How might the RMA amendments and the Auckland Plan impact on the Unitary Plan?

The advertisement below is from the last local government elections. Here Councillor Denise Krum rallies against the draft Unitary Plan, especially the degree to which it enables “intensification”. Denise’s advertisement claims the draft Unitary Plan is “too intense” and will “change our streets forever”. Instead, Denise advocates for greater restrictions on the degree to which property owners can develop their property in the urban area, and more expansion of the city. Denise was subsequently elected.

Denise Krum

Denise is particularly critical of 3 storey height limits, and goes to the trouble of hoisting herself up (some might say by her own petard) in a scissor-lift so as to highlight differences in building heights.

From this advertisement it seems clear Denise does not support the draft Unitary Plan and instead considers restrictions on intensification as being necessary to preserve community well-being. It is notable the advertisement does not contain any references to any research or surveys which support the positions Denise adopts on these issues. Is it too much for me to expect political advertising to include references to evidence supporting the positions being advanced? Perhaps.

When it comes to planning, however, evidence matters. Recent 2013 amendments to the RMA increased the burden of proof with regards to S32 reports, especially in terms of the economic analysis that should be undertaken to support proposed policy provisions. For those who are not familiar with planning jargon, a “S32 report” attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of proposed policies in comparison to potential alternatives. The 2013 RMA amendments requires S32 analysis to identify, and where practicable quantify, the economic benefits and costs of proposed policies. Some smarty-pants lawyers had this to say about the RMA amendments at last year’s NZPI conference (source):

“Arguably the most significant and material change is an expansion and detailed elucidation of the reference to “benefits and costs”, in the context of assessing efficiency and effectiveness … Post 2013s 32(2) requires, in much more detail, the following:

An assessment under subsection (1)(b)(ii) must—

(a) identify and assess the benefits and costs of the environmental, economic, social and cultural effects that are anticipated from the implementation of the provisions, including the opportunities for—

(i) economic growth that are anticipated to be provided or reduced; and

(ii) employment that are anticipated to be provided or reduced; and

(b) if practicable, quantity the benefits and costs referred to in paragraph (a).

The task of complying with these requirements is not insignificant. A systematic approach will need to be taken in preparing s32 reports to ensure that they are compliant and address environmental, economic, social and cultural effects, including opportunities for economic growth and employment.”

Ever since the RMA amendments came into force I have pondered how they might impact on the proposed Unitary Plan, especially with regards to density controls? I have also been wondering how the strategic direction established in the Auckland Plan, which I think was developed under the auspices of the LGAAA, would be relevant to the Unitary Plan?

My interest was further piqued when councillors, such as Denise, dramatically reduced the level of intensification that could occur in metropolitan Auckland, since which time house prices have soared. The differences between the draft and the proposed Unitary Plans is highlighted in the map below. Areas of red show areas where down-zoning occurred, which includes most of the isthmus. These are the areas where property prices are high (and increasing), i.e. where market-driven intensification seems most likely to occur.

Down zoning

From this it seems fair to say that proposed Unitary Plan imposes tighter density controls. The question is whether these controls are supported by economic evidence that meets the requirements of the (amended) RMA? And, moreover, how apparent tensions between the strategic direction of the Auckland Plan and the approach adopted in the proposed Unitary Plan would play out in a hearing context?

The economic costs of density controls are relatively intuitive: They forgo and/or displace land use development. This means we get less of it, especially in higher In terms of the economic benefits of density controls, those who are opposing intensification, such as Denise, will need to present evidence to show that levels of density which are common-place elsewhere, e.g. cities in Australia and Europe, will cause significant harm to communities should they be replicated in Auckland.

I’m skeptical as to whether this evidence exists. Most of the research I’ve read, such as this review by UNSW for Queensland Health, finds no conclusive evidence that higher density development has negative impacts on well-being. In fact, there’s evidence it’s beneficial to many outcomes, such as childrens levels of physical activity and obesity rates. So much for the meme that children need a big backyard to stay fit and healthy!

In my experience living in Auckland and overseas, buildings of approximately 6 storeys seem to have relatively negligible negative impacts on well-being and/or amenity. The photos below illustrate two buildings from Amsterdam and Auckland, but I could have easily added many more photos of multi-storey buildings from Brisbane, Sydney, and Stockholm. While there are large differences in style, I find both buildings quite attractive (the first photo is used under license from myself; the second photo belongs to Ockham).

Amsterdam nightmare

_CM15340 crop-600-600-450-450-crop

For these reasons, I have been somewhat heartened to read the interim guidance on view shafts that was issued by the Commissioners who are overseeing the Unitary Plan hearings process. In this guidance the Commissioners note “the objectives, policies and rules in relation to viewshafts do not meet the s32 requirements of the Act” for several reasons, most notably “amendments were made to s32 in 2013 to require employment and economic growth opportunities (including lost opportunities) to be taken into account and these post-date many if not all of the legacy plans.” The Commissioners go on to note the “PAUP is the first substantive planning process to propose increased levels of intensification to achieve a quality compact city so it is appropriate that the viewshafts are now re-evaluated within that strategic context” and more importantly “… if it is possible to quantify those costs of the viewshaft provisions, then that would assist in decision …

I want to emphasise from the outset that I don’t have a strong view on the relative merits of view shafts. This post is less concerned with the nitty-gritty of viewshafts than it is with understanding how the 2013 RMA amendments and the Auckland Plan may impact on the Unitary Plan, most notably:

  • First, the presence of planning provisions in legacy plans is not strong evidence (in of itself) that those provisions should be retained in the Unitary Plan, mainly because the legacy plans pre-date both the 2013 amendments and the Auckland Plan. Hence, they have not been tested under the current legislative and strategic context.
  • Second, the Commissioners appear to consider that the strategic context provided by the (non-statutory) Auckland Plan, in addition to the Regional Policy Statement, is relevant to the provisions of the Unitary Plan, especially with regards to the development of a quality compact urban form.
  • Third, in light of the 2013 RMA amendments the Commissioners appear to place a higher expectation on economic analysis, especially where proposed provisions do not appear to align with the aforementioned strategic direction of the Auckland Plan.

The Commissioners thus seem to be attempting to strike a balance between strategic outcomes and economic analysis, and do not seem to be placing too much weight on legacy plans. This is heartening because, frankly, the legacy district plans contained many provisions that are of dubious value. Moreover, where provisions proposed in the Unitary Plan run contrary to the Council’s stated strategic direction, then there seems to be an expectation from the Commissioners that this misalignment is supported by robust economic analysis.

Of course, whether this preliminary guidance on view shafts is indicative of the Commissioners’ ultimate position and/or whether it apples to other topics, e.g. minimum parking requirements, is something that will only become clear in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Professional and personal disclaimer: The views expressed in this post represent the theoretical and philosophical musings of a not quite defunct economist. This economist is not a planner nor is he a lawyer (so don’t expect to be able to sue me for much money). The views expressed herein should not be construed to represent the views of my colleagues, clients, friends, or pets. They do represent the views of my Mum, whom I love very much. Nor do they necessarily represent my own views in the future – at which point my views may have changed in response to further evidence and information. 

Blanket Heritage Check to be Removed?

Some fairly important news about the Unitary Plan has emerged in relation to the Pre-1944 demolition control the council wanted to implement. The control prevented all houses built before 1944 – that weren’t already covered under normal heritage provisions – from being demolished without any assessment of whether it needs heritage protection. Land owners would still be able to get consent however it is argued that by making it harder will prevent people from even trying. The control seemed to come about following regular complaints from heritage groups about anything old being demolished.

In interim guidance from the hearing panel released Wednesday it was announced that they are not convinced by the arguments put forward by council and some submitters on the need for the control. They say there is a lack of robust section 32 (s32) analysis and evidence and that the provision has not been assessed in the wider context of the strategy for a more compact and higher density city. They go further to say that it places unnecessary constraints and burdens on land owners who may want to develop their property.

They say they think that if the council want to change the way they protect a number of residential areas that they should go through a plan change to do so which would also require them to produce a robust section 32 analysis of the relative benefits and costs of the change. That would also enable more public participation on the issue. As an example they were concerned that large numbers of people who owned/lived in properties affected by the control didn’t submit on the Unitary Plan who were likely happy with the existing provisions.

The map below shows the scale of the control and as you can see it primarily affects the isthmus and east coast of the North Shore. It’s also worth noting that many properties in some of the gaps have more formal heritage protection.

Pre-1944 Building Control

Understandably heritage groups are upset saying the decision is a ‘mistake’ and a ‘bombshell’ however I’ve long thought the same way about proposing the control in the first place. The council have said in the past that they choose 1944 as the cut-off point as that’s a date they have good records from of what housing stock existed. To me the whole thing is just to arbitrary and clunky in its current form and even though the control wasn’t blanket protection its effect would have been to prevent most small scale development as land owners would be too put off by the requirements.

In addition to this while the heritage protection groups fight to keep anything and everything old, at the end of the day it’s generally not them who pay the price for the impact blanket rules like this have. If it prevents sensible development in the right locations it can affect the entire city and in particular young people who want a place to live that isn’t out on the suburban limits

When it comes to heritage I quite like this from reader Stephen Davis. If we really want to protect heritage should we require those in heritage areas to also ride around in a horse and cart.

Lastly I think it also opens up the opportunity for the council to have a wider discussion with the community about development and change. As we know Auckland Transport are considering installing Light Rail on the Isthmus right through some of the heaviest areas affected by the pre-1944 controls. One of the issues we’ve mentioned in the past is that while the light rail corridors are busy, we really need to leverage off such a project and enable more development to help make it successful. Perhaps this news is opportune time for the council to start having that discussion

LRT routes

Given this interim guidance it will be interesting to see just the panel say about other rules which can severely restrict development potential such as minimum parking requirements, minimum yard sizes, building setbacks, maximum site coverage and density controls.

Do parking minimums restrict competition?

During the Unitary Plan submissions process, a number of retailers and shopping centre owners took a pretty conservative stance on transport. They argued for maintaining parking minimums, replacing maximums with minimums in some areas, and so on. Some argued that cars would always be the main way of getting to shops, and this should be written into the Unitary Plan. I’ll tackle that in another post, but for now, let’s talk about parking minimums and competition.

Raising the barriers to entry?

Among their other faults, parking minimums can actually be quite anti-competitive. Looking at supermarkets, for example, reviews both here and in Australia have shown that the biggest “barrier to entry” for new competitors is the difficulty in acquiring suitable sites.

Parking minimums make it even harder to get sites which are large enough. If you want a 3,000 square metre supermarket, say, and the rules say you need to have 1 carpark per 25 square metres of space, then that’s 120 carparks you’ll need. Those will take up about 3,600 square metres, so overall you need to find a site which is 6,600 square metres in size and meets your other location criteria. Not an easy task. If not for the parking minimums, you might decide you’re happy with 60 parks instead, for example. That’d shave 1,800 square metres off the size of the site you’d need. That’s a hypothetical example, and you could make the same argument for department stores, hardware stores, shopping centres, or really any kind of retail development, large or small.

BOTANY

Botany Downs: a popular retail node, but very car-centric

The extra competition from removing parking minimums can mean lower prices at the shops, but it’s not just about that. It also means lower time and travel costs for consumers. If you live 10 km from the nearest supermarket, but then one opens up just 5 km away, you’re better off, even if the prices are the same.

Or making it easier for freeloaders?

Most of these submitters were concerned about freeloading, and they argued for minimums to remain to prevent this. The argument is that another developer could come along, build a store or shopping centre, and not provide enough carparks. Their shoppers would then overflow into other areas, parking in existing carparks on the street or (more relevantly) by existing stores. Those carparks would then become unavailable to the existing stores’ customers.

This is a “negative externality” in economics jargon, and it’s legitimate for retailers to be concerned about it. We’ve probably all been guilty of using one of those carparks when dashing to another store, the post office etc. But the argument is also one which can restrict competition. Parking minimums are often arbitrary – quite ridiculously so for taverns – and different retailers will have very different requirements based on their business model, location, availability of driving alternatives and so on. Generally, those retailers or shopping centres have a good idea of how many parks they will need, and should be free to provide as many or as few as they like, with the costs internalised (more jargon).

What’s the way forward?

