The New Zealand vehicle fleet: fact and fiction

The inaugural New Zealand Transport Fuels Summit was held at the end of October, and the blog was invited to attend. I was able to make it to one of the two days, and I’ll try to write up some of my notes in the future.

One of the speakers was Iain McGlinchy from the Ministry of Transport, who gave a presentation on the New Zealand vehicle fleet. It was full of interesting insights – see below, or Iain’s Powerpoint for more (and much of the data is available via the Ministry’s Vehicle Fleet Statistics).

It’s often said that New Zealand has an old and inefficient vehicle fleet – but things aren’t quite as they seem. Yes, our cars are a bit older than in many other countries, averaging 13 years (vs 11 in the US, 9 in Australia and the EU, and 8 in Japan). That’s mainly down to the large number of cars we import second-hand rather than new – these mainly Japanese imports are usually around eight years old when they arrive. In particular, the ageing process is driven by the large number of cars built in 1995-1997 and imported in the early 2000s. We’ve got masses of them, and they’re still around for the most part.

What about the “inefficient” part? Iain notes that new cars tend to be safer (better features, etc) and do better in terms of particulate emissions, but “there is very little evidence that age and fuel economy are linked”. The amount of fuel used seems to come down to the number of vehicles in the fleet, and it “appears other variables, like [the] state of [the] economy, (or changes to fleet age) are not strongly affecting fuel use”.

Vehicle fleet and population

Old cars do tend to have less efficient engines, but they’re also smaller and lighter than new cars, and they tend to do less travel. Overall, Iain thinks that “on average, if we had a younger fleet (as a result of actively getting rid of our existing older vehicles) the resulting fleet would probably have a larger engine size and travel further than our current fleet… actively intervening  to create a younger fleet to reduce CO2 emissions, would probably not work”. So, no cash for clunkers then. A lot of people don’t understand the inertia of a fleet with 3.2 million vehicles that tend to get driven for 20-odd years and do 200,000+ kilometres in their lifetime (driverless car advocates take note).

If we do want to reduce emissions – and I certainly think we should – then it could perhaps be done by encouraging cars to be scrapped and not replaced. Iain: “if fleet size shrinks as older used vehicles are scrapped then fuel use may also fall”.

One thing I found particularly interesting was Iain’s data showing that new cars claim to be more fuel efficient, but often don’t deliver in the real world. In NZ, on-road fuel use remains stubbornly around 10L/ 100 km, despite supposedly more efficient cars being sold. Here’s the data for Japan.

Japanese fuel economy

Essentially, vehicles have always tended to use more fuel on the road than they do when they’re being tested. But the performance gap has gotten larger (and Iain also shows this for a number of European countries). Car manufacturers are becoming very adept at designing cars to do well in the tests, but not on the road.

Iain also argues (slides 36-37) that there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship between petrol prices and vehicle travel. I’m not sure I fully agree. There’s inertia to people’s driving behaviour too, and it can take several years for the impacts of a price hike to become fully clear. I don’t think the tailing off of vehicle travel in the mid-2000s can be explained by much else except the massive rise in petrol prices – it’s not like the government started investing in public transport or anything, right?

Iain also asks the question that if most of our cars come from Japan, and the cars there are getting more efficient (and they are, despite the “gap” above – there are various incentives and subsidies in place there for hybrids and other efficient cars), will NZ’s fleet get more efficient too? The answer is, not necessarily. Japan favours small cars and hybrids, whereas here in NZ we continue to import medium/ large cars and SUVs. And hybrids tend to stick around for longer in Japan, due to the incentives, so it’s hard for NZ car importers to buy them at competitive prices.

Finally, Iain wraps up by discussing things that could help improve New Zealand’s fleet fuel economy/ emissions/ safety and so on. These include hybrids, Intelligent Transport Systems (not so sure about these; people can view this kind of stuff as an invasion of privacy or civil liberties, which is why we have so few speed and traffic light cameras), better network efficiency (ramp metering signals etc), improving driver skills, and, of course, “reducing use of motor vehicles”. I’m sure there are a few positive actions we could take on that last point.

More Speed and Red Light Cameras on the way

Auckland is to get more red light cameras

Red light running a focus for Police and Auckland Transport

Police and Auckland Transport are working together to reduce risk for road users at key Auckland intersections by installing red light cameras.

Seven new red light camera sites will operate across Auckland next year.

Police will own and run two digital, dual function cameras capable of recording vehicles that run red lights and/or speed through intersections. They will initially operate in red-light mode only. This will bring the total number of red light camera sites across Auckland to 17.

Police and Auckland Transport selected the sites on the basis of NZ Transport Agency analysis, which identified intersections where red light cameras would likely enhance road safety.

Road users will see infrastructure, including poles and camera housings, going up this month. Cameras will go through a period of rigorous testing before being switched to enforcement mode next year. Police and Auckland Transport will make sure drivers are given fair warning before any infringement notices are issued.

The new cameras are part of wider programmes run by both organisations to encourage safer driving. Auckland Transport has recently delivered a Red Means Stop education and enforcement campaign supported by the Police, and a follow up campaign will be run in February.

“Red light running is an issue of great concern in Auckland,” says Karen Hay, Community and Road Safety Manager at Auckland Transport. “We are pleased to be working with Police and our road safety partners on this initiative. We all need to take care at intersections to reduce the risk of someone getting injured or killed. ”

Inspector Peter McKennie, Operations Manager Road Policing, believes motorists will welcome the push to make intersections safer. “There’s a sense that red light running is a very selfish action – it’s a genuine threat to people’s safety, which saves one road-user a minute or two.” However, he warns that no amount of regulation can keep us safe from inattention or recklessness. “Drivers still need to keep themselves safe and check that the way is clear even when they have right of way. Never assume a green light automatically means you are safe to go.”

This is good to see although if anything 17 intersections in total across all of Auckland doesn’t seem like a great deal.

  • Auckland CBD – Halsey Street & Fanshawe Street
  • Avondale – Ash Street & Rosebank Road
  • Pakuranga – Pigeon Mountain & Pakuranga Road
  • East Tamaki – Te Irirangi Drive & Smales Road
  • East Tamaki – Chapel Road & Stancombe Road
  • Lambie Drive Interchange (east-bound off-ramp)
  • Botany – Te Irirangi & Tī Rakau Drives

Some further information

  • The NZ Transport Agency asked independent transport consultants to develop a methodology to identify intersections where red light cameras would likely enhance road safety. Police and Auckland Transport selected sites for these cameras from the 75 sites prioritised on the basis of potential crash-reduction savings.
  • Police’s dual function speed and red-light cameras use the latest non-invasive detection systems. The system comprises two radars and a camera. The primary radar scans and tracks vehicles as they approach the intersection. If a vehicle crosses the stop line during a red-light phase, a camera photographs the rear of the vehicle. A second radar (known as the validation radar) ensures the photograph taken is of the breaching vehicle.
  • Like all Police enforcement equipment, each camera will be rigorously tested to make sure it meets Police’s strict operating criteria. Transport law requires speed cameras to be checked (calibrated) and certified every year. Police operates a laboratory that is accredited under international standards to calibrate and certify all police enforcement equipment including speed cameras.
  • During the period 2009-2013 there were 634 injury crashes and 1277 non-injury crashes caused by red light running in the Auckland area.
  • Police will calibrate Auckland Transport’s cameras, process images and issue resulting infringement notices.

At the same time the Police are also expanding their static speed camera locations. Three new digital cameras have gone up around Totara Park and in Otahuhu with more to come.

Police new static camera locations

Regional Land Transport Plan throws up a few surprises

Today the Auckland Transport board are meeting, I’ve already covered the board report and in this post I’ll look at the draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP). As a brief description the RLTP

  • Sets out the strategic direction for transport in Auckland including how AT proposes to give effect to the transport components of the Auckland Plan and AT’s strategic themes within the fiscal constraints of the funding provided in the LTP.
  • Is consistent with the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport.
  • Brings together objectives, policies and performance measures for each mode of transport.
  • Sets out a programme of activities to contribute to this strategic direction. It outlines both the Basic Transport Network and the Auckland Plan Transport Network.
  • Includes transport activities to be delivered by NZTA, KiwiRail, the NZ Police, AC and AT.

The draft RLTP will be open for public submission from 23 January – 16 March 2015 which is the same time as the council’s Long Term Plan (LTP). We already know much of the detail about what the RLTP holds as it has come out as part the discussion of the LTP over the last few weeks. In particular that there are two transport networks proposed, what’s known as the Basic Transport Programme – a severely constrained network that will see many critical projects such as new transport interchanges put on hold – or what’s known as the Auckland Plan Transport Programme which is the everything including the kitchen sink approach. We’ve discussed the plans before including the sticky mess the basic plan produces.

What’s interesting about the draft RTLP is some of the language used and even more so some of the suggestions for Auckland’s future and it’s some of these aspects I’ll cover in this post. Perhaps most importantly is the document suggests that Auckland Transport are starting to realise that yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s problems and AT’s Chairman Lester Levy’s says exactly that in his introduction. He also makes a few other bold statements including that Aucklanders deserve better than choosing between poor transport outcomes or paying an extra $300 million a year.

That language carries on through the document and some parts feel like they could have been written by us. While I’m quite cognisant of the fact that these words need to be backed up by actions, the change in the discussion isn’t an isolated case as we’ve started to see similar comments from other agencies such as the Ministry of Transport and the NZTA. That gives me hope that in coming years we’ll see some real improvements in transport planning in Auckland and across the country.

Some of this comes through particularly strongly in the problem definition section of the document – page 30 in the PDF – which lists the four key problems that need to be addressed. The first one identifies that limited transport options are having a negative impact.

