Barney Irvine: Looming congestion catastrophe can't be ignored

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

"Abandoning Auckland is the only way to get out of this god-awful traffic situation."

That's a direct quote from one of the 1300 respondents to a recent AA Member survey on congestion.

Obviously, not everyone's leaving town, but close to half of those surveyed say they've seriously considered moving house or changing jobs to avoid congestion. What's clear is that Aucklanders are feeling the pain of the city's infrastructure not keeping pace with growth.

In the last two years, Auckland's population has increased by the size of Palmerston North, and the number of vehicles on the road has gone up by 80,000. For morning commuters travelling from Papakura to the city, travel time has increased from 46 to 67 minutes.

Auckland's congestion is comparable with larger cities across the Tasman and, worryingly, it's forecast to get a lot worse. Within the next two decades, it's expected that traffic in the middle of the day will be as bad as the peak is now.

The incident last week - where a digger being carried on the back of a truck struck a motorway overbridge - shows how one breakdown can be enough to bring the network to its knees.

Auckland AA Members worry that the city's quality of life is being jeopardised, and they don't see government - local or central - stepping up to address it.

It's no surprise then that they rate congestion as the number-one priority for the city's next mayor, and that they expect to see action. Here are three things the AA wants to see happen:

1. Set congestion targets
As a starting point, we'd like to see officials set firm congestion targets that Aucklanders can see and understand. To reach these targets, we think a new taskforce solely focussed on busting congestion needs to be established, similar to the approach used in cities like Brisbane.

2. Make public transport work for people
Close to 85 per cent of Auckland AA Members drive to work, and typically they do so out of necessity rather than choice - they need their cars for their jobs, for personal activities before or after work, or because there's no viable public transport alternative. To convince large numbers of drivers to switch to public transport, the focus has to go on making the system meet people's needs, not trying to make people change to meet the needs of the system. That's why much more investment in park and ride facilities is a no-brainer. No single step could do more to reduce barriers to public transport use.

3. Be bold with small-scale projects
While the debate is taking place around the big roading and public transport projects, there needs to be much more investment in the smaller projects that can make a difference now. That means small-scale physical infrastructure, like lane adjustments to remove bottlenecks; and intelligent transport systems, like traffic light phasing, travel information, and incident response.

Aucklanders desperately want new tools that will help to lift the performance of the existing network, and it's time for a much bolder approach to delivering them.
We're never going to get rid of congestion completely - that's impossible in a growing, successful city - but we still need to do all we can to keep its impacts to a minimum.

Barney Irvine is Principal Advisor - Infrastructure at the New Zealand Automobile Association.

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