These days, no transport project gets built or policy signed off without first being run through a model. I’m not talking about a scale model but a mathematical computer model that is designed to estimate just how people might use a project or how much a project and/or policy will affect the transport system. To do this, these models take historical data like traffic volumes and land use and mix them with assumptions about the future to get a result. Things these days have gotten to the point where people won’t make any decisions without running it though a model, after all if the computer gives the answer, it must be right. Right?
The problem though is that while they are all good in theory, these models are designed by humans. Yes they may be very smart humans but that doesn’t mean that they or their models don’t have flaws. Thanks to the OIA request I received back from the Ministry of Transport, as well as information in the recent Auckland Transport board meeting, we perhaps have more info than ever before on how our modelling works and some of the issues with it.
Auckland uses two general types of modelling, these are described below:
Travel demand models cover the region and are concerned with broad travel patterns and flows. These are usually calibrated on observed data (base year) and are then used to forecast responses to land use and transport changes or interventions.
Operational models usually cover a smaller area, are more detailed, and are used to assess detailed traffic operations on a section, approach, lane or turning movement level. AT operates two general types of operational models, one being flow based (traffic as a “stream”) and the other being micro-simulation (each vehicle or unit is simulated travelling through a network).
Demand models are typically used for long range forecasting whereas operational models range from “now” options to medium range forecasts.
As mentioned in the description about the travel demand models, they are calibrated against a base year. That means the data is put into them and they are tweaked so that they deliver the same results as what actually occurred in that base year. Data from subsequent years would then be added to that. At the highest level we have the Auckland Regional Transport Model (ART 3). This looks at travel demand across the entire Auckland region however this is where the first major problem lies. It was last calibrated against 2006 data which means it is almost 7 years out of date. That might not seem like much but the last 7 years have probably seen more changes in transport behaviour than any time during the prior five decades. Note: The ART3 model is actually controlled by the council, not AT. AT do however control a Passenger Transport model (APT) which looks at the impact on PT however this is even worse with AT saying that it was last calibrated against 2001 data.
As part of the work before AT start on a new CRL business case, they have said that both models are going to be updated to a 2013 base year. Although considering that the modelling was also being used to inform the massive roadfest that is the Integrated Transport Programme, you would have thought it would have been a good idea to update it earlier. A few million spent updating it would likely have had massive implications on the outcome of both the CCFAS and the ITP.
Sow how did modelling work for the CCFAS? Well AT used both travel demand models and more detailed operational models. A diagram of how they interacted is below.
The ART3 model was used to produce initial results based on the employment, population and land use assumptions used in the project (remember these were agreed to by representatives of all organisations). That then kicks out data on vehicle and PT demand which is then fed through the APT model. One of the developments that came about from the CCFAS was a new function to address crowding on PT as after all, if people can’t get on a bus, they aren’t going to be able to use it are they? But here is where there start to be some major flaws in my opinion.
The people who were ‘crowded off’ the PT system were then added back into to the ART model as not being able to use PT. But they get added to the number of trips taken by car and the model then recalculates vehicle travel times with this extra traffic included. As the MoT said in its response to the report, there are no feedback loops to take into account the impact of the changed conditions. In reality people crowded off PT (and we know from the CCFAS this was affecting the bus network) would look for another mode of travel, change their travel time or perhaps not travel at all. While undoubtedly some will drive, the impact of them doing so might force someone else to change their mode, perhaps catching a non-crowded rail service instead.
The traffic results from this recalculated ART model are then fed into a Saturn model, which is a more detailed operational model, to get more detailed outcomes on the impact of the various options. Once again there were also no feedback loops from this stage either meaning that once again, the impacts of the congestion caused by the options were not fed back through the system.
So in summary we have a regional transport model that was last calibrated against 2006, feeding into a PT model last calibrated in 2001 that just assumes that anyone who can’t catch a bus because it is full will instead turn to driving on already congested roads. It is these issues that I think led the MoT to conclude that the modelling was likely overestimating the demand for private vehicle trips while underestimating demand for PT trips. This is likely the reason why the model suggested that during the morning peak period, we would have almost 50% more people entering the CBD via private vehicle in 2041 compared to now while over the same period removing space for cars. For reference the annual screenline survey recorded less than 34,000 people entering the CBD by private vehicle in 2012 while the reference case for the CCFAS suggests over 49,000 will do so.
It seems that until AT start really addressing some of these glaring issues, modelling the true impact of the CRL will remain elusive.
In December the council released the City Centre Future Access Study (CCFAS). The study came about after the government rejected the original business case for the City Rail Link and Steven Joyce asked for among other things, more information on the alternative options. Crucially the work on CCFAS also included representativeness from the Ministry of Transport, NZTA and Treasury. The intention was to finally gain a consensus about the best transport solutions for the city centre.
