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With Auckland's Central Rail Link projects looking like a huge cost disaster and the first light rail project mired in inaction, Brendon Harre looks for alternatives in light rail to do more transit for less money

With Auckland's Central Rail Link projects looking like a huge cost disaster and the first light rail project mired in inaction, Brendon Harre looks for alternatives in light rail to do more transit for less money

By Brendon Harre*

“Urbanism works when it creates a journey as desirable as the destination.” Paul Goldberger

Auckland Light Rail so far has been an unhappy initiative — it has been delayed by three years and the project is now on its second Minister.

Michael Wood the new Transport Minister has created a new light rail process with public engagement at its core. There will be a six-month work programme undertaken by an Establishment Unit. At the end of the year when the Government receives advice from the Unit, it will make the key decisions on route, mode, and delivery entity.

So, now is the time for the public to constructively engage in the Auckland light rail conversation — rethinking the urban shaping project is still possible.

A difficult trade-off problem for the Establishment Unit is that New Zealand’s early transport planners did not allocate enough space so that arterial roads could meet future needs. This issue can be resolved by choosing from the following options.

  1. Widen the arterial road to a boulevard corridor as discussed in this paper. This gives all multi-modal transport users — in particular, light rail passengers, cyclists, micro-mobility users, and pedestrians more space.
  2. Build a more expensive underground or elevated metro style system.
  3. Keep the current width of the chosen arterial road (Sandringham or Dominion Road) and close down the corridor for motor vehicle through traffic, or at a minimum make it one-way, as urbanist and cycling advocates have explained. Note this proposal is not just about reallocating arterial road space width-wise. Reducing motor vehicle traffic traveling the length of the LRT arterial corridor makes managing cross traffic at intersections simpler.

Source — @ScootFoundation

Whichever light rail option is chosen will need to be a choice that Auckland and New Zealand can live with. For Auckland this is another Robbie’s Rapid Rail moment - making the wrong choice or missing a desired opportunity will be remembered.

Boulevard light rail corridors

Oslo Bjorvika Tram

Trams work well in wide boulevards. In Oslo, depicted above, the streetscape has plenty of space for tree-lined footpaths, cycle lanes, two lanes of road traffic and a green, tree-lined tramway.

The built form response to this high-quality boulevard space are buildings with a minimum height of six storeys. As a housing advocate, I cannot help but think: how many thousands of homes does this sort of built environment create?

If you take a 100-metre section on one side of the boulevard, for example, and assume it was built to a depth of 25m at six storeys high, that creates 15,000 square metres of floor space. At 100 square metres per dwelling, that comes to 150 homes (assuming communal spaces such as hallways, stairs and elevators are part of the 100 square metres per dwelling figure).

It is difficult to build these sorts of boulevards in New Zealand because our arterial roads are typically only one chain (20m) wide, and a good boulevard is 30 to 40 meters wide. The Oslo example depicted above, for instance, is 40m.

In my opinion, the Auckland light rail debate should focus on how to create high value boulevard corridors as its first step.

For instance, could the Government use the Public Works Act to acquire houses lining the chosen arterial road? Say a 50m wide corridor on both sides. Would that be possible on Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd?

If 10m of private property on both sides of a standard New Zealand arterial road were added to the public right-of-way this would create a 40m wide road. This corridor would not only be useful for above ground amenities, it also creates plenty of space for below ground infrastructure, such as upgraded water pipes, electricity lines and fibre networks.

Many existing houses and buildings would need to be removed for this to happen — a problem that comes with some benefits, as any new housing could be built much higher. And this uplift building could happen all at once, or at least much quicker than the upzoning facilitated through the NPS-UD, which is a longer term incremental process.

Over time, though, the NPS-UD will have the stronger influence because it affects the wider ‘walkable’ catchment area around rapid transit. The upzoning it allows will be an important component in the long-term success of a boulevard light rail development.

Major transport projects frequently require the acquisition of private property. The Mill Rd project, for instance, will create a 30m wide road corridor and requires land acquisition negotiations with about 600 landowners. If the benefits outweigh the costs, then the use of the Public Works Act is appropriate.

