Last May, Auckland Transport eliminated all mention of the “Healthy Streets” approach from the Roads and Streets Framework.
A three page annex on the topic was removed, as well as discussion about how to incorporate it. I checked for the key concept words and they, too, were missing.
Is this important?
Yes. The Roads and Streets Framework is the guiding document for helping designers identify priorities in each street to enable quality design. The Healthy Streets approach is an integral part of it, ensuring the built designs create a healthier transport network.
If it was being used, we wouldn’t see Auckland Transport proposing projects which still – in 2021 – refuse reallocate road space to the sustainable transport modes.
Yesterday, Councillor Henderson took the bold and admirable step of opposing a project because it fails to provide safe mobility and access for the children and youth of his electorate:
Where this goes next will be interesting. We’re in the middle of consultation for the Long Term Plan. Auckland Transport failed to meet the key performance measures on cycling in the last plan, and this draft simply dumbs the measures down for the next ten years, in a way that is inconsistent with the Auckland Climate Plan.
Councillors are also considering the Regional Land Transport Plan, fully aware of the legal risk of signing off on any plan that doesn’t reduce emissions in line with their own Climate Plan’s clear targets. Councillors must choose between a programme which continues to create safety and transport emissions problems, accepting a position that downplays public and active transport’s potential contribution to transport decarbonisation, or insist that there is ample opportunity to decarbonise transport.
When I realised, in January, that the Healthy Streets approach had been removed, I contacted a Councillor, and asked:
Do you know if this was explained to the Councillors, and if there’s any mitigation, eg a separate document or piece of work to replace this?
The Councillor sent a request for information to AT on the 25th January. I followed up with Auckland Transport on the 6th February.
I am yet to see a reply.
Ironically, this change was made during a pandemic, while cities and international organisations were accelerating and promoting plans for enabling better, more healthy uses of the public realm – like recreation, dining, walking and biking. In London, the Healthy Streets approach has helped achieve a focus on health, with designs like this:
If we are to meet the demands of what climate science is telling us we must do to avert an environmental catastrophe, and reduce the impact of the warming world we are already experiencing, our streets will need to look radically different in the coming decades, with many more cooling trees and green spaces, increased opportunities for walking and cycling, and fewer, cleaner, smaller and slower motor vehicles. – Jon Burke
We wrote about the Healthy Streets approach in August 2018, when Auckland Council hosted an Auckland Conversations event on the topic, in which we were lucky enough to hear details first hand from the Healthy Streets approach’s originator, Lucy Saunders.
As Matt wrote:
Unlike some of the more “wishy washy” design guides that end up being ignored by road engineers, Healthy Streets has a series of very specific guidelines that are used to help improve street design outcomes across ten key indicators.
The approach arose, in part, to balance London’s “link and place” concept – which focuses more on space allocation on arterial roads – by broadening the considerations to be more outcomes-focused, and to work for all street types. Our Roads and Streets Framework is also based on “link and place’, although we call it “place and movement.” Removing the “Healthy Streets” approach from the Framework leaves it unbalanced.
So were AT never keen on the approach? When Lucy Saunders spoke at the Auckland Conversations event in 2018, Auckland Transport’s CEO Shane Ellison said:
Lucy, can you wave your wand and make it all happen now please? It’d make my job easier… We’ve got a lot of work to do but thankfully we have Council and Central Government and a Board of AT where they are 100% aligned. We have a once in a generation opportunity to make transformational change in Auckland with the funding that’s achieved through ATAP, and which is targeted at almost all parts of the model that Lucy presented. So we are committed to delivering on that. It won’t be easy. Let’s not kid ourselves. I’d like to have the wand. But we’re 100% committed to that.
Lucy would’ve known that it was nothing like a wand required, but sustained support from strong leadership.
So why has this happened? I’ve read the presentation to Council’s Planning Committee that AT made in May last year. There is no mention of Healthy Streets nor its removal. But it does give the rationale for reviewing the Roads and Streets Framework, including (my emphasis):
15. Following the release of the original Framework in 2017 a number of issues emerged, including the potential for additional project costs to be driven by the design elements included in the Framework. This Framework has been revised to address these issues and incorporate the latest international best practice from other similar frameworks.
If the reason for its removal was the cost of the approach, this should have been specifically flagged to Councillors and Local Boards, who may have suggested other ways to approach the situation:
- We’re in the midst of renewing road renewals contracts. Instead of just renewing the existing layout, contracts could include some of the basic improvements needed for public health.
