Three storeys does not equal highrise

The debate about intensification has come roaring back to life in the last day or so following a beat up by Bernard Orsman in the Herald about the unitary plan process.

Tens of thousands of homes in Auckland’s leafy residential suburbs are being rezoned for multiple townhouses and apartments and Auckland Council says homeowners will not be notified about the changes.

The central isthmus suburbs of Pt Chevalier, Epsom, Mt Eden, Mt Albert, Glendowie and St Heliers; the North Shore suburbs of Birkenhead, Glenfield and Takapuna; Whangaparaoa Peninsula, rural towns such as Kumeu and the southern suburbs of Howick and Mangere Bridge are among areas affected by the changes taking place behind closed doors.


Tomorrow, the Unitary Plan committee will meet behind closed doors to approve changes to the single house zone in north, south and east Auckland.

This follows a decision by the 11-member committee on November 10 to approve changes to the zone on the Auckland central isthmus and West Auckland.

The council has rewritten the rules for the “single-house zone” where one- and two-storey houses are typically set amongst trees and gardens. New rules mean tens of thousands of houses no longer qualify and will be rezoned to a “mixed-house” zone to allow for townhouses, studios and apartments of up to three storeys.

Are we really down to the stage of scaremongering about three storey townhouses, a housing typology found frequently overseas and even in many parts of Auckland already? In fact for a city like Auckland three storey townhouses are perhaps the ideal missing middle of the housing. On top of being fairly spatially efficient they can be built in existing suburbs and not look out of place as they’re often no higher than a two storey house with a pitched roof. They’re also generally cheaper and easier to build than apartments as they don’t require expensive features like lifts or complex sprinkler systems.

One vs three storeys

Three storey terraced housing alongside some single storey houses in Epsom

So what’s really happening? The answer is much less secretive and much less alarmist than the herald like to make out.

The Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) was notified by the council in 2014 and since then an independent government appointed panel (IHP) has been going through the almost 10,000 submissions and supporting pieces of evidence submitted by the public and the council. The IHP will eventually issue a recommendation back to the council on the PAUP based on the submissions and evidence and that is almost certainly going to be different from what the council originally started with.

Along the way the IHP have been challenging the council on various topics and also issuing interim guidance on issues such as around the levels of heritage protection and viewshafts. As part of the process the council have been required to consider rezoning changes which is exactly what they are doing based on what’s happened so far it’s what’s likely to happen based on the interim guidance issued so far.

Notified UP - Central

The council are looking at changing some of the lighter coloured areas to allow for more development

I know I’ve skipped a lot out but kind of brings us roughly to where we are today with the council are looking at better defining where development can occur. From what I’ve read it seems they are looking at expanding the mixed housing suburban and mixed housing urban boundaries.

It seems to me that a lot of the angst in the article probably originated with the 2040 group who have long opposed much of the intensification planned. As a result of this the interim guidance my guess is they’ve been seeing the writing on the wall that more intensification would be allowed so they’ve complained to the Herald.

Following the article a number of politicians have heaped on the idea of intensification. One of those is David Seymour who based on his party’s politics you’d think would support removing restrictions to property rights claims it will have enormous implications for congestion, character and school zones. He is also quoted as saying

“It’s also a betrayal of young people in its assumption that they can never own a house and must live in apartments

The real betrayal of young people is by those who have opposed any change to the city, especially in the area of housing where prices have been pushed up or some people have been pushed out half way to Hamilton.

Six Sisters John St

The ‘Six Sisters’, John Street, Ponsonby – three storeys is hardly highrise

Of course many young people would live in an apartment or terraced house if more were able to be built to bring prices down in the areas they want to live. Part of the reason for this is often they are quite different from their parents in that they don’t aspire to a house in the suburbs where driving is the only option and they have to frequently do things like mow lawns and manage gardens. As for driving, well Auckland Transport have already said they’re looking at building a light rail network across the central isthmus which will help in moving lots of people without suffering from congestion.

Disappointingly it also appears that new mayoral candidate Phil Goff is starting to go down the line of backing off intensification in some areas. Stu has more on this in a post later today.

It will be interesting to see what the council come up with in terms of rezoning. Ideally the ishmus would look much more like West Auckland in the map above with a lot more mixed housing urban allowed (3 storeys).

Photo of The Day: Drivers get it.

The big winners from investment in high quality urban Transit are of course drivers. They benefit from all the people making the rational decision to choose other ways to get around freeing up the roads for those who need or choose to drive. The numbers choosing to make this shift depends on the quality of the alternatives, as is shown by the huge and ongoing rise in ridership in response to the upgrade of the rail network this decade. A boom in uptake that completely caught officials and transport professionals by surprise. Here is the Ministry of Transport report to the Minister as recently as October 2014:

OCT 2014

And of course the road freight industry should understand this too; their productivity will rise with every switch from driving to alternative systems in cities. 77% of all vehicles are private cars, so enabling a reduction in private car use, especially at the peaks, is likely to be more cost effective way of speeding truckies and tradies than spending 10 of billions on more roads which simply incentivise more private driving on all roads. Especially as this spending squeezes out opportunities to invest in complementary networks. This is the contradiction at the heart of the RoNS model, especially for urban areas; using all available funds to induce more driving, because traffic is congested.

