The sooner we fix this city’s transport system so that it’s quiet, sustainable and safe so our kids get their freedom to walk, scooter and cycle, the sooner we start to reap the benefits of more socially connected communities and more healthy, active people. There are some good projects in the plan. As usual, it fails to deliver cycling infrastructure at anything like the rate required, and it fails to reduce emissions in line with our commitments.
The plan proposes investments that will increase emissions by 6% by 2031 (or decrease them by 12% if government makes policy changes around biofuels and EV uptake):
Auckland Council, on the other hand, laid out in the Auckland Climate Plan that a 64% reduction in transport emissions is required, and the 1Point5 Project believes Auckland’s transport must be largely decarbonised by 2030.
In this post, I want to explore Auckland Transport’s technical misunderstandings that have contributed to this failure.
The draft RLTP ignores the decarbonisation options available
Because the adoption of EVs cannot happen quickly enough to deliver the required reductions by 2031, meeting the Council’s target would require very strong interventions to reduce demand for private vehicle travel. Potential examples include road pricing schemes that would dramatically increase the cost of driving. While such an approach would achieve climate outcomes, perverse social, cultural and economic outcomes would also be expected under settings this strong.
This statement may appeal to those fearful of faster and more fundamental change, but honing in on road pricing is a misrepresentation of the decarbonisation options available to Auckland.
The best “very strong interventions” won’t create “perverse” outcomes; they are the systems changes that have long been needed to reduce our reliance on cars and deliver better “social, cultural and economic outcomes” – including far better safety, public health and social cohesion. Reducing transport emissions is simply a co-benefit of these holistic improvements.
The statement is concerning as it is tone deaf to the public discussion this year around the Climate Change Commission’s advice. Many experts, specialising in public health, safety, social wellbeing and equity, have explained that trying to reduce emissions by relying heavily on electrification and pricing will be too expensive, inequitable, and above all, an enormous lost opportunity to fix the many overdue problems in our transport system.
Auckland Transport’s resistance to reducing vehicle travel
Decarbonising transport will occur through two pathways – improving emissions per vehicle (eg electrification) and reducing vehicle traffic.
This draft RLTP does not attempt to reduce traffic volumes but instead shows it continuing to rise:
Vehicle travel is discussed:
What drives transport emissions
Understanding the transport emission challenge
This is a simple statement of fact that is better rearranged to express a definition of the term “average vehicle emissions per km”:
Average vehicle CO2e per km = Total transport CO2e / Vehicle km Travelled
In contrast, the answer to the question, “What drives transport emissions” – or pushes them up – is investing in regressive projects, for example increasing road capacity or carpark space, and allowing the political economy of car dependence to keep ticking along.
However, the RLTP makes some great observations:
The proportion of distance travelled in private vehicles on a weekly basis (around 90 percent) is significantly higher than what we see during the traditional peak period journey to work commute. This is because trips outside peak periods are for a different purpose. They are often social, business and personal trips, are more distributed, generally involve multiple locations, passengers or moving goods, and on average, are longer. They are also less affected by congestion or parking and are harder to serve with public transport.
This means that the traditional transport planning, investment and monitoring focus on peak period trips (typically with congestion in mind) must be broadened to tackle distance travelled across the day and week and year. It’s estimated the proportion of kilometres travelled in the non-peak periods make up 67 percent of all kilometres travelled on the Auckland roading network.
This is important. Congestion is not a driver for modeshift in the non-peak periods, and we do not want it to become one. Our climate response requires modeshift during non peak periods, so the RLTP needs to invest in all-day public transport service and frequency improvements, bus priority, and to adjust parking strategy until these measures do affect travel choice and reduce vehicle travel.
Instead it says the public transport modeshare increase proposed by the Climate Change Commission cannot be achieved:
Achieving this level of impact would require a substantial acceleration of investment in rapid transit projects across Auckland, including bringing forward completion of the CC2M project, the full A2B project and the final Northwest Rapid Transit project. A significant increase in public transport services would also be required. Meanwhile, meeting Auckland Council’s target of a 50 percent reduction in transport emissions by 2031 is much more challenging than the Climate Change Commission’s mode shift changes.
The draft RLTP’s problem is that it continues to waste too much money on projects that sit in the left hand column of this chart:
Rather than reduce parking supply there’s an increase:
Over $50 million to deliver new and extended park and ride facilities across the region, including in locations that support Auckland’s growth.
Auckland Transport describes its past projects that increase road capacity (which evidence shows doesn’t deliver the economic benefits promised) as improvements:
capacity improvements on our state highways
reduced travel times
The draft RLTP continues increasing vehicle travel with projects that increase road capacity:
significant investments within this RLTP include:
- Mill Road Corridor… facilitate growth… provide an additional north-south corridor…
- Puhoi to Warkworth motorway extension… faster and more reliable travel times
- SH1 Papakura to Drury South improvements… widen the Southern Motorway to six lanes (three each direction)… a new interchange at Drury South
- Penlink… relieve pressure on the constrained SH1 Silverdale Interchange, support development… provide significant time savings…
- Northern Corridor… will complete the Western Ring Route… upgrading the northern end of SH18 to motorway standard, delivers a new SH18-SH1 motorway to-motorway connection, widens SH1…
And in the optimisation programme:
…improving the efficiency and coordination of traffic signals to improve throughput and reduce delays, using dynamic traffic lanes to improve peak traffic flows…
Optimisation activities in this RLTP include:
$168 million of investment… Initiatives to be delivered include removing ‘pain points’ along corridors for walking and cycling, public transport and private vehicles, synchronising traffic signals, optimising road layout, dynamic traffic lanes and managing traffic restrictions.
