Our geriatric vehicle fleet is costing New Zealand

In March the Ministry of Transport released its Annual Vehicle Fleet statistics for the 2017 year.

The size of the fleet has increased from 3,977,966 light vehicles in 2016 to 4,154,897 in 2017. As with previous years the average age remains stubbornly high at 14 years. The number of electric vehicles that have been registered has increased significantly from 940 to 2, but still makes only a tiny fraction of our total light vehicle fleet.

My parents have two vehicles. One is a 2007 Hyundai Getz, which has done 102,000 kilometres. They purchased it in 2010 with about 35,000 kilometres on the odometer. The Toyota Surf that was purchased in 2003 is even older, having come off the vehicle line in 1995. It has done 340,000 kilometres and would probably be good for another 100,000 kilometres.

The Hyundai Getz is 11 years old and below the national average. My parents are by no means the only ones with such old vehicles. My fathers brother owns a Toyota Surf as well that might even older and quite likely with as many kilometres on it. And the reasons for holding on to such old vehicles for so long is simple: reliable, do everything the owners want and well maintained they can last a long time.

Ford Falcons, Holden Commodore’s, Subaru Legacy’s, Toyota Surfs, RAV4’s, Corolla’s along with various Honda’s, Mazda’s, Suzuki’s all contribute substantially to the aging fleet.

Other factors are at play too, which the Government and New Zealand Transport Authority need to recognize. Many New Zealanders cannot afford newer vehicles and a lot of newer models have gone for style over substance, have features such as phones and fancy entertainment features that are simply not considered to be necessary.

There are mounting problems with the vehicle fleet though. Among the problems are:

  1. As they age, vehicles become more expensive to fix which may be put down to a shortage of parts for particular types
  2. As an older vehicle ages it becomes more dangerous – newer ones for ease of obtaining new parts, having accepted safety measures and ratings pose less of a risk to other road users
  3. New Zealand has climate change obligations to meet and reducing vehicle emissions will be a priority for this Government
  4. New Zealanders incomes have been largely static for a long time and unless they move, new vehicles entering the market will go through several owners before they look near affordable to lower and middle income brackets
  5. Were there to be a significant overhaul of the available product in the fuel supply market, newer types and biofuels might not be usable in older vehicles

Vested interests such in the motoring industry and political influences mean that significant resistance may be expected if a comprehensive attempt is made to update our aging light vehicle fleet. However the social and economic costs of doing so might be even higher.

Tasks for Julie Anne Genter on return to work

Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter, who has been on maternity leave after giving birth to her first child, is back at work this week. Whilst she has been away there has been much going on on our roads, some of it good and some of it quite appalling.

As a result there are number of significant issues sitting on her desk:

  1. Action is needed on our soaring road toll, which is the highest in nearly a decade, having levelled with the 2009 total road toll with five weeks still left in the calendar year
  2. Requiring all road vehicles to have headlights that come on automatically – it is compulsory in Canada and was done to reduce the number of collisions caused in poor visibility
  3. A promise was made to invest $300 million into Christchurch transport as part of the rebuild programme following the earthquakes – let us set priorities for that spending and get on with it
  4. Investigate getting bulk material such as petroleum onto suitable railway carriages and reduce the number of large tankers and such vehicles on roads that are not designed for them.

Whilst these are all good things to be tackling some bigger beasts need to be tackled as well. One of them is reforming the New Zealand Transport Authority from one that is heavily road oriented, into one that works for all modes of transport and their users instead of a lucky chosen few. This is essential work to be done because N.Z.T.A. put little emphasis on rail and the merchant marine, which are better able to move large volumes of material, goods or fuel and are not likely to have to stop as frequently to refuel themselves.

Another one is addressing our carbon challenge. With the Government having announced an impending – even if it is some decades away from fully implementing – ban on oil and gas, we need to significantly up the efforts to develop sustainable, carbon neutral alternatives, which is something that is currently not happening.

