This post originally appeared on TheSpinoff, reproduced here with permission.
There’s a quiet revolution underway in Auckland. Slowly but relentlessly transforming the city. It began early in the century, a big change of direction taken in small steps, and has been continued by every council and government since. It is becoming an impressive and an undeniable success, and is changing a great deal about our biggest city; its pattern and its possibilities, its international image, indeed its very idea of itself. This is about to really accelerate over the coming decade, with a new scale and transformative force. Yet it is still invisible to many.
This is because mostly, it looks like a bus.
Or a train or a ferry. Surprisingly, Auckland is becoming an actually effective public transport city; a city where more and more people can successfully live more of their lives without needing a car.
People are voting with their bums; increasingly putting them on public seats in public vehicles. From a low point of around 30m annual trips in 1994, this year we are about to hit 100m, a number not seen since before the auto age, an increase well in advance of population growth.
This is not an accident, but is the result of many decades of hard work by many different people, from all sides of the political spectrum, especially in council, but also central government. After all, no one can choose to ride a bus or a train that isn’t there.
This is a profound shift for anyone used to late 20th century Auckland, a city that had become, through strenuous official effort, one of the most car-focussed cities outside the US. A place where public transport services had been allowed to wither to uselessness.
It isn’t that this new Auckland is yet available everywhere by any means. Quality of the services is still patchy outside of the city centre, or places that happen to be along the revived rail lines, and up the busway on the North Shore. There remain terrible transit shadows, especially in Mangere, East, and Northwest Auckland, and other gaps and frustrations between; still slow or infrequent services, or poor stops and stations. But the great news is that looking ahead to the actually funded programme for the next decade these are being addressed.
Such a metamorphosis of a whole city necessarily takes time. Looking both back and into the future, we can see that we are now around half way through a 30 year programme of retrofitting full transit networks into a previously auto dependent city.
To understand this journey we need to go back to the highly contested decision to bring trains back to lower Queen St with the transformation of the grand old CPO into Britomart station. Opening in 2003 this began the revival of our then second-hand diesel train service, by actually taking users close enough to where they needed to be; the city centre. Championed by then Mayor Christine Fletcher but furiously opposed by her successor John Banks and others. This relatively small investment provided just enough evidence for the Clark-led government to commit to electrification and other upgrades to the suburban rail network. As well as the stunning urban regeneration of the space above the line in the city centre.
The other absolutely crucial early enabler of this revolution was the construction, by that same government, of the Northern Busway. Opening in 2008 this was also loudly opposed, predicted to be a white elephant, but instead was an instant and enduring success. Importantly it showed not only is it possible to add new rapid transit lines to places without historic routes like rail lines, it also put to bed forever the absurd claim that certain parts of town are ‘too posh to bus’. Everywhere people will choose a service if it is of high enough quality. And if it’s really good; fast, frequent, safe and reliable, many people will.
Three important programmes started under the previous government continued under the new Key-led one; amalgamation of the city’s local authorities, the introduction of the HOP card, and the electrification of the rail network.
The creation of Auckland Transport (AT) in 2010, at last unifying the delivery of transport services under one roof, enabled the coordination necessary to support all this growth.
The HOP card with integrated fares meaning passengers pay only once for connected journeys across a number of different trips has significantly reduced the cost barrier for many users, especially from further out, or disconnected places.
Fancy new electric trains on better schedules are also a huge success, driving a big jump in ridership. Since this upgrade there have been no more extensions to the core faster Rapid Transit Network (RTN), and much of the growth has been on regular bus routes, with AT redesigning the entire bus system while still delivering it, vastly improving both service to riders and its efficiency.
But now there are at last three new extensions to the top-tier network underway, the Busway is being extended to Albany. An Eastern Busway is being built to speed riders to trains at Panmure Station from Pakuranga, at last starting to address this huge gap on the transit map. And a new interchange at Puhinui Station is being added, bringing seamless connection to an Airport busway for users of two of our three main rail lines.
The previous government and council also, of course, committed to funding the City Rail Link, which will double rail capacity and vastly improve the reach into the city centre for anyone along the rail network. This massive project however won’t be open until 2024, so in the meantime other work is underway at AT to speed and improve all those increasingly full buses on main arterial routes, as bus still does the heavy lifting in Auckland.
The clear fact that we simply can’t keep adding more and more buses to our streets, and especially not to the booming city centre, is among the reasons the current government saw that to serve the other two big gaps in the top tier of the system: the North West and through the Isthmus and Mangere, need to be higher capacity Light Rail. These two lines, along with the Eastern Busway, will complete the doubling of the RTN from three to six lines, covering all points of the compass.
So while the work in first decade or so of this revolution was relatively modest, their success worked as proof of concept. The second half of the programme is going to complete the transformation much more quickly. The result of this will be revolutionary levels of choice for nearly all Aucklanders, the option to travel throughout the city without a car will be easier and more attractive.
Which is Auckland’s best hope to reduce carbon and other emissions as the city still grows, because, in our cities it is cars, not cows, that are the greatest source of climate change gases. We do need to make it more than just possible to drive less, but to actually make it the best choice for more trips much more often.
This ambitious plan is also already changing the shape of the city. Transport and land use influence each other reciprocatively; compact walkable cities need high quality transit to support that car-lite urban form, and vice versa. Low density sprawl is predicated on several cars in every garage, and lots of space between and around buildings. Auckland has spent this entire century filling in. Even though we are still building houses at the end of the motorway, and experiencing the inevitable traffic congestion as a result, more than 75% of all housing growth has been with the existing urban area for two decades. This trend continues to accelerate.
What about the happy suburbanist and keen driver? Well this is the best outcome for them too. Auckland has a saturated driving market; it has a mature road network on a constrained land mass, and a high level of car ownership. Adding the complementary alternative networks to the driving ones enables this boom in PT ridership to continue, freeing up road space for those who choose or need to drive. Especially important for the vital service, goods, and emergency providers.
Great Public Transport is a necessary condition for a great city this century. Auckland is already achieving something truly remarkable with this globally significant success story. Transformation is an easy word to write but a hard one to actually achieve in across a whole city.
Auckland is giving it a lash.