Without getting back on the topic of pohutukawas or St Luke’s Road again, I did notice something funny in the statement that Greg Edmonds, Auckland Transport’s Chief Operating Officer, made in Metro Magazine in response to the issue:

The founding premise of the Auckland super city was that the city’s congestion was costing $1 billion a year in lost productivity and this had to change.

[…]

Auckland Transport (AT) was created to solve the congestion problem…

Some people might think that this is a slightly too narrow view of Auckland Transport’s mandate. Whatever. Fair enough.

However, there is actually a much more serious problem with Mr Edmonds’ comments. Simply put: the notion that we can “solve the congestion problem” is not at all realistic. (Unless we are willing to try out road pricing, which is unlikely given the tepid response to the last few studies of the issue.)

I don’t want to pick on Mr Edmonds in particular. It’s common to hear politicians, bureaucrats, and advocates from all over say similar things. We constantly hear that Project X or Project Y will “fix congestion” or “solve gridlock” or “save us [some unthinkably large amount of money] in congestion costs”.

As an economist, I’m baffled by these statements. The empirical evidence on congestion overwhelmingly shows that it is not possible to reduce it by building more roads. This is because people change their behaviour in response to bigger roads. They shift from walking to the store to driving there; they buy a house further out of town; they travel at different times.

Here’s what two North American economists, Duranton and Turner, had to say on the topic after undertaking a comprehensive, multi-decade study on induced traffic in US cities:

Our data suggests a ‘fundamental law of road congestion’ where the extension of most major roads is met with a proportional increase in traffic. Not only do we provide direct evidence for this law, but also show find evidence that three implications of this law; near flat demand curve for VKT, convergence of traffic levels, and no effect of public transit on traffic levels.

All earlier studies, such as this comprehensive 1998 study of 70 US metro areas over a 15 year period cited by walkable city advocate Jeff Speck, have come up with identical findings:

Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.

Consequently, all we can realistically do about congestion is to give people good alternatives to participating in it. Other modes, such as grade-separated rapid transit and walking and cycling, do not get congested in the same way as roads do. While the research shows that providing alternatives to driving does not necessarily reduce road congestion, it does give people a way to reduce their exposure to it.

In light of these fundamental economic realities, it is essential that transport agencies stop talking about “fixing congestion”. This is nothing more than a dangerous fantasy.

Suggesting that we can solve congestion creates unrealistic hopes among the public. Every time a politician or transport agency opens a new road and promises that it will reduce congestion or speed up people’s journeys, they are feeding expectations that can never fully be met.

The result of this is that transport agencies are constantly dealing with demands for more roads that will not actually deliver long-term solutions to the problem of congestion. This sets the transport profession up to constantly fail to satisfy people’s desires and demands. This has to be a tremendously disheartening situation to be in.

My personal view is that instead of talking about “fixing congestion”, transport agencies should instead promise to deliver outcomes that are actually achievable.

This could include, for example, committing to deliver transport choice to underserved areas of the city by investing in rapid transit infrastructure, frequent bus services, and safe walking and cycling infrastructure. While transport agencies would have to work hard to deliver on all this, they could expect that the end result would be more transport choice for residents.

Transport agencies could even commit to some traditionally roads-centric goals, like, say, building new roads to enable the development of a new subdivision at the edge of the city. At least, as long as they weren’t making unrealistic promises of fast, frictionless commutes to the future residents…

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41 comments

  1. ‘Fixing congestion’, ‘completing the motorway network’, ‘Auckland’s isthmus geography makes it unsuitable for rail’, etc. All from the same auto-centric prayer book; a testament of belief rather than, as you point out so eloquently, empirical fact. I guess it always comes down to the loaded question who most benefits from public acceptance of these fallacious mantras?

    1. ‘Auckland’s isthmus geography makes it unsuitable for rail’ – I love this one, especially when the opposite is true! Who the hell started it?

      1. Last time I heard that old chestnut discussed seriously (i.e. not by Leyland, et al) was, I think, about 2003 when Council (?) brought out a New Zealand-born, London-domiciled planner whose name I have quite forgotten but I do recall she’d been damed (for services to the tarmac industry?). Came out with all sort of tosh, much to the delight of the Herald, and then disappeared back into the fogs of Britain. Have heard nothing since.

