Saturday 30 December 2017

A Guide to Buying an E-bike

Earlier this year in September, my girlfriend and I hired some e-bikes from Switched On Bikes down in Wellington. We spent a pretty glorious day riding around Wellington, even if Google Maps thinks we rode our bikes over the water a few times and went through the restricted airport space:

We managed to ride the bikes for about 6 or 7 hours without getting tired, going up and down a couple of big hills, and still had plenty of charge left at the end of the day – I was hooked! When I got back to Auckland, I started researching e-bikes and saving up…

It turns out that the massive range of e-bikes is a bit overwhelming – without really knowing very much them, it’s hard to know what the difference is between the bikes, and why some bikes are so much more expensive than others. Different shops have a different variety of brands, and then there are the really cheap bikes you can find on TradeMe, and it definitely left me thinking “I just don’t understand why the pricing is so different for bikes that seem to have similar specs”. E-bikes are not cheap, so I feel like you should spend a decent amount of time doing your research to make sure you’re making the right purchase and getting a good deal (just like if you were buying a car). I ended up spending almost three months sporadically doing my research and talking to people before I arrived at a shortlist to take to some e-bike shops.

So in this article, I’ll discuss the factors that most significantly influenced my final choice of e-bike. I’ll try to keep it short, but that’s really not my strong suit, so apologies for that in advance. Probably the most important thing to do first is to identify your use case. A daily commute from Te Atatu to the CBD is very different to the occasional ride on the weekend and has very different needs. In my case, I live in Newmarket and need to get to the CBD and back about 3-5 days a week. Regularly struggling up Symonds Street was one of the big motivating factors in getting an e-bike. It’s a reasonably short commute, but I also found that since I don’t have a car, I would limit myself socially to not go too far away in case I didn’t have enough energy to bike home, so it would be good to be able to do the occasional longer trip to attend events and visit friends. Overall, I’m not really looking for a bike that will do a long commute every day, but I do want something that could do longer trips if needed. Also hills. The e-bike has to be able to handle (relatively big) hills.

Folding vs Non-Folding
My parents live on the North Shore, so something that initially influenced my choice was the portability of the bike. At the moment, I do walk-bus-walk to get to theirs, and it would be nice if that could be cycle-bus-cycle instead (until the Skypath is eventually finished perhaps). You can take folding bikes on the bus, and full-sized bikes are only allowed on trains and ferries. Folding bikes take up much less space, and you might feel better about the security of your bike if you can store it under your desk at work rather than leaving it outside where the likelihood of theft is unreasonably high. They’re also a bit lighter, which can help if you have difficulty carrying or lifting heavy things. On top of that, folding bikes can be cheaper since they’re smaller, with the Onya F-19 priced at $2350 (vs. about $2750 for the equivalent full-size Onya SH1). The SmartMotion E20 is also a popular folding option.

However, the size is also the biggest downside of the folding bikes – most of them have 20” wheels (or even 16”) in comparison to the >26” of the full-size bikes. It turns out that the size of the wheels shouldn’t have much impact on the performance of the bike as you can probably get to the same speed on both with similar motors, but the smaller bikes have a much worse ride quality. The bigger wheels are better able to absorb the potholes and uneven surfaces of Auckland roads better (although not completely), and after a long journey it can make a big difference to your level of enjoyment and happiness. So I think the general wisdom is that you should only choose the folding bike if you have space or weight limitations (for example, if you live in an apartment block or need to carry the bike up flights of stairs regularly, or you’re really really keen on multi-mode transport and want to take it on the bus). In pretty much all other cases, a full-size bike will be more comfortable and enjoyable to ride.

When it comes to the motor, there are two important numbers to look out for: the voltage and the power (in Watts). In NZ, most motors are 24V, 36V, or 48V, with the vast majority being 36V. The main difference here is how much pep the motor can give – when the motor goes, with a higher voltage motor you’ll feel more acceleration and it might do better on hills. However, in the vast majority of cases, 36V is enough and the main reason to upgrade to 48V is if you want, well, more. 48V costs more too, and it’s probably not worth it for most commuters because of the speed limits.

In terms of the power, most motors are either 250W or 300W. Since 300W is the legal limit in NZ for electric bicycles on the road (before they become classified as electric scooters and you need a bunch more safety stuff), if you see a bike with more then it’s probably intended for off-road use only. Of course, the police aren’t actually checking every bike and probably won’t notice unless they see you speeding down the road at 60km/h, but if you do that it’s obviously much less safe and you do it at your own risk (I don’t endorse or encourage this at all, 30km/h is plenty fast for me). There’s a lot of debate about what the number of W on the motor actually means (whether it’s peak or continuous or whatever) and sometimes this number can be misrepresented to make it look better than it actually is, so you may need to be careful with cheaper bikes/brands that might not be telling the full truth with this number. In my opinion, you pretty much want 300W if you can get it – anything over $2500 is likely to be at 300W (or more).

I read an interesting article somewhere that helped me understand the difference the motor power makes by talking about it in terms of total power output. A person riding a bicycle needs to generate a certain amount of power in order to get it moving (and keep it moving), pushing against the various forces like friction, gravity when going up hills, and drag when it’s windy. An average cyclist is probably producing about 100-200W of power, and the motor power goes on top of what is being produced by the cyclist. The motor is not actually drawing 300W all the time (it goes up and down as needed) since the power generated is partly dependent on the level of assistance that you’ve selected, you need more power to exert the same force because you’ve got a motor and a battery making the bike heavier, and when you feel the motor also producing power then you instinctively produce less to compensate. In general, it means that the cyclist can generate less power and still get the same total power output for the overall system. So I think the biggest thing for me is that this means you can go much further while outputting less power, which means you get less tired!

Battery Capacity
The battery is generally the most expensive component on the bike, so getting a bigger or smaller battery makes a big difference to the overall price. The most important number here is the capacity, usually measured in Amp-hours (Ah). If you find a bike that lists the capacity in Watt-hours (Wh), then find the voltage of the motor, and divide the capacity by that voltage to convert it to Ah (based on P=IV). The capacity influences the range of the bike, i.e. how far you’ll be able to ride before you need to recharge. The capacity alone doesn’t determine the range though – it’s also dependent on the weight of the rider (and any luggage), as well as the level of assist being produced by the motor. @tslumley notes that the elevation of any hills you have to climb affects your battery use more than the distance. The general rule of thumb in NZ seems to be that to calculate the range (very approximately), you multiply the capacity in Ah by 5km, assuming an average-ish weight and a medium level of assist (level 2/3 out of 5). Most entry-level e-bikes come with a 10.6Ah battery by default, which means that you can get a range of approximately 50km. Remember that you probably want to get home as well, so unless you can charge the battery at your destination (which can take 4-6 hours), you probably need to divide that range by two to decide how far away you can go from your house. Always be a bit wary of the range advertised in marketing material, as sometimes this might be based on flat roads only or be otherwise misleading.

