Last week I was invited to appear on the Asian Radio Show on RadioLIVE to discuss the topic of what New Zealand can learn from public transport in Asia. Having spent a large part of this year travelling across Asia by public transport I guess I can now consider myself something of an instant expert on the topic, or at least I’ve had plenty of experiences to curry an opinion on the topic. This post summarises and expands on the panel’s discussion, but if you’re interested the original segment can be heard here:

Asia has some fantastic examples of efficient metros, high speed lines, mega bus systems, and even maglevs. I could write pages and pages about some of the great systems I’ve tried that we could try to emulate here. While these are obviously a lot different to what we have in New Zealand, the really key differences are at a strategic  level. So what are the differences between transport here and in Asia, and what we could learn or do differently as a result?


Chinese high speed rail

In Asia public transport is an immediately accessible and functional part of life and used by a large proportion of the population (together with walking and cycling) for daily transport, in same way that driving is considered completely normal here in New Zealand. Public transport is usually the normal way to get around in Asia, rather than something that is reluctantly provided to those who are too unfortunate to drive. Surely ‘normalising’ public transport as something used by regular people is the first thing we can learn from Asia.

Cost efficiency

In general Asian countries have to deal with either limited wealth per capita, large population pressures, or in many cases a combination of the two. This means that out of necessity Asia must adopt transport and planning outcomes that are efficient in terms of money and resources, unlike Europe which perhaps has the luxury of more money to spend per person. While New Zealand has a small population and relatively high wealth, our transport costs are among the highest per person in the world.

Should we be squandering such a large proportion of our wealth just to get around each day? The good point was made that maybe we should look to Aisa rather than Europe for future transport cues. Given the current state of New Zealand’s economy, perhaps we could take a page out of Asia’s book and look to efficient and cost effective public transport to lower the drain on our economy that comes from expensive and wasteful transport policy.

Ideology and politics

One very important point brought up in the panel was the somewhat peculiar fact that public transport in New Zealand is weighted with political ideology, while in Asia there is no such partisan division. In Asia public transport is politically neutral, it is accepted by all political groups in the same non-ideological way that we in New Zealand treat other infrastructure such as stormwater drainage or electricity supply.

Yet in New Zealand public transport is always framed in terms of leftist ideology and aligned with socialist, authoritarian thinking, while private transport is the domain of right wing capitalists. It is simply wrong that in our country the Minister of Transport writes an editorial response to his detractors and speaks  in terms of ideology, ‘freedom’ and how good honest Kiwis chose to live their lives in “the real world”. It must be perplexing for a business visitor from Singapore or Hong Kong to discover that in New Zealand buses and trains are only for jobless sandal wearing hippies, while wasting time and petrol on a congested publicly-funded motorway is the domain of successful freedom loving capitalists!

Anyway, before we descend further into the black hole of partisan politics I will suggest the number one thing New Zealand could learn from Asian transport is to drop the ideological vitriol and accept that public transport can be just as useful to the right wing as the left.

Labour costs and regulation 

One thing not touched on in the radio discussion is the issue of labour costs and regulation, I would like to discuss it here because operating and compliance costs can create critical differences which we need to bear in mind when making comparisons between countries. In most of Asia the labour market is so broadly spread you still have things like pedicabs and jitneys, where one operator can move only one or a few people at a time and still make a living (albeit a poor one). To be blunt, most Asian public transport can afford to be highly labour intensive because there is a large, poor working class who are willing to work long hours for a pittance to make ends meet. In New Zealand we have a high standard of living, a high minimum wage and consequently high labour costs. Even on minimum wage a bus driver in Auckland would make more in a day than a Chinese driver makes in a week, or a Cambodian driver makes in a month.

A Thai Songthaew

The other issue is the lack of regulation around operation and safety standards. While not quite the case in the more developed economies of east Asia, in the developing nations basically anything (and everything) that moves is employed as public transport. Not long ago I took a ‘public bus’ across the northern part of Bali that consisted of a large van with no side window glass, no passenger side door at all and a hole in the floor big enough to lose a daypack in! Obviously here they are happy to trade safety and security for low maintenance costs, but we cannot do the same in New Zealand.

I’m really making this point because one often hears the opinion from neo-liberal commentators that we should follow the example of the jitneys and songthaews of Asia in the western world. What they propose is we dump our expensive regulated buses and trains and replace them with a loose network of small privately run transport vehicles operating a flexible, demand responsive transport service that picks people up from anywhere and take them more or less directly to their destination, a sort of shared taxi-van system.

I guess that kind of thing is attractive to a card carrying free-marketeer because it requires no regulation or co-ordination from local government, it provides a ‘flexible freedom’ of travel according to the passengers needs, and it is in the spirit of private capitalism. However what such commentators quietly glaze over is the issue of labour and operational costs. In parts of Asia you can have a small ute with a few wooden benches in the back operating a profitable private transport service (assuming the driver works twelve hours a day, seven days a week of course!). But in New Zealand such a service could never be vaguely profitable for a private operator if they were required to maintain our vehicle safety standards and labour conditions.Also I have found if you’re not going close to where the driver is headed you don’t get a lift! This means that in practice these types of services end up operating a pretty regular route anyway, sending the argument of flexibility and demand responsiveness out the window.

So how to make the change?

To finish up one final question was posed to me in the radio panel: the supposedly difficult question of how to shift people out of their ‘Kiwi’ cars and into more efficient ‘Asian’ public transport? To me this needn’t be a difficult question at all because the answer lies in simple logic: people will generally use the transport that is easiest for them; they will do whatever is cheap, convenient and actually gets them where they need to be on time.

Speaking generally, people drive for transport in New Zealand because we have spent the last seven decades or so focussing our transport policy and funding almost entirely on providing for private road transport, while all but disassembling the public transport system and marginalising walking and cycling in favour of cars. Auckland used to be world leaders in public transport use, but we then planned and funded an all but completely car based transport system and have got exactly what we asked for: an almost entirely car dependent city.

The point here is these isn’t any innate cultural or genetic reason why Kiwis drive all the time and Asians don’t, it is simply people doing what is easiest in light of the conditions and options they have. In my opinion the idea that New Zealanders have a ‘love affair’ with cars is more of a justification than a cause. In reality the relationship is ironically closer to that Asian institiution of arranged marriage.

Indeed, to force New Zealand drivers out of their cars would be quite a task when (in most cases) driving is the only realistic option and public transport is in relation difficult, expensive and ineffective. Now I’m not suggesting that driving is inherently better, but rather that New Zealand public transport is usually so poor and marginalised that taking the car is the lesser evil (despite traffic, fuel costs, parking and all). The fact that half the commuters to the Auckland CBD each weekday get there without driving shows that Kiwis will happily take public transport when it works for them.

So the answer is of course that we don’t have to ‘force’ drivers into public transport at all. If we continue to change the planning and funding of our transport system in a way that makes transit an effective and realistic option, then car drivers will make the shift themselves… regardless of whether they are Kiwi, Asian or whatever.

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  1. It will be interesting over the next 10-20 years to see if developing Asian countries can avoid our 1950s plummet of PT patronage and modeshare. Once the bulk of the population is rich enough to own cars, will they keep using PT?

    I am fairly confident as long as they keep investing in PT infrastructure they will avoid the plummet. The high density of those cities should help too.

    1. That is the flip side to the argument: what can Asia learn from us, or rather our mistakes? Certainly the first thing would be to not follow the dream of universal suburban autopia, despite burgeoning middle class demand for cars.

      Here in New Zealand we have about 3.5 million road vehicles for 4.4 million people. If China were to follow our example of having eight vehicles for every ten people, that would see China’s fleet grow from 76 million vehicles today to a whopping 1.07 billion vehicles!

      That sort of thing is almost inconceivable, you start to wonder if it is even feasible. I have no doubt that car numbers in China will expand dramatically but as long as they continue to invest in urban and interurban public transport and dense cities they should be ok.

