A Government Minister for Cities

Australian politics are not something I tend to follow however the ousting of Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull last week piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.

  1. Tony Abbott had taken an extremely ideological position on transport and pushed a transport policy very similar to our governments Roads of National Significance – perhaps even more ideological as our government at least funded or continued some transit projects such as electrification. The Abbott government cancelled or refused funding for a wide range of rail projects and redirected the cash towards more roads even though some of the rail projects were rated highly even by the governments own independent infrastructure body. Prior to being elected he said his government will “stick to its knitting” adding “And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads”. In his own book Abbott said of public transport:

    In Australia’s big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the ­public purse. Mostly, there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.

  2. The contrast with Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t be greater. Even before he became Prime Minister last week he was a well-known supporter and user of public transport in Australia saying recently on twitter “Trains and trams are fun. Meet new people. See new sights. Avoid road rage”. But it’s more than just words, he used public transport regularly to get to meetings and events in his role as a government minister, often tweeting that he was doing so such as the comment below and looking though his twitter feed there are many many more just like this.

Yesterday Turnbull announced his new ministerial line up and he paid special attention to the role cities play. His comments almost brought a tear to my eye as they would easily be some of best and most accurate on the value of cities from any politician in this corner of the world. He’s even gone so far as to create a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment to ensure there is focus on developing cities better.

A transcript is below:

Just turning to changes elsewhere in the Ministry. Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically the Federal Government has had a limited engagement with cities and yet that is where most Australians live, it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found.

We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets. You know, making sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of Government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it’s very mobile.

The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness, that every level of Government works together, constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress. That Federal funding of infrastructure in cities for example is tied to outcomes that will promote housing affordability.

Integration is critical. We shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another. There is no — roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each of them has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all. The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.

Now of course, we have a Minister for Regional Development and the Deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss, but cities have been overlooked, I believe, historically from the Federal perspective. So within the Ministry of Environment, I’m appointing the Honourable Jamie Briggs MP to be the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, to work with Greg Hunt, the Environment Minister, to develop a new Australian Government agenda for our cities in cooperation with States, Local Governments and urban communities.

Of course these are just words and it will be interesting to see if and how the government work to make cities better however it’s definitely a promising start.

Last week in his first speech after being elected he pointed out John Key as someone he wants to lead like, perhaps on this issue the reverse needs to happen. New Zealand like Australia seems to have much of its national identity tied in with sparsely populated places such as farms or rugged and remote locations. Also like Australia most people in NZ live in cities yet despite this cities and Auckland in particular are looked at with scorn. This often results in a lot of provincial parochialism despite the fact that over half of NZs GDP is generated within its three largest cities. In Auckland the government has been actively hostile towards the council, especially in the areas of housing and transport and it’s often not even that they’ve had an alternative vision or ideas.

A minister for cities in NZ that was someone with an open mind and an understanding of the value of cities would be a welcome addition to the Government

Celebrating the 57th electric train

Today Auckland Transport celebrated the arrival of the last electric train – of this first batch. The celebration also included a visit by Prime Minister John Key

EMU Celebration - 1

Auckland Transport has officially marked the arrival of the last of the city’s 57 electric trains with a function at the Wiri Train Depot attended by the Prime Minister.

The last three trains from Spanish manufacturer CAF landed on the wharf last week and are now going through final checks at the depot prior to certification.

Auckland Transport chairman Dr Lester Levy says it’s been a swift journey since the contract for the trains was signed in October 2011. “In less than four years we have seen 57 three-car trains roll-off the production line in Spain, they’re all here now and they’ve been delivered on time and on budget.”

Dr Levy says more than 14 million trips are now being made on the Auckland rail network each year. “That’s fantastic considering that in 2003 when Britomart opened less than three million trips were being taken each year.”

He says this project has had excellent support from the Government including a $500 million loan to fund the electric trains and the Wiri depot. “There has also been a government grant of $90 million and one of $40 million from Auckland Council, we would like to thank them for their support.”

