A cornerstone of the Draft Auckland Plan is implementing an underground inner city rail link. At an estimated $2.3bn this is the single most expensive new commitment in the plan, and accounts for around 15% of capital spending identified. This seems a big price to pay to transform what is already a perfectly functional CBD with adequate and improving public transport (PT) arrangements. And unless it makes a substantial difference, it could become a major fiscal anchor on Auckland’s development. This posting considers the prospects.
I looked at the business case supporting the rail link, but struggled with it. For a start, while it claims to consider alternatives, it departs from convention by looking only at different transport responses to fixed assumptions about land use. Normally, transport evaluation for urban development starts with land use options, and considers their differing transport needs to decide which combination is favoured economically. It also considers differing land uses so it can highlight the social and environmental tradeoffs being made. It might then vary the best options further to take into account fiscal risk.
To get some idea of this I looked at the distribution of commuting trips across Auckland. I first divided the city into five sectors:
Let’s compare trip numbers to the CBD with those bypassing it:
Auckland Journey to Work, 2006
Will the proposed city rail link meet the Plan's expectations? No. Not just because it does not address cross-city congestion. But also because in 2006 30% of trips from elsewhere on the Isthmus into the CBD already used PT. In some nearby Isthmus areas the figure was much higher e.g., 50% for Mt Eden North, 40% Newmarket, 42% Sandringham, 41% Newmarket, and 40% Surrey Crescent. And a substantial 26% of commuters from the North and 27% from the South to the CBD also used PT in 2006. (These figures do not include ferries, which accounted for 7% of PT boardings in the year ending October 2011 – all to the CBD).
Buses account for the bulk of the growth in public transport patronage to date, and will continue to do so whether or not a city rail link is built.
There has been much analysis, reporting, deliberating, and dithering for over decade about how much and where more employment land might go to allow investment outside the CBD and the Isthmus, to bring down the high costs of industrial land, and to facilitate business investment close to the labour force. Action is long overdue.
Already initiatives are being taken that will do a lot to reduce current congestion, though. One is the completion of the western motorway, connecting west and south Auckland directly. And the new Victoria Park tunnel recognises that the problem is one of getting past the CBD rather than getting into it. A further harbour crossing could eventually build much-needed redundancy into the network, reducing the disruptive potential of occasional traffic incidents (although we might question the wisdom of integrating it into the same feeder and distributor roads as the existing Harbour Bridge).
The idea of tolling roads to pay for the rail link has been floated. This acknowledges the uneconomic nature of the latter. But the benefits to motorists of the rail link by way of lower congestion on roads are likely to be far less than implied by such a tax, if they exist at all. The suggestion does raises important constitutional issues, though, over who can levy a tax in new Zealand, and why.
By committing to continuous improvement in a bus-based system, completing and refining the road network, and fostering a land use pattern that better matches where people might live and work we can reduce congestion and lower the environmental costs of transport in the short to medium term.. And this will leave us well placed to take advantage of improving technology in vehicle transport (bus and car) and user charging in the medium to long term.
Phil is a consultant in urban, economic and community development. He blogs at Cities Matter.
 Travel by ferry comprises only a very small share of the total and is not identified in the statistics