On my recent trip to the cities of northern Spain it was hard not to notice how thoughtfully every corridor was designed for all users as outline in this previous post. Of course this is completely unremarkable to the locals, it’s just obvious to them that:
1. The public realm must be built to accommodate all users, and
2. That safety for all is the first priority.
Well here’s another example from what I consider to be one of the most civilised urban places on earth, this is the Eskalduna Zubia, a bridge [Zubia] charged with the quotidian business of carrying a whole lot of traffic over the River Nervión that divides the city, shot on that same autumnal afternoon:
Nothing much to see here; just like a typical four lane arterial in NZ, even a bit of a flush median, that use of roadspace that clearly obsesses Auckland Transport with its universal value. It’s not till you see what’s concealed by the dramatic steel structure on the right of frame that my interest in this Zubia starts to make sense:
Securely separated from the traffic on the same bridge and even protected from the weather! No need to build a barrier between the cyclists and the pedestrians as there is so much width that contact is always easily avoided. The cantilevered roof makes for a completely structureless open side directing the walkers’ attention upstream away from the traffic [for those not staring at their phones]. As everywhere in Bilbao, cycling is not considered a dangerous activity so no one is forced to wear extreme safety equipment as if they are steeplejacks.
Here is an equivalent four lane bridge in inner Auckland, like the Eskalduna Zubia it is between two busy pedestrian and cycling generators; in this case the inner city Universities and the Domain/Parnell/hospital:
I’ve had to use Google maps for the image because it is illegal as well as impossible for anyone not in a moving motorised vehicle to go here. And from above:
There is nothing in this picture except total misery. It’s even laughably hopeless for the only mode its built for. Every time I have driven through here I marvel at its counterintuitive over-complication and the near uselessness it offers for all vehicle movements except the most simple motorway exiting. And of course it is pretty much murderous for anyone on foot or cycling; this glorious intervention in the name of movement efficiency turned a sylvan inner city glade into, at best, an insurmountable barrier and total aesthetic horror. People stay away even from the parts they are ‘allowed’ to be on. Like the once leafy and lovely Grafton Road. The slip lanes at every turn of every intersection make negotiating what footpaths there are there deadly and extremely frustrating to use.
Grafton Rd from Symonds St
I have discussed the waste and hopelessness that is the road engineering in Grafton Gully with many of those involved in its creation and they all cheerfully explain how dysfunctional the process was with Transit and Auckland City Council squabbling over who should pay for any amenity beyond these basic and clumsy roads and neither giving in. Transit arguing it is only responsible for the cheapest way to move traffic and all else is someone else’s problem, and ACC arguing that as it is Transit’s works that are causing the problem they should include the fixes in the cost. I guess we can see who won that argument. NZTA [who inherited this mess but are of the institution that made it] are still happily wasting all this inner city real estate: It is neither being efficiently exploited nor have they returned it to the haven of solitude and clear air it once was for all Aucklanders. And of course it remains part of the fearsome rampart that is the ring of motorway Severance that hacks inner Auckland to shreds.
Here is the one piece of walking and cycling amenity on this whole section of upper Wellesley St:
Yup that’s right, it’s a sign telling you that you can’t walk to that big park right in front of you without going, counterintuitively again, in some completely other direction for some considerably much longer time. I have had to help explain this to baffled european tourists staring at their smart phones showing a nice big park and the Museum right there…. ha, welcome to clean, green, oh wait…..
Grafton Gully and Symonds St Tunnel Plan 1950s
This is how it was sold to us by the first iteration of place-wreckers-by-motorway, it reads:
The Grafton Gully and nearby areas will be the focal point of of a network which will be among the most important in the Auckland Master Transport Plan. The original Grafton Bridge was merely built to span a bush clad gully. Among other things there will be a twin tunnel, nine chains long, with the rest “cut and cover” passes.
Well wouldn’t that have been good? Tunnelling instead of severing. It is a tragedy that not even short sections of these routes aren’t underground. It is time not only for NZTA to complete the range of movement modes across this route but also to make good on the promise to bury their horror as much as is possible so Auckland can get at least a small amount of functionality of this place back.
Let’s see what they do in Bilbao? Do they have motorways there?
Sure they do, and guess what?, a great deal of them are underground, especially under green space, in order to maintain surface continuity and and reduce severance.
The age of severing urban motorways and incomplete streets is well and truly over. Aucklanders have recently managed to stop one appalling new motorway, The Eastern Highway, and got the next one put substantially underground, Waterview. It is vital that we demand that the mistakes of the past are learned from as well as looking at other places that seem to have been able to do things well first time. But also insist that the broken pieces are fixed before our institutions engage in even more destruction.
There is little point in moving tin a little quicker through our city if we substantially harm that place and the quality of life for its inhabitants in the process, and at such high cost.
*This is a Guest Post by regular reader Warren Sanderson
More specifically these are my impressions from three and a half weeks spent in four cities on the Pacific North West – Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia and Seattle and San Francisco in the US. The first three cities were new to me and San Francisco was a re-acquaintance after some thirty years.
Although widely travelled, my wife and I have tended to overfly this area for more distant locations but with a strong interest in the development of the best public transport for Auckland and the frequent mention of Vancouver and Seattle in my daily read of the Auckland Transport Blog, I felt that it was time to check this out for myself.
We arrived first into Vancouver and moved straight from the Terminal Building to the Skytrain Canada Line platform and purchased tickets to Vancouver City Centre from the ticket machine . The line was elevated to Yaletown Roundhouse which gave us a great view but the last section was underground below the city centre. The fare was $9 per person and the ride was very smooth. It was 2.35pm in the afternoon and throughout the train almost all seats were taken, but we had no trouble accommodating our suitcases and nor did other airport arrivals. However we did not see any special suitcase racks such as you get on the Heathrow express and some European trains.
