‘Reshaping Streets’ a roadblock for free movement of freight

In News7 MinutesBy Nick LeggettNovember 4, 2022

Our economy depends on road transport. A staggering 93% of freight in Aotearoa New Zealand is transported by road. The pandemic and ever more frequent severe weather events have highlighted to the public just how vital our industry is.

So, you would think that a forward-looking government would want to do all it could to make roads as smooth and free-flowing as possible – to help businesses and the economy, to improve safety, and to cut emissions. You would think. And while they say they do, it’s not what’s happening in practice.

We are told on the one hand by the government that they want a national freight strategy; on the other hand, they are planning to introduce a new proposal called “Reshaping Streets”. Under this proposal, the government plans to give 70-plus councils around the country the opportunity to trial new roading experiments and to do more or less what they like, without consultation.

Councils will be able to close down streets and impede traffic movement through vehicle restrictions such as traffic calming and speed humps.

Now, I understand some of the motivation behind the proposal is well-intentioned, but it has not been well thought through and is likely to have negative consequences. Transporting New Zealand has submitted along these lines against the proposal.

Recently I addressed a Road Controlling Authority meeting of council roading staff in Wellington. This was a gathering of many sensible people who know their stuff and are interested in freight movement. I feel that sadly their voices are often drowned out by planning teams and other parts of the organisation, hellbent on driving an impractical trendy, anti-vehicle agenda. Often, they have never thought about the way goods move around the country, so the last thing they are thinking of is the movement of a truck through their town or city.

We need standardised thinking around the importance of freight being able to move without restriction as much as possible. We know that when freight movement is slowed down, you slow down the economy’s ability to be productive.

Here’s an example. The council in a town in South Taranaki wants to slow speeds through the main street to 30kph. Now I can understand why they want to do that: You have to put humans first; you don’t want to be a slave to vehicle traffic. But at the same time, we need to understand that if you want people to walk, or kids to cycle across town, and the main state highway runs through the middle of the town, that is never going to work well.

What we should be doing instead of slowing traffic is to build more heavy vehicle bypasses. That is Transporting New Zealand’s policy and we are going to keep on calling for more of them. Bypasses are the best way to separate vehicles and other road users and to ensure freight vehicles can go past towns safely and easily without being slowed down, or contributing to congestion and emissions.

Some might think it’s only a couple of minutes here and there, but if a linehaul truck is going from Wellington to Auckland, and passes through several small towns on its way, those delays all add up – in time and costs.

Forcing trucks to slow, stop, idle, and then accelerate, adds to emissions, which goes in the very opposite direction the Government wishes us to move. Yet the Reshaping Streets policy, if let loose, could see barriers and crossings on key roads that do just that. We need consistency of policy making, and we need to ensure decisions take us all in a direction the country needs to head. Be it environmental, social, or economic.

Most developed countries don’t have state highways running through town centres interrupted by intersections and red lights or other speed bumps. They have multi-lane highways and bypasses.

It’s also essential for cities to have well-designed local roads so that trucks can deliver goods to businesses. It’s the first mile and the last mile that remain challenging and Reshaping Streets could very well add problems for our industry in some parts of the country. There needs to be more joined-up thinking.

I also find it disturbing when I hear bureaucrats saying their job is to influence behavioural change. That’s scary. Their job is to serve the public and work towards outcomes that will make our country safer and more productive, and reduce emissions – not to be obsessed with ideology. As those of us in transport are aware, there has been a sharp politicisation of some bureaucrats who work in our sector. It makes you concerned that the politicians are not always getting the free and frank advice they should expect.

The Reshaping Streets proposal would entail a two-year “pilot” but what happens at the end of that time? By then it might be too late. It is likely to prove a very costly waste of money –money could be better spent elsewhere. Unless changes are made now, there is a real risk that Reshaping Streets will lead to common sense being thrown out the window.

By Nick Leggett, CEO Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand