tricky transport

Local elections are famed for managing to spur even fewer voters than the big one every four years. Nonetheless, the election of Celia Wade Brown to the position of Mayor in 2010 was a significant gesture from the citizens of Wellington. Wade Brown shares a hairstyle but little else with departing Mayor Prendergast, who, rightly or wrongly, was judged by many pro-Celia voters  as erring too often on the side of business, and not the sustainable kind. Wade-Brown is a dedicated Greenie, a believer in better public transport, “vibrant communities” and economic well-being. A freeranger in spirit.

It seems strange, therefore, that under her watch, Wellington is likely to face the unpleasant situation of choosing between a variety of stupid propositions to improve traffic flow around the Basin/Mt Vic/Airport corridor. Next month we will get to ‘choose’ between a flyover that follows the curves of the Basin Reserve, or one which diverges slightly before joining up with the Mount Victoria Tunnel. A flyover in a city of 195,000 people, a city whose central can be crossed from one end to the other on foot in about an hour.

Public opposition to the flyover, and various other proposals including a second Mt Victoria Tunnel and a four lane road to the airport, was reportedly at 78% in 2008. There is little evidence that the public has changed it’s mind since. It feels particularly perverse given the current Mayor’s dedication to cycling, her preferred mode of transport even when heading to her own press conferences. We can afford to create a second tunnel, but there isn’t a cycling lane from Newtown to the City? We are used to myopic policy concerning climate change related issues in this country, but ‘better’ roading is nowhere near as connected to our economic performance as agriculture. Who are they trying to please?

Mostly, this seems to be another example this government’s backward approach to forward thinking in transport. As Rod Oram pointed out in a  Sunday Star Times weekend column, the government has gone to extreme lengths to undermine Auckland Council’s plans to extend railways in the central city, claiming that existing road, parking, and bus infrastructure can easily expand without hiccups until 2040. The Council and it’s consultants reckon that “an Auckland population of 2.2 million would result in another 500,000 vehicles if we stick to our existing road-dominant investment in transport”. No one knows where those cars would go.

None of this is exactly surprising. The central government was diagnose a long time ago with an inability to calculate the difference between long and short term gain. As these plans are rolled out piece by piece across different parts of the country it’s difficult to unite various affected groups under a concerted effort.

One group of concerned citizens, however, have eschewed the standard action plan and have resorted to some pretty Trickster-ish behaviour in order to draw attention to the idiocy of these plans. The Economic Illiteracy Group, who attribute most terrible decision making to stupidity not conspiracy, have taken it upon themselves to educate our elected officials, chiefly by supplying handy calculators and My First Jumbo Book of Numbers. The nine councilors who forced a meeting behind Mayor Wade Browns back to support the roading project received maths books and calculators which, it was hoped, would help them to understand basic cost-benefit analyses and to learn “what that pesky `negative’ sign means”. The letter also warns that “it’s never good to look like a dick in public. So avoid making stupid statements about how roads are an investment in the future or how they create jobs, because all the people who’ve already read the book and mastered the calculator will think you’re a moron.”  Ian McKinnon called the anonymous letters “an attack on the democratic process”, a somewhat hyperbolic representation of a process involving a mere 44% of the local population.

Sometimes the best way of speaking truth to power is to make fun of it. It might not be mature, it might not always provoke the intended reaction, but it can get people talking.

an image of the flyover by the campaign prepared by the save the basin reserve campaign.