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Transport’s not a left/right political issue

As I discussed yesterday the debate on big urban issues of housing and transport far too frequently descends into left/right debates and today I’m looking at transport.

One of the reasons this has come up is that we’ve had some interesting conversations on Twitter in the last few days with a couple of Nationals MPs, which apart from highlighting a scary lack of understanding about transport, inevitably touched on the issue about whether the transport policy that we generally advocate on this blog fits into the traditional “left-right” political spectrum. Here’s what the fairly new National MP Paul Foster-Bell said on Twitter:

We have a fairly diverse range of bloggers on this site: a couple of economists, a transport planner, an urban designer, an architectural photographer, a planning student etc and of course myself who most recently working in banking and from our discussions I think we have some reasonably broad political viewpoints.

Furthermore, many of the key changes to transport and planning policy that we have advocated for strongest over the past few years hardly align with any traditional definition of a “left worldview”. Let’s take a look a few of our most common arguments:

  1. Cut back or cancel some of the Roads of National Significance that do not provide value for money. This seems to me like basic fiscal conservatism – as some of the RoNS projects are simply a huge amount of money being spent on a problem that really doesn’t warrant such high investment. Puhoi-Wellsford could be replaced by Operation Lifesaver, Transmission Gully is just overkill for a city that’s hardly growing in population, the Kapiti Expressway has a cost-benefit ratio of 0.2, the Hamilton bypass will carry fewer vehicles in 20 years time than the Kopu bridge did when it was a single lane… and so on. This seems like cutting wasteful spending, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they want to do?
  2. Built the Congestion Free Network instead of the Integrated Transport Programme. Ultimately the CFN proposal is at least $10 billion cheaper than the current transport programme for Auckland. It probably has a much higher chance of achieving the many targets that Auckland has set for its future transport outcomes than the ITP is able to meet (although that’s not hard as the ITP failed to achieve just about any of its targets). Similarly to above, this is achieved through chopping out an enormous amount of wasteful spending on unnecessary projects (both road and rail) – yet again, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they support?
  3. Built complete Streets. Democracy equality and choice are meant to be good things aren’t they? Most of our roads focus solely on the task of moving as many vehicles as possible and give scant regard for anyone not in a car. Building complete streets that treat each user equally and allow people to have a real choice in how they get around is the ultimate form of transport democracy.
  4. Improve walkability. We’ve seen both locally and internationally that when there is a focus on improving the walkability and the pedestrian environment (that includes wheeled pedestrians) a couple of significant things happen. One is that people shop more boosting local retail, perhaps the best example of this is the upgrade of Fort St to a shared space which has seen the hospitality retailers revenue increase by a staggering 400%. The second thing is that people walking (and cycling) more is good for them, improving health and therefore reducing long term costs to the health system. This is further enhanced as often these improvements also see a reduction in traffic crashes. So once again we see a case where we can lower costs while also increasing revenue and therefore tax at the same time.
  5. Get rid of Minimum Parking RequirementsThis key proposal is to get rid of a current regulation that causes more harm than good, that adds significant cost onto developers (thereby discouraging development and growth) and often just adds regulatory churn cost for no gain (as it seems most applications for parking waivers appear to be granted). I would have thought this aligns quite well with a “right of centre” political ideology where reducing regulation (especially regulation that harms economic activity and growth) is a very very good thing.
  6. Relax Planning Rules to give people more Housing Choice. This was covered yesterday but worth repeating again. Most planning rules limit development potential in existing urban areas: whether that’s through height limits, yard setbacks, density controls, parking requirements, minimum unit sizes or whatever. Through the Unitary Plan process we have advocated for (and will continue to do so) the relaxation of planning controls – particularly in areas where it makes good sense to allow high density developments to make best use of existing infrastructure. Similarly to parking controls, this is a relaxation of current regulation that significantly limits development potential and the prospects of economic growth through making better use of inner parts of the city. The relaxation/elimination of economically damaging regulation should be music to a right-wingers ears you’d think.

There are probably many more examples than above, but they give a good overview of why transport policy (and land-use policy) really doesn’t fit well into a traditional “left-right” ideological spectrum. We could easily point out how bizarre it is that our current supposedly centre-right government has significantly increased petrol taxes to spend on a series of very dubious mega-projects in the form of the RoNS. That seems rather more “tax and spend” than fiscal conservatism.

Furthermore, if you look internationally there are many examples of centre-right political parties taking public transport seriously. In Britain, the current Conservative government is making a big contribution to the £15.9 billion Crossrail project in London and is also likely to spend even more money on the High Speed 2 rail project. That government seems to understand the economic importance of having good rail infrastructure. For example, Crossrail massively increases the residential catchment of the Canary Wharf employment area – somewhat similar to how the CRL vastly increases the residential catchment of the city centre. London Mayor Boris Johnson is a big champion of not only Crossrail but also getting more people to ride a bike and is planning to invest huge amounts of money in cycle infrastructure. In Australia, the centre-right New South Wales government is championing and making a massive funding contribution to the North West Rail Link project. Even in Auckland we have business groups who politically are considered “right of centre” supporting projects like the City Rail Link and improved cycling infrastructure.

It’s interesting to try to understand this political divide through other lenses than a traditional “left-right” spectrum. Pro-urban and suburban/anti-urban is perhaps a better lens in my opinion – particularly because it seems to explain better why some right-wing parties (like the Republicans in the USA, the current Liberal Government in Australia and the National government here in NZ) appear to be sceptical at best about public transport, while others (e.g. NSW government and UK government) seem to really understand the importance of public transport.

Perhaps this “pro-urban” and “suburban/anti-urban” divide even exists within the current National Party. It was interesting that John Key (an Aucklander who has lived in big overseas cities for much of his life) was the person who changed the government’s position on City Rail Link while Steven Joyce (grew up in New Plymouth and now lives on a lifestyle block in Auckland) and Gerry Brownlee (from Christchurch) were apparently the biggest opponents of that change. Or how we get current Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse saying this on auto-dependency:

From Dunedin, in case you were wondering.

Sydney’s extended light-rail network

I guess this is what happens when you have a centre-right government that isn’t completely insane in its ideological dislike of public transport:

Premier Barry O’Farrell and Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian today announced light rail would be built through the Sydney CBD to Randwick and Kingsford to reduce congestion and revitalise the city.

The estimated $1.6 billion 12 kilometre light rail project will link Circular Quay and Central via George Street, the Moore Park sporting and entertainment precinct including the Sydney Cricket Ground and Allianz Stadium, Randwick Racecourse, the University of NSW and Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick.

Light rail will be built in parallel with the implementation of a redesigned bus network to significantly reduce the number of buses clogging the CBD during the peak.

Around 40 per cent of George Street will be pedestrianised, between Bathurst Street and Hunter Street, for light rail – meaning 60 per cent of George Street will still be accessible to private vehicles.

“This is a once-in-a-generation project to revitalise the centre of Sydney by reducing congestion and offering a fast, attractive public transport option to key locations,” Mr O’Farrell said.

“The NSW Government is getting on with the job of building for the future.”

There’s already another well advanced plan for extending the existing inner-west light-rail line significantly, as shown below:

TPD_LightRail_InnerWestLightRai-Extension_map_Feb_2012_0And here’s the CBD and southeast scheme:recommend-route-DecLooking at the light-rail plans in a bit more detail, there are some remarkable similarities between what Sydney is trying to achieve through a number of public transport initiatives and what Auckland’s trying to achieve through the City Rail Link. Things like:

  • Reducing the number of buses travelling along busy inner city streets
  • Providing better reliability and service quality for public transport
  • Improving the pedestrian experience of the inner city
  • Boosting employment and economic growth

For example, Sydney really struggles with the huge number of buses entering its CBD during the peak period – which this light-rail project as well as a reorganisation of the bus network will help do wonder why centre-right politicians in Australia don’t seem to have the same ideological dislike of public transport as seems to be the case in New Zealand.

Form follows parking

Here’s a fairly random street in Sydney, Australia that looks like it’s a big box retail area with some office parks thrown in. You know, like the kind of thing you find in Auckland in places such as Albany, Wairau Park, Highbrook, Lincoln Road and of course Manukau.

What’s interesting though is when you look at this area from above.

And compare to Manukau:

The stand out and absolutely smack you in the face difference is in relation to surface parking. The area around Mascot in Sydney – where the first couple of images are from, have almost absolutely no surface parking – instead using that land for far more productive purposes in terms of extra floor space. That area is densely developed without a doubt! Compared to Manukau, which is around 70% asphalt (clearly not enough for some!)

I’m kind of curious why there’s such a big difference between the two places. Some possible explanations:

  • Mascot never had minimum parking requirements or perhaps even had maximum parking limits.
  • Mascot had some other planning rule stopping surface level parking.
  • The land values in Mascot are so high that land simply can’t be “wasted” on parking (this also relies on there being no minimums)
  • Mascot has always been blessed with good public transport whereas PT was generally viewed as a communist plot for smelly people by the former Manukau City Council

This is all speculation of course, but it clearly highlights that light-industrial, office-park, big-box retail areas don’t have to end up being smothered to death in parking lots.



Traffic’s declining in Sydney too – so why don’t we get it?

Auckland is certainly not alone in experiencing a pretty dramatic drop in traffic growth in the past few years – calling into question massive roading projects relying on massive traffic growth projections for their justification. We have pointed out similar trends in the USA, Canada, the UKEurope and now – Sydney:

Gavin Gatenby, the convenor of lobby group Ecotransit, said the NSW government’s support of the WestConnex motorway was “about supporting private vested interests that have sunk billions into building motorways”.

“Per capita road use has been falling for the past eight years in all Australian capital cities, as public transport use has surged. Yet NSW decides to invest billions of dollars in motorways before major public transport projects. It’s sheer madness,” Mr Gatenby said. …

Recent motorway projects in NSW — including the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel and the Eastern Distributor — had all failed to reach their forecast traffic numbers. …

Why do we keep going on and on about this issue? Because it’s utterly critical. Over the next 30 years Auckland could spend up to $60 billion on transport – in today’s money! That’s a simply staggering amount of cash, which we do not have. Yet all the long-term planning for transport in Auckland still seems to be based on the assumption that traffic growth will continue on and on forever, presumably making the assumption that the massive flat-lining of traffic volumes in the past seven or so years is just a blip.

I don’t think it’s a blip. I think that a combination of higher petrol prices, renewed urbanism, an ageing population and cultural change is having a profound impact on transport that unfortunately the powers-to-be either simply don’t care about or are wilfully ignoring. This absolute failure will have a profound impact if it is not reversed: we could find ourselves wasting billions upon billions of dollars on the wrong projects, we could find ourselves not building what will really be necessary and we could find ourselves imposing harsh and unnecessary additional taxes on Aucklanders to pay for projects which simply aren’t necessary.

