How genuine are the supposed “bus fans”?

Rodney Hide’s opinion piece in the Herald on Sunday highlighted an issue that’s been bugging me for some time – whether those opposing the City Rail Link on the grounds that “buses can do the job fine” are really interested in improving Auckland’s bus system or not. Here’s what he says about his preference for buses:

It’s not obvious to me that a heavy train having to stop and start and be confined to tracks is the best way to ferry people around Auckland. Buses along roads strike me intuitively as a cheaper and more flexible form of public transport.

Many more people live closer to a bus stop than a train station. That’s because buses go along roads that people live on. Buses can also pass one another. Trains can’t do that.

Because of the flexibility and convenience, more people travel into the city centre by bus than train. That will stay true even if Auckland spends billions on trains at the expense of better roads and better bus services.

John Roughan made a similar cry in favour of buses in the Saturday Herald:

The crossing would have to be under water and probably it would be connected to the northern busway that one day conceivably could be converted to a railway, but that, too, is a solution looking for a problem.

The busway, like the bridge, is fine.

The problem lies in roads closer to home. By car it can take as long to get on to the motorway as it takes for the rest of the journey. By bus it takes too long to get to a busway station. Once on the busway, you can be in the city in eight minutes.

In fact, the North Shore is probably better served by the busway than the rest of Auckland is by its railways, which also have to be reached by bus or car from most people’s homes.

The only reason the mayor invokes rail for the Shore is to answer its ratepayers when they ask why they should help pay for a project that isn’t coming their way. It’s a silly answer to a silly question but this is election year.

Russell Brown from Public Address notes the great irony of John Roughan now being a huge fan of the busway when he absolutely hated the idea back in 2007. I guess we chalk that up as someone won over – or should we?

The simple fact is that all these supposed bus fans have done diddly squat to actually encourage the improvement of Auckland’s bus system. I can’t exactly remember Rodney Hide out there campaigning to save the Remuera Road bus lane from turning back into a T3 lane. Or John Roughan supporting the implementation of the HOP Card – he pumped for Snapper back in 2009 and didn’t that end well?

As for the cabal of local councillors, Cameron Brewer, Dick Quax and George Wood. They frequently like to grandstand against the CRL claiming it is sucking up all of the money for PT, like in this article from 6 months ago.

Mr Quax said the rail project made little sense because it would gobble up 80 per cent of the public transport capital budget over the next 10 years when much-needed bus lanes and ferry terminals received a “paltry” 20 per cent.

They use this line quite frequently these days, despite their numbers actually being wrong – the PT capex budget for the next decade is ~$4b and the inflated CRL price is $2.86b, or 72% of the budget. Despite this, I haven’t exactly seen George Wood talking much about the stalled progress of extending the Northern Busway to Albany, or Dick Quax wanting to see the AMETI busway’s construction schedule sped up. In fact I don’t think I have seen any one of them suggest where a single metre of bus lane should be added or where they think new ferry services should operate from. Yesterday in response to the alternative funding proposals, they once again made vague comments without giving any detail.

I have a nasty feeling that when rail opponents say they support buses they’re actually not quite telling the truth. They realise  it’s not viable for them politically (or practically) to dismiss public transport out of hand anymore – so they pretend to support buses on the spurious grounds of “buses need roads too” – when in actual fact they’re just mainly interested in spending as little as possible on public transport so all the money can go back into roads.

So next time someone plays the “buses are better than trains” card, I suggest asking them “so what have YOU specifically done to try and improve Auckland’s bus system recently?” Or “I look forward to your support for introducing bus lanes along desperately needed routes like Great North Road in Waterview, Manukau Road, Pakuranga Road, Onewa Road (uphill) and in many other places”. Then let’s see how deep their love affair with the bus really is.

NZTA confirms that another harbour crossing not needed soon

Over the last few months we have done quite a number of posts looking at the issues of a potential new harbour crossing and I think that it may have started to frustrate some from the North Shore. particularly councillor George Wood. He has became much more vocal on the issue though social media and calling for the bridge to be built as soon as possible. Well it seems that it has attracted the attention of the Herald who ran a piece today about it that has provided some useful information about the need for the project. I did have a little laugh right at the start as one of the things I had questioned earlier in the year was if there would be any North Shore politicians who would actually stand on a platform of not building another road crossing

North Shore leaders will this year ramp up calls for a new Waitemata Harbour traffic crossing, even though the Transport Agency does not believe one will be needed before 2030.

Although the agency expects to update an application to protect a preferred route for tunnels under the harbour towards the end of the year, Auckland Council member and former North Shore mayor George Wood fears complacency setting in.

He says community groups such as the Northcote Residents Association want to be involved in planning for a new crossing but are being kept in the dark about a proposal which follows at least six studies since 1986 and doubt about the longevity of the existing harbour bridge.

Arguing for the bridge on the grounds that it is old and could fall apart seems to have been a mainstay argument for those that want a new road crossing and helpfully the NZTA have addressed this.

Having recently spent $86 million strengthening the bridge’s two clip-on structures, the agency is focused mainly on its ability to cope with increasing freight loads.

Mr Town said that with careful management, there was no reason why the 54-year-old bridge could not last for another 100 years. But he said the “critical path” for bridge loads was heavy vehicles travelling on the northbound clip-on lanes, for which forecasts indicated a new crossing would be needed by 2030.

Even so, the agency did not want to build the new crossing too early, for cost reasons.

