This a guest post by Tim Kvingedal, a student at the School of Architecture, University of Auckland. Tim is from Norway.
I´ve been living in central Auckland for 11 months now, and you know what? I’m getting sick of waiting for cars. Every time I step out of my flat I feel like I’m wasting my time and this is why I did this research.
First a little backdrop of the situation in Auckland
Tim K 2
This map shows all parking, which is run by the big companies like Wilson etc., in Auckland CBD. The ones marked with letters are all multi storey car parks and the red dots are “smaller” ones on the ground. You can also add all the parking that belongs to private offices, shops etc. There are so many parking spots but still not enough for the ridiculous amount of cars. So we need more car parks, you say? Well, if you want to dig your own grave, the answer is yes. If you’re more interested in making Auckland work as a well functioning city in the future public transport is the answer, and by public transport I first of all mean train.
Lets do a quick assessment of what kind of work cars and train are doing best. Well, one single railway has about twelve times more capacity than a single motorway lane. This means that you can ship a large amount of people in and out of the city centre ten times more efficient than a car would do.
On average there are 1.2 people in each car going in and out of Auckland CBD. This means that there is a lot of space wasted to get 1.2 people from A to B. The car is also running on fossil fuels and will pollute a whole lot more than an eco friendly electric train. What the train cannot do is to take you to rural places like your bach, which are miles away from the rail lines. So the car is good at transporting you out from urban places whereas the train is good at taking you in and out of the cities.
For my research I decided to see how much time I wasted on a single trip from my apartment in Union Street to Countdown grocery store next to Queen Street. This should be a 10 minute walk with 7 intersections. Lets see what happened:
I only need to walk 20 meters before my first red man. I started the stopwatch. 30 seconds, 1 minute, still no sign of the green man. So what do you do? Call a friend? Well, with all that traffic noise there’s no point in calling anyone. Better do nothing. So finally, after 1 minute 45s I’m allowed to cross.
I walk up Hobson Street and I spot this gap between two buildings. This is not the only one I’ve seen, Auckland is filled with these gaps and most of them are used for ‘temporary’ car parks. In this gap it looks like it´s one lucky car that found this secret little spot with great view.
The thing about these gaps is that people don’t see them, except people that are in a cars looking for a car park. The street life desperately needs these gaps to be filled, because they’re puncturing the whole experience of walking down the street and being activated by the programmes in the surrounding buildings.
This particular spot would be great for a café or what about just putting a big cow there to activate people walking down the street and open their eyes for that gap and what kind of potential it has.
I start walking again and I see people running like crazy to cross the street before the green man disappears. They simply don’t want to waste their time waiting for cars to cross.
So after a couple of red men and one lucky green I’m standing next to Auckland’s biggest wound, the gap next to Elliot Street. Not surprisingly this is used for parking cars, and this is just devastating for the area. Again, why not do something to activate the area before they start building there? There is already one carousel so yeah let’s have a temporary mini amusement park. Think of all the joy this will spread out to the area. Kids laughing, music, the smell of popcorn. I mean anything is better for the city than another car park.
Another thing that fascinates me when I’m walking are all the cars popping out of buildings like Jack in the box.
As a pedestrian I almost constantly have to be aware of that there might be a car coming out of this slot. It’s not that it’s really dangerous but you still have to be aware of it all the time. On my way home I clocked how long time I’d spent on passing these car slots.
This picture sums up the feeling as a pedestrian with all this cars popping out. It’s a battle:
It’s not just the cars crossing the pedestrian lane that is annoying, but also that the pedestrian lane itself sometimes disappear! There is no marking and no lights telling you when you can cross. So I guess if I want to follow the traffic rules I better go back and try another way?
So after crossing 14 intersections in total I’m home again and these are the stats from the walk:
So thanks to the auto-dominant nature of Auckland I will have wasted 91 hours of my time this year just to buy groceries.
And I’m not sure it’s working out so well for all the drivers either…
Somehow over the last 60 years it became an orthodoxy that the only way to deal with the problem of too many cars on our roads is to spend ever greater sums of money on more roads for more cars [and more parking, more fuel use, more accidents, more obesity, more pollution]. I have always found this to be a curious idea; there’s too much of something so let’s make more of it possible. Ah but of course, I’m just looking at it all wrong, congestion isn’t ever about there being too many vehicles, no, it’s only ever about there being insufficient road space for whatever number of vehicles can be imagined. Really, is there never a point that we might say; the problem here is that we are trying to squeeze too many vehicles into this place for it to function well, we need to supply this place with alternatives to driving as well?