I know a lot of people in the transport industry read this blog. Most people I have spoken to about the long term future of transport in Auckland realise that we’re on the cusp of massive change, yet for some reason the same stupid projects keep being advanced and proposed. I’m genuinely at a loss to explain this absolute failure of the transport profession. Is it politics? Is it bureaucratic inertia? Is it having dinosaurs in influential positions? I’m really curious, because as an outsider the whole thing seems so incredibly bizarre.

Guest Post: Improving housing affordability

This is a Guest Post by commenter Tim Robinson 

Fixing Auckland’s housing problems is rightly high on the local and national agenda. Barely a day goes by without the Herald trumpeting the one side or the other of the real estate prices argument, and Auckland Council acknowledges that the issue is a key consideration in the Auckland Plan.

At national level, the Productivity Commission report into Housing Affordability could have been an opportunity to deal with issues, but with the ACT-initiated background to the study it was always going to recommend staid and predictable pro-sprawl recommendations, blithely dismissing critical issues around supply mechanisms, finance, taxation and pricing. Fortunately, following the cue of another ACT agenda, a quick glance across the ditch provides us with an example of how to really approach the tough challenges of housing affordability.

The McKell Institute’s  “Homes for All – the 40 things we can do to improve supply and affordability” offers a very different analysis and recommendations for Sydney, a city renowned for high prices, in a manner that is characteristically Australian in it’s directness. Sydney clearly has a problem of a magnitude worse than Auckland’s, and really needs to deal with it:

Sydney’s failure to build enough homes has a consequence not just in terms of house prices or affordability. It affects Sydney’s economic position adversely, reduces its contribution to the nation’s GDP and damages its international competitiveness.

As you might expect, there are some strong similarities between the drivers and parameters in the Sydney and Auckland. Homes for All is therefore quite relevant for taking action here, setting aside specific details arising from differences in the government structures and taxation systems.

In fact it is the issue of social attitudes to housing that gets escalated to the top of the agenda in Homes for All. This is an approach that I think is right in responding to the very human and social issues around housing. After all, housing is more than just a by-product of land use and transport planning. Concept. Most people have a deep attachment to the concept of Home, and this drives significant social and economic outcomes.

Due to the high cost of housing in Sydney, we are now seeing some workers spending up to 16 hours a week, the equivalent of two additional working days, travelling to and from their jobs because they can’t afford to live any closer.

Homes for All suggests it is people’s attitude towards homes as a cash cow that pretty much drives both the market and the regulatory systems that have made housing costs out of touch with incomes in Sydney. Rather than going in search of pseudo-technical evidence from lots of graphs and data, I am inclined to agree with this critique, which perhaps resounds at a gut level with what lots of people feel and experience.

Tax breaks and incentives for those in housing have distorted demand, had perverse consequences on supply and given massive benefits to those who are lucky enough to be ‘in it to win it’.

As Australians became addicted to the capital gain windfall of residential property, and as demand generation measures went up in step with supply restriction measures, the original goal of providing a place for everyone to live in became sidelined, with the complicity of the political class and of course of we existing home owners.

Despite the rhetoric of growing home ownership, the emphasis of public policy for decades has really been on the ownership not the home. Although in the hierarchy of human needs, shelter is up there with clean water and food – a fundamental and basic human need – in reality the thrust of policy has been to build capital gains rather than social capital. It has also been to stoke up demand without increasing supply, indeed, while constricting it.

These policies have driven prices up and people out of home ownership, particularly people 35 years and under, and created a wealth gap between the housing ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. But the wealth gap is both a generational and a geographical one. While all areas have seen great increases in home prices in the last 15 years, some areas have seen prices quadruple while others doubled.

Beyond the economic consequences, the failure to build enough homes in a variety of sizes, types and locations across Sydney has resulted not just in price inflation. It has reduced the livability of Sydney due to long commutes and congestion and the separation of families. It pushes new migrants away from the historic reception areas in denser inner-city neighbourhoods.

With inner suburbs closed on cost grounds to the many, this also means that the traditional reception neighbourhoods for migrants are no longer available and the cultural networks and labour markets they are offered long gone. Today they are forced to the edge of our city where prices may be lower but also where densities are lower thus services are fewer and farther between, public transport is notable by its absence and community integration is more challenging. With long commutes to jobs, these communities are also the most vulnerable to rises in mortgage and transport costs, as we have seen.

In response, Homes for All is pretty positive in it’s plan of action. It makes the point early on that the specific circumstances that Sydney has created for itself contain the seeds of opportunities to make things better.

The good news? Bad public policy caused these system failures. So, good public policy can fix them.

We believe that the policies to achieve the increase in supply – and the suppression of the wrong kind of demand, itself a key source of dysfunction in the housing market – are relatively easy to design and implement. We also believe that there is not just a need for such policies but an opportunity.

This is partly the opportunity of a Federal Government which has shown itself to be innovative in terms of public and affordable housing, and of a new State Government with the proverbial blank sheet of paper to fill with potentially far reaching reforms on planning, supply and demand management.

It is also about local councils stepping up to the plate to show leadership around the aims of housing the many not feeding the self-interest of the few. Also the development industry, aware of the need to be a better partner for the public sector in achieving higher quality as well as quantity outcomes, is also looking to innovate.

It is also the opportunity provided by a banking sector not as able as previously to supply either cheap project finance or mortgages, looking to new business models, new housing tenures, new products and new partners to invest in.

