We get a lot of conversations in our comments that boil down to expressions of preference for particular Transit modes depending on people’s experiences and values. Those who are most concerned about the cost of infrastructure tend to favour buses, and those who value the qualities that rail offers feel the generally higher capital costs are justified. Often these exchanges do little to shift people from their starting positions because it’s a matter of two different issues talking passed each other; it’s all: ‘but look at the savings’ versus ‘but look at the quality’.
And as it is generally agreed that Auckland needs to upgrade its Transit capabilities substantially I thought it might be a good time to pull back from the ‘mode wars’ with a little cool headed analysis. Because, as we shall see, it really isn’t that simple. It is possible to achieve almost all of what rail fans value with a bus, but only if you are willing to spend a rail-sized amount on building the route. Or alternatively you can build a system that has many of the disadvantages of buses in traffic but with a vehicle that runs on rails.
It’s all about the corridor. Let’s see how….
Above is a chart from chapter 8 of Jarret Walker’s book Human Transit and illustrates Professor Vukan Vuchic’s classification of Transit ‘Running Ways’ or Right Of Way [ROW].
Class A ROW means that the vehicles are separate from any interruptions in their movement so are only delayed when stopping at their own stations as part of their service. In Auckland this is type of infrastructure is classified as the Rapid Transit Network [RTN], and currently is only available to the rail system plus the Northern Busway. So the speed of this service is only limited by the spacing and number of the stops, the dwell time at each stop, and the performance capabilities of the vehicle and system [especially acceleration].
Class B is a system where the vehicle is not strictly on its own ROW but does have forms of privilege compared to the other traffic, such as special lanes and priority at signals. Buses in buslanes are our local example. AT are currently building an ambitious city wide Class B network called the Frequent Transit Network FTN.
Class C is just any Transit vehicle in general traffic. In Auckland that means most buses and the Wynyard Quarter Tram. The buses on the Local Transit Network LTN are our Class C service.
And of course in terms of cost to build these classes it also goes bottom to top; lower to higher cost. And in general it costs more to lay track and buy trains than not, so also left to right, lower to higher. There can be an exception to these rules as with regard to Class A, especially if tunnels and bridges are required as rail uses a narrower corridor and require less ventilation than buses in these environments. Also it should be noted that a bigger electric vehicles on high volume routes are cheaper to operate too, so rail at higher volumes can be cheaper to run than buses over time because of lower fuel costs and fewer staff.
There are also subtleties within these classifications, some of the things that slow down Class C services provide advantages that the greater speed of Class A design doesn’t. Class C typically offers more coverage, stopping more frequently taking riders right to the front door of their destinations. Class B often tries to achieve something in between the convenience of C while still getting closer to the speed of A. Sometimes however, especially if the priority is intermittent or the route planning poor, Class B can simply achieve the worst of both worlds!
There are other considerations too, frequency is really a great asset to a service, as is provides real flexibility and freedom for the customer to arrange their affairs without ever having to fit in with the Transit provider’s plans. And as a rule the closer the classification is to the beginning of the alphabet the higher the frequency should be. Essentially a service isn’t really Class A if it doesn’t have a high frequency.
Then there are other issues of comfort, design, and culture as expressed in the vehicles but also in the whole network that are not insignificant, although will generally do little to make up for poor service design no mater how high these values may be. And these can be fairly subjective too. For example I have a preference for museum pieces to be in, well, museums, but there are plenty of others who like their trams for example to be 50 years old. Design anyway is a holistic discipline, it is not just about appearance; a brilliantly efficient and well performing system is a beautiful thing.
Other concerns include environmental factors, especially emissions and propulsion systems. On these counts currently in Auckland the trains and the buses are generally as bad as each other, both being largely old and worn out carcinogen producing diesel units. This is the one point that the little heritage tourist tram at Wynyard is a head of the pack. The newer buses are an improvement, I’m sure this fact has much to do with the success of the Link services, despite them remaining fairly poor Class C services.
We are only getting new Double Deckers because better corridors for existing buses grew the demand
So in summary the extent to which a Transit service is free from other traffic has a huge influence on its appeal whatever the kit. A highly separated service is likely to be faster than alternatives, is more able to keep to its schedule reliably, and offer a smoother ride. These factors in turn lead to higher demand so the route will be able able to justify higher frequency, upgraded stations, newer vehicles and so on. This one factor, all else being equal, will lead to positive feedbacks for the service and network as a whole.
