Friday, April 29, 2011

Recover, rebuild: Christchurch after the earthquake

Supporting Recovery in Christchurch
Lincoln University did a great job of assembling some leaders in the principles and practice of disaster recovery for its Resilient Futures workshop last week in support of recovery in Christchurch.  And in keeping with one of the themes – the importance of quality and timely communications --  the papers and summary are already posted on the web.
Without being there, it’s hard to judge the tone of discussion and the weight given to the lessons from experience overseas and in New Zealand.  But quick publication of the papers provides useful insights. 

My immediate thoughts follow – but I recommend anyone interested to read the summary and original papers.
Key themes
Some of the papers looked a bit academic, but there is correspondence between what the practitioners and academics have  to say.  It’s good to see theory and practice reinforce each other. 
Here are what I see as the most important threads:
(1)    The common sense but urgent approaches proposed for recovery, and the practicality of  some of the examples of what has been done elsewhere and what can be done in Christchurch;
(2)    The role of central government; there were differences in the detail among speakers, but by and large they see government adopting a leadership and motivational role, providing funding and oversight, especially in the recovery stage;
(3)    Local democracy is a key based on the role of local government and citizen participation, especially in the planning and rebuilding processes, and on the importance of involving local, even localised, communities (“clusters", "villages”).
(4)    The need for existing institutions to adapt to changed circumstances, streamlining decision-making while maintaining transparency;
(5)    The need to ensure that citizen, community, and other interest groups can participate and contribute by way of knowledge, resources, and time;
(6)    The need for speed, which nevertheless brings with it a risk of exacerbating pre-disaster imbalances and inequities between areas and groups; and the trade-off that may be required between speed and deliberation to deliver good long-term outcomes;
(7)    Recognising how easily the temporary can become permanent, and planning accordingly;
(8)    The window of opportunity that might be created for improving land uses and infrastructure in the course of replacement and rebuilding;
(9)    Finding the time to envision the future, to build consensus around architecture and planning options, and to achieve citizen buy-in to proposed solutions;
(10)The need for plans to address and reduce – and be seen to reduce – future risks;
(11)The significance of open space,  the importance of greenways and green-spaces, the likelihood that the city will have to expand, and the notion of an expanded city as an assembly of connected villages;
(It’s reassuring to see I’m not alone in advocating a new approach to spatial planning to limit the damage arising from extreme events, and to facilitate post-disaster recovery.  See my post of March 2 2011).
The challenges
There are potential contradictions in all this.  For example, speed is of the essence where infrastructure and shelter are laid waste, where jobs have evaporated, and communities have been torn apart. But haste should not create a city with parts which are forever temporary, where material gaps among groups widen, or where short-term expediency creates long-term risks. 
Nor should the importance of government leadership limit the capacity of the community at large to participate in rebuilding, to deliberate and debate, and help shape the new Christchurch.
The various speakers confirmed the importance of addressing multiple risks, something fundamental to planning for resilient cities.  If it can address multiple risks and provide outcomes that reduce them, then planning for the new Christchurch will enable “communities and local leaders to make best use of the opportunities the event has created”.
The experience of previous disasters confirmed that public engagement is central to achieving “political stability, community buy-in and support for new initiatives, the identification of workable solutions, and a generally positive recovery that promotes confidence in both the process and the likely end result”.
Differentiating recovery and rebuilding
Perhaps what we need to do if we are to use the wealth of material and insight provided by the Lincoln University initiative, and others like it,  and to work through the contradictions is distinguish between recovery and rebuilding.  Recovery is about restoring as quickly as practical safety, security and shelter, and the structures and infrastructure needed to ensure them.  It demands urgent attention, rapid deployment of resources, and  high level of expediency. 
Rebuilding is a little less urgent and maybe even more challenging.  It is about the way communities will live in the future, how people get on with their lives, their play, their work, and their recreation in a healthy and prosperous urban environment.  Rebuilding requires deliberation, identification of options, and working our way to consensus.  It cannot be rushed.  Nor should it be unnecessarily prolonged.  Ideally, rebuilding will start with community engagement rather than tagging it on through consultation later on, a strategy which risks energy- and morale-sapping disputes about objectives and outcomes.
Getting the governance right
It appears from the papers presented that we know what has to be done: it’s how we set about doing it that is critical to a successful rebuild.
Accelerating and sustaining recovery while laying solid foundations for rebuilding is perhaps the biggest challenge facing those in positions of authority and leadership.  Recognising the differences between them might be a good starting point.
If this challenge is to be met, it is important that the governance structures - who does what and under what authority – are appropriate at the outset.  The creation of a central agency, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), looks like a good start, especially if it focuses on recovery and thereby gives Christchurch City Council the space and capacity it needs to provide leadership in the rebuilding process.  How these two agencies demarcate their roles and work alongside each other will have a major impact on the creation of a resilient and liveable Christchurch.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Restricting retailing to save the CBD

