They produce and demand goods and services, which further increases travel demand. And when the streets become congested and driving inconvenient, people move to more accessible areas, rebuild at higher densities, travel shorter distances, and shift travel modes.

In light of these counterintuitive relationships, the simple two-variable OLS regression that McDermott is relying upon is almost certainly misleading.

Third, McDermott fails to recognise that people are less exposed to congestion in denser, mixed-use cities. It’s simple: when people have better transport choices – i.e. access to frequent bus services and rapid transit, and safe walking and cycling networks – it doesn’t matter as much that the roads are congested. Increasing Auckland’s density by constructing apartment blocks and terraced housing on arterial roads will make it easier for people to have those choices, because the arterial roads are where the frequent bus services under the New Network will go:

Frequency is freedom

Frequency is freedom

Furthermore, density allows people to be closer to where they want to go. I find it odd that McDermott (and others) underestimate the importance of physical proximity in cities, even as people are paying high prices for the privilege. Building more homes in the areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities will allow more people to choose proximity over long commutes. (Without preventing others from making a different choice.)

A question for the readers: Would you rather have a 40 kilometre commute travelling at 80 km/hr, or a 5 kilometre commute moving at 30 km/hr? Show your work…

Regional Land Transport Plan throws up a few surprises

Today the Auckland Transport board are meeting, I’ve already covered the board report and in this post I’ll look at the draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP). As a brief description the RLTP

  • Sets out the strategic direction for transport in Auckland including how AT proposes to give effect to the transport components of the Auckland Plan and AT’s strategic themes within the fiscal constraints of the funding provided in the LTP.
  • Is consistent with the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport.
  • Brings together objectives, policies and performance measures for each mode of transport.
  • Sets out a programme of activities to contribute to this strategic direction. It outlines both the Basic Transport Network and the Auckland Plan Transport Network.
  • Includes transport activities to be delivered by NZTA, KiwiRail, the NZ Police, AC and AT.

The draft RLTP will be open for public submission from 23 January – 16 March 2015 which is the same time as the council’s Long Term Plan (LTP). We already know much of the detail about what the RLTP holds as it has come out as part the discussion of the LTP over the last few weeks. In particular that there are two transport networks proposed, what’s known as the Basic Transport Programme – a severely constrained network that will see many critical projects such as new transport interchanges put on hold – or what’s known as the Auckland Plan Transport Programme which is the everything including the kitchen sink approach. We’ve discussed the plans before including the sticky mess the basic plan produces.

What’s interesting about the draft RTLP is some of the language used and even more so some of the suggestions for Auckland’s future and it’s some of these aspects I’ll cover in this post. Perhaps most importantly is the document suggests that Auckland Transport are starting to realise that yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s problems and AT’s Chairman Lester Levy’s says exactly that in his introduction. He also makes a few other bold statements including that Aucklanders deserve better than choosing between poor transport outcomes or paying an extra $300 million a year.

That language carries on through the document and some parts feel like they could have been written by us. While I’m quite cognisant of the fact that these words need to be backed up by actions, the change in the discussion isn’t an isolated case as we’ve started to see similar comments from other agencies such as the Ministry of Transport and the NZTA. That gives me hope that in coming years we’ll see some real improvements in transport planning in Auckland and across the country.

Some of this comes through particularly strongly in the problem definition section of the document – page 30 in the PDF – which lists the four key problems that need to be addressed. The first one identifies that limited transport options are having a negative impact.

1. Limited quality transport options and network inefficiencies undermine resilience, liveability and economic prosperity

Underdeveloped public transport, walking and cycling networks mean that Auckland continues to have high reliance on private vehicle travel and low levels of public transport use, walking and cycling. Private vehicles account for 78% of trips in urban Auckland.

This high dependency on private vehicles means not only that there are long traffic delays but that many people have no choice other than to travel by car. Cars take up space that could otherwise be used to address Auckland’s housing shortage, improve environmental outcomes, improve economic performance, reduce social inequalities, improve health and safety and improve transport affordability. It also increases the risk to the economy from future oil price shocks.


Investments in the rail network and the Northern Busway are already making a difference, and Aucklanders have been taking up these new choices in numbers that exceed all forecasts. Annual surveys of travel to Auckland’s city centre confirm that the growth in public transport travel is already making more capacity available on key links for freight and business trips.

