Traffic Congestion, Part 2: To build or not to build…

Apparently that isn’t the question – according to our NZTA experts, yet I can’t help but wonder why the latter option (not to build), hasn’t been a part of NZTA investigations. Perhasp the RoNS steamroller is concerned more about ‘road’s than ‘transport’? Certainly it is easier to point to the achievement of four lanes from Levin to Wellington Airport than it is to say we’ve reduced Wellington City SH1 congestion by 31% – but surely transport policy should be focused toward productivity rather than sound-bites?

I promised in the last post that I would take a look at some of the many alternatives to roadbuilding, that have shown to be successful in addressing congestion issues in various cities around the world – so here we go…

The RoNS approach, by its very nature, seeks to ease traffic congestion by addressing the supply side – that is, by building more road infrastructure. It could easily do this by building more infrastructure for other transport modes too, but that isn’t on the table in this instance.

An alternative is to address traffic congestion issues on the demand side of the equation. There are many ways of doing this, from Transit Oriented Development (which can be seen loosely in the WCC vision for the Johnsonville to Kilbirnie ‘growth spine’), to various methods of Road Pricing, mode shifting, and so on. These methods are collectively know as – Transportation Demand Management (TDM).

The most significant tools in the TDM toolbox – road pricing – have the potential to reduce or eliminate the need for further roading projects, not just at the Basin site, but for Wellington City more generally. The issue of road pricing has been the subject of much research and economic modelling over the past few decades, with a strong consensus among economists that road pricing mechanisms are an ideal way of managing traffic congestion. This position has strengthened as technology has reduced the costs of collecting and paying toll charges.

There are a variety of methods for Road Pricing, from fully tolled roads to charging a congestion fee for use of certain roads at peak congestion times. Experience has shown that, in the case of London’s congestion charging scheme, congestion has been reduced such that average traffic speeds have increased by 37%, with delays to private journeys decreasing by 30% and bus journeys by 50%. Profits from the scheme are fed back into public transport developments, providing an additional positive outcome from the scheme (the added benefit of a reduction of CO2 emissions by 16% should also be taken into consideration).

In the US, High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are becoming increasingly popular. HOT lanes are designated lanes that motorists driving alone can use if they pay a toll, allowing them to avoid traffic delays in the adjacent regular lanes. Express lanes usually are combined with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lanes that have enough capacity to handle more vehicles. HOT/HOV expands mobility options in congested urban areas by providing an opportunity for reliable travel times for express lane users; and, like congestion charging, HOT lanes generate a new source of revenue which can be used to pay for transportation improvements, including enhanced transit service.

On this topic, the Melbourne Urbanist notes:

A toll lane would offer clear economic benefits. In particular, it would enable high value trips, which currently suffer the same delays as comparatively low value trips, to be made faster. In the US these sorts of lanes are called High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes but I prefer something like High Value Trip (HVT) lanes to emphasise the underlying efficiency rationale. The ‘price’ or toll varies with how many vehicles use the toll lane to ensure it provides an advantage while optimising the level of use.

Such toll lanes would address the issue raised in the first part of this post, where I suggested that:

…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… 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?

Toll lanes then, allow the whiners to put their own money where their priorities lie – not other people’s money.

Despite perceptions that Road Pricing would be unpopular, The NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development argues that tolling and time of use charging are not new to most New Zealanders. The Auckland Harbour Bridge was tolled for 30 years, paying for itself, and most of Auckland’s motorway network. They go on to say that:

When the Waterview motorway extension was being debated, more than 50% of the people polled by NZTA said a toll to pay for a new development was acceptable. We are also familiar with time of use charges that vary with how busy the service is. We face this every day when we use a mobile phone, when we book a flight, a hotel or go to the movies.

In terms of road pricing mechanisms, Singapore has recently moved from a congestion charging system, not unlike London’s, to a more sophisticated system that electronically charges users (through direct debit), based on a criteria of user contribution to congestion. Although it is profitable, its primary function is of being a congestion alleviating tool rather than a revenue gathering one. But this road pricing scheme is only part of a range of measures taken by the Singapore government in addressing its congestion issues. They also have inflated car parking and car prices – the latter through both import and sales taxes, as well as maintaining a quota system for car ownership (sounds a little Eastern Bloc doesn’t it…?). The quota allows a ceiling of car ownership to be maintained/controlled (currently set at 3% growth per annum). In addition to this, park and ride facilities have been identified as a priority, and public transport has been given significant investment – including bus priority measures, and mass transit systems.

The other obvious – but too rarely thought of – way of addressing the demand-side of traffic congestion lies within the phenomenon of ‘rush hour’. Wellington has a very short rush hour by international standards (which is yet another indicator that we don’t actually have significant congestion issues to ‘solve’). Shifting rush hour demand across a broader part of the day reduces the capacity demand of the network, which means that less roads are required and, peak travel times are shorter.

