Another incredibly stupid week in the never ending transport debate

Hayden Donnell might be living far from New Zealand these days, but there’s no escape from the relentless idiocy of our transport policy debate. He runs down the latest media salvos in the battle between road warriors and public transport champions.

I’ve been in London for a while now. It can be tough being so far from New Zealand. The grinding cold. The poison air. The constant stream of people saying “y’right?” instead of “hello”. It’s easy to get a bit down. But lately I’ve been cheered by a persistent taste of home away from home. Every time I check my phone, it’s there. On Twitter. Facebook. Any news site. It’s there. A familiar sense of gnawing dread. A nostalgic hum of hair-pulling frustration. It’s the unique concoction of feelings I get only when my home country engages in that time-honored Kiwi tradition: an unrelentingly stupid argument about transport policy.

No country is immune to bad transport debates, but few could boast one as pant-crappingly dumb as the one still raging over the Government’s $11.7 billion land transport strategy. The plan cuts funding to National’s financially negligent Roads of National Significance, and redirects it into public transport projects, road safety, and regional roading upgrades, in what is either a sensible and encouraging move, or the first part of a plan to tax people into extinction and abolish driving, depending on whether you listen to sanity or the nostalgia-inducing siren call of New Zealand’s arch-morons.

How I miss them all. What other country boasts a transport commentator who has self-owned as regularly and resiliently as the Herald’s John Roughan? How many writers could compete with Roughan’s 17-year record of being incorrect about nearly every major transport project in Auckland? On Britomart: “They are wasting their time and our money,” he wrote in 2001. Park and ride stations? Useless and unused. The Northern Busway? Won’t work. Many writers would reassess after accumulating that kind of track record, but Roughan has forged ahead, stubbornly acting as a kind of reverse bellwether on transport policy. Fresh from ensuring Labour’s light rail plans will be a success by offering them his strong condemnation, Roughan argued last week that Auckland’s objectively fucked transport system is actually fine, public transport initiatives will somehow make it worse, and nobody will ever change buses or trains mid-trip, in what would be news to hundreds of thousands of commuters in my current home city. His semi-coherent column gave me pangs of abject despair so familiar I could almost feel the sweet touch of Tasman salt spray washing through my flat.

Other commentators have invented an imaginary version of the Government’s transport funding package, then torn it to shreds. Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking viciously attacked the Labour transport strategy he hallucinated while writing a particularly fevered script for “Mike’s Minute”. “They hate cars and they hate people in cars,” he said, apparently unaware that 78% of the transport budget is going to roads, or that it devotes unprecedented levels of funding to making sure the people in cars that the government apparently hates don’t die. It was a weird column, incredibly wrong, and reading it felt like Richie McCaw offering me a firm three-way handshake across the ocean.

Heather du Plessis Allan didn’t have anything much to say about the policy, except that it would definitely lose Labour the 2020 election because it increases petrol taxes. Fair enough. It is a new tax, and Grant Robertson said Labour wouldn’t do any surprise new taxes. On the other hand, I can barely remember what I did 24 hours ago. Expecting voters to act en masse over a $4-a-week rise in their petrol bill from two years ago feels like a bit much to expect. Du Plessis Allan later tweeted about how trains are great, while still holding to the view that giving us more of them would lose Labour the election, and the soft call of a tui filtered across the spittle-flecked footpaths of London’s streets.

The sweet taste of transport idiocy has even snuck into millennial blog The Spinoff, which previously held an impeccable record of publishing important investigations that ignored clicks and focused on the public good. Its recent post by National’s former Political Correctness Eradicator, Wayne Mapp, contains this incredible paragraph:

As noted by Andrew Geddis in this series of snide tweets, the budget that Labour just released contains $6 billion in funding for maintenance and upgrades to the State Highway network, which notoriously contains motorways.

But Mapp’s column still doesn’t make me feel the toe-curling rage of my youth as much as this one from Stuff’s Stacey Kirk. Fresh from taking in the shit-encrusted basement of Middlemore Hospital and diagnosing Jonathan Coleman with a “chronic case of over-achieving”, Kirk has turned her eyes to Labour’s transport strategy and recognised “an assault on regional and rural New Zealand”. As noted by the Herald’s Simon Wilson, the strategy contains $530 million for regional road improvements over 10 years – more than National was planning.

I don’t remember the last time I felt this way about transport. Catching buses and trains is so easy here. There are debates about how to improve things, but no-one really seems to be arguing we should incinerate the Overground to create a 40,000 square metre carparking complex. This city fits 9 million people in an area not much bigger than Auckland and yet still boasts a more functional transport system. And so when I take in the latest Hosking article about how buses are made of Satan, I see Pōhutukawa in bloom by the seaside; the sun rising behind Rangitoto; bowls of Kiwi Onion Dip and Bluebird chips, and I think: maybe I could stay in London another couple of years.


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