Resisting decentralisation
In my last posting I argued that planning for a hierarchy of retail centres simply protects the interests of a few landlords, investors, and operators.  Regulating to retain the status quo of centres stifles retail investment and productivity without necessarily improving the city and town centres it aims to support.
In this posting I look at what’s happened to Auckland’s retailing over the past decade.  Here the argument for preserving an established retail hierarchy has prevailed in plans that rely on directing growth to existing centres as one way of promoting a more compact city.
Despite this, it seems the forces of decentralisation have prevailed. 
The data
I have looked at 15 retail and leisure sectors using Statistics New Zealand employment figures for 2000 and 2010.  I have grouped Census Area Units into eleven categories to explore changes in location.  This involves some imprecision in area definitions but the figures still tell a pretty compelling story. 
The big picture
First, look at changes in retail and leisure employment in different parts of the region (Figure 1).
It was up 11% in the CBD; but in “out of zone” industrial areas it was up 46%.  Rural areas were up 59%, although we are dealing with much smaller numbers here. 

The biggest absolute gains were in suburban centres (up 39%, insofar as as they could be isolated through Census Area Units).  The middle and outer suburbs fared pretty well, too (up 22% and 26% respectively).  Major centres lagged (4%).

Figure 1: Sub-regional Employment in Retail and Leisure Activity, 2000 and 2010

The significant changes taking place in the distribution of retail and leisure activity raise some interesting questions.  
How far can retailing – in which employment actually fell by 7% in the three years to 2010 – be expected to prop up the CBD?   Does planning actually undermine retailing by constraining investment in favour of the CBD and centres?  Or has it simply been ineffective, with retailing and leisure expanding where they can achieve superior performance regardless of councils’ objectives, favouring more dispersed sites?
Changes in retail mix
When we look at the changing retail mix we begin to see why the CBD and major centres fared poorly over the decade.  There have been big differences in growth among subsectors (Figure 2), suggesting that the shops we plan for tomorrow will not be the same sorts of shops (or leisure activities) planned for today.
Cafes, restaurants, and take-aways have maintained their dominance.  They were the biggest sector in 2000 (28% of total employment in retail and leisure) and grew 32% over the decade.  Hence, eating out accounted for nearly 40% of all growth.  Did our centres-based planning anticipate that?
And look at clothing and footwear shops.  With just 7% of leisure/retail employment in 2000 they generated 17% of all growth.  Electrical and electronic retailing also stood out, along with pharmaceuticals and personal goods.  Presumably the success of these groups influenced the decline in department stores, a category associated with major centres.
The creative and performing arts also declined, raising even more questions if we believe that these industries, usually associated with the CBD, are essential to innovation and growth.
Figure 2: Employment Changes - Retail and Leisure Sectors in Auckland, 2000-2010

The redistribution of retailing
To examine the relationship between retail mix and growth I divided the city into: the CBD and inner city, the suburbs, all centres, and industrial areas (including the small rural areas for convenience).
The bars in the Figure 3 show the shares of city growth (or decline) in each retail sector by area.  
Shares of supermarket and grocery store employment increased in industrial areas, and fell everywhere else.  This does not mean employment fell elsewhere, but the weight of growth was greatest “out-of-zone”.  Furniture and clothing and footwear outlets also did well in non-retail areas.
Industrial and suburban areas recorded small gains in department store employment, which fell everywhere else.  Industrial areas and centres reported gains in stores selling recreational goods, which also declined elsewhere.
Only specialty food favoured the inner city (and suburbs) although this is not a big sector. 
Figure 3: Changes in Subregional Shares of Employment by Retail Category

