Auckland

how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

watching our words: congestion charge or price or (shudder) tax

There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere.  But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.

Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject.  My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion.  The core point:

Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.

Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.

Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.

Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?

Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?"    The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior.  The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage.  To their credit, none of the four expert responses — even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge — really took this bait.

So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price.  The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion.  A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option.  But those are too many words. 

Should we call it a decongestion price

Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities.  The core geometry problem is this:

  • Cities are, by definition, places where lots of people are close together.
  • Cities are therefore, by defintion, places with relatively little space per person.
  • Your car takes 50-100 times as much space as your body does.
  • Therefore, people in cars consume vastly more of the scarce resource, urban space, than the same people without their cars — for example, as pedestrians or public transit riders. 
  • When people choose whether to drive, they're choosing how much scarce urban space to consume.
  • If urban space is to be used like any other scarce resource, its price needs to be deregulated so that it is used efficiently. 

Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation.  It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.

There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax."  Here's the New Zealand Herald

Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".

A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.

Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion.  It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue.  So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going.  The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them.  The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them. 

If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving — such as large parts of Auckland — then anything  that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity.  And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging.  That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.

tadpoles of new zealand: an auckland transit animation

There's a lot of potential for animation of Google Transit data, and we're just starting to see it explored.  Some results will be rich with information, differentiating various kinds of service so that you can see how they dance together.  Chris McDowall's animation of a day's transit in Auckland is less informative but correspondingly more meditative.  Buses, trains and ferries are all rendered as earnest little tadpoles (or comets, or sperm, or viruses, depending on your sense of scale).

(An animated map of Auckland's public transport network from Chris McDowall on Vimeo.)

It nicely illustrates the point that frequency is what makes a route into a line.  The line that goes really solid during the peak is the Northern Busway, which is far more frequent than any of Auckland's rail lines. 

UPDATE:  Commenter "numbat" points out that on the island at the east edge of the image (Waiheke Island) you can see local island buses pulsing with ferries that link the island to Auckland's CBD.

Postcard: Auckland

DSCF2918 Greetings from New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life.  If you’re a young North American who wonders what Seattle was like 40 years ago when I was a tyke — before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks — Auckland’s your answer.   To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.  That’s always an attractive feature, in cities as in people, even though (or perhaps because) it can’t possibly last. Continue Reading →