  2. I think “solving the congestion problem” in the context of the Metro comment can be interpreted as giving people ways to opt out of it, but we can only interpret it that way if the rhetoric is backed by progressive prioritisation of alternatives over roading projects. In the absence of that, I agree it sounds like trying more of the same that has been shown time and again not to work.

  3. Isn’t there some relationship between congestion and economy too?
    Yes, there should be alternatives to sitting in a car, but doesn’t the movement of so many people across town to (mostly) work, show that our economy is doing well?
    I feel like many of the shrinking regions don’t have a congestion problem, but I’m not sure that’s a solution our cities want.

  4. In my view, you never get rid of congestion, both in terms of traffic (road) congestion, or public transit congestion. You just realize that the latter is far more efficient, so it’s easier to get more gains by investing in that than in investing in roading.

    i.e. invest more in transit, and you’ll get transit congestion as more people flock to it. This will help balance out traffic congestion, but overall congestion will still be present. Invest more in roading will get more people using the roads (and less using transit/walking/cycling) moving the congestion mix the other way. However, that’s far less efficient in terms of number of people moved as well as the use of their time while in transit.

    This is the reason why Auckland has so much congestion right now – in the last few years the number of people using transit has increased markedly, and capacity constraints are being hit. Fortunately, that’s an easy (and cheaper!) fix than building a bunch more motorways.

    1. We have to clear about the value of different kinds of congestion too. The congested footpaths we now are experiencing in the city centre are an economic boon, not a burden, as opposed to the tremendous waste of traffic congestion on urban m’ways. And the former is a direct result the boom in PT use.

      To have senior city executives narrow their task down to only being about traffic congestion, and then to want to address that by adding ever more lanes is disheartening. Making a great city is the task, dealing in a sophisticated way with both the reality and the idea of traffic congestion is just a part of that. cf:

      http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/08/jan-gehl-make-cities-liveable-urban-rethinker

      1. +1. A successful city is a congested city, the point is to mitigate it’s effects.

        Mitigation is not just about the quantity of transit capacity we provide, be it footpaths, road or rail, but the impact that capacity has on our environs and our environs have on that capacity.

        “I know the answer and it’s 19 lanes of tarmac through Western Springs!” Hmm, really?

        “I know the answer and it’s detached housing all the way to Wellsford”
        But surely that will just mean everyone needs to drive?
        Yes, but we’ll just put 19 lanes of Tarmac in. Problem solved.

    2. Also important: Both car congestion and overcrowding in public transport can be quite aggravating for people travelling, but I’m fairly sure car congestion is a lot more unpleasant to people around the congested streets.

      Now, about investment in public transit vs private car traffic:

      Say, it’s 2007 and we need to get more capacity across the harbour. Let’s compare 2 scenarios:
      (scenario A) We build an additional bridge so more people can drive.
      (scenario B) We improve public transport, and build (among other things) the Northern Busway, so more people may take the bus.

      In scenario A, my guess is by now we would have roughly double the amount of people driving to town and being stuck in congestion. And probably an increase in traffic/congestion in the city centre.

      On the other hand, we can observe the outcome of scenario B. A lot of people take the bus to town, I wonder how that amount compares to the extra amount of people that could drive into town in scenario A.

      And, how expensive are both scenarios? I would guess the busway + bus operating costs is still cheaper than the bridge.

      Any thoughts from people who actually know this stuff?

      1. Spot on!

        According to NZTA’s post-implementation review, the Northern Busway cost $220 million to construct. (http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2012/06/05/northern-busway-post-implementation-review/) I don’t have figures on operating cost recovery, but some back-of-the-envelope maths suggests that fares cover close to 100%.

        By contrast, an additional road crossing would cost $5-6 billion, based on the most recent publicly available business case. (http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2014/06/19/how-awhc-is-a-waste-of-5-billion/) And it wouldn’t change the capacity of Spaghetti Junction or the motorway north of Akoranga Dr, meaning that additional rounds of expensive motorway widening would follow.

        As you note, the main outcome of both projects is to enable additional transport capacity from the North Shore into the city centre. It does seem that busway upgrades (or, at a certain point, a rail tunnel) are considerably cheaper.

