Last week’s result of the study by NZIER into the cost of Auckland’s traffic congestion brings into focus the economic impact of choices we make about the physical form of our city. It is good to see the congestion issue now being framed as limiting the productivity of the city, rather than as just an inconvenience to be tolerated as the price of living in Auckland.
Auckland’s productivity is low when we compare ourselves to other cities that, at least on the surface, look and feel a bit like us – Sydney, Melbourne and Vancouver for example. This affects our standard of living and reduces the amount of money available to implement public works that could make Auckland much more liveable.
The recent OECD Economic Survey (June 2017) lists several probable causes of this, such as low capital investment per worker, low research and development spending and too high company tax. But it also focuses in on infrastructure investments. These have been stepped up in Auckland, and have a wider focus on modal choice than in the past, but overall still appear to be lagging behind the requirements of such a rapidly growing population.
Decisions on what type of infrastructure is funded and where it is located are extremely political in New Zealand, and the recent call from Infrastructure NZ for ‘an empowered national body charged with identifying infrastructure needs’, free of political interference, deserves much more attention. However, given the country’s low productivity, such a body should be specifically charged with identifying those infrastructure projects that can most quickly produce economic benefits while still having a long-term view to urban liveability.
For Auckland, the question surely must be: “what sort of new infrastructure will most effectively raise Auckland’s productivity?”
One of the most interesting statistics around this issue is the use of public transport. It may seem as though great progress on Auckland’s train, bus and ferry system has been made over the last decade, but it has barely kept ahead of population growth, and user numbers remain at around 45% of those in cities we’d like to emulate. For the record, the annual number of rides on public transport per urban dweller for Vancouver, Melbourne and Sydney in 2016 were, respectively 156, 128, 119. Auckland’s comparable tally is just 56. Such a stark statistical contrast between comparable cities will surely have an economic effect of some description.
Some will say it’s a tenuous proposition to relate public transport usage in a city to its productivity, but without a dedicated public body generating debate around this sort of issue, how do we know? And given the time wasted in traffic congestion, the socially isolating aspects of driving alone, and the enormous space taken up in the city for roads and parking, it’s not hard to suspect that our car-based transport system is negatively affecting our city’s economy. That’s why the NZIER study, specifically introducing the issue of productivity into the infrastructure question is so important.
The Urban Design Forum supports Infrastructure NZ’s recent calls, not just for independent research into infrastructure provision, but also for road pricing in the near (rather than the distant) future, and new ways of funding development.
However, we suggest this is expanded into a broader view of designing the city. For while urban growth is partly organic, driven by many different players with different agendas, it is also significantly driven by the sort of infrastructure provided. And that needs conscious, informed decision-making. A future Auckland that aspires to achieve the level of public transport use enjoyed by our comparator cities will be very different to one where we continue to spend the vast bulk of our infrastructure funds on roads. There is a need to look proactively to the future, taking a long-term strategic view on infrastructure, land use, productivity and liveability. The people of Auckland, and indeed all New Zealand deserve nothing less.
We’ve spent the last 60 years building an urban transport system based on the private car. For a while, it was a successful strategy. Now, for many reasons, that model is failing to deliver the economic and liveability benefits we should expect from a city of Auckland’s size. Time to try something different?
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