There’s an often misattributed quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It captures how I felt reading an op-ed yesterday by Simon Bridges, former Transport Minister and now head of the business lobby group the Auckland Business Chamber, whose website says:
Successful business ensures there are vibrant and successful communities, and the Chamber contributes to this through their support and advocacy that delivers the best platform from which business can operate.
But rather than support the TERP’s analysis of the best way to create vibrant and successful communities, and to deliver the best platform from which business can operate, he homed in on one specific detail – and failed to make a case that aligns with the science. The piece begins:
Only the policy geeks among us would have noticed it.
Buried in the fine print of Auckland Council’s recently released Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (Terp) was a recommendation that illustrates so much of what the Auckland business community feels is wrong with the current approach to meeting our transport emissions targets.
In an effort to reduce reliance on cars and encourage people to walk, cycle and use public transport, the Terp calls on Waka Kotahi and Auckland Transport to “remove travel time criteria from design standards and business cases”.
That’s to say: getting from A to B more quickly would no longer be a factor in decisions on transport projects, the focus instead going on priorities like safety, resilience, choice and, of course, emissions reduction.
Make no mistake: this would have serious ramifications.
Private vehicles account for over 90 per cent of the travel on Auckland’s roads. The proportions will remain similar into the future. Giving up on efforts to make sure those vehicles can move efficiently will strike a blow to the city’s productivity and liveability.
Whether it’s driving home from work, getting goods to customers, getting to Saturday sports, or getting out of the city on holiday, travel times are typically what Auckland households and businesses care about most in transport terms. Yet the message here is that the transport programme – which Aucklanders will have to pay for through fuel tax and rates – will ignore it.
From our perspective, this speaks to an inability on the part of Auckland Council to grasp the social and economic impacts of what is being proposed in the Terp, and to a vision of societal change that is simply unrealistic.
Bridges also offers a few principles that transport planning “must” be guided by, according to the business lobby:
- We need evidence-based decisions
- Emissions reductions actions should be targeted to the areas that will have the most impact – he says decarbonising the car fleet should be put ahead of mode-shift.
- It’s got to be socially and economically sustainable.
At first blush this may all sound logical to some readers, especially the talk of saving travel time. After all, making our transport system easier and faster to get around is important – and “easier journeys” is one of Auckland Transport’s guiding principles.
But easier for whom? And how? The thing is, travel time savings (TTS) has been at the heart of our transport assessment processes for the last 70-odd years. It has been used to justify everything from massive new motorways, to widening local roads. The principle leaks right down to the design of local streets and intersections, with multiple lanes and the sort of sweeping corners that make it easy for drivers to turn without slowing down, and risky for people to cross.
And yet, when it comes to driving, our transport system is slower than ever. So we should be questioning if TTS is effective or not.
The slowdown over time cannot be attributed to population growth. Cities with far higher populations than ours have transport systems that function far better. And the TERP’s global evidence base shows our pathway to success lies in becoming more multimodal too. Simply put, the near exclusive focus on designing our system around TTS for cars and trucks has encouraged more people to drive. And that has the effect of making it harder for more people to drive.
Driving is probably the only area in society where we don’t want a better product to result in more people using it. But that’s exactly what happens, and which is why our roads are so often clogged with cars. It’s called induced demand – and is something we’ve talked about a lot over the years.
Furthermore, in many cases, the methods used to improve Travel Time Savings have directly made all the alternatives to driving much, much worse – both slower and more dangerous.
Bus lanes that stop short of intersections, letting queues of cars block or slow down buses. Intersections designed to funnel cars through, forcing pedestrians to cross slip lanes, make multiple crossings, with missing pedestrian legs. And let’s not get started on the dangers for people simply looking to bike to their destination, although in his previous ministerial capacity, Bridges was famous for praising the benefits of a world-class safe cycling network.
These kinds of outcomes are behind the statement in TERP that Bridges now objects to. For reference, this is what the TERP says: (emphasis ours):
Existing funding must be allocated effectively. Funding will always be constrained. It is therefore important that funding allocation decisions reflect the government and council’s priority of reducing emissions. Work is required to ensure that the transport funding system incentivises projects that will reduce emissions while also enhancing other critical outcomes such as equity and safety. The prevailing focus on minor travel time savings often undermines the case for investment in public transport, walking and cycling.
