How essential transport data supports transport strategy for Taupō District Council

Developing a transport strategy for Taupō that provides long term direction for council investment.

In 2019, Taupō District Council accepted a proposal from Abley to support them in developing their Transport Strategy. The strategy provides long-term direction for council investment in transport services and infrastructure.

Council Policy Advisor, Aidan Smith, explains the situation that led Taupō District Council to seek support from a transport expert like Abley.

In 2018, we were working on our long-term plan, which sets out the projects we’re going to deliver over the next ten years. Taupō has a long-term strategy to shift traffic away from the town centre and the waterfront, and pedestrianise those areas to make them better economically and socially.

To achieve that, we put together a plan which included a number of traffic light installations. And I guess we didn’t communicate our rationale very well, because the community were strongly against it. So, the Council put the project on hold and said, we need to know how this fits into a wider strategy. What are we trying to achieve here? What’s next after this?

If you started from scratch, you wouldn’t build Taupō like it is now. Our main road cuts through the town and severs the community from the lake, which is our best asset. The other main road hits a bridge and causes congestion. And then our third main road goes past our biggest school, so at drop off and pick-up time it’s chaos.

We wanted to know what transport issues we might face after 30 years of growth. Will we create more problems if we allow traffic growth to happen where it’s happening now. Or do we want to be more strategic in the way we manage it?”

Five big challenges to address

Abley Technical Director of Transport Planning, Dave Smith expands on the meaty questions Taupō District Council needed answering.

They had several challenges to address. These included assessing the performance of the road network and identifying locations of poor performance, as well as understanding the impact of future infrastructure changes, such as an additional bridge, traffic calming through the shopping area, and rerouting arterial traffic.

They needed data, research findings and recommendations to develop a network plan, and a key performance indicator framework to monitor their network’s performance. We also considered parking management and assessed locations for a new bus hub.

The council had important decisions to make, and some divided views internally, so they needed objective, trusted advice. Also, following public opinion on the proposed traffic lights, they knew some of their transport plans might be controversial and wanted quality data and recommendations to inform Councillors and the public.”

Evidence based transport modelling experts

Aidan describes why Taupō District Council chose Abley as their transport expert.

The council wanted to create the strategy and own the public consultation process ourselves. But we needed traffic modelling experts to identify the traffic problems we might face and tell us what we might expect to happen if we saw growth in certain areas. That data was essential, and we couldn’t start without it.

We put the project out to tender. It was a full competitive RFP process. We asked consultants to tell us how they would tackle our key problems: traffic modelling, parking, and assessing locations for a new inter-regional bus hub and a civic admin building.

Abley’s response was the most complete in terms of understanding the challenges we faced, and how we might tackle them. We were impressed with their experience – and even though they’re from a big city, they’ve worked a lot with small towns, so they understood that big city solutions may not fly here.

We released the tender as two proposals, but Abley had the skills to combine all the work together, with significant cost savings for us. And it’s hugely beneficial working with one contractor who can see the big picture and link all the different areas.

When it was time to present to council, Abley was able to cover all the topics. One of the huge advantages of working with Abley is the way they communicate effectively with people who have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding of traffic planning. It’s really hard to find someone who can do the technical work and explain it really clearly. Abley really delivered in that space, and it gave the local councillors a lot of confidence that we’d done the work.”

The importance of having the data to make decisions

Aidan sees transport modelling as a critical evidence-based first step in establishing Taupō’s transport strategy.

Without transport modelling we wouldn’t have been able to develop a strategy. It had to be done. And we had a lot of confidence in the quality of Abley’s work.

Modelling enabled us to answer big questions and rule out worst-case scenarios. One example is the main road between the community and the lake. We wanted to know would that road need to become four-lanes if Taupō saw a lot of growth? But the modelling showed two lanes would cope. We’ve a backup plan in case there’s unexpected growth. But in the short term, we’re confident demands on that road are not going to get dramatically worse.

Having the data to back up what we were hearing from the community is valuable. Now we know when we face traffic peaks and challenges. There’s a lot of seasonal traffic in Taupō, and there’s variation during the day. We have commuter peaks, but also lunchtime peaks, when traffic comes into town.

