Form follows parking

Here’s a fairly random street in Sydney, Australia that looks like it’s a big box retail area with some office parks thrown in. You know, like the kind of thing you find in Auckland in places such as Albany, Wairau Park, Highbrook, Lincoln Road and of course Manukau.

What’s interesting though is when you look at this area from above.

And compare to Manukau:

The stand out and absolutely smack you in the face difference is in relation to surface parking. The area around Mascot in Sydney – where the first couple of images are from, have almost absolutely no surface parking – instead using that land for far more productive purposes in terms of extra floor space. That area is densely developed without a doubt! Compared to Manukau, which is around 70% asphalt (clearly not enough for some!)

I’m kind of curious why there’s such a big difference between the two places. Some possible explanations:

  • Mascot never had minimum parking requirements or perhaps even had maximum parking limits.
  • Mascot had some other planning rule stopping surface level parking.
  • The land values in Mascot are so high that land simply can’t be “wasted” on parking (this also relies on there being no minimums)
  • Mascot has always been blessed with good public transport whereas PT was generally viewed as a communist plot for smelly people by the former Manukau City Council

This is all speculation of course, but it clearly highlights that light-industrial, office-park, big-box retail areas don’t have to end up being smothered to death in parking lots.



History never repeats …. Except for Transport in Auckland

They say that history never repeats but that doesn’t quite seem true when it comes to transport in Auckland. Our transport history is littered with examples of poor planning, bad decisions, underestimated demand, a lack of vision and corner cutting in order to save a few dollars. A couple of prime examples are:

  • The harbour bridge – we have all heard the stories about how the design was cut back to save a little but of money at the time only for traffic volumes to require the capacity to be expanded a decade later. Also cut were things like walking and dedicated PT connections, things that are still missing to this day.
  • Britomart – built at a time when rail patronage was low, its five platforms fed by only two tracks was considered to be sufficient capacity for 50 years yet less than 10 years later we have all but run out of space for more trains at peak times. Electrification will give us longer trains but history shows that will only work for so long.

We can now add the Manukau rail link to that list. There are three major issues I, and others, have with the station:

  1. It stops short short of Manukau – Officials will praise how MIT is building a campus on top of the station but that doesn’t make the location good, even extending it just another 150m would have made a huge difference and the campus could still have had a direct exit for students, like how the Westpac building is now at Britomart.
  2. That there is no Southern link – This means that the only way to access the station from the south by train, which would likely be it’s largest catchment, would be to get a train to Puhinui and transfer to a train heading back to Manukau. The NZTA even designed the motorway for it which can clearly be seen in aerial photos, they even built the formation for it so it would be easy to build in the future.
  3. That the station appears not to have been designed in a way that would allow for future extension.

I remember reading some information on this a few years ago on the first point and so went looking for it and what I found surprised me. This story was in the Herald on 1st April 2008 but is no April Fools joke

The council decided last week that an estimated extra cost of $10 million to bring the line 60m east of Davies Ave, into a carpark near its headquarters, was too high when it was trying to stop rates from rising more than 4.9 per cent.

That followed advice from Government agency Ontrack that its budget of about $50 million towards the $72 million link from the main trunk line at Puhinui would not extend past a 9m-deep trench on the western side of Davies Ave, except for a basic pedestrian underpass to the carpark.

Although that would still leave passengers 140m short of the civic offices, and even further from the Southmall shopping centre, the station would be on the doorstop of a potential tertiary education development in Hayman Park.

Most people would probably agree that 60m doesn’t sound like much, especially when it would cost $10m but it can make a massive difference to peoples perception and use of the station. There is meant to be an underpass into the carpark from the station except when I visited the other day, there was no sign of it and no one else seems to know what happened to it either. We also learn that the MIT campus wasn’t even agreed to at the time, in fact another report I found indicated they were looking at several different options so there was a chance nothing would have been built on top of the station.

So what about that Southern link and future proofing the station

But Forum for Auckland Sustainable Transport spokesman Bevan Woodward, representing a coalition of several groups such as Walk Auckland and his own Cycle Action Auckland, said similar limited thinking was behind capacity constraints already emerging at the Britomart rail terminal.

“We have to future-proof these things and start getting it right,” he said

Mr Woodward’s coalition wants provisions for a rail link to be extended east in a loop through Botany Downs to Panmure, rather than relying on feeder buses to bring passengers to an interchange at the proposed Manukau rail-head.