Currently Auckland has a core RTN service of the Rail Network and the Northern Busway forming our only Class A services. So how do they stack up? The trains only run at RTN frequency on the week day peaks, and even then aspects of the route, especially on the Western Line undermine this classification. The Newmarket deviation and the closeness of the stations out West make this route a very dubious candidate for Class A. At least like all rail services is doesn’t ever give way to other traffic. The Onehunga line needs doubling or at least a passing section to improve frequencies.
Unlike the Northern Busway services, which are as we know only on Class A ROW 41% of the time. So while the frequency is much better on the busway than the trains they drop right down to Class C on the bridge and in the city.
Of course over the next couple of years the trains are going to improve in an enormous leap and importantly not just in appearance, comfort, noise and fumes [plus lower running cost], but importantly in frequency and reliability. A real Class A service pattern of 10 min frequencies all day all week is planned [except the O-Line].
Hand won improvements to the network and service were built on the back of the brave plan to run second hand old trains on the existing network and have led directly to AK getting these beauties soon.
But how about the rest of the RTN; the Northern Busway? Shouldn’t it be a matter of urgency to extend Class A properties to the rest of this already highly successful service?
-permanent buslanes on Fanshaw and Customs Streets- this is being worked on I believe
-permanent buslanes on the bridge- NZTA won’t consider this
-extend the busway north with new stations- that’s planned.
-improve the vehicles in order to up the capacity, appeal, and efficiency- that’s happening too with double deckers.
I will turn to looking at where we can most effectively expand the Class A RTN network to in a following post.
But now I just want to return briefly to look at what these classifications help us understand about other things we may want for our city. Below is an image produced by the Council of a possible future for Queen St. Much reaction to this image, positive and negative, has been focussed on the vehicle in the middle. The Tram, or Light Rail Transit. Beautiful thing or frightening cost; either way the improvement to the place is not dependant on this bit of kit.
My view is that we should focus on the corridor instead, work towards making Queen St work first as a dedicated Transit and pedestrian place with our existing technology, buses, which will then build the need, or desirability, of upgrading the machines to something better. Why? because it is the quality of the corridor that provides the greater movement benefit, and with that benefit banked we will then have the demand to focus more urgently on other choices for this route. Furthermore, because of the significantly higher cost of adding a new transit system by postponing that option we able be able to get the first part done sooner or at all.
And because we are now getting auto-dependency proponents claiming to support more investment in buses [yes Cameron Brewer* that's you] we have an opportunity to call their bluff and get funding for some great Transit corridors by using their disingenuous mode focus. And thereby greatly improve the city.
So it is best that we don’t focus so much on the number of humps on the beast, but rather on the route it will use. The flasher animal will follow.
* These types don’t really support buses at all; they just pretend to support buses because when they say bus they mean road and when they mean road they mean car. How can we know this? Because they attack bus priority measures. But it is very encouraging that they now find themselves having to even pretend to see the need for Transit in Auckland. This is new.
This morning I managed to drag myself out of bed a bit earlier than usual to make my way to town. The reason for this was to ride on the first double decker bus that is going to be used in Auckland and I was very impressed by it. The bus looks and feels superb, both inside and out.
The bus definitely turned a few heads as we drove past.
A view outside the upstairs window with the single level NEX bus off to the right. I bet there will a lot of people wanting these seats on a nice day like today.
From about the middle of the top level, looking back. One of the great things is that the seats are more spaced out than other buses giving passengers more room. It was much more like you get on a train. The great thing is that this is apparently now a requirement in the NZTA spec so we should be seeing it in other new buses in the future. All up the bus has 86 seats compared to the 51 on other NEX buses.
The stairs to get to the top level, to the right there is even a little luggage area.
And looking in the other direction on the downstairs level of the bus.
Another great feature is that both of the doors are wide enough for two people to board or alight at the same time which will definitely be useful once HOP starts rolling out next month.
Lastly from the upper level you get a stunning, unobstructed view across the harbour on the journey.
All up, a very welcome addition to Auckland. The first normal run will happen next Monday.
