Is Auckland ready for March Madness traffic congestion?
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What's the biggest predictor of bad traffic congestion in Auckland? It's the weather. When it rains, we take the car.
Flooding closed Tamaki Drive a couple of weeks ago and the traffic on Kepa Rd, the alternative route, was so bad people were in despair. And rage. Buses got trapped in traffic and commuters complained they had waited for them in vain, so they had gone home and got their cars, and then got trapped in traffic themselves.
Anybody spot the problem there?
Meanwhile, on Onewa Rd leading down from Birkenhead to the motorway, drivers are routinely trapped in traffic but most commuters travel smoothly into town anyway. That's because they're in double-decker buses using the dedicated bus lane. And yes, I mean most: 70 per cent.
Meanwhile, peak-time drivers everywhere take on average 55 per cent longer than just a few years ago to reach their destinations. There are 800 more cars a week, over 40,000 more people a year. The congestion crisis is growing fast.
So what are we going to do? Keep widening the motorways? There's not an unlimited amount of land so that won't always work.
Maybe we could build second tiers, like you see in some parts of Asia. A motorway with another on top. There's quite a lot of sky so that could be done indefinitely, I suppose.
We could bulldoze new arterial roads parallel to the existing ones – along behind the shops on Dominion Rd, say. On Lake Rd or Tamaki Drive, maybe that second-tier option would work better.
Rain pelts the windscreen as vehicles make their way slowly in Auckland traffic. Photo / Peter Meecham
Maybe we should just go for it and build some snaky new flyovers: Mt Wellington to Mission Bay and across the water to Queen St. Same from Devonport, another from Browns Bay? Think of the views.
I hope you don't think this is getting silly. Because it's no more silly than thinking we'll be able to keep using cars the way we do now. In fact, it's the inevitable consequence of thinking that.
So what are we really going to do? The good news is that things can change. Over 50 per cent of commuters on the harbour bridge these days are on a bus, which everyone said would never happen. Aucklanders won't abandon their cars, or something.
Patronage of trains was up 12 per cent last year and 19 per cent the year before. The numbers on the buses and ferries, and cycling and walking too, all keep rising.
But despite that, the current approach to transport planning is not resolving the problem. It's making it worse.
The official term for what we do is "multi-modal expansion". It means we build more of everything. But while we need more bus routes, light rail, more trains and more cycleways and walkways, we also need to stop building more roads for cars.
There's a rule in economics about this: it's called induced demand. The more of a service you create, the more it will be used. If you add one motorway lane more people will drive, and then you have to add another, and another. See above.
The Waterview Tunnel will fill up, faster than you might think. And then what?
To get people out of their cars you have to make the other options more attractive.
It's not about banning cars. There will always be people who need to drive, for business and/or personal reasons, and we all want the roads to work for them.
Traffic ques waiting to get on State Highway 1. Photo / NZ Herald file
The alternatives to driving really do need to be more attractive. It's no good if you have to wait for expensive buses that never come, or risk your life riding a bike, or always go home before mid-evening because the trains and ferries don't run later at night.
Public transport has to be cheap, reliable and pleasant. And safe, which means good security at stations and on trains. Memo to Auckland Transport (AT): you can't be laying off staff – for the sake of your passengers, we need them.
Meanwhile, Mad March is almost upon us: around 100,000 university students are about to join the commuter shuffle.
In March two years ago the system almost collapsed. So last year AT added 5400 extra spaces on the buses and it made a big difference. Since then they've improved the bus networks to east and west and this March are adding another 4600 places on the northern bus routes. There will be 99 double decker buses working the city.
Is it enough? AT's chief transport services officer, Mark Lambert, says, "We are confident our customers will be able to get on services but there may be some queueing, some people will have to stand and, in some cases, the first bus might be full."
At a guess, I would say Mark Lambert does not catch Auckland buses, because if he did, he would know that's a description of many normal services now.
March might or might not turn out to be mad, but this is a lost opportunity. While AT is trying to meet existing demand it's not doing much to transform our approach – to make public transport the better option. Onewa Rd's proven solution is not being rolled out across the city.
In fact, last year it added a mere 2.6km of new bus lanes.
Why doesn't it use Mad March to get in front of this problem, for commuters and for the big events? March brings us the Lantern Festival, Pasifika, Super Rugby, the Auckland Arts Festival and Polyfest. Close to 200,000 people at each of the first two, 90,000 for Polyfest as well.
In the spirit of being helpful, here's my five-point plan
1. Create as many new dedicated bus lanes on main routes as possible. Forget permanent markings: use road cones.
2. Add as many more buses and trains as possible, right through the day, well into the night and over the weekends. Target all those big events.
3. Exclude general traffic from selected inner-city streets. Convert them to bus parks and bus routes, and allow service vehicles too. (More buses is a short-term solution, for many reasons, including that there's nowhere to put them when they get to town. Bring on the light rail and more trains.)
4. Improve the service: good visible security and how about food and other vendors on the platforms?
5. Launch a great new marketing campaign to get people to leave their cars at home if they can. Include schools.
I know, there will be howls of outrage. But this is a trial. The things that work, keep them on and make them better. The things that don't work, change them.
Even if it doesn't rain, March offers the chance for Auckland to do some transformative experimentation. Why not take it?
Because if it does rain, as things stand now we're going to be in a terrible mess. The true meaning of March Madness is to pretend we're already doing enough.