Julie Anne Genter loves the outdoors, owns an e-bike rather than a car (although she does have a drivers licence) and is not planning to have a Ministerial vehicle. In her new role, she is responsible for road safety, walking and cycling and electric vehicles in the new Government. The Green MP’s path to the Beehive started in the US where she was born, to France for work, then to New Zealand, to Auckland University where she earned a Masters’ degree in urban and transport planning before working here as a transport consultant. This is her third term in Parliament.
What would you be most proud of in the future if you can achieve it in the transport area?
I would be most proud to achieve a huge increase in people walking and cycling and a large reduction in deaths and serious injuries on our roads and I think the two are related. Achieving one will help achieve the other.
At the moment about 80% of trips in NZ are made in cars. What would you like to see that proportion be?
In places where they have very balanced transport systems, they end up with something like a third of trips walking and cycling, maybe 25% to a third by public transport and between 25% and a third by car. And I think that’s entirely realistic. So, certainly not talking about stopping all car trips but we have unintentionally created environments where it’s very inhospitable to walk or cycle. It’s extremely inconvenient and expensive to take public transport and that has all sorts of cost implications for people in New Zealand. It costs our health system, it costs the climate and the environment and it makes our towns and cities less attractive places to live. So there’s a real opportunity in changing transport policy, and planning and funding in a way that will massively enhance the places where people live and work, increase their choices and reduce all of these negative costs.
What do you see as the biggest challenge you might face in your role in transport?
I think the biggest challenge will be the transition. Because inevitably when we’re trying to provide more ability for people to walk, cycle, take public transport, to have very people-oriented town centres, there will be a bit of friction as we make that transition. We’re already starting to see that. When you reclaim road space or parking spaces to provide this infrastructure for people to walk and cycle or for bus lanes, there’s fear and concern from local retailers or local residents. That’s what happens in every other city overseas. But we see demonstrable benefits from a more balanced approach and a more people-centred approach. I think the other challenge in New Zealand is that there are so many different players. The New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) is a very powerful player but a lot of decisions around public transport are made by regional councils and decisions around parking policy, planning, the location of bus stops, the allocation of road space on the local roads are a local authority’s. So trying to get a more joined-up approach between all the different authorities associated with transport could be a bit of a challenge. And it takes a long time to plan and invest in certain types of infrastructure, so I think we’ll be getting on a great pathway but I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to show for it in three years. We want to make road safety a major priority. The number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads has been increasing for four years consecutively and 2017 was a particularly bad year. I think there are huge opportunities to get better outcomes but I’m well aware that it could take some time for a change in policy and prioritisation of funding. Redesigning some of our riskiest roads will take time. We can do so much better. If we had the same rate of deaths on our roads as Sweden did we would have 200 fewer deaths per year. That is more than a 50% reduction than what we’ve got right now. I think it’s worth striving for and I believe we can achieve it.
Has road safety got a particular personal connection with you or are you just looking at the overall community harm from crashes on the roads?
It is just the overall harm and crashes on the roads. I have had friends who have had loved ones seriously and even terminally injured in car crashes but I, luckily, have not myself. But every time someone dies on a bike I just think it’s a tragedy. And it’s also a tragedy that there are so many people who aren’t able to enjoy the benefits of walking and cycling because they are afraid of being killed.
The last Government had a goal of 64,000 electric vehicles (EVs) by the end of 2021. Is that something you want to be more ambitious about?
Yes, especially because the cost of EVs is coming down quite rapidly and the last Government provided virtually no support for policies that would be effective in increasing the rate of uptake of EVs. The key thing is bringing down the up-front purchase cost and making sure that there is a network of charging stations so people feel confident they can rely on an EV.
Is there a message you would like to share with AA Members and the public?
My main message is around safety. The Government’s already announced a short-term increase in funding for road improvements on high-risk rural roads and we’ll be looking at accelerating the speed management programme which means identifying those roads where we need different speed limits. What I’d love is for everyone to think about how it would feel if they found out a loved one had been killed in a car crash and to keep that in mind when they’re out on the road driving; also, when we’re proposing changes to road design or to speeds. Everyone agrees we need to put life first but keeping that in mind when we have to make changes is sometimes hard to do. We’re going to be using the most data-driven, evidence-based approach we can to ensure that the changes we make will be effective.
Reported by Dylan Thomsen for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue