If there’s one thing – more than anything else – that annoys me about the government’s approach to transport, it’s the double standard they apply between state highway projects (particularly RoNS projects) and public transport investment. Getting any public transport funding requires analysis after analysis, proof that the timing of the project is optimal, proof that it’s definitely the most viable and cost-effective option, links with triggers around the level of use or growth in the area the project is located – the list goes on. This would not be a problem if the approach was applied consistently, after all transport projects are expensive and we should be careful when it comes to the use of public funds.

Yet the same level of analysis is never applied to state highway projects, and even less analysis when it comes to the Roads of National Significance (RoNS). Despite major concerns around the cost-effectiveness of many of these projects and a complete lack of analysis when it comes to triggers for timing, the assessment of alternatives or even basic cost-benefit ratios the projects plough on ahead.

This double-standard is carried on through to the latest version of the Government Policy Statement (GPS), which was released recently. The justification for an $11b spend on state highways is fairly general:

Following more than a decade of increasing concern about under-investment in roading infrastructure, in 2009 the Government began a significant improvement programme. With an intention to invest nearly $11 billion in New Zealand’s State highways over the 10 years to 2019, the Government focused on enabling economic growth rather than simply responding to it, providing high quality connections between key areas of production, processing and export.

Continued funding under GPS 2015 (draft) for State highway improvements will bring benefits for national economic growth and productivity, particularly given that State highways carry most freight and link major ports, airports and urban areas.

This clearly leads to a number of questions that could be reasonably asked to check whether this is the best way of spending $11,000,000,000 of public money:

  • What proof is there of recent under-investment in roading infrastructure – what’s the major problem the investment is trying to solve?
  • To what extent does investing in state highway infrastructure actually boost economic growth – where are the international examples of state highways being a better investment than other transport, or investing in education, or just letting people keep that money and deciding what to do with it themselves?
  • How will success of the investment in state highways be measured?
  • How do we know we wouldn’t have achieved the same outcomes (or nearly the same) with a much smaller spend?
  • What other options for this level of investment were considered and how did they perform on a relative basis?
  • Has the investment been working (and how might we measure that), has it achieved its local goals (like reducing congestion) and has achievement of those local goals (if it’s even happened) contributed to greater economic performance to the extent we would hope from an $11b investment?

In some shape or form, these questions have all been asked of public transport investment (either recent or proposed) by government over the past few years – but surprisingly we don’t seem to have seen the same questioned asked of the state highway programme. You’ll also notice the comment about the investment enabling economic growth rather than responding to it. The only vague reference to the impact of billions spent on state highways in recent years comes in the section on Auckland:

Since 2009, the Government has undertaken a major programme of investment in Auckland’s transport infrastructure. By 2017, Auckland will have a completed motorway network and an upgraded and electrified metro rail network. This investment programme is delivering significant results, helping to hold congestion steady despite population growth.

But if we back up a bit, we see the GPS noting that VKT hasn’t grown in recent years:


It seems like the GPS is saying “despite flat traffic volumes and massive investment in state highways, we haven’t managed to reduce congestion at all“. That seems to be a pretty massive elephant in the room signal that the current approach isn’t working. Yet despite some pretty obvious questions about whether we’ve got any value at all from the billions in recent state highway projects, the GPS doesn’t question ploughing billions more into future state highway spending.

Contrast that with the much more cautious approach to spending on public transport improvements:

Considerable investment has been made in the public transport network to build patronage. Much of this investment has been ahead of patronage demand, particularly in metro-rail services. A period of consolidation is needed where the focus is on securing the patronage gains anticipated from measures such as integrated ticketing, reconfigured bus networks, and metro rail investments.

No “period of consolidation” to see whether the gains from state highway improvements are realised though? No checking whether the billions spent on state highways in the past decade has led to improvements in economic performance or even reduced congestion – as per their stated goal? If we were to compare the per capita use of public transport against the per capita use of the roading network in recent years, we find quite a compelling story:

VKT-vs-PT-Trips-per-Captia-2I’m kind of struggling to see how one can interpret the above graph as “we’re not sure whether the PT investment is working but clearly we need to keep spending billions on roads”.

Which is what the GPS does, showing its hypocrisy.

