Over the next few years Auckland’s streets will see unprecedented change. This may be in the form of expanding our safe cycling network to provide healthy, safe and sustainable travel options. It may be in the form of bus lanes to improve the reliability of our bus network and encourage more people to use public transport. It may be safety improvements to address our skyrocketing road toll. All these changes will highlight tensions over what is ultimately a limited resource – our street space. How do we trade-off bus lanes versus general traffic, parking against bike lanes, safety against “the efficient flow of vehicles” (otherwise known as the God of traffic engineering)?
These changes are usually difficult. In New York there were five years of legal battles over a bike lane and here in Auckland we have recently seen push back against cycling and bus improvements, even going as far as some very poorly executed attempts to destroy some of the recent changes. At the moment in Auckland an extreme fringe is trying to dominate such discussions (which is actually quite helpful in discrediting many of the criticisms) but it is inevitable that how we reinvent our streets will benefit some and inconvenience others. Furthermore, the process of changing our streets is messy and disruptive – potentially for months, which can be the difference between a successful and failed business.
So how can we have more constructive conversations about changing our streets? I have three suggestions, which I’ll work through:
- Have clear and consistent communications that explains the reasons for why these changes are necessary to meet the needs of a growing Auckland.
- Trial changes, learn and adapt. Make this “trial, learn, adapt” approach central to the stakeholder engagement process.
- Do everything possible to speed up construction processes once the “dig begins”.
Communications – the “big picture”
Most people are pretty reasonable and understand that, as Auckland continues to grow, we need to work our existing streets harder. I think most people would also be horrified by the rapid increase to our road toll (and the ten serious injuries that occur, on average, for every death) over the past few years. A large part of the population also seems likely to support the need to reduce the environmental impact of us travelling around and to help encourage a healthier population by making walking and cycling a safer and more attractive option. Polling data consistently shows Aucklanders want better public transport too.
Every little project that involves a bit of green paint for a bus lane or a new bit of cycling infrastructure is a little, but essential, step towards these big changes that are generally accepted and supported by the public. The job of good strategic communications is to continue to make these linkages between the big picture and the little change down there on the street. Auckland Transport has, quite frankly, been hopeless at this for years. I don’t even know if they have a cohesive communications strategy.
But, the recent opinion piece by Auckland Transport Chair Lester Levy provides some hope. Importantly, Lester makes these connections between the big picture and the changes on the street and unapologetically signals that more is to come – that more simply has to come.
As we modernise Auckland’s out-of-date and constrained transport system, the dream of a transformed system with increased capacity and scope for faster and safer journeys can slowly but surely be dulled by the reality of constantly living with disruptions and squabbles.
Whether it is the vast City Rail Link or smaller but important projects like cycleways, walking paths or neighbourhood intersection safety work, there will always be contestable opinions and unavoidable levels of disruption. It is not unlike a major house renovation where tensions arise, flashpoints transpire and you question why you ever started…
…Critical to effectively tackling congestion in Auckland is a highly emotive issue, the “elephant in the room” if you will, which is a shift in the allocation of street space.
The board of Auckland Transport stands strongly behind its policy of re-allocating street space for a wider variety of users, particularly to accommodate more spatially (and environmentally) efficient modes of transport.
Our streets will increasingly change through the addition of light rail, bus and bike lanes, wider and better footpaths and bus stops as well as the addition of proven safety enhancements like raised pedestrian crossings and calmed intersections…
…These changes are gradually rolling out across our city to promote modal changes towards public and active transport (cycling and walking) and involve a shift from a generally vehicle-user first state to a more equitable balance. This approach is consistent with the Auckland Council’s and the Government’s aims for our city and furthermore is well supported by evidence.
As I said earlier this week, this is by far the best piece of communications to come out of Auckland Transport for years. But it cannot be a “one off” and Auckland Transport must keep making these connections to the big picture and keep being bold and unapologetic about the changes that need to be made.
Trial, Learn and Adapt
From there, you’re into the West Lynn shops, the site of an iconic bikelash battle. And you know what? It’s looking good. AT still hasn’t announced final details of what it’s going to do to remediate the hamfisted streetscaping inflicted during the original project (that steeply sloping footpath on the east side is an embarrassment), but the bike lanes themselves are pretty sweet.
In truth, there was never as much wrong with them as their opponents noisily insisted, but now that the asphalt has cured and the green surface has gone on, they look and feel like bike lanes.
Redesigning town centres is a really tricky job, especially where you’re trying to cleverly allocated some very limited street space between a whole pile of competing demands while making the whole thing safe at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that you probably need to figure out through an iterative process, a bit of trial and error to see what works well and what doesn’t. This design process, known worldwide as tactical urbanism, also takes a lot of heat out of the consultation process. Because the whole thing is a trial, if something really turns out to be terrible then it can be fixed up. Furthermore, the tactical urbanism approach gives change a little while to settle in and for people to see the world hasn’t ended, before it is eventually reversed, adapted or made permanent. The slow realisation that West Lynn is probably 90% fine and just requires a few tweaks is exactly what should happen through this more iterative process of making change.
A great recent example of tactical urbanism in Auckland are the bike lanes on Federal Street, which were installed literally in the space of a few days.
Minimise disruption during construction
When you really dig into the reasons behind a lot of opposition to change, especially from local businesses, it seems that what they’re really worried about are the impacts of disruption during construction, rather than the end result. This is understandable as projects can take months, even years, to be completed. If you are a local business in a town centre, then a footpath being dug up for months outside your shop can have a huge effect on you – potentially with disastrous consequences.
Fixing this problem is tricky, but for a start it’s probably really helpful to ensure that all stakeholder consultation processes clearly distinguish between issues during construction and those after completion.
Further steps obviously include Auckland Transport assisting with advertising (the good old “businesses still open” signs) and working through details around deliveries and other micro-level challenges. But probably the biggest step they could take is to minimise the length of disruption and to provide businesses with a sense of certainty about when the works will be completed. Relatively small projects like the Mt Albert town centre upgrade shouldn’t take more than a year to build, and it should be crystal clear to retailers that all possible efforts are being made to complete the projects as quickly as possible.
Overall, these steps won’t fix all the challenges that come with making pretty major changes to our streets. There will still be those who lose out, or those who seem to take great pleasure from opposing everything and anything. But hopefully clearer communications, more use of tactical urbanism, and a much stronger commitment to minimising disruption should help us have much more constructive conversations about the changes that need to, and will, happen on our streets in the years to come.