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Sunday reading 31 January 2016

We are now living in the anthropocene – the period in which humans have begun to shape the earth’s geology, ecosystems, and climate. Vox’s Brad Plumer recently compiled a set of images that vividly illustrate humanity’s transformative effect: “15 before-and-after images that show how we’re transforming the planet“. Urban growth, energy extraction and generation, the damming and diversion of rivers, climate change:

14) Solar farms sprout up in California

Images taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus instrument onboard Landsat 7 and the Operational Land Imager onboard Landsat 8. Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery “Topaz Solar Farm, California,” U.S. Department of the Interior / USGS and NASA. (<a href="http://climate.nasa.gov/state_of_flux#Topaz-Solar-Farm-930px-57.jpg">NASA, World of Change)</a>

The Topaz Solar Farm in California, seen in 2011 and 2015. (NASA, World of Change)

The next big environmental challenge is global warming, which will likely prove much harder to stop than the hole in the ozone layer. It will entail revamping our entire energy system; switching away from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas; and seeking out cleaner sources.

Some places are already taking steps along those lines. The image above shows the growth of the Topaz Solar Farm in central California, a 550-megawatt plant consisting of 9 million panels across 9.5 square miles. It’s a modest step in shifting the state toward cleaner energy.

Even so, some environmentalists have opposed the project, arguing that solar farms need a lot of land and fences, hindering the movement of the federally protected San Joaquin kit fox. It’s a reminder that even efforts to reduce our environmental footprint in one area can lead to unexpected impacts elsewhere.

As we change nature, we also change the way we live. Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance of The Transport Politic have put together an interesting interactive map showing every rapid transit project proposed or underway in large North American cities. Here’s Seattle, a city with a similar size and geography to Auckland, getting excited about dedicated bus lanes:

Transit Politic Seattle proposed transit map

What’s equally cool is that they have included a “what if” function that illustrates what could have been if previous rapid transit extensions, such as this 1968 regional rail plan for Seattle, hadn’t been cancelled:

Transit Politic Seattle what if transit map

The shape of our cities affects the shape of our society and the prospects for our citizens. A new research paper by Reid Ewing, Shima Hamidi, James Grace, and Yehuda Dennis finds that “urban sprawl stunts upward mobility“:

The study examined potential pathways through which sprawl may have an effect on mobility and uses mathematical models to account for both direct and indirect effects of sprawl on upward mobility. The direct effects are through access to jobs and the indirect effects are through integration of different income classes.

“The result is that upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas,” said Ewing. “As the compactness index for a metropolitan area doubles, the likelihood that a child is born into the bottom fifth of national income distribution will reach the top firth by age 30 increases by 41 percent.”

CityLab’s Eric Jaffe reports more on the details of the study. Places like Seattle and San Francisco, which are relatively compact, offer much better prospects for upward mobility than dispersed metropolises like Atlanta. Putting up barriers to urban intensification will also tend to put up barriers to social mobility.

Ewing et al’s study coincides with another landmark study on the impact of planning regulations on economic segregation within cities. UCLA researchers Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen examines which types of regulations are associated with greater segregation. CityLab’s Richard Florida reviews four key findings from their research:

1. Density restrictions isolate the wealthy

Density restrictions work to increase segregation, mainly by exacerbating the concentration of affluence. This contradicts the commonly held belief that exclusionary zoning leads to the concentration of the poor. Instead, the authors find that the main effect of density restrictions is to enable the wealthy to wall themselves off from other groups…

2. Restrictions in both cities and suburbs matter

The economic segregation of metros is significantly higher in places where cities (not just suburbs) employ more stringent land use and density restrictions. This finding adds important nuance to the conventional view that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. Density restrictions in the city not only lead to higher housing prices (think San Francisco), but to greater economic segregation across a metro as a whole. As the authors write, “density restrictions are a culprit in the social fragmentation of metropolitan areas and should be relaxed where possible.”

3. Local government restrictions contribute to segregation

The precise way in which the government is involved in land use regulation is a key contributor to segregation. Many people assume that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning, broadly speaking. But the new study finds that segregation varies by both the nature and extent of government involvement, as well as the type of land use restriction. Notably, the authors discover that segregation is not associated with a broad measure of land use restriction overall, but is instead the result of more specific types of regulation and restrictiveness.

4. State involvement can temper segregation

…Importantly, the study shows that greater involvement at the state level can help temper some of the most damaging effects of exclusionary zoning. The authors write:

“Greater pressure from multiple local interest groups regarding residential development exacerbates the tendency to segregate by income. At the same time, income segregation is ameliorated by a higher level of involvement from state institutions. Taken together, these findings suggest that land use decisions cannot be concentrated in the hands of local actors.”

These findings are counterintuitive in some respects: they suggest that the affordable housing offered by low-density flatland cities is an imperfect substitute for affordable housing in more compact cities. Consequently, it’s likely that we have underestimated the long-run costs of exclusionary zoning and restrictions on density.

In the presence of complexity, making policy on the basis of rules of thumb, intuitive judgments, or simple models of behaviour can go wrong. Real-world data and sound analysis is essential as it can provide a useful check against these types of errors. So I was glad to hear that economists are getting more empirical. Bloomberg View’s Justin Fox analyses “how economics went from theory to data“:

Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas documented this shift in a 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Literature. In 1963, 1973 and 1983, the majority of the articles published in the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy and Quarterly Review of Economics, three of the field’s most influential journals, were works of theory — with theory’s dominance peaking in 1983. By 2011, theory’s share was down to 27.9 percent.

methods 2

One cause seems pretty clear. The biggest shift toward empirical work occurred between 1983 and 1993, and it was between 1983 and 1993 that personal computers became commonplace. That made crunching data much easier for economics professors; the subsequent rise of the Internet and digitization of much that was once analog in the economy opened up a huge new array of data for them to crunch.

