Simon Wilson: Big dreams, small goals in Government transport plans


According to the new Minister of Transport, Michael Wood, the Government has a clear priority in transport policy. “We will be driven by the broad decarbonisation agenda,” he told me bluntly in an interview last weekend.

I wasn’t sure if the pun was intended. I also wasn’t sure what he meant. There’s been a big Climate Change and Business conference in Auckland this week, organised by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS). But the minister missed a chance to help drive the “decarbonisation agenda” because he wasn’t there.

In fact, although hundreds of experts from business, local government, central government agencies, the diplomatic corps, iwi and other NGOs turned up, the only MPs in the room were the Climate Change Minister, the Green’s James Shaw, and Environment Minister David Parker. No Auckland councillors were present either.

Russel Norman of Greenpeace reminded the conference that under the Zero Carbon Act the country’s emissions are supposed to be cut in half by 2030. Currently, he said, we’re on track for a 16 per cent increase by that date. Decarbonisation is an urgent issue.

I’d asked Wood about his predecessor, Phil Twyford, a politician with a big vision who had not managed to realise his plans for achieving that vision. How was Wood going to proceed: would he push for big changes?

Or would he focus on managing what was right in front of him? Some of his cabinet colleagues spent the last term doing that; they rarely got in trouble but they didn’t achieve much either.

“We have to do both,” Wood said. He praised Twyford. He said he’d built good relations with local government and central government agencies, and the “four priorities” for transport he had established were the right ones.

That’s decarbonisation, mode shift (getting more people to use public transport and active options like walking and cycling), road safety and freight efficiency.

Easy enough to say. After three years, how will we measure success?

“Significant progress in all those areas.”

Not very specific. Wood wouldn’t be drawn on how much progress he would make with light rail or any other project. He wants to implement Twyford’s policies, but he knows the lesson: no silly promises.

Still, is it too much to ask that he makes a few sensible ones? What about declaring an end-date for importing petrol-driven private motor vehicles?

“We’re not looking at it,” he said.

I pushed him. How is it credible to talk about decarbonisation if there’s no plan to phase out petrol engines?

“It’s not in our policy mix at the moment,” he said. “We haven’t discussed it.”

Britain, the left-hand-drive market we’re closely aligned to, has had a phase-out policy for three years, but the Tory Government now accepts that is too late and is poised, with Labour support, to bring the deadline forward from 2040 to 2030.

You might think it would rankle in the Labour ranks here, that Boris Johnson is eating their lunch on climate change. Wood maintained a steady smile as he talked: I got the sense that it does rankle.

British High Commissioner Laura Clarke, in her keynote closing address to the conference, spelled out the challenge: “We need to put climate change at the heart of all financial decisions and we need to ascribe nature the respect it deserves,” she said.

And here’s the thing for our Government. Good intentions, check. But presented with an essential policy for achieving them, a policy that’s obvious, achievable and should be easy to sell to the public, they’ve got nothing. They haven’t got round to discussing it.

It’s woolly headed and I really hope it stops.

To his credit, Michael Wood seemed confident that it would. He pointed out that early next year the Climate Change Commission will report on carbon budgeting. The law requires the Government to respond with an emissions-reduction plan for the whole country.

Kirk Hope, from Business NZ, told that EDS conference this week the carbon budget proposals would be “confronting”. But, he also said, we have to do it.

Russel Norman called for the commission to be given a stronger role, with statutory powers to influence the price of carbon in the same way the Reserve Bank is in charge of monetary settings.

“Surely climate change is as important as inflation,” he said.

I asked Rod Carr, chairman of the commission, about that. He declined to say he agreed. “We’ll give the politicians some tough goals,” he said. “It’ll be up to them. But put it this way: if they fail, perhaps we’ll need a larger role.”

Michael Wood is upbeat. “The job is to get things done in this space,” he said. He meant transformational transport projects. “Look at our manifesto. We have a political and moral duty to deliver.”

I asked him if the PM and his other colleagues saw it the same way.

“Yes,” he said.

He listed the “priority projects” that were “not many years away” from being completed. Most are under construction now: the City Rail Link, the Eastern Busway, rapid bus from the airport to Manukau, electrification of the rail line to Pukekohe and a new “third main” line dedicated to freight in south Auckland.

Wood’s list also contained two projects where there has been no material progress. One was SkyPath, allowing cycling and walking across the harbour bridge. The other was light rail from the city centre to Mangere.

The Ministry of Transport will report on the light rail options soon. Wood believes the new Government is poised to make a decision and, finally, get moving.

He didn’t mention light rail to the west, “because it’s far less advanced”. He didn’t mention the extra roads announced in January.

And he didn’t mention a new harbour crossing, except to say it was listed in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) for the 2030s. “That’s where it sits at the moment.”

All these projects will impact congestion in Auckland, but they may not have the decarbonisation effect Wood is hoping for. At the EDS conference, independent analyst Paul Winton had some startling news about the $20 billion the Government plans to spend on transport infrastructure.

His modelling suggests it will have very little impact on emissions.

“Climate change isn’t an infrastructure problem,” Winton said. “What we need is behavioural change, with clear leadership from the Government.”

Andrew Caseley, CEO at the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), asked him what three priorities he would present to cabinet, if he was Michael Wood. Winton’s answer:

• A big campaign to persuade people to travel less. Work at home, if you can, some of the time.

• Treat active travel as public transport, by allocating much more space to it, using planter boxes and whatever it takes to do it quickly. Dollar for dollar, he said, cycling is 20 times more effective at reducing emissions than regular public transport.

• Put four times as many buses into service, and make space on the roads for them.

You’d save the $20 billion, he said, and be far more effective. None of this is currently planned, by the Government or Auckland Transport (AT).

AT’s CEO Shane Ellison was at the conference. He disagrees with Winton on some things, but he did say this: “If we want to reduce carbon emissions, doing what we’ve always done ain’t gonna touch the sides.”

As for the minister, he clearly has high hopes, but does he grasp that message? Actually, does anyone in charge of transport planning – including Auckland Transport?

David Parker made one of the closing addresses to the conference. His big hope, he said, relates to the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. A goal is one thing. Parker wants the country, within the next three years, to put itself on a “credible pathway” to achieving it.

I’ll report soon in more detail on the conference and on Paul Winton’s work.

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