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Whether this quango has the power to force the issue in favour of rail against the NZ road lobby is moot. It looks like ARC is a 'coordinating' agency rather than a 'spending' one. But better than nothing, I suppose
Joel Cayford: Key to traffic chaos is public transport
It has never been cheaper to buy a car. It is also cheap to run one. So it is no surprise that Auckland has close to the world's highest car ownership a head and a huge suppressed demand for uncongested road space.
Hundreds of thousands of these cars stay parked at home during the rush-hour, mostly because their owners want to avoid congestion and because they have other ways of getting to their destinations.
Some take public transport, some share with another driver, some travel off-peak and some work at home. But as soon as road capacity is increased, the option of taking the car becomes more attractive.
Transport planners know about this effect. We call it latent demand. Build a new road in a congested city with high car ownership and it will fill up almost overnight and congestion delays rapidly become as bad as before.
Some advocate road pricing as the solution: make people pay to use roads. But that is not easy in practice. A few very large cities have made a dent in congestion through road pricing, usually at enormous cost.
For example, London's inner-city charging system cost more than £100 million ($263 million), demanded specialist know-how and required unblinking political support.
In Auckland we have trouble implementing integrated ticketing and getting buses to run to timetable. The painful truth is that Auckland's roads will remain congested for the foreseeable future, whether the roading network is completed or not. We cannot build our way out of congestion.
Pro-road lobbyists have estimated that Auckland's economic losses because of congestion at $1 billion a year resulting from delays, extra fuel consumed and so on. But how meaningful is this figure if free-running roads and zero congestion are not achievable?
It is dishonest to attribute a cost to congestion without acknowledging that it is not practically possible to eliminate it. Equally, it is dishonest to ignore the other costs of roading, such as those incurred through people dying from exhaust fume-related diseases. And no mention is made of the costs of contamination from brake linings, tyres, oils and other emissions.
If the cost of existing transport systems is used to justify investment in Auckland, every transport stakeholder owes it to the public to be comprehensive in their cost analysis rather than selective.
The benefit-cost ratio is another figure used in a misleading way to justify roading projects. The Automobile Association's much-quoted study from Australia's Allen Consulting is a good example.
It advocates a huge Government loan-funded road-building programme, arguing that the economic benefit of the new roads would significantly exceed the costs of construction.
Apart from claiming that accident-related costs would reduce, the study makes no mention of social and environmental costs. Indeed, the benefit-cost ratio is widely regarded as an unreliable measure, mainly because it does not recognise that new roads fill up quickly with traffic. Thus, claimed long-term benefits are illusory.
Auckland has much to learn from international experience, but it is sensible to seek advice from well-regarded independent sources.
For example, one of the accepted golden rules of urban transport is that the quality of peak-hour car travel tends to equal that of public transport. Measurements show that where a person's decision to use private or public transport is a free choice for a particular trip, an equilibrium will be reached.
If one mode is faster, cheaper and more agreeable than the other, more people will choose it, making it more crowded, while the other becomes less so, until no one thinks there is any benefit changing their travel arrangements.
Another golden rule is that cars require more space for each person than public transport, both moving and parked. Public transport is more economically efficient than cars, and as more and more people use it operators can supply more services at lower cost a person. Public transport offers economies of scale. That might sound like theory but it works in practice on heavily travelled routes.
What is less appreciated is the implication of these two rules taken together: that is, to improve the quality of peak-hour travel by car it is first necessary to improve the quality of peak-hour public transport.
North Shore City's Onewa Rd offers proof. Before implementing a dedicated public transport lane, peak-hour travel time along this arterial road was 30 minutes for both cars and buses, providing a carrying capacity of 3300 people an hour. After the improvement, buses took just seven minutes for the same trip, cars 18 minutes, and the road's capacity increased to 3800 people an hour. Improving public transport drove improvements in private car transport.
All things being equal, this improvement could be extended across Auckland's arterial road network, providing huge benefit to both public transport and cars. But things are not equal. Fares on buses and ferries have lately increased sharply, despite both being packed on many trips. Public transport users will be tempted back to their cars by unreasonable price increases by monopoly service providers.
The Auckland Regional Council negotiated the increases with bus and ferry operators after they complained their costs were going up. Operators partly opened their books during negotiations, but did not reveal how much they had profited with increasing patronage over the past decade because operators are not required to fully disclose their accounts.
It is time for better regulation. A cost-plus approach to profit is reasonable, but common sense says fares should be coming down, not going up.
And buses should go where people are going, not the opposite direction as on the North Shore. The latest ARC statistics show that 76 per cent of all morning peak trips starting on the North Shore end north of the Harbour Bridge. But of the 13 express bus services proposed for the city by the ARC, all go south to Auckland over the bridge. None services the major employment centres at Albany and Rosedale. I expect Auckland's new transport authority will give top priority to fixing such inadequacies.
As for capacity, each traffic lane over the Harbour Bridge carries 2400 people an hour, in 2000 cars, during the morning peak. The single traffic lane allocated to the northern busway will carry 11,400 people an hour, more than four times the capacity of each general traffic lane.
Before building more roads, at least some of Auckland's public transport corridors need to be designed to carry much greater capacity. We need to be designing for the capacity that will be needed in 50 years. A careful balance needs to be struck between spending on buses and spending on rail. The time for partial thinking and rhetoric has passed.
* Joel Cayford is the new chairman of the ARC transport committee.
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