Postcard from Portland

Portland has something of a reputation as an urbanists poster child and my first impression is that it is indeed doing things right. Portland’s renaissance stems back ultimately to a local government amalgamation in the early 90s that led to a compact city master plan for the region that could actually be put into place (well the bits within Oregon state at least). This lead to a big focus on transit, walking and cycling and intensifying in the city. Some big parallels with the Auckland situation there, hopefully Portland represents what Auckland will achieve.

A few observations are immediate. They have short blocks, with lots of cross roads. That means lots of street frontage and lots of corners. Not much in the way of lanes or arcades, probably because they don’t need them. Most intersections are either four way stops with pedestrian priority, or signalised. I noticed that the ped signals appear to be synchronised on some of the main streets, I walked about eight blocks without breaking my stride!

There are a lot of street trees. Lots. They provide shade from the sun and make thing just that much more pleasant. I’m no arborist but those trees look young, perhaps only ten or fifteen years old. I get the feeling they were recently added in a citywide programme to tree every street in the city. Auckland should do the same. Also something that is not immediately obvious is they have very little fast food chains downtown… but they do have a permanent hawker/food truck market covering two city blocks!

Unlike Vancouver or Seattle the streets in Portland have a narrow cross section, probably 20m from building to building. That’s the same as Auckland. In a way it makes the streets more homely and intimate, especially as they aren’t choked with traffic. Broad footpaths, cycle lanes, tram tracks, trees, just not parking and dozens of traffic lanes. Again they intersections don’t splay out for extra lanes or turn pockets. If anyone tells you Auckland streets are too narrow for this or that, point to Portland.

Street parking is uncommon and I can’t recall many parking buildings, bar one particularly huge monster downtown. I wonder if that one building does most of the parking for the whole city?

Portland has both streetcar trams and proper light rail. There is a distinction here. The streetcars are conventional, relatively small 20m trams that run entirely on street. They are effectively flash buses with nice stops, and are great to ride, however they do run in mixed traffic. Downtown they run kerbside, with only one track per street. Opposing directions run on different streets one block apart which can be confusing at first. Frequencies are quite good at ten to fifteen minute head ways most of the day.

The light rail is a different beast. The vehicles are longer, taller and wider, and seem to run exclusively coupled into pairs. A pair like that is about the same size as a single EMU in Auckland, so it’s by no means small. While they do run on street downtown like the streetcars they use different streets and tracks and have a nominally traffic free lane. The killer app here however is that once outside the downtown grid the light rail runs on its own dedicated railway lines, generally located alongside freeways. So they have excellent, if a little slow, penetration into the dense city core, and fast long reach in the suburbs. I caught this out to the airport and it was faster and more convenient than many other airport rail links. There are four lines each running at ten minute headways, but in the centre they pair up on two corridors given very frequent service all day. A great system, and again it could be a very effective option for new corridors in Auckland.

I don’t have a picture of it, but there is one odd street with three lanes: streetcar to one side, light rail to the other, plus a bus lane in the middle!



A picture here of the Portland gondola, which they curiously call a tramway. Gondolas seem to be flavor of the month in transport terms, often they are an answer searching for a question with little regard given to their real life strengths and weaknesses. This application however does seem to be the right choice of technology. It serves a medical precinct and university built at the top of a very large, very steep hill, in an otherwise flat city. One of the streetcars terminates at the bottom station and there is a large paid bike parking lot, both of which give good access to the gondola.

Speaking of cycling, there is plenty of it but a conspicuous lack of segregated cycle lanes and cycle ways. Many city streets have painted-line-and-stencil bike lanes, and little else. Perhaps this is actually the holy grail for cycling: a city where cycling is such a normal, standard aspect of using the road, and where traffic is so light and civilized, that special cycling infrastructure just isn’t needed.



A quick picture of their new waterfront development precinct. Human scaled buildings, street trees, cycle lanes, public transport, mixed use, some parking, short blocks and small intersections. Wynyard take note, this is how you do it right.


Overall Portland is a great city that clearly enjoys the fruits of its labours over the previous two decades. Auckland has a lot to learn from this city which rightly deserves it’s reputation as a golden child of reurbanisation.

Let’s define “congestion” properly

An article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper just over a week ago, using the rather provocative title of “Sick of Congestion: build roads not transit” has unsurprisingly led to a lot of fisking of the information contained in the article – particularly around the different ways of defining congestion and how easily they can be misused. A good example of a response is this from Jarrett Walker.

Essentially, the argument put forward in the article is that when we look at cities around the USA (and internationally), at first glance the data appears to be showing that cities which have built a lot of freeways in the past few decades have lower levels of congestion than those which haven’t. Here are the key paragraphs:

This connection between road construction and congestion has been most comprehensively studied in the United States. There, 30 years ago, the Texas Transportation Institute at the Texas A&M University created an annual Travel Time Index (TTI) that estimates how much time traffic congestion adds to commuting by comparing actual travel times of commuters in different cities with the time it would take to travel the same distances in the absence of congestion.

Over the decades of its existence, the TTI has revealed some fascinating shifts. In the early days of the index, Phoenix, for example, had the 10th worse congestion among major urban areas in the U.S., despite being only 35th in population. It has more than doubled in size in the ensuing decades (it is now the 12th largest urban area in the U.S.), but its traffic congestion has fallen to 37th.

