Greg Dixon 's Opinion

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: Scenes from a traffic jam

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Auckland’s roads and motorways are as clogged as a fat man’s arteries at peak times and a report says the city — which will have another million residents in the next few decades — can expect its congestion to get worse, whether we build more roads or not. So what, asks an exasperated Greg Dixon, is it going to take for Aucklanders to get out of their cars?

Rail punctuality is better this year than last, while bus punctuality is an amazing 98.86 per cent (self-reported by bus companies). Photo / Sarah Ivey
Rail punctuality is better this year than last, while bus punctuality is an amazing 98.86 per cent (self-reported by bus companies). Photo / Sarah Ivey

Forget about Auckland being atomised in a fiery volcanic cataclysm. Armageddon is going to arrive in this town by car.

This struck me the other week as I tried to cross a busy section of New North Rd in the rain and had to wait as dozens of cars - each with a single occupant - crawled past me, barring me from the other side of the road and from the shelter of the stop where I catch the bus. And, as each car swished quietly by and the rain drummed loudly on my umbrella, I hoped that each and every sole occupant was on a slow, frustrating, bicycle-and-bus plagued commute to hell.

Of course, you could easily argue those drivers - and something like 87 per cent of Aucklanders commute by car, mostly alone - are already in hell. Hardly a month passes in this town without at least one news report on Auckland's "traffic" woes, though of course it's not traffic that is the problem but single-occupancy cars. A selection since the beginning of year: "Crash backs up North-western Motorway traffic" (this from January 6 when half the city was in Coromandel or Northland); "How one crash caused gridlock chaos" (March 8); "Traffic chaos continues after crash" and "Forecast: more traffic chaos ahead" (the next day); "Brace for more traffic woes" (March 10); "Honk if you're stuck in Auckland's traffic" (March 24); "Auckland motorway blocked by crash" (March 27); "All-day congestion tipped for Auckland" (March 28); "Traffic leaving Auckland slows to a crawl" (March 29); "Auckland roads set to be hectic today" (April 7).

On the day after I stood in the rain on New North Rd, TomTom, a company which makes car navigation systems, released its annual congestion index for Australia and New Zealand. Predictably, Auckland has the worst traffic woes in New Zealand. Shockingly Auckland is the third most congested city in Australasia, after Sydney and Perth, and worse than Melbourne, a city with more than three times the population. And finally and outrageously, Auckland is the second most congested city in Australasia during the morning peak and the most congested during the evening peak, worse even than Sydney.

Welcome, then, to the City of Snails. And to the City of Bloody Moaners. There is nothing that Aucklanders like more than complaining about their traffic woes - well, nothing more than actually owning lots and lots of cars. Last year there were more than 880,000 cars registered in Auckland - an increase of more than 45,000 since 2008. The most recent figures I could find for the number of motor vehicles per Auckland household showed there were 1.6 cars per home, with some 17 per cent of households owning three cars or more. Apparently only 8 per cent of Auckland homes (in 2006) didn't have a vehicle.

Congestion is Auckland's self-inflicted wound. And it has a high economic and environmental price for the city and the country. According to the New Zealand Transport Authority the annual cost to New Zealand of our city's traffic woes is $1.25 billion in delays, vehicle costs, crashes and bad air, while a 2010 State of the Auckland Region report said there are more than 600 premature deaths each year in the region due to air pollution - which is mostly caused by motor vehicles.

Even if the drivers sitting in their cars on New North Rd on that wet April morning didn't know these numbers exactly, they can hardly claim to be ignorant of the problem: they're sitting bang in the middle of it.

The big questions are why are they're still sitting there - and what is it going to take to get them out?

The car governs us. The automobile rules Auckland like an autocrat because of five decades of myths, myopia and meanness.

Until very recently, many of our city's politicians believed in and promoted the fictions that the city was too spread-out and had too few people for a decent public transport system, so built motorways instead. As two Australian academics said in a 2001 paper called "The American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland", the city's politicians and bureaucrats decided in the 1950s that the car was to be king because the city was dispersed. Since then Auckland's transport planning has, the academics said, followed the most extreme pro-car American transport models far more closely than in Australian or Canadian cities, or even many cities in the US. By the 1990s this had the bizarre result of making Aucklanders lower public transport users per capita than the residents of Los Angeles.

It wasn't always like this. In the 1950s, the majority of motorised trips by Aucklanders were by public transport. Of course, Aucklanders actually had a lot of choice back then: to travel by ferry, train, bus, trolley bus, tram or car. In fact, in the early 50s, New Zealand Railways had big plans to make our public transport even better by electrifying our trains, building an underground CBD rail loop and integrating rail with bus services.

It didn't happen. Instead between 1952 and 1959 the harbour bridge and the northern, southern and western motorways were built, while the last tram line was decommissioned in 1956 and the last trolley bus ran in the late 1970s.