The Herald reports that the first double decker bus arrives in Auckland this weekend.
Northern Express service operator Ritchies Transport expects the 88-seater vehicle to arrive by sea from Malaysia at the weekend, before being painted in Auckland Transport livery for trips to start between Albany and Britomart by mid-March.
Rival operators NZ Bus and the Howick and Eastern Buses are also involved in “infrastructure trials” with the council transport body to select other potential routes for double-deckers.
Its been almost a year since we first heard that bus companies were considering them. In the interim I understand that the bus companies had to address various technical issues like size and weight restrictions which is also likely to be why Ritchies are only bringing in one at this stage. Once they are comfortable that it is working well they say they will order more.
It hoped to order 15 to 20 more once the pioneering vehicle had proven successful in clearing peak-time passenger loads on the busway.
“I don’t think there will be any issues, but just to make sure it is all okay, it is better to just get one and then if we want to make changes [for future buses], to make those off the first one.”
Mr Ritchie said the bus had been purpose-built over a European Scania chassis, and would be about 4.3m high.
Although it would not have a conductor to supervise passengers reaching the top deck, he expected the roll-out of Auckland Transport’s electronic Hop card to buses from April to improve loading times.
He understood the council organisation did some tree-trimming along Fanshawe St so double-deckers could get close enough to bus stops, but not any major pruning.
And as mentioned briefly above, some of the other bus companies are looking at double deckers too.
Howick and Eastern general manager Sheryll Otway said her company was keen to select a main arterial route from its home base to the city before ordering several double-decker buses for delivery next year.
It wanted to reduce its “geographical footprint” with double-deckers about a metre shorter than its existing 13.5m vehicles.
It has attached a metal frame on one of its existing buses to a height of 4.2m, ready to start infrastructure trials next week, but Ms Otway does not expect any major obstacles.
NZ Bus conducted a similar trial along Mt Eden Rd this week, but has yet to disclose its findings.
For some reason, having double deckers for PT seems to give the impression that the city is growing up and like with other changes coming over the next few years, it will hopefully help to give Aucklanders a new appreciation of our PT network.
People on the North Shore or those around town may have noticed some changes appearing on the Northern Express buses in recent months as some new livery has started appearing on them. The design prominently features the new AT logo which is something in itself that lead to a lot of discussion last year. As with a lot of things like this, some people will love the design while others will hate it and I will leave that up to you to decide what your feeling about it is. Thanks to Craig for both of these two images.
The new look Northern Express
And here is what the old livery looked like.
It also raises the question of what will happen with the rest of the bus fleet in the future. Currently we have a every single operator having their own, or even multiple different liveries and while it sometimes can be useful, it more often than not only helps lead to confusion. In addition some of the liveries out there are just butt ugly *cough* Birkenhead Transport *cough*. Thankfully it seems that Auckland Transport are finally going to address this as they roll out the excellent new bus network over the next few years.
Having a consistent brand is something fairly common overseas, even when like us they have different companies providing the actual service. For example, London’s famous red buses are easily recognisable even though they can be operated by different companies with just a small logo on the front of the bus differentiating them. My understanding is that under with the new PTOM contracts (I will explain more about these in another post) AT will move to this approach and they will require operators to provide both a fairly high level of bus quality that is higher than what we have now, but also that we have consistent branding. That means that in the nearish future we are likely to see a lot more buses potentially looking like this and while I know not everyone will like the style, at least it will be consistent.
Keen observers may have also noticed that NZ bus have started to consolidate their livery on variation of the Metrolink design as they start to do away with their individual brand designs of Waka Pacific, Go West and North Star. It will be interesting to see if those will all need to be repainted again sometime soon.
