Wellington Scoop

Getting to zero on transport

It’s apparent from the Wellington City Council’s Te Atakura – First to Zero strategy that we need to make large-scale cuts to our carbon emissions from transport. It’s equally apparent from the same document that the current plan isn’t going to get us there.

The approach – relying on LGWM – feels more like someone has just slapped a new label (“new! improved! emissions free!”) on a transport strategy that was going to happen anyway. So the question is, can we make the big difference we need? Or are we all doomed to being sizzled on the hot-plate of inaction once the doors to climate hell open in 2050?

It seems there’s some good news – Wellington’s transport issues are mostly addressable, thanks to our compact size and geographic constraints. But the bad news is that getting there is going to need some fast action in areas that appear to be barely touched on by Te Atakura – First to Zero, and that quite a few people on all sides of the transport debate are going to need to adjust their ideological position along the way.

First, the background: transport accounts for 58% of our carbon emissions in the region, and without getting those under control it will be impossible to meet the goal of a liveable planet for our grandchildren. Given this is the largest proportion of our emissions, fixing transport therefore needs to be a really high priority, addressed with urgency – more important, in fact, than many of the other current Council priorities, such as (say) earthquake strengthening.

So urgent action is needed, and there’s simply no magic project on the horizon that is going to pull down our transport emissions by 43% by 2030 – the sheer logistics of designing, funding and building a light rail system (the centrepiece of LGWM, and the one project that will have a substantive impact on emissions) means that even if all the approvals were in place today, it would still be doing exceptionally well to be running by 2030. By which time our emissions will be in hopeless overshoot. There is no magic bullet in the LGWM ammo belt.

Clearly, all the agencies tasked with LGWM need to step on the gas – hard. This long-winded navel-gazing and endless debate needs to stop forthwith, and decisions about the basic engineering of the system need to be made soon – by Christmas, preferably. And if the officials concerned throw up theirs hands in horror at the pace of change, then we can only point out that urgent issues require urgent actions, and that the time for business as usual is over.

But even if this was to occur, we’re still going to have too many years when fossil fueled transport will still be dominant in the city, and we need to fix that as fast as we can. This means decarbonising the existing public transport network, decarbonising the car fleet, and moving people to walking and cycling.

Some of this – notably the walking and cycling bit – is dealt with in Te Atakura – First to Zero, although as much in aspirational terms as anything else. Yes, there are major improvements to the cycling infrastructure on the cards and the cycle way plans are well advanced, but the actions around walking are much less developed – witness the debate on wellington.scoop about the desirability of a pedestrian flyover on Cobham Drive being shot down by Chris Calvi-Freeman on the basis that it would cost some money. In most respects, it’s barely any easier to move around the city as a pedestrian than it was a decade ago, and painting a pedestrian crossing in rainbow colours hasn’t altered that equation. Pedestrians remain an afterthought, and this needs to change.

The good news is that cycling and pedestrian improvements are both cheap and fast, compared to practically any other transport project. So LGWM needs to be more ambitious in this area, and get started on tangible improvements faster. But that’s still not going to make much more than a dent in our transport emissions. To make real progress, we need to do something about all the cars.

Public transport advocates point to overseas experience to highlight how emissions can be reduced if people take trains and buses rather than their cars, and that’s a fair analysis. The problem is, Wellington doesn’t have either the infrastructure (trains, light rail and buses) or the management competence (GWRC) to be able to engineer a large-scale transition. We would need to start moving people in much larger number on public transport – say, twice as many people as use the system today – in order to push car usage down to a significant degree. To make the obvious point, we currently don’t have the buses, trains, drivers, rails or road capacity to be able to double or triple our public transport usage in the next five years, which is what we’ll need to do to meet the emissions targets.

Part of the problem is the well-proven institutional incompetence of GWRC. Based on the track record of the organisation over the last decade, there seems little prospect that it would have the required skills necessary to engineer a large-scale transition to the buses and trains – their planning, decision-making and implementation track record falls well short of what would be needed. From the bustastrophe to shoddy real-time information to the long-promised-but-never-delivered integrated ticketing, it seems that GWRC simply aren’t up to the task.

The fix to this problem is likely to be structural. As Guy Marriage has convincingly argued, there’s a strong case for adopting the Auckland model of a unified transport organisation, covering the trains, the buses, the roads, the ferries and all the other essential moving parts of an effective and efficient transport network. It would cut through the current complex Gordian knot of organisations, contracts and service agreements to make sure there was one organisation that had the chops to design and run the network in the best interests of Wellingtonians. In the vernacular, there would be “one throat to choke”.

However, getting that change will require the intervention of Parliament to pass suitable legislation, as well as the logistics of making the required changes across the various local authorities. But given the less-than-stellar performance of GWRC Chief Executive Greg Campbell and Transport Committee chair Barbara Donaldson before a parliamentary hearing last week, perhaps even MPs have had enough and have an appetite for clearing out the dead wood.

But still – where are the emissions savings going to come from in the meantime? Simple: we need to electrify the current car and bus fleet, and quickly. There’s literally no other alternative to making big inroads into our emissions in the time-scale the scientists are telling us we need.

Let’s use a simple example: the conveyor-belt of taxis to and from the airport.

Some simple non-scientific surveying (aka: asking a random sample of taxi and Uber drivers) reveals that most taxis seem to drive about 200km a day. Most are already using pretty efficient vehicles in the form of hybrids, and seem to average about 5l/100km. Assuming there are 500 drivers – which is probably low, but which makes the maths a bit easier – they are collectively driving 100,000 km per day, using 5,000 litres of petrol to do so. Petrol produces 2.31 kg of CO2 per litre, so that’s 11,550 kg/day of emissions, just from driving people around town. Every year, that’s more than 4,200 tonnes of CO2.

We could turn this off tomorrow by the simple act of electrifying the taxi fleet, using a mixture of incentives, infrastructure and penalties. The technology already exists in the form of electric vehicles, and it doesn’t require billions of dollars of infrastructure or decades-long debates. Comparatively speaking, swapping out 500 fossil-fuelled taxis for equivalent electric vehicles is cheap and fast.

So why hasn’t this happened yet? There appear to be two reasons: ideology and leadership. And both of those will be the subject of my next article.


  1. Mequil, 5. July 2019, 15:19

    The taxi example highlights why the opportunity is improving the fleet rather than public transport. The 100,000km you quote is equivalent to around 3,500 commuting cars (average Wellington Region car commute is 14km each way) which would need to shift to electric public transport – a real challenge! It probably works out to be a better use of govt money to buy 500 EV taxis ($60k x 500) for $30M and put in the charging infrastructure, than getting the equivalent effect from public transport.

  2. greenwelly, 5. July 2019, 16:05

    Comparatively speaking, swapping out 500 fossil-fuelled taxis for equivalent electric vehicles is cheap and fast.
    Yes, but In the grand scheme 500 taxis don’t make much difference, and its a quite expensive solution.
    We know Wellington Emissions are 1.14M Tonnes (p61), 60% transport means total transport is 660 K Tonnes. Changing 500 taxis eliminates 4.2 K tonnes, or 0.6% of transport emissions. What’s the cost of 500 EV taxis (2nd hand) 20K? 30K? @20K/taxi it’s a $10million price. If $10million/4.2K tonnes is your baseline cost, then to reduce 660K tonnes you are looking at $1.6billion or around $8000 for every person (including kids) in Wellington City.

  3. Dave B, 5. July 2019, 16:14

    A bit one-eyed to be claiming that “Wellington doesn’t have either the infrastructure (trains, light rail and buses) or the management competence (GWRC) to be able to engineer a large-scale transition.” Wellington is light-years ahead of many cities through already having an electrified regional rail spine (I won’t labour the point that it also used to have electric trolleybuses). The rail system already makes a major difference to what would be our emissions if it were not there. Extending this system to non-served areas (principally south of the CBD) would replicate the benefits there. This needs to be done instead of building more motorways.

    Suggesting that an electrified fleet of taxis will fix everything makes the false assumption that emissions are the only problem caused by road transport. The reality is that the city is drowning under a deluge of traffic, whatever it might be powered by, and only more public transport will impact this. I would have thought the traffic-congestion consequences of the recent rail outage would have rammed this home.
    “Lack of management competence” – I would agree with you there.

  4. Roy Kutel, 5. July 2019, 16:33

    Where were you when the 100% electric trolley buses were dismantled?

  5. PCGM, 5. July 2019, 16:39

    Greenwelly – I think you just made my point for me. Let’s assume your numbers on the cost of emissions reductions are correct and the price tag for electrifying the entire car fleet in Wellington is $1.6 billion. Almost by definition, this means that 38% of our emissions (i.e. the vehicle bit) will stop in a matter of years.

