A future for Auckland’s transport network

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to better join the dots between Auckland’s housing challenges and its transport challenges. We’re all familiar with the common stories about Auckland’s problems: Housing is too expensive, pricing young people out of the market and forcing low-income households into crowded or unhealthy accommodation. The transport system isn’t working as well as it could – key roads are congested, public transport is often unreliable due to our mid-century decision to eschew a rapid transit network, and walking and cycling often feels unsafe, again due to policy choices.

But it strikes me that we aren’t yet telling a clear story about how we could solve Auckland’s challenges. This is an attempt to tell some of that story.

It all starts with the street. When Auckland’s suburbs started to get built in the late 1800s, people did a few things to cut costs. One of those was providing long, narrow residential sites without back alleys or many cross streets. This left behind more saleable land while avoiding the need to provide stormwater or sewerage – people simply dug long-drops at the back of their long sites.

The result was a city that has a dearth of streets. The following map compares my neighbourhood in Auckland with my brother’s neighbourhood in Denver, Colorado – his is a bit further from the city centre but otherwise similar. Note the fine mesh of cross-streets and the closely-spaced arterial roads in Denver, and the spidery mesh in Auckland:

When we zoom out the map, the comparison gets even starker. Not only does Auckland lack a Denver-style street grid, it also has a regional transport network full of gaps and pinch-points caused by its position on two harbours.

This is exacerbated by the fact that we have recently built out most of the space in most designated motorway corridors. Once the Waterview Connection opens, the motorway network will be largely complete and will probably never be significantly expanded again, at least within the city. Contemplate that, for a moment.

In short, we are a growing city that lacks street space and has extremely constrained ability to add more transport corridors virtually anywhere in the city.

This brings me on to the second part of the story: Cars. Cars are wonderful things. They are the best way to get to the West Coast beaches, and the second-best way to get to urban beaches, after cycling. If it weren’t for home delivery, they would be the only way to buy a refrigerator or a tonne of compost for the garden. But we’re not going to be able to fit an ever-growing amount of them on Auckland’s roads at peak times. We don’t have the space for it.

In saying this, I’m not arguing that we should necessarily fear congestion. Auckland’s existing performance isn’t terrible: the aggregate cost of congestion is right about what you’d expect based on data from large Australian cities, and average commute times are reasonable. But the constrained nature of our street grid and regional motorway network leads me to think that it will tend to increase more rapidly as the city grows. Consequently, we will need to do something differently.

[A brief digression: We will face this problem regardless of where new residents end up living. Banning growth in your neighbourhood and insisting that all newcomers move to Drury will not solve the problem: many of those people will simply hop on the road to commute to jobs in the city or in the growing Auckland airport business park. Similarly, banning growth on the fringes won’t fix the problem either: many newcomers will still need to drive to get to jobs spread around the city.]

This leads directly to the third part of the story: What can we do instead, if the current approach won’t keep working?

Basically, there seem to be three things we can do.

One: We can implement congestion pricing – or, as Jarrett Walker calls it, a decongestion charge – to take the edge off peak-period delays on busy corridors. I’ve discussed this extensively in the past so won’t rehash this discussion here. One point that many people raise, though, is that congestion pricing should be paired with a strong focus on improving alternatives to driving, to allow people to avoid the charge.

Two: We need to improve Auckland’s regional rapid transit network to ensure that it is possible to travel longer distances within Auckland both quickly and reliably. Setting aside congestion pricing for a moment, rapid transit is the only way that we can reliably achieve this. If you want to travel 20 kilometres and get to work on time most days, you’re better off being in a train or a busway service than a car.

Rapid transit improvements are likely to be especially important for making greenfield growth work well. People who will soon be living in Dairy Flat, Whenuapai, and Drury can benefit from the option to access fast and reliable transport options.

However, good rapid transit isn’t simply a matter of building a busway out to the wops. Service integration is also essential. What that means is that buses or trains need to connect with each other at key points, offering easy and reliable transfers between services and access to a wider range of destinations. Interchanges like Otahuhu and Panmure are important, but the city centre is even more important, as it will always be the place where most of the lines converge.

In other words, if we want to make rapid transit work well for greenfields, we also need to sort out what’s happening to buses and trains downtown and in the inner urban areas.

Three: We need to improve Auckland’s urban cycleway network to give people new options for short- to medium-distance trips within the existing urban area. Cycling has a lot of unrealised potential in Auckland (and most New Zealand cities): At peak times on congested roads, a bicycle can get you to your destination faster than a car, and technological improvements (ebikes!) are flattening out the hills as we speak.

