The curse of “East-West links”: Rethinking ‘road strategies’ as ‘transport strategies’

This post first appeared on TraNZport and is republished with permission.

A few years ago, something strange happened in Melbourne. A major inner-city motorway (or, freeway as Victorians prefer) was proposed at the eye watering tune of $15-17 billion, with a first stage of almost $6 billion contracted just before the state election of 2014. Following the election, the project was ditched by the incoming government, the first stage cancelled (costing $1.3 billion), and money was instead pumped into major public transport projects such as the Melbourne Metro Tunnel and freeway projects in outer-city areas (such as the North East Link).

In Auckland in 2017, the proposed $2 billion “East West Link” project was also cancelled by the incoming government (or, rather more accurately, was being “rethought”). This was a behemoth of a road – some say gold plated – that was basically a motorway in all but name, linking Auckland’s southwestern and southern motorways. Government, local and central, now seem to prefer spending far less money on a smaller scale project to deal with road congestion and redirect surplus funds into public transport projects like the Auckland Light Rail project.

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Not a motorway? Auckland’s now defunct east west link.

In Wellington too there is an “east-west” project – the Basin Reserve Flyover would have carried eastbound state highway 1 (SH1) traffic along an elevated roadway next to the Basin Reserve cricket ground. It was cancelled after having its resource consent rejected by the courts. Now, this project is a little different than the above examples in that some people, even public transport advocates, prefer an even more ambitious and expensive roading solution at the Basin Reserve to separate SH1 traffic from north-south traffic at the Basin Reserve roundabout, allowing for more road space to be utilised by buses and/or rapid transit (BRT and LRT have been long proposed on this route). Let’s Get Wellington Moving is the working group currently looking at a multi-modal solution, which is due in early 2019. The point I’d make about this project is that the initial proposal was overtly focused on a single mode of transport (i.e. roads).

Wellington’s now canned flyover meant to carry eastbound (though not westbound) SH1 traffic.

If you think there is something weird going on with east-west roading links then you might be right. In Christchurch, NZTA and the Christchurch City Council have announced the early phases of developing a strategy along the SH76 and Moorhouse Ave corridors to the south of the city, which form the most important east-west links across the city. This comes as no surprise to me. Brougham St, a multilane arterial road/expressway, is one of the busiest roads in the city and is currently experiencing traffic growth of 3.8 per cent a year.

The strategy area for Christchurch’s Moorhouse Ave (running along the top of the shaded area) and Brougham Street/SH76 (thick line at the bottom of the shaded area, southern motorway at left.

Here is the kicker, though. At the west end of Brougham St is the eastern end of the Christchurch Southern Motorway, which currently ends in the middle of the Hornby industrial area. In 2020, a major extension of this motorway will open all the way to Rolleston, which means it will take much of the traffic off the existing southern approach from Main South and Blenheim Rds, an dumping that extra traffic on the already congested Brougham St. I’m sure you can see the problems this will bring, especially with a fast growing Rolleston and Lincoln bringing ever more commuters onto the motorway. But wait, there is more. Brougham St bisects the southern suburbs from the rest of the city. Traffic, including buses and cyclists, must cross this traffic laden barrier. Increasing congestion means further delays for this traffic, and compounding it is that over the next 30 years Christchurch in general is expected to grow by around 32 per cent, bringing with it a general increase in traffic (well, public transport use is hardly increasing right now).

EW onehunga 2
Another image of Auckland’s now defunct ‘not a motorway’ just for fun.

Okay, at this point you may be wondering why I started this post off with talking about a multi-billion Melbourne roading project that never happened, and ended it by talking about the beginnings of a strategy for a roading corridor in Christchurch? If nothing else, it simply lends to telling a good story. Building bigger and ever more elaborate roads as a solution to population and traffic growth is fast being rejected by cities. Moving from Melbourne, to Auckland to Wellington tells this story quite well. The fact they happen to be east-west links is merely coincidence, what is not is that as cities consider strategic transport links, it is a multi-modal strategic approach that eventuates rather than an expensive mono-modal one. My key concern is that consideration of the following is made as this strategy is developed:

  • The role of public transport and active transport modes in reducing traffic congestion and their integration into the overall strategy from the outset
  • The roading solutions chosen are appropriately scaled on the basis that expensive gold-plated options might not be cost-effective long-term (i.e. induced demand is taken account of)
  • The effect of any strategy on the local community as well as the form and function of the city’s overall transport network is accounted for
  • The reality of future population growth and land use is considered. The current motorway developments in Christchurch, though I am not opposed outright to them, do seem to be based on a “here and now” setting (i.e. think about all the traffic the southern and northern motorways are likely to dump onto Brougham and Cranford Streets respectively – where was the strategy in that?).

These points above reflect what I feel are the real lessons from the three earlier projects I talked about. I’m very excited by what is happening in Auckland, and am awaiting the 2019 announcement from the Lets Get Wellington Moving working group with anticipation. I hope to see that this strategy in Christchurch will reflect what is happening in other cities, but there is an awful truth that Christchurch can be a bit slow on the uptake with regards to transport trends (the attitude from local authorities towards public transport is a great illustration of this!). I hope this does not prove to be the case, and that this strategy adopts a multi-modal approach that is an asset and not a millstone.M y worst nightmare would be a “strategy” that turns out to be a billion dollar road and little else.

Information gathering for this project began back in 2015. Community drop-in sessions were held during 6-7 December, with work on possible solutions beginning in the new year. Ideas will be shared during mid-2019 and a final decision on a preferred option made by the end of the year.

Get in and have your say on their interactive map-based feedback site here.

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