How can we spend less time sitting in traffic?

Congestion in our cities is getting worse as our population grows. Would a congestion charge reduce the amount of time we sit in traffic?


Existing infrastructure

8 minutes

The average Auckland commuter spends 5 days in traffic each year. Given that our population will grow to over 6.2 million people in the next 30 years and half of this population growth will be in five major centres - Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch - congestion is going to get worse, unless we take action.

We’ve all got better things to do

Sitting in traffic is frustrating and unproductive. We could all be making better use of the time we waste in traffic by spending time with our families, doing recreational activities, or working.  

COVID-19 showed us that for many people working from home is possible, which allows them to be more flexible in how they work and when they travel. That means some people can travel to workplaces at off-peak times. 

However, for some, travel during peak times is unavoidable – for example, tradespeople and workers in certain industries need to travel during the busiest times. 

"Our roads are only congested at certain times of the day – 80 percent of the time our roads are free from congestion. This means that building new roads is extremely inefficient."

We can’t build our way out of congestion

New Zealand already spends a large amount of money on transport infrastructure – more than any other infrastructure sector. Between 2021-2031 $31.4 billion will be invested into critical transport infrastructure and services in Auckland. Despite this, congestion is only expected to worsen. It’s clear that we can’t spend or build our way out of congestion.  

Building additional lanes or new roads in congested areas is expensive and doesn’t work. In fact, it often increases congestion by encouraging more people to drive, which creates more congestion. Rather than building more lanes or new roads to reduce peak time congestion, we are better off using the roading infrastructure we already have in smarter ways.  

Our roads are only congested at certain times of the day – 80 percent of the time our roads are free from congestion. This means that building new roads is extremely inefficient. 

We need to find ways to encourage people to travel at different times of the day or on different modes (like trains and buses) or find ways to ride share or consolidate their travel. 

A congestion charge is one way to encourage people to change how and when they travel. 

Congestion charging works

Congestion charging means that people who travel on certain roads at peak times pay a fee. This incentivises people to travel at off-peak times so that they avoid paying that fee or use a different mode of transport, like public transport, walking and cycling. Those who wish to pay to use the roads at peak times can have faster journeys and those who don’t drive don’t pay. 

Congestion pricing and road tolling have been proven to increase access and mobility by reducing excessive traffic congestion. For example, when Stockholm introduced congestion charging, traffic dropped by 20 percent and congestion fell by 30-50 percent.

A study undertaken in Auckland called The Congestion Question has predicted that a congestion charge on Auckland’s strategic road network will reduce traffic at peak times by between 8% and 12%. This is equivalent to the reduction in traffic that Aucklanders experience during the school and university holidays.

Te Waihanga GM - Strategy, Geoff Cooper talks to Gustaf Landahl, former Head of Department - Environment and Health Administration in Stockholm about how the city implemented congestion charging.

Is it fair?

Most people will be able to afford a congestion charge, have access to affordable public transport alternatives or be able to travel at off peak times. However, for some people, particularly those on low incomes, the congestion charge may be unaffordable. Also, in areas without good public transport options and for disabled people who are reliant on cars, there are less options to avoid the congestion charge. 

A congestion charging scheme needs to be designed in a way that is fair to all users and offers options for those who cannot afford to pay or have limited alternatives.

Congestions charging is a win-win

Not only does reducing congestion mean that we spend less time in traffic, it is also better for the environment. Cars are a significant cause of carbon emissions and contribute to low air quality in urban areas. 

A recent study found that some congestion pricing schemes have had a significant impact, accounting for emission reductions of more than 10% as more people took public transport or walked and biked. Less road building also means less embodied carbon – things like concrete and roading materials also contribute to carbon emissions. 

Congestion charging is good for the economy and good for the environment. It also could reduce the size of our infrastructure spend as we won’t need to keep building new expensive roads.

Congestion charging is also good for the economy. It frees up more productive time for tradespeople and those travelling for business, and makes it quicker to move freight. It also has the potential to reduce the size of our infrastructure spend as we won’t need to keep building new expensive roads.


Some of the changes we’ll need to make 

If we don't do anything, congestion is just going to get worse. To reduce the amount of traffic at peak times we need to change the way we think about reducing congestion. A congestion charge isn’t about how much we pay, but more about how we pay.  

The New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy explores some of these changes, and these include: 

  • Removing the current legislative barriers to implementing congestion charging and road tolling 
  • Reducing congestion in Auckland by implementing a congestion charge 
  • Planning for implementation of congestion charging in Wellington 
  • Identifying urban areas where implementing congestion pricing would be beneficial 
  • Sharing and making use of data signals from congestions pricing to inform future decision-making

Relevant case studies

The solutions to the issues we face have often been shown to work here and overseas. These case studies are an example to learn from.

Our recommendations to reduce the time we spend in traffic

Read the recommendations in Rautaki Hanganga o Aotearoa.