Last week the new Auckland Council held their first meeting and after some school-grade antics over the seating arrangements, the new (and returning) councillors gave their maiden speeches. There were some great speeches, and you can watch them all in the video below, but the focus of this post is on a small segment by new Howick Councillor and former National MP, Maurice Williamson. This segment starts at 1:00:55, just after he describes Auckland Transport as “lunatics running the asylum” and “in search of problems that don’t exist” – for their efforts to improve road safety by installing traffic-calming around schools, and lowering speed limits in line with the international evidence.
If I go back to the economic stuff I find it really really galling to come onto a council where one of the biggest biggest expenditure items, the City Rail Link, we have no idea what that number is, we have no idea. Now you would not, you simply would not do a renovation or build a new house and wait for the builder to come back and tell you that was $1.8 million. You would say to the builder, what’s it going to cost to do the following, let’s put it in writing and if there’s any variation we pay for the costings of the variation individually. And I find it galling that a number that I think is going to make your eyes water when we finally do see it. And it’s just wrong that that should be happening. So I think we need to address a whole lot of efficiencies and so on within the place.
I’m a big fan of public transport but only where it makes sense and only where it’s got the users and the numbers. But in my ward of Howick in the last census 92.8 percent of people use the private motor car or were a passenger in the private motor car or used a work vehicle for their going to and from work. 92.8 percent, and so I’m really trying to make desperately sure we represent their views along with the three percent that are either into cycling or walking or using the ferries at one percent. I’m not saying that’s wrong for them not [sic] to have their bits but 92.8 percent count as well in my view.
Where to start? Firstly, the CRL can’t really be compared to a home renovation and the reality is there have been major disruptions to the project due to the various lockdowns and other COVID measures, as well as increases in the cost of raw materials and for some items the costs have doubled in just a few years.
Of course, the project shouldn’t really be on the council’s books to begin with. The government should be paying for the whole thing, given it’s the public transport equivalent of the motorway network. But the council paying for half was the only way to get the National government that Williamson was a part of to agree to the project.
But the idea that we should only improve public transport where lots of people use it is absurd, and what drove this post.
Williamson and many others, including some within our transport agencies, seem to think that transport mode share is a pure reflection of public choice – that most people drive cars because they want to drive cars.
The reality is, after around 70 years of central and local government investing almost exclusively on more roads and designing them to making driving easier, most people now use cars for most trips – even very short ones – because for them it’s the only viable option.
For far too many people, public transport is often too slow, infrequent, unreliable or difficult for the journeys they’re making. Meanwhile, although around one in five Aucklanders ride at least monthly, and around the same number don’t cycle but are considering it, safety remains the largest barrier – in large part due to a lack of safe infrastructure. And our land use patterns and dangerous speeds in walkable areas, as well as poor pedestrian amenity in general, have made walking unattractive instead of the enjoyable component of daily life that it is in many other cities.
If anything, the areas with the highest car mode share are an indicator of the areas we need to focus on the most to give people better options.
The real question though is what else can we do. As the Better Travel Choices document, produced in partnership between the government and Auckland, states:
Auckland’s motorway network is now largely complete and there are few cost-effective options to add significant roading capacity within the Auckland urban area. Furthermore, numerous studies show that adding road capacity tends to simply induce more vehicle travel, largely negating congestion relief benefits over time.
Yet Auckland continues to grow rapidly, with the population now surpassing 1.7 million and forecast to reach 2 million within the next decade. This combination of rapid population growth and few opportunities to effectively add road capacity within existing urban areas makes it critical to increase the share of travel by public transport, walking and cycling.
Making public transport and active modes a viable option for many more people is one of the only options – and surely one of the most affordable – that we have. The only other big impact option is road pricing, which we should also do.
The good news is that people will change how they travel if we give them viable options. Both local and international evidence confirms that 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 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 (or comparable and more reliable and enjoyable). This video is a good explainer:
Looking locally, we can see that change is happening, even if it’s often not as fast as we’d like.
I took a look at the census data for journey to work by local board area from 2001, as it’s the oldest available that allows us to break the data down. I’ve then compared that to the 2018 census to see how mode share changed over 17 years.
The change in methodology in 2018 means we can’t compare direct numbers but the mode share percentages should be comparable enough, and are generally in line with trends seen in the 2006 and 2013 censuses.
The eagle/eyed among you might note that the percentages don’t add up to 100. That’s because I’ve excluded Ferry, which only appeared in 2018, Motorcycle which disappeared in 2018, and the Other category.
What we can see is that car use, as a percentage, has declined over time in most urban local board areas – though perhaps not as fast as many of us would like to see. The largest drops have occurred in the local boards closest to the city centre, where public transport and active mode options are the strongest.
You might also notice that car share in Howick is not 92.8% as Williamson stated. Even if Work from Home is excluded, that still only brings thenumber up to 90.2% for 2018. However, using that method it was 92.8%…in 2001. Was he using two-decades-old data to make his point?
Local board areas can be quite broad, though, and often don’t reflect change that js driven by specific projects, like the upgrade of the rail network, the building of the Northern Busway, or the various improvements and extensions to the NW Cycleway. So I also looked at some more specific examples close to those projects – and noted stronger uptake of alternative modes compared to the wider local board area.
The effects of both the busway and parts of the rail network can be seen at a this more detailed level
It’s not just the census data that can highlight change. Last year, I put together this video to highlight how improvements and extensions to the NW Cycleway, along with better local connections to it, had driven increases since before the pandemic struck. A case of “what we feed, grows.”
And if we really want to focus on making it easier for those Aucklanders who really want to or need to drive, the one neat trick, the best thing we can do is to get all the people off the road who’d be prepared to use another mode if it was viable. In other words: continuing to solve problems that do, indeed, exist.