Notes from Sydney: Light Rail

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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport Transport Plans

Following up last week’s Mangere/Airport RTN post, reader Martin B pointed to this recent AIAL Masterplan: pdf.

Airport terminal

Here are the key Landside Transport pages:

Airport Transport

Map of the future precinct; white dotted lines indicate the rail line and the white rectangle the station:

Airport Masterplan

Good to see both northern and eastern routes are being planned for, however they are completely missing a trick by not taking the station right into the Terminal building (04). We know that AIAL are planning for the line to be cut and cover through their property so why not take it all the way to under the yet-to-be-built Terminal building? Seems pointless to insist that rail users stop just short enough from their destination to have to drag bags across a couple of roads. Interestingly this places the station with the proposed massive new parking buildings.

I have used trains to get to airports all over the world and by far the best have stations fully integrated into the terminals. Given this is a completely new integrated domestic and international terminal building surely it wouldn’t be difficult to future proof for this. Especially as they are claiming they are to reduce congestion while providing 20 000 carparks. The RTN route and service will need to be as good as possible to make sure it attracts as many users as possible to help keep those approach and local roads flowing.

After all, isn’t the plan for a streamlined seamless experience?

More on AT’s Light Rail Proposal

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

LRT Stage 1.0

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

LRT Stage 1.1

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

LRT Stage 1.2

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

LRT Stage 2.1

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

LRT Stage 2.2

City centre employment and the CRL: good news or bad?

If you’ve been keeping up with the news or if you’ve been following our Development Tracker, you’ll know that there’s a lot of new office development activity starting to happen in Auckland’s city centre. And a significant amount of it right on the CRL route:

CRL + new City Centre buildings

Image from SkyscaperCity – development along the CRL route. Includes some non-office buildings, and doesn’t show all the office buildings discussed in this post

Under construction:

  • 151 Victoria Street West, with 17,600 square metres (sqm) due for completion later this year.
  • There’s 40,000 sqm of office space going up at the southern end of Wynyard Quarter in the VXV park. This is across three buildings, Fonterra, Datacom and VXV Three, due for completion in 2016 and 2017.
  • Also, there’s 125 Queen St which is currently being refurbished. That’s 15,000 sqm of space coming back into circulation after being vacant for some years.


  • The Downtown Shopping Centre redevelopment – this will add 35,000 sqm of office space for completion in early 2019. It will get underway next year, when the City Rail Link works begin.
  • 1 Mills Lane is being developed by Mansons and will have enough space for 4,000 workers.
  • Precinct Properties is developing 48,000 sqm of office space across five buildings in Wynyard quarter. The first stage of 12,000 sqm gets underway shortly.
  • Mansons are also developing 10 Sale Street, with 10,000 sqm of space.

All up, the projects currently under construction will provide space for more than 5,000 workers. The proposed projects would accommodate at least another 10,000. This excludes developments which currently seem to be off the boil but could come to life at any time, such as Shortland Star and the Britomart Central building.

This is during a time when CBD vacancy levels are at record lows, and the city centre simply doesn’t have the office space it needs to grow employment.

So, assuming these buildings are completed more or less on schedule, and the number of jobs grows to fill the new space available – all of which seems a reasonable bet, in the current climate – these would be significant increases in employment. Nationally significant, even. By comparison, New Zealand has increased employment by just 93,000 people in the last four years. Currently, the Auckland city centre has around 90,000 employees (in the Auckland Central West/ East and Auckland Harbourside area units), or 100,000 if a slightly wider definition is used (adding in Grafton East and Newton).

City centre employment

This sounds like a “good news” story, and for the most part it is. However, the reason we’re so interested in employment numbers on TransportBlog is that the government has said it will only support an early start on the City Rail Link (CRL) if Auckland is on track to meeting two targets – one based on train patronage, and one based on city centre employment.

We’ve written extensively on these targets in the past. We don’t think the employment target is a valid way of deciding when the CRL should start, for a number of reasons. It propagates the myth that the project is all about the city centre, which it’s not. It’s also a target that has little to do with the effectiveness of the CRL. Plus, there’s the “chicken and egg” situation where the CRL is actually the project needed to dramatically improve city centre accessibility, allowing much more employment (and other) growth there.

When John Key announced the government targets for early support of the CRL, he said that city centre employment would have to increase by 25 percent. As it happened, the target was so poorly defined that the Ministry of Transport had to go away and decide exactly how it would be measured. As I’ve argued in the past, the definition they eventually decided on was rather unfair, requiring 24,000 employees to be added to the CBD between 2012 and 2020. The linked post suggests that a start date of 2006 is “more consistent with the reference to the [City Centre Future Access Study] in National’s targets”.

