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Trains won’t save Auckland’s traffic congestion woes


From their council offices, looking down on the choked roads of Auckland at rush hour, it is easy to see why planners see rail systems such as the City Rail Link as the most viable solution to congestion.

Certainly, trains are an important public transport option. The world’s most impressive rail systems are a means of fast and efficient travel, and are not prone to some of the issues faced when using road transport. 

But just because it is appealing in theory doesn’t mean it actually works in real life. This is one of the surprising findings we discovered in our latest report, Up or Out? Examining the Trade-offs of Urban Form.

International research appears to suggest metropolitan train services have a limited effect on a city’s traffic problems. For example, quantitative analysis conducted by the Reason Foundation, which examined 26 years of congestion and transit investment data across 74 of the biggest metropolitan areas in the US, found that trains don’t cure gridlock. 

The research found there is no statistically significant link between investment in public transport infrastructure and meaningful declines in traffic congestion in the long term.

This may sound surprising, especially for residents of cities who have been told that rail, light rail and trams are the solution to choked highways. Yet the Reason Foundation study has hit on a truism of modern transport: public transit will never be a perfect substitute for private vehicles.

This stands for many reasons, the first being that public transport, and trains in particular, do not cater well for an individual’s social behaviour. 

Even the world’s most impressive rail systems reach fewer destinations and are less frequent, flexible and often less safe than private vehicle travel. Many people, particularly women, are reluctant to choose public transport options over private vehicle travel at night because of safety concerns.

Second, most rail systems are laid out in a hub-and-spoke network with the most frequent services being from the suburbs into the city centre. Yet, there is an inherent limitation in this type of layout, as it assumes a city’s residents have the same travelling patterns. 

In Auckland, for example, only 13% of the city’s working-age population are employed in the CDB. And neither is this unique. Even in dense conurbations like the New York tri-state area, only 26% of commuting trips take place between the suburbs and the CBD.

Clearly, train networks, which service a hub-and-spoke urban structure, are ill-suited to service the transport needs of people who want to access facilities that are not situated on a transport corridor; like schools, kindergartens, shopping centres and so on. This means that groups in society, like working parents, are unlikely to opt for public transport over the family car.

Third, there is the limitation posed by rail catchment zones. This is the maximum area around a railway station within which people choose to walk or drive to the station and catch a train, rather than drive to and from work. 

That means that those who live beyond the average catchment area are more likely to choose private cars to commute since the inconvenience of congestion is only marginally greater (or even less) than the hassle faced by public transport.

Within greater Auckland – a total land area of 4894sq km – there are 130km of rail line, consisting of the southern, eastern and western lines. There are around 40 stations in total along these lines, including major hubs like the Newmarket station as well as minor stops like Takanini and Homai. 

Calculating the combined walking catchment radii of these stations equates to about 520sq km; this means that only 10.8% of greater Auckland falls within a pedestrian rail catchment zone.

The various problems with public transit put paid to a notion within compact city ideology that solely investing in public transport infrastructure is the silver bullet solution to congestion woes.

As the Reason Study shows, over the last 30 years, there has not been one example where major public transit investments have meaningfully alleviated congestion in US cities.

This is not to say that public transit is unimportant, but rather that rail networks are a critical component of greater mixed transport model that is needed to ensure efficient, safe and flexible travel within any city – not the only component worth investing in. 

What is needed are far more nuanced solutions consisting of different transport options that are tailored toward population patterns within a city, what it can afford and, most importantly, what its residents want. 

It would be naïve to assume that all readers will agree with this statement, but we welcome robust debate on the topic. 


We hope our report, and the evidence we present, redefines the terms of engagement and encourages a far more open and informed debate on how New Zealand’s cities grow and develop. And at the very least, we want it to make fact, not ideology, the basis for future discussions on urban form changes.

Khyaati Acharya is a researcher at The New Zealand Initiative

Comments and questions

This article totally ignores several facts.

The CRL will open up the entire Auckland rail network and allow was cross town trips. This is not just about the CBD.

As for catchment, the writer has either missed or ignored the big shake up in bus routes by Auckland Transport. The new network will place a much greater focus on linking bus trips to train stations to act as feeders. There is also work going on to make it much easier to ride a bike to train stations, thus widening the catchment. Tied in with the Unitary Plan, where are great many more people will be living in higher density dwellings around trains stations. These changes will help us reduce our dependency on motor vehicles. We,can make them optional rather than a necessity.

And how exactly will the crl "open up the entire Auckland rail network". The existing rail system already allows travel between west auckland and south auckland via newmarket. Why do we need to spend $6 billion dollars on Lens ego?

