Traffic Lights – more harm than good?

There’s an interesting article in today’s NZ Herald that looks at the traffic effects of when there was a power cut last Monday, with a specific focus on why having the lights turned off might have actually made traffic better. Here’s the article:

Flow-on effect of no lights

By Heather McCracken
4:00 AM Sunday Jan 31, 2010

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The same intersection at 4.50pm last Monday, during the power cut (L) and at 4.50pm on Tuesday, when the traffic lights were working (R). Photos / Supplied by Studio TDES

It should have been a commuter’s worst nightmare: a rush-hour power cut blacking out traffic lights across Auckland.

But reports of a free-flowing commute during Monday’s massive evening outage have prompted questions over whether so many signals are needed at all.

Sarah Lilburn filmed traffic flow outside her apartment on Union St in central Auckland at 4.50pm.

Her footage shows traffic flowing freely through the busy intersection with Wellington St and on to the Northern Motorway.

A comparison video taken at the same time the next day showed vehicles edging through the junction and long queues of traffic waiting to enter the motorway.

Lilburn thought the unusual circumstances on Monday made drivers more courteous and patient.

“Normally there is a lot of beeping during rush hour but there was none during that time,” she said.

“You could see some people hesitating longer than they needed to, but the people behind them didn’t beep because they seemed to understand.”

Radio Live host James Coleman said there were no delays during his drive to work during the evening peak hour.

“Traffic flowed beautifully, it was absolutely amazing.”

He said drivers appeared to be more careful and alert when navigating uncontrolled intersections, and thought traffic lights sent them into “autopilot” mode.

“I think people approach intersections with a little bit more care knowing there’s an unpredictability about people’s behaviour.”

Coleman called for a traffic light-free day to be trialled in Auckland but acknowledged issues around pedestrian and cycle safety.

There were no crashes or major incidents reported during the outage, which cut power to 50,000 homes from just before 5pm.

Auckland city road policing inspector Gavin Macdonald said delays at some major intersections were eased by officers directing traffic.

“I think drivers realised if they didn’t behave themselves, they would probably get gridlocked or prosecuted,” he said.

Most traffic lights are installed, monitored and maintained by local authorities.

Last year cyclist Matt Hancock complained about encountering 14 sets of lights during his 5.5km commute from Ellerslie to Newmarket – averaging one every 390m.

The Herald on Sunday counted the lights on other major routes, and found commuters from Panmure and New Lynn struck traffic lights every 550m on average.

Auckland City Council network performance manager Karen Hay said drivers generally behaved more cautiously during a blackout, but would eventually take more risks if those circumstances became regular.

Traffic signals were a last-resort for vehicle control and were only used after a review of traffic demand, crash rates, and pedestrian and cycle safety, she said.

Alternatives included roundabouts, which allowed more free-flowing traffic, but sometimes led to long delays on side roads.

Hay said traffic light phasing – how quickly the sequence is completed and how sets interact with each other – were set by a software programme and adjusted by road sensors according to demand.

An advantage of signals over roundabouts was that lights could be overridden from two control rooms, a regional traffic management unit and an Auckland City Council unit.

AA motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon said there had been cases where removing lights had improved traffic flow and safety.

“But what happens is you have situations were you just can’t get into the traffic, and you get big delays,” he said.

“Are we going to get away from having traffic lights? No. We need them.”

In terms of the particular Wellington Street case, the reduced congestion was probably due to the ramp metering lights being off, but it’s an interesting question to ask overall – whether traffic lights make things better or worse. Often in a situation when everyone’s traveling slowly and carefully, it seems like the road-space is used more efficiently when you don’t have lights – as people let others in, there’s a sort of “your-turn, my-turn” arrangement that appears, and so forth. I do agree that it’s the unusualness of situations when the lights go out that makes you more cautious and courteous, and perhaps that would wear off over time. However, I do think that unless the signalling of traffic lights is very well managed, there is certainly the chance they do more harm than good from a traffic-throughput perspectives (ever sat at a red light forever when nobody’s coming…. exactly!)