Unsurprisingly to us, the CRL came out as the best solution but reaction from the government was swift in dismissing the study. The most frustrating part of the governments comments were from Gerry Brownlee questioning the assumptions and investigations undertaken as part of the study seeing as staff in his own ministry were deeply involved. It seems fairly reasonable to wonder, if they had concerns then why didn’t they raise them during the study?
So that night (13 Dec), I flicked of an Official Information Act request to the MoT to find out just what they knew. The request took a very long time and I only got it back a few weeks ago. It definitely wasn’t a small amount of info as there were over 250 pages worth (they wouldn’t provide me soft copies). I have however now read through it all as well as scan all of the pages and here is perhaps the most interesting bits. Note: due to the number of documents I have split it up into sections, in total they come in at just over 100MB so probably best not to try and read them from a mobile device.
10/10/2011 – (Part 2, page 9) The draft terms of reference for the study were sent to Steven Joyce for his comments along with the points raised by the MoT. Unfortunately the ministers comments have been excluded from the request.
04/11/2011 – (Part 2, page 20) Comments in a report to the minister that both the MoT and NZTA are attending fortnightly meetings project meetings which shows that they were very deeply involved right from the start.
23/01/2012 – (Part 2, page 37) Brownlee is now the minister and has been asked to sign a letter to Len Brown around the amended terms of reference (the final version he signed off on is here). Brownlee has refused to sign it as he wants a more detailed briefing on the project first. What is most interesting though is point 20 on the background information (page 40) where the MoT raise the suggestion that there needs to be a more “realistic target date” for the CRL. This is important as one of the key responses to the study from the MoT and government has been to talk of the project being more viable a decade later. Does this suggest they went into the study with that outcome already planned?
24/01/2012 – (Part 2, page 47) This is the additional briefing that was given to Brownlee and there were a couple of notable points. It mentions that the CRL would allow 5 minute frequencies across the network, something that AT won’t even promote for some reason. There is a section on the history of the project but seems to have some mistakes in it e.g. says the idea was first around in the 1970′s when in fact it has existed since at least the 1920′s.
19/04/2012 – (Part 3, page 4) The next few pages talk about kicking off the CCFAS project and includes the project and governance structures, this shows that MoT, NZTA and Treasury staff were very clearly involved in the project including at the highest levels. Also included is the proposed methodology that would be used for the project which includes discussion assumptions and how important it is that they are agreed upon. This is important as one of the key issues the MoT later objected to were the assumptions used.
20/08/2012 – (Part 4) One of the big changes to the study was a request by the MoT to do a detailed deficiency analysis on the transport system. This document is a presentation showing the outcome of this work. You can see from the email that it seemed to really help the MoT understand just how much of a problem the number of buses in the city centre would become.
07/09/2012 – (Part 5, page 1) A report to the minister advising of progress, of note is that the MoT say that the working group have agreed on the short-listed options for further study which were the CRL, surface bus improvements or a bus tunnel. They also note that they are providing comments on the draft versions of the report.
12/09/2012 – (Part 5, page 2) A small briefing given to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet ahead of a meeting between John Key and Len Brown which again states what the short listed options were. It also points out that the CRL was likely to be the best option.
06/11/2012 – (Part 5, page 28) A letter from David Warburton to the head of the MoT thanking him for the way the staff from both organisations worked together. This is important in light of the upcoming comments.
09/11/2012 – (Part 5, page 30) Perhaps the first sign that there was trouble brewing. In a report the the minister, MoT officials complain that they haven’t been adequately consulted on some elements. This is despite them having been involved in various stages of the process right from the very start.
03/12/2012 – (Part 6, page 12) A briefing to Brownlee on the CRL. Unfortunately most of it is blacked out so we can’t see what was actually said. Some of the comments suggest that the MoT weren’t happy with the modelling and forecasts yet also confirms that MoT staff were closely involved.
04/12/2012 – For some reason I didn’t scan these page but it is repeated in the next part anyway.
06/12/2012 – (Part 7, page 3) This is the feedback that the MoT provided to AT. With some of the points you really have to wonder why they weren’t raised earlier. One particularly interesting point I noted, is below. It is perhaps the first time we have had a government official acknowledge that our modelling is likely to overestimate vehicle trips and under estimate PT trips.
This comes about because there are missing feedback loops between the congestion in the city and change in travel. It is an incredibly important revelation as resolving this issue is likely to vastly benefit the CRL. We will look at the modelling issues in more detail in another post. However despite that, the MoT then go on in the very next point to suggest in the surface bus option that the modelled congestion on Vincent and Albert St could be improved by scaling back the bus lanes. I also have to question this comment in particular.
