The word ‘Transformational’ is turning up frequently around discussions about Auckland’s future. I am encouraged by this as it surely means change. More than that doesn’t it particularly mean making bold decisions precisely designed to lead to different outcomes than we have now? This is important because it goes to the heart of the debate between the Council’s plan to invest in public transport versus the road lobby’s determination to prevent that and continue to build ever more motorways.

Here are a couple of examples, the first is mayor Len Brown talking a few weeks ago about the MIT campus that is now being built directly on top of the yet to open Manukau City Station, big ups-ing its transformational nature:

“The Hayman Park site is a superb example of an integrated, transformational project aligning MIT with the local community, business and industry, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport.”

And here is Bill English a little less sure that he has any transformational projects but sure he’d like some:

“I mean, if there are transformational ideas out there we will grab them with both hands and do them. We just wish there was a few more.”

So it is an idea that gets politicians excited, and why not, because generally that’s the way they can try to improve our world: Change things. And transformation is a kind of change with bells on. Transformation is required when things need to be ‘turned around’. It implies a bold and imaginative quality. Transformation suggests a break with the past, a ‘fresh start’. A complete change.

Here is a dictionary definition:

Transformation is the process of changing from one state to another.

So it was interesting to hear Councillor Quax on Morning Report argue in the context of the council’s transformational plan to prioritise investment into public transport over roads that:

‘nothing can be transformational if it only moves a small amount of people and freight around, that’s why roads need to take precedence over rail’

In other words Quax is arguing that because we are not already in the new transformed state, the place the transformation is intended to get us to, we shouldn’t make the necessary changes to get there. Errr? Are you sure you understand what the word means, Dick?

This is clearly an absurd argument; the whole point of the transformational is to change those numbers around, so in fact, the current imbalance between road and non-road movements is the very reason for changing what we invest in. Because you get what you invest in. More roads: more driving: new alternatives; less driving. Which will then, of course, free up the existing and extensive road network [along with all the other improved health, energy use, and quality of place outcomes we know come with increased PT use].

It is interesting to see that Quax is not arguing against transformation, as you might expect, but rather simply that he can’t imagine it happening. Like Bill English above who is presiding over an enormous and expensive continuation of last century’s highway building plans [while preaching austerity] simply because he too can’t perceive any transformational projects. Is the inability to see and understand the transformational because these men are looking in the wrong place? They don’t seem to grasp that the transformational, by definition, requires a break from the past.

The problem is that if you are only prepared to look backwards it will be hard to see a better way forward. This is the hegemony of the status quo, it takes a little more effort and enquiry to see how things could be different. Because the future is uncertain isn’t it?

So to be fair to Quax it is worth rephrasing his rather wooly headed statement above into a more useful question;

‘if we do invest differently, ie if we stop building ever more motorways and instead build a rail and busway network will we get the transformation we desire?’

What evidence is there that we can change things in Auckland? If we do invest boldly in new rail and busway infrastructure for the next decade or so will people use it? First of all it is clear that we can’t, as Quax is doing, just look at the current state to see what future we could have, so we will have to look elsewhere for a model. But we can also look at what trends there are already present in Auckland to see if we get changed outcomes from changed investment.

The clearest model from the recent past is Perth. Because it is culturally not dissimilar to Auckland, a similar size, is in fact an even more spread out city, and has done many of the things that the Auckland Council has been arguing we should do here to transform both our habits of movement and the quality of the whole city. So what happened?

This is Rail patronage in Perth and Auckland to 2011[Auckland is now around 11 million]. Perth’s first jump was on the back of electrification, bus coordination stations, and the construction of an underground CBD line. Patronage from a level similar to where Auckland’s is now, trebled, then doubled again with the addition of the all new Mandurah Line. This is what Transformation looks like. Before the early 90s investment rail use was bumbling along. It is clear there is no point in looking at the 1980s figures to see what could be achieved though changed investment.

Now that we’re all facing the right way let’s see what else could happen if we are really bold, like Mayor Len Brown said he was going to be when he started his term, proposing new transit infrastructure throughout the city:

Here we’ve added Vancouver. Greater Vancouver has about 2.3 million people. So where Auckland is expected to get to quite soon this century. Vancouver’s extremely successful Sky Train only began in the 1980s and is being added to constantly because it is a huge success and means that the city does not need to spend billions and billions on highways and parking and all the other hidden costs of auto dependency. This technology is ideal for new lines in Auckland like across the harbour to the North Shore. Nick argues here that this would be considerably cheaper than any further road crossing and certainly would help transform more than just the North Shore. It also could be the answer to the transport problems in Dick Quax’s Eastern suburbs too.

Well that’s great for Perth and Vancouver, but would that happen here in Auckland? Well here is the pattern of change in Auckland since the construction of Britomart and the other improvements to our existing rail network, and remember these changes were only about fixing the existing badly neglected system, and doesn’t yet involve modern electric trains or the great changes that the CRL will bring to the whole network, let alone extending the network to new areas. So not yet what you could really call Transformational investment:

So a very consistent uptake by Aucklanders, give us a good quality alternative to driving and a lot of us will take it, leaving more room on the existing road network for the rest. The numbers are still low but are very much beginning to make a big difference especially at peak time. But really we are just at the point that this existing resource could become a very significant influence on patterns of movement and also quality of place in Auckland. So transformation is without a doubt possible but only if we choose to make it happen. What we build will determine what we get and how we live. And it is absolutely certain that if we mostly just continue what we have been doing- building roads- all we will get is more driving and more over-crowded roads no matter how much we spend. And no transformation.

The best way to live in the 21st century is to stop living in the 20th century

Umair Haque Havard Business Review

Share this


  1. Auckland has just over 40 public transport trips per person a year. Vancouver has near 150.

    Transformational change should be measured through getting close to Vancouver’s level within a certain timeframe, like 20-30 years with interim targets.

    1. Auckland is now up to about 46.6 (including accounting for population increase) and it is increasing by about 0.2 per month which it has been doing for about 2 years. If we carry on at the current rate then even with population increases we would see trips per person at around 100 in 20 years

      1. To be frank if we can get integrated ticketing and an integrated bus and rail network that actually functions as a network, the number of trips per capital should start to grow much more rapidly than it has in recent years.

  2. I think you’re hitting on a really key point here Patrick – what is meant by transformational, and perhaps more interestingly, what does the Council really mean by the saying? What are we ‘transforming’ away from? What are we ‘transforming’ towards?

    In terms of transport, perhaps it’s helpful to look at what the previous ‘transformational shift’ was in our transport system. Clearly that occurred in the 1950s, when we transformed away from having a system based around public transport and we transformed to being very much an early adopter of a roads and motorways based system. To go with that transformation we ripped up the tram tracks, didn’t built a previous iteration of the City Rail Link, planned motorways like crazy and then went and built them. The results were truly transformational, with PT patronage plummeting, road use increasing massively and the whole city changing because of those decisions.

    We look back at that now and think it was perhaps not the best transformation to make, but it was truly transformational and it’s a struggle to think of any time since when anything has happened that’s worthy of that word (perhaps rail patronage increase over the past decade excepted).

    So, if we are to really have a ‘transformational shift’ in our transport system, we need to think clearly – as we did in the 1950s – what we are transforming away from and what we are transforming towards. This hasn’t been clearly articulated by the Council or the Mayor, except in the phrase of becoming the “World’s Most Liveable City” – which is great, but something it seems we were slowly heading towards anyway, if it weren’t for our infrastructure and transport, which always score very lowly on those surveys.

    Are we transforming from lower transport investment to higher levels of investment perhaps? That would fit with the alternative funding strategies and the fact that the transport plans are just so extremely expensive. But simply spending more isn’t much of a transformation – especially if we spend more on what we’ve always spent on, that just seems more of the same in terms of results.

    Are we transforming from a highly congested city to one that’s less congested perhaps? Well, as most people who have travelled overseas would attest, Auckland’s congestion is hardly bad at all – just an inconvenience really. And we also generally know that induced demand means it’s nigh on impossible to fix congestion, especially through simply building more roads.

    Are we transforming from a city with low quality infrastructure to one with high quality infrastructure? I sense that this is perhaps getting close to what the Auckland Plan’s thinking is, but once again is that really a focus on transforming the outcomes – I think not. Higher quality motorways won’t dramatically change things in the way that is hinted at by the word ‘transformation’ – just more of the same.

    Finally, of course the argument that seems to be hinted at is that we’re meant to be transforming away from a car dependent city to one with real transport choices, to a city where its infrastructure complements rather than destroys the urban environment, where many many more people catch public transport, to a city which has a rail network that people are proud of and use for a variety of trips, a bus network that integrates with the rail network and enables us to participate fully in society without having to own a car and drive everywhere. Now that would be a real transformation.

    But if you were going to transform like that, then you wouldn’t be spending billions upon billions of dollars on new motorways. So, I conclude, the Council isn’t really interested in a transformational shift for transport. It’s just a nice sounding word for them.

    1. One point to add, which kind of summarises the above:

      “Transformation is as much about what you don’t build as it is about what you do.”

      There. Done.

      1. Exactly, my point exactly, I am dismayed by what has clearly been some kind of horse trade away from the earlier actually transformational plans of this council to a halfhearted mismatch of pointless motorway projects and a watered down PT programme. I understand that it might look like a mature compromise but really it is a failure to hold and articulate a vision.

        1. Horse trading is defined as “Negotiation characterized by hard bargaining and shrewd exchange”. Exactly how was the council hard bargaining or shrewd. This just seems like an admission of defeat.

  3. Great post, and great comments.

    The only thing I would add to the mix is that achieving a real “transformation” will not come just from investing in PT infrastructure/services, but also from initiatives that seek to manage demands for motorised travel. Stated differently, there simply won’t be a public transport transformation of any kind without a) parking policy/pricing reforms and b) time-of-use road pricing.

    If you stand back and look at overall motorised mode share, then even Perth and Vancouver do poorly: Private vehicles meet approx 80%+ of their travel demands. So investment in infrastructure/services may get us to a “transformation” that is only marginally better than what we have now. If we really want to transform Auckland, then we must be prepared to implement things that even these other more enlightened or wealthier cities did not have the courage to do.

    Auckland needs much more than transport choices; it needs direct financial incentives. Because if the last century of economic mismanagement (in both socialist and capitalist countries) has confirmed anything at all it is this: Incentives matter.

  4. Transformational certainly isn’t what the Auckland Plan slowly appears to be turning into. Sprawl, new mega motorways and no funding for the only rail project high on the list. Sounds like more of the same.

Leave a Reply