An update on Light Rail

Around a month ago Auckland Transport gave a presentation to the Campaign for Better Transport on their Light Rail plans. I wasn’t there however I was provided with a copy of the presentation and it contains some new information not shown before – and not all about light rail.

As a reminder of the background, AT say that even with all the improvements planned – including the CRL – the number of buses on many city centre corridors will need to be greatly increased however many of those routes are already at, or near capacity in terms of actual bus numbers. To handle the number of buses (including double deckers) they will need significant extra land for more bus lanes and infrastructure to handle the number of buses that would be required, an example would be at Wynyard where a lot of buses would need to turn around. The map below shows the bus routes through the city with the new network. Most of those bus lines will be running in the peak at least every 15 minutes with some routes such as Dominion Rd much higher resulting in over 180 buses an hour on Symonds and Wellesley Streets.

City Access - Do Minimum

By 2046 the number of buses needed would be around double the desired capacity of bus lanes and as such buses will likely be very unreliable. Improved PT speed and reliability has been a big part in the fact that now around 50% of all people arriving in the city centre in the morning peak do so on PT. Some of the improved reliability is highlighted in these two charts showing the variability of travel times by mode at different times of the day. As you can see roads suffer from wide variability while the Northern Busway and rail lines – which have accounted for most of the PT growth to the city over the last 15 years – have fairly reliable times. The Panmure result will partly explain why patronage has grown at that station by a massive 71% in the last year.

Travel time Reliability

AT say they’ve looked at a number of options and that Light Rail on the southern isthmus routes – which are some of the busiest bus routes in Auckland – allows them to significantly reduce the number of buses in the city which will be critical in achieving goals such as making the city centre more people friendly. That would change the map above to what you see below. Some parts of Symonds St would go from 180 buses an hour down to just 16 Light Rail vehicles. This is because AT are looking at large 66m long light rail vehicles capable of carrying 450 people each. Interestingly the map below also seems to suggest light rail across the viaduct whereas previous versions had it going via Fanshawe St. I remember a few board meetings ago an item in the closed session was titled LRT Fanshawe/Customs St Alignment so presumably a lot more work is happening in this area.

City Access - LRT

The presentation also included a number of new images along with some we’ve already seen. The new ones suggest some other significant aspects to the proposal. We know that stage one is to effectively replace the current City Link bus by getting light rail to Ian McKinnon Dr where there would be an initial depot. That was highlighted back in June within this document which AT have now published is now online. The presentation gives this as a view of what the depot which I assume this is on the patch of land between Ian McKinnon Dr and the motorway. I’m not sure where the NW Cycleway connects through here – let’s hope AT don’t forget that in their planning.

Ian McKinnon Depot

Just around the corner they show that at least in that section they haven’t forgotten the cycleway as part of very multi-modal street.

Ian McKinnon LRT

Where things get even more interesting is just a bit further north. The image below shows the intersection of Queen St and K Rd.

K Rd intersection LRT

You may notice there is an absence of tracks and some odd things on the side of the road. That’s because it appears Auckland Transport are planning on sending light rail tracks through an underpass which is probably about easing the steep grade coming up Queen St. You can see the underpass emerging in this next image.

K Rd LRT Underpass

From there light rail would carry on down Queen St like in the images we’ve seen so far. Below are a few more images showing light rail past the front of Britomart, on Quay St and Lower Hobson St.

LRT - Britomart

LRT - Quay St

LRT - Lower Hobson St

Lastly this next image shows what Fanshawe St could look like – obviously from a different version of the plan to the earlier map. It shows light rail in on a dedicated route on the northern side of the road. If it was installed on Fanshawe St I presume it would share that with buses from the North Shore that travel to Britomart.

LRT - Fanshawe St

Overall some interesting aspects, especially around K Rd. The last information about the project was that AT was looking to appoint a technical adviser to support further investigation of light rail. Of course there’s also the matter of how exactly it will be paid for which AT remain quiet about.

Updated RPTP consultation outcome

Back in May Auckland Transport launched a short consultation to update their Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) on four specific areas to reflect the work and thinking they’ve undertaken since the RPTP was released in 2013. The consultation was limited to four areas:

  • The proposed introduction of simplified zone fares
  • Proposals for a new light rail transit (LRT) network on some major arterial routes
  • Service and infrastructure changes arising from the Ferry Development Plan which was approved by the AT Board in December 2014
  • Revised service descriptions arising from community consultation on the new bus network

AT haven’t formally announced the outcomes of that consultation however a paper on them went to the confidential session of the AT board and that has quietly been released publicly. In total they say 1,251 submissions were received however over 1,000 of those were about SuperGold concessions. Below are the main issues and some of the key recommendations staff have made.

