Follow us on Twitter

Summer in the City, and a look ahead.

A view from new Britomart bar and restaurant Ostro that seems to perfectly express the contradictory current phase in Auckland City’s development.

OSTRO_5788

What a great scene:

Sitting here amidst the sophistication of the latest addition to the our reborn downtown with all the perfectly prepared kai moana you could want, reassuringly expensive wines from every viticultured corner of the country, the cruise liners slipping around North Head, and the sculptural forms of the gantry cranes lined up and waiting patiently in the late afternoon sun like a row of giant robotic footmen, it is hard not to marvel at how lovely Auckland can be and at how far it has come recently.

Britomart is surely the best example of a Transport Orientated Development around, showing not just what can be achieved by coordinating land use and Transit investment well, but also just what a great resource there is in our urban centres if only we redevelop them properly. Central Auckland is really beginning to show extraordinary promise for what quite recently was an very dreary place, and it is not difficult to predict that these improvements are only going to accelerate over the years ahead. It’s like we’ve suddenly discovered that the city is by the sea.

With the successes of Britomart, both the train station itself and the redevelopment of the commercial buildings above; the Shared Spaces, which now surely will spread [not least down into the Britomart block itself]; and the first phases of Wynyard Quarter, the quality of Auckland’s City Centre is poised to explode in vitality, desirability, and productivity.

The next phase should be even more dramatic:  The transformation of big city streets into more interesting and specialised uses; Victoria hosting a Linear Park on half its width uniting the two parks on either side of the city, Victoria and Albert; Wellesley a Transit corridor, efficiently bringing thousands of bus riders into the heart of the city: Queen and Quay, downscaling and becoming more pedestrian and place focussed [Quay also an important cycle route], Fanshaw and Customs moving ever more people both in more efficient bus systems and, like Mayoral, focussing of carrying general traffic across town.

Along with the big build at Wynyard, the city will also get new towers at Downtown and on the corner of Victoria and Albert, along with the apartment building boom that is already underway all over the city.

This is no guess about the future but rather the continuation of what has already begun; the latest census revealed that central Auckland’s residential population grew 46.5% between 2006-13 by far the greatest growth in the whole country. Vacant commercial floor space is drying up and demand is rising. Like all over the western world, inner city living and working is not just back, it’s hot. Auckland is already surfing the urbanising zeitgiest well.

Interestingly both the the new towers mentioned above will sit on top of the City Rail Link that in 2015 will begin to be constructed at least for the section below the new Downtown Centre. And as is clear from the growth listed above that the city will urgently need this resource in order to bring, circulate, and disperse back out to the city’s extremities all the people that will work, live, and recreate in this transforming city.

Because if there is one uniting theme to all of this improvement it is the increase in the numbers of people entering the City without a corresponding increase in the numbers of cars- if not their actual decrease. All  the growth in number of those entering the Central City this century has been on the improved Transit systems, especially rail and the buses of the Northern Busway, but also ferries and cycling and walking. This has to continue if not accelerate, because the place quality improvements require a reduction in the domination of place by vehicles, or at least are impossible to achieve while the city is swamped in cars. Essentially there is a very simple equation observable in urban renewal:

More People + Fewer Cars = Better City

So in order to achieve this the city needs to be attractive and accessible to people and efficient and productive for business. How are these aims best achieved at the planning and investment level? It seems very clear all across the world that there are three investments that have proven to consistently achieve these outcomes in urban development, whether it’s London, or, Barcelona, or Shanghai, or Amsterdam, or Portland, or Bilboa, or Sydney or Brisbane, or Wellington or where-ever, these are every city’s best best:

  • repurposed mixed use Waterfronts with
  • dynamic Public Spaces and Activities served by
  • high quality Public Transit + Walking + Cycling amenity

The last to efficiently bring and circulate large numbers of people in ways that do not adversely affect place, in fact ideally enhance it, the second to attract, entertain, and retain residents, workers, and businesses, and the first because the whole new venture is so much more desirable and therefore valuable if it’s by the sea, a lake, or along a river, making the investment much more likely to be viable. But the essential component is that these all have to come together in a centre in order for the attractions and vitality to double up on themselves, for these improvements to agglomerate.*

[*There are three other investments that cities often try to use as springboards for improvement but that all have much more fraught outcomes around the world: Casinos, Stadia, and Convention Centres, and all have a common theme; they usually have the same big blank walled city-blocking form, intermittent use, and internalised programmes- and are often built on an auto-dependent model with vast parking garages and motorway like access routes right up to them; both highly anti-urban place ruining systems.]