And the leisure sectors?
The central city is seen as increasingly important for leisure.  But this is not necessarily supported by the employment evidence.  The big growth sector, cafes, restaurants, and take-aways, performed better elsewhere.  It appears that the latté set has spread well beyond the CBD and that dining out no longer automatically means tripping into inner city restaurants.
Not only that, employment in the creative and performing arts declined in the city centre faster than elsewhere, belying another popular preconception about its role.
There’s more: inner city sport and recreation underperformed compared with the rest of the region despite the boom in gymnasiums.  The same goes for pubs and taverns.  Overall, industrial areas and centres seem to have been the growth leaders in leisure.
Figure 3: Changes in Subregional Shares of Leisure Sector Employment. 2000-2010

Let’s not throttle the patient
We could go into more detail.  But the message is clear: in our planning we need to allow for market realities, and the variety of places investors and consumers favour for retail and leisure.  Planning may be more effective if it responds to community preferences rather than aiming to impose order by arbitrarily excluding some activities from some places to prop up other activities in other places. 
So, what of the CBD?
This evidence suggests that we should abandon simplistic models of hierarchies for planning either for retailing or for urban form.  If planning is reduced simply to resisting change or enforcing hierarchies, we impede productivity based growth and counter the vitality essential to the city’s and the city centre’s progress.  

But there’s no need to panic about the future of the CBD.  We just need to recognise that cementing past functions in place is not the way to revitalise it (or our town centres).  We may also have to acknowledge that the CBD’s lagging performance in some areas may reflect success in others, in this case through displacement of commercial activity or limitation of new investment in retail and leisure by the expansion of inner city housing. 
More generally, the view of what drives a successful city centre has to be far less mechanistic than appears to have been the case in planning till now.  The city centre is a living, evolving place.  Ten years ago financial services were the key to its growth.  Before that retailing played an important role.  Today education and tourism have centre stage.  Tomorrow it may be communications and technology.  Whatever the future holds, it is out of a culture of change and diversity that the CBD will grow, not as a result of imposing outmoded views of what should go where.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Retailing – soft in the centre

How much do we need shops to prop up the city centre?
Three tenets of smart growth applied to planning for  New Zealand’s cities are that (1) the primacy of the central city should be promoted ; (2) retailing is an important part of this; and (3) it should be focused on large centres and discouraged from “out of centre” locations.  I don’t have a problem with the first proposition, but I struggle with the other two.
This thinking harks back to Alonso’s 1960 model of land values in the monocentric city and their relationship with accessibility.  This still informs and shapes our thinking about land use and the role of the Central Business District in the city.  

But apart from shops catering for tourism, highly specialised destination shops, and the new convenience stores catering for a growing population of inner city residents, retailing no longer depends on centrality.  And the city centre no longer depends on retailing for its vitality.
A rearguard action
In 2007 the Auckland Regional Growth Strategy (1999) was reviewed.  The review (Growing Smarter, Auckland Regional Council) noted that a large proportion of retail growth occurred outside designated “growth centres” (pp. 33, 37).  It concluded that preventing retailing from becoming more dispersed is one of the challenges facing Auckland, because “retailing is a key activity needed to support growth in centres” (p. 48).  Dispersal to large large-format retailing “outside of mixed-use centres” was seen to reduce both  the amenity and attractiveness of the town centres” (p. 54).
The authors argued that the CBD and regional centres should continue to “be predominant in retail and commercial activities", and enunciated a hierarchy with different levels of retailing prescribed at each level (p. 61). Because “strong centres are an important driver of economic growth, so there is a need to continue to focus intensive growth of retail, office and service sector businesses within these areas” (p. 74). 
In an over-cooked assertion of cause and effect , the report even claims that the “recent trend of increasingly large, single use, car-based retail centres encourages consumption and larger homes in fringe areas". This, it intones, "needs to be discouraged” (p. 138).  Its hard to take this seriously.
But the same sort of thinking has been repeated in a number of planning exercises, in Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and Tauranga, for example.  It continues to be supported in planning documents and argued over in planning hearings.  Advocates of preserving  retail hierarchies even cite the British Planning Policy 6 (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2005) and its guidelines for the protection of town centres.
An alternative view
Here is why I think this view is outdated and damaging.
(1)    It’s backward looking, conservative, and biased towards entrenched interests:
Protecting the existing (or even some ideal) distribution of retailing in the city centre and major regional centres effectively protects the interests of established property and industry investors against the pressures of the market.  Fair enough for them to seek to protect their own positions (especially if they do so by innovating and investing in ways which reinvigorate their businesses and localities) but that doesn’t make it good planning, nor is defending the status quo necessarily something that public policy should be doing.
(2)    It’s flying in the face of the retail market:
All industries go through product cycles which involve new patterns of investment: why block change in this one? 
For example, big box retailing is an innovation that the market embraced, for good reasons.  It delivers logistical efficiencies .  It streamlines the distribution chain at the point of final demand, with some of the resulting savings passed on to consumers by way of lower prices and increased accessibility.  Large scale “out-of-centre” retailing enables comparison and discretionary spending to take place at one site.  These sorts of efficiencies are not available within most older centres – and would be an inefficient use of the land in them. 
(If the planner’s aim really is to discourage "consumption and larger homes” by preventing changes in the pattern of retail investment and consequently the structure of the sector then that might best be addressed by ensuring that the prices of the relevant goods reflect any externalities that might possibly justify such an objective.) 
Today we are seeing a whole lot of other retail innovations, not least of which is e-tailing.  This is being embraced by progressive established retailers as well as opening the market to new entrants and innovators.  And it looks like the consumers are jumping onto net-based shopping in a big way.  We can expect much more e-tailing in the medium term, further enhancing distribution, freeing up commercial land, and increasing consumer choice.
Here's a more immediate question: what will happen to CD stores?  How will the successful ones respond to the challenge of increasing recourse by consumers to downloading music online?  There will be some innovative responses, I am sure.  But is there anything planners might even contemplate doing to keep them in business?  Such is the absurdity of using land use planning to preserve the status quo.
There are plenty of examples of positive retail innovation related to the emergence of niche stores, specialised food, boutiques, and services, for example.  Entirely new store types have emerged over recent years – Apple stores, specialists in outdoor wear, different forms of recreation, and mobile phone outlets being obvious examples.  Some of these have given a fillip to tired city centres.  Others, such as reinvention of home delivery on the back of web-based buying in the grocery sector are incrasing the resilience of suburbs.

