Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 9, 2023

How a rogue survey over public transport funding reveals a stark generational divide

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

A contested Ministry of Transport survey shows a major division between young renters and older homeowners on public transport – and how we should pay for it.

This is an edited version of a post first published on Bernard Hickey’s newsletter, The Kākā.

A survey ordered by the Ministry of Transport has found more than 80% of young people want a wealth tax, congestion charges and/or pollution pricing to pay for improvements in public transport, walking and cycling. This is a sharp change from the current system, which funds public transport only through fuel taxes.

However, the University of Auckland survey of over 400 people late last year also found less than a third of older respondents wanted a wealth tax – and barely a half wanted congestion charges, pollution pricing or increased contributions from developers.

The Ministry of Transport said it did not suggest the taxes to those surveyed and was not “at this stage” suggesting such measures. Transport minister Michael Wood batted the question back to the ministry yesterday when asked about the survey by Thomas Coughlan for the NZ Herald. However National party finance spokeswoman Nicola Willis suggested Labour was still eyeing up some sort of wealth tax.

Coughlan unearthed the survey under the OIA, with it assessing 436 people in October and November of last year. Conducted by the university’s Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures using, it found a range of ideas on how to develop public transport and how to pay for it. The survey was of ‘stakeholder groups’ who understood the issues, which may have been skewed towards public transport users and advocates, the survey report writers said.

The engagement did not attempt to achieve representativeness in the participant sample; rather it focused on stakeholder groups, many of whom it believed would have knowledge of or interest in how the transport system is evolving. The vast majority of participants were between 26 and 64 years of age (fairly evenly spread between 26-39 and 40-64 year brackets), with a 60% male skew. With regard to transport modes, about a quarter of participants regularly used a bicycle, scooter or other personal transport mode, which is broadly in line with Waka Kotahi’s regular household travel survey. Walking was a regular transport mode for 19%. 

While it is likely that most people use private vehicles to some extent, only 48% of respondents signalled that cars were their “main” mode of transport. This backs up the survey authors’ note around self-selection of the group surveyed, as the much larger household travel survey suggests cars remain by far the dominant transport mode at a national level. 82% of those surveyed live in suburban or urban areas of New Zealand, which is also more than the national average. 

A total of 436 people voted on at least one of the 106 statements that were moderated into the Koi Tū survey. The survey grouped the respondents into three buckets. Group A were mostly younger respondents and much less likely to use cars. Group B sat in the middle, while group C were largely older respondents, two-thirds of which used cars to get around. 

There was broad-based support for a statement of support for increased density, but other questions revealed a far more divided set of respondents. For example, the idea of “stopping investing so much into roads” in favour of rail was supported by 96% of group A, but just 38% of group C. And a wealth tax on “the ultra-rich” received the backing of 81% of group A, while less than a third of group C agreed with the idea.

Transport minister Michael Wood’s office was quoted in Thomas’ piece as referring questions back to the Ministry, while the Ministry said it had not suggested the wealth tax idea. Willis was quoted as saying even studying such options was wasteful. “How loosey-goosey have contracting arrangements got that public money is being used to poll people on a wealth tax that the government promised it wouldn’t be implementing?”

Is it a dodgy survey?

In my view, the survey results show the huge appetite for changing how public transport and mode shift is done which exists among young city-dwellers, while older home-owners in suburbs and provincial towns are just fine with the status quo. This survey was not a representative survey done in a non-self-selecting way online, so it can’t be said to represent the views of most voters, even in each age group.

But even the mere mention of these options was enough to light up the third rails of Aotearoa’s political economy around wealth taxes and repurposing roads and fuel taxes for mode shift and public transport. This is now a key culture war of our age. 

For now, Ford Ranger Man is winning because the politicians of both National and Labour understand how to win MMP elections. They know there are more swinging median voters who own homes in suburbs and provincial towns than there are non-car-driving renters in the big cities. That won’t change until the electoral demographics change, which would require more than 500,000 non-voting young renters to vote, and for several hundred thousand older swinging voters to not vote. 

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