Much of the debate over the Unitary Plan should be over the question of how should Auckland grow. However, this debate has been somewhat derailed by a reasonable number of people questioning whether Auckland should grow at all – or whether it should grow as much. I think it mainly comes out of selfishness and shows a complete lack of understanding from where the growth is coming and something we’ve tackled on the blog before. As a theoretical question, there are perhaps pros and cons of New Zealand’s future population growth being focused so much in Auckland and perhaps there is an argument that central government should do more to encourage people to settle elsewhere in the country.
Of course the next, related, question is whether such an approach would work. Or how nasty you’d have to actually get in order to make a difference as – after all – Auckland’s comparatively high house prices are already a pretty huge incentive to live elsewhere in New Zealand. In yesterday’s NZ Herald, an opinion piece by Warkworth resident Bryan Jackson looked at this issue:
The debate should firstly be about the need or wish to increase Auckland’s population by one million. The UP looks at an Auckland population of 2.5 million by 2043. This would mean 600 more Aucklanders each week for the next 30 years. Is that what you want? Is this population imbalance good for the rest of New Zealand?
There seems to be a fixation in some quarters on growth. And in order to have growth you have to have more people in Auckland. But bigger is not always better.
What are the reasons for not wanting 1 million more people in Auckland? A major reason is the congestion they would cause in our schools, hospitals, parks, on our roads plus the cost of accommodation. At present Auckland’s infrastructure in relation to transport is not coping.
The lack of sufficient houses being built is only making the future look bleaker. So where are the additional people to live? One of the aims of the UP is to allow the building of 35sq m apartments. Will you be rushing to buy one? Increased congestion, pollution, noise and crime are definite consequences of another million people living in Auckland.
I have no issue with small apartments, and clearly the fact that most apartment buildings in downtown Auckland are full suggests that people are happy to live in them. But I can see where Mr Jackson is coming from generally – if there’s spare infrastructure capacity elsewhere in the country why not utilise that rather than pumping most people into Auckland where infrastructure is often bursting at the seams.
But then the opinion piece starts to get into the more curly question of “how”:
But why not limit the population growth? Of Auckland’s population increase, 33 per cent is derived from immigration and 66 per cent from births.
Reducing the number of migrants coming to New Zealand each year would be a first step. Short-term visas for migrant workers should be abolished. The number of foreign students should be reduced and they should not be able to receive residency while studying here. If the Government wants 80,000 students a year then it should direct a large number to study outside of Auckland. Over the past 10 years NZ has taken in 7500 refugees. We should have a hiatus period of taking none or they could be directed to live in the South Island. Compounding the position is that both immigrants and refugees then bring family members to New Zealand to settle. This reunification should be abandoned.
Redirecting people away from settling or living in Auckland would be a positive step. A good example is in Invercargill where students pay no fees. The fees at Auckland learning institutes should be increased and those elsewhere removed or reduced significantly.
Another group who could be redirected out of Auckland are those who wish to live in retirement homes. Banning the building of any more in Auckland could be followed by rate or compliance cost reductions to developers who build their retirement homes further afield.
It is interesting how migration tends to get picked on, even though the bulk of population growth is from natural increase. As New Zealand’s population ages I think it’s actually really important we have a steady flow of well educated young migrants coming into the country – after all them and their children are the ones who will end up paying for my pension one day! Sure we could perhaps encourage migrants to settle somewhere other than Auckland, but that seems pretty harsh as often the migrant communities are best established in Auckland, making the settlement process easier and more pleasant. Cutting refugee numbers or disallowing family reunions just seems nasty and unlikely to reduce the growth by more than a drop in the bucket. Further it would impact on our international commitments and regardless, I believe quite a few refugees are settled outside of Auckland anyway.
And how about natural increase – where the bulk of population growth comes from?
As so much of the population increase is likely to come from an increase in births, a decrease is urgent. Incentives need to be provided such as free contraception, especially to those under 20 years of age. The provision of family benefits regardless of whether you have two or 10 children should be looked at.
I’m pretty sure there already is free contraception for under 20s, but it starts to seem like we’re going to some pretty ugly and extreme ends to avoid Auckland growing by quite so much. Is the pain really worth the gain – I’m not quite so sure as it seems pretty easy to end up on a slippery slope to some pretty nasty policies in order to battle against the overwhelming attractiveness of Auckland as a place for people to live.
The post I wrote a week or so ago, asking the question of whether Auckland should grow at the pace, or to the extent, of current projections, generated more comments than any other post on this blog ever. There has also been an ongoing flow of letters to the editor in the NZ Herald questioning whether it’s in New Zealand’s best interest, including Auckland’s best interest, to see such a significant chunk of the country’s future population growth in one city.
This situation seems to arise from a lot of people not liking the extent to which the Unitary Plan proposes intensification within Auckland but also not really liking the alternative of seeing Auckland sprawl further and further into the countryside. Put simply, given the choice of “up”, “out” or “both” they think there’s another option of “neither” (or at least not to the extent proposed). Seeing further projections of worsening traffic conditions over the next 30 years, even if we spend an eye-watering amount of money on transport infrastructure, probably reinforces these thoughts.