Transport Minister Simon Bridges says the Government is committed to working with Auckland Council to see Auckland succeed. “The arrival of these trains marks the culmination of the Government’s $1.6 billion, decade-long investment in three Auckland metro rail projects.

“Over the next three years, $4.2 billion will be invested to build a robust, future-proofed transport system for Auckland.”

Dr Levy says Auckland now has trains that are of international standard. “The quality trains, along with a boost in the number of services means more people are seeing rail as an option.”

The first electric trains began operating on the Onehunga line in April 2014 and the network from Papakura in the south to Swanson in the west went all-electric just a few weeks ago on 20 July.

“We know many of the trains are already full at peak time but now that all 57 trains are here we will get more double trains operating to help ease the situation.”

Mayor Len Brown says “We’ve busted the myth that you can’t get Aucklanders out of their cars and the electric trains are fuelling the success. But their popularity means we’re becoming the victims of our own success. At the existing rate of growth, we will reach train service capacity by 2016. This emphasises the urgent need to get cracking on building the CRL.”

Each train has seating for 232 passengers and standing room for more. The trains have wider doors making it easier for passengers.

The central carriage is at platform level for wheelchairs, prams or bikes and automatic ramps mean a seamless transition between the platform and the train.

Open gangways between cars mean passengers can move from one end of the train to the other.

Some facts and figures:

  • The supplier, CAF used equipment from Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain – taking the best from the world to create trains specifically for Auckland.
  • It takes more than 15,000 hours to fabricate and assemble one electric train unit, there is 110km of wiring in each unit.
  • Each train is tested for 1000 hours on the tracks.
  • The maximum operating speed is 110km/hr, however, the average operating speed will be less than this.
  • To provide improvements to efficiency each train has regenerative braking, allowing braking energy to be fed back into the 25kv supply – a recovery of up to 20% of the energy used.
  • Noise reduction: the 25kV power supply means that the trains are very quiet both externally and internally – a very important consideration for people living and working near the rail network.
  • There’s no air pollution from the trains because they are electric and there are no exhaust fumes.
  • Rail patronage in Auckland grew 21.7% in the year to the end of June, that’s two and a half million more passengers than in June last year.
  • The number using all public transport in Auckland reached 79 million in the year to June, an increase of 9.5% or on average 19,000 extra boardings per day.

I was secretly hoping that John Key might announce the government were bringing forward the City Rail Link, electrification to Pukekohe or even just the ordering of more trains but sadly that didn’t happen. Below are the speeches from Lester Levy, John Key and Len Brown (sorry audio quality isn’t the best)

Lester Levy

John Key – I particularly liked his comments that he doesn’t think Aucklanders are any different to people in the rest of the world and will use PT if good quality options are provided. Now if only the government will follow up that with appropriate funding to enable that to happen.

Len Brown

It is fantastic that all trains are now here – although it will be a few months before all are on the tracks. One thing mentioned in Lester’s speech was that the EMUs were seeing much improved reliability and punctuality. To highlight that yesterday saw 99% reliability i.e. only three services from over 500 failed to run and 95% punctuality meaning that only 5% of services were later than 5 minutes to their destination. That’s a dramatic improvement on what we’ve had in the past.

Of course the next thing we will need is more trains. As mentioned sadly there was no announcement of that because as I understand it, it will take about 2 years to get new units built and delivered. Given the rapid growth in patronage that means we will probably need to be ordering those very soon. On patronage I don’t have July figures yet but I’ve been told they are very good and in addition August is looking good so far too.


Bring on the Cycleways

Yesterday the John Key and Simon Bridges announced the planned cycling investment throughout New Zealand for the next three years and pleasingly it represents a massive increase on anything we’ve seen before. There are two primary reasons for this increase in funding.

  • One of the government’s election promises was to create a $100 million Urban Cycleway Fund (UCF) to be spent over four years. The first year of projects (well half year really) totalling just under $10 million was launched in January and this announcement constitutes the remainder of the funding.
  • The NZTA are spending significantly more money from the National Land Transport Fund (which comes from fuel taxes, road user charges, licencing fees etc.). This funding is governed by the Government Policy Statement (GPS) which was confirmed at the end of last year and sets funding bands

In effect this is the first announcement of what’s inside the 2015-18 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) which is the three year programme of transport activities that will be funded throughout the country and ties in with regional land transport programmes – which AT consulted on at the beginning of the year. I understand the rest of the NLTP funding will be announced next week.