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  1. This blog only ever seems to think that roads are used only by cars that are involved in the daily commute. You make absolutely no reference to freight, service industry, logistics or emergency services that rely on the road network and the large benefits that these provide the economy and everybody that relies on them. This creates a huge flaw in your argument.

    1. Transport infrastructure, can be thought of as plumbing, which allows the movement of solids between A and B.

      Communications infrastructure is the same, it simply moves information, not crap ( although that’s a matter of opinion).

      The first question that should be asked, in any case of moving solids, or information, is whether it is desirable to install plumbing at all.

      Everyone is the world, that can make use of it, would like high speed fibre, but it makes little sense to connect Everest, so that I might work there.

      The same thing holds true for freight. Ambulances are a red herring here, like the people that chase them.

      How many ports does New Zealand need?

      Why can’t we link freight hubs via train to ports and airports, so that transit via road is limited to high speed, or well constructed roads ( Hill Street Junction, Warkworth, a lunatic was obviously in charge here).


      New Zealand will be “pissing money down the plug hole” for every more, if it continues down the path of maintaining roads, or more to the point, widening them, everywhere in this green and pleasant land.

      We don’t need to, but that seems beside the point.

    2. Dave our view is that road freight is vital, because of course it is, but that there is hardly a lack of road space available throughout the country for it. But rather that in some places, notably our cities, those roads are often blocked by too many single occupant vehicles. We propose that the road network be much more focused on freight journeys, in particular with the wider use of freight lanes on the State Highway network. And more attention be given to delivery priority in the resign and ‘de-carring’ of Metro centres with shared street programmes etc.

      As well as of course as we know that investment in fast, frequent urban Transit systems does get people out of cars and off the road.

      Spending all our transport money building more urban motorways and or widening current ones just forces more people to driver and fill those new lanes with SOVs jamming freight movements.

      Of course we also hold that rail and costal shipping have an important role to play too.

      1. It’s also true, roads, like points within the greater internet, which allow transit between countries, or continents, are good for random journeys.

        If the design of your city encourages random journeys, to points on a compass, much like the internet, spanning the globe, it means you need to maintain enough capacity to allow journeys everywhere, because that’s what random gets you.

        This is the equivalent of picking up the video content of the internet, sprinkling it at random points on the globe, and then finding you need to install fat, expensive, cabling everywhere, and complaining about it.

    3. The other point is that if the goal is reduced congestion (be it for freight or whatever) the method (huge state highway spend up) isn’t working. Their own document clearly states that congestion is not going down, even with flat demand.

    4. Not at all. Reducing auto use of highways improves access for freight, emergencies, etc. In fact, that’s one of the best reasons to divert travel to PT.

    5. You could easily argue that the more freight that goes on roads, especially intercity, the more demand there is for roads to be widened and built. One truck x thousands slows everything down and causes delays and back logs and damage. God knows our motorways and streets are only as efficient as the slowest truck using them.

      Its dawned on everyone but this current government that we need to think beyond roads almost to the exclusion of any other mode and have a combined approach to transport.

  2. Just read through the draft Transport GPS for 20015 and I find point 33 (Page 8 of the PDF) concerning. Here it is:

    “New Zealand’s major urban centres are more densely populated than most cities in Australia or America. Comparative congestion data suggests our urban road networks are under more pressure than cities with more roading per person. Further intensification may compound congestion pressures, and retrofitting capacity to existing network can be costly.”

    Looks like the MoT don’t like intensification either as horrible people might live on land that should be used for roads. I really don’t think they get what Cities are about and how public transport works.

    1. Gosh, I wonder where they get that “Comparative congestion data” that says our cities are congested from?

      I suspect (but truly hope it isn’t) that the old war-horse the TomTom congestion index.

      We’ve been told for years and year that our cities are way less dense than other comparative cities in Australia and the US and therefore that PT won’t work here like it does over there.
      So we need more cars and more roads to fix up the difference.

      And then MoT says “well actually we’re really more dense than the comparative cities after all” – and as a result we don’t have enough roads for everyone, so we need “more roads”.

      In ancient Rome, all roads were said to lead to Rome, in the MoT’s eyes all roads lead to – you guessed it – more roads.

