Often when we think of historical eras, they are defined by modes of travel. Through the epochs travel changed. We went from foot, to horseback, to train, planes and automobiles.
In our own lives too, there’s an expectation that our modes of travel will ‘mature’. They will go from a babe in arms and strollers, to walking, to skateboards, scooters and bicycles. Then there’s the initiation into the adult world of motorbikes and cars.
Of course this perception is encouraged by marketing. The ads portray personal vehicles on empty roads. We're told they are a pre-requisite to happiness, freedom, excitement and prestige.
In Aotearoa New Zealand many of us have become accustomed to jumping on a plane to travel to our far flung cities. And we have to fly if we want a quick holiday in any other country.
So, there’s a temptation to try and extend this simplified trajectory. We dream of flying cars, jet packs, or even into the stars. But we’re becoming aware of the true cost of the way we travel, or even the extent to which we travel. The question is, is it desirable, or even possible, to keep on in this way?
The financial costs are the most obvious. As a nation, we just spent more than $1 billion on the 27 kilometre Transmission Gully motorway. On a personal level, we have the startling spectre of $3 a litre for petrol. At the same time we’re spending about $4.5 billion on the underground City Rail Link in Auckland. And we’ve spent hundreds of millions on bike paths throughout the country.
All this comes with societal costs too. We continue to rebuild our urbanised world around our desire to move around it as fast as possible. The current phases of the pandemic seem to be releasing their grip. Home workers are tiring of endless video meetings. Traffic jams and parking congestion are returning. But in the lockdowns and in our downtime we instinctively enjoy switching to simpler, slower modes of travel. We know they make us feel more relaxed and revived.
And of course we’re becoming more aware of the impact this all has on the world itself. According to Stats NZ in 2019 transport was contributing 42.9% of New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions. That's a major driver for the climate crisis gripping our planet. Total greenhouse gas emissions were up 85% from 1990 and 17% from 2005.
Our fossil fuel driven fleets damage air quality. They leave us reliant on fuel supplies from far off nations and warzones. This is even more true since Aotearoa New Zealand closed its only oil refinery. And we have begun ending deep sea drilling around our shores. Vehicle tyres and brake pads breakdown into toxic heavy metals in our waterways and seas.
The shift to electric vehicles and hydrogen powered vehicles may address some of these problems. But today only about one in a thousand light vehicles in Aotearoa New Zealand is an EV.
So, what can you do to travel better? The basic principles are: Avoid transport/travel when you can. Shift to more sustainable and fulfilling ways of travelling whenever possible. Support improvements in the travel options we all share.
Here are our top examples.
- Refute some of your commute
Many of us have had a taste of homeworking, with the resulting reduction in travel. There are pros and cons to that as opposed to the buzz of the office. But maybe we shouldn't return completely to business as usual, if it means a return to traffic jam time. Same goes for flying across the country for a two-hour meeting and some biscuits. Video conferencing is in.
- Try getting active on your way to work
Most people aren’t going to run 10k to the office. But most could start with doing the last kilometre on foot once a week when the weather’s nice. Or what about a bike? You’ll be surprised how much you enjoy the time to think and decompress between work and home. You’ll get fitter and save resources and money.
- Sharing is caring
Public transport still gets a bad rap. It's seen as the poor person’s option. But it’s amazing how much time, money and environmental impact that can be saved. Again, you don’t have to go all in. Try a bus, train or ferry once in a while, and see how you feel about some quiet time with a podcast or even working on your way. You may find you like it. Failing that, consider car sharing. You could travel in with friendly colleagues or sign up to a car share firm. I mean, do you get much out of actually owning that two tonne box with all the hassles?
- Switch to electric
E-bikes are opening up options for active commuting for many. And electric cars are coming down in price, and run at the equivalent of 40c a litre! Worth doing the maths. Meanwhile, look out for the growing number of electric buses. There are even electric ferries on the horizon.
- Keep up the maintenance
Inflating tyres correctly. Driving smoothly. Avoiding unnecessary trips. They all help to keep fuel use down and keep us all safe and healthy.
- Shop local
Everything we buy travels too. So when we can choose local we can also help keep the roads, skies and waterways clearer.
- Speak up for change
There are important decisions being made on transport all the time, at local and national government level. One of the most powerful things you can do in the long term is speak up on the side of sustainable options, and question the continuation of outmoded ways of getting about.
This article first appeared in OnMAS, created in partnership with MAS.