Active transport report – Expert Reaction

A University of Otago-led report has outlined bold ambitions aimed at getting Kiwis out of their cars and into more ‘active transport’.

The report, Turning the Tide – from Cars to Active Transport, is calling for national targets aimed at:

  • Doubling the proportion of trips walked to 25 per cent by 2050.
  • Doubling the proportion of cycling trips in each of the next decades, with the ultimate goal of 15 per cent of all trips being on bicycles by 2050.
  • Increasing the proportion of all trips by public transport to 15 per cent by 2050.

The SMC gathered expert comments on the report, which is available on Scimex for registered journalists.

Associate Professor Caroline Miller, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University, comments:

“I don’t think there is any doubt that more active transport would have both environmental and health benefits both of which have been recognised for several decades. However, what is missing in this report is any real exploration of why people are not making more use of active transport and public transport at present. At least part of the answer is that people are time poor and as such may see the time needed to use either mode as robbing them of their precious non-work time.

“Equally, it seems to assume the trip to and from work is strictly linear i.e. you go there and back doing nothing on the way. I think women in particular often undertake complex journeys which involve meeting the needs of children or elderly parents and undertaking domestic chores such as doing shopping. That often makes using active or public transport difficult. The influence of the weather is also ignored. New Zealand has wet winters and plenty of wind which can again dissuade people from using active transport.

“In terms of the recommendations, there is a lot of emphasis on setting targets and monitoring them but no real detail beyond education and ‘incentivising’ groups and organisations as to how these targets will be met. In short, there is no real implementation strategy to try to achieve these targets so it is, to some extent, being set up as a tick box exercise which may produce little real change. Education is a relatively weak implementation method as any planner will tell you because it assumes when we receive information we act on it. If that was the case then we would have no smokers and everyone would eat a healthy diet.

“Local government seems to be being called on to do a myriad of changes with no funding to support this. Most councils have few opportunities to retrofit existing urban areas because of the expense of doing that and the complexities of dealing with existing land uses and community and developer expectations. Given the issues around the three waters facing local bodies, it is hard to see them having funds to devote to these types of issues.

“So, this report is a very worthy piece of work with very ambitious recommendations which would seem to need significant funding and commitment from central government to have any chance of being achieved.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a Fellow of the NZ Planning Institute.

Associate Professor Melody Smith, School of Nursing, University of Auckland, comments:

“Motorised transport affects us all – it impacts the quality of air we breathe, can increase inequities, and requires space that could otherwise be utilised to promote human and environmental health. High rates of car use can degrade social connections through reducing opportunities for interaction, community severance, and ‘othering’ (a recent study showed drivers think bikers are ‘less than human’).

“At the individual level, private car travel reduces opportunities to accumulate physical activity, increases prolonged sitting, and is associated with higher levels of stress than active travel modes. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world and a pervasive car-centric culture.

“Our research with children in New Zealand shows they have low and declining levels of active travel. The good news is that kids want to get around actively. While there is no ‘secret recipe’, we’ve consistently seen how transport environments and social norms can support or discourage kids’ active travel. Ensuring safety from traffic and improving norms around active travel are essential to supporting the next generation to be active, healthy, and connected.

“Turning the Tide is a timely and much-needed line in the sand – a challenge to us all to act now to promote active travel for the health and wellbeing of our children, the broader society, and the natural environment. It recognises the complexities of promoting active travel, and acknowledges that change is needed across multiple sectors – reminding us all of the role we play – as drivers, parents, teachers, policy makers, and practitioners. The targets set are ambitious but necessary and align with global priorities around health and sustainability. Ensuring equitable transport outcomes, and reducing risk of any unintended negative consequences are issues that will need to be prioritised as these recommendations are translated to actions.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Alistair Woodward, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Auckland, comments:

“I fully support these recommendations. We need targets such as those proposed here. In fact they should be more ambitious. For instance, doubling the proportion of walking trips within the next 30 years is a very modest goal, and should be achieved much more quickly.

“We know there is unfilled demand for travel modes that don’t depend on private motor vehicles, and the barriers to cycling and walking are well understood. The big challenge is political, because the car has been the dominant transport culture for 50 years. For this reason, anything that even appears to threaten the place of the car provokes strong opposition.

“We need to make changes, as the report acknowledges, to transport governance and funding, as well as to road engineering and urban planning. We need to make room for other voices than those that tend to be loudest when street changes are discussed. Children’s viewpoints are seldom taken into account, for instance. Many young adults don’t wish to drive, or don’t have access to private cars, and are seeking alternatives.

“The report says little about the place of new transport technologies, but these will be important contributors to re-balancing urban transport. Electric cars help with climate targets, but will do nothing to reduce congestion, or to promote good health. Electric buses and electric bicycles are more promising all-round technologies. Small wheeled devices like e-scooters will also be a big part of the future of cities, in my view, and we need to make safe spaces for them.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Imran Muhammad, Associate Professor of Transport and Urban Planning, Massey University comments:

“The key policy recommendations here set ambitious targets at a national level. They give a clear message that New Zealand is serious about achieving a target set by the United Nation Sustainable Development Goal 11 of ‘providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport system for all’.

“I agree 100 per cent with these recommendations, but the question is, how do we get there?

“We need a transformative or fundamental shift in transport and urban planning if we are to achieve these targets. One principle we have to remember in transport planning – it’s very much like a stick and carrot. All these policy recommendations are like carrots – walking, cycling and public transport are good for the transport system, good for health, good for wellbeing and good for reducing carbon emissions.

“However, to achieve set targets, we have to go ahead with a few more sticks.

“We need to reduce carparking availability, standards and reconsider parking costs in cities. We need to rethink how we justify, fund and then build roading networks. We need to revise our cars importation policy.

“Not only do we have to make driving difficult, but we also have to develop a quality walking, cycling and public transport network as well.

“Look at the case of the Northern Busway in Auckland and how the people are jumping on buses; it shows that if we develop ‘real’ public transport options better than cars then people will use the service.

“In Wellington city, you will see people walking. The same people who don’t like to walk are walking in the city centre because walking is the more efficient way of getting from place to place.

“While setting national targets we have to admit that provincial cities and towns are different from major cities. Therefore, we have to adopt ‘place-based approach’ to translate national targets at the city and town levels.

“In Palmerston North buses are free for Massey students and staff but the number of users is going down, not up. So the promotion around making it affordable or free won’t make a difference unless we provide a decent quality of public transport. The decent quality means to provide high frequency and reliable buses and then we can expect that people will move from their cars to the buses. And here I think we need more collaboration between central and local government for setting targets and standards and providing funding for frequent and reliable bus services.

“We need funding for walking, cycling and public transport projects not only in major cities but in provincial cities and towns as well. A very comprehensive assessment which includes the environment, health, and well being benefits to project funding will be very useful. We have to move forward quickly.”

No conflict of interest.