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…