By Felix Walton of RNZ
Auckland Transport (AT) says a traffic debacle at an Auckland mall on Saturday is an “unfortunate reminder” of what happens when thousands of shopper descend a shopping area at once on a rainy afternoon.
The transport agency has come under intense scrutiny after car park chaos at the Westfield mall in Newmarket resulted in shoppers being stuck in traffic jams for three hours trying to leave the shopping centre.
Tempers boiled over and some people stuck in their cars for three hours suffered panic attacks due to the excruciating delays.
The horrendous congestion has sparked concerns about whether the city’s roads can handle the upcoming Christmas holiday demand.
After two days of silence, AT has hit back tonight at claims the agency did nothing to prevent the weekend road drama.
Stacey van der Putten, AT’s executive general manager Public Transport Services, said AT did everything it could and the situation was simply an “unfortunate reminder of what happens when large numbers of Aucklanders all head to the shops at once on a rainy weekend afternoon”.
Westfield yesterday apologised, blaming wet weather and surging shopper demand for the debacle.
However, the Automobile Association (AA) is calling on Auckland Transport (AT) to urgently address traffic management issues in the shopping district after the weekend’s events.
“We’ve seen this once before,” AA’s Auckland issues spokesman Martin Glynn said.
“People just couldn’t get out and some of that appears to be [because of] how the roads are configured around the mall.”
He said the traffic lights did not leave enough room for drivers to exit the car park at a reasonable pace.
Van der Putten disputed claims nothing was done.
“Our teams at the Auckland Transport Operations Centre were actively monitoring traffic in Newmarket on Saturday and actively made changes to traffic signals to help clear the traffic as quickly as possible.
“But no amount of ‘signal optimisation’ by our teams could overcome the reality that there were more people on Newmarket’s local roads than there usually are.”
She pointed to the swathe of public transport options near the shopping centre, which if people utilised, would prevent such an event in the future.
“Three different train lines pass through Newmarket (the Western, Southern and Onehunga lines) along with six frequent bus routes that run at least every 15 minutes,” van der Putten said
“These public transport options mean shoppers do have a good alternative option that on busy days before Christmas is likely to be quicker, cheaper and much lower stress than driving.”
Newmarket Business Association chief executive Mark Knoff-Thomas said the rest of the city was congested, too.
“It was a bit of a perfect storm.
“The motorway was gridlocked, the on-ramps and off-ramps were choked up. There was this ongoing domino effect, so yeah, we didn’t have the best day.”
The demand was enormous, he said.
“Newmarket would’ve seen upwards of 70,000 people visit the precinct on Saturday alone.
“Historically, from research we’ve done, 60 per cent would be coming by car – so therein lies the problem.”
Knoff-Thomas encouraged shoppers to take advantage of the nearby bus lanes and train station.
With demand driven by Black Friday sales, and poor weather pushing shoppers indoors, Glynn said preventing the carpark chaos would have been difficult.
“When you get all that demand at once I don’t know if you can prevent it.
“It’s more about how it’s managed when these incidents do happen, it’s really about how you respond to it rather than trying to prevent it.”
Both Westfield and AT could have done more, he said.
“Westfield, as a mall operator, as soon as they could see how bad it was becoming I think they needed to get in touch with Auckland Transport. That may have happened, but it’s hard to tell.
“Auckland Transport could’ve made some changes to the phasing of the traffic lights to help start clearing the delay.”
He hoped Saturday’s mishap would prompt a response.
“I’d like to be optimistic that this is a bit of a wake-up call.
“At this scale, you could argue that there needs to be a formal response to address it.”
Knoff-Thomas said the Newmarket Business Association was engaged with AT and Westfield to avoid repeat incidents.
“We’ll be working very closely to see what we can do to increase the flow of traffic; there are things Auckland Transport Operations Centre can do to clear the roads.
“Westfield themselves have got more staff on for the weekends to make sure they can handle any traffic management issues. We’ll be well prepared going forward.”
Glynn encouraged would-be shoppers to think twice before visiting a mall at peak times.
“It can be tempting to go to a mall on a really rainy day.
“But [it’s worth] thinking carefully and knowing you could face delays because the majority of people who go to malls still go via car,” he said.
– Additional reporting Rachel Maher