While the fourth problem recognises that we’re basically at the end of the era of being able to build cheap roads to expand the transport network. It also notes that expectations of congestion free driving should be a thing of the past

4. Meeting all transport expectations is increasingly unaffordable and will deliver poor value for money

Providing new or expanded transport infrastructure to respond to growth is becoming increasingly expensive and inefficient. Land corridors designated in the past for transport purposes have now been used, and constructing transport infrastructure on land already used for housing or as open space is expensive and unpopular. The Victoria Park Tunnel and the Waterview Tunnel are two examples of roading projects that have been constructed as tunnels to minimise adverse environmental and community impacts, at significant additional cost.


It is clear that expecting a high level of performance from the transport network for all modes in all locations at all times and for all types of trips is increasingly unaffordable and will not provide value for money. The level of performance can appropriately be expected to vary according to location, time of day, type of trip and mode of travel.

And it is carried on into the sections about specific modes/projects. Section 6 (page 41) is all about public transport

Everyone benefits from good public transport, including road freight businesses and car drivers. As more roads are built, more people choose to travel by car and soon traffic congestion is at the same level as before the new road was built. However it is possible to build our way out of traffic congestion by building a public transport system that is good enough to attract people out of cars (16).

Not everyone who uses public transport has a choice. For people who cannot drive, or cannot afford a car, public transport opens up opportunities for education, work and a social life. A public transport system that works well for the young, the old and the mobility impaired, and serves the whole community including low income neighbourhoods, builds a stronger, more inclusive society.

And on the City Rail Link they say:

As more and more people want to live in Auckland, more efficient transport is needed. Cars simply take up too much space, and successful cities around the world have each had to solve the problem of how to get ever more people into and around the city as land and space become more valuable.


More people catching the train and bus to and through the city centre will free up parking and traffic space which can be reallocated to make room for the growing numbers of pedestrians. Projects like the Victoria St Linear Park will replace sterile tarmac with spaces which encourage people to linger and enjoy being in the centre of a world class city. The successful transformations of the Viaduct, Wynyard Quarter and Britomart are a model for how vibrant and lively the heart of our city can become.

Can you imagine the Auckland Transport of a few years ago describing a road as sterile tarmac?

There are numerous other statements that surprised me in my skim though but perhaps the most significant was this about the future of access to the city centre

While the CCFAS was designed to address regional needs it also highlighted residual city centre access issues, particularly from the central and southern isthmus not served by the rail network including:

  • Key arterials with major bus routes are already near capacity will be significantly over capacity in the future even with the CRL and surface bus improvements
  • If not addressed now, there will be area-specific problems, including the impact of a high number of buses on urban amenity, in the medium term and acute issues on key corridors in the longer term

To address these issues, work is currently underway to provide an effective public transport solution for those parts of inner Auckland and the City Centre that cannot be served by the heavy rail network, with CRL; that supports growth requirements in a way that maintains or enhances the quality and capacity of the City Centre streets. A range of options are being explored including light rail.

Re-implementing light rail in Auckland would surely be a mammoth task but there could certainly be some benefits to such an idea. This is especially true on some of the central isthmus routes which already have high frequencies, high patronage and a local road network which supports a good walk up catchment. Of course Auckland Transport would need to show just how they could pay for such a thing when funding is so constrained but if it possible it would certainly be one way for them to highlight that they have been thinking differently about transport than they have in the past. Could this be what the secretive CCFAS2 has been about?

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

The old Tram Network

And let’s not forget we’ve suggested a Dominion Rd tram as part of our Congestion Free Network.

An ode to oil

Crude oil is a fantastically useful energy source, and has become enmeshed in our daily lives. It’s used to make petrol, plastics, and asphalt. Oil products are used in almost all motor vehicles today, but that wasn’t always the case:

The electric motor predates the internal combustion engine, and many early motor vehicles ran on electricity rather than gasoline. However, oil-based fuels had a number of advantages over electricity. The International Energy Agency points out that these fuels gave much more energy per unit of volume or mass than batteries, and were easy to handle, transport and store. These advantages, combined with the fragmented nature of electricity networks at the time, led to oil-based fuels becoming the dominant source of transport energy.

