Monday, 30 October 2017

Housing & Transport : Auckland Under the New Government

In the run up to the election there was, for a time, no party that I considered voting for. Sure, Mana and Maori might have had policies I liked when I heard them but for whatever reason I never seriously investigated them. This was probably because this was months before the election. And when James Shaw apologised for the Greens' immoral and economically unsound immigration announcement electoral inertia took over (I voted Greens in 2014 too; since I live in a safe seat my electorate vote is irrelevant... I chose in the booth and don't recall for whom). I have a longer post on this theme that I'd like to finish one day, but I'll will tell you now that the Labour government has done basically what I expected it to and also what I hoped it would. (Aside: I intended this to be a brief thought... I failed in that ambition.)

What I Expected : Housing

Obviously I have a lot of different expectations about Labour. For instance, I am firmly in the camp that says Labour's way of engaging with immigration (and house prices) is racist, but even if it wasn't its approach is just wrong. economically and morally. However, what exactly this government is going to do with immigration is currently unclear. Rather, my brief expected thought deals with housing. Remember this?
The problem is that building houses always requires a where. For Labour, that's beyond the current urban limits of Auckland. [...] We should emulate that and build out on pain of death... because that's ultimately what sprawling means.
It seems that this is basically the avenue Ardern, Peters and co. are going to take. More specifically they appear to be putting about the idea that Paerata/Wesley College is the place to do it. I don't know if you've ever been there. Aside from where the houses already are it's fields and fields and fields being put to use. Which is true of basically everywhere either side of the road (whether you take the Great South Rd. or the motorway) when you travel from Drury to Pukekohe.
Housing Minister Phil Twyford told the Herald today he is very interested in work being done by Infrastructure New Zealand for a satellite city centred round the small settlement of Paerata, just north of Pukekohe.
Infrastructure New Zealand are one of those groups that equates infrastructure with roads solely. And while Paerata is one of the many very rural areas that you pass through on the Pukekohe shuttle (comfiest seats in Auckland's land-based transit, but also smelliest and noisiest ride given it uses what I have always referred to as the really old diesels) using a rail line to justify more sprawl is not the thing at all. Old School Labour gets this, even if Phil "Chinese Sounding Names" Twyford doesn't. Hence Phil Goff's comments:
He said there were already substantial plans for 23,000 new homes in the future urban zone from Paerata through to Drury, but was wary of building outside the urban limits and was keen to protect sensitive environmental areas, like the elite vegetable growing soils at Pukekohe.
"It's about what works best for the city, what is affordable, doesn't put extra pressure on your infrastructure and what areas you prioritise," Goff said.
And, yes, people are talking about how this land is undeveloped when I think the better way of framing it is, "Not Being Used for Housing already." Now, some of this land is already in line to be developed by Wesley College and at least part of that land is farmland right now too, but that isn't an excuse to go all in. We need agricultural land, especially those bits of it that are particularly fertile. We don't need to create another place to commute from, we don't need the environmental impacts and we don't need this kind of development. Even if they do as right as possible, there's no way that this land (which is well over 30 minutes by car from the CBD by the way; Wesley College is apparently more than 30min from Manukau) is better used for housing people than onions. The people can live in Takanini if you build those Addison properties differently. They can live in Ormiston if you build flats. They can live in the existing urban boundary built flats, if you redevelop with density in mind or if you take places like I've just mentioned and help the developers do different stuff. That's what should be happening. The onions, eventually, will have to be imported. And, guess what, people want to live in other countries too.

So, if Twyford and his masters keep pushing this nonsense or, even, if they keep encouraging Infrastructure New Zealand and its ilk, we will end up in a bad place. We need much more radical change than simply sprawling, except this time by train.

What I Hoped For : Transport

What I hoped for is something that's being much more done than the above. That was really a discussion of an affirmation of expectations more than an "analysis" of a proposed policy. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that I am over-selling what is actually going on: for the most part it is just talk about massively ramping up something locals have known about for years. Labour's announcements of the LRT Mangere-Airport line and the subsequent confirmation of the Northwest LRT line? They're real... even if they are also kind of talk.