My understanding of latent demand is, demand which exists but that cannot be fulfilled because a product or service doesn’t exist to enable it. Under that definition there is latent demand for the rail network, it just needs the CRL for the latent demand to be realised.
07/12/2012 – (Part 8, page 2) Following the earlier mentioned briefing to Brownlee, he obviously came back with some questions which perhaps show where his thinking is, asking about the east west link and and ferries. The most interesting part though is the letter from AT to the MoT regarding their feedback. It is quite clear from the letter that AT were not happy perhaps feeling a bit ambushed by the fact the MoT came back with so many issues so late in the process.
As you can see, there is a heap of information about the project as well as some insight into the MoTs thinking. I made the comment a few months ago that I suspected the government and the MoT went into the study thinking that they could prove that AT were wrong and that buses would be the best option. However that backfired and it seems interesting that officials only really started getting upset about the study and the assumptions made in it after it emerged that the CRL was the best option. These documents confirm that government officials were deeply involved in the study all the way through and for them not to have raised the major concerns they had until the last minute makes me highly suspicious. Adding to that they seem to have gone into the process with a predetermined outcome if the CRL was chosen, in the form of questioning the timing of it, something that ended up forming one of their key complaints.
Another interesting point is that some of the concerns mentioned by Brownlee in his initial response to the report (below), weren’t even raised by his MoT officials to AT which makes you wonder where they even came from.
“Yet the report underplays State Highways entering the Auckland CBD from the south, both SH1 and SH16, and how improvements to these might impact central city traffic.
“Completion of the Western Ring Route in 2017 will also draw many thousands of traffic movements away from the CBD, yet none of these major transport corridors is explored in detail.
“Also overlooked is that evolving workplace practices and emerging technology will most likely have a considerable impact on peak hour travel over the next 30 years.
“These may offer considerable gains for a fraction of the cost of the CRL.
If there is one positive to come out of this, as I mentioned the other day, it is that at least we now have MoT officials agreeing that there is some need for the project, what is in dispute is the timing.
The NZ Herald reports:
In a surprise announcement, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee yesterday asked the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to commence investigations into a motorway between Panmure and Downtown: along a very similar route to the alignment of the Eastern Highway that cost John Banks the Auckland City mayoralty back in 2004.
Mr Brownlee confirmed that the need to investigate this project further was the most significant outcome of a four-month review of the ‘City Centre Future Access Study’ by Ministry of Transport officials.
“In December last year the Auckland Council released the City Centre Future Access Study. At the time I highlighted some concerns that this study had not reviewed a wide enough series of options to deal with future access problems to downtown Auckland and I also highlighted some doubts over the extremely optimistic assumptions made by that study. Today’s announcement vindicates my concerns,” said Mr Brownlee at a media conference at Orakei point, where the six lane motorway is planned to pass through.
“The Future Access Study’s findings showed that while the CBD Rail Loop performed the best of the options considered, by 2021 and especially by 2041, congestion for private vehicles travelling into downtown Auckland at peak times would be significantly worse than it is today – even with the rail loop built. This is an unacceptable outcome, which is why I requested by officials to look into other options.”
In plans released today by the Ministry, a series of roading improvements are scheduled for construction over the next six years across Auckland – with the main goal being to alleviate congestion. These plans include construction of a six lane motorway from Parnell Rise at the bottom of Grafton Gully through to Panmure where the road will connect to the AMETI project, already under construction by Auckland Transport. To save on costs, the motorway will be built at grade rather than in a tunnel, an option previously considered when the Eastern Highway was being promoted by Auckland City Council last decade.
Other projects proposed for construction include a second level on State Highway 1 between the central motorway junction and Mt Wellington, as well as the Northwest motorway between Waterview and the city.
The Ministry’s report offers only a preliminary analysis of the costs of these projects, noting a likely ‘turn out’ cost of between nine and thirteen billion dollars. “We believe this is a small price to pay to rid Auckland of the daily scourge of congestion” stated Mr Brownlee.
Auckland Mayor Len Brown did not attend the media conference, but later released a statement saying that he was “outraged” the government seemed to be “taking over” the planning of transport in Auckland. However, Mr Brown also noted that he strongly supported all the findings in the report.
“Auckland’s population is due to grow by a million people in the next five years, so we need to invest in Auckland’s future. Today’s announcement is a huge step forward for the City Rail Link project.”
Government sources confirmed that today’s announcements are seen as an alternative to the rail loop project, not in addition to it. When this was put to the mayor, he was heard muttering “incompetent fools” before shrugging his shoulders, sighing loudly and stating that he would “continue to work constructively with the government on transport issues in Auckland”.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Michael Barnett stated that he “strongly supported” today’s announcement. “Congestion costs Auckland businesses $5 billion a year and finally there is an agreed plan to tackle this problem. Our only criticism is that the current plan is to have the Eastern Motorway completed by 2017 and a second level on the southern and northwest motorways by 2019. We think that both projects simply must be completed by 2015 at the absolute latest!”