      No problem with roads, but they are simply a means to a bigger end, but its the sheer bloody minded single vision that permeates their thinking from Treasury on down that roads are only to be used by trucks and private cars, never buses or anything else like PT. And whatever the problem, more roads is always the answer to it.

      1. Yes according to the likes of the MoT we are balancing on that exact point where Auckland is not dense enough to require proper public transport, but too dense for driving to work alone. Amazing, how did we do that?

        Perfect density is apparently a thing for the MoT. Geniuses.

    1. Well that’s fine, rich old men usually feel like that. And as we know that when good fast and frequent Transit is provided in Auckland ‘the other guy’ does use it, and that makes for not only for a better city but also leaves the our vast road network for the rest.

      Cheaper and more effective and way better than paving the entire isthmus.

  3. How do Ministry of Transport staff live with themselves trotting out this clearly wrong bullshit? Or do they put better information up to the Minister and he forces it to be changed?

    I guess we’ll never know.

    1. It’s called movable truth. A guy works at a job selling Hondas. He says Hondas are the best cars in the world. Realises he can make more money down the street at the Toyota dealer where he says Toyotas are the best cars in the world. He truly believes both when he says them. (Sigh.)

        1. Maybe, but the cool factor is definitely lacking in Hondas. And why did it take *four* Fiats for you to get the message? (I’d love to have an Alfa. Are they any better than Fiats?)

          1. Four Fiats ? Because I am stupid ( and have a list, to prove it).

            The clue was in the name of the vendor, which may still exist, but I’ve been out of the country, and using trains for a while.

            The Italian Job

            ps. as the name suggests, they do it Italian style. As I refuse to drive anything but a mower or bumper car, I don’t plan on going back for 6ths ( they also sold me the Honda, it was the courtesy car, which says a lot )

  4. It is the same in the US. Highways are their own justification. Each highway offers a ribbon cutting ceremony, a new bus route not at all. Many a local politician has been elected on the promise of a new highway bringing jobs jobs jobs. You get no points for bringing transportation for people people people.

  5. Is the second graph for NZ or for Auckland only? The public transport trips per capita feels high for whole-of-NZ, given that there isn’t a lot of public transport in many areas of the country.

    1. Obi,
      The source data is MoT and AT, therefore I read this as the VKT is MoT sourced and the PT per capita are AT sourced.
      This graph has been shown before in other posts relating to PT use v VKT in and Auckland context.

  6. The RoNS and all of the foolishness of the National Party roading orgy is supply-side economics. Presumably their focus groups are telling them that this is what people want, and so economics be damned.

    That’s why the message that TransportBlog and others are propagating is so vital – changing the conversation on the utility and value for money of endless roading projects.

    1. National’s concerns are with that 5 to 10% of voters in the middle who may swing the election one way or the other. Their more recent statements indicate that, it is likely, the polling coming back from that group is in favour of roads. National presumably think they can simply drown the media channels in spin and hermetically seal that key voting block from listening to any other point of view.

      +1 on ‘that’s why the message that TransportBlog and others are propagating is so vital’. Keep pushing to get the message out there.

  7. the Government focused on enabling economic growth rather than simply responding to it, providing high quality connections between key areas of production, processing and export

    The implicit assumption here is that building road capacity before it is required enables economic growth. This needs to be demonstrated with empirical evidence. The experience to date with the NGTR suggests that there is no correlation between travel time savings and economic growth.

    Also NZ’s export supply chain to the rest of the world is very long. It takes weeks for our exports to arrive at their destinations. Travel time savings of a few minutes for freight may be valuable to trucking companies, but evidence is required that they are valuable to the wider economy.

  8. When I went to Spain 10 or so years ago I was amazed by the masses of new roads they were building everywhere. I haven’t been to Spain for a while, but I can only assume that after building all of those new roads they must now have an economy that is the envy of the world?

    1. Wasn’t that also the case for Porugal, Ireland and Greece (the other 3 of the so called EU “PIGS”).
      All had road building projects for Africa (except they weren’t actually building roads in Africa), and all had economic debt crisis shortly after wards?

      Is there perhaps not a causal link perhaps between these two apparently isolated events?