On a completely different note, here’s a sign of the times:

One of the reasons for the project’s popularity is that it is visually interesting to be on. The ground is pink, the view is constantly changing and frequently spectacular, and there are lights and stuff. By contrast, Colin Ellard discusses “why boring streets make pedestrians stressed and unhappy” in Aeon:

In 2006, the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl observed that people walk more quickly in front of blank façades; compared with an open, active façade, people are less likely to pause or even turn their heads in such locations. They simply bear down and try to get through the unpleasant monotony of the street until they emerge on the other side, hopefully to find something more interesting…

In Gehl’s terms, a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of about 5km per hour, sees an interesting new site about once every five seconds…

Merrifield and Danckert suggest that exposure to even a brief, boring experience is sufficient to change the brain and body’s chemistry in such a way as to generate stress. It might seem extreme to say that a brief encounter with a boring building could be seriously hazardous to one’s health, but what about the cumulative effects of immersion, day after day, in the same oppressively dull surroundings?

But if you’re not interested in making an interesting place, here’s a quick guide to making a boring one. Reddit has helpfully created the “trashy suburban highway starter pack“:

trashy suburban highway starter pack

Lastly, the big news of the week was the Government getting on board with a 2018 start date for the City Rail Link’s major tunneling works. (Preliminary works on Albert Street are starting shortly.) Matt wrote a wrap-up post on Thursday, and others have also commented as well. At Pundit, Tim Watkins highlights how effective Len Brown has been as a “lame duck” mayor:

Brown’s greatest failure and subsequent political demise has, ironically, ensured his greatest legacy and made it easier for National to move early. Yet undoubtedly, it’s under Brown’s leadership that Auckland has been able to force Wellington’s hand.

Yet some big, chunky politics remains: How to pay for this plan. And not just on the council’s side. The government has to figure out how this project impacts its debt promises.

A lot of the coverage of the Government’s CRL announcement has focused on how it has “backed down”, or highlighted the remaining naysayers who have been politically isolated by the decision. I don’t think this is the right way to frame the decision, for two reasons

First, it is hard for politicians to reverse course in public – but it is very important for them to be willing to do so. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?Politicians who change their minds because of new evidence should be celebrated, not mocked.

Second, the decision vindicates the efforts of the many people who put CRL on the agenda before the Government picked it up. CRL is popular because politicians and activists across the political spectrum campaigned for it – e.g. Len Brown and Penny Hulse, the Greens, Labour, and even NZ First, Generation Zero, business groups like the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, and (ahem) Transportblog. It is ready to construct due to the fine work done by Auckland Transport and Auckland Council. These people have built a consensus about the future of Auckland’s rapid transit system that did not exist four years ago. Fine work indeed.

Electric vehicles (part 5)

This is part of a series on electric vehicles (here are parts 123 and 4). It’s been 18 months since the last post – I feel like George R. R. Martin, except no one has really been asking me about when the next post is coming. Sorry, anyway, and I promise to get better. Today, I’m looking at the impact of these vehicles on NZ’s power supply. Again, I’ll abbreviate plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to PHEVs, and battery electric vehicles to BEVs – these are the “full” electric vehicles which don’t have an engine for backup.

In part 2 of this series, we saw that EVs are much more energy efficient than “conventional” cars. But instead of the established infrastructure for supplying and fuelling petrol, we’re going to need to rely on our electricity networks. Can the power grid cope?

The government’s Energy Strategy, written in 2007, argues that “switching to electricity as a fuel for our vehicles would make the most of New Zealand’s abundant renewable electricity supplies, particularly if transport was not competing for supply at times of peak demand”.

New Zealand’s car fleet travelled 39 billion kilometres in 2014. If the fleet was entirely replaced by BEVs using 20 kWh/ 100 km, it would require 7,800 GWh of electricity. That’s 18% of New Zealand’s 2014 electricity generation.

This might seem like a fair chunk of our nationwide electricity, and it is. But that analysis assumes that every car in the country is replaced by a BEV running only on electricity. In practise, it will take years or even decades for EVs to become firmly established in the market, and PHEVs – which will probably outnumber the “pure” BEVs – will only use electricity for part of their travel, running on petrol or diesel the rest of the time.

EV_Rally_Trollstigen_Tesla_Model_S

Tesla’s Model S. Fully electric, multiple award winning, apparently pretty damn cool, but like other EVs pretty damn expensive. Seen here in its natural habitat of overlooking scenic mountain valleys. Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EV_Rally_Trollstigen_Tesla_Model_S.jpg

Additionally, the power companies have scoped out a large number of new plants (mainly renewable – wind and geothermal) which they could build in the future. The only reason they aren’t building them already is that electricity demand has been flat for the last few years. So the industry has plenty of room to boost supply to meet any new demand from electric cars (a number of academic studies have reached the same conclusion).

Overall, the power grid can certainly handle New Zealand’s car fleet being partially or even entirely replaced with electric vehicles.

Feeding power back to the grid?

