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Freeing Kiwis From Gridlock: Major Transport Changes Key To Climate Change Commitments And Equity

Read the full report here, or the accessible version here.

Sweeping changes are needed in Aotearoa New Zealand's transport system if the country is to have any hope of meeting the revised emissions reduction target announced by Climate Change Minister James Shaw at COP26.

Te Ara Matatika The Fair Path, the latest report from The Helen Clark Foundation and WSP in New Zealand, finds that investing in more equitable public transport and reducing New Zealanders’ collective dependence on cars will help kick-start this necessary transition.

The report suggests several bold interventions, including reprogramming the transport system around the twin goals of reducing car dependence and improving equity, and making public transport free for low-income populations like Community Services Card holders, and young people under 25.

Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the OECD, with 83 percent of travel time spent in cars. With the population in cities set to increase by almost one million by 2048, it is rapidly becoming unviable for cars to be used as the main mode of urban transport.

“Our current, car-dominated transport system limits mobility and opportunities for thousands of people and accounts for about 43 per cent of domestic carbon emissions,” report author and WSP Fellow Holly Walker said.

“To have any chance of meeting our net zero target, we’ll have to do away with business as usual and reprogramme the transport system for the equitable, low-traffic cities we need in future.

“Even in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, modelling shows that building six major transport projects, electrifying buses, and increasing electric vehicles will have little impact on transport-related emissions unless there is a major reduction in the number of cars on the road.”

The report also finds the current transport system contributes significantly to inequity and disadvantage. Low-income households spend almost a third of their income on transport (more than twice the proportion of high-income households), inaccessible transport prevents thousands of disabled people from fully participating in society, and people from low socio-economic areas are more likely to be disadvantaged by lack of practical transport options, especially Māori. 

“At the same time as making the necessary changes to decarbonise the transport system, we must also make it fairer,” Walker said.

“Otherwise, we risk entrenching existing inequity and failing to meet our net-zero target.”

The report recommends requiring urban planning that shortens distances between important destinations and reduces the overall need to travel.

“The ‘fair path’ leads away from the traditional model of commuting from outer suburbs into the CBD, and towards connected, urban communities where people can access most of their needs close to home and easily use public and active transport options when they need to go further.”

Properly designed, constructed and operated public transport infrastructure has an important role to play in achieving more equitable social outcomes, said WSP in New Zealand managing director Ian Blair.

“There is strong evidence that high-quality, well-linked public transport and urban infrastructure results in lower carbon footprints, better health, wellbeing and community connection.

“In the 20-minute city model of urban design, for example, all the things that contribute to living a fulfilling life are a quick walk, cycle or public transport trip away. This has the potential to completely change the way we live, work and experience our communities. It will also reduce the need to drive.”

Right now, we are relying on individuals to make a personal choice to drive less if they want to, said Walker.

“This will never be enough to achieve the scale of change we need, and it preserves an unaffordable and inaccessible status quo that locks many people into disadvantage.

“The solution to unmet transport need is not more roads, it’s fewer cars and better-connected communities.”

“If we choose the fair path and change the necessary policy settings now, we can free ourselves from the endless traffic jam of car dependence, meet our climate change commitments, and ensure a more equitable transport system that works better for everyone.”

Key recommendations include:

1. Setting an ambitious vision for the transport system and realigning all relevant strategies around the twin goals of reducing car dependence and increasing equity.

2. Changing how transport investment is allocated to prioritise active, public, and shared transport modes over private vehicles for the movement of people.

3. Ensuring the transition is tika (right and just), including by partnering with Māori to uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations in the transport system and ensuring representation from disadvantaged communities on transport-decision making bodies.

4. Requiring urban development that shortens distances between key destinations and reduces the overall need to travel.

5. Piloting the 20-minute city approach in Kāinga Ora-led urban developments.

6. Establishing a fund to promote low-carbon shared community transport solutions such as early childhood education pick-up and drop-off services and community shuttles.

7. Making public transport free for disadvantaged groups like community services card holders, and young people under 25.

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