New Zealand’s Path to Sustainable Transportation: Rethinking Urban Mobility

In the wake of COP26 in Glasgow, it is crucial to examine New Zealand’s approach to reducing emissions and its impact on the sluggish transportation debate in Wellington and the expansion of suburbs in Auckland. Ralph Chapman, an expert in the field, sheds light on the underlying issues.

One key factor contributing to New Zealand’s challenges at COP26 is its stance on methane emissions. Despite over two decades of government-funded research, the farming sector and the government have failed to develop a credible strategy. Instead, they rely on complex explanations about the global warming potential of short-lived agricultural gases, which are met with skepticism by most countries. With the urgent need for methane emission reduction to combat climate change, New Zealand’s position becomes increasingly tenuous.

Another major hurdle lies in the transportation sector, where road transport emissions have doubled since 1990, driven by a surge in car sales. While the government has introduced some commendable policies such as the clean car discount, they have faced resistance from the car lobby and farmers. However, the effectiveness of these policies remains to be seen.

The Climate Change Commission and other experts argue that more needs to be done. The government promises to unveil its emissions reduction plan in May next year, but the question remains: will it be timely and impactful? While the Ministry of Transport’s draft plans (Hikina Te Kohupara) appear promising, their implementation needs the sustained commitment of cautious government officials.

Delays in addressing these issues can be attributed, in part, to local-level challenges. In Wellington, decision-makers have hesitated to act on the desires of the public, who have repeatedly expressed support for improved walking and cycling infrastructure and densification of the city to address housing shortages. Some decision-makers have been overly cautious, seeking reassurances rather than taking decisive action. Consequently, the transport planning debate in Wellington has been slow-moving.

Auckland presents another concerning example, with ongoing greenfield development on the outskirts of the city. These developments, backed by Waka Kotahi (NZTA), Auckland Council, and developers, are environmentally unsustainable and will result in carbon emissions that conflict with the goal of achieving zero carbon. As urban developer Mark Todd of Ockham points out, vast areas are being transformed into new suburbs, contributing to deforestation and the drainage of wetlands and waterways.

Similarly, Wellington faces similar challenges. Isabella Cawthron, in a Dominion Post column, rightly questions the sustainability of greenfield development. The era of greenfield development must come to an end. Urban development that focuses on mid-rise apartments and townhouses, reducing the need for long trips and promoting alternative modes of transportation like e-bikes and scooters, offers a more sustainable approach.

In the broader discussion on cities and transportation, it is essential to contemplate whether we can lead happier, healthier, and more sustainable lives without relying on cars, or at least without relying on individual cars on a daily basis. An alternative vision of car-free urban living already exists in many prosperous countries. While electric vehicles (EVs) are not inherently bad, they are still motor vehicles that contribute to carbon emissions throughout their lifecycle.

Research conducted at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington indicates that switching from a fossil-fuel vehicle to an electric one saves, at most, 50 percent of emissions. Consequently, a vision of “compact city living” with accessible jobs, education, and amenities achieved through active transportation and occasional car sharing presents an attractive path toward decarbonization. Policy experts favor such measures over a heavy reliance on EVs.

In summary, there is an alternative approach to transportation and urban living that can help New Zealand fulfill its commitments made at COP26. Embracing a car-free vision will require a fundamental shift in how we conceive our towns and cities, reevaluating the type of housing we prefer and reconsidering our modes of transportation. Existing car owners will need to embrace a significant change in their lifestyles.

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