Photo of the Day: Wellington Waterfront

A fantastic Harbour in a vigourous climate and out of reach for people for many years, but now a really great series of different toned places. Urban and wild; industrial and recreational; gastronomic and cultural; contemporary and faithful to its past. A very real role model for Auckland as our more benign version is still nowhere near as accessible nor as integrated into the city as Wellington’s is now.

MERIDIAN_8340

Just one small section, note how a commercial and retail building is right there surrounded by great and varied public realm improvements. Total and free access all around the commercial users. Proper mixed use, and indeed used by the full mix of society.

Urban Change: Evolution or Revolution?

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

-JFK

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

DRESDEN 1945

Dresden 1945: Catastrophic change

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

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

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

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

Let’s have a look back.

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

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

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

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

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

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CMJ

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

Newton then and now

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

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

2015 GPS - Spending graph

Proposed transport spending distribution in millions.

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

VKT vs PT Trips per Captia 4

 

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

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

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

Green GPS Funding graph

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

Robbie's Rapid Rail MW

by Architect, Cartoonist, and National Treasure: Malcolm Walker

Postcard from Gothenburg, Hanover, and Hamburg

This is a Guest Post by regular reader Warren Sanderson

Gothenburg, Hanover, and Hamburg

What do these three cities have in common?

  1. In my view a real “sense of place”.
  2. Very efficient public transport systems
  3. They all had my wife and me as visitors in the month of July. We spent roughly a week reacquainting ourselves with each of these cities during our recent journey to the Baltic countries and northern Germany. For the record, not once in the six weeks we were away and touching eight northern European countries, did we travel in a private motor car. This was independent travel and our modes were bus, train, boat, river ferry boat, light rail, taxi (twice) and lots of walking.

Let’s have a look at transit in each of these cities in turn.

Gothenburg

Gotenburg_winter

This city on Sweden’s west coast is smaller than Auckland with a metropolitan population of around one million. It was a pleasing city to visit without the hordes of tourists that plague some European destinations. It has an apartment culture in the inner city of mostly four or five storey buildings, but is still possible to see the church spires which I always find aesthetically most satisfying.

One of the advantages of having been born too long ago – and there aren’t many of them – is that it is easy to remember everything about Auckland’s trams because I travelled on every route at some stage.

Göteborg-Tram-Map

Well – wow! Gothenburg still has a tramway system just like we had in Auckland until the 1950’s. And they all go through the centre of town and out to a suburb destination on the other side of town just like Auckland’s did. A point of difference though is that at the terminus end of the tracks Gothenburg has a large round turning circle so that the driver remains in the same cab, whereas in Auckland the driver switched poles, took his driving handle to the cab at the other end of the tram and commenced driving in the opposite direction from there.

Each Gothenburg route had a number prominently displayed plus the actual destination and it was very easy to ensure that one had boarded the correct tram.

Gothenburg tram

I noted that both on week-days and at the week-end the two main streets were full of people, the remarkably quiet trams always appeared to enjoy excellent patronage and car traffic by comparison with Auckland was very light. It is also worth recording that in general the streets are quite wide and have room for a wide footpath each side, a bike lane each side, a single car lane each side and double tram tracks – sometimes these tracks are in the middle and sometimes on the side of the arterial route. When we caught a bus to Marstrand some 50 kilometres away, I noted that the tram tracks in the middle of a section of the road a little further out of town also served as a bus lane.

Goteborg Nil Ericson Station

Like most European cities the Central Railway Station is a prominent feature. As well as the usual inter-city departure platforms, there a couple of substantial retail wings and a long covered bus station wing known as the Nils Ericson Terminal.

Intending pre-ticketed passengers queue at the appropriate gate number in the air-conditioned building and when the bus arrives, board it directly from the terminal rather like a modern airport. Seats are few within the Terminal.

Goteborg Station Interior

Just across the street from the Central Station is the Nordstan Shopping Centre a very large shopping mall and beyond that the delightful city centre, pedestrian squares, covered market and parks.