  5. There has always been better options to shift a lot of people and a wide range of modes. A balanced and measured approach. 60 years fully in one mode, now needs massive correction measures. But to continue to spend on that mode ie car now is just ridiculous. We need full funding correcting the ship before we tip over. Agree with you Peter, a full spectrum congestion fix without road pricing or carpark pricing another alternative is not possible. Carpark pricing via a Rates charge could actually be the tap to control congestion overnight but no one wants it. The MOT Government Policy Statement on transport is fully ridiculous and not working in anyone’s interest from a transport solution point of view. I also 100% believe we need to reprioritised existing seal width immediately, full roading network so all modes have full network, remove car bias, and in fact change signal bias to Protected Cycle, PTand pedestrians.

    1. Reprioritising Roading Network should be done immediately for the following reasons:
      Since our car network not transport network is affecting emergency services this now becomes Civil Defense. Now a Road Maintenance problem to fix. This means 100% resources and subsidized work. Hardly make a dent on Road Maintenance budget. Also means must fix entire network this way. What does that mean: Busways where intended , Bus lanes with advance detector loops, full Seperated Cycle facilities. Civil Defense they will need to setup a Road Measuring team, An expert layout team, and an Implementation team. So Len you can call it now that emergency services are delayed and stay tuned for what a Code Red Directive does to all the Roading Resources and Professional Staff, past and present. All modes up in 3 weeks and a full reprioritised network think about it. Full NZTA , AT resources and all contracted parties. That must be 3000 staff hence while we need $100k for a shout minimum.

      1. Contracted parties includes Fulton Hogan, Downers and all subcontractors. In fact all Contractors if need be Auckland Region for any reqd pavement works, kerbing, concrete barriers, signal works, and all roadmarking crews. All being paid via Current Road Maintenance Contracts for the zone concerned be it AT or NZTA. Just saying a shit load of firepower.

          1. This team including designers can do all the grade seperation work necessary ie all railway crossings and for the busways full CFN 2030 plan obviously more than capable.

      2. Any widening then would be officially 250mm thick Structural Asphalt can be done in 2 nights and can fully utilize all paving crews and hotmix plants.

        1. So we just need a civil defense directive from Len. I’ve already worked this fully out using all civil, roading resources in Auckland, maybe outside resources as well. Central Area Road Maintenance Project Manager, Fulton Hogan Road Reconstruction Project Manager, Chartered Civil Engineer and Transport Blog reader makes an interesting combination. Let’s put that to good use then. 10 days lead in 3 weeks with all resources in right direction, a good purpose ie seperated cycling for their kids and themselves, max speed emergency services, and bus including busways, improving ped environment, and a major celebration at the end can’t see how this won’t be monumental.

  6. excellent Smithers excellent. Spot on Peter.

    A corollary is that in the absence of accurate transport pricing, the primary long term economic impact of transport investment is on locational choices, or land use.

    In this context, the question we should be asking of potential road transport investments is not whether they reduce congestion (i.e. travel-time savings) but instead whether they lead to an efficient urban form.

    As you note, public transport investment does reduce congestion, because it means fewer people are exposed to it. This point is worth repeating over and over …

  7. These excerpts from wikipedia is good example of how more PT options reduce congestion

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Busway,_Auckland

    The busway was officially opened in February 2008 after several years of construction, though the two northernmost stations had been operating since December 2005 using the normal Northern Motorway lanes.[7][8] It was credited with having reduced peak traffic on the Northern Motorway by around 500 cars each rush hour one month after the opening,[9] and about 39% of passengers on the Northern Express bus service had never used public transport before.[5] The busway was initially used by 70 buses per hour during peak time.[6]

    In June 2010, the busway carried its 5 millionth passenger. Patronage has kept rising, and in 2010 the busway was estimated to remove the equivalent of about 5,100 cars in the morning peak, with 80 buses per hour during peak times.[13]

    By mid-2011, frequency of the Northern Express had risen to every three minutes during the morning peak hour, five minutes during the ‘shoulder peak’.[14]

    1. Yes. And time for me to link to Ziebots again: http://www.smh.com.au/national/new-motorway-will-derail-commuters-20140217-32hvs.html

      “There’s good science to back up the commonsense view. It goes like this: public transport operates to a fixed speed, a timetable. Most people will take whichever transport option is fastest. They don’t care about the mode. If public transport is quicker they’ll catch a train or a bus, freeing up road space. If driving is quicker, they’ll jump in their car, adding to road congestion. In this way, public transport speeds determine road speeds. The upshot is that increasing public transport speeds is one of the best options available to governments and communities wanting to reduce road traffic congestion.”

