02 August 2023

A poor critique of National's transport policy

It’s entirely in keeping with their philosophical bent, for taxpayer funded RNZ to publish as a lead article on its website, a piece by Timothy Welch, senior lecturer in Urban Planning at University of Auckland. It’s also hardly surprising that the taxpayer funded Spinoff has published the same article, as they share a common view of the world, which is predominantly sympathetic to the objectives and ideology behind transport policy in NZ since 2017. 

I am sure Mr Welch is a smart man, so it is pity that it seems to have been written in a rush because it is such a poor critique of the National Party’s transport policy. The views he expresses exemplify why I’m sceptical of urban planners. The very problems they seek to fix are in some considerable part because their predecessors had an overly simplistic view of the complexities of cities, economies and the wants and needs and preferences of human beings.  However, even more important is to understand that the philosophy of transport policy expounded by the Government, which also comes from some academia and is essentially the ideology promoted by the Green Party, which is to treat transport modal choices as a hierarchy that essentially devalues the personal preferences of the public relative to what the planners think is “good for society and the planet”. It devalues people’s time (by wanting people to travel more slowly), money (by wanting to tax them more for infrastructure and services they don’t use) and comfort (by wanting people to use less comfortable modes), in favour of choices that whilst certainly having merits in many circumstances, are for many users inferior to their own preferences (and do not reflect people’s willingness to pay).  What is worst is that much of the argument is based on overly simplistic rhetoric and claims that some of people’s choices are either morally wrong or based on them being “addicted” to driving.

So what about Welch’s article?

It was clearly written as a hit-job on National’s recently released transport policy, which itself has strong hints of central planning, command and control in picking projects it wants to advance, although these are mostly projects to facilitate faster and safer travel of motor vehicles, whether cars, buses or commercial vehicles.  Let’s be clear National is hardly advancing a free-market libertarian vision of transport, but it is a contrast from the view of the Greens and the Labour Government, which want to cut kilometres driven by cars and light commercial vehicles by 20% on average across the country (which in cities means much more than that, given the scope to cut driving in rural areas is much lower).  Just consider that, Labour wants you to drive 20% less, regardless of whether or not you have an EV.  Labour hasn’t quite swallowed the Green approach completely, as the Greens treat any road building as at best a waste of money, and at worst a crime against the planet which fuels people’s “addiction” to their cars (which they would only break away from if they were instead forced to pay for billions in subsidies for other modes of transport). 

Welch starts by claiming there is an old joke about “just one more lane” to relieve congestion, even though the main part of this proposal is actually about building intercity 4-lane highways between major centres, in the manner of countries like Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK and Ireland. Sure there are a few proposals that expand urban road capacity, but in none of these cases does it involve adding lanes to roads recently expanded. For example, New Zealand's first motorway - Johnsonville to Tawa, has the same number of lanes today as it did when it opened in 1950.  Maybe the old trope of the Greens that lanes just keep having to be added isn't universal after all?

He claims that National wants to build a four-lane highway from Whangarei to Tauranga for $6b when the $6b claim is only for four projects that cover only a fraction of the route (noting 205km of the route is already motorway/expressway with 177km remaining). He ties himself up in a rough calculation to say it couldn’t cost $6b, when he could have simply read the policy document in the first place.  It literally proposes $6b to four-laning Whangarei to Port Marsden, Warkworth to Wellsford, Cambridge to Piarere and Tauriko West SH29. 

He then claims that “The opportunity cost of these projects also needs to account for those who don’t – or don’t want to – drive a car”.  That begs two questions, why? And how don’t they? None of these projects hinders people who don’t want to drive, indeed building new highways offers opportunities to improve cycling on existing routes, and can support faster and more efficient bus services, and improves the amenity of towns bypassed for walking and cycling.

Furthermore, what is the opportunity cost of using funds collected from motor vehicle users (fuel excise and road user charges) to pay for roads? He would have a point if Crown (general taxpayers’) funds are being used to pay for them, but it is the opportunity cost of using ANY taxpayers’ funds? It takes money away from people spending on their home, their kids’ education, books, food, investing for their retirement. It doesn’t need to account for those who don’t want to drive, anymore than it needs to account for those who don’t want to consign freight by road. If people don’t want to drive they can catch scheduled bus services between Whangarei-Auckland-Hamilton and Tauranga, they can fly and if they are keen they could bike, but there is a curious blindspot among some planners about intercity bus services. They simply pretend they don’t exist because they see rail as the holy grail of virtuous, environmentally friendly transport, but it’s a shame they actually don’t want to pay for it out of their own funds.

