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Traffic’s declining in Sydney too – so why don’t we get it?

Auckland is certainly not alone in experiencing a pretty dramatic drop in traffic growth in the past few years – calling into question massive roading projects relying on massive traffic growth projections for their justification. We have pointed out similar trends in the USA, Canada, the UKEurope and now – Sydney:

Gavin Gatenby, the convenor of lobby group Ecotransit, said the NSW government’s support of the WestConnex motorway was “about supporting private vested interests that have sunk billions into building motorways”.

“Per capita road use has been falling for the past eight years in all Australian capital cities, as public transport use has surged. Yet NSW decides to invest billions of dollars in motorways before major public transport projects. It’s sheer madness,” Mr Gatenby said. …

Recent motorway projects in NSW — including the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel and the Eastern Distributor — had all failed to reach their forecast traffic numbers. …

Why do we keep going on and on about this issue? Because it’s utterly critical. Over the next 30 years Auckland could spend up to $60 billion on transport – in today’s money! That’s a simply staggering amount of cash, which we do not have. Yet all the long-term planning for transport in Auckland still seems to be based on the assumption that traffic growth will continue on and on forever, presumably making the assumption that the massive flat-lining of traffic volumes in the past seven or so years is just a blip.

I don’t think it’s a blip. I think that a combination of higher petrol prices, renewed urbanism, an ageing population and cultural change is having a profound impact on transport that unfortunately the powers-to-be either simply don’t care about or are wilfully ignoring. This absolute failure will have a profound impact if it is not reversed: we could find ourselves wasting billions upon billions of dollars on the wrong projects, we could find ourselves not building what will really be necessary and we could find ourselves imposing harsh and unnecessary additional taxes on Aucklanders to pay for projects which simply aren’t necessary.

I know a lot of people in the transport industry read this blog. Most people I have spoken to about the long term future of transport in Auckland realise that we’re on the cusp of massive change, yet for some reason the same stupid projects keep being advanced and proposed. I’m genuinely at a loss to explain this absolute failure of the transport profession. Is it politics? Is it bureaucratic inertia? Is it having dinosaurs in influential positions? I’m really curious, because as an outsider the whole thing seems so incredibly bizarre.

37 comments to Traffic’s declining in Sydney too – so why don’t we get it?

  • bbc

    Completely agree – where is the research lead policy? Why is this profession so out of touch with reality?!?

    • Stu Donovan

      Because it suffers from a lack of academic rigour I would suspect – just look at the transport models on which we base our projections: Once they are calibrated these models are rarely if ever used to compare actual versus forecast volumes. Nothing like the climate change models we discussed on previous threads, which are used to backcast historical temperatures to see how accurate they are.

  • Geoff Houtman

    Does Len understand that not spending $5B on another crossing will help keep rates down?

  • LucyJH

    I think perhaps it’s a bit unfair to blame the transport profession as a whole as much as the various political bodies involved. I do agree that civil servants have some influence on policy but they are also to a certain extent just required to do what their bosses (i.e., politicians) tell them. Similarly, the various contractors who deliver work that supports RoNS are just taking the projects that are available which in the current market is probably almost entirely projects related to roading. I also think that most of this direction is being driven primarily by central government, at least in Auckland. Why central government is taking that position is a whole nother question and I don’t entirely know the answer…

    • Lucy no one is blaming any whole group but NZTA are actively promoting this project…. Is that simply because they know this government loves roads, or are they are institutionally just as addicted? You tell me, but there is nothing in their communications that looks like an objective analysis of need then a mode neutral range of suggested responses…. We are not demonising a profession merely pointing out problems with some of their performance, and why not? They are work in the capacity as our servants remember, with our money, and for us as a society. I know it is unfashionable, and I bet the senior managers don’t consider themselves to be public servants but that’s what they are. Funny isn’t it, not the kind of public servants that the current government demonises….

      Looking forward to the day when we can all sing their praises, for their excellent professionalism. Don’t you agree? A better understanding of the role that cycling could play in the transport mix would be a good start, eh?

      • max

        I all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If alll you have is state highway funding…

        Patrick, if NZTA decided today that all they wanted to do was PT projects, they couldn’t. They don’t have the power to change our ridiculously straightjacketed funding allocations. Sure, they could try to twist the system a bit to move some percent from one category to another by fudging things. But they (senior NZTA managers) would do this at the peril of all getting sacked, and that’s just talking of working around the edges. Anyone trying to actively change the large-scale settings of the system would quite simply have to break the legislative rules where our Government Policy Statement sets out that we shall spend X on roads and Z (being an oder of magnitude less) on PT.

