Auto-dependent Auckland

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If it’s possible to fall in love with a country, I have. It’s a small, bisected Pacific island country with a whole lot of sheep (more per capita than anywhere else in the world), a nuclear-free policy and Zero Waste goals. The country is New Zealand, with a population of just less than 4 million people, swollen by immigration from Asia and other Pacific islands.

I loved the hospitable people of New Zealand, their humor and warmth, and the fascinating environmental variations in this California-sized (and shaped) place, from the temperate North Island with its green coastal plain reminiscent of England to its partly alpine South Island, with lush native forests and so-called Southern Alps.

Nearly a third of New Zealand’s people live in its largest city, Auckland, whose population is expected to double in the next 50 years. I saw much of the country on my State Department-sponsored tour, and preferred the less-congested South Island, which has less than a million people.

OK, you’re saying, this is a car column — when are we going to get to the cars? Here we go: New Zealand has the second-highest rate of car ownership in the world (guess who’s first?), and in Auckland that translates to nearly one car for every two people. Cheap Japanese imports make car ownership available to nearly everyone. The country’s nearly as car-dependent as the U.S., and only 2 percent of Auckland’s population uses public transportation — one of the lowest usage figures in the world, even lower than Los Angeles.

In the 1950s, some 58 percent of Auckland’s commuters used public transit, and as Green Party member of Parliament Sue Kedgley points out, a far-sighted plan was developed to electrify the rail lines and build a subway that would be integrated with the existing bus system. Instead, the plan was shelved in favor of a California-designed motorway grid that was only partly completed, leaving gridlock as the inevitable result. Today, 40 percent of Auckland’s land area is devoted to cars, and air quality has drastically deteriorated (the nitrogen dioxide levels are comparable to London’s).

Eighteen months ago, frustrated Aucklanders elected a new mayor, John Banks, who campaigned on the promise that he would end their woes by completing the old highway plan. I met Banks and his lively transit chief, Greg McKeown, at the mayor’s office on Queen Street, and I was pleased to see that the city does have plans that extend beyond motorways, including a possible light rail system and plans for faster bus service using cleaner hybrid electric buses. McKeown wants a free shuttle bus for downtown Auckland, modeled in part on the electric bus shuttle in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Unfortunately, Auckland needs to study another model: Boston, where a relatively simple highway plan has spiraled into one of the world’s largest public works projects, jumping from $2.5 billion to more than $15 billion and sucking up every transit dollar in Massachusetts. Auckland plans to spend only about $600 million, but highway costs are hard to contain. There may simply be no money left when city planners discover the truism that it’s impossible to build out of congestion.

What usually happens? Look at L.A., where the highway grid was completed long ago. Development and opportunistic drivers are attracted by new, clear motorways and quickly increase vehicle miles traveled, leaving the roads as congested as before.

The Louis Vuitton Cup races were on when I was in Auckland, and the port restaurants were crammed with tourists enjoying one of the city’s few car-free zones. As the Greens‚ Kedgley points out, Europe’s pedestrian-friendly smart growth model is the best one for Auckland. "Cities like Amsterdam are bustling with pavement caf�s, street entertainers and people enjoying themselves," she says.

Exactly. New Zealand is for the most part a clean and green country; let’s hope it hasn’t met its match in the omnipresent automobile.