Auckland needs better alternatives to driving not alternative roads to drive on. For drivings sake.

From this morning’s Herald, Drive. Dr Anil Sharma, Porsche enthusiast:

Herald drive Sept 15_800

Herald’s World Class Auckland – My view on Transport

The Herald have been running a series since the middle of last week titled ‘World Class Auckland‘. It is looking at how Auckland can improve across a range of topics.

Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world’s best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city?

The Herald’s World-Class Auckland series examines some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland’s success matters to the rest of the country.

So far they’ve covered

  • Housing – where they effectively said said we need to sprawl more
  • The Environment – where they said sprawl was bad
  • Education
  • Recreation

Today they’re covering Transport. They asked me to contribute with a piece around 300 words however at this stage it doesn’t appear to be published – they said it may go online only but as it’s not there in assuming they aren’t running it. As I’m sure you can imagine it’s incredibly hard trying to condense a reasoned and evidenced based argument into that kind of limit – in fact it’s would’ve still been hard doing do so with five times that limit. As such there’s lots of topics and angles I didn’t get a chance to include but here’s what I sent them.

It’s said that Aucklander’s have a love affair with cars. For many it’s more of an unwelcome arranged marriage – the by-product of decades focused on improving only one aspect of our transport system.

Yet we’re at an interesting crossroads. Despite a rapidly growing population and over $8 billion of investment in Auckland’s roads over the last decade, the stats show Aucklander’s are driving less than they used to.

What has been growing quickly on the back of comparatively modest investment has been the use of public transport, walking and cycling. Investments like the Northern Busway and upgrading the rail network have shown that when offered frequent and reliable services that are free of congestion that people will flock to use them. In the morning peak 40% of the people crossing the harbour bridge now do so on a bus, more than double the pre-busway figure while traffic volumes have actually fallen. On the trains at Britomart passenger volumes are already 66% ahead of what they were predicted to be in 2021.

Auckland Transport’s new electric trains, new bus network and integrated fares will bring the city’s PT system up to a more modern standard. To keep up with demand the next wave of projects already needs to be getting underway. This includes the City Rail Link, extending the Northern Busway, a North-western Busway, the AMETI busway and potentially light rail. Combined these would give Auckland a PT network on par or better than many of our comparator cities and all are possible within the next decade if we prioritise properly.

Decades of decisions made by looking out the front windscreen hasn’t worked in reducing congestion. By investing in our missing modes we can give people realistic choices in how they get around. That will benefit everyone, taking those who don’t want to drive off the road leaving more space for others.

As I said there’s lot’s more I could add to it such as other reasons why investment in PT is justified, why we need to invest in walking and cycling, why it matters what don’t build e.g. AWHC. What are the key things you would have covered and what’s your view on what they’ve covered on transport today?

Auckland could get more housing. True Storey.

Greetings from Amsterdam, where I’m happily ensconced in a multi-storey apartment building. Just now I had a look at the New Zild Herald, where I was disappointed to read this article from Bernard Orsman. Titled “Suburbs could get more apartments”, the article seems primarily designed to whip up fear, which is something I’ve criticised the Herald for previously. In this post I pick out some specific comments with the article that I found particularly disappointing.

“They believe large swathes of the city where single houses sit on a single site will be rezoned to allow developments with no density controls.” Oh dear. So much is wrong with this statement. Later on in the article Bernard (finally) acknowledges that what we’re talking about is the extent of the Single House Zone (SHZ), which Council have suggested might be better replaced with a Mixed Housing Zone (MHZ) in some places. While the MHZ allows development of up to three storeys, it is not equivalent to “no density controls”. Indeed, developments within the MHZ are still subject not only to height limits, but also a myriad of other density controls, e.g. landscaping rules, boundary set-backs etc etc. Bernard buries most of this information at the back of the article, rather than presenting it up front where it seems to belong.

“It basically destroys a lot of the character of the inner-city suburbs like Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Herne Bay, Parnell and Mt Eden,” said Christine Cavanagh of the Herne Bay Resident Association. The issue with this statement is that the SHZ is not intended/designed to preserve “character”, but instead to control development intensity. Development intensity is quite different from character, which is why Council has separate rules for the latter, e.g. demolition controls on pre-1944 buildings and site coverage ratios. Christine may think that character is intrinsically linked to low development intensity. If so, then she needs to explain why all of Auckland’s inner-city suburbs have quite intensive multi-storey apartment buildings, many of which have existed for a long time. Below are some of my favourites, but there are many others.

