Thursday, 27 April 2006

Charging cars to enter Auckland: A bad idea

NZ HERALD: Large toll rings enveloping the Auckland isthmus could knock traffic congestion harder than other road-charging schemes, but officials admit they may be too complex to win ready public support...

I want to talk this morning about this notion of charging cars to enter Auckland, raised as a trila ballon recently to see if it can be gotten away with. But first, let me introduce you to the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is one of the chief reasons that Newmarket is a thriving shopping centre while Queen St is now full of fast-food outlets and two dollar shops, and one of the primary reasons most company's head offices now ring the city in greenfield sites rather than huddling together in downtown Auckland.

One reason for both of those phenomena is of course the natural 'centrifugal force' that many cities develop after a while, spinning off successful and cheaper satellites that surround the central city. An additional reason in Auckland's case however was the desire of Auckland City's planners to get rid of People in Cars, and sustitute for them People on Public Transport. Many measures were enacted some years ago to effect this change , mostly involving making fewer parking places in the city -- including for a while mandating maximum numbers of car parks allowed in new apartment buildings, thus at a stroke increasing parking demand while decreasing supply -- but rather than have the desired effect of increasing patronage on trains and buses, the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in instead.

What happened when the parking problems began was that shoppers simpy left Auckland for Newmarket, St Lukes and Shore City where parking was easy. Companies began leaving Auckland for sites with plenty of parking (and, incidentally, reliable power). And People in Cars stayed in their cars, and People on Public Transport stayed on public transport, and Queen St became a minor shopping precinct instead of the county's premier shopping district as it once was.

You see, the planners didn't realise that people have free will. The Law of Unintended Consequences does. The actions of politicians and planners will always have consequences, but very rarely those imagined by either of them, and most often the very opposite of those they intend. People will exercise their choice to get around the rules and make their lives easier, even if it means as in this case that over time those choices mean that Queen St and downtown loses more patronage and even more of its lustre.

The proposal now to chargeAucklanders for driving around and through the Auckland isthmus will only exacerbate that process.

In a 'New World' city like Auckland that was built and grew up organically around the car, using anything other than a car to get around is -- except for some very few routes -- just not practical. Auckland did not grow up around an underground system like London. It does not have the densities of Manhattan that allow a few well-patronised routes to service most of the island. Getting around in the manner that can be done in cities such as these just cannot easily be done.

Like Los Angeles, Auckland grew up in the first years of the twentieth-century just as the car was growing up, and the form of both cities is now organically linked with the car, and without the car neither city will function. Trying to force the form of another city on this already-established form won't work, and will have consequences that the planners and politicians will not even be contemplating, and we can't even predict. And trying to force people to get around this city in a way that makes getting around more difficult will not work either. People have free will, and if they can avoid being bullied they will.

The planners think they can bully people out of the cars and on to public transport. The politicians think they will receive a new and steady income stream to build on bigger and brighter white elephants. What they will achieve instead is the further fleecing of the already hard-done-by taxpayer, and the lessening of Auckland City as a desirable place in which to live and do business.

In short they will help to kill the city.

Three things at least are damn sure: if any of these measures are enacted the consequences for downtown Auckland are dim; the consequences for those who still have to travel within the ring are expensive ones; and the chances of existing taxes being lowered to account for this new impost are so small as to be not worth contemplating.

As Jonathan Pearce says at Samizdata, "The law of unintended consequences in work again. I have come to the conclusion that this law should be taught in school, like Newton's laws of gravity." Do you think planners even understand gravity?

LINKS: Unintended consequences - The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics
Toll rings best for beating congestion - NZ Herald
Auckland road tolls clear first hurdle - NZ Herald
Cross and you pay: how cordons could work - Herald Graphic
$6-a-day charge possibility for motorway drivers - NZ Herald

TAGS: Auckland, Economics, Urban Design


  1. With that being said about Auckland being a car-city, what are some ideas you think would be effective to reduce the nightmare that is driving in Auckland?

  2. Manukau City needs 5% growth to give its youth enough jobs. I think it's an excellent idea to make Auckland City unreachable and force business to move to Manukau. All welcome!


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