Why are we so bad at public transport?

This post first appeared at TraNZport blog and is republished with permission.

Recently there was some commentary about a 4 percent public transport fare rise in Auckland and how that contradicts the city’s climate change goals, and it caught my attention. It made a fair point, and I don’t disagree that there is some weird stuff going on here, which includes Auckland cutting public transport expenditure to save money at a time when increasing patronage is a pivotal part of the plan. However, it raises a much wider question around transport in New Zealand and the country’s climate change goal ambitions; are policies and processes supporting the change that is needed, or undermining it? Rather than pointing the finger solely at councils, seeking a better understanding of how policy is set at both central and local government levels might reveal a fundamentally flawed system that is like taking two steps forward and two back again.

A list of failures

Historically, local councils were pretty on to it about the need to increase public transport patronage (i.e. mode shift) as a way to bring down carbon emissions. The biggest obstacle was a lack of funding, with most government expenditure not only being focused on supporting large roading projects, but policy also tending to outright favour roading investment. In the last few years, central government has finally started to join the party with important policy documents like the transport GPS shifting to a more proactive stance on prioritising public transport for a variety of social, economic, and environmental reasons. Yet, there remains a distinct lack of movement on key projects. Auckland light rail is a prime example, but progress on other projects has stagnated too, including Let’s Get Wellington Moving’s key public transport and rapid transit components, whilst rapid transit and bus overhauls in Christchurch are progressing but are well and truly in the early stages (especially rapid transit).

Auckland’s Light Rail hasn’t had the easiest of rides

What’s wrong with the picture?

There are questions around capability, but it isn’t just that that needs to be questioned. How transport projects are funded also needs to be looked at very seriously, in my opinion. My view on this is that we seem to have simply decided to adopt the same systems and procedures used to progress roads and hope for the best. The result is things like the NZ Upgrade Package, a once in a generation multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment, mostly going to roads (and missing some highly populated parts of New Zealand out).

Is policy working against policy?

A key question for me is how government policies work as an ecosystem; how can we make public transport more desirable when we demand it recover so much of its expenses through the farebox? Under the previous government, this increased to 50 percent as official policy, extremely high by world standards. Why not signal to councils that the government is taking this seriously, and make a big song and dance about slashing this?

Capital and operational funding is also a challenge to councils. Greater Christchurch councils recently voted to spend more on public transport services, resulting in greater bus network frequency and coverage. Getting there was a challenge, and involved three territorial authorities, a regional council, and central government agreeing, via a business case. This risks politicising public transport funding in the face of a strong evidential basis.

Then what about the councils themselves? There’s Auckland’s conflicts as mentioned before, but conflicting policies are not uncommon; see Christchurch’s two-facing over mode shift and car park subsidisation.

Is the tide turning?

I think the government is starting to realise there is a problem. However, is it fully understanding what’s wrong or is it just dealing with issues as they come up? The National Policy Statement on urban development was a welcome steamroll of council regulations holding back high density and transit oriented developments in our larger cities. The recent announcement of a ban on non-zero emissions buses after 2025, and a little bit of funding to help, takes the issue away from councils, acknowledging the importance of a good, timely outcome. These are good steps. However, for my money there remain a few outstanding issues to really set in a step change to how transport is delivered in New Zealand, namely:

  • ensuring policy does not contradict at both levels of government
  • identifying what issues need a national setting rather than relying on councils to “do the right thing” in their jurisdiction
  • reassessing how councils fund public transport
  • reassessing how public transport is delivered at the local level (regional councils, regional transport authorities, etc)
  • reassessing how public transport is delivered at the national level

I could really go on, but the upshot of what I am suggesting is that to have a step-change in transport outcomes, to increase public transport’s share of journeys, and roll out major projects, and reduce emissions; a step-change is likely needed in the tools we use to get there.

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