Urban Geography 201: Building Transit Right First Time – Everytime. Lessons from Strong Towns

Strong Town Urban Geography Lessons on building transit


Transit projects (and equally road projects) like urban developments can either end up a success or a massive failure. It all comes down to planning, expectations (especially of the population) and service delivery. The adage of bigger is better is certainly not always true as some of the biggest flops have comes from grandiose projects. That said starting too small and not building in the future-proofing needed for later on can be equally as crippling to a transit project (we have this being played out with the K Road City Rail Link Station with the CEO of the CRLL only wanting a single entrance and the platforms long enough for 6-car sets rather than building the second entrance and the platforms long enough for 9-car sets to give future proofing capacity).


Using the Strong Town’s article and Auckland I will run through getting transit built right first time every time without breaking the bank.


From Strong Towns:


I love transit. I ride the bus frequently in my current city and have relied completely on public transit in past cities where I’ve lived: New York City and Washington, DC. If we’re talking about my personal feelings towards transit, I would love to see much of the current transportation dollars we spend on roads diverted towards transit spending.

“There are fiscally responsible ways to build transit systems and there are many incredible transit systems flourishing in cities across the continent. But there are also pitfalls to be avoided here.”

But I cannot remove my Strong Towns, fiscally-responsible hat when I look at transit projects. If we’re going to be critical of road projects that spend billions in taxpayer dollars, we have to also be critical of transit projects that do the same. There are fiscally responsible ways to build transit systems and there are many incredible transit systems flourishing in cities across the continent. But there are also pitfalls to be avoided here.

Today, I want to discuss a few of the common arguments that I often hear about public transit in the context of the Strong Towns movement, including arguments that every town needs transit, that incrementally growing a transit system is impossible, and that large rail projects are the best way to get more people using public transit.


When I hear Strong Towns readers saying “You guys don’t do a good job of talking about transit,” (which has happened a couple times in the last few weeks, especially in light of our recent conversation on housing affordability in Portland) I wonder if what they really mean is, “You guys don’t do a good job of affirming my personal belief that we need more transit everywhere and advocating for large increases in transit spending.”

At Strong Towns, we have an audience that lives in everything from the smallest rural towns to medium-sized cities and suburbs to some of the biggest cities in the world. We aren’t going to tell New York City how to run its transit system—they seem to be doing a pretty good job and that’s a local issue anyway. But we also aren’t going to tell a rural township that it needs a bus rapid transit system when none of its residents have ever ridden a bus.

Most cities are somewhere along that spectrum—they’ve got some sort of bus system that is likely largely ridden by low-income, elderly and disabled residents, and maybe they’ve got light rail or bus rapid transit plans in the works. These communities can improve their transit systems with an incremental approach and the right cultural mindset. Without it, they are at risk of wasting billions.


Source: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/11/1/putting-our-towns-on-the-path-toward-good-public-transit


The opening lines look at scaling transit systems to the needs of the urban geographic area. A New York type metro system is no good for a place like Auckland while an Auckland type system (light rail included) would be no good for Hamilton or Tauranga. Scaling the transit system to the area it to serve would be a good first step ONCE you have ascertained the Urban Geography (spatial development of a town/City plus variations within that city or between different Cities.




Auckland’s physical geography is a narrow isthmus with two large land masses either side of it. The pinch point at Otahuhu (where the Isthmus is the narrowest) is a transport choke point that limits what transport options can go through. The Auckland Harbour Bridge also serves as a choke point linking the North Shore with the Isthmus.

Urban Geography wise Auckland is split into four sub regions: Central, West, North and South. To complicate the matters the spatial variations within Auckland itself leads to some extremities in how population and employment centres are distributed. The City Centre is on the Isthmus and the centre point of Auckland however, four of the five big heavy industrial complexes are in Southern Auckland (the other is in the southern Isthmus) while the north and west have no heavy industrial complexes to speak of.

Residential centres are also mismatched with commercial centres with again the north and west having large population bases but lacking large employment centres. This triggers commuting from those areas either to the Isthmus or Southern Auckland – meaning you have to cross at least one transport choke point (the Harbour Bridge or either Otahuhu or the Manukau Harbour). The final piece of the variation puzzle is that Southern Auckland is the fastest growing sub-region in Auckland although the commuting requirements can be mitigated from the South’s heavy industrial complexes and Manukau City Centre allowing the South to have more local job options than the rest of the City.




With Auckland’s geography taken into account we can look at the transit options currently available. Auckland has the heavy rail network and the Northern Busway that form our (only) Rapid Transit Network spines that move people across Auckland. However, even with feeders into our current RTN there are gaps in the network that need filling – enter the need for incremental transit development to expand the network.


From Strong Towns continued:


I know several commenters on this site have argued that an incremental approach to transit isn’t possible, but I disagree.

When we talk about a Strong Towns approach to transit, we have to think about incremental ways to improve these existing systems. Maybe that means rethinking the routes and frequencies to serve more people in a better way, like Houston did (with help from a Strong Towns member). Maybe it means converting to Bus Rapid Transit along key lines, like Fort Collins, CO did. Maybe it means one day turning some of those bus routes into permanent light rail lines.

If you’re in a very small town, then maybe the first transit step you can take—if that’s a transportation option your community desires—is investing in some large vans, figuring out which populations would be most likely to use them and charting a route that takes those people where they need to go. (That’s how I got around in my college town of Walla Walla, WA.) Or maybe, if your town is truly tiny and rural, there is no place or need for transit anyway because driving, biking and walking fit best with the existing infrastructure and preferences of your neighbors.

Small-scale, incrementally-grown transit can work. My fiance’s grandparents started a homegrown, small-scale transit system in the town of Stevens Point, WI back in the ’70s. When the town’s previous bus system failed, Roland Thurmaier (my fiance’s grandfather) formed a coop of community members who agreed to pay into the bus system at the rate of $5 a share. The system started with $900 in 1972 (about $5,200 in today’s dollars).

They realized immediately that they could not maintain the extended system that the local government had originally attempted to build. Instead, they pared down the routes to connect residents with key shopping areas. An article in 1972 published in The Pointer (the local university student newspaper in Stevens Point), quotes Thurmaier as saying that 15-20% of the residents in the town don’t own cars. Many of those were (and are) students because the University of Wisconsin has a campus in Stevens Point. Thurmaier explains in an interview in the article:

The car is one of the extravagant users of our natural resources and, in fact, the people who do not own cars are subsidizing those who own cars; because those people, either through rent or direct property tax, are paying for the elaborate street system we have, wages for traffic patrolmen, and that kind of thing.

A man before his time. Those words are as true today as they were in 1972, and we know that wages for traffic patrolmen are just one of many expenses (paving, barriers, signals, etc.) that our extended American road system incurs. From $900, with volunteer bus drivers and in the beginning, just one old school bus, a cooperative of Stevens Point residents built a workable bus system that fit their communities’ needs and its budget. Over time, they added to their fleet, moved their office out of the Thurmaier family home, sold advertising to raise additional revenue, adjusted routes based on need, and hosted free-ride days to increase their visibility. In 1979, the city took over the bus system. It has grown incrementally over time and is successfully operating to this day.



Even in Auckland the roll out of transit and the Rapid Transit Network can be done in incremental stages. That is there is no need for a grandiose rail project (as it were) that would present the City with extreme risk in either blowing the budget or putting people off transit for years.


The team at Greater Auckland have laid the foundations for Auckland’s Rapid Transit Network called the Congestion Free Network:

Congestion Free Network 2.0
Source: Greater Auckland


The CFN 2.0 is designed for incremental roll out, the debate that crops up subsequently is what goes first. Yes both Light Rail Transit and Bus Rapid Transit can be rolled out in an incremental manner with the Eastern Busway (Panmure to Botany), the North Western LRT Line and both Airport Lines all being examples. Bus Lines on the CFN can also be flipped to LRT as demand allows with the North Eastern BRT (Howick to Takapuna via the City Centre) being one example.

