Posted on: September 3, 2019 at 12:16 PM    

As a Transport Planner, it was interesting to observe the chaos first-hand last weekend at Mount Ruapehu.  

A combination of factors (poor weather early in the season, an excellent weather forecast, great snow, and the debut of a new gondola suitable for sightseers) led to potentially one of the busiest weekends ever for Mount Ruapehu. Car parks at both Whakapapa and Turoa filled up as much as two hours before the lifts opened for the day on Sunday, leading to both mountain roads closing. There were reports of two-hour queues for shuttle buses, but perhaps most significantly, enormous queues in the cafes and lifts. 

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Queues and road closures are not a new problem at Mount Ruapehu.  Whakapapa often has big queues first thing in the morning due to the limited seating capacity on lifts from the base area. The opening of the Sky Waka gondola was supposed to solve this problem. Back in 2015, claims were that the new gondola would "eliminate" queues at the base area on busy winter days.

Back in 1964, Colin Buchanan’s report “Traffic in Towns” foresaw the rise of the motor car as the predominant mode of transport and identified a range of problems associated with cars, such as crash costs, pollution, noise and the phenomenal land requirements to accommodate roads and parking. This report was well ahead of its time and underpinned modern transport planning in identifying that while you could attempt to provide infrastructure for cars, this would simply free up space to attract more vehicles to the network, until eventually, the very fabric of cities becomes a slave to the car. The report advocated for limiting the growth in motor vehicle use.

The problem which transport planners have been familiar with since Traffic in Towns days is that eliminating a bottleneck will attract new users and transfer the problem elsewhere. This is exactly what was observed to be happening at Whakapapa last weekend. The ten-seater gondola speeds up the exit from base, but it also facilitates ‘snow tourists’ coming to witness the views at the top rather than ski. It also means that hundreds of skiers and snowboarders reach the subsequent lifts and cafes that much quicker: so now the queues are transferred to the next set of lifts. And instead of the queues dispersing more quickly, more people arrive to utilise the spare capacity, leading to more queues elsewhere.

The traditional solution would be to provide more capacity, bigger cafes, more toilets, bigger lifts. But transport planning wisdom suggests that you can’t build your way out of congestion. Just like that other fiercely protected right: driving, snow-lovers have become accustomed to their right to access the snow whenever they choose. Like road users, this past weekend has demonstrated that capacity is limited. If present growth continues, users will either need to accept queuing in future, regardless of whether more capacity is constructed, since more capacity will generate more demand, or consider demand management, the modern transport planning solution. 

Congestion charges in cities, reallocation of road space from car parking to enable wider footpaths, along with encouraging alternative modes of transport by providing public transport or cycle lanes are typical demand management measures. For Mount Ruapehu, the car park capacity should be a natural throttle on the demand for the resorts, but shuttle buses are also running, adding more visitors. Demand management should surely be considered ahead of providing capacity, especially when the consent in the World Heritage site limits the number of skiers to the site. Macchu Picchu in Peru, for example, has set strict visitor numbers and regulations in place limiting users to that World Heritage site. It will be interesting to see which approach is taken at Mt Ruapehu. 

Blog written by Jo Draper, Principal Transportation Planner, Abley

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