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The pitfalls of “multi-modal projects”

A previous post by Patrick highlighted his concerns about the phrase “multi-modal”, something that I want to explore further. Patrick’s general argument is that we “talk the good talk” about multi-modalism (is that even a word?) but in reality what we have built over and over again is “mono-modalism”.

So I guess the question I want to ask the government is how sincere are they really about Multi-Modality? I agree a truly multi modal Auckland would be a great improvement but successive governments have deviated very little from a highway dominant policy and the current one has greatly accelerated it, and therefore increased our Mono-Modality. The Government Policy Statement makes it very hard to get funding from NZTA for any mode at all other than state highways, in fact it seems designed to enable motorways to get funding no matter how poor their cost benefit analyses. So under this government the share of Land Transport funding going to anything other than state highways has shrunk. And now they are planning to make it even more difficult for the local authority to make its own investments that may differ from this bias.

I’m going to stick my neck out a bit further and say that while I’m a big supporter of the idea of a multi-modal system, I’m not really much of a fan of “multi-modal projects”. They just seem to turn into ways of justifying a lot of spending on roads now, with perhaps a little bit for public transport in the very distant future.

A classic example of this is the “Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing” project. By far the most expensive project proposed for Auckland in the next 30 years (estimated cost is north of $5 billion!), it is another harbour tunnel which doesn’t add any capacity to the roading system anywhere except between the Esmonde Road interchange and spaghetti junction. Because of this, we’re basically spending $5 billion to make it easier for people to drive into the city centre – even though pretty much every other part of Auckland’s policies and strategies scream out that we want to reduce the car focus of the very same area.

Perhaps to appease those screaming out “why on earth would you want to do something so stupid?” the Auckland Plan says that there’ll be a rail line in the tunnel – the first step towards extending rail to the North Shore. Or at the very least the tunnel will be “future proofed” for rail so that it can be built at some point in the future. Here’s a lovely map showing how the two tunnels could happily co-exist:

Of course what’s not discussed here is the impact of the new road crossing on your likely demand for public transport. Considering that around 35% of people coming over the harbour bridge in the peak times at the moment are on the bus plus most of those people will be going to destinations in the city centre, around the universities or to Newmarket, public transport must have a really excellent modeshare for “North Shore to central city” trips – I would suspect well above 50% once you count the ferries.

One of the reasons this modeshare is so high is because the alternative isn’t too flash – a slow, unreliable and congested trip in along the Northern Motorway (and its many clogged feeder roads). Go and provide a heap more lanes of roading capacity at a vast cost and you’re just about guaranteed to kill off public transport demand (at least until your expensive new road gets clogged again). This means you can’t justify the rail tunnel and therefore you’ve just ended up reinforcing your city’s car dependency.

And in a nutshell this is the problem with multi-modal projects. Because they’re looking at upgrading¬†both¬†the road and the public transport at the same time, they’re actually two bits of a project working against each other. The public transport project would undoubtedly generate more patronage growth if the road running in parallel to it wasn’t also being widening/duplicated/upgraded to motorway status. Similarly (though interestingly not as convincingly), the economics of the roading project would probably stack up better if everyone was forced to use it and it wasn’t having its usage undermined by a parallel PT project.

This is where multi-modal projects really miss the point of public transport investment. One of the biggest reasons to spend money on a public transport project is so you don’t need to spend vastly more on a roading project. The Northern Busway is a great example of this as it’s vastly increasing the capacity of the Northern Motorway and delayed (or completely removed) the requirement for another road-based harbour crossing. Upgrading the rail network has done the same – every passenger coming up that southern line is delaying or removing the requirement to widen the southern motorway. With multi-modal projects it seems like we identify the project that’s required to ensure we don’t need that other project, but go ahead and build both anyway.

At the end of the day, I suppose multi-modal is nice for politicians because “there’s a bit in there everyone will support”. Those who want more roads are happy, the PT crowd are happy, there might be a cycleway to keep those advocates happy – everyone wins. Except the person paying the bill who has gone and wasted a huge amount of cash on a road that’s probably not needed if the other parts of the project are done.

What Auckland needs is a proper multi-modal transport system, not a whole pile of extremely expensive “multi-modal projects” that just reinforce our car dependency. We’ve got the roading side of the system pretty much finished already.

16 comments to The pitfalls of “multi-modal projects”

  • David O

    Absolutely correct! Auckland’s road system already has more than enough capacity for a city of considerably greater population. We could not build any significant new road infrastructure for the next 20 years and redirect all that money to PT projects (or even half of it, and use the change to rebuild Christchurch, or build schools, or properly maintain what we’ve got, or revive Northland’s economy, or whatever…). The end result of 20 years of a 100% PT transport budget in Auckland would be an actually multi-modal city – all it would do would be to correct the 40-odd years of mono-modal development we’ve just lived through…

  • If another motorway tunnel kills the case for a rail tunnel, then will a cheaper rail tunnel kill the case for the road tunnel? I think so, what’s more the report we saw a few months ago suggested that we could get rail to Albany for ~$2.5b but I’m not sure if that included the harbour tunnel. Even if you added the suggested ~$1.6b for the tunnel under the harbour you are still looking at ~$4.1b all up which is cheaper than the road tunnel and gives a hell of a lot more capacity.

    • max

      I agree – it works both ways. Whatever gets built first will significantly degrade the case for the second link.

      And I agree with the underlying statement of this post. In many cases, the multi-modal aspect is thrown in as a sop towards more sustainable thinking, but highlights there isn’t any real break from the old style.

