As I discussed yesterday the debate on big urban issues of housing and transport far too frequently descends into left/right debates and today I’m looking at transport.
One of the reasons this has come up is that we’ve had some interesting conversations on Twitter in the last few days with a couple of Nationals MPs, which apart from highlighting a scary lack of understanding about transport, inevitably touched on the issue about whether the transport policy that we generally advocate on this blog fits into the traditional “left-right” political spectrum. Here’s what the fairly new National MP Paul Foster-Bell said on Twitter:
We have a fairly diverse range of bloggers on this site: a couple of economists, a transport planner, an urban designer, an architectural photographer, a planning student etc and of course myself who most recently working in banking and from our discussions I think we have some reasonably broad political viewpoints.
Furthermore, many of the key changes to transport and planning policy that we have advocated for strongest over the past few years hardly align with any traditional definition of a “left worldview”. Let’s take a look a few of our most common arguments:
- Cut back or cancel some of the Roads of National Significance that do not provide value for money. This seems to me like basic fiscal conservatism – as some of the RoNS projects are simply a huge amount of money being spent on a problem that really doesn’t warrant such high investment. Puhoi-Wellsford could be replaced by Operation Lifesaver, Transmission Gully is just overkill for a city that’s hardly growing in population, the Kapiti Expressway has a cost-benefit ratio of 0.2, the Hamilton bypass will carry fewer vehicles in 20 years time than the Kopu bridge did when it was a single lane… and so on. This seems like cutting wasteful spending, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they want to do?
- Built the Congestion Free Network instead of the Integrated Transport Programme. Ultimately the CFN proposal is at least $10 billion cheaper than the current transport programme for Auckland. It probably has a much higher chance of achieving the many targets that Auckland has set for its future transport outcomes than the ITP is able to meet (although that’s not hard as the ITP failed to achieve just about any of its targets). Similarly to above, this is achieved through chopping out an enormous amount of wasteful spending on unnecessary projects (both road and rail) – yet again, something that those on the right of the political spectrum say they support?
- Built complete Streets. Democracy equality and choice are meant to be good things aren’t they? Most of our roads focus solely on the task of moving as many vehicles as possible and give scant regard for anyone not in a car. Building complete streets that treat each user equally and allow people to have a real choice in how they get around is the ultimate form of transport democracy.
- Improve walkability. We’ve seen both locally and internationally that when there is a focus on improving the walkability and the pedestrian environment (that includes wheeled pedestrians) a couple of significant things happen. One is that people shop more boosting local retail, perhaps the best example of this is the upgrade of Fort St to a shared space which has seen the hospitality retailers revenue increase by a staggering 400%. The second thing is that people walking (and cycling) more is good for them, improving health and therefore reducing long term costs to the health system. This is further enhanced as often these improvements also see a reduction in traffic crashes. So once again we see a case where we can lower costs while also increasing revenue and therefore tax at the same time.
- Get rid of Minimum Parking Requirements. This key proposal is to get rid of a current regulation that causes more harm than good, that adds significant cost onto developers (thereby discouraging development and growth) and often just adds regulatory churn cost for no gain (as it seems most applications for parking waivers appear to be granted). I would have thought this aligns quite well with a “right of centre” political ideology where reducing regulation (especially regulation that harms economic activity and growth) is a very very good thing.
- Relax Planning Rules to give people more Housing Choice. This was covered yesterday but worth repeating again. Most planning rules limit development potential in existing urban areas: whether that’s through height limits, yard setbacks, density controls, parking requirements, minimum unit sizes or whatever. Through the Unitary Plan process we have advocated for (and will continue to do so) the relaxation of planning controls – particularly in areas where it makes good sense to allow high density developments to make best use of existing infrastructure. Similarly to parking controls, this is a relaxation of current regulation that significantly limits development potential and the prospects of economic growth through making better use of inner parts of the city. The relaxation/elimination of economically damaging regulation should be music to a right-wingers ears you’d think.
There are probably many more examples than above, but they give a good overview of why transport policy (and land-use policy) really doesn’t fit well into a traditional “left-right” ideological spectrum. We could easily point out how bizarre it is that our current supposedly centre-right government has significantly increased petrol taxes to spend on a series of very dubious mega-projects in the form of the RoNS. That seems rather more “tax and spend” than fiscal conservatism.
