Hands together for Auckland's champion, Phil Twyford. Not content with solving our housing crisis by cranking up the supply side, he's donned his transport minister's hat and is proposing to reduce congestion on our roads by increasing the government subsidy for public transport.

Cheaper fares, he says, would encourage commuters out of their cars and into buses and trains, freeing up our increasingly grid-locked streets and motorways.

It sounds bleedingly obvious, and the Greens certainly flirted with it last election with calls for free student fares. But for a senior government minister – from the left or right – to break out of the "build more roads" rut that, over the past half century, has got us into the present mess, is a true breakthrough.

Let's hope Mayor Phil Goff and his councillors now quickly reverse their recent decision to send yet another team of bureaucrats back into the quagmire that is congestion charging. A week or so back, they gave the green light for a team of council and government experts – and no doubt even higher paid private consultants - to revisit this last refuge of the roadaholics. The latest plan being floated is to install a big brother monitoring system to track the movements of every car in Auckland. With this in place, they wishfully think they'll unclog the system, by forcing those who can't afford the increasingly higher "charges", off the road.

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Apart from the inequity of freeing up the motorways for the comfort of the rich and those who can charge the new levies up to their company expense accounts, the councillors seem to have skated right over the nervous "out clause" buried in the middle of the jargon-filled officials report.

"No 'New World' city with dispersed trips patterns and relatively low density of housing," it warned, "has yet introduced congestion pricing. The widespread nature of Auckland's congestion means that schemes that worked elsewhere may not be as effective in improving congestion across Auckland."

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Twyford's proposal is so much simpler and uses the carrot instead of the stick. It offers the reward of a cheap trip to work on public transport for those willing to leave their car at home at peak times. Unlike the congestion charging lobby, whose aim is to kick excess people of the motorways into an ill-defined limbo land, Twyford's focus is on providing alternative means of travel as the starting point.

And when you look at the numbers, it wouldn't be expensive. In the year ending January 2018, the Auckland Transport fare box take was $173,895,886 excluding GST. This was equivalent to 46.2 per cent of costs, with Auckland ratepayers and the taxman making up the difference, which, shall we say, is nudging $200 million.

Big figures you might say, until you look at the cost of road building. The cost of the controversial East-West Link from Onehunga to Sylvia Park – pushed through by the last Government but put on hold by Twyford – is estimated to cost $327 million per kilometre, a grand total of $1.8 billion for this 5.5 km highway. This is enough to provide Aucklanders a totally free public transport service for around five years! That's if usage remained at today's 90 million or so trips a year. Which of course it wouldn't.

In the doom laden report on congestion submitted to Auckland councillors earlier this month, the officials claimed their review of overseas experience found that "some jurisdictions have used congestion pricing to reduce congestion … at peak periods by 15-30 per cent." This, they said, was "similar to the reduction in morning peak congestion levels associated with school holiday periods in Auckland."

Might not a simpler solution be to offer students free travel instead. I'm betting that increasing the public transport subsidy would turn out cheaper than creating the surveillance system of gantries or satellites being proposed to track each car, complete with its back room empire of debt collectors and IT specialists and the like.

And with "March madness" looming - the time of the year when gridlock returns with a vengeance as first year tertiary students endeavour to find parking for the first time, and parents clog the streets chauffeuring their kids across town to out of zone schools - what a perfect time to start. Or at least to debate the issue seriously.

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