Politicians have often promised to make things better for the drivers caught in Auckland’s peak hour traffic jams. Hayden Donnell argues they should do the opposite.
Auckland is known for three things: the Sky Tower, being home to Kiwi Onion Dip inventor Rosemary Dempsey, and having long lines of peak hour traffic. For years, conventional wisdom has been that we should destroy the tower, enshrine Dempsey in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and make driving better. The first two ideas are worth exploring. The third is deplorable. Auckland doesn’t need to make driving better; it needs to make it more miserable and soul-destroying. If this city is to improve, it has to start by making driving worse.
Politicians and some transport planners have long argued improving road infrastructure will help people get to their destinations more quickly. That claim is, at best, dubious. Cities have been adding extra road lanes for decades, only to find that putting down tarmac encourages more people to drive, which necessitates building even wider roads.
Leaving that aside, it’s worth weighing the benefit of road investment – nicer trips to the supermarket – against the downside of encouraging driving: killing people and the planet.
Transport accounted for 36.3% of New Zealand’s carbon emissions in 2018. It represents around a quarter of carbon emissions globally. Cars are one of the biggest contributors to the unfurling environmental catastrophe which will shape the lives of our children and their children.
They’re also murdering and maiming millions of people. Around 1.35 million people die every year in motor vehicle crashes. New Zealand’s road toll has consistently been around 300 to 400 people per year for a decade. Thousands more are injured. Every new roading project has dead people built into its business case. It’s seen as unavoidable: birth, taxes, and occasionally being mowed down by a distracted driver in a suburban SUV. Coca-Cola has done a lot of bad stuff, but we wouldn’t tolerate it if it was lacing one in every few hundred thousand cans with cyanide.
Our leaders should stop treating the destructiveness of the auto industry as a necessary evil, and work to discourage driving. The people sitting in their cars on State Highway 1 every morning aren’t there because it’s the most expensive and impractical way to get to work. They’re queueing because our local and central governments have made sure it’s still cheaper and easier than the alternatives. For the sake of the future shape of the city, and the people yet to be crushed under the judder bars of an urban truck, we must ensure hopping in the car at 8am is an even more terrible experience.
Auckland Transport could start by making parking more expensive. Parking for a day at one of its downtown car parks costs between $20 and $25 dollars – a price point that amounts to a subsidy. Roadside car parks cost about $3 an hour. In a place like Manhattan, a day’s parking will set you back US$50. In Auckland, we could split the difference between that and the current rate for parking buildings, while increasing charges for off-street parking in suburbs like Herne Bay, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.
Council could take space away from cars wherever possible. Roads could be narrowed. Lanes and, most importantly, car parks could be removed. As happens in places like Japan, people could be asked to prove they can provide off-street parking before being allowed to buy a car. It could introduce congestion charging, in line with the suggestions of its own working group.
When that group’s report first landed, Auckland mayor Phil Goff said he couldn’t introduce a charge without first upgrading public transport. Thankfully there’s a man out there with the influence needed to make public transport better quickly: Phil Goff. If he and his councillors were brave enough to cut back on auto-centric infrastructure, they would create the space needed for a city that makes sense. Those former road lanes and parking spaces could become footpaths, cycleways, and bus lanes. Millions of the dollars that get invested into road building and maintenance every year could be diverted into making public transport more frequent and affordable, particularly for low income people and those who live further away from the city centre.
These ideas aren’t radical, far-fetched, or even original. Similar transformations are taking place in cities around the world, often with immediate success. Paris has spent the last year repurposing its driving infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. This is what it looks like today.
In the 1960s, the Netherlands was mired in destructive car culture, just as Auckland is now. Now Amsterdam is known as the bike capital of the world. Its fourth largest city, Utrecht, recently released a plan for redeveloping its centre which doesn’t include a single car. Meanwhile, New York is planning to take a quarter of its roads away from cars, and London has developed 100km of new cycleways.
