Urban Change: Evolution or Revolution?

“Change is the law of life and those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future”

-JFK

Life is nothing but change, and cities being concentrations of human life manifest this fact in their physical fabric: They are constantly changing, always incrementally, sometimes abruptly. Positively and negatively. Investment versus entropy. Governments, local and central, are charged with understanding the forces at work behind this law of life and responding wisely with our taxes to attempt to maximise the potential positive outcomes within this reality for all citizens.

DRESDEN 1945

Dresden 1945: Catastrophic change

There is plenty of evidence that suggests there is a need for substantial change in transport infrastructure investment now in Auckland. This evidence is broad based and essentially adds up to the fact that the conditions that set the policy of the last 60 years no longer hold:

  • It is clear that demand growth is shifting away from driving towards the Transit and Active modes
  • It is clear that spatial arrangements are shifting including a substantial revaluing of the centre
  • It is clear that demographics of the city are changing to smaller households and denser communities
  • It is clear that the city’s growth path is continuing; Auckland now is already city sized and getting bigger
  • It is clear that environmental and geographical constrains are tightening; resource constraints in Transport sector ever more pressing
  • It is clear that the urban motorway programme of the previous era is nearing completion; we are in a new phase
  • It is clear that newer generations just don’t share the older ones’ ideas of what is important in urban form and how to move

It is in this context that we have developed our Congestion Free Network summarised here.

However while there is clear evidence that we live in a period of discontinuity from the previous era this does not mean that what was built up during this era should be abandoned or not maintained. Quite the contrary in fact. One of the primary aims of shifting our capital investments away from the urban highway network is to build up the complementary networks to such an effective and attractive level that will keep the highways functioning well and with more efficiency. And in this our programme is not only low risk and high value but also very different from the late 20th Century revolution that it builds on. If there is one lesson to learn from the last great shift in transport investment in Auckland it is to be sure to keep what you already have and build on it; not to disregard the last system in order to focus totally on the next one.

Let’s have a look back.

The decision last century to invest in a system of urban highways for Auckland became over time a total commitment. We not only invested nearly every penny of new investment into this system starving any alternatives we also actually removed existing alternatives.

Here is a view of the leafy and desirable old suburbs of the Auckland Isthmus:

Old 'tram built' suburbs of Auckland, from Mt Eden

Old ‘tram built’ suburbs of Auckland, from Mt Eden

And here is a map of the system that made this urban form:

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

After the second world war Auckland faced the three interrelated problems. It was growing, there had been little investment in infrastructure for decades, and it lacked financial resources. To that can be added that capital investment was dependent on a suspicious government that faced, as ever, competing demands. One critical area that this came to a head was our electric tram system. While by any measure it was a huge success, carrying huge numbers of people and at around a net operating profit, it was in desperate need of catch up investment both in the machines themselves and extension to new areas.

In the context of the times the car offered a way out of this problem. There were very few of them in the 1950s, and while their uptake was expected to grow this was also expected to remain manageable. It was argued that buses could replace the trams with the advantage of operating without fixed routes and be more easily extended to new areas and at lower capital cost to public finances. All true. But really this was a way to give Auckland’s relatively narrow roads over completely to private vehicles, as no priority was allowed for the tram-replacing buses. Contrast with Melbourne: where they not only kept the more appealing trams but took advantage of wide boulevards allowing separation of trams and traffic on many routes, plus tram priority systems at intersections where they are mixed.

Relying on the car could be rationalised as cheaper too, simply because the machine and fuel costs were privatised, and that petrol taxes were to be the source of road funding. Lost in the reasoning was the fact total reliance on driving is the most expensive way of ordering a city’s movement. So while the car/road system had a good funding mechanism [fuel excise] this does not mean it is the best system economically, and this is still true today . It would require ever more enormous sums and in fact add to the ratepayer burden and not relieve it as road taxes have never covered all road costs. Let alone other burdens of this system like parking and the loss of rateable land etc.

And motorways are subject to the laws of inverse success over time: they are best when they’re new, they never get better as they attract more users. Below, rural Penrose with new motorway 1963- nice flow.

Road traffic, new Southern Motorway, Penrose, Auckland. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-59290-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23080156

Road traffic, new Southern Motorway, Penrose, Auckland. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-59290-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23080156

Part of the world view of Modernism was a faith in the completely fresh start: The Brave New World. This is evident in art movements, new philosophies, individual building projects, but also at the urban planning level. That there was a huge desire for new beginings is not surprising after the experience of the first half of the century with two extremely destructive world wars and a devastating Depression. Auckland, although it didn’t come out of the war with whole areas of the city wiped clear by bombing it did have plenty of proximate bare land, and in the city itself the buildings and structures of the colonial era were now ageing and dated compared to what seemed possible in the new American-style future. It was ripe for this ideology of ‘rip it up and start again’.

We took our lead from the zeitgeist, and the zeitgeist was all California [well, the Autobahn, actually, but no one was admitting that].