1. Limited quality transport options and network inefficiencies undermine resilience, liveability and economic prosperity

Underdeveloped public transport, walking and cycling networks mean that Auckland continues to have high reliance on private vehicle travel and low levels of public transport use, walking and cycling. Private vehicles account for 78% of trips in urban Auckland.

This high dependency on private vehicles means not only that there are long traffic delays but that many people have no choice other than to travel by car. Cars take up space that could otherwise be used to address Auckland’s housing shortage, improve environmental outcomes, improve economic performance, reduce social inequalities, improve health and safety and improve transport affordability. It also increases the risk to the economy from future oil price shocks.


Investments in the rail network and the Northern Busway are already making a difference, and Aucklanders have been taking up these new choices in numbers that exceed all forecasts. Annual surveys of travel to Auckland’s city centre confirm that the growth in public transport travel is already making more capacity available on key links for freight and business trips.

While the fourth problem recognises that we’re basically at the end of the era of being able to build cheap roads to expand the transport network. It also notes that expectations of congestion free driving should be a thing of the past

4. Meeting all transport expectations is increasingly unaffordable and will deliver poor value for money

Providing new or expanded transport infrastructure to respond to growth is becoming increasingly expensive and inefficient. Land corridors designated in the past for transport purposes have now been used, and constructing transport infrastructure on land already used for housing or as open space is expensive and unpopular. The Victoria Park Tunnel and the Waterview Tunnel are two examples of roading projects that have been constructed as tunnels to minimise adverse environmental and community impacts, at significant additional cost.


It is clear that expecting a high level of performance from the transport network for all modes in all locations at all times and for all types of trips is increasingly unaffordable and will not provide value for money. The level of performance can appropriately be expected to vary according to location, time of day, type of trip and mode of travel.

And it is carried on into the sections about specific modes/projects. Section 6 (page 41) is all about public transport

Everyone benefits from good public transport, including road freight businesses and car drivers. As more roads are built, more people choose to travel by car and soon traffic congestion is at the same level as before the new road was built. However it is possible to build our way out of traffic congestion by building a public transport system that is good enough to attract people out of cars (16).

Not everyone who uses public transport has a choice. For people who cannot drive, or cannot afford a car, public transport opens up opportunities for education, work and a social life. A public transport system that works well for the young, the old and the mobility impaired, and serves the whole community including low income neighbourhoods, builds a stronger, more inclusive society.

And on the City Rail Link they say:

As more and more people want to live in Auckland, more efficient transport is needed. Cars simply take up too much space, and successful cities around the world have each had to solve the problem of how to get ever more people into and around the city as land and space become more valuable.


More people catching the train and bus to and through the city centre will free up parking and traffic space which can be reallocated to make room for the growing numbers of pedestrians. Projects like the Victoria St Linear Park will replace sterile tarmac with spaces which encourage people to linger and enjoy being in the centre of a world class city. The successful transformations of the Viaduct, Wynyard Quarter and Britomart are a model for how vibrant and lively the heart of our city can become.

Can you imagine the Auckland Transport of a few years ago describing a road as sterile tarmac?

There are numerous other statements that surprised me in my skim though but perhaps the most significant was this about the future of access to the city centre

While the CCFAS was designed to address regional needs it also highlighted residual city centre access issues, particularly from the central and southern isthmus not served by the rail network including:

  • Key arterials with major bus routes are already near capacity will be significantly over capacity in the future even with the CRL and surface bus improvements
  • If not addressed now, there will be area-specific problems, including the impact of a high number of buses on urban amenity, in the medium term and acute issues on key corridors in the longer term

To address these issues, work is currently underway to provide an effective public transport solution for those parts of inner Auckland and the City Centre that cannot be served by the heavy rail network, with CRL; that supports growth requirements in a way that maintains or enhances the quality and capacity of the City Centre streets. A range of options are being explored including light rail.

Re-implementing light rail in Auckland would surely be a mammoth task but there could certainly be some benefits to such an idea. This is especially true on some of the central isthmus routes which already have high frequencies, high patronage and a local road network which supports a good walk up catchment. Of course Auckland Transport would need to show just how they could pay for such a thing when funding is so constrained but if it possible it would certainly be one way for them to highlight that they have been thinking differently about transport than they have in the past. Could this be what the secretive CCFAS2 has been about?

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

The old Tram Network

And let’s not forget we’ve suggested a Dominion Rd tram as part of our Congestion Free Network.

Auckland Transport December Board Meeting

The Auckland Transport Board meet tomorrow and while it might be earlier in the month than usual due to Christmas, there’s no shortage of information. As usual here are the things that caught my attention.

The closed session is once again packed with reports, some are listed as being due to commercial sensitivity and others to allow free and frank discussion with the information released later.