It is evident that Gothenburg has a highly efficient transport hub, which not only serves commuters, but is integral to a vibrant retail, business and entertainment area. In addition there are time-tabled Gota River ferries serving a university precinct and other riverside locations.

Out of town I did not see a motorway with more than two lanes except on one occasion when the third lane was a bus only lane. They may have them but I didn’t see any. But I did see plenty of bikes – they are a very popular mode of transport.

 Hanover

Hanover Square and Regent Street aerial view, London

As an important rail and road junction Hanover was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and this is reflected in the architecture which is obviously of post-war construction and in the main rather bland. As usual the Hauptbahnhof is prominent with a large and daytime busy Ernst August Platz in front of the main entrance. The façade of the Station is a post-war reconstruction of the old, but the interior is modern, busy and user-friendly with many shops.

Hannover_-_Hauptbahnhof_Eingangsportal_1

They also have what they call trams but I would refer to as light rail. At some point they have dug up some of their now pedestrianized city streets to install the system, so to visit the Herrengarten we descended to a station under the main street, boarded the ‘tram’ and after a couple of stops at underground stations emerged on the surface and proceeded along the side of the arterial road to our destination, alighting at a raised safety zone complete with shelter. Apparently two out every three people in Hanover use these ‘trams’ every day.

Toshiba Exif JPEG

If Hanover can build a tramway of 120 kilometres both underground and on the surface with a population of under 600,000 surely Auckland can build a three and a half kilometre City Rail – Come on National Government – get your priorities properly sorted!!

I must say that railed transit systems of any sort are very visitor user-friendly, even if you don’t speak the language. I never worry about mistakes – even if you go in the wrong direction or to the wrong destination, it is always easy to recover, just cross over and take next one back to where you came from. Bus routeing is less reassuring.

Hamburg

Hamburg Hafen City

I really enjoyed revisiting The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, to give it its full title. With reunification it has recovered that part of its natural hinterland within the former East Germany. Its port has relocated and is massive. Brownfield sites mostly in central locations such as HafenCity (Harbour City) are being re-developed. The CBD was busy and vibrant on both week days and the week-end.

Trains to charming suburbs such as Blankenese [underlined in red below] worked well for us and ferries plying the Elbe are available. After a few years of stall the population is again growing and is officially recorded as 1,741,000 inhabitants.

hamburg-ubahn-sbahn-map_big

What I really wanted to convey to readers is that I had the opportunity to pick up, from the splendid Rathaus, a booklet entitled:

‘GREEN, INCLUSIVE, GROWING CITY BY THE WATER – PERSPECTIVES ON URBAN DEVELOPMENT IN HAMBURG’.

It has a foreword by Jutta Blankau, Senator for Urban Development.  This is really the approved vision for Hamburg. It is well illustrated and surprisingly was available in both German and English. Overview here.

What follows are some bullet points I have selected and uplifted from various sections of the document;

  • More City in the City
  • Internal Development Before Expansion
  • Good Quality Open Space Even As The City Becomes More Compact
  • People Are Already Increasing Their Use Of Street Space And Public Squares
  • Hamburg Will Not Become A City Of High Rises – The Ideal Height For Urban Density Is Six To Seven Floors
  • When The Port Operations Were Moved To Their New Location Hamburg Is Accepting The Challenge To Create New Residential Areas, Work Places And Attractive Places
  • Improving Urban Quality Including – Constructing a new S4 Train Line to the East of Hamburg.                      
  • Roofing Over A7 Motorway Cuttings to Reconnect Severed Parts of the City in the West.

A7-cover-Hamburg

Now some points uplifted from the section entitled: Mobility – From Owning To Using:

  • The car is losing its importance as a status symbol
  • Various modes of transport are to converge and link up at mobility service points in order to make private travel superfluous
  • Hamburg must not be allowed to lag behind comparable big cities which are considerably expending their Metro systems

And the most interesting of all the statements under this heading of Mobility –

“ The core conflict in the town planning debate of the last century – the battle between car friendliness and urban life in the city – is now drawing to a close. The city of the future will be liveable and allow mobility also.”

