John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: It's the roads not the motorway

Improving traffic systems a priority over rail or new crossing

The real gridlock doesn't happen on the harbour bridge - it's more to do with poor traffic management along key routes like Albert St. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The real gridlock doesn't happen on the harbour bridge - it's more to do with poor traffic management along key routes like Albert St. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Len Brown was on the North Shore not so long ago ticking some boxes. He opposed an 18-storey apartment block over the Milford shops, he was certain rail would come to the Shore one day and he supported a second harbour crossing.

Only the first of those is a live issue. A railway never enters our conversation and a second harbour crossing is something the rest of Auckland thinks we must need but we really don't.

Anybody who uses the northern motorway during the morning peak knows the existing harbour bridge is the only bit that nearly always functions perfectly. Traffic normally crawls all the way from the most northern ramps until it passes the last and then, magically, it can spread out, gathers speed and flows over the bridge at a good pace.

There is no magic about it, of course - just imaginative traffic engineering. The bridge's moveable median barrier makes one more lane available southward in the morning and homeward in the evening. It's brilliant.

But a second harbour crossing is always the first thing that springs to mind when the city contemplates future infrastructure, and it is fun to plot possible routes for another bridge or a tunnel. It's fun mixed with frisson if you can imagine how a second bridge anywhere within sight of the first would ruin the Waitemata visually.

The crossing would have to be under water and probably it would be connected to the northern busway that one day conceivably could be converted to a railway, but that, too, is a solution looking for a problem.

The busway, like the bridge, is fine.

The problem lies in roads closer to home. By car it can take as long to get on to the motorway as it takes for the rest of the journey. By bus it takes too long to get to a busway station. Once on the busway, you can be in the city in eight minutes.

In fact, the North Shore is probably better served by the busway than the rest of Auckland is by its railways, which also have to be reached by bus or car from most people's homes.

The only reason the mayor invokes rail for the Shore is to answer its ratepayers when they ask why they should help pay for a project that isn't coming their way. It's a silly answer to a silly question but this is election year.

Traffic engineering is probably the only realistic solution to Auckland's congestion.

It might not be possible to extend the bridge's moveable barriers along the motorways but much more could be done to improve the rest of the road network.

The engineers hit on a good idea when they installed lights on motorway ramps, though most peak-hour commuters probably don't agree. The signals don't seem to be functioning as we were assured they would. They are holding back traffic too long when the motorway flow is light, and letting too many go when it is clogged.

Sadly, this is no surprise to anyone who knows Auckland traffic management. Visitors from other places remark on how long the lights in Auckland take to change and how poorly they are co-ordinated.

It is particularly noticeable when the roads are empty late at night. In other cities your approach will trigger a green light almost immediately. Not here.

The gremlins in this city take a devilish delight in making you wait long minutes for no obvious reason.

More than once I've lost patience and driven through the red, composing an argument for the court that it had been reasonable to suppose the lights were malfunctioning.

In other cities it is possible to travel along main roads through signals that are perfectly in sync with the traffic flow. And it has been so for about 50 years. Synchronised lights long predate computers.

With modern technology you would think it would be possible to control traffic systems to keep all roads running at their capacity.

No doubt there is a traffic control centre somewhere in Auckland where Len Brown's minions are using closed circuit cameras to watch intersections and do little else.

If I had a suspicious cast of mind I would imagine their delight as they watched our frustration, telling themselves we deserved it for our determination to drive cars.

I need a candidate for the Auckland Council who will undertake to synchronise the traffic lights - not just for cars, the benefit would be shared by bus passengers whose frustration is much greater than mine. They say buses through our suburb are running up to 40 minutes late at the moment.

If the mayor lived here he wouldn't be talking about railways and second crossings, he would notice the busway and the bridge and see what clever roads can do.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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