16 July 2021

Transport policy with a vacuum of critical analysis

Politicians love transport policy.  I used to think it was some throwback for the men who engaged in it, who as boys may have played with model planes, trains, cars or whatever, and perhaps didn't get a chance in adulthood to get to play with full sized equivalents, because they chose a different career path.  Yet women in politics are quite keen on it too, although in most cases it tends to reflect one side of politics - the desire for control.

Transport is a sector which almost everyone has an opinion about, because almost everyone travels on a regular basis whether it be short trips in town, commuting or long distance travel.  However, as in most sectors, a little knowledge isn't really enough to make informed decisions about what should actually happen (except for your own choices).  The problem with transport is that almost all politicians have just that - a little knowledge.

That's exactly what you can see today in New Zealand, and if you think I'm just picking on the Labour Government you're wrong.  The previous National led government was far from perfect, nor was the previous Labour led government. All of them have been unwinding what was around 20 years of reforms in transport policy that progressively reduced or removed political roles in the supply and prices of transport infrastructure and services.  It started under the Clark Government, which renationalised the railways and Air New Zealand, for quite different reasons (both of which were a result of its own failure to continue previous reforms), and undertook a series of reforms that increased political control over central government funding of roads and public transport.  It renewed Wellington commuter rail system, and poured hundreds of millions to revive Auckland's system.  The Key Government took that new politicised framework, and reprioritised it to large motorway projects (Roads of National Significance), but it also funded the electrification of Auckland's commuter rail system and the City Rail Link (underground rail loop) in Auckland.  

Now, of course, the Ardern Government is moving away from motorways and focusing on trams.  

It announced its "Government Policy Statement" which is effectively a way of declaring its priorities for spending the money collected from road user through fuel duty (which it wants to increase), road user charges (which it also wants to increase) and motor vehicle registrations and licensing fees.   Phil Twyford might have announced it, but Julie Anne Genter, former junior transport planner, has also been influential. 

To understand what it means you need to also understand that in transport policy there isn't an agreed single point of view as to what works best or the impact of different policy instruments.   

The market-oriented approach

On the one hand is a belief that allowing market mechanisms such as user pays, competition, private enterprise and choice for users will enable better outcomes overall.  Indeed, you can see the results of this in many parts of the transport sector.  In shipping, aviation, freight and even intercity passenger transport in New Zealand, there is a light handed approach to the role of government.  Advocates of a more market approach seek to move away from politically based funding of transport infrastructure and services, encouraging transport users to pay for the costs of the services they use, which also includes a move to forms of road pricing.  Advocates of a market based approach tend to consider that there is little reason for government entities to own or operate transport service providers and that there are merits in moving towards more private ownership of private infrastructure as well.  They regard the negative externalities of transport (congestion, accidents, pollution) as being able to be managed through more market mechanisms and technology, rather than by controlling user behaviour.  Market oriented advocates are neutral across transport modes or user decisions, as long as users pay for what they use.

New Zealand transport has a lot of the free market

Ports are all run as businesses, some with private ownership, and all shipping (except the Interislander - which is profitable in its own right anyway) is operated competitively by the private sector.  Prices are set by the operators depending on competition and demand.

Airports are largely all run as businesses, some are partially privatised, and the airline industry is completely open to competition.  Air NZ may be (just) majority state owned, but it receives no subsidies, and New Zealand has one of the world's most open aviation markets.  The main restrictions are bilateral ones, many have "Open Skies" agreements with NZ, others have limits on the number/capacity of flights.  Airlines set their own fares, which was not at all the case until the late 1980s.  Airways Corporation is still an SOE, but is not subject to any political interference.  Unlike some countries, such as the USA, the NZ aviation sector funds itself, with airlines paying airports and the Airways Corporation for their services.

It's on the land that the role of politicians is most intrusive.  Yet in many areas they have little role.  For freight transport (on road), there are no significant barriers to entry and operators set their own prices depending on competition and demand.  Goods move around the country and in cities with relatively few restrictions, except some limits on road use due to noise and limits to the network.  For passenger transport between cities, besides aviation, most people drive, but for those who don't, coach services operate as an open market, with competition and prices set by the market.   Even though Kiwirail is state-owned (and has received well over $1 billion in new capital from the past two governments), it operates non-commuter passenger services as a business and is the same with freight.  It just happens to not be able to charge some of its freight customers enough to pay for the renewal of its infrastructure - which is where your taxes come in.  The taxi sector too is reasonably open, which is why Uber has been able to set up successfully too.

Now you're going to say - hang on, the roads are all government.  That's true, but it's also important to separate the roads into what are two networks. Firstly, the state highways (this includes all motorways). These are fully funded by road users from fuel taxes and road user charges.  All revenue from those charges goes into the National Land Transport Fund, and road user charges are set to recover the higher costs heavier vehicles impose on the road network, through greater wear and tear.  Secondly, the local roads. On average about half of the money spent on council roads comes from the National Land Transport Fund, the remainder from local rates.  Some argue that this means local roads are "subsidised", but there is an argument for ratepayer funding of local roads, because the presence and standard of local roads influences property values.  They could be seen as a proxy for an access charge to the road network for property owners.  However, it's not as if local roads typically "compete" with other transport modes like railways.  It is state highways that do that.

So all public roads are dependent on funding from the National Land Transport Fund allocated by the NZ Transport Agency, which also happens to manage the state highways.  Local roads are also dependent on ratepayer funding. This is far removed from the United States which funds a reasonable proportion of road spending from general taxes, or on the other hand from the UK, where road funding is around a quarter of the revenue raised from motoring taxes.  For NZ the emergence of taxpayer funding of roads has been a recent policy initiative, and not a welcome one.

