After Covid – back to near ‘normal’ or radical change?

Will how the country comes out of this crisis shape the economy and society in New Zealand for decades to come? A bit for sure, but how much?

One thing is for sure, the old ‘normal’ is no longer, after Covid-19 has subsided (presuming and hoping that it does fade away in the next year or two) the world will be significantly different.

One local government councillor in Wellington has suggested radical changes to traffic and streets – RNZ:

A Wellington regional councillor says now is the chance to think about how to restart the economy without also ramping up emissions, as the latest data shows air pollution fell dramatically during the first week of lockdown.

Air pollution from traffic emissions in the central city dropped 72 percent, and by 63 percent in Upper Hutt.

Greater Wellington’s climate committee chair Thomas Nash says how the country comes out of this crisis could shape the economy and society in New Zealand for decades to come.

I haven’t been appreciating any change to streets because I haven’t been out in any streets for three weeks. But some people have been going for walks and bike rides and have been enjoying the lack of cars.

But how can cities make streets “permanently safer and more pleasant”. By banning are severely restricting car use?

In the short term that would not be a good idea. For most people the alternative is public transport, and that must be a lot riskier with the virus around than safely commuting in our automobubbles.

And there’s the cost factors – councils are being asked to limit rates rises because people and businesses are facing income cuts. It may not be good timing spending big money on mass transit system. Projects in some places may be worth looking at, but I don’t see how mass transit can work in modern Dunedin, and many suburbs are too hilly to encourage a sudden shift to cycling.

And if councils want to look at resilience from viruses in the future then mass transit may not be the answer.

Most councils take so long to decide on doing things there is unlikely to be a sudden rush to radical change. That may be a good thing, especially if there’s a few idealist councillors around like Thomas Nash.

And Wellington has had major problems with their bus system as it is, and that was before the pressure of Covid. Rushing in to radical change would be a huge risk.

UPDATE:  Govt to fund temporary cycleways and footpaths post COVID-19 lockdown

The Government will provide extra funding to help councils expand footpaths and roll out temporary cycleways to help people keep 2 metres of physical distance after the Alert Level 4 lockdown, Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter announced today.

“When people begin to return to city centres following the lockdown we want them to have enough space to maintain physical distance,” said Julie Anne Genter.

“Some of our footpaths in busy areas are quite narrow. Temporary footpath extensions mean people can give each other a bit more space without stepping out onto the road.”

Funding will come from the Innovating Streets for People pilot fund, part of a wider programme that supports projects using ‘tactical urbanism’ techniques such as pilots and pop-up, interim treatments that make it safer and easier for people walking and cycling in the city.

“Footpath extensions would use basic materials like planter boxes and colourful paint to carve out a bit more space in the street for people walking, like we’ve seen on High street and Federal street in Auckland,” said Julie Anne Genter.

“A number of cities around the world, including New YorkBerlin and Vancouver, have rolled out temporary bike lanes to provide alternatives to public transport, which people may be less inclined to use in the short term.

“Councils are able to use highly-visible plastic posts, planter boxes and other materials to create temporary separated bike lanes where people feel safe.

“It’s now up to councils to put forward projects if they want to take advantage of this initiative. The NZ Transport Agency will help councils implement street changes that meet the Innovating Streets pilot fund criteria safely and with minimal disruption. While planning can start during lockdown the rollout of temporary changes will not happen while we remain at Alert Level 4.

“Councils can apply now for funding from the NZ Transport Agency, who will cover 90 percent of the cost of rolling out temporary changes to the streetscape,” Julie Anne Genter said.

How long will these ‘temporary’ changes be in place? “The rollout of temporary changes will not happen while we remain at Alert Level 4” – so it will be rolled out as people start to use their cars more.

Safer Speeds = lower speed limits

If road speeds were limited to 0 there would be no accidents. With speed limits up 100 kph there are quite a few accidents and deaths and injuries. If road speeds were decreased there would likely be fewer accidents and deaths. So how low should they go?

RNZ:  Speed limits reduction proposal wins local support, National Party criticisms

Local leaders are backing reduced speed limits, and Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter is rejecting the National Party’s claims that reduced speed limits would put brakes on the economy.

It follows the revelation from a New Zealand Transport Agency tool, Mega Maps, that the speed limit on 87 percent of roads is higher than what is deemed the safe travel speed.

It suggested the speed should be as low as 60km/h on some open roads, and 30km/h or 40km/h in cities.

Cities across the country have already reduced or are looking to reduce speed limits.

According to the National Road Carriers Association, 95 percent of export fruit, 86 percent of export wool and 85 percent of export dairy products are carried by our trucks on the roads.

National’s transport spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the economy relied on the movement of freight so any slowing of speeds could cost the country.

“Having a strong productive economy enables us to invest in many other areas which helps improve the quality of life and wellbeing of New Zealand so before you make dramatic changes to speed limits right across the board you have to think these things very carefully through.”

The government has given no indication whether it will reduce all speed limits, and it has rejected claims a slower network will make it less efficient.

