Visualisation showing light rail travelling down Dominion Rd. Source: at.govt.nz

Light rail is a really big deal: it can transform Auckland

Planned and implemented in the right way, these projects can lead to the creation of high quality urban places at the same time as reducing the need for travel, writes urban designer Alistair Ray.

Patterns and modes of transportation shapes cities. Types and intensity of land use are directly linked to the types and methods of transportation within a city. This has been evident in cities around the world for centuries, and in Auckland in its relatively short history.

But for decades Auckland has been shaped primarily by movement patterns along roads and motorways and by the use of the private car. As long as a city is relatively small, this can work. But as a city grows, these methods of transportation begin to show their limitations. At 1.5 million people, Auckland can no longer rely on motorways and roads as the primary method of moving people around. We have to admit that we have known this for quite a few years now, but many are still reluctant to accept it.

In order to maintain high levels of liveability and economic competitiveness we have to recognise the importance of implementing a high quality, rapid, mass transportation system. And it has to be all three of these things. If it is too slow or of poor quality it will not carry sufficient people to make a difference. We must remember this isn’t just about how we move people around, it’s about that connection between land use decisions and transportation methods.

We are looking toward a future enabled by public transport. Projects I am involved in at Jasmax – such as the City Rail Link, light rail to the airport, and electrification to Pukekohe – will be game-changers for Auckland.

Studies have shown that recent investments in the rail network have had significant positive impacts on land values around all the stations on the rail network. This started with dual tracking, then electrification and most recently the inception of the City Rail Link. Apart from just raising land values, this has led to renewed interest in more intensive development, particularly around the major new stations. Again, transport influencing land use.

Light rail systems around the world have had similar major effects.

Buses don’t have anywhere near the same impact. People don’t make major living or business investment decisions around bus routes because they are not seen as being permanent, and don’t offer the same carrying capacity, comfort or time savings as rail.

While dedicated busways can help in part, the buses still have to use the already congested roads at either end. And if the busway follows the motorway, then the impact on land values is minimal, as the opportunity to create high quality urban centres around motorways will always be limited.

That’s why this week’s announcement of not one but two light rail lines in Auckland is a real boost for the city.

Planned and implemented in the right way, light rail can be a game changer for the areas around its routes, encouraging more investment and helping to make more intensive residential development viable. This in turn helps create high quality urban places, and reduces the need for travel into the city, thus cuttin congestion even further.

But this shift in approach to transport is not just an issue facing Auckland. New Zealand is at the point where, as a nation, we must be on the same page in our approach to the design of our towns and cities. We are living in transformative times – now is the time for cohesive, collaborative strategic planning and big picture thinking.

Alistair Ray is head of urban design at Jasmax and a member of the Urban Design Forum committee behind the 2018 Urbanism New Zealand conference Joining the Dots, to be held in Wellington 14-15 May

Read more from Commute Week here 


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