The election is over and we have a change in government – though we will need to wait for the counting of special votes to see the exact makeup of that government. That makes it a good time to reflect back on the the last six years of a Labour government.
When it comes to transport, while there have certainly been some positive outcomes during Labour’s time in office, by and large, it’s been a massive disappointment.
Despite some great rhetoric and policy from ministers around the need for change, they largely failed to deliver on that. There are likely many reasons for this, but some that stick out to me are:
- Too much trust in officials to deliver change – Labour put far too much trust in the idea that if they just change the policy, officials will deliver it. As such, they tasked the very people who have spent their careers creating an unbalanced transport system with suddenly changing it – very much a case of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. While in public statements those officials echoed the official policy lines, stories from behind the scenes would tell of how they actively worked against them, leading to ….
- Officials rewarded for lack of delivery – So many programmes of work were simply not delivered, or saw costs quickly blow out. Yet, instead of holding officials to account for this and pushing for more structural change in the transport industry, the government chose to effectively reward them with even more mega projects.
For example, back in 2018 the government announced Waka Kotahi would make 870km of state highways and local roads safer via a $1.4 billion investment in median and side barriers. That was predicted to prevent around 160 deaths and serious injuries a year. That would be a fantastic investment for about the cost of a single motorway. But Waka Kotahi never seriously tried to deliver it – and instead of pushing them to, the government gave them a bunch of new mega motorways to build as part of the NZ Upgrade Programme, taking away any staff time and focus there might have been. The cost of those NZUP projects then blew out, doubling in size just a year later – yet there was still no accountability, and those same officials were then given even bigger pieces of work, such dreaming up fantasy $45 billion harbour crossing options.
Of the original 870km of safety upgrades meant to be completed by 2021, as of earlier this year only around 85km had been delivered.
- A lack of strategic messaging – While ministers were good when giving speeches about the need for change and better cities, not enough effort was put into explaining to the nation as a whole the need for change and the options for achieving that. This is something I feel the government failed at not just with transport, but with other policy areas too, most notably the broader discussion around climate change.
Thinking about some specific items that have stood out…
Light rail is a classic example of many of the issues listed above, and has been one of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of transport policy over the last six years. It was a key part of Labour’s policy platform when they were elected to office in 2017 – and they were handed a scheme by Auckland Transport that had seen significant design work already undertaken.
Under Labour’s first transport minister Phil Twyford, Waka Kotahi were also ready to start delivering it, and my understanding is they had contracts ready to sign to start enabling works – that was, until the government got distracted by the NZ Super Fund proposal – which then led to the bizarre twin-track process that saw Waka Kotahi competing with the NZ Super Fund for who would build it. It turns out the Super Fund would have won the gig, had Winston Peters not blocked it a few months out from the 2020 election.
The new transport minister, Michael Wood, reset the process in 2021 – but notably put in charge the same consultants who were behind Waka Kotahi’s failed bid in the previous process; and this resulted in the tunnelled light rail proposal we have today.
I feel that both Phil Twyford and Michael Wood got distracted by thinking they could be the ones to right the wrongs of the past – for example, the abandonment of schemes like that pushed by Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. Both often repeated the urban legends that have built up around ‘Robbie’s Rail‘ but ignored the hard-learned lessons, that any programme needs to be fundable and builable in a rational, staged way. They were certainly encouraged by some officials and industry players to ‘build big‘ from the start, and not repeat the experience of the Harbour Bridge which soon needed to be expanded again – even though (as the Harbour Bridge example shows), taking a staged approach would likely have resulted in a better overall system.
Had they not been distracted, light rail along Dominion Rd would be in operation now – but sadly, the concept is probably now dead for a generation due to Labour’s mismanagement.
Walking and Cycling over the Harbour
Another key project that the Labour took over was the plan to deliver Skypath, a walking and cycling connection over the Harbour Bridge that had been designed and consented by a group of passionate advocates. Labour handed it to Waka Kotahi to deliver.
