It’s a busy time of year for engaged citizens, with consultation after consultation urging us to grab a minute to “have your say” and “make your voice count” before a given deadline. It’s an invitation, not a compulsion, although some of us find it hard to tell the difference. (I know, I’m one of them!)
It’s also a busy time of year for advocacy organisations, which devote hours and hours to digesting complex material, writing informed submissions, and creating “quick submit” guides that enable and empower time-starved citizens to have their say. It’s a huge job for the people who do the crunching. (I know, I’ve been one of them!).
And of course it’s a busy time of year for the public servants who work like billy-o behind the scenes to assemble those consultations, and then to tabulate and analyse the results. (I’m not one of them, but they truly are some of the hardest-working civil servants I’ve met.)
All of these people were on my mind when I sat down late on Sunday evening to write a last-minute submission on the Climate Change Commission’s draft advice to government. I had a dozen tabs open to various “quick submit” guides so I could glean the most important points; and a dusty-filing-cabinet-brain full of my own thoughts.
I locked myself away from my family to write a submission on behalf of my family. Sitting in the repurposed garage we use as a workshop, storage area, band practice space, library overflow and Zoom backdrop, I thought about the brilliant scientists, the policy experts and the well-oiled industries who’d be having their say, most eloquently.
And I thought about those who didn’t know the consultation was happening, or didn’t see the point, or cared passionately but didn’t have the time, or a computer at home, or even a home, to be able to “have their say.”
I thought about how my voice didn’t, shouldn’t matter any more than anyone else’s. Or any less. I thought about all the things I didn’t know or couldn’t speak to because I lack the knowledge. I thought about a few things I do know. And then I looked at the clock.
This is what I wrote.
(Header image: teenagers on the first day of Level 4, 26 March 2020, looking at the empty motorway)
Submission on the Climate Change Commission’s Draft Advice to Government
Thank you for your work and this opportunity to contribute. I’m writing as a citizen and an everyday advocate for low-carbon transport.
My family of four regularly walks, bikes, and uses the bus and train as our small contribution to climate action. We’re lucky to be able to make these choices. We love biking around, ‘getting our steps in’, hopping on a bus: it offers us freedom, independent access, connection, fresh air, fun – even if we almost always wish it felt safer out there. And every time we save ourselves a car trip, it feels like a small but palpable win for a slightly better future.
We also know that individual decisions like ours cannot drive deep and systemic change: that can only come from a conscious effort to retool our cities to make it easy and natural to make good choices around transport – and to stick with them.
This requires big, deliberate policy shifts, and a strong and clear vision for moving as quickly and equitably as possible towards that world.
The good news is that much of the groundwork for this moment has been laid by advocates, working inside and outside the system. This includes a nationwide army of volunteers who’ve been labouring for decades on top of their daily commitments – borrowing time from their whānau, their life responsibilities, their ‘one wild and precious life’ (to quote poet Mary Oliver) – to advance a diverse, smart, tenacious, nuanced case for climate action.
Above all, I hope you’ll feel inspired by the ordinary New Zealanders, young and old (including many who will not have had to time to add a submission to this process to their to-do list), who’ve invested energy, hope, and expertise over recent years in tackling the climate question from many angles, always hoping that government will pick up the mantle of leadership as promised.
In turn, we’ve all been inspired by the huge cooperative effort of Government, health experts, scientists, and communicators who’ve led a world-class response to Covid-19, on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. That swift and effective response, and our success so far, truly offers hope we can get this one right, too.
Now is the moment to bring that same courageous, collaborative brilliance to climate action. It’s time to deliver, urgently, what we know is needed – fulfilling our duties to future generations, by creating a climate-resilient country that’s healthy by every measure, equitable on every count, and exemplary to boot.
As with our Covid response, it’s going to require strong partnerships, a determined acknowledgement of the science, and powerful storytelling about how we got here and how we’ll get where we’re going.
I’m writing from Tāmaki Makaurau, which is a major carbon emitter as our largest city, with road transport forming almost 40% of that burden. My focus, below, is on leveraging those large numbers to achieve a speedier reduction of emissions.
Rapidly decarbonising transport in Auckland and other cities is one of the fastest and most readily adoptable ways we can make a difference by 2030, let alone 2050. Electric cars aren’t the answer, not only because there simply aren’t enough being built, but also because electric vehicles replicate current inefficient use of road space, and the unfair transport burden on household budgets.
The key is to prioritise public transport that’s frequent, reliable, and affordable – indeed, free where possible, especially for children as well as the elderly, for essential workers and low-income citizens. Likewise, we must make active transport as accessible, safe and connected as possible, as soon as possible. Deploy electric bike-share (and electric car-share) everywhere, so everyone has a range of good low-carbon options without having to spend big money upfront.
Above all, everyone of every age should be able to freely choose, without fear, to walk, roll, bike or scoot for the short trips that make up half of our journeys. Beyond carbon impacts, this is smart health policy: research shows most New Zealanders currently struggle to meet minimum daily activity requirements. Not only do we have multiple incentives to remedy decades of neglected investment in walkable, bikeable streets in all of our cities, we’ll all reap the benefits.
As Bike Auckland puts it:
All of us would benefit from safer, more affordable transport choices. We would enjoy cleaner air, quieter streets, better mental and physical health, and more connected communities. The more [safe walking and cycling space] we build, the better this proposition gets.”
And the public is ready. The evidence consistently shows that when you build good active infrastructure, New Zealanders flock to it – it’s good for us and the environment, and a boon for community connectedness and the economy. Our recreational cycle trails have reignited bike tourism, created jobs and revitalised small towns in the regions all over the country. Likewise, our urban cycleways – the vital beginnings of the full network every city needs – are showing rapid uptake and a demonstrable “network effect” boom whenever new connections are added.