    In comparison, the total lifetime cost for LGWM is $6.4 billion – around 400% more – and it’s going to take at least a decade to reduce emissions by a much smaller amount. Even its most vocal enthusiasts aren’t suggesting that the full implementation of LGWM will reduce fossil fuel vehicle use to zero. So in terms of both effectiveness and value for money, EVs are the hands-down winners over LGWM.

  6. PCGM, 5. July 2019, 17:21

    Dave B – I’m not arguing that public transport is a bad thing or that we shouldn’t have a whole bunch more of it. But I am arguing that we don’t have capacity in the current system of trains and buses and ferries to quickly move everyone out of their cars, even if that would work for all families in all locations and all situations – which is by no means a given.

    There’s no getting around the fact that building the additional capacity is going to take a decade or more, even if we started today, and in the meantime our emissions will stay high and we’ll miss our climate targets. And with the planet warming by the day, we just can’t afford to do that.

    And you’re right that electrification of the car fleet won’t fix the congestion problems. The thing is, that’s neither here nor there – the climate crisis is real, so we need to fix that straight away. A bit much congestion is not going to make the planet uninhabitable, but too many emissions will.

  7. Ms Green, 5. July 2019, 18:48

    Number 1 problem: LGWM – It will keep Wellington moving but backwards.
    Number 2. Spaghetti junction leadership – an entangled mess of local, regional and central govt committees
    Number 3. Too many cars and diesel buses belching pollution
    Number 4. Not just poor leadership but no leadership – city, Regional, Government..
    Number 5. Pretty and expensive PR spin instead of real and urgent solutions.

    We need lateral thinking, cost-effective solutions which are not same old same old. What would happen if we doubled the rail track from the Hutt (anyone know the shortest time to do that, upfront cost, operating costs and return from fares)? We would just have one road lane in and one lane out … and ferries, and taxis which would have to take four passengers (no cost for us so no project timelag), and travelators through the CBD. Just dreaming but it’s a better dream than the LGWM backward-looking nightmare and the mayor’s pretty pictures.

    Good article PCGM. We just have to move differently and now, for our grandchildren!

  8. Dave B, 5. July 2019, 19:06

    PCGM – OK, I take your point. Unfortunately our mistake has been to continue walking mindlessly into worsening car-dependency over many decades, instead of transitioning ourselves out of it before things got to this stage. We have had ample opportunity to do this but have consistently refused, preferring to carry on with a keep-building-roads mentality.
    You are right. We are where we are, and the question is what best to do now? If fuel prices doubled or trebled, we would see an immediate drop-off in the large amount of frivolous and unnecessary road-vehicle use. That would be a great start, and any additional funds raised could be put to use in aiding the transition process.
    The problem with converting the fleet to battery, at least as I understand it, is that the production of battery vehicles itself has a high carbon footprint, rendering EVs not the panacea we like to think they are. The imperative remains to cut down on our use of cars and break our addiction to them. So no more road-building. This simply perpetuates the problem. If we were serious about a “climate emergency,” we would be having an urgent re-think of counter-productive projects like Transmission Gully.

  9. Ms Green, 5. July 2019, 21:44

    PCGM did you read my suggestion of reintroducing carless days – no huge infrastructure costs, dollar savings, much less pollution from even one day carless a week. It could happen tomorrow with the stroke of a pen. The last time we had carless days there was no internet – now some people can work from home…we could even have four day work weeks. That would be good for our health!
    Whatever we choose, we have to change and move differently…… for our grandchildren, our children and us.

  10. PCGM, 5. July 2019, 22:02

    Dave B – from what I’ve been able to find out, the production and running of EVs seems to be considerably better than fossil fueled vehicles. Most European manufacturers plus Tesla appear to be producing their EVs in carbon-neutral factories, which can’t be said for their traditional cars. Plus EVs don’t really have consumables the way internal combustion cars do – in everything from antifreeze to brake dust, there’s far fewer toxic substances ending up in the environment.

    That’s not to say EVs are a panacea – they’re not. Any vehicle has a whole bunch of embedded carbon in it, and that’s not helpful in the middle of a climate emergency. But it would be far, far better for the environment on a whole bunch of levels if every single new vehicle was an EV rather than something that will add more CO2 to the atmosphere. In my view, EVs are simply a way of pulling down our emissions in a hurry, so that we can buy enough time to develop the longer-term solutions we’ll need. And right now, we need all the time we can get.

