Notes from Sydney: Light Rail

Last week I had some work in Sydney and while there I was able to grab a quick look at some aspects of that beautiful city. I want to start with Light Rail because Sydney has one line in operation, and is about to start another much bigger project next month, and one that is strikingly similar to what AT is proposing for Auckland. Similar in that it upgrades at capacity bus routes, links significant residential and commercial areas with the heart of the city from areas not covered by other Rapid Transit, links event locations with a major transport hub, serves some big tertiary institutions, and most importantly that it will be the catalyst for pedestrianising the main city street. For like AT’s Light Rail plan for Queen St Sydney’s also comes with the opening up of George St for pedestrians.

Below are some shots from my quick ride on the somewhat curious Dulwich Hill Line. This is mostly on the route of the old Metropolitan Goods Line, extended past the old docks of Darling Harbour for the tourist trade and terminating at the city end at at the busy Central Station. This is where I got on on a weekday morning, so heading against the flow, you’d think.

SYDNEY_5792

It arrives at Central on one-way loop to an elevated stop at the main concourse level of the Victorian train, Sydney’s largest. I assumed this was a built originally for Sydney’s previous trams, and so it was. The earlier system was largely about distributing into the city centre from this terminus station, but as Sydney grew a number of previously terminating lines were extended through to new underground stations in the central city and through to the bridge and across to the North Shore. The logical and very successful upgrade for a terminating city edge station, just like Britomart. In addition to the new Light Rail line they are also now planning the third underground city rail route and second rail harbour crossing: the new Sydney Metro.

SYDNEY_5801

The lovely CAF Urbos 3 arrived full and left full. On this evidence it looks like it could do with additional frequency.

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It runs on city streets till Darling harbour then uses the impressive cuttings of the old Metropolitan Goods Line. So the route was not selected because it is necessarily the best place to run Light Rail, but because it was available. Very much like Auckland’s passenger rail network, and many new or revived urban rail systems globally [See Manchester Light Rail, and the London Overground for example].

SYDNEY_5824

This business of running services where there happens to be an existing route can of course lead to poor results if there isn’t a match with the surrounding land use, and this line at first did not perform as well as hoped. But that all changed with a the extension to a good anchor; Dulwich Hill rail station [opening 2014], and intensification along the route. It is now booming.

SYDNEY_5829

John Street Square Station with apartments and very urban open space above.

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Heading back, and full again; mid morning on a week day.

SYDNEY_5842

Approaching Central on Hay St, crossing Pitt. Smart bit of kit.

SYDNEY_5783

There are obvious parallels with Auckland everywhere you look in Sydney, it is after all, pretty much just a bigger better version of a similar urban typology: a new world anglophone Pacific harbour city. It can be argued that Auckland is at a comparable point of development that Sydney was at decades ago, and while that doesn’t for a moment mean we should slavishly follow what happened there, there is much that can be learned from this city. There are a number of interesting projects underway in Sydney now, like the new Metro, which is introducing a new separate and fully automated rail system to complement the existing network. This is certainly an option for Auckland in the future, especially for upgrading Rapid Transit to our North Shore. The same universal urban forces are in play here as there, as can be seen with Light Rail in Sydney now: It is is working well simply because it delivers on the classic necessary conditions for this mode:

  • Good land-use match: intensification around stations
  • High quality right-of-way: mostly grade separate or has signal priority
  • Strong anchors at each end of the route: train stations in each case, and destinations along the way.
  • High standard of vehicle and service [sufficient frequency yet?]

The key lesson here is that if any of these conditions are missing steps must be taken to change them, as they did here. And that it is possible to exploit existing rights of way so long as there aren’t other barriers to change, especially to more intense urban land use around stations. Now that in Auckland we are well on the way to fixing the major vehicle and frequency standards on the rail network it is the development around stations that needs work. Especially as we only need to look at the improved performance of stations like Manukau City and Sylvia Park to see, yet again, how closely linked landuse and transport always are.

Looking ahead to the next Light Rail route in Sydney it is pretty certain that this will perform even better because it is designed around need not just route availability. It is hard to disagree with Alan Davies here when he writes:

There are literally hundreds of existing light rail systems in the world. The value of some is questionable, but Sydney’s proposed CBD and South East Light Rail line looks like it’ll be among the best.

And Davies, the Melburbanist, is often skeptical about high capex Transit systems, often questioning the value of ones in his own city.

I reckon that this is probably true for the proposed Auckland Light Rail programme too, with two provisos: That land around the stops is zoned for more intense use, and like in Sydney, that the through-routing of the current terminus station is at least funded and underway first. That’s the first fix.

More on AT’s Light Rail Proposal

We have been sent more LRT details from AT. Light Rail is undergoing investigation at this point, but slowly more of their thinking is emerging:

LRT Stage 1.0

Clearly access to Wynyard is the most difficult part of this route. Queen St is so LRT ready and at last a use for that hitherto hopeless little bypass: Ian Mackinnion Drive. The intersection of New North and Dom Rd will need sorting for this too- Is there nothing that LRT doesn’t fix!