This odd orthodoxy is behind the latest muddled-headed transport plan for Auckland, quoted here in the Herald by Brian Rudman:
“Even with the fully funded programme,” admit the authors, “road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels”.
Clearly business as usual; building more roads everywhere, isn’t going to work even on the terms of those who promote these plans, so it was very interesting to see a new study out of LA on the impact of Transit systems on road congestion. Researchers there were able to use the 2003 shut down of the Transit system by a strike for 35 days to compare the impacts on the city both with a functioning Transit system and without one. From the National Bureau of Economic Research here [USD$5].
Also there’s a summary here on Atlantic Cities which I’ll quote as there’s no paywall:
The intuition is straightforward: Transit is most attractive to commuters who face the worst congestion, so a disproportionate number of transit riders are commuters who would otherwise have to drive on the most congested roads at the most congested times. Since drivers on heavily congested roads have a much higher marginal impact on congestion than drivers on the average road, transit has a large impact on reducing traffic congestion.
Contrary to the conclusions in the existing transportation and urban economics literature, the congestion relief benefits alone may justify transit infrastructure investments.
Of course LA is a big car town, it has massive driving infrastructure, the Transit Systems there are improving, and have improved a great deal since 2003, but there is no way that you could claim that it is like London or Paris and completely dependant on well developed Transit systems built over a century or more. So the figures did vary. For arterials and Interstates that were close to shut down Transit routes the numbers were huge; the morning delay on the 101 was up 123 percent during the strike [90% average for the day], and 56% on freeways that didn’t parallel closed Transit routes.
Proof that even in this most auto-dependant city of the value of investing in quality Transit systems: yes a fully supported Transit network, especially one with its own right of way is the car users’ best friend. Investment in better Transit is almost certainly the best way a city can improve the quality and utility of the driving experience. Can somebody tell the AA?
Remember, when driving and experiencing congestion, you’re not stuck in a traffic jam; you are the traffic jam. Despite all the help those Transit users are trying to give you.
I 405 California
The following is a guest post by regular reader and tram and heritage aficionado; the always analogue Geoff Houtman.
Last February, the Western Bays Community Group was asked to come with a “Ponsonby Road Plan”. We have received hundreds of suggestions to the deliberately open questions,- “What would you like more of?”, “Less of?”, and “None of?”. This is the first in a series of posts based on the answers received.
Ponsonby Rd Lane Uses
Three options are presented below, incorporating those ideas relating to the Roadway. Firstly though, let’s look at what we currently have.
Ponsonby Rd is a little over a mile long (1724m) running basically North-South. The Roadway is generally 18-19 metres wide and divided into 6 or 7 lanes; the two outermost being parallel street parking, with two general traffic lanes each North and South bound and a central median designed to facilitate right hand turning at nearly every side street and intersection. There is no cycling priority at any point. And very scant bus privilege at the southern end plus the mostly mid block bus stops. Clearways operates to speed peak traffic on the section between Williamson and Crummer Rds. At its northern Three Lamps end Ponsonby Rd is one-way, just before it meets Jervois and Crummer Rds. Redmond St and the top of Pompallier Tce have also been one-wayed to handle all of Ponsonby road’s north bound traffic movements for this section.
Can we make it better? Here are three possibilities based on community suggestions.
Traffic cut to one lane each way, Cycleway runs beside the footpath with vehicle parking between it and the traffic lane, Light Rail or buses use dedicated centre lanes.
Footpaths are pushed out a lane on each side, bike lane, then parking and one lane general traffic each way, PT lanes removed, painted median/turning lanes retained.
Parking lanes contain spaced trees, one general traffic lane each way, Cycleway brackets PT lanes.
Do any of these choices seem like an improvement? Do you have any better ideas?
UPDATE: Thanks to all the commenters, based on your helpful advice an Option D has been created. The cycles lanes are now buffered from moving traffic by footpaths and combined parking/ tree lanes. A bus has been added in the PT lanes to indicate their continued viability until the next oil price rise and the possible return of light rail/ trams. On a technical note the parking lanes are now only 2m wide instead of the previous 2.5.
