Removing the RUB won’t necessarily work as planned

Yesterday Phil Twyford announced that it would be Labour’s policy to abolish Auckland’s Rural Urban Boundary (RUB), as part of a policy to improve housing affordability.

Labour wants the Government to abolish Auckland’s city limits to get people out of cars, caravans, garages and tents.

Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the urban growth boundary had to go because it has fuelled the housing crisis and people would not be forced into bad circumstances if the Government acted.

“The Government should rule out any possibility of an urban growth boundary in Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan if it is serious about fixing the housing crisis,” Twyford said.

“Over 25 years the urban growth boundary hasn’t prevented sprawl, but it has helped drive land and housing costs through the roof. It has contributed to a housing crisis that has allowed speculators to feast off the misery of Generation Rent, and forced thousands of families to live in garages and campgrounds,” Twyford said.

“Labour’s plan will free up the restrictive land use rules that stop the city growing up and out. It will stop land prices skyrocketing, and put the kibosh on landbankers and speculators.”

There’s no doubt Auckland has a housing crisis at the moment, with house prices increasingly dramatically over the past five years. Rents rose more slowly but the impacts for some families are still alarming. There’s also no doubt that planning restrictions have played their part in creating this crisis – by making it too difficult to build the required number of houses that Auckland has needed.

Addressing regional scale issues like housing and transport was one of the key reasons Auckland Council was amalgamated in the first place and why one of its first tasks was to rewrite the city’s planning rulebook through the Unitary Plan.

But will abolishing the Rural Urban Boundary help? To answer that question it’s important to understand what the boundary is, and what it isn’t. As its name suggests, the RUB is the boundary between land where urbanisation is anticipated and provided for over the next 30 years and land which is intended to remain rural over that time. If you take a look at the map below, it is the black dashed line that separates the yellow-coloured “future urban” zoned land from the brown rural zones:


It’s also important to recognise that the RUB doesn’t exist yet as it’s part of the Unitary Plan being decided by the Independent Hearings Panel. It’s quite a different tool to the old metropolitan urban limit (MUL) that was typically set up against the edge of the existing urban area and made any urban expansion a significant challenge.

The RUB, by contrast, isn’t designed as a permanent boundary. It provides for a substantial amount of greenfield growth – enough to meet 40% of Auckland’s growth over the next 30 years.  The scale of the areas in yellow is highlighted in an Auckland Transport video that looks at the future transport requirements to enable their urbanisation:

The main argument against the RUB is that it creates a scarcity of land where urbanisation is possible, which drives up the price of that land. Over time the high price of land translates into higher house prices and reduced affordability. Fair enough. But what can we actually do about that?

As Auckland Transport’s consultation video above shows, the RUB isn’t simply a line on a map: it’s a plan to provide publicly-funded infrastructure to new urban areas. If you wanted to expand the yellow future urban zoned areas on the map, you’d also have to find the money for additional infrastructure.

In other words, greenfield land is in scarce supply because it’s currently farmland that requires roads, pipes, train stations, parks, schools, hospitals and a myriad of other infrastructure investment to take place before development can actually happen. Making a dent in the housing shortfall by enabling more urban expansion to occur is therefore entirely about speeding up infrastructure, rather than whether or not there is a line on a map.

As we’ve talked about before, the costs of supplying bulk infrastructure to greenfield areas are large. It is time-consuming to investigate, design, consent and build these projects. There’s no quick and cheap way to make a whole heap more greenfield land “development ready”.

In fact, removing the RUB could easily disrupt existing infrastructure plans and slow down overall development. If you take a look at the work that’s been done on transport for future urban growth, the networks are optimised around the location of the RUB. Scattering small developments around the region could force AT and NZTA to react to piecemeal development rather than taking a more strategic approach to infrastructure development.

I suspect that the first thing to get cut due to funding pressure would be the city’s rapid transit plans, which have already been delayed long enough. This would have the perverse effect of putting a damper on the 60-70% of development that’s intended to occur within the existing urban area.

TFUG - Draft Preferred Plan - Northwest

In short, abolishing the RUB isn’t a straightforward proposition. It’s not actually obvious that you could abolish it, as infrastructure plans would simply turn into a de facto RUB.

Ironically, Twyford acknowledges as much in his press release, where he says:

There is a smarter way to manage growth on the city fringes by properly integrating land use with transport and infrastructure planning. There should be more intensive spatial planning of Auckland’s growth areas in the north, north-west and south. Land of special value can be set aside, like the northern coastal strip or Pukekohe’s horticulture soils. Corridors should be acquired and future networks mapped for transport and other infrastructure

Let’s unpack this. First, he says that he’d like to see “intensive spatial planning of Auckland’s growth areas” with “future networks mapped for transport and other infrastructure”. That sounds a lot like the process that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport are currently undergoing for the yellow-coloured future urban land.