I went for a walk around the northern portal of the Victoria Park Tunnel today (in between rain showers) to take a closer look at something which has caught my attention the last couple of times I’ve driven through the area – the incredibly poor provision for buses heading northbound from the city towards the Harbour Bridge. Back in December I highlighted that the Northern Busway is actually just a “41% busway”, with one of the more glaring gaps (red indicates no bus priority whatsoever) being for northbound buses through St Mary’s Bay:
Aside from a few buses which join the motorway from Curran Street, all buses which head over the Harbour Bridge use the Fanshawe Street onramp. For a while the buses get a good lane which enables them to bypass the ramp signals (are those signals ever used?) as you can see in the photo below: However pretty soon after that the bus priority ends and buses are forced to merge with the traffic using the onramp:During the PM peak there are five northbound lanes for general traffic the whole way from the Fanshawe Street onramp through to the Harbour Bridge – yet even though buses carry over a third of passengers crossing the bridge at peak times NZTA can’t bring themselves to dedicating a lane for bus users so we’re able to bypass the congested cars? As I said, it’s not like there’s a shortage of motorway width or lanes in this location: Twelve lanes of the traffic and it’s only that 12th lane, an inbound bus shoulder lane, that is dedicated to public transport.
Every time I hear NZTA go on about trumpeting how something they’re doing will improve public transport I find myself thinking of St Mary’s Bay and how, even when they were spending $400 million on the Victoria Park Tunnel and even though they widened the motorway here to twelve lanes they couldn’t bring themselves to putting in even a measly little bus shoulder lane for northbound traffic through to the Curran Street onramp to bypass the congestion through St Mary’s Bay. Even though this is meant to be part of the Northern Busway. Even though over a third of people coming over the Harbour Bridge at peak times at on the bus.
Sadly, the fact that NZTA could build a project in just the last few years that shows this much disdain for public transport is, to me, proof that they really do hate public transport.
We have come quite a long way in improving Auckland’s public transport system over the last decade, but there are times when you realise that – perhaps sub-consciously more than anything else – there are some who think that public transport still isn’t important and that it’s OK to treat those who catch the train or ride the bus or ferry as second class citizens. It really pisses me off to be honest. Let’s take a look at the latest example:
Buses normally allocated their own lane along one of Auckland’s heaviest commuter routes will have to vie for space with cars during months of post-Christmas roadworks in Fanshawe St.
The city-bound bus lane between the Northern Motorway and Nelson St will be opened to general traffic while the road is narrowed between next week and March to make way for a $415 million electricity supply upgrade for Auckland and Northland.
Although two lanes will remain available to traffic from December 27, commuters from the North Shore will be urged to avoid delays by using the motorway’s Cook St or Grafton Gully exits to reach downtown Auckland.
What’s really frustrating about this proposal is that during peak times, it is the Fanshawe Street bus lane that actually carries the majority of people travelling along the corridor. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the 2012 CBD Screenline Survey:
The first line shows the key point – that along Fanshawe Street in the AM peak 65% of people are using the bus lane, which means that around 17% of people are using each of the other two general traffic lanes. But Transpower’s project means that it’s the poor sods using the bus who miss out on having a really critical bus lane just so the vastly lower number of people driving in their cars don’t have to squeeze down to one lane inbound. This is despite Mike Lee, chair of the Transport Committee, highlighting in a letter to Transpower that this was exactly what he didn’t want to see happen:
To be honest I’m not surprised that Transpower is showing such contempt for public transport passengers. The Northern Busway has been completely stuffed this whole year with the various sections of it being closed repeatedly – once again I can’t see Transpower getting away with closing two lanes of motorway (the equivalent of what’s carried on the Northern Busway at peak times) yet for some reason they can get away with stuffing around bus passengers all year long.
What is disappointing though is that presumably Auckland Transport have approved the closure of the Fanshawe Street bus lane, because at the end of the day it’s their piece of infrastructure. The closure is scheduled to go right through to March, traditionally the busiest month for public transport travel in the whole year, and Auckland Transport will know the impact of this on the attractiveness of public transport for people coming from the North Shore. They will know that the Fanshawe Street bus lane carries nearly twice as many people during the peak period as the other two lanes combined. Yet seemingly they don’t care.
No wonder public transport patronage is falling.
I found myself in an interesting discussion on Twitter yesterday about the Northern Busway and whether a North Shore railway line is likely to be necessary at some point in the future or not. This is a fairly common debate, but one that’s often a bit ill-informed by the assumptions that people make. Things like:
- Rail to the North Shore is really expensive. Well yes it is, but not nearly as expensive as building a $5 billion road tunnel.
- The North Shore already has a busway, why does it need a railway line? And here’s where things get interesting – read on!