What explains this major improvement? A huge expansion of public transit? Hardly. Try a major road-building program. Something similar happened in Houston.

At the other end of the spectrum, Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

Something in the next paragraph jumped out at me when first reading it – when mention was made of New Zealand cities as examples of those that had high congestion and hadn’t built many urban freeways.

Now data are starting to emerge that allow us to compare commute times among similar rich-world industrialized countries in Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The results are not encouraging for the anti-car crowd. The worst urban congestion in this group of countries is in New Zealand, followed by Australia, countries that have invested relatively little in urban freeways.

If Auckland, with our gigantic spaghetti junction and motorways to just about every corner of the city, is an example of us not having invested much in ‘urban freeways’, I’d hate to see a place with lot of them – although Toronto’s Highway 405 (below) is pretty bad. I actually had a quick look at some figures from US cities with populations greater than 1 million people and from what I can tell based on some admittedly very rough calculations is that the size of motorway network would probably put us within top 10 US cities. Might have to look into that in more detail for a future post.

But the strange mention of New Zealand aside, the real issue with the article is its reliance upon congestion information from the Texas Transportation Institute that is decidedly dodgy in how it’s applied. Let’s pick up on Jarrett Walker’s criticism of the source data:

TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people’s ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic liberty that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards…

… If you count everybody’s commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   … it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland’s transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses “congested” Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.

Jarrett sort of dances around the key point here while hinting at it in a number of ways. This key point is that for many people in the Portlands or Vancouvers of this world the level of basic congestion is irrelevant because they’re not affected by it. They’re walking, cycling, on a bus (as long as it’s in a bus lane or on a busway), a tram, a train or whatever. They’re not in the congestion.

This is the key point of the Congestion Free Network: it provides people with the ability to ‘opt out’ of congestion. This approach highlights that there are two elements to congestion:

  • How bad is the congestion? (Congestion intensity)
  • What proportion of people experience the congestion? (Congestion exposure)

It is the combination of these two elements which is what really matters – the actual effect of congestion can be increased or decreased not only through its intensity (which is all that the TTI measure, and arguably not that well either) but also through changing the proportion of people experiencing congestion. It seems that transport planners and particularly transport engineers focus so much on trying to reduce the intensity of congestion, even though this is nearly impossible due to induced demand, whereas the long-lasting way of reducing congestion is to provide ways to remove people from the congestion.

This means that a focus on cycleways, bus lanes, rapid transit and freight lanes (because it can be very important to shift goods around in a way that’s unaffected by congestion) are the true ways of reducing the actual effect of congestion. They’re also the only long-lasting ways of doing so. Todd Litman focuses on this distinction in his recent piece on Planetizen:

…the Texas Transportation Institute’s Travel Time Index, the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, and TomTom’s Traffic Index only measure congestion intensity, the degree that traffic declines during peak periods. Such indicators do not account for exposure, the amount that people must drive during peak periods and therefore their total congestion costs. Intensity indices are useful for short-term decisions, such as how best to cross town during rush hour, but are unsuited to strategic planning decisions that affect the quality of transport options or land use development patterns, and therefore the amount that people must drive. For planning purposes, the correct indicator is per capita congestion costs.

For example, a compact, transit-oriented city may have a 1.3 Travel Time Index (traffic speeds decline 30% during peak periods), 60% automobile commute mode share, and 6-mile average trip lengths, resulting in 34 average annual hours of delay per commuter; while a sprawled, automobile-dependent city has a 1.2 Travel Time Index, 90% automobile mode share, and 10-mile average trip lengths, resulting in a much higher 45 average annual hours of delay. Intensity indicators imply that the compact city has worse congestion due to greater peak period speed reductions, although its residents experience lower total congestion costs because they drive less during peak periods.

I talked about TomTom’s Traffic index here.

As part of the next phase of promoting the Congestion Free Network, we are going to focus strongly on expanding this new approach to defining congestion – so that it can actually be a useful measure of transport success, rather than something that suggests we do stupid things like building more (or bigger) urban motorways.

Highway 401 in Toronto

Highway Teardowns

Location of freeway, Harbor Drive, Portland

Location of former freeway, Harbor Drive, Portland

Unfortunately, while freeways did provide vehicular access to downtown, they also disrupted the existing urban grid and street system. Freeways severed local commercial activity from customers, and many once vibrant streets now stand with shuttered businesses and negligible street activity. -Mayor’s Innovation Project

It is conventional wisdom that motorways or other high capacity, limited access roads have no place in productive urban environments. Increasingly, cities across the globe are pursuing projects which attempt to mitigate the problems and re-insert a transport structure that supports local accessibility and high value land use outcomes. In addition to the famous tear out projects in Portland (above), San Francisco and Cheonggyecheon, there are also dozens of other cities that are pursuing flyover teardowns, motorway caps, freeways-to-boulevard solutions, and in cases total removals.

A recent publication by the Mayor’s Innovation Project, Rethinking the Urban Freeway (PDF) gives a nice synopsis of the rationale behind motorway removals including the opportunity costs of motorways which  “occupy valuable land without paying taxes; reduce the value of nearby properties; and reduce quality of life in nearby neighbourhoods.”