“We don’t have more efficient roads when we have lots of fatal crashes on our roads – that slows down traffic as well so the idea that travelling at 10km/h faster, 20km/h faster on narrow, dangerous, windy roads is somehow better for the economy is completely ridiculous,” Ms Genter said.

“Travel times aren’t as affected by minor changes to the speed limit as they may think. I actually think that both the National Party and the Road Transport Forum are being incredibly irresponsible in this debate – both of them signed up to the speed management guide in 2016 and if they’re really saying that hundreds of New Zealanders should continue to senselessly die and be seriously injured on our roads for no good reason, I think that would mean they’re very out of touch with the majority of New Zealanders.”

A new road safety strategy for 2020 onwards is due to be put out for public consultation, which may include lowering limits on some high risk roads.

The current strategy: Safer Speeds Package

The Safer Speeds Programme (Safer Speeds) is New Zealand’s new approach to speed management under the Safer Journeys strategy.

One of the Safer Journeys goals is to reduce the number of speed related crashes by 2020. While the road toll is significantly lower today than it was in 2010, there are still too many people dying or being seriously injured on our roads.

In 2015, speeding was a contributing factor in 93 fatal crashes, 410 serious injury crashes and 1286 minor injury crashes. These crashes resulted in 101 deaths, 496 serious injuries, and 1,831 minor injuries.

Safer Speeds recognises that the transport environment is changing, with better infrastructure and technology available to manage speed to improve safety outcomes and promote network efficiency. Safer Speeds provides a long-term approach to manage speed on the road network to support both safety and economic productivity.

Roads can also be made safer, but that’s expensive. How much should we pay to make roads safer? Or would it be more cost effective to just reduce speed limits?

Trains and light rail versus roads and buses

The Government has an obvious preference for railway lines over roads, but there are concerns about the rail option in the US, where in many areas passenger numbers are static or falling.

Installing railway lines is expensive, and it is relatively inflexible, both in the short term and the long term. It’s far easier to deploy buses over a wider area, and to move buses to where they are most needed at any given time.

I suspect the preference for rail is because it can be electric, while battery run buses don’t seem to have caught on yet. And roads for buses can mean roads available for cars as well.

But what if there are big advances in battery and fast charging technologies, making electric buses more viable? That would be a great alternative energy industry to invest in, but if successful it could make newly installed  light rail infrastructure limited and expensive.

Stuff: As Government signals big light rail spend, public transport concerns grow in US

As the Government signals it wants to spend billions on light rail in Auckland and billions less on major roading projects in the decade ahead, worries about the future of public transport are growing in the US.

Those concerns were summed up by a story in The Washington Post last month, headlined Falling transit ridership poses an ’emergency’ for cities, experts fear.

Data showed 2017 was the lowest year of overall transit ridership in the US since 2005. A 5 per cent decline in bus ridership was the main problem, but some commentators suggest the figures indicate light rail is also struggling, given the heavy investment in the mode in recent years.

In the US, the debate about light rail is particularly fierce, with skeptics often suggesting buses will do the job perfectly well if organised properly, as well as being lower cost and more flexible.

In its transport policy for the 2017 election, Labour said light rail to Auckland Airport was part of a range of projects that would ease congestion. “A world-class city in the 21st century needs a rail connection from its CBD to its airport.”

But that is just one route. The population is scattered across a wide area in Auckland.

Auckland Transport said light rail would have fewer stops, but be more frequent and travel faster than buses.

Fewer stops and more frequent only for those with easy access to the rail routes.

Light rail also had much greater capacity than buses and cars.

Really? Again, the capacity is only where their are rail routes. And it depends on how many buses or cars you use. Obviously, one train has more capacity than one car, but it’s not a one to one equation.

Among the most forceful opponents of light rail in the US is Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. O’Toole blogs as The Antiplanner’ “dedicated to the sunset of government planning”. He’s a big supporter of buses over light rail.

Last October Cato published a paper of his called The Coming Transit Apocalypse. In it he said public transport use in the US had been falling since 2014, with many major systems having “catastrophic declines”.

Ride-hailing services, such as Uber, were the most serious threat “as some predict that within five years those ride-hailing services will begin using driverless cars, which will reduce their fares to rates competitive with transit, but with far more convenient service”.

He made the extreme prediction: “This makes it likely that outside of a few very dense areas, such as New York City, transit will be extinct by the year 2030.”

He did note that in 2014, transit ridership in the US reached its highest level since 1956,with 10.75 billion trips, but was not impressed. “This is hardly a great achievement, however, as increased urban populations meant that annual transit trips per urban resident declined from 98 in 1956 to 42 in 2014.”

n a similar vein is a report published last July by private Chapman University in California, called The Great Train Robbery, written by high profile urbanists Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox.

According to that report, many new transit lines, including light rail, built in US cities had not reduced the percentage of people who commuted alone by private car.

“The focus on new rail services rather than on buses has failed to improve basic mobility for those who need it and has been associated with a decline in transit’s share of commutes in some cities.”

n a similar vein is a report published last July by private Chapman University in California, called The Great Train Robbery, written by high profile urbanists Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox.

According to that report, many new transit lines, including light rail, built in US cities had not reduced the percentage of people who commuted alone by private car.

