Over the past 15-20 years Auckland has seen a pretty amazing transport revolution. We no longer have one of the worst public transport systems in the world and we have some of the most exciting and aggressive transport plans – in terms of where investment will go – in the world over the next decade.
The idea that Auckland needs public transport, walking and cycling to shoulder a much larger part of the transport task is near universally accepted now. This is a far cry from where things were even a decade ago, when much of the debate was instead around whether public transport could ever work in a city like Auckland.
It’s often difficult to get a real picture of what ‘the public’ thinks about transport issues, given that usually it’s only the most passionate who turn up to public meetings, but a few large pieces of public consultation undertaken by Auckland Council last year can give us some clues. Consultation on the Auckland Plan got nearly 16,000 responses – with most responses saying that the Plan got it about right in pushing for more people to use public transport, walking and cycling – or saying that the Plan didn’t go far enough (the consultation report noted that most of the respondents saying “partial” expressed a desire for a more significant shift).
Consultation on the Regional Land Transport Plan also highlighted major support for investing in public transport projects:
Most recently, a survey asked Aucklanders what they want more of in their community, with better public transport, safer streets, and better walking and cycling facilities coming out first, second and third:
— Patrick Reynolds (@pv_reynolds) May 5, 2019
Politicians have generally caught on, with every Auckland Council mayoral election to date having a strong transport flavour to it, and the stronger supporter of public transport, walking and cycling of the two main competitors remains undefeated after three elections. Furthermore, after Jacinda Ardern became leader of the Labour Party in 2017, the very first policy announcement was for a new light-rail system in Auckland.
I’m sure there are still battles to come regarding the proportion of total transport investment that should go into public transport, walking and cycling compared to roads (it’s important to remember that walking and cycling makes up barely 2% of transport budgets at both a regional and national level) – but I don’t think it will ever be politically viable again for someone to run on an anti-public transport platform in Auckland and win. After all, only three councillors (Greg Sayers, Christine Fletcher and Mike Lee) voted against providing City Rail Link with an additional $500 million of funding (kind of odd that two of those councillors have played such a big role in getting Auckland’s rail system to where it is today and yet voted against CRL funding). So I think the “Auckland needs to continue to invest heavily in public transport, walking and cycling” argument has largely now been won.
The battle now is a different one, but in many respects an equally important one. The big political battle for transport over the next decade in Auckland will be about how we change our streets.
Auckland’s streets need to change. They’re horrifically unsafe, they waste enormous amounts of space on incredibly inefficient uses, they destroy – rather than support – the quality of our neighbourhoods, they actively discourage people from using them in anything other than a car, and they don’t even do a particularly good job at keeping traffic moving.
But while I think the “we need to spend money on more than just roads” battle is largely won in Auckland, I’m not sure we are yet close to winning the battle over convincing Aucklanders that their streets need to change – or at least not when it comes to the details of it all. Consultation on the regional fuel tax last year highlighted that – at least conceptually – Aucklanders strongly support measures that improve road safety and give buses more priority. They came out as the first and third most supported initiatives – based on nearly 15,000 responses:
Improving safety, providing buses with priority, making our streets nicer places to be in, and making walking, cycling and e-scootering safer and better for everyone, requires fundamental changes to our streets. There’s simply no room in most places to widen streets further to fit these extra uses in, meaning that tough trade-offs are needed. Improving safety means slower speed limits, bus lanes will typically need to come at the cost of general traffic or on-street parking, the same with cycle lanes. Even amenity improvements will often mean lengthy disruption as pavements are ripped up and replaced.
It is these changes to our streets that often create the biggest public and political backlash – even often coming from the same people who say that it’s so important to improve safety or make public transport better. A recent example of this is what’s happened in St Heliers, where a fairly innocuous set of changes to make the area safer have got the locals up in arms:
The Auckland seaside village of St Heliers is up in arms over safety improvements it fears will hit business hard.
“It will kill the village,” says Sue Clark, who runs a property management and rental company in St Heliers, the last village along the city’s famous Tamaki Drive.
She is referring to a plan by Auckland Transport for 13 raised zebra crossings, a new traffic island, widening part of Tamaki Drive and removing 40 car parks – all aimed to improve safety for people walking, riding bikes and driving.
The proposals sit alongside a separate proposal by AT for a 30km/h speed limit on Tamaki Drive outside St Heliers village.
“I have been here since 2000 and I have never seen any danger around here with pedestrian crossings. It’s a village. People look after each other,” Clark said.
Her colleague Annette Woodyear-Smith said AT’s plans were ludicrous, totally unnecessary and being railroaded through.
Ayush Madeshia, who runs a small fruit and vegetable shop, said it is already hard enough finding a car park in St Heliers.
The loss of 40 car parks, he said, will mean fewer people shopping in the village and could lead to his business closing.
Two elderly shoppers who wanted to go by their first names were aghast at the proposed changes and the effect on businesses.
“Many people are elderly and need a park outside a shop,” said Liz.
If lower speed limits in a village centre and a few raised pedestrian crossings will supposedly be the end of the world, then it feels like a long, hard road towards making the large-scale changes to Auckland’s streets that will be necessary to achieve the very improvements that Aucklanders have repeatedly said they support – safer and nicer streets, and better public transport, walking and cycling.
Mayoral candidate John Tamihere seems to have jumped on this bandwagon, slamming Auckland Transport for the tentative steps they’ve been taking towards improving the safety of our streets and making them more than just for moving cars:
Under Mayor Phil Goff’s “weak leadership”, Tamihere said, AT had been able to implement strategies designed to “harass people out of their cars”.
“Under Goff’s mayoralty, ideologues within the council have deliberately set out to narrow roads, reduce speed limits, take away parking spaces, take away free left hand turns, change traffic light patterns to favour ‘people not the car’, and destroy communities like St Heliers.”
Tamihere pledged to put a stop to what he described as AT’s “anti-car strategy”.
So while I think there will still be some debate over the balance of transport funding across different modes, I see that over the next decade the main battleground for the transport debate in Auckland will be over changing our streets. For Auckland to continue its progress towards being a much more liveable city where you don’t need to drive everywhere, where you have genuine travel choices and where you can move about the city in safe and healthy ways, this is a battle we must fight and a battle we must win.