On the closed session agenda for tomorrow’s Auckland Transport board meeting is an item asking for a decision about Light Rail. Hopefully this will see the project move forward and the public provided with more information. With that in mind I thought I’d chuck together a few thoughts I’d had that hadn’t been discussed too much.
Dedicated Right of Way
Modern on street based rail transit generally falls into two categories, Streetcars/Trams and Light Rail. The difference is generally associated with the quality of the right of way. With Streetcars/Trams the tracks are often located in the road surface and share lanes with cars – much like buses on streets without bus lanes and are therefore subject to congestion. Light Rail is more commonly seen as a separate system and separated from vehicle lanes by barriers, kerbs or even on completely grade separated infrastructure. As with most things these definitions aren’t always 100% accurate and often systems will mix various elements together i.e. some parts on dedicated infrastructure and some parts shared with cars.
If Auckland Transport is going to bother implementing a street based rail system it absolutely needs to be more light rail variety and less streetcar one. That would mean dedicated right of ways down the streets the tracks are on which as it needs to be permanent – i.e. can’t be used for carparking off peak – would be a significant improvement for PT in the area. While this can absolutely also be done for buses it seems to me that it would be politically more difficult to do – and that’s before the issue of capacity is taken into account.
I suspect that any implementation of Light Rail most likely mean the tracks would be run down the centre of the road as is done in many cities and how the original trams were. There are a couple of impacts of centre running as opposed to being next to the kerb. These include:
- It’s simpler for drivers – with centre running looking out for trams only needs to happen if a driver needs to turn right and cross the tracks whereas with side running drivers turning both left and right need to check for trams in either direction.
- It may make right turns more difficult or only allowed at certain intersections. This is something that will potentially upset some residents – although in return they get a much better PT system
- It gives more prominence to PT which in turn can help attract more patronage as well as development.
- A narrower corridor can potentially be used as the Light Rail vehicles can pass closer together thanks to being on rails.
The Gold Coast is a good recent and local example of a recent Light Rail installation that we could probably learn a lot from.
Photo: Wayne Duncan
A single light rail vehicle can hold 300 people which is the equivalent capacity as around 3-4 double decker buses as is shown in the graphic from AT below. AT haven’t said what kind of frequencies we can expect however approximately one service every 5 minutes (12 per hour) on routes like Dominion Rd seem about right. AT that frequency it should be quite possible to employ signal priority to further speed up the Light Rail vehicles. Of course prioritisation is also possible with buses however when getting to the volumes needed on the routes suggested is unlikely to work very well. This is because the headway between the buses is shorter than the normal phasing of the traffic lights and so buses will tend to bunch up at lights and at the next stop two or three buses will turn up at the same time – a common pet hate of users.
In essence utilising signal prioritisation along with Light Rail could help improve reliability as the LRT vehicles would be given a relatively non-stop route.
As I understand it, one of the major issues with a bus based solution for these corridors is terminal capacity. Put simply you need to be able to turn all of the vehicles around somewhere so they can make a return journey. As mentioned above a single light rail vehicle can hold 300 people which is the equivalent capacity as around 3-4 double decker buses. When bus numbers get high that can take up a lot of space and is highlighted quite well in the CRL design showcase image below of post CRL bus routes where each route needs at least a loop of some form to turn around. That takes up valuable space in the city which could otherwise be used for something else. As an example if we didn’t need to turn buses around using Albert St, Quay St and Hobson St we could instead have a greater public realm on Quay St.
With Light rail is considerably easier to deal with terminal capacity as all that’s needed are some cross overs next to the last station. With that Light Rail vehicle pulls into the final station, the driver changes ends, heads off and changes tracks to go in the other direction. It’s all very simple and is done within the existing corridor. It is also made easier by not having so many vehicles to turn around.
Faster and easier stations
Improving the customer experience by making it faster and easier to get on and off a PT service can have important benefits.
As mentioned above, rails mean the right of way can be narrower as the vehicles are kept on the tracks rather than moving about in a lane like rubber tyre vehicles tend to do. Those tracks can also be useful at stations for ensuring a minimal gap (horizontally and vertically) between the vehicle and platform thereby making it much easier for all customers to get on and off.
In addition to this, while Light Rail vehicles can hold a lot of people, because they also have a lot more doors passengers can use to get on/off simultaneously thereby reducing dwell time. By comparison double deckers are prone to longer dwell times as people take time to move about inside the bus. With having to run higher frequency services the longer dwell times could become an issue at some stops.
So far Auckland Transport haven’t said too much about funding Light Rail other than it would probably cost at least $1 billion for all lines and that they are looking at alternative private funding options. This is most likely to be a BOOT (build–own–operate–transfer) whereby AT either pay an annual fee and/or grant certain concessions for a private company to build and operate the system for set period of time.
While the capital costs would effectively be kept off the council’s books, any payments to the private company would still need to come from AT/AC and potentially the government and that will inevitably raise questions about where the funding for it comes from. Perth’s Professor Peter Newman has wrote this post recently suggesting that one option could be for cities to require LRT builders to also develop the land – which the city could then tax.
To go for a full private-sector approach you must integrate redevelopment into every stage of the project. This is how you do it. Call for expressions of interest for private companies to design, build, finance, own and operate the light rail link and, crucially, make sure this includes land-development options (rather than letting in outside developers). This would help to create funds that can be used to finance and to operate the system.
Government needs to contribute a base grant and an operational fund that could be more specifically focused along the areas where the biggest benefits are felt in the corridor itself, where land values will go up most. Private expertise will ensure that the best sites are chosen for the light rail route. These land-value increases will flow through taxes into treasury and can be set aside in a dedicated light rail fund for ongoing operations and/or for raising finance (rather than instituting a city-wide levy as the Gold Coast did).
He is talking about Tax Increment Financing which would likely be difficult here due to the need for the government to allow for it but a more localised targeted rate might also be appropriate.
Hopefully we’ll hear soon if AT intend to carry on looking into Light Rail.
Could Auckland have something like this running on a couple of major city routes before this decade is out? The AT board is to decide later this month how to proceed with its Light Rail plan and with what sort of pace. Everybody it seems loves trams, but why now and why there? What problem are they addressing? In a follow-up post I will discuss the financial side of the proposal.
CAF Urbos Tram recently ordered by Utrecht
First of all lets have a look at Auckland’s situation in general terms. Auckland is at a particular but quite standard point in its urban development: 1.5 million people is a city. The fifth biggest in Australasia; behind Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. But on the location with the tightest natural constraints of the group; squeezed by harbours, coasts, ranges, and productive and/or swampy farmland, it shares the highest density of the group with Sydney in its built up area. And is growing strongly. It also has the poorest Transit network of the group and consequently the lowest per capita Transit modeshare [although the fastest improving one].
So these three factors scale, growth, and density are all combining to create some serious pressure points that require fresh solutions especially on existing transport routes, and particularly on the harbour constrained city isthmus.
This pressure is on all transport infrastructure, at every scale from footpaths [eg Central City, Ponsonby Road]; the desire for safe cycling routes; on the buses, trains, and ferries; to road space for trucks and tradies, and of course road and street space for private vehicle users. Transit demand in particular is going through the roof and this is way ahead of population growth and traffic demand growth, especially at the higher quality Rapid Transit type of service where growth over the last year has been at an atsonishing 20%.
This is to be expected in a city of Auckland’s current state as Transit demand typically accelerates in advance of population in cities of a certain size, because of the universal laws of urban spatial geometry, as explained here by Jarrett Walker;
This problem is mathematically inevitable.
As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America. This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit. In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population. Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing. But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service. Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.
And that this means that the infrastructure needs of our growing city is likely to be ‘lumpy’. Big long lasting kit that is costly and disruptive to build become suddenly urgent:
As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel. Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses. I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles, Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.
Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed. In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight. In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.
As driving amenity is very mature in Auckland there is very little opportunity to add significant driving capacity to streets and roads to much of the city at any kind of cost, and certainly not without a great deal of destruction of the built environment. This has long been the case so in a desire to solve capacity and access issues with a driving only solution we did spend the second half of the last century bulldozing large swathes of the Victorian inner suburbs into to make room for this spatially very hungry mode. This solution is no longer desirable nor workable. Below is an image showing the scar of the Dominion Rd extension citywards and the still extant Dom/New North Rd flyover. These were to be the beginning of a motorway parallel to Dominion rd to ‘open up’ or ‘access’ the old isthmus suburbs.
1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground
Where we can’t nor want to build ever wider roads we can of course add that needed capacity though the higher capacity and spatial efficiency of Transit. Most easily with buses and bus lanes. There are also potential significant gains to made at the margins by incentivising the Active modes with safe routes especially to Transit stations and schools and other local amenity.
However as Jarrett Walker describes above there comes a point where buses, through their own success, cannot handle the demand as the number of vehicles required start to become both less efficient and more disruptive than is desirable. At this point demand can only be met with higher capacity systems with clearer right of ways. Such systems require expensive permanent infrastructure and are never undertaken lightly. The CRL, being underground, clearly fits this definition and is due to begin in earnest in the new year. And although the physical work and all of the disruption of the CRL build occurs in the Centre City, the capacity and frequency improvements are to the entire rail network, and therefore much of the city: West, East, and South.
But not everywhere. Not the North Shore, not the North West, and not in ‘the Void’, as AT call it, the isthmus area between the Western and Southern Lines. Shown below in purple with the post CRL Rapid Transit Network. This area has a fairly solid and quite consistent density, housing about the same number of people as West Auckland, around 150,000. Note also the South Eastern Busway [AMETI] plugging directly into Panmure is very much a kind of rail extension for the Transit-less South-East, as is the Manukau spur further south.
These three major areas will still be relying on buses. The CRL, New Bus Network, and Integrated Fares will enable and incentivise more bus-to-train transfers that expand the reach of the core rail network and that this will help limit the numbers of buses going on all the way to the city. But this is primarily for the South, South-East, and West of New Lynn, there will still be an ever increasing number of buses with from the remaining areas converging on the City Centre. AT calculates that we need to act now to cut the bus numbers from at least one of these major sources to leave room for growth from the others, and all the other users and uses of city streets. [More detail on this in Matt’s previous post, here].
The North Western is currently getting more bus priority with the motorway widening
, and hopefully proper stations at Pt Chevalier, Te Atatu, and Lincoln Rd [although NZTA and/or the government are showing little urgency with this aspect of the route]. Also priority improvements to Great North Rd and further west too. The North Shore is the only one of the three with a Rapid Transit system [which also should be being extended now
], and while there is still plenty of capacity on the Busway itself, like the other routes these buses are constrained once in the city. This leaves the very full and frequent ‘Void’ bus routes as the ones to address with another solution first.
So essentially LRT for this area has been selected because of the need:
- for higher capacity and efficiency on core Isthmus bus routes
- to reduce bus numbers on these routes and especially in the central city
- adds Queen St as an additional high capacity North-South city route
- for extra capacity both before and after CRL is operational
- to address Auckland Plan air quality, carbon emissions, and resilience aims
- to enable major public realm improvements along routes, especially Queen St
and possibly because:
- it may be able to be financed as a PPP so helps smooth out the capital cost of building both projects [more on this in a follow up post]
Above is a schematic from AT showing the two proposed LRT branches. The western one leading to Queen St via Ian Mackinnon Drive from Dominion and Sandringham Roads, the eastern one down Symonds St from Manukau and Mt Eden Roads, some or all routes connecting through to Wynyard Quarter. More description in this post
It is worth noting that this area, The Void, gets its very successful and desirable urban form from this very technology; these are our premier ‘tram-built’ suburbs. With all the key features; an efficient grid street pattern, mixed use higher density on the tram corridors, excellent walking shortcuts and desire lines. So what the old tram made the new tram can serve well too.
Auckland Isthmus tramlines
With all door boarding and greater capacity LRT will speed more people along these routes with fewer vehicles and lower staffing numbers. Frequency will actually drop from the current peak every 3 minutes down to 5 or 7 minutes [I’m guessing]. This along with the narrower footprint required by LRT is a big plus for other users of the corridor. But the huge gain in travel time comes from improvement to the right of way and intersection priority that can be delivered with the system. Stops are presumably to be at intersections, instead of midblock as buses are, so the passenger pick-ups are coordinated with traffic lights.
But best of all for this writer is that LRT is a tool to drive enormous and permanent place uplift. The removal of cars and buses from Queen St, improvements to New North and Dominion Rds, hopefully including that intersection itself, a fantastic new Dominion road with the potential for real uplift to premier status. It will spur the redevelopment of the mixed uses zone all along Dominion Rd. This is real place quality transport investment. And all of course while moving thousands and thousands of people totally pollution free and with our own mostly renewably generated electrons. Breathing in the Queen St valley will become a fresh new experience.
We all look forward to hearing the proposed details of the routes and of course the financials. I will follow up this post with my understanding of the thinking on this next.
Finally it is very good to see that there is no dispute over the necessary solutions to Auckland’s access and place quality issues, just the details and timing. Auckland Transport’s map above is pretty much the same as our solution in the CFN. We are delighted that AT are planning for four light rail routes were we proposed one.
There are of course plenty of debates to had about further extensions to the Transit networks that this proposal invites; LRT in a tunnel from Wynyard to Onewa, Akoranga, and Takapuna? Then up the Busway? From Onehunga to through Mangere to the Airport? Along Grey Lynn’s apartment lined Great North Road, to Pt Chevalier, and the North Western? Panmure, Pakuranga, Botany, Manukau City Airport? Which of these need to be true grade separate Rapid Transit and for which are bus lanes or busways a more cost effective option? Are their others that would be better suited to extending the rail network? Is there enough density elsewhere in the city to justify other LRT routes?
On Thursday the Herald reported the latest on Auckland Transport’s plans for Light Rail across the isthmus which came following an update to the Council’s Infrastructure Committee. From the presentation online there doesn’t seem to be much new other than what we’ve already seen and unfortunately the meeting wasn’t one filmed under the council’s new webcasting service so we can’t see exactly what was said.
What the Herald picked up on was that cars may be removed from Queen St.
Cars may be squeezed out of Auckland’s main street as the city’s transport authority looks to modern trams to move growing throngs of commuters.
Auckland Transport chief engineer Steve Hawkins warns there will be insufficient space in much of Queen St for general traffic to co-exist with trams running in each direction every few minutes between the waterfront and Dominion Road.
“For the section between Wellesley St and Customs St, we would essentially have just light-rail vehicles and pedestrians,” he told Auckland Council’s infrastructure committee.
But he said allowing cars to keep using Queen St south of Wellesley St “would be possible” and there would be enough room for a traffic lane each side of tram tracks along routes such as Dominion Rd and Fanshawe St.
Far from being a problem this is probably the ideal outcome and would turn the main people focused part of Queen St a transit mall – like as seen in many cities overseas.
Shared Space wit modern Light Rail, Angers, France
The key reason this is even possible is that there isn’t a single need for a car to even be on that section of Queen St. Take a walk along it and you’ll not find a single driveway opening out to the street until you get south of Mayoral Dr as the buildings that do have carparks all have entrances to them on side streets. In addition none of the side streets north of Wellesley St are dependent on access from Queen St and so blocking them off would not remove access – maybe just affecting how some are accessed.
Making such a change would deliver big benefits to the up to 60,000 pedestrians that ply the street every day. It would enable the removal of both the Wyndham and Shortland St intersections which means less chance of having to stop and wait for a traffic phase. At Victoria St the existing intersection could be significantly improved due to it being simplified. No turning traffic means the lights only need to flip between a North-South transit movement and East-West car movement. Perhaps even more important than these changes to intersections is it would also allow the footpaths to be extended further giving more space to the thousands walking and/or allow for some dedicated cycle lanes.
Such a change would also tie in with our growing network of shared and pedestrian only spaces with the light rail acting as a people fountain giving them even more life.
Shared and pedestrianised streets now, left, and a complete network, right.
Of course LRT being electrically powered also means those pedestrians aren’t being subjected to emissions from petrol and diesel powered vehicles – although of course electric buses are certainly a possibility in the future.
The only question really should be why wait?
Because of the factors mentioned above there should be no reason why we couldn’t quickly implement a transit mall even using just buses until such time as the tracks are ready to be installed. Combine that with some temporary place making to make use of the space that’s freed up and we can trial the impacts.
The only major issue that I think would need to be dealt with is that of deliveries and emergency vehicle access – neither of which should be too hard to sort.
The Auckland City Centre is entering a phase of profound change. The rest of this decade it’ll be undergoing a more extensive and disruptive renovation than your average Ponsonby villa. The designers and financiers are at work and the men and machines are are about to start. The caterpillar is entering that difficult and mysterious chrysalis phase; what kind of butterfly will emerge?
Some of the probable additions to AKL’s skyline [image: Luke Elliot]
If even half of what is proposed gets underway almost every aspect of the centre city will be different.
Precinct Property’s 500 million dollar total rebuild of the Downtown centre and a new 36 storey commercial tower is confrmed to start next year. The 39 storey St James apartment tower is also all go [with the re-opening of the ground floor to the public soon]. An apartment tower on Albert and Swanson has begun. There are a huge number of residential towers seriously close to launching some of which are 50+ floors. These are on Victoria St, Customs St, Commerce St, Greys Ave and more. The biggest of them all Elliot Towers is rumoured to underway next year. Mansons have bought the current herald site and said to looking at residential there. On the same block 125 Queen St is finally getting refurbished bringing much needed new commercial space in the city [+ about 1000 new inner city workers]. Of course the Convention Centre and its associated hotel will start too. Waterfront Auckland have announced new mid rise apartment developments and a new hotel beginning as well. This list is not by any means exhaustive. Auckland is now a builders’ boom town. And it will resemble nothing other than an enormous sand pit for the next few years.