So, crude oil has several advantages over electricity, and many other fuels besides:

  • High energy per unit of volume/ weight (see below)
  • Easy to handle, transport and store (storing electricity is tough)
  • Low infrastructure requirements

That first bullet point is still a major advantage for oil-based fuels, as per the table below which shows energy content (megajoules, MJ) per kilogram or per litre:Fuel propertiesSources: MBIE, Wikipedia

As you can imagine, when talking about transport, it’s important that the fuel isn’t too heavy and doesn’t take up too much space. Petrol and other oil-based fuels are very well suited to this. Gas, coal and wood don’t make the grade – you’d need to hunt further to find some MJ/litre figures for them (and they’ll vary depending on a number of factors), but they certainly don’t compare to petrol. Ethanol, which is the main biofuel being produced today, has much lower energy content on both measures.

The values for batteries, at the bottom of that table, show that we’ve still got a way to go before electric vehicles can measure up to conventional ones. For the time being, their batteries can weigh hundreds of kilograms and take up plenty of precious interior space.

The comparison with batteries brings me to another advantage of oil: it’s relatively cheap, given all the things it can do. It’s pricier than wood and coal, of course, which are abundant worldwide and have less inherent value. But as a means of energy storage, it’s much cheaper than the current generation of batteries in electric cars.

I’ve looked at oil prices over time here. The rosy picture of low prices through most of the 20th century came to an abrupt end in the 1970s, when OPEC formed and the oil shocks began. Which brings me to the first major disadvantage of oil, summarised nicely in the following quote:

“Oil prices have been highly volatile [since 1970], and seem likely to stay that way… the oil market as it is structured today seems inherently prone to further disruption”

So, oil prices can swing wildly, as they did in the 70s and again since 2000. We’re seeing this again now, with oil prices falling dramatically in the last few months, along with many other commodities.

The second big disadvantage started to become clear by the 1990s, as scientists grew increasingly confident that man-made emissions of CO2 – mainly from burning fossil fuels such as oil – were contributing to global warming.

Overall, oil has played a massive role in the last 100 years of human history. Today, oil production has essentially plateaued (or begun to decline if “non-conventional” sources are excluded), with demand also on the wane in developed countries like New Zealand, versus rising demand in the developing world.

Oil is still a critical part of our economy, though, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Its many advantages and uses mean that we’ll still need it for many years to come, although there are plenty of things we could do to try and reduce our dependence on it – indeed, things we should do given its disadvantages. But those can wait for other posts.

Auckland Transport December Board Meeting

The Auckland Transport Board meet tomorrow and while it might be earlier in the month than usual due to Christmas, there’s no shortage of information. As usual here are the things that caught my attention.

The closed session is once again packed with reports, some are listed as being due to commercial sensitivity and others to allow free and frank discussion with the information released later.

Items for Approval/Decision

  • Diesel Rolling Stock Sale
  • Managing 2014/15 Programme
  • CCFAS2
  • Dominion Road
  • Bus Service Commercial & South Auckland Tender
  • PT Fare Annual Review
  • Street Lighting Acquisition
  • Te Mahia /Westfield
  • Southern Station Review

Items for Noting

  • Deep Dive – Service Provision Options
  • CRL Update
  • Heavy Rail Strategy update
  • Service Extension Options
  • Te Atatu
  • EW Connections
  • Draft Statement of Intent 2015-16

There are a number of quite specific items there and one I’m surprised about is the annual fare review seeing as we just had fare changes implemented in July that resulted in fares for bus and train trips using HOP reducing. The Te Mahia / Westfield stations will be about whether AT close them as proposed in the new Bus Network. They are the two least used stations on the network with each having less than 100 people use them per day.

Onto the board report

Funding was approved for property purchase and construction for the $26 million Te Atatu Corridor project which will widen and upgrade parts of Te Atatu Rd and Edmonton Rd. Included in the project are some walking and cycling improvements however they are inconsistent. In some places cycle lanes will be on the street while in other places they will just be shared paths. I guess there wasn’t enough room for proper cycling facilities after the addition of a 2.5-3m median.

Funding was also approved for the design and construction of the Upper Harbour Cycleway. As someone who rides along this road weekly the improvements are welcome although I suspect they will ignore the biggest issue along the route being the Upper Harbour Dr/Albany Hwy intersection which is possibly the most dangerous in Auckland. Fixing that is likely dependant on a future 30m+ of an upgrade to that section Albany Highway.

Later on in the report an additional mention is made about the awarding of a number of service contracts. Two are singled out as providing much better value than anticipated with a combined saving of almost $5m compared to what had been budgeted.