Furthermore the beginning of this new project coincided with a rise in prosperity, price controls being lifted from private car sales, and the price of crude oil fell every year from 1947-1970 in real terms. Driving boomed in New Zealand as it did all across the western world and use of the new bus network declined proportionately. And then fell into a downward cycle of falling investment, declining quality of service, and uptake. The buses were never as accepted as much as the trams and nor could they ever command the control of the road as well either.

So when in 1976 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon exploited the divisions in the many local authorities in Auckland to kill Auckland Mayor Robinson’s ‘Robbie’s Rapid Rail’ Auckland was committed, by central government, to a bold ‘double-down’ on an urban motorway centred road only transport network.

What had began as a just part of the city’s movement systems as advised by North American consultants in the 1960s became an extreme and monotonal driving-only all-in bet. Bold, ambitious, and in terms of the communities and places in its path; pitiless. All directed by central government, with local concerns overruled.

CMJ

Whole areas of the city have never recovered from the burden of hosting this land hungry and severing system; in the most affected areas land value still remain low and land use poor. They have been sacrificed for the convenience of those from other, further out parts of the new city. Around 50 000 people were relocated and 15 000 buildings removed. This was a revolution, with winners and losers.

Newton then and now

Meanwhile investment in complementary systems froze. The bus network was stuck in aspic; even though it began carrying ever more people from the mid 1990s as the city grew and began to exhibit the kind of urban realities that make driving less optimal for more and more citizens. Each time the rail network won hard fought and tiny investments; second hand trains from Perth, Britomart Station, ridership leapt in response. But still no meaningful investment in extending these parts of systems into an actual Rapid Transit Network has been able to be wrestled from successive governments this century. Although important steps towards such a system were undertaken first by the last Labour led government by funding Project Dart, a long overdue upgrade of the rail network, and the construction of the Northern Busway, and the current National led government by enabling electrification to follow through a mixture of grants and loans to Auckland Transport. And, critically, AT and AC’s multi year overhaul of the bus system and introduction of the integrated ticketing.

Yet the future still looks no different, in fact central government’s programme is one of an aggressive return to the ‘revolution’ of the late 20th Century with no new Public Transit infrastructure funding at all, just enough to contribute to operate what’s already there: [chart of spending categories for the whole country 2015-2025]

2015 GPS - Spending graph

Proposed transport spending distribution in millions.

Yet despite the huge sums spent on more lane space the growth in driving has stalled, in contrast to uptake in the underfunded Transit mode: [VKT: Vehicle Kilometres Travelled].

VKT vs PT Trips per Captia 4

 

So it is very hard to understand this policy in terms of evidence, is its based on a nostalgia for the driving boom years of last century?, or perhaps it is simply an inability of our institutions to understand change and adapt to it?, or worse are the huge sums of public money in this sector subject to capture and control by special interests?: Big Trucking, Civil Construction, Consultants and Financiers, and Land Development Interests?

It is time to build balance into our city’s movement options and to do this we need a change in where spending is directed. And properly understood this is not another revolution but rather a return to moderation and balance and away from the current orthodoxy which is lopsided in the extreme. The current policy of investing so disproportionately in the driving mode is a revolutionary policy, but not seen as such because it has become an orthodoxy. We shouldn’t be surprised with its extremity as it is a 20th Century programme, from that age of extremes and extreme ideologies. Which while at times exhilarating, it also meant much was lost, like Auckland’s tram network.

Our position is that this kind of lurch is not what Auckland needs now but instead we should build on what we have by adding to the underdeveloped Active and Transit modes while maintaining and more efficiently utilising the mature driving resource.

Green GPS Funding graph

Above is a comparison of the proposed Green Party and National Party transport policies [for the whole country]. Note that the major difference is about what to build next, and that both plan to maintain current assets. We can change from extremity to balance without losing what we have. And it is long overdue:

Robbie's Rapid Rail MW

by Architect, Cartoonist, and National Treasure: Malcolm Walker

More highways failing to meet projections

An article on Philly.com highlights a number of new or expanded highway projects in the US are vastly failing to meet traffic projections:

Before beginning a $2.5 billion project to widen the New Jersey Turnpike, turnpike officials said the construction was necessary to reduce existing congestion and to cope with future traffic.

“Turnpike traffic is on the rise,” the state Turnpike Authority said in its justification for the project. “By 2032 northbound traffic volume is expected to increase by nearly 68 percent [above 2005 levels]; southbound traffic is forecasted to increase by 92 percent.”

Now, one-third of the way through that 27-year forecast, turnpike traffic is actually about 10 percent lower than it was in 2005.

And this particular project is hardly a one-off:

Similar traffic declines have occurred around the region, challenging long-established assumptions about the need for bigger highways and bridges.

“If these trends continue, it would definitely change the way we need to plan for our transportation future,” said Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “But I think the jury is still out on that . . . we need two or three more years of data.”

