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Getting control of all those vehicles

In the last couple of articles we’ve been exploring how Wellington can meet the goals set out in the City Council’s Te Atakura – First to Zero climate response strategy. The document underlines the importance of addressing the climate breakdown by decreasing our carbon emissions, and puts tangible goals in place – a 10% reduction by 2020, 43% by 2030, 68% by 2040 and a big fat zero by 2050.

Some 58% of our emissions come from transport (38% from road vehicles) so getting control of what happens with all those vehicles is key to making our climate objectives.

Realistically, the only way this is going to happen is if we electrify Wellington’s private cars. There’s neither the time nor the organisational capability within GWRC to implement the scale of changes needed to move the bulk of Wellingtonians to public transport in the short-term, so over the next decade or so until light rail comes on-stream, we are going to be stuck with cars as the primary way of moving around the city for a great many households. We need to make sure this happens with as little environmental damage as possible.

And it’s safe to say that cars don’t get much of a good rap around the WCC council table. It’s hard to find a single councillor who is an advocate of more driving, for a whole host of reasons ranging from the practical to the ideological. At least one councillor doesn’t own a car at all – which is an excellent example, but isn’t necessarily a model that can extend to every family in Wellington. Cars are routinely lambasted for clogging streets by parking, and have just been targeted for increases in resident parking fees. Comments on wellington.scoop regularly propose tougher and more expensive restrictions on where and when cars can be driven and parked.

Perhaps for these reasons, Council support for electric vehicles has been lukewarm at best. As we’ve previously lamented, the charging infrastructure in Wellington has at various times lagged behind other major New Zealand metropolises, such as Masterton and Whakatane. The number of chargers within the CBD of New Zealand’s capital city can still only be numbered on the fingers of one hand, and it appears that none of them have been installed by the Council. If you wanted a graphic demonstration of how unwelcome cars of any motive power were in Wellington, that’s it.

Yet the nature of our city means that lacklustre Council support (or actual passive-aggressive resistance) to electric vehicle charging is going to be a major obstacle to decreasing emissions. Many Wellington households need a car for essential transport (see also: bustastrophe) but don’t have an off-street park or garage where an EV can be charged. This means they either need on-curb overnight charging or enough fast chargers in places like supermarkets and car parks that home charging isn’t necessary. The signs from the WCC that they are actively promoting either of these things is hard to find.

Te Atakura – First to Zero does note that there is a trial of 50 slow residential chargers, but presumably that’s the same trial that was described by Chris Calvi-Freeman on wellington.scoop more than two years ago. Nearly a whole triennium has rolled by, and it appears the Council is still fiddling about with a handful of small-scale pilots.

To make a dent in our vehicle emissions, we need tens of thousands of Wellington households to rapidly move to EVs over the next 5-7 years. All of them will need certainty about where and how they can charge their cars as they abandon fossil fuels. Council support for and promotion of the essential charging infrastructure is a key part of making that happen, but to date – in a bout of free-market abdication that will gladden the hearts of neo-liberals everywhere – the Council has apparently left the entire problem to capitalism to solve. Read the electric vehicle section of Te Atakura – First to Zero and you’d think that WCC simply had no part to play in decarbonising Wellington’s car fleet.

This clearly isn’t good enough. Perhaps the Council will point to the Long Term Plan in 2021 and/or a future District Plan update as being the next step in getting some action on critical items such as on-curb domestic charging, but … really? The climate doesn’t seem particularly inclined to wait around for the slow evolution of council planning documents, so perhaps a bit more urgency from officials might be useful.

Which leads us neatly to the key question – is it up to the Council to solve these problems? Or are we all merely individual rational actors who will make the best possible decisions in an efficient market, so the WCC can opt out of any obligation to move the city to electric vehicles, as capitalism will cure the climate crisis?

In other areas – from the Living Wage to LBGQTI+ rights to to social housing to lecturing us about cats – the Council has been highly interventionist and largely true to the left-wing preferences of its councillors and Mayor. Paradoxically, in the area of climate change where the stakes are higher and intervention looks to be the only way to prevent global catastrophe, the Council seems to be one of the most hands-off local authorities in the country.

Perhaps there really is an anti-car ideology around the Council table, and cars of any stripe are to be condemned in the capital, irrespective of their power source. Perhaps councillors would prefer to see the purist solution – light rail – rather than the pragmatic solution, and are prepared to overshoot our emissions target in the name of ideological purity. Perhaps the desire for the best possible solution of a world-class public transport system is blinding councillors to the need for immediate action.

If that’s actually the case, we should all be deeply worried.