A recent report from a team of researchers based at the University of Otago has found that our use of cars is harming both our health and our environment. The report, titled Turning the Tide, claims that urgent steps are needed to encourage New Zealanders to walk, cycle, or use public transport. Oscar Perress spoke with Caroline Miller about the report and whether it is time to give up our cars.

Caroline Miller is an Associate Professor in Environment and Planning at Massey University. She is an expert on the environmental impact of planning.


Oscar Perress: Could you give some context as to what this report means?

Caroline Miller: What the report is doing is not necessarily saying anything that we haven’t already known for quite some time. It has been obvious that there are both environmental and health consequences due to people essentially choosing to use private transport over public or active transport. But I do think that you do need to distinguish between active transport, which is walking and cycling, and public transport because I think the drivers in each of those areas are slightly different. What the report is saying is that there are both environmental and health consequence of us choosing private transport. In essence, we have increasing levels of obesity, we have type 2 diabetes, we are seeing that perhaps developing in younger people and that has consequences for individuals in terms of their life expectation and the quality of their life. But also it has quite a lot of consequences in terms of health funding. There will be a significant burden on our health system in addition to the expected burden that is going to come already from an aging population. Environmentally, if we use more cars essentially you have got more discharges, you are using a resource that is finite in terms of petrol so the consequences for New Zealand are significant. I think what the report is saying is that here are two issues, we have known about them for a long time, we have known there have been declining levels of active transport use and it is time to develop some centrally-driven policies that put in place some targets which would mean we would have to develop some policies and strategies to try and achieve those targets.

OP: In the report the authors call upon national and local government to set targets for the proportion of trips made on foot, by bicycle and public transport. What kind of targets are they calling for and how can we ensure that suggested targets are met both on a personal and governance level?

CM: Eventually, in terms of what they are advocating the target for 2050 and that is quite a long way out, is that instead of car journeys making up 83 percent of trips that that would be reduced to 45 percent, that walking would rise from twelve to 25 percent, and cycling from one to 15 percent, and that public transport trips would increase from three percent to 15 percent. Now, that doesn’t necessarily look significant but I think that actually a lot of work would need to go in and a lot of investment to try and achieve those things. But I think one of the things the report is perhaps a little light on is actually how you would do that. So for instance, how would you get people to do more walking, more cycling? I think to actually create a strategy to achieve those targets then you need to know why people are not doing those activities at the moment, why don’t people walk to work, why don’t people cycle to work?

OP: As you mentioned one of the specific targets is doubling the proportion of cycling trips in each of the next decades which has the ultimate goal of fifteen percent of all trips being on bikes by 2050. Could you go into some more detail around this?

CM: In terms of cycling, I think you have got to come back to why people don’t do that. With cycling, it is an issue with safety. If you have very busy roads which are probably not really coping then people don’t feel safe on them even if there is a cycle lane. I mean, you would be a very brave person to cycle on a lot of the very congested roads in Auckland but also in Wellington and other places. So there is the safety issue. But then if you reduce the number of car journeys then you make the roads more inviting and safer for cyclists to use. I think the two drawback in terms of promoting walking and cycling are one, we are essentially time-poor and to do those trips by walking or cycling you are going to have to have the time to do that and I don’t think that is something that local or central government can change because it is about our work environment. And secondly, what hasn’t been factored in here is the weather, that is one of the things that does put people off active transport for instance in our winter it is very wet and windy, they are not pleasant situations to walk and cycle in and there is not a lot anybody is going to be able to do about that. But in terms of public transport you can do things like improve where you wait for your public transport, make sure public transport runs to the timetable and that is efficient in getting you from A to B, all those sorts of things. And I think maybe something can be done there but it is not clear to me where the money is going to come from to do all of these things.

OP: Another thing on that point. I may be wrong in what I am insinuating here, but often with these kinds of reports and when we set these goals we often have a more urban environment in mind, is there a difference between the rates of active transport in rural areas because there are a lot of rural areas in New Zealand where perhaps the commutes may be longer and may facilitate a need for cars?

CM: I think it really depends. If you are talking in provincial areas where you have smaller towns then the options for cycling and walking are probably greater because the differences are shorter between where you live and where you work. But if you are living outside settlements, if you are living in a rural residential or a rural situation, it is very likely you will have no other option but private transport. And I think we have to be realistic that sometimes we compare what we might want to do in New Zealand with what is being done overseas, but the reality is that you are talking about what is being done in a large metropolitan centre with a much denser development which all helps public transport and walking and all of those things because sometimes things are much closer together just because of the density. So I think that is one of the things you have got to be very careful with, is taking overseas experiences and just saying ‘Oh well, we could do the same thing in New Zealand’. Well, no we couldn’t. It is a different environment, it is a different context politically and just in terms of legislation. So you need to be able to see what you can adapt from an overseas model and perhaps use it within a New Zealand situation. I think that is really what this report is a little bit light on, there is not much in there around how you are going to make this happen. Setting targets is really easy, there have been targets set over many decades – achieving them is more difficult.

OP: The average time New Zealanders walk for transport has dropped from ten minutes to eight minutes per day. This may seem like a rather small change, but what kind of effect does this drop have?

CM: It probably, to some extent, may reflect the fact that some of our larger centres are becoming denser, so the distance between walking and where you live and work has gotten lesser. But also, in a time-poor situation a couple of minutes a day may mean something in terms of your ability to get into work early, etcetera. Now they are all small changes but in a person’s everyday life they can be quite important.

OP: Nationally the only mode of transport that has increased its proportionate share between 1988 and 2014 was car usage. What has spurred New Zealand’s ongoing love for the car?

CM: Well I think in terms of the change from 1988 to 2014, to some extent that reflects the change in the New Zealand economy where we moved from being a very closed economy to being a very open economy. We allowed the importation of a lot of used cars from Japan and suddenly the price of vehicles actually dropped so more people were actually able to afford to buy a car. And at that point once you have bought it, people are much more likely to use it in terms of their daily life. So I think that is one of the significant explanations for that. It probably also represents a period, particularly before 2000 where there was very poor investment in public transport. So public transport essentially wasn’t maintained and the buses were decrepit, they didn’t keep to the timetable, and people had their car in the garage therefore they drove to work. So I think those are the sorts of things that probably powered that change, the greater availability of cars for a greater proportion of the population.


This interview was originally aired on The Wire. To hear the audio and download this interview click here.

See Also:

Is our obsession with electric mobility driving an increase in lead poisoning?

Why aren’t there electric airplanes yet?