How could this be achieved? Getting employers to offer more flexible start and finish times would be a start, as would a greater take up of work-from-home (e.g. if the nature of the job allowed it, some people could, for example, spend a morning or afternoon per week working from home). Such shifts in our working culture are unlikely over the short term however, but there are other methods. For example, Wikipedia describes a peak/plate scheme in São Paulo (Brazil), and Bogotá (Columbia). There, vehicles are assigned a certain day of the week in which they cannot travel the roads during peak travel times. The day of the week for each vehicle is derived from the last digit in the licence plate number and is enforced by police, and traffic cameras. Carpooling, mode-shifting, and shifting the time of journey are all encouraged by this policy. While this hasn’t proved to be very effective for Sao Paulo, which still has some of the worst grid-lock in the world, it could possibly be a better fit for the scale of traffic congestion issues in Wellington.

As an aside, The Sun reported yesterday of Sao Paulo:

In the 1960s and 1970s millions of Brazilians from the countryside flocked to the city in search of work in its factories, spawning a population boom that urban planners struggled to keep up with.

Instead of investing in public transportation, successive city governments sought to ease the growing traffic with largely ineffective overpasses and tunnels.

The result is a congestion-plagued city where the very rich commute by helicopter while average Brazilians spend hours a day in their cars or packed into overcrowded buses with no air conditioning.

A bit depressing that we are still continuing with such ineffective strategies then…

Aside from helicopter construction, the private sector is also coming up with ways of addressing traffic congestion – there is obviously a profitable market for it. TomTom, the GPS navigator specialists mentioned in yesterday’s post, have developed the TomTom Traffic Manifesto. here’s the executive summary:

Individuals using HD Traffic™ enabled devices to detour around traffic congestion can typically reduce their average journey times by up to 15%.

The collective effect of 10% of drivers using HD Traffic-enabled devices can reduce average journey times for all drivers by up to 5%.

The reason for this is that the actions of the community of informed drivers load the road system more effectively with a benefit for all drivers. Informed users are not contributing to the congestion, because they take a detour which shortens the delay suffered by uninformed drivers who still travel on the congested roads.

In addition, there are other ways of easing the traffic congestion burden for all:

  • Drivers using traffic information to time their trips
  • Non-connected devices using TomTom IQ Routes™ (measured historical speed profiles)
  • Traffic authorities using traffic data to improve the road system.

That is to say, that if you buy their products™, you can ‘see’ and navigate around congested areas*, thereby both decreasing congestion, and your own travel time. Aggregated data from TomTom users also contributes to our knowledge of transport networks, which will therefore lead to better infrastructure decisions (I’m guessing that the relevant bodies need to buy this data from TomTom, and that the release of info reported by the Dom and others is part of a teaser/marketing campaign for that service).

So, there you go. To build or not to build our way out of this relatively insignificant traffic congestion issue that faces us: that should be the question.


*For example, right now using TomTom’s online Live Traffic feature, I can see that there are possible delays on SH1 between Porrirua and Johnsonville, as well as between Ngauranga and the terrace Tunnel. Traffic is also stationary on Drivers Crescent in Cannon’s Creek… And better still, there are, at time of writing, 63 traffic incidents or warnings in Auckland, compared to 3 in Wellington.


8 responses to “Traffic Congestion, Part 2: To build or not to build…”

  1. Judith Graykowski Avatar
    Judith Graykowski

    hi Architectural Ctr, has anyone tried to find kick-backs or other corrupt deals between NZTA/ Steven Joyce’s commercial connections/ or Leighton Holdings/SKM/ AECOM ? It seems a little coincidental that the Wellington Tunnels Alliance members are a shoo-in.

    No one at NZTA will allow us to be heard in a forum ( I asked at the Basin Reserve exhibit on Monday) & was told the NZTA policy was to “broadcast” information, and not provide a forum for exchange of views . The RONS is a con. Thank you for the demand management information above.

  2. Judith,
    no, we haven’t tried to – and no, we certainly hope there aren’t any kickbacks – I’d hate to think that NZ is becoming that corrupt, but perhaps I am just naive. Certainly though, NZTA is just a pawn in the battle – National MP Steven Joyce has his finger well and truly on the throttle.
    Interestingly, Joyce is a List MP only, and so therefore cannot be voted out – he has no electorate behind him.

  3. I’m going to go against the grain a bit here and say I feel sorry for those who actually have the job of solving congestion problems. (yes we have congestion problems and minimizing these by comparing them to much worse overseas examples is a strangely self depreciating position).

    The alternatives proposed in your post are all non-solutions without the infrastructure to back them up.

    1. Road pricing – Doesn’t magically evaporate commuters but means they must find an alternative which as far as public transport goes in Wellington, at this point can hardly cope with existing demand. Sorry but due to the cities cruel winter climate cycling and walking en-masse for those in the outer suburbs will never catch on.