Second, he says that “land of special value can be set aside, like the northern coastal strip or Pukekohe’s horticulture soils”. That sounds a lot like some sort of boundary between urban land and non-urban land, which is exactly what the RUB is intended to be. Basically, if you read beyond the headline soundbite, Twyford’s policy starts to sound a lot like Auckland Council’s current policy, just under a different name.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the current government has been looking at this issue for half a decade now, and they’re pretty critical of restrictions on land supply. If it was a simple matter to abolish the RUB, they probably would have done it by now.

So what could we do differently?

There aren’t necessarily any “magic bullet” solutions to land supply. Greenfield land needs infrastructure to be useful, and infrastructure is expensive and slow to build. Shifting some of those costs onto developers, either through development contributions, targeted rates, or design rules that reduce the need for hard infrastructure (e.g. stormwater pipes) can allow more of it to happen. But the problem is that the developers push back, which limits the gains that can be had in this area.

Consequently, other policies are also needed to enable housing supply. That means relaxing or removing restrictions on building height and density within the urban area. While Tywford and Labour have also said they support this approach, they devoted only a single sentence to it:

Freeing up growth on the fringes needs to go hand in hand with allowing more density – so people can build flats and apartments in parts of the city where people want to live, particularly around town centres and transport routes.

That’s a great aspiration, but to be useful it needs to be backed up by specific policies to limit the use of height limits and other density-killing rules like minimum parking requirements. For example, would Labour lift building height limits throughout the urban area? If so, how high?

Lifting building height limits and density controls would have some immediate benefits for housing supply. For one thing, the transport networks and water pipes have mostly already been built, meaning that there’s no lag time waiting for the infrastructure providers. For another, it would make the housing market a hell of a lot more competitive by opening up lots of new development opportunities in the places that people most want to be.

This would also have the benefit of allowing people to avoid the high transport costs associated with sprawling development patterns. Even given Auckland’s dispersed employment patterns, the further out from the centre people live, the further they need to travel to work. This map from a Ministry of Transport analysis of the 2013 census data which shows how far people travel to get to work based on where they live:

This trend is repeated around the world, with more spread out cities requiring a greater amount of travel and, consequently, a higher proportion of income being spent on transport. In some cases this can end up outweighing any savings in housing costs. If we’re going to lift restrictions on housing construction, it makes sense to prioritise lifting the ones that also pose a barrier to efficient travel patterns.

Election Transport Debate

Last night was the Transport Election Debate and so this is a recap of what happened. Unfortunately it wasn’t filmed so we can’t put up a video for you all to watch. If I miss anything important please add it in the comments.

I want to say thank you to the candidates that turned up. There was Denis O’Rourke from NZ First, Julie Anne Genter from the Greens, Phil Twyford from Labour, David Seymour from ACT, Damian Light from United Future and surprisingly as a late addition current Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee.

All up there were probably about 150 people that filled the room to hear the candidates speak. This photo was taken before the start and we ended up needing to get more chairs out.

Transport Debate audience

The evening started with Patrick giving an overview and recap of the Congestion Free Network. After that it was the candidates’ turn to have 8 minutes each to talk about their parties’ transport policy. The order of speakers was drawn at random.

First up was Denis O’Rourke from NZ First and he was perhaps one of the surprises on the night. The party’s transport policy is fairly good but to me it’s one thing to have a good policy, it’s another to actually understand it and know the reasons why it’s needed and Denis did well on that part. He spoke about the need for a more balanced transport system and the benefits it can provide to mobility, the economy and the environment. He talked about the need to address how we fund transport over the long term and said the party would support a long term shift away from Fuel Excise Duty and Road User Charges towards implementing road pricing on motorways and major arterials. He said that NZ First support the CRL starting immediately and would contribute 70% as they see the project as a vital investment for New Zealand. He also talked about their policy of having Railways of National Importance which did go against some of his earlier comments about not picking winners. Overall it was a fairly good speech.

