Auckland’s gridlock nightmare is getting worse with a new report showing travel times are taking longer on the city’s motorways and main roads.
The report, from the Automobile Association, said the current approach to tackling gridlock by focusing on public transport, walking and cycling is not cutting it and more money needs to be spent on roads.
The latest AA Congestion Report 2021 found when the city was not in lockdown during Covid-19 in the middle of last year, typical morning travel times were worse than the three years before the pandemic.
For example, a trip on the Southern Motorway from Papakura to the CBD took 50 minutes last June, seven minutes longer than in June 2018 and 2019.
What’s more, morning peak times on the Southern Motorway are now higher than they were prior to the opening of the Waterview Tunnel in 2017, which provided an alternative to the Southern Motorway through Auckland’s isthmus.
Driving into the CBD from Albany on the Northern Motorway on a typical morning peak increased from 33 minutes pre-Covid in 2019 to 36 minutes in June 2021.
This is the graph they’ve used to show the level of congestion and it is based on Google travel-time data.
The AA pointed out that this increase in travel times comes as Auckland’s population fell slightly in 2021, though they do note that population figures are uneven with it falling in more central areas but continuing to grow around the outer suburban areas where car use tends to be higher. They also said:
“We also expect that lower-than-usual public transport patronage may be translating into increased car trips but, at the same time, more people are also working from home on an ongoing basis so it’s still unclear how big an impact this is having on congestion.”
Public transport use has certainly been lower since the pandemic started and even during the period the AA have highlighted, average weekday usage was sitting at around 74% of normal. While COVID is certainly the main culprit, it’s not the only one. For example:
- Confidence in public transport, particularly trains, was severely knocked as a result of the rail network shutdowns from mid-2020 through to early 2021. The impact of this can still be seen in the ridership data – following the first lockdown, ridership on both trains and buses recovered at about the same rate but since the rail issues emerged, rail use compared to pre-Covid levels has remained lower than bus use.
- For years AT only really focused on serving jobs in the city centre with good public transport, and largely ignored it’s potential for other employment areas around the region. But many of those city centre jobs the ones that were most easily able to adapt to working from home.
It’s worth noting that that while the AA say they’ve compared the months when there weren’t restrictions, during those months there was one small form of restriction, or disincentive for using public transport in that masks were (and still are) mandated by the government even though they weren’t required in any other setting.
The ‘congestion’ in the graph above certainly looks like quite a jump, so I thought I’d take a look at Waka Kotahi’s traffic data on the motorways. Given the focus in the Southern Motorway in the reporting, I decided to look at what traffic volumes passing Panama Rd – just south of the Mt Wellington interchange. I averaged out traffic counts for weekdays (this excludes weekends and public holidays) and the results of that are below.
As you can see, the daily traffic volumes are near identical to pre-COVID levels and over the four-month period are only up about 1% on 2019 levels. That 1% represents at most a few thousand vehicles over a 24-hour period, suggesting either (or both):
- The 1% was enough to tip the scales and cause a big increase in congestion, or;
- A lot of drivers choose to change to travelling at peak times
That second point This is backed up by this graph from the AA showing that people were experiencing longer journeys earlier in the morning on the Southern motorway.
So what to do about the congestion, the AA say Auckland Transport needs a ‘Change of tack’:
To keep Auckland moving, the report said, will require significant investment across all modes of travel, including roads.
The report stressed travel times must be front and centre for transport investment decisions, whether it’s commuting to work, delivering freight or a trip to the shops, saying travel times “now play second fiddle to a number of well-meaning but impossible to quantify objectives”.
Geard said roading projects planned in growing outer areas of Auckland, such as the northwest and Silverdale, and Drury and Paerata in the south, need to be brought forward because they are already suffering from congestion.
She said Mill Rd, running parallel to the Southern Motorway between Manukau and Drury, is one project that needs an early start to support growth in South Auckland and take pressure off the motorway network.
While the AA think this proves the need for more investment in roads, in reality it proves the opposite. Not a single one of the projects mentioned will do anything to help ease congestion across the region, after all, what happens when they get back to the existing motorway network. Are the AA also suggesting we widen the motorways to cope too?
One big project they are pushing is a road harbour crossing:
Wide lens needed for new harbour crossing work With planning underway for Auckland’s next Harbour Crossing, it is critical to take on board lessons from previous work. A narrow focus on the need for enhanced PT to the city centre won’t cut it. Nor will a road crossing that simply feeds traffic into the already clogged-up motorways (around half of trips over the Bridge are not bound for the city centre). The Crossing work provides a huge strategic opportunity to take a fresh look at Auckland’s motorway network to identify what role it will need to play to support ongoing population growth, alongside other modes. While expansion of the motorway network is challenging, that’s not a reason to put it in the ‘too hard’ basket.
This suggest they’re also wanting new motorways too?
In reality, any large-scale investments in new or wider roads will have the opposite effect because they’ll encourage more people to drive, all part of the well known principle of induced demand. The AA even themselves highlight an example of this in stating that traffic is now worse than it was before the Waterview tunnels opened only four years earlier.
The ‘solution’ to congestion isn’t to build more roads but to get people out of their cars. To do that we need to make public transport and active modes drastically better, not the small, incremental improvements that we have been seeing – we’ve got about 60 years of lack of investment to catch up on and we don’t have 60 years to achieve it. Encouraging mode-shift can also be helped along by policy measures such as congestion charging, something the AA entirely keen on.
If we want to get a different outcome, we need to stop doing the same thing we’ve been doing for 70 years.
— Sara Stace (@sara_stace) August 4, 2017