Privatising Roads

The ACT party – or at least its biggest funder – was in the news last weekend for expressing some of his views for the party at their annual conference. Of note was this line

“I’d privatise all the schools, all the hospitals and all the roads,” he told the conference.

Now obviously we’re not in the habit of talking about schools or hospitals (unless it’s about how to get to them) but roads are something on our list. Now in reality I can’t see it happening here – at least any time soon – but it raises the interesting question of what would happen if we were to privatise roads? This post is really just a thought exercise as to some of the impacts of doing so.

I suspect that if we were ever privatise the roads the impact would how we get around and our views on transport would change dramatically. There would be some overall impacts across the entire network but also more local impacts due to there likely needing to be different forms of privatisation.

The key impact would be across the entire network and the true cost of operating, maintaining and building roads would become much clearer regardless of how that’s passed on to the public. A better understanding of just how much roads cost, especially if charged for through forms of road pricing would lead to changes in how people travel. People would likely reduce the amount of driving they do in favour of more walking, cycling and PT use.

Private road owners would also likely seek to reduce their maintenance costs while users of lighter vehicles would likely demand that costs are more fairly distributed to those that do the most damage. That in itself could have large impacts. It would likely see the vehicle fleet get smaller and lighter over time i.e. less people would be driving around in large SUVs unless they absolutely need too (or want too). Truckies would be even harder hit. Due to their weight, trucks cause substantially more damage to road surfaces and so would likely be charged substantially more than other vehicles which in itself would have far reaching impacts by pushing up delivery costs. Those increased costs would of course be passed on to businesses and ultimately consumers.

Perhaps one of the areas most impacted would be in road construction. In short it would kill it dead. Most transport projects simply don’t make sense financially and the toll road troubles in Australia are proof of this. Traffic volumes often don’t stack up and most projects are only able to be justified based on the benefits to the wider economy from improved travel times. Faced with paying for a journey in time through congestion or paying a monetary cost to avoid congestion, many choose the former. What all of this means is that road construction would dry up almost immediately and the costs would shift to making the best use of the infrastructure that exists. That could have some negative consequences as there might be little attention paid to improving roads through projects like this. The flip side of this is that the private road owners would likely become liable for road safety and therefore be a push to improve crash black spots.

Regardless of whether privatising roads is a good or a bad thing, one thing that isn’t so clear is just how it could be done. The real benefit from roads comes from the fact they are an extensive network. Very few trips begin and end on the same road and a trip might commonly involve travelling on quieter residential streets, arterial roads and motorways. Each of those would present vastly different opportunities for privatisation.

Motorways

Motorways would probably be the easiest roads to privatise due to the fact they have limited access and all journeys that use a motorway begin and end somewhere else. Motorways also carry large amounts of traffic each day. This is also why groups like the NZCID who have been pushing for the council/govt to find additional ways to fund ever more and larger transport projects have suggested charging for access to the motorways. If we were to privatise roads there would likely be a big temptation to do the easiest ones first and so motorways would be at the top of the agenda. The problem with that though is that it would likely have a huge impact on but still publicly owned roads.

Residential streets

The next easiest set of roads to privatise would actually be quiet suburban streets, particularly those post 1950′s suburbs full of cul-de-sacs. There we would probably do something similar to what is likely to happen later this year in the small sprawly village of Long Grove (north of Chicago). They are looking to privatise many of their currently public suburban roads because it simply can’t afford to maintain them due to their pyramid scheme like system of how roads were funded where the money to pay for them was only raised through development contributions which dried up as a result of the GFC. They are simply going to turn over the ownership of the roads to the owners of the houses on the street and leave it up to them to maintain. 

cul-de-sac

Some typical post 1950′s street patterns

That could put big strains on neighbourly relations in many places as people work out who will pay for what i.e. does everyone on a street pay equally or do those at the end of the street pay more? In some parts of Auckland there could be interesting changes in the stance taking on intensification. More people living on a street means more people to share the cost of a road with and so some of the suburbs that were most opposed to intensification in the Unitary Plan discussions might quickly change their mind. Going further some residential neighbourhoods might start imposing restrictions on vehicle use in their streets – particularly truck movements – in a bid to lessen the damage vehicles do to the roads. Gated communities might also become more common to stop others from passing through.

On the positive side these communities are likely to become much more pedestrian and cycle friendly as those two modes cause much less wear and tear on roads which equates to less maintenance.

