Wellington needs more houses not more roads

Guest poster James Fraser looks at the vital nexus between housing and transport, and reckons that where it comes to Wellington, the government’s left hand is working against its right in making tradeoffs

Wellington has a housing crisis. House prices and rents have both gone up steeply. The Government is determined to provide new, affordable housing – but one Government agency is working against this.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) has spent many years buying up Wellington properties so it can demolish them and cover precious land with asphalt.

In 2014, NZTA owned around 80 properties in Wellington CBD and inner suburbs – including a number of multiple-unit properties. Entire Wellington streets have NZTA as a major landlord: Wellington Road in Kilbirnie and Paterson St in Mt Victoria, for example.

As the Dominion Post reported on 10 March, NZTA bought up 31 houses as part of its plans to build a second Mt Victoria road tunnel and widen Wellington Road and other streets in pursuit of an airport motorway. While most of those houses are still inhabited, the occupants face an uncertain future. Eighteen units lie vacant, including the abandoned NZTA-owned apartments at 29 Wellington Rd.

Building a second Mt Victoria road tunnel would involve demolishing homes on either side of the Matairangi / Mt Victoria ridge. On the western side of the ridge, a string of houses on Paterson St would be likely to be demolished.

On the eastern side of the ridge, in Hataitai, a second Mt Victoria road tunnel would require creating a four-lane road. That would mean tearing down a row of houses alongside the current road. Housing for dozens of people that could over time become housing for hundreds of people, asphalted over just to move a queue of cars a few hundred metres.  

Inner-city housing in Wellington is now a very scarce resource – and we know that roads are the least space-efficient way of moving people around, all the more so in a city that’s as pressed for usable land area as Wellington is. That’s because moving people in cars takes up a lot more space than moving them in other ways. Every other means of transport – walking, cycling, buses, light rail – takes less space. That means more room for people to live.

When NZTA made their motorway plans many years ago, they may not have known about climate change. They don’t have that excuse any longer. They’re a Government agency, and

the Government and Wellington City have made commitments to reduce rising greenhouse gas emissions. In Wellington, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport is a cornerstone of the city’s current Low Carbon Capital Plan.

Yet building more road capacity – such as a second Mt Victoria road tunnel – would induce yet more cars onto the roads, burning up more petrol and diesel in their internal combustion engines, spewing out more greenhouse gases. Electric cars won’t make much difference to that for many years – and an electric car takes up just as much space as a diesel.

In 2019, NZTA’s plans to replace houses with roads are decades out of date. With repair and strengthening, these houses could make a huge difference to stressed people trying to find a place to live in Wellington, and to their families.

Imagine for a moment if these houses were transferred to an agency such as Housing New Zealand to maintain and develop in partnership with local agencies – instead of being left in the hands of an agency for which houses are an obstacle.  And imagine that our transport challenges focus on creating more choices for people rather than just more roads. We’ve already seen calls for fresh transport thinking, but the silence from Let’s Get Wellington Moving has been deafening.

We can choose a future where we have good quality housing and great transport choices rather than burying more of Wellington’s precious land under roads. We just need political leadership that breaks free from the failed policies of the past, when asphalt was more important than people.

James Fraser is a born and bred Wellingtonian and horticulturalist.

Image credit: Chris Skelton – Stuff

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