Matt’s recent post Guess where this is?  showed a stark depiction of our own transport legacy. Here’s another look at the area using a figure/foreground diagram showing the disruption of the urban fabric caused by both the CMJ motorway and the Dominion Rd Flyover.

Figure/Field Diagram, Auckland

Figure/Field Diagram, Auckland

Below is a look at the same area using a diagram to illustrate intersection density. Intersection density is a useful tool to quantify the viability and walkability of a neighbourhood. In Julie Campoli’s new book Made for Walking she uses the same technique to demonstrate that all walkable and successful neighbourhoods have a high concentration of intersections that support movement choice. The drawing shows intersections in red which allow turning options (dark red showing 3 choices,  light red 2), and the black dots depict places where intersections have been cauterized by motorway-type roads.

Not made for walking: intersections removed

Not made for walking: intersections removed

We know that land value and productivity reach extreme levels in the city centre. The CMJ and the Dominion Road Flyover have almost completely disconnected Eden Terrace from the city centre causing a radical (and unnatural) devaluation of land. So while Eden Terrace, Grafton and Freemans Bay are ‘close’ to the city, the urban transport structure defeats the advantages of proximity. The relationship between urban proximity and land value is still  based on an urban structure of ‘cityness’ which is largely influenced by walkability and accessibility to local places and services.

Here’s a look at the disurban environment of Eden Terrace. Not only is the area now disconnected from the city and its associated value but the resulting road structure tends to concentrate through traffic further isolating the remaining bits into a sort of archipelago.


Dominion Road Flyover wasteland


Dominion Road overkill

Eden Terrace, disconnected and devalued

Finally, here’s a recent video describing the progress of some tear out projects in America.

More on the costs of parking

Development/parking scenarios tested (Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability)

Here’s some interesting new research from Portland, Oregon where they have been thoroughly investigating the role of parking policy in relation to housing affordability, neighbourhood impacts, and car ownership. This useful report, Cost of Onsite Parking + Impacts on Affordability (PDF), identifies the costs associated with providing various types of car parking for a mixed use project. Specifically, the report tested a property size of 950m2 that might be located on busier streets in zones where the City is trying to encourage more dense development and avoid fostering a “strip commercial  appearance”. Below are the parking costs they came up with for this development scenario.

Costs of parking (Source: Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability)

Of course parking is not only a building cost, but an opportunity cost. According to the study,  a building with surface parking is only able to utilize 50% of the site’s development capacity. In the development scenario tested only 30 units could be constructed if combined with 19 surface parking spaces, compared to 50 units in a “No Parking” scenario.

And something that was mentioned earlier here, the costs of rent are significantly reduced without the provision of parking- $800/month compared to $1,200/month. See below for the range of disadvantages parking causes.

“As the cost to produce additional parking spaces becomes greater than the cost of the units not produced, rental rates rise. Similarly, as the number of units decreases within a project, project costs are distributed in greater proportion to renters.”

Parking and rental rates (Source: Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability)

The above numbers tell an important story. Parking is a significant cost in the development process, one that not only raises costs of housing, but I believe also is an impediment  to development overall. How much land in well-located, transit-accessible places sits empty because of parking requirements? Also, how much of our desired urban design outcomes, for example mixed use development along Great North Road, is simply uneconomical due to current parking requirements?

It’s impressive that the City of Portland is being proactive on yet another urban planning front. And if the leadership from Portland isn’t enough to convince you to book a one-way ticket to Stumptown, here are some switched-on Portlanders talk about housing and parking policy. I wonder when we will see this sort of formalised advocacy for housing options in Auckland?

Joseph Edge, Pearl neighborhood: “Neighbors just don’t realize when they’re coming to these meetings – they’re saying, ‘You’re making it difficult for me to find a place to park.’ Well, you’re making it difficult for someone to find a place to live.”

Justin Buri, Community Alliance of Tenants: “Portland is taking on more residents, and unless we build more apartments, the rent is going to be outrageous. … For some people, parking is necessary – probably not everybody. … That’s really what’s on the table: do you want more parking, or do you want more places for people to live?”

Megan Gibb, TOD manager for Metro“If you do have a garage or driveway, then what are you worried about? And if you don’t have a garage or driveway, then why should you be allowed to park there when somebody else is not allowed to be?”

Zero Parking Developments

For good reason there has been a lot written recently about the influence of parking policy on good urban outcomes. Parking policy strongly affects trip generation, mode choice, urban form, and housing affordability. While parking reform may seem radical today in Auckland, it is already being widely implemented across North America. Here is a snapshot of what we might expect to see in Auckland if we remove minimum parking requirements and developers recognise the pent up of demand for urban living in transit-rich places.

In 2010 San Francisco removed their minimum parking requirements and imposed limits on the construction of new parking spaces in certain neighbourhoods. And today housing developments are being introduced that respond to the new rules reports

Parking-free development recently proposed in San Francisco. Image: Curbed SF, Stephan Antonaras

“The building at 1050 Valencia Street will be targeted toward residents seeking the kind of car-free lifestyle that’s increasingly popular in neighborhoods like the Mission District, which is short on housing but among the most walkable, bikeable, and transit-rich parts of San Francisco. The project will include no car parking and 28 bike parking spaces.”

In Portland the trend is even stronger with as many as 2/3 of all new development going without parking according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.  Developers are responding to the city’s desires to build more densely especially downtown and in transit-accessible neighbourhoods:

“Of 40 apartment building projects to be filled in the last year and a half, 25 offer no parking.”