Simplified zone fares

AT say there were 107 submissions referring to the simplified zone fares and that people were mostly supportive of the proposal. There was some concern about specific aspects though such the exact boundaries and what happens for short trips that cross them. One example they give is Orakei where some people want it in the city zone. In addition people wanted a number of other areas considered including

  • integrating ferries into the zone system
  • the time available for transfers along with the number of transfers allowed.
  • improved education and work to get HOP n the hands of more people,
  • fare caps

In response AT have made minor changes to the document or are undertaking more research. They note that it is desirable to have ferries also integrated but that they are limited in their ability to do so due to the current exempt services that are enshrined in legislation. In the case of fare caps AT say they will look at them once the new zonal system has settled in.

Light Rail

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

There were 97 submissions about light rail and AT say the majority were positive however five key groups have said there isn’t enough information yet for AT to be including it now. Of these the big and most interesting one is the NZTA who I would have thought AT would have been talking to about it much more. Others with a similar view were AA, NZCID, Bus & Coach Association and the Mangere-Otahuhu local board.

One aspect I predicted would happen with Light Rail has come through with a number of submitters and local boards now also wanting Light Rail in their areas. This includes

  • replacement for the Inner Link bus route
  • connections to the North Shore
  • along the North-western Motorway
  • Panmure-Botany
  • Tamaki Drive
  • Pakuranga Highway to Howick

The main recommendation is to start releasing more intimation about the project.

Ferry development plan

AT say that overall the majority of people supported their ferry development plan although some people were also calling for new services. Other than a few wording changes, it doesn’t appear this will change much which seems reasonable.

New Network service descriptions

Most of the feedback related to the new network was actually about issues such as the SuperGold card concessions for which AT say they will improve the wording to make it clearer nothing is changing.

For the actual topic of the new network service descriptions it was raised that there is no set span of times services will run from/to. In response AT say they will add a policy looking at the issue of span of services and in the next version of the RPTP look at developing that in more detail. The policy the hearings panel recommended be included now is below.

New Network Service Span

Extend Light Rail to the North Shore?

Regular readers will be well aware that we strongly believe our transport agencies need to rethink the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing. It appears to us that the price tag of $4-$6 billion is way out of proportion to the benefits another road crossing would provide. This view only strengthens the more we see the changes that are occurring, for example just last week we learned that the NZTA’s own post implementation reviews highlighted that traffic volumes weren’t living up to projections on a number of motorway projects. We also found out that one again that vehicle kilometres travelled in Auckland had fallen in both real and per capita measures despite strong population growth.

In Patrick’s letter to the NZTA he said:

It is our view that both a driverless Light Metro system, or a continuation of AT’s proposed Light Rail network across the Harbour, to Takapuna and up the Busway, need to be properly explored as the next possible crossing over the harbour. As they are likely to achieve all of the aims NZTA and AT are charged with delivering for the city much more completely and at a lower cost than any additional traffic lanes and without any of the disbenefits.

– the economic benefits of true spatially efficient urban transport system linking the Shore to city and the isthmus RTN
– make a massive transformational shift to public transport
– real carbon and other pollution reductions of scale from a 100% electric system
– huge place benefits, including a real reduction in city car and bus numbers
– no additional massive costs on approach roads
– resilience of additional systems as well as route

With this post I want to look at the idea of extending AT’s proposed light rail (LRT) across the harbour. So far we know that AT are looking at very high capacity LRT vehicles – up to 66m long and capable of holding around 450 people.

Town Hall LRT_800

They would run on at four LRT routes on the isthmus on Sandringham Rd, Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Rd and Manukau Rd, combining into two corridors through the CBD – Queen St and Symonds St – before terminating at Wynyard. These are shown below.

LRT routes

So what if we didn’t terminate them in Wynyard and instead extended them via a new crossing to the North Shore. As we know one of the features of LRT is that it can run at street level allowing for the network to reach past the expensive grade separated infrastructure like we see on the busway. Of course that can also be a curse if it is run mixed in with general traffic. Outside of the busway a good compromise is like what appears to be proposed for the isthmus with dedicated lanes and signal priority.

We know that the busiest bus routes on the North Shore are the Northern Busway, to Takapuna and up Onewa Rd. Those areas/routes also happen to be where some of the highest levels of development is allowed for on the North Shore as part of the proposed Unitary Plan – although I think a lot more should be allowed.

 

UP - North Shore

Combining the routes for the Isthmus with those corridors on the shore could deliver us something like the network below. You can see it features one route to Takapuna, one to Glenfield and two routes combine to serve the Northern Busway – one of which goes via the Universities, the Hospital and Newmarket

LRT to the Shore

The immediate question many of you might have is about capacity and whether LRT would have enough to serve the shore. Assuming a frequency on each route of roughly one service every 5 minutes that would combine for a capacity across the harbour of over 21,000 people per hour. To put that in perspective, currently over the two hour morning peak around 9,000 people cross the harbour bridge on buses. As such LRT would allow for more than a fourfold increase compared to what we have now and assuming they could do around 80km/h – which is the speed of the busway and seems fairly common on many overseas LRT systems – it would remain time competitive with driving at most times.

The biggest issue with any proposal will always be the cost however this is where LRT could prove a winner. In the last harbour crossing study a rail only tunnel was estimated at ~$1.6 billion – far cheaper than a road crossing. Add in converting the busway and the routes to Takapuna and Glenfield and I suspect we’d be looking at $3-3.5 billion. It’s worth noting that a high level study in 2012 estimated a similar network – but with the Takapuna branch extending all the way up East Coast Rd and to Browns Bay at around $4.5 billion.

Of all of it, it seems that the biggest challenge would end up being the section on the city side from the crossing to where the Queen St and Symonds St routes separate as that would have a high frequency of LRT vehicles through an area with a lot of intersections and conflicting movements. In saying that I’m sure it’s something our talented engineers are capable of solving.

Overall the thing I like the most about the idea is that it allows for through routed connections, removing any need for large terminals from the CBD/Wynyard which is what we would have with the current LRT proposal and/or if we decided to do a light metro or heavy rail option. Compared to other options that have been presented in the past it is also the only one that also looks at serving the western North Shore. Both the western and eastern routes could also be extended if needed. The biggest downside compared to the other rail based options is that LRT would still need a driver which would have an impact on the operational costs.

Lastly it’s worth noting that I’m fully aware that this may not be the best solution. A different solution might turn out to be better however the point of the post is to highlight that options other than the default of a new motorway tunnel exist. We want to see the NZTA and others assess any future crossing from a fresh perspective – much like what happened with the City Centre Future Access Study.

Letter to NZTA

 BRITOMART JULY 15_3753
After the launch of the National Land Transport Programme in Auckland last week  I wrote the following letter to NZTA with our concerns focussed on two future projects in particular. We have already received a reply confirming engagement on the issues raised:
We are all having quite a bit of trouble taking all the transport institutions seriously over RTN designations and intentions. The failure for any action to have been taken over a route through Mangere and the Airport over the last decade, and the constant reductions of any available space for a rail ROW there, or at least one not prohibitively expensive, make all the assurances we hear increasingly hard to believe.
 
Now we are expected to have no concerns at all about a process which shows every sign of just being another massive state highway with a little pretend drawing of a train in the sump of a massive road tunnel.
 
Tommy Parker confirmed today that buses on the bridge are to be the RTN solution, ie what there is now.
 
Our view is that this puts the cart before the horse. NZTA should not be starting with a solution without any clear description of the problem. We do not see why it needs a designation over a stretch of water to analyse what may be missing across here. Although it is not the designation that is the problem, but the lack of a needs focused, creative, and open minded analysis that troubles us.
 
As to us it is clear that what is missing from the existing bridges is a real RTN route [assuming SkyPath happens]. Therefore we expect to see real exploration of what delivering rail only tunnels [or bridge] would do to shape demand here. A rail system would certainly be higher capacity than road tunnels, and, well planned, would also likely be much cheaper and stageable. Adjacent rail systems do add resilience as the TransBay Tunnels did in Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco. And not do have all of the disbenefits of the massive increase in vehicle numbers throughout the whole city [congestion!] that more traffic lanes will.
 
We know than any additional road capacity here would be a total disaster for the city, which we are currently de-carring, and the CMJ which is already full, and the North Shore local roads. We also know, and NZTA almost brags about this [see below], the main outcome would be a traffic inducement on a massive scale:
 
AWHC - Induced Demand
This is ‘decide and provide’ in a bad way, a huge programme of traffic creation; $6 Billion to get people out of buses and into the driver’s seat. What ever we build across this route will be used; what an amazing opportunity to choose to shape both demand and the city in a wholly positive way.
 
