This is the second of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

Los Angeles

Auckland is sometimes described as the Los Angeles of the South Pacific. Both cities experienced their early growth in the streetcar years, and both cities replaced the rails with freeways and wide arterial boulevards in the 1950s. Since then, they have metastasised into their agricultural hinterland – Auckland spreading west through the orchards and vineyards of the Waitakeres and south through the horse and dairy farms of Manukau, and LA replacing orange groves and orchards with tract houses for a hundred kilometres inland. In spite of frenetic road extensions and widening, both cities suffered from worsening traffic.

Los Angeles does actually look like this at dusk due to all the smog in the air
Los Angeles does actually look like this at dusk due to all the smog in the air

LA’s traffic is as bad as advertised. I spent a day visiting friends and sites of interest across the region, and noticed the incredible volumes of cars and trucks (many, many trucks delivering freight from the Ports of LA and Long Beach to distribution hubs in the Inland Empire) circulating on the roads. People in LA give directions starting with a freeway onramp and continuing with their personal theory of how best to negotiate traffic. Angelenos make small talk about traffic the way Aucklanders do about the weather. Regardless of the time of day, the freeways were prone to random intermittent congestion and speeds dropping to under 20 kilometres per hour. LA has tried to mitigate this by introducing designated all-day carpool lanes on freeways – with only partial success.

A rail station… in the middle of a ten-lane freeway
A rail station… in the middle of a ten-lane freeway

If the freeways were stressful, I was surprised to discover that there are some quite nice urban places dotted throughout the region. For example, Pasadena, which sits at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, has preserved its old town and built a significant amount of medium density housing around the university. Even in newer areas of LA, I was surprised to see a mix of low-rise apartment buildings in among ranch houses. However, there wasn’t that much evidence of mixed-use development, meaning that many people seem to drive incredibly long distances to work or shopping.

As dysfunctional as its traffic environment is, Los Angeles does seem to have taken the cue to develop new transport options. While road widening and surburban sprawl has continued apace over the last two decades, the region now has an extensive and growing rapid transit system. Starting in 1990, Los Angeles has built a rapid transit system consisting of two heavy rail lines, four light rail lines, and two bus rapid transit lines. Some lines run along existing rail corridors, while others operate in freeway medians. The system as a whole serves almost 110 million trips per year – exceeding early projections for some lines by tenfold. (However, in spite of Metro Rail’s success buses still account for three-quarters of the region’s PT trips.) After securing long-term funding from a referendum on a regional sales tax, Metro Rail is planning for expansion.

Riding the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown
Riding the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown

I rode the Gold Line in from Pasadena to Union Station to meet up with an old friend. It seemed like the most convenient way to make that trip – the trains ran every six minutes at peak times and took 15 to 20 minutes to cover a distance comparable to the train trip between Otahuhu and Britomart. It turns out that he got there by the train as well – he’s living the car-free life in a walkable 1920s-era neighbourhood near downtown Los Angeles. He commutes to work in Koreatown by bike, and has found that it’s possible to run pretty much any errand on bike or PT. Cycling is made easy by LA’s climate – the normally arid region has had less than 4 cm of rain in the last two drought years – but difficult by easily frustrated drivers. As in San Francisco, bike lanes are slowly appearing on the roads, but not yet being respected. We traded tips for cycling in two cities that are only slowly becoming accustomed to bikes.

Tomorrow: Amtrak.

LA Rail Map + lines underconstruction
LA Rail Map + lines underconstruction
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    1. Yes that Metro logo is good. And it also demonstrates that it wouldn’t take too much to sort out AT’s logo. Really just a matter of eliminating the clutter and finessing the remaining linework.

  1. We recently looked at developments in LA on the CAA blog too:

    Amazing how a city that has always been held up as the ultimate car city has made such changes so fast especially in PT, while Auckland is still debating it. LA’s cycling is still low at 1% (so half of Auckland’s modal share) but there seems to be more willingness to make the big changes and take away space from cars.