  • Security Guard Services and Patrols – Contract awarded to Armourguard. The successful tender resulted in a saving of $2.1m compared with the two year budget forecast
  • Public Transport Facilities Cleaning – Contract awarded to City Cleaning Services. The successful tender resulted in a saving of $2.7m compared with the two year budget forecast

For specific projects AT are working on the ones that caught my attention are:


Auckland Transport is progressing a planning strategy to ensure ongoing security of the Penlink corridor. This involves lodgement of an alteration to the existing Penlink designation and a suite of consent applications to allow up to four lanes on the Penlink alignment to reflect the updated design, and to extend the lapse date by another 15-20 years to align with the current draft ITP. Some changes to the existing designation boundary are proposed, however, the majority of the proposal will fit within the existing designation footprint. Notification is proposed in early 2015 due to the Christmas and New Year period. Key Stakeholder engagement is continuing and two open days are also proposed to provide the general public with an opportunity to discuss the project and planning process in more detail.

Discussions on alternate procurement methods continues with interested parties. These will be brought to the Board if they progress to any substantial proposal.

I can understand the need to retain the designation but quite where AT will find the over $350m needed for Penlink is unclear.

Devonport Wharf Transport Interchange

AT say the project completion will be delayed by two months to May 2015 after the contractor encountered construction difficulties below the Wharf Boardwalk.

Otahuhu Bus-Train Interchange

Enabling works are underway and AT say the project is still on track for completion at the end of next year which they say is “to align with the expected roll-out date for PTOM (South) in February 2016“. This suggests that the roll out of the new network has once again been delayed as it had been due to roll out in the middle of next year.

City Centre Integration

City Centre bus infrastructure planning is focussing on the Fanshawe St Busway, Wynyard Interchange and Downtown Interchange. A series of workshops will commence in December with the University and AUT to progress issues and options for the Learning Quarter Interchange and east-west bus corridor.

A City Centre Transport Framework is being developed with NZTA to collate and map out transport initiatives and issues across the city centre, as context for future development. Completion due mid-2015.


It’s good to see the Fanshawe St busway progressing as that will help further improve the PT experience for bus users from the North Shore. It is particularly important as at peak times 60-70% of all people using Fanshawe St are on a bus despite buses only having 22% of the space in the corridor. While the amount of space buses have won’t change, what should improve are the bus stops which should become more station like.

CEWT Fanshawe St

Swanson Park and Ride

AT say the tender should be awarded by now with construction starting soon. They are expecting the project to be complete by April next year. It will see 136 new car parks added to Swanson station for a cost of $2.5m. It will include improved lighting, signage, CCTV, additional platform shelters, walkway canopies to the footbridge and stairs, and new platform surfacing and marking.

Other PT improvements:

AT say they are continuing to do shadow running of test trains on the Southern and Western lines. Electric trains will be introduced to the Southern Line in early 2015 with a fully electric timetable by April which I assume means the Western Line too.

The Manukau interchange is being targeted for completion by early 2016.


The usage of HOP dropped slightly to 70% in November which has attributed to less university and secondary school students using services due to exam breaks.

HOP ticketing usage Nov 2014

AT have a special day pass for use during the NRL 9s in late January which includes discounts to some tourist attractions. They can only be purchased from Ticketek, are $25 and as yet don’t say how discount from the attractions purchasers will actually get.

HOP NRL 9s HOP daypass

Default to Chaos

One of the factors behind the stunning 18% increase in rail patronage over the last year is bound to be the improved reliability that we’ve been seeing. With greater reliability people can trust services more and are much more likely to use them. That improved reliability resulted in a record 92% of all trains in November being on time.  What’s significant about the results is it isn’t simply the result of new electric train being more reliable but that we’ve seen improvements from the old diesel trains too. The graph below from Auckland Transport’s latest statistics report highlights the network performance for the current and previous financial year. As a comparison I remember a few years ago where it wasn’t uncommon to see a result in the 70’s.

Rail Network Reliability

Kudos has to go to all involved for getting the reliability up, some of it is due to better infrastructure such as the new signalling system and the rail network no longer being a constant worksite while other improvements are likely due to better maintenance and management of the trains themselves.

Unfortunately it seems that when something does go wrong the response still leaves a lot to be desired and that has been highlighted a few times in the last few days.

On Thursday a train breakdown outside Britomart caused chaos.

