As I noted in yesterday’s post about Paul Mees’s new book on public transport (hey, public transport books don’t come around particularly often, so I feel somewhat justified in focusing on it at the moment) he spends quite a bit of time talking about Auckland’s transport situation, and – perhaps most interestingly – about the history behind how we ended up where we are now.
First off, it is quite interesting to see what he says about Auckland’s transport situation in general – putting a bit of an international perspective on things:
Auckland is… a city of cars. Its transport system is untouched by the environmental activism for which New Zealanders are renowned. The CBD is bounded to the north by the harbour, but on all other sides by a gigantic spaghetti junction, the largest in Australasia. The three motorways which feed into the junction debouch into the city centre, jamming it with cars and buses for most of the day. This is quite an achievement in a metropolis with only 1.3 million residents and a relatively weak CBD in terms of employment and retailing. Auckland’s centre is different from its Australasian neighbours: the absence of large stores is reminiscent of an American downtown. Whole streets of shops have closed down and the multi-storey Farmers department store shut nearly 20 years ago, when the firm moved its business to suburban malls.
Only 6 per cent of Aucklanders travelled to work by public transport at the 2001 census. Although this just beats the 5 per cent recorded in 2000 for the Los Angeles census area, use of public transport for non-work trips in Auckland is negligible. The average resident of greater Los Angeles made 49 annual public transport trips for all purposes in the mid-1990s, while the average Aucklander managed only 41. If attracting people to public transport was a boat race, the City of Sails would reach the finish line behind the City of Angels.
It is fairly well known that Auckland sits near the bottom, or at the bottom, of the list when it comes to per-capita usage of public transport in fairly large cities worldwide. While I don’t necessarily think that increasing patronage means that we will have solved all our problems, it would certainly be a telling factor in achieving other goals – like reduced auto-dependency, reduced requirement for new roads, a more people-friendly urban environment, lower transport CO2 emissions and so forth. So it is a very useful measure, and currently Auckland fails utterly miserably on an international scale.
Interestingly, Auckland has certainly not always been like this. In the 1950s – when cars were actually fairly widespread (I think New Zealand had the second-highest per-capita ownership of cars in the world in the early and mid 20th century) and Auckland’s population density may well have been lower (or similar)than it is today – we actually led the world in public transport patronage figures. Mees elaborates:
Public transport in Auckland has not always been this marginal. In 1954, when the city began work on its first master transportation plan, the average resident made 290 trips. Public transport accounted for 58 per cent of trips by motorised modes, private transport only 42 per cent. When walking and cycling, which were not surveyed, are taken into account, it is likely that fewer than a third of daily trips were by car. By contrast, the car accounted for 62 per cent of trips to the Los Angeles CBD, and an even greater share of city-wide travel, as early as 1930.
So what happened? I guess the common argument would be that cars become more affordable (particularly over the past 20-30 years), employment has dispersed, the city has spread and public transport simply hasn’t been able to keep up. It’s put forward as something of an inevitability that this happened.
Mees argues very differently, which I will get to in a minute, but I must mention that I do think that the dispersal of employment in particular has had a big impact on the fall in public transport patronage. However, as I explained yesterday, this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation: did transport policies in the 1950s and 1960s cause employment dispersal, which helped cause falling public transport usage, which caused more money to go into roads, which caused further employment dispersal? The question really is “what kicked off the chain of events?” And I am in agreement with Mees here that it most probably was a change in transport policy – most particularly the 1955 Master Transportation Plan for Metropolitan Auckland.
Public transport collapsed in Auckland because the city transport planners made a conscious decision to abandon it and make roads the priority, even though this was the more expensive alternative. Los Angeles opted for freeways only after attempts to rescue public transport foundered: Auckland made the choice at a time when upgrading public transport was the more practical option. The city’s transport planners deliberately adopted a transport policy that only evolved by historical accident in Los Angeles. Because this policy was unpopular with the public, the planners and their allies conspired to prevent the community having a say…
…As early as 1924 the Railways Department proposal that the network be electrified and extended int o the city centre through a tunnel. This project was expensive, and was postponed while the Railways electrified the suburban network of the capital, Wellington, between 1937 and 1950. As the Wellington scheme neared completion, attention returned to Auckland, and the national government engaged British consultants William Halcrow & Partners to provide advice.
