Is Auckland’s transport becoming more or less accessible?
Is Auckland’s public transport becoming more or less accessible?
By Daphne Lawless
This article will appear in Fightback's upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.
Increasing the use of public transport – buses, trains, ferries and trams/light rail – and reducing reliance on private cars is recognized by most on the Left and centre as an essential part of the transition to a sustainable, post-capitalist future. Capitalism’s devotion to private cars and the roading needed to make them usable has – as previous Fightbackarticles have explained1 – contributed to the destruction of working-class and Pasefika communities in Auckland, as well as making large areas of land unusable for agriculture or housing. That’s not even to mention the huge waste of resources and labour going into road-building, or the toll of deaths and injuries on our roads.
But consider the public transport you actually know in your city. Is it good enough to enable you to live life to the fullest? Or would you not be able to function in life if you didn’t have your own private car? The real goal of a public transport system should be to make working, living and playing Accessible to all citizens, whether they own a car or not – and whatever their physical or mental health, or their family needs. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that current (run-down, under-funded, inefficient) systems don’t cut it – but what kind of changes do we need?
Since the “Super-City” amalgamation of Auckland in 2010 – 1.5 million people under one council – many steps have been taken to throw 60 years of motorway madness into reverse gear. Some of the most significant have been electrified trains and recent rationalisation of our bus services into “New Networks”. But is there a danger that improvements in public transport – and other recent reforms to housing and urban design, aiming for a more sustainable and liveable city – might end up becoming yet another public good “captured” by the already privileged – either socio-economically, or in terms of physical mobility?
The current Labour-led government recently granted a long-standing request for the Auckland Council to impose a fuel tax to pay for further public transport improvements. From a mainstream economic point of view, putting up the price of petrol is an efficient “polluter pays” system which not only earns money but gives an “economic signal” to people to not use their cars so much.
Unfortunately, driving less is simply not an option for many working people. Many will tell you that owning a private car is simply compulsory – it’s like a tax. Because of shift work or the location of many large work sites on the city fringes, public transport simply won’t get you there efficiently or reliably, and you’ll get fired. Then there’s the need to do shopping, take the kids to school or to sports, and so on.
These things are of course much simpler if you work an office job in the city and you’re able to live within walking/cycling distance of schools and shops. But – with Auckland’s property market out of control, to the benefit of those who gentrified the inner-city neighbourhoods in the 1980s – living somewhere you don’t need to own a car has become, paradoxically, a privilege of the mainly Pākehā middle classes.
As previously discussed, “economic apartheid” over the last 60 years has restricted working people, especially from migrant communities, to sprawling, auto-dependent outer suburbs. And the current property bubble only makes things worse. Worse still, it is these very privileged suburbs who have gotten the lion’s share of the benefits of recent transport improvements2:
Auckland's public transport
accessibility is performing "poorly", a newly released
report says. Using 2013 census data and 2015 public
transport data it found Auckland's network performance was
significantly lower than Brisbane, Perth and
Highest levels of accessibility tended to be centralised within Auckland, while its fringes, especially to the south and east, were worse off.
Accessibility was determined by a commuter's ability to reach their workplace by bus, train or ferry within 30-minutes during peak morning traffic.
Low-income families tended to be confined to distant neighbourhoods with less public transport infrastructure, meaning they had fewer opportunities to find good jobs.
Greater Auckland editor Matthew Lowrie said Auckland's public transport system had been largely focused on improving connections to the centre city, with the fringes seeing little improvement.
Auckland councillor Efeso Collins, from the working-class and multicultural Manukau ward, had this to say in a recent article:3
Due to low
household incomes, my community doesn’t have the luxury of
paying additional tax now, to benefit future generations.
For those who are struggling to provide basic necessities
for their whānau, further tax, no matter how
well-intentioned in principle, can seem
Sam Warburton, an Economist and Research Fellow for The New Zealand Initiative... identified that less fuel-efficient cars are likely to be owned by low-income families. Sam makes specific mention of Māori and Pacific Island families who tend to own big vans and cars that are typically not fuel-efficient, which will result in a disproportionately high fuel tax contribution. From my experience growing up in Ōtara, I would absolutely agree with this sentiment.
User-pay schemes are fair in practice when users have alternative options at their disposal. If you live closer to centralised services, it might be a very easy choice to make, to ditch your private vehicle for a bus, train or even bike. Or, you might earn enough to barely notice the relatively small increase to your petrol costs and make the choice to continue to drive. However, this argument doesn’t always stack-up when you consider the average Manukau commuter.
Public transport advocates in Auckland – such as those associated with the Greater Auckland lobby group – do not dismiss concerns like those raised by councillor Collins. But their main counterargument is that there is no political alternative to the fuel tax. Raising income taxes – or establishing a capital gains tax – are politically excluded under this centrist Coalition government which is terrified that those who are doing well out of the asset bubble will desert them at the ballot box. At the Auckland Council level, an increase in rates (property taxes) targeting the millionaire beneficiaries of the real estate bubble would seem fair – and would be just as politically impossible.
