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)

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.

Hi John …


*** I recently wrote this post on the National Government’s LTMA Bill, which is currently before parliament. One of our readers felt sufficiently motivated by issues with this Bill to submit the following letter to his local National MP, in which he outlines his concerns. His local MP just happens to be John Key. ***

Hi John,

I really have a problem with the way aspects of the above Bill are re-aligning the objectives of Auckland Transport away from regional objectives set by Auckland’s elected Council representatives to those of National objectives set by nationally elected Politicians.

I am a constituent of yours and a long time supporter of the National Party, particularly its policies to reduce bureaucratic & Government intervention in our lives and enhance personal reliance. I am also a long time supporter of strong local government and supported the creation of Auckland’s single Super City Council. With the Council less than three years old and well before it has a chance to prove it’s worth it is not helpful to be hobbling it with legislation like this.

For me the biggest problem is that this legislation misaligns representation and taxation (as represented by property rates). The Council is clearly the rates collector so should be able to direct AT in how to spend its portion of those rates. If rate payers are dissatisfied with the direction of spend they can first lobby the Council then vote them out if necessary. When AT’s direction is set by the Government’s Policy on Transportation via NZTA it becomes a lot less clear as to who we should be lobbying and voting out should we be dissatisfied with the direction of spend.

I think there are probably other ways to ensure that AT’s activity and national objectives are aligned than this sort of draconian power grab legislation.

I look forward to hearing that you are reconsidering this legislative approach.

*** How say ye John? P.s. I emailed Nikki Kaye but have not yet received a response. If anyone out there knows Nikki can you please ask her to check her inbox? I know she’s busy, but you know, she represents Auckland Central. ***

Opening of the Hobsonville and Beach Haven ferry terminals

I had the opportunity to go to the opening of the Beach Haven and Hobsonville ferry wharfs today. While readers my know I have had my doubts on the services, primarily due to the limited sailings and steep prices, I do think that the infrastructure put in place does look good and of course cruising up the harbour on a ferry can be a pretty nice way to get to/from work. Our first stop on the ferry was at Beach haven for a quick ribbon cutting ceremony. Local board chair Lindsay Waugh gave a short speech about the project and at one point got a cheer when she said that the ferry will enable people to get to town and connect to the rest of Auckland using the CRL.

Beach Haven Terminal with Hobsonville in the background

Beach Haven wharf with Hobsonville in the background

The Beach Haven terminal waiting area

The Beach Haven wharf waiting area

After that it was time for a quick hop across to Hobsonville to open that wharf. We did get a little delayed though after having to turn back to Beach Haven due to leaving Len Brown behind. The Hobsonville wharf is quite nice, the waiting area is similar to above, albeit a bit larger. It is reached by a wonderful walkway which is lined with boards that talking about the areas natural and human history.

Hobsonville Wharf walkway

Hobsonville Wharf walkway

One thing I quite like is there is a bus stop just behind where I was standing meaning it is only a short transfer to the ferry.

One thing I quite like is there is a bus stop just behind where I was standing meaning it is only a short transfer to the ferry.

Hobsonville Ferry Wharf 4

Lots of people turned up for the opening

After the ribbon cutting it was time for more speeches which actually turned out to be interesting and a little bit insightful. First up we had Auckland Transports new chairman Lester Levy who gave a superb speech. He talked about the terminal but also how AT had to become better at customer service. He also covered off something I have been thinking about (and have mentioned in a few places), talking about how much of a change is happening to transport over the next few years. He is from a medical background and so used some medical examples, he said we weren’t just having a cosmetic peel that would make the skin look better for a while but that would eventually end up looking just the same, instead he said we were having major re-constructive surgery that will profoundly improve the quality of our lives. Some people may just think this is just talk but I have now met Lester a few times and I do think he is genuinely wants to improve transport in Auckland which is excellent and just what we need.