… long time sprawl and car advocates are beginning to realise that private vehicle use is dropping – even if their reasoning behind the trends and their analysis of the implications is somewhat strange.
But it is interesting to see a post on New Geography, using Auckland as the case study city, detailing the falling use of private vehicles to travel around. Here’s the up front statement by Phil McDermott – author of the blog post on New Geography:
The prospect of falling car use now needs to be firmly factored into planning for western cities.
That may come as a bit of a surprise in light of the preoccupation with city plans that aim to get people out of their cars, but it is already happening. And it is highly likely to continue regardless of whether or not we promote urban consolidation and expensive transit systems.
I don’t really want to turn this into a post that simply picks apart everything stated by Mr McDermott, but there’s some interesting logic jumps in the statement above. Perhaps, one might equally assume, the promotion of urban consolidation and “expensive” (like building new motorways is cheap) transit systems over the past few years might have something to do with the trends we’re now seeing.
But anyway, let’s set that aside for now and look at the numbers – which come from a fairly detailed analysis of the New Zealand Travel Survey, which is published by the Ministry of Transport every two years. The results for Auckland show that travel peaked in 2007 and has declined by a not insignificant 15% over the period of the survey. Public transport use declined in the early part of the survey period but has increased by around 13% between 2007 and 2011:A more detailed look at car travel reveals some really interesting information:
What this shows is that throughout the overall 2003-2011 period the greatest decline for all types of car trips was trip length. In other words, people took shorter trips – possible reasons for this include fewer domestic holidays compared to international holidays or more people choosing to fly than drive, as well as perhaps a renewed interest in inner suburban living or ensuring that you live closer to your work. The other interesting thing to note is that passenger trips declined at a much faster rate than driver trips – perhaps supporting the idea that it’s the long distance holiday trips which have gone down the most.
However, since 2007 the numbers have been a more even decline between kilometres and trip legs and the time spent travelling. This seems to suggest that while the early declines were mainly just the elimination of very long trips, since 2007 we have seen people simply take fewer trips. It’s difficult to pick out reasons for this but perhaps this is more of the cultural shift among young people coming through – people who simply don’t want to have to drive in order to get around. I think it’s no coincidence that the years of fewer trips coincide with the years where public transport patronage went up the most.
The New Geography post has a reasonably good discussion of further reasons behind these trends, such as an ageing population, higher fuel prices and the growing role of public transport (noted somewhat grudgingly I feel). There’s also a slightly odd assumption that decentralisation might have led to shorter trips – which seems counter-intuitive to the very concept of decentralisation which is moving things further apart. Furthermore, in the latter part of last decade employment actually grew faster in the city centre than anywhere else in Auckland, while most residential growth was also through intensification rather than greenfield development. This is what’s said in the City Centre Future Access Study supporting documentation about employment growth:Another factor in the reduced traffic volumes is quite a marked change in the trends of car ownership from previous growth rates:
Mr McDermott makes a number of conclusions out of this information – some of which seem to make sense and others that are a bit more questionable:
There is evidence accumulating to suggest that significant changes are taking place at the margin of transport demand and car dependence. If this is a sign of things to come it raises questions about long-term road expenditure, about dire predictions of road congestion, and about the benefits of adopting expensive land use and transport measures designed to force people out of their cars.
Already, within a more constrained economy, people seem to be making their own decisions to reduce car dependence.
In terms of city planning, it suggests that decentralisation may be more sustainable than the compact city protagonists make out. In this respect, is interesting that motorway traffic counts show that significant reductions in inner city vehicle flows are offset by gains (albeit much smaller) in outer parts of the city – even as measured distance travelled falls.
And Auckland definitely needs to rethink assumptions behind spending plans for major road and rail infrastructure – and confront the risks and costs of getting them wrong.
I’m not quite sure I understand the logic of the “we don’t need to enable people to get around via alternatives to the car and to live in the inner suburbs they seem to want to live in” argument that is being made. I look at this information and what immediately comes to mind is “stop all roading projects which aren’t already under construction and do a major rethink of the way future transport demand is generated”. Public transport patronage is growing, road use is falling – effectively the people are voting with their feet for what they want future transport policy to be focused on. I do agree with Mr McDermott that the congestion assumptions behind the results of the City Centre Future Access Study are probably a load of rubbish, but the more logical alternative (that instead of driving all those people will be on the bus or train) actually just makes the case for the project even stronger.
