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:

  1. Have clear and consistent communications that explains the reasons for why these changes are necessary to meet the needs of a growing Auckland.
  2. Trial changes, learn and adapt. Make this “trial, learn, adapt” approach central to the stakeholder engagement process.
  3. 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

Another recent piece, this time by Russell Brown, really emphasises the slow realisation that the so-called “West Lynn fiasco” actually isn’t that bad after all.

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.

Image result for federal street bike lanes

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.

Mt Albert business owner Steve Chea says the Mt Albert community spirit has given him hope.

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.

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35 comments

  1. Good and important ideas Matt, and possibly the most important issue in the city-building space right now. Framing this as a conversation (ie two-way) is really key, and should underpin communications from AT and AC.

    While it’s great to see Lester’s piece, and Ludo on TV responding to Hoskin’s idiocy on apartments without parking, it feels very reactionary to recent events. It would be better to see city-building leaders (AT, Council etc) more regularly front-footing their side of the conversation – isn’t that what their comms teams should do? That needs to happen in lots of formats, regularly, and with a long term plan to develop the story around the challenges and Vision for urban change. Failure to even see the importance of this is a key reason for problems experienced in the Unitary Plan process and numerous other local policy issues.

    Auckland Conversations and other public sector channels are good, but only reach a narrow audience, and a stronger ongoing dialogue in the mainstream media would certainly be a good starting place. I’m pretty sure Oarsman could be pensioned off if AC and AT provided more dialogue in the first place.

  2. It occurs to me that a couple of things that AC and AT could do in terms of reducing the financial strain on businesses directly effected by road works would be a rates rebate equal to the period of the disruption and AT paying a (major) contribution towards the rent of the effected businesses for the period of the disruption.
    Yes this will increase the cost of the projects but isn’t that a cost that private businesses are expected to cover as part of the project.

    1. Great idea. Will help with public acceptance. I am sure the lost rates would be a minimal fraction of most projects. You need a minimum period before implementing your rates rebate. For example if some project involved the road I live on being closed for say 3 weeks then I ought to just live with it but lets say it was closed for 3 months it would be a very big project but my rates rebate would be under $1000.

      1. The really neat thing about a rates rebate is that the psychological impact is stronger than the financial impact.

        Any rates rebate will be of lower value than potential revenue reductions, but carries a lot of kudos as it shows that the council is prepared to “share your pain” whilst the work continues.

    2. A bit unfair to give the shops in an upgraded town centre a rates rebate while shops in a run down town centre pay full rates isn’t it?

      1. Also, the cost would be spread across all ratepayers, including some people with very poor transport choice. Doesn’t seem fair on them either.

        1. Two of the main issues for businesses is how long the works take and the disruption that is caused.

          When looking at the West Lynn and Franklin Road projects there was/is a lot of unnecessary disruption where the footpaths/ road access was restricted for many days. As opposed to upgrading a section of road in a day or two then moving on to the next section.

          In other countries the concept of road rental gives contractors an incentive to complete work quickly. NZ abolished this some years ago after lobbying of utility companies, who benefited from being able to take as long as they like to do works.

          1. Yes, I wondered if it came from lobbying. I wouldn’t mind knowing more about what happened, if you have any links. Of course, long construction times affect many people: not just the businesses. Bus users in Mt Albert are getting all antsy about the works there which affect several bus routes including the outer link. This doesn’t help AT having buy-in from the public for what they’re doing.

      2. Te concept of a rebate for a small contribution towards the loss of income during the construction period.
        So, no I don’t think giving a rebate to a business in what will be an upgraded area is unfair.
        Business generally move to “run down” areas because the costs of being there as lower, and to “more well to do” areas because they perceive the returns to be greater.

      1. That would still be a massive subsidy. If you want a car park out front, you pay the true cost of that land use. If it means buses take an extra minute per route, that could add up to millions.

      2. While I like the concept, the parking space is in front of your store, then you pay for. The down side is the store owner will tend to become proprietary about “their” parking space and all sorts of conflicts could eventuate

  3. The three suggestions make good sense and significantly contain no bias pro or con bikes or cars. Lets hope our council follows them.

    Planning for change is required. Even if you prefer an Auckland that has no population growth there is still a backlog of improvements needed and changes to the ways we live means even more redesign.

    Any design change to street space has to give safety highest priority but I do not see the skyrocketing road toll as a motivation for changing street space. Reading your link with its list of sad road deaths I came to these conclusions: it is risky riding bikes and motor bikes on state highways and teenagers need more discipline / control / awareness of risk / responsibility. I did not think lets petition the council to redesign the road I live on.

    Do Auckland designers fall into the trap of trying to squeeze too many different types of user into too small a space? In the CBD wouldn’t it be better to have parallel streets alternate vehicle only then cycle only? Obviously most streets need access to existing garages and delivery vehicles but a say 10kph speed limit with a requirement to have an appropriate access sticker would solve that.

    1. Comment re backlog I agree with.

      Comment re road toll: how’s your cycling going, Bob? Come back to that thought when you’re doing half your journeys by bike. Then you might indeed come to a different conclusion about the streets you’re cycling on. 🙂

      Comment re different modes on different streets: there will undoubtedly be some of this. This is what AT would like to do: https://i.imgur.com/oRinsZx.png

    2. In the CBD, personally I would like to see a blanket 30 kph speed limit in place, that would drastically improve the area for cyclists and pedestrians. I recently spent several months in Montréal, and while many of their streets aren’t friendly for pedestrians or cyclists, a lot are. One big help with this way a very apparent street space hierarchy. Pedestrians first, cyclists seconds, vehicles third. This meant at un-signalised intersections, cars would always (essentially) stop before reaching the intersection to allow pedestrians or cyclists to cross – without the need for pedestrian crossings. In New Zealand where even where there is a pedestrian crossing you can’t guarantee that the next car will stop for you. This made a noticeable impression on me, and I feel like it would help to make a shift in the mindset of people who drive if this hierarchy was formally put in place here too.

  4. Actually while most of us are very much wanting improvements to our transport network, it is clear that Auckland Transport is not the agency to deliver this. Their attitude towards the general public and businesses is a “shrug your shoulders too bad” in terms of the impact they have on local businesses. In terms of the “improvements” they have made, what I have observed is complete incompetence. Time taken to change roads takes forever, and just when you think they’ve finished the work, they dig the road up again and tinker further with it. I’d love to see a safe cycling network but I have no confidence in AT to deliver this. I don’t think the design in West Lynn is very safe for example, from what I’ve observed cyclists continue behind the angle parked cars not dog legging around the front. This is very dangerous as the expectation of the driver is that the cyclist will be in front, they then go to reverse and realise the cyclist is right there behind them. We want a better transport network believe me, we want fewer cars on the roads, but we do not have an agency that will deliver this. I hope this comment is seen as constructive, because in my opinion AT needs a complete overhaul and we need someone else to deliver.

    1. There are committed people in AT who are trying really hard. Problems for them include the lack of support from other parts of AT, the lack of a mandate to spend more money to minimise disruption by doing short lengths at a time, the tiny budget for cycle lane and bus lane projects compared to what we are spending on roads for trucks. And the biggest problem of all is the road building programme that continues, despite all we know about induced traffic and car dependency.

      Perhaps AT’s biggest problem is the pull between old and new within their own organisation. Maybe poor communication with the public stemmed from poor communication within the organisation? (Why would you bother chatting informally with someone whose belief system prevents the very change you are passionate about, for example?)

      In any case, there are very promising signs that AT’s dealings with the public are improving, along with some more robust processes to ensure communities – and not just certain groups – are heard and represented.

  5. RE: how long construction takes – for certain projects or at certain key times in projects, I think they need to consider running much longer construction hours e.g. obviously 24/7 construction causes problems, especially in residential areas, but so does doing construction during business and peak travel periods. What trade-offs are being made as part of the resource consent process that might allow much faster construction if longer hours and multiple shifts were used?

    1. I agree, but would like to add that council related construction takes way too long across the board.

      Look at Freyberg Square. Construction of the redevelopment officially started in September 2016 (according to Stuff) and finished September 2017 (according to the Herald).

      If you look at how much work was done and consider that the budget was $11 million, I challenge you to accept the duration as appropriate. Why wasn’t it done in 2-3 months?

      Perhaps I’m speaking too far from my fields of expertise, or perhaps AC and AT and whoever else is involved in “Council” projects needs a good kicking.

  6. Thanks for the link to Russell Brown’s article which I had missed. Meola Rd is just as bad as he describes. And it’s not just the soccer parking, it’s the sheer volume of traffic. And the trucks, actually. Lots of trucks along there now. Peak hour is a very long time. And when a bus meets a concrete truck in the middle of a soccer tournament, ha! Nothing moves.

    Meola Rd would have to be a prime example of where tactical urbanism could be fantastic. Lateral thinking and trial and error. Meola Rd shouldn’t have to be taking commuters from out west into the city. They should be on rapid transit on the motorway. It shouldn’t have to be taking commuters from Pt Chevalier into the city. They should be on quality transit like a reliable Outer Link. So AT’s question about Meola Rd needs to be much more than “how do we put in a safe cycleway?” It needs to be “what can we trial to solve the problems of truck traffic, congestion, rat-running and unsafe cycling?”

