During lockdown, Kiwis had a taste of life with light traffic. What if we seized the chance granted by the Covid-19 reconstruction effort to engineer a future where we didn’t rely on cars? Climate Editor ELOISE GIBSON reports.
What if we drove like it was lockdown forever?
It turned out we’d never noticed the constant noise of cars until it stopped.
Suddenly, each individual vehicle made a noticeable, foreign sound, then all was quiet again. There were so many birds, or maybe we just heard them more than usual.
We liked hearing the neighbours laughing, and we liked seeing little kids learning to ride bikes. Without having to be so watchful, we relaxed more on walks, and made eye contact, letting the kids scoot ahead.
Roads seemed bigger than we remembered, which was lucky, since so many of us were using them. At first, we moved onto them tentatively, unsure if it was really allowed. Soon, runners were charging up lanes, while learner cyclists wobbled about. The cars that were still driving travelled carefully, not knowing when they might encounter people on feet or two wheels.
For the first time in living memory, the streets did not belong to cars.
Then they came back, but we remembered.
When University of Auckland transport researcher Kirsty Wild surveyed a few hundred people in urban centres about their experiences of the streets during Level 4 lockdown, they mostly talked about the peace, and feeling less harried.
“Bliss,” said one.
“We are still careful, but I feel a sense of freedom I haven’t experienced before with three little boys racing off on bikes,” said another.
“People are outside taking walks, scootering, learning to bike, chalking, gardening... there’s no worry that kids will run into the street and be hit by a car,” said another.
To Wild herself, the most shocking sight was seeing a teenage girl on a bike – shocking because she realised she’d never seen a girl that age biking in her neighbourhood before.
“There is an idea Kiwis are somehow hard-wired to love cars and driving, and to shun walking and cycling,” Wild says. “Lockdown debunked that.”
Air quality readings told their own story. Lung-damaging pollution plunged, and an international study found New Zealand achieved the second biggest daily drop in carbon dioxide emissions in the world – 41 per cent lower than normal. Only Luxembourg beat us.
It turned out lockdown was the difference between reading about life with fewer cars in a textbook, and living it.
There was only one problem: life as we knew it ground to a halt to make it happen.
Coincidentally, lockdown levels of driving are approximately the same as we’d drive in 2040, if we committed to driving 10 per cent fewer kilometres a year, every year, from now, says Susan Krumdieck, a Professor of Transition Engineering at the University of Canterbury.
Not only would we hear birds and feel safer, our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from driving would be 62 per cent lower than if we stay on our current track, Krumdieck estimates.
If we went one step further and stopped importing vehicles, our cumulative emissions would be 79 per cent lower than the status quo by 2050, because we’d also avoid emissions from car manufacturing.
We wouldn’t have fancy new cars. But we might have other good things to replace them. Instead of adding 2 per cent more cars to our fleet each year, as we do now, Krumdieck says, “we would maintain the ones we have, retire the ones that are too old and not import any more.”
Could we do it?
Kiwis’ Level 4 levels of driving are roughly normal for someone in central Melbourne who uses a car-sharing service instead of owning a car, says Krumdieck. Life for them involves driving just around 1500 km a year.
“They go where they like, but they do their shopping by bike and their commute by rail,” she says.
“It means we have to build the things Melbourne has – bike lanes, trams, trains. Instead of the embodied carbon going into all the...vehicles, it now goes into the public transport.”
Before Level 4, emissions from transport were hurtling in the wrong direction at speeds an urban rush-hour commuter could only dream about.
New Zealand’s transport emissions have doubled since today’s 30-year-olds were born.
Between 2020 and 2030, to meet our promise under the Paris Agreement, we’ll need to shrink our net average annual emissions from above 70 million tonnes today to about 60 million of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Transport will need to be part of that shrinkage.
By 2050, every scrap of CO2 that can’t be sucked away will need to have been eliminated from the transport system.
Problems reach their apex in Auckland. Transport makes up 40 per cent of emissions in our biggest city – twice the national average – and most of that is in the form of CO2 from private cars.