On another day (without bags) we rode the Expo Line, the full length from the Waterfront to the end of the line at King George – some 20 stops in total. Again, it was elevated on reinforced concrete piers, so after emerging from the city tunnelling the views were absolutely excellent. At one point it crossed the Fraser River on its own bridge for a spectacular view each way. This was a mid-morning trip and I would say the train was three quarters full with people, for most of the journey. The train emptied out at Surrey Central (19th stop) where there was a shopping mall and few remained on board to the final stop at King George which seemed to be a big parking lot – presumably park and ride. Fare $5.10 per person each way.
One city station is directly below Macy’s Department Store and the Pacific Centre with its luxury shops, so travellers exit through these points. No wonder Precinct Properties are keen to support and benefit from Auckland’s Central Rail Link when it is built.
We also took the SeaBus to North Vancouver. This was a single level and very wide, fully enclosed ferry designed to cater for large numbers with a 15 minute journey time and a 15 minute timetable. Mid-morning it was only about half full.
Victoria – British Columbia’s Capital Population 330k
From Vancouver by means of bus to Tsawwassen, ferry through the spectacular island dotted waters to the ferry terminal on Vancouver Island at Swartz, from where we had a diversion to the wonderful Butchart Gardens and then to Victoria itself. Coming from the landward side Victoria is not impressive and looks very automobile dependent but the old town around the harbour is most impressive with marvellous buildings like the Empress Hotel and British Columbia’s Parliament House set on spacious lawn frontages looking on to the very walkable and people friendly harbourside. Some commercial buildings in the old town probably don’t have the commercial significance that they did 60 years ago as they have lost out to periphery developments, but they are attractive with some looking for a new function.
A local person told me that some form of railed public transport has been mooted for Victoria but nothing seems to happen because too many people think the population is not large enough and cars will do.
We arrived by boat and shortly thereafter visited the 76 storey Columbia Centre which is considerably higher than the Space Needle built for the 1962 World Fair and allows a marvellous view:
Right along Seattle’s waterfront is the elevated Alaskan Highway Viaduct. Constructed in 1953 in reinforced concrete it is a three lane, two- tier structure with one level going west and the other east. This highway was earthquake damaged in 2001 and the portion through the city is to be torn down and replaced by a tunnel 2 miles in length but with only two lanes each way. A small section of the Viaduct has already been demolished but most remains open for vehicles in the meantime. TBM “Bertha” commenced tunnelling this year with a 14 month construction time envisaged.
Seattle- Alaskan Way
All this has given Seattle a big opportunity to reconnect with Elliott Bay, as its foreshore is known and big plans are in hand to enhance the whole area as a people friendly place.
We used ferries on two successive days. A small ferry miscalled a water taxi, took us to West Seattle and back some 3 hours later. Then, as a day trip, the much larger Washington State Ferry took us to Bainbridge Island at the amazingly low cost of $US 3.85 for a senior, for the 35 minute trip. And all journeys back from the island are free. No wonder they don’t make a profit.
We did not use either buses or trains in Seattle but we explored 2 underground stations to watch the movements in the Transit Tunnel under 3rd Street which is shared by diesel buses, trolley buses and light rail. The light rail goes all the way to SeaTac Airport at a modest cost. In the late afternoon there seemed to be plenty of activity, with more buses than trains passing through. I suppose it worked satisfactorily, although it seemed a bit weird with the two modes in the same very wide tunnel with ordinary kerbing and no rail platforms. Once again entry to the system at one of the stations, was through Nordstrom’s, Seattle’s most upmarket department store.
Seattle Transit Tunnel
Apart from what I was told as the “rather useless monorail” there was also a streetcar route known as the Lake Union Trolley which went from the centre of town to freshwater Lake Union. We used this on four occasions and found it spartanly comfortable and a very satisfactory means of public transport. I think something very similar would be highly successful along our own Dominion Road as proposed in the Congestion Free Network.
In our limited experience, public transport in Seattle seemed a rather many modal mixed bag, which is probably the case for historical reasons, but I guess it works. There are aspects we could learn from Seattle and they are in a transition pattern at the moment, with big changes in prospect, following the demolition of the Alaska Highway Viaduct.
After arrival by air on a Friday mid-afternoon we took the Bay Area Rapid Transport (Bart) to the Embarcadero train stop near to the Ferry Building. It was a smooth ride, quick, not too crowded and with plenty of room for our bags.
One of the downsides of public transport is the threat of strikes. While in San Francisco Bart employees were threating to strike with potential dire consequences for commuters on the Oakland side of the harbour, because the Bay Bridge is pretty much at capacity with existing vehicle traffic. Fortunately, by Mayoral decree, a 30 day cooling off period was invoked at the 11th hour, but the dispute is yet to be resolved.
We used the rattling old streetcars that run round to Fisherman’s Wharf on several occasions and enjoyed a couple of the famous cable car rides which I thought were expensive at $6 a time for comparatively short rides. And we used the ferry to visit Sausalito with America’s Cup racing yachts very much in evidence en route.
These were varied in operation – some gave change, some didn’t – some merely wanted you to use your credit card – some like Bart had variable fares depending on distance. There was the question of whether you could buy for two adults at one go or had to buy individually, senior fares and so on. As a 77 year old I didn’t find them particularly user friendly, especially as I was concerned not to delay other people while I figured it out. However, to be fair we did get some assistance from fellow travellers on occasion.