However the fact that NZTA is not currently allowed to spend on rail capex, and anyway really is mainly a State Highway provider and then is not calling for any outside expertise to explore rail systems is also not encouraging:
AWHC -Route Protection scope
It is our view that both a driverless Light Metro system, or a continuation of AT’s proposed Light Rail network across the Harbour, to Takapuna and up the Busway, need to be properly explored as the next possible crossing over the harbour. As they are likely to achieve all of the aims NZTA and AT are charged with delivering for the city much more completely and at a lower cost than any additional traffic lanes and without any of the disbenefits.
 
– the economic benefits of true spatially efficient urban transport system linking the Shore to city and the isthmus RTN
– make a massive transformational shift to public transport
– real carbon and other pollution reductions of scale from a 100% electric system
– huge place benefits, including a real reduction in city car and bus numbers
– no additional massive costs on approach roads
– resilience of additional systems as well as route
 
We would like to meet with NZTA at the highest level to discuss this further.
 
We are extremely concerned that institutional momentum is building for a very very poor outcome for the city and country and are determined to improve this process.
 
We look forward to your reply,
 
kind regards
 

Roughan confirms LRT Success

On Saturday we learned that Auckland Transport’s light rail plans will be an outstanding success. We learned this not from anything Auckland Transport has told us but from a column written by the Herald’s John Roughan. He ended the piece with:

An underground link to give Auckland’s lines a central turning loop is said to be the key to unlocking their potential for urban commuters. It’s not. It would remove just one of several reasons the trains are too slow.

Light rail in the streets with traffic and stoplights is even slower. Yet the fascination remains. Something about iron tracks makes them hard to let go. They may be a solid line to other places and to the past, but they’ve had their day.

Roughan rubbishing LRT is great as he’s proven to be one of the best reverse barometers we have for public transport so if he thinks a PT investment will flop it means it will be fantastic. Just take a look at some of his previous predictions

In July 2001 he lamented the then plans for Britomart and the then ARCs plans for rail and bus upgrades, more deregulation and shuttle buses were the solution he said.

This is all about what the council wants, not what is most likely to work. If they opened their eyes they would notice that a little bit of deregulation worked a treat 10 years ago.

Take the airport shuttles, as many now do. When minivans where allowed to compete with taxis and buses to Auckland Airport, they found immediate demand.

They were soon getting calls for other destinations, too, but were not allowed to provide them. Imagine if they could. An untapped dimension of public transport is right there.

Later in October that year there was this masterpiece where he urged people to vote for candidates who would oppose PT. He also promoted the group named “Roads before Rail” – now only found on the wayback machine

There will come a time, maybe in 10 or 20 years, when it will be apparent this election was the last chance to prevent a minor disaster and we might wonder what we were thinking of in 2001 that we didn’t stop it.

There were, we will remember, one or two greater disasters happening at the time, so possibly the voters of 2001 will be forgiven. But every time we drive past one of those light rail things we will wonder at our capacity for collective folly.

If, 20 years hence, our children can track down Mrs Fletcher or Mr Harvey and ask why they are lumbered with this little-used railway, they will hear a remarkable story of what was supposed to happen.

They are wasting their time and our money. And they are neglecting – wilfully one suspects – the need for more and wider motorways.

Auckland is a car city and always will be. Its people much prefer their own cars to any form of public transport and, contrary to the claims of the rail lobby, there is plenty of room for more roading.

History shows us that Fletcher’s decision to push ahead with Britomart was inspired and the station has been successful beyond all expectations – as we know from the chart below showing actual daily passengers compared to what was predicted in the business case.

Daily Britomart Passengers - Actual vs Projected

In 2002 he again claimed Britomart and investment in rail would be a financial disaster that will hurt not just Auckland but the nation’s economy

He will not stop the rail scheme. For better or worse, as with corporate regulation, he will probably get it done. It may be merely a financial disaster but it will hurt the economy of Auckland and the country badly enough when the costs hit.

In 2003 he said no-one would use park and ride and said the solution to traffic problems was walking school buses.

Driving to work these mornings, I pass a brilliant bit of traffic engineering. It is not the “park and ride” bus station they are building down at Barry’s Pt, although I pass that too.

