Leading Image: Sacrificing pedestrian environments and green infrastructure to sell (electric) cars.
Why do both our major parties plan to spend billions of dollars on new roads and sprawl development of farmland?
Our government is catching up on the backlog of rural road safety issues, is slowly improving rail and public transport, is funding “three waters” infrastructure maintenance and upgrades to assist brownfields housing developments and has introduced internationally-renowned planning changes to enable regeneration of our cities. But they are also funding and enabling the infrastructure for sprawl, including new roading projects.
And National has proposed roads.
If it seems like a good compromise to add new roads as well as public transport, and to build OUT as well as UP, you’re not properly understanding the problems of a sprawling city.
While we continue to sprawl and increase roading capacity, New Zealand will be unable to get its emissions trajectory on track. We’re currently set to emit 85 million tonnes more CO2e between 2021 and 2030 than would be compatible with our 1.5C goal. It seems both parties are in a type of climate denial. Understanding climate change but failing to provide consistent climate-appropriate policies is a behaviour called “implicatory denial of climate change”.
It’s not due to a lack of options. Land use and transport planning for climate is a well established field. Auckland has a compact city strategy and both “modeshift” and “healthy streets” form part of our transport plans. Yet billions of dollars are going into roading and infrastructure to support sprawl.
This election year it is reasonable to ask:
- Why do economists justify road building both ‘to accommodate growth’ when the economy is strong and ‘to stimulate growth’ when it’s not?
- Why do neither major party offer a consistently roads-light, climate-friendly, economically-responsible policy of transport and land use planning?
- What can we understand from National’s transport policy announcement being hosted by Beca, a consultancy providing the “technical expertise” used to justify our road expansion plans?
- If several sectors and industries need overhauling in tandem to bring the change we need, what will reduce the enormity of this task and make it seem less daunting?
This topic is the subject of a critical review paper in the journal Energy Research and Social Science called The Political Economy of Car Dependence.
Car-dependent transport systems are an important component of ‘carbon lock-in’, i.e. “the interlocking technological, institutional and social forces that can create policy inertia towards the mitigation of global climate change”
a deeply self-reinforcing system, apparently immune from economic and political pendulum swings, able to bend the forces that sway the rest of the society to its purpose. In some ways, it is a comprehensive (and rather depressing) political economy anatomy of carbon lock-in.
Yet there is hope in the paper:
Can we learn any lessons here in breaking free from these interlinked elements of lock-in? We believe the answer is affirmative…
we show that moving past the automobile age will require an overt and historically aware political program of research and action.
The paper delves deeply into five elements of car dependence and how they reinforce each other:
- the automotive industry;
- the provision of car infrastructure;
- the political economy of car-dependent land-use patterns;
- the provision of public transport; and
- cultures of consumption of the automobile.
In this post I will just look at some aspects of the first two.
The provision of car infrastructure
The paper details how the introduction of the motor vehicle led to changes in how we use our streets, in the street environment itself, and in traffic regulations. Together, these changes made walking, cycling and using public transport slow and inconvenient. This history of how our transport system became inequitable clarifies the need for policy to reverse the situation now. Whether the Labour Party’s values of equal access and social justice or the National Party’s values of equal opportunity and personal responsibility are followed, we need to see road space reallocated and regulatory rights for (non-driving) users re-established.
The paper then moves onto the subject of road building and widening.
Road building typically requires large, expensive, state-funded projects and thus considerable political justification and legitimization. We argue that five typical ‘strategies of legitimization’ can be identified.
Let’s look at these in turn.
The first of these includes two apparently contradictory appeals to economic growth. First, the necessity for road building can be presented as arising from economic growth, as more economic activity means more car ownership and use, in turn leading to additional road space requirements… The second variant sees road building as being required for economic growth, despite the weak empirical evidence on this relationship…
These arguments are extremely effective, as they justify road building under any circumstances, and invoke economic growth, which is routinely considered a political imperative.
Boom or bust, the argument is always for more roads.
