Back in April the government finally announced the next steps for light rail, the creation of an Establishment Unit – now called the Auckland Light Rail Group (ALRG) – to recommend the route, mode as well as a delivery entity for the project before the end of the year.
More engagement with stakeholders and communities was also promised and on Thursday the first stage of that kicked off, including a new website.
Auckland Light Rail Group Board Chair Leigh Auton says hearing from communities is key to understanding the needs of different neighbourhoods along the way.
“Whether it’s residents in Mt Roskill and Māngere or business owners in Onehunga and the central city, our engagement events will give people a chance to take part and learn more about what the project means for them.”
Mr Auton says the project is no longer just a transport solution, but a foundation for new homes, shops, community facilities and public spaces. It will open up new planned housing areas in Mt Roskill, Onehunga and Māngere.
Transport Minister Michael Wood says it is important for conversations to start now as the project will be shaping the city for the next 50 years and beyond.
“We’re really encouraging Aucklanders to see what this could look like and transform the way we work, travel, study and play in our local areas. Light rail is an essential part of Auckland’s future and we’re keen to get them involved.”
That all sounds great but already we’re concerned about what we see. At a high-level there’s simply not enough information to help have a proper conversation yet at the same time what has been presented is concerning in its own right. Let’s just work through some of the information they’ve published.
Why Light Rail?
A big part of needing to engage with communities is that through a combination of elections and then the previous poor process, the project has been silent for years. There is a need to go back to square one and explain why this is even been looked at. So first up, a page titled Why Light Rail?
The page goes on to talk about some of the benefits of light rail.
Why are we looking at light rail as an option?
Investing in high capacity, high quality, rapid transit is critical to developing a modern, connected city which supports improved and new public spaces, homes, shops and community facilities. Connecting to buses, ferries, trains and walking and cycling, means people living along the route don’t have to rely on cars to travel to the places they want to go to.
Light rail offers convenience, reliability, safety and comfort, making it a highly attractive public transport option. Unlike a bus route, rail is permanent and carries a lot more people. This encourages greater investment along the route because businesses and people want to be close to stops or stations.
This enables more people to live in existing communities and can reduce the need for new development on the edges of the city.
That last line in particular is great but for those that haven’t followed this project closely for the last six and a half years, there’s nothing there highlighting all the work that’s been done so far. Light rail may have been an election promise from the government but it didn’t just appear out of thin air. Even just including something like below would help give greater context to the project.
“Previous studies have identified light rail as the best long term solution to improve public transport and support growth between the city centre and Mangere”
Even better would be including a section on the website publishing all of the work done to date.
The page also includes my first major gripe, an artists impression of Māngere Town Centre.
Light rail in the middle of a town centre, what’s not to like?
The issue I have is that because there’s no other information about the idea so nothing to explain the trade-offs needed to achieve it. The station shown is on Orly Ave and you can see the tracks curving around from Bader Dr. There are two possibilities.
- If the route was following the motorway corridor like the original Auckland Transport proposal (red in the image below) you’re adding a bit of slow wiggle to the route.
- The route had been following Bader Dr for a lot longer in order to serve a lot of the Kāinga Ora housing in that area (blue in the image below). The downside is it would mean a lot longer travel times. I understand this kind of change is what happened after Waka Kotahi took over the project in 2017 and was in part responsible for the NZ Super Fund jumping in with their proposal focused on fast times to the airport, which derailed the process.
There are pros and cons to all the options and of course other trade-offs, such as how it impacts local traffic and buses etc. but by just publishing that image without presenting those trade-offs or any analysis it undermines the conversation – which is not a great start for the process.
Type of Light Rail
The ALRG give a very high-level breakdown of the difference between light rail and light metro.
The big things missing here are any discussion of costs and the level of construction disruption that will occur. Given there’s already been a bunch of analysis over the years on these topics this should be doable. Alternatively even just giving some broad ideas based on similar projects around the world would be useful. It took me an afternoon to do something similar for this post comparing the two modes and which highlighted that a light metro solution is likely about to be about 3.5 times the cost. That kind of difference is significant and would have a big influence on community expectations.
One significant thing that was included was this image below showing what the two modes may look like at the street level. The big revelation here is the suggested light metro solution would have an open trench down the street surrounded by motorway style barriers. It’s incredible that they’ve even considered this to be a realistic solution. Did someone look at the New Lynn trench and think “you know what? We should do that down the middle Dominion or Sandringham Rd“. While it may just be an impression it also looks like a dangerous design, for example even the adult crossing the road is barely taller than the trench barriers.
There’s nothing particularly new for the section on the route other than the mention of a potential university connection. Again the issue here though is there’s nothing about the kinds of trade-offs that the ALRG will need to make. For example, whatever mode is chosen, geometry means there’s no way that the Sandringham Rd route can be faster for someone travelling from the city.
Finally, the ALRG are asking for feedback but the questions seem meaningless and it’s hard to see what they do to help answer the questions the government have asked – or to build buy in. The questions are below but there’s also an online version of this form. Here are a couple of quick questions about the specific questions they ask.
- Why even ask if climate change is important anymore? Both the government and council have declared climate emergencies and we need to just get on with responding to it.
- Why is it only new homes that seem to be important and not also serving existing populations? Furthermore, we shouldn’t be building light rail if we’re also not changing zoning to enable more houses to be built – and the National Policy Statement – Urban Development requires it.
- Light rail will have much wider impacts than just those who live in the area. Does that mean people outside the area can’t take an interest in this city shaping project?
Had there been information on the kinds of trade-offs that will need to be made they could be asking for community views on them. For example they could be asking questions like:
Would you prefer fewer stations for a [slightly] faster trip but with more intense development around stations or more stations but with less intensity around each station [but still more than exists now].
Do you prefer light rail travels via Dominion or Sandringham Rd and why – what issues are there that we should be aware of on each route.
I do also wonder how much any of this feedback is really going to matter anyway given it’s open until the end of August and they are providing a recommendation to the government in September.
The short timeline and what we’re seeing, with work seemingly starting from scratch despite all the assurances from the government that it wouldn’t, has me very concerned that we’re going to see another failed process. This is incredibly frustrating for a project that should have been near complete by now.