As I’ve written before, the world oil market changed forever in the 1970s, with (nominal) prices increasing by a factor of 15 between 1972 and 1980, leading to “stagflation” in many countries. While prices fell in the early ’80s, they never  returned to their previous levels.

Governments around the world took action to try to moderate their demand for oil, and oil products such as petrol and diesel. New Zealand was no exception. The overall goal was to reduce oil demand, in order to minimise our current account deficit. Of course, we still grapple with this problem 40 years on, and oil still makes a big contribution to the deficit which we still run.

Although the “carless days” put in place in 1979 have been enduring in our national memory, the policy wasn’t overly successful, and was scrapped after just nine months. People found ways of getting around the policy, a black market for different stickers sprung up, and the whole thing was a bit of a dead end.

Bob Jones wrote the following letter to the editor at the Evening Post (later published in his book Letters), illustrating that he enjoyed stirring just as much in the 1970s: 

Dear Sir,

All of this car-less day nonsense is ludicrous.

If the government is really serious about saving 10 per cent of petrol consumption they should simply shoot every tenth motorist.

Yours faithfully,

Bob Jones

A research paper by Opus looks at the  policy responses of the 1970s in more detail, and tries to evaluate their overall impact. The government continued to regulate the price of petrol over the decade (even so, it increased from $0.10 a litre in 1973 to $0.60 a litre in 1982). Today, of course, these prices are not regulated and move freely in response to oil price changes – making demand more responsive.

The government also reduced the top speed limit from 100 km/hr to 80 km/hr – cars are less efficient travelling at the higher speed. They raised the tax on the purchase of larger-engine cars and lowered it for small-engine cars. This only affected cars entering the fleet, and not on existing cars. With that said, Opus find that:

“Within the environment of very high fuel prices and graduated taxation and pricing measures combined with heightened awareness of fuel issues, the behaviours around purchasing of new private motor vehicles altered substantially and quickly.”

Interestingly, Opus found that the “Government appeared to do little to actively improve or promote the public transportation services available”. Patronage continued to fall, and Kiwis continued to buy more cars – with the number of cars per capita and per household increasing over the decade. Today, of course, cars per capita and household have plateaued or are declining, in both New Zealand and most of the developed world. You would hope that governments today would be more inclined to see public transport as part of the policy solution to high fuel prices, but we haven’t seen much sign of that from the current one (or the previous one, for that matter).

Opus’ “concluding discussion” is worth a read, but in brief, the government’s policy platform in the 1970s seems to have had mixed results. Opus suggest that policies aimed at increasing the uptake of public transport might have been more effective in achieving their overall goals.

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  1. There are some gross over-simplifications that Opus have made with their report.

    One of the main reasons PT use was dropping off was due to smoking bans on public transport that came in progressively in the ’70’s
    – making many smokers (who were a large percentage of the adult working population in the 70’s) simply choose to stop using PT altogether.
    This cause should not be overlooked as a major cause of PT usage decline throughout NZ from 1970 on.

    Especially as cars were no subject to such a ban, so smokers simply took their habit on the road in a different mode (Cars) instead of buses or trains.

    I know some people in papers at the time swore they’d never use newly smoke free buses. And no doubt many stuck to their word and changed modes to cars instead.

    The other one is that the Government wanted to not only reduce petrol usage during the Oil shocks, but also avoid any uptake in Diesel consumption for non-Freight related or Marine activities, as there were limitations on the the amount of Diesel fuel that could be made in NZ so it all had to be (expensively) imported in the 70s and Petrol was easier to import or could be made here at Marsden Point.

    There were campaigns by the NZ Railways to “make every drop (of oil) go further” by promoting the use of Rail Freight over Trucks as even in those days a Diesel train was way more efficient than a fleet of trucks. And forcing everyone to use (diesel) powered buses to get to/from work was not considered good option as most of the buses were Diesel powered

    Carless days did not achieve anything much in practice, except remove 1 day of the weekend from being used for driving, as people who needed a car during the week invariably picked Sunday (or Saturday) as their carless day as the day was not assigned, so you were able to choose your day.

