Auckland Transport could start reallocating road space as a standard design solution – but may need the Board’s help.
Waka Kotahi, Auckland Council and the Auckland Transport Board have all directed Auckland Transport to improve active and public transport options by reallocating roadway space. It’s a far cheaper approach than the property purchase and extra construction that widening road corridors entails.
4 lanes vs 4 lanes pic.twitter.com/VlJLbLZdJc
— Infrastructure CGIs (@InfraCGI) May 9, 2022
And Auckland Transport seems to welcome the idea too. They recently presented to the Planning Committee that road reallocation is a key part of a more cost effective approach:
It’s often a different story at project level, though. Why?
Let’s start with some inspiration from San Francisco. A new busway was opened there early last month, created by reallocating general traffic lanes:
The project would have been quite different if the planning methods of even a few years ago had still been in place recently. Road reallocation would have been predicted to deliver “poor travel times and reliability”, forcing the project towards costly and destructive road widening to keep the traffic “flowing” – even though it was already on a super-wide corridor.
The changes that made this project possible without road widening started with a law change in 2013. California added a legislative requirement to update the transport planning processes, and changed the key metric for evaluation to the reduction of vehicle miles travelled (VMT).
Response to this legislation change was patchy initially:
certain regional review processes sometimes still prioritize automobile lanes even at the possible expense of BRT potential.
So in 2018, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) developed guidance directing that:
coordinators and functional reviewers will transition away from using delay based analysis, such as level of service or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion, to determine the impacts of land use and infrastructure plans and projects.
Instead, they will identify opportunities for reduced vehicle miles travelled generation, advise Lead Agencies on maintaining safe operations, and provide recommendations on developing location‐efficient… land use… this report also endorses person throughput as an impact metric for proposed BRT routes under Caltrans jurisdiction…
(Emphasis in bold is mine, and I also spelt out some acronyms in full.)
Do we need stronger guidance too?
In New Zealand, we’re a few years behind on this same journey. Progressive programmes are happening within all the agencies; reducing traffic volumes and increasing people throughput are recognised as important benefits. But installing these as the actual metrics in the evaluation process, to replace level of service or vehicle travel time savings, would highlight the benefits of sustainable projects: cheaper street-level light rail would be favoured over tunnelled light rail, for example. We’d start to see projects being delivered that provide substantially higher benefits at a far lower cost, including many more bus lanes and cycle lanes. The destructive intersection widening programmes would also finally come to a halt.
But isn’t vehicle travel time still important?
Yes, but experience has shown that concentrating on easing traffic flow locally also induces more traffic, which clogs up other areas of the network. It’s ironic, and instructive, that the best places to drive – Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example – have been focusing on giving people excellent active and public transport choices.
The Eastern Busway
In A Proposition for East Auckland, I outlined what’s at stake with a project that’s on the cusp of gaining consent, the Eastern Busway Phase 3. This is a much-needed project, but so much has changed since the project was conceived: much of the cost of $867 million is for property purchase and extensive construction that is quite unnecessary, and the high vehicle volume outcomes are misaligned with current policy.
The question is what should Auckland Transport do now? It’s the sort of question we’re going to be facing a lot as our planning changes to create the low-carbon systems we need.
There are advantages in changing the design to fit within the existing road corridor, as I laid out in my earlier post. They are significant: money would be freed up to fund complementary treatments throughout the wider area. Road reallocation and area treatments together would reduce traffic and improve safety significantly throughout the network, meaning the benefits of the investment are much larger and more equitably spread. This would enable many more people to access the new busway and cycleway, and deliver easier end-to-end journeys for freight. It is also likely to bring forward the completion date.
At this point in time it seems wise to go back to the drawing board for at least the section that isn’t yet approved, east of the Ti Rakau Bridge. And we know the design isn’t set in stone: the plans changed to include a deviation near Burswood Drive recently.
The Planning Paradigm Problem
So what is it in the planning process that leads Auckland Transport to road widening rather than road reallocation?
At the core there is a systemic problem with how vehicle volumes and travel times are calculated, which in turn impacts the calculation of the project’s effect on emissions, public health, safety and agglomeration.
To help describe how this occurs, it’s useful to note that the size of a typical low traffic neighbourhood (left) is similar in the size of a typical zone used by the strategic model (right) for this part of Auckland:
This makes it easy to visualise the sorts of trips that happen within a ‘model zone’ – they are the same sorts of trips that happen within a low traffic neighbourhood, which I’ve tried to describe in my earlier posts about the Eastern Busway, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, and the local commercial and industrial districts.
