The Traffic Jam General Election Special

With voting for the 2020 general election underway, Bicycle Junction hosted a candidates debate focusing (mostly) on two-wheeled transport in Wellington. Seemed like the perfect opportunity for another Traffic Jam blog, especially as yours truly was the MC.

Great place for a transport Hui.

So let’s begin with the bad news. Neither Labour, or National sent a candidate along. ACT couldn’t find time in anyone’s diary either. Of course, every politician is time-poor when campaigning is in full flight, but it was a shame none of these parties felt cyclists were mainstream enough to warrant a few hours attention.

As Act, Labour and National didn’t turn up, I could ignore them, but given all three will (at the very least) have representatives in Parliament, it’s probably useful to provide a summary of their policies on bikes in particular and Wellington transport in general.

A week after the meeting, Act came back to me with this policy statement;

“ACT believes we need to take the politics out of infrastructure. Infrastructure decisions shouldn’t be made by politicians based on how many votes they can get, but robust economic analysis. We would allow central and local governments to enter into 30-year infrastructure partnerships. This will provide certainty about investment, take the politics out of decision-making, and ensure taxpayers get the best value for their infrastructure dollar.”

You might note the word bicycle doesn’t make it into that paragraph.

As the leader of the current Government, Labour has taken a broad brush to policy pledges, preferring perhaps to leverage off the country’s current Covid free (in the community) status. It’s committed to the Let’s Get Welly Moving process (started by the previous National lead government after the Environment Court knocked back proposals for a Basin Reserve flyover). That commitment involves starting on rapid mass transit from the city to its southern and eastern suburbs ahead of another road tunnel under Mt Victoria. If you believe National MP (and Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis) that’s only because its Green Party partner lobbied for RMT ahead of another couple of lanes for traffic.

Only the Greens stopped this from doubling in size…

What can we glean from Labour’s three years in office? Good in a crisis, but when the going gets politically difficult the policy gets dropped? If Covid 19 is evidence of the former, is the fate of its 2017 policy to bring Light Rail to Auckland an example of the latter?

Where is the strong Labour voice on Wellington transport? Grant Robertson has spoken about problems with the city’s reorganised bus system (I quietly hope his bus driver partner keeps him well briefed) but he’s rather busy with the nation’s finances these days. Rongotai MP Paul Eagle has weighed into the cycleway issue from time to time, mostly to question the removal of car parks to make room for bikes.

Compare that with National. It’s transport spokesperson Chris Bishop is based in Hutt Valley. Nicola Willis, was all over the city’s “bustastrophe” and her billboards are all over the city’s main arterial roads, because National wants a second Mt Vic road tunnel first, ahead of any other major work based around the Let’s Get Welly Moving plan.

The author with Nicola Willis. She was all over the bustastrophe.

In fact, it would tunnel a four lane road all the way under Te Aro and extend those four lanes from the planes to Levin. This, it argues, would divert cars away from the central city and leave more room for public and active transport.

Given the natural philosophical viewpoint of a conservative is that things are generally just fine as they are, I’d expect National to continue to embrace the motor car as the nation’s prime mover, but under its new transport spokesperson, Chris Bishop, there have been some interesting policy shifts.

First, a pledge to extend Wellington’s electrified suburban rail system north to Otaki. Second, embracing congestion charges to manage traffic demand on some of our busiest roads, provided its “revenue neutral”. That probably means cutting fuel taxes to compensate.

It’s a bit of a cake and eat it approach. If National had to face the fiscal facts if elected later this month, would it drop some of its promises?

But maybe I’m not thinking big enough? Maybe we should go tunnel crazy and build a motorway under the city? Troy Mihaka, one of the candidates who did make it to the Bicycle Junction Hui, argued we should build a road tunnel all the way from The Terrace to Evans Bay.

Growing up in Auckland, I watched as that city’s Spaghetti Junction gutted Newton, Grafton, Weston Springs and Freemans Bay, all in the name of allowing motorway traffic to pass through town without fouling its central streets. Those streets remain clogged with cars. The junction’s clogged too, because at rush hour, you always have queues trying to get from one to the other.

Auckland has four lanes every which way, but the central city is still clogged.

Now let’s be fair. Those motorways have made 50 years of suburban life as most of us know it, possible. The question is whether that lifestyle will remain the default setting for the next half century.

Which brings me to what those who did turn up to the meeting had to say.

