What is in New Zealand’s Future?
Earlier this year I was asked by Penguin Random to contribute to a book speculating about New Zealand’s future, and now it’s out:
IS THIS THE FUTURE FOR OUR CITY STREETS?
Revolution through evolution
‘Most people,’ said Bill Gates, ‘overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.’ This is absolutely true of cities, too.
Just because most change is incremental doesn’t mean for a moment that change ain’t a-comin’. Rather, I argue that we are in the midst of change as significant as that of the immediate postwar era; we are at one of those big hinge moments. Outside of natural disasters and wars (and the extraordinary recent Chinese urban explosion), 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 transport infrastructure programme for Auckland, we can see how the city is currently in a phase of both accelerating growth and, even more interestingly, morphological change: it is plainly obvious that we will have an entirely transformed city by as early as the end of the 2020s. The completion of the City Rail Link will suddenly make Auckland something it has never been: a metro city. It will radically transform access to the biggest and fastest-growing concentration of jobs in the entire country (i.e. the city centre), especially for the people living in the west and south who most need this opportunity. People all along the Western Line will effectively be moved 20 minutes closer to the city centre, congestion-free. Truly transformational.
Along with light rail in Queen Street stretching up the length of Dominion Road and through Mangere, the combined capacity of these two systems will more than satisfy all the current and future growth in trip demand throughout the areas they reach. There’s also the coming North Western Rapid Transit system, likely to be light rail too, and the Eastern Busway, which speeds Pakuranga, Howick, and Botany people to the Panmure train station to join the improved rail network. Elsewhere on the rail system a dedicated shuttle from Manukau City via Puhinui Station will speed rail users directly to the airport, and the line south is being electrified at least to Pukekohe. Over the Harbour Bridge the Northern Busway is being extended with new stations and more right of way. Later in the 2020s work will have to begin on changing this system into a higher-capacity rail system with its own dedicated harbour crossing, just to cope with the sheer numbers using it. This, too, will most likely be modern light rail too, connecting to existing system at Wynyard Point and offering a direct trip from deep up the North Shore all the way to the airport.
With these two separate but converging rail systems of similar capacities, and associated bus, ferry, and bike networks, Auckland will soon have a completely different shape, tone, and attractiveness. It will evolve from a city where car use is mandatory to one where the alternatives for so many more journeys are so good that driving becomes optional for more people at more times.
The freedom this extends to so many more people, and the opportunities for improved place quality all over the wider city, cannot be overstated. Really this is revolutionary, particularly compared to the late 2000s 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 public transport use, and a vapid and near-moribund city with a weak centre.
Will this future be all autonomous flying cars and other futuristic machines? Or just more of the same vehicles, only fancier? Technology changes are always a significant influence on transport patterns and urban form, but separating which ones are likely, imminent, and transformative from those that are merely a smokescreen of evaporating wishes is not easy — especially as there is a veritable industry of techno-boosterism creating a kind of highly seductive distraction from more likely futures. Why think about currently available solutions for real problems when we can just wish them away with techno-fantasy?
To properly identify which new technologies will likely stick we need also look at trend-defining pressures from outside of the technology world: demographic, economic, and environmental dynamics that are likely to fit with some new or renewed technology to make it irresistible. True change occurs through a triangulation of present conditions, new pressures, and new opportunities. New technologies do need actual problems to address in order to stick.
A good current example of this is the 1) employment and living boom in city centres, plus 2) the need for environmentally positive, healthy, and spatially efficient movement systems, meeting 3) the rise of new compact battery technology; creating the e-bike boom. This cycling revival (which of course comprises both new and old technology) then drives political demand for safe-cycling infrastructure, changing city streetscapes the world over. Conversely, an example of a perfectly good technology that didn’t take because it addressed a non-existent problem is the Segway.
So it is important that discussions around new technology move beyond new hardware, such as new cars, because often these aren’t a technology revolution, merely an evolution of the last phase. I find talk of driverless cars ‘solving congestion’ to be absurd: other cars cannot be the solution to the problem of too many cars. There are plenty of ways that driverless cars could make congestion far worse. For example, we currently are mostly alone in our cars, with average occupancy at around 1.1 people per vehicle; true free-range bot-cars could lower this ratio to below one! Empty zombie cars nipping about to pick us up, or being sent on errands. Net result: clogged streets and kerbside pick-up and drop-off car battles.
It doesn’t have to be like this, of course; it is more likely, in my view, that the current trend of removing cars — driverless or otherwise — from busy centres will continue, especially as we add efficient transit options and safe cycleways to serve them. The proven economic, environmental, and social advantages of walkable dense centres is too valuable to waste on traffic now. So I expect the most effective new technologies to be ones that support this trend.5
Rather than all of us using driverless cars to access busy city centres, we are much more likely to use them to solve what’s known as the first mile/last mile problem: to connect to the new rapid transit stations and expand the reach of that new network. This will swish us over longer distances to or between centres and cities. We will do this because it will be cheaper and faster than each of us being in our separate little box, stuck in congestion of our making.
There have been driverless train systems in cities across the world for many decades, and this technology is next likely to spread to buses, as the driver is about half the cost of operating a bus, so the technology cost can be recovered. (Also, any vehicle operating on a fixed route will be easier to make work with this technology.) So driverless tech is likely to make existing transit services better and more cost-effective.
But technology also offers something other than just new vehicles.
The great city hack
A real technology revolution, a real disruption to the problems our current set-up creates, would really help us leave our cars behind, or at least leave them at home more often. And there is a clear model for what that looks like. It’s called MaaS: mobility as a service.
This is the move from each of us owning our own movement device, usually a car, to us using a variety of movement systems that we mostly don’t own. This may still be mostly cars, but it seems much more likely that once we start to gain the benefits from this model we will slide happily between different modes, leaving driving and congestion behind more often.
The ultimate benefit for many will be not having to own a car at all, or at least households being able to function well with fewer cars. The city that runs on private cars is shockingly expensive and inefficient. Our cars are, on average, parked 96 per cent of their lives. The nation spends about $5 billion in taxes and rates every year on land transport infrastructure, mostly roads, and we, the users, then spend another three times this, around $15 billion a year, buying, insuring, repairing, and fuelling them. Additionally, a dizzying amount of land is lost to more productive use by being reserved to store them several times over; where we work, shop, play, and live.
Unlocking even some of this cost by building viable transport alternatives and processes is urgent, not only because the drive-only city is unsustainable and failing through congestion and sprawl, but also because it will save everyone time and money. Replacing the annual $7 billion-plus we spend on imported liquid fuels for cars with home-grown electricity offers a huge economic benefit to us individually and collectively. The power companies are extremely keen to supply more electrons for transport use, and we have plenty of potential capacity to generate all we need for this.
The cost of transport lands disproportionately on the poor. Transport poverty is the flipside of the housing unaffordability coin. It is cripplingly expensive to have to live with no money; the only available housing in Auckland is now at the fringes of the city (now that inner-city value has been rediscovered)6. The lack of good transit alternatives usually means every member of the household needs a car, and the lack of capital means that money for these cars is typically borrowed, often at usurious rates. Cars are, of course, depreciating assets. People are often only one crash or breakdown away from transport system–induced immobility, unemployment, and further poverty. And all along the way being forced to make horrible choices — like sacrificing food money for gas, or giving up their homes entirely and living in their cars. So auto-dependent cities are inequitable cities. Being able to choose to use a car when it suits is a great freedom, but a greater freedom is the ability to choose to not have to drive at all times and for every journey.
The world over, the great city problem is the misalignment of economic costs and benefits. This is especially the case with transport. For example, whenever we drive a car in a city we impose huge burdens on every other citizen: we foul the air they breathe, we hog the public realm we call streets, we delay them in their attempts to get places, or the goods they need, or even that ambulance that their very existence depends on; sometimes we even maim or kill them.
Conversely, everyone who chooses to jump on a train or a bike instead frees up those same streets for others, improves their own well-being so they will be less likely to be a burden on public health services, refrains from consuming fossil fuels that are cooking the whole biosphere, and, especially the bike users, is much happier.7
But the challenge is that these costs and benefits are not there directly in financial form for each citizen, helping to guide their choices. We do of course collect rates and taxes and use some of that money to fund the positive things — building bike lanes, or subsidising transit — and to mitigate the bad outcomes, but this is very imprecise, and at a remove from the choices we make.
Imagine if there were a way we could reward that transit user or bike rider precisely in proportion to the wider value they offer, and charge the car user accurately for their burdens on others? Not in a punitive way; simply accurately. The value creators earning credits, the consumers spending them. This would be sure to change behaviours.
To me this is the city hack that will best fit the coming new transit and cycling infrastructure. After all, we only need a relatively small mode shift from driving to the alternatives to largely de-stress and humanise our streets and our habits. Even a 10 per cent shift from current levels would make a profound reduction in traffic delay and take a big bite out of our proposed road-widening/extending expenditure. And, properly done, this gamification of urban travel choices is likely to shift more than that. Every cost-conscious user — every kid, teen, student, elderly person, for starters — will be highly incentivised to shift and earn credits.
And everyone who chooses or needs to still drive will have the true cost of that to pass on or balance with other positive choices; tradies and delivery companies will have quicker journeys to trade off against the charge. This, of course, needs to come with the massive upgrade of the quality, quantity and spread of the alternatives, or it will lead to unfair outcomes for lower-income households. System design is critical here. And so is data privacy. But new technology does offer the hope for solutions along these lines.
To really be equitable and effective, the system needs to know exactly how everyone is using the city and when. This already happens to an alarming degree for those with smart phones, but in a problematic way. That data is extremely valuable to some users, including unscrupulous ones, as we have seen recently. The tech challenge is to be able to collect this data, but also to leave the control of it solely with the individual, not with private companies, or even transit agencies.
We know that these ideas around the social contract are being worked on, but how well and how soon they may become current and accepted is hard to say. We do know we need new movement options now if we are to shift away from the status quo. New technology to help us make better transport choices can work only if the options are there to be chosen. Happily, as we have seen, that will indeed soon be the case in Auckland. Can it also spread across urban New Zealand?
Wellington, long New Zealand’s most urbane city, is waking up its urban soul again after a long period of trying hard to compete in the auto age. The city is intensifying again, and the pressure is on to wrestle back those streets for people, and to break the terminus of the train station by extending light rail past the hospital to the airport, while also adding a bike lane network. Wellington’s spectacularly restrictive topography has always given it an intensity beyond its size, so it is good to see the city embracing that pattern again rather than trying to ignore it.
Cycling is also Christchurch’s great opportunity. This once world-leading riding city could regain that status once more, and great work is being done there. But otherwise it is of course dealing with the earthquakes that devastated its centre, and the rebuild that reinforced a particularly extreme edge-city pattern: malls, sprawl, and driving. Until housing returns at scale to the centre, our second city will remain firmly suburban.
Fascinatingly, both Hamilton and Tauranga suddenly face very interesting opportunities as a result of the Auckland spillover. People escaping the overheated Auckland property market have added all sorts of growth pressures to these two cities, and this is stimulating a rethink.
Tauranga is more constrained by its setting than its current development pattern belies, and would benefit enormously from adding to its extensive, and traffic-inducing, motorways with a simple but efficient and effective rapid transit network — in particular by exploiting the natural spine of Cameron Road across to The Mount one way and Papamoa the other. This would enable new patterns for growth on a less resource- and capital-hungry model.
The change that’s most exciting for Hamilton has even more to do with its big sister up State Highway 1. The coming return of intercity passenger trains between these two cities, and beyond into the Bay of Plenty, offers both a chance to help fix Hamilton’s long-struggling city centre, and to shape a better, more compact development pattern in satellite towns outside the cities. Hamilton’s centre desperately needs both a focus and a desirable way of accessing it without bringing more cars. A city centre rail station can be that point and the start of that change.
And instead of all the towns on the Hamilton–Auckland corridor just spreading in formless farm-eating sprawl, an effective rail service can enable a good satellite town–country lifestyle at an affordable price. Different members of these households could work and study in either city without having to suffer the unpredictable and soul-sapping highway commute each day and without the financial burden of buying more cars than is necessary. This simple revival, done properly, could be transformational for delivering desperately needed new housing and shaping better, more sustainable development.
Transport infrastructure is merely an enabler, a means to an end; however, especially in cities, it is also an incredibly powerful one. It can and does proscribe so much of our existence; shapes so much of our world, our possibilities, the quality and even the length of our lives. And we now stand at the beginning of a great shift that should enable a much more vibrant, productive, and sustainable urban realm, one that both supports, and more evenly spreads, increased prosperity and well-being.
Cities that are right-shaped for the demands of this century.
Relatively soon we will look back on our currently car-drenched and exhaust-filled streets as unthinkably backward and unbearable. This set-up, this invention of the second half of the twentieth century, the auto-dependent dispersed city, is in fact already dead; it just doesn’t know it yet.
1 Paul Mees & Jago Dodson (2001). An American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland. Presented to NZ Geographical Society & Australian Institute of Geographers conference, University of Otago, Dunedin.
2 David Owen (2009). Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability. New York: Riverhead (a Penguin imprint).
3 Mees & Dodson (2001).
5 Jeff Speck (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6 Alan Ehrenhalt (2012). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York: Knopf.
7 Charles Montgomery (2013). Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.