But anyway, I look forward to some serious critiquing of projects like Puhoi-Wellsford and an Additional Harbour Crossing from the good folk at New Geography.
Many of the people who read this blog, including some of the authors have sometimes an unhealthy obsession with numbers. We are often referring to various stats and it can can sometimes be hard to find things again. With that in mind (and thanks to a suggestion from John P I think) we have now created a series of pages that are linked to directly from the homepage with a number of key transport related graphs. These are the ones that I/we check on pretty much every month. There are probably a couple more that I will add over time but if you have anything that you would like to see on a regular basis or anything that you think needs to be changed, let me know.
Here are a couple of my favourites.
Our rolling 12m patronage totals by mode
Our rolling 12m patronage total compared to the target set in the Auckland plan of 140 million PT trips by 2022. It shows that if we were to maintain the growth we have seen over the last few years then it should be fairly doable however we have started to fall behind a little, but thankfully not enough that we can’t get back on the wagon.
Auckland Rail Patronage vs Wellington Patronage – We got so close to catching them only to fall away due to disappointing results this year.
Harbour Bridge Traffic Volumes – They are starting to rise again but are still no where near the highs of the mid 2000′s
A new report out of the USA supports a hypothesis that we’ve been talking about for quite a while on this blog: that traffic growth is stagnating across the world for a variety of reasons – and this has a compelling long term impact on our transport policies.
Some of the key findings from the report are outlined below:
From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.
The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting—even once the economy recovers.
Young people are driving less for a host of reasons—higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences—all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.
Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people—and Americans overall—throw those assumptions into doubt. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans—not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.
Some of the statistics are pretty amazing: a 23% fall in the average vehicle miles travelled by young people in only eight years! Per capita travel peaked in 2004, well before the economic difficulties of the past few years:
There are other supporting statistics which make for interesting reading too:
- In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
- In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-yearolds living in 2001.
- From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
- According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.
What the report helpfully does is then delve into some of the reasons behind the pretty dramatic changes: looking at things like higher fuel prices, the toughening up of licensing, improvements in technology, a changing culture and so on.
As always, the critical question is whether these statistics are just a ‘blip’ caused by the recession and slow economic recovery, or whether they are likely to indicate a long-term change. This is a really important question because it determines the extent to which we really do need to change our longer-term transport policies. Of course the only proper answer is to say that “we just don’t know for sure”, but there are some interesting suggestions in the report that the trends are here to stay:
The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.
The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
From 2001 to 2009, young people (16 to 34-years-old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.
For Auckland, what will be interesting is to see whether reductions in per capita driving are swamped by the massive population growth anticipated over the next 30 years or not. If not, then pretty much every new roading project planned for over the next 30 or so years may not actually be necessary.
EYE CANDY WARNING: This post contains no pictures.
In a recent post I penned an “ode to demand-based transport pricing”. The main suggestion was that incorporating “time” into our transport pricing would be beneficial because it would help us to allocate our limited transport capacity to people who valued it more highly.
I also proposed a distinction between what I called “strategic” and “operational” issues. This distinction is useful, I think, because it encourages us to step back and examine some pertinent issues with more focus and clarity. That’s not to suggest the issues are fully separable, and in many situations they are not, but more that our understanding of the “whole” can be improved by an understanding of the “parts”, even if we at some point have to stitch them back together to form a “whole”.
The distinction between strategic and operational issues can be understood as answering the following two broad questions: 1) What are we trying to achieve from a time-of-use pricing scheme? and 2) How might we go about implementing such a scheme to achieve the desired outcomes? The following sub-questions seem to stand-out as being strategically important, i.e. they help us to answer the first question posed above:
- What are we trying to achieve through time-of-use transport pricing? Time-of-use transport pricing schemes seem to have two over-arching objectives, namely they can raise revenue and/or manage demand. In my opinion demand management should be the focus, because there are many more efficient ways we could raise revenue if required, e.g. fuel taxes and general property taxes. This suggests to me that the main advantage of time-of-use pricing lies in its ability to influence demand, rather than raise revenue.