After the week’s second transport debacle, in which about 3000 commuters had their trips to the city disrupted by a broken train outside the Britomart tunnel on Thursday, the mayor blamed “decades of neglect” of the city’s infrastructure.

“We risk repeats of this morning’s delays until the day the [$2.4 billion] City Rail Link is built and Britomart stops being a dead end,” Mr Brown said in a brief statement, issued by his office in the absence of his availability for an interview.

Auckland Transport says 15 trains were disrupted, many of which unloaded passengers at Newmarket Station so they could transfer to buses, after an emergency brake on a new electric train was erroneously triggered outside Britomart.

It took about 45 minutes to shunt the train into Britomart, and about another hour for services to return to normal.

My understanding is this was caused by an error in the signalling system that Kiwirail have known about for weeks but failed to act on. Also despite Len’s suggestions it’s something the CRL wouldn’t have fixed. I was luckily not affected by this particular incident as my train was just ahead of the one that had the issue but many other readers did. Unfortunately it sounds like issues are responded to still leaves a lot to be desired with poor or non-existent communication to passengers the order of the day.

In the piece above AT say passengers were unloaded so they could catch buses, the only problem being that most buses at that time probably couldn’t handle the extra demand and it would take some time to get spare ones in.

Another incident appears to have occurred last night following Christmas in the Park with services cancelled with no apologies or explanation given to customers as to why. Due to the extra number of people out potentially thousands were affected.

It seems like this is something that crops up every few months but Auckland Transport and Transdev really need to get these issues and how they communicate to customers sorted rather than the default setting being chaos. This is especially important as the increasing use of trains means more and more people are affected when something goes wrong.

November 14 Patronage

The number of people travelling on buses and trains has continued to surge in November resulting in more than 75 million trips over the previous 12 months, the first time that’s happened in over 50 years. That means the number of trips taken in the last year is up by 5.7 million (8%). The Rapid Transit Network comprising of the Northern Express and the trains continues to be the star performer with the annual number of trips increasing by 17%. There has also been solid growth in the bus network which carries the majority of people in Auckland with patronage up 6.8%.

14 - Nov AK Patronage table

14 - Nov AK Annual Patronage

The rail network has the highest annual growth of all modes up 17.5% and patronage is up 12.3 million. Within that the two small lines currently served by electric trains are up 20-30% which perhaps gives an indication of what we can expect once the bigger lines go electric. For the month of November patronage on the Manukau Line services alone was up 50%. I imagine that sort of growth will only continue with the new timetable too. Apart from the electric trains one of the reasons given for the improved patronage is that train punctuality and reliability has improved with November recording the highest result Auckland has seen with 91.9% of all services arrive at their final destination within 5 minutes of their schedule. The Manukau line was the highest at 96% and the Western Line the lowest at 89.3%.

If you recall back to my post the other day and the most recent advice from the Ministry of Transport on the CRL from August where they said

Growth of 1.4 million trips for the year to June 2014 is the highest annual growth in Auckland rail patronage achieved to date.

If growth continues at 1.4 million trips per year, annual patronage would hit 20 million trips around 2019/20. We expect patronage growth to continue at a similar rate as for the year to June 2014 until around 2017/18, as the full electric train fleet comes into service and the new bus network is rolled out. After 2017/18, we expect the rate of patronage growth to slow and at this stage do not anticipate it is likely that the threshold of 20 million trips well before 2020 will be met.

Well patronage is now up over 1.8 million trips and not showing signs of slowing down.

14 - Nov AK Rail Patronage

The Northern Express is also seeing fantastic growth this year with annual patronage now up 14.4% and rising above 2.6 million trips.

14 - NEX AK NEX Patronage

What’s also notable about this is that over the same time period the number of vehicles that cross the Harbour Bridge every day has dropped by 2%. Of course the NEX doesn’t include all bus trips across the harbour bridge and it would be fascinating to see just how many there are in total.

AHB Nov - 14

Fact-checking hyperbolic arguments for more roads

Following the gridlock on the roads last Saturday, the NZ Herald published several perspectives on how Auckland should cope with disruption to its transport networks. Matt weighed in with an excellent piece on the need to build Auckland’s long-awaited rapid transit network, which would give people an alternative to congested roads. However, the Herald “counterbalanced” it with some arrant nonsense about the need for more motorways by University of Auckland associate professor (and prominent climate change denialist) Chris de Freitas.