The Unitary Plan has to find a balance between two sides. On the one hand, you have retailers who don’t want their carparks being used by freeloaders, with new competitors having an unfair advantage if they don’t have the same requirement to provide parking. On the other hand, parking minimums have their own problems – they can encourage undue reliance on cars, a larger-than-optimal amount of parking, more pressure on the road network, and so on. These are externalities too. Plus, as I’ve argued above, there’s the externality of reducing competition.

We need to be careful with whether we let the car-dependent business models of today to be enshrined into the future; retail should be free to adapt and change. It’s the nature of the beast. The Unitary Plan will last for ten years. A decade is a long time in retail, and the new shops that we build in the Unitary Plan’s lifetime will be around for much longer.

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

Not in my backyard!

As we have written before on Transportblog, we think that choice in housing and transport markets is really important. In particular, Aucklanders need to be able to choose not to live in apartments. Therefore we must act now to ban anyone from building any apartments.

MERCHANT QUARTER_6038

They’ve already spread to New Lynn: could your town centre be next?

Thanks to the excellent investigative journalism practiced by the NZ Herald, we have become aware that apartments pose an existential threat to our way of life. Alleged political leader Len Brown has conspired with Auckland Council’s urban planners, many of whom started their careers developing five-year plans for collectivising agriculture under Joseph Stalin, to bulldoze Auckland and replace it with brutalist apartment towers. We must resist this at all costs.

These agents of darkness are also in league with a cabal of greedy developers, who will stop at nothing in their sick quest to make money by building homes for people. I’m horrified, simply horrified, that private businesses would seek to maximise their profits. That sort of antisocial behaviour shouldn’t be allowed.

paris_cafe-rainbow_tours

If those sick bastards get their way, this could be our fate too.

Nobody wants to live in apartments, anyway, so there is no drawback to preventing them from being constructed. And anyone who does want to live in them is not a real New Zealander, and we wouldn’t want to have them around anyway. We have community standards to uphold. They probably don’t even own barbecues!

If we don’t ban the construction of new apartments, people will build them in such great numbers that they will drown out the sun from the gardens, porches, and barbecues of real New Zealanders. And because they will exclusively attract the “wrong type of people” (hint, hint), upstanding Epsomites will be overrun by an unprecedented wave of burglaries and violence. It’s only a matter of time until Auckland’s leafy suburbs resemble a war zone.

This future crack-den has just been constructed in Grey Lynn. (Source)

Some unscrupulous capitalist is currently marketing these Grey Lynn apartments to P dealers and biker gangs.

But that’s only the tip of this nightmarish iceberg. What’s worse is that building apartments on public transport routes will result in so much traffic congestion that it will prevent anyone from driving anywhere ever again. Auckland’s economy will collapse as self-employed tradesmen from Pakuranga will have to spend an extra five minutes driving to job sites.

The irony is that we will ultimately have to demolish said apartments to widen all of our roads. Fortunately, everyone knows that widening roads is a successful strategy for reducing congestion. Look at the Southern Motorway. We’ve been widening that for over 50 years, and traffic’s totally free-flowing.

In short, we have a stark choice: Ban apartments, or face utter catastrophe. Transportblog is standing up against the inhumanity of intensification. People need to be able to choose not to live in apartments, rather than being frog-marched into them at gunpoint as envisaged under the Unitary Plan.

Just like in Manhattan, where the brutal totalitarian Michael Bloomberg has forced the world's richest investment bankers into tiny chicken-coop apartments.

Just like in Manhattan, where brutal totalitarian Michael Bloomberg has forced the world’s richest investment bankers into tiny shoeboxes.

Banning apartments is a great first step, but in the long term we have to prevent people coming to Auckland and trying to live in them. The only sane option available to us is a policy of eugenics and internal passports to prevent that from happening. It may seem draconian, but similar measures have succeeded wildly in countries as diverse as communist China, Soviet Russia, and apartheid South Africa.

Lastly, I recently realised that I do, in fact, live in an apartment in a leafy inner suburb. It is urgent that we prevent this sort of thing from spreading. As a prophylactic measure, I have driven my neighbours out of their homes, dynamited the buildings, and am awaiting a call back from a developer who’s interested in building an intimidatingly large McMansion on the site.

