Auckland Geography works against roads

When I first started reading this op-ed in the heralds motoring section the other day I thought “here we go, this is sounding like someone wanting to push some form of petrolhead nirvana”

Paul Charman says stop your complaining and celebrate the people who get us through the Queen City’s roading maze

If quantum physics allowed it, somebody should journey back to 1840 and shoot Governor Hobson.

Ideally this would be after he organises the Treaty but before he names a town after the Earl of Auckland, and sites it between Waitemata and Manukau Harbours.

The location was great for the 200 or so “sailing-ships-are-us” brigade here 170 years ago but it’s a tough legacy for the 1.5 million people who live in Auckland today.

And while there is a bit of the petrolhead desire in the piece, it also makes one very important point.

Thanks to the Queen City’s hourglass shape and the inability of our forefathers to build roads to suit it, massive gaps exist in our modern roading network. There’s no motorway detour around the Central Motorway Junction south of the CBD, forcing all motorway traffic in the isthmus to pass through it. Big rigs travelling from port to port compete with old family Nissans headed across town.

True, the situation will be eased by State Highway 20 extensions through southern and western Auckland (the harbour bridge is a similar choke-point but nobody knows how we’ll fix that one).

Proper alternative routes were planned 50 years ago but stymied for decades by small-vision councils and screaming nimby landowners.

Well, boo hoo and get over it. It’s hard to drive in Auckland, tough.

But – thanks to those two beautiful harbours – Auckland is also a great place to live.

The reality is that Auckland’s geography simply isn’t that suited to an auto dependent transport system. The various waterways combined with our volcanic terrain have created a series of pinch points around the city. A lot of vehicles wanting to cross the urban area get funnelled into one of these points. It means that those roads need to have a lot of capacity to keep traffic flowing and that can very often be extremely expensive to provide. The worst example is probably the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing for which it is expected to cost $5 billion to provide additional road capacity.

However while those same geographic features affect also affect public transport infrastructure, one advantage PT has is that it can move people much more efficiently and so the same number of people can be moved within a much smaller space. For example a double tracked rail line – which could be accommodated in a corridor with a width of ~12m – could easily carry more than 9,000 people in each direction with just 5 minute frequencies. That’s more than an 8 lane motorway which would need at least 40m of width. The narrower corridor also means it is possible to put the corridor underground if we don’t want it impacting on the surface, or interacting with surface streets and we have seen this happen at New Lynn.

What’s more, our geography and existing land use has also created a number of natural corridors that can/could quite easily be served by PT.

Auckland development Corridors

This issue has also been one of our considerations when we designed the Congestion Free Network which allows for most of the city to be served with a really high quality PT network for the same price as what the government and AT are currently planning to spend on a few big roading upgrades.

CFN 2030A

I think it’s also worth noting the key point that Paul makes in the piece that there are a huge number of people behind the scenes that work to keep the whole transport system working. Without many of them it would be much much harder to get around.

Myth Busting: Aucklands Geography

Myth: Auckland isn’t geographically suited to public transport.

I’m not sure where this myth even came from but if I had to guess, it would have been from the 50’s or 60’s, the same time that many of our transport myths originated from those looking to justify building the motorways instead of public transport. The theory goes that cities like Wellington are more suited to public transport, and in particular rail, due to the the geography largely forcing development into a couple of long thin corridors. As such, Auckland which extends out in all sorts of directions is said to be more suited to car based transport.

At first that seems logical which is why I guess so many people have taken it to be true but then how do you explain why public transport is able to be provided easily in river cities. Some of the worlds greatest cities sit on river plains and they spread out in all directions yet they have been able to build fairly extensive PT systems. Some of that is related to density (and I will address density in a future myth busting post) but not, an example I have experienced myself is Munich where urban area itself is not that much smaller than Auckland’s and the population is a fairly similar size.

What is interesting about Auckland is that unlike many cities, the outer parts of the urban area are naturally shaped into a handful of fairly defined corridors that connect to the isthmus at just a dozen pinch points, something that is actually perfectly suited to PT. This is further helped by some of the infrastructure we have already put in place like the rail lines and funnily enough those motorways.

  • The North Shore, which thanks to the Hauraki Gulf and the Waitamata Harbour is a fairly defined corridor all the way up to Albany.
  • To the West we have the land curving around and bordered by the Whau river on the eastern side and hemmed in by the Waitakere ranges and foothills on the western side.
  • SH16 has opened up a further corridor to the North West which is again bordered on one side by the upper reaches of the Waitamata.
  • In the East we have a similar situation to the west, in this case with the Tamaki river on one side and more hilly terrain on the other.
  • Lastly to the South we have development that has largely followed the rail line and motorway stretching development out in a long ribbon.

When you also add in our current and planed rapid transit network (RTN) you can see how the the areas away from the isthmus are largely contained into a few defined areas. In fact all most of the cities development is within ~1.5km of these RTN lines, including those bits within the isthmus. Lets have a look:

On top of this many of our older suburbs on the isthmus were actually developed with the help of public transport in the form of trams. These suburbs are uniquely suited to the provision of PT both in the past and in the future. However we don’t have to wait for decades to be able to afford this. As we have seen recently with the proposed new bus network, we have been able to get significant improvement out of our existing resources and as such by 2022 we will see the percentage of households that are within 500m of a service that runs at least every 15 minutes from 7am to 7pm will jump from 14% to 40%. Here is the 2016 version of the proposed PT map showing just how much coverage the new network will have.

So really Auckland is really quite suited to the provision of public transport. In many ways is not suited to urban motorways as those pinch points act to funnel traffic into a handful of places, something which decent public transport infrastructure can easily bypass while moving huge amounts more people. Further that motorway infrastructure has required huge physical alterations to our environment which have led the wholesale removal of suburbs. What has stopped us up until now has been poor decisions and planning that have forced PT to become substandard. The good news is that with a little bit of work, like the bus network redesign, we will be able to get it working much, much better.