Opinion: SkyCity is learning the hard way what it means to neglect its responsibilities when servicing people with addictions, and the public is likely pleased to see officialdom step up to deal with it.
However, Government itself, in many guises, actively provides services for another addiction, and political parties are vying to spend fortunes pandering to it with barely a question asked.
* Right now, there are 255 traffic jams around Akld – we can do better
* National’s roads equal to eight weeks a year of Huntly coal-burning
* Another election sweetener’s bitter aftertaste
It might not meet the strict medical definitions of addiction, but our fossil fuel habit is a neat fit for the Oxford definition: “The condition of being unable to stop using or doing something as a habit, especially something harmful.”
If anything is likely to increase our use of this addictive substance, it’s building more highways, even though we are meant to be slashing fossil fuel usage to try to defuse the unfolding climate catastrophe.
Induced demand is well understood in traffic planning, describing how extra highway capacity attracts more vehicles. This is doubly paradoxical for roads proposed to ease congestion, but normally end up making it worse, as Houston’s notorious 26-lane Katy Freeway attests.
If we cast an efficiency yardstick over urban motorways, we quickly find the optimum productivity gain would likely be to get every private car off them, carry passengers on buses and trains, and leave the highways for trucks, tradies, and essential services
“Hoping to ease congestion by expanding highways,” the saying goes, “is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” This bears analysis, as it’s more than just a glib statement. Clearly the expanded capacity from loosening a belt does nothing to remove excess weight, but may offer temporary physical relief while possibly even encouraging further eating.
Hold that thought, and consider a new lane built to expand the capacity of a clogged arterial road. After years of disruption while it’s built, the expanded highway briefly offers great traffic flows until, in a year or three, it fills right up with even more clogged lanes plus, almost inevitably, even more intense urban congestion where it discharges into the city, and brings even more health-damaging pollution and more climate-damaging emissions.
A cousin of mine was on the design team of London’s infamous 200km-long circular ring road, the supposedly congestion-busting M25 motorway. “It was congested before it was officially opened,” he told me, “and was nicknamed the world’s biggest parking lot.”
When the pain of the price of fuel exceeds the pain of actually asking someone to share a ride, then maybe we’ll have the sort of behavioural game changer we so badly need
But the farce of highway-building doesn’t stop there. There are screeds of electioneering going on about “efficiency” and “productivity”, including claims that extensive new roading will somehow benefit them.
If we cast an efficiency yardstick over urban motorways, we quickly find the optimum productivity gain would likely be to get every private car off them, carry passengers on buses and trains, and leave the highways for trucks, tradies, and essential services. That would not only propel a quantum leap in productivity (for travelling individuals and freight movement alike), but would slash emissions, reduce accidents, diminish our need for new roads, improve our balance of payments, assist our energy transition, curtail health-sapping exhaust gases, and help our heavy transport sector, all in one go.
Which efficiency and productivity-savvy enterprise would really expand a phenomenally costly asset running at a tiny fraction of capacity to create an even bigger asset running with the same pathetic inefficiency? But that’s what highway expansion largely amounts to.
The London School of Economics study “Accessibility in cities: transport and urban form” builds on work by Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute in analysing vehicle and highway efficiency. The results make it hard to imagine a more insanely inefficient system than major highways built to carry urban commuters in private vehicles.
The diagram below is well worth unpacking, red representing “productive use”, in this case moving people (or “person,” more likely). The typical car spends just 2.6% of its time productively moving people, and if powered by fossil fuels, some 86% of the energy is wasted before it reaches the wheels, with most of the rest wasted elsewhere.
And the picture gets worse when we factor in that cars typically run at about 25 percent occupancy, and they are otherwise likely filling city carparks or housed in expensive garages that are much larger and more costly than the cars themselves.
Which leads us to another very expensive and oversized structure – the highway itself. The LSE notes that roads typically reach capacity only five percent of the time, which is not hard to imagine when school holidays, removing say 13 percent of the vehicles, often eliminate congestion.
It’s then worth balancing this against the rationale for constructing new arterials. Typically, it is gridlocked commuter traffic that spurs the demand for expanded arterials, but those traffic jams are made up of cars typically at just a quarter occupancy. If every second car carried just one extra person who had previously been driving on their own, that would be equivalent to taking one in three cars off the road and would free up commensurate road capacity. It would also reduce car emissions by over a third and yield better traffic flows and less demand for carparks.
But let’s not get caught in the myth that making holiday traffic flow better is a key national productivity gain, any more than turning sausages more efficiently on a barbecue, or improving the productivity of waxing a surfboard
When it boils down, we basically build arterial feeders to accommodate people who, for whatever reason, travel alone with three empty seats (and who then protest against the very congestion they are contributing to). Not only does that call the bluff of bigger highways being a key to efficiency, but is that really a sensible use of large-scale public funds? To say nothing of highways being incredibly disruptive of nature and communities alike, and fostering a system in a way that escalates a major source of our greenhouse gas emissions.
“But it’s about more than urban arterials,” I hear, and to a point that’s fair enough, but we might reflect on the pressures for such roads. How much is the Friday afternoon exodus and Sunday evening return a factor? Or holiday season traffic compounded by caravans, boats on trailers, and nervous tourists in campervans?
I’m not challenging the merits of holiday traffic and, let’s face it, I’ve been part of it often enough. But let’s not get caught in the myth that making holiday traffic flow better is a key national productivity gain, any more than turning sausages more efficiently on a barbecue, or improving the productivity of waxing a surfboard.
Which brings us to another political football: the cost of fuel.
Yes, it has increased and, when the carbon price eventually bites, fuel prices will, and should, go up more. But as long as nearly everyone is commuting alone in their car, it’s a lame claim that fuel prices are as painful as suggested. When the pain of the price exceeds the pain of actually asking someone to share a ride, then maybe we’ll have the sort of behavioural game changer we so badly need, and then we’ll slash infrastructure spending and greenhouse gas emissions in one stroke.
I’m no truck-basher, and I’m aware that every truck is delivering something to somewhere that someone wants. Certainly, we must reactivate serious rail and coastal shipping as far as we can, and reduce our consumption-oriented lifestyles, but otherwise we must recognise trucks for the lifeblood of our economy that they are. Yes, let’s have roads fit for trucks, and then give trucks priority over discretionary choices such as going on holiday, or driving near-empty cars.
Enrique Peñalosa, when mayor of Bogota, Colombia, was a charismatic visionary who played a major part in transforming a dangerous and corrupt city into a model, people-friendly one.
Part of that transformation was in public transport, which Peñalosa wonderfully, but paradoxically, framed as “Advanced cities are not where the poor drive cars, but where the wealthy ride in buses.” Far from signifying a restrictive regime forcing rich people onto public transport, this is based on the premise that buses should be highly appealing, and offer a better combination of service, speed, and cost than private cars.
And Bloomberg CityLab reports Zurich demonstrating something similar. To our eyes the street pictured below looks like 6am on a Sunday, but it’s actually a normal weekday, with most of the road reserved for trams, with cars restricted to the side lanes.
“How inefficient is that?” we might ask. “What a waste of road space!” But there’s a good, typically Swiss, answer: at rush hour, the car lane carries some 400 vehicles with 500 people but the trams carry 3500 people (with lots of spare capacity if needed, for concerts, sports events, etc). Try allowing cars on the tram lane? Yay! 500 more people per hour in cars, and only 3000 tram patrons left with compromised travel (plus lost flexibility in tram capacity).
And the tram system creates less pollution and noise, it is more pedestrian-friendly, it needs less energy, and eases parking.
Let’s stop being played for suckers by the “we need more highways” myth, especially when it’s framed around nonsensical notions of productivity. Instead, we should expect a government that can break us of such a harmful addiction, not exacerbate it, and enable huge strides to be made in public health and emissions reduction.