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Is traffic really Northcote’s most pressing issue?

Is congestion on its main road really the most important, pressing, national issue in the Northcote by-election? 

The Northcote by-election appears to be centred on arguments over a busy arterial local road that central government has no sway over. National candidate Dan Bidois has promised to “hold Auckland Council accountable” over Onewa Rd’s T3 transit lane but it is unclear if that means he wants to stop the free flow of public transport there.

The problem with by-elections is that candidates must engage the locals with local issues. But is the business of getting to work in the morning in this North Shore electorate an issue that any MP could fix? Or has the conversation been hijacked by car commuters, who watch the parade of full double decker buses speed past their stalled vehicles every week day? Do voters understand that no MP can stop Auckland Transport’s devilish scheme to get Auckland moving?

Auckland councillor Richard Hills, who was on Labour's short list for selection in Northcote before losing out to Shannon Halbert, takes public transport into town most days. He often tweets and Facebooks his journey - "it's like an undercover operation" - highlighting the positive side of the trip. He says traffic congestion is definitely an issue, right across Auckland, but he doesn't think it's the number one issue. 

"Housing is massive in Northcote, especially for younger people." Hills says people who grew up in the area now have no expectation of buying there. Renting is tough, with some spending 80 percent of their income on it. In campaigning for Labour previously he went to a three-bedroom house in Beach Haven where 15 people were living. He says (Catholic charity) de Paul House has 200 homeless families on its books. "It's a hidden issue on the Shore," he says.

De Paul House, ironically, is in Onewa Rd. Hills says traffic congestion on Onewa Rd was the first thing out of Bidois' mouth when he launched his campaign. "It was always the focus for Jonathan Coleman too - he was always asking for a T2 lane instead of T3 - but all you'd end up with would be two very long lines of traffic.

"It's bizarre that both (National and Labour) candidates are now talking about it. Not only do MPs have no official decision-making powers over the T3 lane, even we as (councillors) don't have a lot of say. Auckland Transport does everything based on public transport evidence. 

"The cynic in me says it's an easy issue to bring up and splash around when you know you can't affect it," he says. "Everyone campaigning for the job here says the same thing: 'Oh, we're going to fix Onewa Rd'. It gives people stuck in traffic false hope. Then they get in and forget about it."

AT has, with the full mandate of the Council, imposed lengthened rush-hour status for the Onewa Rd transit lane, without consultation. It makes no apology for that. It knows consultation is a road block when it comes to change. It is a city-wide move aimed at basically frustrating car commuters so much that they get into a bus instead.

“People are right to say we didn’t consult them - we just did it,” says AT’s James Ireland. “It’s the right thing to do to get the city moving.”

Locals who have worked their hours around the T3 lane times are angry over what's been unilaterally imposed, and say a clearway would have worked better than extending rush hour till 10am.

The frustration is such that many boast openly of cheating the T3 lanes and being happy to risk a rare ticket. (Facebook: "This is what I call SHEEPLE! an empty lane but people are brainless enough to stay in traffic" and "When are they going to realise people are not getting out of their cars and let the traffic flow naturally???") 

All they see is that they can sit in Onewa Rd for 40 minutes while the lane beside them is “empty”. They all have a reason for needing to take their cars, and don’t see their presence in that never-moving queue as part of the problem.

The figures are compelling however - during the three-hour Onewa peak period 93 buses and 435 vehicles with three or more occupants use the T3 lane, compared to 2200 vehicles in the general lane. So while the T3 lane carried about 19 percent of all the cars, it moves 66 percent of the people - and 70 percent during the busiest of those three hours. 

The chair of the local board (Kaipātiki) that overlaps with the electorate, John Gillon, thinks AT got it wrong with extending the transit lane hours, and a clearway between 9am and 10am would have been better. He points to a petition protesting the "completely illogical" T3 lane extensions. The board wanted the move delayed at least until a new transport network kicks in at the end of the year. He says the by-election candidates have picked this up as a hot issue but AT isn't a democratically elected body - even its governing body, the Council, couldn't force it to make changes. 

Gillon reckons about half the people he speaks to around the electorate are fuzzy on whose domain is what, but he says an MP's interest and advocacy in a topic can raise the profile of an issue. Although, "I can't think of an example in the past where any MP's advocacy has had a direct effect," he says. He would however like some light shone on the need for an all-weather ferry terminal for Northcote and more ferry services from Beach Haven, saying ferries are the North Shore's trains but aren't treated the same way when it comes to fare stages and the AT Hop card. That actually is something the Government could do something about - its subsidy structure penalises expensive water travel. 

Gillon's own most pressing issue for Northcote this by-election is one he says no one has picked up on - Kauri dieback disease, which is threatening the area's extensive bush areas. 

“There is a suspected case in the Chelsea State Heritage Park and a track is close ... if that’s confirmed it’s likely to have been there for some time. We will have to look at issues around dogs and access to other areas.”

The Kaipātiki ward is Auckland's second-largest urban forested area after the Waitakeres. Gillion says because of those closures there are already busloads of tourists crossing the bridge to tramp through the bush, and there’s evidence they are not using local cleaning stations effectively.

“That’s something we’re looking at as a local board issue but it’s also a nation-wide issue – it’s a real bio-security failure,” he says.

Hills says another issue for the by-election is teacher pay - principals are battling to get applicants when no one can afford to live in Auckland. The electorate's biggest school, Northcote College, is in Onewa Rd. 

But chances are Northcote won't be an issues by-election at all and people will just tick the same colour box they always have, if they can be bothered turning out to make a decision that nothing's really hanging on. Perhaps that's what has inspired Liam Walsh, a candidate for the NAP, or Not A Party, who, on his website, urges people not to vote. 

"Northcote, you’ve had Coleman since 2005, that’s a long time in anyone’s book, and honestly what’s he done?," he asks.

"What I’m promising you, Northcote, is that nothing needs to change. If elected, I commit to being an even less effective MP than Jonathan: I’ll do even less than he did, participate even less in democracy and have even less of an impact on your lives because, unlike any of the other candidates, I’ve got faith in you. You’ve got this. You can get together in your communities and make your own calls." 

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