      The quality of the alternatives to driving functionally set the speed on the highway. If there are very attractive alternatives to driving, be they high quality Transit, great cycleways, plenty of good places to live and work closer together etc, then the pressure on the driving options will be lower. Not disappear, but an efficient equilibrium will be maintained.

      Only providing one system, whether it’s trains, cars, or bridle paths, will lead to an inefficient over-use of the one supplied mode.

      1. Hi Patrick

        “public transport operates to a fixed speed, a timetable. Most people will take whichever transport option is fastest. They don’t care about the mode. If public transport is quicker they’ll catch a train or a bus, freeing up road space. If driving is quicker, they’ll jump in their car, adding to road congestion. In this way, public transport speeds determine road speeds. ”

        I have said this before, but the statement is only partly true. This claim uses one big assumption that assumes the capacity of public transport is more than adequate, and the the capacity of roads is finite. Given that the capacity of transit is not adequate in some areas, if the the amount of people travelling to a certain area at a certain time is more than the capacity of public transport, some of them will travel by car or they may decide to leave home earlier or later. In some areas of Auckland, the public transit system during peak hour is full – i.e. it cannot take anymore people. As a result, regardless of the speed of public transit, roads are going to get more congested if the capacity of public transit does not increase. therefore, increasing the speed without improving capacity is going to be fairly pointless if you want to combat road congestion.

        With “most people will take whichever transport option is fastest,” I could theoretically use a private helicopter to fly across town, to and from uni, however I don’t as it is far too expensive and I don’t have a Pilot’s license 😛 People do consider the price of each option and they compare it to what they value the most. For example, if public transport saves me $5 per day and it requires me to walk 20 minutes, wait 15 minutes for a transfer and to get soaked while I’m walking to the train, is the cost saving worth it? For some it is. For some, it isn’t. When I was in high school last year, I had two options 1) walk 15 mins, catch a train, wait 20 minutes for school bus then catch school bus or 2) drive to school, drop parents off in town and be able to wake up 30 mins later. Obviously, I chose option 2 as it saved time (I value the extra 30 mins of sleep) and it worked out to be slightly cheaper as my parents didn’t have to pay for monthly train passes.

        If we built more roads, there would be induced demand for the following three reasons 1) people may start driving, instead of using transit or active modes, 2) those who travel earlier, or later may decide to travel at a more convenient time 3) drivers may start using the new or upgraded route instead of other routes. All in all, it *won’t* fix traffic congestion during the ‘peaky-est times’, but it may reduce congestion at the shoulder times, therefore reducing the time that traffic is congested, and making traffic more peaky i.e. it is severely congested for 1.5hr per day rather than 3. This assumes that there is minimal population growth.

        With congestion, there are three kinds of congestion, traffic, people and transit. With traffic congestion road speeds fall. With transit “congestion”, the services become more crowded. Both aren’t good. The only congestion that is good is people congestion as it is good for business and for a variety of other reasons.

        1. “drive to school, drop parents off in town” – that was a very intelligent decision, mostly because what you did was very efficient using many different measures. Getting three people into a car is actually quite efficient compared to a bus that is not full,

          The big problem is not really cars per se, it is that the vast majority of cars have only one person in them. A full or nearly full car can be quite efficient – both energy wise and space wise. If every second single occupancy vehicle in Auckland (excepting commercial vehicles that actually have an economic value) tomorrow was replaced by a car with two people, we wouldn’t have a congestion problem – simple as that.

          However, the law of induced demand would say that actually then the next day, most of those people would suddenly think “wow look at all that empty road” and start driving alone again. This is what happens when we add more capacity to the road and it is a well accepted phenomenon of traffic engineering.

  8. Imagine if the Council bought up all the cinemas in Auckland and declared them to be free to anyone anytime. It would be great if you wanted to see an un-popular movie or even a popular movie at an unpopular time. (It would cost you nothing but the community would pay for your activity.) But if you wanted to see a blockbuster on a Saturday night you would spend more time standing in a queue than watching a movie. This is what we have done with roads. So long as they are free they will be clogged up with trips made by people who dont value their own time mixed up with those who do.