Meanwhile, we’re sitting in traffic.
Congestion levels on Auckland’s arterial roads have increased by a third since 2014, and Transport Agency modelling indicates this could increase by another 30 per cent at peak times by 2046. In rush hour, on the nation’s most visible bottleneck – Auckland’s slender Harbour Bridge – each private car has an average occupancy of just 1.2 people, says Douglas Wilson, director of Transportation Laboratories at the University of Auckland.
“That’s very inefficient in terms of the size of the vehicle and the space that is taking up,” he says.
No wonder the roads felt so big during lockdown. A car travelling 50km/h takes up 140m2 of road space, vastly more per-person than any other mode of transport.
We’re a nation of more than 4 million vehicles, most of them fully powered by petrol, and we use them as giant personal metal bubbles.
Paul Winton used to be an investment consultant. He once helped advise the former National Government on ultrafast broadband. He recalls he could pummel people with facts about how great fast broadband would be, but it was never as good as letting them hold a device with a speedy connection in their hands.
Looking at a car-free street was like that. Normally, his daughters don’t bike to school because he doesn’t think it’s safe, he says. That day, he could hear birds tweeting, and he thought, “Wow, my five-year-old could go on the road and not die.”
Winton is now the founder of climate action lobby group the 1point5 Project. He started his climate journey thinking EVs would probably fix everything. He soon had his mind changed. But no amount of transport modelling was as powerful as seeing that quiet road.
1point5 co-operated with transport consultants MRCagney to build an online tool showing ways Auckland can reach its emissions goals.
It shows that even with the multi-billion dollar City Rail Link, two mooted light rail projects, a larger and electrified bus fleet, as much cycling as Copenhagen, and assuming a third of people drive electric vehicles – all heroic efforts on their own – Auckland will not meet its emissions goals for 2030.
“It is massive and it is nothing like what’s being contemplated by the NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport at the moment,” he says.
To move the dial down enough, we must drive fewer kilometres, the model shows. Make space for leg-powered transport and get many, many more buses – trains that aren’t already planned now will be too slow to deploy for 2030, says Winton. Then, electrify as much of what’s left as possible.
You can play with the levers – swapping out buses for electric cars and cycles for big ticket public transport. But if you ease up too much on any of these, you’ll see globe-heating CO2 climb.
Transport and emissions researchers have their differences. Some are working on improving charging options for electric cars, some favour trams, some love car share schemes, some talk about better-placed housing.
But none think we can solve our emissions problems by building more roads, even for electric cars to drive on.
Yet in January, the Government’s “once in a generation” infrastructure package – announced before Covid-19 hit – earmarked more than $5b for new roads, compared with just over $1b in rail spending.
May’s gargantuan Covid recovery Budget also spent comparatively little on measures that would drive emissions lower.
There is still $20b of post-lockdown stimulus money in the Budget kitty, which could launch us into a low-carbon future, or lock us out of it, forever.
“If you’re going to spend, spend it on the future,” says Krumdieck.
It’s time, says Winton, to “de-prioritise cars.”
None of the researchers we spoke to for this story envisioned ditching cars completely.
No-one wants to bring a newborn home from the hospital on an e-scooter.
But Wild suggests we save cars for when they are truly the best option. Light car use creates possibilities, she says, “but heavy car use tends to smother the possibilities for something else.”
But to drive less, we’ll need better choices, and vastly more of everything except fossil-fuel powered vehicles: electric trains, cycleways, walkways, electric buses, e-scooters, e-bikes, e-shuttles, charging networks for all the e-things and more houses built on good, connected transport routes.
We’ll also need to share the cars we have, says Janet Stephenson, director of Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability. “Maybe there’ll be a car in my neighbourhood that I sometimes use and other people sometimes use, and it complements my little EV,” she says. There’ll be an app to help you find the closest available vehicle.
In Auckland, Winton estimates car occupancy needs to jump from 1.5 on average to two people per vehicle, to make enough space for other alternatives.
Stephenson says New Zealanders have proved they can change to new transport modes quickly, given the right design.