Comicially wrong op-ed about the CRL

Brian Leyland has written an op-ed in the herald that is so comically wrong it’s hard not to ignore. Every single one of the 13 paragraphs contains (often basic) factual errors or opinion masquerading as fact. So I thought I’d highlight some of them.

The railway tunnel will serve only a very small fraction of Auckland’s population and at a huge cost. Mayor Len Brown is determined to commit Auckland to building a hugely expensive railway tunnel even though no comprehensive independent and objective economic analysis has been made on the merits of the tunnel and whether or not letting the city spread and developing satellite centres would be better.

More than 70% of Auckland’s population are already within 3km – an easy 10 minute bike ride if we built some safe infrastructure to support it – of a train station. The major urban areas not near the rail network are the North Shore, North West, Hibiscus Coast, parts of the central isthmus, the airport and East Auckland. The latter of those would feed into the rail network via AMETI and the Panmure Station.

Independently reviewed economic analysis has occurred and the project has had more scrutiny than probably any other transport project in this country. If the governments RoNS were subjected to even half of what the CRL has been they would have been canned years ago. More on the spawl comment later in the post.

Auckland Council has neglected its obligation to investigate and evaluate all options. Given the enormous amount of expenditure involved, this amounts to a serious dereliction of duty.

The City Centre Future Access Study (CCFAS) did just this and involved the NZTA and Ministry of Transport with the MoT even noting that the modelling has probably undercooked the patronage projections.

MoT OIA docs - Modelling 1

Overseas research on 44 urban rail systems revealed that the average cost overrun was 45 per cent and the number of passengers was half the predicted number. Have the economics of the Auckland tunnel been tested against 45 per cent higher costs and half the passengers? If not, why not?

Cost over runs aren’t limited to rail as the graph below shows – although it seems our recent rail upgrades have been ok. In saying that we seem to have been much better with managing costs on larger projects – many of which are claimed to have come in on time and under budget which is likely due to the additional detailed work that occurs beforehand which is happening right now with the CRL.

Road cost overrun chart

As for patronage, we can look at local examples to see how well our projections have fared. For Britomart we passed the 2021 prediction for the number of people passing through the station in 2011 and given the growth we’ve seen since that time that will only be larger now.

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

We’re also on track to exceed the 2016 target set in the Rail Development Plan of 2006 of 15.7 million trips in 2016 despite a later start to electrification than envisioned.

The railway tunnel will serve only a very small fraction of Auckland’s population and at a huge cost. Right now, ratepayers subsidise 80 per cent of the cost of every train fare. If the tunnel costs blow out by 50 per cent it will need to recover at least $450 million in fares every year for capital repayment and operating expenses. If, as hoped, there are 20 million rail trips every year, they will need to recover $22.50 per rail trip. Most of this will be imposed on the ratepayers.

Train fares currently cover around 26% however that figure has been improving this year and will likely continue to do so as the new electric trains roll out and patronage continues to improve so dramatically. I also expect we might see some improvement from the middle of next year (from reduced costs) as a result of AT re-tendering the rail contract – which I understand there are a number of interested groups. I expect Auckland will move closer to Wellington in this result which achieves 56% farebox recovery on its trains.

Importantly one of the benefits of the CRL is that while it will cost to run the stations and more trains, the farebox recovery ratio should further improve – potentially as high as 80%.

I’m not sure where Bryan has his 20 million rail trips per year from – I presume he’s confusing the governments target with a patronage projection. We haven’t seen total patronage results of any recent modelling and the CCFAS only showed the impacts at peak times however some older estimates put total patronage eventually up around 50 million trips per year.

The council planners seem to be totally unaware of the imminent revolution in personal transport that will be brought about by self-guided cars, modern taxi systems, ride sharing and buses. By the time the tunnel is in operation self-guided cars that will allow twice the traffic density on roads and reduce accidents by 50 per cent or more will be available. Not long after it will be possible to call up a driverless taxi or minibus by cellphone to take you where you want to go. For those who think that this is the stuff of dreams, it is now possible to buy a car that, in a traffic jam, will follow the car ahead and every major car manufacturer is developing self-guided cars.

