A new research paper has helped shed some light on why we continually seem to see substandard and delayed street outcomes from Auckland Transport that completely ignore Auckland’s agreed political and policy goals. It reveals a complex and dysfunctional decision making process that might be representative more generally of the institutional inertia that exists at AT.
It is particularly relevant to our current road safety crisis and read in tandem with the Howard Safety report, reveals how much institutional change is required to make our city streets safer. The paper is foremost about change and how difficult it is for planning and design professionals to deviate from the status quo.
The paper is titled Unlocking Transport Innovation: A Sociotechnical Perspective of the Logics of Transport Planning Decision-Making within the Trial of a New Type of Pedestrian Crossing by Simon Opit & Karen Witten. It follows an innocuous request to trial a new type of pedestrian crossing on Massey Rd as part of the Te Ara Mura Future Streets project, a neighbourhood-wide research project on the impact of improving conditions for walking and cycling across the Mangere Town Centre area. In the end, the proposed crossing was not approved and the approval delays threatened to jeopardise the research component of the Future Streets project.
The paper does not look into the merits of the pedestrian crossing proposal but instead focuses on the approval process and attempts understand why there is a disconnect between the established political and policy direction and what we see in the ground (or what we don’t see):
In Auckland, the regional Road Controlling Authority (RCA), ‘Auckland Transport’ (AT), dedicates a chapter in its ‘code of practice’ to outlining its commitment to enabling innovative solutions where appropriate. Yet, as political demands for a modal shift towards active and public transport have gradually intensified, the organisation has sometimes struggled to shift from ‘business-as-usual’ practices that prioritise goals associated with the private motor vehicle, such as road network capacity and flow efficiency (particularly, alleviating peak hour congestion problems).
The paper follows the decision making process through several committees and processes. We learn about the Traffic Control Devices Steering Group, an NZTA decision making group that includes people from NZTA, MoT, road controling authorities (like AT), the Automobile Association, roading contractors, and the traffic sign and road marking industry. We hear about Auckland Transport’s Transport Controls Committee (TCC) and their resolution process. There is also a cameo appearance from the Intelligent Transport System “ITS” department that looks after any traffic controls that deal with technology.
One of the problems with so many people involved in the decision making is that the process is bogged down by what the authors call “Collective agreement and shared ownership”:
The logic of shared ownership through collaboration offers the potential to transmit the rationale for new design solutions and build support for innovation. However, reaching shared ownership of a solution can also act to solidify the obduracy of the status quo. Ownership of a particular solution creates a form of institutional inertia or obduracy that can be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, the necessity of sign-offs can enable particular individuals or departments to wield a disproportionate level of influence over the approval process in order to gain leverage for revisions. Such influences are likely to tend towards a reassertion of existing solutions to transport problems.
The authors also note the the risk averse nature of traffic engineering professionals. Risk aversion here is focused with public safety (as it should be) but it also includes institutional, reputational and legal risk.
…there is a feeling of inherent risk when considering the adoption of new practices or designs within a transport proposal. Irrespective of whether they agree with the proposed ideas, adopting non-standard solutions is likely to be avoided by individuals in order to prevent isolating themselves from standard institutional structures and practices, and potentially exposing themselves to individual-level legal and reputational risks.
And there’s a preoccupation with consistency.
Consistency is a key concern within the decision-making process for both the NZTA and AT. The objective of consistency is often referenced in terms of how road users interpret the devices, signage and layout of the road environment. However, consistency has further purposes that are valued throughout the transport planning assemblage. Structural or bureaucratic consistency is also valued as it relates to improving the calculability and, hence, predictability of transport planning decisions.
Consistency is also presented as a key concern for road users across the region a but also across the country, as if road users regularly jump from a cycleway in Dunedin to Palmerston North. Consistency does not end there. We hear about our membership in Austroads with its notorious car first guidelines that also limit design innovation.
Beyond national consistency, there is also an impetus for standardisation with Australia. Opportunities for ‘harmonisation’ are primarily facilitated through the NZTA’s membership of Austroads, as the NZTA Traffic Devices Manager explained:
“… we try and ensure that we are continually striving for international consistency, particularly harmonisation with Australia. We are a member of Austroads and we commit to harmonisation across Australasia. So again, I am not looking for devices that move us away from consistency with Australia.”
Some of the worst comments relate to the TCC, which has not only all of the issues above but also seems to be held captive to a range of internal and interpersonal politics. The paper notes that it can take just one member of the TCC to strongly object to a proposal to hold the whole thing up.
In situations where amendments are suggested by an official, the delays are usually expected to be only minor while revisions are made. In this situation, it is suggested that the process should take around two weeks. However, there can be times when a particular official or department strongly disagrees with a proposal. On these occasions, there can be an ‘impasse’ where a particular proposal is accepted by almost all departments, but is nevertheless held back by disagreement from an implacable non-consenting party.
In the case of Future Streets, there also appears to have been a hostility towards it because it wasn’t an AT led project, with behaviour such staff as not attending workshops on it then opposing what was proposed without understanding it. It appears the key area opposing the proposal was the ITS team and mainly because they wanted their own solutions used
Project Manager: Well it was going to get rejected within AT, never mind NZTA, so we had a problem there – and I thought this was a little bit naughty – but basically they said we have some proposals and if you let us implement those, we would be happy to do that as part of the crossing.
Interviewer: Sorry, just see if I have understood this. So ITS looked at what you were suggesting and said we have some other alternative that we would like to trial. If you trial this one, we will support your proposal?
Project Manager: Yes … and they could object to it along the route and so the whole idea behind the traffic resolution is meant to be a legal exercise, creates a legal bylaw. But what actually happens or can happen … is that it turns into another detailed design review and you are going over it again … So, if somebody in road safety is not happy with something, they will go “I am not happy with that and you need to do this otherwise I am not going to sign it” … So this process is a little bit flawed.
These are only a sample of the some of the findings. Overall, the paper paints a depressing picture of institutional processes that are hard wired for the status quo. We’ve heard some of these stories before from snippets of correspondence between AT and the public on matters like implementing pedestrian crossings that sometimes do not have enough pedestrians, while at other times have too many pedestrians to warrant a pedestrian crossings. People have come to understand the inevitable response to be, “the computer says no” and well intentioned staff and consultants just give up trying to do anything different.
As Auckland sets out to address its road safety crisis and build streets that support multi-modal transport, this paper reveals how challenging the task ahead is. The built-in resistance to change is so entrenched that we will need bold leadership to enact a system-wide reboot and restructure if we are to see any progress over the next several years.