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Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

SocietyMay 11, 2023

Five reasons why one deluge brought a whole city to a halt

Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

Two senior officials at Auckland Transport tell Duncan Greive why Tuesday’s storm blew up our transport network – and one relatively easy fix to help deal with it in future.

Twitter may have a lot of issues at the moment, but on Tuesday its network was clearly operating with greater integrity than that of Auckland Transport. “I’ve been waiting over 90 minutes at this point,” wrote one user at 2pm. “Two hours later waiting and finally on the bus,” tweeted another. A third detailed the bleak reality of a colleague stuck waiting in Newmarket with 100 others, two and a half hours after they arrived. Others complained about hours stuck in carparks, gridlocked in traffic, stranded at stations and wharfs, or finally giving up and trudging hours in driving rain.

Not a great day, but somehow not the year’s worst for the beleaguered agency tasked with facilitating the movement of people and goods across this sprawling city. As with the events of January 27, much of the criticism comes down to communication. Yet while there are clearly legitimate critiques to be made of Auckland Transport’s approach, they’re limited by just how many agencies are involved in extreme weather responses, from Auckland Emergency Management to Civil Defence to the mayor’s office. Arguably the biggest contributor to chaos on the roads this week was the issuance of a well-intentioned Civil Defence warning, prompting tens of thousands of Aucklanders to head home at a time when roads are typically clear.

Communication is complex in this era, but our transport network is an even trickier solve. I spoke to Auckland Transport’s executive GM of safety, Stacey van der Putten, and its head of integrated network planning, Andrew McGill to try and get a sense of exactly what happened on Tuesday at a system level. These are five key insights which help explain why this storm caused such chaos, and how the agency might ensure that the pattern is not repeated in future extreme weather events.

Commuters queuing for buses in downtown Auckland (Photo: Ben Gracewood)

Timing is everything

The Civil Defence flood warning was issued at 12.06pm, prompting many businesses and some schools to send people home or allow them to leave early. An “‘everybody trying to get to where they need to be at once’ scenario,” is how  van der Putten describes it. It had the effect of compressing the day’s peak travel into a window when roads are usually much clearer, and when “we’re scheduled to have less public transport services operating”, she says.

The catastrophic January floods began toward the end of the day Friday, and peaked when most of the city had already made its way home. On Tuesday Auckland experienced what Van Der Putten describes as “a big pinch point”. It meant that by the time the traditional rush hour began at 5pm, many normally clogged roads were largely clear – people had already made it home, though not without spending hours doing it.

We need more bus lanes

There is a known catch 22 with public transport, whereby usage increases when it’s fast, frequent and reliable. Auckland, like much of the country, is currently experiencing a shortage of bus drivers, which impacts that all-important frequency and reliability. This has the effect of diminishing patronage, reducing revenue and making the system an easier target for its antagonists.

What’s less understood, according to McGill, is the extent to which a lack of permanent bus lanes feeds into the speed of the network, particularly during atypical events. Because the storm occurred around lunchtime, many bus lanes which operate as clearways during rush hour had cars in them, whether parked or with drivers at the wheel. “The core thing that we can do is put in place more bus priority,” says McGill. “That’s the number one thing we can do so that the bus system is robust, works faster, works harder, and gets people going where they need to.”

He says AT has been working on a plan called ‘Room to Move’, but as Todd Niall detailed for Stuff, a clumsy draft release has inflamed opposition. A broad coalition encompassing shop owners, talkback hosts and car advocates resents allocation of dedicated lanes to buses, particularly when they’re bundled with cycleways which are a burgeoning culture war issue in some circles. Ideally you want certain key corridors only open to rapid, dedicated public transport – otherwise the system is highly vulnerable when events like yesterday’s storm arrive at inopportune times.

A bus drives through flooding on Tāmaki Drive, January 2018 (Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images)

Auckland is not Christchurch

A statement of the obvious, sure – but highly relevant to the gridlocked roads experienced yesterday. “We’ve got quite an interesting sort of geography and topography in Auckland,” says McGill. “If you compare Auckland to Christchurch, Christchurch has an awful lot of roads. And so it has that built-in resilience. We have a few key corridors – for instance, our main harbour crossing. And so there are a number of points in the network where if something goes wrong, it creates quite a significant impact.” Basically, because of a whenua riven by sinewy harbours and pockmarked by volcanic cones, whole communities often rely on a single arterial road. When that gets blocked, everything goes to hell.

That’s compounded by an intentional, designed reliance on private motor vehicles, says McGill. “We’ve had a system which over the last 50 years has been built around cars. And so we are now trying to build the multimodal system, but that is taking time. And the trouble is that we are going to have a little bit of conflict between those modes, in times like this, until we build up enough of a resilient system.” That’s not helped by the fact that our rail system is in the midst of long-deferred track maintenance, designed in part to prevent the kind of flooding which saw it shut down precisely when it was needed most.

The bus driver shortage impacts everybody

Last month RNZ reported Auckland had 369 vacant positions for bus drivers. “We do have a bus driver shortage,” says van der Putten. This has created well-documented reliability issues, meaning “most people will lose confidence in using public transport. So obviously making buses more reliable means people are more likely to use them, which then obviously lessens people’s reliance on personal motor vehicles, particularly coming into the CBD.” She’s seen firsthand a huge “volume of single use occupancy vehicles – quite astounding”, with little evidence of ridesharing or carpooling. Still, she acknowledges just how interlinked all these issues are – the city needs more responsive bus lanes and hundreds of new bus drivers to create the kind of reliability that will tempt people out of their cars.

We plan for issues, not a whole system breakdown

Historically, AT had a plan for specific issues, says van der Putten, who was head of public transport prior to taking on her safety role. She recalls signal failures on train lines which could be managed to some extent by moving extra capacity to bus routes. McGill talks about the controlled usage explosions which occur around major concerts or sporting events. “When you have an isolated event, you can learn from that in terms of how you would deal with a particular issue,” says van der Putten. Yet “when it’s widespread and it’s network-spread, that’s where the different conversation needs to come into play”.

The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is a new and much more complex dynamic for our transport planners, whose toolkit is largely made up of responses to a catalogue of more isolated incidents. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, at the height of the storm, ferries were cancelled, rail stalled and motorways bumper-to-bumper with cars and buses each motionless. This is what pushed thousands to take to the streets and walk some or all of the way home – a last resort which is not available to all the city’s people.

As Waka Kotahi told The Spinoff in a statement, “Climate change and its effects are impacting the condition of the roading network. While the overall annual rainfall total has not increased by much, the intensity has.” Ultimately, as rightly furious as social media users were on Tuesday, the city’s transport planners are working with infrastructure built in a different era, for a different climate. “That’s why resilience needs to be top of mind,” says van der Putten. “How do we respond – how does our system respond – when we have these events? Because they’re not going away.”

Keep going!