These technological advances, combined with telecommuting (working from home and using the internet to communicate) and smartphone-assisted car pooling will have a huge effect on commuting and the shape of future cities. The council should take its head out of the sand and get up to speed with this revolution.

We’ve talked about driverless cars quite a bit recently so won’t go into that too much other than to say the uptake of new vehicle technology has so far been incredibly slow. As for telecommuting – the percentage of people doing just that hasn’t really changed in well over a decade despite it being easier than ever to do so. In fact many large companies – especially tech companies have done the opposite as they have recognised the benefits of working closer together.

Unitary Plan Rant that could probably have a post of its own:

The Unitary Plan is based on a blind belief that it is wrong to let the city spread and intensification is the only option

The Unitary Plan concentrates development in the central isthmus, which is already crowded and includes the volcanic area. The council has ignored the lesson from Christchurch that you should not keep all your assets in one place.

Most of the isthmus has well-established high-density suburbs with good houses, trees, gardens and lawns that are environmentally friendly and support large populations of birds and bees. The Unitary Plan will demolish these suburbs and substitute blocks of flats that will increase demand for parking, roads, schools, power, water supply, drainage and the like. There will be serious environmental and social impacts. Expanding infrastructure in an established suburb is far more expensive and environmentally damaging than building new low-cost houses on greenfield developments.

The council’s objective is to ration land and artificially inflate land values so as to force people to demolish good houses and force them to build apartment buildings to spread the rates burden.

Perhaps Bryan would like to point out where in the unitary plan it forces people to bowl their houses and build apartments. For most of the isthmus such an activity is actually prohibited due to heritage, zoning, density and height restrictions. In fact the central isthmus is almost locked in amber by the Unitary Plan as it stands now, especially compared to somewhere like West Auckland.

Notified UP - Isthmus-West-North

Auckland can pour vast amounts of money into city centre development in the hope of getting enough passengers to justify a railway tunnel, or it can allow the city to spread and develop satellite centres so that people can live in affordable houses and work in the same area.

Before any action is taken on the Unitary Plan and the tunnel, ratepayers should demand that an independent and objective study is done on the social, environmental and economic benefits of allowing the city to spread, compared with intensification. Nothing is more important.

Again perhaps Bryan should look at what work has already happened, such as this report from 2010 on the social, environmental and economic benefits of different development options and for which the large sprawl based one came out worse on the vast majority of measures. Perhaps one of the funniest things I’ve heard is that the modelling on the CRL shows that the more sprawl that’s enabled – particularly in south Auckland – the higher the need for the CRL is as it means there are even more people trying to avoid long lines of congestion from the hinterland.

Overall given his history and given the inaccuracy of his piece I’m surprised the herald even ran it.

NIMBYism and Ebola

There were a number of interesting comments this week in relation to intensification in Auckland. The first came from the Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler talking about how Auckland needs to do more to enable intensification in the city and address NIMBYism to address housing shortages.

Wheeler said the Reserve Bank estimated Auckland had a backlog of unbuilt houses of 15,000 to 20,000 and needed to build 10,000 houses a year for the next 30 years to keep up with demand.

“If you look at permits at this point they are running at an annual rate of around 7,500, which is a huge improvement on where they were 2 years ago, but still well short of the 10,000,” Wheeler said.

“I think some very good work has been done on opening up new areas but a major challenge there is getting houses built quickly enough, and a lot of those areas are in the periphery of Auckland where people may decide that the transport costs are less attractive for them, or the infrastructure needs might be considerable,” he said.

“I think work needs to be done in inner Auckland in addressing the height restrictions and the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome that’s there.”

Wheeler said he welcomed the Government’s commissoning of work by the Productivity Commission on how issues around zoning decisions, regulatory reform and approval processes

“I am very interested to see the outcome of that sort of review. But we see it mainly as a supply side problem,” he said.

We’ve certainly made it easier to develop greenfield land and with the unitary plan it should get even easier with the proposed Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) which is larger and more flexible than the old urban limits. However even that looks set to be watered down to enable more greenfield development.