Potentially, PHEVs and BEVs could even feed power back into the grid. The idea is that during low-demand times – e.g. in the middle of the night – EVs will charge their batteries, and then they’ll stay plugged in and send power back the other way during high-demand times. In theory, this could help to smooth daily fluctuations in power demand, i.e. the daily peak/ trough cycle. At least one paper (Smith, 2009) suggests that EVs could actually reduce New Zealand’s requirements for new diesel and gas peaker plants (which only run during high or “peak” demand periods) as a result.

However, there are a number of issues with using electric vehicles to provide “security of supply” for electricity. These include the slow charge/ discharge times for vehicle batteries, and the energy losses involved in transforming the battery’s energy back into electricity.

The biggest issue is that in New Zealand, our main “security of supply” concerns are for dry years rather than daily demand cycles. Half of our electricity generation comes from hydro, and the problems arise when there’s low rainfall and the lakes and rivers supplying the power plants are depleted. EVs won’t help with this problem, and I tend to agree with Clive Matthew-Wilson that “the times and situations when [advanced vehicles feeding electricity into the grid] would be of much practical help would be few indeed”.

This is a NZ-specific issue, so for most countries EVs may be much more useful for feeding power back to the grid. Even in New Zealand, our power generation profile will change over the next few decades, with wind (and maybe solar) becoming more important. The output of wind and solar plants tends to fluctuate, and EVs that can feed electricity back to the grid would be an excellent complement, smoothing out these variations. This could help us kick our dependence on fossil-fuelled electricity – the main advantage those plants have in NZ is that they can scale their production up or down quickly as demand changes. I’ve written previously that New Zealand can get to 100% renewable electricity even with current technology, but better power storage would only make that easier. Batteries for homes, like Tesla’s Powerwall, would help too, although as for EVs there’s a long way to go before they’re cost competitive.

Even in New Zealand, there are advantages to charging EVs outside of peak times; this allows for better use of existing grid capacity. Schafer (2011) cites two studies which suggests that if EVs are charged off-peak, they won’t have much effect on New Zealand’s electricity demand or the need for new power plant capacity. This will of course depend on the number of vehicles, and an all-electric car fleet would probably require some level of increase in capacity. The key takeaway from this post, though, is that the electricity market can definitely handle EVs, even if uptake is fairly rapid.

Aging gracefully?

This month, my grandma moved into a retirement community. In some respects, it’s a significant change for her. After 95 years living in standalone houses, she will be moving into a small, sunny apartment. To do that, she’s had to downsize significantly – donating furniture, giving away belongings, and simply leaving some things behind. (The cycad that my parents gave her decades ago; the lemon tree that I’ve greedily harvested for years.)

Grandma's new neighbourhood.

Grandma’s new neighbourhood. Wish we built places like this for young people too.

But in other respects it’s not such a big step. She’s not moving far – only from Takapuna to Milford. Because there are retirement apartments sprinkled around Auckland, she is able to downsize and stay in the same community. (As John P’s excellent RCG/Transportblog development tracker highlights, there are many more such developments in the works.) That means that she can maintain all of her social ties and everyday habits – same church, same lunch groups, same healthcare facilities, and same proximity to family.

So I’m not worried about Grandma. But it’s making me wonder what’s in store for my parents, who are now in their early 60s.

They live, as they have done for most of the last two decades, on a large section on the edge of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s many excellent regional parks. It gives them plenty of space to run a business and pursue their hobbies, like my mom’s wine-making and my dad’s shed Ponzi scheme. (He builds workshop space to house the lumber and tools that he will need to build more sheds.)

But it’s not exactly convenient if you can’t drive. (Or bicycle – they’re now spending more time on electric bikes.) Their house is at the top of a rather steep hill, the sidewalks are pretty patchy, and the nearest stores are three kilometres away. There is no bus service anywhere in the vicinity. Things are very spread out in the California suburbs.

While my parents are fit and vigorous, the fact is that at some point in the next two or three decades, they won’t be able to drive. At that point staying in place will no longer be an option. And if they don’t plan ahead, possibly by moving to a more accessible location before they absolutely need to, it could be a difficult change.

I suspect that they are not the only ones facing this dilemma. Many Baby Boomers will not be able to age in place. The post-war sprawl suburbs where they have spent their adult lives are not suitable for people who can’t drive.

There are three main problems with aging in a typical post-war suburb. Fortunately, all can be corrected or ameliorated – but doing so will require us to do some things differently.

The first is a transport problem: street networks and transport choices. As I highlighted in a post last year, designing neighbourhoods primarily for cars – with a hierarchy of cul-de-sacs, collector roads and arterials – don’t work for other transport modes. You can’t run efficient, usable bus services through these neighbourhoods, and it’s slow to walk anywhere. Furthermore, as shown the following image illustrates, changing that is hard due to the fact that you’d need to re-route street patterns:

Sprawl repair manual subdivision rebuild

A related issue is the quality of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian infrastructure. In suburbs where most people drive, these tend to be in poor condition or simply non-existent. I have full use of my legs but still find this exasperating. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with limited mobility.

Poor transport choices often coincide with segregated land uses. Because older people tend to be less mobile, regardless of mode, their lives can be better when distances to retail and social destinations are short.

Unfortunately, a second issue that will face aging boomers is that post-war zoning codes have generally mandated rigid separation of residential and commercial use. Houses go in one place; shopping and work goes in another.

Here’s an illustration from Pakuranga and Howick in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. The bright pink areas are “centre” zones that allow both residential and retail. Most of the rest – the cream and orange colours – is exclusively residential. While the cream areas are undoubtedly nice beachfront property, people living in them will face constraints as they grow old.