In my case, a 10.6Ah battery probably could have been sufficient, but the other thing to remember is that the capacity is also likely to weaken slightly over time as the battery gets older. This really shouldn’t happen that quickly (and most modern batteries should support over 1000 charge cycles), but I didn’t want to get too small a battery, and then have to replace it or upgrade it sooner when it no longer met my needs. I’d also rather not have to worry about the battery capacity too much, and just go as far as I want within Auckland. I opted for a 15.6Ah battery upgrade, taking both of those factors into account. You can get even bigger ones if you want to go further, and if you end up with a bike with a 48V motor then you should definitely get a bigger battery.

Generally, the motor only engages when you are pedalling (which is the root of a common European name for e-bikes, “pedelecs”). This is totally fine, except for when you’ve stopped at traffic lights on a hill, left your bike in a high gear, and then need to push off when the lights go green. Actually, with the extra weight of the battery and the motor, even starting from rest can be a bit challenging if you’re not already on a downhill slope. F=ma, so you have to generate the most force when you are accelerating from rest in comparison to when you are just continuing on at the same velocity, and W=Fd, so more force when moving from rest means more work is done (energy is spent), and therefore more power is needed. Hurrah for high school physics!

Chances are, you'll struggle to get to speed at traffic lights and the cars around you might get angsty, and it usually takes a second or so for the system to recognise that you’re pedalling and make the motor go. Most new bikes now come with throttles, which you can twist on the handlebar to tell the motor to turn on and push forward without you pedalling. A throttle helps in the hill start scenario a lot (or even just pushing off normally), as you get up to speed a lot faster and with less effort. You could theoretically just ride around with the throttle like a scooter, but this drains the battery a lot so you’re massively reducing the range if you do this (and constantly drawing power like that is not so great for the lifespan of the battery or motor). In my opinion, having a throttle is super important and is one of those features that can make or break having a good time on the e-bike, especially when you’re riding around a city with lots of stopping at traffic lights and intersections.

Cadence vs Torque Sensor
Oddly, this is something that I think matters a lot that many people don't talk about. E-bikes will have a sensor attached to the bike that allows the computer to figure out how much power the motor should produce to assist the cyclist. I’m going to massively simplify the two types of sensor here because the physics gets a bit more complicated, but there are simple-ish explanations of the difference here and here.

A cadence sensor essentially works by measuring the revolutions of the chain or wheel and using that to determine the speed of the bike. The first effect of this is that the level of assistance is based primarily on your speed, and the motor will just try to give you a boost up to the target speed. This can have unintended effects, like if you are pedalling slowly just before getting to a downhill bit and then the motor suddenly kicks in and propels you forward. The second effect is that when you start pedalling, you have to do up to one revolution manually before the system can recognise you’re moving and kick in with the motor. This can make pushing off harder, and the power can feel a lot more sudden and surprise you.

A torque sensor, on the other hand, measures the level of force that you’re applying to the pedal, and the computer then tells the motor to produce a proportional level of boost. In contrast to the cadence sensor, this is not based on the speed but based on how hard you’re pedalling, so it generally feels a bit more natural because it is amplifying your effort. Additionally, the motor kicks in almost immediately when you start pedalling, so there is no awkward delay trying to get the first revolution.

The problem is that torque sensors are more expensive, so you usually only find them on higher-end bikes (the cheapest one I found with a torque sensor was the Onya SH-1 Cross, priced at just under $3000). In my opinion, if you have a throttle, then you can mitigate most of the downsides of having a cadence sensor by using the throttle to manually tell the motor to start helping. I tried bikes with both, and the torque sensor definitely feels nicer, but if you can’t afford it (like me) then the cadence sensor is still good enough. @AlastairGSmith says that a mid-drive motor (with a Shimano or Bosch system) has better pedal assist so that a throttle is unnecessary, and is slightly more efficient too.

Weight Distribution
There’s a lot of argument about mid-drive vs. rear-drive motors and downtube/mid-mount batteries vs. rear-mount batteries, how that affects the weight distribution of the bike, and how that therefore affects the performance and ride quality. A lot of people care about this apparently. To be honest, this was one of the least important factors for me because, at the end of the day, the largest impact on the bike’s weight is the cyclist. The motors are generally not too heavy, so I really don’t think mid vs rear-drive makes a huge difference, but I could be persuaded that the positioning of the battery is maybe more significant. The batteries are a couple of kgs (mine feels like it could be 6 or 7kg), but at least in my (very limited) experience, the mounting position hasn’t affected the ride too much. However, it does affect how easily you can lift or carry the bike, and with bikes that have both the motor and battery on the rear, it can make it a bit trickier to pick up the bike because it’s so back-heavy.

Build Quality and Design
I’m basically lumping everything else together in here, and sometimes it’s just the little things that can make a big difference. On the Magnum Ui5, you have to turn the lights on and off by pushing buttons on the lights themselves (which you probably can’t safely reach while riding), and the rear light is completely separate and needs separate batteries. On the SmartMotion e-City or e-Urban, the lights are connected to the main computer so they draw power from your main battery and you can turn it on or off from the handlebar. Not usually a big deal, but it’s just a minor detail that makes the e-City/Urban a bit more usable on a regular basis.

The positioning of the brakes and the gear levers can make the bike easier or harder to use – sometimes everything is just cramped too tightly together because there’s not enough handlebar real estate. Some bikes have really awful computer interfaces (the worst one I saw was literally just a couple of LED lights for battery level and assist level), while others have fancier LCD screens that display a lot more information (including odometry and expected range). You might care about the number of gears available, especially if you do sometimes want to ride the bike without electric assistance (a lot of the cheaper ones only have 5-8 gears, while the Magnum Mi5 has a full 21!). Some bikes have built-in rear wheel locks which make them much harder to steal because the thief can't ride the bike away. Some bikes have the battery built into the bike so it can’t be taken out and stolen, but it also means that you can’t separately charge the battery without the bike. Some bikes come with a rear rack so that you can add pannier bags easily. Some bikes come with bells and drink bottle holders. Some bikes have better cable protection than others (the bad ones look a bit flimsy and if a cable gets cut or frayed, it’s probably going to be a bad time). For most of these little things, the only way to really find out about them is to give the bike a test ride, and to get some advice from the people selling the bikes to find out what issues they’ve noticed in the past.

The last thing that’s really important is the general availability of the brand and people willing to service those brands. This is probably the most important reason to stay away from the very cheap end of the market because if you have an issue with one of those, chances are no one will be able to source replacement parts for you (especially if you buy it online from overseas instead of from a brick-and-mortar shop). If you can find the brand being sold by multiple shops, then that’s probably better long-term as it can give you some ability to shop around (both in terms of the initial purchase and in terms of servicing).