Items for Approval/Decision

  • Diesel Rolling Stock Sale
  • Managing 2014/15 Programme
  • CCFAS2
  • Dominion Road
  • Bus Service Commercial & South Auckland Tender
  • PT Fare Annual Review
  • Street Lighting Acquisition
  • Te Mahia /Westfield
  • Southern Station Review

Items for Noting

  • Deep Dive – Service Provision Options
  • CRL Update
  • Heavy Rail Strategy update
  • Service Extension Options
  • Te Atatu
  • EW Connections
  • Draft Statement of Intent 2015-16

There are a number of quite specific items there and one I’m surprised about is the annual fare review seeing as we just had fare changes implemented in July that resulted in fares for bus and train trips using HOP reducing. The Te Mahia / Westfield stations will be about whether AT close them as proposed in the new Bus Network. They are the two least used stations on the network with each having less than 100 people use them per day.

Onto the board report

Funding was approved for property purchase and construction for the $26 million Te Atatu Corridor project which will widen and upgrade parts of Te Atatu Rd and Edmonton Rd. Included in the project are some walking and cycling improvements however they are inconsistent. In some places cycle lanes will be on the street while in other places they will just be shared paths. I guess there wasn’t enough room for proper cycling facilities after the addition of a 2.5-3m median.

Funding was also approved for the design and construction of the Upper Harbour Cycleway. As someone who rides along this road weekly the improvements are welcome although I suspect they will ignore the biggest issue along the route being the Upper Harbour Dr/Albany Hwy intersection which is possibly the most dangerous in Auckland. Fixing that is likely dependant on a future 30m+ of an upgrade to that section Albany Highway.

Later on in the report an additional mention is made about the awarding of a number of service contracts. Two are singled out as providing much better value than anticipated with a combined saving of almost $5m compared to what had been budgeted.

  • Security Guard Services and Patrols – Contract awarded to Armourguard. The successful tender resulted in a saving of $2.1m compared with the two year budget forecast
  • Public Transport Facilities Cleaning – Contract awarded to City Cleaning Services. The successful tender resulted in a saving of $2.7m compared with the two year budget forecast

For specific projects AT are working on the ones that caught my attention are:


Auckland Transport is progressing a planning strategy to ensure ongoing security of the Penlink corridor. This involves lodgement of an alteration to the existing Penlink designation and a suite of consent applications to allow up to four lanes on the Penlink alignment to reflect the updated design, and to extend the lapse date by another 15-20 years to align with the current draft ITP. Some changes to the existing designation boundary are proposed, however, the majority of the proposal will fit within the existing designation footprint. Notification is proposed in early 2015 due to the Christmas and New Year period. Key Stakeholder engagement is continuing and two open days are also proposed to provide the general public with an opportunity to discuss the project and planning process in more detail.

Discussions on alternate procurement methods continues with interested parties. These will be brought to the Board if they progress to any substantial proposal.

I can understand the need to retain the designation but quite where AT will find the over $350m needed for Penlink is unclear.

Devonport Wharf Transport Interchange

AT say the project completion will be delayed by two months to May 2015 after the contractor encountered construction difficulties below the Wharf Boardwalk.

Otahuhu Bus-Train Interchange

Enabling works are underway and AT say the project is still on track for completion at the end of next year which they say is “to align with the expected roll-out date for PTOM (South) in February 2016“. This suggests that the roll out of the new network has once again been delayed as it had been due to roll out in the middle of next year.

City Centre Integration

City Centre bus infrastructure planning is focussing on the Fanshawe St Busway, Wynyard Interchange and Downtown Interchange. A series of workshops will commence in December with the University and AUT to progress issues and options for the Learning Quarter Interchange and east-west bus corridor.

A City Centre Transport Framework is being developed with NZTA to collate and map out transport initiatives and issues across the city centre, as context for future development. Completion due mid-2015.


It’s good to see the Fanshawe St busway progressing as that will help further improve the PT experience for bus users from the North Shore. It is particularly important as at peak times 60-70% of all people using Fanshawe St are on a bus despite buses only having 22% of the space in the corridor. While the amount of space buses have won’t change, what should improve are the bus stops which should become more station like.

CEWT Fanshawe St

Swanson Park and Ride

AT say the tender should be awarded by now with construction starting soon. They are expecting the project to be complete by April next year. It will see 136 new car parks added to Swanson station for a cost of $2.5m. It will include improved lighting, signage, CCTV, additional platform shelters, walkway canopies to the footbridge and stairs, and new platform surfacing and marking.

Other PT improvements:

AT say they are continuing to do shadow running of test trains on the Southern and Western lines. Electric trains will be introduced to the Southern Line in early 2015 with a fully electric timetable by April which I assume means the Western Line too.

The Manukau interchange is being targeted for completion by early 2016.


The usage of HOP dropped slightly to 70% in November which has attributed to less university and secondary school students using services due to exam breaks.

HOP ticketing usage Nov 2014

AT have a special day pass for use during the NRL 9s in late January which includes discounts to some tourist attractions. They can only be purchased from Ticketek, are $25 and as yet don’t say how discount from the attractions purchasers will actually get.

