A lot of people think that Auckland’s got bad traffic congestion. The annual TomTom Traffic Index reinforces this perception – it regularly describes Auckland as one of the most congested cities in the region. (We’ve previously highlighted the methodological flaws with TomTom’s numbers – don’t take them at face value!)

However, I don’t think this perception matches up with reality. My experience is that Auckland has much better congestion than cities overseas. It’s incredibly easy to drive in Auckland. I’ve noticed that:

  • Although speeds on motorways and arterial roads drop during rush hour, traffic keeps flowing at a relatively constant rate. It seems uncommon to get totally deadlocked traffic in Auckland – unlike in California, where it’s common to see speeds of under 20km/hr on freeways.
  • The rush hour is incredibly short in Auckland – when I have to drive up to the North Shore after work to visit family, I find that traffic’s basically free-flowing after around 6:30. In other cities serious congestion starts much earlier and ends much later.
  • Counter-peak traffic is shockingly low – on the occasions when I have to drive to Takapuna in the morning, I’ve found that I encounter few queues and no congestion on Pitt St, Victoria Park Tunnel, and the bridge.

Of course, Auckland is more congested than small New Zealand cities with one-tenth its population. That’s only to be expected. But is Auckland really more congested than other large cities overseas?

Jarrett Walker points us toward some new data that can help shed some light on this issue. A recent study (pdf) of commute times in Brazilian cities provides comparative estimates of average commute travel times for thirty large cities all around the world. I used data from New Zealand’s Household Travel Survey to add Auckland to the list. Here are the results:

Avg commute times in large cities

As you can see, Aucklanders enjoy some of the fastest commutes of any city on the list. We travel faster than people in London, Stockholm, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. Only Barcelona, a compact city with a densely-developed subway system, offers faster trips to work. (However, it would be good to see a few more Australian cities, like Perth and Brisbane, on the list for comparison.)

While population growth will put some pressure on Auckland’s transport infrastructure, this data suggests that our congestion problems are not severe at all. We look pretty good on Alain Bertaud’s preferred measure of transport accessibility! It seems like the impending completion of Auckland’s motorway network and the significant fall in vehicle kilometres travelled per capita over the last decade has given us a lot of breathing room on congestion.

Rather than trying to solve problems that can’t be observed in the data, we should use this breathing room to invest in real transport choices for Aucklanders. That means getting ambitious about building Auckland’s “missing modes”:

  • A rapid transit network that reaches all parts of the city – starting with the City Rail Link and continuing with something like the Congestion Free Network
  • A frequent bus network that is useful for more Aucklanders, more often – which Auckland Transport is currently doing
  • Safe cycle infrastructure throughout the city – while Auckland Transport and NZTA are starting to deliver great projects like the Grafton Gully and Beach Road cycleways, there are still many holes in the network
  • Good pedestrian-oriented streets – Auckland Council’s shared spaces in the city centre are fantastic but change hasn’t been as rapid in other parts of the city.

What’s your perception of Auckland’s transport problems?

Share this

32 comments

  1. Severe congestion occurs when it rains or if there is an accident on the motorway. Neither can be solved by more roading projects. You’re right – we should be investing in options that focus on moving the maximum amount of people at peak times to give people real choice, and not be hung up about arbitrary measures such as average vehicle speeds.

    1. I agree – congestion is only bad when something goes wrong on the motorway. Especially on the NW motorway at the moment, with no shoulders.

      Actually the Western Line train last night was congested. Well, the carriage anyway.

      1. One of the nice things about trains and buses though is that they deal with overloading. If a motorway becomes overloaded it just slows down, but with PT people will push it to its maximum “crush capacity”. This isn’t very nice for the commuters, sadly, however it does at least keep trip times short, unlike motorways where people insist on driving one to a vehicle.

  2. Looks good. Need to keep reminding Aucklanders who never leave the country that we have things pretty good in terms of motorways. We have to stop putting all our eggs in one basket.

  3. Travel times must be related to the population of cities. More people occupy larger areas, so have further to travel and get in each others way more. Auckland (1.4m), is the smallest city on this list. The next smallest, Stockholm (2m) seems an anomaly on this list in having 45 minute commutes. Auckland is two thirds the size of the next smallest city on this list, Belem 2.1m, where commuting times are about 5 mins longer. The other nearly comparable cities in travel times all have over 4m and Los Angeles over 17m. Barcelona has 4.7m and shorter commuting times. Comparing like with like would very probably show how much Auckland suffers from having under 10% of trips by public transport.

