Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in October 2012.

A previous post by Patrick highlighted his concerns about the phrase “multi-modal”, something that I want to explore further. Patrick’s general argument is that we “talk the good talk” about multi-modalism (is that even a word?) but in reality what we have built over and over again is “mono-modalism”.

So I guess the question I want to ask the government is how sincere are they really about Multi-Modality? I agree a truly multi modal Auckland would be a great improvement but successive governments have deviated very little from a highway dominant policy and the current one has greatly accelerated it, and therefore increased our Mono-Modality. The Government Policy Statement makes it very hard to get funding from NZTA for any mode at all other than state highways, in fact it seems designed to enable motorways to get funding no matter how poor their cost benefit analyses. So under this government the share of Land Transport funding going to anything other than state highways has shrunk. And now they are planning to make it even more difficult for the local authority to make its own investments that may differ from this bias.

I’m going to stick my neck out a bit further and say that while I’m a big supporter of the idea of a multi-modal system, I’m not really much of a fan of “multi-modal projects”. They just seem to turn into ways of justifying a lot of spending on roads now, with perhaps a little bit for public transport in the very distant future.

A classic example of this is the “Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing” project. By far the most expensive project proposed for Auckland in the next 30 years (estimated cost is north of $5 billion!), it is another harbour tunnel which doesn’t add any capacity to the roading system anywhere except between the Esmonde Road interchange and spaghetti junction. Because of this, we’re basically spending $5 billion to make it easier for people to drive into the city centre – even though pretty much every other part of Auckland’s policies and strategies scream out that we want to reduce the car focus of the very same area.

Perhaps to appease those screaming out “why on earth would you want to do something so stupid?” the Auckland Plan says that there’ll be a rail line in the tunnel – the first step towards extending rail to the North Shore. Or at the very least the tunnel will be “future proofed” for rail so that it can be built at some point in the future. Here’s a lovely map showing how the two tunnels could happily co-exist:

Of course what’s not discussed here is the impact of the new road crossing on your likely demand for public transport. Considering that around 35% of people coming over the harbour bridge in the peak times at the moment are on the bus plus most of those people will be going to destinations in the city centre, around the universities or to Newmarket, public transport must have a really excellent modeshare for “North Shore to central city” trips – I would suspect well above 50% once you count the ferries.

One of the reasons this modeshare is so high is because the alternative isn’t too flash – a slow, unreliable and congested trip in along the Northern Motorway (and its many clogged feeder roads). Go and provide a heap more lanes of roading capacity at a vast cost and you’re just about guaranteed to kill off public transport demand (at least until your expensive new road gets clogged again). This means you can’t justify the rail tunnel and therefore you’ve just ended up reinforcing your city’s car dependency.

And in a nutshell this is the problem with multi-modal projects. Because they’re looking at upgrading both the road and the public transport at the same time, they’re actually two bits of a project working against each other. The public transport project would undoubtedly generate more patronage growth if the road running in parallel to it wasn’t also being widening/duplicated/upgraded to motorway status. Similarly (though interestingly not as convincingly), the economics of the roading project would probably stack up better if everyone was forced to use it and it wasn’t having its usage undermined by a parallel PT project.

This is where multi-modal projects really miss the point of public transport investment. One of the biggest reasons to spend money on a public transport project is so you don’t need to spend vastly more on a roading project. The Northern Busway is a great example of this as it’s vastly increasing the capacity of the Northern Motorway and delayed (or completely removed) the requirement for another road-based harbour crossing. Upgrading the rail network has done the same – every passenger coming up that southern line is delaying or removing the requirement to widen the southern motorway. With multi-modal projects it seems like we identify the project that’s required to ensure we don’t need that other project, but go ahead and build both anyway.

At the end of the day, I suppose multi-modal is nice for politicians because “there’s a bit in there everyone will support”. Those who want more roads are happy, the PT crowd are happy, there might be a cycleway to keep those advocates happy – everyone wins. Except the person paying the bill who has gone and wasted a huge amount of cash on a road that’s probably not needed if the other parts of the project are done.

What Auckland needs is a proper multi-modal transport system, not a whole pile of extremely expensive “multi-modal projects” that just reinforce our car dependency. We’ve got the roading side of the system pretty much finished already.

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  1. So true and AMETI is somewhat like this, particularly with the Reeves Rd flyover added into the project. That addition sucked funding from other areas and also slowed the whole project down & will add to the disruption at building time. On the positive it will allow the first stage of the busway to prove itself while the flyover is built.

  2. My description for like minded people is multi modal movement masters. Multi modalism itself to me means bikes, walking, scooting, skating, hoverboarding, busing, training and traming, without entirely excluding the use of a private motor vehicle. This is how multi modal projects need to be planned, as you say, with the emphasis on non car modes, and not encouraging more driving. Really transformational multi modal projects are like the third and fourth mains, extended the cycleway for Avondale along the rail line, building light rail sooner. All projects that offer viable alternatives to a private car. Hopefully their will be some candidates in the upcoming elections that can push such an agenda.

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