Unitary Plan Howick

However, this isn’t the only way to build a city. When I was visiting Paris in December, I was struck by the vibrancy of retail options on just about every block in the city. Due to the fact that Paris lacks single-use zoning, it’s possible to get most of life’s daily needs – groceries and company, in particular – met without walking more than 100 metres.

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

That leads on to a third issue for aging boomers: a lack of housing choices for young and old people alike. Post-war planning has embraced “exclusionary” zoning policies such as large minimum lot sizes or tight controls on multi-family dwellings. Unless these policies are unwound, they will have two negative impacts for aging boomers who are seeking to age in place:

  1. A lack of neighbourhood density means that local retail and social facilities are not economically viable. Mount Eden, where I live, is a great example of how a mix of housing choices can enable vibrant local retail opportunities. The much-derided 1970s “sausage flats” mean that there is a sufficient critical mass of customers within walking distance. This creates positive spillovers for people living in the suburb’s standalone houses.
  2. A lack of options for downsizing in place will force people to leave their communities as they age. Retirement homes alone are not a solution to this problem, as some people may prefer to move into a smaller dwelling before they need of aged car. A greater mix of apartments, terraced houses, and units are important for filling this gap in the market.

Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.

However, I would argue that people who are middle-aged today have a strong incentive to vote for change. Retrofitting the suburbs with better transport choices, more housing choices, and more social and economic opportunities will benefit people of all ages. But it is likely to be especially beneficial – and urgent – for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will soon face some hard choices about where to live. It will offer them the best chance of aging gracefully, rather than facing disruption in old age.

What do you think is important for a happy retirement?

Time for fares to come down?

Public transport fares are often a contentious issue. Too high and they can put people off, too low and it may increase the subsides needed or you may need to cut services. So it’s interesting to think about fares in the current climate we have in Auckland. We know from the last AT board meeting that the annual fare review was up for a decision/approval in the closed session. Given this is the time of the year they usually announce the outcome of that fare review I expect we’ll be hearing soon what they’re going to do.

Over the last few years we’ve seen fares for most people (HOP users) stabilise quite a bit and even fall while fares for cash payers to increase to help encourage people to move to HOP. Given some of the trends we’re seeing and what’s planned it seems that other than perhaps a few small tweaks any substantial changes can’t really be justified – in fact possibly the opposite, reducing fares might be justified.

We know that later this year Auckland Transport will be implementing integrated fares which will see us move to a zone based system. It’s quite likely they’ll use the fare review to move towards what’s planned for integrated fares and that could see some interesting changes, one of these could be around Orakei train station which sits outside the City zone in the proposed map below.

RPTP Integrated Fares Zones Map

 

The NZTA require that by mid-2018 public transport has a farebox recovery ratio of 50% – the percentage of costs that are covered by passenger fares. Auckland has traditionally hovered around 45% meaning that if we’re to meet the national goal then AT needs to do better – whether 50% is the right level to get the best economic outcome is for a different debate. Many of the current initiates such as electrification, the new bus network and PTOM contracts are all expected to improve Auckland’s performance through both reducing costs and increasing patronage and therefore revenue (AT’s farebox recovery policy is in the RPTP). For this year Auckland Transport and the Council set a formal target of 46-48% as part of their Statement of Intent.

The good news is that the surge in patronage that Auckland has been experiencing over the last year has had a noticeable impact on the farebox recovery ratio. The most recent data up to October last year show it sitting at top of the target range at 47.8%, that’s up from 45.9% the at the same time the year before. Does this suggest perhaps there’s some room to move on fares while still keeping the farebox recovery ratio within target?

2015-12 - Farebox Recovery Ratio

In the past when they’ve raised fares AT have said that one consideration in setting fares is the cost compared to driving for an individual. We know that in recent months fuel prices have fallen (shown below) which obviously makes it cheaper to drive. The decrease

Petrol Prices 2016-01-22

Diesel prices have fallen even more sharply and that will likely be having an impact on bus operational costs.

Diesel Prices to 2016-01-22 (2)

There are likely to be some other factors I’ve overlooked however it seems to me that given the broad factors we’re seeing that raising prices is about last thing we should be doing.

Inevitably when discussing fares many like to compare Auckland’s to those in other cities. In September I took a look at a number of Australian and Canadian cities. One thing that was clear from doing that activity is it’s incredibly difficult to say whether fares are too high in Auckland. Every city has very different fare structures and often who is cheapest depends on distance travelled and the mode used.

Lastly another topic people love to raise is fare evasion and suggest we should gate all stations immediately. To put some things in perspective the last I heard fare evasion – which I believe is based on how many passengers are found without a ticket by the ticket inspectors – sits at around 6-8%. The amount of lost revenue from those evading fares is the vicinity of $2.5 million. The reality is that if AT tried to eliminate fare evasion the amount of money they would need to spend on staff and infrastructure to enable it would dwarf the amount of money they end up collecting. The key is to get the right balance rather than an impossible attempt to stop all evasion (which still happens on systems fully gated)

Are we ready for PT madness season

Next week marks the start of annual madness season – the time of the year where use of public transport ramps up over February and culminates in what we call March Madness.

The spike in patronage seems to be the result of a combination of factors. Schools and universities kick back in to gear for the year (the school term officially starts again on Monday) which also more parents back to work. Those naturally make public transport busier and of course roads busier too. It also seems that a lot more people are willing to give public transport a go, perhaps a result of wanting an alternative after suddenly being exposed to the full mind numbing horror of driving on congested roads once again – especially after the easier driving over the summer period.

