Image: CICLOVÍAS EMERGENTES Lineamientos de Implementación – Gobierno de la Ciudad de México

Good leaders seek ways to change what needs to be changed. And for climate, safety and equity, there is much that needs to be changed.

One powerful, democratic tool to enable change, is disruption. This is a post about how to use it effectively.

We’ve seen Covid creating disruption worldwide. While this has been devastating in many ways, the transport response has seen residents in many cities enjoying cleaner, quieter, safer streets:

It has been estimated that since the beginning of the recovery European cities have allocated €823 million to active mobility, with 1,221 km of bicycle lanes being planned, of which 545 km are already in use. The Italian capital, Rome, ranked first having added 150 km of cycle lanes, followed by Bologna (94.3 km) and Brussels with 83.9 km.

As the Global Designing Cities Initiative says:

The COVID-19 global pandemic altered every aspect of urban life in recent months. In response, city transportation officials around the world have quickly implemented new street design and management tools to keep essential workers and goods moving, provide safe access to grocery stores and other essential businesses, and ensure that people have safe space for social/physical distancing while getting outside. These evolving practices will shape our cities as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and are key to our long-term recovery.

In Mexico and Ireland, in San Francisco, Dallas and London, streets are being reclaimed. Paris is rolling out 650 km of pop-up cycleways, but even places like Salt Lake City are improving safety with paint and a few plant pots:

And it’s popular! People like living on healthy streets:

A survey by YouGov was reported in Politico:

New polling data from 21 cities across six European countries shows a clear majority in favor of measures geared at preventing a return to pre-pandemic levels of air pollution. There is strong support for new zero emissions zones, banning cars from urban areas and maintaining road space gains for bike lanes and pedestrian paths implemented during the health crisis.

Politically, this is huge.

Disruption and Demonstration

The disruption of temporary change becomes a powerful tool when it enables demonstration of important concepts (like fewer traffic lanes and more space for people). Of course, the disruption needn’t be as big as a pandemic. It could be a machine, a law, a medicine, a war, a food, a service, a disaster, a renovation.

Disruption was the topic of a NZ paper released this month, Streets for transport and health: The opportunity of a temporary road closure for neighbourhood connection, activity and wellbeing. The paper examines a small disruption, and shows how public understanding can rise when residents experience a temporary change.

In this Christchurch case, the street needed to be closed to vehicles in order to install a new wastewater pipeline down the middle of the connecting main road. The street was:

partially closed… to through traffic… from early October 2018 through to the first week of December and was reinstated after the Christmas break for a further six weeks… people walking or cycling could still get through

The study, by Kingham, Curl and Banwell, found

that with less traffic, residents reclaimed the streets for recreational activity and it led to increased and enhanced social connection

The temporary closure fundamentally changed how residents used their street:

It is useful research, illustrating a democratic pathway towards permanent change:

only by having the opportunity to experience the benefits of a lower traffic and slower speed street through a temporary road closure, were residents able to understand and appreciate the impacts such benefits brought.

This raises the potential for road closures to be seen as an opportunity for local councils to… try out new temporary streetscapes with a view to making them permanent if successful.

As residents said:

“I like the idea of a cul-de-sac, I didn’t think of it until it closed”

“if it closed forever, I would say whoopee”

Street basketball. Image credit: Kingham et al.

Rather than a way to “sneak changes through”, making improvements during a disruption serves democracy well. If concepts are demonstrated before there’s any consultation:

  • people can experience the idea before making their mind up about it;
  • it reassures people who have concerns about change;
  • it prevents fanciful concerns from dominating the discussion during consultation;
  • it can inspire local people to become involved in the planning process, leading to more informed community discussions.


When disruptions result in permanent behaviour change, they are a type of discontinuity. Since we’ve left our response to climate change too late, discontinuities are our best hope for achieving the radical change the IPCC says we need to achieve.

Covid has enabled a discontinuity. Cities are moving to permanent changes in their streets, their speed limits, their planning processes, and their transport budgets. As a result, residents will enjoy healthier, lower-carbon, more pleasant, and more active lifestyles.

The realisation that lower-carbon living is possible and brings an improvement in lifestyle is critically important – it brings citizens hope that democracy will willingly respond to climate change. Fuelled by hope, voters are far more likely to agree to other proposed climate action.

