Challenging the road planners

The Regional Council, the City Council and the Transport Agency are currently engaged in their “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” initiative on how to resolve traffic and transport issues in the city. 

Following lengthy public engagement and surveys during 2016, key findings indicated that people valued the compactness of the city and ease of getting around; they want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city, and protection for the natural environment. These findings represent an admirable expression of what kind of city environment people would like to see. But achieving them will take a paradigm shift away from expanding the road corridor between the Terrace tunnel and Cobham Drive, which forms a major part of the current Land Transport Plan.

There is much evidence in New Zealand and abroad to indicate that constructing more motorways and bridges through an urban area does not lead to significant travel time savings or easing congestion (which is the common assumption of road and traffic engineers.) Conversely, there is much evidence that total or partial road closures can lead to a significant reduction in the amount of traffic in the vicinity, thereby achieving the easing of congestion that everybody wants. 

American writer and political activist Jane Jacobs spent a lifetime studying and writing about economic development and the decay of city environments. Jacobs did not have a high opinion of traffic engineers and traffic management as it has been practiced over the past 60 years. She castigated them for their failure to ask and address the right questions, and their failure to investigate after desired outcomes are not achieved. 

She claimed that “in the pursuit of maximising traffic movement, traffic engineers have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood” and she described two examples where communities challenged the professionals and their proposals for traffic improvements. 

During the 1950s she led community action to save New York’s Washington Square, a community park in Greenwich Village, from bisection by a limited access expressway, and to close a 2-lane carriageway through the park to all but emergency vehicles. 

During the debate leading up to abandonment of the expressway and closure of the road, “the traffic commissioner told us traffic is like water: if it is dammed up or diverted from its course in one place, it will find other outlets where it meets less resistance. To close off the carriage road without providing a new road would, he predicted, inundate all the narrow streets in the park’s vicinity with thwarted traffic and belching fumes, threatening the safety of children to the point that they couldn’t even reach the park.” Following a test closure of the road, these predictions did not come to fruition. Nowhere did the traffic increase. Traffic counts were slightly down in the park’s vicinity. “Where did the traffic go? This question was never asked.” 

Jacobs also describes a dispute 30 years later with authorities in her Toronto neighbourhood, where a similar situation arose and was fought by the community. The same water analogy was presented by the traffic engineers and was subsequently debunked. Jacobs writes: 

“Here they are, another generation of nice, mis-educated young men, about to waste their careers on a fake science that cares nothing about evidence, that doesn’t ask a fruitful question in the first place and when the unexpected evidence turns up anyhow, doesn’t pursue it.” 

Once again the traffic flow projections had been discredited by real world experience and once again the reasons why it was wrong were not investigated.

Jacobs also described her observations when travelling by taxi to a downtown destination in Toronto. On a trip from the airport to a downtown micro destination, one part of the trip was along an elevated limited access highway, with on and off ramps feeding to and from the city’s grid of one-way streets. 

“On the expressway stretch the meter is ticking over, the trip seems economical and I am getting good distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at the exit ramp and from then on everything changes. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance. I am not complaining about this. As research it is economical. What worries me rather, is the expensive burden on the city and the planet of air pollution and urban road congestion that the expensive part of my trip is registering.

“The driver must weave circuitously around the block, then around another block and so on to reach the correct side of the street on which to deposit me. All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers also are attempting to reach their micro-destinations. ….. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicycle couriers.”

She identifies what she considers to be two serious flaws. 

Firstly, instead of addressing the question ‘how can we help this great diversity of users reach their great diversity of micro-destinations most directly?’, the designers seem to be asking themselves – ‘How can people reach a macro-destination downtown most speedily?’ 

The second flaw is that the one-way street system leads the driver on a Barnes dance to reach a micro-destination. The no left turns, no standing signs and other rules are designed to keep vehicles out of one another’s way and carry out the theme of a speedy trip. She suggests that perhaps one-way street systems are not such a good idea.

A study by a research team at the University of London and reported in The New Scientist in 1998 tends to suggest that Jacobs is right. This study identified sixty cases worldwide in which roads had been closed or their carrying capacity reduced and its principal findings were:

· Planning models assume closing a road will cause traffic using it to move elsewhere

· Computer models used by urban transportation planners yield incorrect answers

· When a road is closed, an average of 20% of its traffic seemed to vanish and in some cases as much as 60%.

There are many examples where enlightened planning authorities have moved to close highways and channel investment into public transport, walking and cycling to and improve the urban environment. 

Wellingtonians are asking for public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian friendly city, and a desire to protect the natural environment. This is achievable, but expanding the road corridor to Cobham Drive is not the answer. 

Maybe closing the Vivian Street off ramp and directing through traffic two way along the existing corridor to the Basin Reserve and beyond would be worth trialling. 

Whatever the outcome, one lives in hope that the Let’s Get Wellington Moving team will take note of the fallacies identified by Jacobs and the positive experience in cities that have seen the wisdom of putting people first and designing transport systems around the desired urban form.