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Toby Manhire: Time to get on the buses

by April 12, 2017 General
Daily traffic congestion on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Photo/ file
Daily traffic congestion on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Photo/ file

A headline this week offered a clue to the preoccupations in New Zealand’s biggest city. “Volcanic eruption could cripple Auckland’s transport network,” it read.

I mean, just when you thought the commute couldn’t get more protracted and painful, along comes a bloody volcanic eruption.

Inconvenient as inferno-hot molten rock streaming down New North Road might prove, however, as anyone who was on the roads yesterday could tell you, all it really takes to cripple Auckland’s transport network is a bit of rain.

Or a bit of public holiday, as those planning to join the traditional Easter snail race out of Auckland today are about to find out. For a crippled Auckland transport network, if we’re being honest, you don’t really need anything more than a day ending in Y.

With close to 1000 extra cars joining the Auckland traffic cesspit every week, it’s little wonder tempers are frayed.

By one measure, peak-time drivers in the city can expect to spend 20 days stuck in traffic every year. When it was announced the other week that there would be light rail to the airport in 30 years, the concerted response was that it feels like it takes about that long already.

It might be worse than ever, but Aucklanders have been stewing in their motorised steel boxes for decades. Apart from staring furiously at enemy drivers and composing angry messages to post later on the internet, these poor souls quite understandably spend many of these hours bemoaning the state of the roads.

For a long time that has translated into an almost visceral enthusiasm for promises to make those roads better, wider and more numerous, meaning “More Roads” has proved a reliably bountiful political slogan.

But while Auckland has a long way to go before it can shake its car addiction, when it comes to the solution to the gridlock, the worm – having waited for ages for the lights to change – appears to be turning.

More roads won’t solve the problem. More roads can’t solve the problem. Study after study proves the Field of Dreams aphorism true: If you build them, heaps more people will come and drive on them.

The worm’s turning might be measured, for example, somewhere along the Northern Busway.

Before its introduction just less than a decade ago, the very idea of a park-and-ride style bus, with its own lane from the shore to town, was pelted with rotten vegetables.

“A bus? Phshaw!” they shrieked, as if channelling something of that famous, if apocryphal, Thatcherism: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who seriously opposes the service, which carries more than half of the people crossing the harbour daily.

In a city undergoing prodigious growth, it is obvious that public transport is a priority. It is pretty obvious, too, that governments and councils of all stripes in decades past have failed to build the necessary infrastructure that has left us in this dismal state, but let’s not dwell for now on that.

Given all this, it’s weird to see the government eagerly pouring as much as $18 billion (read that again – eighteen billion) of public money into the East-West Link.

The project, which has been fast-tracked as a designated “road of national significance”, would be New Zealand’s most expensive road ever, and is being promoted by the New Zealand Transport Agency with bizarre animations of people who appear to have stepped out of repertory theatre, moments away from certain collisions on shared cycle-and-pedestrian lanes.

The real benefit of the Onehunga-Penrose link is for freight shifters, who face increasingly impossible delays.

But there are alternatives that come much cheaper. By way of comparison, the Waterview tunnel and link – which may one day open, you never know – cost less than a tenth of that, at $1.4b. The critical City Rail Link is budgeted at $3.4b.

Light rail to the airport, which the government recently kicked into its brighter-future-2030s manifesto, would be a relative snip at just over a billion.

This week the lobby group and blog Greater Auckland published an updated version of its Congestion Free Network. It is a handsome map, illustrating public transport in the sort of way you see in grown-up cities.

But more importantly, sporting an integrated system centred around seven core routes, two light-rail, two heavy rail and three rapid bus transit, it’s plausible and relatively inexpensive.

Greater Auckland, nee TransportBlog, is not run by driverless-car-worshipping techbros or monorail-utopians; the general thrust of the first iteration of the CFN was incorporated into the Auckland Transport Alignment Project, the plan agreed by the council and government for the coming decades (budgeted at $24b, with a $4b hole in funding).

The chief point of difference for Greater Auckland: priorities and pace.

The other part of the puzzle, both in curbing congestion and expediting growth in public transport, is road pricing.

There is broad agreement that some form of congestion charging, a proven success at controlling demand in various forms in London, Singapore, Stockholm and parts of the US, is needed in Auckland.

The Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges, gets this to a vastly greater extent that did some of his fossilised predecessors.

He told the Herald last year that “we can’t keep building new lanes on highways. We will need a combination of demand-side interventions if we are going to deal with congestion over the next couple of decades.”

We can’t wait decades for that to arrive, however, and in the meantime the government should reconsider its rejection of the request by the Auckland mayor for a regional fuel tax to make up the budget shortfall.

The ghost of Sir Robert Muldoon still terrifies New Zealand policy-makers against pledging thing-big style ambition with infrastructure. But the scale of the challenge in Auckland is huge; nibbling away at the edges of highways is little better than nothing.

Homeowner bites dog
Man bites dog, goes the journalistic shorthand, coined a century or so ago, to explain what makes a headline and what doesn’t. A dog biting a human being? Unremarkable, not news. A human being biting a dog? Hold the front page.

And so it is with the flurry of stories in the Herald and elsewhere about people 30 and under buying houses, almost always thanks to the good fortune of generous parents and other exceptional circumstances.

While these stories might be catnip both to the cantankerous mutterers who think the young should pull their bootstraps up, join the army and stop stuffing their faces with avocado breakfasts as well as the hate-clickers who can’t afford a house, they do not prove that young people are able after all to buy houses, if they could, it wouldn’t be news, but the very opposite: Homeowner Bites Dog.

- NZ Herald