So it is clear both that Auckland is largely on the right track and that there are enormous challenges ahead. Wynyard Quarter is not being built in the best order, in the way that Britomart has been: Ideally you built at least the bones of the High Quality Transit system first, Wynyard is going to quickly have to get better and more permanent Transit systems in place as the building sites currently used as car parks start to get built on and these will at least at first have to be bus systems- the only near term way of moving high volumes of people- and surely they will have to get those buses working in a trainlike way, ie with stations more than stops, while working towards upgrading some bus routes to a modern light rail system.

The problem of funding the City Rail Link needs to be addressed in 2014, which on the one hand means either changing the government or changing the government’s mind, as well as working out an efficient way for the Council to fund its share of the capital cost too. Increasingly I think this could be around a PPP for the three new stations as there will be changes in land value to be captured there.

Then there is the related issue of the accommodating hundreds of buses in the city, the CRL will in time limit the need to endlessly grow the numbers of buses on city streets but even once it’s open there will still be a need for a lot of buses in the city, especially from the North Shore. Hopefully the new plans for concentrating these onto specific routes and speeding their passage through the city will be done well and make a huge difference. But also I think it’s vital that the quality of the buses themselves are improved, that they aren’t walled off with blocking advertising and that their exhaust and noise standards are improved radically, ideally that emissions are eliminated all together. Therefore the electrification of all our urban transport systems should be a matter of higher priority. Electricity is, after all, our great local resource and so much better for the increasingly contested city streets for everyone.

All of which brings us back to the image:

OSTRO_5788

Also clearly visible here are hundreds and hundreds of new cars, well at least new to NZ , freshly off-loaded and ready for our streets and roads. So if [leaving aside the issue of whether this is the best use of these warves], as I predict, these vehicles will increasingly be less and less welcome on the streets of the City Centre then where are they headed? Out to the suburbs and the exurbs I suppose; the more dispersed the living the more ideal the car becomes. Auckland is becoming a Mullet City. It is surely getting more and more bi-level like the famous westie haircut: Increasingly urbane, more European in form, more walkable, ridable and lively in the centre. But still largely auto-dependent, low rise, dispersed and spread out, more American-new-city in form, the further out you go.

To some degree this is inevitable, and is in the very nature of cities, but I hope this doesn’t become too extreme, Auckland could develop a number of great and happily more intense metropolitan centres. So I hope it’s more blurred than this, but the latest version of the Draft Unitary Plan doesn’t inspire confidence. Councillors facing reelection and a vocal anti-change lobby greatly reduced the areas that can enjoy the great gift of the city; the ‘power of nearness’, intensity, and if it stays like this then growth and intensity will be concentrated into just a few areas, and in particular the Centre. This will reinforce a contrasting bi-level city. This form is increasingly apparent globally as The Great Inversion unfolds and City Centres and Inner Suburbs become more desirable and therefore expensive, and as this partly reflects differences in transport value of place, or relative inaccessibility, so the provision of affordable transport options throughout the wider city is critical to ameliorating this tendency [the existing reach of the rail network will become increasingly valuable for equalising access; especially after it is more essential to Auckland once the CRL is operational and the New Bus Network is integrated with it with new interchange stations].

But then there are many ways the suburbs can improve. Auckland’s older tram built suburbs are already relatively dense, are pleasantly leafy and walkable [remnant pathways linking through to old tram stops are sign of this], and have enough old shops and mixed commercial parts to give them great bones. Many simply need improvements in Transit service and cycling amenity to become really good; work for the rest of this decade. Then if we can get the Unitary Plan to allow some decent mixed use density in the centres that serve these suburbs many may find their own neighbourhood pretty well has everything they need as well as being well connected to the big City and other Centres. The newer further out sprawl-burbs are more difficult to bring into this century, but simply calming residential streets and serving those missing modes will go along way to repairing those urban form monocultures.

All of this is to say that 2013 has been great for Auckland’s urban quality and I’m confident 2014 will see this accelerate. So thanks for visiting the site and have a wonderful summer: In the City or as far away as you can get [a perfect use for our cars]…

XMAS 2013_01

 

 

Gen Zero Scorecards

Today the first of the Generation Zero Local Election Scorecards were released. Go to Generation Zero for all the fun. Here’s an example of the summary for an Auckland Ward:

ALBERT-EDEN Scorecard

And here’s how it was covered by Scoop:

Youth organisation Generation Zero today released scorecards communicating information on candidate stances on important local issues, which it has gathered from conducting interviews around the country.

The group believes there is a real lack of clear and accessible information available to voters and that the innovative candidate scorecards they have created will help solve this problem.

To collect the necessary information, Generation Zero has interviewed local council candidates to see where they stand on key issues in each region, from housing and urban design to transport and climate change.

Generation Zero spokesperson Madeleine Foreman says: “We’ve surveyed candidates on key issues in different regions and asked them to sign a pledge to prioritise policies that reduce carbon pollution.”

The interviews have been in person in main centres, and by electronic survey in other parts of the country.

The group believes local elections are important and that the scorecards will play a key role in informing voters.

Madeleine Foreman; “Local councils are important decision makers in areas such as transport, infrastructure and urban planning which have long-term implications and are crucial to respond to the issues presented by climate change.”

“We’ve created an innovative and simple way for voters to get a lot of the information they need to be adequately informed and to vote this election”, says Ms Foreman.

In Auckland the scorecards were released at a press conference where the group presented its vision for New Zealand’s largest city and candidates who scored highly were interviewed.

Waitakere is the place with the best representation by GenZed’s metric with two A+ candidates; deputy Mayor Penny Hulse and new candidate Christine Rose. Here’s an example of the full candidate analysis:

Chris Darby

Fantastic effort by Generation Zero; a very clear summary of the candidates’ positions, especially as it drills down past the vague answers that are often offered by politicians but that are not always representative of their actions once in office. I hope they will keep this sort analysis up to track their actual voting over the years ahead. After all the most sincere thing that politicians do is set their budgets. Nice of them to say that they ‘support’ things like cycling but if that isn’t followed up by the funding of actual projects it’s just so much hot air really, and it would be great if we had an easy way to check on their actual actions as well as their promises.

Local Elections Candidate Scorecards

The first Generation Zero Local Candidate Scorecards will be released tomorrow, these focus on the Mayoral contest and some carefully selected swing wards. More will follow. Here’s a few made-up examples:

Scorecard A

Scorecard B

Scorecard C

I’m sure everyone will have their own criteria and views on the final grades [personally I have to say that none of my students would earn a B+ with the vague waffle from Mr Johnson above, and Mr Todd looks like a clear fail to me too] but that’s not the point. Generation Zero have chosen their criteria and gone through a transparent process and are laying it all out for voters to make up their own mind. I think this is a great service for voters, who can in any case, of course to chose to ignore these evaluations, or, equally, decide to support those who score poorly by this metric.

Local Election Voting Guide

draft_score_card_gen

Youth organisation, Generation Zero, is releasing its candidate scorecards to Aucklanders on Wednesday 25th of September at 11:00 AM at a press conference.

The scorecards will be available on the website at generationzero.org.nz/localelections on Wednesday 25th of September.

The press conference will cover candidates responses to Generation Zero’s questions on: the Congestion Free Network, the Unitary Plan, urban cycling and climate change. The results are graded from ‘A’ to ‘E’ on local government election scorecards. Candidates who receive an overall score of ‘A’ will be available for media interviews after the conference.

Generation Zero’s work collaborating with Auckland Transport Blog on the Congestion Free Network follows on from our engagement with young people on the Draft Unitary Plan. Generation Zero believes this is an opportunity to assist Aucklanders to make informed decisions on who they want to represent their city.

Generation Zero will also release candidate scorecards in other centres around the country on the same day.

When: 11AM Wednesday 25th September

Where: Attendance by RSVP only to receive more information please email Ryan Mearns at ryan@generationzero.org.nz

GenZed have done a us all a huge favour as well as a huge amount of work to get this data together. I’ve seen the final scorecards and they are the usual crisp and clear presentation as we’ve all come to expect from the Generation Zero team. Love the students marking the candidates. And why not.
Interestingly it seems there is a baffling amount of Climate Change denial still out there, I wonder if these people ‘doubt’ the existence of gravity too?, after all it’s just a scientific hypothesis for observable phenomena: Just like Anthropogenic Climate Change.

“We are what we repeatedly do”: “Why you should travel young”

A Norwegian friend (whom I affectionately refer – and defer – to as the “Socialist Dictator”) recently alerted me to this article entitled “Why you should travel young“.

If you are looking for a delightfully introspective, relatively insightful, and genuinely motivating article on the virtues of travel then I’d encourage you to read this article. Why? Because it makes points that have been resonating in my bones for a while now, but been unable to articulate. For my part, the pleasure I derive from travel relates to its ability to simultaneously make you feel more aware of both yourself and the world around you.

Having read the article I was then sufficiently motivated to add some of my own biofuel to the travel fire started by Patrick’s post on his recent trip to Antartica. The destination for my own recent travels were nowhere near as glamorous, although it was probably more sustainable and definitely more readily reached (at least for those of you whom reside in Auckland). So I’d like to ask you to join me for destination “Waitakere Ranges.”

Now I know what most of you are probably thinking: “Been there done that”. But, if I may be so bold as to have a follow up question: Have you ever walked the Hillary Trail? If you have, then well done; you may want to read on for nostalgia’s sake. If you have not, then you should read on to find out why a four day, three night hike is something that all Aucklanders with a love for travel and a reasonable degree of fitness and knowledge of the outdoors should do.

Before we get onto the trail itself, I wanted to answer the question of “how does one get there?” A question to which my emphatic response is: The Western Line. That’s right, you can “hop” on the train right to Glen Eden, from where a short (and fast) taxi ride will take you right to the start of the track (Arataki Visitor centre), as shown below.

Getting to the start of the track

But that begs another question: “why would you take the train rather than drive?” Well, for me the main reason is that I don’t actually own one of these so-called “private automobiles”. But for those of you who are burdened by a car there’s another good reason to leave the car at home: The Hillary Trail is not a loop track. Thus, unless you want to leave vehicles at both ends, or spend time getting someone to drop you back to the start once you’ve finished, then a combination of public transport and taxi is actually a fairly good option. In the photo below I provide a demonstration of the correct posture to use when one is trying to “tag on” to the start of a hiking trip wearing a pack.

Tagging on to a hike

Once the logistics of getting to the start of the track have been sorted then all you really need to do is walk. 70km in fact, as per the route map shown below. The Hillary Trail route takes you from Arataki Visitor Centre to the Karamatura, Pararaha, and finally Craw Campgrounds on the first, second, and third nights respectively. On the final day (which is a long one!) you walk out to finish at Muriwai Beach, where an icecream and a swim provides a fitting end to an awesome hike.

route map

Now I realise that sounds like a lot of effort. And it is: The Hillary Trail is not without its challenging sections. But the “pay-off”, as they say, is huge: Even though I have lived in Auckland for all my years and been in the Waitakeres on a good many occasions, I found that there was nothing like hiking the Waitakeres from top to bottom to get you a more connected sense of how it’s various coves, beaches, and ranges fit together.

It also really rams home the extraordinary biodiversity that Auckland has sitting on it’s western door-step. That’s enough talking from me; to finish I’d just like to share some of my many photos taken from from the Hillary Trail itself. I’d suggest you do it while you’re still young :). No ifs, no buts.

P.s. My random “travel highlight” was wandering out to the public reserve at Whatipu only to be showered in freshly baked scones that were leftover from a gathering of the Orpheus Society (NB: The Orpheus is the name of a ship that sank entering the Manukau Harbour and has the unfortunate honour of being New Zealand’s most deadly maritime disaster). Then, to cap it off, Mr Bob Harvey himself – one of the instigators of the Hillary Trail concept when he was Mayor of Waitakere – wanders over to have a chat about life in general. Viva!

P1020488 (compressed)


Day #1: Settling in for the night at the Karamatura Campground

 

P1020500 (compresed)


Day#2: Close to Whatipu, looking west towards the northern shore of the entrance to the Manukau Harbour.

 

 

P1020501 (compressed)


Day #2: Looking east along the northern edge of the Manukau Harbour

 

P1020510 (compressed)


Day #2: Volcanic peaks around Pararaha Campground

 

P1020553 (compressed)


Day #3: Hiking north along the beach towards Anawhata

 

P1020558 (compressed)


Day #3: Isolated and inaccessible beach (Mercer’s Bay), just south of Piha

 

P1020565 (compressed)


Day #3: Nikau groves just north of Piha

 

P1020578 (compressed)


Day #4: Lake Wainamu, just south of Bethells Beach

 

P1020591 (compressed)


Day #4: Looking south over Te Henga and Bethells Beach

 

Demolishing Demographia? It’s cookie time.

Yesterday’s post considered the recently released Demographia survey on housing affordability. Thanks to everyone who commented; the discussion was useful for honing my thoughts on follow-up posts. Such as this.

But first let’s re-cap: Demographia’s key findings were 1) New Zealand has increasingly unaffordable housing and 2) this is the direct result of urban containment policies.

The main issue I took with the Demographia report in yesterday’s post was 1) the lack of strong economic justification/references supporting their housing affordability indicator of choice (namely the median-multiple ratio) and 2) the lack of discussion/investigation of potential alternative indicators.

Indeed, my quick web search threw up at least two alternative indicators of housing affordability, namely the rent-multiple ratio and the home affordability index, neither of which appeared to lend much support to Demographia’s findings. Of course, this does not prove their conclusions are incorrect, but it does suggest they are premature.