If you are a local you get to know the system but new methodology with each fare purchase can be challenging. I longed for the ease of London’s Oyster Card.
As noted in this Blog, Vancouver certainly had many apartment buildings of up to 23 storeys in the area in which we stayed. I don’t think many were any higher than that. One thing that impressed me visually was that quite a number incorporated a warm red brick in a skilful way to relieve the stark monoculture concrete exteriors of so many taller buildings. Sometimes it solidified the base floors, or established main door hierarchy or sometimes emphasised the edges of the building as corner panels in the manner of quoins. It seemed to give a modern friendly face to these buildings rather than a modern grey coldness and this despite that they are on Pacific rim and subject to earthquakes.
Woodwards Bld Vancouver
Brick was also prominent in the refurbished warehouse district of Yaletown, now full of restaurants and all of this provides some visual warmth in a cold climate.
So bring back some brick, I say………………
3rd Ave Seattle
In Seattle’s main street (3rd Avenue) I was most impressed with the quality and solidity of most of the buildings. With solid stone bases they certainly weren’t going to fall over. And then just off the main street I noticed two or three that had been subjected to facadism of a sort. The solid base two or three storeys had been retained and the buildings extended upward but retaining design integrity with the base. And visually it worked! I would not normally support facadism but these did not look out of place.
We did not have one day of rain in the period we were away and enjoyed bright sunshine all the time. I know it is not always like that. But just like the Blog my favourite city was Vancouver.
Fascinating infographics from the New York Times illustrating the revitalisation of that great metropolis under Mayor Bloomberg:
Showing new buildings, areas where re-zoning has help spur development [below]
And of course the 450 miles of bike lanes added by repurposing traffic lanes:
It also briefly mentions concern around rising property values, a complex issue which is of course on one hand a sign of success but that also creates exclusion some sections of community.
A nice piece of work by the Times and a good illustration of how much and what ways cities are changing this century. Hat tip to regular reader George D for the link, be sure to check it out.
Prepare To Stop!
Over on the excellent The Conversation website is a post by Melbourne researcher Leigh Glover entitled:
New freeways cure congestion: time to put that myth to bed.
In which he runs through the usual myths about road building and congestion in the Australian context, where of course everything is bigger, more expensive, and more dramatic.
Myth #1: New freeways reduce congestion
“Not only is this not true, but new freeways increase overall road use and contribute to worsening congestion. If you want to reduce road congestion — an understandably popular goal in our car-dependent capital cities — the only viable option is to reduce the demand for road space.
Not only does international research support this fact, local anecdotal experiences reflect it. We are living through an era of urban freeway building, yet congestion is worsening and travel times are lengthening.
Why does this happen? New roads don’t just divert existing traffic but also attract new users and keep on doing so until they reach capacity. In transport planning jargon, this is the effect of “induced traffic”. The more roads you build, the more traffic you have.
There are also associated effects that flow on from building freeways, such as land use decisions that then reinforce car use and car-dependency.”
This is the point that I like to sum up with this observation: What you feed; grows.
We have observed this with the resurgence of bus and train use after investment in Auckland this century, and of course we have seen it for the last 60 years with driving in Auckland. We have fed it and it has grown. And as Matt showed here, we also dismantled and downgraded transit networks at the same time which of course further reinforced this growth.
This problem is especially exacerbated if we now only invest in the one already dominant mode so that there is little effective choice. Congestion is bad in Auckland, despite the city’s small size internationally, because there is largely little option but to partake in it.
Still the mad logic of investing more in something we have too much of to try to solve the problem of this excess is not confined to this country. Both Sydney and Melbourne have huge urban motorway projects on the books that are likely to proceed simply because they will attract Federal money despite being highly questionable at best. This is the same situation that local bodies in NZ are in; enormous practical pressure to support national government agendas even when they are likely to work in direct opposition to agreed local aims because they come with their own funding. The additional Harbour Crossing and the amount of parking at the new Convention Centre are examples of this.
But also there is the uneven economic situation of these two types of projects.
Here is Alan Davies the Melburbanist discussing the recent crazy urban motorway decision in Victoria, where he includes this image of causality:
This pic shows one of the on-going prices of auto-dependancy that never gets included in any benefit cost analysis of urban motorway projects: so much precious building going to house those individual vehicles.
He then goes on to ask why do road projects of poor value get funded over long discussed rail ones, and it is this point that stands out for me:
The advantages of rail over roads are mostly in economic costs i.e. externalities. Many of these costs are diffuse and don’t affect the state budget directly, or if they do it’s often well into the future when “it’s somebody else’s problem”.
This I think is exactly true, the economic costs of road building are huge but external to the projects directly; they fall to property owners having to build so much parking, to people who die and are maimed in crashes, to the city in its loss of value through auto-domination of urban place, to the environment, to or balance of payments through oil dependancy, to individuals having to buy, run, and insure so many expensive vehicles. These are dispersed costs, and therefore easily ignored and glossed over.
And likewise the economic benefits of Transit infrastructure are huge but also easily downplayed and dismissed, as they to do not immediately arrive in an account like a lotto prize, but rather accrue over time in an equally dispersed way. And if the projects are never built then the whole idea of such value can be dismissed as unlikely or only ever happening in other countries where conditions are always different.
But also we have the peculiar situation of the national [and National] government choosing projects in Auckland knowing that these externalities fall largely locally. Both the costs of the mode they favour and the benefits of those that they don’t. We really need to become much more sophisticated in our economic evaluations, or resign ourselves to life in an underperforming and slowly choking city.
Somehow over the last 60 years it became an orthodoxy that the only way to deal with the problem of too many cars on our roads is to spend ever greater sums of money on more roads for more cars [and more parking, more fuel use, more accidents, more obesity, more pollution]. I have always found this to be a curious idea; there’s too much of something so let’s make more of it possible. Ah but of course, I’m just looking at it all wrong, congestion isn’t ever about there being too many vehicles, no, it’s only ever about there being insufficient road space for whatever number of vehicles can be imagined. Really, is there never a point that we might say; the problem here is that we are trying to squeeze too many vehicles into this place for it to function well, we need to supply this place with alternatives to driving as well?
This odd orthodoxy is behind the latest muddled-headed transport plan for Auckland, quoted here in the Herald by Brian Rudman:
“Even with the fully funded programme,” admit the authors, “road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels”.
Clearly business as usual; building more roads everywhere, isn’t going to work even on the terms of those who promote these plans, so it was very interesting to see a new study out of LA on the impact of Transit systems on road congestion. Researchers there were able to use the 2003 shut down of the Transit system by a strike for 35 days to compare the impacts on the city both with a functioning Transit system and without one. From the National Bureau of Economic Research here [USD$5].
Also there’s a summary here on Atlantic Cities which I’ll quote as there’s no paywall:
The intuition is straightforward: Transit is most attractive to commuters who face the worst congestion, so a disproportionate number of transit riders are commuters who would otherwise have to drive on the most congested roads at the most congested times. Since drivers on heavily congested roads have a much higher marginal impact on congestion than drivers on the average road, transit has a large impact on reducing traffic congestion.
Contrary to the conclusions in the existing transportation and urban economics literature, the congestion relief benefits alone may justify transit infrastructure investments.
Of course LA is a big car town, it has massive driving infrastructure, the Transit Systems there are improving, and have improved a great deal since 2003, but there is no way that you could claim that it is like London or Paris and completely dependant on well developed Transit systems built over a century or more. So the figures did vary. For arterials and Interstates that were close to shut down Transit routes the numbers were huge; the morning delay on the 101 was up 123 percent during the strike [90% average for the day], and 56% on freeways that didn’t parallel closed Transit routes.
Proof that even in this most auto-dependant city of the value of investing in quality Transit systems: yes a fully supported Transit network, especially one with its own right of way is the car users’ best friend. Investment in better Transit is almost certainly the best way a city can improve the quality and utility of the driving experience. Can somebody tell the AA?
Remember, when driving and experiencing congestion, you’re not stuck in a traffic jam; you are the traffic jam. Despite all the help those Transit users are trying to give you.
I 405 California
In this recent post Matt collated some stunning photos of Auckland. More than most cities, Auckland is blessed with a wonderful natural environment. But some of the comments on Matt’s post gave me cause to pause, because they noted that all the stunning photos of Auckland were taken from approximately 300m up in the air and/or at night.
“bbc” put it this way:
All cities look picturesque from above at night, the issue is at street level which is where you actually interact with a city. At the fine-grained level Auckland is a particularly ugly city, and has a long way to go.
To which “Steve West” responded:
So true. São Paulo for example looks awesome at night yet it is a bit of a hole too. New Zealand does not have attractive cities – it is only the natural backdrop which offset the harshness of the 1980s era concrete and glass box prefab which continues to this day. Thanks Rogernomics. Recent article in a UK paper to that point – natural scenery nice but Auckland a bit crap.
Having read Steve’s comment I went off scurrying for the article he was referring to. Instead of finding that one however, I uncovered another two recent articles in U.K. that discussed Auckland. The first one was published in The Sun and made particularly positive claims about Auckland being “hobbit forming”. Nice, we’re obviously doing something right.
I then stumbled across this article in the Guardian, which was rather bluntly titled “How cities fail their cyclists in different ways.” It started off discussing Hong Kong, which was interesting, but scrolling down the page a little more you find a sub-section titled “Cities where cycling should be more popular than it is. Example: Auckland“. The content that follows is, I think, worth repeating in full:
Yes, it’s hilly in places and, once you reach the suburbs, very spread out, but Auckland really should be awash with cyclists. It has suitably temperate weather and that same spread out-ness leaves plenty of potential space for bike lanes.
But wander, with the eye of a regular cyclist, around the city centre, and you’re almost immediately struck by the lack of bikes on the road. Outside peak times they’re almost non-existent, barring the occasional cycle courier. Those you do see generally sport the Lycra garb and haunted expression of the cycling enthusiast in a bike-unfriendly environment.
The city is trying to boost numbers and, according to the most recent annual cycling survey, with some success, with 30% more riders on the roads than five years ago. But the numbers remain fairly small – just under 13,500 “cycling movements” observed on one day at 82 monitoring sites. It’s not helped by a compulsory helmet law, in place since the mid-1990s.
I was aghast to learn that the city’s harbour bridge, the main link between the centre and suburbs to the north, has no way at all for cyclists to cross. They must either plonk their bike on a ferry or take a fairly long detour. As an emblem for a city dominated by cars and roads it’s hard to beat.
Like with Hong Kong, it’s not as if Auckland couldn’t do with more cyclists. New Zealand might more or less define itself through sport but it’s simultaneously one of the more obese nations on earth.
The more I thought about it the more I found myself agreeing with the basic premise of the above article: Auckland is quite suited to cycling. One of the benefits of our geography is that there are pleasant views (like the ones shown in Matt’s photos) waiting at the top of most hills and around most corners. And it’s not like we have a winter that’s quite as cold as Amsterdam, where I used to live (and cycle!).
