What if Tradies Preferred Trams to Utes?

This post first appeared on Brendon Harre’s blog and is published with permission.

What would it mean for a city if builders of new housing were able to take trams (or trams big brother trains) to work?

It would mean public transport was built first. It would mean planners and developers had master planned neighbourhoods with rapid transit in mind, before sub-dividers had sprawled into it. It would mean the type of housing, the density of housing, the way the streets are laid out is such that new neighbourhoods maximise the benefit that public transport provides.

This would create neighbourhoods with more houses, more businesses and more activity yet with less cars.

I believe tradies taking public transport to work would be a bellwether indicator of change. It would indicate an end to auto-dependency being the only transport choice. It would mean that more housing type choice is coming.

One of the defining urbanist mental images I have is the result of learning that in Germany it is commonplace to see tradies heading to building sites in new subdivisions using public transport because in Germany public transport is built first.

Bernard Hickey has written that New Zealand is a Double-cab ute nation vs carbon zero. The first paragraph of his article states, “New Zealanders’ obsession with buying new double cab utes will make achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 almost impossible without a major and possibly politically unpalatable policy change.”

Bernard is completely correct in his concern that the most popular new vehicle in New Zealand right now is the Ford Ranger and more generally, double-cab utes make up eight of the top 10 new vehicles sold.

Last year New Zealand bought nearly 37,000 double cab utes almost all of which were diesel-burning gas-guzzlers. In New Zealand cars last on average 19 years before they exit the fleet which means that a car someone buys today will lock in emissions until 2037 for that vehicle.

Bernard’s policy analysis is that double cab utes will need to be taxed and more environmentally cleaner vehicles, such as electric vehicles will need to be subsidised. But Bernard thinks this will be politically unpalatable due to the population being obsessed with a kiwi lifestyle of; the boat, the bach, being able to tow a trailer, go to the tip on the weekends, take the jetski somewhere or put the bike racks on….

The question in my mind is New Zealand’s high use of gas guzzling vehicles a result of obsession, or to phrase it more kindly, a cultural preference for driving? If this is the true reason for high automobile use, then as it is causing harm to the planet it will need to be discouraged, with something like new taxes. Alternatively, New Zealand’s high rate of automobile use may be the result of transport choice poverty. In which case the policy implications is less stick and more carrot -in the form of providing more transport and housing choices.

I think the evidence points to poverty of transport choice being more important than the cultural preference for driving.

Light vehicle (under 3,500kg) ownership rates vary quite considerably between New Zealand’s three biggest cities. Christchurch in Canterbury is up around 910 vehicles per 1000 people, Auckland has about 720 and Wellington 650. If preference and ‘kiwi lifestyle’ is the cause of high automobile ownership, then Christchurch should have the highest income (the higher the income the more preferences can be met) and be the mecca city for ‘kiwi lifestyle’. Canterbury though has the lowest income of the three regions and I doubt Wellington and Auckland would agree they have an inferior ‘lifestyle’ compared to Christchurch.

Rather the evidence points to poverty of transport choice being the more important determining factor. The major difference between Christchurch versus Auckland and Wellington is the later two cities have rapid transit services which are competitive with car use and Christchurch does not.

Wellington, for instance, in the last 10–15 years has invested in double tracking, electrification and new rolling stock leading to a 51% increase in rail patronage into the city between 2009 and 2018 and a corresponding decrease in car use.

Source Talking Wellington

Germany is an interesting case study. It definitely has a car culture. They make cars, they have high speed autobahns, when you travel through Europe and pass into Germany, it is immediately apparent it is a place that loves cars and loves driving fast.

Yet for every 1000 people in Germany there are only 500–550 cars. In Freiburg it’s 430 cars, and in Vauban it’s below 100.


Freiburg is a city of 220,000 at the edge of the black forest in the south-western corner of Germany, near the French border. 80% of its city centre was destroyed in WW2 yet they rebuilt on the medieval footprint. In the 1950’s and 60’s the city experienced increased car use and expansion into new suburbs. The oil shocks in the 1970s led to a change in direction with a sustained investment in alternative transport modes. The existing tram network expanded to become the backbone for new urban development and the foundation of a vibrant small city.

Vauban is a new district of Freiburg, construction began 20 years ago on a former military base. Car use is highly restricted to just a few locations.


Vauban was conceived with public transit as the central transportation axis. It is only 15 minutes by tram to the centre of Freiburg.

Vauban prioritises its public spaces for people. A lack of cars means children safely have free range to play throughout the district.

Vauban and Freiburg residents appear to have a lifestyle they are happy with. I suspect many kiwis would prefer Freiburg or even Vauban type living to the supposed ‘kiwi double cab ute’ lifestyle.

If Canterbury readers like the ‘tram’ lifestyle then they may be interested in a paper I wrote discussing the options of building rapid transit in advance of housing for Greater Christchurch -titled Christchurch’s Future is a Fat Banana.

Existing heavy rail lines = black lines. Motorways = red lines (including sections currently being extended). Tram-train city centre loop = violet loop. Bus rapid transit spine = green lines. Light rail spoke = light blue line. Distance from city centre to south Prebbleton.

If readers want to influence public authorities to integrate rapid transit investment with new housing for Christchurch then the Greater Christchurch Partnership is receiving submissions on their draft updated Our Space 2018–2048 Greater Christchurch Settlement Pattern document.

Christchurch City Council (one of the partners) have indicated feedback is open from the 31st of October to the 30th November.

Note: Recently I clumsily wrote on twitter that “approaching 100% of builders drive to work in New Zealand”. I got an indignant response indicating when they could many tradies chose other options.


H/T Nick Lovett —for his photo and message -“Lots of construction workers in Christchurch CBD biked or carpooled. This is a photo of the Fletcher office when the Justice Precinct was under construction.”



3 thoughts on “What if Tradies Preferred Trams to Utes?

  1. Some people on Twitter thought maybe the explanation for Canterbury’s higher car use rate is due to the metropolitan population of Christchurch being a smaller percentage of regional population in comparison to Wellington i.e. is Canterbury more rural or more spread out than the Wellington region? Does that explain the difference in light vehicle ownership numbers? I don’t think so.

    The 2018 figures from Statistics NZ show the Wellington region has a population of 521,500 and Canterbury 624,000. Greater Christchurch’s population is larger than Greater Wellington’s at about 480,000 versus 418,500. So Christchurch’s city population is 77% and Wellington’s is 80% of their respective regions population. The 2018 census will help clarify.

    Chris’s post on Christchurch vs Wellington population/distance shows that the Wellington region is more spread out than Christchurch. https://talkingtransport.com/2018/10/04/different-cities-different-shapes-1-5-2/

    In conclusion Wellington and Christchurch have similar city sizes in relation to their regions population so this factor does not explain why there is such a big difference in car ownership rates.

    I believe the obvious reason is that Wellington has commuter rail and Christchurch does not have an equivalent rapid transit system.


  2. Also Wellington is highly topographically constrained which favours PT. Everything from the north is coming down the SH1 & 2 corridors. Christchurch is not far off being a uniform circle.


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