Perhaps what’s more interesting is looking at it from a safety perspective. I am completely unsurprised that having traffic lights go out didn’t lead to chaos on the roads from a safety perspective. The most important factor determining how safe an intersection is, is how cautious everyone is being. In that respect, while traffic lights improve safety from a “it’s definitely your turn or it’s definitely not your turn” perspective, I think they achieve the opposite in terms of caution – as when you’re driving your only focus is on getting through before the light goes orange and you effectively have your “blinkers on” to everything else. A contrast is at a roundabout where you do have to think, you do have to be careful and you do have to go slowly. Unsurprisingly the accidents that happen at roundabouts are usually minor, while those that happen at traffic-light intersections are often major.

Road safety is in many respects counter-intuitive, as the general thinking is that the easier the road is made for the driver, the safer it will be. While this might be the case out in the country, in the city I reckon the opposite is probably true. The safest roads are likely to be those that are a bit too narrow for comfort, have a funny 5-way intersection without it being clear who always has the right of way, that has on-street parking on both sides that makes the road seem narrower than it is, and so forth. This is because all these things slow people down. Getting rid of more traffic lights would probably achieve the same safety benefits, as drivers would have to think more and be more careful.

In wider terms, perhaps the huge focus of road-rules on defining clearly who has the right of way and who doesn’t – simply hasn’t worked and is in fact counter-productive as it stops us from being wary of the unexpected. After all, how many people have died on the world’s roads over the past 100 odd years of motoring – millions? How can we say that the current system has worked?

A Question

This may well be the shortest blog post of all times, but it is to raise a question that I have never had properly explained:

Why is is that Sunday’s public transport service levels have to be worse than Saturday’s?

In all my catching of public transport over the years I’ve seen no real evidence that patronage is much less on a Sunday than a Saturday, except for in the evening. So why can’t we just have a “weekend timetable”, rather than separate, complex and confusing timetables that separate the two days? If we were really smart we’d match up the off-peak weekday timetable with the weekend one, so that people travelling off-peak would know the timetable was the same seven days a week.

Is this difference between Saturdays and Sundays perhaps a hangover from the days when everyone was paid more on Sundays, and companies tried to reduce their wage bill by cutting back on services?

New York Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

New York is finalising plans to create the first, of half a dozen BRT lines in the city, on First and Second avenues. The lines are not “true” BRT as they will not be fully grade separated or prioritised such as the lines in the first city with BRT, Curitiba, Brazil (or Auckland’s own Northern Busway) but rather similar to our green bus lanes only with stations to speed up loading.

What can Auckland learn from this process?

Here is a look at what the streets might look like when finished:

BRT or fancy bus lane?

This is “Option B” of the two under consideration by the NY Department of Transportation in the project named the Select Bus Service and what isn’t shown in the image is that this and Option A both have the bus lanes shared with right turning traffic at every intersection and bicycles with left turning. The other option actually has parking on the outside of the BRT lane! Very poor as the aim is to reduce the travel time and increase the ridership.

To me this is still a very car dominated landscape with four lanes of traffic, a lane for parking, narrow sidewalks and what I essentially consider ordinary bus-lanes with the only improvements being stations, faster loading and articulated buses.

The lesson for Auckland, if we choose to develop this level of bus service between busway and bus lane, is that:

  1. Bus lanes must be continuous, as grade separated as possible, with lanes extending up to the intersection;
  2. Priority at traffic lights;
  3. Pre paid stations with front and rear loading;
  4. Specifically branded articulated buses and the elimination of parking.

Something to keep in mind for the upcoming Dominion Road upgrade, one of the best candidates for this type of intermediate service methinks.

