Auckland’s streets are paved with gold. Over the coming decade, several billion dollars will be earmarked for regular road renewals, rolling out 300km or so of fresh surface per year.
You can’t begrudge this expenditure – nobody loves a pot hole, and everyone deserves a smoother ride! In fact, road renewals may be the city’s most geographically equitable transport investment, in that they (eventually) get around to pretty much every street in town. So we all get a share, and we all pay for it via a combination of rates and road user charges.
But are we getting our money’s worth?
It’s a timely question, because rapidly decarbonising the transport network is one of Auckland’s biggest challenges in the next few years. The transport budget needs to reflect this urgent goal by giving more people more access to low-cost, low-carbon ways to get around. And walking and cycling in particular are woefully overdue for fair treatment.
So why not make sure that when our roads are repaved, they’re good as gold and not just same-old?
Looking Anew at Renewals
Leveraging road renewals for better outcomes isn’t a new idea. As Heidi wrote two years ago this month:
To meet our children’s needs:
- ‘road improvements’ will need to be actual improvements. Improvements for safety, for access, for the climate and the environment. Those activity classes will need to cover busways and cyclelanes, wider footpaths and fewer traffic lanes, pedestrian crossings and good amenity near bus stops.
- ‘road maintenance’ will have to move away from ‘like for like’ type contracts towards maintenance that refits the road for the needs of the day – including multiple modes, just as maintenance on a house is often a modernising process, too.
And as Matt wrote at the time of the Emergency Budget last June:
Renewals are Auckland Transport’s single largest CAPEX budget item, at about $162 million for the year. They also represent one of the biggest opportunities to easily and cheaply roll out safety and cycling improvements and there are often hundreds of crossovers between these programmes.
For example if rebuilding/resealing a road, AT could paint back the road differently such as with narrower lanes to encourage slower and safer speeds as well as creating space for cycle lanes.
But currently Auckland Transport currently have no way to take advantage of those opportunities, and as such roads are renewed on a ‘like for like’ basis.
At Auckland Transport’s current rates, it will probably take more than a century to roll out out much needed safety and cycling improvements, and so making better use of renewals could have a significant impact on this.
In a recent post on a climate-ready RLTP (no litigation required), Heidi reiterated:
All road renewals should be focused on adding safe space for cycling, on making walking safer and easier, and on giving buses priority over general traffic. The citywide and ongoing maintenance and renewals plans offer a massive untapped opportunity for radical modeshift through bold and steady change. Specifically, the ”Level Of Service” concept needs to be replaced with clear goals for traffic reduction and improved Healthy Streets indicators.
It’s not just advocates spotting the massive untapped opportunity presented by renewals: check out Todd Niall’s recent article about the need for faster, not just bigger, transport projects:
“Renewals” is where the big pot of money is, and it funds work such as the lengthy, disruptive and costly “renewing” of Henderson’s suburban boulevard, Universal Drive by early 2020.
What emerged was new footpath and kerbing and a re-sealed road, exactly as it had been – but without provision of bus lanes or cycleways which could have been accommodated within its generous width.
If the supertanker can’t change course rapidly enough, then the answer is not to be resigned to the outmoded inflexibility of the system, but to launch the lifeboats. The release shortly of the revised 10-year Regional Land Transport Plan might reveal that “captain’s call” from the bridge.
Simply put, “launching the lifeboats” means every time you renew a road, you make it better for walking, biking and public transport. What’s not to like?
“Like for like” is what’s not to like
The fish-hook, which you may have spotted in all the quotes above, is that renewals are currently all about “upgrading of roads in their current form,” aka “like for like.” The road is dug up and then put back the way it was.
The other paradox is that if your road isn’t super busy with cars, you may get “worse-than-like”. A street needs 10,000+ vehicles a day to earn a smooth asphalt finish. This means low-traffic streets and cul-de-sacs get a rougher, cheaper chipseal treatment. This makes the budget go further, but makes quiet streets louder, and less attractive and useful for people on bikes, scooters, roller-skates, etc. For a classic case of this policy in action, see Sutherland St: a critical link on the NW cycleway, once smooth, now crunchy.
Of course, even “like for like” is an illusion, because everything else about a street is constantly changing – not least, the current and future needs of all the people who use it. Faithfully replicating an old street layout every decade or so while the planet keeps on heating up feels like some sort of nightmare automation situation. Not even Wall*E would stand for that.