The funding announced today is broken up by city below

NLTP 2015-15 cycling

We knew the urban cycleways funding was coming – and the government deserves credit for seeing it fully implemented – however as mentioned above the NZTA are also spending a lot more money. To highlight just how much of an increase in spending this $107m from the NLTF is, in the 2012-15 NLTP there was $53 million allocated for walking and cycling. That’s less than half what this announcement contains and itself was a 27% increase above the 2009-12 GPS. So even without the urban cycleway funding the level of money available for cycling has increased dramatically. Add in that remaining $90 million from the UCF and it represents significant increases in spending from Central Government.

One interesting aspect I’ve also noticed is that the $107 million from the NLTF is actually higher than the upper limit of the funding band in the GPS – if only they would also do that to PT funding.

The money shown above is going towards 41 separate projects.  Below are just the Auckland projects however you can see a table of all of them here. It’s worth noting that what’s shown only represents the projects where joint funding is taking place, a lot more cycle facilities will be delivered as part of other projects too. In addition the council have voted to significantly increase spending on cycling and that means it will be funding some projects on its own. It would be interesting to know just how much more network we could have had rolled out if were were able to at least get a 50% contribution from the NZTA for those other projects. The Auckland projects are split into four categories.

NLTP 2015-15 cycling - Auckland Projects

And here’s a map of the projects

Auckland urbancycleways map 2015-18

We’ve talked about many of these projects before and it’s really great that we should be seeing all of this within just three years. One new part I also really like is the addition of two programmes to link up the surrounding areas of New Lynn and Glen Innes to their train stations as well as other local amenities. I think that will be really useful in getting more people cycling not just to those town centres but also to catch trains and buses.

Quay St cycleway impression

An artist impression of a cycleway on Quay St that will be built within 3 years

Here’s Bridges and Key after making the announcement.

All up a great announcement and one that should see some major progress on improving cycling facilities in Auckland – and elsewhere around the country. After years and years of pushing for more funding it’s finally starting to arrive which is a testament to all the people who pushed so hard for a better future. Let’s just hope the various transport agencies have the capacity and capability to deliver all of these projects.

Next up – perhaps even today – we should hear if Skypath will be approved.

Council/Government battle heating up

It seems the fight between the council and the government is turning into an all-out war. The first front was on housing where Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith threatened to override the council who are refusing to approve three SHA’s in rural Kumeu because of a lack of supporting infrastructure. The second front was opened up by Transport Minister Simon Bridges on Saturday who attacked the council’s transport plans saying they don’t have the right mix of projects to deal with congestion well enough in 20-30 years-time. When pressed the only project he could think of as a project that he didn’t agree with was rail to the airport. I’ve already covered off how the refinements that AT have been making to their plans appear to be making them more effective.

Yesterday Prime Minister John Key joined in the battle.

The jump in rates is due to the council’s decision to implement a flat levy on households to fund the city’s future transport needs. Households will fork out an extra $114 a year over the next three years for cycle and bus lanes, regardless of the value of their home.

The Government has ruled out giving the council the power to implement a fuel tax.

“I just think their priorities are wrong,” Prime Minister John Key said on TV3’s Paul Henry programme this morning. “They’ve got to turn around and say, what is the most important issue? The most important issue has to be, in our view, provide roading solutions in the very short-term for where people live. Only 15 percent of people live in the CBD.”

The Government has also called on the council to rethink plans to build from the airport to the CBD.

“If they want more tools for funding, I think they have to demonstrate to everyone they have the right strategy,” says Mr Key.

“When the strategy they’ve got is focusing on 15 percent of where people live – not the 85 percent of where they live, or on the fact that we need to build more houses and build those houses we need infrastructure – I think the council does need to sit down with the Government and say okay, because we have a lot of experts. They are going to do that I think, because in the end, if they don’t, then their options will be limited to basically their rates, and there’s only so far rates can go.”

Firstly I’m not aware of many houses that don’t have access to a road. By talking about people needing roads to where they live it seems as if he’s trying to bring in some reference to the special housing areas issue. If so then he’s quite off the mark as people aren’t living in those places (yet). It also seems he’s getting his housing and employment figures for the CBD mixed up however some of that kind of be excused, he was talking in the heat of the moment. The things that concerned me the most are:

The short term thinking – we’ve spent decade after decade doing the quick, easy and cheap options for building suburbs and it’s left the city a mess with poor public transport, walking and cycling options. One of the key reasons given at the time for having a single council was to break through the short term thinking and why the government required a 30 year spatial plan which is meant to provide a more strategic approach to how the city develops. By just quickly throwing in roads it’s likely we’ll have to go back in 5, 10, 20 years and retrofit everything to fix up the mistakes that will inevitably be made.

The ‘We know Best’ attitude – Auckland is no small rural town, in creating a single council the government set up an organisations with access to a lot of expertise and resources. When it comes to transport expertise I suspect AT is on par with staff from the NZTA and the two work very closely together. In fact they are so close the CEO from the NZTA sits on AT’s board and the NZTA have their logo on AT’s plans. Given all this it’s hard to fathom how exactly government staff conducting any rational investigation would be able to come up with any radically different solution.

The lack of an alternative plan – So far it seems the government just want to sit on the side-lines throwing rocks Auckland without actually presenting any alternative vision for the future. As mentioned just above it’s hard to see how the government could suddenly find a massively different solution to Auckland’s needs. Perhaps the timing and state of some projects such as rail to the airport might not be right but the project is 10-20 years away which is plenty of time to make adjustments if they are needed. It seems that the real reason behind the governments stance is simply for some political power game.

It’s not just about the CBD – The government and the media have talked a lot about how the councils plans are very CBD centric however it’s clearly untrue. One of the key purposes of the New Network and integrated fares is to make it easier to travel across town and transfer between services. It significantly boosts frequency all across the urban area and is shown best in the maps from yesterday showing the difference in frequent services from now to 2018. Yes there are projects in the CBD however they’re also projects that have regional scale impacts.

RPTP Proposed 2015-2018

If the government is playing some form of power game it would help if they got their numbers right. Yesterday Radio NZ’s Todd Niall published this excellent piece about the figures both Bridges and Nick Smith were brandishing around in public. In essence both have been caught out using wrong or misleading figures to push their arguments.

Another good piece on the issue has come from Tim Watkin over on Pundit.

If Key holds this line and refuses Auckland the power to act, he’s very much at risk of getting on the wrong side of the politics heading into 2017. The biggest bit of feedback from the recent council submissions was “get on with it”. Aucklanders may have run out of patience with Brown, but they (especially those under 40) will quickly run out of patience with a government that’s stopping the building of better public transport.

And as we all know, lose Auckland and you lose elections.

But worse, you can forget flags and surpluses. If National doesn’t let Auckland get on with it, Key’s government will have a legacy (like National governments of the 1950s and 1970s) of stopping Aucklanders getting the transport networks – and therefore quality of life – that the country’s biggest and only international city needs.

At this stage it’s very much looking like we’re heading down the road of another government leaving a nasty transport legacy in Auckland and if the previous ones are anything to go by, future residents will not be impressed.

John Key and Simon Bridges, show us your plan.

Move to the Waikato?

The Prime Minister has suggested a new solution to housing problems in Auckland

If you can’t afford a house in Auckland the prime minister has some advice for you – head to Waikato.

John Key was in the region yesterday for a less controversial cup of tea at Zealong Tea Estate, before heading up to Pokeno to see what he made of growth in the area.

In an interview with the Waikato Times he said moving south of New Zealand’s biggest city ought to be a “serious consideration” for buyers struggling to find the cash for Auckland homes.

“They pay less for their home so obviously they’re going to pay more to commute. It’s a tradeoff that people decide all around the world and it will give them a far higher quality of home at a lower price,” he said.

Key said the option would be particularly attractive to those who could work from home.

He added that the Waikato Expressway made it a “really legitimate option, especially for people who work in the southern part of [Auckland] city”.

If living in the Waikato and commuting were really an option for a lot of people I think we’d already have seen a lot more of it than we do. The reality is even if a person worked in South Auckland they’re still guaranteed to be locking themselves into a long daily commute, even if there wasn’t any traffic. Long commutes can impact on people’s quality of life, especially if that commute is unproductive while sitting behind a wheel.

What would make such an idea much more viable was if there was a decent and quality rail service linking at least Hamilton and Auckland. We’ve looked at a Hamilton to Auckland train service a few times in the past including most recently here and here.

Upper North island intercity rail tight frame-01

Where I differ from some of my fellow bloggers on this issue is that I don’t feel that just starting up even a bare bones service now will be that useful in providing realistic choice to people. Instead however a concerted effort was put into improving the rail network to allow for travel time of around 1½ hours between Hamilton and Britomart then it could be a significant game changer. To do that we’d need to see improvements such as the proposed 3rd (and maybe even a 4th) main line through Auckland, the CRL to free up space in Britomart, a number of track improvements along the route and some trains capable of speeds higher than 80-100kph. The good thing is with most of the infrastructure already in place such improvements probably aren’t super expensive and likely far less than a single section of the Waikato Expressway.

Of course all of this is predicated on the basis that people want to live miles from Auckland. Some of course want to but many more would probably prefer to live much closer if there were more opportunities to do so. The lack of a range of different housing choices helps push people to the edge of our cities however John Key sees this situation as something people want:

But whether or not people heeded his advice, the prime minister predicted that the flood of those choosing to live on the outskirts of Auckland was unlikely to slow. His words come as official channels signal more unease over the state of super-city house prices. Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler said yesterday that he was concerned about a “sharp correction, leading to financial instability”.

Interestingly Graeme Wheeler also said this.

In Auckland, much more needs to be done, especially in creating opportunities for residential construction in Auckland central.

Grafton Gully Opening

I made my way to town this morning for the official opening of the Grafton Gully and Beach Rd cycleways. Perhaps because we’re only two weeks out from the election the government pulled out the big guns with John Key turning up to cut the ribbon along with Len Brown and Barb Cuthbert from Cycle Action Auckland. The ceremony itself took place under the Wellesley St underpass which was presumably a precaution from the rain that threatened but which thankfully didn’t eventuate.

There were four speakers who spoke about the project, Ernst Zöllner – the regional director for Northland and Auckland, John Key, Len Brown and Barbara Cuthbert from Cycle Action Auckland. I managed to get a recording of most of them so rather than repeat what they said they are below.

Ernst Zöllner

I missed recording the start of his speech but it was about how the Grafton Gully project came up very highly on all of the NZTA’s criteria.

John Key

There were quite a few interesting comments from the Prime Minister. He said the NZTA were ahead of the politicians on cycling issued and have driven them to do more for cycling. He talked about the Dutch experience and how they haven’t always been such a cycling friendly place and the big one I thought was him stating his support for Skypath

Len Brown

Like Ernst I just missed the start of Len’s speech however he started by talking about how views on transport in Auckland were changing rapidly and referenced the recent poll and was talking about how a huge percentage of people now want investment prioritised around PT and active modes.

Barbara Cuthbert

Speeches over and it was time to cut the ribbon to officially open the route.

Grafton Gully Opening - Ribbon Cutting

and a quick photo op ride along the cycleway.

Grafton Gully Opening - John and Len Riding

It was then time for us to get our bikes and have a go. Of course being a cycling event a ton of people turned up with their bikes and the bike racks for guests were overflowing.

Grafton Gully Opening - Bike Rack

I’ll do a separate post looking at the cycleway itself including photos and video.

Getting on with the CRL

There seems to have been a bit of a “passive aggressive ding dong” going on between Mayor Len Brown and Prime Minister John Key over the City Rail Link in recent months. Back in February, Mayor Brown proposed to “kick start” the CRL by building the first section under the downtown shopping mall and some way up Albert Street. Then shortly after the Elliott Street tower was announced, bringing further pressure on starting the project sooner rather than later.