The independent panel hearing submissions on the Auckland unitary plan has told submitters the council’s proposed provisions for the new rural:urban boundary “may be overly stringent” and that a more flexible boundary would be better.

The panel also said in interim guidance it issued on Monday: “A rural:urban boundary is the most appropriate method to achieve the objective of a quality compact urban city when compared to the principal alternatives of the operative metropolitan urban limit & no boundary.”

The number of dwelling consents issued over the last 12 months is around 7,700 which is up considerably on the low of just over 3,200 in August 2009.

Consents Issued - Jan 15

In response to Wheeler’s comments, Bill English – who has in the past spoken about the NIMBYism issue – has said calls for more densification in Auckland’s housing were “about as popular in parts of Auckland as Ebola” would be. Suggesting that putting a few terraced houses or low rise apartments in an area is provides a similar fear to a deadly disease is probably taking things a bit too far but also highlights why the council need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of more people being in an area – such as that it provides more opportunities for local businesses and amenities such as local cafe’s, shops and more/better parks.

In addition:

Mr English, who spoke today for the seventh year in a row at the annual Auckland Chamber of Commerce and Massey University lunch in Auckland, said the city’s local government had said homeowners couldn’t build up but have now recognised that means there has to be a “build out.”

The government will confirm details in the new few weeks about further decisions on the Tamaki Redevelopment Co, a joint venture between central government and Auckland Council in 2012 to rejuvenate the suburb. The entity is expected to build about 7,500 new houses over the next decade. Once old properties have been removed or demolished, that will increase the area’s housing stock by 5,000, of which 2,800 will be Housing New Zealand-owned.

“We want to accelerate this type of activity, so small and large redevelopments of Housing New Zealand land and properties are completed with more urgency,” English said.

Lastly he had this to say about housing and infrastructure in general:

The minister said the government had learnt a lot over Auckland’s housing issues and that should lead to a more constructive process than previously about the region’s infrastructure needs, including a second harbour crossing.

‘We could do with a common understanding of the strategy. To government, it has looked like a series of projects arriving for political reasons as well as economic ones and we have to have that common view.”

Coming up with a region wide strategy was one of the key reasons behind amalgamating the previous councils into a single region wide council and requiring a 30 year plan (The Auckland Plan). The problem wasn’t the plan but that the government chose to ignore it for ideological reasons and as such kept fighting it. I’d also suggest that unless he’s prepared to fight the NIMBY issue then there’s not much point in even discussing a second harbour crossing as the local board areas on the North Shore have some of the lowest levels of population growth forecast across the region – in part due to much of the area fighting any form of development.

Our Port and the Harbour

8-10am tomorrow morning there is a meeting organised by groups concerned about the lack of governance and oversight by Council over the Port Company. Whether you can make it tomorrow or not, if you agree that the Port Company needs more oversight and governance from the Council, visit this page and them them know.

STOP STEALING OUR HARBOUR

Letter to the Council:

Dear Mayor Len Brown and Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse,

I am writing on behalf of Urban Auckland, the NZ Institute of Architects Auckland Branch, the Urban Design Forum and the Auckland Architects Association. We represent the professionals working in the built environment of our city. We are joined by local community groups and Westhaven Marina Users.

We are deeply concerned at Ports announcement last Thursday that they are extending Bledisloe Wharf in April by 93 and 98 metres thus eliminating the crucial view down the harbour from Queens Wharf – the proposed gateway to our City. We feel let down by Council process and have no trust in Ports of Auckland.

 We are not against Ports of Auckland operating in the city. We are for establishing a way forward where we can all be good neighbours. PoA’s actions in the last few months show they have no intent at all in being that.

We feel our voice has not been heard. We have not been consulted over the City Centre Integration Plan. No study of the wider social, cultural, economic and environmental impact has been done as you promised in 2013.

Tomorrow morning Wednesday 25th February at 9am we are launching a petition ‘Save our Harbour” on the end ofQueens Wharf and would appreciate it if you could attend to listen and talk to the people. In the past we have been heartened by your leadership on this issue.

