Why transport shouldn’t be a left/right issue
In the wake of the Rugby World Cup opening night transport failure, it’s interesting to see how quickly transport gets politicised. Finger pointing left, right and centre. Labour blames government for Party Central overcrowding, Greens blame government for failing to invest in public transport infrastructure, government blames Auckland Transport for failing to cope with demand, Auckland Transport blames rail operator Veolia for providing poor service, media blames Len Brown, commuters very pissed off, you get the picture. None of this has much to do with this post – just shows that transport is once again a hot topic, and that it is something that gets politicised very quickly.
The transport debate usually boils down to whether we spend on roads or public transport infrastructure. And rightly or wrongly, the debate is often painted as a left vs right debate, mainly because it’s usually the Greens playing the lone hand for public transport. But should transport be a left/right partisan issue? Last week, I picked up on Transport Minister Steven Joyce’s remarks about “left wing transport blogs”, and argued that he shouldn’t generalise public transport advocates as left wing because politics has little to do with anybody’s desire for better public transport. But if that’s true, why is the transport debate so frequently perceived as a left vs right issue?
In my view, it’s all borne out of the idea of roads and the automobile being the ultimate expression of an individuals’ freedom of choice, therefore making the car a symbol of libertarianism. The logic goes something like this: roads and cars allow us the freedom to be anywhere at anytime, and therefore left to their own devices, people will choose cars over any other form of transportation. This logic depends on one thing: that people actually have a range of choices to choose from.
The problem with suggesting that people choose to use cars as an exercise of freedom in the Auckland context is that since the removal of trams in 1956, Aucklanders have had virtually no alternative choices to cars. We’ve invested exclusively in roads and motorways, planned our entire urban form on the assumption that cars will get us anywhere at anytime. Until this last decade, there’s been virtually no public transport infrastructure investment. Steven Joyce likes to use the fact that 85% of Aucklanders commute by car as a justification for investing in roads as if people drive by choice. But when you invest in nothing but roads, it’s rather a foregone conclusion that driving becomes the only transport choice for people.
Thus, it’s wrong in my view to suggest that driving is a ‘right wing’ way to get around, because to assume that cars represent freedom is to assume that people had freedom of choice in the first place. Aucklanders have no choice. Decades of underinvestment in public transport have seen to that, and this was plain to see last Friday night for the RWC opening. Above all things, libertarians should be advocating for choices. To only provide for one mode of transport fails to give people that choice.
So if driving is not ‘right wing’, does this mean that the idea of public transport being ‘left wing’ is wrong too? Absolutely. If we want to talk about freedom of choice, let’s look back at 1956 – a time in which people actually had a genuine public transport alternative to driving – the tram network. That year, Auckland had 290 public transport trips per capita per annum – one of the world’s best public transport cities. Today we have just 45 – one of the worst rates of use in the world.
Give people the choice, they will choose for themselves what they want to do. We can’t blindly assume driving is the default preference without giving people choices. Plenty of people would love to not have to drive – but they have to. The old tram network proves the point, and so do recent public transport investments. The construction of Britomart Station in Downtown Auckland has catalysed a quadrupling of rail patronage in Auckland over the last seven years, while the Northern Busway now accounts for 40% of the people crossing the Harbour Bridge everyday – the equivalent of 2.5 general traffic lanes.
Thus, the long and short of it is that there is nothing remotely political or left/right about transport or different transport modes. People just want to get from A to B, and want to do that as quickly, conveniently, cheaply and comfortably as possible – they don’t really care how. The car does not dominate because of any choice or preference. Government policies have forced automobile dependence upon us. Public transport investment isn’t ‘left wing’ – it’s merely about providing a quality choice/alternative where for the last 50-odd years there just hasn’t been one.
‘Build it, and they will come’ as they say…