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Stop pushing the roads vs rail narrative

There shouldn’t be a contest between public transport and private cars, but a reasoned discussion about how we can integrate the two, writes Shane Te Pou

To our collective detriment, debates over transport in New Zealand have become ideological flashpoints. It’s a relatively new thing, but it undermines a balanced approach to meeting Kiwis’ transportation needs in the era of climate change.

For all but the past few years, the Labour Party I joined would unabashedly support new roads, for example, with no less enthusiasm than they would public transport initiatives. We understood both were needed, and that each served a valuable purpose in building a productive economy and fair society.

But Labour has lost sight of the bigger picture on transport, adopting a default posture of hostility to roads and cars that used to be the preserve of Green Party puritans. Today, both parties of the left act as if they would happily ditch all proposed roads in favour of urban bicycle lanes - the latter being, alongside light rail, the only kind of infrastructure project to pass muster among many so-called political progressives these days. There is an unmistakable hierarchy that casts cyclists and public transport users as virtuous, and the rest of us as climate change deniers, or reckless and selfish at least.  

Let’s cure this ideological anti-road obsession by the Greens and Labour.

The fact is, slashing spending on new and improved roads on its own is likely to rebound on those seeking to reduce emissions. In a 2009 report on the Real-World CO2 Impacts of Traffic Congestion, University of California scientists found that emissions from vehicles can be cut by 20 percent by reducing congestion and enabling better traffic flow. Conversely, allowing more and more cars to clutter our inadequate roading network - without a commensurate investment in viable alternative means of transport - is a carbonated disaster. The same scientists found that the second way to reduce emissions from vehicles is to transition away from fossil fuels. The practical solutions are clear: transition to electric and reduce congestion. Nowhere in the academic literature will you find arguments for proactively creating congestion through defunding roads, let alone shaming people out of their cars. As their report says, “traffic volume has increased faster than road capacity, congestion has gotten progressively worse, despite the push toward alternative modes of transportation, new technologies, innovative land-use patterns, and demand management techniques”.

Rail has a major part to play, especially under the stewardship of KiwiRail’s outstanding new CEO, Greg Miller. Formerly a senior executive at Mainfreight, Miller helped pioneer the Māori transport network Te Kupenga Mahi and served as the Kahui Ariki representative of the Māori King and Chair of the Waikato Tainui Tribal Parliament. At the tine of his appointment, Miller correctly pointed out: “We are now at a pivotal point in the organisation’s history with the support of the Government and the ability to make a once-in-a-generation difference to New Zealanders through easing congestion in our cities, taking trucks off vulnerable roads, reducing carbon emissions and driving investments in regional economies”.

We need to move on from false binary propositions. It’s not roads versus rail; it’s how we best integrate the two. It’s not a contest between safety barriers and new roads. It should be better safety and better roads. It certainly shouldn’t be a contest between modes of public transport and private cars, but a reasoned discussion about how we enhance the former to reduce reliance on the latter in ways that don’t undermine productivity.  

In rural and provincial parts of New Zealand where public transport is unviable, investment in road and rail infrastructure remains vital to long-term economic prospects. In fact, surely the fate of the Coalition’s promise of revitalisation to the provinces hinges on building long-term resilience beyond the sugar high of the Provincial Growth Fund. You can’t have coherent ports or rail unless you have decent roads and trucking. Road and rail are complementary - 90 percent of freight goes on road. Make it harder - and costs go up and timeliness declines. That translates to reduced productivity - something the Prime Minister has said is on her Government’s watchlist.

Let’s cure this ideological anti-road obsession by the Greens and Labour. Maybe it’s time for NZ First to step up. Crappy roads means it takes longer, and costs more, to get places. It places a burden on families and businesses without making the faintest dent in our net carbon emissions. It sets up a faulty choice between economic and environmental objectives when a smart, well-balanced approach can serve both.

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