Arterials

Privatising arterial roads are likely to be the hardest to do because not only do they serve a movement function but they serve a place one too, people live, work and play along arterials. To be honest I don’t even know how you could privatise them as due to their function they can’t just be turned over to locals to maintain but their connected nature means they would be prohibitively expensive to charge for. Who would really want the cost and hassle of owning them?

Overall I don’t think the idea of privatising roads is necessarily a bad one from an ideological perspective and doing so would certainly change how we use roads, including what modes we use but overall it simply isn’t practical. Roads are such a key part of our everyday life that changing our relationship with them – however flawed it currently is – would have radical and far reaching consequences for society, probably far more so than the privatising of many other government functions. As such I would suggest the likelihood of it happening is very very low. Far more likely and practical would be the introduction of proper road pricing.

Missing Road Links

Auckland’s geography has helped to define how the city has developed, both at a regional level but also at a local level. As the city has grown we have worked around the natural barriers often taking the path of least resistance/cost but that has left us with some places that can be extremely circuitous to get around. In this post I want to look at a few places where actually adding in a road would be extremely beneficial, not just for cars but also for buses, walkers and cyclists.

First up in the West we have the another crossing of the Whau River. At the moment, particularly anyone around the Glen Eden area, has an extremely long route to travel to get to either the Avondale peninsula or to the motorway. This crossing actually had some work done on a few years ago and the preferred alignment is shown below was to link the roundabout on Rosebank Rd/Patiki Rd to Hepburn Rd and was costed in 2008 dollars at $73 million for a two lane bridge or $106 million for a four lane one. Such a route could have potentially dramatically reduced the amount of pressure that is placed on the Te Atatu and Gt North Rd interchanges and potentially been a useful bus route, especially if a busway was built alongside SH16.

Whau River Crossing

While the Whau River crossing wouldn’t come cheap, there are others that wouldn’t cost nearly as much. This time lets jump across to the East to the area around Pakuragna. The waterways around here have created some huge barriers that require all traffic from further East to be forced onto a handful of roads in order to get west. It is also difficult to serve with public transport due to the way that the two key routes, Pakuranga Rd and Ti Rakau Dr, continue to separate like a wedge the further they get from Pakuranga where the only two crossings of the river north of the motorway exist. In this case a small bridge between Hope Farm Ave and La Trobe St would amongst other things, allow for a logical third main bus route from the east to pierce right through the middle of that wedge. I imagine it would also be hugely beneficial to those who may want to cycle in that area too.

Hope Farm Ave Crossing

In the North another potential, although probably quite difficult and expensive link we have discussed in the past is a bridge between Greenhithe and Beach Haven. Its something which could provide another useful North/South bus route along the shore and would dramatically cut down on travel times from upper harbour areas.

Beachhaven to Greenhithe Bridge

There are probably also countless other places where new links in the form of bridges or perhaps as a result of removing a few houses could make a massive difference to how people get around by walking or cycling, make a more logical bus network or even to help spread vehicle traffic out further by reducing bottlenecks. If you were to have a programme of work to make some of these new links, what ones would you like to see.

Short and awkward with a big mouth

This is something that has always bugged me as I walk up and down Queen St. Take a look at the intersection of Airdale St. Airdale is a little left over remnant of a road that got sliced off by Mayoral Drive. It wasn’t much of a street to begin with, but now it almost doesn’t exist. But look at that intersection!

What really gets me is that the mouth of this street is 20m wide. That’s as wide as Queen St itself, and as wide as Dominion Rd including the footpaths. The street itself is only 70m long. It’s so wide the built a pedestrian refuge island halfway across.

I have to ask why this stubby ex-street required such a huge width? Why is the intersection almost twice as wide as a comparable minor street elsewhere in the city? It can’t have high traffic flows as it is a complete dead end. Not a cul de sac even, just a dead end. A quick scan reveals eight on street parking spaces, a loading zone, and access to two building’s garages. Neither of those are big carparking buildings mind, just a few dozen spots across two office buildings. Why widen it so much, presumably for high speed cornering geometry, but then go an build in a raised pedestrian table? The really funny thing is the pedestrian island and the curve of the curbs mean you can’t get two cars abreast at the intersection. The intersection is as wide as a four lane road for no reason I can see.