You can see the impact of March Madness in the chart below showing patronage in each month with March in Red. February is obviously lower due to fewer working days and PT use ramping up over the course of the month. Unsurprisingly the years where March wasn’t the busiest month of the year or where other months were very close (2008 and 2013) Easter was either partially or fully in month. Of course we have Easter falling fully within March this year – although due to the way the weekends fall it only represents one less working day than last year.

2015-12 Monthly Patronage

By the end of February the March Madness conditions will be in full effect so it’s important that Auckland Transport have the PT network working well to ensure that people can actually use it and encourage those new adopters to keep using it well into the future.

In the past they haven’t done well on this front. Both buses and trains are often packed to the point of turning people away. Last year I heard stories of some people on routes such as Mt Eden Rd waiting and watching as up to 12 buses went past too full to allow them to get on.

The numbers tend to die down after March due to a combination of factors such as school holidays and people giving up on the overcrowded PT services and going back to their car.

This all begs the question of whether AT are prepared for this year’s madness. In my view they aren’t.

Since this time last year the electric trains have been rolled out to the Southern and Western lines providing a little bit more capacity however even in January – normally a quitter time – trains have been very busy thanks to all of the patronage growth that’s occurred. The Western line is still stuck with trains at peak times only every 15 minutes despite AT and its predecessors promising 10 minute services would happen from as far back as 2010. Indications are we’ll finally see that increase happen this year but not till April/May, after the rush.

On the bus network it’s a similar story, not much capacity has been added but some is on the way. We learned last year that the various operators were buying 56 double decker buses to be used in Auckland. Some are already in use on the Northern Express and one is used by Howick & Eastern for trips between the city and Botany but it appears the bulk of these might be too late March. The expected roll out of them is below.

  • 18 buses on the NEX Northern Express (Albany to Britomart via the Northern busway) by April 2016, with the first ones on the road now
  • 15 buses on the 500 route (Mission Heights to Downtown via Botany Town Centre, Pakuranga, Panmure, Ellerslie and Newmarket) by September 2016, with the first ones on the road now
  • 15 buses on the 274 (Three Kings to Downtown via Mt Eden Rd) and 277 routes (Waikowhai to Downtown via Three Kings and Mt Eden Rd) in May & June 2016
  • 8 buses on the 881 route (Albany to Newmarket along the Northern busway) in June 2016

What we have seen though is that AT have been advertising their arrival.

AT_DD_Ad

I think AT have actually done a good job on the advertising, both in the design and placement of the ads but I do wonder if they’re a bit premature. The majority of them won’t on the road till after May so will provide no relief for busy routes like Mt Eden Rd so advertising them now might be giving a bit of false hope.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the system copes.

CRL Certainty

Certainty is the word I’d use to describe the announcement by John Key yesterday that the government would support for the City Rail Link main works beginning in 2018. While it was widely expected it was an announcement that was both very low on specific details but also contained a lot of information.

Aotea Station Design Platform Oct - 15

As readers may remember, the government had long opposed the CRL with former transport ministers at the time Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee seemingly taking great pleasure in dismissing reports at that time. That all changed in 2013 where in a similar speech Key announced the government would accept the CRL from 2020 onwards but entertained the idea of an earlier start/finish time if patronage doubled to 20 million earlier than expected and CBD employment grew by 25%.

While the government hasn’t put in place targets for any other project before (or after), having one for patronage isn’t too bad an idea but we were always very critical of the employment growth one for a number of reasons. In the end the employment target was irrelevant in the decision.

CBD employment levels are still some way from the 25 per cent growth threshold.

But strong growth in rail patronage since 2013 means it will reach the 20 million annual trip threshold well before 2020.

It’s become clear that we need to provide certainty for other planned CBD developments affected by the Rail Link.

This means we see merit in starting the project sooner.

 

As we posted the other day, patronage on the rail network reached 15.4 million to the end of December, a 22.9% increase on the year before. The scale of the growth and that it has been sustained at around that level for a year are impressive and highlight just how quickly things can change. It’s meant that at current rates we would hit the CRL target up to three years early. Perhaps the more interesting aspect is the impact the business community have had on getting an earlier start date. There is a huge amount of development planned along the CRL route and much of it is premised on CRL happening. Providing a commitment which then allows the private sector to get on with investing billions makes a lot of sense.

Emmerson CRL John Key 2016.01.27

Emmerson in herald yesterday

In quite a shrewd move Key actually only confirmed the government share would arrive after 2020 which is in line with his original time frame from back in 2013 but just by having that commitment now means that the council can use it’s share to start in 2018.

So I can today confirm the Government will work with the Council to bring forward the business plan and formalise our funding commitment from 2020.

The Council has indicated this would allow construction of the Rail Link’s main works to start in 2018 – at least two years earlier than currently envisaged.

It would also allow the council to get on with negotiating contracts and providing certainty for investors in other important Auckland CBD projects.

By providing the commitment he has it’s likely he’s saved more than just the two-year gap. The big reason for this is it means that those at AT working on the project can get on with the tender process and engage with potential suppliers knowing that will definitely be there from 2018. That can allow them to optimise the built, possibly reduce the amount of time the main works will take and definitely reduce the overall amount of disruption the city will experience from the construction. It of course also means we start getting the transport and economic benefits sooner.

 

One quite interesting statement about the project was that the council and government need to sit down and work out just who will own and operate the infrastructure. I can’t imagine the council/AT paying for half of the project and then being keen on say Kiwirail owning it.