Brighton Parnell



Mt Eden

My final criticism is for Pete Sinton, who describes the mixed housing zone as “high intensification“. In what dystopian world could three storey developments qualify as “high intensification”? Maybe only a world where people’s feet had been chewed off by zombie rats so that nobody could get up stairs anymore?!? In reality, three storeys is a perfectly normal level of development most places in the world. It’s shorter than most mature, fully grown trees. Three storeys is less than many large (rural) houses that are found in places like the Netherlands and Sweden.

So is there a silver lining to this article?I actually found two.

The first silver lining comes towards the end, where Bernard includes some comments from people who support intensification. This includes business owners in Mission Bay, and some residents who are happy with development up to four storeys. The second silver lining I found in this article is actually Penny Hulse, who manages to explain why the Council is reconsidering the extent of the single house zone, i.e. to balance the need for more housing. Penny generally does a marvellous job despite all the bullshit thrown her way by the likes of Bernard Orsman and Christine Cavanagh.

In a more balanced world the title of the article would read “Auckland allows more housing”. True Storey.

Roughan confirms LRT Success

On Saturday we learned that Auckland Transport’s light rail plans will be an outstanding success. We learned this not from anything Auckland Transport has told us but from a column written by the Herald’s John Roughan. He ended the piece with:

An underground link to give Auckland’s lines a central turning loop is said to be the key to unlocking their potential for urban commuters. It’s not. It would remove just one of several reasons the trains are too slow.

Light rail in the streets with traffic and stoplights is even slower. Yet the fascination remains. Something about iron tracks makes them hard to let go. They may be a solid line to other places and to the past, but they’ve had their day.

Roughan rubbishing LRT is great as he’s proven to be one of the best reverse barometers we have for public transport so if he thinks a PT investment will flop it means it will be fantastic. Just take a look at some of his previous predictions

In July 2001 he lamented the then plans for Britomart and the then ARCs plans for rail and bus upgrades, more deregulation and shuttle buses were the solution he said.

This is all about what the council wants, not what is most likely to work. If they opened their eyes they would notice that a little bit of deregulation worked a treat 10 years ago.

Take the airport shuttles, as many now do. When minivans where allowed to compete with taxis and buses to Auckland Airport, they found immediate demand.

They were soon getting calls for other destinations, too, but were not allowed to provide them. Imagine if they could. An untapped dimension of public transport is right there.

Later in October that year there was this masterpiece where he urged people to vote for candidates who would oppose PT. He also promoted the group named “Roads before Rail” – now only found on the wayback machine

There will come a time, maybe in 10 or 20 years, when it will be apparent this election was the last chance to prevent a minor disaster and we might wonder what we were thinking of in 2001 that we didn’t stop it.

There were, we will remember, one or two greater disasters happening at the time, so possibly the voters of 2001 will be forgiven. But every time we drive past one of those light rail things we will wonder at our capacity for collective folly.

If, 20 years hence, our children can track down Mrs Fletcher or Mr Harvey and ask why they are lumbered with this little-used railway, they will hear a remarkable story of what was supposed to happen.

They are wasting their time and our money. And they are neglecting – wilfully one suspects – the need for more and wider motorways.

Auckland is a car city and always will be. Its people much prefer their own cars to any form of public transport and, contrary to the claims of the rail lobby, there is plenty of room for more roading.

History shows us that Fletcher’s decision to push ahead with Britomart was inspired and the station has been successful beyond all expectations – as we know from the chart below showing actual daily passengers compared to what was predicted in the business case.

Daily Britomart Passengers - Actual vs Projected

In 2002 he again claimed Britomart and investment in rail would be a financial disaster that will hurt not just Auckland but the nation’s economy

He will not stop the rail scheme. For better or worse, as with corporate regulation, he will probably get it done. It may be merely a financial disaster but it will hurt the economy of Auckland and the country badly enough when the costs hit.

In 2003 he said no-one would use park and ride and said the solution to traffic problems was walking school buses.

Driving to work these mornings, I pass a brilliant bit of traffic engineering. It is not the “park and ride” bus station they are building down at Barry’s Pt, although I pass that too.

Somehow I can’t believe Auckland commuters are going to drive to a suburban transfer station to make the rest of their journey by bus or train. Ask yourself, honestly, would you? Will you?

In 2006 it was that Britomart was built too big for the city – of course we now know it’s too small and will soon run out of capacity

It went ahead and built the Britomart railway station regardless of the scale of rail the region was likely to afford. Britomart, which will shortly farewell the last intercity railcar, is a magnificent terminal for a train that might never come.

In 2007 we have him claiming the busway wouldn’t work

The public transport entrepreneurs intend that we forsake the car entirely and take a bus to the busway. I hope they are right but I really don’t think so.

While not directly related to a Roughan piece, this image was in the herald when the busway opened and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a hand in it.

Northern Busway White Elephant



This of course is just a small sample and there are a lot more columns from him talking about transport, complaining about spending on PT and calling for more motorways. As I said, if he’s rubbishing it then it will probably be good.

