Hot Rod

...which makes the rationale for National’s just- announced road building bonanza ridiculous. National argues that building roads is better for the environment because if you build a new road/expand an existing road there will be less traffic congestion, resulting in fewer emissions from the cars on that road or, as they put it in their Transport Announcement yesterday: “the shifts in funding [towards public transport, cycling, and walking] that the previous government proposed would lead to greater congestion…and environmental inefficiency.”

However, this totally ignores the fact that building a new road/expanding an existing road encourages people to drive on it. Ultimately, you end up with more air pollution, not less. This has been happening in New Zealand for the last 50 years as our government has poured more and more money into roading infrastructure and less and less into public transport. In response, the number of cars and the number of trips taken by car in New Zealand, have increased massively. According to the State of the Environment report we own three times as many cars now as we did in the 1950s. We have the 5th highest rate of car ownership in the OECD at 0.7 cars per person. That means that for every person 15 years and over in this country there’s a car. Travel surveys also show that since 1989 the distance that we’re driving has increased: The number of kilometres we travel as a country by car has almost doubled since 1980 (unlike our population which was already 3 million back then).

This is because building new roads leads to the frequently documented phenomenon of induced traffic: i.e., the fact that if a new road has been built people notice that for a LITTLE WHILE it is quicker to get where they want to go and so they drive down it. Building roads also encourages a particular kind of spread out, sprawling development (the North Shore is an excellent example) which means that cars are the best way to get around. People's logic is basically, "Well, if I'm going to drive to work why not drive another 15 minutes and live in the country". Whereas if people can travel by train or bus they think "Well, if I can get there by bus/train why not live close to the station so I don't have to drive at all."

This means that the number of people driving down the new "faster" road rapidly increases so that within a few years it will not actually be the quickest way to get around... Once again, the North Shore is a great example of this. Every time we expand the Harbour Bridge it rapidly becomes just as congested again because MORE people drive over it and 10-15 years later we have to add more clip ons or build a new bridge.

It’s a vicious cycle because, of course, the more we drive, the more traffic congestion and damage to road surfaces we get, and the more money we have to spend on expanding and maintaining roads.

The government says it wants to put the bulk of its transport investment into our state highways (rather than public transport) because this reflects the way New Zealanders currently travel, i.e. around 70% of all freight in New Zealand goes by road, and about 84% of people go to work by car truck or motorbike. This is on par with the “Kiwi kids like junk food so best we stock up tuck shop shelves with it” argument.

It ignores the fact that people's transport (and eating) patterns can, do and in some cases, should change. There is a myth around that New Zealanders, in particular Aucklanders, are special in some way and can't be got out of their cars. This is demonstrably untrue: for example, in Auckland last year the (frankly, tiny) improvements to the rail network saw an 18% increase in patronage to more than 7.2 million passenger trips in 2008.

By building new roads we also make ourselves more dependent on oil. Already too much of our freight and passenger trips are made by road. Putting more money into state highways rather than public transport will exacerbate this problem. Just imagine, for example, if the price of petrol went up as high as it did in the middle of last year and stayed that high for 3 years. NZers (who currently often don’t have access to good public transport networks) would become less mobile and have to pay much more to travel. Because most of our food currently travels by road, our food prices would increase as well (as they did last year when petrol prices rose). Of course, if most of our food travelled by electrified rail that wouldn’t be such a problem.

And then, of course, there is our Kyoto liablility: the money that taxpayers will have to pay for exceeding our targets for reducing emissions by 2012. Currently budgeted by the Treasury at $549 million this cost will just increase the more we drive.

We are going backwards while the rest of the world is going forwards. Australia is in the same situation as NZ in that they have extremely high rates of car ownership, a low population density and spread out cities. However, unlike the National government, the Rudd government clearly has faith in Australian’s common-sense and willingness to get out of cars. Because of that they’ve commited $1.6 billion to rail from 2009 to 2014. Local governments in Australia (with central government’s help) are also planning to expand their rail networks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. The idea of a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Canberra has also been floated: Imagine if we had the same between Auckland and Hamilton….

Economic arguments aside, there are many other reasons we need to drive less. Obesity and overweight rates are sky-rocketing among our children, scientists estimate that more than 500 people are dying prematurely from air pollution from vehicles per year in our country, and worst of all 20 per cent of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions come from transport. Clearly we need to get out of our cars. But first we need to be incentivised by cheap, frequent, and reliable public transport.