You might convince me if the train was going to turn right at Britomart and under the harbour to pick up the north shore. Then you really would be opening up the network. But the crl seems an expensive white elephant and a loop to nowhere, to serve people that don't exist or wont use it.

At this time the network serves a single hub. Incorporating the CRL allows through routes and easy access for someone from Henderson to GI (as an example). The feeder bus network will open up the catchment to train (and busway) stations. As for people not using it:

Agree - CRL is a very expensive White Elephant. I might be more convinced of the value of rail if a link were to go from the Airport to the CBD. Len has no plans for that.

I don't know where you get $6billion from?! The 2.86 billion already includes inflation, double tracking onehunga line, buying more trains to service the increased frequencies that will be able to be delivered post-CRL. All that plus the actual tunnel and three new CBD stations.

"Loop to nowhere" it doubles the capacity of the current network by removing the dead end terminus.

North shore line - this isn't possible until the CRL is built.

I am aplying practical experience that with projects of this sort we always get the jazzed up, buy now, get one free price. Then once the build starts, suddenly the price escalates - oh, we didnt think about this, or the taniwha was more expensive than we expected. So Len says $2.86 million, that mean $6 billion are going to come out of ratepayers and taxpayers pockets.

Well Bryce its clear you have a level of bias that I can only see in bewilderment.
"an entire Auckland rail network" etc Give me a break.
The transport options in Auckland are sub par in the extreme and all the fancy talk and spin by the over funded AT, its staff and consultants wont change nothing. Too many agendas, too many social philosophies and far too much money being wasted on stupid ideas.
I'm looking forward to the day we can get rid of buses and I reckon self driving cars will become commonplace in my lifetime at which time the whole can of beans will all have to be redone. In the interim my suggestion is take your biased expensive ideals and pedal off.

If you think that self driving cars are the answer to any transport problems other than pollution then you're sadly mistaken. Do any amount of research and you'll find that cars are not the answer. The expensive ideas are the motorways being built that just worsen the problems we have.

Transport options in Auckland have improved markedly over the past 10 years. As for level of bias, I am a car loving one time mechanic. I'm also a realist who uses the Northern Express to get into the city as opposed to sitting in traffic.

Oh very dear indeed. The exact same stuff NZI got nicely debunked for over here:

Right then some counter points.
First of all rail is not touted as the silver bullet for Auckland and has never been done so. It is part of a comprehensive suite of transport packages that include buses (like the new South Auckland Bus Network), active transport (cycle ways), rail itself, and the roads and motorways (like the recently announced Southern Motorway upgrade in Budget 2014). Those including Auckland Transport know that this mixed approach is what will mitigate Auckland's traffic congestion.

Back to rail. The City Rail Link not only serves the CBD but all of Auckland and I mean all of Auckland as well. Right now we can only get frequencies across the entire rail network down to 10 minutes with some heavy congestion in Britomart. The CRL allows frequencies to hit 5 minutes in areas that need it and remove the congestion in Britomart.

So if I want to travel Papakura to Ellersile or Papakura to Henderson (so not even touching the CBD) I can just show up and a train won’t be far away and I won’t be held up by congestion further up the line.

The CRL also allows the construction of the Airport Line and the North Shore Line - two areas not served by rail and cannot be done so until the CRL is built as the existing network cannot handle that much more trains in sections.

So the airport and North Shore who did not have rail get served by rail thanks the CRL.

As a result it frees up buses to serve else where needed and combined means another car off the road thus more space for traffic that do need the roads like freight and service vehicles

As for land use patterns, the City Centre and six of our Metropolitan Centres are currently served by rail. With the CRL and future lines (including a Botany Line) that jump to the City Centre and 9 of the 10 Metropolitan Centres served by rail (and backed up by buses). That means your Tier One and Tier Two employment hubs are within reach by rapid rail. Rail that also stimulates growth, just ask Manukau and Sylvia Park. This leaves our heavy industrial complexes out but they can be easily served by buses with the rail network nearby in most cases.

In the South our large new Greenfield developments are all within reach of both the rail line and the bus network. All that is needed is two new rail stations and some more bus stops. So whether by design or accident Auckland's Geography is slotting very well into its upcoming transport network including rail that as I said will serve Auckland well into the future.

So as you see our transport which includes rail will be serving a Auckland that is growing up and out quite well once it is all done up. There is more I could write on this but I’ll leave it to my own blog as well as Transport Blog to do so

Sounds great... In theory. But so does socialism.

So here and now, please tell me how long and how much it costs daily to get from Murrays Bay to East Tamaki because I really want to take public transport.

Will it be quicker than my car?

