Bernard Hickey asks why the Government is over-spending on motorways when new technologies could render them white elephants

Bernard Hickey asks why the Government is over-spending on motorways when new technologies could render them white elephants

By Bernard Hickey

Do we really need to be spending so much on motorways that may not be needed as much in 30 or 40 years?

Do we really think cars and trucks will be the same or use the roads in the same way in 30 or 40 years time?

We're certainly investing as if they will be, but it's worth questioning that assumption.

In contrast with our record on research and development spending, New Zealand is certainly investing much more heavily in roads and motorways than others in the OECD.

NZIER published a paper this week by Nick Allison showing New Zealand has been spending 20-40% more than the OECD average since 2008 as the Government has pushed ahead with its Roads of National Significance.

These included big projects in Auckland such as the Waterview connection and Victoria Park Tunnel, as well as Wellington's Transmission Gully and Kapiti Expressway projects.

The spending is expected to ramp up from NZ$3.4 billion next year to NZ$4.4 billion a year by 2024/25. For a Government that prides itself on its frugality and caution when spending money, it is much more aggressive with road investment.

But will we need all these motorways come 2065?

They will still be there and the money will be well and truly sunk, but will the cars and trucks need them?

NZIER questions this given the rapid development of new technologies for driverless cars, collision avoidance, assisted braking and car-to-car communication. The rapid adoption of electric cars could also short circuit the Government's big spending plans.

Firstly, tests are already being done with 'platooning' of cars that can drive closely together in lines in a managed way that reduces congestion.

Driverless cars also open up the option of travellers buying a car service rather than a car itself, reducing the number of cars sitting idly in car parks and driveways - or on motorways.

Adaptive Cruise Control used with smart navigation could significantly reduce congestion.

NZIER pointed to estimates that such technologies could add 43% to 250% to existing road capacity.

There is also the potential for Uber-style services that allow car park and car pooling in a way that reduces car and motorway use.

Do we need to be building big new concrete capacity when a new vehicle fleet packed with a plethora of chips could do the trick much more simply and cheaply?

Secondly, these new technologies hold out the hope of much better road safety through fewer collisions and fewer accidents as predictive technologies brake, decelerate and swerve to avoid accidents. Assisted braking and electronic stability control are just a taster of things to come.

New Zealand already spends NZ$650 million a year on making existing roads safer and promoting road safety. These are technologies that are being much more rapidly adopted than previous new technologies, raising the risk that by the time the motorways are fully built and paid for the use of cars will have changed dramatically.

Anyone watching the development and adoption of smart phones over the last seven years will realise how quickly the landscape could change.

The third spanner in the works for the heavy motorway spending is how it is currently funded.

At the moment motorists pay a levy when they buy fuel, which is then redirected into road maintenance, new roads and road safety campaigns. But the rapid adoption of more efficient hybrid and plug-in electric cars could blow a hole in that revenue base.

Surely it's time for the Government to look at taking a smarter approach to road investment that involves using a lighter and cheaper touch that looks over the horizon at the coming benefits of new technologies.


A version of this article was first published in the Herald on Sunday. It is here with permission.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

How driverless cars will affect the future is purely speculative. Many commentators have been burnt by predicting the future of technology improvements. We don't know if driverless cars is something that will happen quickly like smartphone technology, slowly and in small incremental steps like electric/hybrid cars or something that is always 20-30 years away like fusion technology.
If it does happen it will be massive for urban design because it will dramatically improve the major flaw in automobile based transport systems -the massive demand cars make for realestate.
The major flaw I see in the governments RoNS programme is not that NZ is spending more on transport than others. We have had decades of under spending and we are a long spread out country so it is natural we have high spending. But that transport spending is orientated on replacing rail with trucks it is not about modernising our cities to increase mobility and affordability for the 75% of kiwis who live and work in major metropolitan areas. We are still stuck in the mindset that agricultural is going to be our export rescue.
Introducing road user charges more widely may be necessary if fuel tax revenues decline.
That last NZIER graph is basically useless -it is obviously spin. What is the start point for public transport spending? I have seen other figures showing we spend more money on policing our roads than we do on public transport.

I think you are looking backwards. And forgetting how fast we adopt new tech these days. Mobile phones and the power of apps are and have changed our world. Maybe some boomers want to look back and wish of England, but the world won't slow down for them. The really big future efficiencies will come from our roading investment. People and freight can go directly to where it needs to be, rather than waiting on some outdated and slow public schedule. Re-read Nick Allison's point on this. Teamed with electric vehicles, it will be an unstoppable innovation.

David I attended Alain Bertaud talk when he was here. Alain is working with Google in New York on driverless car technology. Alain said it wasn't clear if driverless cars would do the last 10km with rapid transit being in a 10km grid formation. Or if driverless cars would provide the whole network.
Also David looking forward the young do not see car ownership as a freedom in way that say the BB generation did. Nowadays being able to use your smartphone while being whisked away to where you want to be is the new freedom.
If driverless cars arrive it will push urban areas into a more public transport type of urban development. Houses with 2 car garages, massive car parks around malls or supermarkets will all be unnecessary if you can order/hire your car to pick you up with a smart phone.
In Auckland PT patronage is booming while car ownership and mileage has peaked, this is consistent with worldwide trends ( the subsidy graph for private vehicle use would have looked even worse).
So David who is looking forward and who is stuck in out moded thinking of the past?
I think encouraging public transport, especially in opening up new affordable urban areas with busways like in North Shore, rather than building massive motorways is probably a better way to transition to driverless cars.
P.S I still think we need to be careful about how quickly we think driverless cars will be able to cope with the vagaries of a real life transport system.