The central-planners' approach

Unlike the advocates of a market oriented approach, central planners believe strongly in politically directed funding, regulation and provision of transport infrastructure and services.  They tend to be  advocates of central or local government owned and operated transport providers, and unquestionably support government ownership of transport infrastructure.  They seek control of service standards, frequencies, routes, fares and charges.  The primary focus of central planners is on urban transport, although they drift into intercity transport of people and goods as well.  They largely show limited interest in the shipping and aviation sectors.

The central planners are now heavily focused on environmental objectives, with strong enthusiasm for scheduled fixed-route public transport.  That's because they are particularly focused on inputs, on what infrastructure and services are provided.  This is interesting because the current generation of transport central planners like to think of themselves as showing "new thinking", because they reject the previous generation of central planners selection of inputs.  Both generations embrace the "predict and provide" methodology of deciding what transport infrastructure to build.  The difference is they disagree on the inputs.

The previous generation were strong advocates of building more roads, large urban motorways and car park buildings to accommodate the predicted unfettered growth in car traffic.  They weren't interested in road users really paying for those motorways (or at least not just the ones riding them, with the exception of tolls on some crossing), but saw the future as one where private car use could be accommodated in cities.  On the scale some planners predicted that was clearly neither going to be affordable, nor desirable, but when such roads were built they did encourage development at the locations they served, and by lowering the cost of driving (in terms of time and fuel), they helped generate demand (that's where the widely misused "if you build roads they just fill up with traffic" cliche comes from).  The "motorway planners" regarded public transport as antiquated and increasingly just existing for those who do not own cars, or in high density cities, accepted as commercial metro systems.

The current generation of planners are strong advocates of building more urban railways, building tram lines (now called "light rail") and uses buses to connect to these, as well as supporting cycling infrastructure.  However, most notably they also support measures to reduce the speed of other road traffic, by reallocating road space to trams, buses, bicycles and pedestrians, and to provide priority to the preferred modes (rail, bus, cycling, pedestrians), over cars, trucks and vans (freight isn't that important to the central planners - either it should go on rail or be moved at off peak times, or it is ignored altogether). The "public transport" planners regard private motoring as not just antiquated, but almost malignant. Some of the language used to describe motorists is either hostile or treats them as is need of help.  The term "car dependent" or "addicted to their cars", is language you'd expect of those who abuse narcotics, not people who choose a mode of transport.  It's designed to support a narrative that "if only" more money was spent on public transport, people could be "weaned away" (as they are children) from their cars.  For the central planners, the only choice worth making is away from driving.

It's all about emissions

Now the policy is singularly focused on climate change, despite existence of the Emissions Trading Scheme which means every time you refuel your car, or ride a bus or fly domestically, you are paying for your CO2 emissions. The Ardern Government thinks it is responsible for helping save the world by making it more expensive to own (the wrong) cars and use them, and to take money from you for driving and put it into their preferred modes of transport. Similarly the Vision Zero strategy around eliminating road fatalities is as much about making driving less convenient and less fast - enforcement of bad driving behaviour comes second to reducing speed limits and instituting speed bumps, because slower traffic is safer (it's also more competitive with modes that are demonstrably slower). 

That's why even if road transport emissions dropped dramatically because of takeup of electric vehicles and the like, that isn't good enough.  You see the policy is not so much about reducing emission, but reducing emissions the right way.  It doesn't matter that it makes no difference.

The moral imperative of the Ardern Government's transport policy is not one based on trusting people to make their own decisions, but rather to direct them and to spend money to provide choices that are approved and recommended (like the Te Huia train) having taken it from those that are not approved or recommended (car drivers and truck operators).  There is policy obscurity in that having concepts like "user-pays" or "economic efficiency" are not desired, because they don't deliver a tramline, nor do they deliver a bicycle bridge over Auckland harbour.

Is it because the Ardern generation are too young and too narrowed minded in their understanding of history (and too full of conceit about the capabilities of their power and the ability of the state to figure out what's best for everyone)?  Have they swallowed the hyperbolic nonsense of the Greens that the whole system is set up to "favour" driving, even though motorists buy their own vehicles and pay a much higher proportion of the costs of their transport choice than public transport users?  Do they really think the common people would be happier and better off if they only just walked and biked a lot?  Do they really think that many people don't use vehicles for their "legitimate purposes"?

That last point is instructive, because it shows the philosophical starting point of Ardern and Wood.  They think the ordinary folk make endlessly foolish decisions, and they need correcting.  So they will take their money and give them "correct" choices, like the slow train from Hamilton to.... Papakura (soon Puhinui... wow).  Like the slow tram down Dominion Road (maybe), which isn't really about relieving congestion, but about a vision around urban form (it doesn't matter that most jobs wont be accessible with the tram).  Now most recently the Let's Get Wellington Moving project which was once a collaboration between central and local government to plan a major uplift in road and public transport infrastructure, now relegated to proposing a pedestrian crossing on a part of SH1 near the airport of which one side is over a kilometre from anyone's home.

It's not quite the 1970s, it isn't illegal to send freight by road if there is a parallel rail line, and petrol prices aren't regulated, nor is Kiwirail a department yet - but any sense that users should drive spending and users should, by and large, pay for what infrastructure they use is evaporating.  This is a government that thinks it knows best.

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