Coming back to his column on Saturday perhaps my favourite part is where just after saying that he caught a poorly implemented tram once we therefore shouldn’t build light rail in Auckland (or the CRL), he says this:

The Government doesn’t take much interest in AT’s operational decisions for Auckland’s buses and trains and when the Government contemplates the city’s congestion it prefers the advice of the NZ Transport Agency.

Thanks to the national transport planners, the part of Auckland that is probably best served by public transport is the one part that has no railway. The North Shore’s busway is probably the fastest flowing artery in the region and it is about to get better. AT has posted out a plan to Shore households this month that simplified all bus routes into loops between busway stations. It looks ideal.

So now not only is the busway good but he likes the new bus network AT is proposing. I’d agree with him on both those points but the thing I find quite funny is his inability to consider that the same people who developed the new network he praises are also behind the plans for light rail. How is it they can be both so right and so wrong in the space of a few paragraphs.

Just to note, there are a few other areas where Roughan can occasionally be right such as the examples below but they tend to be few and far between:

  • Two years ago he claimed that an Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing isn’t something we need as the issue is the capacity on either side (he also praises the busway).
  • A month prior he urged the government to support the general direction the council have been pushing saying that above all else it is a vision and no one is presenting an alternative – interesting as we later learned the business groups were saying the same thing behind closed doors.
  • He has also noted a few times that we should consider road pricing as a way to get better use out of our existing road infrastructure such as this one.


How business groups view transport

Yesterday the Auckland Business Forum sponsored four pages of op-eds in the business section of the Herald about the need to improve transport for businesses. Unfortunately it ended up being a bit of a case of who left the gates to Jurassic Park open and let the Roadasaurs out.

Business Forum Jun 15

You can see all four pages below.

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Perhaps the most hilarious of the pieces comes from the head of the National Road Carriers – a trucking lobby group – who effectively suggests that a Mad Max style apocalypse is imminent unless we take quick action to speed up the movement of trucks.

When trucks gridlock, Auckland stops. Virtually everything manufactured, imported, bought or consumed in Auckland is at some point transported by truck.

If truck movement stopped in Auckland, within the first 24 hours service stations would begin to run out of petrol, supermarkets and restaurants would have no fresh food, building sites and assembly companies using just-in-time suppliers would experience materials and parts shortages, and mail and other package deliveries would cease.

After a couple of days, food shortages would develop, motor vehicle fuel availability would dwindle, exports and imports of goods by sea and air would cease, as would operations of many wholesale and retail businesses. Thousands of Aucklanders would soon be out of work.

This demonstrates the critical importance of freight and goods delivery within Auckland’s transport system — when trucks can’t move, Auckland stops.

Freight is the backbone of the Auckland economy. It figures that if we are serious about improving our economy, we must get serious about tackling Auckland’s worsening traffic congestion and improving our productivity and efficiency.

As Auckland’s population grows, it is critical that we stop congestion spreading through the whole of the working day as it is starting to do in some areas of the city.

His other article suggests some of the ways trucks can be avoided where he suggests that trucks should be able to use the busway and bus lanes.

His big priority is the east-west link which he wants the government to take over and build as a RoNS – because you know it’s not like the NZTA is sitting around doing nothing. He suggests that a route along the waterfront on the Northern edge of the Mangere Inlet is good because it will “avoid community severance” and encourage the repair of the “environmentally damaged reclaimed land”. I know some Onehunga Foreshore groups support this option because they think they will get a new foreshore – like what is being done now next to the motorway – on the northern side of the inlet. Of course not that anyone will be able to easily access it due to the severance the motorway they want causes.

Seeing as this route is claimed to be so vitally important for truckies, I wonder how much they’re prepared to pay to use it – or are they expecting this to be a massive subsidy from the public towards their operations.

Herald East-West link graphic

Also pushing to keep the trucks moving is a representative of the construction firms. In this case he’s primarily talking about trucks involved in construction. A case of the trucks must get through to be able to build more roads that will also end up congested. It’s a bit like groundhog day. He also calls for trucks to be able to use busways. He is of course correct when he says:

At the heart of an Auckland-Wellington strategy must be an accelerated effort to improve the city’s public transport system. Getting single-occupancy commuter vehicles off Auckland roads during the day would free up the capacity for contractors, transport operators and other essential trades.

However a few paragraphs later he then undoes that by stating that PT should only be funded if it doesn’t get in the way of building new stuff.

Meanwhile, increased public transport funding is only viable if it does not impact on the activities of the people who build the city.

One area I do agree with him on is in his other piece where he suggests there might be some advantages to merging the local aspects of the NZTA and Auckland Transport. I’d go further and suggest the rail network should also be included. A single agency managing the entire transport network could be useful if it also coincided with more autonomy in how the money is spent rather than the rigid Government Policy Status. That could mean motorway, PT and local road and even rail freight projects could be treated equally but there is little chance the government would allow this.

