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.


Andrew D Atkin said...

More than agreeable, Phil.

With rising public transport demand buses make the most sense. More demand = more efficient services, more services going where you want them to go, and potentially faster (express) services. Rail can't compare.

I think Auckland would get much more out of congestion-charging, with the reaction being amplifying bus demand, than what they could ever get from urban rail.

New technology for buses? Here's a thought. Why not integrate a system for compressed-air storage/recovery, for stop-and-go operation? (I'll spare you the details but it should be efficient). You should get the value back in no time because buses operate for such a long period of time throughout the day, and are constantly engaging in stop-and-go operation. They are the perfect application. This is just and example.

Mark said...

well said

Future key is productivity. I wonder what the reasearch is on Finance sector producitivty? I'm one who doesn't see the CBD employment growing as many think. How many lawyers does a city need:) - if your economy grows - the finacial trades just become bigger. using the CBD as a Unversity centre is limited and uneconomic.

therefore we most move to dispersed jobs/residential around the region. And in my view key will be to have quality schools to attract people. For many, the quality of the local school decides where they live, and with congestion, will decide where they can work.

Phil - we shouldn't underestimate adaptability of both people and technology. Scooters in times of high petrol prices is an obvious one. But also, we may head to a couple cheap city options - scooter/smart car, and a weekend out of town suv......and anyway peak fuel was supposed to have arrived in the 1950's :)

Phil McDermott said...

Point taken, Mark.
I guess I favour buses because they enable us to wind more out of our existing investments (roads) at a marginal cost (a managed increase in rolling stock). And they will not leave us with a major white elephant if/when we see a recovery in personal mobility from changes in the nature of cars and the progessive renewal of the car fleet to achieve much better fuel economy. But that could be slow and expensive. Public tranpsort could be with us for a while, even if it reverts to serving mainly the "mobility disadvantaged" (something buses with their flexibility do better than trains).