You might think it strange that I was only hoping the government would go ahead with these projects given that both Labour and the Greens have essentially just lifted Greater Auckland's congestion free network ideas wholesale from their website. That's two out of the three government parties. The problem was Winston. As far as I know, Winston Peters was pro-heavy rail. That would have sucked for anyone looking forward to improved frequencies once the CRL is finished. Why? Because the CRL just increases capacity, it doesn't give unlimited capacity. Thus, to run trains to the Airport would necessarily reduce frequencies to the other terminal stations. Uncool. And there would be terrible frequencies for anyone using the Onehunga-Airport proposal (c.f. a spur) because Onehunga is currently allocated terrible frequencies post-CRL. Also, uncool.

There were other reasons to be worried about Winston's involvement. I mean, you've noticed how I talk about the Mangere-Airport line, right? The reason for that is the LRT option provides tens of thousands of people access to rapid transit. At the moment, South West Auckland has the worst public transport service of anywhere in urban Auckland. It's also a fairly poor area.* None of the heavy rail options for going to the Airport are as good at doing this. Spurs or doglegs from the main trunk completely miss South West Auckland or involve demolishing a bunch of houses they should be serving. The Onehunga variant has fewer stations, worse catchments and, as mentioned, can't provide a decent level of service. And having a separate LRT network means you'll introduce more robustness to the system through their independence. Basically, if you live in Onehunga, say, you can catch the LRT if the Onehunga Line is down and vice versa. And this applies for everyone too, just not as directly (usually). Which is a lot of words to explain that Winston Peters' influence was a scary proposition.

(It's also worth noting that substituting road obsessives with train obsessives isn't quite what is needed. I would argue that latter are always better to have, but they can still cause stations to be built in the wrong place, the wrong projects to get funding and the wrong mode to be prioritised. Life and cities and transport are systems: that means every part matters every time. There was a concern that Winston Peters might be a train fan. I am too, when it comes to it, but I'm not a decision maker. Also, train obsessives are sometimes confused with train spotters. Crudely put the difference is that while train spotters may or may not be obsessed with trains we're talking about stubborn advocates of train investment here, not "people who know things about locomotives".)

Anyway, the point is, good news, they're going ahead with both projects. (The Northwest one was up in the air a bit more because it hasn't captured the imagination rather than concerns about Winston. I reflect this reality by relegating further discussion of it to a parenthetical remark.) In fact, they've announced they're doing more. They're going to use buses to link the Southern/Eastern line with the Airport at Puhinui... a crucial first step in the Light Rail L. They're cancelling the current version of the East-West Link. They're funding the third main. And because they're electrifying from Pukekohe to Papakura that makes a trifecta of things I didn't know about until I read the above article:
He said the Government was proceeding with several public transport projects in South Auckland, including a third rail line from Otahuhu to Wiri, electrifying rail from Papakura to Pukekohe and providing rapid buses from Puhinui to the airport.
All of these moves are really good ones to make and they reflect the kind of radical rethink that we need in Auckland. These decisions stand in stark contrast to the pro-sprawl thinking evident in Twyford's response to Infrastructure New Zealand's fevered dreams. One might wonder if this is because Twyford ultimately sees the housing problem as one of house prices and of demand. That would make sense. But I should point out that Labour is doing some sensible stuff when it comes to housing, even if I ultimately don't think this troubles a "Twyford is a problematic housing minister narrative". Make up your own mind (use their link to help in doing so): it's not relevant today. Rather, let's have some brief thoughts on all these policies so I can at least pretend to have some analysis.

Mangere-Airport Line

It's a little known fact that my grandfather worked on the Auckland Harbour bridge when they built it. I asked him one day if he remembered Auckland's tram network. I can't remember what he said. (I think he may have arrived just as they were ripping them out.) I mention this because The Mangere Airport Line (MAL) is an extension of the earlier Dominion Road proposal. Those big isthmus roads, it turns out, were what Urban Geographers call tram suburbs and had once been catered to by trams. Even now, Auckland is nowhere near the per capita ridership of the tram days (i.e. before we went nutso with motorways). The point is, that part of the line makes a lot sense: it's a traditional distance.