Zero car parks but plenty of bike parking at the Irvington Gardens Apartments, image: Rob Manning OPB

The housing affordability advantage of building zero car parking is significant. This Portland article claims that the monthly rent in apartments without parking is $700/month compared to $1,200/month for conventional apartments with car parking.

Mixed use apartment building under development in Portland with 0 car parking (Photo by Sam Tenney/DJC)

These types of projects are not without controversy. In Portland nearby residents expressed concern that the apartments were compromising the sacred cow of on-street parking (entitled a bit?). Both city official and developers argue this is not the case and refer to research by Ellen Bassett, an associate professor in the Urban Studies and Planning program at Portland State University who determined that is was not the residents of the zero parking apartments who were clogging the streets, but rather, visitors from outside the neighbourhood arriving by car. Developer Dave Mullen with the Urban Development Group concurs with these findings and provides the money quote:

“There is a perception in the neighborhoods that the impact of these buildings to their ability to park is great. But most of the people that are leasing these new units don’t see parking as a problem because they don’t own cars.”

And finally, not to be outdone, the City of  Seattle has also recently been tweaking their parking policy to keep up.

I see zero parking housing as being popular to a small but increasing portion of the population in Auckland.   Who wouldn’t want to support the development of more affordable housing in neighbourhoods with good transport?


Auckland’s PT: expensive and poorly used

An Auckland Council report on various aspects of our transport system makes a number of comparisons of Auckland’s public transport system with various cities in Australia, Canada and the USA – as well as Wellington. The cities used to compare Auckland against, including their population and what different technologies their PT system includes, is shown in the table below: These are a good range of cities to compare Auckland’s performance against, in my opinion. We have a number of cities with fairly similar population densities to Auckland (Sydney, Vancouver) cities with a similar population (Portland, Calgary, Adelaide) and cities with a variety of PT systems. On the key statistic of boardings per capita, it’s clear to see that Auckland is the very bottom city on this list. The per capita boardings of the Canadian cities are pretty amazingly high.

If we just compare with the Australian cities (and with Wellington) we can also see that while Auckland’s patronage has grown over the past decade, it hasn’t increased as much as many other Australian cities, particularly Melbourne and Perth: It’s interesting to remind ourselves that Melbourne has a railway link tunnel fairly similar to what’s being proposed in Auckland, and the ability to get heaps of people into Melbourne’s CBD by train has played a major role in the revitalisation of downtown Melbourne over the past decade, obviously contributing significantly to its rising patronage.

If we look at modeshare comparisons, once again Auckland lags behind the other cities – although it must be remembered that this is 2006 data and undoubtedly things will have changed in Auckland since then. It’s a shame that the Canadian data wasn’t able to be broken down by PT type, but for many Australian cities it’s notable that generally rail has a similar, or greater, modeshare than buses for peak time travel. Auckland is very much the exception to that rule, which probably highlights a PT system that is a bit too dependent on buses (due to our historic neglect of the rail network).

So why are things so bad for Auckland? Setting aside the obvious historical reasons, it’s clear by comparing Auckland with these various overseas cities that we provide a lower quality and quantity of services than elsewhere, but we charge the highest price on a per kilometre basis. Firstly, the quality & quantity: In short, we’re providing a pretty rubbish service compared to all the other cities used in the comparison. But what are we charging compared to all these other cities: So despite having the lowest quality PT service out of all these comparative cities, we then go and charge passengers the highest fares out of any of the cities. Not content with that, we are also then one of the few cities not to have a properly integrated ticketing/fares system. The reasons for our low patronage levels are starting to become pretty obvious I think.

Another element to consider is the cost-effectiveness of our service delivery. Obviously the cost of providing our rail system is pretty high, because we’re running incredibly old trains and use an incredibly outdated, overly labour-intensive, ticketing system. Our bus service seems relatively normal to provide on a per kilometre basis: While our services don’t seem particularly expensive to provide on a per kilometre basis, because we have the lowest average loadings of our PT vehicles, Auckland then stands out as close to the most expensive city to provide public transport on a per-person basis: Looking at the graph above it seems fairly obvious that the key way for Auckland to improve the cost-effectiveness of its public transport network is by increasing passenger loads and thereby reducing working expenses per passenger kilometre. Nevertheless, because our fares are so incredibly high on a comparative basis, Auckland’s farebox recovery level actually isn’t bad when compared to many of the other cities: There are quite a few pages of pretty good analysis and suggestions about how we can improve Auckland’s situation towards the end of the document, but for me the information above is extremely helpful in outlining quite a few things:

  • Despite an improvement to Auckland’s PT system over the past decade, we’re still doing very poorly compared to comparative cities in Australia, Canada and the USA. Furthermore, most of those cities have been increasing their patronage at even faster rates to Auckland.
  • Compared to other cities, Auckland’s PT service quality is considered to be extremely low, while quantity of service provided is also fairly low (although somewhat understandably given our low use). Improving service quality (better reliability, faster speeds, value for money etc.) is likely to be the most effective way of increasing use.
  • Compared to the other cities, Auckland’s fares are incredibly high – particularly as we don’t have integrated ticketing. Making fares for unlimited daily, weekly or monthly travel quite a bit cheaper is likely to be quite effective at boosting patronage and making PT seen as better value for money. Peak/off-peak pricing splits are also likely to be a good idea.
  • Compared to Wellington in particular, we are paying too much for the provision of services on a per kilometre basis. Compared to all cities we’re paying too much on a per passenger basis. This suggests that we’re running too many empty/underloaded buses or trains around, particularly during peak times when it’s most expensive to get a vehicle on the road. I also wonder whether this makes a good case for a publicly owned bus company to do what Kiwibank has done to the banking industry and keep prices a bit sharper.
  • Our farebox recovery levels are actually quite high compared to many overseas cities, suggesting that efforts to improve cost-effectiveness should come from boosting patronage through service quality improvements, rather than by hiking fares.

