If we want to reduce emissions, we have to get out of our cars. Low-traffic neighbourhoods encourage people to take up different options for short journeys. Photo: Getty Images

Are there any easy ways to cut carbon emissions? Low-traffic zones where only local residents can drive cars not only cut emissions, but improve air quality and reduce street crime.

Until Sunday, the Climate Change Commission is taking submissions on its first package of advice to Government on the actions it must take to reach net-zero by 2050.

In the last thirty years, domestic transport emissions have increased by 90 percent. As the draft advice from the Climate Change Commission notes, transport currently contributes about 37 percent of long-lived gases, and road transport is the main source of these emissions. Most come from light passenger vehicles: cars, utes, vans and SUVs. We have one of the highest rates of car ownership in the OECD, and we spend the vast majority of our travel time in cars.

If we want to reduce emissions, we have to get out of our cars.

Policy discussions about traffic reduction, when they happen at all, tend to frame the issue as one of personal choice, and leave it up to motivated individuals to pursue alternatives to driving if they feel strongly enough about it.

But this isn’t fair. Because of the ways that cars have been prioritised as our main form of transport, not having access to a car can be a significant barrier to accessing employment and healthcare, and the alternatives to driving are often inconvenient, inaccessible, or non-existent.

Cars have been marketed to us as symbols of our freedom, and we are encouraged to view them as extensions of our homes, reflections of our personalities, or enablers of our cultural values. We have all grown up in an environment that strongly normalises car use.

Leaving it up to individuals to change their transport patterns in such an environment will never be enough to make traction on the important climate targets we have set for ourselves as a nation. Decades of misguided policy settings have got us into this mess, and we need new policies to get us out of it.

When the Climate Commission finalises its advice to government, we need policies that directly aim to reduce the number of vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT), in ways that enhance people’s daily lives and improve their transport experiences.

… low-traffic streets and neighbourhoods can dramatically reduce traffic volumes through a phenomenon known as “traffic evaporation”: when large numbers of people switch to alternative modes such as walking and wheeling to make short journeys

Rapidly accelerating the implementation of low-traffic streets and neighbourhoods in Aotearoa’s cities is one important way to do this.

A low-traffic neighbourhood is a group of streets where through-traffic is discouraged. Instead, buses, trucks, and other vehicles driven by non-residents travelling through the neighbourhood stick to identified main roads. People who live inside the low-traffic neighbourhood can drive directly to and from their home, arrange deliveries, and be accessed by emergency services, but non-residential traffic is discouraged.

When well planned and executed, low-traffic streets and neighbourhoods can dramatically reduce traffic volumes through a phenomenon known as “traffic evaporation”: when large numbers of people switch to alternative modes such as walking and wheeling to make short journeys they previously would have undertaken by car (the school run, for example).

There are already examples underway in New Zealand where this is being trialled. A critical factor in the success of low-traffic neighbourhoods is the depth of community engagement in the design, execution, and evaluation of the changes.

Perhaps no one has illustrated this better than Justin Latif from the Local Democracy Reporting programme, who has entertainingly chronicled the difficulties getting the Māngere Te Ara Mua Future Streets programme off the ground.

The current proposal to pedestrianise parts of the ‘Golden Mile’ from Lambton Quay to Courtenay Place in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) is another example of taking a low-traffic approach to a non-residential area, and the project has attracted widespread public support.

The great thing about low-traffic neighbourhoods  -when they are made to work – is that they have benefits beyond emissions reductions. In international examples like Waltham Forest in the UK, they have been shown to improve air quality, increase physical activity, benefit local business, dramatically reduce road deaths and injuries, reduce street crime, enhance social connectedness, and even extend life-expectancy.

Because they rely primarily on cheap interventions like wider footpaths, bollards, planting, and traffic calming measures, they are also an excellent low-cost option for rapid emissions reduction – an important consideration at a time when the budgets of many local councils (whose transport infrastructure decisions have a huge impact on emissions) have been decimated by Covid-19.

Some easy changes could make low traffic neighbourhoods much simpler for local governments to implement right away. A simple and immediate first step could be the creation of a specific regulatory tool to encourage the development of low-traffic streets and neighbourhoods and other tactical urbanism projects.

Experimental Traffic Orders allow nimble, innovative projects whose effects can be tested on the ground and adjusted in real time, rather than trying to anticipate all possible outcomes as part of the consent process. Ongoing consultation and engagement occurs throughout the life of the project, to ensure the changes are beneficial to affected residents. This is important, because when changes enhance people’s daily lives, they facilitate the political buy-in necessary for the big changes we must all make to lower emissions.  

The Helen Clark Foundation and WSP New Zealand last year published a major report The Shared Path, making the case for the rapid acceleration of low-traffic neighbourhoods in Aotearoa to reduce emissions, improve road safety, and enhance social connection. This week we made a submission to the Climate Change Commission advocating for the reduction of VKT as a key climate change measure, and to reinforce that low-traffic neighbourhoods are an effective and low cost way to achieve this.

Kathy Errington is the Founding Executive Director of the Helen Clark Foundation, previously she worked in the economic section of the New Zealand embassy in Tokyo.

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