Most people in New Zealand drive. So if we are going to invest in transport infrastructure, it makes sense to invest in roads. Roads work. Everyone uses them. This means that it is a meaningful, long-term investment with real economic impact and used by everyday New Zealanders, well, everyday.
Mass rapid transit sounds good. It can work in some cities where there are concentrated masses of people. But in New Zealand most people will continue to drive cars because our cities are not compromised for space like they are in, say, Europe.
Cars mean freedom. It is a right of passage for New Zealand youths to learn how to drive and gaining your drivers licence is more than a license to drive a car. It’s a license to live. It allows us to go see friends, get to work, university, take the kids to school, do the shopping, go on holiday. That’s flexibility.
Mass rapid transit cannot offer that kind of flexibility, and it never will. How do you do the shopping by taking the bus, train, or bike? Don’t even get me started on the weather. If you are going more than 500 metres anywhere and it’s cold, raining, or that wind is blowing gale, as it can often do in New Zealand, you are going to choose the car!
And that’s why New Zealanders will never use public transport, or ride bikes, in the kind of numbers like the great unwashed say they will. Unless, of course, they force you to, which they are trying to do by wanting to invest in billion dollar plus light rail projects that are big white elephants – colossal, outlandish vanity projects that will never be used because people prefer the freedom and flexibility of their cars.
At the same time, these people want to make it harder for you to drive your car. Roads are being narrowed and pedestrians and bikes – a small, tiny percentage of the community – given priority, creating dangerous situations. Speed limits are being slashed in our cities, which only cause needless delays as drivers struggle to get to where they are going on time. Apart from the impact on the economy by slowing people down, it will cause frustration, and accidents will ensue, maybe worse.
These ideas are the antithesis to accessibility. They are stopping our cities in their tracks. In the meantime, investment in major road projects are being slashed. Several major projects around the country have been cancelled. Projects that would employ people, spur the economy, get people where they need to be faster, reduce congestion and increase safety.
And for what? Why is all this happening? Because a group of people have an ideological disposition to force upon us a supposedly “Utopian” transport system. But it is a dangerous, fools paradise peddled by dangerous fools with their heads high up in the clouds of sustainable thinking. It ignores the reality ordinary New Zealanders live through each day. It is utterly impossible to implement, and only a fool would believe it could be so.
Yet these people are winning, and implementing their economic disaster while frustrated people are stuck in congestion every day, and the wheels of commerce and industry start to slow to a crawl. Light rail, cycleways, these things will not get you moving. New Zealand desperately needs to invest in more roads now.
Okay. So who wrote that ugly diatribe? Mike Hosking? His southern counterpart Mike Yardley? Perhaps the chair of a local chamber of commerce? An angry, old man writing into the Dominion Post, The Press or NZ Herald?
In a way it is all of them and none of them at all. I wrote it. And I had fun too. It was an interesting exercise, but I just went for it. And it was easy. I know all these arguments by heart. And, yes, Mike Hosking and others of his ilk regurgitate it ad infinitum. Why? Because it works.
Why does it work?
What we say and how we say it (and to whom) is extremely important. It seems obvious when we are debating policy, but how messaging is framed is often overlooked. Because the truth is those sorts of arguments I spewed forth above actually resonate with people. And that means that it can, and does, drive government policy (because, when it comes down to it, decisions are usually made on where the votes are).
But doesn’t my verbal diarrhoea have no substance?
That is correct! Yes, much of what I say above lacks substance, is skewed, is biased etc. Take your pick. However, that doesn’t matter, as recent events in western democracies illustrate rather well. What matters is that these types of arguments are designed to tap into peoples personal situations, their thinking. And, if you want to consider things from a “what people want” point of view – i.e. it doesn’t matter if you can prove car dependency is inefficient, people simply value cars to such an extent that they are willing to pay for it, and they will use it (and maybe congestion if the proof in the pudding?).
If you are like me, you like to have a good laugh at people like Mike Hosking, or maybe shake your head in disbelief at what comes out of those lips as they flap about. However, you can’t deny the beauty of the Hosking argument. It’s selective to the point of being incredibly misleading, but goes so far it pretty much ends up being true in a weird sort of way. That doesn’t make it right, of course. For example, if you look at what I wrote above you will note that I generalise and am incredibly selective of what I say and don’t say, to paint the picture I want. Then I appeal to people’s mass behaviour, and make out like it is under attack, again through generalising and cherry picking information. You drive, they won’t build roads, and now they want to force you to slow down, ruin your day, and next they’ll be forcing you onto a tram or something. What devils.
So am I saying people are stupid?
No, not at all. Think about it; most people do drive cars in New Zealand. That’s a fact. However, we know why that is – because we’ve made it so bloody easy to drive! And that car dependency we’ve cultivated has really poor outcomes. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you probably know that. My monologue above avoids this, extolling only the virtues of driving. It’s simple; it appeals and validates most peoples behaviours, regardless of whether they are voluntary or involuntary. It equates sustainable transport policy as being some sort of dirty hippy thing and an attack on your every day behaviour. How unfair of those dirty hippies! And it works.
How do we deal with this?
This, to me, illustrates how getting messaging right is really important. Everything I’ve outlined above works really well for the pro-roadies, and it works even better when the other side can’t figure out a way to get its own messaging right. Often when we are talking about such issues, the evidence based side has a hard time because it is forced to explain in excruciating detail why the other side is wrong. It sounds complicated, it sounds boring. It sounds too hard, and because it sounds like another language, it creates distrust. Not to mention, it effectively accuses people of being a part of a sort of collective bad behaviour, and most people don’t like being blamed for the worlds problems.
A really good example is the second Mount Victoria Tunnel proposed in Wellington. It’s proposed to come after mass rapid transit, and some people are very angry about that. Their entire argument taps into the sentiment of this article; they are sick of being stuck in traffic and can;t for the life them see how mass rapid transit will help. Double the capacity of the tunnel, the perceived bottle neck, and do it now because I’m sick of being stuck in traffic. In my view, the defence of not prioritising the second tunnel over mass rapid transit is not doing a very good job, at least from what I have seen int he media.
So, what do we do about it? To we fight fire with fire and lie our asses off to peddle sustainable transport policy. Er, no. We definitely don’t do that. Like I alluded to earlier, the beauty of these sorts of arguments lies in their ability to tap into a truth, if not the truth. But even then, I don’t think that sustainable transport should be peddled maliciously.
The biggest problem is that the Mikes of this world have their arguments down pat, and those sitting on the other side of the argument are not always as well prepared to deal with this. Avoid getting bogged down in technical detail or boring monologues about something specific (the detail will always be there if you need to reference it), keep it simple, extol the virtues of public transport, cycling etc. Appeal to the fact that people want to be free of the problems of traffic, and explain how better public transport or cycling will do it in the most simple of terms. I’ll leave you to think on that, and bow out with another monologue:
Most people in New Zealand drive to get to where they are going, and that isn’t good. So if we are going to invest in transport infrastructure, it makes sense to invest in a range of solutions that prioritises the mode of transport that best makes sense. It is important that more New Zealanders have the ability to avoid traffic congestion through utilising better public transport and safer cycling investments.
New Zealand has had significant under-investment in mass rapid transit. This has resulted in cities defined by urban sprawl, and a reliance on car travel. People have little other choice than to use their cars because we haven’t provided them other options. This means our cities, as they grow, are increasingly defined by traffic congestion. That slows our lives, and our economy down.
New Zealanders will continue to drive cars and continue to be stuck in congestion because it simply isn’t sustainable to keep building our way out of it. Just look at Auckland. Increasingly, New Zealand’s youths are not bothering to learn how to drive and gaining their drivers licence, nor own a car. They want to get around by other means and avoid the costs (including time), and hassles of car use.
A change in the balance of the types of transport infrastructure we build, including mass rapid transit, will provide people with more flexibility through greater choice. This allows people to avoid congestion, enables better land-use options, and can result in efficiency and productivity gains. Having facilities, such as shops, closer to transport hubs and where they live allows people to do everything they need to do without using a car. Car parking space can be used for more productive things.
And that’s why New Zealanders will use public transport, or ride bikes, in much greater numbers if the infrastructure is provided. Again, look at Auckland with its recent improvements to rail and bus. Build it and they will come in ever greater numbers. Those numbers don’t lie.
For so long driving your car has been made easy. Roads are wide and dangerous for pedestrians and bikes – perhaps a significant reason for why such a small, tiny percentage of the community walks and bikes to work. Where speed limits have been slashed in our cities, people have flocked, which is good for local businesses, and accidents have decreased. The impact on drivers is minimal in comparison, and does not outweigh the benefits.
These ideas are about increasing accessibility. Failure to change, to continue the same tired policies is simply stopping our cities in their tracks. Investing in rail, cycleways, mass rapid transit, as well as some roads, will employ people, spur the economy, get people where they need to be faster, reduce congestion and increase safety.
Why isn’t any of this happening as it should? Because a group of people have an ideological disposition to force upon us a supposedly “Utopian” transport system. But it is a dangerous, fools paradise peddled by dangerous fools with their heads high up in the clouds of failed roads-based thinking. It ignores the reality ordinary New Zealanders live through each day. It is utterly impossible to implement, and only a fool would believe it could be so.
Yet these people are winning, and implementing their economic disaster while frustrated people are stuck in congestion every day, and the wheels of commerce and industry start to slow to a crawl. Light rail, cycleways, these things will get you moving. New Zealand desperately needs to invest in more sustainable transport now.