    And in any case, the non-availability of fuel purchases over the weekend, had already made weekend travel a difficult option for most, so the additional impact Carless days had on weekends over the existing weekend petrol sales bans would have been marginal at best as most weekend travel was already curtailed by the petrol sales bans.
    And 2 or more car owning households (30% of the population in 1981) were able to stagger their carless days so that they could always drive on any day they chose.

    The only PT system that didn’t need diesel fuel was Wellington railways, which were electrified, but as I said above the smoking bans on PT made that option a non-starter for many.
    Christchurch had an electric train “commuter” network which was dismantled in the early 70’s and has never really recovered.

    Don’t also overlook that first LPG, then CNG came on-line in the late 70s and early 80s as a way to use plentiful Maui Gas so that too encouraged the use of private cars over PT as it was cheaper to run cars on Natural Gas than Petrol (or Diesel). So much so that the initial flush of Diesel powered Taxis (cheaper to run than petrol powered ones), in turn made way for a larger fleet of LPG powered Taxis.

    1. I doubt that banning smoking on PT had much effect on patronage. In fact when the old PTC, whose buses I used most, banned smoking, the buses suddenly became much more pleasant to travel in. Most trips were of shortish duration so I doubt many smokers were adversely affected.
      I do recall that the theft of petrol through siphoning from cars increased.

  2. “Especially as cars were no subject to such a ban, so smokers simply took their habit on the road in a different mode (Cars) instead of buses or trains.”

    Interesting theory, but w/o any proof or even statistics, it’s just anecdote. For example, what was the actual levels of smoking in the 1970s among men & women. And how many would actually smoke so heavily that they couldn’t stand the 30-60 minutes w/o a cigarette.

    Not saying it wouldn’t have had zero impact, but it seems a big call to suddenly attribute it as one of the leading causes.

    1. How about “I was there/I lived through it”?

      No seriously, read this research paper from the Ministry of Health on History of Tobacco in NZ.$FILE/Brief%20History%20of%20Tobacco%20Control%20in%20New%20Zealand.pdf

      From that article I quote:

      ” In 1976, a question on smoking was included in the Census for the first time, and it was repeated in 1981. This seems to be the first time in the world that such a question
      had been given in a census, and it was perhaps the largest survey of smoking and smokers in the world to that date. It showed the (self reported) total population
      prevalence of smoking, and allowed analysis by any group.”

      So as a result no reliable stats existed in NZ before then on smoking rates.
      there were surveys of smoking amongst doctors taken before then, but they were a smaller sample group and not representative of the wider population.

      See this article from the Cancer Society on Smoking Census data:

      And this article here: give cigarette usage rates.

      The exact rates from the 1976 census from the Cancer Society document as follows:
      Total population smokers males 15+ 40% females 15+: 32%
      Broken down by age band as follows:
      Males: (Age band 15-24): 35, (25-34): 43, (35-54): 44, (55+): 35
      Females (same age bands): 34, 38, 35, 21

      Overall rate was 36% of adults who said they smoked in 1976.

      So over 1 in 3 people (and a much higher proportion of Adult male working age population than that) were smokers. Peaking at 44% of adults being smokers in the 35-44 age brand – thats nearly 1 in 2 of those people being smokers.
      By ethnicity the highest smoking rates were Maori (58% over all age bands) with the highest age band being Maori males aged 15-24 at 63% – thats nearly 2 in every 3 young Maori adults smoked!)

      To confirm actual smoking usage, the “cigarette equivalent” usage statistics on the 70s showed a annual use by smokers (based onthe tobacco sold by the cigarette comapnies in NZ annually) of about 3000-3200 “cigarette equivalents” per-annum (this an average by definition and some people obviously consumed way higher than 3,000 per annum). These equivalents factored in loose tobacco sales as well as packaged cigarettes to calculate the “cigarette equivalent”.

      A level of 3000 pa means 150 “packs” of 20 equivalents were consumed a year, which is 3 packs a week, about 1 every 2.5 days. And this figure stayed pretty constant over the ’70s. (and 3200 pa means about 160 packs a year = 1 every 2 days).

