Commentator David Slack has kindly granted us permission to re-post this Sunday column, written especially for subscribers to his popular daily Substack newsletter More Than a Feilding). We’re glad, as it’s too good not to share!
A Proposal of Preposterous Audacity that is Totally Worth It and Not By Any Means Too Much
By David Slack, originally published 3 July 2021 on More Than a Feilding
A beautiful thing happened last weekend in Auckland, on a beautiful winter day.
Free rides for everybody! All day long! Free rides on trains! Free rides on buses! Free rides on the ferries, just as long as you didn’t want to go to Devonport or Waiheke!
I’m not complaining at all, it’s as certain as the sun coming up that Fullers will let you down and won’t come to the party.
But I come today not to denounce the world’s worst ferry company but to praise free public transport. You should have seen the crowds. So many mums and dads and kids piled onto the trains and the buses and the ferries and crossed the city and thronged the CBD.
The people of Auckland made it abundantly clear that they will gladly use the trains and the buses and the ferries in huge numbers if the price is somewhere between not very much and nothing.
How much can you change things by making certain stuff free? A hell of a lot, that’s how much. Like: the difference between the streets of Amsterdam and the streets of Avondale, that’s how much.
Just imagine for a moment what that might look like if every single person in the country had an e-bike and they all started biking.
Imagine, if you will, streets so full of e-bikes you’d think you were in Amsterdam. Only you’re not on a bike by a canal now, Dr Ropata, you’re in Palmerston North or Hamilton or Ashburton.
What I see is a country full of e-bikes. I’m not saying imagine a few more, I’m saying imagine if every single person had one.
My modest proposal is a free e-bike for every single person who wants one. Just like free public transport in Auckland: you do it, you stand back, and you see what happens.
Look at the happy faces of everyone getting about this way because the roads are full of people on bikes! Look how happy they are to be gliding about with no exertion! See the joy they take in popping down to the supermarket on the bike, or gliding to town to shop, or rolling to work in twenty minutes, or rolling over to their friends because it’s as easy as popping over in the car. Easier, in fact, because there’s no drama trying to find a damn car park.
Beautiful, eh. Except there is the cost of buying all those e-bikes.
Come with me now as I set out a Proposal of Preposterous Audacity That Is Totally Worth It And Not By Any Means Too Much.
How many e-bikes, do we reckon we’ll need?
A moment, please, while I wait for my glamorous assistant Steven Joyce to find me a pen and the back of an envelope.
What’s the number, leaving out the too-young, the too-old and the get-your-dirty-hands-off-my-Ute-you-filthy-hippy refuseniks?
Let’s write down 3 million. Let’s say $2,000 a bike.
That’s 6 billion, I think. Have I got that right, Steven? Oh, don’t start pouting again.
Now. Doubters and haters will say FFS you can’t get an e-bike for $2,000. Maybe not if you are only buying one, two or twelve, but maybe you can if you’re looking for three million of them. And if you can’t, I have a further plan of further audacity.
Hold that thought for a minute, of all of us gliding around like we’re in Amsterdam. I want to make a side trip to a factory.
Let me quote from something I wrote last year:
There is a notion held by some New Zealanders, perhaps many of them, that “we can’t do manufacturing.” That’s possibly an echo of the received wisdom of the economic reforms of the 1980s: that we could never match the efficiency of factories in Asia, and that the lengths we’d gone to to protect local industry and local jobs – like assembly lines putting back together cars that had been taken apart in Japan – was all a bit comical.
But that would be a misgiven opinion. Local manufacturers can be exceptionally good at short run manufacturing and exceptionally good at taking a request for any kind of product and turning it into a physical reality. It’s true to say they would struggle to match the delivery speed and price of Chinese factories operating on a huge scale. But when priorities change, the calculation changes too. This pandemic has surely shown us that certain goods and services matter too much to ever be unobtainable.
Where am I going with this?
Where I am going with this is: why don’t we make the three million e-bikes here? Buy the batteries if we have to, but let’s see if we can’t make everything here and see if we can’t get them made for $2000 each.
Imagine our gutsy little big factory turning out millions of bikes and, if they are competitive, or premium-worthy, exporting them. And if they’re not, no worries, the government is there to pay for every one of those bikes.
Hold that thought for a minute, of all of us gliding around like we’re in Amsterdam, and bike factories. I want to make a side trip to the climate crisis.
How much would we be willing to pay to get on top of our emissions problem and contribute to not cooking the atmosphere, do we reckon?
Consider the huge value you would get from moving not just a tiny fraction of people but the great majority of people out of cars and onto bikes for many of their short trips. The contribution to our emission profile would be immense.
What would you be willing to pay to see that happen? Can you put a price on that? What’s the number? I would propose the number is: whatever it costs to build a few million e-bikes.
We can’t lose. Whatever it ends up costing us, we call it our fee for doing what’s required to finally get our emissions down and not just making simpering noises about it.
You think this sounds reckless with money? Hold that thought about Amsterdam, hold that thought about factories and the climate crisis, I want to make a side trip to the eye-watering sums of money we spend on roads.
Waka Kotahi is spending – what? – 4 or 6 or 8 billion or so on new projects just in the next few years. $37 billion is going to be spent on Auckland Transport’s Regional Land Transport Plan over the next ten.
Let us see this 6 billion for what it is: not a dollar too much when you consider the good it will be doing.
A free e-bike for every single person! Dare to dream, Aotearoa!
What I’m proposing is a grand Michael J Savage vision on a bike. The state steps in! Just as it once did for homes! It promises the bikes! It finds a Fletcher Construction to make them! Or it sets up its own factory! No worries!
Too much for this cautious government? No worries! You don’t make the bikes free, you make them extremely affordable, maybe you charge a modest weekly rental fee. Maybe you sell them for $500, or $1,000.
And maybe the bikes cost you more than $2,000 to make and you still give them away and it costs you billions more. But let’s go back to the earlier premise: if we could actually get vast numbers of people out of cars and onto bikes and put a huge dent in our carbon emissions, how many billions is that worth? All of them, mate is the correct answer, all of them.
Yes, of course, an e-bike is not for everybody and not for all trips. But the joyful revelation when you get someone onto an e-bike is their realisation that there are so many trips they make by car that are just as doable and often more enjoyable on this magic bike machine.
Some dullard columniser was banging on this week about this government and its car-hating ways and he pronounced with a debating club smirk that you can’t fit a sofa on the handlebars of a bike. Give me strength, you insufferable ponderous fuckwit. No one is saying there’s not a place for vehicles. But there are many many instances where a bike can take the place of the car. And you know what? The more that happens, the easier it becomes for the truck to carry the sofa over to your place so you can sink your smug lazy arse into it.
But never mind the doubters and the haters and the ferry companies that won’t come to the party. They are yesterday’s people.
Who wants to become the Fletchers of e-bikes?
Text by David Slack, header image by Russell Brown.