Following Denis was Phil Tywford from Labour. Much of what Phil talked about was related to the announcement on the weekend that they would support the CFN. We were hoping Phil might start a bidding war on how much to contribute towards the CFN however unfortunately he ruled that out. He also commented about how the major upgrades to the rail network (DART and Electrification) were both budgeted for and signed off under the previous government so Gerry can’t use the claim that the government have funded $1.7b for rail in Auckland (to which Gerry said he would say it anyway). The other important thing Phil talked about was the need to both develop and enhance our rapid transit networks to cope with the sprawl that is expected to happen. He cited the massive developments planned for the Northwest as needing a Northwest Busway while in the South rail electrification and new stations would be needed. Related to that he talked about the need for more intensification/development around stations. Lastly on the CRL he said if Labour won, he would be down in the CBD the day next day with his shovel ready to start digging.

It was now David Seymour from the ACT party who was getting a turn to speak. The focus of his talk was about road pricing and how we need to use it to get more out of our existing road network. He referred to the Remuera Rd Bus Transit Lane as effectively being tolled but then said he wants the cost lowered so that more people can use the lane (which would hold up buses). He said he thinks vehicle trends will go back to pre-2013 levels of unlimited growth across the network. He said he’s “a fan of market driven technological solutions “all of which involve rubber tyres”. He also said he thought a focus on PT would harm housing affordability and home ownership as in his view we all need to be sprawling out.

Following David was Damian Light from United Future who said he was working in the transport industry. He said he thought we should build rail the airport before the CRL as that is something that would be used by travellers while also saying the CRL wasn’t a priority as he “lives on the Shore and so it’s no use to him”. Basically the impression I got was a whole lot uninformed of backyard BBQ type rants that had no basis in reality.

Gerry Brownlee finally got to have his say. He talked for some time about how the government could easily have cancelled electrification but didn’t as some sort of achievement, about how he thinks the government have been generous with their CRL targets and how he thinks the government are doing the right thing with transport investment. He said he thought Auckland Transport had been doing an excellent job and wants to replicate the concept to other regions throughout the country. I was hoping he might drop some hints to an earlier start for the CRL but unfortunately he didn’t. However, about the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing, he said it was his view that there would be three tubes and that rail would be included as part of that. Later on he was asked what new initiatives the government have undertaken for PT since they’ve been in office and the answer was the PT Operation Model. He also said he was not pessimistic on climate change and that he thinks we’re on the verge of some massive changes in travel to which he highlighted having been in a driverless car.

Last to speak was Julie Anne Genter and as I expected she was solid, explaining why we need to change our investments to get better, more resilient and more economically successful cities. She also spoke a lot about the CFN and providing choices to people

Overall it was a good night and lots of people came which was great to see as it shows just how much interest there is in how we develop our city for the future.

Transport Debate Gerry Brownlee and CFN

Gerry Brownlee and the Congestion Free Network

 Update: Alex Burgess captured some of the comments on video

We need to stop underselling PT

One thing that really frustrates me about public transport projects is the tendency of both our official agencies and many supporters to completely undersell the benefits of them. Auckland Transport is a frequent offender of this and I think that the main problem is that they are a bit gun shy. They are too scared to talk about specific benefits of the project, in particular the parts that really matter to the general public. It is seemingly out of fear that they might not meet those objectives at some point in the distant future, or that plans may change. But by taking this approach they often lose out on much of the impact that they could otherwise achieve. The City Rail Link is perhaps the prime example of this. Below is a list of the benefits from that AT provided at their CRL open days that were held recently to support the consenting process:

The City Rail Link (CRL) will improve the entire Auckland rail network – allowing more trains, more often, more direct and more reliably to more places.

  • The CRL will allow more frequent services on key routes with double the number of trains able to run on the network
  • Britomart will become a through station and not the end of the line, unblocking the network and eliminating the need to travel via Newmarket
  • More direct travel to the city and improved access to the city centre and major employment areas with three new stations near Aotea Square, Karangahape Road and Newton
  • The number of people within 30 minutes train travel of a city station will double
  • More people on trains will reduce the pressure on roads to keep traffic moving
  • Bus and train services will be better integrated

AT Open Day CRL times

It is really the first two of the bullet points that I really have a problem with. Let’s have a look at them more closely.

The CRL will allow more frequent services on key routes with double the number of trains able to run on the network

Doubling the number of trains on the network is a good thing but most people wouldn’t have a clue just how many trains are on the network now. Even less would know how many trains are expected to be on the network following the completion of electrification. I would suspect that most people, the ones that don’t currently use trains but who we may want to in the future, probably think that trains only come once every half hour or worse. For them doubling a “crappy” service doesn’t mean it will suddenly become useful. My thinking on this was largely confirmed by the release of a Horizon Research poll released late last year that said 6% of respondents indicated that if the City Rail Link had the effect of increasing train frequency to every 15 minutes in peak hours, they would switch to using rail to travel to work.

The reality of it is that our main lines already have at least 15 minute, or better, services during the peak hours. With electrification and the new PT network, this is expected to increase to a train on the main lines every 10 minutes, not just at peak but all day. The CRL doubles that again meaning we could have a service on every line every 5 minutes combining to a train in each direction through the CRL every 2½ minutes. To me saying either of those two figures  is far more powerful than just doubling the number of trains on the network. I think part of the reason why there has been a reluctance to give any specific details regarding frequencies is partly related to the second point.

Britomart will become a through station and not the end of the line, unblocking the network and eliminating the need to travel via Newmarket

Along with the reluctance to talk about frequencies, there has also been reluctance to talking about just how trains will be routed around the network. Currently everything travels from Britomart to the west or south and back again. Any journey from one part of the network to another requires a transfer. The CRL gives the opportunity to change that by through routing services meaning services that come from the west could potentially head south or east after passing through the central city. It is just where they will head that seems to be the problem. Decisions on routing seem to be way down the priority list so not a lot of detailed thought seems to have gone into it. In a double whammy, without knowing the routing proposed it is then hard to say just how many trains will run on the network which causes the issues found in the first point.

But it is these two points that would do far more to sell the project to the general public than pretty much anything else. How different would that Horizon Research poll have been if they had of quizzed people about 5 minute frequencies instead of 15 minute ones? So if Auckland transport won’t promote the project in a way that will get through to the general public, it becomes even more vital that advocates, like this blog, get the message out and that brings me to what caused me to write this post in the first place.

Yesterday the Green party launched their Reconnect Auckland campaign under which the building of the CRL is seen as a critical project. The launch brought with it media attention, the perfect time to really sell just how transformational the project will be. Unfortunately in my opinion they really wasted the opportunity by underselling it. Co-Leader Russell Norman appeared on TV twice about the issue and both times said it would only allow for trains every 10 minutes at peak, half of what will be possible. The first time was on TVNZs Q and A programme (click to go through to the video)

Reconnect Auckland - Russell Norman Q&A

And let’s not even go into failing to dismiss the notion that trains will be going around the city in a loop. The panel also discussed it briefly (need to skip past the GCSB stuff).  The second time was later in the day in an interview for the 6pm news.

Reconnect Auckland - Russell Norman 6pm news

Of course the greens aren’t alone in this underselling. Labour are just as bad with the press release put out by Phil Tywford and Iain Lees Galloway also claiming it would only allow for 10 minute frequencies.

Mr Twyford said the City Rail Link would double the number of trains on the network, unlocking much needed capacity and opening up the potential for trains every ten minutes on the western and southern lines at peak times.

Of course compare that with the way that roads are promoted, all sorts of benefits get mentioned even if they are not true. A great example of this is Puhoi to Wellsford where even in parliamentary questions, spurious claims have been made. For example last year Gerry Brownlee claimed time savings that in reality would require vehicles travelling up to 250kph. Of course I’m not suggesting that PT advocates should put out false information but at least stop underselling these projects.

Urban Limits discussed in parliament

There have been quite a few battles in parliament between Housing Minister Nick Smith and Labour’s housing and Auckland issues spokesperson Phil Twyford over the past couple of weeks on the issue of urban limits, land supply and affordable housing. Here’s today’s stoush (transcript here):

One thing that keeps confusing me in this argument is why everyone seems to be focusing so much on opening up additional land for rezoning to urban uses (effectively the “busting the urban limits”) when it seems like the real problem is that existing land zoned for urban development and serviced with main roads and bulk water/wastewater simply isn’t getting to the next stage of being subdivided up and put on the market.

This is the difference between the 15,000 units worth of land that’s ‘ready to go’ in the sense of council having done everything in its power to rezone, provide main roads and bulk infrastructure – and the 2,000 subdivided sections which are ‘ready to go’ in the sense that someone could build a house on them tomorrow. In Flat Bush, the two sit side by side:ready-to-go-land-flatbushSo not only is ‘busting the urban limits’ completely stupid in that it sets up an urban form nearly impossible to service with infrastructure (because the powers to be just never know where future development might occur), it also seems like such a policy would make absolutely no difference to what’s holding back the delivery of sections on the market which are ready to build on. That seems to be a problem largely caused by the development industry – whether wilfully (in the form of land-banking) or just because the owners can’t get themselves into a position to do this work.

What really happened with Snapper/HOP – Part 2

Following on from my post yesterday on the Snapper/HOP mess, I felt that a lot of further questions remained unanswered. Phil Twyford attempted to get some answers out of the Minister of Transport in parliament:

While questions around why Auckland Transport decided to allow Snapper to become involved in the HOP scheme remain frustratingly unanswered (perhaps until I read a bit further into the mountain of information I have), a question that I want to look at in this post relates a bit more closely to the title of this post – why did things go wrong?

A useful starting point for looking at the answer to that question is the presentation to NZTA’s board I linked to yesterday. This covers the vexed issue of what’s called “treatment of third-party systems, kits or cards”. Before we get into the details it’s useful to remind everyone that an integrated smartcard ticketing system has three components:

  1. The back-office “system” which handles all the transactions and keeps track of everyone’s balance plus the trips they take.
  2. The ticket machines on the bus, including the card readers
  3. The cards themselves

There’s also a further layer sitting between the machines and the system but my understanding is that’s a relatively simple part of the system which just collects information from the vehicles/stations and then passes it onto the ‘proper’ system. It was clearly ARTA/AT’s preference for all elements of the system to be controlled by one party and this has been in the request for tender for the system. The presentation deals with this below:

As noted, there are different extents to which third party elements can be introduced, but each step leads to increased risk, complexity and therefore potentially cost. The first option is obviously to have everything provided by the one party – ironically what ARTA originally wanted and what we’re going to end up getting:

The most basic way of introducing 3rd party elements is the “device” or card reader. In early 2009, when the Regional Fuel Tax was cancelled and funding for the integrated ticketing system was put in jeopardy and then reduced, there was an acceptance that third-party devices may be required for buses – although Thales equipment would still be used on trains and ferries as part of the funded system. So the second option looks something like this: 

Essentially the bus operators being able to decide what devices to use left the door open for NZ Bus to “choose” its sister company Snapper. But Snapper wasn’t interested in just providing the card reading devices, they wanted (at the very least) to also be able to use their card – so we shift along to option 3, with increased risk, complexity and therefore potentially cost:

I never liked the idea of this system because it would effectively undermine the whole concept of an integrated ticketing system where operators become irrelevant in terms of paying your fare. Instead you might end up with the an equivalent debacle to our mobile phone industry where you can pay different rates depending on the network of the person you’re calling or texting. I can imagine NZ Bus and Snapper also doing deals so that there were cheaper fares available on the exclusive Snapper Card rather than the Thales card, further undermining integrated ticketing.

Finally, the fourth option creates something like our current EFTPOS system with a whole pile of different ‘clearing houses’ and cards and devices. While this option is probably great for retail purchases and other uses for contactless “e-money”, the complexity and messiness would not be well suited to public transport:

The different options, as well as more detail on the system (such as which bits of it are centrally controlled and which bits are controlled by Auckland) is outlined in the NZTA board paper that sought funding approval for integrated ticketing (nearly $100 million of funding including operating costs).

It seems like NZTA preferred option 1 due to its lower cost, but was mindful that some operators (presumably this means NZ Bus and their close connections with Snapper) would not like this option. It’s a pity that some of this slide is blanked out – wonder what it says? Some reference of the Minister?

Interestingly, there’s then some discussion about a pre-emptive Snapper rollout – exactly what did end up happening. The presentation notes that while it’s not possible to show that the Thales system is better value for money than Snapper without “starting again”, it was possible to show that Thales was “better” and “internationally competitive” and that Snapper would not be free – rather around $75 million over 10 years (compared to around $135m for the Thales system).

To summarise what is quite a lot of detail it seems to me as though NZTA warned against making the system overly complex through Snapper’s involvement – because that would add risk and add cost. Yet because Snapper went ahead and launched and somehow talked ARTA/Auckland Transport into involving them, we ended up with the messy mixed system that NZTA had always feared. Of course then things started to unravel, rather like NZTA had predicted:

  • The Snapper/HOP (SNOP) Cards struggled to connect with the Thales “system”, meaning that they would need to be “swapped out” for normal AT HOP cards once the Thales system was up and running.
  •  Even using a Thales card and the Thales system, the Snapper readers weren’t up to scratch, leading Auckland Transport to eventually bite the bullet and go back to the original plan of having Thales supply all the equipment: cards, readers and the system itself.

Perhaps what all this really highlights is the mystery of why ARTA allowed Snapper to join the HOP scheme. This is where the issue of political interference from Steven Joyce sounds like it comes in – as referenced in yesterday’s post.  ARTA and NZTA had both wanted to keep the system as simple as possible because they were worried adding in third-party elements would add cost and delay. Ironically they were both absolutely proven right in the long run with Snapper – as a third-party – struggling with exactly the issues that had been foreseen.

