Transport and social equity: Part 1

This is a cross post from The Daily Blog, where it was originally published Tuesday 22 October.

Transport is often the third largest item of expenditure for a household. It is on average between 10-15% of the household budget, surpassed only by food and shelter. But it can be higher for low- and middle-income households.

Transport is also essential for participation in society. Accessing education, employment, goods, services, and even voting can require some degree of travel.

For these reasons, transport policy can be a powerful tool for improving (or hindering) social equity.

For the past half century transport planning has focussed on increasing vehicular mobility, with the aim of increasing access. However, there is a fundamental and usually unacknowledged tension between increasing mobility and increasing access. Travelling more and further does not always provide people with greater access – quite the opposite.

By prioritising the movement of cars and trucks and building our towns and cities around storing cars, we unintentionally decreased access by every other means of travel. We made it more dangerous and unpleasant to walk and cycle even short distances, and more difficult to provide effective public transport because we unintentionally provided incentives for development to go further away. Instead of having a butcher, baker and little hardware store within walking distance of most homes, supermarkets and big box retail are places most people need to drive to. Large retailers get some cost savings with this model and can provide a greater selection of goods that seem cheaper, but the centralisation has externalised the transport costs. We all pay more to get there, and everywhere else we need to go.

We tend to think that the places we need to go are fixed, and that it’s the job of government to provide infrastructure to access those places. But that is only one side of the equation. The infrastructure and planning rules we put in place also influence how development happens, and where people and businesses locate.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, New Zealand was full of walking and transit communities. Towns set up near water or train lines, and near industry. When electric trams were laid all over the Auckland isthmus (and in many other cities) neighbourhood centres naturally set up around the tram stops. Houses and apartments were built within walking distance of stops, which were surrounded by shops – the butcher, the baker, the shoe shop, the grocer, etc. You can still see the old bones of the tramlines in older neighbourhoods (e.g. Sandringham, Mount Eden, along Dominion and Ponsonby Roads).

No one needed a car because everywhere you needed to go was accessible by tram, train, ferry or foot, or some combination thereof. People spent about the same about of time commuting (or less) than they do now. It wasn’t perfect, but it was integrated, it cost us less, and it happened without planning rules.

In the late 1950’s we ripped up the tramlines to make way for cars, and we started requiring all new buildings to provide large off-street car parks – massively reducing the density of development, while also pushing new development further out to where land was cheaper. Gutting communities for motorways and widening arterial roads reduced the attractiveness of being in the city, and drove those who could afford it to quiet green suburbs full of houses, where a car is necessary to get anywhere.

Car dependence excludes a whole lot of people who are unable to drive, because of age, income or disability. It also imposes huge costs on low-income households, a phenomenon called transport poverty or forced vehicle ownership. Approximately 1 out of 3 New Zealanders can’t drive or access a car directly, even though we have the second highest rate of car ownership in the world.

Reducing car dependence is therefore critical to increase the opportunities for everyone to participate in society, and to reduce the cost burden on low- and middle-income households. And this doesn’t simply mean replacing all our current car journeys with public transport.

We need to transition back to a pattern of development that increases access, and to some extent decreases the distances we need to travel. This is not impossible, in fact, it can happen quite easily with the right policies and price signals. But we need to focus on affordability and social housing in places that are location efficient.

I will be following up on this post over the next week to discuss the best way of increasing access with public transport fare policies. To be continued….

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9 Comments Posted

  1. We may see autonomous buses and taxis before we get a significant number of autonomous private cars. Wages are a big part of the cost of running buses and taxis so getting rid of the driver makes it much less costly to operate these vehicles at quiet times. Getting rid of the driver also allows either another passenger to be carried or a smaller vehicle to carry the same number of passengers.

    Small autonomous buses could be used to maintain a relatively frequent bus service at quiet periods, or perhaps such buses would only run when there were people waiting at the bus stops and would stay parked up until required.

    There are all sorts of possibilities…


  2. The other question is – given the age of our vehicles, when would you expect to see the benefits of the autonomous vehicles here???


    We can improve mass transit in a matter of days (scheduling and cost) and change it in major ways in a few years… the tech is CURRENT, it is available today and all that it wants is the will to do it.