This is a significant (and not necessarily recent) attitudinal change for a major city in a country in which the export of motor vehicles plays such an important role in foreign exchange earnings. Regretfully and on this basis, our current National government’s thinking hasn’t moved into the 21st century and in New Zealand we are stuck with poorly targeted and excessive spending on the single mode of of roading and particularly duplicate roading, and motorway expansion. The direction being taken by other civic jurisdictions is clear and well elucidated in the document from Hamburg.

Far and away, Auckland will be New Zealand’s only international city. The trends and evidence in support of more balanced urban mobility options for a city like Auckland are abundantly clear.

The Transport Blog has been carefully analysing and presenting researched factual data in support of changed transport policies for some years now.

For the sake of those who live in Auckland now, and who will live in Auckland in the future, it is time to demand that the Government accept the necessary mindset change and as a first step, provide their share of the finance for the early construction of the City Rail Link.

Stuart’s 100 #6: Making Better Use of Rooftops on Parking Buildings

6: Making Better Use of Rooftops on Parking Buildings

Day_6_Rooftop_Parking_Buildings

What if we made better use of rooftops on our parking buildings?

There is an ongoing debate about whether it is possible to dispose of and redevelop some of the publicly-owned parking buildings in the city centre and elsewhere. This is a good discussion to be having.

In the meantime, wouldn’t it be good if we made better use of some of the most valuable space for better, higher value uses? This sentiment could equally apply to making better use of the ground floor space fronting shopping streets.

Franks-Campari-Bar-Area

Franks Campari Bar opens every summer on the rooftop of a parking building in Peckham, London.

London Alotment

 Example of an Urban Allotment Garden.

 

Downtown: Little Queen St

This is a quick post on the Downtown site. Precinct Properties, the owner of the Mall and the two existing towers [Zurich Hse + HSBC Building] between Lower Queen St and Lower Albert St, are expected to lodge a resource consent in a couple of months for a total rebuild of this site. We expect this proposal to include:

  • a 36 story tower on the south west corner, opposite the Customs Hse
  • 3 story retail precinct in between the three towers
  • an unknown quantity or location of carparking
  • the reinstatement of streets, or ‘street-like’ ground level public realm through the site instead of QE II Square.

Other significant and related issues:

  • Construction is expected to begin next year [2015] and will include the tunnels for the City Rail Link through the site, regardless of the government’s position on this project. Council funding is secured for this.
  • Buses will be removed from Lower Queen St and moved at least in part to Lower Albert St. Lower Queen will become a vehicle free pedestrian space at least for the length in front of Britomart Station.

We are told to expect both a new east/west street connecting the Piazza in front of Britomart to the buses on Lower Albert and a north/south street between Quay and Customs. The later is a reinstatement of a previously existing street called Little Queen, and is what I am focussing on in this post.

In 1966 10 highly detail topographical maps were produced from arial photographs of Auckland City, now in the Auckland Libraries Collection [where the black and white images in this post are also from]. These maps are a fantastic source of detailed information on 1960s Auckland; here is a close-up of the Downtown site before the current 1970s mall was built there, the CPO turned Britomart Station is bottom centre between Calway [sic; should be Galway] and Tyler:

Little Queen St 1966

So running between the Ferry Building and the Customs House was Little Queen St. The Harbour Board owned all the reclaimed land in the vicinity of the port and, like POAL today, it was focused on making more of it, either out of the sea, or in this case, it contrived to invent real estate out of a public road in order to ‘rationalise’ that resource. Presumably the trade off then with the city and the citizens was how we came to get the most dreary public space in the city: QE II square, proving for ever that not all open space is equal, especially urban open space.

Little Queen St 1973

The east side looking towards the sea and Ferry Building [and one person].

Little Queen St Esat 1070-75

The same side from a higher angle with a couple of humans and more than 10 buses. The street is pretty wide, wider it seems than its Melbourne namesakes; Little Collins and Little Bourke. Or perhaps just emptier?

Quay and Little Queen 1965

Quay St from the Ferry Building looking towards Lower Queen [The still extant Endeans building on the left and the Cupola of Britomart poking above], Little Queen on the right. 1965. Plenty of tarmac.

