There’s an often misattributed quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It captures how I felt reading an op-ed yesterday by Simon Bridges, former Transport Minister and now head of the business lobby group the Auckland Business Chamber, whose website says:

Successful business ensures there are vibrant and successful communities, and the Chamber contributes to this through their support and advocacy that delivers the best platform from which business can operate.

The opinion piece is titled “We need a smarter response to transport.” In it, Bridges takes a look at the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP) recently adopted by the Council.

But rather than support the TERP’s analysis of the best way to create vibrant and successful communities, and to deliver the best platform from which business can operate, he homed in on one specific detail – and failed to make a case that aligns with the science. The piece begins:

Only the policy geeks among us would have noticed it.

Buried in the fine print of Auckland Council’s recently released Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (Terp) was a recommendation that illustrates so much of what the Auckland business community feels is wrong with the current approach to meeting our transport emissions targets.

In an effort to reduce reliance on cars and encourage people to walk, cycle and use public transport, the Terp calls on Waka Kotahi and Auckland Transport to “remove travel time criteria from design standards and business cases”.

That’s to say: getting from A to B more quickly would no longer be a factor in decisions on transport projects, the focus instead going on priorities like safety, resilience, choice and, of course, emissions reduction.

Make no mistake: this would have serious ramifications.

Private vehicles account for over 90 per cent of the travel on Auckland’s roads. The proportions will remain similar into the future. Giving up on efforts to make sure those vehicles can move efficiently will strike a blow to the city’s productivity and liveability.

Whether it’s driving home from work, getting goods to customers, getting to Saturday sports, or getting out of the city on holiday, travel times are typically what Auckland households and businesses care about most in transport terms. Yet the message here is that the transport programme – which Aucklanders will have to pay for through fuel tax and rates – will ignore it.

From our perspective, this speaks to an inability on the part of Auckland Council to grasp the social and economic impacts of what is being proposed in the Terp, and to a vision of societal change that is simply unrealistic.

Bridges also offers a few principles that transport planning “must” be guided by, according to the business lobby:

  • We need evidence-based decisions
  • Emissions reductions actions should be targeted to the areas that will have the most impact – he says decarbonising the car fleet should be put ahead of mode-shift.
  • It’s got to be socially and economically sustainable.

At first blush this may all sound logical to some readers, especially the talk of saving travel time. After all, making our transport system easier and faster to get around is important – and “easier journeys” is one of Auckland Transport’s guiding principles.

But easier for whom? And how? The thing is, travel time savings (TTS) has been at the heart of our transport assessment processes for the last 70-odd years. It has been used to justify everything from massive new motorways, to widening local roads. The principle leaks right down to the design of local streets and intersections, with multiple lanes and the sort of sweeping corners that make it easy for drivers to turn without slowing down, and risky for people to cross.

And yet, when it comes to driving, our transport system is slower than ever. So we should be questioning if TTS is effective or not.

The slowdown over time cannot be attributed to population growth. Cities with far higher populations than ours have transport systems that function far better. And the TERP’s global evidence base shows our pathway to success lies in becoming more multimodal too. Simply put, the near exclusive focus on designing our system around TTS for cars and trucks has encouraged more people to drive. And that has the effect of making it harder for more people to drive.

Driving is probably the only area in society where we don’t want a better product to result in more people using it. But that’s exactly what happens, and which is why our roads are so often clogged with cars. It’s called induced demand – and is something we’ve talked about a lot over the years.

Furthermore, in many cases, the methods used to improve Travel Time Savings have directly made all the alternatives to driving much, much worse – both slower and more dangerous.

Bus lanes that stop short of intersections, letting queues of cars block or slow down buses. Intersections designed to funnel cars through, forcing pedestrians to cross slip lanes, make multiple crossings, with missing pedestrian legs. And let’s not get started on the dangers for people simply looking to bike to their destination, although in his previous ministerial capacity, Bridges was famous for praising the benefits of a world-class safe cycling network.