In 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission assumed that traffic would grow 3 percent to 5 percent every year to help pay for debt as it took on a new obligation to contribute up to $900 million a year to fix other roads around the state.

Instead, traffic has been essentially flat.

And when the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace the 50-year-old, four-lane Scudder Falls Bridge on I-95 with a $328 million, nine-lane, 180-foot-wide toll bridge, it assumed that traffic would increase 35 percent by 2030.

In fact, bridge traffic has declined slightly and is now below the levels of 2002.

The implications of getting previous projections wrong are significant if funding was expected from toll revenue – which is what has sent a number of PPP transport projects bankrupt. For publicly funded projects though, the failure to meet expected usage hasn’t been so obvious. However, the implications for future transport planning are significant – as we’ve highlighted so many times before. Back to the article:

Highway planners misjudged the future because the Great Recession reduced both commercial and passenger travel, and because of an unexpected drop in driving by young adults.

Now, planners and policymakers must decide whether the last decade was an aberration or the beginning of a new normal.

The decisions are taking on new urgency, as Congress struggles to come up with a new transportation-funding plan by the end of September, when the current one expires. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road projects around the country, is nearly broke.

“The last decade was a really tough decade for forecasting,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Traditional expectations of economic growth – which typically fuel traffic growth – were undone by the recession of 2001, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and anemic job growth for the entire decade, Hughes said.

Add to that the unprecedented behavior of young adults, driven by technology, lifestyle choices, and economic prospects.

“The millennials are really changing the world dramatically,” Hughes said. “We have a younger generation that is driving less and doesn’t want to live in Valley Forge. They want to live in Center City Philadelphia.”

“We had a 50-year period of unrestricted suburbanization, and now there’s a dramatic shift.”

Cars and driving are less important to young adults, who find that trains and buses allow them to work and socialize on mobile electronic devices, he said.

That may mean fewer cars on future roads.

“Nobody was really anticipating this,” Hughes said. “The models have to be recalibrated.”

Some projections have already been lowered.

NZTA have already noted in changes to their economic evaluation manual that traffic growth can no longer just be assumed – and any assumptions need to be proved. It’s a shame though that complex traffic models still seem to defy reality and project traffic growth.

It makes me think about all of our recent state highway improvements, think Newmarket Viaduct replacement, Victoria Park Tunnel, Greenhithe Deviation, Hobsonville Deviation, Mt Roskill extension, Manukau Harbour Crossing Project, SH20-SH1 Manukau Connection, CMJ Improvements and Orewa-Puhoi extension. All have seen increases in traffic volumes in recent years as people shift their travel behaviour however I wonder how they are currently tracking compared to the traffic projections for 2014 when they were proposed and funded. That would be interesting information to get from NZTA.

The inflationary impact of road spend-ups

It’s time for a quick round of everyone’s favourite game, Ask An Economist. Today’s question is: What happens when the government decides to spend up large in a growing economy?

If you guessed that the answer is that it will drive up inflation and crowd out private sector spending, congratulations! You win a hug from the invisible hand. You’ve obviously either paid attention to the lessons of history or the words of latter-day popularisers of economic theory such as Bill English, who recently said that:

It was also important for the Government to run a counter-cyclical fiscal policy which, right now, meant running surpluses, paying down debt, and limiting future initiatives in spending and tax cuts to what would not push interest rates higher than they need be.

However, the government is acting as though the normal rules of prudent fiscal management don’t apply to the road budget. Instead of taking a conservative approach to transport spending, and focusing on the projects that offer the best long-term value at a relatively low cost, they’re pushing ahead with plans to build a number of expensive road projects. For example, the 2014 Budget announced another $800m in motorway projects in Auckland, paid for in part by borrowing, along with $212m in regional road projects paid for out asset sale proceeds.

As an economist, I’m nervous that the motorway spend-up will have perverse economic effects, driving up prices and crowding out other activity. When I went to look at the data, I found reasons to worry.

First, I looked at the data on New Zealand’s spending on roads (from OECD.Stat). The following graph shows investment in new or improved roads as a share of GDP. Essentially, New Zealand spent a fairly consistent amount on roads – and much less on public transport! – in the 1990s. In 2004, road spending started to increase rapidly, rising from about 0.3% of GDP to 0.7%. Unfortunately, the OECD’s data doesn’t cover the last few years, but NZTA’s data suggest that road infrastructure spending has risen further.

NZ road spending, 1995-2011

So the government has boosted spending on roads over the last decade. Has this had any impacts on inflation?

I used Statistics NZ data on inflation to examine the effects. The following graph compares the Capital Goods Price Index for civil construction, a measure of construction cost inflation, with the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation in the general economy. (NZTA uses a slightly different composite measure of road construction prices, but I’ve chosen to look at civil construction prices as they provide a better indication of potential crowding-out effects on private construction.)

