One of the items in Auckland’s wish list for funding as part of the COVID-19 stimulus package is a road network optimisation programme. Network optimisation is one of those often unsexy projects that is always going on behind the scenes without a lot of fanfare – no one is cutting the ribbon on a tweak to traffic light timings.
Getting the most out of our existing transport networks is critical as adding significant new infrastructure isn’t cheap, easy or fast. However, optimisation has historically had a poor impact on our urban environments by focusing on improving traffic capacity through intersections usually at the expense of pedestrians, bikes and public transport. For example it often led to things like free left turn slip lanes that are hazardous for pedestrians to cross, longer traffic phases that at lights along with beg buttons delay pedestrians, and multiple stage pedestrian crossings, like on Fanshawe St, that require pedestrians to wait at multiple crossings just to cross one road.
It hasn’t been uncommon for a vicious cycle to form where increasing traffic makes non-car modes less attractive and therefore fewer doing it, only for an engineer to come along and say “there’s not many people walking/cycling/busing here” and then making changes that further prioritise cars in the name of optimisation and making those alternatives even less attractive.
To be fair, Auckland Transport have improved a little bit, now at least taking into account public transport users better and that has been behind some of the improvements to bus lanes in recent years but walking and cycling often still suffer. A recent and high-profile example of optimisation in action has been the Whangaparaoa Dynamic Lanes which increased car capacity but has made walking and cycling more difficult, not to mention crossing the road to catch a bus becoming downright dangerous.
So it was interesting to see AT have published a high-level business case for network optimisation that was presumably approved at their last board meeting at the beginning of the month having been approved by the NZTA board in late February.
The business case calls for a $330-$400 million investment in network optimisation over a decade with about two thirds ($221-$268 million) of that coming from AT. This is an increase of $88 million on what is in the current 10-year plans. That’s similar to many motorway projects these days although this has a much better benefit cost ratio with benefits of $4.30 for every $1 invested.
The business case suggests there are three key problems the programme needs to address.
- Productivity – There is increasing and changing demand for our limited road space. Also noting “The result is a low level of service for many customers, a reduced ability to move people and goods effectively and processes that often still prioritise unsustainable car movements over other modes (which invariably add more cars into the system).” The include some examples of the productivity problems, the first one of which is particularly concerning.
- Agility – our transport agencies have “Poor direction and capability gaps on how to prioritise competing demands are resulting in an inefficient use of the network“. It notes they don’t take holistic views of the network so often just push problems elsewhere. It can also take three years to deliver even small projects
- Reliability – There are increasing number of situations, both planned (events, roadworks etc.) and unplanned (crashes, weather impacts etc.), that reduce capacity .
They also have four benefits they want to see from the programme, including the weighting of them from. These are:
- Increased throughput of people, goods and services (50%)
- Improved accessibility for active modes (20%)
- Improved responsiveness to customer needs. (10%)
- Improved journey time reliability (20%)
In coming up with a recommended option, they say ten scenarios were created in collaboration with key stakeholders – it is not clear who those stakeholders are. One of the problems though is that while the option they recommended is very much the best of options they developed, it is still very much a case of trying have their cake and eat it too, saying:
The recommended programme was a “Focus on Travel Choice” programme. Investment is directed to provide more travel choices and change travel behaviour to higher occupancy modes, while maintaining levels of service for freight and general traffic.
In other words, we want more people on buses and bikes but we don’t want to take away any space from cars to enable that.
Here are the specific outcomes they want to see from the recommended programme.
But taking a step back, just the long list options (below) they considered raises concerns. Many of these feel largely the same but what is most concerning is that they even entertained options, even in a long list, that excluded active modes. I get the point of testing extremes to help narrow down ideas but if that were the case then shouldn’t there have also been options that focused only on active modes and only on PT.
It’s also absurd that they haven’t even considered the impact of road pricing. If we’re trying to get the best out of our networks then surely that should at least be a test.
This programme business case does not consider road pricing or investment in underlying transport technology platforms.
The list above was reduced to a shortlist for further analysis. As well as the recommended option, the short list included the balanced medium and high options along with the Low Physical Interventions, High Operations” option. It is notable that the option that most prioritises PT and active modes comes out scoring the highest in all categories, including BCR (more detail of which is in the document). Also, those non-monetised benefits include things like safety, liveability and amenity benefits, or even that this could delay the need for bigger, more expensive infrastructure projects.
What projects actually that might get delivered out of this will have to wait for another, more detailed business case, which is costing an estimated $2.1 million to produce. However, there is a recommended scope of where that $330-400 million would be spent
While I do have some concerns with some aspects of this programme, the big risk with it is all of the good parts just gets ignored. We can just look back to the awesome 10-year cycling programme business case the AT board signed off in 2017 and the organisation then decided to completely ignore. There’s a good chance we’ll see staff cherry pick all the car optimisation projects out but ignore the stuff for walking, cycling or PT as someone else’s problem to deal with.
But perhaps a bigger issue is especially right now it highlights a key issue that we need to change within our transport planning industry. How much more could we achieve and save if we improved these business case processes? It appears this case itself was started about a year ago and completed in November but is only going to the AT board now and there’s a whole other business case to be done before it’s of any use. In situations like we’re in now our traditional and slow BAU processes more than ever are being shown up.