I should point out that this isn’t still the old intersection from the days when Airdale St was a long city street, this was designed this way only a few years ago when it was totally rebuilt as part of the Queen St streetscapes upgrades. Someone chose to make it this way. I wonder if the intersection wasn’t so wide then maybe they could have managed more than a solitary cabbage tree to green up the space, perhaps a little pocket park or similar feature. Maybe with more pedestrian space they MLC cafe could manage more than four chairs out front.

I’m no traffic engineer and I don’t really have any idea what informs these design decisions, but can somebody please enlighten me why such an insignificant service lane was recently built with such a huge intersection on the city’s busiest pedestrian corridor?

PenLink

Another major transport project that the Transport Committee’s agenda provides an update on is a link between the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and State Highway 1, via a bridge across the Weiti River – a project commonly known as “Penlink”. This project has had a fairly turbulent history: first proposed as a toll road, then it was to be funded by the Regional Fuel Tax, then when that tax was abolished by the government, funding for PenLink somewhat disappeared again.

So it’s useful to have an update on where the project is at: Here’s an indicative map of the route: I’m not quite sure what I think of this project actually. On the one hand I think it offers a useful alternative to the existing road and really would make a difference for travellers between the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and Auckland. On the other hand I worry that it could increase development pressure on areas around Stillwater, which plays an important role as a greenbelt between the Hibiscus Coast and the rest of Auckland.

I suppose that  if the road is tolled, to the extent that its funding doesn’t take money away from projects elsewhere that might be seen as a higher priority, and we ensure that the land-use planning restrictions on urbanisation around Stillwater remain tight, then there’s no real reason to oppose a project like this. I wonder if it would be popular with a $3-4 toll? That would pay for a pretty significant chunk of the project’s construction cost I think.

The Whau River Bridge

There has been discussion for many years about whether a local road bridge connection should be made between Te Atatu South and the Rosebank industrial area. The latest Transport Committee agenda raises the project as a potential option – to add to the list of major transport projects considered at last month’s meeting of the Committee.

Here’s what’s said: There’s also a useful map outlining a few options for the bridge’s route:While I’m generally not one to jump on support of a transport project that is unlikely to have too many public transport benefits, I actually think there’s a reasonable amount of logic to this project. It would divert traffic away from a couple of really nasty bottlenecks: the southern end of Rosebank Road and the stretch of Te Atatu Road between Edmonton Road and the motorway. In fact, it could have been a useful alternative to the massively expensive widening of State Highway 16 currently being progressed by NZTA.

Now that the upgrade to SH16 is progressing, I think it’s unlikely this Whau Crossing project will go ahead any time soon. And I think that’s a shame – I’m a fan of transport projects that give people more options, rather than widening existing roads: where the congestion relief gains are usually quickly lost to induced demand.

What cost-benefit ratios should be like

With many motorway projects having extremely marginal cost-benefit ratios, such as the Transmission Gully motorway near Wellington having a BCR of 0.6 and the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” having a BCR of around 0.8, one can wonder whether the analysis process is perhaps a bit too harsh. Do any projects stack up well?

Well I came across a project the other day that just goes go show that there are areas where money can be spent on upgrading our transport infrastructure where the rate of return on the project is excellent. Of course these projects aren’t quite as flash and fancy as 35 kilometre long motorways, but they generally involve the elimination of critical bottlenecks that cause significant delays, but don’t really cost that much to fix. They’re the low hanging fruit that we seem to be ignoring while throwing money at huge motorway projects that don’t seem to stack up.

The project that I am talking about is an upgrade of Smales Road and Allens Road in East Tamaki, Manukau City. This upgrade will widen the sections of road shown in green on the map below from two lanes to four lanes, add additional turning lanes at key intersections and provide cycling infrastructure. Here’s where it’s generally located: Essentially, this route links up the Flat Bush/Botany/East Tamaki area with the Southern Motorway – via the relatively new Highbrook Drive interchange. Highbrook Drive is a pretty high standard road for most of its length, as is Smales Road once you get east of where the green line runs out. But in the middle the road is bizarrely narrow and the intersection is completely inadequate for the amount of vehicles trying to use it. It’s a natural bottleneck.

The traffic effects of undertaking the project against a simulation of what would happen if you “did nothing”  have been compared via a traffic model. I must say overall I am somewhat sceptical about traffic models because of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle, and my sneaking suspicion that most models are based on far lower petrol prices than what we can expect in the future – but that’s another matter entirely. For this particular situation, the various options have been modelled and the results outlined in the table below: I do sometimes wonder whether traffic models take into account actual human behaviour rather than thinking about people like stormwater that needs to be “gotten rid of”. One would imagine that once average speeds dipped below 10kph people would stop throwing themselves at this corridor and use somewhere else. But anyway, even taking the exact figures with a rather large grain of salt it is pretty obvious that unless something is done the intersection of Springs/Harris road with Smales/Allens road is going to get pretty damn ugly in the future.