I know we talk about public transport a lot on this blog and it is true that Auckland can do much better in this regard. However I’m increasingly wondering if we’re not over-looking opportunities for Auckland to become more of a cycling city.
A recent presentation on the Integrated Transport Programme, for example, apparently made no mention of walking or cycling, instead referring only to major (read “expensive”) road and public transport projects. I know it’s only a presentation and that we should hold fire until the ITP itself is released, but what message does it send when the summary to a 30-year strategic document developed by almost all the government agencies involved in transport planning does not identify one signature walking/cycling project? It’s amazing to me that walking in particularly can be so over-looked given that it still contributes almost 10% of journeys to work.
And the failure to mention walking/cycling projects from the ITP presentation came hot on the heels of this month’s AT business report, which also left out cycling statistics altogether. It seems like Auckland Transport is suddenly afraid of using the “c” word?
As a cyclist myself I’m obviously “biased” – but on the other hand let’s not ignore than a person on the other side of the world felt sufficiently motivated to use Auckland as an example of a city where “cycling should be more popular than it is.” This point is worth ramming home: A journalist in the U.K. - who could have chosen any city in the world – choose Auckland. That’s not something to be proud of my friends, and it’s not something that will help us to become the world’s most livable city. While Auckland has and continues to make progress on many transport fronts, in my view our investment in cycling still lags.
In my opinion Auckland needs to become vastly more welcoming to cyclists before it can lay claim to being the world’s most livable city. And only then might you start to see beautiful photos being taken at ground level.
Several recent posts have extolled the merits of “better buses” for Auckland. These posts have generally focused on the following issues:
- Corridor infrastructure - as discussed in this post, there are strong arguments in favour of expanding Auckland’s bus lane network so as to improve bus speeds/reliability.
- Network structure – as discussed in this post, Auckland Transport’s draft RPTP has proposed a network of frequent bus lines which are designed to support the rail and busway networks.
- Vehicle technology - as discussed in this post, bus operators in Auckland are just about to trial double-decker buses, while this earlier post discussed rapid developments in hybrid/electric bus technologies.
Improved corridor infrastructure, a better network, and newer/larger vehicles should all drive bus patronage higher. Complementing these bus improvements will be a vastly improved rail network – sporting fast, new trains that operate at high frequencies – and integrated ticketing/fares – enabling people to travel seamlessly across the network irrespective of mode or operator.
The “take-away message”, as they say, is that many more people are likely to be using Auckland’s buses in 10 years time compared to now. And we’ll also be using buses in subtly different ways: Rather than staying on the bus for long trips, more people will be catching the bus for a short distance and then connecting to a faster rail or busway service. On the surface this all sounds like good news.
But hold on a second – all this seems to be overlooking something. More specifically, if we have more people using buses and they are using them for shorter trips, then does this not mean that the rate of passenger movements per bus-kilometre traveled will increase by a disproportionate amount? This in turn means, holding other factors constant, the time buses spend dwelling at stops will also increase. The irony here is that all of the aforementioned initiatives, which are designed to improve the attractiveness of the bus system, will – if they are successful at attracting passengers – tend to place inexorable downward pressure on bus operating speeds.
That’s the vicious cycle on which I think we should focus our collective attention.
In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of residing in a number of cities. Two of these stand-out for the way they have treated their buses with dignity, namely Brisbane (pop ~2 million) and Edinburgh (pop ~600,000). Both of these cities have bus networks that carry over 110 million trips per year, i.e. twice as many bus passengers as Auckland. And for this reason both Brisbane and Edinburgh have had to grapple with gnarly issues that Auckland may need to confront in the future.
In Brisbane they’ve gone for what could charitably be described as “infrastructure intensive” solutions. This has seen them spend not considerable sums of money on extremely high quality grade-separated bus infrastructure in the city centre. One of the most recent shining (if spending money is to be applauded) examples of this infrastructure is King George Square Station, which is illustrated below. This underground bus station connects via a tunnel to Roma Street and Queen Street Stations to the north and south respectively. KGS apparently has a design capacity of about 300 buses per hour, or 20,000 passengers per hour, however achieving this through-put would require modifications to the approaches and platforms.
Edinburgh, for their part, have opted for slightly less infrastructure. Their main trick has been to develop a network of on-street bus lanes on major arterial roads leading into the city, which converge on Princes Street. The latter then becomes a bus/taxi only mall at peak periods, as illustrated below. Edinburgh has in turn developed a network structure that enables them to “through-route” almost all services (NB: It’s worth mentioning that this kind of network structure, which results in relatively long routes, is aided and abetted by Edinburgh’s relatively compact and symmetric urban form and not necessarily something that can be replicated in cities like Brisbane and Auckland).
In terms of what’s best for Auckland, my gut feeling is that our bus sweet spot lies somewhere between Brisbane and Edinburgh. That is, as a relatively large and rapidly growing city we will need some high-quality, possibly even underground, bus infrastructure in our city centre. It’s notable that the two major bus corridor initiatives implemented in Auckland in the last decade, namely the Northern Busway and the Central Connector have piked out completely as they approach the City Centre. Right where you need the priority treatment the most is where we have waved the white flag.
And unfortunately the consequence of failing to provide adequate bus infrastructure has not been pretty: It has exacerbated bus congestion in the core central city area which in turn further detracts from urban amenity. Ironically, the congestion arising from inadequate bus infrastructure in Auckland has prompted some people to (naively) call for banishing buses from the city centre altogether. While our historical reluctance to provide appropriate facilities for buses says a lot about our collective unwillingness to recognise the contribution buses make to the city centre, it now creates an opportunity for us to develop something better – something that can support our existing bus corridors while accommodating those that we expect to develop in the future, as per the new bus network.