In this post I wanted to look beneath the hood of Demographia’s housing affordability indicator a little more. The reason being that when you do you start to see what they are measuring and, perhaps more importantly, what they are not measuring. In Demographia’s case, they calculated their housing affordability indicator as follows:

Median-multiple = median house price / gross median household income per annum

This then measures, in a simple sense, the cost of the median home relative to the median household income. While that may sound reasonable enough on the surface, the devil is in the detail. Two of the more obvious issues with Demographia’s indicator that spring to my mind are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Demographia’s definition of “income” excludes taxes and transfers. This is pertinent for at least two reasons:

  1. First, some taxes have direct impacts on property prices, e.g. local rates. These will simultaneously tend to affect property prices (higher rates = lower property prices) and post-tax income (lower), but not gross income. Somewhat perversely, this would mean that jurisdictions with higher property taxes would tend to exhibit more affordable housing, at least according to Demographia’s indicator.
  2. Second, most taxes directly impact on a household’s disposable income and in turn affects their ability to afford housing. In New Zealand tax rates have changed considerably over time, especially for different segments of the population. Consider for example the impact of Working for Families on demand for certain types of housing.

Such issues mean that the median-multiple housing affordability indicator, as it appears that Demographia have applied it will not pick up on relevant differences in taxes and transfers, both  spatially and temporally.

The spatial differences are likely to be fairly minimal within a country like NZ – where local taxes don’t vary that much from place to place – but this is certainly not the case when making international comparisons. Many countries have much higher rates of property taxes (and even local income taxes) that will tend to impact on house prices and thereby affect their housing affordability relative compared to New Zealand.

On the other hand, the temporal differences introduced by changes in domestic tax and transfer policies are likely to be fairly large, even within a country. The potential impacts on housing affordability of recent tax changes to the top personal tax rate, ability to claim capital depreciation on properties, and commercial tax rates are hard to predict in advance. Tax impacts may well spill over national boundaries as well; NZ’s lack of capital gains tax, for example, is frequently quoted by my Australian colleagues as a primary driver of their decision to invest in New Zealand’s property market.

These issues would make me extremely cautious about drawing broad, sweeping conclusions on trends on housing affordability both within and between countries simply based on the median-multiple indicator.

“C is for cookie and that’s good enough for me” – The following (deliberately facetious) statement helps I think to highlight a dimension of the housing affordability debate that is all too frequently glossed over, namely:

You don’t measure the  affordability of cookies based on the cost of buying the cookie factory.

The point is that housing is a actually a type of good, or more specifically a service, which is “produced” by a house. You can gain access to housing without necessarily buying the factory that produces it, i.e. rent a house. Obviously, some people do this already and they’re called “renters.” Like me.

Cookie-monster-bedtime

Even in New Zealand many people rent by choice. And in many countries in central and northern Europe renting is even more prevalent. But the key takeaway message is that the affordability of housing, which is what Demographia sets out to investigate, is probably better measured (from an economic perspective) using rents rather than house prices. This is especially true for low income households that are more likely to rent.

And that’s why I’d place more emphasis on the graph produced by the Productivity Commission, which calculated the ratio of rents to household disposable income over time than the median-multiple indicator presented by the Demographia study. This showed the rent to income ratio in New Zealand declining since the 1990s, contrary to Demographia’s findings and casting some not inconsiderable doubt on their conclusions.

My preference for using rents is also related to the first point on the impacts of taxes on house prices: Unlike houses, which are an asset, rents measure the cost of housing services. I suspect it’s far easier to “net out” the impact of services taxes in various jurisdictions, i.e. GST, on rents than it is to adjust for changes in the myriad of other income and asset taxes that might affect house pricing.

That’s all for tonight, but tomorrow’s another day and I’m already fomenting ideas on the next Demographia post; in the meantime I’d welcome your comments/suggestions/criticisms.

Auckland Council’s first year

On November 1st last year Auckland Council came into being and we saw the seven former councils plus the Regional Council disbanded. It is interesting to note what I said on October 31st last year, looking ahead towards what this new era for Auckland would bring:

Overall, thanks in large part to the results of the election a few weeks back, I now feel confident and hopeful that the local government amalgamation will turn out to be a good thing for Auckland. I hope that it will provide us with a ‘fresh start’ of sorts – a chance to finally tackle regional issues in an integrated manner, to finally take on central government and get a better deal for the city and a chance to generally speak with one voice. Of course I still have many reservations: who will play the environmental watchdog role that the ARC has importantly done in the past 20 years? Will the Auckland Transport CCO be an open, accountable and transparent organisation – or will it operate in secret and be dominated by 1960s-mentality road engineers? How will we be able to integrate our land-use and transport thinking when they’re now located in two completely separate agencies? How much staff knowledge and expertise will be lost in the transition process? And so on.