The history of this site is fascinating* as it is a clear example of the failures of mid twentieth century modernist urban master planning. But the outcome we are familiar with now isn’t simply a matter of design fashion but also the demographic, social, and commercial landscape of the period; the spirit of the times.

montgomery ward huntington beach ca 1966 pleasantfamilyshopping

The 1960s and 70s were at the height of the ‘flight from the centre’ period, a time of anti-urban idealisation of the new decentralised suburban life. A then sexy new Californian dream of a car centred complete life away from the tired old city centre: Living, shopping, and working without bothering with the old fashioned, degraded city. Clean, convenient, new. Supported and subsidised by Central and Local government policy in a myriad of ways, especially in transport spending in Auckland once Robbie’s Rail was killed. This lack of confidence in the city and disregard for the existing urban built environment was the dominant theme of the time so I guess it is of no surprise that the outcome of that Downtown redevelopment is suboptimal.

There was vocal opposition to the design we now have when it was proposed, in particular the shading of the new Square by the now HSBC building was, correctly, predicted to be severely limiting, and for years it struggled commercially [although more recently I believe it was one of  previous owner Westfield's better performers, and their only property without onsite and free parking], the site now clearly offers its new owners a huge opportunity but only if completely redesigned and rebuilt. And that opportunity is simply people. The return of people in concentrations to a now more exciting and busy city environment that only good public transport and dense land habitation can provide.

In this regard then, it is essential that the quality of the new work; both the architectural form of the new buildings and the relations between these buildings; the negative space between, these new streets, are of the highest standard, and provide real public spaces, unlike the faux public space of the suburban mall, or the formlessness and inauthenticity of the current QE II square. And in this the challenge is greater than at Britomart as there are no pre-sprawl era buildings to revive to give structure, scale, and continuity, and still the blocking mass of the HSBC building [which covers the northern end of the old Little Queen St] as well as a new tower to accommodate. Precinct and their architects have a great deal to balance but they know if they get it right all else will follow: The people.

A critical difference now is that these new projects are not for and by people that see little value in the city, a place only fit for escape. In that sense they are building for a new age, and one that offers the chance at least of the return of those powerful but difficult to summon qualities of great cities and great city places: Enchantment, mystery, possibility.

No pressure then.

 

* There is a totally absorbing history of the lead up to the downtown development in the Architecture New Zealand 2. 21013 by architect Dennis Smith. Highly recommended. Shows various schemes, perfectly of their time, and all completely dominated by car parking.

UPDATE: The kind folks at Architecture Now have put Dennis’ great article online now: http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/a-short-history-of-the-sixties-downtown/

 

JSK in AKL

Last night we hosted Janette Sadik-Khan, the woman who transformed New York City’s notoriously contested streets as Mayor Bloomberg’s Transportation Commissioner 2007-13. We are extremely grateful that she found  time on her four day visit to Auckland to share her wisdom and experience with us advocates.

JSK_1044

Despite arriving at 5am that morning JSK and her team gave us all a great deal of attention and engagement [colleague Seth Solomonow said of the flight: "why'd y'all have to be so far away?"]. JSK still works with Michael Bloomberg at his new not-for-profit post-Mayoral agency Bloomberg Associates. Here is the opening line their mission statement:

Bloomberg Associates, an international consulting service founded by Michael R. Bloomberg as a philanthropic venture, helps city governments improve the quality of life of their citizens.

So the first recommendation from JSK last night is that Mayor Brown contact ex-Mayor Bloomberg to see how Auckland get to see a whole lot more of JSK and here team to help improve our city in more detail.

Other soundbites from the night include:

  • Changing the Streetscape and adding to the movement options can hugely improve the economic vitality of the whole city as well as individual areas.
  • You have to try out radical changes to the streetscape cheaply, quickly, and temporarily.
  • Don’t just do part of what’s needed; be bold keep it cheap and temporary so whole areas can be done together.
  • Be prepared change it, or even change it back to how it was, if it isn’t working.
  • If half the city doesn’t hate what you’re doing you probably aren’t doing anything.

