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:

  1. Increased throughput of people, goods and services (50%)
  2. Improved accessibility for active modes (20%)
  3. Improved responsiveness to customer needs. (10%)
  4. 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.

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  1. Whangaparaoa Dynamic Lanes increased car capacity in the sense that it increased total human suffering 🙂

    Defining ‘optimisation’ this way is very short sighted and mechanical.

    1. I assume most people living within the Whangaparaoa peninsula who need to join the working day commute do not work on the Hibiscus Coast. But more and more live there, a huge distance from their working lives.

      Question is how do they get to their destination safely, efficiently and in this Covid climate, healthy?

      Living in far flung places such as this, I am seeing no alternatives to cars, sadly.

      1. Wear a mask and have hand sanitiser when using public transport, like people in Asian countries have done for years. Simple.

      2. Far-flung?

        If Whangaparaoa is part of Auckland Council’s reach, and the council is charging massive sums for public transport provision (nearly half of total rates), then they must be regarded as equivalent to any other part of Auckland and should have the same access to PT services as anywhere else. Otherwise a substantial rates reduction is called for.

        1. I think you might be getting confused between transport costs and public transport costs. Nowhere near half of someone’s rates bill goes to PT.

          Whangaparoa incidentally does get access to PT so I don’t think a rates reduction is called for.

  2. Is it odd that safety isn’t on the list of the top benefits sought? After all, this business case would have been in progress while AT was vigorously researching and adopting Vision Zero.

    Isn’t the most optimal road network one that doesn’t, y’know, kill or otherwise harm people?

    1. I imagine network optimisation is almost always the exact opposite of safety optimisation. If safety was the main priority if would be called a safety program.
      I do wonder how much ‘benefit’ they get from multi lane roads (like what they have done in Whangaparoa). Isn’t it the same as a supermarket creating two queues for the one checkout? Maybe it looks like you will get through faster but you wont. Meanwhile no one can cross the road or pull out of a side street so they will have to put in a whole lot of new traffic lights creating more delays. I see this on Hillsborough road; people turning right out of the many side streets pretty much just roll a dice and hope other people stop when they pull out into 4 lanes of traffic. There are a lot of crashes and I think they cause more congestion than the 4 lanes ease. It would be so much nicer being two lanes with a hard median in the middle including trees.

      1. Yes. Although AT say:

        “We want a transport system that prioritises safety, not a system that puts other measures ahead of human life. We will get you there safely, as efficiently as we can. This is a paradigm shift from thinking we will get you there quickly, as safely as we can.”

        … this hasn’t changed how they operate. Safety is the fluff they try to add on after they do what they know how to do.

        Trouble is, what they know how to do is creating the deficient system we have.

    1. Its not complicated but AT have this tension between doing what they want, doing what they can afford and doing whats politically acceptable. This rambling mess of a document is just them rationalising this conundrum.

  3. “ 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.” This was built because Penlink didn’t go ahead. Now which blog do we all know was and still is anti-Penlink….? :/

    1. This was built because AT ignored the effects it would have on active modes, even though it was pointed out to them.

      The right to safety is higher than the right to a quick commute.

      Road capacity between Whangaparaoa and the city does not need increasing. What is needed is safe local trips, including pedestrian crossings, footpaths and protected cycling, plus a superior public transport experience. Buses that are not held up by congestion and that are frequent. For Whangaparaoa, some of the required reduction in traffic can be achieved through providing the safety measures. Some of it will need to be achieved through pricing.

      1. Says someone who has no idea whatsoever what life is like on Whangaparaoa peninsula! Don’t you just love it when people that life in or around the city centre try to tell people living further out how it is… pretty much on par with “mansplaining”. Completely out of touch.

        1. Bike Auckland said of the Whangaparaoa dynamic lane project:

          “we believe AT is actively promoting an unsafe environment for cyclists”

          I believe the same can be said about the walking environment.

          If you promoted Penlink as bus and active modes only, there’d be some point to your argument. As it is, you’re simply prioritising low commuter travel times over basic human rights of living in a safe environment.

  4. 70% of pedestrian delay is appalling.
    They should first optimise the traffic lights phasing prioriting pedestrian
    Also put some short cut to connect fragmented cue de sec streets.
    Last make the walking experience better by improving placemaking and safety

  5. They have to put they ‘exclude active modes’ option in there. It’s the whole point of a long list. You put every stupid idea a punter on the street would come up with in there so that you have a document to say that you considered their idea and it was terrible.

