Building Walkable Communities around Rapid Transit

Case Study Greater Christchurch

There is a market failure in Christchurch’s housing market. Affordable housing in walkable communities with good access to rapid transit is not provided. Will the city be able to correct this flaw before harms become entrenched — terrible traffic congestion or a housing crisis?

For many New Zealanders, the aspirational vision of a good life has changed from buying a detached house in a suburb accessible only by motor vehicles to purchasing higher density housing in walking and cycling friendly neighbourhoods close to rapid transit.

This lifestyle choice has been popularised by TED talks from the likes of Jeff Speck and books, such as Phil Langdon’s, 2017, Within Walking Distance, and others dating as far back as Jane Jacobs 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jeff speck argues that cities needs to offer 4 reasons to walk that mean a walk is as good (if not better) as a drive. 1 -A proper reason to walk. 2 -Be safe, feel safe. 3 -Be comfortable 4 -Be interesting.

To give this lifestyle choice to new entrants into Christchurch’s housing market would mean constructing new walkable communities so the day-to-day needs of residents are available within a 10-minute walk. Needs such as shopping and socialising venues, GP and pharmacy practices, child daycare facilities and primary schools.

Phil Langdon argues the places where the best of life is within walking distance ought to be at the core of our thinking.

The following illustrations and text give the rationale for why integrating higher density housing with rapid transit to make walkable communities is necessary for Greater Christchurch and discusses how it could be achieved.


I think it is important to understand the scale of Greater Christchurch’s housing and transport issues so that aspirations can be met and so we do not gift the next generation harms -like chronic traffic congestion or a housing crisis.

To avoid these harms we need to understand some facts about the city.

Christchurch is bigger than Wellington.

It is New Zealand’s second biggest city.

There are many more people living within 10 kilometers of the centre of Christchurch — over 300,000 versus less than 200,000 for Wellington.

Even if the respective cities are extended out to include Rangiora or Upper Hutt — Greater Christchurch is larger.

The illustrated graph is based on the 2013 census — since then Greater Christchurch has grown by 2.1% p.a. and the Wellington region by half that — so the gap between Christchurch and Wellington is widening.


Yet Canterbury has 909 cars per 1000 people.

While the Wellington region has 647.

This is despite Greater Christchurch being much more compact compared to Wellington.

Christchurch’s lack of rapid transit is the main factor explaining this automobile dependence.

The Wellington region has developed around two rail corridors — up the Porirua Basin and Kapiti Coast and up the Hutt Valley.

Source: charts

Canterbury compared to other regions has built the second highest number of houses in recent decades.

Greater Christchurch is building about 4000 houses a year.

Canterbury’s building consent graph shows the effects of the global financial crisis and the post earthquakes rebuild.

The build rate was particularly high from 2014 through to 2016.

4000 houses a year appears to be the long term trend for the wider city.

Greater Christchurch’s current population of 485,000 is very similar to Auckland’s population after World War Two.

As Christchurch transforms into an international city of about ¾ million in the coming decades, we should learn from Auckland’s growth experience, to avoid the problems they have incurred with chronic traffic congestion and a housing crisis.

Christchurch is though heading towards significant traffic congestion problems.

In the coming decades hundreds of thousands of extra cars will be using the existing road network, which is largely fixed in size.

More cars using a fixed amount of space can have only one result — increased traffic congestion.

If Greater Christchurch can reduce its car ownership rate down to Wellington’s level then this problem is much reduced.

Congestion road pricing would be a way to manage chronic traffic congestion.

Pricing a scarce resource — in this case road space — is a common method of resource allocation.

The Tax Working Group for instance advocated for this.

I would encourage people to think about road pricing.

But in order to implement road pricing fairly, alternative transport modes like a robust rapid transit network are needed.

Rapid transit lessons from overseas — Helsinki

To integrate rapid transit with housing we need to understand the scale, pace and density required.

Depicted is a view of Tuomarila train station — 23km and 25 minutes from Helsinki’s central train station.

I had a very similar view from my apartment from 2005 to 2012.

During that time all the apartments in this view were built i.e. when I first moved to Tuomarila this was a view of green fields and forest.

Would Cantabrians consider this sprawl and therefore not supported it? Can the equivalent be built in Greater Christchurch is a key question for the region?

Porirua in the Wellington region is a similar 20km or so distance from Wellington. There is a plan to revitalise Porirua by building thousands of State and Kiwibuild housing at higher densities in cooperation with central government.

If Helsinki and Wellington are ok with building transit oriented developments 20+km from their city centres why should Christchurch have a problem building at less than that -mostly between 10 to 20 km from its centre?

The green dots is Tuomarila train station.

The red dot is my old apartment.

Within the blue lines is most of the housing close to Tuomarila train station built between 2005 and 2012.

This totaled about 1000 houses at a density of about 100 houses per hectare.

During this time the number of passengers waiting at Tuomarila station increased from about twenty every 15 minutes to fifty.

It is this sort of ridership numbers, based on favourable land-use patterns that guarantees the long term success of rapid transit.

Jarrett Walker is a transit theorist and international public transport consultant.

The lesson for Greater Christchurch I take from Jarrett Walker’s advice and from my lived experience in Helsinki is if a good proportion of the 30 -40,000 houses that Greater Christchurch will build in the coming decade was built close to rapid transit then the economics of ridership numbers etc would ensure the rapid transits long term success.

Housing lessons from Hobsonville — Housing spatial requirements

New Zealand does have an example of building at the pace, scale and density required.

HLC a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand master planned Hobsonville, which it then tended out blocks for development.

One such block is depicted here — it is Ngai Tahu Property’s Kerepeti development, which is coming onto the market now.

It has 100 houses per hectare.

HLC has encouraged developers to experiment with density in a way that is appealing to the New Zealand market.

Hobsonville’s experiments with higher density housing have been commercially successful.

Christchurch though is only building at about 20 houses per hectare.

If rapid transit tried to service this sort of urban environment it would only have 20% of the patronage of Tuomarila’s train station.

Low passenger numbers would make it difficult to provide high frequency services at reasonable fare costs.

Christchurch’s existing suburbs despite some infilling have a relatively low density of about 20 to 30 houses per hectare.

For rapid transit to be successful in Greater Christchurch some anchor higher density walkable communities built around rapid transit will be needed.

Remember Greater Christchurch is building 4000 houses a year — that is 40,000 houses in a decade!

As I will describe the spatial plan is for over half this housing to be built in greenfield areas.

10,000 houses is also the number of Kiwibuilds the city should be expecting — although there seems to be no plan –or at least no public plan — for where these houses should be built.

10,000 houses consumes 1.5 square kilometers of land at 100 houses per hectare once public spaces like streets and parks are accounted for and 7.5 square kilometers at 20 houses per hectare.

10,000 houses at 100 houses per hectare would consume 40% of the private land within the Four Avenues.

Some housing will go into the centre of Christchurch.

But not all the housing growth can be accommodated in the central city.

Greater Christchurch’s urban plan is a trap

Greater Christchurch has an urban development spatial plan called Our Space 2018 -2048.

55% of housing growth is planned to be in greenfield areas –in the areas marked on the map in green or orange (blue is future industrial).

Greenfield housing is mostly located outside the apple and inside the banana.

People — even some local government politicians and officials have argued they do not want Christchurch to become a fat banana.

My day job is working as a registered nurse in Hillmorton Psychiatric Hospital.

I am used to working with people who have delusional beliefs — I assist to orient them to reality, so they do not harm themselves or others.

Denying the fat banana is happening is a delusional belief — it is a failure to see the new suburbs being built on the outskirts of Christchurch and around the city’s six main satellite towns.

Denying the fat banana is happening means sensible coping strategies cannot be implemented.

This could have harmful consequences.

Probably not to the Councillor or official who will be comfortably housed with a short commute to work — but to the next generation struggling to cope with unaffordable housing and terrible traffic congestion.

Assessing the counterfactual effects of providing or not providing integrated housing with rapid transit against a broad range of criteria will be important for determining the best way forward for Christchurch.

Source: Believe it or not, Britain isn’t a nation of NIMBYs by Matt Singh

The three main political objections to new housing are the effects on traffic, local services and the environment.

The first economic effect is that more people in a city increases productivity and incomes due to economic benefits from agglomeration and economies of scale.

Commonly a countries largest city has the highest income, the second largest the second highest income and so on.

For instance Lyon is France’s 2nd largest city and has the 2nd highest income.

The exceptions are cities with poor accessibility, such as Birmingham.

Especially accessibility at peak times when productivity effects such as agglomeration are at their highest.

Birmingham has a 33% productivity gap due to the city effectively being half its actual size at peak travel times, as described by research from Tom Forth in a paper titled — Birmingham isn’t a big city at peak times: How poor public transport explains the UK’s productivity puzzle.

P.36 “Order without Design”, 2018, by Alain Bertaud.

Urban theorist Alain Bertaud author of Order without Design -How Markets Shape Cities confirms this productivity approach, saying;

Large labour markets are the raison d’être of cities. Large labour markets result in higher productivity than smaller ones. However, the size of a labour market is not necessarily equal to the number of jobs in a city. If inadequate or unaffordable transport prohibit workers from accessing all of a city’s jobs, the effective size of the labour market is only a fraction of the total number of jobs in the city. The productivity of a city is proportional to the effective size of its labour market (P. 155, “Order without Design”, 2018, Alain Bertaud)

According to Alain Bertaud (P.33–34) the research on cities shows the maximum productivity benefit relates to the number of jobs within a 20 minute journey catchment and these productivity benefits reduce to zero once journey times exceed an hour.

Source: Talking Transport -How Far in Half an Hour?

If Greater Christchurch only relies on bus priority plans then the majority of housing growth will not be serviced by public transport in a timely manner.

Residents in new housing areas will therefore be reliant on private motor vehicles travelling on increasingly congested roads.

This will affect productivity and incomes in the future.

The second main economic effect is high housing costs exacerbates inequality and is a barrier of entry into productive labour markets.

Christchurch should understand the effects of supply and demand for housing because it has experienced the extremes of the housing market.

This chart shows Christchurch’s median rents increased by $130 from $320 per week to $450, a 41% increase in three and half years from October 2010 to April 2014.

On an annual basis this took $6,500 out of rental households budgets.

Renters couldn’t protect themselves from this unwanted event –there is no disaster rental insurance — all they could do is take the financial ‘bash’ or leave the city.

Fortunately house building ramped up between 2014 and 2016 as I showed earlier and this supply effect stabilised house and rent prices.

But 75% of this housing supply was in greenfields in low density automobile centric sprawl.

As a short term emergency response this is understandable — as a long term strategy less so.

Economist Peter Nunns has modelling which shows 50 to 100% of the migration to Australia in the last generation is due to house building restrictions and a consequent lack of abundant affordable housing.

The Our Spaces spatial plan for Greater Christchurch is a trap.

It will have negative consequences as measured against the main housing and transport related political and economic effects.

The banana will fight the apple for who incurs the economic gains and losses but the reality is all of Greater Christchurch loses.

It forces Christchurch into a devil’s choice.

Chronic traffic congestion or highly restrictive planning rules for house building.

Integrating housing with rapid transit avoids Christchurch’s urban planning trap

Building walkable communities so that rapid transit is integrated with housing is Greater Christchurch’s route out of its spatial plan trap.

If rapid transit is provided it will improve the amenity value of existing suburbs.

I have some proposals for how to facilitate the conversion of this ‘old suburbia’ into affordable liveable neighbourhoods that I detail in my paper titled Rebuilding Suburbia — Hyperlocalism Can Help.

There are many potential first steps towards building a rapid transit network.

Use the existing tracks for commuter rail (in black), build a bus rapid transit spine connecting to the motorway network (green and red), build a tram/train inner city loop (purple), build light rail out to Prebbleton, plus many more…

Rapid transit has the potential to deliver corridors that can transport as many people as a four-lane motorway but without the traffic congestion dis-amenity consequences that motorways cause to inner city areas.

My preference from an integrated housing and rapid transit perspective is to utilise the existing rail corridor.

For example build housing at a density of 100 houses per hectare around two train stations in Belfast.

There would be similar opportunities west of Kaiapoi and east of Rangiora which I detailed in my Christchurch’s Future is a Fat Banana paper.

Bus priority lanes through Riccarton would connect train commuters with the CBD and Canterbury University plus the airport –over time this and other bus priority routes could be upgraded to light rail as passenger numbers grow.

To the southwest of Christchurch, which is our fastest growth corridor, light rail is required because the airport noise zone (marked in brown) limits the building possibilities along the existing railway line.

Initially I would advocate building light rail to South Prebbleton.

In the future connections to Lincoln and Rolleston can be built.

Light rail would also provide another commuter rail connection to the CBD at Addington train station.

The implications of an integrated housing with rapid transit development model

Here is the UDA summary document explaining how specific development projects would be established

Christchurch’s local authorities would need to cooperate with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

The Ministry has a Housing and Urban Development Authority that is gaining enabling powers to coordinate all the necessary government departments, local authorities and other stakeholders, such as iwi, required to integrate housing with rapid transit successfully.

The Development Authority has a goal of reducing the developmental time for specific projects from concept to starting construction from in excess of 5 years to less than a year.

The escalating cost of land for housing is at the core of the housing crisis that New Zealand has experienced in recent decades.

An urban development authority should consider how it could be a public land banker as a means of providing affordable land to increase housing supply whilst limiting sprawl.

The benefits of this approach is that affordable land can be bought to market without leap frog sprawling to competitively priced yet more distant blocks of land.

The Urban Development Authority approach allows the best located land for rapid transit to be used and for it to be built to higher densities thus ensuring the long term viability of the rapid transit scheme.

A good reference for this public land banking approach can be found on pages 181 to 186 in the book Economics, Real Estate and the Supply of Land by Alan W. Evans.

Also in this section is a description of the difference between negative planning where the government sector limits itself to placing restrictions on land use.

It should be noted that New Zealand’s Resource Management Act (RMA) is a negative planning tool.

Versus positive planning where governmental entities play an active part in building the urban environment.

This is a important conceptual difference to understand.

Auckland Council for example seems to have a strategic misunderstanding of the roles of its negative planning RMA entrenched Planning Department and its positive planning ‘build the built environment’ urban development authority Panuku.

This misunderstanding is so significant it has lead to court cases between these Auckland Council entities.

With regard to governmental entities being an active participant in the property market, there are some issues to be cautious about.

The State acting as a land banker can result in over pricing of land, like the deliberate purchase and restriction of land supply in the centre of Christchurch to maintain high land values by the previous government after the earthquakes.

Compulsory acquisition or to use the American term ‘eminent domain’ is a blunt tool, that could be easily misused, especially for land that will not remain permanently in public use i.e. land that will be sold back into private ownership.

Ilya Somin in the book -The Grasping Hand details the land acquisition abuses some US urban development agencies have made to benefit large corporations at the expense of less powerful property owners and residents.

My preference would be for an Urban Development Authority to use a transparent voluntary land assembly approach and rarely use compulsory acquisition, especially for land that doesn’t have a permanent public use.

An example of a voluntary approach is the Urban Development Authority could use land readjustment which is a proven success overseas.

For land readjustment a Development Authority is the organising agent whereby landowners exchange larger rural zoned blocks of land for more valuable yet smaller blocks of land.

Readjusted land is more valuable because through a public process it is given residential zoning, it is fully serviced with streets, water mains, sewers, stormwater management systems, local parks and other amenities, it is within walkable distance of rapid transit and the land has been subdivided into multiple property titles.

The freed up land from land readjustment would go towards lowering the cost of public spaces -streets, parks, schools etc and for social and affordable housing i.e. low cost land for State and Kiwibuild housing.

The transit provider could also get an allocation of lower cost land to build residential and commercial spaces. These rentals could help pay the ongoing operating costs of rapid transit.

The land readjustment system would have significant environmental and social benefits whilst also aligning the different land owning groups interests in ensuring the commercial success of walkable communities.

It is relatively easy once an Urban Development Authority has acquired a large green or brown field site to ‘capture’ the uplift value of the infrastructure provided to pay for the infrastructure costs.

For instance every property title created could either have an up front charge of say $50,000 to pay for the capital costs of rapid transit or the charge could be spread over time in the form of a targeted rate.

The targeted rate if it was paying a long term debt at say 4% would have an annual payment of $2000.

The debt would be held by the Development Authority so would be seperate from local or central government debt level limit restrictions.

$50,000 times 20,000 houses would generate $1 billion, which would go a long way towards paying for a rapid transit scheme for Greater Christchurch.

Twenty thousand homes is the approximate number of greenfield houses over the next decade that integrated housing around rapid transit could potentially replace.

It would be possible in Greater Christchurch over the next decade for the Housing and Urban Development Authority to master plan a number of walkable community projects consisting of 20,000 houses around newly provided rapid transit.

For new households this upfront charge or targeted rate is not overly burdensome — especially if the houses were otherwise affordable and close to congestion free transport choices. Like Hobsonville the housing would need to be commercially attractive to buyers.

It is more problematic imposing a targeted rate on existing housing areas to pay for new rapid transit services as residents would find a $2000 increase in their rates bill difficult to swallow.

Many residents would argue they do not need the rapid transit service so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Also because Christchurch’s existing suburbs are relatively low density — 20 to 30 houses per hectare — there would be fewer houses within walking distance of any proposed rapid transit scheme.

For these reasons, any Christchurch rapid transit scheme that does not have a large green or brown field component would generate very little revenue from targeted rates.

If Christchurch did choose to build a rapid transit network for existing suburbs only, this would mean forgoing the possibility of generating something like $1 billion of funding from an effective rapid transit targeted rate scheme.

I believe integrating walkable community housing with rapid transit would be a successful recipe for Greater Christchurch and for other cities in New Zealand.

The benefits are in my opinion overwhelming.

This paper is part of a series of papers advocating for building affordable walkable communities around rapid transit. Other papers in this series (including those written subsequently) are;

I gave shorter versions of this Building Walkable Communities Around Rapid Transit paper as an oral submission to the Greater Christchurch Partnership and to public meeting organised by the Canterbury Housing and Transport group (CHAT Club). In both cases to advocate for integrating housing with rapid transit in the city’s spatial plan.



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Brendon Harre

Brendon Harre

When cities erect barriers that make it harder to build houses, I think this is landowners lobbying lawmakers so they can earn without toil.