This post first appeared at TraNZport and is republished with permission.
As 2019 rolls into 2020, one thing is clear; I feel dreadfully old. It used to be that the changing of a decade was a momentous occasion, yet the last one seemed to be only a few years ago. Even more depressing is – looking back – how little progress we’ve made in New Zealand since 2010 in terms of changing the transport landscape from one that is car dependent to one that is less so.
This post isn’t going to be a complete rant about what’s wrong with the nation (although there will be some of that) rather it is more about looking at what wins/losses we’ve had in 2010-19, and what I hope we see in the next year or three if things continue to progress – a bit of a mix between a wish-list and a crystal ball gaze based on current happenings. First, let’s get the really bad out of the way.
Roads! Roads! Roads! Roads! Roads! Roa…
We began the decade with the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) in full swing. Funding for local roads, a raft of safety upgrades across the national highway network, public and active transport, and more, was next to nothing while billions of dollars was poured into relatively short sections of motorways. Sure, they may have been the more well used sections of highway in New Zealand, but they undermined efforts to effect mode-shift, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce traffic on other roads in and around our major cities. Some of these roads are still being completed, and the threat of RoNS 2.0 hangs in the air like a bad smell you just can’t find. More on that later though…
Have I got a deal for you!
I don’t know if it is truly endemic to the 2010-19 decade, but man was there a lot of those “this idea will revolutionise transport as we know it” moments (aka Lyle Lanley moments). Whether it was apps, driverless cars, air taxis, trackless trams or whatever, they all promised one very exciting thing; effective transport, only much cheaper! And, lo and behold, it almost always just so happened to mean we should hold off investing in large public transport projects. Roading projects were exempt, of course, because we always need six lane motorways.
Auckland’s tide changes
Auckland still gets a lot of stick about its transport network. A friend of mine who moved there a couple of years ago bemoans the lack of a truly effective mass rapid transit network, and it’s a sentiment I hear from a lot of others. It’s still in reality a very car dependent city. Yet, if you consider where Auckland has come from you have to admit it has improved beyond sight. Yes, there is still a long way to go, but there has been some positive progress. This includes passing the 100 million trips a year mark, electrifying its once decrepit rail system, starting the underground City Rail Link, implementing a new bus network successfully (if you are not from New Zealand, bus network improvements have not gone well in other cities), starting the eastern busway, and getting light rail onto the table (more on that later). Auckland, you may, despite what you think, actually only be a step above Adelaide, but progress you have made. Even Wellington could learn a thing or two from you.
A new turn…
The last couple of years has seen a resounding change in the way the government thinks about transport, reflected in the 2018 Government Policy Statement. Thinking of climate change, mode shift, land utilisation and all sorts of things we haven’t in the past is suddenly a big part of how solutions are developed. Whether it’s the momentum building in Auckland, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, the resurgence of rail, or the cycleways starting to pepper our cities, there is a real feeling that we have moved beyond the RoNs. Although…
Roads! Roads! Roads! Roads! Roads! Roa…
The government’s recent announcement of a big transport spend up seems to have a strong focus on investing in those RoNS 2.0 projects, and if the current opposition has anything to do with it they’ll be giving the green light to a myriad of projects, with little sign of similar priority to other modes. Meanwhile…
Where Auckland excels, others stumble
It just isn’t worth talking about Christchurch’s public transport misfortunes. It’s too depressing. Bus patronage is stalled below 2010 levels while it is now the largest city in Australasia without any form of passenger rail or rapid transit. As the population increases at record pace, investment remains at pitiful levels compared to Auckland and Wellington (real level and per capita), and per capita usage is actually declining. Meanwhile, Wellington, New Zealand’s poster child for good urban transport, seems to have developed tunnel vision (of the road variety). Let’s Get Wellington Moving has prioritised public and active transport, but a campaign with good resources is fighting for more roads to squeeze more cars into spaces that are already jam packed.
Light rail a little light on progress
Auckland may be making progress overall, but the progress with the light rail project has been a bit of a public relations nightmare. Is it light rail, or driverless metro? Will it be funded by government, or a private-public-partnership? Will it go down the original route along Dominion Rd (the one light rail was meant to relieve bus congestion on) or along a new one? Will it be a transport and urban revolution, or will it be a colossal cost-blowout of apocalyptic, nuclear meltdown proportions that kills off public interest in investing in large public transport projects for generations? Will a direction be set some time in 2020? TBC.
What will 2020 (and beyond) bring?
That’s the multi-billion dollar question. It’s likely we won’t have too long to wait, either. $6.8 billion is up for grabs for the best shovel ready road and rail projects, and with details of where that will go I imagine sometime in 2020 we will get some announcements. This could be the Government acquiescing to the roading echo chamber and essentially green-lighting RoNS 2.0, but there could be some interesting surprises. I remain naively optimistic.
Also potentially being announced is progress on Auckland light rail. It’s clear it won’t see spades in the ground before the end of the year, if even 2021, but you’d hope to have a clear, decisive proposal and a solid pathway developed/approved. I have no idea on what progress is being made, but with two proposals being developed side-by-side you’d hope the competitive spirit results in some high quality – and interesting – outputs.
Let’s Get Wellington Moving has some long time lines, but I am hopeful there will be progress on the mass rapid transit study, that the second Mt Victoria Tunnel will not be reprioritised, and that some quick wins get underway (e.g. finalising Golden Mile improvements). What Wellington needs is to not wobble too much and risk falling over. Lately, the car brigade have really got their teeth into ridiculing public and active transport investments; the latest catch-cry has been for them to act sympathetic to mass rapid transit, but try to justify a priority of a second tunnel on the (misleading) basis that it is a necessary prerequisite. Very cheeky.
Christchurch has business cases getting underway on improving the bus network and introducing mass rapid transit along a north-south corridor. I have no idea what progress will be made by the end of 2020, but the prospect of RoNS 2.0 being the only major transport infrastructure investments in the city for the 2020s is a very real risk. With public transport usage so low, car dependency embedded, there is one thing this city needs; a revolution. Christchurch has to prioritise public transport investment as a strategy to head off congestion at the pass, not stall the economy, reduce carbon emissions, instigate sustainable urban development (i.e. increase densities), and drag itself into the 21st Century. In my view, mass rapid transit should be as practical to implement as possible, because more bespoke solutions run the risk of stalling progress. Rail? Light rail? Bus rapid transit? Maybe we’ll find out soon.
Good bye 2019! (and hello 2020!)
That was probably a little more pessimistic than I promised. I apologise. Now for some blog related updates. First, I will continue to write posts and share them publicly, and am happy for other sites to re-post if they are looking for material and like what they read (note I am more than happy to be prompted on a particular topic – if you can convince me). Second, plans I have in place for making this blog over a little bit will finally be going forward, along with finally sorting a long-dormant twitter account. So expect some changes in how this site looks and functions (well, just a little). I’m also keen to expand my activities into other mediums, though that might be a work progressed rather than completed in 2020. Nevertheless, I am looking to do moderately sized things!
I am, however, an unfortunately busy person (half self-inflicted) so working out a routine is a key part of going forward into 2020. I currently have a bit of a backlog of half-written posts and outlines for other, more in-depth, pieces that seems to only get bigger. The upshot of this is that I am planing to transition to less regular, more in-depth posts, with shorter commentary-style posts essentially making up the balance. Let’s see how that goes! Guest posts are welcome, and I am planning to develop some guidelines for early 2020. So if you are keen, watch this space.
This is likely to be my last post for a couple of weeks, unless I have a spare moment to finish one of the aforementioned posts or something major happens (however unlikely) so I wish you a happy holidays and thank you for taking an interest. Catch you in 2020.
Trackless Tram image credit – the Conversation.