Transport: left, right, and centrist

Right now you could be forgiven for thinking Conservatives Do Cars Not Rail and Liberals Do Rail & Bikes Not Cars. Is this just NZ immaturely politicising another big issue, or is there fundamentally a left / right approach to transport?


We’ve been musing about this, seeing different council candidates’ positions on transport issues, and MPs’ involvement in that discourse. But is “left vs right” even a helpful question to ask? Why are there even differences between leftist and rightist approaches to transport?

Doesn’t everyone just want people and goods to be able to be where they want and need to be, at least cost and greatest benefit to the nation?

Well, yes.

(There are a few nuances with transport, because moving around is not an end in itself but rather something we (or goods) do so we can do stuff at the destination. Transport should support the big big outcomes: more prosperous and equal societies, less environmental impact, healthier people and so on.)

Broadly though, what everyone is shooting for in transport is “people and goods being where they want and need to be, at least cost and greatest benefit to the nation“. Spot it in the public service agencies’ raisons d’être (their mission statements).

Technical vs policy, science vs politics

But like any outcome vs policy question, the ideological approaches come in as soon as you start asking “ok how should we achieve that? How should we tweak the various forces of markets, government regulation, pricing, infrastructure investment, subsidies?”

Here are some things to muse on. We’d value your thoughts – pop them in the comments once you’ve got to the bottom!

What even is lefty vs righty?

Firstly, what is it about leftish and rightish approaches to the world that makes us approach the same outcome different ways?

This lovely visualisation from Information Is Beautiful is insightful for a 101 on the rough differences between left and right, worldwide (there’s also a separate US version)

Link here for a larger version

“Even Thatcher wouldn’t …”

We find the Daily Mail Australia’s Peter Hitchens doing something we didn’t expect of the generally firmly right-ist newspaper: painting a relatively objective picture of silliness around left vs right British government policies for transport, particularly the results of privatising British Rail because it wasn’t profitable, and the double standard around roads.

He runs a thought experiment from “Sir Richard Beeching’s deeply mistaken report, published in March 1963” which sparked “a wild frenzy of rail closures”.

Now, just imagine if somebody (let us call him Dr Richard Botching) was asked to study the profitability of Britain’s roads. What would he find? Thousands of suburban Acacia avenues simply don’t justify the cost of maintaining them. Hundreds of rural B-roads, not to mention unclassified country roads, likewise make a colossal loss. (Actually, he would find that every inch of road in the country was run at an enormous loss and subsidised heavily by the taxpayer, but let that pass for the moment, I’ll get back to it). And then say Dr Botching issued a report recommending that these ‘unprofitable’ routes were shut, and that people would just have to find their own way to centres where they could join the remaining, truncated road network.

He includes this flourish:

“Lady Thatcher spoke at one time of a ‘Great Car Economy’ and was noted for rarely if ever travelling by train, even when it would have made much more sense to do so.  But she had more sense than to privatise British Railways.”

Definitely a thought-provoking read.


What’s “in the public good”?

In Government for the Public Good, Max Rashbrooke presents the evidence that some public services are things which, the world has found, only get provided efficiently and properly (see Big Outcomes above) by some collective meta-arrangement of people: defence, hospitals, public transport infrastructure, three waters supply. Those of us who’ve done Economics 101 would say “well, d’uh”, but there are plenty of people who believe otherwise. Check out an interview with Kim Hill on the topic (featuring some hilariously classic KimHillisms)


Wellington rail and urban motorways, old and newer, built by the gummint. Photo: Phil Capper Wikimedia Commons

We’re just nerds

We’re intrigued about the concept of just being about the transport outcomes. Our grownup cousins, Greater Auckland, recently published this repost “Transport’s not a left vs right issue” rebutting an accusation that they were politically partisan to the left, by arguing they’re just massively obsessive about good transport outcomes.


Can we build it?

Finally, the role of government and the nuances of policy over the years get a really interesting airing in this interview with an old czar of the last government “megaministry” before MBIE – the Ministry of Works. While they were complicit in some really bad stuff (e.g. forced acquisition of land from Māori and, latterly from Pākehā to build stuff), we can’t deny they were an amazing building machine. Until government decided it wasn’t going to invest in rail anymore, just roads, and the might of the restructured MoW was put into motorways…


Do you instinctively take a leftish or a rightish approach to transport?

What about your local body candidates – especially the “independents”?


2 comments on “Transport: left, right, and centrist”

  • chrism says:

    Great thoughts – I fully agree with the idea that most of us couldn’t care less about left vs right, we just want the best outcomes for society. I personally don’t think the left versus right framework in transport is inherent- National and Labour’s different approaches to transport are more to do with tradition and public expectation than any fundamental principles of free market versus regulation. And it really frustrates me that they choose to frame it to voters as if it is an ideological issue when it’s really not.

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