However, I’m hopeful that things will be better with this new structure because, quite frankly, the old structure didn’t work very well at all. The city councils were too big to be local, but too small to speak with much weight to central government and think regionally. The ARC was hamstrung by efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to destroy it (ARC Chairman Mike Lee has written an excellent history of the ARC here by the way). In transport matters, the councils rarely agreed with each other, or with the ARC, or with ARTA or with NZTA on what their priorities were – with the result being that generally not much got done outside state highway upgrades (because NZTA could just get on and do them without having to worry about what the councils were doing). ARTA was rarely able to improve the cost-effectiveness of its bus services through extending bus priority measures – because they weren’t responsible for those: that was up to the city councils. The city councils couldn’t really see the direct benefits of bus lanes, just the noise made by those moaning about them, so were (and remain) incredibly reluctant to expand them.

So, apart from the oversight provided by the ARC on planning and environmental matters, I don’t actually think I will miss much at all when it comes to the old local government system. But the big question remains about the new system: while it might be difficult for it to be much worse than what we had, is it likely to be any better?

On transport matters, the signs are promising. Auckland’s new mayor and council seem highly willing to take their transport vision to the government and demand to be heard. It would even seem as though the government has got the message – and is making the most positive noises towards rail transport heard since it took office. But it’s not just the big expensive rail projects where I’m hopeful the new system can deliver better outcomes – it’s also the small stuff. It’s things like Auckland Transport having an incentive and the ability to improve bus priority measures because enabling buses to go faster will increase patronage, lower operating costs and improve their bottom line that will make a huge difference. While the early signs aren’t great, I’m confident that Auckland Transport will (eventually) become a pretty open and transparent agency: plus having all transport aspects thrown together into the one organisation will hopefully mean better consideration of public transport in all transport projects.

But these improvements aren’t just going to happen magically. There will undoubtedly be internal upheavals within the council’s structure for a few years yet, there will be the incredibly difficult process of working out how to fairly pay for all these grand ideas without pushing rates through the roof, there will be attempts by staff to establish opaque fiefdoms and much much more. If the new Council wants to achieve its very very admirable transport goals, then it will need to be on the ball and keep pushing things along every step of the way. I think it should have very detailed and well thought out plans for what it wants achieved by the end of 2011, 2012 and 2013: both in terms of taking steps towards the “big three” rail projects, but also in terms of maximising the benefits of integrated ticketing, electrification and ensuring we have a number of good “quick wins” along the way.

In a general sense, I have probably been somewhat pleasantly surprised by the way the Council has worked over the past year. The ‘big picture vision’ for Auckland has been turned into something fairly concrete – by way of the Auckland Spatial Plan. For transport, we’ve seen something of a mixed bag but it comes out slightly on the side of positive. In terms of ‘day to day’ activities, by most accounts things have transitioned fairly smoothly – although much of the most difficult work is yet to come with contentious issues like rating and the long-term plan.

If we focus on transport, there have been a number of really great positives:

  • The ongoing strong support of the Council for the City Rail Link as the key transformational transport project for Auckland. The Council confirmed this project as the top priority transport project for Auckland and continues to push for it as strongly as possible.
  • Auckland Transport has generally been surprisingly responsive and willing to engage with the public. They opened up their meetings, they publish their board agendas (an increasing amount of which isn’t in confidential), they have engaged via social media like Twitter and so forth.
  • In key plans like the City Centre Master Plan we can see a more nuanced approach to transport, as a key balancing act between shifting people while not destroying the quality of space, than I’ve ever come across before.
  • Thanks to the hard work of Auckland Transport (and other involved agencies) we have ended up with the fantastic surprise of ending up with far more electric trains than we’d originally envisaged.
  • Setting aside the disastrous opening night of the Rugby World Cup, the transport planning seemed pretty good – especially on the last weekend highlighting that key lessons (such as closing Queen Street to cars) had been learned.

Of course there have been a few low-lights:

  • The short-comings in the original business case for the City Rail Link which gave the government leverage to criticise the project and shed doubt on its cost-effectiveness. Lots of hard work has happened since then, but we’ve been playing catch up over the past year.
  • The failure of Auckland Council to make more tough decisions in the Auckland Spatial Plan over which projects are priorities and which ones aren’t. This can still be remedied as the Plan is only in draft form.
  • The disastrous opening night of Rugby World Cup, which seemed largely due to extremely poor communication and co-operation between some of Auckland Council’s CCOs and the lack of a “Plan B” when things started to go wrong.