On the funding, Key confirmed in this interview with Duncan Garner that the money would come from the government’s consolidated account and not the National Land Transport Fund once again highlighting the issue that rail infrastructure is funded differently to other land transport. This is something that really needs to be changed. Also of note in that interview was him being quite positive about development around the rail network which is encouraging.

It remains to be seen how the council will pay for its share. Funding for it was already included in the Long Term Plan agreed last year for 2018 onwards however Len was also talking yesterday again about using road tolls to raise funding for it. Interestingly the government also appear to have softened their stance on this. Previously they’ve outright refused to even consider it but Key is now saying they will if there is a good case for it.

Phil Goff has called for the project to be treated like one of National Significance and be fully funded by the government.

The council yesterday released this short video of the change that that Albert St and the surrounding area is about to go though

Congratulations and thanks to Len Brown for is effort over the last 5 or so years in turning this project into a reality. At times it’s looked like it may never happen but the persistency has paid off and Auckland will be considerably better for it. There are a lot of others that need to be congratulated too and many of whom we may never know just how important of a role they played

 

Following on from Key’s announcement on the CRL there have been a few of frankly bizarre press releases from some politicians that are worth mentioning. Top of the list is the response from David Seymour who has used the announcement to call for more money to be spent on schools in his electorate and this statement. Odd as the government have already shown they are prepared to fund greater investment in schools to deal with changing roll sizes – such as this at the beginning of December.

“The reality is that we have a train looking for passengers, rather than the other way around. That’s why the Rail Link requires heavy intensification around Mt Eden Station, among others, to be viable.

“The Council has not considered the implications of changing land use on education in the area, where schools are already bursting at the seams. The Mt Eden Station development, for instance, will bring hundreds of new residences into already-full school zones.

Yes a train looking for passengers, I guess that’s why they’re often so full that people can’t get on. I haven’t checked but I’m also fairly confident the Ministry of Education would have submitted on the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan currently before an independent hearings panel.

In a separate release he also suggests the government should have blackmailed the council by withholding infrastructure funding until they allowed unfettered sprawl subsidised by existing ratepayers.

The Government has let Auckland Council off the hook, gaining no concessions on land supply or rate rises, according to ACT Leader David Seymour.

“Writing a big cheque was the time to bring Auckland Council to the table,” says Mr Seymour, “but instead the Council got away with the money and the bag.”

“The Government could have set up ongoing incentives for the council to provide infrastructure. Instead, with no sign that the council will focus on core services, the largesse of the Len Brown era will continue.

Yesterday’s news is also not good for those that have spent their careers first telling us the project wasn’t needed and after being surprised at the government’s support in 2013, that the council shouldn’t do anything till that time. Chief among those was Cameron Brewer who used the news as an opportunity primarily to take a swipe at mayoral candidate Phil Goff.

 

Links: Key’s Auckland Infrastructure Annoucment

Shortly Prime Minister John Key will be delivering his State of the Nation address at a luncheon being held by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. It’s been widely expected that he’ll announce the government agreeing to start the main works on the City Rail Link in 2018 – in line with when the council/AT wanted to start them – instead of 2020 like they had announced when they supported the project in 2013. I’ll actually be at the event and trying my best to cover it live on social media so follow us twitter for the latest updates.

Aotea Station Design Platform Oct - 15

But it won’t be the only announcement with Key saying:

“As New Zealand’s largest city, our biggest commercial centre and the main gateway for international tourists, we all need Auckland to succeed.”

He said the Government was already putting billions of dollars into Auckland as it grew and he would highlight some of the priorities for the year ahead.

“It’s a speech that looks very heavily at infrastructure projects, not just in Auckland, but it does look at those issues and gives the Government perspective on next steps.”

….

“We are spending billions and billions of dollars as a Government on infrastructure. So the announcements we make tomorrow will ultimately mean the Government increases even further its expenditure on infrastructure. We are doing that because that infrastructure underpins the efficiency and competitiveness of our economy. We are not doing this because we need to stimulate the economy per se.”

Mr Key said housing in Auckland was a focus for the Government, but it was not the main issue of his speech. “We are saying we need to build more houses faster. It is our expectation the demand in Auckland is going to continue, that the growth in the Auckland population is going to continue and we just need to build a lot more houses between now and the next five to 10 years.”

It’s also been rumoured that he’ll make comments on the East-West Link, Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing and Penlink. Further while he says housing won’t be a main issue of his speech I suspect that other aspects of infrastructure provision such as funding for water infrastructure that would enable more housing to be developed more quickly might be.

I imagine we’ll see media reports of the announcement coming in fairly quickly after the speech so the main purpose of this post is for somewhere to discuss what’s announced – I’ll have a more detailed analysis tomorrow.

Of course with the CRL getting so much attention it begs the question how many times will the media or some media commentator refer to it as a loop, suggest it’s just about trains going around in circles or that it’s just about Len Brown wanting a toy trainset.

Anyway it should be an interesting few hours. Keep an eye on our twitter account for the latest updates.

Busway Station Data for 2015

Last week Patrick posted the latest set of results of rail station data. We’ve long wanted to also see station growth from the Northern Busway and many readers expressed the same thing too. AT have now provided us with some data on this and it’s fascinating, especially when compared alongside the rail station results.

Many people only associate the busway with the Northern Express however it is actually used by quite a number of services for part of their route, for example the popular 881 which travels from Torbay Bay and the city, joining the busway at Albany. If you are catching a bus to/from a busway station, then integrated ticketing makes it easier than ever to catch whatever bus turns up next but also means that when considering busway station usage you have to take into account more than just the Northern Express service.