It is worth noting that resistance to a fully automated roading network is to be expected from existing car owners who won't necessarily enjoy being tailgated (albeit) perfectly safely by a driverless car.
Driverless cars would also find it perfectly reasonable to try to fit into smaller gaps in traffic than humans. This could lead to the feeling of being cut off frequently.
These cars would also alwas obey speed limits and red lights leading to humand who expect them to run lights crashing into them ( this happened during a test a few years back ). Not to mention the fustration of being slowed to 50 when they would normally be going at 59 that some drivers will feel.
As a direct consequence of the above it is my opinion that a fully automated road etwork is no closer than 15 years away. 15 years being how long a typical car can be expected to last. I'd bet on longer than 15 because not all manufacturers will immediately be able to produce automated cars.
Additionally I recok just keep raisng the fuel levy to pay for public transport untill most cars are electric / most people use public transport.

Peak oil is within 5 years and by 15years we'll see severe price/availability issues, automated roads will never be significant.

Traffic lights won't be needed :)

You ignore the energy cost of "People and freight can go directly to where it needs to be"
Energy has in effect been cheap for decades, hence ignored, now that changes.

A challenge for you DC watch this and critique it.
The thing is the more complex you become the more energy you use.  If you do not have more enrgy, indeed less you have to become less complex, this also suggests less efficient.
Ergo automation for cars isnt going to significanlt happen, its a) too complex and b) we wont have the access to energy on the presonal level we do now, so less cars, way less.

For my mind this is the National government using to it's max the ponzi scheme that is population growth. They are going to walk away, probably thinking they smell of roses and leave the major issues they will have ignored and the one's they will have created for another government to try to sort.
National usually leave some sort of mess for someone else to sort and this government could top the lot.

Id almost suspect having been unable to get most of NZ up off its feet after 2008 this Govn is grasping at any straw that keeps ppl happy and spending. In this case a [mis]belief that they are richer because their "assets" have gone up in value, hence they are porking the housing bubble for all they are worth.
They also cant be stupid and can see if it ever pops they are in deep doo doo in terms of Govn finances and re-election chances.

The only problem i see with all these new roads is that they are all 20 to 30 years to late.Huntly ,Hamilton.Ngaruawahia,Cambridge,Te Awamutu bypasses should all have been done years ago.

New roads to take the "extra" traffic that will never be there long term are pointless...

It is possible that future roads will require some modification and that relies on government to "get its finger out". But as we all know that is easier said than done.
I used to do a lot of night driving. You see all the special night driving safety deatures. The problem is these features were put there years ago and for the past 20 years or so they have been allowing them to deteriorate.
Most people are not aware of what these featurs are so here is an example.
You will notice the white sticks spaced along the side of the road.
You will also notice some chevrons pointing in the direction of a bend.
You will also notice some are white and some are orange.
At night, you see in your headlights, the white (side of the road) sticks become closer together and apear to cross the road. This tells you that "Up ahead is a bend, and it vears to the right" The closer together these sticks apear the tighter the bend.
If you see in you headlights orange markers on the sticks it tells you the road vears to the left and as above the closer together the tighter the bend.
Some bends use a big board with chevrons on them. Some are white and some are orange. The same rule aplies "White is right - Orange is left"
Over the years they have neglected this signage. Now you come to a bend and the orange chevrons point right. Then the next bend the may point left. They do not care about safety anymore.
There are many more instances of road safety neglect.

Oh, i should have added (above) "they only care about safety if there is a way to take your money off you. Like speeding, no seat belt etc.
If it is a safety feature and they cannot fine you then they dont care.

Same will be said of new stuff.  Ignore the reality (the tech for the stuff listed above has been around for 20-50 years).  It will "buy an upgraded car, pay for your nav-subscription, or pay the fine"

There was a time when there were predictions of masses of people tele-comuting, this has yet to occur and the technology is still not up to it. The sea-change was largely driven by forecasts of how we would work in the futue, not a lot has changed in twenty + years, we are working longer hours than ever, people have a social need and desire to go to a work place; empty motorways and driverless cars are a dream scenario, many people are slow to change or want to accept any change - people are still watching Coronation St !!!
Public transport in Auckland is a shambles of disorganised schedules with no hubs, and poor infratructure, things will change but not as fast as one would think.

people don't have a social need to go to the workplace.  

They indeed have social needs, but that's nothing to do with workplaces.
What they do have is new generations, few of which have the advantages of inheritances (a great grandparents funds tend to go to their children (late 50/60s) and their grandchildren (mid 20/30s) and isn't a usually a huge amount, leaving the breaking generation much poorer.

And those poor have to struggle to get on that ladder, if others won't help them.  For that they need work, experience, and a cheap foot on the ladder.   How many cheap jobs do you know work from home?   How many young folk can start a business with no capital, no contacts and no reputation?  So they get service jobs for bosses, who tell them what to do and where to be - especially if these peoples' parents didn't teach them work disciplines, or proper economic goalsetting.

Telecommuting didn't happen because, boss don't trust it.  workplaces don't usually have workflow designed for it, and the support technology in NZ isn't up to it (too slow, too buggy, too encumberent, and way way too expensive!)

And given how often my router crashes, and MS reboots my desktop with it's updates, no way in hell am I going to let them drive me around !

Now public transport.   It's run by local government, and at the mercy of central government.  what the heck you think is going to happen?
   It gets built as socialist political forces demand it gets built.  Not planned for service, not planned by technology, but by most influence and biggest SIG (Special Interest Group), and for shortterm profits (but only as traded off against the SIGs)
you think an auckland subsurfce rail would end up any different?  If so, you're hanging around the wrong commitees 

The bulk of the Waterview tunnel should not be seen to be transport expenditure. It should be seen to be a complete waste of money. The project would have been way less than half the cost if Helen Cark hadn't  stuck her nose in and wasted the taxpayers money: another case of completely unjustified political interference.
If electric cars result in less petrol taxs being collected then this will happen way in the future when these cars start to be bought in significant numbers: not now. If they are bought in significant numbers this will affect the tax base then, not now. Conversely the electricity network  will need beefing up then so expenditure is just going to be diverted to something else.
Platooning. Haha. Doesn't this happen now with the tailgating of all the 4WDs around Auckland?
I don't think there is an issue here at all. Bernard/NZIER are making something out of nothing. If there are more motorways than needed, well, they can be used for electric buses/ bikes/ other things.
Organisations like to put these things out there as though they alone know what the future holds. Its posturing. People are supposed to go: wow! This organisation really knows what the future holds. I've got to ask them more questions!
Yeah right. Who knows. CNG/LPG may stage a comback. Or something made from coal. Or wood. Who knows.

Driverless cars will be great for tourists. Road user will be charged via GPS based systems such as those developed by Eroad.

Good points Bernard but stream seems to be focused on the workability or otherwise of drverless cars.  Siimpler and quicker result.  Charge road use on user basis - very high fees at peak periods, very low off peak.  Keep adjusting the rates until the vehciles are spread evenly across 24 hours.  Then see how much new roading is required. Hitting the pocket always works.

hitting the pockets of whom?  if the people you're hitting are dominant price setters in the market (eg trucking) and demand is desparate enough, then the price just just passed and dispersed to the end consumer - no big deal for the wealthy...more problems for the marginal and the grassroots

...hitting the pockets to change behaviour deosent need to add to costs - change the behaviour & reduce your cost.

It's a given that this government could be smarter, Bernard. But putting that aside, this is a conversation we need to start having starting today. So thanks for for gee-ing it along.
A couple of points before everyone infarcts and makes a nasty mess.
First, it could easily be true that we have under-invested for years and that what we are seeing now is catch-up. Before about 1990 we theoretically did all our long-haul freight by coastal shipping or rail. The near universal use of trucks is relatively recent. If you extended the analysis back to c1955 you may find that we are still under-invested compared to, say, Finland (TM)
It's too soon to argue about driverless cars. What we know today is communication between any two devices is more or less free and instant. So we can start developing all sorts of technologies on that assumption. What we are already doing should be enough to make us confident that some form of demand management on our roads is inevitable and arriving sooner than we think. Already we are:

  • using GPS to calculate least cost rather than shortest routes
  • using embedded chips in cars to manage congestion in London, Singapore and elsewhere
  • driving self-parking cars (giving up control while the car parks)
  • driving cars with collision-avoiding systems
  • driving cars in "platoons" (admittedly on a flat car behind a train) under the Channel

We are also starting to make both bicycles and cars available at the side of the road for short term rent in Paris (maybe London soon). The point being that we are already using technologies and practices that manage the demand side for roading and they will continue to develop pretty quickly. Just please don't ask our public service to predict the future and redesign our roads for a specific technology.
Now is the time to have the conversation not about how much we spend on roads but what kind of roads we should be building. The other major aspect of our roads is that that they basically determine the shape and function of our cities (not to mention the price of our houses). We need to talk about - or even better decide - whether we want big motorways to the centre or a network of smaller roads that open up more usable urban spaces.
As a for instance the government have already decided what shape Auckland will be through their road building programme. As NZTA have steadily worked to improve SH1 from Auckland to Hamilton development has followed the road. In the latest estimates of population Waikato District turns up as one of the fastest growing places in the country. Good roads, maybe much cheaper land, easy access to two big cities; why wouldn't you?
But we could feel more comfortable about getting a more modest but wider-reaching mesh of roads knowing that we are rapidly taking up technologies that would let us manage peak loads on those roads. And the bonus would be affordable houses for all. What's not to like?

Your access to our unique content is free - always has been. But ad revenues are diving so we need your direct support.

Become a supporter

Thanks, I'm already a supporter.