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Who to blame for appalling road congestion? Start with National’s feeble attitude to ridesharing

MPs on all sides have embarrassed themselves in their ignorance of Uber and similar services. The simplest, cheapest way to tackle traffic gridlock is for the ruling party to abandon its timorous don’t-rock-the-boat attitude, writes ACT leader David Seymour.

I sometimes joke that my parliamentary colleagues aren’t in their current job because they got bored designing rockets at NASA, but that’s a little unfair. MPs from all sides (except those making up the numbers for New Zealand First) have shown resourcefulness and initiative to get where they are. November’s select committee hearing for ride-sharing regulations, though, made it seem miraculous that the country functions at all given some of the people who govern it.

In case you missed it, Uber representatives testified at the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee and finished by literally holding their hands up to their faces. One MP asked how the company controls “gypsy” operators, to which another tut-tutted, suggesting the word cowboys. If you’re going to denigrate a nomadic people, apparently it’s more politically correct to denigrate an American one. Another MP asked why Uber drivers wouldn’t wait at taxi ranks and yet another asked how a person would know that a car was an Uber if it didn’t have any markings. Basically none of them got that the service is ordered by app, assuming they were dealing with “gypsies” who just wanted to be taxis minus the usual infrastructure.

Long exposure of urban roads with traffic leading to Auckland city at dusk, North Island, New Zealand

A screen grab from a David Seymour fever dream. Photo: Getty

The MPs were following the government’s line: that Uber, Chariot, and any other type of ride sharing service are another form of taxi. Uber testified pointing out the way they’re regulated makes no sense. Having to fill out log books might have made sense when the rules were written decades ago, but why would the government still require people to copy out by hand information that’s stored electronically? More important is the requirement to have a P-endorsement and a Certificate of Fitness for your vehicle before carrying passengers for money. People who’ve tried to get one tell me that it can take six months, and cost $1,500.  You have to take a fit and proper person test, a medical, a local area knowledge test, an approved P-endorsement test, and, if you haven’t done one in the past five years, a full license test.

Safety first and everything, but none of this makes you safer. If you doubt that, just Google “taxi driver sexual assault”. If that doesn’t convince you, consider the amount of ride sharing done by volunteers already. There’s no bureaucracy required if you carpool your neighbours’ kids to school, or, for instance, are one of 500 volunteers at the Cancer Society in Auckland who ferry patients to and from their treatment. No government would dare impose a $1,500 entry fee on them, and nor should it.

For this reason, a large proportion of Uber drivers are former or current taxi drivers (that’s where all the people with white Priuses (Prii?) came from) because they already have the P-License and a COF. So far as making taxi services cheaper, safer, cleaner and more efficient, Uber and its peers such as Lyft (which would be welcomed by New Zealanders, in case they’re reading this) are godsends.

The government’s line is that they are making it easier and strictly speaking this is true. They are making various changes that will speed up and reduce the cost of becoming a legitimate ride sharer, but the cost will still be between $600 and $1,000. What’s more, this modest progress has taken two years to achieve – Apple have released three new iPhones while the government has made various enquiries and consultations on the matter.

The real lost opportunity – ridesharing

But Uber et al are not taxi 2.0. The real story is about ridesharing and its ability to increase vehicle occupancy rates and reduce congestion. Traffic is fundamentally frustrating, by which I mean there are fundamental reasons why it can’t satisfy all the people all the time. Every mode of transport faces a trade-off between the amount of space consumed, the speed of travel and the specificity of destination. Walking and cycling are very space friendly and take you to very specific destinations but they’re slow. Trains use very narrow corridors for the number of people they carry, and they’re very fast, but they don’t go to many places. Cars are fast and go where you want, when you want, but require an enormous amount of valuable land to drive and park on.

Those fundamental frustrations are at the heart of most urban issues. Knocking on doors in the Epsom electorate I find people are worried about competition for urban space as the city intensifies, they live complex lives with lots of specific destinations in one day, and are annoyed about congestion slowing them down. If there was a way that the government could costlessly beat the triple threat of speed, space and specificity, it would be a good (and popular) thing for a government to do, right?

You’d think so, and the most obvious way to do this is to increase vehicle occupancy rates. Auckland commuters can groan in agreement with a new report that reveals the city has the worst travel times and reliability in Australasia. Try driving down the Southern Motorway at 7:30am, and watch the crawling single occupancy vehicles in the northbound lanes. More people per vehicle means less space per person. Less congestion means more speed. If only we had a way of matching up people who were going to the same specific location…

Unfortunately the government has made it illegal to have an app where you can pay each other for shared rides, unless you pass $1,500, soon to be $600, of tests. Ever wondered why I’m a libertarian and a member of ACT when we all know government is a fount of essential goodness? Well, here’s one of those moments. It is as though you have to pass $600 of government tests to become a trader on TradeMe. Luckily TradeMe got off the ground before government could catch up with regulating it.

It’s not all bad though. One of the great successes of government in recent years has been passport processing. For $120 you can go online and order one and it shows up in a couple of days. It is as close to magic as we’re ever likely to see from a government department, bravo to the people at the Department of Internal Affairs. Real leadership from Transport Minister Simon Bridges would have seen him demand that the Ministry of Transport do the same thing. Wanna rideshare for money? No problem. Go online, pay $50, and we’ll mail you a certificate saying you haven’t had any relevant criminal convictions or traffic infringements in a relevant time period. If you think about it, the government doesn’t hold any other information that’s useful for this purpose. Stick it to your dashboard and you’re good to go. Customer star ratings will sort you out pretty quickly if you’re a dick.

I guarantee the people on the Southern Motorway would start thinking about it.  How can I make money while driving to work? Most would never do it, and that’s fine. But if half of peak-time commuters registered and took someone or rode with someone on half their peak time trips, you’d reduce peak traffic by one quarter. That’s the equivalent of six City Rail Links, but would cost the taxpayer NO billion dollars.

Who knows what else might happen when the regulatory environment is right? School Pool would be one idea; I don’t know if it exists because I just thought of it. In my experience many parents want to drive their kids to school for safety reasons, and there’s nothing anyone can say that will stop a parent worrying about their children’s safety. Parents driving kids to school is also one of the main reasons for congestion. But what if only parents from your school or even your child’s class could register for a Pool, and a percentage of the revenue went to the school’s fundraising efforts? Currently illegal, but imagine if the Government set out to entice that sort of innovation rather than block it?

The politics

One of the weirdest things in New Zealand politics is the belief that the Nats are running some sort of radical right-wing junta government. As if. To paraphrase Rent Boy from Trainspotting, some people hate the Nats – I don’t hate the Nats, they’re just conservatives. A conservative is someone who sits and thinks, but mostly sits, and the problem with these guys is not what they’ve done but what they haven’t. The ridesharing regulation saga is classic conservative politics. Don’t rock the boat, worry more about conserving a sunset industry than creating the conditions for what could be.

New Zealand needs better. We’re at the edge of the earth and we can’t afford average public policy; we need the best. Rather than having this ridiculous back and forth over two years with little resolved, we should have torn up the script two years ago and aimed to have the best ridesharing environment on the planet. But oh, no, and now the Aussies are getting ahead of us with rideshare friendly regulations in New South Wales. Typical.


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