Of course, everything else is superseded by a fixed budget of what you can afford. In my mind, there are a couple of classes of e-bikes that you can aim for: there are the cheap bikes from unknown manufacturers that don’t have any good reputation and are a risky purchase that sit around $1500-2000, entry-level bikes that go from about $2500-$3000, and then “good” bikes like the SmartMotion Pacer which are $3500-$5000. Beyond that, we’re talking bikes that are probably being used for off-road mountain biking purposes that are really expensive, in the $6000+ range.

After saving for awhile and dipping into my savings, I had a budget of about $2700 for a new e-bike. I did check TradeMe, and even won an auction for a relatively new but second-hand bike for $1400, but the seller in Blenheim never replied to any of my e-mails so I assumed the trade was off (and in retrospect, I would have been pretty nervous about sending that amount of money in case it was a scam). I did also consider getting an e-bike kit and installing it on my existing bike, but decided that my $100 fourth-hand bike is already old enough and has enough issues like certain joints being rusted tight that I might as well get a new bike.

Evolution Cycles did have a 10% sale for Boxing Day too, which messed with the economics a little bit but ultimately wasn’t enough to put the next class of bikes within reach. Financing can change what is and isn’t affordable if you're okay with regular payments instead, but I learnt a personal finance rule that you should never go into debt for depreciating assets because you generally lose money in the long-run, so I would rather buy the bike outright. As a plus, Mercury Energy has been trying to encourage people to use e-bikes, and their customers are eligible for discounts on a pretty wide range of bikes from most e-bike shops. The discount is usually $250, although for certain models the discount goes up to $500.

Actually Buying the Bike
I went to a couple of different shops to have some chats, and it was helpful in the sense that they were able to answer some of my questions about things like ride quality and give recommendations, but also unhelpful in the sense that different salespeople gave contradictory advice. For example, one salesperson said that the Magnum Ui5 was the most popular e-bike in NZ and outsold everything else by a factor of five, while at a different store they said that Magnum bikes were pretty poorly designed and actively steered potential customers away from them (even though they had them in stock too). Another salesperson was talking quite quickly and pressuring me into making fast decisions. I think the lesson here is to just take everything that you hear from the salespeople with a grain of salt and be careful – you’re the one spending a lot of money, so take your time (which you are entitled to) and don’t let a salesperson force you into a decision that you’ll regret later.

After test riding a couple of bikes, I settled on the Onya SH-1 Cross at Bikes and Barbers Newmarket, mostly because it has a torque sensor and I was told that the price was $2750 (which in retrospect, did seem like a “too good to be true” deal). It turns out that the pricing was wrong (actually $2990 with a 13Ah battery, and it would have cost about $3250 in the configuration that I wanted with a bigger battery and maybe a 48V motor). They couldn’t sell me the bike that cheaply (they're good people, everyone makes mistakes sometimes), so I switched to a SmartMotion e-Urban instead. The e-Urban and e-City bikes are essentially the same except for the frame (the e-City is step-thru while the e-Urban is, uh, not). The e-Urban and e-City bikes are very popular, and have also been battle-tested as hire bikes for several operators over long periods of time. As a bonus, SmartMotion bikes are designed in New Zealand too, and use the same underlying drive system that NZ Post uses for their e-bikes.

I’ve ridden it for two days so far, and I’m enjoying it a lot. It is quite back heavy, which is fine when riding but makes carrying it up and down steps a bit difficult. The wide battery at the back also makes it a bit harder to get on the bike, with an increased likelihood of whacking your shin on it if you’re not careful, which might be an argument in favour of the step-thru frame on the e-City. Once I got used to the throttle, riding has been really easy, and I’m able to maintain an average of about 25km/h on most roads, and about 15km/h on some pretty steep hills. I’ve travelled approximately 15km so far on the first full charge, and still have about 80% of the battery left (mostly on an assist level of 2 or 3 out of 5).

Hopefully, this article has been somewhat helpful to someone! I’m always happy to try and answer any questions that you might have about e-bikes if you’re thinking of buying (although I’m still not as knowledgeable as the people in the shops) – you can find me on Twitter as @andrewtychen.

Friday 22 September 2017

A Policy A Day: A Conclusion

The list of articles in this series is available here.

Another election, another series of policy analyses coming to an end. We’ve looked at 33 policies (plus an introduction, three satire pieces, and a conclusion), covering a really really really broad range of topics. Something that always surprises me is just how broad the scope of government really is – we covered twenty-four policies last time, yet the only topic that we’ve covered again is universal basic income. Every single other policy has been different. Also interesting – I think of the 24 pieces from last time, about 22 of them are still relevant – the issues that those policies were trying to solve still exist, and most of the policies we analysed haven’t been implemented. Of course, this is partly because a lot of the policies we analysed last time came from parties that didn’t enter government after the election, but it’s interesting to think about just how much policy never becomes reality. We’ll keep all of the posts from A Policy A Day 2017 here, and hopefully this resource will be helpful and relevant for years to come if anyone is interested in any of these topics.

A huge thank you to all the other authors for contributing pieces this time around. It meant that I didn’t have to write twelve pieces like I did last time, but it also meant that we were able to hear a lot more different voices. I wasn’t particularly prescriptive with the writing style or content requirements, and editing all the pieces has been an interesting experience, just seeing the wide variety of ways that these policy pieces can be written. All of our authors were (relatively) young, and all of them are engaged with how policies and decisions are made – we need more people like these.

I don’t want to spend too much space summing up, because I also asked each of our guest authors to answer the question “if you could tell the incoming government one thing, what would it be?” A lot of authors struggled with this (mostly finding it difficult to reduce it down to one thing), but hopefully we have here some sense of what (some) youth would like the government to do, no matter who happens to be in charge after Saturday.

Nicole Buxeda (Water Pricing):
Value what we have, not turn away from the difficult conversations, and follow those difficult conversations up with action. When you look at statistics for pollution, water quality, air quality, rate of extinction of native species, and a myriad more, the entire picture is depressing. It is easier to decide that the problem is just too huge, that New Zealand is doing comparatively well, and that we will just leave things as they are. This is not an acceptable approach to take. The government needs to look at the problems, and grit their collective teeth and deal with these problems by working with businesses, communities, and individuals in a way that embraces our natural values and supports communities. We are in a position, through merit of our political, economic and social system, where we can be more than ‘ok’, and in fact we must be more than ok in order to preserve species, clean rivers, drinkable water, clean air, and the beauty and life and soul that is New Zealand.

Jason Armishaw (Fiscal Drag and A Fiscal Apocalypse - Superannuation):
The effects of an individual policy are wider and broader than the solution that they are meant to be targeting, there is no policy "area". Environmental policy affects economic policy, law and order and healthcare. Deep analysis needs to be done to prevent merciless unintended consequences in another part of the state sector.

Anonymous (Humanising Criminal Justice):
Listen to people who are already doing the mahi, and who have first-hand experience of the problems you're trying to fix. The solutions are nearer than you think and don't require rocket science.