Personally I don’t mind the prospect of Auckland growing so much, as long as we ensure that growth happens in a way that’s well designed and properly pays for itself. I like the hustle and bustle of a big city, I like Auckland’s growing diversity, I think that 1.5 million is a messy population: big enough to experience the problems of a big city but not quite big enough to afford solutions or enjoy the benefits of being a proper big city. But a lot of people don’t think this way – some because they’re fearful of change and others because they see the cost of this, they see other parts of New Zealand suffering from depopulation and they see the potential efficiencies from spreading the burden and benefits of growth more widely.
Whilst there do appear to be some fairly valid arguments in favour of distributing the country’s future population growth a bit more evenly, the really tricky question is “how?” If Auckland’s high property prices don’t already put people off living here enough, then it’s hard to see what ‘could be done’ to change things.
One possible option came to my mind when reading a recent Atlantic Cities article on the impacts of high speed rail on second and third tier cities. Generally the effects on those cities were quite significant:
Through facilitating market integration, bullet trains will stimulate the development of second- and third-tier cities. By offering households and firms a larger menu of location alternatives, bullet trains help to protect the quality of life of the growing urban population. We document that this transport innovation is associated with rising real estate prices in the nearby secondary cities.
What does that actually mean? The Atlantic Cities article provides further explanation:
The idea works like this: by reducing travel time, high-speed rail effectively pushes secondary cities closer to major cities. (That’s especially true for places roughly 60 to 470 miles apart — too far to drive but often not far enough to justify the cost of flying.) This enhanced proximity enables employers to base themselves in the major city and create satellite offices in the now-accessible secondary cities where rents are much cheaper.
Meantime, employees themselves can settle in secondary cities and have the amenities of the major cities without (again) the high cost of living and also without draining public resources. That relieves the crowded infrastructure of the major cities, in particular traffic congestion, and also may lead to less sprawl, promoting a more sustainable development pattern. As Zheng and Kahn portray it, the situation offers the best of both worlds.
There’s increasing evidence that of this effect in China:
The researchers found evidence that housing prices are appreciating in the secondary cities connected to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou by the bullet systems. These spikes in real estate reveal a rise in the market potential of the satellite areas, according to the study.
Zheng and Kahn point to three main factors that can trigger this market integration effect. First, there must be a reasonably high population density in a high-speed corridor. Next, there must be sufficient secondary cities to handle the extra population load. Third, the competing travel modes must already be congested or at capacity.
The article makes a series of comparisons to the proposed High Speed railway line in California.
While New Zealand is unlikely to see “true” high speed rail anytime in the next century, it strikes me that cities like Hamilton and Tauranga fit pretty well into the role of “second and third tier cities” which could feed off Auckland to a greater extent if a transport option was provided which brought them within a more reasonable commuting time from Auckland. Something like a rail system offering 160-180 kph speeds that could mean less than an hour’s travel to Hamilton and less than an hour and a half from Tauranga.
Of course achieving such an outcome would require really massive investment. Not only would the existing rural sections of the line need to be electrified and substantially upgraded, but extra ‘express tracks’ would need to be provided within the Auckland metropolitan area to ensure that these express trains were able to bypass metropolitan rail services. You’d need full grade separation, probably some major sound walls and so forth.
However, such a project could quite conceivably end up being the cheaper option when compared to more and more transport upgrades within Auckland itself – especially compared to motorway projects such as an Additional Harbour Crossing or adding more and more lanes to existing motorways for smaller and smaller marginal benefit. By leveraging off Auckland to a greater extent, perhaps it would be feasible for Hamilton to grow to 500,000 people or more – taking significant pressure off the growth of Auckland. Even with a super-fast train I don’t think I’d want to live there, but perhaps some people would.
Something like this seems about the only way, unless you start to get really draconian about where people live, to take growth pressure off Auckland. Unless there are other ideas out there?
Reaction to the release of the Unitary Plan last Friday has been quite interesting – with yesterday’s NZ Herald article about proposed new growth in the rural parts of Auckland finally providing some balance from the “OMG skyscrapers everywhere” scaremongering. The “up or out” debates will surely continue for quite some time to come, and that’s fine, it’s an interesting and constructive debate over Auckland’s future.
What is threatening to derail this debate is the number of people who suggest a third option – where Auckland simply doesn’t grow by the million extra people anticipated over the next 30 years. Here’s a classic example from that great source of informed comment – “Your Views” on the Herald website:
How about provide incentives to families and businesses to move to areas outside Auckland. Provide incentives for recent immigrants and refugees too.
As a 3rd generation born Aucklander, this recent flood of population to Auckland is destroying any hope of achieving the sort of modest lifestyle my parents had and the outlook is even worse for the next generation. And why should we have to leave our home town?
There’s some logic in the argument that throughout most of New Zealand there’s infrastructure with spare capacity (be it half-empty schools, very empty roads or under-utilised water/waste-water systems) whereas in Auckland most of our infrastructure is either already bursting at the seams or certainly will be with another million people added over the next 30 years. We are told that it’ll be necessary to spend the simply staggering sum of $70 billion on transport in Auckland over the next 30 years. We can imagine the number of new schools needed in places like the southern greenfield area, which will be larger in population than Hamilton.