It will be an interesting next year. We’ll have a finalised Auckland Plan, we should start making real progress in getting consents for the City Rail Link and resolving remaining areas of difference with the government (assuming the government doesn’t change) about its funding, we’ll be getting pretty close to completing the infrastructure side of electrification, we’ll see integrated ticketing implemented fully and we’ll hopefully see more comprehensive improvements to the bus network.

How do you think Auckland Council’s first year has gone? What have been the successes? What have been the failures? And what do you hope to see from the Council over the next year?

Weird Herald article trying to rewrite history

There’s a fairly long and quite rambling opinion piece in today’s NZ Herald, about transport in Auckland and particularly about the relatively poor quality of the city’s public transport system. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this, and the article’s look back at Auckland’s transport history – in particular the tale of Mayor Dove-Myer Robinson’s rapid rail proposal – is a useful reminder about how efforts to improve Auckland’s rail system have generally found huge public support.

But there are a couple of paragraphs in the article that stood out as being a bit weird:

Mayoral hopeful John Banks’ master plan focused on an improved rail service, including an inner-city loop and airport link. He wanted to see central city stations and an integrated ticketing system.Increased ferry connections and improved cycleways were also part of the plan. Many Aucklanders, including Banks, attribute his failure to land the Supercity top spot to the ambitious plan.

“The people kicked my arse right out of the mayoralty,” he said this week but declined to discuss it further. “I spent two mayoralties building transport infrastructure around Auckland. I think I’ll leave it to the new mayoralty.”

Uhhh… really?

My recollection of the super city mayoralty race was that both John Banks and Len Brown came across as fairly pro public transport for most of the campaign, except that by the end of it Banks was starting to declare war on South Auckland and back-tracking a bit on his public transport aspirations. Len Brown ended up winning, and has made improving Auckland’s public transport system his top priority. Hardly consistent with the idea that Banks lost because he promised to focus too much on improving our transport system.

There are a few weird other things in the article, like “Electric trains are expected to be running within the next three years, including an inner-city link” (what inner city rail link? Or are we talking about buses now?)

I’m not sure whether Abby Gillies, who wrote the piece, just isn’t that well informed – or whether John Banks put together the story to come across as less pro public transport as part of his campaign to win Epsom for Act, who have generally not been the most public transport friendly party around.

Has 2010 been a good year for public transport?

As the year draws to a close I have been having a few discussions with friends about whether 2010 has been a good year for public transport or not. There are probably arguments either way.

On the bright side first

  1. Perhaps the biggest boost was the results of the Auckland Council local government election, and in particular the election of Mayor Len Brown on a very strong public transport platform.  As well as the final result of the Super City election, I was also heartened by the emphasis we saw throughout the election period on the necessity to improve Auckland’s public transport system. For example, we saw survey results in the NZ Herald showing rail to the airport was the project most people thought we should prioritise.
  2. We’ve also seen the CBD Rail Tunnel business case released, showing an excellent cost-benefit ratio of 3.5 – once you include employment-related wider economic benefits (which, contrary to what Steven Joyce says, are also included in all the BCR calculations of the roads of national significance).
  3. We saw a number of railway stations open: including Newmarket, Grafton, New Lynn and perhaps most satisfyingly, Onehunga. 2009 was a bit of a ‘hard slog year’ when it came to PT: much work done but not many results to show for it. In 2010 we saw the results of that hard work, which has been great.
  4. The ARC came up with the 2010 Regional Land Transport Strategy, just before they disappeared. This is probably the best transport strategy Auckland has had in 60 years – although it remains to be seen to what extent it’s implemented.
  5. Patronage continued to boom: particularly on the rail network and on the Northern Busway. It’s only a matter of time before we achieve a million rail trips a month: perhaps in March next year, perhaps in September or October when the world cup is on.

Of course not everything has been great. On the down side:

  1. Steven Joyce’s reaction to the CBD tunnel business case was disappointing and exceptionally hypocritical considering his illogical support of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”.
  2. The relentless pursuit of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” has been disappointing, especially considering its cost-effectiveness seems to become worse and worse the more it’s analysed.
  3. The farebox recovery policy didn’t get much news, but over the long term could prove to be exceptionally destructive to public transport in New Zealand. Once again, it seems that this was an arbitrary decision from Steven Joyce to impose a 50% requirement with absolutely no supporting research.
  4. The emergence of a $30 million rail funding gap – entirely caused by the policies of (you guessed it) Steven Joyce.
  5. The whole bus lane ticketing saga. While Auckland City was certainly acting a bit daft, the Herald’s general crusade against bus lanes may end up being particularly damaging to the cheapest and fastest way of dramatically improving public transport in Auckland – extending the bus lane system.