      So yep, Smoking was a big part of adult working behaviour then, and we’re not just talking about 2 fags a day, and if we’re talking only an average of 10 a day, thats over 1 per working hour.

      There were also many industrial strikes called over attempts to reduce the time spent on “Smoko breaks”, which as the name implies were literally, smoking breaks more than cups of tea, or toilet breaks. Many a Union bargained long and hard for the rights of smokers to smoke in the workplace during then – and if they were such a tiny portion of the working population why would the unions have done that?

      So, yes, it was/is a real effect. Researchers – ignore it at your peril.

    2. And to confirm, the Census data is from March 1976. at that time the limited bans on advertising of smoking had come in.
      Cinemas were smoke free (mostly due to fire hazards though), and the general health messages around smoking being bad for you were becoming prevalent.

      The Census figure therefore represents a “known minima” for smoking rates, rates prior to then e.g. in the early 1970’s would have been much higher.

      I know from newspaper articles I’ve read that “peak hour” buses in the late 60’s and early 70’s were generally filled with smokers from front to back all lighting up (well why wouldn’t they – it was their god given right to smoke in public after all). And as a result it was sometimes difficult to see, during winter days when the windows were kept shut against the cold, much of anything at all inside these buses due to the high levels of smoke wafting about.

      And if you took that right to smoke away, of course many of the hard core smokers would stop using public transport.

      1. Even in the 70s, well under half of people smoked, as you yourself say. How many people started taking public transport because it was smoke-free?

        It might have had some effect, but 1970s smoking bans being a “main cause” of the drop isn’t plausible. The drop wasn’t even in the 1970s! PT use had been dropping fairly steadily in Auckland for two decades until 1973, and then rebounded somewhat at the exact moment of the oil shocks, then again declining in the late 80s and dropping like a stone from 1990-95. If 1970s smoking bans had caused a decline you’d expect it to be a huge one-off (for a particular city) at the time the ban was brought in, and then a gradual recovery in line with falling rates of smoking over time.

        Indeed, if any smoking ban somehow caused a decline in PT use, the data suggests it’d be banning smoking at work in 1990 (making it more important to get one last fag in before getting there?).

        Do you have any information about when the bans on public transport actually were, by the way? I’m surprised to hear it was that early, actually. I’ll have to take your word for it, not being alive at the time. Smoking on planes wasn’t banned until 1988, based on a quick Googling to find this:

        1. To clarify:
          PT in NZ (at least buses, not sure about Wellington Trains), were all smoke free on/before the end of the 70’s, and in some cases (definitely in Christchurch), quite a lot sooner than that.

          The Opus reports looked specifically at the period in the 1970s relating to the Oil shocks, This is technically 1972 to about 1981.

          Yes, PT use in Auckland declined since the withdrawal of Trams in the 1950s and has not yet even now fully recovered.

          In other cities a similar pattern of replacing and old pre-WWII and worn out PT system with a new bus based ones occurred in the 50’s too e.g. Christchurch and Dunedin.

          Wellington always had a high usage of electric based transport (Trains and trolley buses) so is a little different PT wise from the rest of NZ as far as replacing the PT fleet with buses.

          So there is a general pattern of PT use decline that preceded and continued long after the oil shocks.
          The question that the OPUS report ignores, is how did the policies that were enacted for smoke free PT and other areas impact on transport policy overall during the Oil shock period of 1972 to 1981?

          As for planes going smoke-free.
          NZ was a world leader in this according to those PDF’s above, and went (partially/half) smoke-free in 1974 for domestic flights.
          With a full ban from 1987/8 for domestic flights. International flights were partially smoking after that – until the 1990 Smoke Free Act when a total ban was enforced.

          In fact, up to 1974 all seats on all planes everywhere in the world were smoking ones and in 1974 NAC (as it was then) started designating “non-smoking” seats for up to half the plane. Some planes were entirely smoke free before 1988 (The Fokker F27 was one such I believe) – due to the small cabin size and the inability of the aircraft systems to recirculate/purify the air well enough.

          So why do you think planes went smoke free in 1974 – when no airline anywhere else in the world had?
          Thats right, because buses etc were already the same or going that way and the Government (as owner of NAC) could see the need to tidy up its act on tobacco.