But enough about infrastructure! The primary point of this post was actually to identify a range of “softer” initiatives that have been implemented in cities overseas, which Auckland could adopt to maintain bus speeds as patronage grows, namely:
- Wider stop spacing - Brisbane’s high-frequency routes tend to follow a limited stopping pattern, which sees them stopping every 800m or so. Stop spacing is even longer on the the City Glider services, which provide an inner-city cross-town function. This typically means that you sometimes have to be prepared to walk a bit further, but when you do you have access to services that are frequent and fast. Moreover, these services are complemented by all-stop services operating underneath, which typically focus on providing local access and coverage. By way of comparison, light rail lines often tend to have stop spacings approaching 1km.
- Managing cash payment - Many services in Brisbane are “pre-pay only”, which simply means you have to have a smart card in order to board. Edinburgh has taken a slightly different approach: Passengers can still pay with cash on all services, but if you do then you don’t get any change. Instead, passengers paying by cash simply have to throw the money in an automatic cash counter, which then automatically tells the bus driver whether they have paid enough for the fare that they have requested. Again, this drastically reduces dwell times (customers paying by cash board almost as fast as those using a smart card) and also increases revenues.
- Vehicle configuration - This has multiple dimensions, but generally involves vehicle designs that enable much quicker loading and unloading. Key features include double-door entry/exit, so that passengers paying by cash do not block other passengers that are paying by smartcard. Similarly, double-door exit at the back enables quicker unloading of passengers, which is especially crucial when operating a tag-off system – as Auckland is doing. Another common aspect of buses in both Brisbane and Edinburgh is wider aisles, especially towards the front, which enables speedies loading – particularly for people with wheelchairs and prams.
Given that buses have a lifetime of 12-15 years Auckland Transport and the bus operators would ideally be thinking about these issues now, so that they can be incorporated into vehicle procurement and contracting policies from at an early stage. Some of this is happening already – as per the double-decker bus trial noted above. But on the other hand I do wonder if Auckland Transport should develop some form of operational plan (i.e. non-infrastructure) that analyses our current bus system, identifies where time is being lost, and identifies/prioritises some the issues that will need to be tackled to accommodate up to 120 million bus trips per year. Of course, there may be things that Auckland can implement now in anticipation of higher patronage.
As an aside, Auckland really needs to take a leaf out of Brisbane and Edinburgh’s bus book. As these cities have shown, appropriately sized and designed bus infrastructure will reduce the impact of buses on the city centre. Sure, some negative impacts remain, but that’s more the result of the eternal tension that exists in urban environments between mobility and accessibility, between movement and exchange, than something that is intrinsic to buses per se.
Be interested to hear what other initiatives people think could be used to make Auckland’s buses better …
It is increasingly clear that there is a common theme to almost all of the major differences of opinion around the issues we cover on this site. The same theme that I think sums up the contrasting world views of the Auckland Council and the current government. And that is basically around questions of the idea of the city. Is a city a good and valuable thing? Do we really want to encourage it?
It is likely that our background as a small agrarian society makes these questions and the fears they express understandable. These suspicions are probably experienced in all the urban places in New Zealand, but it is particularly evident now in the case of Auckland because of its unusual size and rate of growth in the NZ context. It certainly seems to be behind the idea that I have experienced many times travelling around the country that there is something deeply wrong with Auckland; that it isn’t really part of ‘real’ New Zealand at all. Sometimes expressed as polite bafflement; sometimes as angry rejection.
And often the angriest commenters on this site essentially don’t want more city, they talk up anti-urban solutions to urban issues like ‘decentralisation’ or expanding the Urban Limit to keep growth at a low density.
So it is reasonable to ask; is Auckland a good thing? Is its size and growth desirable or even inevitable?
But then by comparison to most of the world Auckland is a small city and its growth rate pretty slow. And that these other places are getting even bigger faster. So why is urbanisation accelerating? Is bigger always better?
We have looked at the value of cities before through the work of economists for example here. I am pretty much persuaded by the simplest answer of all: Many [perhaps most] people see value [in the broadest sense] in being near other people, ergo; cities. Too simple? Cities can be pretty isolating too and many people only face very tough choices in their lives so:
Is there some universal pattern behind the success of cities?
Well it turns out this is a question that a big team of researchers in the US set out to test and came to the conclusion that the value [and cost] of cities is even quantifiable, their attraction [and burden] reducible to one number.
This is pretty interesting and I think it’s best if you watch Theoretical Physicist Dr Geoffrey West talk you through it. He and his team analysed vast amounts of data across the world to come up with a scientific theory of cities.
Additional introduction from the NYT:
West set out to solve the City. As he points out, this is an intellectual problem with immense practical implications. Urban population growth is the great theme of modern life, one that’s unfolding all across the world, from the factory boomtowns of Southern China to the sprawling favelas of Rio de Janeiro. As a result, for the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in urban areas. (The numbers of city dwellers are far higher in developed countries — the United States, for instance, is 82 percent urbanized.) Furthermore, the pace of urbanization is accelerating as people all over the world flee the countryside and flock to the crowded street.
For West, this first meant trying to gather as much urban data as possible. Along with Luis Bettencourt, another theoretical physicist who had abandoned conventional physics, and a team of disparate researchers, West began scouring libraries and government Web sites for relevant statistics. The scientists downloaded huge files from the Census Bureau, learned about the intricacies of German infrastructure and bought a thick and expensive almanac featuring the provincial cities of China. (Unfortunately, the book was in Mandarin.) They looked at a dizzying array of variables, from the total amount of electrical wire in Frankfurt to the number of college graduates in Boise. They amassed stats on gas stations and personal income, flu outbreaks and homicides, coffee shops and the walking speed of pedestrians.