On balance, I do think we’re in a better place than we were this time last year. Electrification is about to kick into its next phase and become visible, integrated ticketing (despite its many flaws) looks like it’s going ahead. We have a Mayor and Council who are willing to take the fight to the government’s transport policies if need be, and who appear to be strong PT advocates. This year could have a been a whole heap worse, that’s for sure.

Auckland: a fresh start?

And so, a year and a half after the Royal Commission into Auckland’s local government reported back its findings, the Super City begins. It’s goodbye to Auckland City, Manukau City, North Shore City, Waitakere City, Rodney District, Papakura District, Franklin Districts and (perhaps the only one I’ll be sad to see go) the Auckland Regional Council – and hello to the new Auckland Council. Over the past 18 months I have taken an intense interest in how this whole process has panned out. From my initial thoughts on the Royal Commission’s report, to concerns I had about uneven ward sizes and my fluctuating opinions on the creation of the Auckland Transport CCO (first I thought it was a good idea, then a bad idea, now I’m back to thinking that it’s probably OK) it has been interesting to closely follow this process in Auckland’s history.

Overall, thanks in large part to the results of the election a few weeks back, I now feel confident and hopeful that the local government amalgamation will turn out to be a good thing for Auckland. I hope that it will provide us with a ‘fresh start’ of sorts – a chance to finally tackle regional issues in an integrated manner, to finally take on central government and get a better deal for the city and a chance to generally speak with one voice. Of course I still have many reservations: who will play the environmental watchdog role that the ARC has importantly done in the past 20 years? Will the Auckland Transport CCO be an open, accountable and transparent organisation – or will it operate in secret and be dominated by 1960s-mentality road engineers? How will we be able to integrate our land-use and transport thinking when they’re now located in two completely separate agencies? How much staff knowledge and expertise will be lost in the transition process? And so on.

However, I’m hopeful that things will be better with this new structure because, quite frankly, the old structure didn’t work very well at all. The city councils were too big to be local, but too small to speak with much weight to central government and think regionally. The ARC was hamstrung by efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to destroy it (ARC Chairman Mike Lee has written an excellent history of the ARC here by the way). In transport matters, the councils rarely agreed with each other, or with the ARC, or with ARTA or with NZTA on what their priorities were – with the result being that generally not much got done outside state highway upgrades (because NZTA could just get on and do them without having to worry about what the councils were doing). ARTA was rarely able to improve the cost-effectiveness of its bus services through extending bus priority measures – because they weren’t responsible for those: that was up to the city councils. The city councils couldn’t really see the direct benefits of bus lanes, just the noise made by those moaning about them, so were (and remain) incredibly reluctant to expand them.

So, apart from the oversight provided by the ARC on planning and environmental matters, I don’t actually think I will miss much at all when it comes to the old local government system. But the big question remains about the new system: while it might be difficult for it to be much worse than what we had, is it likely to be any better?

On transport matters, the signs are promising. Auckland’s new mayor and council seem highly willing to take their transport vision to the government and demand to be heard. It would even seem as though the government has got the message – and is making the most positive noises towards rail transport heard since it took office. But it’s not just the big expensive rail projects where I’m hopeful the new system can deliver better outcomes – it’s also the small stuff. It’s things like Auckland Transport having an incentive and the ability to improve bus priority measures because enabling buses to go faster will increase patronage, lower operating costs and improve their bottom line that will make a huge difference. While the early signs aren’t great, I’m confident that Auckland Transport will (eventually) become a pretty open and transparent agency: plus having all transport aspects thrown together into the one organisation will hopefully mean better consideration of public transport in all transport projects.

But these improvements aren’t just going to happen magically. There will undoubtedly be internal upheavals within the council’s structure for a few years yet, there will be the incredibly difficult process of working out how to fairly pay for all these grand ideas without pushing rates through the roof, there will be attempts by staff to establish opaque fiefdoms and much much more. If the new Council wants to achieve its very very admirable transport goals, then it will need to be on the ball and keep pushing things along every step of the way. I think it should have very detailed and well thought out plans for what it wants achieved by the end of 2011, 2012 and 2013: both in terms of taking steps towards the “big three” rail projects, but also in terms of maximising the benefits of integrated ticketing, electrification and ensuring we have a number of good “quick wins” along the way.

I do think we have the opportunity to make a fresh start on Auckland, to give the city a better and brighter future – not just transport wise, but generally. It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure.