Wednesday, July 6, 2011

National Government continues "The Drive to Oblivion" policy

NZ in Tranzit - opinion piece David Welch

The Government has announced a broad policy of spending $17.5 billion on infra-structure over the next four years, to upgrade networks such as Broadband, rural irrigation, and water supplies. Transport will get $6.5 billion and - stated as a separate item - railways $1.5 billion.

These are only broad figures but trends to date suggest that the lion's share of the transport funding is likely to be invested in RoNs (roads of national significance), including presumably much state highway expansion through urban areas; rail in Auckland and Wellington (though perhaps less than Auckland would want) and possibly the building of a new inter-island ferry terminal at Clifford Bay north of Kaikoura. 

In general National seems committed to trying to keep alive the culture of drive everywhere and at anytime, with no real costs located back to user pays for the most part (though Minister Joyce has indicated some of Auckland's grander projects  - new Harbour Bridge, Waterview Tunnel? -  will probably require some portion of toll recovery). In the background, the ominous groans and grumbles of the oil world that suggest we are already into a time where oil production is no longer able to meet demand continue. Electric cars - and the huge increases in electricity generation infrastructure needed to support widespread replacement of 40% of our oil based energy with electrics, may be on the horizon (likely to increase in the next decade) but obviously can be only a marginal factor for many years to come.

In essence, it seems to me,  a disproportionate amount of taxes is being spent to increase roading capacity, essentially to support the peak hour demand. There seems to be some sort of cost-benefit ratio questions not being applied here -  in contrast  to levies against public transport in the 50% city farebox recovery policy and failure to fund a comprehensive regional pattern of commuter services. On the other hand no evaluation of charges on that portion - say 10% of New Zealanders driving to work alone or with only one passenger in specific built-up urban areas and at times where this can not be achieved without putting huge financial, social, health and environmental stress and strain upon the whole nation and land use and roading design for a whole area. How much of that $6.5 billion is linked to "peak hour demand based expansion"?

Just as airlines stagger fares according to capacity and demand to maintain cost effectiveness I believe the time when a country of our rather modest GDP per capita can afford to treat all motorists as equal is gone - a balanced roading policy would sheet home higher costs to those whose actions specifically generate costs, beyond social benefit in particular areas. That is to say instead of throwing away all of $6.5 billion on tarseal the Government should identify "Roads of Disproportionate Cost and split them into two lanes during peak hours - an untaxed High Occupancy Vehicle Lane and an electronically tolled lane for non-commercial vehicles with less than two passengers during peak periods (6am-9am and 3pm-6pm weekdays).

I think there are probably about 20 major roads or motorways, crossing expensive choke points, such as bridges or overpasses, in this countrey's five or six busiest areas, where these situations might apply.

Off -setting this I believe that some of this $6.5 billion should be invested in combination taxi hub, bus transfer interchange and car pool stations in the corridors preceding such tolled areas. This would include various real time and security devices, that allow motorists to offer rides to those waiting, in an organised way. Financial contributions and specialised  laws pertaining to these acting within the parameters of the HOV/Tolled system could apply, as could taxis picking up multiple passengers for a set "point to point fare" - the technology is there to address roading management in this way. Or to provide park and ride facilities in circumstances that allow motorists to opt for express bus use to city centres and major study and employment zones.

This is the beginning of an era where it will be realised the private car is an effective tool but not in every circumstance and a raft of other transport options needs to be engaged according to circumstances. It also recognises that conventional public transport is not always the most effective form of group travel.

I believe public transport can benefit from car pooling only if public transport will support car pooling - many a journey taken one way in concert with another motorist from a lower density country area, will also be taken home by bus, if bussing and car pooling are brought into the same visible pool of options, in electronic media and car-pooler/bus user awareness. It is far better for buses that residents living in lower density and rural and semi-rural areas leave their individual cars at home and car-pool, because that loosens up the "one car/one traveller" pattern. Setting up designated car pool drop off and pick up points, closes to multiple bus route hubs in city outskirt areas also allows switching from carpool vehicle to local bus, to save carpool drivers having to drop off or pick up over too wide an area. Or put another way it extends the range of people who can use a car-pool.

Government support for a varigated, regional network of buses (internally within all towns and cities over 10,000 population and/or linked, to larger provincial centres) and, in rare circumstances, regional commuter trains;  the move towards stratified roading use, and tolling for high cost usage at appropriate times, encourages better use of all resources (such as staggered hours or later work start times or more even spread of employment zones or retention of industries or study facilities in smaller centres).

With National having a stronger base in rural areas than its opponents, this seems agood time for more rural based district councils and municipal organisations to be pushing for state funded contributions towards town centre buses, regional bus and carpool organisation, technology and co-ordination. Parochialism can benefit no one, if teenagers leave home because they can't access nearby tertiary study facilities. Or if in smaller centres car less tourists can not stay overnight (for example Timaru) because there is no early morning coach express system to the nearest International Airpor. In this case the the local restaurant, accommodation and (morning) taxi industry sectors all lose out.

Not least support for regional bus (internal, between centres) and car pooling puts in place significant nascent infrastructures that could help partly protect New Zealanders against the crippling decline in living standards expected as oil prices climb, and food, fertiliser, drugs, roading, synthetic materials and transport costs spiral upwards. If there is already a relatively sophisticated car pool and public transport technology based infrastructure across the whole country this can be racheted upwards, expanded, in the relatively few months such a drastic change could occur within. If not the regional and rural sector, with higher transport costs and farming very oil based could  be the hardest hit

As things stand Key, Joyce and co are taking a huge gamble on "business as usual", gambling with the future of all New Zealanders.

Our Government is ignoring all obvious indicators (a) the world can't go on this way, there just isn't sufficient oil and other minerals etc needed to support this lifestyle into India, China, Russia and elsewhere  (b) less than 4% shortfall in oil against demand is viewed by the MF as likely to induce world-wide recession  (c) quality alternatives to private oil based car or private car use take time, investment and access to resources (materials. skills etc) to develop,  all three factors likely to become extremely scarce and more costly to obtain as oil rises.

Or shall we just continue our drive to oblivion policy?

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