Analysis: Transport is crucially important for population and planetary health. The current transport system is responsible for more death and disability each year in Aotearoa than tobacco or obesity and contributes to life expectancy differences between Māori and non-Māori. It also remains the second largest, and fastest rising, source of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when it is urgent we reduce them.

Our current transport system is not only unhealthy but inequitable. Parts of the population are excluded from the benefits that transport brings (for example access to employment, to healthcare and to whānau connections), suffer disproportionately from the adverse health consequences of the transport system or are placed under significant financial strain to pay for essential travel.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of evidence about what works (and what does not) to create a transport system that is healthy for people and the planet; that enables all of us to flourish while keeping the planet safe for future generations. We need to design our cities and towns so low-carbon healthy travel is available to everyone and is the default.

We asked the political parties currently in parliament about their policies on low-carbon, healthy transport systems. All five parties replied, but National and Labour did not respond directly to the questions as they had not released their full transport policies. We have taken information from policy published subsequently by the parties. You can read the full responses here.

Policies on public transport pricing

Our first question to the political parties:

Will your party introduce subsidies for purchasing e-bikes for low-income adults and retain the current system of half price fares for public transport?

We asked about public transport pricing because public transport use is a key component of a low-carbon transport system. Lowering pricing is one of the policies needed to increase use of public transport and is one of the most equitable ‘mode-shift’ policies. We asked about e-bikes because increasingly they are being used as a car replacement in cities. E-bikes are a low-carbon form of transport with health benefits.

Only the Green Party had specific policy around increasing access to e-bikes, although Te Pāti Māori had policy to increase safe cycling infrastructure. Labour made free public transport permanent for children under 13 and half price for young people up to 25 and for Community Services Card holders in Budget 2023. The Green Party and Te Pāti Māori support this policy and would expand it. Act does not support this policy.

Policies on sustainable and healthy transport

Our second question:

Please expand on what policies your party will adopt to shift NZ to more sustainable and health promoting transport.

We asked this because transforming the transport system is a 30-50-year-project, which will require us to deploy the full range of legal, financial, infrastructure and encouragement tools at our disposal. We wanted to give parties an opportunity to tell us about how they would do that.

The responses reflect diverse priorities. The only policy Act discussed was using the Emissions Trading Scheme to price a transition to electric cars. Te Pāti Māori is focused on improved rural and regional transport through increased access to electric cars.

National is focused on physical infrastructure, with plans to expand and rebuild the roading network and retain some currently planned public transport projects in Auckland and Wellington.

The Green Party has a collection of policies aimed at increasing public and active transport in cities and nationally (both passenger and freight).

The draft GPS 2024 on land transport, just released by Labour, outlines its broader plans for the transport sector. This involves a range of roading and public transport infrastructure projects nationally, in addition to the ‘flagship’ $45 billion plan to build two new roading tunnels and a new light rail tunnel across the Waitemata Harbour.

Within the limitations of the information available, the parties have diverse policies for transport. In terms of policies that might achieve the dual goals of promoting planetary and population health, all parties fall short. The Green Party transport policy is the most promising in terms of reducing emissions and improving health but it still has gaps. The scope of the challenge around reducing transport emissions has been laid out clearly in multiple local reports and plans, and the urgency of the task could not be clearer. So it is disappointing that some of the political parties have not seriously engaged with this in their current policy platforms.

The Labour Government has achieved a number of policies in the last three years that support a transition to low-carbon healthy transport such as Fringe Benefit Tax exemptions for bikes and e-bikes, the Reshaping Streets regulatory package, the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Transport Choices Package. However, it is not clear that the draft GPS 2024 is entirely consistent with policies to achieve the needed, and legally mandated, reductions in emissions.

Policies that support transport equity were supported by some parties. There appears to be broader support for public transport pricing policies (the Green Party, Labour Party and Te Pāti Māori) than e-bike policy (the Green Party only). E-bikes continue to be on the fringe of transport policy despite their significant health and emissions potential. Te Pāti Māori focuses on rural and regional transport, which is an area that needs policy attention.

Though we asked about policies on sustainable and healthy transport, it is worth noting that some of the policies outlined by parties will harm health and either increase, or fail to reduce, transport greenhouse gas emissions. This is through supporting policy tools that are known to be inadequate, emissions intensive, expensive or which generate more driving.

This article was adapted from the Public Health Communication Centre’s Where do the parties stand? election series, A low carbon, healthy transport system

Dr Caroline Shaw is a public health medicine specialist and epidemiologist at the University of Otago, Wellington. She researches transport, climate change and health.

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