A big chunk of that $168 million could be reallocated to cycling projects immediately.
The Modelling hasn’t been Helpful
The Auckland Forecasting Centre uses a “four step model” in its transport modelling, called the Macro Strategic Model. The usefulness, shortcomings and common misapplication of the four step model are well understood. It was my realisation in early 2017 that it was still being misapplied that led me to becoming a transport advocate.
This model can be useful to understand traffic demands after strategic investment decisions have already been made. It should not be used to enable “a wide range of transport interventions to be assessed on an equal basis.” Its weakness comes from planners misusing the model to calculate differences in vehicle km travelled (and travel times) between project options. This practice leads to major inaccuracies in the “monetised and non-monetised benefits” used in the Waka Kotahi benefits framework.
In other words, the way it’s misapplied is leading to poor investment decisions.
The decision to model transport emissions in response to the Auckland Climate Plan in 2020 was an opportunity for change; a new situation, in which Auckland Transport staff and management could have demanded a tool or process suitable for emissions reduction planning. The Macro Strategic Model was not built for this work and is not fit for this purpose.
Professional planners and engineers have codes of ethics and this requires refusing to use a methodology that systematically leads to planning decisions which cause climate change and worsen safety. Analysing transport emissions with the wrong model has supported the transport sectors’ skewed belief in the importance of electric vehicles (and aversion to systems change), as expressed by the RLTP:
it is critical to emphasise that the rate of reduction in emissions depends in particular on measures to accelerate the take up of EVs within the fleet. This does not meet Auckland Council’s Climate Action Plan target for 2031, which requires a 50 percent reduction in regional emissions. Beyond 2031, the reduction in emissions is expected to accelerate significantly as more of the vehicle fleet transitions to EVs.
Vehicle travel is an INPUT to planning, not an OUTPUT that requires accommodation
Climate planning requires the desired level of vehicle km travelled (VKT) to be an input to the planning, as many European cities do in their SUMP plans. Auckland Transport treat vehicle km travelled (VKT) as an output of modelling that then needs to be “accommodated” by roading capacity. This is incorrect and regressive, and Auckland Transport has fielded substantial criticism for continuing with this approach.
Their response? Throughout the draft RLTP they claim their job is only to try to accommodate future growth in travel demand in the sustainable modes, not to reduce VKT, and they don’t think their planning can even achieve a reduction in VKT:
…at best, an investment-only approach could only hope to hold private vehicle travel to today’s levels – leaving the problem of existing travel and emissions.
Auckland’s transport strategy to avoid congestion increasing is to absorb future growth in travel demand by improving the public transport and active mode networks…
Even holding vehicle travel steady at 2018 is something they believe requires additional policy.
We’ve heard this embarrassing argument before. In contrast, Council show their commitment to reducing VKT as the way to achieve emissions reductions:
The Auckland Climate Plan identified the following “priority action areas”:
Encourage the use of public transport, walking and micro-mobility devices, rather than driving; reduce private vehicle travel and encourage lower emissions travel options by introducing pricing and parking measures (p. 82).
Make travelling by public transport more appealing than using personal vehicles (p. 83).
Encourage a shift to public transport use, walking and micro-mobility devices, rather than driving (p. 85).
The Auckland Climate Plan sets a specific target of vehicle kilometres travelled being reduced by 12% (p. 47).
By signing the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration 2017, Auckland Council committed to
develop and implement ambitious action plans that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support resilience within our own councils and for our local communities. These plans will: promote walking, cycling, public transport and other low carbon transport options
Similarly the Government Policy Statement says:
Investment decisions will support the rapid transition to a low carbon transport system, and contribute to a resilient transport sector that reduces harmful emissions, giving effect to the emissions reduction target the Climate Change Commission recommended to Cabinet until emissions budgets are released in 2021.
The only logical solution to achieving the rapid transition to a low carbon transport system required by the GPS, given Auckland Transport have accepted (in the RLTP) that
the adoption of EVs cannot happen quickly enough to deliver the required reductions by 2031
is for Auckland Transport to plan for reductions in vehicle travel. The GPS also lays out how this can be achieved:
Mode shift in urban areas from private vehicles to public transport, walking, and cycling will support efforts to reduce emissions.
This modeshift is proposed as a way to reduce private vehicle travel in order to reduce emissions. It is not provided to simply “hold VKT steady” so that electric vehicles can then reduce emissions.
In short, Auckland Transport are wrong; both Council and the Government have directed Auckland Transport to reduce vehicle km travelled (VKT) and not just attempt to hold it steady.
This misconception is leading to poor investment and planning decision-making, such as for this RLTP, that mean Auckland Transport is putting Auckland Council and Auckland residents at risk in multiple ways.