Waimea Rd has long been seen as the heart of the city’s congestion problems. Photo: Sara Hollyman.

Could clearways help Nelson’s transport woes?

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Transport was a contentious issue during the election campaign with clearways raised as a potential solution to Nelson’s congestion. Sara Hollyman speaks to an expert urban designer to find out whether they would help our city.

For growing cities, clearways for general traffic will only ever provide a temporary reprieve from congestion, says Kent Lundberg.

“As traffic capacity is increased more people will choose to drive eventually, eroding any congestion benefits,” he says.

Clearways were raised by mayoral candidates at the Nelson Weekly debate as being a possible solution to Nelson’s traffic woes, while the Nelson Future Access investigation is underway. That investigation will report back next year about whether the city need a new arterial route to help solve congestion.

But Auckland-based Kent, who is one of the country’s leading urban transport planners, says it’s usually intersections and their approaches that are the constraint, not the sections of road in between. He says that clearways can often have negligible benefit, or make congestion worse, if they just force more traffic into the same intersections.

He says, while the first traffic lane can carry between 800-900 cars per hour, adding a clearway lane won’t add the same capacity again. Instead, it will add only a few hundred cars, or sometimes zero.

In fact, Kent says, depending on their location, clearways may exacerbate traffic problems.

“Clearways make it hard to cross the street on foot. This can be a big problem on routes to and from schools, where you end up with more parents driving their kids to school because it is too dangerous to cross the street.”

However, Kent says adding a bus only clearway lane can provide extra capacity for thousands of people per hour.

“Providing bus-only clearways or priority measures for buses helps to make public transport an attractive alternative to driving. Unlike providing space for cars, bus priority is a virtuous cycle.”

He says freeing up buses from traffic delays means that public transport services can run more for the same cost.

“And as more people use the service, it’s cheaper to run making it easier to justify running more buses.

“This is basically how Auckland has been addressing growth around the city centre for more than a decade. On constrained corridors, bus lanes and bus priority measures have enabled the city centre to grow rapidly while not adding additional traffic capacity,” he says.

Returning Nelson City councillor Matt Lawrey says Kent presents two important ideas.

“The first is that increased capacity,… will only temporarily reduce congestion.

“We’ve actually seen this happen in Stoke. When Whakatu Drive was built, the idea was it would reduce congestion on Main Rd Stoke. For a while it did but today the traffic through Stoke is back up to the levels we saw before the bypass was built.”

Matt says creating a clearway that can be used by buses could create extra capacity for thousands of travellers.

Nelson MP Nick Smith says he’s not surprised that a traffic expert thinks that clearways are only a short-term solution. He says they are risky from a safety perspective and they have huge downsides for neighbouring home owners as they eliminate car parking.

“Clearways are a really poor solution for Nelson’s transport issues. People often mistakenly leave their cars in the clearway, which has led to serious accidents and even deaths in Wellington.

“Clear ways in Nelson would costs tens of millions of dollars. Nelson is better to work on the long-term solution of the Southern Link which would complete the roading network. I’m supportive of buses but people are dreaming if they think it will be the solution to traffic in Nelson.”