    1. One reason for the low cycling percentage is that one-way journeys to work can be quite long. In 1980, I was a bicycle commuter; home to work was about 26 km. My weekly average (including a “day off” ride I took to keep in shape) was nearly 370 km. That, as we say, is “a lot.”

  2. Indeed – I was quite impressed at the speed at which LA has made some positive changes. It’s partly a feature of the relatively fiscal independence of local governments in the US – they’ve got a lot more ability to tax or otherwise raise funds to build things. (Against which, of course, you’ve got some entrenched opposition to taxes.) From a transport investment perspective, US governments also seem much more “heterodox” in their approach to investment than NZ governments. There’s a much greater stated willingness to invest in transport in order to drive investment into specific areas, or to capture uplift in land prices. (Or even, at times, solely to generate activity in the construction sector.)

    From an economic perspective, I am somewhat skeptical that this is a rational way to make investment decisions. But it has created a situation in which policymakers are quite willing to take a punt on place-making transport investments like light rail lines and cycle lanes. They’re receptive to the idea that transport investment should be aimed at supporting local activity as well as the movement of cars.

    1. On the flip side though this US cities all seem to have structural barriers to quick and efficient change in the form of multiple agencies and/or territorial authorities. Auckland really only has two: Council and Central Government, of course these are currently not on the same course, and one has considerably more power than the other.

    2. “There’s a much greater stated willingness to invest in transport in order to drive investment into specific areas, or to capture uplift in land prices.” – I dont see any reason to be sceptical. That system works all through Northern Europe and they are the only parts of Europe that have survived the GFC unscathed. Lets also not forget that it is how NZ managed to build the Wellington rail network:

      In fact NZ may be the only place in the world that has switched from state led developmehnt to a solely private sector model, and look how well that has worked out for the housing market.

      1. Perhaps I should have been more clear. My observation is that there’s a lot of inconsistency in evaluation frameworks in the US, both with respects to evaluation framework and to proper accounting for counterfactuals and net benefits. In non-jargonese, transport evaluation in the US sometimes runs the risks of investing without convincing evidence of benefits. (Or, equally, they invest in things that advantage landowners in one area at the expense of landowners in another one.)

        That being said, transport does have important effects on land values and land uses, so it’s not intellectually incoherent to consider the effects of transport improvements on those factors. My point about the US is that their proliferation of evaluation methods makes it easier to explicitly factor those in than NZ’s economic evaluation approach.

    3. Agree that LA is now doing what was unthinkable 40 years ago, but it is still hugely car-dependent.

      Just a perspective on US transport funding. Some of the statements above are not completely accurate. US transport funding is highly skewed towards highways, especially limited access highways. They fund 80%, and states have to come up with the rest. US funds public transit at 50%. One rationale for this is that public transport has a fare box, but the fare box rarely covers even operating costs. As Peter said regarding evidence, public transit plans have to do all sorts of gyrations to convince the feds that they’ll work. (Even so, actual patronage usually beats the projections that justified the project.) Highway projects, on the other hand, are rarely questioned on patronage; highways are their own justification, and there is always political support for them, especially from powerful suburban legislators. (That’s a topic unto itself.) Highway planners have also found useful ways to avoid environmental scrutiny. Since a full Environmental Impact Statement is required only for segments above a certain length, a motorway project is planned as a series of discrete projects shorter than the threshold. Those have to pass a less restrictive Environmental Assessment.

      Public transit, on the other hand, serves only “those people”. That’s wrong of course, but to the extent it is correct, “those people” have no political power, and often the cities where “those people” live have limited influence in the state capital.

      As far as transit oriented development is concerned, yes, it’s happening, but only in what would be called the progressive cities and it isn’t necessarily planned along with the transit facility.

      Value capture rarely happens in the US so highway investment always subsidises increased land value (another topic I can go on about). Attempts to purchase land in the vicinity of motorway interchanges is met with howls of the public sector interfering in private property rights. Public cost, private profit – that’s the American way.

