Sir Michael Cullen, ex-deputy prime minister and finance minister under Helen Clark, briefly an Auckland Transport director, and resident of coastal Bay of Plenty, used his opinion column in the herald last weekend to make some strong points about climate change action.
The piece is headed by a clever image that neatly brings together climate change impacts and the recent giddy reaction by opposition political parties and the media to the government’s electric vehicle Feebate scheme, by showing farmer and his ute stranded in a flood (respect to the picture editor!).
Incidentally, yesterday we got the first results since the Feebate scheme was introduced and it immediately made an impact with nearly 2,000 new EVs being registered in the month, around three times the average per month for the first six months of the year.
Of course while this jump is good, even for just July it only represents 6.45% of all light vehicles sold and with less than 30,000 EVs in the entire fleet, there’s a long way to go given there are around 4.4 million vehicles in our vehicle fleet.
Back to Cullen’s piece, he starts with the extremely important observation that the imperatives to reduce emissions are not just restricted to moral reasons or the practical need to reduce direct climate impacts like the flooding and fires we’ve seen recently but are also going to be coming in the form of penalties and tariffs imposed by our trading partners if they believe we’re not doing enough. He talks of about how not being leaders on climate issues is threat to our economic interests: “People need to remind themselves that slow followers are the ones that are picked off by predators, and that our primary exporters face plenty of predators.”
He also makes the correct point that there is no benefit in haggling over who needs to change more; town or country, clearly both do. In our cities it is transport, and particularly road vehicle transport that is a major source of emissions and it’s here Cullen makes some more good observations but also some bad ones, showing that despite his time on the board of Auckland Transport, and for the second time in two weeks, he doesn’t understand the need for light rail.
Let’s break some of that down.
It’s hard to find what the underlying rationale for this now is. Originally it seemed to be about moving people quickly to and from the airport into town. Then it became more about accelerating intensification of urban development along at least the first half of the route.
Light rail isn’t about transport or housing, it’s about transport and housing. It also was never primarily about airport to city trips and that was reflected by the fact it was previously estimated that only around 5% of trips on light rail would be doing this journey. But both the airport and the city centre are useful anchors for a public transport route and so light rail will see good all-day usage in both directions to and from the various stations all along the route.
Of course, we just last week reopened a fantastic new Puhinui Station which provides for better airport access.
We get back to some useful observations.
There are two key aspects to Auckland’s transport woes. The first is congestion. The second is the high level of carbon emissions that reliance on the private car has created. The two are obviously linked, but not inextricably.
A possible scenario for the future is that electric vehicles will be adopted more rapidly, which could increase congestion. That is because there will be less of a guilty conscience about driving an EV, even though they are far from the environmentally pure form of transport that their more ardent advocates seem to believe they are.
Then, Sir Michael, repeat after me,
CBD City Centre – there are now tens of thousands of people living in the city and so it’s far more than just a business district.
Encouraging EVs means it is all the more important to invest heavily in a public transport network that fits how people move around in Auckland. In that respect, movement in and out of the CBD is not the growing challenge people seem to think it is. Peak time travel numbers were slowly declining for some years before Covid hit us, despite population growth. It is likely they will stay lower post-Covid as home-working becomes more normal. Nor do lots of people going to and from the airport want to start or finish in the CBD.
I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the city centre access numbers that Auckland Transport produce on a monthly basis. It’s true that peak time travel numbers were declining but what he doesn’t mention is that decline is almost entirely due to a reduction in car use. As you can see below, access by public transport fell by only a very small amount before Covid struck. Even with the slight decline there are some important things to note.
- Other city centre metrics such as employment numbers had shown consistent increases – just yesterday saw more large businesses move to the city centre.
- Public transport results had continued to grow, including on the routes that served the city centre.
- The measure only shows the number of trips crossing the into the city centre in the two-hour AM peak. Yet one of the key drivers of the new bus network from 2016-18 was to provide better all-day frequencies and while I don’t have numbers for this I suspect one notable change will have been due to the peak spreading – put another way, people were travelling more before and after the peak where services had more capacity.
Next that classic argument “It won’t stack up”
Nobody can make the light rail project have a positive benefit-cost ratio, whatever heroic assumptions about inner-city redevelopment are made. Then there is the lengthy disruption that building the project will create. It looks like an idea whose time has passed.
We have a process for working this stuff out and that’s exactly what the Light Rail team are currently doing. As for assumptions on redevelopment, we’re currently seeing record numbers of building consents being issued with most focused on areas where more housing has been allowed outside the isthmus. There’s no reason to believe that if we allowed more development around light rail that it wouldn’t be taken up on. Furthermore, with Kāinga Ora involved we can bit get more confidence that we’ll see substantial change if they’re allowed to do it.
It’s worth noting we also saw similar comments about the City Rail Link and despite the disruption, billions is being invested by the private sector into the area. There’s no reason to believe that light rail will be different.
But then things really start to go off the rails.
The alternative is clearly a network of multi-car electric buses operating on dedicated lanes for faster travel times, preferably with free fares.
That seems like a case of trying to describe light rail without using the words ‘light rail’.
I am told the main problem with this is that the electric (or hydrogen-propelled) buses are too heavy for many existing roads.
Since Auckland is already committed to an electric bus fleet over the next few years, this seems a little strange.
If true, it only highlights the need to progressively upgrade the potential routes – surely a cheaper, more flexible and more efficient option than trying to create the full light rail network which some dream of.
My understanding is most double deckers in Auckland are already at or over (with exemption) typical limits for axle weights and that’s one of the reasons we haven’t yet seen an electric double decker. But most of the bus fleet aren’t double deckers and we already electric single decker buses so there’s nothing strange about it and building light rail doesn’t undermine the need for converting the bus fleet. In reality we need both.
While more buses are needed, and in some places be fine, there is only limited capacity to run more though the city centre.
Auckland Transport are currently consulting on a City Centre Bus Plan which is intended to streamline bus routes, increase bus capacity and improve the customer experience for bus users in the city.
But even with those changes, it is still expected we’ll need more higher-capacity solutions as the city grows and that’s where light rail comes in. If light rail is delivered properly, by taking Dominion Rd and City Link buses out it removes about 10% of the bus movements in the city, freeing up capacity to run more buses from other areas. And by running more buses from other areas, it will improve PT for those not just going to the city as it will make things like connections to other services on the PT network easier and more convenient.
There’s also that old chestnut about flexibility. Sure we need that but we’re always going to need some form of public transport on routes like Dominion Rd. Furthermore, investment like light rail can, and is intended to, shape how the city develops making those fixed routes more valuable.
Finally I find it somewhat odd that Sir Michael is so opposed to light rail now. He was after all one of the people who helped push the Super Fund’s initial bid which is what ultimately derailed the light rail process and let to where we are today.
I think that perhaps one of the issues with debates like light rail is people think it’s meant to be a silver bullet solution to all our problems when it’s really just about addressing and improving one aspect of that. I said earlier that light rail isn’t about transport or housing, it’s about transport and housing. But it’s also not light rail or more buses it’s light rail and more buses. If we’re to make it easier to get around the city without a car we need to a lot more of both (and bikes). On some of those core routes, like from the North Shore, the Northwest and the central isthmus, we will need higher capacity options like light rail. Elsewhere more and better buses will ideal.