Teau Aiturau (L) and Ropata Welwyn (R) and a couple of the Mangere BikeFit kids who biked all the way from Mangere to town for the K Road Open Streets day in May 2016. Photo: Bike Auckland

The Regional Fuel Tax is happening. Now let’s use tech to make it fair for us all

Auckland Council have passed the Regional Fuel Tax on a 13-7 vote, but concerns about how it will disadvantage low-income communities remain. Better public transport would help – but so would greater access to e-bikes, argues Auckland University’s Dr Kirsty Wild.

I am a cycling researcher who drives a lot. When my son was little I found out he had a disability and I would need to work part time, so I can’t afford to live in Auckland anymore. I moved to the country and I now commute down to the city for work. On the days I commute it takes me six hours. I have friends who do it every day. They all put on weight, and talk about what it’s like being so exhausted that sometimes you cry when you get in the door.

I know what it’s like to need a car, and I also know how hard it is when you need to use one a lot. When you are on a low income in particular, living far from the CBD, cars are both a necessity and a source of misery. I know what it’s like to need a car but not really be able to afford one; to not really be able to afford the petrol to see friends, or to have money for proper insurance, and yes, to get fines for not having a warrant or rego.

In his great piece in The Spinoff Taxing the poor to transport the rich Councillor Efeso Collins points out that the Regional Fuel Tax will hit the poorest Aucklanders hardest – they’re the ones who are already spending the largest proportion of their income on fuel and are most dependent on their cars. He is right. They are more likely to be making the sort of cross-town commutes that are not easy or particularly efficient to make using public transport.

It’s a situation that won’t necessarily be significantly improved by new investments in public transport funded by the RFT. As well as work commutes, there are a whole lot of other reasons why people are more likely to be dependent on having a car in places like Manukau: having greater responsibility for transporting other people, higher levels of ill-health and disability, and more out-of-town responsibilities like needing to visit home marae or urupā. However, lower-income Aucklanders are also the people most likely to be struggling with the financial cost of owning a car. They’re the people most likely to be trapped in the cycle of debt, fines and convictions often associated with being dependent on a car when you don’t have a lot of money.

Auckland traffic congestion, Southern Motorway. (Photo by David Hallett/Getty Images)

We cannot just keep building more roads for more cars that lots of people cannot really afford to run. People live next to roads, and poorer people are more likely to live next to major roads. Continuing to widen our roads requires us to take people’s homes, or build highways on the few bits of green space we have left in the city. But Councillor Collins is right that many people still need flexible, nimble forms of individual transport that they can control themselves.

He is talking about cars, but if we spend the Regional Transport Tax wisely and a bit more fairly, he could also be describing bikes. E-bikes in particular are a really promising new form of ‘middle modalism’ – a hybrid that provides some of the best things about cars (flexibility, carrying stuff, covering longer distances) while stripping out most of their costs (warrants, rego, petrol, parking, fines etc.). Our research at the University of Auckland shows that e-bikers in Auckland are increasingly making more ‘car-like’ trips: longer distances, multiple stops, more likely to carry things like groceries. Aucklanders are now covering fairly decent distances on e-bikes, distances that we would previously have thought were really only realistic on public transport or in a car. It was common for people in our e-bike research to be comfortably commuting 15km each way to work. This opens up real possibilities for comfortable cross-town commuting via bike.

An image promoting e-biking in New Zealand. (Image: Mercury Energy)

Cyclists are consistently shown to be the happiest commuters. And that’s not because the happy are more likely to cycle; switching from car to biking or walking produces a noticeable bump in most people’s wellbeing. This is primarily because bikes are fairly nimble, so cyclists feel the strongest sense of control over their commute conditions, and as a result tend to have the greatest ‘arrival time reliability’. Bikes give us what we fantasise that cars would provide if only there were no other cars on the road. Cars are expensive and not particularly nimble, because they are so big. Of course people still need to use cars to transport kids or elderly parents, or get to the doctor or home to Huntly. But lots of our trips – our solo work commutes in particular – could be made frequently by e-bike, and that would make our whole transport system a lot fairer.

But to open up cheaper forms of local transport, like e-bikes, we have to fund them. Bikes need tracks. Bike lanes are footpaths for cyclists. Every main road should be required to have them, and every neighbourhood street needs to be reduced to 30km/hr to make it safe to connect to the main roads. Let’s make the Regional Fuel Tax fairer by making it possible for everyone to use low-cost forms of transport, like walking or cycling or e-biking in their community, not just in the CBD. Let’s spend the Regional Fuel Tax in the communities where it came from by prioritising local road safety and local transport too. And let’s put an end to people in wealthier inner city suburbs blocking cycling networks by objecting to having lanes in their streets. If we can’t get lanes in the inner suburbs then people in the outer suburbs have nothing to connect to.

Finally, let’s fund e-bikes through workplaces. It’s common overseas, and 80% of New Zealanders have less than $10,000 in savings, so for most people spending $3000 on an e-bike is an impossible barrier. Like electric cars, they are way cheaper to run, but the high upfront cost is a penalty on the poor. We have the technology, let’s use the Regional Fuel Tax to make it easier for everyone in every neighbourhood to get around at lower cost.

Kirsty Wild is an environmental sociologist working on active transport and sustainability transitions. She is currently the Research Fellow on the ‘Future of the Bike’ project at the University of Auckland. Her current project is ‘Bikelash: Engaging with community opposition to cycling infrastructure.’

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