The future will be walkable

Last week I went to watch my colleague and friend Holly Walker on the Backbenches TV show (14’30”).

Being a new MP myself, Damien came up to me in the audience for some freshman hazing. He asked me what I hoped to achieve in the next three years. Quite ambitiously, I launched into a short but passionate effusion against the so-called Roads of National Significance.

Just after I sat down, a well-heeled woman of the boomer generation walked by. She turned to me and sneered, “What a load of rubbish, what you just said about the roads.”

I leapt to my feet and promptly got into a lengthy and interesting discussion with her and her husband. They seemed to be quite open to my explanation, but it took several minutes and a lot of technical detail about the traffic modeling process before they looked at me less skeptically. They live in Wellington and walk everywhere. He is trained in economics. They have every reason to be onside with Green Party transport policy, but they aren’t (yet).

Many reasonable and well-informed boomers will have a similar gut reaction to brief and impassioned statement against motorway expansion, if they haven’t studied or worked in transport planning.

“People like to drive. It’s their choice to sit in a queue for an hour.”

“In other countries they have big motorways with free flowing traffic. Why shouldn’t we?”

“New Zealanders don’t want to live in shoebox apartments. They want a quarter acre section and a garden.”

There is some truth to all of these statements, but what is missing is the understanding of how transport funding and land use planning regulations have influenced people’s choices and the pattern of urban developments in a way that is not good for anyone in New Zealand.

People can and will make different choices when the costs are more direct. Plus, the world is changing, we have only to look across the Pacific to see where the trends are headed.

This excellent op-ed in the NY Times explains why we don’t need to expand the supply of fringe suburbs, by removing the metropolitan urban limits and building new motorways, though that is what the National-led Government would have us do.

There are better changes to regulation than removing the metropolitan urban limits, including removing minimum parking requirements and providing better incentives for high quality medium density development, that will reduce development costs and improve housing affordability. But the most important thing the central government needs to do now is factor changing demographic trends and demand for transport into their funding priorities.

New motorways were never going to reduce congestion anyway, but given the high demand for walkable neighborhoods, increased cycling and public transport, we should be investing the bulk of our transport funds into projects where we will see the most growth over the next few decades. We are not going to see growth in demand for road travel at peak hour, especially if we stop subsidizing single occupant vehicle trips with free parking.

As I explained to the couple at the Backbencher pub, we’re not anti-motorway. We are aware that these motorways are unbelievably costly solutions to a problem that they won’t solve, a problem that won’t exist in the next decade. In fact, the Roads of National Significance will create different problems.

If we don’t pay attention to what is happening in the US, we may well follow them down the same short-sighted route. It would be a costly mistake, and a lost opportunity.

Julie Anne


11 Comments Posted

  1. Gerrit
    . .”Dont know but I guess that is policy 47% of NZL voted for.”

    The trouble with our voting system is that we vote for a party, not a policy, and the two are at best only loosely connected. This time around, the central election platform became state asset sales. All major parties stated their policies prior to the election, therefore it was concluded that a vote for the party would mean a vote for its policy on asset sales. Wrong conclusion, as it turns out. Many who voted National openly stated their opposition to its policy on asset sales.

    So what conclusions can be drawn between the election result and a favoured transport policy? Answer, none. Transport policy is rarely an election issue at the best of times. Amid the plethora of “higher-profile” issues, it is usually well down the importance list. Therefore our electoral system rarely affords the voter an opportunity to register his or her preference on transport matters, and it is unreliable to read too much into the overall outcome. Various indicators suggest that Auckland voters would have preferred govt funding of the CBD rail loop over govt funding of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. However the blunt election result marginally opposing National (Note: 53% did NOT vote for National) cannot be taken as a mandate either way.

    The most democratic country in the world is Switzerland where citizens vote directly on issues. It is interesting that under this regime the world’s most comprehensive rail and public transport system has emerged, and heavy road-freight has consistently been opposed.

  2. Well.

    Rail, and shipping, is much more viable even if dependent on diesel. Much less fuel and infrastructure cost per tonne mile of freight, even if the last few miles is by truck. Rail is also much easier to electrify than trucking. The price and availability of copper, and extra generation if required is, I suspect, much less than that of buying more trucks, roads and imported oil.

    Not that I am necessarily against making our roading network more efficient also. Bypassing all that hill climbing in the Brynderwins would save a lot of energy, at the expense of a one off road upgrade..