  4. I’m a native Californian who’s lived here for two years. I’ve always been really confused by the perception Auckland has bad traffic. Sure, it gets slow at peak hour, but drive in LA at any time of day on any day, including weekends, and you’ll never say Auckland traffic is bad again.

    1. My reaction was just the same. Still, people for some reason value time spent in traffic higher than other ways to spend time which is why they complain about it. However, surveys in the US show that many people actually like the time they spend in traffic because they consider it down time, i.e., away from the kids, to relax, contemplate and get work done on the phone. So go figure. Love it or hate it, depending on who they’re talking to.

  5. This aligns with some research undertaken by NZTA which shows that if you measure the cost of congestion more realistically, it is more like $250m a year not $1b+ like many have said in the past.

    Per capita that’s not a huge cost compared to say the cost of poor PT forcing many households to own second vehicles when ideally they’d rather spend that money on something else.

    http://www.nzta.govt.nz/resources/research/reports/489/

  6. Tom tom compares peak with free flow.

    Auckland has a massive motorway going through its heart so free flow is 100kph. If your doing 20kph peak thats an 80 slow down. Compare with most cities that have resisted motorwYs in the centre. They might be doing 20kph too but that wont register anywhere near 80 slower. Its not that the peak is so slow, its that off peak is so fast. And the problem with the congestion that is there is that for most people theres no alternative option.

        1. just because a city is big doesn’t mean it can’t be compared with others. That’s why we use standardised metrics, like GDP per capita. In this case the figure uses average commute time. I think average commute time is a reasonable indication of how much time the average person spends travelling.

          Yes of course this will vary with size, as well as a lot of other factors. But that doesn’t make the resulting comparison necessarily meaningless, or more so than any other data. I still think it’s reasonable to compare cities of differing sizes using such standardized metrics.

    1. it must be stated that population would absolutely play a part here as economies of scale don’t work out proportionately as you get bigger cities. On Tom-Tom’s list (the best breakdown we have to go on), Auckland lands 41st in the world for traffic congestion. I broke down the list by figuring out all populations of greater metropolitan areas that are listed above Auckland on that ranking: there are 12 cities alone that are more than TEN times the population of Auckland. If you want to make a fairer comparison, I chose cities from the list (above Auckland) that were the same size or within 1 million of Auckland. This would place Auckland in 6th place of the most congested cities on Earth by relative population size. Now, even with reasonable space for error, you cannot tell me that there isn’t a problem with Auckland’s traffic.

      Here’s the list I compiled if you’re interested:

      reference: https://www.tomtom.com/en_au/trafficindex/#/list
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_urban_areas_by_population

      (in millions)

      1. Istanbul 14
      2. Mexico City 21
      3. Rio 12
      4. Moscow 16
      5. Salvador 2.7
      6. Recife 3
      7. St Petersburg 5
      8. Bucharest 2.3
      9. Warsaw 2.7
      10. LA 19
      11. Taipei 6.9
      12. Chongqing 28
      13. Rome 4.3
      14. Tianjin 15
      15. Beijing 21
      16. London 10
      17. Guangzhou 20
      18. Marseille 1.4
      19. Chengdu 10
      20. Vancouver 2.1
      21. Sydney 4
      22. Paris 11
      23. Fortaleza 3.4
      24. Shanghai 23
      25. Shijiazhuang 3.3
      26. San Francisco 5.9
      27. Athens 3.5
      28. Fuzhou 1.1
      29. Shenyang 6.1
      30. Hangzhou 3.4
      31. Shenzhen 12.1
      32. Brussels 2.1
      33. Zhuhai 1.5
      34. Ankara 4.5
      35. Changchun 3.3
      36. São Paulo 20
      37. Izmir 3.1
      38. Singapore 5.6
      39. Changsha 3.6
      40. Manchester 2.6
      41. Auckland 1.3

      1. Mike, Tom Tom compares peak travel times to off peak travel times, the greater the difference the worse the congestion, or so they claim. Problem is cities with solid congestion all day every day don’t show a difference, and come off looking better.

        However in Aucklands case it simply shows we have almost no congestion off peak, so comparatively the peak looks much degraded. But in reality, we have fairly bad congestion for a short peak period and almost nothing for most of the day.

  7. Still takes more than an hour to drive from New Lynn to the CBD – this is the same time whether you’re on the bus or in your car. Journey times from Pakuranga/Howick would be similar. I think the graph is based on junk information.

    1. 45 mins by train or bicycle (I reckon electric bike 30mins). If we had the CRL that train would only be 20mins.

      You are using the wrong tool for the job if you take the car or bus for that journey.

      1. Hrm yes, 44 mins according to google. So allow that the first time when you are finding your way. After that a reasonably fit person should be able to cycle New Lynn to viaduct in 35 mins. What sort of speed can those e-bikes get up to if you pedal on the flat?

    2. The data on Auckland is from the Household Travel Survey, which is run annually and covers a representative sample of ~5,000 households. The HTS data is supported by Census journey to work data which shows that the average commuter in Auckland travels ~11.6 km to get to work. (Citation: http://www.transport.govt.nz/research/othertransportresearch/research-on-auckland/)

      Also remember that this is an *average* trip length – it doesn’t say much about the distribution of travel times. Obviously a small number Aucklanders have quite long commutes, but most people commute quite short distances.

      I’d previously analysed the Census journey to work data in more detail, looking at the distribution of trip distances. 80% of commutes in Auckland are under 20km driving distance, and ~92% are under 30km. On the other, 1/3 of Auckland commutes are less than 5km in driving distance – quite short! (And potentially easier to do on a bicycle, but that’s another story.)

  8. I note that places like Manilla, Bombay, New Delhi, Calcutta are not included in this list. they’re probably ‘off the chart’

  9. The problem with Auckland traffic is the same for all big cities everywhere – people driving alone or in pairs in cars far too wide for the roads they drive on. The solution is to right-size cars. 39″ wide cars with tandem seating allow for physically more than doubling lane capacity. Give commuters a real choice, and they’ll drive narrow cars.

    Imagine if the only choice for bicycling were the bikes used to rent to families on holiday with front and back side-by-side seating. Bike lanes would have to be widened. Narrow bikes are the best design for bikes, of course, and the same absolutely applies to commuter cars.

    Next time you go to an airport, observe whether people travelling alone use wide or narrow suitcases. When I was young, everyone used wide suitcases because they were the only suitcase design available. After a short adjustment period, almost all individual passengers choose narrow suitcases.

    Side-by-side seating in cars is terrible design, and public transit and biking will vastly improve once safe highway-capable narrow cars become available to the mass market.

  10. Auckland must be similar to Los Angeles, then. Slow moving traffic due to congestion, but short commute times due to dispersion of employment.

    Mass public transport is actually not compatible with a city like this and is a heinous waste of public money. Los Angeles has spent something like 70% roads, 30% PT for 4 decades, and PT still only provides 4% of total travel.

  11. (I posted this in a reply below, but thought it was worth adding as its own comment. Pardon the repeat)

    Population would absolutely play a part here as economies of scale don’t work out proportionately as you get bigger cities. On Tom-Tom’s list (the best breakdown we have to go on), Auckland lands 41st in the world for traffic congestion. I broke down the list by figuring out all populations of greater metropolitan areas that are listed above Auckland on that ranking: there are 12 cities alone that are more than TEN times the population of Auckland. If you want to make a fairer comparison, I chose cities from the list (above Auckland) that were the same size or within 1 million of Auckland. This would place Auckland in 6th place of the most congested cities on Earth by relative population size. Now, even with reasonable space for error, you cannot tell me that there isn’t a problem with Auckland’s traffic.

    Here’s the list I compiled if you’re interested:

    reference: https://www.tomtom.com/en_au/trafficindex/#/list
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_urban_areas_by_population

    (in millions)

    1. Istanbul 14
    2. Mexico City 21
    3. Rio 12
    4. Moscow 16
    5. Salvador 2.7
    6. Recife 3
    7. St Petersburg 5
    8. Bucharest 2.3
    9. Warsaw 2.7
    10. LA 19
    11. Taipei 6.9
    12. Chongqing 28
    13. Rome 4.3
    14. Tianjin 15
    15. Beijing 21
    16. London 10
    17. Guangzhou 20
    18. Marseille 1.4
    19. Chengdu 10
    20. Vancouver 2.1
    21. Sydney 4
    22. Paris 11
    23. Fortaleza 3.4
    24. Shanghai 23
    25. Shijiazhuang 3.3
    26. San Francisco 5.9
    27. Athens 3.5
    28. Fuzhou 1.1
    29. Shenyang 6.1
    30. Hangzhou 3.4
    31. Shenzhen 12.1
    32. Brussels 2.1
    33. Zhuhai 1.5
    34. Ankara 4.5
    35. Changchun 3.3
    36. São Paulo 20
    37. Izmir 3.1
    38. Singapore 5.6
    39. Changsha 3.6
    40. Manchester 2.6
    41. Auckland 1.3

    1. how long will it take me to get from Auckland airport to the city centre. i land at 8am and have an appointment at 9.30am in the centre

  12. how long will it take me to get from Auckland airport to the city centre. i land at 8am and have an appointment at 9.30am in the centre

Leave a Reply