Where better to grill the government’s transport ministers on their plans for improving Aucklanders’ commute than at MOTAT, the inner-suburb museum dedicated to the history and potential future of transport.
I didn’t spend my primary school years in Auckland, so I missed out on the annual class trip to the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT). But I’ve always fancied myself as that one person in the conversation who would quietly say “Actually, I found MOTAT quite interesting” so I recently planned my first trip there.
I had been warned that MOTAT is a bit boring, so to keep things interesting I invited Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter to come along to chat about the new government’s plans for transport. Plus it’d be fun for the ministers to pose with New Zealand’s first crushed boyracer car on display there, a tribute to Judith “Crusher” Collins, we thought.
Genter should perhaps be a MOTAT display herself. She is a walking transport encyclopedia. Ask her anything about transport in Auckland and she’ll know every single intricate detail about the issue, and every single intricate detail about possible solutions. Twyford knows his stuff too.
I won’t lie, it was a bit difficult to muster enthusiasm for the displays at MOTAT, though the main exhibition was something I thought would take the pair’s fancy. Changing Gear is an exhibition exploring New Zealand’s history of cycling, with displays of different types of bikes from vintage penny farthings to high-tech e-bikes. The first bike we saw was something called a “women’s safety bike”. Twyford joked that this is something that perhaps Genter needs (she had just told us a story about being hit by a bus while cycling down Symonds Street in 2007).
As we walked through the exhibit I asked the pair how they learned to ride a bike. I thought maybe Genter would have some child prodigy story about her cycling out of her mother’s womb but her story was very similar to Twyford’s and my own – getting on the bike, some falls, some bruises, all of a sudden: can ride bike.
We stopped to look at some of the displays – Genter’s interest was piqued when one of the displays said that bicycles played a big role in the suffragists’ campaign – and I asked about Twyford and Genter’s working relationship. They told me that they actually work quite a lot together – every Monday morning a meeting is held in Twyford’s office with about 10 to 20 transport officials, where they discuss the issues of the day, policy, and legislation.
“And how much influence does Julie Anne have?” I ask Twyford.
“Huge amounts!” Twyford said. Genter smiled.
In the e-bike section Genter told us she has five bikes, because of course she does. “I’ve got two in Wellington and three in Auckland. I figure there’s no point in getting rid of the old ones because then I can lend them to people, like my advisors when they come up to Auckland. I have the e-bike, but they’re on the push bikes. Luckily my advisors like to cycle.”
Joked Twyford, “Was that part of your recruitment process?”
We headed to MOTAT’s tram workshops. Twyford and Genter stared at an image of the old Auckland Tramways, lamenting at what was, and what could have been. We had reached a small shed-like building, the inside of which was covered with old photos and information on the history of Auckland’s tramways. A 72 kilometre tram network spread across the city – about 18 different lines from Britomart to all the outer Auckland Central suburbs. The tram lines connected to the rail network, and frequent ferries carried passengers between the North Shore and the CBD. At its peak (and after the rationing of petrol during World War Two caused a spike) Auckland public transport patronage was at over 100 million trips per year, “levels of ridership that have only just been surpassed in the last few years, even though the population has tripled,” according to Twyford.
“I talked to my partner’s grandmother and great aunt, who are in their 90s,” Genter said, “and they were talking about their teenage and early-20s years, travelling around Auckland. They were really well-connected – there were people from out West who were meeting up and going to parties with people on the North Shore. In a way, it was way easier to get around the city.”
“So how did we screw up this century so badly?” I asked. Apparently the tragedy of Auckland’s transport system begins with Prime Minister Sid Holland in 1949.
“So basically,” Twyford said, “with the election of the National government in 1949, when Sid Holland was prime minister, they made a deliberate decision to adopt a development model for Auckland based around building motorways, and so they systematically ripped up the tram network and shifted to diesel buses. So really our reform agenda is about reversing that decades of unbalanced transport policy, which was just all about private cars and motorways.”
In 1955 Auckland City Council adopted a Master Transport Plan which would shift the focus from rail to roads. The following year, the last tram line was ripped up, and public transport patronage plummeted; it continued to decrease, despite population growth.
“The funny thing is,” Genter said, “there was this view among some of the transport professionals that the trams were getting in the way of cars. But you look at the number of people that were being moved by the trams, and it just doesn’t make sense that getting rid of the trams would free up the ability to drive through the city, because cars are going to take up much more space and they’ll need places to park.”
I asked Twyford whether he thought past Labour governments had done enough to overhaul the public transport system.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I think for the period from the ’50s that we’re talking about there was this kind of sea change and the idea of planned cities and public transport was deliberately downgraded and put on the backburner – from the ’50s right through to the last decade there hasn’t been much dissent. But I think that what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is Auckland saying, ‘You know what, this isn’t working’.”
So what is the new government going to do about it? We do know that it has shown a desire to improve urban public transport, with the adoption by Labour and the Greens of Greater Auckland’s Congestion Free Network early on during the election campaign. More rapid transit, a nod to the old Auckland tramways perhaps, is on the table.