Didn't quite understand your Papakura to Henderson example. Surely all that means is a train going to Henderson, or simply changing synchronised trains at Newmarket. No crl required.

Look ma,I just saved billions of public dollars. Now we can invest in hospitals and doctors.

What the article also misses is the total flow of people.

Gridlock will likely always exist without some form of pricing mechanism.

At least with investments in alternatives the total number of people moving about the city will likely increase despite gridlocked roads remaining.

Total mobility is the important measure not congestion.

If the roads remained gridlocked but twice as many people are getting about town before then that is a good outcome as the system is supplying more transport and more demand is being satisfied?

The nose should not be removed to spite the face by pushing a myopic agenda focused on one measure alone.

Great article, good to see some sanity at last, thanks.

All good points. However, I do wonder why greater attention is not paid to encouraging people (and employers) to adopt flexible hours of physical attendance at work, thereby reducing the concentration of traffic during rush hours. Sitting in a queue of traffic crawling at snail's pace in order to get to work "on time" so that you can then email the person a few cubicles away doesn't make any rational sense. For most knowledge workers (the majority of us these days), physical attendance at work is really only needed for in-person meetings etc.

Even for those of us who do have to be in an office but can get flexible hours, it will count for naught with the ridiculous parking plans for most areas, as well as congestion charging.

The reality is that the Council just doesn't want people using their cars.

Auckland Transport (and Len Clown) are absolutely inept at finding pragmatic transport solutions for this city . They are a bunch of overpaid arrogant bureaucrats dreaming up ridiculous ideas to keep themselves in jobs. It is crippling the ratepayers of Auckland .It is time a commissioner was put on charge so we get some serious workable decisions made. Cars are the most efficient and cost effective mode of transport, so trying to get rid of them is "dreamsville stuff ". Working glide times, rearranging bottle neck areas, incentives for bus travel etc would be far more efficient use of the ratepayers money. Retire Lester Levy and your board . You don't have the skills necessary to get this city moving.

No one is trying to get rid of cars per se. As far as cost effective, have you seen the $$ poured into Auckland's road network in the name of solving congestion? I'm not saying we don't need roads, far from it, but adding more lanes does not reduce congestion and leaves us with the choice of a single mode for getting around the city.

And have you seen the endless stuffups by the anti-car council refusing to sequence traffic lights correctly, removing lanes, building speed bumps and most recently the embarrassing charade that will be the Dominion Rd 'improvements' - wasted money and even more congestion. The Council DOES NOT HAVE A CLUE.

Many years ago it was decided, rightly or wrongly, to concentrate on motorways rather than public transport. It started, but then there were objections and protests, and it stalled. We still haven't finished the originally planned motor-way system, so we have only a half-hearted system. It's like someone wanting to go North. We have a change of government, or council, and we head East - then another change and we head North-West, then maybe North-East followed by West. So with vast wasted expenditure we slowly go roughly in the direction we first decided. Instead of making a decision and sticking to it.

The original motorway plan also included a bigger rail network. Only one part of the plan got built (or is nearly built). Hence we have our present issue. Also, in the original plan SH1 was pass West of the city (where SH18 is now). Running SH1 right through the city, rather than around, was always destined to create problems.

We are still waiting for the SH20 connection to be built - of course, we (Helen) chose the slow and expensive method.

Personally I would love to wait and see what the traffic flow looks like once that is actually open, Any crl expenditure before that happens is wasting money. But, hey, its other peoples money, so Len and Co dont care.

The obsession with trains obviously goes back to some infantile memory for Lenny. What we really need is to forget about running thousands of more lemmings into and out of Auckland every day. Open up a rail link that starts in Warkworth and goes to Hamilton.
Incentivise companies to establish their head offices outside Auckland city. There are obviously seriously vested interests in some companies owning buildings occupied by insurance companies, accountants, banks which have no need to be in the city given today's technology.
And of course get rid of the bloated bureaucracy that is completely out of touch with ratepayers.

The author and a lot of commenters (and indeed the Council) miss the point of the City Rail Link.

We currently have a CBD railway station that has a capacity of 20 trains per hour - that is 20 trains in and 20 trains out. The reason is because of a combination of a dead-end terminus and a level junction not far up the line (Quay Park Junction). The current timetable has 15 trains per hour in peak hour (6 trains to Papakura, 3 to Manukau, 4 to Swanson/Waitakere and 2 to Onehunga). With electrification, that schedule changes to 20 trains per hour in peak hour (6 trains to Papakura, 6 to Manukau, 6 to Swanson and 2 to Onehunga).