He critiques National wanting to scrap light rail proposals for Auckland and Wellington, but then gets it wrong saying “National argues that additional motorways and tunnelling in Wellington would be more cost-effective”. National is proposing no new motorways in Wellington at all, but rather a second Mt Victoria Tunnel (which is not a motorway) and improved approach roads to it. 

The policy says “National supports bus rapid transit and bus priority lanes for Wellington to make it easier to get into and around the city. A duplicate Mt Victoria Tunnel will allow for greater bus access to the east, bus priority lanes on the roads leading to the tunnels, and much more free-flowing traffic through the tunnels, including for buses”. So did he just blank-out that National actually thinks bus rapid transit is better in favour of agitprop that it’s all about motorways, when literally no motorway is proposed?  Furthermore, the current LGWM Mt Victoria Tunnel proposal doesn’t include light rail anyway, but bus rapid transit.

Welch continues by claiming that light rail is “fast, efficient and equitable”, yet the LGWM proposal for light rail to Island Bay would still be slower than driving and slower than the current express bus service from Island Bay, because it would stop frequently.  It wouldn’t be efficient because it could never recover its capital costs, and it would be much worse in recovering the costs of operation compared with bus services. It wouldn’t be equitable because its eye-watering cost would be paid by ratepayers and road users throughout Wellington even though most would never use it (and it would, if LGWM is to be believed, significantly uplift land value along the corridor thanks to that subsidy).  He compares it to Sydney’s Randwick and Kingsford lines recently opened, even though the NSW Auditor Office notes that the project, originally costed at $2.1b ended up at $3.1b and that the project benefits have had to be revised downwards. Of course Sydney does have a population greater than New Zealand

Welch continues by claiming buses and trains produce about 80% less carbon emissions per passenger kilometre than cars, which is entirely dependent on patronage. Trains and buses with few people on them are not exactly environmentally friendly, and it is highly dependent on type of vehicle.  A plug-in hybrid has lower emissions per passenger km than a diesel bus. Bear in mind the ETS internalises the costs of climate change by putting a levy on the price of fuel, so motorists are already paying for the emissions they produce, and that price will be rising over time. In short, policies to reduce emissions are incentivising people to change behaviour, it’s just that it’s not enough for Welch.

Welch makes the claim that “Given the observable realities of the climate crisis, many have questioned the logic of leaning into road expansion as a policy, especially at the expense of efficient public transport”.  I’ll let you speculate on who the “many” are (and let’s leave aside the abuse of the term “efficient” again), but the whole basis of this is a widely cliché’d claim that “More roads encourage more traffic and more driving, often leading to even worse congestion”. Bear in mind that the bulk of the National proposal is for intercity highways to be upgraded and be faster and safer and have more capacity, and is not about congestion.  However, the “build more roads, watch them fill up” claim is neither universally applicable, nor takes into account a key element – price.

Most roads in New Zealand carry traffic volumes at a tiny fraction of their capacity, because the mere presence of a road doesn’t generate demand beyond what origins and destinations generate for personal or freight transport. Sure, expansion of an urban highway, especially one parallel to a public transport route, without any price signals to reflect cost and capacity, can encourage more demand and relocation of housing and businesses to reflect the lower generalised cost of travel.  Auckland has witnessed this as its population has increased and motorways improved, this has reduced travel times and encouraged more use of them. However, this is not a problem if the roads are paid for by those using them and price signals are set to manage demand.  This is where Welch is being wilfully blind because

“National will also introduce congestion charging as a new tool to help reduce travel times in our congested cities

Congestion charging can mean new roads can be built and not get congested, it can mean motorists pay more to use roads as a scarce resource at times of peak demand and less when there is plenty of capacity.  Congestion charging is supported by the Greens (albeit as a tool to punish motorists), but it would do more to reduce emissions than building boondoggles. LGWM estimates congestion charging could reduce car trips into central Wellington by 8%, but you can speculate for yourself as to why Welch doesn’t celebrate this and rethink his narrative. Bear in mind also that the Labour Government received reports on Auckland congestion pricing in late 2019 and has essentially sat on it for three years, and Phil Twyford actively opposed Wellington congestion pricing when he was Minister. 