Three options for rapid transit between Auckland CBD and the Airport. Source — NZ Herald

It appears to me like the goals for Auckland light rail have evolved over time. At the start of the debate, the conversation was about relieving inner city bus congestion and then about providing a fast link between the city centre and the airport.

Now the goal seems to be twofold: what will prompt the best house building response, and what option gives the greatest number of people access to the expanding rapid transit network. This probably reflects increasing public concern about the housing crisis and climate change.

Bearing these shifting goals in mind, would investigating a boulevard light rail project be an appropriate next step for Auckland?

What about converting Sandringham Rd into a light rail boulevard, from Kingsland to Onehunga stations?

If planners prioritised integrating light rail with housing development and people accessing the existing rapid transit network and downgraded the importance of the city centre and airport parts of the project (which could be provided for in later stages), then Sandringham Rd might be the preferred option. If the city centre link is considered essential, then the Dominion Rd boulevard development might be the better option.

And if some officials believe the current scale of the project is too complex and too risky, would it be beneficial to break it down into more easily implemented, smaller stages?

What does Sandringham road look like?

It is a typical New Zealand, 20m wide arterial road lined with one-to-two storey retail or residential buildings. This gives the road a lot of uplift potential.

Sandringham Road just past the Burnley corner on the left. Note the cramped nature of the road corridor. Source — GoogleMaps

Sandringham Rd is approximately 4 kilometres long from Kingsland station to its southern end. From there, light rail could use the designated (but unbuilt) rail corridor alongside the motorway to Onehunga station. I roughly estimate there are about 500 properties that front onto the 4km length of Sandringham Rd.

Widening the Sandringham Road from 20 to 40m would be necessary from Kingsland Station in the north to Stoddard Road in the South. Source — GoogleMaps

The benefits of taking the Sandringham Road route

It would expand Auckland’s rapid transit network by providing a connection between Kingsland station and Onehunga station.

Proposed Sandringham light rail in black connecting Kingsland an Onehunga stations. Source — CityRailLink-Benefits including travel times page.

There are a large number of Kainga Ora houses close to Sandringham Road that are planned for intensification which would benefit from access to light rail. These can be seen in the ‘routes’ section of Light Rail Next Steps paper by the Greater Auckland website.

Sandringham light rail would remove a lot of bus congestion at peak times in the city centre. Over twenty Sandringham road buses an hour in the morning peak could be replaced by light rail.

Providing another rapid transit access route to Onehunga improves access and mode-shift for the second largest employment area in Auckland.

The major employment areas in Auckland are:

  • City Centre: 120,000 employees
  • Penrose/ Onehunga/ Mt Wellington industrial: 58,800 employees
  • Manukau/ Wiri industrial: 35,800 employees
  • Auckland Airport and the airport corridor industrial: 28,800 employees
  • East Tamaki: 28,200 employees
  • Rosedale/ North Harbour industrial: 25,700 employees
  • Takapuna: 19,700 employees (includes Smales Farm, the hospital, Barrys Point Rd etc)

Not only could Sandringham light rail be built in three incremental stages there are several further incremental upgrade possibilities.

In particular, a Crosstown light rail service between Penrose and Avondale stations via Onehunga station could easily be built as most of the corridor is already designated and it would provide many connection benefits across Auckland’s isthmus.

A more expensive light metro route from Auckland CBD to the airport would also be possible. This could take a more direct route to Onehunga – perhaps similar to the original 1950s tram route.

Source – Auckland tram routes in 1950

What are the cost implications?

Land acquisition costs for a boulevard development would be considerable. Buying out 500 Auckland houses could easily cost $500 million to $1 billion dollars. Although after the boulevard is completed, the remaining parts of each plot will have increased in value, so much if not all, of the land acquisition costs could be recovered.

Constructing light rail itself should be easier on a wider road. Constructing a street running system is one quarter of the cost of an above or below ground light metro system. The distance from Kingsland to Onehunga stations is about 10km which is a shorter distance than recent Australasian light rail projects, such as Canberra’s light rail, which cost less than $1 billion.

Given there is speculation Auckland light rail could cost anywhere between $6b and $20b, being able to keep costs to around $2b for the first stage, with some of that being recoverable, should be reassuring.

Post Script

The emphasis of this post is mainly about ‘mode’ — how to create good quality boulevard corridors that encourages greater mode shift to — light rail, walking, and cycling. And how to create high value amenity spaces that encourages a good built-environment response. The post is less certain about ‘route’ — a good argument can be made for Dominion Road over Sandringham Road. In an ideal world — both routes would be the answer to the ‘what route question’. And some other light rail routes could be viable too!


This is a repost of an article here. It is here with permission.

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27 Comments

Much as my inclination is to immediately and unwavering back any plan that involves bulldozing Auckland I would point out that in many European cities cars and trams use the same street with sunken tracks being used.

That said rail and trams will soon be yesterdays technology, self-driving vehicles appear to be the future. It would be a colossal waste to sink money into a near obsolete solution.

I've been hearing "self driving vehicles will happen any minute now" for the last eight years. How many years of congestion, lost productivity and lost family time do we endure before we accept that doing something now might be better than waiting for the tech-bro solution that's always just a couple of years away.

Driverless cars aren't a solution, they're a different type of problem.

It’s very hard to predict the future. But it does feel like younger generations are moving away from cars. Automating a car may be as useful as automating a fondue set.

I doubt people will buy the cars but pay per use instead.

Driverless cars have a big legal problem to overcome. Injured parties will sue if the driverless cars safety settings are too low.
But that is not driverless cars main problem. The biggest flaw is they do not solve city congestion problems - how can adding vehicles that will frequently be 'zero occupancy' decrease spatial demand in congested urban corridors?
There is a huge amount of evidence that shows only rapid transit systems and congestion road pricing improves congestion.
https://ideas.repec.org/p/uab/wprdea/wpdea2011.html

You know we dont need roads in the future.....

https://youtu.be/NhSC4C43wgc

You are looking at this with a pre pandemic mindset, much has changed over the last 14 months. The new trends should be incorporated into your plans

Sydney built an airport rail to Wynyard. After all they had the Olympic games in mind. Travelled it a few times fifteen years ago or so, worked OK. Worked much better in fact than Heathrow for instance, but understand neither of these two examples are all that profitable? Is a rail connection to the airport all that vital then? Will not the great majority of Auckland residents just continue to get to and from the airport as they always have done anyway.

Michael Wood very sensibly did not mention the airport when he announced the working group. The airport just happens to be a stop at the end of a route that makes perfect sense without it.

The obsessive focus with the airport did so much damage to the legitimate case for Light Rail in Auckland. Telling that we stuffed it up so badly that we need to reconsult on what we're actually trying to achieve with mass transit in the urban corridors, when Auckland Transport was fleshing this stuff out years before Labour was elected.

Self driving car will increase the capacity of the roads... Once they the only thing on it. And they will also increase the demand on it. Little suzy wants to go visit a friend, just put her in the car and tell the car to take her..
They will not solve rush hour congestion, just supply a temporary amelioration.

Re: With Auckland's Central Rail Link projects looking like a huge cost disaster and the first light rail project mired in inaction, Brendon Harre looks for alternatives in light rail to do more transit for less money.

I would also like to point out that many new motorways in NZ have been huge cost disasters. Transmission Gully for example. So it is important to look at how we can do more 'transport' for less money.

Also the CityRailLink will shape Auckland's urban geography for generations to come. It increases frequency and travel times from 3 directions and provides two new central city stations in high demand locations.

You talk about "more transport for less money", what costings have you done to know how cost effective it will be. That sounds like a slogan rather than statement of fact

You can read the cost implication section of report to understand the rationale for why boulevard light rail schemes are good value for money IMO. My rationale is based on the facts not slogans.

That section ( and the rest of the article ) is packed full of wishful thinking and not much else. To refer to it a as source of costings is a pretty direct admission of that.