Auckland Council and its transport wing, Auckland Transport, have paid lip service to the idea that the city needs a similarly radical redesign. AT has signed on as a Vision Zero organisation, committing to aim towards achieving no deaths or serious injuries on its transport network by 2050. Councillors unanimously voted to declare a climate emergency in 2019.
Many people took these declarations as a sign that the council wants to take ambitious action. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Our civic leaders have responded by committing even more urgently to painful incrementalism and bureaucratic caution.
Despite some promising, if overdue, projects, AT’s record is particularly depressing. The organisation recently further diminished the appeal of public transport by raising its already high fares, while incentivising driving by refusing to put an end to its subsidies on central city parking. Its buses run roughly once every three hours off-peak.
If its performance on public transport is uninspiring, its approach to active transit makes Wellington’s management of its wastewater network look efficient and comprehensive.
AT has consistently set itself low targets for building new cycleways, and then failed to hit them. Last year it promised 10km of new cycleways and built 6km. Even that 10km target was down from 15km in 2015/16. Its target for this year is just 4km. Auckland has more than 7000km of urban roads.
Part of that lack of ambition can be traced back to 2018, when AT disbanded its dedicated cycling team, promising that active transport would be embedded throughout the organisation. If active transport has been embedded, it’s in AT’s deepest, dankest recesses. Since that team’s defenestration, the organisation appears to have forgotten that bikes even exist, with many project designs working to further entrench driving as the default. In Hobsonville, it carried out a road “upgrade” that actually removed a cycle lane. In St Heliers, it killed plans to improve cycle infrastructure in order to preserve on-road parking. Auto-dependency is built into its public transport hubs, with new bus interchanges in Drury and Silverdale being developed as park and rides. Last week, it released a concept for a road “improvement” in Ranui which actually features a stranded cyclist staring into the abyss.
Some of Auckland’s more liberal councillors have taken to plaintively tweeting at the organisation, asking it to please consider not fucking up so much. In the case of that Ranui development, Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson may have even won some changes. But when councillors have been given opportunities to reshape Auckland Transport’s leadership and exert influence over its agenda, they’ve confirmed board appointees like Tommy Parker, who once opened a new road with the immortal line: “You can’t beat the smell of fresh tarmac, can you?”
That abdication of responsibility seems to have infected much of the council’s governing body. At a recent meeting, councillor Jo Bartley sounded incredulous that cycle advocates would consider trying to legally enforce the climate targets she voted for. “We don’t need threats from you as well,” she said. “To hear you guys say you’re going to sue us, it just sucks. If there’s any chance you could bypass us and just sue the haters, that would be great.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. If Auckland’s all-too-rare attempts at decent cycling and public transport infrastructure have shown anything, it’s that many people would change their behaviour if given the option. Cycle trips between the city centre and west Auckland have more than tripled since the installation of the northwestern cycleway. Thanks to the northern busway, about a third of all trips over the Harbour Bridge every morning are now taken by bus. These sorts of transformations can happen almost overnight. In Paris, about 60% of cyclists started taking trips by bike in the last year, after the city’s new pop-up bike network was established.
The fact that a similar transformation isn’t happening in Auckland is an indictment of AT’s road-centric culture, and our politicians’ fear of taking on those “haters” Bartley described. But just as house prices can’t rise and become more affordable at once, driving can’t continue to take up the same amount of funding and space while active transit and public transport become the most popular ways of getting around. Driving needs to be relegated to our authorities’ last priority if Auckland is going to change for the better. That means politicians taking a few risks.
Those don’t need to be career-ending. In places where there’s been bold action to downgrade driving and elevate active transit, the changes have almost universally proved popular. In Paris, 62% of people say they support making the city’s cycleways permanent. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in the Netherlands who says politicians made the wrong choice reshaping their country’s transport network.
It might not even end up annoying drivers as much as politicians fear. If we make driving impractical for the people who don’t really need to use a car, those who really do need one might finally have space to get around. The roads would likely be a little clearer. Once we make driving in Auckland worse, it might finally, after all these years, get a bit better.