    1. Agree Meola rd needs the cycleway (just much better design than AT one proposed). It should not be the preferred route from west to the city or over the bridge. Unfortunately it is a result of motorway onramp lights and waterview tunnel making 16 to 1 north a big delay now.
      Dont agree that Meola shouldn’t be taking commuters from pt chev to city (or north shore) as is natural route. The link bus is reliable in that it is reliably unreliable. Admitted that I am a once a month user.
      So what are the realistic solutions to the current Meola Rd morning jam (takes a rediculous 7 to 8 minutes the last few weeks)?

      1. Meola Rd is a natural route for Pt Chev commuters. Yes. But by what mode? These people have excellent PT amenity (by Auckland’s standards) and should have excellent active mode amenity, but don’t. PT, cycling and walking are all severely hindered by the congestion and danger of the private car mode.

        Pt Chev is affected by the vehicles travelling through it. But it is also affected by the car-dependency of its own residents. The number of cars here has ballooned in the last 20 years, most parked on the streets and many on verges. These parked cars, plus the multiple small car trips taken by its residents, such as to the shops or the school, have made the place feel unsafe to cycle or walk, creating a vicious cycle.

        As to solutions, they need to be solutions that work for residents of the NW sprawl who have been priced out of areas like Pt Chev, and for the residents of the new higher intensity development here who won’t have parking. The solutions will depend on how bold AT will be, how much residents value the ability of their children to walk and cycle safely, and how much money you want to spend. The bolder we are, the less money is required.

  7. It is funny how quickly fashions change in this field. Remember ‘Naked Streets’ ? That didn’t last long. Check out the first image in this post where they have vomited paint everywhere.

    1. Never did understand naked streets. But then I don’t like the move towards not having curbs, either. Are you wondering what’s in the beer these days?

    2. Its just a new name for an old concept. Naked streets kinda morphed to shared spaces. Take away all the signage, road marking, kerbs, anything that suggest the road is for cars. Put crap in the middle of the road and speed bumps everywhere to slow cars down and then hope for the best.

      It’s all about creating uncertainty so that people use the road more cautiously. It seems to work well in places where you have harsh penalties for hitting a ped/cyclist. ie not NZ.

  8. It’s more about what’s in between the curbs. No curbs means that if you’re in a car, you don’t get space in between reserved just for you. Compare High Street to Eliott Street. I would have thought the idea of a ‘Naked Street’ was still very much alive for quieter streets.

    You could frame it the opposite way: do we need separated footpaths and roadways on a small residential street?

  9. Timely post Matt. You, Patrick and I first talked about the need for this way of thinking back in 2014. Its essentially the Design Thinking Process which myself and the other lecturers at AUT teach to product design students – investigate the problem(s), look at the issues from all angles putting yourself in the shoes of those affected (including those with disabilities), generate / ideate solutions, rapid prototype and trial your solution, communicate the results well to others and then reflect on your learnings…to repeat the process all over again to either improve the design or to develop designs that follow on from that. Its the essence of human centered design.

    As a marketing communications head who has been inculcated over the years with the Japan way of thinking in regard to customer interaction, I am a firm believer in giving people first the big picture – making them aware and supportive of what you’re going to do for them. Its absolutely crucial to do this first. Humans everywhere will cut you slack if you tell them how you will connect them better with their surroundings – every time you plan to roll out something new.

    Minimising disruption during construction and maintenance activities is something Auckland does particularly badly when it comes to PT work. The regular shutting down of infrastructure / services, not communicating it well before during and after, is a strange stance for any service provider to take. PT service disruption (planned and unplanned) is the most visible of all disruptions on a transport network and thus needs to be really well thought-through and communicated to mitigate negative effects. Apologising right off the bat for the inconvenience caused is something we need to do a lot more of. No matter your ethnicity or cultural background, when one up-front apologies for causing inconvenience to others (even when its out of your control), the recipients of the apology both appreciate and then often become supportive / sympathetic of the efforts being made to address the situation.

    In summary, its these simple things as described above, that make the biggest difference as one goes about improving the lives of others, especially in the urban realm. Being bold, making everything you do human design-centered, minimising inconvenience and apologising for inconvenience caused – this is why Japan have become and continue to be number 1 globally in public transport service provision. They focus on getting these basics of service provision right and to keep doing it right every day of the week. There is no reason whatsoever why Auckland can’t do the same. We are all humans and good humans always think of and look after others first.

  10. Works would be expedited and the disruption they cause would be minimized if those running them were required to live on site for the duration of said works.

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