As you can see, the CGPI for civil construction tracked closely with CPI from 1995 to 2003, when road spending made up a relatively constant share of GDP. Between 2004, when the road spend-up started, and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, civil construction prices rose much more rapidly than the CPI. Construction price inflation briefly cooled off in the aftermath of the GFC, due to falling private-sector demand for construction. But over the past two years it has again started rising faster than CPI, as a result of the economic recovery and spending on major road projects such as Waterview.

NZ civil construction inflation, 1995-2014

In short, spending an increasing amount of money building roads has coincided with a big increase in the cost to build roads. This is exactly what most economists, along with the current Finance Minister, would have predicted to happen.

Moreover, this is likely to have a significant negative effect on private construction. If you want to build an apartment building or a warehouse, you’ll have to compete with NZTA for bulldozers, cranes, and construction labour. Expect to pay higher prices as a result. If civil construction prices had continued to rise in line with CPI over the last decade, rather than being bid up by road spending, big construction projects would be almost 20% cheaper than they are now.

To be fair, other factors may have also played a role, such as the run-up in house prices in the 2000s and increased oil prices. But as Bill English says, government spending shouldn’t exacerbate the inflationary pressures that exist in a growing economy.

This is a tricky dilemma for any government. On the one hand, we do need to invest in a transport network that can accommodate future growth in Auckland. On the other hand, it would be better if the government’s spending didn’t create perverse outcomes for the private sector. If it wants to steer clear of the Scylla of underinvestment and the Charybdis of inflation, it would make sense to look at cheaper alternatives – e.g. the Congestion-Free Network.

CFN_4_SMALL

Environmental effects of an Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing

The additional Waitemata Harbour crossing is a crazy project for a variety of reasons. The blog has noted before that the project is both completely unaffordable and totally unnecessary because of the lack of the actual benefits when you look at the detail. One thing that hasn’t been noted before however is the huge environmental impacts this project will have the coastline, both and the northern and southern end.

In 2010 an extensive study was carried out, which outlined the major options, looking at both bridge and tunnel options. This was the study that finally put an end to the even more ridiculous bridge idea. Usefully the study for the first time provided some detailed plans of what each option would look like on the ground. The issues is not so much the tunnel itself, but the complex arrangements required to allow for traffic merging between the different routes at the north end south ends. To recap the existing bridge will be used only for city bound traffic, and the new tunnel will be directed straight to the congestion at spaghetti junction.

AWHC north of Onewa

 

The plan above shows the motorway between Akoranga Drive (left), and Onewa Road (just out of picture to the right). The northernmost line is the railway line, however would be sure to take up much less space just built as a rail corridor, and would have a much higher capacity. The red hatched area is all of the land that would be reclaimed, while green is new viaducts or bridges. This would result in the corridor taking up twice as much space as it does now. As for what this would mean, this is the current view in the area. The large area of coastline to the right would be reclaimed.

P1050458

Looking north from public footbridge accessible from east end of Exmouth Road.

This next plan shows the area in the vicinity of the Onewa Road interchange, as well as the tunnel portals of both rail (left) and road (right). Again a huge amount of reclamation occurs.

AWHC Sulhur Beach

However what is hidden beneath the plans is the total destruction of Sulphur Beach and the marina located there.

P1050446

Looking towards the city from public path alongside motorway. Accessible from Sulphur Beach and Tennyson St beside police station.

Currently this beautiful area is not well known. However in a few years this will very likely change. With Skypath to go ahead within the next few years, this will be the route of Seapath, which would give a great easy link through to Takapuna. Once that happens people will appreciate this area much more, and won’t like to see it disappear under 6 lanes of motorway.

This area will also become a large construction yard, potentially for about 5 years. This will have major effects on areas of Northcote Point, with a large number of houses looking straight into the area. Their seaviews may well be replaced with views of more motorway lanes and flyovers. People on the Bayswater side of the harbour would also have their views affected negatively.

P1050431

View from Beach Road on Northcote Point towards area of sea to be reclaimed

On the south side of the harbour things aren’t much better. Around Westhaven marina there is yet more reclamation. The yet to open Westhaven Promenade will have to be completely rebuilt, with part of the marina needing to be reclaimed as even more width is required to account for the sweeping motorway curves. The extra width required is highlighted by the need to extend the Jacobs Ladder footbridge by about 50% so people can still cross the motorway corridor. A number of marine related businesses along Westhaven Drive will also disappear, as the road needs to be pushed north to give the corridor the space it requires.

AWHC Westhaven

The Landscape and Visual report prepared for NZTA summarises the issues that will arise:

The landscape of Shoal Bay and the northern sector will be significantly affected by the scale and magnitude of roading and reclamation. Effects are: changes to landforms and natural features including increased separation of the bay from; loss of beaches, reefs, and open spaces; impacts on cliffs (including diminution of scale and loss of vegetation); loss of natural vegetation and potential change due to weed infestation; diminished/decreased experience and appreciation of natural landscape for travellers. In addition structures such as flyovers, bridges, tunnel portals, buildings and vent stacks are all expected to have adverse effects on existing landscape character and alter the balance between the natural and manmade landscape. The cultural and heritage of the existing landscape will also be affected by changes in the southern sector, particularly in and around Victoria Park. Such changes will include loss of buildings and trees but could also include positive effects due to the removal of the existing flyover.

