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Auckland: A Failure of Imagination

Auckland: A Failure of Imagination

Rohan G.H. Quinby Auckland, New Zealand weblog: anti-podean journal

Aucklanders should be interested to know that this city’s transport problems have attracted international academic attention. Last week Dr. Paul Mees, a lecturer in transport and strategic urban planning at the University of Melbourne spoke to over 750 people at a Parnell church about motoways, congestion and public transport.

Regardless of the name-calling and protests from Mayor John Banks and the Automobile Association, it was an important opportunity to hear from an informed and incisive expert who has spent a considerable amount of time studying what’s wrong with Auckland’s transport environment. For Mees, Auckland’s current transport policy debates are trapped in paradigms and proposals from the past. If we fail to seriously re-examine our transport policies, the likely success of current plans is doubtful. So for the benefit of politicians and punters who were unable to make it that night, I have summarised what I think are Dr. Mees’ most important points.

Auckland is an exception: according to Mees, nowhere else in the world is there such a one-sided debate about completing motorway plans drawn up in the 1950’s at the expense of public transport. No other city has built the kind of extensive motoway networks that were envisioned by early planners, because with the exception of Auckland, people realised long ago that "completing" such a network was both impossible and undesirable. Auckland is already way ahead of the game: according to research carried out by Mees, Auckland already has more acres of motorways per person than any other comparable city in the world. And while other cities plan with a bias toward public transport, such an attitude seems impossibly "radical" in the Auckland context.

Aucklanders love their cars too much: in actual fact, Aucklanders have not always loved their cars as much as they appear to now. In the 1950’s and 60’s, usage of public transport was very high. But as more infrastructure was built for the private automobile, less and less money was invested in public transit, to the point where Aucklanders had no choice but to love their cars. It wasn’t a free choice, but one that was the result of decades of bad planning and policy decisions. But it gets worse. Current planning from the ARC will do little to change this: plans in the Auckland Regional Land Transport Strategy show that already meagre passenger transport spending is set to decrease relative to roads spending over the next several years.

A future without cars is unrealistic: nobody is seriously suggesting that any large urban area will do away with the private automobile. Cars will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation well into the future. Auckland’s problem is that for decades planners have shown an overwhelming bias for the car, more so than any other city in the world. On a per capita basis, fewer people use public transport in Auckland than in Los Angeles. In order to correct this problem, there will have to be a massive spending bias toward public transport to make up for the decades of neglect shown by planners and politicians. This will not mean that people will be somehow unable to drive cars. Unfortunately, neither the spending package announced by Wellington nor the future spending plans of the ARC go anywhere near to correcting the balance.

Congestion: contrary to popular belief, Auckland’s congestion is on par with many other cities. What is different about Auckland are the particular characteristics of its congestion as well as the fact that the city experiences a large amount of congestion relative to its size. To a large degree this is attributable to the near total lack of other modes of passenger transport. Cities with excellent public transport systems such as Vancouver have recognised that a certain amount of congestion is one of the most successful mechanisms there is for getting people out of their cars and on to public transport, assuming that good public transport exists.

Density and Urban Form: it’s often said that Auckland is too spread out and sparsely populated for public transport to be "efficient". Even the ARC repeats these so-called "facts" in its planning documents. The problem with these statements is that they are logically flawed and not based on sound evidence. When strictly accounted for, there is no public transport system in the world that makes a profit. That means from the perspective of economics, there is no public transport system in the world that is "efficient". Good public transit is always subsidised because people recognise that it is a social good with a wide variety of both market and non-market benefits. Arguments about efficiency put up by ARC planners and road lobbyists merely reflect the fact that some Aucklanders don’t want to pay for good public transport.

The idea that Auckland’s lightly populated and spread out urban form somehow prevents good public transport ignores evidence to the contrary. Mees demonstrates that the comparisons of density used by the ARC are based on faulty and antiquated research. Vancouver has similar density to Auckland and is also located along variagated coastal areas, with a "CBD" centered on a peninsula. But Vancouver’s planners have created an excellent public transit system that is creating the kind of densities that make public transport more cost effective. Shifting the modes of transport that we use changes the form of our urban spaces, and not the other way around.

Transferability: ARC planners blindly believe that there is such a thing as a "transfer penalty". That is, the ARC believes that if passengers are asked to transfer at different points along a route, they will choose not to use public transit. But for Dr. Mees, the best public transit systems in the world are those which give passengers more transfer options and therefore more route flexibility. Of course, if passengers have to wait too long to transfer, the system will be perceived as inconvenient. But the solution is to increase frequencies, not to sacrifice choice and flexibility. In my opinion, the incorrect belief in a "transfer penalty" may explain the persistence of Auckland’s old fashioned and inconvenient network design sometimes called "hub-and-spoke". This is very different from modern transport systems which are designed as a pattern of interconnecting routes, emphasisin

Privatisation: According to Dr. Mees, Auckland will never be able to get ahead of its transport problems as long as public transit assets are owned by the private sector.

Fatalism: negative arguments about density and efficiency have created a culture of fatalism about changing Auckland’s transportation environment. This fatalism is based on flawed assumptions and limited research. Worse still, this fatalism has adversely affected the very process of planning itself. Mees shows that cities such as Vancouver began their planning by asking what kind of city they would like to have in the future. Policy options were then tested against this goal to see if they would achieve the outcomes desired. Auckland’s culture of fatalism means that planners take it for granted that they will not be able to do anything other than tinker with the status quo. Thus the ARC’s transport plans fail to do what good planning ought to do: achieve socially desirable outcomes.

Politics: in most other cities, urban administrations that favoured the use of cars at the expense of public transit were voted out in the 1970’s and 80’s. Reform-minded politicians were given control of councils and used their power to replace planning heirarchies that were biased against public transport. Often these politicians were aided by civil society groups that worked to mobilise public opinion. Auckland’s public has shown a singular lack of imagination in voting for politicians who are committed to reversing decades of poor planning and terrible policy.

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