    1. Nice analogy, and exactly why time variable road pricing and PT fares are the great unused tools just waiting to be employed.

      Why not start with PT? Halve off-peak fares with new fare integration, likely that both expensive to serve peak demand will soften and low cost to provide off peak ridership rise. Likely to be at worst revenue neutral, may even be positive for opex….?

      1. The main reason we never get traction for road pricing in NZ is the road lobby and their mates jump in as fast as a robber’s dog every time it is mentioned. So rather than being a mechanism to reduce demand to match capacity it becomes a means to fund their profits. The honest truth is road pricing favours the wealthy because they can afford to pay more money for the same gain in utility. So that needs to be addressed by channelling all money raised into public transport operations (not capital cost or you would get the same big project mentality). That would mean everyone gets to travel either more conveniently or cheaper than they currently do – a gain in utility to everyone. That is Pareto efficiency.

          1. I find it helpful to draw a distinction between *efficiency* and *equity* when thinking about the effects of policies. There is sometimes, although certainly not always, a trade-off between the two. (I have previously discussed how better transport choices can potentially improve efficiency and equity, e.g.: http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2015/01/22/we-need-more-choice-in-transport-markets/)

            In the case of congestion pricing, I would favour a “revenue-neutral” model in which the revenues collected were used to either:
            (a) provide transport choices to underserved or low-income communities to enable them to avoid paying the charge; or
            (b) simply refunding the money to people, either as a fixed sum for every resident or as a progressive reduction in income tax bands.

            Doing something along these lines would allow us to benefit from a more efficient allocation of road space while compensating people with less ability to pay.

        1. Road pricing doesn’t favour the wealthy apart from in the most obvious sense that they have more ability to pay. It depends how the surplus is redistributed. Giving people cash (in the form of welfare or tax /rates cuts) is more efficient than building them public transport alternatives at a subsidy that they may or may not value. This can be progressive.

          1. Simply pricing what has been a public good always favours the wealthy. An example is the Enclosure Acts in Britain where large areas of common grazing areas where enclosed and privatised. The wealthy built large estates and the poor went without. At a micro-economic level every dollar is not equal. $10 to a poor person gets them more utility than an additional $10 to a wealthy person. Money is a normal good so it has a diminishing marginal utility like all other normal goods. So the trick is to crate a system that compensates or allows for a substitution for people who are priced out. My preference is just spend all the money raised from road pricing on operating costs of PT. The reason I say that is because PT has positive externalities so should be subsidised to get an efficient outcome. Traffic on roads has a negative external cost so charge a penalty or toll.

    2. I think we have a problem here. Some person with really good, well balanced ideas has hijacked mfwic’s account!

      Good on you mate. I knew there was a sensible person hiding behind the troll struggling to get out! 🙂

  9. The purpose of Auckland Transport must be: to transport Aucklanders. Nothing more, nothing less.

    This mission means moving as many Aucklanders in the most efficient and most convenient ways possible. To think otherwise is to insult the value of the hundreds of thousands of people who must move every day. As soon as the focus moves from people to vehicles, you are not maximising the movement of people. You are slowing the movement of people compared to the optimum.

    His comments do however explain why Auckland Transport has been so negligent in building the Northwestern Busway and has failed to add bus lanes where they are needed.

    1. NZTA should be building the NW busway and the Nothern Busway extension, but also think that the T in their name has nothing to do with transporting people.

  10. So the answer to the stated objective of AT is market-clearing pricing of transport, as pointed out by the author of this post.

    When will they start working towards the obvious?

    1. I don’t think that we could use this as the single outcome measure, for three reasons.

      First, focusing on travel time alone ignores externalities associated with travel behaviours. For example, we could speed up travel times by eliminating speed limits on arterial roads and residential streets. But we’d end up with worse outcomes for road crashes.

      Second, people don’t value travel time equally, either in the aggregate or between modes. For example, I don’t mind spending 5 minutes longer on the bus as it lets me read books or respond to emails. But the delay would drive other people up the wall.

      Third, we need to consider the cost of the system to government and private users. In theory, we could speed up everyone’s travel times by paying to chauffeur 10% of the population around in personal helicopters. But this is not affordable, and thus we don’t even consider it.

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