    Not disagreeing with your view of the future particularly, just pointing out that we need to do things that fix the system we have now. Waiting for the future to arrive is a passive way of failing.

  3. I think you miss the point that I still don’t want to be far. The time spent travelling is LESS wasted if I don’t have to personally direct the vehicle in the general direction I want to go, but it is still time in a moving box with a circumscribed ability to do other things. I actually LIKE driving… faster is better… and yet I know that the time is better spent doing those other things. So close to work AND shop, is where I live. I do select carefully when I move… 🙂

  4. The next best option is living close to where an efficient/effective mass-transit system flows.

    And this is what is going to happen, though not as one might expect.

    We are on the cusp (ie within 20 years) of self-driving vehicles. Initially these will be autonomous vehicles, but the penny will drop, and it will be discovered that by working together these vehicles can achieve more than working independently.

    It will also be discovered that car ownership is overrated; what one wants is the ability to get from A to B when one wants to, so one will whistle up a vehicle to deliver one for the journey. One will be able to say “party of one” or “party of eight” and the appropriate size vehicle will arrive. So instead of driving to work, I can sleep to work. When I say “say”, I mean, of course, on one’s home computer (however that ends up in a fee decades), or the smartphone, or the Google Glass, or maybe the mind link – who knows.

    The next big discovery will be that cars driven by people are a safety impediment and a scheduling nightmare, so roads will start to get converted to be automatic vehicles only, no human-driven cars, and certainly no bicycles or pedestrians. Once cars stop being crashed, then they can be constructed of lighter materials.

    This will be the rise of the Johnnycab. Only without the animatronic mannequin.

    Now I know that the twin evils of petrol availability and pollution should kick this idea in the kibosh, but it wont. It will happen because it has to happen; Newton’s first law says we like personal transport, and the second law is actively pushing in this direction, and not in the opposite direction, which it could be argued is what is required.

    Thus, maybe even within my lifetime, but I doubt it, (almost) everyone will live right next to an efficient and effective mass transport system.

    The clock is not going back: its going forwards. C’mon Julie, its time to get with the programme.

  5. We need to make cars less important for getting around. That can be done in two ways. The first is to have people moving closer to where their work is…

    Time was when that was the norm, back when the first world was industrialised. So much the norm that there was a real realtionship between the industrial world and the workers. perhaps the best example I know of is Port Sunlight in the UK, a town built by the Lever Brothers for the workers that made Sunlight soap. People lived where they worked.

    But as the industrial age gave way to the information age, starting around the 1950s, the employment scene changed. The importance (and the desirability of being near the) industrial complexes gave way to central business districts. People’s behaviour and expectations changed. A new normal was established. A normal that persists to this day…

    Moving on to your second point…

  6. Dunno, DBuckley, some things do come and go, and we end up back where we began.

    Interestingly (to me anyway), your list of cinemas includes my local ‘town hall’ named as ‘St Peter’s Theatre’ on the list and marked ‘Closed’. I used to go there as a kid to watch Tarzan matinees and the like. But the list doesn’t include the boutique cinema that opened a couple of years ago a hundred metres away. There’s been quite a resurgence in local cinemas lately, after some decades where they vanished everywhere except downtown in major cities.

    St Peter’s itself is probably busier than ever, with a local market, theatre, play readings, gigs (which in the last couple of years have included bands from Germany, Switzerland and France, as well as locals and the constant stream of bands from Lyttleton) and meetings – and there are plans afoot to start screening films there again.

    OK, my town may not be typical, but the surge in local events is part of the reason it’s now considered a highly desirable place to live. Access to a rail system is another.

  7. I’m gonna downtick you here DBuckley, but you aren’t all wrong… we can’t go back to what was, but that isn’t the thing we have to do, nor what Julie-Ann is driving at. *ouch*.

    Least as I read it.

    We need to make cars less important for getting around. That can be done in two ways. The first is to have people moving closer to where their work is… and I’ve spent a lot of trouble making sure I live close to where I work through my whole life, but it IS a lot of trouble. The next best option is living close to where an efficient/effective mass-transit system flows.

    You still don’t want to be far, but you can be further than walking distance from work that way. Just not further than walking distance from the transit system. I do that. I “rely” on that.

    That mass-transit has to work on your terms too… not shutting down in the middle of the night so you are can be stuck somewhere until morning. Less frequent? Sure, but not zero frequent. Transit also has to be cheap… subsidized-cheap. Rides may not be “free” but the price has to be low. The housing near the stations and stops gets denser.

    The problem is that mass-transit is not often even vaguely like what I just described here. It seldom takes people anywhere near the destinations they require and people who are building those “destinations” pay damned little attention to any sort of accessibility of transit. Parking lots they will build, but choosing their site so that people can reach them without a motor vehicle is almost never a big consideration.

    So you’re right. We can’t “go back” to reach the future we need. We are far too numerous and work far too scattered. We HAVE changed. We can do way better than we’ve done though, and it would be a good idea if we at least TRIED to achieve more useful capabilities.


  8. We need to transition back to a pattern of development that increases access, and to some extent decreases the distances we need to travel.

    I’ve highlighted a particular word there, as its quite important. I’ve read this blog entry (and the location efficient stuff) with considerable interest.

    The reason that word “back”, as in “transition back” is important is that it demands we undo what we we think of as “progress”. Generally, we undo progress with the about the same enthusiasm that any self-respecting genie has to go back in the bottle. We don’t “un-invent” things, and we don’t get willingly to turn clocks back. The only way is forward, and more “progress”.

    But… that isn’t the reason I’m going to pour cold water on this post. The thing this post fails to acknowledge is that times have changed, and the old model which this post harks back to isn’t relevant in the 21st century.

    When I was a kid, back in the 1960s, New Zealand had a manufacturing industry. My family was part of that; my (late) dad ran (and I think he owned, but I am less certain of that) a small clothing manufacturing business in Lower Hutt. I was single digits old at the time, so I cant remember a huge amount about it, but it was a few minutes walk up the street from where we lived, and the people (mostly women!) who worked there were local to the factory.

    We didn’t have a car, and confess I was somewhat envious of those families that did, particularly Uncle Doug, who had a big flash American convertible, the sort of thing Ralph Nader noted was unsafe at any speed, and its perhaps a good job that back then petrol was “one and six” a gallon. But having no car didn’t seem to matter, really. The shops were nearby, and the school a bus-ride away. Mum and Dad had friends with cars, and when a car was needed, we were chauffeured.

    There were other businesses making clothing nearby, and we knew the families of such other businesses. One was much bigger than my dad’s operation, they had a conveyer belt! I guess there were other small clothing manufacturing businesses up and down the country.

    And this was the backdrop to those days when car ownership was not necessary, and you could work and play local. Entertainment took place in the Town Hall. Have a look at this list of cinemas that once were in New Zealand, and once you get past Auckland, and see just how many of the 691 listed venues were town halls, and/or are no longer there.

    We live in a changed world. Trying to build a early 20th century transport system in the 21st century just isn’t going to work. I’m not even convinced that “if you build it, they will come” is a valid approach; for these local centres to work requires abandoning our mobile lifestyle, and having local places of work, and I doubt many would willingly give the mobile lifestyle up.

  9. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, Julie Anne, but sadly you are ahead of our times in little New Zealand. Changing thinking and behaviour is a major challenge, and that is what is needed to actually convince the wider public, and they are the voters, to vote for the change necessary, to prepare this country for the future.

    More public transport, more density in some urban areas, more efficiencies in transport use and energy use, and so many other things will be totally essential in future, but as most grew up with what we have, the urban sprawl, and “drive in convenience” to whatever shopping and other areas, this is something people will not part with easily and swiftly.

    Perhaps a bit of an oil shock or energy crisis, or the likes would shake and wake a few up, but I cannot see that happen, with all that fracking and so going on. The oil exploration and drilling companies, the multinationals and the whole industries attached, they will continue to suck out the last drop of petroleum and gas out of the earth, no matter what.

    So while I share your thinking, I cannot yet see people change, and one can only hope, that you and Labour will form the next government, which may allow you to put out more information and education, to reestablish public broadcasting reporting fairly, objectively and offering more science based reports, so that a mind change may be accelerated.

    Best wishes anyway. We can only hope and do our best as individuals that know better and that care.

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