Moreover, we recently had an unexpected opportunity to assess the appetite for – and effects of – low-traffic neighbourhoods. Reducing urban traffic to the sheer essentials during Level 4 and Level 3 lockdown had the unexpected effect of liberating lots of street space for other uses overnight.
Bike Auckland’s lockdown citizen-data project The Big Backyard Bike Count, which I helped run, found that at 250 locations around the city, neighbourhood travel mode share was on average 19% people biking and scooting, 42% people on feet, and 39% using private vehicles. It was vivid proof that New Zealanders will happily walk, roll, and ride around their neighbourhoods in significant numbers, the minute they can.
This enthusiasm represents a huge untapped opportunity for climate action. The scale at which people enjoy safe spaces to ride and walk, especially with kids – whether in protected bike lanes, off-road paths, or rare traffic-free streets – hints at the potential scale for mass mode shift. Along with policies that boost public transport services and support work-from-home options, it suggests an irresistible momentum for decarbonising many daily journeys, starting with the school run.
Also clear during those weeks at Level 4: the many interrelated benefits of reduced traffic with most trips made by walking, scooting, biking, bus and train. These include cleaner air; quieter, stress-free streets; more connected and resilient communities (albeit interacting at safe pandemic distances!); hearing the birds sing; and all the mental and physical health benefits that come with these improvements.
As other submissions will concur, there are many international exemplars of the rapid delivery of bikeable, walkable, low-traffic cities which we can follow – Paris, London, Seville, Vancouver, and more. How wonderful if we can quickly start generating our own spin on reducing traffic to enable healthier streets, produce our own overnight success stories, and become an international example ourselves.
Here are some ways to get there:
- Make a profound systemic shift towards low-carbon transport and land use. This means prioritising compact neighbourhoods, towns and cities; halting projects that expand capacity for car travel; pulling back from greenfields sprawl, and concentrating infrastructure improvement and new housing where the people, the jobs, and the services already are – thus reinforcing resilient cities, and reducing economic and climate burdens on future generations.
- Set vastly more ambitious targets for mode shift to active and public transport. For example, it’s great that Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri/ Auckland’s Climate Plan calls for 37.5% walking, cycling and public transport by 2030. But meanwhile, Vancouver is aiming for 67% by 2030, and Berlin for 82%!
- Ring-fence transport funding for active transport projects at a level that reflects these more ambitious targets. For example, a 2016 report from the United Nations Environment Programme recommended that nations and cities devote 20% of their total transportation spend to non-motorised transport.
- Expand and build on tactical approaches like Waka Kotahi’s Innovating Streets For People programme, to enable nimble delivery of healthy streets, low-traffic environments and safer space for walking, cycling, and scooting.
- Redirect road renewals programmes to “build back better for climate”, by contributing to complete active transport networks, safer streets, and adding more street trees wherever possible. These repaving programmes make up a significant proportion of each city’s operational transport budget so let’s spend it wisely.
- Embrace the transformative potential of bikes, and e-bikes in particular. The fleet of electric bikes is already much larger than electric cars, and sales are rising every year. Research by the University of Auckland’s Dr Kirsty Wild shows that e-bikes triple the distance people are prepared to travel on two wheels. They empower a wider range of riders, and offer a practical option for families, medium-distance commuters, and neighbourhood goods deliveries. In short, all current and future transport planning should be predicated upon delivering a safe citywide network for e-bike journeys. And any subsidy or trade-in scheme designed to encourage uptake of electric vehicles must include e-bikes and other micromobility.
- Likewise, embrace the enormous potential for replacing short car trips with low-carbon modes. The MoT’s recent Congestion Question report offers a glimpse of how many peak-hour journeys might be easily switched to walking, biking, and public transport, as you can see in my annotated version of their graph:
Some of the quickest fixes in the area of transport are also the most affordable and readily scalable. For example:
– Mandate safe speeds of 30km/h or lower on city streets, as that’s the sweet spot for safety wherever cars and people mix. This was provided for during the early pandemic response, but is yet to be tried at large. It’s virtually free to implement, and will immediately make neighbourhoods more walkable and bikeable.
– Price driving and parking so as to nudge people towards more mindful choices about car use, whether it’s shifting to other modes, forgoing some trips, or carpooling or ‘batching’ errands. As with plastic bags, people know we need to be more conscientious, and an environment that supports and reminds us will help.
– Reallocate street space towards low-carbon travel. For example, kerbside traffic lanes that are currently dedicated to the free 24-hour storage of inactive, empty cars should instead be dedicated to continuous, connected, protected lanes for biking and scooting. (Plenty of ready designs exist which allow for bus stops, mobility access needs, and delivery vehicles at set times.)
– Create traffic-free school streets and low-speed zones so kids and parents can walk, bike and scoot safely to the school gate. Our youngest citizens will bear the climate burden for longer, so the least we can do is give them more freedom today.
As you refine your advice, I ask you to lead the story you tell with all the positive collateral benefits of climate action, especially our collective health and our leadership role. Please centre our Treaty partnership in all decision-making and legislation. And invite the community, in all its diversity, to join in the tasks of mutual education and creative response.
Lastly, with the clock ticking towards midnight (quite literally, as well as climate-wise!), I would like to tautoko the submissions you’ll be receiving from other advocacy organisations whose work is immensely valuable in this area, notably: The 1Point5 Project, Generation Zero, Greater Auckland, Greenpeace Aotearoa, The Helen Clark Foundation, Lawyers for Climate Action, Ora Taiao, Parents for Climate Action, School Strike 4 Climate, Talk Wellington.
Thank you again for your work.