Over the weekend, the National and Labour Parties both made campaign announcements on transport investment. National pledged money towards upgrades of the Auckland and Wellington rail networks – including electrification to Pukekohe and a third main line at the Wiri-Westfield rail bottleneck. Labour, on the other hand, promised to start building Greater Auckland’s Congestion Free Network (mark 2) with light rail to the airport, northwestern Auckland, and the North Shore. (The Green Party has supported building the CFN for a while.)
But let’s forget about that for a moment and wind back the clock a decade.
In 2007, the Labour Party was in government, and ramping up transport spending, mostly for roads. While they provided funding for rail upgrades and (crucially) the Northern Busway, they spent a lot more on roads. Here’s a chart that I made a few years back:
By that point, the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority had realised that the city’s rail network would need to be electrified in order to grow public transport in the long term. As Matt wrote in his post celebrating the completion of electrification in 2014, they had to overcome skepticism from the Finance Minister of the day, Michael Cullen:
If Auckland was to go down the track of upgrading the network then there was only so long the existing trains (and proposed SA sets) would last and that new rolling stock would be needed. ARTA investigated the difference between buying new diesel trains and electrifying the system. When compared in a business case that took into account whole of life costs, electrification came out slightly ahead of buying new diesel trains. One thing not included in that assessment but that also helped in tipping the favour towards pushing for electrification was that if Auckland ever wanted a CRL that electrification was required for it so buying new diesel trains with a 35-40 year life would have prevented the CRL until we bit the bullet and electrified.
However despite the business case for an upgraded and electrified rail network looked good, it failed to win over then Finance Minister Michael Cullen. In response to questions in parliament he often used the same arguments against electrification and for the massive spend up in roading that his government were pushing that the current government do about the City Rail Link. That included the infamous line “buses need roads, too”.
Eventually Cullen was able to be convinced [nb: including by a campaign by the Greens] and in the 2007 budget a new appropriation was added providing $550 million towards electrification and a few other things.
In 2008, after the electrification plan had been agreed but before work had been started, National got into office and immediately began putting their stamp on the transport budget via the Roads of National Significance programme. Urban public transport was off the agenda; four-lane divided highways on the urban fringes were in. As Matt pointed out in his recap of the path to electrification, this cast doubt on electrification, but ultimately didn’t stop it:
When National won in 2008 one of the first things they did was to scrap the regional fuel tax and put the whole project on hold pending a review of the whole project. A working group reviewing electrification came back with the most drastic change being in the trains themselves. Instead of the 20m long carriages they would 24m long carriages and operate in multiples of three. Considerably fewer trains (75 carriages) were to be ordered and to make up the numbers electric locomotives were to be brought to haul around the SA carriages.
In late 2009 the government finally announced that it was proceeding with electrification and thankfully didn’t scale back the EMU order quite as much as the working group suggested. They said they would loan Kiwirail $500 million to buy 38 new EMUs (114 carriages). In another change they agreed to pay for the infrastructure without imposing those costs solely on Auckland which in my opinion was actually a fairer way to do it. The contracts for the physical works were signed a few months later in January at the formal opening to the new Newmarket station.
The National Government would go on to co-fund the City Rail Link (but not until they’d spent a few years pouring cold water on it) and agree to progress rapid transit on the Dominion Road – Airport corridor (eventually).
In short, the consensus has changed significantly on transport investment for Auckland in the space of a decade. Back then, both Labour and National had to be dragged kicking and screaming to fund even the most sensible public transport improvements. Today, both parties are making better public transport a centrepiece of their election campaigns in Auckland. So are the Greens. New Zealand First’s election manifesto also supports improved PT.
What’s more, all parties support safer urban cycling. That’s been a long-standing priority for the Green Party, but since the National government committed to the Urban Cycleway Fund it’s gotten momentum across the political spectrum.
This is what the political scientists call “a massive shift in the Overton window“, or the band of ideas that are considered sensible and pragmatic, rather than radical and dangerous. Auckland’s Overton window on transport now includes “build roads and PT”, “build PT first”, “build cycleways”, and “build all of the above”, but it no longer includes “build roads and bugger all the rest”.
This hasn’t happened by accident: political parties haven’t just randomly decided to shift direction. Rather, these changes have come about due to two important factors.
The first has been that the evidence base has shifted. There’s increasing recognition that building more roads doesn’t fix congestion, but that building alternative transport options will at least give people the opportunity to opt out. Many Aucklanders have personally experienced this due to the Northern Busway, rail upgrades, and new bus lanes and cycleways popping up around the city.
A desire for evidence to guide investment, rather than spending megabillions on the back of ill-informed reckons, underpinned the Auckland Transport Alignment Project. That was a serious attempt to get a consensus view between (and within) local and central government about what should be done to sort the city’s transport network out. The campaign promises from our bigger political parties ultimately stem from ATAP – they may be making competing bids about modes or timing, but the underlying shape of the network is broadly agreed.
The second key factor is that public transport, walking, and cycling are popular in Auckland. Aucklanders drive a fair bit, but when we’re surveyed about what we want, we tend to say that we want more public transport, walking, and cycling choices.
Consider, for instance, this survey from 2012, which found that more Aucklanders would prefer funding more public transport than would prefer funding more roads:
I’m sure there are more recent surveys, but this one is important because it shows that a shift in public perceptions was underway before all political parties really got on board with change. Since 2012, I’m sure perceptions have shifted further – driven, in part, by the success of the things we have done.
If the political consensus on transport for Auckland has shifted, it’s because Aucklanders have wanted it to shift. It’s time for the city to do something new – and most of us know it.
Where do you think the consensus on transport is?