We can rely on retailers to do anything, even if we cannot always anticipate what it will be.
(3)    It’s not the way to revitalise centres:
The successful centres are those that adapt and change, that are open up to new uses, that find new activities to keep people coming.  Casinos, gaming, hospitality, and various forms of recreation and  amusement have been influential in the past decade or so,  The growth of the international education industry has played a big part in cities like Auckland.  Retail is no longer the only driver of centre growth.
When tired, large footprint department stores move out of the CBD (or fold under the pressure of more innovative retail forms) the premises or sites vacated are usually amenable to more intensive uses – entertainment, hospitality, culture and arts, even housing.  In some cases, stores reinvent themselves, with “stores” within stores, stronger branding and an enhanced shopping environment making for more attractive settings.
None of this, though, is delivered by regulations aimed at preventing retailing from investing outside centres or dictating what shops should go where.
(4)    It’s not necessarily sustainable:  
Public transport is traditionally designed around commuting (which accounts for between a quarter to one third of all travel according to the NZ Household Travel Survey).  This continues to be focused on the CBD (even though the CBD only accounts for 12% of Auckland’s employment). 
But this leaves a lot of recreation, social, personal business, education and shopping trips to be done. Hopefully, they will be done quite close to home and combined on occasion into multi-purpose neighbourhood trips.  

If too many shops are too centralised, though, opportunities for transport efficiencies will be reduced.  The result will be increased time spent travelling, reducing the opportunity for combining shopping with other trips, and increasing congestion in and around the main centres.  The limited capacity of public transport to cater for multi-purpose trips, for the carriage demands of shopping, or the irregular hours of trips for social and recreational purposes, mean we cannot rely on it to significantly counter the external costs that result.
Given a strong commitment to suburban living in Auckland for the foreseeable future, decentralised and localised retailing are likely to play an important role in maintaining choices while facilitating more sustainable trip-making.
So let’s get real
Experience suggests that it is going to be very difficult to work out where retailing will go over the next decade or two.  Had we looked forward from 1990 we would have struggled to foresee the significance of big box retailing, the emergence of specialist food shops, the arrival and spread of farmers' markets, or the growth of e-tailing. 
Its time to take our planning finger out of the dyke.  We  cannot stop the flow.  But planning can set standards that reflect community expectations, or counter the adverse environmental impacts of our actions and transactions, and ensure that people have choices for fulfilling their shopping, leisure, and personal service needs as effectively and efficiently as possible. 
Who do we plan for?
The people planners act for should not simply be the current owners of property and businesses in major centres, although the right plans might help them to reinvest and respond effectively to changes in demand, taste, and circumstance in the future. 
Rather, the focus should be on the community at large.  That means seriously considering how to plan for a retail sector which is dynamic, and which we are not very good at predicting.  Preservation is not the way to go because society and its tastes are not static.  Nor is erecting and then aiming to enforce hierarchies defined by grouping functions in ways that bear little resemblance to how we might shop in the future. 
Classifying centres in terms of what uses they should and should not have , what retailing is permitted and what isn’t is just too tall a task, and unlikely to contribute to either a sustainable city or a dynamic city centre.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Auckland – not the only town in the game

