Today’s Sunday Star Times has taken a thoughtful and informed leap into the Auckland transport debate with their Bright Lights Big Mess article, where they examine Auckland’s transport woes in light of advice from overseas – and the result is a resounding indictment of the National Government’s road-building mantra. The key quote is this one, from Paul Mees at RMIT in Melbourne:
Auckland has spent more on roads per head than any Australian city – and look at the results, Mees says. “There’s nothing remotely comparable to Spaghetti Junction in any Australian city – nothing on the scale of that. Auckland has that, and yet it has worse traffic congestion than larger cities that don’t have it.”
And further on in the article:
“I actually use Auckland in some of my books on the basis that it’s one of the most extreme cases in the world of a city that’s spent 50 years putting all of its eggs in the motorway basket. It isn’t reasonable for someone to say Auckland should have invested more in motorways, because there’s no one who’s invested more in motorways, relative to its population and income, than Auckland.”
As international experts have been pointing out for many years, building more roads generates more traffic – demand will forever outrun supply. And for all the billions of dollars that have been poured into Auckland’s motorway network, it can’t be said that the quality of life or even the time necessary to travel across the city has changed for the better in the last three decades.
A recent trip to Auckland was illuminating. I stayed overnight in the Beaumont Quarter, a delightful urban infill development at the base of the Ponsonby rise in St Marys Bay. Aside from the highly attractive surroundings, the chief reason for choosing the location was the walkability to my meetings in town, and some familiarity with the area thanks to living in Ponsonby back in the 80’s. Time-wise, it took about the same 20 minutes to walk to the downtown high-rises as I would have spent walking to work in Wellington – but the sheer volumes of traffic, continual road noise and anti-pedestrian engineering made it a singularly unpleasant experience.
The thing that struck me the most was the pervasive road noise. Everywhere I walked in Ponsonby and the CBD was overwhelmed by the roar of traffic, which barely diminished into the small hours of the morning. Waking briefly at 3am, I was astounded that the traffic volumes on the Victoria Park flyover were barely any less than during the day – although the noise seemed to be more the bass rumble of heavy commercial vehicles rather than the generic rush of cars.
And everywhere I went in Auckland the story was the same; conversations in cafes were regularly drowned out by sudden bursts of traffic noise; it was impossible to make yourself heard standing on a street corner; every change of lights resulted in a torrent of noise as the traffic raced away to the next intersection. It was a graphic demonstration of the fact that Auckland has capitulated to the car and the motorway and the tyranny of the traffic engineer, and all it has succeeded in doing is destroying every other urban value.
There’s a lesson here for Wellington. While more motorways won’t achieve the lower congestion and better economic performance their promoters claim, they do have a demonstrated ability to thoroughly degrade the urban fabric of a city. The opponents of the flyover at the Basin Reserve point out that the traffic noise will simply drown out the sound of the cricket game, and that the noxious fumes from cars and buses and trucks will wash across the sports grounds in waves. And the Victoria Park flyover in Auckland is a glimpse into this possible future for the Basin Reserve: a little used green space, surrounded by roads, beset by noise and fumes, crossed by a flyover taken straight from the set of Blade Runner, all hard-edged graffiti and pollution and urban dysfunction.
Lying awake in the small hours, listening to the mindless roar of the traffic, smelling the ozone on the breeze, it’s hard to see how the motorway binge has benefited Auckland or its residents. The Sunday Star Times is right – motorways are the problem, not the solution. It’s a lesson we badly need to learn in the Capital.