Turning the Tide

Ever looked at our collective transport behaviour, and leaders’ transport decisions and thought “can we start using our brains already?” Good news: guest poster and transport policy expert Andrew Jackson reports that smart people putting their heads together to sort it out.

UPDATE: A bonus Traffic Jam episode interviewing Sandy Mandic and Andrew Jackson. Enjoy!

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

In February of this year 55 experts got together to see if they could solve the transport challenges we face in New Zealand.

They came up with a set of recommendations to get us off our backsides and using our legs, and put New Zealand on the right path for the future. It’s called “Turning the Tide: from cars to active transport.” [Press release PDF here.]

In my dreams everything I need for my day to day activities and my holiday adventures would be within easy reach. I wouldn’t have to share the pavements with e bikes or scooters if I walked. The roads would be empty so I could cycle with impunity. There wouldn’t be any other cars in my way when I decided to drive and all of the traffic lights would be green.

In the real world I have to share the pavements and the roads with other cyclists, scooters and drivers. As more of us cram into the cities everything slows down.  In New Zealand, 86% of us live in cities and towns and this is increasing by close to 1% each year.   This together with a population which is growing at close to 100,000 people a year means that moving will get harder.  We cannot build our way out of it – we have already covered many of our cities with about as much tarmac as we can fit in.

When we drive we become part of the problem,.  Not only do we contribute to congestion, we harm our environment.  Transport creates 18% of New Zealand’s carbon emissions and the air pollution from transport is estimated to lead to close to 300 deaths a year.

Climate change is starting to bite, with an ever increasing number of properties on our coasts at risk of flooding.  We are also seeing an increasing number of cases of extreme weather damaging properties and infrastructure across the country. This will only get worse if we continue living in our dream state. With the population of New Zealand likely to grow 30-40% over

the next 20 years, it will be difficult to maintain current levels of carbon let alone decrease it.  Even if 40% of all cars in New Zealand are electric by 2038, this would do not more than maintain carbon at the current levels.

We also harm ourselves if we allow our cars to “save us” from exercise.   Regular exercise reduces the risk of early death by 30% having a beneficial effect across a range of diseases.

While, as Kiwis, we can be proud of coming first in rugby, and being in the top three in cricket, the same cannot be said for being in the world top 3 for levels of obesity.  The World Health Organisation recommends that we take at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise each week. The 2016/2017 NZ health survey found that only half of us take the recommended amount of exercise each week.  Finding 20-30 minutes a day to be physically active might seem difficult, but the health benefits are startling.

Even though we know the harm that we are doing, we still live as if we were in a dream world.  We expect the pavements and roads to be clear of other people.  Cyclists complain about careless drivers. Drivers complain about cyclists who are reckless, slow traffic and do not contribute a cent towards the roads they travel on.   We ignore the environmental impact of what we are doing. We even ignore  the harm we do to our own bodies until as our lifestyles catch up with us and our shape really does not match the body shape of our dreams!

This doesn’t have to be the case. We can change the way we live.  The change in attitude towards plastic bags is a great example of a sea change (quite literally) in how we behave.   But waking up is difficult in the world of transport: we enjoy the comfort of the car too much. 

The challenge is how do we wake up to the effect our travel decisions have on others, our environment and ourselves.  Despite all of the coffee we drink as a nation, we do not seem to have found the policy caffeine that will solve these transport issues.

In February experts from across NZ and the world came together at the University of Otago to try to agree on some potential solutions.  They produced a plan of action with 13 recommendations in it.  Some of the more radical of their suggestions include setting national targets to increase walking to a quarter of all trips and cycling to 15% of all trips in the next 25 years. The latest travel survey found just 12% of all trips in New Zealand were on foot and only 2% of trips were by bike, making these very ambitious targets.

Other counties have managed to double the number of people cycling, but the steps we will need to take to make these changes is where the rubber hits the road.

  • We need a 25 year investment programme in active transport infrastructure. 
  • We need someone with public accountability to progress the goals and the resources to enable the changes. 
  • We need to give people the priority, not cars, as we develop our urban environments. 
  • We have to change our urban goals from optimising the driving experience, to making our towns and cities places where we want to spend more time in.

This is not just a pipe dream.  A good example of what is possible is Pontevedra in Spain, where the Mayor decided to ban cars from the centre of the city.  The decision saw a carbon reduction of 70% and 30 fewer road deaths over a 10 year period.  The city was the only one in its region in Spain which grew its population: people like living there

This is one of a growing number of cities around the world which are taking back space from cars to make spaces where people like to live.

As car ownership levels have never been higher in New Zealand, the big question is:  

Will we have the courage to take these actions to build a healthier, sustainable future for our country?

A full copy of the recommendations from the University of Otago is available here

Image credits:

  • Paekakariki high tide – Bob Zuur
  • Petone congestion – Kevin Stent – Stuff

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