Northern Express IMG_4447

The data Auckland Transport have provided is for the 2015 calendar year and shows the number of people boarding or alighting at any of the busway stations along with where they came from or went to. For trips where the origin or destination was outside of one of the busway stations they have broken the results down by broad geographic area. For example, someone catching the 881 at Torbay and getting off at Smales Farm would be counted as Boarding in the North Shore and alighting at Smales Farm. Crucially though this omits another important group of busway users, those that board and alight outside of the busway but whose trips benefit from the busway e.g. the people who board the 881 at Torbay and alight in the city.

 

Unlike the rail network we don’t have any information on how this has been changing over time but it’s good to finally have some results. Here are some thoughts I’ve had looking at the data.

  • Usage of the busway stations is very strong and stronger the further you get from the city. I wonder how much this is a reflection of the very high peak frequencies provided and how much of it is due to the busway being very competitive in terms of travel times, often twice as fast as driving.
  • Usage of Albany are huge and even larger than Newmarket making it the second busiest Rapid Transit station in Auckland which is impressive considering the busway itself stops at Constellation Dr. To me the numbers once again highlight just how important it is that the Northern Busway is extended at least as far as Albany.
  • Constellation Station is also very strong and it is the fourth busiest Rapid Transit station, significantly ahead of New Lynn.
  • Smales Farm ranks at 10th overall, another impressive result and one that I suspect will grow strongly as the area is further developed.
  • Sunnynook gets very impressive results for what is by in large a walk up station. It ranks 16th overall and is only slightly below Henderson.
  • Even Akoranga which is largely an isolated island (with the exception of the nearby AUT Campus) does better than most of our rail stations.

Busway Station Patronage 2015

I think it also highlights that we probably need to rethink how we count trips in Auckland. While many of the rail stations such as New Lynn and Panmure have strong patronage we only count rail trips from the station. Perhaps we should also be counting those arriving or departing by bus to give a more complete picture of how these stations are performing. For the busway it would also be interesting to know just how many people travelled over it i.e. the ones who caught the 881 from Torbay to the City.

Lastly it’s interesting to think of the impact that park & ride has on patronage. Many people suggest that it is key to getting a lot more people to use public transport. On the busway only Albany (1,100 spaces) and Constellation (450 spaces) have park & ride. They do get some use on weekends but primarily it is on weekdays that they fill up. Even every space was being used every day for a trip (including weekends and public holidays) it would account for less than half of the boardings at each station (402k at Albany or 43% and 164k at Constellation or 22%)

Overall some very solid numbers from the Northern Busway Stations and ones we can now start tracking to see the change over time, like we’ve done with the rail station figures.

NZTA and a Rail Harbour Crossing

The issue of another road crossing of the harbour has been one we’ve discussed for quite some time. It’s a project that many Aucklanders like to think makes sense but that when you look deeply at the details it’s not so clear it’s a good idea. Without going over everything again – you can read some of our old posts on the subject – the project is hugely expensive and yet doesn’t actually appear to provide that much benefit.

In fact the impact seems to range from actually make some key things worse – to at best not actually changing all that much. It is expected that any road tunnel would plug in directly to the Central Motorway Junction and therefore only be used by those travelling through the city or to the connections with Grafton Gully or West Auckland. That would leave the existing Harbour Bridge as a giant off-ramp.

In fact it is actually likely to undermine many of the goals the council have been striving to achieve such as increased use of public transport and a more people friendly city centre. Both will be much more difficult to achieve if a firehose of traffic is turned on to the CBD.

Westconnex

From Sydney but appropriate here too

If spending $4-6 billion to undermine your city’s goals seems stupid, equally so is the more likely alternative version from the NZTA.

One thing that is widely accepted is the need to improve the rapid transit options across the harbour. The Northern Busway is fantastic however it’s missing any priority across the bridge despite buses carrying around 40% of the people going over it AM peak. They would use AWHC to finally dedicate some space on the bridge for PT but the actual number of vehicle lanes across the harbour will be about the same as they are now. In that case we end up spending a huge amount of money to add no vehicle capacity and just to add some bus lanes. It begs the question of why bother, why not just leave the bridge as is and build a better and cheaper dedicated PT crossing.

Because of the need to improve rapid transit options we’ve long advocated for a rail first option to be considered. This doesn’t mean we can’t build road tunnels in the future should they be needed but along with Skypath, rail tunnels more cheaply, directly and immediately address the modes missing across the harbour.

Skypath Consent - From Westhaven

And we’re not the only ones. The Campaign for Better Transport have created a petition calling for a rail only option to be considered. It’s managed to pick up a good amount of media coverage and forced some interesting statements from the NZTA and the mayor. Reading between the lines and combined with what we’ve heard it highlights a concerning situation.

First up from the North Shore times

But NZTA Auckland regional director Ernst Zollner says Pitches is “misleading” people.

Rail hasn’t been ruled-out, he says.

Although harbour crossing route protection work is underway, NZTA doesn’t know precisely when it will be needed or what form it will take, Zollner says.

Previous proposed plans include twin vehicle tunnels future-proofed for rail.

….

An Auckland Transport spokesman says a public transport study anticipating future growth will be completed mid next year.

The agency which manages local roading connected to NZTA’s motorway network, says it’s investigating how public transport options would integrate into future connections.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown says central government has committed to starting a second harbour crossing within seven years.