Stephen Selwood from the NZCID has also written a few pieces. In one notes that the current plans for an Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing add no new connectivity and that it wastes the transport budget. His solution to this is to make the tunnel longer and instead connect up to the eastern side of the CBD. However not content with that he also wants to revive the Eastern Motorway and suggests it be built as a tunnel so it “protects the views and amenity of the eastern suburbs”. It would then presumably link up with a larger AMETI project.

If the AWHC is estimated at $5 billion then how much is an approximately 14km tunnel from Glen Innes to the North Shore going to be?

Lastly both Selwood and Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett separately talk about and support the governments push for a transport accord. While I don’t necessarily disagree it seems that are taking the stance that Auckland’s current plans are fundamentally wrong. In my view we’ve seen a huge improvement in the work AT has done in it’s planning for the future and it’s starting to show that the plans of the past aren’t necessarily right or worth pursuing. This has been shown in examples like how they’re thinking of deferring the Reeves Rd flyover which would have just shifted congestion one intersection down the road and to invest the money in bringing forward PT improvements. Another is them looking at light rail as way of addressing looming bus congestion.

Of course there’s also the irony that the business groups are supporting the government in creating another year of delay and debate while also calling for urgent action to speed things up. Perhaps it’s time to stop having a bet each way and pick a position. To me it also shows why it’s so vital that we don’t just leave the conversation about Auckland’s future to these influential and well connected groups.

Terror, resilience and cities

An article in the Herald on Sunday by academic and so-called resilience expert Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor really raised some questions for me:

You might be reading this in an Albany cafe or a Wellington hair salon. You might be in the Sylvia Park food court, a Riccarton outlet complex, a Westgate supermarket, waiting to bungy-jump off a bridge or even at the airport.

It has probably already occurred to you that, while doing these activities, you could be placing your life in the hands of terrorists.

Questions such as:

wtf am I reading

And also some more technical questions about how much we should be willing to pay for “insurance” against unlikely or unpredictable events. Dr Sullivan-Taylor continues:

Black swan extreme events — those that come as a surprise — have a major effect and are often inappropriately rationalised with the benefit of hindsight. The challenge is to be prepared for them…

Examples of this are the cyber threat to banks and other global systems from such things as Ed Snowden’s classified information leak from the National Security Agency over the past two years; Fonterra’s Chinese milk crisis that threatened our major primary market; and the Germanwings disaster a few weeks ago in which a suicidal pilot flew a plane with 150 people on it into the French Alps.

So basically, she strings together a small number of totally unrelated events into an argument that we’ve got to be prepared for the next low-probability event. In other words: the world’s a scary place, and you’ve got to be frightened wherever you go!

Dr Sullivan-Taylor argument seems to be that we have to be “resilient” to any possible threat, no matter how unlikely. That’s an interesting, if unrealistic, assumption that I want to revisit after looking at her recommendations for not getting victimised by terrorism at your local mall food court.

So how might this affect New Zealand consumers? Hardening or toughening soft targets could mean that if you are going to the mall, you might have your bag checked at the entrances, and there might be restrictions on how long you can stay in the carpark. Employees might require security passes, and purchases might be checked on leaving the mall.

If you’re going to the cinema, there could be more security screening, including bag-checking machines. You might see more CCTV or facial recognition software being used inside the mall and in carparks that are watching all your movements. Security or police staff might ask for proof of identification, carparks might be occasionally restricted directly under or on top of the mall, and we might see more information in the media informing customers about raised security threats at particular locations.

There are two problems with these recommendations.

The first is that there is almost no way that Dr Sullivan-Taylor’s recommendations would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. For comparison, here’s a review of a recent paper on the costs and benefits of protecting airports from terrorist attack:

Mark Stewart and John Mueller are here to alert us about the security at our airports. They want to warn us that it is too good. Or, at least, there’s too much of it. Their new paper is titled “Cost-benefit analysis of airport security: Are airports too safe?” The answer, the authors say, is most likely yes…

Stewart and Mueller calculated the cost of traditional airport security measures and compared it against the risk of an airport attack, the cost of the damage an attack would cause (in lives and property), and the efficacy of particular security measures in preventing an attack. Their finding: “Many of the assessed security measures would only begin to be cost-effective if the current rate of attack at airports in the U.S., Europe, and the Asia-Pacific increases by a factor of 10-20.”

In other words, the benefit-cost ratio for measures to protect airports from attacks is in the range of 0.05 to 0.1. That’s shockingly low even by the standard set by the RoNS. Given that airports are more tempting and systemically important targets than shopping malls and tourist attractions, it’s likely that costly measures to secure everything will be even less worthwhile.

According to Mueller:

“What’s your chance of being killed by a terrorist if you’re American?” he says. “It’s now about one in 4 million per year. Maybe that’s enough, maybe that’s not enough. Some people might say we can save some money and make it one in 3.5 million. What I’m trying to do is just apply standard analytic techniques to the hazards of terrorism.”