  2. Seoul is an example of where public transport works, cheap clean efficient subways and buses. Manila (and to a lesser extent Cebu) is where it doesn’t work, the city is dying in traffic

  3. no, please not “normalcy” that’s a hideous Americanism for the much nicer “normality”

    interesting thoughts, particularly on the politicising of PT in NZ, Weyrich and Lind’s “Does transit work, a conservative reappraisal” is worth considering.

    a real part of the PT problem in Auckland is that the network focuses on the Auckland CBD, which has only 13% of regional employment, down from 17% around 15 years ago. If the growth areas don’t have a sensible level of service, then the car is the only commuting option available to people

    1. Steve perhaps a better way of phrasing ‘the problem’ in Auckland PT is that the only area well effective serviced is the CBD. In other words Auckland suffers from low level of efficiency and frequency and accessibility in many parts; it fails to work as a single integrated network.

      The mode share to the CBD is by far the best of any part of the city and the aim should be to bring these levels of service to more and more of the wider city. We have seen, are seeing, accelerated uptake whenever there are new and better services provided. So it is clear that ‘the problem’ is really one of investment in providing those services and building a real network.

      Ironically a key to achieving this is to to build the CRL, even though it is in the CBD, as it will unlock an existing RTN network from being focussed on one section of downtown, enable fast and frequent crosstown trips built on the back of an existing [CBD focussed] ridership.

      The real big problem is decades of underinvestment in PT, and massive investment in the private car. And as Nick points out above there is still political capital being made out of deriding PT in this country.

    2. There’s also the chicken and egg situation that rail investment should encourage more employment centralization. Agglomeration benefits suggests this is a very good thing.

    3. SteveC, that 13% figure is the result of a chronic bit of gerrymandering. Certainly it’s true that the area within the mo(a)torway ring has only about 13% of regional jobs, but that’s neither really the full extent of the CBD nor the full area on which public transport provides good access. If we go a little wider and look at the central city of the CBD but also include Freemans Bay and inner Ponsonby, the lower parts of Parnell/Quay Park, Newmarket and Netwon (i.e. more or less the area within the Inner Link route) then the share of regional jobs in the central city is actually about 30%.

      Anyway that sort if thing isn’t terribly useful anyway, if we look at our individual rapid transit corridors they are just as focussed on the periphery as the core. For example the Northern Busway has just as many buses to the Albany end each day as it does to the CBD end, and Albany has a large interchange station so it wouldn’t take much to make Albany a ‘transit city’. However the fact that the core has the best accessibility shouldn’t be surprising, that more people can get to something in the middle rather than the edge is simply a fact of topography, and one we should exploit further to our advantage.

  4. @SteveC,

    It may be only 13% of regional employment in the Auckland CBD, but what is the percentage of regional employment within 800 metres of a train station? I bet it is a lot higher. Improving the rail network with the CBD link and running through trains from one line to another, therefore opening up cross-suburban trips with high frequency of service, and building the odd bit of light rail through other activity nodes, and then how useful is the rail network?

  5. Too much common sense. As always.

    Seriously though following through on your observation about people using whatever easiest is the quickest way of unlocking the debate. I grew up in the UK and went to university in Manchester. The availability of public transport meant I didn’t learn to drive until I was nearly 27 – I simply didn’t have a need for it and it was easy to get around.

  6. Matt, there is another PT mode useful in this situation, it’s called a bus. The bus has the advantage of using existing infrastructure (the roads and the busway incidentally), taking smaller loads so that demand can be built over time, it is flexible in its route so that it can cover a wide area and is less dependent on high densities to general a useful load.

    I don’t mean to sound patronising, but the key to a PT network is each mode working to its strength. Rail alone will never be enough.

  7. Yeah, yeah, yeah, buses. I’ve heard of them before. Ferries, hybrid funiculars, rocket ships to the moon, whatever.

    I’m talking backbone, high quality, frequent service to build a network around. Not stop every 300 metres, stop for every red light, not enough room for your bum or your bike, buses.

    I got around Seoul on the subway. I got around Singapore on the MRT. Yet I prayed for deliverance on a bus in Bangkok. I had water up to my knees on a bus in a Jakarta flood. I’ll take the train if given the option thanks.