Pasan Jayasinghe and Sahanika Ratnayake (Immigration: A Personal Retrospective):
This is a frighteningly dire time in world politics for reasons they should be well aware of, and they should be extremely wary of dragging New Zealand down the same frightening road.

Claire Black (Trans Rights):
Do your jobs: support and protect New Zealand’s most vulnerable.

Elliot Hurst (Degrowth for Aotearoa):
It’s politically expedient to keep muddling along, but our current approach to politics and economics is driving us off a cliff, or at least to some scary fortress world of crippling inequality and authoritarianism. Read up on climate science, understand decolonisation, and use your power to push things forward.

Dhanya Herath (Refugees and Asylum Seekers):
Focus on creating a world for your children's children, not tomorrow's press release - and above all else, be kind.

Ben Tan (A Vision for The Arts and An Alternative Model for Policy Making):
Never forget that your duty is to look after the New Zealanders of yesterday, today, and tomorrow (no matter what they look or sound like).

Jenny Sahng (Tertiary Education Pathways):
If we could provide a fair and equally accessible education system that nurtures our youth to their fullest potential, imagine the world we could live in. Equip young Kiwis with the resilience and mindset to become lifelong learners, both in the classroom and out in the workforce. Instill confidence in their unique set of skills and abilities, and show them how to use it to contribute in their own extraordinary way. Education is a panacea, and I want to see a government that patiently invests in it for the long run.

Ash Stanley-Ryan (New Zealand’s Role in Asia):
Be aware that none of their policies or promises exist in isolation. If you change home ownership rules, you're going to affect our FTAs. If you make the penal system stricter, you're going to negatively affect society's most vulnerable people. Think about the flow-ons from the policies you've campaigned on, not just the buzzwords that drew you the votes, and make policy packages that address the entire issue, not just your talking point.

Anonymous (America’s Cup Broadcasting):
There are lots of important issues to tackle but one of the most significant is mental health in New Zealand. We are simply losing too many people, especially young ones. Don’t let political goals inhibit your response because those most vulnerable simply cannot afford further delay and need meaningful support now.

Phoebe Balle (Treaty Education in Schools):
Please comply with your responsibilities under the Treaty and UNDRIP. Many thanks.

Simon Johnson (Teach First):
“All glory is fleeting.” Seriously though, getting stuff done in government is hard. Set a few well defined and ambitious goals and throw everything into achieving them.

Jade Kake (Urban Development Authorities):
Prioritise Māori outcomes. Not just because we are overrepresented amongst those experiencing homelessness, living in substandard housing, and locked out of home ownership; but because we are your equal partners under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and equality between Māori and tauiwi is good for everyone ngā iwi katoa.

Simon Thomas (Universal Basic Income):
Proponents of a UBI are not solely from the left or from the right. A UBI has the potential to address issues of welfare, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship. Experiments are beginning to pop up all over the world, with varying success, and it seems to me that NZ - being an innovative, small, and self-labelled “forward thinking” country - should be the perfect place to test it further. Also, I quite like smashed avo.

Anonymous (Incarceration and Privatisation):
There are people living in New Zealand in less than ideal situations, and they need a government that allows and encourages them to speak up, without fear of support being taken away from them.

Zoe Higgins (Sickness and Disability Benefits):
Money put into social services pays itself back. Climate change is real, and if you aren’t taking urgent action you don’t understand what that means. Honour the Treaty.

Jack Robinson (Software Patents):
I think the best thing is to think about the future and to be open about cross-generation discussions on what affects them most - Climate Change, for example, may not affect your generation enough, but it’s the generations that follow that will inevitably have to pick up the pieces, and it’s up to you to help set up following generations and be prepared.

Charlotte Austin (Relationship Testing for Benefits):
We need strong leadership that isn’t afraid to make unpopular choices if it’s best for New Zealand and the world’s long-term future. The intergenerational effects of climate change could be devastating, and we need to take action now.

Erin Donohue (Youth Sexuality Education):
Sometimes everyone needs looked after and it is always deserved, regardless of how or why they need the care.

Maanya Tandon (Genderand Ethnicity Income Equity):
You may only be around for three years, but the best things in New Zealand have been crafted by those governments that looked further ahead than their immediate term, and wider than their own electoral base. ALL human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights – this is something you literally signed, and should probably remember.

Patrick Thomsen (Pasifika Advancement):
Assimilation is not integration and diversity in population make up doesn't make for diverse policies. In our rush to close the gap between the haves and have nots, please don't forget the glaringly obvious -ethnicity matters just as much as class difference. Both impact each other and understand this will be the key to unlocking future Pasifika success and advancement.

Mark Hanna (Informed Consent in Healthcare):
We can have the best rules in the world, but if they're not enforced they may as well not exist. Or, worse, those rules can give the impression that a problem has been solved when really it's just being ignored.

Lamia Imam (Addressing Homelessness):
Curbing human rights never made any nation stronger, wealth inequality never made a country richer, justice should not be revenge, and forced pregnancy is not moral. A government should do all that it can do so its people can live their best lives.

Lauren Watson (Mental Healthcare):
Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi. With your food basket and my food basket, together we can feed the people. The lead up to the election divides us on what we care about, but we all want New Zealander to thrive, and it’s important to recognise that have an obligation to ensure everybody is fed.

Ben Ogilvie (Public Service Reform):
We can afford to fully fund Gender Reassignment Surgeries, and it would do so, so much good if we did.

Elina Ashimbayeva (Life Skills):
Not everyone will like one party and that’s OK, but it is important not to polarise our society on the basis of party policies. Also, ask what people want more often. Don’t rely on the loudest voices of groups or individuals.

Last time around I said that the election was very interesting, yet somehow this one topped it. With so much volatility, we can only hope that we have some calm, smooth sailing ahead. If you've read all of the posts, then well done you! A lot of words have been written and I'm glad that someone's been reading them. But this series has to come to an end, so thank you once again to the guest writers and also thank you to the readers for giving us an audience.

Thursday 21 September 2017

A Policy A Day: Life Skills

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is written by Elina Ashimbayeva

Life Skills, or "Being Competent At Life And Not Being A Dick"

The Opening (just in case I go on a tangent and it might take some time to understand what this article is about)
  • Teaching life skills at schools and at home should be as important as teaching our kids how to read, write, and hate our “favourite” neighbours’ children who leave their toys on our lawn
  • It is crucial to have politicians as leaders to embody the change towards happier lives and to help people help themselves
  • Politicians should be talking about job enjoyment, life choices, empathy, respect, and decision making and not just about getting “damn immigrants” out of our country or how mining will definitely kill all the dolphins in the nearby gulf

The Tangent
All of us, A Policy A Day authors, wrote so many wonderfully worded, life embedded, issues-and-actions-focused articles coming up to this election. We had people talking about immigration, poverty, education, job markets, disabilities, and other massively important things to consider. We have tried to provoke your thinking, to make you smile, to make you angry, to take responsibility for your choices. Oh, and we tried to show you how our political parties are doing on each front!