Of course there are many advantages of a larger city. Agglomeration economies will bring in higher productivity and higher paid jobs, economies of scale should enable us to afford these larger infrastructural investments (as long as we build the clever projects and not the stupid ones) and from an environmental perspective people living in relatively dense urban environments typically have a smaller ecological footprint than those in lower density suburban or rural environments.
This leads to two questions in my mind:
- Do the benefits of Auckland continuing to grow at a much faster rate than the rest of the country outweigh the costs of doing so?
- Is it feasible, practical affordable or even moral to try and intervene to change this trend?
While I personally suspect that the answer to these two questions are “yes” and “no”, it certainly seems as though a lot of people remain unconvinced over this issue. Perhaps there are small ways in which growth could be encouraged away from Auckland – for example through the provision of a very high speed rail link (160+ kph) between Auckland and Hamilton. However I think that efforts to encourage people away from Auckland are likely to struggle (heck you’d think the high house prices would be enough to put people off living in Auckland!) as Auckland is a really nice place to live and also because future employment opportunities seem likely to focus employment even more around the kind of activities that Auckland will specialise in (high skill specialist work).
It would, however, be interesting to see my first question properly analysed – probably by central government if they were interested in more than just making their property development buddies rich through urban sprawl. While many people will never be convinced that it’s a good idea for Auckland to keep growing, we might at least get a better understanding of what we stand to gain, but at what price, this future is compared to something else.
There’s a lot of regular discussion about how much Auckland is projected to grow by over the next 30 or so years – “another million people” being the common catch-phrase. The “response to Minister’s questions” included as part of the documents released with the City Centre Future Access Study includes quite a lot of interesting information about Auckland’s future growth and how realistic the projections are. I think that a lot of the analysis probably has come about as a result of Central Government being somewhat sceptical (or perhaps just terrified) of the projected growth rates into the future.
The pure “population growth” numbers come from Statistics New Zealand population projections which presumably look at levels of natural increase (which is relatively easy to project) and immigration (much more unpredictable) before coming up with Low, Medium and High projections. Here are the different projections for Auckland over the next 30 years:
The Auckland Plan is based off the high projections, presumably to ensure that the “worst case scenario” in terms of population growth has been planned for. However, in the analysis of the merits of large infrastructure projects it seems that Central Government has insisted on using the medium projections – I guess as they want to be cautious on the low side of not ending up spending a lot of money on something that may not be necessary. Both approaches have a certain logic to them – but I guess the important thing to note is that all the analysis of the CRL’s merits will depend on the medium growth projections so can’t really be criticised as overly optimistic (particularly as they’re below Auckland’s historic rates of growth).
Putting the population growth projections into some sort of perspective can be achieved by comparing Auckland’s growth over the next 30 years with projected growth in other parts of New Zealand:To me, the graph above is an excellent illustration of why the bulk of new infrastructure expenditure in New Zealand that’s required for future growth reasons simply has to be in Auckland. If I were Len Brown I’d be emailing Central Government a copy of this graph on a daily basis to remind them of the need to invest in Auckland.
Looking now at where growth is expected to occur within Auckland, it seems that most of the analysis here has been derived from a fairly complex modelling process which doesn’t make too much sense to me. It’s outlined in the diagram below:
It seems as though things like transport accessibility and market attractiveness are key inputs into the modelling process, which is good. I suppose that any model is always only as good as the assumptions which sit behind it, but at least it seems that there’s a fairly extensive process that occurs to come up with the population and employment projections for different parts of Auckland.
The results of the modelling seem fairly believable at a cursory glance: significant growth in the city centre, city fringe, inner isthmus suburbs and then in areas where large chunks of greenfield land are proposed to be made available (whether that land is actually taken up in a market that seems to be changing towards more demand for inner city living is probably my biggest question with the results):It seems that a similar modelling process has then been used for employment projections – although this time without a Statistics NZ total number. Once again there are high, medium and low projections:The Census in a couple of months’ time should provide useful data to check past projections against – as I imagine the economic difficulties since 2007/2008 have had some impact upon past employment projections.
Different types of employment are also analysed in the modelling process, which is quite useful for projects like the CRL as the comparative growth of office-based employment as Auckland’s economy develops in the future is captured. As we will see, this has some important impacts on the location of future employment growth, but for now it’s just useful to note that “commercial” (which seems like it must be office-based employment) is projected to growth faster than other types of employment activity in the future:Now when these trends are looked at in terms of the distribution of employment growth around Auckland, growth in the city centre really stands out. Not particularly surprising as the strongest growth rates are for the very type of employment that’s most likely to end up in the city centre (plus the city centre is generally the most accessible point in the whole region):The notation that the graph above assumes CRL is place is interesting as I suspect a similar graph without the CRL in places would probably show significantly less employment growth in the city centre and fringe. After all, the capacity provided by CRL is key to unlocking the potential growth of the central city in particular.