LRT Stage 1.1

They are planning for big machines, 450 pax is at the top end of LRVs around the world.

LRT Stage 1.2

At 66m, these are either the biggest ever made, or I guess more likely 2 x 33m units. 33m is a standard dimension, and enables flexibility of vehicle size.

LRT Stage 2.1

The contested road space of Dominion Rd. Light Rail will create the economic conditions for up-zonning the buildings here; apartments and offices above retail along the strip. But the city will have to make sure that the planning regulations support this. Otherwise it will be difficult to justify the investment. Something for those in the area who reflexively oppose any increase in height limits, reduction of mandated parking, or increases in density and site coverage rules to ponder. If they prefer to keep the current restrictions they need to be aware they are also choosing to reject this upgrade. More buses will be as good as it gets, and AT’s investment will have to go elsewhere. I’m not referring to the the large swathes of houses back from the arterials, no need to change these; it’s the properties along the main routes themselves that need to intensify; anyway these are the places that add the new amenity for those in the houses. And not just shops and cafes, also offices with services and employment for locals, and apartments for a variety of dwelling size and price. Real mixed-use like the world that grew up all along they original tram system city wide, before zoning laws enforced separation of all these aspects of life.

LRT Stage 2.2

Helping Our Heritage Come Alive – Dominion Rd

This is an image from Mark Bishop. Here are the previous posts: Queen and Wellesley, Newton Rd, Kingsland, Mt Eden Rd

These images were developed by merging together various historic black and white photographs (all from the “Sir George Grey Special Collection” – Auckland Library) with contemporary colour photographs taken at the same location.

The black and white photographs were taken between the years 1900 to 1940, and cover a number of areas of the city and the outlying suburbs. The colour photographs were all taken in early 2015.

The intention of these images is to use photography to help show how much has changed – or not changed – over almost one hundred years by focusing on locations that are familiar to Aucklanders.

It is interesting to think that the people, horses and trams seen in these images passed by around a century ago where we walk and drive today.

View looking south down Dominion Road near corners of Walters Road and Valley Road.  Black and white photograph (1910) from “Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 255A- 93.”

History Alive - Dominion Rd

What’s with ‘The Void’?

Could Auckland have something like this running on a couple of major city routes before this decade is out? The AT board is to decide later this month how to proceed with its Light Rail plan and with what sort of pace. Everybody it seems loves trams, but why now and why there? What problem are they addressing? In a follow-up post I will discuss the financial side of the proposal.

CAF Urbos Light Rail for Utrecht

CAF Urbos Tram recently ordered by Utrecht

First of all lets have a look at Auckland’s situation in general terms. Auckland is at a particular but quite standard point in its urban development: 1.5 million people is a city. The fifth biggest in Australasia; behind Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. But on the location with the tightest natural constraints of the group; squeezed by harbours, coasts, ranges, and productive and/or swampy farmland, it shares the highest density of the group with Sydney in its built up area. And is growing strongly. It also has the poorest Transit network of the group and consequently the lowest per capita Transit modeshare [although the fastest improving one].

So these three factors scale, growth, and density are all combining to create some serious pressure points that require fresh solutions especially on existing transport routes, and particularly on the harbour constrained city isthmus.

This pressure is on all transport infrastructure, at every scale from footpaths [eg Central City, Ponsonby Road]; the desire for safe cycling routes; on the buses, trains, and ferries; to road space for trucks and tradies, and of course road and street space for private vehicle users. Transit demand in particular is going through the roof and this is way ahead of population growth and traffic demand growth, especially at the higher quality Rapid Transit type of service where growth over the last year has been at an atsonishing 20%.

This is to be expected in a city of Auckland’s current state as Transit demand typically accelerates in advance of population in cities of a certain size, because of the universal laws of urban spatial geometry, as explained here by Jarrett Walker;

This problem is mathematically inevitable.  

As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America.  This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit.  In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population.  Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing.  But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service.   Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.

And that this means that the infrastructure needs of our growing city is likely to be ‘lumpy’. Big long lasting kit that is costly and disruptive to build become suddenly urgent:

As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel.  Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses.  I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles,  Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.

Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed.  In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight.   In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.

As driving amenity is very mature in Auckland there is very little opportunity to add significant driving capacity to streets and roads to much of the city at any kind of cost, and certainly not without a great deal of destruction of the built environment. This has long been the case so in a desire to solve capacity and access issues with a driving only solution we did spend the second half of the last century bulldozing large swathes of the Victorian inner suburbs into to make room for this spatially very hungry mode. This solution is no longer desirable nor workable. Below is an image showing the scar of the Dominion Rd extension citywards and the still extant Dom/New North Rd flyover. These were to be the beginning of a motorway parallel to Dominion rd to ‘open up’ or ‘access’ the old isthmus suburbs.

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

Where we can’t nor want to build ever wider roads we can of course add that needed capacity though the higher capacity and spatial efficiency of Transit. Most easily with buses and bus lanes. There are also potential significant gains to made at the margins by incentivising the Active modes with safe routes especially to Transit stations and schools and other local amenity.