"In 1956, when Auckland's population was 300,000, we had 102 million passenger trips per year - over 80 million by electric tram," says Mike Lee, Auckland councillor, chairman of the transport committee and also former chairman of the Auckland Regional Council. "That was when city fathers took it upon themselves to rip out 72km of track and power cables and destroy or dump a whole fleet of trams. Until that time Aucklanders, per capita, were on par with Parisians as users of public transport."

As anyone with eyes knows, what's happened since the 1950s is that we've built roads and then more roads, spending billions of ratepayer and taxpayer money. In the next three years we will spend $2.5 billion more on highways and local roads through the National Land Transport Programme (which, in turn, is funded from both taxes and rates) alone.

And still we're in the shit, our roads congested, our air polluted and our economy slowed by a congestion that - despite the city and Government spending up to another $59 billion in the next 30 years - is likely to go from bad to much, much worse. There are predictions of all-day traffic jams in less than a decade.

And still we sit moaning in our cars. "There is this mindset that 'I have got my car and I am going to drive it'," says public transport campaigner and blogger Matt Lowrie. "Even for the most public transport-friendly person like me, you get behind the wheel and you almost change how you perceive the world because you're in this little box and all you want to do is move as fast as you can from here to there."

Everyone I spoke to for this story claimed to use public transport: Lowrie, Lee, Auckland Mayor Len Brown, chief operations officer of Auckland Transport, Greg Edmonds (AT is responsible for Auckland's public transport and many of its roads), AT's public transport operations manager, Mark Lambert and Cameron Pitches from public transport lobby group, the Campaign for Better Transport.

Not all use public transport to commute to and from work every day, but then only a pathetic 7 per cent of Aucklanders do this anyway.

Yet to hear AT tell it (through an avalanche of reports), things aren't as bad as they seem. Annual public transport usage is now on par with when the last tram was sent to the knackers yard in 1956. Total patronage has gone from 50 million trips per year eight years ago to 69.5 million. In the same period rail has gone from 2.5 million passengers annually to almost 10 million. Rail punctuality is better this year than last, while bus punctuality is an amazing 98.86 per cent. And customer satisfaction with public transport sits between a rating of good and very good.

Things aren't quite so upbeat when you put these figures in context. In 1956, Auckland's population was just 399,000, now it's 1.4 million, which means Aucklanders, per capita, take fewer than a third as many trips on public transport as they did back in the 1950s. The overall reliability of the rail service was under 85 per cent in February (and only 72.2 per cent for one of the most used services, the western line). Meanwhile, the bus punctuality figures are actually self-reported by the six bus companies contracted by AT. Even the rise in patronage has slowed.

Asking about this last one gets a rather testy response from AT's public transport operations manager, Mark Lambert. "Across the whole bus, rail and ferry network we're about a million down [year-on-year to year to February] ... Maybe we were a little optimistic following the World Cup and following 7-8 per cent growth in the last two to three years ... we've probably got it slightly wrong for one year in terms of forecasting."

But we've come a long way, everyone agrees on that. In the last decade Auckland has built the Britomart Transport Centre (it turns 10 in July), has double-tracked most of its rail system, there are flash new suburban stations, better buses on many routes, the Northern Busway was completed and the introduction of integrated ticketing using the Hop card - despite the outrageous Snapper card fiasco and a problem with fare-rorting on the trains - is progressing.

And everyone seems to agree that what is planned for the next three years - integrated fares, better real-time bus information at stops, stations and on smartphones (it is currently "erratic" at best, says Pitches), electrification of the trains and a new high-frequency bus network - is going to improve public transport delivery, even if Mayor Brown doesn't manage to talk (he says watch this space) a reluctant Government into stumping up half the money for the $2.8 billion city rail link - an idea first proposed, you'll remember, in the 1950s.

"If I could wave a magic wand and make it all happen tonight," says AT's Edmonds, "my life would be a lot easier. Just give us a little bit of time, a little bit of breathing space, a little bit of patience because this is going to be revolutionary."

Build it, and they will come. Build the infrastructure - look at the 5-year-old Northern Busway, which has 2.5 million passengers annually, AT says - and make sure that public transport is safe, comfortable, frequent, reasonably priced, reliable and with good facilities, then people will use it. Frequent and reliable - two things public transport often isn't in Auckland - are the big ones. Everyone I spoke to pretty much agrees on this - and in a recent Herald poll nearly half of Aucklanders polled said they wanted more spent on public transport too.

However, the thing that really has to be built - but the spending of no amount of money can guarantee - is a better perception of public transport. Among some Aucklanders (unlike Londoners or Parisians or Melbournites) there's still the attitude that the bus or the train is for the old, the young or the poor; and that it is slow and unreliable, says Pitches.

AT concedes perception is a big problem. "I think the challenge for us, if we're going to double public transport patronage over the next 10 years," says Edmonds, "is the view that the driver has of public transport. It's got to become a bit sexy [and] socially acceptable to use public transport."

I am sure this is true, but this is all about carrot. And so far the discussion around public transport has been all about carrot. Surely there ought to be some stick too?