We are left, then, with an impossible choice – either we are stuck with the inefficient, unhealthy, polluting and deadly status quo; or we get already impoverished working people to pay for the improvements we need. Only if working people become politically organized so that our voices become as loud and as clearly heard as those of the gentrification millionaires of Herne Bay and Westmere will we be able to get out of this trap.
Public transport is all the more necessary for those with special mobility needs, who would often have to pay for special adaptations to a private car to be able to use one. But – especially in cities with established public transport networks – massive investment is often needed to make it possible to make public transport physically accessible. For example, in Wellington, some ramps leading to train stations are too steep for wheelchairs – and upgrading them is “not a priority”.4
Auckland Transport has trumpeted that its “New Network” – being rolled out gradually over Auckland – will effectively deal with many of the problems of socio-economic accessibility mentioned above. By moving to a system where people transfer between buses or trains at major hubs – rather than taking long journeys on a single bus – they argue, much more frequent and useful bus services are possible to outer areas using equal or lesser resources.5
Although Auckland’s New Network hasn’t been as disastrous as the recent reorganization of bus services in Wellington6, it has attracted criticism precisely because of its reliance on transfers. Many of the complaints about the New Network have been about the need to cross busy roads to make transfers; or about the safety issues with having to wait at isolated bus stops after dark.7 Issues of safety are, of course, accessibility issues in themselves, and reasons why the “steel box” of the private car might become more appealing.
We are therefore faced with the possibility that changes to public transport to make it more economically accessible might paradoxically reduce physical accessibility – if sufficient care is not taken with the details. One example of the possible blindness of Auckland Transport’s leaders to these physical/safety accessibility issues was an infamous comment made by City Rail Link project director Chris Meale in an interview with The Spinoff’s Simon Wilson, last year. Wilson wanted to know why the only entrance to the Karangahape Road underground train station would be some way down relatively steep Mercury Lane8:
I asked why there won’t be escalators rising
to Karangahape Rd itself.
“That’s not a difficult walk,” he said. “It’s good for you.”
Not difficult for him or me, perhaps, but moderately fit adults are not exactly the benchmark for ease of use.
Thankfully, the uproar about this comment seems to have shifted some thoughts and a second, more level entrance to the station is now planned.9 But this – combined with Wellington’s ramp slope issues mentioned above – emphasise how much accessibility to public transport is not so much about the vehicles themselves, but about the “last mile problem” – actually being able to get to or from the stops and/or stations.
The New Zealand Transport Agency offers a service called “Total Mobility” which offers “subsidised licensed taxi services to people who have an impairment that prevents them” from using public transport safely or effectively, mostly because of the “last mile” problem .10 However – as with many Government welfare initiatives – it is poorly advertised and many people who would benefit from this system don’t even know it exists, let alone how to apply for it.
What is to be done?
Even though it was an initiative of the conservative-populist New Zealand First party, the “Super Gold Card” – guaranteeing free public transport to the over-65s – shows how socially beneficial such universal entitlements (without having to jump through the hoops of needs-testing) can be. Reducing the need for all elders to drive is good not only for their own health and safety, but for that of the wider community. It came as a shock to this writer to find out that there is no equivalent scheme for the physically impaired in this country – “Total Mobility” only offers a partial subsidy for public transport.
As this article has discussed, public transport must become both physically accessible (including safety at stops and stations) for all, as well as becoming socio-economicallyaccessible. Socialists have long pushed “zero fares” as the simplest means of achieving the latter goal; but making public transport useful by providing more and better services for people living and working in the far-flung suburbs is surely equally important.
Some other ideas were suggested a few years ago in a discussion document from Australia’s Socialist Alliance11:
• Some people with disabilities need to be accompanied on public transport by an attendant, in which case the attendant should also be able to travel for free.
• Regularly retrain all customer service staff in the rights, needs and entitlements of all people with disabilities.
• Re-open all station toilet facilities and build new facilities on platforms and at tram/bus
• Test out all vehicle destination signs and other written information by running them past committees of vision-impaired and elderly passengers.
• Stop the misleading spin on accessible public transport and tell the truth about whether people with disabilities can easily access these vehicles without assistance, whether they really feel comfortable accessing these services, whether there is enough room for wheelchairs and guide dogs or enough assistance in using the services.
• Develop faster, more energy efficient, and more robust electric wheelchairs and scooters so that people with disabilities can make short trips without needing public transport or cars, and with less need to recharge or service their chairs.
1 See https://fightback.org.nz/2015/02/13/urban-housing-is-an-ecosocialist-issue/ and https://fightback.org.nz/2017/03/20/economic-apartheid-the-ongoing-ethnic-cleansing-of-central-auckland/
7 See: https://https://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/106165364/our-safety-at-risk-bus-passengers-plea-to-auckland-transport and www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2018/07/11/is-auckland-transport-doing-enough-to-support-the-new-net/