One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsMarch 6, 2024

We’re spending billions of dollars to make traffic worse

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Simeon Brown just announced the most anti-driver transport policy in recent memory.

Drivers were the central chassis of Simeon Brown’s answers as he announced the government’s new transport agenda in the Beehive theatrette on Monday. “Our message to motorists is they will benefit from this funding in terms of the priorities under this government,” the transport minister said, when quizzed on his plan to hike vehicle registration fees $50 to fund 15 four-lane highways linking bustling centres like Cambridge and Piarere. The new roads would spur economic growth, he said. They would unlock housing development. Most of all they would make driving nicer. “This is about ensuring that we have the funding to build and maintain the roading network that New Zealanders need so we can have fewer potholes,” Brown added, when quizzed for a fourth time on the registration fee rise. 

The love and attention lavished on motorists during Brown’s stint at the lectern is notable given his entire transport plan amounts to repeatedly kicking them in their metaphorical crankshafts. 

Building bigger roads won’t make driving nicer. It will make traffic worse. That may seem counterintuitive. It’s also one of the most studied assertions of the last few decades in transport planning. A report from the University of Berkeley shows that for every 1% of extra highway capacity added, traffic volumes increase 0.9% in the longer term. When Houston, Texas expanded the Katy Freeway to 26 lanes at a cost of $2.9 billion, commute times went up. But you don’t have to look to the southern tip of a failed state for examples. Traffic volumes around the $1.4 billion Waterview Tunnel are roughly back to where they were before its construction

This makes sense when you think about it for more than two seconds. When Apple releases new iPhones, people buy phones. When Hayden Donnell releases episodes of Get It To Te Papa, people watch Get It To Te Papa*. When governments build flash new roads, people drive. Even if the resulting traffic doesn’t clog up the motorways in question, it tends to funnel into suburban streets or smaller highways. The best we can hope for is to shift the bottleneck.

The government’s tarmac addiction wouldn’t be so painful for motorists if it wasn’t for the opportunity cost. Our new highways are being funded partly by a $1.5 billion cut to public transport and walking and cycling. Not only that, it appears Brown is actually trying to ban transport officials from even building footpaths on the side of new roads, explicitly forbidding them from using any money allocated to roading projects for “multimodal improvements” and asserting that every walking and cycling upgrade should be funded out of a dedicated budget.

Though some might look at those moves and say “suck it, lycra loser” or similar, the reality is that getting people onto buses or bikes is one of the more successful ways we know to clear the road for our growing fleet of Teslas and urban tanks. Transport systems are interconnected. If someone can bike to the dairy without being run over by a Ford Ranger, there’s more room on the road for the mythical person carting a school netball team or a grand piano across town. A bus doesn’t have to work for every trip. It has to work for enough to create gaps in the traffic.

On the other hand, systems built entirely around cars end up hurting everyone. Building roads, while taking away alternative transport, means most people are forced to drive. When most people are forced to drive, it causes congestion. Congestion leads to more calls to widen the roads. That eventually leads to politicians standing at the lectern in the Beehive theatrette to announce they’re going to build more roads and take away alternatives to driving.

This Sisyphean cycle has been the backbone of New Zealand’s transport planning philosophy since the 50s, and while continuing it is certainly an interesting idea, it might be time to try something that we haven’t already done to less than no success for the better part of a century.

Instead on Monday, Brown stood up and announced we’re going to roll that rock up the hill once more. That will kill or injure some people, raise emissions, and impose large fuel and vehicle registration bills on most New Zealanders. Those costs will be levied in service of adding to the traffic and somehow making driving even more miserable than it already is. And you know the worst thing? After all that, there’s not even that much more money to fix the damn potholes.

*Citation needed

Keep going!