Is Auckland’s public transport becoming more or less accessible?

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By Daphne Lawless

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Increasing the use of public transport – buses, trains, ferries and trams/light rail – and reducing reliance on private cars is recognized by most on the Left and centre as an essential part of the transition to a sustainable, post-capitalist future. Capitalism’s devotion to private cars and the roading needed to make them usable has – as previous Fightback articles have explained1 – contributed to the destruction of working-class and Pasefika communities in Auckland, as well as making large areas of land unusable for agriculture or housing. That’s not even to mention the huge waste of resources and labour going into road-building, or the toll of deaths and injuries on our roads.

But consider the public transport you actually know in your city. Is it good enough to enable you to live life to the fullest? Or would you not be able to function in life if you didn’t have your own private car? The real goal of a public transport system should be to make working, living and playing Accessible to all citizens, whether they own a car or not – and whatever their physical or mental health, or their family needs. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that current (run-down, under-funded, inefficient) systems don’t cut it – but what kind of changes do we need?

Economic accessibility

Since the “Super-City” amalgamation of Auckland in 2010 – 1.5 million people under one council – many steps have been taken to throw 60 years of motorway madness into reverse gear. Some of the most significant have been electrified trains and recent rationalisation of our bus services into “New Networks”. But is there a danger that improvements in public transport – and other recent reforms to housing and urban design, aiming for a more sustainable and liveable city – might end up becoming yet another public good “captured” by the already privileged – either socio-economically, or in terms of physical mobility?

The current Labour-led government recently granted a long-standing request for the Auckland Council to impose a fuel tax to pay for further public transport improvements. From a mainstream economic point of view, putting up the price of petrol is an efficient “polluter pays” system which not only earns money but gives an “economic signal” to people to not use their cars so much.

Unfortunately, driving less is simply not an option for many working people. Many will tell you that owning a private car is simply compulsory – it’s like a tax. Because of shift work or the location of many large work sites on the city fringes, public transport simply won’t get you there efficiently or reliably, and you’ll get fired. Then there’s the need to do shopping, take the kids to school or to sports, and so on.

These things are of course much simpler if you work an office job in the city and you’re able to live within walking/cycling distance of schools and shops. But – with Auckland’s property market out of control, to the benefit of those who gentrified the inner-city neighbourhoods in the 1980s – living somewhere you don’t need to own a car has become, paradoxically, a privilege of the mainly Pākehā middle classes.

As previously discussed, “economic apartheid” over the last 60 years has restricted working people, especially from migrant communities, to sprawling, auto-dependent outer suburbs. And the current property bubble only makes things worse. Worse still, it is these very privileged suburbs who have gotten the lion’s share of the benefits of recent transport improvements2:

Auckland’s public transport accessibility is performing “poorly”, a newly released report says. Using 2013 census data and 2015 public transport data it found Auckland’s network performance was significantly lower than Brisbane, Perth and Vancouver.

Highest levels of accessibility tended to be centralised within Auckland, while its fringes, especially to the south and east, were worse off.

Accessibility was determined by a commuter’s ability to reach their workplace by bus, train or ferry within 30-minutes during peak morning traffic.

Low-income families tended to be confined to distant neighbourhoods with less public transport infrastructure, meaning they had fewer opportunities to find good jobs.

Greater Auckland editor Matthew Lowrie said Auckland’s public transport system had been largely focused on improving connections to the centre city, with the fringes seeing little improvement.

Auckland councillor Efeso Collins, from the working-class and multicultural Manukau ward, had this to say in a recent article:3

Due to low household incomes, my community doesn’t have the luxury of paying additional tax now, to benefit future generations. For those who are struggling to provide basic necessities for their whānau, further tax, no matter how well-intentioned in principle, can seem impossible…

Sam Warburton, an Economist and Research Fellow for The New Zealand Initiative… identified that less fuel-efficient cars are likely to be owned by low-income families. Sam makes specific mention of Māori and Pacific Island families who tend to own big vans and cars that are typically not fuel-efficient, which will result in a disproportionately high fuel tax contribution. From my experience growing up in Ōtara, I would absolutely agree with this sentiment.