    The bus tunnel in the City Centre Future Access study was another case of this. We get at least one new person on this blog suggesting the bus tunnel on every single LRT post. It is a terrible idea and anyone with knowledge of tunneling costs could see that. But the business case had to put include it to prove it won’t work.

    I understand why they didn’t have an option to build new cycleways everywhere as it is a network optiomisation businees case, and building things isn’t optimisation, it’s expansion. But I wonder whether they could have had an option ‘focus on reducing traffic volumes’ ir an option where they actually try to reduce vehicles, but still improvethroughput of people and goods.

  6. Some small good news for NW / Pink Path cyclists.

    I emailed AT in November last year about the cycle lane crossing of Union St between the Pink Path and Nelson St Cycleway. My request was simple, while the cars turn right from Union to Nelson why not stop the straight ahead phase, of which there is never more than 1 or 2 cars if any using (straight through traffic has a green phase immediately before this that any cars use), and add a 2nd cycle crossing phase over Union St? There are so many cyclists waiting just made good sense to me for safety as well as reducing wait – it would generally half the cross wait and half the time allow straight through both legs of the crossing on a single phase, rather than the forced min 2 phases with the motorway crossing as well.

    They picked up the case in December and started investigating. I received this email in March:

    “Thank you for your feedback regarding the light phasing issue on Nelson Street cycleway.

    Our engineers have investigated the issue and advised that they will change the phasing to accommodate your suggestion. This can take up to 8 weeks as the intersection software will need to be reprogrammed.”

    This was just before L3/L4 so a chance it is slightly delayed, but something to look forward to when things return to normal. I’d not thought previously that contacting AT for this sort of thing was even worth trying, but really encouraging to see they do sometimes look into the suggestions and have engineers open to assessing thoroughly.

    1. That is the best news I’ve seen in ages. A simple practical suggestion that has been implemented using the process that the appropriate governing body set up to allow suggestions.

      Too often we focus on things that don’t go how we would like.

      How many more suggestions can you think you that would make things better?

      1. Thanks, Nik, I felt exactly the same when I received the email update. It has motivated me to act when I think of good ideas.

        There is a very similar optimisation that could be done at the St Lukes Rd crossing on the NW cycleway, next request perhaps once the other one is done.

    2. Great idea! I often cycle through there wondering how we can improve things. Fingers crossed it gets done quickly.

      1. Thanks, Ari!

        Guessing programming the lights work is always done remotely, from a deak rather than in the field, so should have been possible even during L4 to create the routines from home at least? Any idea if they can fully test and deploy remotely too eg. during L3?

  7. It would be great if work began on this ASAP in the later stages of the lockdown. So some of the recently unemployed people can suddenly earn a wage and before the traffic returns.

  8. The volumes of traffic they’d be designing for would be far lower if instead they implemented low traffic neighbourhoods throughout the city.

    With the Road Network Optimisation Programme, they instead push traffic through local streets, and undermine the adoption of walking and cycling on the arterials.

    The good measures the programme suggests, they should be doing anyway. Just earlier and more comprehensively. The rest of it doesn’t need technobalderdash propping it up. Next time AT says they don’t have money for walking, cycling, safety or making our streets people-friendly, I’ll mention the substantial money that’s wasted on this programme.

  9. This is asinine to assume that we will see anything like previous traffic volumes return post lockdown. Most large organisations are reviewing their property footprint to massively reduce in office working and thus the commute for many will become a thing of the past. I face never returning to the office along with my colleagues. Working from home will be the new “normal” for many

    1. It depends how things are managed, Gavin. Many people will work from home if they can, or start working shorter weeks because they realised how much they like being at home.

      NZ has the opportunity to stamp this virus out and remove lingering fears about using public transport. But will it instead prioritise easing back into international tourism? If so, the occasional outbreak will retain the public’s fear of Covid on PT so it never goes away. Will there be good messaging?

      If many of those PT users decide to drive, even a reduced number of “person trips” will congest the roads, making it unsafe for cycling, and thus putting people who would cycle into cars too, in a vicious cycle.

  10. Thanks for the post, Matt. This is really disappointing to see. Seems AT is content to waste money on all the wrong things.

    If this sort of work is agreed to in our city’s transport plans, is the wording really clear that this is how they should do it? Shouldn’t the money be spent on programmes more clearly able to achieve the Council’s goals?

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