Somehow I can’t believe Auckland commuters are going to drive to a suburban transfer station to make the rest of their journey by bus or train. Ask yourself, honestly, would you? Will you?

In 2006 it was that Britomart was built too big for the city – of course we now know it’s too small and will soon run out of capacity

It went ahead and built the Britomart railway station regardless of the scale of rail the region was likely to afford. Britomart, which will shortly farewell the last intercity railcar, is a magnificent terminal for a train that might never come.

In 2007 we have him claiming the busway wouldn’t work

The public transport entrepreneurs intend that we forsake the car entirely and take a bus to the busway. I hope they are right but I really don’t think so.

While not directly related to a Roughan piece, this image was in the herald when the busway opened and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a hand in it.

Northern Busway White Elephant

 

 

This of course is just a small sample and there are a lot more columns from him talking about transport, complaining about spending on PT and calling for more motorways. As I said, if he’s rubbishing it then it will probably be good.

Coming back to his column on Saturday perhaps my favourite part is where just after saying that he caught a poorly implemented tram once we therefore shouldn’t build light rail in Auckland (or the CRL), he says this:

The Government doesn’t take much interest in AT’s operational decisions for Auckland’s buses and trains and when the Government contemplates the city’s congestion it prefers the advice of the NZ Transport Agency.

Thanks to the national transport planners, the part of Auckland that is probably best served by public transport is the one part that has no railway. The North Shore’s busway is probably the fastest flowing artery in the region and it is about to get better. AT has posted out a plan to Shore households this month that simplified all bus routes into loops between busway stations. It looks ideal.

So now not only is the busway good but he likes the new bus network AT is proposing. I’d agree with him on both those points but the thing I find quite funny is his inability to consider that the same people who developed the new network he praises are also behind the plans for light rail. How is it they can be both so right and so wrong in the space of a few paragraphs.

Just to note, there are a few other areas where Roughan can occasionally be right such as the examples below but they tend to be few and far between:

  • Two years ago he claimed that an Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing isn’t something we need as the issue is the capacity on either side (he also praises the busway).
  • A month prior he urged the government to support the general direction the council have been pushing saying that above all else it is a vision and no one is presenting an alternative – interesting as we later learned the business groups were saying the same thing behind closed doors.
  • He has also noted a few times that we should consider road pricing as a way to get better use out of our existing road infrastructure such as this one.

 

More on AT’s Light Rail Proposal

We have been sent more LRT details from AT. Light Rail is undergoing investigation at this point, but slowly more of their thinking is emerging:

LRT Stage 1.0

Clearly access to Wynyard is the most difficult part of this route. Queen St is so LRT ready and at last a use for that hitherto hopeless little bypass: Ian Mackinnion Drive. The intersection of New North and Dom Rd will need sorting for this too- Is there nothing that LRT doesn’t fix!

LRT Stage 1.1

They are planning for big machines, 450 pax is at the top end of LRVs around the world.

LRT Stage 1.2

At 66m, these are either the biggest ever made, or I guess more likely 2 x 33m units. 33m is a standard dimension, and enables flexibility of vehicle size.

LRT Stage 2.1

The contested road space of Dominion Rd. Light Rail will create the economic conditions for up-zonning the buildings here; apartments and offices above retail along the strip. But the city will have to make sure that the planning regulations support this. Otherwise it will be difficult to justify the investment. Something for those in the area who reflexively oppose any increase in height limits, reduction of mandated parking, or increases in density and site coverage rules to ponder. If they prefer to keep the current restrictions they need to be aware they are also choosing to reject this upgrade. More buses will be as good as it gets, and AT’s investment will have to go elsewhere. I’m not referring to the the large swathes of houses back from the arterials, no need to change these; it’s the properties along the main routes themselves that need to intensify; anyway these are the places that add the new amenity for those in the houses. And not just shops and cafes, also offices with services and employment for locals, and apartments for a variety of dwelling size and price. Real mixed-use like the world that grew up all along they original tram system city wide, before zoning laws enforced separation of all these aspects of life.

LRT Stage 2.2

Queen St Light Rail

On the day that the Sydney Morning Herald runs an intelligent editorial showing a grown-up attitude to the disruption that comes with important infrastructure builds…

The Herald remains a strong supporter of the light rail project to run through the inner city and eastern suburbs, and urges the Baird government to prosecute the case forcefully for the line.

