Bill Ralston: It’s the traffic, stupid

by Bill Ralston / 23 January, 2014
Gridlock is political poison. Just ask the Governor of New Jersey.
New Jersey’s once stratospherically popular Governor Chris Christie’s political career lies in tatters after revelations that his aides – without his knowledge, he says – closed three dedicated local lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge to create traffic chaos as an act of retribution against his supposed political enemies. If that level of public opprobrium over traffic woes was applied in Auckland, our mayors and councillors over the past 30 years would have been hounded from office in no time.

 “Crowd-funding’s fantastic but the crowd-thanking is a real drag.”

It only takes a heavy shower, or a nose-to-tail collision somewhere on the region’s motorways for us to be reduced to gridlock. This is because we live on a narrow isthmus, so at the best of times most of our roads can barely cope with the volume of vehicles we inflict on them. Meanwhile, our public transport system struggles to handle those folk who have broken the driving habit. The process of getting from A to B is a hot topic of conversation in Auckland; there are detailed discussions of routes and travel times.

Anyone living outside this city may have found it strange that a couple of thousand people, including our embattled but unembarrassed mayor, recently showed up to open a new railway station. But for those Aucklanders living in areas serviced by the train system, the flash new stations and the coming of faster, cleaner, modern trains hold some future hope of being able to get to and from work without having a grand mal seizure over the delays and daily disasters that plague the commuter.

Brave or foolhardy cyclists try to cheat death or avoid painful injury in the congestion but you’d really have to be Evel Knievel to enjoy or long survive that experience. The German city of Hamburg has announced plans to ban cars from the city centre over the next 20 years and put most of its citizens on bikes. This may be a great idea for the Hamburgers, but Auckland has steep hills and far worse public transport.

Still, it’s an idea. I’ve never understood why private cars have to drive up and down Queen St when you could turn it into a pedestrian mall and create some valuable inner-city retail space but leave key intersections still available for crosstown traffic.

To his credit, Mayor Len Brown is concentrating on improving transport as one of his key political strategies and the various relevant authorities are moving to make long-overdue improvements to public transport. The new trains, the inner-city rail loop, the Waterview connection and the new card-ticketing system for buses, trains and ferries will all significantly improve the snail’s pace of getting around town.

You might wonder why I’m talking about this as I haven’t caught a bus since 1979, a train since well before that and I drive our car once a week at most. I walk. However, I can do this largely because I live in an inner-city suburb. Buying a house in these regenerating areas 15 or 20 years ago is now, after regeneration, a little like winning Lotto.

One of the biggest factors in housing affordability is that people buy or try to buy homes that will give them easy access to the city, hence the skyrocketing prices. Improving transport across the city should, to a degree, reduce demand for the inner city and those areas that are already well serviced, which may have the effect of at least holding prices.

Brown may not be too wise in his private life but he realises the favourable political impact of fixing transport. Curiously, the Government is less focused on this vote-winner. If National wants to hold and improve its share of the vote in the city, it needs to push on with the rail loop and start digging that tunnel under the harbour. It only needs to look at what happened to Chris Christie to realise what a failure in the transport system can do to your fortunes.

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