Saturday, June 26, 2004

Auckland: A Failure of Imagination

Today the shitty streets of Auckland claimed another victim.

I was walking along Broadway on my way toward Woolworth's when I noticed a large crowd standing on the street corner. Not just any street corner, but the one directly out front of Woolworth's. It's a busy corner, as far as Auckland corners go. And even though it's primarily used by people walking across to the mall, pedestrians are warned by signs to "give way to cars". Hey, this is Auckland. Do I need to be told to give way to cars?

But there was a young woman lying on the pavement, and a crappy old van stopped midway in the intersection. She'd been hit and there were ambulance attendants already there, moving her on to a gurney. I heard her cry as they moved her: she had her neck in a brace and the attendants had to be careful as they took her off of the asphalt.

It made me angry. There was a cop writing things down and I knew that the accident was going to be blamed on the beautiful woman who had cried out with fear and panic simply because she had tried to cross the fucking street. But here cars have the right of way. The've had the right of way for a long, long time.

The night before I had gone to hear Dr. Paul Mees talk about Auckland and cars. For those of you that don't know, Paul Mees is a lecturer in urban design at the University of Melbourne and has spent a considerable amount of time studying Auckland’s transportation problems. I'll summarise some of what I took to be his main points from both his presentations and his published work.

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, emphasising transferability and interconnection.

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.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Slow down Kiwi, slow down...

It's winter-like outside in Auckland. Relatively speaking.

Improbably, women throw ample scarves round necks in plus 15c degree weather. Narrow-lipped kiwi men walk vigorously in pea coats while gusts of warm, moist ocean air push leaves and garbage down footpaths. People shiver and turn indoors to watch bad television.

It's the time of year when all thoughts turn to electricity. And right on time, the state owned enterprise Transpower is warning that we might face yet another power crisis. Over at Fighting Talk, Lyndon Hood rehearses the good old saw about not relying on the free market to provide such goods as electricity and water. For the record, I think he's absolutley right. Between you, me and the cursor, I can't believe that we still have argue this.

Idiot at No Right Turn makes an interesting comparison between the provision of electricity and roads:

Look at the roads. Like the national grid, they're a vital piece of infrastructure on which people (and the economy) depend. Yet they're not run as an SOE. Instead we have centralised funding and planning to ensure that the network goes everywhere we want it to go and carries the traffic we need it to. It's not perfect - just look at Auckland - but the system generally works and is at least certain of its purpose: to build, maintain and upgrade the road net for the benefit of the people of New Zealand.

It's a very good point. It brings us back to the Lange government and the reforms. Economist Brian Easton argues that the reforms involved three distinct but related policy instruments: commercialisation, corporatisation and privatisation. Commercialisation refers to the use of private business as a model for organising both economic and non-economic life. Corporatisation is the process whereby publicly owned agencies are required “to behave as if it were a private corporation” while privatisation refers to the sale of publicly owned assets into private hands.

It's arguable that both commercialisation and corporatisation have had some positive effects. They have also had negative effects. But privatisation? That's another thing entirely. The problem is that back in the period of the reforms, New Zealanders seemed to get all this confused. Justin Malbon has argued that New Zealand's response to the heavy regulation and poor productivity of the Muldoon years was logically flawed:

The logical response to regulatory ‘failure’ is not necessarily to abandon regulation, but to reform it. Second, the reason that many utilities were government owned was because they were natural monopolies, which would take advantage of, rather than be constrained by, market conditions. Third, utilities offer essential public services. It has long been recognised that some services are affected by the public interest so as to require the service provider to offer the services to all, without discrimination, at a reasonable price.

The point is that New Zealand skipped regulatory reform. Intead, in example after example, this country refused the more gradualist approaches followed by countries like Australia and Canada and opted instead for full privatisation. And once utilities like electricity were placed in the magical hands of the free market, this country's strange cabal of policy wonks decided that the role of government as a regulator could also be abandoned.

And that brings us to where we are now. Looks like we'll have to go back a few steps. Back to the future.