Via economist Donal Curtin, I ran across the draft report that the Australian Competition Policy Review issued last September. It’s a long and fairly technical document, but the introduction made some good points in accessible language:
Competition policy sits well with the values Australians express in their everyday interactions. We expect markets to be fair and we want prices to be as low as they can reasonably be. We also value choice and responsiveness in market transactions — we want markets to offer us variety and novel, innovative products as well as quality, service and reliability.
These are generally sound principles, and I think it’s worth considering how they might apply to transport policy. The first and most important observation is that New Zealand suffers from a serious dearth of choice in urban transport markets. Unlike most other developed countries, we have failed to invest in high-quality public transport, walking, and cycling alternatives.
In fact, it’s even worse than that: transport policy has actively sought to reduce or block choice and competition in urban transport markets. Late last year, I discussed how Auckland ended up with a motorway network rather than a regional rail network in the 1950s: politicians and planners misrepresented the costs and benefits of the scheme in order to scupper the alternatives. The same story has been repeated, with variations, over and over since then.
Things are changing – but too slowly. For example, changes to public transport policy and agency mindset are starting to deliver more useful bus networks. In Auckland, extensions of the rapid transit network – Britomart, the Onehunga Line, and the Northern Busway – have been highly successful. It is important to build on these successes, as they are integral to having real transport choices.
The Australian Competition Policy Review carries on:
Access and choice are particularly relevant to vulnerable Australians or those on low incomes, whose day-to-day existence can mean regular interactions with government. They too should enjoy the benefits of choice, where this can reasonably be exercised, and service providers that respond to their needs and preferences. These aspects of competition can be sought even in ‘markets’ where no private sector supplier is present.
This is especially true of transport. Low-income families have the most to gain from better transport choices, as they are in the worst position to afford the costs of owning and operating a car. As I found when looking at the costs of commuting by car and public transport, households could save thousands of dollars a year by cutting back on car ownership and riding the bus to work. (Findings reinforced by a recent study of commuter costs in Australian and NZ cities.)
At the moment, low-income households in Auckland and other large NZ cities disproportionately live in far-flung suburbs with limited transport choices (as I found when writing a research paper on housing and transport costs). Auckland’s New Network will improve service in many historically under-served areas of the city, but this is only a small step. As Luke showed when he looked at walking and cycling in Manukau, post-war suburbs are still pretty grim for everything but cars.
At this point, New Zealand’s transport policies should be oriented around giving people more and better transport choices. If we want transport to raise our quality of life, the best way to do it is to build our “missing modes”. More lanes on the same motorway will not cut it.
What choices would you like to make when travelling?