I use the term “nonsense” for good reason. The article was rife with factual errors that undermined the points that it was trying to make. Let us count the mistakes.

One: Congestion does not cost the Auckland economy billions each year.

De Freitas contends that:

The cost to the region’s economy of traffic delays is estimated to be many billions of dollars a year, which does not include the mental anguish caused to frustrated and angry drivers.

He does not provide any citations for this figure. However, I am aware of the relevant research, including a 2013 NZTA research paper by Wallis and Lupton that found that a more realistic figure for the cost of congestion in Auckland was a mere $250 million:

Including all congestion cost components, we concluded that the costs of congestion in Auckland are approximately $1250 million per year when compared with free-flow conditions, or $250 million per year when compared with the network operating at capacity.

In other words, the only way we could achieve that hypothetical $1.25 billion saving in congestion costs would be to build a network far, far in excess of what is required to move vehicles. Furthermore, Wallis and Lupton’s estimates are derived using NZTA’s Economic Evaluation Manual procedures, which explicitly account for non-monetary values such as travel time and driver frustration. The actual financial costs of congestion are likely to be an order of magnitude lower – i.e. closer to $25-50 million. That’s just not a lot compared to Auckland’s regional GDP of $75 billion.

Two: Auckland is not adding a Dunedin worth of population every 3-4 years.

De Freitas asserts that:

Given that the region’s population continues to expand by the size of Dunedin every three to four years, the vulnerability to traffic snarl-ups will grow exponentially.

According to the most recent Census data, Dunedin has a population of roughly 120,000 people. Between 2001 and 2013, Auckland’s population increased by approximately 255,000 people, or roughly 21,000 people per year. For those who like numbers, that means one new Dunedin every six years, not every three years. De Freitas seems to think that Auckland is growing twice as fast as it actually is.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Transport’s Congestion Index shows that travel time delay actually fell by one-quarter between 2003 and 2013. This contradicts de Freitas’ claim that congestion will increase “exponentially” as population grows – why hasn’t it increased over the past decade?

Three: Rapid transit networks are well-suited for regions with natural choke-points.

De Freitas argues that geography is destiny, and that Auckland’s skinny shape makes it a natural for roads:

Public transport itself will not ease the region’s traffic crisis. Auckland’s geography, history and politics make it a unique case for infrastructure planning. Its long, thin shape led to the earliest transport routes developing along a narrow north-south axis. Strategic arterial roads followed this pattern.

He correctly observes that road networks become less efficient when they are forced through natural choke-points like harbours and portages. However, these choke-points actually make public transport more efficient, not less. Putting more cars on a single road causes congestion and makes that road less efficient, but putting more buses or trains on a single right-of-way increases efficiency by allowing them to share costly infrastructure.

Four: Auckland’s motorway network already has alternative routes.

De Freitas contends that the Auckland motorway network lacks redundancy:

The result is a highway system that is not yet part of a fully integrated network. It is linear with no alternative routes around major bottlenecks. Traffic that would want to bypass the city is forced through Spaghetti Junction, adding to the vulnerability of the system to gridlock.

He has apparently not noticed that NZTA has almost finished building a bypass of Spaghetti Junction at a massive cost of $3.6 billion – the Western Ring Route. Perhaps he hasn’t been out west in the last decade, but if he had he would have noticed the construction of SH18 and the Upper Harbour Bridge, major expansions of the SH16 causeway, and the in-progress construction of the Waterview Connection to link SH16 with SH20.

Do we have to cover the whole region in asphalt to satisfy the man?

Five: A major earthquake in Auckland is extremely unlikely.

De Freitas raises the spectre of a Christchurch-esque quake:

The region’s most strategic arterial roads are vulnerable during earthquakes. Older multi-span bridges and abutments along motorways such as around Spaghetti Junction would be most vulnerable to damage from ground liquefaction. Even minor damage to these would bring city traffic to a halt.

Now, I’m no geologist… but both of my parents are geophysicists who started out researching Auckland’s rocks. They do not believe that Auckland faces serious risks of earthquakes. Volcanoes are a stronger possibility, of course, but volcanic activity doesn’t cause soil liquefaction. Here is a map from the British Geological Survey of every major earthquake in New Zealand since 1843. Notice the total absence of any recorded earthquakes anywhere near Auckland. Unlike Christchurch, we are not close to NZ’s fault lines:

Source: BGS

Source: BGS

Six: More roads are not a good solution for disaster readiness.

