Sustainable New Zealand
Promoting ‘soft’ transport options - cycling and walking - has become something of a pet project for central and local
government. Both the 2002 New Zealand Transport Strategy and Land Transport Management Bill require such options to be
incorporated within roading cost-benefit analysis, and a national strategy to increase cycling and walking has just been
released for comment. Regional land transport strategies refer to the need to promote cycling and walking. All consider
the integration of soft transport options as a necessary part of sustainable development.
Indeed, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development considers soft transport options as a key to
sustainability, adding that transport itself is arguably the activity presenting the greatest challenge to sustainable
development. This is largely because gains made in efficiency and design are more than off-set by a desire to travel
further, faster, and more often.
Thus, while cycling and walking are seen as good things, like many good things, most of us see them as being done by
other people. We would all like to cycle and walk more often, but, well, the kids have to go to sport, there’s the
shopping, I have to have my car at work, the only way to see my friends and family is to drive or fly, I hate helmet
hair and getting wet…In addition, improving this kind of sustainability requires not only a shift in attitude, but an
acceptance of a curtailment of rights, in this case, the right to travel. And then there is the real clincher: soft
options are marginal to the real job of transport, which is to boost economic activity. As such, promoting soft options
Human-powered mobility pretty well meets acceptable measures of sustainability. It has low energy intensity, low
pollution, high social interactivty (well, potentially – being the only pedestrian or cyclist beside or on a busy road
can be a lonely experience), and it improves health and well-being. But ultimately, few people can exercise these
options, because of the way we have designed our physical, social and economic infrastructures. In addition, the New
Zealand Government wants us back in the top half of the OECD’s economic rankings. And that, among other things, requires
far better transportation. Which, from a national economy viewpoint, means more efficient transport, and, particularly,
more efficient transport for motorised vehicles.
Thus promoting truly sustainable transport requires re-jigging our life styles and, in particular, expectations for
those systems underpinning our economy.
The Government has introduced a transport strategy and a Land Transport Management Bill requiring the better integration
of transport options, while dealing with analysis showing a need to complete existing roading systems. In other words,
we want more people cycling and walking (among other things) while other people travel faster and further on
purpose-built roads, making it harder for people to cycle and walk.
The roading lobby sees the contradiction, essentially arguing that money raised for roads should not be spent on
cyclists and pedestrians. They recognise the latter are a good thing, but preferably when kept well away from roads
because they claim, as noted, that the real role of transport systems is to promote economic activity. But splitting
these modes defeats the purpose of integrated transport: walking and cycling should be as legitimate an option as any
other; keeping them off main routes (which are main routes for obvious reasons), is a nonsense.
Let’s focus on cycling, and in particular, cycling in Auckland. After all, I am a cyclist, and live in Auckland. But,
more legitimately, as British ex-MP, London mayoral candidate and chair of the UK National Cycling Strategy Board Steve
Norris puts it, if you want sustainable cities, you have to have cycling as a real option. But it has largely been
planned out of urban areas.
The reasons for this are psychological as well as practical. In colonial outposts such as New Zealand, Australia, and
North America, cities evolved with the car. In addition, cycling is synonymous with ‘wimpy’, ‘being poor’, and ‘they
don’t pay a road levy so they shouldn’t be there anyway’. Real people drive cars. In a revealingly honest comment, the
Ministry of Transport noted that internationally, car ownership and use is positively linked to GDP per capita and
personal, or household, incomes. Once you’ve made it, you buy a car. And, once you’ve bought a car, not only do you not
have to cycle, you shouldn’t: it’s not good for the economy.
To show that the economic argument is spurious, consider traffic congestion management. Comparing the footprint of a
cyclist at 10 km per hour versus a car (the footprint including the required stopping distance at that speed), and
taking into account the average low occupancy of cars in Auckland, if ten percent of car drivers shifted to cycles at
peak traffic flow times, congestion could drop around 3-4 per cent; if they used cycle lanes rather than roads, peak
congestion could drop around 8 per cent. Crucially, car-parking problems would ease. The figures look even more
attractive with higher speeds.