      One last thing. While federal and state highways are eligible for federal funding, local roads and streets are not. Those are left to the cities to fund which is why so many cities have awful roads – their tax bases have shrunk so much they can’t afford a regular replacement schedule. What might have been a 30 year life cycle is now probably a 100 year life cycle. A lot of local street improvements are funded from poverty programs directed to the inner city.

    1. Hmm the conspiracy conspiracy. Not sure it’s all sneaky evil. One view is that the conspirators intentionally bought up and shut down urban electric rail systems all over America to sell their cars (and buses), and the rubber and oil based products they consume. The other view is that a consortium invested a lot of money buying failing and bankrupt transit companies, replacing their antiquated fleets with new state of the art vehicles and rationalising operations to make them sustainable and profitable operations. At the time bus and road technology had leap frogged streetcars, and streetcars were considered superseded by the more modern bus.

      Same question here in Auckland. We often lament the loss of our trams, but I don’t know if they intentionally shut them down. Sure there was some pressure to clear them out of the way of motorists, but I think they genuinely believed that replacing the antiquated and run down trains with new modern smooth running buses was an a positive step. Not least because of the massive backlog of track maintenance required to keep the trams running, in addition to buying new trams. They probably though that buying plenty of brand new buses was a better idea that putting the same money into track infrastructure that were no longer necessary, and having far fewer vehicles. The rationale for that is the fact they converted most of the tram lines to trolley buses, upgrading the existing power line infrastructure but not the newly “superseded” tracks. If they were really looking to shut things down they wouldn’t have bothered with any infrastructure.

      The issue of course is that by removing the tracks they also removed the priority lanes the trams effectively had. Similarly while railed trams used to always have legal right of way over road vehicles, buses were simply another road vehicle and often have to give way to cars as per the regular rules. Furthermore this was back in the time of optimism around traffic, they though that it would be perfectly feasible to build enough roadspace and parking to prevent congestion from occurring. So it’s quite possible the concept of buses getting caught in traffic didn’t occur to them, or at least that it would be a temporary occurrence until the road expansion plans were finished and everything ran congestion free. Even in the 1970s they were still promoting motorways as the best option for public transport because they claimed that express buses would be faster than trains, and far more abundant. They never really grasped the simple geometry of what full auto mobility actually looked like in a big city until it was too late.

      1. Yes, the conspiracy idea certainly doesnt apply to NZ – it was more just not valuing or understanding the importance of grade separated PT. And Auckland massively embraced the arcadian ideal that everyone would live in widely scattered settlements all linked by massive free flowing motorways.

        Of course, proponents of the arcadian model were wrong and they continue to be wrong today. Once again, the lefty hippies were correct – they were just thinking 20-30 years ahead, not until the next budget meeting.

        We only need to look at places like Melbourne that bucked the trend to see how it could be. OK they have massive motorways, but there is a lot more choice in transport. Sydney (and lots of N American cities) is now trying to reinstate its trams at massive expense.

        1. Also, Melbourne has the historical accident of two of its founding fathers – I forget their names – arguing whether the streets should be broad or narrow. The compromise was a grid of broad streets interspersed with a grid of narrow streets. This has worked extremely well, but more by accident than forward-looking design.

      2. Just one other quick point, I think the big problem was cutting ALL the tram lines. For example in Chch, the Papanui-Cashmere line was very well patronised and was the last to close. Other lines may have struggled for patronage but that line was still going strong. I am sure there were similar lines in AKL (Dominion Road?).

        Perhaps there would have been scalability problems in preserving just a few lines but it would at least have cut down on the capital investment and ongoing maintenance required. Adelaide for example just kept the one line which is still operating today.

        Anyway, water under the bridge. It does show that we need to think longer term and especially that we cant assume the way our cities now is the result of some benevolant “invisible hand” of the market. Clear transport choices were made in the 1950s, not necessarily based on great evidence or forethought, choices that have proven to be largely misguided and we are reaping the consequences now.

      3. It wasn’t a conspiracy, it was a business plan. If they were not making money, it served as a good pretext for privatisation. US business really likes the role of White Knight. But transport was as subject to disinvestment in the inner cities at the time as was any other industry group, which fueled post-war suburbanisation.

      4. I’ve never considered that what happened in the US happened in Auckland but once a trend is established, ie the change to buses from trams, it is easy for local road builders to go “look at what they’re doing”.

  3. Nick’s summary of tram obsolescence may have been appropriate for Auckland, but not necessarily for the financially successful systems of North America that were bought up by GM. For example in the Bay Area they bought the Key System, which in 1946 carried 22 million passengers in relatively new trains across a relatively new Bay Bridge to San Francisco. After substantial service reductions and fare increases, patronage declined but was still 10 million passengers in the final year of the service in 1959. There was opposition by local councils and the local community, but GM eventually prevailed. It shows the fallacy that the free market will lead to the best outcome for public infrastructure in the face of a hostile takeover, even though there were some legislative controls in place. I expect that because the communities felt betrayed, they quickly raised funds for BART. Funds started flowing in 1959, and the system initially opened in 1972.

    The article linked here shows that GM knew what they were doing. It’s exactly the reverse of what’s promoted on this site.

    1. That is a great article thanks Malcolm.

      However, (and I am the last to be supportive of removing trams) that is about the electric trains running on separated tracks, so just like our trains in Auckland now. Removing them from the bridge was an act of utter stupidity. The article does say that was a very different situation from the trams at the time, which were running at grade and so there was an argument they were blocking traffic (a ridiculous argument nonetheless).

      Of course, the answer would have been to grade separate them. But there was no willingness to do that. Cars were the great answer to all our transport worries.

      Having used trams in Melbourne, Prague and Bucharest, it is true that their at grade nature can be almost as bad as a bus in terms of getting caught in congestion. However, especially in Bucharest that has quite wide roads, the answer would be to cordon them off or have them running on slightly raised tracks. So similar to what we should do with cycle lanes, using flexible post or armadillo dividers, or do with buslanes/busway – just make it clear where the exclusive area is.

      The light rail lines on slightly (15cm or so) raised tracks in Bucharest were popular – some idiots still drove on the raised part but they knew they were in the wrong and did get busted. Also noone wants to mess with a tram. Romanian drivers make Aucklanders look like Granny out for a Sunday drive.

      1. Melbourne is an interesting comparison. The only reason they kept their trams is that they built their system decades after most other cities, so both the vehicles and track were new when WWII hit and caused deferred maintenance and materials shortages. So what was a killer blow for Aucklands old system wasn’t a problem for Melbourne. Simple outcome is in Melbourne it was uneconomic to remove the quite new infrastructure and scrap the quite new vehicles, while the opposite was the case in Auckland (and many other Australasian cities).

  4. Guessing the highway with a rail station is Century Fwy, the freeway “that has a heart”?

    There aren’t many like it that followed through with the promise of transit being physically integrated, though oft-repeated by urban freeway designers. Century is even more unique for its progressive political story, as it unfolded with the greatest sensitivity toward mitigating impacts, such as through social housing, hiring local/minority labour, restraining scale and routing, integrating transit, etc. Usually when you hear politicians rattle off the projected local benefits of highway construction (let alone operation) such as job creation, it is the image of Century’s best-in-class execution that they appeal to (and then fail to match).

    And yet the result is a concrete stain on the fabric of the city, fossilizing blight, severance and automobile dependence, that is despite the token modal “balance” featuring a railway line—which failed to host transit-oriented development. It should perhaps stand as a cautionary tale against the post-modern version of “magic motorway” syndrome—which aims to stick everything from busways to cycleways to parks onto motorways, both new and old ones. In such designs, the auto-centric shape of the motorway primarily determines geometry, land use, urban form and travel modeshare for everyone across all modes. The Century precedent suggests that the upper limit of what can be salvaged from a motorway for transit and liveability is, at best, worse than having no motorway in the first place.

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