Urban Myths: fact and fiction in the Auckland Plan debate

A quality debate needs quality information – facts, not fiction. Unfortunately, a lot of the ‘facts’ informing much of the debate on Auckland’s future aren’t really all that factual at all. They’re bits of conventional wisdom that have been repeated enough times over the decades by politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and academia that they’re now accepted as fact. So in an attempt to contribute to the discussion, here’s a few assorted myths debunked…

Urban Myth #1. Auckland is one of the largest, most spread out cities in the world and therefore cannot support a rail network

For over fifty years, politicians, bureaucrats and academia have been repeating this line to justify building motorways at the expense of  a rail network. Unfortunately, strategic misrepresentations of density figures are needed to make the argument work. The 1955 Master Transportation Plan overturned earlier plans for a rail network by claiming that Auckland was the most dispersed city in the world. The density data supporting this was misleading in that it divided the population by the area of the region (460 square kilometres in 1955) rather than the contiguous urbanised area (120 square kilometres in 1955) to reach an absurdly low density figure of 100 persons per square kilometre – about a quarter of the true figure of the time.

Unfortunately, the claim of world-beating urban dispersal has stuck. A year or two back John Banks once claimed Auckland was the same size as London. Last year Steven Joyce said no to rail funding because according to him Hong Kong densities are needed to support rail. In last week’s Sunday Star Times I was told that Auckland was the seventh largest city in the world by area. Simple measurement of cities by their contiguous urbanised areas reveals that Auckland’s current size is around 500 square kilometres – just scraping into the top-200 largest cities by area. Auckland’s density is currently around 2,200 persons/square kilometre – denser than Sydney, Perth or Vancouver. All these cities have quality transit systems – the difference isn’t density – it’s balanced transport policy.

Urban Myth #2. The Auckland Plan does not allow Auckland to expand enough  to accommodate housing needs

David Farrar did a piece in the Herald a week or so ago that argued that the Auckland Plan is a lemon because it doesn’t allow enough expansion to accommodate the city’s housing needs. He clearly hasn’t actually read the plan. If he did, he’d find that the plan in fact advocates expansion of the existing urban area to accommodate an additional 140,000 detached houses. Auckland’s current detached housing stock is 385,000 – an extra 140,000 takes us to 525,000 detached houses. Assume each of the 140,000 new houses contains 3 people as is the current average – that makes 420,000 people accommodated outside the current urbanised area, more than the current population of Wellington. While the plan also advocates another 300,000 dwellings within the current urbanised area, there certainly is a fair bit of urban expansion in there too!

Urban Myth #3. The ‘compact city’ plan advocated by Auckland Council means demolishing beloved suburbs and replacing them with Soviet-style high-rises

Bill Ralston did a fantastically scary piece in the Listener recently. Entitled ‘Save Our Suburbs’, it painted a hideous picture of entire suburbs such as his beloved Freemans Bay being bulldozed and replaced by high-rises. Thankfully, he’s completely wrong – even by 2040, only 11% of the region’s housing stock will be high-rise and it’ll be primarily in town centres, not suburbs. Somewhat ironically, the majority of the intensification proposed closely resembles Ralston’s own suburb. Freemans Bay is one of the densest suburbs in Auckland, and a near-perfect exemplar of the type of medium-density housing proposed for parts of Auckland. It’s as simple making more efficient use of smaller sections – high density need not mean high rise! Funnily enough, many of the great things about Freemans Bay that Ralston talks about – conviviality, community – are a direct result of its density and walkability.

Urban Myth #4. Traffic volumes will always be increasing, so we always need to be increasing motorway capacity

Another assumption that our policy-makers seem to take for granted. If the New Zealand Transport Agency were to look at their own data, they’d find that traffic volumes across parts of Auckland’s motorway network are in fact falling. Most notably, the average daily volume on the Harbour Bridge has fallen by almost 8,000 vehicles between 2007 and 2011. This trend is directly attributable to increasing petrol prices and improved public transport provision between the North Shore and the CBD. Excellent analysis on Auckland Transport Blog shows that this isn’t just an Auckland phenomenon – vehicle miles travelled on US highways have plateaued in the same period, while traffic volumes in the UK have fallen for the last three consecutive years. In spite of these trends, our politicians are still intent on spending our fuel taxes on roads less of us can afford to drive on.

Urban Myth #5. Auckland Council is overwhelmingly pro-public transport and anti-car

Auckland Council and especially Mayor Len Brown are perceived as pro-public transport. Reading the Auckland Plan, you get the same impression – rail projects are front and centre, while roads are barely mentioned. Delve a little deeper to proposed transport funding though, and lo and behold you find that of the $22 billion in transport capital expenditure proposed for the next 30 years, $5 billion is earmarked for rail projects while the rest – $17 billion – is for roads. The government still thinks the Council is putting too much into rail though…

Urban Myth #6. The City Rail Link will only benefit Auckland’s CBD

The Council’s 2010 business case for the City Rail Link (CRL) placed emphasis on the potential of the rail link to unlock the economic potential of the CBD through greater access, networking and agglomeration. Unfortunately, this focus rather pushed the transport benefits of the project off to the side. The CRL essentially ‘completes’ the rail network and eliminates the Britomart bottleneck, allowing over 50 trains per hour to run across the network, over twice the current 20. This means trains every 5 minutes across the entire suburban network to the west, east and south – twice as often as is currently possible. The CRL is also a pre-requisite for any future extensions to the rail network.

Urban Myth #7. A CBD bus tunnel will be cheaper to build than the City Rail Link

In 2011, the government rejected Auckland Council’s business case for the CRL and suggested they go back to the drawing board regarding possible alternatives. One alternative is a CBD Bus Tunnel, a proposal which was the subject of a widely-publicised study by Tony Randle. While the cost of a bus tunnel is slightly less than that of a rail tunnel, a bus tunnel would need to be accompanied by a series of Busways to ensure buses are not held up on congested city streets. The necessary Busways would cost an additional $1.7 billion, an investment that seems illogical when we already have 110km of railway tracks with over 40 stations that will do the same job.

Urban Myth #8. An Airport Rail Link will only benefit the Airport

Len Brown likes to talk about “rail to the airport” as one of his big three rail projects. But this sells the project short. The proposed rail line actually runs south from the existing Onehunga rail line, through Mangere Town Centre to the airport, and then east joining the Southern Line at Puhunui and then continuing along to central Manukau. Along the way will be FOUR new stations. It’s not just a rail link for the use of people travelling to and from the Airport – it’s a rapid transit link for a part of Auckland that currently doesn’t have many good public transport options. South Auckland’s relatively low socio-economic status is not helped by its automobile reliance. Giving South Aucklanders a genuine rapid transit option that links them to local and regional employment centres without the need for to pay for that second car will have huge socio-economic benefits.

Urban Myth #9. Aucklanders are in love with their cars – always have been, always will be

About 86% of work trips in Auckland are made by car compared to just 7% for public transport. Our per capita public transport use is just 44 trips per year – among the lowest usage rates in the world. But it hasn’t always been this way. In 1955, 58% of work trips were by public transport, and per capita public transport use was 290 trips per year – among the highest usage rates in the world. In the meantime, we ripped up our extremely well-patronised rail network, and adopted a motorway-centric transport plan. Aucklanders aren’t in love with cars – Auckland has simply got what it planned for in 1955. Plan for cars, cars are what you get.

What Auckland is learning from its current public transport investment is that if you provide a quality service, people are actually quite easy to lure out of their cars. The Northern Busway is the best case in point. At peak time, the Northern Express service departs every three minutes and cuts the travel time between Albany and the CBD from 45 to 24 minutes. As a result, daily Harbour Bridge traffic volumes have decreased by 8,000 cars between 2007 and 2011, and buses now account for a mode share of 40% of people crossing the bridge at peak time. Even the ARC’s mode share forecasts from 2010 estimated that it would take until after 2020 for mode share to reach 40% – just goes to show that if you give people a viable alternative to driving, they’ll take it up.


About Liam W

Urbanist, transport nerd, general curmudgeon.

Posted on February 8, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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