The Auckland Council’s Planning Committee agenda for Thursday highlights councillors received a confidential update to the ‘Auckland Transport Alignment Project’ (ATAP), as well as the draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) about a month ago.
These are incredibly important documents, shaping where around $30 billion of transport investment in Auckland will be directed over the next decade. Alongside the council’s 10-year budget, they will be some of the most important documents over the coming three years.
For a bit of background, ATAP first emerged in 2016 when Len Brown was mayor as a way of getting the Government and Auckland Council on the same page when it came to the long-term strategy for Auckland. The first version of ATAP was developed in three parts:
- A ‘Foundation Report‘, which highlighted key agreed assumptions and a joint view between the Council and the Government on the major transport challenges facing Auckland.
- An ‘Interim Report’, which provided initial insight into how these challenges could be addressed. One interesting thing to come out of this stage of the work was the emphasis placed on road pricing as critical to achieving a ‘step change’ in Auckland’s transport system.
- A ‘Final Report’, which pulled everything together to outline a ‘Recommended Strategic Approach’, including a high-level investment package over time.
This version of ATAP, as well as a minor update in 2017 to adjust for higher than originally forecast population growth as well as the need for ‘mass transit’ (light rail) on Dominion Rd, were prepared under the previous National government, which had clashed with Auckland Council time and again on transport issues like City Rail Link. While these first reports can be seen as something of a compromise between the two parties, in a broad sense the Council convinced the Government on key issues like the need for a rapid transit system, the need for road pricing and that we couldn’t build our way out of congestion with more motorways. ATAP therefore represented very important progress.
In 2018, with a new Government now in place, ATAP was updated again. This new version was much more detailed than before and focused on the first 10 years and, most critically, focused on where available funding should go and agreed funding for it rather than just leaving a ‘funding gap’. You can see from the high-level investment split that there was a huge focus on rapid transit, as well as decent investment into other key areas:
We were pretty happy with this plan at the time, especially considering where things had been only a few years earlier with endless arguments over City Rail Link timing and funding. This new plan outlined an aggressive plan to improve Auckland’s transport system over the next decade.
Unfortunately, over the past three years key progress has not exactly been as planned with ATAP being undermined through terrible delivery and inconsistent investment decisions. Let’s run through a few of these:
- The abysmal lack of progress on light-rail has eaten away at a centrepiece of ATAP 2018, not only delaying any progress on the City Centre to Mangere corridor but also delaying the critically required northwest rapid transit corridor. Relatively minor bus improvements are little more than a consolation prize for the northwest.
- Auckland Transport has been utterly hopeless when it comes to delivering cycleways, not yet even completing the Urban Cycleways Programme that was meant to be done by mid-2018, let alone getting on with implementing any of their excellent 2017 cycling programme business case, which they’re now revising.
- Government investment decisions on the NZ Upgrade Programme weren’t consistent with ATAP at all. Instead of bringing forward investment from later in the 10-year period, such as providing extra funding for light-rail or northwest rapid transit – like ATAP had suggested was essential, less important parts of Mill Road were brought forward from later decades and the amount of funding allocated to Penlink was doubled from what was in ATAP.
Meanwhile, the world has changed a lot in three years. We’ve had a global pandemic, new technologies like e-scooters caught everyone by surprise and, at long last, there’s widespread agreement that we actually need to take climate change seriously and dramatically reduce our emissions.
A lot of good work has been done to understand what needs to be done to reduce our emissions. The Auckland Climate Plan provides a bunch of targets that we need to hit to sufficiently reduce emissions.
|Vehicle Kilometres travelled by private vehicles reduced by 12% as a result of avoided motorised vehicle travel, through actions such as remote working and reduced trip lengths|
|Public transport mode share to increase from 7.8% to 24.5%||Public transport mode share to increase from 7.8% to 35%|
|Cycling modes share to increase from 0.9% to 7%||Cycling modes share to increase from 0.9% to 9%|
|Walking mode share to increase from 4.1% to 6%||Walking mode share to increase from 4.1% to 6%|
|100% of Auckland’s bus fleet to be zero emission|
|40% of passenger and light commercial vehicles to be electric or zero emission||80% of passenger and light commercial vehicles to be electric or zero emission|
|18% increase in fuel efficiency of the light vehicle fleet (internal combustion engine)||25% increase in fuel efficiency of the light vehicle fleet (internal combustion engine)|
|8% of road freight to shift to rail||20% of road freight to shift to rail|
|40% of road freight to be electric or zero emission||80% of road freight to be electric or zero emission|
|15% increase in fuel efficiency of the freight vehicle fleet (internal combustion engine)||25% increase in fuel efficiency of the freight vehicle fleet (internal combustion engine)|
Needless to say, the scale of change to the transport system to achieve these targets is huge. Anything like a ‘business as usual’ approach will be insufficient by a long way.
The combination of everything above means that the 2021 version of ATAP can’t simply be a repeat and basic update of the 2018 plan. A good plan for three years ago is not a good plan for today. Heidi’s post from a couple of weeks back outlines a whole pile of ideas for how ATAP and the RLTP need to change to meet our climate goals, not just what we need to add to our plans from 2018, but also what we need to remove from them.
Late last year I attended a stakeholder event where we were walked through an ATAP update. We weren’t provided all the details the work was still happening and I imagine there has been some further refinement in the months since. But what I did hear did not fill me with confidence that we are getting anything other than a repeat of the 2018 plan. If anything it is likely to be something even less ambitious, as cost increases for committed projects and ongoing programmes like renewals are outweighing any increases in funding. Furthermore, with terrible NZUP projects like Mill Road eating up a huge chunk of funding, there are actually large parts of the ATAP programme that will be undermining our climate efforts, rather than helping them.
Unless ATAP has changed massively in the past few months, which is unlikely, I fear we are going to see a 2018 plan that’s simply unfit for a 2021 world. If the Council is to support ATAP, then that support needs to come with some significant strings attached. This means:
- The blowtorch has to go on Auckland Transport for being so useless at delivering cycle lanes – start firing board members and withholding funding for other projects until they turn things around.
- The Council needs to pressure the Government and its transport agency Waka Kotahi to get its act together on rapid transit. Within 12 months there has to be a full design and funding plan for both the City Centre to Mangere and Northwest corridors that formed the heart of ATAP 2018.
- The Council must pressure the Government to look again at the NZ Upgrade Programme, especially projects that undermine climate goals and eat up an extraordinarily large amount of money like Mill Road.
- The Council must demand more from Auckland Transport’s basic programmes like renewals, safety, minor improvements, optimisation and so on – making sure that these programmes help transform Auckland’s network into one that encourages people to walk, cycling and use PT – and discourages them from continuing to drive.
Related, at a different stakeholder meeting a few years ago, Auckland Transport executives told us that they couldn’t include this stuff in their renewals work due to contractual issues, but that would change when those contracts ended and they looked to reissue them. That process is happening right now but it’s not clear if they’re doing that.
- The Council must look at its own land-use plans that are encouraging car dependent sprawl and forcing so much of the transport budget to go towards projects that support this sprawl. This will require some really tough decisions like amending the Unitary Plan to cut back on sprawl areas and upzoning existing areas to higher densities, some of which will be required by the National Policy Statement on Urban Development.
In some ways it feels odd that we are likely to be so disappointed by a transport programme that’s similar to one that we welcomed to heartily less than three years ago. But I think this reflects our need to urgently catch up from three years of incredibly disappointing progress in key areas like cycling and light-rail, as well as how dramatically the world has changed over this time. We need a 2021 plan and I fear ATAP isn’t that plan.