I think what all the numbers above highlight most clearly to me is how, even using the medium growth projections (which personally I think are probably a bit on the low side) the scale of growth faced by Auckland over the next 30 years is simply massive. I am also quite impressed by the way in which it seems many of the further projections are derived (it’s not just plucking numbers out of thin air!) which leads me to believe that generally the scale, location and type of growth (both for population and employment) seem to be as soon an estimate as possible at the moment. And all of this growth just highlights to me how crucial the CRL is – imagining adding another 700,000+ people without being able to improve the frequency of our rail system beyond a train every 10 minutes is just a joke of a future.
Most people who read this blog do so because they are interested in transport. But sometimes I do wonder if we lose sight of the fact that transport is (usually) a means to an end, rather than an end in itself (putting aside purely recreational travel).
The need for transport is usually derived from a need to overcome the barriers created by space (in the terrestrial sense). Put simply, “space matters”. To use a somewhat trivial example, have you ever been on Trade Me and seen precisely the item you were looking for, but have decided not to purchase it because the seller was based in the South Island and shipping costs were too high? Congratulations, you’re a victim of transport costs. Like inequality, transport costs are effectively “sand in the wheels of capitalism,” they prevent things from happening that would make us all better off.
Space is not just a barrier to economic activities, but it also makes our lives that much less fulfilling in a social sense. Have you ever not attended an event because it was “too far away” or “too expensive to get there.” I have – and it generally sucks not being able to do something simply because of the transport costs involved in getting there. Transport enables social interaction and this provides a whole host of benefits that go well beyond what is counted in a market economy. The ability to develop and maintain personal connections over longer distances is, for me, the single greatest contribution of social media sites such as Facebook. But internet communications only get you so far; after a while you do need to see the whites of someone’s eyes and touch the hair on their head.
Which brings us round to why New Zealand needs to take cities seriously.
In essence cities are little more than the physical manifestation of our attempts to overcome two important economic forces, namely transport costs and fixed costs. By co-locating a lot of people, businesses, and amenities close to each other, transport costs are indeed lower (even allowing for the presence of congestion). But the concentration of people also confers another advantage: Cities gain sufficient economies of scale that they can deliver services and infrastructure that have high fixed costs. Street lighting, for example, is expensive to provide in low density areas because most of their costs are fixed, as are ports, airports, and stadiums. Cities are therefore a mechanism through which we can spread these costs over more people, which in turn lowers the average cost per person.
But while cities have many advantages, they do bring their own suite of socio-economic problems, most notably congestion. Over time, however, humans have tended to do what we do well: Find innovative incremental solutions to the problems that confront us. Gas and electric street lighting, for example, had dramatic impacts on crime rates in post-industrial European cities, such as Paris. Similarly, the advent of elevators enabled us to construct taller buildings than we could previously, which is most evident during the sky-scraper boom in Manhattan. In terms of congestion, we have slowly developed alternatives to congested transport corridors and/or modes – or simply arranged our land use patterns to minimise the need to travel long distances.
A plethora of innovations has enabled us to overcome many of the problems that have previously detracted from urban life. In turn, they have enhanced the socio-economic advantage of cities over rural areas. Whereas rural areas by definition will struggle to overcome the disadvantages engendered by long distances and a dispersed population, the issues that detract from urban life are “softer” and more readily solved. For example, there are a range of transport technologies on the horizon that should gradually contribute to better urban air quality and lower noise. Another urban issue bites the dust so to speak.
To put it simply, while cities have their problems, these are gradually being solved. And this in turn confers cities with an increasing comparative advantage over rural areas. Hard data supports this suggestion: In 2008 the proportion of people living in cities passed 50% for the first time in human history, and it continues to increase. Rural populations globally are actually stagnant, i.e. all of our population growth is occurring in urban areas. In New Zealand the proportion of the population living in predominantly urban areas, or areas with high degrees of urban influence, passed 85% some years back and is probably now getting closer to 90%.
It now seems clear that cities are not only a magnet for young people and immigrants, both of which have driven growth until recently, but also empty nest baby-boomers who increasingly crave and need the services that cities offer. It’s hard getting a hip replacement in Te Kauwhata.
What does this all mean? Well, on a simple level I think it means that New Zealanders need to grow up and learn to love our cities. Back in 2010 my colleague Jarrett Walker wrote this post on Auckland, which he kicked off with the following comment (emphasis added):
Greetings from New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life … To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.
Indeed, as Matt notes in this post Auckland is a beautiful city and this is increasingly being noticed. I think what we need now is to take this growing external awareness and start to foster our own internal appreciation for how cities contribute to our way of life. And for those of you who ponder these things, perhaps the best “gift” we can leave for future generations of New Zealanders are cities worth living in. Let’s start taking cities seriously; we might be surprised by how much fun we can have along the way.
P.s. As an aside economies of scale are very important, and I’d suggest that most places in New Zealand outside of Auckland suffer economically from a lack of scale. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Dunedin recently, for example, and everytime come away thinking that all the city really needs is another 20,000 people or so.
The NZ Herald reports that latest population estimates show Auckland’s population increasing from the current 1.5 million to almost 2 million by 2031 – out of a total NZ population that will be over 5 million by that point:
New subnational population projections show Auckland will continue to be New Zealand’s fastest growing region, and account for three-fifths of the country’s population growth between 2011 and 2031.
