Urban Transport Planning in New Zealand:
From Fantasy to Reality

Wellington Regional Council
12 March 2001

Sponsored by
Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand,
New Zealand Planning Institute
Chartered Institute of Transport
Wellington Regional Council

(Note: Slide numbers shown in parentheses, link available here)

Urban planners around the world seem virtually unanimous in their view that the fundamental problem in urban transport is to divert travel from automobiles to other modes, especially public transport. And so, in America and elsewhere, long term urban transport plans call for a large share of future funding to be applied to public transport. We often hear public authorities claim that the public wants to solve the traffic congestion problem by adding public transport capacity, or that the public wants all future urban development to be within the present confines of the urban area. These conclusions are drawn from polls and public processes that are not reliable as indicators of public opinion. For example, when people are asked about where should new urban development be placed, they are rarely, if ever, told that the effect of densification will be to worsen traffic congestion. When people are asked about public transport, they are rarely, if ever, told how long or how many transfers it will take for them to complete their trips that do not begin or end in the downtown area. Armed with this information, poll and stated preference survey results would be different, as I will try to show this evening. But worse --- all too often, planners seem to be have placed themselves in the role of molding public opinion. Take for example the case of Christchurch, where a planning brochure asks the question, "Two Futures, One Choice (#3)." Pictured are the two choices --- terrible traffic congestion, and a number of businessmen exiting a bus with smiles on their faces that would be plastered on the front of brochures if Robert Owen were still developing socialist utopias. I rode the bus for 15 years in Los Angeles. It was pleasant, but I do not remember ever seeing such smiles plastered on the faces public transport patrons --- nor have I in Hong Kong, Beijing, London, Paris, and so on.

Then the Christchurch brochure goes on to say that "Traffic will worsen unless we change the way we travel. What's your choice for the future?" But indicating what may be regional government intellectual dishonesty, the very projections of the public agency producing the brochure show that traffic will get worse regardless of the "future" chosen. If I were a resident of this nation (being counted in the census is not enough!), I would be contacting my member of Parliament seeking legislation or regulation to remove regional councils from the role of evangelization.

Around the developed world, there is an incoherence between transport and land use plans and the future as is projected by the same urban planners. This is illustrated by the case of Atlanta, where 55 percent of transport resources are to be spent on public transport over the next 25 years. The result of this emphasis will be inconsequential. The planners models indicate that motor vehicle travel will rise at approximately the rate of population increase --- more than 40 percent, while the number of trips diverted to public transport will be minuscule. The thin red line on the chart (#4) represents the value obtained from using 55 percent of resources on public transport. Public transport is projected to rise from its current 2.56 percent market share to 3.44 percent. Now, it would be reasonable to spend 55 percent of resources on public transport if public transport were to carry 55 percent of the travel. Even if public transport carried 25 percent of the travel, it would only be misallocation. But 55 percent spent to obtain 3.44 percent is gross misallocation of resources --- something we cannot afford with our severe and worsening traffic congestion.

This "completely out of proportion" planning is not limited to Atlanta. The same or similar situation can be found throughout what I will refer to as the "four colonies:" New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States. In most urban areas, there are plans to spend a disproportionate share of transport resources on public transport, in exchange for which little in perceivable results will be obtained. The planners have not even been able to torture their computer models to produce public transport results that are meaningful. The urban transport problem is not how to get people out of cars, because it is not the role of urban planners to be evangelists. The urban transport problem is simply this. Virtually everyone agrees, on all sides of the political and planning spectrum, that motor vehicle travel will continue to rise significantly. The job of urban planners and government is to plan and respond to this trend, not to change it.


Public transport is often suggested as a solution to the problem of traffic congestion, which plagues urban areas throughout the west. But, in reality, public transport has virtually no potential to significantly reduce traffic congestion, because it is largely about downtown.