She also said the reason she made it a priority to meet with us was that groups like ours in NY had been hugely influential in enabling change. Particularly streetsblog, a clear role model for transportblog.

Also it was just a great night down at Imperial Lane:

JSK_1041

We are now looking forward to her presentation at Auckland Conversations on Monday. And thanks to the Auckland Conversations team for hosting her visit, and in particular lending her to us for the evening.

US Travel Diary – New Orleans

This is the fifth of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

 There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

 I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

New Orleans

After a few days in Houston, we drove to New Orleans to experience one of the continent’s best outdoor festivals / piss-ups – Mardi Gras. It’s the city’s annual chance to showcase its unique culture – blending French Creole influences with African, Caribbean, and Southern cultures – for thousands of visitors. New Orleans is, in many respects, an elegant city that’s preserved its built heritage quite well. Its main streets are lined with mixed-use, low-rise buildings – shops or bars on lower levels, apartments above – and surrounded by Victorian-era villas and duplex houses. In addition, it’s largely preserved its historic downtown, the French Quarter, which becomes Party Central for Mardi Gras. New Orleans is a fairly walkable city – and, apparently, cycle-able, judging by the number of people I saw biking around the parade routes and downtown parties.

The houses are nice, at least when they’ve been preserved

The houses are nice, at least when they’ve been preserved

Like Christchurch, New Orleans is also a city that is slowly dealing with the aftermath of a cataclysmic natural disaster. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina broke through the city’s poorly-maintained levies, allowing water from nearby Lake Pontchartrain to flood most of the city. Some cafes now feature markers showing the high-water mark – as the picture below shows, everything got extremely wet. (For reference, I’m 6’2”.) Eight years on, things are still quite dilapidated – a fair number of houses are abandoned or in need of serious repair. While we didn’t visit it, the impoverished Ninth Ward is apparently being abandoned and reverting back to a natural state.

Many shops have signs commemorating the Katrina flooding. For comparison, I’m 6’2”

Many shops have signs commemorating the Katrina flooding. For comparison, I’m 6’2”

According to one of the people we were staying with, the slow pace of reconstruction is due in part to land ownership and state law issues. The city has a relatively high home ownership rate due to a historical quirk. After the Civil War, New Orleans was generally willing to allow freed slaves and black migrants to purchase land, unlike other cities in the Jim Crow South. Today, many of these houses are still owned by third- or fourth-generation descendants of the original purchasers – people who are less likely to have the financial resources (or experience in dealing with builders and contract law) required to rebuild. It is likely to take years to unwind these issues.

This is more or less what Mardi Gras feels like

This is more or less what Mardi Gras feels like

New Orleans seems to have been relatively conservative when it comes to reimagining the city centre in the wake of Katrina. The central areas of town – the French Quarter and CBD – were less affected than residential areas. They’ve been restored with few changes to either major facilities, such as the city’s extensive convention centre and neighbouring sports stadium, or to transport networks. New Orleans has probably missed a few opportunities to redevelop underused areas of the city or to shake up its seemingly perverse transport system.

For example, on my first morning in the city, I went to take a run along the Mississippi River waterfront – and had trouble finding it. The riverfront is monopolised by industry, warehouses, and commercial docks, a legacy of the Mississippi’s role as a major shipping route, along with the convention centre. The only public space is a small park near the French Quarter. New Orleans could probably stand to take a few lessons from Wellington, which has transformed unused port space into a busy urban park.

In order to get to the centre of town, I had to pass under a truly Pharaonic piece of civil engineering – the I-10/Claibourne Overpass, a freeway interchange that rises ten stories above street level. It severs downtown from the vibrant neighbourhoods to the southwest. Before visiting New Orleans, I read the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)’s annual “Freeways Without Futures” report, which identifies the best opportunities to revitalise cities by tearing down dysfunctional urban freeways. [http://www.cnu.org/highways/freewayswithoutfutures2014] CNU listed the I-10/Claiborne Overpass near downtown New Orleans as one of the most endangered freeways. I was inclined to agree that a plan to remove the interchange and restore links with the riverfront could transform the city. The city is currently studying options for turning the elevated highway into an at-grade boulevard and restoring dozens of city blocks.

