Last week I wrote about what I described as the great Auckland turnaround story. Auckland seems to be beginning an urban renaissance, backed by a raft of fundamental policy reforms and new investments in urban infrastructure such as busways, metro rail, and cycleways.
Of course, there are a number of flies in the ointment. Housing affordability is the big problem facing the city – we don’t have enough homes for everyone who wants to buy or rent in Auckland, so prices have risen. And on the transport front, where things are moving forward faster, there are still plenty of instances of projects that have been delayed or built with sub-optimal designs.
But these problems occur in the context of rapid and often positive change. For instance, Ministry of Transport data shows that from 2001 to 2015, Auckland went from 34 annual public transport trips per capita to 51 PT trips per capita. That’s a 50% increase – admittedly, from a low base, but there are many other cities that started from a low base and declined further over the same period.
Good urban outcomes are often winning. We need to ask how to make them win faster.
Lots of small steps forward
Two news articles from last week highlighted the current urban policy dynamic.
First, the National government announced a programme to build 34,000 new social and affordable homes on public land over the next decade. Commentators immediately responded that it sounded a lot like a watered-down version of Labour’s policy for the government to build 100,000 new social, affordable, and market rate homes. As Bernard Hickey put it, “It’s Kiwibuild vs Kiwibuild Lite“.
Second, Auckland Transport released consultation designs for the Victoria Street Cycleway, which will provide a new crosstown link to make it easier to access the Nelson St cycleway (and PinkPath!) and the soon-to-be-built Franklin Road cycleway. Of course, it’s possible that we may get a different design depending upon the outcome of the consultation on the Midtown Bus Corridor. But regardless: connected downtown cycleway network, here we come!
Four or five years ago, either of these announcements would have been the story of the week for people interested in better transport and housing outcomes in Auckland. Either one of them would have represented a significant step forward for the city, and a major change of attitude for the organisations involved.
Now, they seem like they might even be a bit… timid.
Getting to yes
The debate over whether the government should step in to build more homes seems to be following the same path as the debate over the City Rail Link, or, before that, rail electrification.
Now that electrification is complete and the CRL is being built, it’s worth recalling the tortuous path that they followed to get there. In both cases, local government backers, some opposition parties, and outside advocates (like Transportblog) made the case to a skeptical central government. Central government said no, we don’t want to spend the money, and besides, we think that rail is a 19th-century technology whose time has passed.
Then the discussion continued, and the perceived need for change increased. And government said: maybe, but not anytime soon. And a bit later, after further debate and analysis and all that, they said: yes, we’ll fund (part of) it, but not for a decade.
At this point, the basic principle had been agreed, and the city and central government were negotiating over timing, precise funding shares, and the minutia of design. This process delayed both projects by a couple of years, but, importantly, it ultimately meant that there was a strong cross-party consensus that they should go ahead. This makes them robust to political backtracking or electoral change. Contrast that to the way that transport planning is done in Australia, where state elections often result in multi-billion-dollar transport projects being abruptly cancelled or advanced.
National’s “Kiwibuild-lite” announcement seems to fall into the same category as rail electrification or CRL: after a long public debate over what more the government should do to boost housing supply in Auckland, all parties agree that there’s going to be some publicly-led construction. Now we’re talking about timing and scale.
The public wants a say
Finally, a key part of the story is that most Aucklanders seem to be supportive of the changes that the city’s making, or at least not angrily opposed. With luck, this will mean that we get more improvements, and fewer reverses, over time.
It’s true that people are concerned about the dysfunctional aspects of Auckland’s recent rapid growth. Housing affordability and traffic congestion are seen as growing problems. But there’s also broad public support for:
- Building more homes to improve housing affordability
- Building more rapid transit and cycleways to more places to give people an alternative to congested roads.
However, polling isn’t the only measure of public interest in change. I’ve been continually impressed by Generation Zero’s success in rounding up hundreds or thousands of submissions on important decisions. For instance, on the Midtown Bus Corridor, over 1500 people submitted through their online form, in addition to more than 500 people who put in submissions on the AT website. Now, Generation Zero has made it really easy to submit, but people still wouldn’t bother to do so unless they thought that a better city was important.
Where to from here?
None of this means that we’ll get a perfect outcome, or even a good one. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Central government or Auckland Council could have a change of heart and send positive changes to a screaming halt. There could be a public backlash, if things change too fast or if the effects of change are widely disliked. And then there’s the risk of garden-variety bumbling and bad delivery.
But I think that this dynamic offers us many opportunities to make the good bits of Auckland better and fix the bad bits. Increasingly, we’re not arguing about whether we should change, or even how: we’re now discussing how fast we should move to fix things.
What do you think we should be doing faster to make Auckland better?