This is a post by Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan
Imagine a New Zealand where you can…
- knock off work and escape the city for a long weekend, without having to drive on dangerous roads, bleary-eyed from a week at work…
- grow old in your hometown, knowing that even if you become too disabled to drive, heading to the nearest large centre for a doctor’s visit isn’t a transport hassle…
- take the overnight train to Wellington for business, so you can stick to your no-flying commitments without it eating into your working week…
- travel to regional tournaments safely by public transport (while teammates are still gaining experience as drivers)…
- visit grandchildren in other regions travelling on high quality buses equipped with onboard toilets and fast wifi, enjoying vegan and gluten free options at refreshment stops…
- have seamless door to door travel between cities and small towns using a mix of trains, buses and electric vehicles, with the help of accessible technology…
This is the New Zealand we’ll enjoy if vague calls to “Take Action on the Climate” are heeded. With an ageing population, fewer young people gaining their licences and a growing awareness that road trauma is avoidable, it is also the New Zealand that an increasing number of people will be relying on.
We have laid out some environmental reasons for investing in A National Public Transport Network. Here we present some reasons of access.
Access is one of the two key strategic priorities in the Government Policy Statement on Transport.
Access in GPS 2018 has a new focus that prioritises…
- regional development that supports thriving regions, for example through the Provincial Growth Fund
NZTA’s Statement of Performance Expectations says that one of the significant challenges for the sector is providing “inclusive access”.
Our position is that everyone should have fair and equitable access to the transport system… There needs to be improved management of transport demand and operations and transport investment must take a mode-neutral approach, enabling wider and longer-term social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes in cities and regions.
Huge change will be required if NZTA are to successfully rise to the challenge of providing mode-neutral inclusive access in the regions. NZTA will need to question long-held assumptions around who their work in the regions is serving. They’ll need to try new ideas and technologies, and invest in some long-neglected basic infrastructure.
For Aucklanders, the idea might seem trivial – why live there if you don’t drive? But there are numerous reasons people live in small towns or rural areas yet don’t drive, or don’t often drive.
They may be unable to afford a car. They may be adults who were drivers, but can no longer drive due to:
- medical conditions or vision impairment, sometimes brought on by the ageing process
- side effects of medication
- fear, having had a crash, experienced a crash, or having lost a loved one
- loss of their licence
- loss of their car
The level of ageing and disability in the country is possibly underappreciated in Auckland.
At the 2013 census, Auckland was the region with the lowest proportion of the population 65 and older. Northland had a significantly higher proportion in this age group. Ageing of the population is projected to continue in all regions with the national percentage of the population aged 65 and over going from around 15% in 2018 to 21% by 2033. By this time, the low income Kaipara district is projected to have one third of its population in this older age group.
Chart credit: Paul Callister, from Statistics New Zealand data
The Auckland disability rate (19%) is also significantly lower than the national average (24%). Bay of Plenty and Manawatū-Whanganui (both at 27%), Northland (29%), and Taranaki (30%) all experienced disability rates that were significantly higher than average. Not all disabilities mean one cannot drive, but of those that do, many are invisible to the casual observer. See the Statistics New Zealand’s 2013 Disability Survey.
Adding to the mix of ageing and disability, Northland, the Ruapehu area, the East Coast of the North Island and the Taumarunui area stand out as the most deprived areas of New Zealand. Mode-neutral inclusive access throughout the country, and especially in these deprived areas, would further NZTA’s work to achieve the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
A recent Canterbury study into elderly people, falling and the benefits of regular walking recommended:
People reported driving to pleasant places for a walk… Recreational walking can become more difficult once people are no longer able to drive. So, it is important that urban environments are more safe, pleasant and comfortable for walking.
Yet in small towns, which often only have very short lengths of footpath and few parks with well-formed paths, we’ll need different solutions, including public transport to larger, walkable towns.
We highlighted in our post on the history of the sector, that in areas with poor public transport provision, some gaps have been filled with services such as:
- Subsidised taxi fares for elderly or people with reduced mobility;
- Health shuttles to help people needing to access health services, often provided by volunteers.
There are multiple problems with providing stop-gaps instead of a more comprehensive service.
First, the burden on volunteers (whether friends or part of a service) will gradually become more onerous, with the ratio of older disabled people to volunteer drivers increasing steadily.
Secondly, if public transport isn’t available for elderly or disabled people, it’s also unavailable to other people who need it.