HOP NRL 9s HOP daypass

Fact-checking hyperbolic arguments for more roads

Following the gridlock on the roads last Saturday, the NZ Herald published several perspectives on how Auckland should cope with disruption to its transport networks. Matt weighed in with an excellent piece on the need to build Auckland’s long-awaited rapid transit network, which would give people an alternative to congested roads. However, the Herald “counterbalanced” it with some arrant nonsense about the need for more motorways by University of Auckland associate professor (and prominent climate change denialist) Chris de Freitas.

I use the term “nonsense” for good reason. The article was rife with factual errors that undermined the points that it was trying to make. Let us count the mistakes.

One: Congestion does not cost the Auckland economy billions each year.

De Freitas contends that:

The cost to the region’s economy of traffic delays is estimated to be many billions of dollars a year, which does not include the mental anguish caused to frustrated and angry drivers.

He does not provide any citations for this figure. However, I am aware of the relevant research, including a 2013 NZTA research paper by Wallis and Lupton that found that a more realistic figure for the cost of congestion in Auckland was a mere $250 million:

Including all congestion cost components, we concluded that the costs of congestion in Auckland are approximately $1250 million per year when compared with free-flow conditions, or $250 million per year when compared with the network operating at capacity.

In other words, the only way we could achieve that hypothetical $1.25 billion saving in congestion costs would be to build a network far, far in excess of what is required to move vehicles. Furthermore, Wallis and Lupton’s estimates are derived using NZTA’s Economic Evaluation Manual procedures, which explicitly account for non-monetary values such as travel time and driver frustration. The actual financial costs of congestion are likely to be an order of magnitude lower – i.e. closer to $25-50 million. That’s just not a lot compared to Auckland’s regional GDP of $75 billion.

Two: Auckland is not adding a Dunedin worth of population every 3-4 years.

De Freitas asserts that:

Given that the region’s population continues to expand by the size of Dunedin every three to four years, the vulnerability to traffic snarl-ups will grow exponentially.

According to the most recent Census data, Dunedin has a population of roughly 120,000 people. Between 2001 and 2013, Auckland’s population increased by approximately 255,000 people, or roughly 21,000 people per year. For those who like numbers, that means one new Dunedin every six years, not every three years. De Freitas seems to think that Auckland is growing twice as fast as it actually is.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Transport’s Congestion Index shows that travel time delay actually fell by one-quarter between 2003 and 2013. This contradicts de Freitas’ claim that congestion will increase “exponentially” as population grows – why hasn’t it increased over the past decade?

Three: Rapid transit networks are well-suited for regions with natural choke-points.

De Freitas argues that geography is destiny, and that Auckland’s skinny shape makes it a natural for roads:

Public transport itself will not ease the region’s traffic crisis. Auckland’s geography, history and politics make it a unique case for infrastructure planning. Its long, thin shape led to the earliest transport routes developing along a narrow north-south axis. Strategic arterial roads followed this pattern.

He correctly observes that road networks become less efficient when they are forced through natural choke-points like harbours and portages. However, these choke-points actually make public transport more efficient, not less. Putting more cars on a single road causes congestion and makes that road less efficient, but putting more buses or trains on a single right-of-way increases efficiency by allowing them to share costly infrastructure.

Four: Auckland’s motorway network already has alternative routes.

De Freitas contends that the Auckland motorway network lacks redundancy:

The result is a highway system that is not yet part of a fully integrated network. It is linear with no alternative routes around major bottlenecks. Traffic that would want to bypass the city is forced through Spaghetti Junction, adding to the vulnerability of the system to gridlock.

He has apparently not noticed that NZTA has almost finished building a bypass of Spaghetti Junction at a massive cost of $3.6 billion – the Western Ring Route. Perhaps he hasn’t been out west in the last decade, but if he had he would have noticed the construction of SH18 and the Upper Harbour Bridge, major expansions of the SH16 causeway, and the in-progress construction of the Waterview Connection to link SH16 with SH20.

Do we have to cover the whole region in asphalt to satisfy the man?

Five: A major earthquake in Auckland is extremely unlikely.

De Freitas raises the spectre of a Christchurch-esque quake:

The region’s most strategic arterial roads are vulnerable during earthquakes. Older multi-span bridges and abutments along motorways such as around Spaghetti Junction would be most vulnerable to damage from ground liquefaction. Even minor damage to these would bring city traffic to a halt.

Now, I’m no geologist… but both of my parents are geophysicists who started out researching Auckland’s rocks. They do not believe that Auckland faces serious risks of earthquakes. Volcanoes are a stronger possibility, of course, but volcanic activity doesn’t cause soil liquefaction. Here is a map from the British Geological Survey of every major earthquake in New Zealand since 1843. Notice the total absence of any recorded earthquakes anywhere near Auckland. Unlike Christchurch, we are not close to NZ’s fault lines:

Source: BGS

Source: BGS

Six: More roads are not a good solution for disaster readiness.

De Freitas argues that more roads are needed to evacuate Auckland:

The vulnerability of a city is to a large extent a function of the adequacy of preparedness planning. How soon could Auckland be evacuated?

There is limited motorway access out of the isthmus that is the Auckland urban area, so there few alternative exits. Main feeder roads head for one major harbour crossing and easily become congested.

