Thursday 6 September 2018

Transporting Aucklanders: Capitalist Cars versus Socialist Trains.

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.


peteswriteplace said...

Progress? Yeah right!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Just a couple of things. Everyone wanted new cars? Maybe, but when I was a boy you couldn't get a new car unless you had overseas funds. My father's boss – a factory owner – made a bit of extra pocket money by buying new cars every year or so, obviously with overseas funds generated by or allowed for (not quite sure) the factory, and selling them for more than he paid for them to some poor bugger who didn't have access to overseas funds.
Second thing is, I've been in a number of cities where to be honest I probably wouldn't bother owning a car. Public transport is clean frequent and extremely efficient. And I would have thought that Auckland had the population to sustain something like this finally. Wellington does sort of but I guess it's much more compact. And if my son' s commute is anything to go by, Wellington could do with a better system as well.
Judging by the traffic in Auckland last time I was there which seemed to me like rush-hour traffic pretty much all day something should be done. Because if actual rush-hour traffic is worse than that.......
I think what pisses me off is that they keep saying it costs the economy to have people sitting in traffic for hours at a time and yet they do very little about it.

Wayne Mapp said...

An intriguing item. More than a little truth in it.

However, National under John Key did agree to fund the CRL, a multibillion dollar item. And a lot more park and rides at the various stations and busway would have a lot more people using the buses and trains. While light rail seems a mistake on Dominion Road, it is a good solution in the North West and should ultimately extend to the North Shore and to the huge growth cluster of Botany Downs. In short Auckland's transport solutions are not "either or".

People are not going to give up cars, but a lot of car owners would like a public transport commute to and from work. For most people that means using the car to get to the busway or to the light rail. Not many live only a walk away.

greywarbler said...

Oo Chris you are brave. 'The solitary middle class vice of cycling'. The triumph of individuality and greenness and fitness, and in the weekend the rise of the mountain biker ruggedly throwing themselves around knowing that ACC will look after them as they ride on their carbon-impregnated hubs with hydraulic shock absorbers to protect their hindparts. Along they go ripping up the undergrowth to make exciting ways to avoid looking at and enjoying nature. Not only scaring the birds, but the quiet humans trying to find some nature on walks, stopping to spot the shy orchid or spleenwort or whatever but having to watch they don't get run down by a supposedly friendly transport of a cycle moving at 10-20g

We need to keep our ironic side so here are Flanders & Swann on the London omnibus. (

greywarbler said...

Really like that very accurate and pointed collection of adjectives Chrs.
Even when the brute realities of urban engineering forced both central and local government to acknowledge the claims of collectivism
they only did so -
and stupidly.

Kat said...

The demise of rail transport in NZ was collateral damage from the war against the unions. Farm gate politicking and the rise of the private transport industry sealed the fate of "socialist trains".

As usual in NZ those with the hands on the financial levers call the shots whether the shots are right or wrong. Politics of profit and entitlement is once again the reason why NZ currently has to endure another period of "business confidence" petulance.

How Jack gets to work is his problem. Isn't it.

Tony Ricketts said...

Hi Greywarbler - I take your points on cycling, but do read about the design and building of the new Great Walk, in NZ Geographic this month. As so often the shades of grey are more positive (and interesting) than the simplified black and white. (I am neither mountain-biker nor tramper, though I do use a bike, a car, buses, and occasionally taxis here in Wellington.)

Tony Ricketts said...

Re: how out of step Auckland has been, we were in Houston TX last year, oil-town par excellence, and astonished to find a beautiful new light rail system augmenting a reasonably good bus system. Though every third building in the CBD seemed to be a parking building, so still a way to go.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Chris, collective well being doesn't resonate anymore. In my youth, as well as yours, Dad went to work on the bus and Mum stayed at home attending to the domestic chores and doing and carrying home the shopping from the local dairy/butcher/baker. Now we have supermarkets, Mum works too, kids have after school activities the likes of which we never had and so the car remains the only convenient (note - convenient) way of connecting all the transport tasks of a modern life - Mum drops the kids at school, takes Dad to work, picks up the kids after school, takes them to maybe ballet, goes and does the supermarket shopping, back to pick up the kids, then on to pick up Dad from work and then home and later perhaps Mum and Dad go out for the night. And a myriad of other combinations. And all can be accomplished on public transport? And even the working poor see and do have the convenience of a car...

Nick J said...

Oil has long since "peaked", consumers are currently grumbling about the price of petrol. Our cities that grew as hub and spoke are now decentralized strip malls connected by motorways and sprawling housing subdivisions. Car is king, the money sunk into an unsupportable future.

I watched Devo recently on YouTube, they will be delighted that de-evolution is coming, to our urban construct at least. Backing bravely into a past that worked.

Nick J said...

Good grief Grey, Flanders and Swan, the hippo song comes to mind.

Robert said...

Once the 737s and Friendships were introduced to ferry Mps and bureucrats, and government clients seeking import licenses back and forwards to Wellington, as well as students on the subsidised standby scheme the politicians lost most interest in the railways, other than as a work scheme for ordinary people. By the late 1970s the railways were run to suit the needs of the fairly rough people the railways employed, people not particularly suited to a passenger railways. As someone who did my political science Master thesis on the railways I found around 1980 that Labour Mps had even less interest in the railways and its possible development outside than National MPs and in many ways the railways most senior management and planners were exceeded in their hostility to rail passenger services only by Treasury.
The problem with NZ Railways is not so much the gauge but that the system is lightly built and still had many steep inclines on the Picton , Gisborne and Northland lines which is so twisty as to make it pointless. Some effort was made to upgrade the central portion of the North Island Main trunk in the 1980s by electrifying the central portion but it was no more than a poltiical gesture and did little to increase the lines fundamentally limited capacity and slow speed. It is obvious there is or was in recent years some scope for expanding rail electrification at least 60 miles out of Auckland , Wellington and Christchurch to say Huntly as a modal node to the various centres around Hamilton, Levin, Carelton and Levin and possibly also Ashburton. But the 21c the most suitable business for railways like New Zealand the mail and coal business has provided much diminished trade and the Trump adminstration has been seriously reviewing the futue of the last remotely great train in the USA run by Amtrak the Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago which might just become a few local intercities from Chicago to Kansas City and LA to Alberquerque. Possibly Trump should reintroduce the morning and evening Hiawatha and daylight from San Francisco to LA . That is about the limit at the sort of distance and speed nZR could operate at a max of about 80 miles and hour with development.

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