new auckland

City air pollution still too high

Auckland should have the best air quality in the world for its size - but city air is polluted and estimated to cost taxpayers $466 million annually in healthcare. Vanita Prasad reports.

Standing at the lights at one of Queen St’s many intersections it doesn’t take long to notice the noxious fumes trapped in the valley of buildings.

Emissions from buses, large trucks, heavy goods vehicles and from the Auckland port have been identified as key contributors to the city’ increasingly poor air quality.

Council research released in December found that long-term average concentrations of black carbon, a harmful air pollutant associated with diesel emissions, have been recorded at levels two to three times higher than in internationally comparable cities in Europe and North America.

According to an Auckland Transport report diesel vehicles are estimated to be responsible for 81 percent of all vehicle related air pollution health costs, estimated at $466 million annually.

It’s a finding that has scientists, city councillors and Auckland’s Medical Officer of Health calling for fast-tracked measures to get diesel-emitting vehicles out of the downtown area.

Auckland Council air quality scientist Nick Talbot, who authored the report which drew from University of Auckland, Niwa and GNS Science research, says there are no safe levels of nitrogen oxide (No2) or black carbon.

Talbot says while it isn’t time for all city occupants to wear face masks yet, air pollutants within the city are a concern due to the high number of residents and visitors walking in the area daily.

According to pedestrian counts more than 300,000 people travel through the city centre daily.

Speaking to the New Zealand Herald in November the Auckland Regional Public Health Service medical officer Dr David Sinclair said while many people did not notice poor air quality it could have long-term health effects, including respiratory illness, heart attacks, lung cancer, strokes and diabetes.

Studies have also found the degradation of air quality across Auckland has resulted in upwards of 300 premature deaths and has been shown to increase hospital admission cases for acute respiratory disorders.

Pollution hot spots

Auckland’s waterfront, roads with high density bus stops, and the city centre's main arterial routes were found to have the highest pollution levels.

Nitrogen oxide concentrations on Quay St were close to or exceeding World Health Organisation annual recommended levels and high concentrations were also found on Wellesley St and Victoria St in part because of the steep incline buses must travel up from Queen Street to Nelson Street.

Talbot says the location for the planned Karangahape City Rail Link train station is also “interesting” -- with the proposed entrance in an area that has some of New Zealand’s highest NO2 levels, due its proximity to the motorway system's Spaghetti Junction.

He says steps should be taken to mitigate the impact for CRL commuters, including positioning the entrance in another direction and planting trees and hedges.

Fast-tracking the roadmap

In the same month that the council’s final report was released Auckland Transport published its Low Emission Bus Roadmap documenting the agency’s plans to reach a zero-emission bus fleet by 2040.

It set a period between this year and 2025 to expand its low emission bus trials, with a target of 2025 to procure only zero emission buses.

The 2040 target left the agency’s board, Auckland Council's committees on Planning and the Environment and Communities and the Waitemata Local Board unsatisfied and asking for more ambitious goals.
A letter from five ‘green leaning’ councillors was also sent in December to Auckland Transport’s chief executive Shane Ellison encouraging immediate action from the agency to reduce transport associated emissions. 

Since then Auckland Transport has started assessing the costs and benefits of a zero-emission bus fleet by 2030 and is currently modelling the details of a faster transition.

The new target would draw Auckland closer to its commitments as a signatory of the C40 Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets Declaration alongside cities like Paris, London and Vancouver. The declaration commits Auckland to buying only zero emission buses from 2025 and ensuring a major area of the city is zero emission by 2030.

Auckland Transport is trialling three electric buses  and has a plan to introduce 11 more from November 2020 for the City Link service, after the expiry of the current contract.

The report indicates a full conversion of Auckland’s bus fleet to zero emission vehicles will reduce life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from buses by 72 percent, and eliminate the tail-pipe emissions of the various oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter.

Looking forward

“We can have the best air quality for any million-plus city in the world, and that’s what we should aspire to,” says Talbot.

“We just need to make those changes to get us to that point – that would be worth a lot of money I think for Auckland and New Zealand in general”.

The air quality scientist says he is enthusiastic about the Auckland Design Office’s proposed Access for Everyone plan, a concept that introduces light rail and further pedestrianises Queen St.

Auckland Transport's manager for bus services, Darek Koper, says the agency’s next steps include: sourcing hydrogen fuel cell buses for trials; analysing costs to upgrade the power grid for stable bus charging at depots and, bringing together a low emission working group to connect bus operators with existing and new-to-New Zealand electric bus suppliers, regulators, and academics to remove barriers to earlier adoption of zero emission buses.

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