Gerry Brownlee’s media release yesterday trumpeted up traffic levels in 2013 surpassing those in 2012 – apparently this is a sign of New Zealand’s economic recovery that we’re driving a bit more.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says increases in vehicle travel and vehicle registrations reflect New Zealand’s economic recovery and growing population.

“Total travel [measured in kilometres travelled] was flat between 2005 and 2012, but growth returned in 2013 with a 1.6 per cent increase in total travel nationwide, and more recent data suggests larger increases are on the way,” Mr Brownlee says.

“Data collected by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) on State Highway usage from the first six months of 2014 suggests we will continue to see increases in travel demand.

“The highway data shows a 3.6 per cent increase in Northland and Auckland, and a 5.4 per cent increase in Canterbury in the six months to May 2014, compared with the same period a year before.

Setting aside the question of whether it makes any sense whatsoever to celebrate people driving more, further details in the release tell a more interesting story of what’s happened over the past few years:


As you can see, the total level of vehicle fleet travel (known as “vehicle kilometres travelled or VKT) in 2013 finally made it back to 2007 levels after a sustained period below 40 billion kilometres.

Of course New Zealand’s population has grown quite significantly since 2007, which means that VKT per capita is well below the levels in early years – despite a slight uptick in 2013:


It will be interesting to see the 2013 figures specifically for Auckland, as generally Auckland has seen a faster drop in per capita VKT over the past few years than other parts of New Zealand.

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  1. Does the ‘light commercial’ category cover commercially registered vehicles, or is it a shorthand for diesel vehicles under 3 tonnes?

  2. Isn’t it also significant that it appears the growth has been in light commercial vehicles and bus travel. Light passenger and heavy truck travel is still below the level of 2010, let alone 2007. Plus moped/scooter travel is higher.

    A growth in light commercial bodes well as it suggests that smaller businesses and tradespeople are travelling more, so they are busier. Great stuff, that is genuinely productive travel and those businesses are the backbone of NZ’s economy.

    But the other growth category would suggest that public transport has actually been a growth area of road use. And that has been a steady area of growth since 2005. Who would have thunk it!

    I would like to see a chart tracking RKT – Rail Kilometres Travelled. I bet that would be a much steeper slope!

    Or even better BKT – Bicycle Kilometres Travelled.

    1. And motorbikes. People are trying every which way they can to not have to visit the gas station. Especially once you add in jumps in PT and Active modes over this period too.

      Quick build more motorways! Obviously a rational response and evidence based policy.

      1. +1, motorbikes have been heavily penalized by this govt, and still, they show growth, because especially in AkL they make a lot of sense.

  3. You only ever have to ever so slightly scratch the surface with this government to find that nearly all statistics they quote are as misleading as the one you have highlighted. If Gerry is desperately trying to show the corpse has come back to life its a big Fail!. What it tells me is that as a nation we have gone backwards for 5 years and its taken the 6th years to flat line.

    Queue the slow hand clap because folks, we’ve gone nowhere! (we have vast hectares of more motorways though)

  4. Further to this. The NZ government must be the only one in the OECD that has a policy of encouraging driving. This is truly insane from every single angle, including of course, congestion. After all congestion is simply too many vehicles competing for space. Don’t start me on pollution, climate change, and health outcomes too.

    And insanely it seems to be because of a mistaken idea that because VKT and GDP have had a close [but weakening this century] correlation then if only we all drive around and around in circles more and more then we will be richer. That is, the minister and his advisors [?] seem to be assuming this correlation to be causal, and causal from driving amount to GDP and therefore wealth. This is plainly stupid. Now the minister may well be this daft, but is the whole ministry too?

    Recently the economy has been growing quite well, and the amount of driving we have been doing to achieve this has been flat to falling. This is good; it is called increasing efficiency. Furthermore the economy has been growing while our use of liquid fuels has been flat, that is the ‘oil intensity’ of the economy has been improving, a hugely looked for and exciting discontinuity from last century. Yet the minister here is trumpeting the fact of a small reversal in that trend. Extraordinary.

    Yes sadly we actually have an official policy to encourage inefficiency.