    Horses actually require more land, energy and economic cost per mile, than trucks.

    Generating energy from sustainable sources in NZ will be much less costly for us long term than relying on oil which soaks up a lot of our foreign earnings already.

    Solutions to a more sustainable future will involve better use of energy as well as less usage.

  3. Kerry,

    How come 1.7 billion plus is available for finance company bailouts, 14 billion is OK to go to overseas beneficiaries from privatisation and two billion for tax cuts for millionaires,

    Dont know but I guess that is policy 47% of NZL voted for.

    And $14Billion to overseas beneficiaries through privatisation? Not sure on that one but take your word for it.

    Our future dependence on imported energy will be solved by default shortly (Peak Oil). The question then becomes how viable is rail, being heavily dependend on diesel.

    Sure we can eletrify more of the rail grid but only some 30% is electric now. More copper wires required. Mined and imported from where?

    And to generate the electricity to have a 100% electric train network requires how much extra capcity?

    Can that capacity also cater for electric cars and trucks? If all else fails at least we will have a decent roading network (including the steel road corridors) for horse drawn transport.

    Not forgetting bicycles and shankes pony.

  4. I agree, Gerrit, that rail should be open to all operators who wish to use it.

    I disagree about Auckland’s rail links. If Aucklanders had voted for Banks, unlimited funds from central Government would have been made available to pump up assets for a fire sale.

    How come 1.7 billion plus is available for finance company bailouts, 14 billion is OK to go to overseas beneficiaries from privatisation and two billion for tax cuts for millionaires, but they cannot find enough to upgrade Auckland rail, and decrease our future dependence on imported energy..

  5. Dave

    continues to block more-worthwhile projects such as the Auckland CBD rail-loop,

    Government is not blocking the central rail loop. It has given the green light for it to go ahead. All mayor Len and the council have to do is find the funding.

    Therein lies the problem, not the refusal to allow it to be build, just that state funds are better spent (quite rightly) on roads.

    If Aucklanders want the central rail loop, increase rates, train fares, install tolls or any other tax gathering method to pay for it.

    Simple. The voters will answer that in the ballot box. Either in favour or out of favour.

    Problem with rail development is that only one operator can use the steel road. Open up the steel roads to ALL operators and one would see a huge increase in rail development.

    For 40 years I have predicted that this foolish policy will eventually be swept away by the rising tide of reality and the moment at which this foolishness buckles under the pressure draws ever closer.

    Wont happen for another 40+40+40 years. People prefer the freedom of the individual travel mode. Roads allow that.

    Once alternative energy fueled cars, trucks and motorbikes are a reality, the rail network will fall into disrepair once more UNLESS the steel roads are opened up to ALL operators so that development of the rail network is long lasting.

    Till the sole operator on the steel roads has compettion on those steel tracks, rail is dying by a thousand privately owned cars and trucks.

  6. I am a member of that “Boomer” generation, and at about age 14 (living in England) my eyes were opened in horror to a colossal mistake-in-the-making as the country discarded thousands of miles of railway in favour of a massive motorway-building programme. This was for the sake of a mode of transport (mass use of roads) which was riddled with problems, shortcomings and hidden costs, but which was presented to an unthinking population through a rose-tinted glass.
    Julie, the response you got from your Boomers I have had to put up with for 40 years! As a teenager in the 1970’s I could see plainly that all was not well, but found most people utterly blind to the issues and frequently hostile to any criticism of society’s revered idol, however valid that criticism might be. 40 years on it seems little has changed, at least in terms of attitude in the English-speaking world. But what has changed is that the scale of the operation has multiplied, as has the magnitude of the problems. The rose-tinted glass is increasingly unable to hide the cracks and slowly more people are waking up.
    Towards the end of the last Labour government, and as oil prices soared to historic levels, rail investment became widely viewed as the way forward and acceptance grew for the idea that controversial road schemes such as Transmission Gully should not go ahead. However the change of government since then has shown just how malleable public opinion is, as folk pirouette to fall in behind a changed leadership direction. But this new direction, championed by Steven Joyce and seemingly endorsed by the entire National Party, is greatly at variance with current trends in most other developed societies.
    Belatedly Labour had finally begun to steer us in the right direction when along came National and turned us 180°. If this second-term National-led government persists with its Roads of National Significance agenda and continues to block more-worthwhile projects such as the Auckland CBD rail-loop, then the backward-looking transport policy of New Zealand will become ever more glaringly out-of-step with the trend. Excuses about low population and unique kiwi-lifestyles can no longer prop-up New Zealand’s gross overdependence on cars (and trucks). If the population is too small to justify a larger rail system then it is also too small to justify more motorways.
    For 40 years I have predicted that this foolish policy will eventually be swept away by the rising tide of reality and the moment at which this foolishness buckles under the pressure draws ever closer. We live in interesting, albeit stupid times!