The second strategy appeals to ‘popular consumerism’, which sees growing consumption by the public as inherently positive and worthy of encouragement. This argument assumes that increasing car use reflects ‘consumer preferences’ and thus deserves to be provided for with additional dedicated infrastructure…
A third justification is based on the idea that roads assist with regional development and the reduction of spatial economic inequalities, by facilitating economic growth in the regions in which they are built…
The combination of this more left-wing justification with the more right-wing appeal to popular consumerism is particularly powerful, as it means that road-building can be justified from across the political spectrum, and is thus easy to present as an obvious policy choice that has “transcended party differences… Road building and maintenance can thus come to be seen as a matter of basic political common sense… This means that many of the justifications for road building discussed here, despite being firmly in the repertories of the ‘road lobby’… often do not even need to be voiced.
Left or right, the answer is always more roads.
The ribbon-cutting for new traffic lanes on the Southern Motorway.
A fourth strategy of legitimization presents road building as the main solution to the problems generated by increasing motorization. Here it is argued that new (and ‘better’) roads will reduce congestion (by providing the necessary space for handling traffic ‘flows’) and improve safety (through the segregation of different types of traffic, e.g. long-distance and local)…
[but] greater road provision can result in increased traffic, through the mechanism of ‘induced demand’. The resulting feedback loop – whereby more roads create more traffic, which in turn leads to calls for further road building – has been identified as a key driver of the self-reinforcing dynamic of car dependence. This ultimately results in the exacerbation of the congestion and safety problems that road building was supposed to solve.
Image credit: Greater Greater Washington
A final legitimization strategy is based on technical expertise: road network expansions are officially sanctioned to be in the general public interests (on a scheme-by-scheme basis) by experts applying appraisal methods that are considered to be objective and scientific. Traditional transport planning approaches and mainstream economics methods of appraisal such as Cost-Benefit Analysis often have a bias towards road building, for example when they disregard or underestimate induced demand, or privilege motorists’ travel time savings over environmental impacts and accessibility for all road users. In practice, though, these approaches and methods are often used to confer legitimacy to transport decision-making (on grounds of scientificity and neutrality), even when the decisions are taken mostly on other grounds.
Image Credit: Andy Singer, via fietsprofessor on twitter
A key goal of the road lobby is to ensure that road expenditures are insulated from competition with other spending priorities, as well as from political scrutiny and the consequences of alternation of different parties in power. This can happen when governments, for a range of reasons, earmark funds or adopt investment appraisal and decision-making procedures that are biased towards road building.
The automotive industry
— AudiOfficial (@AudiOfficial) August 2, 2020
We don’t manufacture cars in Aotearoa, but the automotive industry’s influence is international.
Large economies of scale and capital intensity in the car industry mean that high levels of production are required to recover incurred costs.
There are many negative consequences from this. For example, the industry fights:
tooth and nail against threats to its established business models, and… lobbies to water down regulations on issues such as safety and the environment.
Another implication is that
new and used vehicles depreciate rapidly…
[so] households are more likely to acquire a car in response to a change in life situation than they are to dispose of it when there is an equivalent change in the opposite direction…
In turn, the resulting high car ownership impacts our transport choices:
the cost of public transport trips (at least when paid on a pay-as-you-go basis) tends to compare unfavorably with the perceived marginal cost of an additional car trip.
Second, the multipurpose nature and surplus capacity of cars has wider implications for how people relate to them, and can potentially explain why, once acquired, they tend to dominate individual travel practices.
In summary, to prop up the automotive industry, we end up owning too many cars, and can rarely choose a cheaper model suitable for just our particular needs. They are bigger, more multi-purpose, less safe, and more environmentally damaging than they should be. Owning these vehicles then means we choose to drive for trips that should be done by other modes.
In turn, this lock-in to our vehicles influences mindsets – of people submitting, lobbying, designing, voting, and making decisions on our behalf.
The paper gives details on the many other elements that have led to our unhealthy dependence on cars.
Each cell shows causation in one direction, with the titles of the columns showing the cause, and the titles of the rows showing the effect.
Policies for moving away from car dependence will be wise to address the five interconnected elements together…
suburban sprawl can be seen as the effect of state capture by the car-dependent transport system, rather than an outcome of citizen preferences…
Our major political parties – whether their leaders claim climate change is this generation’s nuclear free moment or just a phase the kids are going through – are obliged to spend our money in a way that serves us and future generations best. This requires creating a low-carbon transport system and compact urban form, not building roads and abusing our ecology with sprawl.
With billions of dollars and huge, negative outcomes at stake, a gradual shift towards sustainable policies won’t be sufficient. Government needs to acknowledge the influence of the political economy of car dependence, and boldly overhaul our legislation, regulations, plans and processes.