This year New Zealand has been given the clearest signal yet that we need to do our part to address climate change, both in reducing our emissions – which by most measures we’re not even trying to do – and in improving our resilience.

An interesting article yesterday by Radio NZ highlights that our national transport agency Waka Kotahi has not been taking either climate change or resilience seriously, and only recently has it been getting to grips with the latter.

Until recently Waka Kotahi was not factoring climate change and the need for resilience into many of its transport projects, and is said to be swamped by the need to respond to crises.

In its National Resilience Programme Business Case, produced by Tonkin + Taylor and Tregaskis Brown in 2020, the agency was criticised for “disjointed and reactive decision-making” which had led to “suboptimal and inefficient investment choices and is hampering our ability to adapt”.

The Business Case was commissioned by Waka Kotahi in 2019 because it wanted to better understand the impact of natural hazards, climate change and severe weather on the national roading network. Waka Kotahi says it is now using the findings and recommendations of the business case to prioritise resilience and climate change.

Alongside the 308-page report, an interactive map was produced showing the location of more than 350 current risks to the national transport network, 38 of which were deemed to be extreme.

The report, and the map, also looked ahead to 2050, identifying 90 extreme risks due to the increased severity of storms and rising sea levels.

It paints a palpable picture. Some of the extreme risks to the national roading network are not thought to be fixable, with any new engineering work pointless in the face of climate change.

The roads are ticking time bombs, with landslides, rock fall, coastal inundation and sea level rise, flooding, and earthquakes essentially guaranteed to take them out of action, leading to long-term outages.

The report found long-standing issues with how transport projects were funded. Resilience is usually not a priority.

“Design requirements do not adequately take into consideration long-term sea-level rise or other climate-change related scenarios,” the report said.

“While the likelihood of hazards occurring are known (eg. risk of landslide) they are often deprioritised in favour of more immediate issues.

“It is difficult for a local authority to prioritise an investment to protect against an event that might happen at some stage in the future in the face of community pressure to fund something else, or to keep rates down.

“The consequence of this is that when an event does occur, preventative or mitigating measures are not in place, and yet more pressure is put on emergency funding.”

[……]

As a result of the failure to account for increasing hazards, the cost of emergency work is skyrocketing.

In 2014/15, emergency works spending by Waka Kotahi was $30 million, but by 2018/19 those costs were $72m.

In other words, we’ve waited for the cliff to be at the bottom of the cliff before acting.

To put those emergency works costs into perspective, the government a few days ago announced another $275 million – on top of $250 million earlier in the year – to help fund repairs to roads in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle and the floods in January. They’ve also put $200 million into fixing parts of the rail network damaged during those events.

The ~110m wide slip on SH25a (Kopu-Hikuai in the Coromandel) has highlighted the fragility of some parts of our road network. A $30-40 million bridge is going to built to fix the road

The article also gives a recent example of where improving resilience wasn’t included in the planning.

A case study provided for the report was that of State Highway 60 at Takaka Hill, in Tasman.

In February 2018, during Cyclone Gita, Takaka Hill Road was damaged when a box culvert at the base of the hill was overwhelmed by storm debris, with water overtopping the road.

The culvert was known to not comply with Transport Agency standards, and the resulting flooding damaged a neighbouring property.

As part of the repair process it was proposed that the culvert be brought up to standard by increasing its capacity and alignment, and involved realigning a stream and installing debris control structures.

The proposal was rejected because emergency funding only covered immediate road reinstatement, despite costs of about $20m to repair the route.

“The result of this is that a known weakness in the SH network is allowed to persist, even though repair and improvement works were being planned and undertaken at the same time to several other parts of the route in close proximity.

“With the increasing frequency of high-intensity storms expected as a result of climate change, and as a result of catchment damage from ex-tropical storm Cyclone Gita, it is likely that damage and resultant closures will be experienced in this location again in the foreseeable future.”

Perhaps the government should look at diverting the funding for some of its hugely expensive but incredibly low benefit projects, into funding resilience projects. A prime candidate for this would be the emission-inducing Otaki to North of Levin project, which had a benefit to cost ratio of just 0.2 even before it doubled in cost to $1.5 billion.

