Some plans heading down wrong road

Auckland has a long tradition of making wrong decisions about public transport and several recent decisions indicate we are maintaining this tradition.

Auckland is not entering unknown territory. A multitude of cities overseas have explored diverse transport options and have much to teach us.

How well do our leaders' notions about public transport stack up?

* Integrated ticketing

The Auckland Regional Council says we need central control of public transport so we can have integrated ticketing. That's a red herring. If it were true, world travellers would depend on a single worldwide bank to use credit cards in cash machines. They don't.

Aucklanders do need an intelligent smartcard which can interrogate any "card-reader" in any vehicle connected into the system. If the ARC controls all the "public transport", its integrated ticketing would be limited to operators under its control.

What about taxis, water-taxis, or shuttles? And what about future modes of transport, sky-cabs perhaps?

Do we really believe that a monopoly provider will be an enthusiastic innovator?

* Monopolies

Monopoly transport providers have been known to use their power to protect their bad investments. For example, many United States cities that have invested heavily in rail have watched their public transport network lose overall market share because monopoly providers have closed down competitive bus routes to try to boost numbers on their loss-making trains. Everyone is worse off.

Some commentators assume our bus system must be bad because it is a Thatcherite (deregulated and privatised) model.

But Italian researcher Francesco Ramella says Britain's Thatcherite public transport is more efficient than those of Germany, France and Italy.

The British systems are also less frequently held to ransom by industrial inaction. Dispersed ownership disperses union power.

* The key role

The main role of public transport is to serve those who do not drive their own vehicle because they are too young, too old, too poor, or are handicapped. Taxis and shuttles are excluded from the debate.

Taxis carry more passengers a year that the train system ever will, yet planners intend to ban taxis from Grafton Bridge bus lanes, even though Auckland's nearby major public hospital is a big generator of taxi trips.

* Auckland region

We are often told that Auckland has poor public transport use compared with cities such as Adelaide. But such arguments compare the Auckland region with the Adelaide metropolitan area.

We must compare apples with apples. Half Auckland's region - including Rodney and Franklin districts - barely have roads, let alone buses.

A metropolitan area needs a population density of 8000 people a square mile to make rail viable. Hong Kong has a population of 6.5 million at a density of 76,200 a square mile. Auckland has 1.26 million at a density of 5500 a square mile. That's why we can't we have a rail system like that of Hong Kong.

* Bus lanes

Auckland commuter-bus performance is one of the best in the world, and the North Shore bus lane will soon make it even better. But a northern bus lane carrying buses every 15 minutes is a huge under-use of expensive infrastructure.

The buses only need an empty "cocoon" in front to gain their "travel-time" advantage. Lisbon is trying out "intermittent bus lanes", where traffic lights allow other vehicles to trail behind the buses until another bus enters the lane. Such a measure could reduce congestion on the harbour bridge.

* Fossil fuels

There are many good reasons to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. Take your pick. But whatever the reason, if we want to reduce our use of oil we should move people out of public transport and into private cars. No, I have not put this the wrong way round.

Modern cars use comparatively less passenger-kilometre energy than buses or trains. In the 70s it was the other way around.

This energy efficiency gap grows wider by the day. In the US, a Honda Insight uses 1326 British Thermal Units for each vehicle mile. The average car uses 3549 BTU and a bus 4160 BTU.

The best way to reduce transport energy consumption is to encourage people to use smaller and more efficient cars. The energy benefit will apply to all trips in the region. Commuter trips are a tiny percentage of vehicle trips and should be the last of our "energy" concerns.

* Electrification

Electrifying rail will make no difference. The electricity must be generated somehow and from a reliable source - early-morning wind is not reliable.

One argument says quiet electric trains would encourage people to live near railway stations. But freight engines would remain diesel-powered.

Operators proposed running passenger trains by day and the freight service by night. So "station neighbours" would have quieter days - but noisier nights.

It is time to recognise that cars are the most efficient and effective form of transport ever devised and that motorists are not addle-brained "addicts". We just make sensible choices.

* Owen McShane is director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies.

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