Some American cities that are vulnerable to regular natural disasters have tested the “more roads” approach to evacuation. So here is Houston, attempting to evacuate on one of its eighteen-lane freeways during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not a lot of people actually made it out of the city:


We could devote endless hectares of increasingly valuable land attempting to repeat the same solution that failed Houston. Or, if we think that natural disasters are a serious risk, we could invest in disaster preparedness and civil defense to ensure that the city’s residents will still have access to food, water, and health care services, regardless of what happens. That’s likely to be a much more practical, cost-effective solution.

Finally: The Herald needs to get better at fact-checking, or print a retraction.

While de Freitas’ article was printed in the op-ed page, that is no excuse for its blatant errors and omissions. Auckland only has one newspaper of record, and its credibility and usefulness to its readers is undermined when it prints this sort of gibberish.

How traffic engineering standards can break our cities

Many of you will know me as just a facetious blogger who spouts off about random things from time to time. This is indeed true.

What is also true, however, is that in a previous life I worked as a transport engineer. While nowadays I work primarily as a transport planner and an economist (roles in which I have more of a policy focus), from time to time I still find myself getting down and dirty with the application of basic traffic engineering principles.

Over time these experiences have led me to form the opinion that the traffic engineering profession in New Zealand is, shall we say, pretty much broken. It’s broken largely because “standards” have been progressively used as a substitute for thinking. And we’ve basically chosen the wrong standards. We’ve chosen traffic engineering standards that 1) fail to acknowledge basic scientific/economic principles, such as minimum parking requirements and 2) prioritise vehicle mobility ahead of other more important socio-economic outcomes. Many of these standards have profoundly negatives impacts on our cities.

In this recent post Matt presented one case study of a road re-design in Washington, in which he contrasted the designs for a corridor put forward by traffic engineers versus transport planners. Needless to say the options presented by the latter (illustrated below) appealed more to all of us here at TransportBlog.

Washington Freeway replacement Planner options

Not only do the options developed by transport planners have greater aesthetic appeal, but three of them also provide for additional land use development within the transport corridor. Indeed, traffic engineering practises that are currently applied in New Zealand (and to a greater degree Australia) do not even stop and consider the value of land. Land is so dam valuable, and the efficiency with which we use it determines, to a large degree, the productivity and amenity of our urban areas.

It would not be too factitious to suggest that many traffic engineering standards seem to presume that land is free. It’s as is if there are dutch pixies at the bottom of the garden who are manufacturing land from the sea.

One example of such a standard is the concept of the “design vehicle”, which I will focus on for the remainder of this post. Of course there are many other examples of traffic engineering standards, such as minimum parking requirements, which have been discussed before on this blog and that also have hugely negative consequences. The reason I want to focus on the “design vehicle” concept is because it does not receive much attention. And also because it has a fundamental impact on so many things.

For those who are not familiar with the “design vehicle” concept let me briefly explain. The “design vehicle” is a phrase that typically describes the largest, heaviest (per axle), and/or least maneuverable vehicle that is expected to use a particular part of the road network. Naturally, the physical footprint required to accommodate this design vehicle subsequently defines most aspects of the physical road geometry, such as turning radii and pavement design. For this reason, the shape of our road networks is very much defined by the design vehicle that is chosen.

You can read up on some of the design vehicle standards recommended by the NZTA here. The design vehicle for the standard street is typically some form of medium rigid truck, such as what is commonly used to move furniture. I’ve illustrated the physical dimensions of this vehicle below.

Medium rigid truck

The choice of design vehicle can have a massive impact on the degree to which a particular road supports, or more commonly undermines, socio-economic outcomes in urban areas. Working with a large design vehicle effectively puts paid to the types of narrow lanes and tight intersections that are ubiquitous in European cities (as an aside I’m writing this from Amsterdam, having just traveled through Paris, Porto, and Barcelona). Here’s a photo of my bicycle and I in a narrow lane in Barcelona.


Alternatively, if you can convince your traffic engineer to use a smaller design vehicle then you can reduce the physical footprint of the road network.

In my experience, however, the traffic engineering profession has developed a “gotcha” for anybody who dares suggest a smaller design vehicle be used. The “gotcha” is service vehicles, such as garbage trucks and emergency service vehicles. That’s right, the humble garbage truck, they argue, needs comprehensive access to every urban nook and cranny. In turn, our urban nooks and crannies are designed around the needs of the garbage truck, which is – perhaps needless to say – rather large.

In this way, it is actually relatively difficult to argue for tight lanes and turning circles in many new developments in Auckland, by virtue of the need to provide access for service vehicles. Now I would have less issue with this standard if someone, somewhere had actually sat down and considered what the benefits and costs of such a standard were. Typically, traffic engineering standards require more land, which is a cost. The benefit, I presume, is increased mobility. Hence it should be fairly straightforward to undertake some form of benefit-cost analysis of the regulation to work out

Now take a look at the photo below, which shows a relatively common streetscape from Amsterdam.


