Some imaginary reasons, some ideological reasons, and some surprising ones: why we don’t follow rich Switzerland’s lead by investing in public transport

The Swiss are rich, and yet, they like to ride on buses. They need not be rich to fund the buses; they spend less than New Zealand on transport.

At the opposition parties’ public transport conference, "Smart Transport for New Zealand", I found myself unexpectedly captivated. Yes, really: you don't know how sexy public transport can be, until you’ve heard Dr Paul Mees talk about it for 45 minutes. It was sexy because it was smart.

Mees and the speaker who followed him, Julie-Anne Genter, spent an hour between them, knocking over imaginary public transport obstacles (Mees), and pointing out the real ones (Genter).

One hour of your time, Mr Joyce. That’s all -- and an open mind, I guess. (Steven Joyce, the Transport Minister, had declined to attend. He sent a letter, explaining that his policy was already smart.)

Australian academic Mees disagreed. His field is transport planning. “Planning is communism, we all know that,” offered Russel Norman, and he had a point, about ideology.

In Mees’ opinion, the people, countries, cities who are ahead of the game -- the smart people, countries and cities -- realise that the era in which transport policies could be dominated by the car is over.

The reason for our infrastructure spending on the Roads of National (geddit?) Significance is that New Zealand needs growth.

So: can we think of anywhere doing well on economic growth, Mees wondered, from whom we might be able to get some advice? … smallish mountainous countries where the economy is kicking a lot of goals?

In Switzerland, with a population just under twice that of ours, and GDP four times ours, where unemployment “ballooned” during the GFC to 2.8%, the national government’s total spend on transport is a quarter less than New Zealand’s, as a proportion of GDP. But most of the money, about 60%, is earmarked for public transport; the minority spend is on roads.

Received wisdom says that New Zealanders love their cars, that there's no point trying to improve public transport, because they will not use it. Perhaps, New Zealanders have love affairs with their cars because they have no other decent options.

Everyone, says Mees, thinks density is an insuperable barrier to fixing public transport: Hong Kong, for example, is very dense, with very low car use; in Sacramento, among the least dense cities, car use is very high. However, American cities’ average density is the same as Australian cities. Their car use is twice as high: density has influence, but it isn’t the only one. People who believe this, Mees says, haven’t been to Perth: a “sprawly low-density city”, much less compact than Auckland, where public transport works.

And in tiny rural and Alpine Swiss towns, not unlike small New Zealand towns, Schaffhausen has an annual public transport trip rate five times as high as Auckland, and the share of people taking public transport to work is six times as high.

In Schaffhausen, they have buses every 10 minutes. This is not about the density, it’s about the service: the Swiss service is so good, even the inhabitants of the richest city in the world, Zurich, are happy to use it in preference to their cars.

In the absence of that, New Zealanders’ choice is not inevitable; it's rational.

Zurich, the “very best in the world”, has cut car use to a quarter of all modes of transport. Mees points, gleefully, to some traffic backed up in the picture: far from assuming that, if anyone in a car has to slow down, the whole economy shuts down, the Swiss view of the world seems to be, this is a "small anti-social minority of the population ... so who cares".

In Zurich, as well as putting in some trams, the service is frequent and easy to use -- and joined up, going beyond individual bits and pieces of things to something where all the different parts of the system operate at high and common service standards. In simple terms, buses connect with trams, and other buses. You can get on and off things, and go anywhere.

However, you “don’t have to be Swiss and don’t have to be pretty”. The busiest Perth suburban rail station (Murdoch) carries about as many passengers as the entire Auckland railway system. The Murdoch line cost $17 million a kilometre and took 3.5 years to build. Trains travel at 130 km/hr between the stations. They pass all the cars on the freeway: “you feel like a winner using public transport”.

Segue to Julie-Anne Genter, transport consultant and Green Party Auckland candidate.

Given the high cost of cars, she asks, why have we evolved this way? A car-based transport system costs us, in public and in private, quite a lot more than public transport would. Why are we so reliant on cars?

This is about convenience, space, comfort, and prestige: the difference between flying first and cattle-class. And price: if it cost the same, which would you choose?

While it seems cheaper and easier to use a car than anything else, we under-estimate, according to Genter, the total cost of car dependence.

Traffic engineers insist on a couple of things: first, that car use is inevitable and must be accommodated; second, that traffic flows like water, and like water, maximum flow has to be facilitated, by large amounts of space dedicated to moving through. “The worst thing that could happen is a traffic jam, in the minds of traffic engineers.”