However as Jarrett Walker describes above there comes a point where buses, through their own success, cannot handle the demand as the number of vehicles required start to become both less efficient and more disruptive than is desirable. At this point demand can only be met with higher capacity systems with clearer right of ways. Such systems require expensive permanent infrastructure and are never undertaken lightly.  The CRL, being underground, clearly fits this definition and is due to begin in earnest in the new year. And although the physical work and all of the disruption of the CRL build occurs in the Centre City, the capacity and frequency improvements are to the entire rail network, and therefore much of the city: West, East, and South.

But not everywhere. Not the North Shore, not the North West, and not in ‘the Void’, as AT call it, the isthmus area between the Western and Southern Lines. Shown below in purple with the post CRL Rapid Transit Network. This area has a fairly solid and quite consistent density, housing about the same number of people as West Auckland, around 150,000. Note also the South Eastern Busway [AMETI] plugging directly into Panmure is very much a kind of rail extension for the Transit-less South-East, as is the Manukau spur further south.

RTN Void

The Void

These three major areas will still be relying on buses. The CRL, New Bus Network, and Integrated Fares will enable and incentivise more bus-to-train transfers that expand the reach of the core rail network and that this will help limit the numbers of buses going on all the way to the city. But this is primarily for the South, South-East, and West of New Lynn, there will still be an ever increasing number of  buses with from the remaining areas converging on the City Centre. AT calculates that we need to act now to cut the bus numbers from at least one of these major sources to leave room for growth from the others, and all the other users and uses of city streets. [More detail on this in Matt’s previous post, here].

The North Western is currently getting more bus priority with the motorway widening, and hopefully proper stations at Pt Chevalier, Te Atatu, and Lincoln Rd [although NZTA and/or the government are showing little urgency with this aspect of the route]. Also priority improvements to Great North Rd and further west too. The North Shore is the only one of the three with a Rapid Transit system [which also should be being extended now], and while there is still plenty of capacity on the Busway itself, like the other routes these buses are constrained once in the city. This leaves the very full and frequent ‘Void’ bus routes as the ones to address with another solution first.

So essentially LRT for this area has been selected because of the need:

  • for higher capacity and efficiency on core Isthmus bus routes
  • to reduce bus numbers on these routes and especially in the central city
  • adds Queen St as an additional high capacity North-South city route
  • for extra capacity both before and after CRL is operational
  • to address Auckland Plan air quality, carbon emissions, and resilience aims
  • to enable major public realm improvements along routes, especially Queen St

and possibly because:

  • it may be able to be financed as a PPP so helps smooth out the capital cost of building both projects [more on this in a follow up post]
RTN + LRT
Above is a schematic from AT showing the two proposed LRT branches. The western one leading to Queen St via Ian Mackinnon Drive from Dominion and Sandringham Roads, the eastern one down Symonds St from Manukau and Mt Eden Roads, some or all routes connecting through to Wynyard Quarter. More description in this post by Matt.
It is worth noting that this area, The Void, gets its very successful and desirable urban form from this very technology; these are our premier ‘tram-built’ suburbs. With all the key features; an efficient grid street pattern, mixed use higher density on the tram corridors, excellent walking shortcuts and desire lines. So what the old tram made the new tram can serve well too.
Auckland Isthmus tramlines

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

With all door boarding and greater capacity LRT will speed more people along these routes with fewer vehicles and lower staffing numbers. Frequency will actually drop from the current peak every 3 minutes down to 5 or 7 minutes [I’m guessing]. This along with the narrower footprint required by LRT is a big plus for other users of the corridor. But the huge gain in travel time comes from improvement to the right of way and intersection priority that can be delivered with the system. Stops are presumably to be at intersections, instead of midblock as buses are, so the passenger pick-ups are coordinated with traffic lights.
But best of all for this writer is that LRT is a tool to drive enormous and permanent place uplift. The removal of cars and buses from Queen St, improvements to New North and Dominion Rds, hopefully including that intersection itself, a fantastic new Dominion road with the potential for real uplift to premier status.  It will spur the redevelopment of the mixed uses zone all along Dominion Rd. This is real place quality transport investment. And all of course while moving thousands and thousands of people totally pollution free and with our own mostly renewably generated electrons. Breathing in the Queen St valley will become a fresh new experience.
Light Rail in Queen St 1 - Nilut
We all look forward to hearing the proposed details of the routes and of course the financials. I will follow up this post with my understanding of the thinking on this next.
Light Rail in Queen St 2 - Nilut
Finally it is very good to see that there is no dispute over the necessary solutions to Auckland’s access and place quality issues, just the details and timing. Auckland Transport’s map above is pretty much the same as our solution in the CFN. We are delighted that AT are planning for four light rail routes were we proposed one.
CFN
There are of course plenty of debates to had about further extensions to the Transit networks that this proposal invites; LRT in a tunnel from Wynyard to Onewa, Akoranga, and Takapuna? Then up the Busway? From Onehunga to through Mangere to the Airport? Along Grey Lynn’s apartment lined Great North Road, to Pt Chevalier, and the North Western? Panmure, Pakuranga, Botany, Manukau City Airport? Which of these need to be true grade separate Rapid Transit and for which are bus lanes or busways a more cost effective option? Are their others that would be better suited to extending the rail network? Is there enough density elsewhere in the city to justify other LRT routes?
CFN 2030 + Light Metro

Metamorphosis: The Return of the City

The Auckland City Centre is entering a phase of profound change. The rest of this decade it’ll be undergoing a more extensive and disruptive renovation than your average Ponsonby villa. The designers and financiers are at work and the men and machines are are about to start. The caterpillar is entering that difficult and mysterious chrysalis phase; what kind of butterfly will emerge?