If we assume that New Zealanders are equally at risk of terrorism as Americansa pessimistic assumption, I hope – we’d expect one Kiwi to be killed by terrorism every year. We could probably save as many lives by upgrading half a dozen dangerous intersections or curves in the road as we could by totally preventing terrorism. In other words, the expected value of total “resilience” against terrorism is quite small, and dwarfed by other risks we face.

Professor Ramesh Thakur from the Australian National University made this point quite well in a Radio New Zealand report on the subject:

“Think of the attention that was given to the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Of course it was a serious incident. But, as I said, in terms of people who are killed on the roads in India and in India it is pedestrians and cyclists who are killed much more than people in the cars, or any other way you look at it, in terms of the real threats to people’s safety and security terrorism should rank way down in the scale.”

The second problem with Dr Sullivan-Taylor’s proposal is that the resulting cost, time, and hassle would dismember our urban life. Cities, by their very nature, concentrate people and bring them together in unpredictable ways. There have always been risks to doing so – consider the burden of disease in Victorian-era British cities or the impact of violent crime in mid-century American cities. Terrorism, or the perceived threat of terrorism, is just the latest high-profile risk.

People have chosen to accept a few risks from urban life because the benefits are far, far greater. Living around and interacting with other people gives you more choices about employment and more consumption options. It gives you better transport choices and more places to go. Frequent, incidental human contact makes us happier.


Putting a security checkpoint everywhere humans might gather together – from malls to the waterfront to buses to art galleries – will cost society much more than it will ever deliver in benefits. The added friction will make the economic life of our cities less efficient and productive and our social lives stultified and hesitant.

In short, Dr Sullivan-Taylor seems to be massively over-estimating the value of “resilience” and vastly under-estimating or ignoring the costs of her preferred solutions. We certainly shouldn’t ignore the risk of terrorism, but as with any other public policy issue, we need to address it in a cost-effective and considered way. Her sensationalised statements about the risk of terrorism at your neighbourhood cafe, and associated claims about the need to secure absolutely every public place, do not amount to a rational risk assessment.

Finally, while the Herald on Sunday never should have printed such an ill-considered take on a serious issue, it did raise the issue of how we value resilience against low-probability events in our cities and urban transport networks. How much should we pay for resilience? I’d like to say more on that topic, but it’ll have to wait for a future post…

Getting the maths wrong on the cost of housing

The New Zealand Herald’s cover story last Friday was quite sensational: “Homeowners in Auckland’s fringe saving up to $50,000 a year“. But while the eye-grabbing headline was worthy of clickbait merchants like Buzzfeed, the underlying analysis was not so good.

Here’s the key point of the article:

Bayleys calculated the first-year mortgage repayment costs for different suburbs based on median house prices from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) and the ANZ variable rate of 6.74 per cent.

It found the annual cost of servicing a mortgage for a median priced Orakei or Remuera home ($1.35 million) was $84,060 in the first year.

In Pukekohe, where the median price of a home is $500,000, the annual mortgage repayment in the first year would be $31,128.

Even factoring in the $4032 annual cost of commuting from Pukekohe to the CBD by train on the At Hop card system – as well as the $768 public transport cost from Orakei to the city – living in the southern suburb was about $50,000 cheaper.

This is not entirely wrong. Housing costs do tend to decline as you get further out from the centre, while average transport costs tend to increase. That’s exactly what I found in a research paper I wrote on the topic last year. But it’s not entirely correct, either. Bayleys and the Herald have made two elementary errors in their analysis.

First, they’ve chosen a misleading measure of housing costs. House prices aren’t a realistic measure of the true cost of living at a point in time, as they are influenced by a range of short-term and long-term factors. In particular, when you buy a home, you are actually buying three very different things:

In other words, looking only at house prices is like arbitrarily including the cost of Kiwisaver into your housing costs.

My intuition is that rental costs are a better indicator of housing costs. They’re certainly less volatile, as I found in a recent paper that I co-authored on the relationship between rents and prices in Auckland. One of the key findings in that paper was that rents were quite low relative to prices in inner-city and coastal suburbs. As the following maps shows, median rents are only around 1/3 to 1/2 of median mortgage repayments in Remuera:

Nunns, Hitchins and Owen indicative rental yields 2013

It’s not as though data on rents isn’t available. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment publishes quarterly data on average rents for new tenancies, broken down by suburb, dwelling type, and number of bedrooms. So let’s take a look at that data instead. According to MBIE’s data, the average weekly rent for a three-bedroom house was:

  • $754 in Remuera (or $39,000 per annum)
  • $406 in Pukekohe (or $21,000 per annum)

However, there were a number of cheaper options available in Remuera, and the inner suburbs in general. Going down to two bedrooms would reduce your rent by $9,000 per annum – a viable and attractive option for many households – and looking for flats or apartments would save even more money.