My report referred to the cost of light rail in Canberra. That on a per km basis light rail is 1/4 of the cost of light metro. I gave some approximate figures for the land acquisition costs.
This gives the reader a ballpark figure and the means of comparing the different options. What more do you want?
A more detailed budget will involved months of professional work and be very costly.

When you say "A more detailed budget will involved months of professional work and be very costly" I agree.
That however directly contradicts your claim that you article somehow shows that what you propose will be cost-effective.
You cannot simultaneously say " costing it is too hard " and " I have shown it will be cost-effective ".

The land acquisition costs you refer to are extremely optimistic ; your assertion that most of them would somehow be recovered through intensification is just day-dreaming .

Whatever passhaas. My report was about giving the broad overview - including some ballpark cost comparison figures. If that is not good enough for those with nitpicking tendencies then so be it.

Just love it that how any unwelcome reference to facts and details ( or lack thereof .. ) is dismissed with " whatever .. nitpicking tendencies .." .
Does not reflect well on the quality of your writing.

Construction of the City Rail Link is supposed to be due for completion and handover in late 2024, but the head of the 3.45 kilometre, $4.4 billion project now says he is unable to give a firm finish date, due to the uncertainty created by Covid-19. The link is expected to save 17 minutes on a train trip from Henderson to the central city.

Yet more transport plans that cut access off from the most vulnerable and cut their medical access completely and put in place access for the most able bodied only. They still could not set up the rail transport CRL to be accessible for people with severe disabilities and in fact the development has only cut off large swathes of the central city so those needing access for work, medical care and cultural events are completely denied access now. Thanks for promoting more stripping of the rights of people with disabilities and denying them access to work and medical care. You should have brought them all guns instead it would be cheaper and less painful in the long run. Sure cut off vehicle access to main streets so the disabled no longer have access to their homes and in home nursing care and trades will have no access to service homes and businesses. What could go wrong, (here is a clue more people die in more degrading ways... slow clap for the ableists who think the disabled are too lazy to walk and cycle when the ableists themselves claim they cannot walk the distance of these streets carrying trade tools and materials).

Many disabled people are dependent on public transport. So improving rapid transits quality and coverage will help those people.

Even better still. Bugga off the Oslo! The cost does not equate to usage/patronage. All the pretty pictures of places in Europe where they get massive subsidies from the EU!!

Stick to Trains instead of these expensive vanity projects for the dreamer anorak brigade.

Norway is not a member of the EU!

Or you could put a slightly raised single tramline/light rail down the middle of Sandringham Road and another single line going back up Dominion Road and put the bike lanes on Mt Eden Road. I don't think you have to demolish half the population's houses just so you can make the streetscape look like Oslo. Once you've actually put a couple of rails down the street and run some light rail units down it then you could change the district scheme zoning of the street so people can make their own decisions about where they live.

The most successful recent transport project in Auckland was the Northern Busway and as I understand it, that was driven by the North Shore City Council. If that council was still around the busway would probably be a light rail corridor, there would be 6 storey park and ride parking buildings at every stop and the council would be making money. Not saying that the North Shore City Council was the best organisation around but it occasionally got things done.

Now the Auckland council wants fewer park and ride places so that people have to take the bus to the busway. Planner's thinking. Just more difficulty for patrons of the transport system.

Or you could put a slightly raised single tramline/light rail down the middle of Sandringham Road and another single line going back up Dominion Road and put the bike lanes on Mt Eden Road. I don't think you have to demolish half the population's houses just so you can make the streetscape look like Oslo. Once you've actually put a couple of rails down the street and run some light rail units down it then you could change the district scheme zoning of the street so people can make their own decisions about where they live.

The most successful recent transport project in Auckland was the Northern Busway and as I understand it, that was driven by the North Shore City Council. If that council was still around the busway would probably be a light rail corridor, there would be 6 storey park and ride parking buildings at every stop and the council would be making money. Not saying that the North Shore City Council was the best organisation around but it occasionally got things done.

Now the Auckland council wants fewer park and ride places so that people have to take the bus to the busway. Planner's thinking. Just more difficulty for patrons of the transport system.