Public transport basically serves two markets in western urban areas. First; public transport provides a welfare service for those who have disabilities or do not have access to cars. Second' public transport serves as an alternative to the automobile for people who work downtown. In a some places, public transport still serves a more general market throughout the urban core for people who would otherwise use automobiles, but this market has long since vanished in most urban areas, or has become very small (examples are the city of New York, central Toronto and the north shore of Chicago).

Public transport's impact as an alternative to the automobile is small outside downtown areas, because public transport systems are focused primarily on downtown (#5). It is only to downtown that quick, no-transfer service comparatively competitive with the automobile is provided. Trips to other parts of the urban area require transfers and long travel times (#6) . People with a choice will simply not put up with public transport, which outside downtown destinations is considerably inferior to the automobile in travel time and convenience (#7).

The problem is that downtown is no longer dominant in terms of its share of employment. In Auckland, the percentage of regional employment in the downtown area is only 13 percent (#8). It is higher, at 31 percent in Wellington (#9), but lower in Christchurch, at 25 percent.

Predictably, public transport's work trip market share is greatest in the downtown areas. This is evident in Auckland, where public transport's downtown work trip market share is 31 percent, while outside downtown the share is three percent (#10). Similarly, Wellington's public transport downtown work trip market share is 26 percent, while outside downtown it is six percent (#11). No other major center in the nation, not Newmarket and not Lower Hutt, achieves a significant public transport market share.

Throughout the four colonies, public transport does not account for a significant work trip market share anywhere but downtown. Even in Denver, where a suburban office center now has more employees than the downtown area (Denver Tech Center), public transport's work trip market share is less than five percent.

Downtown's public transport market share is already comparatively high, and not likely to improve significantly. Indeed, public transport's downtown market share has been declining in most urban areas for decades. Because public transport is only about downtown, there is no hope whatever of reducing regional traffic congestion through public transport strategies --- not in Portland, Dallas, Vancouver, Toronto or Sydney, much less Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch.

This is not to suggest that public transport is not important to areas other than downtown. People without cars and with disabilities rely on public transport to the entire community. Generally people who commute to areas outside downtown on public transport have much lower incomes than those who commute to downtown (#12)


You have probably heard about the revitalization of light rail (trams) in the United States. A number of urban areas have built new systems and more plan to. It is important to understand what is driving this demand. It is political --- a result of the US political system that has incentives for what is termed "pork" (politically motivated federal government spending) to be distributed to particular congressional districts. A large amount of money is available to local governments to build light rail. Local governments are able to obtain from 100 percent to 400 percent in federal funding compared to their own investment. Light rail is not the object of pursuit, money is. If the money were available to dig holes and fill them up, urban areas would dutifully line up to obtain their share.

You have also probably heard about the great numbers of people that can be carried by light rail. In the US, proponents often claim that light rail can carry the equivalent of from eight to 12 motorway lanes of travel. While this is theoretically true, and might be achieved in Manila, with a fully grade separated system and a populace without cars, nothing remotely similar to such a volume is achieved in the four colonies. In the US, for example, the average new light rail line carries 20 percent of the capacity of a single motorway lane --- the best lines carry barely one-third (#13).

Because so few automobile drivers are enticed to take light rail instead, the impact of light rail on traffic congestion has been virtually nil (#14). As a result, light rail is exceedingly costly. With respect to each of the new light rail systems in the US, it would have been less expensive to provide each new commuter with a leased car --- in some cases a leased luxury car (#15).


Another matter than virtually all urban planners seem to agree upon is the need to stop "urban sprawl," and to density or intensify urban areas, through what is called "smart growth.". The favored tactic is to force central area densities higher and to not permit development to occur outside "urban growth boundaries." Such boundaries have been adopted in Auckland and Christchurch. The planners claim that by intensifying the urban area, the quality of life will be improved, traffic congestion reduced and air pollution mitigated.