Some of the probable additions to AKL’s skyline [image: Luke Elliot]

If even half of what is proposed gets underway almost every aspect of the centre city will be different.

The Skyline

Precinct Property’s 500 million dollar total rebuild of the Downtown centre and a new 36 storey commercial tower is confrmed to start next year. The 39 storey St James apartment tower is also all go [with the re-opening of the ground floor to the public soon]. An apartment tower on Albert and Swanson has begun. There are a huge number of residential towers seriously close to launching some of which are 50+ floors. These are on Victoria St, Customs St, Commerce St, Greys Ave and more. The biggest of them all Elliot Towers is rumoured to underway next year. Mansons have bought the current herald site and said to looking at residential there. On the same block 125 Queen St is finally getting refurbished bringing much needed new commercial space in the city [+ about 1000 new inner city workers]. Of course the Convention Centre and its associated hotel will start too. Waterfront Auckland have announced new mid rise apartment developments and a new hotel beginning as well. This list is not by any means exhaustive. Auckland is now a builders’ boom town. And it will resemble nothing other than an enormous sand pit for the next few years.

The Street

Regardless of the forms of these buildings they are going to have profound impacts at street level; flooding the footpaths with people, stimulating more and more retail and especially hospitality services. Add to this the disruption of the works themselves, for example later this year the first stage of the CRL is going to start. Digging up everything from Britomart through Downtown, up Albert St to Wyndam St. If the proposed Light Rail system goes ahead that will mean the [no doubt staged] digging up of the whole length of Queen St and other places, Dominion Rd, Wynyard Quarter. Street space is becoming more and more contested. Driving in the city is going to get increasingly pointless, most will avoid it. But unlike last century that won’t mean people won’t come to the city. One, because it’s become so attractive with unique retail offers, unrivalled entertainment attractions, and a fat concentration of jobs. Two, because people are discovering how good the improving Transit options are becoming, so why bother driving. And three, because increasing numbers are already there; it’s where they live anyway.

And that Transit boom is going to continue, or even accelerate. Britomart throughput is now running at 35 000 people daily, when planned it wasn’t even expected to reach 20 000 until 2021 [see below; the blue line is still growing at that angle; it is now literally off the chart]:

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

Why is this happening? A lot of people in wider Auckland still think the city is unappealing or unimportant. Aren’t we spreading new housing out at the edges? Aren’t new businesses building near the suburbs in those business parks? Well ironically one of the reasons so much growth and investment is happening in City Centre is because those same people, the ones that prefer their suburban neighbourhoods to the city, don’t want any change near them. The City Centre is one of the few places that it is possible to add new dwellings or offices at scale, and because it is a very constrained area with high land value this can only be done with tall buildings. The more suburban people refuse to have growth near them the more, in a growing city, investment has to concentrate where it can, and in Auckland that means downtown.

Auckland's first electric  tram 1902

Auckland’s first electric tram 1902

Auckland is still spreading outwards and businesses are growing in suburban centres, but these areas are not appealing or appropriate for all people and all businesses, and nor are they sufficient; the City Centre is growing by both these metrics too, and at a greater pace. The 2013 census showed that AKL city is the fastest accelerating place to live in the entire country, growing at over 48% between 2006-2013, and currently the city is experiencing a new shortage of office space and an interesting reshaping of the retail market. The education sector is also still strong there, with Auckland Uni consolidating to its now three Central City sites and building more inner city student accommodation. City growth is strong and broadly based: residential, commercial, retail, and institutional.

There are risks and opportunities in this but what is certain, outside of a sudden economic collapse, is that the City Centre will be a completely different place in a few years, in form, and in terms of how it will operate. And the signs are promising that what we are heading to is an almost unrecognisably better city at street level than it has been in living memory.

What is happening is simply that it is returning to being a city of people. Ten of thousands of new inner city residents, thousands of new visitors in thousands of additional hotel beds each night, hundreds of thousands of workers and learners arriving daily from all over the wider city each day too. All shopping, eating, drinking, and playing within the ring of the motorway collar. Auckland is moving from being one of the dullest and most lifeless conurbations in the world to offering a new level of intensity and activity. Well that is certainly the possibility in front of us now.

Auckland has had boom times before, and each of these leave a near permanent mark on the built fabric of the city [the Timespanner blog has examples in great detail].  So it matters profoundly what we add to the city this time. We are at the beginning of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the postwar outward boom that came with such a high cost for the older parts of the city. By forcing the parts of the city built on an earlier infrastructure model to adapt to a car only system we rendered them unappealing and underperforming, and the old city very nearly did not survive this era. Only the persistence of some institutions, particularly the Universities, enabled it to hang on as well as it did. The car as an organising device is ideal for social patterns with a high degree of distance and dispersal. It is essentially anti-urban in its ability to eat distance but at the price of its inefficient use of space; it constantly fights against the logic of human concentration that cities rely on to thrive. It not only thrives on dispersal, it also enforces it.

