Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Back on track: blinkered

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The headline figures that I quoted yesterday from the Regional Land Transport Strategy (RLTS) Annual Monitoring Report (954kB PDF) make encouraging reading, since they show a significant shift from private cars to public transport. Since the regional council says that the report "informs our planning for long-term sustainable transportation", and there's also the North Wellington and Ngauranga to Airport studies under consideration, you'd think that this would herald a change in thinking away from road building.

To track their change in thinking, let's look at the previous year's report (2.2MB PDF). The Outlook section and Implications for transportation planning (p25) says this:
Daily traffic volumes will continue to grow by around 3% to 4% per annum, with some decline in the proportion of private car journeys to work ... The Wellington region's dispersed development means the private car will be the dominant form of transport in the foreseeable future. Traffic volumes will grow alongside economic activity. Increasing traffic demand will not be met without the construction of significant new infrastructure. RLTS proposals seek to maximise road network efficiency while encouraging travellers to use public transport and active modes for appropriate journeys.
Instead of a 3-4% increase in traffic volumes, state highway vehicle numbers stayed static while the volume of cars entering the CBD actually decreased by 9% for the year (see graph). Time for a rethink, surely? But as late as April this year, when the surge in public transport use was already giving the lie to these projections, the regional council was still persisting with a goal that Option 3 called "myopic" and I referred to as a "puny": merely maintaining public transport's mode share. And here's the equivalent text to the above quote from this year's report (pp27-28):
Daily traffic volumes are likely to continue to grow by around 3% to 4% per annum, with some decline in the proportion of private car journeys to work ... Initiatives encouraging the use of public transport especially for peak-period commuter trips remain important, but travel by car will continue to be the predominant form of regional transport. This is partly due to dispersed development in the Wellington region. Traffic volumes are expected to grow alongside economic activity. Increasing traffic demand will not be met without the construction of significant new infrastructure.
What the...? Page after page of figures and graphs show that traffic volumes are static or decreasing, then they conclude by saying that volumes "are likely to continue to grow"!? Apart from the insertion of the weasel word "likely", they haven't even bothered to try explaining it away as a blip by saying something like "traffic volumes may have declined, but we expect them to start growing again". They're happy enough to trumpet the results as good news, but it looks as if they won't let the facts get in the way of the drive for more and bigger roads.

There's only one sign that they've actually looked for a rationale behind their forecasts of more traffic. In the same section, they write:
The passenger transport network will not be able to accommodate continuing growth in patronage. There is a three-year time lag before new rail rolling stock will be operational. The rail service may not currently be meeting passenger expectations during the peak periods. For this reason, and along with easing congestion and fuel prices, more people may revert to commuting by private vehicle.
In other words, because of their blinkered insistence in the past that increased traffic volumes are an immutable force of nature, the ongoing decline of public transport infrastructure has left it unable to cope when their projections turned to custard. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy! If they'd actually made the forward-thinking decision to invest in passenger transport, the petrol prices of the past year might actually have been the catalyst for a change of mindset. They're also looking at recent petrol price drops and thinking "phew, thank god that's over!" rather than "how can be ready for it next time?" In fact, the local petrol rice trends show that current prices are actually higher than the average for the period under consideration (March '05 to March '06), so they shouldn't expect people to be running back to their cars just yet.

This called for a rant, so I sent this off to the Dominion Post:
It's good to see from the Regional Council's figures that road congestion has markedly decreased over the last year. Surely this is the result of building more roads? After all, we're constantly told this is the only practical solution to congestion.

Actually, no. The "bypass" is still months from completion, and Transmission Gully hasn't started. Instead, people have switched from private to public transport, to the point where the underfunded infrastructure is unable to cope and the council has to scramble for desperate and unsatisfactory measures such as ripping seats out of trains (Oct 3).

Imagine if instead of spending $40 million on the "bypass", that money had been invested in public transport. By now, we'd be ready for increased petrol prices, so that new riders would stay with public transport rather than switching back to cars when petrol prices dip.

But it's not too late. The Regional Council needs to drop its blinkered insistence that traffic volumes will inexorably increase. The City Council can take advantage of the reduced congestion to reclaim road space for transit, cycles and pedestrians. Most of all, we should scrap the ruinously expensive Transmission Gully and invest in quality public transport for the future.