Getting more people cycling for everyday transport would go a long way to sorting out the transport challenges associated with new housing development in a city with a fragmented street grid. Every person who rides to the shops or to work is one who isn’t competing for road space and parking space. We will value those people more in the future.

A key barrier to cycling in Auckland is the perception that it is not safe. This doesn’t necessarily dissuade the mid-30s bloke in lycra, but it will keep many schoolkids, middle-aged women, and a whole bunch of other people off their bikes. We can fix this – and get people from ages 8 to 80 cycling – by designing streets better and providing safe cycling infrastructure where it’s most needed.

To summarise: Auckland’s built itself into a bit of a hole, and in order to meet the needs of a growing city, it will have to do things differently. That means congestion pricing (to make the road network work better), a really good regional rapid transit network (to ensure fast and reliable journeys throughout the urban area), and a safe, joined-up network of urban cycleways (to give people more options for shorter trips). This shouldn’t be seen as an alternative that we could pursue once we’re done building motorways: it is now the most realistic way forward for the city.

What do you think Auckland should do in order to address its growth challenges?

Funding Strategic Transport

With the release of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) it once again got me thinking about a funding anomaly in our transport system, the Rapid Transit Network (RTN), or the Proposed Future Strategic Public Transport Network as ATAP calls it.

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

The general way in which we fund transport in New Zealand hasn’t changed for decades, if not close to a century. State Highways are fully funded by central government while local roads and public transport (except rail infrastructure) are funded roughly 50% by central government with the other half coming from local governments (by way of rates) – there are a few exceptions that sit outside of this but by in large it hasn’t changed.

One of the reasons for State highways being fully funded is that they are considered a strategic network. They’re the key roads linking regions, cities and towns together throughout the country. Within cities like Auckland they, primarily in the form of the motorways, do the same thing but also link disparate parts of the city. Here’s what the NZTA say about them:

The state highway network provides a strategic roading link between districts and regions. State highways help to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people and goods throughout the entire length and breadth of the country. They link main centres of population to industrial hubs and tourism destinations. State highways also play an important role in delivering public transport solutions. In our planning, we work to build connections with local networks and maintain the functioning of the state highway.

As mentioned above, ATAP has described future strategic PT network to go along with a strategic road network. This is important as it’s a recognition that high quality PT has a key role to play in Auckland’s future. Here’s what ATAP says about them both:

Auckland’s strategic road, rail and public transport networks are the most critical elements of the city’s transport system. It is essential to maintain and develop strong, safe and resilient strategic networks that can cope with increased demand.

Further information in ATAP describes these strategic networks as the “Backbone”, linking major locations and providing for highest volumes of movement. Here is the proposed future strategic road network. Most of the Tier 1 routes are already state highways or proposed to be them (East West Link) with the biggest exception being Te Irirangi Dr and Ti Rakau Dr.

atap-future-strategic-road-network

According to the NZTA as of 2015, across the country state highways make up just 11.5% of all roads (12.7% by the number of lane km) but in Auckland this is just 3.9% of roads (6.6% by lane km). Yet these roads are responsible for a large portion of traffic with as much as 48.5% of all vehicle km travelled estimated to be on state highways. These figures are shown below.

2014-road-lengths

Because of their strategic status, state highways also get a lot of funding. In the current 3-year National Land Transport Programme (NLTP), across New Zealand state highways are allocated $4.2 billion for improvements and another $1.7 billion for maintenance. By comparison just $465 million is allocated for improving local roads, $1.7b for maintenance of local roads while public transport gets $1 billion, mainly for services – and around half of these figures are paid for by local rates.

A big question going forward is how we’re going to pay to develop that strategic PT network. One fear I have is that the deal for City Rail Link, where the council and government share the costs 50:50, has set a precedent in how we fund the rest of the PT network. Auckland needing to fund 50% of all PT, regardless of how important or valuable it is, while even every minor state highway project gets 100% funding will continue to lead to even more perverse outcomes than we already have.

So, given both the strategic road and PT networks are serving essentially the same purpose, why shouldn’t they be funding the same? Why should it matter what mode is being built if it’s considered a strategic network?

I feel this is going to become a greater and greater issue, especially with the upcoming completion of the Western Ring Route. Once Waterview early next year is completed we will have all the key inter-regional links in place. From that point out any motorway projects within the urban area are just about increasing capacity for local movements.