Queen St 1960s

Queen St 1960s

But now the wheel has turned and cities everywhere are booming on the back a of model much more like the earlier one [see here for example: Seven cities going car-free]. This old-new model is built on the understanding that people in numbers both already present in the city and arriving on spatially efficient Transit systems providing the economic and social concentration necessary for urban vitality and success.

This seems likely to lead to a situation more or less observable in many cities world-wide where there is an intense and highly walkable and Transit served centre surrounded by largely auto-dependent suburbs. Melbourne, for example, is increasingly taking this form. And, interestingly the abrupt physical severance of Auckland’s motorway collar might just make ours one of the more starkly contrasting places to develop along these lines. A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns.

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Frankly I think this is fine, it could make for the best of both worlds. Those who want to live with the space and green of the suburbs can continue to do so but are also able to dip into a vibrant city for work, education, or especially entertainment, on efficient electric Transit, ferries, and buses when that suits. A vibrant core of vital commercial and cultural intensity sustained by those who choose to live in the middle of it 24/7. The intensity of this core plus any other growing Metro Centres [will Albany really become intense? Manukau City?] meaning the sprawl isn’t limitless and the countryside not pushed so far away that it is inaccessible. Auckland as Goldilocks; not all one thing or the other; neither all suburb nor all city. People will use or ignore which ever parts they want, and soon members of the same households will be able to indulge their different tastes without some having to leave the country.

What are the threats to this vision? Well we do actually have to build the Transit, this means completing the CRL soon as is possible, and ideally replacing a good chunk of the buses with higher capacity and more appealing Light Rail. To connect these two halves; the success of both the centre and the region it serves depend on it. But also we have deliver a much better public realm on the streets and especially at the water’s edge. We have to retain and enhance the smaller scale older street systems to contrast with the coming towers, like we have at Britomart and O’Connell St. All these moves require leadership and commitment and an acceptance that the process of getting there will be contested and difficult.

I have no fear that people in the wider city won’t be happy to choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys, especially into the city, then jump back into them for others across the wider city or out of town. After all it’s happening already. This is not then a bold prediction, merely the extrapolation of current trends. And it is the trend that tells us more about the future than the status quo. More of this:

CBD Transport Change

than this

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

or this

AKL m'ways 70s

AKL Grafton Gully 70s

Light rail to fill the void

Trams – well modern light rail – could be making a comeback to Auckland after an absence of 60 years if Auckland Transport get their way. That’s the major surprise hidden in the draft Regional Land Transport Plan that has been released today. The RLTP is the document that outlines at a high level the what AT and other transport agencies such as the NZTA and Kiwirail plan to do over the next decade and with specific detail about the next three years.

Is Modern Light Rail coming to Auckland

Is Modern Light Rail coming to Auckland? Photo by Oh.Yes.Melbourne

Immediately there are a number of important questions many will be asking such as why Light Rail, why now and what about the City Rail Link. AT say everything stems back to the City Centre Future Access Study (CCFAS). The CCFAS was a response to the government questioning whether the CRL was the best way of solving access problems to the city centre. It found that the CRL plus a combination of street improvements to cope with buses would be needed.

In the outer parts of the region buses will feed into one of the planned Rapid Transit lines (Rail or busways) – and the CRL was key to making the RTN work – however crucially there is what AT call a large void in the central isthmus not covered by the RTN network. In that void are some of the busiest and most heavily used bus routes in the city – which is unsurprising as the suburbs were initially designed and built to support PT.

RTN Void

The central isthmus void in the RTN

 

It turns out that even with the CRL the sheer number of buses that will need to come from this area will overwhelm city streets. The image below from the last Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing study shows projected bus volumes in 2041 even with the CRL.

 

2041-buses-withcbdrl

And this is the outcome of too many buses on city streets, a veritable solid wall dividing the street.

Bus Congestion

So far from being in competition with the CRL AT are looking at light rail to complement it as a way of addressing bus congestion from areas the CRL can’t touch. It also allows AT to put a higher quality service to areas the rail network is close to but doesn’t pass through such as the Universities and Wynyard Quarter.

The future solution must provide additional capacity, without degrading the quality of the City centre or surrounding neighbourhoods. AT is evaluating a number of options to address this including double-deckers, bus lane expansion and bus interchanges. While many of these bus improvements still need to happen, they will not provide sufficient capacity to move the increase in Aucklanders wishing to travel into the city centre.

Following assessment of options, a light rail network serving the central isthmus has been identified, as the best option to overcome these issues. Similar issues and constraints in successful cities such as Sydney, Canberra and the Gold Coast have reached the same conclusion; that light rail has the ability to provide the necessary public transport capacity and support the city’s intended development. Recent projects in Australasia mean significant recent experience can be drawn on for analysis.