Onehunga Line: the good and the bad news

Well there is some good news to report on the Onehunga Line, and some bad news (well, no news is bad news in this case). The good news has emerged from the answer to a parliamentary question about whether the Onehunga branch would be included in the electrification project – which was a point of debate back in August when it seemed like there would be some serious cutbacks to electrification. Here’s the question, and its answer:

David Shearer to the Minister of Transport (16 Dec 2009): Will the Onehunga Branch Line be electrified, as part of the Auckland rail electrification project?
Hon Steven Joyce (Minister of Transport) replied: Yes.

Excellent.

So how are things going on progressing the Onehunga Line, which is meant to open in mid 2010? Jon C from Auckland Trains has done a before and after photograph of the site – comparing how the Onehunga station and the line directly into it looked in August 2009 and how they look now.

Here’s August 2009: And here’s this morning (once again, credit to Jon C for the photos):

Ummmm…. that’s really not much progress. In fact it’s no progress at all on a station that should be opened in just a few more months. So what’s going on here ARTA?

I have heard a rumour that there are some resource consents required for the station, and that these might take a while to get. Which begs the question of why these consents weren’t applied for earlier, considering this station was meant to open in November/December last year.

Costing the Holiday Highway

The announcement of the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway on Wednesday detailed the cost of that road to be $1.4 billion. Here’s the relevant part of the press release:

…$1.4 billion strategic upgrade of State Highway 1 from Puhoi to Wellsford…

It would seem to me that this is the cost of the whole Puhoi-Wellsford stretch, and not just the Puhoi-Warkworth first stage. It seems as though the second stage is the more complex (or at least that’s what NZTA are saying), so perhaps it might be realistic to expect the Warkworth-Wellsford bit to be the more costly, particularly as it’s a bit longer that the Puhoi-Warkworth stretch. So let’s just say perhaps an $600 million/$800 million split for the two projects. Now how realistic is that kind of budget? Let’s have a look at the southern portion first, where I have matched up the route diagram in NZTA’s information booklet with Google Earth, to show where the proposed route alignment will go – and the rather large hills that it seems to encounter on the way: Two areas that would seem to be particularly problematic are labelled as “steep slopes”. There’s a rather tricky hairpin corner for the southern one, while for the northern one the current alignment is pretty straight but quite steep (I can’t understand why NZTA would want to shift from that current alignment there actually.)

Now while I am sure that nothing here is impossible, there would be quite significant earthworks required and perhaps even some expensive bridging or tunnelling.  Keeping in mind that the Orewa-Puhoi motorway was only 6km long and yet cost $360 million to construct, it may be a tad optimistic to suggest that a 15km motorway could be constructed to a similar standard (and across what appears to be similarly challenging terrain) for not even double the cost.

The Warkworth to Wellsford stage is even trickier, as you can see in the diagram below. The current road winds its way through the “Dome Valley”, which is very hilly terrain and is well forested. I would suspect that some serious tunnelling (or alternatively some pretty horrendous earthworks) will be necessary to bring this section of road to fruition. Which means that $800 million might really be pushing it for this stretch of road. I guess ultimately it comes down to comparing the “per-kilometre” cost of this new road against the Orewa-Puhoi one, which we know cost $360 million for around 6km – so $60 million per kilometre. Of course that included a tunnel, which might have bumped things up a bit, but I think it’s unlikely we would get away with building this 38km road through mountainous terrain without any tunnel. 38 km by $60 million per kilometre comes to a total of nearly $2.3 billion – quite a bit more than the estimated $1.4 billion that NZTA have come up with here.

That’s a pretty expensive upgrade for something that is only used by around 15,000 vehicles a day. A basic Warkworth bypass would be only 5km long, and across pretty flat land. That might cost around $100-150 million, and I suspect would achieve many of the same benefits that this super-expensive holiday highway is meant to provide. Surely that’s a more sensible option?

Dominion Road – yay, a world-class bus route

As I have mentioned previously, Dominion Road probably already has one of the better bus routes throughout all of Auckland. But it’s about to get even better! From February, there will be inter-peak buses going along this route every 5 minutes between Mt Roskill shops and the CBD. Yes, that’s a service at 5 minute frequencies.