It seems simply staggering for ARTA to go against the very thing they had been fighting for – a single system, or “Option 1” as described above – unless they were under considerable pressure to do so. Furthermore, it seems like ARTA went against their previous position even though they had both NZTA and the Ministry of Transport (I’ll get into their documents in future posts) supporting “Option 1” as the most cost-effective and low-risk approach. If ARTA’s change in position wasn’t due to political pressure from the Minister, I’d love to know what it actually was caused by.

What really happened with Snapper/HOP?

Back in August Auckland Transport kicked Snapper out of helping to deliver integrated ticketing in Auckland. Subject to any legal battles over whether compensation is due or not, this was the final line in a very sad and sorry tale about Snapper’s involvement in Auckland’s integrated ticketing system. A tale that goes back quite a few years.

The NZ Herald, and ourselves, have recently received a huge amount of information on the whole Snapper/HOP debacle – released under the Official Information Act. It may take a while to dig through the details of this all, but we shall give this task a go – because a huge amount of public money has gone into integrated ticketing plus a huge amount of time seems to have passed while we debate the whole issue. The Auditor General’s investigation into this whole shemozzle, which should provide us with some final answers around the whole sorry saga, is apparently on hold until Snapper’s legal battles with Auckland Transport have been resolved. So for now let’s just take a look through what we have – in particular looking at these two questions:

  • What were the reasons for Snapper originally not being chosen as the preferred tenderer for Auckland’s integrated ticketing solution?
  • What pressure, if any, did the government end up putting on Auckland Transport to allow Snapper to launch the Snapper/HOP (from now on referred to as SNOP) card early last year?

We’ll see what other interesting stuff we come across on the way.

A useful place to start is an NZTA Ministerial Briefing from September last year which provides some background information on integrated ticketing generally, but in particular the issue of branding and the inter-relationship between the SNOP card and other, future (at that point) HOP cards. Helpfully, the briefing summarises some of the technical details of the Thales system and how it differs from the Snapper system – so from the start we can begin to get an understanding of the potential difficulties in integrating the two:

From reading a bit more detail in other documents it seems that DESfire is what’s typically used for public transport based smart-cards. It does what is a reasonably simple job really really well and really really quickly. The Java JCOP is more commonly used for contactless cards purchasing small items. Like what Snapper does in terms of micro-retail payments.

Looking at another, more detailed, document – a presentation to the NZTA board – this distinction is highlighted further. The Thales system is designed around providing a really good solution for public transport and provides very fast read times by not complicating things too much.  The presentation, from 2009 and as part of the process of informing and educating the board about integrated ticketing before NZTA signed off on their pretty significant financial contribution towards the project, noted that the Thales system was of excellent quality and didn’t raise any concerns about ARTA’s choice of them as the preferred supplier:

The presentation has quite a lot of discussion around the extent to which third party equipment should be allowed in the system. There are a range of ways in which third-party equipment can form part of the integrated ticketing system – from different machines, different cards right through to separate systems and ‘clearing houses’. NZTA’s preference was to have as little third party equipment as possible, because this made the system a lot cheaper and a lot simpler.

So to answer our first question, it seems like Thales was probably chosen as the preferred supplier because their technology delivered better on the core goal of the integrated ticketing project: a smartcard for public transport purposes. Snapper’s different technology was more based around micro-retail. My experience with my SNOP card is certainly that it feels really really slow in using the card to have it register properly. I can put the card in front of the reader while still walking and find that it only registers when I’m just about to get beyond easy arm’s reach. With public transport efficiency so intertwined with reducing dwell times, slow readers are something you want to avoid.

The second question is perhaps the most politically sensitive, as touched upon in an NZ Herald article yesterday – the question of how much involvement central government might have had in persuading Auckland Transport to allow Snapper to become involved in the system even after they had lost the tender to Thales for being the preferred supplier. Here are the key points from yesterday’s article:

Labour transport spokesman Phil Twyford says correspondence between Wellington smart-card supplier Snapper and the Beehive shows the Government forced the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority to let the company join the Hop ticketing scheme after awarding the main contract to its rival, Thales.

Auckland Transport has since dumped Snapper for allegedly missing performance deadlines, a claim which the company denies.

Mr Twyford says Government denials of political interference are contradicted by a letter from Snapper chief executive Miki Szikszai to former Transport Minister Steven Joyce after a meeting in 2010.

Mr Szikszai wrote that he understood Mr Joyce’s “expectations are that … NZ Bus should be free … to implement Snapper equipment and join the Snapper scheme in Auckland.”