One thing I am concerned about is that the government and Waka Kotahi treat resilience as big engineering just to maintain what we already have. Whereas in many cases, resilience can also be provided by (finally) catering for other modes.

As we saw last week, those who had the least travel-time impact from the rains and flooding were those on their bikes and those who jumped on e-scooters.

Of course, bikes won’t be the solution in every single case. But bikes do conspicuously come into their own in emergency circumstances, as this great post by Bike Auckland lays out: including in rural contexts, and for emergency services. (And who can forget the guy who e-biked to retrieve his daughter’s teddy bear from their flooded house?)

Given climate change means we will see more extreme weather events, exploring how bikes (and by extension e-scooters and other micromobility) fit into our response to disasters would be transformational for our community’s resilience and recovery.

Bikes are especially resilient in urban settings, and would be accessible to many more people and for many more daily uses – if only our transport agencies could get it together to build safe, welcoming networks so that more people can safely use them.

This is important for climate action, because cities and towns are also (surprise!) where the bulk of our transport emissions comes from, much of it from people using cars for short everyday trips. Those journeys are easiest to switch to bikes or micromobility, and so they should be top of mind for Waka Kotahi and local transport agencies in their planning and delivery.

As it happens, Waka Kotahi recently released its first Cycling Action Plan to lay out the path for better, faster delivery of exactly what’s needed to accommodate those basic daily trips. (Feedback on the Cycling Action Plan is welcome until 26 May.)

Around two thirds of the trips we make in New Zealand are less than 5km, which represents approximately 20 minutes by bike and 10 minutes by e-bike. Replacing short to medium distance car trips with cycling and micromobility is one of the most effective ways to cut transport emissions quickly, while achieving a range of co-benefits (Figure 2). It is also a relatively inexpensive way of achieving many transport outcomes. A New Zealand study has estimated money spent on high-quality cycling infrastructure yields benefits between ten and 25 times the costs.

Investment in alternatives such as cycling networks is how our transport agencies (and the people who guide them) will show us they hear the dual wake-up call loud and clear – to urgently improve resilience while also reducing emissions to help lower the chances and severity of future storms.

The two go hand-in-hand, and should be at the top of the agenda of every transport-related project, every council discussion, every consultation, every meeting-that-should-have-been-an-email, from here on out.

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38 comments

  1. Good news about the Cycling Action Plan. How can we keep it going in our urban areas the face of small (but vociferous) opposition? We need visible Champions for all Active Modes

  2. A benefit cost ratio of 0.2 rounds down nicely to zero. Well done to the idiots who decided on that project.

    As for the slip on SH25A I don’t really see a practical alternative to using the road until it fails and then fixing what is left. No body would ever have tried to mitigate a slip of that size that hadn’t occurred yet.

    1. Providing wharves in the coromandel towns to enable supplies after slips is a way to mitigate that slip before it happens. Resilience isn’t just building roads to not fail, it’s building systems to mitigate failures.

      1. OK so maybe they could build a wharf at Whangamata, one at Whitianga and another at Coromandel. Oh wait maybe someone already did that 140 years ago. But I think the steamer has long since sunk or been broken up.

  3. Ironic that the only identified risk on that interactive map on the Otaki to north of Levin corridor says this:
    “Requires Council to address adjacent land drainage and runoff – less of an issue once O2NL is constructed. With $1 million could significantly improve the flood issue – especially considering the detour is extensive”

    Yet the tagline that boosters of the project continually go back to is “resilience”.
    Again I propose we call these projects “negative resilience”, or “fragility enhancing” projects. 1.5 billion dollars incinerated, funding sucked out of 100s of other potential safety or resilience projects around the country. The full opportunity costs are never covered in the media because WK doesn’t ever publish alternatives.

    1. Bah, silly me, there’s a second dot on the map there. A moderate risk one. Still, same deal. “Suggested Solution: Better drainage systems”

  4. The lack of forward thinking by not just Waka Kotahi but also insurance companies is astonishing. We were flooded out of our house in the January event, and to prevent it happening again we are going to lift it by 800mm, which will see it well clear of the flood levels. But insurance won’t contribute, despite it meaning they are far less likely to get another big claim in the next flood event. Things need to change.