Here’s a link to the new timetable, and an extract from it:

I am thoroughly impressed.

Holiday Highway confirmed – despite low BCR

There were some interesting announcements yesterday on the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. While the first stage to Warkworth is being brought forward for completion within 9 years (that may sound like a long time, but at least half of that would be construction time, so the first step of construction might happen within the next four years), the second stage between Warkworth and Wellsford seems to have sensibly been pushed off into the never-never.

It is also interesting to see that the cost for the project is now given as $1.4 billion, whereas before I had seen figures of above $2 billion. I wonder whether this $1.4 billion simply covers the first stage, or whether we’re looking at more of a basic upgrade and widening, as opposed to the ‘completely new motorway alignment’ that was expected.

Anyway, here’s the full press release:

Pushing forward with Puhoi to Wellsford

Transport Minister Steven Joyce has welcomed confirmation of the NZ Transport Agency’s plans for a $1.4 billion strategic upgrade of State Highway 1 from Puhoi to Wellsford and expressed frustration over the lack of planning for the route prior to last year.

He says early signs are that the first stage from Puhoi to Warkworth will be complete within 9 years but that the second stage (Warkworth to Wellsford) will be more challenging to finish in that time. However, that remains the Transport Agency’s goal.

“The government’s $10.7 billion commitment to state highway funding over the ten year period means that funding is not the big issue for this project but the reality is design, consultation and consenting processes all take time.

“On our current timetable this will be the fastest ever major highway project completed in this country from go to whoa.”

The government announced the Puhoi to Wellsford section of State Highway 1 as a road of national significance in March last year and work began after that to scope the project and commence investigation of route options.

“Given the previous government seemed to believe the job finished at Puhoi and had no intention of four-laning beyond that, we were beginning from a standing start and have been playing catch-up over the last twelve months,” says Mr Joyce.

“One option being investigated is to build the Warkworth Bypass first to relieve congestion at that point. However, we would still need to know where the road north and south of that links into the bypass route so it will still take some time to get the consents for that section.

“The focus over the next couple of years will be undertaking detailed investigation and design work to determine route options and obtain statutory consents. This will include public consultation on possible routes.

“The new road will bring significant benefits to the Northland and Rodney districts, as well as to Auckland.

“The Puhoi to Wellsford corridor has been identified as one of our most essential state highway routes to reduce congestion, improve safety and support economic growth in the Auckland and Northland regions.”

Completing the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance will deliver significant benefits, including:
• enhance inter regional and national economic growth and productivity
• improve movement of freight and people between Auckland and Northland
• improve the connectivity between key growth areas in the north Rodney area
• improve reliability of the transport network through a more robust and safer route between Auckland and Northland
• provide further route security for Northland residents

First things first, to look at the positives I’m glad that one of the options being investigated is to build the Warkworth bypass first. From my experiences over the summer holidays, it really seemed as though 99% of the congestion problems experienced along this route were due to it having to go right through the middle of Warkworth. So if we were to bypass Warkworth, most of the problems might actually be solved. Of course that wouldn’t look quite as good for the politicians as building a shiny new 20 km motorway, but it would probably be a far more sensible use of funds.

However, I still struggle to believe how this road is seen as such a high priority. It really is only congested for a few days of the year – during holiday times – and the average number of vehicles travelling along it is barely equivalent to a busy arterial route in the Auckland urban area. Sure, it’s an important strategic route to the northern part of the country, but once again it only experiences congestion very infrequently, and I am sure trucking companies are smart enough to avoid using it at midday on December 27th each year anyway.

Labour MP David Shearer’s press release in response to this announcement mirrors a lot of my thinking about this project, in that why is this road considered such a high priority? He also raises the excellent point that most of the congestion along this route is simply caused by Warkworth, where a simple bypass could achieve much of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost:

Why is a Holiday Highway a priority?