        That doesn’t excuse those who celebrate driving the ambulance off the cliff by taking glee in it – but explains why those who know what is going wrong have so little ability to change it.

        • max

          Lol, mangled my proverb here – but it fits perfectly anyway!

          • I do understand the situation, NZTA is after all just the National Roads Board in drag. But still there is absolutely no call for them to be promoting this absurd project. They don’t even have the budget to build the slightly less stupid set of highways called RoNS: They might be the corrections officer in charge of the political prisoner but it is still beyond their job description to put the boot in with so much enthusiasm….

            They should also be able to work out that this regime will pass, and the next one might actually be different. Although I can see why they may not be thinking about that as until recently there has not been an enormous difference between the two major parties policy in this area. But then, until relatively recently the data was showing consistent growth in driving demand, unlike now. And this factor alone they really need to take account of.

            Now is not the time to be borrowing to further subsidise driving…. If they are smart, and surely many there are, they will be striving to actually deliver on the pretty multi modal words that they use…

        • Swan

          You know where NZTA’s funding comes from, right?

  • SteveC

    to be fair, a change to the funding formula’s traffic growth provisions would require evidence of actual trends in rate of growth, decline, or whatever

    as this post http://transportblog.co.nz/2012/10/23/our-driving-trends-arent-unique/ shows, there isn’t yet a clear picture of what is happening, or is likely to happen 10 or 20 years out, whether the recorded reductions in traffic volumes will be persistent or if they’re just a blip on the graph

    that said, there’s sufficient evidence of falling volumes to (hopefully) make NZTA less gung-ho about big roads, shame that the Minister’s head is firmly in the bitumen

    • max

      What? 5 years of trend is not enough to change the thinking??? I disagree. Nobody is arguing that we are to spend no money on roads at all. But if you believed the investment programme planned, our traffic was skyrocketing like in the postwar years!

      • SteveC

        not what I said Max, what I said was there isn’t enough evidence yet to predict from, definitely agree that there should be a change to the way that the current provisions are applied, i.e. using lowest estimates of growth etc.

        • max

          I probably will put myself a bit away from the common consensus of my profession, but I actually do not believe that trends should lead our planning anyway. We should decided what we WANT to achieve, and then at least try to influence the trends that way. Active, not reactive. So even if car traffic WAS still growing at a heady clip, we should be considering whether that is a good thing.

          • Yes this has always been the best approach, but the excuse for not building a better world was the data, always the data. Now it has turned I fully expect to see more of your colleagues finding they don’t care so much for it…. c’est la vie. But too bad, live by the math; die by the math.

  • SteveC

    shame there’s no edit facility!

    it is ironic that central government’s approach to local government over the past 20 years has been to bring more objectivity to transport decision making and to move it out of the pork barrel, when that barrel seems to be the major source of decision making with this National government, it is simply two-faced to say “we know best, but you guys (who are infinitely more connected to your communities) don’t”

  • Malcolm M

    The real political power is with lobby groups – just see how effectively the road transport industry’s lobbying has been. The long-term view of politicians is to look to which side seems to be making the most noise, and try to have policy somewhere in the middle. The media need someone to quote, such as Better Transport for New Zealand, or Ecotransit in New South Wales (as in the above article). It is imperative that these citizens organisations can respond rapidly to news requests by the media, and have good news value (to boost sales). What seems to be missing from the news scene are good pro-PT lobby groups representing business, such as the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Such organisations can have internal conflicts of interest, which limit the extent they can lobby against certain proposed projects that may benefit a few of their members. A better way around this is to set up narrowly-purposed business lobby groups, such as a committee representing current CBD land and business owners who stand to benefit from increased land values after the CRL. Are there other business groups who would benefit from NOT having taxation to cover the cost of all the planned road expenditure ? More such pro-PT groups for the media to quote would make more noise on the pro-PT side within a media article.

    Professionals working in the public sector have little choice, apart from senior people who can put points of view that would save the government embarrassment. Their main job is to get the government re-elected. Professionals doing contracts for the government have even less choice – if a report is vaguely critical of government policy they may not get follow-up contracts.

    • What he said! One issue we deal with a lot is the resentment of print media have towards blogs. Enormous struggle for us getting traction with Auckland based print media… Probably best I say no more here, except that radio and TV don’t have the same issues, so much so that I predict you will soon be hearing more about Ak on those media when, really, it should be core business for a couple of local paper based outlets…..

      Rudman excepted: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/brian-rudman-on-auckland/news/article.cfm?c_id=1502866&objectid=10842932

    • max

      Heart of the City (CBD business organisation, basically) has generally been quite progressive regarding transport, from my memory.

