Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A "Light Rail L" for Auckland?

Public Transport should represent, I believe, the backbone of a healthy city. There are many reasons for this. That shouldn't surprise because when you think about it, what is transport about? At its heart, transport is about movement from origin to destination. If it so happens that going from A to B is the best way of doing things, then A to B is how it should happen. But what if things work better if you move from A to B and then arrive at C? And better doesn't necessarily mean faster... it's probably better if it's safer, more predictable and flows better (no fuming, less stress, better health). Maybe the only people who should be in private vehicles are those working?

That last bit might sound a little extreme but extreme is good as a goal. In a perfect world of utterly rational creatures, perhaps that is way things work best. And if that's true, then how on earth do you get there? That's where public transport comes in. People need to have the choice to do things a different way. And that choice needs to be simple to understand, it needs to be plausible and it needs to be real, i.e. a public transport network actually needs to work for people. I think that's easiest when you're dealing with dense environments but proper public transport also enables densification... no-one's going to build a tower block if the residents are never going to be able to get anywhere, right? To this end, you need a spine... and you need to have ribs that come into the spine (even if this means that you end up with transfers).

The trouble with Auckland is that it's a pretty spread out place with a long-term mistrust of public transport among individuals, policy makers and, most importantly, the agencies tasked with transport infrastructure responsibilities. Sometimes this is in the face of data. Sometimes it's reflective of old realities. Sometimes it's both. In any case, I think it's fair to say that more people are open to the idea of public transport and more people are starting to appreciate that you can only build so many roads. Auckland may be spread out, but it's already as spread out East/West as it can be.* And maybe a big reason for this is that enough roads are congested enough, often enough that people are hoping there's another way. And there is. But it involves making decisions now for, at least, five years later... that may clash with local and national agencies and that may pit local government against national government (hopefully not like in GBH). Enter The Light Rail L.

As far as I know, no-one actually talks about a Light Rail L. It's just an idea that I read in the comments of this Transportblog post, written by someone who admits to being poorly informed. But they're right: it's a snappy name. Presumably they've imagined a line (which I know has been talked about on Transportblog before, so probably reflects someone's official thinking somewhere) that extends out towards Manukau and then on to Botany. In truth, Botany's about somewhere between East Tamaki and Howick on the map in the article, so it's more a U but the principle of the name is sound. The Botany line is sort of the natural and obvious extension.

Now, there is some route duplication going on here. After all, that light rail route would run up to Britomart broadly in parallel to the heavy rail line (light rail and heavy rail trains look the same but network-wise the latter is less capable of handling steep gradients and has a little bit less capacity... light rail could be thought of as "modern trams" or "trams on steroids"). Is that two backbones? Well, no. Remember what I said before about real choices? If you've got to dogleg all the way to the southern line (i.e. the existing heavy rail) before heading north you're travelling much further than you need to. Even if the dogleg's (A to B) expected average speed was greater than your car's, it is probably not be with the B to C time added on. The two backbones can, of course, share spines... and possibly should. In fact, the purpose of the L must be considered to be creating two spines.

On Transportblog they talk about a PT Void between the Western and Southern lines. I've always thought that description's ridiculous. Certainly, the busses that serve that area are approaching frequencies which will mean there is nothing but (full) busses running along several of the key roads (you need enough spines so that you're not forced to put too much straw on any one camel), but when I look for a place poorly served by high-capacity transport infrastructure (roads are low capacity), I think of "East" Auckland (it's really the eastern parts of South Auckland... the enormous part of Auckland from which I hail). There's some kind of bus service out there but busses are, well, busses. This is one of the major things that the Light Rail L would do something about.

One of the big stories at the moment relates to Auckland Airport and surrounding congestion. Apparently it gets really bad. All I know is that when we were there in May it took much longer to get to Ellerslie than I thought it would. But when you look at visualisations of travel to the Airport what do you notice? That's right, commuters generally come from the two directions of the L. That's one of the main selling points of the L, I think. It's simple to understand and it makes intuitive sense. Similarly, myself and a lot of other people think it's weird that there is no direct transport link to the Airport. If you've ever read Obelix and Co. (you really should*) this weirdness is "make the neighbours jealous," just expressed differently. The real reasons of course are a bit less clear. After all, we see how people construe the CRL as being all about Central Auckland rather than offering the entire network increased frequency and, so, capacity (plus time improvements). Those reasons are that all these different links and choices are offered. The personal is important... and sometimes this is not missing the forest for the trees (here is an example).

The Light Rail L is far from the key to unlocking Auckland's potential but there's a pithy phrase that explains its role: necessary but not sufficient. I don't know if I've presented the best case for it, but I do know I've presented the best case a quick, theoretical discussion can make. Hopefully I'll knock together a post on choices more generally soon... I think my ideas are interesting (the personal is important... and here we do miss the forest... I'll try and explain these references soon too).

*The Vimes Boot Theory of Socio-Economic Inequality also works with housing because of transport. You can buy/rent a cheaper house, but odds are the savings in living costs don't happen because you're spending so more time, money and energy getting places... because the cheapest houses (in a sprawling city) are those further away. You might live in a house for decades... the cost of buying it spreads over all those years (even if it doesn't appreciate), the transport ones increase with each year (and may or may not outstrip any appreciation because cars depreciate, and congestion worsens over time).

*The entire gamut of human experience can be found in Obelix and Co., Mansions of the Gods, Tintin and the Picaros and Watchmen... comparing the last three is... enlightening. I defy anyone to find an aspect not thus contained.

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