Are things finally getting moving for Auckland’s transport?

After decades of slow or no progress on smart transport in New Zealand’s largest city, there’s a wave of new activity. So are we now on the right track?

SBN’s offices are in the heart of the Auckland CBD. From where we sit there is no mistaking the increased pace of change in New Zealand’s transport system. We are next door to the jack-hammering from construction of the City Rail Link between Britomart and Mount Eden. The Link is estimated to cost in the region of $3.4bn and is New Zealand’s largest ever infrastructure project.

But our office is also full of bikes, including an e-bike. This is partly due to the new network of cycleways funded by the government’s $333 million Urban Cycleways Programme. A visitor to our office the other day asked us ‘how do you park?’ after circling our building for 20 minutes in her car. The team were genuinely confused.

“We don’t,” we said. “None of us drives here.”

And it looks like these might be signs of things to come.

Auckland Council signed off on the $28 billion Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), backed by the new government. It includes an additional $2.8 billion from the National Land Transport Fund, $1.5 billion from the proposed Regional Fuel Tax and $360 million from Crown Infrastructure Partners. Existing commitments include the City Rail Link, the new Puhoi-Warkworth motorway, additional electric trains, widening the motorway between Manukau and Papakura and improvements to the northern corridor including a busway extension to Albany.

New elements include Light Rail to the Airport and in the northwest corridor, a new Eastern Busway from Panmure to Botany and the Mill Road motorway extension.

The updated ATAP follows closely on from the release last month of the draft Government Policy Statement on Land Transport. That document is another welcome sign that we’re on the cusp of transformative change to a smarter transport system, not just in Auckland but nationwide.

The political battles are already underway. There have been significant protests over the design and layout of some of the cycle lanes, some with justification, but much of it reflects more reactive opinions against change.

But it is heartening to see some action to bring Auckland’s transport system into the 21st century. Up until recently we all seemed to be jammed somewhere back in the early ‘90s, tapping along to Smells Like Teen Spirit.

So how bad is congestion in Auckland now? Last year The Employers and Manufacturers Association, Auckland International Airport, Infrastructure NZ, Ports of Auckland and the National Road Carriers Association commissioned a report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research. It showed that Auckland’s economy would get a boost of between $0.9 billion and $1.4 billion if it had a free flowing road system.

The historical database built up by navigation company TomTom places Auckland 40th in the world for congestion. Each car commuter wastes an average 45 minutes a day. That’s five minutes more than the average Londoner. Overall our results are worse than Singapore.

The transport sector accounts for about 20% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So if we are intending to meet our Paris Agreement commitments, having motorways chock full of idling fossil fuel vehicles for 45 minutes a day doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Phil Jones is project lead for transport at the Sustainable Business Network.

“Overall the current acceleration of activity is to be welcomed,” he says. “But it will be a long game to overcome decades of under-investment and an embedded car culture. What we are advocating is the rapid development of an efficient low-carbon, multi-modal people-centred transport system. This will include bringing an end to the domination of public space by underutilised vehicles, especially driver-only cars.

“As well as supporting some of the suggestions made by the recent draft Productivity Commission Report, such as the feebate scheme, there are a number of developments we would like to see. These include more research into rail freight options, and a strategic approach to shared vehicle services. Perhaps most radically we also want an end to the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2030 at the latest, following the lead from other countries.

“New Zealand remains dependent on expensive liquid transport fuels along very long supply lines. This represents a major risk to our economy, our national resilience and our chances of meeting our commitments on climate change. This means there is plenty more that needs to change before Kiwis can truly claim they are really smart on transport. But we’re on the way.”

Find out more about SBN’s work on transport.