What is in New Zealand’s Future?

Earlier this year I was asked by Penguin Random to contribute to a book speculating about New Zealand’s future, and now it’s out:

This is part three of my chapter, here are parts one, and two.


Patrick Reynolds

Revolution through evolution

‘Most people,’ said Bill Gates, ‘overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.’ This is absolutely true of cities, too.

Just because most change is incremental doesn’t mean for a moment that change ain’t a-comin’. Rather, I argue that we are in the midst of change as significant as that of the immediate postwar era; we are at one of those big hinge moments. Outside of natural disasters and wars (and the extraordinary recent Chinese urban explosion), even profound change is mostly incremental; over one year little appears to happen, but over ten, many gradual changes can add up to a lot.

Looking at the approved and funded transport infrastructure programme for Auckland, we can see how the city is currently in a phase of both accelerating growth and, even more interestingly, morphological change: it is plainly obvious that we will have an entirely transformed city by as early as the end of the 2020s. The completion of the City Rail Link will suddenly make Auckland something it has never been: a metro city. It will radically transform access to the biggest and fastest-growing concentration of jobs in the entire country (i.e. the city centre), especially for the people living in the west and south who most need this opportunity. People all along the Western Line will effectively be moved 20 minutes closer to the city centre, congestion-free. Truly transformational.

Along with light rail in Queen Street stretching up the length of Dominion Road and through Mangere, the combined capacity of these two systems will more than satisfy all the current and future growth in trip demand throughout the areas they reach. There’s also the coming North Western Rapid Transit system, likely to be light rail too, and the Eastern Busway, which speeds Pakuranga, Howick, and Botany people to the Panmure train station to join the improved rail network. Elsewhere on the rail system a dedicated shuttle from Manukau City via Puhinui Station will speed rail users directly to the airport, and the line south is being electrified at least to Pukekohe. Over the Harbour Bridge the Northern Busway is being extended with new stations and more right of way. Later in the 2020s work will have to begin on changing this system into a higher-capacity rail system with its own dedicated harbour crossing, just to cope with the sheer numbers using it. This, too, will most likely be modern light rail too, connecting to existing system at Wynyard Point and offering a direct trip from deep up the North Shore all the way to the airport.

Tunnels being built out from under to Old CPO building for the CRL. Next year this space will be a stunning new public square and restored train station entrance, completely free of traffic.

With these two separate but converging rail systems of similar capacities, and associated bus, ferry, and bike networks, Auckland will soon have a completely different shape, tone, and attractiveness. It will evolve from a city where car use is mandatory to one where the alternatives for so many more journeys are so good that driving becomes optional for more people at more times.

The freedom this extends to so many more people, and the opportunities for improved place quality all over the wider city, cannot be overstated. Really this is revolutionary, particularly compared to the late 2000s at the start of the SuperCity, or even more startlingly different from the mid-1990s, when we had no rapid transit, no Britomart, no busway, our lowest ever public transport use, and a vapid and near-moribund city with a weak centre.


Will this future be all autonomous flying cars and other futuristic machines? Or just more of the same vehicles, only fancier? Technology changes are always a significant influence on transport patterns and urban form, but separating which ones are likely, imminent, and transformative from those that are merely a smokescreen of evaporating wishes is not easy — especially as there is a veritable industry of techno-boosterism creating a kind of highly seductive distraction from more likely futures. Why think about currently available solutions for real problems when we can just wish them away with techno-fantasy?

To properly identify which new technologies will likely stick we need also look at trend-defining pressures from outside of the technology world: demographic, economic, and environmental dynamics that are likely to fit with some new or renewed technology to make it irresistible. True change occurs through a triangulation of present conditions, new pressures, and new opportunities. New technologies do need actual problems to address in order to stick.

A good current example of this is the 1) employment and living boom in city centres, plus 2) the need for environmentally positive, healthy, and spatially efficient movement systems, meeting 3) the rise of new compact battery technology; creating the e-bike boom. This cycling revival (which of course comprises both new and old technology) then drives political demand for safe-cycling infrastructure, changing city streetscapes the world over. Conversely, an example of a perfectly good technology that didn’t take because it addressed a non-existent problem is the Segway.