Yet so far it seems the government hasn’t taken the bait, although critically in the PM’s official response to an earlier start he noted the following:

Your letter also outlined some projects, many being undertaken by the private sector that could be affected by the City Rail Link and raised the question of whether an opportunity existed to reduce disruption to the CBD and some of these projects.

I indicated in the meeting with you that I would be getting some advice on the issues you raise. I am in the process of receiving advice including on the possible impact on some of the projects you cite.

That seems like a fairly deliberate effort on behalf of the PM to leave the door slightly ajar for a change of heart. So let’s look at the major issue, which is the relationship between the timing of any redevelopment of the current Downtown Shopping Mall and the CRL project. Originally Auckland Transport was to buy this site, because construction of the CRL requires the demolition of the entire shopping mall as it passes through the area as a “cut and cover” tunnel. However, a deal was done between Auckland Transport and the site owners – Precinct Properties – so that the site wouldn’t need to be acquired, there’d just be some good co-ordination so that the tunnels could be built and Precinct’s redevelopment could occur.

The map below shows how the CRL tunnels pass directly underneath Precinct’s site, with the area shaded red indicating where a consented high-rise tower is proposed:

downtown-mall-siteIt doesn’t take a genius to work out that the tunnels need to be built before any development can take place. It seems simply impossible to build the tunnels without completely destroying everything on the site above – which means that essentially any redevelopment is delayed until the tunnels are completed. Let’s just say if I were Precinct Properties I’d be pretty pissed off with the government’s attitude at the moment.

So what’s a way to work around this issue? As proposed by the Mayor in February, it seemed like the Council’s plan was to fully fund the initial section of the project (potentially including going under Customs Street perhaps?) at a cost of around $250 million. Given the Council plans to spend close to $200m on CRL in the 2014/15 year it appear like such an outlay is fairly affordable. The government doesn’t want to spend money on CRL until 2020, but it’s not like they’re being asked to in this plan so I struggle to see the problem.

Perhaps the Mayor is concerned that government’s rough promise of a “50/50 split” in the cost of the project only applies to any money spent after 2020 – as that’s when they think the project is required. The risk of building the first section without government support seems to be a worry that they don’t front up with their $125 million come 2020, which is an understandable concern. But surely a bit of clever negotiation could resolve this and both parties can come away happy – Len Brown because he’s finally put a spade in the ground and started his flagship project, and the government because they don’t hold up a major redevelopment, don’t have to spend any money yet and bask in a bit of election year good press over not standing in the way of a very popular project.

Everyone wins. Let’s just get on with it.

Electrification officially turned on

Yesterday the switch was officially flipped on electrification of the Auckland rail network  – well at least the on the section into Britomart. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it so am relying on reports in the media and from others who were there. Firstly the official release from the government

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee welcomes today’s switching-on of overhead lines into the Britomart Transport Centre as a milestone for Auckland’s transport network.

“Electrification is a key element of the government’s focus on supporting a cohesive, efficient transport system for Auckland,” Mr Brownlee says.

“Today is a milestone for three projects which represent a total $1.7 billion government investment – the upgrade of the network to enable 10-minute peak frequencies (Project DART), the Auckland Electrification Project, and the purchase of 57 new electric trains.”

Mr Brownlee says while Aucklanders made 10.7 million trips by rail across the city in the year to January 2014, the upgraded and electrified network, along with new electric trains, will encourage many more people to take the train.

“This will play a big part in tackling congestion, and will also substantially increase the size of the rail fleet, providing spare capacity for future growth,” Mr Brownlee says.

“I want to commend KiwiRail, Auckland Transport and TransDev Auckland for their efforts in deploying safety and protection measures across the network, and safety education.

“It is particularly pleasing to see children learning rail safety in the classroom, which will help them keep safe around our rail network, both now and in the future.

“The government is investing around $1 billion a year on roads and public transport to meet the transport needs of Auckland’s growing population and to improve the transport system’s contribution to economic growth.”