NZ Council for Infrastructure Development Chief Executive Stephen Selwood also noted his strong support for the transport package announced today. “We’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Transport over the past four months to come up with a solution to Auckland’s traffic problems that can be implemented in a way that most benefits our members, I mean most benefits the Auckland public,” said Mr Selwood, from his desk at the Ministry of Transport’s offices in Auckland.
The announcement was not met with total support however, local resident Anthony Pearce said that he had thought the Eastern Highway was “dead and buried” after it cost Mr Banks the 2004 Auckland mayoralty. “Little did I know that much of the designation was never removed!” wailed Mr Pearce. “At least they’ll never be able to get consent for a six lane motorway through the Purewa Valley and across Hobson Bay!”
Environment Minister Amy Adam confirmed that, with the current changes proposed to the Resource Management Act, consenting for the project would be “not a problem”.
Construction of the motorway causeway is set to begin in June.
This is a guest post by John P
The Ministry of Transport, bless ‘em, actually have a lot of interesting information on their website if you know where to look. One of the things they do is carry out a Household Travel Survey, which surveys 4,600 households in various parts of New Zealand each year. There’s plenty to look at, and you can check out various results at their transport survey, but for today I’ll look at a summary they put together on public transport use – taken from here.
The thing that stands out to me is a table showing the percentage of people who use public transport in NZ’s major cities. From this, 53% of Aucklanders surveyed hadn’t used PT at all in the last year. This put us on par with Christchurch and Dunedin, both of which are significantly smaller, neither of which have rail, and neither of which are particularly PT-oriented cities. We’re well behind Wellington, where only 27% of people hadn’t hopped on a train or bus at least once. Remember that (greater) Wellington is around the same size as Christchurch, and both cities are less than a third the size of Auckland.
Wow, that’s not a good start. How about people who haven’t used PT in the last month, but have in the last year? 17% of Aucklanders fell into this camp, in line with the other cities except for Wellington.
So, by this point, we can see that only 30% of Aucklanders had used public transport in the month before they were surveyed. We were in between Dunedin (26%) and Christchurch (34%), and well
behind Wellington where 46% of the people had used it at least once.
The last few lines of the table below are asking people how many days in the last month they had used public transport. I won’t dwell on it except to point out that half the Aucklanders who used PT in the last month hadn’t used it very often. Only 14% used it on 5 days or more, ahead of Dunedin (11%) but behind Christchurch (16%) and Wellington (27%).
These results for Auckland are pretty poor, by any stretch of the imagination. As New Zealand’s largest city, and keeping in mind that public transport should be better utilised as cities get bigger, Auckland is dragging the chain.
I was genuinely quite shocked that public transport use in Auckland is not much higher than in Dunedin. Aucks is more than ten times the size of Dunners. I studied in Dunedin for the first 18 months of my Bachelor’s and never used public transport once. A lot of students would have been the same – the vast majority live within walking distance of the university. I would imagine that PT use by tertiary students is much higher in Auckland than in Dunedin, and (given Dunedin’s large student numbers, compared to its size) that’s probably the only thing that puts us above the southern city in terms of how often Aucklanders use public transport.
Coming in behind Christchurch is pretty embarrassing too, and not a little surprising. As mentioned above, Christchurch is a third the size of Auckland, and doesn’t have rail. Christchurch is a flat city which lends itself well to walking and cycling, and Cantabrians tend to do more of both.
Wellington is leaps and bounds ahead of Auckland, but I think we all knew that. I think these results are a pretty telling scorecard, and, to put it mildly, Auckland doesn’t look too flash. The majority of Aucklanders never use public transport at all, and most of those who do don’t use it very often. Two basic questions come out of this:
- Why don’t Aucklanders use PT very often?
- How do we improve PT usage in Auckland?
Questions that are answered in a number of different posts in this blog! A redesign of the network, and rail electrification, should help boost patronage over the next few years. But the thing is, we should really be aiming to get to where Wellington is now in the short to medium term. Anything less is short-changing ourselves in my opinion.