Construction of the project, due to start on George Street in October, will be painful and frustrating. Mistakes will be made, and they must not be excused.

But any conception of the transport needs of central Sydney must begin on the basis the status quo is unsustainable.

That status quo represents an over-reliance on bus transport through crowded city streets.

The streets are so crowded that the buses are unreliable. They consistently fall behind timetable well before they have left the city and entered the suburbs.

…AT has released more LRT images:

Town Hall LRT_800

Note in both images all cars are gone, and there is a sort-of cycle lane, that in practice will really be part of the big shared space, yet indicated. Personally I think this is a good arrangement for this pedestrian dominated place and means that it is a slow speed and take care place for riders. The parallel routes of Nelson and Grafton Gully are for getting places at pace; good crosstown cycling connections will be needed to link these all together.

Queen St LRT_800

This would be a spectacular upgrade to the Queen St valley in terms of access but even more so in place quality. And just at the right time, or at least the proposal certainly isn’t ahead of the need; downtown is booming and development is spreading up the hill. We will be able to taste the sea air again in the city! I just can’t wait to get the fume-belchers out of our main spine.

Also from a purely transport capacity angle this will add a whole new access point for people into our uniquely motorway severed City Centre, as currently buses have been restricted on Queen St to the local access only City Link, and the AirBus, because of the unattractiveness of too many diesel buses in core pedestrian places. Adding Queen St to those other two north-south streets of Albert and Symonds as a route to move high volumes of people, while reducing the total bus numbers.

As the SHM goes on:

The Herald does not support any one mode of transport over another. In a metropolis like Sydney, trains, buses, the private car, light rail, cycling and walking all obviously have their role to play.

But the government should invest money in the mode of transport that fits the particular need of a particular space and of a particular travelling public.

And in central Sydney, the use of a growing number of buses to get people to and from work is no longer fit for purpose.

Without major changes to the city – without replacing some of those buses by new rail links – it will be impossible to increase the frequency of bus services to those areas not served by rail.

This argument represents much of the benefits inherent in the CBD light rail project down George Street, as well as the North West Rail Link and its eventual connection to the inner city.

This is exactly the situation Auckland finds itself in; the City Rail Link for connection to and through the core and the further out West, East, and South, and buses upgrading to LRT when capacity limits are hit on surface routes elsewhere. Including, in my view, across the harbour from Wynyard in tunnels to a balancing North Shore network, instead of the bloated and destructive third road crossing. Or a bridge, either way it would be direct, fast, and way way cheaper than NZTA’s current, yet last century, plans:

Light Rail Bridge

Light Rail Bridge

 

All up it renders Queen St just like Bourke St in that other Australian city:

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

I have requested an image of Dominion Rd LRT too, so will follow up with that and other info in the days ahead.

Helping Our Heritage Come Alive – Mt Eden Rd

This is an image from Mark Bishop. Here are the previous posts: Queen and Wellesley, Newton Rd, Kingsland

These images were developed by merging together various historic black and white photographs (all from the “Sir George Grey Special Collection” – Auckland Library) with contemporary colour photographs taken at the same location.

The black and white photographs were taken between the years 1900 to 1940, and cover a number of areas of the city and the outlying suburbs. The colour photographs were all taken in early 2015.

The intention of these images is to use photography to help show how much has changed – or not changed – over almost one hundred years by focusing on locations that are familiar to Aucklanders.

It is interesting to think that the people, horses and trams seen in these images passed by around a century ago where we walk and drive today.

Mount Eden Village.  View looking north up Mount Eden Road, Mount Eden Village.  Black and white photograph (1910-23) from “Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries 35-R243.”

Eden Village BW merge 1910-23 35-R243

In some ways this is also a glimpse into the future with Auckland Transport looking at installing Light Rail down Mt Eden Rd and other Isthmus streets.

More thoughts on Light Rail details

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.

RTN + LRT

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.

Light Rail In Gold Coast

Photo: Wayne Duncan

Signal Priority

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.

Light rail compared to bus

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.

Terminal capacity

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.

Downtown Bus Routes post CRL

 

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.

Funding

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.

What’s with ‘The Void’?

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 Light Rail for Utrecht

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

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.

RTN Void

The Void

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]
RTN + LRT
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 by Matt.
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

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.
Light Rail in Queen St 1 - Nilut
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.
Light Rail in Queen St 2 - Nilut
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.
CFN
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?
CFN 2030 + Light Metro