Yesterday afternoon it rained and traffic around the region ground to a halt, once again highlighting why it is so important that our city gets on with improving the alternatives to driving.
For additional irony, this happened on the same day the IPCC synthesis report landed, putting the focus on how cities can pull their weight to quickly lower emissions and improve our lives – and the same day our local paper led with a story on speeding up the drive to reduce traffic.
Heavy congestion is causing delays to bus services across much of Auckland. Delays between 10 and 60 minutes have been observed and the delays are expected to get worse as we move further into the afternoon peak. pic.twitter.com/JrnBbRjsbR
— Auckland Transport Travel Alerts (@AT_TravelAlerts) March 21, 2023
While congestion was bad all over, Google maps showed that in and around the city centre it was particularly red.
Delays of up to 60-minutes are completely unacceptable – and for those stuck in it, extremely stressful and frustrating. There will undoubtedly been people who may have been late picking children up from daycare or after-school care, likely incurring extra costs, others who may have missed important appointments or just missed important time with their families.
To be clear, Auckland Transport can’t stop these kinds of congestion events from happening. On Tuesday it was the rain, but it it could just as easily be a crash or some other force majeure event that causes this degree of gridlock.
But what AT can do – if they choose to – is give people viable and reliable congestion-free options. Essentially, this means making our public transport and active modes networks complete and connected and resilient enough so that when these kinds of situations happen, the buses can continue to get through, and more people feel safe enough to be able to ride a bike or scooter.
Taking action really should be top of the agenda for AT and Council, because doing nothing is clearly not working. Here are a couple of ideas.
Auckland currently has around 8,000km of roads in the region, of which around 5,000km are in the urban area. Some of those roads have more than one lane, so in total there are just under 11,000 kilometers of lane in the urban area.
In total, we have bus or transit lanes on just 15-20 lane km, meaning there are many gaps across the network. Or to put it another way, most of the potential bus network is, currently, a ghost network.
Even in just the city centre there are many glaring gaps, such as along Customs St.
We need a massive, and urgent, rollout of bus priority across the city, filling in the gaps on existing corridors and adding new corridors. To do this will require making some calls that will undoubtedly result in loud media coverage, such as removing on-street parking or changing flush medians.
But without some degree of urgency, even a small programme will take years. Shouldn’t a climate emergency provide that sense of urgency? How about a cost-of-living crisis?
AT does (or, did) have a programme that is meant to be for exactly this, which appeared around 2018 as the Integrated Corridor Programme and now goes by Connected Communities. Since it began, it’s become bogged down in the standard complication-and-consultation machine. To give just two examples:
- New North Road, which was consulted on last year, was immediately “paused” by AT for a stocktake after the Council election last year.
- The city end of Great North Road, finally on the verge of delivery, was likewise paused and then trotted back to Council last week by AT for another pointless sniff-and-taste.
Any authoritative plan to “fix Auckland”, or at least to fix Auckland traffic, would take a good hard look at getting these dynamic corridors up and running ASAP.
Bus lane hours
Even when bus lanes exist, far too many of them only operate at peak times and only in the peak direction. In yesterday’s case, this likely means many buses were delayed just getting into the city before they could start their run taking commuters home. AT should be making more bus lanes 24/7, or at least operate at both morning and evening peak times.
More and better bus lanes are important, but they won’t work if buses still get caught up at intersections.
A lot of the issues with ‘gridlock’ events is that impatient drivers enter intersections when there isn’t space on the other side, resulting in them blocking intersections. This in turn can quickly cascade, blocking traffic arriving from other directions, and impacting buses as well as pedestrians.
Road cones are not the problem. Wonder what the real problem could be? Road cones are not adding to the climate crisis or congestion. Wonder what the real cause could be? pic.twitter.com/vNvGyjBkVl
— AK CC ResidentsGroup (@CityAklccrg) March 21, 2023
AT should look options for improving road markings at intersections to help remind drivers not to enter unless they can exit. Theycould also look at options for enforcement cameras to help discourage this from happening. This is something the Australian state of Victoria is trialling right now.
Maybe we could also trial adding bus lane enforcement cameras to the buses themselves? Other cities are doing this, with success.
Starting October 7th, we’re speeding up your ride. pic.twitter.com/VnH66s57Mp
— NYCT Bus (@NYCTBus) September 23, 2019
There are a couple of other things this traffic-weather-event does highlight.
The city centre is not dead
The demise of downtown has been repeatedly and almost gleefully predicted by some, and while numbers have been down in recent years, he city centre appears to be bounding back – just as it has every other time its downfall was proclaimed. Indications are that the number of people in the city centre is currently at around 80% of pre-COVID levels.
Public Transport demand is not dead
There were, unfortunately, many reports of large numbers of people left waiting at bus stops, highlighting that PT use is far from dead. AT hasn’t released any new data for the last three weeks (this is meant to happen weekly), but indications are that like the city centre, PT usage is back to about 80% of pre-COIVID levels. That’s quite an improvement over the last few years.
Incredible numbers of people trying to get on buses in the downtown tonight. People aren't rejecting PT; they just cannot get enough of it. At the same time: pic.twitter.com/ZKZKnLMVRv
— tim robinson (@tim12rob) March 21, 2023
How much did the ongoing PT crisis contribute to Tuesday’s congestion?
For nearly a year now, public transport has suffered from a shortage of bus drivers and ferry crews. Combined with an unreliable train network undergoing maintenance, and I’m sure many PT users have gone back to their cars. Did this widely publicised lack of reliability and shortage of options mean there were even more cars in the city centre than a normal Tuesday evening?
What about bikes?
At this point in the post it would be handy to able to share the stats of Aucklanders on bikes, especially as March is traditionally the busiest month for cycleway counters – but unfortunately, that’s another indicator that AT hasn’t got around to updating this calendar year.
So the last word goes to the clever cats at Big Street Bikers, who in a very timely move, wrapped a smart message about one of the most obvious congestion solutions around today’s paper. Extra, extra! Read all about it.
Big Street Bikers have bought the front-page wraparound in today’s Herald for some messaging. Nice. pic.twitter.com/qARHmzr6rx
— Russell Brown (@publicaddress) March 21, 2023
— Dileepa Fonseka (@dileepa_fonseka) March 21, 2023
Hopefully all the Herald subscribers who’ve already made the switch to e-bikes – or are thinking about it – will be on the blower to their councillors first thing, asking what’s being done to make it easy for them and others to break out of traffic. They might also pop along to Bike Auckland’s Power to the People forum this evening, in Wynyard Quarter 6-8pm.
PS Here’s the text of today’s wrap-around ad. And yes, that’s our proud imprimatur alongside the other organisations. BSB The Big Switch – NZH Wrap 254×280