    1. More evidence of this is the BNZ truckOmeter. The media lap this up because it seems all we are good for is logs and trademe purchases. That does not cover any weightless exports in IT, training or anything else not shipped by big trucks.

        1. Would love to hear Rod Dury’s take on that one – considering his response to the recent rural road policy announcment

  5. Having an argument with Bill English re new roads-only harbour crossing on Twitter this morning, His response: “Growth on North Shore hindered by lack of crossing.” Sigh.

    1. Be interesting to see his evidence for that claim. Furthermore, where on the Shore? Upper Shore? Anyway in what sense is that idea a reason not to extend and improve the busway?
      Which his government has just done.

      1. For what it’s worth, my reply to him was: “Bill you are wrong. Traffic volumes on bridge are static. But huge growth on busway. Put the money into that.”

        And: “And when AHB becomes local road I as ratepayer don’t want to fund its upkeep”

    2. > “Growth on North Shore hindered by lack of crossing.”

      How does he feel about the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan, then? That seems like a far bigger barrier to growth on the Shore – by making that growth largely illegal.

  6. Despite the flat-line in road use, this government still plans to spend $13bn to $19bn on new roads over the next decade. It’d be good to get feedback in to on The Draft Government Policy Statement on Land Transport 2015/16-2024/25. It gives no indication of the return expected, but gives a cost/benefit ratio of 1.8 on Roads of National Significance. By comparison, predicts a ratio of 2.84 for California’s high speed rail system. For much the same sum as they’re planning to spend on new roads, we too could have a 350kph Wellington-Auckland railway; gives 350kph rail line construction costs as US$17m to US$39m per km. At that rate a 600km (the distance in a straight line via Palmerston North is 525km) Auckland-Wellington line would cost US$10,200m to US$23,400m, with journey time a little over 2 hours.

    Another contrast in the Policy Statement is spending on SuperGold Card concessions. Table 5 comes just after Table 4 showing lavish new road spending. Table 5 shows Gold Card funding stuck at $17.905m for the next 3 years, despite the over 65 population growing at about 4% a year and inflation.

  7. Mr Brownlee may be keen to highlight increases in vehicle registrations but wouldn’t it be more useful to also know the number of vehicles permanently removed from the national fleet, over the same period, either by accident or obsolescence?

  8. A ‘dead cat bounce’, which incidentally is also a description of Gerry Brownlee’s exercise regime.

  9. Matt is it possible to re-do your graph to show:

    (light vehicle travel + motorcycle) per capita? I’d suggest that’s a better indicator of personal travel demands.

    You could also add the others (i.e. commerical, heavy truck and bus) and plot that as a function of GDP per capita. Basically, it’d be the intensity of travel demand required to support economic activity.

    My suspicion is that both personal VKT per capita and commercial VKT per GDP/capita continue to decline.

    1. actually thinking about it a bit more maybe throw bus in the personal category too, although much of it is likely related to tourist travel – which won’t show up in population statistics but will show up in economic activity.

      1. On have loaded post trying to show change in car traffic through Waikato from Tauranga.
        Some year’s growth and some decline, all very stable.

        But this year’s monthly traffic counts and new car sale are all showing some impressive growth. It has been doing this for months now. It maybe people have become comfortable paying over $2 per litre for petrol, now it has been above this level for about 3 years.

  10. 51 days until the election. Will enough New Zealanders have woken up to National’s pernicious tactics by then for it to be thrown out of office?

    The polls are indeed favouring National. The Labour opposition is dishevelled. There is wariness of the ‘unknown-quantity’ of having the Greens in office. . . . . Things do not look good.

    But what seems certain is that this election will be our last chance to curb the excesses of this roads-obsessed government, before our economy is dragged down by the fairyland economics of its grandiose schemes. The ravaged economies and empty motorways of Greece, Spain and Portugal stand as sobering testaments of where a blind faith in road-building can lead.

  11. ““Data collected by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) on State Highway usage from the first six months of 2014 suggests we will continue to see increases in travel demand.”

    Oh, really? No, it suggests no such thing. All it says is that traffic increased in the first half of 2014. (Past performance is not an indicator of future results, Gerry.)

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