Public Transport in New Zealand

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An illustration of public transport alleviating traffic congestion (Hussaini,2011)
Cable car, one of Wellington's older forms of public transport (Taylor, 2005)
Wellingtons trolleybus, which draws electricity from overhead wires (Ward, 2010)

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This report will compare New Zealand's private verses public transport usage and the associated implications or benefits.



New Zealand has traditionally had and continues to have a high dependence on private vehicle use, due to the spread out nature of human settlements. Although public transport such as trains, trams, buses and ferries are available in the main urban centers, they are not widely employed throughout the country. It is important to consider the impacts of private transport on the environment, society and the economy because it is evident that there is much room for improvement. Contrastingly, public transport/ walking/cycling provide a range of benefits, not only to the environment, but to society as a whole. Such benefits include a reduction in carbon emissions and local air pollution, health gains from more physical activity, and a more affordable way to travel (Woodcock et al., 2009) However, New Zealand has the 8th highest ownership of private vehicles per capita in the world, which reflects the limited uptake of the country’s public transport services (World Bank, 2010).

This report aims to examine the current state of the environment in relation to transport use in New Zealand. It will first outline some of the environmental, social and economic impacts that high levels of private transport leads to for New Zealand. Second, three indicators will be examined to address the pressure, state and response regarding the environmental issue of high private vehicle usage, before potential reasons for these trends are explored. Third, the current management response to transport pressures in New Zealand will be examined, drawing on the Auckland case study as an example and then this strategy will be critically analyzed. This report looks abroad to Oslo, Norway for a best practice example of an environmentally sound public transport system, before concluding with some recommendations on how best to proceed on the national transport agenda. For the purpose of this report, private transport refers to transport such as cars, trucks and vans that are not available for public usage. Although cycling and walking are technically private transport modes, they will be considered as alternatives to private transport, which is used interchangeably with the term public transport. Public transport is a shared passenger transport service that is available to the general public such as buses, trains, trams and ferries (Vivier, 2007).

Impacts of Private Transport

Environmental impacts

Congested traffic on Auckland's motorway (Ecologic Foundation, 2013)

The greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand’s transport sector are rising rapidly, which contrasts to the majority of other industries in the country (Lindsay, Macmillan and Woodward, 2009). The dominant transportation mode in New Zealand is road transport but despite its benefits of increasing connectivity nationwide, it also has detrimental effects on the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions from road transport include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide and together account for 16% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). Not only do greenhouse gases pollute the local atmosphere, but they also contribute to global warming, which refers to the earth’s average temperature experiencing measured rises. The combustion of fossil-fuels from road transport leads to an accumulation of these greenhouse gases and consequently changes the atmospheric composition. Also referred to as ‘climate change’, this phenomena is projected to cause significant sea level rise in the future, as polar ice caps and sheets melt with warmer sea temperatures, as well as extreme weather events predicted to become more frequent and intense. Additionally, there are other negative impacts from vehicles waste such as used oil, batteries and tyres that can be harmful to the environment when incorrectly disposed of (Chapman, 2007).

Social Impacts

There are various social impacts associated with private transport in New Zealand. Firstly, considering there is approximately 66 private vehicles to every 100 people in New Zealand, this indicates the sheer scale of vehicle pollution and therefore the risk of associated health issues. Exposure to air pollutant particles are known to irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, as well as contribute to respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). Children’s health is at risk with an increasing number of school students being driven to school rather than walking. This results in a reduction of daily physical activity and contributes to significant health risks including obesity. New Zealand is also at high risk of road traffic incidents due to the great number of private transport on the road. Globally, New Zealand has one of the highest road traffic mortality rates and much of the reasoning behind this issue is the lack of appropriate roading in New Zealand. Currently, the vast majority of NZ roads outside the larger metropolitan areas are very basic with only white lines separating the oncoming traffic. Many other nations have much more developed roading systems with physical barriers separating oncoming traffic which significantly reduces the risk of road traffic accidents. Additionally, private vehicle use promotes individual lifestyles that reduce social cohesion (Hill and Kjellstrom, 2002). Therefore, there are many negative impacts to society resulting from the high dependence on private vehicles.

Economic Impacts

Graph 1, showing fluctuating gas prices in New Zealand(Ministry of Transport, 2012)

The economic cost of public transport systems requires a large investment by the government for the development and maintenance of the system, which is a long-term strategy that poses a barrier to implementation. Although roading networks also require investment, they require relatively little maintenance and a lower initial cost. Increasing the road network is a short-term solution because eventually, the excess capacity will be filled with more cars and at some point there will be no more room for expansion (Rietveld, 1994). As for the individual person, the costs associated with private transport are far greater than public transport costs. Private transport requires an initial investment of the vehicle itself, maintenance, warrant of fitness tests as well as the continuous need to fill up with fuel. As shown in Graph 1, regular petrol pump prices have more than doubled between 2000 and 2013, which illustrates that the cost to the consumer is constantly rising over time (Ministry of Transport, 2012). Furthermore, it is predicted that petrol prices are likely to rise in the future, with theories suggesting that ‘peak oil’ will soon be, or has already been approached. As this non-renewable source of fuel becomes more scarce, prices will rise and only those with higher incomes will be able to afford it. Therefore, there will be great costs to society as a whole if and when fuel prices skyrocket in the future because private transport is at the core of our country and the whole transport system may need to be radically changed (Vivier, 2007).

State of the Environment Indicators

An environmental indicator is a direct or indirect measure of environmental quality within an specified area. In the past a number of indicators have been devised by various government ministries to assess environmental quality such as vehicle kilometres travelled (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). However, for the purpose of this report we have devised three new indicators which examine the environmental pressure, state and management response to high levels of private transport usage.

Graph 2: This graph illustrates that road transport in New Zealand contributes by far the most carbon emissions than any other transport mode as a whole and these emissions have been increasing overtime while others have remained constant(Ministry of Transport, 2012)

Indicator of Environmental Pressure: Carbon Emissions from Public vs Private Transport modes

Christchurch cycle-way to encourage a safer, more accessible environment for cyclists (Francis, 2013)

As discussed in the environmental impacts section, private transport emits far greater greenhouse gases than public transport does. These emissions, especially carbon dioxide, are placing a significant pressure on the environment and are a cause for concern. As shown in Graph 2, carbon emissions from road transport account for the vast majority of carbon emissions for all transport modes domestically. This graph clearly illustrates that New Zealand has a high dependence on road transport, mainly used by private vehicles, and this has contributed to a significant amount of carbon emissions. Furthermore, while marine, aviation and rail transport emissions have remained relatively constant over the past 20 years, road transport emissions have increased greatly, which shows that the amount of road transport is increasing while the others are not. In conclusion, when comparing road versus alternative transport modes, road transport contributes to significantly more carbon emissions and this trend is worsening over time. This indicates that New Zealand is not doing well to reduce their transport related carbon emissions and action needs to be taken.

Indicator of Environmental State: Public vs Private Transport Use

Graph 3: Displaying modes of travel used(Ministry of Transport, 2012)

This indicator is concerned with the proportion of total transport undertaken by private vehicle (car/van) compared to alternative modes such as public transport and cycling. As shown in Graph 3, private vehicles were used for 78% of total travel time, compared to alternative transport modes only accounting for 22% of trips. Therefore, the current state of New Zealander’s transport behavior is that far more people choose to travel by private vehicle, rather than public transport or carbon-neutral modes such as walking and cycling. Out of all the alternative modes to private vehicle use, walking accounts for 13% which is surprisingly good, however, public transport is only used for a mere 4% of total journeys. As found in the previous indicator, this indicator suggests that New Zealand is performing poorly on the public transport front and gives further evidence that New Zealand has a high dependence on private vehicles.

Indicator of Response to Environmental State: Public vs Private Transport Spending by Government

Graph 4: Government investment in New Zealand transport(Ministry of Transport, 2012)

In order to gain an insight into the way in which New Zealand transport management is responding to the current transport pressures and state outlined previously, this indicator will explore the amount of government spending on private versus public transport infrastructure. As shown in Graph 4, the vast majority of national transport expenditure is allocated for the maintenance, renewal and construction of local roads and state highways. In comparison to over $2 billion being spent annually on roading infrastructure, less than $250 million is allocated to roading alternatives such as public transport, cycling and walking. Furthermore, between 1998 and 2010, government expenditure on roading has nearly tripled, whereas spending on alternative transport has only increased a little. After analyzing this graph, it is evident that the government prioritizes roading projects over alternative transport projects. The indicator suggests that New Zealand is again performing poorly in their goal to reduce private vehicle dependence among the population because over time there is a growing divide between public and private transport expenditure. The government is setting a poor example by investing heavily in the development of new motorways in order to alleviate congestion because this encourages more people to drive and increases traffic congestion in the long run. If more funding was directed toward alternative transport modes such as train networks and cycleways, this would directly help to reduce traffic congestion and provide numerous other benefits for the environment and society.

