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Election cycle not helping transport sustainability

Thursday, 14 September 2017 2:32pm

Dr Janet StephensonDr Janet Stephenson

Keeping New Zealanders on the move in an increasingly sustainable way is being hamstrung by our three-year election cycle and policy U-turns.

That’s one of the conclusions of a joint transport study by the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability as part of the Energy Cultures research programme funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

Co-author Dr Janet Stephenson, the Director of the Centre for Sustainability, says the government tends to focus on limited-scope projects when it is trying to achieve something sustainable in the transport system, “such as building a cycleway or bringing in a policy to encourage electric vehicle use”.

“Transport investments and issues are long-term and not well-suited to three-year election cycles. Ideally there should be cross-party agreement on some fundamental principles of transport sustainability to ensure we don’t continue to get policy flip-flops, and also don’t lock ourselves into infrastructure commitments which tie us to unsustainable transport for decades to come.”

The paper, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, outlines the problems of “automobility” – a transport system dominated by high levels of private-vehicle ownership, near-complete reliance on fossil fuels and sprawling urban areas. These have unsustainable environmental, social and economic effects.

Dr Stephenson says transport accounts for 44 per cent of New Zealand’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Other factors weighing against sustainability are there are no emissions standards for imports, the average age of light vehicles is 14 years, and the country has one of the highest rates of personal car ownership in the world, with 760 vehicles per 1000 people.
“Projects need to be seen in the context of transport investments and decision-making as a whole. Unfortunately at present the overall thrust is towards non-sustainable outcomes, such as:

  • most of the funding going on roads
  • supporting the continued use of and growth in cars
  • car-oriented urban form and the absence of good public transport, meaning people are forced to use cars
  • the absence of emissions standards for imported cars, which means that even if we get two per cent of electric vehicles by 2021, the emissions standards of the rest of the fleet are not controlled.

“Our study looked for ‘deep interventions’ – longer-term strategies that underpin the transport sector and influence how decisions are made.

“These deeper changes are about how the transport system is funded, how funding allocation decisions are made, and how we design our cities.”

Government agencies need to make sure their policies are aligned, Dr Stephenson says.

“For example, the Ministry of Transport does not control urban form. Getting more people using active transport and having fewer diesel cars spewing particulates improves public health. More efficient cars and more use of public transport means we use less energy and there are lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“So transport, health, housing, energy and environment are all interrelated. If you can align good outcomes from them all, you can have win-wins all round.”

For more information, please contact:

Dr Janet Stephenson
Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago
Email: janet.stephenson@otago.ac.nz
(Janet is in the UK at the moment but can be reached on mobile on +44 7388 133 312 between 7am and 9am NZ time or 7pm to 9pm NZ time)

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