Where is the Heart? Critical Public Space in the City Centre

Ever since the Town Hall was built on that odd triangle between converging streets half way up Queen St Auckland has failed to successfully find an important central location that can be considered its spiritual locus. A civic heart: A public space for those collective experiences; celebrations, protests, that everyone automatically understands is the right and fitting place. Unusually Auckland was poorly served by our Victorian and Edwardian city builders in this regard. Their great works are all distributed and largely disconnected; Albert Park, CPO, Town Hall, and Art Gallery/Library. Significantly Auckland has never really been sure where its heart is.

Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew

Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew

Felton Mathew, the city’s first surveyor, saw the ridge of Hobson St as the commercial and administrative centre, so proposed two fine and central squares to interrupt the north south flow with ‘place’ there.  No doubt he was keen to get the great and good away from the waterway of Waihorotiu in the Queen Street gully; he placed the quality residences on the opposing ridge, about where Albert Park came to be. Incidentally his roots in the city of Bath with its fine curving Georgian terraces is clearly visible in this scheme.

Only a few parts of this plan eventuated, Waterloo Quadrant being the most obvious, and the main affairs of the city gradually congealed along Queen St, especially once the open sewer that Waihorotui became was finally piped in the 1890s [“That abomination, the Ligar Canalis still a pestiferous ditch, the receptacle of every Imaginable filth, bubbling in the noonday sun”]. But also up Shortland St, the city’s best professional address and then to Princess St to the grand city houses of the early magnates.

Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908

Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908

The inter-bellum years brought even more dispersal of public building with the placement of the Museum in the Domain and the disaster of moving the Railway Station out of town without  building the proposed inner-city passenger tunnel. The attempts at civic placemaking in the Modern era gave us the mess we are now trying to undo: Aotea and QE II Squares.

These have always been soulless places that have failed to earn their hoped for roles as loved and functioning public spaces. The first a formless mess leading to a building with all the utility and charm of a 1970s high school science block; relentlessly horizontal and without ceremony or focal point. The Town Hall itself is so busy sailing down the old stream bed of Waihorotui and opening a-midships on the other side that it may as well not be there [can't we make some kind of use of the bow of this ship? Open a cafe onto the Square through some of those blind openings....?]. Aotea is better now than it’s ever been, after much rebuilding, but is still inherently unable to inspire.

And QE II suffers from containment by buildings of Olympian blandness, that anyway offer nothing but mall food or the blank wall of office blocks, add to that it’s famously shaded, hideously paved, sorrowfully treed, and otherwise peperpotted with meaningless objects and host to that awful and useless over-scaled glass and steel inverted L ….. frankly that it is mainly used by tradies to park on almost elevates the place.

The theme that unites these sad attempts at public space is that they were both built at the full blaze of the auto-age. Both are defined by the dominating theme of vehicles first. Aotea is of course just the roof of a garage, how could anyone be expected to use a public square with being able to park right there? The other disaster that still defines and keeps the square sub-optimal is the severing ring road of Mayoral Drive that cuts it off on two sides. There is no way that the small amount of carriageway be taken over for people without expanding roadspace nearby first.

Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963

Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963

QE II Square has a more chequered history. When the CPO was an important building of state [built on the site of Auckland's first train station] it was a busy wide street, first with trams and general traffic:

CPO 1920s

CPO 1920s

Then just general traffic:

CPO Lower Queen

CPO Lower Queen

Then with the amalgamation of the opposite Downtown site in the 1970s the street in front of the CPO was pedestrianised. Great history of this process here, a window onto the forces that formed the places of this period. And this was the result:

CPO 1980s

CPO 1980s

The idea of a public plaza in front of the CPO was logical: It is directly in front of the large and traditional looking public building, like in any European city the old CPO grand and important enough like a ‘Rathaus’ in a northern European city, or, at a pinch, the cathedrals and churches of southern and central Europe, that provide the focus for great public squares.

Yet this space was forgettable; it didn’t work. The great problem was that over the whole period of its existence the importance of the CPO declined right down to closure. So the potential of this space for meaning and centrality could never get going. Additionally it was designed like a suburban shopping centre, just like the new mall on the otherside too which didn’t help, but really its great problem is that it was pretty much nowhere. So its loss wasn’t mourned when the buses were returned as part of the invention of Britomart Station. Even though all we were left with was the terrible sunless end of the Square as it is now.

Which is ironic really because the kind of civic space that I am arguing Auckland critically lacks needs to be the placed at the front door of some kind of busy and important public building like a Train Station. Because now there are people, lots and lots of people, using that grand old pile. All thanks to the ever growing success of the revived passenger rail network. This is what works in those European cities that Aucklanders love to visit, as shown in Warren’s post about northern Europe. This space is at last in the right place to become the locus for all kinds of beginnings; celebrations, protests, welcomes.

