Simon Wilson: Auckland Transport’s day of shame


How did it come to this? The board of Auckland Transport (AT) will sign off today on a 10-year transport plan that contains no meaningful strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

This is despite their knowing the Government has committed us to a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 and net zero by 2050.

They also know the Zero Carbon Act requires the Government to produce a blueprint this year for achieving those goals. That blueprint will include big reductions in Auckland’s transport emissions.

And they know that Auckland Council, of which AT is a part, has committed the whole city to a 64 per cent reduction in transport emissions by 2030.

Despite all this, the likely impact of AT’s Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) will be to lower carbon emissions over the next 10 years by only 1 per cent. And that includes the impact of the feebate scheme for electric vehicles (EVs).

AT is not alone in foisting this weak plan on us. The Regional Transport Committee, with membership drawn from central and local government, has already signed off on it. And, just last week, so did Auckland Council.

There are lots of transport planning documents, but RLTP is the one that rules them all, because it is a statutory document. It sets the legally enforceable framework for what authorities can and cannot do.

It’s refreshed every three years. Effectively, this new RLTP allows meaningful decisions on how to reduce emissions to be delayed for at least that long.

Nobody is hanging their heads in shame at this. The politicians and officials who do grasp the scale of the problem say they are upset and have been working hard to get a better result. What they’ve achieved, they say, is better than what might have been.

But it’s not hard to think that in back rooms there are other officials, and perhaps some politicians, who will be clinking the champagne flutes.

How did it come to this?

Adrienne Young-Cooper, chairwoman of the AT board, told the council last week the plan is “consistent” with council policies including its climate action plan. It’s very hard to see how that can be true.

“We’re acutely aware of the challenges that climate poses for Auckland,” she said. AT was “looking forward to working with council to further reduce emissions”.

AT executive Hamish Bunn, one of the principal architects of the RLTP, declared that in a city expected to grow by 22 per cent, holding emissions at around their current level is “very significant”.

He boasted that 49 per cent of spending will be on public transport, calling this “an extraordinary step change”.

And that, right there, goes to the heart of the issue.

Auckland Transport has conflated spending on public transport with climate action. It might seem logical: more buses, trains and ferries means more people riding them, so fewer driving cars, right?

Wrong. Auckland has had strongly rising rates of public transport use for a decade, but emissions have also risen. The reason: population growth.

At that council meeting, Councillor Richard Hills, chairman of the environmental committee, put it this way: “The big problem is that all the new public transport spending will stabilise traffic by soaking up the growth. It won’t reduce car dependency, therefore it won’t reduce emissions.”

The best example is the traffic on the harbour bridge. The North Shore population is growing but vehicle numbers on the bridge are not. Buses have soaked up the growth: they account for almost 40 per cent of peak time commutes.

That’s a major achievement to be celebrated, from a congestion point of view. But it has not lowered emissions.

The lesson is that while spending more on public transport and less on roads is essential, it’s only part of the picture. Climate action in the cities must mean less driving.

Auckland Transport has not been prepared to confront this.

It gets worse. In a very late change to the plan, AT told council last week that spending on most of the major public transport projects would be deferred until late in the 10-year cycle.

This includes the long-awaited Eastern Busway connecting Panmure and Botany, the new northwest rapid bus service, the Northern Busway extension, the creation of a rapid bus line from Botany to Manukau, and various cycling and community projects.

When Hamish Bunn said “extraordinary step change”, he largely meant these projects. But pushing the spending to the back of the 10-year period really means putting it on hold until the next iteration of the plan, in 2024.

This isn’t a step change. It’s treading water.

Most councillors said they were appalled, but felt there was little they could do.

To their credit, several of them have been fighting the good fight for months, pushing for higher investments in public transport and cycling and trying to get AT to focus on ways to reduce driving.

The buzzword for that is VKT, or “vehicle kilometres travelled”. New Zealand has one of the highest VKT rates in the world and reducing it will be the key to any good transport emissions strategy.

In the meeting last week, Councillor Pippa Coom noted that VKT is “referred to in the RLTP, but only to say it’s difficult”.

“Where,” she asked, “does the plan outline the pathway we need to be on?”

In the end, council endorsed the RLTP in a way it hopes will force AT to recognise that pathway and clamber onto it. On a motion from Councillor Chris Darby, who chairs the planning committee, council will work with AT to creating a far-reaching new transport emissions reduction plan.

It will look at congestion charging, more bus lanes and safe cycleways, and more growth near public transport routes and in existing urban areas. It will also address equity issues, which could lead to cheaper fares and more services in lower-income areas.

Councillor Angela Dalton of Manurewa spoke convincingly about this. “We should put equity directly into every transport report,” she said. “I don’t believe we have done that. We must be prudent that our emissions reductions strategy doesn’t write a cheque that our South Auckland community can’t cash.”

A preliminary report on this is due in August and a “progress update” in December.

So why such a weak plan now? Councillors and AT itself say they have had little room to move. According to Hills, as little as 5 per cent of RLTP spending is truly “discretionary”.

The City Rail Link dominates and other big projects like motorway extensions are largely funded by the Government, so “out of scope” for RLTP reform. Maintenance spending, known as “renewals”, also limits the ability to refocus.

It makes a mockery of the process. AT received close to 6000 submissions on the draft RTLP: of the 10 most common concerns, nine related to not doing enough about the climate crisis.

That suggests AT has a mandate, right now, to produce a better RLTP. How dare they not do that?

AT’s deputy chairman, Wayne Donnelly, told the council he had high hopes for progress. “There’s a lot in play over the next six to 12 months, and we will be able to reassess,” he said.

It’s an old refrain. AT has been promising to address climate change, soon, for a decade now.

He waka eke noa, as the Government likes to say. It doesn’t mean we’re all in this together except the politicians and officials who say their hands are tied but they’ll do it later. It means them too.

It’s a crisis. Every delay makes change harder. If not now, when?

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