          Now back to regular PT, in May 1971 London Transport, who operated the Underground Trains and overground buses, decreed all single-deck buses were to be smoke-free. This was according to ASH (UK), this was a world first. And note this was 1971! Preceding the NAC partial ban by 3 years.
          But the writing on the wall for smoking definitely causing cancer had been there in the public domain since the mid to late 60’s.

          Little old NZ, ever-hanging off the coat-tails of Mother England as it did at that time, adopted those restrictions too.
          Except these weren’t Government imposed bans like the Smoke-Free act of 1990 was.

          It was the local councils, who owned and operated the PT services, brought in the area at a time.

          It is hard to find exactly when each council area went smoke free – partly as the Transport Boards or whatever they were who ran the buses have all disappeared since the 1980’s transport reforms and the details are now locked in [paper/non-digitised] archives.
          They will also be in newspaper archives, but I do’t have access right now, to any such newspaper archives from the 1970s to determine exactly when.

          However, I do know that Christchurch buses went smoke-free at the front half of the bus first, about 1971/72 then the full bus about 6 months to 1 year later.

          Declaring half a bus to be smoke free is like declaring half a swimming pool to be urine free, but anyway it was a start.

          It is safe to say that in Christchurch at least buses were partly smoke-free before the oil shocks, and probably went smoke-free before/during the first oil shock too.
          Others here can probably comment on Wellington or Auckland situation, but I doubt it was much different as to how it was implemented or when.

          Certainly by the early 1980s Auckland buses were totally smoke-free and probably a lot sooner than that.

          So declines in PT use by smokers was well under way, and was then reinforced further as buses went totally smoke-free.

          Of course, smokers who couldn’t access a car had to use PT, so they obviously coped.

          Many who could have coped, (as many still do now) saw it as an affront to their civil rights and voted with their feet and stopped using PT or at least the smoke-free modes.

          As for people switching to PT who previously did not use PT because it was now smoke-free? Without a doubt it did happen.
          It also happened that people simply couldn’t afford to drive a car any-more due to rising petrol prices. So started using PT (again).

          How of each occurred is impossible to say now.

          Did this change of passengers from smokers to non-smokers offset fully the decline by smokers switching modes?
          Probably to some degree, but note the local councils were all constrained by fleet size in terms of how many PT users they could carry.
          Given all buses were imported, needing usually scarce, (and now even scarcer, thanks to the Oil shocks) overseas funds.
          And the Governments of the day were able to control imports and prevent bus transport companies buying more buses to cope with additional passenger numbers, each Council/Transport board had to go cap in hand to the Government to get Foreign Exchange released for their PT requirements.

          So, a given PT fleet could not suddenly increase in size to cope with increased demand – and they would have been sizing their fleets (retiring the old dungas etc) in the lead up to the oil shocks based on overall declining PT use, so they could not suddenly increase their fleet size. So at best you will see a PT usage level off/slight uptick, and not a major hike in PT usage – the buses simply weren’t there to carry all the passengers.

          There was also a (implicit) desire of the Governments during the Oil shocks (mostly the National Government led by Muldoon) to prioritise Diesel use for Freight over PT, and in the 70s almost all NZ buses were Diesel powered, as all the older Petrol buses were long since withdrawn.
          Petrol was easier to get than Diesel in the first oil shock and the period afterwards.
          There was therefore a catch-22 for the government – support/create a spike in the use of PT, and your diesel supplies are going to used more than assumed.
          Allow private car use to rise and the Diesel supplies would be conserved for the railways and freight haulers, but Pt use will suffer.

          This dithering over Petrol cars versus Diesel PT to some extent persisted until Muldoons eventual answer in the second oil shock of Car-less days.
          Which didn’t work.

          So, yes, PT use will have up-ticked during the Oil shocks, but the over-all decline still continued.

          The key thing here is that Central Government policy was being undermined (or at least, not supported by) local councils introducing smoke-free buses during the same time.
          And the Government had this issue of needing to conserve (at least initially) Diesel stocks for as much non-PT use as possible.