Furthermore, if you look internationally there are many examples of centre-right political parties taking public transport seriously. In Britain, the current Conservative government is making a big contribution to the £15.9 billion Crossrail project in London and is also likely to spend even more money on the High Speed 2 rail project. That government seems to understand the economic importance of having good rail infrastructure. For example, Crossrail massively increases the residential catchment of the Canary Wharf employment area – somewhat similar to how the CRL vastly increases the residential catchment of the city centre. London Mayor Boris Johnson is a big champion of not only Crossrail but also getting more people to ride a bike and is planning to invest huge amounts of money in cycle infrastructure. In Australia, the centre-right New South Wales government is championing and making a massive funding contribution to the North West Rail Link project. Even in Auckland we have business groups who politically are considered “right of centre” supporting projects like the City Rail Link and improved cycling infrastructure.
It’s interesting to try to understand this political divide through other lenses than a traditional “left-right” spectrum. Pro-urban and suburban/anti-urban is perhaps a better lens in my opinion – particularly because it seems to explain better why some right-wing parties (like the Republicans in the USA, the current Liberal Government in Australia and the National government here in NZ) appear to be sceptical at best about public transport, while others (e.g. NSW government and UK government) seem to really understand the importance of public transport.
Perhaps this “pro-urban” and “suburban/anti-urban” divide even exists within the current National Party. It was interesting that John Key (an Aucklander who has lived in big overseas cities for much of his life) was the person who changed the government’s position on City Rail Link while Steven Joyce (grew up in New Plymouth and now lives on a lifestyle block in Auckland) and Gerry Brownlee (from Christchurch) were apparently the biggest opponents of that change. Or how we get current Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse saying this on auto-dependency:
From Dunedin, in case you were wondering.
*** I recently wrote this post on the National Government’s LTMA Bill, which is currently before parliament. One of our readers felt sufficiently motivated by issues with this Bill to submit the following letter to his local National MP, in which he outlines his concerns. His local MP just happens to be John Key. ***
I really have a problem with the way aspects of the above Bill are re-aligning the objectives of Auckland Transport away from regional objectives set by Auckland’s elected Council representatives to those of National objectives set by nationally elected Politicians.
I am a constituent of yours and a long time supporter of the National Party, particularly its policies to reduce bureaucratic & Government intervention in our lives and enhance personal reliance. I am also a long time supporter of strong local government and supported the creation of Auckland’s single Super City Council. With the Council less than three years old and well before it has a chance to prove it’s worth it is not helpful to be hobbling it with legislation like this.
For me the biggest problem is that this legislation misaligns representation and taxation (as represented by property rates). The Council is clearly the rates collector so should be able to direct AT in how to spend its portion of those rates. If rate payers are dissatisfied with the direction of spend they can first lobby the Council then vote them out if necessary. When AT’s direction is set by the Government’s Policy on Transportation via NZTA it becomes a lot less clear as to who we should be lobbying and voting out should we be dissatisfied with the direction of spend.
I think there are probably other ways to ensure that AT’s activity and national objectives are aligned than this sort of draconian power grab legislation.
I look forward to hearing that you are reconsidering this legislative approach.
*** How say ye John? P.s. I emailed Nikki Kaye but have not yet received a response. If anyone out there knows Nikki can you please ask her to check her inbox? I know she’s busy, but you know, she represents Auckland Central. ***
I had the opportunity to go to the opening of the Beach Haven and Hobsonville ferry wharfs today. While readers my know I have had my doubts on the services, primarily due to the limited sailings and steep prices, I do think that the infrastructure put in place does look good and of course cruising up the harbour on a ferry can be a pretty nice way to get to/from work. Our first stop on the ferry was at Beach haven for a quick ribbon cutting ceremony. Local board chair Lindsay Waugh gave a short speech about the project and at one point got a cheer when she said that the ferry will enable people to get to town and connect to the rest of Auckland using the CRL.
Beach Haven wharf with Hobsonville in the background
The Beach Haven wharf waiting area
After that it was time for a quick hop across to Hobsonville to open that wharf. We did get a little delayed though after having to turn back to Beach Haven due to leaving Len Brown behind. The Hobsonville wharf is quite nice, the waiting area is similar to above, albeit a bit larger. It is reached by a wonderful walkway which is lined with boards that talking about the areas natural and human history.
Hobsonville Wharf walkway
One thing I quite like is there is a bus stop just behind where I was standing meaning it is only a short transfer to the ferry.
