Fast, Frequent and Reliable Mass Transit

An Auckland Transport train in Britomart station

In Auckland there is an increasingly nasty tiff about mass transit proposals. The fight is between;

  • Supporters of light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport as planned by Auckland Transport but now taken up by NZTA.
  • The joint-bid between the NZ Super Fund and an infrastructure firm (CDPQ Infra) run by a Canadian pension fund which has a competing bid. There are few details about what they propose but it appears to be a faster more expensive mass transit proposal.
  • The political parties of National and New Zealand First who favour a heavy rail spur connection from Puhinui or in the case of National they sometimes prefer bus rapid transit. The evidence for a rail spur is not strong.

There are lots of history, claims and counter-claims which this paper will not delve into.

What I want to examine is the claim that slower light rail is better for housing intensification and that making mass transit faster between the city and airport is an example of airport derangement syndrome.

There is a media narrative that the Minister of Transport must choose between a fast trip to the airport or housing, which I believe is based on superficial analysis at best. The media outlet Newsroom for instance wrote an article titled -Twyford’s dilemma: housing or a fast trip to the airport? This followed a much deeper series of investigative articles on Auckland’s proposed light rail project by Thomas Coughlan for Stuff.

I believe there is not enough evidence in the public domain to make these claims. Even worse I believe these claims misinform the public about the benefits of mass transit, which could lead to the wrong options being chosen with intergenerational consequences, not just for Auckland but for other parts of New Zealand too.

The reason I believe this, is the defining feature of mass transit is its three basic characteristics;

  • fast -faster than alternatives like cars,
  • frequent -less than 15 minute service intervals, preferably less than 10 minutes
  • reliable -travel time certainty, not variable like cars and buses getting stuck in traffic congestion.

If mass transit has those three features then there will be a significant transport mode shift from existing travellers and residents. And there will be huge incentive to build housing and businesses within walking, biking, e-scootering and bus feeder distance of the mass transit stations. The faster, more frequent and more reliable that mass transit becomes, the larger the feeder distances from transit stations can be.

This should be taken into account in the negotiation between the Superfund and the government. The goal of mass transit should be servicing the greatest number of people in the long term. Because that reduces the most congestion and provides the largest housing response. This goal for the government gives the most beneficial bang for the taxpayers infrastructure spend.

For the Superfund servicing the greatest number of people, provides the most fare generating and real estate revenue generating possibilities. Mass transit will generate many commercial opportunities -including for the Superfund joint entity. The situation is much more variable than the Superfund proposal being about milking public transport subsidies from the government that would be better off borrowing the capital itself to build its own scheme (although a badly structured negotiation could lead to that outcome).

The way Japan structures its railways, transport system and house building regulations gives an example of the multiple commercial business opportunities that mass transit brings. It is unlikely that New Zealand could implement all these changes and have fully commercial mass transit providers. But some lessons could be learnt and applied here. I write more about this opportunity in a paper titled Japanese Urbanism and its Application to the Anglo-World. It has been one of my most popular posts by viewership numbers -I suspect more overseas than in New Zealand though.

Auckland is also not too small to be considering a metro style transit system. Helsinki has a similar population to Auckland. In 1982 they opened their mostly underground metro line. Helsinki in the 1950’s and 60s agreed to start a metro system rather than expand its streetcar light rail system. Construction commenced in 1969. The metro has the lowest operating costs per passenger/km in Helsinki’s public transport network. The strategy being for the metro and commuter rail network to be the fast, frequent and reliable spine, while the buses, trams and active modes are the feeders and distributors.

Wikipedia’s description of the Helsinki’s historical debate between expanding its street running light rail versus creating a new grade separated from other traffic metro system has relevance to Auckland’s current mass transit debate.

Helsinki’s metro history has many interesting twists and turns. These include Councillors initially rejecting advice about the need for grade separation, the lead metro official being convicted of bribery, periods of rapid metro expansion, some expensively constructed underground stations that have never been used, unexpected geological conditions causing delays, periods of no metro expansion due to insufficient public funding being available and now the current outward expansion of the metro system.

I am visiting Helsinki in December so I will take pictures of Helsinki’s expanding metro system and report back.

Given Helsinki’s metro history, Auckland’s current nasty mass transit tiff is almost certainly not going to be the last drama of Auckland getting the best possible mass transit system for the city.

It is quite right for New Zealand’s government and the Ministry of Transport to carefully consider the comparison of slower, street running light rail that has shorter distances between stops with a faster mass transit system that is grade separated from road traffic and has longer stop distances.

Whichever scheme is chosen will have intergenerational effects. Impacting on;

  • The Productivity of Auckland due to its effect on reducing congestion and allowing a greater number of people to access employment, education and other opportunities.
  • Inequality through its housing supply effects, especially if the multi-billion dollar cartel-like restrictions on house building are reduced.
  • The environment, in particular by providing a non-fossil fuel transport response to climate change (transport is Auckland’s biggest CO2 emitter).
  • Lower transport costs in the long term. If mass transit achieves a significant share of transport mode demand, due to mass transits economies of scale and resulting low operating costs, this can be translated to lower public transport fares. Which can induce demand even further. For example, when Vienna lowered the price of an annual season public transport ticket from €449 to €365 (€1 per day), almost half the city’s population (822,000 people) bought the ticket and the percentage of journeys made by underground, tram or bus increased by 38%.

Light rail is not automatically better for housing intensification than alternative mass transit schemes. The different schemes will though create different patterns of urbanisation which will require careful consideration.

I would not die in a ditch over supporting which scheme is better. The original AT scheme which NZTA is championing or the Superfund scheme. What Auckland needs is a genuine contested process where both parties have a chance of putting their best case forward and for the best proposal to then be built.

I am annoyed about this debate though, because the time, misinformation and attention this Auckland light rail question is consuming, means there is less public understanding about the benefits of mass transit and less time is given to Christchurch and other centres regarding their mass transit needs. This is especially important because there is a limited number of knowledgeable transport and urban planners in New Zealand.

Having a bias is common in this debate and the public should be careful to take that into account when they consider the media reports of the various proposals. My bias is that I am a champion of a Christchurch mass transit and housing scheme.

Trying to optimise amenity and affordability values for urban areas

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