“They’re trying to force us out of our cars and on to buses and bikes”, “why are we spending money on cycleways when no-one uses them”. These statements and many more like them are a near weekly occurrence from some of our politicians, media commentators and general public.
With plans like ATAP focusing most of the money over the coming decade on public transport, walking and cycling, is it really about planners trying to force some kind of utopian future on Auckland or is it simply the most logical outcome based on the evidence available?
Of course, it’s easy for those that don’t like the plans to say something but one thing we rarely see these opponents say what they think the alternative is for addressing the issues Auckland faces. One of the problems they have is that by any kind of rational analysis, there simply isn’t any alternative. Here are a few key areas to think about.
Auckland has long been New Zealand’s largest and also its fastest growing city. It is expected to keep growing strongly well into the future. Stats NZ estimate that Auckland is currently around 1.7 million people and that by 2043 we could reach up to 2.6 million people, 50% more than we have now (2.3m is the current medium projection). While there are various factors that could affect when we reach that projected growth, we will reach it at eventually and so it’s a question of when not if. That means we’re going to have more people needing to get around.
Our harbours, maunga, and ranges help to set Auckland apart from other cities but they also create some significant restrictions on how Auckland grows and even more so on our ability to provide transport. As such:
- Auckland has spread out along a few corridors resulting in an urban area that extends over 60km in length between Orewa and Papakura. If Auckland was instead on a river plan, like Hamilton or Christchurch, and spread out evenly in all directions it the edge of the city would only be about 13km from the centre or 26km from edge to edge. This means that many people already have very long commutes to reach employment opportunities and this is only more so for people living in any new greenfield housing on the urban fringes.
- Movement across the city gets funnelled into a handful of pinch points, for example there are only 14 road crossings between the North, East, West and South into the central isthmus and most of those are local roads. If there’s one mode of transport that doesn’t scale well, it’s trying to push a lot of cars through a few narrow areas. Coincidentally, public transport is perfectly suited to moving a lot of people through narrow corridors.
Limited roading opportunities
“If we look to the future, it’s just not possible to keep adding lanes to the motorway. It becomes more and more expensive for less and less gain”
That may sound like something we would say, or perhaps Phil Tywford or Julie Anne Genter but in fact that quote comes from Simon Bridges when he was Minister of Transport and was from the launch of the first ATAP back in 2016 – the video of this is still available on that post. The ATAP work, over a number of iterations, has been quite instrumental in trying to answer the question posed in this post. The fact it managed to achieve some good outcomes, such as a significant focus on improving public transport and looking to introduce road pricing, despite the initial versions focusing on some of the wrong questions is indicative of just how few alternatives we haves.
Coming back to the quote from Bridges, the reality is our major transport corridors are now, or in the process of being built out. To further widen motorways or local roads to handle more vehicles would require the purchasing and demolition of large swathes of housing commercial buildings. Not only is that increasingly expensive, time and time again Auckland communities have shown they don’t want this outcome. Basically, cutting up one community so another community living further out has a slightly easier drive will not fly anymore. This means the only alternative to significantly increase road capacity is to do so with tunnels but tunnels are extremely expensive both to build and to run and so we simply can’t afford to build them, let alone try and justify them.
If we can’t build more roads then to cope with travel demand growth it means we need to get better use out of the existing network we have. Ways to do that include:
- Increasing the capacity of the existing roads by encouraging more efficient and higher capacity modes of transport.
- Managing demand through tools like road pricing.
This is effectively the strategy that ATAP took.
More efficient modes
Cars are great for many things but not when a lot of drivers are all trying to go to the same place at the same time. Almost every other mode is able to move more people in one same amount of space.
We know, even from local experience, that when we provide good quality walk, bike and public transport infrastructure, it encourages people to use it. For example,
- Every time we build a new bike connection, usage of existing cycle lanes grow, the network effect in action.
- The growth in bus use has been strongest on routes where bus priority is provided. Bus priority has the added benefit of making bus operations more efficient.
The limited roading opportunities mentioned above doesn’t just apply to the region in a general sense but also impacts our ability to deliver certain solutions to increase capacity. In particular, some of our key bus corridors in the city like Symonds St and Fanshawe St are already at or exceeding how many buses can reliably use them.
— Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) January 20, 2019
One these corridors we can’t just keep throwing more buses at the problem. Instead, we need to look for ways to further increase capacity and that’s why light rail is being looked at.
The need to reduce emissions
Road transport is Auckland’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 35.7% of all emissions for the region. We urgently need to reduce these and having more people walking, cycling/scootering and using public transport is one of the fastest ways we can do that.
Of course buses in their current diesel form aren’t ideal but buses we would be able to transition our bus fleet to be electric much faster than we can our car fleet.
Health and Safety
Far too many people die or are injured on our roads and we need to make them safer. Concerns about safety is one of the key things that puts people off riding a bike. One of the key reasons for building proper bike infrastructure is that it makes cycling safe which encourages more people to do it. Of course, cycling also has significant health benefits to individuals and long term for society. The question those that oppose cycleways need to answer is “why wouldn’t we want more people cycling”.
So if Auckland is going to continue to grow and we can’t build new or bigger roads, what’s the alternative if we don’t want Auckland grinding to a halt?
I think one of the most important things we (as a city/country) have done for transport in Auckland in recent years is try to answer that question. If politicians, media commentators or the general public don’t like the outcome, by all means, show us your alternative and show us the evidence to say it will work. And lastly, please show us how you’ll pay for it.