More road ramblings

In October 2023, Gavin Myers, Magazine Editorial6 MinutesBy Gavin MyersOctober 2, 2023

In September, I wrote an editorial for our weekly EDM broaching the topic of the need to reduce vehicle tailpipe emissions, spurred on by Christopher Luxon’s $257 million pledge to provide 10,000 EV charging stations by 2030, and the perplexing promise to scrap the clean-car discount introduced by the Labour government a couple of years ago.

Luxon’s contradictory promises aside, I also discussed the seemingly standard line of commentary in the media against investing in the road network because it’ll encourage people to drive more, following the parties’ ‘we’ll fix the roads!’ electioneering promises.

So, in a display of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time (that is, I agree with the need to reduce emissions while supporting the need to upgrade roading infrastructure), I’d like to explore the conundrum a bit further, because complaining about the promise to invest in the country’s national roading infrastructure makes no sense.

One observation is that there seems to be a conflation of private transport in cities and urban environs and transport that drives the economy. Yes, encouraging urban commuters away from their cars towards other modes of transportation makes sense on many fronts, and yes, we’re unfortunately a long way from weaning every vehicle owner off fossil fuels – or even encouraging them into public transport or onto their bikes. But we’re even further from banishing diesel in heavy transport, particularly when considering long distances. Sure, some trucks operate successfully on alternative propulsion such as battery electric and hydrogen. However, these remain prohibitively expensive and exceptionally niche, with limited supporting infrastructure.

We know that won’t always be the case, though. When the industry achieves parity with diesel in cost, range, ROI – all those factors that drive business decisions – these vehicles suddenly won’t be ‘alternative’ anymore. The thing is, whether that happens by 2030 or 2050, we’re still going to need decent roads on which to operate them.

As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, road transport is central to how we live our modern lives. Rail and coastal shipping have their place, and I agree we should use them fully. A carefully constructed multi-modal freight system makes sense. However, short of the types of restrictions under which truck operators were forced to operate half a century ago, and for more reasons than I have space to mention, road transport will remain the majority mode in that mix. Good roading infrastructure is therefore critical to the country’s resilience, freight efficiency and prosperity.

For example, on 7 September, Newshub ran a story on a report conducted by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) that stated extending the SH1 expressway from Warkworth to Wellsford and Cambridge to Piarere would reduce travel times by up to 16% and 18%, respectively, and could “boost New Zealand’s GDP by nearly $500 million per year”.

Newshub quoted the report: “Each investment will deliver economic gains of over $6 billion over the first 20 years of their operation. This is a much greater return compared to the initial capital expenditure during their construction.”

Not only that, but reduced travel times and a straight run at a constant speed on a good road also result in reduced fuel consumption and improved efficiency – no matter what powers a vehicle – resulting in reduced emissions. Driving Auckland to Warkworth on the ‘old road’ and then returning on the new expressway illustrates this perfectly. It also illustrates the fact that investment in roading infrastructure improves road safety.

Multiple lanes allow faster vehicles to pass those driving at slower speeds easily and you remove the possibility of frustration, resentment and dangerous decisions made when patience runs out. Proper barriers and central medians further decrease the chance of serious accidents. Road safety is agnostic to vehicle propulsion – and if you argue fewer vehicles on the road naturally means improved safety, you’re living in an idealist fantasy.

I’m not saying every piece of state highway needs to be ripped up and redone, but there are core stretches that certainly do.

I wish I had multiple pages to explore this topic fully. I wish I had the capacity to weigh up the cost, economic gains, environmental impacts, safety potentials and so on, of building better roading infrastructure versus not doing so and doing the same for rail and public transport and for converting every vehicle from combustion – because a multi-modal, EV-powered, quality-highway future doesn’t come free whichever way you look at it.

But as I said in that editorial, what’s needed is for society to decide what we all really want, what the non-negotiables are and what we’re willing to sacrifice to achieve it. On the one hand, we want to be able to do our part to protect the environment. On the other, New Zealand is an isolated island nation that has its work cut out keeping pace with a world that moves on regardless.