Some countries can afford to waste a lot of money. New Zealand is not one of those countries. New Zealand is a long way from large markets and its population is tiny. Think the Chatham Islands on a global scale.
TVNZ's Country Calendar featured a farm on the Chathams a few weeks ago. The farmer talked about how much he enjoyed living in a lovely, thinly populated place and the high costs of transporting goods and supplies to and from the "mainland". To keep the farm viable, he said, they had to be very careful with their investments.
We are that farmer. We in Auckland should think exactly like him when we respond to a renewed sales pitch on light rail. Transport Minister Michael Woods, who is trying to straighten out the train wreck left by Phil Twyford, has set up a desk in the NZ Transport Agency tasked with selling a scheme to the public this time before the Government decides on it.
In truth, national transport officials have never been entirely sold on light rail either. It's very expensive and cannot go to all the places buses go. The only people really keen on it are Auckland planners and even they know it won't be remotely economic unless they can convince a lot of people to change the way they like to live, work and move around the city.
But it looks pretty, especially on paper where sleek, bright railcars can be drawn sliding along streets uncluttered by other traffic. It looks pretty nice in cities that now have it too. TVNZ's Sydney reporter always stands in front of it for his updates on the current Covid outbreak there.
Light rail is the latest fashion accessory for cities that can afford it. It has been heavily promoted by its manufacturers over the past 20 years and it makes a city look so very modern. I first saw it in Valencia, where it ran the short distance from the city centre to the America's Cup harbour. If it arrived as you were walking past a stop, it was worth catching. Otherwise it was just as quick to walk.
I next saw it in Australia on the Gold Coast. The bus from Coolangatta stopped halfway along the journey to Surfers Paradise and we had to transfer to a swish new train for no reason except that a gullible transit authority had bought it.
Light rail does nothing buses are not already doing better. Advocates argue light rail is more efficient because it uses less road space than several buses would need to move the same number of passengers. But that is a very narrow comparison. Buses range far wider than a fixed rail route, serving many more corners of a city.
And even buses cannot begin to serve all the destinations Aucklanders reach every day in their own cars. This is a bad time to be making an investment decision on any form of public transport. Everyone in Auckland has noticed the buses are nearly empty most of the time now that Covid-19 has accelerated trends to more home working and less commuting.
Roads are still congested and always will be, because people prefer to travel by car. Even the most passionate public transport advocates, you'll discover if you run into them in their daily work, have come by car. Climate change may change the fuel but I wouldn't bet it will change the convenience of personal transport.
Whenever we're invited to bet on infrastructure we're betting with the country's economic future. New Zealand's disadvantages of scale and distance should loom large in our minds every time we discuss where ports should be, whether railways are worth another bail-out, whether cycleways will be used.
Ever since New Zealand's economy was put on a competitive footing successive governments have been acutely aware that they cannot afford to waste money. Consequently, we have had very good public policy, often cited in The Economist, though our economy is too small to appear on the tables it publishes every week.
But if the present Government is conscious of the country's disadvantages, how do we get a decision like the bike bridge? I am still trying to imagine how that got through the Cabinet. Solid ministers such as Andrew Little, Megan Woods, David Parker and Stuart Nash were presumably at the table that day. What were they doing? Were their minds on an upcoming item, were they thinking of lunch?
At least they have hesitated on light rail, sending it back for public discussion. The latest version, issued by Woods' Establishment Unit last week proposed a track to Māngere from Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd, or possibly below the roads in an open trench. It's a joke, surely, like the bike bridge.
If only we could afford to laugh.