Next up was John Key who along with Len Brown opened the wharf. Perhaps the most interesting thing he talked about, and he mentioned this over at Beach Haven too, was how his son was starting at Auckland Uni this year. He mentioned about how there isn’t a heap of parking at the uni which makes it fairly expensive to park there. He said any student who drives in will soon become a very poor student due to those parking charges so it is important that options like PT still enable connectivity. It was good to hear him say this but I wasn’t 100% sure it wasn’t just another take on the old attitude that PT is just for students, poor people or the elderly. Lets just hope that his son becomes enlightened on urban issues and is able to pass his thoughts on to his father.

John Key Speech

Bit hard to get a good photo due to the light sorry

Len Brown spoke next and most of the stuff he talked about is probably similar to stuff he has said before so I’m not really going cover it in this post. Last up we had Adrienne Young-Cooper who is the chair of the Hobsonville Land Company, the organisation doing the development of the area. Perhaps the key thing she talked about was about how they hoped the development would enable people to live with one less car. She talked about how the costs of owning a car can easily be more than $8,000 per year and how enabling people to have one car instead or two, or two instead of three is something that can really help improve affordability.  That is something this blog really supports and something I think is a key reason why we need to improve our PT system. Hopefully she is also pushing that same message to some of the other boards she is on as amongst others, she is currently also on the board of the NZTA.

All up it was a really good day and there was quite a large number of people that turned up from the local community. If we could get even a quarter of them using the services then it will be a pretty outstanding success.

What to read into the govt’s transport priorities?

Yesterday Prime Minister John Key gave a speech outlining the government’s priorities for 2011. Of relevance to this blog is what he said about transport. Starting with what he said about State Highways:

We will continue building New Zealand’s transport infrastructure.

It is vital that New Zealand exporters and producers can move their goods efficiently throughout the country, and that New Zealanders can get efficiently from A to B. That requires a solid transport network that anticipates future needs.

In 2011 work will progress on developing New Zealand’s State Highway Network with priority accorded to progressing the seven Government-designated Roads of National Significance.

Construction on four of these is already underway, and this year construction is scheduled to begin on projects such as the Waterview Tunnel, the Ngaruawahia Bypass and the Rangiriri Bypass.

I must get around to asking NZTA what the cost-benefit ratios of the Ngaruawahia and Rangiriri bypasses are.

And public transport gets a mention too:

The Government will build the effectiveness of New Zealand’s public transport networks.

We want public transport networks that are efficient, affordable and future-proofed. To achieve this we will work particularly closely with the Auckland and Greater Wellington Regional Councils on plans to build improved metro rail and bus services. It is important that these cities pay their fair share for the infrastructure their ratepayers need. The Government sees itself as an important partner in their plans, provided they are realistic and necessary.

The formation of the Auckland ‘Super City’ Council provides a significant economic opportunity for New Zealand, and the Government will be working to maximise this opportunity in 2011. We will be working closely with the Auckland Council as they develop their strategic vision for the City through the Auckland Spatial Plan.

This year we will support efforts to build financial durability for Kiwirail, by shoring up its capacity to operate commercially-viable freight operations. We want Kiwirail to be able survive on its own two feet, and that means ensuring it can provide a competitive service that Kiwi businesses want to use and pay for.

The AKT blog interpreted what Key said somewhat negatively, a sign that the government would only reluctantly look at ‘realistic’ rail plans. I’m not sure whether I have the same interpretation – as I actually think there are a number of positives here:

  • There isn’t specific reference to “we’ve paid for Project DART and electrification so now shut up” as has been the case previously.
  • There’s a commitment to working closely with the Auckland Council to help give effect to the spatial plan. The fact that this paragraph is surrounded by rail discussions suggests that the CBD tunnel might be in mind.
  • The government does accept it’s a partner in rail projects that make good sense.

I just wish the government would apply the same scrutiny to its roads of national significance. Is Puhoi-Wellsford efficient, affordable, realistic and necessary? I think not.