Although Manukau transport planners are prepared to envisage replacing buses with a light-rail link through the east once the population grows large enough in new suburbs such as Flat Bush and Dannemora, they believe it would be too difficult to run heavy trains under or over the Southern Motorway.

But Mr Woodward said that should not be insurmountable, and noted that a road flyover of the motorway was already being built with full Government funding as part of the $210 million link between State Highways 1 and 20.


Manukau councillor Bob Wichman said he had always believed the rail link was to extend to Dannemora, and he was disappointed by the limited nature of what was now proposed.

“We are being told we are getting less and less for our buck,” he told fellow councillors, after hearing that the link would initially serve only rail movements to and from central Auckland, and that it might be 10 years before Manukau could be linked to stations further south.

Even back then it appears there was never any real plans to allow the line to be hooked up to the South but next is the part that really pisses me off.

But Manukau Mayor Len Brown said that, while he remained committed to early planning for rapid public transport to and from his eastern suburbs, the priority was to accept the money already on offer from the Government.

If his council hesitated in doing that, it risked having the money reallocated “to other squeaky wheels, and there are lots of squeaky wheels in transport”.

He told the Herald that although light rail might become more viable than buses to and from the east, there would always have to be some form of interchange at central Manukau, as he would not countenance extending heavy rail to his suburban hinterland.

“You can’t do it in local residential areas and I’m not going to.”

So Len Brown seemed to care more about getting some money from the government and saying he signed the project off than getting the best solution for his constituents and the region. What’s more he also ruled out the possibility of ever extending the line in the future which is just plain lunacy. It even appears from this document in September 2007 that both Ontrack and ARTA strongly preferred the station to have a central platform which at least would have made it a bit easier to extend but that appears to have been ignored somewhere along the way. Of course all of this wasn’t helped by other councillors like Dick Quax who hates rail and who pushed for the whole thing to be delayed like this article from 2007 indicates (without a doubt he would have tried to push out the decision again and again).

Now of course this is old news and with the exception of the southern link there isn’t a great deal we can do about these issues right now but just the other day we heard something even more concerning. That Auckland Transport and the Council are looking at how they can cut costs from the CRL. In particular they are looking at cutting out stations which would negatively impact potential patronage. Even more concerning is that they are looking to drop the Eastern connection which would mean it was not possible for trains to get to the CRL tunnel from Newmarket. Here is a comment from that post that describes exactly why that Eastern link is needed

As a network modeller who did some investigatory work on this project a year or two ago, I cannot understand the statement that “current modelling shows its more “efficient” with only 1 direction of link”. The modelling I did envisaged a triangular junction at Mt Eden and crucial to the scheme was the creation of a “CBD Loop” which the east-facing spur would achieve. The pattern of service that I modelled was that all trains entering the CBD would travel around the loop and exit by the same or by another route, with the loop linking the inbound and outbound journeys together into one. Thus nothing “terminated” in the CBD. This is exactly how both Sydney and Melbourne structure their services with a high degree of success. And combined with additional CBD stations, this gets right away from the flawed notion that focussing the entire service on a single CBD access-point will suffice, and that it is somehow OK to “inject” thousands of travellers into the CBD at this one point and expect them happily to disperse under their own steam.
My objective with the Auckland model was to demonstrate the feasibility of a 10-minute peak frequency on all lines, combining to give a 5-minute frequency in each direction around the loop. Under this model, the east-facing spur carried significantly more traffic than the western one, and without it the concept of a CBD Loop would be effectvely lost.

I am concerned that there are decision-makers out there who are not fully aware of what this scheme is all about and what it is capable of delivering. The danger in allowing politicians to pare it back to fit under some arbitrary bar of cost-acceptability, is that a lot of money could still end up being spent on something that proves ineffective. I also wonder whether there may be areas of overdesign in the scheme from which costs could more effectively be cut. I am mindful that at the reinstated Parnell Station, someone considered it necessary to spend a lot of money altering the gradient profiles to make the track through the station less steep (was 1 in 40, now 1 in 80), and the track approaching the station even steeper (was 1 in 45, now 1 in 37.5). I question the need for this, given that stations on Wellington’s Johnsonville Line have managed quite acceptably at 1 in 40 for many years. Maybe in Parnell’s case there are reasons that I am unaware of, but the tendency to insist on “rolls-royce standards” can kill the viability of otherwise worthwhile projects. If cost-savings are are to be made on the CRL scheme, they need to be made competently in a way that will not leave a gold-plated white elephant.