Welch then rightfully points out that EVs are a small proportion of the fleet, yet ignores the significant growth in hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles as well, which cut emissions by between 55% and 85% respectively on average. In short, the light vehicle fleet profile is one of lowering emissions, and this is likely to continue as such vehicles get cheaper, and the secondhand import market’s share of hybrids grows so much.

Then we get Welch’s weirdest comment:

“EVs require the same amount of road space and, due to their increased weight, potentially cause more road damage. But EV owners don’t buy petrol, which means they don’t pay excise tax – the same tax that pays for expanding roads”

The differences between EVs and petrol and diesel powered cars in terms of weight are insignificant in terms of road damage, this is why there is one rate for road user charges (RUC) for vehicles under 3.5 tonnes.  Around half of road damage costs are due to the effects of weather, and most of the rest are due to heavy vehicles, a few hundred kilogrammes of additional weight in a car are not important in terms of road wear. The bigger error is ignoring road user charges RUC by weirdly saying EVs don't pay excise tax (on petrol), but then neither do diesel vehicles.  EVs used to be liable for RUC, but have an exemption until 1 April 2024. Assuming the exemption is not extended, EVs will start to pay on a per kilometre basis then. This comment of his is fairly pointless.

Finally Welch claims the policies are akin to those from the 1950s and 1960s, which is perhaps an overly simplistic view of the time. In the 1950s Wellington had its biggest expansion of electric passenger rail in the country’s history to date, with construction of the line through the middle of the Hutt Valley and electrification to Upper Hutt, along with the development of Tawa that followed EMU service introduction to Paekakariki from 1949.  Yes governments did embark on gradual motorway building, but did so in a haphazard manner (Auckland’s North-Western Motorway didn’t even extend all the way to the city until 1983), largely responding to a public that preferred driving to the monopoly local authority owned and operated bus services, which suffered from regular strikes, lack of capital spending on new vehicles and poor quality of service (e.g. exact fare requirement in Auckland for many years).  It was also hardly car-centric when central government for decades taxed the importation of new cars by up to 60% or simply restricted the numbers permitted. This saw the price of cars inflated above market prices, and the fleet remain much older and less safe than it would have been otherwise. This didn’t completely end until 1998.  

There is nothing behind the claim that the road building of the past made transport “less efficient and less equitable”. Indeed the 1950s and 1960s were also dominated by a law that prohibited freight being moved more than 30-40 miles in competition with railways, because Welch’s predecessors in the world of planning thought they knew best how freight should be moved about in NZ.  The shackles of regulation on freight and passenger transport, and tariffs and import restrictions on vehicles were thrown off in the 1980s and 1990s making transport significantly more efficient. The idea it would be more efficient for motor vehicles to be using the Great South Road to travel between the Port of Auckland and Waikato, than the Southern Motorway is just ludicrous.  There are sound arguments to be made that the highly invasive motorway building through central Auckland did not take into the opportunity costs of the land used, which could have encouraged an alternative approach such as tunnelling or redirecting through traffic towards the west, but the simple point is that the past saw enormous inefficiencies and costs to safety and the environmental because one set of planners decided they knew what was best.

There are reasons to criticise the National transport policy. Who knows what the net economic benefits are of the proposals? Why isn't there a bypass of Te Aro for Wellington? Is Waka Kotahi the right structure for undertaking so many operational and regulatory activities? What should be the future of road user charges and fuel duty?  Should Kiwirail be split to encourage more rail operators to come to the market? What are the barriers to competition in various transport markets?  It's unclear how road safety will be addressed, and are there too many road controlling authorities? Is Auckland Transport performing efficiently and responsive to the needs of transport users? What about the public transport funding framework implemented by the Government.

Unfortunately Welch’s rant seems like an ill-focused take that could have just come from the Green Party press office. I expect he can do better than just ‘cars and roads bad, trains and trams good’.