The Halcrow report of 1950 recommended electrification, construction of the central city tunnel and the reorganisation of bus services to act as feeders to the rail system… Co-ordination between modes would be ensured by creating a new multi-modal public transport agency, or alternatively by extending the Auckland Transport Board’s jurisdiction to include heavy rail and privately-operated buses. Finally, since urban roads would complete with the rail-bus system for both passengers and government funds, Halcrow advised that ‘expenditure on arterial streets in the Auckland Metropolitan Area be restricted until the results of the recommended schemes are seen.
I must say I find it pretty fascinating that the Auckland CBD Rail Tunnel has been on the books since 1924 as a needed project. Every time someone says “we need to complete the motorway network” I think it would be a pretty good response to say “well, how about the rail network, we’ve been talking about a CBD Rail Tunnel for over 75 years now, did you know that?”
Obviously, and tragically, the Halcrow report was never put into action. But the way in which the recommendations of this report were canned is rather strange – and certainly was probably not expected when the Halcrow report came out in 1950. In fact, Mees says the recommendations of the Halcrow report were supported by both of Auckland’s major newspapers and by both political parties in the 1951 national elections. The only opposition came from some staff of the Auckland City Council, and Auckland University Geography Professor Kenneth Cumberland. Mees details this further:
The first open opposition came from Professor Kenneth Cumberland, head of Geography at Auckland University from 1946 to 1980, and the Chairman of Auckland City Council’s Town Planning Committee. In an op-ed piece for the Star, Cumberland called the railway scheme a ‘white elephant’ that ‘may well prejudice any chances of getting material improvement of our highway system’. Those pointing to successful rail systems overseas ‘must remember that Auckland, with its low population densities and sprawling area, is not to be compared with a city 1,000,000 people and more in a smaller area.’
Cumberland concluded: ‘A full-scale expert inquiry seems to be the first necessity.’ A week later, the city council established a special transport committee to consider the issue. Following advice from the City Engineer and a meeting with [transport Minister] Goosman, the committee recommended that the Technical Committee of the Auckland Regional Planning Authority, an advisory board established in 1946, be asked to prepare a Master Transportation Plan to settle the rail-versus-motorways question. Professor Cumberland was a member of the Authority’s executive, and the City Engineer chaired its technical committee.
The Council adopted this approach quick-smart and without public consultation (apparently an election wasn’t far away and the government did not want the ‘underground’ to become an election issue. Mees outlines that both of Auckland’s newspapers at the time considered that referring the issue to this “technical committee” doomed the rail scheme.
The Master Transportation Plan for Metropolitan Auckland was released in 1955 and reversed the recommendations of the Halcrow Report. Funding for the rail scheme should be diversed to fund a motorway network, with public transport delivered by buses operating on the motorways. Even the recommendations for a single public transport authority was cursorily rejected… The city council and national government rapidly endorsed the report, and agreed to share the costs of the motorway network.
It is all rather depressing to read actually. So why is what happened in 1954 and 1955 relevant to what happens today? Well, I think history tells us that what happened in the early 1950s has had a huge effect on Auckland’s transportation trends, as well as how the city has grown and developed, over the past 50 years. While we eventually came to our senses that a Dominion Road motorway and an Eastern Highway weren’t the smartest of ideas, we will (in a few years time) have pretty much finished our 1950s motorway plans. We’ve also managed to kick-start a revival of the rail system – likely to continue once electrification happens.
Which I think leaves us at a bit of a cross-roads – similar to where we stood in the early 1950s. On the one hand, we could go down the same path as we did in the 1950s – by focusing on building the Puhoi-Wellsford holiday highway, adding another 10 lanes of traffic across the Waitemata Harbour and widening the Northwest Motorway (even though it will undoubtedly end up just as congested within a few years). On the other hand, we could have a look at whether what we’ve done over the past 50 years has actually worked or not (I would suggest it hasn’t), and embark on a different way forward – building the CBD Rail Tunnel, rail to the airport and the kind of vision outlined by the Regional Land Transport Strategy.
I wonder which we will choose? I wonder if we will learn from our mistakes?