The CRL got overwhelming support as part of the Auckland plan with 80% of people agreeing with the need for it now and this is without the council doing anything to even promote the project (because their current attempts have been pathetic), if they did a proper job of informing the public about what the project actually was and why it is needed then that would put the pressure on the government to support it and cough up some money for it. Sadly in light of what has happened previously at Manukau when Len was in charge it seems we could be seeing exactly the same tactics, get the price low enough to secure the government funding even if that means critically damaging the whole project.  When it comes to transport in Auckland it seems that history definitely does repeat and is doomed to keep doing so.

Analysing Manukau’s land-use

I thought that after yesterday’s post, which looked at how newer town centres in Auckland seem to be mimicking ‘hollowed out’ US cities by devoting so much land to parking, I should take a look at some of the numbers for Manukau City (which seems to be the worst culprit here). Auckland Council’s mapping tool is a powerful ally here, enabling the measurement of polygons in square metre, as well as having a “building footprint” overlay which makes it easier to measure building areas.

Here’s where we’re focusing on: I’ve chosen the area outlined in white as representing the “core” of Manukau City Centre. It also seems reasonably representative of the wider commercial area in terms of the land-use split. Perhaps I will look to extend the area analysed in the future.

To make life a bit easier, I then divided the area above into three parts:You can see that the total area of this “core” part of Manukau City is around 46 hectares. It extents to Great South Road in the east, Manukau (formerly Wiri) station road in the south, Cavendish Drive in the north and Davies Ave & Lambie Drive in the west.

My full analysis of the land uses can be viewed in this excel document. The area noted as parking is not just purely parking spaces, but has effectively been calculated as the area not classified as roads, buildings or usable green space or plaza. It includes a few internal driveways, some of the incredibly wide buffer areas between carparks and the road and so forth (i.e. not space that has a useful purpose for anything).

Here are the summary results:What’s perhaps most remarkable about the data (other than how horrifying it is to see it confirmed that over half of Manukau is parking space and 70% is either parking spaces or roads) is how generally consistent the splits in land-use are. This suggests that the land-use proportions are unlikely to be an accident, but rather are enforced through compliance with parking regulations. If we take out public roads, we get around 34% of land (130,152 m2) of land for buildings and 63% (237,514 m2) for parking (the remaining 3% is green space or plaza). So generally, it would appear that our planning rules require two square metres of parking for every square metre of land taken up by actual development (obviously some buildings are taller than one level). This seems unbelievably wasteful.

The mismatch in land allocation is really highlighted when we graph the different uses:I’m sure, if you asked most planners how the split of these different land uses should fall, they would not consider Manukau City a good example. The Old Urbanist post suggested that there’s probably little justification in having over 25% of our land-space dedicated to Parking and Roads combined (compared to the 70% we see in Manukau). Yet those very same planners have proscribed rules which seem to make this kind of outcome necessary, while traffic engineers have built wider and wider roads in order to accommodate all the cars that fill these giant carparks.

It would be interesting to compare Manukau with somewhere like Newmarket. Perhaps that’s my next task.

AMETI: still ignoring the elephant in the room

An NZ Herald article today shines light on some growing worries that the “Auckland Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative”, known more commonly as “AMETI” may be a first step to reviving the dreaded “Eastern Motorway” – which Aucklanders resoundingly rejected in the 2004 local government elections. Here’s an extract from the article:

Panmure residents are wondering if a new road through their suburb is the first stage of a revived eastern highway across Hobson Bay to the city.

A $1.33 billion package of eastern suburbs transport works retains all the elements necessary for reviving the eastern highway, Panmure Community Action Group spokesman Keith Sharp said yesterday.

“We wonder if there is any good reason for retaining the hugely expensive trenched option for the north-south route through Panmure when the currently proposed road is supposed to go no further than Glen Innes,” he said.

Mr Sharp produced a 2007 plan for the Ameti (Auckland-Manukau eastern transport initiative) project showing the northern route continuing from Merton Rd in Glen Innes to St Johns Rd in Kohimarama.

“Once at St Johns it’s just over the hill and down the other side to Purewa Creek.”…

…Mr Sharp said too much of the Ameti planning had occurred without genuine public consultation, with all major decisions being made before the public were aware of the implications.