    1. SteveC is right Matt. Rail alone will never EVER be enough.
      If you want a World Class PT system for the entire city then you will need to have a fully integrated public transport system that incorporates: Heavy and Light Rail, Bus, Shuttle Buses, Park and Rides, Bus Ways and ferries. Furthermore a simplified interlinked timetable across all modes and a simplified universal fare system as well.

      All that is going to take some time, resources and a damn heck load of political capital to implement.

      And in remark to your “Not stop every 300 metres, stop for every red light, not enough room for your bum or your bike, buses.” think outside the square a little bit – or even better go play Sim City Four – the closest thing you will get to in building your ideal city.

      1. I don’t disagree with any of that, Ben (except maybe park and ride, unless you mean for bicycles) I’m just emphasising that the core of an integrated network has to be high frequency, high quality.

        1. Ok Matt, we will agree to disagree on Park and Rides but for the rest of it, High Quality and Frequency I 210% agree with right there and there 😀

      2. Ben no one is suggesting a rail only solution, the existing layers are right: RTN, QTN, and local. Where RTN are grade separate fast direct services, be they rail, road, or water. But to qualify as RTN they do need to be truly grade separate, rail does this by definition, the Northern Busway is until it hits the bridge where the buses then have to mix it with everything else, so it is important to be clear about what you are comparing. But even on the next level down, the QTN, a big improvement needs to be made in the level of road priority allocated to these services.

  8. I was thinking about this one for a moment and decided to post it.

    Patrick brought up RTN and QTN’s. I looked through the 2002 EASTDOR Eastern Highway Report and found out this.

    The Sub Regional Option which was a 4 lane expressway with a speed limit set at 80km/h and had a mix of grade separated interchanges and traffic light controlled intersections also had a RTN and QTN built into it. The RTN/QTN was a T3 or bus lane running the entire length of the highway from Manukau City to Botany to Panmure to Mt Wellington (the South Eastern Highway and State Highway One) and double backing to Panmure and following the Eastern Line to Quay Street with the option of becoming the second harbour crossing from there IF (that is IF) there was a need for it.

    Further more as demand developed the T3/Bus lanes had the option of remaining or complimenting a “light rail” line from Manukau to Botany to Panmure forming the South Eastern Loop.

    So a multi-modal system that allowed cars, trucks and even Public Transport including a nice cycleway for a Price Tag of $1b (in 2002 terms). A bugger we did not do it then and then. The Eastern Suburbs would had a high quality RTN network by now and those freight trucks would not be clogging state highway one from Mt Wellington to Grafton Gully. Oh and we get a alternative into the CBD too for when we MIGHT need the car. Heck a second harbour crossing (rail/road) would of really got the RTN system moving and allowing the rail line to edge its way to Silverdale and beyond.

    Oh well, I will be ridiculed but that Eastern Highway did have merits (and I think still does)

    1. Ben, not sure how closely you followed the developments of the Eastern Corridor but in the end the multi-modal option of highway with transit lanes ended up with a cost figure of almost $4 billion when they progressed to a detailed design stage. Even the final last-ditch option of a four lane expressway to Orakei with only one lane each way to Quay St was still well over a billion dollars.

      My main problem there was the wasteful tokenism of the rapid transit component. They needlessly and expensively duplicated the inner RTN that already exists by proposing bus transit lanes parallel to the well-underutilised eastern rail line, but in the outer section scrimped by proposing only street level QTN bus lanes.

  9. For the Block of Lines the Eastern Line gets frequently Josh 😉

    Seriously though

    First of @Nick, apologies, you were right on cost there (was looking at the original report in front of me not the finals

    Josh – joke aside did you see the “T3/Bus Lane bit? In that case with the Eastern Line being there then you would covert the Bus RTN over to T3 for car pooling which is another form of mass transit (allow choice between car pooling and the train).
    As for buses as you have said, feed into Panmure then allow the Train to finish the trip into Britomart. However a Bus RTN could be needed for the Panmure – Mt Wellington – Onehunga leg as the rail way does not serve that well if at all (in fact our entire Cross City System blows).