In addition, companies could provide cycle facilities (including showers and changing rooms) at substantially less cost
than company cars and parking spaces. This is not to mention that cycle running costs are roughly 3-5 percent of vehicle
running costs; that cycling offers greater mobility for those with limited transport options; and commuter cycling
contributes to the incidental activity now favoured as part of the battle against 'obesogenic' (fat-inducing)
Meanwhile, planning authorities have long mouthed platitudes supporting cycling (and walking), but (with exceptions such
as Christchurch) have done relatively little. As an example, in 1997, the Auckland City Council released its Cycle and Walking Strategy. Council staff detailed the design criteria and goals for achieving better integration of ‘soft transport’ into
Auckland’s travelling mix. Yet a document written some seventeen years earlier, the 1980 Interim Report: Cycling in Auckland also detailed the design criteria and goals for achieving better integration of ‘soft transport’ into Auckland’s
travelling mix. The City Council staff had not, it seemed, been aware of the previous document.
Apart from the lack of institutional memory, this demonstrates the overwhelming influence of the current car culture on
shaping Auckland city. Both the 1980 and 1997 documents concluded that greater Auckland does not plan for, nor actively
encourage, cycling. Things may have improved recently, with annual funding resulting in off-road cycle ways, dedicated
bike and bus-bike lanes, cycle parking facilities, and even serious talk of making it possible to cycle across the
Harbour Bridge, probably Auckland's best example of exclusion-by-design. But the integration is still on the margins.
Transit is currently completing a link from central Auckland through to the main hospital at Grafton. The link excludes
cycling and walking. Certainly, retrofitting a city hard-wired in favour of motorised transport is a headache. But you
would think they could manage to include these options in a new road.
We now have a city designed by default to exclude cyclists. Building a city on an isthmus between two large harbours on
a country already naturally narrow certainly reduces your roading design options. But we then followed that up with road
design features that seem to deliberately exclude consideration of the effect on cyclists. (And it’s the small things
that count – such as failing to properly bevel the edge of roads, thereby leaving a wheel-tripping lip). This created a
momentum for roads, complicated by deferred decision-making, which now means there is a need to complete projects
inherited from outmoded planning regimes.
We now mix in fast cars and slow cyclists in what a colleague described as the growing ‘speed differential’: vehicles
have got faster on roads designed to allow them to go faster, and there are more of them. Cyclists are limited by legs
and lungs and so, in response, behave more anarchically to survive. Which just makes vehicle drivers even madder.
Eventually the anarchists may die out. Not necessarily as a result of being collected by adrenalin-driven drivers, but
through lack of recruitment. Unless the roads and drivers are more cycle friendly, the next generation will simply not
cycle. So we now have a double barrier: physical exclusion by design, and an inability to ride.
The Land Transport Management Bill requires Transfund to prepare a ten-year, long-term financial plan that must take
account of the new Long Term Council Community Plans. This opens up the possibility of the better incorporation of
social and ecological benefit-cost analysis as part of an asset management strategy. The changes increase the likelihood
of options such as cycling receiving more direct funding support, and benefiting from the more accurate targeting of
where the true costs of transport lie.
But watch for the roading lobbies’ continued vociferous attacks on ‘green’ transport. They see these costs as an unfair
imposition, driven by a politically-correct agenda. And it is fair to say the extra costs will fall disproportionately
on some existing road users, who, for commercial reasons, can’t avoid them. Yet this shift reflects the realisation that
these road users have, in effect, been subsidised by the rest of society. The road lobby will bristle at this
suggestion. But the subsidies are largely non-economic, and come in the form of ecological impacts, social dislocation
and poor health. It is true it has taken time for these hidden subsidies to be revealed, but now that they are, they
can’t be ignored. And, by the way, motorists pay road taxes to compensate for the damage they do to public carriageways.
Cyclists don’t do any damage – and we still pay towards non-state highway roading.
- Stephen Knight is an environmental scientist at Auckland University’s Planning Department, and a member of Cycle Action