One of the common excuses for why public transport supposedly “won’t work in Auckland” and why we need to continue to plow money into motorways, is that Auckland is supposedly “too low density” for public transport. In fact, aspiring Auckland Super City Mayor John Banks went so far as to say that Auckland was the “second most spread out city in the world” (after Los Angeles) in a Guest Post on Aucklandtrains. He used this “fact” to justify why Auckland needs to “compete its motorway network” as quickly as possible.
But is this true? How does Auckland’s population density compare with other cities around the world? How does its land area compare with cities in Australia and the USA – for example? Is Auckland anywhere near the second most spread out city in the world? What about Los Angeles?
Fortunately, Demographia (who I am often quite sceptical about when it comes to planning matters, but who seem to have a reasonably good grasp of this issue) have undertaken an enormously in depth study into city sizes, city population and population densities. Perhaps what is most interesting about their work is how they calculate where each urban area begins and ends – which actually fits together quite nicely with how I tend to think of the issue: I like the idea that we’re not measuring “bits of cities”, such as simply the inner part of the New York urban area – which of course has very high densities but isn’t just what New York is made up of.
For a start, I suppose that it makes sense to look at what the biggest cities in the world are by population – here are the top 20: Auckland doesn’t even make it into the top 200, which roughly corresponds with the number of cities in the world with more than 2 million people.
The next thing that’s very interesting to look at is the physical size of cities in the world – which of these urban areas covers the most space. I remember as a kid hearing that Auckland was physically the same size as London, but is that true?
Well according to the table above, the Auckland urban area was 531 square kilometres in size, making it about a third the size of London. Also interesting to note that Auckland’s about half the size of Perth, and less than a third of the size of the Brisbane metropolitan area. At the top of the list, we see that the New York metropolitan area is the biggest built-up urban area in the world, by size, followed by Tokyo. The New York metropolitan area is about 22 times the physical size of Auckland. By size, Auckland is actually the 181st largest city in the world.
Turning to population density, it is really interesting to see how Auckland compares with other cities in Australia and the USA. Most of the really high density cities in the world are in developing nations, which shows why Auckland and many other large and well known cities end up ranked so low. Yet we still see that Auckland’s population density is a bit higher than Sydney’s and significantly higher than all the other major cities in Australia. Interestingly enough though, one city that has a higher population density than Auckland is Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles has the highest density of any city in the USA – not because it has a really dense core like New York does, but because throughout Los Angeles the lot sizes are generally pretty small, a similar situation to what we have in Auckland.
So what does all of this mean? Well for one it shows that any time someone says “Auckland’s population density is too low for public transport to work” you can absolutely say that they’re talking rubbish. It also probably means that simple population density isn’t necessarily the ultimate defining issue about whether a city’s urban form is suitable for public transport or not. The way in which that population density is structured (small lots evenly spread throughout the city or higher and lower density nodes) might matter more, the concentration of jobs in certain areas might also make more of a difference (although remember that Vancouver has a lower percentage of jobs in its CBD than Auckland).
Ultimately, what this all probably means is that the popularity of public transport is likely to be based more on the quality of the system than it is on the urban form of the city. Sure, there are many things we can and must do to structure our city more efficiently and sustainably, but let’s stop making the excuse that Auckland is too spread out for public transport to work. Because, as the above tables show, that’s complete rubbish.