  • Exactly. The consequences of failing to prevent NZTA wasting our money by forcing two huge road tunnels and equally vast interchanges at each end on Auckland are:

    1. Total reversal of our policy to reduce the domination of the city centre by cars and therefore the end of the ‘Liveable City’. Same goes for the Shore too: a return to everyone driving.
    2. Abandonment of all attempts to balance Aucklanders’ transport options through the investment in other modes, make no mistake the rail line is drawn there for PR reasons they have no plans to fund it. Remember the first harbour Bridge was to have rail on it too. NZTA are not ‘allowed’ to invest in rail, and they know this.
    3. Further distortion of the national transport budget; with too much going into one project in one part of Auckland. More pain in the provinces, PT, local roads.
    4. Yet more pressure on the CMJ and the whole rest of AK’s urban motorways which will then lead to calls for yet more widening, a need for more wasteful investment in parking.
    5. More dependency on imported oil and lower air quality

    This is the single worst possible project for Auckland and New Zealand as a whole. We currently have 14 traffic lanes across the harbour. The next thing we build must just be the missing modes. Walking, cycling, and dedicated Transit. As Mr A points out, we’ll never build both and if we build the cheaper transit crossing [smaller rail tunnels for electric trains] we won’t need to build the other.

    This issue needs to be looked at objectively. NZTA, the government’s State Highway provider, are simply not able to investigate any need except the only one it knows- These guys would look at a muddy track used by a donkey and a dog and find the need to drop 100 million on a ‘multi-modal’ investigation that concludes that a State Highway is the only way to ‘solve’ the terrible congestion. This is an appalling situation; NZTA are currently investing huge sums in this nightmare and actively promoting the idea of its need. By every metric this thing is a waste of money and a would have a huge number of negative outcomes for the whole region.

    From their website, puts Max’s struggle to get a couple of million for cycleways into context, or the absurd prospect of having to pay a toll to walk or ride across the existing AHB:

    Go here to see how advanced and huge these plans actually are:

    • max

      Yeah, I often think that NZTA cancelling just ONE motorway interchange upgrade (not even a new build – just cancelling one of the larger re-builds) would allow us to build the whole Auckland Cycleway Network – thus probably dropping state highway traffic all over the network by a few percent. But the NZTA people are working in MoT straightjackets. Aren’t allowed to shift money from one funding category to another, so even when we meet cycling-friendly NZTA managers (which are more common than some NZTA critics think), the best we can get is some good cycle facilities tucked in around the big motorway projects (I made some comments about this in a blog post I did a while back).

  • Bob

    Plus remember a huge amount of cash has/is being spent on SH18/SH16/SH20 to allow traffic to by-pass the CMJ/Harbour bridge/SH1 bottlenecks. So you can expect traffic to lessen not increase accross the bridge.

    • SteveC

      seriously? you expect drivers south of Manukau to divert via Waitakere on the way to Albany or Orewa? there’s a major marginal kilometre cost (road freight) and a probable time cost to take two legs of a triangle when one leg is also available

      plus the probability that people making this trip are a small minority of Aucklan motorway users, who typically will be on the motorway passing 4-5 interchanges only

      traffic is reducing over the bridge, but the “bypass” will have no impact

      • Patrick Reynolds

        Apparently NZTA do…. They are predicting something like a 10% reduction on SH1. I’ll try to find the doc. I don’t believe it either.

        • SteveC

          traffic models are a bit like B/C ratios, a good operator can make the pretty much tell any story the client wants, but the most cogent words on use of the ring route to bypass the bridge must come from that wonderful movie “the Castle” “tell ‘im ‘e’s dreaming!”

          • Yes I’m watching with interest, as my prediction is that what this 4 billion will get us is more efficiently delivered waves of congestion down SH16 and SH20 to the CMJ. Currently SH16 is tight enough to both encourage use of other modes and to spread out the peaks before they hit this ground zero. As to traffic from the south, the Mt Wellington bottleneck clearly serves that same purpose, to help spread the surges, as well as perhaps the SE merge, so unless they widen that, I’m not so sure.

            I guess unless continued vehicle use decline and AT’s heroic work to improve the PT option comes to save Auckland’s poorly conceive urban motorway singularity all of this money and effort is likely to lead to no improvement at all and more than a few spectacular snarl-ups in the CMJ. And NZTA admit this, they just push it a little further out into the future… 2022 or something. But then they don’t care because that’s then the excuse to burn through the next multi-billion on an equally useless and massive highway project.

            Our only real hope is a change of government and one that leads to a significantly more rational GPS and terms of reference for the Nation Land Transport Fund.

  • Yes and we all know how successful new roads are at reducing traffic.

    • ingolfson

      They are, on any existing roads they parallel! For a year or three, at least… admittedly, with Auckland growing, some level of new roading will always be required, but the current (last 5 and coming 5-10 years) program of building is just obscene. Has anyone got an ability to calculate increase in roading capacity VS increase in population? I’d expect at least the state highway capacity growth to massively outstrip population growth, which means we are digging our hole deeper…

  • Malcolm

    How long is the Harbour Bridge designed to last for until that needs replacing?

    • Stu Donovan

      I believe it’ll last forever if it’s managed properly, which simply means requiring heavy vehicles to use the central span. One could suggest that they should be using the central lanes anyway.

    • There is no time frame on it, the main structure is expected to be able to last longer than any of us will live while the clip ons can will be fine for decades to come after their recent upgrades and even after will last a while with the right management.

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