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Over the last year I’ve been hosting Transportation Group ‘Chair’s Conversations’ to explore why we don’t get better outcomes from transport. I’ve talked with industry and interest area leaders. I’ve also been reading with interest developments from Ministry of Transport, the Climate Change, Infrastructure, and Productivity Commissions, and about emissions reduction plans. Climate change, and related planetary crises, are increasingly front of mind for me as the reality becomes harder to ignore. It’s no exaggeration to acknowledge that our children and grandchildren are going to live through apocalyptic times – if they’re fortunate.
My conclusion about why we don’t get better outcomes from transport aligns with why the world isn’t responding with urgency to the unfolding crises.
It’s because humans are selfish, and those in power do not want to relinquish their privilege.
Reversing climate change, biodiversity collapse and other planetary boundary threats means reducing rampant consumption and ending relentless pursuit of growth. It’s that simple, and that difficult.
Holding on to power means maintaining the status quo, and that runs all the way through every sector we work in. Nobody in management wants to admit that there is a crisis going on, because that suggests lack of control and massive change. Pretending business-as-usual can carry on means we won’t get livable, equitable cities any time soon. There’s zero imperative because the inequity is not at all obvious or urgent enough to the wealthy and powerful who make investment decisions. If it were, we would have nationwide programmes to fix kerb cuts so that everyone who uses a wheelchair can cross their street, before we invested in any kind of project to improve travel times for people and freight that is already managing to make journeys.
And it’s not just a New Zealand phenomenon. I’ve recently returned from three weeks in Europe. Yes there are beautiful mixed-mode streetscapes in Gothenburg and Zurich and Paris, but what struck me most in these places was that car traffic is everywhere. I read that if every city in the world had Amsterdam-levels of cycling, we’d reduce global emissions by the sum of what Germany emits in a year. Well, that’s not much! It’s certainly not enough to avoid deadly warming – and so, without interventions that drastically reduce car use, the transport sector will never do its part to reverse the rampant consumption that is leading humanity towards collapse.
I know that this Chair’s Chat is essentially meaningless in the scheme of the planet, but despite this doom and gloom, I remain optimistic that there is good to be done. Each of us can work every day on projects that help people and places become better, healthier, and more equitable. More than that, we can refuse to work on projects that perpetuate car-centric planning. We can be part of conversations with our peers here and internationally to bring a new paradigm closer. And we can pressure our leaders, and support activists and advocates for those most marginalised, to find their voices and raise them. Future generations will most definitely be judging us not by our words, but by our actions.