User-pay schemes are fair in practice when users have alternative options at their disposal. If you live closer to centralised services, it might be a very easy choice to make, to ditch your private vehicle for a bus, train or even bike. Or, you might earn enough to barely notice the relatively small increase to your petrol costs and make the choice to continue to drive. However, this argument doesn’t always stack-up when you consider the average Manukau commuter.

Public transport advocates in Auckland – such as those associated with the Greater Auckland lobby group – do not dismiss concerns like those raised by councillor Collins. But their main counterargument is that there is no political alternative to the fuel tax. Raising income taxes – or establishing a capital gains tax – are politically excluded under this centrist Coalition government which is terrified that those who are doing well out of the asset bubble will desert them at the ballot box. At the Auckland Council level, an increase in rates (property taxes) targeting the millionaire beneficiaries of the real estate bubble would seem fair – and would be just as politically impossible.

We are left, then, with an impossible choice – either we are stuck with the inefficient, unhealthy, polluting and deadly status quo; or we get already impoverished working people to pay for the improvements we need. Only if working people become politically organized so that our voices become as loud and as clearly heard as those of the gentrification millionaires of Herne Bay and Westmere will we be able to get out of this trap.

Physical accessibility

Public transport is all the more necessary for those with special mobility needs, who would often have to pay for special adaptations to a private car to be able to use one. But – especially in cities with established public transport networks – massive investment is often needed to make it possible to make public transport physically accessible. For example, in Wellington, some ramps leading to train stations are too steep for wheelchairs – and upgrading them is “not a priority”.4

Auckland Transport has trumpeted that its “New Network” – being rolled out gradually over Auckland – will effectively deal with many of the problems of socio-economic accessibility mentioned above. By moving to a system where people transfer between buses or trains at major hubs – rather than taking long journeys on a single bus – they argue, much more frequent and useful bus services are possible to outer areas using equal or lesser resources.5

Although Auckland’s New Network hasn’t been as disastrous as the recent reorganization of bus services in Wellington6, it has attracted criticism precisely because of its reliance on transfers. Many of the complaints about the New Network have been about the need to cross busy roads to make transfers; or about the safety issues with having to wait at isolated bus stops after dark.7 Issues of safety are, of course, accessibility issues in themselves, and reasons why the “steel box” of the private car might become more appealing.

We are therefore faced with the possibility that changes to public transport to make it more economically accessible might paradoxically reduce physical accessibility – if sufficient care is not taken with the details. One example of the possible blindness of Auckland Transport’s leaders to these physical/safety accessibility issues was an infamous comment made by City Rail Link project director Chris Meale in an interview with The Spinoff’s Simon Wilson, last year. Wilson wanted to know why the only entrance to the Karangahape Road underground train station would be some way down relatively steep Mercury Lane8:

I asked why there won’t be escalators rising to Karangahape Rd itself.

“That’s not a difficult walk,” he said. “It’s good for you.”

Not difficult for him or me, perhaps, but moderately fit adults are not exactly the benchmark for ease of use.

Thankfully, the uproar about this comment seems to have shifted some thoughts and a second, more level entrance to the station is now planned.9 But this – combined with Wellington’s ramp slope issues mentioned above – emphasise how much accessibility to public transport is not so much about the vehicles themselves, but about the “last mile problem” – actually being able to get to or from the stops and/or stations.

The New Zealand Transport Agency offers a service called “Total Mobility” which offers “subsidised licensed taxi services to people who have an impairment that prevents them” from using public transport safely or effectively, mostly because of the “last mile” problem .10 However – as with many Government welfare initiatives – it is poorly advertised and many people who would benefit from this system don’t even know it exists, let alone how to apply for it.

What is to be done?

Even though it was an initiative of the conservative-populist New Zealand First party, the “Super Gold Card” – guaranteeing free public transport to the over-65s – shows how socially beneficial such universal entitlements (without having to jump through the hoops of needs-testing) can be. Reducing the need for all elders to drive is good not only for their own health and safety, but for that of the wider community. It came as a shock to this writer to find out that there is no equivalent scheme for the physically impaired in this country – “Total Mobility” only offers a partial subsidy for public transport.

As this article has discussed, public transport must become both physically accessible (including safety at stops and stations) for all, as well as becoming socio-economically accessible. Socialists have long pushed “zero fares” as the simplest means of achieving the latter goal; but making public transport useful by providing more and better services for people living and working in the far-flung suburbs is surely equally important.

Some other ideas were suggested a few years ago in a discussion document from Australia’s Socialist Alliance11:

  • Some people with disabilities need to be accompanied on public transport by an attendant, in which case the attendant should also be able to travel for free.
  • Regularly retrain all customer service staff in the rights, needs and entitlements of all people with disabilities.
  • Re-open all station toilet facilities and build new facilities on platforms and at tram/bus
  • Test out all vehicle destination signs and other written information by running them past committees of vision-impaired and elderly passengers.
  • Stop the misleading spin on accessible public transport and tell the truth about whether people with disabilities can easily access these vehicles without assistance, whether they really feel comfortable accessing these services, whether there is enough room for wheelchairs and guide dogs or enough assistance in using the services.
  • Develop faster, more energy efficient, and more robust electric wheelchairs and scooters so that people with disabilities can make short trips without needing public transport or cars, and with less need to recharge or service their chairs.
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Trump, Brexit, Syria… and conservative leftism

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

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Penny Bright, perennial Auckland mayoral candidate and conservative leftist, proudly promotes the Assad regime and Russian-backed conspiracy theories on the streets of Auckland. Photograph by Daphne Lawless.

In the 10 months since I introduced the concept of “Conservative Leftism” to the NZ Left, only one argument has been raised against it that seemed to take the idea seriously and be worthy of taking seriously in return. This argument – which has been raised by more than one sincere socialist, at greatest length by Ben Peterson at leftwin.org – is that Conservative Leftism is an “amalgam” which doesn’t really exist, that there is no necessary connection between the conservative strands of thought I identified in the contemporary activist movement.

Ben argued:

While “Conservative leftism” is a thought provoking concept, it doesn’t measure up in reality as a coherent ideological perspective.

“Against Conservative Leftism” lists a range of examples of political positions that derive from its ideological perspective. These including but are not limited to opposition to local council amalgamations, opposition to intensive housing developments, legal crank such as ‘freemen’ theories, backing the Assad dictatorship, anti-Semitism, homeownership and opposition to the NZ flag referendum.

This just doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that a person who opposes intensive housing developments is more likely to be an anti-Semite or conspiracy theorist. It doesn’t make sense to put leftist homeowners, and the not very often homeowning ‘freemen’ into the same ideological tendency just doesn’t make sense.

One way of responding to Ben’s argument using Marxist jargon would be to say: “there is a contradiction, but the contradiction is in reality.” I strongly believe that the evidence has in fact become clearer over the course of 2016, that the strands of reactionary opinion among self-identified “Leftists” that I have identified do, in actual reality, go together as a set of propositions which support each other, if not necessarily logically “coherent”.

For the record, I identified three conservative reactions on the self-identified “Left” to neoliberal globalisation:

  • opposition to globalisation in and of itself (nationalism, xenophobia, obsession with “sovereignty”, one-sided opposition to Western imperialism in particular aka campism);
  • opposition to the social changes which have happened in the neoliberal/globalised era (opposition to cosmopolitan urbanisation, anti-immigration, idealisation of “traditional” rural/small-town/working class life, scepticism of newer identities around gender/race which are smeared as “identity politics”);
  • one-sidedly deep scepticism of neoliberal media/academic narratives, reflected in an embrace of conspiracy theory, traditional “common sense” and health quackery.

We might use the following shorthands:

  1. CONSERVATIVE ANTI-IMPERIALISM;
  2. CONSERVATIVE POPULISM;
  3. ANTI-RATIONALISM (or perhaps “intellectual populism”).