Mt Albert MP David Shearer is calling for the government to get its priorities right on Auckland Transport.

“National’s decision to fast-track the Puhoi to Wellsford stretch of State Highway One shows the Government is not tuned in to the needs of Auckland commuters,” David Shearer said.

“The Puhoi/ Wellsford road is a holiday highway which is only congested during the summer breaks. I share the frustrations that motorists have when heading north, but $1.4 billion could be better spent addressing Auckland’s major transport problems. And, building a by-pass at Warkworth, could ease much of the problem on that route for a tenth of the cost.

“Today’s announcement means important items that all the mayoral candidates have agreed on, such as the inner city rail loop in Auckland, will be put on hold. Auckland sees that as its number 1 priority for Auckland and economic development.

“Steven Joyce’s fixation on building motorways means the real issues around Auckland’s transport network are being ignored. “NZ is building more motorways while most major cities in the world are moving towards other forms of transport. National is taking us in the opposite direction.

“Yes thousands of Aucklanders use the Puhoi/Wellsford road for a handful of weeks to holiday. But they’re also the same Aucklanders who are screaming out for a decent public transport system.”

David Shearer said National needs to take the blinkers off and listen to what people are saying are the real priorities for transport are.

“Aucklanders want their everyday transport woes to be eased. Pouring billions into a holiday highway is not a priority for them,”

NZTA have released a useful information booklet on the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway, which gives us an insight into the likely routes it will take and – as Jeremy mentioned last night – shows quite clearly that the project isn’t worth the money likely to be spent on it, unless we start messing with the conventional cost-benefit analysis process. For a start, let’s have a look at the route:

The solid black line is the existing state highway 1 route, the orange line is the first stage of the proposed road (Puhoi-Warkworth) and the blue line is the second stage – from Warkworth to Wellsford. I am guessing that the purple shaded areas represent areas that will be urbanised in the future or are current urbanised, as I am sure there is not that much development up that way yet.

There are a few things that deserve comment I think. The first is that the proposed route will follow the existing route to what I think it quite a surprising degree. I reckon that if the road is going to be that close to what’s there at the moment, it would be pretty stupid to do anything more than widening the existing road and easing a few corners. Perhaps that’s what is actually going to be proposed?  The second thing is that the simple bypass of Warkworth comes across as such a no-brainer, and would actually be a pretty damn short stretch of road to build (probably fairly cheap too as it’s flat land). In contrast, both stages of the whole route pass through very mountainous land – which I suspect will be incredibly expensive to build a motorway-standard road across. And the third thing is that we’re going to see some environmental carnage out there if this is built. There are some quite nice tracts of forest along this road, particularly around the Pohuehue Viaduct between Puhoi and Warkworth, and then through the Dome Valley between Warkworth and Wellsford. The routes shown above seem to blatantly disregard any environmental impacts.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, Jeremy touched on this last night.  As shown in the box below it seems as though the cost-benefit ratio (BCR) is a bit of a moveable feast in terms of this project, with much reliant upon “wider economic benefits”, which NZTA apparently have a very poor understanding of at the moment and are only just starting to properly research, and reducing discount rates – whatever that means. Under the existing standard scheme its BCR is only 0.8 though, which means that by building it we’re effectively flushing money down the toilet.

Though I must say I’m surprised it’s even that high.

Puhoi to Wellsford: BCR of 0.8

Yes, the benefit to cost ratio has come back with a negative return as demonstrated in page 8 of the NZTA project summary statement http://nzta.govt.nz/network/rons/docs/puhoi-wellsford-project-summary-statement.pdf (hat tip: LucyJH):

A BCR of 0.8 meaning at a cost of $2 billion dollars it will return $1.6 billion to the NZ economy. I have to say even this I find this highly dubious and think some very creative accounting has gone into the calculation, I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown. Remember both the USA and the UK, whose BCR systems ours was based on, have changed the way they calculate BCR making less favourable to roads to reflect reality, we haven’t and this project still returns a negative BCR, makes you wonder when the press and Darren Hughes are going to wake up, doesn’t it?

