On your bike

On your bike, says this Government to New Zealanders.

Whether it’s the billion-dollar bike bridge across the harbour in Auckland (let’s face it, it will be over budget, or more likely, never delivered) announced last week, or the Climate Change Commission’s (CCC) roadmap released this week, the message from the State is clear: you will get out of your car and walk, bike, or use public transport.

Let’s start with the Boomer e-bike bridge to Birkenhead. Against a $6 billion cost blow-out – apparently as a result of Covid-19 – the Government announced it had to axe some of the NZ Upgrade Programme road projects. All of those projects are critical to the movement of freight, as well as road safety.

“Recognising the need to decarbonise our transport system, we’re rebalancing the package to increase investment in rail, public transport, walking and cycling,” said Transport Minister Michael Wood at the time.

It appears the Government did not read the room in making the decision to cater to a handful of cyclists with a fancy new bridge over, well, the rest of New Zealand with what New Zealanders who wouldn’t use the bike bridge believed were more worthy investments.

Ashburton Bridge had been closed that same week, cutting the eastern side of the South Island in half. Many other roads impacted by severe flooding in Canterbury cut off rural communities from lifeline supplies. Ashburton badly needs a replacement bridge, which would come in far cheaper than the Auckland cycle bridge.

Nurses were about to go on strike to try and get the government to acknowledge that they worked through the past year and a half in the most challenging circumstances of many people’s lifetimes so far, a global pandemic that has cut New Zealand off from the rest of the world.

Social media was flooded with criticism, some even from the cycle fraternity. And Mayors around the country expressed dismay as they watched their critical road projects put on hold, again.

What started in April 2017 as a $34 million cycle and walkway attached to the existing Auckland Harbour Bridge has become a $780 million, built from the ground up, dedicated walking and cycling bridge only, for an estimate of 5,000 users a day. International comparisons of cycle way use on similar bridges suggests this is an optimistic estimate.

I’m actually in favour of more cycling investment, however I don’t believe it should be prioritised over vehicles. If there is going to be a new Auckland Harbour Bridge, at such an eye-watering cost, let’s get one where buses and trucks are prioritised and a part of the existing bridge can be used for cycling and walking. 

It seems a folly to talk about the bike bridge as a tourist attraction when there is no indication of what year New Zealand will open its border. Even so, how would such an edifice set us apart internationally and draw tourists to our shores?

People are still digesting the Climate Change Commission’s roadmap but the message is clear – massive behaviour change will be mandated. Some of it reads like a work of fiction, anticipating a world dreamed up by people wishing to justify their own ideological agenda. 

Public transport will have lower fares, will be more frequent and reliable. Public transport has never been these things in New Zealand. Is some new player going to enter the market, wave a magic wand and miracle this up in the next nine years?

If you must use a car, it will be electric, and you should share it with strangers, or your fellow workers – your workplace should put on ride-share electric vehicle schemes. But really, you should be walking, cycling, or using public transport.

We strongly support decarbonisation, but our industry will be caught between a rock and a hard place with the rapid pace of change the commission is demanding. For heavy trucks, the diesel alternative vehicles are unproven, untested, and don’t exist at scale. It’s too early to box ourselves in with one solution. 

A few trucking companies are testing new technologies, but it is costing them money and it is smaller trucks, not the big trucks that actually are better for the environment because they can move more goods in one trip.

We can’t be forced into one undeveloped technology with no refueling infrastructure in New Zealand, which has such a range of terrain. It is good to see the CCC have moved away from suggesting all electrification of trucks and suggesting other fuel sources could be options.

Like many others, we are worried about a move to have New Zealand totally reliant on electricity when, like its public transport, the electricity network has capacity and reliability issues.

We would be happy with less cars on the road and less congestion because road freight transport is vital to New Zealand’s economy, moving 93 percent of goods. Without trucks, food supply, industry, and commerce in New Zealand would cease to be possible in today’s form.

The road ahead must be guided by evidence. We want everyone to keep an open mind about what might be possible, rather than try and force the freight industry down a set path that may not be the best one. Change this far out should be based on principle, not prescription.

– Nick Leggett, chief executive, Road Transport Forum