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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Auckland's Transport Future

A short and sweet return to general views, although the personal series will continue.

Auckland will soon face a transport crisis. Well, it will if no-one does anything. That is, both the city's road and rail capacities will be reached. While the number of passengers on off peak trains can increase the ability to run more trains will cease when Britomart reaches capacity in a period we can think of as being a metaphorical tomorrow rather than next week or next year. It's not far away (the road issue is, I believe, further ahead but still relatively soon).

Consequences of Capacity

Growth in transport will cease. It follows that further economic growth becomes just that more difficult. You can't grow revenues without goods having some way of reaching their purchasers. Services cannot grow if their consumers (who are also vital inputs in the production of services) cannot reach their physical destinations. More pupils can't get to school. This picture gets a bit troublesome when you consider that these things don't just stop. The population (and so numbers of pupils) keeps growing. More transport needs to happen and when you're at capacity things clog up, which means not only does growth cease but it actually will become negative. Quality of life (over on the human side of life) is reduced because clogged transport networks aren't good for either mind or body. In a theoretical sense fewer people would use transport but the reality is that most transport isn't undertaken for laughs, people have to go places.

Solutions for Capacity

Obviously, we can know these sorts of things are going to happen so we can work to avoid them. Traditionally Auckland's grown its transport capacity by working on roads. This is 1950s American muscle car kind of thinking. This is back before MAD or anything that made people stop and think about the wider consequences of crap. WWII was over and won and the US thought it was on top of the world with nothing bad in the future and no thought for it. It's got over that mentality but NZ hasn't. We stumble along thinking that "she'll be right" and when we talk about sustainability it's a fringe environmental thing. I mean, we currently think that an almost pre-industrial, dairy-based economy can sustain an industrial society (nay, a digital one). No party, in the human side of things, wants to look ahead to the next day. The left's a little better than the right (especially the Greens) but they're both bad. The one place that does have a slightly better grip on things in Auckland Council but they're mostly in it for "the world's most sustainable city" angle. Their dodgy motives don't matter though, they've got the right idea. And that idea is the City Rail Loop.

The Problem with Roads

Looking at that, well, rant above, the question, "What is so bad about roads?" is begged. Firstly, we've got the whole "emissions" angle. That's obvious but, sadly, it doesn't sell well to, arguably, most people. Secondly, we've got the wider idea of sustainability. That doesn't sell well to many either but that's because they don't grasp economics as well as they think. If we say that economics is all about economic growth (it's not but just say it is), sustainability is fundamental. You can't grow in a system that will collapse. That's what roads will do. If you build more roads congestion doesn't ease. People think that they will be able to get places faster so more people start building roads. If you build it, people not only will come they will be impossible to keep away. Adding another lane to a motorway very quickly just means another lane of cars going no-where. So, roads don't really solve the issue of capacity because they just encourage more people to use inefficient means of transport (i.e. personal vehicles, one person one vehicle is a terrible ratio). Roads also have the additional problem of needing quite a lot of space. In some sense they're a lot more flexible in course than rail but they can only grow by physically expanding. This is not true of rail (which we'll touch on later). As a logical outcome, you're going to run out of space for large transport arteries eventually. This is particularly true when you realise that things like motorways just encourage (and, indeed, facilitate) sprawl, which takes up more land. It's readily apparent that roads just aren't compatible with real or trickle-down economics but somehow people are convinced that they are.

The Rail Loop

Rail has a big advantage over roads in that one unit carries dozens of people. If you can cycle trains through faster you can increase capacity (and this is more easily done than with cars). Getting trains through faster also makes them more attractive to people because then you can just turn up and hop on (which is kind of possible now if you don't mind waiting for maybe half an hour). Britomart, though, is currently like having the Southern Motorway end at the Nelson Street offramp. That's obviously stupid. The rail loop solves this inanity. Instead of trains having to wait a while before being able to depart or having to stop for five minutes in the tunnel leading into Britomart they'll be able to run on a loop and just keep going through. As a consequence of this, more trains will be able to use Britomart, thus capacity of the rail network as a whole is increased. Furthermore, you can run more trains as well. In terms of the longer term, you can even use the rail loop to fix two huge problems. Imagine, for instance, we never built the harbour bridge. That's what not having trains out to the North Shore means. Imagine, again, that there were no motorways going to the airport and a combination of suburban roads and backstreets (including the ever busy Great South Road) were required. That's currently what happens with the trains: you've got to connect via bus (and buses are the poor man's train).

The Complication

Trains and Auckland, in fact, sustainability and Auckland are topics that come under continuous attack from people who have no understanding of history, urban planning, economics, geography or, indeed, anything other than how to make knee-jerk reactions. These people aren't idiots either. They know how to frame their arguments so that they read as being something other than a modern day equivalent of, "It's a Witch!" that play on the less rational parts of the modern NZ worldview. In the NZ Herald, just the other day, there was one such argument. A law student trying to hitch her opposition to the CRL to the Dirty Politics/govt. transparency bandwagon. That's downright devious and it's the sort of discussion that could mean Auckland, a city still (in the 21st century!) trying to electrify its trains, stagnates even more. NZ's not a big player on the world stage but, surely, we can recognise that the world stage isn't something that we should willfully deny the advantages of. And denying the CRL is to deny its ideas and, ultimately, economic access.

The Outlook

Sadly, with National in charge it's dubious. Hopefully they can come around and support the Rail Loop properly. Firstly, they create the super city to deny their big picture obligations to Aucklanders. Secondly, they set targets that can't be reach quickly without the CRL to start their funding early. That adds up to, "Not interested." But, maybe, just maybe, the Council will be able to soldier on alone and they'll get far enough that, at least, someone like Bill English will open their eyes a bit more. Or maybe I don't have enough face in the Council. All I know for certain is, the longer we continue to entertain the delusions of opponents, government support for something it should be in on will be further away.

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