While the North Shore certainly does have a busway – a very successful one at that – we must remember that the busway proper is only between Constellation and Akoranga Stations in both directions, then between Akoranga Station and the Onewa Road interchange in the southbound direction. In some other places there are bus shoulder lanes, but that’s it. When you actually start to map out how much of the Northern Express route (the core route along the busway) is busway (blue) bus lane or shoulder lane (green) and mixed traffic (red) the result is actually somewhat surprising:Breaking down the distances, you can see that northbound passengers in particular get a pretty raw deal:Total it all up and you actually find that only 41% of the Northern Express’s route is actually along the busway proper. A full 40% of the route is without any form of bus priority measures at all – including half of the route for northbound buses. Most worryingly the places with some of the patchiest bus priority measures, like the Harbour Bridge, St Mary’s Bay for northbound traffic and around the Britomart departure points are the very places where bus volumes are the highest and the competition for road space is most intense, with buses sadly losing out. For example, the fact that NZTA didn’t bother to put a northbound bus lane through St Mary’s Bay when widening that motorway speaks absolute volumes of the disdain that organisation has for public transport.
The point of all these calculations isn’t to criticise the Northern Busway, but actually to point out that a railway line south of Akoranga – like the rail line shown below - wouldn’t actually duplicate much of the busway at all: just the southbound section between Akoranga and Onewa which would be very handy for minimising the length of a cross-harbour tunnel:Furthermore, this is pretty much exactly the same section which NZTA’s Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing Project adds capacity to – at a cost of at least $5 billion (a rough estimate based on past analysis suggests that a Takapuna to Aotea rail link should be able to be built for under $2.5 billion). After all, the only thing AWHC does is shift ‘through-traffic’ off the harbour bridge into a new tunnel and then turn the harbour bridge into giant on and off ramps feeding a heap of cars into downtown that we don’t actually want. For $5 billion!
Clearly in the meanwhile there are things we can do to improve the busway and increase the measly 41% total. An extension northwards from Constellation to Albany is a no-brainer. Improved priority measures in the inner city is another clear requirement, plus we need to do something about getting a bus lane northbound through St Mary’s Bay. But for goodness sake, before we go and spend $5 billion on a road tunnel that’ll do nothing but feed cars into downtown, can we consider a much cheaper and much more effective alternative?
Following on from my post this morning around the Harbour bridge, I was pointed to this article from the US on trends on the amount of vehicle miles travelled each year. The post starts as
It’s now common knowledge that annual changes in the volume of driving no longer follow the old patterns.
For 60 years, the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rose steadily. Predicting more driving miles next year was like predicting that the sun would rise or that computer chips would be faster. The only direction seemed to be up.
Then, after 2004, per-capita VMT fell 6 percent, which has led to a decline in total VMT since 2007.
The most recent data are from July, traditionally America’s biggest month for driving. In July 2012, Americans clocked over 258 billion miles behind the wheel, a billion fewer miles than the previous July despite a slightly stronger economy and cheaper gasoline. In fact, you’d need to go back to 2002 to find a July when Americans drove fewer miles than July 2012.
Has America’s long increase in driving turned a corner or just taken a prolonged pause? The answer matters a lot.
They have then gone further and done some modelling of what the graph might look like based on a couple of scenarios:
But what surprised my was just how similar the graph on the numbers is to what we see with the harbour bridge so I decided to do some similar modelling. I looked at the average year on year percentage increase for four different time periods and modelled them out to 2027, 15 years from now.
- From when we can first get data for the Harbour bridge in 1975 through to when the volumes peaked in 2006
- From when we can first get data for the Harbour bridge in 1975 through to 2012
- The last decade from 2002 to 2012
- Since traffic peaked in 2006 through to 2012
Doing so gave a spooky familiar graph even though they are looking at miles travelled while we are looking at vehicles per day over the bridge. Here is what our result looks like:
As I said they are remarkably similar and just like the post we have to ask ourselves, are we really going to see a return to the old days? Sure there will probably be a bit of a pick up in the future if the economy improves but it seems hard to imagine it will be anything like what we have seen. Especially because the drop off in vehicle numbers preceded the global financial crisis, as it has done all over the developed world and because we know that on this particular route that thousands of people have chosen to use the Northern Busway once that opened. And are likely to continue to as improvements continue in Auckland’s transit systems.