Louisiana has made pharaonic attempts to beautify the swamps

Louisiana has made pharaonic attempts to beautify the swamps

In terms of public transport – the city has preserved a heritage streetcar system that links neighbourhoods to the north and west to a historical downtown with narrow streets and many shared spaces. However, this streetcar system doesn’t seem particularly well designed for modern road conditions – although streetcars have separated rights-of-ways in road medians on arterial roads like Canal Street and St Charles Avenue, they mix with car traffic within the city centre. In addition, it was not particularly clear how the city’s bus system worked for cross-town trips, or how it integrated with the streetcars. There seemed to be room for improvement when it comes to PT.

Overall, New Orleans offers some lessons for Christchurch. On the one hand, it displays the resilience of cities after natural disasters – life seems to have returned to normal, albeit with a bit more disrepair, and the city’s hosting big parties with the same enthusiasm. On the other hand, it shows how difficult it can be to fully rebuild, let alone to grasp opportunities to transform urban form and urban function, after a major disaster.

US Travel Diary – Houston

This is the fourth of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

 There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

 I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

Houston

Houston, Texas is often cited as an example of what can be accomplished with light zoning regulation and car-based greenfield development. It has accommodated significant population growth without becoming unaffordable or growing more dense. Of course, it’s astonishingly hideous – I’d describe it as a random collection of buildings and freeway overpasses rather than an actual city. And some of Houston’s good fortune is due to the fact that it’s one of the few car-based cities in the developed world that has been a net beneficiary of higher oil prices, due to the economic role of the region’s vast petrochemical complex.

Houston takes freeway interchanges to new levels

Houston takes freeway interchanges to new levels

It’s easy to see the results of Houston’s lack of zoning laws while driving around the city – or walking, in the unlikely event that you can find a footpath. There is a remarkable, eclectic mix of housing types – old shotgun shacks on grassy lots sit next to aluminium-sided townhouses and apartment blocks. An example of this can be seen in the picture below, which I took down the block from my brother’s house. Houston’s made it remarkably easy to undertake small-scale redevelopment at moderate density – because developers don’t have to pursue a zoning variation for new development, they’re more willing to build new things on small sites. However, the city hasn’t done away with all forms of regulatory intervention – it still has quite high minimum parking requirements that apply across the board to new developments. (Absurdly, they also apply minimum parking requirements to public parks – a minimum of nine spaces for a four-hectare park!) [http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/DevelopRegs/offstreet/]

Houston’s zoning regulations allow apartment blocks and duplexes to coexist next to shotgun shacks

Houston’s zoning regulations allow apartment blocks and duplexes to coexist next to shotgun shacks

Regulatory flexibility appears to help keep house prices down in Houston, by enabling in-demand areas to be redeveloped or built as greenfields. Take my middle brother. He lives in a recently built two-bedroom attached house in walking distance of the Medical Centre, one of Houston’s five to eight large business centres. When he bought it several years ago, it cost him less than US$200,000 – the sort of deal that Aucklanders haven’t seen in a generation. While he’s opted for proximity to where he works and studies, others haven’t – as you drive out of Houston, new speculative greenfield suburbs cluster up in empty fields, with billboards promising easy financing and low prices.

To feed this growth, Houston has become as freeway-mad as Los Angeles – it’s enclosed by not one but two concentric ring roads. In line with the aphorism that “everything’s bigger in Texas”, Houston seems to have been a bit better about future-proofing roads for growth. Most freeways have eight lanes or more for traffic, along with several more lanes of parallel access roads and wide grassy medians and reserves. After driving around the city for a bit, it seems to be a bit less prone to interpeak congestion – although the average Houstonian experiences almost as much travel delay as the average Angeleno. 