London is implementing 114 low traffic neighbourhoods, 154 school streets, 202 town centre changes, 38 strategic cycling schemes

In Tāmaki Makaurau, the experiences of lockdown were beautifully captured by Dr Kirsty Wild of Women in Urbanism, in her research, Life in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, and powerfully illustrated by Eloise Gibson in Life in Light Traffic. This quote really stands out for me:

“I’m pregnant right now, and being able to ride a bicycle without any fear of cars is wonderful… This is especially good because my pregnancy has caused sciatic nerve pain that’s so bad that I can’t walk for exercise (or sometimes even just around my house) any more – cycling is all I’ve got, and it’s such a relief to be able to move without pain. I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing right now if the lockdown hadn’t happened…”

Here, as elsewhere, the lockdown was an opportunity for a discontinuity.

Image: CICLOVÍAS EMERGENTES Lineamientos de Implementación – Gobierno de la Ciudad de México


Only small, almost token, innovations were tried in New Zealand during Covid. However, many more projects are on their way – Covid created huge interest in Innovating Streets for People, the programme Waka Kotahi / NZTA launched last year to enable the transport sector to use creativity and innovation:

By testing innovations in streets with communities before committing to major investment, road controlling authorities can have more assurance that they’re getting the direction of change right.

The authorities in larger NZ cities seemed to have the biggest difficulty in understanding that the projects weren’t just about social distancing but about innovation, and that they needed to show a pathway to permanence:

They must also be able to demonstrate the value of using tactical urbanism to advance a future permanent change, and explain how they will move to permanent changes.

Auckland Transport didn’t innovate a lot during the lockdown, but from their surveys of public sentiment, it is clear that Aucklanders want more, with 73% in favour of using programmes like Innovating Streets, and only 9% opposed.

In short, innovation is critically important for enabling change, and it is popular with the public. It probably appeals to everyone’s twin desires for improvements and value-for-money.

So what prevents Auckland Transport from using the approach throughout their programmes? Especially when great international precedents for combining tactical urbanism with public works exist. Some recent work – funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – looked into what the difficulties are. Called Healthy Future Mobility, one of the strands of the research was called “Growing Niche Innovations”:

How can we foster a culture of innovation, demonstration, and different ways of working through niche projects to advance health, safety, and wider societal wellbeing?

They found:

Planning systems and locked-in timelines prevent innovation from happening…

The rigid nature of the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) and other funding systems prevents niche projects from starting…

the funding requires a scope of work and the scope of work requires quality stakeholder engagement to define it… engagement is not possible because funding is not in place, and conversations might raise community expectations, with the risk of non-delivery…

funding and delivery leadership by senior management is often lacking. Internal champions doing things quietly are great, but in some ways they act to paper the cracks, and meanwhile system-level leadership is lacking… They need better support…

Sometimes ‘just getting on with it’ is what communities want, especially for obvious things, but even that can be hard. Experimenting with temporary measures offers a way forward in these situations…


Solutions to the climate emergency exist, we just need to speed up our capability for change. The Zero Carbon Bill says:

In considering how an emissions budget may realistically be met, the Commission and the Minister must include… identification of key opportunities for emissions reductions and removals in New Zealand…

This year has expanded our ideas of what “realistic” ways to meet the emissions budget can be. The “key opportunities” include a complete transformation of our transport system, and this has become obvious to many more people.

After lockdown, the healthy streets of Auckland disappeared rapidly. Congestion, traffic danger, pedestrian deaths, air pollution and limited travel choices are negatively affecting our lives again – because the opportunity to harness disruption was wasted, irresponsibly.

Local government now has a duty to respond to the evidence we’ve seen, that:

  • good planning uses disruption as an opportunity for demonstration
  • demonstrating change reduces opposition to it becoming permanent
  • behaviour can shift quickly in a disruption, and this new behaviour can become permanent if we innovate to allow it to stick.