And doing “like for like” on a road that’s been dangerous for decades is a bit like repainting your house with lead paint, or reinstalling windows that aren’t safety glass. If you can do better, you should do better. For quality of life, and for elementary health and safety. We take that approach in our workplaces, and our homes. So why not in our streets?
Again, you wouldn’t be alone in asking this question…
It’s my standing question for AT, year after year after year. I don’t know if it’s a Waka kotahi issue or a AT policy issue but it needs to change and I’ve asked them again last week as part of the RLTP process. pic.twitter.com/5TMChzfpRo
— Richard Hills (@richardhills777) February 10, 2021
Other cities have faced this conundrum, and have come up with smart policy approaches that add value by building betterment into the picture. The City of Vancouver’s Complete Streets ordinance, or Cambridge MA’s mandate for protected cycleways.
We can do the same.
Gimme one good reason…
With ~300km of fresh street to work with every financial year, you can tick all sorts of boxes by building back better:
- Climate action, by creating space for low-carbon travel
- Safer streets, by tightening corners and raising crossings including at side streets
- Mode shift encouragement, by giving people streets that actively enable biking and other options
- Equity, by unshackling people from having to own cars or use them for every journey
- Accessibility, including for anyone who uses wheeled devices (wheelchairs, bikes, prams, scooters, mobility scooters), and for the freedom and independence of our most vulnerable, youngest and oldest citizens.
- Resilience, both mental and physical, as spelt out in this excellent recent research into transport and mental health in Aotearoa.
- Greenery, especially because as things heat up, we’re going to need a lot more street trees.
- Healthy Streets principles of all kinds.
And even if all of the above strike you as “just” nice-to-haves… can we talk about numbers and logic?
- Dig once. Why not coordinate service improvements for maximum efficiency? As anyone will tell you who’s ever written a letter to the editor upon seeing their street dug up for the third time in a year…
- Bang for buck. The bottom line: this is about squeezing as much value from each dollar as we can, because in an Emergency Budget followed by a Recovery Budget, clearly every dollar must work two or three times as hard as ever before.
- The clock is ticking. Time is money, and every month of delay now just increases future costs, not to mention the climate burden on our children. Or to put it more cheerfully: every quick action we can take now will save us time and money down the line.
Oh, and how about: it’s in the plan? For example:
- AT’s own Transport Design Manual spells out that you need protected cycle space where traffic volumes and speeds are above a certain level.
- AT’s own Parking Strategy requires removing on-street parking if it makes a route dangerous for people cycling.
- All kinds of existing policies and plans, from the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport, to the Auckland Cycling Network, to every Local Board’s Connections or Greenways plan, envision a safe bike network which can only be built one link at a time. So why waste a single opportunity to make progress?
Moreover, the 2018 Safety Review that put AT on a path towards Vision Zero noted AT was missing two “critical bigger direct opportunities” to improve safety across the network:
leveraging the annual AT major road Capex programme and the annual AT maintenance programme to deliver important low marginal cost road network safety improvement over time and actively moving to manage free operating speeds which are in general terms too high for appropriately safe road network operation including for underlying safety of cyclists and pedestrians.
Among the safety report’s recommendations, for action in 2018:
- Build low-cost safety into Maintenance
- Agree that infrastructure maintenance and renewals projects are to be required to include lower cost safety treatments as much as possible (for some five to 10% of overall programme cost).
- Optimise maintenance treatment selection to give more weight to safety outcomes.
- Review the maintenance contracts framework to elevate safety as one of four key performance outcomes.
- Embed safety outcomes in maintenance staff Performance Development Plans.
That’s pretty clear.
So, is our transport agency on the case?
In January 2021, Heidi received the following email from Auckland Transport:
Kia ora Heidi
Thank you for your email requesting information on how improvements for the safety of people cycling and walking have been incorporated into the new maintenance and renewals contracts.
Our current Road Corridor Maintenance and Renewals contracts are up for renewal. A tender is currently in the market for a new tranche of contracts in the Central and Southern area to commence on 1 July 2021 with the Northern and West tranche of contracts to follow on 1 July 2022.
New contracts provide us with the opportunity to better align with Auckland Transport’s (AT) current objectives and policies of which the safety of people using the network for cycling and walking is of paramount importance.
The new contracts address this in the following ways:
- Proactive identification and response programme for faults and potential hazards on the network
- Realisation of safety improvement in our renewals and maintenance programme to support Vision Zero. This involves our suppliers working proactively with AT to understand existing safety issues. It also includes applying network stewardship and knowledge to integrate safety improvements with planned maintenance and renewals work.
- Safety and accessibility to the network is seen as a key contract outcome area. This will account for 20% of their overall contract performance score.
- A reward and abatement mechanism to ensure consistent contract management practices. Failure to perform in a key contract outcome area, such as Health and Safety, would result in a penalty against the overall contractors monthly score.
This is a collaborative framework aimed at fostering ‘best for network’ behaviours between AT, its suppliers and key subcontractors. The framework is designed to ensure we are nimble enough to respond to the changing needs of the network while ensuring the safety of our customers and users are at the forefront of every decision we make.
This suggests we should start to see integrated improvements from the middle of this year across Central and South Auckland. If you’re on a street that’s up for repaving, keep an eye out for safety fixes.
Going for gold
But… what about protected cycle lanes? What about bus lanes? What about moving beyond tweaks to transformation?
The new focus on safety is critically important… but these improved contracts will be coming into place three and half years after the Safety Review recommended them. Four and a half years, for some areas.
And in that time, the whole transport landscape has changed.
The Climate Change Commission’s proposed carbon budgets and council’s own Climate Action Plan mean long term plans that seemed pretty good just a few short years ago are suddenly looking woefully unambitious or even downright irresponsible.
More than ever before, we need to squeeze climate action out of existing projects and budgets. Time to get a taskforce, give ‘em a tight timeframe, and pull all the levers at once:
- Calls to action from the relevant ministers, from Council, and from the public. With the request coming from all directions, it’ll be harder to ignore.
- A council ordinance that specifies and mandates “betterment”, rather than like-for-like.
- An investment policy at the national scale – this is not just about Auckland – that specifically requires “betterment” when maintenance occurs. (The One Network framework should come in handy here.)
- Updated city Asset Management Plans that reflect betterment as a requirement.
- Great public comms from councils and transport agencies about how and why this will be happening. “Dig once”, “build back better”, “more bang for your buck” – this won’t be a hard sell, especially in the current climate.
- Boards of directors that get what’s happening and why, and expects regular accounts of progress.
- Betterment design teams to take a look at project drawings and improve them with value-added components. You’ll definitely want up-to-date expertise in cycling and pedestrian safety in these teams.
- Crucially, a design toolkit of easy fixes that can be achieved within the existing road reserve – including templates for common layouts and frequent issues. Textbook examples to speed up the process.
- A good contract writer to make it clear to contractors what’s now required. This would include standard items for upgrades during maintenance (tighten up corners, raise all crossings), and would be subject to change whenever a new national directive is given (so you didn’t have to wait e.g. ten years for each contract to roll over.)
Time to take the lead
We’re an inventive people. And as a C40 leadership city, Auckland is explicitly required to come up with creative and exemplary new ideas. Luckily, our councillors are increasingly alert to the need to act fast and get smart.
ATAP is pretty fresh. But I think even now, what we now know today, compared to a year ago, even just one year ago, on ATAP, is vastly different. If we were doing ATAP today we’d be doing it even with more transit focus and more PT focus and more active focus… I think we need to be more dynamic with our planning documents.
– Chris Darby, speaking at the Auckland Climate Conference on 18 March 2019
Dynamic is a great word. Responsive is another. For example, the minute e-bikes and e-scooters arrived on the scene, all the old assumptions about who travels where and how and over what distances should have gone straight in the bin.
Likewise, when last year’s lockdown unexpectedly revealed enormous potential for local walking and cycling and an enthusiasm for life in low-traffic neighbourhoods, we should have gotten cracking on clever circulation plans to reflect that local reclamation of space, to filter out rat-running, improve local access, and give children more freedom.
Ditto for all the speedy tactical transformations taking place right now in other cities just like Auckland, at impressive pace. We don’t have to just gaze enviously on. We can learn fast, join the movement, and even aspire to help lead it.
Let’s start by magicking mundane road renewals into a wellspring for safer, greener streets: less tarmack-y, more Tāmaki.