Auckland Transport should learn about peak oil

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By Greg Presland

One of the most controversial aspects of the Auckland super city revamp was the worry at the loss of democratic control over decisions that used to be made by elected representatives.  Auckland Transport was perhaps the area where the loss would be most pronounced. Historically the Auckland Regional Transport Committee was the organisation that set the strategy for Auckland transport.  It comprised of ARC Councillors, councillors of the Territorial Local Authorities and representatives of such other esoteric groups as public transport users.

Then with the  advent of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority the governance was changed.  ARTA became the creator of strategy.  But at least ARTA’s board was appointed by the locals and subject to oversight by each of the territorial local authorities.

Super City changed things for the worse with the transport of the Auckland Transport Agency.  Instead of there being a board with locally appointed directors Rodney Hide and the Government hand picked the members.  Auckland Council can make and has made subsequent appointments but for now the Board is mostly a group of individuals appointed by a Government that appears not to consider peak oil a significant threat.

The consultation document just issued for the latest round of strategy reviews reflects this world view.  The issues section anticipates the continuous increase in private vehicle usage for decades to come.  The only role of the strategy is to try and accommodate this growth. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but it appears almost inevitable that peak oil is occurring now.  When an august body such as the International Energy Agency says it has occurred we should take note.

The Government has been advised that world demand for fossil fuel resources will continue to grow, with prices likely to continue to increase as existing fields are depleted and new fields are developed in more difficult-to-access areas.  Not only are there significant sustainability and environmental issues but there are major financial implications for the country.  Between 2002 and 2010 the amount paid by NZ for petroleum imports increased by 133% while the volume only increased by 7%.  Worryingly there is predicted a sharp decline in local petroleum production from now to 2016 as existing fields such as Tui and Maari peak in their production, and before any new developments come on stream.

So what does the draft strategy identify as challenges? It considers that the challenges are population growth and associated need to travel.  The report states (page 7) that the demand for transport is anticipated to increase by almost 60% over the next 40 years.  Freight and Commercial trips are expected to more than double.

The solutions proposed are integrated land use and transport planning, intensification with improved passenger transport, and more roads.  The analysis screams business as usual.  And as usual it tries to deal with the problem by increasing the supply of transport of infrastructure, not by managing demand and attempting people to think about alternatives.  For instance if half the working population one day a fortnight could stay home and telework there would be a significant beneficial effect on congestion. Global warming is referred to as an “environmental effect” and the description of the effect is “negatively”.

Peak oil is not mentioned.  There is a reference to “rising energy prices” but as a historical occurrence rather than something that will continue into the foreseeable future. If it was up to me the report should have an alternative scenario written. This would say that there is a significant risk that petroleum will increase in price dramatically over the next decade.  If it does then the experience of 2007 when a spike in oil prices caused a dramatic increase in passenger transport usage may become an all too regular occurrence.  As increased fuel prices hit people are going to stampede to public transport.  The only thing that we can do is invest in transport systems that do not rely on petroleum and start doing it now.  Rail has to be electrified, the inner city loop has to be built so that the rail system’s throughout can be doubled, and the compact city model has to be followed so that the imperative to drive long distances is reduced. And there are environmental, financial and social imperatives in persuading people to think and try alternatives to private car use.

Submissions are open now and must be filed by 4 pm Friday March 23.

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