A new NZIER research report, entitled “Disruption on the road ahead! How auto technology will change much more than just our commute to work“, makes the case that new technologies will upend urban transport systems:
Near autonomous cars followed by driverless vehicles (smart cars) will transform our commute to work and much more over the next two decades.
Car-based technologies hold the promise of reducing the billions of dollars we spend on roads by improving how we use them and by saving lives.
We need to rethink our reliance on infrastructure solutions to transport problems and look at how to effectively embrace the new technologies.
If you read on, the report implies that we should stop investing in public transport and count on driverless cars to allow roads to flow more efficiently. The report does not grapple with the question of where the driverless cars will be stored – in spite of the fact that parking is one of the costliest elements of a car-heavy urban transport system. Space is expensive in cities and cars, even driverless ones, do not use space efficiently.
Now, let me be perfectly clear: this is a lazy analysis. As I have previously argued, waiting on unproven technologies to solve our problems is a bad strategy, especially when there are proven technologies that can be implemented right now. It is more realistic to invest in frequent bus networks, rapid transit infrastructure like Auckland’s rail network and the Northern Busway, and safe cycling facilities like the separated Beach Road cycleway. (Auckland Transport, like many other transport agencies, understands this and is getting on with it!)
However, if we set aside NZIER’s technological utopianism, they are making a reasonable point: When a transformational technology emerges, governments must make complementary public investments to enable society to benefit.
With that in mind, I would like to point out that a technology revolution has happened over the last decade – and gone largely unnoticed by New Zealand’s transport agencies. I’m talking about electric bikes, which are now proven, readily-available technology. Several companies are selling them in New Zealand, with basic models going for under $1000, which is price-competitive with a new road bike. In the Netherlands, 19% of all new bikes purchased in 2013 were electric.
Why is this so revolutionary? Simply put, because electric bikes flatten out all the hills on a cycling route. By providing a bit of extra oomph when riding up inclines, they remove a major barrier to cycling in hilly cities like Auckland and Wellington. Suddenly, the vertiginous climb out of the Queen Street gully might as well be pancake-flat Christchurch.
Even on flat sections, the additional power provided by the electric motor can make cycling much more relaxing and gentle. That may not matter to the young and/or fit, but it’s a boon to people who are less fit or only starting to cycle.
Consequently, electric bikes have the potential to majorly disrupt New Zealand’s urban transport markets. According to my calculations based on 2013 Census journey to work data, one-third of all commutes in Auckland are under 5 kilometres. At present, only a very small minority of those trips are done by bike. Recent technological change means that could shift, and rapidly. Taking all those short trips on bikes would have a much more fundamental impact on congestion than driverless cars.
However, there are some big barriers to getting the full benefits of this transformative technology. Simply put, our roads often feel too unsafe to ride on. People on bikes often must compete for road space with cars, buses, and trucks. They have to look out for cars backing out of driveways and drivers opening doors into their path. Over a lifetime these risks are more than balanced out by the health benefits of cycling, but they can feel a bit intimidating.
There is a strong case for public investment and policy changes to unlock the benefits of electric bikes. It is relatively easy to make cycling safe and common by investing in a complete cycle network. This means:
- Implementing more off-road cycle paths like the successful Northwestern Cycleway and Grafton Gully Cycleway, and the impending Nelson Street and Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive cycleways
- Putting separated on-street cycle lanes, like the excellent Beach Road cycleway, on every major road where there is enough space
- Slowing speed limits to improve safety on side streets and alternative routes like the Dominion Road parallel routes.
This can all be done immediately at a relatively low cost. It will enable us to benefit from a transformative technology that actually exists right now, rather than waiting decades for an unproven technology. So why aren’t the enthusiasts for “disruptive technology” taking notice?