The author of the US post comes to the same conclusion:
It won’t be surprising if an upturn in the economy leads to some increase in driving, especially if gas prices don’t also surge. But it’s harder to imagine that we will switch back to the sizeable increases in VMT that took place almost every year for six decades after World War II. Even if driving continues to increase at the rate of population, this would be a long-term slowdown that should correspond to major changes in transportation policy.
With the important observation that:
While we can’t yet see “the new normal,” it’s a good bet that it won’t be the same as the old normal.
Do we really want to be making $5 billion bets based on this uncertainty? Or should we pay more attention to this seven year old change, as it may well be generational, as the article urges:
Congress needs to stop trying to build out our grandparents’ transportation system.
Well certainly not unless they can guarantee the petrol prices our grandparents paid too.
Here at the Auckland Transport Blog we have finally found a road project that seems more unwarranted than either Puhoi-to-Wellsford or Transmission Gully. This is a road project that costs more than both of those two premature white elephants combined. Yes, we’re talking about the “Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing Project“.
We often hear how important and urgent it is for Auckland to get another crossing over the Waitemata. This message is usually swaddled in one or more of the following soothing spoken reasons:
- Congestion is bad, i.e. your valuable blogging time is being wasted.
- The clip-ons are going to fall off, i.e. you better learn to swim.
- It’s always been in the plans, i.e. you can’t stop it now.
Let’s consider each of these arguments in turn and see whether they hold much sway.
First, the sweet smell of congestion – that addictive road building tonic that both demonstrates the folly of designing cities around private vehicles, while simultaneously providing the justification for continued investment in private vehicles. This is the same circular logic that entrapped the entire city of Los Angeles for decades, and which still seems to prevail within the MoT and NZTA. The thing with congestion is that you can never beat it by building more roads – investing in the latter usually simply enables congestion to grow back, it’s like NZTA want to spray water onto the mould that covers the bathroom ceiling.
Moving along – the particularly interesting thing about congestion in this corridor is that we as a society has just invested in:
- The Northern Busway, which provides an extraordinarily successful (given the prevailing lack of development around stations) and relatively congestion-free public transport corridor that runs in parallel with SH1. From what I can tell (back of envelope numbers) the Northern Express is now operating at close to full cost recovery. Further only being a fraction of the vehicles that cross the bridge, around a third of all people heading southbound in the morning peak do so on a bus. This graph from ARTA is a couple of years old but shows how quickly the situation is changing thanks to developments like the busway. There is still a lot we can do to further improve the bus experience for Aucklanders, especially on the city side through improved bus lanes and facilities.
- The Western Ring Route, which (when complete) will provide an alternative route for some vehicle trips. From what I know, transport modelling predicts a drop of about 5,000-10,000 vpd on the bridge when Waterview is complete. As such, the WRR could reduce vehicle volumes on the existing Harbour Bridge by around 5%. Not huge, but probably enough to noticeably reduce congestion.
Conclusion #1: Together the Northern Busway and the Western Ring Route are the main congestion safety valves that Auckland needs across the Waitemata.
Second, we accept that the clip-ons may fall off when a continuous line of fully laden 40+ tonne trucks comes to a grinding halt on the bridge while being buffeted by hurricane force winds. Yes, the next time we have a hurricane that prompts some kind of lemming like heavy vehicle pilgrimage (which for some reason ends up stopping on the Harbour Bridge) then the clip-ons may become pontoons. But does it necessarily follow that we should spend $5 billion on a new crossing? Not really, if you consider the following options as being alternatives to a new crossing:
- Ban heavy vehicles from using the bridge in high winds; or
- Restrict heavy vehicles to using the main span of the bridge; or
- Require heavy vehicles to divert via the aforementioned Western Ring Route.
Some of these management techniques have already been used in the past so they wouldn’t be something new. Conclusion #2: Ultimately there seems to be at least three more effective ways of extending the life of the clip-ons (perhaps indefinitely) that helps us to avoid spending $5 billion on another crossing.