But there are also opportunities due to the context we are in – where house price inflation has paused in Sydney after the rampaging easy money years, giving us a new opportunity to see a value in housing other than the bottom line. So it is also fundamentally about we the people reassessing our attitude to housing need and returning to the original principles that drove earlier generations to work so hard to ensure our society had a place for everyone. In housing, what happened to the ‘Fair Go for All’?

Their approach identifies 11 key areas for action, under which are 40 specific actions.

Each of the actions, whose inspiration is beyond ideology, will make a difference to supply and affordability. Collectively they will make a transformation.

At a high level, the agenda really is quite familiar. The Productivity Commission report contemplated the same headings – land use & transportation planning, homebuilding mechanisms, finance and taxation, and social housing delivery. The one area that is conspicuously missing in the Australian report is that of industry productivity. I suggest it is not included because it is not a real challenge in Australia, where the size of the market has naturally created more competition and innovation. The Productivity Commission correctly identified how far behind our business models are in delivering cost-effective products, with much higher costs on this side of the Tasman.

Land use Planning

Sydney clearly suffers from some similar issues to Auckland when it comes to land use planning and development.

…the citizens of New South Wales, and Sydney residents in particular, have proven unable to engage in a meaningful discussion about providing new housing for our population. There has been a break down in trust between people and the planning process.

The rancour and animosity which greet each new proposed development or plan has been allowed to crowd out a proper discussion on how and where to provide housing. What discourse there is has broken down into mistrust and suspicion. People point to ugly or badly designed developments of previous years and vow never again. Residents are mistrustful of developers and the property industry that they see as profiting from overdevelopment or exploiting loop-holes for private gain.

They also have a planning framework that has been failing to perform, and which needs attention.


The biggest constraint on providing new housing in New South Wales is the overlay of planning restrictions and regulations which have made developing new housing a difficult, risky, costly and uncertain process.

Homes for All also points towards some uncomfortable realities that stem from well-meaning policy approaches.


Some of those approaches have seen well-meaning environmental concerns and ambitions for compact cities, with new development meant to be restricted to Brownfield sites near public transport, in effective alliance with NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) forces seeking to protect property values.

To be clear, the report supports sustainable housing development, energy-efficient homes and green infrastructure. It supports the delivery of quality, well-designed homes in properly planned places. But it also supports building dramatically more homes than are currently being delivered, at prices which make them more affordable to those on average salaries, with the infrastructure that creates homes as well as just units.


The changes pioneered by former Premier Bob Carr to address poor design in residential flat buildings included SEPP 65. This has improved the quality of new apartments, however not without increasing the cost of construction and often resulting in reduced yield. This was a good policy which had unforeseen consequences for housing supply. Another well- intentioned initiative which had unfortunate consequences for supply was the introduction of BASIX’s sustainability requirements for new construction. Building for sustainability and energy efficiency is clearly a laudable policy and the authors are not suggesting it be removed. However, its interaction with other policy objectives needs to be understood and the consequences for housing affordability taken into consideration. In many new residential developments the BASIX requirements can contradict the design objectives of SEPP 65, increasing constructions costs and reducing density and yield.

These comments should make uncomfortable reading for some Auckland audiences, particularly some politicians and groups who play both positions: promoting urban containment and urban transport investment while at the same time acting to block positive central developments.

There are other aspects of the planning system in Sydney that further complicate matters – multiple levels of plan-making that often don’t play together, and what sounds like widespread consultation powers across lots of public agencies.

Not surprisingly McKell are in favour of a new approach to plan making, with attention to how policy priorities are taken into account when making decisions, supported by a re-think of how much it costs to submit applications. Auckland has at least managed some reform through the single Supercity model, but I’d be amazed if we see any real progress on improving consenting costs and the clarity / simplicity of the system. Here’s hoping – prove me wrong Council!

McKell also chuck in a couple of easy wins. One sounds like it needs careful handling – rear lot infill, which sounds like it was banished in Sydney a while back, but is still the backbone of infill housing in Auckland. The other is a key proposition familiar to Transportblog readers – enabling small-lot (read: medium density) subdivision in areas close to transport nodes and looking to reapply traditional models such as the terraced house, currently denied in Sydney through minimum lot size requirements.

Transportation / Infrastructure – the long term fix

Where Homes for All really gets interesting for Auckland is in it’s identification of the long term, strategic fixes for housing affordability.

There are short, medium and long term fixes to overheated housing markets. In the short term, the shortage of cheap mortgage money can put an immediate dampener on home price bubbles. In the medium term, the tax and levy changes we argue for will reduce land prices. In the long term, it is critical to ensure that a big city has concentrations of jobs in more than one location and that commuters can access them as easily as – if not easier than – travelling to the CBD.

Sydney has an urban structure that is similar to Auckland’s in that the CBD that dominates the economy and transport structures, and geographical constraints that limit the catchment close to the CBD – large areas that would be occupied densely in other cities are water.

Polycentric Sydney having been announced several times now needs to be realised – for the good of those needing homes as much as to increase the effective job density of Sydney. Yes, we need policies to densify established areas and suburbs but we also need to recognise that having our capital city’s sole CBD on its eastern edge, leaving a commute of 30-70 kilometres for Western Sydney inhabitants, distorts the housing market as well as narrowing the economic base for the high value added jobs the city needs to grow.

The transport and economic development focus on the CBD ends up exacerbating home price inflation and adding to the unearned gains of existing home owners in those areas.

The imbalance of Sydney can be summed up in one big fact, one massive trend and one serious problem. Currently as many people now live west of Parramatta as east of it, and when Sydney becomes a city of 7 million towards mid-century, 4 million will live in Western Sydney. The problem? Presently, two thirds of the jobs are in central and east Sydney. Bill Clinton once said that the best welfare policy was a job. Likewise we believe that that policies to grow jobs – and good jobs – in Parramatta and Western Sydney overall amount to the best long term strategic investment in housing affordability for the city. 

