The Man With The Plan: Auckland Councillor, Mike Lee, embraces the future of Auckland passenger transport.
WHY CAN’T WE get public transport right in New Zealand’s largest city? Visit any other world city and you will find buses, trams, light-rail networks and extraordinarily fast and efficient heavy rail services. Literally millions of people avail themselves of these services every day. Just imagine London, Paris, New York and Sydney without their light-rail services (both over and underground). Imagine Japan and China without their bullet trains. Then ponder the indefatigable prejudice of New Zealanders against anything that runs on rails.
To hear Kiwis tell it, you would think that everywhere else in the world trains have gone the way of the horse and buggy. That there is no modern city foolish enough to rely upon anything other than the private automobile to get its citizens from A to B.
Railways? Locomotives? Steel wheels? It’s all so very Nineteenth Century!
Where does this prejudice come from? The answer, as always, is a combination of economic, political and cultural factors. The combination of big oil, big auto and big construction companies had a huge vested interest in a post-war future than ran on roads – not rails. American industry was geared-up for the mass production of motor vehicles. The GIs who had bounced around in jeeps and lorries during World War II would be looking for a smoother ride in peacetime.
They would also be looking for homes in the brand new suburbs that were springing-up on the fringes of all the big cities. Increasingly, travelling to work in those big cities would be undertaken in private motor vehicles on vast freeways. In Los Angeles, just to make sure the future belonged to the automobile, the powers-that-be ripped up the city’s highly efficient light-rail network. The same thing happened in Auckland.
The demise of the railways wasn’t just about General Motors, Firestone and Texaco, however. There was a powerful cultural element to the automobile-centric post-war world. Ever since the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the popular vision of the future was one in which the ordinary man drove himself.
Invented in the late nineteenth century, the automobile has always been a symbol of individual freedom. Initially, the thrill of escaping at speed was reserved for the very wealthy. Thanks to Henry Ford, however, automobile ownership could be democratised. Progress towards universal car ownership may have been slowed by the Great Depression and the needs of the war, but the vision of vast freeways filled with cars – all travelling towards their owner’s suburban Shangri-La – which had enthralled those millions of visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair was simply too good a future for politicians to refuse.
Besides, the individualism which automobile ownership both encouraged and expressed offered a visceral political contrast to the carless proletarians of the Soviet Bloc. Packed into their precious “Metro”, the dragooned masses of Moscow were in no position to choose – let alone steer – their own path towards life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Road versus Rail thus became yet another Cold War stand-off. In a nutshell: socialists rode trains; capitalists drove cars.
Nowhere was this cultural-political dichotomy more thoroughly internalised than in post-war New Zealand. And nowhere in post-war New Zealand was the automobile culture, and all it stood for, more aggressively enabled than in Auckland. The rail-centric plan for Auckland’s post-war development which Labour and its radical state-planners had appended to the 1946 edition of Hansard (unearthed more than a decade ago by Dr Chris Harris) would have produced a very different city to the one our politicians are frantically struggling to retrofit in 2018.
The underlying planning assumption which would have guided the growth of post-war Auckland was that cities are, in essence, exercises in collective well-being – not individual self-fulfilment. Not surprisingly, National was having none of that. New Zealanders didn’t want the dreary socialism of grimy public railway carriages. What they wanted were bright new cars from England and America – Humbers and Fords. New vehicles and new horizons. Just like in the movies!
And so it has been in Auckland for the past seventy years. The denigration of public transport and public housing. The false characterisation of railway technology as uncomfortable and inefficient (just like socialism!) and the misrepresentation of automobiles and motorways as the only alternative that works (just like capitalism!). Even when the brute realities of urban engineering forced both central and local government to acknowledge the claims of collectivism they only did so reluctantly, truculently, inefficiently and stupidly. Even the Greens, rather than rub shoulders with the bus- and train-travelling working poor, devote their energies instead to promoting the solitary middle-class vice of cycling.
Lone voices of sanity in this sorry saga: the former Auckland mayor, Sir Dove Myer Robinson; the former chair of the Auckland Regional Authority, Mike Lee; are derided as cranks and dinosaurs. How could they not be? Both advocated staunchly for rail: the only mode of transport that offers Aucklanders the slightest hope for a sustainable urban future founded on collective well-being.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 September 2018.