Ultimately, I think a wider funding discussion is needed. ATAP doesn’t break down the costs of developing transport too much but does suggest that over all modes there is a funding gap of up to $400 million annually. There will obviously be a lot of future discussion about how to close that gap and those discussions could go on for many, many years. In the interim perhaps it’s time for the government and council to rethink how funding is structured. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • The strategic PT network is treated the same as the strategic road network and funded 100% from the NZTA out of the NLTP, this includes rail infrastructure which is funded directly by the government.
  • Perhaps combined with 100% funding, the development of the strategic PT network is handed over to the NZTA
  • Another option could be that Auckland is given bulk funding for transport and Auckland Transport’s role expanded to including the development and maintenance of the local state highway network and local rail network. This would allow all transport projects in the region to be assessed, prioritised and funded under the same conditions.

What do you think, should strategic PT corridors be funded the same as their corresponding road networks and how would you do it?

October-2016 Patronage

Ridership figures for public transport in Auckland during October are now available and they continue to grow, driven almost exclusively by huge growth on the Rapid Transit Network (RTN) – the rail lines and the Northern Busway.

Compared to October-2015, total ridership this October increased by 2.7% with just under 7.3 million trips taken, but within that figure the use of the RTN has continued its double-digit growth and is up 16.3% (rail up 16.4% and busway up 16.2%). This kind of great growth is to be expected as it reflects the RTN continuing to establish itself as the core of the PT network. Now over 26% of all PT trips in the region happen on the RTN and the RTN will continue to grow in the future as it usage tends to follow a fairly simple and proven formula; high frequency services + high capacity vehicles + dedicated infrastructure = great PT use. The graph below shows the growth in the RTN and the overall PT growth over the last decade or so – at the start of the graph, the RTN accounts for just 10.5% of all trips vs 26.3% now.

2016-10-total-patronage-by-type

But the RTN isn’t the only PT that’s been growing though, ferry use has continued some steady growth, inching ever closer to 6 million annual trips and a milestone that’s likely to be achieved any day now. AT also say the Mt Eden Rd and Onewa Rd bus services continue to see good growth which is positive. The former has seen the introduction of double deckers relieving some of the overcrowding issues that were seen earlier this year while the latter has also seen some improvement, Onewa Rd services are also due for more capacity early next year with AT saying double deckers are due to be introduced on some Birkenhead Bus services in February.

But the good news stories are partially balanced by other parts of the bus network which continue to see declining use. AT say the buses in the southern area continue to perform poorly and with bus services from the west which were heavily impacted about a year ago by the bus stop changes related to the City Rail Link works. It’s possible some of the changes from both the south and the west are a result of people migrating to the rail network.

For the south at least, it will be interesting to see how the numbers change over the coming months in response to the introduction of the new bus network that went live at the end of October. These kinds of changes can often take at least a few months to bed in before ultimately bearing fruit. Even if growth happened immediately we also may not see it unless AT split their patronage reporting out (which I hope they do).

Here is the detailed table they publish with the results.

2016-10-patronage-table

It should be clear by now that growing the RTN is essential to the future growth of PT in Auckland. As such, AT really needs to put pressure on themselves to deliver on RTN expansion because at the moment it all seems to be moving at a glacial pace and the AMETI busway is a prime example of the heel dragging that has plagued the organisation. AT are only just now going for consent on the Panmure to Pakuranga section. The recent ATAP reports calls for that busway to be built as far as Botany within the next decade as well as the first parts of the North-western Busway, but both projects only seem to be in very early stages.

Here are a few other graphs from the stats report that we like to keep an eye on.

Farebox recovery has slipped again but is still well within the target range for the year and we expect to see some improvement from the implementation from the new network.

2016-10-farebox

HOP use is down a little on recent months but it’s positive to see it’s use on buses continue to grow.

2016-10-hop-use

 

Parking occupancy continues to remain high. This is interesting because as you can see both on-street and off-street usage is near the top of their respective target ranges and so based on AT’s policy, suggests prices will need to go up in the future.

2016-10-parking-occupancy

Airport RTN: a quick first step

AT have now put the SMART study documents on their site, here. There’s a lot to review there and this post is not a look at the whole report and its conclusions, but rather is a response to the problem of the length of time this project is likely to take whatever mode is selected.

All of the proposals in the report are capital intensive, without any currently identified funding source, and the timing of the RT route looks likely to be complicated by the Airport’s development plans, particularly those for the second runway, so there is a good case for looking at interim improvements for Airport/RTN interconnection while these bigger decisions are being resolved. I am focussing on the airport because of its fast growth is clearly a major generator of increased traffic congestion for the whole Mangere area.