Modern light rail solutions avoid the visual pollution of overhead lines and generate significantly less carbon emissions than the equivalent movement of passengers by bus. Figure 19 below illustrates how different modes have different capacities and travel speeds.

Mode Capacity

The bus numbers are a bit lower than I suspected however this might be due to AT comparing bus priority on the isthmus streets they’re talking about. In effect one modern Light Rail vehicle every 1-2 minutes will hold more people than a double decker bus every 30 seconds.

So which streets are they considering installing light rail, they say that after investigation the most appropriate are

  • Queen Street
  • Symonds Street
  • Dominion Road
  • Sandringham Road
  • Manukau Road
  • Mount Eden Road

There is no maps to show just what routes they would take so I’ve taken a guess based on the streets and key locations near them (hence the extension of Sandringham Rd Along Stoddard Rd).

Draft RLTP LRT Routes

AT say the development of such a network would also open up the opportunity for light rail to the airport, on the North Shore or to other locations which I suspect could mean to the North West or out East.

Of course the biggest question of all is the cost which AT haven’t given any details on but say is potentially significant. They say they are currently evaluating funding options including looking at private sector investment i.e. PPPs. They also note that while the capital cost is high that the operational costs are lower than the equivalent bus fleet and the benefits of the initial investment extend over generations.

Completely coincidentally I wrote a post just a few days ago looking at what it might cost to restore the old tram network. This obviously isn’t the entire old tram network but at ~29km it is a decent chunk of it. There seems to be a wide range in costs from around $6 million per km of single track in Wynyard Quarter up to over $100 million per km (double track) in some Australian cities and averaging around $30 million per km in US cities. As we would be putting any light down existing roads that used to have trams I would expect costs to on the lower end of the scale so including vehicles to run on it we may be talking around $1 billion. That’s a hell of a lot of money that could be spent on a lot of transport projects however the benefits to the city centre, the central isthmus and the city as a whole are also likely to be significant making it an exciting prospect.

We’ve only seen some basic details and much much more information is needed but until then I’m cautiously supportive.

Light Rail in Melbourne 2

Could this be gliding down Dominion Rd in the near future? Photo by Oh.Yes.Melbourne

Dominion Rd Interchange construction

While I was working on this morning’s post about the Dominion Rd Interchange I came across a lot of photos of it from during construction from Whites Photography. Here is a bit of a pictorial history of its construction.

19 November 1963 – before the destruction started.

4 February 1965 – The clearing of houses has taken place and work has started on the interchange. While construction took place I believe traffic was diverted down View Rd and Esplanade Rd for some reason the buses were never shifted back

6 September 1965 – The retaining wall on Bright St/Atken Tce is waiting to hold up fill for the road.

21 November 1965 – You can see part of the interchange complete and used for New North Rd traffic.

26 July 1966 – You can see the large sweeping ramp starting to take shape.

11 October 1967 – The interchange really stands out like a giant scar compared to the finer grained city that surrounds it.

5 February 1968 – The interchange is looking largely complete with work still progressing on Ian McKinnon Dr

24 May 1968 – Looking south down Dominion Rd

Tearing down the Dominion Rd Interchange

The herald yesterday highlighted an idea we’ve long championed, removing the eyesore that is the Dominion Rd Interchange and developing the land freed up by it.

Dominion Rd Interchange

Cash-hungry Auckland Council leaders are eyeing a proposal to replace the complex Dominion Rd interchange with traffic lights to free valuable land for housing and commercial development.

Mayor Len Brown has indicated interest in what Auckland Transport makes of the proposal, which Albert-Eden Local Board member Graeme Easte says offers better connections between neighbourhoods of Kingsland and Eden Terrace severed when the three-level interchange opened in 1968.

Ward councillors Cathy Casey and Christine Fletcher are applauding his idea, as is council urban design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid, who calls the interchange “one of those eyesores designed when traffic engineers only saw their customer as a car”.

Mr Easte, who has persuaded his board to promote the proposal, expects dismantling the interchange and its four traffic ramps – including the sweeping 277m one-way flyover to New North Rd – to more than pay for itself.

Not only could at least $20 million be raised from selling 2ha of council land for mixed residential and commercial development, but that much again could be saved by not having to build a large road bridge over the southern end of the $2.4 billion City Rail Link in nearby Porters Ave.

That is because motorists travelling between Kingsland and Eden Terrace would no longer have to go via Porters Ave or Charles St, over rail crossings which could be closed.

Mr Easte believes the extra movements allowed through a conventional intersection would compensate motorists for having to wait at traffic lights.

The idea is quite simple, the interchange – which was originally intended to be part of a motorway that paralleled Dominion Rd – would be removed and returned to a normal intersection just like hundreds of others around the city. That would do a few key things

  • It would open up a huge amount of land for development and combined with the work nearby that will happen with the City Rail Link highlights a huge urban regeneration opportunity.
  • Despite its size, the current interchange doesn’t cater for some key movements, in particular if you are heading North or South you can’t go left on to New North Rd and you are instead required to use a maze of side streets.
  • The rail level crossings on both George St and Potters Ave are needed to cater for movements that aren’t possible through the interchange. It would therefore give Auckland Transport a cheaper way to deal with these level crossings.
  • It would allow bus lanes to be extended on New North Rd through the interchange
  • It would create a much more friendly human scale environment

But just how much space could it free up? The Herald article suggests 2 hectares however looking it, there’s potentially around 3 hectares (30,000m²) of space across the four corners of the interchange – although some would be needed for connections to local roads. Based on the most recent valuations property prices in the immediate vicinity average roughly $1,750 per m² so that suggests potentially $52 million of land that’s tied up in the interchange not including the roads themselves.