Waka Kotahi changed the design (to that shown below), to make the path wider and attach it directly to the piers of the bridge. But this version was going to cost a lot more.
Then, just over a year later they announced the price had nearly doubled as they now needed to build a completely separate structure. While the costs of many other projects blew out too, some by much more, the media and opposition parties focused their attention on this one project and eventually the government folded, scrapping it and sending the project back in to the unknown.
We also learned that it would have only cost around $1 billion to make that separate bridge a combined public transport and active mode bridge, meaning we could have solved the harbour crossing issue. Instead, the government have since poured millions into investigating tunnels, now estimated to cost up to $45 billion – which will see only road tunnels built, and still no guarantee that walking and cycling will be an option for decades more to come.
Just as with light rail, we could have had something – perhaps not perfect, but better than nothing. Instead, the project was handed over to the very same officials who had fought to prevent it for decades… and a focus on grandiose plans has meant that nothing has been delivered and now likely won’t be for another generation.
Labour even had the gall to blame advocates – who have been advancing the case for decades – for not supporting their surprise proposals strongly enough.
The Cycling Slowdown
It wasn’t just across the harbour that we’ve seen issues with the delivery of cycling infrastructure. In Auckland at least, there was a noticeable slow down in cycling projects throughout Labour’s time in office – indeed, we are only just about to start some of the projects originally intended to be funded by John Key’s Urban Cycleways Fund that was announced in 2014.
While some of that lack of delivery is certainly the result of local decision-making, ministers didn’t do enough to push local authorities to deliver improvements.
It also hasn’t helped that a single project in Wellington, which is really a seawall to protect the motorway and rail line that just happens to have a cycleway on top, was allowed to suck up most of the three-year walking and cycling budget.
This is also emblematic of one of the deeper issues with how Labour managed transport. They changed budget settings with the intention of more focus being put on safety, public transport, walking and cycling… but then let Waka Kotahi shift around existing projects to use up that funding.
Improving road safety has been a major part of Labour’s policy platform over the last six years, but there’s been far more noise around it than action. As noted above, the delivery of safety barriers has been abysmal and progress on many walking and cycling projects simply dried up.
There has been progress on safer speeds – and that has been successful – but even this struggled due to the lack of widespread strategic messaging about the need for change.
But the real failure has been that the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads hasn’t changed. For the 12 months to the end of September, 363 people lost their lives on our roads. That number is basically unchanged since Labour came to power in 2017 – and is also about the same as it was when National came to power in 2008.
At over 7 deaths per 100,000 people, that’s a lot higher than over in Australia where the rate is less than 5 per 100,000 people – and significantly higher than some of the Nordic countries that have reduced rates to just over 2 per 100,000 people.
One area where Labour did do well was with the introduction of the Clean Car Discount policy, which has seen a significant uptake in electric and other low emission vehicles.
Data from Waka Kotahi shows there have already been over 100,000 new low-emission vehicles registered this year, compared with just 38,000 in the year before the discount was introduced. In total, low-emission vehicles now make up around 12% of the total light vehicle fleet, up from around 7.5% before it was introduced.
While not strictly transport, although there is a transport tie in, Labour’s changes to housing policy merit a mention. After their initial plans to build lots of homes fell over, Labour delivered world-class housing policy changes in the form of the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) and later the Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS).
The NPS-UD requires our major cities to significantly upzone in and around rapid transport stations, and also removes the ability to set minimum parking requirements. The MDRS requires the upzoning of the rest of the city to enable townhouse-scale developments.
Once implemented, these will have a significant impact on how our cities are built – and that will have a flow-on effect to our transport networks. The legislation has also been praised internationally and is now starting to be copied in many places around the world. However, despite initially providing support for both changes, it’s now not clear that National will continue to support them.
There’s plenty more out there, good and bad. The sad and frustrating part is that both Phil Twyford and Michael Wood genuinely believed in the need for change in how our transport system works, but they let that get ahead of them, and we the public are worse off as a result.