by Michael C Barnett
One of the issues identified in the Let’s Get Wellington Moving progress report is congestion on the key routes into and through the CBD, resulting in delays and unreliable journey times. It’s a problem that exists for only a few hours per day.
The report gives travel time data for the cross-town route from the Terrace Tunnel to Wellington Airport and along the Quays from the Hutt Road to the Basin Reserve.
Travel times from the Airport to the Basin Reserve for off peak journeys vary between five and eight minutes, compared with 18 minutes at the height of the morning peak. During the evening peak, journeys take an average of 10 to 13 minutes. Comparable peak hour journey times between the Terrace Tunnel and the Basin Reserve range between 7 and 15 minutes, and sometimes as long as 21 minutes. The average off-peak travel time is five minutes.
I live in Karaka Bay on the Miramar Peninsula and I regularly travel this route to the CBD and beyond. During a three-year period from November 2011 to February 2014, when commuting to Porirua on a regular basis, I measured my travel time between Miramar and the Terrace tunnel during both peak and off peak hours. Ten to eleven minutes was the norm during off peak hours in both directions, with travel times as low as 9 minutes up to a maximum of 28 minutes during peak hours. I noticed that peak hour travel times dropped off significantly during school holidays and during the Christmas/New Year holiday period.
A further observation: for 20 hours each day the road space is under utilized and traffic flows freely, slowed only by the sequence of traffic lights. During the night between seven in the evening and seven in the morning this corridor is relatively empty of traffic. So is SH1 between Ngauranga and the Terrace Tunnel during these night time hours – a good time for freight deliveries.
The LGWM record together with my own supporting data clearly show that traffic congestion in Wellington is primarily a peak hour problem. It does not compare with comparable congestion problems in Auckland. And it begs the question: does it justify expenditure in excess of $1billion for more road tunnels and encroachment on cherished town belt land?
Personally, I consider the problem of traffic congestion between Wellington Airport and the Terrace Tunnel is overstated. At most it is a minor inconvenience at peak hours. If you want to see real congestion, visit Lagos, Nigeria. I lived and worked there for two years in the mid 1970s and the Lagos authorities had a problem. Go slow they called it and rightly so. It could take up to five hours to travel from Lagos Airport to the CBD on Lagos Island, a distance not much greater than from Miramar to the Terrace Tunnel. I am not exaggerating.
The one billion+ dollars currently budgeted to expand the road space along the east/west corridor from the Terrace Tunnel to Cobham Drive is a lot of money to spend on a solution to a problem that exists for only a few hours each day and is doomed to fail. As I pointed out in a previous article, there is much evidence to indicate that constructing more motorways and bridges through an urban area does not lead to significant travel time savings nor the easing of congestion. Conversely, there is evidence that total or partial road closure and reallocation of existing road space can lead to a significant reduction in the amount of traffic with no adverse effects. I give the example of Portland, Oregon.
Portland is a city with a population of 600,000 (2012) and is situated on the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. During the mid 20th century, traffic engineers constructed expressways through Portland and divided the community, as they did in other American cities. Harbour Drive, a four lane expressway along the west bank of the Willamette River, was one such expressway. Completed in 1942, it cut off public access to the river in the process. In 1960, a Metro Area Transport Study proposed building another 50 expressways, which would have sliced up the metropolitan area beyond recognition. Then in 1968 the State Highway Department proposed widening Harbour Drive, against growing public opposition that was calling for its removal and replacement with a waterfront park for use by all.
The city traffic engineers objected strongly to this, and a task force was formed to present new proposals for dealing with traffic congestion. De Leuw Cather of San Francisco (the original consultant advisor on the development of Wellington cross town motorway) was hired to study options and concluded that closing Harbour Drive was not feasible. Political debate ensued over the next few years with the traffic engineers continuing to argue strongly that closing Harbour Drive would create traffic chaos.
Finally, in 1974 the road closure proponents won out and a political decision was made to remove the road and construct a park. Following closure, the City traffic engineer went on record as saying “they closed Harbor Drive today and there wasn’t a ripple”. Portland has gone on to develop its transport infrastructure which includes light rail and has become a model of what can be achieved by moving the focus away from the private motor vehicle toward other transport modes.
Here in Wellington, ‘four lanes to the planes’ is no answer. Wellingtonians have asked for fewer roads and cars, public transport improvements, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment. It is beholden on the LGWM team to acknowledge this, abide by its guiding principles and deliver.
Michael C Barnett is a retired Wellington civil engineer with experience in roads, transport and urban development.