The most fervent evangelists of smart growth come from Portland (Oregon), whose missionaries have visited pagan shores around the world, including New Zealand. They claim great successes as a result of their policies. But their gospel is false. There is nothing particularly special about Portland, apart from its favorable geographical location and related advantages. Portland is not particularly dense, its traffic is worsening, public transport use is minimal and middle income people are being priced out of the housing market. Indeed, housing affordability in the Portland area has declined twice as fast as in any other of the nation's 80 largest urban areas over the last decade.

Los Angeles is often perceived to be a particularly sprawling place. Yet, in reality, Los Angeles is the most densely populated urban area in the United States, and considerably more dense than Portland (#17). Portland is also considerably less dense (#18) than Auckland (Sydney, which has densities similar to that of Auckland, substituted due to lack of Auckland data).

The analysis that follows is based upon data from the recent compendium published by Kenworthy & Laube on international urban areas, together with data collected from other sources. While I generally disagree with Jeff Kenworthy's prescriptions for public transport and cities, he and his associates have done a remarkable job of developing data and I salute them for it.

Higher densities do not improve the urban environment. European and Asian urban areas are considerably more dense than urban areas in the four colonies (#19). As would be expected, public transport market shares are considerably higher where density is higher (#20). Part of the reason for this is that more public transport service is provided (#21). But in a more expansive, lower density urban area, such as in the four colonies, the comprehensive, high quality public transport systems of the Europe and Asia would be far to expensive.

One might expect that where public transport market shares are higher, road traffic would be lower. That is certainly the implication of the light rail and smart growth advocates. But the opposite is true. Where public transport market shares are higher, traffic congestion is more intense, the result of higher densities (#22). Research conducted for the US Department of Transportation indicates that, in the range of density typical of urban areas in the four colonies, a 10 percent increase in population density translates into an eight percent increase in the intensity of traffic.

But that is just the beginning. As more traffic is concentrated in a smaller area, speeds are reduced and there is more "stop and go" operation. This is evident in average speeds (#24), where generally, higher densities internationally are associated with lower traffic speeds (It is likely that Australia's average speeds are lower than in the United States (#25) because of its failure to build comprehensive urban motorway systems).

And there is more. Air pollution is intensified as speeds decline. US Environmental Protection Agency research shows that the optimal speed for minimizing automobile air pollution is 55 to 90 kph (#26). Slowing traffic, the inevitable result of densification, will worsen air pollution.

Finally, the proponents of smart growth often suggest that there is no point to providing additional road capacity --- that new capacity is just quickly filled up by new travel that is generated by the new highway (induced travel). This is like claiming that pregnancy is increased by building maternity wards. Research has been published to show this effect. One often quoted University of California study found that each 10 percent increase in highway capacity translated into a nine percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. But the study was incomplete. It was limited to the effect of new motorway construction and failed to review the impact on adjacent roadways or the rest of the roadway system.

Another study, by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), found little difference in traffic congestion trends between urban areas that built more roadways and urban areas that built less. STPP, however, failed to account for the differences in population growth. Adjusted for population growth, traffic congestion trends were substantially better among the urban areas that build more capacity (#27).

And then there is Phoenix, Arizona which disproves the induced traffic theory by its actual experience. In the 1960s, Phoenix determined to not build a motorway system, seeking to avoid becoming like Los Angeles with its freeways. Phoenix limited its motorways to the national routes north and south through the community. As a result, by the early 1980s, Phoenix had a very low ratio of motorway lane miles per capita. But traffic had become very congested, and Phoenix learned that there was something worse than Los Angeles with its freeways --- Los Angeles without its freeways. As a result, Phoenix undertook a program of motorway construction and now has nearly as many motorway lane miles per capita as the average. Before building the new motorways, Phoenix drivers traveled further than the national average. Now, after completion of many miles of new motorways, Phoenix drivers travel less.


Another study by STPP found that consumers in more sprawling US urban areas have higher transport costs than those in less sprawling urban areas. There is no disputing this (#29). But there is more to life than transport, a point missed by STPP.