He said planners had been allowed to adapt old plans for the eastern highway to fit Ameti, which were two different projects.

“The eastern highway was designed to link Manukau City with the Auckland CBD. Ameti is intended to facilitate traffic movement into and out of the Tamaki areas of Panmure and Glen Innes.”

The new north-south road would come off the Mt Wellington Highway, go behind the back of the Harvey Norman Centre and through a trench under the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway.

There seems to have been relatively little public debate and involvement in discussions about what form AMETI should take, which is surprising considering its cost is around the same scale as that of the highly controversial and publicly debated Waterview Connection. From my various transport contacts I understand that there’s some pretty large areas of disagreement between the various agencies involved over the form that AMETI should take: whether it has too much of a roads focus, whether there should be a motorway component, whether the bus lanes are enough to justify being called “rapid transit”, whether building massive viaducts is appropriate in the urban environment and so forth.

But the problem is that most of these discussions have taken place behind closed doors – simply between Auckland City Council staff and Manukau City Council staff, with ARTA apparently involved but with there being little sign that public transport is really being taken that seriously by the project. Only very recently was there an open day to show people what was planned for the Panmure stage of the project, but effectively (somewhat typically I must add) it seems to be a case of “here’s what we are going to build, what do you think?” rather than “what do you think needs to happen here?”

The image below is from the open day, and includes a lot of “this road will be built here, this road will be built there”: Perhaps there has been what I would call “micro-level consultation”, over things such as where a bus stop should go, whether a certain road should have two lanes in each direction or just the one lane and so forth. But there still seem to be some fundamental characteristics of AMETI that are truly bizarre.

As I have noted before, the number one utterly bizarre characteristic of AMETI is its complete ignorance of the “big picture” in terms of providing what must be the most glaring missing link in Auckland’s transport system – a rapid transit line to the southeast. The plans note that bus lanes will be provided along the Lagoon Drive and Ellserlie-Panmure Highway corridor, and pretend that constitutes what a Rapid Transit Network should be (which is absolute rubbish, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). However, it appears as though absolutely no thought is going into answering basic questions like the following:

  1. What happens to our Rapid Transit Network once the buses have passed through Panmure on their way to the CBD?
  2. How is the Rapid Transit Network provided on the eastern side of the Panmure Bridge?
  3. Since when did bus lanes constitute an RTN?
  4. Has any thought whatsoever gone into actually providing a decent standard Rapid Transit line to this huge, fast-growing swathe of southeast Auckland?

As I have said time and time again, I really think that the only solution for providing high-quality rapid transit to the southeast part of Auckland that will be of such a standard that people will actually use it, is through constructing a railway line that would actually branch off from the existing Eastern Line just south of Panmure, and approximately follows the route in the map below:

Everyone keeps saying to me “but this route would be horrifically expensive, it’s not on any of the plans at the moment, it’s the stuff of dreams” and justifiably so (it would be expensive and it’s not really planned for at the moment). However, I think that if this railway line was built then it would take enough traffic off the road to make pretty much the whole $1.33 billion AMETI project unnecessary. Furthermore, future projects that are likely to be required such as an upgrade of Te Irirangi Drive to motorway standard (or near it), plus further upgrades to Ti Rakau Drive would also become unnecessary in my opinion. Even if this project cost close to $3 billion to build, it might very well stack up economically because it would render other projects, such as the roadsfest that AMETI seems to be turning into, unnecessary.

It seems to me that AMETI is basically a giant excuse to say to people “hey, we’re trying to do something here” while actually completely ignoring the real problem, the “elephant in the room”, which is the lack of a southeast Rapid Transit route. It’s a depressingly typical Auckland situation where everyone knows what the real problem is, but because it is seen as too difficult, everyone’s just ignoring it and instead building other stuff that will inevitably do little to reduce congestion but most certainly will ruin a fair few local communities with massive roads being cut through their heart.

Perhaps the best thing we can do with AMETI is stall it for a few months and hope that the Auckland Transport CCO does a complete rethink of it, a rethink that stops ignoring the elephant in the room and gets around to providing a real southeast RTN for this part of Auckland.

