Public Transport – a public luxury?

We need to re-think how people move around our cities and towns. We need to shift our transport system away from prioritising private luxury for some to public luxury for everyone.


Peri Zee

4/27/20232 min read

silver and red bullet train
silver and red bullet train

In order to use less of the planet’s finite resources we need to re-think how people move around our cities and towns. We need to shift the system away from prioritising private luxury for some to public luxury for everyone. Very high-quality public services are central to the concept of degrowth. Degrowth, according to Dr Jason Hickel, is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being. How might we apply degrowth thinking to transport in Aotearoa New Zealand?

First, we must acknowledge that all people deserve affordable transport options to access the people and places they love and to meet their everyday needs. This means every person has at least one option, but preferably more than one option, that suits their lifestyle and situation.

Transport options are constrained by the infrastructure available to us where we live, work and play. In most places around Aotearoa past decisions have prioritised individual car ownership: private luxury. This is problematic for our need to reduce energy and material consumption; it takes a lot of energy to move a 2 tonne vehicle (whether electric or not) usually carrying just 1 or 2 people. It is also problematic because not everyone can drive or afford to own a car. As fossil fuels become more and more expensive, we know that more and more people will get locked out of car ownership. Others will continue to be forced into car ownership having no other options to access jobs which will further exacerbate poverty. Furthermore, providing more roads to service the ever-growing number of private vehicles will become more and more expensive, emissions intensive and difficult in a changing climate.

A just transition to a low carbon transport system requires that we provide high quality public transport including trains. Trains get priority at intersections and have their own dedicated line meaning they can be faster than travelling by car on congested highways. Well-provisioned trains can include tables for working at, toilets and even a café car for long journeys. These features make them a luxury when compared to travelling by private car – especially when travelling with children.

For longer journeys we can compare the public luxury of trains to the private luxury of air travel. Air travel is expensive and will continue to become more expensive as airlines desperately try to decarbonise their operations with various (energy and land intensive) methods. While air travel is indeed a luxury it is not particularly luxurious an activity when compared to long distance trains. Air travel is quicker, but the whole journey times can be comparable for short flights given the need to head to the airport early, go through security and then take another mode of transport to get into the city. On an inter-regional train you can jump on minutes before it leaves, spend the journey relaxing or working then arrive in the city centre. I’d prefer a relaxing scenic train over a noisy, stressful, and cramped airplane any day – especially if it means never having to experience a freaky landing onto Wellington Airport on a stormy day ever again.

The future is rail – let’s invest in this luxury for all to enjoy.