Cars’ cost: not smart transport

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.