by Michael C Barnett
In a recent article, I challenged Wellington’s road and transport planners to expand their thinking and to ease congestion in the city by making a paradigm shift away from more road construction. I suggested that proposals to expand the road corridor between the Terrace Tunnel and Cobham Drive should be abandoned, the Vivian Street off ramp should be closed, and southbound through traffic should be redirected along Karo Drive to the Basin Reserve. How will this work and what would be the benefits?
Currently, driving west from the Arras Tunnel along Arthur Street and Karo Drive to the Terrace Tunnel there are three traffic lanes for through traffic, except for the short stretch of road between Abel Smith and Vivian Streets where it narrows to two lanes. With a little re-engineering, this section could accommodate a third lane, allowing for the free flow of traffic in two directions; one lane west to east and two lanes east to west. With the exception of the closed ramp at Vivian Street, all other options for entry and exit would remain unchanged.
What would be the benefits of such a change? At present, through traffic traveling west to east passes through seven sets of traffic lights along Vivian Street and Kent Terrace.
The same traffic re-routed along Karo Drive and Arthur Street would travel a shorter distance and encounter only four sets of traffic lights, resulting in significantly reduced travel times. I would guess that the time saving would be greater than the 90 seconds promised by NZTA, when it was promoting the Basin flyover.
And what about the Basin Reserve? Much has been made of the difficulties at this so called choke point. But there’s nothing that some commonsense and low cost changes to the current set up could not fix.
Several suggestions were tabled at the 2014 Board of Inquiry. Mine included the removal of many of the physical obstacles to allow for freer flow of moving traffic around the Basin.
Along Dufferin Street on the east side of the Basin, more than half the road width is taken up with parking space for buses and cars, leaving only two lanes for moving vehicles. I consider this an embarrassing waste of road space to provide for parked vehicles, which use it for less than two hours a day when school is in. There are other constrictions limiting the free flow of traffic around the Basin Reserve. Why not remove these obstacles and associated traffic lights and let the Basin operate as a giant free flowing roundabout? Not only would this reduce congestion would also allow for a dedicated bus lane around the outer perimeter.
These are things that should be implemented now, rather than waiting three or four years to reach a compromise that may not even work.
Consider too the potential impact of freeing up Vivian Street and Kent Terrace from excess traffic flow. A substantial part of the central business district could be opened up too much needed redevelopment, in a manner compatible with stated objectives. Currently, the area bounded by Courtenay Place, Cuba Street, Karo Drive and Cambridge Terrace is a wasteland of under utilised commercial and vacant land. With foresight and careful planning this area could be developed into a wonderland of residential, retail and commercial property with a scattering of open space to meet community needs.
Wellingtonians have asked for public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment. These are desirable goals, but to achieve them will take a paradigm shift in thinking. Proposals for a second Mount Victoria Tunnel and the widening of Ruahine Street and Wellington Road are not compatible with these objectives.
Further, I reiterate there is a common misconception that more motorways will ease congestion and reduce travel times. This in spite of worldwide evidence to the contrary. During the past forty years, many cities around the world have closed roads and reallocated existing road space and in the process significantly reduced traffic volumes with no adverse effect. Our planners and decision-makers need to take note of these traffic engineering fallacies and the positive experience of these cities that have wisely put people first and designed their transport systems around the desired urban form.
Over one billion dollars is currently budgeted to expand the road space along the east/west corridor from the Terrace Tunnel to Cobham Drive. This money would be better spent on public transport, walking and cycling. All it requires is a change of mindset and a focus on reducing the volume of traffic entering and/or passing through the city at peak hours. Reallocating the existing road space as I have suggested forms one part of the equation toward achieving this.
Michael C Barnett is a retired Wellington civil engineer with experience in roads, transport and urban development.