Holly Walker: Our transport journey is our destination

OPINION:

Meet Hana. She’s 21, lives with her family, and is studying to be a social worker. A few nights a week she works late cleaning offices in the CBD.

Hana bought a car six months ago, thinking it would be the cheapest and most convenient way to get to uni, and because she felt safer using it late at night after her cleaning job. Her bank wouldn’t lend to her because of an old debt, so her repayments to a high-interest lender are steep.

At its last WOF, Hana’s car needed two new tyres, which she couldn’t afford. She switched to the bus for uni, but kept driving to work because she didn’t want to wait late at night at the bus stop – guys have hassled her there before. Unfortunately, she got a ticket, and is now paying back two fines as well as the loan – and she can’t even use the car.

Hana now spends 33 over cent of her income on transport-related costs, mostly on a car parked on her parents’ lawn. She’s back to taking the bus to work and feeling unsafe, plus she’s getting home later and getting up earlier to get the bus to uni. She’s tired and stressed, and her grades are suffering.

Hana is a fictional composite, but there are many people in situations just like hers in 2021.

Now imagine it’s 2040, and meet Aisha, also 21. Aisha and her whānau live in a papakāinga community that produces net zero emissions. Residents move between each other’s homes and the communal facilities, on wide, covered paths that allow for walking and wheeling on a variety of bikes, scooters, and mobility aids.

A few residents have cars, which they park and charge at the perimeter, but most use one of several communal e-vehicles when they need to travel long distances or transport bulky items. These are also used as community shuttles at nights and weekends, driven by a roster of residents.

Most days, Aisha takes a bus and a train to get to university where she is studying to be a teacher. The ticketing is integrated. She only waits a couple of minutes to transfer, and as a student, her public transport is free. It takes about 25 minutes.

Aisha receives a student allowance indexed to the living wage. She doesn’t need to work but chooses to waitress for a catering company once a week to save for a trip to Rarotonga to celebrate when she graduates.

If she finishes late, she calls the community shuttle and someone picks her up, no questions asked.

Hana and Aisha are in comparable situations, with similar resources and backgrounds, but with vastly different experiences, due in large part to factors governing transport and urban planning.

We could transform experiences like Hana’s into experiences like Aisha’s in the next two decades.

At COP26, Climate Change Minister James Shaw committed to reduce our emissions by 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and signed us up to an international pledge for a just and equitable transition.

This week, consultation closes on the country’s first Emissions Reduction Plan. We’re at a critical crossroads.

To have any chance of meeting our COP26 commitments, we need to reprogramme our transport system now around two key objectives: reducing car dependence and increasing equity. All transport decisions should be assessed against these goals, and only projects that advance them should proceed.

In 2019, New Zealanders travelled 35.5 billion km in our cars. That’s like flying from the Earth to Mars and back 325 times. This has to change.

We can’t meet our climate change targets without drastically reducing how much we drive – not even by replacing petrol and diesel cars with EVs. But we must put equity at the heart of this effort, or we risk loading the costs of the transition onto those with the least resources, funnelling the benefits towards those with the most, and making it harder for disadvantaged groups to get around.

Done right though, reducing car dependence is great for equity. It frees people from being forced to own and maintain a car they can’t really afford, promotes greater health and physical activity, and helps foster connection and community.

Last week, the Helen Clark Foundation and WSP in New Zealand released Te Ara Matatika – The Fair Path, a report outlining why transport matters for equity, and how we can transition to the equitable, low-emissions cities we need for the future.

Key recommendations include: changing how transport investment is allocated to prioritise active, public, and shared modes over private vehicles; mandating urban development that shortens distances between key destinations and reduces the overall need to travel; establishing a fund to promote low-carbon shared community transport solutions; and making public transport free for community services card holders and young people under 25.

The fair path leads away from gridlocked traffic towards connected urban communities where everyone can get where they need to go affordably and safely, in ways that protect the planet. If our leaders make the right decisions now, we could secure a future like Aisha’s for everyone.

Holly Walker is deputy director and WSP Fellow at the Helen Clark Foundation, and the author of Te Ara Matatika – The Fair Path. The full report is available here.

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