The thing is the MAL won't be a tram network: it's going to be light rail. To be quite honest, I'm not sure what the difference is between light and heavy rail: the units look very similar. The idea I have in my head is that light rail can (a) run in the road and (b) hack steeper gradients. That former character causes a lot of handwringing among the ill informed but the route that is proposed will see the trains largely not do that. Rather, they'll mostly run along dedicated thoroughfares and go at a decent clip. So fast will they be that their Airport-CBD times are very comparable to heavy rail proposals. The difference is in these graphics (station placement is where difference (b) comes into it). Or, in other words, the MAL is needed and fit for purpose (remembering the Airport is just the thing on the end, who it is for is everyone in between the terminal stops).

Oh, and of course I want the MAL so I can have the Light Rail L. (Attachment 8) (Airport-Botany Route)

Northwestern LRT 

I was a bit dishonest before, I put the discussion of this in brackets mostly because I don't care very much about it. I generally trust reports, so I believe that there is demand in the area. And, apparently, the demand for this is more than what exists in the Botany-Airport part of the Light Rail L. Also, apparently, there will be massive time savings relative to the current busses. At least, this is what I have pieced together from reading Greater Auckland. And, in some sense, this is enough. I am not GA, I am not a proper media site and this is meant to be brief thoughts. I do, however, feel like I've let the reader down a bit so to quote GA's Congestion Free Network Version II:
To facilitate the massive growth planned in existing and future urban areas, as well as providing congestion free travel for existing residents, we have decided on a light-rail route [...]
Light rail was chosen due to its ability to provide long-term capacity for the Northwest while removing high numbers of future buses from the city centre, freeing up capacity for more isthmus and Onewa services. The route also helps address the possible imbalance between the North Shore and Dominion Rd/South-west/Airport demand, by splitting North Shore services between two routes
Hey, it's the Busageddon idea, which strictly speaking is kind of a justification for the MAL, except more just the Dominion Road section. But public transport isn't just about getting people from the city to somewhere else, or the reverse.

Airport-Puhinui Rapid Busses 

This could be seen as a key part of the Light Rail L idea. After all, it is a key section of that route (all sections are key). The thing is, I'm not sure exactly how extensive it is. One hopes it is a bus version of what one day might be light rail rather than just an improved connector between the Southern/Eastern line and the Airport over the 380. I say that because the reality is that people who work at the Airport and surrounds love to live east of the Airport. Well, if not love, they certainly do:

Personally, this is almost as exciting as the MAL simply because it's something I could see myself using. You see, we might be going on a flight next year (the last three flights I caught were in 2008, 2011 and 2017) so getting to the Airport is an immediate concern. How exactly this bus service would work is not discernible from the Paerata housing article. And, as I said, it is the only place I have read about this as a thing that is happening. So, again, we'll turn to GA's CFN2 to flesh out "my" "analysis":
A new busway standard connection will be provided between Howick and the Airport, via Botany, Flat Bush, Manukau and a connection with the southern line at Puhinui. This connection will provide access to Manukau and the Airport - two major employment areas - from the south.
Likely passenger demand levels and fewer constraints at either end of the route means high-quality buses are likely to be an adequate mode choice for the foreseeable future, with the potential for an upgrade to light rail in the longer term
the CFN proposes a route connecting Howick, Botany, Flat Bush, Manukau, Puhinui (for Southern Line trains) and the Airport. This route provides an important cross-town connection, linking three key regions delivering a best practice grid network and thinking beyond the just the City Centre. 
So, another theoretically sound policy. The final pieces the puzzle are too (hah, pun!) but they say something interesting about the previous government and evidence and theoretical need.

Southern Line Rail Improvements

To be honest, I'm getting a bit bored (and hungry) here so this will be quite quick. Which is appropriate because you really do have to wonder how much thought Key's National put into these areas. I rather suspect what you're about to read exceeds that.

