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Solving traffic without relying on motorways

Tatjana Buklijas

· Auckland Climathon

In July 2016, my local community of Onehunga first became aware of the New Zealand Transport Agency's (NZTA) plans to build a motorway connecting SH20 and SH1 along the northern edge of Manukau Harbour. The road, known as the East West Link, was to bring substantial economic benefits through removing congestion and reducing travel time, especially for trucks moving goods. But it was also going to erect a visually imposing, noisy, and air-polluting barrier between the neighbourhoods in the south of Central Auckland and the Manukau Harbour.

The East West Link Proposal was announced not long after the Auckland Unitary Plan described Onehunga as one of Auckland's future centres of urban intensification, where apartment blocks and public spaces would mix with light industry. But this vision collided with another plan for the area, one that saw Onehunga/Penrose as an exclusively industrial area, its value defined through the lens of economic growth produced through the movement of goods.

Very little time passed between the NZTA lodging the proposal in mid-December and the Environmental Protection Agency opening submissions to the Board of Inquiry on 22 February, but it was enough to mobilise the community. Of 685 submissions received by the deadline of 22 March, 85% opposed the proposal.

The scenario in Onehunga raises serious questions that must concern everyone who lives in Auckland: can we calculate economic benefit without taking into account the cost on humans and nature, or considering the long-term effects of greenhouse emissions and climate change on our city? Are there ways in which we can solve the problem of slow traffic that do not rely on motorways — ways that do not put any new cars on the road? Can we continue to modify and pollute our shorelines and waters first, and then «mitigate» later?

I am no expert in transport, economics or environment. Trained first in medicine and then in history and philosophy of science, with a smattering of social studies, I carved my academic niche at the intersection of these fields, thinking about conceptual problems in human evolution and development. But I also spend a day a week working with the science advisory group of the Prime Minister's Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, and that experience has given me an insight into the political decision-making process, particularly the need to include a diversity of views and to draw on varied research disciplines.

I have also started to think about the ways in which academics can contribute to their communities. We are trained to research, to synthesise existing knowledge, identify gaps and ask critical questions. We share knowledge with our students and the community at large. We also have networks of experts at our fingertips. While writing my submission, for example, I had help from a colleague with a background in geography and policy. When preparing my oral presentation, I talked to School of Population Health experts on air pollution. Another colleague, artist and experimental film-maker Janine Randerson, came along to support my presentation by speaking about her experiences recording bird and human life around the Manukau Harbour. The recordings were made in consultation with water quality experts and local iwi, Te Waiohua. Janine argued that the ecological, social and cultural impacts of the proposed arterial route are deep and irreversible for the coming generations.

Informed by the diverse research and expertise of such esteemed academics, I am confident my submission was robust and potentially able to influence the decision-making process.

At the time of writing this blog, the Board of Inquiry is still deliberating. But while the proposal of an East West Link remains deeply worrying, the positive outcome is that this kind of approach — using collaboration, evidence, and innovative thinking to look beyond motorways, to question the traditional model of economic growth, and to tackle climate change head-on — is now part of mainstream conversation and debate. I look forward to seeing how the outcomes of Climathon Auckland reflect this kind of practice.

Tatjana Buklijas is a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute.

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