Over the next ten years Auckland’s rapid transit network will grow massively, if the plans from the Auckland Transport Alignment Project are fully implemented. There will be major upgrades or expansions of the rail and busways that exist today, as well as the introduction of a whole new rapid transit mode – light rail.
As part of developing a successful rapid transit system, Auckland will need to constantly look around the world and learn from what has worked, and what hasn’t. Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observation blog is always a good read (if pretty technical at times) and a recent post runs through some of the key similarities of “successful transit cities” around the world.
I’ll briefly work through some of Alon’s key points, discussing their relevance to Auckland. I think some of these findings are very useful to keep in mind for Auckland, both in the near term (are we sure we’ve got the right modes, what needs to happen around light-rail to maximise its growth potential etc.) and also in the longer term considerations for how we build on the excellent rapid transit network we’ll have in 10 years’ time (when might we need express trains, what’s the right way to extend rail to the North Shore etc.).
Alon’s first point is about getting the right type of solutions for the scale of the city:
In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.
In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.
And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.
The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.
Auckland obviously is not a megacity, but is growing rapidly and therefore is expected to reach 2.5-3 million people over the coming decades. Our challenge is to avoid the mistakes of Washington DC, ensuring that we keep operations efficient, ensure the entire public transport network comes together as a holistic whole, and do everything we can to efficiently ensure frequencies remain high. We’ve done a lot of good work on this over the past five or so years, with things like:
- The HOP card which enables operating efficiencies, especially through faster bus boarding times and reduced train staffing requirements.
- Integrated fares which don’t peanalise users for changing between buses and trains.
- The new network means that buses no longer compete with trains, instead focusing much more on feeding people into the rail network.
- Improving service frequencies has been a big focus, although mainly for buses (incredibly train frequencies off peak are still insufficient for rail to properly be considered part of the frequent PT network, even though rail forms the core of this network!)
Another thing I think builds off Alon’s third point is that a city Auckland’s size needs each of its rapid transit lines to do a number of different jobs. We simply aren’t big enough to justify, for example, an investment that’s just about airport passengers. We also need that same line to serve airport workers, residents of nearby suburbs wanting to get to work, people along other parts of the same corridor getting to work, to their local centre and millions of other different trips. This is a big part of why the proposed light-rail project that links together a huge swathe of central and southern Auckland, rather than a dedicated airport rail service, makes much more sense for a city Auckland’s size.
Looking out into the future, we may start to need some of the characteristics of much larger transit systems. Express trains to the south is probably the most obvious example, which was picked up in ATAP and also is an important part of our Regional Rapid Rail proposal. These services will become necessary as Auckland grows to the south and trips become unacceptably long at the current speed of our rail network (which is pretty slow at not much more than 30 kph).
Alon’s second key point is about transit-oriented development (TOD for short). He highlights that cities which have generated sustained high use of public transport are generally those that have structured their growth plans around it, both in supporting a strong downtown core as well as major housing developments around stations.
The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.
The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.
Auckland has a mixed history with TOD. On the one hand we are starting to see good growth around the rail network in higher density housing, especially in recent years around the Western Line in places like Mt Eden, Kingsland, Morningside, Avondale, New Lynn and most recently, Glen Eden. On the other hand, we haven’t seen much evidence of TOD around the Northern Busway – although that is starting to change at Albany and even Constellation. The busway obviously sits right next to the motorway while the rail network generally links together a series of town centres, so I guess different outcomes are not that surprising.
As the rapid transit network expands, some of the new corridors are planned to be next to the motorway (Northwest light-rail, North Shore light-rail, parts of the City-Airport project) and some along main roads (Dominion Road light-rail and AMETI Eastern Busway). While in an ideal world we would shift all our rapid transit corridors away from the motorway so they could facilitate more growth, in reality this is either going to come at massive additional cost (huge land acquisition or tunnelling) or much slower travel, which runs counter to the whole concept of rapid transit. There are no easy answers to this dilemma and trade-offs will probably need to be made again and again. It would, however, be nice to see some stronger efforts to develop TOD around these routes.
We are making rapid progress, but a high quality public transport system is still a relatively new thing for Auckland. So we need to constantly learn from overseas. The importance of scaling and the importance of transit oriented development are key consistent lessons we can learn and apply.