People are not the same as stormwater

I remember someone once telling me that a significant problem with the “transport field” is that many of the experts start out their academic studies as civil engineers, and the first thing they study is stormwater. Now I have a great appreciation for stormwater engineers, as they make sure our cities don’t flood when it rains, but ultimately it’s fairly logical stuff: x amount of rain falls and you need to get rid of it without flooding the place and without polluting the environment. There are some reasonably simple calculations to make: what will the demand on the stormwater system be (ie. how much rain will fall) and what will the supply of the system be (how wide do the pipes need to be to get rid of all the water).

Inevitably, when engineers move on from studying stormwater to studying traffic, they often seem to end up thinking of vehicles passing along roads in exactly the same way that they think of stormwater rushing through pipes. There’s a certain level of demand (the number of vehicles passing through the system) and a level of supply (the number of lanes, whether it’s grade separated, intersection capacities and so forth). If you’re a road engineer then life is all about trying to ensure the level of road supply is greater than the level of road demand, as otherwise you end up with congestion.

Reading through the documentation behind a proposed upgrade to the intersection of East Tamaki Road, Preston Road and Ormiston Road in Manukau City, I found a perfect example of how road engineers continue to think of people like we are mindless stormwater. The project to simplify the currently complex intersection probably makes quite a lot of sense, as the current intersection is a damn mess and the proposal would simplify that significantly.

Current situation: Proposal:

However, in analysing the scheme assessment report I found myself getting a little bit suspicious of the level of anticipated benefit when I saw that the cost-benefit ratio of the project was supposedly 8.0!

Delving into the way that this cost-benefit analysis was undertaken provides some quite useful information that perhaps goes a long way towards explaining why roading projects always seem to promise huge time savings benefits that never seem to materialise (or only materialise for a very short period of time before induced demand eats them up).

What time savings benefit analyses for roading projects tend to do is not actually compare the situation as it is now with the situation that will exist in 20 or so years, but instead compare an expected do nothing outcome with an expected do the project outcome in 20 or so years. Now obviously that makes sense in a general sense, as you may well be justifying your project in terms of how it answers the question “what difference will this project make in 20 years time?”, but what it does mean – to put it a tad crudely – is that you’re actually comparing one guess with another guess. And it is actually the “expected do nothing outcome” that I think we’re probably measuring very poorly at the moment, leading to an over-estimation of the time savings benefits that roading projects are expected to bring.

This issue is highlighted in the do nothing analyses for this East Tamaki/Ormiston/Preston project, which I have included a table of the “expected situations” in future years if the project doesn’t happen:

Looking at this data, one’s first response is likely to be “well crikey if we don’t do the project look how terribly congested and slow this intersection will be by 2031!” And, taking the modelled results without question, yes that certainly appears to be the case. Passing through the East Tamaki Road/Preston intersection in 2031 will apparently take you nearly six minutes during the morning peak, compared to just over one minute now. Similarly for the Ormiston Road/Preston intersection, it will supposedly take you just over two and a half minutes to pass through this intersection in 2031 during the AM peak, compared to 70 seconds now. Average speeds will supposedly decline from around 30 kph to around 6 kph.

The next step in working out the benefits of the project is to model what will happen in 2031 with the upgrade, and then compare the two. Here’s similar data for the new intersection: While congestion still goes up, it is not nearly as bad as in the “do nothing” situation. The difference between the two situations is aggregated, a cost allocated to every saved minute, and voila, we have a significant amount of “time savings benefits” that are used to justify the project. Here’s the table showing the outcome of the assessment:

As the project only costs around $6 million, its cost-effectiveness is pretty whopping according to this assessment, and therefore it is seen as a priority to fund.

However, getting back to where I started this post, does anyone else see a problem here? The question I am interested in answering is whether, once the existing situation started getting worse than it is now, people would continue to pile into using that particular intersection, or whether they would start seeking alternatives – like going another way, catching the bus (if there was one that wasn’t affected by this congestion) cycling, walking or simply not taking that trip. Now obviously there would be some level of economic disbenefit from people not being able to make these trips, or having to go a more non-direct way in order to avoid the congestion of this intersection – but shouldn’t that actually be what we’re measuring to determine the cost-effectiveness of the project, rather than some mythical “congestion armageddon” that will clearly not happen.

This is where we get back to road engineers thinking that people are like stormwater. If this intersection were just a low capacity pipe, and it started to rain, then of course the water would continue to keep piling up. But people are not stormwater. People will be put off taking trips, people will choose alternative routes, people will choose alternative modes (if they exist and have a speed/convenience advantage) and so forth.