Unfortunately it makes no attempts to actually visualize what the effects would be, including the vent stack, which would be a very dominant feature. Note 35 metres is about 10 stories high!

” Vent building estimated to be 70m long by 30m wide by 20m high and stacks 35m high”

The stack was rather contentious during the Waterview proposal due to the fumes of a high volume of traffic all begin released in a concentrated area. They will be located at the tunnel portals. One will be in the vicinity of Sulphur Beach, near where the second photo above was taken from the walkway.

Vent Building north

The southern vent stack will be between Beaumont St and Westhave Drive, where the Crombie and Lockwood building is (opposite Air New Zealand).

Vent Building

While an additional rail crossing will require some small reclamation, it will be a large magnitude less than what is required for the road crossings. This is because 2 tracks take the same space as 2 motorway lanes, and there will be no need for complex ramps and mixing of lanes, and of course there will be no need for huge vent stacks.

Hopefully this post will highlight a number of the major effects this project will have on the environment and landscape. Surely this will make some North Shore, St Mary’s Bay and inner city residents think twice about the need for this project, considering the effect on their backyard and harbour. This should also awaken reporters, including one John Roughan who was horrified at the sight of a comparatively tiny reclamation for the busway in 2007.

Stuart’s 100: #1 Transforming the Motorway Ring

Urban designer Stuart Houghton has set himself a personal project of coming up with 100 ideas for improving Auckland at the rate of one a day. He is Tweeting them here: @HoughtonSd 

Discussing this project with Stuart he said that I see the city is getting better and better and growing up fast, but everywhere I look as I move about the city I am struck by ideas big and small for how Auckland could be improved. I see this as a positive thing.” 

We agree.

In this task he has been inspired by Jan Gehl the Danish urbanist who famously said:

“How nice it is to wake up each morning in a city that is a little bit better than it was before”

Stuart has kindly agreed to allow us to run them here over the next 100 week days, here’s #1, enjoy:

1 Transforming the Motorway Ring

Day_1

I had to start my 100 ideas with this one; my urban design master’s thesis from 2009. The starting point was sitting in London panning across Auckland in Google Earth with my tutor, and his simple observation on the wastefulness of such a huge area of otherwise high value land being taken up exclusively by the motorways.

Stuart's 100 #1

The project basically asks: Wouldn’t it be great if rather than a massive barrier that shackles the city centre, the CMJ was actually a positive shaping force, becoming an urban and social connector?

Pages from FINAL_workshop_presentation_RevA_110308-2

I proposed retaining but reducing the capacity of the motorway lanes, and through a combination of tunnelling and capping enable other uses to take place over the motorway. This could join with the waterfront to create a continuous ring of public space. Along with the historical north-south Queen Street axis, these could become three major public space armatures around which the city grows and develops for the next 100 years.

This might seem far out. But it needn’t be a grand vision. In many ways, projects like the Grafton Gully Cycleway are already grafting new uses to the motorway ring. Potential projects like the Nelson St off ramp, and the idea of a Grafton Gully Boulevard as posted by Kent and Nick a few weeks back can all work towards this.

Pages from FINAL_workshop_presentation_RevA_110308-2_b

 

Pages from FINAL_workshop_presentation_RevA_110308-4

 

 

Robert Ellis’s apocalyptic vision of Auckland

This blog has often written about Auckland’s 1950s-era motorway development plan, which transformed the city in fundamental ways. New Zealand painter Robert Ellis was one of the first to grasp the significance and character of that transformation. His Motorway/City series, painted in the 1960s and 1970s, shows roads invading and dividing urban space. (As they proceeded to do in real life.)

The Auckland City Gallery is about to host an exhibition of Ellis’s paintings that will run from 9 August 2014 to 15 March 2015. From the press release:

Opening on Saturday 9 August at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Robert Ellis: Turangawaewae | A Place to Stand is the first solo exhibition in a public museum by senior Auckland artist, Robert Ellis in his ‘hometown’. Including many of his most important paintings, the exhibition will present Turangawaewae Maehe 1983, painted in 1983, a gift from the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery to mark their 60th anniversary this year.

‘Together with Auckland artists Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich, Pat Hanly and Gretchen Albrecht, Ellis is nationally regarded for producing ambitious paintings on a large scale,’ says Auckland Art Gallery Senior Curator New Zealand and Pacific Art, Ron Brownson. ‘As a major figure, Ellis’ art addresses many cultural issues. His subjects range over tensions between transport and urbanism, contrast ecology with spirituality and look at the on-going nature of Māori-Pākehā relations.’

