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.