Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Peter was originally published in September 2014.

Back in July former World Bank urban planner Alain Bertaud and his wife Marie-Agnes, a fellow professional in the field, came down to New Zealand at the invitation of the NZ Initiative and the Minister of Finance’s office to deliver a series of talks on urban economics. He had a number of thought-provoking things to say to urbanists of all stripes – a message that was very much in line with Transportblog’s core principles and big ideas.

He looks much happier in person

While Bertaud is sometimes cited as a proponent of low-density urban sprawl and motorway development, his arguments about urban development were nuanced and thoughtful. The Bertauds are, after all, urbanists themselves. They have chosen to live in vibrant, dense, and diverse cities – Paris, Washington, D.C., and lately New York. (That’s a revealed preference if I’ve ever seen one – they certainly don’t live in Houston!)

In addition to seeing Bertaud’s talk , which is available online here (pdf), I was lucky enough to sit in on a smaller discussion section with other professionals in the field. I took three key messages away from the talk and the conversation.

First, cities are labour markets. We often forget this fact, even though it’s the reason we have cities at all. Cities are the physical expression of agglomeration economies, or the productivity advantages of locating near other people and businesses. In Bertaud’s view, ensuring the efficiency of urban labour markets means ensuring that people can access a large number of jobs from their homes.

As a result, he argued that urban and transport planning should aim to keep down commute times. He recommended looking at two key measures – first, the number of jobs available within a 30 minute drive, and second, the number of jobs available within a 45 to 60 minute public transport journey. Here, for example, is his analysis of commute times in Singapore and the US.

Bertaud travel time graph

Bertaud didn’t recommend any specific policies to reduce travel times, although he spoke positively about Singapore’s use of demand-responsive road pricing and development of an expansive metro network to reduce average travel times. As a transport economist there are a couple of key observations I’d make on the topic:

  1. Building more roads is not a good way to reduce travel times. Induced demand – people driving more or moving further out of town in response to new road capacity – usually eats up the forecast travel time savings. In short, people travel more but they don’t travel any faster. If you want to actually reduce driving times, the only way to do it is to introduce road pricing.
  2. Cities with reasonable densities and an underdeveloped public transport network – like Auckland! – are in a good position to improve employment accessibility through investments in rapid transit networks and better bus networks. Fortunately, Auckland’s pursuing this approach.
  3. In light of induced demand, the best way to improve the accessibility of jobs may be to simply make things closer together. The efficiency of dense urban environments is often underrated. For example, although the roads in downtown Manhattan are far more congested than Houston’s, Manhattan’s effective labour market is much bigger simply because everything is so close.

Second, we must plan for the cities that actually exist, not the cities that we wish could exist. Bertaud presented an excellent graphic to illustrate this point. It showed four kinds of cities – three that exist and one that does not (and can not):

Bertaud urban structure graph

Most cities that exist today are what Bertaud calls “composite cities”, meaning that a significant share of jobs are located in the CBD or in major centres, while other jobs are scattered around in industrial parks, neighbourhood shops, etc. In this city, people have a range of different travel needs. Many people need to get to large-scale, high-density employment hubs, which are efficiently served by rail lines and busways, while others are better off driving to more dispersed employment locations.

In short, real-world cities require a range of transport solutions, and they will not function well if one mode is unreasonably neglected. We don’t have to go far for an example of the perils of mode bias: the remarkable renaissance of the Auckland city centre, and its increasing contribution to New Zealand’s economy, would not have been possible without reinvestment in the rail system and the development of Britomart.

City centre screenline survey results show public transport accounts for all growth in inbound trips over the last two decades

However, Bertaud criticised what he described as the “urban village” model, which hypothesises that if employment is dispersed evenly throughout neighbourhood centres then people will travel only to the nearest centre. This is a seductive idea – it promises to reduce travel distances by distributing employment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in the real world because people have complex travel needs. Even if one member of a family chooses to live near where they work, their partner will often have to commute to a job further away.

We see this flawed idea pop up from time to time in New Zealand from advocates for suburbanisation. For example, people sometimes argue that we could reduce congestion by stopping growth in the city centre and relocating it to Manukau central instead. Aside from the fact that we tried this before and it failed, decentralising employment would only increase congestion from all the cross-town trips and reduce the efficiency of Auckland’s labour market.

We don’t have to go far for an example of the failures of the urban village model. Christchurch lost its city centre in the 2011 Canterbury Earthquake, and employment dispersed throughout the city. Although the jobs have decentralised, the city now suffers from higher congestion as it can’t run efficient bus services or provide enough road capacity.

Third, it’s important to ask whether planning regulations are restricting development in areas that are accessible to employment and amenities. Economists in New Zealand have spent a lot of time talking about Auckland’s metropolitan urban limits while paying little attention to regulations in the rest of the city. Bertaud argues that limits on density, such as building height limits or minimum lot sizes, can price out the poor from accessible areas. Incidentally, this may be happening in Auckland – my research found that poorer people tend to live further from employment hubs and commute longer distances as a result.

Bertaud said that when he was advising developing-world cities on planning policies, he’d often start by creating a map of the minimum lot size required by existing rules and estimating what share of the city’s population could afford that amount of land. Here, for example, is his map of floor-to-area ratios in Mumbai, India, which shows that in most parts of the city people are required to buy 1 square metre of land for every 1 square metre of dwelling they want to build. As land is quite expensive in Mumbai, this is basically a policy that requires the poor to get out or build illegally:

Bertaud Mumbai FAR map

It would be fascinating to see a similar map for Auckland if anyone wants to have a go…

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  1. In other news, Bernard Orsman surprisingly struggles to squeeze much controversy out of a proposal to run the western light rail up Great North Rd between SH20 and K Rd. All he could come up with was some quibbles from Mike Lee (par for the course really) and a potential threat to throw toys from Linda Cooper. I suppose the title wording manages to hint that those metro elites are getting more than their fair share AGAIN.


    1. The reactions reported from local businesses are encouraging. I think the penny has dropped that LRT actually helps adjoining retail businesses. Plus the Great North Road route will give much better connectivity to passengers from adjoin gin residential suburbs.

      Obviously it will depend on the details but Great Northern Road is wider than Dominion, so I think this could work quite well. They need to make sure the traffic priority is good as we still want competitive travel times to the north west.

    2. I wonder if the commuters from the NW might be concerned about the route taking longer, though. The better solution is actually option 3 – putting the Light Rail down the middle of the motorway, with new footbridges above each station to connect the suburbs severed by the motorway.

      Inner west residents would benefit by this option:
      -by not losing even more land to the widened motorway corridor required by option 2, including areas that are or should be covered in trees
      -by being reconnected to the suburbs on the other side of the motorway
      -by having reduced traffic through the inner west, which won’t happen in either option 1 or 2, because they don’t reallocate motorway lanes

      Given the shorter travel times it would give the NW residents, they might be prepared to clear out of those central lanes of the motorway during construction if NZTA and AT provided:
      -bus lanes on GNR
      -bus lanes on the remaining lanes of the NWM (eg private cars only allowed off-peak)
      -ADL shuttles on the HR line to Kumeu.

      Voters in other parts of the country and even of the city might be interested if option 3 is cheaper because of less faffing around with the streetscapes and intersections of option 1, and the problems of on and off ramps and property in option 2.

      Is it only a reluctance to inconvenience drivers that means option 3 isn’t being considered?

      1. We had big internal debate about this route when finalising the CFN2.0, which you will recall, is its genesis as policy. Both about:

        1. Busway v Light Rail
        2. SH16 corridor v Great North Rd

        Probably a good time for us to post about the pros and cons of 2. Spoiler we concluded m’way corridor best….

        Stand by.

        1. Did you also debate NWM central lanes reallocated vs NWM corridor widened, with issues of avoiding all the ramps, plus major excavation costs?

        2. And if you will include an analysis of these two variants of the NW route, do you want to use those pictures I put in the comments section of my post on the Truck Accident. They showed the vegetation we lost in Pt Chev due to the Waterview Connection, (I could do the same for other lengths of the widened SH16) and when I’ve got time I’ll show what else would be lost if the widening goes ahead.

          Do we call it serial severance?

      2. +1 Think this is the ideal if we can take away lanes, but if this is not possible I think along/beside motorway is best first option. Connectivity across the motorway is important or a bonus. Do we have enough space for bus lanes, LRT construction & 1 lane traffic each way on the motorway during construction..think no cars until off peak would never pass a vote.

        I believe that along GNR should be a stage 2 done later (how much later would depend of demand etc of course). Split line when frequency is doubled from initial setup, probably every 2nd one & run perhaps down Albert St in the city.

        This means cake & eat it too outcome:
        1. Faster commute for those further out.
        2. Local access to the city etc etc.
        3. Less buses & cars (reallocate space to the LRT).
        4. Hardly any buses from further out OR closer in whereas option 1 or 2 means we have a problem with fitting LRT in with too many other bus routes.
        5. Connectivity to HR station entrance at Beresford Sq
        6. Less disruption/delay to K’rd street/cycleway upgrade & commuters initially & then we have the motorway line working as a pressure relief valve while working on this 2nd line (probably helping with it becoming even more popular)

        1. I think realistically once the LR to the NW is provided, there won’t ever be a stage 2. Too many other parts of the city need rapid transit before they’d put a second line in here. Possible disruption to the K Rd streetscape upgrade has so many layers of bemusement to it.

          What I’m keen to ask is: will the new design for the Pt Chev to Westmere streetscape that’s happening at the moment be allowed to consider the need for diverting buses through this corridor? If the design for LR is along GNR, this is the obvious bus detour route, and if the design is along the NWM, traffic flow will affected there however they do it. Bus priority design along here seems critical to the success of the construction-period traffic flow.

          Or will there be no thought given to that, and Pt Chev will just take extra car traffic, finding rat runs wherever it can. In which case the Outer Link, the 18, the 66 will all be hopeless, as well as the less frequent services.

        2. You could well be right. Was thinking more likely after the Mangere/Airport, Botany, NS LRT & perhaps some other lines done first. Think it could still be likely with swathes of development way out west & intensification in the more inner west areas. With some mode shift to using PT & for esthetic factors, LRT though K’rd or at least partially would be great, probably need a wider K’rd Bridge?

          Definitely need some/more bus priority shorter term/now through GNR, then “simply” swap for the LRT later.

        3. Thinking more about it. If LRT was along GNR (either now or a 2nd stage as I suggest) the Outer Link as a loop shouldn’t run along as a very frequent route this “back way” along Meola Rd anyway? This road upgrade is having cycle lanes etc added rather than bus lanes. Unless the road is widened in parts there is not room it seems. PT Capacity would be along GNR, not what should be just a local quieter road. Why are we running the Outer Link around here apart from back access to MOTAT? Seems it’s just the only road due to geography (as you would know well) to get a loop back to Jervois Rd->Ponsonby. Looks like they will revisit the Outer Link & related routes next year in the meantime. It’s replacement could run via GT Nth Rd (room for bus lanes) & Old Mill Rd & the 105 could instead be extended to Pt Chev.

        4. Chuckle. There are more ways than one to skin a cat. Buses being held up along Pt Chev Rd and Meola Rd by commuter traffic is the problem – so AT could think more widely about how to solve that problem, and the buses could be helped without needing bus lanes. Blocking Meola Rd to the private car is one suggestion, and would have placemaking and environmental outcomes in line with many Council plans.

          But is AT asking the right questions?

        5. Yes I guess an option is to dead end for the private car in the middle somewhere…is that ever done…not sure you could realistically enforce that? Or do you mean block access altogether along the whole road pretty much? Alternatively block to all traffic including buses.

        6. Yes, there are bus-activated barriers you could use. Putting it at one spot so people can still have access to the whole road, from one direction or other, they just can’t use it as a through-route.

          Is it ever done? Obviously overseas they have done it enough to warrant inventing the bus-activated gizmos, but in NZ, I don’t know.

  2. I went to the Alain Bertaud lecture in Christchurch and was fortunate to be part of a group that had dinner with him and his wife -Marie Agnes (they are really an academic team).

    The Bertaud’s had a huge influence on my thinking.

    Wrt to Peter Nunn’s comment in his article

    “We don’t have to go far for an example of the failures of the urban village model. Christchurch lost its city centre in the 2011 Canterbury Earthquake, and employment dispersed throughout the city. Although the jobs have decentralised, the city now suffers from higher congestion as it can’t run efficient bus services or provide enough road capacity.”

    Four years later this is still a problem. In fact the congestion problem is now entrenched. Especially as since 2013 Canterbury has grown by about 50,000 people. Which is the largest increase in population for a NZ urban centre outside of Auckland.

    The new motorways and city by-passes will provide temporary relief -but motorway induced traffic and housing decisions will quickly fill those up.

    Greater Christchurch is repeating all the urbanisation mistakes that Auckland made in the post WW2 period and look how expensive that has been to fix. $28 billion for Auckland’s transport to be spent by Auckland Council and Central government. .

    My proposed solution is to provide Greater Christchurch with a rapid transit network now while the costs are lower.

    Given the size the Greater Christchurch -about 1/2 million people -if Christchurch Council and Central government spent at the same rate as Auckland, something like $7-9 billion would be needed. NB about $1 billion was spent on Canterbury motorways.

    My plan wouldn’t be as expensive. as Auckland’s

    I propose reinstating commuter rail back on the existing tracks and creating a north/south bus rapid transit corridor between Christchurch’s northern and southern motorway corridors -thus providing a spatially efficient transport vent for the coming motorway induced sprawl. The BRT route would go under a new Moorhouse Ave train station and then up a bus only Manchester St. This would solve the problem that the train tracks do not go to centre of Christchurch.

    To make the rapid transit network viable, more people need to live in the rapid transit corridors. So the ability to build more and better housing in these corridors needs to be part of the solution.


    1. It’s a bit infuriating how induced demand has been known about academically and widely accepted, even in many engineering circles for decades, but yet we keep sticking our heads in the sand and trying to build out of congestion. Obviously a lot of it has to do with the big entrenched interests and massive money behind motorway development, but there has also been a failure to educate the public about the concept, which means that most people when thinking about their congestion problems think that the motorway must be widened.

  3. Good article, which explains the different city models well. I’m not sure why it is that there are so many people who don’t understand the importance of the central city. It crops up in green circles quite a bit – people basically wanting to have all the advantages of a town lifestyle (local amenities, low-density, private gardens for all, ability to take whatever transport is quickest, ie the private car) and think that this can occur in Auckland where they also take advantage of the cultural and economic opportunities of a big city.

    To challenge this mindset challenges people to realise that their model is consigning many other people to unhealthily long commutes, and pricing them out of the property market.

  4. Great post. “Even if one member of a family chooses to live near where they work, their partner will often have to commute to a job further away.” This is so true, see this so often & jobs change after people of lay down roots with school & community so don’t want to shift.

  5. Nice summary of Bertaud’s three cardinal statements.

    But the trouble is, all three are correct only in isolation. Particularly so when our brains comfortably slumber in the verities of the 20th century capitalism. If we however put these statements in the wider context of urbanism of the early 21st century, and its agenda for the mid-century, then, rather than being end statements in themselves, they become more useful as pointers for the search for more relevant, only emerging truths.

    This is how:

    1. ”Cities are labour markets.” Yes, that’s what cities appear like to an economist. But a geographer, demographer, ecologist, sociologist, planner, architect, artist… will see something else. These days in particular – as we witness all four continents of the Northern Hemisphere going through ‘hell and high water’ forced by disturbing weather anomalies, leaving hundreds of tragic deaths and billions of dollars damages – it would wiser to think of cities as massive concentration of population and assets, which, with every new summer, stand to be exposed to ever bigger disasters and ever more tragic loss of life to floods, fires and heat waves. ‘Labour market’ is a useful metaphor, but ‘sitting duck’ is now becoming quite resonant too.

    2. “We must plan for the cities that actually exist, not the cities that we wish could exist.”. Profoundly true. But what does that really mean? The cities that actually exist are the ones that have evolved over decades and centuries as a human response – via a certain economic model and the technologies at disposal – to a given physical geography. They are not simplified transport economists’ sketches of models of urban from. Auckland is such an obvious example. Our metropolitan area is one vast automobile-shaped low density suburbia sprawling along a N-S running jagged, volcanic-estuarine isthmus. Auckland’s planners keep trying to turn it into a city they wish could exist – the ‘compact city’ ideal, medieval and Euro-Asian in origin – but in vain.

    3. “It’s important to ask whether planning regulations are restricting development in areas that are accessible to employment and amenities.” It is indeed. But it is even more important to ask whether economic and technological forces stronger than any urban planning policy, or urban design ideals, are implacably skewing the playing field against a denser urban form and full-on public transport coverage. Such as ridiculously cheap cars and fuel. Without introducing a decisive and painful cocktail of carbon tax, fuel levy, road pricing and public space parking fees, little will change in the game of forces which shape greater Auckland stubbornly outside urban planners’ and designers’ reach.

    This is in no way to say that Alain Bertaud’s visit was not useful. It was. Particularly his tolerant view of low density. But we in Auckland have to go beyond the foreign experts’ opinions and the lessons of their cosmopolitan experiences in distant, different places, acquired in the 20th century. We must pay more attention to the Here and the Now, and especially the Next. The climate next.

    Rather than mapping where the poor are in relation to lot size affordability – or producing any other theory-derived map which models a single aspect of urban reality – we should stack Auckland city planners’ offices with old-fashioned topographic maps. Thus they would get a better idea what the city they are trying to plan actually looks like, and especially what role Nature has played – and continues to play – in the shaping of our city.

    And then, if there is any residue wall space in between the topo maps, we could pin up a few pictures of the evolving climate mayhem of the norther summer 2018 and the disappearing ice in the Arctic.

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