Imran Muhammad: Politics keeping hand-brake on public transport progress

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Momentum must begin with fresh look at the problems facing Auckland's network.

Traffic congestion in Auckland calls for more effective public transport system. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Traffic congestion in Auckland calls for more effective public transport system. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Auckland is renowned for its congestion and has some of the worst levels of public transport provision in a western city in the developed world. Eighty-seven per cent of Aucklanders travel to work by car and get stuck daily in traffic.

Just 7 per cent use public transport to get to work. Why is this the case, and why are some buses in Auckland always empty?

Ask anyone on the streets of Auckland, and the response is often that Auckland public transport does not meet their travel needs.

And if public transport fails to serve the large number of commuters travelling during peak hours, how can it benefit shoppers, students and low-income people who travel during non-peak hours?

Historically, the function of public transport has been to provide mobility for people without access to cars. Fifty years ago this meant the great majority of urban dwellers, but by the 2006 Census only 8 per cent of Kiwi households were without cars.

But the future risks of this dependence on cars - increased social and economic costs and environmental impacts - mean cost-effective and less polluting alternatives must be found to efficiently serve the urban transport needs.

There is a real need for good-quality public transport in Auckland.

Australian academic Professor Peter Newman puts the poor performance of public transport in Auckland down to its urban sprawl. One answer is building medium-density housing and offices near train stations and along public transport routes throughout the city - like New Lynn and Tamaki transit-oriented development, providing patronage for public transport.

Another Australian academic, Dr Paul Mees, thinks simplifying public transport routes, increasing frequency and developing a coherent and integrated ticketing system can improve public transport in Auckland. The "partial" success of the Northern Express on the North Shore is a great example of this.

Both have certainly identified factors that have influenced the successes and failures of Auckland public transport. In overcoming these sorts of issues, Perth and Vancouver have built respectable and efficient public transport systems. But isn't the real challenge for Auckland public transport deep rooted in our institutions that are ultimately responsible for developing and managing public transport?

Institutional challenges in Auckland may include, but are not limited to, conflicting priorities at central and local government levels, political ideologies that influence transport strategies and funding systems, limited opportunities for genuine community involvement, lack of co-ordination between different public transport modes and the pro-automobile mindset embedded in societal, professional and institutional culture.

Aucklanders should be satisfied that public transport remains high on the agenda of the Auckland Council and its mayor, Len Brown. They have made theoretical and practical progress on the City Rail Link, refurbishment of train stations, electrification of Auckland rail, introduction of new electric trains in 2014 and the introduction of a new HOP card system. However, making "real progress" in developing a high-quality public transport system for Auckland demands a search for fresh ideas beyond the aspirations of the Auckland Council. These fresh ideas should go beyond exploring new projects and focus on redefining the problems and people's needs for public transport.

In 2013, I will start a project, funded by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fast-Grant, to develop a new approach that enables in-depth understanding of the nature of institutional challenges for public transport in Auckland.

I am particularly keen to work collaboratively with political parties, central and local government officials, professionals, civil society, activists, researchers and primarily with the diverse and exciting communities of Auckland to create positive change that will assist in developing a first-world public transport system for Auckland; Aucklanders desperately need such a system.


*Dr Imran Muhammad is a senior lecturer at Massey's School of People, Planning and Environment. He was recently awarded a $345,000 Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fast-Start grant for a three-year project on the politics of Auckland transport.

- NZ Herald

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