Light rail is no panacea for Auckland’s transport emissions, which need to at least halve over the next 10 years – all while the tunnels are still being drilled, Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: Transport advocates, local politicians and government ministers can’t agree on the right way to build a light rail corridor – but they all agree it won’t do much to reduce emissions on its own.

Between 2035 and 2085, the tunnelled light rail scheme would see nearly a million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions averted, compared to a baseline scenario where no mass rapid transit is built in Auckland.

However, Auckland’s emissions targets require it to reduce annual transport emissions by more than two million tonnes below projected levels in 2030 alone. In other words, despite the green marketing that has accompanied one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects, light rail will have relatively little impact in the crucial near-term.

No silver bullet

Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson said on Friday he doesn’t think of light rail as a transport project. “I see it as about a low carbon, more productive city.”

Ministers also touted the benefits of 25,000 additional public transport passengers per hour during the peak morning commute. The climate impacts, they said, would be equivalent to taking 12,000 cars off the road.

In a city of 1.26 million cars, is that enough?

Transport Minister Michael Wood defended the climate accomplishments of light rail in an interview with Newsroom. He said there was a “broader network effect” that would come from having an accessible and efficient public transport network across the city – something that couldn’t happen without the backbone of light rail.

“It’s really going to be that creation of that full, linked up network that starts to enable more people to take public transport and not drive for their journeys, in a way that they find difficult to do now,” he said.

“To cater for those numbers [of peak travellers], we’d have to build an additional 12 lanes heading into the city centre. If we don’t make this kind of investment, we’re either going to choke and have terrible congestion or there’s going to be huge pressure to build more vehicle lanes which as we know induces demand for further vehicles as well. It’s about setting the direction for how the city develops.”

Modelling by transport consultants MRCagney from 2020 found that light rail would have a minimal impact on helping Auckland reach its 2030 pledge to halve emissions. Auckland’s transport emissions were projected by the firm to reach 3.58 million tonnes in 2030 under current policy settings, up from 2.8 million tonnes in 2018. To reach its targets, the city would have to reduce that number to between 840,000 and 1.4 million tonnes.

The impact of city-to-airport light rail? A mere 56,000 tonnes, or 2.5 percent of the way to the less ambitious target.

That modelling assumed about a third fewer people would travel on the light rail corridor at peak times than the Government has promised, but the overall message was clear: No single transport project, no matter how large the price tag, is going to get the job done on its own.

“It’s not any one thing. We’ve said with the decarbonisation challenge in transport is that it’s all levers being pulled if we want to meet that challenge,” Wood conceded.

Making driving harder

In the end, the MRCagney modelling found that the most effective way to reduce emissions was not to put people on bikes or trains or buses but to take them out of cars and electrify whatever private vehicles remained. That’s a philosophy endorsed by some green transport advocates who say the carrot of an accessible mass rapid transit and active transport system is needed, but that many won’t take up that opportunity without the stick of making it more costly and less efficient to drive and park.

That’s part of the reasoning for the climate movement’s support of a surface-level light rail system over an underground one. Not only would the train network provide people with a way to get around, it would also displace active car lanes and make it harder to get around by private vehicle. Two birds, one stone.

“When you look at the numbers, the tiny proportion of people who travel by public transport, if you try and grow that tiny proportion and try and make a difference that way, you’re just pissing into the wind,” transport planner Axel Downard-Wilke told Newsroom.

“You have to do the opposite. You have to make driving less attractive.” By merely creating new options but not making driving harder, the government will have a minimal impact on emissions, he said.

“What it basically means is the roads become a little bit less congested and, due to normal population growth, others will then take up this road space. There won’t be any less driving, it’s just a few people that are currently driving will move to people transport and other people will take their place.”

Green Party MP Ricardo Menendez March said his party supported the surface-level option for that reason. Labour is trying to have its cake and eat it too, by pouring cash into big public transport projects but striving not to inconvenience drivers, he said. And by choosing the more expensive tunnelled option, the Government would have less money available for the rest of the system-wide approach, like cycleways and other mass transit schemes.

“We are concerned that the approach by Government and the agencies is entrenching potentially generations’ worth of funding into high-emissions infrastructure, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing,” he said.

“If Labour is serious about tackling our climate crisis, they need to commit to spending the remainder of our transport budget on the most effective and transformational projects.”

Wood said he doesn’t believe a disincentive for drivers is always needed – though all options were still on the table.

“We put the North Shore busway in and that now carries 50 percent of the people across the Auckland Harbour. Every time we put in good quality, high-frequency, affordable, accessible public transport, people use it in big numbers,” he said.

For North Shore councillor and potential mayoral candidate Richard Hills, the specifics of the option are less important than actually implementing it. He said he had supported the surface level light rail option but now just wanted to see shovels in the ground.

“I have some reservations but my personal view is we just need to get this done. We need to stop talking about it. We need urgent action on light rail,” he said. He also pushed back against those like National’s Simeon Brown, who proposed scrapping the scheme and replacing it with two highways instead.

“When you go to most major cities in the world, you expect to have good, frequent, easy transport across the whole city to connect up. We’re talking about trying to be a grown-up city.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment