Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Smartgrowth" is about trains

I've written extensively on this topic over the years - the crying waste of taxpayers' money being poured into little more than a dream, an ill-informed belief that Auckland's transport woes would be solved by an electric (now underground) railway.  It hooks into the same belief by planners that Auckland has to embrace the so-called "smartgrowth" or "new urbanism" philosophy, which is little more than a form of Soviet-style central planning and control upon the city - which has itself failed miserably in every New World city that has embraced it (and not delivered wonders for the old world ones either).

Not PC has been rightfully pointing out the fallacies behind this dogma, which at its essence is a belief that more people should fit into the same space, and that human aspirations for bigger homes, bigger gardens and more living space should be restricted ever increasingly, by stopping cities growing out, but encouraging them to grow up.  

I heard much propaganda around this when I was dealing with Ministry for the Environment and several planners in Auckland councils a few years ago.  They wanted in-fill development, they wanted high rise, they basically wanted less bedrooms and more people in residences.  Is that what you want?  It doesn't matter, because it is "good for the environment".  Why?  It almost entirely comes down to transport.

Planners in "new world cities" (cities outside Europe) have long bemoaned the predominance of the private car for most trips in cities and in particular most commuting trips.  Cars, you see, are bad because they clog up roads, emit nasty fumes and it is "unsustainable" to keep building new roads to meet demand (or new car parks).  (They ignore that cars today have the cleanest emissions than ever, but that is a diversion).   So do they ask questions as to why there is traffic congestion?  The simple fact that road use is priced the same regardless of demand, the fact that taxes collected from road users are frequently not allocated based on demand, but on politically driven imperatives?  No.  The planners are uninterested in economics, for they largely do not understand them.   They don't think that maybe peak time commuting would change if it cost more to drive then (and a lot less to drive at other times), they don't think that there could be innovative ways adopted by commercial road owners to get more capacity out of networks (e.g. intelligent systems for cars to operate in convoys in close formation).  No, they have a pet love affair with one thing only - mode shift - and it isn't to walking or cycling or even buses, it is trains.

You can see it in the Auckland Transport Blog, which has permeating throughout it this philosophy, a glorification of urban railways, a less interested concern in buses and a sneering hatred for the car and almost absent interest in roads at all or serious economics.   You see the blog administrator is a planner and he carries the philosophy he has been taught.

The main problem the railevangelists have is that one of the main reasons the car dominates is because with lots of people living in fully detached houses on sections, there aren't enough people within walking catchments to justify their pet dream - railways.   Railways need lots of people wanting to go to and from the same places at the same time.   New world cities don't have that, they have a lot of people heading in the same direction, but at both ends there are widely differing origins and destinations.   Urban rail projects in new world cities inevitably are not financially viable, because demand, especially off peak, isn't remotely enough to cover the costs of operating the services.

The planners want to change this.  They want you living on top of a railway station, or near it, or within walking distance at least.  With others.  So you might be in an apartment block, or in an adjoining block.  You see you need to live near lots of people doing that to make it "work" (not for you, the planners).   Want to build a new home outside urban limits? No.  That would be immoral, you might drive, you wont be supporting "your railway", and you never know where it might end, cities might sprawl forever!!

Of course it is nonsense.  The "smartgrowth" planners want you to have less living space, and consequently more noise, more shared spaces and to be near a railway so you drive less, then there will be less traffic, less pollution, less congestion and all will be better - except you wont be living where you want, because you can't afford the remaining low density homes (which are priced out of reach because supply is constrained), and traffic patterns wont have changed because you can't force businesses to locate where you want them.  They locate where it is best suited or they leave altogether or never start up.  Congestion wont have changed because the real issue is the price and supply of road space, which the planners have no interest in (other than a more recent interest in using road pricing to fund their rail fetish and penalise the bad cars). 

So yes, it is all about justifying the rail project.  It isn't about your needs at all.  If you want to see how effective it is in addressing transport needs you need look no further than Portland, the pin up city of the Smartgrowth evangelists, where public transport mode shares dropped.

So if it is about trains, wont they deliver wondrous dramatic improvements to travel around Auckland?

Well as I've said before:

- Only 12% of employment in Auckland is downtown.  The railway only exists on two main (plus one secondary and one small branch) corridors, more than half of those commuters wont be served.  On top of that the assumption is 28% of Aucklanders will live within 800m of a station by 2016, so maybe at best 4% of Auckland commuters will be served by the railway.  What about the other 96%?

- The average difference in travel time on roads will be less than 1km/h.  Whilst some rail users will transfer from cars, the effect will be hardly perceived by other road users. As a congestion busting strategy it will be an abject failure.  Largely because most people don't live near railway stations or work near them, which of course is why planners want to price you out of living away from them.

- Most of the trains will lie idle most of the time.  Over one billion in "assets" will be grossly under-utilised most of the day, and all weekends.  Only for two hours every rush hour will they all be used, mostly in one direction, for maybe three trips each, before being stabled to do nothing until a repeat performance in the evenings.

- Majority of rail users wont be motorists.  They will be existing rail users, existing bus users, people who rode with others in cars or people who wouldn't have travelled in the first place.  Maybe around a quarter would have driven, so it is a big subsidy to pay for people who would have used public transport anyway.

- Rail pushes out commercially viable buses.  Until the massive expenditure in rail, maybe half of bus  services in Auckland were unsubsidised and commercial.  Meeting the needs of those paying for them.  With heavily subsidised trains, these have been put out of business and the passengers ride trains without having to pay for more than a third of their operating costs.

- The money poured into the infrastructure can never be realised.  The Auckland rail network was valued by Treasury at a maximum of around NZ$20 million in 2001. It is having around NZ$1 billion poured into it.  Even if by some miracle it doubled in value, it is still a monumental destruction of wealth.  Even those who benefit directly from it are unwilling to pay fares to operate the trains, let alone contribute towards those mammoth fixed (and now sunk) costs.  

Right now, the railevangelists are demanding action on an underground rail loop because they believe Britomart will be congested after electrification, which hasn't even been completed yet.  They want planning for a North Shore railway when even the busway isn't remotely close to capacity.  

Electrification will happen, but it will prove to be a disappointment.  Yes rail patronage will go up, but so what?  Until rail passengers fully pay the operating costs of this dud, it will be a net economic drain on Auckland.  Parking, fuel and congestion charges shouldn't be used to prop it up.

However, roads do need to be treated differently.  The motorway network should be commercialised and sold, and the new owners allowed to charge whatever they like.  Then roads would not be so congested, money would be available to fix bottlenecks and maybe, just maybe, the rail network might prove some value.   Don't bet on the planners even considering this - for they are blinded by the lights of trains being good, not by achieving objectively determined results.


Tony said...

Good article.

I always wondered why the CBD Rail Link Business Case estimates the Rail Tunnel cost at $1,520M, only 60% of the Bus Tunnel Option at $2,640M. I was not convinced with the explanation in the Conclusion (on page 33) that states:

A large part of the cost and performance advantage of the CBD Rail Link is due to the project releasing excess capacity currently residing in the rail network, which is unable to be realised due to the capacity constraints of the Britomart Terminus. In contrast, the bus tunnel option has to be built from scratch, and requires further investment out into the wider Auckland network to continue to deliver the benefits of the original investment. This accounts for the higher infrastructure and operational expenditure of the bus tunnel option compared to the rail option and therefore its lower performance.

The real reason for the much higher CBD Bus Tunnel Option cost is hard to find but there is one clue buried in Appendix D "Alternatives Paper" Section 4.7.5 in the second paragraph (Page 62).

Of course you really need the unpublished cost estimate calculation spreadsheets to confirm (which I have). Can you work out what they have done ?

libertyscott said...

Hmmm interesting that one. Is it:
- Dualling the tunnels to accommodate breakdowns? (ridiculous as it only needs at least a painted median and ITS systems to manage speeds and warn of a breakdown, or hard shoulders).
- Grade separated roads in the suburbs? Absurd of course, because you need to count benefits to other traffic of this, because in most cases such infrastructure just for buses would be highly wasteful.

It's appalling. It's a whitewash, not as bad as the Transfund "valuation" of the benefits in owning the Auckland rail corridor in 2001 to justify a funding application from ARTNL to buy it, but it deserves the same scrutiny the anti-road mob apply to Puhoi-Wellsford - except they aren't that interested in that.