This pretty much matches up with what I’ve thought for a long time (although I am surprised how comparatively high Auckland’s fares are). One hopes that now Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have all this information, it will become more obvious what interventions will be most useful. Things like better bus priority measures, a more efficient bus network, a more intensively used rail network and and improved ticketing system.

I hope that eventually we can get off the bottom of all these public transport statistics.

Is there a place for light-rail in Auckland?

Land-based public transport in Auckland is currently provided in two ways, through buses and trains (don’t let anyone tell you that taxis are public transport, they’re for-hire private transport that don’t offer any of the efficiency gains of real PT). Over the past 10-15 years there have been on-off arguments in Auckland about whether there’s a place for something to sit between trains and buses: in the form of light-rail. Initially, light-rail was probably seen as a potential replacement for the heavy rail system, and it seems for this reason that whenever someone suggests a tram/light-rail line Auckland City Council (who did most of the debating about light-rail) start talking about the CBD Rail Tunnel and that it means we won’t need light-rail.

The legacy of the light-rail debates that Auckland has had in the past have left us with some interesting results, like a Northern Busway that is supposedly “future proofed for light-rail”, and a wide median of Te Irirangi Drive that is similarly “future-proofed”. Not that I have anything against future-proofing (in fact I think we don’t do nearly enough of it in Auckland), but it seems as though the term “future proofed for light-rail” is a bit of a joke in Auckland, and generally means that it’s an alignment we’re going to need full heavy rail trains to run along at some point in the future. Rather than as a substitute for heavy rail, I do think that light-rail/modern trams have a place in Auckland’s transport future – as the best part of the Quality Transit Network.

First things first though, I do think it’s important to restate that the debate over whether buses, trams or trains provide the best solution is a stupid debate. Each different transport option has its strengths and weaknesses, and therefore works best in certain circumstances. We need buses, we need trains and we also potentially need trams to sit between the two, where the situation is right. The second thing I probably need to state is what I actually mean by tram/light-rail – and why I use the terms interchangeably. What I mean is something that runs on the existing road, but generally with its own lane to operate in. In some cases it might end up with a street to itself, but generally there would be other vehicles on the same street. Something like this: While it is true that there’s something of a convergence between the technologies emerging, in my opinion there is still a point where demand reaches a level that starts to be difficult to serve by buses (particularly if they’re operating at-grade rather than on a grade-separated busway), but isn’t high enough to justify spending billions of dollars on an underground railway line. There is also the issue of what kind of corridor we are trying to serve, and the technology that best suits that requirement: is it a widely spaced series of nodes that are well suited to being served by a train line that stops every kilometre or two, or do we have (or potentially have) a more even corridor of development where you would want more frequent stops?

If we’re being sensible about looking at the place of light-rail in Auckland (or any city for that matter), proper consideration must be given to the fact that it is expensive, particularly in terms of its capital costs, and that we want to make sure we’re measuring its benefits in the right way. As Jarrett at Humantransit loves to say, light-rail probably won’t provide you with any mobility benefits over and above what you could get out of good bus-priority (which would probably be a lot cheaper than a light-rail line). Light-rail is unlikely to be faster than what you could achieve from a bus, as what determines that is usually whether you have bus lanes, how good you are at boarding quickly, how much priority your buses/trams get at traffic lights and so forth. So it should be recognised that we’re not doing this for speed reasons, although the level of investment that would go into creating a tram line means that you probably would end up with better priority measures than you would for a bus lane.

There would be the capacity reason to do light-rail. As the picture above shows, the vehicles can be pretty long and therefore can carry a large number of people. This means that one tram every 5 minutes could carry as many people as a bus coming every 1-2 minutes. In the longer run, this is good for operating costs as you have fewer drivers – and I imagine electricity is cheaper (or certainly will be in the future) than diesel. It also means that if you do run trams every 2 minutes, your corridor capacity is much greater than what would realistically be possible with buses (once you start getting large numbers of buses they start blocking each other and  slowing each other down, even given priority). Auckland’s CBD is starting to have problems with the number of buses heading in and out of it at peak times, particularly around Britomart. More people on fewer vehicles has some big advantages as the ability of the CBD to cope with more and more buses in the future is pretty limited.