The most valuable and interesting thing has been understanding the behaviour of different road users. We’ve got locals, people coming off the highway stopping for lunch, and holiday makers. They’re using the roads at different times, driven by different needs. That data has helped us think about how to support the needs of those people going forward.

My advice to other councils updating their transport strategy, is do some initial research, modelling and investigation and then review your scope of work. Working with Abley gave us that freedom. They were quite happy to do initial research and change tack if we needed. They’re very flexible in that way. A few times they came to us and said: ‘Based on the data, we don’t think you need this work now, so let’s reprioritize your budget to look at this new issue we’ve identified.’

We needed trusted advisors for our transport strategy. We also wanted to know how other councils approach similar issues. Abley’s advice helped define our scope of work, and they filled the role of advisor really well. They certainly had our trust from the get go. Our experience with Abley has been very positive. We found them very professional, knowledgeable and good value for money. They did a great job, and we wouldn’t hesitate to use them again.”

Aidan Smith, Policy Advisor,
Taupō District Council

“Parking is always an issue”

Another tricky challenge Taupō faces is carparking. Aidan explains:

When you’re in a small town, parking is always an issue. We had questions around our long-term strategy for parking. Do we need more parking? Can we better manage what we’ve got? What parking problems might we face in the future?

We wanted an expert perspective. Abley were able to share best practice benchmarks and measures of performance. We’re a small council and we don’t have that expertise in house, so that was huge value.

They also advised us to take a broader look at our town-wide parking supply. When we did that, we found that we had enough parks in our whole catchment. In some areas it’s hard to get a park in peak traffic, but there are parks just down the road. It’s just that people are refusing to park a block away and walk.

So, then our question became, why don’t people park there? What’s the barrier? Is it because their walking connection’s not good? Is it because they’re not aware those parks are there? Are people just creatures of habit who like to park in the same place? Or are they used to parking there in winter and suddenly parks are busy with visitors in summer and they don’t know what to do? And how do we create a strategy around that?

We discovered the main thing stopping people from using nearby carparks was habit. People are used to parking in the same area. With growth, popular spots have got busier, and people haven’t figured out what to do. So, we need to build awareness that there are plenty of parks and where to find them. And also prepare people for the future, recognising we may not always be able to get a park exactly where we want it, and here’s what to do instead.

Now we have separate strategies for each group, the daytime lunchers, the two to three-hour visitors, and the all-day workers. And our strategy is about managing parking within the wider catchment, rather than building a whole new parking building, which is something we’d proposed just a few years ago.”

The civic admin building & bus hub

Two other Council projects became threads in the technical research and recommendations Abley prepared for Taupō.

The first was the planned consolidation of Council offices into a single civic admin building, and its implications for parking. The Council needed to know if they should factor new car parking into their plan for the building.

The second was the potential relocation of the inter-regional bus hub situated on the main road in Taupō. The current location lacks facilities for passenger refreshments, and coaches must take a circuitous route to access the station. The Council wanted to assess alternative locations, understand their options and the implications for traffic in the surrounding area. Dave explains:

A new bus hub and civic admin building are both really important investment decisions for a small town. Council was at the point where they had to make key decisions around key assets and there were divergent views as to what should be done. They needed objective advice.”

Trusted advisors and a safe pair of hands

Aidan describes what it was like working with Abley.

Abley were really clear about their process: what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. That was brilliant because I had technical experts on my team, who really wanted to understand the detail.

I was keen to understand what Abley’s outputs would be, so I could manage expectations. They spelled deliverables out clearly and they delivered. They kept coming back to the plan, saying here’s where we’re at and here’s what the next steps look like.

Abley also touched base with us a lot, which was great. They’d say: ‘Look, here’s what we’ve found thus far, here’s the data we’re getting, and here’s what we think it means. Is there anything missing from your perspective? Is there anything you don’t find convincing?”

They provided expertise and recommendations, while listening and taking our opinions on board. And there were situations where we said: ‘Oh, we’d have thought we’d see something like this.’ And they’d explore further and confirm that wasn’t the case. So, checking our assumptions like that was really valuable.

Dave Smith
Technical Director, Transportation Planning