          And these are major factor what I say are Opus are ignoring in their report.

          1. I arrived in NZ from Britain in 1985 and was surprised (and delighted) to find that Wellington’s trains were already fully smoke-free. Up to that time in Britain, most railway carriages still had smoking and non-smoking areas, and abuse by smokers of the non-smoking areas was rife. So one up for New Zealand here!

            I was also surprised to find cab radios fitted to most trains as well, this being something that the British rail unions has resisted for years as a perceived threat to jobs. But that’s another story.

        2. That SmokeFree site is pretty skimpy on some details, like for instance when Pubs and Bars went smokefree (not even mentioned) and a lot of the other timing for the facts there are suspect as well. So i’d refer to the PDF’s directly for accurate tobacco control details in a NZ Context.

          For a US Context, see this article ( ) in todays herald marking the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon Generals Report whose findings of Smoking as cancer causing. is what upped the whole anti-smoking another level.

          It is mentioned there that “The 1970s also saw the birth of a movement to protect nonsmokers from cigarette fumes, with no-smoking sections on airplanes, in restaurants and in other places. Those eventually gave way to complete smoking bans …”

          And this is the US, the last bastion of civil rights (for smokers), so we would have been further advanced than the Americans in the 1970s – hey we even surveryed our population in the census.

          Anyway, yep as Dave B said above Wellington Trains were smoke free in the ’80s already (and would have been for some time).

  3. I think it is a bit disingenuous to say oil prices never returned to previous levels. We had 25 years of cheap oil after the very short spike in the late 70’s. In fact if you then adjust for inflation, oil is still pretty cheap.
    Careless days was a joke – I think NZ were the only country to take such a measure and was more about Muldoon’s failed economics than fuel supply. In the 70’s – like now – you can get as much oil as you want, you just have to pay up for it.
    Should the Govt have invested more in PT then – yes – but only because it would have been cheaper and easier to build rail then than it is now.
    The big game changer and the death nail for PT in NZ was when a Labour Govt allowed cheap Japanese cars to be imported into NZ. If you want Govt intervention to push people towards PT and lower the deficit then they should restrict these imports and devalue the NZD.

    1. //The big game changer and the death nail for PT in NZ was when a Labour Govt allowed cheap Japanese cars to be imported into NZ.//

      Agreed. What is sometimes not so appreciated is just how motorised New Zealand did get prior to the 1980s, despite the very high cost of motor vehicles in this period. We really, really did want the ability to drive – so when ‘Jap imports’ arrived, the public took to them like the proverbial duck to water, and PT use rates over the period 1986 (when they were just arriving) to 1991 (by which time they had arrived) went through the floor as a result. Where it was particularly apparent, was in the use of public transport for the journey to work, which for the Wellington region (excl Wairarapa) went from 25% to 15% in only five years.

      We are seeing a turnaround, esp in Generation Z, but it will take time to work its way through.

      1. Ross I appreciate that you worked in the industry here during the years of decline and it seems that this experience has given you a fixed view on this issue. What has been shown this century in Auckland is that wherever we invest in good quality Transit infrastructure and services that is rewarded by uptake. Three obvious examples are the Britomart Station, the Northern Busway, and the Link services.

        So it isn’t a question of ‘waiting’ for this generation or that to take over but rather to offer all people high quality options and they will be chosen.

        Surely you are correct that the arrival of cheap cars, cheaper fuel, and multi-billion dollar highway investments in highways last century lead to a transfer from transit services (which were also at the suffering from a multi-decade policy of underinvestment) to private car use.

        But this situation is changing; fuel is no longer cheap, other costs in time and money of car ownership in the city are also rising. Certainly the constant year on year investment in driving amenity has increased, yet all this has achieved since 2005 is a flat volume of private car use, add to that where there are higher quality transit options people are choosing them, this means that these trends are strongly reactive to investment choices and service provision.

        The real question is do we have a desire at all levels to grow transit use? Clearly not in government who seem to share your passive idea about uptake, and who use it as an excuse to do everything they can to keep people driving. Quite literally an unsustainable policy.