      On a related note, when I was in Bulgaria in 2008, the EU was proudly proclaining via large billboards that is was paying mega millions of Euros for a new border crossing and road over the Rhodoppe mountains in Southern Bulgaria through a mountain pass, which lead into Northern Greece.
      Bulgarian side had miles and miles of beautiful tar sealed 2 lanes each way roads leading up to the pass. Just before the summit (and the 4 foot high border fence with Greece) the road stopped dead.

      On the Greek side, there was nothing whatsoever there, not even a goat track – supposedly the Greeks were way behind schedule – ya think?
      Somehow I doubt that road is any further built than it was 6 years ago.
      What with the Greek financial situation, probably take 20 more years to get built. Meantime the road is sitting idle and useless for its intended purpose and by the time it is it will need an expensive resealing job.

      I can imagine that sort of thing went on all over the EU back then and the EU economy for the most part is still tanked overall.

      1. Yes, not so long again we were told that following the lead of the celtic tiger was the only way forward. Haven’t heard much about that point of view of late.

        Of course all of those highways were built with top up funding from the EU. We don’t even have that.

        1. Except that the companies like Google, Facebook and Apple who should pay corporate tax down here are using the celtic tiger and effectively pulling money out of the IRD’s coffers courtesy of transfer pricing and double taxation rorts in Europe.

          So even when we don’t live in the EU we still get shafted the same so end up subsidising them even when we don’t know it.

    2. Re : JimboJones The Comedian. Great joke, I may steal it.

      As someone once told me, not that it made any difference.

      Don’t assume. It’s makes an arse of you, and an arse of me.

      Ps. Apologies if I’ve broken the potty mouth rule, posterior lacks the zing.

  9. They had a little financial crisis there – gfc along with a housing bubble or something that sounds eerily familiar – and stopped building them. It’s quite bizarre driving through the Asturias on perfectly wonderful, EU subsidised, motorways, through long tunnels and viaducts, which suddenly stop and, to your side you notice the makings of the next part, abandoned in mid-construction. Funnily enough, it seems that they’re continuing with their high speed rail expansion programme despite the impact of the crisis and a neo-liberal government, which suggests that someone, somewhere, has realised that moar roads aren’t the answer. We can only but hope for a similar epiphany here.

  10. The problem with communicating the linked benefits of better city design, and transit are huge in this country. What we need is a “sugar daddy”, to fund a campaign of positive information, so that people then start hassling their Mp’s at constituency level, and so on.

    There’s always Crowdsourcing….

  11. I hope you sent a copy of this to all major media sources. About time to hold the government to account rather than shallow flimsy analysis they serve up day after day!

  12. You’re forgetting that the game is fundamentally rigged in favour of the government. Economic Efficiency is only one of three criteria they use to evaluate a project. The other two are Strategic Fit and Effectiveness (the ability of the project to enable it’s strategic fitness). The Government is not being hypocritical by road-blocking non-roads projects if they do not meed the Fitness and/or Effectiveness criterions. They get to do what they want because we voted for them and if they say something scores high in Strategic Fit and Effectiveness, then a $3B, 6-lane motorway between Cambridge and Taupo doesn’t need a positive BCR. Because Mr. Brownlee says so.

  13. Parliament used to be known as “The House of Representatives”. Party politics has ruined that but I hoped that with MMP (or my preference “Single Transferable vote”) would return us to the House of Representatives title.
    The issue of road freight and the increased vehicle mass is a very sore point. The road transport subsidy for road freight is one that is very hard for me to quantify and compare to the supposed inefficiencies of Rail. I guess someone has done this but I don’t recall having seen anything but vague words as to how inefficient rail is compared with road. The carriageway requirements for these are quite different and with the flexible pavement construction of our roads and the reluctance to maintain them increasing the gross vehicle mass in advance of the infrastructure seems to be a massive mistake.

  14. Q : What do all successful companies have in common?

    A : They are not run by committee

    I am not suggesting the people, run policy, that’s what a CEO is for.

    The people set outcomes, or as Sam Morgan of Trade Me said, impacts.


    I am suggesting the people, fire the CEO when they fail to achieve.

    The problem is not that we cannot do this, but how to educate people, and wake the populace of New Zealand, up.

    That is a thorny question indeed.

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