      • Stu Donovan

        HoTC are getting better.

        Their position on parking has come a long way in a short time, from simply arguing for more and cheaper to one where they now accept that Auckland generally has too much parking that is killing the city centre with dead spaces and too much traffic, hence better management of existing parking facilities (i.e. prioritisation) should be the primary goal.

        Where Heart of the City still fall down, however, is in their attitude to buses. They simply don’t seem to appreciate that Auckland’s buses carry ~50% of people into the city centre at peak times, and that they could carry many more (and more efficiently) if they had adequate bus infrastructure (signal priority, stops etc) in just a few locations.

        HoTC seem to have a very snobby attitude towards buses IMO and for that they deserve a yellow card.

  • George D

    There is no mention, ever, of climate change – in any real or serious capacity. Occasionally you’ll get lip service, something designed to tick the [ ] environment box, but it’s not a serious consideration.

    Transport makes up 20% of New Zealand’s emissions. The decisions these people make will have consequences for the entire world for hundreds of years. They don’t seem to ‘get’ that.

  • Simon

    The geographically polarised world of NZ politics has a big part to play here. Let’s face it, when most folk decide to vote Labour or National, the transport policy that comes with each of those choices barely registers on folks radar. Most folk who vote Labour would be doing so for other reasons that more emphasis on urban transportation matters. Just the same, your average National voter isn’t choosing them because they love road building, it’s becauase they are more aligned to the free market, lower taxes and so on.
    The rural voter base for National party has a big part to play in the roading focus. Out there in the countryside, it’s all about getting goods to market in a timely fashion and that, in a NZ context, generally means by road on a truck. So, if you want to grow the economy, you need to get more primary goods to market faster. To do that you need more roads… Regretably this spills over into the urban environment, when the political winds are blowing that particular way.
    Until the huge division between left and right in transport policies is addressed, we will always get these types of outcomes. As one who works within local government, all I try to do is work with what the political winds give us to best advantage – at times like this, it’s about doing more with the same, with the extra investment having to wait for the winds to blow in a different direction again.

    • George D

      Yes, and until recently there wasn’t enough political competition to make it worthwhile as a political issue. The Greens were strong supporters of logical transport policies, but Fitzsimons as leader didn’t (wasn’t able to) give it sufficient attention to make it the issue it is now. It’s only been with Hughes and Genter that it’s risen in profile, and with Labour taking on the issue through Twyford it’s been put in play.

      When the Greens were consistently in the <8% margin they were presumed not to be a strong enough force to motivate voters to move on this issue because Green voters were typecast as dependent on their party for satisfaction across a number of areas, and because throughout the 2000s Labour was strongly pro-roads – though not to the extent of the current government. I have no doubt in the absolute sincerity of Twyford, and am encouraged by it. At the same time, I think his party has found more enthusiasm as it has realised it has an electoral threat which needs to be addressed, and taking on transport is smart politics. Particularly in Auckland, where more than 1/3 the country lives.

    • max

      Hi Simon – the “rural mindset” may play a role in the “roads are good!” thinking of National, but National’s projects actually SHAFT rural roading, because all the money is wasted on motorway projects close to, or connecting the major centres. When the money is gone (and it already is in many cases) that will lead to cutbacks to projects on smaller state highways and local roads, and that is bound to screw the countryside even more, as it slips further behind the big cities like Auckland.

      • Matthew

        And the rates in rural councils have gone up to compensate for the lack of maintenance funds coming from central government. I pay my rates in the Horowhenua and it was there in black and white. Rates went up because the HDC didn’t want the rural road maintenance budget to go down.

        The blame for the rates increase is therefore solely on National. Local member, Nathan Guy, you, yes you, increased the council rates. Thanks a bloody lot.

  • Having checked the figures at: http://www.bts.nsw.gov.au/Statistics/HTS/default.aspx#top

    I can inform you that VKT is NOT declining in Sydney. VKT per capita isn’t showing a clear trend either, but it is more negative than positive.

    AAGR of VKT 99/00 – 10/11 = 0.9%
    AAGR of pop. 99/00 – 10/11 = 1.2%

  • SimonL: Try comparing from mid last decade, that’s when the discontinuity started, or if you’re determined not to see it, why not take your starting point back to 1962, or 1862, or whenever you like.

    • Still only works on a per capita basis, which did indeed peak 2004/5.

      In absolute terms the highest VKT years are 2010/11, 2008/9 and 2009/10 respectively. Figures for 2011/12 haven’t been incorporated yet.

  • LucyJH

    hi PAtrick. You said “We are not demonising a profession merely pointing out problems with some of their performance, and why not?”

