Strangely enough, while today Auckland is a highly auto-dependent city (notwithstanding recent improvements to the public transport system and the upswing in patronage), this has not always been the case – and certainly this outcome was not completely inevitable. An excellent journal article by transport expert Chris Harris, called “Slow Train Coming“, explores how it all went wrong for Auckland in the mid-20th century. Here’s the abstract from the article: It is interesting to explore the differences between what happened to Auckland and Wellington in that immediate post-WWII period. It’s a common misconception that Auckland is not “built right” for rail-based transport – that we’re too spread out and that it’s too impossible for rail to serve much of the population. While Wellington is perhaps built in a way that is more suitable for rail, there’s certainly no reason to think that Auckland is completely unsuitable to be served by rail in its natural geography. A place like Christchurch that spreads out evenly in all directions is likely to be much more difficult to serve by rail than Auckland. But anyway, I digress. If we look at Wellington first, we see that during that crucial 15 years – say 1945 to 1960 – there was a focus on expanding the railway system that in the long run has had a huge influence on how the two cities have developed differently. Slow Train Coming explores that matter further, to see what Wellington did during that key period:
Railways leading to the Wellington CBD from the north were physically realigned to improve residential access, and new town centres and housing built alongside by the state in what was largely a greenfields setting. Several kilometres of tunnel were bored through a mountain range to link the coast with the Wellington CBD by a fast route, and a new CBD railway station opened in place of the sheds that had been used up to that time (Evans, 1972b; Leitch & Stott, 1988; Dodson & Mees, 2003). The areas of Wellington served by rail have a population of roughly 250 000 today. In those suburbs, local rail patronage currently numbers 11 million a year. Local bus routes loop between stations in a manner strikingly similar to North Perth (cf. Newman & Kenworthy, 1999, pp. 233– 237).
Furthermore, it is useful to note that that the areas served by Wellington’s rail system aren’t particularly different to the suburbs of Auckland that grew during that time. There aren’t particularly high density nodes around the stations, yet the system still works:
The development of Wellington’s railway suburbs has attracted criticism as well as praise, with a certain amount of convergence on the idea that, outside a few showcase town centres, it is little different from conventional suburbia (Evans, 1972b, pp. 49–50; Schrader, 1996).6 However, this also underscores Wellington’s achievement in developing patronage and increases the parallels with Perth. By contrast, Auckland’s diesel railways deliver patronage of 2.5 million a year in a potential patronage area settled by 1.0 million people south of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. This low patronage results from a combination of service levels, lack of bus feeders, and the derelict character of many station precincts. At the same time, it has always been clear that Auckland’s rail system had a very high latent patronage capacity.
So, once again in terms of the structure and density of Wellington’s suburbs there is no real reason to explain why rail has worked in Wellington so much better than Auckland in terms of land-use planning differences. The obvious difference between the two cities is that a far greater proportion of Wellington’s jobs are in the CBD than is the case in Auckland – although it is interesting to wonder whether our transportation policies of the 1950s and 1960s led to that situation arising, rather than the decentralisation of employment being a natural process that changes to the transport system have simply responded to. Slow Train Coming explores key decision made during this period that led to Auckland going down a different path to Wellington, which in the subsequent 50 years has led to significantly different land-use pattern outcomes. Mr Harris explains:
This article attempts a structural explanation of the arrest of rail transit development in Auckland with a particular emphasis on the policy decision not to duplicate Wellington. I put forward the theory that the latter resulted from a reversal of central state support for a joint policy package of urban development planning and rail transit after 1949, in favour of market liberalism…
…More specifically, this article identifies a triangular public policy synergy of urban development planning, betterment value capture, and rail infrastructure. The basis of this policy synergy may be described as follows. Where development planning does not occur, value capture to pay for rail may not occur; passive betterment mechanisms may collect it, but perhaps not where a railway station is programmed to go. Where value capture does not occur or cannot be applied to rail, rail cannot so readily be paid for (Fensham & Gleeson, 2003). Rail creates a reciprocal case for development planning at defined station locations, in order to maximise patronage and development gain revenues. Rail planning and development planning also mutually reinforce each other as aspects of a wider philosophy of regional structure planning. Dedicated busways with stations may substitute for rail in the above analysis, but only in so far as bus rapid transit is not confused with ordinary bus services, that have little planning impact.
