Over the last week or two we’ve highlighted that there’s something really rotten going on about transport planning and policy in New Zealand. Here are the highlights:
- NZTA deliberately fudge the numbers in a report looking at justifying a $5 billion transport project, by far the most expensive transport project ever proposed in New Zealand.
- On reviewing several key motorway projects, NZTA find that the projects don’t perform anywhere near as well as projected and in one case don’t stack up at all anymore. Costs for the projects blow out while the expected benefits simply don’t materialise.
- The staggering revelation that the Kapiti Expressway’s cost benefit ratio is actually 0.2 and that NZTA tried to block the release of this information for well over a year.
- Traffic volumes all around the world continue to stagnate or go backwards, however more motorway projects than ever continue to be proposed based on the assumption that traffic will grow substantially in the future.
The comments on that last post, written by my good friend Mr Anderson, drifted into an interesting discussion around the extent to which the stupidity of our transport policy and planning can be blamed on politics compared to the transport profession itself. Max had a useful contribution on the debate:
If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If all you have is state highway funding…
…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.
In terms of funding allocations, yes it is the politicians we have to blame. The Government Policy Statement, which sets upper and lower limits to the amount that NZTA can spend on transport projects of different types, is basically written by Cabinet and is the way that governments influence what happens in the transport area. The current GPS is a completely horrific document, reminiscent of 1960s transport policy and, if implemented, will waste billions of dollars on unnecessary expenditure on stupid motorways while neglecting growing areas of transport demand such as public transport, walking and cycling. It will also run down our existing transport asset by skimping on maintenance and renewal, leaving the bill to future generations. For all this, the politicians are most definitely at fault, and if only more people voted based on transport matters, hopefully we might see this policy (or the government) change sooner rather than later.
However, there are a number of other areas where I think the profession itself: not just the traffic engineers we hassle so much but also transport planners, transport modellers and everyone else in the general “transport industry”, needs to take a good hard look at themselves. Here are some great examples of really bad transport outcomes which are the result of the profession, rather than the politicians, being useless:
- The lack of a safe pedestrian crossing point of Kitchener Street at its intersection with Bowen Ave and Victoria Street, as so regularly pointed out by Stu.
- The Auckland Council recognising flat-lining traffic growth on the one hand, yet continuing to say that Auckland needs so many roading projects it creates a $10-15 billion funding gap on the other hand.
- The absence of a northbound bus lane through St Mary’s Bay, even though this is meant to be part of the Northern Busway.
- The absolutely stupid proposal to link SH18 and SH1 near Albany, backed up by a whole pile of dodgy traffic forecasts.
- Plus, of course, the aforementioned studies into the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing project.
I understand that politicians are setting the funding bands and that they will push for certain projects to be bumped up priority lists – and that the profession needs to work with this situation. However, there’s nothing stopping the profession from waking up to the flat-lining in traffic growth and fixing the future transport models so they accurately reflect this trend. There’s nothing stopping the profession from then highlighting how particular projects don’t actually stack up anymore. The politicians may choose to still proceed with them, but there’ll at least be public knowledge that X project is happening even though an objective analysis of it says that it probably shouldn’t. Or that Y project isn’t happening even though a good analysis of it suggests that it probably should.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the profession seems largely unable to do this at the moment. Is it inertia? Is it that politics is more involved in what should be operational matters than I had thought? Is it because there are a few dinosaur transport professionals in influential positions who just need to go and retire? Whatever it is, the transport profession needs to lift its game. There’s a huge amount of money riding on it doing so!