So, as the government currently defines the target, do these new developments put us on track to achieve growth of 25% by 2020? No. Even if all these developments go ahead – and the Precinct Properties work at Wynyard is likely to take longer to be completed – we would still be a long way off achieving the target by 2020. However if we define the target in the way that I’ve argued is more consistent, we are on track. We’ve already had growth of around 13,000 employees since 2006, and with the developments that are currently under construction or proposed, we have a very good chance of reaching the remaining 11,000 by 2020.

This would be a really good time for the Ministry of Transport to take a hard look at their targets, and reassess whether they are defining them in the most sensible way. The good thing about the target being so vague is that they’ve left themselves a lot of wriggle room to reinterpret it from the current hardline position. This would be easier politically than scrapping it altogether. If they do what I’ve suggested, it won’t be long before the Prime Minister is able to come out and say, “With strong growth in train patronage, and city centre employee numbers set to grow substantially, the CRL has met our targets for early financial support, and we will be will be full financial partners to the Auckland Council on this”. Now that would be a good news story.

Submit on Mill Rd

Julie-Anne Genter, the Transport spokesperson of the Green Party has put out the following press release on the Mill Rd project that we have written about here, and here:

Take 5 minutes and make a submission on Mill Road

Auckland Transport is proceeding with the application for the ridiculously expensive behemoth highway solution at Mill and Redoubt Roads. Submissions to the Notice of Requirement (NOR) close this Tuesday 26 May.

The project is not only another expensive 1950’s-esque solution that will do nothing to reduce car-dependence in Auckland, it also will destroy an ecologically significant and rare piece of old stand bush that should be protected by the Council.

A local group of concerned and affected residents have been fighting the proposal for several years now, and yet somehow the roading engineers are keeping it alive. Even if there is not money in the LTP for the full project, getting the NOR approved now will mean there’s still momentum to complete the project in the near future.

This could be a repeat of the Great North Road Pohutakawas and a community win for sensible transport solutions. If we get enough people expressing concern, Auckland Council may decline the NOR and force Auckland Council to take a more logical, multi-modal approach.

Michael Tavares (of the Save Our Kauri – fame) and I have written a simple submission here. You can add your name, or better yet, make your own submission online

She has also made a few quick Twitter vids here:








What’s with ‘The Void’?

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

CAF Urbos Light Rail for Utrecht

CAF Urbos Tram recently ordered by Utrecht

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

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

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

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

This problem is mathematically inevitable.  

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

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

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

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

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

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground

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

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

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

RTN Void

The Void

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

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

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

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

and possibly because:

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

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

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

Photo of the Day: 50 shades….


The new suburbia; detached buildings so close you wonder why they bother and every mood from drab to dreary. At least you can no longer hear children play… now they’ve been banned.

Urban Form: AKL v CHCH

For those interested in the divergence of development patterns in New Zealand cities it is hard not to be struck by this page in the weekend’s real estate section.  Auckland is still growing out, but it is also growing up. Christchurch not so much, just out. Time will tell which model better suits the demands of this century. This also clearly illustrates how Auckland is an exception in NZ in more ways than just its size:

AKL v CHCH dev patterns

Metamorphosis: The Return of the City

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

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

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

The Skyline

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

The Street

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

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

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

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

Auckland's first electric  tram 1902

Auckland’s first electric tram 1902

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

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

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

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

Queen St 1960s

Queen St 1960s

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

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

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

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

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

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

CBD Transport Change

than this

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

or this

AKL m'ways 70s

AKL Grafton Gully 70s

On The Waterfront


I’ve always loved a working port, growing up on Tintin, where intrigue and big issues always led our hero to docks, and [sadly] being old enough to just remember Auckland’s finger wharves busy with cranes and the last of the goods trains still running on Quay St, I’m a sucker for the romance and tough rough-neck image of it all. Which of course has always been grounded in the realities of the physical movement of goods, and at ports these realities seem more laid bare than most anywhere else; an example of the laws of physics meeting human desire = economics.

So what’s going on down on the wharves? For quite a long time it’s felt very unsatisfactory. The Council, who in our stead owns 100% of the port company, is of course also the regulatory authority over its operations as it is over all businesses and residents in the Auckland Region. Unfortunately this combination doesn’t seem to be working at all well.

It seems clear that the current management of the port company has little interest in any responsibilities beyond direct port operations despite that these being very real; they seem to treat the city’s desire meaningful cohabition with the working port as something to be gamed. This narrow idea of social and environmental responsibility is unlike many privately owned companies, let alone publicly owned ones. But there also appears to have been an almost total abrogation of governance by the Council over port decisions.  Sometimes it seems more like the port company is playing both the people and Council and other times it looks more like collusion between parts of the Council ad the company. I, like almost everyone else in the city has no idea what is really going on. This is my biggest complaint here, there is little daylight or transparency about what is going on down on the waterfront, and a huge amount of spin coming from PoAL.

The latest is the sneaky slip of a resource consent through the Council on December 23rd for two extensions to Bledisloe Wharf without any public discussion initiated by either party. It is clear that the port intends these extensions as a prelude to filing in the resultant space between the piers at a later date, but even without this it’s worth seeing what they are doing to our harbour. Specifically I am interested in the outcome for Queens Wharf. The space that we [Council and government] bought for $40million from ourselves [Port Company] in 2009 specifically as a public space, the ‘people’s wharf’. Here’s how Waterfront Auckland describe it, in the first words on their dedicated Queens Wharf page:

Queens Wharf lies at the foot of the Auckland CBD and offers a unique vantage point overlooking the sparkling Waitemata Harbour… Queens Wharf has been transformed from a private working wharf to a public waterfront space for all to enjoy.

This is a big investment in an important idea: allowing people to bust through the red fence enabling the north south axis of Queen St to continue out into our wonderful harbour forming an intersection with this eastern city edge, and penetrating into the harbour to reconnect this harbourside city with its deep water. Expressly in fact to cement Queens Wharf as a ceremonial space of symbolic arrival and departure. After all, we or our ancestors have all come to this city from over the sea. Here’s how WA put it:

The wharf has social significance for its central role on the Auckland waterfront; for its function as a major place of arrival to, and departure from New Zealand; and as a place of formal welcome and farewell.

Here then is an introduction to PoAL’s plans [and style; a very don’t worry nothing to see here kind of document]:

PoAL expansion Plans

This shows a plan to extend Bledisloe Wharf [on the left],

So what does it matter what happens east of Queens Wharf in the operational zone of the port? We want to have a successful port don’t we, and that’s going to take space, right? Agreed. Which is why we have invested in Fergusson Wharf, the big and modern container wharf at the eastern edge of the ports operations area. But since the decline of New Zealand’s vehicle assembly industry and the rise of car imports PoAL have used the old finger wharves for temporary car storage. A very Auckland and very space hungry activity. But would we allow Wilsons, say, to use this land for car parking? We need to have an honest and open discussion about the trade-offs involved in this use, as there are other options like [but not limited to]:

  • not importing so many vehicles through Auckland [some through Tauranga- an actual national ports strategy]
  • incentivising shippers to space out deliveries so the peak arrivals are smoothed
  • storing them more space-efficiently on the existing land [a parking building rather than reclaimation]

A key thing that is very easy to miss in the image above is the two light grey fingers either side of the dark grey pointed out ‘Proposed reclamation’ that we don’t ‘need to decide on right now’. This is what that December consent about is and is to begin construction next month. What do these two extension mean for Queens Wharf? Here’s a schematic of the sightline from the end of Queens Wharf:

Bledisloe Wharf extensions_6

The new wharves will clearly cut Queens Wharf off from any view of the Harbour entrance, that point of ‘arrival to and departure from’. Queens Wharf will no longer be out in the harbour but just in a contained little ferry basin. Just a big concrete deck leading nowhere. Below is its current state. As I took this picture a car carrier was docked at the existing Bledisloe wharf disgorging its contents:


Working from the visual above, and doing a bit of very quick photoshop here’s what I reckon, roughly, will happen to the experience on the end of the People’s Wharf’ when a ship is docked at the new western pier extension on Bledisloe. Forgive my crude Photoshopery, it’s intended to be approximate rather than perfect, I did adjust the ship extension for perspective, making the stern smaller and have invented a new shipping line with an appropriate name…


Is this really the outcome we want in order to accommodate the peak flow of car imports through one port? Currently 90% of the entire county’s car imports arrive through Auckland. If this is the cost of that continuing, is it one are prepared to pay?

A further example of the lack of any coordination between the ambitions for our city and the plans of the frankly visionless port company or it’s governors is shown by the contradictions between the plans for a major artwork based on the idea of arrival and departure at the end of Queens Wharf as described here in the Herald by Brian Rudman:

In the furore over Port of Auckland’s plans to extend Bledisloe Wharf nearly 100m out into the harbour, one of Mayor Len Brown’s pet projects was overlooked.In more ways than one. The controversial Barfoot & Thompson state house lighthouse at the end of Queens Wharf will be blinkered.

In persuading councillors of the need to commandeer the tip of Queens Wharf for the lighthouse, the mayor and council arts panel argued the site was “a key portal into New Zealand for international visitors arriving via vessel” and was “visible from multiple vantage points”.

Mr Parekowhai explained that his work would be “a lighthouse that signals safe harbour and welcome”.

It seems to me that a very Auckland kind of tragedy is unfolding down