- What should we do with the revenue? Even if raising revenue is not the focus, it is a unavoidable outcome. This in turn raises the issue of what to do with the revenue? Some people on this blog have called for it to be ring-fenced for public transport, but I think that’s unnecessarily provocative. What we could do is simply tip the extra funds into an Auckland specific transport fund that could be used to fund whatever was the highest priority project of the day. Of course, time-of-use pricing in itself will reduce the need for major road capacity expansions and increase demand for public transport and walking/cycling, so you would expect more money to flow towards these alternatives. The other thing to consider is that how revenue is used is the major determinant of whether a pricing scheme is progressive or regressive, i.e. its distributional impacts, which is discussed below.
- What is the process for investigating, developing, trialing, and potentially implementing a time-of-use transport pricing scheme? If there’s one lesson we can take from Stockholm’s experience with time-of-use road pricing, then it’s the potential benefits associated with pro-active public engagement. In Stockholm, time-of-use road pricing was initially implemented as a trial, which was then subject to a public referendum. Over time, public support for Stockholm’s scheme increased from circa 30% to 70% and the scheme has subsequently been permanently retained. Bork bork bork.
- What transport modes should be considered for time-of-use pricing? Previous conversations about time-of-use transport pricing, such as ARPES, have had a relatively narrow focus on applications to road pricing (aka “congestion charging”). But are not the general principles of time-of-use pricing also relevant to public transport, even if the pricing differentials would vary between modes depending on their individual demand/supply characteristics? I would have thought that implementing time-of-use schemes for both road and public transport would provide a fairly strong riposte to the claims of unfair treatment that might be put forward by road user groups, such as the AA.
It seems that we could work to gain agreement on the answers to these “strategic” questions, without time-of-use transport pricing being a fait accompli. But it seems to me that until we get agreement on those high-level strategic questions it’s not really worth delving too deeply into the details. Answers to the questions posed above seem to be necessary but not sufficient to implementing a scheme.
Now what can we also say about the aforementioned “operational issues”? From where I’m sitting the main operational questions seem to be:
- How can we balance precision and simplicity? Singapore and London, for example, have relatively simple pricing structure, but this in turn limits their ability to shape demand. In general, it seems that the simpler the pricing scheme the more one gets away from the objective of demand management and instead it becomes more about revenue raising. In contrast, Stockholm has a more precise pricing structure where costs are allowed to vary in half-hourly increments. This enables those crafty Swedes to price the “peak of the peak” higher than other periods. Bork bork bork.
- What are the efficiency/distributional impacts of different pricing structures? For example, a gantry-based cordon around the Isthmus, as considered in ARPES, would tend to drive a wedge between the central city and peripheral suburbs. In contrast, putting a charge on all trips into and within the central city (irrespective of whether they cross the cordon) would seem fairer and more effective. Thus the design of the scheme can have a large influence on its efficiency/distributional impacts, as you would expect.
- How might we manage the efficiency and/or distributional impacts? This is quite straightforward really – it’s basically about investigating whether any of the operational issues raised in answering the previous question can be resolved or mitigated and how those measures might change over time.
I’m sure there are many other operational issues that I have not touched on. But in the interests of keeping this post to a reasonable length I’ll leave those to others to highlight. Before finishing up I wanted to tackle one final issue in more detail: Namely the often-raised concerns over the distributional impacts of time-of-use pricing schemes (aka “equity impacts”).
But first I want to place two important caveats on this discussion. The first thing is that I place a high value on equitable social outcomes. So much so that I would say that child poverty and inequality of opportunity, rather than transport , is the #1 issue facing New Zealand. The second caveat is that the distributional impacts of time-of-use transport pricing is sufficiently important to deserve their own post, so I hope you’re not too disappointed with a quick discussion now.
Nonetheless, there is one concept that I have been pondering that I think is worth raising, namely the issue of “transient distributional impacts” (for lack of better jargon). What I mean by this is that the distributional impacts of time-of-use transport pricing may in themselves vary considerably over time. This might occur because:
- Our current transport pricing is (on the surface at least) relatively regressive. This is because low income households tend to own less fuel-efficient cars and travel more regularly at off-peak times. So they tend to pay more fuel tax per kilometre, and pay more for capacity expansions they probably should. Thus, shifting the costs of major capacity expansions more onto the people that are creating the need for them may be broadly progressive compared to the status quo.
