Free the roads, free the city! How to fix traffic congestion right now

The government and Auckland Council have announced a two-year study of congestion charging. OK, but why aren’t they trying to fix the city’s transport crisis right now? It’s not that hard, you know, writes Simon Wilson.

The government and council have announced a two-year plan  to investigate congestion pricing for the inner city. It’s a breakthrough in relations between the two bodies, burbled transport minister Simon Bridges. Last year, the government and council announced a 30-year plan for building more transport services. It was a breakthrough in relations, burbled then finance minister Bill English. Was it? Are they?

Long-term planning, all good, we need more of it. But long-term planning when it means a failure to introduce short-term fixes? This is just finance minister Steven Joyce putting the whole thing in a cupboard till sometime never after the election, isn’t it? While Auckland stews in traffic. What is wrong with these people?

The city’s transport woes have been a long time coming, but in the last couple of years they’ve turned into a real crisis. Why? Because population growth has suddenly accelerated.

Through 2007-2013 (ie, during most of the term of the current government) the number of people in Auckland grew by less than 20,000 per year. In 2014 that number jumped to around 35,000 and in both the next two years it approached 45,000.

At the new rate, the city’s population of 1.6 million will hit 2 million within the next 10 years. And well before then, as mayor Phil Goff warns, we’ll have gridlock.

Views of Auckland, including the Symonds St overbridge, left, and Elliott St, centre

So the government has suddenly got pretty good at talking about how much money it’s going to spend on our transport. But where’s the action plan for now? Are they serious about helping Auckland deal with the crisis or have they simply decided to do a lot of talking?

Or have they just run out of ideas? If that’s what it is, we can help. Here, presented entirely in the spirit of being helpful, is a plan for what they could do now.

The Spinoff Action Plan for Auckland Transport Right Now

Barney Irvine of the AA says phased traffic lights would help. Well, yes. Obviously, Auckland Transport should do all it can to ensure the lights control traffic flows as efficiently as possible. Aren’t they doing that already?

He also suggests rethinking lane configuration with moveable barriers. They’re definitely doing that now.

More to the point, these things are not the key. Fewer cars on the roads is the key.

The problem for the government, even if it was committed to short-term fixes, is that some of the most effective ways to deal with congestion are unpopular. Like, full-blown-citizen-rage unpopular.

Like, the surest way to reduce the number of cars on the roads is to make parking more expensive and harder to find. No, please, don’t stop reading!

Can I say that this is not about stopping everyone from driving. On the contrary. Tradies need their vans and they need roads open enough so they don’t waste hours sitting in those vans. Parents need to ferry kids around after school, and you’ve got supermarket shopping and events to get to in the evening. For many people, there are safety issues, especially if you’re alone, especially at night. No one is suggesting a ban on driving.

But there’s something else about driving in Auckland. I had a man come to see me the other day at work. Our offices are on Customs St and he drove down from Ponsonby. He was late, and eventually he called. “I’m just driving round and round,” he said. “Where am I supposed to park?”

It had not occurred to him that it’s ridiculous to drive into the central city for a reason like that. He could have caught a Link bus and been there more quickly. He could have Ubered or caught a cab and been there even quicker. He seemed fit enough, he could have ridden a bike.

Just for the moment, imagine this. The government and the council announce a new vision for transport in Auckland, with stage 1 to be implemented right now. It includes more trains and buses, disincentives for private cars, more support for cycling and a whole lot of stuff to enhance the quality of the non-driving experience. If it works, leaving the car at home will mean it’s easier for most people to get to work, and if you’re heading into the city it’ll be more fun getting there and more fun being there.

  1. More trains and buses

Services have been improving in frequency and reliability, and Auckland Transport is right now about to roll out a new, busier schedule of bus services. That’s good but not good enough.

Immediate funding is required for more trains and buses in the evening and at other times. The aim is for timetable-free services on as many routes as possible, for as many hours as possible. Whenever you turn up, there’ll be a bus or train along within 10 minutes.

  1. Focus on the outer city

There are no rapid transit (rail or fast bus) services in many parts of town, especially in the suburbs and industrial/commercial areas of the southeast, the west and around the airport. Their arterial roads are the busiest in the city, and it’s inexcusable.

Long-term fixes are planned. But they need buses and dedicated bus lanes right now. So: do it with portable barriers and temporary shelters and just get it going.

  1. Reduce the number of inner-city parking spaces

And use the freed-up road space for pedestrians, cyclists, street stalls and green features. Do it with road cones and planters.

  1. Boost the parking tariffs

For the carparks that remain, double the cost of using them. At least.

  1. Engage businesses and commuters in the plan

Incentivise businesses to close their private carparks and incentivise commuters to trial other commuting options.

  1. Roll out a big new bike-share scheme

Bike-share is a good option for tourists but that’s just a bonus. Its greatest value should be as a quick, easy and super-cheap option for locals to get about town. The council already intends to scope the options for a big new bike-share scheme and it can’t come soon enough.

Features should include: e-bikes (because this is Auckland), cheap to use, free for the first half hour (so locals use it all the time), and lots of stations to collect bikes from and leave them at. It should also have stations at the park-and-rides and in nearby village centres, so you’ll be able to use a bike for the first/last part of your commute.

Bike share stand, Milan. Photo: Pixabay

  1. Create more bike lanes

On city streets, on suburban roads, wherever they can go. Again, do it with road cones and other temporary dividers.

  1. Organise ride-sharing

Don’t hope it happens. Make it happen, by assigning a team of council staff to work with businesses and local communities to create registers and put travellers together.

  1. Reclaim the streets

This is critical to the whole project: restricting cars won’t work unless the overall experience of being in the city – especially when it comes to the retail experience – is improved. The approach has to be bold, experimental and flexible.

Convert some streets in the central city to pedestrian, commercial, entertainment and other mixed uses. Don’t spend any money yet: do it with portable barriers and road cones. Experiment, revise and refine, then spend the money later to lock in what works.

  1. Limit private vehicles entering the central city

Actually, if all the other measures above are adopted, cars probably won’t need to be “banned” from the central city. But if disincentives don’t work restrictions are the alternative.

  1. Green light the third rail line

For a mere $50 million the government could finish the third rail line to the inland port at Wiri. It’s needed because commuter trains prevent freight trains from using the other lines during peak times. The new line would take 300 trucks off the roads during peak hours, and has a good business case. It’s ready to go, all it needs is for the government to say yes.

  1. Cancel the new motorway project

There’s no good business case for the East West Link from Penrose and it’s going to cost close to $2 billion. Finance minister Steven Joyce told a select committee in parliament recently that many of Auckland’s current transport projects, including the City Rail Link, don’t have a good business case. That’s true, but he didn’t mention this one. In reality public transport projects rarely stack up in on the official measure, because their use is hard to quantify economically. But it’s no excuse for the East West Link, whose purpose is entirely commercial, for freight, and which therefore should be possible to quantify pretty exactly.

Here’s the question: what could we spend $2 billion on instead? All the other measures outlined here would together cost a small fraction of that new road. It’s gross mismanagement of public funds for that road to proceed.

  1. Stop all the other motorway projects

Put a moratorium on all the lane widening and other motorway projects currently on the books. Let’s try much harder to reduce traffic rather than encourage it. Divert the funds into these other proposals as well.

Visualation of the proposed East-West Connection motorway at Onehunga, Auckland. Credit: greaterauckland.org.nz

  1. Improve the quality of public transport

Free wifi would be an excellent start. Better bus shelters in many parts of town, and more of them.

And for heaven’s sake, why don’t railway stations have concessions for traders? More life, more safety with more people around, more to do, things to buy…  is it really necessary that ours are so barren? Besides, Auckland Transport: it’s a revenue stream.

  1. Sell the idea

This is also essential: spend good money on a major marketing campaign. Call it “Free the Roads, Free the City”? Something even better? Focus on the improvements in public transport services and the benefits, to individuals and to the city, of leaving the car at home.

Easy to mock doesn’t make it wrong

It all sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Easy for a politician to mock. Make driving easier by encouraging people to stop driving?

But it’s true. As long as we try to solve the problem by creating more road space for cars, we will just keep making it worse – because all that does is encourage more people to drive. That’s what we’ve been doing. What we need is to make it more appealing for people to catch the train, hop on a bus, ride a bike or find some other way to get around.

There’s good evidence this works. Public transport use is up up up everywhere and on the Shore they really get it: over half of all commuters on the harbour bridge during peak times are now riding in a bus.

There’s a focus on the inner city in much of all this. But it’s not simply to improve the quality of the inner-city experience, although that’s important. It’s also, crucially, to take cars off the motorways leading into town.

These proposals are provisional and experimental. That is, the council and government should try things, build on what works and discard what doesn’t, and keep the measures that achieve popular support and will stay useful long-term.

Got more good ideas? Let’s hear them and let’s try them: that should be the mantra.

Can’t stress enough: it’s got to be an integrated package. If you’re going to make it harder and more expensive for people to drive you have to make it easier and cheaper for them to use other options. If you reduce the number of cars in the central city you have to ensure it remains the lively commercial and entertainment heart of Auckland. If you enhance the central city you absolutely must make sure the outer urban areas are not abandoned to the nightmare of endless cars.

Stage 2, by the way, should also start now. It involves more planning. Fast-track the Congestion Free Network, which means scope the light rail services now, make a decision on rail to the airport and what kind it should be, and start building more rapid bus lanes. Also, assess the measures of Stage 1, refine and lock in the ones that work.

The central section of Greater Auckland’s proposed Congestion Free Network of public transport.

And those congestion charges?

Sure, go ahead and scope them. We do need to know much more about the options: their costs, the logistics of introducing them and their impacts not only on traffic but on different segments of Auckland society. They can’t become merely another punitive tax on the poor.

If Auckland is going to introduce a new tax – that’s what it is – we should have a good, well-informed debate about it. Steven Joyce is right about all that.

But let’s not get confused about this. Doing a two-year report to come up with a proposal is not the same thing as taking action now to resolve a crisis.

Joyce’s plan with the congestion charges study has a pretty obvious subtext: he’s putting off the day when he and his government have to change their approach to Auckland’s transport woes. They must know that what they’re doing is not working and is not going to work, but they really don’t want to talk about it now.

Why not? Because the measures they need to take could be unpopular? That’s not good enough. Because they are beholden to a freight lobby that cannot see past the fenders of its own trucks? That’s not good enough either. An effective plan is available and it’s really not that hard to implement. And when they do take it on, who knows, is it really so hard to believe that Aucklanders will quickly embrace the better transport networks and the better city it helps create? Of course not.

Join the discussion on this story at our Facebook page (direct link). Email Simon Wilson: simon@thespinoff.co.nz


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