It might seem strange to be putting so much emphasis on an Associate Minister, but Ms Genter is the true force in the Transport portfolio, and I think it is only a matter of time before she takes it off Minister Phil Twyford. It is important to note that Ms Genter did her postgraduate research in transport planning and has been the Green Party spokesperson for it since she entered Parliament. Mr Twyford has so far been underwhelming in his ministerial portfolio’s and Transport has not been an exception.

So, I welcome Ms Genter back. The time has come to do some serious policy lifting and before the 2020 election I am expecting to see some significant announcements come from the office of Ms Genter including maybe that she has taken over the portfolio.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 3

Ship passing through lock, Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This is the third part in my Lessons from Europe and Singapore series, and the last from the transport segment.

One of the great revelations in terms of transport during my trip to Europe was the canal and lock system in the Netherlands and Belgium. Centuries old, it first began to form when towns such as Ghent and Brugge were reliant on two modes of transport for goods: the horse pulled cart and the barge. Even hundreds of years later one can still see significant ships plying these canals.

In New Zealand obviously, we do not have the appropriate geography for canals that can take ships. Few, if any, rivers are likely to be deep enough to take ships and those that are often have hazardous features such as hidden shoals that would make navigation tricky.

Another mode of transport that I think we should take greater note of is railways. The large cities in Europe all have modern railway stations that at any given time whilst I was there might have had 500 people or more in my immediate or near vicinity, all either coming to or going from a train at the station. The trains were a mix of faster ones that were normally express trains to places like Schipol Airport or cross border ones that ran into neighbouring countries like Germany/Belgium or France. In Sweden for example, there is an express train running between Stockholm Centralen and Stockholm Arlanda (Airport), which reaches speeds of up to 180km/h. Processing tickets was easy – they were purchased at the counter or an automatic teller where one entered the destination, indicated how many tickets they were purchasing and whom they were for (children/adults/seniors, etc).

All I can say is that all of the trains were on time, clean inside and a pleasure to ride. The only problem was the announcements were sometimes not always in English, but a digital display on board saying where ones train was next stopping made things easier. Railway stations are sited in generally central areas with good car, bicycle and foot access. Light railway stops would often be just outside, so that if one needed to transit to something going within a city’s limits they could do that easily.

The railway station at Amsterdam, Netherlands. (R. GLENNIE)

Investing like this would be very expensive and not necessarily worth the cost. A more realistic investment might be to electrify the main trunk line in the South Island and upgrade the rolling stock. I do see a time in the near future with the hikes in petroleum prices when trains might be required to move petroleum in bulk instead of putting it into a fleet of tankers. As for passenger trains, restoring The Southerner in the South Island is perhaps the best bet – there are too few people in the southern half of New Zealand’s land mass to make large scale passenger services economic – Christchurch for example would need by my guess another 100-150,000 people to even get close to considering light rail.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say whilst numerous lessons can be taken from what I saw and experienced in Europe, not all are applicable. We can learn from their integration of different modules and invest more in non vehicular alternatives, but others such as the canals will not be workable.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 2

Continued on from Part 1. This part looks at the logistical issues of owning a vehicle in densely populated European centres, and the advantages of bikes in these locations.

Whilst it is certainly true that the European cities I visited have their share of cars, it is also true that urban planning rules have limited where the cars can go. I visited the old quarters in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Amsterdam and Brussels during my time in Europe. Each city had its own way of dealing with private vehicles.

Some places like Stockholm restricted the vehicular access to emergency and service vehicles. This is understandable. Many of the streets in their old quarter are very narrow and not suited to larger vehicles and would impede foot and cycle traffic. Also to maintain the old city ambiance and not damage the cobbled roads which have been in place since the old city was built.

The old city quarters in Stockholm. (R. GLENNIE)

I also visited Ypres and Brugge in Belgium. These are two towns in rural Belgium in/near the area popularly known as Flanders Field. Here I was able to see other measures that were used to control the number of vehicles in the towns.

