Lessons for Auckland from Los Angeles

Los Angeles (Getty)
Los Angeles (Getty)

Auckland and Los Angeles are sister cities, and like real-life siblings have similar DNA.

Both are sprawling urban conglomerates. Both once had light rail systems, abandoned in favour of motorways which made the sprawl possible. And both are now suffering from deadlocked traffic, skyrocketing house prices and growing homelessness.

"We're two great cities that are a victim of our own success -- everybody wants to live there," says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "We have homeless as well, rents that are going way up, traffic."

Mr Garcetti is in Auckland for the second Tripartite Economic Summit at Auckland's Viaduct Events Centre. The two cities signed an alliance in November 2014 with China's Guangzhou with hopes to create jobs and enhance trade, investment and economic opportunities.

Auckland and Los Angeles both shut down their tram and streetcar networks in the 1950s. Los Angeles' system was bought by a company backed by car and tire manufacturers and the oil industry, and shut down.

"We had an amazing streetcar system, but in the '50s we got rid of it because everyone wanted to get their own cars. Now it's back to the future and everybody's building it," says Mr Garcetti.

"We want to have cars and we love cars, and we need to improve our roads, but there's no space to build new freeways. What we have to do is lay down rail that allows people to get around."

In 2008 the state of California voted to raise its sales tax by quarter of a cent to pay for new transportation infrastructure, which is starting to pay off in new train lines and cycleways. One of Mr Garcetti's favourites runs along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, scene of the memorable bike chase in 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2.

Polls suggest voters would approve another hike, raising an estimated US$120 billion over four decades.

Auckland Council has also come under pressure over its plans to intensify parts of the city, particularly in central areas and along transport routes. Older landowners -- more likely to vote than younger renters -- have dominated council meetings on the Unitary Plan, and in February councillors voted 13-8 against submitting Auckland Council's own evidence on housing density proposals.

Mr Garcetti has faced criticism for backing new developments over heritage, but says it's the only way to preserve the lifestyles not-in-my-backyard types want.

"You can preserve history, but you also have to build housing... if you want to preserve history and preserve single-family neighbourhoods with backyards, you have to put buildings where you're investing in transit and in your downtowns."

Downtown LA now has more than 50,000 inhabitants.

"It was rough, it was tough. It was a great place to work but nobody lived there."

A comprehensive strategy to address homelessness has taken 10,000 off the streets in three years, says Mr Garcetti.

"For so long people looked at housing only or services only. In Los Angeles we have what's called permanent supportive housing -- you have to give people housing, but also the services they need to get off drugs, or to be able to get job training, childcare.

"It's a very complicated set of reasons why everybody's on the streets, and each one is different."

In 1991, only 1400 people called the Auckland CBD home -- now its 35,000, according to business organisation Heart of the City. More than 170,000 people work or study in the CBD.