  11. Mason, 6. July 2019, 0:14

    Basically what you feed grows – want more traffic, build more roads. We have certainly been feeding the traffic beast.

  12. Mathew Biars, 6. July 2019, 6:28

    You don’t let the same ones who created the transport problems (they pushed for the unneeded expensive Transmission Gully ) solve them – they just can’t. But I don’t think alarmist talk helps anyone or anything. Instead of fixing actual problems, many created by the WCC, I don’t want the WCC running off like hamsters in a wheel on Carbon Zero. It is just silly (and it sounds like a CocaCola slogan).
    Do you think China, America and the producers of 99.08% of emissions are panicking because the problem makers tell them there is an “emergency”? We should do all we can to repair the damage we have done to the environment.

  13. Steve Doole, 15. July 2019, 5:25

    Imagine Wellington 6 degrees warmer than now in summer. Perhaps this will happen within 30 years.
    One study predicts changes for cities all over the globe, on a nice map. Auckland and Wellington are shown.
    Warmer futures are not too far away now – I reckon it’s already happening. Have you noticed this too?

  14. Donald T., 15. July 2019, 9:36

    It’s a weather forecast Steve! Meteorologists can’t even get next week right never mind 30 years time.

  15. Mason, 15. July 2019, 9:41

    I quite like the sound of an extra six degrees!

  16. Dave B, 15. July 2019, 13:15

    A few extra degrees might sound appealing to those who don’t like the cold. The searing heat waves regularly affecting parts of the northern hemisphere tell a less-pretty side of the same story. But also worrying is the increasing incidence and severity of meteorological extremes. Floods, droughts, freeze-ups, and hurricanes are all predicted to get worse with global warming. And of course, major sea-level-rise if the ice-cover of Greenland and Antarctica melts.

    Are we really causing this? If so, are we able to halt or reverse it? How urgent is it, really? How close are we to a point of no-return and runaway catastrophe? For how long can we continue with an unhurried pace of doing anything about this? In spite of scientific near-consensus, the jury is clearly still out on exactly how things will unfold and over what timescale. Otherwise we would be acting like it was an emergency, not just talking about it.

  17. Leviathan, 15. July 2019, 17:11

    Ms Green – were you alive when NZ had carless days? Do you remember what happened? The poorer people in the community had to stay at home one day a week. Rich people just went out and bought a second car, to drive on their carless day. The system wasn’t really a great success.

    Dave B: some answers for you.
    Q: “Are we really causing this?”
    A: Yes. The evidence is inescapable that anthropogenic activity is the cause.
    Q: “If so, are we able to halt or reverse it?”
    A: Only if we really try, and even then, probably not much. We’re not really even trying right now. Its all about the carbon cycle.
    Q: “How urgent is it, really?”
    A: Hugely urgent. Most human populations are in cities near sea level. Parts of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Napier, Tauranga etc – all will be grossly affected if sea level rises as much as 1m, let alone more. And NZ is better off than some other countries – like Bangadesh, poor buggers, their entire country and millions of people are in serious danger of being obliterated.
    Q: “How close are we to a point of no-return and runaway catastrophe?”
    A: We are at the tipping point now. It would have been better if we had started doing something 40 years ago, but even now, we still need to act now, rather than later.
    Q: “For how long can we continue with an unhurried pace of doing anything about this?”
    A: No longer. Act now. Stop driving. Stop breeding. Stop eating meat.

    The best analogy I have is of a frog sitting in a pot on the stove. It’s definitely getting warmer, and Mason likes the sound of an extra six degrees. We are the frog. And we can’t jump out.

  18. Donald T., 15. July 2019, 17:55

    Leviathan – the answer is to stop the human population explosion. It’s now 8 billion and rising fast in Africa and South America.

  19. Andrew, 15. July 2019, 19:41

    No mention there of ‘stop buying crap that you do not need, only desire’. That accounts for quite a bit of global emissions, wasted resources, etc etc. Reduce your buying of goods that are a part of a fashion/yearly cycle; consumer electronics, mountain/road bikes, SUVs…
    At least most of the meat consumed in NZ has not actually been shipped from somewhere else.

  20. Harry Welsford, 16. July 2019, 7:31

    A real change (a shift) in the way Man thinks, feels and acts on this planet is urgently required. The urgent challenge is can we act as one with each other and the planet, can become one with life itself ? Or are we obsessed with doing needless actions, fully identified with what we think “being right” and getting more things that we don’t need to enhance our egos.