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800 more cars a week? It’s a myth

It’s the oft-repeated mantra from those pushing fuel tax, cycle lanes and public transport. Auckland has another 800 cars hitting its streets every week. But that hasn't been true for two years now. In fact, this year until August there has been a net loss of 4184 cars - figures derived using NZTA's registrations minus de-registrations. More cars are being written off than are driven off the yard. 

The net gain of cars and passenger vans to Auckland a week, using figures from all of 2017 and until August this year, is actually 72.6. Just using 2018 figures, there is a net loss of 119.5 cars a week. There have only been six occasions in the last 88 weeks where the net gain has been over 800. One week in July this year there was a net loss of 1084. 

A Ports of Auckland report in May 2017, done by NIER to assess the pros and cons of moving the port, predicted this dip, although it suggested it would come later. 

"At present the fleet is undergoing a faster replacement rate than over the last decade as a larger than usual cohort of vehicles is reaching replacement age. We will show in our fleet projection that this higher than usual replacement rate is temporary,"  the report said.

At the time the port was handling around 220,000 cars a year - now it is more like 300,000 annually. But cars are disappearing off the other end faster too, getting written off by insurers because old parts are harder to source. 

The car park that irks

From his office in Albert St, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff can see rows of cars lined up on Captain Cook and Bledisloe Wharves after having arrived on ugly square-nosed ships. Those ships can bring in as few as a couple of hundred cars or as many as 2600, occasionally more. Goff gets to work early to avoid peak hour but can still waste three and a half hours some days sitting in traffic as he commutes to and from Manurewa. There is chronic congestion the length of his journey, a lot of it caused by some of that extra housing the council's trying to get built. It's no wonder he used the "800 cars a week" phrase a lot during his election campaign in 2016. He was still using it in interviews at the end of August.

He says he has stopped using the phrase now, but defends its accuracy at the time. He also points out that all those cars arriving in the peak time of May and June 2016 are still on the road. "There's still a cumulative impact. I'm certainly noticing it on the roads I travel on." He says while the 800 figure is no longer true "it is true that the huge bulge of those cars are still on the road. The impact is still being felt." 

As for justification for the fuel tax, Goff says without it we will never make inroads into the city's congestion issues. "I think the 800 cars a week - which was an accurate figure - simply explained why our roads are more and more cluttered." He says vehicle numbers have been climbing year on year for the last eight or nine years - and productivity losses because of congestion are getting higher and higher each week. "The fuel tax is around dealing with a mode shift in transport and trying to stop increasing gridlock. Without it we could be doing upgrades and renewals and nothing much else.

"I certainly haven't been mis-using the stats."

Car sales stalled

Dodson's Japanese Auto Spares on the North Shore wrecks an average of six cars a week. Manager Stuart Hankins estimates there are between 95 and 120 wreckers operating in Auckland, many of them doing much bigger numbers. Damaged car auctions would take another 200 out of circulation every week. At the moment, he says "virtually nothing is happening" in the car market. Dealers are complaining bitterly to him about the lack of sales; there is a glut. Hankins says a couple of years ago everyone was putting an upgraded car on their mortgage, but money is tighter now. 

Cars that don't count

Turners is the biggest seller of used cars in the country, accounting for about 10 percent. CEO Todd Hunter says by far the biggest volume of cars is weighted around lower value purchases - in fact cars costing more than $30,000 make up just 4 percent of the market. Hunter believes there are considerable cost pressures on middle income earners at the moment - with fuel and rent in particular. He says up till now replacement vehicles have been fuelling the market. "The country's been through reasonably good times and cars have been getting cheaper. I suspect what we are likely to see with fuel prices going up is that the demand will fall back off." He says one of the dangers that comes with that is the increasing number of cars being driven with lapsed registrations.

When a car is de-registered, one of four boxes is ticked. They are 'written off by insurer', 'DPU' (Destroyed and Permanently Useless), 'PTOR' (Permanently Taken Off the Road) or 'Lapsed Registration'. Nationwide, cars in all these categories have leapt year on year. Throughout New Zealand this August, 1663 cars were written off by an insurer - about 40 percent of those are likely to have been in Auckland. Hunter says older cars have become increasingly uneconomic to repair. That figure was up 17 percent on the same month last year. 

DPU and PTOR figures also went up August to August, by 11 percent. Nationwide 1748 cars got removed from circulation this way. Hunter says some of them will be kicking around on farms, still driven but not on the road. 

However the lapsed registration figure is harder to make assumptions about. For this to happen the car hasn't been registered for two years, and if its owner tries to re-register it, the vehicle faces a whole new set of compliance tests - you can't just pay the fee and get going again. Nationwide there were 2418 cars in this category in August, again a rise of 13 percent year on year. But Hunter believes a lot of these cars will be on the road - the owners too broke to pay the registration fee, and too broke not to go to work. So they take a gamble. The number could add several hundred more of these 'invisible' vehicles to the load on Auckland's roads every month. 

A new wave

Another factor in the changing car fleet will be electric vehicles. Those at the coal face don't believe there will be a huge influx in the short term. Stuart Hankins says there's not a lot of interest in expensive cars that are expensive to fix. The POAL report predicts a marginal increase in imports because of EVs. It says there will be a "more rapid refresh of the fleet as people move increasingly to electric vehicles over the next 30 years." In 20 years' time it assumes 90 percent of light vehicles will be electric. The report predicts rapid rises after 2020 - so by the next local body election campaign, Phil Goff could have a new frightening car import figure for us. 

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