The original article – and Ben’s response – was written before what a radical internationalist Left viewpoint would see as the massive catastrophes for people and planet of 2016: the Trump victory; the victory of British exit from the European Union (Brexit) which has led to an explosion of racist violence; the growing strides of neo-fascist movements across the world, from the French Front National to the online lynch-mobs known as the “alt-right”; and the ongoing genocidal destruction of Syria by its own government backed up by Russian imperialism.

It is my contention that this series of disasters has vindicated the Conservative Left idea, in that New Zealand leftists who were expressing Conservative Left ideas at the beginning of the year have either welcomed these developments, or at least seen them as potentially positive developments. To give a few examples from the New Zealand Left in particular:

  • Mike Lee, the Auckland Council member on whom I focussed in my article on the Auckland local body elections as the chief local promoter of conservative-left ideas, issued a Facebook message after the election which expressed thankfulness for the Trump victory, seemingly based on the idea (assiduously promoted by both Trumpist and Russian sources) that Hillary Clinton would start World War 3.
  • Prominent veteran NZ leftist writer Chris Trotter – who was, indeed, one of our major models when we elaborated the idea – announced that “I proudly count myself” as a conservative leftist. Most of this post either ignored the substance of my article, or was an apologia for the Russian-backed Syrian regime destruction of Aleppo, which can be quickly debunked by a quick flick through the resources on any Syrian Solidarity website or Facebook page.
  • Daily Blog proprietor “Bomber” Bradbury, who previously promoted Mike Lee’s anti-intensification and anti-youth politics, has now come out with an explicit anti-immigration screed. He even characterizes pro-immigration policy as an “elite cosmopolitan” viewpoint – a snarl-phrase which could be taken directly from a Stalinist or fascist rant.
  • Bradbury’s co-thinker on Auckland local body politics, perennial mayoral candidate Penny Bright, has been counter-protesting Syrian solidarity demonstrations supporting the Assad regime’s “sovereignty” (see image), and is reported to be sharing links on social media from David Icke, doyen of “Lizard People” conspiracy theory.

From where I sit, this is convincing data. In general, the sections of the New Zealand left whom I had in mind as either “conservative leftist” or heavily influenced by that ideology have been unanimous in – even if not outright supporting Assad/Putin, Trump and Brexit – arguing that these phenomena are not in fact that bad, that they can be seen as expressions of resistance to imperialism and neo-liberalism. This insight has been reproduced by British radical academic Priyamvada Gopal, who said recently on Facebook:

This cleavage in left circles that has arisen over the last six months is a pretty neat and sharp one, with only a few zigzags and crossovers and that generally only around Brexit. How do we read it? On one side:

  • Anti-Assad/Anti Putin/Anti-Massacres
  • Anti-Trump
  • Anti-Brexit

On the other side:

  • Assad Apologetics/Anti-Western Imperialism Only
  • Trump is No Worse than Hillary
  • Lexit

Priyamada’s schema snugly fits two out of the three points of my schema. The Assadist “Left” are clearly conservative anti-imperialists, taking the “campist” position that the main leaders of opposition to neoliberal globalisation are the leaderships of various states, who range from authoritarian to totalitarian in their internal regimes – thus excluding any role for mass action in changing the world, and indeed smearing the Arab Spring uprisings as CIA-sponsored attempted coups. Meanwhile, conservative-left reactions to the Trump debacle have ranged from welcoming it as a blow to neoliberal globalisation (ludicrous, given the identity of the various plutocrats whom Trump is naming to his cabinet), to the less wild-eyed interpretation that a “revolt of the white working class” defeated Hillary Clinton. This latter interpretation conveniently lends itself to calls for a more “traditional” left politics targeting “ordinary” (read: white, male) workers, and throwing not only the feminist movement but oppressed queer, ethnic and religious minority workers under the bus.

Meanwhile, the “Left Brexit” (Lexit) phenomenon showed a combination of both these tendencies. On one hand, it “whitewashed” (we can use the term in full irony) the Brexit movement led by reactionary tabloids and the Trump-like UKIP, seeing it as a working-class revolt rather than a reactionary populist uprising. On the other, it one-sidedly attacked the EU’s neoliberal institutions, trying to put a “left” face on British nationalist isolationism, and ignoring the fact that freedom of movement for workers between EU countries is a vital progressive gain for migrant workers. The consequences of this position were that Lexiters had to argue away the rise in racist abuse and violence after the referendum, either as “exaggerated”, something that was happening anyway, or even outright fabricated by the mainstream media[1]. This rhetorical move was a precursor to the breath-taking denials of reality we have become used to from supporters of the Putin/Assad axis in Syria.

The Morning Star, the daily newspaper traditionally associated with the Communist Party of Britain, has shamefully led the conservative-leftist charge on both these issues, both cheerleading the ongoing massacre in Aleppo as “liberation” and opposing freedom of movement for workers. Some have taken this to mean that conservative leftism is really a reappearance of Stalinism – and certainly there are similarities to the old Western Communist backing of Russian tanks and Eastern Bloc nationalism. However, it is also vital to note that the leadership of the British Stop the War Coalition – who have shamefully refused to promote the cause of Free Syria – are dominated by people who came from the anti-Stalinist revolutionary tradition, mainly former leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party. If the problem was originally a Stalinist one, then the rot has spread.

Where then is the “third leg” of the tripod, anti-rationalism/intellectual populism? Whether someone on the conservative left believes in traditional conspiracy theories, health quackery or other kinds of crank thought or not, the common move in both conservative anti-imperialism and conservative populism is to reflexively reject “mainstream”, “elite” or “establishment” viewpoints, and yet be willing to believe any alternative promoted as “alternative”. This might – for example – lead from an accurate perception that capitalist banking helps increase the gap between rich and poor and makes capitalist crisis more intense, to an advocacy of a fantasy alternative based on a misunderstanding of the real problem such as Social Credit or Positive Money.

In particular, the use of the terms “elite” and “establishment” is a sign of intellectual surrender to Right-wing populism (see Bradbury, above). These are totally empty signifiers which the listener can apply to whichever bogey-group they think are really running things. While a sincere leftist might envision the capitalist oligarchy as “the elites”, a Right-populist will think of liberal academics or gay/female/ethnic minority professionals whom they blame for “keeping them down”; others will think of the “cultural Marxists”, the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, or hostile UFOs.

Recent analyses have suggested that the intelligence services of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin are engaged in actively promoting this kind of “radical scepticism”. They argue that Russian propaganda does not aim to promote its own narrative, but simply to undermine the consensus narratives of Western-aligned media and academia. By a staggering coincidence, this is also how conspiracy theories such as “9/11 Truth” also work – not by attempting to prove their own point of view, but by picking at threads in the “establishment” narrative, so as to imply that their own is equally valid. This strategy has also been used in the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to get anti-evolution pseudo-science taught in public schools.

Being prepared to dismiss out of hand any report appearing on the BBC website, yet unquestioningly forwarding videos from the RT website, is essentially little different from the health crank’s high-powered scepticism of “Big Pharma”, combined with a willingness to believe anything presented by alternative-medicine profiteers (what rationalists sometimes call “Big Placebo”). The argument here is not a conspiracy theory that conservative leftism is some kind of Russian plot. The argument is merely that Russian intelligence has deftly exploited the growth of populist anti-elitism in Western countries to promote themselves as the good guys -in the same way that traditional Nazis have exploited the meme culture of 4chan and similar online forums to produce the “alt-right”.

It seems clearer as time goes on that these three strands of conservative anti-imperialism, conservative populism and anti-rationalism/intellectual populism go together, that holding one of these viewpoints is a very good predictor of holding the others. There is thus a clear cleavage between the Conservative Left which rejects globalisation per se and refuses to engage with the new social forces thrown up by it; and the radical international Left which wants ANOTHER kind of globalisation, a workers’ and oppressed people’s globalisation. The latter sees the new proletarian forces and oppressed communities thrown up by existing globalisation as the vanguard agents of change, just as Karl Marx saw the industrial workers as the gravediggers of capitalism, rather than wanting to send them back to the farms. I only wish I had a better word for this necessary alternative tendency than “radical internationalist Left”. Suggestions are welcomed.

[1] Personal experience from Facebook discussions.