The other main reason why I think light-rail could benefit Auckland is through those rather ephemeral things called “wider economic benefits”, or perhaps more specifically in the case of light-rail: the way in which providing such a line would result in intensification and economic development along the corridor being served. There are also potentially significant benefits in making it easier for tourists to get to the various places they want to go – and that becomes quite clear in the location of one of my lines. In terms of the secondary benefits to the economy, and to the achievement of our land-use plans and strategies, this has often been the main reason why North American cities have promoted light-rail lines over the past couple of decades. If we take Portland as an example, the light-rail system has played a huge part in the regeneration of ex-industrial areas and in helping Portland achieve their growth management strategies. Portland’s actual number of public transport riders isn’t particularly amazing, around a 12% modeshare – higher than Auckland’s but lower than Vancouver, Seattle and many other North American cities – but perhaps that’s not necessarily as important as the secondary effects of light-rail on the redevelopment of areas or the intensification of corridors.

Bringing things back to Auckland, as I said at the start of this post I think there is a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future. While in many respects it is a tragedy that Auckland ripped out its trams in the 1950s, the way the city has developed since then means that simply re-creating that system wouldn’t make too much sense today. The two lines that I would create are shown (approximately) in the map below (higher resolution here): As you can see, the system is not particularly extensive, at least not initially. I have also stuck to routes in the inner-isthmus area, as North American cities have also generally used light-rail along reasonably short inner-city routes (at least when it’s not grade-separated). I am hesitant to use light-rail further out, at least initially, because either you’re going to end up needing to operate very long routes (which are likely to be slow for travellers) or you’re going to be operating your routes as feeders to the heavy rail system, in which case I think it’s reasonably unlikely you’d need anything beyond a bus. Furthermore, the type of intensification that light-rail routes can generate is most suitable and desirable in the more inner parts of the city.

So we have a green line and an orange line. I will describe both lines and my reasoning behind them:

Green Line:

Effectively this is the Dominion Road corridor, which I have discussed as being suitable for light-rail in the future in a few earlier posts. The potential suitability for Dominion Road to have light-rail in the future is part of my thinking of why having median bus lanes may also be a good idea: as you’d be most of the way there towards creating a light-rail line in the future: just slap down some rails and up some wires when the capacity necessitates the upgrade.

At its southern end, the line would at some stage in the future connect with the Avondale-Southdown heavy-rail line, and in the meanwhile would be a hub for feeder buses serving the southwest part of the Auckland isthmus: suburbs from Hillsborough, through to Lynfield and Blockhouse Bay could all feed into the tram line, which would then offer a high-quality, high-capacity ride into the city and along the corridor.

At the city end, the route runs down Queen Street, then turns left and serves the Wynyard Quarter. The tram-loop that the ARC is currently planning would become a key part in turning the trams around before they headed back south on their journey out of the city.

In terms of satisfying my above criteria for light-rail, the Dominion Road bus route is already pretty damn popular, being close to capacity for the current bus lanes during peak times and busy enough to justify 5 minute frequencies during the weekday inter-peak period. With further development likely to happen along the corridor in the future and higher petrol prices likely to mean a general greater uptake of public transport, it’s not hard to see the current bus lanes being overwhelmed at some point in the not too distant future. So it ticks the capacity box. In terms of potential to stimulate land-use change, Dominion Road has masses of potential here, with much of the road (especially south of Balmoral) being bounded by low-rise 1950s housing of not particularly fantastic merit. The potential for that to be replaced with 3-4 level townhouses and terraced houses is immense, something just needs to help “make it happen” – and a light-rail line could be that catalyst. So the other box is ticked.

Orange Line:

The orange line is a longer, and more complex line – going from Unitec in the west to St Heliers Bay in the east. Effective it is two lines joined in the middle: one serving the inner-west part of Auckland and the other running along Tamaki Drive. Undoubtedly this line is a bit more questionable than the Dominion Road one, and would almost certainly be built later, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a good idea: because I think it would.

Starting with the western section of the line, there are a very large number of buses that travel along Great North Road – so there may be some capacity issues along this road in the future. A lot of the buses come from a long way west, but that may change in the future as buses in the west get terminated at New Lynn for people to either transfer onto a train or onto some sort of high-frequency bus link between New Lynn and Britomart via Great North Road. There is also the potentially significant patronage generator of Unitec, some top tourist attractions in the Zoo, Western Springs Park and MOTAT, and huge intensification potential between Ponsonby and Grey Lynn along the Great North Road ridge.

I would then have the line duck down through Freemans Bay to emerge at Wynyard Quarter. Freemans Bay also has significant redevelopment potential: at least along the streets that aren’t full of lovely heritage housing. Wynyard Quarter is a massive potential trip generator in the future (and will have to be well served by public transport because there is so little road access), so it makes sense to link through to there, then onto Britomart.

With the western section, this would operate as quite a different types of line: largely for leisure travellers and tourists rather than commuters – along Tamaki Drive. While the capacity issues of the green line and the western section of the orange line may not apply here, and also it’s unlikely to generate much intensification – I think that there may well still be significant economic benefits of this line, achieved by linking together many of Auckland’s top tourist attractions on the one line, and also making the connection high-quality. Much of my enthusiasm for this part of the line is based on the enormously successful F & Market Line in San Francisco, which similarly operates along their waterfront.

I do think these two lines have the potential to transform Auckland in a way that simply wouldn’t quite be possible through a bus route. Now that’s not to say that many of their benefits wouldn’t also be enjoyed through the creating of a high-quality bus route – but when it comes to capacity, the ability to stimulate development and the ability to attract leisure and tourist trips that would almost certainly otherwise be made by cars, along certain corridors I do think there’s a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future.