Dominion Rd interchange space

I also must say it’s great to see the idea getting political support with local councillors and local board members supporting it. It also had positive support from people who submitted on the Newton Area Plan when it was consulted on earlier this year.

This is perhaps be a perfect example of a project an Urban Development Agency could tackle.

Below is a quick history of the area and interchange

 

Until the mid-late 1960’s the intersection of Dominion Rd and New North Rd ended in T intersection surrounded by commercial and residential developments. Traffic from Dominion Rd – and originally the trams – would get to the city via Symonds St

Dominion Rd 1959

 

The 1955 Master Transport Plan by consultants De Leuw Cather called for a motorway that paralleled closely to Dominion Rd, something that if built would have been horrendously damaging to the area. The map on the left was from the 1960’s version of the plan while the one of the right is from the 1955 plan showing how it was meant to connect to the rest of the motorway network.

Dominion Rd Motorway 1

 

 

In the mid-1960s work started on the interchange with New North Rd. The interchange itself was finished by 1968 although it took a few more years before Ian McKinnon Dr was complete. This image was also before SH16 was rammed through the area.

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

1968, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

Now the motorway plans are gone but the interchange still exists. Will we tear it down and reclaim the area?

More buses needed on weekends and evenings

Crowding on peak public transport is a well known occurrence in Auckland. This is a rather complex issue to fix due to bus congestion in the city, and high cost of adding extra buses and drivers to run one service a day. Working on bus lanes to improve efficiency and addition of double deckers is the best way to fix this issue.

However we are now seeing regular reports come in of crowding on off-peak services, notably on evenings and weekends. Even on popular inner isthmus routes, evening and weekend services are still stuck in a bygone era, not recognising that the city centre is now far from an 8am to 5pm destination. Weekend services also haven’t been updated to reflect the popularity of the CBD on the weekends and the regular special events that draw people in, especially over summer. Sunday services are usually a lower frequency than Saturday services, which may have been fine when the shops were all closed on Sundays, however it is not appropriate in 2014.

Services at off-peak times should also be able to be added relatively cheaply, as they just involve using existing buses and drivers more often, rather than pushing the need for extra buses and drivers. In some cases the issues may be able to be helped by running larger buses, instead of leaving these sitting in the depot at weekends.

They key services than seem to suffer the most from overcrowding issues are Dominion Road, Mount Eden Road, Tamaki Drive and the Northern Express.

Mount Eden Road

The issues on Mount Eden Road seem to largely come from the sparse evening services. Services drop from 15 minute frequency to 30 minutes after 9pm, which is much too early.

Mt Eden evening timetable

Mt Eden Road weekday evening timetable

 

This tweet from last Monday night shows the high demand for evening Mt Eden Road buses.

Andrew W 277 Monday

And from Julie Anne Genter last month, this time on a Tuesday night.

JAG Mt Eden Road

A few extra 274 services to give at 15 minute frequency until 11pm or so would probably sort the issues. An extra service at 12.10am would probably be popular as well.

Dominion Road

The issues on Dominion Road come from both evening and weekend day time services. Buses are often so full that they are leaving people behind, which is unacceptable.

On Saturdays buses run the 258 and 267 run at a 20 minute frequency, giving a 10 minute frequency along Dominion Road from Mount Roskill. However this doesn’t seem to be enough to meet demand.

Geogoose Saturday

However on Sunday the timetable is totally archaic, and belongs in the 1970’s. The 258 and 267 both run every 40 minutes, only giving a 20 minute service all day.

Dom Rd Sunday timetable

This is certainly not nearly enough to meet demand. This tweet from last Sunday shows this results in packed buses leaving people behind.

Kate Dom Rd Sunday

This tweet from a couple of weekends ago shows this is a regular occurrence.

Geogoose DomRd Sunday

Evening services are also an issue. I heard that Dominion Road buses were leaving people behind at the Symonds Street bridge last Friday night, and am told this is common.

Some of the issues seem to arise from the use by NZ Bus of small ADL Enviro 200 buses, which have much lower seating capacity than the bigger buses available. This is very poor customer service from NZ Bus, as they are sure to have plenty of empty large buses sitting at the depot on weekends, however choose to run small buses to save on operating costs. This is unacceptable.

Tamaki Drive

On nice days in summer the 15 mintue frequency and small ADL buses used on the service cannot handle the demand for trips to Mission Bay. Last Sunday afternoon I saw a bus packed full of people leaving town, and this meant it could not stop at the first stop on Quay Street near Countdown to pick up more beachgoers. I have heard this is a common occurrence on summer weekends.