Powerful political alignment: Mayor Goff, Ministers Twyford and Shaw, announcing SkyPath funding August 2018

So it is important that discussions around new technology move beyond new hardware, such as new cars, because often these aren’t a technology revolution, merely an evolution of the last phase. I find talk of driverless cars ‘solving congestion’ to be absurd: other cars cannot be the solution to the problem of too many cars. There are plenty of ways that driverless cars could make congestion far worse. For example, we currently are mostly alone in our cars, with average occupancy at around 1.1 people per vehicle; true free-range bot-cars could lower this ratio to below one! Empty zombie cars nipping about to pick us up, or being sent on errands. Net result: clogged streets and kerbside pick-up and drop-off car battles.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course; it is more likely, in my view, that the current trend of removing cars — driverless or otherwise — from busy centres will continue, especially as we add efficient transit options and safe cycleways to serve them. The proven economic, environmental, and social advantages of walkable dense centres is too valuable to waste on traffic now. So I expect the most effective new technologies to be ones that support this trend.5

Rather than all of us using driverless cars to access busy city centres, we are much more likely to use them to solve what’s known as the first mile/last mile problem: to connect to the new rapid transit stations and expand the reach of that new network. This will swish us over longer distances to or between centres and cities. We will do this because it will be cheaper and faster than each of us being in our separate little box, stuck in congestion of our making.

There have been driverless train systems in cities across the world for many decades, and this technology is next likely to spread to buses, as the driver is about half the cost of operating a bus, so the technology cost can be recovered. (Also, any vehicle operating on a fixed route will be easier to make work with this technology.) So driverless tech is likely to make existing transit services better and more cost-effective.

But technology also offers something other than just new vehicles.

The old regime of universal auto-priority, regardless of context, is at last beginning to be repealed (not here just yet, clearly).

The great city hack

A real technology revolution, a real disruption to the problems our current set-up creates, would really help us leave our cars behind, or at least leave them at home more often. And there is a clear model for what that looks like. It’s called MaaS: mobility as a service.

This is the move from each of us owning our own movement device, usually a car, to us using a variety of movement systems that we mostly don’t own. This may still be mostly cars, but it seems much more likely that once we start to gain the benefits from this model we will slide happily between different modes, leaving driving and congestion behind more often.

The ultimate benefit for many will be not having to own a car at all, or at least households being able to function well with fewer cars. The city that runs on private cars is shockingly expensive and inefficient. Our cars are, on average, parked 96 per cent of their lives. The nation spends about $5 billion in taxes and rates every year on land transport infrastructure, mostly roads, and we, the users, then spend another three times this, around $15 billion a year, buying, insuring, repairing, and fuelling them. Additionally, a dizzying amount of land is lost to more productive use by being reserved to store them several times over; where we work, shop, play, and live.

Unlocking even some of this cost by building viable transport alternatives and processes is urgent, not only because the drive-only city is unsustainable and failing through congestion and sprawl, but also because it will save everyone time and money. Replacing the annual $7 billion-plus we spend on imported liquid fuels for cars with home-grown electricity offers a huge economic benefit to us individually and collectively. The power companies are extremely keen to supply more electrons for transport use, and we have plenty of potential capacity to generate all we need for this.

The cost of transport lands disproportionately on the poor. Transport poverty is the flipside of the housing unaffordability coin. It is cripplingly expensive to have to live with no money; the only available housing in Auckland is now at the fringes of the city (now that inner-city value has been rediscovered)6. The lack of good transit alternatives usually means every member of the household needs a car, and the lack of capital means that money for these cars is typically borrowed, often at usurious rates. Cars are, of course, depreciating assets. People are often only one crash or breakdown away from transport system–induced immobility, unemployment, and further poverty. And all along the way being forced to make horrible choices — like sacrificing food money for gas, or giving up their homes entirely and living in their cars. So auto-dependent cities are inequitable cities. Being able to choose to use a car when it suits is a great freedom, but a greater freedom is the ability to choose to not have to drive at all times and for every journey.

The world over, the great city problem is the misalignment of economic costs and benefits. This is especially the case with transport. For example, whenever we drive a car in a city we impose huge burdens on every other citizen: we foul the air they breathe, we hog the public realm we call streets, we delay them in their attempts to get places, or the goods they need, or even that ambulance that their very existence depends on; sometimes we even maim or kill them.

Conversely, everyone who chooses to jump on a train or a bike instead frees up those same streets for others, improves their own well-being so they will be less likely to be a burden on public health services, refrains from consuming fossil fuels that are cooking the whole biosphere, and, especially the bike users, is much happier.7

But the challenge is that these costs and benefits are not there directly in financial form for each citizen, helping to guide their choices. We do of course collect rates and taxes and use some of that money to fund the positive things — building bike lanes, or subsidising transit — and to mitigate the bad outcomes, but this is very imprecise, and at a remove from the choices we make.

Imagine if there were a way we could reward that transit user or bike rider precisely in proportion to the wider value they offer, and charge the car user accurately for their burdens on others? Not in a punitive way; simply accurately. The value creators earning credits, the consumers spending them. This would be sure to change behaviours.

To me this is the city hack that will best fit the coming new transit and cycling infrastructure. After all, we only need a relatively small mode shift from driving to the alternatives to largely de-stress and humanise our streets and our habits. Even a 10 per cent shift from current levels would make a profound reduction in traffic delay and take a big bite out of our proposed road-widening/extending expenditure. And, properly done, this gamification of urban travel choices is likely to shift more than that. Every cost-conscious user — every kid, teen, student, elderly person, for starters — will be highly incentivised to shift and earn credits.

And everyone who chooses or needs to still drive will have the true cost of that to pass on or balance with other positive choices; tradies and delivery companies will have quicker journeys to trade off against the charge. This, of course, needs to come with the massive upgrade of the quality, quantity and spread of the alternatives, or it will lead to unfair outcomes for lower-income households. System design is critical here. And so is data privacy. But new technology does offer the hope for solutions along these lines.

To really be equitable and effective, the system needs to know exactly how everyone is using the city and when. This already happens to an alarming degree for those with smart phones, but in a problematic way. That data is extremely valuable to some users, including unscrupulous ones, as we have seen recently. The tech challenge is to be able to collect this data, but also to leave the control of it solely with the individual, not with private companies, or even transit agencies.

We know that these ideas around the social contract are being worked on, but how well and how soon they may become current and accepted is hard to say. We do know we need new movement options now if we are to shift away from the status quo. New technology to help us make better transport choices can work only if the options are there to be chosen. Happily, as we have seen, that will indeed soon be the case in Auckland. Can it also spread across urban New Zealand?

Beyond Auckland

Wellington, long New Zealand’s most urbane city, is waking up its urban soul again after a long period of trying hard to compete in the auto age. The city is intensifying again, and the pressure is on to wrestle back those streets for people, and to break the terminus of the train station by extending light rail past the hospital to the airport, while also adding a bike lane network. Wellington’s spectacularly restrictive topography has always given it an intensity beyond its size, so it is good to see the city embracing that pattern again rather than trying to ignore it.

Cycling is also Christchurch’s great opportunity. This once world-leading riding city could regain that status once more, and great work is being done there. But otherwise it is of course dealing with the earthquakes that devastated its centre, and the rebuild that reinforced a particularly extreme edge-city pattern: malls, sprawl, and driving. Until housing returns at scale to the centre, our second city will remain firmly suburban.

Fascinatingly, both Hamilton and Tauranga suddenly face very interesting opportunities as a result of the Auckland spillover. People escaping the overheated Auckland property market have added all sorts of growth pressures to these two cities, and this is stimulating a rethink.

Tauranga is more constrained by its setting than its current development pattern belies, and would benefit enormously from adding to its extensive, and traffic-inducing, motorways with a simple but efficient and effective rapid transit network — in particular by exploiting the natural spine of Cameron Road across to The Mount one way and Papamoa the other. This would enable new patterns for growth on a less resource- and capital-hungry model.

The change that’s most exciting for Hamilton has even more to do with its big sister up State Highway 1. The coming return of intercity passenger trains between these two cities, and beyond into the Bay of Plenty, offers both a chance to help fix Hamilton’s long-struggling city centre, and to shape a better, more compact development pattern in satellite towns outside the cities. Hamilton’s centre desperately needs both a focus and a desirable way of accessing it without bringing more cars. A city centre rail station can be that point and the start of that change.

And instead of all the towns on the Hamilton–Auckland corridor just spreading in formless farm-eating sprawl, an effective rail service can enable a good satellite town–country lifestyle at an affordable price. Different members of these households could work and study in either city without having to suffer the unpredictable and soul-sapping highway commute each day and without the financial burden of buying more cars than is necessary. This simple revival, done properly, could be transformational for delivering desperately needed new housing and shaping better, more sustainable development.


Transport infrastructure is merely an enabler, a means to an end; however, especially in cities, it is also an incredibly powerful one. It can and does proscribe so much of our existence; shapes so much of our world, our possibilities, the quality and even the length of our lives. And we now stand at the beginning of a great shift that should enable a much more vibrant, productive, and sustainable urban realm, one that both supports, and more evenly spreads, increased prosperity and well-being.

Cities that are right-shaped for the demands of this century.

Relatively soon we will look back on our currently car-drenched and exhaust-filled streets as unthinkably backward and unbearable. This set-up, this invention of the second half of the twentieth century, the auto-dependent dispersed city, is in fact already dead; it just doesn’t know it yet.

Lightweight O by Catherine Griffiths


1 Paul Mees & Jago Dodson (2001). An American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland. Presented to NZ Geographical Society & Australian Institute of Geographers conference, University of Otago, Dunedin. 

2 David Owen (2009). Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability. New York: Riverhead (a Penguin imprint).

3 Mees & Dodson (2001).

4 Ibid.

5 Jeff Speck (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

6 Alan Ehrenhalt (2012). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York: Knopf.

7 Charles Montgomery (2013). Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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  1. Really good chapter. I’ll have to try and find that book.
    I think people generally fail to understand how grossly distorted and obscured roading economics are and how it prevents any viable alternatives to develop. So many years of enormous subsidies to roads has completely warped our society.

    1. Yes, the generally accepted wisdom that cars are self funding is all pervasive. If I tell a lot of people that cars are subsidised (and don’t even start on the trucking industry) they will just laugh at me. Pro-auto dependency propaganda over the last 60 years has done an amazing job.

  2. “Gamification of urban travel” to “reward that transit user or bike rider precisely in proportion to the wider value they offer, and charge the car user accurately for their burdens on others?”

    OK, I’m still catching up with gamification of travel after hearing just one talk on it… but I don’t get it, I’m afraid. Surely adjusting the economics with rewards and charges needs to happen more automatically and comprehensively than with tracking technology – if that’s what you’re meaning?

    No-one in my family has a smart phone … would we need an equivalent tracking device to be part of this gamification? How does my 4-year-old friend (luckily not hurt badly after being hit this week by a car reversing from a driveway) enter this world of rewards and charges? She won’t even tell kindy about the incident.

    Just curious… is gamification this year’s ‘driverless technology equivalent’ wonder solution… ?

      1. Well my Gold Card is an extreme form of cheaper off peak travel. But I agree with you – how about a $1 for all day travel at weekends and almost free for kids (had written free but can see trouble with unaccompanied children). The details I leave to experts but remember it has to compete with a parent and multiple kids using a car so it has to be cheap – still off peak in my local suburbs buses are over 90% empty so any extra usage is a gain.

  3. On the gamification angle you say it is necessary to track everyone all of the time to make things run efficiently. This disturbs me frankly. Instead of tracking everyone why not have a system of individual carbon credits – everyone has their carbon card/ like debit cards, that you swipe before any purchase – like a storecard – that you can chose to spend on air-imported orchids, fuel, more heating as you chose? You can sell off unused credits. In that way it is fair, those who do not use up all their ration can become richer (which means those less well-off or make planet friendly choices are rewarded) and you don’t need to get data on everyone’s movements. (Satellite technology can fill the gap in knowing which part of the road network is clogged// hop cards data collection can fill in the rest).

  4. As an Aucklander I can find problems that need to be addressed in the transport planning. The success depends on creating public transport that is more accessible and reliable.