Is New Zealand Falling Behind the US? Part 1

This is my first post on Josh’s blog – hopefully over time having two perspectives (though generally similar, but potentially slightly different on some matter) on Auckland’s transport will lead to even more posts, even more discussion and debate and even more knowledge about where Auckland’s transport is going wrong and how it could be made better.

This is also the first in a 3 part series of posts comparing the US to NZ and asking; is NZ the last country to be putting all it’s eggs in the car basket?

As many readers will know the United States has been the mecca of car based sprawl and freeway driven city settlement but recently there has been a subtle yet noticable change. The politican’s rhethoric regarding public transport is turning into commitment and projects are getting built. Much of this has been driven by the greater sustainability of older cities who had subways built before the rise of the automobile and the example of the amazing city of Portland which has had much of its development in the car dominated city planning period and is providing a guide for how a previously car based city can begin the transition to a more liveable, healthy, sustainable one.

So what has Portland done? Firstly it fought a proposed new freeway and won! The proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, now one could say Auckland did something similar in our defeat of the Eastern Motorway however there were some big differences, the main difference being Portland put the freeway money instead into light rail.

This map shows Portland’s Freeway system proposed by the infamous Robert Moses, the red is the freeways that have been built, the green the proposed but as yet unbuilt ones:

PortlandsProposedFreewaysThe Mt. Hood Freeway would have cut a huge divide through the city’s eastern suburbs. Today citizens of Portland proudly proclaim this freeway will never be built and are very proud of their city’s efforts to find alternatives to car based transport, their city gets better everyday, they call it Urban Liveability.

I believe the lesson for Auckland is that after the Western Ring Route is completed we must say enough is enough and demand a moratorium on new motorway construction and organise to stop any new motorways if there is an obvious alternative.

Secondly Portland has actually managed to remove a section of freeway that was cutting the CBD off from their river waterfront and put a park its place, a formula also followed in San Francisco and recently in Boston as part of their “Big Dig“, this has inspired citizen groups around the country as evidenced by this video from a group in Louisville Kentucky fighting a new 23 lane interchange in their downtown:

So will we learn from these US cities? We will push for a moratorium on new motorways? Will we have the courage to examine the possibility the sky might not fall if we were to remove some motorway, say Grafton Gully and return it to the green lung of the CBD it was in yesteryear?

Still to come in the series, US Cycling and US Transit.

Portland’s Transport Plan

Portland, Oregon – in the northwest corner of the USA – is a relatively similar sized city to Auckland. The ‘actual city’ (probably their equivalent of “Auckland City”) has a population of around 575,000 while the whole metropolitan area has a population of around 2 million. This compares to Auckland’s population of 1.4 million. Portland is also a city that is somewhat similar to Auckland in other respects – that for decades it grew through auto-dependent sprawl. However, from 1973 onwards Portland changed tack – becoming more focused on growing through intensification rather than greenfields development. A key part of this shift was the imposition of an urban growth boundary in 1979. In Auckland, we also grew significantly throughout the mid 20th century by expanding rapidly, but over the past 10 years in particular our land-use policies have changed dramatically to encourage intensification rather than further sprawl. In a nut-shell, I would say that we’re following in Portland’s footsteps, but are perhaps a decade or two behind. So Portland’s a useful guide as to where Auckland might be heading in the future, which makes it particularly interesting to look at their transport plans, starting with that of the smaller City of Portland.

You can see how far Portland is ahead of us immediately, in the introduction to their transport plan.

Portland is a vibrant and healthy city. As Portland and the region grow, however, there is a continuing challenge to maintain the natural environment, economic prosperity, and overall quality of life.

Transportation planning is essential to preserving the City’s ‘user-friendly’ character. Constructing significant amounts of new automobile capacity to accommodate growth is not the answer because of the enormous costs and impacts. Adding more streets and parking lots divides neighborhoods, uses valuable land, encourages urban sprawl, and has negative environmental impacts. Alternative approaches must be used to ensure integrated, comprehensive solutions. Portland has spent the last several years working with Metro and other agencies, citizens, and community and business groups to develop the City’s first Transportation System Plan (TSP). The TSP is a comprehensive 20-year plan for transportation improvements in Portland. Its goal is to provide transportation choices for residents, employees, visitors, and firms doing business in Portland.

The TSP helps implement the region’s 2040 Growth Concept by supporting a transportation system that makes it more convenient for people to walk, bicycle, use transit, and drive less to meet their daily needs. The TSP also recognizes that the transportation system must sustain the City’s economic health by accommodating the needs of businesses and supporting Portland’s role in the international economy. The TSP meets State and regional planning requirements and addresses local transportation needs for cost-effective road, transit, freight, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements.