    However a question I have raised with some Councillors that would have a bigger effect of our Transport is the Port of Auckland

    1. Ben, car pooling is not “mass transit”. It’s a maximum of 7 people (in a full-to-bursting Previa or the like) in one vehicle. Mass transit is capacity measured in the dozens, per vehicle. At 80km/h, those seven people in the packed Previa are occupying about 85% of the road space of a bus carrying eight times as many people.

      And, in reality, that packed Previa doesn’t happen. Most car pooling programmes are lucky to get three people in one car, never mind pack out a Previa.

    2. Ben, so now not only are we duplicating the railway line with a pointless busway, we’re also undermining the railway line (one of the few parts of Auckland where train travel is quicker than driving) by spending a large amount of money on an incredibly environmentally damaging project.

      I’m still looking for a single positive.

  10. not convinced the Eastern line will be able to cope at peak times in a decade or so with all CBD-bound passengers being encouraged onto the rail line. I think the trains will be approaching capacity before this point, or no capacity will be left for GI passengers. So therefore an alternative QTN needs to be provided as another option. This could focus on the southern CBD, no need to clog up Britomart with Eastern buses. Guess the options for this are extensive buslanes down E-P highway, and buslanes down GS Road, or putting a dedicated lane down the motorway median non-stop from Ellerslie to Newmarket

    1. Getting a bus onto the motorway at Ellerslie in peak hour traffic would require some serious reworking of the interchange, because the traffic doesn’t move very fast and there’s no space in the current configuration for a bus lane.

    2. I disagree. Post electrification there should be heaps of capacity on the Eastern Line – at least for a few years.

      By the way, the Ministry of Transport review of the City Rail Link business case found that even in 2041 the Eastern Line wouldn’t have reached capacity.

      (And the MoT wonders why we laugh at them?)

      1. To be fair to the MoT case, if all other things remain exactly as they are (no CRL, no feeder buses, no extension of the Eastern Line), it’s entirely likely that their assessment will be correct. And given the total lack of foresight or imagination displayed in their conclusions, I can only conclude that they don’t think that anything will change about Auckland’s rail network.

      2. I was more thinking about 10 years down the line, (with or without CBDRL) Eastern will be at capacity. Can’t expect people to transfer stand on a train for 20mins every day from Panmure to Britomart. Maybe with CBDRL can run extra services from Otahuhu to Britomart via Eastern at peak times to give a 5min frequency. Or maybe New Lynn – Otahuhu via Panmure to give a direct trip to Newmarket, Parnell and Grafton.

    3. The new singalling system has enough capacity for trains every 4 minutes if there are no freight trains in the way. A 6 car EMU will have a comfortable seating and standing capacity of over 700 people (and probably quite a few more in crush conditions) so lots of capacity in the line. What is needed to make use of that capacity is a third main line for freight traffic to the port and the CRL, which combined would probably be the same price, if not cheaper than duplicating the rail line with a busway and provide better benefits.

      1. “The new singalling system has enough capacity for trains every 4 minutes”

        Why is a ‘new’ system so limited in capacity? Why don’t we import 80 year old equipment from moscow and get a train at the worst every 2 minutes?

  11. @dan carter that maybe the case on fully grade separated metros, but very difficult with heavy-rail systems like Auckland where we have many at grade junctions, namely Quay Park, Newmarket, Otahuhu and soon to be Wiri.

  12. Couple of reasons, post electrification we are still only expected to see 6 trains per hour per direction (TPHPD) in the peak and it would simply not be practical to run more than that until the CRL is built, being able to run a train 15 trains per hour in each direction is much better than what we will need for at least the next few decades. It also costs to install and maintain these systems and the tighter the headway probably the higher the cost so why would we build considerably more than we need at a lot of extra cost, that’s just wasting money that could be spent elsewhere and be useful straight away.

    Also these systems are able to be modified as needed, some sections of the network will have a capacity of 20 TPHPD and the CRL business case says the system could be designed to handle 30 TPHPD. Don’t forget that systems like Moscow didn’t start out as they are now but evolved over time as needed, why would we be any different.

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