We’re taking wrong road to fixing congestion


Last updated 07:37, October 25 2017

Traffic congestion at evening rush hour near the Basin Reserve in Wellington. Despite efforts by numerous parties and experts, this is unlikely to get better any time soon.

OPINION: Block may sink Basin plans reads the headline of a recent news item (Dominion Post, Oct 18) that went on to raise concerns about traffic congestion problems at the Basin Reserve.

Much has been made of the congestion at the Basin and on the routes into and through the city. However, is traffic congestion in Wellington and the wider region really a significant problem and will road-based solutions provide the answers or will they accentuate the problem?

For decades the prime focus of the New Zealand Transport Agency has been to expand the highway network to solve traffic and transport problems. This in spite of much evidence that constructing more motorways and bridges in built-up areas does not lead to significant travel time savings or ease congestion, the common assumption of road and traffic engineers.

American writer and political activist Jane Jacobs spent a lifetime writing about economic development and the decay of city environments. She did not have a high opinion of traffic engineers and traffic management as it has been practised over the past 60 years. She castigated them for their failure to ask and address the right questions, and their failure to investigate after desired outcomes are not achieved.

When resident in Toronto during her latter years, Jacobs described her observations travelling by taxi to a downtown destination in the city. On a trip from the airport, part of the taxi journey was along an elevated limited access highway, with on and off ramps feeding to and from the city’s grid of one-way streets.

“On the expressway stretch the meter is ticking over, the trip seems economical and I am getting good distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at the exit ramp and from then on everything changes. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance. I am not complaining about this. As research it is economical. What worries me rather, is the expensive burden on the city and the planet of air pollution and urban road congestion that the expensive part of my trip is registering.

“The driver must weave circuitously around the block, then around another block and so on to reach the correct side of the street on which to deposit me. All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers also are attempting to reach their micro-destinations. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicycle couriers.”

I mention these observations of Jacobs, for they have much relevance to Wellington in its effort to develop transport solutions to take us through the 21st century.

We are fortunate that we now have new a government promising a new approach to dealing with urban transport problems. However, we remain saddled with a transport agency fixated on building new roads and a legacy of committed construction, which when completed will add to Wellington’s traffic woes.

Already we have seen the impact of the Kapiti Expressway. Communities split by a highway passing through them and noise problems that are upsetting the locals.

The trip from Peka Peka to Raumati may be quicker, but this is countered by increased congestion and longer travel time where the new road merges with the old at Mackay’s Crossing. The Transport Agency has admitted that little can be done to solve this problem until the Transmission Gully motorway is completed sometime in 2020.

When it is, there will be a new problem — a choke point where the new expressway links to the existing motorway at Tawa. All things being equal, congestion and slower travel times into Wellington City will remain. What is not so clear is how the city is expected to cope with the estimated 11,000 additional vehicles per day that will be generated. On this, the planners have been remarkably silent. Perhaps they have yet to figure it out.

We are told that ‘four lanes to the planes’ is necessary for through traffic to the airport, but how much is there? A February 2017 progress report of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving initiative contains data that suggests that during the morning peak only 4 per cent of people arriving in Wellington from the north by car continue on beyond the CBD. If that is so, what is the justification for spending billions of dollars on expanding the road corridor through the centre of the city.

Recently I drove from Porirua and Upper Hutt on separate days during the morning peak. Admittedly my trips were slow, almost one hour on both journeys.

Along the way traffic moved at variable speeds, slowing to a crawl when approaching merging traffic from motorway on-ramps. On arriving in Wellington I observed long, stationary queues at the approaches to the off-ramps at Murphy St and the Hawkestone St and the Terrace. And there lies a problem. Once through the the Terrace Tunnel, I left most of the cars behind and it was a relatively fast trip of 11 minutes to the airport on both days. Maybe Jacobs was right. Road and traffic engineers fail to ask the right questions and consider alternative solutions when desired outcomes are not achieved.

There are solutions of course. Get commuters out of their cars and into other modes of transport and introduce a light rail link via Newtown to the airport, thereby moving more people more quickly and freeing up space for tradespeople and others who use their vehicles for commercial purposes.

This will take a change of mindset on the part of planners and policy-makers. Will the new government take up the challenge?

  • Michael Barnett is a member of Congestion Free Wellington. He is a former road and transport engineer at Wellington City Council

- The Dominion Post

Originally published at www.stuff.co.nz.

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