Hard News by Russell Brown

80

You can Roughan but you just can't Hide

One of the things I try to do when I blog is to know what I don't know. I don't always keep to that maxim, of course, and when I  do it tends to limit the scope of the blog. But I figure I'm more use to the reader on topics where I have some idea of what I'm on about.

In Saturday's Weekend Herald, senior columnist John Roughan has a column scorning the mayor's prediction that Auckland's North Shore would be served by rail one day. We don't need no steenkin' rail, says Roughan. Congestion and capacity issues on the roads could be fixed by simply synchronising traffic lights.

Roughan ventures that transport controllers don't apply this simple fix because they take delight in the frustration of the poor motorist.

And furthermore:

The busway, like the bridge, is fine.

The problem lies in roads closer to home. By car it can take as long to get on to the motorway as it takes for the rest of the journey. By bus it takes too long to get to a busway station. Once on the busway, you can be in the city in eight minutes.

In fact, the North Shore is probably better served by the busway than the rest of Auckland is by its railways, which also have to be reached by bus or car from most people's homes.

He's right, of course. The Northern Busway has been an undeniable success and its patronage helps keep the northern motorway viable for motorists. But if we travel back in time to 2007, as the busway was nearing launch, Roughan took a very, very different view.

The busway was, he said, a "monstrous" environmental insult; the folly of zealots with too much public money to play with:

The self-contained "busway" is practically complete now, with stations, car parks and access roads built and no expense spared to provide an enclosed overhead walkway to a tertiary campus for students who might use it.

It is a striking sign of the economy's new wealth that politicians dare make such an investment. Nobody would put their own money on the prospect that commuters will leave their cars at home, or at suburban terminals for the day, in sufficient numbers to make it pay.

Reportedly the parking lots are already filled most weekday mornings but it has made little difference to the motorway congestion. The public transport entrepreneurs intend that we forsake the car entirely and take a bus to the busway. I hope they are right but I really don't think so.

Still, when the whole crazy notion fell in on itself:

... it is a road and there is an economic use for it. It is self-contained, access is easily controlled. Eventually it could be a tollway for general traffic, the only reliable solution to congestion.

Now, we all make faulty predictions, and I almost admire Roughan's dedication to ending up on the wrong side of history. But when you've committed the kind of comprehensive about-face that Roughan has here, it's considered polite to say so to your readers.

Roughan, as attentive readers will know, is not a fan of public transport. I fancy that he was the author of the notorious (pre-website) Herald editorial that referred to public transport as a "scourge". In 2001, he confidently forecast that Aucklanders would "never use" a rehabilitated rail service. That column was an early example of what may indeed be Roughan's main theme: what do experts know, anyway?

Planners never learn. There are periods when they realise it is better to go with the flow of public behaviour, but they soon relapse. Their instinct is to refashion behaviour if they can.

They are wasting their time and our money. And they are neglecting - wilfully one suspects - the need for more and wider motorways.

Auckland is a car city and always will be. Its people much prefer their own cars to any form of public transport and, contrary to the claims of the rail lobby, there is plenty of room for more roading.

There should be no mystery about the appeal of the private car. With a car you are mobile and free. You may not use it all day, but you want it there. You want to know you can go where you want, when you want.

Most people are prepared to pay a high price for that in the form of congestion, although they shouldn't have to.

For those who really prefer public transport, or cannot drive, Auckland has a perfectly adequate bus service. One of the little ironies of the rail scheme is that it will largely draw passengers from the few profitable bus routes, rendering the whole system less economic.

The day after Roughan's latest column, a breathless Rodney Hide also revelled, in the Herald on Sunday, in  assumed common sense -- or, in his case, intuition:

It's not obvious to me that a heavy train having to stop and start and be confined to tracks is the best way to ferry people around Auckland. Buses along roads strike me intuitively as a cheaper and more flexible form of public transport.

Hide has discovered a critic of the controversial (largely amongst the non-Auckland political right) CBD Rail Link proposal. Wellingtonian Tony Randle claims to have discovered critical defects in the 2010 Rail Business Case produced by Auckland Transport -- which recommends rail as the most cost-effective option for long-term public transport expansion.

At this point, my "know what you don't know" rule is in full effect. So I'll turn to Auckland Transport Blog, which is pretty much a definitive expert blog. Yes, its authors, like Roughan and Hide come from a philosophical position -- they regard public transport as basically a good thing -- but they're eminently capable of showing their reasoning, without recourse to either common sense or intuition.

And they considered the shocking new analysis touted by Hide (and John Boscawen and any number of other fellow travellers on Twitter on Sunday) two years ago when it was released.

Josh Arbury, who wrote that post, isn't dismissive of Randle's work. He acknowledges its detail and recommends that people read the analysis. He notes that Randle has identified a genuine problem with the business case. But he concludes that Randle has fundamentally misunderstood some elements of the argument, and concludes:

While Mr Randle’s assessment points out a flaw in the project’s business case, that it says we’re going to have nearly 20,000 more bus passengers into the CBD without highlighting how we’re going to deal with those passengers, I think ultimately his analysis falls into the same trap as the Ministry of Transport’s review of the project – they assume that bus numbers can and will increase without constraints. The Ministry of Transport preferred the surface bus option, without realising that the city’s streets don’t actually have unlimited capacity to cope with buses (or to question whether we might want 1000 buses an hour grinding along Fanshawe, Albert & Symonds Street). Mr Randle’s point is a little smarter, but once again misses the point (though so did the original business case) that the number of people on buses isn’t just a natural outcome, but something we can influence. If we want to cap the number of buses entering the city centre at peak times then we can, shifting more to feeder buses.

Ultimately a bus tunnel isn’t a sensible option because it puts more traffic onto our roads, particularly those arterials to the south of the tunnel, rather than the rail tunnel which eases pressure on the roads. A rail tunnel can unlock latent capacity throughout the entire network, enabling all that existing infrastructure to be used much more efficiently – rather than something which requires us to duplicate huge chunks of our rapid transit system.

Another Auckland Transport blogger, Matt L, responded to Hide's column within hours of its publication, noting that:

What Rodney either fails to realise, or at least fails to explain is that it wasn’t just Auckland Transport who worked on the CCFAS but also the Ministry of Transport, NZTA and Treasury.

There is, however, one issue on which I completely agree with Hide. Randle had to go to the Ombudsman to get access to the analysis behind the rail business -- and Hide has had similar problems getting access to the spreadsheets underpinning the 2012 City Centre Future Access Study. Even if he pays the $3850 demanded by Auckland Transport, their position is that they will only send him the printed output. If I ask the question "What would Keith Ng do?" the answer is: complain very loudly.

It's not good enough. Even if Auckland Transport officials feel that their provision of the data in this form would only lead to faulty analysis, they should provide it on reasonable terms. It's pretty basic democracy.

But there's another point here -- one which I feel warrants both full capitalisation and bold text:

THE INDIVIDUAL ON EARTH MOST RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CULTURE, PRACTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY OF AUCKLAND TRANSPORT AND OTHER COUNCIL-CONTROLLED ORGANISATIONS IS RODNEY HIDE.

Really.

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