Traffic in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images
Traffic in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

AucklandMarch 29, 2017

Auckland’s transport crisis: how it was made, and why it will only get worse

Traffic in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images
Traffic in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

Overflowing buses, long delays to the airport and chaos downtown: Transport planning is a complete bloody mess and most of the big things needed to fix the problems are delayed or are being ignored altogether. And meanwhile, a battle is growing between different parts of council over what to do. Why are we putting up with this?

In the last five years pedestrian numbers on Queen St have doubled, to 60,000 a day. No other city in the world has seen such growth on its main street. There are now 45,000 people living in the central city: that’s the number the planners said we’d reach in 2032. There are 22 percent more people working in the CBD and the number of commuters arriving on public transport has risen from 13,000 to 40,000.

There are now more people living in the city centre than drive in by car. In fact, the number of cars in the central city hasn’t grown at all.

Walk down Queen St these days and you’ll find the pavements stuffed with people. Drive down, and you could well have a clear run – who, apart from service vehicles and taxis, takes a car into Queen St anymore? Yet it is still a four-lane road from top to bottom.

As for High St, there are now so many people there it’s almost impossible to walk its length – it should be a shoppers’ haven and yet cars, and carparks on both sides, continue to get priority! Why?

The inner city is not what we thought it was going to be when the council adopted the City Centre Masterplan (CCMP) in 2012. Change has been faster and far larger than anyone predicted.

Now it’s time to revise the plan. But guess what? Although car numbers are static and bus and walker numbers are way up, the planners are not going to change tack. To the dismay of many councillors, no big rethink is on the cards. Auckland Transport appears to believe all we should do is delay some plans and rejig some others. The government, which controls most of the money, thinks much the same.

Meanwhile, further afield, things are arguably even worse. Did you know more than half the peak-time commuters on the harbour bridge now ride to work on a rapid transit bus on the dedicated busway? That’s great.

These are North Shore people, who supposedly would never get out of their cars, and yet somehow they have.

That’s rapid transit in action, proving its worth. So why, if we look west, did the widening of the northwest motorway not include a dedicated busway? That one’s on NZTA, the government’s transport funding and planning agency. The word for that decision is: incompetent.

Traffic in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

Around the suburbs, many commuters complain on social media about the number of full buses driving past them. Regular train commuters to Britomart know all about stopping to wait for a rail line into the terminal to come free, because there are only two. In the east, where public transport is worse than anywhere else in the city, they wait in vain for better service of any kind.

And in the south, on highway 20A leading to the airport? Those roadworks cause havoc now, but things will hardly be better when they’re done. Demand grows at a furious pace: more than 20,000 people work in and around the airport, there are 18 million airline passengers a year and both those numbers are rising fast.

So the government has confirmed there will be no rail line to the airport for another 30 years. And it dressed up this announcement to pretend it was progress. What?

Transport planning in Auckland is laughable.

At least it would be, if you weren’t stuck every day in traffic on the motorway, or taking your life in your hands on a bike, or just trying to walk along High St. And the reason for all this is both simple and appalling. It’s not just that the politicians and transport agencies have consistently underestimated how we might grow. They have neglected to future proof their plans by allowing for growth. They have not just refused to believe we might change our behaviour and get out of our cars. They have refused to change their plans even when confronted with the irrefutable evidence that we will do that.

The reason our transport planning is a mess is that the people responsible for it are profoundly out of touch with the way the world now works. Worse, they lack the wit or imagination to conceive that things might be different in the future. They can’t plan, usefully, because they can’t look ahead. Instead, they focus on solutions that might tidy up the past.

Who is it doing this? First and principally, it’s the government, because when it comes to transport they control most of the money and most of the decision-making power. The government has badly underfunded public transport in Auckland and, adding insult to injury, has refused to allow the council to raise money for transport by other means. And it is the government that believes most strongly that the key to solving congestion on the roads is to build more roads.

Actually, favouring private vehicles by building more roads is the key to making things worse – nobody in transport planning anywhere in the world now seriously disputes that. Certainly the evidence for it is very clear in Auckland. Yet more roads is the foundation of the government’s transport planning.

Next, NZTA, the enablers and in many cases the drivers of that government myopia.

Trains at Britomart Station, Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

And there is Auckland Transport itself. Wretched, befuddled and blind. A thousand people work at AT, and a great many of them are there because they dare to hope. They’re encouraged in that by the chair of their own board, Lester Levy, who talks a good game about the future of transport in the city. But the hopes and skills of the staff are betrayed by the reality: their bosses are out of their depth. They cannot see what’s wrong and they cannot see how to fix it.

AT is a council-controlled organisation, although it also answers to government. So what’s Auckland Council itself doing? It shares some of the blame for the mess we’re in, not for wrong-headedness, because its own future planning on transport is pretty good, but for timidity.

Why isn’t it reading the riot act to the board of Auckland Transport? AT can’t build better public transport capacity without government support, but why doesn’t the council insist that it make fast and fundamental changes to fix the mess in the central city?

Auckland’s transport list of incompetence and shame

Ten things the planning agencies need to face up to now:

1. The City Rail Link will not be big enough.

At a council Planning Committee meeting this week, Cr Mike Lee noted the build-up of buses arriving from the northwest and clogging the inner city, and asked, shouldn’t they terminate at Karangahape Road, where passengers who want to go further could catch the City Rail Link (the underground railway now being built)?

The officials’ answer was that the CRL will be at capacity and not able to take more passengers at that point. That means this $3.4 billion transport project is being built with no capacity for growth. What?

Not surprisingly, Mike Lee seemed pretty angry.

Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

2. Streams of buses are subverting plans for the inner city.

Following an agreement signed last week by Auckland Transport and NZTA, we’re going to see 140-160 buses an hour in Queen St, many of them articulated or double-decker. Possibly for the next 30 years.

For this single reason, the plans set out in the 2012 City Centre Masterplan to pedestrianise parts of Queen St and to create a “linear park” along Victoria Street have been, and are still, on hold. Despite both proposals being extremely popular when the CCMP went through public consultation in 2012.

At the Planning Committee, mayor Phil Goff asked, did the delay mean there would be “more traffic lanes and less green space”?

Daniel Newcombe from AT said no, it wasn’t about cars, just buses.

Goff: “But it still compromises the vision for greening the area?” He was clearly pissed off too.

“It’s a matter of timing,” said Newcombe.

Timing? He meant that the City Rail Link is so disruptive, nothing else will be done until it’s built. For downtown, that’s a couple of years off. But he also meant something else: long-term rail planning has stuffed up shorter term plans for the central city. See the next point.

Symonds St, Auckland in morning rush hour, 29 March 2017. Photo: Madeleine Chapman

3. The airport railway plan is wrecking downtown Auckland.

Not the fact of it, but the timing. Under AT’s own plans, the way to get the overload of buses out of downtown Auckland is to build a light rail system: modern trams. It would run up Queen St and then, initially, head off down Dominion Rd. AT used to say work would start in 2016.

AT also wants light rail to the airport, and that’s would probably be the same line, extended from the bottom of Dominion Rd. But there’s the problem: the government has confirmed rail to the airport won’t be built for another 30 years and the whole light rail proposal is on hold. They’re going to secure the route, but they’re not going to build it.

Take a moment with that. If the government gets its way, there will be people living on Mars before we have a railway line to the airport. It would get built more quickly if we employed a couple of guys and asked them to dig out the route with a pick and shovel.

In the meantime, our inner city streets will become nose-to-tail bus yards. And it doesn’t end there. Rail to the north shore is also on a slow track, so the Northern Busway will also continue to spill buses into the central city for decades to come.

When the reality of all this became clear at that Planning Committee meeting this week, Cr Chris Darby, chairing the committee, made a speech. “That is not my vision of Queen Street,” he said. “The decisions of AT are problematic and are at odds with the City Centre Masterplan. Completely at odds.” He was furious.

“Hear hear,” said Mike Lee.

Ludo Campbell-Reid, the city’s “design champion” and head of the council’s design office, sat there with shoulders hunched. Pedestrianising Queen Street was “the number one project with the public,” he said, referring to the consultations they did over the CCMP in 2012. “But,” he muttered, “doing that has not been achievable for various reasons. It’s frustrating.” He seemed to be in despair.

“We need to address that,” said Darby. But will they? How will they?

Councillor Chris Darby

4. The airport rail options are complicated by the future of the port.

The government and AT want light rail to be the long-term solution for connecting to the airport. But others favour heavy rail – the electric trains we have on our suburban lines now. The council does not yet have a position.

Heavy rail will cost more, but would be less disruptive to build because it requires merely an extension of the existing line from Onehunga or Manukau. You don’t have to start laying a line up Queen St.

Heavy rail will also make sense if the container port shifts, as was proposed last year by the Port Future Study, a consensus working group involving all major stakeholders. The two options are Manukau and the Firth of Thames, and both would involve new heavy rail links from port to airport and the port’s inland storage facility at Wiri.

5. The chaos caused by the CRL is absurd.

Building an underground railway under a city is disruptive. We all get that. But does it have to be as negatively disruptive as the CRL is right now? Essentially, AT is acting on the principle of let’s pretend it isn’t happening.

Buses and private vehicles still flow everywhere they can, but the crosstown traffic gets held up because the flow is restricted to single lanes. Shops still open when they can, even though pedestrians can’t easily see them and foot traffic along the edge of the construction sites is badly eroded. Retailers are in despair.

For heaven’s sake, why has AT not taken the chance to rethink inner-city traffic? Why aren’t they trialling all sorts of things, building on the ones that work and scrapping those that don’t? They could:

  • Roll out a programme of street closures, aiming to leave open only those needed by buses and commercial vehicles, and some designated arterial routes.
  • Convert some of the closed streets into markets for the nearby retailers. Every shop hidden behind a construction hoarding should get a new, easy-to-access market stall site to do business from.
  • Closed streets could also become city gardens, malls, entertainment stages and food stall sites.
  • Whip up some peripheral park-and-rides around the inner city, so people could drive only so close and then, if they don’t want to walk or hire a commuter bike, catch a bus the rest of the way. A free bus, that is.
  • Convert substantial parts of the roadways to cycling use, and mount a really big campaign to encourage walking and cycling.
  • Incentivise businesses to close their carparks and provide employees with HOP cards. Or penalise those that don’t?
  • Exclude general traffic from many of the “shared space” streets like Fort St, O’Connell St, Elliott St and part of Federal St. Almost none of the cars using them now has any good reason to be there: they’re just looking for a short cut and undermining the potential of the streets.
  • Reduce Queen St traffic to one lane each way. Effectively, turn it into bus lanes, but allow the few cars left after all the other changes above to share it. Do it with temporary barriers first to see if it works.
Concept drawing for the proposed East West link, June 2016.

6. There’s no good reason to build the East/West link.

The proposed new road linking SH20 with the industrial zones of Penrose and Otahuhu has no good business case. The last publicly available assessment, which was done in 2015, suggested the economic case was weak, and that was when the route was different and the costs were much lower.

This is extraordinary. The only reason to build this road is economic: it’s for freight trucks. But the economics aren’t good enough. The government is avoiding this by calling it a “road of national significance” – weasel words designed merely to disguise the fact it is pandering to sections of the construction and freight industries.

7. Parnell station: you can leave but you can’t arrive.

There’s a new station on the rail line from Newmarket to Britomart, at Parnell. Hallelujah. But like a bizarre bad joke, some trains stop there in the evening but not the morning, or is it vice versa? You can get home from work, but you have to make your own way in.

It’s on account of “efficiency” of the overall line, but really? Is it a service or just a tease?

8. Will the new board members be any better than the old?

While all this manifest absurdity is going on, Auckland Transport is getting three new directors. It will also, a bit later this year, say goodbye to its retiring CEO, David Warburton. And in two years’ time the board chair, Lester Levy, will also step down.

That’s all a bit exciting, right? A chance for some new talent, new ideas, new skills? They need it. The current board members (five men, one woman) all have a traditional business background, several of them in the vehicle-focused transport industry.

In an interview late last Lester Levy said the new appointments would be strong in digital systems and urban transformation. Will it happen? The recruitment process is being handled by Sheffield Consulting, which has a long tradition of putting predictable people onto boards.

But it’s not their call, or Levy’s. The council makes the decision. For councillors concerned about transport in this city, these appointments are among the most important decisions they will make.

As for a new CEO, these days there are some exciting transport sector leaders in many cities, many of them mentored by the famous former New York Commissioner of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan. Can we please, please, please have one of them?

Bike lane on Beach Road, Auckland. Photo:

9. Despite the green paint, cycling is not prioritised.

There’s some good work happening for cycling in Auckland. More dedicated cycle lanes, more protected routes to schools, some campaigning to get people onto bikes. But it’s far too little. Here are some things they could try:

  • On all the wide roads (many of which used to be tram lines) put out cones and create temporary cycle lanes.
  • At every primary and intermediate school, establish cycle routes and set up programmes with parent and whanau support for kids to use them. Start with the intermediates.
  • Work with schools to establish car-free safe zones.
  • Incentivise companies to promote cycling among their staff.

10. Last but not least, will they ever make the bus stops better?

Ever caught a bus at the Midtown stop, or on Wellesley St, or at any of the other big mid-city stops? At peak times the pavements get crowded, at some there’s not enough shelter when it rains, at none of them are there enough seats. Big bus stops are merely little bus stops, designed for three people to sit down in, with everyone else hanging about and getting in the way of people walking past. That’s even true at the newly renovated stops like Customs St heading east.

Why is this? Why, especially at night, don’t they make customers feel both safer and more comfortable? Why aren’t the stops a bit of fun, with entertaining material on the walls?

If we’re meant to be using public transport instead of driving into town, why do so many bus stops carry this very clear message: if you have money or brains you are not supposed to be here.

At that Planning Committee meeting, Cr Richard Hills shared the dismay of Goff, Darby and Lee. “We can’t keep doing this,” he said, “cutting bits off and hoping for the best and then going crap, what are we going to do now?” True that.

Hills reminded his colleagues that in New York, there were 4.5 million people living either side of the Brooklyn Bridge and yet somehow they managed to have “miles and miles of parks”. More people doesn’t equal less quality of life – unless you give up and don’t plan for it.

Mike Lee said, “Transport should serve the city not the other way round. We want to preserve a city that is not damaged by transport.” True that too.

Design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid was asked what they should do. He said, “You’re right to be worried. It’s about getting into a room with AT and working it out.”

Sadly, it’s about a great deal more than that. They’ve got a battle on their hands.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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