Submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Low-emissions economy draft report close today June 8th, here. Arrrg.
There is a great deal that’s really good in the report, but one thing that I feel the Prodcom is missing is the changing nature of our cities, in particular Auckland. And that they therefore are missing an important tool they should be more positive about using, not only in the transition to the post carbon economy, but to generally improve so much else besides.
Change is accelerated in cities, so when it’s occurring its vital to guide that change consciously in order to get them into best form for the future. It’s clear we’re in such a phase of morphological change now.
It is true that, in general, most of New Zealand’s urban form is decidedly un-urban, what is counted as urban areas are mostly auto-dependent low density places: Suburban form, ironically, is our dominant urban form. Not always, but often these places are not only lower density, but are also auto-dependent by design. Places that are hard to function in without first grabbing your car keys; there’s often no amenity close by to walk to, nowhere safe to ride a bike, and little transit of sufficient quality to use. The Prodcom conclude that this must be the result of choice. The old revealed preference argument. And yes both more space and private gardens (and sea views, and long holidays, and so on) are luxuries that most people agree they’d like more of. Yet recent change in geographically constrained and growing places, especially Auckland, Wellington, and Queenstown, show that when allowed, people make real world trade-offs, and choose other types and locations of habitation. And when offered good quality public transport and safe places to ride bikes (things New Zealanders consistently say they’d like more of) they choose those too.
I should stress that while I’ve leaned on evidence of more apartment dwellers below it isn’t a binary choice between downtown Auckland or the lifestyle block. There are many shades between, and the answer I believe is for suburbs to get more of what’s great about city life: proximity, choice, and access, and the city in turn to get more suburban in one particular respect: get leafier…. make the city more liveable and ‘burbs more lively, and connect them both together better.
So I have quickly whipped up this submission on their urban form chapter.
Urban Form and Transport Emissions:
We support the Commissions understanding of the value the of walkable mixed-use dense urban form in supporting the low carbon economy. Especially as such form offer structural, inbuilt economies that are self reinforcing for their inhabitants and users. Particularly by freeing people from dependency on private vehicle use.
And while we strongly support the importance of transitioning all our vehicle fleets to electric drive, we also note that reduced private vehicle use is an even more powerful tool in the low carbon economy as does the report:
“Stephan et al. (2013) note that, even with the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, public transport is still more efficient from an emissions perspective, given the emissions embodied in the construction of roads, parking spaces and other infrastructure.” p394
Additionally as the report notes there are so many other valuable advantages in reducing the structural auto-dependency of our urban form:
“In addition to producing GHG emissions, the use of road vehicles has led to several other costs not fully borne by the user (section 11.8). External costs from road transport include traffic congestion, air pollution from harmful exhaust gases (eg, carbon monoxide), noise pollution, and road fatalities and injuries.” p285
However, we feel the Commission is too pessimistic about the ability of urban communities to change to more compact form. The Commission believes, repeating its claim from its earlier Better Urban Form study, that the existing dominant auto-dependent suburban from is all but permanent because of expressed preference.
‘Increasing the density of urban areas, combined with good public transport and accessibility, can reduce vehicular travel and emissions. But intensification of this nature has proven difficult to accomplish and runs counter to the living preferences of many New Zealanders. Urban planning policies are likely to take many years to achieve significant increases in density. By then, reductions in vehicle emissions may have already been achieved through advances in low-emissions transport.’ Draft Report p384 (emphasis added)
There is good evidence that people do choose more dense urban living when offered the opportunity, and when real world constraints are considered. And that this change can occur relatively quickly, in fact more quickly that transition to EVs. Substitution of private vehicle use with public and active transport, while incremental, can build to significance over time, when supported by regulation and infrastructure investment. It is important to note that e-bikes currently outsell EVs. And that public transport ridership growth over the last decade has averaged 6.7% pa v population growth at 2.5%.
For example the Auckland City Centre is both the fastest growing residential area in the country (~50k) and reports the lowest car ownership in the 2013 census, 25% of households with no car. This is much more likely to be not through privation, but through choice; the absence of need. Areas that can support more of this type of living should be encouraged, especially the inner cities of biggest cities, and their secondary centres. And the creation of new auto dependent sprawl distant from employment, education, and entertainment should no longer be subsidised or encouraged.
Auckland’s historically low density urban form and low public transport use are at least as much the result of policy and pro-sprawl and driving subsidies as any unchanging preference, as both are clearly changing as these settings change. The relaxation of some restrictions on denser form and recent investment in both public and active transit infrastructure and service have been met with strong uptake of each.
We find the argument that mode shift to public or active transport from driving is likely to result in little change in emissions because they only replace short trips (p308) also to be weak, because it ignores locational changes that often accompany a switch from driving. A person or household moving from a low density auto-dependent place to a denser one well served by public transport, is likely to be replacing a long drive with a shorter public or active transport journey. So in fact the change will likely be doubly valuable from an emissions (and other transport cost) point of view. Additionally as Auckland’s now ambitious public transport plans accelerate over the next decade, plenty of the new users will be making longer trips on the new services instead of driving. And thirdly this is also a good argument for investing in high quality inter-city systems such as our Regional Rapid Rail programme (now government policy).
While it is likely that electric cars will enable dispersed living to continue with a lower emissions profile, we note that the transition of the entire current fleet will also take a long time to occur and is still a resource hungry pattern overall.
Therefore we agree strongly with the Auckland Council position:
“A practical policy approach could deliver better integration of transport and land-use including better transport-oriented development; rapidly increased and sustained uptake of public transport, walking and cycling; promotion of shared mobility and travel demand management; and improvement of fleet fuel efficiency – including but not limited to increasing electric vehicle (EV) uptake (including vehicles other than private cars).” (Auckland Council 2017, p10
A better outcome, while also encouraging vehicle change, is to help guide all existing and new urban landuse to a less resource hungry pattern. This means allowing and enabling:
- mixed use zoning as a default, so employment and living may more easily co-habitate (regulate for industrial externalities directly).
- a greater built density at all transport nodes, certainly this would be more achievable than blanket up zoning of existing low density areas.
- a greater density at desirable well connected locations where the economic conditions for development are more favourable.
- coordinate high quality public transport provision with increases in allowed density.
- much improved inter-city transit options as well as intra-city ones.
The need to get to a zero carbon economy by 2050 means that all levers will have to pulled. While we support the transition to electrify existing transport systems, there is also a very useful role for improved urban form to play in this transition. It is our view that the draft report doesn’t cover the opportunities in incentivising and enabling a conscious transition to higher density land use through better pricing of costs, internal and external, and changes to land-use regulation at both central and local government levels, particularly in our bigger and faster growing cities.
We propose the Commission amend the emphasis of 11.14, from one of minimising the value of supporting denser walkable urban form to one of supporting it, as the contribution may currently be small but the potential for change is large precisely because our current urban form is so dispersed.
“Increasing the use of public transport, and cycling and walking provide relatively small emissions reductions benefits. On the other hand, shifting to these modes can achieve significant other benefits, including reduced congestion, better health outcomes and overall productivity gains”.
This may apply aggregate i.e. the whole of NZ, but there’s lots of potential in cities.