Overseas experience shows that electrification results in a massive patronage spike. Just to take two examples from close to home, when Brisbane electrified its suburban network in the 1980s, patronage increased by 65% between 1979 and 1988. When Perth electrified its suburban network in the early 1990s, patronage doubled in the two years between the completion of electrification and the opening of the Joondalup Line.

Let us say that the experience is repeated in Auckland - that basically means that any capacity gains from electrification are gone in a matter of a few years and we hit the same capacity problems we are having right now. The only way to solve that capacity problem is to increase the amount of CBD track capacity.

Of course, this would not have resulted in a $2.86 billion project if we had planned ahead properly, but sadly in typical New Zealand fashion, we approached the project with a "she'll be right attitude" and ended up paying through the nose as a result...

There is no need to keep increasing numbers into and out of Auckland City central. That's the whole point of decentralising offices! Why keep on doing something that is patently stupid and expensive? The costs of managing and increasing ever increasing peaks in the morning and afternoon is just stupid. One doesn't HAVE to be in Auckland Central unless there are special reasons, for instance to be close to the high court, or the university , or the port . Why do so many council staff work in city Central? Why can't those admin jobs be in Waitakere or Manukau, or Silverdale or Takapuna? Every job taken OUT of city Central is a massive saving in infrastructure, and increases the economic flexibility of the whole region. More centralisation is just crazy unless you are building a edifice to yourself and the silly central planners with an undeveloped sense of economic rationale. More proof that the ratepayers are being bled for the egos of a few.

Realist, the problem is that the businesses that are in the Central Business District like being there - for one thing, it makes it a lot easier for them to do business. A face to face meeting still has a dynamic that cannot be replaced by e-mail, telephone or Skype.

Also, your decentralised notion has been happening for some time with large New Zealand companies to no avail. Of the top ten listed companies, only two have their head offices in the Auckland CBD (Telecom and Sky City).

Further, the Auckland Council has had a policy of decentralisation - and that in itself causes problems because you end up with a "silo" attitude. Auckland Transport is based out at Henderson for example. When you don't have that day to day interaction with other divisions, you end up with a "silo" attitude and that causes problems in and of itself.

Jon-ston, of course existing businesses like being in Auckland! With Lenny they know the daily crush is set to increase , selling more coffee etc., landlords getting more enquiries, council getting higher parking fees to finance whatever flavour of the month.
But the commuters have to suffer two insults, time and money . If commuters had more employment choices, why would they choose to waste time and fuel doing the lemming thing on a daily basis?
The Auckland City Council doesn't support decentralisation, they support densification and centralisation. As for silo mentality, that's exactly the problem you have with everyone thought controlled in the same polluted thinking silo that's Auckland council. They are a monopoly which ratepayers have virtually no power to control. And they have duplicated functions which we pay for to be delivered by central government , thereby bloating the bureaucracy even further.

How about a completely different solution: One comment above says: 'Gridlock will likely always exist without some form of pricing mechanism'. One pricing mechanism that would clear congestion fast is pricing the time taken by employees to get to work into their salary. If introduced slowly and with suitable incentives, employers would rapidly find ways to reduce congestion by re-locating or by employing only local people. No-one prices travelling time to work so it is not a cost in the system. However we would aslo need to enable employers to relocate where they wanted and not where council planning zonists wanted.

Because technology is changing faster than our ability to build either roads or train tracks, it is probably worth looking at changing social behavior, and say looking at encouraging say networked distributed offices, and more mixed home/office working and thus remove a good proportion of the journeys made. This would certainly help road congestion. Just feeding the increase in Kourtney demand is unsustainable, better to add change in habit into the mix. E.g the solution to obesity is not to create bigger pants and bigger plates.


All these comments about self-driving cars and finally completing motorways are missing one major problem with the car-centric system, the space they take when they aren't moving. As well as the tens of billions spent on motorways, there's the tens of billions value of land needed for parking.

And although decentralisation may seem an answer, crossing traffic streams often means that the more possible destinations there are, the more traffic lights on the main roads. It would be nice if people lived near the places they wanted to go, but the average household has two earners at different locations, perhaps someone going to school somewhere else. We either assume that every journey for one person requires a ton of metal around them (much of it to protest them if a truck hits them) which spends 22 hours a day parked somewhere, or we look at alternatives.

Regarding the i

Ask any resident of one of the worlds great cities- London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Beijing- what would their city be like without their rail systems and the answer will be "buggered". Why study cities in the US- with their citizens' unashamed love of cars and subsidised car use? Of course the answer will come out negative. That's like asking the Taleban on how to promote world peace! The "Reason Study" needs to go back and study successful cities and find out how their rail system has helped them- not study basket-case US cities!.