Central government has put together an official response to the Council’s Auckland Plan. While in many areas there’s support and agreement, one obvious place where the two views don’t match up is in relation to transport. Discussion around the government’s position on the Council’s transport plans for the next 30 years is quite extensive, but a little bit hard to comprehend. Firstly, this section of the transport response can’t even quite get right the proportions between intensification and expansion the Auckland Plan signals:I had thought the final position of the Auckland Plan on this matter was to provide for either a 70/30 or 60/40 split, with the goal being to achieve the 70/30. Reading back up the govt response a bit actually confirms this matter, so I assume the mistake in this section is just another example of the Ministry of Transport being useless:
Moving along, it become obvious pretty quickly that the government response is pretty much based on the results of various transport modelling exercises undertaken, which suggest that despite us building a huge amount of additional transport infrastructure over the next 30 years, congestion is still going to get worse. We’ve questioned previously the accuracy of this modelling, with the Council also highlighting that it might be worried about some of these future projections, but despite this it seems for now, the modelling is gospel: I’ve yet to see a city build its way out of congestion, so in a way perhaps these numbers aren’t particularly surprising. Remember that the final version of the Auckland Plan proposes to spend around 57% of transport dollars on roads over the next 30 years compared to 40% on public transport. Perhaps a split giving more to public transport might lead to a better outcome. But for some reason I don’t think this is what central government’s response is hinting at.
Adding to this, the response then takes a particularly strange step in criticising the Council’s efforts to raise additional money to try and construct the big projects to at least ease the extent to which congestion worsens over the next 30 years:The focus on ensuring value for money is achieved from the transport package before embarking upon looking for additional funding sources is sensible, but once again I would suggest that central government should be careful not to be throwing stones while living in the glass house of the RoNS programme. Plus a couple of the projects which are likely to provide least value for money are also roading projects: namely an additional harbour crossing (a BCR of around 0.3 last time we looked) and the “East West Link”, a $1.5 billion solution to a $100 million problem. Yet I once again somehow doubt this is exactly what the government’s thinking while writing this feedback.
I suspect this argument isn’t going to go away any time soon. But it’d be good if central government would tell the world what it thinks the transport solutions for Auckland might be – a Dominion Road motorway perhaps? All their criticism without any useful suggestions, plus criticising the spending of extra money while at the same time presumably criticising the lack of spending and its resulting congestion, when put together it just quite bizarre.
NZTA is funded from petrol tax and road user charges, which obviously comes from cars, trucks, vans and buses using fuel (or travelling kilometres) along our roading network. The theory is that this creates a relatively ‘user pays’ situation, with money raised from road users being spent on projects that benefit road users (including public transport, walking and cycling, which obviously reduce the number of cars that would otherwise be on the road).
There are two types of roads in New Zealand, state highways and local roads. State highways are owned and 100% funded by NZTA – building them, renewing them and maintaining them. Local Roads are owned by local councils (there’s a rather weird legal situation in Auckland where I think the council own the road but Auckland Transport manage it on their behalf) and are funded roughly by way of a 50/50 split between NZTA and council (generally rates) funding. So already we clearly have a situation where roads are subsidised by ratepayers as part of councils’ 50% share in funding their construction, renewal and maintenance. But let’s leave that aside for a minute.
What’s interesting in this situation is that you effectively have Central Government charging (by way of fuel tax and road-user charge) road users for using a piece of infrastructure that’s owned, maintained and renewed by local government. In essence, it’s a somewhat strange situation – an analogy might be that I own a theatre: I built it, I maintain it and I look after it. But people using my theatre actually pay someone else for the privilege: not me. Obviously, the unfairness of the situation is largely resolved by NZTA part-funding local roads – in our analogy giving me back about half of what it costs to renew and maintain my theatre.
A good way of measuring whether local councils are getting their “fair share” of NZTA’s money is to look at the split of actual travel (and therefore technically revenue) which happens on local roads versus state highways and then compare that with the split of spending on local roads and state highways. We already saw that in Auckland the split in travel is approximately two-thirds on the local road network and one-third on the state highway network: If we were to take a fairly strict “user pays” approach to road spending in Auckland, there’d be an argument for roughly a two-thirds/one-third split for local roads and state highways. With public transport largely on the local road network, arguably the split could be even higher.
Where I’m getting with this relates to an amusing document released under the Official Information Act to Green Party transport spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter, which she has passed onto bloggers on this site. It relates to a Ministry of Transport response to Steven Joyce last year, when he was seeking some technical justification for shifting even more money into state highways at the cost of money that would usually go to local councils. You can see this point outlined in the paragraph below:
Unfortunately for the Minister, the actual figures tell the complete opposite story. We learn that the local road share of travel is increasing (very slightly), but bizarrely we see that the state highways share of expenditure is increasing – a huge mismatch:
The table clearly highlights that over the past decade there has been an enormous increase in state highways spending and a much slower increase in local road funding, even though the share of VKT between the two has stayed relatively constant. Back in the early years of last decade we can see that there was a reasonably match-up between VKT and expenditure, but since around 2005/2006 that has changed enormously due to the huge ‘spend-up’ on state highways.