The Petition states:

We ask the Mayor and Councillors to

  • Stop the proposed extension of Bledisloe Wharf
  • Keep ‘reclamation’ of the Waitemata Harbour as a ‘non-complying’ activity
  • Start a wide-reaching study of environmental, social and economic factors affecting the site and operations of theAuckland port. The Mayor promised Aucklanders this in 2013.
  • Make Ports of Auckland work with the people of Auckland – not against them.

We acknowledge this is short notice but timing of events has been out of our control. We wanted to make sure our voices were heard before Thursday’s Development Committee meeting.

A view from architect David Mitchell in the paper paper:

PORT LETTER

It is hard to believe that the best thing to do with the Waitemata harbour is to tip dirt into it in order to store more cars on the resultant tarmac:

OSTRO_5788

 

Thinking through ATs Light Rail plans

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.

Future Mt Roskill

 

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.

2013 - Auckland Journey to Work - Car

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.

Notified UP - Isthmus-West-North

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.

Governments New RMA reforms

The government have said that reforming the Resource Management Act (RMA) is one of their top priorities and yesterday the Environment Minister Nick Smith outlined 10 major changes it was planning. This comes after they failed to make controversial changes to the RMA during the previous term but failed after losing the support of some of minor supporting parties. The major changes planned are

  • Add natural hazards
  • Recognise urban planning
  • Prioritise housing affordability
  • Acknowledge importance of infrastructure
  • Greater weight to property rights
  • National planning templates
  • Speed up plan-making
  • Encouraging collaborative resolution
  • Strengthening national tools
  • Internet for simplicity and speed

While we don’t have any real details on what’s planned some of these – such as making greater use of the Internet – are simply plain sense.  Of the other ones a few particularity stand out.

Add natural hazards
Presumably this means giving more weight to projects that provide resilience against natural hazards. If true it could be about further making it easier to build projects such as large duplicate roads such as Transmission Gully where the government can use the threat of an earthquake in Wellington as an excuse to build it.

Recognise urban planning
I’m not quite sure what this could mean but hopefully it means there will be greater emphasis on how our planning affects our urban environment.

Prioritise housing affordability
This will be covered further on in the post.

Acknowledge importance of infrastructure
All the talk in the press release relates to the impact of housing however the RMA also covers a lot of non housing development including roads. Again could this be about making it easier for infrastructure to be built and/or making it cheaper for developers to tap into existing infrastructure.

Greater weight to property rights
One of the big issues we had with the Unitary Plan debate was that those advocating for more restrictions (e.g. height, density, carparking etc.) or for developments to happen anywhere but near their backyard are effectively restricting the property rights of others. Addressing some of the NIMBYism we saw could be a very useful change but would the government go that far?

Despite the lack of public detail, Len Brown has been quick to praise the government over the suggestions for change.

Mayor welcomes ‘pragmatic’ proposals to reform RMA

Mayor Len Brown has welcomed a review of the Resource Management Act announced today by Environment Minister Nick Smith.

“From Auckland Council’s perspective, there is considerable scope to improve the RMA, in particular streamlining the complex processes councils are required to work within, reducing duplication and providing more affordable housing,” Len Brown said.

“I particularly welcome recognition of the needs of cities and urban areas, including housing and infrastructure, which the current legislation doesn’t cover well.

“Auckland Council is working closely with the government and we have had significant input into this discussion. We welcome the government’s desire to seek broad support for any legislative changes.”

To go along with the government announcement they also released a report from Motu that had been commissioned by Treasury looking at impacts of various planning rules and regulations have on the cost of developments. The paper is based on the responses from developers on many of the regulations we’ve long thought are stupid or counterproductive such as density limits, height limits, room sizes, balcony requirements etc. If accurate some of the costs impacts are quite staggering with balcony requirements – something Stu touched on recently – being one of the worst.

I’ll go the report in more detail in the future however the cost impacts are shown below. Importantly the authors say that while they have attempted to look at the costs, that the benefits of any of the regulations isn’t something that they’ve considered. As such some of the items on the list will likely still need to happen.

Motu - Impacts of planning rules

While not all we would want to change, taken at face value it suggests that the regulations can add almost $200k to the cost of an apartment and around $150k to the cost of a standalone dwelling.

We’ll obviously have to wait to see just what the government proposes to see if they’re good or not but they certainly seem to have opened up a lot areas for discussion.