The report also talks about using the new infrastructure to allow development to maximise returns on the investment, if that isn’t code word for sprawl I don’t know what is. If this is allowed to continue National can quit calling itself the party of economic sense and change it’s name to the “We Let Steven Joyce Destroy NZ’s Wealth Party”. As we’ve seen with the approval of the Transmission Gully project he isn’t afraid to write $1.1 billion dollars out of the NZ economy with one stroke of a pen, what is a paltry $400 million dollars compared to that?

Can you build your way out of congestion?

Whether or not it’s possible to “build your way out of congestion” is a fundamental question that transport planners all around the world grapple with. On the one hand, we seem to have been building a lot of “transport stuff” over the past few hundred years yet our cities seem as congested as ever; while on the other hand it seems quite crazy to suggest that building transport projects is pointless as no matter what you build, you’ll never actually be able to make a difference to congestion. Perhaps a useful term to consider is that we have to “run fast to stand still”, and that transport infrastructure needs to be constructed to ensure that, at the very least, congestion doesn’t get worse. But that’s not how it’s sold to us. The transport projects that a lot of money is currently being sunk into are sold to the public for their ability to reduce congestion, and if the politician is being particularly optimistic, to eliminate it altogether.

For an example, let’s have a look at some of yesterday’s announcement about additional spending on road infrastructure in and around Christchurch:

Less congestion, shorter travelling times and improved road safety are three of the major benefits Canterbury motorists can expect from the biggest road construction programme in the region’s history…

…NZTA Board member Garry Moore said the construction programme was designed to improve and future-proof access to the Christchurch International Airport and Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch.

“Our goal is to make life easier for Cantabrians by delivering reliable, safe and efficient road access to the airport and the port for the people and businesses of the region. The future economic growth and prosperity of Canterbury, depends on people and goods reaching these destinations efficiently, safely and on time.”

Mr Moore said the construction programme would deliver a wide range of benefits including:
• More efficient movement of increasing freight volumes through the region
• Improved access to Christchurch’s CBD, airport, Lyttelton Port and other facilities such as hospitals
Reduced congestion leading to more reliable journey times
• Improved road safety, with lane-separated state highways, and traffic diverted from local roads
• Substantial investment in the local construction industry flowing into the regional economy.

Now to be honest I don’t know much at all about these motorway projects in Christchurch, and they very much might be essential – I simply don’t know the details enough to make a judgement in that respect. However, what is clear is that we’re being sold some big promises here for the $600 million or so that will be spent on these roading projects over the next decade. Are they likely to be realistic promises? Can roading projects really actually reduce congestion and improve travel times in the longer term?

I suppose at first glance it seems logical that building more roads, or widening existing ones, would reduce congestion. The more or wider roads you have, the greater capacity the transport system has and therefore the greater number of cars that can travel through it without the system becoming ‘overloaded’ – ie. congested. I suspect that many people think of a transport system being similar to a stormwater system, in that there is a certain amount of cars (water) that needs to be provided with space to get from A to B, and if there’s not enough capacity for them to get there – then you’ll have congestion, which is bad.

Googling the term “build your way out of congestion” shows that there are a reasonable number of groups that vehemently believe that you can achieve this task (although they generally appear to be anti-transit pro-sprawl groups). NZTA and the current government certainly seem to believe that building your way out of congestion is possible – as shown in the press release above (as well as just about every other press release about motorways we’ve seen in the last year or so). But it is true? How does the argument that each project is going to “make things better” stack up against the reality that congestion seems to keep getting worse, or at best, simply stays the same?

The big “elephant in the room” that seems to be ignored here is the concept of “induced travel demand“. I have talked about induced demand before, but basically it can be summed up as “if you build it, they will come”. Because new and wider roads offer a ‘superior product’ compared to what was there before, they attract more people to use them at the times people find most convenient. So therefore all that increased capacity can end up disappearing pretty quickly as people change routes, make their trips at peak times instead of off-peak, switch from public transport to driving or just make a trip that they wouldn’t have bothered with before.

