Auckland planning is at the crossroads

Last updated 05:00 05/12/2010
Photo: Ben Watson

Because there is no rail alternative for the north of Auckland, buses are the only option.

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MY COLUMN two weeks ago about roads generated by far the biggest, most passionate response from public and politicians to any of the 458 columns I've written to date in this space.

OPINION: It seems we care a lot about where and how we live, work and travel.

But caring often clouds rather than clarifies issues, as it does in spades with this very complex set of inter-related issues about urban form, function and transport.

Yet, if we are to ensure Auckland is a liveable, thriving place for decades to come we will have to make some very carefully considered decisions in the next few years then begin to execute excellently on them.

Moreover, "we" is not a tiny, incestuous bunch of politicians, public servants, consultants and media. It is "us" – the 1.4 million people who live in Auckland now. We need to make decisions that are right for us for years to come. But decisions that can also adapt to changing circumstances as potentially another 800,000 people swell Auckland's population to 2.2 million by 2051.

Collective wisdom counts. If you want to contribute yours, here are a couple of useful resources.

First is a paper about how Auckland dealt with growth in the past and how it might cope better in the future. The author, Peter Winder, the last chief executive of the Auckland Regional Council, presented it at a conference in September. You can find it by searching "Winder" at

Second is the work of Phil McDermott, a consultant on urban and economic development. His website, http://cities-matter., offers a wealth of evidence-based analysis on the Auckland region and its growth.

The two writers agree on some issues but offer somewhat different views of the future. Winder argues for growth within a compact, denser urban area. To achieve it, he sees the need for strong spatial planning and transport investment, particularly in rail.

McDermott argues for higher density in some places but also for satellite centres across the region. To achieve it, he sees the need for a less prescriptive approach to spatial planning and transport investment.

Such thoughtful analysis helps make sense of the conflict between Auckland Council and Transport Minister Steven Joyce. Tensions between local and central government over transport investment have simmered for years. But they boiled over 10 days ago when Joyce rubbished the council's business case for a $2.3 billion CBD rail loop.

The minister expressed disbelief about the cost/benefit methodology used to make the case. Then, in his article on this page last week, he scorned the thinking that lay behind the higher density urban form that underpins the case; and even if there were any merits in the urban form, he doubted local politicians could deliver on it because, he said, they had failed to do so in the past.

The case, though, deserves serious consideration. It says that an Auckland population of 2.2 million in 2051 would result in another 500,000 vehicles on the region's roads if we stick to our existing road-dominant investment in transport.

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But where would they go? Once the western link and Victoria Park tunnels are complete, there's no room left to build new or expanded motorways in the central isthmus.

Moreover, current rapid growth in passenger rail (from 2.5 million passengers in 2003 to 8.5 million this year) means that Britomart's limit as a dead-end station of 21-trains an hour will be reached in 2013.

Similarly, there is a practical limit of 100 buses per hour per bus lane downtown. Some lanes are about to hit the limit. All the existing and planned ones will hit the limits by 2020.

Building a rail loop to open up Britomart, however, would allow up to 60 trains an hour. This would help maximise the existing 200km of passenger rail lines by, for example, allowing better bus services to local rail stations rather than running most services into the city centre. This in turn would reduce the number of buses coming in from the west, allowing more buses to come in from the north where there is no rail alternative.

If this extra rail capacity were not built, then bus lanes would have to double or treble in each direction on major routes in and out of the CBD.

On conventional analysis the CBD rail loop delivers a cost/benefit ratio of 1.1 (for every dollar spent, it generates a $1.10 return) at the Treasury's current discount rate of 8%. In contrast, the motorway from Puhoi to Warkworth and Wellsford highly favoured by Joyce only delivers a ratio of 0.80 (80 cents on every dollar) on the same discount rate.

This is the latest figure from the Transport Agency. Joyce's office sent it to me in an attempt to refute the conclusion of my November 21 column that the highway was an uneconomic investment. Incidentally, Joyce's was the only negative response to the column.

Joyce says, though, the real value of the highway lies in its wider economic benefits (WEBs) such as the creation of jobs and new housing along its route. But again, the latest cost/benefit ratio supplied by his office is only 1.1 including WEBs, calculated on Treasury's current discount rate.

In contrast, the economic benefits of the rail loop at the same discount rate lift its cost/benefit ratio to 3.5 (every $1 invested would return $3.50). This is based on detailed analysis in the business case of the likes of higher density office, hotel and other development in the CBD.

In opposing the rail loop, Joyce proves to be a man of supple mind. On one hand, he argues for his motorway on the basis of wider economic benefits without any planning mechanisms to deliver, for example, more houses and jobs in Warkworth, hoping instead they will simply turn up in a random fashion once the road's built.

But on the other hand he argues against the rail loop on the grounds that the economic benefits don't stack up; and even if they did he doubts the council can produce planning mechanisms to deliver them.

Here's a suggestion, though, to help him reconcile his contradictory positions. He said in his article he was not opposed to higher density as long as council planners didn't impose it on people.

So let's explore that in a big discussion between us, the people of Auckland, our council and government about the future form and quality of our region.

The work of McDermott, Winder and many others will help us understand the options, help us appreciate how we can develop urban forms, uniquely right for New Zealand, which are higher density in the right places to suit some people and lower density elsewhere to suit others, yet right for the landscape and environment, productive economically and efficient in their transport links.

If we can do that, then we can make good public investment plans for transport and private plans for growth; then we can create the public buy-in which will enable changes in the spatial plan and its underlying district plans to give the investments the very best chance of paying off.

If we did all that, the government and council could come to a very reasonable agreement on which of them pays for what.

Of course, we would need to put plans for the rail loop on hold until all this was done. And as an act of good faith, the government would have to put on hold its plans for the Puhoi to Warkworth and Wellsford highway until it had gone through an identical exercise.

Don't worry, Mr Joyce, Warkworth will make a lovely town of 20,000 people (six times its current size) with lots of nice homes, good jobs and an economic motorway connection – if we make all the right planning decisions.

A rail loop and country towns, now there's a great region!

- Sunday Star Times

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