This op-ed appeared in the NZ Herald’s Infrastructure Report. Read more views here.
New Zealand has an infrastructure deficit. For decades, local and central governments did not make sufficient investments in maintenance or new spending in water and transport, in part due to the failed economic model that seeks to limit public spending and debt. Various other factors also limited investment in renewable electricity generation — including lack of planning clarity and the market structure. All of those need to be addressed.
The way we catch up on investment can and must help us respond to the climate crisis. We can’t look to last century’s plans — now is the time to radically reduce emissions and use nature-based solutions to ensure our towns and cities are resilient to the climatic changes that are now inevitable.
We are just starting to see the extreme weather impacts of climate change, and they have been devastating. But this challenge is also an opportunity for more energy-efficient infrastructure, for a transport system that moves people and goods at a lower cost as well as lower environmental damage, and for our towns and cities to be even better placed to live.
The upshot is that we must address the infrastructure deficit in a way that also future-proofs our communities by reducing harmful greenhouse pollution and enabling greater resilience. What does this look like?
More homes and mixed-use zones. This means local shops, medical centres, early childhood centres, schools, parks, and playgrounds within the existing urban footprint. Complete streets that make it safe for young children and people of all ages and abilities to walk, cycle, scoot, wheel and use so many other micro-mobility devices.
Fast-tracking sensible surface light rail with extremely frequent electric or zero-emission buses in our largest cities. Frequent all-day electric bus services, and ferries in some places, in our small to medium size towns.
Parking and transport management that includes more direct pricing, like congestion charging. This will incrementally see the urban roading network and parking supply used more effectively, so it can shrink and make room for more of what we need in our cities: including homes and green spaces to absorb stormwater, provide biodiversity corridors, and reduce the potential for extreme heat in our cities.
We need large-scale investment in regional rapid rail, with connecting bus services, on our existing rail network to connect our communities across the motu.
Some roads and rail lines will need to move because of extreme weather events. However, there is no way we can afford to spend our entire budget replacing roads. We have a limited carbon budget between now and 2050. We have a limited transport budget. We must spend our transport and carbon budget in the way that most enables people and goods to move with significantly less carbon.
It is worth noting that the public money put into roads only goes so far. Households and businesses have to spend many times more than that every year on vehicles and fuel just to use the roads. The total cost to New Zealand of our heavily car-reliant transport system is many tens of billions of dollars.
It now makes more sense to prioritise spending on our rail network, coastal shipping and public transport. Every investment in those modes enables more people and goods to move at lower cost and lower carbon.
The actions I have outlined above should not be controversial. They are all consistent with many specific recommendations in the 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy published by Te Waihanga — The Infrastructure Commission.
However, while there is cross-party support for congestion pricing in Auckland, National and Act have announced housing policies that are the opposite of this advice. If they are in government, we can expect not just a lack of meaningful action on climate change, but a doubling down on the planning and infrastructure approach of the past that increases urban sprawl, causes high personal transport costs, and will make climate pollution worse.
The only barrier standing between us and infrastructure that enhances our lives and protects our climate is political will.
Cities all over the world have spent the past few decades reclaiming public space for the people who live there. There are multiple benefits to this: cleaner air, more accessible and affordable transport, and opportunities for increased green and public gathering space.
Over time, we will see more room for affordable homes where people want to live.
The Green Party has long campaigned for sensible and effective policies that will address the climate crisis. Imagine how much more we can deliver in the heart of the next government.
The time is now.
· Julie Anne Genter is the Green Party infrastructure spokeswoman