In 2031, 38 percent of Kiwis will reside in Auckland, compared to 34 percent in 2011. It is projected Auckland would have almost 2 million of New Zealand’s 5.2 million people.
Natural increase (births minus deaths) is projected to account for two-thirds of Auckland’s growth, and net migration (arrivals minus departures) the remaining one-third.
Of New Zealand’s 16 regions, only Auckland will have more births in 2027-31 than in 2007-11, but all regions will have more deaths as the population ages.
“Auckland has a slightly younger population than other regions, and younger populations tend to have more births and relatively fewer deaths,” population statistics manager Andrea Blackburn said.
I think there are a few key considerations in these numbers:
- Auckland accounts for well over half the country’s population growth in the next 20 years – which has some interesting implications in terms of requirements for new transport infrastructure.
- Auckland’s population growth is largely through natural increase, not just migration, meaning that such growth is more predictable than if it were more dependent on migration (migration tends to fluctuate enormously over time).
- Statistics NZ projections tend to be a bit conservative, with Auckland’s population often exceeding projections historically.
- Working out whether Auckland’s population growth will swamp the seeming decrease in per capita travel or not will be critical in getting an accurate idea around the amount of additional transport infrastructure Auckland might require in the future. Let alone what type of infrastructure might be needed.
I suppose the other big thing these numbers highlight is that growth in the rest of New Zealand will be pretty slow over the next 20 years. With the country’s current population not far off 4.5 million now, basically the whole rest of NZ will grow by only 280,000 over that time, around a 10% increase on current population. In contrast Auckland’s population will grow by around a third.
Occasionally it’s quite fun to look 50 years into the future and ask questions around “what will it be like?” Even the longest term planning documents around tend to just look at a 30 year vision, so going to 50 years is certainly another jump into the future beyond that point – but it’s quite fun and potentially quite useful to make sure what we’re doing in the next 10-20 years doesn’t limit our ability to do potentially very long-term projects.
Sub-national population estimates from Statistics NZ only go out as far into the future as 2031 – showing significant population growth for Auckland when compared to the rest of NZ (as we already know). National population estimates extend to our 50 year amount – to 2061 when the population of the country might be around 6 million. Here are some of the 2061 median projections:
Because of our ageing population, population growth tails off quite significantly mid-century. I suspect that questions around whether NZ’s population will ever be significantly more than 6 million come down to migration scenarios. Stats NZ did looks at what it would take for NZ to have a significantly higher population in the future, compared to the median projection – noting the following:
I have long thought that the real unknown here is what happens in climate change scenarios which are more severe than predicted. New Zealand generally seems to suffer less than many other countries (especially in comparison to Australia and the Pacific Islands) in ‘severe climate change’ scenarios – meaning that we could end up becoming a pretty attractive place to live for vast numbers of our near neighbours. Scenarios such as reaching 10 million due to an average net migration gains of 68,000 people per year (combined with a fairly conservative fertility rate) do seem unlikely, but not implausible.
Now let’s translate that into thinking about what might happen in this part of New Zealand – in particular the area known as the “Upper North Island”. The table below shows the population of this Upper North Island area up to 2031 – and how it represents an increasing proportion of New Zealand’s population (particularly in the high-growth scenarios):
Under a “high immigration” scenario one would expect the proportion of NZers living in the Upper North Island area by 2061 to have continued to grow significantly. Let’s say in our 2061 scenarios you might have around 65% of New Zealanders living in the Upper North Island area. This would mean 3.9 million people if the population is 6 million, 4.55 million out of a 7 million population and 6.5 million from a total of 10 million. In reality I think the proportion of the population in the Upper North Island would be higher in the higher growth scenarios (as shown in the 2031 projections) but we’re just using this as a broad guide.
I suppose the point of all this lead in is to highlight that the real bulk of the country’s population growth in the next 50 years is likely to be in the area often referred to as the “Golden Triangle”, between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.
Significantly improving transport accessibility between these three areas, effectively joining them together into operating as something of a ‘super-region’ may result in significant benefits for New Zealand as a whole, particularly if higher population growth scenarios mean that Auckland in 2061 has a population pushing 3 million and is really struggling to find a way to house all those people.
Although some people currently commuter between Hamilton and Auckland on a daily basis, I feel sorry for them as they must end up spending a huge chunk of their lives in the car going back and forth on State Highway 1 – the 126 km trip which takes 1 hour 40 without congestion and probably more than 2 hours each way at peak times. What they really need, and what we need generally if we decide that it’s advantageous to ease the pressure on Auckland, is a faster way to connect up these cities – including Tauranga as our likely key trade centre over time as Auckland discovers it wants to claim back its waterfront more and more.