An example of a cost not taken into account is the inhospitability of the resulting public space, and the effect of this on property values. Property values on Customs Street, in Auckland, are significantly lower than those on surrounding streets, such as pedestrian-only Vulcan Lane, just a couple of blocks away. The other cost is the land required, and in particular, the land required for parking, by urban planning laws. Genter has blocked out on an aerial photo of South Auckland: 30% of the land. What could you do with all that, if you weren't leaving it vacant for cars?

If advocating for sustainable urban development, she says, minimum parking requirements are among the main things we need to change. She shows us what redevelopment could look like: urban, economic, every kind of transformation, from US to Europe, in a few mouse clicks.

Cosmopolitan: definitely sexy.

Comments (13)

by alexb on August 30, 2011

Privatisation of public transport here was a really stupid idea. Now to catch a bus from suburbs to city return in Wellington, it costs more than the money you would pay for petrol and an hours worth of parking. That is absolutely obscene, as those without cars are less likely to be able to afford high bus prices. Good public transport is about more than just the environmental benefits (though they are significant) The social and financial benefit would be enourmous too. I lament how little people listen to the Greens on transport issues, we would be a lot less screwed if we did.

by MikeM on August 30, 2011

I don't know how much public transport costs to use in Switzerland or Perth, but I think consumer cost also has a lot to do with it.  I always thought the bus and train prices in Wellington were steep, which was okay for me because Wellington's so walkable.  Combined and capped ticketing across all PT providers also seems to have lots to do with it.  Having shifted to Melbourne about 8 months ago, $3 for an entire Saturday or Sunday will get me everywhere on the entire train/bus/tram system that I might want to go through the entire day.  (Compare that with $9 in Wellington for a ticket that only works on the buses, or $20 for every mode, and that doesn't even include morning peak!)  Watching people around Melbourne, everyone's just constantly hopping on and off trams all day because everyone already has validated tickets -- by comparison it's so cheap.

Locals here tend to complain lots about the trains especially, though, because they're radial and the infrastructure's been run down over the past 30 years and they're dirty and unstaffed with drunk and mentally unstable people and teenagers running up and down the carriages.  I thought it was a fantastic PT system having first arrived because there's a train outside our house every 10 minutes, but then I needed to go 20 minutes sideways and the optimal route according to the journey planner took me roughly 100 minutes just to get there.

Suddenly it became clear why so many people here still own and live in their cars, and I'm constantly running into more and more people for whom public transport is completely foreign, they hate it or barely know it exists even if it really is right outside their door, and the thought of using it frightens them. We started trying to get involved in extra-curricular activities (toastmasters clubs, astronomy clubs, hiking clubs, etc), only to discover that the most of these groups have designed everything on the presumption that everyone has a car, because everyone does.  Trains at best are only useful for getting in and out of the CBD during daytime hours and AFL games. After 4 months of being the only people to take 14 bags of groceries on a 2 minute train ride every two or three weeks, we finally gave in and bought a car a few months ago, and I really hate driving but there's also no alternative for being able to live here.

Maybe one of the biggest tricks is creating a place where people can feel confident they don't even need to own a car, and then they might start shaping their lives around the other options instead. It's interesting to hear about Perth.  I haven't been there but if that's all true then they must have done something right.

by MikeM on August 30, 2011

@alexb, it's all privatised over here too, for what it's worth.  The trains aren't working well in many ways, but part of that could be put to scrapping of the infrastructure over the past 3 decades long before Metro took over.  I rarely hear anything bad about the trams (operated by Yarra Trams) and there are something like 19 private bus operators all around Melbourne.  The thing that all combines them, though, is the standardised ticketing system, which I presume they take a pre-determined cut from depending on the number of people who use their services, or something like that.  It might be something that wouldn't work so well in smaller cities with less operators and higher costs, though.


by stuart munro on August 30, 2011
stuart munro

I can go from the end of Bundang right across Seoul - two hours on fast trains - for about two dollars. My card transfers to buses without an extra fare, I only pay mileage. The Seoul subway is slowly being privatised - but the plexity and reach of the network makes extending it guaranteed proftable.

It has become so popular that smaller cities like Daegu (4 million) and Daejon (2 million) are building lines as fast as they can, and the ones they have are fully patronised.