The hero image for Simon Bridges video about the opinion piece, featuring the pink path Te Ara i Whiti,which Bridges opened as Transport Minister in December 2015
The hero image for the opinion piece on the Auckland Business Chamber website features a familiar scene: the Lightpath Te Ara i Whiti, opened in December 2015 by Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges.

These kinds of outcomes are behind the statement in TERP that Bridges now objects to. For reference, this is what the TERP says: (emphasis ours):

Existing funding must be allocated effectively. Funding will always be constrained. It is therefore important that funding allocation decisions reflect the government and council’s priority of reducing emissions. Work is required to ensure that the transport funding system incentivises projects that will reduce emissions while also enhancing other critical outcomes such as equity and safety. The prevailing focus on minor travel time savings often undermines the case for investment in public transport, walking and cycling.

Better and more holistic approaches to assessing the impacts of transport projects are required, including assessment of their long-term emissions impacts. This requires less reliance on predict and provide approaches to transport modelling and a fast transition toward vision-based approaches that are better able to provide a sense of the impacts of abrupt and/or large-scale changes in the transport system.

Waka Kotahi has recently made improvements to the way projects are assessed and the ERP signals that more work will be undertaken on this in the near future. The high level prioritisation framework set out in the next section provides an indication of the new approach that is required.

And here’s the TERPS’s prioritisation principles for the suggested framework.

In debates over the level of car use in Auckland, it’s constantly suggested that our high driving mode-share  is what we “want”. In reality, it’s just people making decisions based on what’s been invested in. Having spent decades making driving the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to get around, it should be no surprise that most people will do it.

Put another way, what we feed, grows.

The good news is that both local and international evidence is clear: if we put our assets to better use, providing better alternatives to driving, many more people will use them. And more people using alternative modes means fewer cars on the roads which in turn can provide smoother journeys for those who still need to drive. This is the carrot that Bridges seems to have a very firm grip on the wrong end of.

It’s known as the Downs-Thompson paradox. It states that “the equilibrium speed of car traffic on a road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys taken by public transport“.  In other words, people will keep driving until the alternatives are faster, as explained in this video.

(An exclusive focus on TTS can be bad when planning public transport too. It’s one of the reasons we end up with massively expensive light rail tunnels, over practical and affordable surface-level solutions.)

Looping back to the principles that Bridges offers as crucial for transport planning, here are a few quick high-level comments:

  • There is a wealth of strong evidence for ‘policy geeks’ to chew on, about what does and doesn’t work. Locally, we’ve seen how investment in projects like the Northern Busway have had a massive impact on the number of people crossing the bridge by bus. The issue isn’t that we’re not making evidence–based decisions – it’s that we’re just getting around to it after decades of the opposite.
  • The models for Travel Time Savings that are used to justify transport projects are almost always based on flawed assumptions that leave out a whole lot of people and their needs.
  • Even with very optimistic assumptions around how many EVs there are – and how quickly people can acquire them – the vast majority of our vehicle fleet will still be fossil-fuel powered in 2030. To meet our emissions reductions targets, we need to deploy all the other solutions, immediately.
  • It’s also “socially and economically “important that we’re seen to be ‘doing our part’ as a member of the global community.

Above all, Bridges seems to have missed the memo that moving rapidly to a more sustainable transport system – by pulling, yes, all the levers, now – is the most economically sensible thing to do.

As we’ve previously covered, Auckland Council’s Chief Economist notes the significant environmental, health and economic co-benefits of the TERP, which together are as substantial as the benefits from reducing transport emissions. You would hope for a more productive urban environment as a result of that.

While we await official calculations, an initial estimate (based on sources like the Ministry of Transport Domestic Transport Costs and Charges, the Ministry for the Environment HAPINZ 3.0 report, and the AA’s figures on the cost of car ownership) calculates that the economic benefits of the TERP to Aucklanders will be around $11 billion per annum. And, as the Climate Change Commission points out, the material cost to the nation of inaction is far higher than the cost of action.

Why on earth would a business organisation start campaigning for higher costs and lower productivity?