I’ve already mentioned Troy Mihaka. He stood for the Wellington Regional Council last year on the Wellington First ticket (the same one that got Sean Rush onto the Wellington City Council and Glenda Hughes onto the regional council). This year’s vehicle is Integrity New Zealand, and Troy’s running for the seat of Rongotai. Troy’s big on cycling, and like National, believes a motorway bypass will clean up Wellington’s central city traffic, leaving more space for bikes.

Taylor Arneil is running for Rongotai for New Zealand First. He has his doubts about getting rid of car parks for bikes or buses (what about the elderly, the disabled?). His main point was on population. Wellington, he argues, is clogged because we’re trying to squeeze too many people into it. If more New Zealanders lived in smaller cities and towns we wouldn’t have to spend so much money on monster motorway projects. New Zealand First would connect the provinces with a regional rail passenger service. Taylor talked up New Zealand First’s record while in Government, of investing more in the national freight rail system, because the biggest threat to people on bikes is trucks.

Standing for Rongotai for The Opportunities Party (the one Gareth Morgan founded then left in a huff) Geoff Simmons was skeptical about heavy rail for people, but big on the disruptive technologies of e-bikes and driverless cars. The money some want to spend on a second Mt Vic tunnel would be better invested in buying every Wellingtonian an e-bike. Geoff supports National’s congestion charge proposal, which he argues would be fairer than the fuel taxes we currently use to help fund our transport system. The city has public transport alternatives so “let’s just get on with it”. Geoff also latched onto the impact Wellington Airport in driving demand for more roads. The airport’s business model, which makes a lot of money from parking revenue, is at odds with the interests of the wider city.

Bruce Walsh is running for Rongotai on the New Conservative ticket. He spent most of his opening address talking about the importance of family. He wants a second road tunnel under Mt Vic, worries about small business losing customers if car parks are sacrificed for bike and bus ways. He also wonders whether a fairer way to fund transport would be to scrap petrol taxes and extend the current road user charges levied on trucks, to all vehicles.

Two wheels better? The option used by Geoff Simmons and Julie-Anne Genter to get to the Hui.

This was one of the few areas where he and Greens Party representative, Julie-Anne Genter, agreed, if only because the current associate transport minister recognises as electric vehicle use increases, funding transport through a petrol tax will no longer be viable. Like Geoff Simmons, Julie-Anne arrived at the meeting on her bike, and like him, believes e-bikes and other forms of active transport and micromobility will play a big role in the city’s future, and need their own space in the street (either that, or the traffic already in the street needs to slow down to accommodate them). Unlike Geoff , Julie-Anne supports light rail for Wellington (if you were going to build another tunnel, that’s what you’d build it for). Commenting on the current slow progress on upgrading Wellington transport infrastructure, she argued “the more power you give to the Greens the more we can achieve”.

Finally there was the independent Jessie Richardson, standing in Wellington Central. Galvanised by his experience as a school climate protestor last year, and his disappointment at a lack of government action since, Jessie’s policies were closest to the Greens, only more radical. He might be half the age of the rest of the candidates, but his grasp of the topics is impressive. He’s worth a listen, as are all the people on the podcast.

Last year I wrote of the importance of the local body elections in deciding Wellington’s transport direction. Those elections left the city in a stalemate; a city and regional council in favour of public and active transport, but a Wellington mayor who campaigned to bring forward a second road tunnel under Mt Victoria.

Until now, central Government has been unable to break the deadlock. Labour could argue that’s because it’s been forced to compromise with two parties, the Greens and New Zealand First. Opinion polls suggest after October 17th, Labour may be able to govern alone. If Nicola Willis is right about Labour and the second road tunnel under Mt Vic, maybe Labour unleashed would lean towards National’s policies? How might it behave if it had to govern with the Greens?

Whatever scenario we face (there’s always the National/Act option) the decision, dear voters, is in your hands.

Meanwhile, still looming in the background is the eventual opening of Transmission Gully and Kapiti Expressway to Otaki, which will encourage more people to drive and settle in suburbs where driving is the easiest option. In the medium term I can only see the traffic pressure on central Wellington increasing. At some point this decade, the cost of a warming climate will begin to modify our behaviour, but until it does, most New Zealanders are likely to vote with their internal combustion engines. Many also believe we can keep our cars, and conversion to electric vehicles is just a flick of a switch away.

There is another way….

There is one other factor which may sway opinion. Auckland’s Central Rail Link. The biggest single investment in transport since the Auckland Harbour Bridge revolutionised development in favour of the private motor vehicle. The CRL may be a game changer in the other direction. If Central Auckland booms once the new rail line is running, other cities will want to be in on the action.

But that’s for another election.

And finally, Thanks to Dan and Molley from this place!!!

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