Well I have finally managed to finish Paul Mees’s excellent book – A Very Public Solution. It is certainly the most comprehensive book solely on public transport that I have ever come across, and if it wasn’t out of print (there’s currently one used copy available on Amazon for around $US 320) it would be an immediate addition to my book collection. Unfortunately I will have to return it to the University of Auckland’s library pretty soon, but before I do I think it would be useful to have a look at some of the concluding statements that Mees makes – and focus on what he thinks is really really critical in terms of getting public transport right. I’ll also see if I can make a bit of a critique of some aspects of the book, and his argument in general, that I think are perhaps a tad on the weak side – as that’s always a pretty useful process in my opinion.

Firstly, perhaps one of the more interesting conclusions that Mees comes to is his belief that the link between land-use patterns and public transport success might well be overstated. In Mees’s opinion it is the level of planning and co-ordination that will determine the success of public transport just as much, if not more, than the density of the urban area that public transport is being provided in. He says:

Changes in urban form are a rationalisation, rather than an explanation of Melbourne’s [public transport patronage] decline. Here we can see an excellent illustration of Glenn Yago’s [referenced in chapter 1 of the book] point that the invocation of deterministic, ‘natural’ factors as causes often obscures the important role of politics and planning. it is planning and politics, including the professional politics of transport planners, and not urban form, which have prevented Melbourne and other Australian cities from having European-style public transport; just as politics has prevented the same occurring in many parts of Europe, notably Britain and much of Italy. The invocation of the dispersed city as an answer to citizens’ demands for improved public transport has itself become a key element of the politics of automobile dominance in countries like Australia.

I must say I only somewhat agree with Mees on this point. I do think that land-use patterns matter a lot when it comes to making public transport work – although at the same time I think that land-use patterns is a lot more than just “density”. It means business nodes around public transport routes and stations, it means varying levels of density that support public transport in different ways (highest around train stations, medium along bus routes, lower for feeder buses etc. ) and the removal of hidden subsidies to car-users – such as minimum parking requirements. That’s all “land-use stuff” that will impact hugely on the success, or otherwise, of public transport. To be fair to Mees, he recognises this and accepts that density is relevant – although (critically) not as important as other factors.

Indeed, Mees’s primary argument is that central planning and the creation of an integrated network is what really matters. This is detailed below:

…all genuinely successful urban public transport systems – be they in Zurich, Munich, Metro Toronto or Vancouver – share a common feature, namely central, regional planning by a public agency. Only central planning enables the provision of flexible travel options through a fully integrated network. This requires the following conditions:

  1. An integrated route structure which maximises opportunities for interchange and reduces duplication and overlap;
  2. Fast, frequent, reliable services on the trunk (rail, busway or whatever) routes;
  3. High service levels on all routes (cross-suburban as well as radial) throughout the day and evening;
  4. Convenient, attractive and safe interchange facilities;
  5. Matching hours of operation on the different routes serving interchanges and either co-ordinated timetables or very frequent services;
  6. Multi-modal fares (free transfers);
  7. Easy to obtain, well-presented route and timetable information covering the whole multi-modal network.

The key here is planning, rather than merely regulation, an unhappy compromise which often reproduces the worst features of both the market and planned models, by protecting inefficient private operators while preventing the type of comprehensive service provision post-modern cities really require.

This really should serve as a blueprint for how Auckland can improve its public transport system. And actually, it should be quite comforting that these are the steps to take to improve things, because most of them are relatively inexpensive. Building more bus-lanes, increasing service levels and improving our trunk system (happening anyway) are the main “expensive” parts of this, but most of the rest is just about being smarter and more efficient. This is great, because it means we can still improve our system enormously within the rather ugly funding constraints being faced by public transport at the moment.

In terms of critiquing Mees’s book, while overall I think it is excellent I do think that he misses many of the factors that have led to people being encouraged to use their cars instead of public transport. Things like parking subsidies, the focus on road-building policies of the past 50 or so years, and I guess that interaction between land-use and transport which I mentioned earlier. I know that Mees is effectively trying to say “just because you have low densities it doesn’t mean public transport won’t work”, but I do think the interactions between land-use planning and transport matters are stronger than he gives credit. I also think that hidden subsidies such as minimum parking requirements and fact that employers aren’t taxed when providing their employees with parking – but are if they provided them with a public transport pass play an important role, and until many of these subsidies are removed we can provide all the public transport service levels in the world but people are likely to still make the logical choice of choosing to drive – as it will probably still be cheaper and faster than catching the bus.

Nevertheless, I think a lot of what Mees says makes huge sense and I could not agree more that improving co-ordination and planning of our public transport system is what can turn it from its current fairly sorry state into something much much better. We are making a start on that matter with the Regional Public Transport Plan, but a lot of what that plan hopes to achieve is dependent upon the Public Transport Management Act not being messed around with. Co-ordination and planning are essential parts of creating a great public transport system, and I think it is this fact which makes the lack of integrated ticketing in Auckland such an enormous frustration.

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  1. I agree this is a great book and it really made me think about how to build a great PT system in a lower density city. I stumbled across it whole researching TOD at uni last year. Unfortunately it wasn’t much use for my project but I couldn’t put it down, and my project was left until the last minute to do.
    Looks like their is a new version coming out in a few weeks though. See http://www.fishpond.co.nz/Books/Nonfiction/Transport/General/9781844077403/?cf=3&rid=1583869257&i=1&keywords=%22paul+mees%22

  2. I really think that with an electrified rail system we will have all the pieces in place to start building a really fantastic PT system and new rail lines will be the icing on the cake, we’ll just need leaders who realise what is needed to set up a good system…

  3. Speaking of bus lanes and minimum parking requirements (as an aside).

    First of all I want to thank Ken Bagley for changing the bus/quasi-cycle lane on Tamaki Dr to a T2 lane. It showed this morning exactly why it was needed from a safety point of view. Thanks Ken for all your postering about making cycling safe but yet you’ve made one of Auckland’s busiest and most dangerous cycling roads more dangerous in one foul swoop. Cheers mate, keep up the great work.

    Second, I got the Ground Effects mailer in the mail the other day (for those of you who don’t know they’re a cycling/outdoor clothing company, one of those ‘New Zealand success stories’ style companies). They’ve just moved/built their own offices in Chch and the majority of the company are cycle commuters (which due to the ethos of the company won’t be changing any time soon) yet the council forced them to have 6 parking spaces under the minimum requirement laws even though they’re almost solely a mail order company. Congrats CCC on your top efforts on that one to keep the car king even among a bunch of people who do everything without a car.

    New Zealand – enforced non-thinking no matter which side of the Bombays you live on.

  4. I agree that Mees seems to gloss over the other factors to an extent, that was something I noticed in his lectures. However his main point holds true, planners and other people get so strung up on density density density they simply believe that public transport can only work in areas of high density, which is patently not true. And I guess if he can get the point across that residential population density is but one minor factor among a myriad then he has achieved something.

    I have begun to realise that in Auckland and Melbourne alike the main issue is not some lack of big infrastructure projects (although Auckland is perhaps more lacking the ‘trunk’ routes in a way Melbourne does not), but it is mostly ‘software’ factors that are constraint to good public transport. As you say this is promising as these soft things should be an easy fix, however it somewhat ironically seems to be easier to get an expensive infrastructure project off the ground that to make changes around planning and governance.

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