Mayor Brown says Auckland has a $12 billion gap in funding over the next 30 years for public transport and roading so an alternative source of money is needed. "We tried a regional petrol tax and the Government said no." So the council has a "consensus building" group representing the broad interests of Auckland - this means "every man and his dog" Brown says - currently working on a solution for sustainable funding of transport outside of rates and taxes.

"One of the options [so far] was a congestion charge, the other was network charging [or tolling]," says Brown.

"There is no way I would have gone near tolls or user charges on roading five years ago. But my assessment is that Aucklanders have had about enough of our challenges as I have."

How difficult a sell is a congestion or network tax going to be?

"I think it's about 50-50 at the moment."

So he'd front such a tax if the consensus group recommends one?

"Of course, I'll back it and I'll get out there."

If a congestion tax or tolling happens - and it's a big if - those paying will likely have conniptions, but they might also get out of their cars too. I'd call that a victory, however some public transport campaigners aren't in favour of using congestion-type taxes to push people on to public transport.

"I don't think that's the right attitude or approach to take," says Lowrie. "[Road pricing] is really about making better, efficient use of our road network."

Still, it might take a congestion tax or similar to get more Aucklanders out of their cars because this city has a cultural addiction to its vehicles. This is because of 50 years of road-building at the expense of public transport, leaving Aucklanders with no option but the car. But it is also because - and this is my opinion - of unthinking habit. This town is full of people who drive to the dairy instead of walking, it is a city unfriendly to cyclists and walkers, many of its drivers resent bus and cycle lanes, it's a town of people raised to believe that their car has right of way no matter what and that, to ease congestion, it should be someone else and not them who gets out of their car and takes the bus.

A very cautious Edmonds admits, "To get people moving from cars to public transport, it is a conscious behavioural change ..."

I'll go further: it's about many more Aucklanders realising that their 24/7 convenience isn't always the most important thing.

In the end, if the people of this city want to improve congestion - or at the least not see it get even worse - then many more of us will have to make a conscious choice to get out of our cars in much the same way a smoker has to make a choice to give up his tobacco habit.

But if those drivers don't get on the bus, they shouldn't moan. They should remember this: you're never stuck in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam.

Commuter games
What's the best way to get to work? Greg Dixon tries bus, car, train and bike.

I am - surprise, surprise - a supporter and regular user of public transport. Living where I do, I have good access to both buses and trains. But I also live reasonably close to the North-western Motorway and to the cycleway that runs alongside it.

Although I live less than 10km from the Herald, it takes me an hour to commute from door to desk by train or bus. I have to walk to catch them, sometimes in the rain and cold (I live 1.2km from a station). Sometimes the train or bus is late. It can be crap and frustrating. But it means I don't have worry about negotiating the roads, I can sit and read or stare out the window. It can be wonderfully relaxing.

I have two alternatives: my car and my brand new bike. Until two weeks ago, I had not commuted by car for five years. How long would it take? Despite a slow trip to the St Lukes on-ramp in the morning and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the north-western on the way home, travelling by car is far faster: 45 minutes to work and, by leaving work a little early, just 30 minutes to get home. (Only the bike ride into work the following day approached that speed: 35 minutes, though it took 45 minutes to get home by pedal-power). The bus and train are far cheaper - around $6 a day - compared to the car, which is approximately $20 for early bird parking, petrol and depreciation. Of course the bike costs nothing at all, exception for sweat from the toil (and from the fear of being hit, I'll freely admit).

The bike I'll use a bit when it's summer again, for the sake of my heart. The bus and train both suffer delays but they're cheap enough, the walk to and from is good exercise and I get a good 30 minutes of reading in every trip. For speed and point-to-point convenience, the car has it over public transport - but at more than three times the cost, it should be quicker and more convenient.

So which is best? That's easy: the train. The timetable might be a work of fiction, but it's cheap, air-conditioned, the stations keep you out of the rain and sun and - because most of Auckland is sitting alone, in a car, in congestion - you can almost always get a seat.

- NZ Herald

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Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

It has been said the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Despite having none of these things, Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. Although it has been rumoured that he embarked on his journalism career as the result of a lost bet, the truth is that although he was obsessed by the boy reporter Tintin as a child, he originally intended to be an accountant. Instead, after a long but at times spectacularly bad stint at university involving two different institutions, a year as a studio radio programme director and a still uncompleted degree, he fell into journalism, a decision his mother has only recently come to terms with. A graduate of the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT) journalism school, he was hired by the Herald on graduation in 1992 and spent the next eight years demonstrating little talent for daily news, some for television reviewing and a passable aptitude for long-form feature writing. Before returning to the Herald in 2008 to take up his present role, he spent three years as a freelance, three as a senior feature writer at Metro and one as a staff writer at North & South. As deputy editor of Canvas, his main responsibility is applauding the decisions of the editor, Michele Crawshaw. However he prefers to spend his time interviewing interesting people -- a career highlight was a confusing 15-minute phone interview with a stoned Anna Nicole Smith -- and pretending to understand what they're going on about. He has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

Read more by Greg Dixon

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