Using the two Airport Line an incremental approach to both Lines would allow to fill immediate gaps in the Rapid Transit Network, build a good culture and acceptance for LRT while presenting minimised risk if we were to go all out big from go. Taking advantage of Light Rail’s strengths in being rolled out incrementally – section as a time this is how I would progress both Airport Lines (given both I would like to see as LRT):


  1. Start LRT construction both at Auckland Airport and Wynyard Quarter with Wynyard Quarter having a depot
  2. Take Airport LRT and build both the first segments of the Northern and Southern Airport Lines to their first destinations
    1. For the Northern Airport Line it would be Airport to Onehunga with a depot at Onehunga
    2. For the Southern Airport Line it would be Airport to Puhinui Station with a depot at the Puhinui Gateway (new light industrial area along State Highway 20B)
  3. With Wynyard Quarter you start the LRT line there and run it up the length of Queen Street until it intersects with the Western Line at or near Mt Eden Station
    1. Note: Wynard to Mt Eden forms the first stage of the North Western LRT Line and the first stage (at the northern end) of the Northern Airport Line


Using the above as the start of the incremental approach to our first LRT lines I have filled in a series of gaps in our rapid transit network. We have a rapid transit link that is connected to the heavy rail network at two ends (Puhinui and Onehunga) allowing “shuttling” to the Airport and Airport industrial complex where there was no RTN link previously. This first segment of the Airport Lines at the airport also introduce Auckland and the upper North Island to Light Rail as a method of commuting.

Meanwhile in the City Centre the first section of the NW LRT Line and Northern Airport Line (northern end) introduces people to LRT as a place making line as well as a commuter line (Dominion Road and Mt Eden Road busses could terminate at Mt Eden and passenger board the LRT Line into the City Centre and Wynyard Quarter relieving the City Centre of some of the bus overload it currently faces.


The Southern Airport Line 2018 – Airport to Manukau via Puhinui Station


The next phases would be:

  1. Northern Airport Line northern section:
    1. Mt Eden to Dominion Road
    2. Dominion Road to Dominion Road/SH20 interchange
  2. Northern Airport Line southern section:
    1. Onehunga to Dominion Road/SH20 interchange where the two ends of the line meet forming the Northern Airport Line
  3. Southern Airport Line:
    1. Puhinui Station to Manukau City Centre
    2. Manukau City Centre to AUT South
    3. AUT South to Te Irirangi Drive, Clover Park
    4. Te Irirangi Drive, Clover Park to Te Irirangi Drive, Ormiston
    5. Te Irirangi Drive, Ormiston to Botany Metropolitan Centre
    6. Botany Metropolitan Centre to Howick
  4. North Western LRT
    1. Mt Eden to Point Chevalier
    2. Point Chevalier to Te Atatu
    3. Te Atatu to Lincoln Road
    4. Lincoln Road to Westgate
    5. Westgate to Kumeu and beyond
  5. Eastern Busway (AMETI) as a comparison
    1. Panmure to Pakuranga
    2. Pakuranga to Botany
    3. Conversion of the BRT to LRT




From Strong Towns continued:


We desperately need a cultural shift if we’re going to make transit a useful and worthwhile investment for our cities and towns. I live in the mid-sized city of Milwaukee in a middle class, densely-populated neighborhood full of mostly childless young people and seniors. Using my city’s subpar bus system, I can still get to many of the places I want to go because I am located close to the downtown, which is the heart of our hub-and-spoke bus network.

Despite this excellent location, relative affordability of our bus system ($1.75 per ride with an M-card), relative challenge of parking in our dense neighborhood and prime demographics for easy transit use, many of my nearby friends have never and will never take the bus. Even when they’re going to an event where parking will be a huge headache and expense. Even when they’re planning to be drinking. Even when there is a bus stop literally in front of their homes. Because they are part of the middle class, and probably grew up in towns where bus use was uncommon and reserved for the poor, they do not even consider riding the bus. That’s for someone else to do.