  7. Regarding Johnstons second paragraph, the redevelopment of the Christchurch CBD fringe should provide the opportunity to iron any legal impediments to joint developments across multiple property titles.

  8. Decades of underinvestment in roads and rail haven’t made this any easier.

    Don’t forget the malinvestments that occurred as well – especially on the rail network. One of the best examples was the Ngatapa Branch, where the line was built as part of a line from Gisborne to Napier, only for the proposed route to be changed later. The hundreds of thousands of Pounds spent on that line could have been better used in another part of the country.

    In terms of the higher density living option, there is one big problem that everyone seems to have ignored – and that is the difficulty that developers have in assembling a decent number of adjacent sections together so that their development can be financially worthwhile. Once you factor in the cost of purchasing the property, demolishing (or removing) the existing buildings and then the cost of building your medium density development, the costs are so high that the size of the development needs to be fairly large.

    Then, to add to that, you are making the developments so large that securing funding is an issue – especially now that we no longer have the finance companies. Because of the risk, banks tend to steer clear from property development loans, and so the developer needs to be able to get the money from somewhere. That is not a difficult job if one is looking at a few million, but once you look at tens of millions, then you start having problems (and bear in mind that a development such as Soho could cost hundreds of millions).

    Of course the article also forgets that the fundamental issue with those suburbs was the lack of public transport. Put the public transport in and the issues disappear – every morning you have thousands of commuters boarding a train at Gosford in the New South Wales Central Coast for their 70 odd minute long trip to Sydney

  9. Thanks Julie.

    I found Matt’s comment interesting. There are some long countries in South America (for instance) that could be described as sparsely populated (even if far more than NZ), but there are frequent buses everywhere and it’s relatively easy to get from place to place. The difference is probably the high expense of owning cars makes public transport in much higher demand.

    I really miss Wellington and its walkability after shifting to Melbourne a year ago. For all the public transport that exists here in trains, trams and buses, serious support for the infrastructure seems to have ceased sometime in the ’60s or ’70s in favour of noisy 8 lane highways and privately operated toll roads, and the place does feel as if it’s quite car-obsessed… maybe that’s something that comes with money. The critical mass of people here who own and use cars frequently seems to mean the majority of extra-curricular activities and clubs around the place seem to be organised on the presumption that everyone will just drive to places. The only exceptions are big sporting events where they’ve optimised the trains to get people in and out quite efficiently. We gave up in frustration and bought a small car after about 4 months, but I’m looking forward to when we can get away from here. It’s not the place for me.

  10. Public transport works well where the transport needs of a lot of people are similar. It also requires a decent population base and the ability to subsidise the costs.

    Unless you have all these factors then public transport either doesn’t work at all well, or is so expensive to be unthinkable.

    Despite the inescapable fact that the tube in London rush-hours is obnoxious, it is affordable, it goes to the right places, and does so in good time. Most of the time the tube is fully acceptable to travel on, because even out of rush hour the train frequency is such that one doesn’t waste enormous amounts of time waiting for the train.

  11. A very well written and reasoned post Julie.

    I’m originally from the UK and only when I moved to NZ did I feel the need to buy a car. Public transport and walking met my needs while in the UK, but those choices are few and far between in NZ.

    So why is public transport so poor in NZ? We’re a long country which is generally sparsely populated with poor transport hubs. Luckily in Wellington we are ‘blessed’ (and given recent experiences on the trains. I’m being generous) with good public transport. Other towns and cities are not so lucky. NZ seems to be the only developed country I have been to that doesn’t have a train linking main airports to main cities.

    Decades of underinvestment in roads and rail haven’t made this any easier. Yes, roads are part of this picture but only as part of an integrated system. Buses need roads as well so we do need to be careful with an anti-roads stance. Choice is key – an efficient public transport system allows people to leave their cars at home but this may not be an option (for families, for example). So let’s not demonise cars, they serve an important societal and economic purpose … but it’s only by giving everyone choice that we can move to a more sustainable transport system in NZ.

Comments are closed.