Then Minister of Transport Simon Bridges launching Lightpath/ Te Ara i Whiti with a bevy of young transport “superheroes” from Freeman’s Bay School, in December 2015. Image via Bike Auckland.

The young Auckland “superheroes” from Freeman’s Bay School who launched the Lightpath with then-Minister Bridges on its opening day in 2015 are now well into their teens – within cooee of voting age, and very clear on what the growing impacts of climate change will cost them across their lifetime. Meanwhile, their younger siblings – like kids across the city – are still facing exceedingly hostile streets built around, you guessed it, Travel Time Savings.

So what can the Auckland Business Chamber offer in the way of strategies to deliver “vibrant and successful communities” and “the best platform from which business can operate”? For starters, it can face up the evidence, and stop running lines about transport that come from the same century that brought us global warming.

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41 comments

  1. Unless my memory’s playing tricks on me, the publicly released TERP material included a summary of international evidence. So it seems like it aligns perfectly with the Business Chamber’s desire for evidence-based decision.

  2. This pulling all the levers bollocks makes a great sound bite, but nobody actually wants them to do that. Some levers are incredibly expensive to pull and some cost more than the benefit of pulling them.

    When you read crap like that you know someone is selling something.

    1. Of course they are looking at which levers are more expensive. They say “it became apparent that every lever in the model had to be pulled to its plausible maximum to produce the emissions outcome.”

      That word “plausible” includes considerations like cost.

      1. Yes the old “We built a model to justify a particular policy outcome- here’s our model and it justifies that outcome” routine. An oldie but a goodie.

        1. miffy, is it having a goal that you despise, or that the goal is a better world for our kids – and this is just too sweet for you? I mean, your cynicism surely doesn’t leave you thinking anything we’re currently doing is perfect, or even functioning. You see the problems, or most of them, anyway.

          Exploring our options and realising that we’ve left it so late that to achieve our goals will take an enormous shift in a whole lot of different areas is good work. I think where you’re going wrong is in a misplaced belief that the current transport planning system is a kind of “normal”. There’s nothing “normal” about it. It’s a bloated, dysfunctional and unscientific planning system at present. I’m sorry that you’re part of it, because that must feel uncomfortable.

          When people do the work to put together our real options, how about show some appreciation?

        2. Sorry just in an aggressive mood from writing responses to Council and AT engineers and telling me I have to do something from a national guideline they clearly haven’t bothered reading. There is only so many times I can write that a guideline specifically doesn’t require something here before I go off piste.

          But surely you have the same disregard for model outputs I do? It doesn’t matter if the model tells you what you want to hear or the opposite.

        3. That’s OK. I guess I do have the same disregard for model outputs that you do. Models are simply tools.

          On the whole, though, the TERP’s various recommendations match the best of the research I’ve been reading over the last five years. The mode shift figures are similar to what a couple of other advocates and I have calculated, even though our methodology is probably quite rough compared with what the TERP team has been doing (we also go a bit further because there are a number of reasons why we should be aiming for even more decarbonisation, as I’ve laid out before).

          What frustrates me is that there is no body of evidence saying don’t do the TERP. The TERP is more than a model, it’s a sound pathway based on qualitative evidence and logical principles; it achieves more; it’s more affordable.

          The only thing making people doubt that it’s achievable is that hoping for improvements puts people into a place they feel vulnerable – people protect themselves from having hopes dashed by not letting themselves hope. It was always going to be hard to change things quickly, but it is only urgent now because the sector has been so intransigent. But these changes would be good on all fronts.

        4. Heidi the primary means of reducing carbon emissions is to price them properly and let people make rational choices. Writing policy documents that make assumptions about the opportunity costs facing every individual and business might feel like progress to some but in reality it never will be. At worst it will exacerbate the problems we face and just annoy people who will campaign to get rid of pricing. The only way people will reduce is if their pollution costs them. All the rest is a diversion to give the impression of change.

        5. Another unpriced externality of driving is the risk of getting dead that you impose on other people. This externality prevents people from switching to riding a bicycle for a lot of short trips. And this would be a rational choice, a bicycle is much cheaper and almost as fast on these short trips.