“When they put in Auckland’s North Shore busway – and that was a gamble, initially – it became packed within a short time, and they had to keep increasing it,” she says. “The light rail and the (Auckland rail) loop that’s going in, for some reason those are attractive forms of sharing transport. Private cars are not, and yet Uber is," she says. “There’s something interesting going on here.”
“The idea of Lime scooters lying around cluttering the streets was unthinkable 18 months ago, and yet there they are on the corner outside my office, and it’s a normal part of life,” says Stephenson. “We have e-bikes, all kinds of small mobility devices, heaps more walking and cycling, so the whole notion of how you allocate road space is up in the air.”
Wilson – whose research includes super-fast wireless charging technology for EVs – foresees frequent electric shuttles tootling around neighbourhoods, picking people up from their doors and taking them to transport hubs. From there, they’d catch fast, reliable high capacity mass transit.
First, though, we’ll need to deal with our fear of contagion.
Walking and cycling soared after Covid, but public transport use did not.
Since we like our independence, it’s tempting to think we could all just buy EVs and be done with it.
Unfortunately, statistics are against us on this.
There is also the small matter of our existing four million petrol cars, which won’t magically disappear. We keep our cars on average for 17 years. “A car is the second-biggest purchase most people will make after their houses,” says the transport lab’s Wilson. “Even if we can significantly increase uptake of EVs, the turnaround in emissions that is coming from the mass of the vehicle fleet is still going to be slow,” he says. “Biofuel can reduce those emissions, but not that significantly.”
How much we drive existing cars in the next 10 years is going to matter.
There’s a fairness issue, too. Many poorer households spend a large chunk of their income maintaining and fueling ageing petrol cars, and they’re less likely to be able to afford to live near good public transport and cycleways, says Stephenson. They’re also less likely to afford EVs, missing out on the lower running costs. Everyone – including suburbanites – needs cheaper alternatives, she says.
“My nightmare would be one class of people who is low carbon and cheap and another class who will be locked into their huge, gas guzzling cars, which are 20 years old already and are falling to bits and that’s their only way to get to work.”
But if you can afford an EV, should you do your bit for the climate and go electric?
On an individual level, if you’re buying a car anyway, and you’re going to keep driving lots, the answer is almost certainly yes.
Once EVs are on the road, their emissions are only a tenth of that of a petrol car, even at New Zealand’s current, imperfect, rate of renewable energy, according to Krumdieck’s estimate. EVs are so much more efficient than petrol cars that they can come out on top for emissions, even in countries that still generate much of their electricity from coal.
But that’s a different question from where we, as a country, should pour our effort.
As well as driving less and turning road space over to public transport, bikes and walking, Winton believes we should also turbo-charge our EV incentives. We’d still need to drive much less, but it’s a less drastic reduction than we’d need without boosting EVs, on MRCagney’s modelling.
Winton wants us to follow Norway – the world leader in EV purchases, where more than a third of cars, and the vast majority of new cars, are electric already. Earlier this year, the New Zealand Government scrapped a feebate proposal that would have subsidised EVs by about $5,000 apiece. To get Norway’s levels we’d need that and more – a “feebate on speed”, says Winton.
Whether we’ll get that is another matter. Wilson points out Norway’s government is richer than ours, and pays generous subsidies with money it made selling oil. On the other hand, EVs are getting cheaper and better, even without government help.
Krumdieck has a different view entirely. Not only does she think EV uptake will stay low – 30 per cent by 2050 – she is scathing about the promotion of personal EVs as the answer.
She notes the emissions from manufacturing them are higher than for other cars, because of their large batteries. (Technically, these emissions would be counted on the manufacturing country’s greenhouse tallies, not New Zealand’s, but Krumdieck notes the climate doesn’t care whose tally they go on).
Assuming EVs only penetrate 30 per cent of the market by 2050, she calculates there would be a tiny difference in cumulative emissions compared with buying petrol vehicles – lower than 5 per cent.
Even if uptake is higher, she says, what kind of cars we buy barely matters if we’re scarcely going to drive them. That’s where our efforts should go, she says: driving less, and stopping buying cars, because those things have the biggest impact on our emissions.
Krumdieck is walking, or rather cycling, the talk.
She says it was hard to find her family a house within cycling distance from her office, her husband’s office and her kids’ schools, but they did it. She wants the government to invest in software helping map where people can get from their homes, without cars, to gauge demand for new transport projects.
“There’s no way I would buy an EV to replace the car I have now,” she says. “My car has another 200,000km in it, at least. Somebody’s going to drive ’em.”
“If I now stimulate demand for a whole other vehicle, what have I achieved for the planet?”
Perhaps you noticed something during lockdown that would help you avoid using your personal car.
A safe passage to the cycleway here, a better path to school over there, a bus that comes more than once an hour, or a drier place to wait.
Wilson likens the process of change to taking one bite at a time from an elephant. Everything we’re doing right now with public transport is still only a small chunk of the beast, he says.
1point5’s Winton says we could drop the number of kilometres driven on Auckland roads by a third, by 2030, if we wanted, by bringing in more T2 and T3 lanes and congestion charging, and making parking scarcer and pricier. “It’s doable by making it less attractive to drive, and doing deliveries at night to smooth out demand,” he says. “If you work two days from home, that’s 40 per cent of your commuting emissions cut.”
To supply better options, Auckland alone needs $1-2b dollars to create safe cycle and scooter corridors for trips of 3-5km each, he says, as well as a massively expanded electric bus fleet.
“We have to make active transport the priority, and to do that you have to hand over streets and parking to cycling and walking, you have to do it at scale, and 50-100 times faster than it is currently proposed,” says Winton. “It can start straight away using cones and planter boxes, and as people and funding become available to do the work we can reallocate that space [permanently].”
Individuals can help by writing to councillors, going to public meetings, and voting in local body elections, he says. “We need the grown-ups to realise that this is what’s needed, and they need to know they are supported in doing it.”
There’s one more very useful thing we learned during lockdown.
Some helpful measures don’t cost much to build, so long as there’s the will to build them.
To aid social distancing, councils rolled out walking and cycling lanes overnight in what used to be carparking lanes, a feat which might normally take years of consultation.
“They weren’t the most beautiful things,” says Auckland Transport (AT) boss Shane Ellison, of the orange cones that appeared along busy streets in Auckland. Still, the exercise cost a fraction of the price of building typical cycle lanes. People didn’t seem to mind that they were a bit scruffy. On Tamaki Drive, along the harbour, AT counted up to 90 per cent more cyclists than usual.
AT has applied for government money to bring forward some of its permanent cycling routes, and also hopes to get funding to trial cheaper, pop-up options using planter boxes, road paint and other low-cost measures.
But when asked if Aucklanders might get to keep their orange-cone pop-up lanes, Ellison hesitates. “We will need to have that conversation with local boards, about whether there’s an appetite,” he says. “A lot of businesses are under pressure right now.”
To Wild, who did the lockdown survey, hesitancy belongs to the time before Covid.
The pace of change has been so timid, she says, it’s as if health authorities had gone about banning smoking in pubs by going door-to-door to each pub to decide individually.
“We need to get cracking,” Wild says. “We need to have those debates in those communities, yes, but we also need to have a debate as a nation about the neighbourhoods we want our kids to grow up in and how to make it work as a network, not little sprinklings of cycle lanes and public transport here and there.”
Lockdown, says Stephenson, was a natural experiment we’ll probably never see again. “This is the most amazing opportunity we will have in a lifetime to make a significant change,” she says.
If we don’t, Winton worries we’ll soon forget what life in light traffic was like. The quiet, the birds, the kids biking safely. “We need to leap on that feeling now, because the memory will fade very quickly,” he says.
“If there’s one thing Covid taught us, it’s that it’s possible to just...change things.”
Words: Eloise Gibson
Video and Photos: Jason Dorday
Design and Graphics: Kathryn George
Editor: Patrick Crewdson