It’s been interesting over the past week or so to see so many of our ideas being picked up by major political parties, on both sides. In many ways it feels like a long, hard slog is really starting to pay off. But in other ways this is not a radical shift, it’s an ongoing realisation that Auckland has reached a point where its future success is increasingly, and inextricably, linked to having a world-class public transport system.
In our Congestion Free Network 2 report, the very first line highlights that Auckland is a city in transition – moving away from being an overgrown town, but not yet a true world-class city. Public transport plays such a critical role in Auckland making this transition. There are a whole variety of reasons why this is the case (as articulated in many of the 5,700 posts on this site over the past nine years), but I’ll run through three main ones:
- We’ve done all the good roading projects, but Auckland is still growing
- Agglomeration and clustering is more important than ever to Auckland’s future prosperity
- Congestion won’t necessarily harm our future success, but only if we make it increasingly irrelevant
We’ve done all the good road projects
Auckland’s stunning natural setting shapes the city in so many ways, stretching the urban area but also placing huge pressure on just a few key connections between major parts of the city, like the Auckland Harbour Bridge. This “many routes into one” works really well for public transport (as Jarrett Walker articulates well here) but means a transport system built around private vehicles really struggles as the city grows bigger and bigger – simply because there is so much pressure on these few corridors.
This means there are only ever going to be a limited number of major roading corridors that make sense in Auckland. Now that we’ve basically finished the Western Ring Route, there just aren’t many more roads that make good sense. Peter touched on this issue recently by discussing the escalating cost of new roading projects, where adding a lane kilometre is becoming enormously more expensive than it was in the past:
This issue is not just about adding major new corridors either. Widening of many existing roads is just infeasible in most situations. The land is so valuable, the impact on achieving a quality built form is so significant, the disruption and damage is so huge. But how does Auckland continue to function as a growing city, with growing travel demand, if it’s increasingly difficult to provide new roads? Clearly we need to shift many more people in the same amount of space – and world class public transport is utterly essential for this task.
New technology like driverless cars may help to some extent, in lower density areas most particularly. However, as a detailed study undertaken by the International Transport Forum indicated, quality public transport on core trunk routes was essential to making the most of this developing technology.
Agglomeration and clustering is crucial to Auckland’s future success
Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, urbanist legend Jane Jacobs and many others have pointed out the key reason why cities exist is to take advantage of the absence of distance. Essentially, the more people you have clustered close together the more people can specialise in the work they do, the more ideas rub off on others, the more chance you can find the perfect employee and so on.
As technology develops and globalisation means many manufacturing jobs move overseas, the economies of all developed world countries are becoming more and more dependent on high-skilled service sector jobs. These jobs need to be around each other and they need to be located in parts of the city where the highest quality talent can be attracted. Increasingly this means locating in or around the city centre:
This trend is expected to continue into the future, with over 250,000 jobs in and around the city centre within the next 30 years.
The transport implications of this clustering are profound. Huge numbers of people travelling to a small area, all at the same time is the hardest task for a road-based transport system to achieve. Simply, cars are just too big and take up too much space to do this task. When Auckland’s economic growth was largely created through industrial development in the suburbs, roads were pretty effective in serving all these dispersed locations, but those days are increasingly gone and the transport solutions must also increasingly move on.
This matters at a micro-scale too. Agglomeration requires quality urban places for interaction opportunities and to attract the best and brightest to live and work in Auckland to start with. Many of the most valuable trips in the modern economy will be short, walking trips between meetings. The trade-offs between movement and place need to change to recognise the true value of places for economic success and overall liveability. But making nice places only increases the need for high-quality public transport so as much street-space as possible can be reallocated away from vehicles and towards people.
Making congestion irrelevant
There was a telling diagram in the NZIER congestion report released last week, comparing levels of congestion in various cities around the world:
While I’m not sure NZIER intended to highlight this point by including the diagram, but what it really shows is that you can be a highly successful city despite congestion. The large cities in the bottom left of the image above are clearly highly successful places that are huge concentrations of global talent and innovation, despite their congestion. Yet, by in large these places also have really strong public transport systems – so whatever congestion there is on the roads, a lot of people are just simply not affected by it. This concept of “making congestion irrelevant” is at the heart of the whole Congestion Free Network concept that we have been pushing for the past four years.
Probably the one anomaly to the point above is Los Angeles, which itself is an interesting case study as – perhaps along with Auckland – Los Angeles is one of the cities trying hardest in the world to do away with its car dependent history. It’s also worth considering how Los Angeles’s car dependency is likely to have hurt its success over the past few decades, especially in comparison to its northern neighbour, San Francisco. This was picked up in a CityLab article last year:
L.A. and San Francisco are two of America’s leading urban economies. The Bay Area is the world’s leading center for startups and new technologies, and the home of companies like Intel, Apple, Genentech, Google, Twitter, and Uber, while L.A. is the center of film, entertainment, and pop culture. But when it comes to income, wages, and other key metrics for economic development, San Francisco has done far better than L.A. over the past several decades.
The article goes into a whole pile of reasons for why San Francisco has performed better – the main one being the industries it has specialised in have become the key drivers of economic growth. But I think it’s also noteworthy to consider how the extreme levels of travel time delay for LA, coupled with its very high car dependency, have relatively held it back.
World-class public transport provides the opportunity for fast and reliable travel at extremely high levels of demand – which just isn’t possible through private vehicles. We have seen this on the North Shore since the busway was opened – congestion levels on the Northern Motorway are increasingly irrelevant as a larger share of trips are taken on the busway. Essentially the success and attractiveness of the North Shore has been “de-coupled” from congestion. The same is obviously true for areas around the rail network.
Improving public transport in Auckland has long been popular with the public. It seems unlikely that we will ever see a Mayor of Auckland who’s not a massive advocate. Yet until recently I think it was still seen as quite a “risky” investment by some. Investing for a possible future, in the hope that usage would take off, in the hope that one project would lead to another and we would end up with a system that was no longer quite so embarrassing. But that stage has now passed and the naysayers have largely melted away. For example, is there anyone credible who still thinks Britomart was a bad idea, or electrification, or the busway? In the next few weeks Auckland will reach 20 million rail trips, years ahead of the Ministry of Transport’s projections while Busway use continues to skyrocket.
Public transport is therefore no longer a risky proposition, it’s no longer a bit of a gamble, a “nice to have”. It’s essential for Auckland’s future success, and increasingly recognised as such.