Most Saturdays we dig into the archives. This post by Matt was originally published in September 2014.

Yesterday the Herald ran a fantastic opinion piece from Dr Jamie Hosking who is a senior lecturer and health and transport researcher at the University of Auckland. As he says at the end, it’s “a timely reminder for the Auckland Council as it considers whether to reduce spending on big new roading projects. Liveable cities don’t try to make traffic go faster. They free people from traffic.”

We all hate being stuck in traffic. The usual response to congested roads in New Zealand, especially in Auckland, is to make the congested road bigger – turn a two-lane road into four.

Although at first sight this seems to make sense, it’s not the only solution, nor the best.

Building more roads in response to congestion is often likened to dealing with obesity by loosening your belt. This is a useful comparison because it shows that building bigger roads does not fix the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that there are too many cars.

But building more roads is even worse than loosening your belt because it encourages people to drive more.

Transport planners use terms such as latent demand and induced traffic to explain this, but it can be explained in plain language.

If a city’s population is growing, a road will become busier. This continues until the amount of traffic at rush hour can’t grow any more. The congestion stops any more people from using the road.

In other words, a congested road puts people off using it. So, if the Auckland Harbour Bridge is congested in the morning, people are more likely to catch the bus to work instead of driving across the bridge. If they were thinking of going shopping in the CBD, they might decide to go somewhere local instead to avoid the traffic. Or, if the trip wasn’t that important, they might just stay home.

The flipside is that if we make a road less congested, more people will drive on it. So if a road is expanded from two to four lanes, traffic speeds will increase at first, but as more and more cars use the road, congestion will grow again. The end result is a four-lane road with the same congestion and speeds as the original two-lane road.

If all we care about is how fast the cars are going, we’re no better off. We’re worse off. Because on the four-lane road, there are twice as many people stuck in traffic. That means twice as much time lost.

This reminds us that we need to think less about roads and cars, and more about getting people to where they want to go.

In Auckland, we’ve been building more and bigger roads for years, but at peak hours our roads are still clogged. If we remember that bigger roads encourage more cars, this isn’t surprising at all.

If we start thinking about people, instead of roads and cars, the alternative becomes obvious. Our goal shouldn’t be free-flowing car traffic, because we know in the long-term it will never happen. Our goal should be free-flowing people.

We’ve talked quite a bit about induced demand in the past as well as cities which are now starting up pull out some parts of their motorway networks and seeing no negative impacts from having done so. For example from this

before

to this

cheonggyecheon

The goal of free flowing people is a key driver behind why we created the Congestion Free Network and even why we named it Congestion Free as it refers to the people being free of congestion. He then goes on to suggest something very similar to the CFN.

One way to achieve this is building rapid public transport. This needs its own protected space, like trains, or buses on a busway.

Rapid public transport is a great answer to congestion, because the congestion proves there are a lot of people trying to go in the same direction, and this is exactly what public transport needs.

Another way to get free-flowing people is better infrastructure for walking and cycling. For example, routes through parks and greenways help people walk and cycle away from congested roads.

Maybe the best way of all is to design our neighbourhoods and cities better. The more things people can do locally, instead of having to travel across town, the less time they will spend stuck in traffic. Road building undercuts local businesses and services, because it encourages people to drive across town to go shopping instead. The opposite is intensification, which brings more people into a town centre to live in high-density housing and apartments, and attracts more local businesses and services.

That’s why neighbourhoods and cities that want to be more liveable are making roads smaller. This frees space for busways, cycleways or new public areas, it pushes people out of their cars or it encourages them to do things locally instead of travelling across town. The result is fewer people stuck in traffic, healthier local businesses and neighbourhoods that are much better places to live.

I think that if there’s one area he missed it was in relation to the potential benefits investing in the movement of people could have for the movement freight. A network like the CFN would allow us to be bold with how we deal with trucks and other commercial vehicles. In particular we could look at doing measures like the introduction of freight lanes on key routes or other similar measures that speeds up the movement of goods without spending money on wider roads only for it to be gobbled up by cars with only a driver in them.

So yes let’s start focusing on people.

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4 comments

  1. As I write this from a rather comfortable 1K on Singapore Airlines (who said PT wasn’t comfortable), I have to say that the best way to reduce congestion is to charge for it. If the lower income peps cant afford to use their vans to come and fix your plumbing, then just wait a little longer as they huff and puff across town in their coal powered ebikes. Meanwhile, those that can afford it, can ride congestion free in our Bentleys, Aston Martins and Ferraris. Surely this is exactly what you are asking for.

    1. Nope, I’d be looking for something more like the untangling that is still going on in the Netherlands.

      Motor traffic gets less direct routes than PT and active modes, parking is restricted to trades, freight and mobility, urban planning allows people-friendly density and excludes motor vehicles entirely from the best bits, at least most of the time.

      Your plumber doesn’t need to huff across town because he can afford a home in your mixed income neighbourhood, or you can afford to helicopter him into your gated gilded ghetto. He’s not short of work.

      Congestion charging helps get people out of cars and fund the alternatives, just one lever among many.

      Take the Bentley to the golf club, hunting lodge, air strip or marina.

  2. Building more roads in response to traffic congestion is frequently compared to loosening your belt to combat obesity. This comparison is useful because it demonstrates that building larger roads does not solve the underlying issue. I can see a great deal of fascinating information!

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