In effect, what we see is local councils now pretty much subsidising state highway projects, in particular the big budget items of the Roads of National Significance. Meanwhile the amount of money available for local roading projects is getting squeezed harder and harder, with less spent in the 2011/12 year on local roads than was spent in the 2006/07 year. With the 2012 Government Policy Statement proposing a further big increase to state highway spending, while putting the squeeze on local road spending, it really does become obvious that our local roads are getting screwed over.
P.S. the Ministry (wisely) suggested that such a table not go in the cabinet paper!
I can’t say I was too surprised to read this Radio NZ article yesterday:
A Ministry-commissioned report last year by consulting firm The Institute of Economic Research found 21 of 60 pieces of advice to the transport minister and the Cabinet were communicated in a borderline or poor way.
While it noted the Ministry’s comprehensive technical knowledge, it said there had been lapses of judgement.
The Ministry is required to save almost $1 million a year and since the 2010/11 financial year the number of policy staff has dropped from 107 full time equivalent employees to 90.
Ministry spokesperson Gareth Chaplin says despite this they can improve their policy advice by working together.
The report cited one paper that seemed intent on embarrassing the transport minister by reminding him of officials’ advice from the distant past and his comments from two years ago. The report said this type of telling off makes officials look churlish.
Other reviewed papers were deemed pointless.
The Ministry’s ignorance of the impact of higher oil prices, their willful disregard for a seven year trend of near flat traffic volumes and the hatchet job they did on the City Rail Link business case make me very unsurprised to hear that there are concerns about the quality of MoT’s work.
You can listen to the accompanying radio piece here.
In my last post I suggested NZ is at a transport cross-roads: Evidence shows people are driving less and that they have been doing so for some time. Along the way I could not help but poke fun at the NZTA and MoT for resolutely sticking to the line that “traffic volumes are growing”, when they quite clearly are not and have not been for sometime (either in NZ or overseas).
My main idea (which is not particularly original) was that a combination of demographic, socio-economic, and technological factors are reducing per capita demand for vehicle travel. For this reason I suggested NZTA/MoT should consider deferring (at least for now) major investments in state highways.
After last week’s post I have done some further digging and analysis. The first thing I did was to check whether the decline in demand for vehicle travel is evident in other data sets.
And indeed it is: data from the MoT’s household travel survey shows that total vehicle kilometres travelled have fallen by approximately 3.2% in the last five years, while per capita vehicle travel has fallen by 7.8%. The rate of decline even seems to have accelerated over the last two years, as shown below.
The second thing I wanted to check was the relationship between state highway travel and economic activity. The chart below plots vehicle kilometres travelled on the state highway network versus (real) GDP (both per capita). It shows that vehicle travel has started to fall, whereas GDP continues to grow. This trend is consistent with evidence found in a number of other countries and implies that New Zealand’s economic growth is not dependent on growth in vehicle travel.
The “decoupling” between economic growth and state highway travel is further highlighted if you divide the total kilometres travelled on New Zealand’s state highway network by the real GDP recorded in each year. When you do you get a graph that looks similar to that shown below. The y-axis in this graph measures the number of vehicle kilometres that is undertaken on the state highway network in order to produce one dollar of GDP.
Maybe I’m a nerd but this graph makes me sit up and take notice; if MoT/NZTA weren’t nervous before then they certainly should be now.
The graph suggests that, since 1998, NZ’s economic growth has increasingly outpaced the growth in state highway traffic – a decoupling that continues unabated to the present day. During this period, the number of vehicle kilometres travelled per $ of GDP produced declined by 25-30%. Ultimately this suggests NZ’s economy has, during the last 14 years, been able to develop in ways that do not depend on (or subsequently cause) growth in state highway travel.
But wait there’s more. Analysis by the OECD actually suggests that New Zealand’s historical investment in state highways (“motorways”) has had negative impacts on macro-economic performance. The impacts of highways are particularly bad when compared to positive benefits found for other types of transport investment, such as roads (in general) and rail.
** NB: I’m not completely sure but there seems to be a slight methodological issue with the OECD analysis, in that the investment in “roads” category appears to include investment in “highways”, while the latter is also included separately in the regression. So if Roads = Local Roads plus Highways, then the effects of Local Roads on its own would be calculated as Roads – Highways, or 1.85 – (-0.34) = 2.19. But that’s a econometric detail that would not change the key result …
You may be sitting there wondering why investment in highways would negatively impact macro-economic performance?
One possible explanation is that highways are very, very expensive. Thus investment in highways creates the need for the government to raise additional taxes, which in turn has negative macro-economic impacts. Another possible explanation is that NZ’s investment in highways simply caused our cities and towns to disperse, which in turn undermined potential agglomeration economies (i.e. external benefits of density).