So what are the benefits, once turned into a monetary value? This is shown in the table below: Most of the benefits are in those rather dicey “travel time costs” savings, but even taking my skepticism of those benefits into account, it’s pretty obvious that the project will make a big difference.

Now if we stack up the benefits of the project against its costs, we actually end up with a pretty amazing result: When one is used to seeing BCRs that hover around 1, seeing something at 8.5 is pretty staggering. So therefore even taking into account many of the fundamental issues I have with how cost-benefit analyses are calculated, and the over-reliance on time-savings benefits, it is clear that this project is worth undertaking many times over. I don’t know what its priority is and when we might expect it to be constructed, but I imagine that there are a great number of little projects out there that would be very similar to this one. Nasty intersections that cause huge delays, bizarre areas of road that narrow and cause bottlenecks and so on.

Sadly, the powers to be don’t seem to be focusing on these clever, smaller, projects but rather want to spend $11 billion on motorway projects over the next decade, half of which seem to not stack up at all financially.

Gridlock in Herne Bay

Just caught a rather long-winded bus home, as it got a bit caught up in the gridlock that seems to have descended upon Herne Bay in the past couple of weeks. This is generally related to the roadworks that are currently going on along Curran Street in Ponsonby/Herne Bay. These roadworks are, strangely enough, part of the Victoria Park Tunnel project – as they involve re-routing a watermain to go via a different route between the city and the harbour bridge.

Anyway, basically since the beginning of the year Curran Street has been closed to ‘downhill’ traffic heading towards the Harbour Bridge – and vehicles have had to travel via Shelly Beach Road or Hamilton Road. I must say that I found it odd that if Curran Street was narrowed to one way only, that you’d make that one direction being “uphill” rather than downhill. This is because Curran Street acts as basically an extension of an onramp onto the Harbour Bridge, and I would say about 95% of the vehicles that use Curran Street are heading ‘downhill’, just as probably 95% of the vehicles that use Shelly Beach Road are heading uphill. For the last few weeks we’ve ended up having the arrangement shown in the diagram below: While our street (Hamilton Road) has certainly been a bit busier than usual, this seems to have worked out OK. I think most of the traffic has used Shelly Beach Road as the preferred way to access the motorway – which makes sense as the intersection at the top of it has traffic lights, and it’s already a fairly busy road. However, yesterday I noticed that there had been a subtle, but significant, change to the area of road closed, with access from Sarsfield Street onto the motorway no longer possible. This meant that to get from Hamilton Road to the motorway I had to head up to Jervois Road, along it, down Shelly Beach road, along Sarsfield Street and then onto the motorway. No real big hassle, although the signage was certainly confusing with circle and diamond shaped detour signs located seemingly at random all over the place.

This morning, as I wandered up to the bus stop on Jervois Road I noticed that there were a heck of a lot of vehicles heading up Hamilton Road – which certainly seemed strange as most of the additional traffic we’ve had is heading down the street. I haven’t confirmed it, but I am guessing that these were vehicles intending to head north on the motorway from Sarsfield Street, but had to make a last minute detour because of the road closure – something like the journey shown in the diagram below: This evening clearly the same problem was happening, with cars the length of Hamilton Road, cars backed up along Jervois road everywhere, cars all over Shelly Beach Road and so forth. The obvious problem to me (aside from closing the wrong side of Curran Street) is poor communication. The detour signage is, to be frank, pretty pathetic and confusing. If the connection between Sarsfield Street and the Harbour Bridge simply had to be shut, then there should have been good signage on Jervois Road very early on telling everyone to not use Sarsfield Street.

Here are a couple of photos showing the gridlock along normally quiet Hamilton Road: Hopefully some lessons will be learned from today’s mess and things might be a bit better tomorrow. On a personal level, I’m glad to bypass the whole mess by catching the bus into town.

Edit: this gridlock might have been exacerbated, but didn’t seem to be caused by, today’s power cuts, as traffic lights in the immediate area seemed to be on when I went through there.  Lights further back towards Ponsonby were out, but that was quite separate!