Do you sometimes wish you could just magic away the traffic?
Not all of it, perhaps, as if you’ve stepped into a car ad fantasy…
… but some of it – like it’s the summer holidays and most people are resting at home or away at the beach?
I do. With less traffic, everything works better:
- The bus network runs smoothly
- Walking and cycling is safer
- It’s quieter and the air is cleaner
- Traffic isn’t congested
Thankfully, in best practice planning, reducing traffic isn’t wishful thinking. It is core strategy.
This may sound odd, because we have a growing population, so surely we should be helping accommodate their movements? Yes. But not by adding more cars. Our current system doesn’t allow Aucklanders to get around easily or sustainably even with the population we have. Given how much road and parking space cars take up, it’s clear that throwing more cars into the mix won’t improve anything. Driving, buses, walking and cycling will all work better if we reduce traffic, whether our population stays the same or grows substantially.
Or maybe you have assumed this was already happening, given the talk about multi-modality and modeshift? In general, no. There’s still pressure to maintain traffic levels.
Mistakenly, focus has been on reducing congestion, instead of reducing traffic. But in trying to reduce congestion, traffic is often increased instead, with projects that induce traffic:
- Intersection “improvements”
- “Optimising” the network
- Motorway extensions and widening
- Widening roads, squeezing more traffic lanes in, and using “dynamic” lanes
Ultimately, this extra traffic increases congestion, too. But because the congestion created is at other bottlenecks in the system, rather than in the project location, it’s not attributed to the project.
Our transport planners are stuck trying to improve the bus network, make walking and cycling safer, and reduce air pollution, emissions and congestion, without being able to focus on what’s most effective: reducing traffic levels.
This is where reducing traffic works as both a tool and a goal, creating a positive feedback loop. Reduced traffic levels help achieve faster bus journeys and cleaner, quieter, safer streets. Faster bus journeys and cleaner, quieter, safer streets mean people have more options for how they travel, so many choose to get out of their cars and traffic levels are reduced.
From Streetfilms video about Ghent – see Reinventing Auckland using Lessons from Ghent
Travel demand management (TDM) is defined on wikipedia as:
The application of strategies and policies to reduce travel demand, or to redistribute this demand in space or in time.
In Europe, Civitas has recommended “reducing traffic” for years:
Demand management strategies lead to lower car traffic volumes… Lower car traffic volumes create more space for slow modes… Reduced car traffic means reduced congestion
Europe’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) often include targets for reduced vehicle km travelled and/or vehicle modeshare.
In contrast, New Zealand’s transport sector seems to have shied away from the concept of “reducing traffic”.
ATAP’s recommended strategic approach is:
Making better use of existing networks by improving throughput… maximising the benefits from new transport technology… tackling congestion through investing in strengthening strategic road and public transport networks…
NZTA’s travel demand management has been:
providing options… enabling better travel choices… minimising negative impacts… improving social, economic and environmental outcomes
Auckland Transport considers travel demand management to have three key components:
- Behaviour Change
- Network Management
- Capacity Creation
Lacking an overarching strategy to reduce traffic, “capacity creation” has been misunderstood to include “road building”. But road building induces traffic. With our awareness of traffic’s negative effects on climate, health, access and safety – and on congestion – we need to more clearly limit “capacity creation” to the sustainable modes.
Here’s an example of how a goal to “reduce traffic” would help in planning: To add a bus lane on a motorway, we could convert an existing traffic lane to a bus lane. This would increase the people flowrate, increase the transport options for people, and reduce traffic elsewhere through modeshift.
Instead, because our planners are attempting to maintain traffic volumes, they try to:
- use the motorway shoulders for buses, a method with resilience and safety downsides, or
- widen the paved area to add more lanes, which has huge cost and environmental downsides.
Neither approach has the advantage of reducing traffic.
There are many levers that can impact traffic levels. The right hand column of this table includes the tools we can use to reduce traffic.
And the economy has an effect on traffic levels, too.
Our projects currently sit in both the left and right columns. We waste money on projects that increase traffic (left hand column), and then spend more money to mitigate the problems created (right hand column). This reduces the value-for-money of our transport investment. Good planning would see us shift all our activities into the right hand column so they don’t undermine each other.
In Vision Zero, Meet VMT Reductions, Todd Litman points out the safety benefits of setting traffic reduction goals:
Many jurisdictions have vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction targets, intended to reduce congestion and pollution. They can also provide large but often overlooked traffic safety benefits…
all else being equal, increases in motor vehicle travel increase crashes, and vehicle travel reductions increase safety. In other words, the new traffic safety paradigm recognizes exposure, the amount that people drive, as a risk factor.