But basically, looking at the rental data shows that most of the cost of buying in Remuera is not related to housing costs per se – you’re actually buying the expectation of capital gains. The rent data shows that it’s still possible to save money on housing costs by living further out, but the magnitude of savings is far lower.

Which brings me to a second major flaw in the Herald’s analysis: They have only accounted for the monetary costs of commuting further into the city centre and completely excluded the value of people’s time. A quick look at AT’s journey planner shows that the train trip from Pukekohe to Britomart takes about 70 minutes, while a public transport trip from Remuera to Britomart takes 20-30 minutes depending upon whether you’re closer to the train station or a bus route.

In other words, the Herald has assumed that people don’t mind spending an extra 80-100 minutes commuting every day. They haven’t even tried to account for the cost of wasted time. Most researchers and transport economists disagree with this approach. Here, for example, is a discussion of the subject from Charles Montgomery’s great book The Happy City:

[University of Zurich economists] Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love…

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained the commuting paradox to me this way:

“Most good things and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house because the house is exactly the same size every time we come in the front door. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery, with different people honking at us, different intersections jammed with accidents, different problems with weather, and so on.”

In short, the Herald’s analysis has:

  • Overstated the real magnitude of financial savings from living in Pukekohe vs Remuera by a factor of three – a comparison of rental data suggest that the financial savings are actually $16,000 per annum or less
  • Ignored the non-monetary costs of commuting extremely long distances, which makes people miserable. All else being equal, people should be willing to pay more to live in the areas which have the best job accessibility.

Bertaud urban structure graph

My advice, if you are choosing where to live in Auckland, is to disregard the advice of real estate spruikers such as Bayleys and the Herald, and take a more objective and comprehensive look at the topic using the app developed by my co-worker Alex Raichev. The app provides information on a much broader range of factors, including the rents, the monetary and time cost of commuting, and the costs of car ownership. Here’s a sample:

affordability-org-nz screenshot

And, as always, my advice to the Herald is to check the facts more comprehensively before committing this sort of thing to print.

EMU Faults and CRL Properties

There have been a couple of articles in the Herald in the last few days that are worth talking about.

Double EMU Orakei Basin

Photo by Alex Burgess


On Friday there was the issue of faults with the new electric trains.

Auckland’s new electric trains are still being bugged by computer software and braking problems, which have brought engineers out from Spain in search of remedies.

The city’s transport authority disclosed this week it is trying to bring forward from August the completion of its rollout of its $400 million fleet of electric trains, after continuing disruptions from diesel breakdowns.

But it is not just the old trains that are causing trouble, leading to a reduction in punctuality on all the city’s railway lines except for the Onehunga branch.

Rail workers are concerned some of the new trains are having to be shut down for their on-board computers to be reset, and that a sophisticated new control system designed to prevent collisions “has a tendency to randomly apply” emergency brakes when passing certain signals.

One industry source said in a message received indirectly by the Herald this morning there had been breakdowns on the rail network causing disruption “every day” for the past three weeks.

The emergency braking problem caused chaotic scenes at Britomart and Newmarket stations in the morning commuter rush in December, when a driver’s unfamiliarity with the new system prompted him to disable several other systems on board his train, disrupting 15 other services.

Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton told his board this week, in his monthly business report, that Siemens Spain had undertaken a two-week investigation in New Zealand and was “working to improve ETCS [European Train Control System] reliability.”

It seems there has been a number of issues that have arisen with the trains, as the also herald notes in the article there were issues with how restrictive the new signalling system was when the trains were first introduced and it seems further improvements are due. I’m aware there have also been issues with the power supply and with the doors, both of which have been fixed. The latest issues seems to include some gremlins in the traction systems – something I’m sure will be ironed out.

I guess for me the thing is that while this is very concerning and annoying, this isn’t uncommon when brand new systems are installed. Even in mature networks new machines or parts of the network will tend to have issues. As an example the new trains in Wellington had to be pulled from service a number of times over a few years due to issues that arose.

While the outcome for passengers tends to be the same – delays and frustration – that’s quite different from the issues with the aging diesel trains. As I understand it, for them there’s often a difficult decision between temporarily patching up issues and properly fixing them – which could be quite costly – when the trains will likely only be used for another month or two.

In effect we seem to have both fleets of trains (electric and diesel) at opposite sides of a bell curve. The electrics have a lot of faults but they are getting better and more reliable and it is likely that soon faults will become much rarer while on the other side the diesels are getting more and more unreliable and that in part is also be accelerated by their pending replacement. Unfortunately what isn’t changing is the poor communication when things go wrong. Perhaps what AT and Transdev need is some more transparency in the matter and to explain to the pubic exactly what is going wrong. If the public were more aware of what the issues being faced are then they might be more accepting of the situation. In lieu of that that faults are leaving people with bad experiences and driving people away from using trains.

The second piece was related to the property purchases for the City Rail Link.