It’s a good shape too: There’s a standard rule of thumb about building height relative to its approaching horizontal space that says a good place to start is if these are roughly equal. And it looks to me like the old CPO is as about as high as Lower Queen St is wide. And if Auckland doesn’t start, in every sense, at the sea at the bottom of Queen St then I don’t what it is. The fact that it isn’t large I feel will be an advantage most of the time; it’ll never be empty, and for those big occasions the plan is to close Quay St to both expand the space and complete the connection with the water’s edge.

This plaza should be able to succeed as the ‘Marae’ to Britomart’s ‘Wharenui’. And, for big processions actually link all the way up to Aotea Square, especially when we do the thinkable and get the cars out of the rest of flat section of Queen St.

So the plan is a good one:

1. to repair the western street edge of Lower Queen St with activated retail entrances

2. insert new streets through the Downtown site [not internal mall spaces; at least one proper open air public street]

3. return Britomart’s forecourt to being a public square

4. while expanding and improving the water’s edge public spaces

All at the cost of the current QEII Square.

However there is one vital condition to the proposals as set out in the Framework process that I believe has to be properly dealt with in order for any of this to work. Summed up in one word: Buses.

Where do the buses go? We are told Lower Albert St, all through Britomart, including Galway and Tyler Sts, and Customs St. This just doesn’t add up on any level. It isn’t desirable, already the narrow streets behind the Station are degraded by the numbers of buses turning, stopping, idling. The new plaza in front of Britomart will be reduced in utility and attractiveness by buses exiting Galway and Tyler Streets, even if they no longer cross in front of the old CPO itself. Lower Albert St just can’t that many stops.

This whole scheme, in my view, can only work if there is a seriously effective solution to the bus problem, which means a proper station somewhere proximate, as well as a hard headed approach to terminating suburban bus routes at the new bus/train interchange stations like Panmure, Otahuhu, New Lynn, and Mt Albert, etc, in order to maximise access to the city while limiting the huge volumes of buses dominating inner city streets. Howick and Eastern services, for example, could go on to Ellerslie from Panmure then across town instead of into the city. Or simply return to the south east to increase frequency massively on their core route having dropped off passengers to the city at Panmure Station.

Helsinki [pop: 600k], for example, terminated its city bus routes at stations when it built it’s metro system in the 1980s, as well as making an underground bus station for those services that remain:

Many of the buses operating in eastern Helsinki act as feeder lines for the Helsinki Metro. Nearly all other routes have the other end of their lines in the downtown near the Helsinki Central railway station. Such exceptions are present as dedicated lines operating directly from a suburb to another past the centre

Britomart and the improving rail system helps take both cars and buses off the road it will be a long time before the CRL is open and we can use the spatial efficiency of underground rail to replace exponentially more surface vehicles. And even longer again before a rail line to the Shore will be built, and even then there will still be a need for buses.
Because we have refused to invest in permanent solutions to city access like the many underground rail proposals over the years it has now become urgent to get much more serious about how we manage the inevitable boom in bus demand. This issue was disguised for years by the decline of the Central City, or at least its failure to thrive; strangled by motorways, and deadened by street traffic as it has been over my life time. But now its revival is thankfully strong and clearly desirable, the City and the State will have to, literally, dig deep, to keep it moving. After all, all New Zealand needs a thriving Auckland and:
‘Transportation technologies have always determined urban form’
-Economist Ed Glaeser The Triumph of the City P12
While addressing these near term street level issues it is important to keep a thought for an ideal longer term outcome. Here is the kind of treatment that could  ultimately work well for central city Auckland.
Shared Space wit modern Light Rail, Angers, France

Shared Space with modern Light Rail, Angers, France

This could be Queen St, but is only possible once the high capacity and high frequency of both the longer distance rail network is running underground, and the widespread reach of the bus system is similarly properly supported in the City Centre. This type of system is for local distribution not commuting.

 

Freeing us from traffic

Yesterday the Herald ran a fantastic opinion piece from Dr Jamie Hosking who is a senior lecturer and health and transport researcher at the University of Auckland. As he says at the end, it’s “a timely reminder for the Auckland Council as it considers whether to reduce spending on big new roading projects. Liveable cities don’t try to make traffic go faster. They free people from traffic.”

We all hate being stuck in traffic. The usual response to congested roads in New Zealand, especially in Auckland, is to make the congested road bigger – turn a two-lane road into four.

Although at first sight this seems to make sense, it’s not the only solution, nor the best.

Building more roads in response to congestion is often likened to dealing with obesity by loosening your belt. This is a useful comparison because it shows that building bigger roads does not fix the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that there are too many cars.

But building more roads is even worse than loosening your belt because it encourages people to drive more.

Transport planners use terms such as latent demand and induced traffic to explain this, but it can be explained in plain language.

If a city’s population is growing, a road will become busier. This continues until the amount of traffic at rush hour can’t grow any more. The congestion stops any more people from using the road.

In other words, a congested road puts people off using it. So, if the Auckland Harbour Bridge is congested in the morning, people are more likely to catch the bus to work instead of driving across the bridge. If they were thinking of going shopping in the CBD, they might decide to go somewhere local instead to avoid the traffic. Or, if the trip wasn’t that important, they might just stay home.

The flipside is that if we make a road less congested, more people will drive on it. So if a road is expanded from two to four lanes, traffic speeds will increase at first, but as more and more cars use the road, congestion will grow again. The end result is a four-lane road with the same congestion and speeds as the original two-lane road.

If all we care about is how fast the cars are going, we’re no better off. We’re worse off. Because on the four-lane road, there are twice as many people stuck in traffic. That means twice as much time lost.

This reminds us that we need to think less about roads and cars, and more about getting people to where they want to go.

In Auckland, we’ve been building more and bigger roads for years, but at peak hours our roads are still clogged. If we remember that bigger roads encourage more cars, this isn’t surprising at all.

If we start thinking about people, instead of roads and cars, the alternative becomes obvious. Our goal shouldn’t be free-flowing car traffic, because we know in the long-term it will never happen. Our goal should be free-flowing people.

We’ve talked quite a bit about induced demand in the past as well as cities which are now starting up pull out some parts of their motorway networks and seeing no negative impacts from having done so. For example from this

before

to this

cheonggyecheon

The goal of free flowing people is a key driver behind why we created the Congestion Free Network and even why we named it Congestion Free as it refers to the people being free of congestion. He then goes on to suggest something very similar to the CFN.

One way to achieve this is building rapid public transport. This needs its own protected space, like trains, or buses on a busway.

Rapid public transport is a great answer to congestion, because the congestion proves there are a lot of people trying to go in the same direction, and this is exactly what public transport needs.

Another way to get free-flowing people is better infrastructure for walking and cycling. For example, routes through parks and greenways help people walk and cycle away from congested roads.

Maybe the best way of all is to design our neighbourhoods and cities better. The more things people can do locally, instead of having to travel across town, the less time they will spend stuck in traffic. Road building undercuts local businesses and services, because it encourages people to drive across town to go shopping instead. The opposite is intensification, which brings more people into a town centre to live in high-density housing and apartments, and attracts more local businesses and services.

That’s why neighbourhoods and cities that want to be more liveable are making roads smaller. This frees space for busways, cycleways or new public areas, it pushes people out of their cars or it encourages them to do things locally instead of travelling across town. The result is fewer people stuck in traffic, healthier local businesses and neighbourhoods that are much better places to live.

I think that if there’s one area he missed it was in relation to the potential benefits investing in the movement of people could have for the movement freight. A network like the CFN would allow us to be bold with how we deal with trucks and other commercial vehicles. In particular we could look at doing measures like the introduction of freight lanes on key routes or other similar measures that speeds up the movement of goods without spending money on wider roads only for it to be gobbled up by cars with only a driver in them.

So yes let’s start focusing on people.

More highways failing to meet projections

An article on Philly.com highlights a number of new or expanded highway projects in the US are vastly failing to meet traffic projections:

Before beginning a $2.5 billion project to widen the New Jersey Turnpike, turnpike officials said the construction was necessary to reduce existing congestion and to cope with future traffic.

“Turnpike traffic is on the rise,” the state Turnpike Authority said in its justification for the project. “By 2032 northbound traffic volume is expected to increase by nearly 68 percent [above 2005 levels]; southbound traffic is forecasted to increase by 92 percent.”

Now, one-third of the way through that 27-year forecast, turnpike traffic is actually about 10 percent lower than it was in 2005.

And this particular project is hardly a one-off:

Similar traffic declines have occurred around the region, challenging long-established assumptions about the need for bigger highways and bridges.

“If these trends continue, it would definitely change the way we need to plan for our transportation future,” said Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “But I think the jury is still out on that . . . we need two or three more years of data.”

In 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission assumed that traffic would grow 3 percent to 5 percent every year to help pay for debt as it took on a new obligation to contribute up to $900 million a year to fix other roads around the state.

Instead, traffic has been essentially flat.

And when the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace the 50-year-old, four-lane Scudder Falls Bridge on I-95 with a $328 million, nine-lane, 180-foot-wide toll bridge, it assumed that traffic would increase 35 percent by 2030.

In fact, bridge traffic has declined slightly and is now below the levels of 2002.

The implications of getting previous projections wrong are significant if funding was expected from toll revenue – which is what has sent a number of PPP transport projects bankrupt. For publicly funded projects though, the failure to meet expected usage hasn’t been so obvious. However, the implications for future transport planning are significant – as we’ve highlighted so many times before. Back to the article:

Highway planners misjudged the future because the Great Recession reduced both commercial and passenger travel, and because of an unexpected drop in driving by young adults.

Now, planners and policymakers must decide whether the last decade was an aberration or the beginning of a new normal.

The decisions are taking on new urgency, as Congress struggles to come up with a new transportation-funding plan by the end of September, when the current one expires. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road projects around the country, is nearly broke.

“The last decade was a really tough decade for forecasting,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Traditional expectations of economic growth – which typically fuel traffic growth – were undone by the recession of 2001, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and anemic job growth for the entire decade, Hughes said.

Add to that the unprecedented behavior of young adults, driven by technology, lifestyle choices, and economic prospects.

“The millennials are really changing the world dramatically,” Hughes said. “We have a younger generation that is driving less and doesn’t want to live in Valley Forge. They want to live in Center City Philadelphia.”

“We had a 50-year period of unrestricted suburbanization, and now there’s a dramatic shift.”

Cars and driving are less important to young adults, who find that trains and buses allow them to work and socialize on mobile electronic devices, he said.

That may mean fewer cars on future roads.

“Nobody was really anticipating this,” Hughes said. “The models have to be recalibrated.”

Some projections have already been lowered.

NZTA have already noted in changes to their economic evaluation manual that traffic growth can no longer just be assumed – and any assumptions need to be proved. It’s a shame though that complex traffic models still seem to defy reality and project traffic growth.

It makes me think about all of our recent state highway improvements, think Newmarket Viaduct replacement, Victoria Park Tunnel, Greenhithe Deviation, Hobsonville Deviation, Mt Roskill extension, Manukau Harbour Crossing Project, SH20-SH1 Manukau Connection, CMJ Improvements and Orewa-Puhoi extension. All have seen increases in traffic volumes in recent years as people shift their travel behaviour however I wonder how they are currently tracking compared to the traffic projections for 2014 when they were proposed and funded. That would be interesting information to get from NZTA.

Traffic still at 2007 levels

Gerry Brownlee’s media release yesterday trumpeted up traffic levels in 2013 surpassing those in 2012 – apparently this is a sign of New Zealand’s economic recovery that we’re driving a bit more.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says increases in vehicle travel and vehicle registrations reflect New Zealand’s economic recovery and growing population.

“Total travel [measured in kilometres travelled] was flat between 2005 and 2012, but growth returned in 2013 with a 1.6 per cent increase in total travel nationwide, and more recent data suggests larger increases are on the way,” Mr Brownlee says.

“Data collected by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) on State Highway usage from the first six months of 2014 suggests we will continue to see increases in travel demand.

“The highway data shows a 3.6 per cent increase in Northland and Auckland, and a 5.4 per cent increase in Canterbury in the six months to May 2014, compared with the same period a year before.

Setting aside the question of whether it makes any sense whatsoever to celebrate people driving more, further details in the release tell a more interesting story of what’s happened over the past few years:

newzealand-vkt

As you can see, the total level of vehicle fleet travel (known as “vehicle kilometres travelled or VKT) in 2013 finally made it back to 2007 levels after a sustained period below 40 billion kilometres.

Of course New Zealand’s population has grown quite significantly since 2007, which means that VKT per capita is well below the levels in early years – despite a slight uptick in 2013:

vkt-per-capita

It will be interesting to see the 2013 figures specifically for Auckland, as generally Auckland has seen a faster drop in per capita VKT over the past few years than other parts of New Zealand.

Environmental effects of an Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing

The additional Waitemata Harbour crossing is a crazy project for a variety of reasons. The blog has noted before that the project is both completely unaffordable and totally unnecessary because of the lack of the actual benefits when you look at the detail. One thing that hasn’t been noted before however is the huge environmental impacts this project will have the coastline, both and the northern and southern end.

In 2010 an extensive study was carried out, which outlined the major options, looking at both bridge and tunnel options. This was the study that finally put an end to the even more ridiculous bridge idea. Usefully the study for the first time provided some detailed plans of what each option would look like on the ground. The issues is not so much the tunnel itself, but the complex arrangements required to allow for traffic merging between the different routes at the north end south ends. To recap the existing bridge will be used only for city bound traffic, and the new tunnel will be directed straight to the congestion at spaghetti junction.

AWHC north of Onewa

 

The plan above shows the motorway between Akoranga Drive (left), and Onewa Road (just out of picture to the right). The northernmost line is the railway line, however would be sure to take up much less space just built as a rail corridor, and would have a much higher capacity. The red hatched area is all of the land that would be reclaimed, while green is new viaducts or bridges. This would result in the corridor taking up twice as much space as it does now. As for what this would mean, this is the current view in the area. The large area of coastline to the right would be reclaimed.

P1050458

Looking north from public footbridge accessible from east end of Exmouth Road.

This next plan shows the area in the vicinity of the Onewa Road interchange, as well as the tunnel portals of both rail (left) and road (right). Again a huge amount of reclamation occurs.

AWHC Sulhur Beach

However what is hidden beneath the plans is the total destruction of Sulphur Beach and the marina located there.

P1050446

Looking towards the city from public path alongside motorway. Accessible from Sulphur Beach and Tennyson St beside police station.

Currently this beautiful area is not well known. However in a few years this will very likely change. With Skypath to go ahead within the next few years, this will be the route of Seapath, which would give a great easy link through to Takapuna. Once that happens people will appreciate this area much more, and won’t like to see it disappear under 6 lanes of motorway.

This area will also become a large construction yard, potentially for about 5 years. This will have major effects on areas of Northcote Point, with a large number of houses looking straight into the area. Their seaviews may well be replaced with views of more motorway lanes and flyovers. People on the Bayswater side of the harbour would also have their views affected negatively.

P1050431

View from Beach Road on Northcote Point towards area of sea to be reclaimed

On the south side of the harbour things aren’t much better. Around Westhaven marina there is yet more reclamation. The yet to open Westhaven Promenade will have to be completely rebuilt, with part of the marina needing to be reclaimed as even more width is required to account for the sweeping motorway curves. The extra width required is highlighted by the need to extend the Jacobs Ladder footbridge by about 50% so people can still cross the motorway corridor. A number of marine related businesses along Westhaven Drive will also disappear, as the road needs to be pushed north to give the corridor the space it requires.

AWHC Westhaven

The Landscape and Visual report prepared for NZTA summarises the issues that will arise:

The landscape of Shoal Bay and the northern sector will be significantly affected by the scale and magnitude of roading and reclamation. Effects are: changes to landforms and natural features including increased separation of the bay from; loss of beaches, reefs, and open spaces; impacts on cliffs (including diminution of scale and loss of vegetation); loss of natural vegetation and potential change due to weed infestation; diminished/decreased experience and appreciation of natural landscape for travellers. In addition structures such as flyovers, bridges, tunnel portals, buildings and vent stacks are all expected to have adverse effects on existing landscape character and alter the balance between the natural and manmade landscape. The cultural and heritage of the existing landscape will also be affected by changes in the southern sector, particularly in and around Victoria Park. Such changes will include loss of buildings and trees but could also include positive effects due to the removal of the existing flyover.

Unfortunately it makes no attempts to actually visualize what the effects would be, including the vent stack, which would be a very dominant feature. Note 35 metres is about 10 stories high!

” Vent building estimated to be 70m long by 30m wide by 20m high and stacks 35m high”

The stack was rather contentious during the Waterview proposal due to the fumes of a high volume of traffic all begin released in a concentrated area. They will be located at the tunnel portals. One will be in the vicinity of Sulphur Beach, near where the second photo above was taken from the walkway.

Vent Building north

The southern vent stack will be between Beaumont St and Westhave Drive, where the Crombie and Lockwood building is (opposite Air New Zealand).

Vent Building

While an additional rail crossing will require some small reclamation, it will be a large magnitude less than what is required for the road crossings. This is because 2 tracks take the same space as 2 motorway lanes, and there will be no need for complex ramps and mixing of lanes, and of course there will be no need for huge vent stacks.

Hopefully this post will highlight a number of the major effects this project will have on the environment and landscape. Surely this will make some North Shore, St Mary’s Bay and inner city residents think twice about the need for this project, considering the effect on their backyard and harbour. This should also awaken reporters, including one John Roughan who was horrified at the sight of a comparatively tiny reclamation for the busway in 2007.

Gerry’s strange RoNS justification

On Friday transport minister Gerry Brownlee spoke to the Road Transport Forum (RTF) on the government’s key transport priorities. Over the years the RTF have been a generous donor (not just to National) and have certainly received a transport policy very much tailored to their needs. There was nothing new in the speech in terms of project announcements and I guess this was perhaps not the audience to talk about the cancelling the Northern Busway extension, for example.

However, there were a few paragraphs that pick up on traffic trends in recent years – with the Minister making some rather weird connections between these trends and the success of the RoNS programme:

Between 2005 and 2012 total road travel – in terms of kilometres travelled – was almost unchanged.

There are likely to have been a number of contributing factors, including the Global Financial Crisis, population changes, and technology changes affecting the way people meet and communicate.

Heavy vehicle traffic was affected more than light traffic, dropping by over 4 per cent in 2009 – clearly an impact of the GFC.

But now we are seeing that vehicle kilometres travelled are beginning to increase again.

Heavy vehicle traffic on all roads increased 2.1 per cent in 2013, while light vehicle traffic grew 1.4 per cent.

NZ Transport Agency traffic counts for State highways shows a 4.1 per cent growth in heavy vehicle travel in the year to May 2014.

New Zealand’s vehicle fleet is also growing.

Average vehicle ownership growth has increased more than twice the speed of population growth, and recently released data shows new car purchases at their highest level since 1981.

These increases are not only because of population increases and the improving economy, but also because of the choices people make about their preferred modes of transport, and this is in the face of the biggest investment in public transport seen in decades.

So the case for investing in strategic State highways through the Roads of National Significance programme has been proved correct.

Gerry seems to be mixing up a few stats here as vehicle kilometres travelled is quite different from individual traffic counts and they aren’t always going to move in unison – but it’s the strange logic of the final paragraph that is difficult to understand. There are a few options below for what he could be trying to say:

  • The case for spending $11 billion on the RoNS is to make people drive more.
  • With per capita VKT declining a lot in recent years, it makes a lot of sense to spend $11b on a few motorways to try (unsuccessfully) and reverse this trend
  • Construction of the RoNS projects themselves generate heaps of truck trips to move earth around, which is the point of the projects and therefore they are a success

Just as a reminder here’s a comparison of per capita VKT and per capita public transport use in recent years:

What’s your interpretation of what Gerry means?

Controlling Traffic

Like with public transport patronage, I keep a close eye on what are happening with traffic volumes on the motorways thanks to the monthly data released by the NZTA. The data doesn’t cover the entire motorway network but it does cover a number of key locations on it that can help to give an indication of what’s happening. I think the picture painted by these figures is extremely interesting. The sites we get monthly data for are:

  • Wellsford
  • ALPURT (the Orewa to Puhoi toll road)
  • Harbour Bridge
  • Upper Harbour Bridge
  • SH16 between Royal Rd and Hobsonville Rd
  • SH1 at Panama Rd
  • SH20 between Puhinui Rd and Massey Rd
  • SH1 at Drury
  • SH1 at Bombay

Excluding Wellsford, here are the six sites that we have the most data for

14 Feb - Motorways

There are a couple of things interesting going on here. At most sites the traffic volumes continue to remain fairly flat and in the case of the Harbour Bridge the annual figure remains lower than it was over a decade ago. Another interesting trend with the Harbour Bridge is that the annual figure is now bouncing up and down between 150k – 160k per day (it peaked in 2006 at 169k). However you see a clear change in the SH20 site. This isn’t surprising as in recent years there have been significant extensions and changes to that motorway including the opening of the Mt Roskill extension in May 2009 followed by the Manukau extension to SH1 and Manukau Harbour Crossing duplication in August 2010.

The changes can be shown even clearer by indexing them to Feb 2010 which is the earliest the SH20 data is available from.

14 Feb - Motorways indexed

You will also notice that ALPURT has shown growth. Unfortunately what isn’t clear is if this is a result of total traffic volumes along the route growing or people becoming more comfortable with paying for the toll road and so a higher percentage of people choosing it over the free route. The NZTA previously to recorded vehicle volumes at Hatfields Beach would have allowed that comparison but stopped doing that at the start of last year when they handed the road over to Auckland Transport.

As mentioned, the graphs above don’t include all of the collection sites reported on, the ones missing being on SH1 North of Wellsford, on the Upper Harbour Bridge and on SH16 between Royal Rd and Hobsonville. I haven’t graphed them due to how low the traffic volumes are in the case of Wellsford and how little data there is for the other two (only two years worth). In saying that the data that is available is quite interesting in its own right.

SH1 North of Wellsford – Traffic volumes are very seasonal peaking over summer but overall they have been in decline since monthly figures began in September 07. This is quite important as we often get told that the reason behind the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway is to unlock Northlands economy. Both the SH20 and Upper Harbour Bridge sites are interesting as the annual figures show traffic volumes on those sections had been flat since 2003. The volumes over the Upper Harbour Bridge only started increasing again in 2008 after the Upper Harbour section of SH18 was completed while the SH20 site only started increasing in 2011 after the Westgate to Hobsonville section of SH18 was completed.

To me these figures show a couple of key trends. The motorways not widened or extended have shown little to no growth and in some cases volumes remain below what they were in the mid 2000’s. In the places where we have built motorways, vehicle numbers have been increasing. To me what this effectively points out is that changes traffic volumes are really just a reflection of what we’ve invested in, or in other words a case of build it and they will come. That might sound logical (and it is) but it also highlights the opportunity we have to determine just how much traffic is on our roads in the future. Build more roads like the current plans suggest and we’ll get more traffic.

Of course the opposite is true too, remove roads and traffic disappears with it. This has been shown quite well in Seoul, Korea where since 2002, 15 expressways have been demolished and more are planned. The most famous of which was in Cheonggyecheon where they removed an elevated expressway and ground level roads carrying over 150,000 vehicles per day and restored the original stream making a wonderful urban park in the process.

It went from this:

before

To this

cheonggyecheon

And the outcome was even more impressive:

  • Traffic volumes dropped while bus and subway usage rose
  • There were increases in fish, birds and insects in the area.
  • Temperatures decreased and are on average 3.6% lower than other parts of Seoul.
  • It became a centre for cultural and economic activity.
  • And perhaps most interesting to the NZTA/AT, traffic speeds on other roads increased which is an example of Braess’s paradox

Now I’m not suggesting that we tear any existing roads down but more just highlighting that we have the ability to shape the city how we want it. If we don’t want traffic volumes to increase in the future that we should start by not building a heap more roads.

Understanding US transit ridership trends

An article in the New York Times looks at the recent announcements that transit (PT) ridership in the USA in 2013 was the highest since the 1950s – much the same as in Auckland. What’s perhaps most interesting in the 2013 numbers is that petrol prices doesn’t seem to have featured as much in the reasoning behind the increase:

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

New Zealand has been different in regards to petrol with prices hovering around or even above the peaks of 2008 for the last few years. Here’s the graph of our average weekly petrol price up to 7th March.

Petrol Price - Mar 14

Furthermore, the article notes how over the last 18 years, PT ridership has grown faster than the rate of population growth, whereas the level of driving per capita has fallen:

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

Here’s what Auckland’s vehicle kilometres travelled per capita looks like compared to the number of trips per capita. Note: we won’t have VKT data for 2013 till later this year, also the latest PT trips per capita has started climbing again.

VKT vs PT Trips per Captia 1

There’s often debate about whether the levelling off of traffic growth and the fairly dramatic increase in PT use over the past few years is a “blip” – caused by the global financial crisis and the fairly long recession that followed it, plus highly fluctuating oil prices in the past few years – or whether the changes are a longer term trend. With US ridership booming despite lower oil prices and at a time of growing economic success, the “blip” argument seems to be getting weaker and weaker. The longer term trends are well summarised in the article’s final two paragraphs:

Todd Litman, an analyst at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, said the new data were the latest indication of changing consumer preferences as a result of increasing urbanization, an aging population, and environmental and health concerns.

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” Mr. Litman said.

Time to change those traffic projections NZTA.

Returns on Government transport investment – A “BOE” calculation

In this recent post Matt mapped census journey to work data across Auckland.

I will now use this data to draw some high-level inferences about returns on Goverment investment in transport infrastructure in Auckland in the period from 2007-13, i.e. between the last two census. The specific question I want to answer is: Given the level of Government expenditure in different transport modes in Auckland in the last 7 years, which mode(s) appear to have delivered the best returns in terms of their ability to accommodate growth in journey-to-work (JTW) travel demands?

Let’s look at the data. Total number of JTW trips by mode for the last two census are summarised in the table below, along with the change (growth) between census.

Table A

  • Note 1: “Private vehicle” combines JTW trips for private/company cars, trucks, passengers, and motorcycles. 
  • Note 2: Public transport combines JTW trips for bus and rail.

This shows how an additional 23,223 JTW trips were undertaken on census day. Of these trips, 10,200 (44%) were undertaken by car; 9,118 (40%) were undertaken by public transport; and 3,825 (16%) were undertaken by walking/cycling.

Matt has helped pull together a spreadsheet of government transport investment by mode from 2006-13. This includes investment by NZTA (nee Transit) and local government. In the table below I have added total expenditure by mode, and then used this to calculate an average cost per (new) JTW trip and (additional) JTW-km.

Table B

Note 3: Average trip length was calculated as the weighted average trip length using HTS data. 

Now we start to see some interesting trends. From these numbers it appears that Government investment in public transport and walking/cycling has been approximately 2.6 and 6.7 times more cost effective than investment in roads during this period, at least when measured on a per JTW-km basis (the differential is even greater when you use the $ per JTW trip indicator). This in turn suggests that it would be more cost-effectively to cater for growth in JTW travel demands by shifting investment away from roads and into public transport and walking/cycling.

This raises the question of how much should our current investment levels shift in order to deliver approximately neutral investment outcomes for each mode? To help with this I have calculated what I call a “neutrality factor”. For each mode this is calculated as the ratio of 1) it’s share of growth in JTW-kms divided by 2) its share of total expenditure. This tells you how much expenditure on a particular mode would have to change to have achieved a ratio of 1.0, i.e. a mode’s share of JTW-km growth was equal to its share of Government investment.

In the table below I have calculated the neutrality factor for each mode.

Table C

When calculated on this basis, it would suggest that we should increase government investment in public transport and walking/cycling expenditure approximately two-fold and five-fold respectively, while reducing investment in roads by approximately 30%.

Of course, this analysis is a “partial analysis” because it assumes demand (number of new JTW trips and kms)  is held constant. In fact, if we were to see such a shift in transport investment priorities over a sustained period of several years then you would expect the demand for each mode to respond accordingly. More specifically, shifting government investment away from roads and into public transport and walking/cycling would be likely to encourage more people to use those modes, which would in turn warrant greater government investment. Hence, the changes in transport investment priorities suggested by this analysis are likely to be relatively conservative.

This is obviously a  back of the envelope (“BOE”) analysis.

The most obvious issue is that JTW trips account for only a proportion of total travel. Education travel is another major contributor to peak period congestion. However this tends to be slanted in favour of public transport and walking/cycling – such that including these trips in the analysis seems likely to confirm these outcomes.

The other is that we are lumping together capital and operating costs. While this makes sense in the long run (because after all, capital investment is really just a very lumpy operating cost!) it may be distorted in the short run. Hence it might be useful to extend our analysis by calculating the effectiveness of transport investment from 2001 to 2013. Indeed, the period from 2001-2006 seems to have been associated with less dramatic changes in travel demands than the period from 2006-2013.

While this analysis certainly could be improved, even now it seems to provide a useful indication of the relative returns from Government investment in different transport modes from 2006-13. I also feel somewhat justified using it because members of the current Government frequently justify their transport investment priorities on the grounds of raw 2006 JTW mode share. I’ve followed their lead and focused on JTW trips, but instead looked at the change in demand over time and then compared it to relative expenditure levels.

This tells quite a different story than if you look at raw JTW mode share.

On this basis I’d suggest that Government investment in public transport and walking/cycling in Auckland has typically delivered more cost-effective returns than investment in road based transport infrastructure. So the next someone tries to argue that we should invest more in roads because “86% of Aucklanders drive to work by car”, please challenge them on the basis that relative potential for growth – rather than the level of existing demands – should be the primary determinant of our future investment priorities.

Footnote: In the most recent census private vehicle mode share appears to have dropped from 86% in 2006 to 83% in 2013. Given that we’re yet to see the effects of electrification, new EMUs, integrated ticketing, and the New Network, one would have to think that the relative returns from Government investment in public transport might be similar high if not higher by the time the next census rolls around.

Our insane traffic projections

Many times in the last few years we have highlighted a ‘flat-lining’ or at least slowing of growth in car travel across New Zealand. The same trends have been seen in many overseas cities and countries – with the slowing in the UK dating back at least 20 years now. Yet for some bizarre reason this change hasn’t filtered through to those making projections about future traffic growth. In the UK we have seen projection after projection forecasting significant growth – even though consistently it doesn’t happen.

The same process has happened in Washington state, where the Department of Transportation has ignored the flat-lining of traffic growth and continued to forecast significant increases – despite all evidence suggesting they need to change:

Lance Wiggs has picked up on a recent report released by Treasury that looks into the evidence behind the key elements of the transport sector. Towards the end of the report Treasury analyses some projections of future transport demand prepared by NZTA and NZIER. Let’s let Lance pick up the story here:

This line records use of a certain item by New Zealand population since 2000. Where do you think it will be in say 20 years time?

The statistic went up, and then down, and so the best estimate to me would be a flat or downward trend. But rather strangely the authors of this chart determined that all of their estimates would be up, and that the lowest change would be a substantial increase. Here it is, with my added red line eyeball trend:

The chart, of course, is estimated vehicle use in New Zealand, expressed in millions of kilometres travelled. It’s sourced from the “ National Long-Term Land Transport Demand Model, NZIER and NZTA (2013)”, and that’s a critical model as it feeds into all sorts of cost-benefit analysis and policy for transport in New Zealand.

The data is sourced from this report, which appears to make the same mistakes as transport modelling projections in the UK and Washington state have done for the past 20 years – by refusing to believe that anything ever changes about how people travel. Even though evidence to the contrary is absolutely everywhere. Similar bizarre conclusions are made about future levels of public transport use. Back to Lance:

The bias towards cars is also reflected in this chart of forecast public transport statistics – which doesn’t pass the giggle test either. Witness the trend and the projections below (the red is my version of the trend-line):

So for some unfathomable reason the growth in the use of public transport is forecast to immediately and dramatically fall, while the growth in the use of cars will immediately and dramatically rise. It’s ludicrous.

What’s interesting is that a footnote in the Treasury paper notes that these projected trends are completely at odds with what has been happening in recent years. It says:

We note that, although the NZIER / NZTA model predicts a gradual decline in the future, the public transport share of passenger kilometres has shown a steady growth trend over the past decade. This may merit further monitoring and consideration as time progresses.

It seems that at least the public transport projections are a little bit too insane for even Treasury to believe.

In any other area of government activity or a business if the computer models were projecting the complete opposite of what’s happening, what’s been happening for quite some time and what’s happening in cities and countries all over the world, we’d chuck the models out and start again. Yet for some reason we keep believing these illogical outputs and use them to determine where and how to spend billions of dollars of public money. It’s quite disgraceful really.