Traffic Congestion, Part 1: why are the DomPost being such d1cks?

I’m sorry for the slightly profane character of the title to this post, but really, the Dominion Post editorial: Time for roading talk to go up a gear has raised my ire. Here’s how it begins:

Those who endure the agonisingly slow creep across Wellington at peak times will be heartened by the news that talk of possible solutions is close to being translated into action.

“The agonisingly slow creep across Wellington at peak times” – come on, really?? My response, posted as a comment on that article read thus:

Ummm… too bad that actual research has shown that Wellington commuters do not perceive there to be significant congestion. In the last 3 years, resident perception of easy commuting has grown from 75% in 2008, 76% in 2009, to 80% in 2010. Similarly, acceptance of peak traffic volumes has trended higher over the same time period – from 58% in 2008, to 66% in 2010.

You might also want to take into account that daily traffic volumes around the basin have plateaued over the last 5 or so years.

The first lot of data above is available online in a WCC report entitled Resident Satisfaction Survey 2010 (research by Nielsen), and the traffic data is easily obtainable from NZTA’s website.

Now be a good little editor and get your journalists to do some real work before you make stuff up…

OK – so I got a little carried away, but in the editorial, the writer argues in favour of the 4-lane Levin to Wellington airport RoNS project – seemingly based on nothing other than that outright hyperbole highlighted above. Rather oddly perhaps, I maintain an expectation that reference to some kind of fact-based version of reality should inform whatever is spouted forth, even in a newspaper editorial, and especially when it has the power to influence the opinions of many who don’t actually have the time and resources to do the appropriate investigation. This is what we look to the media for, and as far as I can see, it is the only reason why it exists. So, if it (newspapers), fail in that fundamental function, with independent blogs and other forms of new media taking up the slack, well, the death of newspapers can only be hastened (and welcomed). ‘Esteemed’ organs such as Dom Post are really not doing their cause much favour here.

Similarly, yesterday (the day after the above-mentioned editorial), Dom Post publishes a pathetic little article on traffic congestion in Wellington: Wellington’s most congested suburbs revealed. I say pathetic not because it is wrong, biased, sensationalist, or anything like that, but pathetic because it is an actual news item that connects with a major Wellington issue in a meaningful way – yet no such connections have been made. Instead, data from what was probably a media release has been has been re-presented without meaningful analysis/application of any kind. If that is the level of reporting we can expect, then bring on the blogs…

So, here we go…

The above graphic, supplied by TomTom (a company that specialises in GPS navigation devices), shows the difference (as a percentage), between off peak travel times and peak travel times. So, for example, if a trip from Island Bay to the CBD takes 20 minutes off-peak on an average day, it will take an extra 47% longer during an average peak time. Absolute/total travel times are not indicated at all.

We can see then, that the worst places to travel from are north of the city – on both SH1 and SH2. Interesting given the millions proposed to be spent at the Basin as a priority. Of course there are plans of Ngauranga to Aotea project as part of the overall Wellington Northern Corridor RoNS scheme, but it seems counter-intuitive for that to be further down the track than the Basin works. Anyway, who am I to question the workings of the great minds at NZTA…

The point I’m trying to make, is that the so-called ‘congestion’ from the Eastern suburbs/Airport, is really not that significant – an extra 86% on average above non-peak times is hardly cause for multi-million dollar intervention. Yes, the difference between peak and off-peak isn’t even twice as long; most mature cities would laugh it off as completely irrelevant. Certainly it appears from the Nielsen survey cited above, that a significant proportion of Wellingtonians are relatively satisfied with that level of ‘congestion’ (noting that Petone commuters would not be included in that survey).

To show that I am not making stuff up (ala certain editors), let’s first look at Auckland:

Incidentally, there is actually a slightly more meaningful level reporting in the corresponding Stuff (yeah, I know DomPost is part of Stuff), TVNZ, and Reseller News(!?) articles (compared to Dom Post that is), whereby the methodology is outlined: it turns out that Tomtom are collecting data from users of its GPS units, to provide information on travel times… slightly insidious, but also really useful. More on that to follow…

Anyway, it sucks way more to live in Takapuna than Petone it seems – although I’d argue that if congestion was really a problem for its inhabitants, they could, you know, move… (it’s all about rational choices)… The level of congestion experienced by commuters from Wellington’s Eastern suburbs barely gets halfway up the Auckland table. Steven Joyce, go North young man…

It is difficult to find corresponding data for other international cities, as unfortunately, Tomtom have used different stats in evaluating congestion in other places – revealing instead the percentage of main roads considered to be congested for each city (I’m not sure why – perhaps we just don’t figure comparatively if the same stats are used?). Nevertheless, this table of figures for commuter corridors in US cities reveals the following:

  • Pittsburgh: Penn Lincoln Pkwy/I-376 EB – 348% (ranked #1 for worst congestion in the US)
  • San Francisco: California Delta Hwy/CA-4 WB – 318% (#2)
  • New York: Van Wyck Expy/I-678 NB – 298% (#3)
  • Los Angeles: Harbor Fwy/CA-110 NB – 290% (#4)
  • Los Angeles: Foothill Fwy/I-210 EB – 121% (#120)
  • Philadelphia: Schuylkill Expy/I-76 EB – 86% (#235)

Other comparative measures are also interesting, such as IBM’s commuter pain index, which, in terms of Wellington, really supports Nielsen’s findings:

The graphic isn’t very clear (click on the graph to go to the source), but Auckland is near the middle at 28%, and Wellington way over at the right hand end, on only 17%. Perhaps we just whine less, but regardless, congestion is not perceived as an issue by most Wellingtonians.

So, anyway, that agonisingly slow creep across Wellington?

Well, no matter how insignificant our congestion is, there will always be those car-users who complain (even though these complainers are well in the minority). Whiners like this usually make a lot of noise about an issue – expecting everyone else to pay for their idiotic intransigence (financially and otherwise). If those extra 3 or so minutes were really that valuable, then rational choice would lead them to other solutions. Mode-shift to cycles, for example, could save them even more time. Travelling outside of peak travel times would also make their commute shorter. That most commuters by and large resist these things are a direct indication that they value their commuting time less than the perceived ‘inconvenience’ of these other available options. If this is the case, then one wonders why the whiners expect everyone else to value their (the whiners’), commuting time more than anything else others might wish to spend their money on?

Traffic congestion is a direct result of the choices made by those caught up within it. Yes, increasing road capacity will address this – but only marginally, and for a short period of time, especially if/when the Downs-Thomson paradox comes into play. This might be why the Cost/Benefit ratio (BCR) for the Basin project are apparently so ghastly, that rather spurious Wider Economic Benefits (WEB), have been brought in to boost the ‘benefits’ side of the equation (see here for more discussion of WEB). It seems that the improvements on other parts of the SH1 Northern Corridor (with a BCR of only 1.2) effectively subsidise the Basin project – it isn’t economically defensible by itself.

Given the small scale nature of Wellington’s congestion ‘problem’, massive and massively expensive infrastructure projects seem rather like cracking walnuts with a sledgehammer. There are much cheaper options at work in many, more enlightened, cities, which address congestion issues of a much larger scale – without significant extra spending on transport infrastructure (which will be the subject of a follow-up post to this one). And I’m not just referring to mode-shift and the old private versus public transport debate. If something needs to be done, then lets investigate these other options before becoming committed to the expensive boondoggle that the Flyover proposal is.

So, please Mr DomPost Ed., facts and balance – take a real hard look at the data before you…


4 responses to “Traffic Congestion, Part 1: why are the DomPost being such d1cks?”

  1. You neglected to point out that the congestion figures given for the US cities are only for sections of highways, being only parts of a commute rather than the whole commute reported in the Tomtom nz examples. This must make a huge difference because the typical US commute would be much longer. But that really only further backs up the point you are making – that the difference in congestion between here and other world cities is one of orders of magnitude in scale.

  2. Aah, mea culpa… thanks for that.

  3. Keith Flinders Avatar
    Keith Flinders

    Can someone please explain to me, sorry if I missed an earlier explanation, why the traffic movements to/from the eastern suburbs will increase to such an extent to require a 6 lane “motorway” to replace Ruahine St., Wellington Road and beyond to airport. We will still have 2 x 2 lane roads between the existing motorway and tunnel portals in each direction, so why the need for 6 lanes on the eastern side of the tunnels?
    Are the extra lanes westward there to contain the traffic jams created by the ill considered Karo Drive design?

    What do the plans for the eastern suburbs include, replacement of all dwellings with high rise apartment blocks perhaps. Or have the taffic planners overlooked that not all cars from the north into the city want go to the eastern suburbs.

  4. Stephen Avatar

    Personally I wish we had Aucklands congestion because it means economic activity.

    Wellingtons job market has died since the 1980’s with the loss of industries, head offices, etc.

    Our Council is gambling on the government jobs in our CBD being the main income earner.

    Accordingly all their transport plans and urban expansion restrictions are based on this model focused on the CBD but new technology and the population movement to Hamilton and north means many government agencies will no doubt move their jobs away to in the future.

    Keith – Sadly – yes the Council plans are for very high rise development in Kilbirnie – please refer to the council kilbirnie town centre plan where they have earmarked the area for high density 15 – 18 metre development. They also planned the same for Miramar – but this is temporarily on hold after local fightback.

    Out of interest, there is a lot of development forced into the Kilbirnie/Lyall Bay / Rongotai area where the council does not have a arterial road plan.

    To list a few theres the Airport retail centre in Tirangi road, Indoor sports stadium, Tacy st retail centre, Kilbirnie Town Centre high rise plans, proposed Aquatic Centre development, the proposed airport expansion – the list just goes on.

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