I actually think that the “20 minute savings” promise that NZTA’s CEO went on about at yesterday’s opening of the duplicated Mangere Bridge makes this same mistake. It expects that people will continue to keep piling onto the bridge no matter how badly it is congested. It is this misunderstanding, or ignorance, of the fact that congestion will put people off using that stretch of road, that I think significantly contributes to the over-estimation of time-savings benefits for our roading projects. This inevitably ends up being made worse by politicians who pick up on the mentioning of a “time saving” and assume it’s the difference between the road as it operates now and how it will operate when the project finishes. In actual fact, it’s a comparison between a ‘congestion armageddon” in 20 years time that will clearly not happen, and how the road will (supposedly) operate once completed – a calculation which inevitably ignores induced demand.

In other words, it’s usually total rubbish – because people are not stormwater. We’re people.

Manukau Rail Link Photos

With thanks to Manukau City Council, I have some fantastic photos of the Manukau Rail Link, a project that is coming along very nicely indeed it would seem. It seems as though the station will be open by July next year, although with a temporary station only. The full station will be finished off in 2012 when the new Manukau Institute of Technology that is being constructed right next to the station opens.It looks pretty cool I reckon, like a mini-version of the New Lynn rail trench.

My opinion of the Manukau Rail Link has been mixed in the past, although now that I understand it will become a major interchange with most bus services south of Manukau terminating there so people can catch a faster and more efficient train ride to the CBD, I think it could end up being quite popular after all. And it is the first new railway line in Auckland for around 80 years, which is pretty cool.

The benefits of making off-peak PT useful

On Friday I had a meeting in Manukau City, and our work car was being used by someone else, so I thought I’d honour my public transport commitments and catch the bus down there from the CBD. The weather was utterly horrible, but I can’t really complain about the bus trip in terms of its reliability – in that it showed up at both ends exactly when expected, it arrived at Manukau City pretty much exactly on time and so forth. Furthermore, when I boarded the bus and offered a $10 note saying “Manukay City thanks” the bus driver asked whether I was coming back the same day, and then once I said yes, suggested that a $10 “bus about” pass would give me the best deal. I really like and appreciate that level of customer care and concern (so big kudos to the driver of the 471 bus that left Britomart at 10.30 on Friday). So certainly I could not have realistically expected the public transport service to be much better than it was.

What was interesting though was to note the people on board the bus (which went up and down at various points of the 50 minute each way trip). While there was quite a mix of types, including what seemed like most of a kindergarten class at one point, what seemed particularly noticeable to me was a big absence of people between around 20 and 65 years of age. This dichotomy, with only the old and the young seeming to use public transport, was also evident last weekend when I visited New Lynn train station to take some photos of how it’s coming along. All the people waiting for the train, or for a bus at the rather sad looking old New Lynn bus terminal, once again either seemed to be teenagers or pensioners.

I suppose that the obvious conclusion to come to is that during these “off-peak” times, generally it seems as though the only people who use public transport are those who don’t own a car: either they’re too young, too old or too poor. Now obviously it’s crucial that public transport is there for these people, as if they had no transport choices whatsoever it would be grossly unfair, but it does seem to me as though the whole off-peak public transport system is designed around the idea of only providing for those who unable/unwilling to drive – in other words, it’s a second-class system with nobody there by choice.

One only has to look at how busy Auckland’s road remain at weekends and during ‘inter-peak’ times on weekdays to realise that an awful lot of people still need to get around the city during these off peak times. The majority of trips in urban areas aren’t commuting trips, but rather simple “errands” trips – getting milk from the diary, dropping the kids at school or at a friend’s house, visiting friends and so forth. Yet it would seem that for just about all these trips, one would only ever use public transport if you didn’t have a choice.

In some respects, off-peak car trips aren’t so much of a problem as long-peak hour commuting trips – for which public transport can offer a service that people would choose to use over driving (although generally only where public transport priority exists in the form of bus lanes or a railway line, or when parking costs a lot). Congestion is lower during off-peak times, so the benefits of removing vehicles from the road through offering a better public transport option aren’t seen as so significant – or at least that appears to be the argument in NZTA’s economic evaluation manual when it comes to assessing the benefits of public transport: As you can see, the benefits (particularly the “road traffic reduction benefits”) are way higher for getting peak time PT boardings than off-peak PT boardings.