- Low income households are more sensitive to prices and also tend to occupy less specialised and more dispersed jobs. So in the long run, low-income households may be more responsive to time-of-use price signals, even if there are some households that are adversely affected in the short run. Low-income customers tend to have more flexibility about when and where they travel and thus benefit more, on average, from lower off-peak prices.
For this reason I would encourage those who are concerned with regressive distributional impacts in the short-term to think very carefully about whether they are potentially forgoing progressive distributional impacts in the long-term (and perhaps forever). Put another way, while time-of-use transport pricing may potentially have adverse distributional impacts on a small number of households for a few years following implementation, it may also have large positive impacts for many households for many years into the future (if not permanently).
If this is indeed the case, then the distributional impacts of time-of-use transport pricing may be best managed by implementing some targeted transitional measures to support adversely affected low-income households, at least for a few years after the scheme is implemented, rather than not implementing it at all. The challenge becomes one of managing the negative distributional impacts in the beginning, knowing that in the long run the distributional impacts are likely to be positive.
So my takeaway point is this: As a society let’s not stop thinking about time-of-use transport pricing even if the “right” answer is not immediately obvious. Or put more succinctly “we haven’t got the money, so we’ve got to think.”
P.s. If you would like to read more about time-of-use transport pricing then here’s some links you may find interesting:
While the UK trends have been around a bit longer than ours, this could very easily be a good description of the current disjoint between reality and the government’s transport policies in New Zealand:
Build on falling traffic trend – not on the countryside
10 November: Quarterly traffic figures are out, showing falling vehicle numbers and undermining the case for new roads.
The statistical releases from the DfT cover motorways and main roads in England, Wales and Scotland, and all show a falling trend in vehicle traffic volumes, alongside rising speeds. Across all types of vehicles and roads, motor traffic volumes were 0.5 per cent lower in the third quarter of 2011 than in the third quarter of 2010, continuing a long-term trend.
The releases also shed light on traffic speeds and congestion. For local authority A roads in England in particular, the data is interesting. It shows absolutely no increase in congestion on these roads since 2006 – in fact the overall change observed is that traffic on A roads is now moving 1.8 per cent faster than it was during 2006/7 (25.1 vs 24.6 mph).
This shows up a major flaw in the analysis on which new road plans are based, with predictions of small vehicle time savings – added up over decades – making up the majority of measured ‘benefits’ of building a bypass. These time savings are not calculated in comparison to the current situation, but against a projected level of congestion that is modelled on an assumption of continued traffic growth. Growth that may never actually happen.
And it would be a mistake to assume that reduced traffic is simply a product of the recession, and that economic recovery will automatically bring cars flooding back onto our A roads.
Falling traffic is a positive trend that started well before the financial crisis in 2008. At least partly, it represents a growing desire – particularly among younger people in towns and cities – to live without car ownership and make use of high quality alternatives.
The choices that national and local governments make over the next few years will have a lot of influence on what happens to traffic, offering people more choice or locking them into car dependency.
As Phil Goodwin and other academics have pointed out, London’s reliance on the car has been declining from a peak way back in 1993, and the city saw car ownership and mode share fall sharply throughout the long financial boom of the 2000s, while public transport services improved. So prosperity and traffic growth are not as intertwined as some local authorities bidding for DfT funding for their bypasses would like to believe, and these councils are making a grave mistake by assuming new roads will bring real financial benefits to their local areas.
If councils like Norfolk, Devon, East Sussex and Bristol are keen to spend money improving transport, they should be looking instead at ways to make the most of people’s desire for alternatives to the car in their towns and cities with smarter travel and land-use planning; building on the trend for less traffic, rather than building new roads and developments out in the countryside.
I’ve put the key paragraph in bold. Pretty much all our planned roading projects are justified on the basis of solving huge future congestion problems caused by assumed massive future traffic growth. If those growth predictions are wildly inaccurate and if there’s not a huge problem now (like is the case for many of the RoNS projects) then we’re basically spending a huge amount of money to solve a problem which doesn’t, and won’t, exist.
Interestingly it seems as though UK traffic growth predictors suffer from a bizarre problem of simply ignoring reality where it disagrees with their modelling outputs – check out this comparison of predicted traffic volumes versus real traffic volumes:
Seven wildly inaccurate predictions later and they still haven’t learned their lesson?