- Rather than leave all the improvements up to individual projects to achieve, a tactical low traffic neighbourhood programme for the whole city could be developed. This would raise standards across the city so individual projects could hone in on the remaining indicators that need attention.
- Council might be able to fund some elements of the healthy streets approach – like water fountains, seats and tree planting, perhaps – from other budgets.
Most fundamentally, there aren’t infinite funds, and a safe system is a bottom line. So is public health. Last year, some Councillors lobbied hard for transport projects that will create greenhouses gases, increase traffic danger, keep people dependent on cars, and pollute our air. Had Auckland Transport been upfront about cost being the reason for taking health out of their design processes, those Councillors would have been confronted with the harsh reality of what their lobbying would achieve: insufficient funds to provide healthy lives for our children and young adults.
Alternatively, if the reason for its removal was that it’s being replaced with best international practice, wonderful. Clearly there are other frameworks available for transforming transport. And one of them could potentially be useful here once adapted to our conditions. I have personally been most impressed by the European SUMP approach, although that starts at a higher level, and would probably quickly hone in on needing something practical, like Healthy Streets.
A simple note explaining this would’ve been fine.
Perhaps more can be gleaned from this paragraph about another change they made during the review of the Roads and Streets Framework:
18. There is a risk that publication of the GIS system containing assessments under the Framework could lead to public comment and disagreement. The likelihood of this is low given the experience of other jurisdictions. The consequence would be a need for stronger communication and explanation. To mitigate this risk we will ensure the map release will only provide the movement and place part of the assessment, with supporting information to explain the outcomes.
Sure, it’s a statement about GIS maps, not Healthy Streets. But it does demonstrate Auckland Transport’s aversion to public discussion. Are we, the public, happy to have information withheld from us due to a (low) risk of “public comment and disagreement”? Or does society need to air and resolve these conflicts, in order to make progress?
What would be normal, in a democracy? In the UK, the Healthy Streets findings are publicly available, despite the obvious “risk” in the way they’ve chosen to aggregate the information into one index. There’s even a recommendation for applying the findings to property and real estate issues:
Auckland Transport said there was support for the revised Framework from Councillors, Local Boards, the AT Māori engagement team, Panuku and the industry. Were these groups each led through the changes and told overtly that the Healthy Streets approach was being removed?
Though disappointing, this change is not such a surprise.
In July 2018, I wrote:
The Statement of Intent has indicated a review:
Review the Roads and Streets Framework to clarify its emerging financial implications…
Councillors, local boards, advocacy and community groups need to get organised to halt this premature review; it’s a battle of mindsets, and has nothing to do with fiscal prudency.
Auckland Transport’s CEO, Shane Ellison, wrote to assure the mayor on the 27 September 2018:
AT signalled in our proposed SOI that we intended to commence with the review of the Roads and Streets Framework (RASF).
The signalling of this work has resulted in some stakeholders raising concern regarding AT’s commitment to the project…
Please be under no illusion that AT is not committed to the implementation of the RASF, accompanied by the full transport design manual and associated technical specifications. These are considered critical to the safe and effective operation of roads and streets within Auckland and which also have a strong sense of place.
The Healthy Streets approach wasn’t mentioned anywhere in his letter nor in the attached brochure. Nor was there any mention of public health. Yet Auckland Transport is tasked with providing “a transport system that improves wellbeing and liveability.”
A small team at Auckland Transport, called the Healthy Streets and Active Modes team, were specifically engaged to:
support strategic planning for the establishment of Healthy Streets principles and concepts across Auckland Transport. To be considered for this role you will have:
* Experience and technical knowledge of planning for active modes systems or projects and familiarity with Heathy Streets principles and concepts
To elevate health as a priority in the organisation, the leader of this team needed power within the organisation, yet was not put on the Executive Level Team. How can one support the establishment of a new – and clearly controversial – approach, in a change-averse organisation, any other way?
Our need for healthy streets is huge. Our youngest, our eldest, and everyone in between, need quiet streets with fresh air, safety, walkability, nature, freedom. Our streets need to become meeting places for good social health, and attractive for people to bike, walk, scooter, take the bus, or just spend time. This is where our transport investment needs to be, not widening intersections and building new sprawl roads.
There’s no wand required. This just takes leadership and commitment to doing the right thing, one decision at a time.
- Why was the Healthy Streets approach removed from the Roads and Streets Framework?
- What “best international practice” has it been replaced with?