First some background from the report. Just setting aside travellers for a moment, what about the workforce at and around the Airport, what are their current patterns?:

AIRPORT Commuter movements

So we can see in the above data from the 2013 census that the key connection for workers is east to Manukau area, followed by that to the centre. Furthermore that employee movement is still quite peaky, despite the airport itself obviously being a 24 hour operation:

Airport worker arrivals

 

So what opportunities are there for a quick and relatively low cost connection between the Airport and the current RTN, particularly with the above information in mind, that could be built while the full Mangere/Airport RT route is being developed, whatever the mode? RTN 2016 AirportThe first and obvious point is that there is already, right now, great service on the spine of the Southern Line relatively close to the Airport, particularly to the City Centre, but also south and across to Manukau City. Where the red and blue lines overlap there are services every five minutes at peak. So there seems to be a clear opportunity to improve connection east from the Airport for its own catchment while that also will connect, via the rail system, the City Centre and anyone who can access a train station.

Currently the connection between rail system and the Airport is very poor, as anyone -like me- who has used it will tell you.

New Network South

The 380 via Papatoetoe station is not a viable option because of three problems [the longer and slower route to Onehunga is even worse, as well leading to an equally low frequency train]:

  • Low frequency: 1/2 hourly service
  • Slow route; the 380 has no priority on its route so therefore is subject to both delay and unreliability caused by other traffic [I have been on this bus stuck in traffic for tens of minutes]
  • The Station/Bus physical connection at Papatoetoe does little to encourage the transfer.

So why not investigate a dedicated shuttle between the even closer Puhinui Station and the Airport on a minimum 10 minute frequency with dedicated lanes on Puhinui Rd and improved passenger interchange at the station, complete with lifts for people with luggage, and all weather cover? Puhinui is currently timetabled at 33-35 minutes from Britomart [this should improve with current work] with a train leaving every 5 mins at the peaks, exactly when traffic congestion is at is most disruptive. With bus lanes on Puhinui Rd the journey to the terminals would be a reliable 10 mins. Including an average wait time of 5 mins that’s a perfectly satisfactory 50 minute journey from Britomart to the Airport. Because this journey time is reliable and not subject to congestion and avoids the time and cost of parking at the Airport it should be competitive enough for a good proportion of travellers and workers. As shown below, there is space to build an interchange and turning space to the west [Airport] side of the station, this would need to be of interchange standard.

PUHINUI

The Puhinui Rd/20B road and bridge are due to be upgraded or duplicated soon in the on-going work to increase general traffic access to the Airport [what you feed grows] surely it would be wise to actually include dedicated transit lanes on a bridge in Auckland for once? This is a future RTN route, the route is flat and unconstrained by buildings; these are good practical and cost arguments for bringing this section forward. Shoulder lanes, or better, a dedicated busway and bridge, LRT ready, would be real ‘future-proofing’ [a phrase it is hard not to be cynical about in Auckland as it generally means doing less than nothing in practice].

With this service then it would be viable and essential to brand both the shuttle bus service at the terminals and the Southern and Eastern line services, both of which, with no changes to how they currently run, then become true Airport services.

Of course the transfer is less ideal than a system that takes you on one seat right into the Terminal either as a flyer or an employee there, however we know many travellers currently transfer from their cars to various bus shuttles in order to get cheaper parking, and surely many workers would be happy to not to have to battle increasing congestion with a reliable and cost effective alternative. In other words by optimising the bus connection we will further unlock the value of investments recently made in the rail system. It probably makes sense on those grounds alone.AIRPORT -Puninui

This should not be seen as instead of a north/south pan Mangere RTN, but it would surely make a good start, especially as this is the route for the future Botany-Manukau City-Airport RTN. So it would be even better if it continued to the new interchange at Manukau City, and then on to Botany and AMETI. And ensuring all hard infrastructure is built to be efficiently upgradeable to Light Rail in the longer term. Improving eastern connectivity is completely compatible with the northern Mangere routes discussed in the study, and indeed the current Airbus service, so arguably is an even more urgent direction to improve. There is no duplication in sorting this connection out first.

Botany Line

Incidentally this map clearly shows the other areas lacking RTN coverage: the Northwest and Upper Harbour, and the Isthmus and Mangere….

Which is exactly what AT have on their future RTN maps, but far too far into the future in my view. This is still based on last century’s thinking where every road is widened first, leading to the inevitable dysfunction and only then do we try to relieve this adding quality RT alternatives.

To summarise: we already have a high quality Rapid Transit service almost all the way to the airport, it seems to me that the addition of a high quality connection between these points would be a very useful first move in improving connectivity in this important area, especially if taken at least to Manukau City too, and as soon as possible.