Here’s the letter that Mr Twyford is referring to. With the key extracts below: Perhaps reinforcing the likelihood of Steven Joyce wanting to get Snapper involved (perhaps hoping that the Thales solution would fail and Snapper would be able to take over the whole thing?) are a series of questions Joyce asked back in late 2008, when he had first become Minister of Transport and was obviously just coming to grips with the project for the first time. His questions were:

  • Why do we need a nationally transferable integrated ticketing system?
  • Why do we need to spend $100 million on an integrated ticket system for Auckland when Snapper has been provided for free and privately?
  • Can this project be stopped?

I think we obviously need to give Ministers a bit of leniency in their first couple of months – as without knowing the details these seem like reasonable questions to ask. But they certainly do give us the impression that Joyce was favourable towards Snapper and unfavourable towards the ARTA preferred Thales solution right at the start of his time as Minister. Fortunately the Ministry of Transport recommended strongly against stopping the project – and obviously that never happened.

I’m still working my way through the documents, which are in chronological order, and I imagine there might be quite a lot of more interesting stuff in recent times when it became clear that Snapper was failing to get things working with the Thales system – leading to them being cut from the project. But that will have to be the subject of another blog post.

Fairer fare zones

One of the most discussed parts of the draft Regional Public Transport Plan seems to have turned out to be the proposed fare zone map. My fellow bloggers Mr Anderson and Stu Donovan discussed the zones in previous posts, while today’s NZ Herald also quotes Labour MP Phil Twyford’s criticism of the proposed boundaries.

A draft published by Auckland Transport for public discussion shows eight travel zones proposed for introduction between the middle of next year and the end of 2014.

Unless the plan is radically overhauled after submissions on the regional public transport plan close on November 5, passengers will be able to travel to central Auckland from as far north as Long Bay for a two-zone fare, at a price yet to be determined.

But it will cost a three-zone fare to travel from anywhere west of New Lynn or south of Onehunga or Otahuhu, despite New Lynn and Onehunga being 10km from the city centre, compared with 20km from Long Bay to downtown.

Mr Twyford, Labour’s transport spokesman, said that was blatantly unfair on low-income working families in his area and South Auckland who relied on public transport.

“It looks like the public transport map for Alabama, 1955.

“The parts of West Auckland I represent are probably the worst served by public transport of any area in Auckland City. I don’t believe they should be disadvantaged in this way.”

Mr Twyford’s analogy is a bit excessive, but looking at the zone map he does have a bit of a point about the North Shore doing unreasonably well out of the proposed boundaries:Long Bay, Kumeu, Whitford and Manukau all roughly fall about 20 kilometres from downtown. Yet the zones they fall within are very very different:

  • A trip from Long Bay to the city would only be two zones
  • A trip from Whitford or Kumeu to the city would be four zones
  • A trip from Manukau to the city would be three zones

The other anomaly in the zone map is, I think, the huge southern zone. Does it really make sense for trips between Mangere and the city (barely 10km) to be charged the same as a trip from Drury to the city (over 30km)? I don’t really think so. While huge zones have a potential advantage in that you can take quite a long trip for the price of a single zone, they will inevitably mean a fairly high price per zone travelled through. With the large zones above I can’t see this system stacking up with prices of much lower than $2.50 for each zone you travel through – which would mean some pretty whopping costs for people outside the isthmus to the west and the south. Smaller zones seem likely to result in a lower charge “per zone” and therefore probably less change from the current fare levels.

For a start, let’s split that northern zone into an upper and a lower zone. For simplicity’s sake let’s just use the current boundary for the Northern Pass
The logical place to split the southern boundary is at Manukau City, with a bit of a “grey boundary” across a band east and west of there to ensure short trips don’t fall into the cost of a two zone ticket.

That leaves us with something like this:

There would be some other implications for outer areas:

  • The outer north would fall into the same zone as the outer west as both would be 4 zones from the city. This cleans up a fairly odd anomaly in the current maps.
  • Whitford and Maraetai would probably fall into the “four zones from city” zone along with Manurewa, Papakura etc.
  • Pukekohe would probably now be five zones from the city, which makes sense as it’s similar in distance from the city as Warkworth (which actually gets a bus service in the RPTP and also would sensibly be five zones from the city)

I think that altogether this would make for a fairer system and probably result in lower “per zone” fare charges and less change from current fare levels. The only other possible question is whether the isthmus should be split into an eastern zone and a western zone to further lower the cost of each zone’s travel.

LTMA Bill debated in parliament

Major amendments to the Land Transport Management Act – the primary piece of legislation that governs the management and funding of transport in New Zealand – have been introduced to parliament. There was a bit of discussion of the changes last year when they were first announced, as well as further discussion of changes to borrowing policy more recently, but we will watch the issue closely over the next few months as the bill winds its way through the process – to highlight areas where it really needs to change and why.

