We've only had cars in New Zealand for a little over 100 years, but we have embraced them wholeheartedly. We now have 4.4 million registered vehicles — 90% of which are light vehicles – and one of the highest rates of car ownership in the OECD.

Every year, we drive a collective 49 billion kilometres, the equivalent of going round the planet 1.2 million times, or halfway to the sun. In the last century, our cities and towns have largely been built around cars and driving, but even all that infrastructure is feeling the strain.

Meanwhile, our emissions from transport continue to grow, and now make up around 20% of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions. That's before we even consider road safety and air pollution.

Driving less should be the low-hanging fruit of climate action, but getting Kiwis to give up the car, even a little bit, is tricky. According to the Ministry of Transport's Household Travel Survey 2015-2018, of all trips taken annually, 83% were in a car or other passenger vehicle. Ten percent were on foot, four percent on public transport and two percent by bike.

3 main reasons behind our love of cars

According to Keeping Cities Moving, a report published in 2019 by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, there are three main reasons behind New Zealand’s high level of car dependency.

  1. Cities are structured in a way that prioritises travel by car.
  2. A lack of good shared and active travel alternatives.
  3. Incentives encourage people to continue to travel by car.

Action to reduce our transport emissions will have to take place at two levels: personal choices and systemic change.

As individuals, whānau, organisations and communities, we can make Gen Less travel choices. We can stop to think about whether we need to take the car — especially for short trips — and embrace active, shared and public transport instead.

Not everyone will have the means, access or ability to do that, but that is even more reason for those of us who can, to do so — it'll make the streets easier and safer for everyone, including drivers.

Voting with our feet, pedals and bus passes will also help to drive systemic change.

Around the world, there are big moves towards more sustainable transport. The International Energy Agency (IEA)2 found that Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on travel choices with, unsurprisingly, a drop in flying and public transport, but also "significant uptake in cycling."

Cities are planning to capitalise on this citizen-led cycling uptick: Paris is planning 650km of new cycleways, Bogota, which already has car-free Sundays, is opening 80km of roads to bikes, and Oakland has closed 10% of its streets to traffic. Saudi Arabia is planning a new city with no cars whatsoever.

In New Zealand Toitū Te Taioa — the Sustainability Action Plan1 for Waka Kotahi — lays out a vision for a "low carbon, safe and healthy land transport system."

In addition to the carbon footprint of cars in New Zealand, Waka Kotahi identifies the land transport system is not as safe as it could be – in 2019, 353 people were killed on the roads and 2,562 were seriously injured. Air emissions shorten the lives of around 250 people annually.

Lisa Rossiter, Senior Manager Environment and Sustainability at Waka Kotahi says Waka Kotahi is strongly committed to improving environmental sustainability and public health. "We're helping people reduce or avoid the need to travel; encouraging them to shift to low carbon modes of travel, like active or shared transport, and improving the energy efficiency and safety of New Zealand's vehicle fleet.

"We don't underestimate the challenge, but when Kiwis make the decision to reduce their car use for short trips, they're showing they care for people, places and the planet, and that's vital for creating the future we all want to be a part of."

1Toitū Te Taiao - Waka Kotahi's Sustainability Action Plan(external link)

2Changes in transport behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis - Analysis - IEA(external link)

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