Not cancelling Auckland's massive jump backwards to the 1800s with the electrification of of the network everywhere but from Pukekohe to Drury has been proclaimed one of National's greatest urban achievements. That language is deliberate. When electrification was first pushed forwards it would have been relatively simple to use all the gear and labour to finish the job. They didn't. For whatever reason it was decided that it was better to just stop a few hundred metres south of Papakura Train station. Maybe it was because there were more bridges to raise. Maybe it was simply because a party that professes to believe in a rural/urban divide wanted to have some fuel for the fire a few elections down the track. Maybe there is some real explanation. Either way, the electrification was needed then and is needed now. It's really a bit farcical how AT has handled the Pukekohe shuttle. It's late, it leaves too soon, it's cancelled, the connecting train has gone etc. etc. Back in the day, the Pukekohe trains were always more full than the normal Southern line trains: people want to go there.

tl;dr -- If you build it, people really do come. If you don't build it, you can pretend they won't. But they do: the shuttles are going strong.

Another one of the issues with the Southern Line is that it shares a lot of its track. Obviously it shares from Puhinui to what used to be Westfield with the Eastern line, but what a lot of people don't get is that this is also where the electric trains live (at Wiri) and where the freight trains have to run. As far as railways go, it's a pretty congested set of track. And building a third rail line anywhere along it is both (a) immensely useful in this respect and (b) pretty cheap for what is a major improvement... just a few dozen million. Which really begs the question how did National not fast-track this (ah, punny)? Especially when some (admittedly slightly dodgy) ways of looking at it suggest a fourth main should be built!

Re-Examination of the East-West Link

The East-West Link is an infrastructure project that is neither immensely useful nor cheap. In fact, the version National let NZTA go ahead with was just about as expensive as it could be ($2 billion ish) and not even the most beneficial of like six or seven different options (there were quite a few, not sure how many exactly). Not sure what they were thinking really. The wasted money** will go towards LRT and hopefully something better will emerge viz the roads.

But that's actually the real kicker to this story. Sure, we might say that the extra money is going to LRT but if you're reading that table, it's only $350-600 million. Except you know it's not. You know subsequent to the table's construction estimates ballooned to $2 billion-ish, even though that's more than the projected benefits. Why wasn't the project stopped then? Shouldn't something have been done at that point in time? Or even earlier when the costs increased by a $100 million between the indicative and full business cases? (The BCR stayed the same, but unless that full version cost $100 million itself, when you know there were more attractive looking versions in the indicative case surely it's worth getting a full report done for them just in case they save you even that extra $100m?) What the hell was going on? We didn't know then and we don't know now.

I guess the positive to take away here is that this was the previous government. The same government that tried to suppress the studies regarding the third main. The same government that told us it was into evidence. They showed absolutely no guts when it came to transport, housing or basically any issue over the last nine years. They showed no signs of having a credible plan for tomorrow. They showed a very, very limited understanding of really basic economics. They showed a disregard for democratic proceedings time and time again. The new government is already showing that when it's defeated at the polls (whenever that may be) at least not all of these criticisms will be true of them. (Clearly they're not showing guts when it comes to housing.)

*The next worse served area is South East Auckland (Botany and the like) but the people that way are (a) generally wealthier and (b) somewhat catered to by the Eastern Line trains. They're not much better off, but they are. And, of course, for every former driver using the LRT that's one less vehicle in the road system, which ultimately feeds through to everyone. It's the butterfly effect.

Think about John, Paul, George and Ringo. If Ringo confuses John thirty minutes ago somewhere else with bad driving delaying him just enough that John scoots through traffic lights he shouldn't really and this affects a whole bunch of George's, one of whom causes a traffic jam through tailgating that affects Paul as he enters the motorway. This happens everyday. And it is why speeding and other traffic infringements aren't revenue collecting. If you think they are, you're stupid. No ifs, no buts, that's the case. (Whether they are arbitrarily enforced is a another matter, and whether the punishments are appropriate is too.)

**That is to say, any money over and above what is sufficient for a justifiable development.

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