    I don’t think I suggested you were demonizing a profession at all. I certainly agree that there are some people who work for NZTA who are very committed to building more roads and honestly believe it is the solution to most of our transport problems. But when Kent asks “Why does this stuff keep happening?” I think the answer mainly because central government and the funding they control keep pushing it in that direction. So it is probably more effective to focus on changing central government’s position, rather than say that of the NZTA. Or, you could look at trying to change the position of the various lobbying groups who have influenced the government’s position – but that’s a bit Zen and maybe too complicated to work, particularly since some of those lobby groups have a huge financial incentive to maintain the status quo.

    Yes, public servants can give advice to elected officials and try to influence their position. But if they give the advice (or prepare the GPS) and then the Minister himself takes it off them and starts playing with the spreadsheet and sets the figures himself then ultimately there’s not much they can do about it. As public servants their role is to enact the will of our elected representatives. Sometimes, if they really disagree with the direction a government is taking the country they can publicly resign. But I think it would be a very brave civil servant working in the transport sector in NZ who did that, simply because so much of the work is funded by the government (either directly or indirectly through NZTA) that they would basically be forcing themselves to move overseas.

    In regards to your final point – ironically, I would also argue that the agency which has been most proactive in building cycling infrastructure in Auckland over the last 5 years has actually been NZTA – not Auckland Council. Surprising but I think probably true.

  • Malcolm M

    Why is Auckland Council expected to find $5 billion to fund a road tunnel on a State Highway ? Surely this is NZTA’s responsibility. I’ve followed this site for a while and haven’t yet seen an explanation.

    To get the full “benefit” of the new cross-harbour capacity would require a matching investment in local roads on the North Shore, through adding additional lanes on roads that connect to the motorway. Has this been budgeted (perhaps $2b) ? South of the harbour there would be less capacity into the CBD because road car capacity is being reduced to make way for pedestrians and buses. Where are all the extra vehicles expected to go ? Cross-town commuting south and west of Newmarket ? Is there evidence of of growth in such cross-town commuting ? Do these employers provide abundant free parking, and are the connecting roads from the motorway adequate for all the new North Shore car commuters (perhaps another $1b to fix these) ? If the CRL is built, more employment would be within the CBD, requiring less additional transport infrastructure.

    • Yes it is the NZTA’s responsibility but even then it doesn’t magically make it a good project worth spending the nations money on. Further the government has already said that Auckland would likely have to pay a proportion of the costs for it due to its massive price tag.

      As for local road capacity increases, as far as I’m aware that isn’t budgeted for.

  • Sam

    Certainly not a failure of the transport profession (maybe someone could clearly define this term, because none of the transport planners that I know would put their names to some of the nonsense that’s being peddled) – as others have stated before me on this thread. This is a failure of government alone.
    Some on here seem to credit NZTA (or more properly, NZRA) with more influence and more capability than they’re due. NZTA, like any government department is indeed filled with bureaucratic inertia, similarly, it’s staffed with high performers and underperformers in such a ratio that it rarely produces even roading schemes with any degree of competence. (Witness the six lanes into two scramble on the Southern Motorway at Manukau every evening.) NZTA is largely made up of time-servers with no imagination beyond their latest government directive. Obviously they’re not all bad; I understand there’s absolutely no enthusiasm within the agency for either the holiday highway or the harbour crossing, but they are going ahead with both because orders are orders.
    The dinosaur question – well yes, the minister for transport could easily be mistaken for purple Barney on a dark night. And quite why this government wishes to re-enact the costly mistakes made in the UK and elsewhere during the 1960s is anybody’s guess. It seems they take pleasure in rowing against the worldwide tide towards public transport investment. Sadly, I can’t see this attitude changing any time soon, and I can’t see any credible political alternatives.

  • Kevyn

    Louis M – Tghe NZTA’s revenue comes solely from fuel excise, RUCs and rego fees. They don’t get a share of general taxes, not even the GST on levied on the petrol tax. It’s local roads and PT where the ratepayers chip in with half the cost that’s the really unfair bit. Most of that money is spent on maintenance so rates are no longer a de facto capital gains tax on increased property values resulting from money spent tarsealing dirt roads or building footpaths and street lights. It really makes no sense that the motorists contribution has been frozen at 50% of local road spending since 1959 when traffic volumes have increased so much since then. Enough to justify NZTA providing 75% or even 90% of local road spending instead of spending a fortune on holiday highways.

    • Steve D

      Good point. At the very least, motorists should pay for the fraction of the street they use up – if they’ve got 20 paved metres out of 25 dedicated to them, they should be paying at least 80% of the cost of the road.

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