01 Apr 2013

$59 billion plan misses the bus

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Photo by: Sarah Ivey
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 01 April 2013

Vision for Auckland’s future is for even worse congestion in a city where the car will remain king.

Even with a $59 billion spend, the roads will end up more clogged than now.

Even with a $59 billion spend, the roads will end up more clogged than now.

So let me get this right. Auckland Transport is proposing to spend $59 billion over the next 30 years on an “integrated transport programme” that will, if achieved as planned, block up Auckland’s streets in a traffic mess even worse than now.

Even a lowly bus passenger such as myself can’t see the logic in a plan that comes up with such a solution. Especially when only $34 billion of the $59 billion required to complete it is actually guaranteed from either local or central government funds.

“Even with the fully funded programme,” admit the authors, “road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels”. The outcome is even worse if Auckland is left with just the $34 billion to play with. In that case, AT could “do little more than ongoing maintenance, operation renewal [and] management of the network” together with any new projects already under way or approved.

Given such a gloomy prognosis, the bus passenger in me is forced to ask what possesses the transport planners to persevere with what is obviously a spectacularly failed formula.

By 2041, the mayor’s Auckland Plan is to have between 700,000 and one million extra residents in his compact isthmus city. It seems as obvious as dog’s knackers that we might have enough space for the extra people, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to accommodate their cars as well – not as their regular mode of transport to work and to drop their kids off to school anyway.

But instead, the report persists with advancing the merits of a “multi-modal transport system” with the car, by 2041, being even more the king as passenger vehicle, by percentage of commuters carried, than it is at present. No wonder, even with a $59 billion spend, that the roads will end up even more clogged than now.

There’s a salutary chart within the report of Auckland public transport usage over the past 90 years. The current 69.5 million public transport trips a year is dwarfed by the near 120 million trips achieved in 1945 – a record peak helped out by wartime petrol rationing. Still, today’s urban Auckland population is 1.5 million, nearly six times the 263,370 living here in 1945. If the planners needed guidance on the direction to take in providing a winning transport system for a liveable compact city of 2.5 million people, then the clue is sitting there in that very graph.

The target in the new report’s multi-modal approach is to match the 1945 peak by around 2018 and hit 140 million by 2022. But the recent fall-off in patronage shows that drawing graphs is easier than getting bums on seats. The target is to increase the morning peak, non car-based mode share from 23 per cent to 45 per cent. That means doubling the number of commuters who walk, cycle or catch public transport to work or school. The plan refers to this as an “aspirational target” which sounds rather defeatist, given that failure means citywide gridlock, and not just at peak times. Waving its stick, the report adds that to achieve the aspirational goal, “new policy levers such as demand management may be necessary”.

By demand management it means rationing the use of the roads with all the old devices that politicians have considered and shied away from in the past like roads pricing, cordon tolling, congestion tolling and the like. All devices which favour the well-off and the large numbers who drive job-provided cars.

The outcome of Auckland Council’s probe into alternative methods for funding the giant short-fall mentioned above is still to be announced. This is a subject that’s been flogged to death so many times it’s hard to believe the team, headed by former regional council CEO Peter Winder, will have come up with some magical new way of turning volcanic scoria into gold.

The Labour Government agreed to Auckland requests for a regional fuel tax, but the Key Government rejected that option.

Of course there’s always higher rates, but Mayor Len Brown and his councillors are not going to commit electoral suicide by supporting that. But even if extra funding was available, the question must be, is trying to squeeze more and more cars into a finite space, the right way to go.


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