Incredibly, it’s come to this. Our two major political parties are now fighting this election over which of them will build the bigger and more expensive roads.
National promises a whole new bunch of “roads of national significance”. Labour will build two road tunnels under the Waitematā Harbour.
Labour also remains besotted with tunnels: it’s opted for another one, running 21km under the harbour from Westhaven all the way to Albany, to carry light rail.
As with its light-rail line to the airport, half of which will be in a tunnel, the harbour tunnels will be more expensive, take longer to build and cause more emissions during construction than the alternatives.
National is even worse. It will scrap existing light-rail proposals in Auckland and Wellington and has no plans for any other mass or rapid transit, beyond the rapid bus routes already in the Government programme.
Both parties intend to spend many tens of billions of dollars on these plans, over several decades.
They are fantasists, the pair of them.
We have urgent transport problems that need addressing now. Global tipping points are closer than we thought. And instead of confronting any of that, they both promise the moon, for much later, paid for on the never-never. With projects that simply will not produce the results they promise.
Honestly, what is wrong with them? No, please, I don’t need an answer.
There’s a simple test to apply to transport plans: Will they lower emissions? If governments cannot show how that will happen, they should have to find another way.
This test should be applied to all relevant policy, but especially to transport in Auckland, because it accounts for 40 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
That’s twice the national average: In effect, cars are the cows of Auckland. And not just because of their impact on the climate. Tragically, as far as Labour and National are concerned, cars have become too sacred to touch.
The transport policies of both these parties will cause carbon emissions to rise sharply. This is because they will encourage more driving and, for a decade or three yet, most vehicles in this country are likely to be fossil-fuelled.
But it’s not just about emissions. Congestion, the cost to households, road safety, the urban environment, public health, air pollution: All are in urgent need of attention.
And strange as it may seem, the best solutions for emissions are also the best solutions for all those other problems. Make a dent in one, you’ll make a dent in them all.
But if we build more roads we will make them all worse.
Transport Minister David Parker seems to understand this. Talking up the benefits of light rail and bus lanes on the bridge, he told RNZ on Monday, “We’ve got to get more people out of their cars. You don’t force them to do it, you just give them cheaper and faster alternatives.”
That’s true, but if he was serious about tackling either congestion or emissions any time in the near future, he would have announced some quick fixes.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, are pleading desperately for the world to do this.
Mayor Wayne Brown wants it too. He has another simple test and it’s a good one: Is there, he likes to ask, a “better, faster, cheaper” way to address this problem right now?
His answer is yes. He wants “dynamic bus lanes on all feeder routes”, which could be achieved “quickly and relatively cheaply with IT, rather than slowly and expensively by pouring a lot of concrete”.
Congestion pricing – charging a toll for vehicles entering the central city or using a specified road – would also help. Parker agrees that “should be considered”.
But it’s been considered. Congestion pricing has spent years grinding through the parliamentary system, with general support, yet somehow has not become part of either Labour or National’s policy, as announced to date.
As for the tunnels, Brown says, “Even our grandfathers knew you can build bridges a lot more cheaply than you can build tunnels.”
Parker’s own logic also points to faster solutions. He says the growth in population on the Shore will cause the harbour bridge to “grind to a halt” in 10 to 15 years.
But his party’s plans will not come to fruition before then. And nor has National announced anything faster.
There’s another problem with Parker’s position. If he really does want to get more people out of their cars, he has to stop making it easier for people to stay in them.
But under Labour’s plan, private vehicles will end up with more lanes across the harbour than they have now. They will even reinforce the priority they give to cars by building the road tunnels first.
Only when that’s done will two lanes on the harbour bridge be dedicated to buses and another two to walking and cycling.
Sadly, very long-term and very expensive plans for light rail look like little more than window-dressing for a more-roads policy.
A few myths still linger in this debate.
1. ‘A plan for all modes of transport is a balanced plan’
Not true. Transport plans that continue to expand the infrastructure for private motor vehicles reinforce the status quo. That is, they further embed the things that created the transport crisis in the first place.
2. ‘Public transport is more run down than ever’
True, it was badly disrupted by Covid, but bus patronage in Auckland is now at 83 per cent of its 2019 levels, and climbing, and the bus driver shortage has nearly disappeared.
This means services are back. Last week, says Auckland Transport, bus cancellations were down to 2.2 per cent and reliability was at 96.6 per cent. Only 0.9 per cent of train services were cancelled, with reliability at 99.2 per cent.
Over the past decade, the bus network has been made more efficient, with better routes, more frequency, more double-deckers and more electric buses. To the north, northwest and east, busways are being built or improved.
The rail network has been electrified, with double tracking and new trains, and is vastly better than it was 20 years ago – although KiwiRail’s current upgrades have undermined that. The CRL will double capacity.
There’s a lot more to do, of course, but calling it “more run down than ever”, as some commentators love to do, is lazy and cynical.
The biggest single improvement required for public transport is faster trip times. That requires priority rights for buses on the roads. Any Government serious about making buses more attractive, to help get drivers to leave the car at home, would do everything they could to address that. Including on the Shore.
And as Brown has indicated, they might just find they have willing partners in Auckland Council and Auckland Transport.
3. ‘The harbour bridge is failing’
National says this, but it isn’t true, either. The Government’s plan suggests as much, with its commitment to continue using the bridge for six lanes of general traffic and buses.
“Car dependency” is the condition Auckland suffers from, and Labour and National are not alone in being too frightened to do anything about it.
In London, Boris Johnson was once instrumental in creating “ultra-low emission zones”, which drivers must pay a hefty fee to pass through. But because of electoral backlash, new PM Rishi Sunak wants them rolled back and Johnson agrees. So does the British Labour Party.
But this wilful blindness can’t last, there or here or anywhere. We’ve entered the warm-up period now. Pun intended. The northern summer is hotter than it’s been for 125,000 years; our own late summer was wrecked by storms more vicious than any we had known.
Political leaders are supposed to be warming up for the task of governing in a climate-crisis world.
Instead, they’re turning their backs. Perhaps the biggest problem of Labour and National’s multibillion-dollar fantasies is that they both seem to assume there won’t be any more large demands on the money or intense pressures on where and how we live.
It’s like they didn’t notice those late summer storms at all.
This will not get easier. But inviting us to dream about how good 2050 could be if we could just build one more road, while the world starts to burn? A thousand curses on them both.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.