Couldn't be done in New Zealand of course - the politicians are all superannuated boy racers.

by Claire Browning on August 30, 2011
Claire Browning

Awesome. Thank you! Keep going ... anyone else?

by on August 30, 2011

In Wellington I think cost and integration between the various modes, and within each mode is a big issue, as is the general attitude towards public transport.

Visiting my sister in Chicago, she can get off the ‘L’ and go grocery shopping on her way home, then get back on again within 2 hours for 20c. Yet in Wellington, even with the new Snapper card which registers you both on and off the bus, you end up paying the full fare for each bus. My partner used to live in Roseneath and worked at Wellington hospital. To catch public transport involved two buses and waiting about at Courtenay Place to change. The entire trip would take at least 45min and over $6 in fares each way. Compared to driving the car for 5 minutes and parking for free in Newtown, albeit chocking up local residential streets, why wouldn’t you drive?

But there needs to be massive attitude shift around public transport before New Zealanders will be happy paying for improvements. You couldn't get much better than where we live in terms of service - at 8am on weekdays we have basically a bus every minute 50m from our house, and it takes probably 15 minutes to get into the CBD, with a dedicated bus-only tunnel and route avoiding all the commuter cars. We’re happy to catch the 'loser-cruiser' and being one of the 'suckers lined up at the bus stop'. Yet neighbours have no problem paying for $15 a day for parking and smugly wave while driving past us waiting at the bus stop (Usually just prior to them grinding to a halt in grid-locked commuter traffic).

Buses seem to be viewed as a cost centre by the regional council. Every year fares go up. Our rates pay for public transport. Then we pay again to use the bus. (The new Snapper seems to have provided a nice mechanism to allow Go Wellington to put non-cash fares up overnight)

I think it would be great if businesses were incentivised to provide transport cards as an alternative to a paid for car-park. It took me 6 months to convince my employer to cash up my unused work provided car park. Mostly the finance person just couldn’t understand why on earth I’d want to catch public transport "But you’ve got a car park, you can drive to work? and the park is paid for so it's free?"




by Iain Butler on August 30, 2011
Iain Butler

And of course, the Wgtn City Council sold most of its parking assests, which means there only means of getting any income from car users to 'subsidise' public transport is to line the streets with militant parking wardens, working for a multinational security firm.

And say what you like about the Melbourne PT system - a two-hour ticket to use different transport modes is still desperately needed here.

by MikeM on August 31, 2011

No argument there. Inexpensive combined capped ticketing is probably the best PT difference I've noticed since shifting here. As Tom noted, having to pay twice for a similar-length journey in Wellington, for no other reason than the design of bus and train interchanges, always irritated me.  By itself though, better ticketing definitely doesn't make a city where people stay away from cars. Melbourne apparently also has the biggest freeway network in Australia, as well as some private toll road operators who must be absolutely raking it in from what I've seen, and which put contractual constraints on what city planners can do if it might have any effect on profitibility. Victoria really sold its public transport soul about 20 years ago, seemingly to save a couple of billion dollars getting a road built. (In context, the recent PT ticketing system replacement has been a $1.3 billion public money mess.)

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by on September 28, 2011

I like my cars. I'll take my car, partly because it's the best way of getting around Wellington, and partly because I prefer 1st Class to Economy. I am glad we now have a government that is taking roading seriously, and look forward to the increased roading capacity.

By all means, promote public transport. It makes sense for many work commutes. However, it is rather difficult to get two kids and a dog across Wellington on a windy, rainwashed night on a bus.

There will always be private cars. They are useful. Plan for them.

BTW: If you cap the fees it means you must subsidise from somewhere else. Where would that on-going subsidy come from?

by on November 09, 2011

That's an interesting perspective on things, it's a perspective the whole world could use some learnings from. I trust that other concepts will emerge as well, I trust that car sharing, electric cars and hybdrid cars will emerge this decade as new eco-friendly concepts and will grow in popularity. Until we will all be able to afford one of these options I'll just resume my dreams to a class b rv, it's I can afford and it would spare me from paying rent as well, that would be a good start for my savings.

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by danniel on October 23, 2012

I am sure it must have been a very interesting conference, there are so many things that need to be settled about the public transportation issues. I think the chance will come when we'll start to educate ourselves that public transport really is a good deal no matter how rich you are. Still that can't be applied to everyone, there are people that are strictly dependent on their car, we should keep a dose of realism as well.


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