Regardless of the forms of these buildings they are going to have profound impacts at street level; flooding the footpaths with people, stimulating more and more retail and especially hospitality services. Add to this the disruption of the works themselves, for example later this year the first stage of the CRL is going to start. Digging up everything from Britomart through Downtown, up Albert St to Wyndam St. If the proposed Light Rail system goes ahead that will mean the [no doubt staged] digging up of the whole length of Queen St and other places, Dominion Rd, Wynyard Quarter. Street space is becoming more and more contested. Driving in the city is going to get increasingly pointless, most will avoid it. But unlike last century that won’t mean people won’t come to the city. One, because it’s become so attractive with unique retail offers, unrivalled entertainment attractions, and a fat concentration of jobs. Two, because people are discovering how good the improving Transit options are becoming, so why bother driving. And three, because increasing numbers are already there; it’s where they live anyway.
And that Transit boom is going to continue, or even accelerate. Britomart throughput is now running at 35 000 people daily, when planned it wasn’t even expected to reach 20 000 until 2021 [see below; the blue line is still growing at that angle; it is now literally off the chart]:
Why is this happening? A lot of people in wider Auckland still think the city is unappealing or unimportant. Aren’t we spreading new housing out at the edges? Aren’t new businesses building near the suburbs in those business parks? Well ironically one of the reasons so much growth and investment is happening in City Centre is because those same people, the ones that prefer their suburban neighbourhoods to the city, don’t want any change near them. The City Centre is one of the few places that it is possible to add new dwellings or offices at scale, and because it is a very constrained area with high land value this can only be done with tall buildings. The more suburban people refuse to have growth near them the more, in a growing city, investment has to concentrate where it can, and in Auckland that means downtown.
Auckland’s first electric tram 1902
Auckland is still spreading outwards and businesses are growing in suburban centres, but these areas are not appealing or appropriate for all people and all businesses, and nor are they sufficient; the City Centre is growing by both these metrics too, and at a greater pace. The 2013 census showed that AKL city is the fastest accelerating place to live in the entire country, growing at over 48% between 2006-2013, and currently the city is experiencing a new shortage of office space and an interesting reshaping of the retail market. The education sector is also still strong there, with Auckland Uni consolidating to its now three Central City sites and building more inner city student accommodation. City growth is strong and broadly based: residential, commercial, retail, and institutional.
There are risks and opportunities in this but what is certain, outside of a sudden economic collapse, is that the City Centre will be a completely different place in a few years, in form, and in terms of how it will operate. And the signs are promising that what we are heading to is an almost unrecognisably better city at street level than it has been in living memory.
What is happening is simply that it is returning to being a city of people. Ten of thousands of new inner city residents, thousands of new visitors in thousands of additional hotel beds each night, hundreds of thousands of workers and learners arriving daily from all over the wider city each day too. All shopping, eating, drinking, and playing within the ring of the motorway collar. Auckland is moving from being one of the dullest and most lifeless conurbations in the world to offering a new level of intensity and activity. Well that is certainly the possibility in front of us now.
Auckland has had boom times before, and each of these leave a near permanent mark on the built fabric of the city [the Timespanner blog has examples in great detail]. So it matters profoundly what we add to the city this time. We are at the beginning of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the postwar outward boom that came with such a high cost for the older parts of the city. By forcing the parts of the city built on an earlier infrastructure model to adapt to a car only system we rendered them unappealing and underperforming, and the old city very nearly did not survive this era. Only the persistence of some institutions, particularly the Universities, enabled it to hang on as well as it did. The car as an organising device is ideal for social patterns with a high degree of distance and dispersal. It is essentially anti-urban in its ability to eat distance but at the price of its inefficient use of space; it constantly fights against the logic of human concentration that cities rely on to thrive. It not only thrives on dispersal, it also enforces it.
Queen St 1960s
But now the wheel has turned and cities everywhere are booming on the back a of model much more like the earlier one [see here for example: Seven cities going car-free]. This old-new model is built on the understanding that people in numbers both already present in the city and arriving on spatially efficient Transit systems providing the economic and social concentration necessary for urban vitality and success.
This seems likely to lead to a situation more or less observable in many cities world-wide where there is an intense and highly walkable and Transit served centre surrounded by largely auto-dependent suburbs. Melbourne, for example, is increasingly taking this form. And, interestingly the abrupt physical severance of Auckland’s motorway collar might just make ours one of the more starkly contrasting places to develop along these lines. A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns.
Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014
Frankly I think this is fine, it could make for the best of both worlds. Those who want to live with the space and green of the suburbs can continue to do so but are also able to dip into a vibrant city for work, education, or especially entertainment, on efficient electric Transit, ferries, and buses when that suits. A vibrant core of vital commercial and cultural intensity sustained by those who choose to live in the middle of it 24/7. The intensity of this core plus any other growing Metro Centres [will Albany really become intense? Manukau City?] meaning the sprawl isn’t limitless and the countryside not pushed so far away that it is inaccessible. Auckland as Goldilocks; not all one thing or the other; neither all suburb nor all city. People will use or ignore which ever parts they want, and soon members of the same households will be able to indulge their different tastes without some having to leave the country.
What are the threats to this vision? Well we do actually have to build the Transit, this means completing the CRL soon as is possible, and ideally replacing a good chunk of the buses with higher capacity and more appealing Light Rail. To connect these two halves; the success of both the centre and the region it serves depend on it. But also we have deliver a much better public realm on the streets and especially at the water’s edge. We have to retain and enhance the smaller scale older street systems to contrast with the coming towers, like we have at Britomart and O’Connell St. All these moves require leadership and commitment and an acceptance that the process of getting there will be contested and difficult.