Third but not least, we come to the suggestion that “it’s always been in the plans.” To understand this argument we tried having a look at the plans. The latest ones came out in 2010, when NZTA last considered the merits of the project. This included preparing some detailed drawings of how it could work and a Business Case that analysed the costs and benefits of a bridge option and a tunnel option. The cost-benefit ratio for the two options are shown in the box below, which is found on page 65 of the business case document:
With a capital cost of close to $5 billion for the tunnel option, this would mean a return of around $1.5 billion excluding agglomeration benefits or $2 billion including them (using undiscounted figures). So pretty much the same as getting $3-3.5 billion and burning it. Now you don’t have to be an economist to know that this analysis is suggesting that this project is morse code for “absurd waste of money”.
Conclusion #3: If the additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing has always been “in the plans” then we’d just respond that it damn well shouldn’t be. Or perhaps more accurately: Just because something was a bad idea in the past, doesn’t mean it will be a good idea in the future.
At this stage some of you may be thinking “case closed” – let’s strike that project off the list and move on. But wait there’s even more to this post: When reading the NZTA’s Business Case we found, how shall we say this, ”questionable” assumptions about future growth in vehicle volumes. But before going into them its time for a little pop quiz, if you are modelling traffic flows in 2010 to predict future vehicle volumes do you:
a) base it off the currently available numbers
b) ignore what actually happened and use a model to predict what the numbers were
Here are the numbers that were used which comes from page 10 of the business case:
The important thing is the 2008 numbers seem to have been generated by a traffic model, because they do not match what was actually observed. For example, the NZTA’s own numbers for 2008 say there were only a average of 154,925 vehicles per day that crossed the bridge, a difference of over 13,000. The difference in the volumes can be easily seen from the graph below, which shows actual traffic volumes (green) and predicted traffic volumes (red).
There’s a couple of interesting things about this graph: The first (and most obvious) is that the modelled traffic volumes are approximately 10% higher than the actual volumes, even before the Business Case was released in 2010. Basically, the Business Case appears to be re-writing history by using traffic volumes that are higher than what was actually observed. Bizarre eh?
Personally, I would have thought that where you had a transport model that was predicting volumes that were 10% higher than the actual observed volumes then that would be reason to re-calibrate the model so that it more closely matched actual volumes, certainly before you did absolutely anything else with the outputs – let alone argue for us to spend $5 billion. Nevertheless, it seems (from what we can tell reading the Business Case) that the red line above was the one used in calculations of benefit-cost ratios, despite actual data showing that it was 10% off the mark from the outset (NB: A 10% difference in vehicle volumes makes a huge difference to congestion reduction benefits).
The next interesting thing is that based on the red line NZTA has (somehow) concluded that the next Waitemata Harbour Crossing is needed between 2020-2030, at which point they were expecting between 188,000-200,000 vehicles per day (vpd) over the bridge. If we take the mid-point of this range as defining the “critical threshold” then we can conclude that the current crossing arrangements is maxed out around 194,000 vpd. The figure below illustrates this critical threshold as the black dashed line. We have also extended the actual volumes (green) using the modeled traffic volumes (dashed green line). The latter sort of shows what you might expect to happen to vehicle volumes in the event that we returned to the modeled “trend” for the next 30 years.
We can see that even by 2041 the dashed green line stays below the dashed black line, i.e. we have not come close to hitting the “critical threshold” even by 2041. Stated simply, the reduction in vehicle volumes observed on the Harbour Bridge in the last 5 years or so seems to have bought us at least another 20 years when it comes to developing an additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing. Why so much time? Well, because it will take us ten years to get back to the level we were 5-10 years ago. That’s why we now have so much time and why this project, if it’s needed at all, does not seem to be “urgent”.
With all this in mind I can’t understand why some people at NZTA (and certain politicians on the North Shore) seem to be pushing for an additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing to be constructed soon, like between 2020-2030. Surely the smartest thing to do before pushing this project along is to:
- Wait until we have completed a few projects that may impact on the need for this crossing; and
- Recalibrate the model and issue an updated business case incorporating revised traffic growth assumptions?
At this stage, not only does another road-based crossing of the Waitemata Harbour seem like an ineffective way to address the issues put forward, it also seems like it’s nowhere near as urgent as some people make out. I have no problem with long term planning for another crossing, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s needed in the next 30 years. By crikey.