It’s sad to see the government are still bundling together the spending on project DART, funding for which was approved long before they were in office (as was electrification funding). Of course they don’t do the same thing when talking about roads otherwise they would would be constantly talking about $4 billion they are spending on the Western Ring Route alone before you consider all of the other upgrades that have been happening to the motorway network over the last decade or so.

On to more positive things. At these types of PT events we’ve become quite used to hearing government politicians mention the PT project then proceed to talk at length about the efforts to upgrade the cities roading network. John Key’s speech ditched  that and he actually spoke very positively about the importance of it. Here’s some quotes from his speech:

“There’s nothing magical about Aucklanders using public transport,”

“If it’s there and it’s efficient they will use it.”

“So today I think is part of the solution to making sure that we can grow as a city, cope and do well and to do that if we want Auckland, and indeed New Zealand to be efficient and competitive on the world stage we actually have to have good access to public transport”

Here’s some tweets from Patrick who was at the event

Many readers love to blame the government for a lack of investment in PT, particularly around the CRL. I’ve long thought that John Key and the real problem is those who give him advice on transport, namely Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee, something highlighted by the Fran O’Sullivan from the Herald last year after the government agreed to the CRL (but obviously not the timing).

Our friends from Generation Zero were also at the event pushing for the Congestion Free Network.

There was also an interesting bit of timing with this announcement. Professor Peter Newman is in town and he is a man who was instrumental in getting the Perth rail network electrified and extended and has long suggested we do the same.

Lastly the countdown to the first services is now definitely on and with  the first normal services starting to Onehunga on April 28, a mere 26 days away. Now people are seeing the trains out and about, plus with AT now advertising them I think the excitement for these trains will only keep building.

EMU Newmarket from AT

Caption Contest: John Key cycling


Image source: Peter Smit (@PWMSmit) https://twitter.com/PWMSmit/status/448754406432178176/photo/1

Prime Minister John Key with Peter Smit, Councillor for Transport, City Councillor of Leidschenveen-Iepenburg, The Hague.

Comments to be funny, not rude.

Transport’s not a left/right political issue

As I discussed yesterday the debate on big urban issues of housing and transport far too frequently descends into left/right debates and today I’m looking at transport.

One of the reasons this has come up is that we’ve had some interesting conversations on Twitter in the last few days with a couple of Nationals MPs, which apart from highlighting a scary lack of understanding about transport, inevitably touched on the issue about whether the transport policy that we generally advocate on this blog fits into the traditional “left-right” political spectrum. Here’s what the fairly new National MP Paul Foster-Bell said on Twitter:

We have a fairly diverse range of bloggers on this site: a couple of economists, a transport planner, an urban designer, an architectural photographer, a planning student etc and of course myself who most recently working in banking and from our discussions I think we have some reasonably broad political viewpoints.

Furthermore, many of the key changes to transport and planning policy that we have advocated for strongest over the past few years hardly align with any traditional definition of a “left worldview”. Let’s take a look a few of our most common arguments:

