Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald continues its 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In part six of the series we look at transport.
As Auckland strains at the seams, fears abound over our transport system's capacity to provide the heavy lifting needed to keep a bulging population on the move.
The Government and Auckland Council remain poles apart on transport priorities, and how to pay for them, with Mayor Len Brown warning that Britomart will reach capacity long before a $1 billion Crown contribution to the $2.5b underground rail extension comes due in 2020 - leaving CBD streets clogged up by diesel buses.
That has brought electric trams back into contention, almost 60 years since they were banished from our streets to make way for the mighty motor car, promising new controversy over the allocation of road space once Auckland Transport completes a business plan to resurrect them.
• Transport options across Auckland
But this is no time for despair, as some valuable runs have gone on the board since an urban design expert from Canada turned down a job at Auckland University in 1996 after giving us the once-over and deciding he could not live here without a car.
Twelve years of upgrades to metro rail since trains returned to Britomart in 2003 have boosted annual patronage more than fivefold to 14 million passenger trips, and the Northern Busway is a runaway success, introducing a wider cross-section of society to the concept of fast and reliable public transport while keeping traffic volumes across the harbour bridge in check.
Growing networks of bus and cycle lanes elsewhere are arguably educating drivers of single occupancy vehicles to accept they can no longer be kings of the road, potentially softening them up for the re-emergence of trams along Queen St and crowded routes through Mt Eden and Sandringham.
"Long-standing driving culture"
That follows a change in institutional mindset which has the Government's Transport Agency blaming in its latest three-year funding programme "a long-standing driving culture", exacerbated by fast growth, for congestion estimated to drain $1.25 billion a year from Auckland's economy, and acknowledging that building more and more roads cannot be the only solution.
Although rail still accounts for just 17 per cent of almost 80 million annual public transport trips, the near-completion of the $1.14 billion electrification project has led the way for Auckland Transport to redesign bus networks along the "hub and spokes" lines of many cities across Europe and North America, including one with some similar characteristics to ours - Vancouver.
What the council body says will be a cost-neutral scheme will see fewer but higher-frequency and more direct services, with feeder buses carrying passengers to rail interchanges to the south and west, and to the main-trunk Northern Express bus service soon to be extended up to Silverdale.
Although it will mean about 90 fewer routes than the 270 plied now by buses, Auckland Transport says the scheme will put many more people within 500 metres of services operating at least every 15 minutes between 7am and 7pm.
New central and eastern routes have yet to be announced, but the organisation says 30 per cent of people in South Auckland will be within 500m of a frequent service compared with 12 per cent now, as will 32 per cent of North Shore residents (6 per cent now) and 17 per cent of West Auckland households (12 per cent), which will have to wait several more years for a busway and interchange at Te Atatu for greater gains.
That's a far cry from findings of Anthony Perl, professor of urban studies and political science at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, when visiting Auckland 19 years ago to decide whether he wanted to live here.
He concluded then that Auckland's minimal public transport system was "clearly set up to be a safety valve for the few people who didn't have cars - to give them at least some chance to get to work to earn a living."
"Auckland seems like a very beautiful place, but at least in 1996 it was impossible to live there without a car," he tells the Herald from his office over-looking a Vancouver city centre through which local resistance in the 1960s foiled plans to build motorways, and into which many commuters now travel on largely elevated "Skytrain"rail lines fed by high-frequency bus services at stations which are stimulating mixed-use residential, retail and commercial developments around them.
"The train service didn't run at the weekends, and I think the bus service stopped after about 7 or 8 at night," recalls Dr Perl of his Auckland visit, while contemplating his 20-minute walk home to the high-rise apartment he shares with his wife near downtown Vancouver with no car ownership nor parking to sweat over.
"Maybe that's changed but it didn't seem likely at that time that I would be happy living there in the sort of auto-dependent mode that I guess was the norm for Auckland."
Vancouver: A model city
Auckland Transport metro general manager Mark Lambert cites Vancouver as among cities providing a model for his organisation's bus network redesign project, which will be reinforced from mid-next year with a new and simplified zonal fares scheme.
That will let anyone using a Hop card pay just one fare for each zone travelled through, allowing up to three trips on buses or trains to complete an overall journey within two hours.
Ferries have yet to be enticed into the new system, although Auckland Transport says it is working with operators to include them as soon as possible.
The council body estimates 96 per cent of Hop card holders will be no worse off or will pay less than now, and children under 16 will be allowed to travel free with paying adults at weekends, although a shrinking minority of passengers offering cash will be penalised.
"I think it's going to be the biggest patronage growth component of all our initiatives over the few years," says Mr Lambert.
"You create a network of high-frequency services, basically the rail system and busways, and between them that should create a connected network across the whole region.
"You just turn up and go - this is a whole new way to use public transport in Auckland - it's proven in other cities, and that's what we've modelled our system on."
Key to the plan is the development of bus-rail or bus-bus interchanges for easy transfers between the legs of each trip.
Patronage has leapt 70 per cent at Panmure Station since an interchange opened there 18 months ago, and others are being built at Otahuhu and Manukau,after a threat of insufficient funds to complete them dissipated with last month's approval - by a one-vote Auckland Council majority - of a $114 transport levy on households.
Increasing transport patronage
Much hinges on the new network's success if Auckland is to come within cooey of Mayor Brown's "aspirational" target of doubling annual public transport patronage to 140 million passenger trips by 2022 - from 69m in 2012.
The total for the 12 months to June 30 was just over 79m, meaning an average of 54 trips for each resident of urban Auckland, or 49 if including the whole region from Te Hana to just south of Pukekohe.
That is a tangible improvement on a miserly 44 trips taken in 2009, which consultants reported to the council was the lowest by a country mile in a "performance benchmark" study of 14 cities in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.
But we remain shy of Adelaide's 59 trips, the next lowest figure in the study, and last year's 72 last year in urban Wellington. Although only about 4 per cent of daily trips in Auckland are taken by public transport, about half of an estimated 80,000 morning commuters to the city centre ride buses, trains or ferries.
That means twice as many people using public transport to reach the CBD each morning than in 2001, while the number going by car remains roughly the same as it was 14 years ago - about 40,000.
Although the consultants estimated that only 10 per cent of trips within the Auckland region were to or from the CBD, Mr Lambert promises that his hub and spokes bus and rail network will make it easier to travel to other corners of the Super City without a car.
Britomart is meanwhile thronging with commuters, raising complaints of over-crowding on some electric trains which were marketed as providing 40 per cent more capacity than the old diesels they have put out to grass.
Auckland Transport says that is because only 46 of its would-be fleet of 57 electric trains have been available, restricting the times it can double them up to form six-car trains.
It expects to have its full train set running by the end of the year - but by then, Britomart will be closer to capacity as a dead-end station in urgent need of the underground rail extension to double its throughput.