Todd Litman, of the Victorian Transport Policy Institute, has put together an excellent paper on induced demand and its planning implications that explains the phenomenon in excellent detail. Here’s the abstract from his paper on the topic: The introduction contains a bit more information on what induced/generated traffic is, and the economic theory that sits behind the concept: In a bit more “user friendly” language, here are a few examples of transport decisions that relate to induced/generated demand: Interestingly, research has shown that over many many decades average commute times have apparently stayed the same, at around 75 minutes per day in the USA, even as transport technologies have rapidly improved. Of course people have been able to travel much further in that alloted time, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be any reduction in the length of commutes. However, that statistic is useful in attacking the use of ‘time-savings benefits’ in the cost-benefit analysis of projects rather than arguing that you can’t build you way out of congestion. If one was able to travel 125km within the 75 minute commuter allotment, traffic would be travelling pretty quickly and in all likeliness there wouldn’t be significant congestion.

But what this natural equilibrium of both commuting time and level of congestion means is that it’s damn hard to actually reduce congestion through road-building, because when you make an improvement to a road by widening it, the ‘latent demand’ that wanted to use that road but was put off doing so by congestion, is set free – and much (if not all) of that additional demand is eaten up very quickly indeed. This is well illustrated in the diagram below: Bringing this back to Auckland, we can see on a few of our motorway routes that capacity has been reached. Taking the Harbour Bridge and the SH16 causeway as two examples (because both are involved in potentially hugely expensive project to increase their capacity, we can see that over the period of 2004-2008 the number of vehicles crossing the Harbour Bridge reduced from 161,900 to 153,324 per day, while the number of vehicles going along the SH16 causeway between Waterview and Patiki/Rosebank Road went from 90,815 to 87,262. Of course 2008 was a rather strange year for traffic volumes, as petrol prices of more than $2 a litre really did end up forcing people off the road. But even if we look at the more “normal” 2007 figures, there really was little or any growth in traffic numbers between 2004 and 2007 on these two routes. Which to me suggests that they are probably considered to be approaching ‘capacity’. Of course it would be really interesting to find out the peak hour flows and how they’ve changed over the years, but unfortunately NZTA does not publish that data.

The point of mentioning the Harbour Bridge and the SH16 Causeway is that if/when we do add additional capacity – in the form of widening SH16 and building another crossing of the harbour (in whatever shape or form it turns out to be) then it seems inevitable that we will “let go” a lot of this latent demand, a lot more people will end up driving at peak times, and before long the roads will probably be just as congested as they are now.

Getting back to Littman’s article, aside from the ‘broken promises’ of motorway projects that were supposed to reduce congestion, but turn out to do nothing of the sort, there are quite a number of “costs” associated with induced traffic, that often are ignored by the current cost-benefit analysis system: There is a lot of other good stuff in the paper, and I could probably quote the whole thing quite happily, so I do suggest having a good read of it. However, I shall jump to the conclusion – as it provides some excellent overall points: So can you “build your way out of congestion”? Thanks to induced demand, I would think the answer is probably no, unless you built a truly unbelievable amount of roading so that all the latent demand in the whole city could be accommodated, even at peak hour. And to be honest, that seems like a pretty tremendous waste of resources. While congestion is annoying, it’s also sending us a message that perhaps we shouldn’t be driving along this road at this time of the day in this vehicle.

Interestingly, induced demand also applies to public transport (a better service will encourage more users). However, unlike the situation with private vehicles, induced demand is actually generally a good thing for public transport as it means higher patronage, lower costs-per-user and lower subsidies being required. Another fundamental advantage I suppose.

