The Tale of Two Centres – And No It is NOT What One Thinks

City Centre continues in very fragile state

There was a bit of lamination from some of our Auckland Isthmus Urbanist crowd about the lives from Working From Home since Level 4 Lockdown is decreasing back towards pre-Covid levels. This data came from NZTA through travel patterns and it was surmised that workers would be returning to the City Centre. The NZTA did not show where the workers were going.

The Chief Economist from Auckland Council would in his late November update spell out where the workers were going and the theory of workers doing some days at home, some days at the remote office and the odd day at the City Centre HQ would seem more true. What we did end up seeing is the Tale of Two Cities or Tale of Two Centres playout but in reverse to historic trends.

The City Centre in a fragile state while the Metropolitan Centres forge ahead

The latest Chief Economist report is out from Auckland Council and it made for very sage reading as we head into the Christmas period and the traditional 4-6 week slowdown in Auckland (Auckland is on the go slow from Christmas to Auckland Anniversary Weekend) with no international tourists or cruise ships.

The report itself can be seen here:

The City Centre activity in terms of population density:

City Centre Population Density. Source: Auckland Council

The report states:

Though the population present in the city centre during the workday is down from last year by 15-20%, and commuting into the city is down about 25%, city centre travel times (obtained from Auckland Transport) are not dissimilar to the same time last year.
This congestion can be almost entirely explained by the fact that private vehicle traffic is at more than 90% of the level it was at the same time last year, but that public transport (PT) usage is down significantly. Bus ridership is down to two-thirds and train ridership is barely above half of what it was in October 2019.
Whether PT usage is down because of health concerns or something else, we don’t yet know. We are getting all the costs of pre-COVID congestion but without the benefits to city centre businesses of people streaming into the city. However, to get more people back into the city centre, it’s imperative that we get more people riding PT.

Where is the City Centre Population? Source: Auckland Economic Quarterly. Auckland Council

Congestion is at pre Covid levels, but transit use and City Centre activity are down significantly however. So, where are the people going?

Let’s take a look at our major Metropolitan Centres

How did the Big Metropolitan Centres go? Source: Auckland Economic Quarterly. Auckland Council

The Metropolitan Centres were a mixed bag however, the contrast between Manukau and Newmarket is interesting. All the Metropolitan Centres fell with Activity in April with most recovering in July before going different directions in October. When we look at Manukau however, we see a massive surge in July before levelling off in October. while the other Metro Centres saw little if any growth from July 19 and July 20. The question is why did Manukau see such a massive surge and subsequently hold onto its growth? Also what will the future as well if the trends towards the City Centre and the Metropolitan Centres continue in our Post Covid era.

None-the-less what we are seeing though is the City Centre is in a very fragile state right now while the Metropolitan Centres are muddling along and Manukau is in rapid expansion.

No you must not do this

The update goes on to say:

It’s increasingly clear that more people, post lockdowns, are opting for the experience that major centres have to offer rather than the city’s golden mile. Whether this is a function of the return to congestion getting into the city, nerves about PT use, or more working from home, or all of these, is uncertain.

Source: Auckland Economic Quarterly. Auckland Council

Actually we can be pretty certain what it is and update pointed it out rather clear: “to get more people back into the city centre, it’s imperative that we get more people riding PT.”

No one is going to spend what take up to three times as long in using transit than car to go to and from the City Centre by car when a functional Metropolitan Centre is that close to home.

The AT App showing from Papakura to 135 Albert Street in the City Centre. This is peak time only so it takes even longer on transit in the off peak due to reduced frequencies.
Papakura to Manukau City Centre in peak time. Note in the off peak the transit time is the same however the car trip time is reduced to 15-17 minutes.

That said though this is a massive no:

We need to find a way to encourage workers back into the city centre – and get them to use PT when they commute.

Source: Auckland Economic Quarterly. Auckland Council

No you do not in encouraging them back to the City Centre when commutes are excessively long by transit. No you do not need them return to the City Centre when productivity is increasing when workers are working some of their time in our Metropolitan Centres.

At the same time, we don’t want to stop people from visiting and spending in our other major centres.

Source: Auckland Economic Quarterly. Auckland Council

No we do not want them just to visit and spend in the Metropolitan Centres, we want them to live, WORK and play/spend in our Metropolitan Centres. If the City Centre wants the same then they need to increase their residential capacity rather than rely on people super commuting in.

Why would we subject the worker back to the old super commute to the City Centre, to have lunch on a car soaked Queen Street that Auckland Transport refuses to close when the same worker can do the same amount of work for less travel time and cost, while enjoying lunches in soon to be retrofitted Main Streets at their nearby Metropolitan Centre. You would not and both Council and AT need to realise we are in a new normal if you want the City Centre to ever recover.

Speaking of which to recover the City Centre is pretty easy:

  1. Close Queen Street to cars right now
  2. Increase your residential dwelling capacity by a factor of three from where it is now so that the City Centre has a critical mass of residents to support a 24/7 Economy. Manukau knows this and is working to get more residential options made available. Manukau is also getting ready to trial street closures and flipping other streets to transit malls

There is indeed a tale of Two Centres but one of reverse fortunes with Auckland City Centre in a very fragile state while its smaller sibling Manukau is in a strong position. This is despite years of apparent investment in one compared until very recently little in the other. Or was it one has built resilience into its system over the years leading to its good fortunes while the other leaned on an over-reliance of too few things/sectors.

Time to build back better for ALL of Auckland as we are not returning to the old normal of pre Covid.

Putney Way, Manukau City Centre 2020