What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for Waka Kotahi?
We have some strong cultural paradigms in New Zealand, such as that speed equals productivity and that risk taking and driving fast are good things. These are quite deep cultural elements in New Zealand that are just not right when you look at the facts. Another challenge is one of funding. We're a small country and we want to be ‘First World’ in all modes of transport, but that costs a lot of money and we have an infrastructure deficit to catch up on. How do we sustainably fund the system to the levels our people want, but don’t want to have to pay for – at least not right now?
Why does New Zealand have a worse road safety record than most other developed nations?
The countries that are best in the world in safety are investing across a range of interventions that cost a lot of money. They are able to improve safety much faster than us because they're doing safety by design as they build new roads and new infrastructure.
Secondly, I think we do have this very pervasive culture that wants to retain moving fast as a key aspect on our networks, despite the evidence that it’s not safe to do so.
What is Waka Kotahi doing to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads?
Road To Zero is the Government’s road safety strategy for 2020-30. If I break it into the big pieces, one is designing the roads and networks to be safer. This is focusing on our side and median barriers, which are really important, but are also expensive and take a lot of time to improve.
The second piece is to get people into safer vehicles and different modes of transport. The third dimension is to have people operating at safe speeds. We have done speed assessments based on best-practice evidence of our networks and we know a lot of them are overscoped for the safety of that network. Another element is to look at behavioural change, including the training and licensing of operators. That will always be a focus but doesn’t produce the same outcomes as other interventions.
The three things that have the biggest impact are infrastructure investment, road policing and speed.
Do you think the public are prepared for the scale of speed reductions that are going to be coming?
Well, we don't know the scale yet because it will genuinely be dependent on each community and each consultation. We are consulting on speed changes in many communities at the moment.
To take a few minutes longer driving more slowly from A to B, you'll see quite dramatic safety improvements with minimal impact on productivity.
Are New Zealand’s highways up to the standard they should be?
New Zealand’s highways are, I think, fit for purpose considering the investment made in them. Are they up to the standard of European roads and German highways? No. But there are millions and millions of people going across those networks; they have been designed for massive volumes moving at a really high pace.
We don't have massive volumes moving through our corridors, so relative to the size of our network and the amount of funding, I think we have a road network that is fit for purpose.
Could it be better and could you design and build it to a high standard? Absolutely. But there is a trade off, in terms of other things you might like to do or investment made in other modes.
How are people going to have to change the way they travel in their daily lives if we are going to achieve the emissions reductions that are required of the sector?
While the targets for New Zealand haven’t formally been set, indicatively it would be 20% fewer trips on the road, a 30% increase in the use of electric vehicles and a 20% reduction in hydrocarbon-emitting heavy vehicles.
The first of those is, fundamentally, a dramatic shift. To reduce the number of times that people travel in a car from A to B, you'd have to have very viable options around mass transit, walking and cycling, and have those options used consistently. I think that's a very ambitious goal. That sort of target has never been achieved anywhere in the world, even in cities that have a lot of mass transit. So, I think it would require us to do a lot in terms of changing our behaviour.
It’s worth noting that urban intensification is perhaps one of the fastest ways to achieve transport goals. Having people live closer to their schools, their services and to mass transit is how you achieve a lot of better transport outcomes.
Since becoming CEO of Waka Kotahi have you personally changed any of your transport choices?
Moving to Wellington has changed how my family and I get around. There is a regular bus service right outside where we live, there's a train station just down the road and a very good community where people rideshare and help out with kids and other things. We use a lot of buses. We use trains. We walk and cycle to the supermarket, which is just one kilometre down the road. I walk there more than I take the car. It’s an example of how you change behaviour – not necessarily by enforcing change but by making it easy for people to live and operate in a different way.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Waka Kotahi is really focused on optimising the transport system. There is a lot of feedback from the public along the lines of ‘you should do walking’ or ‘you should do freight’ or whatever. There are a lot of views that are focused on a single transport mode. I think we still suffer from the view that, as a roading agency, that's all we’re interested in. But I can be categoric that we're not. Our mindset is very much in the space of how we optimise transport choices for New Zealand.
Our relationships, at a strategic level, are with KiwiRail, Kāinga Ora and others, and they’re all about integration, rather than just building roads. And we're looking at how we genuinely create better safety and climate outcomes for New Zealand while we do that.
Reported by Dylan Thomsen for our Autumn 2022 issue