I think the obvious solution to this is getting a transport technology to link the cities up that is really fast. And the obvious option there is through vastly improving our inter-city rail network. We current do have a rail link between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga – it’s the busiest part of the country’s freight network and shifts a pretty huge amount of “stuff” between these cities. But the line is slow – horrifically slow in terms of its potential suitability for inter-city trains. The failed attempts to introduce rail services between Hamilton and Auckland were most probably doomed because of this very issue – despite not getting stuck in traffic the train service just couldn’t be time competitive when compared to driving or even catching the bus.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. And I’m not saying we need to completely rebuild the rail connections from scratch to 300 kph high-speed rail standards either. If we could get the tracks up to a standard which allows trains to average 120-160 kph on their trips between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga you could really revolutionise the time it takes to get between these three cities and really bring them into the one “super region” in terms of inter-city accessibility. This is shown in the table below:
I suspect to really achieve something revolutionary in the connections between these three cities you’re probably going to need an average speed of at least 140 kph, which means some sections needing to operate at much higher speeds than that. Just at a glance then we’re likely to need the following works done:
- A full express track bypass of the Auckland suburban rail network
- Full electrification (presumably)
- Significant track geometry improvements, especially just south of Pukekohe and also whether the Hamilton to Tauranga section really needs to divert up to Morrinsville
- Doubling tracking of at least most of the Hamilton-Tauranga section of track
Obviously we’re talking a multi-billion dollar project here. But then again we are thinking 50 years into the future. Perhaps the best way to think about this is to compare its potential value with that of some of the less sensible RoNS projects (Puhoi-Wellsford and much of the Wellington Northern Corridor), or against the possible next generation of RoNS projects (Cambridge-Tirau, Hawkes Bay, Hamilton-Tauranga motorway). Against the zany motorway plans the government has for the very long term, this rail proposal start to look really sensible (though I’m not sure whether whether it’s better than a RoNS is really the best way to measure a project’s worth.)
This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds. It was published as an Opinion Piece in a recent Sunday Star Times (though not online).
William Bambridge, flautist ‘of some competence’, future photographer Royal to Queen Victoria, and sire of no fewer than three all-England international footballers, made this observation in 1844: ‘I suppose as a whole Auckland is a gradually thriving place, tho’ as a town it is miserably laid out and built.’ Fair enough.
Auckland then was brand new, an encampment by a stream, Waihorotiu, the one that still flows under Queen St complete with its taniwha. The problem is that this description of Auckland is still pretty accurate. There are encouraging signs that things are at last improving, but in general, and particularly since the middle of last century, Auckland has done little but get further and further from gracing its natural setting. As if we have been determined to fulfil Bambridge’s description.
What does it matter, you might ask, so long as it is ‘a gradually thriving place’. Well this is the very point. I have a view on how this country can best compete with Australia, on how to ensure it thrives a little more than gradually. And it isn’t about which place can pay its people the least or has the lower taxes.
It’s about where is the better place to live, and this means having a high quality built environment as well as the more unmolested natural one. And spreading this growing city thinly over the surrounding countryside is about the surest way to achieve neither of things. As well as to bankrupt us through the sheer inefficiency of this 1960s model.
The attractions of city life are especially real for the more mobile younger population who can always opt for Sydney, Melbourne, or Shanghai, and certainly will keep doing so if we allow our urban centres to stay so substandard. And go they should, but it is essential that we do all we can to attract them back again before their pension age. Currently our cities bore young people to the airport.
It might seem obvious but it is worth pointing out that we live in cities in order to be closer to one another, not all of us of course, but ever increasing numbers of us desire the intensity of city life.
For New Zealand is undergoing the same demographic movements as China and most of the rest of the world, the quantities are somewhat different but the dynamic is the same. The urban centres of the upper North Island, and Auckland in particular, are growing at a far greater rate than the rest of the country. Auckland is projected to be home to three out of every four new New Zealanders, by birth or immigration, over the next couple of decades.
Even if various politicians and the makers of beer commercials know that at some level we don’t believe this and play to our fantasies of still being rugged country types, it is important to understand that we are not a rural population. Well over 75% of us live in the main centres, we have long been a nation of townies, and are urbanising fast.
A city is a not simply a big provincial town, it requires a different order of organisation, it offers a different set of pleasures and problems. For example the freedom the highway promises in the countryside becomes isolating and defiling in the city. So it is a relief that with the creation of the Super City at last this seems to be understood by local government. As can be seen by the determination to provide Auckland with a real urban transit system and attempts to constrain the cancer-like spread of low value suburbia over the beautiful and productive rural fringes.
Like the ungainly teenager it resembles, it is unclear if Auckland will be able to fulfil this potential, especially as at least for now, every step of the way it has to fight for the right to its own ideas with an uncomprehending and provincial-minded government. One that seems to be unwilling to let the city become the sophisticated adult it surely can.
Even so in some areas Auckland is beginning grow out of the dreary legacy of the postwar era. We are discovering, for example, that the city is actually by the sea and are building towards it in promising ways. But we have a very big struggle ahead to accommodate both population growth and deal with the very real twin taniwhas of our time, the end of cheap oil and the pressures of climate change. And in this most auto-dependent of cities.
A few years after the interesting and perceptive Mr Bambridge visited Auckland another Englishman stepped off a ship here, off one of the fabled First Four Ships in fact. And into a place that was to become very well ‘laid out and built’ indeed, Christchurch. He was also to try his hand at that great Victorian innovation, photography, but that is not what we remember him for.