Basically, the critical point is for us to not view transportation separately from land-use planning (or what is called development planning here), and that when the two issues are planned “blind to each other”, you end up with poor outcomes. In Wellington, there was a clear effort throughout this key 1945-1960 period to strongly align growth areas with investment in the rail network. In Auckland, there were many plans to link together the transport system with growth areas – with probably the most famous being the 1946 grand development scheme, shown below: While there are some rather dubious aspects to the above plan, like the eastern motorway, there is also a lot in this plan that makes huge amounts of sense. The city’s development is skewed south-east to north-west, to take more advantage of the railway line’s alignment. There is the Morningside Deviation (today’s CBD Rail Tunnel), there’s the Avondale-Southdown line (to reinforce the south-east to north-west alignment), plus there is actually good transport access to the East Tamaki area. The fact that the good access to East Tamaki was never followed through is perhaps (along with never building the Morningside Deviation and ripping up the trams) Auckland’s biggest ever planning mistake. Unfortunately, none of the rail extensions ever got built. Most of the motorways did (plus some not even on that map), or are still being built today. It was in 1954 that the rail portions of this plan – most notably building the city rail tunnel and electrifying the system, became unstuck. Slow Train Coming refers to a New Zealand Herald editorial on November 1, 1954: Basically, if you have a look at the history of what projects in Auckland have and have not been built, it’s pretty obvious that as soon as something big and expensive becomes the job of the local government, rather than of central government, it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll happen. Generally this isn’t because local government has a lack of willpower, but because they simply have a lack of money. In this case, it appears as though the city council had both a lack of willpower (or belief) to push on with the rail components, as can be seen in what the result was when the 1955 Master Transportation Plan was finalised:
The Master Transportation Plan was produced in 1955 and printed for large-scale public distribution in 1956. The Plan recommended a dramatic acceleration of motorway construction at the expense of rail. The Plan’s rationale was that the low density of population, and the possibility of using the motorways for buses (ARPA, 1956, pp. 26, 42–43, 48), made rail both infeasible and unnecessary. However, motorway bus stations were uncosted and were never built, and Auckland City excluded inbound buses from its former tramway mall Queen Street until 1967, even though the last tram ran in 1956 (Bush, 1971, pp. 371–373).
What happened in 1954 and 1955 can really be seen as the turning point for Auckland’s transport system. In 1956 the tram system was ripped up, in 1959 the Harbour Bridge was built without any provision for pedestrians, cyclists or trains. After this period there was never really consideration given to extending the rail network until “Mayor Robbie’s” schemes of the 1960s and early 1970s (which were killed off by Muldoon), and then again today. It was from the late 1950s onwards that we began to build our motorway system – and much of the focus ever since has been on “completing” that system.
From that critical moment in the mid 1950s onwards, there was a switch in mindset away from balancing transport development between roads and rail, to an almost exclusive focus on roads. The fact that the Manukau spur is to be Auckland’s first new railway line in 80 years clearly shows that point. It does seem as though from the 1950s the government, as well as (although to a lesser extent) the local authorities lost faith in rail being a solution to Auckland’s transport issues. Yet in Wellington we didn’t see the same process happen at all – as their system continued to grow throughout this period – with electrification even being extended during the 1980s, an otherwise rather dire time for infrastructure spending of any kind.
Not only that, but in Wellington land-use development patterns continued to be based around the rail network, not just the road network. Most development since WWII in Wellington has occurred either along the Hutt Valley rail corridor or along the Porirua-Paraparaumu rail corridor. In contrast, in Auckland we have seen most development happen on the North Shore (where there is no rail provision), east of the Tamaki River (once again no rail whatsoever) and in parts of West Auckland like Massey & Te Atatu where there is also no rail provision at all. The conclusion to Slow Train Coming is quite interesting, in that I agree with it to some extent, but wonder whether it’s a little back to front.