A couple of days ago, I had a conversation with my boyfriend when he said: “if we keep propelling the economy forward (whether it is launching cheaper rockets or building more green cars), humanity will follow that economy and it will eventually have to thrive.”

My response to that was: “who cares about the economy when people are miserable?”

Don’t you think if we put more strength and determination into helping others be more life-equipped, the economy would propel itself forward because now people who were hungry have “more exciting” things to do?

When reading this article, you won’t see many references to the political situation in New Zealand, but I hope to provoke your thinking and take responsibility, to hopefully intertwine politics and life.

The Body (section where I explain the situation or possibly go on another tangent)
Being competent at life, in my definition is: to be able to thrive and search for happiness (in any shape you see fit) and not only manage to not hurt others in the process but maybe even help them to thrive for their definition of happiness too.

Introducing an educational standard on life skills would be a great first step to a more wholesome society.

We spend hours, days, years of our life being educated. Educated by our parents, by our teachers, lecturers, bosses, ourselves. As kids, we learn how to count, how to dress ourselves, how to throw a ball, which are all undoubtedly very important. But do we learn how to be proud of our own and others’ achievements? How to empathise? How to live a life where Friday is just another awesome day amongst other 6 awesome days? How to be compassionate? How to respect and admire someone? How to accept people’s sexual choices? How to accept yours?

So, Elina, what should we be teaching and who should be teaching this?
Empathy, communication, goal setting, decision making, conflict resolution, knowing how to ask for help, compassion, gratitude, ecological responsibility - all these skills are critical for living and leading a more mindful life.

I am not minimising the task that is changing a school curriculum, but no big challenge is an easy one. The good news is we have plenty of examples to learn from and research to support this. The Greater Good Science Centre in Berkeley is a leader in this space. They have created an entire community that promotes ‘happiness’ education: research driven and practical examples of how to appropriately incorporate emotional well-being and growth focused approaches into schools and the broader community.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education and multiple other research facilities have shown that teaching positive life-skills to young people at any level not only correlates to their overall better mental state and well-being but even improves their grades.

The job of encouraging our younger generation and thus, our entire generation to be more life-skilled is not on one person’s or one group’s shoulders. We are all responsible, but starting from teaching basic human skills at schools would be a great first step.

What can we do now?
Selecting and more importantly, being leaders of change. As a country, we are far from the idyllic curriculum described on The Ministry of Education’s website. Nevertheless, we are making great progress.

Among many programmes that I might be not aware of or haven’t listed here, we are already doing some wonderful things:
  •  Attitude is an awesome community involved in giving talks on resilience and direction at schools
  •  We have organisations like RainbowYouth that attend schools to promote mental well-being of LGBTI youth and to promote awareness and empathy among students
  •  The Shadow a Leader programme gives opportunities to students (school and University) to learn and connect with people from outside of their environment and get to know more about life ‘after studying’
  •  Motivational festivals like Festival for the Future that bring together many young minds together to inspire and motivate and lead
  •  Great online resources like this one for parents to actively participate in their children’s mental health and well-being
Let’s continue developing these programmes and make them more accessible to all youth in New Zealand. All the initiatives mentioned above operate privately and are not governmentally enforced, advertised uniformly throughout our schools, or part of our curriculum. The government has a role and responsibility to do more.

Yes, yes, we are putting tablets and all that digital stuff into our classrooms, but this holistic view is way more encompassing than that. Imagine having an hour a week when teachers talk about the importance of values and decision making. Or kids doing empathy exercises and talking about the emotional aspects of life.

What about a country wide approach to happiness? The NZTA managed to run one of the best social campaigns ever (“Bro…Monique says you are dumb”) - what about having national campaigns promoting well-being and fulfilment? Imagine what effect that could have on New Zealand!

For some of you reading this, the concept of having a “holistic” education or well-being or life-skills or happiness will sound not only foreign but in a way, offensively hippie. I am writing this because I see people every day who know they could be happier (whatever it means for them) but they are not always equipped to explore it. I grew up amongst beautiful smart individuals, but half of them are taking antidepressants. Most of them chose a job as if they just threw a dart into the air and they feel trapped in their careers. I read case studies from social workers that describe a very different world from what a lot imagine New Zealand to be… We are investing into degrees, cancer treatments, and better roads. What we should be also investing in more is happier people.

This year’s election showed many policies proposed by different parties around funding and quality of education. They are all great policies and this election doesn’t have to answer every single issue we are facing, but happiness is something that all of the parties have been conspicuously silent on.

The Closing Paragraph (so you know you can finally go back to memes)
I hope this article didn’t sound too hippie or too unrealistic, and you are a bit encouraged to go out in the world and advocate for better leadership and human-ship in your life and the lives of others. I encourage you to go and watch at least one YouTube video on life-skills or well-being education, and learn a bit more on how you can be the change we all need.

Elina Ashimbayeva pretends to like exercise, consulting, and science. At night, she laughs at Facebook memes while eating too much chocolate. Cries when sees bunnies.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

A Policy A Day: Public Service Reform

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Ben Ogilvie

Public service reform – how parties are planning to run and/or change the government that they’ll take over after the election. I fully expect to get half the hits of my fellow authors, but give me a chance here. The public service is what delivers a lot of the government’s services to New Zealand citizens, and is in charge of contracting most of the rest. Further, it’s the area of government responsible for giving Cabinet advice on what to do, and what not to do. So its effectiveness and proper functioning clearly make a hell of a difference to people’s lives [1]. When you stop to think about it, public administration is, I’d argue, the least stable policy area in New Zealand, changing up a little with every government since the 1980s. There have been reforms which essentially define, according to your opinion of them, whether you’re left or right wing in this country even today.

Those reforms (introducing a very contractual approach to employment in the public service; the privatisation of state owned assets; use of market systems in some areas of regulation such as the fisheries quota; and disaggregation of government departments) were the application of neoclassical economic theory to the business of running the country – often talked about as ‘New Public Management’ (NPM for short). New Zealand is well-known in the international academic literature for being the most comprehensive and ‘pure’ in its adoption of an NPM approach. It was, in some ways, an understandable move. The new Labour government had inherited a ‘command and control’-style public service that wasn’t really fit-for-purpose to address the modern challenges that were emerging. The public service wasn’t all that inclined to do what the government of the day wanted from it, and needed a hell of a shakeup. The NPM approach was what Treasury, quietly ignored, had been cooking up over the last few years under Muldoon, and could serve up as a ready-made solution. The Bolger/Shipley governments after 1993 pushed NPM further, until the Schick Report in 1996 suggested that while the reforms had solved a number of problems well, they’d created a whole new set of problems that were, perhaps, starting to get slightly out of hand.