There’s a silver lining to every disruption we face. We cannot squander these opportunities for raising public understanding of the benefits of change. Arguments that

  • proposals are going “too far, too fast” or
  • we can’t change anything without first “bringing the public along”

are excuses by leaders unwilling to front the changes we need. We have the evidence about how to speed things up democratically and “bring the public along” through demonstration. If local government continue to ignore the power of disruption, they are placing Aucklanders at risk of being left saddled with public spaces and infrastructure unfit for their needs.

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  1. Great post. Auckland Transport seem to fundamentally struggle with these concepts for some reason. Maybe too many engineers are in powerful places? Maybe a destructively anti-change culture pervades the place?

    1. “Maybe too many engineers are in powerful places?”
      I would say that there are NO engineers in any powerful places regarding the governing of Auckland.
      They’re more likely to be career public servants or people from the legal profession.

      1. Career public servants and people from the legal profession tend to take at face value what the engineers say. In traffic engineering, what remains as the dominant paradigm is based on archaic and debunked theory, and has created an unhealthy, high carbon, inequitable and unsafe transport network.

        So, sure, the decision-makers should be throwing out these dinosaur engineers, and listening instead to the progressive ones and the wider sector, but that would take good leadership.

        1. The public servants & powers that be come up with the ideas and they pay the Engineers for their advice on implementing them. If the public servants & powers that became up with the ideas of more accessible streets; Engineers would advise them on how to achieve that.
          I don’t mean to be rude. But you (and others on here) seem to have very astray ideas about Engineers and the profession. I hope for your sake; your clearly negative opinion engineers doesn’t come down to the fact that they state facts you don’t like to hear. It’s like blaming a doctor or nurse for poor health care in a crummy healthcare system of blaming a teacher who works within a crappy education system.

        2. Daniel, I am an engineer. In traffic engineering, there are dinosaur engineers, and there are progressive engineers, and a whole lot in between who vaguely realise something’s amiss but don’t understand what it is.

          When the engineers say they are optimising the network, for example, and give a good narrative about what the goals are, the managers should expect that those goals are what are being optimised. Yet that’s not what’s happening. I’ll blog about specifics another time.

        3. Well then you know how this all works and you’re not being honest.
          Engineers offer expertise, not opinions.

        4. Engineers offer opinions that match what they’ve been told to offer, otherwise they don’t get repeat business/get fired.

        5. Daniel – you appear to believe that engineers are separate from public servants and the powers that be.

          The reality is engineers can rise up through the management ranks just like any other profession and there are plenty of engineers in senior management positions in NZ transport organisations.

        6. There are dinosaurs and there are progressives. . . in any profession. And there is a place for both in this world of diversity. But when a particular group of any type consolidates power and gets to have all the say. . . that’s when things go off track.

    2. Engineers are great problem solvers. Don’t blame them if people keep giving them the wrong problem to solve.

        1. Both problems exist. Another problem that exists is that the engineers can be so blinded by the dominant practice that they don’t even realise that when they say they’re solving a particular problem, that they can’t even attempt to do so using the model they’re currently using.

          And then there’s the people (engineers and others) who understand that the ambiguity and lack of clarity exist, and who understand the limits of the tools they’re using, yet who actively support the situation to continue because it suits their budget and their beliefs and keeps them in their position.

  2. Based on past behaviour, Auckland Transport appears unable to innovate. It appears that if you try doing things differently, your team gets disestablished. Oh, sorry, I mean streamlined and transformed.

    I think it’s probably a case of big, old council department protecting the status quo.

    Innovation often requires throwing out the rulebook and taking big risks. You don’t get this in a government department.

    1. Worldwide, you get innovation, progress and a citizen-oriented focus in a government department (local and central) when the right kind of experienced people are in senior management positions. New Zealand is not an exception in this regard.

      AT however, continually do not have at a senior level, these type of people and until such time as its seen as no longer appropriate simply to have ‘managers’ in charge of an organisation’s vision, purpose and performance, then the current unsatisfactory outcomes for citizens, will remain.

      1. New Zealand is not an inherently open-minded country and never has been. Hardly surprising when you look at these Edwardian era anachronisms that pass for “good schools” in New Zealand.

      2. Really, I thought it needs to go the other way! Perhaps some young bright eyed go getters at the senior level would achieve more than old experienced naysayers.
        In general when people are young they want to try things and achieve things, when they get old they like to block things with their ‘wisdom’ which is often outdated. I know this because it is happening to me as I get old!

        1. Jimbo, in saying “the right kind of experienced people are in senior management positions”, Rob didn’t say ‘old’. We do need experienced people in senior management positions. I imagine we all agree that the quality of these people is important, and that they don’t need to be old.

      3. Of course NZ is not an exception but in reality, most government departments are not innovative. That is more or less a statement of fact. Don’t cherry-pick examples of innovative towns and say everyone is doing it. I’m sure for every innovative town you identify, there are a dozen more protecting the status quo.

        And yes, it is a leadership problem. Auckland has no leaders. Just a bunch of mid-level managers.

  3. What’s stunning me is the amount of research that you’re showing is happening in New Zealand but it seems to be getting nowhere.

    When even NZTA has got that cool programme, and the MBIE are funding great research, and it’s all highlighting the same problems in AT, but nothing changes… is this going to change?

    1. Its all feel good stuff, it makes nice advertising. Just like whenever they build a road these days they put photos of trains and bikes and buses on the brochure and call it multi modal.
      Their leaders love to talk about safety, environment, multi modal, tactical urbanism, etc, but then make no changes at all to encourage those things. At the top they could make a budget decision to spend most of their money on the stuff they love to pretend they want to build, but they don’t, they spend almost all of it on more roads.
      As an example, our roads are almost perfectly maintained, never a pothole etc. But our footpaths haven’t been touched in decades and are falling to bits. Why is that considered acceptable?

  4. Heidi, this was an insightful, wonderful morning read about a subject veery dear to me.
    Thanks for putting this out there!
    Disruption = GSD

  5. Government systems have a huge bias towards maintaining the status quo.
    For instance the AT consultation on speed changes presented a raft of proposed changes but results of the consultation were limited to only the range between the proposal and the existing rules, ie the status quo.
    So speeds for Nelson, Hobson and Fanshaw Streets could be changed to 40kph between the formerly existing 50kph and the proposed 30kph any thing else was “out of scope” Similarly I suspect streets could be deleted from the proposal back to the status quo. The Wellington Street debacle shows that in spite of strong and rational representation during consultation for inclusion, and even a concession of it’s sensibility in AT’s submission responses the process simply disallowed anything outside the range of existing and proposed.
    For consultations to have credibility such limitations need to be removed.

  6. Great post thanks Heidi. Seems we may be getting some changes, but they sure are slow in coming, expensive & often underwhelming.

    1. Grant, and cynically I wonder whether expensive is part of the plan. Take the remodeling of High St. I can’t remember the mega millions of dollars that it will cost, but channeling this amount of money into just one single street prevents much less costly work being done over a much greater number of streets.

  7. From that AT survey, it’s clear they needed to put in temporary cyclelanes during lockdown. 53% supportive and 26% not supportive.

  8. And from the Christchurch study, although a third of the residents found it inconvenient not to be able to drive through and found parking more inconvenient, this didn’t stop most of them from wanting to make the closure permanent. Sixteen out of eighteen wanted to make it permanent!

  9. This is the backbone of transformation: “London is implementing 114 low traffic neighbourhoods, 154 school streets, 202 town centre changes.” We are not talking about low auto traffic areas enough! We are not talking about their vitality for very local trips and for cycleways to work at 100%!

    I think it’s time we had a little break from cycleways and pile all our advocacy might into making 90% of Auckland safer with only a few modal filters (bus gates, diverters, etc) and speed signs. It will take two years to make 90% of auckland safe, improve PT services, build community, improve emergency services, get children playing on the streets, lower overall auto traffic even on main routes, and stop drivers from smashing into houses a lot.

    1. Or maybe we don’t need to put the brakes on. But shifting some focus will def help increase leverage overall.

      1. Brandyn, I think you’re right that the focus needs to shift to include these. We’ve seen resistance to change blown out of proportion in a way that’s severely curtailed the cycling programme. These low traffic neighbourhoods, technically, are very effective at achieving our goals. Politically, they may be easier to implement, perhaps even with the ‘leaders’ we have.

        They are needed alongside the cyclelanes, but given the mess that’s been made of the cycleway programme, perhaps they need to lead activity for a while.

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