Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On the Same Track? The Auckland Transport Alignment Project

Governments getting together
It’s good to see that central government and Auckland Council seeking to align their thinking on the city’s future transport needs (New Zealand Herald,19 February 2015) with the joint objective of  “value for money”.
Here’s how the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) is pitched:

“The challenge for transport is to identify opportunities and proactively respond to the pressures arising from growth, to deliver economic, cultural, environmental and social benefits to Auckland and New Zealand as a whole. However, this outcome cannot be achieved at any cost. Wise investment will be required to maximise the value from every dollar spent. “Auckland Transport Alignment Project Foundation Report, February 2016, p.5)

I particularly like the bit about wise investment: this suggests that no investment will be made without a sound knowledge of the demand it is designed to meet. 

Understanding the Problem
The problem requiring alignment of transport objectives is responding to growth:

The scale and location of the population and employment growth creates a challenging transport future.  Medium growth projections will see Auckland’s population increase by over 700,000 over the next 30 years (approximately half again from current levels) and the number of jobs increase by over 270,000. (ATAP, p.5)

So how sound is this as a representation of future demand? 

A Departure from the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan?
The Future Urban Land Supply Strategy (FULSS, Auckland Council, November 2015) sets out the expectations of the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan.  It projects Auckland’s population:

to grow by one million people over the next 30 years.  This means around 400,000 new dwellings and 277,000 additional jobs will be needed” (FULSS, p.4)

These figures project a population gain 42% higher than the figure the ATAP is using, just three months later.  I would like to know why there is such a difference, and particularly whether alignment allows for changes to the PAUP.  It’s going to be difficult to achieve value for money if our transport investments do not align with our land use plans, even worse if those plans prove spurious. 

How many jobs?
The Auckland Plan certainly seems confused on the land use front. This has been obvious for a long time with respect to housing.
But what puzzles me now about the PAUP is that, according to the FULSS figures above, provisions for business land are based on a labour force participation rate of just 28% for the additional population, or 69 workers for every 100 new dwellings.  This compares with 41% actual participation across Auckland in 2013, and 114 workers per 100 dwellings.

Projecting a slump in participation makes no sense given that the population growth the PAUP projects depends heavily on immigration.  But without commensurate job growth, this will dry up.  Statistics New Zealand’s most recent medium projection is for 736,000 more residents.  Of this 38% are assumed to come directly from migration (52% in the first five years), and of course more come indirectly as migrants settle and raise their own families. 

Without the provision of land for their employment, though, don't expect even this much reduced population projection to be anywhere near the mark.

Underestimating labour force growth will lead to an undersupply of land for employment.  This is a major flaw in the PAUP. The results will be higher costs and fewer options for business establishment and expansion, lower investment, lower employment and, consequently, lower population growth. 

If the PAUP projections prevail but a more realistic participation rate is achieved (the ATAP figures suggests it will be 39%) then the PAUP is heading for 30% less land than needed for employment, a sure recipe for depressing growth, boosting congestion, undermining housing affordability, and making Auckland just that much less liveable.  That surely has to be corrected.

Where will employment be?
Here’s another thing: the PAUP persists in promoting the central city as the focus of employment.  The ATAP project picks up on this:

Employment growth is highly concentrated in a few locations, particularly the city centre, the airport and other regional metropolitan centres. Over a third of employment growth is projected to occur within 5km of the city centre. The growth in service sector jobs, which tend to locate in major centres to benefit from agglomeration, is a key factor behind the projected concentration of employment growth. (ATAP, p.8)

The evaluation of the current Auckland Transport Network Plan by ATAP indicates that this is a poor starting point. It shows that aligning transport plans will not be enough to correct for an inappropriate, over-centralised land use plan.

Current Prospects Grim
Looking out in ten year steps the ATAP review of the current Auckland Transport Network Plan points to deteriorating private vehicle accessibility to employment, widespread and increasing congestion, and a slowing and uneven rate of growth in public transport use.  This raises significant equity issues:

… the central (isthmus) area benefits the most while other parts of Auckland experience a much more mixed and patchy transport future. The west and south appear to face the greatest private vehicle access challenges into the future and are also the areas where public transport improvements appear most muted.

Deprivation will increase in large areas of Auckland which will be “partly excluded from the benefits of Auckland’s expanding employment base" (ATAP p.10).

Getting to Value for Money
None of this was unpredictable, of course, but it is useful to see the current package of transport proposals tested in this way.  Whether or not the ATAP can come up with an alternative package that will provide value for money and significantly improve efficiency and equity outcomes is yet to be seen. 

However, to avoid these negative outcomes and meet Auckland Council growth expectations will require a significant revision of the prevailing package of interventions.  Ultimately, this may mean abandoning the spatial plan that gave rise to the transport externalities that requires such a programme.  Only when we begin to plan for a more sustainable city might we move towards a more sustainable transport programme.

Aligning land use and transport
So the challenge is not simply to find a package of transport interventions that will get Auckland working.   The problem -- and the challenge -- goes deeper than that.  Even before the ATAP sets about the task of evaluating alternative interventions it has confirmed in its evaluation the flawed nature of the spatial plan. 

In a constrained geographic environment the Auckland Plan and PAUP put too many eggs in the CBD basket.  They promote a monocentric, centralised city on a narrow isthmus, and rely on the assumption that the inefficiencies this will generate can be resolved simply by spending ever increasing amounts on transport. 

The ATAP foundation document raises serious doubts over that.

The real task is to align transport investment with sensible land use plans.  Get the land use plan wrong and any analyses about value for transport investment will be meaningless. Only a fundamental review of the land use assumptions behind the PAUP -- particularly where people might live and work -- will deliver value for money, and avoid Auckland grinding to a fiscal as well as a physical halt.