Better and more holistic approaches to assessing the impacts of transport projects are required, including assessment of their long-term emissions impacts. This requires less reliance on predict and provide approaches to transport modelling and a fast transition toward vision-based approaches that are better able to provide a sense of the impacts of abrupt and/or large-scale changes in the transport system.
Waka Kotahi has recently made improvements to the way projects are assessed and the ERP signals that more work will be undertaken on this in the near future. The high level prioritisation framework set out in the next section provides an indication of the new approach that is required.
And here’s the TERPS’s prioritisation principles for the suggested framework.
In debates over the level of car use in Auckland, it’s constantly suggested that our high driving mode-share is what we “want”. In reality, it’s just people making decisions based on what’s been invested in. Having spent decades making driving the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to get around, it should be no surprise that most people will do it.
Put another way, what we feed, grows.
The good news is that both local and international evidence is clear: if we put our assets to better use, providing better alternatives to driving, many more people will use them. And more people using alternative modes means fewer cars on the roads which in turn can provide smoother journeys for those who still need to drive. This is the carrot that Bridges seems to have a very firm grip on the wrong end of.
It’s known as the Downs-Thompson paradox. It states that “the equilibrium speed of car traffic on a road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys taken by public transport“. In other words, people will keep driving until the alternatives are faster, as explained in this video.
(An exclusive focus on TTS can be bad when planning public transport too. It’s one of the reasons we end up with massively expensive light rail tunnels, over practical and affordable surface-level solutions.)
Looping back to the principles that Bridges offers as crucial for transport planning, here are a few quick high-level comments:
- There is a wealth of strong evidence for ‘policy geeks’ to chew on, about what does and doesn’t work. Locally, we’ve seen how investment in projects like the Northern Busway have had a massive impact on the number of people crossing the bridge by bus. The issue isn’t that we’re not making evidence–based decisions – it’s that we’re just getting around to it after decades of the opposite.
- The models for Travel Time Savings that are used to justify transport projects are almost always based on flawed assumptions that leave out a whole lot of people and their needs.
- Even with very optimistic assumptions around how many EVs there are – and how quickly people can acquire them – the vast majority of our vehicle fleet will still be fossil-fuel powered in 2030. To meet our emissions reductions targets, we need to deploy all the other solutions, immediately.
- It’s also “socially and economically “important that we’re seen to be ‘doing our part’ as a member of the global community.
Above all, Bridges seems to have missed the memo that moving rapidly to a more sustainable transport system – by pulling, yes, all the levers, now – is the most economically sensible thing to do.
As we’ve previously covered, Auckland Council’s Chief Economist notes the significant environmental, health and economic co-benefits of the TERP, which together are as substantial as the benefits from reducing transport emissions. You would hope for a more productive urban environment as a result of that.
While we await official calculations, an initial estimate (based on sources like the Ministry of Transport Domestic Transport Costs and Charges, the Ministry for the Environment HAPINZ 3.0 report, and the AA’s figures on the cost of car ownership) calculates that the economic benefits of the TERP to Aucklanders will be around $11 billion per annum. And, as the Climate Change Commission points out, the material cost to the nation of inaction is far higher than the cost of action.
Why on earth would a business organisation start campaigning for higher costs and lower productivity?
The young Auckland “superheroes” from Freeman’s Bay School who launched the Lightpath with then-Minister Bridges on its opening day in 2015 are now well into their teens – within cooee of voting age, and very clear on what the growing impacts of climate change will cost them across their lifetime. Meanwhile, their younger siblings – like kids across the city – are still facing exceedingly hostile streets built around, you guessed it, Travel Time Savings.
So what can the Auckland Business Chamber offer in the way of strategies to deliver “vibrant and successful communities” and “the best platform from which business can operate”? For starters, it can face up the evidence, and stop running lines about transport that come from the same century that brought us global warming.