Do people prefer small cities?
Leading US urbanist, Witold Ribczynski, in his recent book Makeshift Metropolis (2010), places the past growth of major metropolitan areas in context:
the majority of us still appear to prefer dispersed, small cities, a significant minority want to live in concentrated big cities, and a tiny fraction is prepared to pay the price of living in the very centre of things” (page 179).
Despite signs of dispersal, he still sees increasing urban densities as the way forward for America “while taking into account people’s desire for dispersed living in smaller cities”. 
One implication is that advanced urbanisation does not depend on centralisation or the ever-increasing expansion (upward or outward) of the largest urban areas.  Equally, decentralisation does not necessarily mean sprawl.  It may even be that the more compact settlement planners have been pushing over the past two decades is best achieved through dispersal – decentralised intensification – because that lines up with what more people want.
And, if more people prefer small cities, we need to be asking questions about what that means for public spending and economic growth, as well as for the quality of life.
Do small cities feature in New Zealand’s growth?
I thought it would be interesting to see if New Zealand’s changing settlement pattern reflected a similar preference for smaller cities. 
Of course, New Zealand is not North America.  It is distinctively dependent primary production, something which has traditionally supported a wide level of dispersal of a small total population.  At the same time Auckland in the northern North Island  has evolved into a strong primate city, something I have touched on elsewhere.  A productive hinterland, nodal advantages, import substitution, the cumulative concentration of services and consumption, and immigration have all contributed to this.  Today, Auckland accounts for a third of the nation’s population, something that guarantees that it will continue to dominate growth.  

I have looked at recent population change to see if there is any stirring among New Zealand's smaller cities, though. 
The data I used
I have used Statistics New Zealand’s population estimates for territorial local authority areas (TLAs) from 1996 to 2010 for this.  I divided Auckland into the inner city area, the balance of the built up metropolitan area, and two predominantly rural areas or ex-urban areas.  These are based on TLAs in existence (Rodney and Franklin) before the 2010 reforms rolled them up into the city's jurisdiction. 
I then grouped into several categories: the second tier cities (Wellington and Christchurch); ex-urban areas (TLAs immediately adjacent to metropolitan Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch); those TLAs dominated by provincial cities, ranging from Marlborough/Blenheim (TLA population 39,000, urban population 30,000) through to Hamilton City (143,000 people); those TLAs with mixed rural and urban (town) populations; and the predominantly rural TLAs. The inner city population figures for Wellington and Christchurch were added to those of Auckland (and deducted from the balance of the city population in each case).
Auckland remains dominant
In 1996 metropolitan Auckland accounted for 27% of the population, but over the next 15 years it accounted for 52% of the country’s population growth.  There’s not a lot of obvious support for the small city hypothesis in those numbers. 
Of course, Auckland at around 1.4m (inner, metropolitan, and ex-urban areas rolled together) is not an especially big city by North American standards.
But something is happening.  This shows if we compare the first five years of our data with the last four years.
Between the 1996 and 2001 censuses the three inner cities, with less than 1% of the population jointly, exploded (at least in relative terms) to account for 7% of growth recorded between 1996 and 2001 (see chart, below). 
And, Auckland’s metropolitan area, with just 27% of the population, recorded almost two thirds of the nation’s growth.  Exurban areas also grew their share of population (with 20% of the growth).  The second tier cities (once we take out inner city growth) and rural areas declined.

Shares of Population (1996) and Population Growth (1996-2001)

But centralisation is slowing down
Between 2006 and 2010, however, this pattern moderated.
Metropolitan Auckland still dominated but with 29% of the national population in 2006, its share of growth slipped back to 47%.  Inner city areas dropped their share of growth, too, back to 4%.  Exurban areas dropped back to 13% (chart, below).  
So where did the balance go?  Well, between 2006 and 2010 provincial cities accounted for 22% of growth compared with 15% between 1996 and 2001.  Mixed rural/township areas were also up.  They accounted for 12% of national growth, up from just 3.5%.  Rural areas were back in the black. 

Shares of Population (2006) and Population Growth (2006-2010)

This is by no means an end to Auckland’s dominance.  But centralisation is no longer a one way street.  New Zealand, like the United States, is experiencing an increasingly complex pattern of population growth reflecting, presumably, greater variety in residential choices.
A time for rethinking?
We’ve raised this earlier, but its time to take a more balanced view of New Zealand’s growth, one that is less Auckland-centric.  Sure, with around a third of the population and employment, it is important that Auckland operates efficiently, that we invest wisely in the city’s infrastructure, and that it provides a great lifestyle to its citizens and continues to attract (and hold) skilled migrants. 
We can also acknowledge, like Rybczynski, the desirability of inner city living for some citizens.  This is reflected in the growth rates of inner Auckland and Wellington in particular.  But, like him (page 178) we also have to acknowledge what a small minority that is.  Using our generous definition of the inner city,[1] less than 60,000 people lived collectively in inner Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch in 2010, or 2.6% of their joint population. 
Let's not stop thinking about Auckland and its needs, but let’s also invest some thinking and planning in how to realise the opportunities that arise out of more dispersed settlement. 
A national view
When we look at the annual compound growth rates of the top 15 growth areas in New Zealand since 2006 the movements that stand out for me are: the revival of rural and small town South Island; the increasing pervasiveness of growth across the wider northern North Island; and the significance of ex-urban growth around our major cities. 
Fastest Growth Areas in New Zealand, 2006-2010

Metropolitan and inner city growth are up there, but Auckland is no longer the only game in town.
In any case, a preoccupation with fixing Auckland must now make space for the imperative of recovering and rebuilding Christchurch.  The numbers used in this blog predate the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes there, and right now we do not know what long-term effects they will have on housing preferences and settlement patterns.  But the analysis here suggests that decentralisation to smaller, nearby centres may be an attractive option to a significant share of Christchurch citizens, and perhaps a reasonably affordable one from a national point of view.
In a mature urban society – and especially one facing an uncertain economic outlook – we may need to think about a future in which we don’t bank too much on the prospects and opportunities associated with large-scale urbanisation.  That, in the New Zealand case, would be too much like putting all our eggs into one basket.  The time may be upon us when we have to seriously consider  the role of smaller cities and towns play in our economic growth, if only to support the fact that more people are choosing to live in them.
The prospects for New Zealand and the prosperity of New Zealanders demand that we think long and hard about how we are going to exploit the advantages and attractiveness of our smaller cities.

[1]               For those interested, the following Census Area units: Auckland – Harbourside, Central West, Central east, Newton, Freemans Bay, Grafton East and West; Wellington – Thorndon-Tinakori, Lambton, Willis-Cambridge Tce, Aro-Nairn Streets; Christchurch – Cathedral Square, Hagley Park, Avon Loop

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bused or Bust?

