by Michael C Barnett
They opened the Kapiti Expressway ahead of schedule last Friday – 18 new bridges, 16 kilometres of shared pathways for cyclists, walkers and (along most sections) horses, and 1.4 million new plants. This is the first completed section of the government’s road of national significance, ultimately stretching from Levin to the Wellington CBD and on to the Airport.
This road link has been a long time in coming. Originally planned as a two-lane road from Peka Peka to Mackays Crossing to take local traffic off State Highway 1, it had wide support from the Kapiti community. Then in 2009 along came former local lad and now Minister of Transport Stephen Joyce wih his shock decision to build a four lane highway instead. It is not clear how much forethought had gone into this decision, but it was bulldozed through to the chagrin of many in the community. Although there has been a general acceptance of the fait-acompli, many remain aggrieved. Dr. Viola Palmer, a supporter of Save Kapiti, wrote in the DomPost:
The owners of 80 homes which were lost to the expressway are still hurting. So are the 1400 people adjacent to it, who received no compensation for the noise and pollution produced and whose property values have dropped.
In comments following the official opening, local MP Nathan Guy praised the project, which he said will contribute to saving 40 minutes’ travel time when the full network of roads, bridges and tunnels are completed. No mention of the estimated 11,000 additional vehicles that will enter Wellington daily when these roads are completed, nor how Wellington is supposed to cope with this traffic when it gets there.
I do not wish to imply that I am anti roads in all its forms. After all, I was a roading engineer for many years. I acknowledge that a good road network is essential for the nation to thrive and I have never doubted that State Highway 1 north of Wellington needed upgrading to four lane status. What I do question is the route selection and carving up a local community to achieve this end. And as I have written previously, once in the urban area of Wellington City this obsession with expanding the road space and creating four lanes to the planes to solve traffic congestion in the city just will not work.
One need look no further than Auckland to see what 60 years of building flyovers and highways and neglecting investment in rapid transit facilities has achieved. Non-existent travel time savings and peak hour traffic congestion has continued to grow. There is a way of dealing with this problem. All it involves is a change of mindset and a focus on reducing the volume of traffic entering and/or passing through the city at peak hours.
I am not alone in suggesting this approach.
In a report entitled ‘Audit of the “Future State Highway Number One Route” Environmental Impact Report March 1990’, the then Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment acknowledged the inadequate capacity of State Highway 1 as a pressing problem requiring a solution. However, the Commissioner then stated that
“the most pressing immediate needs are to reduce the amount of commuter traffic entering Wellington and rescue the public transport system from further decline”
“Delays to traffic during peak period congestion are in large part self-imposed by commuters who have chosen not to use public transport or share road transport, and by weekend travelers, who have chosen to travel at peak times. The potential for public transport and car pools to reduce commuter traffic congestion has not been adequately explored. Measures to attract commuters to the train are available now at moderate cost.”
She said the problem was defined too narrowly, and as a consequence the public transport and ‘do minimum’ options have been given inadequate attention.
Here in Wellington traffic congestion is primarily a peak hour problem. Building more tunnels and expanding the road space to the airport will not significantly shorten travel times or ease congestion. Finding ways to get commuters out of their cars and onto public transport will.
Fortunately, there is some hope. The Transport Agency is leading a process to get Wellington moving. In a recently released progress report LGWM lists 12 guiding principles including; better public transport, improved environmental outcomes, a people centred city, manageg travel demand, the need to integrate urban form and transport thinking and that increased value should not be measured by cost alone. The report’s key findings indicate that Wellingtonians want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment.
This is promising news. But are the agency and its political masters listening?