Meanwhile, in the USA traffic volumes are back to 1995 levels:
And in New Zealand state highway volumes have basically gone nowhere in four years (the pink line is all traffic):
I wonder how long it’ll take for the transport profession to come to the realisation that traffic just isn’t growing anymore. I guess as agencies like NZTA have a massive vested interest in completing ignoring these trends, it might be quite some time yet. Falling traffic volumes are the absolutely giant “elephant in the room” when it comes to transport policymaking because as soon as we accept what’s finally happening, everything changes.
Previous posts here and here have discussed how the growth of cities can be attributed to some underlying economic advantages, namely shorter travel distances and economies of scale in the presence of fixed costs.
In this post I want to flesh out these economic factors in more detail. I’m particularly interested in whether cities will continue to grow, or whether they will reach an “optimal” size. To finish I outline the structure of a stylized model of the economic forces influencing city growth.
Before we get into too much detail I think it’s worth quoting J. K. Galbraith, who observed the “only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” Now while I’m a sceptic insofar as I accept models cannot replicate real-world complexity, I nonetheless think they are relatively useful “learning” tools.
They key question I want to know more about is whether there is an “optimal city size”. By “optimal” I mean a city size that maximises the economic welfare of its inhabitants. This question is important for obvious reasons. While cities overall are continuing to grow, which cities in particular can we expect to grow the fastest? And is city growth something we should encourage/discourage beyond a certain point?
I think it’s important to hypothesize in advance what I expect to find, if only to reveal my own hidden preferences and human tendency to “model what I am looking to find”. My perspective is that “yes” I do believe there is an optimal city size, at least from an economic perspective, beyond which further growth in city size becomes economically undesirable, at least from a social perspective.
Why do I think this? After all, the persistent growth of cities suggests the factors “pushing” us together are winning out over those that are “pulling” us apart. My reasoning is two-fold:
- While more people are living in cities, this is not the same as evidence to prove that individual cities themselves will continue to grow ad infinitum. Indeed, there is some speculation that it is medium sized cities that will drive the bulk of future growth; and
- More specifically, I believe the economic forces “pulling” us apart tend to increase as city size increases, whereas the economic forces that “push” us together tend to exhibit diminishing returns as a city grows larger. Put simply, there are benefits to increased size, but these benefits tend to level off.
Let’s expand on that second point a little. Transport costs are a useful example, because they are an economic factor that both makes cities more and less attractive as they grow. While people coming together in cities reduces travel distances, it also tends to create congestion. So if we were solely seeking to minimise transport costs then one would have to conclude that we probably would not allow cities to grow beyond a certain point.
Without further ado let’s outline some of the forces that would need to be in a model of the economic benefits of city size. In my mind the key economic forces such a model should consider are:
- Direct transport costs – i.e. what you pay in cash terms to move about.
- Congestion – i.e. the costs of additional travel time due to delays from things being busy.
- Economies of scale – i.e. efficiencies in the provision of public goods.
- Agglomeration economies – i.e. the economic benefits of density.
- Purchasing power – i.e. the value that you get for every dollar.
- Amenity – i.e. the impact of other people on your amenity.
Let me know if you think I have missed factors that you think are important.
In terms of how these forces vary with population, my gut feeling is that 1) direct transport costs more or less linearly as a city grows; 2) congestion increases non-linearly; 3) economies of scale increase, but at a reducing rate; 4) agglomeration economies increase, but also at a reducing rate; 5) purchasing power increases , but how I’m not so sure; and 6) amenity increases but then decreases (amenity itself is a bit vague).
In the next post I hope to outline some of the results of the model itself, but before I do I’d like to get some feedback on the forces that are in/out and how they might be modeled. How say you all-knowing blogosphere?
A few weeks ago I wrote this post on red light running.
In my experience the intersection of Symonds and Alten Street suffers from this fairly regularly, especially in the PM peak when vehicles heading east onto Alten queue back across the intersection. My friend encountered this issue recently and snapped the great shot showing how cars have blocked the pedestrian green phase.
Poor peddy ped peds
There’s two things that I think are needed to solve this issue: 1) Driver education and testing needs to drill into drivers’ heads that this is not OK and 2) the NZ Police actually need to get out and police these intersections at peak times a little more regularly. Or give Auckland Transport the authority so that they can do it themselves.
What other intersections should be added to the red light running smackdown list?