This is a guest post by Paul Callister.
Featured image: the Southerner Service at Dunedin Railway Station, via Save Our Trains on Twitter.
In November 2021, over 100 elected officials representing local and regional councils from Northland to Bluff sent an open letter to the Minister of Transport, Michael Wood. This letter highlighted their concerns about insufficient investment in public transport in the regions and their wish for this to be addressed in the Budget 2022.
The letter stated:
As representatives of the provincial heart of Aotearoa New Zealand, we want to be part of a better future where we have user-friendly, affordable and convenient public transport so we stay connected without costing the earth. The Emissions Reduction Plan discussion document highlights the concerns many of us hold about the impact of climate change on our planet and the place of mode shift in transport as key to significantly reducing emissions.
Some demands for change were set out:
We seek low fares for all and an expansion of free transport for community services and gold card holders, students and apprentices. We want increased route frequency and hours of operation so it is easier for people to choose the bus without having to coordinate a timetable with long wait times, services that stop at 6pm or that don’t operate on weekends. We want the option to take buses, both within and between our provincial towns and rural communities, and to connect to our large cities. In the past, many of our towns had rail services to fulfil these roles. They should again. But where that is not possible in the short term, we need convenient and affordable bus services as soon as possible.
While focussing on buses, the letter writers also pinpointed the need for other changes to assist low emission travel:
We also need massive improvements in rail and protected cycleways, and other non-transport solutions for climate change too, but improving our buses right now is fundamental as we face being left behind our largest cities.
On March 14 2022 Michael Wood replied in a positive way. Nicola Patrick, a Horizons regional councillor, tweeted part of his reply:
“I support in principle the need to invest more in public transport in the regions.”
“Public transport shapes people’s lives, the ability of our regions to connect and thrive, and has an essential role in tackling climate change and reducing transport harm.”
Nicola in her tweet thread noted, “Then later today we got the fantastic news of half price buses for three months.”
While what happens in our largest cities is obviously important, solutions for decarbonisation, safety and the provision of affordable options for all members of society to stay connected are vital for all of New Zealand’s communities, whether large or small. New Zealand’s small, and not so small, communities have been left behind.
There are two aspects to improving regional public transport. First, there is public transport and other decarbonisation and mobility measures within towns and smaller cities and, second, transport between towns and cities.
Public transport and cycling within regional New Zealand
Through a mix of history, geography, size, demographic differences, council decisions, and various other factors, the use of buses, trains, bikes and walking varies considerably across New Zealand.
The following table presents some examples of various transport methods used to get to work in towns and cities in the North Island. In every location, but not shown, driving is by far the biggest category.
Main means of travel to work for people in selected areas, 2018 Census, % in each category
|New Plymouth District||0.5||1.7||4.4||0|
|Te Kuiti East||0.0||1.0||6.5||0|
|Palmerston North City||1.6||3.4||6.8||0.1|
|Kapiti Coast District Council||0.9||1.6||3.4||12.7|
Source: statistics New Zealand
For those communities without public transport, or with poor transport services, cutting fares or making them free does not help. The switch to bikes is constrained by the amount of safe cycling infrastructure provided.
Adding to the challenge, small towns like Levin have significant pockets of deprivation. If locals can afford cars, they are often older, unsafe, and not energy efficient. Not many people can afford new electric cars, even with rebates.
Small towns often have much older populations than the big cities. This is one reason that Grey Power supported the letter to the Minister.
Yet, public transport and cycling infrastructure is lacking in many of those places most in need of it. Take Levin for example. It is flat and the streets tend to be wide, and all of the town is within easy cycling distance of the main shopping centre and the railway station. However, local buses and safe cycleways are virtually non-existent. Although some small changes are afoot, overall attitudes and infrastructure still deter cyclists and walkers.
If safe, linked cycle tracks could be rapidly rolled out, Levin would be an ideal place to provide subsidised, or even free, electric bikes.
In Levin, if you can get to the station there is only the once daily, weekday service to and from Wellington on the aging and slow Capital Connection. Ironically, much of the trip looks out on the extensive expressway being constructed up the coast, with more planned between Otaki and Levin.
There is, nevertheless, some hope that train services will be improved.
In New Zealand, it is flying and driving that link towns and communities. It is difficult to estimate the impact of driving on regional emissions, but New Zealand ranks fourth for per-capita domestic aviation emissions – just ahead of Canada, despite Canada being forty times larger than us. John Vidal, the Guardian’s former environment editor, promotes passenger rail as an environmentally superior alternative to domestic flying in the UK and Europe. But passenger rail is not an option in NZ because most of our longer-distance passenger rail network has been dismantled. Most recently this has included stopping the Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific services.
The provision of fast, safe, affordable, low carbon, interregional travel has been previously investigated by Greater Auckland (GA). In 2016, GA promoted the idea of fast rail connecting Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga. Instead, we got slow rail, initially not even reaching central Auckland, in the form of the infrequent Te Huia service.
Greater Auckland has also considered reviving longer distance rail services, including the re-introduction of a Night Train between Auckland and Wellington. Currently, there is no train service, even during the day, to connect New Zealand’s two largest cities, and the towns and cities in between. Instead, the government owned KiwiRail is investigating the development of a New Zealand Orient Express for wealthy tourists, but with no plan for additional, more affordable options. In effect, KiwiRail has abandoned ordinary New Zealand families.
Under the title Better long distance coaches – design, regulation and community public health, Greater Auckland has examined the remaining coach services that still join up small towns and cities. These coaches are not considered public transport as they are operated by a private business. This means that half fares do not apply to them even if a person is just travelling a short distance within a region.
Both onboard and off board experiences on New Zealand coaches are often poor. For example, coming to and from regional New Zealand to central Auckland, passengers have to pass through a substandard intercity bus depot.
Norway is often held up as an example of a nation that has supported the switch to electric cars. But Norway also boasts an extensive intercity rail (62% of which is electrified compared with only about 13% in New Zealand) and a high quality, long-distance bus system. Yet, Norway has a relatively small population (5.5 million) and challenging terrain. Moreover, Norway’s inter city coaches all contain onboard toilets, a feature appreciated by an aging population and those travelling with children.
In a post about Regional Access we asked readers to imagine a New Zealand where you can…
- knock off work and escape the city for a long weekend, without having to drive on dangerous roads, bleary-eyed from a week at work…
- grow old in your hometown, knowing that even if you become too disabled to drive, heading to the nearest large centre for a doctor’s visit isn’t a transport hassle…
- take the overnight train to Wellington for business, so you can stick to your no-flying commitments without it eating into your working week…
- travel to regional tournaments safely by public transport (while teammates are still gaining experience as drivers)…
- visit grandchildren in other regions travelling on high quality buses equipped with onboard toilets and fast wifi, enjoying vegan and gluten free options at refreshment stops…
- have seamless door to door travel between cities and small towns using a mix of trains, buses and electric vehicles, with the help of accessible technology…
Unfortunately, in New Zealand, such possibilities can only be imagined. The system is broken and we need to design and build a National Public Transport Network.
There are a number of groups supporting this concept, an example being the Public Transport Forum through its Connecting Communities 2030 initiative.
This is the type of vision the 100-plus elected officials were asking of Transport Minister, Michael Wood, in their open letter. We hope the 2022 budget will have money to start this process of revival. But just one budget will not fix it. We need a complete transformation of our transport systems throughout New Zealand if we are to meet our emission reduction targets, improve safety, and create a joined up system that affords all New Zealanders mobility choices, both locally and regionally.