You will notice a cycle lane running from the bottom left of the figure towards the right hand side of the figure. If you follow this cycle lane closely then you should be able to make out the back of a small vehicle that is parked in the cycle lane just outside the shop. This is, my friends, a rubbish truck.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Amsterdam, like many European cities, designs their urban areas to deliver a broad range of socio-economic outcomes, such as walkability. This in turn requires narrower lanes and tighter intersection footprints. In response, they have effectively had to “down-scale” their rubbish trucks.

In this way I think the traffic engineering profession in New Zealand and Australia has put the garbage cart before the community horse. More specifically, instead of designing the communities we want and then selecting the vehicles that can integrate with that design, we choose the vehicle first and subsequently design our communities around their needs. I suspect our approach is very, very economically inefficient insofar as it increases the physical footprint of the road network. Remember, in cities, space is always expensive!

The sticky mess of the transport budget

The big news that the Council will be pushing back its preferred start date for the main part of the City Rail Link was not a huge surprise – aside from the enabling works the project’s probably not practically ready to start so quickly, even if funding support was available from Central Government (which it’s not). However, this is hardly a “win” on any account, as reduced spending on CRL in the next few years doesn’t free up money for other projects – as we stressed last month. This is because CRL doesn’t have an impact on rates until it opens, and it apparently is the level of rates income that constrains the transport budget.

So what does the rest of the transport budget look like? Looking at the details, the result is quite a mess, particularly during the first five years. This will become a core part of the big LTP question around whether the public wants a much larger transport programme and if so, how we’d prefer to pay for it (rates & fuel tax increases or a motorway toll). Hidden away at page 252 and 253 of the November Budget Committee agenda (27MB PDF) is the 10 year transport programme (although this is from before yesterday’s decision to delay the CRL):


This reflects the list of projects “above the line” in Auckland Transport’s ranking of all projects and reflect’s what’s possible in the “Basic Transport Network”. I don’t have a huge concern about the project list itself, although there are a few pretty low value things in there like Mill Road. The issue is more about the timing and sequencing of the programme – especially in the first few years.

You’ll see a number of important projects in there that are based around supporting the new public transport network that Auckland Transport are implementing over the next few years. Projects like the Otahuhu, Te Atatu and Manukau interchanges. Or the necessary improvements to Wellesley Street so it can cope with becoming the main east-west bus route across the city centre. The big problem is that these projects don’t appear to be funded until 2021 or in some cases (like Wellesley Street) even later:


This is a pretty insane situation, especially for projects like the Otahuhu interchange which is utterly fundamental to any implementation of the new PT network in the south. AT have started on the project but it seems they only have enough money for early works and design. The other big issue is the walking and cycling programme – which appears to be the line item “W+C Programme Risk Management”, that doesn’t have any funding at all for the first five years of the budget period.

The numbers at the bottom of the table above tell a rather strange and difficult to understand story about the total amount of funding available for transport over each of the next 10 years, jumping all over the place from a low of $453 million in the 15/16 year up to a whopping $978 million in 20/21 before dropping back down again significantly. The CRL numbers will change a bit, but remember not the rest of the programme.

But even within the funding envelope available, it seems that Auckland Transport has made some strange decisions around the timing of projects. Why is Albany Highway such an extremely high priority that it sucks up nearly $40 million in the first couple of years? Why is there no funding for AMETI, then one year of funding, then no funding again? Some of the project costs raise questions too – how does a Te Atatu bus interchange cost $46 million? How can a Wynyard interchange cost $25 million and a Downtown one $24 million when a Learning Quarter interchange only costs $8 million? Should we really be spending $171 million on the Reeves Road flyover?

There seems to be an expectation that the “Basic Transport Network” is just an academic exercise, with the public supposedly hugely in favour of the motorway tolls scheme (or higher rates and fuel taxes) that will “save the day”. I’m a bit sceptical about this – the government has not greeted the tolls scheme warmly and the public seem to be screaming even about the proposed 3.5% rates increase. We could very well be stuck with the Basic Transport Network for the foreseeable future, which means it needs a hell of a lot of work to ensure the new public transport network doesn’t fail, to ensure momentum on the walking and cycling programme is not lost and to finally make some tough decisions around whether we should be spending $143 million on Mill Road, $171 million on the Reeves Road flyover or $135 million on the East West Connections project.

The currently proposed budget is just a sticky mess that seems almost designed to fail.

Waterview Connection September and October Time-lapse

Here are the September and October time-lapse videos from the Waterview Connection project.

And the October one showing the TBM being turned around.

Need to build missing modes to avoid congestion

Yesterday large parts of Auckland’s Motorway network was brought to its knees by a single crash.

A serious crash brought Auckland’s motorway network to its knees with motorists stuck in grid-locked traffic for up to four hours.

Three motorbikes and a truck collided on Auckland’s Harbour Bridge about 12pm yesterday, leaving two motorcyclists with critical injuries and a third with serious injuries.

