Cutting back traffic demand

A little-noticed item in the Land Transport Management Bill is the insertion of “demand management”. The aim is to constrain road traffic.

This additional Green victory was put in by Parliament’s transport and industrial relations committee, which reported the bill back to the House on Monday.

It in effect incorporates the thrust of Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons’ Road Traffic Reduction Bill and underlines the “category A” status of transport in the support agreement between the Greens and the government which has greened the government’s land transport strategy.

Category A status will also apply to a second major bill, to be announced in December as a result of discussions between Auckland and central government officials on alternative options for roads funding, including tolls.

Fitzsimons’ bill would have required the government and regional councils to set binding targets to reduce motorised road traffic. The revised Land Transport Management Bill requires each regional council to develop a “demand management strategy that has targets and timetables appropriate for the region”.

And that, the select committee stated in its commentary on the revised bill, “is intended to reduce the levels of motorised road traffic”, just as Fitzsimons’ bill sought.

The reduction goal is, however, not explicitly stated in the revised bill and there are no penalties if targets are missed. Transport Minister Paul Swain in an interview at first disputed that the bill did require targets, then said targets would not be in terms of numbers of cars, trucks and buses and contradicted the select committee’s assertion that the intention was to reduce traffic numbers.

Fitzsimons, however, said otherwise in an interview yesterday. In any case, both Swain and she agreed, traffic demand management is now becoming mainstream in OECD countries. Increasingly, Fitzsimons said, those countries are recognising that even if resources are unlimited a country can’t “motorway itself out of the problem of congestion”.

Fitzsimons said, the practice varies greatly from regional council to council, with Auckland (many initiatives) at one end of the spectrum and Bay of Plenty (no mention in the past of public transport in its strategy) at the other.

But, according to Tim Davin of Local Government New Zealand, the local authorities’ umbrella group, there is a wide variety of initiatives already. The range from “walking school buses” to get children to and from school instead of in the family car, incentives to use public transport, parking constraints and pricing and promoting the intensification of residential development along public transport routes to promoting telecommuting, flexible working hours to spread peak-hour traffic and — in London and Singapore but still banned here — “cordon pricing”, charging people to enter central cities.

The bill requires all transport strategies — which must be produced yearly by Transit, regional councils, local authorities and other “approved organisations” (approved by the cabinet) — to contribute to the bill’s five objectives of economic development, safety and personal security, access and mobility, public health and environmental sustainability. They must also take account of the national energy efficiency and conservation strategy.

All of that points away from new roads. Moreover, despite hints from Swain early in the bill’s progress, economic efficiency, once the determinant of road projects, has not been restored as an objective. Yesterday he said “economic efficiency” has been too rigid, being tied to cost-benefit and underrating the need for new roads where there are traffic jams because no one dies in a jam.

The select committee has gestured in the direction of efficiency by requiring a road funder to ensure any “activities” contribute “efficiently and effectively” to the relevant objective. But that logically could work against economic efficiency (at last in the short term) when the relevant objective is environmental sustainability.

Moreover, the bill’s “multi-modal” focus — which includes rail, coastal shipping (legislators can and do defy commonsense), walking and cycling — clearly signals a shift in emphasis from roads to other modes.

It also by implication signals that some funds that might under the old regime have gone into building or improving roads will under the new bill go into developing the rail track, helping coastal shipping — on which a decision is due within a few weeks — and getting people on to bikes and shanks’s ponies. The present roads fund becomes the national land transport fund.

Swain insisted this is not the bill’s logic. But he confirmed there are no plans to increase petrol tax or road user charges to fund more road building along with development of the alternative modes.

So how does he get significantly more roads, as he wants? Partly by toll-serviced public debt and partly by private companies in private-public partnerships (PPPs, or “concessions”, as the bill calls them).

And that depends on Auckland and a second bill to come.

The original Land Transport Management Bill set stringent conditions on PPPs. The revised bill allows private builders and operators to lease the roads, as in Melbourne, which Swain said yesterday improves risk management options and makes PPPs more attractive to potential financiers.

Otherwise, there is little change in the PPP provisions in the revised bill. The term remains 35 years, though the minister may extend it by up to 10 years in “exceptional circumstances”. The minister will give advance approval to projects, so designers will have confidence their work will not be wasted by a late refusal. And very small bits of existing roads that are integral to the new PPP road might be tolled under “exceptional circumstances” and with the backing of “affected communities”.

But the general condition remains that tolls must be only on new roads and there must be a “feasible” alternative toll-free route or toll-free lane on the new road.

But this is unfinished business. There is general agreement, including by the Greens, that there will need to be congestion pricing of existing roads, particularly in Auckland.

This will be addressed in a second bill, Swain said, which will come out of the current negotiations between Auckland and central government officials. Swain will announce the outcome in December.

That second bill, too, will be subject to the Green’s “category A” agreement with the government, so Swain will have to be highly sensitive to Green requests. But he also has to respect the fact that alternative funding for new roads is one of United Future’s four specific demands in its agreement with the government — and in any case, he said yesterday, “my entire focus is on funding the deficit in the infrastructure”.

So Swain has a difficult balancing act between the Greens’ desire to use congestion pricing to reduce traffic and so the need for new roads and United Future’s desire (reflecting business’s priorities) to use tolling for new roads. United Future is trying to get “efficiency” inserted in the current bill.

The revised bill also slightly streamlines the onerous consultation requirements in the original and allows regional and local authorities to do their consultation on transport at the same time as they consult on their plans (provided the transport strategy is part of the plan).

But any authority developing a transport programme or funding an “activity” (for example, a road) still will have to consult with a daunting list of organisations and people, including Maori. There is also extra consultation on affected Maori land, claims and historical and spiritual sites and special reference to Waikato land. The select committee added the Historic Places Trust to the list.

The list is Transfund, Transit, the Land Transport Safety Authority, affected local authorities, “approved public organisations”, the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Commissioner of Police, the Ministry of Health (district health boards in the case of regional programmes), the Historic Places Trust, users and providers, “affected communities”, Maori and the public.

That sounds a near-impossible hurdle but Transit already clears it. So Swain said it should not unduly burden road builders.