This post was originally published on the excellent Tranzport site here. It is republished with permission.

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.

Light rail: about time or waste of time?

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.

Traffic congestion is fun! So say we all…

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.

Lowering inner city speed limits is obviously a terrible idea…

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.

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31 comments

  1. The facts are important in any debate.
    64% of New Zealanders surveyed favoured public transport, compared to 32 per cent who backed roading projects.
    Source: TVNZ 1 NEWS Sept 8 2017.
    Also (I can’t find the source) about 70% of NZers support rail.
    Graphs and pictures are so clear and worth a 1000 words.

  2. As a person who spent most of their working life dealing with facts and figures and getting frustrated that they often had little direct impact on policy decisions it became clear to me its not that facts and figures dont matter its just they generally need to be treated as only a starting baseline. So about 3 people read your carefully crafted journal article or working paper, 10 read your abstract if you are lucky but if you can get a good story into the media – now probably social media – with a simple compelling message you can start to influence thinking.

  3. I appreciate the thought that has gone into this post. However, I have to respond to it the same way that I do to every well-meaning “messaging expert” who intervenes in the debate on any issue (be it transit, politics, promoting a football club): why is it that amateurs on a blog seem to “know better” than the professionals paid to do this for a living? The question I would need answering is that – if something like this is the silver bullet for cutting through the FUD regarding sustainable transport – is why the paid experts aren’t doing it already.

    1. Which paid experts are you talking about exactly? I would think that many transport experts are just doing the job they are told to do by their directors/ministers to achieve the results asked for.

    2. in my experience, comms/PR staff don’t think like sales pros. If you’re trying to sell ideas, then that’s a problem. As a copywriter, I’ve wanted to write this exact post myself. PT advocates need to use simpler ‘benefits’ messaging and not getting dragged into debates where they have to defend themselves with figures. In the public sphere, explaining is losing. It sucks (because it should be a battle of facts, right?), but when you accept you’re fighting an emotional battle, you can meet Hosking et al on their terms, and not get lost in a sea of reckonses.

      1. So the answer is that if AT or NZTA hired “sales pros” or good copy writers, they would win the battle of the idea over the Hoskinses of this world?

        No offense, but this really sounds like a “hire me” pitch by sales pros and copy writers. Or to put it another way, such people have an unrealistic idea of their ability to mould mass consciousness. Can politics really be boiled down to “if the Green Party hired better sales pros/copy writers, we’d be carbon neutral by now?”

        As I say, I’ve seen this exactly same concept in football fandom – a bunch of guys on a forum think it’s BLINDLY OBVIOUS how the club needs to promote itself to get the numbers up.

        1. I read the article a different way. Less about having a silver bullet; more about getting people to be wary of getting into detail. Of course, how much detail and how much attractive messaging will depend on the audience. Ensuring there is a forum for evidence and nutting out the facts and figures is important. Those who can switch from one form of communication to the other in a heartbeat are clever clogs.

        2. The issue with AT , LTNZ and such is they don’t try to provide a compelling story/narrative for readers as doing so could be considered political (which they are required to avoid).
          They focus on two aspects;
          1. Communicate facts and figures for others to use
          2. Avoid controversies

          This means what they write is more like a business case which is hard to get behind, and never going to compel strong cohesive support.

    3. One of the basic requirements for people employed at AT must be their understanding of a financial, annual or economic reports. Reports should be clear with recomendations and reasoning. We expect staff at AT to be objective and do things which give the most bang for the buck. So when it come to prioritising projects it should be easy for professionals to agree on the costs and benefits (including wellbeing)

    4. Which paid professionals are you referring to?

      The motoring industry: $500+ million of advertising and marketing each year and PR professionals paid $$$ to influence policy.
      PT, walking and cycling: $? of advertising and marketing each year and volunteers to influence policy.

    5. Daphne, I would suggest that in NZ we build infrastructure according to demand, and generally ignore whether or not that demand could or should be different. That is, how demand came about isn’t questioned, it’s simply accepted and then enabled to expand further, whether it’s the best way forward or not.

      The current government isn’t really changing things. Multi-billion dollar light rail projects in one or two locations will soak up all the money but won’t change anything for most New Zealanders. What is needed is a policy of providing PT as a regular option for most people nationwide. Ensure every town and city has it (many currently don’t), along with a good selection of integrated long distance services.

    6. “ amateurs on a blog seem to “know better” than the professionals paid to do this for a living?”
      D’oh! Big assumption but unfortunately entirely wrong. The writer of that blog post is a professional. Never mind.

  4. Not only has it been made easy to drive, it’s also been made very difficult/impossible to move around by any other method than driving until recently. The one exception would be flying. The complete lack of consideration for cycling/walking is still evident in most parts of NZ including the infamous flush median road space grab of the 80s/90s. It’s all very well saying “NZers love their cars” and repeating this over and over again but they have to because the alternatives are dire or don’t exist.

    1. Although I’m in Napier this holidays and there is a fair amount of cycling infrastructure but still no cyclists. I’m not sure why as it is almost perfect for cycling being mostly flat and dry. I guess it’s just so easy to get into the car.

      1. Good little bit of research for you, Jimbo. Rent a bike and find out. Here’s the network: https://www.iway.org.nz/routes-maps/

        It seems they have a few off road paths, which I like. They’re a bit rambly. Sometimes not so good for actual access to amenities on the streets, and these ones kind of resemble local connections, without the “cycling arterials” to then take you the distance. The only cycleway directly connecting the bulk of suburbia with the central area, Gloucester St / Kennedy Rd, seems to be missing a key section.

        Looking at the onstreet cycleways on streetview, including that Gloucester Rd one, they all seem to be the hideous kind that put you right in the door zone of parked cars.

        Looks to me like a good network for kids going to each others’ places if the route by chance aligns with an offstreet path. And good for a “vehicular cyclist commuter” who is happy to mix with traffic when necessary and hasn’t yet broken a few bones being doored. And possibly good for adult tourists in the waterfront area. Beyond that it’s probably a work in progress.

        But try it out and let us know.

    1. Bevan – really? There’s a lot of words in there, but not a single “We will build this project” in there at all, as far as i can see. I predict that this Plan will get lambasted to death by the likes of Hosking, in being all talk and no trousers. It will be labelled as a Disaster. Well-meaning, well-intentioned, sure, but still a disaster.

  5. The trouble is that since the 50’s all the politicians think the cay is King and nothing else will prevail . But after seeing this item from the International Rail Journal one state there is changing their ways ;-

    “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our rail system work better for everyone, both in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” says Virginia governor Mr Ralph Northam. “This agreement will change the future of transportation in Virginia, improving our ability to move people and goods across the state, and opening up potential rail service in underserved parts of the Commonwealth.”

    The expansion of rail services is expected to remove five million cars and one million trucks off Virginia’s roads each year and support the Port of Virginia’s objective to move 40% of containers by rail .”

    Here is the full item ;-

    https://www.railjournal.com/freight/virginia-csx-passenger-investment/

  6. Look at transmission gully, the marketing spin is that its going to relieve congestion, provide much needed resilience, reduce travel times etc. An extra 12000 cars arriving into the already congested CBD, the cost, the reduced train passenger numbers, the likliehood of a major quake making the new route impassable etc all get ignored. The route is thanks to spin politically popular.

    1. The Melling interchange improvements (allegedly due to be announced soon by Grant Robertson) will be interesting to watch: car drivers in the Hutt will believe this is being done to speed up their commute to work, but I think this will be proposed as a major upgrade for safety. That’s a good point (it is ludicrous to have traffic lights on an effective motorway), but if they could combine it with a major improvement for the Melling railway station at the centre of the interchange, that would be best. The spin on this project will be intense.

      My hope is that they combine a new over bridge/aerial roundabout for cars with a new rail bridge too, allowing the Melling Line to extend into the heart of the Hutt City. Now THAT would be a major improvement for reducing congestion: a train link direct from Wellington to Lower Hutt – avoiding the use of cars altogether – would offer massive improvements to travel and reduce car use significantly. Will the Gov have the balls to do it? Watch this space…

  7. The language we use is important. It is important that we we get all excited and have the discussion about the things we are passionate about that it isn’t detail orientated.

    It’s why we shouldn’t talk about 3rd main, we should talk about 4th main.

    We should talk about intercity rail, allowing trucks to come off the roads.

    The messages should be simple and easy to digest.

  8. The government is currently calling for submissions to be made on the Future of Rail in NZ (closing date 7th February 2020).

    The rail plan makes no mention of establishing domestic passenger trains. Neither does it end KiwiRail’s monopoly on freight, which is holding back growth in rail freight volumes.

    I suggest as many people as possible make a submission. It’s the first time in our history that submission on our national rail network have been called for.

  9. Two things are wrong with this article – 1. is that cars are only bed for commuting. For getting out into the countryside they are unmatched and will be for the foreseeable future and you should emphasise this is where cars are fantastic. And you should emphasise where cars are demonstrably not fantastic – in cities.
    2. Its not a matter of making car travel worse, rather its a matter of making active and public transport the most attractive options for commuting. Period, full stop, end of story.
    3. I think we need to emphasise the reverse of induced traffic – that if we take lanes away from congested roads, traffic evaporates. The newly reduced roads will be congested, but not worse than before, but you are feeling up space to give people a congestion free option.

    1. Cars are unmatched for getting out into the countryside if you’re a driver. Others need other modes, still. One thing I was thinking about is that we have two types of buses that should have bike racks – the train replacement buses (I don’t know if they do but they certainly should as otherwise they’re not replacing the service properly) and the buses that go out into the countryside.

      And I’ve also been thinking about small towns. They’re often a little too big for easily walking to everything but they’re not safe for cycling. That needs fixing. It’s crazy in little places for people to be dependent on cars.

      I think we should aim for all the small towns to be safe for cycling, and connected with off-road walking and cycling paths.

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