As both transport and housing minister, Twyford can’t really talk about transport without also talking about housing. Light rail down Dominion Road will be a catalyst for urban renewal and intensification in that area, he says. “When you’ve got high quality light rail going down Dominion Road you’ll get more apartments, there will be some fantastic neighbourhoods for people to live and shop and work. And then Roskill and Mangere are two of the biggest concentrations of state housing in New Zealand, so it’s an opportunity to really develop those suburbs. More state housing, more affordable housing, and vibrant new communities around high quality transit.”
Public transport affordability has been a concern among some people in Auckland also. Before embarking on my adventure around MOTAT with the two ministers, I had asked some of my student friends if they had any questions they’d like me to ask the pair. One friend asked, “Why the fuck does it cost me $5.50 to go from Mt Eden Village to town when I forgot my Hop card?” I cleaned up the question a little, and asked why public transport in Auckland is so expensive.
“It’s because of the private operator model that we’ve adopted,” said Genter. “And also because Steven Joyce, when he was minister of transport between 2008 and 2011, got the New Zealand Transport Agency to adopt a farebox recovery policy.” A farebox recovery is a percentage of the costs of operating public transport paid for through the fares of that service. In 2015, for example, the farebox recovery ratio in Auckland was about 47% – meaning passengers were paying proportionally 47% of the operating costs, with the rest of the operating costs being paid for by Auckland Council and Auckland Regional Transport Authority, through something called the National Land Transport Fund from New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA).
“It comes back to an ideological approach from National,” Genter said, “because Labour, with the Greens, in 2008 passed the Public Transport Management Act, and with ACT we passed option C, which would have given regional councils a lot of control over the planning and the timeliness of the public transport networks. But when National came, they repealed that and they went for this public transport operating model, and their whole ideology is, ‘Oh, We’ll protect the private businesses so somehow that’ll make it more competitive and drive down the cost,’ but actually that doesn’t make any sense.”
A competitive model for tendering is difficult to justify when you can’t just start up a new bus service and have it be efficient and work well, Genter said. In order for public transport to work it has to be connected to other services, and it often becomes a natural monopoly. “In Auckland we still have this model where the operators who happen to have the good depots are going to be in a better position to compete for the particular service […] So even though you’ve got private operators it wasn’t actually competitive, and so that really questions the whole idea that you can achieve efficiency with a competitive model on something like a public transport network.”
So if private ownership of public transport networks can make things more expensive for patrons, does Labour have plans to nationalise public transport in New Zealand, like Jeremy Corbyn vowed to do with the UK’s railways?
“No,” Twyford answered, a bit sternly, but with a smile. “We’ve got plenty to do, that’s not at the top of the list.”
“Right,” I said. “Shall we have a go on the tram?”
I’ll admit, the MOTAT trams are okay. Riding the tram was definitely a highlight of our MOTAT adventure. As we walked there I asked about the new government’s fuel tax policy, and whether it was actually a regressive tax that affects poor people the most.
“The problem of a poor public transport system, where people don’t have transport choices, and are totally dependent on cars – that’s regressive. That hits poor people worst, right? Pretty much every solution is regressive. You can pay for it out of progressive taxation, out of income tax, but there are limits to the extent we can do that. So we are looking at ways that we can finance Auckland City growth through not charging the rest of the country for it.”
We reached the tram, a big shiny green thing, and piled on with a bunch of excited kids. Sat across from the ministers, I listened to them talking about their plans for the country over the sound of the tram chugging away. I asked whether their transport policies would be different if they didn’t have to worry about being re-elected in three years – are some things just too politically risky?
“What we know is that we’ve got to show progress in our three years,” Twyford said. “We’ve got to show people that we’re on the problems, we’ve got a plan, and we’ve made some progress. So the new light rail system – a stretch of it should be up and running by the time of the next election. That’s what I’d like to see. We’re trying to work out exactly how we can make that happen.”
And what are the ministers most excited for in the next three years?
“Our generation of politics has the opportunity now to build a rapid transit network in Auckland that will change the city for the better, for future generations,” Twyford said. “It will allow the city to grow, to provide a better life for people, and make getting around more affordable, more convenient, and will reduce gridlock on the roads. And that’s a once in a generational opportunity, to deliver that change.”
Genter added that she’s excited to see the freedom and benefits of cycling come to fruition with the new government’s plans. “And particularly in a place like South Auckland where people don’t have good access, changing the transport environment can massively improve their quality of life.”
The tram came to a stop. We had circled around Western Springs to the Zoo and were back at MOTAT. We hopped off the tram and were met by a MOTAT employee, Rob, who said something about Twyford being a fine man but being “in the wrong party, unfortunately.” He told us he was a National voter, and that John Key is a close personal friend of his.
“Oh, really?” said Twyford, with a smile. “You know it was National that ripped up all the tram lines.”
“Well it was Labour who decided to continue with those plans,” said Rob, also with a smile – just banter, but with some scepticism.
We bid farewell to the tram operators and the other friendly MOTAT staff who had showed us around. Twyford hopped back into his car, Genter got back on her e-bike, and I waited for the bus.
And after all the excitement, we forgot to pose with the crushed boyracer car.
Meg Williams is a freelance writer and a former co-convenor of the Young Greens.
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