“The focus on new rail services rather than on buses has failed to improve basic mobility for those who need it and has been associated with a decline in transit’s share of commutes in some cities.”

An Auckland Transport report said more than a third of employment growth in Auckland between 2013 and 2046 – about 100,000 jobs – was expected to be within 5km of the city centre.

That’s still a lot of people outside the city centre.

What if there is a major move towards dispersal of the workforce, around the city and to cheaper areas elsewhere in the country? It’s easy to re-deploy buses, but impractical to re-deploy railway lines.

However this could all be moot. The current Government seems intent on benefiting some with better rail links, but not addressing the needs of those who live away from railway lines.

And regarding the light rail link to the airport – what if we stop using fossil fuels but solar powered long haul aircraft don’t take off?

Or more feasible, what if small capacity shuttle air travel becomes a thing – this could render railway links obsolete.




70 km per hour open speed limit?

There is some qualification to that – not all roads are included, but a report by an inter-governmental organisation with 59 member countries (including New Zealand) is recommending that rural roads that don’t have median barriers should have their speed limits lowered to 70kmh.

That’s a lot of roads in New Zealand, most roads outside cities and towns.

But they also recommend a speel limit of 30 kmh “for built-up and residential urban areas where vehicles and vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians share the same space”.

In other words, most streets.

Stuff: Is 100kmh too fast? Landmark report wants 70kmh open road speed limit

A landmark report by an inter-governmental organisation with 59 member countries – including New Zealand – is recommending that rural roads that don’t have median barriers should have their speed limits lowered to 70kmh.

Taken literally, that would mean that almost NZ’s entire roading network, state highways included, would need to have their speed limits reduced to 70kmh. Only those section of motorways with median barriers would be allowed to retain their 100kmh limit.

Not only that, but the report out of Paris by the International Transport Forum also recommends a 30 kmh speed limit for built-up and residential urban areas where vehicles and vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians share the same space, and 50kmh for other urban areas with intersections and high risk of side collisions.

I suspect this wouldn’t be very popular.

Earthquake repairs and immigrant workers

There are obviously a lot of rebuilding and repairs required after the Culverden, Kaikoura, Seddon and Wellington earthquakes. This will require workers. Who is available?

The building industry is already stretched as house building increases to meet demand, although there may be some wind down in Christchurch that can move north.

New Zealand doesn’t have a large pool of road rebuilding workers on standby.

It would take years to train up youth and the unemployed, even if there were enough capable and willing to do this sort of work.

So will we have to look to immigrant workers to help out again? Some think this will be essential.

RNZ: Wanted: 1000 workers to rebuild earthquake-hit roads

Construction bosses say at least 1000 workers will be needed to rebuild roads and buildings after last week’s earthquakes.

Scott Mathieson, of recruitment and immigration firm Working In, said those skills were already scarce in New Zealand.

He was already looking for more workers from the Philippines, he said.

He guessed repairing the earthquake-damaged roads and buildings would need more than 1000 extra workers.

“Most employers feel they’ve tapped out the local resource, so a good proportion of that will have to come from overseas to get the job done on time.”

He said “definitely hundreds” of migrant workers would be needed.

The Building Construction Industry Training Organisation said the industry was caught short on skilled workers after the global financial crisis.

It was struggling to fill gaps created by the building boom.

Chief executive Warwick Quinn said thousands more construction workers were already needed over the next five years – before last week’s destructive earthquakes.

“It’s all of the people right through the supply chain, its not just people on the ground, its the oversight, its the management… They are highly technically skilled people and the sector’s struggling to find those.”

Can current contractors cope with the workload?

Civil Contractors New Zealand boss Peter Silcock agreed hundreds if not thousands of workers would be needed.

As the Canterbury rebuild tapered off, contractors could cope, he said.

Infrastructure New Zealand chief executive Stephen Selwood said major contractors and the government were already talking about forming an alliance to speed up the work.

“I think there’s months of work here. It would be great if it could be done quicker, but I would be expecting early new year at best.”

There may be enough civil contracting companies, but are there enough workers available?

Mr Selwood said other major projects, like Transmission Gully, would go ahead as planned, but maintenance and renewal jobs could be delayed as resources were put into earthquake work.

Local potholes may grow. I know that Dunedin resources are already moving up to North Canterbury, and are already causing delays here.

Alternate route to Kaikoura coast?

Andrew Little has asked whether an alternate route should be considered after the Kaikoura cost road has been extensively damaged by landslides and slips after Monday’s earthquake.

1 News: ‘We need to think of an alternative route’ – Andrew Little questions whether repairing damaged road is worth it

Roading and rail along the coast is certainly a huge challenge, but I don’t know how much Little has thought about alternate routes.

That corner of the South Island is a mangled mess of mountains riddle with earthquake fault lines.


Mangled mess of mountains

That whole area has an estimated 80,000-100,000 landslips, and inland is more mountainous, especially north of Kaikoura.

Which of these fault lines would an alternative route be better? All valleys follow fault lines.


That is before this week’s earthquakes which are scattered across the region.