The discussion of congestion/road pricing in Auckland has been rolling around for a while. It’s had some level of political support from the two main political parties and Mayor Phil Goff included an eventual implementation as part of his transport policy. At a technical level, it saw strong support the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) with the report recommending:
Early establishment of a dedicated project to progress smarter transport pricing, with a view to implementation within the next 10 years
Back in June last year the former National government and the council signed the terms of reference for the project. One of the clear goals of the project is about using pricing as a demand management tool rather than a revenue raising tool. This doesn’t mean it won’t raise revenue but that’s not the primary purpose and the and the terms of reference even require that using it to replace existing road taxes in Auckland.
Now the first of three planned reports has been released. It appears this was actually finished in November last year but is only being released now it’s being presented to the Council’s Planning Committee next week. Surprising to no-one, it confirms that Auckland is congested and is likely to be more so in the future as the city continues to grow.
For the most part, much of this first report is just an update of some of the work done as part of ATAP. For example, some updated numbers and modelling on the impact of congestion. One of the more interesting graphs is this showing the the proportion of arterial roads subject to congested conditions. One of the things you can see is that the numbers have plateaued recently, something they attribute to the opening of Waterview. They also say they think the trend will resume again as demand continues to grow.
From my read through of the document, and discussion with some of the project team, I can’t help but wonder if they’re taking the wrong approach in some areas. Here are a few examples.
Much like with ATAP, this first report is only really about setting the scene. One of the first things to note is that the project, or at least the report, has been renamed. It was previously known as “Smarter Transport Pricing” but has been renamed to “The Congestion Question“. Within the document, it often refers to everything as Congestion Pricing. I think this, and the overall name is an odd choice given that the ultimate goal is meant to be about demand management. Given how much of a hot topic taxes tend to be, it feels like they’re unnecessarily setting themselves up for bad press on the word pricing rather than what it’s meant to achieve. I also worry it might set up a false expectation that as a result of pricing, roads will be completely free flowing all the time, which is unlikely to be the case.
I get the feeling that the team are focusing on some of the wrong metrics. For example, the footnote the graph above states “Congestion is defined here as average travel speeds of less than 50 percent of the posted speed“. The next graph also focuses on speed.
It’s natural to want to travel as fast as the signs say you are allowed to, but that doesn’t mean we should be designing our transport system to enable that 24/7. To do so would be both hugely expensive and destructive. Instead the focus should be on throughput and travel time reliability. In other words, you may still travel slower than off-peak but it’s not going to be 40 minutes one day and 1.5 hours the next.
Along with some of the updated numbers, the other key, and new part of this report is a number of case studies from other cities around the world. The main report features ones from Stockholm and Gothenburg, Singapore and London but a more detailed report from consultants also released details a number of others. They also say why they think Auckland is different to those cities.
Why is Auckland different?
No ‘New World’ city with dispersed trip patterns and relatively low density of housing has yet introduced congestion pricing. The widespread nature of Auckland’s congestion means that schemes that have worked well elsewhere may not be as effective in improving congestion across Auckland.
Auckland’s geography, urban form, trip patterns, and governance require bespoke policies, public involvement, design and delivery that build incrementally to address the most widely acknowledged challenges.
One of the major differences between Auckland and cities that currently have some form of road pricing is the availability and use of alternatives. As such, I think one of those issues that will need to be investigated is at what point we have sufficient alternatives, and capacity to driving for most people. Let’s say we were to introduce road pricing right now and if it caused a 20% increase in PT demand, the system simply wouldn’t be able to cope. I think getting most of the strategic level rapid transport network in place should be one of those requirements.
ATAP did look at various pricing options and recommended a whole network based solution but this study is intended to go back and look at all options again. At a high level there four options but a final solution may include a combination of them.
The next stage of the project will create a list of potential options for the Auckland context and then narrow them down. This phase is expected to be complete in August. The 3rd phase is intended on narrowing that list down further to one recommended option. There’ no date on when that will be delivered yet, but I’m told it’s likely in some time in 2019. Given how hard it’s likely to be to get public support, despite already some political support, I hope by then they’re able to present a compelling narrative. Getting the communications right on this might be half the battle.