Rail will either be part of the second crossing or complementary to it, Brown says.

Another proposal would see harbour bridge lanes repurposed to carry light rail to and from the North Shore.

The NZTA are intending to lodge designation documents for the crossing this year. That means there is no way they can be intending to include rail options within their plans. This matches with what we’ve heard elsewhere that they intend on building their road tunnels and leave the rail options to AT/council to sort out as a separate project. Despite what the mayor or AT say there is no way they’ll be able to justify spending huge sums of money on a rail crossing to the shore if we’ve just spent $4-6 billion on a road crossing.

The second piece is from the Central Leader

“At that point in time they either will build the capability for rail within the tunnels or as correlative part of it,” Brown said.

But the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) which constructs state highways says no decisions have been made.

Auckland regional director Ernst Zollner said NZTA and local agency Auckland Transport were currently working to protect a future route for an additional harbour crossing.

“While we don’t yet know when it will be required, and precisely what form it will take, in a rapidly growing region it’s essential that we protect and keep our future options open,” he said.

The northern busway serving the suburbs north of the bridge had been a huge success, and one of the benefits of a second crossing would be to continue it across the harbour.

“(It) could then also be used for rail or other innovative public transport options in future,” Zollner said.

Again this all but confirms there is no intention to build rail as part of the next harbour crossing. At best it is happening as an afterthought and only once we’ve sunk billions into some road tunnels and massively upgrading the motorways either side – something the NZTA are being very quiet about. I suspect the only reason they’ll even consider having light rail on the bridge is that after they’ve built the road tunnels they’ll revoke the state highway designation and hang the bridge asking with its expensive maintenance costs over to AT.

The AWHC appears to be a classic case of the same gung-ho roads first approach that has left Auckland in such a mess for so many decades. So let’s build a great PT crossing first and then see if we still need more traffic lanes across the harbour.

December-15 Patronage

 

Auckland Transport normally releases their monthly patronage data at their board meetings but as the first one for 2016 isn’t till February they’ve kindly provided me the results for December.

Overall patronage growth has remained strong with trips in December up 7.4% on December 2014. The 12-month result has now topped 81.5 million trips which is up 7.6% on the same time last year.

2015-12 - Total Patronage

One concern though is that the growth is increasingly being driven increases in the rail network and on the ferries. This is due to a slowing on the rate of patronage growth on buses. My guess is this reflects there hasn’t been all that much in the way of service improvements on buses over last year or so and I suspect some of the growth that has occurred has been due to HOP making travel easier. The growth that is occurring on buses is mostly being driven by growth on the Northern Busway.

2015-12 - Bus Patronage

We will hopefully see the slowing growth reverse once we finally get the new network starting to be rolled out which is happening in South Auckland later this year. Integrated fares are also likely to help and we should hopefully know more about that soon.

I was expecting the rail results in particular to be very strong as the network was open for Christmas Day and Boxing day while the Western line and the inner part of the Eastern Line remained open all through the Christmas/New Year period. This has shown through in the numbers with rail ridership in December up a staggering 32.6% compared to December last year reaching 1.1 million trips. That leaves January as the only month that has now carries less than a million trips a month and given many of the same factors are at play I’d expect that to change once we get the January results next month. The chart below shows how patronage has changed for each month since 2002 and you see just how big the jump in 2015 was compared to previous years.

2015-12 - Rail results by month 2

The 12-month result is up 22.9% or 2.9 million trips to 15.4 million. Related I remember when the case for electrification was being made about a decade ago they touted it as delivering 15.6 million trips by June 2016. It looks like we’ll surpass that despite the actual roll out happening a few years later than predicted.

2015-12 - Rail Patronage

The last year has seen good growth on ferries on the back of service improvements on a number of routes. Patronage for the month was up 9.6% compared to December 2014 to around 580,000 trips and the 12-month result is up 10.7% or just over half a million to 5.7 million trips.

2015-12 - Ferry Patronage 2

All up December was a continuation of many of the trends we saw throughout 2015. It will be interesting to see if those same trends carry on through to 2016 or if things slow down. Rail likely has a bit of strong growth left yet, especially if AT improve frequencies and move the rail network towards a proper raid transit service with decent frequencies off peak too. The roll out of Integrated fares is likely to help patronage too and the big unknown will be the new network which rolls out in South Auckland in October.

 

Related, last week Patrick posted results of the latest rail station boardings. I thought it would be interesting to plot the change in rankings over time based on data I’ve collected over the years. In the end I’ve only done it from 2011 onwards as prior to that the movements were too erratic which will be in part due to the how station usage was counted. It might look like a mess of lines now but was worse with pre 2011 data included.

To be clear this only looks how the stations rank compared to other rail stations so isn’t looking at the size of growth but there are a couple of notable points.

  • The impact of Manukau is very clear and between mid-2014 and mid-2015 rose substantially and is currently the 13th busiest station.
  • Panmure is also seeing strong growth, moving from 14th to 5th busiest.
  • New Lynn shifted from 7th to 3rd.
  • Given the stations above along with Otahuhu and Henderson will also have bus interchanges in the New Network then I’d expect them to keep seeing them with an upward trend in coming years.
  • Sylvia Park shifted up 7 places to 8th.
  • Onehunga moved up 8 places to 21st.

Station Rankings Change to Dec 15

On the same topic we’ve long wanted to see station growth from the Northern Busway and many readers expressed the same thing too. AT have now provided us with some data on this and I’ll post this in the next day or two.