In East Auckland, with the busway design changed to include road reallocation and area treatments, there would be changes in “land use” and in people’s “travel behaviour”. People would take many short trips, often within one model zone, or between adjacent zones. Many trips would “evaporate”, as more non-drivers become able to walk and bike independently, so their family members don’t need to drive them.
The model used doesn’t acknowledge any of this: not the land use change, nor the extensive behaviour change response to the safer environment, nor the effect of children’s independent mobility, nor the trips that occur within a model zone, nor the trip evaporation.
As a result, the model overestimates the traffic volumes on Ti Rakau Drive. It was simply not created or calibrated to be useful predicting this level of change.
The Options Analysis
This brings us to the options analysis that Auckland Transport have recently undertaken, in response to the public feedback. The public had given ‘mixed views’ about the allocation of road space, so Auckland Transport looked at an option that involved some reallocation:
It’s good their analysis included road pricing – but modelling the effects of pricing requires some nuance.
The results of the analysis paint a dire picture for the reallocation option, with multiple imaginary problems, which all stem from the model’s overestimation of traffic volumes:
For a project costing $867 million, this options analysis should have been a check using different principles.
Auckland Transport needed to explore why there’s such a difference between:
- what they are being directed to do: road reallocation and a very large reduction in transport emissions, and
- what they are proposing: significant road widening, and an unpopular deviation that requires the loss of many homes.
As we can see from the Van Ness project, reallocating road space for a busway significantly improves bus times and reliability. Even if the model predicts “significant delays to traffic” this doesn’t need to stop the project. Modelled vehicle travel times are not accurate enough to use as a metric in the evaluation.
How can the Auckland Transport Board help?
Ideally, good outcomes-focused governance can create an environment in which everyone involved in the project can play to their strengths.
Targets: The Board should be giving direct instructions and targets for reducing vkt and emissions.
Metrics: The Board should be clear they expect Auckland Transport to move away from using level of service, vehicle travel time delay, or congestion as a metric in the evaluation. There will be experts within our agencies who can recommend appropriate metrics to help us achieve our strategic priorities.
The model: The Auckland Transport Board could directly seek assurances the modellers are comfortable with how the model is being applied by the planners. They could ask if it is being applied in line with best sustainable transport planning practice. They could also organise a review by an international expert.
The paradigm: The Board should broadly understand the shifts in transport planning paradigm underway internationally. They could ask if the organisation has shifted from a “predict and provide” planning methodology to “decide and provide”, which gives more flexibility to the designers to create the spaces we want without being constrained by having to “accommodate” fanciful traffic projections. They could check the engineers and consultants understand that reallocating lanes:
- leads to traffic evaporation,
- does not require “parallel routes” for the traffic to “divert to” – and indeed blocking parallel routes to ensure traffic does not divert there is useful for ensuring mode shift will happen instead.
Behaviour change: Designing the Eastern Busway to fit within the existing road corridor requires expert knowledge about behaviour change, and there are many experts on the subject within the agencies. One thing the Board could do is check that the decision-making structure within Auckland Transport allows the softer disciplines to inform the projects, and that they are not being sidelined by senior engineers or planners who don’t understand the role that infrastructure has on travel behaviour.
It’s understandable that the Auckland Transport Board would feel uncomfortable about the project’s design being changed at this late stage. However, revising the project seems to have few downsides in the current budgetary environment. It would be better, cheaper and quicker to deliver, with the potential for bringing forward the opening date.
The benefits to the Board go well beyond even this, however.
Auckland Transport is facing budgetary and other pressures, and are currently seeking ways to trim budgets and achieve better climate outcomes. There are many projects in their programme of work which would benefit from taking a road reallocation approach, to reduce emissions, DSI, project costs, and renewals costs. The dynamic lanes on Maioro St project indicates the organisation’s focus on “traffic flow” is preventing all-mode safety or city liveability, and there’s been nothing to suggest that upcoming projects like the Whangaparaoa Bus Access and Carrington Rd Corridor will be focused on reducing traffic volumes, increasing children’s independent mobility or keeping intersections as small as possible for safety.
The benefits would be considerable, but a paradigm shift would be required. The Eastern Busway is the perfect opportunity to trial the new approach; the benefits to residents, environment, business and budget are so clear. So the time to act is now. If the Board is unsure of how to proceed, they should reach out to international experts.