TRAINSPOTTING: Why congestion pricing isn’t the best option (yet)


The Consensus-Building Group (CGB) on Auckland transport funding has released their report on options for raising revenue to cover the $400m-a-year gap to pay for all the projects in the Integrated Transport Programme (ITP).

The main finding of the report is that the introduction of road pricing is preferred – along with smaller increases to rates, fuel taxes, and public transport fares.

However, the scope of the CBG’s work was flawed from the beginning. The ITP includes a whole heap of projects that increase road capacity – and that is not the best use of infrastructure money given that we already have a mature road network. The best value for money is to be gained by investing in alternatives that increase the productivity of our existing roads – that is to say, projects that move more people and goods.  There wouldn’t be a funding gap if we prioritised the best projects – like the recently proposed Congestion-Free network.

The full ITP is unlikely to reduce congestion and other transport costs in Auckland because it spends so much money trying to make it easier to drive at peak time, thereby inducing traffic in the medium term.  I blogged last week about the high cost of car dependency and how those were imposed mostly by our own (well meaning) civil servants who planned our transport system and much of our urban development around moving and storing vehicles.

Now, I am all for internalising costs to get better outcomes and I think un-subsidising cars will be necessary to achieve a balanced transport system. However, congestion pricing isn’t the best option for doing this now in Auckland – especially if the revenue is being used to further increase road capacity.

The places that have implemented congestion pricing (all very successfully) are the City of London, Singapore and Stockholm. All three of these cities have much greater residential and employment density than Auckland. They have much smaller supplies of car parking and the cost to use the parking is much higher than in Auckland (where the daily parking rate is dirt cheap). They have a decent supply of reliable transport alternatives and already many people use public transport, walk or cycle.

We have an extensive road network in Auckland, and during school holidays traffic tends to be light. This suggests that if we switch even a small portion of peak trips to buses or trains, walking or cycling, through smarter investment, we will move more people and goods without congestion.

Given that tolls will create demand for more alternatives – wouldn’t it make more sense to prioritise those alternatives now? Defer all the big road projects that remain. Put in more bus priority – as that is cheap, makes service reliable and fast, and reduces operating costs. Start managing parking more actively and try to replace underutilised car parks with dwellings, businesses and public / green space. As parking charges start to increase incrementally, we can expect car use to decline and public transport to increase.

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The likely outcome is that we won’t need congestion pricing for a long while (if ever) if we invest in smart transport first, and enable higher quality urban development.

And FFS, we should not increase public transport fares! That will definitely make congestion, and transport affordability, worse.


  1. As someone who is an opponent of the current Auckland heavy rail suburban system, loop and unitary plan, but not an Act party anti public transport fundamentalist I will make a few brief points.
    The Auckland suburban trains compete for space with freight trains, and potential use of the South line for high speed trains to Hamilton and Tauranga. I do not necessarily think the rail suburban service deserves priority. Even maintaining space for two austere daily Auckland- Wellington passenger services in each direction might be a much more valuable social service than many of the current suburban trains. Such services were killed partly by ultra biased treasury cost estimates and shocking standards of old poorly maintained carriages.
    Intercity trains can allow heavy baggage loads something quite important to many potential users cf with cheap airline seats.
    Another major point is the load in each direction throughout the trip along with the fare level and expected % cost return are very important factors is just how exorbitant the excessive costs of the Brown city vision rail scheme would be.
    Factors. How attractive is the Auckland CBD for business, retail,future employers, nightlife, bars and local and international tourists of different types and age groups . My assessment is Auckland is increasingly unattractive in all respects. Most of the hotels and motels in the CBD, Parnell, Newmarket and Ellerslie are ageing of low standard, fading decor. Very poor quality in my view.
    Nothing in Auckland for less than a $1000 a week is remotely internationally acceptable. In terms of nightlife its seedy, ethnic overly gay and very dangerous. The public hetrosexual scene is heavy booze and 16-24 years girls bored and frustrated with unexciting raw boned youths too inexperienced to be useful for them. Half these women end up as beads before they leave the country. Quality of most of the cafes in the CBD is very poor cf Mt Eden. Most are inadequately financed and lack the necessary basic amenities. The general atmosphere in the CBD is overly ethnic and rather deserted and low NZ wages and the high cost of houses and rent means few have much cash to spend on drink, food, or friends other than for ritual weekend boozing with mates and acquantinances.
    The assumption many are going to want to work or party in the CBD remains doubtful. The current rail lines past Mt Albert and Ellerslie run into area entirely unattractive to tourists or sophisticated business of many types. Few non residents are going to want to take trains to South or West Auckland except for the commuter flow peaking 4pm to 7.30pm.
    My own preference for the rail development ( having done my original MA thesis on rail passenger replacement debates in NZ in the 1970s- 1982 Cant Pol Sci and having written most of the newspaper and magazine articles advocating rail privatisation) is that Auckland would have been better to have replaced heavy rail with a light rail system with the heavy rail passenger terminus for high speed rail at Newmarket and the freight terminus as about Middlemore. I would have run liner freight trains to Tauranga only at night. So my light rail system would be four routes (1) Onehunga. (2) East line tram utilising rail right of way to about Glen Innes and then on to Mission Bay by Inland street route. (3) Papakura -Botany off the east rail route furthur along. (4) West line – cut and cover underground tram way from lower Queen st, Quay st, Parnell street running and then takes west line rail route to Mt Albert from where it would largely follow street routes thru Blockhouse Bay, Green Bay and Titirangi.

    My support for rail privatisation had many reasons and I knew it would not work in the medium term, unless there was some built in subsidy. However Ruth Richardson would have wrecked the railways and closed for more lines and passenger services far faster, for certain. The view of Rail Management was that survival meant getting rail out of public ownership at that time and for the government and the books it probably saved scores of billions and reduced the debt for at least 15 years. Whatever the long term consequences.

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