          The other thing, say, we price emissions properly. So a lot of people will have incentive to switch. Then what? We can expect many people to switch to public transport. It would be stupid to sit back and do nothing and watch public transport get horribly crowded.

          Also, if we make pollution (i.e. fuel) more expensive, do you seriously expect people to not complain?

        6. Yes it will annoy people but at least it will reduce emissions. Annoying them with policy rules that might or might not lead to a reduction isn’t helpful. It might just burn political capital and mean we never actually get to the hard part.

        7. How do you propose people can switch away from driving if there are no bike lanes or without improvements in public transport? Only pricing pollution without providing alternatives will never work.

        8. Yes, that way rich people will not care and poor people can walk along SH1 to work because trains only run every other Monday from 8 to noon, busses are cancelled because the bus driver did not walk to the depot and bike lanes are stupid because Auckland.
          Sounds like a plan!

        9. The only choices I see are to assess projects case by case using outcomes like travel time or simply selecting projects that match some all embracing policy. If you do the second one then how do you know you aren’t making things worse. We could convert the harbour bridge to 2 truck lanes, 2 bus lanes, 2 bike lanes and 2 walking lanes. But if 200,000 people then want to leave Auckland and create sprawl in Hamilton, Tauranga, Nelson, Wanaka and Christchurch then do emissions go up or down because of your policy? It is an extreme example but it demonstrates the point. How will you know with smaller projects?

        10. And if we pave over all of Auckland, there are no houses left. Another extreme example that is not good for anything.
          Increasing the price on (ICE) car travel is necessary but it cannot be the only policy. Bus and train networks need to be improved as well as light rail in the future. Walking and cycling options have to be improved. Local centres have to be improved by making them walkable and cyclable so that they have the potential to serve as a destination and people don’t have to drive 10km to the next mall (a very walkable place and often quite busy with all sorts of people!). It will be close to impossible to offer sensible alternatives to private cars to travel to the beaches out west. So we need to drastically reduce car trips to or through more urban centres. And we need to do it in a way that not just makes everyone miserable.

        11. And, of course, some changes are not set in stone. When you realize that nobody wants to go to places were you can walk and be outside without cars passing by constantly, we can de-pedestrianize some streets as well. My impression is that this rarely happens internationally because a lot of people are quite happy with how these things usually turn out.

  3. I thought Bridges would shake off the constraints of politics and offer something fresh in his new role. I was wrong; he’s still looking backwards.

    1. National Party members are incapable of shucking off the National Party ideals.

      I think that this column is unfortunate in that it gives Bridges the recognition he craves and a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve

    2. To be honest, I would still like to see Bridges as shadow transport minister.

      While he does toe the ‘pro car/more roads’ party line, he strikes me as somebody who could read, understand and follow some evidence if he was minister

      The current shadow National transport minister on the other hand – Simeon Brown, is deeply worrying as it seems like his policy is just roll back everything, build more roads and ignore all evidence. Quite embarrassingly stupid stuff that is really disappointing to see from a major mainstream political party

      1. +1

        Simeon Brown desperately needs to go. I have absolutely zero idea what National see in him. He contributes nothing to the conversation

  4. I love it when right wingers write their opinion pieces. “Evidence-based” for them never ever means actually evidence based (and in fact they never ever quote any evidence supporting their position since it doesn’t exist), it just means “Common Sense”. And of course “Common Sense” doesn’t mean a working solution, it means a sound bite like “just one more road lane will fix the traffic issue” (evidence of course shows that this is never ever the case, you would need to build enough lanes to accommodate the theoretical maximum numbers of cars, so you would need to add a couple of thousand lanes and then you have fixed traffic) or even better “public transport needs to make a profit” (but never ever “public roads need to make a profit”).

    Note that I can understand the response of Simon Bridges if we were a car producing country or an oil producing country. There at least the economy gets something out of having a car dependent infrastructure. But NZ imports all cars and fuel, so our car dependent infrastructure makes no economic sense at all.