Here’s one of the more well-known works from Ellis’s Motorway/City series, which can usually be seen in the City Gallery:

Now, I’m an economist rather than an art historian, but Ellis’s vision of the city seemed to be something new in New Zealand art. New Zealand artists had not tended to focus on cities – think of all the attention Colin McCahon lavished on New Zealand landscapes – and when they did, it was to present vague, idealised scenes. Ellis was different. He showed the city in the process of expanding and mutating, and in the process creating a different New Zealand.

Here’s number 15 from the Motorway/City series. It contrasts New Zealand’s stereotypically bucolic rural space (below) with the encroaching city (above). The latter is dynamic, disordered, vaguely sinister. (What was it that Allan Ginsberg wrote about “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone”…) And it is ceaselessly growing into the countryside.

In other paintings, Ellis depicts the city not as the invader of a rural landscape but as an invaded space. Motorway/City number 22, for example, appears to show an existing urban fabric, complete with a more or less rectilinear street grid, that has been overwritten by the smooth curves of the motorway. The pre-existing city has rendered incomprehensible in the process – notice how the lines of the motorway draw in your attention instead.

I’m often struck by how quickly artists and writers grasp emerging truths, especially when compared with technical experts of various stripes. Robert Ellis’s art was an especially prescient view of New Zealand cities – painted at a time when New Zealand had barely begun to think of itself as an urban country and when the promise of the motorway was still novel enough to be seductive. I highly recommend going to see the upcoming exhibition.

How should we value the future?

Transport networks and urban planning can have extremely long-lived effects on society, the economy, and the environment. The government’s decision to invest in an electrified commuter rail network for Wellington in the 1930s led to an early form of transit-oriented development in the region. Wellington’s post-war urban growth has been concentrated in areas served by rail lines – providing the region with long-lasting benefits.

800px-WellingtonRailMap

Source: Wikipedia

In Auckland, of course, things were very different. After the role that rail played in Auckland’s early development, successive governments decided to:

And, of course, these years of refusal were coupled with a decision in the 1950s to invest heavily in a motorway network for the region. The Master Transportation Plan of the era contains some truly awe-inspiring concept designs, including an elevated Quay St motorway that would have doomed any chance of Auckland’s recent waterfront revival:

1950s Transportation Master Plan Quay St

Leaving aside a few extremely white elephants, many elements of the plan are quite familiar to modern Aucklanders. The Southern and Northwestern Motorways and the Harbour Bridge were built, kicking off development booms in Manukau, the North Shore, and West Auckland. In a 2010 Policy Quarterly article, Andrew Coleman assessed the effects of motorway development in Auckland and the US, concluding that:

transport infrastructure choices can have long-term and potentially irreversible effects on city form. A city that chooses to invest in roads rather than public transport infrastructure to improve its transport system is likely to reduce the efficiency of any subsequent public transport investments, by causing population and employment in the city to disperse widely over space. When making decisions to build roads, therefore, the city planners need to take into account the way roads affect the operation of subsequent transport infrastructure investment choices.

So it’s worth asking: Are we valuing future outcomes in the right way? In economese, this means asking about our “rate of time preference”, or the degree to which we value present-day outcomes over future outcomes.

A 2011 NZIER paper by Chris Parker provides a fairly accessible introduction to this topic. (Transportblog reviewed the paper when it originally came out.) Parker highlights how much of an effect different discount rates can have on our decisions about the future. As Figure 1 below shows, an 8% discount rate – recommended by the NZ Treasury – means that we place no weight on outcomes that occur 40 years in the future. (To put that in perspective, the average New Zealander lives twice as long as that. I certainly expect to be alive in 40 years!) A 3% discount rate, by comparison, means that we place a much higher value on outcomes that far in the future.

NZIER discount rate comparison

Last July, NZTA decided to lower its discount rate from 8% to 6%. This change means that transport evaluations now place a slightly greater weight on future outcomes than before. However, as NZTA’s documentation showed, we still discount the future to a much greater extent than countries like Germany (3% discount rate) and the UK (1% to 3.5%).

NZTA’s new discount rate might still be too high to properly account for the long-lived effect of infrastructure development on urban form. As we’ve seen, Auckland and Wellington are still benefitting from, or coping with, with the effects of investment decisions made 60 to 80 years in the past. Under current evaluation procedures, we wouldn’t have considered such long-lasting effects.

A new research paper by economists at the University of Chicago and New York University suggests that people place significant value on outcomes that occur dozens or even hundreds of years hence. The authors measure long-term discount rates using an innovative method that relies upon observing differences between the prices for freehold and leasehold houses in the UK and Singapore:

In Giglio, Maggiori and Stroebel (2014), we provide direct estimates of households’ discount rates for payments very far in the future, by studying the valuation of very long (but finite) assets. We exploit a unique feature of residential housing markets in the UK and Singapore, where property ownership takes the form of either very long-term leaseholds or freeholds. Leaseholds are temporary, pre-paid, and tradable ownership contracts with maturities ranging from 99 to 999 years, while freeholds are perpetual ownership contracts. The price discount for very long-term leaseholds relative to prices for otherwise similar properties that are traded as freeholds is informative about the implied discount rates of agents trading these housing assets. This allows us to gather information on discount rates much beyond the usual horizon of 20-30 years spanned by bond markets.