Children, for example, have no choice about where to live, and in rural areas and small towns, have little transport independence. Children may need access through public transport because they simply want to keep contact with both their parents who now live in different towns. The lack of it may mean they are growing up with limited parental or wider whanau contact. Others may need to travel to and from boarding school, or to further an area of interest.
In the towns Ohai and Nightcaps, this research found:
Single women and the elderly are particularly disadvantaged in their access to private vehicles. Some older local people, especially women, do not have driver licences and are unable to drive even though they may own a serviceable vehicle.
in suburban and peripheral areas around towns women are often forced to travel on foot due to having no access to private cars, or poor public transport service…
Decisions regarding transport policy are generally taken by “mature” men, precisely the age group that mainly travels by car.
Youth may feel they’re better to stay out of the big city, and want to be able to take up employment or training opportunities that come up in nearby towns, but don’t feel confident driving on rural roads. People providing access for youth in the regions have focused on helping them achieve their driving licences.
“The number of people who drive up the Coast without a licence, or drive on their learner licence, is unbelievable. That’s largely because of financial reasons — the cost of the test, petrol to get to Gisborne to sit the test, and getting their vehicle legal.”
“Getting a driver’s licence improves our young people’s access to education and employment, removes the isolation barriers in a rural community with limited public transport and improves safety on the roads for all of us,” says Central Taranaki Blue Light Ventures Coordinator Saskia Mills.
These programmes should be supported. But youth have limited funds, and drive older cars on rural roads posted with unsafe speed limits. This isn’t ‘access’. It’s a lack of transport options, and it leads to a tragic waste of young life.
And then there’s tourism. International tourism in its current form is an unsustainable industry. Yet tourists travelling around the country could be accommodated with minimal safety and emissions burdens. Both international and domestic tourism could be well-served by an improved public transport network. If small towns become easy to reach, there is better potential for community-supporting, local economies to develop.
Long term, we may see some rail lines revived, connecting main rural centres, but the majority of smaller towns are unlikely to ever be connected by rail. We may see safe paths allowing active transport and electric micromobility throughout the countryside, serving shorter journeys and the first and last legs of longer journeys. Either mode will require significant investment, and long timeframes.
Media discussions currently focus on regional air links, driven largely by Regional Development Minister Shane Jones. He has criticised Air New Zealand for dropping regional services and attempted to garner support from the Provincial Growth Fund to boost two small regional airlines. More recently Jones suggested that the government should offer support to struggling regional airports such as Whanganui, an airport that is within an hour’s drive of Palmerston North airport.
Here’s a picture of the bus stop in Whanganui:
In the North Island, Wikipedia shows 20 airports with scheduled air services.
Masterton has closed. Hamilton and Palmerston North no longer offer international services. Paraparaumu, North Shore and Great Barrier don’t serve any other towns on the North Island mainland. Whitianga only has one service per week to each of Auckland and Great Barrier, and only in summer. Many small towns are not near airports. Where airfields exist, the runways are often too short to accommodate modern domestic aircraft, and are not sealed. Sometimes difficult terrain means extending the runway would be prohibitively costly. Essentially, most small towns are unlikely to ever have air links. As the NZ Airports position paper noted:
small airports are inherently unable to operate commercially without subsidisation.
Services linking smaller centres generally only link them with Auckland or Wellington, too.
There are two flights per weekday from Taupō to Auckland but none will take you from Taupō to Hamilton. Intercity, in contrast, has five daily services from Taupō to both Hamilton and Auckland.
There are three flights per day from Whanganui to Auckland, but there are no flights to Wellington. InterCity provides three daily services from Whanganui to Auckland, and four from Whanganui to Wellington.
The government needs to explain how providing more aviation subsidy helps in our response to climate change. Taxpayers deserve evidence-based and mode-neutral analysis before deciding how to subsidise regional access. (See this article for the UK situation).
In contrast to the 15 airports that link North Island towns, InterCity has 277 designated stops in the North Island, and other towns are connected by smaller operators. InterCity bus stops beginning with the letter ‘A’ in the North Island:
While it is far from being a perfect system, buses already link most small towns across New Zealand to each other, including in some of the most deprived areas, and connect them with large cities. In most small towns they are now the only form of public transport.
With good planning and not huge amounts of money, the public transport infrastructure and services could be significantly improved, bringing stronger regional access in the short term. This investment will serve our long term needs too, even after other modes are improved. Benefits include regional development, increased social and economic opportunities, and improved wellbeing and equity. Will NZTA, and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, recognise the opportunity?