Three northbound lanes were closed while emergency services attended the scene of the crash.

Auckland motorists were stuck in grid-locked traffic, making a normally 40-minute journey from the airport to the North Shore take up to three hours.

The tail of the traffic jam on State Highway 1 stretched from the base of the Harbour Bridge to Highbrook Drive, Otahuhu, before all lanes were re-opened at 3pm.

Traffic on the Northwestern Motorway was very heavy, with motorists diverting trips they’d usually take on the Northern Motorway in an attempt to avoid the snarl up.

Roads throughout Central Auckland were also backed up as motorists tried to get on the motorway and became stuck.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a screenshot but at one stage the motorway traffic map looked like this with a considerable amount of red as well.  In addition local roads all around the motorways would have been severely affected too.

Motorway affected

While the crash is unfortunate – and I hope those involved are ok – as I say in the article, there is very little that could be done to prevent the ensuing chaos it caused. We’ve seen in recent years the motorway network brought to a standstill numerous times by accidents and this is especially the case when they occur on some of the busiest sections of the network.

I happened to be travelling towards the city about 1½ hours after the Harbour Bridge was reopened and SH16 was still at a standstill all the way from Te Atatu to the city which also showed just how long the delays took to clear.

Yesterday’s incident also shows highlights that even an additional harbour crossing wouldn’t have helped. As people tried to avoid the hold up they flooded to use the North-Western Motorway and that too soon jammed up. With an additional crossing the same thing would have happened as masses of people diverted their trips to avoid the bridge. It’s also worth pointing out that the opening of the Waterview Connection isn’t going to make this any better either as the project is expected to see traffic volumes on the motorway increase. This is due to new trips being generated thanks to the connection as well as a lot of trips shift from local roads on to the motorway network. The result would be even more people stuck in congestion – many deep underground.

So what can we do?

What we need is a comprehensive multi modal network that is able to deliver real choice to Aucklanders in how they get around. That means a network like the Congestion Free Network as well dedicated walking and cycling options like Skypath combined with safe routes on road across the region. Those alternative networks won’t mean that everyone is going to suddenly use them or that people driving won’t suffer from congestion at times but it does mean that people can have a realistic option to make trips around the region knowing they won’t have the risk of suffering from congestion. As yesterday’s experience also shows, the key is also they are isolated from the rest of the road network. Because there is no dedicated route for buses over the harbour bridge all North Shore services were equally caught up in the chaos disrupting them too.

CFN 2030 South-GraftonNote: we’ll be creating a new version to incorporate the change to the CRL with Mt Eden soon.

A true multi-modal transport system is also a resilient one so let’s get on and build those missing modes.

More about Taxis on Grafton Bridge

Last week I highlighted some of the interesting points from the last AT board meeting. One of those garnered quite a bit of discussion and also raised a number of questions in my head. Here are the answers from Auckland Transport to some of those questions.

How AT will monitor them and how will it deal with taxi services like Uber?

We are still working through the details of this proposal. As for monitoring, we plan to use a video camera operated on site by an enforcement officer, who will cross reference registration numbers against the NZTA database of authorised taxis.

The intention is to allow only taxis authorised by NZTA to use the bridge and not private hire vehicles like Uber.

Is it only taxis that have passengers or can empty ones use it too?

Empty ones will be able to use it as well.

Are there any changes to signage that will happen?

Some minor changes are planned, but we are still working through the detailed design.

Have the views of bus companies and cyclists been taken into account given the narrowness of the route?

As previously mentioned this proposal is still under development, but we have been working with our Public Transport Operations team on this. We will consult with bus operators and we will monitor any impacts to bus journey times using bus GPS data. We will also consult with cyclists on the proposal.

As part of the trial we also plan to conduct user surveys to understand the impacts on buses and cyclists. We are planning to conduct video surveys to identify any potential safety risks. We are planning 3 monthly review periods with the trial concluding after 12 months. If at any time we feel that it is not operating satisfactorily then we are prepared to terminate the trial.

Where did the idea come from?

We originally received a request from the taxi industry to permit taxis in all bus lanes in Auckland. We undertook an assessment of the likely impacts and we decided not to agree to this request. However, we did conclude that we could look at this specific location because it would provide significant benefits to taxi passengers on a route that links high demand destinations (i.e. the hospital and the city centre).

Has NZTA been consulted as they funded the strengthening works on the basis of it being bus only during the day?

We are still developing the proposal and once that is done we will be consulting NZTA.

As I said last week, this seems like it could have quite a bad outcome, especially for cyclists who are more likely to feel more pressured on the narrow road. It could also be quite bad for bus users if a lot of taxi’s start using the route as a bunch of taxi’s at lights might mean buses start missing a phase slowing buses down. Add to that the confusion between just what is a taxi and the sheep like nature of many drivers who might drive over the bridge from seeing other cars do it and it seems like a recipe for confusion and frustration. Leave it as it is and if the key is to link the city centre to the Hospital then Wellesley St seems like a much better option from most locations anyway.