Lots of people turned up for the opening
After the ribbon cutting it was time for more speeches which actually turned out to be interesting and a little bit insightful. First up we had Auckland Transports new chairman Lester Levy who gave a superb speech. He talked about the terminal but also how AT had to become better at customer service. He also covered off something I have been thinking about (and have mentioned in a few places), talking about how much of a change is happening to transport over the next few years. He is from a medical background and so used some medical examples, he said we weren’t just having a cosmetic peel that would make the skin look better for a while but that would eventually end up looking just the same, instead he said we were having major re-constructive surgery that will profoundly improve the quality of our lives. Some people may just think this is just talk but I have now met Lester a few times and I do think he is genuinely wants to improve transport in Auckland which is excellent and just what we need.
Next up was John Key who along with Len Brown opened the wharf. Perhaps the most interesting thing he talked about, and he mentioned this over at Beach Haven too, was how his son was starting at Auckland Uni this year. He mentioned about how there isn’t a heap of parking at the uni which makes it fairly expensive to park there. He said any student who drives in will soon become a very poor student due to those parking charges so it is important that options like PT still enable connectivity. It was good to hear him say this but I wasn’t 100% sure it wasn’t just another take on the old attitude that PT is just for students, poor people or the elderly. Lets just hope that his son becomes enlightened on urban issues and is able to pass his thoughts on to his father.
Bit hard to get a good photo due to the light sorry
Len Brown spoke next and most of the stuff he talked about is probably similar to stuff he has said before so I’m not really going cover it in this post. Last up we had Adrienne Young-Cooper who is the chair of the Hobsonville Land Company, the organisation doing the development of the area. Perhaps the key thing she talked about was about how they hoped the development would enable people to live with one less car. She talked about how the costs of owning a car can easily be more than $8,000 per year and how enabling people to have one car instead or two, or two instead of three is something that can really help improve affordability. That is something this blog really supports and something I think is a key reason why we need to improve our PT system. Hopefully she is also pushing that same message to some of the other boards she is on as amongst others, she is currently also on the board of the NZTA.
All up it was a really good day and there was quite a large number of people that turned up from the local community. If we could get even a quarter of them using the services then it will be a pretty outstanding success.
Yesterday Prime Minister John Key gave a speech outlining the government’s priorities for 2011. Of relevance to this blog is what he said about transport. Starting with what he said about State Highways:
We will continue building New Zealand’s transport infrastructure.
It is vital that New Zealand exporters and producers can move their goods efficiently throughout the country, and that New Zealanders can get efficiently from A to B. That requires a solid transport network that anticipates future needs.
In 2011 work will progress on developing New Zealand’s State Highway Network with priority accorded to progressing the seven Government-designated Roads of National Significance.
Construction on four of these is already underway, and this year construction is scheduled to begin on projects such as the Waterview Tunnel, the Ngaruawahia Bypass and the Rangiriri Bypass.
I must get around to asking NZTA what the cost-benefit ratios of the Ngaruawahia and Rangiriri bypasses are.
And public transport gets a mention too:
The Government will build the effectiveness of New Zealand’s public transport networks.
We want public transport networks that are efficient, affordable and future-proofed. To achieve this we will work particularly closely with the Auckland and Greater Wellington Regional Councils on plans to build improved metro rail and bus services. It is important that these cities pay their fair share for the infrastructure their ratepayers need. The Government sees itself as an important partner in their plans, provided they are realistic and necessary.
The formation of the Auckland ‘Super City’ Council provides a significant economic opportunity for New Zealand, and the Government will be working to maximise this opportunity in 2011. We will be working closely with the Auckland Council as they develop their strategic vision for the City through the Auckland Spatial Plan.
This year we will support efforts to build financial durability for Kiwirail, by shoring up its capacity to operate commercially-viable freight operations. We want Kiwirail to be able survive on its own two feet, and that means ensuring it can provide a competitive service that Kiwi businesses want to use and pay for.
The AKT blog interpreted what Key said somewhat negatively, a sign that the government would only reluctantly look at ‘realistic’ rail plans. I’m not sure whether I have the same interpretation – as I actually think there are a number of positives here:
- There isn’t specific reference to “we’ve paid for Project DART and electrification so now shut up” as has been the case previously.
- There’s a commitment to working closely with the Auckland Council to help give effect to the spatial plan. The fact that this paragraph is surrounded by rail discussions suggests that the CBD tunnel might be in mind.
- The government does accept it’s a partner in rail projects that make good sense.
I just wish the government would apply the same scrutiny to its roads of national significance. Is Puhoi-Wellsford efficient, affordable, realistic and necessary? I think not.