Over the last few weeks we’ve seen numerous articles and opinion pieces about Light Rail and the airport. A common and incorrect theme amongst many of them has been the suggestion that the choice to use light rail was a political one and that it’s a vanity project that we can choose not to do or do something different. We also sometimes get accused of setting light rail as a policy. In this post I thought I’d look at a brief history of how the proposal for light rail has developed in Auckland.
The story begins over 100 years ago. Trams were the initial agents of sprawl as lines spread out from the city centre to establish new suburbs and open up land for housing. By the late 1930’s tram tracks covered most of the key corridors of the isthmus. But it’s not just that the trams were there, the system and supporting road network were deliberately designed so that most people lived close to a line and that they were easy to get to. The map below shows the routes and a 400m catchment and with the exception of a few holes, covers most of the area.
It goes further than that too, the rough grid pattern was designed to make it easy to walk to those lines. Just take a look at the street network of the central isthmus, it is a stark contrast to the curvilinear streets and cul de sac pattern found many post-war suburbs. Those newer suburbs had auto-mobility ingrained in them, making it hard to walk around the neighbourhood, let alone serve them with frequent and direct public transport.
The trams were pulled out in the 1950’s but the street network lives on and to this day those old tram routes remain some the busiest bus routes in Auckland, with Dominion Rd the busiest of the lot. At peak times more people catch buses along many of these routes than drive them in cars. As such, the central isthmus suburbs have some of the highest PT modeshare in the region. Below are the PT results from the 2013 census.
I’ll get into why all of this is important shortly.
1990’s – Auckland’s darkest hour for public transport
The mid 1990s were darkest hour for PT in Auckland with ridership declining to its lowest ever levels. Just over 33 million trips were recorded in 1994 in contrast to around 94 million today. To help turn this around, plans were created to build light rail down Dominion Rd as well as replace some of our existing rail lines. Britomart was even designed, where the coloured walls are today, to allow for ramps down from the surface so light rail could exit out of the eastern end. That’s a feature that will never be used as we need all the tunnel capacity we can get for the since revived rail network, but it is useful for highlighting that it’s hard predicting the future, that transport plans frequently change, but at a high level, our key strategic transport corridors remain the same.
Or to put it another way, we know where we need to build stuff but we have to continually update and adjust what and when we build based on the evidence available.
The 2008 study
In 2007 the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) undertook a piece of work to investigate rapid transit options for the southwest to help feed into various strategic plans. The results of this are still often quoted today. It assessed bus, light rail and various heavy rail options. Reading through the executive summary again there are a number of things that stand out. I won’t name them all but most importantly for this post, light rail performed well but didn’t rank highly in the results due to the extra costs and that we haven’t built or operated light rail here before.
The study was relatively high level essentially picked the mode with the most stringent design standards, heavy rail, as that would at least cater for changes in thinking in the future.
The fight for the CRL highlighted a looming threat
The early 2010s saw Auckland locked in battle over the City Rail Link. The government were determined to prove that the project wasn’t needed and that just putting on more buses would solve the problem. In 2012 government agencies worked with the council and Auckland Transport on the City Centre Future Access Study (CCFAS). Having initiated the work, Transport Minister of the time, Gerry Brownlee, rubbished it on release because it supported the CRL. That was in part because it found that capacity improvements for buses in the city would only provide short term relief. Bus congestion was now a looming issue but there was no plan to solve it.
The graph below from the subsequent Central Access Plan shows the number of buses per hour on Symonds St at peak times compared with how many it is designed to handle.
2015 and filling the void
Auckland’s PT renaissance began with those central isthmus routes when the former Auckland City Council installed the city’s first bus lanes. Since then, improvements to the rail network and the development of the Northern Busway have shown that even higher quality public transport is instrumental in getting more people to use PT. Previous work, including that done by the former ARC, had come up with developed a ‘rapid transit’ network (RTN) for Auckland that could largely be summarised as a line to the North, South, East and West, which left significant gaps. The most notable of these was the central isthmus but the Northwest was also missing.
Auckland Transport had been (very) quietly working on the issue of bus congestion in the city and at the beginning of 2015 shocked everyone, including the mayor, by announcing they wanted to build a light rail network. This would both fill the RTN through the central isthmus and help address bus congestion by taking the buses from one of Auckland’s busiest corridors – thereby also leaving space for more buses from other routes.
Unlike the 1990’s plan which was to build light rail in the hope that more people would use PT, this plan was to build light rail because so many already were doing so.
Since then, there has been plenty of debate about modes and timing for the core isthmus route. Subsequent work as part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project confirmed that a “mass transit” solution was needed for Dominion Rd and eventually the NZTA and Simon Bridges agreed Light Rail was the long term solution.
The extension to the airport
Prior to the announcement above, AT had already kicked off a separate piece of work to look at progressing the corridor protection. This was taking a more detailed look at the corridor and the alternatives. Where previous studies had compared various extensions of the existing rail network to building an entire new light rail line all the way from the city, the need to build light rail on Dominion Rd anyway changed the whole equation. This is because a large chunk of the costs was effectively taken away. Some have argued this is not really a fair comparison but it would be remiss of officials not to update their thinking based on the latest information available.
This is not dissimilar to what we’ve seen in other big transport projects where planning for some projects starts happening before prerequisite projects have been delivered.
But not only was it now more cost competitive, it opened up a much wider area of Auckland to better transport with stronger connections to the rest of Auckland. A further advantage was the ability to use light rail as a catalyst for more housing along the route and that feature has become a very strong component. Much of this work is contained within the business case already completed for the project – which is still currently on the Auckland Transport website.
I should point out that when it first emerged that AT were looking at a light rail option, we were sceptical and felt heavy rail was a better option. However, over time we’ve made an effort to understand why AT and the NZTA preferred light rail as the solution to the North and have shared this through many blog posts.
Enter the politicians
It was not until after this technical work had been done and light rail chosen as the preferred option that the politicians got involved in support. It started with Phil Goff making light rail a key platform for his election. It then became a central part of Michael Wood’s campaign to replace Goff in parliament and finally the policy of the Labour (and Green) party, with Jacinda Ardern launching it as Labour’s first major policy announcement in last year’s election.
In recap, more than most large transport projects, light rail has emerged as the preferred option based on technical analysis. It’s the opposite of a political pet project and that’s exactly how it should be.