Benjamin Mountfort was destined to become the great architect of the Gothic Revival in New Zealand, designing landmark buildings like the Canterbury Museum, the Provincial Chambers, and a whole collection of churches in this style of the Victorian medieval. A retiring and devout Anglican his works perfectly express the conscious aim of the Canterbury Association and others to create an imagined England in the South Pacific. The ruling ideology of that British century made visible. And at once giving Christchurch a defining character.
Much of this is now tragically in ruins. As a child of the more ramshackle north I always loved the texture and the richness of the Victorian and Edwardian streetscape in the central city, as I do still that of its Presbyterian neighbour to the south. But of course it is now clear that this stacking of brick and stone is a hopeless technology for our young and shaky land.
But still, the centre of Christchurch remains well ‘laid out’, street pattern being durable, and from the great loss there are some quick wins to be made. There is the chance to be rid some of the more miserable 20th century additions as well as the daft one way system. And to build a new modern Light Rail network to reconnect the heart to rest of the city. And of course what can be saved must be, but it will need more than this.
Mountfort first lost a church to an earthquake in Napier in 1931 and perhaps the contemporary rebuilding of that city is the model. It seems to this Aucklander that there is a fantastic opportunity for the building of a new central Christchurch by the best architects of the 21st century. To launch an ambitious programme of seismically secure, ecologically advanced and just plain beautiful contemporary building. Structures that offer answers to the challenges of this new century.
To seize this moment to add a stunning and ambitious contemporary layer to the centre seems to me to be the best way to get Christchurch back onto the world map, and to prevent the city from further fracturing into little more than a dissipated collection of bland and characterless shopping malls.
But also, in an authentic way, to honour the city’s great architectural past as well as the industry and determination of its founders.
From time to time I have a look around the Auckland Transport website to see if anything new and interesting is added. I decided to do that today and found this graph, it is showing the history of Auckland’s population, the number of PT trips as well as the total number of registered cars in the country as well as the number of new cars registered each year from 1920 through to 2011.
It does show quite clearly we still have a long way to go just to get out total PT usage back to what it was before the tram lines were removed in the 50′s
Also I have noticed that AT have put links on their home page to the latest patronage stats (April) as well as the minutes from the open session of the last board meeting. It is good to see that being made easier to find they both tended to be a bit buried before.
I’ve spent the last couple of days at an interesting conference, based around trying to be smarter about how we intensify our urban areas. There seems to be general agreement – at least amongst planners, architects, policymakers, urban designers and so forth – that we do want to intensify our urban areas, for important sustainability reasons, but also for simple economic efficiency reasons (that I’ve discussed before). The problem is the disconnect about actually making it happen. For a number of reasons, it seems that developers just don’t want to, or can’t, build the type of intensive urban development that our regional policies want. Something’s getting lost in the process.
There were many reasons for this discussed at the conference, issues like a misalignment between regional policies and ‘on the ground’ District Plan rules, the effect of minimum parking requirements, the mis-match between the location of “growth nodes” and where the market for higher density development actually is, the practical difficulties in amalgamating land – and so forth. Perhaps one of the most useful parts of the conference was learning about things a bit more from the developer’s, or real-estate expert, point of view. Trying to work out why they’re not particularly keen on building apartments next to the New Lynn rail trench, but instead want to build massive houses on 400 square metre sections in Flat Bush – and then discussing what interventions might be useful in turning this around so that the reality can match the regional strategies for once.
Interestingly, most of the discussion was about residential intensification. It seems that when we talk about intensification we often tend to really focus on answering big questions like “Auckland’s going to need another 350,000 dwellings by 2041, where the heck are we going to put them?” Incidentally, that number is true and we certainly will have to work hard to find out where to put those dwellings: in centres, along development corridors or through urban expansion? That is perhaps the biggest question that the upcoming Auckland Spatial Plan will need to answer.
But that’s only half the story in many respects. In 2041 Auckland will also have a whole pile more jobs, and probably will have jobs of a different kind than we do now as the economy changes and develops over time – particularly in response to technological advancements. An equally interesting question is “where are we going to put those jobs?” Are we going to sprinkle them around the region or are we going to concentrate them in the city centre and in a few key growth nodes? Drilling down a bit further, we obviously have different kinds of business activity – some being very jobs intensive (like offices) and some being very space intensive (such as warehousing and industry). Where are the most appropriate, efficient and sustainable locations for offices, where are the best places for less concentrated employment zones? Should we be letting offices establish in areas originally set aside for light industry and/or warehousing?
Now this being a transport blog (primarily) one thing that I find interesting is thinking about the different transport patterns that might result from different ways in which we structure the location of our employment nodes in the future. Furthermore, the decisions we make about what transport infrastructure to invest it will have a huge impact on where the market may wish to locate – improving access to the city centre through a project like the CBD Rail Tunnel is likely to make that area more attractive, and therefore in the longer run would encourage office space to locate there. Similarly, if we make planning provisions to focus office development in the city centre, Newmarket, Manukau and another couple of locations with excellent public transport links – both by encouraging it there and by discouraging it elsewhere – we can support investment in our public transport network.