  5. Members of the Auckland Business Chamber have a choice, I suppose. They can give Bridges a call, and tell him to lead the organisation into the post-car-dependency age. Or they can withdraw their membership.

    Organisations that don’t adapt will die.

    1. “Or they can withdraw their membership.”

      But they won’t do that because by their membership they reveal their right wing leanings

  6. Sounds like these business folk should band together and build some 100% private sector roading on private land.

    Think how efficient that would be.

  7. Matt L, you give a well-reasoned critique of Simon Bridges’ not well-reasoned critique of the TERP. His view is still the predictable, myopic, National-Party one. What has he learned during the changing times since he was Minister of Transport and strategies like the TERP have become increasingly necessary all around the planet? The answer, it would seem, is NOTHING.

  8. I have just re read Simon’s article he doesn’t mention energy costs. Well given the geo political situation that would be a bit dumb. It’s not difficult to convert gas fired equipment to oil fired. I expect a steep rise in oil price over the northern winter. Pray for a wet windy spring. We should focus our efforts into converting our bus and town delivery fleets from fossil fuels to electric. Less fuel imported means we are all better off. We need a plan B but its not just about the plan its also about how fast it can be delivered. Pie in the sky controversial transport projects just enable business as usual. Smart people will realise they have to change. Why sit in congestion burning up money.

  9. I think TERP is crazily ambitious and none of the current mayoral candidates will deliver on it. They either don’t want to or are not capable of doing so.

    It will be interesting to see how AT/NZTA will continue to ignore Auckland Council.

    Auckland has consistently had the problem of basically no politicians fighting for change. So this will probably end up being another expensive report to end up in the rubbish.

  10. The Auckland Business Chamber lobby groups website as per Matt says:

    “Successful business ensures there are vibrant and successful communities, and the Chamber contributes to this through their support and advocacy that delivers the best platform from which business can operate.”

    It has a lot of hidden sub-text in there. So I’ve unhidden and bolded it in the revised version reproduced so the “sub text” of that is clear.

    “Successful business are businesses that pay us to lobby for them ensures there are vibrant and successful communities to buy and consume our products and services and provide workers in our businesses – no matter the social or environmental costs incurred along the way, and the Chamber contributes to this through their support and advocacy for the status quo, to ensure that, that delivers the best platform from which members’ business can operate.”

    There fixed it for ya. Auckland Business Chamber.

  11. “Private vehicles account for over 90 per cent of the travel on Auckland’s roads. The proportions will remain similar into the future.”

    Well that’s a horrible prediction. Not what I want. Not what any business owner I know wants either.

  12. Why would Auckland businesses want to be part of carmageddon?
    NZ cant move good and services around our productive sectors. More of the same ??

  13. Auckland needs to invest in a rapid light rail network to move as many people as possible onto PT. Bridges is not against that, he is just saying that we should not think that we are going to bike and bus our way to a Net Zero economy.
    We needs our roads to be efficient as well as having a top quality PT network.
    GHG reductions can easily meet net zero targets while still including road transport as the most sensible choice for Heavy goods and personal travel.

    1. I want it all, and I want it now.

      Rapid transit network – yes
      Great reliable bus services – yes (they’ll serve those short local trips quite well)
      Roads to be efficient – yes, let’s look at how we can move more people, more reliably … bus lanes, cycle lanes etc can be a lot more efficient than general traffic lanes. Let’s build more of those.

  14. Making car use miserable by purposely slowing down traffic through light phasing etc is a poor way of making PT seem more attractive. A bit like that famous Churchill quote about the equal sharing of misery.

    1. What “light phasing etc” are you referring to specifically?

      If it were in a vacuum then sure, that would be silly. But needlessly slowing down pedestrians through super long green car phases is the counter and shortening pedestrian journey times for peds has big payoffs. Adding raised pedestrian crossings and widening footpaths where ped space is constrained is the same. In all the examples I can think of there is a need. It’s only needless if you exclude other modes from consideration.

      1. And yet planning almost solely for the car has made walking, cycling and PT, miserable.

        It’s copping a little bit of what’s been dished out for 50yrs. And oh, the squealing…

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