Reasons for More Private Transport Use

Graph 5: Access to public transport(Ministry of Transport, 2012)

There are a number of reasons why private transport may be used more frequently than public transport in New Zealand. The advantages of private transport as perceived by the public include being convenient and flexible to use have an enhanced sense of comfort and privacy. It also offers feelings of power, freedom, status and superiority, therefore people aspire to own their own vehicle as a measure of their success. On the other hand, the perceived disadvantages of public transport include overcrowding, lack of comfort, unreliable and inflexible schedules and long waiting times. These factors may result in people choosing to drive when they have the option on taking public transport (Beirao and Cabral, 2007). As shown in Graph 5, the majority of New Zealand’s cities have a high percentage of their population residing within 500 meters from a public bus route. For example, close to 100% of the Auckland population fit these criteria of having good access to a bus service, however, Auckland continues to be renowned for its intense traffic congestions and high levels of private vehicle use. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that public transport is a cost-efficient alternative to private vehicles, which suggest that accessibility and affordability are not significant barriers for people to use the public transport system (Beirao and Cabral, 2007). Furthermore, as shown with the government spending indicator, the New Zealand government prioritises roading infrastructure over alternative transport, which facilitates and encourages the movement of more drivers on the road. Although public buses require roading infrastructure to operate, if more people used buses to commute instead of driving individually, there would be significantly less congestion on the roads and would reduce the need to upgrade the motorways continuously.

Current Management Response

The New Zealand government aims to ensure four key outcomes for transport over the next 3 years, these include:

  • To ensure value for money
  • Supporting economic growth
  • Improving safety
  • Providing a range of travel choices

The New Zealand Government prioritises investment in public roading, while public transport is still identified as a key area for future planning. However, the governments goal is to improve efficiency and effectiveness for the current public transport system: bus, rail, cable car and ferry, rather than make a drastic shift away from private transport and promote transport sustainability. New Zealand could learn a lot from looking at the Oslo example where public transport user rates are about 60%, this will be examined later in the report.

Case Study: Auckland

Public ferry providing access to nearby islands and isolated areas such as Devonport reducing overall travel time (SkyscraperCity, 2007)
One of Auckland's current public train systems (SkyscraperCity, 2007)
Public bus network in Auckland, New Zealand (SkyscraperCity, 2007)

Auckland’s primary concern regarding transport development is to meet the demands of the growing population. Therefore the council prioritises a reactive approach to accommodate necessary transport requirements. Currently, Auckland is facing issues with spatial limitations it is becoming less viable to continue developing large scale motorways and roading networks to accommodate for private transport use. Therefore alternative methods have been developed to alleviate congestion, which include a proposed city rail system that will facilitate the mobility of Aucklanders and meet the demands of the growing population(Auckland Transport, 2013).

Auckland Transport Strategic Alignment Project quote that “Further expansions of the roading network beyond those measures would be prohibitively expensive or even impossible, because of "geographical constraints" and "increased community and environmental impacts". Therefore, future traffic growth would need to be covered via public transport.” (Rudman, 2007) The Ministry of transport realise that public transport is the best long term solution to the growing size of Auckland’s population, however, they are struggling to fight the city’s inbuilt dependence on private vehicles.


  • 2030 vision of a extensive city rail network that combines existing networks to a number of new stations.
  • To establish distinct neighborhoods to make more areas of the city more accessible.
  • Project cost estimated at $2 billion
  • This could provide an additional 50 million trips per year by train, twice as many than currently.
  • Proposed Outcomes Include: International destination
  • Integrated regional transport
  • Walkable and accessible
  • Exceptional natural environment and leading environment performer

(Auckland Transport, 2013)

A Comparison of Public Transport in Other Countries

Case Study: Oslo

Norway is a country in Northern Europe with a similar geography and population size to New Zealand. Oslo, the capital city of Norway, prides itself on being a sustainable city and has been highlighted in the literature as a best practice example of implementing an efficient and environmentally sound public transport system (Department of Environmental Affairs and Transportation, 2006). The metro, tram and train networks are employed to facilitate the movement of people around the city centre, extending to key residential and industrials areas. Service coverage and frequency is continuously improving and the current goal is for all lines to have departures at least every ten minutes (Holden and Norland, 2005). 60% of all public transport trips are made on these three networks and because they are powered by electricity that is produced by renewable sources including hydropower and waste, nearly two-thirds of public transport journeys are fossil-free. Buses are the second public transport modes that are becoming increasingly energy-efficient. Climate-neutral fuel for buses is gaining momentum in line with Oslo’s goal of phasing out fossil fuel energy in public transportation by 2020. A variety of biofuel options are currently being employed: bioethanol produced from wood, biodiesel, biogas derived from the methane of sewage and food waste, and also electric buses fuelled by hydrogen, which only emit water vapour (Oslo City Council, 2008).