    1. They’re not going to get any big claims from most of these houses in the next flood event. They’re going to 5x what they charge you to drive you away, or straight up not offer to insure you next year.

      1. Which is what a commercial company needs to do. Insurance companies were some of the first “bug business” entities that too climate change seriously, because they can’t push the costs to a future generation, it affects their annual bottom lines if they don’t react.

        A societal insurance scheme / govt can be more about protecting the individual (at least those who are in the issue at no fault of their own) and arguably we should look into subsidising improvements. But with voters disagreeing about taxes, there will never be enough money to fix / protect more than part of our public at-risk assets, and a tiny smidgin of our at-risk private assets that way.

        A lot of people will be left holding the bag, badly. But at least some politicians got re-elected a few times more before it go serious.

        1. yeah I think the insurance side of things is great.

          I reckon we be building more state housing. In climate resilient places. If your old house gets taken by the sea / demolished by a flood, no bailouts, but you can rent an apartment from the government for 30% of income indefinitely.

  5. This is typical bureaucracy at work. Any rational organization, would surely,build back better.Only now when they, the bureaucrats, are painted into a corner,where there is no way to avoid being totally embarrassed, have they accepted the problem.
    I,for one,think our three year election cycle,has a huge part to play here,all long term solutions, get kicked down the road,literally.
    WK ,now cannot even maintain, the existing roading network,it is in a state of rapidly managed decline,their resources,right now ,need to be focused on maintenance of current assets,rather than planning on building any new ones.
    Similarly with local authorities, repair,reallocate,existing roadspace, before you go adding more which will only add to the maintenance bill.
    As stated before,the humble bicycle offers plenty of solutions,if only people would look at it,the bicycle, as a solution, instead of current view,a problem.

    1. “I,for one,think our three year election cycle,has a huge part to play here,all long term solutions, get kicked down the road,literally.”

      Not so sure. Different country and different topic, but France has 5 year election cycles and has a lot of “kicking down the road” too.

      Politicians never like long term solutions, because voters don’t tend to reward them now for benefits they (or their children) will only get ages from now. It’s an inherent problem of democracy, and requires either very charismatic AND principled politicians OR agencies that are independent AND principled enough to do what they should do.

      When you have neither, you get band aids on band aids.

      1. In my above example, Auckland Transport and Waka Kotahi ARE in fact independent enough (heck, they got two recent High Court cases to prove they can basically ignore the politicians except on the most basic direction!). But neither agency is principled enough to actually action on climate change and mode share (despite of course having champions and teams trying to within them, the overall agencies are not really doing so – they could, but are not).

      2. France has figured out the hard way, a couple of times now, that if they actually try to enact climate policy, they will get open rebellion. The Yellow Vests protests rose up after a proposed increase in fuel tax rate. It seems a pretty hard and fundamental limitation on democracies.

        1. France’s huge renaissance of tramways since the 80’s is an example of the country enacting people-focused inclusive planning. The main reasons it was possible was probably that they sorted out how to fund them from transport revenue streams, and that the large towns and small cities were able to create their own plans without being swamped by a national agency with a roading agenda, and were able to access the funding for good planning.

          Was it climate policy? The municipalities were encouraged to plan using Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans from about the same time, so yes, it probably was. Even if it wasn’t directly considered climate policy, it was definitely *change* that challenged car domination and that delivered on collective values.

          France managed this. We can too.

  6. Resilience is a nice thing to talk about but basic maintenance is another. All around the country roads are full of potholes, and when it rains we find many of the drains are blocked which has resulted in flooding, e.g. the Auckland Airport terminal in January, north shore motorway, and the Kopu-Hikuai landslide pictured above – all because maintenance hasn’t been done.
    Stripping the maintenance budget is not a good idea, building new stuff is not a net gain if all the existing falls to ruin.

    1. “and the Kopu-Hikuai landslide pictured above – all because maintenance hasn’t been done.”

      Lol, what? Have you got ANY proof – or even reasoned argument – that that massive several hundred meters wide landslide had anything to do with lack of maintence?

      Unclogging a drain back in January wouldn’t have prevented that slip, mate.

      And I always find it funny to see images of whole 10-20m wide road widths wide filled a meter deep with rushing water and then seeing someone say “Oh, if only someone had unclogged that 20cm wide pipe outside my house, all of Noah’s deluge would have passed us by!”

      1. Somewhat less scathingly, I actually agree that we are not doing enough maintenance. We should build fewer new motorways and do more of that.

        But even there the picture is massively skewed. Footpaths get jack all maintenance compared to roads, some of which still get resealed “just because it’s time”, while the footpath adjacent is falling to bits, and trips you up every couple meters.

        1. Sweeping cycleways too. Whether protected or painted, they’re always filled with sharps.

        2. Agree with Scott about cycleways – currently large sections of the NW cycleway are down to about 2/3 of usable width due to the lack of maintenance/sweeping.

  7. I think we need focus on the right mode for the right trip.
    Long distance passengers and freight should probably stay on rails although the new surface effect seagliders from the Ocean Flyer crowd might deal with some of that.
    E-bikes and micro mobility when taking shorter trips for most and longer trips for the hardy.
    And then obviously flying cars for the rest will reduce the need for so much road resilience – this is 2023 for goodness sake – where the heck is my flying car!

  8. With the closing of our refinery all our petrol and diesel is coming from Asian refinerys. One day there will be another flare up in the Middle East and someone will mine the Malaca straits and we will be in short supply. So not only will we face inferstructure problems plus we will have no fuel for the fleet of diggers trucks graders and bulldozers which we seem to find necessary these days. So resilience doesn’t just mean inferstructure.

    1. You do realise that when the refinery was open the raw crude came from those exact same places right?
      I’d prefer to still have the refinery, but in terms of resilience it wasn’t the be all and end all.

      1. I do realise. However we have made our supply lines longer and more risky. Still it’s not my problem I don’t need a car. In fact I have a morbid curiosity about what would happen if we did run out of fuel.

        1. Z claims the opposite:
          Z says the new model means there is now a greater diversity of supply sources of refined fuel from closer international producers. While our crude supply traditionally came mostly from the Middle East, the refined fuel comes from the Asia-Pacific region, countries like Singapore, Korea and Japan. The refined fuel product is brought in on a larger number of smaller ships that supply directly to ports around the country.

          “Under a refined model we actually have more flexibility and security of supply, because there are more ships coming to the country at any one time. While there is always a risk of a potential disruption to one of those vessels – say for example with a regional conflict in a certain part of Asia where we’re buying product from – our flexibility means we could buy that product from any part of the globe,” Hughes says.

          https://thespinoff.co.nz/partner/08-06-2022/where-does-our-fuel-come-from

      2. Interestingly there have now been two recent incidences where aviation fuel has been delivered below specification. In the old days it would have been returned to Marsden Point to be re-refined. Nowadays – who knows?

        1. Z and the other partners in the refinery were keen to shut it down because refinery margins were poor or negative. Since the closure and thanks to Mr Putin, they have been very good and all those oil companies are wishing they still had a running refinery.
          The three incidents of the off spec Jet Fuel are interesting because in all three cases, the product was on spec at loading and product loading afterwards seems to be ok. It could well be that the problem is in the import tank or lines, or that the testing equipment in NZ is faulty.
          That said, it is dangerously crazy that at the moment the oil companies are allowed to keep the NZ strategic stock offshore and even when that changes, the obligation is only for about 30 days. The Government should have only allowed the refinery to close on the basis that the oil companies were bound to hold 90 days stock.
          As for mines in the straits of Mallaca – that would not affect any shipping to NZ. We can and do import a lot of oil products from South Korea and we can also import from India or the Middle East.

  9. Fortunately, AT was already busy with Climate Adaptation planning, identifying vulnerable locations and criticality, before the rain fell. This does give WK something that they are going to use to develop their national framework, as well as setting the programme for Auckland resilience action.
    WK funding for this is critical, alongside funding announced by Auckland Council.

    1. I hope something comes of it. All I hear is “lets make some more plans (to then ignore when we actually do something)”. I hope for once I am too cynical.

  10. Ugh otaki to levin $1.5 billion. Sooooooooooooooo many more worthwhile projects. What is wrong with the decision making at WK??

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