    This chapter doesn’t address the fact that there is a growing population of people 65+years old and they are expected to live longer. Some of these people wont be able to walk or ride across the Sky Path and will find it difficult to walk to and from a train or bus stop. We can expect to see services such as ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and mobility transporters continuing to use the roads in greater numbers that at present.

    SkyPath is planned to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross the harbour but comes at a high price and I think that money would be better spent towards an under-harbour tunnel which would be of greater value to everyone. The bridge is not built to last forever and must have a use-by date I would think, so a tunnel should come first. A tunnel makes more sense long-term as it could be used by rail as well as vehicles.

    1. I recommend you look at the budget for transport and start campaigning about the big ticket items that will reduce the access for elderly people, not the small ticket items that you cannot see a benefit from. (In fact, in the Netherlands and other places with more advanced transport systems, people cycle well into their elderly years.)

      How many billions of dollars going towards road expansion projects? These projects will induce traffic, increase severance and make walking harder – these effects all work against the elderly, who need improved pedestrian amenity, lower traffic and lower severance.

      The key is in Patrick’s words: “It will evolve from a city where car use is mandatory to one where the alternatives for so many more journeys are so good that driving becomes optional for more people at more times.” This isn’t pie-in-the-sky. That is exactly what happened when car-dependent places changed their approach and put money into cycling, walking and public transport. Driving got better.

      So even if you can only see that elderly people are served by better driving amenity – an incorrect argument anyway – the truth is that elderly people who are driven will be better served if we invest in cycling, walking and public transport.

      I think I’ve explained this before – do you want to explain some particular reasons for why you don’t accept it?

    2. Ann, if you read the article it discussed ‘the last mile’ essentially autonomous car shaing to get people to/from stations etc…

      Moving people to other modes frees up roads for road users like yourself, nobody is suggesting tear all the roads up which you seem to live in fear of?

      A tunnel come first? In your post you open with the need of ‘creating public transport that is more accessible and reliable’ yet you wish to pull funding on that to build the most expensive infrastructure project in history so more people can drive from ONE area of Auckland. I’m sorry but your points are contradictory, as with most of your posts I read.

      So what exactly are you suggesting the problem for over 65’s is going to be?

    3. The price of the Skypath will maybe pay for lunches for the consultants on the tunnel you want.

      If you think it comes at a high price then frankly you are completely out of touch with how much is spent each year on making it easier and safer for you to drive.

      And still more people are dying in cars every year. If the answer to motorist safety was money, it should have been solved ages ago.

      A tunnel is a great idea as long as it is an electric train tunnel only – as that will be much cheaper and more effective. A car tunnel will only add to the traffic problems in the central city. Considering your concerns on expenditure, I assume you can only agree with that.

      And actually the bridge is supposed to have an almost limitless life – especially if heavy trucks were limited to the central lanes.

  5. Ann, using arguments for enhancing provisions for private motoring ahead of enhancing Public Transport, pedestrian mobility and cycling is abject nonsense. Most of us have to look forward to a time in our lives that we have lost the ability to drive. Also for most of us, this time will come ahead of our loss of ability to walk, and use public transport. And by using more active means of transportation in the meatime we will probably extend both our lives and our period of active life. The inevitability of such a time, and it’s likelyhood of occuring well before the loss of other mobility is a major factor in our choice of where to live. We could sell up here in Auckland, close to transport and facilities and get a nicer house in the outer suburbs or a provincial town and have a decent nest egg. We simply can not countenance though, of living in a place where it was inevitable that we would become totally dependant on somebody else driving us around to do anything.

    1. Apologies. The first line of my last post was meant to say was justifyng provision for private transport ahead of public transport, pedestrian mobility, and cycling because of the needs of the over 65’s is nonsense. Those of us in this age group need better pedestrian provision, and public transport provision well ahead of more facilities fo private cars.

      1. I’m quite certain Ann isn’t over 65, or called Ann..’she’ usually posts something on here to promote responses from others then isn’t seen again in the thread. We have a name for those types and they usually live under bridges and stop goats crossing them!

        1. I think you are partially right. She lives under, or nearly under, a bridge, the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and through selfish self interest neither wants the Skypath nor a second harbour bridge.