Understand that I live in an urban neighborhood in the heart of a city that is warming to things like bike lanes, mixed-use developments, and walkability—all the hallmarks of a modern, urbanist lifestyle. My friends visit breweries, live in apartments, shop local—all the stereotypical urban millennial stuff you’d expect. And yet they won’t ride the bus. Car is king, as my alderman once phrased it.


In my town, a new streetcar line is in the works that will make a two-mile loop around the downtown. It will cost $128 million to build (a good chunk of it, outside money, of course) and will probably be used mostly by tourists or downtown office workers getting lunch or doing shopping after work. It’s not really helping people to commute because the distance it covers is so small that you could easily walk or bike it, and this neighborhood is already thoroughly served by bus routes anyway.

The goal is that this line will be a starting point for other routes to expand out from. I’m hopeful that that’s the case, but maintaining a healthy skepticism, especially since the city has yet to break ground on the initial line.

I was recently chatting with a friend who works at the regional headquarters of a bank in a downtown office building with a parking ramp. It costs a good deal of money to park in the ramp every day and it’s about a 20 minute walk from his apartment, so most days, he chooses to walk or take the bus to work. He has a car, but he makes this choice because it’s economically beneficial to him (not to mention safer, healthier and less stressful than driving in rush hour traffic).

However, he commented that the vast majority of his coworkers pay for parking in the ramp every day, including the ones who live within easy busing distance because, as my friend put it, “If you’re making six figures as a bank manager, you’re not going to take the bus.”

This is what we’re up against if we want to promote increased transit options in our cities.

Many transit advocates state that rail is the best way to get more people using public transit because it’s a more appealing option for middle and upper class people, compared with the bus. I know there’s survey data to back up that statement, but I still don’t think that justifies the immense expense of rail in many cases.

I honestly don’t understand why there is a mythical love of rail over buses. Perhaps it’s because people associate rail travel with beautiful European cities, Harry Potter or historic America? Or maybe the preference of rail over buses is because people perceive rail to be quicker than buses? That may be true with subway systems and is sometimes the case with separated light rail, but it’s not often the case with streetcars (unless other street improvements are made simultaneously, as Jarrett Walker points out, and that could happen with bus lines too). And most American cities are not considering subway lines when they talk about building rail anyway.

Jarrett Walker, transportation planner and writer at HumanTransit.org has a very wise perspective on this issue:

We are living in a time of epochal changes in the culture of transportation, increasingly forced upon us by a changing calculus about what works and what we can afford.  I have seen monumental changes of attitude in the nearly three decades that I have watched these issues. For that reason, I instinctively give more weight to values that have proven themselves stable over centuries — such as the need to save travel time and money — than to the negative associations that may have gathered around buses, in some cities but not others, just in the last half-century.  When people face a stark choice between retaining their prejudices or saving time/money, prejudices can change pretty fast.



There is two debates at play in Auckland. The first is transit is for poor people and you will hear that from the likes of National’s Judith Collins and Whale Oil’s Cameron Slater. For me I am not going to waste time on them (and a minority of this view) convincing them the merits of transit outright. At the same time having a small chuckle when they are stung with congestion charging and Fringe Benefit Taxes on employee parking where a transit alternative is available will be tempting. Auckland’s transit is taken by a wide range of people including the more well off segments of the population if Meadowbank and Orakei Stations are anything to go by. What we need to do is make sure Auckland’s transit is accessible and reliable. Get these two basics right and you will have a legion of patrons no matter their income for decades to come.

The second debate is the Heavy Rail and nothing else debate. This is more prevalent with the two Airport Lines than anywhere else in Auckland however, it can skew a debate on a tangent we do not need. Using heavy rail to the Airport form the South will split services reducing service volumes and quality. Building Light Rail to link up with heavy rail allows full services on both modes without quality being reduced.


Branch Lines via Jarret Walker
Source: Human Transit


The Southern Airport Line (Yellow) with LRT stations (red), potential central Manukau detour, bus routes and Manukau Bus/Rail Station


Rapid Regional Rail
Source: Greater Auckland


Is bigger better?