Discounts for Newmarket Train users

While my comments on the Newmarket station have been mixed, and there are still certainly some unresolved issues relating to timetabling and trackwork, it does seem as though some thought and effort is going into getting people to try out the station and getting people to consider new ways in which to get to a place like Newmarket – which has excellent public transport connections and a shortage of parking.

ARTA and the Newmarket Business Association have teamed up to get a variety of retailers to offer discounts to those who show that they arrived via the train. Here’s the press release:

Newmarket train station users get premium shopping deals

The Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) has partnered with the Newmarket Business Association and its members in a joint promotion which promotes use of the brand new Newmarket train station in tandem with some great shopping deals, under the banner Newmarket Train Treats, at thirty-five of Newmarket’s premium shops.

ARTA’s General Manager, Customer Services, Mark Lambert says “ARTA has a close working relationship with Newmarket Business Association who, with their members, are focused on encouraging maximum use of the new station in their area, for shopping, business and leisure.

“From 1 February, Auckland Anniversary, and for the whole month of February, shoppers can show their train tickets to participating retailers in Newmarket and receive some very good deals such as $50 off international holidays from Flight Centre at Newmarket, 15% off homewares from Freedom Furniture, 10% of any purchase at Animalia Petstore, receive a free health and body age assessment from Configure Express, a 10% discount off bills at the Cock and Bill, $50 of any purchase of new prescription sunglasses or complete prescription sunglasses from Michael Holmes Premium Eyewear, the list goes on and on”.

Mr Lambert says, “During the development of Newmarket train station, ARTA has worked very closely with the local community and appreciated their support during such a large construction project. Now the station is open, local business have come to the fore again expressing their wish to encourage use of the new train station facility in their area with such a range of great offers for shoppers in Newmarket”.

Newmarket Business Association Chief Executive, Cameron Brewer says the public feedback about the design of the new $35m facility has only been positive.

“Locals and commuters alike love the new station and frequent services. The station is light, airy and a wonderful public space. We now want to entice more people to come and make the most of this fabulous 21st century public transport facility as well as reward existing train commuters.

“The Newmarket Business Association and its members are right behind the station. Hence our wish to offer some very good deals for commuters at many of our retail outlets. Newmarket is Auckland’s premium shopping area and these offers from our retailers for the month of February will be well received.

“The fact that 35 retail outlets have signed up for the campaign shows the strong level of support for the station’s success. We want people to forget the parking, make it easy on themselves, by taking the train and saving some money when they get here,” said Mr Brewer.

Mr Lambert said details of the Newmarket shopper’s promotion can be found on the MAXX website maxx.co.nz.

I’m glad that there seems to finally be a realisation, at least on the part of some retailers, that public transport can be their friend. I imagine that providing parking is one of the more expensive parts of operating a retailing outlet, and if you cannot provide parking then it makes life very difficult unless you can attract people to get to your store by some other way… such as catching the train!

Overseas mall operators (and councils) have woken up to the advantages of linking public transport and shopping areas. The large “Westfield London” mall includes both an underground and overground train station – which Westfield contributed to the cost of quite significantly, but I imagine were quite happy to do so as it meant they needed to provide far less parking than would have otherwise been the case.

If you look around Auckland a number of shopping malls or shopping districts are located in good proximity to train stations or busway stations – such as Albany, Henderson, New Lynn, Nemarket, the CBD, Manukau City, Sylvia Park and Manurewa. In many of these places, Albany and Manukau City being the most obvious in my mind, the provision of giant carparks within what should be “mini-CBDs” both destroys the urban fabric of these places and is a giant waste of quite precious (and valuable) land.

Hopefully over time we will see more deals like this one, so that people are encouraged to take the train to their local mall or shopping district when they go shopping. It’s a win-win situation, with higher patronage figures helping public transport agencies and less pressure on the often already overloaded carparks of the shopping centres making life better for retailers. Somewhat of a “mind-shift” might be needed though, as I suspect companies like Westfield still think of people who ride the bus or train as poor losers who aren’t going to spend any money anyway.