Is New Zealand getting the worst of both worlds when it comes to transport?
This is a guest post by Harrison Fernandes-Burnard. All views expressed are personal.
With the announcement last week of the latest plans for Auckland Light Rail, it is hard to feel anything but frustration and disappointment at the state of transport planning in New Zealand.
I sat on my computer last Friday morning, waiting with a sense of both nervous anticipation and dread for a decision to be made on light rail in Auckland. For a project that has been talked about for so long, with such clear potential benefits, it was frankly sad that I had such low expectations. This was for good reason though, as the predicted outcome of a mostly underground light rail line was announced.
Many others have provided a detailed critique of why the current plans for light rail in Auckland are so baffling (including the good folks at Greater Auckland), but in summary, the proposed line is expensive and indirect, yet will not offer the speed or capacity you would expect for such a massive investment. It is truly baffling that we would construct a line that is mostly grade separated in expensive tunnels yet does not take full advantage of the grade separation to run high capacity, fast trains. This is especially confusing as it is not entirely clear why the original Auckland Transport proposal to run surface trams on Dominion Road was not chosen, given its much lower cost.
Hopefully the design of the project can be improved before the consenting process begins. One obvious improvement would be to just build the line as a Light Metro, which would enable automation and faster speeds and therefore lower operating costs. It would also make a lot of sense for future expansions along the Northern and North-Western corridors, given that they need the additional capacity and are already grade separated. One only must look at the success of such systems in Vancouver, Singapore, and Copenhagen to see the potential benefits. Straightening the alignment to avoid Kingsland and travel under either one of Dominion Road, Mount Eden Road or Manukau Road would also reduce the project cost and make the line far more direct and attractive.
Regardless of the final outcome of Auckland Light Rail though, it just represents another massive disappointment from the current government. I had high hopes of a transit-building revolution throughout Aotearoa when Jacinda Ardern became leader of the Labour Party in 2017 and promised light rail would be a priority, should they get elected. Instead, we have seen endless delays, business case hell and indecision. Apart from some upgrades to the existing Auckland rail network, such as triple-tracking and electrification to Pukekohe, I can’t think of a single public transport project that the current government have proposed and managed to get to the construction phase. It also appears that the Greens do not have enough clout to influence the direction of transit building in New Zealand either, despite the credentials of many of their MPs.
In spite of all of the flaws with the current government, the National Party opposition does not exactly offer much hope of improvement. The decision to make ultra-conservative Simeon Brown the new transport spokesperson for National was the first indication we would not get any progression from National on transport. Sure enough, his immediate reaction to the announcement was to suggest National wouldn’t build light rail, and instead would focus their efforts on building the East-West Link and Mill Road highways, along with perhaps a couple of busways. This mentality from the National Party is nothing short of climate denial and in 2022 is simply not good enough.
The fact that the National Party are still so preoccupied with road and motorway building when we know so clearly about the environmental destruction that they bring, let alone the diminishing returns achieved thanks to induced congestion, just shows how out of touch they are. Other conservative governments around the world have managed to support rail and acknowledge climate change, including the UK and NSW governments, so why can’t our conservatives?
The party seemed to be slowly moving towards a more modern position on transport after they finally got the City Rail Link underway, but ever since Chris Bishop moved on from being the transport spokesperson they have gone backwards. We are back to the ‘roads, roads, roads’ National Party that the likes of Steven Joyce helped to foster.
The problems with transport in New Zealand are not just political though. Waka Kotahi continues to underperform, having made a complete mess of the Northern Pathway project (that I unfortunately worked on myself), along with continuing to push road widening and falling behind on safety upgrades. From first-hand experience, the organisation does not appear to be able make decisions quickly or drive a project forward to implementation, preferring instead to prepare endless reports and business cases. Practical solutions for walking and cycling that includes lane reallocation from private vehicles are almost never considered because they would reduce the ‘flow’ of cars.
This does not even touch upon the fact that our second largest city Christchurch does not have any transit infrastructure, despite being at the confluence of three rail lines. Nor does this touch upon the general lack of inter-city or regional rail in New Zealand, or Kiwirail’s recent announcement about withdrawing existing services. It sometimes feels like we are stuck in the 1960s.
With the urgent need to change the way our transport system functions to address climate change and improve the accessibility of cities; we don’t have time to waste. Yet both our major political parties and our public sector organisations in charge of delivery seem completely incapable of dealing with this crisis at present. The New Zealand public is being completely let down.
So, what can we do? I offer the following suggestions to Transport Minister Wood and perhaps the incoming CEO of AT:
- Set up a national transit agency to design, consent and build infrastructure in New Zealand and ensure it is run by people who fundamentally understand transport and transit;
- Study what has worked overseas and aim to replicate this as much as possible in our cities, rather than reinventing the wheel;
- Scrap our current business case process and instead focus investigations on projects that reduce emissions and improve accessibility;
- Direct AT and Councils to focus on quick win projects that are easy to implement, such as converting parking to bus lanes, building ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes and increasing the frequency of bus services; and
- Remove ‘level of service’ and ‘vehicle flow’ terminology from our transport agencies.
Hopefully we can see some change in our system but based on all the current indications and discourse, this does not seem likely. In the meanwhile, all we can do is advocate and put pressure on our organisations to do better.
Harrison Fernandes-Burnard. Urban planner and transport advocate. All views expressed are personal