One of Oslo's electric public trains, Norway (Murray, 2012)

In addition to Oslo’s energy-efficient public transport system, the council is encouraging the use of electric and hybrid vehicles to its citizens who require private transportation. Oslo has the most electric vehicles per capita in the world and these vehicles are being rapidly adopted for the city council fleet. There are 400 public charging stations for electric cars in Oslo and many more will be established as their demand increases. The council have created numerous incentives for citizens to purchase electric cars, such as being permitted to drive in the city’s dedicated public transport lanes, exemption from toll charges and free parking within the city (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2009). Another commendable idea that promotes energy-efficient transportation is the city bikes scheme, where the public can borrow bikes from key locations around the city for three-hour periods. A simple user card system allows citizens to access this convenient and environmentally friendly transport mode, all for the cost of 11 Euros annually. Together with two way cycling lanes and priority given to cyclists at selected intersections, cycling is being promoted as a more cost effective, efficient and sustainable way to travel in Oslo (Oslo City Council, 2008). 57% of Oslo’s residents travel to work via energy-efficient modes including walking, cycling and public transportation, which has numerous benefits for the citizens and environment of Oslo (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2009). Firstly, air quality is improved with the reduction of vehicle-related pollution, which provides health benefits to citizens and also enhances biodiversity within the city. Secondly, energy-efficient transportation reduces the level of noise pollution and relieves congestion on public roads, as well as being more economically efficient. Lastly, transportation powered by hydro-electricity and biofuels based on biological material is energy efficient and sustainable, which reduces reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels, and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, Oslo’s transportation strategies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are good progress towards their target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels (Department of Environmental Affairs and Transportation, 2006).

The case study of Oslo provides many examples of how public transport can be effectively integrated into a city of less than 1 million, which could offer some solid strategies for the New Zealand government to explore when implementing alternative transport modes throughout the country. Although Auckland’s large population has received the most attention regarding public transport solutions, New Zealand’s other cities could also benefit from these to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Even in smaller cities such as Invercargill or Timaru, the city bike scheme could be implemented to move people around the city without the need to drive or park cars throughout the day.


After having examined the current state of the New Zealand transport environment, it is evident that the country has great need to improve their performance. A number of recommendations have been devised in order to guide the New Zealand government in their transport strategy. First, it is essential that some of the government expenditure is averted away from road infrastructure and instead invested in high-quality public transport that will provide a longer-term solution to the country’s transport pressures. Considering that the population is continually growing, especially in Auckland, it is even more important that efficient transport systems are implemented throughout the country.

Second, a number of public transport campaigns should be implemented to raise awareness about the transport options available to citizens, as well as the benefits to the environment, and their personal health and finances that will arise from using private vehicles all the time. A radical shift in transport perceptions is required so that people rely less on their vehicles and public transport becomes more popular. An incentive scheme could be devised to encourage alternative transport modes such as subsidized bicycles. More research is required to understand consumer needs and expectations of public transport services to increase usage.

Lastly, the New Zealand government should look to European examples such as Oslo, who have developed stellar public transport system that will stand the test of time. By initiating the shift towards more sustainable transport modes, New Zealand will be able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and move closer to meeting international climate obligations. Simple measures such as a public bike scheme or allowing electric cars to drive in bus lanes would be a good place to start, but a radical overhaul of the current transport system is essential if New Zealand wants to move forward in prosperity.

New Zealand’s current transport system is dominated by private vehicles and this poses many challenges to a growing population. Although the pressure is not so great in smaller New Zealand towns, urban centres such as Wellington and Auckland require greater investment in public transport and other alternatives to facilitate ease of movement around the city. Although a number of public transport options are already in place, user rates are below full capacity, in part due to cultural factors that deem public transport only suitable for those on low-incomes. New Zealand has an opportunity to become a world leader in public transport in alignment with our 100% pure tourism brand that would benefit tourists as well as the local population. But most of all, our local environment would benefit greatly from the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, improving local air quality and atmospheric pollution that contributes to climate change. All that is required is political will and a willingness to change embedded beliefs, how hard can that be?