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Congestion charging a facade

Congestion charging could be on the cards for some areas across New Zealand, according to information recently released in an Offical Information Act request. Already in practice in cities such as London and Stockholm, the idea is to charge people for driving their cars and contributing to, well, congestion, with goals of lowering traffic and pollution levels. It’s pretty self-explanatory really.

It should go without saying that such a charge is unpopular among commuters for the obvious reason that it costs money. If proposed, congestion charges will no doubt be the centre of a fierce political debate – I can almost hear the parliamentary jabs already. But regardless of whether such charges are based around rush hours or zones, I also feel they are impractical. In New Zealand, our public transport sucks, let’s be honest [although of all regions, Wellington does have the best] and until we have a better system in place, what is the point of a congestion charge? People will still be stuck in their cars without alternatives and be paying a higher price for it. If you want to financially pressure people to other forms of transport, then those other forms of transport must be available and accessible. Or, at the very least, functioning, which is more than can be said for much of the nation’s current public transport system.

Cars are already money pits, and what option do we have than to drive them? For those with flexible work hours, it might be possible to stay at home during peak travel times, but certainly not for those on a strict schedule. Do spare a thought for the low-income parents dropping their kids off to school, heading to work and coming back all during the busiest times.

I also believe excuses such as congestion charges and fuel taxes are given as a reason not to invest in public transport or mode shift initiatives. I hope this is simply me being pessimistic, but I can see congestion charging offering a convenient facade that, if implemented, could be pointed at as a way climate change is being tackled without the genuine need to actually do something.

Finally, New Zealand roads just aren’t that busy. Sure, we all complain about the traffic from time to time, but as someone who grew up in England, I can assure you the roads here are barren in comparison. Even the Auckland rush hour just doesn’t compare. That we can drive into our city centres and comfortably find on-street parking would be a feat unheard of elsewhere in the world.

If and when New Zealand has frequent public transport and viable alternatives such as bike lanes are safe and practical, then congestion charges could be considered.

But for what it’s worth, I feel congestion as an issue simply doesn’t exist in this corner of the world and charging congestion as a solution fails to tackle the underlying issues. We likely won’t hear the words ‘congestion charging’ in New Zealand again for another few years at least, but by the time we do I hope the trains to Wellington are running again – it would sure beat driving.

George Shiers
George Shiers
George Shiers is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age interested in politics and social issues. He reports regularly on a range of topics including infrastructure, housing, and transport. George is also the Tararua reporter and helps cover police, fire and court stories.

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