However, this misses something potentially quite important. As I was slowly making my way out to Manukau on the bus (and this would have worked even better on a train) I was able to read through some background information relating to the meeting that I was attending, and I was able to keep up with emails and so forth. In short, I was able to to productive in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible if I was driving my way out there. Sure, the bus trip seemed to take forever (another thing that hopefully a train service would improve upon), but surely there was an economic gain from me being able to be somewhat productive during that time.

People have to travel between offices to attend meetings all the time when it comes to their work, and I imagine in Auckland that about 99.99% of those trips at the moment are undertaken by car or by taxi (the latter of which I suppose enables the possibility of being productive while on the go, but of course is very expensive). To me that seems like a huge amount of lost economic activity – with everyone driving when (at least theoretically) if they were on a bus or train they could be being somewhat productive with that time.

So what’s causing the almost complete absence of people making public transport trips for these purposes? Well I got a clue when I said that I’d think about catching the bus out to Manukau, with the general response being along the lines of “good luck with that”. In short, it would seem as though the image problem faced by public transport is particularly severe when it comes to off-peak public transport. Sure, I could have done my trip quite a bit faster by car (which is an issue that needs attention in my opinion), but otherwise the service was reasonably convenient, reasonably inexpensive ($10 return wouldn’t have paid the petrol between the CBD and Manukau return I suspect, and pales into insignificance compared to a taxi fare or rental car) and everything turned up when it should have – so it was reliable.

Perhaps some of the answer is a hangover from when Auckland’s public transport was truly terrible. Perhaps some is because we rarely hear about public transport when it goes right, only when it goes wrong. Perhaps it is some sort of anti-bus bias – that perhaps could be resolved through the upcoming rail link to Manukau (even more so when we have sparkly new train to run on it).

In the end, I think there are significant, and real, benefits out of somehow breaking down this mentality that you’d only use public transport for a non-commuting trip if you didn’t have any alternative. Workers could be more productive, workplaces could save significant amounts of money currently spent on rental cars, taxi-fares and so forth, and unnecessary car trips could be eliminated – with the resulting environmental benefits that would bring. However, I really do think that something drastic needs to be done to improve the image of public transport for this to be possible, and – critically – it needs to be a lot faster. Spending almost two hours of Friday on a bus really did rip a big chunk out of my day.

What cost-benefit ratios should be like

With many motorway projects having extremely marginal cost-benefit ratios, such as the Transmission Gully motorway near Wellington having a BCR of 0.6 and the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” having a BCR of around 0.8, one can wonder whether the analysis process is perhaps a bit too harsh. Do any projects stack up well?

Well I came across a project the other day that just goes go show that there are areas where money can be spent on upgrading our transport infrastructure where the rate of return on the project is excellent. Of course these projects aren’t quite as flash and fancy as 35 kilometre long motorways, but they generally involve the elimination of critical bottlenecks that cause significant delays, but don’t really cost that much to fix. They’re the low hanging fruit that we seem to be ignoring while throwing money at huge motorway projects that don’t seem to stack up.

The project that I am talking about is an upgrade of Smales Road and Allens Road in East Tamaki, Manukau City. This upgrade will widen the sections of road shown in green on the map below from two lanes to four lanes, add additional turning lanes at key intersections and provide cycling infrastructure. Here’s where it’s generally located: Essentially, this route links up the Flat Bush/Botany/East Tamaki area with the Southern Motorway – via the relatively new Highbrook Drive interchange. Highbrook Drive is a pretty high standard road for most of its length, as is Smales Road once you get east of where the green line runs out. But in the middle the road is bizarrely narrow and the intersection is completely inadequate for the amount of vehicles trying to use it. It’s a natural bottleneck.

The traffic effects of undertaking the project against a simulation of what would happen if you “did nothing”  have been compared via a traffic model. I must say overall I am somewhat sceptical about traffic models because of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle, and my sneaking suspicion that most models are based on far lower petrol prices than what we can expect in the future – but that’s another matter entirely. For this particular situation, the various options have been modelled and the results outlined in the table below: I do sometimes wonder whether traffic models take into account actual human behaviour rather than thinking about people like stormwater that needs to be “gotten rid of”. One would imagine that once average speeds dipped below 10kph people would stop throwing themselves at this corridor and use somewhere else. But anyway, even taking the exact figures with a rather large grain of salt it is pretty obvious that unless something is done the intersection of Springs/Harris road with Smales/Allens road is going to get pretty damn ugly in the future.

So what are the benefits, once turned into a monetary value? This is shown in the table below: Most of the benefits are in those rather dicey “travel time costs” savings, but even taking my skepticism of those benefits into account, it’s pretty obvious that the project will make a big difference.

Now if we stack up the benefits of the project against its costs, we actually end up with a pretty amazing result: When one is used to seeing BCRs that hover around 1, seeing something at 8.5 is pretty staggering. So therefore even taking into account many of the fundamental issues I have with how cost-benefit analyses are calculated, and the over-reliance on time-savings benefits, it is clear that this project is worth undertaking many times over. I don’t know what its priority is and when we might expect it to be constructed, but I imagine that there are a great number of little projects out there that would be very similar to this one. Nasty intersections that cause huge delays, bizarre areas of road that narrow and cause bottlenecks and so on.

Sadly, the powers to be don’t seem to be focusing on these clever, smaller, projects but rather want to spend $11 billion on motorway projects over the next decade, half of which seem to not stack up at all financially.

Manukau Rail Link

A couple of years ago there was a lot of debate about where the Manukau Rail Link should terminate – with Manukau City Council showing their true colours as a roads-loving council by not stumping up the few extra million to bring the link truly into the heart of Manukau City Centre. While I still think that was a big mistake, proposals for a tertiary institute right next to where the station will be located means that all is not lost, as we heard about in yesterday’s NZ Herald:

Integrating a new central Manukau rail and bus station with a tertiary campus building for 25,000 students, will attract development to the area, says the Manukau City Council…

…In March last year, the council decided that a 1.8km rail spur from the main trunk line would stop short of Davis Ave. It will instead terminate at Hayman Park.

Mr Brown said the campus deal meant a much bigger and better station building.

The council will contribute $19 million to creating a southern regional rail and bus hub.

Track and station building costs will be met by the Auckland Regional Transport Authority and KiwiRail. Partners are being sought to develop the remainder of the council’s 21.5ha of land in the central business district.

There’s a good diagram of what’s going to happen in the area too:manukau-rail-link
As you can see from the diagram to the left, it would have certainly been smart for the railway link to link right through to the area between the council building and the Westfield Shopping Centre. The success of Sylvia Park railway station (fifth busiest on the Auckland network apparently) shows that putting rail next to shopping malls is a fantastic idea that works. Perhaps eventually it’ll be extended (through to Flat Bush and Botany via the Howick/Botany Line).

If the tertiary campus wasn’t going to be built on this site, then I probably would write the Manukau rail link off as a likely failure. Putting a railway station in the middle of a park, in what could be described as not quite the safest part of Auckland seems like something doomed to fail. But I guess these plans existed for a long time, and I must give some credit that the railway station will be well located for tertiary students.

Which leaves the only real remaining problem with the Manukau Line being that it’s initially only going to have a north-facing link with the main-trunk line. As it is very likely this station will be a “destination station” (like Britomart and Newmarket) I always thought those most likely to use it would be coming from the south – either to get to work in Manukau City or to go shopping at the mall and surrounding stores. Even with the tertiary campus one would assume that as it’s the most southern campus in Auckland a reasonably large number of its students will come from Manurewa, Papakura and so forth. Which makes the inability to run trains directly from Papakura to Manukau seem particularly idiotic.

I guess I shall remain hopeful that problem is sorted out.

Carparks everywhere!

A few days back I wrote a scathing blog post on minimum parking requirements, and how they are a huge hidden subsidy for private vehicles. Not only that, but MPRs actually completely destroy the urban fabric of our town centres.

Let’s take a look at Manukau City Centre as an example. This area has grown from what were simply fields in the 1960s into the biggest hub for all of south Auckland today. If you look at its aerial photograph, it certainly does seem as though a lot of the area is simply carparking though – due to minimum parking requirements:mcc-aerial However, what becomes really scary is if we start colour coding things – red for buildings, green for parks and open spaces, and grey for roads and carparking:mcc-coloured To hazard a guess, I would say perhaps 70% of Manukau City’s land is dedicated to roads or carparks. That’s pretty disgraceful, and means that the whole place feels completely soulless and characterless. It’s also pretty damn pedestrian unfriendly. Surely our town centres don’t have to be like this? Surely we can do better.

If we look at Botany Town Centre, a more recent development (almost completely within the last decade) we see the same kind of pattern:botany-coloured More places to come in the future! Albany and Westgate seem like particularly shocking examples.