  1. Cut back or cancel some of the Roads of National Significance that do not provide value for money. This seems to me like basic fiscal conservatism – as some of the RoNS projects are simply a huge amount of money being spent on a problem that really doesn’t warrant such high investment. Puhoi-Wellsford could be replaced by Operation Lifesaver, Transmission Gully is just overkill for a city that’s hardly growing in population, the Kapiti Expressway has a cost-benefit ratio of 0.2, the Hamilton bypass will carry fewer vehicles in 20 years time than the Kopu bridge did when it was a single lane… and so on. This seems like cutting wasteful spending, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they want to do?
  2. Built the Congestion Free Network instead of the Integrated Transport Programme. Ultimately the CFN proposal is at least $10 billion cheaper than the current transport programme for Auckland. It probably has a much higher chance of achieving the many targets that Auckland has set for its future transport outcomes than the ITP is able to meet (although that’s not hard as the ITP failed to achieve just about any of its targets). Similarly to above, this is achieved through chopping out an enormous amount of wasteful spending on unnecessary projects (both road and rail) – yet again, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they support?
  3. Built complete Streets. Democracy equality and choice are meant to be good things aren’t they? Most of our roads focus solely on the task of moving as many vehicles as possible and give scant regard for anyone not in a car. Building complete streets that treat each user equally and allow people to have a real choice in how they get around is the ultimate form of transport democracy.
  4. Improve walkability. We’ve seen both locally and internationally that when there is a focus on improving the walkability and the pedestrian environment (that includes wheeled pedestrians) a couple of significant things happen. One is that people shop more boosting local retail, perhaps the best example of this is the upgrade of Fort St to a shared space which has seen the hospitality retailers revenue increase by a staggering 400%. The second thing is that people walking (and cycling) more is good for them, improving health and therefore reducing long term costs to the health system. This is further enhanced as often these improvements also see a reduction in traffic crashes. So once again we see a case where we can lower costs while also increasing revenue and therefore tax at the same time.
  5. Get rid of Minimum Parking RequirementsThis key proposal is to get rid of a current regulation that causes more harm than good, that adds significant cost onto developers (thereby discouraging development and growth) and often just adds regulatory churn cost for no gain (as it seems most applications for parking waivers appear to be granted). I would have thought this aligns quite well with a “right of centre” political ideology where reducing regulation (especially regulation that harms economic activity and growth) is a very very good thing.
  6. Relax Planning Rules to give people more Housing Choice. This was covered yesterday but worth repeating again. Most planning rules limit development potential in existing urban areas: whether that’s through height limits, yard setbacks, density controls, parking requirements, minimum unit sizes or whatever. Through the Unitary Plan process we have advocated for (and will continue to do so) the relaxation of planning controls – particularly in areas where it makes good sense to allow high density developments to make best use of existing infrastructure. Similarly to parking controls, this is a relaxation of current regulation that significantly limits development potential and the prospects of economic growth through making better use of inner parts of the city. The relaxation/elimination of economically damaging regulation should be music to a right-wingers ears you’d think.

There are probably many more examples than above, but they give a good overview of why transport policy (and land-use policy) really doesn’t fit well into a traditional “left-right” ideological spectrum. We could easily point out how bizarre it is that our current supposedly centre-right government has significantly increased petrol taxes to spend on a series of very dubious mega-projects in the form of the RoNS. That seems rather more “tax and spend” than fiscal conservatism.

Furthermore, if you look internationally there are many examples of centre-right political parties taking public transport seriously. In Britain, the current Conservative government is making a big contribution to the £15.9 billion Crossrail project in London and is also likely to spend even more money on the High Speed 2 rail project. That government seems to understand the economic importance of having good rail infrastructure. For example, Crossrail massively increases the residential catchment of the Canary Wharf employment area – somewhat similar to how the CRL vastly increases the residential catchment of the city centre. London Mayor Boris Johnson is a big champion of not only Crossrail but also getting more people to ride a bike and is planning to invest huge amounts of money in cycle infrastructure. In Australia, the centre-right New South Wales government is championing and making a massive funding contribution to the North West Rail Link project. Even in Auckland we have business groups who politically are considered “right of centre” supporting projects like the City Rail Link and improved cycling infrastructure.

It’s interesting to try to understand this political divide through other lenses than a traditional “left-right” spectrum. Pro-urban and suburban/anti-urban is perhaps a better lens in my opinion – particularly because it seems to explain better why some right-wing parties (like the Republicans in the USA, the current Liberal Government in Australia and the National government here in NZ) appear to be sceptical at best about public transport, while others (e.g. NSW government and UK government) seem to really understand the importance of public transport.

Perhaps this “pro-urban” and “suburban/anti-urban” divide even exists within the current National Party. It was interesting that John Key (an Aucklander who has lived in big overseas cities for much of his life) was the person who changed the government’s position on City Rail Link while Steven Joyce (grew up in New Plymouth and now lives on a lifestyle block in Auckland) and Gerry Brownlee (from Christchurch) were apparently the biggest opponents of that change. Or how we get current Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse saying this on auto-dependency:

From Dunedin, in case you were wondering.