De Freitas argues that more roads are needed to evacuate Auckland:

The vulnerability of a city is to a large extent a function of the adequacy of preparedness planning. How soon could Auckland be evacuated?

There is limited motorway access out of the isthmus that is the Auckland urban area, so there few alternative exits. Main feeder roads head for one major harbour crossing and easily become congested.

Some American cities that are vulnerable to regular natural disasters have tested the “more roads” approach to evacuation. So here is Houston, attempting to evacuate on one of its eighteen-lane freeways during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not a lot of people actually made it out of the city:


We could devote endless hectares of increasingly valuable land attempting to repeat the same solution that failed Houston. Or, if we think that natural disasters are a serious risk, we could invest in disaster preparedness and civil defense to ensure that the city’s residents will still have access to food, water, and health care services, regardless of what happens. That’s likely to be a much more practical, cost-effective solution.

Finally: The Herald needs to get better at fact-checking, or print a retraction.

While de Freitas’ article was printed in the op-ed page, that is no excuse for its blatant errors and omissions. Auckland only has one newspaper of record, and its credibility and usefulness to its readers is undermined when it prints this sort of gibberish.

New PT Brand on the way

Auckland Transport is to launch new bus livery next week that will eventually roll out across all buses in the region. Once complete there will no longer be the multi coloured mess we have now with every operator having their own competing brand. Where this is going to be particularly useful is in areas where multiple operators run services, for example along Gt North Rd which is served by buses from NZ Bus (Metrolink and Go West) along with Ritchies. Integrated ticketing has made catching the next bus easier and a common livery will help reinforce that the PT network is all part of a single system. As such this clearly represents AT taking greater ownership of the customer experience rather than just leaving it up to the operators.

Auckland Transport is about to give the city’s public transport network a fresh, clear, consistent brand.

Over the next three years the branding will be phased in starting with the LINK services and the Northern Express.

Auckland Transport’s General Manager Marketing and Customer Experience Mike Loftus says a single identity will give Aucklanders and visitors a clearer understanding of what public transport is on offer and which areas specific buses, trains and ferries serve.

“Most metropolitan cities have a single brand network that is easy to recognise and enables clear, consistent communication with customers. Currently in Auckland there is no single identity, we have a variety of brands and looks. Customers relate to buses by the operator name rather than the wider public transport network”.

Auckland Transport’s Group Manager Public Transport Mark Lambert says having a single public transport network will ultimately build public confidence in the developing and improving public transport system. “Knowing that all the services are integrated and part of the same system will help grow patronage”.

The branding will mean common livery across public transport vehicles but differentiated by colour depending on the type of service.

The implementation of the livery is already underway and budgeted for on the electric trains.

Costs for the bus fleet will be kept to a minimum through:

  • retention of ocean blue for Rapid Network services (Northern Express is already this colour)
  • retention of red, green, orange and light blue for existing targeted services of the City LINK, Inner LINK, Outer LINK and Airbus
  • the rest of the bus fleet to be transitioned as part of new contracts and costs incurred through new contract rates

Mr Lambert says Auckland’s bus operators are aware of the changes and are working with Auckland Transport.

The Auckland Plan looks to double public transport trips from 70 million in 2012 to 140 million in 2022. The Auckland Plan’s priorities for Auckland’s transport system include “a single system transport network approach that manages current congestion problems and accommodates future business population growth to encourage a shift toward public transport.”

The new branding will be unveiled next Tuesday 16 December.

This is something we first highlighted at the end of September after it appeared in the Auckland Transport Board report. In addition an image of what the buses may look like was included although it’s possible that there have been tweaks or changes to the designs since September so we can’t say for sure what they’ll look like.

Updated from AT: As you know We have the big brand reveal nextTuesday which is really important to us as part of our public transport and customer work. We would most appreciate it if you could take down the images of the branded buses until the launch.

Possibly related to all of this is this opinion piece from Pattrick Smellie highlighting that some of the operators aren’t happy with the new contracts that AT will be rolling out.

Instead, they argue that AT has produced draft contracts that contain almost none of the elements of the desired “relational” contract model, sticking instead with a pre-2008 “transactional” approach.

Not only that, but they argue AT is trying to lump private bus operators with contract terms that make them bear the risk of things that only AT can control, and which could see them financially penalised if things go wrong.