Here’s the results:
If the embeded video doesn’t work then go here.
[PS the answer is 15% or x 1.15]
Yesterday’s post considered the recently released Demographia survey on housing affordability. Thanks to everyone who commented; the discussion was useful for honing my thoughts on follow-up posts. Such as this.
But first let’s re-cap: Demographia’s key findings were 1) New Zealand has increasingly unaffordable housing and 2) this is the direct result of urban containment policies.
The main issue I took with the Demographia report in yesterday’s post was 1) the lack of strong economic justification/references supporting their housing affordability indicator of choice (namely the median-multiple ratio) and 2) the lack of discussion/investigation of potential alternative indicators.
Indeed, my quick web search threw up at least two alternative indicators of housing affordability, namely the rent-multiple ratio and the home affordability index, neither of which appeared to lend much support to Demographia’s findings. Of course, this does not prove their conclusions are incorrect, but it does suggest they are premature.
In this post I wanted to look beneath the hood of Demographia’s housing affordability indicator a little more. The reason being that when you do you start to see what they are measuring and, perhaps more importantly, what they are not measuring. In Demographia’s case, they calculated their housing affordability indicator as follows:
Median-multiple = median house price / gross median household income per annum
This then measures, in a simple sense, the cost of the median home relative to the median household income. While that may sound reasonable enough on the surface, the devil is in the detail. Two of the more obvious issues with Demographia’s indicator that spring to my mind are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Demographia’s definition of “income” excludes taxes and transfers. This is pertinent for at least two reasons:
- First, some taxes have direct impacts on property prices, e.g. local rates. These will simultaneously tend to affect property prices (higher rates = lower property prices) and post-tax income (lower), but not gross income. Somewhat perversely, this would mean that jurisdictions with higher property taxes would tend to exhibit more affordable housing, at least according to Demographia’s indicator.
- Second, most taxes directly impact on a household’s disposable income and in turn affects their ability to afford housing. In New Zealand tax rates have changed considerably over time, especially for different segments of the population. Consider for example the impact of Working for Families on demand for certain types of housing.
Such issues mean that the median-multiple housing affordability indicator, as it appears that Demographia have applied it will not pick up on relevant differences in taxes and transfers, both spatially and temporally.
The spatial differences are likely to be fairly minimal within a country like NZ – where local taxes don’t vary that much from place to place – but this is certainly not the case when making international comparisons. Many countries have much higher rates of property taxes (and even local income taxes) that will tend to impact on house prices and thereby affect their housing affordability relative compared to New Zealand.
On the other hand, the temporal differences introduced by changes in domestic tax and transfer policies are likely to be fairly large, even within a country. The potential impacts on housing affordability of recent tax changes to the top personal tax rate, ability to claim capital depreciation on properties, and commercial tax rates are hard to predict in advance. Tax impacts may well spill over national boundaries as well; NZ’s lack of capital gains tax, for example, is frequently quoted by my Australian colleagues as a primary driver of their decision to invest in New Zealand’s property market.
These issues would make me extremely cautious about drawing broad, sweeping conclusions on trends on housing affordability both within and between countries simply based on the median-multiple indicator.
“C is for cookie and that’s good enough for me” – The following (deliberately facetious) statement helps I think to highlight a dimension of the housing affordability debate that is all too frequently glossed over, namely:
You don’t measure the affordability of cookies based on the cost of buying the cookie factory.
The point is that housing is a actually a type of good, or more specifically a service, which is “produced” by a house. You can gain access to housing without necessarily buying the factory that produces it, i.e. rent a house. Obviously, some people do this already and they’re called “renters.” Like me.
Even in New Zealand many people rent by choice. And in many countries in central and northern Europe renting is even more prevalent. But the key takeaway message is that the affordability of housing, which is what Demographia sets out to investigate, is probably better measured (from an economic perspective) using rents rather than house prices. This is especially true for low income households that are more likely to rent.
And that’s why I’d place more emphasis on the graph produced by the Productivity Commission, which calculated the ratio of rents to household disposable income over time than the median-multiple indicator presented by the Demographia study. This showed the rent to income ratio in New Zealand declining since the 1990s, contrary to Demographia’s findings and casting some not inconsiderable doubt on their conclusions.
My preference for using rents is also related to the first point on the impacts of taxes on house prices: Unlike houses, which are an asset, rents measure the cost of housing services. I suspect it’s far easier to “net out” the impact of services taxes in various jurisdictions, i.e. GST, on rents than it is to adjust for changes in the myriad of other income and asset taxes that might affect house pricing.
That’s all for tonight, but tomorrow’s another day and I’m already fomenting ideas on the next Demographia post; in the meantime I’d welcome your comments/suggestions/criticisms.
*** Spoiler alert: The title of this post is somewhat hyperbolic ***
Demographia’s “9th Annual International Housing Affordability Survey” has just been released and is receiving a lot of attention in various media outlets, such as the NZHerald. Indeed, NZ ‘s connection to the report is relatively strong – it was co-authored by a kiwi and the foreword is written by our very own Minister of Finance.
For those not in the know, the primary objective of the Demographia report is to evaluate housing affordability across a selection of “anglo” countries, namely Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland. This is a very admirable objective; after all if policy makers can better understand the complex range of factors affecting housing affordability, then this can in turn support more informed debate and policy settings.