From Strong Towns continued:


If we say that only a massive transit system has any hope of making an impact on a city (something I’ve heard several times), then we need to very critically assess how much money we are willing to invest in that gamble, how much the system will be used and how much payoff we can be guaranteed to receive.

Personally, I think that premise is absurd. Do I wish my city had a more expansive transit network and more frequent service? Absolutely. Do I think that our existing bus system has no value for the people of Milwaukee? I believe the 142,000 average bus trips daily in my city (41% of which are to or from employment) speak for themselves. I believe the tens of thousands of Milwaukeeans who don’t own cars (including me) and rely solely on busing and walking for their transportation are making very good use of our bus system. And they deserve a better one.

So, yes we need more and better transit. But we cannot be blind to the financial risks that expensive transit systems—especially completely new ones—create. Before we invest in them, we have to look at them with the same critical eye with which we view expensive road projects:

  • Will this investment make my town better?
  • Will we be able to pay for the maintenance of this project 10, 30, 50 years down the road?
  • Does this project depend on build-it-and-they-will-come assumptions to work financially
  • Will this create value for my town today and for future decades?
  • Can we afford this project?
  • Is this the best use of limited resources?



I am often presented with these questions from Greater Auckland on making the Southern Airport Line light rail right off the bat rather than going bus then rail. So I’ll answer them:

  • Will this investment make my town better?
    • Yes the Southern Airport Line will make Southern Auckland and Manukau City Centre better by allowing a high capacity rapid transit link between Manukau, Puhinui and the Airport. More so given the Line intersects the Southern and Eastern Lines as well as the inter city lines. Transit Orientated Developments would also be planned around the stations boosting residential and commercial capacity.
  • Will we be able to pay for the maintenance of this project 10, 30, 50 years down the road?
    • Yes
  • Does this project depend on build-it-and-they-will-come assumptions to work financially
    • Partially with future demand from future residential and airport traffic growth. However, there is enough latent demand to allow the viability of the Manukau to Airport section of the Southern Airport Line given the only way into the Airport right now is the two State Highways (both prone to accidents)(resilience added as well)
  • Will this create value for my town today and for future decades?
    • Most definitely with the Transit Orientated Developments around the stations and opening up an alternative to and from the airport without the need of a car or short range domestic aircraft (the Line connects with Regional Rapid Rail at Puhinui station)
  • Can we afford this project?
    • $730m for Airport to Manukau – yes as most will be carried by Central Government
  • Is this the best use of limited resources?
    • Providing the two sections of the Northern Airport Line are also built at the same time (incremental approach) then yes as economies of scale with procurement are available.




When thinking about transit (or any other investment in our cities), we have to ask ourselves what the ultimate goal is. For some Strong Towns readers, I think the goal is simply: Get more people riding transit. If that’s the case, then we may not see eye to eye in transit conversations, because many transit advocates coming from that perspective will choose to build the most attractive, fastest and biggest project possible, right?

But if the goal is:

  • Build more financially sustainable cities, or
  • Create cities that are affordable for everyone who lives in them, or
  • Develop a transit system that meets the needs of all residents, or
  • Plan for the future of our cities in a realistic and affordable manner

then we are having a different sort of conversation, and I think we will find a lot in common. We all want cities where residents of different incomes, ages and abilities can safely and easily get where they need to go. We all want cities that are financially resilient and aren’t putting future generations in debt. We can achieve these goals with public transit as part of our transportation network and we should.

We just need to go about it in with an incremental, financially-aware and realistic mindset.


Source: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/11/1/putting-our-towns-on-the-path-toward-good-public-transit


Regional Rail and population
Source: Greater Auckland


If we can answer those four goals then a proposed transit line has viability to it. I can tell you know that the Southern Airport Line definitely meets the last two goals of developing a transit system that meets the needs of ALL residents through Auckland and the Waikato while allowing to plan for the future of Auckland in a realistic and affordable manner.


Dig once, build right first time every time with transit!

Take an incremental approach, build the culture and cater for current and future Urban Geography trends!


Gold Coast Light Rail Station
Source: Greater Auckland