“It’s expensive, so getting the timing right is the thing,” he said.

The agency in early 2011 estimated the cost of a pair of road tunnels at $5.3 billion compared with $3.9 billion for a new bridge, and the Auckland Plan cites a figure of $5.8 billion to include future provision for trains.

Mr Town acknowledged that technological advances were likely to reduce tunnelling costs, while those for a new bridge were unlikely to fall markedly.

But he said “one of the big unknowns” was what the completion in 2017 of the western ring route with its connection to the Upper Harbour Bridge at Greenhithe would do for heavy traffic movements.

“It will provide a genuine heavy traffic option – between 2017 and 2021 we will be looking really closely at travel patterns.”

So the bridge is obviously fairly structurally sound and the issue then becomes a question of when the clip-ons need replacing. The NZTA seems to admit that it will depend a lot on what happens after the completion of the Western Ring Route. You may also recall that we found that the traffic predictions that had been used in the previous business case used incorrect data so it is quite possible that combined with the WRR this could see the need for replacing the bridge pushed out a lot longer than 2030.


Traffic volumes predicted in the AWHC business case vs actual

The other major issue with a new crossing would be the impact on the city centre. The current thinking is for the new crossing to link directly into the existing motorway system and to turn the harbour bridge into a kind of big off ramp. By taking the through traffic off the bridge, it would leave a hell of a lot of unused capacity on there which would have the effect of making it easier to drive to the city. That would severely impact not only the performance of the Northern busway but would see potentially thousands more cars per hour dumped into the city centre when all of the councils plans are focused on trying to reduce vehicle numbers that area.

So far everything seems to point to the conclusion that we are both unlikely to need the crossing for at least a few decades and that even then we might not want it due to the impact it would have on the rest of the city. That kind of brings me back to my question from earlier in the year and wonder when will we get a politician who is brave will actually stand up and say this to the residents of the North Shore?

I think the other thing worth pointing out from this article is it confirms that the NZTA are now looking at a combined road and rail tunnel like has been done in some places overseas. In this situation the tunnel diameter is big enough that a train line can be run below the road deck as shown below. If we must have a new road crossing then it does make sense to do it this way and it is interesting to see the NZTA say that the tunnelling costs are likely to reduce as the technology improves. My preference at this stage however would be for a dedicated and much cheaper rail tunnel first and to only build the road crossing if it is still needed after that (the business case costed a rail tunnel at $1.6b vs $5.3b for a road tunnel).

The same tunnel with a Bombardier ART light metro train under the road deck.

Belittling the City Centre

The results of leaked release of the Horizon survey and the CCFAS last week has clearly started to cause concern amongst the anti rail councillors with the number of comments from them, and George Wood in particular increasing quite a bit. With this post I want to focus on just one aspect that gets trotted out quite a bit, in this case by Mr Negative himself, Cameron Brewer (because I can’t think of a positive thing he has said for 2 years).

Mr Brewer said he had yet to be convinced about the cost and benefits of the project, including the benefits to nearly 90 per cent of Aucklanders who do not work or live in the CBD

As Nick showed in this post a few months ago, the CBD has traditionally been defined as the area within the moat that is the motorway system however really the central city area that would be impacted by the CRL is actually larger than that and encompasses some of the surrounding suburbs like Newton and Parnell. But even that doesn’t tell the full story as while it puts the central city employment percentage at over 20% it still implies that the are is insignificant regionally . But in reality, even at that level, the central city is head and shoulders above anywhere else in the region so I thought with this post I would try to show that. The map below shows the key employment areas in the regions and how many thousands of jobs are in them.

As you can see the central city with 134,000 jobs (of which 80-90k are within the moat) is far larger than any where else in the region. What’s more here are a couple of other interesting points:

  • There are more jobs in the central city than both the North Shore and West Auckland combined
  • The only group of areas where the number of jobs comes close to the central city is the group of areas from Onehunga to East Tamaki but that covers a massive area and is part of the reason why AMETI is so important.
  • 50% of all jobs in the region are located close to the rail network and so could benefit from increased frequencies that would be able to be justified due to the number of jobs in the central city.
  • Not included in the 134k figure for the city centre are ~60,000 students who attend the universities.

More people working close to jobs in the central city is well and truly much higher than anywhere else, do we really need to be focusing so much on growing that number even more. In a single word, Yes. The reason for that is due to agglomeration benefits which occur when you have a lot of people working close to each together means more economic activity can happen which in turn benefits not only Auckland but the whole country. Of course this applies not just to employment but also to residential density and this post yesterday on The Atlantic Cities looked cities across the US and found that generally cities with more dense urban cores performed better not only economically but across a wide range of factors.

Ever since Jane Jacobs, urban thinkers and economists have argued that clusters of talented and ambitious people increase one another’s productivity and the productivity of the broader community, spurring economic growth. So, what about economic growth: Is it higher in metros where density is more concentrated? The short answer is yes.

Economic growth and development, according to several key measures, is higher in metros that are not just dense, but where density is more concentrated. This is true for productivity, measured as economic output per person, as well as both income and wages.

The CRL allows for a lot more people to access the city centre which in turn will make it more attractive and encourage more jobs and residents in the area. Those additional jobs and residents will most likely provide considerably more economic impact than if they were spread out across the city, or even worse if they were out on the far flung edges. So at the end of the day, by arguing against the CRL on the basis on the current percentages of jobs and people in the CBD, these councillors are actually arguing against one of the best opportunities for economic growth we have.