James Pole MIssion Bay

Again NZ Bus is causing issues by running small ADL 200 buses on these services when larger buses are available.

Northern Express

Northern Express services running on weekends and evenings are often seen to be at capacity. The timetable for weekends and evenings has not been updated since May 2011, despite major patronage growth since this time. Buses leave Britomart every 15 minutes from 7pm to midnight, however demand seems to outstrip this. The NEX needs to run at 10 minute frequency for another hour or 2 to cope with the patronage.

As an example this was the queue for the NEX at 7.40pm last Thursday, nearly 50 people long.

B2TU_bPCcAAE7B4.jpg-large

And this is the bus leaving at 7.45pm. These 10 people were left behind as the bus was full of standing passengers.

B2TWrv9CUAAaKhr.jpg-large

 

Weekend frequency is also an issue. All day weekend frequency is every 15 minutes. However I have regularly seen buses leaving the city full of standing passengers. At a 15 minute frequency the Northern Express cannot handle special events. This is a scene from the Auckland marathon just over a 2 weeks ago where a surge in patronage left the NEX unable to cope.

Nick R NEX wknd

This suggests the Northern Express needs its frequency upgraded to 10 minutes on weekends, at least for the busiest parts of the day.

I am keen to hear more reports from readers about issues with public transport overcrowding, including stories that both confirm the above reports, as well as issues on other services that they have come across.

Fixing these issues would help raise public confidence in the bus system, and ensure people catching a bus have a good experience. It would also provide a great boost to public transport patronage.

A Letter from a Reader

A letter from a reader to Auckland Transport that I was copied in on. It’s an all too familiar tale.

I am a central city dweller and I really, really want to support public transport – but you’re trying my patience and commitment. I’ve lived and worked in London and Sydney and owned a car in neither city. Back in Auckland I work reasonably close to where I live – so close that a car ride will take maybe 10 minutes. But I was trying not to own a car. A bus journey to work should take under 15 minutes – but that assumes the BUS SHOWS UP ON TIME.

This past week, I have wasted an accumulated estimate of close to two* hours of my life waiting for delayed buses. At a micro level, I’ve been personally frustrated, late for meetings and, on one night, cold and damp. At a macro level, the productivity loss of my time, multiplied by the number of people similarly impacted, is staggering.

*That 2 hours is only across 4 days; I walked to and from on the other day – and it was still faster than the previous day’s bus commute.

I’ve been experiencing erratic timetables for awhile on the 267/258 routes travelling from/to Queen St, along Symonds St to/from Dominion Road. (I get on in the mornings either on Queen St or the Symonds St overbridge). So, this week I decided to be more methodical about tracking just how little relevance the timetable has to reality:

On Monday, April 28th the week began in a manner prescient for the days to follow …
Arrive at Queen St stop at 08:44. 08:50 #258 listed as 7 mins away – on time then.

  • 0849: 3 mins away…
  • 08:53: The 08:50 #258 simply disappeared off the board. No “C” for cancelled appeared – it was as if the 10 people waiting had somehow missed the bus without noticing. I can assure you, we hadn’t.
  • A #258 bus did pull up after that – but became “out of service”. As an aside, it would be nice if drivers, when approached by people who (reasonably enough) assume it’s their bus arriving, simply say “I’m sorry, I’m not in service”, rather than pointing and snarling “look at the front! Look at the sign”… that they’ve just changed.

Return trip from Dominion Road.

  • Arrive at bus stop at 6:10pm for 6:12pm #258. No sign of it as the clock edges to 6:19, by which time a #267 should be arriving …
  • At 6:35pm, a #258 scheduled for 6:30pm arrives.

Total delay in today’s commute: 33 minutes.

And Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, it’s much the same. Hoorah for the 08:53 from Symonds St on Thursday morning being only 2 minutes behind schedule.

I can only speak for my experience and, indirectly, those people waiting at bus-stops with me – sighing as they check the electronic board showing increasing discrepancies between scheduled and actual arrivals. But extrapolated across the city, how many thousands of residents arrive at work stressed because they’re late, or waste time every day getting to a stop extra early just to compensate for the unreliability of the service? If my experience is reflective of a common one, Auckland has a long way to go to be “the world’s most liveable city”, or its most productive.

Public transport is vital to the functioning of any city. When done well, it’s awesome. In the central city, I love the Link Bus; I’ll likely never drive within the CBD given this awesome (free with HOP card service). For those living further out of the city, I am sure that even if your bus is delayed, motorway bus lanes are still much faster than peak-hour car travel. It’s environmentally preferable. And reduces the need to waste precious land on car-parking.

But, for those of us moving around the city fringes, what can be done to improve services? I know a number of residents who also philosophically would prefer to take the bus (or train, when it’s expanded), but they’ve given up. Are my expectations of reliability unreasonable? Is my experience that the 258 and 267 route buses are routinely delayed by 10+ minutes within AT’s “acceptable” standards?

I’m just not willing to sacrifice 2+ hours a week to standing unproductively in bus shelters; I’m, with regret, off to buy a car.

I look forward to your feedback.
Sincerely,