The report discusses how positively reinforcing a polycentric city model through transport investment directly affects housing affordability.

If the State Government and local councils can collaborate to really identify and deliver the strategic infrastructure and connectivity required to raise the effective job density of Western Sydney and reinforce its attractions as a market, then, together with the reformed planning and tax regimes we advocate, a new more decentralised, diverse and even housing market can develop in Sydney. This also means that strategic transport investment is the best housing investment.

Three cheers for the last statement! Achieving an outcome in one sector relies on investment in another medium is the reality of an urban market.

Homes for All also makes the critical observation that it is really transformative transport investment that is required to effect major changes in the housing market.

We see little evidence of game-changing transport investment being delivered or even planned to make a reality of the ‘city of cities’ and to ensure for example that Paramatta realises its potential as a second tier CBD for Sydney on a par with North Sydney.

As a comparison, London has made east London its development focus for the last 10 years and the next 20. This is based primarily on investment in light and heavy rail infrastructure, which reduced journey times by half to central London. This hasn’t just brought the centre closer to the east: it has made the east part of the centre, and made the east a new destination for London’s housing growth. The fast train to Parramatta, a journey feasibly travelled in 10 to 12 minutes by transport means currently available in international cities, would achieve the same result as east London.

Although welcome, even the North West Rail Link is essentially business as usual as it reinforces commuting trends into the existing CBD rather than creating new economic geographies.

This highlights a whole range of interesting questions arising from the City Rail Link proposal for Auckland. We know that the tunnel link will massively increase access into the CBD – but to what extent will we actively embrace the reverse opportunities it offers? What are the opportunities for New Lynn, Henderson and centres along the southern line arising from faster, more regular access to potential jobs in these centres? Are we actively planning for rail-accessible employment along these corridors? Do we even want to disperse jobs, or are we still such a small urban economy that we want to maintain a singular focus on CBD employment creation? Getting more pointed, can we afford for the CRL to potentially increase the inequity of house price distribution – or do we genuinely think it will do the opposite?

While the CRL is now able to proceed under the unified city structure in Auckland, Sydney clearly has some struggles in it’s authority structure that are posing barriers.

But who is planning it? Through what agency will this happen? It is more than just a transport project.

Transforming governance

The governance and capacity gap in Sydney for enabling projects of metropolitan significance has grown ever wider. A planning system which today we believe would reject development applications to build the Harbour Bridge or Opera House, let alone the Snowy Mountain project, virtually makes such grand projects impossible.

But even if the fast train to Parramatta were acceptable in planning terms, who would promote it and deliver it in the absence of a metropolitan wide authority? Given the reluctance of successive state governments to reorganise local government in Sydney or give it a metropolitan governance, the answer must be that the State Government needs to innovate structures and governance which can conceive of and deliver development projects and enabling infrastructure of this scale to transform the prospects – and place – of Western Sydney.

We add: merely freeing up planning restrictions and speeding up land release in themselves – as has been mooted by the State Government – will neither deliver the number of homes needed or the quality of places needed to transform Western Sydney. A more strategic approach is required to rebalance the city to provide the range of jobs, social and cultural facilities, homes, transport and town centres that will make Western Sydney a place of choice, with homes for all.

That will not be achieved without a coordinated governance and policy focus as well as targeted planning and investment by all government agencies and councils collaborating with top quality private sector partners.

In our view, the market, planning reform and speeding up land release will, without this coordination and public-private partnering, deliver low density, dispersed, detached homes and inadequate supply in places with little identity, when the need is for a range of homes in well designed and well connected communities near agglomerations of jobs. Something else is required.

I have shared enough detail from the Homes for All report for now. It has more to say that is relevant to changes taking place in Auckland today – delivery mechanisms such as land development agencies, how social housing provision can be diversified – and I recommend reading the report in full.

What really encourages me about reading this report is that Auckland is actually heading in the right direction to improve housing affordability through transport investment. The national government may have unwittingly enabled this through creation of the Supercity, opening the door for a mayor with locally-based transport vision, and so I’m really not worried that the quality of our local “investigation” by the Productivity Commission was so poor. What we do need to keep actively debating and shaping within our city’s community is the detail of just where and how the opportunities for growing employment and housing capacity will be achieved.

Sydney’s Rail Strategy

Recently the New South Wales Government released a long term rail strategy for Sydney. It makes for interesting reading. Like Auckland, Sydney is experiencing relatively fast population growth and expects to grow from its current population of 4.6 million to around 6 million by 2031. The map below shows the location of employment across Sydney in 2031 – highlighting that the city centre is expected to continue to be by far the largest area of employment:

Australian cities have made conscious efforts to try and decentralise their employment over the past few decades, but while places such as Parramatta, Macquarie Park and North Sydney certainly do have a lot of jobs – the CBD still stands out. For comparative purposes I think Auckland’s CBD has around 80,000 jobs, showing that as a proportion of population Sydney is a bit more concentrated than us.