One measure, which I understand was in place for Brugge, is that if people live in the old part of town, they cannot bring their vehicle into the old town except for purposes such as dropping off shopping or visitors. On one hand this seemed rather awkward in terms of freedom of movement. On the other it was simply necessary. The streets of the old town were built hundreds of years before motor vehicles were even a remote possibility and therefore without tearing down large tracts of the old town, it is simply not practical or proper to park ones vehicle or vehicles outside their home, for the street frontage might be only a few metres of a house or apartment that is 2-3 stories high. The vehicle, even if parked right up on the footpath would then pose an immediate impediment to the considerable foot and bicycle traffic passing through.

Just a small portion of the bicycles in the vicinity of Amsterdam railway station. (R. GLENNIE)

Bikes are a very popular transport mode in European cities. Their ease of use, low cost in maintaining – a kit for punctured wheels, a lock, working brakes and maybe a helmet (they appeared to be optional, or maybe authorities had given up trying to police any rules) – and one is “away laughing”. Mass bike locks were present in Amsterdam. The ratio of cyclists to other road users was far higher than I have ever seen in New Zealand – or am probably likely to see – and for the most part they were far politer than their New Zealand counterparts.

Cycle ways clearly denoted where the cyclist was allowed to go. There was occasional confusion about what was allowed in the cycle way as motorized scooters sometimes mingled with them as well. Cycle lock up facilities exist in central parts of these urban areas, where the cycle is locked up in a large area with other cycles. But it was just as common to see them locked to lamp posts, canal railings, or simply parked outside buildings.

So, these are just a few observations made of transport on my trip to Europe. Feel free to comment.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 1

This article and the next few following it, is based on my experiences from a recent holiday in Europe.

One of the first things I did upon arrival into London was be shown how to ride their transport system. My mate Dave who has been living in London with his wife met me at Heathrow Airport. He made sure I had an Oyster card, which would enable me to ride on the buses. Each day Dave and I got a ticket from Maidenhead into London Paddington railway station. From there we either went walking or used the Oyster card to get on the bus network. Both seemed to be well used no matter which direction we went.

Integrated light right/bus platform at Skansen, Stockholm. (R. GLENNIE)

But it was in Sweden, in Stockholm and Gothenburg that I was able to see a well organized rail and bus system at work. I was able to experience the fast train from Stockholm Arlanda, which travelled into the central city at 180km/h and took about 20 minutes. It was also amazingly quiet inside. From central station it was just a short walk to get onto light rail going in all directions or the buses, which shared platforms with the light rail (see photo). Again, all seemed to be well patronized. I could buy a pass for several days which expired shortly after I left.

Could such systems work here? In Auckland I think the population is big enough that a scaled down system could, but there would need to be a change in the mindset. It would also need to overcome reliability and supply (capacity)problems that still need work done on them. It would need to look at Gothenburg whose population is around 1.5 million, rather than Stockholm.

Wellington has a well used railway system as it is. I am not sure that other than improving what already exists, and being a city of 400,000 people I am not sure that the demand for a larger more comprehensive network already exists. It would be challenging given the city’s geography essentially confines development to two distinct corridors.

What of the South Island cities?

Neither Dunedin or Christchurch are big enough for this sort of planning. Where Christchurch’s strength lies is in its bus network, which is a work in progress. Badly damaged in the earthquakes and let down by some poor planning decisions a spoke and rim network similar to what already exists, but with wider reaching bus services, is the way to go.

Dunedin is further compromised. Its population of 120,000 might be strengthened by a core bus system with an exchange along its one way street system. Its hilly terrain, which includes the steepest street in the world (Baldwin Street) means limitations exist in terms of geographical layout options.

The rise of petrol prices, caused both by taxes being introduced and high international tensions is not likely to bring any relief at the petrol pump any time soon. Whilst biofuel has potential, it is likely to be a complementary source instead of a replacement for petroleum and political reluctance to invest in such sources is slowing its introduction down. That only serves to prolong the pain in peoples wallets.