This analysis suggests that long-run discount rates are significantly lower than those we use for project evaluation – in the range of 2.6%. In other words, people making significant financial decisions today place some value on outcomes for future generations that they will never meet:

We use these estimated price discounts to back out the implied discount rate that households use to value cash flows to housing that arise more than 100 years from now. We find the discount rate for very long-run housing cash flows to be about 2.6% per year. Interestingly, we find similar implied discount rates in both the UK and in Singapore – two countries with very different institutional settings.

The authors suggest that their findings have implications for intergenerational fiscal policy and climate change policy. They’re also likely to have implications for the way we evaluate transport projects. Today’s planners should take care to preserve and improve transport options for future generations, rather than “locking in” a particular urban form.

Finally, with that in mind, it’s worth recalling the findings of the 2012 City Centre Future Access Study, which compared options for improving transport capacity to Auckland’s growing city centre. In Section 7 of the Technical Report, the authors found that when a longer evaluation period (60 years vs. 30 years) and a lower discount rate (5.7% vs. 8%) were used, the benefit-to-cost ratio of the City Rail Link almost doubled. In other words, the CRL looks even more valuable for Auckland if we take a longer-term view.

If our great-grandparents had decided to invest in Auckland’s rail system in the 1930s, we’d still be thanking them for it. Because they didn’t, though, we’re just getting around to electrifying Auckland’s rail network and still debating whether to build the CRL to unlock greater frequencies across the entire network. It is essential that we take a longer-term view on transport investments than we have previously done.

So, what’s your discount rate?

Photo of the Day: St Lukes Motorway Median

The motorway lanes at St Lukes have been parted as part of the project to widen the St Lukes Rd bridge.

St Lukes Motorway Median

In many other cities when you see the motorway parted like this it would be for a busway or rail line to be installed. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this work was for the creation of a Northwest busway (Admittedly it probably isn’t quite wide enough).

Below are a couple of examples of median running transit.

Perth

Perth Rail Median

Los Angeles

LA Rail Median

Bogota

Bogota BRT Median

 

Istanbul

BRT Istanbul

Photo of the Day – St Marys Bay

Including Westhaven Dr I count about 13 lanes of traffic of which only one is a dedicated bus lane. Also not much in the way of active modes although that is currently being remedied.

Photo is credited to oh.yes.melbourne

Throwing Down A Half-Nelson

This is a guest post [as promised!] by CAA‘s Max Robitzsch
As shown in the previous photo blog, NZTA and the Auckland Motorways Alliance (thanks!) recently allowed Cycle Action and Transport Blog the chance to walk over a surplus part of our motorway building boom.
Both of our groups have some interest in what you might call “urban archeology” (it comes with the terrain when you are trying to understand how a city is shaped) – but we didn’t just go there for the view.
Auckland CMJ: Abandoned Lane in red

Auckland CMJ: Abandoned Lane in red

Instead, we were keen to see – you guessed it – how this could become Auckland’s evolution of the New York City High Line concept. A new walk- and cycleway to one of the currently least walkable and cycleable parts of our City Centre.
The Nelson Street ramp became surplus for motorway use when a new ramp was built some years ago – but the costs involved in tearing it down means it is still there, and not going anywhere. It was at a time proposed to serve as a bus depot – but a year or two ago, it was agreed by AT and NZTA that it would make a great future link in the Auckland Cycle Network – connecting the Northwestern and other routes entering the City Centre from the south and west to the western parts of our downtown and waterfront, along a Nelson Street cycleway.

Auckland Cycle Network - City Centre

As you can see in the map above, the off-ramp and Nelson Street are both shown as red lines – future “cycle metro” routes (a route that is either fully off-road – or protected from traffic with physical separation). It goes from Upper Queen Street Bridge along Canada Street (or more likely in practice, along Canada Street, East Street and Galatos Street) onto the off-ramp, and then travels along Nelson Street to the waterfront.


Now, as Patrick has noted in his previous post, walking / cycling on the off-ramp is more pleasant than we thought – mainly because you are above or away from traffic noise and fumes for most part, rather than directly next to it. But it isn’t really the beauty of the route that is interesting here (that’s more for engineers and people who like looking at flyovers and skylines…).

The ramp-over route is useless without somewhere to go. So if it gets built, it really needs to link to a cycleway on Nelson Street itself, to give that transport-blighted area some human scale. Because who really cycles on Nelson Street at the moment? The numbers are so low, we might just as well treat them as rounding errors on two wheels – very brave rounding errors, but irrelevant nonetheless.