At 2:41 PM, October 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're interested in the other short term rail options considered and the reccomendations, check the following report to be presented to the GW Passenger Transport Committee on Thursday.

Report 06.495: Solutions for increasing peak rail capacity prior to the
delivery of new trains (http://www.gw.govt.nz/council-reports/pdfs/reportdocs/2006_495_1_Report.pdf)

At 3:10 PM, October 03, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Thanks for the link: I was trying to find some more details but hadn't dug far enough. I've now found that paper, and more details about the meeting, on this page.

At 5:54 PM, October 03, 2006, Anonymous LX said...

None of this is suprising. The Regional Council doesn't fund roads but it does fund public transport.

Basically they are caught between rate payers not wanting to pay more transport rates and a public transport system that desperatly needs more funding.

There probably is a sense of relief if people switch back to driving cars on central government funded state highways rather than locally funded rail and bus services.

At 5:59 PM, October 03, 2006, Anonymous flyin_higher said...

They really need to sort out how transport is funded in this country. Auckland has a similar problem, with all the motorways funded by Transit and all the train/railway upgrades funded by the ARC/Auckland Regional Transport Authority. The way it stands now is very unbalanced towards roading.

At 12:47 PM, October 04, 2006, Blogger Alan said...

Nice catch, Tom. I hope the papers pick this up (but I'm not holding my breath).

At 5:13 PM, October 06, 2006, Blogger Maximus said...

i read the whole transport report the other night (yes, i was bored - how did you guess?) but actually it is rather intriguing. Basically: they need trains.

Even more basically, there are next to no trains to be had.

NZ has one of the smallest, and seemingly stupidest railways in the world, so we can't just go and buy some more, despite how clapped out the options they are looking at. They're even looking at resurrecting the Silver Star for gods sake, which has been in mothballs since i was wearing short pants.

There is of course an answer, which is so scary that apparently no one has even considered it: we could build our own damn trains. Surely, for a country that can build an America's cup winning yacht out of a old fag packet and a box of chewing gum, surely then we could somehow fashion a train, to fit our skinny tracks, and do it for less than buying up some clapped out 30 year old empire has-beens and then still paying a million to modify them?

At 3:11 PM, October 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere (perhaps the paper) that they are looking to buy new trains? I only hope they know what they're doing.

I get the impression the people making decisions on rail in this country have never been overseas, and experienced proper rail systems. They don't seem to understand that modern rail systems should be much faster than cars, quieter, and smooth as silk to ride on.

For Wellington they should be looking at using something like the FLIRT (http://www.stadlerrail.com/default.asp?h=1&n=195&id=199&s=2). A modern "light" EMU with a speed of 160Kmph, acceleration rate of 1.3ms^2 and lower floor options (around 500mm to 600mm). These could be extended to an inner city station, possibly around the Willis St area in the vacant space behind where the Airways House is now (with that building removed as part of the project), to form our equivelent of Britomart (only a heck of a lot better).

At 9:53 PM, June 03, 2007, Anonymous Kevyn Miller said...

Although this is an oldish post it is worth pointing out that the 4.5% traffic growth projection is simply a continuation of the actual traffic growth of the 90s with no regard for 3 major factors in that growth.

1. real petrol price fell approx 30% between 1990 and 1999, and gained it all back in 2 or 3 years.

2. synthesis of LTSA household travel surveys and stats on drivers involved in injury crashes reveals males drivers annual increase in distance driven between 1989 and 1997 was 3% pa, female drivers 6% pa. Between 1970 and 2005 women's share of driving increased from almost 25% to over 45%. Unless there is some reason for women to drive more than men we should expect traffic growth to drop to 3% pa, all else being equal.

3. The LTSA household travel surveys reveal that distance driven peaks in the 45-55 age bracket and falls by several thousand km pa for each decade over 65 years of age. If these trends continue the age bubble is going to cause a surprisingly large reduction in traffic growth rates.

4. Historically, increases in buses fares suppress PT demand more than rising fuel prices suppress urban road demand. Changes to the PT subsidy formula seem to have suppressed bus fare increases so far this decade, unlike the 1970s when the subsidies were spent entirely on new buses instead of fare subsdies.

Points 2 and 3 together should halve the growth rates of the 1990s. Provided PT fares don't increase then rising petrol prices, or high real prices, and frustration with congestion could lead to a long-term reversal in commuter traffic growth.


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