No magic wand will save Auckland's traffic woes - it will take a mind shift. Photo: Russell Street

To Aucklanders sitting in their cars going nowhere in “rush” hour it may seem that nothing is being done about the city’s traffic jams. But the issue is uppermost in the minds of scientists, engineers and town planners, who believe transport is Auckland’s leading economic, environmental and social challenge. The experts were brought together this week by the University of Auckland business school’s Energy Centre. 

“Let’s leave politics to one side today” was the instruction from Professor Basil Sharp at the start of the “informal conversation”. There were hints and signs of teeth grinding but speakers managed to avoid saying outright that the Government should be doing more to pitch in. They also acknowledged that Auckland is now getting back in fuel tax income what it pays – a rebalance a long time coming – and that vast sums of money are being spent by the National Government on road projects. 

It has to be, because the statistics are horrible. The annual cost of congestion has been estimated at more than $700 million a year, in the form of slow travel times to work, schools and commercial centres, and increased cost to business delivery services. Vehicle-related air pollution in Auckland contributes to premature deaths and over $200m in health costs a year. Transport is by far the leading source of Auckland’s greenhouse gas emissions at nearly 40 percent of the total.

Every suggested solution comes with a cost, but as transport engineer Doug Wilson told the gathering, if we make a mistake with those solutions now, we will be paying for it for the next 50 years. 

Congestion charges, tolls, increased cycleways and pedestrian pathways, bus lanes and even hydrofoil ferries on the harbour – a multitude of answers can be put in place but the root of the issue is changing people’s behaviour. And yet statistics were presented showing that Aucklanders, contrary to popular belief, are not determined to stay in their cars – nationwide the city has the third-lowest proportion of people who drive themselves to work. Of course, when those numbers are multiplied by the 800,000 or so private cars registered in the city, you have a problem.

There are “encouraging patterns”, the conference was told, such as a major lift in the number of motorbikes on the road and increased public transport patronage.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge was too small the day it was completed in 1959 – we can’t make the same sort of mistake now. Photo: Archives NZ

“We cannot, as much as we would like to, start with a clean sheet of paper,” said Wilson. Auckland’s transport problems lie in its geography and geology, its historic start as a port city on an isthmus, and its development in the time of the motorcar rather than the railroad. “We don’t have a spoke like London does so we have to come up with other solutions.” 

Nor do we have the advantage of European cities that were built on wide Roman roads to start sectioning off parts for cycling and bus lanes. Plus, “We didn’t get it right with trains. [Planners] regret that day in 1956 when it was decided to go with a roading network.” Plans for that network, including the Waterview link which will finally open next month, have been on the books for 60 years. 

Auckland’s 50 volcanic cones also make life difficult, especially if you’re trying to dig a tunnel through basalt rock. The ground beneath us is also wet, one of the factors that led to technical difficulties in the Waterview project. 

The solutions are many but not magical. “It’s a whole myriad of things that need to happen, and are happening to varying degrees, and they are complex,” said Wilson. “They won’t happen in just a couple of years.”

He said we are paying now for under-investment in the 80s and 90s. “We are trying to play catch-up and we are doing it with a fast population growth. We are getting further and further behind.”

Wilson pointed out public transport is getting better over time, but it takes a long time to get people to make that switch. In a time of public funding constraints, more money is being spent in the Auckland region than ever before.

“We are taking our fair share now which we haven’t been in the past. Auckland is getting serious funding and there’s a continuing conversation with central government. You can argue that public transport really should be funded by the government … but there will always need to be contributions from Aucklanders as well. But given [the level of] urban drift we need something more to encourage people to get out of their cars.

“A change in behaviour is the hardest thing to do. We can encourage and force it to some degree but at the end of the day people make a choice, you can’t control that, and it’s difficult to design for,” Wilson said. He believes congestion charges will be the most effective way to change people’s attitudes. “That has to come and it will be coming.”

It’s also difficult to get right at the boundaries – and requires a lot of investment.

“We have to be very careful – we don’t want to drive socio-equity issues.” Throwing a congestion charge loop around the city can penalise outer, poorer suburbs which must be served with good public transport if they are not to be hit in the pocket unfairly. “That’s something we need to do more work on.” 

“If we make a mistake today, we will be paying for it for the next 50 years.”

There’s not much hope that driverless cars will make a positive difference – in fact, the opposite is likely. Wilson believes scenarios involving automation are “way optimistic”, saying such a vehicle fleet is 30 to 40 years away. When it does come, there’s no indication drivers will be inclined to car pool, and the number of trips into the CBD is likely to increase as a car is sent home in the morning and called back in the evening. “It’s not the panacea that a lot of people are sellling us.”

Wilson would like to see a lot more work done on cycling lanes and encouraging other active modes of public transport, but in that sphere too, technology may trip us up. People using electric bikes are going to be speeding down those lanes towards pedestrians – do we need a further separation between them?

He also said a lot more work needs to be done on understanding people’s behaviour if we are to accurately predict what will need to be in place for the future. 

Then Wilson threw the room a curve ball. 

“The big question is: When do we start spending too much?” he asked. “How much do you spend before it starts hurting other sectors and issues?” Health and education need buckets of cash, too. 

That’s why, he said, “it should be about changing people’s behaviour”. 

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