Editorial: Future city calls for bold vision

Photo / Herald on Sunday
Photo / Herald on Sunday

The axiomatic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

It's an idea that plainly hasn't taken root in the Beehive. The Cabinet paper Transport Trends in Auckland suggests a vision for the region that looks in the rear-vision mirror.

It takes as a given "the dominant role of private vehicles in Auckland's transport system along with the modest role of public transport" during the 30 years to 2006 and draws the conclusion that what we need is ... more of the same.

Anyone who has commuted in Auckland for more than a few years knows that a stratehy that invests heavily in roading ignores the lessons of recent history. No sooner has the road network been expanded to meet demand than demand increases. It quickly becomes as congested as it was before the expansion.

As world oil prices send the cost of petrol remorselessly toward $2.50 a litre and as the need to cut carbon emissions becomes critical, a vision that is not built around a radical reimagining of public transport and a disincentivising of single-occupancy car travel is doomed to fail.

The Cabinet paper was one of eight released a few days before the presentation of the Auckland Council's blueprint for the future - the so-called "Auckland Spatial Plan" - in a transparent attempt to hijack the agenda. It is very sniffy about the Auckland Regional Land Transport Strategy's "strong public-transport focus" - including the CBD and Airport Rail Loops and an Avondale-Southdown rail link - and remarks that "the levels of funding proposed do not align well with existing use and would involve a major shift in current policy". But a major shift in current policy is precisely what Auckland needs and is looking for.

The most radical solution to Auckland's transport woes would, of course, be to do nothing at all. As congestion turned to strangulation and then to complete gridlock, public pressure would mount for a sustainable solution.

That's a non-starter because, as we sit stuck in traffic, the regional economy grinds to a halt. But that's what's happening, by degrees, right now. And with the region's population expected to reach 2 million within 20 years, it's only going to get worse.

It has become customary in discussions of Auckland transport to shrug and lament the city's "love affair with the car". But Auckland drivers know that it's a love-hate relationship. And the time has come to think outside the square.

Transport planning is not exactly a sexy phrase. But Aucklanders should make no mistake: what's at stake in the present discussion is the survival of this city as a desirable place to live and its future as an international city - rather than some down-at-heel backwater, stagnating because of inadequate infrastructure.

That calls for bold planning, not resigned rejection of change to "current policy'. A city rail loop will open up the rail network, currently limited by the small corridor leading to Britomart, and encourage uptown CBD development. A futureproofed second harbour crossing must include rail. Simply expanding the roading network is a 20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.

These are expensive plans, the moreso because we face the cost of rebuilding Christchurch. But even if the repayment terms have to be extended, a range of user-pays charges, including electronic tolling and regional fuel taxes, as well as the use of private-public partnerships, can make it manageable.

This city missed its first chance, spurning Dove-Myer Robinson's rapid-rail proposals in the 1960s. We won't get another one after this. The question is not whether we can afford to do it; rather we must ask how anyone can possibly imagine we can afford not to.

- Herald on Sunday

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