Sydney’s rail system is a rather strange hybrid of inner-suburban, outer-suburban and inter-city trains all competing to use the same tracks and stations. A lot of different operating patterns are run, especially at the peak times, which makes the system incredibly complex and therefore fragile to failures. The diagram below shows an example of this on Sydney’s western line – detailing all the different conflict points:

Because of continued population and employment growth, Sydney’s rail system is struggling to meet growing demand. On certain parts of the network there are significant capacity constraints. Importantly, overloading of certain services leads to slow boarding times which actually ends up meaning fewer trains per hour can be operated than planned – further reducing capacity and further creating overcrowding. This is succinctly described below:

A useful diagram shows where crowding on the network is likely to occur and how severe it will be – without significant upgrades. Something like this would be interesting for Auckland’s public transport network (bus and rail) in 2030 or 2040 if the CRL isn’t built:

The main proposed solution to Sydney’s impeding rail crush is quite interesting and proposes to effectively split the network up into three parts – a metro-like “Rapid Transit” for single-level trains, a suburban network and an inter-city network. This is shown in the map below:

There has been a long debate over whether the double-decker trains in Sydney are well suited to the role they play and it seems that the latest rail strategy quite cleverly says that the system needs to stop trying to be so much of a “jack of all trades” and actually start specialising a bit: much like how Paris has its Metro, RER and Transilien networks.

The rail strategy realises that implementing this long term vision is going to take time and will be expensive (I suspect the new cross-harbour tunnel would be the most costly part of the whole scheme). Therefore it outlines a staging of the plan, with many of the earlier phases around service improvements or relatively minor infrastructure upgrades (along with a big project here and there). This is sensible to ensure that maximum value is squeezed out of the existing rail network:

The really amazing thing about this strategy is that it’s promoted by a centre-right state government of New South Wales. Interestingly both Victoria and New South Wales have seen centre-right governments elected in the past few years with core parts of their election platforms being to improve public transport in Sydney and Melbourne. I wonder why Australian politicians of all political hues seem to understand the importance of good public transport, whereas in New Zealand our centre-right politicians (particularly in central government) seem stuck in the stone age on the issue. I suppose in Australian cities enough people catch the train that they can’t be ignored – something that will happen in Auckland over time.

An Auckland version of this rail strategy would be damn useful as well.

What’s Auckland’s future?

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and try to see the big picture – the “forest for the trees” as the saying goes. While this blog focuses on transport, really it’s interested in Auckland’s future – what will this place be like in 10 years, 30 years, 50 years or even 100 years? The Auckland spatial plan sets a really nice goal for the city in its 30 year timeframe: to be the world’s most liveable city. Considering that we generally score in the top ten in such measurements at the moment, and we have a real focus on improving areas where we generally score poorly (like public transport), it’s a realistic and achievable goal.

But that doesn’t really answer our question particularly much. What will Auckland really be like in the future?

One possible way of almost looking into the future, is to take a look at Sydney. Geographically, Auckland and Sydney have many similarities: a beautiful harbour (well two actually, for both cities), a constrained and complex geography, a clear “North Shore”, an urban form which could be described as ‘dispersed concentration’ (a number of quite sizeable centres) and generally a pretty good lifestyle. Get into a bit more detail and they both have bizarrely pointless towers, they both probably lean a bit too much on their natural beauty and haven’t care as much as their urban beauty as Wellington/Melbourne.

We could do worse than having a future like Sydney – although it’s debatable whether we’ll ever get quite that big due to an ageing population. The most obvious difference, from a transport perspective, between Auckland and Sydney is the extensive rail network they have – upon which the city relies on hugely. That perhaps gives us a clue where our priorities must lie in ensuring adequate infrastructure for a much larger city.

If we really do grow by another million people over the next 30 years, where those extra people go and how they get around will completely define whether we get close to achieving our goal of being the world’s most liveable city. At two and a half million people we could be quite similar to Vancouver – with 150 million rail trips a year and no need to have built any motorways for decades (and generally topping out liveability rankings). Or we could fall into the trap of many US cities at the moment, barely able to pay for their infrastructure, vast tracts of semi-abandoned peripheral urban development, completely car dependent and so on.

Well we obviously have options. I’m going to make a few predictions though:

  • Auckland won’t quite grow as fast as some of the bolder projections, but we won’t be far behind that
  • Many of the greenfield sprawl areas planned for over the next few years might never ever be built
  • Takapuna will end up looking quite a lot like North Sydney, but only if it has a direct rail connection to the north and south
  • The City Rail Link will truly revolutionise West Auckland, by bringing it much much closer to the central city in terms of travel times
  • The City Rail Link probably won’t be completed until after 2022 (but not longer after)
  • We won’t build another road crossing of the Waitemata Harbour, ever
  • We will build a rail crossing of the harbour sooner than we had thought
  • House prices will continue to rise (especially in inner heritage suburbs), but we will find ingenious ways of providing more affordable houses
  • Puhoi-Wellsford won’t be fully built until at least 2040, but will be bitten off in logical chunks
  • Full implementation of integrated fares, and the new bus network, will bring staggeringly high patronage increases

I’m sure I have more, and I probably should detail these a bit more – but that can come through in the comments thread. What do you think is Auckland’s future? What are some bold predictions you’re willing to make? What do you think of my predictions?

Embracing the transfer

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald highlights a key step that public transport system both in Australia and New Zealand need to take in order to both improve their usefulness and the cost-effectiveness of their operation: by encouraging (rather than discouraging) transfers, connections or interchanges (whatever terminology you want to use) between services. The article is informed by Jarrett Walker’s new book: Human Transit (in part itself based on his blog).

The article discusses the difficulty that people find when trying to use public transport to get from one inner suburban centre to another – without having to go through the enormous hassle of travelling all the way to the CBD and back out again:

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a hypothetical Sydney resident – let’s call her Jane – might head out for a drink in Taylor Square and want to meet up with friends the same night in Newtown. How should Jane get there?

