Tunnel Vision (Or, why does National hate cities?)

This week, Auckland Council released the City Centre Future Access Study (CCFAS). This report was an exercise instigated by Steven Joyce in the wake of last year’s standoff between the Council and the government regarding the City Rail Link (CRL). The CCFAS was commissioned to establish the most viable option for tackling transport issues in central Auckland, and it concluded the CRL was the most viable option. This did not stop Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee swiftly pouring cold water on the report with a press release which concluded that “this valiant attempt to make the CRL stack up struggles to make the case”.

This patronising response was disappointing for many reasons. The government-instigated report was written over a period of 18 months at the cost of many millions in public funds. It was developed in full consultation throughout the process with the government, the Ministry of Transport, the NZ Transport Agency and Treasury. The report’s conclusions were well known by government, and were signed off by government officials. Yet the Minister has come out this week, seemingly contradicting the work of his own minions. First off, he criticised the scope of the work:

 “Mr Brownlee says he had expected a broader review of potential transport solutions for Auckland than the relatively narrow case studies in the report released today which include a rail tunnel, enhanced existing bus services, and underground bus options”

I struggle to see how he can complain that the report wasn’t broad enough. In fact, anyone who cares to open the report will find 46 options shortlisted – sublime to ridiculous. More damningly, correspondence from February 2011 between Auckland Mayor Len Brown and Mr Brownlee, dug up by the good folks at Auckland Transport Blog, reveal there was no issue raised with the scope of the CCFAS at that point:

 “Regarding the Improved City Centre Access Study, I am keen to see an open minded consideration of the options for providing transport access into the Auckland CBD… I am comfortable that the proposed scope encourages this approach… I am pleased to hear of the close engagement of government officials in developing the scope and support this continuing throughout the project”

Mr Brownlee’s tune has changed a bit since then. Asked in a radio interview whether Ministry officials would agree with his position, he said that “they agree with the position I have taken today”. In other words, they came up with the wrong answer for the National agenda.

This begs the question, what is the National agenda re Auckland? The Brownlee press release gives some clues:

“…the report underplays State Highways entering the Auckland CBD from the south, both SH1 and SH16, and how improvement to these might impact central city traffic. Completion of the Western Ring Route in 2017 will draw many thousands of traffic movements away from the CBD… Also overlooked is that evolving workplace practices and emerging technology will most likely have a considerable impact on peak hour travel over the next 30 years”

Now we’re getting to the nub of the issue. The previous sound bite issued by the government regarding the CRL was to point to buses as the answer for city centre transport issues. Now that the CCFAS has disproved that theory, Mr Brownlee is now placing its faith in motorways distributing traffic movements away from the CBD, and on people telecommuting/working from home more. In other words, the argument is that we don’t need more public transport capacity to the central city, because they don’t want the central city to grow full stop.

Minister Brownlee’s response reflects a wilful ignorance of cities and how they compete. Cities exist because the productivity advantages of density outweigh the costs such as transport and high rents. This advantage is especially pronounced in CBDs, where employment density and agglomeration is highest. Agglomeration ensures a deep labour market, greater supplier competition, and a faster spread of knowledge and innovation; all of which increase productivity. Indeed, international research shows a direct correlation between density and productivity in urban economies.

It therefore stands to reason that in competitive cities, transport is merely an enabler of productivity through density. Rail is well placed to serve dense CBDs because it enables huge numbers of people to be delivered to a single point without consuming all the land for roads and car parking. This is all intuitive, yet the Minister remains wilfully ignorant, insisting that CBDs are unimportant, that employment will disperse, and that people will start telecommuting en masse. He doubts the growth projections for the Auckland CBD because he can only imagine the city as it is, not the denser and more productive place it could be with a proper rail system.

The Minister gets away with this ignorance by hiding behind economic evaluation methods that consider time travel savings as the essential benefit of urban transport infrastructure, rather than the economic activity generated. For this reason, the vast majority of urban rail projects do not stand up to economic scrutiny on transport benefits alone. Competitive cities however understand that urban rail is worth more than the time it saves for cars. The true value of rail is the development it enables.

For this reason, the constant “how much time will the CRL save for motorists” angle taken in the media grates a little. Certainly, the CRL will take some cars off the road, provide a bit of congestion relief, and that’s fantastic. But little attention is paid to the increased density enabled in the CBD, as well as along the rail corridors in nodes like New Lynn and Onehunga. Mr Brownlee can deny employment projections all he likes, but he need only look overseas – and heck, even the Britomart area in Auckland – to understand that rail enables density and productivity. While cities in the mid-twentieth century grew outward, the 21st century consensus for urban growth is cities also grow inward and upward with the appropriate infrastructure. Thus, any government truly behind urban economic growth would get behind the CRL.

National’s continued opposition to the CRL has less to do with facts, and everything to do with a bizarre anti-urban ideology that reflects a belief that wealth can only be generated through rural production, a belief dictates that all our transport dollars go into freight movement, not people movement. National’s agenda for Auckland is not a growth agenda; rather, it’s an anti-urban agenda that would have our only city of scale ooze out as an uncompetitive backwater.

That is not to say that urban growth will not still happen, because money, firms and workers will always find places to grow… Most likely in Sydney, Melbourne or Singapore: cities that embrace the urban.

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About Liam W

Urbanist, transport nerd, general curmudgeon.

Posted on December 15, 2012, in New Zealand Politics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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