Maintenance appears to be the big challenge for Houston’s massive expanses of asphalt and concrete. The city’s roads were in remarkably poor condition. Residential roads were frequently potholed even in affluent areas; freeway surfaces were rough and noisy to drive on; lane markings had often worn off the road and not been repainted. Texas seems to be short of money for maintenance and road renewals – perhaps a sign that it is running up against some hard budgetary trade-offs between freeway expansion and operations.

Finally, it’s worth saying a few things about the alternative transport options available in Houston. The short answer is: there aren’t many. Public transport is, by most accounts, incoherent and poorly used, although as in LA there are some signs of change. In the last decade, the city opened a light rail line between the Medical Centre and major events facilities. Although the light rail line is constrained by the fact that it was built without a separated right-of-way, it’s performed well enough that the city is planning to add another half-dozen light rail lines over the next few decades, along with a far-reaching rethink of their bus network. [See http://nextcity.org/theworks/entry/houston-heads-west-as-light-rail-goes-east-with-buses-to-plug-the-gap1, http://www.lightrailnow.org/news/n_hou003.htm, http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/02/16/houston-readies-four-light-rail-lines-by-2012/]

Walking and cycling facilities are largely nonexistent or difficult to use, although there were some nice recreational paths by the river. I met a Danish friend of my brother’s who was visiting to do research in a local university. She said that coming to Houston from Copenhagen had required her to fundamentally change her expectations about transport. She was still cycling some places, but only against the advice of her co-workers, who view biking in Houston as a mad and dangerous act.

Postscript: Houston’s Transit system is getting the ‘Auckland treatment’ from a team lead by Jarrett Walker, who is also behind our New Network. See here at Human Transit and this cool comparison map. 

Tomorrow: Nawlins!

US Travel Diary – Amtrak

This is the third of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

Amtrak interlude

My youngest brother and I travelled from Los Angeles to Houston via Amtrak, the US’s government-owned passenger rail operator. We rode the Sunset Limited, which runs through through the stark and beautiful expanses of the southwestern desert. According to calculations by the Brookings Institute, this line is heavily loss-making due to relatively low ridership, as it’s been outcompeted on speed and price by airlines and intercity buses. However, it’s one of those strange gems that you occasionally find while travelling around the US – a unique way of seeing a strange land. It was not fast – the trip was scheduled to take 39 hours, but ran four hours late due to various delays (mechanical, staff changes, freight trains, etc) – but compensated for this by being surprisingly comfortable and civilised. We had booked a small sleeping cabin, which came with access to a shower and meals from the dining car. The food wasn’t amazing, but the service was friendly and pleasant.

NUNNS_08 We spent a long time on a train in the desert_172137

We spent a long time on a train in the desert

The interesting thing about being on a long-distance train in the US is the clientele that it attracts. Generally, if you want to travel long distances in the US, you take a plane. If you can’t afford that, you take the Greyhound bus. Amtrak tends to cater to the oddballs – railfans and romantics, the curious and intrepid, and so on and so forth. You really need to have a reason to be on the train. Its slow pace also tends to encourage conversation in the dining car or observation deck.

We had a few interesting conversations – the Finnish grandmother who was returning to North Carolina after driving her son’s car to LA; a rather intense man with a big beard who’d cycled from Abilene, Texas to Oregon to work on a ranch and who was returning to work on his “Christian romantic comedy novel”; a young activist from Oakland, California who was going to Nicaragua to help schools develop vegetable gardens. Long-distance trains seem to be an inherently confessional mode of travel.

Being on the train also gave us a lot of time to observe the southwestern American desert. It is a remarkable place: Stark, beautifully stark. Arid to a degree that’s difficult to imagine in New Zealand. The interesting thing that you start to notice, after a few hours looking out at it through a train window, is that it is in fact a landscape defined by water. There is no water to be seen, but the traces of water are everywhere. The existence of tough, waxy-leaved plants that can survive long dry periods. Shallow hollows where water pools after rainy periods and where mud dries up and cracks. Arroyos secos, or dry creek-beds. Channels carved into hard rock by flash floods. But everything is dry. We were grateful that the train cafe was serving cold beers.

