Rail or more roads? Why that isn’t the question

Transport infrastructure investments can be complementary as part of a holistic transport ecosystem that aims to achieve the best overall outcomes, often addressing multiple economic, social and environmental issues. Instead, different investments are often viewed as an “it’s this or that” situation. For instance, take this article about the Ministry of Transport investigating rapid rail between Hamilton and Auckland. First, it’s worth noting that the article seems to purposefully frame the notion as something like a Japanese bullet train, which naturally invokes alarm bells for most readers. This is despite a quote from the Minister of Transport stating that it is decidedly not that, rather a case for the next step beyond the soon-to-be-introduced rail service between Hamilton and Auckland. So new alignments, better (tilt) trains that can run at higher speeds etc.

However, what I found truly interesting were the comments by Opposition MP for Hamilton East David Bennett. Apart from interpreting it as something outlandish like a bullet train himself, and rubbishing any notion of a better rail service, he rubbishes the current project completely. Yes, the current project (to begin on 3 August) has issues, but is a starter-for-ten that will (hopefully) foment further investment, and maybe in the longer term something like what MOT are investigating. Yet, in doing his rubbishing he said some interesting things:

“Bennett criticised the Government for getting the Hamilton-Papakura service off the ground, when key roading projects had been cancelled.”

This is an interesting comment, because it presupposes that investment in only roads is a better economic outcome. I would have thought that investment in a multi-modal transport corridor would decrease transport costs and provide benefits through congestion reduction, protecting the expressway investment. Why can’t both happen?

“…20,000 people used that route each day, Bennett said, whereas the $90 million train can only take 150 in each carriage.

“It’s going to service a very small number of people.”

This is also interesting because it deliberately misleads the reader. For a start there will be two trains a day and that could take over 500 cars off the road. Second, this is a start-up service, with a clearly defined plan to incrementally develop it as the service beds in and adapts to demand and travel behavioural changes. Auckland has been very, very good at this over the last 15-20 years with developing their commuter rail network. Again, while I have some criticisms about this service, I do at least see a similar approach being taken here, and it goes back to some of the points I made in this post.

Te Huia will begin transporting people between Hamilton and Auckland from 3 August 2020. Will it make a difference? The answer doesn’t necessarily decide that more roads are a better investment.

The question shouldn’t really be about whether rail or road is better, but a nuanced conversation about the best way to handle traffic and people movements. If the rail service isn’t going to attract users, fine, say so, but the answer isn’t necessarily “pour that money into a road”. The answer might be to do it better, or to change the local transport and urban development environment to get better outcomes. Which, incidentally, is what is happening, and why this is a first-step to a much larger project, and why MOT are looking at “rapid rail”.

A potential 500 car reduction on a stretch of busy highway will have an impact. It is about more than simply numbers on one side versus the other, with the most “winning”.  Viewing a transport ecosystem as the sum of its parts is essential to understanding how how one part positively impacts another. Reducing traffic congestion is reliant on appropriate levels of use, so a multi-modal corridor is surely a good way of going about that. And even if the current solution is sub par (there have been – rightly so – criticisms of the scope and scale of the Te Huia Hamilton-Auckland train) it is a start nevertheless, and does not warrant criticism of better, more holistic,m mode-neutral approaches to a busy transport corridor. That’s the kind of policy and planning you want to see, not finger in the air “but it looks like roads rock so let’s keep doing that” kind of thinking.

This kind of reporting, and the types of views expressed by Bennett are pretty disheartening. Yet it is atypical of attitudes towards transport in New Zealand. It shows that as a country we still aren’t yet capable of having conversations about transport that goes beyond the “it’s this or that, period” mentality. I think that this stems from an aversion to change, and that as such a car dependent nation most people as a default ask the question “how can you make my drive better” rather than “can we do this better”. This leads to a tendency to look to approaches that confirm the status quo rather than seek changes that deliver better outcomes. This is usually supported by “silver bullet” technological solutions or behavioural excuses such as “New Zealanders just love their cars”. In essence, the outcome sought subtly, and confusingly for most, shifts from one about moving and housing people to one about moving and housing cars. Changing that – at least to some degree – needs to be seen as a priority as much as implementing the framework to build more sustainable transport networks.

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