The conclusion of this article is that state support for development planning along transit corridors may be a prerequisite for successful urban transit development. In practical terms this includes the extent of state support for a triangular policy synergy of development planning, value capture, and rail infrastructure. The legs of this triangle seem mutually reinforcing for reasons first suggested, in more detail, in the Introduction. Where support for any one leg is weak, as with academic scepticism toward rail transit in the 1970s, the other parts may fail to be deployed; in that case, development of new towns to the south of Auckland.
Now it’s interesting to wonder whether it was the lack of development planning along Auckland’s rail corridors that led to the rail system being run down, or whether it was the rail system being run down that led to a lack of development planning along its corridors. While Mr Harris seems to lean towards the former, I actually lean towards the latter. I actually think that in Auckland’s history over the past 60 years it has been our transportation policies that have determined our land-use policies to a greater extent than vice-versa.
I think that after WWII there was a belief that trains were the past, cars were the future, and that trams were the past while buses were the future. This belief was not held particularly strongly by the general public, who continued to flock to public transport until the critical days of the mid 1950s when the tram-lines were ripped out – but (critically) does seem to have been held by the engineers and influential politicians of the time who made the decisions that have enormously influenced what has happened to Auckland over the past 50 years. I think that once the decisions had been made from a transport perspective, that we wouldn’t build the CBD Rail Tunnel, that we wouldn’t electrify the train system, that we would build the Harbour Bridge and connect it with State Highway 1 (a pretty major project as the southern motorway only reached as far north as Ellerslie by the late 1950s) and so forth, that the land-use patterns simply followed that. Auckland’s employment decentralised because much of the transport infrastructure now focused on the Penrose area, and later on places like Albany and Manukau City Centre.
Over time, land-use planning rules reinforced this decentralisation – but in my opinion it was the transport infrastructure choices that made the initial difference, not the other way around. Wellington proves this point, as its popular rail system has made it possible and attractive for employment to remain centralised even though much of the city’s population has spread to the north along the two main development corridors. This is clearly shown in the map below, which is from 1972:
So, you may ask, why have I gone on this rather long trip back in time to look at Auckland’s rather depressing transport history? Well, because it is all enormously relevant to what is happening today, and what will happen to Auckland over the next decade. It feels to me as though were are in today’s equivalent to those critical times in 1954 and 1955 when decisions were made that have effected Auckland’s development over the past half-century to an enormous extent. It feels like the decisions we make now – whether we ensure electrification happens to as good a standard as possible, whether we invest in the CBD Rail Tunnel, whether we extend our motorways to Wellsford in the north and Hamilton in the south. whether we build any further motorways, whether we build any further railway lines and so forth – will have just as significant an impact on Auckland as those decisions of the 1950s did.
Now as I stated above, I am generally of the opinion that transportation planning can lead land-use planning more easily than vice-versa. In my opinion Auckland has ended up with a relatively transit-unfriendly urban form because of its transport planning decision of the past; while Wellington has ended up with the opposite for similar reasons. Both cities are geographically constrained (although Wellington is more so) so I don’t think there’s necessarily anything special distinguishing the two. Interestingly, in Auckland over the past decade we have seen the opposite situation in the transport and land-use relationship: the land-use planning has led the transportation planning. Auckland has finally said “enough is enough” when it comes to urban sprawl, we’ve put in place metropolitan urban limits, rezoned development nodes for intensification, allowed much more residential development in the city than before, and so forth. However, much of our transportation planning of the past decade has not caught up yet: we are still building motorways even though they support a land-use model that we’ve since abandoned, we aren’t investing particularly heavily in public transport even though that supports the land-use model that we have chosen.
This has caused many problems in my opinion. Auckland has struggled to intensify over the past decade and there is still huge pressure to expand the urban limits. With projects such as extending the Northern Motorway from Puhoi to Wellsford that pressure will only intensify. If we actually want to achieve our land-use planning goals then we have to have a transport system that supports them. Otherwise it simply won’t work, history has shown that quite clearly.