Friday, April 19, 2019

Karl du Fresne: Why the public transport zealots hate private cars

If you want a stark demonstration of the ideological divide between people who think the state knows what’s best for everyone and those who value personal choice, look no further than the private car.

People love cars for a whole lot of reasons, but their root appeal lies in the fact that they give us options. They enable us to make choices about where and when we travel, and with whom.

This enrages and frustrates ideologues who envision a Utopian collectivist society where such decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats, supposedly for the common good.

The very existence of the private car is an affront to these zealots, because it prioritises individual autonomy over the ideal of a compliant society where people are made to do things their way.

Right now this conflict is being played out in the affluent Auckland beachside suburb of St Heliers, where planners from Auckland Transport are pushing an agenda that appears to have zero backing from locals.

The planners want to remove 40 car parks from the local shopping centre and install 13 raised pedestrian crossings. They also plan to impose a 30 kmh speed limit.

The ostensible reason is that there are too many accidents in the area: 39 between 2013 and 2017, according to Auckland Transport, including three serious injuries. But locals pooh-pooh this grim-sounding statistic, claiming that most of the reported incidents were minor and parking-related.

I believe the supposedly high crash rate is a smokescreen for the real motives of the planners, which are mostly ideological. They don’t like cars and they want to do whatever they can to deter people from using them. They think people should walk or take public transport or ride bikes and scooters.

Public transport in particular is central to their vision. But while we can all understand the benefits of a good public transport system, buses and trains can never replace the car.

That’s because the car confers the ability to go where you want when you want, via the route of your own choosing.  We know there are downsides to this freedom in the form of traffic congestion, accidents and carbon emissions, but society has decided that these are acceptable prices to pay in return for the autonomy that the car bestows.

There is a middle way here, and cities such as Auckland are slowly groping their way toward a balance between the freedom of the car and the efficiency of public transport. But it’s not happening fast enough for Greenies and ideologically driven planners. They want to bring coercion to bear. 

In their perfect universe we would all board buses and trains or ride bikes. But while this takes cars off the road, it can never meet people’s individual needs.

It just doesn’t suit most people to organise their lives around public transport timetables and fixed routes. They want the freedom to decide for themselves when it’s convenient to go to the supermarket, the movies, a restaurant, a sports event or a church service.

The planners and bureaucrats can’t accept this because it doesn’t conform to their notion of how society should function. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the people affected by their proposals – the local residents and business owners who pay their salaries – are united in opposition.

The planning zealots also seem pig-headedly blind to the reality that you can’t carry a week’s shopping home from the supermarket on a bike in the rain, no matter what the passionate cycling advocates say. Neither can septuagenarians, of whom there are a great many around St Heliers, be expected to walk or – still more improbably – ride a scooter to the local shopping centre to meet friends for a coffee.

This is of no concern to collectivist planners. They think people’s individual needs should be subordinate to the supposed greater good. Freedom of choice is anathema to those who think the perfect society is a tightly regulated one controlled by largely anonymous and unaccountable public officials. 

And that’s the other big issue here. Auckland Transport is officially described as a council-controlled organisation, but it’s clearly a misnomer. Elected councillors are often unaware of what their bureaucrats are doing and appear powerless to them rein in.

The lesson from Auckland is that as local government bureaucracies expand, they become ever more distant and aloof from the people they’re supposed to serve. 

The bureaucrats apparently don't even feel any obligation to explain themselves. When TVNZ's Seven Sharp asked for someone to come on the programme and talk about the traffic plan for St Heliers, AT initially agreed and then backed out. Their contempt for the public that they supposedly serve - or was it their inability to put forward a convincing case? - could hardly be clearer.

FOOTNOTE: After this column was submitted for publication, things got even worse. When a public meeting was held in St Heliers to protest at AT's plan (600 people turned up, indicating the depth of local feeling), AT declined to send a representative on the grotesquely implausible pretext that it might not be safe. There you have it: arrogance and cowardice in equal measure. What a contemptible lot. 

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion. He blogs at published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and


Brian said...

Good description of the immense power and control by bureaucrats; not only in Local Government, but also in central Government. Moreover Karl, your blog illustrates and underlines how neo Marxism has entered every section of our society.
As I read this blog I was reminded of the book “From Troy to Vietnam” by the late Barbara Tuchman in which she poses a very real question.
“Why do governments pursue policies contrary to self interest?”
Is it that our Bureaucrats have become modern day Mandarins, convinced that they are right. Or is that we the public, have accepted the concept that our Public Service really runs this country and there is no answer?
It is a phenomenon that our Public service is built on a employment pyramid system; of an ever increasing base allowing for the top tiers to ensure its stability and power.
We should realise that a similar pyramid building system in architecture was superseded in the 11th century with the advent of the “Flying Buttress”.
Such a revolution is long overdue in our State Service sector!
It is very doubtful that our present elected representatives in either Central or Local Government, have any hope at all of understanding the mass of changing rules, regulations, laws, gender issues, ethnic considerations etc., that are placed before them to sign.
Bureaucrats tend to make everything as complex as possible; it is no wonder that ratepayers in local councils and politics in general are turned off.
Hence the acceptance by the public “that everything is for our own good”! Shades of Voltaire’s Candide?
There is a saying “Beware of Greeks baring gifts” which leads invitingly to a political Pandora’s Box; the contents of which, never turn out as promised.
We the public, have lost control of not only our Local Government, but of our Parliament.
The rigmarole of informing the public has become merely a token gesture. Examples abound..The Smacking Vote; the UN Indigenous Rights Act; and the Paris Climate Agreement. These, with the exception of the first, are Constitutional changes that should have been placed and discussed, before and by the public.
The end result will NOT be a continuation of a Democracy that our predecessors enjoyed.
It will be a totalitarian state that will be dominated by an unelected neo Marxism dictatorship.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

Hello Karl,
And do you think those brainless baboons leave their car at home and go to work on bike, bus or train?
I don’t think so.
Also a remark about the CO2 and other polutants.
How would those Greenies stopping vulcanos spuwing thousands of tons of polutants in the air?
Have they ever thought about that?
Of course not, because their brains work only in their tunnel vision way.

They are hiding behind the accident rate.
Have you seem how many people walk, looking at their mobile and not looking at traffic.

The meeting of residents!
We all know that those burocrats are baboons and baboons flee when danger is emminent.

Regards Peter van der Stam