Also evident on the trip was the role that freight rail plays in the US. We had to stop a number of times to let freight trains pass by – hauling everything imaginable, from containers to iron bars to crude oil tankers. The railyards in every city we passed were massive, busy entities. It’s one thing to read that rail freight in the US is undergoing a renaissance (see The Economist here), but another thing to see the scale of it in person.

Amtrak ridership is increasing at a time when car travel has stopped growing

Amtrak ridership is increasing at a time when car travel has stopped growing

Chart from Atlantic Cities, here.

Tomorrow: Houston

US Travel Diary – Los Angeles

This is the second of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

Los Angeles

Auckland is sometimes described as the Los Angeles of the South Pacific. Both cities experienced their early growth in the streetcar years, and both cities replaced the rails with freeways and wide arterial boulevards in the 1950s. Since then, they have metastasised into their agricultural hinterland – Auckland spreading west through the orchards and vineyards of the Waitakeres and south through the horse and dairy farms of Manukau, and LA replacing orange groves and orchards with tract houses for a hundred kilometres inland. In spite of frenetic road extensions and widening, both cities suffered from worsening traffic.

Los Angeles does actually look like this at dusk due to all the smog in the air

Los Angeles does actually look like this at dusk due to all the smog in the air

LA’s traffic is as bad as advertised. I spent a day visiting friends and sites of interest across the region, and noticed the incredible volumes of cars and trucks (many, many trucks delivering freight from the Ports of LA and Long Beach to distribution hubs in the Inland Empire) circulating on the roads. People in LA give directions starting with a freeway onramp and continuing with their personal theory of how best to negotiate traffic. Angelenos make small talk about traffic the way Aucklanders do about the weather. Regardless of the time of day, the freeways were prone to random intermittent congestion and speeds dropping to under 20 kilometres per hour. LA has tried to mitigate this by introducing designated all-day carpool lanes on freeways – with only partial success.

A rail station… in the middle of a ten-lane freeway

A rail station… in the middle of a ten-lane freeway

If the freeways were stressful, I was surprised to discover that there are some quite nice urban places dotted throughout the region. For example, Pasadena, which sits at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, has preserved its old town and built a significant amount of medium density housing around the university. Even in newer areas of LA, I was surprised to see a mix of low-rise apartment buildings in among ranch houses. However, there wasn’t that much evidence of mixed-use development, meaning that many people seem to drive incredibly long distances to work or shopping.

As dysfunctional as its traffic environment is, Los Angeles does seem to have taken the cue to develop new transport options. While road widening and surburban sprawl has continued apace over the last two decades, the region now has an extensive and growing rapid transit system. Starting in 1990, Los Angeles has built a rapid transit system consisting of two heavy rail lines, four light rail lines, and two bus rapid transit lines. Some lines run along existing rail corridors, while others operate in freeway medians. The system as a whole serves almost 110 million trips per year – exceeding early projections for some lines by tenfold. (However, in spite of Metro Rail’s success buses still account for three-quarters of the region’s PT trips.) After securing long-term funding from a referendum on a regional sales tax, Metro Rail is planning for expansion.

Riding the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown

Riding the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown

I rode the Gold Line in from Pasadena to Union Station to meet up with an old friend. It seemed like the most convenient way to make that trip – the trains ran every six minutes at peak times and took 15 to 20 minutes to cover a distance comparable to the train trip between Otahuhu and Britomart. It turns out that he got there by the train as well – he’s living the car-free life in a walkable 1920s-era neighbourhood near downtown Los Angeles. He commutes to work in Koreatown by bike, and has found that it’s possible to run pretty much any errand on bike or PT. Cycling is made easy by LA’s climate – the normally arid region has had less than 4 cm of rain in the last two drought years – but difficult by easily frustrated drivers. As in San Francisco, bike lanes are slowly appearing on the roads, but not yet being respected. We traded tips for cycling in two cities that are only slowly becoming accustomed to bikes.

 

Tomorrow: Amtrak.

LA Rail Map + lines underconstruction

LA Rail Map + lines underconstruction