Auckland is our largest city, roughly accounting for one third of the population and about one third of the country’s GDP. It is a significant cog in the growth engine of our economy. Growth based on efficient sustainable urban design associated with renewable sources of energy and resilience is vital to social and economic wellbeing. Auckland’s population is expected to have grown by 700,000 in 2030. This is equivalent to over three times the current population of Wellington, our capitol city. Auckland has the highest population density in New Zealand, roughly the same as Sydney and Los Angles.
The question we face: Is Auckland’s population density too low to make public transport work?
Within this context, “density” is not necessarily the defining statistic for measuring the potential for public transport success or failure. Rather, outcomes depend on the structure of urban design, and the location of work, schools, and built amenities such as retail outlets. One in six workers travel into Auckland’s CBD. Auckland is the 40th most congested city in the world. In 2016 there were an additional 43,000 cars in Auckland. The average car commuter can now expect to spend 33% longer in traffic at any time of day relative to their drive along free flowing roads. Depending on time of day, travel from the CBD to Auckland’s airport can take an hour.
Can public transport help? Most definitely.
Public transport is particularly effective when planned in conjunction with spatial urban design. Which should be promoted first? The cost of transport infrastructure is significant. In Auckland, we are always playing catch-up. Travel times improve with investment in tunnels and capacity expansion of existing networks. But with the passage of time, urban growth and more cars, travel times return to close where they were before such infrastructure was built.
Numerous studies have highlighted the cost of congestion. According to the most recent estimate, Auckland would benefit by $3.5m per day if congestion was eased. Smart city planning could make a significant contribution to addressing this problem. Auckland’s recent attempts to intensify inner city residential areas could improve the uptake of public transport. The investment in cycle ways is encouraging and keeps cars away from cyclists. Sadly, it took too long and too many casualties before the government acknowledged and started to accommodate cycling as a means of transport.
Of course, we can quantify the economic cost of congestion, but what of the environmental impacts? Most of our transport is powered by fossil fuels. Road transport contributes around 35 percent of Auckland’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Investment in the electrification of rail links has reduced emissions well below one percent. It is worth pointing out that approximately 80 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources, principally hydro, geothermal and wind.
Further, with the increase of e-vehicles, what is the scope for the electrification of personal transport? It could possibly be distributed through sources such as solar. Our research shows that Auckland Council’s target of 250,000 homes powered by solar is technically feasible. Imagine home-generated solar and electric vehicles, rapid charging stations, and car parks with inductive recharging. These innovations are now in play.
Encouragingly, our research also shows that New Zealand’s target of 90 percent renewable resources by 2025 is feasible.
This is our future. Auckland should be embracing the opportunity to improve our infrastructure and harness renewable energy sources now.
Professor Basil Sharp is Energy Education Trust of New Zealand Professor of Energy & Resource Economics and Director of The Energy Centre at the University of Auckland Business School.