    2.HOT lanes – Great idea if you have a spare lane lying around. Considering most of our highways are 1 or 2 lanes I cant imagine how, for example an out of town business commuter would feel in single lane bumper to bumper traffic as a hand full of well organized car poolers go whizzing by.

    3. GPS – Again how does this help Wellington with one point of access to the North? There’s no point being well informed when there is nothing to be well informed about.

    Its easy for those without the responsibility of actually producing results to offer pseudo solutions and try and claim some sort of moral high ground divorced from a few unpleasant realities.

    Reality 1. – Personal transport is king. My sustainability philosophy is that if you cant beat em join em. People love cars and for good reason; practical, reliable, convenient, liberating. There will be even more reason to use them when we eventually move on from fossil fuels and cars become smarter and better integrated into cities transport systems.

    2. The cities going to grow. I find it pointless arguing over which statistics prove what, surely it can be accepted that in the future there will be more people wanting to go to more places more quickly.

    3. A corridors better than a maze. We should be aiming for 0 zero congestion in all forms of transport and opening up a corridor through the city makes sense. The alternatives discussed above will then become more realistic as complimentary to some decent infrastructure.

    I do agree that the NZTA should be more transparent with presenting every proposal considered and the pros and cons of each, however I its a shame we live in a world where nothing can happen with out there being an associated conspiracy theory.


  4. Thanks for your comments Mike – its good to have some well-argued points to look at. Yes, we are in the position of not having to be directly responsible for producing a solution, but that does not mean that we can’t / shouldn’t put forward points of criticism against a scheme that is being promoted. Just because the official scheme is the only scheme on offer, does not mean that is necessarily good, or should proceed. Criticism of a scheme works to expose flaws – so that these can then be addressed. A scheme that has responded to vigorous criticism, and changed accordingly, is more likely to be a better scheme for it at the end of the day.

  5. Good stuff Mike, and exactly why I wanted to put these ideas out there – i.e. discussion…

    Note that I haven’t suggested that any of these is the ideal solution for the Basin project (am less interested in access from the North at the moment), especially if taken in isolation (i.e. any changes should be part of a package). I am suggesting, although admittedly not clearly enough, that it would be great to see some actual evaluation of them instead of automatic road building – to which you have given one point of view above. Getting some of these ideas out there is all I am after here…

  6. Michael Avatar

    The 3rd wheel makes for better TV?
    Although this Government might disagree, all steps necessary must be taken to insure that in the future when vehicle use declines significantly due to a number of environmental reasons, the infrastructure is in place to convert easily to rail perhaps. What about a THIRD option for the transport corridor? It would be democratic for the general public to see an alternative design for the transport corridor that priorities public transport over vehicle use. Isn’t the purpose of this upgrade to reduce long term congestion? Interestingly, the Induced Traffic phenomenon applies to all transport modes, for example Copenhagen suffers from ‘Induced cycling’ from building so many cycle ways . Besides the pedestrian and cycleway, the current proposal makes me want to stop taking the bus to the airport and start driving, as it looks so easy to do in a vehicle! This is because too much emphasis has been put on roading, which is not the purpose of the upgrade. As a member of the public I would like to see NZTA demonstrate to the public their credentials… by developing a third Option C. A design that achieves the goal of reducing congestion by prioritises public transport and does so with much less roading.

    Where’s my snapper?

  7. Frank Avatar

    I know you don’t get a lot of commenters here, but c’mon, you don’t have to be so accommodating of such argumentative flailing. Let’s see:

    Road pricing, Mike, did you not read the bit about shifting demand, which is what road pricing sets out to achieve. PT isn’t the only option – car pooling is one, avoiding peak times another. You could always improve PT to make that a better option too – be all smart and progressive the same way other cities are

    Hot lanes – your out of towner can simply pay the charge for the congestion he is adding to, why should he escape user pays? (I’m assuming your’re of the conservative type who sees congestion as an economic cost?). the problem with motorists is the inflated sense of self-importance and rights that all that ‘liberty’ encourages.

    GPS – not going to solve the Aotea to Ngauranga bottleneck, but why not use it to avoid congestion on the other parts of your journey? Better still, why live so frick’n far away from where you work anyway, and then be all whiny-pants to everyone else about it? if you choose to live in the Hutt for cheaper property, bigger section or whatever – that is your choice. Just don’t make me pay for it. I think that point, or something similar was made in the earlier post to this one.

    “Its easy for those without the responsibility of actually producing results to offer pseudo solutions and try and claim some sort of moral high ground divorced from a few unpleasant realities.” actually, they have, and it involves roads rather than any of the strategies outlined above.

    Your reality is very weird when joining them is the key to sustainability.

  8. Michael – there’ll be a post on resilient cities early next week, which relates to both the Basin proposal, and the Council’s 2040 vision (most appropriately). This will touch on some of the issues that you raise.

    Frank – ummm, thanks for the backhanded compliment (I think). Actually, I just learnt the term ‘white knighting’ today…

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