Julie Anne Genter

The future will be walkable

by Julie Anne Genter

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