Change and Continuity
Rather than just look ahead a short distance I thought it may be productive to project forward a decade or so into Auckland’s future urban form. Partly as this is surprisingly easy because of the long lead in times for urban infrastructure, we know what’s coming, and partly because a longer look ahead gives us a better sense of the what the coming change is likely to mean.
“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
I think this is absolutely true of cities too. Outside of natural disasters and wars (recent Chinese cities excepted), even profound change is mostly incremental; over one year little appears to happen, but over ten, many gradual changes can add up to a lot. Looking at the approved and funded programme ahead in Auckland transport infrastructure and built environment, it becomes plainly obvious that we will have an entirely transformed city by the end of the next decade. Let alone compared to a decade ago from now, at the start of the SuperCity. Or even more startlingly different from the mid 1990s; when we had no Rapid Transit, no Britomart, no Busway, our lowest ever PT use, and an entirely vapid and near moribund city with a very weak centre. This is extremely encouraging, and suggests much bolder policy response is likely required for the city in order to more fully reap the benefits of this transformation.
Auckland is currently in a phase of both accelerating growth and, even more interestingly, morphological change: it is changing its physical pattern after half a century or so of growth to a single pattern. Since the 1950s and last big change of direction with the removal of the trams and the all in bet on driving, when Auckland grew it was consistently on the motorway and detached house pattern. This century that pattern has become complicated by other typologies, there is still auto-dependent detached dwellings focussed growth, but now there is more variety in dwelling types and locations, apartments and other attached housing. And more movement options; more people using Transit and Cycling and Walking as primary modes (cos we can). And the fastest growing dwelling area is now the old city centre.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two.”
This is a fascinating framing. Especially coming from Bezos. It suggests that perhaps success in that sector may have as much to do with attention to permanent realities than with wild optimism about what can be ‘disrupted’ with new tech alone.
Before turning attention to what probably will be unchanged let’s just look at what we can confidently predict will be different in Auckland in a decade, just from current policies and projects:
Transport in Auckland
- The CRL will be operating.
- We will have more trains, higher frequencies, longer spans.
- Electrification will have been extended, new stations south of Papakura, the third main and parts of the fourth will be in place. Battery trains will probably be extending services on the western line beyond Swanson.
- Britomart will be completely rebuilt with new public space at its doorstep.
- There will be Light Rail at least to the end of Dominion Rd, probably all the way through Mangere and to the Airport.
- Queen St will be clear of traffic, the laneway network will encompass the entire Queen St valley.
- The Victoria St Linear Park will be there.
- The Eastern Busway will be operating, to Botany, hopefully with bus lanes to Howick too.
- There will be a Rapid Transit service on the North Western.
- The Northern Busway will be extended.
- The Wellesley St Bus station will be complete.
- The two downtown bus stations east and west, will be operating
- e-buses will be joining the fleet: Fossil Free Street Declaration.
- The Ferry basin will be upgraded with higher capacity and new public space, new and better ferry services will be operating.
- Puhinui Station will be connected to the Airport by rapid shuttle. Manukau connected to Botany by BRT too.
- The New Network will be a decade old, no doubt revised and bus priority will be extended throughout the city.
- SkyPath, K Rd, and other significant cycling projects will be complete, including many local routes focussed on stations and schools. E-Bikes will be ubiquitous.
- Some form of Regional Rail will be operating, at least between Hamilton and Auckland
- The North Auckland Line will likely be restored and extended to NorthPort.
It is important to clearly outline what this means:
- This means a full city wide Rapid Transit network. Currently we have around 3+ Rapid Transit routes; Northern Busway and the Rail lines, in a decade we will have doubled this network to six. Every point of the compass will be served with the addition of NW, East, and the Isthmus/South West. The existing ones all improved too. Taking the City Centre as an example: In capacity terms this means that not only will 100% of future Central City growth be able to be met by Rapid Transit but also there will be capacity to replace all current driving demand too. This is nothing other that a total transformation. In the mid 90s, when we had no Rapid Transit, 80% of people entering the CC did so in a car, that figure is now below 50%. By the end of the 2020s that 80/20 ratio will have reversed; a much much more intense and bustling city will be much less reliant on people driving and parking for access. The streets and parking buildings can be, will need to be, repurposed for new uses: streets will be massively packed with people walking and the remaining space will be taken up with cycling and with delivery, service, and special access vehicles. And of course surface Transit; buses and Light Rail vehicles.
2. The Queen St valley, from west of Symonds St to east of Hobson St will be largely car-free, and have a profoundly improved and increasingly admired character. This will become one of Auckland’s defining characteristics: This intensely used city centre, one valley really, spilling over its ridges, fenced in still and intensified by the motorway cordon. This will become a powerful asset, once the cluttering and polluting waste of this precious space is saved from the car. What has been a problem will become a city feature. Complete the Laneway Network:
Transport infrastructure is of course merely an enabler, and this change enables a much more vibrant and intense city centre to support and drive the prosperity and wellbeing of the wider city. So what else is already underway that will be completed with in a decade:
Major city developments completed:
- Commercial Bay
- Convention Centre
- Major apartment towers such as Pacifica, Customs Residential, The International, The Antipodean and more.
- I count 4000 apartments underway and due for completion by 2020, plus around 1500 Uni student beds (another 10k CC residents in just two years): could City Centre population double towards 100k by the end of the 2020s?
- Wynyard Quarter south will be complete, and spreading north with its new park.
- Hobsonville will be complete with commercial centre at the ferry terminal.
- So many wider city projects under Panuku will be underway and parts complete, all over the city.
- Manukau, Sylvia Park, Newmarket, Westgate and other Metro centres will be much more advanced.
I’m sure I’ve missed many things but none of the above is speculative, most is already funded or underway, and none of this change requires some kind of magic new technology. This is revolution through evolution.
To Bezos’s question; what will not have changed?
Let’s start high altitude; universal laws of physics and geometry will not budge. This is at the heart of Jarrett Walker’s issue with Elon Musk’s misunderstanding of cities. Cities are engines centred around spatial efficiency, no technology will change that. The telegraph didn’t, the telephone, the telex, the fax, the mobile, the internet… against every prediction, that the city and its defining characteristic of human density would finally be rendered obsolete by a new technology has been proved false.
Cars and driving
Now this is where I think there will be more continuity than change. With a couple of exceptions. As stated above the city centre, and to a lesser degree the city’s other Metropolitan Centres, will perform better with fewer cars, the revolution in Rapid Transit, cycling and urban living will enable this and the economic incentives are clear. The increasing need for spatial efficiency in a growing city in a finite area means that the private car, no matter how it is powered or controlled, can only have a decreasing role to play in dense centres.
However, outside of these centres neither our current lavish road networks nor our increasing vehicle fleet are going anywhere soon. So it is likely people will slowly adapt to mainly driving in the suburbs and out of town, and using other modes to access the work, education, the city centre in general, as is common in other cities with starkly different suburban and urban forms.
Ok so what of driverless cars? Quite apart from the question of what impact they may have on cities there is a need to ask, after Bezos, will they be here at all in any meaningful numbers in our period? Not many at the rate we currently turn over our vehicle fleet. The average age of our current fleet is 14 years, and around half of cars imported into the market are second hand. So in a decades time most cars on our roads will already have been built, i.e. many will not have any post 2020 technology, let alone any post 2025 technology. If that average age continues then in 2028 the average car will date from 2014. Not driverless. So one thing likely to be similar is the number of privately owned cars requiring drivers that will still be running around in a decades time. Something similar applies to electric cars, although as that is already proven and available technology so will have a greater penetration of the market. It is possible that we will have regulatory attempts to speed up the uptake of electric vehicles, or perhaps even some huge multinational may import a huge number of bot-taxis, but there is no sign of this as yet. And it seems unlikely that Auckland will be among the first cities for Uber or whoever to seek to take over. We remain technology receivers.
So more electric cars, but no driverless ones at any volume in a decade. Driving is likely to be more restricted but not yet truly disrupted.
The timeline above looks roughly right to me, and this is for the US. Level 1 are basically cars as they currently are. Level 5 is what is required for completely autonomous bot-cars running around without drivers. This technology is much further away than the intermediate stages, but is what’s required for the true disruption of this market; for the end of car ownership, all of us using autonomous bot-taxis and no longer owning vehicles ourselves. The impact of this technology on our cities is the subject of a great deal of speculation, here, here, and here, for example; an indication that it is further away than boosters would have us believe.
So now we can turn to the more speculative changes through this period:
- There will likely be a regional wide e-bike share.
- NZTA will be planning a Rapid Transit only next harbour crossing in this period; Light Rail, or Light Metro, on a new crossing.
- MicroTransit (on demand vans) will likely be operating focussed on Rapid Transit Stations, replacing infrequent and underused buses at the fringes.
- Kerbside parking on arterials and in centres will often be replaced by Transit lanes, bike lanes, or pick up and drop off and loading zones.
- e-bikes will have boomed.
- carshare, City-Hop or similar, will be widespread, enabling more car-free households.
- Will we have road pricing before 2030?
- How will the new government’s proposed Urban Development Agency have impacted on the city? Or Kiwi Build?
- Some form of Carbon pricing will be affecting transport cost and choice, and the housing market.
- will electrification of the line to Hamilton be completed, will we see an switch to electric freight trains at least within Auckland (I hope so)
So in summary, steady incremental change will likely prove revolutionary over time, and brave new technology is likely to have less impact than it may seem.
“What’s dangerous is not to evolve.”
― Jeff Bezos