Plans for Auckland Transport’s ambitious $2.4 billion City Rail Link project are gathering speed, as it secures more real estate along the route.

An AT spokeswoman said the council-controlled authority had now bought 58 of the 70 surface properties it needs, spending $85 million securing the route – a critical part of Auckland’s biggest transport project.

That means AT now controls 83 per cent of the properties it needs and the full-steam-ahead approach has seen big progress since last year.

The update indicated 23 new property purchases were concluded in the past nine months, as owners agree to sell their land and buildings for the rail route’s progress.

AT’s relatively rapid pace is a big advance from the middle of last year when it had only concluded 35 surface purchases and spent $35 million.

Some politicians have questioned why all the pricey real estate is being bought well before Government funding as AT closes deals on the properties along its 3.4km Britomart to Mt Eden route.

AT’s biggest sticking point appears to remain the valuable Mt Eden Life Church, a property which it has been negotiating on for some time: the spokeswoman said the purchase of that big property near the Mt Eden Station, between the bottom of Flower St and Mt Eden Rd, was yet to be concluded.

Part of that issue is finding the Christians a new property. The spokeswoman said that was very much part of the deal and that no sale would be concluded until it was resolved.

“The issue is finding an alternative site. Negotiations are under way,” she said of 95 Mt Eden Rd.

The church has a number of businesses and owns several properties to the north and south but that property is the heart of its church operation.

That seems like good progress and given the rise in land values Auckland has been seeing – especially in and around the city centre – it is probably a good thing that they are buying the property now and not waiting until the government commit funding by which time the costs would have likely increased dramatically. The biggest risk is that it’s quite possible that when the government do help fund the project they will ignore the property purchases and enabling works (cut and cover tunnel to Wyndham St) and only fund 50% of the remaining costs.

I’m not an expert on the Public Works Act but is it normal for a public organisation to have to find alternative sites for current occupants? I guess that’s likely the easiest thing instead of forcing a sale but seems like it could end up quite costly.

Hope for Albany and more

There’s been quite a few bits of development news in the last few days that are worth covering. The first is in Albany where an 800 apartment development called the Rose Garden apartments might finally give some hope that Albany won’t be a completely soulless auto dependant centre. The development located on what is currently empty grass land just to the north of the mall is only about 500m away from the Albany Busway station – although more on that shortly.

Albany Rose Garden Location

One of the things I really like about the development is that they are selling one to four bedroom apartments which gives plenty of options – although the price of these larger options will be key. A quick search online suggests most of the four bedroom apartments are around $800-850k (although some are higher or lower). I also like that it appears the development will create activation out to the street edges which is something that will hopefully become more useful as more of the empty space is developed. On the video about the development on the Herald the architects behind the plan talk about density done well and I hope this lives up to that.

Albany Rose Garden 1

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the sales pitch is to do with transport. There isn’t a single mention of car parking anywhere or even the common “it’s only X minutes drive to the city/beach/airport”. Instead the only mention of transport is that the development is in walking distance to the mall, Massey University, Albany Stadium and the busway station. On the busway station, it does talk about the bus only being only a 20 minute trip to town.

With Albany park-and-ride bus station two minutes’ walk away, you can be in downtown Auckland in less than 20 minutes. But everything you need is even closer to home at the Rose Garden Apartments.

To me this discussion about transport is a positive sign of both how successful the busway has been in changing perceptions about public transport and how much the city is changing away from the drive everywhere mentality. Even though it was already needed it does once again highlight how important it is that the Busway itself is extended from Constellation Station to Albany – something that the government cut out of their motorway project works. I think it also highlights that Auckland Transport will need to work to fix the racetrack like roads around Albany to make it easier and safer for people to be able to walk or cycle to the station.

In other news the Herald have announced (on Twitter) that in November they will move from their long time home on Albert St to office in Victoria St. Their site was sold last year to developer Mansons and is a substantial space in the heart of the city. The timing of the herald moving out is interesting as that’s likely to be just before works start on the CRL in the area. We’ll be looking to see what’s proposed for the site however one thing I do hope that happens is a new lane through the middle linking into Mills Lane.

Herald Site

Lastly it’s also been announced that the foyer of the St James Theatre is to reopen soon.

The foyer of Auckland’s long-abandoned historic St James Theatre will soon re-open as a cafe.

Major seismic strengthening of the whole building was also planned and sophisticated base isolation units being considered.

Mike Gibbon, development director for property owner Relianz Holdings, and architect Paul Brown, this morning said that in a few weeks, St James’ foyer would re-open.

But re-opening of the precious theatre was some years away, they said.

This will hopefully also help to activate some more of Lorne St outside the Library which for too long has had a large blank wall.

Lorne St Shared Space

Lorne St Shared Space

It’s also positive that already over half of the apartments planned have been sold however I do have big concerns about the carparking associated with it which will apparently open out to Lorne St.

St James suites