Irrespective of the rhyme or reason for the negative macroeconomic season, all this empirical evidence casts serious doubts over the wider economic benefits of the Roads of National Significance” (RoNS). It also raises questions over why National has increased funding for state highways at the expense of other categories of transport investment, such as local roads and rail, which seem to have more positive macro-economic impacts.
So where does this leave us? Well, my original suggestion was that kiwi’s were driving less and loving it. We now know that not only are kiwis driving less, but we are also growing our economy at the same. And all this evidence is directly at odds with the claims of the National Government, and the bureaucrats at the MoT/NZTA. Honestly, what gives?
Todd Littman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has put together a really useful critical analysis of the way we measure congestion and how this affects the general approaches taken to reducing congestion – typically seen (especially when undertaking cost-benefit analyses of transport projects) as the main justification for transport expenditure. The article is a fairly easy read, if somewhat lengthy, so I won’t go through all the details. Here’s the abstract: To keep this post from getting too technical and detailed, I’ll largely focus on the pictures and graphs that are in the article. This is a particularly relevant graph, because it means that unless our transport demand modelling has been updated to take account of the pretty radical change to traffic volumes (this is the USA, but we’ve seen similar trends in New Zealand) in the past few years, chances are we’re going to be enormously over-estimating traffic volumes (and therefore congestion) in the future. There is a real danger of failure to see change, even after it has happened, by people who have spent their careers under one orthodoxy. And I believe that is what is happening now at the MoT, if the reports I hear are true, of officials there arguing that there is no point in changing policy just because of recent trends. Well how long do ‘recent trends’ have to continue before they become the relevant? 5 years? 10 years?: Some of the dip is obviously due to the economic situation over the past few years, but other aspects might be more structural – relating to demographic change, changing land-use patterns, significantly higher fuel costs and general cultural change. Littman’s article notes that, should this down-turn in traffic volumes prove to be long-lasting and structural, it really changes the way we approach the issue of congestion in the future:
It made sense to invest significant resources in roadway when the basic roadway system was first developed and automobile travel demand was growing rapidly. During that period highway projects provided high economic returns, consumers reaped large benefits, and there is little risk of overbuilding roadway capacity since it would eventually fill. But once the road system matures, so there are high-speed highways connecting regions and a well-developed network of paved local roads, the marginal benefits of incremental roadway expansion tend to decline.
Transport planning and financing practices will need to change in response to reduced growth in vehicle travel demand and congestion problems, and increasing demand for travel by alternative modes. This will require reducing emphasis on congestion problems and roadway expansion and increasing emphasis on other planning objectives and other types of transport system improvements.
Most of our long-term thinking is still based on the assumption that traffic rates will grow and grow. To an extent, in a place like Auckland where the population is growing quickly, that is likely to be somewhat true – but it seems reasonable to expect that per capita vehicle travel may well have peaked, meaning a slower rate of traffic growth in the future. This is a good thing, as it means we can hopefully get away from an endless game of adding capacity to the road system only to see it fill up over and over again, hoping that perhaps this one last time the extra lane might solve congestion for good (like a drug addict wanting just one last hit?).
Of course, in the real world (rather than the fantasy world of Ministry of Transport policy analysts and NZTA traffic engineers) we understand that building more roads simply leads to inducing more traffic – meaning that more often than not you find yourself back to square one rather surprisingly quickly (ever noticed that the widest sections of Auckland’s motorway network often also seem to be the most congested?). This is well illustrated in the diagram below: Now it’s probably a bit unfair to say that there’s no benefit from allowing more vehicles to travel at the time they want to travel (as induced demand provides for) even if it means the road is still congested. But what Littman’s research shows is that there are diminishing returns when it comes to the value added – in that a lot of the people “induced” to using the road at peak times wouldn’t probably be quite willing to travel at other times, or via other modes, to avoid the peak congestion. The article goes on in quite a lot of detail about how we might better focus on reducing the impact of congestion – through building public transport, pricing roads and undertaking smarter land-use policies. There’s enough detail in those to probably fill a future post, but there’s one last graph that certainly caught my attention, because it looks at the wide variety of different costs – related to travel – that individual people face: What this graph shows really cleverly is that, in the broader scheme of everything, traffic congestion doesn’t really cost each of us that much money. Sure, it’s an annoyance, but then so is losing $2,000 a year in depreciation on our vehicles, having a cost to society of almost $2,000 a year from crash damages, paying (through higher rent, prices or lower salaries) parking subsidies and so forth. Yet for some reason our transport policy seems to be utterly obsessed with minmising the cost to us of what’s really quite a minor matter – only the sixth most important issue in terms of cost magnitude.