Here’s Labour transport spokesperson Phil Twyford’s opening speech in relation to the bill:

And Green MP Julie-Anne Genter’s:

Finally, supporting our goal here of political neutrality, here’s National’s David Bennett:

I’ll see if I can concentrate on digging through the details of this legislation over the next few days and weeks so that we can all understand its potential impact.

More Puhoi-Wellsford discussion in parliament

Phil Twyford had another go at the Puhoi-Wellsford project in parliament yesterday – interestingly this time with Maurice Williamson answering the questions:

You can read the transcript of the exchange here.

I thought the most interesting part was the answer to the last question Mr Twyford asked:

Phil Twyford: Is the Minister aware of a 2008 report prepared by Sinclair Knight Merz consultants—the current consultants working on the Pūhoi to Wellsford project—that said that “the scope for substantial economic growth with the upgrading of SH1 is limited.”, and “Even a significant increase in this contribution of the project [to tourism] would be modest when set against the likely costs of road upgrading.”, and does he agree with the project’s consultants on this matter?

Hon MAURICE WILLIAMSON: I am aware that when any huge projects of the nature of the roads of national significance are proposed, a wide range of views are held. Those who are opposed to building roading networks come out with some of the most shonky figures to try to prove why you should not do them, and those who support them come out with their numbers. I think the numbers that the New Zealand Transport Agency is using, which are well founded, well analysed, and well based on, are the actual numbers that this House should give some credence to.

The “shonky figures” referred to come from this report, and in particular the section of that report shown below:

The really interesting thing is that the same consultants who prepared this 2008 report are still the lead consultants providing NZTA with advice on Puhoi-Wellsford. I wonder whether Mr Williamson’s comments were merely ignorant of this fact, or whether he accidentally let slip that the project really is based on “shonky” advice?

Warkworth-Wellsford: in or out?

Yesterday NZTA released a map of their projects and priorities in Auckland, as part of the National Land Transport Programme release of information. The whole map (in case NZTA remove or update it) is shown below: As Cam’s post yesterday noted, there’s something in the way Puhoi-Wellsford is shown that really stood out – showing the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road as a “possible” Road of National Significance. This is compared to the Puhoi-Warkworth section which is (presumably) a “definite” RoNS.

This is pointed out a bit clearer in the image below:

Labour’s Transport Spokesperson Phil Twyford picked up on this issue in parliament today, and in a press release. Here’s the parliament exchange with Gerry Brownlee:

But just recently NZTA have come out to say that the map was wrong, and in fact Warkworth to Wellsford still is part of the RoNS – not just a ‘possible’ RoNS:

The NZ Transport Agency has confirmed that there is no change to the status of the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance north of Auckland, and apologised for any confusion caused by an error in a pamphlet published yesterday as part of announcements for the 2012-15 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP).

NZTA Chief Executive Geoff Dangerfield says it is planned to upgrade the entire route, but the preferred alignment and timing of construction of the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road of national significance is yet to be determined.

While all of the material released as part of the 2012-15 National Land Transport Programme give emphasis to the activities planned for the next 3 years, one pamphlet relating to Auckland contained an error with a map refering to the Warkworth to Wellsford section as a “possible” road of national significance.

The NZTA announced in April this year that it had determined the preferred route to build a new motorway between Puhoi and Warkworth.

“We said then, and repeat now, that the new route will form part of the whole Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance,” Mr Dangerfield says. “We also said that an indicative route for the Warkworth to Wellsford section was not being announced at that time, because we have not yet done the necessary work to determine where this section of the highway will go and do not expect to do so within the next 3 year period. That was what the dotted line was meant to convey,” says Mr Dangerfield.

There is no change to the status of the Puhoi to Wellsford RoNS.

The government and NZTA find themselves in a really difficult position when it comes to Warkworth to Wellsford. On the one hand, the project clearly doesn’t make economic sense – with a much more basic upgrade providing far better value for money than a whole new alignment. However, on the other hand cutting the project back to Warkworth would really undermine the way it’s being sold as a connection between Auckland and Northland. A project ending at Warkworth would really come across as being largely for the benefit of those travelling to the beaches east of there during the holiday periods.

Of course the sensible approach would be to just build the Warkworth bypass section and do some safety upgrades on the existing road to buy us a decade or two until we really need to build the whole thing (assuming we ever do). That should free up well over a billion dollars for spending on more useful projects. I’m pretty sure NZTA know this too.