Wellington Scoop

More roads and slower travel – why Wellington mustn’t copy Auckland

by Michael C Barnett
As a teenager in the late 1950s I attended Wellington College, commuting from Eastbourne to the city by bus. My bus would leave the Eastbourne terminus at 8am, travel around the eastern bays, along the Petone esplanade, then head south along the Hutt Road all the way to Thorndon, arriving at the Wellington railway station at 8 30am, give or take a minute. A travel time of 30 minutes.

During this period the Kaiwharawhara foreshore was being reclaimed to form a new motorway between Ngauranga and Aotea Quay. The motorway was opened in the early 1960s, providing an additional six traffic lanes along that section of the highway.

Thirty years on in 1989, while visiting my parents at the family home in Eastbourne, I had occasion to travel the same route to attend a 9am appointment in the city. To get to my appointment on time, I caught a bus at 7am and arrived at the railway station at 8 30am, some 90 minutes later. Matching the threefold increase in road space, there had been a corresponding increase in travel time.

Coming forward to the present day, I have been on a road trip to the to the far north. I passed through Auckland last week and as we know its traffic congestion is of stop-go slow proportions. As I passed through the city I could not help but think what a planning disaster Auckland is. Urban sprawl as far as the eye can see, low rise (one and two storey) buildings everywhere beyond the central city. Auckland is a city with no heart and it has no soul. It is acity designed for the motor vehicle not its people. Why anyone would want to live there I do not know.

Many of the affluent escape further north to the Hibiscus Coast, but they are no better off. To get to the city they must suffer the same interminable delays. The express bus lanes seem to work quite well if one chooses to use them, but the park and ride facilities do not. The huge areas set aside for parking parking are chocker full by 7am and remain so until the workers come home at night. One must go further afield to find a park with a long walk to the bus station. OK if the sun is shining, but in the wind and rain not much fun.

What could help solve some of Auckland’s congestion problems would be to convert two lanes on the harbour bridge and the various motorways north and south, east and west into access for light rail. The carriageways already exist and it would be relatively cheap I imagine. However, talk to an Aucklander, they would probably disagree. Must have their car to go all ways and everywhere and they suffer the consequences.

It has been several years since I have been this far north and the amount of road building that has taken place in these northern regions is mind boggling. Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga are what I describe as ‘car cities’ and their congestion problems are acute. Expanding the motorway system in each of these areas is not solving this problem.

It is a fallacy to think that constructing more motorways will ease congestion in an urban area. Travel time savings will be short term at best and congestion will remain a problem.

There is an adage known as Parkinson’s law that states “work expands so as to fill the time available to complete the work.” The same principle applies to building motorways in an urban area; traffic will increase to fill the available space. There is evidence to suggest that the corollary is also true; reduce the available space and the traffic will adjust to fill the space that remains.

Recently in Wellington a group of transport interest groups launched a campaign for a more livable city, to be achieved by reducing reliance on the private car.

“We want high-capacity, high-quality, all-electric, mass public transport, and more safe cycling and walking infrastructure,” said John Rankin of Congestion Free Wellington.

“We support the objectives of the LGWM project1 in an open and transparent process. However, we consider LGWM’s suggested interventions are over-weighted towards state highway spending, heading towards a result likely to be incompatible with these objectives. In our observation, cities geared to public and active transport have less congestion than cities geared for private cars. Therefore, we call on LGWM to stick to its objectives and put the emphasis squarely on public and active transport, and managing travel demand, not on building more roads.

LGWM represents an opportunity of a lifetime to revisit past decisions and develop a multi modal transport system fit for the future. It is time our politicians and planning authorities woke up and came into the 21st century?


  1. Luke, 29. June 2017, 12:49

    Building more roads to relieve congestion is like buying larger trousers to cure obesity. The time has come to build the missing modes (public transport and cycleways) and thus complete our streets. Those who want to remain part of the congestion are free to do so but the rest of us should have alternatives.

  2. Henry Filth, 29. June 2017, 18:27

    I’m curious. What were the traffic volumes on those 1950s roads? How would those 1950s roads cope with 2010s traffic volumes? Is it naive to think that the increase in traffic volumes has more to do with a growing population than with an increase in road capacity?

  3. Michael Barnett, 3. July 2017, 21:13

    Henry. I don’t have the figures, but traffic volumes in the 1950s would obviously have been much less than they are today. And yes today’s traffic volumes have much to do with the increasing population and more particularly the huge increase in the number of vehicles over the past 60+ years. The interesting observation, as I make in my article, is that ever increasing road space has not led to a decrease in traffic congestion. In fact the opposite has occurred.

    What might have been the outcome if the equivalent investment had been put into a multimodal transport system over this period? I suggest the answer would be fewer vehicles and less congestion, as many commuters would have chosen to leave their cars at home and commute by other means.

    The key question given the situation we have today, is do we want to develop our city around the needs of cars and give up all the space required to satisfy those needs, or do we want to develop our city around the needs of people by creating a vibrant city environment free from the negative aspects of the car city development epitomised by the Auckland I have observed? To me there is only one answer. Urban form first and design the transport system around the desired form.

  4. MFG, 4. July 2017, 16:49

    “… ever increasing road space has not led to a decrease in traffic congestion. In fact the opposite has occurred.”

    Michael, in Central and suburban Wellington there has been almost zero increase in road capacity for over 20 years. Fact. The Mt Victoria Tunnel has been one lane in each direction since 1931, as has Ruahine St and Wellington Rd. The last big increase in road capacity was the Urban Motorway, completed in the 1970s. The only investment in central city roading was the Inner City Bypass, which has improved traffic flow out of the city no end, although this was more a realignment than new capacity.

    Interesting to note the Waterview Tunnel since opening has slashed travel times and improved traffic flow, and has taken much traffic off suburban streets making them more pleasant and safer for walking and cycling. Bus routes are also less congested. If only we had the foresight in Wellington to see that investing in major roading infrastructure on our State Highway network can lead to a range of positive outcomes.

  5. Michael Barnett, 5. July 2017, 19:33

    MFG. Your comments noted. You may like to check this link for an alternative point of view,

    Best Michael

  6. MFG, 6. July 2017, 14:30

    Thanks…or should I say no thanks Michael. That is a link to spurious, manipulated political clap trap. My comments are apolitical and I have no interest in such machinations – I prefer evidence and have no strong political leanings.


  7. Ross Clark, 6. July 2017, 20:13

    Any rational discussion on land transport policy must acknowledge that:

    (a) People like their cars;

    (b) Investment in public transport infrastructure is critical, but it is only when car use is constrained in some way as well, that one will see significant modal shift; but,

    (c) There is no political enthusiasm to restrain car use, by any means.

    Fix (c), and fixing (b) will then be much more straightforward.

  8. Henry Filth, 7. July 2017, 5:20

    Hi Michael. Ever-increasing road space has not kept pace with an ever-increasing vehicle fleet, surely. Pop the 1950s vehicle fleet onto the 2017 road network, and everyone would be happy.

    Not trying to be a devil’s advocate, but for many journeys there is currently no effective public transport option. Nor is there likely to be one.

  9. Neil Douglas, 7. July 2017, 9:54

    Michael: Perhaps back in the 1950s you read R.J. Smeed’s traffic safety ‘law’ (1949) which included the observation that speeds in congested traffic networks would stabilise at 14.5kph (9mph). This was because of this speed, motorists would leave their car in the garage (driving being too slow) and then more would drive until increased congestion reduced the speed back down to 14.5 kph (9mph).

    In 1990, Martin Mogridge, a long haired, pink leather wearing London academic in his article “jam yesterday, jam today and jam tomorrow,” came up with the result that “traffic expands to meet the available road space”. He also determined that road investment in a congested urban area will reduce the average speed of the whole transport system, public transport as well as roads.

  10. Michael Barnett, 10. July 2017, 9:58

    Interesting comment above. I too am interested in deduction based on evidence and observation and my observations ring true. 60+ years of road construction in Auckland and here in Wellington has not led to reduced congestion as some of you are suggesting. Even the opening of the Waterview Tunnel is unlikely to have that effect – one day’s observations are not indicative on any longterm city wide gains. Applying the same solutions to the problem of congestion will only lead to more of the same.

    I am inspired by what I see in many European cities where cars do not dominate. Zurich has been identified in GWRC reports as a city with characteristics similar to Wellington and on which our transport system could be modelled. Sadly that report seems to lie buried somewhere. Similarly WCC has a report by renowned Danish Architect Jan Gehl with how Wellington could be transformed. Sadly, that report also lies buried somewhere on the Council archives.

    What is needed is a paradigm shit in thinking on the part of the planners and policy makers and behavioural changes on the part of the masses.

  11. Peter, 10. July 2017, 12:33

    Perhaps it should be paradigm ‘shift’ – we already have what you said Michael.

  12. Michael, 13. July 2017, 23:32

    @ Henry Filth – I agree with your comment that “for so many journeys there is currently no effective public transport. Nor is there likely to be one”

    What makes Wellington so distinctive is its situation and compactness but this also makes it impossible to bypass the city, and there is little that can be done about that. Given that the airport serves greater Wellington (and beyond) and it is clearly here to stay, Wellington is always going to have problems with people trying to get across and out of the city.

  13. Mark Shanks, 14. July 2017, 9:10

    The route to the airport is a hydra and if air transport continues to grow, (though one day it too must peak, like cars), then it will remain very difficult to untangle the cross-town pressures on access. I’m not so sure the airport has to stay where it is. If we begin to think 100 years ahead then we might reconsider. I know this is asking too much when even 5 year plans can’t be delivered.

  14. Michael, 14. July 2017, 23:02

    The problem with Wellington is that there is no cohesive holistic urban plan for the city. Before anymore wild schemes are put in place it is time there was a serious effort to look 30 years ahead and determine how we want the city to grow. This would involve determining where building height restrictions may be lifted and where not. Where commercial buildings, apartments, parks and green spaces should go, and tied in with all of this is the all important transport system.