If we looking internationally, it actually seems as though it’s the location, concentration and density of employment that has a bigger impact on the popularity and effectiveness of public transport than the density of residential dwellings. In fact, if we look at population density and try to compare it to public transport use we get confusing results: Sure, those are just four cities I’ve plucked results from, but they seem to clearly show that the relationship between population density and transit modeshare is somewhat more complex than one might think. I would suggest that perhaps a focus on employment density might be more useful: after all Los Angeles have highly dispersed employment compared to New York City, which has, in the form of Manhattan, some of the highest employment densities in the world. (Oddly enough though, Vancouver has a similar percentage of its jobs in the CBD as Auckland, yet has well over twice the PT modeshare – they just to PT well in Vancouver I suspect.)
If we bring this back to Auckland, statistics show that our employment is incredibly dispersed:
The region’s biggest single growth “hub” since 1996 has been in what Statistics NZ calls “North Harbour East”.
That and neighbouring Albany have grown from having 0.8 per cent of the region’s jobs in 1996 to 2.7 per cent in 2006.
The other two biggest growth areas are East Tamaki/Otara/Flat Bush (up from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent of the region’s jobs), and Auckland Airport (up from 1.9 per cent to 2.3 per cent).
There has been modest growth at Mt Wellington/Penrose (up from 5.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent) and around Manukau Central and Wiri (up from 3.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent).
Two other traditional business centres, Newmarket/Grafton and Takapuna/Westlake, have had their shares of the regional workforce shrink slightly, although with 3.2 per cent of the region’s jobs Takapuna/Westlake is still marginally ahead of its upstart rival at Albany.
But the overwhelming pattern in the region is that jobs are scattered widely – almost two-thirds are outside all of the “hubs”.
The last line is quite amazing. Two thirds of jobs in the Auckland region aren’t actually within any particular employment hub. While in some respects that might be good, if people live and work locally, what it also probably means is that if they don’t work near where they live, they’re almost certainly going to be driving to work.
Furthermore, in growing employment hubs, we aren’t exactly designing these places to be public transport friendly. This is an aerial photograph of “North Harbour East”: All those buildings are 2 to 3 levels of offices. They’re located in a way that’s actually fairly difficult to service with good quality public transport (even though the Constellation bus station isn’t too far away, it’s probably just beyond walking distance). This means that two-thirds (at least) of the land “needs” to be dedicated to parking – a somewhat inefficient use of land one would think.
There are some interesting debates to be held around the question of whether we want to concentrate or disperse employment – particularly where we want to locate office buildings that naturally will have a higher intensity of employees compared to warehouses of the same building size. Certainly having more employment on the North Shore has reduced peak-time pressure on the Auckland Harbour Bridge (peak time flows haven’t increased since the early 1990s in terms of vehicles), in south Auckland the development of new employment areas around East Tamaki and the Airport has certainly provided some people with the ability to work locally. Once again, if we look at the statistics we certainly see this happening:
Obviously breaking this down into former council areas is somewhat out of date, but it provides some useful patterns. We can see that around 60% of people living on the North Shore work there too, with a similar percentage in Manukau City. For Auckland City around 80% of people worked ‘locally’. Only in Waitakere City did more than half the population have to leave the area for work, but even there more Waitakere City residents worked locally than in Auckland City. It goes without saying that the shorter the distance people have to travel, the less pressure they place on the transport system and the more sustainable our outcome is. So employment dispersal certainly appears to have had some benefit.
But I can’t help but think there is also a cost here. It was probably reading through the business case for the CBD Rail Tunnel, and subsequently doing more research to learn about wider economic benefits, that I started to wonder whether Auckland is missing out on something by having such dispersed employment patterns. The enormous amount of money we have to spend on providing parking, the enormous amount of time our businesses must spend getting from “North Harbour East” to see their various clients and suppliers, the enormous cost that employees are burdened with when it comes to ensuring they’re able to drive to work, what is the economic impact of that? Furthermore, what is the cost when it comes to not enjoying the agglomeration benefits that may arise from a greater concentration of employment activity?
One theme of the conference was highlighting areas where we don’t know enough, where we haven’t undertaken enough research to really know what the best way forward is. I certainly think that the question of whether to concentrate or disperse employment is something we need to understand better – and should form a critical part of the Auckland Spatial Plan. I suspect that Auckland would benefit hugely, in economic terms, from having more concentrated employment patterns – because it would unlock agglomeration benefits, because jobs located in the higher concentration areas are likely to be more productive, because we won’t have to spend so much money, and two-thirds of our city, on providing parking. Of course, the fact that we’re also likely to be less auto-dependent in a city with a greater concentration of employment is also a positive, but I tend to think of public transport as the enabler of higher employment densities, not the reason for them.
Ultimately, I think we need to know whether it makes a difference to Auckland’s prosperity if a particular job is located on Apollo Drive in “North Harbour East” or whether it’s located on Albert Street in the CBD. I suspect, through agglomeration benefits and productivity effects, that Auckland would be better off having that job on Albert Street. But I think it would be helpful for the Auckland Spatial Plan to provide more clarity on this matter.