The Clark government through the 2000s took the position that the public service needed to be reinvested in, and oversaw the “managing for outcomes” and “review from the centre” initiatives. Both attempted to fix the issues identified by the Schick Report, like overly siloed departments and agencies, and a focus on the outputs of government rather than its outcomes. Think, for example, of judging success on the number of state houses built in a given year (an output), rather than whether homelessness was actually reducing (an outcome), or kilometres of tar seal laid (an output), rather than whether congestion was decreasing (an outcome). It might surprise you to know that through the NPM period, government departments had judged their performance on outputs, and even that had only been the case since the reforms – before that, good performance was a matter of process, making sure all the forms were filled in right, budgets allocated correctly, and everyone was following the rules.

Of course, a number of public employees, as individuals, had been focused on outcomes for a while (especially in areas like social work and health, where the outcome for the citizen that the public servant works with is really the point), but the Clark government’s approach did start giving public managers permission to ‘do what needed to be done’: with significantly larger budgets than the Bolger/Shipley administration had offered them.

Since National came into government in 2008, we’ve seen quite a bit of reaggregation of government departments such as the creation of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (currently serving half of cabinet and referred to as a ‘super-ministry’ for some time after it was established), a marked tightening of the public budget, and perhaps most significantly the introduction of the ten Better Public Service (BPS) targets as a model for continuing the focus on outcomes and working cross-departmentally. The adoption of BPS as a model was surprisingly innovative – a government voluntarily set out a range of criteria to judge its own performance by, outside the pressures of an election. Regardless of what you think of the goals themselves [2], the explicit identification of the ten priorities across the whole of government seems to have been effective in encouraging inter-departmental work and a focus on the effects of interventions rather than the activity. The other major innovation is Whānau Ora, for which the Māori Party is mostly responsible. The way Whānau Ora adopts a contracted, 3rd-party service provider approach could be considered NPM orthodoxy. However, its use of primarily non-profit community organisations is a somewhat innovative take on the basic theory.

What’s next for the public service?
It turns out, that’s a bloody good question. There’s not a heck of a lot of published policy on the future of the public service this election. It seems like it’s not ‘sexy’ enough to warrant its own announcements, so even if parties do have a stance on it, they’re only talking about it in private – weird, right? I mean, who doesn’t vote on the minutiae of public services policy? But you can start to piece together an impression of parties’ desired directions from their other policies and announcements to date. An important caveat, however, is that often the devil lies in the details – a promise to provide free public transport could mean provision through either public or private providers, and then the way private contracts are structured can change significantly.

National have, earlier this year, committed to a new line-up of BPS targets, and have practically no information (so far as this author can glean) on any proposed changes they would make to the public service, so are likely to continue down the path they’re on now. That’s, well, not so surprising, given that they’re the government, and you’d hope had gotten most of the reforms they wanted to make done by now – if you’re still tinkering in years 10-12 of your government, you really need to ask yourself what you’ve been doing. Budget 2017 supports this; aside from the short-term boost of funding to several areas this year and next, increases to Core Crown Expenditure are projected to return to very similar levels over the next five years as it has been since 2008, which averaged out to just under 4% each year [3]. That’s a pretty tight belt for the public service if you remember that the population grows about 1% each year, and inflation can be 1-2%.

Uniquely this election, the Labour Party has a specific ‘Public Services’ policy package, but haven’t made any kind of radical reform a significant part of their platform. Interestingly, the ‘Community and Volunteer Sector’ policy which falls under that heading talks about using contracted service provision, lamenting that government under National has failed to differentiate between community/voluntary organisations and businesses when seeking to contract out government service provisions. It then goes on to pledge that a Labour government will seek to strengthen the sector significantly, and “explore aspects of Whanau Ora which can be transferred into the community and voluntary sector”, which suggests the potential for an expanded and perhaps more formalised role for organisations in the sector in delivering services for the government with significant support. Aside from that specific set of policies, the Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR), jointly announced with the Green Party, limit Core Crown Expenditure to around 30% of GDP. Going by Budget 2017, this suggests a maximum rise in government spending by around 2-3% of GDP and therefore some reinvestment would be needed.

The Greens themselves have no direct policy on public sector reform and, well, that’s pretty much it. A number of their policies use market-based instruments to achieve a range of outcomes, such as their Carbon Tax Cut to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and their stance on other issues such as health or education (notably advocating for better direct funding and opposing use of privatisation or markets in those sectors, such as Charter Schools) shies well away from market-based ideology. Their most applicable recent announcement is the aforementioned BRR, which overall suggests the Greens are likely to follow Labour’s lead if elected.

Probably the most directly applicable policy announcement to public sector reform from New Zealand First this election has been their commitment to re-establish the New Zealand Forestry Service. Not, though, that they’re really re-establishing a forestry service – more it’s a statement that they’ll return to an old-school ‘command and control’ approach to timber exportation. The most interesting bit is the ruling out of taxing timber imports (a market mechanism, which would be in-line with the NPM approach). Overall though, their direction seems oddly mixed, insisting on preventing asset sales at both central and local government, but at least for local government insisting that rates revenue only pays for half of new expenditure. Largely though the somewhat old-fashioned ‘command and control’ approach seems to echo through a few parts of their policies.

Before anyone comments about the unfairness of not including some of the other minor parties here: the Maori Party is pretty clear on its desire to continue Whanau Ora. Again, having been in government the last nine years, if it wanted or was able to get anything past the National Party it would have by now. ACT's 'Privatise All Of The Things Now, Markets for Everyone' doesn't need much elaboration.

The choice this election, then, if you, like me, vote mostly on the future of the public service, is between a continuation of the tight-belted status quo, or a potentially more community-partnered public service, with a more comfortable budget. There’s a side dish of slightly old-fashioned government, if you’re an New Zealand First fan, but even then, that influence would be limited by their minor party status. It’s a little unclear as to what the parties of the left make of BPS as a model, but the innovative Whānau Ora is almost definitely sticking around.

Ben Ogilvie is currently working on a Masters degree in Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington, and worked as a research assistant on the Deloitte State of the State report 2017. He has been a Green Party member since 2011 and plays D&D 5e as a level-3 Druid Gnome. His interests include: stopping climate change, dismantling systems of oppression, effective a-partisan public service, Mayer et al.’s framework for policy analysis, and dogs [Editor: Ben just lost ten friendship points, cats are the best].

[1] If, of course, you buy the narrative that government does make a difference to people’s lives, but if you don’t – you know this is a policy/politics blog, right? Why the hell are you here?
[2] Inb4 “reducing welfare numbers doesn’t mean getting people into work where are those people going” comments cos yes I know I’m a Green dude I’ve heard it all before chill out. I’m not judging the targets here, I’m judging their existence and role.
[3] See for tables showing that projection – I’m afraid you’ll have to do the math yourself.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

A Policy A Day: A Fiscal Apocalypse - Superannuation

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is written by Jason Armishaw

New Zealand Superannuation is a universal payment that every New Zealander is entitled to once they turn 65. This payment is given irrespective of the wealth, health status, or any other circumstances that might affect the individual. This payment is designed to give elderly people, particularly those without income, a payment so they don’t need to rely on their families or work in a way that is detrimental to their health. However, the ageing population is leading to a growing superannuation cost that has caused people to raise questions about its affordability in the long term.

While there has been some discussion this election on “fiscal holes”, superannuation is quickly becoming a fiscal apocalypse. Currently, we spend more on superannuation than we do on all other parts of social welfare combined. That means that every week, the government pays out more dollars to people over 65 than it pays out in dollars to anyone that receives any form of benefit payment. 17% of the Government budget is superannuation payments alone. To put some precise numbers on it we spend $13.7bn on Superannuation per year, while we spent $14bn on Education and $17.1bn on Health. Superannuation costs have been rising at approximately $1bn a year.

The New Zealand Treasury is required to project where the government books will be in 40 years in a “Long Term Fiscal Statement”. The most recent Long Term Fiscal Statement, released in 2016, outlined that if we don’t change superannuation it might swell to be as large as 50% of the government budget. At this level, the choice literally becomes “do we want public healthcare, public education, and social welfare, or do we want superannuation.” The ratio of kiwis over 65 to under 65 (who are able to pay taxes to support superannuation) is 1:5 right now, and this is expected to shrink to 1:2 by 2050. This means that half of the amount of tax our generation will pay will be given in cash to someone over 65.

There are a number of misconceptions about superannuation and it’s important to break all of them down.

Misconception 1 - This is a temporary problem caused by all the baby boomers
While baby boomers going through retirement is a contributing factor, the biggest driver of superannuation costs is the increase in life expectancy. When superannuation was first introduced in 1898, average life expectancy was only 54 for males. People that lived to 65 were quite old by that standard, and the government paid little in superannuation. Now, life expectancy is 83, meaning people spend (on average) 18 years, or a quarter of their lives, receiving superannuation.  That means that unless life expectancy drops, this problem is only going to get worse!

Misconception 2 – 2050? That’s ages away! We’ll fix it by then.
The reality is that we need to act now. You can’t just spring on a 64-year old that we are changing the age of eligibility to 70. People use superannuation to guide their retirement planning and savings decisions. This means that any decisions we make to superannuation need to be rolled out over a long period of time. There is realistically a 15-20 year lag to any changes in superannuation. If you add 6-9 years of relative inaction on the issues, 2050 starts to loom closely. Inaction by the Clark and Key governments means we need to make decisions quickly. Put simply, no politician can claim to represent young people or generational change if they do not support acting aggressively on this issue.

Misconception 3 – But don’t we have the Cullen Fund?
The New Zealand Superannuation Fund or “Cullen” Fund was created to be like a retirement savings account for the government; the government would contribute to the fund every year, that money would be invested, and we would then draw on it when baby boomers retired to cover their superannuation.

This idea would work if there was a temporary funding shortfall. but as we established earlier, this is an ongoing problem driven by people living longer. The Cullen fund might buy us time, but structural changes are still needed. Secondly, the cost of superannuation is projected to rise faster than the return rate of the fund, meaning the fund might not even operate effectively as a stopgap.

The final problem is that investing in the fund doesn’t make sense if the government is running deficit budgets (or increasing the amount of money that it borrows) such as when the country is in recession. Borrowing money to then save it is, by definition, not saving. Indeed, the current government paused its contributions to the Cullen Fund during the recession after the Global Financial Crisis. Some politicians have advocated for using the government’s low 3% borrowing rate to invest in the fund that returns 10% from their investments, but investing in the stock market is risky, and this is the equivalent of mortgaging your house to gamble in the stock market.

Party Policies
wants to raise the age of superannuation to 67 by 2040 (in small increments, six months a year from 2037). They also want to restart contributions to the Cullen fund when debt is less than 20% of GDP. This is minor tinkering on a long time frame. The biggest risk is that people then feel like this change “solves” the issue and are averse to more changes.

Labour and the Greens want to immediately restart contributions to the Cullen Fund, but have no policies in place to structurally change Superannuation. As stated above, the Cullen fund might buy us a bit of time, but more structural change is needed. Jacinda Ardern has stated that she would resign before she raised the age of superannuation.

New Zealand First wants to increase benefits to elderly. This is simply counterproductive. The Māori Party want a separate retirement age for Māori, as they have lower life expectancies and miss out on superannuation entirely. If Māori health outcomes improve, then this policy will worsen the superannuation crisis. If Māori health outcomes stagnate, then it would have no impact.

ACT want to start slowly raising the age of superannuation to 67 by 2032 (in small increments, two months a year from 2020). This policy is pretty aggressive, and people will struggle to change their retirement plans to meet this new rollout.

United Future’s policy is unchanged since the 2014 election, which we actually covered in A Policy A Day last time around. The Opportunities Party want to means-test superannuation, so that only poorer people who need state support receive it. This is one of the best practice potential solutions discussed below.

So what can work?
Means Testing
One of the big problems with superannuation is its universality; everyone gets it irrespective of how wealthy they are. People that earn millions a year and have large asset pools receive the same as someone who has relied on state support their whole life. Changing the universality of superannuation (along with other changes) so that only those who need it actually receive it would go a long way towards plugging the fiscal hole. However, changes to trust and companies law would be required to stop people being able to hide their wealth (though these are probably good changes anyway).

Tying the retirement age to life expectancy
As established, the biggest problem is that people are living longer, and thus receiving a larger number of superannuation payments over their lifetime. A strongly advocated idea is to tie the retirement age to life expectancy, meaning that on average everyone gets the same amount of superannuation. This would stop the massive cost increases in superannuation every year and keep cost fairly static.

Health Testing
Superannuation exists so that elderly people who are unable to work due to their age are provided for. This policy would remove superannuation and expand the health and disabilities benefits to compensate, treating elderly similar to any other kiwi that has a health condition. One counter-argument is that the health and disabilities processes are dehumanising, though this is perhaps actually an argument for humanising health and disabilities recipients.

Overall, if left unchecked, superannuation is going to destroy any possibility for investment in social services in New Zealand. Though we are not alone, most of the OECD have ageing populations and all of them need to think carefully about how they are going to fund their retirements in the future. Compared to the rest of the world, we are in an enviable fiscal position, but our leaders need to act boldly and quickly to ensure that remains the case.

Jason Armishaw is a graduate in Law and Economics from the University of Auckland, he has worked across the public and private sector at a number of institutions including the New Zealand Treasury and Deloitte. He currently works at a management consulting firm in Australia.

[1] Recent migrants have some requirements for living in New Zealand, and coming to New Zealand before a particular age.

Monday 18 September 2017

A Policy A Day: Public Transport Incentives

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is written by Bhen Goodsir

Public Transport is an enormously important aspect of city life. Public transport adds a lot to a city by reducing congestion and pollution, as well as providing social benefits. How public transport reduces congestion and pollution is reasonably obvious - public transport is much more space and fuel efficient than cars, and the more people who use public transport, the fewer cars there are on the road.