    The city has grown with no sense of balance or direction and this has to stop. The council lurches from one year to the next slapping on band aids with no sense of direction. Annual plans, 5 year plans seem to spin off in other directions. We need a solid publically agreed 30 year plan so the council can bring in regulations to ensure it can be achieved. Unless something like this happens Wellington is going to be just another congested ugly concrete jungle.

    Mind you I won’t hold my breath because that would mean successive councillors wouldn’t be able to have their glory projects!

  15. andy foster, 15. July 2017, 23:38

    Hi Michael – yes there certainly is. Check out the Wellington Urban Growth Plan (UGP). It’s on the Council website. It was consulted on and ultimately approved alongside the 2015/25 Long Term Plan in June 2015. It has exactly that 30 year time horizon. It includes all those things you talked about.

    The issue we are beginning to face now is that already rapid population growth is even faster now, but the principles of the UGP still hold good.

    Kind regards
    Cr Andy Foster, Urban Development Leader, Wellington City

  16. Michael, 16. July 2017, 10:26

    Hi Andy, thank you for your response. I have checked the plan and there are lot of good ideas. However, my main area of concern is Inner City Wellington as I live and work here.

    I note your plan states many objectives and actions to be taken, but what has been done to change the District/City plan to ensure these things will happen? My understanding is that developers can have building height restrictions lifted on a case by case basis. If there are height restrictions in place, surely these are there for a reason and should not easily be changed. I note the results of the housing workshops held this year indicate that developers want to be able to build higher = where?/anywhere? Should we not have a plan that specifies where these higher rise buildings may go, because “the city’s projected population growth, and new housing and commercial development over the next 30 years, will require new and upgraded infrastructure”. While this is nothing to do with transport solutions, ultimately it will have an impact, and these factors should be worked out now.

    Your report/plan emphasises that the “public transport system uses low-carbon technologies”. Where was the council when the decision was made to get rid of the trolley buses and bring in over a hundred noisy polluting diesel buses?

    The report/plan also states that “our network of parks and open spaces is an integral part of the commuters’ network for walking and cycling” and one of the key indicators will “be investment in parks and green infrastructure”. So why did so many Wellingtonian’s have to battle for over a year to save Civic Square’s Jack Ilott Green? And, if the council thinks “the waterfront should be a premier recreation area for the city, particularly for children,” why are there more buildings going up on the waterfront (i.e.: Site 9 and a huge walled Chinese Garden)?

    The plan/report says a lot, but are there established detailed working procedures that maintain this vision to protect our city?

  17. Mark Shanks, 17. July 2017, 10:20

    Planners and plans can say what they want…and they do. But that doesn’t mean it will be done. Indeed once the ink has dried it becomes someone else’s problem. This allows planners to continue gazing at their liquid crystal display, which appears to produce prophecies that are be no better than anyone else’s, and in some cases quite inferior to calculations gained simply by looking out the window.

  18. andy foster, 17. July 2017, 22:38

    Hi Michael
    As I said, the UGP was approved in mid 2015. In terms of subsequent District Plan work, we have been progressing some of the suburban ‘medium density’ areas. There is major work being planned on more detailed planning for the central city, including infrastructure, green spaces (the key areas IMO are in the Te Aro flat and Te Aro Park)
    You are 100% correct that urban form is related to transport solutions – in fact it is the most important thing, more than any transport project, The philosophy we have pursued for many years has been to encourage development in walkable distance to PT and services. The CBD is the major growth area in the region and this philosophy is in significant part why we have by a country mile the highest proportion of trips taken on foot, by bike or by PT (ie non car combined mode share) and that share has been growing faster than anywhere else in NZ.
    One investment made which included some greening was Victoria Street, and that has been very helpful in encouraging several residential developments along the street. (ie more people in the CBD and more walkable).
    On trolley buses we were not silent. We have been quite clear we want electric buses. I suggested on several occasions that GWRC allow NZ Bus to price trolleys on the two potential routes they could run under the new network (ie the Karori Park – Miramar/Seatoun route and the Lyall Bay – Railway Station route). GWRC were adamant that the trolleys had to go.
    What is good to know is that new operator Tranzit are contracted to provide 10 fully electric buses in the first year of their contract, another 10 in the second year and 12 more in the third year. It will be really interesting to see the new technology. I think there are also hybrids in the mix.
    Regards, Andy

  19. Marion Leader, 18. July 2017, 7:41

    Councillor Foster: what has the WCC done to enforce the bit in Tranzit’s contract about the “10 fully electric buses in the first year” presumably by July 2019? Or is there a loophole?

  20. Mark Shanks, 18. July 2017, 14:02

    Contracts are just like plans – reworked, revoked, rescinded, renegotiated, reneged, relitigated, realigned. Both are amorphous and neither seem to be binding.