An artist’s impression of Future Wellington (Image: LGWM / Supplied)
An artist’s impression of Future Wellington (Image: LGWM / Supplied)

PoliticsApril 21, 2022

The future of Wellington is clear – and it can’t revolve around cars

An artist’s impression of Future Wellington (Image: LGWM / Supplied)
An artist’s impression of Future Wellington (Image: LGWM / Supplied)

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clearer than ever what shape our transport policy should take, writes Thomas Nash.

We have the opportunity to change Wellington’s transport system and its urban form in ways that will make the city more liveable, more efficient to get around and more vibrant and prosperous. It turns out that these changes are also the most important things we can do to meet our climate targets.

That’s what the new IPCC report tells us about the big decisions we have coming up on transport and urban development in Wellington. Questions are now being raised about whether these decisions will be made on a level playing field that is grounded in the climate policy reality that the IPCC set out in crystal clear terms earlier this month.

New Zealand has not enjoyed a level playing field with respect to climate in its recent transport projects. The whole sector has for a long time revolved around roads and private motor vehicles. Likewise, our urban form – the design of our towns and cities – has also been focused on private motor vehicles. Public transport and walking and cycling have received a tiny proportion of funding and planning focus compared to roads for private vehicles.

This is the opposite of what the IPCC says we should do. The IPCC report says we have to pull every lever we can now and it also says that the highest emitters per capita need to pull more weight. That’s us in New Zealand. Somewhat encouragingly for us, the report says that transport and urban form are the best value for money areas for emissions reduction, especially compared to energy or agriculture and land use, which also need big changes.

For those who at this point might put all their faith in forests, the IPCC advice is that there’s no way simply to plant our way out of this. Yes we do have to plant up, but it won’t be enough given the sheer scale of reductions needed and the speed with which we need to make them. Reducing gross emissions is key.

Helpfully, the three partners that make up the Let’s Get Wellington Moving programme (LGWM) all have strong, clear and ambitious climate targets in their guiding 10 year strategic documents, namely the Long Term Plans for Greater Wellington Regional Council and Wellington City Council and the Government Policy Statement for Waka Kotahi. The LGWM programme is by far the biggest opportunity for these three organisations to reduce emissions in Wellington.

It would be perfectly logical for these organisations to take every available opportunity to maximise this emissions reduction potential. That’s why LGWM partners agreed last year to make emissions reduction and mode shift the most important criteria for the programme, weighting it at 40%.

The IPCC says we have to see emissions peak by 2025 and then start reducing sharply and consistently for every subsequent year after that peak. We know we have to spend some of our limited budget of embodied emissions on building the new transport infrastructure that will help reduce those emissions in the future. We also know that even with the most ambitious projections it will take several years to phase out fossil fuel vehicles and replace them with electric or hydrogen alternatives.

This means, like every other city, Wellington will definitely have to reduce private motor vehicle use in the meantime before the new infrastructure and new vehicle fleets are in place. We can’t reasonably sign off any infrastructure that might encourage driving by making it faster or more desirable to get around by car.

An artist’s impression of Future Wellington (Image: LGWM / Supplied)

Instead, we need to plan for the highest possible shift away from private cars and towards public transport, walking and cycling. For Wellington, that should simplify a decision to select the highest capacity mass transit that allows for both general shift away from cars as well the necessary changes in urban form, namely higher density housing along the main mass transit corridor through the city and to Wellington’s south coast.

If we do this, people won’t be as dependent on a car to get around and emissions will come right down. Incentives like free or cheap fares will also increase demand for public transport, making it even more critical that we choose the highest capacity mass transit option available.

The LGWM programme consulted on an option that delivers all this. It’s cheaper than the other options, uses less embodied carbon and reduces emissions more. Unfortunately, the public consultation originally obscured the fact that this option was clearly the highest performing on climate metrics.

When LGWM acknowledged it had obscured its own analysis, the entire “climate friendly” rating was deleted rather than corrected. We don’t know how or why this happened, but it’s reasonable to expect extremely high standards of independent scrutiny around LGWM’s climate emissions analysis from here on in. Encouragingly, the 5,000 people who submitted last year overwhelmingly chose the highest capacity mass transit option, picking light rail by a factor of two to one over busways.

Five years from now people will look back on our decisions today and ask us whether we chose the option for our transport and urban form that would have the best chance of reducing emissions. I don’t know how in good conscience we could do otherwise. Some will say climate is only one factor and that’s true, but it’s a factor that, just like a city’s geography, is a fixed constraint that can’t be negotiated away.

Building the lowest emissions LGWM option for Wellington means putting in the highest capacity mass transit and doing the road upgrades with the least risk of increasing private vehicle emissions.

If you’re concerned about climate change, please discuss this with your friends and family and reach out to your elected representatives. Ask us to make sure Let’s Get Wellington Moving is a win for the climate and not yet another climate setback. We won’t get another chance to transform Wellington’s transport system for the better.

Thomas Nash is a regional councillor for Pōneke Wellington and chair of Greater Wellington’s Climate Committee.

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