AT are doing some very very good things at the moment, they are showing leadership and courage to make rational but bold decisions. Like dropping the Reeves Rd fly-over in favour of a BRT solution, creatively investigating ways to bring modern light rail to over-crowded bus routes, and quickly rolling out long overdue bus lanes on arterials. These are all fantastic and are signs of a nimble and lively institution, one that is responding to a changing world with a changed response. One that is resisting the natural tendency of public agencies to just roll on doing the same as before and not risk trouble. I applaud this and the hard working and dedicated individuals who are carrying out.
But at the same time, at least at the time of writing, AT has lost its way on Great North Road. So why have they got it so wrong here?
Looking at that first list we can see what all these issues have in common; they are all discretely transport issues; as you’d expect this is AT’s core competency. BRT versus a traffic flyover in Pakuranga? This is a debate between competing transport projects, each can be costed and outcomes evaluated. Analysing whether more buses will be able to deal with the demand on Isthmus and City routes or whether a higher capacity technology may be needed? Again this is problem of spatial geometry, vehicle size, route speed, likely passenger volumes, boarding times, vehicle dimensions etc. All the kinds of things a transport organisation ought to excel in, and that AT increasingly shows it does.
But in examining the widening of Great North Road as if it only has transport outcomes they are showing the limits of this competency. That ‘place value’ just doesn’t compute is shown by the bewildering array of excuses being rolled out by AT to justify an act they clearly consider trivial: The removal of the six 80 year old Pohutukawa. First was an attempt to blame the need for killing these trees on improved cycling and public transport amenity in order to ‘bring long-term environmental benefits':
We regret that the trees will be lost but a major benefit is that they will make way for cycle lanes to the motorway overbridge and for an extended bus lane and bus priority measures in Great North Road.
Making travel by cycle and bus more efficient and convenient is consistent with Auckland Transport’s drive to encourage the use of public transport. This will bring long-term environmental benefits as more people choose alternative modes of transport, to the car.
This is to draw an extraordinarily long bow. There are no ‘cycle lanes to the motorway overbridge’ in the proposed plan. There is absolutely no more cycling amenity on Great North Rd than there is currently, ie a wide footpath, except the new one will have no shade nor glory from the grand Pohutukawa. There is proposed to be a slightly longer but still intermittent bus lane. And as all this takes place as part of a massive increase in traffic lanes, including a double slip lane, to say that this project is designed to ‘bring long term environmental benefits as more people choose alternative modes of transport, to the car’ is frankly, an untruth.
That statement would be justified if fully separated cycle lanes and proper Rapid Transit was at the core of the project. They are not.
Both AT and NZTA spend public money and it is our legal and moral responsibility to deliver the most objective cost-efficient solutions to the ratepayers and taxpayers that planning and engineering can devise, for the least possible cost.
Absolutely right. Cost, and value, is exactly the issue here. We all certainly want our money spent wisely by our public servants. But there are obvious problems with this assertion, first the cost is only relevant in the context of the value; a cheap thing is a waste if it is not very good. And the people of Auckland see losing the trees as too high a cost for what they propose. That AT don’t see they value of the trees how and where they are, or so discount it so, is essentially the heart of the disagreement. We understand that they have a low transport value, but AT cannot ignore values outside of their core discipline, particularly place values, as their actions have huge effects on the quality of life and place that are not captured by driver time savings, traffic flow, or PT ridership numbers. Neither AT nor NZTA can just ignore these issues and simply hide within their speciality. And nor can they claim that a couple of new trees are the same as magnificent ones that have witnessed the last 80 years at this spot.
Additionally, there is no evidence that the preferred option is less expensive in direct financial cost than say Option Six, which the peer review
found to have no significantly different traffic outcomes. In fact Option Six must surely be cheaper to construct as it is one lane narrower and doesn’t involve removing the trees:
There are other issues that could be raised with this text like the bold claim the whole purpose of the Super City is to reduce congestion:
The founding premise of the Auckland super city was that the city’s congestion was costing $1 billion a year in lost productivity and this had to change.
Both this idea of the centrality of congestion busting to the whole purpose of the city and the quoting of a $1billion annual congestion cost figure show how blind AT have become to other issues of value. Other costs. Especially perhaps things that are hard to quantify. But then congestion cost itself is a very hard thing to quantify. The most recent attempt in New Zealand, published by NZTA itself [Wallis and Lupton 2013]
find that the figure for Auckland is more likely in the realm of $250 million.
But regardless of this supposed quantum it has long been understood that congestion is not solved by building more roads
, that in fact while temporarily easing one route, overall this only encourages more driving and auto-dependency for a place, and ultimately worse congestion everywhere. It is, quite literally, the loosening of the belt as a ‘cure’ for obesity. It is also understood that the best outcome for all road users, the best way to combat congestion, is to invest in the alternative Rapid Transit route, particularly where none currently exists:
This relationship is one of the key mechanisms that make city systems tick. It is basic microeconomics, people shifting between two different options until there is no advantage in shifting and equilibrium is found. We can see this relationship in data sets that make comparisons between international cities. Cities with faster public transport speeds generally have faster road speeds.
So again the heavy cost of this work, both financially and in the loss of the trees, a massive reduction in place value, is too high for this outcome.
As some levels of AT seem to admit they place no value on the trees, or indeed anything that isn’t directly transport related, the best outcome would be for the Board to give them direction to find a solution that both keeps the trees and meets reasonable near term traffic demand and in fact meaningfully incentivises the mode shift that AT correctly values:
Urban roads and state highways working together to keep the traffic flowing and fast, efficient road, rail and ferry passenger services that — together with walking and cycling — entice Aucklanders out of their cars.
-Auckland Transport Metro Magazine
This is an issue of cost, and value. The people of Auckland, Auckland Transport’s ultimate customers and employers, find the cost to place-value too high, and the value of the proposed outcome too low, to justify this action. The public may have been slow to realise what was planned here but have now made their views clear. Recently we have come to expect bold and innovative solutions from AT for all sorts of difficult problems. So it would be very unfortunate if the Board were to miss an opportunity to call a halt to this irreversible action and to seek a smarter solution.
And because work has begun the most efficient and cost effective solution is probably to make the small but significant change to Option Six, leaving the trees, adding the additional slip lane, but settling at least for now, for the two east bound lanes away from the motorway overbridge instead of three. It would be good to see the real effects are after the opening of the Waterview connection before rash actions are taken. If a third lane is deemed necessary here [even though only two lead into it] it is clear that could be added in a few years as MOTAT as planning to restructure their whole relationship with this corner. AT can save some cost and some grief now and revisit the issue with more information and without the pressure from a NZTA deadline. It could be that they find that an east facing buslane and separated cycle way is of higher value through here…?
Pohutukawa Blossom, elsewhere