  4. I suspect any turnaround is because of price sensitivity – especially in youth. While car ownership has never been cheaper thanks to Jap imports, younger people find running a car expensive and fuel competes for their disposable income along with entertainment, Data costs, booze, and clothes. I suspect – outside a very small minority of young people that care about the planet – that if the bank of Mum and Dad paid for their cars the teenagers of today would drive as much as previous generations. A car remains a turning point of freedom for most people.
    For the generations no longer in University a car is often something provided by your employer. I doubt too many commuters with company wheels or a company fuel card will be very interested in travelling by bus. Changing that habit would require a massive tinkering of income taxation and I do not see any votable political party willing to take that sort of risk. Yeah the Greens would but who cares. No one gets into the Beehive without Labour or National as your majority partner and neither will take away company cars.
    Cars are an emotive object for most of us. It starts when we are little kids with hotwheels and matchbox toys. 5 year old boys (and girls) start dreaming of driving Ferraris and Aston Martins long before they give a thought to polar ice caps, fur seals, or nuclear testing. Breaking that mould – possibly impossible.

    1. “For the generations no longer in University a car is **often** something provided by your employer”

      Might have been once not any-more, but not since FBT rules came in 20 odd years ago.
      Upper management may have a company car, regular folks or even middle management types? Not anymore.

      So you got any evidence of number of employees as a percentage of the working population with company supplied vehicles to back that claim up?

    2. So what if it because of price sensitivity? Oil is expensive, we send $6,000,000,000 a year overseas to buy it. If we can reduce that cost by making pt more attractive we would be mad not to.

      In 2011 I had a car and the disposable income to dtive to University. The only time I ever did was when I came back from work in okahu bay straight to uni because it was on the way.
      Every other day I took the bus, not because of price sensitivity, but because of convenience. Front door to lecture was faster on the busway than by driving even though as many people used the one southbound buslane as the 3southbound traffic lanes.

      If public transport is given a fairer share of space it will be faster that peak driving and far cheaper than car ownership.

      So why do you think price sensitivity is so important? And why does it even matter if it is?

    3. “Cars are an emotive object for most of us. It starts when we are little kids with hotwheels and matchbox toys. 5 year old boys (and girls) start dreaming of driving Ferraris and Aston Martins”
      Anecdotal evidence of children in this house (sample size 2) – neither has shown much interest in car toys, despite being gifted with many over the years. The only car they want to drive is on Mario Kart 🙂 I doubt that they would even know what an Aston Martin was. None of their friends appear to be particularly excited by cars either. Which is not to say that there aren’t kids who are interested, I just don’t think it is quite the thing that it used to be in days gone by.

  5. Agree that Jap imports are what promoted car use the most, and still does to this day. Our car prices are still half the cost of Australia’s.

    The other point, that usually gets overlooked, is that governments, especially the current one, are increasingly running the country as a business, on behalf of global business giants who profit from consumption of pretty much everything and anything, including oil. Consumption and growth is seen as a good thing, because it makes the rich richer. Environmental costs, and even economic costs to the people or the country, are increasingly being ignored because they do not matter to those rich people whose aim is to get richer, and those people now include senior government ministers. NZ Inc is a business that promotes consumption, and we are all employees and consumers. Put simply, a high deficit and reliance on foreign oil means diddly squat to the government. They want you to keep on consuming, no matter what the cost.

    Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

    1. “Our car prices are still half the cost of Australia’s.”

      Thats more an indictment on the protected nature of the Australian Car industry than anything else I suspect.
      Our (new) car prices are very similar to Japanese (new) car prices for the same model.

      If you want to see cars cheaper than ours, look to the US, even allowing for currency conversions and other factors, similar models there are much cheaper than they are here.
      There are reasons for that (LHD v RHD sales volumes/economies of scale, and probably sales taxes e.g. GST being included here and not there).

      1. Australia no longer has a protected car industry. New car prices are very competitive over there and are cheaper than here but used cars are mostly more expensive in relation to New Zealand. This is due to the influx of used Japanese vehicles. This has however changed a bit over the past couple of years due to the emission standards for imported vehicles.

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