Let’s avoid the Auckland Paradox

It’s well established that once traffic growth in a city reaches a certain point, it clogs a city, destroys its quality of life, and threatens its economic and social viability.

One only needs to think of Auckland, London before the congestion charge, Los Angeles and many other car dependent cities.

In Auckland, despite decades of motorway building, congestion is gradually strangling the city, at a huge cost to its economy and quality of life.

Some refer to it as the Auckland paradox – the fact that the motorway system that was built expressly to reduce congestion, has instead steadily increased it, bringing the city to a virtual halt in peak hour traffic.

By contrast, one of the great assets of Wellington is how easy it is to get around our city –thanks in large part to our excellent public transport network.

But according to a recent transport report, once the motorway network north of Wellington is completed, Wellington is likely to end up as car congested, car dependent and difficult to get around in as Auckland.

This ominous fate is signalled in a report prepared for the Greater Wellington Regional Council by international transport experts, Arup and Opus International Consultants, entitled TN24;Baseline Forecasting Report. The report is written in transport planning gobbledygook, and so is difficult to decipher. But buried in the report are some horrifying forecasts of how congestion in the Wellington region will increase, once Transmission Gully, the Kapiti Expressway and the Petone Grenada Link Road are built.

Most people who support Transmission Gully and the Kapiti motorway do so because they think it will ease early morning congestion and make it easier for them to travel to work in Wellington.

The government, too, has justified the vast expense of building these motorways by claiming they are essential for economic growth and the movement of freight and people around our region.

But according to this new report, these assumptions are completely wrong. Instead of reducing congestion, and making it easier to get around the region, the new motorway network will steadily increase congestion in the region and in Wellington city. By 2021, the report forecasts, congestion in the Wellington region during the morning rush-hour will increase by 80%, rising to a staggering 96% by 2041, while congestion during the evening peak will increase by 71% in 2041.

In Wellington city, congestion during the morning rush hour will increase by 26% in 2021, and by 80% in 2041.

Can anyone imagine what our city would be like with 80% more congestion during the morning rush-hour, on our narrow and already car-congested streets? The congestion we experienced after the recent storm, would be a foretaste of what’s in store for us on a daily basis --traffic at a standstill, our enviable quality of life ruined, and our econonic and social viability threatened.

How can these forecasts be correct, some will say. And the answer is that it has been shown all around the world that building more motorways and expanding road capacity contributes to the very problem it is intended to solve, because it inevitably encourages more people to use their cars, and steadily increases the amount of traffic on the roads, until they become hopelessly congested.

This is exactly what happened in Auckland. Back in the 1950’s Auckland’s transport planners promised, as they are still promising today, that building motorways would solve Auckland’s congestion problems. And so a far-sighted plan to electrify and underground the Auckland rail network was abandoned in favour of building an impressive motorway network. But by the mid 70’s traffic congestion had grown far more rapidly than transport planners had predicted, while the public transport network had deteriorated through neglect and lack of investment, and public transport patronage had collapsed.

So Auckland embarked on an even more ambitious motorway network –one that planners are still focussed on completing today. And Auckland has become what it had planned for –a car dominated city, with extraordinarily high levels of congestion and a pitiful public transport system, where most people have no alternative than to travel by car.

The new report suggests that this is what will happen in Wellington, if we allow more and more motorways to be built in our region, resulting in a vast increase in the number of cars pouring into our compact central city.

Greater Wellington Regional Council has not yet publicly debated the implications of these new forecasts for Wellington. In fact the report, and its contentious forecasts, are not yet available on their website.

I think it’s time we publicly debated these forecasts, and their implications for our region’s transport priorities. I am sure most Wellingtonians would agree that an 80% increase in peak-time congestion would be completely unsustainable in our city, and would undermine our quality of life and economic viability.

Faced with the harsh reality of these forecasts, many Wellingtonians might also agree that the viability and livability of Wellington depends on reducing, not increasing traffic, by investing in alternatives to cars such as light rail, improved public transport, walking and cycling, and other work related strategies such as flexible working hours.


Sue Kedgley