Auckland Transport is not (just) a transport agency, it is a change agency.
Auckland Transport (AT) is the lead agency of change to our public realm in Auckland. AT has to front increasing amounts of change in both small and large ways, to our streets, to our daily experiences, and is therefore is the main focus for anyone, reasonable or otherwise, who has a view on these changes.
And much of this change has its roots in areas not directly to do with transport provision. Transport infrastructure and services being, after all, only means to an end, not ends in themselves. Changes may be precipitated by the need to replace a water main (eg Franklin Rd), or redevelopment of a major site (Wynyard, Onehunga, etc), provide more housing (everywhere), or simply to improve the safety or place value of a street (K Rd). Regardless, AT has to lead the re-purposing of streets, roads, and places that may not have had much of a conscious redesign for a generation or more. And it can no longer just put back what was there before, that is no longer sufficient, nor can it simply cater to one kind of user.
Why, what is so special about Auckland, and what is so special about now?
Auckland has grown, is growing, and is likely to grow, at a scale and rate unknown in the rest of the country:
‘…ever since the 70s, Auckland has been big and fast-growing enough that it’s had higher total population growth than the rest of New Zealand combined.’ (above)
It is 36% of the nation’s population, 38-40% of the economy, and home to 50-58% of the nation’s coming population growth.
The accumulated growth of the last few decades has also precipitated a kind of identity crisis, as what was a largish town morphs into the scale and complexity of a city, with all the concomitant pressures and opportunities. Most vitally the need to adopt city-shaped solutions to city-shaped problems. This is that particularly urban characteristic of the drive towards the exploitation of space in every direction: tall buildings, burrowing underground, and crowded public places. More people; each with less space. Spatial efficiency is the currency of the urban condition; it the source of its economic power, its drive and excitement, but also many of its problems.
Becoming a city means more than just changes in infrastructure and patterns of habitation however, it also requires a change in self-understanding. Who are we now? Not everyone will accept this change at the same pace, and some, not at all.
It is easy to mistake the familiar for the necessary and the final, and therefore find change inexplicable.
And this all especially plays out in that very particular type of public realm that are our streets and roads. A city is a place where more and more is demanded of these zones; they all have to deliver more services, from moving more people and goods in more kinds of ways, to hosting more communications and fluid systems, to being destinations and public rooms in their own right, to hosting trees and other amenity to filter the air and the light, and remind us citizens of beauty.
They are also a huge signifier of the values of the community; the city’s brand. In the serious international competition for talent and trade, the quality of our city’s public realm is as important as our cultural institutions, our sporting and arts events, our food culture, parks and waterways, and our personal welcome. The street matters more than ever before.
As the Road Controlling Authority with responsibility for this realm AT simply does not have the luxury of being a steady-as-she-goes, business-as-usual organisation, while the city is growing so fast and needing to catch up on so much missing amenity, it can’t act as the kindly uncle, keeping things as they were. Just because someone has been able to use a street in a certain way in the past does not confer the limitless right to continue that use. For example, driving a private vehicle in the very centre of the city is increasingly going to become a historical activity. This is simply a fact of geometry; it is a wasteful use of limited space that will increasingly no longer fit. It is AT’s role to deliver changes in its realm as much as to manage continuity.
Auckland is currently an outlier as New Zealand’s only city facing these pressures at such a rate and scale, and it makes it more akin to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, than Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin (though these forces are now beginning to spill over to Hamilton and Tauranga from Auckland). This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Meeting change without growth is extremely difficultly to fund, this has long been the problem Dunedin faces, for example, at least with growth there are, or ought to be, the available resources necessary to fund change.
However the bigger picture and its framing is key. ‘Why does our street have to change? We like it as it is now, stop spending our money.’ AT, and its parents and partners, need really good evidenced answers to these questions before they are asked, and these need to be owned and offered at the beginning of all projects and plans. And these need to include the vision as much as the traffic count.
2. The city has to be central in our response to the crises of the times.
Globally, increasingly, and certainly in New Zealand, most people live in urban areas. So in order to tackle the many and interrelated problems facing humanity, they must be tackled in our towns and cities. If behaviour change is required, then our cities must be changed to incentivise that. And again, the design and capabilities of our streets have an critical role to play in this.
In broad terms our streets urgently need to be made:
1. safer and healthier
2. less polluting and better places
3. more efficient and productive
And because in urban areas dependency on the private motor vehicle is at the centre of what needs to change, the above can be summarised as increasing the availability of options for how people can viably use our streets and roads. Changing them from prioritising one mode to in most cases accommodating all modes, and in some cases reducing or restricting vehicles in order to prioritise the missing or suppressed ones.
- Motor traffic is killing and maiming our citizens at increasing rates, we know that slowing and calming traffic physically through improved street design is a key to fixing this.
- Lack of exercise as we go about our daily routines is burdening individuals and society with increasing illness and morbidity, and its public costs. Building in the opportunity for physical exercise into place and movement is vital to address this.
- Hyper auto-mobility is a massive contributor to both local and global pollution, and imposes increasing external costs on us all. Enabling people to make alternative choices for more journeys is key to improving environmental outcomes.
- And the spatial inefficiency of the private car as the primary mobility tool is a poor fit with the growing urban services economy and is the single most expensive way of organising urban mobility. Our prosperity depends on squeezing greater efficiency and choice out of our streets.
- The attempt to fit volumes of traffic anywhere negatively affects the quality of that place. A beautiful and busy city is both a prosperity and wellbeing enhancer.
So each time a street is dug up for whatever reason it is entirely sensible to rebuild it in order to meet the needs of the growing city, and to seek address those wider crises we face. And where this requires a change in the inherited auto-prioritised pattern, that parking or traffic lanes will be reduced, this needs to owned as a feature and not as a bug of these changes.
The great news is we can fix our city one street at a time. But to do so we requires sophisticated design and clear actions and communications.
And to remind ourselves this is all occurring in a wider the context where so much is already underway that is transforming Auckland from a one dimensional auto-dependent town to a thriving multidimensional city. Here is a quick list of what the next decade will bring, with the support of the Regional Fuel Tax and change in priorities of the new government and Council, delivered by various agencies in including AT:
- CRL + upgraded rail network, including Puhinui Airport Interchange, and Intercity services.
- Light Rail at least Wynyard to Mt Roskill or through Mangere and the Airport
- Eastern Busway to Botany and bus lanes on Pak Highway,
- Extended Northern Busway
- The start at least of a North Western Rapid Transit system
- All supported by an expanded New Bus Network (more Frequent services, especially focussed on Interchanges)
- A substantial extended cycleway system and greater pedestrian space especially in the City Centre
- Improved and more integrated ferry network
Auckland Transport and its partners are in charge of substantially transforming our city, so it is vital that this undertaken confidently, to do this:
- AT needs to be funded sufficiently to lead change well and be given explicit targets to aim for.
- AT needs to own its role as a change agent and not simply as transport service provider in order to avoid falling into the trap of promising the impossible; of both changing things and keeping everything as it is.
- AT needs to collaborate well to achieve excellence in design, and to communicate the reasons for proposed changes, confidently, clearly, and explicitly.
Auckland is in the midst of a coming of age moment, experiencing growing pains certainly, but is stepping out onto the world stage as it never has before. Our city is blessed with such great natural bones, the opportunity to lift the quality of its built environment towards honouring that standard exists in plain sight on our streets and roads. We need AT to take it.
‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as in escaping from old ones’
-John Maynard Keynes
*Render by Auckland Urban Development