Most of Auckland’s transport plans hint at this kind of focus, yet in reality end up strongly promoting spending the vast majority of transport funds on building more state highways and other roads. In three simple paragraphs, it is obvious that Portland understands the critical link between land-use patterns and transport policy, that it understands the way in which different types of transportation can affect the quality of life of the city, and that it understands the need to offer a variety of options when it comes to transportation. The influence of land-use patterns on transportation is highlighted in the following table – clearly showing that in parts of the city with good transit access and mixed use development people own fewer cars, use their cars less and travel shorter distances:

Chapter three of the Portland Transport Plan looks at improvements that will be implemented there over the next 20 years. Unlike our plans, which are utterly dominated by state highway projects, Portland sets out a wide range of “needs”, before shifting on to looking at actual projects to address those needs. Firstly, here are the general needs:

While each Transportation District demonstrates a unique mix of characteristics and needs, an overall picture of the City’s local transportation needs emerges:
• Reduce traffic impacts, including speeding and traffic volumes, on neighborhoods.
• Manage auto congestion.
• Provide good transportation choices.
• Improve transit service levels and access to routes.
• Expand opportunities to walk and bike safely.
• Increase local street connectivity.
• Improve safety and livability on local streets.
• Protect the natural environment.
• Provide better access to jobs.
• Ensure safe and efficient movement of goods.

While Auckland’s transport plans aren’t altogether different, it is notable to see how things like improving the safety an livability of local streets, and reducing the impact of traffic on neighbourhoods ranks highly in terms of what Portland wants its transport system to achieve. I get the feeling that perhaps our transport planning in Auckland is too dominated by engineers who focus on the best way of getting people and goods from A to B without paying enough regard to the effects on A and B of doing this. I have talked a lot about the inter-connections between land-use and transportation in this blog before, but perhaps the third aspects of livability really needs to be put in there as well. Portland seems highly concerned about the effects on livability of its transportation policies, whereas I am yet to see much evidence of this in Auckland.

In terms of evaluating which projects should be prioritised, Portland is quite ‘up-front’ about the criteria by which projects will be assessed against. I think this is a fantastic idea – taking the mystery away from the horribly complex manner by which projects come up with a final “cost benefit ratio” in Auckland, which generally decides whether they should go ahead or not. Apparently the NZTA manual for working conducting a cost-benefit analysis on a project is many hundreds of pages long, and costs hundreds of dollars to purchase. Hardly user friendly. By contrast, here’s what Portland does:

Together, the ten criteria are ‘cross-modal’; they evaluate various policy concerns and support a balance among modes. The evaluation criteria were applied to the TSP project list to provide a relative ranking of how well each project meets State, regional, and local transportation goals. The higher the total score, the more the project supports the overall transportation goals. The evaluation criteria are briefly described below:

• Support 2040 Areas
Supports a compact urban form by supporting development of high-priority 2040 Growth Concept areas.

•Reduce Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMT) per Capita
Helps reduce VMT per capita.

• Safety
Addresses an existing deficiency or hazard by improving pedestrian, bicycle, and/or vehicular safety.

• Natural Environment
Minimizes or reduces impacts to the natural environment, and/or utilizes good resource management.

• Local Area Access
Provides or improves access to and within activity centers.

• Economic Development
Provides or increases access (for employees and freight) to existing or emerging employment areas.

• Community Support
Has a high level of community support within the district.

• Efficient Use of Resources
Increases both the efficiency and effectiveness of the system by wise application of available financial, capital, and human resources.

• Connectivity/Built Environment
Supports a high level of street connectivity for all modes and improvement of the built environment, especially in areas where deficiencies exist.

• Multimodal/Balance
Addresses an area wide need with a multimodal approach.

To me this seems like a fantastically logical way to go about working out which projects should get funded. In particular, I am a big fan of the fact that “Community Support” is taken into great consideration when analysing the merits of a project. Too often I get the feeling that transport ‘experts’ simply write off communities as “NIMBYs”, seeing them simply as an obstacle to get past in order to achieve their grands plans. From my experience the community as a whole often has a great wealth of knowledge as to the appropriateness or otherwise of a transport project, and this should not be ignored. Furthermore, it is the communities who are worried about the effects on A and B of the transport project, while the experts focus on the movement between A and B.

Overall, it is obvious to see that Portland really cares about using transport to create a better city to live in, not just an easier city to get around. It clearly understands the complex relationship between transportation, land-use patterns and the quality of life for people living in the city. I really do think Auckland has a lot of catching up to do.

At a more Regional Level, the 2004 Regional Transportation Plan offers an insight into some of the bigger picture projects that go over and above what the City of Portland gets involved with. This is where we can really start making comparisons between transport expenditure in Auckland – by mode- and what’s happening in Portland. Firstly, from the 2009-2019 Auckland Transport Plan, the “plan” for Auckland: Then, if we look at what the Portland region is planning for their twenty year strategy (2000-2020), we see the following split in terms of spending on different modes:

State Highway Operations, Maintenance and Preservation: $199m-$270m per year
New and Improved State Highways: $2.29 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in 1998$)
Regional road operations, maintenance and preservation costs: $248-$365 million per year
New and Improved Regional Roads: $2.85 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in 1998$)

Transit Operations and Maintenance: $254 million per year in 2000 rising to $899 million per year by 2020 (rise is due to inflation and also due to the doubling of service provision during this time)
Transit Capital: $4.3 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in $1998)

As you can see, Portland has a far more even split between funding roads and funding transit than we see here in Auckland. Furthermore, there is some serious long-term thought going into what transit projects Portland will need over the lifespan of this transportation plan – whereas in Auckland we see spending on public transport infrastructure and rail infrastructure drop off a cliff after 2013 because there is so little certainty about when projects like the CBD Rail Tunnel might get started.

We have a lot to learn.