Housing costs are higher in the less sprawling urban areas, by a factor more than sufficient to erase the transport cost advantage. Further, food costs are less in the more sprawling urban areas. In fact, the cost of transport, housing and food combined are less in the more sprawling urban areas than in the less sprawling urban areas (#30).

But there is more.

o People in the more sprawling urban areas spend less time each year traveling to and from work. People in the more sprawling urban areas spend the equivalent of four days in additional time traveling to and from work (#31).

o People in more sprawling urban areas have more room --- the number of household rooms per capita is greater where sprawl is greater (#32). And while the data is not available, my experience suggests that the size of rooms is larger in the more sprawling urban areas as well.

o And then there is the matter of home ownership. Home ownership is the greatest source of wealth creation among middle income people in the four colonies. Public policies in many nations are geared toward encouraging home ownership. And, home ownership is higher where there is more sprawl. In the most sprawling urban areas, home ownership is 70 percent, compared to only 57 percent in the least sprawling areas (#33)

Proponents of smart growth often suggest that urban sprawl retards the quality of life. To the contrary, just the opposite may be true.


There are serious problems in land use and transport planning in New Zealand that are likely to reduce the quality of life. In both Auckland and Christchurch, there appears to have been a wholesale acceptance of the principles of smart growth.

The Auckland Regional Council (ARC) has adopted "intensification" policies that would crowd 70 percent of new growth into the current area of urbanization. To its credit, the ARC acknowledges that this will make traffic worse (#35). But the public statements of ARC officials do not often repeat this reality. Instead, there are illusions to how public transport ,and light rail are required to solve the traffic congestion problem, when in fact the very plans of the same agency show that traffic congestion will get worse.

ARC represents a good example of the incoherent planning noted above in Atlanta and elsewhere. Over the next 20 years, ARC plans to spend (or have spent) 35 times as much per point of market share on public transport as on roads (#36). Yet, roads will continue to provide the overwhelming percentage of transport in the region. This type of distorted policy making will only make Auckland a less desirable place to live. ARC also projects that the current seven percent of work trips taken by public transport will expand to 20 percent over 20 years (#37). This would be unprecedented in the four colonies and the world. It would require 40 percent of new work trips to be taken by public transport (#38) , a simply unachievable goal in light of the fact that today only 31 percent of work trips to downtown are taken by public transport, despite the high level of service. To achieve this goal would require that all new jobs in the Auckland region and many already existing be concentrated in the downtown area. Downtown Auckland needs to look like Hong Kong for ARC's goal to be achieved. All of this is fantasy.

Already, Auckland has much worse traffic than similar sized urban areas throughout the four colonies. I am aware of only two other urban areas that have traffic congestion competitive with Auckland --- Portland and Calgary, both places that have gone out of their way to not provide roadway capacity.

But that is nothing compared to the fantasy being considered in Christchurch. There, public transport's market share for all trips has fallen to three percent. By 2018, Christchurch's urban planners project an increase to between 10 percent and 15 percent (#39). This would be a far larger increase than has ever been achieved in a western urban area where public transport's market share has dropped below 10 percent. The current record is held by Ottawa, which increased from 5.7 percent in 1961 to 9.4 percent in 1991 (and has since declined). To achieve its goal, Christchurch would need to set a new world record, which is simply not a realistic prospect #40).

Incidentally, in Portland, where smart growth, intensification policies were long ago adopted and where light rail was opened in 1986, work trip market share declined approximately 35 percent in the 1980s


You will note that I have said nothing about the planning process in Wellington. That should be taken as a compliment. Having reviewed various planning documents from the Wellington Regional Council, I found none of the fantasy that afflicts Auckland and Christchurch. But in Auckland and Christchurch, there is need for a dose of reality. The plans that are being pursued will make traffic congestion worse, slow traffic and make air pollution worse than it would be otherwise. If the plans of these two agencies are implemented as intended, the comfortable quality of life that exists in these two urban areas will not be sustainable. There is no reason why that has to be true.

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