Why is it so hard for New Zealand to not do roads?

This is article first appeared at TraNZport and is republished with permission.

Promises were made, promises were not delivered, and now we find ourselves back where we started, in a fashion. Whether it is light rail in Auckland, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, or mass rapid transit in Christchurch, progress on major public transport projects in our cities – that would re-balance mode share, improve access, and reduce transport related emissions – has been painfully slow. So much so, that to address the infrastructure deficit, the government turned back the clock and spent billions of dollars on ever-ready-to-go roading projects.

The question that presents itself here is “why?” Why has progress on non-road transport infrastructure been so slow and – frankly – unsuccessful? Well, here are a few educated guesses:

  • New Zealand’s transport apparatus is set up to deliver road projects, not public transport
  • Cleavages in local government are leading to a lack of alignment on transport priorities
  • There is a disconnect related to understanding how non-road projects benefit road users
All new roads lead to places like this. 

New Zealand struggles to do anything but roads…

NZTA (and its predecessors) is – by default – historically a road-transport authority. It (along with other agencies) is geared up to deliver big roading projects, and to solve New Zealand’s transport problems with road-based solutions. A generalisation, yes, but a reasonably accurate one at the high level. This follows decades of government policy that has meant that transport capital spending has almost exclusively been on roads (think RoNS). Inadequate investment in public transport, and the managed decline of the rail network compound the situation.

Therefore, when a step-change in transport policy is made – as in through the GPS 2018 – with greater emphasis on rail, rapid transit, public and active transport, a dedication to reducing carbon emissions, and giving effect to mode-shift, there are a few problems encountered:

  • The lack of capability related to non-road projects
  • Utilising frameworks and processes (the “machine”) geared to deliver a single product (roads) to now deliver many other, new, products (other modes)
  • Engrained thinking that inhibits progression on new policy priorities (basically a lack of institutional buy-in to new ways of thinking and doing things)

To put it another way, the government’s own delivery agencies simply lack experience and expertise in doing what is asked of them. Further, they are trying to do it through methods developed over a long time for completely different projects (sometimes fundamentally different). It’s not just NZTA. Other delivery entities are struggling in the capability department. When was the last light rail line built in New Zealand? (the Christchurch tram doesn’t count). When was the last time the rail network expanded? (1950s to serve forestry).

Kiwi’s love a good road

The government’s recent transport infrastructure announcement was an interesting milestone. It seems to be a clear signal that the pre-existing delivery environment was inappropriate to deliver on the transport promises made. Over time, that could change, but the alternative was/is to build new environments from scratch. Identify where there are gaps and aim to fill them. The problem is that this also takes time, but it has the benefit of making it look like you are making progress, and know what you are doing from the get-go. It also bypasses pre-existing culture that can run counter to demands and linger in agencies tasked with new… well, tasks.

Setting up new structures to deliver on fundamentally different projects can achieve that, and can be done at pace if necessary. For example, I understand at a base level why the government took light rail from Auckland Transport and handed it to NZTA to deliver on, but maybe that needed a bit more thinking behind it. Sure, the strategic and national importance required a more centralised and experienced entity, but it clearly joined a bunch of baggage in doing so. Perhaps something more, something fresher, was needed?

Local government is not helping…

Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is slowly morphing into a political football. Political players are trying to turn it into a playing field for the upcoming general election, something that partially played out in last year’s local body elections. Basically, some people want to reprioritise certain projects over others, like a second Mt Victoria over mass rapid transit. Some want projects that weren’t included to be included, like the trenching and four-laning of State Highway 1. Yet others want to ditch some projects altogether, like mass rapid transit or pedestrianisation of the Golden Mile, or the aforementioned second Mt Victoria tunnel. Then there is the whole “regional projects versus metropolitan projects” debate. It goes on.

This isn’t the real problem, though. It’s more a symptom. The real problem is that responsibility for public transport sits across multiple councils. While administratively public transport in Wellington is the responsibility of Greater Wellington Regional Council, the way public transport is funded, and that other responsibilities sit with Wellington City Council (i.e. bus lanes and bus stops etc), makes it prone to political point scoring. It also makes transport policy prone to differences in ideology, micro-scale parochialism, and anecdotal evidence trumping hard data and analysis.

The same issue can be seen in Christchurch, where the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) has responsibility for public transport, but relies on three territorial authorities (with differing priorities and ideological bents) to help fund the network and agree on policy directions. For example, alignment on mass rapid transit has not been in evidence, and certainly doesn’t align with central government’s $100 million offer for commuter rail. Spending on public transport does not match ambitions, and ambitions depending on the council differ.


These situations contrast with Auckland where there is a history of addressing this issue. First, historically with the Auckland Regional Authority of the 1960s, then Auckland Regional Transport Authority of the 2000s, and now Auckland Transport via the Amalgamated Auckland Council (Super City) in 2010. For all the dramas experienced since 2010’s amalgamation of the local authorities in the region, Auckland’s transport priorities are relatively cohesive and evidence based, only the issues described in the section above stalling major projects like light rail or busways.

LGWM was an attempt to get Wellington on the same page, but it’s been nothing but an embarrassing food fight since. In Christchurch – where per capita use is declining and per capita public transport expenditure is well below that of Auckland and Wellington –  the city council sees itself as the saviour in waiting. They’ve been pushing for responsibility for public transport to be transferred to them for years, and it looks like the legislative changes to do so are going to happen. However, I can’t see that changing much, other than cutting one player out. The key issues will still remain; non-alignment on strategic direction, funding and prioritisation of projects.

So then, is amalgamation of local authorities the answer to these problems? No, not necessarily. Certainly, however, new local transport funding and governance models need to be considered that avoid the pitfalls of local government cleavages, and local transport becoming a political football. An independent transport authority? Christchurch has had some success with its Joint Public Transport Committee, which has led to greater consensus on policy setting. However, the jury is still out on whether it is resulting in any action. If anything, perhaps the lack of progress thus far suggests this is too weak a model. An independent transport authority that combined the transport functions of all councils might be a better option, but would require legislative change to give it effect, would be a big undertaking, and probably controversial. No one said it would be easy.

The disconnect – people still aren’t getting it (aka we aren’t explaining it correctly)

This leads me to what I consider to be the outcome of the above two problems. People are still not understanding how concepts like mode-shift benefit all transport users. Lack of progress and communications because of ill-suited delivery systems, low capability, culturally imposed ideological opposition, and systemic failure at the local level means the public’s understanding of why transport investment should change is poor. That feeds on itself in an unholy cycle because it creates a broad section of the public who are willing to consider “alternatives” to projects that support mode-shift, which in this case is the status quo of building roads to solve major transport and traffic problems. This creates fertile ground for politics, which means evidence goes out the door. It’s why a second Mt Victoria tunnel and Auckland light rail are political hot potatoes. It’s why the government recently funded a package of multi-billion dollar roads.

Auckland light rail hasn’t happened as fast as promised. 

This in turn leads to frustration, and a combative approach to the transport discourse. This doesn’t help matters at all, of course. People pick their sides, and the upshot is that transport policy settings are decided on in a hurry, based upon gut feeling. This is where the “just get on with it” brigade starts to gain traction, politicians play to their ears, and we get really stupid decisions, and really poor outcomes.

What do we do about it?

I don’t really know. However, some high level thoughts I have on this are as follows:

  • Actually take the time to work out the best way of delivering a mode-neutral transport network at a national level
  • Follow the “Auckland model” for delivering transport in Wellington and Christchurch
  • Get better at addressing your audience

To expand on this a little bit, I think one of the things that has really gone wrong is that promises have been made that set up colossally unrealistic expectations. For example, Auckland light rail turns out it have been much harder than originally envisaged, for a variety of reasons (which I will not go into here, but, yes, I am including unsolicited alternative proposals here!). However, it’s not just about delivering that individual project, but taking a strategic view on how best to deliver vastly different outcomes. Expecting the same old structures to deliver a different outcomes is kind of akin to running a petrol car with diesel (sorta).

I acknowledge that Auckland isn’t perfect, but given the history with Auckland’s transport administration, you have to wonder why no one can learn from that and actually put some thought to developing bespoke models so Wellington and Christchurch can avoid poor outcomes. Instead, the solution has been to try and deliver at a local level by tinkering around the edges, or stacking a house of cards.

Finally, some thought, somewhere in officialdom, needs to go towards explaining why decisions are made to pursue things like mass rapid transit, cycleways or why roads are prioritised as they are. This has been a failure in New Zealand generally, but LGWM is a particularly recent case in point. It came across as “that’s the decision, because we like it, end of story” and simply dared people to use it as a political tool. People who have been driving for 30-40 years are only going to see the shortest, simplest solution as the only logical one. if they are stuck in traffic, it only seems reasonable to fix the road. Those are the people government at all levels need to get through to. They aren’t the enemy here, they are a potential ally.

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