The large safety benefits of reducing traffic, added to the climate, health, access and value-for-money benefits, mean central government should require councils to set traffic reduction targets. In Auckland, we need to reduce our vehicle km travelled by at least 5% annually. To meet such targets, our authorities will need to steer away from projects which induce traffic, such as motorway widening or building carparks, and seek out those that will create traffic evaporation.
Traffic reduction targets would change every work programme:
Retrofitting our city for faster transit. Choosing where transit routes can ‘fit’ is both easier and cheaper if the analysis acknowledges it is a benefit – not a drawback – to reduce traffic by converting traffic lanes into transit lanes.
- Bus lanes are more effective and more easily enforced than T lanes. Currently T lanes are sometimes used – even in new designs where public pressure isn’t a factor – because they “increase productivity”, ie increase traffic!
- Expensive tunnelling or trenching are best used sparingly where we really want the urban design outcomes they provide, not as standard practice to add transit. Road reallocation makes basic retrofitting of the city much cheaper.
The Connected Communities Programme. AT will find more opportunities to prioritise buses and make walkable streetscapes with safe cycling, if they have traffic reduction targets to meet. These opportunities will be missed if maintaining traffic volumes is a goal.
The Road Network Optimisation Programme has theoretically shifted from a focus on increasing vehicle throughput to being multi-modal. But unless it starts focusing on reducing vehicle throughput, it will compromise outcomes for public and active transport.
Access for Everyone. A4E will civilise the city centre environment, reducing the high risks faced by people walking and cycling. Implementation should be immediate, but it is being held up by misconceptions about needing to increase the traffic capacity of surrounding roads, like The Strand. Cities using low-traffic neighbourhood programmes (like A4E) are not beefing up the roads around the neighbourhoods, because that is neither required (thanks to sufficient traffic evaporation), nor desired (because increasing road capacity wastes the opportunity to decrease traffic).
The city-wide effects are what is being neglected in the conventional modelling approach here. By implementing A4E, the many people who will switch from driving to other modes – because it’s safer and nicer to do so – will be walking or cycling in their own suburbs at the ‘home’ ends of their commutes, and won’t be adding to congestion all the way into town. The city centre also becomes more attractive to live in and live near, so more and more people move into the area. For these people, many trips through the suburbs into the city centre for work, fun, or shopping, etc disappear altogether or become short walking or cycling trips.
Through these mechanisms, A4E removes traffic from a wide swath of Auckland, so buses can be faster, and we can all be safer. The positive feedback loop continues.
UK Low Traffic Neighbourhoods suggest wherever surrounding main roads do receive more traffic from a neighbourhood plan, they are reconfigured as urban boulevards. A boulevard is already planned for The Strand as part of the City Centre Masterplan.
The earlier A4E can be implemented, the more data about traffic evaporation will be available when designing the details for this boulevard.
Delaying A4E until traffic capacity has been added amounts to insisting that unsafe conditions for walking and cycling in the city centre must be retained until driving amenity can be guaranteed to not drop. This is prioritising driving amenity over the basic human right of safety and is indefensible in a Vision Zero system.
Alternative Waitemata Harbour Crossing. More road capacity over the harbour creates more traffic. Clear traffic reduction targets will keep the focus on developing a better harbour crossing for our sustainable transport networks instead.
Walking, Cycling and Safety Programmes all benefit from lower traffic and have more opportunities for transformation if traffic reduction techniques are employed.
Land-Use Planning and Parking Strategy. Traffic reduction targets would give both of these a boost in the right direction.
What we need is a Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods Programme. It would apply the concepts used in Barcelona, Ghent, London, etc, to solve multiple challenges: congestion, safety, establishing a cycling network, and bus priority. As an example, if AT designed the area around Puhinui Rd as a Low-Traffic Neighbourhood, the airport buses wouldn’t be held up, the trees could be retained, and the cyclelanes they’re removing would be able to stay. Central to how it works, of course, is traffic reduction.
From Streetfilms video about Ghent – see Reinventing Auckland using Lessons from Ghent
Cities which are improving their public spaces, gaining pleasant footpaths, clean air, safe streets and efficient public transport, are achieving this through planning for traffic reductions, not by attempting to maintain traffic volumes.
We will make faster progress on building a better city when we finally realise traffic reduction needs to be an overarching goal, too.
It should be easy to sell the idea politically – who wouldn’t want less traffic?