So automatic, so deep is the group-think at the MoT and NZTA, not to mention their close buddies in the road lobbies like the Road Users Forum and the AA, that the only possible answer to all questions of movement is to expand the road space, that these institutions are spending uncritically on projects with ever decreasing returns on the investment. Of course the pressure from their political masters is currently very great too and it all adds up to a deeply unsophisticated and wasteful approach to infrastructure investment and a less efficient and poorer city.
Of course, for some road users (freight movement and business travel comes to mind) congestion and unreliability have a much greater impact. But there really is something incredibly stupid and naive about over building one system that forces everyone, no matter how reluctant, into a car and in the way of these vital road users. Under this ideology it’s almost like the MoT and NZTA are really in the congestion business. Where is the analysis that shows that getting lower value trips onto public transport through investment in providing quality services wouldn’t be more cost effective than trying to squeeze ever more traffic onto already clogged roads? Especially because, as this study shows, congestion isn’t even the biggest burden of auto-dependency.
Apparently it was Albert Einstein who said that the definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result. Brian Rudman’s excellent article in Monday’s NZ Herald highlights the fact that the insanity argument could be levelled against Ministry of Transport officials – who say that despite building more and more roads having never fixed congestion in the past, perhaps if we built a few more roads we might get a different outcome in the future.
Wading through the idiot’s guide to Auckland’s transport woes, prepared for new Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee by his bureaucratic advisers, I wondered if he’d had that awful Eureka moment when it suddenly dawned on him that the billions of dollars poured into upgrading the region’s road network in the 15 or so years up to 2017 will have been in vain.
“The performance of Auckland’s road network … is expected to deteriorate after 2021. The improvement achieved by the current investment programme would be eroded by around 2031. Congestion will increasingly affect the midday period …”
And the solution the wiseheads of the Ministry of Transport offer? To continue with the failed policies of the past 60 years. “Roads,” they enthuse, “are critical to the efficiency of urban centres, with private motor vehicles and buses providing transport modes for most people. This importance will continue.”
As Mayor Len Brown pointed out just over a week ago, (although whether his transport plans back this up remains to be seen), trying to fix congestion through building motorways has, at best only a temporary effect as new or wider roads just fill up with more traffic and often it just shifts the problem a couple of interchanges down the road. The problem is this doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the mostly Wellington based bureaucrats at the Ministry though, who have taken their one opportunity to speak in a fairly free manner and used it on peddling the same old roads-centric policy that has got us into this mess. It’s also worth noting that the MOT or other government agencies doesn’t exactly practice what they preach, almost all of their Auckland offices are based not only in the CBD but right at the bottom of Queen St, just across from road from Britomart. Rudman again:
The continuing concentration of economic growth in northern centres, particularly Auckland, “presents a challenge for a nationally funded transport system … Auckland alone is forecast to account for 60 per cent of population growth to 2030″. The writers say “achieving an efficient transport system for Auckland is central to improving the contribution the city can make to the national economy”. The completion of the motorway network and the upgrading of commuter rail is forecast to reduce congestion by 14 per cent by 2021, despite population growth of 22 per cent, but then it’s downhill again. The report refers to this as “a short breathing space before decisions need to be made on the next generation of major projects”.
In this breathing space, the Government will be pressing Aucklanders to come up with new ways of taxing ourselves to pay for the inner city underground rail loop, which it’s refusing to fund. A better debate would be exactly where a rapidly intensifying city, already looped and bisected by motorways, will find room for any more roads and cars.
There is frequent debate about congestion and often revolves around whether it’s increasing or decreasing and the impact it has on the economy but very rarely do we discuss a possible more important matter, choice. At the end of the day the majority of people will use what is the easiest and most convenient method for them to get around, they don’t drive simply because they want to sit in traffic on a motorway but because it is far too often the only option they have. It gets forgotten that up until a few years ago we focused almost solely on improving roads and hardly spent any money on improving public transport that it is no surprise that PT only works well as a viable alternative for a minority of Aucklanders. Where ever we have started providing high quality PT people have flocked to it, the busway is booming is now estimated that around 40% of all people crossing the bridge at peak times are doing so in a bus, investment in rail has seen huge increases in people catching trains to the point where we are about to hit capacity in the number of services that can enter and exit Britomart at peak times.
What’s more these trends aren’t just confined to the higher profile aspects of PT like the rail system or the busway, buses along Dominion Rd carry more than 50% of people travelling that route at peak times and there are similar stories along pretty much every route that we have put in dedicated PT infrastructure. The lesson we need to learn is that when we give people valid choices in how they travel, allowing them to avoid congestion on bus lanes, busways and railways, a large number will give it a go.
By investing in improving PT infrastructure across the entire city people could be guaranteed a trip to and from key destinations almost completely free of congestion and it would transform the way PT used, but that would take the Ministry of Transport to get over its insanity, which is a pretty hard ask.