  6. A word about Wellingon “waking up its urban soul again after a long period of trying hard to compete in the auto age”. Unfortunately despite much talk and so-called “consultation”, the pressure on Wellington is still on to extend the motorway through the city, and to build the “Petone to Grenada Link”. Wellington’s future as a giant car-storage yard has been given a major boost by the Road of National Exorbitance which threatens to inundate it with traffic from the north.

    And regarding the need to “break the terminus of the train station by extending light rail past the hospital to the airport”, what Wellington really needs is a proper extension of its extensive regional metro system to connect this entire missing quarter of the region including the hospital, airport and much of the CBD. Currently it has an inadequate bus service and the promise of. . .yay. . . a motorway. Light rail, or at least the sort that necessitates an “all-change” for 10,000 pax per hour and then trundles along public streets will be inappropriate for this task.

    1. Dave, increasing transport capacity through Wellington, whatever mode is chosen is going to be both hideously expensive, and disruptive. But the longer delayed, the more the costs of persevering with the current arrangements will escalate. The costs of a new system are both the initial costs, and then the on going operational costs, including any upgrading to increase capacity, and eventual replacement of components. The indirect costs must include any inefficiency of transfers. It appears that heavy rail would score well for eventual capacity and elimination of most of the required transfers but be disadvantaged by the cost of the stations. I would be interested in your proposed heavy rail route and configuration. I know it would be a lot of work but perhaps a subject for a guest post here if a suitable Weĺington site not available.

  7. Patrick, this a fine piece of work reflecting a great optimism of what might be, complemented by some great photos. While it certainly encapsulates what may be achievable, “The freedom this extends to so many more people, and the opportunities for improved place quality all over the wider city, cannot be overstated. Really this is revolutionary.” there is a missing step in achieving the resolution. That, in my view, is to cause people to take advantageous of the opportunities that new transport solutions provide.

    For me an example is the Northern bus way. There is very significant capacity here that can be unlocked quickly by the purchase of more buses. Every day right next to the busway the Northern motorway, for significant periods of the day, is clogged. The challenge in ten years time will be the same as it is now, to move people to another mode, that is at least from Constellation to the city delivering a very good transport solution. I admit that you are closer to the situation, but AT seems almost bereft of ideas, or the will to promote significant change. That change is not to build a huge park and ride at Albany, which is in the face of falling boardings at that station clearly not the answer.

    You go on to say, ” I find talk of driverless cars ‘solving congestion’ to be absurd: other cars cannot be the solution to the problem of too many cars.” This is a point well made. and it also extends to everyone simply replacing their current car with an electric one. If that occurs then Auckland will face our transport bill almost doubling over the last ten years, as it has in the last ten. Such expenditure on roads prevents the Government doing more worthwhile things with this money. I know that you have written previously about the swap of fossil for electric on a one for one basis being unhelpful and so I imagine you still believe that to apply to the context of this sentence? “Replacing the annual $7 billion-plus we spend on imported liquid fuels for cars with home-grown electricity offers a huge economic benefit to us individually and collectively.”

    I share your vision and I suspect that I might even see a lesser car mode share. I am concerned when I read the Productivity Commission Lower Transport Emissions Report because it is almost dismissive of a move to public transport as a solution. Their starting position is a 30% ridership increase over the next 20 years; and their top end case is 90% over twenty years – nothing transformational there.

    The ATAP Report of 2017 where figures were included is 90% over 10 years with an acknowledgement that this level of growth would see congestion remain at current levels – again nothing transformational there. 9I did not see such commentary in the 2018 report).

    Ridership is currently only increasing at 4.6% annually. In terms of AT’s goals this is simply disgraceful – enough said!

    I have included a piece about the London congestion charge. It is instructive because it shows how Auckland city might be seduced by new transport solutions (Uber or driverless cars) that may fill the void created by the removal of personal cars.”

    “On the day the congestion charge was introduced in London, 300 extra buses were added to the Central London bus network to give people an alternative to driving and avert the anticipated mayhem. One year later, Livingstone reported that 29,000 more passengers had entered the charging zone by bus during the morning rush hour, compared to a year before. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of private cars coming into the zone fell by 39 per cent.

