In this post, I want to talk (somewhat informally) about how we define the “average Aucklander”, before relating this discussion to the people who contribute material for the Blog. I finish with a plea for help.
I’ve been pondering these issues for sometime, due to Peter’s excellent post about submissions on Auckland’s Unitary Plan as well as Emma’s compelling call for greater involvement from women in urbanism. In these two posts, Peter and Emma highlight how two large groups of people (young people and women respectively) have tended to be marginalised from debates on urban issues in Auckland. I think that’s sad, and will ultimately hold Auckland back.
To this end, the other day my ponderous digits were prompted into action in response to a Twitter exchange that unfolded (relatively innocuously, as they usually do) between Ben Ross and George Wood. This exchange went as follows:
Don't know this new CEO of @akltransport but lets hope he changes the high priority status of building 'on road' cycleways and does something for the hard done by Mr & Mrs Average road user.
— George Wood (@GeorgeWoodNZ) December 28, 2017
Here, George invokes the notion of “Mr and Mrs Average road user” and asserts that they feel hard done by. George was then engaged in a Twittersation by several people, such as GA, which commented as follows:
Perhaps the average Aucklander doesn't cycle because for most people it's dangerous due to lack of and/or poor quality infrastructure. Anyway, who are you referring to as Aucklanders, a few locals? Perhaps you've forgotten the LTP feedback. pic.twitter.com/zMEO5wSiHR
— Greater Auckland (@GreaterAKL) December 29, 2017
The interesting thing about George’s second tweet, I think, is that he moves from talking about “the average road user” to “Aucklanders” in general. This rhetorical shift seems to suggest that George equates the needs of the average road user with the needs of the average Aucklander. I then jumped on-board as follows:
Do you have evidence of this or do we just have to believe you? Perso ally I'm inclined to believe comprehensive surveys, rather than anecodotal conversations with hypothetical representatives of someone's personal bubble.
— Stu Donovan (@StuartBDonovan) December 29, 2017
Now, I acknowledge that George is a politician, and that his views seem likely to represent a certain constituency, however small. Where I — and several others — took issue, however, was with George’s suggestion that he spoke for the “average Aucklander” without providing precise definitions and/or supporting evidence.
The chart tweeted by GA supports an alternative view. It summarises responses from a relatively large number of Aucklanders on transport priorities, which I understand were gathered as part of the Council’s consultation on the Long Term Plan. This data suggests Aucklanders want “more of a focus” on everything, i.e. the green bar is taller than the red bar for all response options. Perhaps more importantly, Aucklanders expressed the largest net positive support for buses and cycling, not roads or highways. While responses to an opt-in survey of residents are not perfect, it does at least provide some insight into people’s preferences. And it differs substantially from the views expressed by George.
In response to these comments, George unfortunately doubled-down on his anecdotal line-of-reasoning. I think George’s reluctance to step outside his own personal bubble was a missed opportunity for all of us, because upon further digging — and notwithstanding the complexity of people’s preferences — I found some evidence that tends to support George’s view, such as the following chart (source).
That is, Auckland Transport’s monthly monitoring report finds that the percentage of Aucklanders satisfied with the quality of roads has — in the 9 months from Jun-16 to Sep-17 — declined by 10 percentage points. While this decline is not huge, and probably to be expected given the growth the city has been experiencing, it is an indication that the average Aucklander is increasingly dissatisfied with the state of our roads.
Is this evidence to support a change in transport investment priorities? And an increase in road investment in particular? Personally, I think that’s several bridges too far. The main reason is because the above data relates to a single question, whereas the LTP allowed people to choose between alternative priorities. When given the opportunity to choose, more Aucklanders appear to prefer increased priority being placed on non-car transport modes. That seems to me to be a much better indication of people’s preferences.
That said, I suspect the LTP consultation was completed prior to the above drop in satisfaction levels with the road network. On this basis, perhaps there is a need to commission new research into Aucklander’s preferences for transport priorities. That’s about as much as I’m prepared to concede to George on this point.
In doing so, however, I want to reflect again on one of the key messages of Peter’s earlier post on Unitary Plan submissions, which he found were skewed towards certain demographics. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if similar — if not worse — skews affected the feedback on the LTP, as well as George’s anecdotal conversations with “average Aucklanders”. For the record, here is some data on Auckland from Statistics NZ (source):
The two most notable elements of this list, I think, are ethnic composition and median age. In terms of ethnic composition, Auckland is extremely diverse. For this reason, I’d encourage politicians like George — who aspire to speak for the average Aucklander — to ensure that they engage with a sufficiently diverse range of people.
In terms of median age, we find that — and despite all the talk of an ageing population — Auckland remains a relatively young city. I note that the Bloggers, as a group, have a median age of 35.0 years, with ages ranging from 22 to 55. That is, the median age of the Bloggers is about the same as Auckland as a whole. That suggests that when it comes to age, the make-up of the Blog is similar to Auckland as a whole. While George didn’t provide any data on the demographic composition of the people he engaged with, one has to wonder is it representative of Auckland’s median age?
I say this not because I believe that ethnicity or age are necessarily causal factors that drive preferences: People of different ethnicities and ages can, of course, have similar preferences, and vice versa. Demographic indicators can, however, be correlated with preferences. As an example, the figure below is extracted from NZTA research (source), and shows how annual vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) per capita varies with age and over time.
Here we find that people aged 15-34 years are driving less now than they were in 1989-1990, whereas people aged 35-75+ are driving a lot more. Indeed, the increase in VKT among older age groups has probably been a major contributor to historical growth in New Zealand’s vehicle travel demands in recent decades, whereas the reduction for younger cohorts goes the other way; it has been a drag on growth in VKT. Due to these correlations, if George’s self-selected sample of Aucklanders is skewed towards people who are aged older than 34, then he’s probably going to get a distorted view on the relative importance of vehicle mobility to Aucklanders.
As noted above, the median age of the people contributing to the GA Blog is relatively well-matched to the average age in Auckland. So it’s not true that the make-up of the Blog is slanted towards younger generations. What seems more likely to be true is that younger voices have, hitherto, been relatively silent in discussions about Auckland’s future. Against this background, older people — such as George — may feel that Blog is “biased” to a younger audience. In fact, I’d suggest the Blog simply corrects for a historical deficit.
On the other hand, there are some areas where the demographic make-up of the Blogger’s is decidedly unrepresentative of Auckland as a whole, and which we are actively looking to address. In particular, we are actively seeking additional input from people with the following backgrounds:
- Gender, specifically women; and
- Ethnicity, specifically Maori, Pasifika, and people who have migrated to Auckland from overseas.
On these two dimensions the blog is way out of whack with Auckland’s demographic profile. So if you, or someone you know, is passionate about Auckland and who might add to the representative diversity of our ilk, then please encourage them to reach out to us (details here). We really want to facilitate a broader discussion on Auckland, and welcome people with a diverse range of backgrounds and views.
To finish, the main point of this post was to encourage us to take a moment to think about how we conceptualise the “average Aucklander”, and whether this aligns with demographic data. This is especially important for politicians like George: Before you express strong views on behalf of the “average Aucklander”, please reflect on whether you have truly and genuinely engaged with a representative group of Aucklanders. A group of people who, for example, have a median age is around 35 and who are ethnically diverse. I believe that Jacinda Ardern has reflected on these issues, which is perhaps why she is so popular (NB: Dame Anne Salmond reflects on related notions in this article). The same need for diverse representation and input applies to this Blog, and it is something that we are actively working on.
In the meantime, we’d appreciate your help and patience. Go well.