But the social benefits are also important. The Gold Card has been a hugely popular programme. In 2005, Winston Peters promised, and delivered, free off peak public transport for all New Zealanders over the age of 65. It’s the sort of thing that can easily be described as an “election bribe” – and it probably was – but the reality is that public transport provides independence to many people who aren’t able to drive or aren’t able to afford a car. Public transport improves social cohesion by ensuring almost everyone can get around the city.

In this election and the last, the Green Party has proposed to extend the free public transport offered in New Zealand through a youth equivalent of the Gold Card, called the Green Card.

The economics of public transport are a little different to the typical supply and demand economics that govern the purchase of a chocolate bar at the corner dairy. Public transport requires a huge amount of up-front investment – often funded in part by the government. While each passenger pays a fee, the marginal cost of each passenger is very low. By the time a person gets on a bus, the cost of the bus and the staff to run it have already been incurred. A bus with 5 people on it and one with 45 people on it cost roughly the same amount to run.

In New Zealand, much of our public transport system is either run or funded by the government in one way or another. In 2013, ticket fares only accounted for about 46% of the actual cost of running public transport. This means that the real cost of “free off-peak transport” isn’t necessarily as high as we might think. Most of the time it means buses that are already running could just be fuller.

This doesn’t mean we can overlook cost though. The Gold Card costs about $80 million a year. The Green Party argues that it’s pretty good value for money. Their ‘block of cheese’ metaphor highlights that $80m is the same cost as 1km of the National Party’s Roads of National Significance. The slight problem with this example is that the roading cost is much more of a one-off [Editor: arguable, maintenance is a significant cost too], whereas the cost of subsidised public transport must be paid every year.

“Off Peak” Travel
Both the Gold Card and the proposed Green Card come with a catch - the free public transport is only in off peak hours. That means that before 9am and between 3pm-6.30pm, you still have to pay for your ticket. There are a couple of good reasons for this policy.

In Auckland, nearly 70% of the roughly 255,000 daily public transport trips are taken during the ‘peak’ hours. This means that the network has to have enough capacity to carry nearly 50,000 people an hour at 8am – even though at 10am it will only be carrying about 7500 people an hour. The result is that during the peak hours, buses and trains are pushed to their capacity, while in the off-peak hours they run their route nearly empty or sit completely empty in the depot. This is not the most efficient use of our public transport infrastructure.

Programmes like the Gold Card and the Green Card encourage some passengers to travel in the off-peak times, and make the network more efficient by spreading demand more evenly across the day. By increasing the efficiency of the network, the government can provide more trips to people at a lower cost. Students and superannuants are particularly good demographics to target with these offers because they tend to be more price sensitive – since they have less income – and more flexible – since they don’t typically work a 9-to-5 workday.

**Best guess based on figures provided in Greens Public Transport Policy
***Hypothetical Example

However, the graph above shows that while the Green Card would go some way towards making the use of our public transport network more efficient, the impact might not be that large.

Free transport for under 19s
The second part of the policy from the Greens is for free public transport for under 19s (U19s) – and this time there’s no catch. Demographic information on the users of public transport in New Zealand is fairly hard to come by. Young people are much more likely to use public transport than older people, but with publicly available information, it’s hard to say exactly what proportion of public transport trips are taken by U19s.

We can get an idea, however, by looking at the graph below, which shows the % of daily revenue and patronage by the hour. The spike in patronage at about 3pm is all the students heading home from school and paying lower fares. So we know that school students represent a sizeable percentage of the public transport trips.

Unlike university students, U19s cannot be as flexible with their transport. Generally, they need to be at school by 9:00 am and they leave at 3:00 pm which means they are using public transport in peak hours. The Greens estimate that 15% more U19s will use public transport, and 30% more university students. Given there are many more U19s than university students – these effects are likely to cancel one another out. Taking the policy as a whole, there is unlikely to be much change in overall network efficiency.

The Green card is just one public transport policy among many. There is currently a lot of work underway to extend the capacity of the Auckland network by creating a city rail loop. There are also proposals, in various forms, to extend the rail network to the Airport. While offering off-peak transport might help keep the overall costs down, the real reason for the Greens policy is to improve affordability for students, families and people with disabilities.

Public transport is most important for two broad groups of people: those who can’t drive, and those who can’t afford to drive. In the first group, there are children, the elderly, and people with some disabilities, and in the second there are students, large or low-income families, and beneficiaries.

The Green Card policy does a good job of extending the current gold card programme to cover a much wider range of people. For people in both groups, affordable public transport means they can do the everyday things of life like going to work, getting to school, and visiting family. But convenient and affordable transport can improve people’s lives in a range of other ways.

It’s expensive to be poor. It doesn’t matter if Countdown has bread for $1 a loaf if you can’t afford to catch the bus there. If you have to rely on the corner dairy for your groceries then it becomes much harder to provide for your family. A return trip to the supermarket on the bus could easily cost someone $5 at current prices. Cars are not the answer either. Expensive cars require loans – and the high interest that comes with them – and cheap cars require repairs, which can lead to sudden costs and potentially more loans.

How could we do better?
Without a doubt, Paris has a world class public transport system. With the metro and a network of trains, buses, and trams, more than 5 billion trips are taken in Paris each year. That’s compared to 12 million in Auckland. After accounting for population size, 6 times more trips are taken in Paris per capita. New Zealand has a long way to go before we can achieve anything like that level of public transport usage.

However, Paris does have some interesting ideas we could start using now. Most people in Paris pay for public transport with a monthly or annual pass allowing unlimited public transport. For adults, this works out to about NZD$120 a month, and for students just under $50 a month. A similar pass in Auckland is twice as expensive, and at least one and a half times as expensive in Wellington.

Paris also offers ‘Solidarity’ passes to people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t or can’t work. In some cases, these discounts also extend to family members. A solidarity pass means that Paris is standing by the members of its community that are already marginalised by ensuring they can participate in public life.

Students are a key constituency for the Greens, so it’s no surprise that they have been targeted for free public transport. Similarly, tackling child poverty has been a key priority for the Greens, and free public transport for U19s means that every child can afford to get to school. But the policy also does nothing to support the parents of these children. Free public transport could open up opportunities for better employment, or cheaper housing, that would mean that low-income parents could provide better lives for their families.

The Green Card would make public transport much more affordable for students, people with disabilities, and families, and it would reduce congestion and pollution. It’s good politics, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good policy. There are many ways that the same outcomes can be achieved. In order to make the most impact, public transport subsidies and fare structures need to be better targeted to meet the needs of those who rely on it most. 

Bhen Goodsir recently completed his law degree at the university of Auckland and is currently studying at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. In his spare time, he listens to many podcasts and sends Snapchats of dogs he sees to his friends. He tweets at @bhenelliott.