    Getting busy
    But while car numbers are down, the number of private for hire vehicles – your minicabs and Ubers – is up. Trips by taxi and private for hire vehicle as the main mode of the journey increased by 9.8 per cent between 2015 and 2016 alone – and 29.2 per cent since 2000. Today, more than 18,000 different private hire vehicles enter the congestion charging zone each day, with peaks on Friday and Saturday nights.

    This has reduced the speed of traffic through the city centre, which in turn has affected the bus network. City Hall investigated and concluded that traffic congestion was the primary reason why bus usage was down in London: the slower the speed along bus routes, the greater the fall in passenger numbers.

    Breakdown of revenue collected each year from the congestion charge, and the net income after costs accounted for. Image: author created from Transport for London Statements of Accounts and Annual reports for years 2003 to 2017.

    Taxis and minicabs are exempt from paying the congestion charge, presenting a further, financial challenge for TfL. While minicab registrations have soared from 49,854 in 2013 to 87,409 in 2017, the income from the congestion charge has flat-lined. Last year, TfL registered its first drop in congestion charge income since 2010.

    Stockholm solution
    Now, authorities are looking abroad for solutions. Inspired by cities such as Stockholm, the London Assembly (the city’s government scrutiny body) has recommended extending the congestion charging zone and replacing the daily flat rate with a charging structure which would reflect when and where drivers enter the zone and how much time they spend there. In Stockholm, the zone covers 35km², capturing two-thirds of the city’s residents in a scheme with varying charge levels depending on the time of the day – the maximum daily charge does not exceed 105 Swedish Krona (about £9.20).

    The London Assembly also recommended devolving the national vehicle exercise duty (an annual charge for private vehicle ownership, based how polluting the vehicle is) to the Mayor of London’s office. This would give city leaders another means to encourage sustainable travel.

    In his 2018 Transport Strategy, Sadiq Khan – London’s current mayor – aims to have four out of every five trips through the city made by public transport, cycling or walking by 2040 – up from two-thirds today. The congestion charge will be kept under review, but the strategy hints that it could be merged with the city’s Low Emission and Ultra Low Emission Zones (the latter is set to start in 2019), which offer cheaper rates for low-emission vehicles, to help tackle air pollution.

    Khan and TfL have a huge budget hole to fill, having lost their £700m a year operational grant from national government. Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze fares will cost £640m over his term, and at the same time passenger numbers and fare revenues are down £240m. A reformed congestion charge could not only ease traffic – it could provide a much-needed new revenue stream for TfL. The mayor also seems to be investigating ending the exemption for minicabs.

    The ConversationAfter 15 years of operation, London’s congestion charge can be celebrated as a success. It has set the bar for other cities – demonstrating that road pricing can only be successful as part of strategy that offers efficient, sustainable alternatives for car drivers. Looking ahead, the congestion charge needs reform to meet the financial and logistical challenge of providing a good transport system for Londoners.

    1. Such a lovely big comment, there’s a lot there, a few thoughts:

      The productivity commission is not a broadminded organisation, and on urban form has a fixed position that change is impossible, and no one wants it. Despite it already happening in front of their faces, in AKL. This is not evidenced based, simply a lazy assumption, backed up with some very generalised data. I have written to them but they’re a closed club it seems.

      Shore New Network has more capacity both ways, this will keep rising, and a Rapid Transit crossing, probably as outlined in the CFN (through-routing the coming LR lines up the busway) , will be the next big capex improvement to our city’s RTN, and in many ways the last (excepting upgrades and extensions to the existing and coming ones). This shows why we need to amortisize these capital costs over longer periods; these are once in a long lifetime builds. Post CRL, LR, and busways, a la CFN, AKL will have a region wide full core Rapid Transit Network.

      With new gov, how can you not be optimistic for AKL? Look at the development response to the CRL; I’ve been stunned with how fast and big that is. Spent so much time arguing this with thick-headed politicians at all levels…. I never doubted it would happen, but it’s true I also never expected this pace!

      Pricing is inevitable, and Regional Fuel Tax has eased its political path, in my view, as it means it can be introduced as a revenue neutral change, replacing it…. bring it on. In a politically astute staged way. It is politics as much as economics.

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