A previous post by Patrick highlighted his concerns about the phrase “multi-modal”, something that I want to explore further. Patrick’s general argument is that we “talk the good talk” about multi-modalism (is that even a word?) but in reality what we have built over and over again is “mono-modalism”.
So I guess the question I want to ask the government is how sincere are they really about Multi-Modality? I agree a truly multi modal Auckland would be a great improvement but successive governments have deviated very little from a highway dominant policy and the current one has greatly accelerated it, and therefore increased our Mono-Modality. The Government Policy Statement makes it very hard to get funding from NZTA for any mode at all other than state highways, in fact it seems designed to enable motorways to get funding no matter how poor their cost benefit analyses. So under this government the share of Land Transport funding going to anything other than state highways has shrunk. And now they are planning to make it even more difficult for the local authority to make its own investments that may differ from this bias.
I’m going to stick my neck out a bit further and say that while I’m a big supporter of the idea of a multi-modal system, I’m not really much of a fan of “multi-modal projects”. They just seem to turn into ways of justifying a lot of spending on roads now, with perhaps a little bit for public transport in the very distant future.
A classic example of this is the “Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing” project. By far the most expensive project proposed for Auckland in the next 30 years (estimated cost is north of $5 billion!), it is another harbour tunnel which doesn’t add any capacity to the roading system anywhere except between the Esmonde Road interchange and spaghetti junction. Because of this, we’re basically spending $5 billion to make it easier for people to drive into the city centre – even though pretty much every other part of Auckland’s policies and strategies scream out that we want to reduce the car focus of the very same area.
Perhaps to appease those screaming out “why on earth would you want to do something so stupid?” the Auckland Plan says that there’ll be a rail line in the tunnel – the first step towards extending rail to the North Shore. Or at the very least the tunnel will be “future proofed” for rail so that it can be built at some point in the future. Here’s a lovely map showing how the two tunnels could happily co-exist:
Of course what’s not discussed here is the impact of the new road crossing on your likely demand for public transport. Considering that around 35% of people coming over the harbour bridge in the peak times at the moment are on the bus plus most of those people will be going to destinations in the city centre, around the universities or to Newmarket, public transport must have a really excellent modeshare for “North Shore to central city” trips – I would suspect well above 50% once you count the ferries.
One of the reasons this modeshare is so high is because the alternative isn’t too flash – a slow, unreliable and congested trip in along the Northern Motorway (and its many clogged feeder roads). Go and provide a heap more lanes of roading capacity at a vast cost and you’re just about guaranteed to kill off public transport demand (at least until your expensive new road gets clogged again). This means you can’t justify the rail tunnel and therefore you’ve just ended up reinforcing your city’s car dependency.
And in a nutshell this is the problem with multi-modal projects. Because they’re looking at upgrading both the road and the public transport at the same time, they’re actually two bits of a project working against each other. The public transport project would undoubtedly generate more patronage growth if the road running in parallel to it wasn’t also being widening/duplicated/upgraded to motorway status. Similarly (though interestingly not as convincingly), the economics of the roading project would probably stack up better if everyone was forced to use it and it wasn’t having its usage undermined by a parallel PT project.
This is where multi-modal projects really miss the point of public transport investment. One of the biggest reasons to spend money on a public transport project is so you don’t need to spend vastly more on a roading project. The Northern Busway is a great example of this as it’s vastly increasing the capacity of the Northern Motorway and delayed (or completely removed) the requirement for another road-based harbour crossing. Upgrading the rail network has done the same – every passenger coming up that southern line is delaying or removing the requirement to widen the southern motorway. With multi-modal projects it seems like we identify the project that’s required to ensure we don’t need that other project, but go ahead and build both anyway.
At the end of the day, I suppose multi-modal is nice for politicians because “there’s a bit in there everyone will support”. Those who want more roads are happy, the PT crowd are happy, there might be a cycleway to keep those advocates happy – everyone wins. Except the person paying the bill who has gone and wasted a huge amount of cash on a road that’s probably not needed if the other parts of the project are done.
What Auckland needs is a proper multi-modal transport system, not a whole pile of extremely expensive “multi-modal projects” that just reinforce our car dependency. We’ve got the roading side of the system pretty much finished already.