Especially galling was that AT had drawn up these draft contracts over a three-year period, yet made them available for feedback from bus operators only in September, at which point all hell broke loose.

Concerned not to be tarred with the easy accusation of “resisting change” when they have been seeking it, the bus operators – principally Infratil-owned NZ Bus, supported by the New Zealand Bus and Coach Association – sought expert advice from accountancy firm KPMG and investment bank Cameron & Company.

Both concluded that the draft contracts were seriously deficient, even after some of the most onerous elements were withdrawn.

There was insufficient security of tenure, risks were badly mismatched, and financial incentives were unlikely to work as intended because of the punitive mindset underlying the contracts.

The result was likely to be a cost-cutting, compliance mentality rather than a value-creating, innovative environment in which new investment would be encouraged, both sets of advisers concluded.

However, when final submissions on the new draft contracts closed this week, their basic shape had not altered significantly.

Bus operators now hope that the central government funding body, the New Zealand Transport Agency, which must sign off the new contracts, agrees that they don’t do the job. Transport Minister Simon Bridges is aware of the issue, but not yet engaging actively.

It’s hard to tell if this is just the bus companies having a whinge or if there is something deeper that’s concerning them. One suggestion I saw yesterday was that AT are going to be controlling the advertising both on and in buses. That should hopefully scale back some of the horrid full bus wraps we see regularly on some buses. The problem is that a decent number of our bus operators currently don’t have any advertising at all so this could see the practice become more widespread. Hopefully it’s something we’ll find out next week when the new livery is revealed.

Stuart’s 100 #63: Look Up Wellington!

63: Look Up Wellington!


What if Wellington recognised it isn’t the only show in town?

For too long, Wellingtonians have been smug in the knowledge that they have some kind of monopoly on good city life in NZ.

Well those days are over. It isn’t the 1990s anymore. Everyday Auckland is making progress towards becoming a more attractive and enjoyable city to live. Aucklanders can see and feel that. People that come with fresh eyes can see that too. The occasional open-eyed and open-minded Wellingtonian travelling north might have quietly clocked that too.

So it would be good for the national conversation around cities and urban issues to get past these out-moded stereotypes. Likewise it would be good if Auckland recognised where it shares urban issues in common with Wellington, Christchurch, and other urban areas in New Zealand. Auckland trying to go it alone and provincial attitudes elsewhere aren’t helping anyone.

Stuart Houghton 2014

The real surprise from the census data, part 2

Following on from a post here, I thought I’d take another look at the Auckland city centre’s population, now there is some more information available.

90 years of change in the inner city

I came across a fascinating paper here thanks to one of the other bloggers – it’s a thorough exploration of the changing population and demographics of inner-city Auckland, including the suburbs. I’ve updated a graph from the paper which shows how the population has grown over the long term (thanks to the author Ward Friesen, who kindly sent me the population figures he used up to 2006 so that I could update them to 2013):

Inner city population

This graph also shows the population of the inner suburbs, excluding the city centre. See Ward’s paper for a list of what is included there, but essentially it’s everything from Herne Bay through Grey Lynn, Eden Terrace, Newmarket and Parnell.
Both the city centre and the inner suburbs have seen similar trends over the last 90 years, with residential populations that fell in the post-war period, bottomed out in around 1991, and have since grown strongly. Today, the city centre’s population is larger than it has ever been, whereas – despite all the angst around intensification – the inner suburbs are still well below their pre-war levels.

The latest on the city centre’s population

I wrote in the earlier post that “it’s now likely that the CBD has a population of at least 28,000 people – and this is the kind of estimate Statistics New Zealand will end up with when they re-calculate their estimates next year.” Indeed, the new estimates show a population of 27,810 as at June 2013, and another big increase in the last year, taking the population to 30,130 as at June 2014.

I’m a little suspicious of that increase in the last year – I can’t see where an extra 2,320 people came from, given that there haven’t been many apartments completed. As highlighted in the original post, the population estimates can be prone to error. However, these figures do suggest a strong future growth path, especially as there are now hundreds of new apartments under construction.

On a final note, Auckland’s city centre now has a residential population the size of Taupo, Blenheim or Timaru, and it’s growing much faster than any of them. The size of its economy is several times larger, with 90,000 people working in the CBD. That’s a lot of activity taking place in a pretty compact area.