Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two views on how people should move

Joshua Arbury is a planner, his profile is here. He appears to be a reasonably intelligent young man who has a very different view of the world, and particularly the transport sector, than myself. You see he loves the development of the Auckland rail network, he appears to embrace the so-called "Smart Growth" land use intensification philosophy promoted by Auckland local government planners, and believes the future for Auckland's transport system is about railways and public transport. He is so keen on it he set up a separate blog about it. In it he posts about transport policy, taking a view that is pretty much in alignment with the Green Party. I have debated extensively on the blog, and to his credit he has engaged quite well on the issues, and has linked to me.

A little of what he writes is interesting urban design matters, like this and this.

So what is his perspective?

In short he believes (and no doubt will correct me if he sees fit).
- More use of public transport is a good thing;
- More use of the private car is a bad thing;
- The way to resolve traffic congestion is to improve public transport;
- Electric railways are good, the more the better;
- It doesn't matter if users don't pay for new public transport, it is a "good thing" and the way the rest of the world does it;
- Road building is something to be suspicious about because it encourages people to drive more;
- More road transport is bad for the environment, more public transport is good for the environment;
- Land use restrictions, urban boundaries and intensification polices are all good;
- Peak oil will happen and the way to reduce its impacts is.... more public transport;
- Climate changing is happening, road transport is partly to blame and the way to reduce its impacts is.... more public transport;
- Cities with more public transport, especially rail, have better transport and economic outcomes than those with less.

In short, he wants to subsidise public transport users, and wants everyone else to pay for it. He considers more car use as bad.

I take a different view. I don't really care how you get yourself around (or your business's goods around). What primarily matters is that you pay for it.

That means, as far as public transport is concerned, the private sector investing in infrastructure and vehicles based on future projected fare revenue collected from users. As far as roads are concerned, the same basically.

Now the big problem at the moment is that roads are all priced on a common basis, vehicles pay different amounts based on the type of vehicle (trucks pay more, which tends to fairly reflect the wear and tear they impose), but the road and time of day does not change what you pay. The money all goes into a pot which is spent through bureaucratic processes, year by year, on road improvements officials think most benefit road users, and some on public transport.

What that means is that the busiest (most profitable) roads cost the same as the emptiest, when they should cost more when they get congested, so more money can be made from them, and decisions made as to whether to invest in more capacity. In other words popular roads should cost more because space is scarce. At other times, they may cost little to encourage people to use them. Big new roads should be funded on the basis of the numbers prepared to pay to use them, as should railways.

Of course under this scenario precious few railways would be built, because it is clear rail passengers don't value travel by train as much as politicians and planners value them travelling by train. For example in Auckland rail fares would have to treble for services to start to make a financial surplus, by contrast the roads already generate one. Some bus services do too, but others would have to rise by as much as double to make them profitable.

So it is about philosophy. I don't think transport is special. I think it should be treated like the rest of the economy. Indeed, most freight operates with little to no government involvement or subsidy. Aviation and intercity bus (and rail) services operate without subsidy either. Why can people travel between cities without a subsidy, but not within?

You see I don't it is bad for people to travel by car, as long as nobody is forced to subsidise them, likewise by public transport, cycling or walking or staying at home. I make no value judgment at all on it. It's called freedom.

Joshua doesn't share that. He wants to plan the city so you catch the modes he prefers, and he thinks we're all better off being forced to pay for this. I don't believe he is irredeemably irrational yet, he has good intentions. However, I encourage you to debate some of his points.

I believe the fundamental difference is between those who want to tell others what to do, and those who want to get the government out of the way of sending the right price signals. The fact he doesn't think price is the biggest issue says much.

So to conclude, have a think about this:

- If anything else you buy were priced the same year and day round, would you also expect to queue for a long time to get any goods or services at times of peak demand?
- If roads were such an inefficient way of moving goods and people then how come politicians in most countries can tax them well in excess of what is needed to pay to maintain the road network? In New Zealand the surplus is now spent on improving roads and public transport, in the UK most of it goes on general government spending. What railways do you know in state ownership that can be taxed and have their surplus spent on other things?
- If public transport is so efficient, go around railyards and bus depots outside the morning and evening peak times. Notice plenty of carriages or buses sitting around idle. They do that from around 9-9.30am till 3.30-4pm every weekday. Ask yourself why you should be forced to pay for all of this when most of the time it sits around as idle capacity. Before the public transport advocates point out this is what happens with cars most of the time, they should ask who paid for the car in the first place?

Oh and you'll find truck operators and intercity bus companies don't tend to do that, and airlines tend only to have planes sitting around due to noise restrictions at airports at night.

By the way, if you really want to find busybodies who think they know best, and treat economics as something they don't need to swallow, try the Campaign for Better Transport (better from their perspective, not from what the user wants to pay for, or others are willing to pay for). Don't hold your breath for comments on aviation.


Anonymous said...


I think vehicle users should lease the footprint of the roads they use, pay for the pollution they cause, pay for the road construction/maintenance required, policing etc... on a road-by-road, trip-by-trip basis. The councils should stop forcing us all to subsidise personal car users by making us provide massive volumes of personal car parking all over the city even if we don't need it. You talk about idle buses; you should see some empty streets off-peak -- all that land could be utilised by the private sector for residential or commercial use instead of sitting idle, locked up in roads that are used only at peak times! It's a real waste.

I think if these market distortions could be ironed out, "transit services" (not wanting to get philosophical about it and make it some left/right argument) would be on a level playing field.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Reading this post reminded me why, whenever a libertarian stands for parliament, he will get between one and thirty votes. What seems to escape Scotty is that Jarbury plans for the future. I guess that is because you have your head buried in the sand regarding the future availability of oil. Now I know that planning is anathema to any true libertarian. After all why plan when the market knows best? Ugly inefficient urban sprawl a libertarian Auckland may be but at least it wont have the stench of planning about it. That $2 plus per litre of oil a while back was an anomaly and wont happen again. Iraq,(does anyone out there believe that this war is about anything other than oil?) is an anomaly too. There will be plenty of oil for everyone forever at a reasonable price and if, heaven forfend, oil should get a little difficult to find why, we'll simply grow that oil rich sugar beet that Owen McShane was talking about. The important thing will be to get everyone to pay their share. Libertariasm is an exercise in blinkered economics and by and large is avoided like the plague for good reason. I was no fan of Sir Robert Muldoon but he was right on the money (no pun intended) when he said at the close of his political career "economics is about people"

libertyscott said...

Anonymous 1: Yes Councils should force landowners to provide parking, but they also shouldn't ban them from providing it (which is now the requirement in Wellington).

Vehicle users pay for all of these things bar pollution now, except half of what local streets cost to maintain.

On idle local streets. Good luck subdividing land without road access. Roads are essential for property access, buses are vehicles. Get the difference?

Anonymous 3: Muldoon planned for the future, helped nearly bankrupt the country because he used other people's money and was wrong. Guess that's ok then, the deadweight cost that has been to New Zealand was worth it because "he might have been right", instead of fucking off and not gambling with future taxpayers money.

No. Auckland as it is does not reflect some libertarian view. Auckland was planned, Auckland had roads built for political reasons and managed politically (why else is there congestion other than pricing is badly wrong).

I said nothing about oil, but the trend over decades has been toward personal transport, worldwide. The nonsense that putting the peak time commute for 5% of Aucklanders under electric power will save the economy from peak oil is ludicrous.

Tell me this. Under the armageddon peak oil scenario, what do commuters to Mt Wellington, Penrose, Wiri, Auckland airport, Albany, Henderson, Takapuna, Mangere do, when most of them don't live within walking distance of a station? Why the obsession with the tiny fraction who work downtown?

Craig Milmine said...

Even if the doomsday theorists are right and peak oil does happen - that still doesn't mean their won't be cars. Electric cars, hydrogen fuel celled cars, hybrid cars or some other technology can fill this gap when the last drop of oil is pumped. We will still need roads even if it is just for the wind powered buses. A system based on actual costs and returns is far superior to the leaving transport in the hands of chicken licken "the oil is falling" planners.

Anonymous said...

"Vehicle users pay for all of these things bar pollution now"

Yes; you are right -- regardless of how inefficient this system is, it can fund itself if everybody is forced into it and the government effectively ensures there are no other options and no market system is possible.

"Yes Councils should force landowners to provide parking"

I think I should be able to choose if I need parking or not on my own private property. I also don't feel I should subsidise other people when I walk to the supermarket. I also wonder if my tax money should really go into subsidising other people's parking around the city through my rates.

libertyscott said...

oops typo I meant to say councils shouldn't force property owners to provide parking.

Anonymous said...

" can fund itself..." -- should probably have said "... it might be able to fund itself..." as I don't think I have personally seen numbers on this.

jarbury said...

A post dedicated to me! Wow!

I think it does come down to ideology in many ways. You seem to think the best system is the one that is most 'user-pays', I tend to think the best system is the one that works best for the city. Obviously I have an ideology in some respects, that it's essential to plan for the future and that I don't really see the point in such a strong focus on user pays.

However, when you look at a city like Copenhagen spending 4% of its wealth on transport and a city like Auckland spending 16% - you have to ask yourself why we do things the way we do.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3 checking in. Probably a bit late to be heard now on this subject, however just in case you are trawling the archives. I don't use terms like Doomsday or Armageddon. I generally find people like you use them as a kind of put down. Never mind.
I didn't say or even suggest that Muldoon was right about think big, rather, that he realised that people have to be factored into economic theory. Now if everyone had the same earning ability, were subject to the same temptations, enjoyed the same quality of health and so on then economics would be a lot easier. They don't of course and the result is differing levels of services required in different communities. For the poor, some of these services will have to be subsidised unless we are prepared to have them go without.
Let's say oil prices start to rise. Many commuters will simply catch PT to the nearest point to their work place and then walk. You will probably know that many years ago poor (less well off) women used to walk from Wellington to Khandallah to clean the houses of well to do people. I'm not suggesting that people will cover those sorts of miles today but I'm simply making the point that shanks' pony is still a viable form of transport. Many people think there is no PT (train or bus or ferry or whatever) service unless they are dropped within ten metres of where they want to go. Far from PT not being sustainable it is in fact this sort of attitude that really needs the scrutiny. Other things happen. People will carpool if they have to. They will buy smaller cars. They will want to move closer to PT. They will lobby PT providers for more bus routes. Businesses in out of the way places may find staff retention difficult and think about relocating to to a more advantageous site. Many things, none of them particularly draconian will occur as people adjust to a new reality. Humans are flexible and will act accordingly. These things wont happen overnight. It will be a gradual process.
Craig touched on alternatives to oil. The hydrogen cell is light years away. I think there were a couple of promo cars running around the US. The cost of producing the hydrogen was high. Tell me, why would you want to take a high grade energy (electricity) and use it inefficiently to create a lower grade energy (hydrogen) and then burn that hydrogen in a really inefficient engine (internal combustion)? I might be missing something here but it sounds like a pretty stupid idea. Hybrid cars have not delivered the savings promised but seem useful as a marketing tool (use our hybrid taxis, we're green) (sorry, don't know how to make this a link). So you think technology will come to our rescue? Possibly, possibly not. We have been messing around in space for over fifty years now and haven't moved one bit beyond using huge amounts of energy to heave a relatively small item into orbit. Neither do I see any wonderful new oil substitute out there.
Tim Shadbolt will be rapt when the rigs start being placed in the southern ocean drilling deep in a hostile environment for that hard to get oil but I doubt that the public will be rapt with the cost of petrol and the endless oil based plastic items that are part of our every day life.