Jane could drive or catch a cab. But she’s had a couple and hasn’t reached that point in life where she’s comfortable throwing money away on short cab trips. She can’t cycle because she’s been drinking. So she will use public transport.

Jane’s best bet is the 352 bus, which runs direct from Taylor Square and Oxford Street to King Street, Newtown, via Crown Street and Cleveland Street.

But the trouble with the 352 is it comes only every 20 minutes. And it stops just after 6pm on weekdays.

Another option is to catch a city-bound bus down Oxford Street and change to a train or a Newtown-bound bus from the CBD. (If Jane gets on a bus that goes past Central, she shouldn’t freak out; she can make this change at Railway Square.)

But now the volume of information Jane needs to make this short trip is starting to build up.

She would also need to know that most Newtown-bound buses run down Castlereagh Street on their way out of the city, so she’d need to walk to Castlereagh Street after getting off at, perhaps, Park Street or Elizabeth Street to make this connection.

Or, she could wait on George Street for the other Newtown-bound bus, the M30.

Or, she could not bother with the five-kilometre trip and just meet her friends another time.

Substitute Taylor Square and Newtown for Ponsonby and Kingsland and you’ll find yourself in a fairly similar predicament in Auckland. You could catch the Inner Link along Ponsonby Road and Karangahape Road to around the corner with Symonds Street, then fight your way across that intersection, dig your way through a million different bus stops on the Symonds Street overbridge to find either a New North Road or a Sandringham Road bus – and then for your troubles get penalised by having to pay two fares even if your trip length is actually pretty similar to a journey between Midtown and Kingsland – a one stage fare.

And, by Auckland’s standards, that’s a pretty easy transfer involving quite high frequency routes and the pretty easy to understand Inner Link.

The article goes on to note that our initial response to these kinds of situations would be to look at providing direct services, but this comes with its drawbacks:

But the solution, from Walker’s perspective, is not to do the obvious thing and put on more direct buses connecting the two points, or more 352s.

This is how governments have tended to solve transport problems in Sydney. As demand has grown, governments have met the need by adding extra bus routes through the suburbs.

Most of these routes run from their suburban origins right into the CBD.

But what this bias towards a radial bus network has left us with is the sorry irony we have at the moment: the city centre is teeming with public transport – all those buses – but they are so clogged they are of little use to anyone.

Walker’s solution is for governments to embrace what they have often been loathe to touch: encouraging connections, or compelling passengers to change from one bus or train to another.

This is where the logic becomes counter-intuitive. If you want to build good public transport links between two locations, the solution is not necessarily to put on more direct links between the two locations. Because in planning for public transport, there is usually some trade-off between the frequency with which a service comes and how close it can get you to your destination.

You can once again substitute Sydney for Auckland here. Our city centre is slowly but surely getting clogged up with buses. Trips such as inbound Northern Express services take as long to travel the last 500m of their journey as they do to travel the whole length of the Northern Busway proper. Outer Link buses clearly take an age to get through the inner city – meaning that they’re increasingly unreliable at peak times. Yet we keep running more and more buses downtown, even when they compete with the rail network we’re spending billions on and even when they aren’t particularly necessary. Yet all those buses often come but a few times a day on any particular route, making them pretty useless and impossible to understand for anyone other than the hardened commuter.

The tradeoff between frequency and transfers mentioned in the article is remarkably similar to the points that I’ve been making about having more services transfer to rail or b.line bus at key points like Panmure, Onehunga and Manukau. Substitute in a few of these Auckland suburbs for what’s said below:

All those 3-something buses on Oxford Street, for instance, represent the legacy of transport planners meeting the needs of particular locations in the eastern suburbs by putting on direct services between those locations and the city.

But could there be a better way?

What if they didn’t all continue down Oxford Street into the city? What if, instead, say, the 394 from La Perouse turned around on getting to Maroubra Junction?

If you were travelling from La Perouse to the city, the disadvantage would be that you would have to transfer at Maroubra.

But the advantage, the plus side of the trade-off, might be that services could leave La Perouse every seven minutes outside of peak hour, rather than every 15 minutes.

Or, and this is the logic of Walker’s book, those extra buses could also be used to run grid-like routes that did not connect to the city. These could include routes running along the eastern suburbs from Bondi to Maroubra. Or more routes running from the inner east to the inner west.

Jane on Oxford Street, meanwhile, would benefit from not being confronted with such a confusing variety of services entering the city.

There is clearly a tradeoff here, but it is the benefits of a simpler network with higher frequencies being traded against having to transfer between services. In the Auckland situation, using the rail network means that our benefits also include a much faster journey from places like Panmure, Manukau and Onehunga than would be possible on the bus. Sadly, much of Auckland’s street network doesn’t quite lend itself to the ‘grid’ service pattern that Jarrett Walker’s book (building on what Paul Mees has also said previously about The Network Effect) discusses.

In Auckland, for some reason we like to ignore what every overseas city has done when it comes to transport matters. Things like fixing our bus network, having railway stations used by many thousands of people her hour, looking after the rail network (until recently) for some reason often seem impossibly difficult in Auckland – even though many many other cities around the world have come up with solutions to these exact same issues. The article highlights San Francisco as a city that has put a lot of effort into creating a more sensible bus network in recent years. I’ve often highlighted Vancouver as another (it manages over three times the number of per capita PT trips as Auckland, but has a rail network not much more extensive than ours).

It seems that many of the issues faced by both our bus network and Sydney’s are very similar. In a logical world, we would look to work with Sydney on how both cities can improve their networks and learn from overseas success stories. Key to that is for both cities to ensure that people are encouraged to transfer between services: to make sure that they’re not financially penalised for something that’s already annoying, to make sure that they don’t have to wait long at all for a connecting service and to ensure that the physical process of transfering is made as easy as possible. Like Sydney, we need to embrace the transfer.

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.

Bus route planning – a challenging balancing act

The significant changes proposed to buses in central Auckland, plus my recent blog posts about how to improve bus flow through the city centre have highlighted to me what a challenging balancing act it must be for people whose job it is to improve the bus route network. That said, it’s also an incredibly important job, as Auckland’s current network has a huge number of inefficiencies, areas of duplication, areas of poor service, areas of overly long routes and so forth – all put together they produce a bus network map that does look like someone’s thrown spaghetti at a wall.

But this is not just an Auckland problem. Large parts of Sydney’s bus network are pretty difficult to make sense out of too:

That red route – the 473 – could hardly take a more indirect and slow route through Bardwell Park and Turrella if it tried. This is an example of a somewhat unbalanced approach to bus network planning, where all the emphasis is on getting the most people within a few minutes walk of the bus route – at the sacrifice of the speed and attractiveness of the route for people who have a choice between catching the bus and driving.

I suppose this is the most obvious balancing act when it comes to planning bus networks: the trade-off between speed and accessibility. You obviously want as many people to have access to the bus as possible, but at the same time you also obviously want to ensure the bus ride is not painfully slow. An example of something at the other end of the scale might be the Northern Express bus route in Auckland – it’s about as direct and fast as possible, but aside from around Sunnynook station, relatively few people live in close proximity to the route – meaning that there’s a reliance on park and ride stations, plus feeder buses.

A second trade-off is between network complexity and simplicity. How many different routes and route variations do you want? On the positive side of complexity is the ability to offer targeted products to what the demand might be: a slower and less direct route serving more places in the off-peak, express routes, peak direction only routes and so forth. But on the down side of that, the map and system can become very difficult to make sense out of – and public transport just becomes “too hard” to bother with. Not that I have much experience of it, but the bus network to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs does seem to have a particularly high level of complexity to it:
You have a bunch of normal routes, some routes beginning with X, some routes highlighted as pre-pay only, some routes beginning with L. And even then within the “normal routes” you have a bunch of very similar routes (for example the 372, 373, 374, 376 and 377) that by in large follow the same route – except for slight variations near their terminus.

That’s not to say you can’t go too far in the other direction as well – over-simplifying the network. While I would generally consider Auckland’s bus network to be over-complicated, some of that complexity has a useful purpose – like express and short-running buses on Dominion Road, or peak services that do extend to parts of the city (for example, Chatswood on the North Shore) that wouldn’t have the ridership to justify an all-day service. While I generally support the simplification process proposed in the changes to buses in the central city – I do wonder whether there’s the opportunity to overlay some peak-time express services (particularly on the 020 route) to give people what they really want at peak times: a fast and reliable service. I’m not quite sure that the 020 will provide that with its detour through Freemans Bay:

A good bus network is largely dependent upon the street network that it has to work around. Possibly the best bus and most effective bus network that I’ve seen is that in Vancouver – enormously aided by its gridded street pattern:

The gridded system enables so many “win-win” outcomes. By running buses along the major corridors (both north-south and east-west) all the routes generally operate in the fastest possible way, but they’re close enough together to ensure that everyone’s within a few minutes walk of a bus stop. So we solve that speed versus accessibility issue. We also solve the complexity issue because the routes are simple and easy to understand – they go along a particular road for most of their journey. Even if there are variations (express services or some variation from branching close to the route’s terminus) these are fairly easy to understand because the vast majority of the route is simple.

It’s not surprising that Auckland’s bus system seems most successful and effective in parts of the city with a street pattern that most clearly follows what’s in Vancouver. By contrast, the street pattern in the eastern isthmus makes a legible bus network nigh on impossible (although I’m sure we can improve on the incomprehensible mess that’s currently there.

There are of course many other issues to balance. Do we have stops further apart (faster journeys) or closer together (shorter walk to the bus stop)? Do we have long routes (allowing a lot of trip possibilities on the one route), or shorter routes (probably improved reliability)? And of course the big question – do we design a system that seeks to avoid transfers, or do we design a system that takes advantage of the benefits offered by transfers? Each has their pros and cons.

Clearly there’s no single best way to design a bus network in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly improve on what we’ve got in Auckland. If you look at Auckland’s bus network it generally doesn’t seem to have got the balance right: it’s overly and unnecessarily complex – seemingly a relic of 1970s thinking which was “the more routes the better”. Furthermore, I tend to think that Auckland’s bus network doesn’t get the balance right when it comes to speed versus accessibility either – with a few exceptions such as the Northern Express route, it seems as though the bus network has been designed with the assumption that it’s only there to serve people who can’t afford to drive or aren’t able to. It puts accessibility too far ahead of speed – meaning that we end up with a huge number of very very slow and windy bus routes.

A lot of the problems with Auckland’s network are historic – based on assumptions that buses are only there to serve those with no choice, based on extremely poor integration with the rail system and generally based on a desire to avoid transfers at all costs. While we must be careful not to go the other way too far – and I think many routes could handle increased stopping pattern complexity (i.e. more express services and short-runners rather than all buses having the same stopping pattern) – overall to give the network a better balance we should be aiming to simplify and to speed things up.