I have no fear that people in the wider city won’t be happy to choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys, especially into the city, then jump back into them for others across the wider city or out of town. After all it’s happening already. This is not then a bold prediction, merely the extrapolation of current trends. And it is the trend that tells us more about the future than the status quo. More of this:
CPO Lower Queen St 1960s
AKL Grafton Gully 70s
*This is a guest post by regular reader and occasional contributor, Warren Sanderson.
RAIL AND THE CITY – Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint While Reimagining Urban Space
Unlike Paul Mees‘ book ‘Transport for Suburbia’ which deals in depth, among other things, with what went so terribly wrong with Auckland’s transport planning in the second half of last century, Roxanne Warren does not mention New Zealand once. Her book is almost totally focused on the transport problems of the United States but she does refer frequently to Europe and Japan where transport policy has been handled so much better.
But don’t let the concentration on US problems put you off. This is a great read for anyone who is unhappy with what auto dependency does to the liveability of our cities and especially here in Auckland.
I like the organisation of this book. It has a preface in a tight precis form plan which sets out exactly what it is going to say and then chapter by chapter gets on with it, in a fluid and engaging style. And there are extensive references at the back of the book.
I enjoyed particularly her comment on the basic reasons for rail’s practicality and popularity, including the operational, aesthetic and permanence advantages for the city. This includes standard surface rail or light rail. Furthermore a public preference for rail has been revealed in surveys and generally attributed to a smoother and faster ride and to rail’s permanent presence – a preference that has been reflected in increased property values around stations.
The last chapter deals with the question of climate change and the desirability of shrinking the very large footprint that we are placing on the earth. While always keen to reduce a personal footprint, I find it hard to get worked up about the science of climate change. What astounded me however, was the idiocy of the US tax cum subsidy set–up as outlined. Fossil fuel have benefited from a full century of subsidies and the oil industry in particular receives generous tax breaks at every stage of the processes of exploration and extraction. Ditto for corn ethanol i.e. food for our cars rather than for people. These subsidies create market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption and undercut the position of clean energy, while effectively exacerbating climate change.
The author points out that regardless of general resistance to change, population increases and migratory trends toward cities, thus increasing congestion in cities, is making ever more obvious the need for a more rational use of urban space and for more compact and sustainable forms of mobility, namely, walking, cycling and transit. She reports that the common wisdom that has it, that only ‘progressives’ (read lefties) favour the support of public transport which denies the movement of prominent conservatives in support of passenger rail transport for the reasons she cites in Chapter 3.
I believe that MOT/NZTA/AT should not employ anybody who has not read this book by a deadline date of 30 April this year. Why? Books like this were not around when many of the older hands commenced work. We need big changes in our transport policies and the government and these three institutions are charged with operating in our best interest. Yes, change is needed……………and fast. This is an excellent read.
Finally, about the author. Roxanne Warren is an architect and principal partner in Roxanne Warren Architects in New York. Her prior experience included a period with I M Pei and Partners but since 1999 she has dedicated her time increasingly to advocacy of Vision 42 which is a proposal for ‘River to River’ low floor light rail in a landscaped auto-free 42nd Street, New York.
42nd St LRT route
Warren Sanderson 2015
A presentation from Auckland Transport to the council provides us with a lot more detail about what they’re proposing with Light Rail and how it complements the CRL rather than competes with it.
We’ve covered some of these aspects in other posts before but it’s worth highlighting some of them again. Public transport has been increasing rapidly in the last decade as improvements have been made. This is most evident in the City Centre where since 2001 use of PT has accounted for all the growth in trips to the area – car use actually declined slightly.
There is also a lot more growth that is expected to occur in the area that will drive more travel demand. The City Centre Future Access Study found a combination of the City Rail Link and on street buses was the best way to improve access however more work was needed on the bus aspects. In the presentation AT say:
- Access crisis into the city centre by 2021 with medium population growth and despite completion of all (pre-CRL) planned transport improvements.
- Auckland’s growth will outstrip its road capacity and maximising rail is an essential part of an integrated access solution
- Bus-only investment will meet demand for only a few years and require significant land take for priority lanes and depots
The pre CRL planned improvements includes projects like Rail Electrification, The New Network and bus lane improvements.
As mentioned above a serious issue that AT are finding is that there’s simply not enough room on city streets or in key terminus locations to handle the number of buses that will be needed. AT say more of the same means bumper to bumper cars will be replaced by wall to wall buses. They started the CCFAS 2 project to look at how to address this and the objectives were:
- Significantly contribute to lifting and shaping Auckland’s economic growth
- Improve the efficiency and resilience of the transport network of inner Auckland and the city centre
- Improve transport access into and around the city centre to address current problems and for a rapidly growing Auckland
- Provide a sustainable transport solution that minimises environmental impacts
- Contribute positively to a liveable, vibrant and safe city
- Optimise the potential to implement a feasible solution
CCFAS 2 looked at and included a range of improvements that could be made including double deckers/bendy buses. They say the focus was on was on corridors with significant patronage and/or connections to significant land use. They also say that there was no solution to city centre road congestion identified that doesn’t involve light rail.
In the image below the top graph suggests terminal capacity starts to be exceeded around 2023 and the corridor capacities around 2035. The busiest corridors are the ones from areas not served by the CRL which means the North Shore and the Central Isthmus. I assume the lower graph shows what it would look like with light rail implemented. If I’m reading it right, it suggests AT are looking to have light rail rolled out to Dominion Rd by around 2021, Sandringham Rd around 2023, Manukau Rd in 2032 and Mt Eden Rd 2037.
One of the big advantages of light rail is that it can be much easier and more space efficient to turn a vehicle around.
With the CRL sorting out the constraints on the rail network the map below shows how Light Rail would integrate with other parts of the PT network. I assume the dotted lines are future potential high quality routes and major feeders to the RTN and LRT networks.
The map below indicates how light rail might work in the city centre along with the other buses that will still be there. This also highlights how they would access the Wynyard Quarter meaning that rather than a bridge across the Viaduct it would go via Fanshawe St, presumably sharing a corridor with buses. It also shows that the routes would operate as two pairs, Dominion Rd and Sandringham Rd would join together and travel down Queen St while Mt Eden Rd and Manukau Rd would use Symonds St.
Lastly they list some of the features and benefits of light rail over other options.
At this stage there has still not been any further information on just how AT plan to pay for the project.
It seems that Auckland Transport’s plans to reinstall trams in Auckland down some of the major isthmus roads has already captured a lot of imagination with the public, hell even the Herald have been fairly positive about the suggestion.
One aspect of the idea that seems to have been missed in some of the discussion so far is that Auckland Transport have been working on this for at least six months. It’s clear now that the project started appearing on the agenda for closed session for Auckland Transport’s board meetings back in September last year under the name CCFAS2. That means that almost certainly a lot of work has already gone into studying the idea before it’s reached this point however we are yet to see any real details other than the key routes that Auckland Transport are investigating.
Getting the details – including how Auckland Transport plan to pay for it all – to ensure it makes sense is essential but as I’ve mentioned before, at this stage I’m cautiously supportive of the project. However the proposal has raised a heap of questions from both myself and others. Those questions fall broadly into two categories, wider social questions about whether we should do this and more specific technical questions about the proposal itself. Today I’m going to look at the social aspect and in a separate post I’ll look at the technical questions.
When there’s so much else that needs building, can we afford to do this?
Undoubtedly this is going to be an expensive project. Going by other projects overseas it could easily cost $1 billion dollars, possibly more to lay the tracks and buy vehicles to run on them. Yet Auckland doesn’t exactly have $1 billion just sitting around burning a hole in its pockets, quite the opposite. The same day this project was announced the Mayor launched the Long Term Plan which among other things will ask Aucklanders about tolling motorways or increasing rates to cover $12 billion shortfall – and that’s before this project is considered.
To build light rail under the traditional funding approach means one of two things would need to happen
- Some other projects have their funding cut or delayed.
- Even more money would need to be raised to cover the short fall
Neither situation is ideal, add in the only lukewarm support from the Mayor and it would normally be enough to kill this light rail project dead. Where this is different is that AT have said that they’re also investigating funding options that include private sector investment. Further AT Chairman Lester Levy has been quick to say that this private sector investment isn’t a traditional PPP. Just what else is being considered is unknown but I’m guessing part of it will include the running of the system for some time.
One of the potential advantages to light rail is that it can be cheaper to run for the same (or more) capacity. Those savings can go at least part of the way towards paying for the PPP. In addition, there are also likely to be some savings that will emerge once AT finally roll out the PTOM contracts, savings that can’t be calculated yet.
The recent installation of Light Rail on the Gold Coast also provides a good example. The 13km first stage cost A$950m (not $1.6b I said in an earlier post) however that cost also included 16 stations, the vehicles plus operations and maintenance costs for 15 years.
There are a lot of areas in Auckland that have very poor PT, wouldn’t it be better to use the money to improve other areas first
Auckland isn’t exactly sitting on world class PT system – yet – and has a lot of key projects that need completion just to get us to an acceptable level. Some such as Integrated Fares and the New Network are under way but a lot of infrastructure is needed, both to support the new network and deliver better PT in general. Some of the major projects needed include:
- New PT interchanges to support the new Network including at Otahuhu, Manukau, Te Atatu, Lincoln Rd, in the City and many other locations
- The AMETI Busway
- Airport Rail
- The Northern Busway extension (which should be paid for by the NZTA)
- A Northwest Busway
- Electrification to Pukekohe
Some will say that Light Rail should go to the back of the queue until many or all of these other key projects have been completed. To me its priority should surely be determined by how much benefit it provides compared to other projects. We’d be stupid to put it straight to the back of the queue just because it’s only just been announced if it delivered greater benefits than other projects on the list.
There is perhaps one silver lining that may come about if AT do manage to sort out a private funding option. Currently the Long Term Plan contains just over $50 million to upgrade the bus lanes Dominion Rd and improve the town centres. If AT proceed with the Light Rail project the costs of doing so would likely fall under that private finance option freeing up that $50 million for use on other projects.
This part of Auckland already has some good PT options
Compared to much of Auckland the Isthmus that corridors that are proposed to be served by Light Rail already have some of the best PT services and infrastructure in the city. There are (not continuous) bus lanes that already exist and frequent services that use them. Consequently the area has some of the highest patronage in Auckland. Dominion Rd services alone carry almost 2 million trips per year (the Northern Busway carries around 2.5 million). Already in the morning peaks the roads move more people in buses than are moved in cars and patronage is only expected to grow.
The issue I have with the idea that I have with the suggestion that what exists is good enough (for now) is that just because it’s good it doesn’t mean it can’t be better. Of all areas in Auckland the central isthmus was the one specifically designed to support PT use with its long linear and developed corridors supported decent surrounding street grid. It’s these factors combined that car use for trips to work (not always the best measure) is amongst the lowest in Auckland.
Percentage of trips to work by Car
It’s also because of the other factors that delivering an even higher quality PT service is likely to deliver substantially more patronage than many, if not all, of other high CAPEX schemes listed above.
At the end of the day it comes down to a key issue in PT planning that Jarrett Walker – who’s currently back in NZ – discusses in his book Human Transit. How much do you focus do you put into your PT system on maximising patronage and how much on providing coverage. Focusing more on trying to provide equitable coverage to everyone will impact how many resources you can use in areas that have the potential for high patronage.
There’s no intensification planned
Of all the issues I’ve thought about or heard raised this is perhaps the one that most concerns me. As part of the Unitary Plan the central Isthmus – one of the area perhaps the most ripe for intensification due to its location has the lest intensification allowed. Why should an area receive a significant capital investment which is bound to increase property prices even more when no change to the area is allowed to really capitalise on that investment.
The map below shows the zoning in the Unitary Plan.
- Light cream – only allows for a single house on each site. That means not even terraced houses are allowed as they are considered too dense.
- Cream – Mixed Housing – Suburban (MHS) which allows smaller sections and say two storey terraced houses but is still effectively not allowing change.
- Light Brown – Mixed Housing – Urban (MHU) allows for three storeys and is basically ideal for typical terraced house developments.
- Orange – Terraced House and Apartment (THAB) THAB allows low rise apartment buildings and is located around the town centres.
In my view the zoning of the central Isthmus should look far more like West Auckland. Apart from a number of vocal NIMBY types in the area, there are a few key infrastructure constraints holding intensification in the area back. One was the water supply which I believe is being addressed as part of Watercare’s Central Interceptor project and the other was transport capacity. Light Rail on these corridors would definitely sort out the transport capacity constraints and I would hope could lead the council towards re-discussing the amount of intensification allowed. Effectively a trade for the residents, allow more intensification and you’ll get this this fantastic new PT system.
There are probably a few other issues to cover but this post is already long enough.
This is a guest post from Donna Wynd. I have another post which will go up later today which I had been working on separately which will also address some of these issues.
In a wonderful example of great moments in bad timing, Auckland Transport announced it was considering light rail on the Auckland isthmus the same day Mayor Len Brown launched Auckland’s draft Long Term Plan (LTP). A clearly blindsided Mayor pointed out there was no plan and no funding for light rail and, at an estimated cost of $1 billion for the first stage, the benefits would need to be weighed up against those of competing projects.
In an effort to save face the Mayor told media light rail had been signalled in the 2012 City Centre Master Plan. This is only partly correct: there are some vague references to “possible light rail” but this is mostly in the context of public transport services around the inner city and to Wynyard Quarter. There are lots of pictures of light rail, but little in the accompanying text (in much the same way the draft LTP has pictures of cycle lanes). In reality, the concept appears to have come out of the blue. The surprise announcement, and hints the project might be fast-tracked, suggest public scrutiny is to be kept to a minimum.
Despite the lack of detail, a range of transport activists and lobbyists agreed light rail was a great idea. Indeed, Transport Blog noted there was “merit in the proposal” and restated Brian Rudman’s call for the Mayor to “jump on board”. As is often the case in transport debates, the voices of low-income and ethnic communities were absent.
So why do I, a public transport user, find myself viewing light rail with trepidation? Before I explain, let me make clear that I, too, like the idea of light rail on the isthmus’ main corridors and even beyond.
It is the ‘beyond’ that is of concern. The people who have welcomed AT’s proposal are, as far as I can see, people who would derive the most benefit in terms of (possibly) improved service and an improved urban environment. However, in view of suburban Auckland’s commuter misery, it strikes me there is a far greater need for viable public transport in the newly developed suburbs in South and West Auckland, and the upper reaches of the North Shore.
The draft LTP includes a basic transport network, with severely reduced transport funding for key public transport initiatives such as the Otahuhu and Manukau interchanges and other much needed infrastructure. Unless alternative funding streams are found, valuable public transport projects and the cycle network will be deferred. One southern Local Board member observes that these “deferrals” would make a big improvement to the quality and availability of public transport services in the South.
Also needing public transport infrastructure and services are the Special Housing Areas in Paerata and Orewa. Closer to town, there is the upcoming transport mess arising from the development of land at Ihumatao. These developing areas need to have public transport services in place in advance, not years after, to avoid further entrenching Auckland’s car dependency and increasing the social isolation of people who do not drive.
While ratepayers in the new suburbs have yet to get the business case for public transport and safe cycle lane proposals signed off, those who will benefit from isthmus light rail are already well served by public transport. Yes, some dedicated bus lanes would improve things, but some high-use routes (Dominion Road, City Link) have already had improvements that will help meet future demand.
A key selling point for light rail appears to be its ability to carry more people: up to 18,000 per hour compared with 6,000 on a busway. This would be great news if the commuting population was to increase three-fold by the 2020s. But will it? After the nimby-ism expressed during the Unitary Plan process, there is not as much high density development planned for the isthmus as initially envisaged. Will we be building capacity that cannot be justified when others in the region are so poorly served?
But the aspect that bothers me most is the cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch – or free light rail. If light rail project takes priority, then the opportunity cost will be that other projects, possibly of greater merit, will be shoved down the funding queue. These projects include electrification of the rail to Pukekohe (needed to serve Special Housing Area growth areas), the Northern Busway extension to Albany, the South Eastern Busway to Botany, the North West Busway to Westgate, additional EMUs to meet strongly increasing demand for rail, and so forth. For those in the South, double tracking to Onehunga and a genuinely multi-modal link to the airport look particularly vulnerable.
There is a point at which this moves beyond simply being a transport issue to one of equity.
Particularly alarming is Lester Levy’s disclosure that Auckland Transport is considering “a novel form of funding”. Let’s be clear: there is no novel form of funding. Auckland Transport either pays up front or borrows money. Borrowed money has to be paid back. The borrowing might be through a public-private partnership, but the money still has to be repaid, and very probably at a higher interest rate than that available to central and local government. A 5-year repayment holiday has been hinted at but this merely defers payment of interest and leaves the principle balance outstanding for longer, along with unknown accumulated interest costs. This will impose a significant burden on the transport budget in the early 2020s. Before anything is signed, ratepayers need to know the full and final costs of this so-called novel arrangement, compared to a more conventional Council loan arrangement.
The light rail proposal has managed to pull together a diverse range of groups in support. Should it be implemented, however, there will be very real costs for ratepayers, particularly those who will find their own public transport improvements rubbed off the ‘to-do’ list. It will also be expensive, with much of the $1 billion plus cost met by many ratepayers who will receive little or no benefit. The central city might be clogged with buses by the 2020s, but there are projects that need to be done now which are not funded. I like the idea of light rail, but can’t help wondering if it really deserves to be pole-vaulted to the top of the region’s transport priorities.
Brian Rudman has an opinion piece in today’s Herald looking at Auckland Transport’s recent light-rail announcement and hoping that the Mayor jumps on board to support the idea a bit more than he has so far.
The mayor is struggling to put together a budget that will accommodate his magnificent obsession, the $2.5 billion underground City Rail Link (CRL), without triggering a ratepayer revolt, so his testiness over Dr Levy’s light rail proposal is understandable.
But if Mr Brown wants to be remembered as the mayor who solved Auckland’s transport congestion problems, he should be embracing the light rail proposal as though it was his idea.
His single-mindedness over the CRL is admirable. Such projects need a 24-hour-a-day champion. But it shouldn’t blind him to the bigger picture – that the heavy rail network, while vital, is only a small part of the city’s overall transport system, and that regardless of how much money is thrown at roads and buses, which the majority of commuters use, increasing congestion will inevitably induce cardiac arrest.
The mayor’s attitude towards the project so far perhaps has more to do with his surprise that Auckland Transport had undertaken such a major piece of work without him knowing the details, as well as the risk that some CRL opponents may jump on light-rail as an alternative to CRL (I explained how they do very different tasks here). However, as there is clearly merit in the proposal, Rudman is right in suggesting that the mayor jump on board – at least in terms of supporting full investigation.
The potential Light Rail network?
Rudman also points out that we should not be surprised to see Auckland Transport come up with some big new ideas for how to solve future transport challenges, because the existing/previous plans tend to show things getting worse – regardless of how much extra funding is raised for transport:
This was spelt out in March 2013 when Auckland Transport (AT) revealed its Integrated Transport Programme, with the dire warning that even if the $34 billion allocated to transport in the city’s proposed 30-year plan was spent as planned, the end result would be gridlock.
Worse, AT admitted that even if the city funded the alternative $59 billion gold-plated plan the transport boffins wanted, the outcome would still be dire.
“Even with the fully funded programme,” admitted the report authors, “road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels”.
It was all self-explanatory. The mayor’s vision of squeezing 700,000 to 1 million people into the compact isthmus city by 2041 was going to put an unsustainable pressure on the roading network. There wouldn’t be room for the extra cars and buses.
The main arterial roads, such as Symonds St and Albert St, would be jammed with buses.
At the time, the mayor refused to see the futility of pursuing this inevitable endgame. He still doesn’t. Instead he appointed a “consensus building group” to select ways of extracting another $12 billion from Aucklanders through fuel taxes or road tolls, to help fund the gold-plated scenario.
The group proposes the inevitable mix of taxes, all of which the Government has indicated it won’t allow. Yet the mayor won’t budge.
Thankfully, AT now acknowledges the flaw in its earlier 30-year plan, and is suggesting a solution employed by liveable cities all around the world. Modern trams.
While we are yet to see all the details of the light-rail project, especially in terms of its cost and the extent to which it resolves future transport challenges, at first blush there is some compelling logic to the scheme in providing high quality PT to a part of Auckland that has huge existing patronage and will never be served by rapid transit.
Is Modern Light Rail coming to Auckland
Perhaps the issue here is more about the ideal timing and priority of light-rail, compared to all the other projects Auckland is planning in the coming years. For example, there is a lot of investment required to enable the new bus network to be successfully implemented, there are huge areas of northwest and southeast Auckland with extremely poor public transport and there is an under-utilised rail network because of the Britomart bottleneck (which CRL resolves).
However, timing and priority issues aside, the mayor should be congratulating Auckland Transport for coming up with new ideas and finally accepting that their previous plans just weren’t adequate to meet Auckland’s transport needs for the next 30 years. Rudman is right in pointing this out.
With Mr Brown hanging his legacy – and his re-election hopes – on fast-tracking the central city rail tunnel, he obviously sees light rail as an unneeded distraction. That ignores the fact that the existing 30-year transport grand plan is designed to fail for the majority of commuters forced to travel by car or bus – even if we could afford to build it.
The light rail proposal is the chance to go back to the drawing board. No one’s suggesting trams should displace the CRL. They’re just a possible missing link in the earlier flawed integrated transport plan.
And while they’re fitting trams into the new model would be a good time to shave the unaffordable $12 billion blowout off the overall budget.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could compare the merits of this light-rail scheme (or the many other important projects on AT’s list) against the marginal state highway projects the government is throwing billions at over the next few years?
I’ll be looking more into Auckland Transport’s announcement that it’s considering installing Light Rail down some of the central isthmus streets during the week. In the meantime the suggestion that trams could be back on Queen St reminded me of these images. They come from Cornelius Blank who created them in 2011 in the lead up to the City Centre Masterplan.
For me one of the most exciting possibilities from the idea is that Light Rail could finally be the catalyst to transform Queen St into a transit mall. One of the aspects of Queen St that people often forget is that between Mayoral Dr and the water there isn’t a single need for a car to be in Queen St. There’s not one entrance to a carpark or service lane or road that can’t be accessed by some other method. The only need for vehicle access is for emergency services and perhaps deliveries.
So instead of four lanes of traffic we could have two lanes for tracks – which could also used by emergency services and delivery vehicles in the early hours of the morning and the rest of the space taken up to expand the existing footpaths. One of the best things about this is that generally the centre of Queen St is filled with sun so I for one would love to be able to stroll up Queen St without being in constant shade.
If you took out the Customs St sign most people probably wouldn’t realise they were looking at Auckland and would think this looks like quite a nice place to visit. Another idea could see some of the space used for decent cycle lanes
Further up Queen St this is how it could look outside the Civic where again the extra pedestrian space would be most welcome.
And going further up Queen St north of Mayoral Dr how about this with a grassed corridor like seen in many other cities with trams.
Some of these ideas seemed to flow through to the City Centre Masterplan (CCMP) where some similar images cropped up.
In fact the CCMP even includes this suggestion for a tram network.
The fact that council documents suggest light rail in the city centre makes Len Brown’s seeming unhappiness over AT looking at it all the more odd. On Friday while launching the LTP he was clearly not very warm to the idea – perhaps thinking it stole from some of his LTP limelight. He was quick to point out that people shouldn’t get their hopes up as it’s the politicians who will make the decisions and that this isn’t something on the council’s agenda. Perhaps he should be reminded of his own council’s plans.