So it’s great so see that Auckland Transport has seen both the need and the opportunity for this cycleway, and included this route in their planning maps. But we know how long these kinds of projects take – years if you are lucky. Decades if not (still waiting for the Wellesley Street East walk and cycleway link to the Domain…).

And while this is a high-profile project that will appeal to many, it is likely to languish for quite a while before getting built, despite being prioritised highly in AT’s overall cycle project list. Funding is tight, bridges are expensive, even short ones like the one shown below (Day Street overbridge design produced by our good friends at Matter, for NZTA).

Day Street Bridge

 

So we started to think. Could this link be done a lot more cheaply, a lot more quickly? And yes, we think it can. As a pilot project.

The most difficult part is right at the start. It’s no use if the ramp is a dead end – so how to get onto it from the south? And on the cheap? 

What we came up with was that the best place to start from for a pilot project was not at the very southernmost end, near Canada Street or Galatos Street, where we would have to build a pretty sizable structure to get across a large gap of several motorway lanes underneath. Nor would a temporary bridge at Day Street as above be easy (unless of course, NZTA is willing to lend us one of their bailey bridges?).

We found the solution to our issue in Newmarket, back when the new train station was built a couple years ago. At that time, a company called Layher built KiwiRail several access ramps down to temporary platforms south of Remuera Road. Below, you can see an image from their company website – essentially, these structures are simply strong scaffolds with wheelchair-accessible ramps on them.

 

04 Newmarket Train Station - Layher Scaffolds

What Cycle Action Auckland is proposing is that we construct such a scaffold ramp down from K’Road overbridge, to the old Nelson Street ramp. It would require a minor reshuffling of one of the overbridge bus stops, and creating a gap in the side of the K’Road railings to attach the ramp to.

But importantly, it could be done without having the temporary ramp be above any live traffic lanes. The old off-ramp is almost 8m wide. So we can easily build a, say, 3m wide ramp directly in the centre of the off-ramp below, with no part having over (or getting anywhere close) to the edge of the southbound SH1 traffic lanes one level further down.

Scaffold Ramp from K Road Overbridge

It might cost us a bit to buy/rent that scaffold, but it’s likely to still be a steal compared to the permanent construction needed to access it from Canada Street or Day Street, which are going to cost us many millions (remember, time IS money here – if we wait until we get the money, we will have lots of time…). 

So now we are down on the old off-ramp, and now it gets cheap as chips. We can leave adding artwork and seats and planting to beautify the ramp later (or make it into a community initiative!). In the meantime, we simply cruise (or walk) northwards along a gentle incline towards Nelson Street.

At that intersection, we add a new signalised pedestrian / cycle crossing over the eastern side of the intersection of Nelson Street and Union Street.

 

06 Nelson Street - New crossing and cycleway

Easy. 

Why? Because the current Nelson Street off-ramp, to the west of the old one, doesn’t allow right turns into Union Street. So whenever that ramp runs, you can also run a signalised walking / cycling crossing in parallel on the right-hand side – no long discussions with the traffic control people about whether we can afford to lose precious car capacity. We simply sneak through in an unused part of the signal cycle!

And on Nelson Street?

We propose to create a two-way, planter-box protected cycleway on the eastern side of the road, at least as far as Cook Street (but ideally going even further north). The design would look similar to the below example from Vancouver, in Dunsmuir Street. It can be installed overnight for the total cost of a couple dozen planter boxes (reusable for our next temporary cycleway – after this one gets made permanent a few months or years later).

Dunsmuir Separated Bike Lane, Dunsmuir Separated Bike Lane

 

08 Nelson Street, Planter Box Cycleway Concept

But won’t that create traffic issues on Nelson Street? After all, there’s lots of cars moving along there in the peak hour. Won’t NZTA and AT have concerns, and won’t we have to run an extensive traffic model and somehow increase the size of the intersections?

No. Apart from the fact that we have been told that Nelson Street modelling has shown that the street CAN take some reduction in capacity without causing the (roading) world to end, what we propose is actually pretty limited again. 

We propose to run the cycleway along the current parking lane, which means that no “throughput capacity” is lost at all until we get to the Cook Street / Nelson Street Intersection (where the right-hand through lane would have to become a through-and-right lane). 

We can achieve this while losing barely more than 10 car parks over a stretch of 250 meters, because most of that street is already no parking. We might even be able to fit in one or two loading zones on the very wide footpath / verge (some sections still have ~6 m left before reaching private property).

So again, it is easy (if we keep some spine, and don’t give in to the “removing some car parks will doom the area” crowd). And if it leads to traffic jams because we lose 80m of dedicated right turn lane into Cook Street? Well, it won’t – but that’s the benefit of a pilot project. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t sunk millions into it, and can just modify the design as needed.

To summarise, Cycle Action Auckland thinks that the time is ready to throw down a Half-Nelson. We need some movement, some breath of fresh air – and a showcase project to prove that Auckland can be fast, flexible and at the front. 

We can do all that, and give the western City Centre a new cycleway in the next 10 months, rather than in 10 years.