Making connections
Did anyone notice a couple of linked stories in the New Zealand Herald on Monday 28th March, one about Auckland City’s ballooning indebtedness, including a discussion about how to fund the new underground rail loop, and the other about changes in inner city bus circuits?   And later in the week Brian Rudman was calling for an increase in bus capacity as the Auckland public embraced the “transport revolution”.
And did anyone realise just how precarious New Zealand’s economic situation is right at the moment?  Right when it looks like falling house prices and a lift in savings might begin to trim back private debt, the disaster of Christchurch is beginning to blow out public debt, already under pressure from the Government’s stimulus programme, tax cuts, and a lower than expected tax take because of falling profits. 
Well, these things are connected in a fairly simple way. 
Prices not plans are doing the trick for public transport
First, the anti-auto lobby are getting their way but, ironically, it is not their plans that are delivering the switch to public transport.  The long-term vision about reshaping the city to deliver passengers to support the aim of developing a mass  transit system is not doing it.  No, it is the simple mechanism of price.  I am not a huge believer in the efficiency of markets, but the increasing cost of fossil fuels is suddenly putting people on buses.  And for those who cared to read the research and use a little common sense, that is hardly surprising.
Time for incremental investment in proven public transport
Second, how can we respond most readily when the market for public transport suddenly jumps?  Why, add more capacity.  In the case of buses it is relatively easy to do this through incremental investment in new rolling stock and more intensive use of the existing fleet.  The roads are there and, with luck, they will cope with more buses, especially if there are fewer private motorists on them. 
Fortunately, roads are a long-term investment in multi-purpose fixed infrastructure that can be readily turned to public transport.  They do have capacity constraints, so it is important that they are well planned.  If, as I suspect, we are faced with long-term increases in real fuel prices, they may need tweaking here and there to facilitate the flow of buses.  But, as the Herald story indicated, the rolling stock is flexible.  It can be easily re-routed to where demand is, can serve a wide range of cross-city destinations, and are not subject to widespread disruption when one part of the system suffers a failure.   Not only that, but there is a reasonable incentive for the private sector to bear a decent share of the costs.
Going off the rails
Now, compare that with rail.  Here we have highly expensive, fixed routes that serve a limited number of destinations.  How do we get people to them?  For all but those relatively few that live within 400 or 500 metres of the railway station, the answer is bus or car.  So we need decent, large parking facilities close to those stations.  But hang on, we also need quality urban redevelopment around them to justify the stations in the first place (and that will need its own parking capacity).  Now the public purse has to be stretched not simply to build and electrify the tracks – so that they can go underground  – but also to promote the transit centres planned to sit around the stations.
And then, or course, there is the capacity of rolling stock.  It is expensive.  It is a lot less flexible than buses.  And there is a limit to how much capacity can be loaded onto the system.  And any failure within the rail network will have further-reaching and generally more prolonged effects than generally occurs with disruption to a bus service.
With buses, the capital outlay is less per unit and the opportunity to take advantage of gains in engine efficiency over time is greater.  As innovations in vehicle technology and passenger comfort and convenience are introduced, so it is easy to progressively convert a fleet to take advantage of them.  If a revolution happens in economical smart cars or engine technology that see everyone revert to private transport, the bus fleet can be reduced in an orderly fashion and the value of investment in the roads is not undermined. 
Plugging public transport
I’m not against public transport.  I’m not even against the enthusiasm to base some of it on rail – as long as it does not involve too big an outlay on new lines, tunnels and the like.  (Actually, I am still a fan of rail as a potential long-distance freight system, one that we may need to ramp up in New Zealand if fuel prices do keep rising). 
I don’t even mind subsidising ferries so that the Waiheke set can get themselves into the CBD for work, shopping, and entertainment, and tourists can head out to the vineyards in the Gulf. 

But there are limits to what Auckland – and New Zealand -- can afford.  And it seems to me we might just be approaching those limits.  Every piece of infrastructure today has to really work hard to justify the investment.  And every dollar of subsidy poured into public transport has to have a real effect on reducing the external costs associated with increasingly concentrated urbanisation.  (It would be nice, too, if it was to help most in areas where people are most "transport disadvantaged").
We are facing an economically challenged and fiscally constrained future, and the prospect of a real  decline in our standards of living.  So it makes no sense to be over-investing in or unduly propping up public infrastructure which has limited capacity, cannot go close to meeting its capital costs, is largely inflexible, and has little redundancy in the case of breakdown or disruption. 
Getting our priorities sorted
Having enjoyed transit systems -- bus, rail, and ferry - while living in much larger cities than Auckland, I am a fan.  But today reality has to rule at home .  We are in for long-term rises in the price of fossil fuels.  We have a relatively decentralised population and decentralised employment in a city of modest scale.  We have fiscal challenges.  We have a host of priorities to sort out for the city (and the nation). 

Just because we now have just one council does not mean that the bucket is bigger (and with the costs of amalgamation hovering over us, it may have got just a little smaller). In theory, a single city can make the harder decisions about spending in the region - including what not to spend - that much easier than the eight cities that preceded it.  (The reality might just be that a bigger city makes bigger mistakes in the way it allocates its resources!) 
More than that, there are major priorities competing for funds nationally.  Auckland cannot expect too many top-ups from central government.  There can be no argument that our most pressing challenge as a nation is rebuilding Christchurch.  And in that context it behoves Aucklanders to make even more responsible decisions about spending, decisions that increase the productivity of current and future investment, rather than diminish it. 
So let’s do some real planning – work through our resources and our needs, determine some priorities, and think about keeping our city flexible and sustainable.  If that means providing for public transport, it also means making sure we do not go bust trying.  Let’s plan for buses.  We already have the roads.