Demographia measure housing affordability using the so-called “median-multiple” indicator, which they define as follows:
Housing affordability = Median house price / Median household income.
This is a pretty simple indicator: Take the median house price and divide by the median household income and, voila, you have a multiple describing the price of housing relative to incomes. Demographia then collect a swathe of data on house prices and incomes for all cities with populations of 1.0 million or more in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, U.K., Canada, and the United States. Their results over time are shown below.
Since 2004 the trend in the median-multiple measure has diverged between countries; it increased in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; stayed broadly constant in the U.S.; but declined in the U.K. and Ireland. While these are fairly innocuous results, the Demographia report then concludes (p. 3):
Overwhelming economic evidence indicates that urban containment policies, especially urban growth boundaries raise the price of housing relative to income. This inevitably leads to a reduced standard of living and increases poverty rates, because the unnecessarily higher costs of housing leave households with less discretionary income to spend on other goods and services. The higher costs ripple into rental markets, tightening the budgets of lower income households, who already suffer from lower discretionary incomes. The principal problem is the failure to maintain a “competitive land supply.” Brookings Institution economist Anthony Downs describes the process, noting that more urban growth boundaries can convey monopolistic pricing power on sellers of land if sufficient supply is not available, which, all things being equal, is likely to raise the price of land and housing that is built on it.
I read that and thought “hmm, that’s fairly strong stuff.” So at this point I thought it was worth stepping back a little.
First let’s examine the two key arguments the Demographia report advances in support of the median-multiple measure of housing affordability (p. 6):
- It is used by other reputable organisations, such as the World Bank, the UN, and Harvard; and
- It is simpler than other measures, which are “often not well-understood outside of the financial sector.”
The second reason given is rather vacuous and, frankly, a little condescending to anyone who does not work in the financial sector. And believe me, many economists do not work in the financial sector; at least not anymore.
On the other hand the first reason offered as justification for using the indicator is more understandable: If the median-multiple indicator is used by a range of reputable international organisations then it likely has more merit as measure of global differences in housing affordability.
At that point I tried to follow the sources provided in the Demographia report. Doing raised some fairly important issues: The World Bank link, for example, takes you to a relatively obscure web-page that appears to date from 1992, while the Harvard link appears to be an on-line catalogue of the indicators used in the U.N. report, rather than an independent publication attesting to the merits of the median-multiple indicator.
That leaves us with one “independent” reference, namely the U.N., lending credibility to the use of the median-multiple indicator of housing affordability. Following that link, however, reveals that the median-multiple indicator is but one of a myriad of indicators and checklists identified by the U.N. And perhaps more importantly, the U.N. do not present the median-multiple indicator in isolation, but instead consider it as one of two possible “housing affordability” ratios, as illustrated below.
Righto, so the median-multiple measure can be calculated using either median house prices or house rents. At this stage I was perplexed: Why does the Demographia study not (from what I can tell) mention the ratio of house rents to income as as a possible alternative indicator?
So I did some more digging, and found this graph in the Productivity Commission’s final report on housing affordability in NZ, which considered median rent to household (disposable) income, as illustrated below. In many ways this indicator is more comprehensive than that originally identified in the U.N. report, because it considers after-tax income.
Based on this graph the Productivity Commission concludes (p. 4):
During the house price boom, rents increased at around the same rate as generalised inflation. Across territorial authorities, rents grew in a relatively tight range of 2.3% per year (in Dunedin City) to 8.2% per year (in Buller District). In all cases, rent increases were significantly less than real house price inflation and the ratio of house prices to rents increased markedly, a departure from the long-term broadly stable relationship.
This apparently benign aggregate situation disguises a more difficult position for renters on lower incomes. In particular, people in the lowest two income quintiles spend a much higher proportion of their income on rent than people on higher incomes (Figure 0.5). Even though the situation appears to have improved since the late 1990s, those in the two lower income quintiles still spend, on average, more than 30% of their disposable income on rent, after allowing for government assistance.
Oh dear Daisy: It seems that the Productivity Commission has – using the other housing affordability indicator recommended by the U.N. study referenced by the Demographia report – come to a different conclusion: That housing affordability in NZ has been improving since the late 1990s.
Now at this point I want to caution that these other indicators do not prove that Demographia is necessarily wrong, only that their use of indicators may be too limited. Usefully, the Productivity Commission includes another indicator of housing affordability, namely the “home affordability index” (compiled by Massey University). This index considers the relationship between the costs of servicing a mortgage on the median house and median household income:
This indicator suggests that home affordability has been declining for about the last 4 years. Perhaps more importantly, the 2008 peak in the home affordability index (indicating relatively unaffordable homes) does not seem to be significantly higher than earlier peaks in, for example, 1989 and 1996.
So where does this leave the Demographia report? Well on I’m afraid to say that a first investigation throws up very little corroborating evidence to support their key conclusions, namely that the current price of housing in New Zealand is “unaffordable” relative to historical norms. That’s not to say that they’re wrong, only that their conclusions are not fully supported by the available evidence.
Nor is this to suggest that more affordable housing is not a valid objective: I certainly think it is. And just because the current price of housing is comparable to historical trends, we should still be interested in making housing more affordable, because as Deomgraphia note it is perhaps the most basic of human needs. So while I question Demographia’s analysis and conclusions, the subject is nonetheless very important and worth considering in more detail.
I only wish that 1) they had the time/energy to analyse these issues in more detail within their existing research and 2) news organisations did a little more research before reporting the results of studies like this. While I have more to say on this issue (and hope to do so in future posts), it’s now time for me to up stumps and head for tea (i.e. bed). Until next time …